Wednesday, October 31, 2012

All Hallow's Even 2012

What to say about Hallowe'en that I haven't said before?

Well, I will add this:  but blame the Google doodle for the day, and the fact we were discussing Calvinism, and the worst excesses thereof.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

This is the day that the Lord has made

let us rejoice and be glad in it!

For those who mourn their dead:  let us bring them comfort.

For those who have suffered loss:  let us be the repairers of their goods.

For those who are afraid:  let us give them courage.

For those who are lost:  let us be their guides.

For those who are bewildered:  let us bring them hope.

For those who despair:  let us give them insight.

In all things, let us be the agents of our God who holds all creation, and who binds up, and who makes whole, and who gives life.


Of TULIPs and Timber

I've been mulling this over, trying to find a new way to say that ignorance is bliss and is also so widespread it makes me crazy.  Finding a way to say that, I mean, without making Crooked Timber my bete noir.

Maybe it's because I expect better of a website with so much obvious intelligence behind it, but arguments prompted by posts like this make me more than a little crazy.  First, Max Weber doesn't have have a Newcomb problem, he has a theological problem.  The "Calvinism" he identifies as the heart of the Protestant Work Ethic may well be a cultural legacy of the Reformed movement, but there is a tremendous chicken or egg problem involved there ab initio, to determine whether the culture of Jean Cauvin created the cultural impact of Reformed theology (which is most closely identified with Calvinism) or whether the culture of certain European countries (especially Switzerland, which took to Calvin's rule in Geneva like a duck takes to water) created "Calvinism."

It's been my experience that in cultural questions of which came first, the movement or the culture, bet on the culture, every time.

That might almost be, of course, a sociological approach to the question.  And I am not accusing Max Weber of NOT committing sociology.  What I am doing is accusing his would be users of his theory of not committing scholarship; or thought, for that matter.

Again, as is often the case at Crooked Timber, it is not the post that distresses me so much as the comments; but the entire discussion reflects the general, half-educated, half-pondered, half-baked assumptions about what 'religion' is, what it means, and what it reflects about human society.  Mostly, though, it's just a mindless mishmash in which "Calvinism" becomes an empty vessel filled with whatever garbage one might wish to dump into it.

Not that that isn't a sin many a "Calvinist" is already guilty of.  This, for example, will curl the hair of the most committed fundamentalist (well, it should, if it doesn't).  Dabney starts out denying the importance of Calvin's work, but ends up describing what would be most associated with it, the so-called TULIP (and on that Dabney is right; TULIP isn't really Calvinism, but for many people, it is. Therein the problem lies.).  I grew up rejecting this kind of theological reasoning, and considered myself a "liberal' for doing so, and yet until seminary I still considered myself, at my theological core, a Calvinist.  I now know enough to know I know very little about "Calvinism," except I'm quite sure it doesn't have as much to do with the Institutes as is commonly thought   In fairness, even Dabney doesn't commit Presbyterians to Calvinism, but there is a very real issue here:  who is to blame for "Calvinism."  There are the Institutes of Christian Religion, a book which is almost a classic, in that nobody has read it (but almost nobody praises it, either); and then there are various Reformed theologians, many of whom seem determined to either out-Calvin Calvin, or, like Dabney, to make Wodehouse's caricature's of Scottish Presbyterian elders come to vivid life.

So there is this complex issue of what "Calvinism" means anymore.  New Advent opens its entry by noting that, as a theological system, Calvinism is largely obsolete, and indeed it is.  What lives on is a withering caricature that persists largely as a scapegoat for whatever bothers us (much like the Puritans are blamed for whatever social difficulties we have, especially those we think are related to sex.  George C. Scott's character in Paddy Chayefsky's "Hospital" was right:  we're more obsessed with sex than the Victorians; who in turn were far more concerned with sex than the Puritans, in England or America.) . It's what lives on in popular sentiment that prompts me to rant and rave this morning.

What Calvinism has to do with the Protestant Work Ethic is an interesting problem, but it should be examined first as a chicken/egg problem.  Instead, it is typically accepted that idea creates movement just as cause creates effect.  The problem, of course, is that we never know cause then effect; we only know effect, and look back to associate a cause.  But before we do that with Calvinism, we need to identify Calvinism.  New Advent associates Calvinism with Reformed theology with Presbyterianism (the church of my childhood).  But Dabney begins by rejecting any necessary connection between Calvinism and Presbyterianism, largely because he's got a different definition of both from the popular usages.  Is he right, or wrong?  Well, Calvin is certainly the central figure in Protestant theology which doesn't derive from Luther and Melanchthon.  As New Advent points out, Calvin acted largely in reaction to Zwingli (as much as to the Roman church (Luther, an Augustinian monk until he was excommunicated, was always more interested in reforming Rome than in rejecting it)), pretty much squashed Zwingli out of existence.  His sole major contribution to Protestantism is the long pastoral prayer many non-liturgical Protestant churches (such as Presbyterians) are so enamored of.  But Calvin's victory came at a price, because while he wrote rules which meant to govern life both religious and secular, it isn't his rules which survived.  Indeed, his rules were largely discarded in favor the doctrine he came to represent.

Which is the irony of TULIP.   If you read Dabney carefully (well, the first few paragraphs are all you need), you see him rejecting the importance of Calvinism; but he also lays the groundwork for TULIP, and TULIP eventually becomes synonymous, in the popular as well as the Reformed theological mind, with Calvinism.  Is this entirely fair, or even Calvin's fault?  And is it really the reason for the PWE?  Probably not, because the roots of the PWE lie much earlier than Dabney in the 19th century.

One sweeping consequence of the Reformation is yet to be noticed. As it denied the merit of good works even in the regenerate, all those Catholic beliefs and ordinances which implied a Communion of Saints actively helping each other by prayer and self-sacrifice were flung aside. Thus Purgatory, Masses for the dead, invocation of the blessed in Heaven, and their intercession for us are scouted by Calvin as "Satan's devices." A single argument gets rid of them all: do they not make void the Cross of Christ our only Redeemer? (Instit., III, 5, 6). Beza declared that "prayer to the saints destroys the unity of God." The Dutch Calvinists affirmed of them, as the Epicureans of their deities, that they knew nothing about what passes on earth. Wherever the Reformers triumphed, a wholesale destruction of shrines and relics took place. Monasticism, being an ordered system of mortification on Catholic principles, offended all who thought such works needless or even dangerous — it fell, and great was the fall thereof, in Protestant Europe. The Calendar had been framed as a yearly ritual, commemorating Our Lord's life and sufferings, with saints' days filling it up. Calvin would tolerate the Swiss of Berne who desired to keep the Gospel festivals; but his Puritan followers left the year blank, observing only the Sabbath, in a spirit of Jewish legalism. After such a fashion the Church was divorced from the political order — the living Christian ceased to have any distinct relation with his departed friends; the saints became mere memories, or were suspected of Popery; the churches served as houses of preaching, where the pulpit had abolished the altar; and Christian art was a thing of the past.
That is a fair summation of the distinction between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, and it indicates a cultural shift and acceptance which has precious little do with doctrine.  That "legalism" followed the Puritans to the New World, where they worked hard to suppress any celebration of Christmas (how'd that work out for them?).  The PWE, from this accounting, had a lot more to do with what is rejected rather than what is accepted.  Understanding and even trying to live by TULIP (itself a reductio of much of Protestant theology, a reductio ad absurdum I would now argue)  was never so much in the cards as the much simpler act of rejecting all things Roman in favor of the new order.  The Reformation "denied the merit of good works," something that happened long before Dabney or even before Calvin's Institutes became "Calvinism."  And I know from experience much of that rejection was based less on careful theological reasoning of the kind displayed in New Advent, and more on the fact that it simply seemed "too Catholic" (a phrase you will still hear today, 500+ years after the Reformation began), and so was an unsound practice.  All of the things listed there as rejected, were rejected largely because they were "Popish" (the American Puritan's argument against "Christmas" was that the word incorporated "Mass", which it did; and that was reason enough to reject the observance of the Savior's birth).  But having flung them aside, the Reformers threw out "good works," too.  This the theologians did deliberately; but the laity did almost accidentally.  Nonetheless is suited them, and so culture triumphed aside from theology (which most of the laity wouldn't, and to this day still don't, understand).  Having tossed out the baby (Catholicism), they tossed out the bathwater, too (any Christian idea of "good works").  It wasn't a long trip from there to an emphasis on grace through good works for oneself, i.e, the PWE; even if it wasn't really a path to grace at all, or even a sure sign of one's salvation.   What matters, as ever, is not what God thinks, but what other people think.  In this, as in other matters, Aristotle triumphed once again (or saw more clearly, at least):  what matters most in life is success, and his ethical advice was to find the successful man and emulate him.  He is successful, so he must be doing something right, and he must also be on good terms with God.

