Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The end of the American experiment

I had to take my time with my reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (576 US __ [2015]), because there were some comments and criticisms that led me to suspect it was worse than I thought it would be. The suspicion was confirmed.

As expected, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the decision, which is the latest in the logical progression from Lawrence v. Texas (539 US 558 [2002]) through United States v. Windsor (570 US __ [2013]), the majority opinions of which Kennedy also wrote. Also as expected, Kennedy premissed his opinion on the dubious concept of “substantive due process”, the pre-eminent rationale for judicial legislation, and invoked the “equal protection” clause without bothering to explain — as, indeed, none of his decisions explain — how homosexuals qualify as a “protected class”. (Sorry, neither “Well, duh!” nor “Because I said” is a valid legal argument.)

In its way, Obergefell was an even greater assertion of SCOTUS power than was Windsor. As I explained at the time, Kennedy justified striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) by arguing that the right to define marriage lay with the States, not explaining how the State’s authority to confer State benefits could rob the Federal government of its authority to decide who gets Federal benefits. Now, however, the States can exercise their authority only until the Court develops a “better informed understanding” (slip opinion at 19), at which time it can impose a school solution on everyone.

For Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French commentator on early America, the great danger of democracy was “tyranny of the majority”; i.e., the insufficiency of institutions to protect individual rights. The problem for the last few decades has been exactly the opposite — aristocracy, the rise of a self-selected élite willing to frustrate the democratic process, distort the plain meaning of the Constitution, and violate long-standing political rights in order to impose its superior mores. Obergefell signals the triumph of that élite and the functional advent of limited self-government.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Review: Billy Joel biography “a hyperextended Rolling Stone article”

In my younger days, Billy Joel was one of those performers whose music you either loved or hated, mostly depending on your tribal affiliations, your musical expectations, and the depth of your musical exposure. Put simply as possible, if you were really only familiar with the cuts that made it to the Top 40 rotation, or were suspicious of anything the sweaty masses liked, or expected your music to defy musical conventions, or any combination of the three, you most likely hated him.

... At least until you lost some of your snobbish pretentiousness, became more familiar with his catalogue, and grew more appreciative of his craftsmanship.

Going to one of his shows would most likely shift you off your base. By the 1980s, Joel was already acknowledged an electric performer who could pump up the audience with his energy and showmanship. Now in his mid-sixties, Joel may not be able to do back-flips off a Steinway, and may be a little more careful about crowd-surfing or climbing the lighting gantries … but he can still rock the house down to the ground, bringing a fan base that now spans two generations jumping and screaming to their feet.

In a sense, then, how you appreciate Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography, by Fred Schruers (New York: Crown Archetype, 2014; $29.00), depends on your expectations of biography. If all you’re looking for is a recital of some facts of Joel’s life, his interpretation of those facts from his perspective in 2014, and some relation of his music’s lyrics to various events (particularly his failed romantic and business entanglements), Schruer’s work will suffice. If, however, you expect biography to expose the development of the subject’s character and craft, on that level Billy Joel fails; it’s little more than a hyperextended Rolling Stone article.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The smile on the lips of martyrs

I suppose we Catholic writers are socially expected to have a massive episode of cognitive dissonance over the news of the significant drop in religious affiliation over the years 2007 to 2014. Because, of course, this sort of thing has never happened before (he said while rolling his eyes melodramatically).

Religious revivals come and go. So do intellectual fads and ideological fashions. Leftist progressivism has been in the ascent in the last few decades, and irreligion has been riding its coattails as it’s risen. As I pointed out in my very first post on this site, neither atheism nor agnosticism offers us better arguments than they did a hundred years ago. However, the bar has been lowered. Scientific advances haven’t made Christianity indefensible; rather, pedagogical innovations and ideological indoctrination in the classrooms have left fewer Christians able to defend it.

When you’re not satisfied with an answer, it doesn’t take much to change your mind. Many if not most former Catholics didn’t leave the Church so much as they formalized a separation that had been there for many years, even from childhood. There’s now almost no social cost to abandoning religious practice; in some circles, irreligion is not only tolerated but expected. And, to be perfectly frank, the Church in the West made it easier by decades of poor religious education, clerical malformation, and episcopal cowardice.

