March 31, 2005

This Is the Way the World Ends...

What is there to say? I'm too tired to sort it all out, just now, but Don Hawthorne's got a good post over on Anchor Rising. My mind keeps coming back to two related things: First, Mort Kondrake on Brit Hume's show tonight emphasized that the controversy over Terri Schiavo was just a part of the broader cultural battle going on, confirming (I think) that many who felt so strongly that she must die did so because it would represent a defeat for those who wanted her to live. And second, one of the central skirmishes in that cultural battle is defining how restricted citizens are from "imposing" their will on each other.

There's a whole lot of contradiction on the second point. As I've been trying to explain to a local commenter to an older post on Anchor Rising about sex ed, it is incorrect to claim that one can separate government and religion (broadly viewed). I hope to write more on this aspect tomorrow. For now, suffice to say that I'm unimpressed by Sheila Lennon's referring to the American Catholic Church as a "splinter group" in a post directly after one that's about right-wing militias' plans to storm Terri's hospice.

What a mess it all is. But it's a mess from which Terri Schiavo is now, we hope and pray, free.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:50 PM | Comments (29)

March 29, 2005

Still in the Game

Well, this sort of thing is bound to happen to a writer when he enters one of those periods during which writing must recede in the day. In January, I had reached number 27 on John Hawkins's list of favorite blogs. In the latest iteration, I've fallen to number 36. Given the circumstances of the two intervening months, I'm thrilled to have made the cut at all; I've slipped much farther when it comes to others whose attention I'd caught, it seems.

But this sort of thing is bound to happen. I've come to see this current period of my life as one of investment — with the focus on who I'll be when able to resume the amount of writing that I've achieved in recent years. In the meantime the days are filled with discoveries: for example, that demolishing a brick stairway with a sledgehammer is a great deal of fun... for the first four hours. Then it's just exhausting. By the time I sat down for dinner tonight, I'd exchanged the "-ing" for an "-ed."

Early in the day, before the novelty of smashing a complete stranger's front steps had worn off, I had occasion to be reminded of the way in which folks tend to treat each other differently based on circumstantial perceptions. One of the college kids who lives in the house next to that on which I'm working — a grad student, if I eavesdropped effectively — failed to return my "good morning" while he and his girlfriend (or whatever) walked to their car. She was a rung or two up the ladder of appearances from him, and the peculiar look with which he replied to my greeting didn't disguise the disparity any. (I suspect the look wouldn't have improved if he had known the sorts of things I do — or, more precisely, say — in my spare time.) For my part, I rebutted with a smile, and by heaving the largest chunk of concrete and brick that I had near at hand onto the pile that was slowly growing a few feet away.

A little later, a young preppy man from Indiana thwomp-thwomp-thwomped up the street with a flat tire. His first thought was to ask where the nearest garage might be found, but I think he saw something in my expression that persuaded him that I was correct to suggest that he put on his spare, first. About a half-hour later, he approached my boss and me with much the same demeanor as a rookie approaches a coach. He had not a doubt that we could unlock the mystery of his jack. (I wondered whether he was aware that the owner's manual that he surely had in his glove compartment could likely have done the same thing.)

As much as I periodically find it awkward to mesh with my coworkers, I've always been comfortable in the role for which such occupations as carpentry mark a man. Perhaps it's partly the freedom of being so dramatically misappraised by others. Perhaps it's a little bit more that I enjoy the confirmation that we're all just people behind our differently tinted windows. Palpably feeling that reality helps one understand, I think, how it is we can all be so unequal by any worldly standards, whether of material or capability, but still equally human. Still loved equally by our Creator.

Unfortunately, the slopes are steep when we attempt to pick a path between roles (particularly when bills continue to stand as obstacles). So much so that I can't help but wonder whether it is the effort — and the accomplishment — of staying in the game that has made my shoulders so sore.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:39 PM | Comments (6)
Diary & Confession

March 27, 2005

Busy, Busy, Busy

Well, last weekend, I took some time to run network wires to a computer upstairs so that I can work, read, and do other stuff (hint: it starts with a B) somewhere other than my basement office when I get home from my long days of carpentry. Unfortunately, my schedule was such — this past week alone — that it didn't wind up making much of a difference. I've also had lingering illness from the various bugs that've come may way in recent weeks, and that has kept me from exchanging my store of hours allocated for sleep for more active endeavors.

Moving on from Easter, however, I have renewed hope that I can get my life under control and begin reinserting what's been lacking. We'll see, of course... I've promised much the same in the past. I can only plea circumstances.

To begin the new week with some stolen momentum, I've decided to take this week off from issuing a chunk of A Whispering Through the Branches. Anybody who has not been reading it I encourage to take the opportunity to start the habit.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:21 PM
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Terri Who?

You know what I find to be the saddest thing? It is certainly saddening that Terri is dying in the way that she is, while her life could have continued filled with love, no matter how dimly she felt it, but that's not the saddest thing. Once all has been done, after all, Christians can return to our deepest beliefs, as are especially poignant today, and find comfort in the likelihood that her suffering will soon be exchanged for something immeasurably better than nothingness. More saddening is that we must continue on in the tempest that her ordeal helped to make so plain.

I mean absolutely no disrespect — quite the contrary — to the following bloggers, but in reading their posts in succession, it struck me how easily we make such matters all about our own preferred battles. The thought consolidated upon reading the following from Michele Catalano:

Who's behaving badly here? Who is making death threats to judges, throwing their kids out to the wolves to get arrested, sending horrible emails to people who disagree with them, calling us nazis and Hitlers and killers, claiming that we want to kill the disabled and meek and that only good Christians can understand what's at stake here? Or that if we disagree with you that means we must be ugly liberals at heart or you start attacking us in other ways, dragging people's sexuality into the fight?

Surely there are excesses even on the side of righteousness; that reality fits the pop storyline, as the word's nearly habitual combination with "self-" makes clear. Still, fairness requires that we take into account the side that's on the defensive, here. Would there be more obvious extremes on the other side if Governor Jeb Bush did in fact use his executive authority to flip the momentum? I don't know, but we have to add in, too, the possibility that it is an indication of a healthy society that those who believe an unjust killing is taking place are a bit more emphatic than those who believe that a questionable life is continuing.

But it's that last question from Michele that really highlights the quick sprint to be on the right side of the aggressor/victim line. Who's "dragging people's sexuality into the fight"? I apparently missed something that Michele has read, but I do hear an echo of Ol' Reliable Andrew Sullivan's approach:

What this case comes down to is the right of a spouse to determine his or her incapacitated spouse's fate in the absence of a living will. Civil marriage is indeed a unique and special legal bond. The social right believes this. But they only believe it when it suits them. If it can be used to marginalize and stigmatize gay couples, they are insistent. If it is an obstacle to their absolutist views on feeding tubes for human beings who have ceased to be able to feel, think or emote, then they discard it.

Writes Glenn Reynolds, in the post in which he links to Michele:

We've seen what the you're-the-enemy-if-you-don't-agree-with-me-on-everything approach has done for the left. It's disappointing to see people on the right imitating it.

Indeed it is, and I don't exempt myself from having had such thoughts and perhaps mildly (somewhere) having voiced them, but let's not pretend that only one faction of the right is thus infected. A post by John Cole comes to mind:

Sick bastards- defining losing your wife as a 'gain,' but all is fair in politics, right? And that is what this is- politics and symbolism on the right to life battlefield. I have said it before- this is jihad for these folks. They don't give two hoots in hell about Terri Schiavo- this is about abortion, religion, and most of all, about power and control. Their concept of morality is king, you see- your behavior in the bedroom, your choice in sexual partner, your desires about end of life decisions, abortion, even the medication you use to ease the pain when you are dying of terminal diseases- their religious text should have authority over you, and if all these 'small-government strict constructionists states right's advocates' have to attain that through government proxy, so be it. ...

As I write this, the Supreme Court has ruled against the reactionaries, adding yet another legal defeat (if these guys were a basketball team, they would be the LA Clippers), but I believe they will remain undeterred. God is on their side, you know, and they know what is best for all of us.

Bill Quick is beginning discussion of ways to neutralize or leave behind his socio-religiously driven co-partisans. And, as I noted a couple of weeks ago, derailing the Republican coalition is a recurring threat among moderates/libertarians. Furthermore, if I may throw in a tangential tidbit: my previous post, which noted similarities between a particular historical inquiry and details in a particular movie, drew a barely related attack on my religious beliefs.

The saddest thing, then, is that this particular issue, the life of Terri Schiavo, which touches deeply in many ways, has touched such vitriolic lines in modern politics. I don't know, frankly, that any current events issue — win or lose — has ever left me with such a feeling of distaste, perhaps mostly because the causes are in every direction. (The fact that Rev. Donald Sensing has been implicated as he has proves my side's culpability.)

My father — who stands back a bit farther from issues, emotionally, than I do — assures me that the political scene has always been thus, and he may be correct. When it reaches the pitch that it has during the past week, however, it becomes difficult to stomach. The Schindlers have apparently resigned themselves to loss, and I imagine that a great many of us, who invested ourselves emotionally in this issue years ago, are in the process of doing the same. I hope those who've landed on the other side in recent days, weeks, and months will, before writing or speaking further, take into account our long investment.

And I pray that I'm not alone in my distaste. That few will manage to hide behind a belief that the fault lies entirely elsewhere. That, whatever our positions, we can recognize that something pernicious has entered our collective discussion on all sides. And that those who've had the misfortune of providing the names and faces that the rest of us have pinned to our tempers — Terri, the Schindlers, and (yes) even Michael Schiavo — will find peace, perhaps even recompense.

We all believe ourselves to be reasonable and on the side of right. May we learn from the turmoil now roiling toward the horizon that focusing too intently on the light that we perceive can sometimes disguise the darkness to which we hold it in contrast.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:31 PM | Comments (6)

March 26, 2005

A Source of The Passion

With all of the discussion of the specific acts included in Mel Gibson's The Passion, I'm a bit surprised more wasn't made of relevant aspects of the history of the investigation of the Shroud of Turin:

According to Barbet, the Shroud shows that prior to taking up the Cross, Jesus was subjected to two drastic forms of punishment. First, he was severely beaten with a stick about 1.75 inches in diameter. "Excoriations are to be found everywhere on the face, but especially on the right side." Barbet found "haematomas beneath the bleeding surfaces." The nose "is deformed by a fracture of the posterior of the cartilage." The marks show that the stick was "vigorously handled by an assailant standing on the right of Jesus."

After that, he was subjected to scourging by two men employing the well-known Roman "flagrum," a leather whip featuring small balls of metal or bone designed to tear the skin. Barbet finds more than fifty such strokes. "All the wounds have the same shape, like a little halter about three centimeters long. The two circles represent the balls of lead. . . . We may assume that during the scourging he was completely naked, for the halter-like wounds are to be seen all over the pelvic region, which would otherwise have been protected. . . . Finally, there must have been two executioners. It is possible they were not of the same height, for the obliqueness of the blows is not the same on each side."

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:58 PM | Comments (6)

March 25, 2005

Suffering from Online Polls

I don't usually put much stock in this sort of activity, but if you've got a moment (and if it's still active when you read this), you might want to go vote in the Schiavo-related poll to the bottom right on CNN's front page.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:25 PM | Comments (1)
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I've been negligent in not pointing y'all toward my current sponsor, Opinion Journal's Political Diary. Be sure to click once, twice, three times a day.

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:45 PM
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March 24, 2005

Christians on Death Row Must Accept It?

Mark Krikorian's theology of death row strikes me as, well, debatable at the very least:

This is something that has long bugged me — any attempt by a supposedly remorseful murderer to overturn his death sentence ought to be prima facie evidence that he is not, in fact, remorseful. Part of remorse is accepting the fact that you deserve the law's punishment for your heinous crime — in fact, if you're a Christian, you deserve damnation, which you hope you will be spared by God's grace. As the penitent thief at Calvary rebuked the other thief who mocked the Lord, "Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss."

I'll say, first, that I know absolutely nothing about the case to which Krikorian is responding, so I can't presume or dismiss the sincerity of the criminal at hand. Even so, I can't help but think that those Christians who themselves oppose capital punishment on theological grounds would object to the suggestion that their particular understanding of God's will should be invalid for those actually at risk of death from the contravening policy. It's convenient for the criminal to have religious objections to the death penalty, to be sure, but that certainly doesn't prove that he has no true remorse.

Apart from specific religious-political issues, Mr. Krikorian's requirement for the remorseful seems a bit narrow — in part because he emphasizes remorse rather than repentance. In similar circumstances, wouldn't Krikorian want the opportunity to right some wrongs, do some good, before he faced his judgment? Nothing is gained by forcing the truly repentant man into a state of remorse that he cannot prove his sincerity by future deeds.

(N.B. — To be honest, I still haven't entirely worked out my opinion on capital punishment, but I take Krikorian's argument as evidence that justifying the policy might do more harm than good.)

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:16 PM | Comments (68)

March 23, 2005

Trimming Worthiness at the Edges

I've posted a broader thought based on the Schiavo case over on Anchor Rising. If you're inclined to comment, feel free to do so here or there, if you'd like a change of scenery.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:27 PM | Comments (2)

When You Advocate Death...

... what if you're wrong:

He writes that Terri Schiavo "demonstrates a number of behaviors that I believe cast a reasonable doubt on the prior diagnosis of PVS." Among these observations, he pinpoints: "Her behavior is frequently context-specific. For example, her facial expression brightens and she smiles in response to the voice of familiar persons such as her parents or her nurses...Several times I witness Terri briefly, albeit inconsistently, laugh in response to a humorous comment someone in the room had made. I did not see her laugh in the absence of someone else's laughter."
Posted by Justin Katz at 8:01 PM | Comments (91)

March 22, 2005

Have to Be Human to Have a Bad Week

Apologies for the lack of posts; my week is off to a rough start, and I haven't been able to get to the computer much. And when I have managed to get to the computer, y'all have ensured that there are plenty of comments for me to read through!

