Saturday, December 29, 2007

George Washington: An American Legend with an RPG

Wandering through Denver's "LoDo" section last night, I walked by the Sloane Gallery of Art. The art in the window display, part of a Russian artists exhibit, arrested me where I stood. The most remarkable piece:

Any man whose heart does not leap upon seeing George Washington astride a Roc-sized bald eagle as he wields an RPG is either dead or un-American. Stephen Colbert needs this kind of imagery in the Colbert Report's opening credits.

The surrealism increases:

What rough beast, its hour come 'round at last, wriggles in the arms of the Father of the Country?

This scene reminds us that Washington is one of the few presidents to have killed another man in close-quarters combat. George should play hurly-burly with the head of Hitler. Stalin's noggin should be mounted above the gates of the White House.

V.I. Lenin wearing Washington's mask. A subtle comment on the Trotskyite roots of pompously patriotic neo-conservatives? An intimation that the monetary system is communist plot? Nah, it's just a creepy portrait.

I don't think Americans could produce so extreme a parody of monumental art, though they certainly can commission it. Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid developed these paintings for the 1998 opera Naked Revolution. The artists' home page links to more photos from the opera. Local coverage of the art collection, whose owner lives in Denver, is found in the Rocky Mountain News and in Westword.

Denver GOP drives pro-lifer to Democrats

John Wren is one of the most civic-minded men I've ever met. A devotee of Ben Franklin, he has endeavored to recreate Franklin's circles for networking and idea-sharing across the Denver metro area. He is a booster of the Socrates Cafe, which tries to bring philosophical discussions out of the academy and into the lives of ordinary laymen. Wren's support for the party caucus system is second-to-none, and he helped spearhead a campaign to keep it running. His enthusiasm has filled my e-mail box with the numerous bulletins he sends out to his considerable mailing list as he constantly recruits his contacts to become involved in their community.

Wren was also one of the nicest local Republicans I know. A former president of the state College Republicans, he has been quite active in the party for three decades. He played the sacrificial lamb in a state legislature race for a Democrat-dominated Denver district only a few years ago.

So Wren's announcement that he has become a Democrat was quite a surprise to me. In his own words:
The final blows were: 1) A note I got from a Denver Republican volunteer telling me that if I was prolife, they wouldn’t help me as a precinct committee person, making concrete the underlying current in the Denver GOP; 2) I was sensitive to this issue ever since I’d had no cooperation from a former Republican district captain because of the same issue; and 3) Finally, when Denver GOP leaders were so forceful about their support of pro-death candidate Rudi Giuliani. It became clear it was time for me to leave.

The incongruity between the opinions of local party leaders and the policies of their state and national parties very easily goes unnoticed, especially if one only reads partisan periodicals. Wren's impressions of the city GOP remind me of similar tensions I've seen within the Jeffco GOP even after only minimal attention, as when a local Republican, on pro-choice grounds, endorsed in a television commercial a Democratic U.S. Representative candidate.

John Wren says "what makes the most sense politically is to join the majority party in your county if you are interested in helping improve local government." That kind of localism is admirable, and it usually is overshadowed by state or national disputes. I wish him the best of luck in his new party.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas!

The bitter taste of that last post will, I hope, be washed by the joy of the Christmas season.

Do not click till X-mas.

Also see Christmas in the Trenches, a tearful song about the Christmas Truce of WWI.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

"You Christians brought this on yourselves!"

Another murderous mass killing in Colorado. Another aftershock of the massacre at Columbine High School.

The first shootings were less than three miles from my home.

The locked doors announced by this sign inconvenienced me as I tried to stock my parish basement with some empty boxes for food distribution. I suppose we Christians brought that inconvenience upon ourselves.

But, to say the least, my inconvenience pales in comparison to what others lost. Four young people, ranging in age from 16 to 26, were murdered by 24-year-old Matthew Murray, who had been nursing a grudge against Pentecostalism and Christianity for years.

Here's a touching excerpt from a eulogy given by a friend of 16-year-old victim Rachel Works:
Four close friends of Stephanie's and Rachel's also spoke, though it was Aimee Donahue who evoked the most emotion.

Dressed in black - even her fingernails were painted black -- Donahue was supposed to see Rachel this week. Donahue lives in Virginia and the two have been close friends for two years.

She lamented the moment she got the news her friend had been shot and killed, saying she "cried for 13 hours." She said they both loved The Lord of the Rings and called each other Sam and Frodo - the duo of protagonists from the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy.

"I think what hurts the most is that all I think about is the things she'll never get to do, but I can do," Donahue said. "Why did I live and she die?"

And then she referenced the end of the The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo leaves Sam behind and tells his best friend to complete the story he began to write.

"There are still some pages left for you, Sam. Your story will go on," Donahue said. "So, I have to finish my pages - maybe some of hers too - because my story is still going on whether I like it or not."

People are calling Works' murderer crazy, citing an incident where he claimed to be hearing voices:
One night Werner was awakened by Murray's chattering and complained: "Hey, Matt can you just stop that. What are you doing?

"He just turned and said, 'Dude, I'm just talking to my voices,'" Werner recalled.

"Richard ... you don't have to worry," Murray reassured him. "You're a nice guy. The voices like you."

Werner would go on to say: "We didn't know if he was being serious about it or he was just messing with everybody's head." I have to doubt insanity in this case. Though filtered through one man's memory, this incident sounds far too polished. It's like a deliberately creepy line one would hear in a B-movie. That is to say: it's just what a young unoriginal outsider would say to scare a roommate.

In contrast to the Works and Donahue girls' playful imitation of noble Frodo and loyal Sam, the news reports that Murray would imitate the wretched Smeagol/Gollum. Perhaps we do become what we pretend to be.

Our culture often has great difficulty interpreting violent malevolence. We are quick to place it in the "crazy" category, even if there are no clear signs of psychosis in its perpetrators. This is in part an understandable move: there are never good reasons for killing innocent people. From this premise, we say that therefore murderers lack reasons for their action, therefore they are insane.

Yet this confuses mental insanity with spiritual insanity--that is, sin. Though we talk a lot about freedom of choice, we sometimes imagine that the willing choice of an evil deed is impossible.

Armchair character analysis is always risky, of course. But there is certainly a type of person that fetishizes violent insanity, one that looks at Gollum as a figure not to be pitied but emulated. Murray seemed to have enjoyed the aesthetics of chaos and brokenness. Why else would he have made an ironic performance of Marilyn Manson and Linkin Park at a Christian Christmas party? Why else would he have gone on at great lengths about the depths of his despair? Why did he laboriously blame his strict upbringing for ruining his life?

This stylized approach to life, with its pretensions to psychoanalysis and its choice allusions to music and movies, could be used to the good. But these killers reference not revelatory artworks or the words of heroes but each others' fevered hate-riven writings. Murray himself quoted the writings of Eric Harris, the lead murderer at Columbine, as if he were Murray's prophet of doom, a devilish mock-Isaiah.

While it would be ideal if we could erase all memory of these killers from popular culture, that is not going to happen.

These young killers do have parents who loved them very much, and speaking ill even of those wickedly dead should be tempered for their families' sake. But in a world where public figures are attacked for every minor gaffe, a murderer deserves similar outrage.

Murray was a child of the internet era. His last bloodthirsty words, titling this post, were meant for public consumption. He's a ripe target for flaming.

These murderers require unapologetic attacks unforgiving of their motives, irreverent towards their self-importance, and contemptuous of their violence. I proceed in that spirit.

Judging from what is reported in the press, Matthew Murray was a thin-skinned, self-pitying megalomaniac who wrote horrible poetry about how screwed up he thought his life was. The quality of his poetry and his themes can be summed up in a tremulous doggerel: Oh, what a fragile and noble soul,/suffering from so many forces beyond his control!

Murray wanted to be bisexual, but no woman would have him. (For some ludicrous reason, some gay activists are eager to claim this mass murderer as one of their own.) The Mormons baptized Murray, though he left them after two weeks. He couldn't even get the Satanists to approve him: his standards were that low.

The 25-year-old Murray quoted the writings of Columbine murderer Eric Harris, an eighteen-year-old possessed of neither talent nor insight. Ever the victim, in a subtle, original, and proportionate simile Murray compared his strict upbringing to a police state regimen. Christianity and his parents had caused all his problems. To him, his pains were the greatest of all. He was more sinned against than sinning.

