Monday, November 21, 2016

About Those Participation Trophies …

Dear Cody,

I’ve seen the message you left for “People Older Than Me” on behalf of “People Younger Than Me”, which has had over 331,000 views at this writing [11/19/16]. For the benefit of everyone else, let me repeat it:

Dear People Older Than Me:

Shut up about the f**king participation trophies. We didn’t ask for them. We didn’t want them. We didn’t cherish them and polish them while thinking about what special, gifted children we are. They were annoying clutter on our shelves that we had to throw out in secret so we wouldn’t hurt YOUR feelings. And if we knew back then that you were gonna bring it up every time you disagreed with someone under 40 for the rest of f**king time, we would have told you where to shove that cheap plastic statue.

Sincerely,
People Younger Than Me

Mass Immaturity

Cody, I’m sure you’re sick of the references to the participation trophies. As a friend of mine pointed out, only the really little kids just starting Little League got participation trophies. Eventually, they went out with the ball tee, and you had to learn to play to win just as you had to learn how to hit a pitch. Which is to say, you had to learn to risk losing just as you learned to risk getting hit by a pitch. Participating is a minimum requirement; getting a trophy for it is like receiving an award for putting on your pants.

Just to show I get the larger point, I’m sure you’re also tired of the sneering references to “safe spaces” and trigger warnings and being called “delicate snowflakes”. I suppose it’s also our fault that many people of your generation come to adulthood ill-equipped, lacking confidence, self-esteem, and the normal skills to cope with adversity, unprepared to accept the risks that are part of life in an unsafe world. And if your cohort has shown some rotten behavior as a result of the recent election, I must admit many adults haven’t shown mature behavior either before or after the election.

But in case you missed it, Cody, that was the real point of the “participation trophy” reference — not that your cohort thinks of themselves as special, gifted people, but rather that they throw temper tantrums or break out in noisy tears like spoiled, entitled brats at the least sign of opposition. You’re angry, sad, or afraid? So what; it’s still unacceptable. When you have these episodes of mass immaturity, that’s when we start talking about participation trophies. We don’t simply disagree with you; we find your manner of disagreement absurd and contemptible. No one has to take you seriously just because you do.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Trump’s Plan: “Make America an Oligarchy”

I published Friday’s post a couple days later than I wanted to because my home Internet connection was down. In that post, I reflected on the degree to which elite arrogance had led to Donald Trump’s astonishing victory. But for anyone who thought voting for Trump was a vote for reform, I have news for you: We’re about to enshrine an oligarchy in power, where they can finish the wrecking of the American economic base. And We the People made it happen.

The Triumph of Neoliberalism

While liberals were wrecking windows and cars in a heartwarming display of love and inclusiveness, wearing safety pins for solidarity (because they don’t need them to hold their diapers together), and boomers and Gen-Xers were displaying their contrasting maturity and level-headedness by abusing Hispanics and committing hate crimes, the President-elect was putting a team together of the very people he promised to kick out of Washington to help him plan out the pillaging of the American economy and environment on behalf of the 1%. Speaking of promises, Trump is thinking of keeping some of Obamacare in place — most likely, the parts that keep your rates jacked up, while disposing of those parts that impose costs on the rich.

While you all were fretting over whether Trump would turn SCOTUS to the far right or Hillary would turn it to the far left, whether Christians would be herded into re-education camps or undocumenteds into deportation camps, whether we’d build a wall between us and Mexico or tear down the walls between “gendered” bathrooms, you missed the elements of Trump’s platform which signaled that he really is as much a member of the Establishment as Clinton … and that he really doesn’t empathize with the lower classes. All Trump’s race-baiting, rabble-rousing rhetoric was to distract you from the least appealing feature of his platform — his tax plan.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s by no means unfair or unreasonable for those who own 89% of the nation’s assets and 95% of our financial wealth to pay 2/3rds or more of the government’s expenses. Those who rape — er, reap — more of the benefit of the laws should pay more for the establishment which guarantees those benefits. But Trump’s tax plan ignores all that. As Paul Waldman explains, “Trump’s tax plan would give 47 percent of its benefits to the richest one percent of taxpayers. Paul Ryan’s tax plan is even purer — it gives 76 percent of its cuts to the richest one percent in its first year, and by 2025 would feed 99.6 percent of its benefits to the top 1 percent.” Dodd-Frank is slated to be axed, freeing the financial industry to make risky gambles with other people’s money once more. And while there won’t exactly be an “energy-regulation bonfire”, expect clean-energy initiatives to be cut.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Message to the Elite: “You’re Running the Country Wrong”

© 2016 A. F. Branco, Liberty Alliance.
As I watched ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and his crew of talking heads begin the autopsy on the election late Tuesday night, I felt some dark satisfaction. I hadn’t been the only self-appointed expert caught flat-footed by Donald Trump’s and the Republicans’ victory. Most of the elite, the Only People Whose Opinions Count, were humiliated by an over-glorified carnival huckster who (in our wise estimation) did just about everything wrong that could be done wrong and still pulled the upset of the century.

Andrew Sullivan Throws a Nutty

And the funny thing is, having been so spectacularly wrong about this election, we, the chatterati of America who have been polluting your television screens and social media feeds for months with our hive-mind wisdom, still think you should take our social forecasts seriously. Case in point: Andrew Sullivan, who threw a classic spittle-flecked nutty on the Daily Intelligencer.

This is now Trump’s America. He controls everything from here on forward. He has won this campaign in such a decisive fashion that he owes no one anything. He has destroyed the GOP and remade it in his image. He has humiliated the elites and the elite media. He has embarrassed every pollster and naysayer. He has avenged Obama. And in the coming weeks, Trump will not likely be content to bask in vindication. He will seek unforgiving revenge on those who dared to oppose him. The party apparatus will be remade in his image. The House and Senate will fail to resist anything he proposes — and those who speak up will be primaried into oblivion. The Supreme Court may well be shifted to the far right for more than a generation to come — with this massive victory, he can pick a new Supreme Court justice who will make Antonin Scalia seem like a milquetoast. He will have a docile, fawning Congress for at least four years. We will not have an administration so much as a court.

