— Culture —

February 21, 2013

Summarizing Acculturated's Symposium on Manliness

Marc Comtois

I stumbled across the Acculturated web site a couple weeks ago and found their Symposium on Manliness to be an interesting read. They used a piece by Kay Hymowitz as a jumping off point:

Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. This “pre-adulthood” has much to recommend it, especially for the college-educated. But it’s time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: It doesn’t bring out the best in men....It’s no exaggeration to say that having large numbers of single young men and women living independently, while also having enough disposable income to avoid ever messing up their kitchens, is something entirely new in human experience. Yes, at other points in Western history young people have waited well into their 20s to marry, and yes, office girls and bachelor lawyers have been working and finding amusement in cities for more than a century. But their numbers and their money supply were always relatively small. Today’s pre-adults are a different matter. They are a major demographic event.

What also makes pre-adulthood something new is its radical reversal of the sexual hierarchy. Among pre-adults, women are the first sex. They graduate from college in greater numbers (among Americans ages 25 to 34, 34% of women now have a bachelor’s degree but just 27% of men), and they have higher GPAs. As most professors tell it, they also have more confidence and drive. These strengths carry women through their 20s, when they are more likely than men to be in grad school and making strides in the workplace. In a number of cities, they are even out-earning their brothers and boyfriends.

Still, for these women, one key question won’t go away: Where have the good men gone?

The character Ron Swanson (played by Nick Offerman) from Parks and Recreation is mentioned by R.J. Moeller. (Incidentally, Swanson is a character that has been embraced by libertarian/conservatives even though he is an obvious attempt to lampoon their beliefs. Two points: 1) Good humor always contains truth; 2) Surprise! We can laugh at ourselves.)

Moeller contrasts the fictional Swanson with some young hipster males of today:

...there are manly things. We just don’t seem to prize them anymore, and this is, in part, because they are not easy to obtain and require hard work to maintain.

Why does someone like Nick Offerman, the actor who portrays the beloved (and hilarious) Ron Swanson...stand out in such an intriguing and ironic way? Because he’s a man. Being a man is now “intriguing and ironic.”

I happened to catch a recent episode of The Nerdist podcast and the three uber-nerds who host the show (all post-thirty, unmarried dudes) were chatting with actor Jason Schwartzman (who has made a living playing the effeminate, hapless loser in multiple films) about how they were all fascinated by Nick Offerman and “just how manly and commanding he is in person.”

Even these four dainty dopes sitting around in Ms. Pac-Man t-shirts recognized he had something they didn’t–and they wanted whatever that was. Of course they didn’t want it badly enough to put down their light sabres and head to the lumber yard or Scottish caber toss competition with Mr. Offerman, but the fact remains that when confronted with traditional manliness, they were attracted to it. Yet the safety of their nerd-nest, the delusional world where weeping outside an Apple store when the stranger who invented your iPod dies, won out because they knew there’d be no judging from the legions of other man-boys running around these days.

Mark Judge picks up on the nerd theme to argue that we are raising too many specialists and not enough Renaissance men (and women) these days:

Continue reading "Summarizing Acculturated's Symposium on Manliness"

January 2, 2013

Things We Read Today (45), Wednesday

Justin Katz

Feeling hopeful, RI?; "top priority" is shown, not stated; RI gets fatherless children first; surviving sans regulation; surviving sans net income; and surviving sans a documented framework for working together.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

December 26, 2012

The Soul That Needs Searching for the True Liberals

Justin Katz

This week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is an apt one for thinking on a grand scale — of the where-we’ve-been-and-where-we-must-go variety. Essays in that vein fill the tabs on my open browser window, and as is often the case, most of them come from the center-right’s great aggregator and one-line editorialist Glenn Reynolds.

Three that seem particularly closely related are by men whose first names very narrowly miss being one of life’s quotidian, cosmic coincidences: Roger Kimball, Roger L. Simon, and Robert Kaplan.

Mr. Kimball sets the table, writing about the shirked responsibility of our cultural institutions “to act as ambassadors linking the wisdom of the past with the requirements of the present in such a way that we could build responsibly for the future." As Thomas Sowell writes, in another of my open tabs, “The more I study the history of intellectuals, the more they seem like a wrecking crew, dismantling civilization bit by bit — replacing what works with what sounds good.”

If we separate out that huge number of people who consider themselves to be “liberals,” but who, going about their lives, aren’t deeply involved in intellectual definition of what liberalism requires them to believe, we are left with the collection of “progressives.” “Progress,” a dictionary may remind us, assumes a value judgment of which direction is forward, and the intellectuals of the political Left are only too happy to supply the answer.

Continue reading no the Ocean State Current...

December 17, 2012

Things We Read Today (42), Weekend

Justin Katz

The lesson of current events and history; what the 2nd Amendment means; what that means for change; government control and healthcare insecurity; government control and economic stagnation; a couple positive notes.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

December 15, 2012

Re: Looking for Reasons

Monique Chartier

Under Justin's post about the unspeakable attack in a Connecticut elementary school, Joe Bernstein makes the following comment.

How about this Adam Lanza was an evil little f**ker?Maybe he was mentally ill also, but the overwhelming majority of mentally ill people aren't a danger to anyone except for themselves.

Connecticut has very stringent gun laws including some kind of assault weapons ban which obviously didn't prevent this.

I really resent foreign nationals like Piers Morgan and Martin Bashir ranting at us on OUR national networks about banning guns. They are resident aliens-guests-and yet feel comfortable lecturing us. Maybe they'd like a lecture on their ridiculous system of royalty and House of Lords and titled inbreds. I've been in the UK and saw some good things and some really bad things, but I wouldn't presume to dress them down in their own country.

I can't imagine the grief of the families of these children and school personnel murdered senselessly or the horrible effects on the first responders.

Maybe the major media that vomits out nonstop gratuitous violence on tv, film and above all, video games, for profit ought to do some soul searching, but they lack any soul. And the disgusting reality shows that dehumanize people and exploit human failings for fun and profit.

Depicting violence and human weakness certainly has a place in art and literature and in film, too-but we are subjected to way too much over the line cr*p.

In real war, there is no "start over" button. People that get f**ked up stay that way.

What a miserable situation this is-and we hate feeling helpless, but there isn't much that can be done - maybe armed security in schools. Hell, we guard armored cars full of money with firearms - our children are far more precious.

Looking for Reasons

Justin Katz

There are no words to capture the horror of the school shooting, this morning, in Western Connecticut. Beyond the wave of raw emotion that nobody who hears the news can fail to feel, there isn't ultimately one thing on which to focus that emotion. Things that go so terribly wrong have a multitude of causes, and a society's perspective on addressing each one has a distant reach — different principles and boundaries of appropriateness and inviolability.

So, some people turn to tears and gratitude that the whims of fate haven't touched them in a certain way, thus far. Some look to name the illness that is necessarily behind a final snap. Some rush to blame the circumstances, whether the security of a school or the instruments of the act, in this case, guns.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

December 10, 2012

The Self-Censorship of the Community and a Loss of Rights

Justin Katz

This is quite a thing to read, in a region and a nation that prides itself on tolerance and freedoms of expression and religion. A Tiverton family has spent recent years investing in a spectacular show of Christmas lights on their house, to the extent that they're finding the visitor traffic to be an opportunity for charitable collections.

Asked about the national news that Rhode Island's governor, Lincoln Chafee, has made by doggedly and ineptly refusing to call the festive tree in the State House a "Christmas tree," here's their response to Providence Journal reporter Richard Dujardin:

... the couple acknowledged that they, too, have been a bit cautious as to what they include in their Christmas display. There's no Christ child, and no crèche.

If it were only up to her, said Colleen, she would have included "Christmas with a capital C," a song that does call for keeping Christ in Christmas. But she said she was afraid some might think it too political.

"We don't want anything political because someone might then try to shut us down. That could hurt the charities and the kids."

"You have to remember that this is the town that once shut down the Easter Bunny," Larry piped in, referring to a 2007 controversy when the superintendent of schools banned a parents group from setting up a booth at a school fair where people could have their pictures taken with the Easter Bunny — on grounds it would be a violation of the separation of church and state.

"Personally I think there are more important things to worry about," said Colleen. "I worry about people who don't have enough food to eat, and kids who are seriously ill. If people worried more about those important things, the world would be a better place."

So, the aggressive efforts of secular zealots have accomplished a sense among the people that their public expression of religious belief — on their own property and in the context of a holiday that's explicitly about those beliefs — would be political and that political speech would be grounds for the government to prevent charitable and community-building activities.

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December 9, 2012

Things We Read Today (40), Weekend

Justin Katz

What subsidizes green?; what the unions want the pension law to say; First Family Holiday Fame; America, the Special.

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December 5, 2012

Things We Read Today (38), Wednesday

Justin Katz

Evading the progressive ideology snatchers; under surveillance; the not-employed young; and growing up, one way or another.

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November 28, 2012

Things We Read Today (36), Wednesday

Justin Katz

Threats to the economy (cliffs and debts); RI lagging again (yawn); dependors and dependees; Social Security a problem; and a civil right to the war zone frat party.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

November 27, 2012

Things We Read Today (35), Tuesday

Justin Katz

Healthcare and what you get for free; making a living trying to fix the dying (state); the dictator prescription; and unhealthily sexist (female) teachers.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

November 21, 2012

Oh SNAP! It's Cory Booker!

Patrick Laverty

Newark, NJ Mayor Cory Booker is getting some attention today for taking the SNAP challenge. He's going to live for a week on the amount of money for food that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan (SNAP) offers. The rules of the challenge are that you get $35 for the week and all food consumed must be included in that $35.

Maybe to the surprise of some, this post isn't to disparage SNAP or anyone on it. I get it. Some people don't have enough money for food at times and it could possibly even keep them alive. This program is especially important for children, where they personally aren't at fault for not being able to supply food. I also get that $35 per person is a very small amount for one person to live off of for a week of food. It works out to $1.66 per meal.

My point here and my request is, can people like Booker and others at least be a little more intellectually honest about the topic? The purpose of SNAP is not to be the sole source of money for food. Heck, look at two words in the title: "Supplemental" and "Assistance". This $35 for the week is supposed to supplement your own income. It is intended to be assistance, not the sole provider.

I also looked up the requirements to qualify on the USDA web site:

Household size Gross monthly income
(130 percent of poverty)
Net monthly income
(100 percent of poverty)


$1,211 $ 931


1,640 1,261


2,069 1,591


2,498 1,921


2,927 2,251


3,356 2,581


3,785 2,911


4,214 3,241

Each additional member

+429 +330

You can bring in $400 a week for a family of four but have zero money for food? Nothing? This would seem to be a matter of priorities. When I start thinking about how to spend money, I prioritize. Food and a roof over my head are the most important. Everything else comes after that. Instead of trying to live on SNAP's $35 a week, add even $20 to that and that gets you into an area that many would like to see SNAP providing.

I also understand the high cost of eating out. Three people for a dinner at McDonalds can easily run up $20 or more. Often, when my wife is working at night, I'll try to put together a healthy meal for my daughter and I and then figure out the "per-meal" cost. Last week, I got a $4 steak, had a 99 cent bag of frozen corn and a baked potato between us. The baked potato was 35 cents, we used about 20 cents worth of the frozen corn, so the meal came out to $4.55 or $2.28 per person for a perfectly good and healthy meal. It is over the $1.66 that SNAP would provide but it's over by 64 cents. That 64 cents is my supplementation. Ok, we both drank milk too. At $4 a gallon, we probably drank about 40 cents worth.

Other nights, we might have Tuna Noodle Casserole. This is the one we'll have when we're pressed for time. We have a bag of the $1 Butter Noodles, throw in a can of $1.50 tuna and some fresh broccoli. Total cost, about $3.50, plus milk beverage, we're up to about $2 a meal. And this is just for dinners.

But why do people like Booker, and many others, use the fringe cases? Use the extreme examples? If I wanted to do that too, I'd bring up all the corruption and fraud cases. But that never helps any discussion. I do think Booker's heart and intents are in the right place, but let's talk about the actual problems and the issues and re-examine what the point of the program is. It is to assist people with their food costs and help people to make the best possible food choices and try to slow the hysteria.

October 26, 2012

Do Women Think Only With Their......

Marc Comtois

As a husband, father, son, brother, friend etc. of fine ladies young and old, I think a political campaign that continually targets women by focusing on areas related to female sexuality does a disservice to the most important organ women have: their brains.

I'm pretty sure women are also interested in the economy and foreign policy, after all. Yet, boxing people into demographic groups is what happens during the political season and we're all used to it, I suppose. Simplify and hone the message and all that.

However, to produce an ad like that is aimed at appealing to young women voters by likening voting to their "first time"?

That isn't hip or cool or edgy, it's gross and cheap in what it implies. Hey, wanna hook up with the Prez? I thought we left that behind with the Clinton years.

"Cheerful Pessimist" Jacques Barzun Dead at 104

Marc Comtois

Historian, teacher and cultural critic Jacques Barzun, one of my intellectual "heroes", passed away at 104. What a life! He wrote about pretty much everything, but his historical writing culminated with his From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present. He also authored books on writing and historical method, but his greatest exposure to the public was in his many writings in magazines and periodicals. One that always stuck with me was his writing "On Baseball":

The idea of baseball is a team, an outfit, a section, a gang, a union, a cell, a commando squad--in short, a twentieth-century setup of opposite numbers.

Baseball takes its mystic nine and scatters them wide. A kind of individualism thereby returns, but it is limited--eternal vigilance is the price of victory. Just because they're far apart, the outfield can't dream or play she-loves-me-not with the daisies. The infield is like a steel net held in the hands of the catcher. He is the psychologist and historian for the staff--or else his signals will give the opposition hits. The value of his headpiece is shown by the ironmongery worn to protect it. The pitcher, on the other hand, is the wayward man of genius, whom others will direct. They will expect nothing from him but virtuosity. He is surrounded no doubt by mere talent, unless one excepts that transplanted acrobat, the shortstop. What a brilliant invention is his role despite its exposure to ludicrous lapses! One man to each base, and then the freelance, the troubleshooter, the moveable feast for the eyes, whose motion animates the whole foreground.

The rules keep pace with this imaginative creation so rich in allusions to real life. How excellent, for instance, that a foul tip muffed by the catcher gives the batter another chance. It is the recognition of Chance that knows no argument. But on the other hand, how wise and just that the third strike must not be dropped. This points to the fact that near the end of any struggle life asks for more than is needful in order to clinch success. A victory has to be won, not snatched.

The dude had game!

October 15, 2012

Twitter: As If Subtlety of Thought Weren't Already Difficult Enough

Justin Katz

It's hardly original to suggest that the real detriment of our era of political correctness isn't so much the specifics to which we're asked to conform, but the habits of thought that the overly sensitive ear engenders. That's actually a detriment with two parts.

First, it makes discussion a power play. Even in the long-gone millennium of my college years, it was already the case that a classroom discussion could be derailed by the wrong word used in a benign way, if the opposing side could affect to take it differently. Something like "the other guy" might provoke J'accuse! shouts about the "Other."

When that is the case, winning an argument ultimately requires having enough power (in allies and in authority) to push your preferred word usages on the overall discussion. There's no: "That's horrible!" "Let me clarify." "Oh. I disagree, but I see what you meant. Proceed." Instead, the debate becomes: "That's horrible!" "You're too stupid to understand!" "You're too dense to understand!" "Yeah, well I've got enough people to shout you down!"

Second, that dynamic creates incentives against subtlety of thought and challenging of assumptions. If you don't choose a side clearly, effectively ceding all ground that requires context, no context will prevent bad-faith readings. From there, explanations are made to seem like backtracking, hit-and-run, slithering, or whatever undesirable characterization political opponents prefer to proclaim.

And then there came Twitter.

This afternoon, I happened upon the following tweet:

In case anybody doesn't know the handles, that's Bob Plain, current editor of the progressive RIFuture and Jessica Ahlquist, who made a name for herself by signing on to the ACLU's successful campaign to tear an historical non-denominational prayer banner from the public space of a Cranston high school. At the time, I wrote:

By what conceivable measure is it possible to see the first of the following as more authoritarian than the second?
  • A local school committee, with the apparent backing of a majority of town residents, keeping in place a banner that has been with the school since the very beginning, even though it hails from a time when it was acceptable to urge prayer in public
  • A national advocacy organization (and certain commenters from Pawtucket, Providence, Arizona, and other places that are not the town in question) trying to use the expense of legal action as a means of bullying the district into taking the banner down on the grounds that a handful of residents do or might object to it

So, with that as intellectual background — and knowing full well to whom I was speaking — I tweeted:

Bob, I'm pretty sure, understood my quip as it was intended, because the following exchange ensued:

The article to which Ms. Ahlquist linked contributes to the context:

... Schindelheim, ordered students to “sit in a circle and sing and pray to God,” making the kids recite The Lord’s Prayer in their native Spanish.

She even whipped out her cell phone and put her priest on speakerphone, so he could listen to her class’s prayers, investigators said.

Schindelheim, who has worked in city schools since 1991, confessed when investigators questioned her about the incident.

She "confessed when questioned." And then she went on medical leave. So, a teacher in a distant school had a very off day, acknowledged that she was wrong, and a note has been appended to her permanent record. More than a year later, in Rhode Island, where atheist activists seem like they may be planning a push for floodlights in classrooms so that window sashes never make an unintentional shadow cross upon the wall, I thought it worth the effort of a tweet to convey the notion that a little perspective was in order.

The effort of a tweet turned into several extended exchanges, as if I had suggested that the Police's "Don't Stand So Close to Me" should be interpreted as a sweet and innocent love song.

Humor entered the battle, though, when Portsmouth progressive John McDaid (with long years of considering me an enemy, it seems) jumped in:

No doubt, I'll find this to be the next front page story in the Sakonnet Times about my 140-character-or-less debates. From the commentary around town, you'd think that the educations of the 1,900 or so students in the Tiverton district hinge on a school committee candidate's refusal to voice regional orthodoxy on Twitter, forget less exciting topics like stagnant results in math and science.

In terms of my campaign, I can only suggest that parents, taxpayers, and teachers clearly need not fear that I'll operate in secret and without discussion. I put my cell phone number and personal email address on the cards that have been mailed and otherwise circulated. My Twitter account is easy to find.

In terms of my broader mission online, I can only say that I'm not going to conform with the rhetorical sterility that already dominates too much of public discussion. It has been very disconcerting to me to hear the First Amendment cited so often as an excuse for declaring certain statements and ideas as completely out of bounds. At least in polite, correct society.

I'd propose, instead, that we ought to take the full First Amendment as a reminder that, in the United States, we want people to express themselves, even if what they say is unpopular. That way we can strive to correct each other while we're still just talking, and we can check whether we are the ones who need correcting.

If we truly see ourselves as an extended community, then we need some perspective, such that we don't treat a one-time indiscretion on the part of a teacher as equivalent to a one-time school shooting. But I'm learning in Tiverton, in Rhode Island, and at the national level that a frightening number of people define community in an exclusionary way — meaning that those who disagree must be excluded.

October 9, 2012

RI Governor Gives Nation a Preview of Obama’s Public Welfare Project

Justin Katz

People across the United States should consider Rhode Island as a canary in the ObamaCare coal mine, whistling the tune of the President's larger public welfare project.

When he spoke on the first night of the Democratic National Convention, RI's Lincoln Chafee introduced himself as "the nation's only independent governor." That's "independent" as in belonging to no political party. He went on to claim the mantel of "moderate" and to upend the dictionary with a new, inverted definition of "traditional conservative," applying that label to himself, as well.

Actual moderates and conservatives should be wary of Chafee's brand of independence.  The most stunning reason is his state's status, in July, as one of only three to have lost employment since the end of the U.S. jobs free fall in February 2010. A more subtle, but profound, reason is the vision of health benefit exchanges toward which he is hurrying his state.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

October 6, 2012

Marriage Rules Beyond the Ken of Kids

Justin Katz

This essay originally appeared in the Providence Journal on June 8, 2009. Given that periodical's revamped Web site, the essay is no longer available online, so I'm reproducing it here.

The preschooler's question at the dinner table probably wasn't as new to recent generations as a parent's first reaction might suggest: Can a girl marry a girl? It's the sort of question that children ask — have always asked — as they assess the world and its rules. It's a request for clarification of an inchoate understanding of what marriage is.

What was new to the American family, in that conversation, was the first grader's response to her sister's inquiry: Her friend's aunts are married to each other. The government of the next state over was the first to answer "yes," so there you go. A millennia-old process by which marriage defines appropriate, healthy relationships between the men and women whom boys and girls become is now obscured.

As with many challenges of the modern day, we who maintain a sense of marriage's value as an opposite-sex, fundamentally procreative institution must be willing and able to correct society's misdirection of our children. We must be able to explain to them our beliefs and long thought on the relevant issues, and we must be comfortable with the reality that our children will one day form and act upon their own conclusions. It serves no intellectual, spiritual, or rhetorical purpose to complain of the compounding nature of this burden. Still, observing such very direct examples of the effect that same-sex marriage will have on our culture and society is disconcerting.

That redefining marriage will indeed have an effect is a reality that a number of our compatriots wish not to face. With the escalating cost imposed by unfair accusations of bigotry, it is certainly easier to grab hold of emotional absolution. We all wish happiness for our homosexual friends and family members, but many of us allow the tint of that desire to cast an absurd light on wholly reasonable arguments, transforming them into something that they're not. Scoffing at the notion that a particular heterosexual marriage will change midstream should homosexual relationships be called by the same name is a convenient way to avoid addressing the fact that traditionalists aren't expressing that notion in the first place.

Supporters of same-sex marriage should consider the sisters introduced above, who even at their young age feel differently about boys than about their female friends. The "yes" or "no" offered at the dinner table sets the course for learning as they piece together a basic understanding of marriage that will underpin their related behavior throughout their lives. As pre-sexual youths, they learn mainly that their strange feelings toward boys are somehow — in the mysterious world of adults — associated with the concept of marriage.

Strange feelings become attraction, which progresses through sexual desire to the drive to procreate. In the traditional framework, the mystique of marriage encapsulates the entire cycle. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in the baby carriage. Thus has society woven ties of mutual care and responsibility between men, women, and the children whom only such pairs can bring into the world.

The consequence of providing a different answer to the initial question will be knowable only through the experiment that radicals are intent on conducting in the laboratory of humankind. (They'll leave no control group, if they can help it.) Ironically, adults who dismiss the possibility that the strength of marital ties will suffer from the dramatic change do so on the basis of precisely the underlying sense that they wish to modify: They grew up with the traditional presentation of marriage, so their fully developed intellects can extend a mature conceptualization thereof to encompass homosexual relationships that mirror the image.

A child does not have the luxury of that perspective. Children have no underlying sense through which to comprehend that their "icky" feelings toward the opposite sex will ultimately form the foundation for lifelong relationships, consummated in the persons of their own children, linking humanity across generations. If, in that first encounter with the concept of marriage, they learn that a girl can indeed marry a girl if they want to, if they love each other, that fact isn't an exception that builds on the institution. It's a constituent part of the rule. Whatever marriage therefore is, for them, it is not intrinsically a relationship for those whose expressions of intimacy tend to turn them into parents.

Moreover, children have no context to differentiate their presexual feelings for the opposite sex from their deeper interpersonal comfort with and affinity for their same-sex friends. Saying that marriage is a relationship of love, in other words, doesn't describe the form of love.

These abstractions are well beyond the ken of preschoolers, of course, which points to society's reason for developing a straightforward cultural institution like marriage, about which rules and mythologies could develop. At the nexus of feelings and law and culture and biology, men and women come together in an irreducibly unique way, and erasing the language by which we teach proper responsibility will ensure that questions at the dinner tables of the future are of a more ominous tone.

The Cluttering of the Artistic Mind

Marc Comtois

I found Camille Paglia's piece in the Wall Street Journal about modern-day art interesting and thought provoking:

What has sapped artistic creativity and innovation in the arts? Two major causes can be identified, one relating to an expansion of form and the other to a contraction of ideology.

Painting was the prestige genre in the fine arts from the Renaissance on. But painting was dethroned by the brash multimedia revolution of the 1960s and '70s. Permanence faded as a goal of art-making.

But there is a larger question: What do contemporary artists have to say, and to whom are they saying it? Unfortunately, too many artists have lost touch with the general audience and have retreated to an airless echo chamber. The art world, like humanities faculties, suffers from a monolithic political orthodoxy—an upper-middle-class liberalism far from the fiery antiestablishment leftism of the 1960s. (I am speaking as a libertarian Democrat who voted for Barack Obama in 2008.)

Today's blasé liberal secularism also departs from the respectful exploration of world religions that characterized the 1960s. Artists can now win attention by imitating once-risky shock gestures of sexual exhibitionism or sacrilege....It's high time for the art world to admit that the avant-garde is dead.

According to Paglia, art has suffered with the diminished working-classness of America.
The vulnerability of students and faculty alike to factitious theory about the arts is in large part due to the bourgeois drift of the last half century. Our woefully shrunken industrial base means that today's college-bound young people rarely have direct contact any longer with the manual trades, which share skills, methods and materials with artistic workmanship....For the arts to revive in the U.S., young artists must be rescued from their sanitized middle-class backgrounds. We need a revalorization of the trades that would allow students to enter those fields without social prejudice (which often emanates from parents eager for the false cachet of an Ivy League sticker on the car). Among my students at art schools, for example, have been virtuoso woodworkers who were already earning income as craft furniture-makers. Artists should learn to see themselves as entrepreneurs.

Creativity is in fact flourishing untrammeled in the applied arts, above all industrial design. Over the past 20 years, I have noticed that the most flexible, dynamic, inquisitive minds among my students have been industrial design majors. Industrial designers are bracingly free of ideology and cant. The industrial designer is trained to be a clear-eyed observer of the commercial world—which, like it or not, is modern reality.

Capitalism has its weaknesses. But it is capitalism that ended the stranglehold of the hereditary aristocracies, raised the standard of living for most of the world and enabled the emancipation of women. The routine defamation of capitalism by armchair leftists in academe and the mainstream media has cut young artists and thinkers off from the authentic cultural energies of our time.

While she is encouraged by the artisticness of industrial design, she points to the iPhone as a triumph of form but one that has "no spiritual dimension".
Thus we live in a strange and contradictory culture, where the most talented college students are ideologically indoctrinated with contempt for the economic system that made their freedom, comforts and privileges possible. In the realm of arts and letters, religion is dismissed as reactionary and unhip. The spiritual language even of major abstract artists like Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko is ignored or suppressed.

Thus young artists have been betrayed and stunted by their elders before their careers have even begun. Is it any wonder that our fine arts have become a wasteland?

I agree, but the very technology Paglia points to also goes a long ways towards stifling the creative mind. It's a heckuva lot easier to play a video game than to imagine up a story on your own, for instance. Then there's the hand-held devices--like the iPhone--that are removing a tolerance for boredom from our lives:
"Doug Gross writes that thanks to technology, there's been a recent sea change in how people today kill time. 'Those dog-eared magazines in your doctor's office are going unread. Your fellow customers in line at the deli counter are being ignored. And simply gazing around at one's surroundings? Forget about it.' With their games, music, videos, social media and texting, smartphones 'superstimulate,' a desire humans have to play when things get dull, says anthropologist Christopher Lynn and he believes that modern society may be making that desire even stronger. 'When you're habituated to constant stimulation, when you lack it, you sort of don't know what to do with yourself,' says Lynn. 'When we aren't used to having down time, it results in anxiety. 'Oh my god, I should be doing something.' And we reach for the smartphone. It's our omnipresent relief from that.' Researchers say this all makes sense. Fiddling with our phones, they say, addresses a basic human need to cure boredom by any means necessary. But they also fear that by filling almost every second of down time by peering at our phones we are missing out on the creative and potentially rewarding ways we've dealt with boredom in days past. 'Informational overload from all quarters means that there can often be very little time for personal thought, reflection, or even just 'zoning out,'" researchers write.
This confirms Paglia's fears, if from another angle. Ever-present technology is removing the time for introspection from our lives. We aren't stopping to take a breath, to think, to ruminate. It's all tweets and YouTube and Facebook status updates and DVRing and, yes, occasionally reading on the Kindle. But we don't reflect as much as we used to. Our imagining minds are cluttered with other peoples thoughts and ideas that crowd out our own.

September 27, 2012

Our Scattered Technological Lives

Marc Comtois

I occasionally listen to Imus in the Morning and this morning, I was lucky enough to hear John Hiatt perform "Blues Can't Even Find Me".

It struck a chord--no pun intended--because I think we're spending so much time being sorta-connected to everyone via Twitter and Facebook and the like that we're not maintaining our valuable personal connections to the ones in our lives who really matter. We're becoming a country of people who pay half-attention (if that). I don't mean to hyperbolize, there is much good about all of this technology and how it enables us to stay in touch with more people who--in a previous age--we would have simply lost from our lives (for good or ill). But it's worth reminding ourselves that we need to turn off, tune out and spend some actual time talking to each other, face to face. And yes, the irony is not lost on me that I'm bringing this up on a blog.

Lyrics after the jump.

Continue reading "Our Scattered Technological Lives"

September 19, 2012

Things We Read Today (14), Wednesday

Justin Katz

Why freedom demands father-daughter dances; the U.S., less free; PolitiFact gets a Half Fair rating for its Doherty correction; and the mainstream media cashes in some of its few remaining credibility chips for the presidential incumbent.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

September 14, 2012

Things We Read Today (11), Friday

Justin Katz

Being right about district 1 messaging; PolitiFact prepares for the election; what's a charter; being right about quantitative easing, First Amendment; and Bob Dylan says what he means.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

September 11, 2012

Things We Read Today, 8

Justin Katz

Today: September 11, global change, evolution, economics, 17th amendment, gold standard, and a boughten electorate... all to a purpose.

September 3, 2012

Things We Read Today, 1

Justin Katz

One thing I've learned, in years of blogging, is to be wary of proclaiming new regular features.  Yet, I've been finding myself at the end of each day with a browserful of tabs of content on which I'm inclined to comment.

So, as interest and time allow, I'll publish quick-hit posts containing commentary that is somewhere between a tweet and a full-on blog post.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

September 1, 2012

Rev. Rich Takes a Stand Against Small Children

Justin Katz

Back when the Episcopal/Anglican Church was finding itself fraught with international internal turmoil over the appointment of an openly and actively homosexual bishop in New Hampshire, Catholic writer and blogger Mark Shea predicted, as an aphorism, that the organization would gradually turn toward the promotion of homosexuality. I always considered that a plausible, but not inevitable, course of the future.

After crossing an intellectual line, human organizations have a tendency to correct for excess, to transform into something unrecognizable, or to fade into non-existence. Shea's prediction was of the second category, but either of the other two (or even other variations of the middle one) remain possible for the Episcopal Church.

Rev. Timothy Rich, a relatively new rector at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in East Greenwich gives some evidence that Shea's prediction has certainly not been negated. Previously, it's interesting to note, Rich worked very closely with the aforementioned homosexual bishop, Eugene Robinson, as an assistant and Canon in New Hampshire.

During a summer in which Boy Scouts of America affirmed its policy of excluding "open and avowed homosexuals," Rev. Rich determined to investigate whether his church had any connection with the group. It turned out that a local Cub Scout pack — mainly boys aged six to eleven — uses the church for meetings.

The fifty boys involved are a bit young for the policy to have much effect, and Cub Master Jeff Lehoullier indicates that Pack 4 would do nothing to actively enforce the rule, even if it applied to pre-adolescent children. And who's to say but that by the time these actual flesh-and-blood children nearest Rich's flock reach the age of Eagle Scout, the organization won't have changed its view?

But Rich has some modicum of power, and he feels he must use it to "take a stand" against a national organization with which the church under his authority has a very limited, indirect relationship. That his action might have an adverse effect on dozens of the community's children — and that, by his action, he appears to be the one propagandizing a culture-war position beyond their ken — is a secondary consideration.

If radical rectors are to force a change in Boy Scout policy from the outside, thousands and thousands of children will have to be thus harmed and made to feel dirty and excluded by adults who ostensibly hold offices of respect in their community. Rich insists that, when it comes to the individual boys, he "support[s] them and applaud[s] their efforts," but apparently, when more than one of them gather together, they must be cast out and scorned.

No doubt, he's flattered by the media attention (his humble claims notwithstanding), and no doubt many people whose opinions he values highly have figuratively and literally slapped him on the back. The rest of us ought to question the motives and assumptions behind the movement of which he's made East Greenwich a part.


I realize that a good portion of readers don't find discussion of scripture all that persuasive, but some further thought on this matter led me to an observation that definitely merits mention.

While reading comments on the East Greenwich Patch article on this issue, a phrase from the Bible came to mind: "Let the children come to me."

It's from Matthew 19, and the expanded passage is worth consideration.

Just before the disciples attempt to prevent the children from approaching Jesus, He has been explaining that the Old Testament permission to divorce should not apply to His followers because, "from the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female'... For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh."

The disciples object that the teaching is so hard that "it is better not to marry." And Jesus suggests that some are "incapable" of marriage. Some translations of the Bible have Jesus referring to such people as "eunuchs."

Again, I realize that not everybody assigns spiritual weight to the Bible, but I would think that a Christian preacher would be inclined to do so. And this passage has many layers of profundity, all ultimately reinforcing a traditional view of marriage. The man and woman become "one flesh," and then the children come forward. Nobody should attempt to "separate" what God has joined, meaning the husband and wife, and then the disciples attempt to separate the children from Jesus, who in Catholic theology is the bridegroom of the Church.

In some practices, Episcopal theology differs substantially from Catholic, but it seems to me Rector Rich should contemplate this passage deeply, as should the members of his church.

August 31, 2012

The Brilliance of Clint's Empty Chair

Justin Katz

Politicos and policy wonks have been parsing every major speech offered at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, each with his or her own lens.  (The exception is MSNBC, which apparently declined to parse several speeches by ethnic minorities.)  Some have commented on the gender-war content of Ann Romney's statements; some have focused on the deep policy focus of Vice-Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan.

But the most transformative moment — in its way, the most redolent of the Tea Party revolution — was Clint Eastwood's conversation with an empty chair in which President Obama was not sitting.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

August 19, 2012

For Lack of a Because

Justin Katz

Violence in movies is not the problem. Violent stories are as old as fiction. Likewise, the realism of cinema and video games may be new, but in prior eras people didn't need the visual aids. The livestock bled when slaughtered; the forest road was menacing in a way that needed no symphonic score.

The problem isn't even that the Dark Knight's Joker had a point. The forces of darkness have had a point since the snake in the garden. Human beings are flawed; Creation can be brutal.

The problem is that the knights no longer have a because.

In a 1996 essay titled "Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died," Tom Wolfe summarized Friedrich Nietzsche's prediction a century earlier that a society of Godless people, in Wolfe's paraphrase, "would loathe not only one another but themselves." As a result, the coming generations would see "wars catastrophic beyond all imagining." The human need that God once filled would be inflated with the less transcendent, more manipulable meaning supplied by factions and nationalism.

Surface quickly from these depths to Batman. The justification for Bruce Wayne's superhero persona was, essentially, that his vision for humanity was better than the degraded society that crime begets. Heath Ledger's Joker casts the battle as one between chaos and order. And he has a point in that the difference is largely aesthetic in their world.

As religion has faded, Western civilization has striven to maintain its fumes and hold back the darkness with a vague sense of a human community. Batman has faith in the people of Gotham. That is his community — indeed, readers would be hard-pressed to separate the two — and he is bound to it as part of his identity.

Ay, there's the rub.

For all the analysis already set to drift in the public reflecting pool, the matter of the Aurora killer's field of study has yet to find its candle. Is it too terrible a thought to mention? Neuroscience.

The self, as even passive recipients of science news may have heard by now, is mere illusion — a narrative that the sparks of the brain generate in order to organize the stimuli of life. If that's the truth, then a question naturally arises: What community can Gotham be if Bruce Wayne himself is not?

There is an answer to the riddle. The peculiarity of this era's philosophical battle is that investigation of the universe has fostered a mechanistic view as oversimplified as any attributed to the rigid theologians of yore. The materialists make a model and call it reality. "My two dimensions are sufficient; yours are a comforting illusion."

Evolution, that venerable old god-killer, is a process of stimuli's effects on the malleable medium of life, but the stimuli must come from elsewhere. Perhaps neuroscience will map the processes of the evolved brain into a fine and useful model, but promoting that model as more than a limited sketch will be a potentially cataclysmic experiment in how the social minds — real human beings in four-dimensional action — respond to the stimulus of finding themselves to be fiction.

The problem is that scientists have a narrow species of imagination and are insufficiently careful about propounding on their findings. The problem is that philosophy has become a sadomasochistic litany of narcissistic poses. The problem is that storytellers have seduced themselves with the quick fixes of sex and violence, and what philosophy they have, they lift from the philosophers' bloody bed because the stickiness has the tactile sensation of an intelligence they lack. And the problem is that plenty stand to profit, in government and business and society, by this degradation.

The nihilistic killer in Colorado may prove not to have thought of himself as acting from the conclusions attributed to neuroscience, or any conclusions at all. To be sure, we see in him most markedly a metastasized mental illness.

Nonetheless, we should take the lesson. Evil will find its lever, and it is no less monstrous when accomplished through normal and natural biological processes. While chemical imbalances may provide the mechanism by which an idea becomes horrific action in an individual, sustained moral decline requires the idea partly to be, "Why not?"

Human society evolved to its present state on the strength of our heroes' because. When even the men who shielded their dates and died on that terrible movie night are explained away as acting from biological necessity, it may not be long before the decision whether to murder or to protect comes down to the toss of a mad culture's coin.

August 1, 2012

Hopkins Center Milton Party (and Thoughts on the Fuel of Capitalism)

Justin Katz

The Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights' panel discussion on the event of Milton Friedman's hundredth birthday offset "liberaltarian" Brown professor John Tomasi with June Speakman, a Roger Williams professor more inclined to agree with the prefix of the coinage. The panel would have benefited from the inclusion of an unabridged conservative who agreed with its root.

The most interesting idea placed on the Nick-a-Nees table was Tomasi's hypothesis that free markets can correspond with social justice if we think of the latter concept "in new ways." The people who developed social justice, he says, just "happened to be all from the left."

A conservative panelist might have suggested that there's no "happened to be" about it — that the very concept was designed to supplant the competing idea of charity and free association. Justice is the province of the police and the justice system, and "social justice" inherently suggests that those who hold the political levers can judge and impose their view of a just society on others against their will.

Watch video of the event and continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

July 25, 2012

Mancession Recovery... Sexist!

Justin Katz

In a strong indication that, among journalistic practitioners, the biased media narrative is more a matter of intellectual laziness than cultural duplicity, the latest canned story, by Los Angeles Times reporter Don Lee, is that workplace discrimination is landing men the great majority of "newly created" jobs:

Since the recession ended in June 2009, men have landed 80% of the 2.6 million net jobs created, including 61% in the last year. ...

The gender gap has raised concerns about possible discrimination in hiring. If the trend persists, it could set back gains made by women in the workplace, experts said.

"It's hard to know [whether] some employers place a priority on men going back to work," said Joan Entmacher, vice president for Family Economic Security at the National Women's Law Center. Of particular concern, she said: Opportunities for women in higher-paying fields such as manufacturing are shrinking.

But back in February 2009, even the New York Times had to acknowledge the reality of the male-dominated recession, or "mancession":
The proportion of women who are working has changed very little since the recession started. But a full 82 percent of the job losses have befallen men, who are heavily represented in distressed industries like manufacturing and construction. Women tend to be employed in areas like education and health care, which are less sensitive to economic ups and downs, and in jobs that allow more time for child care and other domestic work.

Of course, Times reporter Catherine Rampell saw the silver lining as women's approaching men's percentage of the workforce. A conservative can't help but think of Margaret Thatcher's criticism of socialists, that they'd be happier to have everybody equally poor than wealthy over wide spectrum.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

July 19, 2012

Credit for Building, Blame for Dividing

Justin Katz

President Obama's teleprompter style has been the subject of substantial (often mocking) critical commentary, and with some justification, as this nearly parodic 2010 video from a Virginia classroom proves:

Given recent political events, one can sympathize with the desire of public officials to avoid extemporaneous speech. In a world in which one's every public utterance can be recorded, scrutinized, and exploited, one can't rely on an audience's capacity to get your drift and give you the benefit of the doubt. And it's all to easy to blurt out a sentence such as the now infamous, "If you've got a business, you didn't build that."

Predictably, in the realm of commentary, the debate has moved to the meta matter of whether commentators are deliberately misconstruing the President's meaning. On Slate, Dave Weigel charitably infers "a missing sentence or clause" that Obama neglected to utter because he was "rambling." On Reason, Tim Cavanaugh rejoins that "at some point it helps to look at that thing above the subtext, which is generally known as 'the text.'"

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

July 8, 2012

RE: Happiness - Part 2 - Who is Happier, Libs or Cons?

Marc Comtois

Continuing along the happiness trail, if it isn't exactly money, then what is it? According to Arthur Brooks, it may just be your political ideology. So, who is happier? Liberals or Conservatives?

Scholars on both the left and right have studied this question extensively, and have reached a consensus that it is conservatives who possess the happiness edge. Many data sets show this. For example, the Pew Research Center in 2006 reported that conservative Republicans were 68 percent more likely than liberal Democrats to say they were “very happy” about their lives. This pattern has persisted for decades.
Of course, the question is "why"? Many conservatives would chalk it up to family and faith and, as reported in the article, "Fifty-two percent of married, religious, politically conservative people (with kids) are very happy — versus only 14 percent of single, secular, liberal people without kids. " There's another way to look at it:
An explanation for the happiness gap more congenial to liberals is that conservatives are simply inattentive to the misery of others. If they recognized the injustice in the world, they wouldn’t be so cheerful. In the words of Jaime Napier and John Jost, New York University psychologists, in the journal Psychological Science, “Liberals may be less happy than conservatives because they are less ideologically prepared to rationalize (or explain away) the degree of inequality in society.” The academic parlance for this is “system justification.”

The data show that conservatives do indeed see the free enterprise system in a sunnier light than liberals do, believing in each American’s ability to get ahead on the basis of achievement. Liberals are more likely to see people as victims of circumstance and oppression, and doubt whether individuals can climb without governmental help.

Then again:
[Other] scholars note that liberals define fairness and an improved society in terms of greater economic equality. Liberals then condemn the happiness of conservatives, because conservatives are relatively untroubled by a problem that, it turns out, their political counterparts defined.

Imagine the opposite. Say liberals were the happy ones. Conservatives might charge that it is only because liberals are unperturbed by the social welfare state’s monstrous threat to economic liberty. Liberals would justifiably dismiss this argument as solipsistic and silly.

But my favorite, by far, is what all of this says about Moderates:
People at the extremes are happier than political moderates. Correcting for income, education, age, race, family situation and religion, the happiest Americans are those who say they are either “extremely conservative” (48 percent very happy) or “extremely liberal” (35 percent). Everyone else is less happy, with the nadir at dead-center “moderate” (26 percent).

What explains this odd pattern? One possibility is that extremists have the whole world figured out, and sorted into good guys and bad guys. They have the security of knowing what’s wrong, and whom to fight. They are the happy warriors.

Yes, I'm sure many of you will point out that "ignorance is bliss" and all that. But even if it is, well, you're still happy, right?

Only So Much Money Can Buy You Happiness

Marc Comtois

Bob Plain tweeted a link to a story on a study showing that the "comfortable standard" of income for being happy is, generally, around $75,000 in the United States. But whereas Bob indicated "$75k is the income Mendoza Line for affording happiness", that's a mischaracterization of what the research shows (granted, it was a character-limited tweet, so I don't want to take Bob too much to task here. In reality, I'm glad he pointed to the story). In short, $75K is the point at which making more money doesn't necessarily buy you more happiness. Happiness only grows incrementally with jumps in income and you can still be plenty happy with less than $75K .

Using Gallup data collected from almost half a million Americans, researchers at Princeton found that higher household incomes were associated with better moods on a daily basis — but the beneficial effects of money tapered off entirely after the $75,000 mark.

Why, then, do so many of us bother to work so hard long after we have reached an income level sufficient to make most of us happy? One reason is that our ideas about the relationship between money and happiness are misguided. In research we conducted with a national sample of Americans, people thought that their life satisfaction would double if they made $55,000 instead of $25,000: more than twice as much money, twice as much happiness. But our data showed that people who earned $55,000 were just 9 percent more satisfied than those making $25,000. Nine percent beats zero percent, but it’s still kind of a letdown when you were expecting a 100 percent return.

Interestingly, and usefully, it turns out that what we do with our money plays a far more important role than how much money we make.

The rest of the story gives examples that are kinda of the "no s**t" variety (eating chocolate all the time isn't as joyful as only every once in a while; giving to others generates more happiness than buying stuff for ourselves) and it seems to attempt (tenuously) to link so-called "underindulgence" as beneficial when enforced by government (citing New York's large-size soda ban). But it's a nice re-affirmation of something that seems sorta common sense to most of us: good thing science and the New York Times verified it!

July 4, 2012

Happy Independence Day?

Justin Katz

The Ocean State Current encourages readers to spend some time today reading the Declaration of Independence and considering its continuing significance in our times.

Some of the particulars resonate as if addressing present issues:

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them. ...

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance. ...

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation ...

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent ...

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers ...

But more profound, naturally, is the spirit of the document, and the pondering of it may lead one to question whether it does continue to have significance for many Americans — for enough Americans.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

May 31, 2012

Putting Work Into Perspective

Marc Comtois

In a recent story, the ProJo reported about the so-called "skills gap" in Rhode Island.

Only 41 percent of the adults in Rhode Island have college degrees. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that by 2018, 63 percent of jobs will require at least some postsecondary education.
Setting aside that there is a difference between a college degree and "some" post-secondary education, the theme of the article is that employers can't get enough trained workers.
Advanced manufacturing jobs exist in Rhode Island, but prejudice about them being “blue collar” prevent some schools, parents and students from taking classes that would help students enter these fields, [, Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Laurie] White said.

“We need to figure out how to make these jobs more inviting for our young people,” she said. “We need to get the message out that it’s cool to make stuff.”

Justin already addressed one disconnect surrounding this lament:
White’s...We, one supposes, means the collected interests of business groups, government officials, and special-interest advocates.

An alternative path would be to give young adults reason to understand that “settling” on a career is not “cool,” but obligatory — a stark necessity of survival. And then, they and their families must be empowered to make educational choices based on their intimate knowledge of their own circumstances, aptitudes, and interests.

I fundamentally agree with Justin and would add we also have to recognize that some people will make bad choices, with or without the direction of their parents or supposedly enlightened bureaucrats.

We all heard roughly the same thing about choosing our path in the future (particularly at graduation time): do what you love and all the rest will follow. For me, that always calls to mind the late Joseph Campbell's call to "follow your bliss," but any number of successful people have told the same story. Through hard work, perseverance and even a little luck, they kept on doing what they loved and were rewarded (and usually financially).

Now, we shouldn't be in the business of crushing the dreams of wide-eyed 18 or 21 (or 24!) year-olds, but some measure of reality should be injected into all of the good-intentioned encouragement. Namely, you still have to pay your bills along the way. That usually means taking jobs, or even choosing careers, that may not be the most emotionally gratifying or aren't "cool" or "meaningful work", which is something that Thomas Sowell recently commented upon:

What is “meaningful work”?

The underlying notion seems to be that it is work whose performance is satisfying or enjoyable in itself. But if that is the only kind of work that people should have to do, how is garbage to be collected, bed pans emptied in hospitals or jobs with life-threatening dangers to be performed?

Does anyone imagine that firemen enjoy going into burning homes and buildings to rescue people trapped by the flames? That soldiers going into combat think it is fun?

In the real world, many things are done simply because they have to be done, not because doing them brings immediate pleasure to those who do them. Some people take justifiable pride in working to take care of their families, whether or not the work itself is great.

Sometimes this is referred to as working to live instead of living to work. But such jobs can also be a path to a dream. For instance, being a pizza delivery professional (ahem) wouldn't be considered "meaningful work" to a lot of people. Yet, according to it's CEO:
[O]ver 90 percent of our franchisees started as delivery drivers at our stores. They worked their way up to become store manager. Ultimately, they bought their first store. They moved on from that.
Imagine that: from delivering pies to owning a franchise all because they were willing to do supposedly un-meaningful work. There are long term gains that can be made from short term sucking-it-up and working hard.

But even those who cling to as-yet unrealized dreams aren't the first to do so. The bartending musician or waitressing actress aren't unknown to us, after all. Heck, look at Grandma Moses. Finally, as many of us have learned, what you thought was "your bliss" at 18 is often replaced by something else by the time we're 30. Age adds perspective. So do kids.

March 1, 2012

Taibbi - No Respect for the Dead

Patrick Laverty

In case you were unaware or unfamiliar, conservative journalist/blogger Andrew Breitbart passed away today. According to his Wikipedia page, Breitbart was

an American publisher, commentator for the Washington Times, author, and occasional guest commentator on various news programs, who served as an editor for the Drudge Report Web site. He was a researcher for Arianna Huffington, and helped launch her web publication The Huffington Post.
He ran his own news aggregation site, Breitbart.com, and five other websites: Breitbart.tv, Big Hollywood, Big Government, Big Journalism, and Big Peace.

Admittedly, Breitbart could be polarizing and was no stranger to controversy, always willing to mix it up with the left.

Keeping in mind that Breitbart died today, March 1, Rolling Stone blogger Matt Taibbi penned his own sort of obituary (Warning: crude language).

So Andrew Breitbart is dead. Here’s what I have to say to that, and I’m sure Breitbart himself would have respected this reaction: Good! **** him. I couldn’t be happier that he’s dead.
Really? That's what this is coming to? This is where the partisan politics has gotten us? Literally, on the day a man dies, this is the response from a member of the liberal media. I would like to think that if it were Keith Olbermann or someone similar who had died today, that Ann Coulter or Michelle Malkin would not be rushing to their keyboards to speak such ill. It really is a shame and also speaks poorly on Rolling Stone as well.

ADDENDUM: Anyone that follows one-time Rhode Islander Seth MacFarlane on Twitter will know that he's not shy to point out either real or his perception of conservatives' shortcomings. However, his Twitter post is something more along the of what any human with common decency should expect: "All politics aside, Andrew Breitbart was a fun guy to have a drink with. He shoulda stuck around longer. lockerz.com/s/188703192"

February 21, 2012

The Audience for Self-Empowerment

Justin Katz

I know Michael Morse to be an insightful observer and often inspiring writer, and his recent op-ed in the Providence Journal was no exception... although it's inspiring in a way that isn't entirely expected based on past exchanges, particularly in the comments 'round here:

People who say they are lucky to have a job have either been brainwashed and beaten down by the present state of the economy, and manipulated by the near mythical "job creators" into actually believing that their job, their means of survival, their contribution to society and the very essence of self-worth, is a product of luck. Their uncertainty about the future and their ability to find work fuels the machinations that lead to a culture's decay. A population beholden to people who control the nation’s wealth, energy and commerce is doomed. ...

Luck does not exist. Luck is a myth. Work is real, and good work a valuable commodity. This economy is not going to right itself. If we, the people who power it, are not healthy, productive and confident in our abilities and worth, mediocrity will rule. We will be a country full of mediocre people doing mediocre things for mediocre wages, as the world that generations of hardworking, productive people have built crumbles into a pile of mediocre things that nobody wants.

The contrasting sentiment that I've heard Michael express in the past is that it is also a myth to believe that hard work and ingenuity can help one fulfill the American Dream of relative wealth. To be sure, the two statements are not wholly incompatible: One can encourage a brought confidence that "my job is lucky to have me," as this piece does, while still believing that no explanation exists for real success beyond luck. But the above quotation insists that luck does not exist.

My suspicion is that Michael is not so much taking the Occupy-style class warfare to the extreme of believing that every wealthy person has achieved that state through evil means as simply constraining his audience to exclude those "near mythical 'job creators.'" In other words, once all that hared work and productivity have paid off, once mediocrity has been sloughed off and the spark of achievement fanned to flame, one crosses into the realm of Them, who are, indeed, lucky to have their jobs.

January 31, 2012

False Denials of Comparison Between Roads and Families

Justin Katz

In further proof of his lax moral standards,* it took Mangeek too long to read my post responding to one of his recent comments for his own response to attract much attention, so I'll reprint it here:

... what I'm trying to say, Justin, is that I think conservatives (for the most part) are finding all the wrong explanations for why things are the way they are...

I can put a dollar-value on the per-pound impact of the weight of a car on roads. It's a direct cause-and-effect relationship that allows large vehicle drivers to externalize part of the societal costs they are responsible for onto those of us who live more modest lifestyles.

Meanwhile, while you can draw correlations between marital status and costs on society, I'm not sure they're cause-and-effect. In any case, we already 'reward and punish things we like/dislike' via different tax rates on married people, homeowners, business owners, and trust-fund kids.

Maybe society would be better-served overall if families were encouraged to (for example) drive safer, more efficient, and less costly vehicles (or buy smaller homes, or not take out $BIG student loans, etc.) than if we mandated which gender and legal configurations they were allowed to be. Just Sayin'.

It's important to note that my post was in reaction to his questioning the necessity of moral judgment in society. In the above, he does little more than agree that he's got no problem with the practice in concept, just on the particulars.

But on those particulars, his argument is clearly flawed. As a point of fact, he cannot "put a dollar-value on the per-pound impact of the weight of a car on roads." He could, perhaps, put such a value on the effects of a specific car under very narrow circumstances, but it could hardly accurately describe the different usages of the actual people he'd like to tax.

Let's say Joe drives a vehicle with a heavy curb weight — some kind of SUV — but he hardly ever puts additional weight inside it (after all, he's only 120 lbs), and he only drives it a quarter mile each morning and afternoon before he is across his city's border and therefore off the roads for which he's ostensibly being taxed. Meanwhile, 400 lb Bob has a much lighter curb-weight car, but he typically drives it filled to brimming with books and other heavy objects; moreover, his routine calls for him to drive it 10 miles each way across the town in which he lives.

And that's before we get into their driving styles. Joe takes it easy, while driving, and tries to slow down for intersections over greater distances. Bob is heavy on the gas pedal and the brakes, very often peeling out when starting and skidding when stopping.

In short, Mangeek cannot present his moral preference as a clear transfer of cost in a cause-effect relationship. Indeed, work in all of the relevant variables and defining the cost of cars by their weight isn't much different than attributing costs to divorce and out-of-wedlock births. All else being equal, I've no doubt that heavier vehicles exact more of a toll on the roads, but the same can be said of broken families.