Not hard to see a Protestant Work Ethic arising from that ground long before anyone though of developing any mnemonics for Calvinism.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The FrankenstormApoclyptoMayanDoomCatacolypse

For those in the path of Sandy:  God be with you 'til we meet again.*

(*as for that name:  EXCLUSIVE!!! MUST CREDIT ADVENTUS!!!!!!!!!!!)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Oh, Shut Up, Fool!

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R-Dumbass) has roiled the international waters by warning members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who have been invited here by the U.S. Government to monitor the upcoming federal elections that:

The Texas Election Code governs anyone who participates in Texas elections—including representatives of the OSCE. The OSCE’s representatives are not authorized by Texas law to enter a polling place. It may be a criminal offense for OSCE’s representatives to maintain a presence within 100 feet of a polling place’s entrance. Failure to comply with these requirements could subject the OSCE’s representatives to criminal prosecution for violating state law.
One minor problem:  the Texas AG won't be prosecuting anybody.  That's not what they do:

Under Texas law, the county or district attorney has primary jurisdiction to prosecute most criminal offenses. The Office of the Attorney General assists local prosecutors at their request. The law also authorizes this agency to proffer assistance to local prosecutors. Most OAG prosecutions are undertaken on referrals.
Chapter 1, section 1.09, of the Penal Code provides that, “with the consent of the appropriate local county or district attorney, the Attorney General has concurrent jurisdiction with that consenting local prosecutor” to prosecute certain offenses, including:
  • Misuse of state property or funds
  • Abuse of office
  • Offenses against juvenile offenders in state correctional facilities
And as for the Texas Penal Code:

 With the consent of the appropriate local county or district attorney, the attorney general has concurrent jurisdiction with that consenting local prosecutor to prosecute under this code any offense an element of which occurs on state property or any offense that involves the use, unlawful appropriation, or misapplication of state property, including state funds.
So aside from the violation of international treaties that this threat represents, Mr. Abbott literally has no authority to issue such threats; not unless a Texas District Attorney asks the AG's office to help in the prosecution of a violation of the Texas Election Code.  Provided, I take it, that the offense takes place on state property; and most Texas polling places I've ever been in are not state property.

For all the authority Abbott wields in this matter, this letter might as well come from a private citizen.  So please, Mr. Abbott, just shut up.  You're embarrassing the rest of us in Texas.

Update:  he really is stupider than you think:

Ambassador Janez Lenarčič, the Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), expressed his grave concern today over the threat of criminal prosecution of OSCE/ODIHR election observers.

This threat, contained in an open letter from the Attorney General of Texas, is at odds with the established good co-operation between OSCE/ODIHR observers and state authorities across the United States, including in Texas, Lenarčič said, adding that it is also contrary to the country’s obligations as an OSCE participating State.

The ODIHR limited election observation mission for the 2012 general elections in the United States consists of a core team of 13 experts, from 10 OSCE participating States, based in Washington D.C., and 44 long-term observers deployed throughout the country. These are the sixth United States elections the Office has observed, without incident, since 2002.
Final update:  there's a whole lot of stupid around here:

 Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart said if the observers showed up at a poll location, "I'd kick them out of there. It's as plain as that. Right now, my understanding is you can't be in there unless you are a poll worker or a voter or a legitimate poll watcher. It's illegal for them to be a poll watcher unless they're a citizen of Texas."

Contrary to Clerk Stanart's belief, Texas is not a sovereign nation with its own standards for "citizenship."  This, however, is about right:

Mark P. Jones, chairman of the political science department at Rice University, said observers are "pretty normal" in elections. He said it is reasonable for Abbott to weigh in because the decision to send observers suggests "there's at least the potential implication the state's electoral rules are flawed."

Raising the prospect of criminal sanctions "is probably going over the top a little bit," Jones suggested, "but Abbott's become very good at this. Greg Abbott now does not miss an opportunity to appeal to the Republican base. … This is just showing his bona fides as a conservative, someone who will help resist … U.N. meddling in Texas politics."

We do have cooler heads in Texas:

Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade also wrote to Everts on Tuesday to express concern that, based on media reports, it appeared that "this valuable information sharing program" was being politicized. She wrote that it was "critical" that Texans understand the organization is in Texas only to learn about the state's election processes.

And as for the threats of criminal prosecution, nothing's gonna happen:

 Keith Ingram, director of the elections division in Andrade's office, said in an email to county election officials Tuesday that any characterization of the OSCE observers as monitors was false. Ingram said he had met with the two-person team last week and told them the Election Code would not allow them into actual polling places, and that they understood.

Here's where I point out Texas has 254 counties.  I can't easily find the total number of polling precincts in Texas, but Bexar county alone has 661.  OSCE has two people coming to observe our elections.

The amount of interference they can do is absolutely incalculable.  Especially if they never get within 100 feet of a polling place.  It's a pity Abbott is getting more attention than Andrade. a rape is a rape

We cannot get away from this problem that rape is the only crime (AFAIK; exceptions to this rule are welcome) that requires consideration of consent.

It is also virtually the only crime that requires, in common imagination if not the court of law, violence.

Think about it.  Criminal fraud doesn't revolve around the consent of the victim.  Gullibility and naivete may be defenses to fraud in the courtroom, but they aren't defenses in the law itself.  "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me" may be a commonplace saying, but it's not the law on fraud, criminal or civil.  Fraud depends on a showing that the victim was mislead, that any consent at all was the result of lies, of misrepresentations.  And criminal fraud doesn't bring acts of violence to mind.  A lot of criminal acts imply or infer violence, even if violence is not required in the law.  Criminal fraud doesn't; in fact, we think of it as the opposite of violence.  The con man is smooth, sophisticated, clever.  Violence is rough, brutal, and stupid.   Rape is violent, and when it isn't, it may not be "legitimate;" it may not be "forcible."  It may not, in other words, be rape.

Because violence negates any concept of consent.  And rape is sex without the victim's consent.  That's how we've defined it.  That's how "rape is rape."

Kidnapping, perhaps, is the crime that comes closest.  A kidnapping involves taking a person somewhere, or keeping them somewhere, against their will.  But we never speak of "legitimate" kidnapping, or "forcible" kidnapping.  If you can't leave, if the door is locked and you don't have the key, if your way is barred and the people standing there won't move, you've been kidnapped.  End of discussion.  But rape?  Well, did you want to have sex, or not?

And, more importantly, why should we believe you?

So the crime of rape is ugly twice.  The victim is victimized by her attacker; and again by the system.  And now a third time, by politics.  But about that third time, a question:  why are we even talking about this?

Because it's really not about rape.  It's about control.

Procreation requires sex, and sex outside marriage is bad (because then it isn't controlled) and women who have sex outside marriage should bear the burden of their failure to be controlled by society (which used to disapprove of sex outside marriage).

Because it's all about control.  Because rape is all about consent.  And as long as women get to decide what consensual sex is, we can't control them.

So we have to talk about "legitimate rape."


Rape is "just different" because it's a crime that requires deliberating the question of consent.  When I was young and in high school, the females ("girls" sounds demeaning, "women" too lofty to apply to high school students; "females" is too clinical, but I'm stuck) were reassured by law enforcement officers in assembly meetings about rape that, at least in East Texas, the law took care of women, they had nothing to fear by reporting a rape.  The assumption, of course, was that all young women were virgins and virginal, and so any sex outside marriage was non-consensual, and so the rapist would get his just desserts.

Then we decided sex outside marriage was not quite so socially condemned as once it was.  And now we seem to have decided we will make the females among us pay the price for that social change.

