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

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Past is not a Paradise

Making the rounds lately is an article in Crisis by Professor Anthony Esolen about the fickleness of sexual desire and how teenage boys should respond to being aroused by the masculine body. I don't intend to address the article as a whole; Simcha Fisher fisks it here. Prof. Esolen doesn't appear to think much of women's insight into the world of male sexuality, rather in the vein of the "celibate men" argument about birth control ("If the counselor is a woman, she will know as much about your feelings as I know about being pregnant"), but I think that Fisher's post is a thoughtful and necessary corrective to Esolen's nostalgia for the days of brotherly love expressed by football and coal mining.

Indeed, it is that short-sighted nostalgia that we've addressed in the past in regards to Esolen's writing, and as this is tech week and I'm short on time, I'll re-run a post from 2012 responding to his particular image of Catholic courtship of days of yore.


More Marriage, or More Virtuous Marriage?

Making the rounds lately has been Anthony Esolen's article on how to mend declining marriage rates, which asks, "Where are we nudging [the youth] gently along toward marriage and the sweetness of that life?":
It’s been more than ten years since I first noticed something odd about the generally pleasant—and generally Catholic—students at the college where I teach.  The boys and girls don’t hold hands.
Let that serve as shorthand for the absence of all those rites of attraction and conversation, flirting and courting, that used to be passed along from one youthful generation to the next, just as childhood games were once passed along, but are so no longer.  The boys and girls don’t hold hands. 
I am aware of the many attempts by responsible Catholic priests and laymen to win the souls of young people, to keep them in the Church, and indeed to make some of them into attractive ambassadors for the Church. I approve of them heartily. Yes, we need those frank discussions about contraception. We need theological lectures to counter the regnant nihilism of the schools and the mass media. But we need something else too, something more human and more fundamental. We need desperately to reintroduce young men and young women to the delightfulness of the opposite sex. Just as boys after fifteen years of being hustled from institutional pillar to institutional post no longer know how to make up their own games outdoors, just as girls after fifteen years of the same no longer know how to organize a dance or a social, so now our young people not only refrain from dating and courting—they do not know how to do it. It isn’t happening. Look at the hands.
I don't accept the lack of handholding as shorthand for the rise of these dire trends, actually, but let that pass. The question posed by the essay is how we can reestablish these social conventions and rites of courtship and flirting that were prevalent in days of yore in which marriage rates were higher and average age of marriage was lower, "when Wally Cleaver was wearing a jacket and tie to join other boys and girls at a party, for playing records and eating ice cream and dancing".

Just as many overlook that underlying the edifice of the vibrant culture of family life in the 1950s was a deeply unstable moral foundation which was a direct contributor to the widespread acceptance of changing sexual and social mores in the 1960s, so many Catholics sigh for the romanticism of earlier eras in which relations between the sexes were more defined and regulated without considering that the climbing divorce rates of later years and decades were fueled at least in part by the dissolution of some of these marriages. The question should be, though: do these external features actually function to produce not just higher rates of marriage but better marriages?

Brandon takes exception to the sentimentality of Esolen's article:

People look upstream to Austenesque visions of earlier stages, where negotiating for good bargains was still more sharply bound by concerns of familial and sexual honor, and dating, while freer, looks like cheap imitation; they look downstream to the consensual market open for all, and dating, while safer, looks stifling and arbitrary. Unless conditions are just right, dating culture will always start looking like a bad compromise. The primary problem with the state in which we are increasingly finding ourselves, the anything-harmless-goes stage, is not that it's not dating, but that anything-harmless-goes inevitably breaks down as people find they cannot agree on what's really harmless. And then people start trying to keep order by intimidation and manipulation, because that's all that's really left. We know this is how it all goes down, and we've always known that this is how it works, because these tendencies are already found in every society, just in different proportions and under different conditions. 
Dating, in short, is a low standard. For that matter, Austenesque Regency marriages are a low standard, for reasons Austen herself depicts quite clearly. The only relations between the sexes that matter are relations based on pursuit of virtue, which are both more free and more honorable than all the other options on the table. And the only possible thing that you can do to bring those about is to strive for virtue yourself and show proper respect for the particular cases you happen to come across in others. Everything else is arbitrary convention and the Goddess Fortune. [emphasis mine]
There's something charmingly retro about calling for the return of dances and social structures that throw men and women together, but Church-sanctioned socials or what-have-you, while (as Brandon points out) a lovely way to build community, can be an excuse for pushing out onto others the responsibility for virtuous marriages, whereas personal virtue is a change that starts right now, instantly, in the choices one makes every moment, in how one relates to every person one meets, man or woman. Unless relations between the sexes, and between individual men and women, are truly regulated by the pursuit of virtue and the full recognition of the dignity of all people (and this person with whom one is interacting, in particular), even Catholic social clubs and shindigs and family dances become a kind of marriage market-lite, with all the flirting, rating, and labeling that goes on in more secular venues.

