Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The logical end of defensive warfare

Amidst all the kvetching, grimacing and posturing over the New York debacle, a couple of voices here and there have tried to warn us that the problem is worse than we think, that our focus is misdirected, that the legalization of gay marriage has “killed” an institution that was already on terminal life support in 2003, the year the Massachusetts Supreme Court handed down its decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health.

Stephen Greydanus, for example, writes: “The problem is, it isn’t just same-sex marriage advocates who are unable to explain what marriage is. It’s practically everyone. Marriage has been redefined for decades in our society, and it isn’t homosexuals or politicians who have done it. It’s our culture as a whole. And that’s why we are where we are” (emphasis in original). In line with that thought, Taylor Marshall has pinned down two culprits, contraception and pornography.

David Carlin and John Zmirak have blamed it on our unwillingness to assert on natural-law principles that gay sex is wrong. If it comes to that, we — as a culture — been equally weak at asserting the wrongness of premarital sex and contraception. Here, though, we’ve been as much at the mercy of our allies as of our opponents; those of us who have managed to connect all the dots are part of a rather tiny minority.

The make-believe world of social construction

The trend for the future appears to be towards greater radicalism. [Alison] Jaggar, [currently Professor of Distinction, Philosophy and Women and Gender Studies, University of Colorado at Boulder.—TL], recently denounced the nuclear family as a “cornerstone of repression” and eagerly anticipated scientific advances to eliminate such biological functions as insemination, lactation, and gestation. “One woman could inseminate another … men and non-parturitive women could lactate … fertilized ova could be transferred into women’s or even men’s bodies.”[1]

This partial paragraph comes from Dinesh D’Souza’s controversial book Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: Vintage Books [Random House], 1992). At the time I first read the book, I was studying sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha; Jaggar’s statement struck me as an example of how the rhetoric of social-conflict theory could carry someone beyond the bounds of reason and fact.

Alas, no. Since he was studying the success of radical activists in imposing feminist and Afrocentric agendas on college campuses, D’Souza didn’t see —and possibly didn’t know of — the influence of social constructionism, or its apotheosis in queer theory.

Broadly stated, social constructionism is a set of sociological theories that tries to explain how language as a social construct affects our perceptions of reality. Ideally, this set of theories should explain why Aleuts have twenty-seven different categories of snow and Europeans have only one, or why certain tribes may only have two or three words to express color while your local Sherwin-Williams needs a dozen or so just for shades of white.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The end of the Republic

Back in February, I wrote a post comparing the US in 2011 to Rome in 59 BC, asking, “So just how far have we progressed?” Without boasting, it’s been my most successful post to date; it was a lot of fun to write, too.

Of course, surface comparisons can only take us so far, especially when you’re trying to write social commentary. You can get so wrapped up in the obvious similarities that you ignore the deeper differences; even worse, you can strain to make meaningful equivalences out of situations that are apple-and-orange different.

For example, gay-rights advocates are at some pains to equate the homosexual experience of discrimination with the black American experience … an effort that must cause many black Americans either amusement or disgust. The most obvious dissimilarity? Most of the time, if you’re black, you don’t have to tell anyone. And that accounts for most of the differences in treatment and experience.

(By the way, this isn’t another flipping post on gay marriage; I’m sick to my gills with the topic. Just let me set the stage here.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Overheard at a Denny's - I

“I really don’t see what business the government has prying into people’s sex lives. I think whatever goes on between consenting adults in the privacy of the bedroom should be nobody’s business but theirs, as long as nobody gets hurt.”

“Okay, so you’re for sexual restrictions?”

What? How did you get that out of what I said?”

“Simple. You said consenting, so you’ve ruled out force — that’s one restriction. You said adults, so there’s another restriction — no pederasty, no pedophilia. You said in the privacy of the bedroom, so I presume no sex in the middle of The Ballpark at Arlington, right? You said—”

“Y’know, Derek, you really are annoying when you get like this.”

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Reflections on the setback in New York

Okay, I suppose at this point, I should make some grumbling noises about the State of New York passing (and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signing) the gay marriage bill. Supposedly there was an amendment adopted requiring stronger religious protections … but the bill was voted on almost as soon as the amendment was released, before anyone could take a good look at the legal language. I have no doubt that, when the legal analysts actually take a look at it, the language will be equivocal, capable of bearing the worst interpretations possible.