That's the only way I can understand it.  Because, honestly, this whole discussion about rape is a discussion about what they called in "The Matrix" trilogy a "system of control."  Rape is rape. It's a crime.  End of discussion.  I'm actually going backwards, to my very conservative East Texas upbringing, to say that.  Odd, innit?

But rape is sexual intercourse, and that's the only way to get pregnant, and now we've let the issue of reproduction revolve around the question of how the pregnancy occurred, and on that Paul Ryan is right:  it doesn't matter.  Paul Ryan is wrong, however, to conclude that pregnancy gives the state extraordinary power to force women to complete the terms of their pregnancies.  Maybe the church can do that; but the church is no longer the state.  It can compel; it cannot enforce under penalty of law.

Even the question itself is irrelevant:  abortion is okay in the case of rape or incest?  Both are criminal acts, especially assuming the incest involved statutory rape (the common assumption.  We seldom speak of this exception involving a "House of Usher" scenario).  Criminal acts aren't criminal acts until established as such in a court of law.  The rapist isn't a rapist until the judicial systems says so, and that system moves at glacial speed.  How, then, do we ever craft a legal exception to abortion allowing them to occur in the case of rape or incest (i.e., statutory rape)?

It can't be done.  You can't allow abortions in the case of rape before the crime has been determined, and no doctor would risk an abortion that might later be found to be a criminal act because there was no rape.  So this question of rape is, again, illegitimate.  It isn't even an issue.   It's barely a distraction.

It's a lie.  Because the issue isn't about the legal or even social definition of "rape."  It's about what rape is about:  it's about control.  Control through violence, or control through subterfuge ("rape drugs") or control through simple unwillingness to take "No" as "NO!"  It doesn't matter.

Rape is rape.  And it has nothing whatsoever to do with abortion.

Adding:  or, for that matter, with state assistance to the poor. 

Good grief.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The controversy du jour

"God creates life, and that was my point. God does not want rape, and by no means was I suggesting that he does. Rape is a horrible thing, and for anyone to twist my words otherwise is absurd and sick," stated Richard Mourdock.

God doesn't want rape.  God just wants the babies that come from rape.  Because, you know, God moves in mysterious ways.

God also doesn't want the government to care for the babies who come from rape, or from any unwanted pregnancy.  God wants 'em to learn to tough it out on their own, so government programs don't become a hammock.  Because God loves life, 'n' stuff.

God protect me from the God-botherers

Monday, October 22, 2012

Reading between the lines.....

Jane Mayer has an excellent piece on voter fraud which ends this way:

With legions of citizen watchdogs on the lookout for fraud, voters confused about the documents necessary to vote, and the country almost evenly divided politically, von Spakovsky is predicting that November 6th could be even more chaotic than the 2000 elections. He will play a direct role in Virginia, a swing state, where he is the vice-chairman of the electoral board of Fairfax County. Joining us at the conference table at the Heritage Foundation, John Fund, von Spakovsky’s co-author, told me, “If it’s close this time, I think we’re going to have three or four Floridas.” Von Spakovsky shook his head and said, “If we’re lucky only three or four.” If there are states where the number of provisional ballots cast exceeds the margin of victory, he predicts, “there will probably be horrendous fights, and litigation between the lawyers that will make the fights over hanging chads look minor by comparison.” Pursing his lips, he added, “I hope it doesn’t happen.” But, if it does, no one will be more ready for the fight.

Pretty grim stuff, especially since Hans Von Spakovsky is a lawyer.  Who could be more ready for a legal fight than a lawyer who's spent his career in the area of voting law.  But, it turns out, Mr. Von Spakovsky is not a very good lawyer:
Von Spakovsky said, “The idea that there’s some deep conspiracy is just laughable.” His own work, however, has suggested that liberals engage in conspiracies. “Who’s Counting?” opens with an insinuating account of how Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat, was elected to the Senate in 2008. According to the book, there is “compelling” evidence, compiled by a citizens’ watchdog group, that “1,099 ineligible felons voted illegally” in the contest—“more than three times” Franken’s victory margin. The subhead of the chapter is “Would Obamacare have passed without voter fraud?”

Fox News and other conservative media outlets have promoted this argument. However, Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County Attorney, who oversees Minneapolis, told me, “Those numbers are fraudulent. We investigated, and at the end of the day, out of over four hundred allegations in the county, we charged thirty-eight people. Their research was bad, sloppy, incredible. They are just liars.” Some of the targeted voters weren’t actually felons; others were on probation and hadn’t realized that they remained ineligible to vote. To be convicted of voter fraud, a suspect needs to have criminal intent.

Von Spakovsky told me, “It doesn’t matter whether they”—the felons—“intended it or not. The point is they did vote.” The subject of electoral fraud is now front and center in Minnesota: in November, the state will have a referendum on a state voter-I.D. law.
Need I say that any lawyer who goes to court on bad research and sloppy investigations is going to get his head metaphorically handed to him?  And that any lawyer who doesn't understand the difference between an act and a criminal act shouldn't even have a license?

None of the allegations of voter fraud by Von Spakovsky in the article stand up to the least scrutiny.  50 Somalian citizens voted illegally in Missouri, he claims.   Except a judge examined the claims and found no fraud; and such a baseline requirement as citizenship would have to be answered before you got to the issue of translations and oaths ("Translation assistance is available at the polls—citizens sometimes have shaky English—and the court had found merely that election officials had not made the voters take an oath before receiving help, as state law required.").  Apparently Mr. Von Spakovsky thinks people who struggle in English weren't actually naturalized.  Funny, though, I always see signs and ballots at my local polling place in at least 6 different languages, and I'm pretty sure that's required by law.  It's never occurred to me the state was colluding in voter fraud by printing those up.

There isn't, in other words, a case in the article that stands up to scrutiny, and yet Von Spakovsky, we are assured, is ready for a vote fraud fight.  Really?  Sounds like he's just as ready to get in the ring and go three rounds with the reigning heavy-weight boxing champion.

I saw this recently, too, and while at first it seemed like an interesting theory, I began to think it was in fact too clever by half.  But then with a title like this:   "Blue State are from Scandinavia, Red states are from Guatemala," how could it not be?

There's a great deal to be said against the way government works in red states like Texas, but comparing it to Guatemala is laying it on a bit thick.  Why not just call us "Mars" and get it over with?  There is a reason people flocked to Texas in the '70's and '80's, and it wasn't because of the generous government programs (which have gotten stingier since then, and no, I don't like that a bit).  But there's a reason even people from Guatemala come to Texas, and no, it doesn't all have to do with government. It has to do with jobs. In the latter decades of the previous century, it seemed the Northeast was emptying out into Texas.  It got so bad newspaper columnists in Austin were publishing articles asking any more anxious Yankees to "Stay Away!"  They weren't coming for our generous government handouts, since we were almost as stingy then as we are now (the cutbacks have been in education and, yes, Medicaid; but we were stingy with that back then, too.)  If we really were Guatemala, wouldn't the place be emptying out, rather than filling up?  If the Northeast really were Scandinavia, wouldn't it have more of the problem Texas does, and that California did in the Dust Bowl?  Texas didn't become the third most populous state in my lifetime simply because of babies being born here and not leaving.

Yes, Rick Perry declared Obamacare dead in Texas.  But the major Texas cities (which are basically the counties they are in, so large have they grown in recent decades) are busy saying "Not so fast!"  There's even a question whether Perry can kill Obamacare in Texas or not.  Yes, there is a lot wrong with Texas:  but Guatemala v. Scandinavia?  It's not a terribly helpful schism.  Moreover, Texas was traditionally blue when the South was blue after the Civil War, and like most of the South Texas was a one-party state:  the Democrats, who weren't the party of Lincoln.  Yeah, it was that simple.