I've pounded this drum before, but I do take great exception to Esolen's insistence that people need to be getting married younger. This is not because I'm opposed to early marriage, but because it is something that is generally not within the control of anyone to procure. It's sheer folly to declare, "I'm going to get married young!", without reference to a particular other person one wants to marry (and who wants to marry one). Doubtless he's referring to the cultural phenomenon of upwardly mobile young men and women who think that they must achieve certain educational and career and personal goals before even considering marriage, but it so, the answer would seem to lie in more evangelical methods of promoting the beauty of marriage than Church-based socials, as those are probably going to draw their attendance from a different demographic.

There has to be a mean for modern Catholics between Esolen's sugar-glazed nostalgia for "boys climbing the mountains to pick edelweiss for their sweethearts" and the oddly ahistorical assertion that "a whole mode of being has been lost, a mode of being that in every culture but our own produces a wealth of beauty, and sweeps young people along with its strong tide, into marriage and a world of families," on the one hand; and on the other, Brandon's rather cynical observation that "one of the more baffling elements of American Catholic culture is gripey passivity, an intense insistence that something must be done, beyond which nothing actually ever happens, except that sometimes various people are blamed." Contra Esolen, I don't think the problem is simply that "We need desperately to reintroduce young men and young women to the delightfulness of the opposite sex." We need desperately to reintroduce young and old men and women to the delightfulness of every human person, to the very real and intensely practical implications of every single person being made in the image and likeness of God. One of the best preparations for and witnesses toward marriage is not the mere participation in customs that may have produced superficial results in previous times, but in living a real charity toward each unique person who makes up God's family, regardless of venue, in anticipation of the day when He might give you one of your own.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Darwiniana: Wall Edition

I write a long post because I don't have time to write a short post.

Why no posts, Darwins? Because I am holding up the local theater scene while Darwin builds a wall. These are two mostly unrelated jobs, and the wall is not directed at me, nor at immigrants from the nation to the south (from which Darwin bears half his genetic heritage, so just laugh because it's a joke, okay), but at the slope in the front yard which just makes no sense, landscapingwise.

Here's the first stage. Darwin spent last Saturday digging out the foundation (a wag: "This is taking your interest in trench warfare too far") and spent Saturday evening sleeping it off.

The wall begins to emerge from the primordial lawn, bringing order to chaos.

Young Jack inspects the progress. Our mums wilt peacefully in the background.

Yesterday morning the kids and I took our turns in the manual labor department. Our goal was to level the terrace before the rain started. We packed the trench behind the wall with fill and wood chips left from when the trees were taken down (a sad necessity undertaken to preserve neighborly relations by protecting the neighborly roof from falling branches). We tamped and pick-axed and shoveled, and when the rain started, I stayed out with two helpers to rake the bed as level as possible. I was in the flow. I kept working despite the children who came out every 15 seconds to inform me that the baby was hungry, Mom, and can't you hear your son crying, Mom? and the baby needs you, Mooooom. This is how it is. You're actually doing a good, necessary thing, and you're doing it well, but humans take priority. Our shoes were too muddy to bring into the house, so there's quite a pile of footwear on the back porch.