You should read it. Sullivan is so hysterical over Trump’s forthcoming fascist state that he didn’t pay attention to what he himself wrote: Trump can’t keep all his promises. In fact, we ought to be wondering which promises, if any, he really meant. For instance, his website’s policies page doesn’t have a link to pro-life policies. Various press releases had mentioned his pro-life position; but hey! those press releases are gone now. And frankly, I don’t trust the GOP to hold his feet to the fire on the matter.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Doing Wrong By the Country: The “Lesser Evil” Vote

I’m sick to death of this election. The most distressing aspect of this election cycle is that it’s revealed the extent to which American Catholics, particularly those of a conservative bent, have embraced utilitarianism. For some, it’s a half-hearted utilitarianism — “Oh, we have a lot of qualms about our candidate, but we’ll manfully swallow them to prevent The Evil Candidate from being elected” — but it’s utilitarianism nonetheless.

A Priest Endorses Utilitarianism

Nothing so forcefully illustrates this as the final paragraph of this op-ed from the Wall Street Journal by James Freeman, “Doesn’t Clinton Embarrass the Democrats?”:

Voters who wish to reject the Clintonization of America’s governing institutions have a choice on Nov. 8. They can feel good about themselves by writing in the name of a third-party candidate. Or they can do right by the country by selecting the only person who can stop the Clintons: a very flawed candidate named Donald Trump.

Not only is the argument utilitarian, it sneers at third-party/write-in voters as vain fools voting their self-images. Ad hominem much? The kicker: the paragraph had been posted on Facebook by a priest whose name I shall not mention … and who ought to know better than that.

That Freeman and the WSJ would be for Trump is no surprise. Remarking on the last debate, Freeman comments, “Mr. Trump, for his part, deviates from many Republicans on trade and immigration but has otherwise embraced a growth agenda of lower taxes and regulatory relief for an economy that sorely needs it.” In other words, Freeman and (by extension) the Journal believe the only cure for our current economic doldrums is a hair of the dog that bit us in 2007.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Christian and Pro-Life Leaders: DUMP TRUMP! (UPDATED)

Paul Combs, Tribune.org
[ADDED NOV. 9, 2016: Obviously, my crystal ball is working as well as it usually does come election time. I deserve to have the lede carved on my headstone to shame me even after death. Nevertheless, I’m still convinced Pres. Trump will eventually jilt the pro-life movement, and that the leaders of the “official” movement — especially Fr. Frank Pavone — did us no favors by hitching us onto the Trump train.]

I am no longer concerned about the prospect of Donald Trump as President of the United States. It was never a strong likelihood, despite his sense-defying victory in the Republican primaries. In fact, over the last year, The Donald has done just about everything in his power to ensure Hillary Clinton’s election save drop-kick a beagle puppy from the 58th floor of the Manhattan Trump Tower. The revelation of his “grab them by the p***y” remark simply put the final nail in the coffin. What does concern me is the failure of some visible Christian leaders, especially in the pro-life camp, to admit their error in supporting Trump.

Assessing the Damage

As of this writing [4:00pm CDT, Oct. 8], the most recent political post on the Priests for Life site is an action alert item: “Help Us Tell Tim Kaine to Stop Insulting Catholicism!” The latest news from Susan B. Anthony List is Oct. 5’s “Pence Goes on Offense to Expose Clinton-Kaine Abortion Extremism”. Ralph Reed of the Faith & Freedom Coalition thinks that “A ten-year-old tape of a private conversation with a talk show host ranks low on [people of faith’s] hierarchy of concerns.” And Gary Bauer of the Campaign for Working Families stated, “The ten-year-old tape of a private conversation in which Donald Trump uses grossly inappropriate language does not change the reality of the choice facing this country.”

In a sense, Bauer does hit the right nail: in reality, Trump is no worse a candidate than he was a week ago. The only difference is, Republican leaders are finally waking up to the full shambling horror, albeit too late to do anything meaningful about it. And neither Gary Johnson nor Jill Stein presents a better choice on religious and pro-life issues. Johnson has called religious freedom a “black hole”, while Stein has called it a code for “patriarchal domination”. If you eliminate fringe candidacies, such as the American Solidarity Party’s Michael Maturen and (sadly) the independent Joe Schriner, that leaves Christian and pro-life leaders with a Hobson’s choice: either Trump or nobody.

The choice should have been nobody.

The smart Republicans started to abandon ship even before Trump’s nomination was a done deal. Republican strategist Doug Heye called the decision to nominate Trump “a stain on the GOP’s soul,” nor is he the first. Back in August, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson asked Republicans, “If you tell us such a man should be president, why should the nation ever believe anything else you say?” Just a few days earlier, Kathleen Parker of MySanAntonio.com noted, “For many Republicans, the question is: ‘Who’d want to be a member of a party that would have Donald Trump as its leader?’” As for those who are only now trying to distance themselves from this dumpster fire, the cliché “a day late and a dollar short” doesn’t begin to describe their failure of foresight.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Book Review: Particles of Faith, by Stacy A. Trasancos

One challenge Christians face, particularly millennials, is the apparent challenge Science poses to articles of faith. To be brutally blunt, most of this appearance of challenge stems from the inability of believers and nonbelievers alike to respect the limits of both Science and Religion. An impoverished “progressive” education, neglecting even the most rudimentary instruction in philosophy and leading to rampant neo-philistinism, contributes heavily to the confusion. Many Catholics can benefit from a guide that clarifies those limits and defangs the “hermeneutic of conflict” which decrees the challenge. This is what Stacy A. Trasancos, Ph.D., M.A., offers us in Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science (Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press, 2016; $15.95).