Which leads me to a question that I have for those who support the killing of Terri Schiavo. Many of those who argue for Terri's "right to die" assert that she's been in a supposed "persistent vegatative state" — some folks emphasizing the length of time that she's supposedly been in that state. The implication is that such a life is not worth living. But from the perspective of the person actually living it, it would seem that PVS isn't a hard or undignified life at all. A vegetable doesn't care how long it exists in its a vegetative state.

So: If Terri Schiavo is in a PVS, why is it so horrible for her to remain that way in order to be the recipient of her family's love? And if she is not in a PVS, by what rationale is the government killing her?

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:02 AM | Comments (117)

March 20, 2005

Exposition, Chapter 5 (p. 93-102)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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Martin sat, amidst a protesting cacophony from the springs, on the bed.

"One afternoon, nearly a decade ago, I was surveying some land not too far from here when one of my tires burst on an inconspicuous road that I had taken mostly for the adventure of it. Well, a venture I had been seeking, and adventure I found, for I discovered adjoiningly that somebody had neglected not only to inflate my spare tire, but also to charge the batteries in my cellular phone. Somebody, incidentally, who is no longer employed by me.

"After a brief bout of fitful panic, I picked a direction and strolled down the road. It was terribly hot that day, and it was not long before the combination of bountiful sweating and the blistering rub of my expensive leather shoes induced me to rest on a fallen tree by the road. It bears mentioning, at this point in my story, that I was unversed in the ways of country hiking, and no sooner had I alighted on the log than it rolled over and pitched me careening down a deceptively steep decline. When I finally stopped rolling, I found myself so disoriented that I staggered randomly into the surrounding trees.

"This forest harbors many pitfalls and obstacles for the untrained woodsman. Consequently, by the time I stumbled upon the Pequod, I was bruised and exhausted. I crossed through the hatchway on my hands and knees, gasping for water. Inexplicably, I was driven to my feet by a spell of sneezing, and upon rising, there came to my ears the beautiful intonation of a piano — not to say that I'm remarkably susceptible to music: the beauty was in the emancipation signified by the beacon. Looking briefly at the trick picture in the entrance hall, I walked..."

"I don't mean to interrupt," apologized D., "but what do you mean by 'trick picture'?"

"Oh, you must have seen it... that stained glass monstrosity over the stairs? I call it a trick picture because I find it to be a great sacrifice of beauty simply in order to advertise the artisan's cleverness. Leaving a bit of glass to represent a sun that only fills the gap but once a year. Phah! What a waste.

"Well, anyway. Where was I?"

"You had just walked beneath the stairs, into the courtyard, I imagine."

"Yes. Yes, quite. Under the willow, a young man, who I later found out to be Nathaniel, was playing the piano. Sitting in various places and positions around him were John and Huck, whom you've already met, I believe, and a negro" — this word eked out forcedly from his mouth — "that called himself either George or Henry, dependent upon his mood. He, however, you will not meet here, for he no longer graces us with his presence."

"Why is that?" wondered the sole member of Martin's audience, who was a little bothered by the speaker's choice of words.

With a brusque statement, he informed her that that was the very story that he was getting around to telling, and went on. "Over the next score of days, I was bystander to more insightful discussions than ever a college professor participated in. Now, I've come to realize that it is a fact that all well-groomed persons above the working class exude an inherent power of intellect, but back then, in my youth, it seemed the books were alive in these disputants. Their opinions were not premanufactured. They were rebels of their own sort. Within reason, of course," Martin qualified.

"My God, I thought to myself, forgiving myself the oath, here is intellectual life! Here are the books come to life and electrifying the very air! By Nathaniel's advice, I read the book by Jack London that later would become my defining story. The tale so motivated me that I began reading the dictionary to improve my vocabulary and ability to express my thoughts — an occupation to which I've religiously devoted no less than five minutes of every day... the dictionary, I mean, not the other. This habit is only during my yearly residency here, of course, but a finer mastery of phonetics than mine I've yet to encounter." Martin nodded his head curtly out of pride in his achievement.

As if he had been awaiting a lull in Martin's oration, Huck stuck his head around the door frame and said, "I'll be makin' soup an' san'wiches fer lunch. Y'all game?"

D. smiled and told him that she was.

"No," proclaimed Martin, "I'm quite contented."

"Suit yerself," said Huck. Then to D., "I'll holler up t'ya when it's a-ready."

Martin shook his head incredulously at the interruption and, in shaking, shed his agitation. "Where was I?" he asked, squeezing at the bridge of his nose.

"Reading the dictionary."

"Oh. Yes. Well, it was while so occupied, or, rather, while resting after a particularly arduous study, extended by fully two minutes, that I tore my eyes from a cumulus cloud to give voice to my mind. 'Every line of the really great poets is an indispensable statement of innate beauty and truth,' I claimed.

"To which Nathaniel responded beguilingly, 'What makes you say that?'

"I thought for a moment and then explained that a poet whom every eminent personage of the literary world agrees is great would, by nature of his being great, be incapable of putting pen to an extraneous line, for it is the power and greatness of their writing that makes them great.

"'So,' came the infernal response, 'the greatness of the poems defines the value of the poet?'

"'On the surface it may seem so,' I insisted, 'but it is the poet who crafts the words and places them in such a way as to make them remarkable; from which accomplishment, the reader learns to define poetic greatness.'

"'Then it is the critic's ability to recognize the inherent merit of words that have been auspiciously placed by the poet, whom all agree is great, that makes of the critic a qualified judge of the extent to which the poetry exalts the poet?'

"I told him that, apart from my preferring the term 'analyst' to 'critic,' his assumption sounded reasonable. He could not, however, let the topic remain at this elevation and said, 'So what do you make of instances when two prominent analysts disagree?'

"'Well,' I rationalized, 'in any such case, it will not forever be dubious which of the two is the lesser, for, obviously, one must be wrong and one right.'

"Nathaniel then proceeded to fumble about for a retort by suggesting that poets who become famous years after they are dead must necessarily have been at least a generation beyond the readers of their time and somehow worked his way to the casuistic conclusion that either the poet's greatness must have been externally and posthumously imparted on him or the human audience must deny its ability to definitively declare that any poem or poet is great, or something to that effect. Ignoring his erratic logic, I submitted that since the poet must have been raised under the same literary principles, albeit perhaps with a more privileged education, as his audience, he could not possibly have intended to say more than humanity, even if delayed, would eventually be able to understand."

At this point in the discourse, Huck's voice poured over the banisters and into the room, and much to Martin's chagrin, D. stifled a yawn and excused herself and Jim, who had been snoozing obliviously, to lunch. At the bottom of the stairs, Huck asked her how she was finding Mr. Martin.

"Oh, he's very... pleasant," was the answer.

After she had eaten, however, D. found that she felt a throbbing aversion to returning for the consummation of Martin's story. Despite the pang of guilt that was aroused by this sentiment, and the fact that she could not discern the exact cause of her repugnance, she could not deny that it existed.

Huck birthed a chimera of hope by informing her that he was off to collect the remainder of his provisions. Reminding her that it was his own to do, however, and commanding the mistakenly exuberant Jim to stay with her, Huck departed alone.

Procrastinating yet a little longer, D. finally started toward her own room, but feeling guilty and rude for entertaining her first impulse, she eventually made her way to Martin's, utterly expecting him to be poised on the edge of the bed ready to pounce and accost her with his recital. Instead, she found him sitting at his desk gazing out the window, utilizing neither the paper in his typewriter nor the notebook in his lap. But as D. watched, Martin picked up the notebook, read a line, and put it down, lips moving as if he were trying to memorize something by repeating it over and over to himself.

Exhaling, she posed the question, "So where were we?"

Martin swung about in his chair and blurted, "This world is so ordered that money is necessary to happiness."

"Excuse me?" asked D., fairly certain that she was sorry to have returned.

Martin squinted his eyes, as if trying to decipher her question, and explained, "That is what I had been trying to explain to Nathaniel when George came ambling into the yard. He sat down, and I no longer felt free to speak my mind openly" — explaining, "he was the type that compels you to watch your words, so to speak. Nathaniel, unmoved by the third party, declared, 'It is not the being famous, but the process of becoming so, that counts.'

"This, of course, was poppycock. What could be the possible justification for writing that which no other person would ever be granted the opportunity to appreciate? 'No,' I told him, 'art must see print or it is no more than amusing.'

"Nathaniel protested that it would be a tremendous mistake to envision a world in which there are no objectives unfettered by the opinions of somebody else. To which silliness I avowed that culture is an end in itself.

"'What is culture,' he struggled, 'but the conglomeration of all human opinions?' And I decided that we had reached the limit of Nathaniel's ability to conceptualize the topic at hand.

"After a moment of silence, the very calm before the storm, a harsh cry of dogma crashed into the intellectualized calmness. 'All your culture does is crush us and keep us down,' professed George.

"I, of course, set out to explain to him that it was by virtue of culture that empires had been built, that so many people could be provided for in the world, and that it had even led us into space. 'Culture,' I told him, 'does not crush; it emboldens.'

"Nathaniel interjected that my folly was in confusing culture for education. To which accusation I contested, 'Education is indispensable for whatever pursuit one may endeavor to achieve, cultural or otherwise, but it is only a division of culture as a whole.'

"Again George interrupted, 'But your educational system teaches only how to live in your culture.'

"As I tried to explain to George that he was mistaking racial culture for true culture, which is inclusive of every constituent of God's kingdom, Nathaniel attempted to reconcile the difference by pointing out that, though I was on to something by forcing a distinction between the two, the teachers of our educational system were inherently limited in their perspective and, as mere guides to the chartroom of knowledge, as it were, could only describe those things that they had been culturalized to recognize.

"George, despite the fact that I don't believe that he had an inkling as to what Nathaniel's meaning was, nodded his head in approval. I put forth that, even taking him to be correct, adroitness in culture was the very tool needed to understand how to apply our knowledge.

"'Like two hundred years of slavery?' shouted George.

"'Why does it always return to slavery with you people?' I criticized.

"'Because slavery always ends in misery!'

"To which Nathaniel suggested that slavery had ended.

"'It may have ended for the white man,' came the confutation, 'but it is alive and beating at the souls of every African American alive. Only in the grave can we find equality.'

"Nathaniel told him that by taking such a stance, George and his people were frustrating any chance of alleviation.

"Ignoring me when I suggested that the only hope lay in creating a society in which the law of development could be annulled and in which every person of lesser advantage might eat as many times a day as he desired, George griped, 'How can we think differently when the effects continue to prevent us from even finding jobs? Do you think I'd be spending so much time here if I was able to find a career that gratified me?'

"Telling him that he wasn't going to find a career here in the mountains, Nathaniel explained to him that true rewards never landed in any man's lap, and if they did, then they weren't rewards, but charity. 'Get off your ass,' he said, 'and work just like any man of any color must do.'

"At this point, George was beginning to show signs of anger. 'That's easy for you to say, who've had every advantage of white society.' And Nathaniel, squeezing his hands together to abate his own growing rage, suggested that George had no idea what he did outside of this house.

"'What about this fat' — calling me a nasty name — 'here? He's never had to work a day in his life. He practically brags about his poor treatment of my brothers and sisters that he works to death as employees and soaks the life out of as tenants!'

"I began to protest this horrid accusation, but Nathaniel stepped in and defended me, 'That has nothing to do with you,' he stated. 'I guarantee that he treats with impartial pess-tif-er-us-ness [I haven't had a chance to look this word up yet, but it sounds grand] people of every race. The point is that you are wrong to use that as an excuse to waste away your life complaining. Go out and make something of yourself! Martin cannot help his advantages, nor should he be forced to make apologies for them, for he is no more than a triviality of means. [Doesn't that just sound so poetic?] But you have been granted the opportunity to become a saint in slime and may achieve the satisfaction of attempting to drag yourself from the mire into which you were born. Even were you to fail, still have you gained the self-fulfillment of the trial. But it is easier to bewail your position than to improve it. You could refuse to subordinate yourself to the unanimous judgment of mankind, but no, the truth is that you are lazy. Yours is a manifest burden and easily rallied against. It is a color that you are fighting — no less difficult an obstacle for being so, but unhindered by enigmaticism. I tell you that you are lazy and that you are afraid to discover that convenient skin does not preclude suffering and hardship. Hidden behind your belligerence is an apprehension that if you deny your skin dominion, then you will next be forced to be conscious of the fact that life is most often just plain hard no matter who or what you are. Much the more comforting to be fighting a word than a certainty of reality, and rather than better yourself and make of yourself an example, you succumb to that very word and make of yourself a nigger.'"

This last word Martin rasped softly under his breath as if reluctant to speak it, but, given the circumstances, reveled in uttering the forbidden name.

"I'm certain that the wisdom of this diatribe was beyond George's ability to comprehend because, on the instant, he jumped up and charged at Nathaniel. At first he had the advantage of surprise, and even got in a few skimming blows, but Nathaniel, by virtue of keeping his head, soon gained the upper hand, flipping George upon the ground and landing on his chest."

Martin squinted one eye sagely and accented the words with one corpulent index finger. "'I refuse to hit you,' he said. 'What good would it do? The point has already been made more potently than I could have conveyed it in words. I have now bested you in your own language, and you can hardly compete in mine. So where's your angle?'

"I, myself, couldn't help but pity George, as I do any human creatures that are less fortunately placed than myself, but I also couldn't help concluding that, since Nathaniel's and my thoughts were beyond him, so must we be beyond him. Nathaniel let him up cautiously, and we have never heard from him since.

"I must admit, though I believe that Nathaniel knows very much about very many things, his flashing insight and flaming uncontrol of genius prevent him from living down his working-class origin, and I lost a good deal of respect for him that day. I guess when one is raised as a child, one will only know the solutions of immaturity. And so, I couldn't help pitying him as well, a little, for he is without past, has only the imminent grave in his future, and exists in a bitter fever of living."

D. was stirred from the half-attentive state into which she had retreated over the course of Martin's oration by the harsh ringing of a spring-powered alarm clock. "Well," Martin announced, standing and clapping his hands together, "it is time for my daily regimen of study and exercise." He motioned to the door, "So if you please."