In his writings, the real victim is obvious. The deaths of those four young strangers are peripheral.

[They were also peripheral to anyone who was eager to score a quick debating point in the first days after the shootings. Conservatives tried to blame secularism, atheism, and Islam(at first the killer was reportedly wearing a "skullcap"). Liberals tried to blame the easy availability of guns. Rank opportunists, before the victims were even identified, disgustingly blamed Christianity, New Life Church, Youth With a Mission, and the putative homophobia found therein. Sometimes they sided with the murderer in his own hate-ridden self-justifications. Some blog comments were a hideous reminder that every bloody internet story with national attention will attract the worst people: those incapable of grieving for the innocent.]

Murderers like Murray, not to mention their sympathizers, deserve mockery and ridicule. They merit no glamorous re-tellings of their story in film, song, or video game.

A mass-murderer should be malignantly caricatured in a dark comedy about his failed attack on a school or church. His utterly baseless motivations should be obvious and unsympathetically derided. The perpetrator should act obnoxiously to well-meaning people and then complain that nobody likes him. The character should take inspiration from Eric Harris, who ranted against the mentally retarded in his notebooks. Imagine a would-be shooter, convinced of his own greatness and intelligence, enviously resenting a Down's Syndrome teen for being his social better and moral superior.

This kind of deprecatory art would illustrate the revolting bile that leads a man to inflict his despair upon the undeserving. It would serve the social function of challenging potentially violent aesthetes on their own ground.

There are many professions of forgiveness from Murray's victims and their families, and I do not question their authenticity. Speaking for myself, I am good at excusing and minimizing genuine crimes. I can pretend to "explain" them. I am truly bad at actually forgiving the criminals who perpetrate such enormities. To forgive the kinds of characters I have intuited and imagined here requires more virtue than I yet possess. When I invoke the Prince of Peace this holiday season, I hope the purity of heart to forgive a clear-minded murderer will be my Christmas gift.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Illiterate Poetry

Aleksandr R. Luria, a Soviet psychologist, published a study based on interviews conducted in the nineteen-thirties with illiterate and newly literate peasants in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Luria found that illiterates had a “graphic-functional” way of thinking that seemed to vanish as they were schooled. In naming colors, for example, literate people said “dark blue” or “light yellow,” but illiterates used metaphorical names like “liver,” “peach,” “decayed teeth,” and “cotton in bloom.”
Twilight of the Books

This suggests a thought exercise: shun abstractions in one's descriptions of color and use metaphorical descriptions to the point of abuse.

The article, which theorizes how a visual culture differs from a literate one, also touches on the work of Walter Ong, SJ.

Another provocative excerpt:
Whereas literates can rotate concepts in their minds abstractly, orals embed their thoughts in stories. According to Ong, the best way to preserve ideas in the absence of writing is to "think memorable thoughts," whose zing insures their transmission. In an oral culture, cliché and stereotype are valued, as accumulations of wisdom, and analysis is frowned upon, for putting those accumulations at risk. There's no such concept as plagiarism, and redundancy is an asset that helps an audience follow a complex argument. Opponents in struggle are more memorable than calm and abstract investigations, so bards revel in name-calling and in "enthusiastic description of physical violence." Since there's no way to erase a mistake invisibly, as one may in writing, speakers tend not to correct themselves at all. Words have their present meanings but no older ones, and if the past seems to tell a story with values different from current ones, it is either forgotten or silently adjusted. As the scholars Jack Goody and Ian Watt observed, it is only in a literate culture that the past's inconsistencies have to be accounted for, a process that encourages skepticism and forces history to diverge from myth.

Writers could react to this conclusion in a fit of Romanticist primitivism and aim to swamp cool reason with the most tempestuous of imagery. A more productive reaction would be to create a synthesis between the poetic and the analytic, a synthesis that could survive YouTube-ification.

Picking Up the Pieces

Children of illegal aliens deported by recent immigration raids are being reunited with their parents only with great difficulty, at private expense:

Eight-month-old Christian Daniel Ortiz will be in his mother’s arms again for Christmas.

He’s a ray of hope in light of the many families separated by recent immigration raids who can’t say the same for their children.

“I know that there are at least 15 to 20 families in Greeley that had children separated from them in similar cases,” said Sister Molly Muñoz, C.H.M., who worked with local English teacher Pablo Castellanos and Denver Spanish radio station (La Buena ONDA) KNRV 1150-AM to reunite the infant with his mother this holiday season.


United States-born Ortiz was flown on Dec. 6 — the feast of St. Nicholas — to his mother in El Salvador, who was arrested in Rifle five months ago in an immigration raid.


After her July arrest, Anna Delme, 26, was held in a detention center for three months where she was not able to have contact with her son, whom she had been breastfeeding, Sister Muñoz said.
Denver Catholic Register

This looks like a significant lapse in government policy. If the ICE swoops in and ships parents thousands of miles away from their kids, they shouldn't just dump the poor semi-orphans on the local community. The children of convicted felons would receive better treatment.

I can't find any trace of this story in the local Anglophone papers.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Let there be sung Non nobis and Te deum

This day, December 17, will always be special to me. My unexpected healing one year ago certainly did not propel me to full health straight away. But aside from a few aftershocks to my bodily systems, the past year has been marvelous.

Perhaps this next year will fulfill all the hopes I again began to harbor one year ago today. Dum spiro, spero.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Democrats are Blue, Because Pro-lifers are Exiled

I thought I already knew what happened to Governor Casey.

The outline is bad enough. The governor who had won his state in 1990 by an astounding 66 percent of the vote was forbidden by his own party leadership from addressing the convention because of his pro-life views.

The rebuke is infamous among Catholics. Bill Galston noticed as much while discussing religion and the Democratic Party: "I cannot manage to find a Catholic intellectual who will not in conversation refer to what happened to Bob Casey at the 1992 Democratic convention."

But the details of the Casey insult are agonizing to read.

Casey described the rejection letter the DNC sent in response to his request for floor time as "the kind of letter they might have sent Lyndon LaRouche, had he asked to address the convention." One of the guests on the convention platform was Kathy Taylor, a Republican pro-choice activist who had campaigned for Casey's opponent in the gubernatorial race.

The governor described his place at the convention:
And so from my seat in the outer reaches of the Garden, I watched a pro-choice Republican supporter of my pro-choice Republican opponent, whom I had defeated by a million votes to be re-elected as Democratic governor, proudly proclaiming her allegiance to the pro-choice forces.

In his latest book Mark Stricherz provides the exemplar of Casey's humiliation. "On the convention floor was Karen Ritter, a state Democratic legislator, selling large buttons with pictures of Casey dressed up as the Pope."

How did the Democrats, who were once denounced for being the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion," reach a point where an activist on the convention floor could confidently, if unconsciously, echo the propaganda of the Know-nothings and the Klan?

Stricherz answers the question well in his book Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party.

In Stricherz's telling, the old party bosses who dominated the party from the New Deal through the 1960s selected candidates with an eye towards practical success. A winning candidate on the national level could bring home the bacon for the bosses' working class constituents. Ideological concerns were minimal. Though the corruption of Daley and Curley is legendary, bosses could act quite justly. Pittsburgh's David Lawrence, for instance, helped push through civil rights reforms.

These bosses were overwhelmingly Catholic and patrons of blue-collar workers.

Though often democratic in outcome, the boss system was undemocratic in process. Realizing the need to create a more responsive party leadership, the ethnic bosses and other party leaders agreed to reform the party delegate system. In 1968.

That was a bad time to rewrite the rules for selecting delegates. Young anti-war activists, fearing for their lives, made sure their partisans were on the selection committee.

Enter the McGovern Commission. Though only racial discrimination was a problem in Democratic caucuses, the commission instituted quotas based on race, youth, and sex.(This explains the Democrats' continuing affinity for quotas)

Young female delegates were, with good reason, presumed to be more anti-war. The feminists, whose loyalty then could have swayed to the Republicans, were well-organized enough to exploit the quotas and install their delegates. (Stricherz explains the specifics here)

The only other demographic that was poised to benefit from the change was the secular college-educated liberal. Their numbers and goals significantly overlapped with the feminists. Their opponents easily tarred them as partisans of Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion. As their shared cultural liberalism became more prominent, the loyalty of more conventional Democratic voters waned.