  But when Texas began shifting to a GOP state, and then overnight (much like the conversion of Rome to Christianity under Constantine) became deep red, the cities didn't necessarily follow.  Houston is the biggest city in Texas (fourth largest in the country).  Bill White was the mayor; he ran on the Democratic ticket against Perry last time we elected a governor.  How many major American cities have a lesbian as their Mayor?  Houston does. Dallas County elected a lesbian sheriff a few years ago.  Dallas County!   Once the home of TV evangelist shills, and proudly so! Even "liberal" Austin doesn't brag a gay/lesbian as their mayor, nor does NYC.  McCain carried Texas in 2008, but only because of the rural counties.  The counties along the Rio Grande and all the major metropolitan areas of Texas went for Obama.  And Texas is now a minority majority state (which is why even Rick Perry won't deny an education to the children of undocumented immigrants).  Texas is very shortly, and for the first time since the Civil War (which might as well be the first time in history), going to be a purple state.  And, as I say, the major counties (with the major public hospitals and public ER's, such as Houston's Ben Taub, one of the best trauma centers in the country, and a part of the vaunted Texas Medical Center) are lining up to get that money Perry says he won't take.  Not to mention the markets, by which the GOP purports to live and die, may not want that money cast aside so easily or ideologically, either.

So are we really Guatemala?  Well, to be fair, wages in Texas are generally the pits.  We may have lots of jobs, but most of 'em don't pay squat.  It may be true that:  “The story is pretty clear,” Meyers says. “If you are poor, you want to live in a blue state.” And yet people keep moving here!

Houston is building roads like there's no tomorrow, expecting continued growth in the city largely from people moving here, and that doesn't mean simply relocating within the state (and so far they haven't been disappointed, either).  What is the matter with Kansas, or Texas, that people keep acting against their self-interests?  Shouldn't they realize Scandinavia is better than Guatemala, and flock to Vermont or Massachusetts or New York?  No, seriously:  shouldn't they?  And the minute they find out this is a Guatemalan hell-hole, shouldn't they flee again?  I've seen this state do nothing but grow since my childhood, and while I"m not a blind cheerleader for Texas, there must be something here so many people like.  It sure ain't just the Tex-Mex or the water.

Cohn makes much of Texas in his article, but it's only one part of the picture.  I know the very libertarian arguments  of Texas politicians (such as they, and as "libertarian" as they are, which is to say, if you can call the Koch brothers libertarian rather than simply selfish and greedy) can be alluring to working class people looking for jobs in the again-booming oil fields of Texas (not that there aren't costs to that, or that there weren't back when).  And that's why Texas grows:  the promise of work.  Never mind the work is underpaid; so is the state government.  Some people seem to like it like that.  But is this really, as Cohn calls it, because we in Texas lack standards of human decency?  Well, I'll grant you Rick Perry does, though not as much as the rest of the GOP does (given how he was treated after he declared children of undocumented immigrants deserve an education.  He was finished right then.).  I'll grant you most of the state government leadership does. What I won't grant is that this is a permanent condition; or that we are uncivilized and savage by comparison to the "North," just because of statistics on government spending.

 Unless Mr. Cohn wants us to revive that term "damned Yankees," and mean it once again.


I should note that trial began yesterday before Judge John Dietz (whom I think I remember from my trial days in Austin) on the question of public school funding in Texas.  This isn't the first case on school funding, and it won't be the last.  But school districts in Texas are independent political entities with standing to sue the state when it violates the Texas Constitution in how school funding is appropriated.  There are many arguments from many sides, including advocates of more competition by allowing more charter schools.  Two basic positions, however, are that funding was cut by $5.4 billion, while standards were raised (hard to build bricks without straw, in other words) and that children in poor districts (much funding is from local property taxes) can't be given a poorer education simply because of that.

It may be this goes nowhere, ultimately.  The Edgewood case that was supposed to revamp school funding in Texas finally wandered off into the wilderness and died, after leaving us with the system described by one of the plaintiffs as "hopelessly broken" (and it is).  Despite that, there are serious efforts being made in Texas to address Mr. Cohn's concerns; they just aren't being addressed by the state government.  Still, it's a ray of hope, and one more reason the comparison to Guatemala seems unfair, at least to Texas and Guatemala.  Because, little as seems to get done here, this is primarily the way anything gets done in Texas:  by sheer stubbornness.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Nobody can come to grips with the drama of history unless he recognizes that most of the evil in this world is done by people who do it for good purposes. Evil is not that popular. If one gathered together a lot of people and said, "Let us be evil together," it would not go over very well. Thanks be to God!....

Thus the question is not to balance judgment and mercy. Whenever one reads the Bible or theology, what I would call the "who-is-who" question always arises. Who speaks to whom and for whom? The mighty message of God was often heard in a wrong way because one listened in on the wrong message. There are many examples of this. Jesus did say, "Man does not live by bread alone," but he never said that to a hungry person. When he was faced with hungry persons he fed them--4000 or 5000. And he mass produced wine in Cana just to prevent the wedding feast from turning into a fiasco. It was to Satan that he said "Man does not live by bread alone," speaking for and to himself. The church, however, often quoted Jesus in the wrong direction--to the hungry, in defense of the well-fed.

Who speaks to whom? For whom is judgment mercy? That is the question, and unless one understands it, even the most glorious dialectical understanding of theology becomes not only counterproductive but evil.
Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1976), p. 105-06.

I have to say, I appreciate just how much attention has been paid in the last three debates to the problems of the poor in America.

 [That silence is being filled with the sound of crickets.]

 Of course, all that has been said so far is the travesty of how many people are on food stamps. We still can't seem to decide if that's a sign of a weak economy, or of an overly generous government which refuses to teach the hungry how to fish. So now Paul Ryan visits a soup kitchen  in the fifteen minutes he has between campaign events, an act that can most charitably be described as pointless.  And while it only merits a blog post, even that post merits the careful annotation that Brian J. Antal, president of the Mahoning County St. Vincent De Paul Society, has voted in Democratic primaries for 17 years.  As Charles Pierce points out, if you don't think that nugget of information came from the Romney campaign, you shouldn't be allowed out in public without a handler.

Ryan cleaned pots that were already cleaned and met with volunteers who stayed to talk to him.  And the point of this, besides the photo op?  Probably to be sure he stayed away from the patrons of the kitchen, as much as anything.  Mitt Romney made much of the people asking him for help in the last debate, and his answer highlighted the question Stendahl is asking above:  Who speaks to whom, and for whom?

Mitt Romney speaks to the middle class, to the people presumably not on food stamps, but afraid they soon will be.  He at least speaks as if they were different classes of people., and as if food stamps were emblematic of economic policy failure.  He's careful not to mention food stamps (which, really, no longer exist, any more than "welfare" does) as something we are paying for with money we don't have, but that's only because it may not be only "the poor" who need them right now.

Who speaks to whom, and for whom?

Barack Obama?  He was careful to conclude last night that free-market capitalism will save us all, if we're just patient enough.  But what does that say to the 5-6% who will still be unemployed in even the best of economic times?  Social mobility will save you?

No, apparently it won't.

"If I just know that you share a rare surname with someone who was wealthy in 1800, I can predict now that you're nine times more likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge. You're going to live two years longer than an average person in England. You're going to have more wealth. You're more likely to be a doctor. You're more likely to be an attorney," Clark says.

The point is underlined a bit further on in the article:

"We can't predict the individual aspects of where you'll end up, but if we want to rank you overall in society, maybe as much as 60 percent of the outcome is determined at the time of conception," Clark says.

And if Clark is right, that number is almost impervious to change. The Industrial Revolution didn't change it. Neither did the communist revolution in China, World Wars I or II, or even social policies like the GI Bill. Clark says he's still working on exactly how to interpret that information.

But it's clear he has growing doubts about whether public policy can really help people move up the social ladder.

So it may be true that, as Jesus says to Pilate in "Jesus Christ Superstar:"  "Everything is fixed, and you can't change it."  Which means that when we talk about economic inequality, we really are talking about class warfare.

This, by the way, is what is at the heart of the affirmative action case before the Supreme Court.  The issue is not race, but class.  The plaintiff's parents went to UT, but she couldn't get in.  Clearly, she thinks, she deserves better; clearly someone of a lower class took her place.  Mitt Romney said much the same thing last night when he claimed that illegal immigrants "take the place" of people waiting patiently for legal permission to enter the country.  The legal process, of course, is not held up because "illegals" are filling up the spaces alloted to legal immigrants.  The very idea is so silly it's ludicrous, yet it was passed over without even commentary this morning.

I suppose he meant the "illegal" (i.e., 'brown') immigrants are taking jobs from American (i.e., "white") citizens, but how many American citizens are flocking to Alabama to bring in the harvest?  As even John McCain pointed out 4 years ago, "You can't do it, my friend."  Especially at the wages such work pays.

