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

Monday, August 31, 2015

Death before Birth

I have not watched any of the Center for Medical Progress's expose videos on Planned Parenthood and StemExpress, a company which handles the disposal/redistribution of body parts from aborted babies. There is an argument from some quarters that everyone ought to see the videos, ought to have to come to term with tiny arms and legs being nudged around in dishes, ought to hear laughing employees declare, "Another boy!" as they examine what's left of the poor innocent.

I don't need a video to show me what preborn babies look like. I held one in my hand ten years ago, a wee eight-weeks-developed baby, my own. I don't know why it died, but it looked perfect. It (I don't know whether it was a girl or a boy, and I don't prefer to assign it an arbitrary gender) didn't even fill up the palm of my hand. Baby had all ten fingers and all ten toes, but what has always stayed with me are the big beautiful blue eyes.

I know that some parents want to give a conditional baptism to a child who's been miscarried. We didn't. The baby had died two weeks before I miscarried, apparently, and baptizing a two-weeks-dead body seems a mockery of the sacrament. We had no doubts that God had taken the little one to himself.

The baby's existence and death didn't have to be justified on the grounds of becoming medical research material.  It was never "useful". It did not further the aims of science. And because the baby was human, it deserved a human burial. So we buried it, the only gift we were able to give the baby in its brief lifetime.

I did not take any photos of my baby, but you can see a sweet little eight-week-old baby here. It looks just like mine did. I don't need hidden videos to convince me that abortion is an evil evil business, and I don't want to see these dead little one dismembered when it's hard enough to see a dead little one intact.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Trust to be Pro-Life

Tristyn Bloom has an interesting piece (actually from a while back, but I just ran into it) which makes the point that the perceived need for abortion in our culture is in part tied to our society's deep belief in the importance of planning and controlling our lives.
I think the reason people continue to defend abortion is because, essentially, of existential terror: fear of what will happen when something unexpected, uninvited, unplanned bursts into our lives demanding action. I think that is a crippling psychological problem that doesn’t even rise to the level of morality, that we can’t just tell people to suck up and get over.

We often hear that a problem with young people today is that we are irresponsible. We don’t have a sense of duty. We don’t have a sense of order. We’re immature. I think that the problem is actually the opposite.
To accept that life would be the irresponsible choice, and that’s the framework from which a lot of people are operating. They see themselves as accepting consequences, as responsible. They have a semblance of a moral framework and we can’t ignore that just because it’s completely the opposite of our own. And this isn’t just about whether or not you accept a child. I think that we are so enslaved to a plan, and a routine, and a vision of our lives, we can’t embrace the unsettledness, openness, flexibility, and folly it takes to have an actually pro-life culture in every instance.
If you look at even the language used — “unplanned pregnancy” because that is the strange case. The normal case is the planned pregnancy. And this is understandable in two ways. One, it’s a concession to comfort and the economy of family. Not everyone in the pro-life movement is against contraception, for example. But the other, I think, is a psychological necessity because two, in a certain sense we are very unwilling to admit that we are all essentially accidents.

Especially for secular people, or people with different theological assumptions, that is what the creation of life kind of amounts to. Scientific materialism seems to force us to admit this. And I feel that on some level modern parents compensate for this meaninglessness by investing their child with meaning through planning. You were chosen. You were fated. You were designated. They are compensating for the meaninglessness of the way conception happens by choosing it on their own and by actively bestowing that significance upon them. We are the little gods of our own children. And we extend this to everything in our lives. In our education. Where we live. What we do. How we eat. Everything imbued with meaning by the fact of being chosen. And these choices, in turn, define us back to ourselves.
We live, historically speaking, in a particularly rich and safe time. That's good. We're peculiarly fortunate compared to many who came before us. Yet it allows people to convincingly imagine much of the time that if they do everything right, that nothing will go wrong.

We have contraception to make sure that we don't get pregnant before we're ready. We have various forms of fertility technology which are supposed to assure that we can have children when we want to. We test and scan and try to identify any "defective" children before birth so they can be eliminated.

From a Christian point of view, I think that can wander into the idolatrous. In the end, we did not create the world. We are responsible for our own actions, but don't control the world or the things that happen to us.

A lot of the Christian life as it's translated into modern middle class America is very prudence focused: Wait until you meet the right person so that your marriage will last. Don't have sex until you get married. Find a job that will allow you to support a family.

Natural Family Planning, which the Church urges Catholics to understand in order to allow them to exercise prudence when necessary in spacing their children, requires a great deal of self control and prudence when used by fertile couples to space children out.

None of these are bad, they are all good exercises of prudence, but in a certain sense it can mean adopting the prevailing culture's emphasis on control.

Now, as in all things, there's an opposite extreme. Some Christians hold that any attempt to exert prudence in regards to having children is wrong, and married couples should make absolutely no effort to space their children. I think this represents a failure to use the prudence and reason which God has given us. It's all very well to trust God to provide for us, but one of the ways that He provides for us is by giving us the capacity to make wise decisions.

The golden mean in this regard is to live prudently, yet at the same time recognize that by exercising ordinary prudence we in no way inoculate ourselves against the unexpected. The fates are capricious, and having exerted prudence in no way guarantees that we shall be be safe from them. The better that we are able to understand that, the better we will be able to embrace the unexpected turns which the embrace of life entails.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 13-1

I'm back from the summer break as rested as one can be while writing a novel and training for a half marathon. My goal is to post sections at least once a week. This one begins Chapter 13 which returns to Natalie in Russian Ukraine. There will be a total of three installments of Chapter 13.

Kiev, Russian Ukraine. September 18th, 1914. Sister Levchenko pushed open the door to the small sitting room where Natalie and Elena were having an afternoon cup of tea while trying to discern the war news from the oblique reports of the afternoon edition of the newspaper.

“Nowakówna. Nikolayevna. Make a up bed immediately. There’s a new patient being brought in.”

She hurried away without waiting to hear the other two women’s response. The gray wool uniform dress and large red cross on her white apron gave her authority over the voluntary aides as complete as that of any doctor.

“There wasn’t a hospital train due today,” said Natalie, as they cleared their cups and saucers from the table.

Elena shrugged. They were the only volunteer aides that day. If they had to prepare a whole ward it would have taken over an hour at breakneck pace. One bed, however, was a quick task to practiced hands.

They spread crisp white cotton sheets which gave off the smell of disinfecting wash -- a small which at first had seemed harsh and chemical, but now conveyed a wholesome purity to their nostrils. Blood, dirt and infection conveyed danger; chlorine and carbolic solution were the weapons against those foes.

“Do you ever think of becoming one of them?” Elena asked, smoothing the regulation grey wool blanket.

“Who?” Natalie asked, tucking the bottom corners beneath the mattress.

“A red cross nurse.” Elena moved the big canvas-covered frames into place, turning the bed into its own private niche, ready for its patient. “They do all the real work. We might as well be maids, and they’ll be just as happy to have real servants when all the respectable ladies have tired of playing white-clad angel. The nurses are the ones who have the skills to make a real difference.”

“But surely-- You can’t just become a nurse. There must be a great deal of training.”

“Oh, a great deal. Even on a war footing, several months worth. But people do it. They’re not born nurses. My cousin Sonia took the training during the 1904 war and served in a hospital in Moscow.”

“Well, of course, but what I meant was--” Natalie felt the heat of blood rushing to her face, as if she had just provided a very poor answer in class while the other girls looked on. “Surely it’s not as simple as just taking some training and becoming a nurse. Don’t you have to be… the right sort of person?”

The words sounded wrong in her ears even as she spoke them, and she flushed again. The shade of difference, the idea that there was something Other about the professionally trained nurses -- whether some authority gained at nursing school or a natural air of command which destined them for a higher order -- this distinction was impossible to define and yet it put a chasm between her and the nurses as wide as that among between the doctors and the orderlies: between the men who cut and cured and ordered versus the men who carried, cleaned and did as they were told.

Throughout her upbringing in the convent it had been a principle as clear and unquestionable as the laws of motion which held God’s creations in their orbits that she was a member of that order in society which obeyed. Obeyed graciously, obeyed genteelly, obeyed the higher call rather than the lower, to be sure, and perhaps within that realm of obedience exerted authority over those temporarily or by birth of even lower status: children, servants. But the basic principle remained.

Leaving the convent, meeting her father, these had for a time given her the trappings of a higher station, a new Paris wardrobe, first class rail cars, a beautiful hotel room. Yet even these had seemed a window on another world, a world in which she still possessed no rights or authority. Her brief command of waiters and taxi drivers had not made it seem any less against the laws of nature for her to disagree when her father told her that she must never see him again or when Dr. Luterek held her to account for his son’s pursuit of her.