Nowhere is Mangeek's skewed comparison more clear than in his closing. We aren't comparing a soft "encouragement" of vehicle types to a stiff penalty against particular relationships. Quite the opposite is true: He wants to exact a penalizing tax against owners of larger vehicles, while he objects to mere recognition of a family type that still ought to be considered to be ideal.

* Note: This opening phrase is tongue in cheek.

January 24, 2012

The Cultural Divide Explains the Economic One

Marc Comtois

Saturday's Wall Street Journal had an interesting piece about "The New American Divide":

People are starting to notice the great divide. The tea party sees the aloofness in a political elite that thinks it knows best and orders the rest of America to fall in line. The Occupy movement sees it in an economic elite that lives in mansions and flies on private jets. Each is right about an aspect of the problem, but that problem is more pervasive than either political or economic inequality. What we now face is a problem of cultural inequality.

When Americans used to brag about "the American way of life"—a phrase still in common use in 1960—they were talking about a civic culture that swept an extremely large proportion of Americans of all classes into its embrace. It was a culture encompassing shared experiences of daily life and shared assumptions about central American values involving marriage, honesty, hard work and religiosity.

Over the past 50 years, that common civic culture has unraveled. We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America's core cultural institutions.

A companion piece illustrates this divide with a number of charts.
The piece goes into great detail about how we got here, but sets that aside as so much water under the bridge now. Instead, the focus is on a prescription for shrinking the gap. It's not a massive, structured plan. Instead, it centers on changing attitudes.
There remains a core of civic virtue and involvement in working-class America that could make headway against its problems if the people who are trying to do the right things get the reinforcement they need—not in the form of government assistance, but in validation of the values and standards they continue to uphold. The best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending "nonjudgmentalism." Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn't hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices....America outside the enclaves of the new upper class is still a wonderful place, filled with smart, interesting, entertaining people. If you're not part of that America, you've stripped yourself of much of what makes being American special.

Such priorities can be expressed in any number of familiar decisions: the neighborhood where you buy your next home, the next school that you choose for your children, what you tell them about the value and virtues of physical labor and military service, whether you become an active member of a religious congregation (and what kind you choose) and whether you become involved in the life of your community at a more meaningful level than charity events.

Everyone in the new upper class has the monetary resources to make a wide variety of decisions that determine whether they engage themselves and their children in the rest of America or whether they isolate themselves from it. The only question is which they prefer to do.

I wonder if it's too late.

ADDENDUM: I had this piece by Michael Gerson filed in my "to do bin". It's related:

Conservatives naturally focus on equal opportunity rather than on equal outcomes. But equality of opportunity is a more radical concept than we generally concede. It is not a natural state; it is a social and political achievement. It depends on healthy families and cohesive communities. But opportunity also depends on effective government — on public safety, public education and public health. Governmental overreach can undermine other important social institutions. Yet the retreat of government does not automatically restore them to health.

Liberals often fail to recognize that income redistribution, while preventing penury, is not identical to social equality. The main challenge of poverty is not a lack of consumption but a lack of social capital — measured in skills and values — and of opportunity. Addressing these problems is more complex than increasing marginal tax rates, particularly when revenue is used to cover the increasing costs of non-means-tested entitlement programs. The structure of the modern welfare state is not focused on empowering the poor. Instead, it has increased the percentage of government transfer payments that go to middle- and upper-income seniors.

On all sides, the poverty debate can be paralyzed by an obsession with fundamental causes. A failing community is a puzzle box of interconnected failures. Globalization and technology put downward pressure on wages and lead to stagnant labor markets. Permissive cultural norms encourage family breakdown and self-destructive behavior. Complaining about the rise of China or the decline of morality can be satisfying. But cosmic explanations can be obstacles to action.

Read all of it. For a more local view (both in problems and potential ideas, read this post (and the discussion) by "Frymaster" over at the resuscitated RI Future.

January 2, 2012

Providence's First Babies

Justin Katz

Yes, Providence Mayor Angel Tavarares is, by all evidence, a straighter shooter than his predecessors, and he's more willing than Rhode Island's political average to make difficult decisions. Still, he shouldn't get a pass for this:

Congratulations to Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and his partner, Farah Escamilla. Their new baby girl arrived early this morning, just a few hours after her due date. ...

Taveras has steadily dodged reporters' questions about whether he plans to marry girlfriend Escamilla, a legal assistant in Providence.

Certainly, the mayor has the means and the background to mitigate the detriment to his child of being born and raise out of wedlock, but that is not true for many of his constituents, particularly those whom his liberal politics are ostensibly intended to assist. The good example of notable people — role models — could be worth untold sums in public safety net payments.

I note, for example, in what is beginning to feel like the norm, the first baby born in Rhode Island this year appears also to have been born out of wedlock:

Ezekiel may be Dassiel Ferrera's second child, but he's Rhode Island's first for 2012. ...

"I'm excited," said the 25-year-old woman. "I thought he was going to be earlier."

No mention is made of any fathers, husbands, or men at all. I know liberals and libertarians like to believe that the progress of Western Civilization has been built on economic dynamism and evolving enlightenment, but that's simply not the case. As Mark Steyn puts it, "in the end culture trumps economics." The intricate machines of modern government and industry cannot be operated on a floor eaten through with cultural rot.

December 17, 2011

Can I Just Say....

Justin Katz

For a moment, I've put down my smart phone and its apps so as better to type on my regular ol' laptop on this ye olde blog thing. The inspiration for such a retro act (apart from the evening's first two microbrews) was the appearance of Billy Joel's Glass Houses album — yes, album — in the rotation of old vinyl records to which I've been listening nights and weekends for some months when I'm in my office/basement, which may be among the final locales in the Northeast with a functional record player.

The evidence for that possibility derives from the very fact that I've got so many albums that I haven't managed to get through them all in that amount of time. As the generation of my family to which I belong approaches the next in line for the grave (in a certain way of looking at things), several shelves full of the 12 1/2" x 12 1/2" cardboard sleeves have worked their way to me. Lessons discoverable by listening to a century of the albums apt to make it into the inheritable collection of a relatively normal family, I'll leave for another day. For the time being, the notion on my mind is that medium matters.

The peculiarity of Glass Houses on the list is that it's one of just a few that I purchased myself. I recall finding it among the tables of a street vendor during a day trip into Manhattan with my grandparents and cousin. At the time, it joined several other works of the same artist that I owned on cassette tape, and through mere circumstance (as opposed to unusual affection) I've owned and listened to the album in every popular music medium to hit the market in the past fifty years. Album, cassette tape, CD, mp3, and I'm pretty sure — when bought a used 1970s Oldsmobile 98 in my late teens — 8-track, as well.

As it happens, I'm listening to the record on the very same stereo system that has carried me through all of those changes. It was state of the art when I won it in a mail-in contest hosted by a little-known-and-short-lived magazine operated by an acquaintance of one of my eighth grade teachers. Thus did luck squared bring me the still-new technology of the compact disc.

Among the first of my collection of those smaller, shinier discs was Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, which drew some notice for a message played in the middle of the recording (from memory): "Hello CD listeners. We have now reached the point in this album that those listening on record or cassette will have to stand up or sit down to turn over the record or cassette. In fairness to those listeners, we will now take a moment before starting side two. Thank you. Here's side two." In an MTV interview, Petty spoke glowingly of the old vinyl as more of an experience. It meant something to purchase and take home those large sleeves, with their poster-sized covers and broad sheets of pictures and lyrics.

It's somehow different to watch the music being played, as the disc rotates and the needle works its way toward the label. The necessity of turning the album over after 15 minutes is actually more conducive to simply sitting and listening, which is something that I've noticed even my traditionalist self to be less inclined to do with mp3s.

Just so has Glass Houses proven. Every now and then, its songs will come up in the eclectic, ponderous shuffle that I love so much on my mp3 player, but it's not the same. The classic record brings one somehow closer to the music. You can touch the record, slow it down, make it skip, force it to rotate backwards. Sometimes, you can just about hear it playing with no speakers at all. I wonder what the experience of listening to music is like, and will be like, for generations that have no experience whatsoever with tangible technologies.

I've thought the same of reading, in this season of gifted Nooks, Kindles, and iPads. Looking for a particular book of poetry, I strolled into the relatively large Barnes & Nobles in Middletown almost literally stunned by the shrinking shelf space left for actual books. In Best Buy, I knew immediately that a specific documentary would not be among the DVDs, which are allotted a mere fraction of the space they once claimed.

The media stores are shifting from sales of content to sales of content delivery devices. What, one wonders, are we buying? It's obscure enough to own a recording in electric flashes on a computer drive. What they're pushing us toward — they, the pushers — is this insidious cloud, wherein we'll own only rights (conditional rights) to content housed on their drives, which they can track and change and rescind. Will such rights be inheritable?

Along with the boxes of records came boxes (and boxes and boxes) of books, some no doubt that my grandfather received as inheritance. A better statement of the tangibility and durability of knowledge cannot be made than by a dictionary and "home reference library," bound with flat-head screw bolts, that could double as a coffee table.

Among these boxes is a woven-covered copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, published in 1940 by Doubleday Doran, "Printed in the United States of America."

This Edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass was planned by Richard Ellis and produced under his direction. The illustrations by Lewis C. Daniel were reproduced in Similetone and Intaprint by the Zeese-Wilkinson Company of Long Island City. The paper was specially made for this new edition by the P. H. Glatfeller Company of Spring Grove, Pennsylvania. The Composition, Printing and Binding by The Haddon Craftsmen of Camden, New Jersey.

For sheer intrigue and mystery and pursuit of luck's evidence of the profound, I stick my hand randomly into the pages and (not surprisingly) find it in the midst of "Song of Myself":

I help myself to material and immaterial,
No guard can shut me off, no law prevent me.

How much longer? When we forget the stuffness of things, how much longer?

December 5, 2011

Yes, Reverend, What We Call It Matters

Justin Katz

The annual battle over Christmas terminology isn't a sport for which I have much enthusiasm, the lines having been drawn and a general consensus reached. As a matter of governance, I think that local governments ought to be able to reflect the makeup of their communities, if that's what the folks who live there want, and that deliberately running from a religious reference is tantamount to unconstitutional expression of governmental religious preference. But this is ground that's been covered over and over.

It is telling that Governor Lincoln Chafee couldn't even muster a nod, as governor, to his ideological opponents and, acknowledging the General Assembly's action early in the year asking public officials to refer to such decorations as "Christmas trees," do so as a symbolic gesture of respect and concession. In Chafee, we find an ideologue who thinks sticking to his guns makes him a centrist.

More interesting, in my view, are the thoughts of Executive Minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches Rev. Don Anderson:

I would ask my fellow Christians, with all of the poverty, hunger and injustice that surround us, do we really believe that Jesus would have us spend all this time and energy around what we call a tree? I would suggest that if we truly want to honor the birth of Jesus, let us be found honoring and serving one another in recognition and thanksgiving for what God has done for us.

What Anderson elides is that Jesus' mission wasn't merely one of social work, but also of conversion. Recall the anointing at Bethany:

... a woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of costly perfumed oil, and poured it on his head while he was reclining at table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant and said, "Why this waste? It could have been sold for much, and the money given to the poor."

Since Jesus knew this, he said to them, "Why do you make trouble for the woman? She has done a good thing for me. The poor you will always have with you; but you will not always have me.

Immediately thereafter, in the book of Matthew, Judas agrees to betray Jesus — although whether in reaction to His dalliance in material pleasure or with the understanding that he is helping to fulfill Jesus' plan makes for an interesting theological debate. More relevant to the current controversy, however, is the simple fact of Jesus' statement that His bodily presence supersedes in importance the existence of material poverty.

Above everything, in the Christian interpretation, Jesus gave a face to God, as a model and guide. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus intermixes the admonition to do good for others as a way of doing good for Him with the command to spread His Word so that others will do the same. That is, why Christians have good will toward men is as important as that they do.

Happily, most people still understand (for the time being, at least) that a "holiday tree" is really a "Christmas tree," and related to a holiday celebrating the birth of the Messiah who taught these lessons, so little is lost by not naming the holiday at a tree lighting. (Of course, euphemism can be a species of dishonesty.) But Anderson's dismissal of the issue strikes me as a reckless exercise in political correctness that, if taken to the extreme that it often is, will ultimately undermine both the recognition of Christ and His explanation for the commandment to help others.

Ross Douthat expressed an applicable sentiment in a print National Review essay about the (mostly secular) pilgrimage movie, The Way:

In reality, religion — and more particularly, Catholicism — has everything to do with why The Way packs both an artistic and a metaphysical punch. Both the aesthetic and the spiritual realms thrive on specificity: on iconography that refers to something in particular, on moral frameworks that provide guidance for hard cases as well as general admonitions. Without these specifics, there would be no Santiago de Compostela, no Camino for the doubting modern pilgrims of The Way to walk, no sins to be forgiven, and no one to offer absolution.

After all, if the inspiration for decorating a tree is of no consequence, the inspiration for building magnificent churches must be as well, and so too the inspiration for making of our lives shrines to the God whom we are to see in the faces of our fellow men and women. Simply doing good deeds may be adequate for a generation or two, but eventually, people will forget the true names of the symbols and the explanation for their good behavior. God's voice will remain in us, calling through our consciences, but if that is enough, then why did He send his Son on Christmas Day only to be killed on Good Friday?

November 30, 2011

Bullies, Allowed and Not Allowed

Justin Katz

It's a substantially different issue from the banalization of Christmas trees, in a number of ways, but I think there's something of the same mentality as emerged from Morgan Hill, CA, here summarized by Glenn Garvin:

... When a federal judge in San Francisco ruled earlier this month that school administrators in a California town had the right to kick out kids for wearing American flag T-shirts because they were offending Mexican-American students, the silence among First Amendment activists and the media was deafening.


At Morgan Hill's Live Oak High School, scores of the many Mexican-American students wore the red, green and white colors of the Mexican flag. But five kids came in American-flag T-shirts. As the five sat at a table outside during a morning break in classes, assistant principal Miguel Rodriguez summoned them into the school office.

The Mexican-American students were angry about the American flags, Rodriguez warned the five, and they had to either turn their T-shirts inside-out or go home for the day. "They said we were starting a fight, we were fuel to the fire," sophomore Matt Dariano told the Gilroy Dispatch.

As Garvin suggests, this turns the First Amendment on its head — applying the weight of the law to suppress the speech of the targets of threats, and taking the side of bullies who would silence others. The common thread between this mentality and that which renames Christmas trees but not menorahs is a tendency to treat groups of people as if they've got some sort of unified racial conscience.

A parent naturally places stronger restrictions on an older sibling's treatment of a younger sibling than the other way around, because the older sibling ought to know better, because he or she can do more harm, and because we want to inculcate a sense of obligation to protect those who are not as strong. One gets just such an impression from debates handling government's involvement in cultural disputes — as if to say that Christians need to be adult enough to keep their faith unstated or that white students can live without their patriotic t-shirts so as to get along with their immigrant peers.

But group dynamics aren't equivalent to the interaction of individuals in this way, and a truly representative and objective government must consider its citizens in their capacity as individuals. Of course, this is a path that diverged along political lines long ago, and so touches on a great number of hot-button issues.

November 29, 2011

It's Almost Like an Unintentional Social Theme...

Justin Katz

Instapundti Glenn Reynolds put up two posts/links this afternoon that offer an interesting juxtaposition when combined. At 5:21 p.m.:

21ST CENTURY RELATIONSHIPS: Dinner Table Talk For Lesbians & Their Possible Sperm Donors.

At 1:32 p.m.:

STUDY: Adolescent boys more prone to delinquency without a father. "The sense of security generated by the presence of a male role model in a youth's life has protective effects for a child, regardless of the degree of interaction between the child and father."

One can rephrase succinctly, by saying that lesbians need sperm donors, but children need fathers. Hey, don't worry: You can still pretend these cultural and biological facts are completely unrelated.

November 22, 2011

Kunis and Timberlake: Two Stars Who "Get it"

Marc Comtois

I'm hardly a regular consumer of celebrity culture, but the fact that Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis followed through with their promises to attend respective Marine Corps balls gives me hope that at least some of our contemporary Hollywood stars "get it." By all accounts, both were good dates.

Timberlake blogged about the experience and offered his thanks
To all of you that serve every day for us... Ensuring our freedom, I say: My deepest gratitude to you. I've met so many of my heroes... From Michael Jordan to Michael Jackson. And, nothing makes me feel more honor and pride than when I get to meet one of you. Last night changed my life and I will never forget it.

To people like me who get to benefit from this type of person... One with character and courage. With strength and bravery. With humility and honor... I say: Send your thanks. Do it however you can. Write a letter, type an email... Hell, buy 'em a beer next time you run into someone from our Armed Forces in a bar. When they say thank you for that drink that cost you 3 bucks, they'll mean it. They won't take it for granted and, they won't forget it.

Thank you Corporal Kelsey DeSantis. Thank you for inviting me. And, thank you for being my hero.

November 17, 2011

The Cultural Cycle We're In

Justin Katz

Commenting on the image cut by "union protesters" (that is, protesting union members), Alice Losasso of West Warwick quotes Scottish historian Alexander Tytler as follows:

"The average age of the world's greatest civilizations from the beginning of history, has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to complacency; From complacency to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage."

I'd like to think that the cycle can be broken, but I'm not so sure. As Tytler indicates in the preceding paragraph, the forces pushing toward decline control the vote because they get goodies from the system. The topic brings to mind a comment that Phil left yesterday to one of my pension posts:

I think it is appropriate to try to stifle reform that targets aging retirees. Do you want your generation to be the one that breaks contracts and faith with your elders once they have stopped working?

My "elders" fashioned the yoke of government regulation and inside dealing that is strangling our economy; they set fire to the cultural pillars that must stand in order to sustain liberty and abundance over the long term; they worshiped their own untrammeled independence to such a degree that they failed to reproduce in sufficient numbers to maintain the Ponzi schemes that they developed; and they made themselves promises at the expense of those whom they deigned to beget. The generation that once declared, "don't trust anyone over 30," is now insisting, "don't discomfit anyone over 60."

For my part, I'm utterly unpersuaded that those now approaching middle age, much less those who are younger still, are therefore obligated to maintain the scheme. There is no moral obligation for a young, struggling family to ensure a cushy retirement that maintains an arbitrarily high standard of living for people who have ceased to produce. But to enforce that obligation, and others like it, my "elders" will be only too happy to place increasing power in the hands of an incompetent governing class that will persist long after the gray years of the Boomers — probably until the entire civilization collapses or a bloody revolution sets things aright. From my perspective, some rational, not-exactly-arduous reforms now would be preferable.


Russ was happy to point out in the comments that the Tytler quotation is actually a common misattribution. That's fine. Just as I wouldn't argue that a cultural observation must be true because some historian made it, I won't discount that it might be true even if he didn't say it, especially for use in a more philosophical-type blog post.

September 9, 2011

The Employee's Leverage

Justin Katz

Statements such as the following are so foreign to my way of seeing things that there must be some fundamental question at the bottom of the difference:

To understand how we got here, first consider the Ben Franklin-Horatio Alger-Henry Ford ur-myth: To balk at working hard -- really, really hard -- brands you as profoundly un-American. All well and good. But today, the driver is no longer American industriousness. It's something more predatory. As Rutgers political scientist Carl Van Horn told the Associated Press recently: "The employee has no leverage. If your boss says, 'I want you to come in the next two Saturdays,' what are you going to say -- no?"

Employees should have plenty of leverage. The company has already invested in their training. They've got institutional knowledge and contacts that take time to develop and that could help competitors even more than just as a matter of training, not the least because employees could take clients and other valuable employees with them. Smart employers also need to protect organizational moral and sense of community purpose.

Never mind that bosses are actually human beings with emotions and moral senses, too.

Leverage comes in making one's self of value. This applies in greatest to degree to star employees, but even those who are merely competent are more valuable than they probably realize — the workforce is full of laziness, dishonesty, cantankerousness, and other qualities that could harm a business's operations. If people want jobs that allow them never to have the courage to stand up to managers on an individual basis, then that comfort is going to come at a price.

Admittedly, multiple factors have made such courage more difficult. For one, prices have adjusted to the assumption of two-income households. For another, we've waded into a swamp of new necessities — from cell phones to expensive higher education — without which we think our lives would be incomplete. (It's one thing to see such things as tools to increase personal value; it's another to think them necessities for which funding must be found.) For a third, government regulations have decreased the ability of employees to take their institutional and occupational knowledge and start off on their own to compete.

That's where this difference in perspective becomes so critical: In the solutions that we believe will alleviate the situation. If employees are helpless cogs, then one will call for more government regulation of employers, more forceful confiscation, and more empowerment of third-party labor organizations. If employees are the company's and the nation's most valuable asset — merely boxed in by cultural and regulatory factors — then one will call for changes in those areas.

The authors of the above-linked essay, Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery don't dive into the former pool, but the only solution that they describe (actually, the beginning of a solution) is to complain to friends and coworkers. Such communication could be a first step in either direction, but it too often precedes the next step of voting for officials who promise to tilt the playing field rather than the next step of standing up too the boss.

August 14, 2011

The War Will Find the Shire

Justin Katz

As always, Mark Steyn does an excellent job articulating the conservative perspective, this time on the British riots:

While the British Treasury is busy writing checks to Amsterdam prostitutes, one-fifth of children are raised in homes in which no adult works — in which the weekday ritual of rising, dressing and leaving for gainful employment is entirely unknown. One-tenth of the adult population has done not a day's work since Tony Blair took office on May 1, 1997.

If you were born into such a household, you've been comprehensively "stimulated" into the dead-eyed zombies staggering about the streets this past week: pathetic inarticulate subhumans unable even to grunt the minimal monosyllables to BBC interviewers desperate to appease their pathologies. C'mon, we're not asking much: just a word or two about how it's all the fault of government "cuts" like the leftie columnists argue. And yet even that is beyond these baying beasts. The great-grandparents of these brutes stood alone against a Fascist Europe in that dark year after the fall of France in 1940. Their grandparents were raised in one of the most peaceful and crime-free nations on the planet. Were those Englishmen of the mid-20th century to be magically transplanted to London today, they'd assume they were in some fantastical remote galaxy. If Charlton Heston was horrified to discover the Planet of the Apes was his own, Britons are beginning to realize that the remote desert island of "Lord Of The Flies" is, in fact, located just off the coast of Europe in the northeast Atlantic. Within two generations of the Blitz and the Battle of Britain, a significant proportion of the once-free British people entrusted themselves to social rewiring by liberal compassionate Big Government and thereby rendered themselves paralytic and unemployable save for nonspeaking parts in "Rise of The Planet Of The Apes." And even that would likely be too much like hard work.

Today, he moves from explicit references to science-fiction dystopias to an implied, perhaps unconscious, reference to Lord of the Rings. Responding to the suggestion of Peter Hitchens that rich liberals "will find ways to save themselves" as "the filthy thing they have created" roars around them, Steyn writes:

I think they will have difficulty "saving themselves". I have many in-laws and friends in delightful corners of village England, where as the sun rises on ancient hedgerows and thatched cottages it is easy to believe the paralytic chavs and incendiary imams and all the rest are somewhere far away and always will be. As leftie columnists in their Hampstead redoubts began (privately) to calculate as the rioters moved in from the less fashionable arrondissements, on a small island the mob doesn't stay beyond the horizon for long.

You'll recall, from J.R.R. Tolkien's novel, that the four Hobbits of the Fellowship of the Ring left the Shire almost with no sense of urgency. Moreover, the dangers of Middle Earth came to their village by Bilbo's unknowingly bringing the One Ring back from his far-off adventures. In other words, when they began their adventure, it seemed that the shire would never be affected by the distant evil but for the intrusion of that one magical item, and could be saved mainly by its expulsion. When the Hobbits return, however, it is clear that the larger war had reached the Shire, anyway, and an anticlimactic section of the book is required to clear its last remnants.

I've been working, for the better part of the past half-year on a waterfront property in Tiverton overlooking the northern tip of Aquidneck Island. As the headlines have continued to turn darker and darker, it's been odd to look out across the water and think that the society that we've built could actually fall. Washington, D.C., (let alone London) seems a long, long way away. Abstractions about debt ceilings seem many steps removed from an individual family's ability to put food on the table.

Consequently, many people remain models in apathy.

In intellectual and civic terms, it is high time that people set out from their comfort zones. It is too late to keep the Shire untouched, but unless the battle is engaged, our lives are sure to be unrecognizable in no time at all.

August 6, 2011

A Father Is a Father

Justin Katz

At its core, the key argument against same-sex marriage is that it prevents our society from creating any distinction between relationships that are plainly different in significant ways. Men and women are different, and when they pair up, their intimate relationship has consequences that no other form of relationship has. Moreover, an ideal doesn't have to apply absolutely in every case for it to remain valuable for society to be able to describe and uphold it.

Such were the thoughts to come to mind when reading that fathers make a difference in their children's lives, and that fatherhood is in decline:

While it is well known how important a father's involvement is to healthy child development, a very interesting and lesser known finding comes from a 26-year longitudinal study which says that the strongest factor indicating whether children practiced high levels of empathic concern for others in their adult years was whether they had an involved father in their life. In fact, father care was a stronger indicator here than the three strongest maternal factors combined! The study explained, "These results appear to fit with previous findings indicating that pro-social behaviors such as altruism and generosity in children were related to active involvement in child care by fathers."

This does not in the least gainsay the important of mothers. It does, however, suggest that we oughtn't dramatically modify the cultural institution — marriage — that marks as uniquely desirable the family units that bring mothers and fathers together.

August 4, 2011

Continuing Downness on the Economy

Justin Katz

Thinking further about an aspect the topic that I raised this morning — namely, things that prevent Americans from forging their own way in this economy — many additional factors came to mind. A huge one is debt.

On my short lunch break, I don't have time to go in search of the link, but I read recently that personal debt in the United States greatly exceeds government debt, which is a compounded problem beyond forcing future generations broadly to finance today's public spending. Even within a couple of generations, the typical family would have needed much less money just to survive because it would have lived within its means on an annual basis.

My in-laws bought their modest cape in Portsmouth for $15,000. For the sake of ease, assume the interest payments amount to a doubling of the ultimate cost of the house; that means they would havce wound up paying roughly $1,000 per year over the life of a thirty-year mortgage. A similar house now would cost somewhere around three-quarters-of-a-million dollars, with the same interest assumption, or $25,000 per year. Somebody who decided to go out on his or her own to start a business could live on just about that amount of money while ramping up, and somebody with a mortgage of that size will surely be significantly more reluctant to take on greater debt in order to invest in a business venture.

I'm simplifying, of course. Wages have inflated, as well, and the price of real estate has something to do with demand, and so on. But part of the reason that the market has borne a 2,000% increase in the price of a house is that our toleration for debt has grown immensely. It's not just mortgages, either. Consider college debt (which has arguably only inflated the amount of education that one needs for the same exact sort of work). Cars. Equity loans. Credit cards.

Speaking from personal experience, that all means that I would be insane to commit to business loans for, say, Anchor Rising. Given all of my existing debt, I need to make so much money just to pay each month's bills that I'd quickly eat up my investment in personal salary. And if the full-time writing activity didn't result in an adequate revenue stream, I'd wind up needing to earn even more money per month to pay off the loan.

Of course, Americans used to have more room in their personal finances for a host of other reasons. When the marketplace was calibrated to the idea of one-income households, a spouse was spare capacity. Whether the working man's wife found part-time work outside the home, helped her husband with business paperwork, or worked as a partner in a storefront, that was all extra income tacked onto basic priorities.

As with regulations, both the tolerance of debt and shifts in the culture have had justifications, but it may be that they've finally all added up to a society that so differs from its prime that decline is inevitable.

July 30, 2011

Self-Government's Intrusion on Fantasy Life

Justin Katz

The argument over the value or harmfulness of television is an old one, but Ben Berger brings it to an important insight. He notes that the medium itself has downsides, and that it tends toward content that compounds them:

... Postman and his fellow media guru Marshall McLuhan both insisted that "the medium is the message," that it matters less what we watch than that we watch — watch rather than listen, read, or think in silence. Content is not irrelevant, of course: Watching violent programs in high doses correlates with reduced sociability and increased volatility, especially in youngsters. Watching crime shows and even news in high doses correlates with the excessive cynicism that the late media scholar George Gerbner called "mean-world syndrome," which impedes social trust and public-spiritedness. And a number of economists have found that TV's commercialism makes viewers more materialistic and less satisfied.

And as a medium, it taps into human — and American — tendencies that were already a risk factor to our freedom and democracy:

... Tocqueville captures our present dilemma. TV, like democracy, is a technology of freedom. It provides a window onto many worlds and offers vast amounts of information. It also caters ever more perfectly to the very proclivities — materialism and privatism — that in Tocqueville's view produce dissatisfaction and disengagement, tending "to isolate men from each other."

Therein enters the insight (emphasis added):

... Tocqueville, who would have appreciated the political dimension of our attention-deficit democracy: For those who immerse themselves too completely in their private worlds, self-government can seem an annoying intrusion. Such citizens may be tempted to delegate increasing authority to a centralized administration. Inattentive and inwardly focused, having lost the habit and art of associating, they would be unlikely to notice the erosion of their freedom and unable to stop it in any case. In the end, democracy as a technology of freedom may actually make citizens more dependent: dependent on an overweening administration and on the petty pleasures for which they sacrificed self-government.

This immersion has a further problem that Berger does not note: As the technologies that facilitate immersion advance, they become more dependent upon resources. A book once borrowed or purchased for relatively little expense can entertain for many hours. A movie lasts about two hours and requires a television and often a player or receiver of some kind, perhaps even a service.

So, not only does the private-world of insular and inactive television viewing make the call of town meetings and the voting booth an intrusion, but it creates a lifestyle that political forces can promise to help maintain — or threaten to eliminate.

July 9, 2011

Notes on Summer Reading in Rhode Island

Carroll Andrew Morse

Last evening, during a visit to a bookshop, I took a quick look at the table labeled "summer reading". I am not 100% sure that "summer reading" referred specifically to a high-school reading list, but two of the titles on the table were The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and I doubt that these books would place near the top of anyone's summer recommendation list in the absence of their reputation as books that students are supposed to read. Also, I've never understood why high-school English teachers believe that the literary theme of the misanthropic jerk (in Salinger, expressed directly through the main character, in Vonnegut, through the author's tone) is essential to the summer reading experience.

If there is any momentum for replacing Vonnegut with something good from the science fiction genre instead, I would like to recommend Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by K.W. Jeter (known best as the book that the movie Blade Runner was based on, and a very good novella in its own right).

Anyway, following from the eminently reasonable assumption that no one has read Salinger or Vonnegut in at least the last 20 years or so because they actually wanted to, suggesting that the titles on the summer reading table were indeed recommendations for students, I was a little surprised to see A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn included -- which must mean, more than anything else, that I'm a little behind the curve, on how history is being taught in our high schools. Then again, there is evidence that a non-Marxist view of American history is catching up with the curriculum in some places, as Amity Shlaes' The Forgotten Man was on the table too.

But the best antidote to the reflexive because-America-has-been-strong-it-must-be-wrong radicalism of Howard Zinn lying on the summer reading table may have been Orson Scott Card's sci-fi novel Ender's Game. Ender's Game, which has made official high-school summer reading lists for several years now, explores themes of the morality and the consequences of the use of force in ways I suspect have a much bigger impact on many teenage minds than old-line Marxist historicism will. Just ignore the little coda at the end of EG, where the author forces a bridge between Ender's story and the next couple of books in his "Speaker for the Dead" series.

(The fact that links are included to all books mentioned in this post should not be interpreted as a suggestion to buy all of them).

June 21, 2011

Portsmouth Institute, "The Catholic Shakespeare?," Sunday, June 12

Justin Katz

This year's Portsmouth Institute conference changed things up a bit by eliminating the one or two presentations from Thursday and lining up three for Sunday. It definitely made sense to better utilize the second weekend day, although the talks came in such rapid succession that a second viewing with time to ruminate is in order.

The speakers each took up a different play and offered some suggestion about their basis and meaning. First, Dr. Gerard Kilroy, of University College, London, assembled linguistic and thematic cues to suggest Romeo and Juliet as an allegory for believers and the Catholic Church, respectively:

The next speaker, Dennis Taylor, took a more historical approach in his review of Shakespeare's play The Tempest, tracing Catholic links to early efforts to explore the Americas. Apparently, some of the initial ventures in that effort carried with them the prospects of founding a refuge for English Catholics.

Closing out the day and the conference, Fr. David Beauregard took a religious and philosophical look at relationships, charity, and the development of virtue in The Tempest. (I apologize for the technical lapse in the middle of the speech.)

As always, I left the Portsmouth Abbey campus with a bit of melancholy that my annual taste of a more refined and intellectual life had come to a close. Was Shakespeare Catholic? Well, he was certainly sympathetic to Catholics' plight and had personal connections to people who were persecuted for their faith. Moreover, in the artist's quest for the profound, the tremendous religious turmoil of his day would have been a ready well.

With such venues and events as presented by the Portsmouth Institute, one can draw a sip and begin to see the deeper threads through the human experience, into our own day. Whatever the topic when next year comes around, it is always regenerative to find that the complications and labors of passing life are not all.

June 20, 2011

GoLocal's Rankings

Marc Comtois

So GoLocalProv is trying to find the "Best Community" in Rhode Island, huh? I suppose it is a clever way to drive website traffic (and media discussion) throughout the week by releasing your findings in pieces. Especially when you put each ranking as it's own discrete web page, thereby amplifying web clicks, page views, etc. But when you try to quantify such things, you end up relying on, well, what's quantifiable and ignoring aesthetics and the like. That's how you end up with a list that says Central Falls is "better than" Block Island. Yikes.

June 17, 2011

Portsmouth Institute, "The Catholic Shakespeare?," Saturday, June 11

Justin Katz

The Saturday sessions of the Portsmouth Institute's conference, this year, began with Clare Asquith, speaking on "As You Like It and the Elizabethan Catholic Dilemma":

Mrs. Asquith's acute thesis is that Shakespeare wrote the play with a particular Catholic family in mind — indeed, perhaps under that family's patronage. Her broader suggestion is that the religious atmosphere of the time couldn't help but permeate the plays. For one thing, the various religious identity groups created character types who would have to appear in order for the play to seem authentic; for another, religious images were very useful for drawing characters and creating allegory.

One interesting example of the deep questions and interesting dynamics that were practically in the air for the plucking was the conflict between those who favored light and those who favored dark. The "Golden Bride," for example, could be seen as desirable because pure or otherwise because phony, thus creating a fabulous literary device that depended on perspective — say the distinction between Roman Catholics and Calvinists.

At any rate, there persisted, at the time, to be a sizable class of wealthy Catholics from whom Shakespeare could have derived patronage.

Next up was Dr. Glenn Arbery, of Assumption College, talking about "The Problem of Catholic Piety in the Henry VI Plays":

As you'll note from his accent, Dr. Arbery is a Southern man, and it's therefore not entirely surprising that he drew parallels between Shakespeare and William Faulkner, both of whom wrote at times of social adjustment, with all of the anxieties and changing orders that such times bring. When a society is thus shaking at its core, authors come to realize more deeply what its characteristics are — who its people are — and observe what it is being urged to become. There are good and bad in both, of course, just as there are positives and negatives in both the dark and the light (as Asquith put them), and part of what makes contemporary literature so rich is authors' inclination to highlight aspects of each, explicitly or inherently as a means of encouraging their societies to preserve or discard certain aspects.

Reading between the lines of Arbery's speech, one can discern inchoate buds of a distinction being made between what makes a good man and what makes a good leader (in the context of religion and monarchy). Secular democracy, though still a good distance off, was on its way — an excellent development, to be sure. But Shakespeare's history plays warn of the sorts of men and women who will strive to be the alternative to the "good man" who is not such a good king.

After Arbery's talk (and lunch) buses took us down the length of Aquidneck Island to Stanford White's Newport Casino Theater, which has not been entirely completed, yet, but which hosted the next presentation for the conference, scenes from Hamlet performed by
Theater of the Word Incorporated interspersed with analytical narration by Joseph Pearce:

The method of presentation was an excellent and entertaining method of explaining a thesis (although it was dark and so entertaining that I didn't take notes). And the theater itself was sufficiently compelling as to make me wish I had time to write plays again.

Back on the campus of the Portsmouth Abbey School, Saturday finished with a dinner talk by Father Peter Milward, whom I understand to have led the charge of research into the Catholic dimension of Shakespeare's plays.

Fr. Milward made among the most interesting points of the weekend when he noted that persecution of Catholics had gradually increased over the 1500s, climaxing during Shakespeare's time. Ever since, the Protestants have written the history, as it were, making Shakespeare seem to be a secular writer. Now, as Milward puts it, England "is not so much anti-Catholic as anti-Christian."

So it goes. See it as evolution or progressive devolution, a society that teases its profundity away from the underlying conclusion that made it profound in the first place will drift until its philosophy is hollow and its language unable to support the many layers of true depth.

June 14, 2011

Presidential Narcissism Takes a Weird Tack

Marc Comtois
I can tell you that if it was me, I would resign.
I keep hearing that soundbite on WPRO this morning. It sounded strange to me that President Obama chose to frame his disapproval of Rep. Anthony Weiner's actions in just that way. It doesn't seem, well, Presidential to project oneself into that sort of situation (unless you're Bill Clinton) as a way to help explain your disapproval. It wasn't necessary and it isn't politically astute.

I believe it was a rhetorical misstep: it can plant into the mind of the listener the idea--even but for a moment--that President Obama could be capable of tweeting his junk. Or worse. (Take it easy, I'm not accusing the President of having "lust in his heart" or harboring imprurient twitter thoughts, just thinking aloud about the impression his statement can have.) Yet, this rhetorical choice isn't so surprising, coming as it does from a president who routinely views everything through his own "I's". Maybe it's such a natural thing for him to view the world as his stage that, even when confronted with an incident as unseemly as this, he just can't stay in the chorus.

Portsmouth Institute, "The Catholic Shakespeare?," Friday, June 10

Justin Katz

As always, the Portsmouth Institute's annual conference was an edifying and relaxing taste of high intellectual pursuit, and one can only wish such events were more regularly available... and more broadly pursued by the general public.

Rt. Rev. Dom Aidan Bellenger, the Abbot of Downside, set the scene with the opening lecture on Friday afternoon. He described the religious upheaval during Shakespeare's time, during which "targeted attacks on tradition [cut] the culture adrift from its ancient moorings." Thus Shakespeare worked in an atmosphere of "creative tension of religious uncertainties."

Following Fr. Bellenger, Dr. John Cox, an English professor at Hope College, surveyed the use of prayer in Shakespeare. Specifically, Cox addressed the question of whether the prayers in Shakespeare's plays are notably Catholic, coming to the conclusion that they certainly show him to be knowledgeable of Christian practice and not unsympathetic, but that there was nothing strikingly Catholic about them. Overall, Shakespeare appears to have taken prayer seriously, and presented it as a sort of functional activity within a comprehensible moral framework, but he's dealing with characters (many unseemly), not with exegesis.

Later in the conference, I had occasion to mention to Dr. Cox my observation that prayer is very much like play writing in that the author is composing words to be spoken to convey some idea to an audience. He offered St. Augustine's Confessions as essentially a very long prayer, and I noted somebody's comments during Cox's Q&A session citing a character's use of the word "indulgence" when petitioning the audience for applause, as if the audience were a collection of saints available for appeal.

His reply was that some critics conclude that Shakespeare began to empty the language of profundity by using such words in light theatrical context and thus diminishing their utility for describing religious concepts. I wondered if that's led to a modern period in which the language provides the author no inherent profundity at all. But it also occurs to me that the double meaning of words is a very Catholic idea — not to say that Catholics invented the device, but that (as with Transubstantiation) the religious significance of words exists as a real, almost tangible thing however used.

After Dr. Cox's talk, however, deep thoughts were swept away for the time being with a specially collected orchestra's fantastic performances of Sir William Walton's Henry V Suite and Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, under the conducting of Troy Quinn:

Then, after a typically excellent Portsmouth Abbey meal, three students from the school offered the nightcap of some scenes from Romeo and Juliet:

June 10, 2011

UPDATED: Portsmouth Institute, 2011

Justin Katz

This year's Portsmouth Institute conference takes up the topic of "The Catholic Shakespeare," and fittingly, this evening's musical interlude features music of a Shakespearean theme. Specifically, the orchestra will be playing Sir William Walton's Henry V Suite and Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. The performance begins at 6:15, so you've still got time to get to the Portsmouth Abbey campus if you're in the mood for a free concert.

Going into the weekend, I was curious about the manner in which the topic would be presented. The inaugural conference, two years ago, following pretty closely on his death, was mainly a forum for remembrances of William F. Buckley, Jr., with an emphasis on his religious faith. Last year, with the impending beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the conference dealt with that tremendous figure and his effect on Catholic thought. This year's topic is a very specific question concerning a mainly cultural figure.

Of course, that figure is William Shakespeare, which makes the material of its own especial interest. So far Rt. Rev. Dom Aidan Bellenger described the cultural setting in which Shakespeare wrote, with specific reference to the destruction of Catholic monasteries. The second speaker, John Cox, gave a short survey of the use of prayer in Shakespeare's plays. Both talks were certainly edifying and left plenty of room for revelations of a broader cultural significance — which shouldn't have been surprising, after all, given the subject matter. Neither Shakespeare nor Catholicism are very narrow in their application.

Addendum 7:10 p.m.:

The music at these events is always excellent (thanks to music director Troy Quinn), but tonight's performance exceeded even my high expectations. I hope to have video up in the morning.

May 31, 2011

The Narrative That Never Changes

Justin Katz

Arlene Violet is one of those iconic Rhode Island figures to whom we're compelled to pay some level of attention, but I'd intended largely to ignore her musical about the mob. I'm sure there's some novelty to it, and it's probably well done, but with the Godfather movies, Goodfellas, Casino, The Sopranos, and the long list of movies and television shows, the turf has been very well explored.

The same characterization applies to this pretense related to a particular element of the plot:

At the same time, the tough U. S. Marshal in the show has his bad side, said Violet. In other words, no one in the show is all black or white, except perhaps the son, Renaldo, the aspiring opera singer who is gay. Garzilli called him the show's "moral barometer," the son every mother would love to have.

In most musicals in which there is a gay character, like "La Cage aux Folles," audiences have to contend with what Violet called the "swish factor." She finds that stereotype "counterproductive."

"Maybe if people see a character like the son," said Violet, "it will change the Rhode Island debate over same-sex marriage."

The presentation of homosexuals as the best adjusted characters in a given production has been an entertainment-media cliché at least as far back as Melrose Place in the early '90s. The movie American Beauty placed the well-adjusted gay couple in contrast to a severely dysfunctional neighborhood of heterosexuals. Even without much television in my daily routine, I can point to Glee, Modern Family, and some twentysomething show with a name I haven't bothered to learn, but a plot that leaps off the screen in the time that it takes to walk from the kitchen to the bathroom.

In other words, the attempt to subversively present the one pure and admirable character in a cast as the gay character is not subversive at all, but a Hollywood cultural standard that appears to be layered on top of the multiple mafia standards of the musical. That's fine, I suppose, inasmuch as the intention appears to be to stir up some not-very-original ideas in the still-novel medium of a stage musical. The interesting question that arises is whether it's indicative of Baby Boomers' inability to understand how the world has changed or of the continuing desire to squeeze a little more transgressively tolerant (yet completely safe) perfume from a nearly empty bottle.

That Violet apparently believes general familiarity with homosexuals to be so rare that a positive character in an off-off-Broadway musical might change people's views on same-sex marriage suggests that both possibilities are strongly in play.

May 30, 2011

Same Old One-Sided Moralization

Justin Katz

One day, writing for multiple newspapers across the country will require evidence of such thinking as is appropriate of mature adults. That fantasy came to mind upon reading this by L.A. Times writer Neal Gabler:

... over the last 30 years or so, something has happened to reshape the country's moral geography. Everyone knows about the rise of Moral Majority-style Christian evangelicals as a potent force in right-wing politics. It injected a certain aggressive moralism into our political discourse and led to campaigns against abortion rights, homosexual rights, sexual freedom and other issues perceived as and then framed as moral matters. As a result, our politics became "moralized"; they were transformed into a contest of one set of values pitted against another.

This was hardly the first time politics was overtaken by morality. One has only to think of abolition and Prohibition. The difference this time was that as politics were being moralized and polarized, our morals were also being politicized and polarized. The two moral systems that had so long coexisted suddenly became mutually exclusive, oppositional and finally inseparable from the two regnant political ideologies.

His description of those "two moral systems" is sufficient to see where Gabler's thinking goes off the tracks:

On the one hand, there is the Puritan-inflected America of rugged individualism, hard work, self-reliance and personal responsibility in which you reap what you sow, God helps those who help themselves, and our highest obligation is to live righteously. ...

On the other hand, there is also an America of community, common cause, charity and collective responsibility.

Only a liberal intent on maintaining the specious claim of his ideological allies on the principle of "compassion" could pit the nation's Puritan heritage against the notion of community. After all, the first American instance of public citation of Jesus' description of the people as a "city upon a hill" occurred just before John Winthrop actually set foot upon the land.

One's individual moral righteousness, in this view, is to serve as an indication of the moral righteousness of the community. One takes personal responsibility, in short, for the good of the community. Lacking self reliance makes one a burden to the collective, whether (in a religious sense) by attracting the ire of God or (in a secular sense) draining resources and introducing unneeded distractions.

Of course, it isn't necessary to get into such deep political philosophy in order to see the immaturity of Gabler's complaint against evangelicals: The notion that it was an objectionable and new "aggressive moralism" that prompted "campaigns against abortion rights, homosexual rights, sexual freedom and other issues" is self refuting. Only through the blind ideological assertion that abortion and movement toward libertinism are in some sense ideologically neutral can defense against them be termed as "aggressive."

The belief that individuals ought to have free sexual rein without social or legal censure from the community is actually the break in the balance between the "two moral systems" (to the extent that they were every distinct in the first place). The refusal to maintain social norms that fostered the ascension of Western Civilization and the United States transforms self-reliance into self-indulgence and discounts the claim of the collective on the behavior of the individual. We can argue about where that line should be and whether it ought to be enforced in law or in culture, but clearly what we're thereby adjusting is the fulcrum on which our society balances.

What emerges aren't two moral systems, much less a subjective morality versus an objective belief in liberty, but rather two sets of priorities with drastic differences in civic implications. On one side are those who believe that a certain moral framework and self restraint are indispensable to economic and political independence and who seek, therefore, to craft a society that fortifies such a framework so as to enable citizens to be maximally free where it matters. It's a long, slow, and messy process, to be sure, sifting through various aspects of behavior to determine which truly erode what's important and which are negated proscriptions handed down from the past, but that doesn't mean that all proscriptions are arbitrary.

On the other side are those who profess to believe that no judgment should exist when it comes to lifestyle and that a compassionate society will, in turn, mitigate the consequences of behavior through public economic support in exchange for political support of a top-down collective. This is repeatedly proven to be a subjective guide, inasmuch as those who have dogged compassion for the sexually permissive have no compunction about dictating, say, dietary rules. The principle, such as it is, appears to be that people should be free to do things that increase their likelihood of dependency.

May 25, 2011

Ravitch Takes a Breath & Apologizes to Gist

Marc Comtois

The ProJo reports that that reformed education reformer Dianne Ravitch had apologized to RI Ed. Commish Deborah Gist for her actions following their recent meeting (which included a demand that Gist apologize to her). Ravitch issued the mea culpa on her blog after a visit to the Franciscan-founded Sienna College over the weekend. Apparently, the sense of community and the belief that we should treat others fairly impressed itself upon Ravitch.

I was indeed moved by my exposure to Siena. And when I came home, I reflected on a blog I wrote recently about my visit to Rhode Island. In that blog, I wrote harsh words about state Commissioner Deborah Gist. On reflection, I concluded that I had written in anger and that I was unkind. For that, I am deeply sorry.

Like every other human being, I have my frailties; I am far from perfect. I despair of the spirit of meanness that now permeates so much of our public discourse. One sees it on television, hears it on radio talk shows, reads it in comments on blogs, where some attack in personal terms using the cover of anonymity or even their own name, taking some sort of perverse pleasure in maligning or ridiculing others.

I don't want to be part of that spirit. Those of us who truly care about children and the future of our society should find ways to share our ideas, to discuss our differences amicably, and to model the behavior that we want the young to emulate. I want to advance the ideals and values that are so central to the Siena community: compassion, responsibility, integrity, empathy, and standing up against injustice. When Father Mullen presented me with my degree, he said that I am "now and forevermore a daughter of Siena." Although I am Jewish, not Catholic, I will strive to live up to that charge.

Credit goes to Ravitch for the re-set. My major criticism of her has been her stridency and her apparent unwillingness to believe in the sincerity of those with whom she disagrees. It's a trap that many of us fall into from time to time. Some of us live there. But being nice doesn't mean being any less passionate. It's important to realize that this came about because Ravitch had the opportunity to immerse herself in a community such as Sienna (or, say, a few days at a Portsmouth Institute event) that gave her time to reflect upon your outlook. It's a lesson to us all to take a breath every once in a while.

May 5, 2011

I’ll believe it when I see it

Marc Comtois

I’ll believe it when I see it. So starts the latest post by Seth Godin. It's apropos given the current controversy surrounding the bin Laden death photos.

We have to accept that once we start down the slippery slope of always (or never) believing, we end up in Alice-in-Wonderland territory. Do you have firsthand knowledge that the Earth is round (a sphere)? Really? Have you ever seen the tuberculosis bacteria? Perhaps it doesn’t exist, they might say it’s just a fraud invented by the pharmaceutical industry to get us to buy expensive drugs... Or consider the flip side, the Bernie Madoff too-good-to-be-true flipside of invisible riches that never appear. After all, if someone can't prove it's a fraud yet, it might be true!

Eight things you’ve probably never seen with your own eyes: Buzz Aldrin, the US debt, multi-generational evolution of mammals, an atom of hydrogen, Google’s search algorithm, the inside of a nuclear power plant, a whale and the way your body digests a cookie. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, nor does it mean you can’t find a way to make them useful.

Do governments and marketers lie to us? All the time. Does that mean that the powerful (reproducible, testable and yes, true) invisible forces of economics, history and science are a fraud? No way.

Once you go down that road, you’re on your own, no longer a productive member of a society built on rational thought. Be skeptical. Test and measure and see if the truth is a useful hypothesis to help move the discussion forward. Please do. But at some point, in order to move forward, we have to accept that truth can’t be a relative concept, something to use when it suits our agenda but be discarded when we're frightened or want to score a point....Merely because it's invisible doesn't mean it's true--or false.

I don't think it's that people are skeptical about the death of bin Laden. I think the attitude is more like the Reaganesque "trust but verify", right? But at some point, whether the photos are officially released or not, time will prove that bin Laden is really dead: when there are no more audio or visual releases from him, when his terrorist heirs continue to be silent...or when the photos eventually leak out.

ADDENDUM: Incidentally, don't take the above as giving the Obama Administration a pass on handling the after-action "messaging" or the like. In short, the military--as usual--did it's job. The politicians aren't.

May 4, 2011

Preference for a More Confident Nation

Justin Katz

There's been some conversation in the comment sections suggesting that there's something contrary to American culture in street celebrations over Osama bin Laden's death, particularly to the extent that they involved effigies and burning pictures. Acknowledgement that a milestone has been reached and justice meted in an individual case is certainly appropriate, but the attitude that ought to underlie it, to my mind, is of steely resolve tinged with regret that the world has come to this. The death of bin Laden will not bring back those lost on September 11 and after, in the war on terror. And it's unlikely that, of itself, it will prove all that significant to the defeat of global terrorism perpetrated by radical Muslims.

This sentence, from an analysis by Liz Sidoti concerning the crass political repercussions of the killing, is downright chilling:

Now, in the early days of his re-election campaign, Obama is in a clear position of political strength as Americans finally are able to savor the death of the man responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

My understanding of America's approach to war was that it was consciously devoid of blood lust. Whether our intention is to pursue dire national interests or help to resolve atrocities (and whether or not one believes the latter justifies our involvement in wars), we view combat operations functionally, as dirty work that must be done.

I think back to the iconic images of ticker tape parades and dancing in the street at the end of World War II, and two key aspects jump out. First, the hardship and austerity of the war were decisively over from that moment, and the troops would be coming home. Neither really applies, in this case.

Second, the emphasis of such celebrations appears through the lens of history to have been "we've won," not "they've lost." Burning images and savoring death are of the latter attitude, and it would be a very sinister development for it to dominate, not the least because it bespeaks a cultural insecurity. A confident nation doesn't need revenge and isn't so haunted by individuals who've done it harm that its people must dispel their ghosts with public rituals.

April 21, 2011

Not (Hiring) Just Another Pretty Face

Marc Comtois

It's a travesty I tell ya!

Staff in personnel departments are overwhelmingly female, typically single and aged 29 on average, the researchers found....The research, published by The Royal Economic Society, involved sending more than 5,300 CVs for 2,650 job vacancies. For each job, two applications were sent. One contained a photograph of an attractive man or woman, or a plain-looking man or woman. The other CV was identical, but did not contain a photograph.

Nearly 20 per cent of attractive men got an interview.

But only 12.8 per cent of attractive women fared as well.

Of plain men, 9.2 per cent got an interview, compared with 13.6 per cent of plain women. Men who did not attach a picture were asked for interview 13.7 per cent of the time, compared with 16.6 per cent of women.

Bradley Ruffle, from the Department of Economics at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, which carried out the study along with the Ariel University Centre in the West Bank, said it was an example of ‘beauty discrimination’.

So don't send a picture, ladies. Or dress down. Or something.
For the best chance of getting an interview, a woman should send in a CV without a picture, he said.

He blamed ‘the high number of women in human resources staffing positions’. It is their job to look through a mountain of CVs and job applications to decide who should be asked for an interview, and who should not.

When they see an application from a pretty woman, researchers said, many of these staff feel extremely ‘jealous’ of their potential colleague and often reject her instantly.

To check this stereotype, researchers telephoned the companies who were recruiting to find out about the people who screened the candidates.

They found that 96 per cent were female, the majority were between the ages of 23 and 34 and nearly 70 per cent were single.


April 17, 2011

UPDATED: John Derbyshire: "Dissidents and Doom"

Justin Katz

John Derbyshire, writer for National Review and author of We Are Doomed spoke last night to the Providence College Republicans, displaying his erudition and low-key humor on the topic of the dissident personality.