Not quite finished, but not too shabby either. The last course of stone needs to be laid, the top bed and lawn both need to be tilled, and the grass seed and bulbs planted. Next spring we'll plant some decorative trees to replace the one lost when the trunk of the tree being removed fell and crushed it. And Darwin has drawn up a color-coded map to show where all the bulbs should be planted, so that we'll never have to worry again about spring planting. One and done -- that's my kind of gardening project.


But MrsDarwin, you say! Aren't you and Darwin supposed to be writing a series about NFP? Why are you wasting your precious writing time telling us about your wall, or your play, or your family? Because, my friends, that writing requires thought and concentration, and this writing does not. And anyway, I'm don't have to think about NFP at this moment because a) baby is only three months old, and even I have nursing infertility at three months, and b) because we're currently using the most effective form of conception avoidance possible: being in different states. Darwin is off at his yearly pricing conference right now, and I am holding down the fort for a week. The good news: it's not tech week yet, and our Wednesday and Thursday rehearsals were canceled due to school kids needing to school. The bad news, perhaps: I have to take all seven kids to rehearsal tonight, because two of them are in the show (and baby always comes), and although my 11yo is a fine upstanding girl, I'm not sure about leaving her in charge of three younger siblings until 9:30. This should go well, I hope, if only my 3yo will sit and watch the show and not run bellowing around the space. St. Genesius, pray for us.

Conference week is always interesting around here. Usually the first day goes efficiently, the second day less so, and then it all falls apart and the house gradually disintegrates until Darwin comes back. I don't function well without Darwin. I'm kind of a hot mess as a single mother, and I pray that God preserves me from this state as a permanent necessity. In fact, I pray that Darwin and I will just turn into trees at the same moment and be preserved forever in a loving embrace. Then our children can build the walls and try to get workmen out to fix the wood trim and repair the garbage disposal and patch the plaster and inspect the furnace. Or they could just sell the house, hopefully at a profit since our fine wall will raise the value so much. Houses, bodies, children -- so much maintenance, so little time.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Pennsylvania Avenue

I've been doing a lot of driving along Pennsylvania Avenue recently. It's the northernmost border of our neighborhood, and the old part of town. When I turn onto it, I go by the county fairgrounds, a development of shabby townhouses, a drive-thru mart, and, past the train tracks, the middle school and the orthodontist.

I don't drive past the orthodontist much, actually. It seems like I live there. Last week my 11-year-old started her second round of braces. Today my 7-year-old had spacers put in, to make room for the brackets in a week or so. God smiled upon us and finally allowed her snaggleteeth to fall out over this past weekend, which means that the money we save on having them extracted can be rolled right back into orthodontia. I feel we are minor royalty at the office, having contributed a fair amount to the salaries of everyone there.

But if I drive past the orthodontist, I make several turns and continue on a few miles to the YMCA, where our weekend play practices are held. Perhaps you are not aware that this post is written by an upstanding member of the chorus of Hairspray (also with a minor speaking role as the Gym Teacher). I sing, I act, I tap dance unwieldily, as befits one who was nine months pregnant 13 weeks ago. My oldest daughters are also in the cast, and audiences will take more aesthetic enjoyment from watching them trip the light fantastic. Fortunately Hairspray is a show that is based around teenagers dancing, so the oldsters like me can fade into the background and do what we love, which is singing harmony.

Coming to rehearsals with me is young Pog, who also came with me to auditions five months ago under the guise of my distended stomach. I wasn't planning to try out, because I didn't love Hairspray all that much, and anyway, I'm no great shakes at dancing most of the time, but especially not at seven months pregnant. But everyone was getting up on stage and singing out their auditions, and I started getting the itch that all theater people know: the urge to be up there in the thick of it, playing a role. Finally I could stand it no longer. I turned in my form, sang "Turn Back O Man" a cappella, and channeled my best Harvey Fierstein (not to be confused with Harvey Weinstein) in cold readings. And lo! I got a part, because community theater is the best that way.

As I say, Pog attends rehearsals. He is our mascot. Everyone loves him and takes turns holding him when I need to go on stage. Being the youngest of seven children, he's very mellow about being handed from person to person. He's such a good boy, and so considerate. Tonight he actually slept through the entire rehearsal, from 6:30 to 9:00. Of course, he was up smiling and cooing until 11:00 after that, but we have to make sacrifices for our art.