Entirely content to escape Martin's oppressive presence, D. roused Jim and made the journey back to her room. The sky above the protected courtyard was still gray, but a lighter shade.

Scarcely had she reached her doorway when Martin burst from his room and called across to her, "Do you know if there's any soup left?"

"I don't know," she responded. "Probably."

Nodding, Martin made his way toward the kitchen.

D. spent the remainder of the day reading and had nearly finished the book when Huck announced that dinner was ready. Bringing two folding chairs up to the northern tower, the two ate while watching the sun, which had broken from the clouds just in time to set. John had disappeared, as was, according to Huck, his wont to do, and Martin had paced around the house, occasionally stomping grandly to his room with a ceremonious annunciation that he was returning to work and typing erratically for several minutes. D. wondered how many times Martin had told the story that she had heard from him and whether it might be that same story that he was constantly typing, over and over, with very minor variations.

But then, she had more than ample evidence to support this conclusion.

Huck had passed the time between lunch and dinner with several bottles of beer pushed into the damp soil at the juncture of a cool stream, which sprang from the earth high up on the mountain, and the pond in which a fishing line drifted lazily at the water. The line had, apparently, been more profitable than the bottles, as evidenced by the facts that each of their plates sported an amply sized trout and that Huck had moved on to a large glass of vodka and cranberry juice. He had the air of a man slipping gently into the indolent undulations of a temporary summer retirement.

"So," he said, leaning back in his chair as the last fingers of red light slipped over the mountains, "I reckon ya haven't got yer keys back yet."

"No, not yet. The guy who could set me free has been mysteriously absent lately, and nobody seems willing to help me leave otherwise."

"He'll turn up 'venchally."

D. looks up at Huck as if to ask a question that will relieve the consternation in her face. Huck keeps his face in profile for a moment then smiles genuinely before raising his glass to his lips. Martin whistles to himself as he climbs laboriously up to the southern tower, looking quickly toward the purple horizon when Huck waves to him.

In the distance, two owls exchange questions.

The front door squeals open, and Jim can be heard charging from his sentry position below Huck and D. toward it. In the mild evening air, John's expression of surprise floats across the courtyard, seeming to rustle the willow's branches in lieu of the negligible breeze. D. laughs quietly.

But the branches continue to quiver long after Jim has returned to his station and John has found sleep in his chair. The tree trembles as if in expectancy, with labor looming. D. tilts her head as if straining to hear the groans of Nature waking up. Perhaps she trembles imperceptibly herself.

The forest bursts forth another cumulative bloom and thickens, solidifying. And D., just like a high flying bird who wonders that there could be anything dangerous hidden below the clouds, looks upon the interlocking branches that will soon disguise the earth with life and listens to the sounds of a house relearning to handle people.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:23 PM
A Whispering Through the Branches

March 19, 2005

Just a Little Bit

Back in 2003, just after Victor Lams wrote his excellent song "Not a Great Man" (available here) from Michael Schiavo's perspective, I took some time to write one from Terri's. I never got around to recording it, and now, having moved, I've misplaced the little piece of paper on which I'd written the chord changes. (It was in e-minor, with some jarring chords mixed in to give it a chilling feel.) But I've still got the lyrics:

Just a Little Bit

Maybe if I try real hard
I can move my finger just a little bit
Maybe if I make some noise
I can make them understand

That I'm not just lying here
Waiting for the end
Bring me that pillow
And I'll lift my head again
You can run your race
For the millionth time
And you won't know half the effort
I make trying

Just to squeeze your fingers when you check my pulse
If my heart keeps beating is it just impulse
That makes me try to scream when you're on the phone
And it's so frustrating when it comes out just a groan

Instead of saying I'm not just lying here
Waiting for the end
You can bring me that balloon
And I'll follow it again
You can run your race
A hundred billion times
And won't convince them
That I'm not dying


Maybe if I try real hard
I can move my eyelids just a little bit
And maybe if the light's just right
The camera will catch the gleam

That proves I'm not just lying here
Waiting for the end
He can bring those funeral flowers
To his girlfriend
He can go to court
Until the end of time
But the world knows
That I'm not dying

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:02 AM | Comments (15)

March 18, 2005

Rights, Precedent, and a Line That Must Not Be Crossed

If the samples that she posted are any evidence, Kathryn Lopez might understandably be reluctant to continue visiting her email inbox. Most of what she's shared seems to be nothing so much as evidence that people don't really want to bother researching the facts of the case at hand before commenting. One email, however, raises a couple of interesting questions:

The Federal Gov't should not be deciding the specific case of Schiavo.

If they had really cared they could have passed legislation about this in the past seven years. It never came up, because everyone in Congress knew it was not their role.

Every court case that gets decided in a wrong or immoral manner does not get to go to the US Congress for appeal. Yes it is a matter of life or death but this is not for Congress to intervene in.

This sets a precedent in which every family with someone on death row can bring their case to Congress.

If this was the case you would've died of a brain explosion during the early Clinton years.

Congress does not get special rights when you happen to agree with the party in power.

The overall response that comes to mind is: Why not? Particularly if it would have been legitimate for the Federal Gov't to pass legislation to the same end before the issue reached a simmer, why is it illegitimate for it to act now? Why, more specifically, is Congress barred from reacting to wrong or immoral court cases? It's not a favorite clause among folks who make a practice of discussing the First Amendment, but consider the text that I've italicized:

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

The right to petition the federal government is not so specific as to forbid the grievance's being against a judiciary and/or the petition's being directed toward Congress. True, all court cases do not "get to go to the US Congress for appeal," but that is a function of social and political factors, not of law. As a matter of law, "every family with someone on death row" — or any other form of grievance — "can bring their case to Congress." It may go nowhere. There may ultimately be nothing that Congress can or will do, but that will illustrate a limitation of public interest in the specific case, not of Congress's rights.

The underlying reality, here, is that the case of Terri Schiavo is now of interest to millions of Americans. One can argue that those millions are nosy, or obsessive, or whatever, but one cannot argue that they don't have a right to decide what their own grievances are and to petition their representatives to redress them. If Congress does so through mechanisms afforded it by the Constitution and rules in harmony with it, then no agreement-inspired "special rights" have been created.

Something about this single case — originating with one family in Florida — has now brought the nation to a boiling point twice over. I'd suggest that Americans who disagree with those among their fellow citizens who are stoking the flames would do well to devote their energy to considering what, in this one family's fight, points to a line that must not be crossed.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:02 PM | Comments (18)

Ripping Out a Handful of Furr

Rocco DiPippo has a piece on FrongPageMag investigating Montclair State University's Grover Furr — professor of (apparently) Leftism. From the extended version that Rocco has published on his blog:

... the reader might have concluded that Professor Furr, by spreading disinformation, pushing Marxism and communism on his students, and advocating for one of mankind's greatest mass murderers, behaves exactly as a professor of English literature and professional educator shouldn't. Unfortunately, I doubt that many of his colleagues would be so affected. During extensive research of Furr I found not one example of a university professor, teacher or administrator questioning his in-class behavior or his teaching methods.

What I did find was quite the opposite--a network of high school and college teachers and administrators who actually support his methods, views and goals and recommend his web pages as both a teaching resource and as a guide in developing curricula--sad commentary on Humanities departments nationwide, which as you read this, sink deeper and deeper into a miasma of pseudo-intellectualism, fatuous scholarship and anti-Western Marxist propagandizing.

As Lane Core has noted (click "confer"), the network that Rocco has discovered is an achievement a half-century in the making.

Posted by Justin Katz at 3:33 PM

Two by Peggy

I'm extremely busy, but I wanted to take a break to direct your attention to two stunning columns by Peggy Noonan. The first is about the "amazing story of how Ashley Smith stopped Brian Nichols's killing spree." The second explains why, if "Terri Schiavo is killed, Republicans will pay a political price."

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:28 PM | Comments (17)

March 17, 2005

Give a Man a Fish; Give a Kid a Condom

Over on Anchor Rising, I've taken a look at a law proposed in the Rhode Island legislature that would centralized sex ed. requirements for all public and (I believe) private schools. Among them is the explicit barring of religious doctrine as part of the curriculum. In other words, it looks as if Christian schools would have to teach the benefits and drawbacks of various methods of contraception, but they couldn't list among the drawbacks damage to the child's eternal soul.

It isn't difficult to see other issues about which social conservatives are concerned following a similar route toward status as a mandatory point of view.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:16 PM | Comments (11)

Two by Ben

Ben Bateman left a couple of comments to this post that deserve not to disappear into the expanding backroom discussion. First:

Laid Bare
Marty: "Why are 'We The People' being shut out of the most important cultural decisions of our time?" ResIpsa: "Because 'We the People' have a knack for approving of things like slavery, racial segregation, denying women the right to vote, and preventing people of different races to marry."

What a remarkable exchange! On that logic, why bother calling them judges? Why not just call them benevolent oligarchs? Or we could buy them little faux military uniforms and call them generalissimos.

If you really believe that the people are ignorant, stupid, and evil, then why tolerate any kind of democracy or voting? Is it just an opiate for the masses, something to soothe us while our benevolent masters run things behind the scenes?

What the Words Mean
ResIpsa: "You also have to remember than in Calif., NY, and Mass., there is a slightly higher standard than just a rational basis since sexual orientation is protected by statute in each of those states, creating a potentially higher level of scrutiny."

That argument cuts two ways, at least in Mass. The Goodridge opinion relied heavily on the states Equal Rights Amendment, which specifically forbids sex discrimination. So you could say that this made the case easier.

But the trouble with relying on the Mass ERA is that it was enacted in 1976, well within living memory and partly within the reach of modern information searching. Opponents of the Mass ERA listed many possible problems with it, and SSM was on that list. Mass. ERA supporters ardently insisted that those concerns were ridiculous, and that the ERA could never be interpreted to require SSM.

My logic is simple: The only reason any given string of words has special force as part of any constitution is that some group of citizens or their representatives voted for those words. That's the only thing that makes those words special.

The conservative view of constitutions is that the words in a constitution mean what the voters intended them to mean.

The liberal view of constitution is hard to describe—perhaps intentionally. As best I can determine, the ignorant, bigoted voters (the people themselves or their representatives) vote on some set of words. And what those voters thought those words meant is completely irrelevant. Getting the voters to approve a constitutional amendment is apparently some meaningless, antiquated bit of ceremony left over from an earlier age. The important part comes after the voters have had their say, when the judges tell the voters what the words actually mean. The voters may have thought that the words meant X, but the judges know that the words actually mean Y.

This is a special rhetorical technique reserved for interpreting constitutions. You can't use it in a typical conversation, or even in an ordinary legal dispute. I'm often tempted, though.

How Consitutional Law Could Me Save $992 a Month
For example, suppose that my office lease says that I must pay my landlord "$1000 per month." After studying the mental processes of eminent liberal jurists, maybe some month I should try paying only eight dollars. My landlord might object, of course. I'll be ready with brilliant legal insights gleaned from the majorities of Goodridge, Roper, and other recent cases.

"You may think that I have to pay you a thousand dollars every month," I'll explain to the landlord. "But you're just interpreting the lease at its surface level. We should consider how times have changed. We should consider the rent that other tenants pay in other buildings. And most importantly, we should consider alternate understandings of these words."

"For example," I'll go on, "you assume that '$1000' means a thousand dollars. But that's just one restrictive, decimo-centric way of reading it. I prefer to interpret it in a more modern binary mindset, where the number '1000' would be expressed in the old decimal system as '8'. So here's my check for eight dollars."

My landlord might sputter for a while and issue all sorts of threats and profanities. But his most interesting response would be to point out that he believed that '1000' meant a thousand, and had he known that it meant something else he wouldn't have signed the lease. "Too bad," I'll respond sympathetically while suppressing the triumphant sneer that half the US Sup Ct must struggle with daily. "You really should have chosen your words more carefully."

Is that how we should read constitutions, ResIpsa? The people vote on the words, and then the judges twist the words to mean something that the people obviously never intended?

An Old Temptation
You don't have to dig very far to see that this is simply a ruse to conceal an attack on democracy. And ResIpsa has been admirably blunt in saying that it's all the people's fault. If they weren't so ignorant in refusing to vote the right way, then our betters wouldn't have to resort to this kind of subterfuge of enacting the 'correct' law in the guise of discovering it in a constitution.

This thread has exploded in the time I've been writing. My advice is to leave aside the arguments about rational basis and similar phrases. It's a maze with no exit. None of those phrases really mean anything, in the sense of predicting what the next decision will be.

The real issue is very simple: Who decides? Gabriel and ResIpsa apparently think that we're all a bunch of gibbering idiots whose beliefs should be scarcely tolerated, and certainly not allowed to be law. No doubt many a king has thought the same thing about his subjects. Those of us on the right think that the people should run the country, and are entitled to whatever laws they want. We see the US Constitution as merely the expression of super-majority will that trumps ordinary majority will—not as the free-floating spirit of justice and enlightenment.

It's a classic debate that goes back for centuries. Monarchy has its advantages. Democracies make mistakes. Perhaps everything will run better if we collect the good, smart people together and put them in charge of everything. If that seems like a good idea, maybe I'll buy you a one-way ticket to Cuba, North Korea, or Vietnam.

Some claim that Josef Stalin said: "It's not who votes that counts. It's who counts the votes." In this country we are developing our own counterpart: It's not who writes the law that decides, it's who decides what the law means.

We Don't Want It
In this country, the people decide. Not monarchs. Not apparatchiks. Not generalissimos. We decide. And we don't want SSM. We never voted for SSM. We aren't going to vote for SSM. You tell us that some would-be despots in black robes will utter some magic phrases and force us to accept law that we don't want. Maybe they'll succeed; they have in the past. Or maybe this time people are paying enough attention to understand and fight back.

What you SSM supporters don't seem to understand is the deep damage that this sort of judicial tyrrany does to the country over the long term. You're daring us to tear apart our own legal system to stop your machinations. You're betting that our desire for self-government is less than our desire to avoid damaging our traditions and institutions.