By the same token, when you find an answer that satisfies you both intellectually and emotionally, the argument against it has to be very powerful in order to change your mind about its truth. No one has yet made an argument to Catholicism’s falsehood that I find remotely persuasive, let alone convincing. Indeed, many people seem more committed to mocking, berating, and shaming me out of my illusions than they are to showing me that they are illusions.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Murphy’s Law and Jesus in Hell

Okay, if we’re all done laughing about #SalonChristianitySecrets ….

The problem with clickbait headlines is that, all too often, they don’t entice you to read the story. Rather, they become the story. More often than not, the link is shared with other people, to be ridiculed or praised whether anyone actually reads the copy or not; their joy and outrage is sparked solely by the one or two deliberately misleading lines at the top of the page. Not even the lede gets a glance. Moreover, if someone does read the copy, their understanding is front-loaded by the headline, giving false strength to weak evidence and arguments.

Such was the case with Ed Simon’s “Jesus went to hell: The Christian history churches would rather not acknowledge”. Contrary to Simcha Fisher’s impatient dismissal in her National Catholic Register blog, Simon did do some research on Jesus’ descent to Sheol, and showed some understanding of the teaching. Knowing the teaching, however, isn’t the same as knowing the divisions in modern Christian culture. It’s here that Simon trips up in his analysis, leading himself to the theme from which someone at Salon derived the title, in all its conspiracy-theorist awkwardness … and to all the hoo-hahs of the Twitterverse.

(My two favorites: “BREAKING: Jesus flipped tables in a fit of rage one time. IS THIS YOUR CHRIST?” and “‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ #JesusMicroaggressions”)

For my own part, I suspect Simon is a Christian, even possibly one of an Eastern Orthodox communion. However, I suspect that he was raised in the West, and therefore infected by the materialism and reductionism in our culture. Certain aspects of Christianity strike him as weird because he expects everything to be rational, which no reasonable person would expect. The simplest, most readily-available cure for such an odd view of the world is to consult the many permutations of Murphy’s Law.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Indiana RFRA and the torn-down forest


As of this writing, it appears that the Indiana state government is taking steps to undermine its own Religious Freedom Restoration Act. According to the Associated Press, Gov. Mike Pence has called for legislation “clarifying that [the RFRA] does not allow discrimination on his desk by the end of the week ... to address concerns that the law will allow businesses to deny services to gays and lesbians.” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, facing similar pressure, has already preemptively called for changes to an RFRA bill on his desk.

Nineteen states have RFRAs. Of these, eleven have non-discrimination laws at the city or township level, and two (Illinois and New Mexico) have state laws protecting gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. Another eleven have RFRA-like restrictions based on SCOTUS decisions. (Source: Daily Signal.) On the surface, the problem with Indiana’s RFRA is that it’s loosely written; critics claim that businesses can refuse gay people’s business, and that the civil-rights legislation and decisions of the last sixty years have determined that “you don’t have the right to choose who gets to sit at the counter.”

The truth of the matter, though, is that the other states all caught the RFRA wave at the right time, before SCOTUS’ decision in Lawrence v. Texas (539 US 558, 2003) made it “okay to be gay”. Now that wave has long passed; the LGBT lobby has command of a sizeable chunk of the culture factories, as well as the allegiance of the majority of our celebrities and politicians.