And I hope you will all come see our show, November 3, 4, and 5 in the Merchants' Building at the fairgrounds off Pennsylvania Avenue.

Since Pennsylvania Avenue is on our way to rehearsal, we've been picking up the young actor who plays Seaweed Stubbs. He's a fellow with a golden voice and a smooth way of moving, and we recognized him immediately when we saw him walking along the side of the road, trying to hitch a ride to rehearsal. His bike tire had gone flat. We picked him up (and on the way home, retrieved the bike), and have been going it together ever since. He lives in the townhouses off of Pennsylvania Avenue, but it's easiest for us to pick him up in the parking lot of the drive-thru mart on the other side of the road. And that's what we were doing on Saturday, turning into that parking lot as he walked toward the car, when I saw the flashing lights of a police cruiser pulling in behind me.

Our young black friend got in the car, sat very still, and, as the officer approached, held his hands in the air in plain sight.

The officer said he'd booked me going 37 in a 25 mph zone, which I had to take his word for, and asked how long it had been since I'd had a speeding ticket. I didn't know; years and years. If he checked and found that I had a clear record, he'd let me go with a written warning. As we waited, we chatted with our friend. He joked that he didn't know whether the policeman was coming for us or for him.

His hands were still in the air.

I got my written warning and we drove off.

"I'm sorry for putting you in that position," I said to Seaweed. "If he'd pulled me over before I pulled in here, you wouldn't have had to worry."

"Don't worry, it's cool," he said. But his hands had been in the air the whole time.

Later I got to wondering. I'd been driving Darwin's nice commuter car instead of the huge family van I usually take around. I wasn't the only one driving down Pennsylvania Avenue going an easy speed on a Sunday afternoon. But I was the one in a sleek silver car pulling over to pick up a black teenager in the parking lot of the drive-thru mart across the street from the shabby townhouses.

Next time we go to rehearsal at the YMCA, I'll take the two extra minutes to drive right to my friend's door and pick him up there. And I'll watch my speed. I don't ever want to be the cause again of a young man sitting rigid with his hands in air, wondering if today is the day.

This morning I drove home from the orthodontist with my 7-year-old daughter and my three sons, ages 9, 3, and three months. My boys are unlikely to ever feel that they need to keep their hands in the air when a policeman approaches the car. Like me, they'll probably be able to sigh and rummage for their license and registration, feeling no more than frustrated at the timing of it all. For them, flashing lights and sirens are merely fun. I listened to them chat as I drove down Pennsylvania Avenue past the fairgrounds at the speed of traffic. My speedometer told me that traffic was going 35. I slowed down.

Tonight we drove Seaweed home from rehearsal in the big van. We dropped him at his door and waited to make sure he got in safely. Safety first, on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Friday, October 13, 2017

NFP and Authority

Melinda Selmys writing at the blog Catholic Authenticity has a post up which she says will be the first of several laying out her thoughts on NFP and the Catholic Church's moral teachings dealing with contraception, thoughts she intends to turn into a book when they are fully formed.

In this initial post, the primary problems are not, actually, with her assessment of NFP per se, but rather with how she approaches Catholic teaching. She begins with what she says she originally thought to the justification for the Church's prohibition on birth control (and allowing of NFP.)

I’ve been promising forever to write a book about NFP. It got massively derailed a couple of months back, basically because I hit major stumbling block: one of my major theses had, up to that point, been that the burdens that Catholic couples are often called upon to bear as a result of the Church’s teaching were justified by a set of larger concerns. Basically, that we were being asked to shoulder a heavy cross because of the magnitude of the issues at stake. The breakdown of the family. The increasing vilification of children as a “burden on the planet.” Widespread abortion. The reality of eugenics, which would have been a very concrete and grave issue for Paul VI and other churchmen of his generation.

The argument, as it ran in my head, was that a strong statement needed to be made because otherwise it would be impossible to take an effective stand against these other problems. Frankly, I’m pretty well able to get my head around the idea that the involuntary sterilization of the disabled, the extermination of the Downs’ community in utero, and the impoverishment and isolation of women and children as a result of “sexual liberation,” are all much greater forms of suffering than struggling with NFP. And so long as I thought these were the issues at stake, I was okay with the idea of being told that I had to take my place on the front lines, and to hold my position for as long as was humanly possible.