One passage particularly shows the transition:
The differences between the leaders of the McGovern Commission and those in charge of the Chicago convention were stark. In 1968, the chairman o fthe DNC(John Bailey), the chairman of the Platform Committee(Rep. Hale Boggs), the chairman of the Credentials Committee(Gov Richard Hughes of New Jersey) and the kingmaker at the convention(Mayor Daley of Chicago) were all Roman Catholic; were professional politicians; were based either in the big cities or in state houses; and had a cross-racial, Catholic, and working-class constituency. In 1969, the chairman of the commission(McGovern), the general counsel to the commission(Segal), the chief of communication consultants(Wexler), the director of research(Bode), and the most active commissioner(Dutton) were all either mainline Protestants or non-Orthodox Jews; were predominantly activists or political aides; were based in the universities; and had a largely suburban, upper-class, white constiutency. The leadership of the party was about to change. ( p. 92)

What Catholics remained in the party leadership had sworn servility to the pro-choice party line, and contemporary rising stars must follow their lead. Even the token pro-lifers Bob Casey, Jr. and Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, have been easily domesticated and compromised by the Democratic establishment, who are even more cynical in their token appeals to social conservatism than the Republicans are. If one is willing to be compromised, staying Democrat still looks good to many Catholics. Such candidates even pick up the votes of nice old little ladies who think that because they go to Mass, they must be a pro-life Democrat.

Why the Democrats are Blue can teach one a lot about politics. The tale of the McGovern Commission is a perfect example of how the pragmatic, broad aims of an establishment prove vulnerable to the concerted efforts of a well-organized ideological faction. As Stricherz says,
...socially conservative Democrats had failed to mount an effective effort. Nellie Gray, a delegate for pro-life Democratic presidential candidate Eileen McCormack, suggested that her side suffered from a dearth of lobbyists: “In those days, all of us in the pro-life movement were active in three or four things at the same time.”

Further, Stricherz's study finally explains why blue-collar concerns have taken a back-seat along with the Catholics: the unions themselves were the Catholic vote, and the marginalization of Catholics was, in effect, the marginalizing of labor leaders.

Stricherz suggests that since the Democrats have lost their elections since shunning the Catholics from leadership, simply reversing that trend would help the Democrats win elections and restore pro-life concerns to the party.

Maddeningly, he never expands this argument in necessary detail. Stricherz, I think, needs to attack the specific claims of Fred Dutton, who worked on a 1968 Democrat commission examining the party structure. Dutton justified changes in the system by claiming the old demographics were shifting. He wrote:
But the traditional blue-collar base, while still very substantial politically, is disappearing over the long run by losing most of its children to a different political and social group with rising educational levels, affluence, and the greater cultural sophistication taking hold.(p. 124)

To a significant extent this evaluation seems to have borne out. Irish-Americans are now among one of the wealthiest ethnic groups in the country. Many Catholics now mouth anti-union sentiment that would have mortified their grandfathers. The collapse and sabotage of Catholic education has reduced Catholic identity and practice and has left even mass-going Catholics more indifferent to moral standards and their application to politics.

Further, it's not clear that the party's rejection of the pro-life Catholic vote has as much impact on the presidential race as Stricherz suggests. As one can tell even from the map that adorns the book's cover, most of the significantly Catholic states are still reliably Democrat. Only Ohio and perhaps Florida are, I believe, key states where the Catholic vote can swing elections.

It seems more clear that the loss of the South to the Republicans has doomed Democratic presidential campaigns. Southern governors Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have been the only Democratic candidates to have won the presidency in the post-McGovern era.

Stricherz offers several proposals for reforming the Democrats away from their pro-choice absolutism and, by implication, towards decades of dominance in presidential elections. He proposes abolishing the state party caucuses, allowing independents to vote in primaries, eliminating delegate quotas and party-appointed "super-delegates," and moving the first primary elections to the swing states.

I think the last idea is brilliant. But I think the Democrats are too committed to quotas in other areas to remove them from their own system, especially if the present leadership has benefited from such quotas.

However, I worry about Stricherz's arguments for the abolition of the state party caucus. Stricherz says that
The main problem with caucus elections is the amount of time and effort they require of voters. Those who attend caucuses have to do more than show up and vote; they have to spend at least an hour and often several hours sitting through a meeting before declaring themselves for a candidate.

Oh, the agony of political participation! Hours of boredom, once every two years!

I admit being under the influence of John Wren, a tireless advocate of the caucus system. To abolish the caucuses would be to abolish one of the last remnants of localist neighborhood politics.

Another of Stricherz's arguments against the caucus system is that caucus meetings are disproportionately attended by activists. But if the caucuses favor organized partisans, why can't one better organize one's own partisans instead of directing energy into changing the whole system?

Stricherz's other objections are that caucuses are held only at night, are sparsely-attended by working-class voters, and lack elections by secret ballot. Again, these seem to be problems best addressed by methods other than abolition.

These several criticisms are offered only because I think the book is quite good. Why the Democrats are Blue effectively describes how Catholics used to be a power in Democratic leadership. The book captures the limbo of the Catholic who is now exiled from the Democratic party. Stricherz tells a well-researched story of how structural party changes made by seemingly minor figures can hijack a party.

Now to hijack it back.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Hands that shed innocent blood...

The murder of two missionaries took place a five-minute drive from my Arvada home. The Youth with a Mission were leasing space from Faith Bible Chapel, the megachurch of the city.

The gunman reportedly asked for shelter for the night. I have to wonder whether his request was genuine.

It's not clear whether or how the crime is related to the other shootings at New Life Church in Colorado Springs.

The priests at Spirit of Christ Catholic Parish took care in their homilies to relate the crime to the first reading today, from Isaiah 11:
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
the calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the cobra’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.

...but not yet.

Grant rest to them, Lord. Thy kingdom come.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Shakespeare meets Neuroscience

I took this hypothesis—about grammatical or linear shapes and their mapping onto shapes inside the brain—to a scientist, Professor Neil Roberts who heads MARIARC (the Magnetic Resonance and Image Analysis Research Centre) at the University of Liverpool. In particular I mentioned to him the linguistic phenomenon in Shakespeare which is known as "functional shift" or "word class conversion". It refers to the way that Shakespeare will often use one part of speech—a noun or an adjective, say—to serve as another, often a verb, shifting its grammatical nature with minimal alteration to its shape. Thus in "Lear" for example, Edgar comparing himself to the king: "He childed as I fathered" (nouns shifted to verbs); in "Troilus and Cressida", "Kingdomed Achilles in commotion rages" (noun converted to adjective); "Othello", "To lip a wanton in a secure couch/And to suppose her chaste!"' (noun "lip" to verb; adjective "wanton" to noun).

From The Shakespeared Brain, an exploration of the neurological effects of the Bard's functional shifting.

The author, English professor Philip Davis, wanders into speculative territory:
"When the brain is asked to work at more complex meanings, the localization gives way to the movement between the two static locations.

Then the brain is working at a higher level of evolution, at an emergent consciousness paradoxically undetermined by the structures it still works from."

The scientific rigor of this statement is doubtful. It will certainly annoy anti-dualists. However, if his speculation proves reasonable, it will locate meaning in the relation of things. The relational interplay of areas of the brain prefigures the relational interplay of persons. This suggests The nuptial meaning of the mind.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Prepare for a world after Roe v. Wade

Patrick Deneen asks a good question:
Has any "pro-life" Republican President been preparing the ground for a post-Roe future, much less seeking to repair the culture of our Roe-governed present?

...the jury is still out (as it were) whether any candidate is prepared to use the bully pulpit and educative role of the Presidency to move the polity away from our half-century of libertarian self-indulgence and to urge self-governance in all its forms. Such admonishment will have to encompass not only "social" issues but "economic" issues as well, since the two are ultimately deeply and intimately connected.

Deneen thinks too many people trust in constitutional law to solve the problem of abortion. In practice this means waiting for one Supreme Court decision to do the hard work we should be doing right now.

At the same time, I don't know how people would respond to a president paternally lecturing Americans about how to put the country back on track without the aid of the federal government. Such a vision seems like it's from the Eisenhower era.