Walking in “No-Man’s Land”

Particles of Faith is not an apologetical work. That’s to say, Dr. Trasancos doesn’t explicitly seek to make converts of atheists, but rather to steer Catholics along a path that will help them comprehend the current state of the sciences that form the “no-man’s land” between belief and unbelief. To this task, she brings an impressive array of education and experience — industrial chemist, theologian, teacher, and mother of seven.

One small complaint: every once in a while, the chemistry talk goes beyond the average layman’s comprehension despite Dr. Trasancos’ obvious attempt to simplify it. I say this as one whose last physical-science course was twenty-three years ago (for what it’s worth, it was organic chemistry, and I got a 4.0). But that’s what Google’s for, right? [Full disclosure: Stacy is not only a friend but the co-publisher and editor emeritus at Catholic Stand; she and Tito Edwards brought me on board there.]

The book is set up in three parts. Part I, “Science in the Light of Faith”, discusses the limitations of science and its necessarily transient state. Part II, “Questions in the Physical Sciences”, delves into the “Big Bang” theory, the relationship of atoms to reality, and the question of whether quantum mechanics explains free will. Part III, “Questions in the Biological Sciences”, discusses evolution from three different angles; particularly useful is the discussion of polygenism versus monogenism (that is, whether humans evolved from a single Adam-and-Eve pair or from a group of independently-evolved individuals).

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Twin Towers of Siloam

The one memory that will stay with me, when all other memories of September 11, 2001 have faded, is how obscenely beautiful the weather was. There really should have been more portents. Fierce, fiery warriors battling in the clouds. Graves yawning and yielding up their dead. At least a two-headed cow, or the ghost of William McKinley.

But no, the New York sky was barely touched with clouds when the Twin Towers  crumbled to the ground. Just as clear was the Arlington, Virginia sky as American Airlines flight 77 slammed into the western side of the Pentagon, and over Stoney Creek Township, Pennsylvania, as the hijackers of United 93 plowed their Boeing 757 into the ground to prevent the passengers from taking over. And it was just as beautiful in Omaha, Nebraska, where I listened to my cab’s FM radio in horror, knowing exactly why Peter Jennings quietly said, “Oh, my God,” as soon as he said it. Satan had apparently decided not to overdo it.

The Loss of Faith

Inevitably, anniversaries such as this will produce analyses in gross lots, rewriting as growing out of the evil stem of the 9/11 attacks trends that were already in place the day before. We need no “truther” conspiracy theories to explain the nadir of our trust in our government; it had been declining for three decades and more. Anti-Moslem sentiment didn’t begin with the collapse of the World Trade Center; it was present during the OPEC oil crisis in the late 1970s, a natural outgrowth of American nativism. We don’t need al-Qaida to explain our interventionism; it was already implicit in complaints that Operation Desert Storm didn’t “finish the job” by going to Baghdad and ousting Saddam Hussein.

Of course we became more afraid. For the sake of security, we permitted the federal government unprecedented powers of investigation and almost casually dispensed with habeas corpus rights for suspected terrorists. In the meantime, we created a new Cabinet-level department whose name carries perhaps-unintended echoes of totalitarian police states. And we also built a cheap, absurd wall along our border with Mexico, as we flailed around to find solutions that would keep terrorists out without going so far as to completely imprison ourselves or stop tourists and imports from coming.

I can’t help but think, though, that in the last fifteen years we became more aware of the fact that America is rotting from within, that both the dream and the reality of America have been corrupted. That’s a broad and vague charge, one not easily specified or documented. However, as much as has been written about the loss of faith in God, I believe that we’ve lost faith in everything — faith in ourselves, in each other, in our social institutions, in our government, in our founding principles.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Libsplaining “The Star-Spangled Banner”

Colin Kaepernick. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images.)
“Mansplaining”, originally defined as the tendency of men to explain the frickin’ obvious to women in a patronizing tone, lost its unique vitality and appropriateness by being applied to any situation where men dared contradict feminist dogma. Eventually it met its conservative matches in “femsplaining” and “libsplaining”. Any portmanteau word which includes -splaining can pretty much be taken to mean “ideologically-motivated bulls**t”. While libsplaining is often employed to defend visible-from-space liberal hypocrisies, like George Takei’s labeling Clarence Thomas “a clown in blackface”, it has a more subtle use: rewriting history.

Kaepernick Sits It Out

On Saturday, August 27, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the National Anthem at the beginning of an exhibition game against the Green Bay Packers. Explaining his refusal, the biracial Kaepernick, who is a supporter of #BlackLivesMatter, said, “There is police brutality. People of color have been targeted by police. So that’s a large part, and they’re government officials. They’re put in place by the government. That’s something this country has to change. There are things that we can do to hold them more accountable, make those standards higher.”

Predictably, there was outrage, and it wasn’t confined to white conservatives. Many NFL players admitted Kaepernick’s right to not stand, but felt his decision was wrong. Said New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, “Regardless of how you feel about the things that are going on in America today and the things that are going on across the world with gun violence and things of that nature, you’ve got to respect the flag.” Retired Army lieutenant colonel and former Florida congressman Allen B. West chided Kaepernick:

Mr. Kaepernick, a biracial young man adopted and raised by white parents, claims America is oppressing blacks at a time when we have a black, biracial president who was twice elected. We’ve had two black attorneys general and currently have a black secretary of homeland security, along with a black national security advisor. Here in Dallas our police chief, whom I know, is an outstanding black leader. The officer in Milwaukee who shot the armed assailant after issuing an order to drop his weapon was black. Is Mr. Kaepernick following suit and cherry-picking what he terms “oppression?”