It's not a bad bet. You got away with it in Roe v. Wade and the crazy decisions of the sixties. But that was a long time ago, when our traditions and institutions were much more obviously worth preserving. Maybe this time it'll be different.


Mike (not to be confused with Mike S.) wrote: "Does that mean I don't trust democracy? No. What it means is that we need to have a check on the system to make sure that the tyranny of the majority doesn't allow democracy to run amok, trampling on the interests of the minority and disenfranchised. The court, who don't have to be elected and are thus less corrupted by that desire to trample on those interest, are often in a better position to determine the "fairness" or "equity" of the laws."

That's exactly how they see things in many other countries. China has the National People's Congress. Cuba elects a Parliament. Vietnam elects a National Assembly. Iraq had a legislature under Saddam. Even North Korea, of all places, elects a legislature called a Praesidium. They're all democracies! Who knew? Here I thought that they were communist dictatorships, and it turns out that their governments look a lot like ours.

As far as I can tell, all those legislatures seem to work pretty much like the US Congress and our state legislatures. They form committees. They discuss issues. They give speeches. They vote.

And I suspect that their deliberations affect national policy in some kind of meaningful way. Most government work involves mind-bendingly dull details. I would expect that the legislators in those groups work hard to figure out just what each region's production quotas should be, and how much tax money should go to the dam project in region X or the highway project in region Y. Those legislators probably wield some measure of real power, just like ours do, to the extent that they can control the fine print of huge government documents.

So what's the difference? How do those other legislatures differ from our own? It's subtle. It comes up on big questions, where passions run high. On those questions, the legislatures are not the final authority. Instead, the Real Power gets involved: the president-for-life or central council of the communist party. If the legislature gets it wrong, then the Real Power sends it back and tells them to try again—kinda like we do it.

I bet that those leaders would angrily deny that their countries aren't democracies, or that they don't have any faith in democracy. They love democracy! It's just that sometimes democracy runs amok. It gets a little out of control and needs a friendly nudge in the right direction. And it's best for that friendly nudge to come from someone who is above the political process, someone who doesn't have to worry about getting re-elected, someone who isn't corrupted by politics and money, someone who is in a better position to determine the fairness or equity of the laws. Someone like Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Kim Jong Il, or (until recently) Saddam Hussein.

There's your managed democracy, Mike. Our country has a group instead of a single president-for-life. Our Real Power wears black robes and has the Ten Commandments on the wall; I bet their group wears more standard business attire and has pictures of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao on the wall. And our system is inferior in at least one respect: It's inefficient. In the other countries, the Real Power will usually tell the legislature how to vote beforehand, which avoids confusion, delay, and potential embarrassment. In our system, the legislature has to produce a law and then wait for months or years to find out whether the Real Power will allow it. It's a needless waste of time.

I'm not being entirely facetious here. Most despots do not see themselves as monsters. They usually genuinely want what's best for their country. They start with precisely what you said, Mike: Their country needs solution X for problem Y. The people simply don't understand that solution X is the right way to go. But that just shows how stupid or uneducated the people are. Once we've educated them properly, they'll understand what a good idea it is. But for now, for the good of the people, we must ignore their ignorant, biased views and give them what we know to be best.

And sometimes they're right. Sometimes the strongman can accomplish things that a democracy cannot, especially in war. That's why Europe had kings for so many centuries: The king was the guy who could make quick, firm decisions and lead the army. That's why the Constitution names our president as Commander in Chief.

Sometimes the strongman can build great public works projects that would be impossible in a democracy. You want us to look at the great things the US Sup Ct has done in the past: "Were it not for the courts, we wouldn't have made the significant civil rights gains in this country that dragged us beyond segregation and Jim Crow. School segregation, miscegenation laws, and a number of other civil rights issues would have lost in a popular vote." If we were the guests of Kim Jong Il, I'm sure that we would get precisely the same kind of presentation:

"Look at the great things I have built! None of that would have been possible without my leadership. Look at my nuclear missiles! Look at my grand palaces, and my mighty army! Without me, North Korea would be an impoverished irrelevant backwater, conquered by one of its neighbors long ago. Under my leadership, the world trembles when North Korea speaks! The world sees our armies, and trembles! They call me a monster, but they know nothing of all that I have done for my people! Without me, they would be nothing."

He would believe it, too. He wouldn't talk about the prison camps, the indoctrination as education, or the general suffering and poverty under his heavy-handed rule. He either doesn't notice them, or doesn't consider them his fault.

The US Sup Ct believes that it's engaged in noble work when it forces its views on us about capital punishment, racial discrimination, homosexuality, abortion, etc. It doesn't think about the 47 million babies killed since Roe v. Wade. It doesn't care about flipping the bird to the majority of an entire state's voters, as it did in Romer v. Evans. It doesn't care about the long-term effects on the country of telling the voters that they have no voice in the country's most important issues.

Everyone likes democracy when it gives them what they want, Mike. The question is how you respond when it doesn't. You're completely wrong when you tell me: "Your desire to gut the judicial process is, in part, your anger that you may lose power.”

I'm not like you, Mike. I'm not obsessed with my own power. My primary goal is not winning on specific issues. I want to see the country thrive, and I believe (based on overwhelming evidence) that countries do best, overall, on the long term, when the people's representatives have the absolutely final say on any given matter, whether they express that view in ordinary legislation or as a constitutional amendment. I trust the American people, Mike. You apparently don't.

SSM imposed by judicial fiat will harm the country. It will harm us by demolishing an age-old social institution and casting the next generation into unfriendly and untested waters. And it will harm us by giving the voters a firm thumb-in-the-eye and telling them: Your votes don't count. You don't run this country any more. Shut up and go home. The council of nine will tell you what the law is.

Fitz, nobody knows how this will shake out politically. Right now the battle to watch is over the filibuster rules in the Senate. If we win that, maybe we can put some honest pro-democracy types on the court, and maybe that would eventually fix the problem. Maybe.

My personal recommendation is to amend the US Constitution: "On a two-thirds vote of each house, the Congress may remove any federal judge from office, and may vacate any decision of any federal court.”

It's drastic, I know. But I don't see any other way to stop these thugs from turning this country into another managed democracy.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:16 AM | Comments (201)
Marriage & Family

March 16, 2005

Songs You Should Know 03/15/05

The Timshel Music Song You Should Know this week is "The Video Store Song" by Victor Lams.

"The Video Store Song" Victor Lams, Pop/Rock
Stream (HiFi) Download
from Robot Love

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:16 AM

March 15, 2005

I'll Be Back... ?

I've never been on the Schwarzenegger bandwagon. Something about his public persona — holding the big cigars in a grin — always terminated the Reagan comparisons for me. With time and interest, I'm sure a compelling narrative could be compiled highlighting the fundamental differences between the heartland American turned upper-midlist actor turned politician and the weightlifting foreigner turned mega-billed actor turned polician.

One needn't agree with my position on same-sex marriage — or share my gut reaction to Arnold the Political Leader, for that matter — to find this statement of principle to be a matter of concern:

MATTHEWS: You would go with the courts?

SCHWARZENEGGER: Whatever the Supreme Court, whatever the Supreme Court decides, that`s exactly what I will stay with.

MATTHEWS: And that`s consistent with your philosophy, letting some judges decide, rather than letting all the people of the state decide?

SCHWARZENEGGER: Well, both, the people or the judge. In both cases, I think the important issue here is that it should not be the power of a mayor, for instance, like Mayor Newsom in San Francisco. ... I thought he was overstepping the line, because I thought that this is, again, something that the legislators can do, the people can do, or the court can do, but not individual mayors cannot make up the laws that go along, because, eventually, you have some other mayor in some other town start saying, OK, I think we should hand out guns and ammunitions and we should have free this.

Some readers of the exchange might observe that he said nothing of a governor's power to "make up the laws that go along." I would hope that many more would find it an odd — perhaps delusional — suggestion that the executive alone among the branches of government can set a precedent that undermines democracy and the rule of law. In a system in which the executive and the legislature never fail to back down when battling with the judiciary, it makes little difference whether we call the dictator of law "Mr. Mayor" or "your honor."

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:38 PM | Comments (99)
Marriage & Family

Controversial Among a Handful

Wesley Smith makes an interesting observation about the spate of state laws that open the way for some of the more controversial types of biotech fiddling:

...under both bills, if the purpose of cloning and implantation is the gestation of a cloned fetus for use in medical experiments or body part harvesting, no law would be broken. ... Moreover, NONE of this year's crop of state legislation intended to legalize therapeutic cloning would place outright bans on implanting cloned embryos into real or artificial wombs. Not one.

This can only mean that there is a design and a purpose behind these proposals. The movers and shakers behind these bills want access to cloned fetuses when, technologically, they can be created. In other words, it ain't just about embryonic stem cells anymore.

Surely the just-ending stomach bug, following several sleep-little nights of sick offspring, and the flat tire this morning are affecting my outlook, but I'm beginning to get a feeling of dark inevitability. Note, particularly, the beginning of Smith's final paragraph:

What a story! Yet, it is goes unreported by the mainstream media.

Why does it seem that the made-for-TV controversies that never make it to TV are always those that might serve to wake the public up to the incremental steps toward an unrecognizable society that a handful of people are forcing on us all?

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:44 PM | Comments (3)
News Media

Studio Matters Notes & Commentary

The latest Notes & Commentary essay by Maureen Mullarkey is "A Chat with A Dealer," about Virginia Zabriskie.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:10 AM
Visual Art

March 13, 2005

Exposition, Chapter 5 (p. 84-92)

A Whispering Through the Branches
< Previous | Beginning | Next >

Excessively early the following morning, D. awoke to a whine and a lick, with the predawn light just murky enough to see vague shapes in the otherwise inviolable darkness.

"What's the matter boy?" she asked Jim, reaching out and patting his head on the second attempt. Encouraged by the gesture, Jim scurried to the door and looked back and forth between it and the dark mound on the bed.

"You want to go out?"

Hearing Jim shake his tail in a spasmodic affirmative, D. swung her legs from the bed and rubbed her eyes. The damp coolness of the floor on her naked feet made her shiver as she felt her way to the chair and slipped into the robe that lay across its arm.

Jim whined again.

The instant the key was turned and the door open, he darted out onto the balcony and toward the eastern end of the house. D. considered whether or not to follow. With the dog not directly at her side, she experienced a recrudescence of the unease that her Cerberusian protector had allayed.

She glanced around, attempting to pierce the shadows of balconies and courtyard and shivered again from the mist that hung in the air. The panes of the sheltering dome were drooped down in limp acceptance of the weather, awaiting the impetus of a hand at their controlling haft. The shapes of the chair and piano lay vulnerable in the yard. The books aged on silently in the dampness.

Scanning the overhead apparatus for the shutting mechanism, D. was startled into her room by the padded footsteps of Jim returning to beseech her assistance with the front door. She smiled at being so quick to retreat. Her question, however, had been answered for her: she must accompany Jim away from her haven. She wished she had a leash to keep him near.

Once outside, Jim scurried into the nearby bushes, and D. contemplated the most secure stance and position on the porch, her inability to decide leading her to move her arms about as one does when incapable of finding a comfortable posture in an awkward situation. She had just settled, for the moment, on a cross-armed self-hug when the sound of somebody turning the crank to enclose the courtyard caused her to jump skittishly and her arms to spread in the anticipatory gesture of a gunslinger.

Prowling her way quietly toward the doors, she began pushing one open incrementally. Before the gap was a shoulder's breadth wide, the squeal of the steps behind her led her to pirouette in alarm, and the door swung closed with an unjustifiably loud crash.

"I'm sorry," said John. "Did I frighten you?"

D. breathed in deeply and tried to regain the reins of her racing heart. "Oh... no. I just didn't think anybody was out and about."

John, smoothing his wildly tousled hair, crooked his head in mild interest, walked past her to the door, and told her, "There's nothing quite as invigorating as a morning walk."

"I usually find that it's best to wait until it's actually morning for that."

With a perfunctory chuckle, John replied, "Perhaps I'm paying back consciousness for the years that I spent asleep."

As John crossed the threshold into the house, Jim bounded out of the woods and jostled the man's leg. Regaining his balance after a staggering moment, John hissed a venemous allusion to the animal's parentage.

Huck already had the stove heating in the lantern-lit kitchen when the trio entered. "Mornin' ev'rybody. I see I ain't the only one with a hankerin' fer early mornin' vittles. How d'y'all want yer eggs?"

While they ate at a small servant's table in the kitchen, John wiped bits of egg from his beard with one finger pointed into a cloth napkin and announced, "Martin arrived late last night."

Replied Huck, "An' how's th'old red-boy doin'?"

"Pshaw! Do you think he would demean himself to speak to a plebeian such as myself? He just asked if Nathaniel was here and went into his room."

"Aw, yer majesty, it's only hittin' a man that's a'ready down t' hold a grudge 'gainst a body as mis'rble as him."

"He is the author of his own tribulations, and there is no need for him to be spreading his mordacity to anyone misfortunate enough to make his acquaintance."

"Nobody is dispirited without there being an outside societal agent to start them on the path to self degradation," D. interjected.

With lips pinched and nose crinkled, John turned in his chair to face her and snarled, "Until you've met the scoundrel, I don't believe that you are in any position to fling your platitudes at me. Martin is as solemn and serious as an old owl and begrudges anything resembling imagination in anybody besides Nathaniel, whom he follows like a sycophantic puppy dog."

"Now, now," Huck began to defend the absent man, "y'have t'admit that he has his cagey moments."

"Oh yes! He is most cleverly stupid and succeeds in flattery by dressing up a man's own thoughts for presentation to him, but he only thinks he thinks and is otherwise stodgy, galling, and an annoyance."

"Well, whatever it is ya think a' him yerself, y'oughtta let him discov'r himself to the lady here," stated Huck. Then, smiling at D., "Who knows but mebbe she'll actually like him."