The upshot of Mr. Derbyshire's lecture had a relevance that I didn't expect to Rhode Island's current predicament. He spoke of "a dissident scene full of petty squabbles," which has certainly applied to Rhode Island's center-right reform movement at times over the past few years.

One question that would be worth further exploration arises from his very conservative suggestion that dissidents should have a due respect for the gods and pieties of the tribe, so to speak. That strikes me as applying a bit askew to Rhode Island and to the United States generally. Broadly speaking, our society is pretty sharply divided between two tribes, which has the effect of giving both a reasonable claim to dissidence (although conservatives have the better). The pieties of one are the blasphemes of the other.

Readers won't be surprised that my opinion is that dissidents of the Left are mainly conforming to a carefully woven groupthink that presumes itself to be the default truth for the culture. Still, resolving the conflict of opposing factions that each believes itself to be the righteous revolution founded in the original principles of our society will be quite a project... assuming the United States can survive it.

The title of Mr. Derbyshire's book gives some indication of what his opinion might be on that last count.


Mr. Derbyshire has provided the text of his speech on his personal Web site.

April 13, 2011

Guilt Industry Meme of the Day: Women Earn Less Than Men

Marc Comtois

"Rhode Island women earn $10,200 less than men" says the Providence Business News headline.

Full-time employed women in Rhode Island are paid an average of $10,191 less than their male counterparts, according to research conducted by the National Partnership for Women & Families.

The research is meant to shed light on the persisting gender-based wage gap on Equal Pay Day on Tuesday, April 12.

In Rhode Island, a woman working full time is paid $39,248 per year, while a man working full time is paid $49,439 per year.

Nationally, women working full-time are paid an average of 77 cents for every dollar that men earn.

Well, not quite, says Carrie Lukas:
Feminist hand-wringing about the wage gap relies on the assumption that the differences in average earnings stem from discrimination. Thus the mantra that women make only 77% of what men earn for equal work. But even a cursory review of the data proves this assumption false.

The Department of Labor's Time Use survey shows that full-time working women spend an average of 8.01 hours per day on the job, compared to 8.75 hours for full-time working men. One would expect that someone who works 9% more would also earn more. This one fact alone accounts for more than a third of the wage gap.

Choice of occupation also plays an important role in earnings. While feminists suggest that women are coerced into lower-paying job sectors, most women know that something else is often at work. Women gravitate toward jobs with fewer risks, more comfortable conditions, regular hours, more personal fulfillment and greater flexibility. Simply put, many women—not all, but enough to have a big impact on the statistics—are willing to trade higher pay for other desirable job characteristics.

Men, by contrast, often take on jobs that involve physical labor, outdoor work, overnight shifts and dangerous conditions (which is also why men suffer the overwhelming majority of injuries and deaths at the workplace). They put up with these unpleasant factors so that they can earn more.

Recent studies have shown that the wage gap shrinks—or even reverses—when relevant factors are taken into account and comparisons are made between men and women in similar circumstances. In a 2010 study of single, childless urban workers between the ages of 22 and 30, the research firm Reach Advisors found that women earned an average of 8% more than their male counterparts. Given that women are outpacing men in educational attainment, and that our economy is increasingly geared toward knowledge-based jobs, it makes sense that women's earnings are going up compared to men's.

I hope it's obvious that equal pay for equal work regardless of gender, creed, etc. is desirable. Stories like this relying on a simplistic statistical reading are meant to generate controversy, continue to foment a "battle of the sexes" mindset and, gee whiz, just maybe make it appear that feminist culture warriors are still relevant.

April 9, 2011

Earth Week: Hands-On Motorheads, Hearken to Iowahawk

Monique Chartier

A lovely way to celebrate.

Yes friends (in case you had not already marked your calendar), 2011 Earth Week is officially slated to take place April 17-23. And, for the 6th straight year, I will be opening this space for our annual Earth Week Virtual Cruise-In, where Iowahawk readers around our fragile planet gather, share, and celebrate nature's greatest miracle: the internal combustion vehicle. Over the years I have been proud to feature some amazing carbonating machinery, be it land-, water-, or airborne (see, for example, last year's entries).

And now's your chance to participate! But be forewarned - best bring your 'A' game, because there ain't no half-steppin' in CO2 City. If you've got an eye-popping car / truck / motorcycle / motorboat / airplane / intergalactic Vespa Death Star, send a pic and a pithy description via the email link on the left sidebar (please add 'Earth Week Cruise' in the subject line).

March 29, 2011

A Moment for Misanthropy

Justin Katz

It's the kind of commentary that's probably best let to drift out to the sea of forgotten column inches, but the following general observation from Mark Patinkin has been bugging me:

By contrast, little has been shown of the areas where the tsunami washed over natural areas. That’s because nature is designed to mostly absorb such a disaster. It’s a reminder that a natural catastrophe like this doesn’t destroy the landscape, it just destroys the unnatural things man adds to it. On one hand, human creations represent the highest form of evolution, but on the other, lowly animals in the tsunami zone have no doubt by now gone back to their burrows and lives.

If not treated as a throwaway line, Patinkin's misanthropy in the face of human suffering is quite astonishing and makes me sincerely concerned for his mental state. And it's absurd on its face. A wall of water sweeping across the land uproots countless plants and drowns countless animals. Those animals that return to the landscape, having survived, are wholly reliant on the continued existence of their food source and shelter.

To the extent that natural things bounce back more quickly — and the dinosaurs and shifting habitats prove there to be an "if" involved — it's because the line of their success is drawn at survival. Mankind strives for a bit more.

Patinkin presents human beings as interlopers in an otherwise Edenic nature, but the truth is somewhat starker. In nature, species that cannot survive in a region will not be there to perish when the region does what it periodically does — whether drought or tsunami — because they will have left or died off long ago. In that sense, I suppose, they are "designed" for the circumstances of their environment. Indeed, I'd agree that an active verb like "design" is wholly appropriate.

Human beings, by contrast, are designed to learn from and adapt to our environment. That which we build may not be "great achievements" if the requirement is that they be indestructible, but the defining quality of homo sapiens is that we not only retain the knowledge to rebuild, but we also have the capacity to improve that which we, ourselves, design.

March 24, 2011

Paglia on Liz Taylor: The Power of a Woman

Marc Comtois

Camille Paglia, who admits to being obsessed with Elizabeth Taylor, puts the just-deceased actress in cultural perspective:

To me, Elizabeth Taylor's importance as an actress was that she represented a kind of womanliness that is now completely impossible to find on the U.S. or U.K. screen. It was rooted in hormonal reality -- the vitality of nature. She was single-handedly a living rebuke to postmodernism and post-structuralism, which maintain that gender is merely a social construct...

Elizabeth Taylor's maternal quality is central to her heterosexual power. Elizabeth Taylor could control men. She liked men. And men liked her. There was a chemistry between her and men, coming from her own maternal instincts. I've been writing about this for years, and it was partly inspired by watching Taylor operate on-screen and off. The happy and successful heterosexual woman feels tender and maternal toward men -- but this has been completely lost in our feminist era. Now women tell men, you have to be my companion and be just like a woman; be my best friend, and listen to me chatter. In other words, women don't really like men anymore -- they want men to be like women. But Elizabeth Taylor liked men, and men loved to be around her because they sensed that.

But she was no pushover! She gave as good as she got. There were those famous knock-down, drag-out fights with Burton, and she loved it. No man ever ruled her. Not for a second. But at the same time her men weren't henpecked. She liked strong men.

Plus, she was hot.

March 22, 2011

The Law of Honoring Thy Parents

Justin Katz

It seems to me that this, which I spotted in the no-longer-available-to-print-subscribers-online National Review "The Week" feature in the February 21 issue, likely misses most of the good things that an expectation of respect for one's parents can inculcate in a society:

Oldsters in today's China too often go neglected by their busy, ambitious children. ... China now has the world's third-highest elderly-suicide rate. What to do? Pass a law! The nation's Civil Affairs Ministry is pushing legislation that will require adult children to visit their elderly parents regularly. Unvisited parents will have a right to sue the kids.

Where the culture is inactive, I suppose, the law will invade. Operating under guilt at least requires an acknowledgment by progeny that they owe something to their progenitors. I'm not so sure that visits performed under threat of legal action will have the beneficial effects desired for the elderly, or their children.

March 16, 2011

The Prayer and the Regent

Justin Katz

My patch column, this week, joins two topics related to education in Rhode Island:

The connection is indirect, to be sure, but the controversy over an old prayer banner in Cranston High School West brings to mind the Chafee administration - and not (only) because Rhode Island's new governor has me so worried that I think a school-system-wide prayer initiative might be beneficial.

Rather, what connects the items, in my mind, is an aspect of newly confirmed Board of Regents Chairman George Caruolo's not-so-surprising hesitance to embrace the reforms that Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist has been pursuing with such zest.

March 13, 2011

Medical Mary Jane - Cure-all for what ails ya?

Marc Comtois

I'm sympathetic to those who believe and have experienced the benefits of medical marijuana. Yet, I still have serious reservations about the way the law was rushed into being here in Rhode Island. There still seem to be a lot of gray areas. And the examples put forth by the ProJo's in-depth look at Colorado's medical marijuana landscape don't do much to alleviate some of my suspicions regarding those who actually, really do need it and those who are, well, taking advantage of the seemingly inherent benevolence of the new system. For instance, the piece opens with a sympathetic look at 67 year old Richard Collins, who we're informed was a "Marine Corps veteran" who "never had a brush with the law."

But you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who smokes more marijuana than this Montana native. He tokes “all day, every day,” to ease a host of ailments including depression, back pain, headaches and arthritis.
Then there's young Steve Horowitz, owner of the Ganja Gourmet who:
grew up on Long Island, started smoking pot at age 17. He said it helped him cope with attention deficit disorder.
First we heard of the benefits of marijuana when it came to helping alleviate the nausea associated with chemotherapy and the like. Then we heard of its benefits regarding the mitigation of severe pain. Well, I can believe that. But now, we learn that it is being prescribed to help with arthritis, depression and ADD. I wonder what is more dangerous: a person with ADD driving a car who is taking his regular medicine or one who smoked a little pot to, you know, get more focused. Regardless, it seems like we have a genuine wonder-drug here, folks. Either that, or people might, just might, be abusing the system.

March 11, 2011

Once Again Re: The Direction of Imposition

Justin Katz

This started out as a comment to my previous post on the topic, but it began to feel more like a post in its own right.

As usual, our left-leaning readers have got me all wrong. I have absolutely no problem with any religion having an exclusive prayer posted in public schools, even with required recitation each morning provided there is no national policy that prevents the same for other religions. That is, let some community somewhere implement daily Muslim prayers, as long as there is no longer an ACLU veto on Christianity elsewhere.

If God blesses a minority-religion community with smarter, better adjusted, and more economically productive young adults as a result, perhaps the rest of the country would benefit from the example. (Go ahead and argue against that proposition without founding your argument in some article of faith.)

For my own community — that in which I pay taxes and am registered to vote — I would advocate for support (maybe even encouragement) of individual exploration and articulation of beliefs, with all given equivalent rights to public expression, and the added proviso that traditions already in place require the democratic process (not threats of lawsuits or judicial fiats) to change. If there's a banner, if there's a traditional appearance by the Easter Bunny, if there's an annual Hanukkah festival, then the entire community should agree to ending it.

As much as it pains me to use the "m" word with reference to my own stance, you don't get much more moderate than the above. Unfortunately, ideologues have succeeded in convincing a broad swath of people (especially in the Northeast) that their extremism is the default for all right-thinking people.

Re: The Direction of Imposition

Justin Katz

I've been at a loss as to how to respond to the comments to my post this morning about the Cranston school prayer banner, because those who advocate for the removal of the banner are so extreme in their beliefs (even those who are typically reasonable and moderate in their approach) that they appear to lack any sense of proportion or capacity for compromise on this issue. Fortunately, Mangeek has phrased the position in a way that facilitates my response:

I'm an atheist dues-paying member of a conservative Christian church (figure that one out).

It would be one thing if there was a prayer/religious group in the school that met weekly and put something like this up in their 'wall space', but it's not. When a school itself puts a banner up that starts with 'Heavenly Father', it's an overt endorsement of religion, and it gives people like me the willies.

I've also been omitting the (recent) McCarthyist addition of 'Under God' line from the pledge since I was twelve. When I was a scout leader, I made an effort to drop the 'God stuff' from our various daily oaths and sayings. I also allowed my scouts who weren't religious to stay back at the campsite during mandatory 'religious hours' at Yawgoog so we could engage in somber, silent reflection of the week's successes and failures.

Keep in mind, I'm in no way anti-religious, I'm anti-authoritarian, and putting 'heavenly father' banners up, adding 'God' to a pledge spoken at the opening of school, and mandating religious service attendance at camp all fall under the 'authoritarian' category for me.

You want religion in school? Fine, have it from students on the same terms that groups meet to discuss the environment or school governance, but keep it firmly separated from school administration.

By what conceivable measure is it possible to see the first of the following as more authoritarian than the second?

  • A local school committee, with the apparent backing of a majority of town residents, keeping in place a banner that has been with the school since the very beginning, even though it hails from a time when it was acceptable to urge prayer in public
  • A national advocacy organization (and certain commenters from Pawtucket, Providence, Arizona, and other places that are not the town in question) trying to use the expense of legal action as a means of bullying the district into taking the banner down on the grounds that a handful of residents do or might object to it

I'm especially confused about how Mangeek could choose the former as more authoritarian because he also believes it's authoritarian for a religiously founded private group (the Boy Scouts) to require prayers and attendance at some kind of religious service).

March 8, 2011

What Inspires Political Activity?

Justin Katz

A recent iteration of First Things' "While We're at It" feature mentioned the Wall Street Journal lament of feminist Erica Jong that breeding and raising children is a fad that just won't die. From the lament:

Unless you've been living on another planet, you know that we have endured an orgy of motherphilia for at least the last two decades. Movie stars proudly display their baby bumps, and the shiny magazines at the checkout counter never tire of describing the joys of celebrity parenthood. Bearing and rearing children has come to be seen as life's greatest good. Never mind that there are now enough abandoned children on the planet to make breeding unnecessary. Professional narcissists like Angelina Jolie and Madonna want their own little replicas in addition to the African and Asian children that they collect to advertise their open-mindedness.

The intellectual problems that Jong evinces are plentiful. (Why, for one, should we criticize celebrities for adopting third-world children in addition to having their own, even as we point to "abandoned children" as a standing problem?) Much of what she writes can be dismissed on purely ideological grounds; that is, if the reader doesn't share the ideology, the points are without sense.

However, the First Things blurb is a little unfair, in that Jong's initial statements of ideological gunk are really just a foundation on which she builds more interesting walls, some of which are certainly reasonable, even insightful:

What is so troubling about these theories of parenting—both pre- and postnatal—is that they seem like attempts to exert control in a world that is increasingly out of control. We can't get rid of the carcinogens in the environment, but we can make sure that our kids arrive at school each day with a reusable lunch bag full of produce from the farmers' market. We can't do anything about loose nukes falling into the hands of terrorists, but we can make sure that our progeny's every waking hour is tightly scheduled with edifying activities.

Our obsession with parenting is an avoidance strategy. It allows us to substitute our own small world for the world as a whole. But the entire planet is a child's home, and other adults are also mothers and fathers. We cannot separate our children from the ills that affect everyone, however hard we try. Aspiring to be perfect parents seems like a pathetic attempt to control what we can while ignoring problems that seem beyond our reach.

In her attempt to connect these dots, Jong joins strange principles that jar discordantly with reality:

... although attachment parenting comes with an exquisite progressive pedigree, it is a perfect tool for the political right. It certainly serves to keep mothers and fathers out of the political process. If you are busy raising children without societal help and trying to earn a living during a recession, you don't have much time to question and change the world that you and your children inhabit. What exhausted, overworked parent has time to protest under such conditions?

If there's a conservative who has advocated "attachment parenting" — which entails parents' effectively binding themselves to their children — I haven't read his or her work. And, moreover, if there's a politically active right-winger who wants to divert devoted parents from the political fight, he or she has wisely learned to keep that counter-intuitive intention quiet.

Perhaps her imagination doesn't reach that far, but Jong need only have brought to mind the conservative's vision of an ideal family... even a cliché version of that vision: One parent able to stay home with the children, neighborhoods full of such nuclear, one-income households and churches full of such families. After all, the kids don't need such close watching when there are parents watching from nearly every house on the block.

And I can't help but wonder, too, what the motivation for political activism is supposed to be (apart from dedicated advocacy for the Special Interest of Me) when children aren't part of the equation.

February 9, 2011

Roach: "Being Black in the 21st Century"

Marc Comtois

Former Anchor Rising contributor and GoLocalProv MINDSETTER(tm) Don Roach takes the occasion of Black History Month to speak about what it means to be black in the 21st century:

[T]he main “problem” facing black people in 2011 is a lack of identity. For centuries we were defined by others and defined ourselves by what was done to us. We were enslaved, we were treated like chattel, we had our rights stripped from us, we had few opportunities for advancement, etc.

In 2011, that’s simply no longer true. So who are we? Think about it, if your entire existence has always been defined and controlled by another group, what happens when that group no longer pulls the purse strings?

What happens when you actually win your freedom?

Maybe that’s the wrong question. Perhaps the problem is as a society we want to lump all black people together. We’re not all the same, some of us can’t dance, play basketball, and leaving her nameless some black people I know even like Country music. Perhaps a result of freedom is the loss of collective identity. Is that so bad?

No, it's not. No one is easily pigeonholed. For while, to one extent or another, we all tend to identify with one or even several groups, our individual identity goes beyond the narrow confines of the assumptions and, yes, stereotypes held by others towards those so "grouped." That goes for ethnicity, religion and even political or philosophic ideology. But it's so darned easy to make assumption, isn't it? To use the "Cliff Notes" of life and make those snap decisions about others so we don't have to engage or think quite so hard.

We're all guilty of it and, especially around here, written expression and commentary doesn't always properly convey the fullness of our character. In my experience, nothing really tops face-to-face with some food and a few beers. It humanizes us in our increasingly disconnected society. That doesn't mean we're going to go all Rodney King---I still may think you've got some f-ed up views, but at least there's a chance we'll like the same beer and think that the Sox have a chance this year (damn straight!).

February 5, 2011

Toward a More Optimistic Pessimism

Justin Katz

I agree with R. R. Reno's assessment, presented in his review of The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope, by Roger Scruton (non-subscribers can try here):

Scruton observes that "the belief that human beings can either foresee the future or control it to their own advantage ought not to have survived an attentive reading of the Iliad, still less of the Old Testament." But hope springs eternal. The successes of modern science provide one explanation, for they encourage what Scruton calls "the careless pursuit of mastery." If we can control nuclear reactions, then why not the growth of cities or the education of children or the workings of a modern economy? We program computers, so it seems natural that we should treat social mores such as traditional forms of marriage and child rearing as silicon chips we can overwrite with new codes.

I disagree, however, with the underlying reasoning that appears to leave both reviewer and reviewed to that conclusion:

Without pessimism, we tend to become what Scruton calls "unscrupulous optimists," those who "believe that the difficulties and disorders of humankind can be overcome by some large-scale adjustment." Belief turns into action, and grand plans for social change demolish and destroy inherited ways of life to build such empires of hope as urban renewal, wars on poverty, and, of course, the mother of all hopes, the classless society. Modern societies are filled with witnesses to the failures of optimism, from the empty concrete plazas conceived by urban planners to the demoralized population of the former Soviet Union.

At a more basic level, I think this has it exactly backwards. The notion that "we have to do something" is more an expression of pessimism — as in, "without us, all is lost." Yes, an unjustified optimism may come into play with the assessment of success's probability, but that's hardly the defining characteristic of meddlers. One needn't argue too long with activists for peace, poverty-prevention, environmentalism, or myriad other causes to reach the admission that even if they are doomed to failure, the campaigns must be engaged, because otherwise there is no hope.

A healthier, wiser approach, I'd say, is to shift optimism from the likelihood of one's personal success to the assumption that reality has inherent purpose and a metaphysical intention for everything to work out in the end. There's only so much that we can hope to accomplish in the limited spheres of our own personal influence — which seems to be the pessimism that Scruton advises — but the targets of our worldly activism don't constitute the apogee of profundity.

February 4, 2011

Checking Out of the Race

Justin Katz

The Lonely Conservative (being from New York state) has posted an email from an online acquaintance that voices a sentiment with which increasing numbers of us are surely familiar:

And I watch countless news stories about people who are criminals (illegal aliens, felons) liars, cheats, or just stupid getting help with their mortgage loans because they "need it". And people getting free medical services because they "need it". And people declaring bankruptcy because it's just too hard to pay the bills, they "need to". All the while I see my government crushing people like me–expecting us to just keep doing, just keep paying, just keep being responsible in order to make up for all of those people who were not.

My mind has drifted in much the same direction as I've watched the mail, eager for all of my tax documents to come in so that I can get the refund that will make me able to stop the calls from collection agents. It would have saved us substantial money in late fees to have had that money dispersed with our regular paychecks, rather than siphoned off as a free loan for wild-spending governments.

Some substantial mistakes on my family's part have made us slaves to debt, and it is a daily temptation just to walk away. As it is, we've pared our lives down to minimal expense, and frankly, as we offload the debt, I'm planning to use that space to ease my workload rather than chase lifestyle improvements. Productivity just isn't worth it, unless it's in line with something that you're passionate about regardless of pay.

The receding economy has revealed some stones that lay just below the water, and the blogger above suggests that the sight of them is changing Americans' perception:

My friend is the "Forgotten Man" of our day. Most of us are. How far away are any of us from feeling just as she does? It's one thing to go through these challenges knowing we're all going through it. But we aren't all going through it. Because we now have four Americas:

1-The public employee union class

2-The entitled/welfare class

3-The elite ruling class

4-The rest of us who are paying dearly to support #s 1, 2 and 3

In my industry, I've watched employees eager for layoffs, who game the system to get back some of what they've invested in it. One contractor recently expressed his disapproval of that tendency, calling it immoral to leach of the system and pass the buck on to him. I was actually surprised at my own disagreement. Until very recently, I'd have nodded along; now, I have to admit sympathy for the opposing view.

It's most definitely wrong to pass the burden of one's galtishness on to those who are still striving to produce, but it's all too easy to see the target as the giant tumor of a system that lays across us all, taking the money that would allow us to repair windshields and fill oil tanks in order to finance lavish benefits and years of unemployment checks and then borrowing money from our future labor and that of our children and grandchildren in order to bolster public-sector employees through the recession and promise the time-delayed boon of pensions.

We're all limited in the length of our view, especially when it comes to social and cultural matters. We can only know so many people and have personal experience with so many walks of life. I do worry, though that something in that unique American attitude is changing, and it won't be healthy for anybody involved. It's not too late — I have faith — but much will depend on the ways in which our leaders address the various crises that we now face.

January 25, 2011

Innovation as the Modern Differentiator

Justin Katz

In another (sadly) subscription-only National Review article, James Bennett reviews a book by Deirdre McCloskey in which innovation takes center stage in the explanation of the modern West:

Her thesis is that, in the decades prior to England's rapid takeoff into the Industrial Revolution, there was a revolution in attitudes, which she prefers to characterize as a revolution in rhetoric, using the term in its broader, classical sense: the language of discourse, and the attitudes it embodies. This change in rhetoric, she argues, shifted the prevailing culture from one of aristocratic values based on honor and status to one of bourgeois values based on thrift, prudence, trust, etc. This brought dignity to the town-dwelling merchant class and fostered innovation in business practice. In fact, she argues that the term capitalism is inappropriate to the current system, as all economic systems fundamentally are built on capital, but only the system that arose in England and spread throughout the West (and, subsequently, elsewhere) was founded on innovation. She considers calling the system innovism; recognizing, however, that such a tag is unlikely to catch on, she settles for calling it innovation.

There is much to like in this. I have long dislike Marx's coinage and the many wrong ideas that are packed into it. I have tended to use the term market economy, in preference, but as McCloskey rightly points out, market economies with many of the mechanisms we consider definitive have also been presented since ancient times. A system that expects, encourages, and takes advantage of innovation is the genuinely new thing of our times, and it may make sense to adopt that term for our system.

The notion of innovation is the core of the broad range of principles that facilitate it (secure family structures, freedom, belief in larger truths, free markets, and so on) is certainly attractive as the defining factor for modernity. It does, however, elide the question of whether the core is necessarily the cause. It would probably be most accurate to conclude that modernity developed over millennia, with mutually reinforcing causes that evolved over the generations.

The Bully and the Protector

Justin Katz

There's no question that technology creates all sorts of challenges and that cyberbullying is among them. Just think of the malice that would have been required to do something similar in the past: Nailing nasty fliers around town took a lot more effort than posting a Facebook page, indicating a greater pathology. Yet, the effect on the victim is similar.

Nonetheless, we should be wary opening the door for government too widely to address bullying, because of both what might slip through in the process and what doing so indicates about our culture:

"I don't think it's going to eliminate bullying, but it will put a big dent in it," said [Sen. John] Tassoni [D, Smithfield]. He refused to provide specifics about possible legislation.

The Rhode Island State Police, too, will again pursue a bill that would give law-enforcement officials the ability to subpoena information about Internet users without having to go through a judge, Tella said. State police will seek a measure that would require Internet services providers, such as Facebook and Google, to provide the name, address, and telephone numbers associated with an account in response to an administrative subpoena signed by a state police superintendent, or other high-ranking law-enforcement official.

Removing the judiciary from the process, shifting its authority in these matters to appointed officials in the executive, erodes protections against encroachment on citizens' liberty. Whatever the exceptions become, to the rules for subpoenas, will surely expand; cyberbullying, that is, will in short order become a very broad category of online activity.

Of course, the larger problem is that we're inviting such erosion by our very urge to involve government in the first place. It's a cycle: As we pass along the responsibilities of membership in a community to government, it becomes easier to conceive of government as the appropriate overseer, leading us to pass along more responsibilities.

Society once had stigma and cultural rules of behavior that helped enforce boundaries. With their evaporation, legal consequences are being substituted, but our system hasn't proven very effective at implementing objective, narrowly targeted laws.

To be sure, reasons beyond passivity exist for the shift. Social pressure must have had more weight when most people's lives were lived within a few miles. The black mark of a child's bad behavior could follow the parents to the workplace and social scene in more tightly woven communities. Homes are now often little more than rest stops in commuters' lives, so dirty looks at the corner convenience store are less apt to have a substantial effect.

January 24, 2011

Stagnant Life for the Up-and-Comers

Justin Katz
"It is truly a Great Depression for young adults," said Andrew Sum, an economics professor and the director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. "Young adults are working at lower rates than they ever worked before since World War II. As a result, you would expect migration to fall because they have nowhere to go to."

That's the conclusion drawn from Census data suggesting that younger workers are staying put despite local unemployment, seeing no opportunity elsewhere. One wonders how this will affect the behavior of the generation of Americans who've just reached adulthood.

The lack of such opportunities as often propel new graduates toward productive lives chasing the American dream is surely a factor. But then again, the expectation of living in a childhood home (on the parents' healthcare into one's mid-twenties) seems to have increased anyway, as have the gadgets of a sedentary lifestyle.

An optimist might observe that an increase in reluctance to move will force wages up in areas in which labor's in short supply, while an decrease in the desire to work will do the same throughout the society. At some point, though, the cost has to become prohibitive, except for those who can move their operations to countries without the excess wealth to support sloth.

An adjustment of priorities could be a very healthy thing in our consumerist society, but (especially if the urge toward consumerism is not adjusted) it could also create a nation of dependents in search of support.

January 18, 2011

Bai on the lack of shared experience

Marc Comtois

Thanks to Ian Donnis' "Tip Sheet" (a daily read for me), I read Matt Bai's latest column discussing "the fractiousness of our modern society" and how, in the wake of the Tucson shootings, it's "impossible now for any one moment to transform the national debate." This is because, according to Bai:

There is very little shared experience in the nation now; there are only competing versions of the experience, consumed in such a way as to confirm whatever preconceptions you already have, rather than to make you reflect on them.
I wholeheartedly agree, and Bai proves his point, though in a way I don't think he intended. For nearly all of Bai's examples of past "transformational moments" seem to have resulted in an outcome that can be seen as empathetic with the mores and ideology of the left side of the political spectrum (see examples in extended entry).

Bai makes the point that our fractious society has different ways of interpreting the same event. It's nothing new to say that this is largely due to our multi-track method of information consumption, whether it be news, TV shows, music, or whatever. American Culture is no longer as monolithic as it once was (though it never was as monolithic as we think)--more choices mean less cultural common ground. Perhaps sports teams are one of the few remaining cross-cultural tribe builders left, but those are only regional, not national "uniters" (with the exception of Red Sox nation, of course!). Regardless, part of Bai's agida can be chalked up to the lessening import of what we scurrilous bloggers call the MSM and its ability to define the culture as much as it once did.

Continue reading "Bai on the lack of shared experience"

January 16, 2011

Grappling with Truth Isn't Easy

Justin Katz

One of the more amorphous aspects of the Catholic Church that persuades me of the wisdom of its approach to conceptualizing life is that it eschews easy answers to thorny problems. (That doesn't mean, of course, that individual Catholics or even broad movements of them don't from time to time slip into human habits.) Bishop Tobin raised a case-in-point example of this quality in a September essay:

The gist of the letter [from the grandmother of a homosexual young man] is found in this paragraph: "Many men and women could not find themselves in love with a person of the same sex unless God made them that way. What is very serious is the attitude of disapproval and even violence that is often extended to gays. We are called to love everyone and not to be judgmental. When Church leaders speak out, it gives silent permission to others not to love gays."

Bishop Tobin cycles through a number of issues that create similar challenges for the reconciliation of the Church's call to love with its moral conclusions, returning to the topic at hand:

As I wrote to my correspondent, the fact that the Church has love and respect for homosexual persons does not mean that we can ignore the immorality of homosexual acts or the homosexual culture. Nor does our respect for homosexual persons mean that we should sit back silently while a highly-organized political movement seeks to hijack the institution of holy matrimony and change its definition as a union of man and woman — a definition that comes from God and has existed from the beginning of mankind.

That people with homosexual inclinations are human beings worthy of love and respect, that they experience their own intimate loves no less intensely than do heterosexuals, and even that their desires are natural do not negate the moral reasoning of the Church when it comes to their expression of their love — much less the longstanding and well developed theology that centers on the institution of marriage.

The easiest path is to grab onto any justification to allow people to do as they want to do, but what people want to do is not always (even often) the same as what they ought to do. If the "progressive" tendency is to cut loose tradition and moral gravity in order to accommodate the mores of the day, an equally facile mirror tendency is to cut loose the requirements for tolerance and compassion.

Neither approach fully accomplishes the goal toward which it is oriented. By letting love become license, the dogmatic liberal shirks the responsibility to guide and to be faithful stewards of the culture that has brought humanity so far. By letting responsibility become a yoke of rules without regard to the difficulties that they impose and rejection that they might imply, the dogmatic conservative fails to adequately apply the lessons of the culture that he strives to protect.

January 13, 2011

Obama Presidential in Tucson

Marc Comtois

President Obama's remarks at the memorial service in Tucson were exactly what was called for. His tone was spot-on and he displayed leadership by reminding us all that there isn't always a simple explanation for tragedy.

For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.

So yes, we must examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.

But what we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

Snow Toughness

Justin Katz

Matt and I reminisced about the good old days when we were proud to be tougher than the snow on the Matt Allen Show last night. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

Once again, I didn't go into the sales pitch, but please email or call (401-835-7156) me to pledge financial support — as subscriptions, donations, or advertising — for 2011 to help us create a full-time job within Anchor Rising.

January 8, 2011

Taking the GG Out of Literature

Justin Katz

During my time as a college English student, with professors being predictably as you can imagine they were, I was struck by how powerful a set of letters "nigger" could be — first, as a dehumanizing attack and, later, as a literary marker of the speaker's ignorance. Particularly in postbellum literature, and especially in certain fonts, that double-g looks like a dark jab scattered across the page. Whether the book that first gave me that impression was something by William Faulkner or was Huck Finn, I don't recall, but it came to mind upon reading of an edition of Mark Twain's book that replaces all instances of the word with "slave."

As Twain once said, "the difference the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter — it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

Rich Lowry has posted a letter that makes the point well. Readers of Huck Finn can't help but discern the author's criticism of those using the word, and the callousness of their attitude toward human life. There's a callousness to removing the word, as well.

My reading of the book, which I described in academic detail in the essay that kept me out of Brown University's graduate program in Literature, makes this point central to a sly, more intriguing intention that I believe to have been Twain's underlying purpose for the book. Addressing longstanding and heated disapproval of Twain's reintroduction of Tom Sawyer for the climax of the book — which has led multiple critics to declare the ending an unforgivable failure, with no less a figure than Ernest Hemingway calling it "cheating" — I proposed that Twain was putting the reader in the position of the character of whom he or she was apt to be most critical:

When it is considered that, at Huck's moral juncture, Tom comes into an adventure in progress with privileged information, a new link is seen: this time to the reader. Tom's reappearance for the Phelps section does lead to a change in the book (as is evident from the controversy over the end), but only inasmuch as we were expecting (read "hoping") for something different. A reader hoping to read a Jim-as-hero-escaping-from-slavery story would be, essentially, hoping to do (or hoping that the author does) exactly what Tom tries to do from his point of view: make the book interesting in a certain way, in part by making Jim into a specific type of hero. In the Connecticut of the 1880s, this would translate into a desire to "set [Jim] free" even though "he was already free" (Twain, 262). It is not necessarily requisite to this conclusion that the reader of this, or our, era would see Jim, specifically, as free; it is enough that the post–Civil War reader (and, more so, the modern reader) would consider freedom as some intrinsic quality of humanity in much the same way that it is possible, now, to see the Emancipation Proclamation as an overdue formality — the Civil War itself can be said to have set free people free (like a liberation of civilian hostages in a hostile country who are being held unjustly or against their rights). ...

Ultimately, a reader who is upset at the ending is put in a parallel role to Tom — wanting to set a free slave free in a manner that accords to his or her own sense of heroism (and, if you wish, morality). As stated by Fritz Oehschlaeger, "something in us longs for quite a different outcome, one that would allow Jim to retain his heroic stature and force Huck to live up to the decision that accompanies his tearing up of the letter to Miss Watson." [21] In other words, like Tom, the reader wants circumstances to allow Jim and Huck to become heroes according to the reader's definition.

It is not a testament to a fortitude of national character that a significant portion of our population would, in a sense, so dramatically merge the reader's role with that of Tom. To my reading, Twain merely implied the connection, in keeping with his dark, wry humor. Now, in seeking to sanitize the culture that enslaved Jim, making the story more to the tastes of the modern audience, the reader is doing precisely what Tom Sawyer has drawn fire for doing: selfishly making light of the black man's predicament.

January 4, 2011

How to Put Kids First

Justin Katz

I'm always happy to see commentators bring first principles to the table, because that's where deep discussion must begin, but I'm not sure the principle of "putting the kids first" (in paraphrase), as Julia Steiny advised in her Sunday column, is helpful in reformulating our approach to civic institutions.

In our current fiscal crisis, we’ve come to the point where our commitment to the institutions — think public pensions and unsustainable labor contracts — are so huge we can hardly afford to bother with the kids.

But, in fact, we could vastly improve our state, local and even federal problems by adopting a laser-like focus on the needs of our country's children. Putting their health and welfare first would, in time, virtually guarantee success in all the areas where we're currently struggling. It's about a point of view. Take the kids' perspective for a moment and see how powerful the solutions look.

Steiny roots her argument in the American prison system, which affects children both in the way the government disciplines children and in the effects of having parents locked up, but any government operation would serve as a fair example. The underlying reality is that a change in perspective to consider the support of children is cultural. Our entire problem is that we've tried to transform our conclusions into practice by creating civic institutions and charging them to put mushy priorities into concrete practice... while giving them the power of police and the power to tax. There simply is no way to prevent the focus from shifting to the institutions with such an approach.

If we really put children first, culturally, we'd need fewer laws, because society in general would be more likely to, for example, encourage stable marriages, shift in ways that would free up parental time to stay home with children (rather than providing subsidies to take care of children apart from their parents), and begin again to express disapproval at unacceptable behavior (that old judgmental stigma thing).

There's a key distinction between using the term "institution" to mean an actual organization with managers and employees and revenue bases and using it to mean a general social construct, like the "institution of marriage." In the former case, the institution is a structure to which we give instructions; in the latter case, the institution is defined by its instructions. In the former case, ensuring the survival of the institution can be entirely disconnected from its ostensible mission; in the latter case, it cannot.

December 31, 2010

The Bourgeois Change

Justin Katz

Jonah Goldberg makes an interesting point about the particular victories of America's homosexual movement:

... Watch ABC's Modern Family. The sitcom is supposed to be "subversive" in part because it features a gay couple with an adopted daughter from Asia. And you can see why both liberal proponents and conservative opponents of gay marriage see it that way. But imagine you hate the institution of marriage and then watch Modern Family's hardworking bourgeois gay couple through those eyes. What's being subverted? Traditional marriage, or some bohemian identity-politics fantasy of homosexuality? ...

Or look at the decision to let gays openly serve in the military through the eyes of a principled hater of all things military. From that perspective, gays have just been co-opted by The Man. Meanwhile, the folks who used Don't Ask, Don't Tell as an excuse to keep the military from recruiting on campuses just saw their argument go up in flames.

Deep tradition and culture travel through time more as planets than comets, so they tend to absorb radical satellites that orbit them, but over time, the relatively small changes do shift their course. This speaks to the basic distinction, I think, between a conservative approach to addressing social change and the liberal one: there are ways to domesticate the gay subculture (or, rather, to give homosexuals a more domestic option) that reinforce the purpose of marriage rather than undermining it; there could have been ways of advancing equal rights for women and ending institutional male chauvinism without damaging family structure and reordering education to the detriment of boys; and there could have been ways of ushering black Americans from segregation to true equality without creating lasting racial divisions and a racial underclass, especially in inner cities, for whom hope is little more than a political slogan.

Essentially, the better approach is to maintain basic structural principles — such as the integral relationship between marriage and procreation — and allow the culture to do the slow work of kneading injustices and unnecessary restrictions out of traditions. The more radical approach of pushing social change through legal manipulation and pop-cultural affirmation has the effect of undermining the critical structural principles even as the tradition moves along with its own momentum. Consider another paragraph from Goldberg:

As a sexual-lifestyle experiment, they failed pretty miserably, the greatest proof being that the affluent and educated children (and grandchildren) of the baby boomers have re-embraced the bourgeois notion of marriage as an essential part of a successful life. Sadly, it's the lower-middle class that increasingly sees marriage as an out-of-reach luxury. The irony is that such bourgeois values — monogamy, hard work, etc. — are the best guarantors of success and happiness.

Those who are already educated and whose families are already on a healthy path draw from the lessons of tradition for their own benefit, but because the essential rationales of the traditions have been voided, they do not reinforce them. They marry, for example, because marriage ensures the best environment in which to raise children, but they do so as if of their own personal assessment of individual circumstances, not because the institution of marriage is such that it ineradicably binds two adults together and to the children that they create. The consequence emerges first with those who can't articulate the value of marriage or the importance of their children, but who have in generations past felt compelled to follow the family model nonetheless. Younger generations that once benefited from their parents' conformity no longer will, because their parents will understand marriage to be mainly about themselves and their own preferences.

In summary, Goldberg's essay ultimately comes down to an observation that radical change does not repercuss instantly. Civilization is a long-term project, though, and its course can move from one of continued advancement toward one of dissolution.

December 24, 2010

Cherry Kerr-y

Justin Katz

It feels uncharitable, somehow, to respond seriously to this column by Bob Kerr, but then it would have to be uncharitable to read him seriously in the first place.

Neil Diamond has just been named to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. What's next — Sarah Palin on the short list for the National Book Award?

Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Springsteen, The Stones, Elvis and ... Neil Diamond.

Or, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso and the guy who makes balloon animals at birthday parties.

The time of year was the decisive factor in my decision to highlight Kerr's call for rock 'n' roll purity. My only real investment in Neil Diamond derives from his (unbelievably) twenty-year-old Christmas album, which is so bad that it can't help but make you smile. I worked in a NJ record store when the album was new, and from the all-too-predictable rock clichés that form the structure of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" to the shout of "let your Christmases be any color you like" in the midst of a barbershop quartet "White Christmas," it was guaranteed to usher along a good chunk of retail drudgery.

Neil Diamond singlehandedly taught me the value of cheese — how to let yourself go and just enjoy it for what it is. It seems telling and broadly significant that Bob Kerr's "light" column on Diamond's inclusion in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame is so vituperative, and with no sense of humor about its own self-righteousness. A culture that can't sway its shoulders to "Crunchy Granola" is a culture that fundamentally can't empathize with people who don't need to lace enjoyment with dark cynicism — a culture that can't relax and can't relate, as the song says.

The biggest Neil Diamond fan I've ever met made her appearance toward the end of my time as a teenage record store clerk. As I recall, the meeting corresponded with the release of Diamond's Christmas sequel, and I mentioned my affinity for the first one. The customer apparently didn't spot my dark irony as she detailed the experience of Neil in concert, and an unhealthy pose that had pervaded too much of my life started slipping away, that day, at the sight of a black woman shimmying and singing the lyrics of some white bubblegum favorite.

A decade prior, a young Al Sharpton had led marches in the next town over when a police officer shot a black teenager who'd pulled a realistic-looking water pistol. Race was too often in my mind, as a white kid selling tapes and CDs in a heavily black neighborhood. But if races and cultures can unite along the thin strand of Neil Diamond, surely all of us serious people should appreciate the sound of its vibration.

December 21, 2010

So Nina Totenberg Thought She Was Saying a Nine-Letter Word

Monique Chartier

... when she said this?

And I was at -- forgive the expression -- a Christmas party at the Department of Justice and ...

Interestingly, her comment did not make the final version of the weekend's Inside Washington broadcasted by NPR. It's not clear, though, whether this edit was made simply for the sake of time constraints or because NPR didn't want to have to repeatedly say, "Forgive the expression of our correspondent" after the show aired.

If anyone comes across a context or explanation for this remark, please link to it.

In the absence of such exposition, count this atheist as annoyed and staving off a sense of offense at this remark, both for the sake of the holiday itself and at the double standard demonstrated by Ms. Totenberg.

December 15, 2010

Human Nature (and Frank Reality) Will Out

Justin Katz

It's very interesting to see some of the self-deception of Western society's last half-century begin to unravel:

Yes — feminists look away now — most of the girls I talked to are intent on marrying a rich man.

This idea is buoyed by a culture of celebrity that sees attractive women marrying well and then enjoying ­luxurious lifestyles as a result. ­Because of this, matrimony is ­increasingly viewed as an alternative career choice for the ambitious younger generation. ...

... I think most women — if given a truly free choice — would choose to stay at home and look after their children in their infancy.

The trouble is that most families rely on the salaries of both parents, so it's not really an option.

It goes without saying, although it sometimes seems we are expressly forbidden to say it, that having a rich husband would provide that option. When I go to pick up Nancy from school, there are three ­distinct camps of women at the gates: the frazzled working mums like myself, rushing up at the last minute.

Then there are the childminders of those women still at work. Then there are the stay-at-home mothers — and if you imagine the latter group to be tubby drudges in unflattering tracksuits with fuzzy, unkempt hair, think again.

As with much else, socially, we addressed the wrong problem, moving into the modern age. It wasn't that women were stuck in the house doing chores while men went off to exciting careers each day. It was that vestiges of less enlightened (and less affluent) times continued to affect the images that we projected to ourselves.

But we attacked externals, striving to make women just like men in every regard, and now we've got a collapsing marriage culture and incomes deflated by the near doubling of the workforce — with each household expected to have two. And so, a domestic structure that once was available across the economic spectrum now requires a rich man.

Of course, the rich one needn't be the husband, and of course, there remain many paths through life, but had previous generations been a bit more circumspect, pursuing a course of evolution rather than revolution, it's easy to imagine that we'd currently be continuing to progress rather than musing about the possible benefits of regression.

December 11, 2010

If Suicide Isn't Wrong, It Isn't Wrong

Justin Katz

The editors of First Things note a worrisome trend in Oregon (try here if that link doesn't work for you):

In Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal for the elderly and infirm, state officials have been concerned of late with a rising suicide rate among Oregonians who aren't officially considered damaged goods. With the Oregon suicide rate 35 percent higher than the national average, bureaucrats at the state health authority have expressed dismay (but ate, perhaps, also relieved) that suicides of the elderly have been legally redefined so as not drive this horrifying statistic up even further.

Promote "safe sex," and you'll get a youth culture more concerned about the sex than the safe. Promote compassionate allowance of suicide, and you'll find a surprising number of people thinking themselves better off dead.

December 9, 2010

The Classical Nihilist

Justin Katz

David Goldman captures something well in modern society, within the setting of Richard Wagner's operas:

Unlike Flaubert or Tolstoy, Wagner flatters his audience with the conceit that their libidinous impulses resonate with the Will of the World, and that their petty passions have the same cosmic significance as Isolde's or Kundry's.

That was the debut of the culture of death. What made Wagner his century's most influential artist was not merely that he portrayed as inevitable and even desirable the fall of the old order but that through his music he turned the plunge into the abyss into an intimate, existential experience—a moment of unbounded bliss, a redemptive sacrifice that restores meaning to the alienated lives of the orphans of traditional society. On the ruins of the old religion of throne and altar he built a new religion of impulse: Brunnhilde becomes Siegfried's co-redemptrix in Wagner's heretical Christianity.

Music also provides an excellent context in which to discuss a fundamental problem with the attitude:

In other words, Wagner's aesthetic purpose is at war with his methods. Once we are conditioned to hear music as a succession of moments rather than as a journey to a goal, we lose the capacity for retrospective reinterpretation, for such reinterpretation presumes a set of expectations conditioned by classical form in the first place. Despite his dependence on classical methods, Wagner's new temporal aesthetic weakened the capacity of later musical audiences to hear classical music.

In other words, not only is the work internally incoherent, philosophically, but it spurs regression and squanders the blessings that cultural progress have secured.

November 27, 2010

An Uproar of Absurdity

Justin Katz

Even the jaded among us might be surprised by the absurd longevity of the "Uproar over [Bristol] Palin" on Dancing with the Stars. It's difficult to ignore, though, the fact that such pop-cultural controversies can be relatively benign stand-ins for more substantial ideological and political battles:

This latest reality show tempest highlights the power of popularity over talent when mostly unregulated public voting is involved and, perhaps more dramatically, the polarizing effect of the Palin family name, which received prominent attention earlier this month in one of the most heated elections in recent memory.

Note the word "unregulated." The general sides are easy to draw: One side wishes to restrict criteria and channel participation toward its preferred outcome; the other side wishes criteria to be open so that it can persuade and, well, channel participation toward its preferred outcome.

The bit of insight underlying this particular controversy is that the Left has recognized the value of having its tacit dominance of pop culture and entertainment unchallenged for nearly the past half-century, and the Right willing to be more forthright (and honest) in its subversion:

Sarah Palin supporters helped organize campaigns to keep her daughter on the show, like radio talk host Tammy Bruce's "Operation Bristol." Conservative blogger Kevin DuJan's Hillbuzz.org website also led a get-out-the-vote effort and wrote after Tuesday's results that Palin "drove the Left crazy for three months. Score!"

It's no surprise that Jennifer Grey, who found fame with the movie Dirty Dancing, won a dance competition centered around the premise of placing unlikely stars on the dance floor. It's never a surprise when mainstream shows, like So You Think You Can Dance, make left-wing political statements. And perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the Left would squeal when it opens up the voting lines and Americans offer a different view.

November 22, 2010

Hooked on Hooking Up

Justin Katz

Although admitting that "many students will thrive in their four years on campus... with dignity and sense of self intact," Mary Eberstadt offers reason for concern about the social climate on American campuses:

In 2006, a particularly informative (if also exquisitely depressing) contribution to understanding hookups was made by Unprotected, a book first published anonymously. The author was subsequently revealed to be Miriam Grossman, a psychiatrist who treated more than 2000 students at UCLA and grew alarmed by what she saw. In her book she cites numbers suggesting that psychiatric-consultation hours doubled in a few years and notes that 90 percent of campus counseling centers nationwide reported an upsurge in students with serious psychiatric problems. She also describes some of her own mental-health cases and their common denominators: drinking to oblivion, drugging, one-night sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and all the rest of the hookup-culture trappings. In 2007, Washington Post journalist Laura Sessions Stepp published the widely discussed Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both. Stepp's book was based on interviews with many high-school and college girls. In it, the author argued that hooking up actually had become the "primary" sexual interaction of the young.

One particularly insightful look at the intersection of the bingeing and hookup cultures is Koren Zaickas' book Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood (2006), in which she details her activities at Syracuse University and elsewhere. As that and several other confessional accounts show, skeptics who say it was ever thus miss the boat. It isn't only that dating has turned, for some, into no-strings hookups. It isn't only that drinking, or even heavy drinking, has turned, for certain others, into drinking to oblivion. It is at the intersection of those two trends that one finds the core curriculum of Toxic U.

I'd argue that one contributing factor to this trend (beyond general cultural deterioration, of course) has been the popularity of movies since the '70s — many of them undeniable comedy classics — that present recklessness as the natural college atmosphere. Another is the advance of '60s radicals into the establishment of higher education, from which perch they've fostered an image of college as the taste of liberty that a socialistic utopia could provide for all. Thirdly, as an outgrowth of number 2, has been the broad institutional acceptance of pornography as a campus staple. Eberstadt writes:

Student entrepreneurship aside, making the campus safe for smut appears to have become something of a cottage industry among those in charge too. Certain academic departments, for example, include courses in which pornography is "studied" as an art form or for its purported social meaning. There is extracurricular stuff too, including movies shown at parties attended by girls as well as boys - another illustration of how times have changed. Sometimes, in the name of the First Amendment, more ambitious projects flower. In 2009, for example, several campuses across the country screened Pirates II, which was billed as the most expensive pornographic film ever made. When the University of Maryland refused to do so because of political pressure from a congressman, student outrage was one visible result.

This is hardly an atmosphere in which American students can be expected to catch up on the remedial lessons that didn't take in public secondary school and to focus as they must on the decades of life that their few years of higher education will affect profoundly.

November 14, 2010

Toward the Cave or Toward the Temple

Justin Katz

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby marks the coming of aggressive-atheist season. (For some, of course, every season is aggressive atheist season.)

This year, the [American Humanist Association] is taking a more combative tone. It is spending $200,000 to "directly challenge biblical morality’" in advertisements appearing on network and cable TV, as well as in newspapers, magazines, and on public transit. The ads juxtapose violent or otherwise unpleasant passages from the Bible (or the Koran) with "humanist" quotations from prominent atheists.

As Jacoby suggests, this is more marketing pitch than statement of objective truth; it's easy to sort through thousands of years of text and cherry pick quotations. It certainly would not be difficult to juxtapose horrifying statements of twentieth century atheists with charitable and life-affirming quotations of their religious contemporaries. More interesting is Jacoby's response:

In our culture, even the most passionate atheist cannot help having been influenced by the Judeo-Christian worldview that shaped Western civilization. "We know that you can be good without God," Speckhardt tells CNN.

He can be confident of that only because he lives in a society so steeped in Judeo-Christian values that he takes those values for granted. But a society bereft of that religious heritage is one not even Speckhardt would want to live in.

Related thoughts came to mind, this morning, in response to the Gospel reading in today's Catholic Mass. Here's Luke 21:7-19:

Then they asked him, "Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?" He answered, "See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, 'I am he,’ and 'The time has come.’ Do not follow them! When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.

"Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony. Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives."

The homilist at my church focused on the danger of building a theology predominantly on the eschatological passages of scripture — which can lend an undue urgency to explicit shows of piety, conspicuously coinciding with the very specific beliefs of the person urging them. Another difficulty with Luke 21 that the priest did not take up, but that would have fit well with his teaching, is the fact that early followers of Jesus thought the events that He described were imminent.

With two millennia of retrospect, we can see that they clearly were not. But we can also see the difficulty that Jesus faced in answering the question that was posed to Him. He had just pointed out the superior contribution of an old widow who had given, from her poverty, to the temple treasury as compared with the larger funds donated by the rich. He then noted that the opulence of the temple was transitory: "the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone." That is when His followers asked how they would know that the time had come.

What Jesus sets about explaining, it seems to me, is not the itinerary of the end of the world, but the fact that the world's end is written into the world's progress, with layers of abstraction and metaphysical notions for which our ancestors had had no preparation. "Many will come in my name," He says, urging His disciples not to follow them, even though "wars and insurrections," "earthquakes, famines, and plagues," and "awesome sights and mighty signs" will give weight and urgency to their exhortations. Looking at history, from our current perspective, such events seem too typically the way of the world to be a unique list of markers of armageddon. In that light, disciples of Christ should focus on the example — the testimony — that they set despite it all.

"Heaven and earth will pass away," but the immortal God — and our immortal souls — will not. And salvation will come not by throwing large sums into the coffers of a stone temple, but through faith and the behavior that faith begets.

Thus has the West become a society in which atheists can take for granted that morality requires no higher principle than that which cold reason can provide. And thus do we continue to have the opportunity to testify that the physical world is not self-contained and that morality that derives wholly therefrom will only lead us back toward the dank cave rather than the spiritual temple toward which we should be striving.

Encouraging Querulousness in Lieu of Genius

Justin Katz

The always interesting Stanley Aronson unfortunately perpetuated a culturally destructive myth in a recent essay addressing whether security is really all that desirable a feeling:

The unreasonable ones, those noisy, disruptive and often disagreeable ones among us, invest their energies in altering their environment rather than themselves, fighting against contemporary realities rather than floating with the current. Painfully achieved progress — real progress rather than cosmetic change — in this fractious world depends almost exclusively on the struggles of these unreasonable ones who forgo illusions of security.

Actually, I've found that unreasonable, noisy, disruptive, and disagreeable people invest their energies in nothing so much as being unreasonable, noisy, disruptive, and disagreeable. They often appear to believe that their behavior is, itself, evidence that they march to a different beat and therefore must have some insight that those of us who walk more lightly must lack. It's bunk, and it's surely a cliché that has contributed to the coarsening of our culture over the past century, mostly because it creates a preference against the contrary attitude:

The man beguiled by reason, by the compelling need to reject all that appears initially illogical, is lost. For he will think only in the worn paths established by his predecessors and he will find accordance solely with the constructs and philosophies of those who came before. And if security and consistency are the pillars of his creed, then little of merit will be found in his most earnest efforts.