Hospitals for sale: no Catholics need apply?

A bioethics dispute is brewing in Colorado.

The Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health system is in talks to take full ownership of two non-Catholic hospitals in the Denver area, but disputes over the instatement of a Catholic code of ethics could halt the deal. CNA has a summary.

The acquisition is being challenged by both hospital staff at the two hospitals and various activists. If the Colorado Attorney General rules the acquisition would constitute a "material change of purpose" of the present hospitals, it would be prohibited.

Following an open request for input at, I wrote the following letter:

At a time when many Catholic institutions and individuals follow
Christian ethics only when it is convenient, I applaud the Sisters of
Charity for adhering to a consistent ethic as they consider expanding
to take responsibility for Exempla hospitals.

It is understandable that this code of ethics will confuse or even
anger those who don't share all of the same committments.

Regrettably, news coverage rarely lessens such confusion by explaining
the logic behind controversial ethical stances.

I am sure many do not understand certain Catholic moral concerns, such
as why vasectomies or tubal ligations should be considered unethical.
Though there isn't space for a full discussion, I'll venture my
layman's understanding of that reasoning:

Suppose there became popular an elective surgery that severed the
optical nerve for those who no longer wanted to see. We can see the
principle by which medical professionals would refuse that
"treatment." Eyesight is healthy, and not a medical problem.
Deliberately to blind someone, even at their request, is a kind of
mutilation directly contrary to the art of medicine.

In a similar way, deliberately to mar healthy reproductive organs is
not consistent with medical practice. Sterility, not fertility, is
the ailment to be treated. Medicine aims to heal rather than thwart
the natural functions of the human body, which Catholics and many
others believe to be a work of God.

Centuries of considered ethical thought has helped lead to these
controverted conclusions, and I hope the skeptical will examine that
reasoning in more detail, as explained by intelligent scholars at
places like the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Even so, some might object that a medical institution coming under
Catholic auspices has no business imposing its revised medical ethics
on its staff or patients, when those ethical principles aren't
widely-shared and seem to intrude upon individual prerogatives. But
if, to suggest an extreme example, the euthanizing of disabled
newborns(with parental consent) ever became an accepted, HMO-covered
medical procedure, I hope the principled minority would support
Catholic organizations that defy that norm and refuse accommodation.
Majority rule can't be the deciding factor in medical ethics.

The Sisters of Charity are responsible not only to God(a most
important patron), but also to their thousands of benefactors across
the years who have expected the Sisters to carry on their mission in a
manner consistent with Catholic principles and sound medical ethics.
Indeed, the principles the Sisters of Charity hold are in part
responsible for their present prominence.

If the merger goes through, millions of dollars from their endowment
will supply medical facilities that otherwise would not be available.
As a Kaiser Permanente member, that's fine by me.

Catholic ethics requires not only these presently controversial moral
stands; it also mandates care for the sick and dying. To obey that
mandate, we can all agree.


One local bioethicist Dr. Lawrence Rust really does think majority rule should be the deciding factor in medical ethics. Catholic ethics can't have the final say in Catholic-run hospitals, but it deserves a "prominent voice." How nice!

The Rocky Mountain News recently ran an article with the amusing title Catholic-run Hospitals Not New. According to New Advent, Christian hospitals have been around in some form since the fourth century.

Less amusing is the article's implication that Catholic ethics is professed, but that profession never restricts actual medical practice. Exempla CEO Jeff Selberg describes how the code of ethics works in practice:
"The language is there that says we respect life and we will not accept anything that would encroach upon or impact the dignity of one's life," Selberg said. "At the same time, judgment must be used to determine what is best for the individual and what is in alignment with one's conscience."

"On first blush, you see these rules as very literal, very black and white," Selberg said. "But when you read the entirety, you find that there is latitude in terms of judgment.

"There's discretion as long as there's good faith that the directives are being carried out to the degree possible and the patient's welfare is always put first."

That kind of flexibility is shown, for instance, with end-of-life issues, Selberg said.

If a patient is in an irreversible coma or vegetative state, doctors counsel relatives. If relatives want feeding tubes or ventilators to be removed, the request goes to the ethics committee, Selberg said.

"I can't think of a case that we've had where we have denied or refused the request," he said. "It is something that is reviewed or evaluated, but it is not unreasonably withheld."

As much as I would like to think correct decisions are always made by patients and doctors, that last paragraph makes the ethics committee look like a rubber-stamp council.

The latest article, Coalition: Hospital deal violates law, further discusses the controversy.
Ed Kahn, special counsel at the Center on Law & Policy in Denver, argues that charitable donations were made to provide non-sectarian medical care at both hospitals. If the sale goes through, both hospitals would become Catholic facilities and medical care would be restricted, Kahn said. Doctors would have to follow religious directives against performing tubal ligations, vasectomies and abortions, and not remove feeding tubes from patients in a vegetative state.

Opponents, too, can cite the will of charitable benefactors.

Yet the hospitals in question are named Lutheran Medical Center and Good Samaritan Hospital. These hospitals' very names could be considered sectarian. It seems Kahn would have to argue Lutheran donors wouldn't want their facilities used by Catholics. The typical example of a sectarian hospital, I think, would be one which only permits sect members as staff or patients. Neither Lutheran nor the Sisters of Charity hospitals qualify.

Kahn's invocation of "non-sectarian" is troubling, considering its history. The only mention of non-sectarianism in public law that comes to mind is in the Colorado State Constitution, which prohibits school funding for sectarian education in its "Blaine Amendment."

This calls to mind Justice Clarence Thomas' opinion of such amendments in Mitchell v. Helms:
Opposition to aid to “sectarian” schools acquired prominence in the 1870’s with Congress’s consideration (and near passage) of the Blaine Amendment, which would have amended the Constitution to bar any aid to sectarian institutions. Consideration of the amendment arose at a time of pervasive hostility to the Catholic Church and to Catholics in general, and it was an open secret that “sectarian” was code for “Catholic.” See generally Green, The Blaine Amendment Reconsidered. Notwithstanding its history, of course, “sectarian” could, on its face, describe the school of any religious sect, but the Court eliminated this possibility of confusion when, in Hunt v. McNair, it coined the term “pervasively sectarian”–a term which, at that time, could be applied almost exclusively to Catholic parochial schools and which even today’s dissent exemplifies chiefly by reference to such schools.

The RMN article further informs us that Kahn wrote the letter on behalf of the ACLU of Colorado, the state chapters of Compassion & Choices and the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Women's Law Center and other groups. They apparently meet at the First Universalist Church of Denver.

By the standards of yellow journalism, one could write the sensationalistic headline "Jews, Universalists oppose Catholic hospital expansion."

There is another legal challenge in the article:
Opponents also contend that the seller, the Community First Foundation, would spend money from the transaction on non-health care-related operations. That would violate the general Nonprofit Corporations law and the Uniform Management of Institutional Funds Act, Kahn said.

I wish the article told us what the money would be spent on.

This dispute isn't an easy one. I would be quite sad if many doctors felt they had to quit because of ethical differences. But I would be even more affected if a victorious rationale prohibiting this merger means Catholic hospitals can never expand into existing facilities.

Friday, November 30, 2007

You lose, Khrushchev

Treasure Chest was a monthly comic book published by the Catholic Guild from 1946 to 1972. Each issue featured several different stories intended to inspire citizenship, morality, and patriotism. In the 1961, volume 17 number 2 issue, the story "This Godless Communism" began. It continued in the even numbered issues through number 20. The entire story is presented here.

The first comic in the series, which I spent far too much time skimming, imagines what a communist America would look like. The series then plunges into a brief illustrated history of communism.

According to another site, the comics were distributed to parochial school students.

I especially enjoyed the last pages of the series, which include counsels to pray to Our Lady of Fatima. The above panel is taken from this page, which also has a special message from J. Edgar Hoover.

via The American Scene

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Tryfon Tolides makes it big

Oh dear.

The author of the laughably bad mouse poem chosen for praise by America magazine now has published a collection of his poetry. The soporific title? An Almost Pure Empty Walking.