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Liberal Intelligence Premium is Oversold

Image Source: Institute for Competitive Intelligence.
Over the last few years, liberals have had their egos stroked by studies which report that they are smarter than conservatives. For instance, a few months ago the Pew Center reported that people who had attended graduate school had more consistently liberal positions. These reports have fostered a “smart urban sophisticates vs. dumb rural hicks” mindset among liberals that, if you listen to some people, feeding and encouraging was the sole raison d’être for The Daily Show during Jon Stewart’s tenure. Finally, it got so egregious that even some liberals became uncomfortable with it.

Contemporary Liberalism “Lacks Humility”

Back in April 2016, Vox.com launched a 7,000-plus word essay by deputy First Person editor Emmett Rensin, titled “The smug style in American liberalism”. That liberals have tended to smug condescension has been a complaint of conservatives for some time now. Rensin’s article, however, drew a bigger impact because it came from a liberal writing on a liberal platform, one Kyle Smith of the New York Post described as “typically [combining] childlike oversimplification …, high-school-student-government-nerd idealism, just-arrived-on-campus humorcidal earnestness and the millennial generation’s pretend fealty to big data.” For conservatives like Smith, this was a liberal safety or an own-goal: a member of the opposition had finally scored their point for them.

Oddly enough — odd, because conservatives tend to take it for granted that postmodern liberals are incapable of substantive self-criticism — Rensin’s screed did provoke some internal agreement. Kevin Drum of MotherJones.com (mirabile dictu) commented, “We’re convinced that conservatives, especially working class conservatives, are just dumb. Smug suggests only a supreme confidence that we’re right — but conservative elites also believe they’re right, and they believe it as much as we do. The difference is that, generally speaking, they’re less condescending about it.” “The great virtue that contemporary liberalism lacks and needs,” lamented Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg.com, “is neither civility nor solidarity. It’s humility — and sadly, even some of liberalism’s most thoughtful internal critics can’t see it.”

Even more recently, lawyer-activist Nikki Johnson-Huston took a swipe at “... the cocktail party liberals, the elites, who wear the cloak of liberalism to protect themselves from criticism and so they can keep a clear conscious [sic]” … in Huffington Post, no less. Johnson-Huston’s criticism, however, was aimed at white liberals who used their leftist concern more to assert their moral superiority over conservatives than to actually get involved in problems like racism.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Four Life Issues and Catholic Social Doctrine

There are several political issues commonly wrapped in the social-justice banner that are also issues affecting life and the family. In theory, a Catholic ought to support those policies which support life and family regardless of which party proposes them. However, when the two parties split on abortion and (later) euthanasia, so did American Catholics. Now the nation is so polarized politically that, as Scott Eric Alt explains, any Catholic who demands we pay attention to life issues outside of abortion and euthanasia is accused of “trying to kill opposition to abortion”.

“A Catholic CANNOT Vote Democrat”

On August 23, my friend and Catholic Stand colleague Matthew Tyson published “Yes, You Can Be Catholic AND Vote Democrat” on his Patheos blog Mackerel Snapper. On the face of it, I can’t conceive a more quixotic and desperate cause than trying to convert the Democrat Party to a “whole life” position, as the Democrats for Life want to do. Besides, the demographics have been shifting leftward (and away from party labels) for the last three generations, and the Republican Party is shredded in two. There’s arguably as much hope for converting the Democrats to the “seamless garment” as there is for converting the Republicans. (Yes, I went there.) But, as GKC said, hope only begins to be really useful when things appear to be hopeless.

For the record: Though I probably agree with many if not most of Matthew’s positions (I don’t fully know what they are), I refuse the label liberal. Classical liberalism, as I recently pointed out, was and is premissed on a faulty anthropology; the postmodern left’s social liberalism is progressing towards an authoritarian statism, and the postmodern right’s economic liberalism enables crony capitalism. Precisely because I am a Catholic, I hold neither the Republicans’ nor the Democrats’ ideological biases and policy preferences to be above challenge or criticism.

The post’s title was guaranteed to attract a knee-jerk contradiction. Sure enough, a reader (whom I’ll call Cato) declared, “A Catholic CANNOT vote Democrat,” and that “being a [Catholic] Democrat is indistinguishable from being a pro-equality KKK member, a Catholic Nazi, or a Catholic Stalinist.” Why? Apparently, because Cato, bless his heart, believes the national platform makes all the party’s members co-conspirators, despite the fact that individual candidates are not and cannot be required to support every platform plank. It’s stupid sweeping generalizations like this which are driving Gen-Xers and millennials away from party identification.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Mark Shea the Ephraimite

Image Source: Mark P. Shea, I presume.
If you want an example of the damage done to the Catholic Church in America by the surrounding culture’s increasing hyperpartisanship and ideological tribalism, consider this: Mark Shea’s blog at the National Catholic Register has been dropped, and his even-Christians are happy about it. Rejoicing, even. Good riddance, Shea, you heretical librul (because, of course, to be a librul is to be a heretic and vice versa). The Circular Catholic Firing Squad has finally claimed a victory/defeat.

“Do Not Rejoice”

I have not found the official statement from NCRegister. Apologist Steve Ray posted it and linked back to a Fr. Peter West’s Facebook post. Who Fr. West is, where he got the statement, and whether he has a relationship with NCRegister, the deponent saith not.

Added Fr. West, “With this in mind, I ask you to pray for Mark Shea. Hopefully, this will be an opportunity for personal reflection for him. He has many gifts that he can use in the service of the Church and the pro-life movement. Recall the words from the Book of Proverbs: ‘Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and when they stumble, do not let your heart exult, Lest the Lord see it, be displeased with you, and withdraw his wrath from your enemies.’ (Proverbs 24:17[-18 NABRE])” I expect God to withdraw His wrath fairly soon.

Note that Mark wasn’t dismissed because of anything he wrote at NCRegister, but rather because of his social-media activity. I’ve watched with some concern as Mark’s Facebook posts became increasingly caustic, strident, and hyperbolic in his condemnations of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the pro-life PACs associated with them. If there’s anything we should have learned by now, it’s that our social-media activity isn’t private, that employers can and will fire people for their off-work behavior.