The author intends this as a "here was the good reason I thought the Church had before I realized the real motivation" view, but I'd argue that this is actually hugely problematic. Think about what's being suggested here, that the Church taught that using contraception was wrong in order to send a symbolic message rejecting the various evils common in the culture relating to sexuality. This, however, would be a utilitarian rationale: We need to send a strong message about sexuality, so we're going to announce that using contraception is a sin as a symbolic gesture to make a point.

Now, many people have said that the Church's teaching is in fact a powerful symbol of opposition to the culture's degraded understanding of sexuality. That may be true. But that isn't the reason for the teaching. It is, if anything, a sort of side benefit.

Keep in mind, the Church does not tell us not to use contraception as a useful discipline. It is not like the command to do some penance (such as not eating meat) on Fridays. The Church says that using contraception is intrinsically evil, an action wrong in and of itself. (Other examples of intrinsic evils include lying, torture, rape, and abortion.) If the Church said this not because it believed that using contraception was wrong but rather to make a rhetorical point, the Church would be acting falsely and viciously. Indeed, if the Church were to do this while claiming to exercise her solemn teaching office, the Church would prove herself to be something other than what the Church claims to be. The Church would be false.

I don't think that Selmys has followed this line of reasoning through to that conclusion. After all, this is the explanation for the Church's teaching which she thought was reasonable. But as she charts her disillusion it's important to see the problems with the starting point and with a vision of the leaders of the Church sitting down and saying to themselves, "Hmm. We need to make some big gesture showing how everything is wrong with the modern world's approach to sexuality. I know! Let's say that using contraception is a sin!"

Selmys continues:

So, I wanted to get historical support for this thesis and naturally my research led me to the Papal Birth Control Commission.

And that’s when the I totally lost my shit.

Because the bottom line for the guys who seemed to be responsible for the decision to promulgate the teaching as it was promulgated wasn’t any of those important issues that I mentioned above. They got a mention, sure, but there were actually reasonably good arguments put forward on the other side to suggest that the Church’s ability to effectively combat the evils described above was actually going to be compromised by an overly absolutist approach to contraception.
They spelled out the reason quite explicitly in their minority report:

If it should be declared that contraception is not evil in itself, then we should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930 [when Casti Connubii was promulgated] and in 1951.

It should likewise have to be admitted that for a half a century the Spirit failed to protect Pius XI, Pius XII, and a large part of the Catholic hierarchy from a very serious error. This would mean that the leaders of the Church, acting with extreme imprudence, had condemned thousands of innocent human acts, forbidding, under pain of eternal damnation, a practice which would now be sanctioned. The fact can neither be denied nor ignored that these same acts would now be declared licit on the grounds of principles cited by the Protestants, which Popes and Bishops have either condemned, or at least not approved.

In other words: if we admitted that we were wrong it would make us look bad, it would make the Protestants look good, and it would undermine our authority.

That was the bottom line. Not abortion. Not the casual and irresponsible use of women for men’s sexual gratification outside of marriage. Not eugenics. But the authority of men who do not ever have to bear the brunt of the teaching.

What we have here, I would argue, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Church's function is in transmitting Christian doctrine. Selmys finds it shocking that those on the papal commission who wrote the minority report said the Church could not declare the use of contraception moral when the Church had previously taught it to be immoral. However, contrary to what many outside (and some inside) the Church seem to believe, the Church does not decide matters of doctrine. Rather, the Church was founded by Christ in order to preserve and pass on His teachings through all history. To aid in this, Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would protect the Church from teaching error.

If the Church at one time taught that using contraception was immoral, and then later taught that it was moral, the Church would be directly contradicting itself. This is not like some human institution changing its policy on an issue. It's not a matter of those "in power" not wanting to end up with egg on their face and admit they were wrong. Given the Church's self understanding, if the Church were to directly contradict its past teaching, the Church would basically render itself void. Those tasked with the Church's teaching authority thus understand that part of the work that they are called to do in preserving and transmitting Christ's teaching to the world is, when examining some question, to determine whether the proposed teaching would contradict past teaching in some way or whether it would simply serve as a clearer application of what has always been taught.