Mencius Moldbug at Unqualified Reservations writes the necessary critique. Mencius, too, finds the vacuity of Tolides remarkable. He connects Tolides to Universalism of the Unitarian variety, depicting him as a vehicle for Bobo aspiration like NPR or Starbucks coffee.

He informs us that Tolides has benefited considerably from his teacher, Mary Karr. Ms. Karr generously awarded her own student the first place in the National Poetry Series.

Incest creates poetic abnormalities. Who knew?

Echoing Dr. Frankenstein's rapturous description of the monster he created, Mary Karr endorses her student's poetry:

"Tryfon Tolides has followed the territory set out in his native Greece by C. P. Cavafy and later followed (in geography and sensibility) by Jack Gilbert. But Tolides trades the darkness of those poets for a more illuminated grandeur. Tolides is the shaman of epiphany. He makes for his reader keen and particular moments of revelation seized from his fierce and fleshly occupancy on the planet. In the wide-eyed consolation these poems offer up, the starlight they emit, he conjures Tomas Tranströmer and other poets of profound spiritual power. At a time when the planet is in flames, he gives being human a good name."

It's alive!

Individualistic religion dodges the anti-establishment clause

Over at the Immanent Frame, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan outlines an intriguing shift in First Amendment jurisprudence. She cites the 2006 Supreme Court case Freedom from Religion Foundation v. Nicholson in a dispute about a VA hospital chaplain service. The military chaplaincy was once categorized under non-mandatory military services and activities, such as recreation.

Yet as religion becomes part of a revised therapeutic regimen, Sullivan sees a change:
The new “clinical” chaplaincy, on the other hand, has a different role and a different purpose. The Wisconsin court states that in order “to effectively implement its clinical chaplaincy program, the VA Chaplain Service was recently reorganized under the Medicine and Surgery Strategic Healthcare Group. The purpose of this reorganization was to recognize VA’s chaplaincy as a clinical, direct patient care discipline.” No longer akin to recreation and athletics.

While VA chaplains continue to recognize an explicit duty to protect the patient’s constitutional religious free exercise rights and protect the patient “from having religion imposed on them,” they are now fully integrated into the medical team in a new way. As a patient you must opt out of religion, rather than opting in. We might call this the post-pluralist model, if you like. Religion, in the words of the complaining plaintiff, has become a “health benefit.” Every patient must be given an initial spiritual assessment upon admission and recommendations must be made concerning his spiritual care.

This shift is possible, Sullivan thinks, because once-corporate religious practice has been so individualized. It no longer appears that a religious body is being established when government agencies are merely addressing individual needs.

Sullivan's post touches on other issues, such as the judiciary's skepticism about its ability to define religion. This echoes her earlier book, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Dostoevsky and Theodicy

The Well at the World's End examines The Brothers Karamazov:
And yet Dostoevsky reveals the complications of such a (literally) demonic utopian vision. When "The Grand Inquisitor" is contextualized within the larger narrative of The Brothers Karamazov, the shortcomings of Ivan's vision become apparent. In rejecting God, Ivan rejects the eschatological dimension to morality and earthly comfort becomes the only narrow moral standard. The grand inquisitor sees moral freedom as a burden and as long as the minimum service required to achieve comfort is paid, one is actually encouraged to sin; that is, a number of acts no longer have ethical value and are thus permitted. Similarly, in rejecting God, Ivan explicitly rejects the immortality of the soul. In doing so, he seems to jettison the only thing that grounds the enduring value of humanity. One can see quite clearly how these features of the atheist answer lead rather seamlessly to the complete evacuation of moral value and responsibility: the "everything is permitted" of a practical nihilism. "Everything is permitted" is a maxim that Ivan explicitly accepts. In this sense, the atheist position undermines itself: its attempt to deal with evil and suffering does not end with a solution to theodicy, but rather a failed attempt to minimize suffering in this life. In doing so it only succeeds in creating a world of valueless morality, one that is ultimately as indifferent to suffering as the god that it rejected in the first place."

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Pragmatists and Peirce

Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club provides a valuable introduction to a uniquely American school of philosophy. The book is an intellectual history of postbellum New England thinkers like William James, John Dewey, C.S. Peirce, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The ,amy breakthroughs of the nineteenth century, such as statistical analysis or Darwinism, when combined with the disillusionment caused by a bloody Civil War seemingly driven by abolitionist fanaticism, led to a thoroughgoing suspicion of grand ideas among some Yankee elites. Intellectual focus shifted from objects and ideas to the processes and relations that created and sustained them.

In the nineteenth century the study of society was assimilated into the mechanist paradigm. Statistical analysis of government records made human behavior seem an inevitable consequence of social conditions. Marriages increased in times when wages were high. Crimes began to seem like the mere fulfillment of an annual quota. Society as a whole began to appear responsible for the discrete activities of criminals.

Society took on the conceptual characteristics of a machine. Predictability and efficient response to social pressures became more important standards than notions of rights or public morals.

Society was an idea-producing machine. For thinkers like Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., liberty of speech was not good in itself, but merely a means to provide new ideas that in aggregate would lead to better living, a more responsive government, and political stability.

Menand points out that "tolerance," among its many interpretations, also has mechanical connotations.

Though the influence of Dewey, James, and Holmes is immeasurable, the less well-known thought of Charles Sanders Peirce has always attracted me. While reading The Metaphysical Club I was particularly interested in Peirce's approach to the nominalist-realist debate. Menand summarizes:
The idea [of pragmatism] contained a doctrine, though, which Peirce was concerned to refute. This was nominalism--the belief that since concepts are generalizations about things that, taken individually, are singular and unreproducible, they do not refer to anything real Nominalism is the doctrine that reality is just one unique thing after another, and that general truths about those things are simply conventions of language, simply names. Peirce balked at this conclusion. He believed what his father had taught him to believe: that the world is made to be known by the mind--that, (in Benjamin Peirce's words) "the two are wonderfully matched." We think in generalizations; that is what inferences are--general truths drawn from the observation of particular events. Therefore, there must be things in the universe to which our generalizations correspond.

The nominalist's mistake, Peirce argued, is the definition of belief as individual belief. Of course the beliefs of individuals are flawed; no individual mind is capable of an accurate and objective knowledge of reality. But the aggregate beliefs of many individual minds is another matter; and here Peirce invoked the astronomer's law of errors. "No two observers can make the same observation," he wrote in one of the drafts of his book on logic. "The observations which I made yesterday are not the same which I make today. Nor are simultaneous observations at different observatories the same, however close together the observatories are placed. Every man's senses are his observatory." But just as a star exists independently of the observations made by individual astronomers, "reality is independent of the individual element of thought." The real star is the object around which repeated observations ineluctably converge. The purpose of all scientific investigations is therefore to push our collective opinions about the world closer and closer to agreement with each other, adn thus closer and closer to the limit represented by reality itself.

"The personal prejudices or other peculiarities of generations of men may postpone indefinitely an agreement in this opinion," Peirce wrote, "but no human will or limitation can make the final result of an investigation to be anything else than that which it is destined to be. The reality, then, must be identified with what is thought in the ultimate true opinion." "The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real."

Peirce's social conception of knowledge, seeing inquiry as extended across generations, is quite amenable to a traditionalist approach. In respects it is significantly different from the realism of the scholastics, or perhaps it is only different in emphasis. Escaping the epistemological morass of Hume and supporting the methodological concerns of science were both aims of his realism.

According to Menand, Peirce also opposed nominalism because it was a philosophy in the aid of selfishness. Nominalism denies not just the social character of knowledge, but its focus on individuals denies the social altogether. Menand quotes a Peirce essay from the North American Review in 1871.
The question whether the genus homo has any existence except as individuals is the question whether there is anything of more dignity, worth, and importance than individual happiness, individual aspirations, individual life. Whether men really have anything in common, so that the community is to be considered as an end in the most fundamental practical question in regard to every public institution the constitution of which we have the power of influence.

When countering highly atomistic habits of individualism, such a communitarian approach is commendable. But Peirce went on seemingly to endorse a most radical form of altruism, saying reasoning "inexorably requires that our interests shall not be limited. They must not stop at our own fate, but must embrace the whole community... He who would not sacrifice his soul to save the whole world, is, as it seems to me, illogical in all his inferences, collectively. Logic is rooted in the social principle."