Furthermore, we who publicly proclaim and defend the Catholic faith have a special duty to be the same people in our bedrooms as we are in the public square — especially now that the line between public and private is thinning and blurry. I too have difficulty being charitable to critics, so I empathize with Mark’s frustration. However, to be anything more than a pose, charity must inform everything we do. To instruct the ignorant and admonish the sinner are spiritual works of mercy; the intent, however, doesn’t justify the manner.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, and the Trump Campaign

Jesse Bernstein of Tablet blames Donald Trump on Jon Stewart. Well, partially, at least; he does admit upfront that there are plenty of factors in the matter. But apparently Stewart and his The Daily Show compatriot Stephen Colbert are partially to blame because they “helped to create the very specific type of internet-era liberal smugness (and, consequently, ignorance) that, though far from the sole cause by any means, has been a significant factor in both the rise of Trump and our current political fracturing.”

The Daily Show’s Liberal Smugness

Here’s the centerpiece of Bernstein’s argument:

[Stewart’s] show [The Daily Show] was a cultural touchstone that dealt in mockery and ridicule, as good political comedy should. It parsed the bluster to find the nugget of insincerity that drives selfish politics. But as the democratization of media made it easier and easier to hear only from the sources you wanted to hear from, those who counted The Daily Show and its even jokier spawn, The Colbert Report, as news sources slowly but surely created an echo chamber.

The process went something like this: Someone said something on Fox News that mainstream liberalism didn’t like; Stewart and/or Colbert aired a sustained critique of the idea and the thinking behind it; liberal internet publications hailed it as the greatest rhetorical victory since Darrow argued for Scopes; liberals’ Facebook feeds full of liberal friends filled up with clips of the takedown. No one learned anything, no one engaged with an idea, and nothing outside of a very specific set of ideas was given any real credence. As Emmet Rensin so perfectly put it:

Finding comfort in the notion that their former allies were disdainful, hapless rubes, smug liberals created a culture animated by that contempt. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy. … Over 20 years, an industry arose to cater to the smug style … and culminated for a time in The Daily Show, a program that more than any other thing advanced the idea that liberal orthodoxy was a kind of educated savvy and that is opponents were, before anything else, stupid.

As Rensin deftly discerns, this sort of intellectual elitism is probably part of the reason that the Democratic Party went from getting 66 percent of the manual laborer vote in 1948 to outpolling the GOP by just 2 points in 2012. It’s the inevitable consequence of eight years of reducing George W. Bush and all of his supporters to dumbass hicks, and choosing to denigrate the poor and uneducated (if only they read The Atlantic!), rather than doing real outreach to them. But as Christopher Hitchens learned on Bill Maher’s show, people don’t want to consider that possibility[.]

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Why We Can’t “Do Something” About the Gun Problem

Sig Sauer MCX, similar to rifle used at Pulse massacre.
(Image source: newweaponsandmore.blogspot.com)
In the wake of the horrific massacre in Orlando, people are once again demanding we “do something” about the massive number of guns in American hands — an estimated 357 million privately-owned guns as of 2013, or about 112 guns per 100 citizens. Some demand we get rid of guns altogether; others demand we loosen the legislation to put guns in the hands of more people. And both sides are churning out bogus “facts” to support their positions.

To be clear about my own biases: I believe the Second Amendment as written is outdated and needs revision. I favor reasonable legislation which includes mandatory training and certification as well as reasonable restrictions on carrying and purchasing. However, the research and statistical analysis I’ve done over the last couple of days highlighted for me both the drama and the intractability of the problem. To put it concisely, there’s plenty we can do about the American gun problem … most of which will do little if anything to solve it.

By the Numbers

To give you an idea of the legislative mess:

  • Only 17 states[*] require some form of permit or license to purchase a weapon; in many cases, the requirement only obtains for pistols.
  • Only 9 states require registration, mostly of handguns, sometimes only under certain circumstances.
  • Only 6 states require a license to own a handgun.
  • The concealed-carry laws of 42 states vary from very strict may-issue conditions to non-mandatory permits issued on request for the sake of reciprocity with other states.
  • Open-carry is permitted to some degree in 30 states.
  • There are only 8 states in which local ordinances can do more than limit discharge of weapons; in 22 states, state pre-emption is total.
  • Eleven states have no magazine capacity restrictions; 8 have no “assault weapon” restrictions.
  • Nineteen states require no background checks for private sales.
  • Only one state, California, imposes a mandatory waiting period as well as requiring a purchase permit.
  • Thirty-three states have some version of “castle doctrine” or “stand your ground” law, either on the books or through case law.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Justice for Harambe … or Revenge?

Photo source: Nature World News.
A recent petition on Change.org, titled “Justice for Harambe”, makes me wonder if anyone really knows what justice is anymore.

Harambe’s Death

On Saturday, May 28, a four-year-old boy managed to slip out of his mother’s sight at the Cincinnati Zoo. Nothing new or surprising in that. However, this four-year-old boy made short work of a series of barriers separating visitors from the gorillas at the zoo’s Gorilla World, and fell fifteen feet into the moat surrounding the habitat. Harambe, a 17-year-old western lowland gorilla, found the boy and — well, the boy survived, and has all his limbs. Harambe, on the other hand, was shot to keep the boy from further harm.

Strange to say, very little public concern has been devoted to questioning the design of the barriers. No, most of what can with some stretch of the imagination be called concern has been devoted to punishing the boy’s mother for the death of the gorilla (and, incidentally, for letting the kid out of her sight).