The falsehood behind this portrait of the useless conservative is that real advancement and innovation come from radical change rather than as revelations along that worn path. Intellectual discoveries (as opposed to physical discoveries) tend to adhere to a relentless logic that seeks to incorporate that which previously did not fit. Even in art — until modernists transformed high culture into the smashing block of a remedial extracurricular — each innovation was a logical opportunity visible within what came before. Beethoven's Ninth wasn't a radical departure from orchestral music in the sense that it came from out of nowhere, but in the sense that he used a preexisting structure to achieve something that hadn't yet been heard. He made blossom possibilities within the symphonic form.

Frankly, I see Aronson's attitude as possible only within a culture that has determined on its own extinction:

[The dreamers who thrive on personal insecurity, whom our world desperately needs,] are the Quixotes who are the querulous, ill-tempered, perverse, disputatious ones in society. Yet they also are the only ones who advance our culture beyond the limited measures envisioned by the rest of us — those of us who can see little beyond our insubstantial veil of "security."

To the contrary, a thriving society needs people who adhere to a higher logic. People who find their security in accordance with larger criteria than the visible world admits — eternal salvation, most profoundly. In such cases, there is no need for perversity or ill-temper. Sometimes such people appear disputatious to others who have invested their identities in the lower principles being overrun, and sometimes (although I'd venture to say rarely) they may actually be disagreeable, but it certainly cannot be assumed that the trait is causative, not incidental.

Perhaps the dissonance of personal ugliness with genius makes those rare brilliant beasts in whom we find the combination stand out. Perhaps the rest of us comfort ourselves that we willingly sacrifice a place in history because we choose to live our lives as good people. Whatever the case, I'd expect true genius to accompany patient hope that deeper understanding is available to all, given time, and philanthropic excitement at the prospect.

November 12, 2010

Trying to Win Is the Point

Justin Katz

Barry Rubin offers an anecdote with which many of us will likely be sympathetic:

My son is playing on a local soccer team which has lost every one of its games, often by humiliating scores. The coach is a nice guy, but seems an archetype of contemporary thinking: he tells the kids not to care about whether they win, puts players at any positions they want, and doesn’t listen to their suggestions. ...

And of course, the league gives trophies to everyone, whether their team finishes in first or last place.

Parents with children in "recreational" leagues (which may be paired with "competitive" leagues) have likely noticed that the kids know who wins the games even if the coaches do not keep score. One real loss of the non-competitive structure is that the kids cannot take joy in their improvement; one of my children played the same team at the beginning and end of its season. The first time, the game wasn't even close; the last, it was a tie. (Of course, the parents keep score, too.) Even a loss may be a win if there's reason to be proud of some sort of achievement other than fun and exercise. The trophy is another marker of this: If everybody gets one, then it's little more than a cheap plastic party favor.

For his part, Baron tried an experiment:

When the opportunity came to step in as coach for one game, I jumped at the chance to try an experiment. I’ve never coached a sport before, and am certainly no expert at soccer despite my son’s efforts. Still, I thought the next game could be won by simply placing players in the positions they merited, and motivating them to triumph. ...

Before the game, I gave them a pep talk, with the key theme as follows:

Every week you’ve been told that the important thing is just to have a good time. Well, this week it’s going to be different. The number one goal is to win; the number two goal is to have a good time. But I assure you: if you win, you will have a much better time!

One can go too far stressing that attitude, but that doesn't mean that it isn't absolutely correct in appropriate degree. It'll be interesting to see whether Rubin checks back in to describe the aftermath of his experiment.

November 10, 2010

Some Structure in a Chaotic World

Justin Katz

It would be a mistake to make a splash of the quiet trickle of societal conversion, but it can be a source of hope to note this sort of thing:

A handful of Roman Catholic convents are contradicting the decades-long slide in the number of women choosing to devote their lives to the sisterhood. And at least two of them are doing it by sticking to tradition, including the wearing of habits. ...

Sisters at St. Cecilia's and other thriving U.S. orders typically are younger, which makes them closer in age to potential newcomers. These orders also emphasize traditional practices, like wearing long, flowing black-and-white habits, and educating students.

There's no denying that religious life has become less mainstream of an option, over the past century, but it's a mistake for religious organizations to chase members into the brambles of a decaying culture. Those who wish truly to commit will do so, and maintaining the markers of difference will be, for them, an attraction, not a deterrent.

A plain statement of purpose and a resolute following of tradition create a powerful beacon, and it's left to those of us who believe to stop going along with the pop culture assessment that there's something peculiar about following it.

November 8, 2010

Letting Government Be Neutral

Justin Katz

Catching up on my reading, I highlighted the following, from First Thing editor Joseph Bottum's thoughts on the Ground Zero mosque controversy:

Real democracy is messy. It's got protestors and agitators and banners and manners and morals and financial pressures and gossip and policemen on horses keeping an eye out to make sure it doesn't turn violent. Oh, yes, it's also got government, but apart from paying for those policemen, government ought not to be too deeply involved as these things sort themselves out. If what the Muslims want to do is not illegal, than government should have nothing more to say.

That does not mean, however, that everyone else should also have nothing more to say. The attempt to build a large, new mosque and Islamic center anywhere near the site of the World Trade Center is so offensive, so bizarre, and so deliberate that it should be stopped.

And stopped it will be, through the offered mediation of New York's Archbishop Dolan, or the skittishness of the financial community, or the disturbance of the neighbors, or the anger of the protestors, or the refusal of the building contractors. It will be messy, and it will be sharp. Inspiring and disturbing, with loud shouts on the streets and a few quiet words in the back rooms.

But that's democracy—it's how things get done when you accept that government shouldn't do everything. The churches and the synagogues have long experience with this kind of democratic negotiation. Time for the mosques to learn how to do it, too.

It comes down to this: As the ostensibly neutral arbiter and the licit wielder of deadly force, the government should not determine what its principles (society's principles) should be. That includes the mandate for "tolerance." At lower levels of government, the people should be able to insert their principles into government as they see fit, but the moment government steps in to resolve disputes — as opposed to ensuring the conditions in which they can be resolved without violence — being unalterably tolerant of one perspective inherently requires being intolerant of perspectives that oppose it.

If the arbiter insists, even, that "hate" is inadmissible as justification, then his criteria are no longer objective; hatred is all too evident in the side with which one disagrees and too difficult to see among those who've reached the one's own conclusion.

Economic Liberty as Equalizer

Justin Katz

Taking some legislation that President Obama has proposed as his cue, Andrew Biggs makes the case against legislative corrections to the gender pay gap. All such arguments come down to the point that there are legitimate reasons that men, in aggregate, make more money than women, and Biggs gives the underlying reason why that can be expected to be so:

Discrimination is unlikely to drive the gender pay gap because, as economist Gary Becker pointed out a half century ago, when one employer underpays his workers, competing businesses can earn windfall profits by luring them away. If Employer A pays women 77 cents on the dollar, Employer B can hire all Employer A's female workers at 78 cents on the dollar to replace his costlier male workers. This raises Employer B's profits, while Employer A must now pay full freight for employees. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted, in awarding Becker the 1992 Prize in Economics, that "discrimination thus tends to be economically detrimental not only to those who are discriminated against, but also to those who practice discrimination." As long as there is a critical mass of non-discriminating employers—and the growth of female-run businesses in recent decades and changes in social norms among males indicates there is—then employers' profit motives will narrow the pay gap to levels justifiable in terms of productivity. Ironically, while the Left assumes that businesses readily sacrifice worker safety and degrade the environment in search of profits, they nevertheless believe employers forgo profits simply to satisfy a misbegotten desire to discriminate.

Of course, to the sorts of people who advocate for legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act, to write the phrase "make more money than women" is to concede that there is, in fact, discrimination, because they begin with the belief that there are no legitimate reasons. Even if it means forcing businesses to ignore relevant factors (like skills lost during child rearing), to arbitrarily increase the cost of male workers (by offering, e.g., paternity leave), or attacking the very culture and biology that produces the substantial differences between men and women, zealous foes of perceived discrimination care only to work toward equivalent statistical outcomes (unless it's men who are on the losing end). Whether that coincides with equivalent senses of happiness and fulfillment is another matter.

If, by contrast, one accepts the premise that biological reality and individual preferences create circumstances in which it is reasonable for some pay gap to exist, the question is wholly different: How do we squeeze whatever invidious discrimination there is out? Here, I agree with Biggs that the answer is economic freedom:

Even if some of the pay gap is due to discrimination, therefore, economic liberalization may be the key to reducing it. Because employers that discriminate lose profits relative to non-discriminating competitors, increased competition weeds out discrimination. Several studies have shown that as industries faced increased competition, through either deregulation or international trade, the gender pay gap shrank. And the pay gap is larger in monopoly markets without competition and smaller in start-ups and small businesses that must be productive in order to survive. Women need more markets, more enterprise, and more opportunity, not more regulation and litigation.

Arbitrary discrimination is expensive, so creating barriers to entry through government regulations only creates the circumstances in which existing businesses have the competitive space to play silly personal games.

October 26, 2010

An Open Door for Evil

Justin Katz

Even the most plain, factual description of Andrew Conley's murder of his kid brother is chillingly disturbing:

The teenager told police he choked his brother while they were wrestling until the boy passed out. He said he then dragged his brother into the kitchen, put on gloves and continued strangling him for at least 20 minutes.

He then put wrapped the boy’s head in two plastic bags. A coroner testified that Conner may have still been alive for minutes or hours after that point, Humphrey noted, but the bags helped suffocate him, and Conley repeatedly banged the boy’s head on the ground before loading him in the trunk of his car to make sure he was dead.

He then went along with his day, compounding the horror with his casual behavior.

As a parent, especially, the violation of warm images of home and basic trust in familial bonds leaves only one word capable of describing the act: Evil. Questions of insanity and premeditation are tangled, because the monster had previously expressed admiration for a fictional television serial killer but found the experience surreal and felt outside himself and unable to stop. In that regard, the case puts the lie to insanity as an excuse for the inexcusable; the perpetrator must be considered insane by definition, and to consider that as mitigation is to negate our ability to deal appropriately with... again... evil.

Clearly, the killer was not well. Surely, the images and plots that gave form to his illness help to spread the blame to the parents who allowed them to infect their home, to the people and industry that produces them, and to the broad society that creates a market for destructive filth. If that society is to be substantively free, the slow, dispersed culmination of evil must be tolerated until it sharpens in the hands of a depraved person and a criminal act. But is that clinical assessment sufficient?

Columnist Ron Rosenbaum recently touched on similar thoughts for First Things. Writing about the West Cumbria killer dubbed "Psycho-Cabbie":

... one could see Derrick "simmering with rage and paranoia" and perhaps even the dread low self-esteem, too. But we are all simmering to some extent. And yet: Murdering his twin in cold blood and then driving over to his solicitor's house and shotgunning him in bed, too? Are these bad choices psychogenically determined, organically inevitable? Crimes just waiting to happen if we’d had a proper brain scan to warn us? Or are they evil? Can we utterly eliminate the fact that he had a choice, that he made a choice, and that it was an evil choice? Or do we just look at his brain scan posthumously for the real trigger? And what do we make of the nine further killings that morning, and of the dozen or so attempts that left several critically wounded? ...

... [After his initial, pre-motivated murders] virtually every time he saw anyone—a person with whom he did not have any kind of psychogenic, emotional, legal relationship—he chose evil, more and further evil, until he totaled a dozen dead victims and then shot himself. He was in a world of utter freedom offered by the fact that he could not become any more morally or legally culpable than he already was. He was free to be as evil as he wanted to be. He could have shot himself after the first three, but he chose to blast open the faces of a dozen or so more, nine of them fatally.

The problem that Rosenbaum doesn't entirely resolve is that externalizing evil — whether as a series of biological or psychological triggers or as a demonic force — tends to complicate our sense of how to handle those who become its instruments. "If we are not free to choose evil," he concludes, "we are not free to refuse it," and the court psychologist might argue that, as a matter of law, society cannot fully punish those who were not free to resist the impulse toward their crimes.

At least with the notion of evil as a spiritual force, we can blame the perpetrator for "leaving the door open." With modern concepts of agency, even that degree of culpability is not as available. Who opened the door by which evil approached Indiana's fratricidal teen? And to the degree that evil takes the form of illness (psychological, biological, or both), blame seems less a matter of the active opening of a door than of the passive failure to close it.

Which is to say that all of the tools that have accrued to the modern intellect remain unable to address, and may in fact exacerbate our comprehension of, the evil to which our species has proven prone. Leave it thus: He who submits to evil must be punished for his acts in the body, even while redemption remains possible, spiritually. Those who cleared the path for evil should contemplate long and seriously their culpability. And the rest of us should make it our life's work to counter evil with good.

October 21, 2010

Happiness by the Numbers

Justin Katz

It is most definitely consistent with a religious conservative's worldview to argue that experience of happiness is a cocktail of biological, financial, cultural, social, and psychological factors, but I question whether the sort of scientific differentiation that University of Mary Washington Psychology Professor Holly Schiffrin attempts in a recent syndicated column is really all that useful, or even plausible:

So, if about 50 percent of happiness is explained by our genes and 10 percent by our life circumstances, what accounts for the rest? The activities that promote happiness are those we have resorted to during the recession because we haven't had as much disposable income as usual, such as staying at home for game or movie nights with family and friends.

The No. 1 predictor of happiness across cultures is good relationships.

Schiffrin goes on to mention the possibility of using the little boosts of an expenditure high (in the life circumstances category) in such a way as to assist relationships. In that little concession, though, she pokes a hole in the veneer of categories. Circumstances can make quality time more difficult; moreover, I, for one, certainly have ample experience with the ability of economic hardship to prevent engagement in fulfilling activities, thereby increasing frustration and decreasing happiness. If life circumstances negate good relationships, which category is to blame?

We can go a step farther, though, and question whether even genes can be considered a one-way contributor. My general reading leads me to believe that genetic makeup can change, based not only on environmental and other experiences, but also on the attitudes and beliefs that we internalize. To the extent that that's the case, genetic factors are more like biological indicators of where we are as organisms, and that is inextricable from where we are as spiritual beings.

October 17, 2010

Clarifying My Perspective

Justin Katz

Reader mangeek left this curious comment last week:

A lot of my progressive friends are pretty easy to find during the days and nights: Coffee shops and bars, respectively. I still haven't figured out how to live without an income, so I schlep it to work fifty hours a week.

I'll bet Justin has a lot to say about a generation of twenty-somethings who seem to be more interested in having fun than generating and accumulating wealth and stability, but that's a conversation for another day.

Let me state bluntly that I'm a big proponent of fun, and look for it in every task that I undertake. It's probable that some scorn would rise up unbidden at the particular activities that many modern twenty-somethings consider to be appropriate fun for their age, but that's an individual judgment, rather than a collective one. I'm also not inclined to see the accumulation of wealth to be more than an incidental factor in a well-lived life, and as for stability, well, my religious faith leads me to regard that in spiritual, rather than material, terms.

The aspect that irks me about the generational distinction, if it is real, is the overlap of a free-living, fun-having extended adolescence with the ideological belief that others should believe it to be their duty to support the drag on our society. Exhaust your young life at the local coffee shop, if that's your choice, but don't then expect everybody else's healthcare premiums to go up so that you can remain on your parents' insurance until it suits you to find a real job. Don't advocate government giveaways and subsidized pastimes as a means of giving your life meaning and extending your capacity for idleness.

October 7, 2010

Handling Matters Outside of the Legal System

Justin Katz

Jonah Goldberg posted a letter in the Corner that's worth reading in its entirety, but here's the crux:

To be blunt, in the days of my grandfather, a good sized group of men would have peeled off from the funeral, and informed Rev. Phelps he was not welcome within eyesight of the funeral, and that it was time for him to leave. Like, right now. If he didn’t, then he would have been bodily removed, likely with a variety of lumps and bruises, from the scene and warned that if he returned, he would get a serious beating.

And nobody would have batted an eye. Any cops that were called would have exercised discretion, looked over the situation, and told Phelps “You had it coming, bub, beat it”. Any judge that Phelps petitioned would have looked at the case, told Phelps he was a horses hind end, and tossed it out of court with prejudice.

The writer goes on to suggest that the difference was a uniform culture, at least with regard to standards of behavior. In essence, everybody in the entire chain of events would have understood that the judgment from the jurist's bench would have found any assault charges mitigated by Phelps's offensive action. Now things aren't so clear.

One needn't believe that judges ought to apply their own cultural bias to every situation to come their way to think that some reasonable degree of self policing ought to be understood as undeserving of courts' time and attention. The letter writer above blames the left's post '50s "smashing [of] cultural norms, [which] moved simple disputes such as this from the cultural, low-level form of conflict resolution into the legal system." Somebody more sympathetic to '60s radicalism might adjust that statement to note that the disruptive decade allowed actually existing subcultures to make their presence known, thereby necessitating recourse to the ostensibly neutral intermediary of the law.

Both of these factors surely play a role, but I'd suggest that the larger problem is the division of the culture between elite and masses, high and low, ruling and ruled. The richest man in town once sat among the pews with the common folk, presumably admitting the authority of a shared church. Less mobility meant that powerful people were often in closer proximity to the hoi polloi, making them more accessible. The absence of all sorts of technologies — from instant communication, to rapid transportation, to forensics and other investigative techniques — meant that leaders who presumed too much in the face of popular will were vulnerable to street justice, themselves.

That isn't to say that street justice is desirable, but all of these factors together once fostered a cultural sympathy and a sense of extra-legal accountability, creating incentive for everybody to remain within a tolerable variation from cultural expectations. And as the Phelpses' offensive roadshow illustrates, our society failed to maintain important cultural controls as it made desirable adjustments to allow greater individual freedom and a stronger voice for those outside of the mainstream.

That, in my view, speaks to the real damage done by the radicals of recent decades and progressives of the past two centuries: They've pushed for rapid change, typically leveraging emotion and legal imposition to simply make a new social structures fact without regard to the pillars that might fall as a consequence.

October 3, 2010

The Allocation of "Hate Crimes" Dismisses Empathy

Justin Katz

This photograph brings home the reason that I'm fundamentally opposed to the notion of "hate crimes" and, indeed, identity groups overall:

The young man in the foreground is Tyler Clementi, who recently plunged to his death from the George Washington Bridge (which spans from New Jersey to New York City), apparently as an emotional response to his college roommate's violating his privacy to an extent so egregious as to be evil. The building in the background is Ridgewood High School, from which Tyler graduated.

If memory serves, the spot on which he is standing is within yards of the placement of the school's polevaulting mats during track and field season, which was the vantage point from which I most frequently observed the scene. The building's main entrance presents a beautiful, classic high school facade and, at least for a writer-type like me, readily suggests the stories for which it would stand as an apt setting. Stories of adolescent turmoil, fortitude, and growth.

My own experience of adolescence was heavily inclined toward the turmoil — largely attributable, if I'm being honest, to my unhealthy attraction to the dramatic — with fortitude manifesting only in the small degree required to lift my head sufficiently to breathe when at last I felt the ripples of drama lapping into my nostrils. As for growth, well, I was a long, long way from high school before I could claim any of that.

There's nothing unique in this experience — as testified by the ease with which we can all raise images from literature and cinema to fill out the details. More of us than would like to make the admission can put ourselves in Tyler's shoes as he stepped onto the bridge, and it has very little to do with the particular events and catalysts that brought him there.

By categorizing the qualities that made Tyler Clementi different, in the sense that his tragic end fits neatly in the ongoing narrative of a particular identity group, by giving that group alone a stake in his experience, such that criminal charges brought against his tormentor may be elevated on its behalf under the rationale of "hate crimes," we cannot do otherwise than deepen our sense of social division. And that's just the crack running along the emotional face of the matter.

The same poorly conceived understanding of self and society arises intellectually, as when we conflate the question of whether the action of Dharun Ravi (the roommate) was horribly, horribly wrong with the question of whether hate crime prosecutions and identity group legislation can maintain legal neutrality or even resolve the underlying problem. Or when the argument for same-sex marriage rests on the conclusion that homosexuals have feelings. Or when advocates for amnesty of illegal immigrants claim it as the only possible policy following the belief that immigrants are human beings with natural rights. Or when politicians from any particular group behave as if they inherently speak for all members of their demographic category.

It is an astonishing fact that so many well-meaning people assent to this strategy of forcing us to give over what truly makes us individuals. We ought rather to find it overt and offensive when public lines are drawn along differences as superficial as skin color or as private as affections. For our society to unify, and for our democracy to function in any degree, we'll have to begin rejecting the facile — canned and processed — story lines that disclaim the possibility of deep empathy on the grounds of superficial or circumstantial differences.

September 18, 2010

The Origins of Orientation

Justin Katz

I suppose it's generally been taken differently, coming from a politically and theologically conservative traditionalist like me, but it looks like the thinking about the origins of homosexuality are moving toward what I've long contended to be the case (here presented by research psychologist Jesse Bering, who is, himself, gay):

Another caveat is that researchers in this area readily concede that there are probably multiple—and no doubt very complicated—developmental routes to adult homosexuality. Heritable, biological factors interact with environmental experiences to produce phenotypic outcomes, and this is no less true for sexual orientation than it is for any other within-population variable. Since the prospective and retrospective data discussed in the foregoing studies often reveal very early emerging traits in prehomosexuals, however, those children who show pronounced sex-atypical behaviors may have "more" of a genetic loading to their homosexuality, whereas gay adults who were sex-typical as children might trace their homosexuality more directly to particular childhood experiences. For example, in a rather stunning case of what I'll call "say-it-isn't-so science"—science that produces data that rebel against popular, politically correct, or emotionally appealing sentiments—controversial new findings published earlier this year in the Archives of Sexual Behavior hint intriguingly that men—but not women—who were sexually abused as children are significantly more likely than non-abused males to have had homosexual relationships as adults. Whatever the causal route, however, none of this implies, whatsoever, that sexual orientation is a choice. In fact it implies quite the opposite, since prepubertal erotic experiences can later consolidate into irreversible sexual orientations and preferences, as I discussed in a previous piece on the childhood origins of fetishes and paraphilias.

It is fashionable these days to say that one is "born gay," of course, but if we think about it a bit more critically, it's a bit odd, and probably nonsensical, to refer to a newborn infant, swaddled in blankets and still suckling on its mother's teats, as being homosexual. I appreciate the anti-discriminatory motives, but if we insist on using such politically correct parlance without consideration of more complex, postnatal developmental factors, are we really prepared to label newborns as being LGBT?

There is no "gay gene," although there are probably collections of heritable traits that make predisposition and socialization toward homosexuality so likely as to be indistinguishable from a biological certainty. But there are also a range of routes toward the same adult sexual preferences, spanning from what I've just described all the way to young (and not-so-young) adults who do, in fact, choose the lifestyle and identity group.

If it weren't for the current emphasis on identity politics, though, it'd all be a moot point. Discrimination against homosexuals is socially evaporating, and if we thought of public policy on its merits, rather than as a political football or battle ax, the question of whether the emotions and ways of life are "natural" would barely be relevant.

September 12, 2010

Keeping Murder in the Family

Justin Katz

Ancient mythology proves that parricide isn't anything new. Lizzie Borden proves that it isn't new to our region. But Joel Beaulieu's alleged patricide and attempted matricide in Tiverton has come mere months after the sentencing of James Soares across the bay in Warren for the same crime, and a mere two years after the act itself.

Both are men in their twenties still living with their parents. Both are described as showing little emotion. Soares's case involves drugs and a live-in girlfriend. Details on Beaulieu are still sparse. Two unusual murders of this sort does not necessarily a trend make, even when they occur in such proximity. But it is eerie and should make us wonder whether we're witnessing further evidence that something grievous in our culture needs correcting.

September 7, 2010

A Balance of Status and Meaning

Justin Katz

In one of those fortuitous instances that creates the sense of a plot to life, this story just arrived at the end of my driveway with the morning paper:

Deaton and Daniel Kahneman reviewed surveys of 450,000 Americans conducted in 2008 and 2009 for the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index that included questions on day-to-day happiness and overall life satisfaction.

Happiness got better as income rose, but the effect leveled out at $75,000, Deaton said. On the other hand, their overall sense of success or well-being continued to rise as their earnings grew beyond that point.

The number surely varies, by time and location, but it appears that $75,000 is currently the amount of money required to fulfill the tier of "needs" that follows the meeting of essentials. At $75,000, one can live pretty well, with enough for some vacationing and extracurriculars and the basic toys of modern society, and make some preparation for retirement.

The article's arrival was fortuitous because I was preparing to post on Michael Knox Beran's suggestion that social mobility begets status anxiety (subscription required):

The same anxiety explains why those who enjoy what is supposed to be an enviable status go to such lengths to preserve their preeminence by keeping down those who might otherwise rise above them. Nowhere are the hierarchies more jealously guarded than in democracies (or in societies that are becoming democratic), precisely because the degrees of rank there do not find as strong a sanction in law and principle as they do in rigidly oligarchic societies. George Santayana, who passed his early years in quasi-feudal Spain, found it "at first very strange" that Americans should have been more attached to hierarchy than Spaniards, and he was startled to find that the background of his highly cultivated Harvard friend Charles Loeser "cut him off, in democratic America, from the ruling society." (Loeser's father "kept a 'dry-goods store.'")

Unable to rely on the state to enforce their hierarchies, those who have caste advantage in free societies (or societies that are becoming free) must constantly change the social locks in order to make it more difficult for those who lack caste to fashion a satisfactory key. Perhaps the most ingenious of the devices the status "haves" have devised to demoralize the status "have nots" is status inversion. When a weapon in the social arsenal of status fails to hold the line, the elite will not merely discard it, they will ironically invert the old status hierarchy and disdain the thing that was once coveted, thereby disconcerting the aspirants who took so many pains to master it.

One can presume that this is mainly an overt concern for those who've reached the threshold at which "overall sense of success" becomes the emotional good purchased by advancement. Before that $75k is achieved, status and economic stability are more or less synonymous; the things that mark the "haves," up to that point, are actually useful on a daily basis. Thereafter, the competition begins in earnest.

Of course, status and wealth are certainly a concern for those below the threshold — especially well below it — and it is for them that the democratic accessibility of status creates the larger tangible problem. When status was a matter written in law and blood, Beran argues, societies formed accordingly, allowing those without to devote their aspirations to other things than becoming "with" and developing means of offering care:

The civic culture that was a by-product of the reaction against aristocratic hierarchy was highly artistic, but in contrast to the feudal arts, which exalted status, the civic arts soothed those who lacked it. Artistic motifs that depicted (in Pater's words) a "tender and accessible" compassion inspired conduct concerned less with distinguishing "who's in" from "who's out" than with nourishing the affections and awakening the sympathetic virtues. A culture that is driven principally by concern for status is unlikely ever to develop a really satisfactory discipline of pastoral care. Status-driven culture may be, indeed often is, generous in its charity; but the largesse always reinforces the status of the donor, and the cultural artifacts of status-driven culture, being stained by pride, tend subtly to betray the motive in which they were begot. Philanthropists today pour millions of dollars into the various civic projects that bear their names, but the power to create a civic culture like that which was fashioned in the shadow of Chartres and the Parthenon — built for the most part by unknown hands in the name of a glory greater than themselves — is beyond us. Nor can status-driven culture bring people together in the way the older civic culture could: Its deepest raison d'etre is to keep them apart.

In Beran's view, the travesty and the danger at the end of this shift is individual isolation — as brought to tight focus in the sociopathy of serial killers, and in fascination with them. I'd marry that cultural thread with our society's obsession with shooting-star access to high status as evidenced in primetime talent competitions, reality television, state lotteries, and the various other illusory rockets to social stratosphere. Unfortunately, that victory by that route should seem so fickle can only contribute to the sense of the self against a hostile world.

A thorough explication of the consequences of that isolation across classes and demographies would require the space (and time) of a book, but in the absence of that leeway in my schedule, suffice it to suggest that the tension in our society derives in significant part from the rut that personal autonomy — and the ability to rise — cuts in the mud of hard reality. In the generic case, the individual who does not advance, in our society, is to some extent to blame, and it is the fuel of our economy that we can find motivation in that fact. But the individual is not wholly to blame, and the challenge comes in contriving a means of assistance that does not squelch the individual drive, whether by reinforcing helplessness or fostering dependency.

Any compassionate person will look at the balance of happiness against "sense of success" and conclude that it would be a worthwhile project to sacrifice some of the latter in the cause of the former. But on neither side of the redistribution can the exchange be explicitly imposed. The happiness, after all, is not merely in the big-screen television and the retirement account, but in the fact of having achieved them, and the "sense of success" will resist confiscation of the resources that make it possible, yielding all varieties of unintended consequences.

Better to redefine "success" and "needs," and for that, a society requires a deeper meaning than materialism and secularism can provide.

September 5, 2010

A Short Thought on a Long Road

Justin Katz

In a rare personal insistence on sitting down and watching a movie, last night, my wife and I viewed The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name. Based on some quick skimming of reviews around the Internet art of the allure of the movie appears to owed at least some debt to the mounting environmentalist scaremongering of the last few decades, but to focus on the apocalypse part of the post-apocalyptic tale clearly misses the point.

For those who don't know anything about the story, some very vague cataclysm wipes out most life on Earth and alters the weather. At least in the movie, the end-of-the-world plot is pretty studiously apolitical. It could be associated with environmental issues, or it could be more of a global war scenario. It doesn't really matter.

What matters is the reaction of humanity to the aftermath, and that's what makes the film so bleak. Starvation is pervasive, to the point that whole-family suicides are not uncommon. Survivors spend their time scavenging for any scraps of food, even if they have to scrape it from the tables of long-looted diners. Some people form gangs — mainly, it seems, to hunt everybody else as a cannibalistic food source.

Within the basic premise, McCarthy could have told any number of tales, and which one he picked strikes me as more than a little determinant of the message. A more familiar plot, for example, might have involved wars between the gangs, probably with an evil, man-eating gang, and a "good guy" gang striving to pull people together to increase their chances of surviving and perhaps even rebuilding (probably with the necessity of finding a more suitable landscape than suburban America).

That obvious alternative points to a plot imperative that continues to bother me as unrealistic: Of all of the other people with whom the father and son protagonists come into contact, all of those that aren't immediately apparent as a dangerous threat are either traveling alone or in very small families. One can presume that such a reality was a requirement of McCarthy's thematic intention: The father and son dynamic wouldn't have taken on a wholly different tone if the pair were to come across a gregarious (as opposed to violent) tribe. Either other characters would have intruded on the relationship, or the father would have been painted with clear paranoia were he to avoid helpful groups.

The plausibility of the story therefore collapses, in my view. However much a reader should be willing to suspend disbelief to get the plot rolling, human nature is supposed to remain intact; indeed, the unfamiliar setting is supposed to highlight core truths about humanity. And I just don't find it plausible that the father and son would regularly come across hostile groups of cannibals, but not a single group that had overcome distrust of strangers in the cause of making the most of the horrendous circumstances.

After all, that tendency was a large part of what has brought human society to its current state of mastery of its environment. Unless, of course, McCarthy's theme — and the main cataclysm that he intended to describe — was not life after the destruction of the world, but life after the destruction of humanity's striving for the higher good.

September 1, 2010

The Confusion of Success with the Meaning of Life

Justin Katz

Some strains of Darwinian secularism are speckled throughout with signs of the mansions and vast estates of their most prominent promoters. Such appears to be the case with Matt Ridley's philosophy, as presented in George Gilder's review of his book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves:

Reason, to Ridley's mind, impels us relentlessly forward and upward. Religion, on the other hand, he sees as a reactionary obstacle to growth, progress, and even morality. He cites, for example, the indignation of Israel's prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, along with Homer, against the pride of the Phoenician traders as typical rants of reactionary traditionalists against the creators of wealth.

Instead — echoing his previous books on the evolution of virtue and the superiority of sexual reproduction to reduplicative cloning — Ridley maintains that moral codes naturally evolve from the rise of catallaxy. Cultures that reach out to immigrants and new ideas gain cultural and genetic innovation. As wealth grows, population growth relents; women instead release their energies into the marketplace.

Reason does not have a self-contained direction; it is dependent on circumstances. To those not living on the proceeds of best-selling books, reason alone may very well lead to the conclusion that the world is cold, unfair, and irrational, and life utterly pointless. Religion, in such circumstances, can reorder the individual's sense of reason toward productive ends.

This is no linguistic nitpicking; it is a thematic problem with analyses such as Ridley's. Reason is what allows humankind to take evolution into its own hands in ways broad and discrete, but it requires a larger principle to give it direction. The reference to "immigration and new ideas" is a perfect example: Such intermingling is only fruitful where it provides new perspective on existing principles, and the application of human reason must begin with an assessment of what is worth preserving and what is dangerously attractive. It supposes too much correspondence between cultural evolution and biological evolution to assume a parallel process of "good decisions" through trial and error judged by rates of survival.

As I'm able, I'm reading a book titled The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton, in which the author strives to argue that art is both something more than, say, the weaving of bird nests and something growing out of human evolution. So thoroughly dedicated to the principle of genetic development as a human determinant is Dutton that, in one passage, he gives the impression that he believes that it took a genetic mutation for mankind to cease jumping from cliffs. Those disinclined to such behavior survived, while the other perished. But surely it wouldn't have taken too advanced a brain to notice a bloody lifeless pulp at the bottom of a high drop and to conclude that jumping would not be wise and, moreover, to warn others of that finding.

Such is the function of reason. Even so, a precondition of its application is the principle that it is better to live than to plummet to death. That brings us back to Gilder's review:

That a secular-feminist society, feeding on hedonic incentives, can ultimately sustain a functional national defense capable of standing up to the Vandals and Goths of the 21st century is yet to be proven, but the portents are unpromising. Europe is dismantling its military, while the U.S. increasingly regards its own chiefly as an arena for sex-role gaming.

Cultural innovations may benefit individuals for a period of time, but what is supposed to set human beings apart is our ability to foresee pitfalls and to step around them and to carry non-biological lessons from the past that tell us which paths are likely to be perilous. We do so through mechanisms of religion and tradition.

August 31, 2010

An Argument for a Burqa Ban

Justin Katz

The Islamic practice of women's veiling, extending to the absurd and offensive burqa, presents difficult questions for the West. Who are we, we wonder, to trample other cultures voluntarily perpetuated? Worse yet is the question of whether a society can stop intolerance once it has granted itself permission to discriminate against that which it finds offensive.

Yet, journalist Claire Berlinski argues that veiling itself tends to be a metastasizing intolerance:

... the burqa must be banned. All forms of veiling must be, if not banned, strongly discouraged and stigmatized. The arguments against a ban are coherent and principled. They are also shallow and insufficient. They fail to take something crucial into account, and that thing is this: If Europe does not stand up now against veiling — and the conception of women and their place in society that it represents — within a generation there will be many cities in Europe where no unveiled woman will walk comfortably or safely. ...

The debate in Europe now concerns primarily the burqa, not less restrictive forms of veiling, such as the headscarf. The sheer outrageousness of the burqa makes it an easy target, as does the political viability of justifying such a ban on security grounds, particularly in the era of suicide bombings, even if such a justification does not entirely stand up to scrutiny. But the burqa is simply the extreme point on the continuum of veiling, and all forced veiling is not only an abomination, but contagious: Unless it is stopped, the natural tendency of this practice is to spread, for veiling is a political symbol as well as a religious one, and that symbol is of a dynamic, totalitarian ideology that has set its sights on Europe and will not be content until every woman on the planet is humbled, submissive, silent, and enslaved.

To be sure, the United States is nowhere near such a point, but even here, the intellectual dynamic exposed by the questions has relevance. Neither the Constitution nor the principle of tolerance should be a suicide pact, and sometimes it may be the case that one side in a cultural battle will inevitably prevail and wipe out the very rules of competition that enables such thorough pluralism. There may be no rational reason for veiling to win over liberty, from an enlightened standpoint, but it is utterly predictable of human beings to behave irrationally and to rationalize.

Berlinski hits the core of the matter when she asserts that there is no such "thing as a neighborhood where the veil is the cultural norm and yet no judgment is passed upon women who do not wear it." In agreement with her subsequent assertion that "our culture's position on these questions is morally superior," one is inclined to suggest that we let those neighborhoods pass judgment, and dismiss them when they do so. Provided no violence transpires and the law does not ultimately flip from allowing the practice to imposing it, we can expect no legal shield against interpersonal judgment. And if the particular neighborhood in which the shifting attitudes is a concern, then we must individually fight the cultural fight.

The concern, ultimately, is that the West lacks the confidence to pass its own judgment when the rule isn't written into the law. There's a tendency — emanating from our "nation of laws" mentality — to feel as if anything not codified into law is too ambiguous to form so strong a personal or group opinion about that we impose compliance as a condition of our personal good will. The foundation of that self-doubting ideology is clear: it gains the upper hand in the intrawestern culture war if the law demarks legitimate judgment and values are banned from the "whereas" clauses of legislation.

The fatal flaw, however — the dangerous risk — is that the shallowness of a libertine society won't form the basis of adequate cultural confidence to defend against foreign principles that don't begin with the assumption of tolerance.

August 23, 2010

The Living and the Dead

Justin Katz

One of the peculiarities that native Rhode Islanders perhaps do not even notice about their state — at least in the East Bay — is the proliferation of historical cemeteries, tucked into suburban and urban corners alike, here and there, such as this unkempt one on Water St., in Portsmouth:

George Carlin used to have a bit in which he suggested that all cemeteries and golf courses be sacrificed in the name of affordable housing. Taking up the economic calamity of such a move would be beyond my purpose, here, and it may be sufficient, anyway, to warn against preventing the intrusion of mortality and heritage into our daily routines.

What might remain of bodies interred some hundred and fifty years ago, I do not know, when even the stone etchings have faded such as to make reading difficult. With the aid of a type-written sheet of paper, sheathed in plastic on the site, however, the visitor can associate some names with the stones, thus parting with an explanation, upon turning back toward East Main Rd., for Child St. (Although, whether George Franklin, Jonathan, Lidia, William Henry, Joseph, or Harriet merited the honorarium is lost to history. Perhaps the honored Child lies beneath one of the faded, illegible stones, or perhaps the entire clan was the namesake.) Erasing the dead from the landscape would be akin to naming every road by its place and purpose, just as Portsmouth has East Main, West Main, joined by Union, with Middle right where one would expect.

In a faded and indistinct way, these daily encounters with our foregoers bring the same lessons that are incidental to Michael Morse's work as an EMT:

A few hours later, I returned to the ER with somebody else, but took the time to visit them. He was lucid now, she smiled as I shook his hand and deflected the genuine thanks he offered, saying the usual "it's my job" things. I don't remember what caused his confusion, his blood work was way out of whack, IV fluids and whatever else they gave him at the hospital worked wonders. He was funny, and kind, and appreciative. So was she. I was happy to have helped them. It was a "good" call.

I saw his picture on the obituary page two days later. He died that night. At least he walked out of the place he raised his family under his own power, and into whatever existence waits.

Two years later, another call brings him to take the she along the same path. Michael recalls her graciousness when he'd attended her husband's wake and how a certain respect had attached to his occupational proximity to the living's passing on to death.

Of course, we're all, every day, dealing with people on their way to the grave, gathering associations and memories, making impressions. Whoever's names the addresses of the living bear, the blocks, the towns, the regions that they inhabit carry the sense of them, even if that sense will pass with us. Let graveyards, then, stand as a reminder that we mark the ground on which we tread no less than the ground in which we lie.

In a recently reprinted column for the Rhode Island Catholic, Bishop Thomas Tobin summarizes a relevant theme in Jesus' teachings:

The first lesson is the reminder of how foolish it is to accumulate and then depend on material possessions. Remember the parable Jesus told about the rich man who built up huge barns to store his bountiful harvest? The complacent man said to himself, "You have so many things stored up for many years; rest, eat, drink and be merry." But God said to him, "You fool, this very night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?" Jesus concludes by teaching that we should try to grow rich "in what matters to God." (Luke 12:16-21) ...

Towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus urged His disciples to be less anxious and more trusting. "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear . . . Your Heavenly Father knows that you need them all . . . Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself." (Mt 6: 25-34)

Though the annunciations of our existences will dissipate with the wind and water, whether written in stone or in the reflections of those with whom we interact, these things are not all. Tomorrow will take care of itself, ultimately, in its material particulars, but the immaterial about today, its dreams and intentions, whether the will is good or ill, represents in us that which will never be buried.

August 21, 2010

On "Giving Back"

Justin Katz

Kimberly Dennis summarizes a cliché in such a way as to give me hope that maybe differing perspectives really are just a clarification away from harmonization (via Paul Caron, via Glenn Reynolds):

Successful entrepreneurs-turned-philanthropists typically say they feel a responsibility to "give back" to society. But "giving back" implies they have taken something. What, exactly, have they taken? Yes, they have amassed great sums of wealth. But that wealth is the reward they have earned for investing their time and talent in creating products and services that others value. They haven't taken from society, but rather enriched us in ways that were previously unimaginable.

No. "Giving back" implies that they have received something that they did not create. Inasmuch as even the most rags-to-riches story is a far cry from an entrepreneur's inventing the world from primordial muck, it is clearly true that the broader society has at the very least created the conditions in which his or her success was possible. That's especially true for entrepreneurs, like Bill Gates, whose story is more of the riches-to-more-riches variety.

Glenn Reynolds brings into the conversation philanthropy's sense of being Christian, but the point of Christian charity is not for the haves to make token gestures toward economic equilibrium. It's to offer imitative thanks to the living God whom the giver is supposed to see in the recipient. The notion translates directly into secular terms as an expression of gratitude — and, one might say, debt — to a cultural and civic structure.

Business-minded libertarians, among whom Dennis appears to count, may respond to that call by advocating for freedom and donating to market-bolstering causes. Others may shoot for the more fundamental targets of diminishing starvation and disease. And still others see continued investment in their personal vocations — whether medicine, high-tech inventions, financial investment, or any other capitalistic venture — to be their most valuable possible contribution.

Insisting that this point be acknowledged does not indicate that one begrudges the success or dismisses the inventiveness of capitalism's beneficiaries. But "giving back" isn't (or shouldn't be) penance in the form of an offering to the undeserving. It's recognition that, even to the extent that luck was not decisive, community conditions might have been, and a freely expressed hope that those conditions can continue to benefit others who are deserving.

August 18, 2010

What Brevity Should Mean

Justin Katz

Commenter David P. offers an insightful comment to my post on technology and brain development:

Newspeak, the language invented by George Orwell for "1984," nicely illustrates the connection between language and docility. In creating Newspeak the Party simplified the vocabulary as much as possible by eliminating many synonyms so that, for example, all the variations of good and bad, such as outstanding, horrible, etc. were reduced to "good" and "ungood." Degrees of goodness or badness were indicated by adding the prefixes "plus" or "double plus" so that something really bad would be described and "double plus ungood." Orwell posited that by reducing the ability to express ideas, the ability to actually have ideas and think about them would atrophy. It seems to me that reducing the space in which to express an idea to a text or twitter screen can have the same effect.

The irony — I suppose you could call it — with "reducing the space" for communication is that it really ought to suggest language that is more full, as in poetry, rather than more empty. The word "horrific" contains much more information than the phrase "double plus ungood," let alone a text-like shorthand of "bad." (I'm sure there's an acronym of which I'm unaware.)

The problem is that it's a little bit more work to come up with just the right word to capture the nature of the deed and the speaker's reaction to it than to offer a catch-all catch phrase. The brevity of texting, as of newspeak, is brevity not just of language, but of thought. That is what makes it the road to manipulated slavery.

If all ungood acts have the same label, then what matters is not so much the criticism, but who offers it in what circumstances, which will always favor those in power.

August 17, 2010

Let Them Play

Marc Comtois

So now it's recess. Well, as a former high-energy boy, I'm not sure what I'd done if I had been forced to while away all the hours of the school day in a structured environment. Back in my day, we had a morning and afternoon recess (plus a lunch break!). The promise of those pending breaks are what got me through the hours spent in class. I knew that after math, I'd be back playing kickball or whatever else. And yeah, I'd have to go back into class, but the physical energy spent somehow helped to focus my young mind on the task at hand. Funny how that works.

But now we're told there just isn't enough time in the day to meet all of the requirements demanded by government and, implicitly, parents. So traditional recess of the free-form variety is being done away in favor of a more structured version. Just what our kids need: more structure in their already too-structured play time.

My wife, a member of our school's PTO who is at the school most days, has told me how she watches the kids at recess and that they have no clue how to play by themselves. For instance, soccer games quickly devolve into anything goes free-for-alls where the ball is usually carried (more like rugby). That's why there are programs in some schools that are actually teaching kids how to play. How sad. But at least these programs are aimed at giving the tools and ability to play on their own. A shorter, more structured "recess" will do just the opposite.

The problem is that we've raised--and continue to raise--a generation that thinks it needs adult supervision to play a game. Self-organizing doesn't happen. Kids are over-scheduled in their free time, whether it be dance or sports or karate or whatever. Too often, instead of fostering an interest, these organized forms of recreation end up being the only kind that kids get. Recess is one of the last places where they can just do what kids are supposed to do: play.

August 9, 2010

Generation Why Bother

Justin Katz

I guess it's among the hardships of wealth. Jeff Opdyke laments that his son doesn't have the drive that he did, as a teenager, to earn money, mostly because he and his wife have admittedly been a bit too generous:

We get a lot of satisfaction in doing that. But it comes with a pretty big downside—one we're only now beginning to grasp. Because of it, our son, who understands money far better than his young sister at this point, doesn't understand what it means to pay his own freight. He has learned to count on Mom and Dad.

I remember, at a very young age, walking around my apartment complex trying to sell toys that I no longer wanted. At one point, I set up a stand on a semi-main road selling pictures that I'd drawn. (I think I charged a quarter each, tacking on another dime if the picture was signed.) My career advanced to soccer referee and then record-store retail.

Perhaps the objects of desire make a difference. At thirteen and younger, I mainly wanted action figures and comic books, which had a low enough price tag that the work translated quickly into things. It seems that higher ticket items are more prominent these days — videogames and iphones and such — which probably contributes to the nonchalance of Opdyke's son at the prospect of making a few bucks mowing lawns.

Although, there's surely something cultural in play, whether broadly (covering most families) or narrowly (depending on the attitudes of nearby friends). My friends and I would patrol miles of neighborhoods selling the service of snow shoveling.

Of course, there's the opposing concern of parents:

[A former colleague's] daughter, on the other hand, "always had jobs when she was old enough, and offers the opposite lesson," my friend says. "She worked too hard and didn't enjoy herself enough when she had the opportunity. Now she has a full-time job, has her two weeks off, and I think she missed out."

Missed out on what? A teenager's job becomes part of the experience of youth. And without enough money to keep up with peers, kids can miss out anyway. I started down my path of debt when my first credit card arrived just in time to allow me to go on a beech vacation with my late-teenage pals. If I hadn't already had experience with what it means to work, I'd probably be in an even deeper hole, now, and with less natural drive to work my way out of it.

It's a complaint of every generation of parents, no doubt, but it feels as if the times aren't helping — what with all of the comforts and distractions, on one hand, and the well-honed traps that make spending money easy. As Opdyke suggests, "physical, maybe even uncomfortable, low-paying work" can be a healthy experience, of itself, if it serves to motivate young adults, but with the wireless glow of gadgets all around and the comforts of even working class homes, the lesson of "why bother" can take some effort to impart.

August 8, 2010

Just Be Better

Justin Katz

Lexington Green wonders where the ruling class gets the nerve:

Why does an elite that is actually not admirable in what it does, and not effective or productive, that has added little or nothing of value to the civilizational stock, that cannot possibly do the things it claims it can do, that services rent-seekers and the well-connected, that believes in an incoherent mishmash of politically correct platitudes, that is parasitic, have such an elevated view of itself?

He proffers as three planes of potential justifiable confidence the material, the intellectual, and the moral and then takes a decidedly negative approach toward a remedy:

It seems to me this group is vulnerable to strategic, permanent defeat if the conversation and the spot-light can be relentlessly focused on their deficiencies and the ludicrous nature of much of their behavior and their beliefs.

I'm as guilty as anybody of shining that negative light; in the quick-hit commentary that is the only thing for which economic reality has left me time, it's the most efficient means of affecting the conversation. And there is a place for pointing out error and mocking the arrogant and powerful.

Looking away from the world of opinion writing and wonkishness, the more effective approach is probably to highlight the positive. Mockery only shames those with a reason to believe that people about whose opinions they care will find uncomfortable truth in it, and the defining characteristic of our ruling class is its insulation from the trials of everyday American life. The long-term realignment of priorities, principles, and power would be better served simply by those outside of the ruling class proving themselves just to be plain ol' better people.

Like a soothing breeze over stagnant water, exemplary conduct will draw away the haughty until the pool has evaporated, but for the dregs.

August 6, 2010

What's in the Water for Whom

Justin Katz

There's a narrative in the air, and I herein offer only a few glances from my evening reading. Turn to Peggy Noonan for the general theme:

But do our political leaders have any sense of what people are feeling deep down? They don't act as if they do. I think their detachment from how normal people think is more dangerous and disturbing than it has been in the past. ...

But I've never seen the gap wider than it is now. I think it is a chasm. In Washington they don't seem to be looking around and thinking, Hmmm, this nation is in trouble, it needs help. They're thinking something else. I'm not sure they understand the American Dream itself needs a boost, needs encouragement and protection. They don't seem to know or have a sense of the mood of the country. ...

An irony here is that if we stopped the illegal flow and removed the sense of emergency it generates, comprehensive reform would, in time, follow. Because we're not going to send the estimated 10 million to 15 million illegals already here back. We're not going to put sobbing children on a million buses. That would not be in our nature. (Do our leaders even know what's in our nature?) As years passed, those here would be absorbed, and everyone in the country would come to see the benefit of integrating them fully into the tax system. So it's ironic that our leaders don't do what in the end would get them what they say they want, which is comprehensive reform.

When the adults of a great nation feel long-term pessimism, it only makes matters worse when those in authority take actions that reveal their detachment from the concerns—even from the essential nature—of their fellow citizens. And it makes those citizens feel powerless.

Note especially the parenthetical note in the first quoted paragraph: "Do our leaders even know what's in our nature?" Do they know who we are and what we're going through?

Meanwhile, in Spain, First Lady Michelle Obama is on a third-of-a-million-dollar vacation:

And her critics will be further annoyed when they learn that the president's wife had a Spanish beach closed off today so that she, her daughter and their entourage could go for a swim.

Spanish police cleared off a stretch of beach at the Villa Padierna Hotel in Marbella after the Obamas had finished a busy day of sightseeing.

This following the recent vacation to Main and the pending vacation in the Gulf region. In the latter, the beaches are closed for the less intriguing spectacle of oil contamination. (And locally, of course, we've had shark sightings closing our beaches.)

Folks are starting to liken Michelle to Mary Antoinette. At the same time, her husband, the President, has flown halfway across the country for a home-town birthday.

By the way, employment is down, and the federal government's solution is to spend billions of dollars to insulate public sector unions... again. Noonan is right to warn of a dangerous environment bubbling.

August 5, 2010

The Kids'll Respond to Good Points and Respect

Justin Katz

One wonders how the side of the culture war that proclaims itself "pro-science" will adjust its thinking in response to this finding (emphasis added):

The participants' mean age was 12.2 years; 53.5% were girls; and 84.4% were still enrolled at 24 months. Abstinence-only intervention reduced sexual initiation (risk ratio [RR], 0.67; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.48-0.96). The model-estimated probability of ever having sexual intercourse by the 24-month follow-up was 33.5% in the abstinence-only intervention and 48.5% in the control group. Fewer abstinence-only intervention participants (20.6%) than control participants (29.0%) reported having coitus in the previous 3 months during the follow-up period (RR, 0.94; 95% CI, 0.90-0.99). Abstinence-only intervention did not affect condom use. The 8-hour (RR, 0.96; 95% CI, 0.92-1.00) and 12-hour comprehensive (RR, 0.95; 95% CI, 0.91-0.99) interventions reduced reports of having multiple partners compared with the control group. No other differences between interventions and controls were significant.

Having followed this sort of research over the past decade, I'll confirm that this result really isn't surprising. Only a smokescreen of spin and obfuscation makes it seem so. Abstinence-only education teaches children to think of sex in terms that should lead them to have less of it. "Comprehensive" sex education teaches them how to have sex. Moreover, it has nowhere been the case that abstinence represents the sum total of the lessons that children receive.

As Joseph Bottum puts it:

While the study emphasized that the abstinence-only classes "would not be moralistic," there was an underlying assumption in those classes that the children themselves were moral beings—a striking difference between the abstinence-only and safe sex–only interventions. In the abstinence-only program, it was emphasized that "abstinence can foster attainment of future goals." In contrast, the safe sex–only intervention concentrated on education about sexually transmitted diseases and condom use—that is, it focused on the present only. The first program assumed that children look forward, anticipate, and hope. The second assumed that, like the lowest animals, they are aware only of the here and now.

Conservatives — especially religious conservatives — tend to believe that treating children as moral beings who can rise above their lusts is a worthwhile practice, even if it has no measurable effect on their present behavior. That the other side is loath to acknowledge that it does have a measurable effect suggests that they, for some reason, prefer that children learn to indulge their basest instincts, perhaps because it makes them riper for dependency.

August 3, 2010

The Arts Should Be Conservative

Justin Katz

Sara Hamdan laments, in the current First Things, the decline of dance as an art form. Given the sustained conditioning required of dancers — and the sustained attention of the audience — the art form doesn't lend itself as easily as other arts to modern adaptations that allow practitioners to maintain the practice as a hobby and fans to work enjoyment into their schedules. Time and money are the irreducible factors, and the dance world is finding it difficult to move enough of each to dancers to sustain a career.

Of course, there are the limited, intriguing developments, such as this variation on the modern trend of do-it-yourself mandates:

With arts organizations trying to focus their energies on redefining market strategies to attract younger audiences and make use of minimal funding, dancers themselves are directly affected. Tired of waiting for good news, Claire Sargenti and Lauren Zaleta took matters into their own hands. With two other Joffrey dancers, they started a ballet collaborative called New Bridges Ballet designed to put on low-budget shows in places where one wouldn’t expect to see ballet: in bars, in Washington Square Park, in a music video for a heavy-metal band. ...

... Sargenti, Zaleta, and two other Joffrey students are doing experimental work with New Bridges Ballet for added training and exposure, and have been very well received. Together, the girls are learning how to fund raise, design costumes, advertise, choreograph new works—and make mistakes—completely on their own. Basically, they are learning how to run a dance company from the ground up.

