Saturday, July 30, 2011

Past futuristic

In the December 1900 edition of Ladies Home Journal, writer John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. wrote what at the time must have been a startling collection of predictions:

These prophecies will seem strange, almost impossible. Yet they have come from the most learned and conservative minds in America. To the wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning I have gone, asking each in his turn to forecast for me what, in his opinion, will have been wrought in his own field of investigation before the dawn of 2001 — a century from now. These opinions I have carefully transcribed.

As far as I know, none of the predictions involved returning the subject and verb to the beginning of the sentence. (I can hear Yoda saying a couple of those lines; picky I am). However, let’s take a lighthearted skip through the rest of their forecasts:

The Yankee invasion of British English

England and America are two countries separated by a common language.
—George Bernard Shaw

British journalist Matthew Engel, who lived in the US long enough to learn to love baseball, is nevertheless alarmed by the reverse imperialism of American English. “… I sit over here and listen to people who know nothing of the games talk about ideas coming out of ‘left field’. They speak about ‘three strikes and you’re out’ or ‘stepping up to the plate’ without the foggiest idea what these phrases mean. I think the country has started to lose its own sense of itself.”

Engel isn’t the first Briton to complain about Yankee locutions. According to H. L. Mencken,

The first Englishman to notice an Americanism sneered at it aloofly, thus setting a fashion that many of his countrymen have been following ever since. He was one Francis Moore, a ruffian who came to Georgia in 1735, and the word that upset him was bluff, in the sense of “a cliff or headland with a broad, precipitous face”. He did not deign to argue against it; he simply dismissed it as “barbarous”, and for nearly a century, when it was printed at all in Great Britain, it was set off by sanitary quotation marks.[1]

I’d simply content myself with noting that the imperialism isn’t all one way; more and more US cities are beginning to feature roundabouts in their street construction, and you see more office parks and buildings called Centres … which strikes me as unnecessarily snooty. Then there’s BBC America, and BP stations (which used to be Amoco); my mother has a credit card from — of all places — the Royal Bank of Scotland. And need I mention the ubiquitous Harry Potter?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Feed my pets, change my sheets

My younger brother, Bob, has had type-1 diabetes (adult onset) for over seventeen years.

Since his first diagnosis — actually, he was originally misdiagnosed as type-2 — he has had a kidney replaced, the nerves in his legs have atrophied (diabetic neuropathy), his stomach and intestines have suffered similar damage (gastroparesis), the bones of his left ankle have softened, distorting the joint (Charcot foot), and his skin is becoming ever more fragile. If that weren’t bad enough, he recently suffered a fracture of his right tibia and his right eye has developed an ulcerated cornea.

Since my mother is elderly (I say that with trepidation; she might actually read this blog) and has advanced arthritis in one of her hands, her ability to take care of Bob is becoming more limited. So taking care of my brother is almost literally my new job … one for which I have little to no practical training.

I don’t tell you all this to fish for compliments or admiration. Rather, it’s to set up the context for the rest of the story.

And I’m not the hero of it. More like the comic relief.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Christians: Read the atheist's whole post!

If anything, the responses I got to “The Golden Calf of Scientism” on The Impractical Catholic have provided some good blogging material. One reply, in fact, dovetails nicely with a reply Jennifer Fulweiler got on a recent post.

In “The Golden Calf”, I listed some ways that some scientists misuse or violate the scientific method. One example was, “They cherry-pick statistics and results that support their arguments, while leaving out those that contraindicate.” A respondent jumped on that line:

[I]s this the definition of science or religion. Is this not what most, if not all, [Christians] do today. Scream/preach about the parts that make others sinners and ignore and overlook the parts that make you one. [How original … a tu quoque argument. Yawn.]

Fulweiler, for her part, was telling us that, for some atheists, it’s insufficient merely to reason with them because they’re “trapped in a prison of reason”; that is, they have an answer for everything, so logical arguments become fruitlessly repetitive. To this end, she quoted a couple of paragraphs about the insane from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. And in her combox, what do I find?

“[Prison] of reason”? Some might call that sanity. [Yes, and some North Koreans might find their cultural paranoia very reasonable. But that’s not the point.]