Okay, I’m not happy about it. But then, I didn’t expect a victory for the “culture of life” team. It would have been nice, but New York was a blue state long before colors were assigned (what would Richard Nixon have thought about conservative states being called “red”?). And of course, there’s always three or four RINOs on the floor, who talk pro-life and pro-family during the election cycle yet manage to find reasons to vote with the liberals when the issues become final votes. (“Crypto-liberals?” “Stealth Democrats”?) But we’re not England, so party members aren’t required to vote the platform.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The wealth gap and economic stalemate

If there’s any commercial which sums up the economic trap we’re in, it would have to be the one recently released by the American Realtors’ Association.

The commercial does a pretty good job of pointing out that building homes puts people to work, and has been a major driver of our economy for some time. From there, it wants us to draw the conclusion that it’s Our Patriotic Obligation to buy new houses, to get America back to work again.

But I already have a house. It’s not twenty years old yet. I’m not moving anywhere. I don’t have the funds on hand or the income to justify a second home. Nor do I see the point in having a new home built for me when this one does me just fine; to do so is simply wasteful — consumption for consumption’s sake.

And even if I could qualify for a mortgage for this theoretical new house, the construction workers would be put to work for only a couple of months. After that, for the next thirty or so years my money would go to support people who service mortgages.

I think you get the drift: Asking people out of work to buy houses and saddle themselves with extra debt to put some people to work for a short time is a clear sign that nobody knows what the hell to do.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Freedom and the paradox of choice

Over at Startling the Day, my friend Elizabeth Hillgrove talks about a label psychologists and sociologists are starting to apply to certain twenty-somethings: emerging adults. These are the typical qualities of the emerging adult:

  • They are searching for their identity and exploring different options.
  • Their lives are unstable.
  • They are self-focused, meaning they are not yet beholden to anyone.
  • They feel “in-between” adolescence and adulthood.
  • It’s a time of remarkable optimism.

My first reaction to this list was to quip: “After thirty, they’re called slackers.” And, in the way of all jokes, this is true. I ran into a similar label, pre-adulthood, in Kay S. Hymowitz’s controversial WSJ essay, “Where Have The Good Men Gone?”, which I discussed back in February (“Fish need bicycles”). But while emerging adulthood as given by psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett is given a positive spin, Hymowitz’s pre-adulthood is almost synonymous with “men who won’t grow up”.

The odd thing is, this post comes up right after I’d had a quick discussion on Facebook with the Crescat and Michael Liccione over Richard James Verone, a 59-year-old man who deliberately “robbed” a bank for $1 very politely in order to go to jail and get free medical care. I’d also watched an hour-long talk psychologist Barry Schwartz gave at Google on The Paradox of Choice. And, to top it all off, the day before I’d just watched The Shawshank Redemption, one of the best movies ever based on a Stephen King story.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Discipline, habit and Catholic modesty

The other day, I posted as part of my “Seven Quick Takes Friday” entry the video for The Romantics’ “Talking In Your Sleep”. At the very beginning of the video, we’re presented with shots of a woman dressing for bed in a manner that in 1985 was rather risqué. (By today’s standards it’s pretty tame … and even pretty lame.)

Chalk it up to my rather late reversion and my ongoing struggle against the thoughts and habits of a lifetime, but I never thought I’d ever have to warn men to practice custody of the eyes. So to offset my discomfort, I cracked a joke about the cringe-worthy hairstyles (the pompadours disappeared in time for their next hit, the ever-annoying “What I Like About You”). But there’s still that lingering feeling of hypocrisy: Good Lord, what right do I have to be a prude?