Edward T. Oakes cites another Peircean slam on individualism, "individualism and falsity are one." Oakes connects this disdain for individualism to Peirce's extreme and painful isolation from his peers, induced by the man's own ethical falsities but also by the hostility of the academic establishment. Oakes wrote on Peirce in his essay Discovering the American Aristotle. The essay is a concise summation of Peircean aesthetics, ethics, and logic, with special attention to his religious philosophy.

Menand's book will inspire a few more blog posts here in the near future. Watch this space.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Neighborhood Pornucopia

An essay of mine is now posted over at Inside Catholic. The topic is pretty obvious from the title, The Neighborhood Pornucopia.

This essay was in the works when National Review's Mike Potemra was complaining about the "sex police of the blogosphere," whose chief is apparently Mark Shea. Where's my badge?

My thanks to the Inside Catholic crew, especially editor Brian St. Paul for inviting me to write. I hope this essay will be the first of many more.


It looks like I'm part of a local trend. On Sunday The Denver Post reported on libraries being used by child pornographers.

The local trashy alternative newspaper, Westword, also had a piece on library connoisseurs in its Oct. 11 issue. I feel dirty linking to it, but I'll happily hypocritically quote from it:
I happened to catch the reaction of a librarian, who looked over at E, frowned in disgust, then turned and began some busy work. No reprimand, no admonishments, nothing. And that librarian's silent defeat said it all: It's disgusting that this man can do this, but until porn filters catch up with the needs of earnest researchers — aka never — scenes like this are going to take place.

I think he underrates what a measured application of "chilling effects" can do to drive this behavior out of public buildings.

Editorial constraints cut a few passages from my essay. Most of this editing was for the good, but there was one passage quite relevant to the librarian's position.

In the letter from the librarian I quoted, her unease was such that she invoked some self-defense training course advice to trust her "internal radar." She lamented that library regulations required her to suppress her natural warnings when she interacted with lewd patrons.

No sane person wants to come between an onanist and his porn, but the art of public rebuke is sure in need of a revival.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Medieval Slavery Existed, Alas

The University Bookman once examined a new edition of Regine Pernoud's Those Terrible Middle Ages! Debunking the Myths. While sympathetic to Pernoud's popular history written against popular legends, Glenn W. Olsen rebuts her belief that slavery had disappeared in medieval times:
Cornelius Buckley’s poorly informed and imprecise preface to this book accepts at face value what Pernoud has to say about slavery; but Pernoud has clearly been left behind by research on this subject over the last twenty-five years. Perhaps it is sufficient to refer to the work of Steven Epstein, past and forthcoming. In brief, according to Pernoud slavery disappeared over the course of the Middle Ages. (Buckley speaks of it being abolished.) This used to be a common view, and there is some truth to it. Manumission was an act of piety, and many were indeed manumitted. The ancient slave gradually became the medieval serf. But slavery never disappeared. We find internal slave markets in France itself in the early Middle Ages, and slaving on the edges of Europe in every century. In recent scholarship, the English have finally received full recognition for the slaving they practiced all through the Middle Ages in Ireland (see Robert Bartlett’s The Making of Europe). Slaving flourished across the frontiers between Islam and Christendom, and we are beginning to understand how common late-medieval domestic slavery was, especially in the cities of the Mediterranean.

I'm glad Irish history still preserves us from taking anglophilic mythmaking too seriously.

You'll often find this disbelief in medieval slavery in Chesterton's and Belloc's work. They depict the low state of the English commoner as a novelty introduced by the landowners' near-monopoly engendered by Henry VIII's confiscation of monastic lands.

It's really too bad the story of Christendom's free peasants is overstated. If Merrie England didn't exist, it should have.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Garry Wills Misrepresents the Pro-Life Tradition

Mirror of Justice and Gerald Augustinus have weighed in on an LA Times opinion piece by Garry Wills. The op-ed is adapted from his book Head and Heart: American Christianities.

Wills writes:
Nor did the Catholic Church treat abortion as murder in the past. If it had, late-term abortions and miscarriages would have called for treatment of the well-formed fetus as a person, which would require baptism and a Christian burial. That was never the practice. And no wonder. The subject of abortion is not scriptural. For those who make it so central to religion, this seems an odd omission. Abortion is not treated in the Ten Commandments -- or anywhere in Jewish Scripture. It is not treated in the Sermon on the Mount -- or anywhere in the New Testament. It is not treated in the early creeds. It is not treated in the early ecumenical councils.

Mirror of Justice helpfully provides an opinion from Joseph Dellapenna, who has written a magisterial legal history called Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History( see the First Things review).

Dellapenna writes:
Why this neglect of abortion in the ancient sources? The answer, which is mostly forgotten today, is that abortion until fairly well along into the nineteenth century was tantamount to suicide. Women rarely, if ever, underwent a voluntary abortion. We in fact have a significant number of legal cases from as far back as 1200 in England and even earlier in Roman law, in all of which the abortion was forced upon an unwilling woman. This simple fact is reason enough why the Bible and most other legal and religious sources from that time treated as an abstract, a hypothetical idea. I have elaborately documented the evidence for the techniques of abortion in chapter 1 of my book. The real social problem, which was addressed in detail and repeatedly in legal and religious sources, was infanticide—a social problem that only receded in importance with the development of abortion techniques in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that were safe enough for women wanting to be rid of an unwanted child to be able to choose abortion in preference to infanticide.

Furthermore, Wills' assertion that there was no practice of baptizing miscarriages looks doubtful. The Catholic Encyclopedia's article on Baptism actually has a section titled "Baptism of Unborn Infants." It states:
In case of the death of the mother, the fetus is to be immediately extracted and baptized, should there be any life in it. Infants have been taken alive from the womb well after the mother's death. After the Cæsarean incision has been performed, the fetus may be conditionally baptized before extraction if possible; if the sacrament is administered after its removal from the womb the baptism is to be absolute, provided it is certain that life remains. If after extraction it is doubtful whether it be still alive, it is to be baptized under the condition: "If thou art alive". Physicians, mothers, and midwives ought to be reminded of the grave obligation of administering baptism under these circumstances. It is to be borne in mind that according to the prevailing opinion among the learned[In 1907 -kjj], the fetus is animated by a human soul from the very beginning of its conception. In cases of delivery where the issue is a mass that is not certainly animated by human life, it is to be baptized conditionally: "If thou art a man."

I would hope these instructions are still given to Catholic doctors and nurses, though considering present indifference towards baptism, I am not sure that instruction is likely.

Commonweal Doesn't Get the Joke

Diogenes recently dolloped more cynicism upon the Jesuits' magazine America:

America Magazine is editorially enraptured by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Brown seems guided by a moral vision that sees it as the government's duty to help the less fortunate.

Translation: he's pro-abortion.

A writer at the Commonweal blog sniffs: "You'll notice that none of the editorial's 253 words endorses Brown's views on abortion." That rather misses the joke. The elevated language conceals a significant lapse in Mr. Brown's duties towards the less fortunate. The praise given to such public figures is as uniform as it is ubiquitous, which makes the "translation" all the more biting.

Commonweal blogger Grant Gallicho seems obtuse to this shade, preferring to blast Diogenes as a bitter tendentious commentator. But this little joke can function in all sorts of other contexts where diplomatic happy talk overshadows the real crimes in which prominent men are complicit. Just imagine the potential for a quote praising to the heavens some Republican, followed by the line

"Translation: he's pro-torture."

This satire blindness seems uncharacteristic of Commonweal. They like Stephen Colbert, don't they?

More discouraging is their attempts to unmask the pseudonym. They claim the CWNews scribe is Paul Mankowski, SJ. While the pseudonym can mask all sorts of unmerited asperities, of which Diogenes has sometimes been guilty, how else other than pseudonymously could a cleric talk frankly without soiling the dignity of his office and his ministry?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Iraq WMD intelligence from poor chemistry student?

If this story is true, we're already living in Mike Judge's Idiocracy.
A US TV network has revealed the name of "Curveball" - an Iraqi man whose information was central to the US government's argument to invade Iraq.


The programme says he arrived in a German refugee centre in 1999 where he lied to win asylum and was not the chemical expert he said he was.

His claims of mobile bio-weapons labs in Saddam Hussein's Iraq were backed until well after the 2003 invasion.