The Change.org petition is demanding, based on eyewitness claims for which it offers no source, “an investigation of the child’s home environment in the interests of protecting the child and his siblings from further incidents of parental negligence that may result in serious bodily harm or even death.” Note the words “further incidents of parental negligence”; that the parents are already guilty of one count is a verdict immune to challenge or contradiction. The Court of Public Opinion has already spoken.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

I Believe … But I Don’t Understand

Image source: gospelcoalition.org.
On Monday, May 23, Patheos published an article by Rebecca Bratten Weiss on suffering and “the clamor of insufficient explanations”. By “insufficient explanations”, Weiss means not only the myriad of clichés we Christians inflict on the suffering and despairing (“If God brings you to it, He will bring you through it;” “God shapes the back to fit the burden”), but also the assertion, “It must be God’s will.”

The Challenge of Suffering

The problem of suffering is the single most potent argument against Christian theology and cosmology, because it cuts past the dry hairsplitting of philosophy to pose a direct challenge to the heart. As Weiss puts it, “The fact that we need to suffer to be well is a symptom of a fallen world, but to suggest that the suffering itself comes not from the darkness of nature but from God on high is horrifying, sadistic.”

In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the atheist brother Ivan refuses to believe in a God who allows the suffering of children, and says that even if there is some inexplicable benefit to be derived from this, he will not have it. “I respectfully return the ticket” he says. I sympathize. I respectfully return the ticket to whatever fun-house or extravaganza somehow necessitates this terrible suffering. I would rather join Ivan and deny God outright, than believe in a God who is up there pulling all the strings that lead us to torment and loss, because this was the only way, the best of all possible worlds. [N.B.: Weiss has not abandoned the Faith, either formally or informally.]

We can’t escape the challenge by blaming the darkness of nature; for if Nature is dark, it can only be by God’s Will. And it’s not even the best of all possible worlds (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I:25:6 ad 3). Whether God manipulates all events directly, or simply sits back and watches everything play out by itself, or some combination of the two, the buck stops at His desk.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Choosing Classical Education Over Common Core

Students at St. John Bosco, Rochester, NY
(Photo source: stjohnbosco.org.)
On April 28, the National Catholic Register published an article by Peter Jesserer Smith on the growing number of Catholic schools and systems converting from conventional progressive education to classical — or perhaps we should say neo-classical — liberal arts education. While one hundred American sees, just over half, have elected to conform to Common Core, widespread rejection of the controversial curriculum is creating greater demand for an alternative to homeschooling, leading to more charter and non-profit startups.

The Problem of Education

Catholics aren’t the only ones returning to the trivium. Philip Kilgore, director of the nonsectarian Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter Schools Initiative, told Smith that “[parental] dissatisfaction with contemporary education has been driving the demand for a return to the classical tradition.” Says Kilgore, “I speak with so many people from every corner of this land who are eager to do something about the problem of education.”

Many people from various ideological backgrounds agree that American K-12 education is failing. Some, like Prof. Jack Schneider, would contest this, pointing to tests of limited scope, like the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) test, that purport to show American schools as doing well. Others, like Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, seem to recognize the problem only insofar as it affects the production of hire-ready future employees, as if the only worthwhile goal of education were to generate Homo oeconomicus.

The most commonly-perceived problem, however, is that the current systems produce moral and cultural illiterates, that the systems have abandoned teaching children how to think in favor of teaching them what to think. Writes Patrick J. Deneen:

We have fallen into the bad and unquestioned habit of thinking that our educational system is broken, but it is working on all cylinders. … Our students are the achievement of a systemic commitment to producing individuals without a past for whom the future is a foreign country, cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends, perfected tools for an economic system that prizes “flexibility” (geographic, interpersonal, ethical).

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Timothy Egan and the Reverent Subject of Sex

Timothy Egan. (Photo: Barry Wong.)
The last few days, I’ve been focused on the hyperventilating by Catholic radical traditionalists over Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ overlong summation of the work of the last two Synods on the Family. The reactions from the left were, for the most part, entirely predictable — some despaired because it didn’t go as far as they thought it should, while others rejoiced because they thought it went farther than it did. Of the latter category, we have Timothy Egan of the New York Times, who penned what Phil Lawler has called “surely ... the dumbest column published on the topic.”

“Sex was Dirty”

Egan, Lawler states, “rolls out the stale complaints of the 1970s about the Bad Old Church, opening and closing his column with citations from the late comedian George Carlin. The reader will look in vain for references to any other authority. Nor is there evidence that Egan has paid attention to Catholic writers who have reflected on the Church’s approach to human sexuality more recently, and just maybe more profoundly, than Carlin—such as, just for example, St. John Paul II.”

Actually, Egan does worse than go without authoritative references: he cites the Baltimore Catechism in such a way that it appears to support the tropes.

Sex was dirty. Sex was shameful. Sex was unnatural. Thinking about it was wrong. Premeditation itself was a sin, and so was flirting. Sex had one purpose: procreation, the joyless act of breeding. “The sixth commandment forbids all impurity and immodesty in words, looks and actions,” was admonition No. 256 in the Baltimore Catechism, the standard text used to teach the faith from 1885 to the late 1960s.
No. 256 [sic; the actual answer number is 257] also warned about the dangers of “sinful curiosity, bad companions, drinking, immodest dress and indecent books, plays and motion pictures.” If that sounds now like the dynamics of a good dinner party, you can also see this pope joining the fun at the table.

In my post on Amoris Laetitia, I spoke of the distinction the Church makes between the doctoral (“What do we teach?”) and the pastoral (“How do we integrate this teaching into parish life?”). The same kind of distinction ought to be observed between doctrine and indoctrination: religious formation, also known as catechesis. What the Catholic Church teaches is one thing; what Tim Egan and George Carlin “learned”, however, is another thing entirely, and may not be entirely their fault for not paying attention in class.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

What Did the Pope Really Say? (The Amoris Laetitia Edition)

Image source: ancoraonline.it.
On Friday, as I’m sure most of you know, the Vatican Press released Pope Francis’ post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). Predictably, everyone who foresaw sweeping changes in Church doctrine and practice were proved wrong, though that didn’t stop The Usual Gang of Radical Traditionalists from proclaiming it a heretical disaster.