"Perhaps she'll save him, as well," rejoined John with a sarcastic nod, and he stalked out of the kitchen.

D. and Huck looked at each other and began to clean up the clutter left by their meal.

Beyond the translucent ceiling of the courtyard, the dark sky threatened rain. The romance novel, though unfinished, was no longer of interest to D. Every misunderstanding would be reconciled and wedding bells would toll as surely as detectives, in their own genre, would solve any mystery presented to them, so she determined to find a replacement. After she had passed beneath the grand stairs of the entrance hall, with Jim meandering along behind her, her bare feet brushed against the grass, which was damp yet from the mist.

Finding that the parade of books began winding its alphabetical expedition through the musings of myriad authors in the southeastern corner, D. attempted to locate the place of the book for which she no longer had any desire. The book cases were eight rows high, and though the uppermost ledge held the first authors of "A" precipitously well over her head, a tiny portrait of Sinclair Lewis glared at her from the binding of Arrowsmith at eye level. Reasoning that a comprehensive library such as this would be hard-pressed to cramp eleven letters of writers into three shelves, D. followed the wall of literature to the distant west and back only to discover that the sequence was still interrupted.

Crossing to the spot directly under her room, D. learned that, to follow the books in order would require the aimless browser to perform laps around the entire circumference of the enclosure. Through deductive reasoning, and not a little wandering, she eventually cried a small "hoorah" to the panting dog at her side and slid her book easily into the spot from which John had drawn it, in plain view of her, just two days previous.

This accomplished, D. stared along the broad avenues of possibilities, finding the choice of just one book to be a formidable venture. But the sound of Jim cleaning himself at her side rescued her from the incapacitating irresolution into which she had fallen. Dog and woman each looked into the eyes of the other, and as if some communication had taken place tacitly between them, D. set about finding the works of Mark Twain.

A new book in hand, she retreated to her room, mostly on account of the moistness of the proximate furniture of the yard. Pondering whether or not to close the door, she decided to leave it open but resolved to shut and lock it if Jim should choose to seek out company elsewhere.

The appearance of a shadow across the book on her lap caused D. to glance at the window. The sun had broken a pinhole ray through the clouds, and the single beam stretched the silhouette of a nearby branch across the room to where she sat. She rose, eliciting no more than up-turned eyes under arched brows from Jim, and walked to the window, where she searched the sky for signs of clearing. The glimmer of light proved to be an ephemeral anomaly, only serving to briefly increase the overall sense of darkness that lay on the land.

As she spun to return to her book, D. caught a glimpse of a balding head hanging over the handrail of the hall opposite her room. The face raised, with bottom lip thrust outward as if in disappointment at finding the courtyard unoccupied. The lip drew back into an indifferent line when the eyes caught D. watching, and without any further acknowledgment of her, the man to whom the features belonged marched to a table under the southern counterpart of D.'s window and began poking at a stentorian typewriter. The sounds of the hammers felt to D. as if they were being shot intently across space into her ears.

Not sure whether the time was auspicious for introductions, D. sat down and stared with distant eyes at the open book in front of her.


After a moment, the sound of typing stopped, stirring D. from her remote meditation, and did not begin again until she appeared in the doorway of her room. The man, still facing away from her, resumed his typing. Considering, briefly, the broad black back of the man's suit-jacket, D. took a step out of view, and the typing ceased again. Upon the instant that her inclined head had broken the plane of the portal, the typing proceeded.

Snapping her fingers to bring Jim to her side, D. strolled around the second story, taking the circuitous route in order to avoid trespassing through Nathaniel's ever unrestricted quarters. When she rapped her knuckles audibly against the stranger's door frame, he paused only stutteringly in his labor.

"Hello?" D. called.

Slanting his head to and fro as if trying to disprove the solicitation of a spirit, the man turned and shook as if in surprise. "Oh," he puffed, "I didn't hear you approach."

"Sorry to startle you," D. apologized. "You must be Martin."

"Why yes, yes I am. Have you heard of me?"

"John told Huck and me that you arrived last night."

In a cross between dejection and slow comprehension, Martin nodded his head. "Oh."

"Did I disturb your writing?"

"No. No, I was finished anyway."

Smiling coyly to affirm her purely facetious intentions, D. told him, "You must be a concise author to convey your thoughts in such a short amount of time."

"Oh," was the response. "Well, yes. Yes, I guess I am."

"I mean to say that you haven't been at it long."

"Well, I've been writing for years. It came quite naturally to me, you know."

"No," trying to salvage her meaning, "I'm saying that you haven't been writing for a very long time this morning."

"Oh." Martin furrowed his brow in thought. "Well, one mustn't attempt to exasperate the spurts of one's inspiration."

Martin was wearing a drab black suit with a plain blue tie. Drawing a handkerchief from his breast pocket, he wiped across his double chin, down his flabby neck, and along his beaded forehead. Above his eyes, which seemed to have been squeezed to their bulging and too narrow position by excessive pinching at the bridge of the nose (during attempts to alleviate the arduous strain of thought, presumably), the sweat burst through his skin in three tiny bulbs identical to those that he had just swept away. He replaced the kerchief and ran a hand through his greasy graying black hair.

Striving to redirect her attention to conversation, D. prompted, "So are you named after Martin Arrowsmith?"

"Who?" came the reply.

"Martin Arrowsmith? From the book Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis."

"Oh," Martin looked confused. "No, I've never read that one."

"So what Martin are you?"

"Hmm? Oh. Why Martin Eden, of course," answered Martin, evidently believing himself to be stating the obvious. Then, D.'s reaction not being what he had expected, "by Jack London."

"I haven't read much London, but I did like The Call of the Wild when I was younger."

"Oh," Martin remarked. "I haven't read that one."

The conversation came to a silent halt. D. leaned over to scratch behind Jim's ears, and Martin repeated his handkerchief exercise with repetitive futility. The faint patter of rain fell on the dome. After smiling absently at the dog, Martin blurted out, "He was a writer! Like me!"


"Martin Eden."

"I imagine Jack London was one as well," D. joked.

"Yes, I imagine. But I hadn't given it much thought."

"So you're a writer?" D. reeled slightly in the midst of bafflement.

"Oh, yes! Well, not by trade, yet. But I'm trying to get my works published. Editors are a mass of boors, don't you agree?"

D. was struck suddenly with the impression that she had seen this man before and did not respond.

"You do agree," stammered Martin, "don't you?"

"Oh," D. said, recovering, "I'm sorry. Uh, yes, I guess. Yes. What did you ask me?"

"Don't you believe editors to be a collection of ignoramuses?"

"I don't think I'd be the best person to answer that."

He nodded in condescending comprehension, "Well take it from a real writer: they are."

Allowing the potent resolution of his point to linger in the air undisrupted, Martin swiveled in his chair and tore the sheet of paper from his typewriter, knocking over a standing mirror on the desk in the process. Opening a drawer, he flung the paper among a heap of brethren. The brash manner in which he had thrown open the compartment left the pages agitated, preventing closure. Martin mashed his works in progress out of the way with two fat fingers and rammed the drawer shut.

"So what made you want to be a writer?" inquired D., clearing her throat.

Without hesitation, Martin responded, "I want to be one of the eyes through which the world sees, one of the ears through which it hears, and one of the fingers through which it feels."

D. opened her mouth to speak, but Martin smiled, held up his beefy hand, and continued, "I know what you're thinking, and yes, I really do understand that there are many many people who would aspire to that disposition. But I am peculiarly constituted to write. You see," he went on, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his writhing fingers intertwined, "I am capable of making something, sometimes even a great deal, out of nothing at all. For example, there are two men who work in the laundry that I own..."

Covering his mouth in a nakedly aghast reaction to his faux pas, Martin said, with a pleased gleam in his eye, "Oh my! I have slipped, haven't I!"

"How so?" queried D., not sure what the blunder had been.

"Why, we're not supposed to divulge details of our normal lives," was the explanation. "But masquerade is foreign to my nature. I must be real! As I am constantly telling my tenants... well now, I've done it again. Now you know that I own an apartment complex." He leaned back in his chair, satisfied at his rebellious honesty. "But to Hell with conventions! Tell me, what is it you do on the outside."

Squirming, D. told him only that it was difficult to explain. Before she was through, Martin interjected, "Say, you look awfully familiar to me."

She glanced at Jim, who was greatly interested in an ant struggling to carry a moth, then down the hall, and finally assured Martin that he was mistaken. He didn't look convinced, so D. changed the subject slightly by asking, "What do you plan to do if it becomes apparent that your career as an author is not to be?"

Martin smacked his hand good-naturedly upon the desk and declared, "Well then life would be an aching weariness. You know, it's always been my intention that the instant I know, I'll cease to know. If you get my drift."

"When you know what?"

"Hmm... well, I suppose when I know that people would be more willing to accept my originality were I unable to create any more, I guess. Yes, that's most definitely the answer. I guess that's why I return here every spring: to make sure that there's enough of my works to be published when I'm departed. As I've said, when you own a laundry, an entire apartment complex, and a liquor store, managing to write becomes a challenge, even if all of your operations are on the same block."

"Have you been coming here long?" asked D.

Martin lurched to his feet and, motioning toward his chair, said, "How discivil of me. Have a seat, have a seat, and I'll tell you about it."

Looking around the visible areas of the house, D. acquiesced. Jim, swatting the ant carelessly, sauntered into the room and plopped himself down in front of her.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:59 PM
A Whispering Through the Branches

March 12, 2005

Far Be It from Me...

... to judge the religion practiced by my co-religionists, but there's something I just can't fathom: Every Sunday, people around the world shuffle into Catholic Masses. They sit at the pews, listen to the homilies, and participate in the rituals. All of this is done, in most cases, with a statue, picture, frieze — something — with the image of the founder of the Church, the man whom we are to emulate in life, the God whom we are to love, Jesus Christ, hanging from a cross, having been tortured, scorned, and ultimately murdered in an excruciating way.

Now, I know this is hardly a rare perspective, but that knowledge makes it no easier to understand how folks can sit in those pews with this mindset:

I go to mass not to have to deal with problems, but to get a respite from them, so with the friction... it doesn't really make me feel on Sunday morning like getting up and going.
Posted by Justin Katz at 7:18 PM | Comments (2)

The Redwood Review Fiction of the Week

The Redwood Review fiction piece of the week is "from The Toonijuk," by Bill Goetzinger.

Posted by Justin Katz at 3:44 PM

But Is It True?

This profound moment in Eric Johnson's conversion (to Catholicism) story makes concrete something that's been on my mind lately:

Surveying the Church's two-thousand-year record, I noticed another strange fact. No matter where it was, even under friendly governments and during peaceful times, she never quite managed to become respectable. Whenever a society thought it had domesticated the gospel, there arose a Francis of Assisi to shake the complacency of those who would relax and enjoy their comforts rather than serve others. The contemporary example of Pope John Paul II was foremost in my mind. How tempting it must be to show up in a foreign country, soak in the adulation of the masses, say a few innocuous platitudes, and fly off in a cloud of ersatz goodwill. Here was a man whose love for humanity was so great that he challenged whole nations to strive for a more perfect order and risk opprobrium for doing so. The sight of a leader who neither pandered to our worst impulses nor consulted opinion polls to mold his message was deeply impressive to me.

Was the pope the head of the one, true Church of Christ? After all, there are a lot of churches out there. How can anyone say that a particular church is the right one? And doesn't that mean the other Christians are wrong? The answer, say Catholics, is that most of what the other churches teach is true but incomplete. What is missing is a coherent explanation of how divine Providence works in the world. God took on human flesh to be a living sacrifice for us, and to teach us by word and example. He underwent not only the physical pain of death by torture, but also the spiritual pain of bearing the punishment for every sin that ever was and ever will be committed. Was it really so implausible, I reasoned, that the Lord would fashion an instrument to preserve the memory of Jesus' words and deeds and protect that memory by guaranteeing it would not become corrupted?

If the Catholic Church was not the true Church, it was a horrible monstrosity, because it presumed to speak with the authority of God but taught erroneously. Would a God of justice permit his name to be misused in this way for fifteen centuries?

Pondering all of this, I put down what I was reading. "My God," I thought. "I actually believe this stuff."

It doesn't matter whether one begins exploring the faith out of intellectual curiosity or emotional desperation. It doesn't matter whether one converts because or in spite of the Church's history. What matters is whether its teachings are true. All faults and successes must be filtered through that perspective.

A Catholic is a Catholic because of the Catechism, not because of a history book.

(Via Lane Core's Blogworthies)

Posted by Justin Katz at 3:43 PM | Comments (20)

March 11, 2005

Life Is a Yes-or-No Question

For a guest column on, a news and commentary site sponsored by the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute and the Culture of Life Foundation, I've expanded on my thoughts related to Stanley Kurtz's Policy Review piece about population decline and the possible social strategies for dealing with it.

The bottom line is that life is a yes-or-no question.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:38 PM

Government as Incentive to Chat

There's overlap within the cliques under the Republican Big Tent, of course, and there's theoretically broad footing for compromise and working together. Yet, disagreeing concepts of governance — disagreeing not only with each other, but also with the expression of them — make it difficult to carry on productive dialogue.

One must acknowledge that, in such large political groupings, there are examples of people to disprove any general statement. Nonetheless, it has seemed to me that, typical expectations notwithstanding, social conservatives stand a bit more firmly on that theoretical common ground than do libertarians or so-called moderates. Consider the following statement from the admirable INDC Bill:

Some or all of those [right-wing] themes may resonate with some of you, but they don't lay the groundwork for a long-term majority that's necessarily comprised of a coalition of interests. Conservative control of government shouldn't be a tool to legislate morality, social engineering or lynch-mob populism, rather serve as a lever to further disengage government from unsuccessful bureaucratic equations, let ideas rise and fall in a marketplace of honest debate, and allow decentralized localities to decide the mores and taboos of particular regions.