Monday, July 25, 2011

Misusing the scientific method

Last year — March 21, to be precise — I posted a long diatribe on this blog on a study published in Social Psychology Quarterly on the influence of IQ on religious, political and sexual behaviors. Then, two weeks ago, on The Impractical Catholic, I wrote a post trying to remind various people that, for all the benefits it's brought us, the scientific method is still very much a human art, and therefore prone to misuse and abuse.

I don't know if Denyse O'Leary of was reading either my mind or my blog, or I was reading her mind, or if it was just fantastic timing. But lo and behold, she brought forth a couple of splendid examples of how the scientific method can be misused to promote an agenda.

On two posts, which you can access here and here, O'Leary looks at a couple of studies which claimed to show a negative correlation between religion and IQ, and fisks them for methodological problems. Although the link to one of the studies is broken at this time, I commend them to your attention; suffice it to say that neither of the researchers in question seems to have heard of a false-cause fallacy.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Pro-life hatred and feminist groupthink

“Just a few days ago, our highly effective pro-life site,, was hacked by a gang of pro-abortion activists,” says Kristan Hawkins, the executive director for Students for Life. “As a result, we lost critical data, petition sign-ups, graphics, and social network communications. This breach of security was intentional — and it was very malicious.”

So begins the story in posted today by Steve Ertelt (H/T to Lisa Graas). This episode doesn’t stand alone, either; Ertelt has also posted stories of vandalism against a crisis pregnancy center in Fredericton, New Brunswick, tire-slashing of a car owned by Operation Rescue interns in New Mexico, and other acts of hate-fueled wanton destruction.

As I read it, I was reminded of a story reported in May 2010 of various insults a group of priests in Rockford, Ill., have had to endure while maintaining a prayer vigil outside a local abortion mill. Now, mind you, these priests aren’t sidewalk counselors or carrying protest signs … all they do is pray. At one point, one priest’s minivan was egged; another found a sign taped to his car which said “I RAPE CHILDREN”.

I don't own the rights.

The other day, when Stacy Trasancos and I were debating with a pro-choice person on Facebook, one thing that puzzled me is when she explained her rudeness by saying that she was angry about “misogynists” who were attempting to take her freedom away and reduce women back to second-class status. As I read it, I thought, You’re putting me on! You can’t seriously believe that SDS retread bushwah!?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Why Eucharistic adoration builds parishes

Is perpetual adoration “THE solution”?

You keep reading Catholic blogs long enough, and you start amassing a load of anecdotal evidence for any number of antidotes to the illnesses besetting the stateside Church: getting rid of the EMHCs, restricting the post of altar server to boys only, reverting to chant and sacred polyphony, even getting rid of the Novus Ordo Mass altogether and going back wholesale to the 1962 Missal. Certainly it seems that the closer a parish gets to Catholic orthodoxy and traditional emphases, the more likely it is to start flourishing again.

Now, I have an ingrained, constitutional suspicion about magic cure-all elixirs, especially when it consists of drastic policy changes sprung on unprepared, unsuspecting congregations. Again, working from anecdotal evidence, it seems to me that most such things work best when the pastor works enthusiastically to get the parish movers and shakers on board and introduces the changes gradually.

Of the long-term approaches, one I favor is switching parish schools to a classical curriculum as has been done by a few already, such as The Atonement Academy at Our Lady of the Atonement parish in San Antonio, St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, MD, and St. Pius X Classical Academy in Nashville. The other is the re-introduction of perpetual adoration.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Father Corapi and authentic Christian witness

In about the year 52 BC, the great Roman demagogue Publius Clodius Pulcher was accused of profaning a religious ritual. In this escapade, Pompeia, the wife of Julius Caesar, was also accused as his accomplice. At Clodius’ trial, Caesar refused to give evidence: he wasn’t present, since it was a women’s festival. However, he also divorced Pompeia. When asked why, he stated, “Because my wife shouldn’t even be a suspect.” (Another tradition phrases it: “Caesar’s wife, like all Caesar’s family, must be above suspicion.”)