When the papal commission on contraception examined the topic, both the majority (pro contraception) and minority (anti contraception) group realized this. The majority tried to argue that modern means of contraception and a modern understanding of sexuality and fertility in the context of a married couple's overall lifetime, was such that the Church could approve the use of contraception without contradicting past teaching. The minority argued that this was not the case. Paul VI evidently sided with the minority.

So when the minority argued that to approve contraception would contradict past teaching, it was not engaging in some sort of face-saving operation. It was doing what Christ commissioned the Church to do: preserving his teachings unchanged.

If we assert, as Selmys suggests, that "the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930 [when Casti Connubii was promulgated] and in 1951" we're basically asserting that the Catholic Church is not what it says it is, that it does not authentically transmit the true doctrines of Christ when it teaches on matters of faith and morals. Because, again, according to the Church's self understanding, it is not at liberty to simply make doctrines up. The Church is not a debating society in which people examine the available evidence, decide what is probably true, and promulgate that as a doctrine. The Church has the authority only to preserve and explicate the truth which was given to it by Christ.

This question of how the Church arrives upon an understanding of doctrine relates to another issue which upsets Selmys:
More distressingly, many of the proponents of the traditional teaching, at one time or another, openly admitted that the natural law arguments they were using didn’t actually hold up to rational scrutiny. And we have records of private correspondence showing that they were more than willing to engage in a certain amount of Machiavellian political maneuvering in order to get their agenda pushed through.

For me, this was extremely distressing.
One of the things that attracted me to the Catholic faith in the first place, and that solidified my Catholic identity in the period immediately after my conversion, was the constant claim of Catholic apologists that the faith was fundamentally rational. That if you were only willing to honestly follow the argument with good will, you would arrive at the conclusions put forward by the Church. The realization that the teaching on contraception had been promulgated and promoted by people who knew that the argumentation did not actually hold water meant that on a fundamental level this teaching did not result from a commitment to following an argument in good faith.

Now, supposedly that was okay because the Holy Spirit could guide the leaders of the Church to infallibly promulgate true conclusions out of faulty argumentation. Right out of the gate, that’s a bit of a swallow for me because it seems to undermine the claim that faith is reconcilable with reason. Reason will always reject a conclusion once the premises are found to be false. It may return to that conclusion later, should other evidence be found to substantiate it, but to simply barrel on through on the assumption that better proofs are sure to show up eventually is just a blatant exercise in the kind of irrational faith that atheists rightly complain about.

But again, the function of the Church is not to think its way to some exciting new doctrines based on really good arguments. The Church does not invent doctrines at all, its job is merely to preserve and clarify them. This can at times mean that the Church will find itself in the position of defending true doctrines with bad arguments. The Holy Spirit does not protect the Church from making bad arguments, just from teaching false doctrine. And because the Church is not the inventor of doctrine, the truth of the doctrine itself is not dependent of the ability of the Church to explain why a particular doctrine is true.

Think about other moral doctrines.  It is a doctrine of the Catholic Church that marriage can only exist between one man and one woman.  Polygamy is wrong.  Marrying someone of your own sex is wrong.  Are the arguments for these doctrines good and convincing?  Some people may believe that they are, some may believe they are not.  We do believe that these moral laws are available to human reason.  It is possible for someone, using natural reason, to come to an understanding of how marriage should properly be between only two people and only people of the opposite sex.  However, the fact that these truths are available to human reason does not necessarily mean that the path will be obvious to all people at all time.  And while the Church is promised the ability to preserve these true teachings, it is by no means assured that the very human people who are serving as the shepherds of God's flock at any given time will successfully identify and deploy the arguments which will be convincing to the great mass of people at any given time.