This makes the conditions most favorable for anti-RFRA moral posturing, along with its attendant obliviousness. For instance, the Daily Caller reports, “Connecticut Gov. Dannell Malloy will issue an executive order on Monday calling for a ban on state-funded travel to Indiana” … conveniently forgetting that Connecticut has an arguably more restrictive RFRA. Oops.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

“A climate in which belief may flourish”

Austin Farrer. (Image source: bbc.co.uk)
Recently, my friend Devin Rose, who works for Fr. Joseph Barron’s WordOnFire.org and runs St. Joseph’s Vanguard, posted this lengthy comment on his Facebook page (edited for format):

Have you ever had an idea, one that is strong and meaningful but tough to articulate, and then you stumble upon a quote that brings it into sudden focus? Such a quote flashes like lightning around the idea, illuminating it and allowing you to see it clearly for the first time.
I had the experience tonight after discovering a remark by Austin Farrer, an Oxford scholar and close friend of C.S. Lewis:
For though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish. [in Jocelyn Gibb, ed., Light on C. S. Lewis (1966)]
I’ve spent hundreds of hours over the last couple years exchanging arguments with all sorts of unbelieving friends — atheists, agnostics, and other labels I didn’t know existed. Some fellow Catholics have warned me that, “Nobody has ever been argued into the Church,” or that, “Evangelization is more about the way you live than the arguments you give.” Neither sentiment ever rang true with me, at least not completely, but I couldn’t explain why.
Then I discovered Dr. Farrer’s quote, which affirmed two key convictions that have brewed within me during these many encounters. First, without arguments or good reasons to believe in God, most Christians will abandon their faith — especially while they are young. Religious experience and devotion can only carry people so far. Most of the atheists and agnostics I engage were raised in Christian homes, but ones that provided no intellectual support.
Second, Christianity is not even a viable option for most non-believers if, to them, it lacks respectable arguments. It’s not that they won’t find the Gospel compelling without good, supporting reasons; it’s that they won’t even consider it. Without a strong intellectual basis, they’ll pay Christianity as much attention as Scientology or Hinduism.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How I Work

So Thomas L. McDonald, the tech-and-history guru of God and the Machine, decided to post a couple of series based on Lifehacker's "How I Work", the other one being "How I Pray", featuring other bloggers. After posting his most recent (as of this writing), featuring The Curt Jester's Jeff Miller, Tom foolishly extended an invitiation to his Facebook blogger friends to write "How I Work" posts

How could I pass up an opportunity to engage in shameless self-promotion? (Except self-promotion isn't one of my strengths; I tend to overdo the false humility.)

*     *     *

Location: Denton, Texas

Current Gig:
Managing editor, Catholic Stand. Oh — you mean paying gig? None at this writing.

One word that best describes how you work:
Squirrel!

Current mobile device:
HTC EVO 4G Android phone; MID M729B Android tablet.

Current computer:
Compaq CQ5600Y with AMD Athlon II 2.0 GHz processor, 2 GB memory (practically brain-dead by today's standards), 500 GB hard drive, Windows 7 OS; Compaq S2022 series LCD monitor.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? Why?
Microsoft Office, specifically MS Word, MS Excel, and MS Outlook; Faith Database; Photoshop and Photoscape in tandem; browser.

Microsoft Office: Besides my personal use, they're the office apps I encounter most frequently when I do work. Since I'm not a hard-core user, I don't do a lot of shopping around or experimenting unless I'm forced to (as I have been recently with browsers). I'm almost expert level with MS Word; MS Excel gives me pretty much all my spreadsheet and database needs; and MS Outlook does alright as an organizer/email tool. I picked up OpenOffice some time ago, but haven't gotten around to playing with it.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Paul Krugman Believes His Own Eyes—UPDATED

Photograph by David Levene/eyevine via Redux.
Tim Worstall’s recent Forbes.com piece, “Paul Krugman’s Amazing About Face On The Minimum Wage”, reminds me very much of the old joke that either came from or found its way into the musical Chicago: The woman who comes home to find her husband in bed with another woman. In the middle of protesting his innocence, the cad asks his angry spouse, “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

Worstall’s piece is all about the differences between “good Krugman”, who in September 1998 published an article derisively dismissing minimum-wage arguments (because “the amorality of the market economy is part of its essence, and cannot be legislated away”), and “bad Krugman”, whose March 2 NYT op-ed “Walmart’s Visible Hand” made a devastating concession: “… [E]xtreme inequality and the falling fortunes of America’s workers are a choice, not a destiny imposed by the gods of the market. And we can change that choice if we want to.”