Could a few months training reverse all this and make her the ultimate female authority over a ward of patients and their care? Was she meant to wield such power and responsibility? The idea was by turns alluring and terrifying.

“You two, don’t stand there, turn the bedclothes down.” The ward sister had entered, all action and command, followed by two orderlies carrying a stretcher.

Natalie obediently helped turned down the sheets. As the orderlies gently slid the apparently unconscious men onto the bed, she recoiled at the sight of a head like an obscene newspaper caricature. The soldier had a massive, discolored swelling above his left brow. She knew it must be the result of some massive blow to the head, yet the way it distorted his forehead, and the dark patches of internal bleeding pooling around his eyes, gave the man the look of a cartoon drawing of an intellectual with swollen brain and weary eyes.

“Soldiers who brought him in said the cart horse was startled by a motor,” she heard one of the orderlies explain to the other. “Caught in the head by a falling barrell. Wonder he isn’t dead already.”

The nurse began issuing orders rapidly, and Natalie rushed away, first to fetch bandages and gauze, then for a basin of disinfectant. As she fulfilled these requests she watched the nurse’s swift and confident movements, thinking of Elena’s question and wondering if she herself could ever dress a man’s injuries with such calm professional skill.


The new arrival, Sergeant Utkin, had kept them busy throughout the afternoon, and Natalie had stayed an hour past her usual time. Madame Luterek never waited tea when someone was late, but any tardiness was displeasing to her. No letters had arrived from Konrad in almost two weeks, and although this left his mother in a state at once desperate for news and terrified at what it might bring, the extended silence also meant that no letter addressed to “My Lovely Natalie” or “That Little Governess” or whatever teasing endearment might next come to the young lieutenant’s mind had arrived to embarrass Natalie, enrapture Sara and Lena, and set Madame Luterek casting baleful glances at the young governess she remained convinced must somehow be at fault for capturing her son’s attention. This calming of the household tensions was welcome, and Natalie had no desire to spoil it by doing anything to upset Madame Luterek.

[continue reading]

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Martian: Old Fashioned, Hard SF

I first heard about Andy Weir's SF novel The Martian because its publishing history is pretty much a dream given form (a shining beacon in space?) for someone like me:
In 2009, Weir started posting the story chapter by chapter on his personal blog where anyone could read it for free. The early version of his self-published book attracted a lot of science-minded readers, and they offered feedback.

Weir is a space nerd, but he says chemistry is not his area of expertise.

"Chemists actually pointed out some problems in early drafts," Weir said. He was able to go back and correct some of the chemistry that's crucial for Watney's survival.

Word of the book spread, and readers started asking for an e-reader copy. So Weir made all the individual chapters available in one file. Some had trouble downloading it though, so Weir put it on Amazon via Kindle Direct Publishing.

That's when the floodgates opened. More people downloaded the 99-cent Amazon version than had ever downloaded the free version, Weir said, and readers started leaving positive reviews on Amazon. In just a few months it skyrocketed to the top of Amazon's best-selling science fiction list.
So a book agent got in touch with Weir. Shortly after that, the publishing company Random House called — it wanted to publish a hardcover.

Four days later, Hollywood called for the movie rights, Weir said.

So yes, he scored a book contract and a movie contract in the same week — both in the low to mid six figures, The Washington Post reports.

"In fact, it was such a sudden launch into the big leagues that I literally had a difficult time believing it," Weir said in an interview on his site. "I actually worried it could all be an elaborate scam. So I guess that was my first reaction: "Is this really happening?'"
Up until college, Science Fiction made up a significant portion of my reading diet, and the classic "hard SF" in which engineering and science problems are used to drive plot and action was one of the sub genres I enjoyed most. There's always a certain fascination to problem solver stories, and while hard SF is sometimes bashed within the field as having shallower characterization, I tended to think that authors were often better at portraying fairly "ordinary" people trying to solve exotic engineering problems than successfully imagining exotic character and cultural problems in far flung futures.

In the end, I mostly walked away from the SF/F genre entirely. Most of what I read now is mainstream or historical fiction, but I retain an affection for science fiction even though I don't keep up.

When I picked up a copy of The Martian at the library, I ended up reading the whole thing in a day. It was a blast. No, the characterization is not deep. But the thing is just such a fast paced and fun problem solving yarn that you can't hold that against it. Even if you are not yourself interested in the details of how to make a near future expedition to Mars, the wise cracking main character and his constant struggle to survive will pull you in.

The novel opens as follows:

I'm pretty much fucked.

That's my considered opinion.


Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it's turned into a nightmare.

I don't even know who'll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.

For the record... I didn't die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can't blame them. Maybe there'll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, "Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars."

And it'll be right, probably. 'Cause I'll surely die here. Just not on Sol 6 when everyone thinks I did.

Let's see... where do I begin?
There you have it: smart aleck, occasionally profane, but a fun character voice, and a person who is stuck in a terrible predicament. On the sixth day of a manned visit to Mars in the near future, the crew has to cut short their planned fifty day stay and make an emergency evacuation when an unexpectedly heavy sandstorm endangers their habitat. In the process of the evacuation, astronaut Mark Watney is struck by a falling antenna, knocked off a precipice, and his suit ceases to show life signs. The rest of the crew has to go ahead and make the evacuation without retrieving his body.

Except that he isn't dead. The debris that punctured his suit destroyed the life signs monitor, but his blood from the injury froze around the puncture, closing the leak and allowing him to still have oxygen to breath until he regains consciousness. By the time that happens, however, he is the only person left on Mars, with no working communications equipment and no hope of rescue until the next mission arrives in about four years.

The movie is coming out in October, and I'm hoping it will be as fun as the book. In the mean time, I might pick up a copy so I can read it again.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Do Over

I am 36 years old, and I've been Catholic all my life. And I don't have a prayer time. I have said the rosary on and off through the years, and I still struggle with it, because it's not interesting to me. I like Liturgy of the Hours, conceptually, but time and again, I've flamed out in my attempts to say it regularly. I do read the Bible, as part of daily mass readings with the kids, but that's fallen by the wayside during the summer. My one regular prayer is Sunday Mass, and that's required. Meatless Fridays. We do those too.

It's not that I don't pray during the day. It's that I don't have a regular, prioritized time for prayer. As I move through my day, as I wash dishes (by hand; the dishwasher's been out for three months), as I sweep or vacuum, as I'm asked a million questions I don't know the answers to, I do turn my mind and heart to God, and I try to meditate.

And then I screw up again. As in, just now while I was writing "I screw up again," I snapped at a child for interrupting my writing time.

Darwin and I were talking the other night about how just being in the same place isn't enough. If the only time we ever spent with each other was in the dinner-to-bedtime routine chaos, we'd see each other and talk to each other, but we'd never be able to go deeply enough into anything to maintain a good friendship. We'd start to become strangers. We rely on our quiet time after the kids go down (or are at least banished upstairs) so that we can strengthen the foundation of our relationship on which the chaos is built. A relationship needs the chaotic times too, I think, so that each person can truly see and appreciate the quality of the other, but it also needs breathing time.

I'm trying to find that breathing time again for prayer. I recently went on retreat, and one of the points made was that if prayer is not routine, it is not a priority. I thought about that all weekend, came home and discussed it with Darwin, and we agreed that we needed to make a change, again. And in the way of all post-retreat life, I regressed. I did not say morning prayer. I did not make more effort. I probably made less.

But this morning, I had to make a choice between slacking off and sweeping the floor, and by God's grace, I chose to sweep the floor. A moment ago, I had the choice to answer a child patiently or impatiently, and by God's grace, I chose to answer patiently. My mind went off to places it shouldn't have been, and by God's grace, I picked myself up and went back to what I should have been doing.

I need prayer. I need it. But I also need to remember that God is I AM, and that every instant I have a new opportunity to start over and make the right choice. When I turn my mind to him and beg for help to change, even as I'm sinning, I can be transformed in the twinkling of an eye, because his mercies are renewed every morning, because now is the acceptable time. So I failed at saying the rosary or morning prayer, over and over again. All that means is that I have another chance to try again. So I'm stuck in some stupid sin. That means I have the opportunity to ask God for his grace, again. All failure is a opportunity to lean on God one more time. The Christian life isn't about being perfect. It's about relying on God completely, because it's clear that our own strength isn't enough.

The only time to be a saint is now, and the only real sainthood is starting again.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Orphan Openings: Unless A Grain Of Wheat Fall To The Ground

The initial coolness was like the peace of death. Before, she had felt and tallied Brian's every thoughtless act or wounding word. Now, real and perceived grievances all beaded up and rolled off of her like rain down a marble monument. It was so liberating to put the pain behind her, to move to a state in their marriage in which she could hide herself away and play the role of wife. They still did all the same things. They got up, danced around each other in the bathroom, went to work, had dinner together, had sex. The sex was better than before, actually, because now there was a corner of her mind where she could watch herself and improve her performance and adjust her mental game when necessary.