It's the dance version of self publishing — of blogging, from a certain perspective. Unfortunately, the other predictable reaction to changes in modern life is to excise those factors that require long attention spans:

... popular forms of dance performance have become more about competition and moves and less about narrative or story—like sports set to music. Television programs such as "So You Think You Can Dance" demonstrate that "successful" dancers are those who can display physical talent; these shows do not showcase dance works based on profound observations or that express something beyond the merely physical.

Having watched an episode or several of "So You Think You Can Dance," I'd rejoin that the show's choreographers do give admirable thought to message and story, but they're dealing in bite-sized segments that must, yes, showcase the physically spectacular. Obviously, "physically spectacular" has layers of implication, including the raw bodies of the dancers, and it seems that they move a little closer to total nakedness every season.

That factor, to me, relates more directly to the essential problem than does the reliance on daring leaps and spins. Partly owing to the gimmickry of modernism, partly owing to the pervasive secular, libertine leftism of their practitioners, the arts in general have moved away from their core value proposition: meaning. In some respects, one could suggest that artists — having turned away from their bases for profundity, not only God, but also a respect and sympathy for the long-developing traditions of humankind — have sought to supplant message with technique. But divested of the religious impulse, audiences won't sit through a two-hour ballet for the same reason they don't sit through a forty-five-minute Mass.

If they want jolts of "wow," they can get it in small, convenient doses on television and the computer. If they want opportunity for lurid ogling of taut bodies, they no longer require the cover provided by dancers in leotards.

So, it would be plausible to suggest that the keepers of dance, specifically, and art, generally, should begin to consider a move toward conservative dispositions. For their survival, the time is past due to push the envelope back in the other direction — where the meaning lies in wanting to be tantalized but not sated and in actually believing that sensations of awe and yearning are not merely biological instincts honed by human evolution, but indications of the natural draw of something real and profound.

July 28, 2010

Teaching While Catholic

Justin Katz

There may be more to the story, but it appears that University of Illinois Adjunct Associate Professor of Religious Studies Kenneth Howell has lost his job for the offense of teaching Catholic thought as if it might be worth considering as something more than a curious human error.

Kenneth Howell was told after the spring semester ended that he would no longer be teaching in the UI's Department of Religion. The decision came after a student complained about a discussion of homosexuality in the class in which Howell taught that the Catholic Church believes homosexual acts are morally wrong. ...

One of his lectures in the introductory class on Catholicism focuses on the application of natural law theory to a social issue. In early May, Howell wrote a lengthy e-mail to his students, in preparation for an exam, in which he discusses how the theory of utilitarianism and natural law theory would judge the morality of homosexual acts.

That 1,500-word email clearly stays on the explanatory side of the line from advocacy, getting into trouble mainly at the end, at which point, Howell makes the mistake of suggesting that Catholic teachings are not small-minded gobbledygook, but the rational conclusions of long consideration and must be responded to with the same:

Natural Moral Theory says that if we are to have healthy sexual lives, we must return to a connection between procreation and sex. Why? Because that is what is REAL. It is based on human sexual anatomy and physiology. Human sexuality is inherently unitive and procreative. If we encourage sexual relations that violate this basic meaning, we will end up denying something essential about our humanity, about our feminine and masculine nature.

I know this doesn't answer all the questions in many of your minds. All I ask as your teacher is that you approach these questions as a thinking adult. That implies questioning what you have heard around you. Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality and are cognizant of the history of moral thought, you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter. All I encourage is to make informed decisions. As a final note, a perceptive reader will have noticed that none of what I have said here or in class depends upon religion. Catholics don't arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion. They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality.

This was too much for a student who had "a friend" in Professor Howell's class, who made it clear in his email to the head of the religion department, Robert McKim, copied to LGBT activists and a journalist, that he finds it offensive to be told that knowledge and learning should precede judgment:

Anyways, my friend informed me that things got especially provocative when discussing homosexuality. He sent me the following e-mail, which I believe you will agree is downright absurd once you read it.

I am in no way a gay rights activist, but allowing this hate speech at a public university is entirely unacceptable. It sickens me to know that hard-working Illinoisans are funding the salary of a man who does nothing but try to indoctrinate students and perpetuate stereotypes. Once again, this is a public university and should thus have no religious affiliation. Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another. The courses at this institution should be geared to contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought; not limit one's worldview and ostracize people of a certain sexual orientation.

In actuality, Howell's position was funded by "the Institute of Catholic Thought, part of St. John's Catholic Newman Center on campus and the Catholic Diocese of Peoria," but even if that were not the case, Howell's firing — if based on this complaint, or even a string of such complaints — is evidence of a profound anti-intellectualism that conservatives believe pervades American higher education. Whether "homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man" is a matter of debate, and if it is the case that Catholic philosophy's centuries of development have arrived at such erroneous conclusions that undergraduate students who aren't even studying them can declare them "downright absurd," then that debate ought to be handily won.

Instead, "inclusivity" has trumped intellect:

In another e-mail, Ann Mester, associate dean for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, wrote that she believes "the e-mails sent by Dr. Howell violate university standards of inclusivity, which would then entitle us to have him discontinue his teaching arrangement with us."

A frightening phrase, that: "entitle us to have him discontinue his teaching arrangement with us." Beware your students, believing Christians. You may find yourself privileged to allow passive-voiced administrators to avoid uncomfortable ideas.

July 26, 2010

"Religious" Varieties, Ideology and the Man in the Mirror

Marc Comtois

Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic has written a piece that uses the latest Apple iPhone problems as a jumping off point to examine the "religious experience" of being an Apple "fanboy." In short, there are 4 myths surrounding the Apple "mystique", according to Texas A&M's Heidi Campbell:

1. a creation myth highlighting the counter-cultural origin and emergence of the Apple Mac as a transformative moment;
2. a hero myth presenting the Mac and its founder Jobs as saving its users from the corporate domination of the PC world;
3. a satanic myth that presents Bill Gates as the enemy of Mac loyalists;
4. and, finally, a resurrection myth of Jobs returning to save the failing company...
As Madrigal explains, these are myths in the Joseph Campbell vein "that helps people make sense of their relationship with the world." Madrigal wonders if "what happened during the [antenna failure] affair could undermine any of these key beliefs." Conclusion = nope.
Heidi Campbell, for one, doesn't think the company has much to worry about.

"This resurrection myth, and the belief in the infallibility of Mac technologies is going to keep people still invested," Thompson said.

Recalling the pricing and availability problems following the launch of the original iPhone, she concluded, "Antennagate will make waves for a little while, but if what happened to Apple around the launch of the original iPhone and all that rigmarole didn't shake people's faith, I don't think this will."

Humor can point to some of these underlying "truths" held by the Apple fanboys:
[A]s illustrated in this (hilarious) video that's garnered 5.5 million views on YouTube, it is hard to shake the faith of iPhone buyer that they are purchasing the world's best device.

"What the hell entices you about the iPhone 4, if you don't mind me asking?" an imaginary store clerk says. "It is an iPhone," the cartoon customer response. "You do realize that doesn't mean anything. It's a brand," the clerk responds, but to no avail.

But that's just it: the iPhone does mean something, and it's the type of meaning that transcends rational optimizing about features and raw performance. "Apple weathered the storm because there is such brand loyalty through the religious narrative," Campbell maintained. "When you're buying into Mac, you're buying into an ideology. You're buying into a community."

We'll believe in just about anything, won't we? So we "buy into an ideology," like a political one, or a movement, or a person or a company or its products. Once we've bought in, there are some very high hurdles that must be bounded over before we buy out. And, in many cases, it may not even be possible.

That's why both political parties are always garner around 33% support. Or why, once people cast their vote for someone, they are willing to give the benefit of the doubt--often well-past the point that they elected official should continue to accrue such benefits--before changing our mind. It's why sports fans cheer for a team, feel betrayed, but come back on the bandwagon when the franchise is "resurrected" (guilty). It's why people can be let down by a company's product--like a stupid phone--but still sing hosannahs when things get fixed (kinda)--because they've wrapped their identity up in being an "Apple person" and it would be an ego, perhaps even id-, crushing experience to lose that.

I'm not sure if they are components of this ideological/religious explanation for brand loyalty (no matter the "product") or if they are distinct from it, but I think part of this loyalty can be ascribed to a couple, very human, tendencies--one having to do with the heart, and the other with the head. Once our hearts are given, we don't want to deal with being betrayed. No one wants a break-up! We also like to think we're intelligent people with good judgment: and when that judgment proves poor, we don't want to admit we were w-w-w-w-wrong.

That's why, I think, we so often witness people (including ourselves) who--once we're proponents of a way of thinking or a product--are unable to admit when "mistakes were made" or we misjudged something; or that we've simply changed our minds or were convinced otherwise. Instead, too many of the newly unconverted say we were lied to or there was some sort of conspiracy going on that we didn't know about.

We react kinda like a spurned lover and take self-righteous umbrage against our betrayers. Anything to keep the finger of culpability pointing away from us and our own judgment. Many of us are too fragile, I guess. But it's not our fault...

July 24, 2010

Making Room for Protection

Justin Katz

When I taught computer classes in a Catholic school, some years ago, my lunch hour reading habits periodically snagged me inexplicably in the system's Internet filter. The most unexpectedly blocked site was that of a Catholic writer caught up, perhaps, by hostile Web sites that linked to him or comments that he didn't delete quickly enough. Some filters keep lists. I've read about some that take into consideration the number of skin-tone pixels that a site presents to the screen.

Jonah Goldberg and Nick Schuz propose a child-safety system that would begin to change the way the Internet operates:

Right now, there are many "top-level domains" — .com, .org, .biz, .gov, .edu., etc. We propose the creation of a .kids domain that would be strictly reserved for material appropriate for minors 18 years and under. Most sites would probably be able to mirror themselves on a .kids domain with little to no extra effort. Most corporations, schools, and other organizations have perfectly harmless material that kids and teens can view without causing their parents to stay up at night. The sites of the Smithsonian, McDonald’s, Disney, PBS, and countless other institutions are already perfectly safe for minors. Other websites would need a little tweaking, but not much. Only a relative handful of them — porn, dating services, adult-themed chat rooms, R-rated movie sites, et al. — would be explicitly barred from the .kids domain. The others would simply have to tone down or pare down their offerings.

Top-level domains currently don't serve much purpose but to confuse visitors to who don't know which to type. The .gov domain makes some sense, in that visitors can at least trust that the site is government operated (for whatever that's worth), but .com and .org don't really tell one much about the site. Beginning to segment the Internet into communities does make sense and would require minimal additional effort on the part of administrators of small sites, unless they've got content that would have to be targeted to specific audiences.

Of course, from a parent's point of view, I've found that the only real option is to hover around when the kids are on the Internet. It can be a hassle, but parents have a responsibility to keep track of the inputs forming their children. Tools toward that end can help, and knowing that a a .kids filter is in place in a daycare or school would be a comfort, but there's no substitute for presence, on multiple levels.

July 20, 2010

Boys and Men — Goodbye to All That

Justin Katz

Mark Steyn's talking about social engineering in the classroom (subscription required), but the method that he's highlighting — the elimination of individual friendship — broadens quickly:

... much of the contemporary scene owes its origins to silly little fads among "educators" that seemed too laughable to credit only the day before yesterday. I see the Times piece references those literary best friends of yore, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. But Tom and Huck's boyhood is all but incomprehensible to today's children. I believe that unlike its fellow Missouri educational establishment in St. Louis, the grade school in St. Petersburg had no "director of counseling," because, if it had, she would have diagnosed Tom with ADHD and pumped him full of Ritalin, and the story would have been over before he'd been told to whitewash the fence. The suppression of boyhood would have been thought absurd half a century back. Yet the "educators" pulled it off, effortlessly. Why not try something even more ambitious? ...

Give me a boy till seventh grade, say today's educators, and we can eliminate the man problem entirely.

By "the man problem," Steyn means the intractability of fully formed and independent adults; any Tea Party mom will will tell you that fully expressed womanhood is on the engineers' suspect list, as well. Nonetheless, the males of our species are under particular scrutiny.

Which brings us to Mark Patinkin:

It was Atlantic Monthly. It had a cover story that did not bode well for my gender. It was titled, "The End of Men." The thesis is that we are becoming secondary in society. Our record of running things for the last millennium or so is coming to a clear end.

I at first thought it would be a feminist screed. Perhaps it was. Unfortunately, it was also convincing.

Here are two facts that say it all. (1) As of this year, women make up most of the U.S. workforce. (2) Three of five college graduates are women.

Patinkin and his source note the transformation of our economy from industrial to service, but "services" are of such a variety that, in general, the industry needn't be gender specific. One would expect more parity than sublimation were that the key factor. The next possibility that he mentions is that young men are to blame, citing an anecdote from the Atlantic piece:

Here's one from Ashley Burress, student-body president of the University of Missouri at Kansas City, who's getting a Ph.D. in pharmacy. The article sums up her view of the genders on campus this way: "Guys high-five each other when they get a C, while girls beat themselves up over a B-minus. Guys play video games in each other's rooms, while girls crowd the study hall."

Anybody who's either applauded, lamented, mocked, or passively noted male competitiveness should see immediately that the motivation to excel is not a gendered phenomenon. It's a cultural phenomenon, and on first blush, it looks as if we're turning the world into every boy's dream: Women, on top of being more man-like in their sexual adventurousness, are chasing career paths. The young men can hook up at parties, play games all day, and as the cultural pressure eases on them (1) to get married, and (2) to be the breadwinner, they may begin to expect their wives to take care of them when their parents no longer will. There's a Tom Sawyer cleverness to playing while others work.

But it can't last. The more men feel at ease as leeches, relying on their significant others to supply whatever adult variation of Ritalin they prefer, the less use they'll be. The less attractive they'll be. When professional women fulfill that natural urge to give birth (assuming they maintain that urge), it will make more sense for them to pair up with other professional women for the purpose of parenting. As it happens, our society is charging toward equation of such relationships with traditional marriage.

July 18, 2010

UPDATED: Charity and Accosting the Public

Justin Katz

I've been meaning to bring up a letter critical of Alan Shawn Feinstein that Tim Castelli submitted to the Providence Journal not as an exercise in piling on, but because it does raise some interesting questions about charity and the drive to be a public figure:

... "You're from Rhode Island and you don't know who I am?" the stranger pressed.

The little annoying voice did start to sound familiar to my wife, but she replied she was sorry she didn't recognize him. "Well, I am Alan Shawn Feinstein," the stranger replied.

After asking my children where they attended school, he went into his "good deeds" speech and told my children that "they should help people and do good things." He should really listen to his own advice.

My 10-year-old daughter answered his questions and was very respectful, as she always is. My 8-year-old son said "hi," and then wanted nothing more than to continue observing the animals. After Mr. Feinstein's self-indulging speech, he gave my daughter his "Feinstein Junior Scholar" card and told her it was because she was a "good listener and answered all my questions. But your brother, he's not listening or paying attention, so he's not going to get a card."

I'm sure I'm not alone in having thought the ubiquity of Mr. Feinstein's face in local schools and those periodic three-generations-of-Feinsteins commercials to be a little... oddly self promotional. But the reality is that, in our current culture, people who are hugely generous will also tend to be a bit eccentric, and while some ethical systems (notably, Christianity) emphasize humble giving, it can't be denied that public recognition is powerful motivation for charity.

So, yeah, perhaps Mr. Feinstein should be a bit less forward when approaching families enjoying the day together in public, and it might have made a nice cap to his message if he'd — I don't know — given a card to the boy's mother with the instructions to get him to do a good deed, something small, to earn it. But as Feinstein told reporter Jennifer Levitz in a 2004 profile (that certainly illustrates his eccentricity): "You can be the nicest guy in the world and there will still be a certain percentage of people who won't like it for one reason or another."


Feinstein has a letter in the paper today, in which he raises some good explanations for visible giving:

Over 2 million people every year donate to anti-hunger agencies in response to the Feinstein challenge. I couldn't have achieved that anonymously. Nor could I anonymously fund the many local charities that depend on me every year for regular monthly grants.

Besides, anonymous giving is not always as good as it sounds. Unfortunately, it is used by some people of means as a way to give less money to charity than expected of them. Ask any fund raiser. Moreover, anonymous giving is not much of a motivator to others. If your friends don't know the good you do, it can't motivate them to follow suit.

Rhode Islanders might suggest that these points don't quite cover the extent of Feinstein's visibility, but as I said, one should expect philanthropists to be eccentric and to appear to have underlying motives.

One other point, from the letter, that I'd guessed from Mr. Castelli's (in which he noted that the zoo had told him that they'd ended their official relationship with Feinstein):

As for our association with the Roger Williams Park Zoo, so many free admissions were coming into the zoo when it was on our Jr. Scholar card that the zoo asked to be released from its contract with me.

Little wonder that's the case, when youngsters can acquire the cards simply by paying attention to a strange rich guy for a few minutes. Perhaps the threshold for a "good deed" — which the cards are meant to reward — should be a bit higher.

July 15, 2010

Time Traveling in Their Minds

Justin Katz

Scientist priest Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk explains that a recent scientific achievement in the news was not so much the creation of life as a rebuilding of a fundamental component, citing a Princeton microbiologist:

"Every cell is a microcosm of life, and neither the Venter team nor anybody else has come close to recreating the cell from scratch. If anything, the new report underscores how dependent biologists remain on its encapsulated power. Bonnie L. Bassler, a microbiologist at Princeton, said, "They started with a known genome, a set of genes that nature had given us, and they had to put their genome into a live cell with all the complex goo and ingredients to make the thing go."

What's interesting about some responses, though, is the authors' eagerness to dispel that which one can assume they've already managed to disprove to their own satisfaction:

Nevertheless, a number of commentators have managed to miss the point. Bioethicist Art Caplan, writing on the Scientific American website, suggests that Venter's "synthetic cell" dispels the notion that life "is sacred, special, ineffable and beyond human understanding."

Faye Flam muses in a similar vein in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "What's shocking about the new organism isn't that it breaches a boundary between inanimate matter and life, but that it shows that no such boundary exists. Life is chemistry." Her article gets even more outlandish when she suggests that chemicals "have the power to assemble themselves into organisms -- even complicated ones that can contemplate their own place in the universe..."

You know, I don't know that I've ever heard anybody claim that scientists could not possible learn to build cells from scratch. There are plenty of reasons to worry about the quest to do so — philosophically and practically — but the probability that it could be done is not seriously in dispute. No doubt, the likes of Caplan and Flam have long expected that day to come and have already drawn their conclusions about material and spiritual life.

It's an odd thing, that in acknowledging miracles and mysteries, religious people tend not to be concerned about mankind's peeks into the machine, while those who seek to make a religion of disbelief often seem desperate to declare the matter proven, even as they clearly believe that it already has been.

July 7, 2010

Permissible Discrimination

Justin Katz

Following up on a story that I mentioned a month ago:

An ideologically split Supreme Court ruled Monday that a law school can legally deny recognition to a Christian student group that won't let gays join, with one justice saying that the First Amendment does not require a public university to validate or support the group's "discriminatory practices."

The court turned away an appeal from the Christian Legal Society, which sued to get funding and recognition from the University of California's Hastings College of the Law. The CLS requires that voting members sign a statement of faith and regards "unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle" as being inconsistent with that faith.

As with tax exemptions and the like, my preference is for religious and other groups to remain free of the government's (or university's) financial thumb. Still, one suspects that this policy will not be (is probably not being) universally applied in an objective way — along the reasoning that it's not discrimination to discriminate against those who discriminate in ways that the dominant culture doesn't like. One also suspects, however, that few Christians and other cultural conservatives will be inclined to test the ruling's application by striving to infiltrate and undermine the principles of liberally minded student groups, as appears to have been an issue in the other direction in the case at hand.

That might make for an interesting project, though, for politically conservative students: Join a radical environmental group in large numbers, claim its offices, and reverse its statements of finding and principle. Such dishonest subversion isn't something that I'd encourage, but it sure would be entertaining to watch as a spectator.

July 6, 2010

The Odd Twists of Guilt

Justin Katz

Mark Steyn proposes an interesting turnabout:

... As paradoxical as it sounds, Muslims have been far greater beneficiaries of Holocaust guilt than the Jews. In a nutshell, the Holocaust enabled the Islamization of Europe. Without post-war guilt, and the revulsion against nationalism, and the embrace of multiculturalism and mass immigration, the Continent would never have entertained for a moment the construction of mosques from Dublin to Dusseldorf and the accommodation of Muslim sensitivities on everything from British nursing uniforms to Brussels police doughnut consumption during Ramadan. Holocaust guilt is a cornerstone of the Muslim Europe arising before our eyes. The only minority that can't leverage the Shoah these days is the actual target. It is disheartening to see Elie Wiesel, in Toronto the other day, calling for Holocaust denial to be made a crime throughout the world (as it already is in many European countries). He so doesn't get it. The greater risk to Jews is not that the world will "forget" the murder of 6 million people but that it has appropriated the crime for its own purposes. In Europe, the ever more extravagant Holocaust Memorial Day observances have taken on the character of America's gay-pride parades with their endlessly proliferating subcategories of celebrants. As Anthony Lipmann, the son of an Auschwitz survivor, wrote in The Spectator five years ago: "When on 27 January I take my mother's arm — tattoo number A-25466 — I will think not just of the crematoria and the cattle trucks but of Darfur, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Jenin, Fallujah."

One could note that the Holocaust wasn't the only moral crime contributing to social guilt and the multiculturalist mindset, which Islamofascists — while feeling no guilt about their treatment of Jews, women, homosexuals, Christians, and any other subjugable groups — leverage to self-present as an oppressed minority. In the United States, slavery and segregation are the hinge pin.

In a sense, Western Civilization has been in a sort of cultural Purgatory. Having awoken to some of the evils in which we've participated — although they are by no means unique to us — we are shocked into a crisis of confidence. Not surprisingly, our own demons and those from outside see an opportunity to seize while we're locked in an unhealthy vanity of repentance. The challenge is to learn from the past rather than wallowing right back into it.

July 5, 2010

Earning Happiness

Justin Katz

The behavior of both sides of the liberal-guilt–welfare axis might find some explanation in this line, drawn from a review of Arthur Brooks's The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future by Matthew Continetti (subscription required):

It is not inequality, Brooks writes, that makes people unhappy. It is a lack of self-worth. It is the feeling that success is unearned.

On the welfare-recipient side, Continetti notes:

In 2001, the University of Michigan's Panel Study of Income Dynamics noticed a correlation between welfare dependency and sadness. The panel found that going on the dole increased the chances of feeling "inconsolably sad" by 16 percent. "Welfare recipients," Brooks writes, "are far unhappier than equally poor people who do not get welfare checks." And while Brooks is quick to point out that correlation is not causation, the data certainly suggest that welfare doesn't make you any happier.

On the guilty liberal side, one thinks of the simplified explanation that Rush Limbaugh (gasp!) frequently offers: they know that they're wealthy beyond their merits, so they assume the system that so blessed them must be unjust. Rather than returning their "unearned" rewards, though, they seek to take a smaller amount from everybody — regardless of desert — in order to give to those who have "unearned" and not received.

Move beyond — if you can — the previous paragraph's poke at our pals on the left and focus on Brooks's point, which he states thus, in a 2007 City Journal article:

What I found was that economic inequality doesn't frustrate Americans at all. It is, rather, the perceived lack of economic opportunity that makes us unhappy. To focus our policies on inequality, instead of opportunity, is to make a grave error—one that will worsen the very problem we seek to solve and make us generally unhappier to boot.

Pointing out that income inequality in the United States has been expanding because "the rich are getting richer faster than the poor are getting richer," Brooks highlights the astonishing fact that, for some who rail against inequality, discouraging work among the successful is actually a feature, not a bug, of income redistribution:

According to British economist Richard Layard, "If we make taxes commensurate to the damage that an individual does to others when he earns more"—the damage to others' happiness, that is—"then he will only work harder if there is a true net benefit to society as a whole. It is efficient to discourage work effort that makes society worse off." Work, according to this postmodern argument—contrary to millennia of moral teaching—is no different from a destructive vice like tobacco, which governments sometimes tax in order to discourage people from smoking.

We who are productive, but not yet successful, might wish to interject that making gobs of money typically involves enabling other people to make or save money, too. As we've discussed on Anchor Rising before, replacing the rich folks who run WalMart with an army of mom 'n' pops would eliminate the employment of the large company's relatively well-compensated employees and disallow people of the same economic class from economizing in the way that WalMart's retail model allows.

Unsurprisingly, the difference in perspective ultimately seems to come down to whether one views society as a collection of castes or of individuals. The left sees those who work for WalMart as People Who Work for Walmart and, implicitly, always will. The right sees them as people who currently see WalMart as offering the greatest opportunity given their current circumstances. The poster representative for the former view is the single mother grasping about for any means of supporting her family; the poster representative for the latter view is the young adult making some side cash while learning the benefits of a strong work ethic and developing workplace interpersonal skills.

By way of a disclaimer: these distinctions are false. The single mother is just as apt to see "check out clerk" as a stepping stone, and the young adult may just as likely max out his potential stocking shelves. The point is that one side of the political divide presents current occupation as demonstrated maximum potential without public assistance, while the other side leaves potential up to the individual to demonstrate. (Shades of this difference can also be seen in union lamentations that teachers don't make as much money as others with the same amount of education. The problem is that individuals who go on to higher-paying gigs — say, quarter-million-dollar education commissioner — no longer appear in the "teacher" category.)

As Brooks and Continetti also explain, the effect of attempts to eliminate income inequality don't increase happiness. Because perceived opportunity is the greater contributor to that emotion, their policies actually have the opposite effect. We can take this assessment a step forward if we look to an underlying consequence of the mindset, whether it's conscious or not: The left's policies make government the provider of opportunity. To the extent that the right believes opportunity is provided (rather than seized from amidst the flow of uncontrollable natural and social forces), its policies put the responsibility in the hands of individuals.

July 4, 2010

Poetry of Life's Underlying Politics

Justin Katz

I really do like that some political and religious periodicals publish poetry, but I have to admit that I'm seldom impressed. Skeptic of modernity that I am, the profundity passes me by. Something about rhyme and meter in poetry... well... it works.

I think (often) of Robert Frost's "Provide, Provide." Those who worry that fealty to structure tends toward the trite might have a point, in that poem, midway through the rhyming triplets, yet it's reasonable to credit that very structure — the necessity of certain words in a certain order in a certain rhythm — with the blend of humor, profundity, and especially memorize-ability of the final lines:

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard,
Or keeps the end from being hard.

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!

I offer this commentary, though, in the course of noting an exception. Daniel Mark Epstein's "Grandfather's Spectacles" in a recent National Review (subscription required) struck me strongly, with this as its beginning:

He was not a brawler, or vain,
But came up in a time and class
Where a youth of exceptional beauty
Had to prove himself — man to man — Time and again. ...

The subject turns out to require glasses and, after a day spent marveling at the world when seen clearly, must prove himself, man to man, against the sneer of "frog-eyes." He who must prove toughness because handsome must thereafter defend the distortion of his looks. The victim of the world's incoherent violence, of course, is "the miraculous invention of wire and glass," and fortitude in the face of brute human nature comes at "the cost of clear vision."

There's no shortage of factors to blame for the evaporating weight of poetry, which music composer Robert Schumann once declared to be the highest art. But I'm inclined to place at the forefront of culpability the loosening of the rules. As Mr. Frost once said, "poetry without rhyme is like tennis without a net."

Civic Engagement Should Be Part of Life

Justin Katz

It may seem an odd adjective to use in describing a person in such an establishment role as the Providence Journal's Commentary page editor, but in writing and conversation Robert Whitcomb is an iconoclastic figure. His take on the reason for dissipating civic engagement among the young, in the United States, highlights the characteristic.

Whitcomb's essay is brief, and he points his fingers in a variety of directions, so one-paragraph quotation would capture its sense, so read the whole thing. Having done so, perhaps you'll agree that the tilt of his proposed solutions misses something that his complaints stroll right around. For example:

Colleges and universities can encourage more civic engagement by offering more political-science and other social-science courses that explain how students can use their citizenship to more effect. Student internships and academic leaves at public-policy think tanks and media outlets should be encouraged. Political-science departments and journalism schools can help facilitate these arrangements.

Such an approach — while I certainly wouldn't advise against it — will tend to play into the specialization of interests that contributes to the problem in the first place. That is to say that it makes civic participation akin to a career option, when what a democracy needs is for it to be a constituent activity of life itself. Earlier, Whitcomb suggests that high schools' imposition of community service might cast it as a requirement from which college sets them free; why, then, would colleges want to present political science in a similar light?

To broaden that notion: What's needed, I'd suggest, is a return to general learning and cultivation of intellectual interest, which is much more difficult than siphoning some segment of student and young adult populations into an area of study and activity. Societywide, we have to begin rewarding action and discouraging passivity — encouraging exploration of problems and development of solutions on an individual basis and trusting that public action will prove sufficiently interesting to draw attention.

Unfortunately — and most definitely not surprisingly — those who currently inhabit the realms of politics and culture-making have reason to prefer begin left to their topical fiefdoms. Much better for the masses to become lost in the passivity of television, narcissism of social media online, and canned causes to assuage guilt than for everybody to have an opinion formed from personal conviction and tied to a learned habit of putting thought into action.

June 26, 2010

Government as Lone Shark Collector

Justin Katz

I've written, periodically, about my belief that debt is the new method of indentured servitude. If we can get young adults to enter the working world with hundreds of thousands of dollars in education loans, some additional thousands in credit card debt (incurred on the expectation of profitable labor after graduation), with car loans a near necessity, and housing options pushing them toward entering into mortgages, we've taken away a great deal of the freedom that economic independence imparts. The situation gets chilling if this story is anything more than journalistic sensationalism of a few peculiar cases:

It's not a crime to owe money, and debtors prisons were abolished in the United States in the 19th century. But people are routinely being thrown in jail for failing to pay debts.

In Minnesota, which has some of the most creditor-friendly laws in the country, the use of arrest warrants against debtors has jumped 60 percent over the past four years, with 845 cases in 2009, a Star Tribune analysis of state court data has found.

Not every warrant results in an arrest, but in Minnesota many debtors spend up to 48 hours in cells with criminals. Consumer attorneys say such arrests are increasing in many states, including Arkansas, Arizona and Washington, driven by a bad economy, high consumer debt and a growing industry that buys bad debts and employs every means available to collect.

Whether a debtor is locked up depends largely on where the person lives, because enforcement is inconsistent from state to state, and even county to county.

In Illinois and southwest Indiana, some judges jail debtors for missing court-ordered debt payments. In extreme cases, people stay in jail until they raise a minimum payment. In January, a judge sentenced a Kenney, Ill., man "to indefinite incarceration" until he came up with $300 toward a lumber yard debt.

I expect we'll see this trend expand as the federal government takes on more responsibility in the finance sector, including the bailing out of too-big-to-fail banks. The reality that every loan shark has always known is that some debts cannot be collected. That's the risk of lending. If the government begins stepping in to jail those who fall behind, the public is taking the role of the crooked-nosed debt collector banging on the door and the balance of risk and benefit that makes lending a healthy application of free will and mutual benefit begins to evaporate.

June 25, 2010

Who to Blame for the Social Fabric

Justin Katz

Because he italicized it on a list of one-liners, I couldn't help but catch the following from Providence Journal columnist Bob Kerr:

The damage Wal-Mart has done to the social fabric, to the downtown connections and sense of community, is incalculable.

Blaming WalMart for the deterioration of downtowns is merely an indication of the human urge to find some group to hate. Given advances in technology, the ubiquity of automobiles, and other cultural factors, an opportunity existed for a large chain of one-stop shops, and the specific company WalMart happened to catch the wave. Had there been no WalMart, there would have been Target, a reinvigorated K-Mart, or the elevation of some other regional chain that most of us have never heard of.

More importantly, to my mind, in providing necessities cheaply and reducing the cost of luxuries, WalMart has made it possible for less well-off Americans to save money on their weekly expenses and to enjoy items that they couldn't possibly afford were the prices not driven down by the same dynamics that have priced downtown shops out of their storefronts.

I do not like the effects on communities — or, to be sure, on the culture at large — but I wouldn't presume to tell my countrymen that they must do without items that WalMart makes affordable so that the likes of Bob Kerr can buy them in small local shops. If there's blame to be laid — and that's a sincere "if" — it must ultimately fall on the people of the United States for the culture in which WalMart, like shopping malls and all of the other consumerist villains, thrives.

June 21, 2010

Facing Up to Porn

Justin Katz

A line from Mary Eberstadt's recent summary of sociological research about pornography includes this telling observation:

Several experts have also noted one more interesting phenomenon that most people who have ever written on this thankless subject will verify: Telling the truth about pornography is practically guaranteed to elicit malice and venom unique in their potency from its defenders.

Citing some extreme examples of the backlash, Eberstadt counts it as evidence of addiction, and a particular desire to believe that it's not a problem. That's surely part of it, but I think pornography is also at a fault line of American political philosophies.

Libertarians, no doubt, would begin to bristle (as, I confess, I did) at the suggestion that First Lady Michelle Obama should take up an anti-porn campaign when she completes her efforts against obesity. Government involvement quickly raises the stench of prohibition, and it's easy to foresee things going horribly wrong on this particular issue.

On the other hand, libertarians are far too quick, in my opinion, to treat every movement against individual liberties — especially those having to do with sex — as if it is government oppression. The can be a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, in that, as it becomes left to those who don't so much fear the use of government force to address real social problems.

Such quotations as this ride the aforementioned fault line:

Yet with all due respect to the social science, not everyone needs it to know that pornography is more than just a private thing. Imagine your teenage daughter walking down the beach. Half the men on it have been watching sex on the Internet within the last few days, and half have not. Which ones do you want watching her? How can their "private" behavior possibly be said to be confined to home, when their same eyes with which they view it travel along with them everywhere else?

I certainly see Eberstadt's point, and I've made similar arguments about individuals' associations before. (It's bound to affect a man's treatment of a woman whom he's just met if she reminds him of some porn actress rather than, say, a saint in a classic painting.) But questioning the "privacy" of one's own thoughts begins to move toward dangerous ground.

My concern is that, if protectors of liberty push back whenever problems such as pornography are so much a mentioned, then they won't have much leverage should society decide that the problem must be addressed.

June 18, 2010

Perhaps Those Who Ought to Know Better Oughtn't

Justin Katz

The relevance of education came up in an interesting conversation that National Review's Jay Nordlinger had with a Tunisian immigrant in Texas:

The driver was recently back in Tunisia. And a curious incident occurred, in the town. A horse reared up and injured somebody (not badly). The owner subdued the horse as quickly as he could. Later, a mob came and beat the owner up, as punishment. "My sister said, 'Good, he deserved it.' And she is a doctor, a psychologist. If she thinks this way — that a mob can just do what it wants — what about common people?" ...

... I know what he means when he talks about his sister and the common people. Shortly after 9/11 — maybe on 9/11, I can't remember — a doctor acquaintance in Alexandria e-mailed me. She said, "I know you live in New York, and I hope you're okay. And please know that Muslims could not have done this." She murmured about the Jews. I thought, "If she can think this — a doctor who lectures at the University of Alexandria — what hope does her janitor have? What about the man selling lemons on the street?"

I once might have assented to this generality, but having worked in such "common people" occupations as unloading fishing boats and construction for most of my adult life, I'm increasingly inclined to question it. While they may be less familiar with the specifics of current events, I've found that, when informed, salt-of-the-earth folks are more likely to translate them in terms of everyday experience. In other words, they don't often think about politics and culture, as such, but when they do, they rely on common sense.

The highly educated, on the other hand, habituated to the white-collar-professional world have learned as fundamental truths:

  1. That there is untold information in society of which they can only know a fraction.
  2. That specialists (which includes many such professionals) often know things that just don't make sense to non-specialists.

Both findings are accurate, productive, and necessary to a fully aware and intricate social structure, but they lose their relevance when it comes to matters of principle and politics. There are no specialists in determining how justice ought to be defined, and seeking specialists to follow in such areas merely stains non-rational preferences with the tint of objectivity. More likely, though, the assumption will be that there must be specialized knowledge behind the received wisdom of the seeker's clique, and that assumption recasts preferences and biases not simply as the way things are, but as the way it's been determined that they ought to be.

Such tendencies are broadly human. What I'm proposing, here, is that the habits of thinking and acquiring social status might actually make the individual more susceptible to the error.

Discrimination with Regard to Discrimination

Justin Katz

Hadley Arkes examines the Supreme Court case Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which is addressing the question of whether the Hastings Law School of the University of California in San Francisco can refuse to recognize a student group for Christians that excludes anybody with "unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle." The controversy arose, predictably, because the group counts, as one such proscribed lifestyle, active homosexuality and advocacy thereof.

In order to validate its revocation of the group's official recognition in such a way as to appear not to be engaging in invidious discrimination, itself, the university defined its policy such that any recognized group must accept any participants, even those with antipathetic beliefs. "To a questioner not quite believing, Dean Leo Martinez confirmed that a chapter of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League would have to admit Muslims, and a gathering of black students would have to admit Ku Klux Klan members and, presumably, skinheads." More: the university proclaimed that ill-fitting members must be eligible for leadership positions.

Thus, if they were disposed toward an oppressive lark, a group in the campus majority — say, far-left liberals — could join, take over, and entirely subvert the message and activities of a campus minority — say, traditionalist Christians.

The point that I wish to raise comes up with the judges' attempt to understand how distinctions could be made between unacceptable discrimination and discrimination that remains permissible as the expression of truly held beliefs:

[Lawyer Michael] McConnell said that of course those kinds of racist groups could be barred because they were founded on discriminations based on "status," not belief. Presumably he meant that the wrong in discrimination based on race and sex inhered in drawing adverse moral inferences about people as though race or sex actually controlled or determined their character. But the distinction between "status" and "belief" did not explain itself, and so Justice John Paul Stevens chimed in: What if a group was simply founded on an earnest "belief" in the inferiority of black people and the superiority of whites? Justice Anthony Kennedy was tempted to give a certain standing to claims of "belief" as a ground of association that could claim a certain standing to be respected, mainly because the beliefs were held. Earnestly held, that is, and not to be tested by any indecorous probing into their truth.

The question pressed by Sotomayor can be answered only by explaining why a moral discrimination based on race would be wrong in all instances, whereas discrimination based on "sexual orientation" simply could not claim the same standing. For one thing, the moral discriminations based on race or sex worked by making moral predictions about the conduct or the moral worth of people based solely on their race or sex. But the groups defined by homosexual acts or "sexual orientations" are marked as groups precisely by the acts they commit. People are described as "arsonists," for example, when they commit arson, and the recoil from arsonists is a recoil from the crime of arson.

The problem here is that any activity we could name could be directed to a hurtful or wrongful end. Sexual acts, whether heterosexual or homosexual, can be deployed as assaults to injure and degrade. Some people may be "oriented" to rape, or to sadomasochism or bestiality. Even gay and lesbian activists will argue over the question of whether they regard members of the Man-Boy Love Association as standing legitimately in their circle, with a "sexual orientation" they respect.

McConnell (and Arkes) head in the rhetorical direction of when exclusion should be allowed, but one can reach the same point by stating when it should not be. Employing the distinction between "status" and "belief," one could argue that a white supremacist group would have to be recognized if it would not bar a black man who believed in his own inferiority. That this is absurd — and the group could be reasonably rejected for that reason — does not prove that it is equally absurd to hypothesize about people with homosexual inclinations who believe their desires to be wrong; it proves that race and sexual orientation are substantively different.

As Arkes explains, discrimination based on race assumes an inferiority of the person on the basis of his or her ethnicity. It is a statement of superiority without any possibility of dispositive proof of individual equality. In the case of sexuality, the individual is not presumed to be less deserving of standing and respect as a human being. He or she is considered to be in error on a particular matter, but questions of essential worth and character are available for him or her to answer positively or negatively, to impress or to disappoint, in equal measure to those whose sexual lives conform with traditionalist standards.

When political correctness undermines our ability to make such distinctions, we lose the ability to devise objective rules that tolerate those with whom we disagree. Everything, that is to say, comes down to expressions of power — whether the university administrator is empowered to impose his or her own views as the measure of discrimination, or students in an active majority can subvert and suppress the organized expression of contrary views.

June 16, 2010

Proving Sex Ed Policies a Failure

Justin Katz

One hears, from time to time, that abstinence only sex education has been proven to be a failure.
Not only is the proof arguably incorrect, but the entire premise misses the mark. Abstinence education hardly enjoyed meager implementation, let alone the pervasive reinforcement that would be necessary for society-wide effect.

But I do wonder what those who continue to offer the common complaint that a small devotion to abstinence in the broad sphere of public school sex ed didn't change anything would say about this:

The United Kingdom’s Daily Telegraph has an article this morning documenting the high rate of repeat abortions among young girls in Great Britain. According to the article, 89 girls aged 17 or under who terminated a pregnancy last year had had at least two abortions previously. Furthermore, 2009 figures from the Department of Health indicate that for the first time, more than a third (34 percent) of abortions were performed on women who had already ended one or more pregnancies.

While these statistics are tragic, the article unfortunately fails to link these outcomes to Britain's permissive policies with regard to abortion, contraception, and sex education. For instance, England has no parental-consent requirement. In both 1982 and 2006 the courts ruled that minor girls can obtain abortions without their parental permission. These high rates of repeat abortions provide good evidence that effective parental-involvement laws might be able to prevent minors from obtaining multiple abortions by providing parents with an early indication of their child's sexual activity.

Abortion isn't the only indicator that "comprehensive" sex ed, British-style, has failed to resolve or has in fact made worse. But it's such an article of faith that all we have to do is teach children how to have sex safely that few stop to notice that the operative clause in that belief is "teach children how to have sex."

June 1, 2010

The Guardian's Conspicuous Armor

Justin Katz

A recent column by John Derbyshire was more entertaining than usual. I say that, in part, because I greatly sympathize with his suspicion of the medical arts — although I've never calculated out the risks entailed with various tests as compared with the risk of not taking them.

But what's really lodged in my imagination is the summary of a short story with which he opens the piece:

Science fiction writer Robert Sheckley wrote a story titled "Protection" whose first-person protagonist acquires a guardian angel. The angel is actually a validusian derg — an invisible, immaterial being from another plane of existence, present only as a voice in one's head. The derg's sole satisfaction is to keep a human being safe from harm.

Like all pacts with the supernatural, this one turns out to have a downside. By taking on the derg, our narrator has made himself conspicuous to that other realm. Dangers multiply. The derg explains:

"If you accept protection, you must accept the drawbacks of protection ..."

"Are you trying to tell me," I said, very slowly, "that my risks have increased because of your help?"

"It was unavoidable," he sighed.

In a practical sense, one can observe that accepting protection inherently entails choosing a side, making the protector's conflicts one's own, so it's a subject for Derbyshire's calculation of risks. But there's also an element of tempting fate.

A client asked me, the other day, whether I'm an optimist, a pessimist, or a realist. I replied that I believe that good things are bound to happen... but only to other people. It's probably pessimism to be looking for the other shoe, when things are going well, and to expect exacerbation when things are going badly — although the individual can certainly plea realism, given particular experiences. When it comes to tempting fate, however, one might as well take the route of conspicuity; if doom is inevitable, the more interesting and dramatic path thereto is surely preferable.

Which brings in the underlying optimism, I suppose, that in the end, we're just gathering anecdotes to share in Heaven (one hopes)

May 27, 2010

Evolution Away from Threats, Versus Toward Desires

Justin Katz

Bradley Watson's essay, "Darwin's Constitution," is worth reading in its entirety (subscription required), but this paragraph points toward the problem with the notion that society is evolving in a progressive direction:

Dewey's elucidation of the new modes of social inquiry drew upon the thought of a number of Social Darwinist and pragmatist thinkers, including William Graham Sumner, Lester Frank Ward, William James, and W. E. B. Du Bois. These thinkers provided the intellectual categories of their age, and today those categories continue to exert a powerful influence over political — and jurisprudential — discourse. Collectively, they point to a view of society as an organism that is constantly in the throes of change and must adapt or die. Like the Social Darwinists, the pragmatists used naturalistic concepts and emphasized change, while rejecting what James called the "rationalist temper" that ossifies rather than adapts. For the Social Darwinists and pragmatists, looking backward — as Lincoln had done — to founding principles, or to any other fixed standard of political practice, inevitably hinders the process of adaptation.

As one observes in other contexts, what progressives are doing, in this regard, is smuggling in their brand of faith as if it were a biological imperative. The adaptation that they laud is not toward survival, not even really toward ease and comfort, but mainly to their concept of what society should be.

In Darwin, a species doesn't grow or lose a limb because it finds itself thus inclined. Rather, it develops inclinations (and limbs) in response to natural stimuli — sometimes, no doubt, in contravention of other inclinations.

In the context of social Darwinism, the urgings of both nature and God become subsidiary to planners' observation that they can leverage people's desires to advance their own political and ideological goals.

May 22, 2010

A Quick Review of Avatar

Justin Katz

The past week left me feeling like a man trapped in anachronism. My work environment, which is rarely more hospitable than "endurable," seemed transported to a time when "servitude" was a more accurate description than "employment." Physically, it took a week for doctors to find the correct eye drops to battle a progressive eye infection that, by Thursday night, had swollen one eye to a slit and found its way to the other. Until yesterday, the medical miracles we take for granted were less than miraculous, and a traveling doctor might have done just as well by advising a damp cloth for the face and an elixir with high alcohol content.

So, by the time Friday evening arrived like the break of the Twentieth Century, I could motivate myself to be no more productive than was required to prepare a snack before staring at a television screen for several hours. My wife and I watched Avatar.

I'd been forewarned, of course, to let the overt politicization of the film go in the name of simple enjoyment, and while the showing was in process, I was able to do so. But movies ought to be like wines that make a supplementary savor of aftertaste, and once the gush of aesthetic pleasure and emotional balm had passed, what remained of Avatar was bitter indeed.

It's really a shame. I don't give to much away, I don't think, in explaining that the fantasy world of Pandora has coursing through it a sort of electrical current connecting all life on the planet and even retaining memories of the dead as if downloaded into the hardware of an organic computer. In other words, Director James Cameron had plenty of room to explore the parallels between computer science and physics, with the intriguing questions about God that thereby arise. He even could have pushed a heavy-handed environmentalism, on those grounds, without interfering with the appeal of the story.

That wasn't, apparently, enough.

A scene from the 1996 Independence Day came to mind repeatedly. In that movie, a psychic link between a captured alien and President Bill Pullman (I believe) reveals that the alien species travels from planet to planet, using up the resources that it finds there and moving on. It doesn't take but a modicum of cultural awareness to realize the insinuation that humankind bears some resemblance, in that respect. However, it's just a path, perhaps a tendency, of our species, and as the entire world comes together, with cooperation between corporate types, military forces, and average folk joining forces against the common foe, Independence Day leaves the viewer with the feeling that, when it comes down to it, people will turn toward goodness.

That wasn't good enough for Cameron. Almost in a direct reference to the earlier movie, the protagonist of Avatar, a human being whose consciousness has temporarily been transferred to a man-made alien body (the "avatar"), warns the native creatures that humanity used up every last bit of green on its native Earth and will do the same on Pandora. In other words, not only are the human beings who've traveled across the universe for a precious mineral evil, but their entire species is evil by its nature.

The message that humankind should resist those qualities that could fester into parasitical behavior has given way to the assertion that humankind is, in fact, a parasite, with only the rare dork, woman, minority, and cripple able to find redemption.

It seems to me that, in making such decisions, Cameron has turned his craft from the very possibility of creating art that seeks universal truth, because the film explicitly disclaims our specie's interest therein.

May 19, 2010

The Failure of Enron (the Play)

Marc Comtois

Reading the Sunday ProJo, I noticed the weird picture of a normal looking business-type guy smiling alongside a couple others dressed in suits, but with dinosaur heads. The picture accompanied a piece explaining how the London theatre crowd was aghast that American audiences just didn't get the London hit play Enron. Basically, according to the article, cultured Brits thought us ugly Americans were to stupid and unsophisticated to get the humor.

In London, the show has been a runaway hit since opening last January in the West End after a sold-out run at the Royal Court.

Here in New York, "Enron" didn't receive a single major Tony nomination other than best score--and it's not even a musical!

"Since 9/11 the insular Americans have become terribly sensitive to criticism," Jerry de Groot wrote in the Telegraph. "They don't mind when Jon Stewart dumps bucketloads of heavy-handed political satire on the 'Daily Show,' but they get tetchy when the criticism is delivered with an English accent."

Michael Billington, the critic of the U.K.'s Guardian, suggested Americans were just too stupid to appreciate a satire requiring a sense of history and a modest understanding of accounting legerdemain.

"If 'Enron's' melancholy saga proves anything," Billington wrote, "it is Broadway's irrelevance to serious theatre."

For his part, the author of the piece, Jeremy Gerard, thinks the play's promoters marketed it wrong--it was less a story about Enron and more about the workings of capitalism and markets in general. But the failure of Enron in New York is less surprising when it is learned that there is an intense, 6 minute segment devoted to 9/11 in the middle of it all--a section that had been unremarked upon in the reviews. As Nicole Gelinas explains:
The play's instant 9/11 simulation is like a sucker punch for which New York theatergoers had no fair warning. Oddly, none of the critics I've read mentioned the scene, though Brantley devoted a strange passage to "the design team keep[ing] the stage pulsing with flashing colors [and] rainstorms of sparks (and later, ashes)."

Even today, video replays of 9/11 can induce a physical reaction in New Yorkers. On the night that I attended the play, in previews, two people seated in the rows ahead of me left during the scene. Many viewers likely paid little attention to the final scenes of the play.

If Goold did not notice his audience's visceral response to the previews, he's an incompetent director. During the play's first half, the audience and the actors interacted easily. Theatergoers were generous with their laughter, applause, and attention, and they were patient with the story. At intermission, the audience chatted comfortably. But shortly into the second act, along comes 9/11, and shocked audience members launched a quiet but seething strike. Funny scenes were met with frosty silence. At the end, the audience offered only tepid applause, though Butz's performance, certainly, merited a standing ovation. The white-faced crowd headed silently for the exits.

It's likely that Enron would still be running on Broadway if Goold had heard what his audience was trying to tell him. No New Yorker would subject his friends, relatives, or neighbors to this. Goold either didn't get the message, or he chose not to compromise his creativity, such as it is. As a result, New Yorkers rejected Enron. And that, you might say, is how markets work.

May 15, 2010

Nothing to See Here, Locally and Globally

Justin Katz

Well, we got beat at the Tiverton financial town meeting. Liveblog here, and post-game here. Tiverton's tax levy will now go up a minimum of 7.88% in the middle of the worst economy in a century, with house values plummeting, businesses closing, and for sale signs loitering for months on end on front lawns around town. Too many people stand to gain by taxing others for the upward climb of taxes to take a break for such things as unemployment and the expansion of the working poor.

But I'm going to get out of my now-more-expensive basement office and go spend some family time in the fresh air. In the meantime, I leave you with a laugh-out-loud good line from Mark Steyn:

At Ford Hood, Major Hasan jumped on a table and gunned down his comrades while screaming "Allahu Akbar!" — which is Arabic for "Nothing to see here" and an early indicator of pre-post-traumatic stress disorder.

If you're merely in the mood for levity, don't click the link and read beyond that sentence. Suffice to say that I associate the growing government in Tiverton, Rhode Island, and the United States with the weakness of the West that Steyn sees on a global scale.

May 11, 2010

Where the West Is Going

Justin Katz

It's a much broader topic than I've time to explore, just now, to say why I see these apparently small-scale local battles to be along the same line as global events, but by way of checking in on the state of Western civilization, here's Mark Steyn:

A while back, Wilders was asked what his party would do in its first days in office after winning the election (to be held later this year). He replied that it would pass a bill ending "non-western immigration" to the Netherlands. This remark is now one of the "crimes" listed on the indictment against him. So the Dutch state is explicitly prosecuting the political platform of the most popular opposition party in the country. Which is the sort of thing we used to associate with your average banana-republic caudillo rather than free societies.

Regulation of speech — regulation in general — is shaping up to be the method by which unaccountable bureaucrats gain power over the elected representatives who are actually supposed to run the show. To oversimplify the resulting situation: Those bureaucrats benefit when the society sees itself as weak and in need of stable, government control, but in any sense related to authority and resolve, the bureaucrats, themselves, are weak and will ultimately be displaced by those who do not share the good intentions that they attribute to themselves.

May 2, 2010

How the Accommodating Institution Declines

Justin Katz

Apparently, in fields that debate such things, there's been an attempt to apply economic principles to explain the ebbs and flows of attendance in different churches. John Lamont does some difference splitting and paints a persuasive picture (subscription required). Because "the rewards of religion are supernatural and, therefore, unseen," the healthy religion, he explains, requires a different form of evidence, which is more visible where it is more distinctive:

Zeal and commitment are also necessary to lessen the "free rider" problem that plagues all voluntary groups — the problem of members who take the benefits of membership without contributing themselves. One can add to these considerations the fact that much of the appeal of religion comes from its providing moral principles with which to structure one's life. Such principles are far more effective when one sees that most of the people around one are following them. A community of people who, by and large, follow the principles of a morally demanding religion is far more effective moral educator than any amount of preaching — a factor that is especially important for parents. Thus, a church has to set high standards for membership in order to be attractive, and the churches that set high standards are the churches that will grow. Those with low standards will shrink because low standards reduce the rewards for religious commitment below the required cost in time and effort. This is why, as Finke and Stark assert, "the churching of America was accomplished by aggressive churches committed to vivid otherworldliness."

The problem arises with each incremental argument that this or that rule is arbitrary and may be discarded, often with the ultimately erroneous expectation that the church might be more attractive if its costs were lower. Lamont quotes from The Churching of America, 1776–2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark:

... other things being equal, people will always be in favor of a modest reduction in their costs. In this fashion, humans begin to bargain with their churches for lower tension and fewer sacrifices. They usually succeed, both because it is those with the most influence — the clergy and the leading laity — who most desire to lower the level of sacrifice and because each reduction seems so small and engenders widespread approval.

This perspective applies, to some degree, to cultural matters, as well. With marriage, for example, a great many people who formed their fundamental understanding of the institution long ago don't see why an easing of divorce, here, and the erasure of gender rules, there, ought to have any effect on their own marriages. As the rules ease, though, and boundaries of the institution become less clear, those who are not already formed in their perspectives have less reason to follow the well-trodden path.