But don't mention that aloud, it might scare the children. 

In America the poor are not just poor, they're subhuman; if they're visible at all.  I've asked before why no one is photographed anymore with poor people, as Bobby Kennedy was.  Paul Ryan wasn't concerned to be photographed with them.  He preferred being seen with clean pots and pans.  NPR and other news outlets have at least begun to recognize that the poor have completely disappeared from our national discourse, which is probably just as well since the subject of the poor makes the discussion coarser by the day.  Jon Stewart makes me feel better about Ryan's photo-op; but only just.  I remember that the questions asked last night were selected by Candy Crowley from questions submitted by those chosen to even ask questions.  Either nobody asked about the poor, or Ms. Crowley filtered out such questions as intemperate or irrelevant.

Who speaks to whom, and for whom?

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Poor will always be fodder....

Joel Osteen has, rather remarkably, simply vanished from the public square.  I'm sure he's still publishing books and flashing his giant white teeth at gatherings of people who fly in for the privilege of being told how much God loves them that they can afford to fly to Houston to hear Mr. Osteen in person (God doesn't love me that much; I'd have to drive to see him, a short trip, but a waste of gasoline, IMHO).  I'm sure he has another book on the bestseller list, and that he's still on cable somewhere at least once a week hawking his wares; but since I switched to satellite TeeVee I don't even stumble across him.  There are whole acres of channels I avoid, and I've no doubt I'd find him there if I looked long enough, or at the right hours.

But by and large he seems to have made his splash and disappeared.  I had one random and all but chance encounter with his church when I was in active ministry and his church was near a public housing unit the local UCC churches own and operate here in Houston.  Mr. Osteen's church, under his father, had been regular donors of turkeys at Thanksgiving (or was it Christmas?) to the residents of the units.  Sometime after Mr. Osteen took over for his deceased father the church decided the residents should drive to the church to get the turkeys, rather than await delivery.  This most couldn't do, as they didn't have cars or were working when the church was willing to hand out the birds; so the local UCC churches had to take up the slack.  It wasn't long after that Mr. Osteen moved operations to downtown Houston, and all hope of turkey charity from Mr. Osteen's congregation for the residents of the housing unit stopped together, as the poet put it.

The move to an old basketball arena downtown aroused a lot of local and then national interest, and Texas Monthly crowned Mr. Osteen the most effective (or powerful, or something) preacher in the country.  He was almost literally unavoidable in the public square, unless you avoided the public square altogether.  All fame, as the last words of "Patton" remind us, is fleeting, alas; and now if Mr. Osteen is getting any public attention, I'm unaware of it.

Just as well.

I mention this because Mr. Osteen is the single person alive in America today who is most representative of, who is the best exemplar of, the Gospel of Wealth:  the idea that if you are right with God, God will make you rich.  It's that "gospel,  more than anything else, that prompted Matt Taibbi to describe Mr. Osteen this way: 

Of all the vile, fake, lying-ass, money-grubbing shyster scumbags on the face of this planet, there is perhaps none more loathsome than Osteen, a human haircut with plastic baseball-size teeth who has made a fortune selling the appalling only-in-America idea that terrestrial greed is actually a form of Christian devotion. "God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us," Osteen once wrote. This is the revolting, snake-oil-selling dickhead that John McCain actually chose to pimp as number one on his list of inspirational authors. So much for "go, sell everything you have and give to the poor," and all that other hippie crap from the New Testament.
Leave out the reference to McCain and the 2008 election, and the description still holds true today.  Except in the wake of the collapse of the world economy, both Mr. Osteen and Rick Warren, the other public religious/political figure from 4 years ago, seem to have gone to ground.  Of course, Pastor Warren pretty much buried himself last year with an unfortunate tweet that revealed him to be more akin to Mitt Romney than to Jesus of Nazareth, and his purpose driven life to be more a matter of material than spiritual attainment.

One is inclined to conclude 'twas ever thus.

But was it?  NPR ran an interesting story this morning about the plutocrats who hate Obama.  The feeling is, as Chrystia Freeland says,"a profound emotional thing." And why?  It's a simple, yet profound, answer:

"In America," she says, "we have equated personal business success with public virtue. And to a certain extent, your moral and civic virtue could be measured by the size of your bank account."
 It wasn't always this way; or at least, always this sharply defined.  But then, times have changed:

"One of the things which is really astonishing is how much bigger the gap is than it was before," she says. "In the 1950s, America was relatively egalitarian, much more so than compared to now." CEOs earn exponentially more now, compared with their workers, than they did 60 years ago.

"The other difference is that now the super-rich are global. And that's not sort of a cultural choice of theirs, that is something which is imposed on them by the nature of the world economy," says Freeland. "Increasingly, I think you are actually seeing what, ironically, was the dream of Marxists, right? You are seeing the emergence of an international class."

While Marx almost certainly wasn't dreaming of global billionaires, Freeland says he might have recognized what's going on right now. "This notion that borders wouldn't matter, that we would have commonality of interests around the world. Well, guess who got there first? The plutocrats."
 And, of course, what adds to the profoundly emotional reaction, is a conviction that the poor are actually taken care of:

“We don’t have people that become ill, who die in their apartment because they don’t have insurance.”
Thus spake Mitt Romney.  But as Paul Krugman (among others) points out, we do have such people in America.  Indeed:

...hospitals are required by law to treat people in dire need, whether or not they can pay. But that care isn’t free — on the contrary, if you go to an emergency room you will be billed, and the size of that bill can be shockingly high. Some people can’t or won’t pay, but fear of huge bills can deter the uninsured from visiting the emergency room even when they should. And sometimes they die as a result.
Remarkable how that simple fact escapes the discussion.  Perhaps we can quibble over how many die rather than go to the ER because they don't go to the doctor because they don't have insurance, but can anyone deny the hospital doesn't treat people in the ER out of a charitable impulse, or write off that care as a cost of doing business, or get a tax break or a direct government subsidy for non-paying ER patients?  I'm sure there are people who believe it is true, but those people are not hospital administrators; or people who are uninsured and poor.  One group finds the money somewhere, and we praise them for doing so; the other is invisible and dies off as part of the surplus population.  Or, at least, they don't frequent the congregations of Mr. Osteen's or Mr. Warren's churches; not in large numbers, anyway.

Is there a sea change in America, a sense that virtue is not tied to your pocket book?  Maybe.  Ms. Freeland doesn't quite seem to think so, although she understands the apparent connection between money and virtue:

"People don't just want to be rich and successful, they want to be good. And I think it's really threatening to feel like, 'Wow, you mean I'm not as full of virtue and goodness as I thought I was?' "
 Aye, there's the rub.  To be rich, but not to be immoral, that is the problem!  Andrew Carnegie struggled with it, and he decided the problem was a moral one:  that too many people or institutions were not equipped to deal with the large sums of cash amassed by people like him (which rather awkwardly makes him fit to be rich, but not other people).  His problem was with inheritance, not wealth, but he still made some salient points:

"By taxing estates heavily at death the State marks its condemnation of the selfish millionaire's unworthy life. It is desirable that nations should go much further in this direction."
"The selfish millionaire's unworthy life" has more than a whiff of Ebenezer Scrooge before that fateful Christmas Eve about it.  Scrooge sees his death:  unmourned, his fortune dispersed in ways unexplained but of no use to him, his life reduced to rag pickers haggling over what they could steal.  His redemption is, as Carnegie did, in giving it away in charitable purposes before his death.  He was never as good as he thought not because he didn't think he was good, but because he limited his field of "good" too narrowly.  That's the lesson of Jacob Marley: those who don't go out among their fellow men in life, must do so in death.  The most frightening image in the entire story is the ghost pointing and shrieking in anguish at a mother and her children, huddled in the freezing cold on the street outside Scrooge's window.  The shade can do nothing now but regret his failure to act in life.  He has found out too late that he was not as full of virtue and goodness as he thought he was.  And yet, nearly 170 years after Dickens wrote those words, we still hear them every year; but do we listen to them?

Ms. Freedland says "No," and also says why:
"It is a sense of, you know, 'I deserve this,' " she says. "I do think that there is both a very powerful sense of entitlement and a kind of bubble of wealth which makes it hard for the people at the very top to understand the travails of the middle class."