But even death is not static. Repose becomes decay. She had thought that she was preserving the marriage by closing herself off. One day she realized that Brian had ceased to expect anything from her. He had become other to her, and now she was other to him. They were two people in a house, partners in management, marking the time with manners. She had died to him, but she had not counted on him dying to her. It was frightening to realize that she was interchangeable.

One day at the office she stopped by Sofia's cubicle to drop off a report. A faded inspirational poster was tacked up to the divider, a backlit image of a stalk of wheat with the caption, "Unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit."

"What does that mean?" she asked Sofia.

"I don't know? It was my dad's, it used to hang in his office. I think it's that... the wheat can't grow unless it's transformed? The grain by itself doesn't change, but when it's planted and starts to grow, it bursts open and warps out of shape and is destroyed, and in the process it becomes something bigger and better, something it never could have become on its own. It has to die to go on living."

"That sucks."

Sofia shrugged. "Most living feels like dying anyway."

"But it doesn't really die," she said. "How can it grow into a plant unless it's alive?"

"I guess the grain of wheat part of it dies."

"That's pretty lousy for the grain," she said, unreasonably annoyed on behalf of an anonymous seed.

"It's not like it was going to last forever on its own. Get planted or get eaten."

"And those are the only two options?"

"Or decay in storage," said Sofia, turning back to her computer.


On her way home she picked up Chinese food from a place Brian liked. At home she pulled out dishes and candles and plated everything up just like she'd read about in an article about reviving the spark in your marriage. Brian called her as she was throwing away the containers.

"I'm going to be late, babe," he said. "The project is running late, and you know how it is. Don't wait for me to eat. I'm just going to grab a sandwich somewhere up here."

It was like him to spring this on her. Several cool replies simmered within her, and she considered which one would be most effective.

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground...

"Okay," she said. "What if I come up there and eat with you?"

"You want to come all the way up here?" he said. "I'm only going to have about ten minutes."

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies...

"I don't mind. I'd like to."

"Um, okay. Sure, if you want."

"Thanks." She swallowed. "I love you."

There was silence on the line for a moment. She closed her eyes and waited.

"Yeah, you too," he said shortly. "See you."

She picked up the plates and started scraping them in the trash, wondering at the strange bitter pang of the first blade of wheat piercing through the confines of the dead husk.

Fake Map of Tribal Nations Takes Social Media by Storm

In one of those strange eruptions of social media interest, a person going by the name of liminalsoup uploaded to reddit a map for an alternate history that he's planning to write, about a world in which Europeans never reached America, and a few days later someone uploaded the map to Facebook (falsely describing it as a map of where tribes had been prior to Columbus) where it proceeded to get hundreds of thousands of shares.
I had seen it going around on Facebook, where I'd noted that the Comanchees hadn't been an independent tribe in pre-Columbian times, nor had they been in the Oklahoma/Texas area in which they later became famous. Other friends pointed out other issues with the map. The actual derivation of the map, with the author trying to decide where to put various tribes in an alternative history in which American Indians continued to live on their own for another 500+ years, makes sense of a number of these oddities.

As I started to search for the map, wondering about its mistakes, I stumbled across a real attempt at a map showing tribal locations which had been publicized on NPR just a few weeks earlier. Ironically, though this map was put together by someone of Indian ancestry and was an attempt to show where tribes originally were can list them by their own names (rather than names given to them by Europeans), and it apparently didn't catch the imagination of social media the way the fictional map did. (I say ironically because the person making the mis-attributed social media posting of the fictional map captioned the image: "America before colonization.... I've never seen this map in my entire 25 years of formal education. Not in one history book or one lesson. This is not a mistake... Representation matters!!! #NativeHistory #BeforeAmerica")

[full high resolution image here] Actually, you can kind of see why the fictional map caught on in a way that the real one didn't. It's simple and easily grasped, with clear boundaries and mostly recognizable names. The real map is full of unfamiliar names, many in small type, and lacks boundaries.

Thinking of history from another perspective is difficult. It's not uncommon to see guilt-ridden modern attempts to address the European discovery, conquest and settling of America "from a Native American" perspective, but if that attempt at perspective is to show "that thing which Europeans came and messed up" you're already in some sense dealing with a perspective centered on European events.

Most of the American Indian cultures in North America were hunter gatherers, and virtually none had writing systems, so the number of written records and archaeological traces we have to work from are fairly small. Even in Mexico and South America, where there were more complex farming societies and several civilizations which left writing behind, we have less to go on than the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt (which themselves are fairly alien to us.)

The native societies as they were encountered by European explorers and colonists were not necessarily in continuity with their pre-European past, because contact with Europeans had touched off massive plagues which wiped out some very large number (it underlines our ignorance of pre-Columbian America that we have no very good idea what percentage, but estimates range up to 90%) of the indigenous population. (Europeans had built up immunities to a number of diseases that were unknown in the new world until their arrival.) The tribes that we met were a sort of post-apocalyptic survival of those plagues.

I suppose someone has tackled this and I just haven't run into it, but it seems like there could be an interesting "first contact" novel for some SF writer to tackle, if you tried to re-imagine the human population experiencing the kind of things which the indigenous populations of the Americas did when they came into contact with Europeans: alien induced plagues causing massive death around the world, very small numbers of aliens with very advanced technology making small incursions in some areas but not getting to others, disruption of the world's political alliances as some countries align with the aliens in order to get help and support against others, the aliens not always having a clear idea of the disputes that they're being pulled into taking sides in.

As with the fictional map, perhaps a fictional approach like that would actually provide the best window that modern Americans could have into what that sort of disruption must have been like from the other side.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Fair Labor vs. Owner of the Vineyard

One of the comparisons people can't help making in discussing the Gravity Payments $70k minimum wage which I wrote about the other day is the parable of the vineyard:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So they went off.

He went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’

When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’

He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matthew 20:1-16

Christianity Today had a brief piece making the allusion, which also came up in the NY Times followup. The reference isn't necessarily complimentary to the workers are Gravity who have objected to the new wage structure, rather like being accused of being like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son.

I think it's an interesting Biblical allusion to bring up, because in many ways I think that social justice advocates (by which I mean those who self consciously think of themselves as such, not the wider world of those who care about justice in society) would not like a labor market which functioned in the manner of the Parable of the Vineyard.

Before discussing that, however, it's a good idea to start by looking at what the actual purpose of the parable is. Jesus often told parables in which some everyday, secular example was used to make a point about secular reality. Sometimes the secular example isn't even an example of virtuous behavior. For instance, in the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, Jesus describes a dishonest employee who, when he realizes that he is about to be found out and fired, embezzles even more money from his employer in order to give out favors to various other people. The steward does this so that he will have friends to take care of him once he's fired, and the point of the parable is that we cannot serve two masters and that we should therefore give away possessions now while storing up treasures in heaven. The dishonest steward is presumably about to be fired because in the past he's taken from his master's wealth for himself. However, when he realizes that there's about to be a reckoning he steals not for himself but to help others, realizing that it will be only the care of others that will help him once he is jobless. I think few would take this tale of sharp dealing literally and conclude that we should embezzle in order to help others. But part of what makes the parable memorable is that Jesus takes a very realistic example of sharp dealing in the business world -- something his listeners would intuitively understand -- and reframes it to be a description of how we should relate to the next world and to God.

The Parable of the Vineyard is also dealing with the next life, as it states right at the beginning, "The kingdom of heaven is like..." Christ tells us that even those who come to "the vineyard" (which we take to be conversion and the life of following Christ) will receive the same reward (heaven) as those who have labored in the vineyard all day. This may seem unfair (as the complaints of the all-day workers indicate) but that's because we're judging by human standards in which we "earn" our rewards. Heaven is unearned. It is a freely given gift of God to all those who are willing to receive it. And because it is not earned but given, we are wrong to think we can quibble about whom it is given to based on who "worked more" for it.

The words of the vineyard owner are key here, "My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?" The vineyard owner has complete dominion over his money. He gives it as he chooses. The workers who have worked all day are in no position to argue with him as to how he disposes of his money because they have no right over it.

Now this is where turning around and using the parable to talk about actual labor markets gets interesting. In a sense, the parable assumes what we might describe now as a libertarian attitude towards work and payment. The vineyard owner tells the all-day workers that they have no right to question how much he pays the other workers, because they have received as much as they agreed to work for. If he is generous to the others, that's his business. The implication is that the money of the vineyard owner is totally his own, and as long as he fulfills his explicit agreement with the all day workers, they have no ability to question his actions.