It appears that the necessary compromise platform for this long-term coalition between libertarians/moderates and conservatives is just about indistinguishable from a libertarian statement of principle! A social conservative might as well suggest that the compromise must be founded on an acknowledgment of God as the source of our rights. But Bill raises the fair point that libertarians and social conservatives have different understandings about the nature of government and its role in society.

Even taken in the spirit of one side's opening declaration, the problems with Bill's argument are threefold. The first Bill addresses in a follow-up post, in response to one of his readers, who wrote:

Please, not the old "legislating morality" canard again. Advocating for your position is one thing, but admonishing me that I shouldn't try to "impose my values on others" is something else entirely.

Let's make one thing clear - virtually every action taken by a legislative body is, in effect, "legislating morality." When a group of lawmakers passes a law banning murder, they are by their very action defining a moral boundary for society and by extension, "imposing morality" on said society.

Thus, the question is not "can morality be imposed on society?"; rather the question is "who's morality will be imposed?"

Bill responds, in part, by holding up the "compelling majorities [that] agree on things like murder," but that doesn't quite address the objection. For one thing, positing some theoretical number at which the will of the majority justifies moral law shifts Bill from statements of governmental principle to practical considerations. To see another difficulty with Bill's approach consider why (without turning to the practicalities of policing), if so many people agree that murder is wrong, we need laws against it.

The reason is hinted within Bill's appeal to "compelling majorities": it makes a statement about murder if democratically determined law has nothing to say about it. It says that the society believes that murder could be okay. I don't mean to suggest that the government ought to take a stand on every moral question. Sometimes the appropriate "statement about X" is that people disagree — and have a right to do so.

What makes social conservatives suspicious about libertarians and moderates' supposed even-handedly amoral stand — the second problem with Bill's argument — is that the issues that they claim as open to the liberty of disagreement seem conspicuously to fall in the direction of a particular morality. About the "popular socially conservative goal [of repealing] Roe v Wade," Bill writes the following (emphasis his):

A strategy centered around making the effective case to build a natural majority on a specific issue should eclipse and precede any strategy that's reliant on government, especially when that vision only reflects the will of a majority of the winning political coalition. And in the abortion example, based on shifting medical definitions that move the definition of "fetal viability" closer and closer to conception, there are still socially conservative legislative advances that can be made within the current atmosphere of public opinion.

Put aside Bill's continued privileging of public opinion in determining government morality. (One wonders about the legitimacy of legislating based on "the current atmosphere of public opinion" when it comes to restricting offensive entertainment.) It's difficult to see how a repeal of Roe v. Wade would fail to further Bill's goal of letting "ideas rise and fall in a marketplace of honest debate" and allowing "decentralized localities to decide the mores and taboos of particular regions." The government statement enforced by Roe v. Wade is that no locality can disagree with the proposition that abortion is not murder. (See also John Hawkins's post addressing Bill's claims about public opinion.)

While I may be misreading his tone, it seems fair to contrast Bill's view of Roe with a paragraph from the third post in this series (certainly a legitimate comparison when it comes to the broader group with which Bill is aligning himself):

Where is the conservative outrage over the Bush Administration's recent judicial activism attempting to overturn the Death With Dignity Act, a piece of state legislation that was twice approved by Oregonian voters? The same culture of life that animates the core of opposition to Roe v Wade also seems to drive the bid to bring this case before the Supreme Court, regardless of its status as duly created law or relation to Constitutional rights.

Assuming their opposition to the action of bringing the assisted suicide case to SCOTUS, libertarians and moderates aren't following the nuanced approach to governance that they apply to abortion — blending the actions of the branches so as to conform with the popular will. First of all, I'd suggest that Bill inadequately justifies his accusation of hypocrisy by vaguely referencing the "core of opposition"; to my experience, most of that core would readily admit that the legal process is a matter of convenience. Still others, such as myself, would overturn Roe and, realizing the danger of the contradiction, argue for other approaches than judicial when it comes to assisted suicide.

The important point is that social conservatives don't have to be consistent when it comes to government theory. Indeed, the libertarian/moderate complaint on the table is that conservatives have political goals beyond the strict operation of the government. Only from the libertarian point of view is it inconsistent to support the culture of life regardless of means, which is to repeat what I implied above: libertarians/moderates aren't futilely holding out a hand of compromise, rather they are every bit as contentious toward those whom they are "in agreement with, annoyed by, affectionately bemused by, embarrassed for or respectfully tolerant of."

And their motive is no more pure when it comes to government theory. The motive that so often seems to underlie the libertarian approach to government is directly related to the need for murder to be criminalized: if social conservatives (and liberals) can no longer "impose" their morality through government, then libertarians can ignore them. The "marketplace of honest debate" need be no more than a form of entertainment when the urge to argue arises.

That brings us to the third problem with Bill's argument. The great unsung genius of our system of government is that it makes discourse matter. It gives stakes to the spirited debate in the public square. If libertarians win the argument that government "shouldn't be a tool to legislate morality," the essential tension that enables the government to bind us in an environment of mutual respect is gone, and with it our society.

And so, to end on a note of shared principle, I agree with Bill that we've strayed too far from the priority of "decentralized localities to decide the mores and taboos of particular regions," mostly because it would disperse the stakes involved with each particular fight. Political victory — on the lowest level possible for a given issue — is a necessary currency in the marketplace of ideas, even when one of those ideas is that it is alright to legislate morality.

The Redwood Review Nonfiction of the Week

The Redwood Review nonfiction piece of the week is "from Ambushed," by Anne DuBose Joslin.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:21 AM

What Day Is It?

Well, today's work will be at the computer, so I will be posting periodically. During the week, I've shifted my sleeping habits so that I have several hours to spend editing and writing before I have to be at my elsewhere job. This week, however, I had to devote those hours to a piece for which I had a sunrise deadline this morning (and which I'll note when it's available), so I've been particularly busy.

I may begin writing and saving posts to release at intervals during the week — just so that the new content is more evenly distributed. That seems to be a bit against the blogging ethos, but I've been finding that I can't fit the more-involved posts into one writing session, anyway, so perhaps I can argue a precedent for a "not quite finished" loophole.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:14 AM
Diary & Confession

March 9, 2005

The Redwood Review Poem of the Week

The Redwood Review poem of the week is "Meetings on the Road, II: Immortal Conflict," by me.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:24 AM

Where I'm At

Folks, I hope you'll bear with me. I switched building companies, and this is my first week on the new one's schedule: four long days, rather than five (or six!) regular ones. On the whole, I think my routine will work out better this way, but it's going to take some experimentation and reacclimation — and maybe some investment in new technology.

The good news (from a limited perspective) is that I haven't seen much in the news that demands comment. I doubt, for example, that many readers aren't reasonably sure of my opinion on events in the Middle East, and I've nothing interesting to say about them, except to recall a political/cultural timeline of the nineteenth century that I created in college; one could see the dominos falling in the Age of Revolution.

Anyway, don't take me off your regular blog-reading list just yet. The seventy-hour weeks look to be done, and I'm already finding moments in the day to accomplish all the reading, thinking, and writing.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:19 AM
Site-Related Announcements

March 8, 2005

Songs You Should Know 03/08/05

The Timshel Music Song You Should Know this week is "Eve's Lament" by Rosin Coven.

"Eve's Lament" Rosin Coven, Arthouse Rock
Stream (HiFi) Download from Menagerie

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:06 AM

Beyond Ethical Consideration

At the end of a series of posts (up from here) reacting to a Time magazine cover story about differences between men and women, brainwise, Stanley Kurtz notes that it appears to be a foregone conclusion that, when we can "tweak" brain functions, we should:

The new interest in brain biology is a two edged sword. It has raised legitimate questions about social constructionist orthodoxy. Those questions ought to be debated. But the new brain biology is itself on shaky ground and should not be treated as an alternative orthodoxy, much less as a license to tamper with the human brain.

Kurtz is right that we're "headed for dangerous times." Medical science is entering a range of promises that all too many people find irresistible. It has been harmful enough, these many decades, that social engineers have been plunging our society into cultural changes. We should all shudder to think about the possible results when biological engineers begin doing the same.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:37 AM | Comments (6)

March 7, 2005

Woman as Racehorse

Frankly, I had no idea how to react to Brown professor William F. Wyatt's recent piece in the Providence Journal, "Million Dollar Baby revealed," so I thought it only fair and reasonable to share my perplexity with you:

The movie is thus a Western of the traditional sort, with cowboy replaced by trainer and filly replaced by fighter. The action is transferred from the ranch to the city, from the corral to the ring.

Unless conservative commentators object to putting down injured horses, they can have no objection to this film. The Academy clearly approves. My job is done.

Judging from Mr. Wyatt's place and line of work, it seems probable that the tongue-in-cheek piece is either an example of a liberal's mocking conservatives while actually proving their point or an indication that liberals are coming back around to agreement with conservatives by circuitous routes. Perhaps it indicates unrecognized confusion between the two. After all, how could a professor of classics emeritus fail to bristle at the reduction of humanity (a woman, no less!) to the status of metaphor for an animal slave?

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:55 AM | Comments (22)

Death of a Dubious Icon

Having almost no experience with nor knowledge about Hunter Thomson, I had nothing to say about his suicide. But I imagine my thoughts would have been much like Jeff Jacoby's:

Could anything be more ghoulish and egotistical than making your unsuspecting wife listen while you put a bullet through your skull? Absolutely: making your unsuspecting wife listen while you put a bullet through your skull — and your son, daughter-in-law, and grandson are just a few yards away. Juan Thompson was in a nearby office when his father blew his brains out in the kitchen. Winkel Thompson and 6-year-old Will were playing in the living room next door. It takes a real sadist to arrange his suicide so that his loved ones are forced to hear him die. But what kind of degenerate inflicts something so traumatic on a child of 6? ...

How striking is the contrast between Thompson's tawdry death and the excruciating struggle of Pope John Paul II, whose passionate belief in the sanctity of life remains unwavering, even as Parkinson's disease slowly ravages him. The pope's example of courage and dignity sends a powerful message, but the chattering class would rather talk instead about why this stubborn man won't resign. Meanwhile they extol Hunter Thompson and are itching to know — are his ashes really going to be fired from a cannon?

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:44 AM | Comments (1)

Studio Matters Notes & Commentary

The latest Notes & Commentary essay by Maureen Mullarkey is "Dog-Patch Aesthetics vs. The Real Thing," reviewing Petah Coyne at Galerie Lelong, Loren MacIver at Alexandre Gallery, and Henri Plaat and Vincent Hamel at Howard Scott.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:37 AM
Visual Art

March 6, 2005

Exposition, Chapter 4 (p. 76-83)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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Scattered glimpses of the house began appearing through the branches, the shadows of trees drawing stripes across its sides. D.'s stomach growled, and she asked Huck what he had planned for dinner.

"I had a hankerin' for a burger an' thought I'd drag out the grill."

"Sounds good," D. said, and she meant it. The idea of a juicy cheeseburger made her mouth water. She helped Huck drag an old charcoal grill out to the front yard, where Jim trotted around it in happy expectation.

After Huck had gotten the coals lit, he suggested they go in search of John. Finding nothing but an empty brandy bottle by his recliner, the pair took a package of supermarket ground beef from an old ice box, the type that actually kept food cold with the insertion of a block of ice, and a package of hamburger buns from an even older wooden box with a loaf of steaming bread carved into the lid.

Perhaps catching D. staring inquisitively at the ice box, Huck told her, "Enough people gener'ly bring ice enough to keep the per'shibles good for a while." He motioned toward an empty red plastic cooler that looked entirely out of place. "It's reg'lar for the last person here to go off an' get enough to last John 'til he don't need it no more. There's usually people here well into the cooler months anyhow."

D. didn't ask for any more information, so they brought the meat and bread out to the grill, which was well on its way to smoldering already. While the paddies of beef simmered, D. asked how long Huck had stayed in the cave.

"Oh," he responded, "not long. Nathaniel came out to see me ev'ry day to tell me what kind a' state he'd got John into, an' ev'ry night I snuck back in an' borrowed a bottle'r two a' liquor so's Nathaniel could convince John that things was startin' to disappear. We figured that was all he'd a' noticed missin'.

"Two nights into the whole thing, I asked Nathaniel if a crim'nal who snuck into a body's house to take his booze wouldn't steal a fishin' pole if he warn't havin' no luck stabbin' at the things an' fallin' in the lake most ev'ry time. He reckoned it'd be possible if somebody in the house got it out to the hall with the intention a' usin' it. So's it'd be missed an' all. Then I told Nathaniel that I had a terrible time tryin' to light a fire a' green wood, so he says it's alright 'cause he warn't able to make out the smoke at night anyhow.

"Once I'd got the pole, bein' out in the woods was like playin' hooky, what with drinkin' an' nappin' by the water ev'ry day a-fishin', an' lookin' up at the stars most ev'ry night tryin' to 'cipher whether they was made or jest happened. Me an' Nathaniel built us a raft — jest fer the sake a passin' the time, he said, but I reckoned he was workin' out a way to fit it into our plan.

"In about a week, John was missin' his lost bottles so much that he started drinkin' as much as he could so's it couldn't be filtched, an' Nathaniel'd got him so outta mind 'bout my disappearin' that he was gettin' afeared to go out a' the house. Purty soon, it got so't Nathaniel'd have to bring him up his meals to his room. But at night John got so thick he warn't afeared of nobody, spesh'ly nobody who warn't there anyways, so he'd go staggerin' around the courtyard yellin' up at the saterlites that they might's well just out an' take 'im away. When this got to be the usual way a' things, Nathaniel took that white robe a' mine an' started walkin' up 'n' down the balconies after John knocked off in his chair.

"We figured it'd be safe for me to sneak into the house to hide and watch, so one night I was hidin' in the shadows by the piano when John shot up outta his sleep 'n' started hollerin' at Nathaniel (only he didn't know it was him a-cause a' the robe with the hood up) to leave 'im be 'cause he never was nasty to the dead an' they had no quar'l with him. Nathaniel jest raised one arm slow so it was pointin' at John, an' the robe was so big on him that it didn't look like he had no hands. John screamed an' ran off through the front hall an' out the door. Throwin' the robe down to me, Nathaniel whispered, 'Quick now, Huck, follow after us an' wait on my signal.' Out he went after John.