Another story: The chief rabbi of the yeshiva approached young Moskowitz, and said, “My heart is heavy, and my words are like lead: for I have heard a rumor about you—” Young Moskowitz interrupted, “It’s all lies! I know the rumor you’re speaking of, Rabbi, and there’s not a shred of truth in it!” Upon which the rabbi reared up and thundered, “True it should be yet? Isn’t it bad enough that there’s a rumor?”

It was said that the great Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner “would not allow himself to fall into a position in the privacy of his bedchamber that he would not assume in the chamber of the Senate.” Just so; the secret to maintaining the appearance of a moral person is to maintain the appearance even when no one’s watching and there’s no way you could get caught being immoral.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

What's in a name? (A Sunday ramble)

Recently, my cousin Steve and his wife Laura Kristi welcomed into the bigger world their first child, whom they named Kaiya (pronounced “kah-yah”). Yesterday, some of my nieces and nephews and I were talking with him about her, trying to get the pronunciation right, and he grinned self-consciously: “I know. Sounds pretty hippie, doesn’t it?”

Men don’t get to pick the baby’s names. At least, not often. Sometimes it’s not a good idea, especially if you consider Dweezil, Moon Unit and Motorhead Zappa. Steve’s smile suggested to me that, for love of his wife, he had embraced Kaiya’s name as much as he embraced Kaiya herself. It was a beautiful thing.

And I don’t intend to denigrate it, either, or to chide Laura for it. “Moon Unit” would be far, far worse.

But it does make me wonder why and how people choose the baby names they do. How many women actually think about the child that has to carry the name they give, and what s/he may have to suffer if given something too outré.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Overheard at a Denny's - IV

“So I’m still waiting on your answer, Derek. What is it with the Catholic Church and gay people?”

“Good grief, Mark. Can’t even let a guy finish his pie before the interrogation?”

“No! You’ve been stalling the last couple of weeks. I think you’re chicken.”

“Yep. That’s your postmodern Christian for you … willing to die for Christ but not to be socially embarrassed.”

Laughter. “C’mon, I promise I won’t get you fired!”

“Okay.” Sigh. “Part of the reason that science is at an impasse is because the psychologists aren’t talking to the biologists. Let’s pretend for a minute that I’m not a Catholic and you’re not a Southern Baptist … we’re both Darwinians without religious convictions of any kind. So what does homosexuality represent in biology?”

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Nose puppies and breast implants

An early Dilbert™ cartoon has Our Hero approach a sidewalk vendor whose sign advertises NOSE PUPPIES for the reasonable price of $1.00. The vendor explains that nose puppies are ceramic puppies that you insert in your nostrils. “‘Find a need and fill it.’ That’s my motto.”

The market, he explains in the next day’s strip, for ceramic puppies was rather small, and he wasn’t doing too well … until he hit on the idea of putting them up people’s noses. “I don’t want to get rich. I just want to leave the world a little better than I found it.”

“Nose puppies” is a good description for items that marketers have decided we “need” but serve no real purpose other than to bubble cash out of the hands of the improvident and into the coffers of the rich. Sometimes they work as advertised; sometimes they don’t; almost always they’re unnecessary.

Case in point: who was the genius who decided to create windshield wipers that turn themselves on? Who is so freaking lazy they can’t be bothered to flip a switch? (On the other hand, I can see definite value in cars that parallel-park themselves, since I’m not the best judge of distance … but I still wouldn’t call it a “need”.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"You're not the boss of me!"

One day, listening to Catholic Connection while driving to work, I heard Teresa Tomeo make an observation that cracked me up: “There may be a shortage of vocations to the priesthood, but there’s no shortage of vocations to the papacy!”

I reflected on this mordant truth as I read Frank Weathers’ “Thoughts on Obedience and Reading Maps without Guidance” on Why I Am Catholic:

I have a friend who can’t understand why I enjoy being a Catholic.

From discussions I have had with him, it appears that he believes I am now enslaved by an organization that is run by a tyrant who bears the title of “Pope.” I reckon that his libertarian tendencies bristle at the very idea of submitting to an authority, even if that authority is ordained  and conferred by Christ Himself.