Let's take another example of wage dissatisfaction which social justice advocates often point to: A worker is slogging away earning $10/hr which is the wage that he agreed to when he took the job. Then he finds out that the CEO of his company is being paid $20,000,000/year, on the order of a thousand times as much. Why, he asks, is that person paid so much when I'm paid so little? In this case, the answer, "My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go," is not going to be very persuasive.

Indeed, I think we can probably agree that the wage structure of the vineyard owner would not pass muster with any labor union negotiating a vineyard maintenance contract. And yet, unionization is often advocated by Catholics as a means to achieving greater social justice.

Heaven is utterly God's to give. We have no right to heaven. We have not earned it. God does not have an obligation to us.

However, the vineyard owners is an imperfect analogy in that he does owe a reward to his workers. And, indeed, the sense of fairness which I think we are generally right to have doesn't even give him total discretion over his money and how he dispenses it. Yes, depending on how strongly we want to take the right to private property (ironically, those who wrap themselves in the term "social justice" would often take the view that his ownership of his money is comparatively weak, and that he does not actually have the right to dispose of his money however he wants) he may or may not have the complete legal right to pay different workers different hourly wages, but at a minimum if he chooses to pay some workers ten times the hourly wage as others for the same work, workers may well feel that his behavior is unfair and not want to work for him. (Even if, as the owner's words point out, they are not making any less than they initially expected.)

It seems to me that implicit in our sense of fairness in a situation like this is an idea of a certain amount of social ownership of the money to be used as wages. Say the owner has $1000 with which he is to pay ten workers. Workers are going to expect to that the money available for wages be divided in some fashion which matches their sense of fairness.

Let's talk about an imaginary vineyard. This vineyard pays $10/hr and hires laborers to work days of up to twelve hours. (Hey, it's ancient Israel. Life is hard.) Five workers are hired at 6:00 AM to work a full day. Five more are hired at 9:00 AM. Five at noon. Five at 3:00 PM. Five at 5:00 PM. The work day ends at 6:00 PM. 155 man hours have been worked. The expectation is that $1550 will be paid out at the rate of $10/hr. If the vineyard owner instead pays out $3000 (giving each of the 25 workers a full day's pay of $120) he sends to the workers the message that the pot of money to be divided for the day's work is not $1550 but $3000.

Here's where I'd argue that the sense of fairness which we might normally identify as right-leaning in our politics works of a sense of social ownership and responsibility which more left-leaning people should understand.

When the workers realize that there is a larger pool of money to be divided, they believe that it should be divided according to rules which they consent to via their sense of fairness. They don't think that the money is strictly the owners to do with as he sees fit. If he decides to pick out five of the workers at random and pay them far more than the others because he likes their looks, the other workers will be angry. Even if they don't have any formal process of negotiating how the money is to be distributed, they want the money divided in a way that they can consent to as being just. Not only just in the sense of "it's his money, he can do what he wants with it" but in the sense of "that is a manner of division which I can agree with."

Now, what triggers the desire to re-negotiate the division of wages in the parable is when the vineyard owners effectively puts a bigger bag of money than expected on the table. The workers expected $1550 to be paid out. When he goes to pay out $3000, they feel that they should have a voice in how that money is divided. They feel that they should have an opportunity to renegotiate the terms of their employment.

If the owner had stuck to the acknowledged hourly wage, probably no questions would have been asked. There's an implicit agreement that the wage represents some compromise between how much the vineyard produces and how much the workers need to get by. But various things might break the equilibrium, and what is perceived to break the equilibrium could vary depending on someone's politics.

For instance, in our modern world, if a company produces very high profits or pays its executives very high salaries, some people (many of them on the left) will take that as an indication that there is money on the table, and they will want a chance to negotiate how that money is divided.

In this news story about Gravity Payments and its $70k minimum wage, there was apparently a sort of equilibrium in which people were making their old salaries and the owner and his brother were both making about $1 mil per year while also earning profits of over $2 mil. However, the status quo with $4 mil going to either executives or profits was accepted until the owner decided to take a significant portion of that money and use it to increase the salaries of the lowest paid employees. Then, some employees decided that they wanted their voices heard in how that "extra" money was to be divided.

Obviously, the sorts of things which people consider to put money "on the table" will vary, and the sorts of distribution which people consider fair will also vary greatly. But what I do think is fairly universal is that people have a sense of fairness which does not actually see an employer as having absolute ownership and discretion over the money he spends of wages. In the human world, the vineyard owner's argument for why the all-day workers should not object fails to address this sense of fairness, because the analogy which Jesus is making to to salvation, something which is in no sense earned. As such, comparing workers to object to some new salary arrangement at a real life company to the grumbling workers in the parable is not actually a very good rhetorical move.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Why Gravity is Having Trouble with its $70k Minimum Wage

Back in April I wrote about one of those stories which launched a thousand hot-takes: The CEO of Gravity, a small (120 person) credit card processing company in Seattle, had decided that he would establish a $70k minimum wage for his company, both as a blow against income inequality and because he's read some research that raises up to the $70k threshold have a much bigger impact on personal happiness than raises thereafter. This caused a massive media sensation, and a lot of people thought that it said something Very Important about where American business was heading and how much could be achieved if only CEOs were less selfish.

Gravity employees aren't all making $70k yet, although the news it all at once the company plan which was put in place phased the wage increases in over three years. However, some employees have already seen raises of around $10k/yr and the company is experiencing significant transition pains, and the NY Times has an interestingly detailed follow-up story describing them.

A number of pieces were written at the time criticizing Gravity Payments' move. One that I linked to and discussed was by Joe Carter writing at the Acton Institute, whose piece was descriptively titled: "Why the $70,000 Minimum Wage is Doomed to Fail" It presented two main arguments. First, that Gravity Payments would lose business to competition, since any company which had a lower average wage and offered the same service could easily take customers from that. Second, that those currently making less than $70k/yr in pay were probably providing the company with value below $70k, and so therefore these employees would become net losses to the company, and thus the most likely to be cut when the company ran into financial problems.

Since I deal with pricing analytics professionally, this kind of story fascinates me. However, I took a bit of issue with Carter's approach in that while at an Econ 101 level, his criticisms are accurate, it's a lot harder to know whether these specific problems will apply in any given real world situation.

Recently I did a pricing analysis on a fairly small company which sells consumer electronics. They have four main models of their product, and their product is fairly unique. There aren't direct competition for their products, although they do, of course, face what we call "share of wallet" competition, which is basically to say that consumers have to decide whether to spend money on their products or on some other thing that they might buy which isn't in any way a similar product in function, but is also a kind of cool household gadget which people buy when they have the money for discretionary spending of household electronics toys. The results that I came up with were that they should significantly reduce discounting (and thus in effect increase price, on average) on their most expensive models. The reason is that their most expensive models were selling more than their middle priced models with similar features. This suggested that a lot of consumers perceived the value of the top model as being significantly above it's price. If they increase the after-discount price on this top model, more consumers would trade down to the mid-range models. They would have a more even distribution of sales between their models and higher profits overall. Now, normally, if you increased the price of a product by 20-30%, you'd expect to lose a lot of sales to competition. Indeed, even a very small increase can cause a lot of people to buy less or to move to competition in a highly competitive area. This is why the editorials we read every so often explaining that all McDonald's or Walmart has to do in order to pay all their employees better is increase prices by 5% show a lack of understanding of what happens when retailers like that increase prices. (A few years back I did pricing for one of the big three fast food chains, and believe me, small price increases can cause big reductions in purchasing by consumers.)

While there are a few basic economic tendencies which are at play within most pricing questions, it takes a lot of familiarity with the specifics of a given company's situation to understand which ones will be at play and how. This made me hesitant to confidently assert that Gravity would run into problems because of its $70k minimum wage, because I didn't know the dynamics of the particular business in question and whether this unusual approach to compensation would work. (The answer to whether this could work for all companies is simple: No.) Reading about how things have worked out thus far, I think it's interesting that none of the problems are of the simple Econ 101 type which were being predicted. They're mostly far more human.

The first major impact was simply the onslaught of attention. CEO Dan Price admits that he partly made the move in the way he did in order to score some positive publicity, but it's hard for anyone to predict the kind of pressures which a news story going viral can produce:

The move drew attention from around the world — including from some outspoken skeptics and conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, who smelled a socialist agenda — but most were enthusiastic. Talk show hosts lined up to interview Mr. Price. Job seekers by the thousands sent in résumés. He was called a “thought leader.” Harvard business professors flew out to conduct a case study. Third graders wrote him thank-you notes. Single women wanted to date him.