Old Krugman said that Walmart paying higher wages might lead to less turnover, better morale and higher productivity. But only at Walmart because the operative part was “higher wages than other employers”. And that’s the one thing that a general rise in wages, for example a rise in the minimum wage, cannot accomplish.
New Krugman tells us that a rise in the minimum wage will accomplish exactly that thing that Old Krugman tells us is impossible.

What might be the difference between Old Krugman and New Krugman? Seventeen years of observation? The intervention of a recession which exposed underlying fallacies in free-market thinking? Oh, no: according to Worstall, the difference is a paycheck from that “hotbed of liberal ideology,” the New York Times.

And that, my friends, is pretty much the full substance of Worstall’s refutation of Krugman: He writes for “Hell’s Bible”.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Fourth Sunday in Lent: The Babylonian Exile

Image source: conformingtojesus.com.
Responsorial: Psalm 137:1-6
Second Reading: Ephesians 2:4-10
Gospel: John 3:14-21

The first reading recalls the fall of the kingdom of Judah, the southern half of the Davidic Kingdom of Israel, in 586 BC. The northern half, which had retained the name of Israel, had fallen to Sargon II in 722 BC, and had been redesignated an Assyrian province with the name Samaria. Now, with the twin invasions of the Chaldeans and Idumeans, the original Kingdom of David and Solomon was no more.

Moses had given the Hebrew people God and His Law. Nebuchadnezzar gave them their identity as Jews. The seventy years of the Babylonian Exile[*] had done more to make the Jewish people monotheists than had over four centuries of self-rule. The Hebrews had had an alphabet and a written language since at least David’s time; now they began to gather such records as they had and compile their oral traditions, to redact the beginning of what would eventually become the Tanakh — the Hebrew Bible.

This period, in which Jewish identity was being crystallized, also gave us Psalm 137 [136], a song of heartbreak and loss: “How could we sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land?” Not included in the reading of the psalm is the anger:

Remember, Lord, against Edom
    that day at Jerusalem.
They said: “Level it, level it
    down to its foundations!”
Desolate Daughter Babylon, you shall be destroyed,
    blessed the one who pays you back
    what you have done us!
Blessed the one who seizes your children
    and smashes them against the rock.
Thus was forged in the minds and hearts of the Jewish people the iron triad of God, the Law, and Zion, to which they have clung with stubborn fidelity for over 2,500 years.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Taking offense and taking action

Protest march at OU. (Photo source: Legal Insurrection.)
When an unapologetically über-conservative man and a hard-core leftist woman agree on a point, you can almost bet your life savings the truth is in the opposite direction. Especially when the topic is “offense discourse”.

Steven Crowder’s argument is about machismo more than anything else. “Both men and women respect men who take ownership, men who take action. Choosing to ‘be offended’ is the epitome of inaction. Today’s ‘offended’ men are seen as wimpy simply because they are. Instead of harnessing whatever affront is facing them, instead of facing it head-on, dealing with the problem and coming out the other side a stronger man, the ‘modern’ male chooses to sulk, to whine, and inevitably call Gloria Steinem.” Plus, “chicks dig it” when you take action.

I’m not sure Katherine Cross would agree with that last assessment … or, for that matter, to being called a “chick”. However, she does agree that “offense discourse” leads to inaction:

It has to be one of the most significant rhetorical own-goals of the Left since the 1960s: allowing the word ‘offend’ to become the go-to way of describing the harms of prejudice. “This content offends me,” “your words are offensive,” “his conduct gave offence to x,” etc. What this has always facilitated is the commonplace reactionary response to such moral injunctions, defending some imagined noble right to give offense lardered [sic] with smug Stephen Fry image macros. Cue “free speech”’ arguments ad nauseam that resolve into garrulous nothingness. … It is the deeds that flow from words which concern us, and which cannot be contained by the concept of offensiveness.

Of the two arguments, Cross’ is the more fully developed. Crowder’s post amounts to little more than a couple of chest-thumps and an admonition to “put on your big-boy britches and deal with it”. Both arguments, however, are simply wrong, or at least not fully to the point.