It's not that the Pope or any other form of religious leader is illegitimate. Rather, many people want to be their own pope; the fact that the job is taken is inconvenient. So let me add  a few thoughts to Frank's:

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Some thoughts on Godwin's Law

"60,000 reichsmarks: This is what this person suffering from hereditary defects costs the Community of Germans during his lifetime. Fellow Citizen, that is your money, too."

Just yesterday, I read on Father Z’s blog a quickie extract from an opinion in the Fishwrap by Thomas C. Fox on the revised English missal. Not wasting any time, in his second paragraph Fox dragged in the predator priest scandals:

These are tough years for the U.S. bishops who have fallen under dark clouds for their failings in their handlings of the decades’ long clergy sexual abuse tragedy in our church. To the failing of protecting our children from clergy abuse many will now be adding another: the failure to protect clear and simple — and meaningful — English in our mass liturgies from an assault by ideologically led bishops.

This prompted me to make a new addition to Layne’s Laws; to wit, an exception to Godwin’s Law I’ve named (in characteristic modesty) “Layne’s Exception”:

In any online discussion where the topic is the Catholic Church, its leaders or beliefs, as the discussion thread grows longer, the probability of a reference to pedophile priests approaches 1 (100%).
  • Corollary 1: The reference will be not only invalid but inappropriate and abusive.
  • Corollary 2: The earlier the reference is made, the greater the probability the rest of the discussion will follow the reference down a rabbit hole.

At the same time, I’ve been having second thoughts about a derivative of Godwin’s Law, the “Hitler card” fallacy. As proposed, the argumentum ad Hitlerum is considered a fallacy if it takes the form “Hitler/the Nazis accepted idea I, therefore I must be wrong”. An argument is also consider an ad Hitlerum if it associated Hitler or the Nazis with a weak analogy, especially a question-begging analogy.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Erica Jong's poisoned sugar

One of the weaknesses I have, as a Catholic writer who focuses largely on issues of sexuality, is that I haven’t kept up with feminist literature. So it took me by surprise to see an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Erica Jong, who vaulted into the spotlight so many years ago with her book Fear of Flying, titled: “Is Sex Passé?” (“God, she’s not dead yet?”)

In editing her most recent work, Sugar in My Bowl, Jong noticed a distinct difference in attitude towards sex between the younger and older women: “The older writers in my anthology are raunchier than the younger writers. The younger writers are obsessed with motherhood and monogamy.”

It makes sense. Daughters always want to be different from their mothers. If their mothers discovered free sex, then they want to rediscover monogamy. My daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, who is in her mid-30s, wrote an essay called “They Had Sex So I Didn’t Have To.” Her friend Julie Klam wrote “Let’s Not Talk About Sex.” The novelist Elisa Albert said: “Sex is overexposed. It needs to take a vacation, turn off its phone, get off the grid.” [Wasn’t it Andy Warhol who said “Sex is the biggest nothing of all time”?] Meg Wolitzer, author of “The Uncoupling,” a fictional retelling of “Lysistrata,” described “a kind of background chatter about women losing interest in sex.” Min Jin Lee, a contributor to the anthology, suggested that “for cosmopolitan singles, sex with intimacy appears to be neither the norm nor the objective.”

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Arguing with blowhards

Yesterday, I was manning … er, personing the pro-life barricades on Facebook in tandem with Stacy Trasancos. Our main opponent was this one woman who apparently has drunk deep at the wells of scientism.

Scientism isn’t to be confused with science; in fact, scientism is rather confused about science, though the devoté (or, in this case, devotée) will never see the confusion as such. Scientism isn’t so much a philosophy as an attitude, or even a platitude: “What isn’t measurable isn’t an objective fact.” Which leaves you to wonder how they manage to measure their names or their tastes in ice cream.

But leaving behind the more risible of scientism’s incoherencies (the statement above isn’t measurable; therefore, by its own terms, it isn’t an objective fact), devotés tend to have a smattering of ill-understood philosophical terms, a contempt for religion, and the strange, inexplicable belief (verging on childlike faith) that scientists are beyond the foibles that lead lesser people into error.