What few outsiders realized, however, was how much turmoil all the hoopla was causing at the company itself. To begin with, Gravity was simply unprepared for the onslaught of emails, Facebook posts and phone calls. The attention was thrilling, but it was also exhausting and distracting. And with so many eyes focused on the firm, some hoping to witness failure, the pressure has been intense.
But any plan that has the potential, as Mr. Price has put it, to “set the world on fire,” is bound to make some people squirm. Leah Brajcich, who oversees sales at Gravity, fielded complaints from several customers who accused her boss of communist or socialist sympathies that would drive up their own employees’ wages and others who felt it was a public relations stunt. A few were worried that fees would rise or service would fall off. “What’s their incentive to hustle if you pay them so much?” Ms. Brajcich said they asked. Putting in 80-hour weeks after the announcement, she called the mistrustful clients, stopping by their offices or stores, and invited them to visit Gravity to see for themselves the employees’ dedication. She said she eventually lured most back.

Some customers didn't like the move, either because they saw it as endorsing politics they didn't like or because they saw it as embarrassing them by making them look greedy for not making a similar move. Others worried that despite promises to the contrary, Gravity would increase its fees to cover the expense. The attention got Gravity new clients (they nearly doubled their usual number of new customers in the month after the announcement broke) but because of the startup expenses of getting a new client launched those new customers won't actually be profitable for Gravity for about a year.

It sounds like one of the things which both led to the salary increase and also to the problems coming afterwards has been the personality of Mr. Price. He apparently got in arguments with some other business owners about the move:
Roger Reynolds, a co-owner of a wealth management company, said his discussion of the pay plan with Mr. Price got heated. “My wife and I got so frustrated with him at a cocktail party, we literally left,” said Mr. Reynolds, who complained that Mr. Price unfairly accused him of measuring his self-worth solely in terms of money and trying to hold somebody else down. Everyone may have equal rights, but not equal talent or motivation, Mr. Reynolds said. “I think he’s trying to bring in some political and aspirational beliefs into the compensation structure of the workplace.”

But he's also had problems in his relations with some employees:
Mr. Price’s drive to succeed, fierce commitment to help small businesses and exacting standards attracted other business-minded idealists. Some even took pay cuts to work at Gravity. Keeping an existing client is more important than getting a new one, he decreed. Never make a caller hear more than two rings before picking up.
Maisey McMaster was also one of the believers. Now 26, she joined the company five years ago and worked her way up to financial manager, putting in long hours that left little time for her husband and extended family. “There’s a special culture,” where people “work hard and play hard,” she said. “I love everyone there.”

She helped calculate whether the firm could afford to gradually raise everyone’s salary to $70,000 over a three-year period, and was initially swept up in the excitement. But the more she thought about it, the more the details gnawed at her.

“He gave raises to people who have the least skills and are the least equipped to do the job, and the ones who were taking on the most didn’t get much of a bump,” she said. To her, a fairer proposal would have been to give smaller increases with the opportunity to earn a future raise with more experience.

A couple of days after the announcement, she decided to talk to Mr. Price.

“He treated me as if I was being selfish and only thinking about myself,” she said. “That really hurt me. I was talking about not only me, but about everyone in my position.”

Already approaching burnout from the relentless pace, she decided to quit.

The problem here seems dual: On the one hand, as someone putting in a lot of time and effort she sees it as unfair that there will be very little money available to provide raises to her and other top performing employees as the company struggle to meet the new salary commitments for lower level employees. On the other hand, that might have been smoothed over had Dan Price (doubtless also under long hours and mental pressure himself) been able to better handle his discussion with her about her concerns.

Perhaps most cripplingly for the company's financial future, however, has been a falling out between CEO Dan Price and his brother Lucas Price who owns 30% of the company. There are apparently long been tensions between the two brothers, and the pay increase (which in the short term may take the company's profits to near zero, before building back to profitability, according to Dan Price's plan) was apparently the last straw. Lucas is suing his brother demanding to be bought out. Since Dan has just committed to take the company's profits down, and has cut his own salary in order to help finance the salary transition, he's short of money with which to buy his brother out.

Another interesting take on the wage increase comes from an employee who doesn't want to find himself trapped at Gravity by the high pay:
The new pay scale also helped push Grant Moran, 29, Gravity’s web developer, to leave. “I had a lot of mixed emotions,” he said. His own salary was bumped up to $50,000 from $41,000 (the first stage of the raise), but the policy was nevertheless disconcerting. “Now the people who were just clocking in and out were making the same as me,” he complained. “It shackles high performers to less motivated team members.”

Mr. Moran also fretted that the extra money could over time become too enticing to give up, keeping him from his primary goal of further developing his web skills and moving to a digital company.

And the attention was vexing. “I was kind of uncomfortable and didn’t like having my wage advertised so publicly and so blatantly,” he said, echoing a sentiment of several Gravity staff members. “It changed perspectives and expectations of you, whether it’s the amount you tip on a cup of coffee that day or family and friends now calling you for a loan.”

A company is built around relationships: relationships with customers and relationships with employees. And in this case, obviously relationships between owners as well. It's not surprising that such a major change has caused turbulence in these relationships, even granting (as so far appears to be the case) that the basic Econ 101 sources of concern are not at play here. If I were to guess what will be the biggest long-running program with the new $70k minimum wage, it will be satisfying the sense of fairness for the people in mid-level positions at Gravity, people who currently make more then $70k and thus don't stand to benefit from the new regime. Often, especially in a young startup company like this, those positions are held by people who voluntarily put in a lot of extra hours and effort, both because they take a lot of pride in doing good work, and out of a desire to "get ahead". If many of them end up like Ms. McMaster, feeling that they are not getting the raises they deserve because all the money is being spent on bringing low level employees up to the $70k mark, the company is going to have a hard time keeping good talent and thus maintaining its current level of service and growth. One hopes that Price took account for giving those people proportional boosts in salary as well when he was planning the cost of his initiative.

I hope the journalists continue to check in on how Gravity is doing, not because I think they represent a model for something most companies can do, but because it's always interesting to see how real people deal with unusual situations. It will be interesting to see if Price ends up having to change his plans on the new salary structure. While I don't agree with Dan Carter's analysis at Acton on the potential pitfalls of the move, I do agree with his parting thought, which is that if Price wanted to share the profits of his company more widely he would have been much wiser to set up a bonus program or employee ownership program which all his employees could have participated in proportionately. But then, that sort of plan would not have received the nationwide media coverage which the "$70k minimum wage" caused, and Price sounds like he is, like many company founders, something of a showoff.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Rich Drama of Virtue

In the New York Times, Thomas Mallon and Alice Gregory debate whether a virtuous character in a novel can be an interesting character. Mallon says no:
We expect fiction’s round characters to undergo change in the course of their book-length adventures, and the most important kind is usually an increase in self-awareness — a journey that leaves an unblemished character with no place to go. Self-awareness for the fully virtuous will necessarily be a matter of self-satisfaction, a state that can only render them insufferable. 
Who among us is fully virtuous? Reading this, I wondered whether Mallon had ever known a virtuous person or attempted a life of virtue himself. Virtue rarely leads to self-satisfaction, but to ever increasing self examination, as a person increasingly realizes how short he or she falls from the mark.

Alice Gregory says yes:
But as anyone who has earnestly attempted it will admit, being good is to feel far more at odds with the world than being bad does. It is the cumulation of calculated social compromises, purposeful acts of communion, and meticulous emotional arithmetic. Commonplace wickedness, meanwhile, is seldom the result of anything more devious than inattention to the feelings and realities of other people. Living virtuously is hard. It takes generative intellectual work that is far more interesting than the defensiveness of “being bad.” I would rather consider the challenges that go into a consciously lived life than the inevitably hurtful products of a cruel one. 
...If I were to commission a novel, I would ask the author for lots of things (that it be short; that it be written in free indirect speech; that it include funny, but frank, acknowledgment of women’s grooming rituals), but mostly I would want this notional novelist to take up the challenge of animating at least one character who is virtuous, not in the intimate way that everyone seems to be up close, but in a way that is obvious and legible in the book’s own universe. It’s time that goodness be shown in all its relentless torment and sacrifice.
Leah Libresco, in a separate post on the topic, points out:
Being Good isn’t a matter of choosing once and then proceeding on autopilot.  It’s a lot of small, creative acts of resistance. It’s a lot of doing small, boring kindnesses that can secretly be a little thrilling because they don’t happen by default — they’re a matter of choosing or of building up habits of thought and action until caritas does actually wind up feeling natural.
Calculated acts of villainy do take planning and coordination and an aggressive will to dominate, which is why so many books and movies choose to focus on and glamorize that kind of evil. But everyday acts of malice and selfishness take no self-control or forethought. It's always easier to snark than to be charitable; to snarl in impatience rather than smile at someone inconvenient; to ignore the child making a frustrating demand rather than put aside the book or phone or even to turn aside from legitimate business and really listen and then act. Goodness is always an act of the will, and the biggest triumphs are often the least seen because they're played out in and against one's own heart. A novelist can take these everyday sacrifices and create a story of high drama about even the outwardly smallest stakes because the richest stories are about moral choice and change. Purely plot-driven stories about big events -- will the family escape the tidal wave in time? Will Apollo 13 make it back to earth safely? -- are exciting, but without an foundation of moral agency in the human characters, those stories will ultimately be shallow, entertainment with no substance.