"Well, this was all impr'vised, so I jest chased after'm a little ways off, an' I see'd that Nathaniel had got John headin' fer the lake. I ran quick 'round infront a' them an' threw on the robe when I'd got to the gazebo. The fog was toler'ble thick over the water, an' when they got to there, Nathaniel saw where I was an' turned his back to me. Jest then, John looked right up at me an' screams:

"'Oh Lord! Banish this evil spirit! Save me, save me!'

"So Nathaniel turns back around twice an' asks John what the hell he's a-screamin' about 'cause he can't see nothin'. John starts cryin' an' screamin' that it must be the angel a' death come fer him, an' nobody but him would be able to see'm. I took the hint an' slipped off into the bushes.

"'John, calm down! Look again, I'm sure yer jest seein' things,' I heared Nathaniel sayin'.

"John looks an' says, 'He was jest there! I'd swear by it! Lordy, lordy, I's sunk, Nathaniel, you got to help me!'

"Takin' him by the arm, Nathaniel says that he reckons they'd best get away by water, 'cause Death couldn't likely swim out'n fear that his robe 'n' sickle'd drag 'im down, an' pushes John over to the raft. I reckon John musta been consider'ble drunk 'cause he staggered onto the planks an' nearly tumbled right off th'other side, shoutin', 'quick, quick!'

"Nathaniel signals to where I was, though I don't reckon he could see me, an' I got his meanin' to be that I should set the robe afloat on a piece of wood an' push it off into the water. When it was a ways out on the edge a' where I couldn't see into the fog, I swear it nearly sent the shivers into my guts, 'cause nothin' don't look nat'ral nor right in a fog. They set off, with Nathaniel usin' a paddle we'd found on the shore a couple a' days b'fore, an' I lost sight a' them in the fog, but I could hear 'em goin' in circles 'cause Nathaniel didn't want to get too far from shore an' knowed that John wouldn't know the diff'rence.

"For a while, ev'rythin' was quiet, an' then Nathaniel was standin' there all drippin' wet next to me. I asked him what he was doin', an' he says he slipped off the raft real quiet an' swam away, so John would be floatin' all by his lonesome. Jest then we hears this terr'ble scream, an' then a splashin' right toward us.

"'Quick,' says Nathaniel, 'go off that ways a piece an' make ghost sounds so't John runs straight up to the cave.' We both done it, with John runnin' back 'n' forth between our 'woooooos' an' 'ahhhhhs.' He got to where the hill's real steep an' with loose dirt, an' down he slides, loosin' his gown an' gettin' covered in dirt. I could see that he was naked as the day he was born, an' it was all I could do to keep from bustin' out laughin', but eventu'lly we get him up to the cave entrance, an' in he goes.

"We was outside a' that cave fer near a half-hour when finally Nathaniel takes off his shirt an' makes a torch on a stick. When John sees us comin' into the cave, he throws down a bottle he'd found an' starts prancin' this way 'n' that an' screamin' that he warn't ready to die an' then busts out right between us with his arms all wavin' over his head. That was it; neither of us couldn't help but start hollerin' an' laughin' 'til tears rolled down our cheeks.

"We walked back here an' set on the roof a' the porch right there," he pointed to a spot over the door, "an' waited fer John to get back from wherever he'd gone to. We fell asleep an' woke up, an' went through the whole next day without hearin' nothin' from him, but late in the afternoon, John totters outta the bushes with a bottle in his hand an' his gown on, all ripped an' dirtied up, an' shouts, 'Get on down here! I've a mind to lynch the lot a' you!'

"Nathaniel jest stands up, all calm an' delib'rate, an' looks down on him. John tried a little to outgaze him but faltered an' looked away. 'You think you got the nerve to lynch us?' says Nathaniel, knowin', I 'spect, that it was jest a tern-a-phrase. 'Why, nobody but a man'd have the gall to follow through on that one! An' you ain't been a man fer quite some time, I reckon! That's it, look away. Don't look up here; you ain't got the right! Now yer gonna stand there an' listen to me good, 'cause yer gonna take to heart ev'ry word I has to say. I know you feel you've suffered, an' I'll give you that you have more'n most an' had a right to wallow a bit. An' I know yer thinkin' we ain't done nothin' but make you suffer some more, an' I'll give you that we have. But we jest as much had the right to do what we done 'cause you long ago used up all a' yer wallowin' priv'ledges, an' I'm damn sick of it!

"'I know yer prob'ly thinkin' 'bout leavin' now. An' if you do, I'm a-goin' to help you pack. But I don't b'lieve you'll do it. No, I don't b'lieve yer man enough to even give up an' take off. You ain't nothin' but a coward! Wallow all you like, but if you was a man, you'd have pulled yourself together when I brought you here. You ain't even tried! Not once!'

"John sunk down as low as he could an' still be standin'.

"'Now, what we did, we done fer the adventure of it an' to teach you a lesson,' Nathaniel kept on, 'A body that ups an' tells the truth is takin' consider'ble many resks, an' I know it. But I'm a-goin' to tell you that you got to stop actin' like there ain't no world but the one in a bottle. I don't want you to leave, and I won't insist you keep off the booze if you stay. I don't b'lieve droppin' it altogether will settle anythin' for you. But if you stay, yer gonna drink like a man. If you choose to live here, as I hope you do, yer gonna treat others like a gentleman should. Y'hear?'

"John whimpered that he did, an' Nathaniel hopped down off the roof. Bein' not as young an' spritely, I climbed through the window to John's room and walked down past that window town clock, an'..."

D. interrupted, "Wait. I don't know what you're talking about."

"You must a' seen it," said Huck, "it's that window over the stairs. You know which'n I'm talkin' about?"

"You mean that stained glass one?"

"Well, yes, that'n is the only one over the stairs, I reckon. Anyway, seems ev'rybody thinks a' that picture in a diff'rent way, but to me it's a little country town scene, an' the clear spot is where the sun swings by ev'ry now an' then like a pendulum, though not keepin' reglar time as far as we see it. It don't go by jest right to fit the hole but once a year, an' I ain't never been able to 'cipher out any rhythm to it."

Considering this for a moment, D. told Huck to go on.

"The front door was openin' when I got to the bottom of the stairs, an' in comes first John then Nathaniel, an' he was sayin' that th'other should go relax an' he'd heat up some water fer him fer a warm bath. Jest as he was closin' the door an' turnin' around, the sun hit the window jest right, an' a beam a light shoots across an' hits square on Nathaniel. I swear I thought he must'a' been an angel sent from Heaven. He sort of tilted his head an' smiled, with the light glintin' off his eyes and teeth. Nearly as quick as it came, the sunbeam went away, but both me an' John had seen it.

"John took a long bath down in the room by the kitchen, an' Nathaniel played at the piano. Music is a good an' freshenin' thing, 'specially after such hard talkin'. Since then, I've jest kept up with the little pranks an' games at John's expense an' callin' him 'yer majesty' and that cave the Nonesuch Inn, jest to remind him. He still drinks consider'ble when he gets the chance, but I reckon he's much improved in his habits."

They had gotten ketchup from the kitchen and eaten their burgers on the front steps, Jim lying quietly at their feet and gobbling up what scraps were given to him. The sun was far down on the other side of the house, and the stars were beginning to show to the east. Directly across from where they sat, a shadow moved behind the bushes. Perking up his ears, Jim lifted his head. John walked out of the bushes into the yard. He looked at the two of them.

"I don't imagine I'd be far off if I guessed that Huck has been telling some of his favorite yarns."

Not believing that she had been afraid to bump into this man not twelve hours ago, D. told him he was right.

"Don't believe it all, miss. He's renowned for his tendency to fib."

Huck defended himself, "Now there's things I stretched a little, but mainly I ain't told nothin' but the truth." Huck smiled, and D. thought that John might have, too, just a little.

"We made an extra hamburger for you," she told him.

John thanked her and sat down on the steps to eat it. After helping Huck stifle the coals and put the dinner provisions where they belonged in the kitchen, D. asked John if he would mind if she drew a bath for herself. John didn't object, so she went back into the kitchen, where Huck helped her prepare to heat water on an old wood-burning stove that had been converted to be gas fueled. He escorted her up to her room so she could get her candle, her book, and her bathrobe and found a towel for her in his room, the one at the other end of the same hallway.

Once inside the bathroom by the kitchen, D. locked the door behind her and slid into the tub. Finding the water extremely refreshing, she recalled what John had said about getting clean after a long period of being filthy. She hoped she would never have to know the feeling to the same extent that he had.

After her bath, D. unlocked the door as softly as she could and opened it enough to peek one eye through. There was nobody there save Jim the dog lying right outside the door. He looked up at her with friendly brown eyes. Jim followed her halfway up the stairs and then turned to the sound of Huck's voice:

"Hey Jim, why don't you keep the lady comp'ny tonight?" Jim barked his approval.

"That's really not necessary," D. explained, "I can take care of myself."

"Still," said Huck, "better safe... Lest I See Thee Not In the Morn Alas, sweet Emmeline. You never know what the people livin' here can get themselves up to."

Dismissing the strange phrase and name despite their familiar ring, D. agreed, "I'm starting to see that. But I must say that you seem awfully jovial to be among such strange fellows."

"Well, thank you."

"What keeps you here? If you don't mind my asking."

"I don't b'lieve in lonesome vacations, an' I reckon that in a barrel of odds an' ends things go better." He turned back toward the front door.

"Huck," D. called after him, "are you sure you don't want Jim to sleep with you?"

"Naw, I reckon I already know where I'm headed in the end; I decided that one forever long ago, an' now I don't have nothin' to be afeared of. Ain't nothin' or nobody a-goin' to lay a hand on me."

Huck looked young and old at the same time. Extraordinarily alive and tired, too. "What makes you so sure?" D. asked.

"'Cause I don't put no stock in there bein' a plot to this whole thing, I don't give a dern fer any motives but mine, an' I got my own damn morals." He turned and left.

Jim followed D. up to her room, sat comfortably by the door, and watched her lock them in, blow out the candle, and climb into bed. "Goodnight Jim," she said. Jim barked in response.

It is late at night. D. is sleeping peacefully, not dreaming.

The front door squeals open, leading Jim to raise his ears. There are footsteps up the stairs and along the balcony, and he sniffs at the bottom of the door. A green eye looks through the keyhole, only to jump back at the sight of sharp teeth behind a vicious snarl. Alex flees, but calmly, down the spiral staircase, with a slight chuckle and a jingling at his side.

D. rolls over and asks Jim what the matter is. He ambles to her bed and licks her face. Nothing at all. Looking at the door, she lies back with her hands behind her head. She feels safe. The room is warm. Climbing out of the bed, she opens the window a little — just the tiniest bit, but a cool breeze squeezes its way into the room.

Giving Jim one last pat and scratch on the head, D. goes back to bed and to sleep. The dog hunkers down for the night.

The wind flows dreamily through the courtyard and out over the trees. It whistles through a hole in a cave. It ripples the grass in the field and the water in the lake. Tiny waves lap up against the bottom of the mountain. The water recedes enough for the moonlight to reveal a white robe with a hood buried in the mud.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:29 PM
A Whispering Through the Branches

March 5, 2005

Randianism over Art

Many of Cox & Forkum's cartoons are simply brilliant. But I'm not sure how they get from this reportage:

"While millions of people in the world struggle to survive hunger and disease, lacking even minimal health care, in rich countries the concept of health as well-being figures in creating unrealistic expectations about the possibility of medicine to respond to all needs and desires," said the Rev. Maurizio Faggioni, a theologian and morality expert on the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life.

"The medicine of desires, egged on by the health care market, increases the request for pharmaceutical and medical-surgical services, soaks up public resources beyond all reasonableness," Faggioni said. ...

Psychiatrist Manfred Lutz, a Vatican academic, hailed John Paul, who for years has struggled with Parkinson's, as "the living alternative to the prevailing health-fiend madness." ... "Precisely in the handicap, in the disease, in the pain, in old age, in dying and death one can, instead, perceive the truth of life in a clearer way," Lutz said. "The pope's message is 'suffering is part of life and has meaning," the doctor said.

To this cartoon:

Posted by Justin Katz at 4:51 PM | Comments (1)

March 4, 2005

Consequences Versus Costs and Difficulties

A word on this sentence from a recent New York Times editorial:

And for all the negative consequences that flowed from the American invasion of Iraq, there could have been no democratic elections there this January if Saddam Hussein had still been in power.

Perhaps it's a too-subtle languagey point, and I don't mean to belittle the experience of those who've suffered in ways related to U.S. actions in Iraq, but "consequences" strikes me as an odd word to use in that context. It may be that the resonance of the word relates to longstanding differences of opinion on the issue.

"Consequence" feels like it indicates a thereafter solidified state of affairs either tangential or subsequent to an objective; note the awkward "flowed from" phrase. An all-night bender could have the consequence of a lost job; the Ba'athists' invasion of Kuwait had the consequence of American military involvement. By contrast, when results are reasonably predictable and accepted, whether permanent or fixable, when striving for a particular goal, "difficulties" or "costs" would seem more appropriate. Freeing a nation of people can come at a great cost, but its consequences appear to be positive (i.e., the democracy domino effect).

Certainly perspective plays a role. For the family with a son or daughter KIA, his or her admirable decision to enter military service had horrible consequences (mixed with the positive, in the current case). But from the point of view of geopolitical analysis — which is what the Times is ostensibly offering — it would seem more appropriate (and quite different) to say that the removal of Saddam Hussein came at a cost, bringing democracy despite difficulties.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:31 AM | Comments (1)
Middle East

March 3, 2005

From Nothinggate to Imagine

Although Lane Core's Blogworthies feature is worthy of weekly (Saturday) reading, I thought last Saturday's highly variegated edition to be particularly interesting.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:47 AM | Comments (1)
Quick Links

Fatherless Children Have a Hard Time When Their Father Is Gone

Greg Wallace has continued his series on fatherhood (the first part of which I commented on here). The second part gives the thesis:

It's been my personal experience as the male child of an alcoholic father and as one who disciples sexual strugglers that a father's absence seems to have the most damaging impact upon male children. Over the years, everything I've read indicates that if Dad’s missing in the child's life before age five, tendencies towards dependence and passivity are likely to develop. On the other hand, if Dad's missing in action between the ages of six and 12, hyper-masculine behavior (i.e., a false masculine mask to hide a sense of deficiency) may result. Let me rush to say there are no hard and fast rules here. These are generalities that depend on how the child perceives and processes information related to the father's absence.