Whatever other gifts God has given me, patience isn’t one of them. I certainly don’t take to being treated like a fool, even when I am being foolish. When a person makes basic errors in logic and terminology and sneers at correction attempts, what patience I’ve developed over the years wears quickly.

This is why I prefer to debate by email. Or by blog entries.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Is college a scam?

John Stossel has a new gripe: “… [F]or many people, college is a scam.”

First, getting a college degree doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a job that will pay off your student loans, let alone provide a better income than you’d get as a high school graduate. Second, people who graduate from college tend to do better because they’re generally more disciplined, and would likely succeed if they never stepped foot on a college campus; Stossel leads his article off with names of famous men who either never went or dropped out, like Bill Gates and Peter Jennings. And many professors aren’t there to teach; teaching students actually takes away from their main source of income, research.

I can add to the indictment. According to Stossel, “A writer called [entrepreneur Peter] Thiel’s grant [$100,000 to drop out of college and start up a business] a ‘nasty idea’ that leads students into ‘halting their intellectual development ... maintaining a narrow-minded focus on getting rich.’” But for many college students, “mind-broadening” consists solely of learning college progressivist cant; they may learn many facts they never knew before, but they’re not necessarily any better thinkers than they were when they left high school. Besides, people who don’t take to the world of abstractions naturally won’t become abstract thinkers under social compulsion.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Equivocating American secularism

You ever read something and find yourself thinking, “Y’know, I’d agree with this if the blinking author had just found a different way to say it”?

On Monday, historian and author Kenneth C. Davis wrote an interesting think-piece for CNN, “Why U.S. is not a Christian nation”. Davis, most noted for his Don’t Know Much About … series of books, makes hits the expected points very well:

No one can argue … that the Founding Fathers were not Christian, although some notably doubted Christ’s divinity.
More precisely, the founders were, with very few exceptions, mainstream Protestants. Many of them were Episcopalians, the American offshoot of the official Church of England. The status of America's Catholics, both legally and socially, in the colonies and early Republic, was clearly second-class. Other Christian sects, including Baptists, Quakers and Mormons, faced official resistance, discrimination and worse for decades.
But the founders, and more specifically the framers of the Constitution, included men who had fought a war for independence — the very war celebrated on the “Glorious Fourth” — against a country in which church and state were essentially one.

Here’s where it gets hinky:

They understood the long history of sectarian bloodshed in Europe that brought many pilgrims to America. They knew the dangers of merging government, which was designed to protect individual rights, with religion, which as Jefferson argued, was a matter of individual conscience.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Overheard at a Denny's - III

Again I apologize for inflicting an experiment in place of my usual ponderous, obfuscating commentary. But today got away from me completely — no time to recuperate, too many things to do around here! And besides, I had a lot of fun writing these dialogues. Hmm, maybe I can build a book out of these ….

*          *          *

“So tell me something, Derek: What is it with the Catholic Church and gay people?

“Aw, Mark! I don’t have another job lined up, so I gotta keep the one I got!”

“Hey, come on, we’re buds! You know I don’t get all scream-y like some gay guys do! … Hey, I tell ‘fag’ jokes, for Pete’s sake!”

“Yeah, I know, and I always flinch and look for the PC Patrol to come frog-march us off to HR.”

Friday, July 1, 2011

Overheard at a Denny's - II

I was going to save this second installment for a little later this month. However, I spent yesterday in the hospital being treated for pneumonia I didn’t know I had, so I’m running a bit behind. Thanks for your patience!

*          *          *

“So anyway, Derek, I was thinking about what we were talking about the other night——”

“Hmm? Oh, yeah.”

“Yeah. Anyway, I’m not entirely convinced. You said we work backwards from the moral wrongness to the psychological illness …”


“… but different cultures have different moralities.”

“Not as much as you think. People cherry-pick the differences and ignore the commonalities, then pretend that the differences mean there’s no intersections. It gets really bad among the college progressives, who tend to split moral sets into ‘white male Christian homophobes’ and ‘everybody else’, really overworking the socialist language of ‘oppressor class’ and ‘oppressed class’.”