Also, I've already written Alice Gregory's dream novel.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Eowyn: Another Strong Character the Movies Weakened

Now that I pull it up, I see that this piece from The Mary Sue about Eowyn is actually from half a year back, but for some reason last month a bunch of people I know were passing it around on social media. I'm glad it was, because it reminded me that back at the beginning of the year I'd been listening to Lord of the Ring during my commutes, but it turned out that the old copy I had was missing a disc half way through Two Towers, and so I'd stopped and gone no further. My Audible subscription had a few credits waiting, so I picked up nice digital copies of the whole trilogy and had a wonderful time listening to the book again.

The article seems to make the case that Eowyn as shown in the Peter Jackson movies is not as strong a character as she is in the books. This is actually a pretty easy case to make, as I can't think of a single character who is stronger or more interesting in the movies than the books, and many are far less interesting and far weaker in terms of characterization. If Eowyn loses some strength and complexity in the adaptations, Aragorn, Faramir, and Denethor get it worse, and let's not even speak of what was done to poor Gimli. Still, it's interesting to see what's going through this writer's head:

[T]here are some things I feel like the writers stumbled on and Eowyn is one of the big ones.
It says something to me that a WWI vet from a devout Catholic background wrote about a warrior woman in a book published in 1954 that was more feminist than her modern interpretation ended up being.

I know what you’re thinking. “But Eowyn kicked ass! She swung a sword and she fought the Lord of the Nazgûl! She said “I am no man!”

Yeah, I know. And look, I’d really like to tell you that that’s enough for me. But it isn’t. Let me explain why.
I'm skipping around a bit to avoid quoting her entire post, though it's a fun read, so here's the core of his first big complaint:
My issue is with the way they had Eowyn moon over Aragorn in the films. And it hinges on a key scene from the book that they left out completely. In it, Aragorn tells Eowyn that she can’t come with him on The Paths of the Dead because her people need her and that renown isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. He’s not wrong, exactly, but he basically tells her it’s her duty to stay behind, something he would never say to her uncle or brother.

And she calls him on it. Flat out. She tells him, “All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.”

Think about that for a moment. Not only is she calling him out for sexism, she lays out why it’s sexist and does a pretty damn fine job of distilling down the lot of women in this culture. To whit: if there aren’t men around, you don’t really matter, and you definitely don’t get to decide for yourself how you live OR die if you’re a lady. That’s very powerful, especially in a series that deals a lot with the trappings of war and glory from a distinctly masculine point of view.

She doesn’t come even remotely close to saying anything like that in the film, instead pleading with him out of love, giving a lot of doe eyed looks, and generally being deferential instead of defiant. It undermines her character’s strength and feminist bent. Because although she thinks she’s in love with Aragorn she has no problem telling him he’s completely full of shit. Full of sexist shit, in fact.
And her second:
This brings me to the scene with the Lord of the Nazgûl. In the film she’s terrified, which is understandable, but they stripped out the amazing speech she gives as, scared as she is, she stands up to only the second most awful creature in the series. Don’t forget, the Lord of the Nazgûl is Sauron’s second in command. Grown men cower at the sound of his voice. He stabbed Frodo at Weathertop. He even freaks out Gandalf.

So, this terrifying monster thing has just mortally wounded her uncle and she tells it where it can stick it in one of my favorite passages in the whole series.
“Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!”

A cold voice answered: ‘Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shriveled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.”

A sword rang as it was drawn. “Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.”

“Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!”

Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel.

“But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.”
This got distilled down to “I am no man.” Look, I know they couldn’t have just put this in verbatim, it’s got an old-timey cadence and they’d already tweaked other dialog to be less formal. But. There is so much more here than “I am no man.”

First of all, he didn’t just threaten her with death. He threatened her with horrifying, endless torture and mind rape, basically. And she laughs at him. And then she stabs him in the face. What’s more? She makes him afraid before she does it because up until then, he thought he was immortal. Whoops!

I think you lose a lot of important nuance by over simplifying it to “I am no man.”

Still, I could have lived with that except for what comes after.

See, in the book, she’s falls over onto her enemy because he’s so evil that his death nearly kills her. She’s found later on the battlefield and they think she’s dead. Eomer is incredibly upset (understandably) and ends up going off in a foul, suicidal mood, where he and the other riders chant “death, death, death” as they cut a swath through the enemy. It’s pretty bleak.

The movie, for no reason I can fathom, decides that Eowyn can’t just kill the Witch King. Nope. After this huge showdown she also needs to be chased by Tumor the Orc, an enemy we got introduced to that isn’t A. interesting B. even in the same category of terrifying as the Witch King. He’s completely beneath her as a foe at this point.

So far as I can tell he exists so that Aragorn can kill him and “save” her, without actually knowing he did so. Which is just…weird. Why would you have this amazing moment where Eowyn defeats an enemy literally no one else in Middle Earth could have…and then have her crawling away from a generic, malignant orc in the aftermath? And why does Aragorn need to save her? What does this do for either character? Other than undermine her achievement, of course.

It’s one of the most perplexing character and narrative choices/changes in the films. What’s more: I don’t think it occurred to anyone that, along with making her overly lovesick, they inadvertently damsel’d her. For me, it’s a frustrating example of casual sexism creeping in. It’s even more frustrating when you realize Tolkien, writing in a time that was quite a bit less progressive than now for women, did it better. Sticking closer to the original narrative and character would have solved this issue neatly. It stands out as pointless and tacked on.

After all of this, Eowyn ends up in the Houses of Healing and eventually meets Faramir. They develop a strong bond, one based on compassion and understanding, and we see that Faramir truly appreciates her for who she is. He knows she’s a warrior and a queen in her own right, he never talks down to her or treats her as less than his equal. We get a hint of this in the extended edition of Return of the King, and I know they didn’t really have time to do more. Yet I still miss that relationship because it says so much about both characters. Eowyn ends up discovering what real love is and finally being seen by someone for the amazing person she is.

I guess what bugs me most is that they took a legitimately “strong” female character, and by that I mean a complex, flawed, brave, and ultimately a triumphant warrior woman who has her own major arc…and reduced her down to something less than that. To me, strength in a character is about more than their ability to hit or kill things, and while Eowyn’s big moment is certainly defeating The Lord of the Nazgûl, it’s her defiance in the face of insurmountable odds that truly makes her “strong”. I wish the film version had honored that more.

Because that would have been honoring the proto-feminist character Tolkien created.

Here's the scene, with the weird orc bit at the end added in as well:

Now, I think the "feminist" thing here is a kind of a red herring. The key thing here is: the Eowyn of the movies is quite simply a less interesting and less complex person than the Eowyn of the books.

Actually, there's another whole aspect to her arc which the Mary Sue author misses, one which I think underlines how Eowyn's strength and weaknesses are intertwined.

When the Rohirrim are getting ready to ride forth to battle in The Two Towers, Theoden has to decide who to leave in command of the people while he leads the army:
'Behold! I go forth, and it seems like to be my last riding,' said Theoden. 'I have no child. Theodred my son is slain. I name Eomer my sister-son to be my heir. If neither of us return, then choose a new lord as you will. But to some one I must now entrust my people that I leave behind, to rule them in my place. Which of you will stay?'

No man spoke.

'Is there none whom you would name? In whom do my people trust?'

'In the House of Eorl,' answered Hama.

'But Eomer I cannot spare, nor would he stay,' said the king; 'and he is the last of that House.'

'I said not Eomer,' answered Hama. 'And he is not the last. There is Eowyn, daughter of Eomund, his sister. She is fearless and high-hearted. All love her. Let her be as lord to the Eorlingas, while we are gone.'

'It shall be so,' said Theoden. 'Let the heralds announce to the folk that the Lady Eowyn will lead them!'

Then the king sat upon a seat before his doors, and Eowyn knelt before him and received from him a sword and a fair corslet. 'Farewell sister-daughter!' he said. 'Dark is the hour, yet maybe we shall return to the Golden Hall. But in Dunharrow the people may long defend themselves, and if the battle go ill, thither will come all who escape.' 'Speak not so!' she answered. 'A year shall I endure for every day that passes until your return.' But as she spoke her eyes went to Aragorn who stood nearby.