The CBS 60 Minutes programme airs on Sunday but material released on its web site says Curveball was "not only a liar, but also a thief and a poor student instead of the chemical engineering whiz he claimed to be".

"It was a guy trying to get his green card essentially, in Germany, and playing the system for what it was worth"

The CIA and French intelligence had turned the Iraqi foreign minister, yet instead we relied upon somebody lying for his green card.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

How the Democrats Became Secularist

Deal Hudson interviews Mark Stricherz about his new book Why the Democrats are Blue:

MS: The short answer is that ideological activists controlled the nomination process: They, rather than big city and state leaders -- who have a larger constituency -- were choosing the nominee. It used to be, in the old boss system, that the bosses wanted to pick a nominee based on his ability to win.

The activists were looking for a nominee who could win, sure. But they also had ideological preferences. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the folks who were true believers tended to be feminists and anti-war types. It was a totally different constituency from the old Democratic Party of Catholics, blacks, union members, etc.

DH: Were the old party bosses that were replaced by these activists Catholic? Is this the ethnic Catholic group that was replaced?

MS: Yes, they were almost all Catholic. It's shocking today to look back at some of the old newspapers of the time, but in 1968 the chairman of the DNC, John Bailey; the chairman of the platform committee, Hale Boggs from Louisiana; the chairman of the credentials committee, Richard Hughes from New Jersey; the kingmaker at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Richard Dailey, were all Roman Catholics. And that had been true since 1948, when Catholics took over the machinery. They were in charge; Southerners had played a large role in party affairs before 1948, but the party from 1948 to 1968 was controlled by white Catholics, especially Irish Catholics.

I wonder if the Democrats look on the old Catholic dominance in the same way they look at the old Southern dominance of the party. "Sure," they might say, "we lost a bunch of close-minded bigots, but now we can go down to a principled defeat in our presidential campaigns!"

Of course there are plenty of Catholics in the Democratic leadership, but they are particularly domesticated and servile on the issues that would conflict with the party ideologues. I hope Stricherz' book will provide a how-to guide to reverse the Democrats' decline into the party of the obscene Amanda Marcotte.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Army Anthropologists Mainstreaming Pederasty?

Now I'm sympathetic to the WWII US Army Iraq Guide's advice for soldiers not to make moral reforms part of their job:
Differences? Sure there are differences. Difference of costume, Difference of food. Differences of manner and custom and religious belief. Different attitudes towards women. Differences galore.

What of it? You aren’t going to Iraq to change the Iraqis. We are fighting this war to preserve the principle of “live and let live.” Maybe that sounded like a lot of words to you at home. Now you have a chance to prove it to yourself and others. If you can, it’s going to be a better world to live in for all of us.

But then there's this essay from the NY Times about anthropologists assisting the US Army in Afghanistan:
Nevertheless the military voices on the show had their winning moments, sounding like old-fashioned relativists, whose basic mission in life was to counter ethnocentrism and disarm those possessed by a strident sense of group superiority. Ms. McFate stressed her success at getting American soldiers to stop making moral judgments about a local Afghan cultural practice in which older men go off with younger boys on “love Thursdays” and do some “hanky-panky.” “Stop imposing your values on others,” was the message for the American soldiers. She was way beyond “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and I found it heartwarming.
Richard A. Schweder, A True Culture War

Out of all the differences between Afghan culture and American ethics, Schweder just had to highlight this reprehensible practice for his NY Times readers' approval. Even if soldiers' moral judgments were interfering with their mission, stopping such judgment is a violation of sound ethics. There are appropriate ways of keeping one's disgust private, and I'm sure many soldiers are quite capable of doing so. I pray the writer is overstating what looks like indoctrination of our soldiery.

Schweder invokes stupid relativist slogans. He calls the nonjudgemental acceptance of pederasty "Heartwarming." He speaks in an ironic tone of "Love Thursdays" and "hanky-panky." This is degenerate camp at its worst.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Examining the "Catholic Ghetto"

One hears all the time that American Catholics were stuck in an introverted ghetto until they grew up and joined the larger culture. It's a common self-aggrandizing story told by more than a few baby boomers.

Note how this essay explodes that liberation story with the gunpowder of multi-culturalism.

The history of the ghetto image in Catholic usage tells much about the changes of mood in Catholic life during the past quarter century. When apologists for Catholic behavior and critics of the encircling WASP cultures wanted to reinforce and legitimate Catholic group-bonding, they accented the ways in which ghetto life was imposed on minorities. This Ellis did only briefly, when he said that the “aloof and unfriendly” American intellectual climate had discouraged Catholics, led them to slacken their efforts, and prompted this “minority to withdraw into itself and to assume the attitude of defenders of a besieged fortress.”

At other times during the domestic aggiornamento that followed the Second Vatican Council, however, a self-deprecating, indeed sometimes almost masochistic view of the tradition prevailed. Then the ghetto was seen not as imposed from without but self-imposed from within. Angry James Colaianni typically wrote that “Ghettoism suffocates. It is just another jail man builds for himself to keep from becoming free.” Some such critics were romantic about the surrounding glories of the secular city, naive in their neglect of the role of intimate community in human life, and scornful of ancestors whose ways they could never understand or emulate.


My thesis is that while Catholicism often did nurture ghetto existence, it was by no means unique in its relative isolation from a putative Protestant-secular world which I shall henceforth call "The Culture." Surrounding the Catholic version were so many other religious, national, and ideological ghettos that they cast the Catholic ghetto in a less distinctive light. Their presence forces us to reconsider whether the The Culture was not in many ways a larger and more expansive ghetto itself.


Historians of intergroup relations who have concentrated on the anti-Semitism of some Populists or Henry Adams, or on the anti-Catholicism of the nativist American Protective Association at the turn of the century, do have virulent and potent topics on their hands. But they often miss the dynamics of ghetto existence. One sees more vitriol and hears more vituperation, for example, in conflicts between Catholic Americanists and anti-Americanists, Ukrainian Uniates and Ukrainian Orthodox, Czech Catholics and Czech freethinkers, Catholic traditionalists and Catholic modernists, within their ghettos, than between any and all of them, say, the American Protective Association. Sociologist Georg Simmel seems to have been right, at least in the American historical instance; “People who have many common features often do one another worse or ‘worser’ wrong then complete strangers do.”
Martin E. Marty, Locations: At Home in the Ghettos

I was surprised to discover the noted scholar of American religion Martin Marty was the essay's author. It was his 1981 presidential address to the American Catholic Historical Association.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Sponsored by the Raphael Hythloday Foundation for Imaginary Think Tanks

It is easy to ignore the silly self-important descriptions think tanks and activist groups use to name themselves. It is almost as easy to make up hilarious names for such creations.

I got on a roll and couldn't stop, so I offer my inventions below:

Samuel Johnson Center for a Cant-free Future

Scientists for Unethical Research

Foundation for an Opportunistic Punditry

Students for a Reactionary Tomorrow

The William O. Douglas Center for Emanated Penumbras

Office of Convenient Statistics

Coalition of Subtle Panderers

People for a Progressive Yesterday

The Evelyn Waugh Foundation for Nostalgic Bitching

Students for Transient Enthusiasms

The Irresponsible Policy Foundation

Future Senior Citizens of America

Center for Incoherent Studies

Citizens for Improvident Government

Librarians for a Surreal Future

The Office of Abnormal Development

Center for Satirical Studies

Citizens Ignorant of Logic

Federation for Comical Legislation

Alliance for the Advancement of Minor Idiocies

The Institute for Poorly-worded Phrases

Taxpayers for Improvident Government

Students for an Unspecified Cause

Citizens for Bipartisan Sleaze

Technologists for Automated Folly

Dentists Against Saccharine Appeals

Academics for Regrettable Policy

Americans United for Random Emoting

The Department of Sensual Bureaucracy

Students for Faddish Posturing

The Office of Indescribable Horror

Center for Unlikely Legislation

Federation of Labored Analogies

Union of Phantastickal Accountants

The Center for Useless Distinctions

Americans for Aromatic Sewage

Foundation for Casual Diplomacy

Alliance for Shiny Objects

Coalition for Dubious Honors

The Bureau of Predictable Appearances

Students for Diversity in Failure

Office of Snide Dismissals

The Center for Centralized Mismanagement

Foundation for Anachronistic Analysis

Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments.