In that post, Greg writes of his own, painful experiences as a boy. In the subsequent one, he turns to the Bible, analyzing the household of Isaac and its effects on Esau and Jacob. Greg proves his own point that "being sexually broken has had its odd benefits [in that some] of these familiar Bible stories are seen in a whole new light," and his assessment certainly makes for interesting reading.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:42 AM
Marriage & Family

March 2, 2005

Fighting the Wave of Putrefaction

I apologize if you've experienced any difficulties with the site, particularly with leaving comments. I've been doing battle with the largest and most vile wave of comment spam that I've experienced yet.

Comments should now be operational again.

(N.B. — Just so you know, my strategy when things get to be too much is to blacklist the term ".com"; if your comment is rejected, try deleting any instances of that term.)

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:20 AM | Comments (2)
Site-Related Announcements

March 1, 2005

Shipping in the Margins

Glenn Reynolds has been blogging about his signing up for the Amazon Prime program, through which customers pay $79 for year-long free two-day shipping. The first intention that Glenn has for his new deal is to replenish his supply of nutrition bars as needed, rather than travel to Target, buy in bulk, and be enticed by storefront wiles. Now, reader David Walser has worried Glenn that too many Amazon Prime subscribers might smash Amazon's plan:

You wrote that Amazon's flat fee shipping program has changed the way you shop. I suspect that Amazon wanted to change your shopping patterns, just not in the way yours have changed. They wanted you to buy more of the high margin stuff, more frequently. You seem to be buying more of the lower margin (although very nice) products, more frequently. I doubt that Amazon's margin covers the shipping cost on a typical order of food bars. If the flat fee shipping program is too successful in changing shopping patterns to lower margin goods, Amazon (or their shipping partners) could lose a ton of money.

Now, I don't know how quickly the Reynolds household goes through a 15-bar box or how many Glenn is ordering at a time. Assuming he orders one box at a time, the two-day shipping fee would be $8.99. In other words, Amazon could send almost nine shipments of nutrition bars to the Reynolds household before it had to sacrifice a dime on shipping. And let's not forget that 1) these are sales that the company would not have made otherwise, and 2) Amazon takes some unknown cut of the shipping charge, so it can probably send many more shipments before it's actually lost anything.

The more important consideration, however, is that Amazon's potential customer base is still wide open, pending a crack in the resistance to ordering products online. Internet star that he is, Glenn is comfortable in the environment, but many people still are not, with a halfway group (including me) that's comfortable ordering, say, books, but not flat-screen TVs. If Amazon could entice such customers to become accustomed to using its Web site as a first-source for all sorts of little stuff, the big stuff will surely follow, either independently or as "might as well" items tacked on to the regular shipments. Moreover, if — hush, hush — Amazon Prime members share their deal with people other than the allowable "four family members living in the same household," then more people will advance to the halfway group.

The reality is that Amazon and other online merchants don't just have to change "shopping patterns"; they have to change shopping culture. I'll tell you this: in my two weeks as a UPS driver's helper before Christmas, I noticed that Amazon-package houses tended to be regular stops and to receive multiple packages each time. The company can afford to eat the cost of a whole lot of snack shipments before it outweighs the largesse of special-occasion splurges.

I've no special insight into the company's business workings, but it seems to me that, unless a large number of existing Amazon customers use the new option to ship regular orders of low-margin items that they would have paid full shipping price for anyway, Amazon stands only to gain.

Posted by Justin Katz at 1:43 PM | Comments (2)

Coasting on God's Whispers

Periodically, rhetoric or circumstances — or rhetoric about circumstances — raise questions about the degree to which modernity has unconsciously relied upon its cultural, moral, and emotional heritage without its believing non-believers' realizing it. Even in the most secular groups and nations, to what degree has assessment of social dynamics and human nature been founded in the lingering effects of millennia of religious morality? And what happens if those effects wear off?

In a post from October, I suggested that a morality founded in self-interest ultimately makes it advisable at least to perpetuate a belief in God. While one can develop self-interest into a long-term community view, doing so introduces a sort of gamble whereby we acknowledge that it is in self-interest to form social covenants, pledging to sacrifice if needed, but hoping that the benefits will outweigh the sacrifices. To ensure that there are members willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, it benefits the society to cultivate an irrational (or suprarational) morality.

Certainly theistic religion is foremost among such moralities, but a recent comment from Dan Carvin doesn't contradict the point:

During World War II, thousands of Russian soldiers gave up their lives to liberate their homeland from the Nazi invaders. While it is impossible to know how many of these soldiers subscribed the official atheist beliefs, certainly many of them were, and they didn't require a belief in God to give up their lives for their families and communities.

Few theists would discard the notion that the state (or community) can substitute for God as the "greater thing" for which people will sacrifice. Indeed, apologists often employ that very attempt as evidence that humanity requires meaning — usually adding that atheistic nationalism has claimed more lives with less humanitarian benefit than other, theistic, religions. Carvin faults religious morality for its susceptibility to multiple interpretations ("It's ALL moral relativism"), but variations of that flaw apply to nations, ethnicities, and any other basis for group identity. Worse yet, rooting morality in an extant entity, rather than a being or concept external to tangible society, merely makes morality subject to the immediate needs of that entity.

More to the point, as I put it in the above-mentioned post, a problem arises over time when more and more people figure out the game. I challenged the reader to "show me a soldier who would lay down his life in full awareness that he has merely lost the lottery in a necessary cultural illusion." It doesn't answer the challenge to cite soldiers from a mid–twentieth century culture that had simply recast that illusion in the image of ideological nationalism. Where is the non-theistic morality in a world of relativism and radical individualism that will encourage a thinking man (or woman) to lay down his life in the service of a worthwhile end?

Here, Carvin might retreat to the more personalized concept of "expanded self-interest" that preceded his extrapolation of self-interest to the "clan, or whatever group they belong to":

Self-interest is not just interest for the self. The urge to procreate extends self-interest toward our spouses and children. This is why parents willingly give up a great deal, including body organs in some cases, for the well being of their children.

This argument may have long historical currency, but what of a culture in which parents don't willingly give up "a great deal" for their children — to the extent of not giving them life in the first place? After all, we're having this discussion within a society in which millions of parents and non-parents alike elevate the individual's "choice" above even the very lives of children already conceived. Addressing Western culture beyond the United States, it is becoming increasingly untenable to argue that "the urge to procreate" inherently scuttles the urge to keep self-interest narrowly focused on the self.

A piece by Stanley Kurtz in the current Policy Review traces the interplay between these various forces when it comes to precipitous population decline. With the exception of resignation, Kurtz organizes possible cultural reactions to that demographic shift into two camps: "at least a partial restoration of traditional social values" or "a radical new eugenics." In the former case:

Economic decline could force people to depend on families instead of the state. A religious revival could restore traditional mores. And a revised calculation of rational interest in light of social chaos could call the benefits of extreme individualism into question.

And in the latter:

... the end of the nuclear family would come through a further development of our growing tendency to separate pair-bonding from sex and procreation. Especially in Europe, marriage is morphing into parental cohabitation. And in societies where parents commonly cohabit, the practice of "living alone together" is emerging. There unmarried parents remain "together" yet live in separate households, only one of them with a child. And of course, intentional single motherhood by older unmarried women — Murphy Brown-style — is another dramatic repudiation of the nuclear family. The next logical step in all this would be for single mothers to turn their children over to some other individual or group for rearing. ...

... objections to the human exploitation inherent in surrogacy could actually propel a shift toward artificial wombs. Of course, that would only complete the commodification of childbirth itself — weakening if not eliminating the parent-child bond. And if artificial wombs one day become "safer" than human gestation, insurers might begin to insist on our not giving birth the old-fashioned way.

These two broad reactions to demographic changes relate to two broad approaches to morality. To be sure, a person could argue that the alignment isn't perfect; a "revised calculation of rational interest" need only mean that people have children as a retirement investment, proving the point about "expanded self-interest." More likely, I'd suggest, is that the reconstruction of traditional activities from a position of rationalism will tend to contribute to, not merely coincide with, a religious revival. With the momentum of the nihilistic avalanche arrested, God will be found in the family.

Whether that proves to be the case or not, the two worldviews that begin to emerge give starkly different impressions. In my bias, the first feels involved and organic:

  • Natural childbirth and appreciation for children
  • Sex as a metaphysical and moral act intrinsically related to the giving of life
  • Stable, married homes in which to raise those children and secure them within a family
  • Single income households, lending themselves to maximal parental involvement with children
  • A sense of heritage and connection with all of humanity
  • Connection with the God who underlies all of the suprarational fruits of life

The second, in contrast, feels aloof and artificial:

  • Separation of birth and childrearing from parenting
  • Sex that serves primarily as a mechanism for pleasure
  • Relationships and "homes" contingent upon the contentment and convenience of adults
  • Maximal removal of time spent with children to allow career and recreational pursuits
  • A sense of self gratification as a measure of personal success

I'm writing broadly, of course, and again, my lists are drenched in my own beliefs. But despite such disclaimers, these strike me as being more or less the two directions in which society and individuals can head. The former admits a wrong turn and retraces its steps, hoping to address legitimate objections to the tradition that had filtered into modern times; the latter continually invests its hopes in decisions already made, in part as reactionary functions of the same objections.

It has been my experience that the culture at large underestimates the depth and cost of these cumulative investments. Whatever conclusions individuals come to, those from Generation X down have raw personal experience with the truth that a progressive culture hurts, and it seems doubtful that too many young adults will be content to revel in the pain.

It would require more ground than this essay can advisably cover to flesh out my assertion of pain, but the point consolidates well in a passage that Amanda Witt quoted from a speech by secular humanist Natalie Angier:

For a while, Katherine [now eight years old] was terrified about death. We'd be driving along in the car, and all of a sudden she'd start screaming in the back seat. What's wrong, what's wrong? We'd ask, thinking we had to pull over for a medical emergency. I've just been thinking about death! She'd cry. I don't want to just disappear! To die forever and that's all, that's the end. This happened a few times, each time, out of nowhere, she'd start to wail. We'd tell her whatever we could to comfort her, that she will live a long, long time, and that they're inventing new drugs that will, by the time she grows up, help her live even longer, a couple of hundred years, who knows; she'd live until she was pig-sick of it. And we'd tell her that nothing really disappears, it just changes form, and that she could become part of a dolphin, or an eagle, or a cheetah, a praying mantis. She'd have none of it. She knew she wouldn't be aware of her new incarnation. She knew she probably wouldn't remember her life as Katherine, and that loss of self she found impossibly sad. As do I, the loss of her, the loss of myself. As do all of us. Learning how to die is one of the greatest tasks of life, and it's one that most us never quite get the hang of, until we realize, whoops, not much of a trick here, is there. Not much of a choice, either.

... lately Katherine seems to have gotten past those terror jags. She hasn’t had an outburst for the past year or two.

I recall having those "terror jags," and my experience is that atheists don't so much "get past" them as find ways to suppress them. Sometimes several years would pass between waves of soul-deep realization about "the truth of what death means" (as I thought at the time). When realization came as a splash rather than a wave, I would induce a little fake-reflexive shiver, giving me an opportunity to laugh at my silliness and get my mind on a different track. Thus I lasted about a decade and a half on the promise that I'd just somehow find a way to accept death.

For some, acceptance comes as an activistic denial — seizing on the hope that Angier offered to her daughter: well, "they're inventing new drugs," and they'll keep you going long enough to realize that you don't want to live forever. You'll get so sick of life that you'll welcome oblivion! Again, this is a matter of personal impressions and experience, but I've come to suspect that there is a chasm between the cavalier atheists of mature age and the children that they raise.

People who were raised with the understanding that there is — or legitimately could be — a God, build their atheism on the subconscious foundation thereby laid; moreover, they have a sense of community; their formative years were spent in a more traditional, and traditionally religious, society. People raised as atheists lack both the subconscious sense and the social experience. The appeal to the claim that, in Angier's words, "[m]atter is neither created nor destroyed, and we, as matter, will always matter, and the universe will forever be our home" cannot tap into the religious comfort of eternity because that comfort has never been experienced. The earthy scent in the graveyard doesn't evoke memories of comforting feelings; there are no memories, so the scent becomes associated with the graveyard. The child "will have none of it."

Just so, it may work for discrete individuals to leverage the ego as an external anchor for morality. Carvin claims to be "morally mature" — not needing the crutch of religion, "useful for moderating the behavior of the morally immature." Angier expresses pride in her daughter's second reason for liking atheism (after not having "to waste Sundays going to pray"): "I'd rather do things myself than have somebody else do them for me. If somebody gets sick, I wouldn't just pray to god he or she gets better, I would try to buy some medicine for them, to help them get better." What happens when there are no religious believers to whom to match morality? More importantly, what happens when the tone becomes set by those who don't care whether they're called "morally immature" any more than a desert scorpion cares about the "river of life"?

Those raised in a society that sees its cultural, moral, and emotional heritage as an academic interest, and often with scorn, have no recourse to the strength that their elders in the previous generation or two don't even realize was imparted unto them. We can no longer hear God's whispers, so we must instead listen for His call.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:59 AM | Comments (41)

Songs You Should Know 03/01/05

The Timshel Music Song You Should Know this week is "Starlight Ship" by You.

"Starlight Ship" You, Alternative Rock
Stream (HiFi) Download from Freedom from the Known.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:09 AM