'The king shall come again,' he said. 'Fear not! Not West but East does our doom await us.'
Now, if you picture the Rohirrim as being a sort of land-roving version of the Norse circa 1000 A.D., the idea of putting a woman, even the king's niece, in command of the whole people while the king goes off to war is a big deal (though Norse women were not people you wanted to mess with, and the sagas have a number of strong female characters.) The responsibility that Eowyn is given here is huge, and one which would normally only be given to a man and a respected warrior at that.

However, Eowyn doesn't want this calmer sort of responsibility. She has a deep desire to ride to glory and destruction, for roughly the reasons that the Mary Sue author outlines above.

This is the background scene which explains the later one in Return of the King which she outlines above, in which Eowyn seeks to ride with Aragorn and he tells her that her responsibilities lie elsewhere. Aragorn isn't simply telling her that she needs to stay at home because she's a woman. He's legitimately pointing out that when she's been given command of the whole people in the king's absence, she can't just run off on a death-or-glory errand because she is overcome with feelings of nihilism.
For a while she was silent, as if pondering what this might mean. Then suddenly she laid her hand on his arm. 'You are a stern lord and resolute,' she said; 'and thus do men win renown.' She paused. 'Lord.' she said, 'if you must go, then let me ride in your following. For I am weary of skulking in the hills, and wish to face peril and battle.'

'Your duty is with your people,' he answered.

'Too often have I heard of duty,' she cried. 'But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?'

'Few may do that with honour,' he answered. 'But as for you, lady: did you not accept the charge to govern the people until their lord's return? If you had not been chosen, then some marshal or captain would have been set in the same place, and he could not ride away from his charge, were he weary of it or no.'

'Shall I always be chosen?' she said bitterly. 'Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?'

'A time may come soon,' said he, 'when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.'

And she answered: 'All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.'
Aragorn is right. Eowyn does abandon her post and her duty by riding off to war in disguise. Great good (as well as sorrow) comes of it, as it sometimes the case when people do wrong, but she is doing wrong. Eowyn's desire for glorious destruction takes her to the Battle of Peleanor Fields, and when Denethor's own desire of inglorious destruction draws Gandalf -- the only one who could have faced the Witch King with some degree of equality -- away from the battle at the crucial moment, her desire for death and sacrifice allows her to defeat the Witch King. Seeing her apparently dead on the field of battle, Eomer then takes on the same destructive power:
Then suddenly he beheld his sister Eowyn as she lay, and he knew her. He stood a moment as a man who is pierced in the midst of a cry by an arrow through the heart; and then his face went deathly white; and a cold fury rose in him, so that all speech failed him for a while. A fey mood took him.

'Eowyn, Eowyn!' he cried at last: 'Eowyn, how come you here? What madness or devilry is this? Death, death, death! Death take us all!'

Then without taking counsel or waiting for the approach of the men of the City, he spurred headlong back to the front of the great host, and blew a horn, and cried aloud for the onset. Over the field rang his clear voice calling: 'Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the world's ending!'

And with that the host began to move. But the Rohirrim sang no more. _Death_ they cried with one voice loud and terrible, and gathering speed like a great tide their battle swept about their fallen king and passed, roaring away southwards.
The end of Eowyn's arc is when she renounces the idea that glory can be achieved through destruction:
And Eowyn looked at Faramir long and steadily; and Faramir said: 'Do not scorn pity that is the gift of a gentle heart, Eowyn! But I do not offer you my pity. For you are a lady high and valiant and have yourself won renown that shall not be forgotten; and you are a lady beautiful, I deem, beyond even the words of the Elven-tongue to tell. And I love you. Once I pitied your sorrow. But now, were you sorrowless, without fear or any lack, were you the blissful Queen of Gondor, still I would love you. Eowyn, do you not love me?'

Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.

I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun, she said; and behold the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.' And again she looked at Faramir. 'No longer do I desire to be a queen,' she said.

Then Faramir laughed merrily. 'That is well,' he said; 'for I am not a king. Yet I will wed with the White Lady of Rohan, if it be her will. And if she will, then let us cross the River and in happier days let us dwell in fair Ithilien and there make a garden. All things will grow with joy there, if the White Lady comes.'

'Then must I leave my own people, man of Gondor?' she said. 'And would you have your proud folk say of you: There goes a lord who tamed a wild shieldmaiden of the North! Was there no woman of the race of Numenor to choose?'

'I would,' said Faramir. And he took her in his arms and kissed her under the sunlit sky, and he cared not that they stood high upon the walls in the sight of many. And many indeed saw them and the light that shone about them as they came down from the walls and went hand in hand to the Houses of Healing.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Middle Class Conservative Discontents

I ran into this lefty take on GOP presidential hopeful Scott Walker today which struck me because of how thoroughly it misses the way that a lot of ordinary conservatives think. The jumping off point is a recent National Journal piece which attacks Walker for having some credit card debt and not having a lot of savings. As Spross points out, that actually marks Walker as a pretty ordinary kind of guy:
This is a deeply silly genre of journalism. It treats troubles the vast majority of Americans grapple with as vaguely scandalous. And it implicitly assumes the same rules of thumb that should guide household budgets should also guide the federal budget, which is catastrophically wrong.

More to the point, other details in the Journal piece offer a brief look at a presidential candidate of relatively modest means.

"Walker listed only six investments worth between $1,000 and $15,000, a whole life insurance plan worth between $15,000 and $50,000, and a deferred compensation plan from Milwaukee County worth between $15,000 and $50,000," the Journal continued. Walker received a $45,000 advance for a book in the last year, and it looks like his annual salary since assuming the governorship in 2011 has been around $140,000. That's certainly a lot of income compared to most Americans — it puts Walker just below the threshold for the top 10 percent — but it's obviously nothing compared to the fortunes Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton have amassed.
As governor, Walker makes major than most Americans, but as both a governor and someone trying to get a run for the presidency off the ground, he also doubtless has a lot of expenses that spill over into his personal budget. The fact that he's ended up with some short term debt makes him a lot like someone around the same age and income trying to get a small business off the ground. It's hardly a shocking position to be in.

Where Spross, I think, get's it seriously wrong, is when he goes on to suggest that Walker's modest background contradicts his fights with public sector unions which have made him a national figure:
This gets at something poignant about Walker the politician, and by extension Walker the man. While most all presidential candidates and politicians have a significant amount of socioeconomic distance from the median American, Walker has less than most. Besides his income and wealth, Walker came from modest beginnings as a preacher's kid in a small Wisconsin manufacturing town. He attended Marquette University in Milwaukee, but didn't finish his degree — passing on one of the key status symbols that American elites use to separate themselves from the pack.

And yet few Republicans, and certainly no other Republican presidential candidate, has been so ferociously focused on grinding everyday workers into the ground.

Like any good conservative, Walker pushed massive tax cuts for the well-to-do through Wisconsin's state budget, creating a hole he's now trying to fill by slicing education spending. But he also drove a blistering and brutally successful push to crush Wisconsin's public-sector unions, followed by "right to work" laws that will likely cripple the state's private unions as well.

Nor does it look like Walker did this because Republican and business interests were demanding it — he did it because he wanted to, as a matter of ideology.
Typically of his own ideology, Spross wants to see this as some kind of combined self loathing and racism driven by the flight to suburbs leaving minorities dominating the inner cities. However, his take on Walker's anti-union stances pretty fundamentally misses what makes middle class conservatives tick.

Union baiting is actually solidly popular with middle and working class conservatives -- and there are plenty of conservatives among those economic brackets. Venues like conservative talk radio draw primarily from middle income conservatives, not the Wall Street types which progressives would like to imagine dominate the GOP.

The point is not "grinding everyday workers into the ground". After all, most everyday workers are neither union nor public sector. And that's the key. To a lot of conservative everyday workers, it looks like public sector union workers have an unfairly good deal. They're often not fired even for grossly bad behavior or poor performance, and their pension plans can allow them to retire quite young with very generous guaranteed retirement plans.

Nor is disliking this strictly a matter of envy. As smart progressives point out every so often, while the Federal income tax is highly progressive (drawing the vast majority of its money from the rich while actually giving money back to a significant number of people with lower incomes and larger families), state and local taxes tend to be quite regressive. Those public sector union workers are working for local government, so it's disproportionately ordinary people who are having to foot the bill for iron-clad job security and unrealistic pension plans. This naturally makes middle class conservatives cranky, so thrashing public sector unions is fairly popular with them.