One standout moment Freeland recalls is a conversation with a billionaire who spoke with great sympathy about some friends who'd come to him for investment advice. "And he said to me, 'You know what? They only had $10 million saved. How are they going to live on that?' I kid you not, he was really worried about them."
 These sound like the characters I encounter in stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald or Dorothy Parker, people I had once thought as exotic and extinct as my own daughter thinks of the racists I grew up with, in a world of segregated schools, buses, restrooms, and water fountains.  Some of that is not coming back, but some of the racist attitudes have clearly not gone away, and while my wife and I hear the racist code in allegations that the President is "lazy and detached" because of a debate performance,  my daughter misses the dog whistle because she misses the historical context of what was once such common racism we barely called it "prejudice."   I would have thought the world of the plutocrats, except for the Rockefeller level of financiers, was gone forever, and yet I can read stories less than 100 years old which give me insight into the people I'm reading about in the news today.

So I don't so much see a significant change, as I see a curious circumstance:  the plutocrats no longer feel warmed by the love of the people who literally put them there.  Sheldon Adelson didn't make his fortune by himself; he did it by people coming to his casinos.  Jack Welch didn't make his fortune by starting GE; he made it by running GE, but without customers (including, significantly, the Defense Department), GE would never have existed.  David Siegel made his fortune selling vacation time shares, which somebody had to buy in order for him to start building a 90,000 square foot house.  In fact, if you read Ms. Freeland's article at The New Yorker, few of these plutocrats (none, I dare say) started out poor and raised themselves by their own bootstraps. The article focuses on Leon Cooperman, a man who started his career at as an analyst at Goldman Sachs, which is not exactly the same thing as starting your career on the loading dock of Wal-Mart. Indeed, it is Cooperman she's talking about in the quote above:

When Cooperman told me the story of his lucky escape from dental school, he concluded, “I probably make more than a thousand dentists, summed up.” (A thousand dentists would need to work for a decade—and pay no taxes or living expenses—to collectively earn Cooperman’s net worth.) During another conversation, Cooperman mentioned that over the weekend an acquaintance had come by to get some friendly advice on managing his personal finances. He was a seventy-two-year-old world-renowned cardiologist; his wife was one of the country’s experts in women’s medicine. Together, they had a net worth of around ten million dollars. “It was shocking how tight he was going to be in retirement,” Cooperman said. “He needed four hundred thousand dollars a year to live on. He had a home in Florida, a home in New Jersey. He had certain habits he wanted to continue to pursue.
We really should have more sympathy for the retirement problems of people who need $400,000 a year just to keep up.

Carnegie "preached that ostentatious living and amassing private treasures was wrong."Today's super rich are convinced that it's not only right, but that those who don't emulate them, have only themselves to blame.
Those at the very top, Freeland says, have told her that American workers are the most overpaid in the world, and that they need to be more productive if they want to have better lives.

There is little separation between that attitude and Scrooge's cruel indifference to the fate of the "surplus population."It's a pity we don't have a ghost to repeat those words to "those at the very top" and shame them into some recognition of at least their common humanity.

Seeing as how we've done so much to make them rich, maybe we could all chip in and start a charitable fund for them, too.  As well.  Also.
There is little separation between that attitude and Scrooge's cruel indifference to the fate of the "surplus population." It's a pity we don't have a ghost to repeat those words to "those at the very top" and shame them into some recognition of at least their common humanity.

Andrew Carnegie's gospel of wealth didn't win many converts, and the phrase was soon appropriated to become the opposite of what he intended.  What he intended, of course, was far too threatening:  "By taxing estates heavily at death the State marks its condemnation of the selfish millionaire's unworthy life. It is desirable that nations should go much further in this direction."  Selfishness surely marks an unworthy life; who among us wants to be remembered as the real-life counterpart to Ebenezer Scrooge?  But how to disabuse them of the notion that wealth is not the same as virtue, that being rich is not a sign of blessing?  Maybe return to some sense of morality that isn't based on politics, social position, wealth, or prestige?  Maybe give some thought to the idea morality needs to be transcendent, to be a morality at all?

After all, Aristotle's ethics were all about finding the most successful man in the community, and then emulating him.  I'm not sure that's such good advice anymore.

Friday, October 12, 2012

More Gnats and Camels

What is the difference between my profession of love for my wife, and my profession of my faith (trust) in God?  The only difference I can see is in quantity:  I am the only person who needs to confess my love for my wife (love as a husband should love a wife); but I share with a cloud of witnesses my faith (trust) in God.  But does quantity mark a necessary difference between these two claims?  The former is unassailable (why bother, if for no other reason), while the latter, even in an era of pervasive insistence on religion as a "personal matter," is subject to all manner of criticism.  But on what grounds, precisely, other than you don't share my love (faith)?

I bring this up because I fell (somewhat) into a discussion of matters religious and theological over at Crooked Timber, and one of the challenges put to me was belief in the existence of a non-being.  There's a lot to be said against that assertion, starting with the idea that a religious confession necessarily entails an unreasoning acceptance (the usual definition of "belief" in these arguments, especially when the "leap of faith" is invoked, as it was, and not by me) and even trust (faith) in the existence of a being whose existence cannot be proven and who is, in fact, presumed not to exist (in which case, as Kierkegaard pointed out, you can never mount an argument proving otherwise, the very conclusion being presumed in the question.).  As I say, the mind reels with replies, but the one I want to focus on is the question of existence of a non-being.  It's so contradictory it refutes the premise it presumes to critique:  a non-being, of course, cannot have existence.  We never need get to the question of how "existence" is to be understood, or even open the discussion of why "existence" must be properly addressed in phenomenological terms in order to have any validity in the argument at all, because we've already established that the being whose existence is in question, is not a being at all.  The discussion about whether one can separate "being" from "existence" and still have a meaningful discussion about being (and all without picking up Anselm's proof) is ended before it's begun.

Still, without invoking the shade of Anselm (who, indeed, had a very different point to make), I would begin by asserting that if we are going to discuss a being as existent or not, we have to agree that a being has existence.  It is in the very nature of the concept that the being be existent.  This does not establish that it does indeed exist (whatever that means, and why ever it is important to establish), but it does establish a ground rule:  the being exists, or there is no being.  In this case, it really is either/or.

So, at the very least, let us have no arguments about the existence of non-beings, as if the premise itself were not self-contradictory.  Beings have existence, but is "God" a being?  That should be the discussion; except the answer is:  I can't help you there.

Because now the discussion is not about God's existence, but about the nature of God.  Of course, to discuss the nature of God, we have to assume God is a "living option," as William James put it.  If one party to the discussion is not willing to do that, then the discussion is over before it begins.  If we can have that discussion, then it's a very different one from the discussion about a belief in the existence of a non-being; but then, we can't ever have that discussion, can we?  So the discussion of the nature of God is a discussion of the qualities of God, and it is necessarily a theological discussion; and if you aren't ready, willing, and able to engage that discussion on theological terms, then we can't ever discuss anything about the question "How do people believe in 'God'?"  Which is a discussion we can have, but only if you are at least willing to accept James' proposition that you have to allow for God to be not just a concept but a "living option" for other people.

Which is rather like saying you have to be willing to accept that I love my wife, without seeing any evidence to satisfy you on the point.  We may, for example, wonder how Bill Clinton so famously expressed any love for his wife; but he and Hillary are still married.  As Gene Lyons famously said of that couple, "Other people's marriage is a country where I don't speak the language."  Can the same be said for people for whom a deity is a living option?  Why, or why not?

I'm not, of course, plowing entirely new ground.  I'm going, in part,  where Wittgenstein went, but it still seems unsatisfactory to people who insist there is only one possible answer to the question of the universe, or human existence within it, or the human response to it; and that answer is the one they cling to.  Which means, of course and ultimately, that they are the center of the universe, and it is only right that it should be so.  An interesting position, but not a very enlightening one.  What I got in many of the comments at Crooked Timber (among some very interesting ones) was a lot of batting away of alternatives that were not viable because they did not leave the living options of the commenters the center of the universe.  They allowed for other ways of understanding which, if they didn't line up with the "true" way, were only "mushy soup:"

"The idea that there are many ways to God is very widely held among religious believers"

This is simply swimming in mushy soup now. Unless we’re the realms of quantum divinity, with Christ stuck in a box and us calculating the probability of the God particle decaying, then Jesus is either the son of God, or another prophet (but not the most recent), or just a Jewish heretic with some nifty moral philosophy to sell us. There is no way for all three of those things to be simultaneously true.