Amoris Laetitia Not a Wrecking Ball

If you’re going to read it, be prepared: at 264 pages (closer to 245, if you take out blank pages and such), it’s longer than any encyclical I’ve ever read, including St. John Paul’s Evangelium Vitae, longer even than Laudato Si’. It’s a wide-ranging and somewhat undisciplined ramble, as Francis occasionally breaks from the main line of his thoughts to directly address sections of his readership. For example, in paragraph 212, in the middle of discussing short-term preparations for marriage, he offers some quick advice to the engaged couples. But while fully half of the text is enclosed in quotation marks — three-quarters of one of the longest paragraphs consists of one extensive citation of a sermon given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — still Francis’ irrepressible enthusiasm comes through.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Amoris Laetitia is an apostolic exhortation, not an apostolic constitution nor a motu proprio. Very early on, Francis defines his purpose: “to gather the contributions of the two recent Synods on the family, while adding other considerations as an aid to reflection, dialogue and pastoral practice, and as a help and encouragement to families in their daily commitments and challenges.” (AL § 4)

Since Francis’ focus is pastoral not doctrinal, no doctrine has been upset, no dogma contradicted, no norm disestablished. While Dave Armstrong exaggerates its importance to the life and future of the Church (“Francis’ ‘Humanae Vitae moment’”? Seriously?), it’s certainly not the wrecking ball many feared it would be.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Michael Lind’s Lifeless Conservativism

Russell Kirk (via Wikimedia).
That the Republican Party must reform or become irrelevant is increasingly obvious to most people. The hardest fact to deal with is that the voter base has shifted leftward over the last thirty-six years; the attitudes, values, and beliefs that appealed to many boomers doesn’t appeal as much to Gen-Xers and even less to millennials. If the GOP is to remain the American analogue to Britain’s Conservative Party, it follows that conservatives themselves must define what it means to be conservative in the 21st century.

Conservativism vs. Utopianism

“Can the American right free itself from the utopianism of the post-Reagan era?” asks Michael Lind in The National Interest.

The question would have seemed strange to mid-century American conservative thinkers like Peter Viereck, Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet. In their view, conservatism was anti-utopian by definition. In different ways, they identified “conservatism” with a suspicion of radical schemes to revolutionize America and the world.
But today’s orthodox conservatism consists almost entirely of radical utopian schemes to revolutionize America and the world. So-called “movement conservatism” or “fusionism” in its present form is, in fact, an alliance of three distinct utopian movements in economics, domestic policy and foreign policy. All three crusades are doomed to fail in the real world.

A modern realist, I find, is very often one who, having despaired of the real world ever meeting the standards of his ideals, goes on to conclude that we should have no ideals. Lind, a modern realist, therefore plunks for a bare-bones conservativism, one that seeks merely to preserve the status quo rather than strive for a better nation.

Unfortunately, Lind doesn’t tell us why the status quo is to be preserved, or why change is unnecessary. He merely defines three particular efforts as “utopian” and derides any attempt to achieve them through politics as “madness”.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

God, Galileo, and the Transgendered

On February 27, Melinda Selmys, a self-described “queer convert to Catholicism”, wrote a post for her blog on Patheos titled, “Does God Make Mistakes? (And are Trans People One of Them?)” There are two ways, Selmys asserts, that trans identities could be “real and valid” without using a fallible God as an explanation. The first is the fallen nature of man; the second is that the binary model of sexuality is too simplistic.

Here Comes Galileo (Again!?)

I have a lot of respect for Selmys. C. S. Lewis said once that he didn’t talk about homosexuality as a rule because it wasn’t a problem in his life; he wouldn’t tell someone how to fight a battle he’d never fought. Likewise, never having thought of myself as anything but a male, I’m in no position to tell people with gender-identity disorder how to overcome it, nor can I fault them if they fail. In fact, as I understand it, GID is an almost intractable problem; even sexual-reassignment surgery is unreliable as a palliative. (See my post in The Impractical Catholic on sex changes.)

As I say, I respect Selmys, and don’t wish to impugn her fidelity to the Church. However, in defending her second postulate, instead of stepping through the common arguments in support of Church teaching and calling them into question, she drags Galileo into the argument to serve once more as the sine qua non of magisterial error. Poor, abused Galileo! Never simply allowed to rest vindicated, his shade must be constantly conjured up to bolster weak arguments: “Well, the Church has been wrong before. Just look at Galileo!”

Why, O why does Selmys, who is capable of so much better, reach for such a hackneyed and intellectually lazy comparison? Well, because apparently the Church hasn’t formally instituted the “binary model” as dogma:

How does this relate to the transgender question? Well, today we know that various bodies with lower levels of authority (lower, in many cases than the Inquisition of 1616) have condemned transgender identities. We know that Popes have offered indirect criticism (though Christmas greetings and Papal homilies are not official dogmatic pronouncements any more than airplane interviews are.) We know that the weight of theological tradition falls on the side of a strict male-female binary, and we know that Genesis 1:27 and Matthew 19:4 are traditionally interpreted as excluding legitimate variation from this scheme.
We also know that nothing about transgender or intersex conditions has been promulgated at a level of authority that meets Vatican I’s criteria for infallibility. This means that there remains open the possibility of developments in doctrine that will reveal a space within the order of creation for those who do not fit neatly into binary categories [bold type mine.—ASL]. The basic teaching — that we are created male and female in the image and likeness of God — could be compatible with the idea that there is some admixture of both the male and the female in certain individuals (an idea which, in fact, has roots in some ancient Jewish interpretive traditions.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Republican Fixation on Sanders’ Socialism Misses the Point

Governments were intervening for the common good before
the first socialist theories were invented.
I know many of you Republicans right now are fixated on the awful prospect of Donald Trump becoming the party nominee for President. It may be of some comfort that the Democrats are also displaying cracks in their unity along much the same lines: they too are going through a revolt of the Populists against the Optimates. The only difference is, their Optimate candidate, Hillary Clinton, is in a much better position to steal — er, win the nomination than is the Republicans’ Optimate, Jeb! Bush. (However, if Clinton gets the nod, Republicans have a better chance of winning in November.)