Is the faith fundamentally rational?  Yes, it is.  It is, first of all, not contrary to reason.  We do not assert mutually contradictory things as true.  The Church will not tell you to believe X and Not-X simultaneously.  (Indeed, it is precisely to avoid this sort of contradiction that the Church looks carefully to avoid contradicting itself, as the minority report did in the preparation of Humanae Vitae.)  However, the fact that the faith is rational does not necessarily mean that each and every person, with that person's biases and experiences, will find the necessary arguments to prove to himself the doctrines of the faith from first principles. 

I want to write a couple posts in collaboration with MrsDarwin addressing some of the actual points about NFP which were brought up in this post and others by Selmys and some of her circle.  However, with this post in particular, it seems to me that the biggest issue is not in fact NFP or contraception, but the very question of the Church's doctrinal authority. 

Monday, October 09, 2017

Book Review: The Weeping Time

I don't have time to accept many book review requests, but I was glad that I got the chance to read The Weeping Time by Anne C. Bailey, coming out at the end of this month from Cambridge University Press. The book is a detailed study of the largest slave auction which is recorded in US history: 436 people (including some mothers with infants just a few weeks old) sold off on March 2nd and 3rd, 1859 in the process of liquidating much of the estate of Pierce Butler Jr. of the Butler Plantation.

To be sold at auction, and separated from family and community, was one of the many recurring cruelties of the slave regime in America, but this event stood particularly large in the histories of the people who were put up for auction on those two days because the Butler estate had prior to this been known for never selling its slaves. The same enslaved families had lived on the Georgia sea island estates for generations, and even spoke their own semi-separate dialect infused with words and structures from their native West Africa.

Bailey, a professor of history and Africana studies at Binghamton University SUNY, makes this history all the more fascinating by keeping her focus so close. We meet Jeffrey and Dorcas, a young couple in love. Jeffrey is sold for $1,310 on the first day and tries to persuade his new master to buy Dorcas so that they can stay together. He first makes a personal appeal (that they love each other, will be true servants, and will have many healthy children for him) which gets no traction, then takes another approach telling him of what a prime rice hand she is, easily worth $1,200. His buyer seems persuaded by this approach, but then at the last moment Dorcas is included with a family of four for a single price, and the buyer loses interest. As the auctioneer's hammer falls, separating Dorcas from him forever, Jeffrey pulls off his hat, drops to his knees, and weeps.

Another young couple, Dembo and Frances, aged twenty and nineteen, manage to pull off a coup: finding a minister among the buyers attending the auction they persuade him to marry them. They are then sold as a lot together, for $1,320 each, to a cotton planter from Alabama, separated from their extended families but able to remain together.

We have these details about the auction itself because Mortimer Thompson, a northern reporter, posed as a buyer at the auction and then wrote a detailed account for the New York Tribune. Coming as it did less than three years before the Civil War was to break out and four years before the emancipation proclamation, the story of the slaves put up for auction (some of whom would return to the area of the Butler Estate after the Civil War in order to find loved ones they had been separated from in the auction) is closely entangled with the escalating tensions over slavery in the United States. The sale itself was itself in some ways tied up with the debate over slavery. Pierce Butler Jr. lived in Philadelphia most of his life and lived of the proceeds of the slave plantations he inherited in Georgia. In Philadelphia he gambled and spent away his money, and also married British actress Fanny Kemble. Kemble was strongly anti-slavery and wrote about her visit to Butler's plantation. Her opposition to slavery was one of the several differences cited in their divorce, which was one step on the road to Butler's eventual financial collapse and the sale of his estate.

The Weeping Time provides a ground level view into slavery as it shaped the lives of the specific people on this estate, from their ancestry on the rice coast of Africa, to their generations of enslavement on the Butler estate, to the sudden disruption of their lives due to the financial misfortunes of an absentee owner. It's a fairly quick read at 175 pages, and does an important service of making this history about people rather than just "the peculiar institution" in some abstract sense.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

When Ideology is Blind to Truth

My friend Leah Libresco Sargeant is not a fan of guns and has never shot one. She's also a person who cares deeply about truth and understanding. And she helped with reporting for FiveThirtyEight's well done study on gun deaths in America a while back. (A new FiveThirtyEight piece today refers back to that study and talks about how mass killings are different from the vast majority of gun deaths in the US, and thus addressing one is not necessarily a way to address the other.)