But the thoughts and habits of a lifetime are precisely what concerns us in discussing Catholic modesty. It’s those habits that, in my case, created an addiction to porn against which I still do battle, and which will remain a temptation as long as I’m hooked to the Internet. (Take a moment here to say a prayer for me, please.) And it’s from that perspective that I feel I should contribute.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Lost in transmission

Let’s reflect for a moment on some words Cdl. Séan O’Malley of Boston wrote about the recent flap over a church offering a Mass in celebration of Gay Pride Month:

The Church opposes changing the definition of marriage because to do so would weaken one of the oldest and most sacred institutions of human society. The most recent Census revealed that married households are, for the first time, in the minority in our country. The culture of easy divorce, cohabitation and the redefinition of marriage are all threats to strong family life. For this reason, the Church will always defend traditional marriage. This does not mean that we reject anyone.

Before moving forward, we should pay careful attention to what he’s saying. Whatever else can be said about gay relationships — and there’s much that bears discussion — they’re not the only concern the Catholic Church has about the state of marriage and sexual relationships today. And marriage and sexual relationships aren’t the only concern of the Church. Gay marriage simply happens to be one of the hot topics of today.

This is worth underlining because of the impression people have about the Church’s “obsessive concern” over what people do in the sack. If there were a movement to legalize perjury or petty larceny, we’d doubtless hear moans about the Church’s antiquated and unscientific hatred of lying and theft, along with some resentful condemnations of the Church’s resistance.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The lost practice of teaching common sense

My brother Ted served 17 years in the Air Force, getting an early retirement in 1995 at the rank of Master Sergeant (E7). For a couple of those years, he earned extra money teaching at a local college, where he’d earned his bachelor’s in engineering.

One day, he was running through the breakdown of a complex formula and its application. At the end of it, he saw the students were puzzled … so he ran through it again in a slightly different way. Yet the students’ confusion still reigned. One student said, “We understand how the formula works, sir … but how do you know to apply it there?

Ted replied, “Practice.” And suddenly he remembered struggling with advanced algebra and calculus in high school, asking the same question of his teachers — and thinking the answer was no help at all.

If you’re a parent, this may have happened to you already; if not, I promise it will: In the midst of remonstrating with your child, you will hear yourself repeat verbatim the same thing your mother or father said to you on a similar occasion (“If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it?”). If you’re not a parent, you may still find yourself repeating as an adult things your parents told you when you thought you weren’t listening … and finally realizing how true they are. Like the time at work when, in discussing annual reviews, I had to find an HR-appropriate way to tell others what my father once told me: “One ‘aw s***’ will wipe out ten ‘attaboys’.”

Friday, June 17, 2011

The lost discipline of logic

Over on The Impractical Catholic, I related my theory that very few people now really have a firm grasp of what the words moral and morality mean. From all I can gather, they generally believe morality has only to do with sexual and reproductive choices, and that its only basis is the “Thou shalt not’s” of the Ten Commandments.

I also have a theory that people no longer have a firm grasp of what logic means and what a logical argument is. Many people, thanks to Gene Roddenberry and Mr. Spock, think it has something to do with being emotionless. But for everyone else, a logical argument is one that makes sense to them … even if it makes sense to no one else. After all, as Gloria Steinem so famously (and fatuously) declared, “Logic is in the eye of the logician.”

This is the only way I can reconcile an atheist’s claim to be logical when he says, “Absence of evidence is evidence of absence,” as if that weren’t a classic example of an ad ignorantiam (appeal to ignorance) fallacy. The ad ignorantiam fallacy argues that if you can’t prove x true then x must be false, or vice versa. This is an incorrect inference, since what hasn’t been proven true may yet be true for reasons still undiscovered; if evidence is absent now, it doesn’t follow that evidence will never come.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Why businessmen shouldn't run the government

My friend Steve, whom I’ve known now for over forty years, does a lot better job of keeping up with the political players than I do. (He’s also smarter, more educated and quick-witted than I am; I’m the ugly friend, if you get the reference.)

Yesterday, he watched a debate between a collection of the current GOP presidential candidates. As he noted, none of them said much to distinguish between the lot of them; the strategy they’ve all apparently adopted is to be the Anti-Obama. Good luck, guys; it worked so well for John Kerry against Dubya back in ’04.

Now, I would hardly bother you with retailing a political nonevent secondhand if something didn’t get revealed worth ranting about. Newt Gingrich’s desire to repeal the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, as much as it is an indicator that he lives in cloud-cuckoo-land, is a pointer in the direction. But even more illustrative is the position of Herman Cain.