The benefits to the individual spouse are, as with religion, supernatural, but they're also social and cultural. (Of course, the benefits to children born into stable marital homes are quite tangible.) If people don't draw the satisfaction of feeling a part of something greater, upon which participants agree — that is, if an institution merely provides a title for something that each participant defines for him or herself — the calculated rewards for forming relationships that are insoluble even when difficult or for devoting time and energy to religious practices even when disruptive become more and more difficult to reconcile.

April 30, 2010

The Misdirected Swagger of the Go Getter

Justin Katz

John Derbyshire posted a viral email from Wall Street circles that amounts to an egotist's cri de coeur:

Go ahead and continue to take us down, but you're only going to hurt yourselves. What's going to happen when we can't find jobs on the Street anymore? Guess what: We're going to take yours. We get up at 5am & work till 10pm or later. We're used to not getting up to pee when we have a position. We don't take an hour or more for a lunch break. We don't demand a union. We don't retire at 50 with a pension. We eat what we kill, and when the only thing left to eat is on your dinner plates, we'll eat that.

For years teachers and other unionized labor have had us fooled. We were too busy working to notice. Do you really think that we are incapable of teaching 3rd graders and doing landscaping? We're going to take your cushy jobs with tenure and 4 months off a year and whine just like you that we are so-o-o-o underpaid for building the youth of America. Say goodbye to your overtime and double time and a half. I'll be hitting grounders to the high school baseball team for $5k extra a summer, thank you very much.

So now that we're going to be making $85k a year without upside, Joe Mainstreet is going to have his revenge, right? Wrong! Guess what: we're going to stop buying the new 80k car, we aren't going to leave the 35 percent tip at our business dinners anymore. No more free rides on our backs. We're going to landscape our own back yards, wash our cars with a garden hose in our driveways. Our money was your money. You spent it. When our money dries up, so does yours.

One encounters this sort of swagger from people who have been successful in their careers, especially (it seems) when those careers have something to do with manipulating money. Because the content begins and ends in bellicosity, internal inconsistencies are to be expected. Note that the writer declares the inevitability of finance types' overtaking other professionals because they don't mind working hard, but then insists that they'll work as little as he claims the incumbents do.

The more essential problem with the rant is that it makes the dubious assumption not only that finance is the toughest industry in the universe, but also that it is a sort of ubercareer of which all others are pale imitations. I'd suggest, as an example, that the same drive that the writer professes mightn't serve him so well in the attempt to draw eight year olds along a path toward learning. Careers are substantively different in ways that a certain kind of smarts and ambition can't always surpass, and different people are suited to them.

As for the insinuation that finance professionals are the core consumers of the American retail and service market, I can only testify that, of all the middle-to-high-end construction projects on which I've worked, I'm not sure a single one was has been for the Wall Street set. That's a roll of the dice, to be sure, but the point is that other professionals make money, too, for actually doing, you know, stuff. Stuff that creates things and accomplishes objectives other than rolling money around.

April 26, 2010

Insider and Outsider "A" Students

Justin Katz

As a matriculated "A" student, now a carpenter, I'm not sure I can accept P.J. O'Rourke's thesis:

America has made the mistake of letting the A student run things. It was A students who briefly took over the business world during the period of derivatives, credit swaps, and collateralized debt obligations. We're still reeling from the effects. This is why good businessmen have always adhered to the maxim: "A students work for B students." Or, as a businessman friend of mine put it, "B students work for C students—A students teach."...

Why are A students so hateful? I'm sure up at Harvard, over at the New York Times, and inside the White House they think we just envy their smarts. Maybe we are resentful clods gawking with bitter incomprehension at the intellectual magnificence of our betters. If so, why are our betters spending so much time nervously insisting that they're smarter than Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement? ...

The other objection to A students is what it takes to become one—toad-eating. A students must do what teachers and textbooks want and do it the way teachers and texts want it done. Neatness counts! A students are very busy.

At the very least, O'Rourke ought to draw a distinction between variants of the "A" student, between those who agree with their professors and those who do not. I used to write twenty to eighty page papers (many of those consisting of footnotes) when the argument that I felt intellectually obliged to make clearly conflicted with the preferences of the person doing the grading. Sort of the academic variation of the electoral maxim, "if it isn't close, they can't cheat."

Just such a paper could be written, it seems to me, on the link between political philosophy and my proposed categories of "A" students. Those who achieve high grades in spite of their status as class gadfly are not apt to prefer governments that presume to stand before and instruct the electorate on the definition of a good life and equitable distribution of resources, while those whose high marks happened to coincide with philosophical accord with the grade giver have likely learned the advantages of having somebody hovering above their peer groups dispensing rewards.

Of course, as you read this, I'm probably crouched over a century-old fir floor board, prying it straight with one hand while pounding screw-flooring nails into its tongue with the other. If only I had the time to work that into a proper metaphor...

April 24, 2010

Daily Show with Jon Stuart's Take on the Threats and Censorship Surrounding those South Park Episodes

Monique Chartier

... is superb. If you're time constrained, fast forward to minute 8:25. ("Revolution Muslim", referenced in the screen cap below, is the name of the organization/website which posted the threats to the show's producers.)

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
South Park Death Threats
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

April 22, 2010

A Glimpse Down the Social Path (or, Perhaps, Sociopath)

Justin Katz

Inch by inch. What's controversial today is commonplace tomorrow, as the forces of so-called progress poke, prod, and pry our civilization apart. Feel free to use the comment section to accuse me of exaggeration and doom-crying; people respond thus with every turn of the ratchet:

Parents' organizations in Spain are fiercely protesting the curriculum of the Socialist government's required education course, "Education for the Citizenry," after it was revealed that in one Spanish city, students are being taught that sex can be freely practiced, even with animals.

According to the organization "Professionals for Ethics," third grade students in Cordoba, located in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia, are using course material stating that "nature has given us sex so we can use it with another girl, with a boy or with an animal." Parents groups say the material indoctrinates children and camouflages an agenda that is pro-homosexual and critical of moral norms and values.

April 18, 2010

Zealots Never Sleep

Justin Katz

Think what you will of the outcome, it's astonishing — and not a little unsettling — that there are people who think it the most important use of their time and resources to battle the benign and vapid symbolism of a particular "national day of":

A federal judge in Wisconsin ruled the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional Thursday, saying the day amounts to a call for religious action.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb wrote that the government can no more enact laws supporting a day of prayer than it can encourage citizens to fast during Ramadan, attend a synagogue or practice magic. ...

Congress established the day in 1952 and in 1988 set the first Thursday in May as the day for presidents to issue proclamations asking Americans to pray. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison-based group of atheists and agnostics, filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 2008 arguing the day violated the separation of church and state.

Even casting my mind back to my own, sometimes obnoxious, atheism, I can't imagine the sort of zealotry that must spur people to organize in opposition to a generic call to prayer. Of course, organizational dynamics probably play some role — with the actual foundation soliciting limited funds from a broad number of people and then having to contrive action items to prove that it's worth the donation (which, one imagines, the donors see mainly as a thumb in the eye of us fundies).

April 16, 2010

Paranoia, it's the American Way

Marc Comtois

As Rich Lowry explains in his latest column, we Americans are perpetually paranoid about our government, whether it's the liberal paranoia throughout the Bush years (Patriot Act, world hegemony) or the right wing paranoia amongst conservatives in the Clinton years (Waco, domestic anti-terrorist laws post-Oklahoma City). Lowry explains that our paranoid view of government has been in our "DNA" since the Founding (and before).

As Bernard Bailyn demonstrates in his classic, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, our forebears prized the thought of the 18th-century “country” opposition in England, which considered the government a clear and present danger to liberty — corrupt, conspiratorial, and insatiable.

America’s leaders viewed Revolutionary events through this prism. “They saw about them,” Bailyn writes, “not merely mistaken, or even evil, policies violating the principles upon which freedom rested, but what appeared to be evidence of nothing less than a deliberate assault launched surreptitiously by plotters against liberty, both in England and in America.”

This is the taproot of American paranoia. It’s not in status anxiety, or economic dispossession, or racism: It’s in flat-out distrust of governmental authority. As the Patriot Act shows, in America even the statists can summon a robust fear of government. And would we have it any other way? Would we prefer the natural deference to authority of a Japan, or a political culture as favorable to central government as Russia’s?

Lowry's analysis of Bailyn's thesis is spot on and also helps explain why we Americans sometimes tend to buy into conspiracy theories, too.

Continue reading "Paranoia, it's the American Way"

April 6, 2010

The First Step of Abstinence Is Believing It's Possible

Justin Katz

For some reason, the irresistible nature of sex has come up in various forums and offline conversations. Frankly, my own youth stands as evidence, but placing my experiences in review, I'm not so sure that it had to be so. Had I met anybody like Sarah Hinlicky, writing here in 1998, I'd have likely scoffed, but that would clearly have been my loss:

Okay, I'll admit it: I am twenty-two years old and still a virgin. Not for lack of opportunity, my vanity hastens to add. Had I ever felt unduly burdened by my unfashionable innocence, I could have found someone to attend to the problem. But I never did. Our mainstream culture tells me that some oppressive force must be the cause of my late-in-life virginity, maybe an inordinate fear of men or God or getting caught. Perhaps it's right, since I can pinpoint a number of influences that have persuaded me to remain a virgin. My mother taught me that self-respect requires self-control, and my father taught me to demand the same from men. I'm enough of a country bumpkin to suspect that contraceptives might not be enough to prevent an unwanted pregnancy or disease, and I think that abortion is killing a baby. I buy into all that Christian doctrine of law and promise, which means that the stuffy old commandments are still binding on my conscience. And I'm even naive enough to believe in permanent, exclusive, divinely ordained love between a man and a woman, a love so valuable that it motivates me to keep my legs tightly crossed in the most tempting of situations.

Sex is the sort of subject on which folks feel a need to sound worldly when it comes up, which skews the way we talk about it. But I'll tell you this: It simply isn't the case that everybody's secretly full of lust and deception.

April 4, 2010

The Believing Modern

Justin Katz

Given the day, and the surprising amount of interest displayed, 'round here, in conversation of religion's clash with modernity and postmodernity, current editor Joseph Bottum's first publication in First Things, back in 1994, merits some consideration:

We were all of us raised as moderns, however, and even as I write these words, my own modernness rises up to make me blush. To speak about doom and retribution, about the godless present age, is to sound distinctly premodern, distinctly dated, distinctly benighted and reactionary. It is to sound like the anti-humanistic enemy against whom modernity has campaigned for three hundred years. And I ought to blush, for I profit fully from the modern. I drive my car, keep iced tea in my refrigerator, get my vaccinations, use my computer, turn on my air conditioner in the summer heat. ...

I choose the phrase "to hold knowledge" deliberately, for the massive scientific advance of modernity reveals how easy it is to discover facts, and modernity's collapse reveals how hard it is to hold knowledge. We have an apparatus for discovery unrivaled by the ages, yet every new fact means less than the previously discovered one, for we lack what turns facts to knowledge: the information of what the facts are for. ...

Three hundred years of this attack [on ancient faith] have created in believers an attitude both deeply defensive and deeply conservative. But the defensiveness springs from the attempt by believers to defend their belief against a "progressive" philosophy that is already rejected intellectually by nearly all cultural commentators, and, I suspect, despised intuitively by nearly all young people in America. Believers should not become entangled in the defense of modern times. This is the key—the postmodern attack on modernity is right: without God, essences are the will to power. Without God, every attempt to call something true or beautiful or good is actually an attempt to compel other people to agree.

It's an interesting point. The modern person of traditionalist faith agrees with the Enlightenment modernist that reality has a coherence, a narrative, but also agrees with the post-modernist that the removal of God from the plot leaves only the arbitrary intentions of power-hungry animals.

Given some of the topical matters that we've been discussing, such as drugs and sex, I'd been thinking how clear it is that secular leftists support freedoms that make the individual vulnerable, but revile freedoms that allow the individual to shore up his influence or to develop firm self-contained communities. The druggie must be free, for example, to numb his sense of reality with drugs, but the businessman must not be free to determine that druggies impede the efficiency of his company. Conveniently, we can observe, those who express their freedom in self-destructive ways require a third-party guarantor — the state — to whom they must allocate power.

I'd also been thinking that those who decry inequity of class as a call to arms invariably disclaim the existence of a God and a larger purpose — a larger personal existence — such that the have nots can only be bitter that they've drawn short straws for their measly few decades of life, while others live as kings and queens. There are essentially two ways to battle those circumstances: Again, allocate power to some champion (the state) that will take from the rich and give to the poor, or redefine meaning and the successful life in a way that the bullies and leeches cannot touch. Indeed, the stronger their assault, the greater the reward.

The sorts of people who seek power for themselves by stoking grievance in others cannot stick their strings into such a worldview, which makes it dangerous. And so it is. Those vested in the power of earthly days can only be threatened by the promise of resurrection and the strong confidence of immortal souls.

April 2, 2010

The World Has a Story

Justin Katz

Given comment section conversation, and the fact that it's Good Friday, a Robert Jensen piece from 1993 seems an appropriate item for contemplation:

... modernity has supposed we inhabit what I will call a "narratable world." Modernity has supposed that the world "out there" is such that stories can be told that are true to it. And modernity has supposed that the reason narratives can be true to the world is that the world somehow "has" its own true story, antecedent to, and enabling of, the stories we tell about ourselves in it. ...

If there is little mystery about where the West got its faith in a narratable world, neither is there much mystery about how the West has lost this faith. The entire project of the Enlightenment was to maintain realist faith while declaring disallegiance from the God who was that faith's object. The story the Bible tells is asserted to be the story of God with His creatures; that is, it is both assumed and explicitly asserted that there is a true story about the universe because there is a universal novelist/historian. Modernity was defined by the attempt to live in a universal story without a universal storyteller.

Even before I ceased to call myself an atheist, I had a sense that secular Western society was trying to smuggle the fruits of religious tradition without the responsibilities. The practice is visible on an individual basis, too, in people who developed their sense of reality, and their basic comfort with life, within a religious context, but who decided that they (and their children) no longer needed to keep up with even the tepid demands of religion. The repercussions, it seems to me, take at least a generation to manifest, and I suspect the near future will bring either a return, among the young, to traditionalist faith or a rapid, astonishing deterioration of our society.

March 28, 2010

What's Ailin' the Moderns

Justin Katz

David Lewis Stokes gave some consideration to the work of sociologist Philip Rieff, who died in 2006. Not being familiar with Rieff's work, I can't say how much Stokes has added or subtracted, but this strikes me as profoundly insightful:

In antiquity the ideal of what it was to be truly human was to become either hero or sage. In the Middle Ages it was to become a saint. In our own time the best we can hope to become is — well-adjusted. But without the backdrop of a sacred order and in a culture predicated on gratification, self-fulfillment and well-adjustment remain malleable terms, in constant need of redefinition. ...

... The nature of our therapeutic climate is such that instead of reaching an ideological dead end, it simply reinvents itself to explain why its dead end is not a dead-end at all. Simply put, therapeutic technique has become an ever-expanding maze without a center.

Progressives see it as an ever-expanding definition of liberty (somehow always entailing more pervasive power for government agents). I see it as a back-filling prevarication, forever redefining consequences and detriments as simply the next order of complications to be resolved. Only our unprecedented technological and economic advancement, over the past few centuries, has allowed this illusion to obtain, and that advancement has been built on the very cultural foundations that progressives seek to disassemble.

Violent Sexists Support Legalized Prostitution?

Justin Katz

It would be wrong, of course, to tar everybody who might consider the legalization of prostitution to be a positive development, but an advocate for the other side, Melanie Shapiro, raised a relevant point in Ed Achorn's recent column on violent online imagery directed against Shapiro and her fellow activist Donna Hughes:

"I think it is unfortunate that they have resorted to such low-level comments, but I am really concerned about the women in the brothels who have to encounter men like these. It shows you what kind of men they have to face," Ms. Shapiro said.

However much people — mainly progressives — wish to present prostitution as empowering of women, their customer base will largely consist of lowlifes who have no problem seeing them as objects. At least now, it's no longer a transaction that the state considers to be legitimate.

March 20, 2010

The Dangling President

Justin Katz

Let's order things clearly: It was objectionable for a Central Falls high school teacher to dangle an Obama doll upside down with a sign saying "Fire CF Teachers," because it involved the students in a union dispute. Talk of its being a hate crime is utterly outlandish:

To Clifford Montiero, president of the Providence branch of the NAACP, the effigy represents a lynching of a black man, and brings back painful memories of decades of injustices.

"In my mind, this is a hate crime, and the teacher should be charged," Montiero said. "This teacher feels he can demean the president of the United States, an African-American who has overcome all this hatred. It is wrong. And when you take a nonviolent environment like a classroom, and introduce violence and hatred into it, you have crossed the line."

Even calling the thing an "effigy," as the Providence Journal does, goes a bit far. I look at the picture and I think Laugh In, not Mississippi Burning, with the President popping out to offer a one liner.

March 18, 2010

An Eroding Moral Code

Justin Katz

Kevin Hassett expresses the interesting concern that a second wave of financial crisis may be in our future if homeowners (or, rather, home mortgagers) decide simply to walk away from houses on which they owe more than their worth. All losses would thereby transfer to banks' bottom lines, eliminating more of the future wealth that is currently flowing through the current economy.

The essay's worth reading on those grounds, alone, but here's an intriguing bit of evidence about the mechanics of morality:

And there was an interesting twist: Of the students who had the chance to cheat, half were asked beforehand to list ten books that they remembered read­ing in high school, while the rest were asked to write down as many of the Ten Commandments as they could remember.

The results were stunning. On average, students in the control group answered 3.1 problems correctly. Students in the second group took the opportunity to cheat--under certain conditions: The ones who started by listing ten books from high school cheated, on average reporting that they had answered 4.1 problems correctly. The students who were asked to recall the Ten Com­mandments, by contrast, did not cheat, reporting on average 3.0 correct an­swers.

Apparently, thinking about the Ten Commandments put students in a moral frame of mind.

March 16, 2010

Pink Floyd, Conservative Band

Justin Katz

Perhaps it's the onset of spring. Perhaps the previous post, on libraries, lowered my "lighter note" inhibitions, but the time feels opportune to raise a topic that's been kicking around the corridors of my mind since Jay Nordlinger referred to a conservative's knowledge of and affinity for Pink Floyd. Three points come to mind:

  1. Conservatives like form and a balance of artistry with aesthetics. As perhaps the archetypal band for concept albums, Pink Floyd hearkened back to longer-form art-music genres with the aesthetic of pop/rock music. (Society forgets that Schubert's Die Winterreise [e.g.] was once pop music; precisely a "concept album" in different terms.) The band's Atom Heart Mother, for example, makes many of the same maneuvers as may be heard on the 20th century samples on a survey of Western music (such as comes with the Norton Scores), but without abandoning the principle that it ought to be enjoyable to listen to.
  2. Conservatives are frequently converts from something else. Depending on the setting, I'll be either ashamed or nostalgic to admit that experience enables me to discuss the best... moods in which to listen to different Pink Floyd albums, and I'm surely not alone among my current social and political compatriots.
  3. Perhaps because of the previous two points: Conservatives learn from art, even art with surface messages with which they disagree. Consider Pink Floyd's The Wall: First, one can hardly listen to the music or watch the movie without discerning the anguish of the protagonist and readily identifying its causes (mainly cultural deterioration of family values); indeed, a cycle of causes and effects are what it's all about. Second, as a cultural statement, The Wall offers a window into the society that created it. In a vlog posted a few months ago, I make the point with regard to The Wall that it successfully conveyed the cultural message that Nazi-style fascists would target the usual minority groups and employ a certain message and aesthetic. So thoroughly has our culture received and reconveyed that message that it is extremely unlikely that any looming totalitarians will be of that ilk. Noting this, a conservative will know to look elsewhere (as at the nanny state taking children away from heavyset parents in Scotland), while a liberal will sing along and defend such budding dictators against the protestations of classically liberal modern conservatives who bear a superficial resemblance to the oppressors of popular imagination.

A Conservative Approach to Libraries

Justin Katz

For a variety reasons, I've found the reported success of Providence branch libraries to be encouraging. As a writer and reader, I'm obviously invested in the written word. As a tangible spiritualist (if you will), I'm a fan of books, specifically. As a cultural conservative, community involvement is an appealing outcome. And as a libertarian-leaner on governmental and fiscal topics, I can't resist pointing out this:

"It was inspiring to see a group of dedicated volunteers work so hard," says Karen Mellor, library program manager for the state Office of Library and Information Services. "It's also remarkable what they accomplished in a short period of time." ...

With a $5 million budget — about $2.5 million less than what the public library had said it took to run the system — the community library has retained most of the old library staff and kept basic services and hours of operation intact. Years of budget cuts, though, have left the libraries with weak collections and old buildings in need of repair.

The funding is still public, but it's titularly municipal, which is fine by me. Community involvement can include a community decision that a library is worthy of public funds. Whatever the case, I hope the branch libraries succeed in their goal of revitalizing neighborhoods as local hubs.

March 10, 2010

Oh Canada! For Once, Political Correctness is Stopped Cold

Monique Chartier

From Reuters.

Don't mess with a century-old tradition even if it is sexist, Canadians told the Conservative government this week, forcing Ottawa to scrap plans to make the country's national anthem gender-neutral.

* * *

For nearly 100 years, the anthem has included the line, "True patriot love in all thy sons' command."

In a major policy speech last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government had proposed referring these lyrics to a committee to review its gender neutrality. But

Complaints from irked citizens poured in to radio and television shows, invoking the sanctity of national symbols and tradition.

When I first read the offending line, I took "sons" to mean all of Canada's progeny, regardless of gender, just as I've always understood "mankind" to mean all members of Homo sapien sapien and so on, down the list of words and terms which are purportedly offensive as they are gender-biased.

However, not everyone in Canada sees it that way.

The opposition Liberals called it a gimmick proving the Conservatives were not serious about women's rights.

Here's an idea: let's judge a country's attitude towards women not by words but by their treatment under law, in politics (in the United States, for example, all parties are eager to have women run for office) and by tradition (i.e., all children regardless of gender having equal standing in an inheritence, unless a will specifies otherwise). It strikes me that the final step to this considerable progress is to celebrate it by entertaining the possibility that genderized words become gender neutral in certain contexts. Including that of a nation's anthem.

March 8, 2010

The Boys Are Back... for Good

Justin Katz

George Will is concerned that real men are a fading gender in our society:

Although [Penn State University History Professor Gary] Cross, an aging academic boomer, was a student leftist, he believes that 1960s radicalism became "a retreat into childish tantrums" symptomatic "of how permissive parents infantilized the boomer generation." And the boomers' children? Consider the television commercials for the restaurant chain called Dave & Buster's, which seems to be, ironically, a Chuck E. Cheese's for adults—a place for young adults, especially men, to drink beer and play electronic games and exemplify youth not as a stage of life but as a perpetual refuge from adulthood.

Personally, I'm hopeful that the back-swing of the cultural pendulum will bring back some of the self-reliance, chivalry, and, well, manliness to modern manhood, without erasing some of the intellectual and emotional gains that represent some necessary softening around the edges. Of course, such an outcome is only possible if people begin to acknoweldge — and talk about — what's been lost.

Which is not to say that it's been thoroughly erased. Some of the old guard are still around, overlapping with the vanguard of a new breed, but I'm talking about a sort of cultural average. There's also a degree to which manliness has persisted as a sort of thematic lore in films and fiction; it's the translation into action, without sinking into senseless violence and abuse, that is wanting.

March 4, 2010

Privileges on Demand

Justin Katz

Yeah, yeah, I know it sounds all right-wing conservative to say, but it's difficult not to fear for the future of our country with this sort of thing in the news:

Students and activists have staged demonstrations in recent months at public colleges across California to protest deep budget cuts that have led to steep tuition hikes, enrollment cuts, faculty furloughs and reduced course offerings.

In Berkeley, about 50 people broke through a fence surrounding Durant Hall, which is closed for renovation, and about 20 entered and occupied the building, said Cpt. Margo Bennett of the UC Police Department.

The group smashed windows, sprayed graffiti, damaged construction equipment, knocked over portable toilets and hung up a banner promoting the March 4 rally, UC officials said. Others blocked police from entering the building.

So they're protesting budget-driven cuts by causing damage that the strained budget will have to cover. Worse, they're protesting something that until very recently was considered a huge privilege.

I can't help but wonder if part of the problem is that grown-up manipulators didn't fully understand the effects on subsequent generations of all of their "rights" talk, with regard to privileges, over the past few decades.

March 2, 2010

Movie Briefs

Marc Comtois

While it has it's inaccuracies, The Hurt Locker is a movie I'd heartily recommend. The most impressive parts of the film for me were those depicting the stressful situations the soldiers were in while doing their job, ie; everyday life for a U.S. combatant in Iraq circa 2004.

On a completely different note, I also liked The Fantastic Mr. Fox, a movie based on the book by Roald Dahl. It wasn't a kiddie film by any means. As Ross Douthat put it in his review for National Review (NR subscription req'd).

In Dahl’s book, the foxes and badgers are delighted to live permanently underground, feeding off the farmer’s storehouses, while their enemies wait in vain for them to emerge. In the movie, things are more ambiguous. “I’m a wild animal,” Mr. Fox tells Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), explaining why he can’t stop taking risks, and there’s a sense throughout the film that this wildness is imperiled — that the farmers may be defeated, but that the animals will be forced to domesticate themselves in order to survive, living more as parasites on civilization than as the hunters they were meant to be.
And the animation style is compelling.

Finally, I haven't seen Avatar yet. (If you haven't guessed, I tend to be a little late in my movie viewing habits!) But I did finally see Pocahontas. Ehhhh....sorta-typical Disney pc fare--only mild de-programming of the children required, post-film. But if, as they say, the former is merely the latter with more flash and bang, perhaps I'll pass.

Politically Correct and Unreliable

Justin Katz

Have you heard the one about the government employment site that refused to allow discrimination against unreliable employees?

CAMPAIGNERS reacted with anger last night after it was claimed a Jobcentre worker had refused to display an advert for a "reliable worker" because she felt the phrase discriminated against unreliable applicants. ...

The mother of two [who attempted to place the ad], from Borehamwood, Herts, said yesterday: "I placed the advert on the website and when I phoned to check I was told it hadn't been displayed in the Jobcentre itself. The woman said, 'Oh we can’t put that advert on the Jobpoints'.

"She said it was because they could have cases against them for discriminating against unreliable people. I laughed because I thought that was crazy. We supply the NHS with staff so it's very important for the patients that we have reliable workers.

More reasonable heads seem to have prevailed, but the initial impulse speaks volumes about the use of political correctness and threats of litigation for the benefit of the lazy and scheming. It's the subversive manifestation of the same cultural movement leading to riots in Greece and political intimidation on California campuses. Mark Steyn puts it well:

We hard-hearted small-government guys are often damned as selfish types who care nothing for the general welfare. But, as the Greek protests make plain, nothing makes an individual more selfish than the socially equitable communitarianism of big government: Once a chap's enjoying the fruits of government health care, government-paid vacation, government-funded early retirement, and all the rest, he couldn't give a hoot about the general societal interest; he's got his, and to hell with everyone else. People's sense of entitlement endures long after the entitlement has ceased to make sense.

Without a resurgence, this could be the century that Western self-reliance dies.

March 1, 2010

Everybody Needs a Dad

Justin Katz

In a recent column, Julia Steiny ran through various ways in which fathers are, in general, distinguishable from mothers. Here's a sample:

... dads bring other huge contributions. For one thing, they play. That fatherly roughhousing that most kids love actually aids brain development. Play has been proven to enhance learning, and dads usually play with their kids more than moms. This play "promotes confidence in motor skills, courage, risk-taking and autonomy. It puts the kid on the path of healthy development and gives the child strong self-esteem," Glantz said. Even as they're wrestling with one another, the child can feel the love. And, "Dad's love is valuable like nothing else."

What all of the differences come down to, it seems to me, is that a father has unconditional love, like a mother, but without the sense of unity. As Steiny quotes from researcher Tonya Glantz:

"... think of how dads talk. It feels like: 'You are here with me' as opposed to 'You are a part of me.'"

That somewhat different relationship is not only something learned by the experience of being an actual parent, but also something that has been woven into our personalities and culture, in conformance with out biological natures. Whether you want to believe it's purely evolutionary or admit a Maker, fatherhood is expansive in the subtlety of its inherent effects on our society. (Which, of course, ties into the theological discussions that we've had around here, from time to time.)

What I've written above will have broad currency, in our culture, when the topic is education, parental responsibility, social work, and so on. However, much as fatherhood is broader than, say, an economic relationship, the concept of fatherhood and its importance ought to have implications for how we conceive of such things as marriage.

February 23, 2010

The Sky Is Blue; Sexual Content Encourages Sex

Justin Katz

The unfortunate thing is that parents must learn the truth of this through experience.

Authoritative parents also restrict their children's exposure to sexual content in the media (music, television, movies and Internet). It is well documented that exposure to explicit sexual images and lyrics accelerates the onset of sexual debut among adolescents. Authoritative parents will enforce a zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policy, and educate their children about the relationship between substance use impaired judgment and an increased incidence of sexual activity. Authoritative parents know their children's friends, and their children's friends' parents, and work together to monitor social activities.

The scary thing is that there are people who'll dispute some or all of Michelle Cretella's advice.

February 18, 2010

A Cultural Turnaround Based on Experience

Justin Katz

Here's an interesting result from a survey of U.S. Catholics done by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, appearing in an article in the Rhode Island Catholic, but not apparently online anywhere:

"The youngest Catholics ... look a lot more like the pre-Vatican II [than the] Vatican II or post-Vatican II cohorts," [social scientist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead] said. "Huge majorities - 80 percent or more - of these youngest Catholics believe that marriage is a lifelong commitment and that people don't take marriage seriously enough when divorce is readilly available."

Many children of this generation have experienced divorce in their own families, and they are determined not to divorce themselves, Whitehead said.

Of course, one should also consider the possibility that increasing liberalism after Vatican II led to fewer Catholics of the sort who would disagree with this young generation and a concentration of traditionalists among those who are still religious (which could be a leaping point for further discussion about the effectiveness at liberalizing doctrine to be more amenable to shifts in cultural mores). Still, it's not difficult to imagine cultural backlash among a generation that's been on the receiving end of negative life-changing trends such as increases in divorce.

What would be the texting jargon for "'til death do us part"?

February 17, 2010

Unabashed Plug of a Rescuing Providence Post

Monique Chartier

It didn't make me cry, dammit.

By the way, as Michael will soon be going Hollywood, he needs to begin assembling his entourage.

Let's see. A makeup person, a hair person, a wardrobe consultant. A scheduler and a couple of gophers. An agent, back in a glass-and-chrome office, making rapid fire phone calls and chain smoking European cigarettes. An insider to keep Michael up on the latest LA and NY gossip. And, most importantly, a goodly assortment of Yes Men Persons.

Don't leave this important task to the last minute, Michael ...

February 14, 2010

The American Difference

Justin Katz

Per his usual habits, Mark Steyn makes a significant observation that has gone largely unremarked:

... I've been saying for months that the difference between America and Europe is that, when the global economy nosedived, everywhere from Iceland to Bulgaria mobs took to the streets and besieged Parliament demanding to know why government didn't do more for them. This is the only country in the developed world where a mass movement took to the streets to say we can do just fine if you control-freak statists would just stay the hell out of our lives, and our pockets. You can shove your non-stimulating stimulus, your jobless jobs bill, and your multi-trillion-dollar porkathons. This isn't karaoke. These guys are singing "I’ll do it my way" for real.

In the interest of beginning Sunday on a positive note, I won't quote the subsequent paragraph.

February 11, 2010

On the Culture of Snow

Justin Katz

Matt and I pondered the cultural causes of snow-aversion on the Matt Allen Show, last night. Is it related to global warming (or lack thereof)? Is it related to the Internet and video games? Stream by clicking here, or download it.

I actually think it's a softening of our regional character. We once braved the weather, in the Northeast. We dealt with it. We put the chains on the tires and felt as if we're ready. Now, people have become enamored of the opportunity to run and hide. I suppose, therefore, it's less a matter of diminished bravery against the snow as it is diminished fortitude against the daily grind of life.

February 10, 2010

The Difference a Pope Makes

Justin Katz

In keeping with the theme of confidence as a prerequisite to true tolerance, Joseph Bottum explores the way in which the authority represented by the papacy gives the Roman Catholic Church a theological coherence that has preserved its voice in modern society:

For a long while, Americans thought Catholicism was an un-American form of religion, but in our current situation, Catholicism alone appears able to synthesize faith and reason long enough, broadly enough, and deeply enough to avoid sectarianism. John Courtney Murray, the American Jesuit who influenced the Second Vatican Council's decree on religious liberty, made essentially this argument, and the thirty years of debate over abortion has confirmed it. Catholic thought now defines the nonsecularist terms of American discourse—and does so, at its best, without threatening either the religious freedom or nonestablishment clauses of the First Amendment.

The Church's structure is among the decisive factors in my decision to become — and remain — Catholic. The hierarchy, properly understood with distinctions between the prudential and the divinely imparted, is in keeping with the way in which human nature requires community-level disagreements to be resolved and foundational beliefs to be maintained as our understanding of the world evolves.

If there is a capital-T Truth, then something like the Catholic Church is essential toward its pursuit, not the least because the institution gives us confidence to meet and address disagreements.

Not Asked, but Told

Justin Katz

Popular wisdom insists that social issues are a political wedge wielded from the right to divide Americans for political gain. Experience suggests that the cynical aggressors, in this sense, are actually more likely to reside on the left. Not for no reason has President Obama played the "don't ask, don't tell" card as his political agenda falls apart on the grounds that it's extremely unpopular. Gotta distract the rabble, you know.

As a political calculation, I think he's wrong. The movement against him, most visible in the tea parties, is not going to take its eye off the economic and civic issues on which the president has us all so spooked just because he shouted "gays" in an active military. And as a policy decision, Anchor Rising contributor Mac Owens explains why Obama's wrong in a Wall Street Journal op-ed:

The congressional findings supporting the 1993 law (section 654 of title 10, United States Code) reflect the common-sense observation that military organizations exist to win wars. To maximize the chances of battlefield success, military organizations must overcome the paralyzing effects of fear on the individual soldier and what the famous Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz called "friction" and the "fog of uncertainty."

This they do by means of an ethos that stresses discipline, morale, good order and unit cohesion. Anything that threatens the nonsexual bonding that lies at the heart of unit cohesion adversely affects morale, disciple and good order, generating friction and undermining this ethos. Congress at the time and many today, including members of the military and members of Congress from both parties, believe that service by open homosexuals poses such a threat.

Mac's also got an FAQ of sorts related to the essay on NRO.

The bottom line is that liberals, progressives, or whatever we're agreeing to call them these days want to disallow society from making distinctions between classes of people, even when those classes have relevant differences, in order to make certain political disagreements seem more important. How one bonds with others, and with whom one bonds in what way, has significant implications in the life-and-death situations that military personnel face regularly. But the likes of President Obama find it convenient to leverage the deep, personal feelings involved in sexual orientation, so all else must be treated as secondary.

February 9, 2010

A Millennium of Separating

Justin Katz

With the intention of zooming out a bit for some mid-afternoon reflection, I note Robert Louis Wilken's review of a book by Tom Holland and its striking proclamation:

That, at least, is the thesis of Tom Holland's new book, The Forge of Christendom, a provocative and elegantly written account of the end of the first millennium and the beginning of the second. [Pope Gregory VII] did not live to witness his ultimate victory. But "the cause for which he fought," writes Holland, a British historian and radio personality, "was destined to establish itself as perhaps the defining characteristic of Western civilization." That characteristic is the division of the world into Church and state, with these realms distinct from each other. In Holland's eyes, Gregory "stood as godfather to the future."

As the subsequent millennium completes its turn, the trend has become for the state to leverage that principle of separation to bind the Church. Where we'll be 1,000 years from now will have much to do with our resolution of the current conflict.

Anti-Abstinence Crusaders See What They Want to See

Justin Katz

On the day that the news section of the Providence Journal acknowledged that abstinence-only sex-ed programs could potentially be successful, the editors of the Lifebeat section thought it necessary to rush to the defense of their modern kulturkampf with the headline, "Program blamed for rise in teen pregnancy" on the section's front page. Of course, the immediate question is who is doing the blaming:

The national teen pregnancy rate is on the rise again after 15 years of decline, and the group providing the data lays the blame squarely on the Bush administration’s stepped-up funding for abstinence-only education programs.

The Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit that’s aligned with Planned Parenthood but nevertheless is respected for its data on reproductive issues, reported last week that the U.S. teen pregnancy rate had risen by 3 percent from 2005 to 2006, the latest year for which figures are available.

What makes the citation especially troublesome is that the article specifically notes the research of John Santelli. Back when one of his studies was fresh, something in the reported data bothered me, so I actually purchased a copy of the study in order to review the methodology. What I discovered was that Santelli's basic math simply didn't show what he claimed it to show. In a nutshell, his equations credited contraception not only with its own success rate, but also with the success of increasing abstinence. My communications with Dr. Santelli became snippier, on his end, in proportion to the specificity of my explanations.

The basic pattern of distorted findings being spun to even greater distortions in the press is very familiar. Indeed, back in 2004, the New York Times heralded a study disclaiming the effectiveness of an abstinence pledge. When I looked into the numbers, I noticed not only that abstinence had, in fact, increased, but also that many of the respondents who had not "lived up to their vows" to remain abstinent had actually broken that vow after making another: they got married.

Thus, we end up with a bifurcated society, in which readers of the Projo's Lifebeat section heed the research wing of Planned Parenthood, while others share Robert Rector's understanding of the situation:

No one knowledgeable about abstinence education, however, would find this startling. In fact, eleven previous sound studies showed strong positive effects from abstinence programs. The mainstream media simply ignored them.

Human nature will always tend toward a (generally productive) battle between groups preferring different conclusions. But when that battle is amped up on the steroids of massive amounts of federal funding and even more substantial potential for the regulation of people's lives, objectivity — not to mention common sense — becomes more difficult to maintain. (See also, climate change.)

February 8, 2010

The Confident Pluralist

Justin Katz

His specific topic is contemporary Judaism, but Ben Greenberg makes a worthwhile point related to pluralism more generally:

Orthodox Judaism was supposed to founder on rugged American individualism, but quite the opposite has happened: A Judaism assembled at a buffet of individual preferences has small interest for young adults seeking direction and meaning in their lives. Young Jews are likely either to abandon their religion altogether or to take it seriously. That is why there is a migration to Orthodoxy by young Jews raised in liberal or secular households. ...

Because the Modern Orthodox are profoundly secure in their religious observance, they can engage the modern world with self-confidence.

Real — substantial and healthy — pluralism isn't something that exists inside the individual, where it can only manifest as insecurity and confusion. One cannot respect and engage difference when one strives to be in some way identical to everybody as a first principle.

A society can only harness the dynamism of diversity when individuals experience it from strong positions of confidence in their own fundamental beliefs, with tolerance for those who disagree.

February 7, 2010

In the Tech Bubble

Justin Katz

Prediction: This is going to turn out to be a major issue in a decade or two:

Smart phones, MP3 players, laptops and other devices are the air kids breathe — perhaps too deeply, judging from a new study that shows children ages 8 to 18 devote an average of seven hours and 38 minutes a day consuming some form of media for fun. That's an hour and 17 minutes more than they did five years ago, said the study's sponsor, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. And they're champion multitaskers, packing content on top of content for an even heavier onslaught. ...

The researchers warned that further study is required to link media use with any impact on the health of young people or their grades. But 47 percent of heavy media users among those surveyed said they earn mostly Cs or lower, compared with 23 percent of light users. The study classified heavy users as consuming more than 16 hours a day and light users as less than three hours.

The problem is greater than just time away and distraction from studies, although those are clearly detrimental. As a parent, I can testify that even within a few weeks of introduction of one of these addictive technologies within the house, personalities begin to change. When I was young the parental concern was the deterioration of attention span, but now, it's as if the kids forget how to entertain themselves and play creatively without the hyper-stimulation of gadgets.

Without a doubt, society benefits greatly from technological advances, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that they amount to blind experiments on future generations.

February 5, 2010

A Relationship with Knowledge

Justin Katz

First, a line that's supremely relevant for those of us who've been beating our heads against a wall of political inertia, in Rhode Island:

In my experience, compulsively objective scientists are evenly matched, or even outmatched, by shamelessly subjective humanists. More than once I’ve been shocked by colleagues who seem unable to grasp that richly elaborated accounts of personal experiences do not refute claims about statistical tendencies.

That's from R.R. Reno's response to a book addressing our relationship with knowledge by Paul Griffiths:

The first half of Intellectual Appetite provides a metaphysical analysis (or, more accurately, the grammar of a metaphysical analysis—Griffiths operates as formally as possible to encompass a wide range of metaphysical options) that allows us to explain why, for a Christian, the basic move of "enclosure by sequestration" trains the mind to be false to reality. The world is not made up of tiny little bits of disconnected reality, all just waiting for our mental appropriation. Everything is saturated with the sustaining power of God’s creative will. Nothing merely exists, because everything comes into being and endures in the shimmering light of the divine gift of existence.

By the phrase "enclosure by sequestration" Reno means to indicate the human tendency to disassemble the components of reality for inspection. As a practical matter, this is how the limits of our own capacity for comprehension require us to proceed, but the danger is that we'll pick and choose those components that serve the reality that we prefer to conceive. If we were to stroll farther into the metaphysical weeds, I'd suggest that we do, in a real way, succeed in constructing our own realities, but that doing so does not make each variation equally valid. They can all be measured by their distance from and movement with respect to objective Truth.

In this view, nothing — no action or thought — is inactive, because what we believe the world to be manipulates reality as surely as what we do with our physical bodies. So, I disagree with Reno's interpretation, here:

In his Confessions, St. Augustine provides a particularly vivid account of the power of spectacles. He reports that his close friend Alypius, though possessing a good and cultured character, became addicted to the bloody, violent games that provided civic entertainment in the ancient world. At first, Alypius "held such spectacles in aversion," Augustine writes. One day, some friends persuaded him to go. Alypius steeled himself, closing his eyes to avoid participating in the barbarism. At the crucial moment, as the blood gushed and the crowd roared, "he was overcome by curiosity," and "he opened his eyes."

But Augustine's account does not turn toward ownership, as the phenomenology preferred by Griffiths suggests. On the contrary, all the images Augustine uses point in the opposite direction: "He was struck in the soul by a wound graver than the gladiator, whose fall had caused the roar." "His eyes were riveted." He "was inebriated by bloodthirsty pleasure." He becomes addicted and captivated. It isn't that Alypius owns the spectacle. The spectacle owns Alypius.

It would be closer to the truth, I'd suggest, that however much he may enslave himself to his own fixations, the voyeur is actually pursuing a sense of ownership of the gladiator's final moments, as if for a collection of images that the spectator has accumulated. Moreover, the scene allows him to participate without immediate bodily risk — to benefit whether the gladiator survives or dies.

The viewing is not passive. It constructs the communal hand that forces the gladiator into a fight for his real life. It represents a movement toward a particular understanding of reality, one in which the senses are deadened to violence in a way that minimizes the travesty and in which the participant is not a person with a soul with which to communicate, but an object. Hence, the progression toward ever more gratuitous scenes and perhaps an increasing likelihood of acting them out.

February 4, 2010

The Benefit to the Giver

Justin Katz

BobN makes an excellent comment:

Libraries were all we had before the Internet. They were the original broad and deep pool of knowledge available to all.

Of course, the original free library as invented by Ben Franklin was funded by private benefactors who subscribed to its capital and operating costs purely as a matter of private philanthropy. The idea that libraries would be owned and funded by government violated the contemporary concept of the role of government in society.

Private philanthropy confers benefits on both donors and recipients. People who supported the libraries and other philanthropic institutions gained status and affection from their fellow citizens and the recognition that they had nobly done good things for their fellow man, while those fellow citizens benefited from the libraries, or fire departments, or hospitals.

When government takes over "good works" it perverts that social bond. Voluntary philanthropy becomes taxes extorted under the law's threat of force. The government usurps the philanthropist's social position and takes credit itself for what it did not provide (which is fraud). And the beneficiaries are no longer grateful, but come to see the benefits as "entitlements" to which they have a "right".

Thus we slide into the Hell of Progressivism. There is nothing compassionate about government being involved in social services. It's all about making people dependent on politicians and bureaucrats so they can be bribed or threatened to continue voting those politicians into power.

I agree with this argument, for the most part, and the sentiment, wholly. But it's worth questioning whether advances in transportation and communication technology have changed the equation almost beyond applicability. Wealthy people once had a much greater incentive to pursue "status and affection from their fellow citizens." For one thing, peer groups were much more local, whereas now, the wealthy see themselves as an international set. Whether the middle-to-upper crusts within the nearest ten miles think well of them is of diminished concern.

Security is also less of an issue. Before phones and automobiles and fancy CSI forensics, angry mobs were an actual risk. A mugging on a dark road could be a more stealthy crime. And a house could burn down with no hope of stopping flames begun in the dead of night.

This is all before one takes into account decreased religiosity (which, of course, is related to the other trends). Frankly, I don't have a philosophical answer, from a conservative point of view, other than to suggest that the government decision making be pushed as far out toward discrete communities as possible.

February 2, 2010

Abstinence as Good Decision

Justin Katz

Having challenged the premises (and the math) of naysayers of abstinence-only education, I don't find these results surprising:

Billed as the first rigorous research to show long-term success with an abstinence-only approach, the study differed from traditional programs that have lost federal and state support in recent years. The classes didn't preach saving sex until marriage or disparage condom use.

Instead, it involved assignments to help sixth- and seventh graders see the drawbacks to sexual activity at their age, including having them list the pros and cons themselves. Their cons far outnumbered the pros. ...

Two years later, about one-third of abstinence-only students said they'd had sex since the classes ended, versus nearly half — about 49 percent — of the control group. Sexual activity rates in the other two groups didn't differ from the control group.

The bottom line is this: Safe-sex education gives children knowledge about how to do something — and tells them that it's "safe." Effective abstinence-only curricula help them to understand why they shouldn't act on that knowledge.

Such programs should involve lessons in self esteem, in decision-making, in life decisions, in cultural expectations, and so on. What our society must learn, above all, is that sex is not the be-all-end-all of human existence, and that at a young life can be much better spent than dealing with the obstacles, discomforts, and obsessions that typically follow sexual activity outside of monogamous adult relationships.

January 30, 2010

The Inadvertent Rudeness of Technology

Monique Chartier

Bob Kerr writes in yesterday's Providence Journal

The first time I saw a laptop on a bar top was at Local 121 in Providence a few months ago. It was a moment of social breakdown. In a place meant for the soothing embrace of a cocktail, a woman apparently saw no problem, no code violations, in plopping down her slab of technology and hooking up with the universe.

I know some bars where putting a laptop down next to the beer coasters would probably bring the threat of a laptop flying, followed closely by its owner. But Local 121 is a subdued and tasteful place, retaining much of the original elegance from the days when it was the bar of the Dreyfus Hotel. The bartender did not lean over and threaten to bounce the laptop off the wall. The clueless offender was allowed to click away.

The rudely placed laptop came not long after a woman at Borders bookstore in Garden City told me all about her troublesome daughter. I’m pretty sure she didn’t intend to tell me anything, but she shared every anguished word with me and others who were looking for a good book. She poured her worries into her cell phone with a voice that spilled out beyond the latest nonfiction and paperback mysteries. She was in a bookstore, cutting into literary considerations with a private conversation turned public. Like the laptop user at the bar, she appeared to have not a clue that she was pushing her life in the way of others.

So we've got two separate matters here. A computer at the bar and the public cell phone conversationalist who believes s/he is perpetually surrounded by deaf people.

I am 150% with Bob on the latter. The loud cell phone user is in a slightly different rudeness category as the point-of-purchase cell phonist, though both involve the inflicting of personal information, willy nilly, on the public. I was in a Whole Foods check-out line a couple of weeks ago behind a woman who carried out the entire process - loading of the conveyor, scanning of items, bagging and paying - talking intensely into a cell phone. When the clerk turned to me and my items, I observed that she needed a "No Cell Phone" sign at her register. She replied in cheerful bemusement and a killer Southern accent, "Ah just learned all of that girl's business!" Indeed. Whether or not she was interested.

So, absolutely. The mis-placed and/or loud cell phonist. Inconsiderate and boorish.

What I'm not getting is the laptop computer at the bar. Why is this rude? What unspoken bar etiquette has been breached? How is this "a moment of social breakdown" that makes Bob think wistfully of direct, corrective action?

... the bartender faced with a customer who sits down at the bar and opens a laptop might have a few practiced suggestions picked up in technology etiquette classes. The bartender might say, for example: “If you don’t want 16 ounces of Irish stout poured on your keyboard, you might want to take you and your laptop somewhere else.”

January 29, 2010

When Activism Becomes Ocean's Ten

Justin Katz

Internet technology and revolutions in communications create a razor's edge between magnificent and dangerous. People are decreasingly held down by a lack of connections or resources, but by the same token, there is less of a vetting process for advancement, and the direct chute to stardom obviates a sense of long, slow investment in one's position.

So, it's disappointing, but not entirely surprising, to learn that one of the kids behind the revelatory ACORN videos appears to have dived too quickly into the movie in his head:

A conservative activist who posed as a pimp to target the community-organizing group ACORN and the son of a federal prosecutor were among four men arrested and accused of trying to tamper with phones at Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu's office.

Activist James O'Keefe, 25, recorded two of the other suspects with his cell phone as they walked into the office dressed like telephone repairman and said they needed to fix problems with the phone system, according to an FBI affidavit.

The interesting blend of Candid Camera, political activism, and alternative media coalesced into an extremely powerful tool to expose ACORN. Turned toward nakedly partisan espionage, it's offensive and stupid.

January 24, 2010

Learning to Be Good

Justin Katz

A comment section recently brought out the topic of whether children are born with a moral sense and ended with BobN arguing as follows:

... Young minds are very plastic and amoral.

As Reagan said, freedom is never more than one generation away from being lost.

Today's society is filled with examples of young people without moral compasses. From the gangs of Los Angeles (or Providence) to the children in madrassas preparing to become the suicide bombers of al Qaeda at the extreme, to the welfare queens and "baby mamas" and their no-strings impregnators who view welfare as a career, to business-school students who cheerfully admit to cheating to get ahead and think it is a normal part of business, to politicians who speak of democracy while plotting to seize tyrannical power, there are an awful lot of people who are not wired to see the truth.

Of course there are many counterexamples. In fact, the vast majority of people still understand right and wrong and act accordingly. And at the extreme of this end of the spectrum are the valiant patriots who volunteer to serve our country and literally fight for freedom and our way of life.

My own belief is that morality is just like everything else in that it is a process of development. We're all born with an innate sense of what is right — a conscience that seeks for God. Genetics set boundaries and probabilities for our behavior, but the rest develops over time based on experiences and cultural input. I once heard some celebrity suggest that pit bulls are a danger because they have such big hearts, and if people pervert their loyalty and desire to please, the dogs can become monsters. Just so with people: Our drive to do what is right can be perverted so dramatically that an impulse toward transcendence can be made to point toward that which is immoral.

As Archbishop George Niederauer writes:

How do we form and guide our consciences? While the Church teaches that each of us is called to judge and direct his or her own actions, it also teaches that, like any good judge, each conscience masters the law and listens to expert testimony about the law. This process is called the education and formation of conscience.

It is by following our inherent longing for Truth up the structure built of revelation and tradition — of history and cultural experience — that we achieve both moral goodness and independence.

January 23, 2010

"Mugged By Ultrasound"

Marc Comtois

A new poll finds that "56% of all Americans and 58% of those 18-29 years old say abortion ‘morally wrong’."

“Millennials” (those 18-29) consider abortion to be “morally wrong” even more (58%) than Baby Boomers (those 45-64) (51%). Generation X (those 30-44) are similar to Millennials (60% see abortion as “morally wrong”). More than 6 in 10 of the Greatest Generation (those 65+) feel the same....

Advances in technology, show clearly – and ever more clearly – that an unborn child is completely a human being. That, coupled with the large number of Americans who know one of the many people who has been negatively affected by abortion are certainly two of the reasons that Americans are increasingly uncomfortable with Roe v. Wade’s legacy of abortion, and with abortion generally. The majority of Americans now understand that abortion has consequences, and that those consequences are not good.

Indeed, as this Weekly Standard piece, Mugged by Ultrasound, explains (h/t):
...advances in ultrasound imaging and abortion procedures have forced providers ever closer to the nub of their work. Especially in abortions performed far enough along in gestation that the fetus is recognizably a tiny baby, this intimacy exacts an emotional toll, stirring sentiments for which doctors, nurses, and aides are sometimes unprepared. Most apparently have managed to reconcile their belief in the right to abortion with their revulsion at dying and dead fetuses, but a noteworthy number have found the conflict unbearable and have defected to the pro-life cause.

[Some] converts were driven into the pro-life movement by advances in ultrasound technology. The most recent example is Abby Johnson, the former director of Dallas-area Planned Parenthood. After watching, via ultrasound, an embryo “crumple” as it was suctioned out of its mother’s womb, Johnson reported a “conversion in my heart.” Likewise, Joan Appleton was the head nurse at a large abortion facility in Falls Church, Virginia, and a NOW activist. Appleton performed thousands of abortions with aplomb until a single ultrasound-assisted abortion rattled her. As Appleton remembers, “I was watching the screen. I saw the baby pull away. I saw the baby open his mouth. .  .  . After the procedure I was shaking, literally.”

Others were converted after being traumitized by having to handle and dispose of "fetal remains"...baby parts (the Standard piece includes some graphic conversion accounts). I wonder if this increasing disapproval of abortion helps explain the apparent rise in teen pregnancies, as written about by Dr. Gregory Fritz on today's ProJo op-ed page (Dr. Fritz does not bring up abortion):
Perhaps the fear of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS has faded as a deterrent to unprotected sex. The increase in the number of Latinos in the U.S., who now have the highest rate of teen pregnancy of any group in the country, may provide a demographic answer. Alternatively, the rising rate of pregnancy among adolescents may be part of a broader societal trend, since birth rates have also increased among women in every age group and among older, unmarried women. It’s even been suggested that the change represents “prevention-fatigue” associated with the ubiquity of prevention programs.

In any case, if the end of the decline in the teenage-pregnancy rate is in fact a real pattern, we need to address it head on. Delaying pregnancy is critically important for improving the life opportunities for both teenage girls and their babies.