Part of the issue here is that American unions have to a great extent pushed an "us first" rather than a common good based approach for a long time. And the result is union rules and benefits which seem focused around not having to do work, getting away with bad behavior, and getting benefits which seem unfairly good. In the private sector, this has served to drive union dominated industries into the ground (see Detroit as exhibit A) while in the public sector it has stuck cities and states with horrific budget problems which can only be solved by raising local taxes and/or slashing government services which people need and want.

None of these play well with non-union middle class workers.

Monday, August 03, 2015

The Book of Job

When I set out to rewrite my script for Job (the final performance of which was last night), I went back and re-read the book of Job and summarized each chapter of arguments by Job and his friends. The structure of most of the book is: one friend makes a statement, Job rebuts; the second friend makes a statement, Job rebuts; third friend makes a statement, Job rebuts; and this is repeated three times. Then Eliphaz, the learned young man, steps in to give his opinion. Finally, God speaks, Job humbles himself, and there's a short last chapter in which Job receives even more blessings than he had at first.

I couldn't reproduce that structure on stage; three sets of arguments was simply too long and repetitive for our slender play. And since the arguments don't build on each other or push the story forward, they could be condensed and slightly rearranged to create the dramatic arc of the scene.

So, here's what I've been doing all summer while I haven't been blogging. I present to you Act 2, Scene 1 of Job. Our characters here are Job; Satan (ever-present but unseen by any of the characters); Job's old school friends Ellie, Billie, and Moe; and Eli, Ellie's nephew, a young man with a great sense of his own importance. I wish you could have seen the fabulous (and hysterically funny) young actors who made the scene come alive, but here's a taste of our show.

(Song lyrics composed by Rick Nohle.)


(Job, pacing in discomfort, reading from his prayerbook. Satan sitting on the bench, tearing his hair in frustration.)

JOB: “I love the Lord, for he has heard
the sound of my appeal.
He stoops to listen when I call.
‘O Lord, I beg you, save my life!’
And he has kept my soul from death,
my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
I held fast to my faith, even when I said,
‘I am greatly afflicted’;
How shall I make a return to the Lord
for all the good he has done for me?
The cup of salvation I will take up
and I will call on the name of the Lord.”

(Billie, Ellie, and Moe rush in and stop short upon beholding Job’s awful appearance. Eli follows more sedately.)

BILLIE: Oh, Job, this is awful! What’s happened to you?

ELLIE: We came as soon as we heard. Everyone at the reunion was talking about it.

MOE: (seriously) Maybe we could start a fundraiser… get you some therapy… some legal advice… a little face cream…

(They settle down by Job, Ellie and Billie on either side of him and Moe standing behind. Billie reaches out to pat Job’s back while his head is in his hands, but decides not to touch him in case he’s contagious. Job is in real pain, itchy and miserable, but trying not to scratch. Eli stands aloof on one side of the bench and pulls out a tome to study, while Satan watches with anticipation from the other side.)

ELLIE: (with decision) Now Job, we’re here to help you. We’re going to dig deep together. We’re going to get inside your head. We’re going to the source of this problem. (She pulls out her phone, ready to get video.)

JOB: What do you mean?

MOE: Confession is good for the soul.

BILLIE: We’re your oldest friends. You can trust us. We won’t tell anyone. (Billie whaps Ellie, and Ellie shoves her phone back into her pocket.)

JOB: (patiently) About what?

ELI: I’m not your oldest friend, but as a fellow seeker of wisdom  -- and correct me if I’m wrong here! -- I think we can both agree that it’s not in God’s nature to act unjustly. Ergo, I think we need to inquire into the root cause of this suffering of yours, and determine: just what did you do?

JOB: Nothing to merit all this.

ELLIE, BILLIE, MOE, AND ELI: (shaking their heads) Oh, Job...

“What Did You Do?”

Come on! Come on! What did you do-wah-doo?
Come on! Come on! What did you do-wah-doo?

Come on and tell us, Job, what did you do? [MOE: What did you do?]
That something so awful should happen to you? [MOE: Happen to you?]
You’re doing the time, Job, so what was the crime?
Oh, Job! What did you do? [MOE: What did you do?]

You had us believing that you were a saint. [MOE: You were a saint!]
We’re so disappointed to find out you ain’t. [MOE: Find out you ain’t.]
So what is the purpose of this masquerade?
Tell us the truth! What did you do?

God wouldn’t punish you without a reason.
Some kind of scandal, some kind of treason.
Examine your conscience, look back on your past.
MOE: Do you owe me money? I just thought I’d ask.

Did you go out on a date with a floozy?
Whatever it was, Job, it must have been a doozy.
What were you thinking? Did it involve drinking?
Oh, Job, what did you do?

God wouldn’t punish you without a reason,
Some kind of scandal, some kind of treason.
Examine your conscience, look back on your past.
MOE: Are you sure about the money? It can’t hurt to ask…. (refrain)

Come on! Come on! What did you do-wah-doo?
Come on! Come on! What did you do-wah-doo?
We are your friends, Job, we care about you!
Tell us the truth, what did you do?

JOB: (bursting out, addressing God since his friends aren’t any help) I wish I’d never been born! Since you’ve turned away from me, at least let me die!

ELLIE: (disappointed that their whole song and dance has been so poorly received) Look, can I say something? You can dish out the philosophy, but you can’t take it. Everyone knows: You reap what you sow, and happy the man God reproves, and all that. I’m just saying: turn away from him, and he turns away from you.

JOB: I have never turned away from God! But how can I live if he sets himself against me? At least I have this one consolation: I’ve never denied him.

BILLIE: But even you have to admit, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. God doesn’t reject the blameless man.

JOB: I know that. But innocent or not, I can’t fight against his strength. (He gets up and moves away from the bench, then turns back.) And if I didn’t keep insisting that I’m innocent, you’d take that as sign of guilt, too. I don’t care if I live or die, if only I could understand why all this is happening! Which of you righteous ones will be my advocate before God and plead my cause?

MOE: You talk a big game, Job, but maybe you’re not as smart as you think. If God had a mind to come down and answer you, you’d remember fast enough what he’s letting you forget now. Come on, brother, how you gonna win if you ain’t right within?

JOB: (bitterly) That’s rich coming from you. Nothing less challenging for a comfortable man than heaping a little scorn on the wretched. I’m a neat little narrative with all the ends tucked in: look what happens to the bad guy!

ELLIE: Well, everyone knows that the wicked never prosper. Listen, I could tell you stories of bad karma all day. (She reaches for her phone.)

JOB: Yes, they do. The wicked prosper all the time! How are we even arguing about that? (Laughs to himself) I could spout off sermons too, if our places were reversed, but could you take my part? (To God) And to add insult to injury, you send idiots to defend you!

BILLIE: (indignantly) Who’s stupid? We’re not the ones making all the excuses. Punishment is for the wicked, Job. Everyone knows that.

MOE: Yeah, that’s why it’s called punishment.

(Job collapses back on the bench.)

ELI: (blurting out of the blue; they’d all forgotten he was there) I’d like to take a turn, if I may. I know I’m young, so I let my elders take the first crack at saying something wise, but just as I suspected, wisdom comes from God, not from old age. (Ellie and Billie glare at him) Now, I’m just a plain-spoken fellow, no fancy words, but I feel like I have a unique insight into the problem of pain. (Eli paces down, holds center stage to pontificate.) You see, Job claims he’s as pure as the new-driven snow. He dares to accuse God of attacking him without giving any cause. But here’s where I’ve found your crucial error: God is so far above us that he speaks in many ways, in dreams and visions, and yes, sometimes in suffering. Exhibit A here. (He gestures to Job, who is almost sobbing in agony.) Now answer me this, if you can: how can God pervert justice? How can you demand he answer you as men do? Your only right before God is to repent and praise him, to meditate on how little you understand. (Job rocks himself. Eli is just getting warmed up.) You need to listen for his voice in the thunder, to contemplate his ineffable majesty…


(Eli shrugs sadly and steps back. His long-winded speech has at least had the effect of softening the other three a bit.)

SATAN: (sees his opening, mock-quoting again) “He stoops to listen when I call.
‘O Lord, I beg you, save my life!’
And he has kept my soul from death,
my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.”
He has not kept your feet from stumbling! He has not kept your eyes from tears! And he will not keep your soul from death! Curse God and end this now!

JOB:  (looks up, to his friends) What have I ever done to any of you, that you turn my misery into a game of gotcha? Is it so hard for you to show me even a sliver of human kindness? Does it offend you if I grieve? (begging) Have pity on me, oh you my friends, for the hand of the Lord has touched me!

(stands) But write this down in your book: I know that my Redeemer lives! And when he comes at last to take up his witness stand on this poor dust, he will call me to himself, and I will see my vindication in the flesh.

Oh God, how long will you leave me in this limbo? How long until you long for the work of your hands?