Now, I can see that a believer might think that believers of other things or non-believers are not necessarily going to hell simply for that, but this “many ways to God” thing is trying to have your mushy cake and eat it.
There is at least a category error there, along with the mixed metaphor (is it the soup or the cake that is mushy?  And how, indeed, is soup "mushy"?), but the basic argument is that all things must resolve to reason as I understand it, or they don't resolve at all.  The possibility that, say, language games might be involved here, is not even considered.  The idea that any formal system of reasoning can create questions it cannot answer, isn't considered either.  And the nature of truth is such that it is hard to know what is true, but it is easy (apparently) to know what is not true, because truth is both unitary and absolute.

Except when it isn't.  Just as I tell my students that 1+1=3 in biology, although not in math, truth is unitary only when you limit its application to one field of knowledge. 

But then, it seldom is limited to just one field of knowledge.  Truth is transcendent.  Truth covers all!  Truth is the unified theory that explains everything at once!  Or so they tell me.

So, either my wife is special and especially loveable, or she is just another wife, or she is just a nice person who is pleasant to be around.  Is there any way for all three of these things to be simultaneously true?

The question, I should hope, answers itself.  If I assert all three could be true, am I trying to eat a mushy cake?  I willingly assume only one of those options is available to me, but if it isn't available to you is it therefore impossible?  All three options might even be foreclosed to you.  Does that make them wholly incredible?  Now, the difference between being a loving husband to my wife, and being a devoted believer in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus, is not a slight one; but neither is it necessarily a fundamental one.  I can share the latter with the clouds of witness, and yet those witnesses may not include all of humankind.  Am I therefore in error?  It might surprise a devoted positivist to learn not everyone alive now, to say nothing of the past, accepts their explanation of reality.  Is the devoted positivist therefore in error?

Are these really questions subject to majority rule?  And are your opinions, beliefs, philosophies, really not subject to the restriction of language games that all other statements made by humans, are?  Do you somehow have access to a unitary and absolute truth which escapes all other human beings, and stands apart from any analysis and critique about the language you use to express and understand it?

Nice work if you can get it.

The VP debate showed signs of centering (among the "liberal blogs", at least) on the final question about Roman Catholic doctrine and abortion.  It is prompting comments very similar to this one:

An answer to the "religion" question I wish I had heard:
"My faith is a private matter, and I do not discuss it in public. I believe in religious freedom, and do not accept the notion that secular law should enforce anyone's dogma. As far as I'm concerned, the decision to continue or terminate a pregnancy is up to the woman. Period."

It is the last redoubt of the irreligious:  stop talking to me about your religion!  Don't ask, don't tell! (the irony would cut you if you noticed it).  It's an odd thing, because while sexuality is supposedly private (I still think Vonnegut was onto something in Slaughterhouse Five, where the Tralfamadorians saw at least 4 sexes (IIRC) were necessary for human reproduction.  These things are always more complicated than we want them to be.), it is actually quite public.  I'm not only supposed to know who is gay or lesbian or even transgendered, I'm supposed to celebrate it (because to not rejoice that Rachel Maddow or Stephanie Miller are lesbians is somehow impolite on my part.  How about if I just don't care?).  But religious belief?  Keep it to yourself, please!  We don't want to talk about that stuff 'round here.  Churches are public institutions.  Every little girl apparently still dreams of a church wedding (preferably without the hindrance of actually being a church member).  But what you actually do there, or what makes you want to be there, should no more be spoken of in public than what you do in the bathroom.

There are fairly legitimate reasons not to inquire too closely into someone else's sexual preferences or even their activities (watch "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice" and it's hard not to notice the characters played by Robert Culp and Natalie Wood seem vaguely false and almost stereotypes instead of real people.  They live their "swinging" lifestyle by cliches and long paragraphs of explanation, not like ordinary people.  Diane Cannon and Eliot Gould may be more burdened with social mores, but they also seem more believable).  But there is a growing insistence that you leave your religious beliefs at the cathedral/meeting house/temple door.  Even if they are as benign as those expressed by Joe Biden and Paul Ryan (who actually skirted the issues of Catholic doctrine far more widely than Mr. Biden did).  Why is this?  Why is religion so "private" it shouldn't be mentioned in public at all, while who you take to bed as your lover should be something you declare openly and proudly?

There isn't a logical answer for it, of course, and I'm not looking for one.  I am intrigued by the idea that religion should be as private as the balance in one's bank account.  Worship is and has always been a corporate matter.  It is only since the Reformation that worship in European culture has become a splintered thing, slowly giving rise to the idea that what you believe should not impinge on what I believe, and finally should not impinge on what I choose not to believe.  But why does it impinge?

Did the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King impinge on the sensibilities of liberal atheists?  How about the Berrigan brothers, who did everything they did in the name of their religious beliefs?  Dorothy Day?  Sr. Helen Prejean?  The Nuns on the Bus?  Should all of them go away and stop discussing their religious beliefs in public by acting on them and using them to critique society?  Where does this fear of the religious other come from?

From politics, mostly.  But the discussion at Crooked Timber wasn't in the least political, and still the fear of contamination raged.  How can reasonable people also be religious? Isn't that like a square circle, or a two-dimensional sphere?  I think it is a simple fear:  it is the fear of the other, especially when that other is close to home.

This fear is seldom expressed (at least on liberal blogs) as a fear of Islam; or a fear of Judaism.  It's almost always couched in terms of "religion=Christianity," even when that isn't explicitly stated.  It seems somehow "illiberal" to criticize Islam, mostly because people like Pam Geller make such an ugly thing of it.  I don't for a moment expect any of the critics of religion I've encountered would take to violence, but the fear of ideas that drove the Taliban to shoot a 14 year old girl in the head (and not her father, who runs the girl's school she was all but raised in), rather than see drone strikes as a greater threat (then again, one is easier to attack than the other) never seems to be far from their minds.  It's not the same degree of fear, but it seems to be of the same basic nature:  that which does not define me as I wish to be defined, assaults me.

At what point, now, does the existence of a non-being become the crucial question of this examination?  At what point, indeed, is that not a mistake, rather than an insight? If I posit, arguendo, God as the ground of being (Tillich),  I don't establish God's existence independent of the definition, but if I am going to establish existence of any unknown at all (such as, in Kierkegaard's example, Napoleon), we'll have to decide how I can manage to do that.

Oh, I don't know anymore.  Jesus laughed 'til he cried.

Play nice.  Please?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

I don't know why she couldn't swallow a fly....

Trying to get information on Fisher v. UT  is a dicey business at best, but NPR gave me some facts this morning which are supported by the brief filed with the Supreme Court on behalf of UT:

Petitioner, a Texas resident, applied for admission to UT’s Fall 2008 freshman class in Business Administration or Liberal Arts, with a combined SAT score of 1180 out of 1600 and a cumulative 3.59 GPA. JA 40a-41a. Because petitioner was not in the top 10% of her high school class, her application was considered pursuant to the holistic review process described above. JA 40a. Petitioner scored an AI of 3.1, JA 415a, and received a PAI score of less than 6 (the actual score is contained in a sealed brief, ECF No. 52). The summary judgment record is uncontradicted that—due to the stiff competition in 2008 and petitioner’s relatively low AI score—petitioner would not have been admitted to the Fall 2008 freshman class even if she had received “a ‘perfect’ PAI score of 6.” JA 416a.
In other words, as NPR reported this morning, Fisher never would have gotten into UT when she applied because her scores were not good enough.  To hear Fisher tell it in the NPR report, she was at the top of her class and she should have been a shoo-in for admission.  However, she wasn't in the top ten percent (which makes admissions race neutral so far as I can see) and so she went through the review process like everyone else.  In that process, race is taken into consideration, but as one of seven factor considered in one step of a multi-step process.  Or, as they explain it in their brief:

UT’s applicant pool is divided into applicants who are eligible for automatic admission under the top 10% law, and applicants who are not. Although most admits fall into the former category, the admission of students not eligible for the top 10% law is a critical means of pursuing UT’s educational mission and an important counterpart to the top 10% law. A Texas applicant may be ineligible for the top 10% law because she was in the bottom 90% of her class (like petitioner), or because her school does not rank students (as is true of some of the best private high schools in Texas).