As is seemingly prerequisite of anyone who’s been a CEO of a large corporation, Steve said, “Cain advocated lowering corporate tax rates (OK with me, if you also close the loopholes), eliminating capital gains taxes altogether (sounds crazy and probably is, but sure, with the restrictions suggested by the first George Bush and others), and instituting a flat income tax structure (will he leave the federal government with any revenue?).”

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Apologetics toolbox: Sedevacantists

“The other Protestants"

What is sedevacantism?

Sedevacantism describes a segment of people who, while holding themselves out to be Catholics, maintain that the documents of Vatican II teach heresy. As a result of this, the popes and bishops responsible for this council were de facto excommunicate; by extension, since heresy impedes priestly and episcopal functions, there were no true apostolic successors after that point, and the Chair of Peter is an empty seat (sede vacante).

Excepting for our current purposes the Eastern and Orthodox Churches, we can state that Protestantism begins with the rejection of the authority of the Pope and the bishops of the Catholic Church, and assumes that the identity of the true Church of Christ is transferable (i.e., Martin Luther would have never separated himself from Rome if he weren’t convinced that he and his followers were the true Church).

If we accept this model, then the central problem becomes clear: sedevacantism is a form of Protestantism. The only real difference is that, where the Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists and their descendants prop their rebellion on the twin pillars of sola scriptura and sola fide, the sedevacantists support theirs through appeal to their interpretation of Catholic dogmatic statements and comparison with their interpretation of the Vatican II documents.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Saletan, Kevorkian and the progressivist fork

Whenever I read William Saletan’s apologiae for the culture of death, I read a man who’s never completely comfortable with the positions he takes.

In a post on The Slate dated June 3, Saletan writes about his father’s passing from cancer two months ago, and places it in the context of the late Dr. Jack Kevorkian and assisted suicide. The core of his argument was that, although “Kevorkian … was lax about investigating palliative options and verifying that his patients were terminally ill”, nevertheless, “he brought assisted suicide out of the shadows, and behind him came a wave of reformers more careful about drawing lines.” As a result, Oregon’s assisted-suicide law has provisions that prevent it from giving legal shelter to euthanasia … at least on paper.

Along the way, Saletan commits the “people are gonna do it anyway” fallacy: “Assisted suicide, it turns out, is a lot like abortion. No government can stop it — I would have risked jail to get the pills if necessary — and efforts to enforce its prohibition only make it less careful and humane.” To which Ross Douthat, in a blog entry dated June 6, responds:

[Saletan] doesn’t want to live in a police state where hospice nurses are arrested for dispensing morphine too freely, and neither do I. But it’s possible to accept that no government can “stop” assisted suicide or abortion completely (and that no government should create the kind of deeply- invasive mechanisms required to try) without believing that either practice should therefore be legalized and legitimated.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Telling the truth is offensive

There was a story I once admired about a German diplomat who walked into Thomas Jefferson’s White House office and found a Whig newspaper, filled with scurrilous libels about the “Sage of Monticello”, sitting on the President’s desk. When the diplomat wondered that the editor of the paper had not been clapped in prison for his seditious nonsense, Jefferson handed him the paper with a smile, saying, “Take this back home with you; and when you hear your countrymen express doubts about the liberties we have, show them this, and tell them where you found it.”

Now that I’m older, the story disturbs me.

I’m all for honest disagreements in the public square, and I can understand it when people get their facts wrong — or right in the wrong way, as happened with Sarah Palin a few days ago. But the story now strikes me as though Jefferson considered the First Amendment a license to lie. And since SCOTUS’ unanimous decision in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), which practically disemboweled libel laws, it’s a license with very few limits.

If freedom, as Bl. John Paul II said, is having the right to do what we ought, then the freedoms of speech and the press ought to be the right to tell the truth. Why? Because, even respecting the bounds of charity, prudential discretion and national security, we owe each other truth as a matter of justice.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Playing the bully card II: Maslow's hammer—UPDATED

It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.
Abraham H. Maslow, The Psychology of Science

On Monday, the CDC released a study of high-school student health-risk behaviors that showed a higher prevalence of unhealthy activity by students who self-report as gay or bisexual, including tobacco use, alcohol and other drug use, sexual risk behaviors, suicidal behaviors, and violence. The overall prevalence for gay and lesbian students was measured at a median of 63.8% of the behaviors measured, and 76.0% for bisexuals.