Nicolosi on the Hero, Nicolosi on Bella

Barb Nicolosi makes a nice examination of heroism in story, film, and real life and the qualities of the hero. Though it is only in note form, her advice seems more practical and substantive than what I've seen of Joseph Campbell's writings.

Here's a sample:
Things that are not heroic:

To have an illness. To be a victim. To have a bad hand dealt to you. HEROISM is in still serving others with an illness or bad thing.

To survive your own iniquity. (In the Bill Clinton sense. I heard a lady on TV say that she admired Clinton because he was "a survivor." Well, by that standard, you could admire roaches.)

It isn’t heroic to have a great talent or skill. To be able to run fast or sing well.

Nicolosi, a professional screenwriter, also isn't impressed by Bella, the new movie some pro-lifers are rallying around. I worry Nicolosi's standards can be too artistic and elite-oriented. Surely there is a craft to making popular mediocrities. I suspect the aspiring artist must first know mediocrity before he can know excellence.

Then again, I haven't seen the movie and don't plan to. When the film's own publicity highlights the fact it is made by "first-time filmmakers," I'm not inspired to open my wallet.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Charles Taylor Gets a Blog

A new academic blog called The Immanent Frame is dedicated to Charles Taylor's and others' interpretations of secularism.

On the shelves for only a handful of weeks, Charles Taylor's A Secular Age is already receiving at least some of the attention it well deserves. The book has been reviewed in the pages of The Economist and The Wall Street Journal, and two short excerpts were recently published in Commonweal. Taylor's massive tome--it's just shy of 880 pages long--was even held aloft and glossed earlier this month by a young denizen of youtube.

Although it won't be supporting video, The Immanent Frame--a new SSRC blog on secularism, religion, and the public sphere--will provide a venue for sustained dialogue and critical exchange on the work of Charles Taylor and other scholars of "the secular." And we're kicking things off with a series of posts on Taylor's big book.

(via James Poulos)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Nadir of the Jack Bauer Mentality

By way of Mark Shea, a story of a man suspected of terrorism for possessing an airline pilot radio in his hotel room.

...the investigator said his family would go through hell in Egypt, where they torture people like Saddam Hussein. Higazy then realized he had a choice: he could continue denying the radio was his and his family suffers ungodly torture in Egypt or he confesses and his family is spared. Of course, by confessing, Higazy's life is worth garbage at that point, but ... well, that's why coerced confessions are outlawed in the United States.

So Higazy "confesses" and he's processed by the criminal justice system. His future is quite bleak. Meanwhile, an airline pilot later shows up at the hotel and asks for his radio back. This is like something out of the movies. The radio belonged to the pilot, not Higazy, and Higazy was free to go, the victim of horrible timing. Higazi was innocent! He next sued the hotel and the FBI agent for coercing his confession. The bottom line in the Court of Appeals: Higazy has a case and may recover damages for this injustice.

The legal documents were apparently withdrawn from the internet for redaction.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Historical Fiction, with Space Aliens

After reading the reviews at Curt Jester and Darwin Catholic, I picked up a copy of Michael Flynn's novel Eifelheim. It's the first science fiction I've read in years, and better than I expected.

The premise is simple: space aliens make first contact with Earth after shipwrecking near a remote German village. In the fourteenth century.

Flynn depicts with talent the political, religious, and intellectual ferment of the times. The main character is an intellectual parish priest named Father Dietrich. He is in hiding, having been a member of the fraticelli, the radical and violent Franciscan sect that strived for the abolition of property. Educated at the University of Paris, he is well-attuned to the philosophical thought that became foundational for the natural sciences.

Enter the extraterrestrials.

The Krenken are an insect-like race the German villagers compare to grasshoppers. Shipwrecked after some unrevealed technical malfunction in their ship, their appearance provokes fears they are demonic visitors. Father Dietrich, though as confused as anyone else, uses a bit of scholastic logic to deduce they are in fact natural creatures comparable to the dog-headed men and headless anthropoids reputed to live in the antipodes. In a wry inversion of sci-fi standbys, the limitations of medieval knowledge of the world provide grounds for acceptance instead of mob violence. It recalls the irony of Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz, in which monks become the only custodians of scientific knowledge after a nuclear catastrophe incites anti-intellectual obscurantism.

Michael Flynn shows an immense capacity for intellectual sympathy through his priest character's attempts to fit advanced scientific knowledge into the categories familiar to him. Flynn makes the medieval mind come alive, while suggesting the strangeness of our own times. The aliens strain to make their knowledge intelligible as Father Dietrich suggests Latinate or Greek neologisms to describe concepts well-familiar to the modern reader. Scientific concepts we take for granted, like protein, bacteria, and gravity, take on a marvelous appearance when seen through the eyes of an intelligent man living in a less advanced age. The priest's arguments with the aliens are amusing in their defense of fourteenth-century cosmology, but too honest and sophisticated to disdain.

While considerably hindered in scientific argument, Father Dietrich actually wins some of the religious disputes. His Christian faith, though explained through a poorly translating computer, gains a few adherents among the stranded aliens. The society of the Krenken is never elucidated, but it seems to be a hierarchical culture based on violent strength and a brutally Darwinian survival of the fittest. The lowest-ranked Krenken find Christian love and self-sacrifice convincing. Despite its alienness, Christianity provides them a welcome relief from their overbearing superiors.

Of course Michael Flynn must take poetic liberties with history. For the most part, they work to the good. However, he makes a few stumbles. At one point he references the ad orientem orientation of the Christian liturgy as a new phenomenon replacing the versus populum, which certainly doesn't correspond to what liturgical history I know. Further, he presents William of Ockham as a proponent of a proto-Lockean revolutionary natural rights theory that I don't think came into its own until the sixteenth century. Though some anachronisms are necessary to such a work, these two instances in particular bothered me.

Flynn's work is in many ways a defense of the medieval against contemporary caricatures. Most of the time this defense is well-done and subtle. I think it superior to Umberto Eco's In the Name of the Rose, which rested on the comical premise that a monk would hate laughter and comedy.

However, one crude apologetic for the Inquisition struck me as crude and not particularly relevant to its context.(It took place in one of the "present day" scenes that occasionally interrupts the historical fiction. In these scenes an historian seeks the reason Eifelheim remained abandoned through the centuries. As other reviewers note, these scenes don't gel well with the rest of the work.)

I have previously noted Michael Flynn's depiction of the excitement of scientific discovery in his fictionalized account of medieval science. If Eifelheim's imaginative sympathy and historical awareness are now typical of science fiction, I will have to look twice at the genre novels I happen upon.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

William James' Religion

Tolstoy’s conversion account appealed to James on many levels, not least because churches and clergy played no role in it. Though James sometimes self-identified with Protestant Christianity, that label was accurate only in the narrowest cultural sense. Theologically, he was as heterodox as he was unsystematic—he theorized, for example, that there might be multiple deities. But if he was at most a marginal Christian, James was enthusiastically a Protestant. In Varieties, he pointedly reduced religion to its minimalist essence. “As I now ask you arbitrarily to take it,” he wrote, religion “shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” This was unmediated Protestantism in its purest, most unfettered form.
Theo Anderson, One Hundred Years of Pragmatism

One can't help but wonder how much the Jamesian approach to religion has influenced First Amendment jurisprudence. Out of respect for Protestantism(respect I didn't even know I had), I must protest Anderson's characterization of Protestantism in terms of its most individualistic liberal form. It's not always that bad.

Nevertheless, Anderson's essay is an excellent complement to my current read, Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, a history of the American pragmatists with a talent for depicting the zeitgeist of late nineteenth-century New England.

Note that Anderson also intimates in James the beginnings of so-called therapeutic deism:
James’s writings contain glimmerings of the spirituality industry that would burgeon in the later 20th century. He posited other realms of consciousness and higher energies as agents of human “empowerment,” themes that have become ubiquitous among self-help authors. James likely would have deplored much of this genre, yet it is in some ways a logical outgrowth of his emphasis on the pragmatic consequences of faith. The ecumenism of the ­self-­help genre is also quintessentially Jamesian: Spirituality is presented as an unmediated relationship between the individual and the divine. Institutions only get in the ­way.