For all these reasons I was stuck by this tweet from Leah yesterday:

Needless to say, as a gun aficionado I myself tend to find a lot of what gun control advocates say both unpersuasive and riddled with errors. But if someone like Leah who doesn't like guns feels that she was actively misled about the topic (while still not liking them and wishing people did not want to own them) that indicates a problem with a lot of what gun control advocates say.

This is not, however, a post about how gun control advocates are wrong. I think that would be a somewhat insensitive post to write at this particular moment, when a lot of the calls for immediate action are in fact calls of pain and emotion which should be treated as such. There is not much more aggravating than to express one's deeply felt emotions and have someone come back insensitively with a "Well, actually..." response.

What I'd like to think about here for a moment is why this is. Why is it that so many people who do indeed care deeply about reducing suffering and violence (and I honestly think they do -- I do not think that most gun control advocates are simply tyrannical gun grabbers out to take away people's freedom because they dislike it) say things about guns and gun laws that are factually untrue, and do so repeatedly when the answers are not even that hard to find?

I think the answer has to do with the tendency to distrust and discount the humanity of our opponents on highly contentious issues. Leah's husband Alexi Sargeant wrote a good piece for First Things a few months ago entitled "Pro-Life, Pro-Truth" where he talked about the importance of those in the pro-life movement not allowing themselves to make and repeat arguments based on claims that aren't true or are at the least exaggerated.

We must treat truth, like an unborn child, as an innocent under threat. If we persist in the metaphor of “culture war” to describe the fights over abortion and related issues, then we must wage it as a just culture war, in which virtue is as indispensable as valor, and compassion for our opponents more important than rallying our allies with rhetorical overkill.

I am not talking only about avoiding flagrant fibs. Our responsibility to truth includes a responsibility to use statistics in a conscientious way, without being glib or misleading. Like any savvy debater using data, we should double-check statistics that seem too convenient for our cause, and triple-check any from a partisan source friendly to us.

Crisis pregnancy centers and pro-life women’s health care organizations do a lot of good work helping uninsured women get care. But they sometimes succumb to the temptation to overstate the statistical connection between abortion and clinical depression—rather than simply share stories of real women experiencing post-abortion grief, they exaggerate the pervasiveness of the condition beyond what mental health studies show.

Another example which occurred to me was Senator Kyle's famously "not a factual statement" that abortion is more than 90% of what Planned Parenthood does. Of course, people often throw around terms like "ninety percent" in a colloquial fashion, but it was particularly unfortunate to have such a high profile stumble on this topic because Planned Parenthood does indeed routinely misrepresent how large a portion of their services abortion represents.

I don't think that pro-lifers intentionally pass on misleading information. However, because we know that abortion is evil, when some study or quote comes along that seems to agree with our belief that abortion is evil we are inclined to believe it without checking much. Additionally, because we believe that abortion is evil, it's easy to see the people who support abortion as evil or dishonest, and so if rebuttals to a claim we see that reflects badly on abortion mostly come from people who are pro-abortion, we're not likely to take them as seriously. If they're evil people out to support evil actions, why should we listen to what they say?

Needless to say, this problem is hardly restricted to one side. Why is it that obvious untruths like the claim that an unborn baby is "just a clump of cells" rather than a separate living individual are so easily passed around on the pro-choice side? Again, because the claim is heard from people they trust and the opposite claims (when the heart begins to beat, when brain activity is detected, etc.) are most often heard in the political arena from those who are anti-abortion.

The gun debate, and likely many others if we sat down and thought up a list, is subject to these same dynamics. People who are in favor of gun control are often prey to simplistic and just plain wrong claims about how guns work, what the current law allows, or what sort of gun deaths could be prevented by various "common sense" gun measures that have been proposed. People who know and use guns can easily see through these claims, but so could people who don't like guns if they took the time to do basic research rather than repeating whatever sounds true. It's necessary for people to listen to the other side in these contentious debates and do basic research if they are to avoid undercutting their own beliefs by repeating obvious falsehoods.

UPDATE: Leah expanded on her thoughts in a WaPo opinion piece that just went up.