After the files of the non-top-10% applicants are scored, they are plotted on a matrix corresponding to the school or major for which admission is sought, with the AI score on one axis and PAI score on the other. Each cell on the matrix contains all applicants with a particular AI/PAI combination. JA 392a. After considering the number of students in each cell and the available spaces for a particular major or school, admissions officers draw a stair-step line on the matrix, dividing the cells of applicants who will be admitted from those that will be denied. JA 386a-87a.

For each cell, admission is an all-or-nothing proposition: all the applicants within a cell are either admitted or denied. PAI scores are fixed long before this step in the process occurs, and nameless applicants clustered within each cell are not identified by race. So, as petitioner has acknowledged, admissions officers cannot—and do not—consider the racial demographics of the cell (or the race of any applicant within it) when they draw the stair-step line dividing cells. JA 387a-89a, 411a-12a; Summ. J. Hr’g Tr. 20, ECF No. 118 (petitioner’s counsel: “[T]hey use a matrix where you don’t know who’s who. Because once they’ve made a score, you become a number. So they’re not doing what Michigan was doing in Grutter.”).

An applicant’s PAI score is based on two essays and a Personal Achievement Score (PAS). JA 374a. Essays are reviewed by specially trained readers, and are scored on a race-blind basis from 1 to 6. JA 374a-76a. The PAS score ranges from 1 to 6 as well, and is based on holistic consideration of six equally-weighted factors: leadership potential, extracurricular activities, honors and awards, work experience, community service, and special circumstances. JA 379a. The “special circumstances” factor is broken down into seven attributes, including socioeconomic considerations, and—as of 2005—an applicant’s race. JA 380a. Race is one of seven components of a single factor in the PAS score, which comprises one third of the PAI, which is one of two numerical values (PAI and AI) that places a student on the admissions grid, from which students are admitted race-blind in groups. In other words, race is “a factor of a factor of a factor of a factor” in UT’s holistic review. App. 159a.

No automatic advantage or value is assigned to race or any other PAS factor. JA 379a-81a. Each applicant is considered as a whole person, and race is considered “in conjunction with an applicant’s demonstrated sense of cultural awareness,” not in isolation. JA 397a, 130a. “Race is contextual, just like every other part of the applicant’s file,” JA 169a, and “[t]he consideration of race helps [UT] examine the student in ‘their totality,’” JA 129a. Adding race to the mix in whole-file review “increases the chance” that underrepresented minorities will be admitted. App. 434a. But because of the contextualized way in which race is considered, it is undisputed (JA 130a) that consideration of race may benefit any applicant (even non-minorities)—just as race ultimately “may have no impact whatsoever” for any given applicant (even an underrepresented minority). JA 381a, 397a-98a; see JA 207a-09a, 285a, 434a; App. 29a, 46a.
 Sorry for the tedium there, but I figure this is important.  It's important because I still can't shake the fact that this is a curious case for Supreme Court review, for one simple reason:

The procedural posture of this case defines the scope of our review. There are no class claims and both students deny intention to reapply to UT. It follows that Fisher and Michalewicz lack standing to seek injunctive or forwardlooking declaratory relief. This principle is rote. To obtain forward-looking equitable remedies, a plaintiff must show she faces imminent threat of future
injury. Without that threat, these two applicants only have standing to challenge their rejection and to seek money damages for their injury.
That's from the opinion of the 5th Circuit.  Frankly, it seems to me to put the entire question of the rejection squarely on the facts of the case; and yet the 5th Circuit writes a long, complex opinion examining the status of college admissions standards following Hopwood and Grutter (especially the latter).  I'm perplexed because if the facts of the case are undisputed as to why Fisher was denied admission (well, she disputes it, but her argument, at least from the NPR report, seems to be she should have gotten in because her parents did, and because she's white), then where's the beef?  I understand the issue is about whether or not race should have played any consideration in the admissions process, but in this case the evidence is even if it didn't, she still wouldn't have suffered damages by not gaining admission to UT.  As the 5th Circuit puts it:

Texas applicants falling outside the top ten percent group face extreme competition to gain admittance to the University. There are approximately 16,000 students competing for only 1,216 fall admissions slots. The competition is so great that, on average, students admitted from outside the top ten percent of their high school class, regardless of race, have even higher SAT scores than those granted automatic admission under the Top Ten Percent Law.... It requires no empirical study to observe that those excluded under this Law have been a rich source of Texas leaders over its history and that for some applicants, admission to the flagship school of Texas is little more possible than admission to Harvard.
 So the appellant is complaining because she didn't get into the school of her choice, and the evidence is that she was denied admission because of a perfectly fair admissions procedure that takes race into account in order to assure a diverse student body, but doesn't do so in order to create even (as the appellant's lawyer put it to NPR this morning) a "back door quota system."

Oh, and there's also this:

Texas applicants are divided into two subgroups: (1) Texas residents who are in the top ten percent of their high school class and (2) those Texas residents who are not. Top ten percent applicants are guaranteed admission to the University, and the vast majority of freshmen are selected in this way, without a confessed consideration of race. In 2008, for example, 81% of the entering class was admitted under the Top Ten Percent Law, filling 88% of the seats allotted to Texas residents and leaving only 1,216 offers of admission university-wide for non-top ten percent residents. The impact of the Top Ten Percent Law on UT’s admissions has increased dramatically since it was first introduced in 1998, when only 41% of the seats for Texas residents were claimed by students with guaranteed admission.
Although this completes the admissions process for the fall portion of the freshman class, no Texas resident who submits a timely application is denied admission. Instead, those residents not admitted to the entering fall class are offered admission to either the summer program or the Coordinated Admissions Program (CAP). Marginal applicants who missed the cutoff for the fall class are offered admission to the summer program, which permits students to begin their studies at UT during the summer and then join the regularly admitted students in the fall. About 800 students enroll in the summer program each year. All remaining Texas applicants are automatically enrolled in CAP, which guarantees admission as a transfer student if the student enrolls in another UT system campus for her freshman year and meets certain other conditions, including the completion of thirty credit hours with a cumulative grade point average of 3.2 or higher.
In other words, if UT was Fisher's dream, she could have simply tried again later by transferring into UT Austin from another school in the UT system.  But apparently the state of the law now is that even the mention of race taints the admissions process; even the barest hint of consideration of race is too much.  That is the state of play in this case, and in a case where I might have expected the appellate court to toss out the entire complaint on the grounds of standing (i.e., the plaintiff had suffered no legal injury, since she had recourse for seeking admission later.  Everyone in Texas knows if you don't get into UT the first time, you transfer in next year.), the Court instead writes a lengthy opinion examining carefully the validity of race as a consideration at all.  Given that it's the 5th circuit, and Patrick Higginbotham to boot, I suppose I should be grateful the Court didn't note that we have a black president now, so discrimination has ended in America and we can stop talking about race altogether.

One thing the appellate court decision gets right is the critique of the Ten Percent Law.  As local news has pointed out, in reporting on this story, there is a sharp drop off in minority students in UT programs after the sophomore year, especially in the more competitive and rigorous degree plans.  Why?  Not because minorities can't compete, but because so many of them are ill-prepared for college by the public schools they attended.  The problem is not in the admissions process, but in the fact Texas has such spotty public schools.  And Rick Perry's solution to this problem?  Texas has already slashed funding for public schools.  Now Perry wants to tie the money state universities receive to  the number of students they graduate.

Which would effectively turn even UT into a diploma mill.

Such is the state of play in education today.  We strain at gnats and swallow camels.  And the courts are terribly concerned with the conditions for white people.

As Chris Rock says:  "There's not a white man in this room who would change places with me, and I'm RICH!"  But whites are persecuted; at least when it comes to education.

I'll retire to Bedlam.

Update:  the oral arguments confirm my fear that the Supreme Court isn't the least bit interested in the standing of the plaintiff (what harm has she suffered if there is no evidence race considerations caused her to be refused admission?), and are only concerned with conditions for white people in education.