Monday was also the first day of the LGBT Youth Summit, where HHS Substance Abuse and Mental Health administrator Pam Hyde, who is gay, announced, “Your federal government has finally come out of the closet in support of LGBT youth.” The study shows that behaviors linked to depression and attempted suicide are significantly higher among gay and bisexual students; HHS Sec. Kathleen Sebelius explains it, “We know these behaviors are not the result of who these young people are. They are the result of what’s happening to them.”

Enter Maslow’s Hammer. “Sebelius went on to say a federal interagency taskforce is partnering the Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, Agriculture, Defense, Interior and Justice to come up with strategies and programs to fight bullying.”

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Secularism and the establishment clause

Most discussions about religion in the public square treat the words secular and secularism as if the antonyms were religious and religion. Strictly speaking, however, the antonyms of secular and secularism are sectarian and sectarianism. You don’t need to be an atheist, an agnostic or even irreligious to be secular … you just need to not belong to a specific religious community.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Note that the provision prohibiting the establishment of religion is paired with the guarantee of free exercise of religion. The ideas were yoked together on paper because they were yoked together in the minds of the Bill of Rights’ authors.

Moreover, both of these protections are included with other provisions that, boiled to their simplest forms, guarantee the citizen the right to have and make known opinions on how we ought to be governed. They’re included in this Amendment because, in Europe and in the colonies prior to the Constitutional Convention, affiliation with a church not supported or established by the State was treated as grounds for exclusion from participation in government.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Freedom and relationships

Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.
    Bl. John Paul II[1]

The five weeks or so between Memorial Day and Independence Day, which also embraces Flag Day, could be designated the “Patriotic Season”. It makes for an especially appropriate time to reflect on liberty, what it means, how it can be defended or delineated.

Over the last few days, Mark Shea, the Anchoress, Stacy Trasancos and I have all commented on the scurrilous “Foreskin Man” cartoons published by the “intactivist” group behind the San Francisco circumcision ban initiative. I respect all three writers, who have all been at the apologetics game longer than I have, but Stacy I find most simpático.

But in her remarks, Stacy made a statement I had to read twice:

Much of the debate over homosexual marriage has turned from the fact that marriage has a meaning regarding families and the foundation of society, a good meaning — good for all — and instead become rhetoric about religious ideas oppressing homosexuals from exercising their freedom. That is a distorted view of the issue. Real freedom comes from defining your own relationships without depending on the government to do it for you [emphasis mine — TL]. That is the essence of personhood — freedom to exist.

Ah. Er. Hmm. Is that really true? On the face of it, it almost seems that Stacy grants precisely what gay-marriage activists want: the ability to define their relationships as they see fit. [That isn't what she was going for, though; see our discussion in the comments below.—TL] The opposing argument, which we Catholics back, is that the essence of marriage is an objective, immutable fact, not open to redefinition.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Apologetics toolbox: Communion of saints III

First, let me apologize for the little hiatus in my posting. Actually, I’ve posted almost as much in the last three months as I did in 2008, 2009 and 2010 combined, so I’m happy the “writer’s block” lasted no longer than it did.

In Part I, we argued that God does make saints, and that we’re all called to sanctity as part of our call to faith. In Part II, we tackled the “praying to saints is necromancy” argument; as Jesus told the Sadducees, “The Lord is God of the living, not of the dead” (Mk 12:27).

So okay, there are saints that are already with God in the heavenly kingdom. That doesn’t mean they can hear our prayers, though, right? In the last post, I dismissed the question out of hand. Frankly, there’s no good Scriptural argument to say saints can’t hear prayers; one passage — Revelations 5:8 — tells us that they pass on prayers meant for God, which argues that they can hear prayers, even when the prayers aren’t directed to themselves.

Jesus the “One Mediator”

Given the lack of Scriptural arguments against saints hearing prayers, there’s an indirect approach to the matter: Jesus is the only mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5). We can even back this up with another freebie proof-text: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Ac 4:12).