I think that's something everyone can agree on. Preventing teen pregnancy by teaching abstinence (it works every time), contraception in a responsible (not promotional) way and showing how screwed up your life will become if you cross over into babymommahood are essential.

January 18, 2010

Corrupted by Association

Justin Katz

My Rhode Island Catholic column, this month, takes up the corrupting influence that associations and images can have on our thoughts:

We live in a society that's much too quick to dismiss the significance of simple associations, taking on faith that the images that splash across television screens and flood public spaces couldn't possibly lodge in the mind with any effect. But surely they do. A man upon meeting a woman will have different thoughts behind his eyes if she reminds him of a model whom he's seen in a provocative pose than if she resembles an actress known for a role as a loving wife or if he’s seen her likeness on a prayer card.

One should hope that decorum and maturity will adjust mental images before they translate into behavior, and in this example, the woman will have the greatest effect on the man’s perception of her. Still, when vile associations pile upon each other, ever greater adjustments and contradictions will be necessary in order to dispel the collage that they create.

January 17, 2010

Don't Let Randomness Validate Chaos

Justin Katz

The photograph of the two-year-old Haitian being handed into his mother's arms has got to be among the most amazing captures of human expression that I've ever seen. The ordeal from which the boy has just been rescued is still discernible in his face, but his focus on his mother mixes with, well, almost surprise, as if of relief that the calamity did not wholly recast reality. The permanent remains — air and light and mom.

Of course, among the first lost dreams of youth is that parents are not permanent, and we adults know that this particular boy's ordeal was only just beginning when the Belgian and Spanish rescuers pulled him from the wreckage. Still, there's something in Redjeson Hausteen Claude's eyes, in the photograph, that needn't ever become an impossibility and that, indeed, we ought to strive to preserve at all times, for ourselves and for our culture.

Such preservation begins by addressing the inclination to see the catastrophe as an example of cruel randomness. From my perspective, randomness is hardly applicable. We live in a volatile world — on a planet of stone, fire, and fluid — and during a time that offers tremendous opportunity for preparation. Haiti is an overpopulated and underdeveloped nation that is far from fit to withstand the inevitable shocks that its location makes inevitable. Its condition, in that respect, results from accumulated decisions of human beings the world 'round.

This is to blame neither the victims nor those who've victimized them, but to point out the aggregate manifestation of choices — of free will in a reality that is punctuated with hard stops that we lack the knowledge to predict. Take it one step farther: such free will could not exist if there were no real choices to make or consequences to them. That one person should suffer for others' decisions is certainly unfair, but it's an injustice of human origin, not (if I may finally introduce the unspoken) of divine making.

Acknowledging as much is critical because a sense of meaning and purpose — a sense of a caring parent with whom we will ultimately be united — repercusses in our behavior. Without it, human cruelty takes something of the absolution of natural disaster. A loss of the rightly ordered perspective ultimately results in the piling of travesty upon tragedy:

As we hear reports of gunfire overnight, FEMA reports deteriorating security conditions continue to rise with widespread looting and armed gangs brandishing firearms. There are also reports of unescorted aid workers being assaulted for supplies are rising The problem also is the supply chain. Right now I am looking at a massive amount of food and water here at the airport, but only the U.S. Military is doing anything.

It allows fear to overcome responsibility:

Earthquake victims, writhing in pain and grasping at life, watched doctors and nurses walk away from a field hospital Friday night after a Belgian medical team evacuated the area, saying it was concerned about security.

The decision left CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta as the only doctor at the hospital to get the patients through the night. ...

CNN video from the scene Friday night shows the Belgian team packing up its supplies and leaving with an escort of blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers in marked trucks.

Perhaps we cannot confidently predict the decisions that we'll make under pressure of panic, and surely nobody is innocent of poor, even unjust, choices made at a distance of time and space and probability from their consequences. But the likelihood that we'll choose well increases, it seems to me, to the extent that we keep Redjeson Hausteen Claude's expression ever poised just beneath the skin.


Wonderfully, there are no shortage of methods of donating toward the assistance of the people of Haiti. Here are two opportunities:

  1. Catholic Relief Services
  2. American Red Cross

Genius and Well Behaved? Nonsense.

Justin Katz

Theodore Dalrymple's look back at Sherlock Holmes, the literary, not cinematic, character, makes a conservative desire to read the books again and avoid the movie. When the film's trailer appeared, I lamented the cultural insecurity that requires every hero to be a such a superhero as to exist outside of societal etiquette. Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes is a boorish ninja. Dalrymple notes the cultural thread, as well, when speaking of Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

Conan Doyle's fundamental humanity and decency, as evident in his life as in his work, shine through the canon. This in itself is a matter of interest, if it is accepted — as I think it should be — that the canon is itself a manifestation of literary genius. We have been so persuaded that genius and disgraceful conduct go together that we find it difficult to believe that an affable man such as Conan Doyle can be possessed both of goodness and of superior talent; indeed, appalling conduct is sometimes itself taken as evidence of the greatest talent. If geniuses are badly behaved, ought that not to mean that the badly behaved are geniuses?

It is as if, in the current era, we despise rules so thoroughly that we fantasize about being so magnificent, as individuals, that we needn't heed them. Of course, Dalrymple also highlights something in Holmes that a declining civilization should consider:

He is a model of self-mastery of the kind that allows eccentricity to flourish, as it so richly once did in England.

Eccentricity must follow from self-mastery. Our culture has been so effective because it has learned millennia of dos and don'ts for us. The rules no longer apply when you've followed them so scrupulously as to no longer need them, and it is not with disdain that we transcend them, but gratitude.

(None of which to say that rules don't sometimes work their way into the culture that deserve to be discarded with disdain so that the civilization can advance. My topic, above, is the collection of behavioral expectations that our anti-heroic superheroes ignore as a matter of course.)

January 16, 2010

Successfully Avoiding Divorce Requires Marriage

Justin Katz

I've been meaning to point out a problem with Lefteris Pavlides's objection to a recent report that Rhode Island is among the unhappiest states in the country. Declares Pavlides:

Year after year the so-called "happy" states are on the top of broken homes and children in single families. For my money whole, two-parent families have a better chance at true happiness. The states with the highest divorce rates also have the lowest taxes, which means they have the lowest services for those suffering and the worst educational opportunities for their children. These not very children-friendly places can not be very happy.

His evidence for this claim is that the supposedly most happy states have higher divorce rates than the unhappy states. It's been a while since I dug into these numbers deeply, but I'm sure my 2004 discovery holds: Divorce rates are calculated per 1,000 of the population, not of marriages, and the states with the highest divorce rates per 1,000 residents also have much higher marriage rates per 1,000 residents.

If I were inclined to provocation, I'd suggest that married Northeasterners should hold on to their spouses for dear life... miserable people might find it difficult to find gold twice.

January 15, 2010

Pants on the Ground

Marc Comtois

Joe the Plumber....Rick Santelli...."General" Larry Platt? There's something about wannabe American Idol auditioner Larry Platt's song "Pants on the Ground" that is striking a chord.


Pants on the ground
Pants on the ground
Lookin’ like a fool with your pants on the ground

With the gold in your mouth
Hat turned sideways
Pants hit the ground
Call yourself a cool cat
Lookin’ like a fool
Walkin’ downtown with your pants on the ground

Get it up, hey!
Get your pants off the ground
Lookin’ like a fool
Walkin’ talkin’ with your pants on the ground.

Get it up, hey!
Get your pants off the ground
Lookin’ like a fool with your pants on the ground

Funny, yes, but the General's joyful earnestness seems to be resonating with the American public. Both Joe the Plumber and Rick Santelli amplified the economic concerns of average Americans. Could the "General's" simple song do something similar for the cultural concerns of average Americans? Well, that's one way to think about it. Maybe it's just a whimsical opportunity for many of us to have a good-natured "Get off of my lawn!" moment....

January 14, 2010

Believing in the Echo

Justin Katz

In a This I Believe - RI segment on WRNI, Jim Stahl, the former publisher of the children's magazine, Merlyn's Pen, talks about the creative wisdom of children. Me, I don't believe this notion of the wise youth. Almost by definition, wisdom is impossible for the young.

To the extent that children seem wise, it is not creative but recitative. They're simplifying and reflecting what we've taught them — often with their own unique twist, to be sure, but not with an insight unavailable to adults.

Consider a poem from his magazine, of the thumb-in-the-eye-of-God variety, that Stahl offers as an example. He says:

In hundreds of classrooms that read this poem, discussions took off, all of them launched by the words of one creative teen.

With the poem's authorship a generation after John Lennon had sung that "God is a concept by which we measure our pain," I'd suggest the somewhat different perspective that it was a hit because a Baby Boomer publisher thought it provocative and an army of boomer teachers thought it was subversive to teach it, utilizing the classroom to reinforce or subvert cultural norms taught in the home — all with the perfect comfort of a groupthink attack on a safe target.

Stahl goes on to advocate for an escalation of our appreciation of smart and creative kids to a level similar to our celebration of star athletes, and with that I agree. In the context of schools, however, we run into the problem that challenging children who are advanced academically, rather than athletically, takes time and resources — at a minimum, hiring an adult competent to direct a discussion of Moby Dick, say, or to create an insightful presentation of current events, providing a context that the students inevitably lack. As we've witnessed to tragic degree in Rhode Island, the resources that might be thus allocated are apt to be sucked up into teacher contracts or mandated for use on special needs children.

And then there's the ideological problem. One gets the impression, as from the single example highlighted from Stahl's entire career as a publisher, that those who might advocate for the encouragement of teenage creativity have a decided preference for smart kids to come to particular conclusions. The really smart kids will discern those conclusions to be wrong, but most will follow them into their destructive circularity.

January 11, 2010

Taking the Battle Out of the Boy

Justin Katz

It's odd how details can lodge in the memory. On an annual basis, my parents would take me on the short trip over the border from our home in New Jersey to The Renaissance Faire in New York state. Each ended with a joust and hand-to-hand combat over a noble lady's honor, and the children in attendance were permitted to run out onto the field, when the dust cleared, and gather up chunks of the lances, which were invariably made of soft, easily broken wood.

These lengths of weaponry — one year cedar, one year pine — were ideal for the important work of battling a particular bush behind my apartment. When the villain swallowed my souvenir beyond reach amidst its innards, one year, I learned that lances are best wielded as swords than as spears. My mission had apparently already been accomplished, however, as evidenced by the many years of peace at the apartment complex.

Those of us who were formerly boys are likely to have ample examples of such martial exercises to bring to mind when reading entries into culture-war literature such as Sally Thomas's explanation that "a desire," among boys, "to commit violence is not the same thing as a desire to commit evil." When a spring morning at the tail end of the millennium staggered at news of a school shooting in Colorado, there was much familiar about the perpetrators. The difference — profound in outcome, although perhaps subtle in origin — is that my in-school fantasies were of repelling attack, not initiating it. Whenever a helicopter flew overhead, it was Red Dawn, calling for heroic resolve.

The cultural and personal shifts that lead in these two opposing directions are likely manifold and difficult to tease from the rest of life, but I can't help but see something significant in an anecdote that Thomas presents:

Meanwhile, psychologist Leonard Sax, author of the 2007 book, Boys Adrift, cites the example of a typical junior-high literature assignment on William Golding's Lord of the Flies that a preteen boy has crumpled and left, with other unfinished homework, in the bottom of his backpack. "Write a short essay in Piggy's voice, describing how you feel about the other boys picking on you," reads the assignment. This is stupid, the boy says, and he isn't doing it. Why not? "I’m not Piggy," the boy says. "I'm not some fat loser. If I'd been on that island, I'd have smashed his face myself!"

I can't think of a mother, myself included, who could hear her child voice that sentiment and not cringe. To consider that your baby not only could want to smash another person's face but could assert with perfect certainty that he would if the chance arose, is to recoil in horror. It is to realize, as Anne Roche Muggeridge did while watching her sons take turns throwing each other into a brick wall, that what you have in your house is not a human like you but a human unlike you. In short, as Muggeridge puts it, you are bringing up an alien.

The author of the assignment was, clearly, seeking to encourage empathy in the students, and empathy is a valuable trait for both caregivers and heroes, alike. But as with much else in modern educational culture and psychology, the above example is crafted in a form more suitable for girls than for boys. It's been some years, but as I recall, Lord of the Flies was not bereft of good boys. This young reader was reacting to the enforced feminization of the question itself and rebelled by associating with the rougher, more viciously violent characters. A healthier, more productive question might have been, "If Piggy were your friend, how might you have defended him?" Implicitly, then, not protecting the downtrodden would have been evidence of fear.

There will always be those, male and female, who seek to dishonor the noble and innocent. There will always be students who incline toward meanness. That reality, however, is not evidence of a need for sensitivity training, but of a need to produce sufficient numbers in each generation who feel called to engage evil in battle. Not the least is this true because, as we've had cause to relearn in the past decade, the enemy will not always be within.

January 9, 2010

The Horror of Modern Youth

Justin Katz

In response to an essay in which David Goldman suggests a connection between current events and recent trends in the popularity of horror films, Fr. Benjamin Sember, of Wisconsin, produces the following wisdom:

Rather than trying to attach the recent rise of the horror genre to September 11, 2001, your article ought to have looked at April 20, 1999, the day of the Columbine High School shooting. Our teens are terrorized, and the real possibility that they might be shot to death by a classmate while sitting in second-hour algebra is only the tip of the iceberg. High school has become a nonstop calendar of classes, heavy loads of homework, sports, drama club, choir, band, and endless practices. Teens are being eaten alive by the demands and tugged apart by the many activities. Rarely are these activities carried out in pursuit of what is true and beautiful. Instead, they become a constant competition to avoid falling short against a hundred measuring sticks as teens compete with each other for breathing space and attention.

An adjustment should be made for the apparent possibility that Fr. Sember's experience with today's youth is somewhat selective in a way that tilts his observations toward over-achieving kids. Also among the pre-adult demographic — and no less attracted to the horror genre, I'd assume — are those whose anxiety derives from a conclusion that they cannot compete. They'll not likely admit that concern — might not know it's there — and it often manifests as a rebellion against the premise that there's something worth competing for.

What occurred to me, while reading Sember's letter, is that young adults face all of these stressors while inhabiting a society that offers them no ballast. They're supposed to be liberated theologically, socially, and sexually. They're supposed to blaze their own path in the realm of behavioral standards, even as they strive to live up to high expectations of achievement. One needn't be a dyed-in-the-wool conservative to agree that well-learned behavioral standards are a prerequisite for success that derives from merit rather than luck.

A plausible argument could be made that the characteristic plot of the horror genre appeals to the modern youth not so much in their expression of pure violence, nor in the voyeurism of watching others suffer, nor the comfort of presenting (for a time) horrors as the stuff of fantasy, but because it leaves viewers feeling that they can strive and overcome challenges even when all the rules of reality are thrown out. On the broad tasks of defining our lives, our society tends toward challenges without rules — expectations without instructions — and it is indeed the stuff of fantasy to believe that a society that rejects principles of self control could defeat the most terrifying creatures of the imagination.

January 8, 2010

An Obligation on the He Who Cannot Be Obliged

Justin Katz

To some degree, the theological principle that Bruce Marshall describes here can be seen as a core division point of human ideology:

If God had remitted our sins by sheer forgiveness—sent them away or simply declared them nonexistent—then our sins indeed would be gone, and we no longer would be sinners. We would, however, be mere spectators to our own salvation: observers who simply noted this fact about ourselves, without any involvement of our hearts and wills. By treating our sins as a debt for which he will accept payment, God gives humanity a genuine share in its own salvation. As any child knows whose father has given him or her money to buy him a Christmas gift, there is joy in this that can come in no other way, even though—or, better, precisely because—we know well that we are simply giving back what we have freely received.

Theologically, I'd suggest that the salvific transaction is actually more profound than that. Undeserved blessings are arbitrary and may be removed arbitrarily. God's granting us an ability earn salvation conversely creates an obligation on Him to provide it — to reward.

Thinking of the myriad people, in modern society, who appear to believe that they are owed happiness and comfort, in material matters, and should face no strings along with spiritual beneficence, it's difficult to avoid the impression of a paradox: Many are eager to trade that which makes them human — the ability to judge the world and choose a path through it — for creature comforts, yet in so doing, they inflate their importance in the universe.

The image that comes to mind is of an impetuous child who understands that he or she is gong to receive a reward, anyway, and scorns and challenges his or her parents for imposing a chore — a game. The parents are giving the child an opportunity to place a binding claim on them, and the child is insisting that he or she already owns that claim, and more, as payment for deigning to exist.

January 7, 2010


Donald B. Hawthorne

Thomas Sowell:

...It may seem strange that so many people of great intellect have said and done so many things whose consequences ranged from counterproductive to catastrophic. Yet it is not so surprising when we consider whether anybody has ever had the range of knowledge required to make the sweeping kinds of decisions that so many intellectuals are prone to make, especially when they pay no price for being wrong.

Intellectuals and their followers have often been overly impressed by the fact that intellectuals tend, on average, to have more knowledge than other individuals in their society. What they have overlooked is that intellectuals have far less knowledge than the total knowledge possessed by the millions of other people whom they disdain and whose decisions they seek to override.

We have had to learn the consequences of elite preemption the hard way — and many of us have yet to learn that lesson.

January 5, 2010

Proof of the Existence of Government

Justin Katz

Somehow, one is not surprised that this instance of governance has not sparked the shock and outrage that accompanied the decision of Swiss voters to ban minarets:

... the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, has ruled that the government of Italy must remove crucifixes from public school classrooms throughout that country. According to the decision of the court, "The presence of the crucifix . . . could easily be interpreted by pupils of all ages as a religious sign." This, the court said, could be "disturbing for pupils who practiced other religions or were atheists."

Yes, public/private distinctions apply, but the question is one of governance. The Swiss have determined public scenery to be subject to public considerations of culture, and the Italians should be able to do the same with public classrooms. If a distant, largely unaccountable government in another country can decide such matters of local taste, then — whatever one's belief in God — there's no such thing as self-government.

December 30, 2009

An Untaught Generation

Justin Katz

The fourth letter to the editor of First Things in this set surely expresses the perspective of many Westerners now entering middle age and finding the unexpected light of adulthood opening their eyes:

Meanwhile, I have gravitated to a certain type of mommy-blog: one written by a stay-at-home mother, lovingly grateful to her provider-man, capably in charge of every detail of her children's lives and home: the Angel in the House, as we might have sneered back in English 101. While the blogger and I remain quite different people, she seems to have grasped, early on, some essential fact about gender relations that no one ever told my husband or me. Those brave and brainy revolutionaries who raised us—parents, professors, Self magazine—never so much as hinted that someday we might want to act like men and women. Having dodged that retrograde fate, we had turned into neutered freaks, mired in resentments and domestic dysfunction. Our lucky kids!

This is not to call for a return to the inequalities of the past, and it's not to say that everybody in an entire generation was raised equivalently. (My own upbringing, for example, was not as drastic as the writer's.) But I don't think that there's any question, on the broad level of a culture, that the middle and later decades of the twentieth century saw a too-dramatic disregarding of deep cultural and biological tendencies.

December 29, 2009

Boundaries for Affirmative Action

Justin Katz

Yup. That's the habit of academia... always in need of correction for favoring men:

A federal civil rights agency investigating possible gender discrimination in college admissions will subpoena data from more than a dozen mid-Atlantic universities, officials said Thursday.

The probe by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is focusing on whether some colleges favor men by admitting them at higher rates than women, or by offering them more generous aid packages.

But hold on:

Women outnumber men nearly 60 percent to 40 percent in higher education nationally. The probe grew out of anecdotal evidence and news accounts that admissions officials are discriminating against women to promote a more even gender mix, said commission spokeswoman Lenore Ostrowsky.

Apparently, it was insufficiently understood that "diversity" and other such post-'60s shibboleths are race- and gender-specific. Hetero white men are overrepresented by their very existence.

December 27, 2009

White Guilt and Morally Lazy Revolution

Justin Katz

Annalee Newitz finds a cultural thread in the plot of Avatar:

These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color - their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the "alien" cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become "race traitors," and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It's not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it's not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It's a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

For his part, Mark Shea, through whom I found the above, notes a scriptural archetype:

... I can't help but notice that a similar dynamic occurs within Scripture as well, only without the dynamic of self congratulation. Moses, for instance, is precisely the guilty SWPL [stuff white people like] type in his universe. Fetched out of the Nile and raised by Pharaoh's daughter, he apparently knows, but doesn't do much about the fact that he is a Hebrew. This goes on for forty years. The guy lives in the lap of luxury while his tribe is sweating as slaves. Then, one day, in a fit of social consciousness, the dilettante rich kid who wants to feel like he has a purpose murders an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave and ditches the body. Next day, this preppy from the Ivory Tower comes upon a couple of Hebrews quarrelling and deigns to swoop in and break it up. The slaves basically tell him to buzz off ("oh, and everybody knows what *you* did"). Turns out the whole "Brothers! Join me!" schtick doesn't play real well in Peoria and people resent SWPL types working out their Hero's Journey fantasies at their expense. So Moses the Savior Preppy gets scared and hotfoots it to the desert when he realizes his little Weatherman moment of Killing for the Revolution is likely to cost him something.

St. Paul came more readily to my mind than Moses, as the persecutor of Christians who became among their foundational voices. As Shea notes, Moses was a Hebrew displaced among Egyptian royalty; in contrast, Paul was a hardline Jew who sought to extend Christianity even to gentiles after Jesus called him. In either case, however, the biblical figures whom we hear echoing in modern white-guilt sci-fi bring to the fore an important area of emphasis that neither Newitz nor Shea mentions.

The standard of the white-guilt genre isn't merely that the privileged protagonist gets to play revolutionary, nor even merely that the fantasy allows him to dominate the coloreds in a good, liberating way rather than a negative, oppressive way. The more fundamental quality is that the proud "race traitor" never has to grapple with the history or legitimate claims of the people against whom he turns. He takes the minority's position and fights his native majority without the complications of having to explain to the minority where its own perspective is erroneous.

Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, sure, but he hardly freed them to return to some idyllic state. St. Paul took up the Christian cause, but the message that he promoted was quite distinct from "as you were." Indeed, the form of salvation that Jesus promised, as Messiah, was not freedom from domination by some other worldly tribe, but the freedom of domination by the highest divine power. In Matthew 10:36, Jesus explains it to be His mission to make "one's enemies... those of his household," but it isn't a physical battle on behalf of an oppressed neighbor. It's a charge through our shared humanity toward its fulfillment.

In the modern liberal gospel, one gains salvation by acknowledging the superior claims and moral virtue of the Other. The call isn't to advance one's community toward a more perfect expression of its own virtues — which have, in fact, done immeasurable good in the history of mankind — but to abandon one's community as hopelessly corrupt and in need of correction by a more innocent people. The former is the hard work of cultural evolution; the latter is the simple balm of revolution.

December 19, 2009

A Pre-Old School Jersey Boy

Justin Katz

Shortly after commenter BobN mentioned Guido Beach in response to my post on reality TV, I came across this related post by Ed Driscoll. Driscoll points the way to this early/mid-'90s video about Wildwood, New Jersey, which as it happens was the specific site of my own early-'90s Jersey Shore romps.

It's all coming back to me, now.

The summer after I'd decided to drop out of college was the last during which my friends and I made the three-hour trip down the Garden State Parkway to Wildwood, and the reason, as I now recall, was an abrupt shift in the character of our summer getaway. While we were in high school, Seaside Heights (closer to the New York City suburbs) was the sleazier location. Wildwood was not yet done frightening away families and was fertile ground for the independent middle class teenage boys in search of the teenage daughters thereof.

As the '90s made the transition from early to mid, one of those jumbles of social cause and effect escalated the town's deterioration. That's about the time that the above-linked video appeared. Rolling Stone magazine chipped in with a profile of "The Prince of Wildwood" — a sex-crazed late-teen to whom I unfortunately related, back then. The gates of North Jersey hell opened, and we young, male, middle class predators — more interested in coming-of-age adventures than self defense — had to look elsewhere. As I wrote, in a song lyric, at the time:

Smiling faces are just a memory
And there's a battlefield where the party used to be
What used to be a beach is now a city street
Soldiers marching to a different beat

They've taken over Wildwood
Just like they ruin everything that once was good
They've taken over Wildwood
And I won't be here next year

The boardwalk's garbage from end to end
Flapping on the sea breeze in this two mile long pig-pen
All the promdressed teenagers that used to laugh out on the street
Must have known before I that it was time to retreat


I remember fireworks on the balcony
Our cheers together, ears ringing with the sound
All the ashes now falling as glass
Raining shards of broken '40s on the ground
Dreams of margaritas frosted with ice
Whatever happened to our summer paradise?

Floating on the sea breeze somewhere before sunrise
Feels just the same if I close my eyes
Spent this vacation looking for a place to hide
But clientele means nothing to the rhythms of the tide


Just when we'd found Point Pleasant, as the place of retreat for those whom we'd helped to chase out of Wildwood, I departed for Rhode Island, and New England and adulthood pulled me in.

To some extent, these are observations of a cyclical nature. On a personal level, people's interests tend to mature as they age, although adolescence is creeping further and further into adulthood and the level of maturity ultimately reached is arguably diminishing. On a social level, different clienteles consider a parade of locations fashionable, in keeping with their interests — with families seeking safe respite from hectic lives, young professionals edging in that direction, younger student-types following the older children of the families and emulating the young professionals, and the crowd deteriorating from there; the leading edge moves on, and the cycle starts again. But the speed of the cycle and the depths of deterioration appear to be escalating, in part because families do not appear to be keeping together as long or as thoroughly, and with fewer children, they no longer require vacation entertainment to span from pre-school through high-school and beyond.

To another extent, though, the same cycle appears to be happening on a much larger scale — that of the civilization — and civilizations do not merely ebb and flow in location and superficial details, as from one Jersey Shore boardwalk to another, but to change their character in the process. Some of us think that the character that is ebbing is worth fighting to preserve.

December 16, 2009

Surreality TV

Justin Katz

A confession: I've played along from home with the reality TV show fad. As MTV's Real World spanned my life from high school to college, I used to joke that, were I on the show, I'd be the one kicked off midseason, and life confirmed that joke all too often. By the time Survivor hit the scene, I'd matured enough that my enjoyment derived from fascination with human interactions. Because of the competitive and touristic twists, I held on with Amazing Race until my schedule edged it out just a few seasons ago.

At this point, though, few would dispute the suggestion that it's time to rein the reality-TV culture in a bit. As Jonah Goldberg puts it, in a rhetorical question: "Can the rest of us afford to live in a society constantly auditioning to make an ass of itself on TV?"

Goldberg's launching point is the new bottom of the barrel, Jersey Shore, and it sounds as if the setting has only drifted further into the sea of cultural disintegration since the summers that I spent along that stretch of sand willing my life to go wrong. Sad to say, it looks as if my high school gang was of the trendsetting generation, in that regard, and this point from Goldberg brings the shame of that assessment home:

British historian Arnold Toynbee argued that civilizations thrive when the lower classes aspire to be like the upper classes, and they decay when the upper classes try to be like the lower classes. Looked at through this prism, it’s hard not to see America in a prolonged period of decay.

Back in the '90s, George Carlin had a stand-up comedy bit suggesting that the nation should replace prisons with four contiguous wall-in pens somewhere out in the middle of the country. Each pen would have a different sort of criminal, and the whole thing would be paid for by throwing open the doors between them all once every few years and selling the result on pay per view. A decade later, it would sadly be plausible to worry that Americans would begin deliberately following life paths that would land them on the show.

December 15, 2009

Facilitating Opportunity Is the Path to Charity

Justin Katz

Reviewing Creating an Opportunity Society, by Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, Duncan Currie emphasizes that advocates for the poor (and such) focus on the wrong measure of social progress:

Mobility, not inequality, is the key indicator of economic opportunity. The two are not necessarily correlated: If income inequality has gone up since the early 1980s, that doesn't necessarily mean income mobility has gone down. Indeed, a 2007 Treasury Department study concluded that "relative income mobility has neither increased nor decreased over the past 20 years." ...

[Haskins and Sawhill] advocate a three-pronged strategy for boosting mobility: Improve public education, encourage work, and strengthen families [especially by reining in the surge in nonmarital births].

This argument runs right along the line that divides the modern American left and right (at least those on either side who are socially conscious). On the left, the the thread across the three strategic issues is government-directed action. Not trusting the masses to contrive a fair system, progressives wish to utilize the Smart Class to lay out a plan that the government can then implement objectively. On the right, we're a bit less convinced of mankind's capacity, first, to comprehend all of the necessary variables that an all-encompassing plan must consider and, then, to collect and apply the dictatorial force necessary without corrupting those who must perform the implementation.

And so, focusing on the conservative side of the comparison, the keys to strengthening public education are liberty and choice — giving those closest to the children (especially their parents) as much room as possible to determine the best focus and structure for educating them. The keys to encouraging work are to maximize incentive by removing long-term handouts and to ease the path from concept to profit — removing regulations and other restrictions that keep prices up and competition down. The keys to strengthening families are to be clear about the ways in which various relationships are similar and different and, with an emphasis on cultural institutions, to encourage the behavior appropriate to each — or, conversely, to encourage those inclined to a particular behavior toward the appropriate relationship types.

It is patently false to accuse those who agree with the preceding paragraph of not caring for people in need. Indeed, it is long overdue for naturally conservative groups, such as the Roman Catholic Church, to take the longer view, which is more in keeping with notions of individual autonomy.

December 13, 2009

A Sunday Night Aphorism for Western Culture

Justin Katz

Friday night was my construction company's Christmas party, and it won't surprise Anchor Rising readers to hear that I spent most of it bantering with a twentysomething carpenter who is currently straining his daily energies to take night classes in Boston. Having vivid memories of the automotive experience that such an endeavor entails made my attitude entirely sympathetic... until I mentioned that I "read" War and Peace as a book-on-tape during my commutes and he offered that he's listening to Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States.

The conversation devolved quickly to assertions of absolutes (me) and quips about relativism (him). I held that the White Man was essentially the most successful tribe, whose success brought the world culture to the understanding of higher principles — higher civilization — from Christianity to science. He put forward the image of tribal peoples blissful in their ignorance, as if the apple by which mankind fell from the garden arrived on a European ship.

Well, anyway, we were several beers and a long workday in, by that point, having been shoulder to shoulder for two days installing a tin ceiling in somebody's kitchen (no Sistine Chapel, that), and I've heard similarly heated arguments over comparative quarterbacks. But it occurred to me, while doing the Sunday night dishes, that what I'd been struggling to convey boils down to this: Western Civilization made it possible to know that some of its own actions while advancing were wrong, and then to move forward.

The wish of Zinnites and other Marxists to deconstruct that legacy is ultimately a desire to transcend by returning to ignorance and tribalism.

December 12, 2009

When the Children Aren't the Future

Justin Katz

Mark Steyn looks to Vermont for the creeping of Europe's demographic trends into the United States:

... in a very basic sense there is no "state": Graying ponytailed hippies and chichi gay couples aren't enough of a population base to run a functioning jurisdiction. To modify Howard Dean, Vermont is the way liberals think America ought to be, and you can't make a living in it. So if you're a cash-poor but land-rich native Vermonter taxed and regulated and hedged in on every front, you face a choice: In the new North Country folk wisdom, they won't let you fish, so you might as well cut bait. Your outhouse is in breach of zoning regulations, so you might as well get off the pot. Etc. When he ran for president, Howard Dean was said to have inspired America's youth. In Vermont, he mainly inspired them to move somewhere else. The number of young adults fell by 20 percent during the Dean years. And what's left is a demographic disaster: The state's women have the second lowest birthrate in the nation, and the state's workforce is already America's oldest. Last year, Chris Lafakis of Moody's predicted Vermont would have "a really stagnant economy" not this year or this half-decade but for the next 30 years.

Government policies throughout the states and nation are decreasingly oriented toward providing incentive for personal responsibility and responsible behavior, and the up-and-coming generations are dutifully deciding that they'd rather focus on modern society's banquet of material pleasures than deal with the difficulties that we in the West used to consider fulfilling... however antiquated that concept may now seem.

Steyn quips that Western elites have no problem behaving as if "we can transform the very heavens" when it comes to climate change, but "the demographic death spiral" is "just a fact of life." Two things: Western elites ultimately prefer nature to humanity, and nature is ambivalent about its state, whereas humanity is content to choose demise.

A Positive Unintended Consequence of Controversy

Justin Katz

Mary Eberstadt notes that, leading up to the turn of the millennium, the taboo against pedophilia appeared to be next up on the list of cultural norms to undermine:

The phenomenon of pedophilia chic revealed the intensely troubling possibility that society, especially literate and enlightened society, was in the process of sanctioning certain exceptions to the taboo against sex with minors—particularly sex between men and boys. As a matter of criminal law, of course, girls are often and tragically the victims of older men. But pedophilia chic concerned not the rate of criminal conviction but rather the open public questioning of the taboo itself. What the record through the 1990s showed was that in the case of girls the taboo remained solid, and in the case of boys it did not. In other words, to take the example before us now, had Roman Polanski been arrested for the same crime a decade ago, in all likelihood we would have witnessed the same outcry that we did this fall.

So now let us ask the more difficult question: Would Polanski in 2009 still have inadvertently united almost everyone in America against him if his victim had been a thirteen-year-old boy rather than a thirteen-year-old girl? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is yes—and for interesting if unexpected reasons.

Winding through some indicators of that "pedophilia chic," Eberstadt concludes that the scandal in the American Catholic Church forced "literate and enlightened society" to reposition its opinion so as to permit moral outrage against cultural conservatives. It's an interesting suggestion, and it certainly doesn't conflict with experience with human nature.

One might also suggest similar reactions within the Church, itself. We can hope, for example, that church leaders will be wary of the judgments and suggestions of secular society such as informed organizational decisions in the late '60s and '70s. (The human frailty that begets the sorts of cover-ups that we witnessed in subsequent decades is probably beyond our ability to eliminate, although we can be more watchful.)

More broadly, it may be that the Church is in the process of reevaluating its relationship with and role in American society. One needn't enumerate the examples of public school teachers who've been found to have abused their positions with children and teenagers to suggest that representatives of Christ must hold themselves to a higher standard. And one needn't engage politicians in the dispute over their claims to define Catholicism as rightfully as bishops in order to discern that religion's role, and therefore its standards, must be of a different sort than those compiled and applied within secular spheres.

The challenge is to make the beneficial reactions to horrible actions outlast the damage that those actions did to the Church's standing.

December 11, 2009

Turning the Tide on Toy Totin' Tots: Prov and East Prov to Hold Toy Gun "Buy"-Backs

Monique Chartier

If I were the type to cling to my guns and paranoia, this might strike me as some sort of pre-conditioning. "Look, Johnny and Suzie, it's normal to hand your guns to the nice man from the government."

Children in Providence and East Providence can trade toy guns for real candy or toys on Friday and Saturday.

In Providence, children can feed their toy guns to the "Bash-O-Matic," a device designed and built by students at the New England Institute of Technology and the Rhode Island School of Design, Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch said.

The annual "Holiday Toy Gun Bash" will give an alternate toy to each child who relinquishes a gun from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at Pleasant View Elementary School, 50 Obadiah Brown Road, Providence.

In any event, toy guns have been around for as long as the real thing. The correlation to gun violence, then, is quizzical at best.

Weeping for the Future

Justin Katz

In the comments to this morning's post on Bush's reviving poll numbers, Mike Cappelli expresses his concerns, generally, about the attitudes and worldviews of up-and-coming generations. It brought to mind something that I've noticed, as if all of a sudden, over the past year: This texting thing has become a real problem on the construction site. It's as if the younger guys feel some obligation — a compulsion — to respond when their phones buzz at their hips. Add that to the strange argument that I've heard, around here, that legislation against texting while driving was an assault on the young, and I'm not ashamed to admit being a fuddy-duddy of the sort who just doesn't get it.

I can't imagine stopping work on a regular basis to send quick messages to my friends, wherever they might be. Frankly, if I run another project in the near future, I'll have no tolerance for it. Similarly, I can't imagine being caught texting while driving and not feeling as if I've done something wrong.

Obviously, I'm a fan of information technology and connectedness, but some of the effects are going to have much broader consequences than we currently comprehend.

December 6, 2009

Anti-Intellectual Radicals

Justin Katz

I've been meaning to offer kudos for this excellent letter by David Carlin, who is, somewhat surprisingly, a sociology and philosophy professor at CCRI:

The question of whether or not anti-SSM people are motivated by bigotry is an empirical question, and I submit (as would Dr. Harrop, I believe) that if their motives were empirically examined, it would be discovered that they are not so motivated. But those associated with the gay movement are rarely interested in this empirical question. Instead — behaving in a purely propagandistic and thoroughly unscientific manner — they simply classify anybody opposed to their agenda as "bigoted" and "homophobic." Thus no amount of empirical evidence to the contrary will persuade them to withdraw their accusations.

One of my great objections to the gay movement is its profound anti-intellectualism — that is, its absolute refusal to keep its mind open to empirical evidence that might contradict its propaganda.

That's from the November 22 Providence Journal. I wonder whether the professor's had any threats against his job, or the like.

December 5, 2009

No Fingers Weaving Quick Minarets

Justin Katz

You've seen this news, I imagine:

Swiss voters on Sunday overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on minarets, barring construction of the iconic mosque towers in a surprise move that put Switzerland at the forefront of a European backlash against a growing Muslim population.

Muslim groups in Switzerland and abroad condemned the vote as biased and anti-Islamic. Business groups said the decision hurts Switzerland's international standing and could damage relations with Muslim nations and wealthy investors who bank, travel and shop there.

The entire world is condemning the result, and I certainly don't support the action. I do, however, support the right of the Swiss to take it.

A point of intolerable repression exists, of course, but if we cannot distinguish banning a particular type of religious structure from, say, unjust imprisonment, then relativism has numbed our moral senses. People have a right to shape their communities, and they have a right to differ on the appropriate means of preserving their cultures.

December 3, 2009

Random Mutterings

Marc Comtois

Having some kind of head cold nastiness for the better part of a week has left me more befuddled than usual and less able to focus thanks to various apothecary concoctions. Here's what I've been muttering about....

Apparently, Gen. Treasurer Frank Caprio is going to campaign as a right-of-center progressive.

Tiger Woods has garnered a reputation for being in the 99 9/10th percentile when it comes to mental toughness and discipline. It looks like that only extends to his golf game.

Latino leaders calling for a census boycott are only going to end up short-changing themselves and their people. Some think that's a good thing.

Seeing it through in Afghanistan means more troops, according to the experts (Generals). President Obama did the right thing in following their advice, if not exactly. But it is obvious that his heart isn't in it and that ennui is dangerous if translated down the chain of command.

Seeing sleeping cadets/midshipmen at a mid-evening speech by a politician is totally unsurprising to anyone who attended such an institution. Long days full of physical and mental strain cause the body to shutdown when it can. It's only a surprise that more weren't snoozing. The fault lay with the media for focusing on the slumbering in an attempt to convey...what, exactly? That cadets don't respect the CinC? Or that he's boring them? Not sure why they did it, but it was wrong.

Looks like the Patriots are in a rebuilding year. That used to mean a losing season or two; now it's just an early bow-out of the playoffs. I'll take it.

I like visiting other branches of the family for Thanksgiving. But I miss the leftovers.

When did regular exercise start meaning a constant battle against wear and tear injuries? Plantar fasciitis sucks.

It seems hard for a member of the Gen X vanguard like myself to find good music by new artists.

And when did the music of the '80s become oldies?

I think the last two items are related.

Thank God for Nyquil.

Finally, my science-degreed sister (medical technology) had the best Climategate-inspired line of the season: "I could totally prove the existence of Santa Claus, but I seemed to have lost the raw data, so you're just going to have to trust me."

November 27, 2009

A Proper Progress

Justin Katz

Father John Kiley steps forward to defend the Western period of exploration as a time when we "began to also hope in progress," not in religion alone. Indeed, Fr. Kiley credits the likes of Christopher Columbus and Leonardo de Vinci not just with their particular discoveries and innovations, but with the whole technological drive of our culture. There should, of course, be a restraint:

Pope Benedict correctly laments the fracture that occurred between hope in faith that marked the Middle Ages and hope in progress that distinguishes the modern era. Too much hope in human progress crowds out God in modern times just as exclusive hope in faith left little room for progress in the earlier era. Clearly, the two hopes are not incompatible. The God who made the spiritual world also fashioned the material world. Both heaven and earth are certainly worthy of investigation and exploration. Hope in progress alone sadly does lead to atom bombs and abortion procedures and corporate expansion. But progress enlightened by faith can fashion this world into a fuller reflection of the goodness and kindness of God himself.

Sadly, we are creatures of extremes. We seek a rule and insist that it must apply to everything and all. We tend to believe either that working with material reality is playing God or that any manipulation that gives the impression of benefiting us must be justified.

November 23, 2009

The Cringing Generation

Justin Katz

The end of a recent Mark Steyn column on the nanny state's murder of the "reasonable man" standard rings too true not to pass along:

Sikhs like to carry their traditional kirpans — knives up to eight inches — and the New York City Board of Education and the Supreme Court of Canada, among many others, have ruled that boys are permitted to take them to school. Why? Because in the ideological hierarchy, multiculturalism trumps "safety". A cake knife is a "deadly weapon" but a deadly weapon is merely the Sikh symbol for "the power of truth to cut through untruth". If that isn't reason to ban it from public schools, I don't know what is. Nevertheless, if you're taking a cake to school, ask a Sikh classmate to cut it up for you. And be grateful that the FDA hasn't yet classified the cake as a deadly weapon.

Can such a society survive? I doubt it. After all, if you raise your young in such a world, what sort of adults do they grow into? A couple of years back, a neighbor's kid was given a plastic sword and shield as a birthday present. Mom refuses to let her boy play with "militaristic" toys, so she confiscated the sword but, in a moment of weakness, let him keep the shield. And for a while, on my drive down to town, I'd pass the li'l tyke in the yard playing with his beloved shield, mastering the art of cringing and cowering against unseen blows from all directions. In a hyper-regulated world, it's a useful skill to acquire. But I'm not sure it will be enough.

November 22, 2009

Also About Refashioning America

Justin Katz

A fair number of people who might be said to lean right — libertarians and moderates and such — would do well to consider a review of the current standing of Catholic charities by Archbishop Charles Chaput, of Denver:

When we look closely at Church-state conflicts in America, we see that they now often center on a group of behaviors—homosexual activity, contraception, abortion, and the like—that the state in recent years has redefined as essential and nonnegotiable rights. Critics rarely dispute the Church's work fighting injustice, helping community development, or serving persons in need. But that's no longer enough. Now they demand that the Church must submit her identity and mission to the state's promotion of these newly alleged rights—despite the constant Catholic teaching that these behaviors are personal moral tragedies that can lead to deep social injustices. ...

In squeezing the Church and other mediating institutions out of the public square, government naturally assumes more power over the nation's economic and social life. Civil society becomes subordinated to the state. And the state then increasingly sees itself as the primary shared identity of its citizens. But this is utterly alien to—and in fact, an exact contradiction of—what America's founders intended.

Those who find their sympathies drawn to forced assertions of individual liberty have a tendency to miss the ways in which rules that allow for true plurality — even to the point of allowing individuals and organizations to discriminate in ways that we might not like — safeguard their own preferred freedoms. The reason big-government types like the notion that the government is the nation's "shared identity" is that, on that basis, they see a path toward reworking that identity with a direct application of their influence on the government.

It's a dangerously attractive notion to conceive of America's uniqueness as deriving from its non-ethnic unity. We are a nation of laws, to be sure, but that is only a positive, constructive innovation if the laws are not leveraged to define culture in the way that ethnicity traditionally has.

November 21, 2009

Michael Morse is No Huggy Bear

Monique Chartier

From a Rescuing Providence post of a couple of weeks ago.

Are his experiences unique and a result of his blogular fame or is he correct that there is a trend among younger men to give manly hugs as greeting?

What is up with all this handshake huggy stuff all the young guys are doing now? Every time I go to shake somebodies hand who happens to be under thirty they drag me in and give me a hug. Don’t like it. Nothing personal, but I like my space.

* * *

From here on, if anybody attempts to hug me during a handshake, I will be forced to assume I’m being brought close for something deadly, a shiv attack or worse, and respond with deadly force of my own. The ancient Babble-on-ians started the handshake as a means of holding their enemies hand to avert an attack. That’s when men were men, no hugging allowed. I like it that way, nice and simple. ...

November 20, 2009

Deny Fathers (and Reality) at Your Peril

Justin Katz

Fr. John Kiley makes an excellent point in an RI Catholic column that is, for some reason, not online:

And it is not just television that demeans men. Catholics would be surprised how often a priest goes to another parish to celebrate Mass only to find all the male pronouns penciled out of the Sacramentary and Lectionary. Some have taken the liberty of revising the Sign of the Cross with its explicit use of the male terms "Father" and "Son" into the gender neutral "in the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier."

Thus a warm relationship (father/son) is replaced by three anonymous functions. The recent novel "The Death of a Pope" narrates a discussion resulting in God being addressed as "Our Parent" rather than "Our Father." Mary Daley, a professor at Boston College no less, sees the fatherhood of God to be a mere extension of male domination. Man reads himself into God. Her book is chillingly entitled, "Beyond God the Father."

Our society has had (and will always have) work to do ironing prejudices and other markers of human error out of the culture, but attempting to expedite the process through the control of language is an attempt to recreate the world according to our own specifications. Jesus Himself used the "Father" construction frequently and deeply; it must have consequences to insist that the word choice was arbitrarily made within a context of patriarchal oppression.

November 8, 2009

A Memory of Now

Justin Katz

If you're of a mind to direct your thoughts away from the particulars of the day — shootings and bombs and recession and government expansion — David Goldman's essay on the use of rhythm and expectation to imbue a sense of the sacred into music is worth your time. There is a point, though, where our imaginative limitations strain the grand theories:

Augustine is not concerned with time in the abstract, but rather with the possibility of communication between God and humankind. "Lord, since ­eternity is yours, are you ignorant of what I say to you? Or do you see in time, what passes in time?" Aristotle's Prime Mover has no need to communicate with humans and, for that matter, no means of doing so. Aristotle's static time can have no interaction with the eternity of the biblical God—which means that if Aristotle’s description of time as a sequence of moments were adequate, we could not hope to commune with an eternal being.

But Aristotle's theory, in Augustine's view, leads to absurdities. To consider durations in time, we must measure what is past, for the moment as such has no duration. Events that have passed no longer exist, leaving us in the paradoxical position of seeking to measure what does not exist. Augustine's solution is that memory of events, rather than the events themselves, is what we compare. "It is in you, my mind, that I measure times," he concludes. If the measurement of small intervals of time occurs in the mind, then what can we say about our perception of distant past and future? If our perception of past events depends on memory, then our thoughts about future events depend on expectation, and what links both is "
"consideration." For "the mind expects, it considers, it remembers; so that which it expects, through that which it considers, passes into that which it remembers."

Expectation and memory, Augustine adds, determine our perception of distant past and future: "It is not then future time that is long, for as yet it is not: But a long future, is 'a long expectation of the future,' nor is it time past, which now is not, that is long; but a long past is 'a long memory of the past.'" This is the insight that allows Augustine to link perception of time to the remembrance of revelation and the expectation of redemption.

If one knows the rules that a particular piece of music is following, then the musical moment has a sort of intrinsic memory even apart from the past and future, telling the tale of what's been and what is yet to come. In life, this is especially true. Imagine that you could freeze everything else but you in time; you could pick somebody you don't know and inspect the incidentals of his or her life and learn quite a bit the individual's past and future. Layer into that an ability to measure momentary emotions, and differences in perception of the passage of time aren't really an obstacle to communication.

My point is this (I suppose): We communicate with each other and with God through our actions. Indeed, it's central to the Christian understanding of Jesus that God communicated with us in precisely that manner.

Of course, my remarks, here, are wholly tangential to Goldman's discussion of the intersection of philosophical and musical theory, which, dealing in two human conventions, can be complete of its own accord.

November 6, 2009

A Biological Ghetto

Justin Katz

In the June/July issue of First Things, Mary Eberstadt suggested commonality between pro-lifers and vegetarians that (she thinks) justifies closer affiliation. Think what you may about the thesis, on which I'm not sold, a subsequent letter from a gentleman named Gerald Lame brings us back to dualism:

So Eberstadt's "moral traditionalists" are really animist-vitalists. And the news these pro-lifers have not yet heard, trapped as many are in their scholastic ghetto, is that the scientific theory of vitalism was found in the twentieth century to be false. The entire science of molecular biology is a testament to this fact. It turns out that there is no life principle. Life is a set of properties belonging to a suitably organized physical organism. These properties are the same for humans and nonhumans, for animals and plants. What distinguishes us is not some mysterious entity called human life. It is the structures of our bodies, especially our brains, and what they do. So a person is not a life. Animism is false. The mere fact that an embryo is alive does not mean that the person who might later arise from it is in any sense present. Life is not a proper object of sympathy.

He provides insufficient evidence to confidently declare him guilty of the practice, but Lame appears to be of the sort who extrapolate from mechanical understanding inappropriate philosophical lessons. He relies on "personhood" as something outside of biology and "life" but doggedly stops short of the next step into mire. If "life is a set of properties belonging to a suitably organized physical organism," then one could define "personhood" as the combination of those properties with a genetically unique organism. Lame must inevitably fall back to the old argument about consciousness.

The pro-life argument, especially in a theological milieu, is that biological life and spiritual personhood are inextricably linked. Not unlike an aborigine believing that a photograph steals the soul, Lame implies that describing the biology negates the person. Accuse whomever he may of intellectual ghettoism, the track in which his argument lies is well traveled and fraught with moral pitfalls.

For example, in a previous paragraph, he describes the biological process of pain and notes that young fetuses are incapable of feeling it. But if opposition to killing a human organism is essentially a question of suffering, then inducing euphoria prior to ceasing the flow of impulses that animate a biological construct in the form of a human being would alleviate "moral intuitions" that even a person is "a proper object of sympathy."

November 4, 2009

No Price Tag Doesn't Mean No Price

Justin Katz

Professor Stephen Mathis has come across my post responding to his op-ed, and he comments, in part:

I think the ultimate problem with devaluing people or their organs is problematic precisely because it makes them vulnerable to more powerful folks. But I do disagree that disallowing a price tag on organs makes them worthless: I think it simply makes them incommensurable with money, which marks off their special status as things that are unlike everyday commodities. The same goes for laws outlawing the selling of sex. Making it impossible to buy or sell sex doesn't make it worthless, rather it delineates it as something so special it shouldn't be open to the pressures of the market (that usually come from the powerful/rich).

I don't know Mr. Mathis's background, but I'd suggest the possibility that he's just never encountered a situation in which he's needed a sufficient amount of money that would justify the sale of a body part. I'll tell you the honest truth: I'd part with certain bodily properties if I could thereby erase my debt.

The economics are unavoidable: Every body part has an abstract value; that we disallow their sale just removes the motivation to assign a dollar amount to it. The same is true of sex, although the value is so much lower, and unlike organs, its sale doesn't deprive the seller of its use, so some people will always make the transaction, whatever the law says.

November 3, 2009

No Sympathy for the Demented

Justin Katz

Not to go all social conservative on you, but I have to believe that there are (or should be) more pressing issues for the head of a civil liberties organization than protecting an industry set on selling the sexual objectification of children. But there goes the ACLU's Steven Brown:

Legislation passed last week to make sex-trafficking of minors a felony is so broad, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee, that it could make criminals of people who profit from sexually-explicit art depicting minors. ...

The allegedly offending language in the human-trafficking legislation defines "sexually-explicit performance" as "an act or show, intended to arouse, satisfy the sexual desires of, or appeal to the prurient interests of patrons or viewers, whether public or private, live, photographed, recorded or videotaped." Anyone found guilty of such an offense would face up to 40 years in prison and a $40,000 fine, or both.

"Theoretically, it could be a theater owner," the state's chief civil libertarian told Political Scene. Or "somebody who takes photographs of minors deemed to appeal to prurient interests ..."

Personally, I'd have stricken the phrase about "prurient interests," and been clearer about the meaning of "sexually-explicit," but several other factors make it unnecessary, even odd, to fear for theater owners who behave in ways that we'd all agree oughtn't be criminal:

  • It's fanciful to imagine that the judiciary, as constituted for the foreseeable future, will seek to interpret art as "intended" for the purpose of arousal.
  • Legal precedent providing first amendment protection to pornography ensures the first point, and if producers must take extra care with actual children, well, I'd be hard-pressed to explain why an artistic statement requires the use of actual children for sexual purposes.
  • I continue to believe that it should be deemed appropriate for states to be more stringent, in their rules, than is the federal government. If Rhode Islanders don't wish to allow the public display of children in sexually explicit situations, then there are 49 other states in which peddlers of filth could display their sickness.

November 2, 2009

A Difficult Judgmentalism

Justin Katz

While by no means condoning his behavior, some commenters decline to judge the lifestyle of George Holland, which Marc described on Thursday. Writes Joe:

I don't know - it seems the guy was genuinely liked by these women [with whom he fathered children] - they probably wouldn't all get on the same page to fabricate a story if he were that bad. I don't like to judge other peoples' lifestyle arrangements because there are "conventional" families wherein the worst imaginable types of abuse occur, out of sight, out of mind.

Our society has determined that non-judgmentalism is a virtue, but it seems to me to be as facile and irresponsible as a judgmentalism that follows a strict, unconsidered line and conveniently exempts the behavior of the person who's being judgmental. Passing judgment shouldn't be done frivolously or as a means of directing attention away from one's own behavior, but leveling all personal decisions ignores millennia of cultural experience and shirking the duty to exert individual social pressure ensures that we'll all pay the price, in the forms of both government cleanup and cultural decay.

Tabetha offers anecdotal evidence of one such abusive "conventional family":

Lakesha Garrett, who was recently accused of murder, was once a promising straight A student at Classical HS with 3 scholarships lined up for college. I know this because she and I were very close friends as teenagers. However, she was the victim of horrible abuse - abuse so terrible that there is actually a child abuse law in RI named for her family. To the outside world, Lakesha came from a "conventional" family. Her mom and dad were married, she and her siblings shared the same two parents, and her parents were outwardly religious, church-going folks who owned several rental properties in the West End and Southside area. However, there was a much darker side to this family. ... So, while the children of this guy Holland may not be living in what many consider ideal circumstances, perhaps they will turn out much more well-adjusted than some kids that you think are living with "proper" families. The mothers of these children may be doing a better job than some of the families you think are great. I don't know since I don't know these people myself. It is not always easy to see where children are most open to harm.