Sanders Still Viable

Right now, though, explaining how we got to this point is of less interest than considering how we get out of this mess … or, at least, how we avoid repeating it four years down the line. Bernie Sanders is still a viable candidate, despite the poor turnout in Nevada; if he pulls off the nomination, the GOP will likely lose the White House no matter who they nominate.

This fact doesn’t seem to register with Republicans: Optimate Democrats are much less concerned about Sanders than Optimate Republicans are scared (yes, scared) of Trump and Cruz. There are fewer Democrats who would never vote for him than there are Republicans who would never vote for Trump or Cruz.

I hate writing about Sanders’ candidacy again so soon after my last post on the topic. However, in thinking about it, my last post was too indirect, too reflective. What needs to be said, has to be said bluntly:

Republicans, wake the [deleted] up. You’re missing the point.  You’re not paying attention, and that’s going to cost you every other November until you get the hint. Here’s why:

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Requiescat in pacem, Antonin Scalia

Oddly enough, according to a couple of sources, Associate Justice Antonin G. Scalia’s best friend was AJ Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Said Marcia Coyle on PBS NewsHour Weekend, Scalia, who passed away Saturday at the age of 79, “was widely liked ... a very colorful writer, and in person ... a consummate gentleman, ... could be very funny. He is going to be missed ... especially by Justice Ginsburg, with whom he had a special friendship — they called each other best friends — and with whom he went to opera and ... to India.

“He does not write like a happy man”

To hear Scalia described as “widely liked” and a “consummate gentleman” may sound improbable to people who only knew of him through his strident, hectoring argumentation on the bench, especially to liberals and progressives who came to hate him as a conservative obstructionist. (One gay man of my acquaintance sneered, “My condolences to the Koch brothers for their loss.”)

Because Scalia’s opinions coincided often with conservative interests, it was all too easy to claim his originalism was merely intellectual cover for his political views — in fact, so easy that more substantive legal criticism often went lacking. His dissents — and he wrote plenty of dissents in his nearly thirty years’ tenure on the SCOTUS bench — often sacrificed detailed analysis of the legal principles involved in favor of sarcastic fiskings of the majority opinion and fervent homilies on the wider implications of the decision; e.g., his dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges (513 U.S. ___ [2015]; pp. 69 ff.). So acidic were his opinions that, as Conor Clarke observed in Slate, “Scalia’s opinions read like they’re about to catch fire for pure outrage. He does not, in short, write like a happy man.”

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Bernie Sanders, OWS, and the Children of Allentown

Bernie Sanders. (Credit: AP/Rich Pedroncelli.)
Does anybody remember Occupy Wall Street? As nutty and quixotic as it was, it grew out of real social problems and concerns. And the improbable success of Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate is a reminder that the problems didn’t go away just because the protesters did.

“We Are the 99%”

To refresh your memory: OWS never had a single public list of demands, although several people posted lists on their website which the press then published as “official”. Nevertheless, Roger Lowenstein wrote in Bloomberg.com, “the overall message is reasonably coherent. They want more and better jobs, more equal distribution of income, less profit (or no profit) for banks, lower compensation for bankers, and more strictures on banks with regard to negotiating consumer services such as mortgages and debit cards. They also want to reduce the influence that corporations — financial firms in particular — wield in politics, and they want a more populist set of government priorities: bailouts for student debtors and mortgage holders, not just for banks.”

This “reasonably coherent message”, give or take an exaggeration or two, could just as easily be Sanders’ platform.

Even near the end, OWS had support from about one-third of American voters, finding some little support even among Republicans, according to Public Policy Polling, while just over half the Democrats responded favorably. The cry “We are the 99%”, as inapposite as it was, found resonance with a significant percentage of the people; Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center told Scott Horsley of NPR that it was “arguably the most successful slogan since ‘Hell no, we won’t go,’ going back to the Vietnam era. … [It] certainly triggered a lot of coverage about economic inequality.”

Monday, January 11, 2016

Defining the “Disappearing Middle Class”

Michael J. Perry
(Image source: sacbee.com.)
On December 30, 2015, economist Mark J. Perry published in his American Enterprise Institute blog Carpe Diem a couple of charts purporting to show that the American middle class, so far as it can be said to be disappearing, is doing so into higher-income households. Said Perry:

Over the last nearly 50 years the biggest gain for US households has been the 16.6 percentage point increase in the share of high-income households earning $100,000 or more per year, which accounts for the declining share of low-income and middle-income households (by two different measures). Yes, the middle-class has been disappearing over the last generation or more, but they have moved into higher-income categories of household income, not moving down into lower-income categories of household income.


“Cooking the Books”

Of course, Perry is a recognized economist, and I’m just a smart-aleck with a computer and three credit-hours in Econ 201. But I’m also a son of a bookkeeper, and have seen many interesting tricks people can play with numbers. Science is heavily dependent for its effectiveness on the honesty by which it applies numbers to phenomena, and is therefore vulnerable to anyone who knows how to “cook the books”. And the “dismal science”, like the others, tends to suffer when the numbers collide with policy preferences.

The picture Perry paints is of a middle class that was better off in 2014 than it was in 1967 — at the very least, that said middle class is making more money even after inflation is taken into account. However, to get an apples-to-apples comparison, he has to account for inflation. And here’s where the problem begins: there are a number of tools an analyst can use for inflating and deflating number … but none of them are 100% accurate. (For a comparison of four common price indexes used in policy analysis, see this post in The FRED Blog.)