Perhaps. Maybe. Earlier, Tabetha implies that the children of folks like Holland might be justifiably removed, but it shouldn't be difficult to find examples of foster and adoptive homes that turned abusive.

Humanity isn't formed with cookie cutters, and few are entirely evil. Therefore, it isn't enough to say that one guy who resigned his children to an "unconventional family" was decent and tried to do the best for them, while this other family looked normal and did horrible things to their kids. If Holland had made the not-so-difficult decision to limit his fatherhood experience to the mother and children with whom he'd begun, it's reasonable to suggest that he would have advanced in a more healthy direction, rather than a direction such as Tabetha describes in the Garretts. On the other hand, imagine if Mr. Garrett had lived after Holland's example.

Holland's children and others who've observed his story have learned from him and from the women's reactions, that his behavior was just fine. And maybe we could accept that if the qualities that mitigated the effects, on his part, were universal. But his sons might not be so apt to consider their children. His daughters might not see similar behavior in their boyfriends as a warning sign. To the extent that societal approval affects those who are making the right decisions (and the effect isn't nil), why should they work so hard at building families and restraining their temptations when they'd avoid negative reactions were they to freewheel just shy of abuse and drug dealing?

Pretending that we don't know where this path leads when taken not by a single family, but by a society, is irresponsible and doesn't absolve us of guilt any more than freely pointing fingers at everybody else does.

October 29, 2009

"He Wasn't No Bad Man."

Marc Comtois

The ProJo's follow-up to the story about the murder of accused woman-beater and "serial father" George Holland only adds to the frustration earlier expressed.

On Wednesday afternoon, the five other mothers and Holland’s relatives gathered at an apartment on Hymer Street to talk about his life. They said Holland had been characterized unfairly in The Journal as an abuser.

“There was also love there,” said Candace Smith, a niece. “He took care of his children. He spent time with them. The mothers [of his children] put aside all of their differences, and the kids spent time with all of their mothers.”

Leihani Rose — who has three children with Holland — and Silvia Vides, Melissa DeCosta, Keiojfa Hie and Jessenia Delossantos –– each with one child from Holland –– said that he made them all a family. They hugged each other and said in unison, “We love our baby mamas!”

I must admit that I'm just not that familiar with the apparent societal norm on display here. There is no obvious sense of shame or fear of chastisement, no stigma. There are no consequences for bad decisions, to the point that further bad actions taken to cover for previous mistakes are all completely understandable, you see.
As Holland had other children with other women, he painted houses and was also dealing drugs, his parents said. He could make money that way to help support his eight children, their mothers and his family –– and because his criminal record and lack of an education made it hard for him to find work, said Clement.

He paid the rent on their apartments, and got cable TV, a flat-screen television, new sneakers and new clothes for his mother. “He always got me what I needed,” she said.

He had money for anyone who needed help, they said. “He wasn’t no bad man. He took care of all of us,” DeCosta said.

The ends justified the means. I'm in no position to doubt the sincerity of those who have come forward to say Holland was a good man. Yet, I'm struck by how low the bar has gotten.

ADDENDUM: Comments are open, but be forewarned: I'll close them, as the ProJo was forced to do, if they get outside the bounds.

October 27, 2009

All You Can Do is Just Shake Your Head...

Marc Comtois

...at stories like this, about the Providence woman who stabbed the father of her son to death. The short version is that 14 years ago a 15 year old boy was statutorily raped by a woman 10 years his senior. She bore him the first of many children by multiple baby-mamas. Two weeks after the birth of their child, the troubled youth threatened his son's mother, so she put a restraining order on him. Yet, they eventually reconciled and she even took it upon herself to care for his children by other mothers (whom he also beat). Several charges were filed and dropped. Finally, it came to a head and the rapist stabbed the serial woman-beater to death.

There are no winners. Not the beater, not the rapist, not the kids, not the other baby mamas. And not the taxpayers who continue to support this unaccountable sub-culture, which helps the victims less than it does the politicians and bureaucrats and advocates who feed off the programs purported to help. So we're left to shake our heads and throw our hands in the air. Is there a solution? I don't know. But how can we ever hope to "fix" society when we maintain the current lax environment of moral enablement and mitigate, if not unintentionally reward, bad decisions while people are allowed to get away with, well,.... murder?

October 18, 2009

Can't Be "Private, But"

Justin Katz

A comment from Joe Bernstein, to yesterday's post on assisted suicide, points us toward a deeper conversation:

I am pro-life on the issue of abortion, but on this I believe that if someone with all their mental faculties intact makes a decision to commit suicide due to a hopeless, painful, or tortuous medical situation it is not a crime for someone else with the correct credentials to help them make sure they go out with the least discomfort to themselves and the least trauma to their loved ones.

Sticking a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger is a surefire way to accomplish suicide, but not everyone can do it, and it leaves a scene families will never be able to put out of their minds.
I sat with my grandmother who lived with us, and my father many years later as they declined in severe pain due to terminal cancer-neither considered suicide, in one case due to religious belief, and in the other case, just the opposite.

I agree with Patrick here. What I don't want to see is the demonic social engineers that infest this administration set up a bureaucracy for this kind of thing. It is a private matter.

The problem is that, once you introduce restrictions such as judging mental faculties and credentialing assistants, the matter is no longer private, strictly speaking. Indeed, it is the argument of the Wesley Smith essay to which I linked that assisted-suicide ideologues are not inclined to dwell very long, on an individual basis, determining whether somebody is mentally fit to enlist their services, and they're certainly not inclined to report questionable cases to the authorities.

Moreover, the "private matter" boundary is anything but an impermeable barrier. Take this story as allegory:

The case came to the attention of Minnesota authorities in March 2008 when an anti-suicide activist in Britain alerted them that someone in the state was using the Internet to manipulate people into killing themselves.

Last May, a Minnesota task force on Internet crimes searched Melchert-Dinkel's computer and found a Web chat between him and the young Canadian woman describing the best way to tie knots. In their search warrant, investigators said Melchert-Dinkel "admitted he has asked persons to watch their suicide via webcam but has not done so." ...

The report also said Melchert-Dinkel checked himself into a hospital in January. A nurse's assessment said he had a "suicide fetish" and had formed suicide pacts online that he didn't intend to carry out.

Few people are as overtly demented as Melchert-Dinkel, of course, but if we're going to determine who is or is not fit to kill themselves, we're also going to have to determine who is or is not fit to make that judgment and to assist. Either determination ultimately draws arbitrary, debatable lines that will not withstand the human slide toward tragedy that is nigh upon inevitable when our society pushes "compassion" in advance of the tragic.

October 17, 2009

The Prick of Local Authority

Justin Katz

What to make of the story of the teacher who accidentally stapled a student's head?

A Superior Court judge has upheld the firing of a Smithfield social studies teacher for stapling a student's scalp during a classroom stunt three years ago.

Judge Daniel A. Procaccini ruled that the Smithfield School Committee, the state education commissioner and the state Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education Appeals Committee showed "good and just cause" in finding that Bethany St. Pierre should be dismissed from her job as a Smithfield High School social studies teacher after injuring a student and then urging the class to cover it up.

The education commissioner's finding of facts, in February 2008, offers a good summary of the incident (PDF). As ever, multiple issues come into play. Should the teacher have been fired for the accident? Absolutely not; our attempts at an antiseptic society contribute (I believe) to a bevy of our current problems, including educational mediocrity. Should she have been fired for not taking appropriate steps that would have alerted other adults to the incident and suggesting that the students keep the incident in the classroom? Probably not, although her first reaction clearly should have been to send the student to the nurse, personally notify the principal, and send a note to the parents (or pick up the phone) to explain the incident. But was the school within its rights to fire her for a mere error of judgment? Yes.

Look, the courts should not be a mechanism for interested parties (such as unions or private associations, like church groups) to leverage higher tiers of government to micromanage the decisions of officials in lower tiers. Resolve the issue through the administrative and political processes available for that purpose. Relying on the judiciary merely lets everybody in power off the hook.

October 16, 2009

If Not the Law, the Culture

Justin Katz

Two well-placed articles — by virtue of their proximity to each other — in the September 21 National Review point to a necessary conclusion for a modern conservative political philosophy. The first item is an interior quotation by American Medical Association lobbyist William Woodward within a book review by Kyle Smith (emphasis added):

The trouble is that we are looking on narcotic addiction solely as a vice. It is a vice, but like all vices, it is based on human nature. The use of narcotics ... represents an effort on the part of the individual to adjust himself to some difficult situation in his life. He will take one thing to stimulate him, another to quiet him.... And until we develop young men and young women who are able to suffer a little and exercise a certain amount of control, even though it may be inconvenient and unpleasant to do so, we are going to have a considerable amount of addiction to narcotics and addiction to other drugs.

The solution, in short, is cultural. Rather than struggling to stop our fellow Americans from doing something that they've decided they want to do, we should address that which sparks the desire. That point in itself could be the beginning of an extensive prudential and practical tangent, but let's take it as given on principle and move on to the second item: Ross Douthat's review of Quentin Tarantino's latest gorefest, Inglourious Basterds. Douthat's core dilemma is whether Tarantino's film-making talent makes up for the characteristic violence:

As for whether the many pleasures of this counterfactual fantasia are sufficient to justify enduring the interludes of sophomoric and debasing violence, well, I'm still wrestling with that one. But it's clear that where the wildly talented, permanently adolescent Quentin Tarantino is concerned, we're unlikely ever to get the one without the other.

If, for item 1, we're going to arrive at a solution along the conservative-libertarian compromise, then the conservative's answer to Douthat must be "no." It's not impossible for violence to be redeemed within a work of art, but then it ceases to be sophomoric and debasing, because it isn't gratuitous — much like the violence that God allows in life. But if the scale houses, on one side, a continued cultural desensitization to violence and pollution of the individual's conscience, then placing aesthetic pleasure on the other side will hardly move the needle.

(Note for libertarians: I'm not, here, proposing a ban — just a posture for conservatives.)

October 13, 2009

October 11, 2009

The Cross as Symbol

Justin Katz

The Mojave Cross boxed in plywood so as not to offend may be the perfect symbol of tyrannical multiculturalism. Erected 75 years ago in memory of the nation's World War I casualties — and with strong visual correlation with the plain crosses that have a long cultural pedigree along roads — the cross has been the subject of a separation of church and state dispute that has reached the Supreme Court. Moreover, it fittingly reflects the zealous drive to rid America of any public reminder of Christian heritage.

A new twist, though, has the potential to unite religious and libertarian conservatives:

Several conservative justices seemed open to the Obama administration's argument that Congress' decision to transfer to private ownership the land on which the cross sits ends any government endorsement of the cross and takes care of the constitutional questions.

"Isn't that a sensible interpretation" of a court order prohibiting the cross' display on government property? Justice Samuel Alito asked.

The liberal justices, on the other hand, indicated that they agree with a federal appeals court that ruled that the land transfer was a sort of end-run around the First Amendment prohibition against government endorsement of religion.

The argument against permitting religious symbols on public land is that it implies an endorsement of the represented beliefs. Even if we accept that as a plausible argument, the idea that the endorsement is furthered by divesting of the land in order to avoid destruction of the symbol is perverse. It also illustrates the dangers of permitting government ownership of anything: the opportunity to force beliefs — or disbelief — is too attractive for fanatics not to erase and rewrite.

October 10, 2009

Protesting the Brown U Protest of Cristoforo Colombo

Monique Chartier

Noon, Monday, by the flagpole on Brown University's Main Green. Organized by WPRO's John DePetro, the Brown Spectator and the Brown College Republicans.

From John DePetro's press release.

... the decision by the faculty at Brown University to change the name of the Columbus Day holiday is "a tremendous insult to all Italian-Americans." DePetro said he would be happy to accept the resignations from members of the Brown faculty at the rally," to clear their conscience of teaching at a school built upon the slave trade." " This grossly misguided farce to try to ignore and destroy the historic contribution made by one of the world's greatest explorers is not only insulting to Italian-Americans, but is a very disturbing reminder of how America's traditional heritage is under attack in many quarters of the Ivy League and on other college campuses," DePetro says.

[Irreverent side note: does the fact that Columbus apparently navigated by a map given to him by aliens - space aliens - at all mitigate his image in the eyes of his Brown critics?]

From Marc's post in April when the Brown faculty voted to recognize the boycott.

Of course Europeans didn't cover themselves in glory with the way they treated the indigenous people of the New World. Man has made war upon man for time immemorial. As "anyone who has studied history" should know, the difference is only a matter of degree.

It does make me wonder. Is it only the violence committed by the "victors" that is objectionable?

October 7, 2009

"Multiculturalism" Is a Lack of Culture

Justin Katz

Ah, the not-so-rich tapestry of multiculturalism:

"We're supposed to be the most multicultural city in the world and it doesn't seem terribly inclusive," Denny Alexander explained. It, as it turns out, is ten-year-old playground equipment found in two parks in the west end of Toronto. The offending objects depict the biblical story of Noah's Ark, complete with cute pictures of animals in male-female pairings. In the most multicultural city in the world, that just won't do. The equipment won't be removed immediately, but the city had decided that, when it "wears out," it won't be replaced. "Toronto's motto is Diversity our Strength," wrote councilman Adam Giambrone. "City policies across the board look to reflect our multicultural city. One way of doing that is not focusing on any specific cultural or religious tradition." You really can't better that line about how awful it is for an inclusive city to, um, include something biblical.

A story about an old guy who gathers procreative pairs of all animals into a giant boat in order to preserve their species from extinction during a great flood is apparently harmful to children, in the public sphere. One wonders whether it's the fact that it's in the Bible that causes the problem or the participation of God in the narrative.

In third-grade public school music class, we learned a song about Noah's building the ark — "Who built the ark? Noah! Noah!" We're getting to the point, I fear, that Mr. C, as the teacher requested that we call him, would be brought before an international tribunal for teaching us such propaganda. In the United States, that sort of thing is preserved for the president.

October 5, 2009

Following Up the "Prostitute" Accusation

Justin Katz

Callers to Dan Yorke's show, after the exchanges with both Megan Andelloux and Donna Hughes were particularly incensed by the latter's referring to the former as a "prostitute." What Hughes meant (and said that she meant) was Andelloux's sideline as a "foot fetish model." A 2008 Providence Phoenix article about her offers the description that she goes to parties monthly at which men pay to "admire her feet."

The article is not specific about where the boundaries of "admiration" are (and I, for one, am not particularly interested to know). One would hope, on Hughes's behalf, that she knows a bit more that might justify the accusation of "prostitution" — as opposed to, say, "stripper" or "erotic model" or something. Take my word for it, though, that Professor Hughes has information about activities in Rhode Island that would make even the worldly shudder.

Given limited information — especially in the context of a targeted conversation on talk radio — it isn't unreasonable to suggest that "prostitute" might have been hyperbolic but not, strictly speaking, inapplicable. It's worth noting that Andelloux's response, when Dan pressed her on the accusation, was that she doesn't "call [herself] a prostitute," has never taken money in exchange for intercourse, and has never done anything "illegal."


Not unrelatedly, Andelloux dissembled when Dan asked her, in response to an email from me, about her husband's affinity for abortion, casting it as simply a procedure that he — like many medical students and doctors — knows how to do. In actuality, it's the one specific medical intention he lists on his Daily Kos bio:

RPCV Senegal 99-01, Resident Family Doc in RI, Future abortion provider.


Just realized that this post doesn't link to my June post about Mr. and Mrs. Andelloux.

September 30, 2009

They Should Make a Movie About It

Justin Katz

Instapundit's been following liberal (and especially entertainment elite) support for Roman Polanksi, notably in this post. Each celebrity who signs on to the "Free Roman" cause of the week should be asked to read the court documents describing the rape for which he's wanted.

There's simply no excuse, and evading the law for decades doesn't mitigate the crime. Although it appears to mitigate it very much, in the eyes of some, if you happen to be famous.

September 20, 2009

The Immortality That We Already Have

Justin Katz

As we slide into autumn, with the sensations and associations that it brings, Michael Ledeen's musing on the relationship between the living and the dead in Naples seems more relevant now than it did in the summer edition of First Things. He makes some very interesting points, which resonate with greater strength as the trees promise (or threaten, depending on your perspective) to shed their leaves:

The great divide between Naples and the rest of Europe came in the second half of the nineteenth century, following the unification of Italy. For several hundred years, the continent had seen enormous religious and political wars, culminating in the Napoleonic war that came to an end at Waterloo in 1812. From then until the outbreak of the First World War, there was no continent-wide war. In that remarkably tranquil century, the Western attitude toward death underwent a striking evolution. Previously, death had been understood as altogether normal. In the nineteenth century, it came to be viewed as a violent intrusion into human affairs. The thought of leaving the world of the living became unbearable, and the requirement to remember the dead became a social imperative. ...

It would require a greater understanding of the human spirit than we possess to explain why the passionate Western embrace of the dead emerged at the moment when, for the first time in hundreds of years, so few people were actually dying in combat or in violent epidemics of the sort that had ravaged Naples so many times. But the new vision of death—and the importance of the dead—undoubtedly had something to do with the rise of modern nationalism, which incorporated religious rituals into secular political ceremonies. As religion was driven out the front door of respectable thought, it crept back in through political cults of the sort that eventually destroyed the heirs of the Enlightenment in the mass movements of the twentieth century. The core beliefs of the Enlightenment were unable to satisfy human passions, and, the more vigorously the intellectual elite asserted that science and logic could explain everything and eventually solve all problems, the more passionately people believed in otherworldly forces. The dead insisted on intruding into the otherwise ordered universe of the scientists and the philosophes.

Especially insightful is the mention of nationalists' usurpation of some of the compelling attributes of religion. To some extent, one could argue that nationalists leverage fear of death as a means of control, even as they present national identity as the path toward a sort of immortality. It's only natural that people would therefore create a darker mythology around the deceased.

Perhaps we're seeing something similar, now, as medical scientists push back death's boundaries, winning battles in the fight against it. A people can only ponder even more distinctly what it means to lose the war against death when they've been told that it's feasible to win.

If humanity somehow manages to approach worldly immortality, I suspect that the dead will become a universally ugly breed. More frightening than any staggering-zombie movie can convey. I also suspect that fear of death will become an even more potent weapon against the timid.

The remedy and defense has not and will not change, however. As the song says, just remember that death is not the end. Presented with a choice of two versions of immortality, that spent with God is more enticing than that spent gripping the thin reeds of an attenuating version of life. At least in my book.

September 18, 2009

Re: Conserving Civilization - The Coliseum

Marc Comtois

Like Justin, I read Michael Knox Beran's piece about the loss of the marketplace (the agora) with interest. Beran contrasted the emptying agora (the town square or marketplace) with the filling up of castles both old and new built. Beran points to an upper class culture striven for by the modern day aristocrats (czars and the like) and the wannabe's (academia and the professional class) who look to migrate to wealthy burbs and McMansions while leaving behind the village or town squares.

A rapid growth in population and a vast expansion of commerce overwhelmed the old centers. At the same time the rise of the nationstate and its metropolitan elites made the provincial agoras seem, well, provincial. The provinces, Tocqueville wrote, "had come under the thrall of the metropolis, which attracted to itself all that was most vital in the nation." The traditional patrons of agora culture, the merchant princes who were once proud of their market squares, abandoned them to ape the gentry. The man of business found it infra dig to live near his shop; he built himself a mansion in a fashionable aristocratic district. New technology further diminished the appeal of the old forums as people turned to radio, cinema, and television for amusement.

Even so, the civic focal point might have survived if people had cared about it. But the rationale was forgotten. During the last few centuries the traditional artistry of the marketplace has come to seem merely quaint and even irrational. Modern planners who studied the old market squares failed to see, beneath a surface of heterogeneous activity, the unity of a civic whole.

As Justin highlighted, Beran has some ideas--some hope--that conservatives can build back up our traditional culture--western civ and the like--by independently funding cultural arts and bringing them back to the modern day agora. We can try, but while the agoras may have emptied, the denizen's of both village and castle continue to go to the coliseum.

The ancient coliseum's were built for spectacles that could entertain the masses. Often playing to the lowest common denominator, the entertainment kept the rabble happy and, hopefully, made them forget their lot in life. While today's sport culture in America serves the same purpose (I'm a proud member of the rabble, by the way), if less violently (well, except maybe with MMA), there is also more going on than "here we are now, entertain us" or the simple sating of the basic human need to belong to something bigger, like The Team.

If you've ever tailgated at a professional or college football game, you know that the conversation is quite broader than simply going over the impending game. While the purpose of the coliseum and the games played within may be the same as ever--people go to games to forget about life's problems for a while--they also collect people together to socialize and gossip and talk about their lives and the world. This temporary community is an offshoot of a shared sense of team, but it lingers past the day's game and is not confined to time spent in the coliseum. It expands into lives outside of the coliseum and encompass the apparently peripheral. The recent retirement speech made by Detroit Tigers' broadcaster Ernie Harwell provides a glimpse into a common ethos and respect for tradition that is fostered in the bleachers.

It's a wonderful night for me. I really feel lucky to be here, and I want to thank you for that warm welcome. I want to express my deep appreciation to Mike Ilitch, Dave Dombrowski and the Tigers for that video salute and also for the many great things they've done for me and my family throughout my career here with the Tigers.

In my almost 92 years on this Earth, the good Lord has blessed me with a great journey, and the blessed part of that journey is that it's going to end here in the great state of Michigan. I deeply appreciate the people of Michigan. I love their grit. I love the way they face life. I love the family values they have. And you Tiger fans are the greatest fans of all, no question about that.

And I certainly want to thank you from the depth of my heart for your devotion, your support, your loyalty and your love. Thank you very much, and God bless you.

Fans of the Tigers were emotionally attached to Harwell. His voice recalled times of youth and tradition and auld lang syne. There was a bond between the Tigers and their fandom, what some would call the "Tiger Community." Such nostalgia is a valuable aspect of tradition. It reminds us of how things were, the good times and, perhaps, provides a gateway into deeper reflection of why the "good old days" were.

This can also be scaled down from the coliseum to the local sports field. In many ways, while mimicing the games played in the coliseum, youth sports bring us much closer to the agora . Parents and volunteers must get together, navigate egos and differing opinions and run the operation so that kids can learn life lessons that competition can provide. Along the way, tasks are completed, obstacles overcome and the shared sense of community is deepened. The sport may be what brings people together, but it serves as an entry point into all manner of topics that are discussed at meetings and at the fields. In fact, often times, the game on the field is really only background noise to the talk on the sidelines!

Most importantly, sports gather together people from all walks of life, from everywhere on the social and economic ladder. But youth or higher-level sports aren't the only vehicle for the establishment of civic spirit. There are all sorts of activities that help build community in the same way, from the Boy Scouts to the Buckeye Brook Coalition. They just aren't all centralized in the same physical marketplace idealized by Beran.

Yet, the function or spirit that comes out of the coliseum isn't the same as that of the agora. It's certain that the coliseum of today--that American sports culture--doesn't exactly approach the artistic culture for which Beran pines (does "Let's Get it Started" qualify as high art?). The physical spaces of today's sports culture simply can't accomodate--or probably won't welcome--Beran's agora ideal. We aren't going to be seeing half-time concertos or the 6th Inning Operatic Moment any time soon. Maybe it isn't the kind of civilization Beran would like to conserve. But don't let the face paint and team jersey's fool you. Right now, many of the people for whom Beran is looking are in stadiums and on playing fields, cheering on their teams and talking about everything under the sun.

September 17, 2009

Conserving Civilization

Justin Katz

Michael Knox Beran raises, to my mind, a cultural reality that conservatives would do well to address when he describes the effects that losing the local marketplace (the agora) has had:

No civilization, even the most bovine, can entirely do without this cathartic machinery. Aristotle credited the poetry of the agora with forming the character of citizens and easing the psychic burdens of common life. Modern scientists have only now begun to catch up with him. They speculate that music and gossip, the lifeblood of the marketplace, meet a human need. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar supposes that music, language, and gossip evolved as "vocal grooming" tools in early hominid groups which had grown too large to rely on touchy-feely grooming techniques to promote cohesion. If Dunbar is right, Virgil and Theocritus were on to something when they made their shepherds use poetry as a grooming tool and music as a means of keeping their flocks together. Plato applied the same pastoral insight to the grooming of citizens. If the herdsman is "the master of the music best suited to his herd," so the agora culture of the polis perfected the music best suited to the human flock that constitutes the community.

Arguably, modern technology is to blame for much of the difficulty that conservatives have in promoting cultural events, because cars and electronics have spaced us out and provided in-home entertainment. Strolling to the town square for a puppet show isn't typically an option, anymore, and high-culture entertainment tends also to be high cost. There isn't the aggregate demand, that is, for average citizens to fund performances of cultural depth in a gathering place, and it ultimately proves culturally destructive — and, in any case, is morally inappropriate — for government bodies to choose content.

So, the conservative might go so far as to accept public investment in functional real estate, and perhaps a public festival here and there, but as Beran argues:

The only hope of regeneration, it seems to me, lies in experiments in civic artistry undertaken by philanthropists eager to refurbish the culture of the marketplace. One thinks of Poundbury, the little city, rich in civic focal points, that the Prince of Wales commissioned the architect Leon Krier to build in Dorset. Poundbury has attracted a good deal of attention, and it and the model towns of such "new urbanist" architects as Andres Duany and Elizabeth PlaterZyberk might conceivably inspire a broader civic movement, much as Thoreau's experiment at Walden Pond inspired the environmental movement. Most people today recognize the importance of conserving natural resources, though naturally they differ concerning the means. A time may come when people will insist as passionately on the necessity of conserving cultural resources.

Even as a private endeavor, lines are drawn in a contrary direction:

To infuse new life into the agora, conservatives will need to enlist the energies of people they long ago stopped talking to, but who will be necessary to any effort to revive the poetic-grooming side of the market square. There is a certain kind of person who, like Jude Fawley in Hardy's Jude the Obscure, fulfills his nature in the adornment of a community. When the civic focal point thrived, these artists had a place in the community and a means of getting bread. They carved the stone, frescoed the walls, painted the ceilings, gilded the domes, composed the masques and harlequinades. But the agora in which they might once have become absorbed is gone. They are today rebels without a cause, misfits who dine off grant money and alienation from the marketplace, and create art that is generally faithful to the solipsistic bleakness of their situation. A conservative philosophy of civic renewal could give them the transfiguring work they need.

I have no clever closing, here, but have identified the topic as food for further thought. It all comes back to encouraging conservative principles — and living them out. Getting involved in community events. Seeking and commissioning the wares and productions of artists. Just generally seeing the value in an aspect of social life that's easy to lose in the mad rush of the day to day.

Of course, it's plain to see that folks would be more apt to do such things were more of their resources left to them to disperse.

Oh Happy Commerce, or, "I felt like I was forcing myself on a 40+ year old fat sex slave"

Justin Katz
"Where the hell else is a middle aged man gonna hook up with a young sexy hot sex slave in real life? Like the old saying goes, we want a ***** [whore] in the bedroom but a lady in the kitchen. Just don't expect you gf [girlfriend] to be as whory as the real whores. You'll be disappointed. Even though we have plenty of sex, I still crave that AMP [Asian Spa] experience just for the fun of it, and I doubt if I'll ever get over it. So beware what you're getting into, it can be very addicting."

Thus do the patrons of Rhode Island's prostitution industry speak of their experience, as related by Melanie Shapiro in a Citizens Against Trafficking review of johns' online commentary (PDF). Note that the misogyny extends even to personal relationships.

Advocates for legalized prostitution like to present the image of a clean-cut client looking for a little release by turning to a fully self-aware young woman using the occupation as a stepping stone to build a better life. That's a fantasy. The objectification of the prostitute and the corruption of the culture is the reality.

September 16, 2009

Ignorance, Arrogance, and Deceit

Justin Katz

I suppose I lack the grounds to object to Robert Whitcomb's protestations in yesterday's Providence Journal (not online) that his experience living in France doesn't jibe with the warnings that he hears fellow Americans giving against socialized medicine:

The ignorance and dishonesty in the U.S. health-care debate are beyond belief. ...

Then there are the idiotic observations about other developed nations' health-care systems. ... In fact, there is far more red tape and bureaucracy in the American health-care "system" than in countries with universal coverage, as there is in our tax "code."

Inasmuch as Whitcomb doesn't cite any idiots in particular, one cannot address the relevance of his French experience or specific claims about red tape. (And I'll resist the temptation to make populist appeals to my fellow gauche Americans qui n'est pas comme il faut. But a logical fallacy has the same repercussions no matter the language or airplane hours logged:

Consider how some people loudly worry that their taxes will go up if the government covers more people, while never noting how much their premiums for for-profit insurance go up 7 to 10 percent a year. Would they rather pay 7 to 10 percent a year to, say, United Healthcare or 3 percent annual increases to pay for Medicare for all? Test scores often show how badly Americans do in math, b ut this innumeracy is amazing.

Whitcomb conveniently sidesteps the reality that the debate is over how to reform healthcare, not whether to do so. The dilemma is false. Obviously so. Amazingly so. And it raises questions about how much readers should consider Whitcomb's other points persuasive, lacking, as I've said, any particulars that one could address beyond Robert's own personal experiences at some unidentified time in the past with an unspecified segment of the French healthcare system.

September 11, 2009

The Moment Change Happened

Justin Katz

By coincidence, each of the past two days brought a question from somebody about my political beginnings. The answer to the when is 9/11. Practical philosophy had always been appealing to me, but it had previously followed a literary and cultural context, rather than a political one. That changed on a September morning. It wouldn't be to presumptuous to state that a majority of Americans chose a different psychological path through reality, that day, as well.

The "Let's Roll" moment may have been the first evidence of this broad, pervasive change, but it actually occurred at precisely 9:03 a.m., when the second plane hit the second tower. During the final moments of American innocence, between planes, we were all thinking that the first was some bizarre accident, maybe an expression of individual lunacy, or at most a fluke success of a small group of foreign crazies. At 9:03, we all realized that, to put it clinically, this would have to be addressed.

One could make the case that our current politics essentially reflect ripples of that moment. It's permeated and incorporated all else in the political theater, but the need to fix... that something... is the central fact. On the right, the something is ultimately the West's belief that it can construct a fantasy in which to live according to social rules that an author of children's books might contrive. It has a military and foreign affairs component, obviously, and that directly relates to immigration and cultural assimilation. Less directly, a conservative's vision of facing reality means a return to tradition and morality — at the extremity, seeing our weakness and apathy as punishment from God.

On the left, the fact to be fixed is American arrogance and greed. Behind all of the "root cause" references is a sense that an unmatched lust for power has made the United States the unprecedented superpower against which no other nation can compete. In a secular form of divine retribution, terrorism (indeed, Islamofascism as an ideology) is the fruit of American manipulation of global political and economic systems for its own benefit. A nicer, more compassionate, more deliberately just and humble society would negate hostile response.

For seven years, those leaning toward the latter camp watched President Bush do just about everything wrong, and where he did something they might otherwise see as right, they took him to be draining the visceral strength from their patented plea to their fellow men. The election of Barack Obama to the presidency wasn't a desperate attempt to return to the reality of 9/10; Clinton, or any other known quantity, would have sufficed for that. Rather, his promise of "change" was a pledge to move forward toward the cultural and governmental repair that circumstances (and cunning deceit) had prevented for the purpose of preserving the machinations of an economic elite intent on exploiting the world.

Meanwhile, President Obama's being wrong on the importance of a strong, resolved demeanor in the international realm has freed those leaning toward the rightward camp from the inadvisable and arguably calamitous prudence that W. had just about exhausted. In this presentation, the tea parties and town halls are a declaration that the millions of Americans awoken to the necessity of action by the attack eight years ago will not go back to polite submission. They see energy taxes, corporate takeovers, heavier regulations, and socialized healthcare as (probably deliberate) attempts to humble their country, and they foresee the world's aggressors vying to be the first to knock over the docile giant, place one foot upon its neck, and declare itself to be an even greater being.

Flung into motion by the one-two confirmation that something would have to be done, this back and forth will continue until some event, perhaps in the nearer than farther future, affirms the beliefs of one side or obviates the question. In the meantime, we must mourn, and our mourning must take the form of vigilance and, despite it all, unity.

September 9, 2009

When She Chooses the Scarlet Letter

Justin Katz

Oft overlooked, at the end of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, is Hester Prynne's resistance to calls for her to become a sort of feminist messiah. Having turned toward prudence, she suggests that the archetypal woman will not conquer through deviancy, but through fulfillment of her feminine character. A recent letter from Don Rittman of East Greenwich arguably touches on the theme from the other side of a poorly chosen history:

A society cannot destroy all the premises, both good and bad, that support a fundamental social norm and expect that norm to remain healthy. Responsible fatherhood had basically become such a norm. We still believe in it; we just don't believe in the things that made it possible. Neither, frankly, does Froma Harrop, not from what one sees in most of her "social-issue" writings, which are fraught with wishful thinking.

A recurring theme, in the story of mankind, is our, well, infelicity when making cultural decisions. When we presume to make calculations and radically alter policy in the name of expediency, we let our prized cattle out with the rats. By contrast, when we allow freedom to emerge as an outgrowth of intrinsic tradition, with its millennia of embedded experience, our society advances in all ways.

In the case of freeing women from the oppressive conditions into which they'd fallen as an overcompensation in humanity's learning curve, making them equal in the law and stopping there would have allowed the culture to work through the significance of the change. Instead, lunging forces within the culture pushed for too much, too quickly. Beyond freedom from a particular man or even a broader patriarchy, progressives sought to procure freedom — essentially — from being a woman.

And as happens when we dive to push tradition out the window in contravention of human nature, the consequence tends to be the opposite of what's intended. As Richard Stith writes in "Her Choice, Her Problem":

Throughout human history, children have been the consequence of natural sexual relations between men and women. Both sexes knew they were equally responsible for their children, and society had somehow to facilitate their upbringing. Even the advent of birth control did not fundamentally change this dynamic, for all forms of contraception are fallible.

Elective abortion changes everything. Abortion absolutely prevents the birth of a child. A woman’s choice for or against abortion breaks the causal link between conception and birth. It matters little what or who caused conception or whether the male insisted on having unprotected intercourse. It is she alone who finally decides whether the child comes into the world. She is the responsible one. For the first time in history, the father and the doctor and the health-insurance actuary can point a finger at her as the person who allowed an inconvenient human being to come into the world.

Predictably, the counter action will be more laws, infringing on more freedoms, and with more unimaginable, yet foreseeable, consequences.

September 6, 2009

Applying the Law, Even When Wrong

Justin Katz

Since we're already on the topics of self reliance and freedom, it's a good time to recall a Providence Journal editorial about a New Yorker who is suing everybody conceivable over his fall from Newport's Cliff Walk. The fellow left the path, apparently required more protection than his own common sense to keep him from falling, and is not embarrassed to admit publicly that he's the one-in-a-million doofus who couldn't enjoy the scenery safely.

Which is to say that I agree with the editorial writers, except where they delve into legal process:

Let's hope the state Supreme Court understands this concept: that personal responsibility has a place even in the modern world, and that others do not deserve to be punished when someone fails to use a reasonable degree of caution.

Actually, I prefer to hope that the law doesn't require the judges to find in the klutz's favor, but if it does, we should all prefer that they do so. Such circumstances would be an indication that we, the people, have wandered off the safe path along the treacherous cliff of liberty and ought regain our legislative senses. If we look to the judiciary to pass judgment on when the law, as it exist, applies, then we've created an arbitrary system governed by an oligarchy of appointees and litigation is just an expensive roll of the dice.

Toward Discourse or Direction?

Justin Katz

Aesthetically, it's hard to disagree with Arthur Blaustein's argument for the value of literature to civic health:

Novels offer genuine hope for learning how to handle our daily personal problems—and those political issues of our communities and our country—in a moral and humane way. They can help us to understand the relationship between our inner lives and the outer world, and the balance between thinking, feeling, and acting. They awaken us to the complexities and paradoxes of human life, and to the absurd presumptuousness of moral absolutism. They can give us awareness of place, time, and condition—about ourselves and about others. As our great Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner said, the best literature is far more true than any journalism.

Being an apparent progressive, however — the piece seems to have first appeared in Mother Jones — Blaustein betrays a somewhat narrow view of intellectual richness. The lamentations against shortened attention spans and the sensationalization of news are well justified, but the value of literature to the likes of Blaustein is less to deepen civic discourse than to ensure agreement before discussion has even begun:

We depend on our fiction for metaphoric news of who we are, or who we think we ought to be. The writers of today's political and social realism are doing no less than reminding us of our true, traditional American values — the hope, the promises, and the dreams. When we read these novels, we learn about who we are as individuals and as a nation. They inform us, as no other medium does, about the state of our national politics and character—of the difference between what we say we are and how we actually behave. They offer us crucial insights into the moral, social, and emotional conflicts that are taking place in communities across America.

A novel necessarily restricts circumstances to suit the theme, and although doing so draws out Faulkner's truth truer than facts, it sets aside other applicable truths that muddy judgment. Blaustein notes that novels "give us awareness of place, time, and condition," but they are conditions of the author's choosing and construction, and from an ideological, strategic standpoint, controlling publication and promotion thereby controls readers' sense of reality.

Personally, I take the supposed coarsening of civic dialogue to be an indication of growing pains more than decline. The Internet has given society the tools to keep up with the pace of cable news — to pluck stories of interest from the constant stream and debate their significance. Twitter's a step too far, but blogs also offer a remedy to the magnification of non-news. With a handful of networks (whether on the classic channels, cable, or satellite) and print publications controlling the spigot, it was easy for splashy, yet insignificant, news to drown out all else; with the current multiplicity of outlets, it is possible for the public to look around the celebrity controversies and see the policy events that would formerly have been obscured behind them.

Govern or Be Governed

Justin Katz

Returning home from the Johnston, a couple of weeks ago, I floated along in the fast lane of 195, my mind flitting through political thoughts, and it took me a moment to register the fact that traffic in both of the other lanes had come to a crawl. A sign explained the reason: "Left two lanes closed ahead." Per highway etiquette, I pulled into the first opening available. Let's just say that my action was unique among those in the lane that was actually moving.

After a dozen or so cars flew by, I pulled my work van back into the fast lane but kept pace with the slow-moving space that I had just occupied. The two truckers between whom that space had been saw what I was doing, and the one behind maintained my opening while the one ahead modified his speed to that of slowest lane. The mile or so between us and the actual merge cleared like the upper cell of an hourglass, and the traffic began to move at a tolerable pace. As we approached the merge, the cars that I'd blocked alternated politely into traffic, and I like to think that the newly established pattern held at least for a little while.

It occurred to me that those whose advantage I'd squashed may have resented the presumption, but if we individual representatives of society step forward for small and large corrections, it is indeed possible to exist without government officials dictating and directing, waving flags to corral us into functional routines. Two news stories came to mind, the first out of Westport:

The homeowner... found the suspects in his house when he returned from running errands at about 3:50 p.m., police said. When the suspects ran out of the house, he chased after them. When two construction workers drove by, he flagged them down and they joined the chase, police spokesman Detective Jeff Majewski said.

One of the suspects, running with a pillowcase full of jewelry, handed the goods over to one of the construction workers and continued running, Majewski said. Officers, including the Dartmouth K-9 unit and Westport harbormaster, conducted a "massive search" in the area for a few hours before finding [Gerald] Thorpe, he said.

The mugshot of Mr. Thorpe that accompanies a Sakonnet Times editorial on the topic shows a man surprised and confused, cut and dirty, not yet suffering from the poison ivy through which he'd crawled. As the editors wrote:

Police don't normally recommend that citizens pursue bad guys (things might not have ended so happily had one of these men been armed). But in an age when people supposedly no longer get involved (fear of lawsuits and the like), the response this time was nice to see.

A thematically similar story from Seattle didn't end well for the indignant citizen, although not in the way one might expect:

A plucky teller foiled a robbery attempt at Key Bank in Seattle. But the story does not end happily. When a small man in a beanie cap, dark clothing, and sunglasses pushed a backpack across the counter and announced, "This is a ransom. Fill the bag with money," teller Jim Nicholson ignored his training and "instinct took over." He lunged across the counter and attempted to grab the thief by the throat, or at least to pull his glasses off. The nonplussed would-be robber bolted for the door with Nicholson on his heels. A couple of blocks away, with the help of others, Nicholson tackled the guy and held him until police arrived.

Two days later, Key Bank got in touch with Nicholson. A bonus, perhaps? A commendation? Not quite. He was fired. It seems he had violated the bank's strict policy that tellers should always comply with robber demands. A Key Bank spokesman has not returned a call asking for comment.

A private company can set its own policies, of course, but it's an insidious tendency of modern society to discourage folks from acting on their freedom to stand for principle, to take risks that establish social expectations and proclaim an unwillingness to be victimized.

September 1, 2009

The End of Cultural Literacy

Justin Katz

The New York Times article doesn't claim a trend, instead following the efforts of a single teacher, Lorrie McNeill, with a class of gifted students, but one can be sure that the positive article in the publication formerly known as "the newspaper of record" will encourage more teachers to follow her lead. What McNeill has done is to jettison a classroom reading list, instead letting students choose their own books, with a gentle "prodding" to "a higher level."

The deceptive success of the program has been in increased interest in reading and achievement on a standardized test, but one could argue that the uptick highlights nothing so much as the low performance of students previously:

Of her 18 eighth graders, 15 exceeded requirements, scoring in the highest bracket. When the same students had been in her seventh-grade class, only 4 had reached that level. Of her 13 current seventh graders, 8 scored at the top.

If these are gifted students, they ought to be passing these tests handily; one shudders to think how lower-level students are doing. An education system that must dumb down assignments and ignore its mandate to develop a shared literacy in order to achieve positive results in mechanics is failing its students by any definition, and an attempt at finding social redemption strikes me as starry-eyed:

In the method familiar to generations of students, an entire class reads a novel — often a classic — together to draw out the themes and study literary craft. That tradition, proponents say, builds a shared literary culture among students, exposes all readers to works of quality and complexity and is the best way to prepare students for standardized tests.

But fans of the reading workshop say that assigning books leaves many children bored or unable to understand the texts. Letting students choose their own books, they say, can help to build a lifelong love of reading. ...

... literacy specialists also say that instilling a habit is as important as creating a shared canon. "If what we're trying to get to is, everybody has read 'Ethan Frome' and Henry James and Shakespeare, then the challenge for the teacher is how do you make that stuff accessible and interesting enough that kids will stick with it," said Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. "But if the goal is, how do you make kids lifelong readers, then it seems to me that there's a lot to be said for the choice approach. As adults, as good readers, we don't all read the same thing, and we revel in our idiosyncrasies as adult readers, so kids should have some of the same freedom."

Will the fact that more students allow themselves to be motivated by choose-your-own-adventure reading assignments mean that they'll choose reading over other candidates for their attention in the future? I'm skeptical. As I argued recently regarding summer lists, books' unique attraction is their evocation of substance, profundity, and achievement. If gifted students already in eighth grade are still not past the point of picking books that are essentially cartoons in sentences, they've precious little time to reach the vista at which one sees the literary canon imparting meaning to life.

And that brings us back to the fact that they'll have little experience plumbing a common meaning conveyed in classics. Frankly, I can't help but think of a lecture from the '80s by former Soviet propagandist Yuri Bezmenov about Communists' strategy of subversion as warfare. Explaining the components of the first stage of subversion, demoralization, Bezmenov touches on education:

Distract them from learning something which is constructive, pragmatic, efficient. Instead of mathematics, physics, foreign languages, chemistry, teach them history of urban warfare, natural food, home economy, your sexuality — anything, as long as it takes you away.

Although Bezmenov doesn't mention it in his brief explanation, cultural literacy is a critical component to social cohesion and a national sense of purpose. Left to their own devices, young Americans will isolate themselves in limited communities of interest and ideology; many will simply remain functionally illiterate. In this context, it's significant to note that the "reading workshop" method appears — once again — to further the trend of locking boys out of educational "progress":

To Ms. McNeill's chagrin, several students, most of them boys, stubbornly refused to read more challenging fare. One afternoon this spring she pulled her stool next to Masai, an eighth grader who wore a sparkling stud in one ear, as he stared at a laptop screen on which he was supposed to be composing a book review. Beside him sat the second volume in the "Maximum Ride" series, which chronicles the adventures of genetically mutated children who are part human, part bird. He was struggling to find anything to write.

Foreign government agents may not be behind these social movements — indeed, Bezmenov likens subversion to the martial arts technique of helping your opponent to knock himself off balance — but a generation or two of dumb, demoralized men and slightly less dumb, self-esteem-inflated women all disconnected from each other and from the culture into which they were born will spell destruction as clearly as would a successful invasion.

August 31, 2009

Self Interested Members of Unions and Taxpayer Groups

Justin Katz

I'll be the first to acknowledge the prominence of self interest in the development and ascendance of local taxpayer groups. Members take up political arms, as it were, for a variety of reasons, and often those reasons are decidedly materialistic in nature. Therewith comes the sliver of truth to Phil's cartoonish characterization of the simmering conflict in multiple Rhode Island communities:

Individual union members are taxpayers and voters. They like all the rest of us act out of self interest. It is in their self interest to join the workplace union and be represented by professionals. Too bad this choice is not nearly as available in the private sector. They like the rest of us have the right to try to effect the policies of their government. They also have the right to effect the policies of their unions through democratic means as David writes, something that is not available to private sector workers unless they belong to a union or an association. Most of these public sector workers will work in their communities for 30 or more years. They will see politicians come and go. Teachers particularly will see administrators come and go. They will see many school committee people come and go. Also they will see the taxpayer groups that form and make their noise come and go. But through that time they will stay and continue to do the essential work in those communities. That and their selflessness in joining together as a group will sustain them and their respective communities. Not so with the taxpayer groups. As you mention, Justin, when times are bad, people pay more attention to their local government. That's not a bad thing at all, but do not try to equate that with the longtime commitment to a community of the teacher or other public sector worker. Formed out of anger and selfishness these taxpayer groups fall apart after a short time. It's hard to keep people worked up and angry enough to overcome their basic selfishness. They stay involved for a while and then move back to more comfortable pursuits or to things that meet their self interest more directly. Most people would rather be with their families than sitting in overheated rooms being bored to tears or trying to manufacture outrage that amounts to pettiness. How could anyone keep doing that for thirty years?

In this picture, the unions are sustained by their selfless devotion to each other and to the community, while taxpayer groups appear in a flash of anger and then dissipate, leaving no trace. The intricacies of human relationships between people of differing personalities, goals, and interests seems not to enter Phil's design.

Whatever the motivation for their formation, taxpayer groups pull together residents who share certain principles and worldviews, and not surprisingly, find themselves forming lasting friendships. Meanwhile, they learn the ropes of local politics and policies, and some percentage continue their civic involvement ever after. Such groups also build structures, from PACs to transparency mechanisms that a handful of them, at least, will think it worth the minimal effort to maintain. In short, pretty much for the lifetimes of those involved, the public eye will remain more open than it was.

But sure, I'll acknowledge that an improved economy and achievement of some threshold of repair to the damaged governing system will drain fuel from the political machine that makes such groups a force to be reckoned with. There is a need to fulfill, in a local society, and these groups arise to address it, and the time and effort involved act as a mechanism for defusing them when they are no longer needed.

That, in essence, is the problem with public sector unions. A union, by its nature, pushes for the benefits of its members, and when workers are oppressed and individually powerless, the society pulls them together in an organized way to address the problem. There is no mechanism, however, to cause them to dissipate or hibernate when their purpose has been served. If a union were to shift gears to neutral because the circumstances of its workers had achieved an equilibrium of comfort and occupational demand, the workers would soon do away with the costly advocacy structure. So, the unions keep the push going, so that they can convince their members of their value.

The community suffers, because the unions demand increasing percentages of local resources. They become, indeed, the focus of local government, and avarice sets in. Even in a short time of observation, I've seen too many union decisions favoring raises at the cost of young teachers' jobs to buy the selflessness argument. Moreover, anybody who's compared public-sector and private-sector jobs in Rhode Island can't but laugh at the notion that those in the public sector stick around for thirty years out of a sense of altruism and community.

August 24, 2009

An Attack on Legal Representation

Justin Katz

I hadn't heard of this (or don't remember having heard of it) before reading Maggie Gallagher's recent summary of the battle over same-sex marriage:

When word spread at Harvard Law School last month that one of the most successful recruiters of its graduates, Ropes & Gray, was helping Catholic Charities explore ways to prevent same-sex couples from adopting children, gay and lesbian students wanted to stop the law firm it its tracks. ...

Two weeks ago, Ropes said it would no longer do legal work to assist the bishops in their efforts to stop gay adoptions, and last week Catholic Charities said it would end its adoption program because it could not reconcile church doctrine, which holds that gay adoptions are "gravely immoral," with state antidiscrimination laws.

Unless I'm missing something, it would be more accurate to say that Catholic Charities wanted help avoiding same-sex adoptions, for its own operations, not preventing other groups from allowing them. That's not a small distinction.

Readers may find some relief in the fact that, according to the first link (from which I drew the blockquote), the young future lawyers had some qualms about bullying a lawfirm from serving a client, but as with much else, the gay agenda trumps.

August 18, 2009

Ending a Long History, I Guess

Justin Katz

Here's a bizarre explanation for Blount Fine Foods' pulling sponsorship from the traditional marriage event on Sunday:

Corporate philanthropy and good citizenship has been part of Blount's mission since inception. In keeping with that, we have a long track record of donating Blount-brand chowder and other products to all non-profits in our home area that request it for events. These donations of soup are just simple gestures of goodwill and were certainly not intended to be interpreted otherwise. It's very concerning to us that anyone would think otherwise and as a result, we are reviewing our policy going forward.

Additionally, Blount notified the organizers of the Rhode Island event in question that the company would not be providing a donation, soup or otherwise.

A long history of goodwill... until same-sex marriage activists insist that there is no social sphere free of their politics. This speaks to a long-running cognitive dissonance behind positioning of SSM as a live-and-let-live movement. This gay activist (astonishingly the only "news" result for a Google search for "Maggie Gallagher Rhode Island) expresses scorn that Rhode Island is the only state "in the northeast that will tolerate these folks."

Yup, can't tolerate those traditionalists and Christians who gather together to listen to music, have a meal, and renew marriage vows. Rout us out. Lock us up until we swear to conversion.

August 16, 2009

NOM Marriage Picnic

Justin Katz

Conservatives in this state must share a certain apprehension as they drive to ideologically tinted events — hoping that somebody shows up, but not the wrong people, and maybe it'll be an indication of our powerlessness, but what if we have to prove ourselves in front of a one-time crowd... Well, tea parties aside, the traditional marriage event that National Organization for Marriage Rhode Island is hosting at Aldrich Mansion in Warwick is definitely among the best attended right-leaning events that I've attended thus far. In fact, I may have to allocate some Anchor Rising resources to pay a parking ticket, since I'm not sure the line of cars down the street is actually legal:

And talk about gemstone corners of Rhode Island:

From where I sit on the stairs overlooking the lawn and the bay, I think I'm looking directly at the hill down which I walked my dog countless times and marveled at the view though I had no idea what I was looking at. How can Rhode Island encompass Rhode Island? [I apologize if that thought seems scattered, but I was interrupted midsentence by somebody who wanted to impress his young charges with the fact that I speak regularly with Matt Allen... certainly not an interruption that I minded!]

Whatever else this event proves, a major takeaway is just how abstract and intellectual is the argument that "fiscal conservatives" and libertarians can jettison us social conservatives. Attendance aside, this is by far the most diverse crowd that I've seen at any conservative event. You want hope shaking the opposition to its core? Come to an event like this.

I wonder if that explains some of the disgusting vitriol that social and religious conservatives attract from progressives...


Here's NOM-RI Executive Director Chris Plante:

And NOM President Maggie Gallagher:

And to be fair and balanced, here's the protest out on the street just after Gallagher's speech:


I don't agree with everything that the speaker who initiated the marriage vow renewal section of the program said. He ends the following clip, for example, thus:

You have not defined marriage, you have not shaped marriage, and you have not set its boundaries in place; rather, marriage has defined you. It has shaped you, and it has set boundaries in goodly places. And so it should be. We all choose to submit to marriage and should never seek to have marriage submit to us.

In terms of the functioning of marriage, as an institution, married couples do indeed define and shape the institution, which is why society must encourage them to respect the boundaries that it imposes. Put differently, it is because our own relationships define marriage that we must submit to it.

But minute disputes aside, hearing this speaker (especially in the context of the day) contributes to the sense that there's something peculiar about protesting such an event:

There were children running around with their faces panted. There were bouncy houses. The bulk of the performances weren't political, but musical. If right-wingers were to protest a similar gay family day organized by a group that advocates for same-sex marriage on a lazy summer Sunday, they'd rightly be lumped in with the Phelps family, but on the left, the impulse to protest — to frighten away attendees concerned with what their children might witness — is mainstream.

The small group of protesters who showed up, however, did evoke the tragedy of the issue. For the most part, they only wish to be accepted, to live their lives in as close an accord as possible to the ideals that the culture had put forward to them, but their ordering inclines incompatibly. Their predicament (meant neutrally) is one through which our culture has only recently begun to wend its rules, and understandably, they wish for it to bend as they desire.

Marriage is what it is, though, and it would be to universal detriment to divorce it from the principle that men and women are uniquely compatible with each other in ways of breadth and depth that no other relationship to similitude.


One absence that didn't strike me until I was getting ready to leave was that of politicians. The only candidate or current elected official whom I saw was Will Grapentine, and he's more ubiquitous at conservative events than either Caprio or the governor.

August 15, 2009

A Reminder to Boomers That They're Blowin' in the Wind

Justin Katz

What better outtro could there be to the fortieth anniversary of the Summer of Love than this?

A 24-year-old police officer apparently was unaware of who Dylan is and asked him for identification, Long Branch business administrator Howard Woolley said Friday.

"I don't think she was familiar with his entire body of work," Woolley said.

The incident began at 5 p.m. when a resident said a man was wandering around a low-income, predominantly minority neighborhood several blocks from the oceanfront looking at houses.

The police officer drove up to Dylan, who was wearing a blue jacket, and asked him his name. According to Woolley, the following exchange ensued:

"What is your name, sir?" the officer asked.

"Bob Dylan," Dylan said.

"OK, what are you doing here?" the officer asked.

"I'm on tour," the singer replied.

It's nice to see history putting the romanticized era of the Baby Boomers' youth in perspective. It'll be nicer, some day, to see the culture recover from their corrosion and the government from their presumptuousness.