Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Boy meets girl

Calpundit pays tribute to the strong female characters in the Oz books. He also makes a (presumably half-joking) case that Ozma was a proto-transsexual:
The lovely Ozma of Oz, pictured on the right, is the kind, efficient, and obviously female ruler of Oz who takes over after the wizard is exposed. But who is Ozma?

Answer: Ozma is Tip, a boy throughout the entire second book, The Land Of Oz, who is transformed into a girl by Glinda when all the men prove themselves to be hopelessly muddled rulers.

But wait, you say, Ozma is no transsexual. This is magic, not reality, and magic is an entirely different kettle of fish with no social implications. Not so. In fact, Baum was a theosophist who believed that magic and science were just two sides of the same coin.

Now, I grant it's been a looong time since I read the book, but as I remember it Ozma was born female but transformed into a boy to disguise her identity. Glinda was thus restoring her natural state. If I were an aspiring transsexual, I would not take heart from this.

Eve Tushnet also asks a good question: "...I wonder how his case for Baum's feminism can be squared with the disastrous (if I'm recalling the book correctly) results of Jinjur's army of women?" Again, long time since I read it, but the Jinjur story certainly seemed like an attack on feminism. The all-female army briefly takes over the Emerald City and forces all the husbands and wives to switch roles, making women have jobs and men care for the children. This makes everyone miserable until the coup is overthrown.

This story is a bit strange, because as Calpundit says, Oz is basically a matriarchy. But one fact he left out is that all those strong female characters are unmarried and childless. Baum could envision women ruling whole countries but evidently he couldn't envision them in any other family role but the traditional one.
On a roll

So for some time Minute Particulars (clearly a trailblazer) was the only soul to have me on his blogroll. Now in the past couple days I find myself on two more: Ideofact, the wonderful blog of historical and religious arcana that was already on my own blog roll, and a new blog called Chronica Majora. The blog's mission statement is unique:
I have in mind to reproduce the chonicles written by my namesake Matthew Paris between the years 1235 and 1272. In his Chronica Majora, Brother Matthew wrote of the doings of his nation and his king, as well as of the foreign affairs of the time, for this was the era of Crusades, Crusades against Saracens in the Orient and heretics in Europe. His narrative is a window into England of the 13th century. This Chronica Majora, in the Year of Our Lord 2002, will also be a window, a window onto America and the world in the 21st century.

I don't much like the implicit analogy of the current conflicts to the Crusades (I imagine Aziz Poonawalla and Mr. Paris could have quite a go at each other). But I've got to give the guy creativity points. Takes all kinds to make a blogosphere...

Monday, December 30, 2002

The land that time forgot

I mentioned earlier that I went to see The Two Towers on its opening night, but never got around to blogging about it. I enjoyed it. I actually didn't have to deal with the giant spider because they apparently pushed that to the beginning of the next movie (it was at the very end of the second book). It was more violent than I remember the book being; I don't think there was actually more violence in the movie, but there was less other stuff to ameliorate it. Some of the parts of the book that I remember best, and enjoyed most, actually weren't relevant to the plot but showed Tolkien's remarkable otherwordly imagination, such as the society of Ents, or Tom Bombadil and his wife the river-daughter. I understand why the movie trimmed it down just to what moved the plot along, but the dallying in magical realms was part of the books' appeal. But I'm amazed, as are some others, at how much the movie images looked like the pictures in my head while I was reading.

While I've been flaking off, other bloggers have been discussing the movie and the books. There have been some interesting discussions about how Tolkien's Catholicism is or isn't expressed in the novels. I think I agree most with Patrick Nielsen Hayden's take:
Of course it's a novel by a Christian, and Tolkien himself called it "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work." But for such a supposedly Christian work, the morality of The Lord of the Rings is as much infused with the stoical pessimism of the ancient world as with hope for redemption. Professor Shippey addresses this at length, observing that Tolkien spent his academic life on works like Beowulf and the Elder Edda, works of grim paganism passed down to us by later Christian writers. "The whole poem Beowulf," writes Shippey, "is a meditation between contrary opinions, with strong similarities to The Lord of the Rings." Mooney quotes Christian critics who extol the trilogy's images of "Christ-like sacrifice," but as Mooney points out, The Lord of the Rings is a story of universal loss. Evil is defeated for a while, but the world is diminished. As a medievalist quoted in Mooney's article observes, it's a "very Norse outlook: Even the winners lose."

In the Chris Mooney piece that Patrick links are some interesting quotes from Tolkien himself about his story's paganism: "In another letter, Tolkien outlined his aspiration to create a new mythology for England, describing the existing body of Arthurian legend as inadequate for the role because it 'explicitly contains the Christian religion.' (He added, 'That seems to me fatal.') References to real-world belief systems, Tolkien thought, would detract from the beguiling timelessness he hoped to convey."

This reminded me of Huston Smith's discussion of paganism in The World's Religions:
In constrast to the historical religions of the West, which are messianically forward looking, primal religions give the appearance of looking toward the past. That is not altogether wrong, and from the Western perspective, where time is linear, there is no other way to put the matter. But primal time is not linear, a straight line that moves from the past, through the present, into the future. It is not even cyclical as the Asian religions tend to regard it, turning in the way the world turns and seasons cycle. Primal time is atemporal, but the paradox can be relieved if we see that primal time focuses on causal rather than chronological sequence; for primal peoples, "past" means preeminently closer to the originating Source of things. That the Source precedes the present is of secondary importance.

The word Source is used here to refer to the gods who, where they did not actually create the world, ordered it and gave it its viable structure. The gods continue to exist, of course, but that does not shift interest to the present, for the past continues to be considered the Golden Age. When divine creation had suffered no ravages of time and mismanagement, the world was as it should be. That is no longer the case, for a certain enfeeblement has occurred; thus steps are needed to restore the world to its original condition.

That attitude runs strongly through Lord of the Rings; really, it's the whole plot. That concept relates to Christianity in the Garden of Eden story (one reason it always seems so pagan to me), but Christianity is primarily a faith of historical events. A man lived and died in Judea around 2000 years ago; the center of God's work is tied to a place and time, to names and dates. This did not fit with Tolkien's vision.

And yet, reading the novels reminded me of how hard it actually is to be "timeless." When we think we've done things a certain way forever they become timeless, even if we haven't. So Tolkien's hobbits smoke and drink tea, though those habits in Europe only go back around 400 years; they use the Julian calendar, thought that's barely older than Jesus. Probably to a lot of moderns those things seem eternal, but it depends on how much you know. I remember the calendar really jarred me when I read the books, because it seems so utterly Roman, with its months named for gods and emperors and its detachment from natural cycles. I'd think Middle-Earth would have a lunar or lunisolar calendar of some sort. Can't you imagine Frodo and crew setting out on "the first quarter of fall" rather than Sept. 23 or whatever it was?

But that's the sort of error that paganism makes. The planet is full of myths about how these people were always in this place, they grew out of the earth, when archaelogy shows they moved in just 500 or 1000 years earlier. I remember reading about a South American tribe in college who thought they had always grown plantains, though it's historical fact that Europeans brought plantains in from Asia some 400 years ago. And almost everyone, including Tolkien, ignores the fact that for much of human history there was no farming at all.

Another feature of paganism that Smith describes, and one can see in LOTR, is the holiness of places, especially natural places. Smith quotes a Native American author whose uncle tells him, "Do you see that bluff over there? Oren, you are that bluff. And that giant pine on the other shore? Oren, you are that pine. And this water that supports our boat? You are this water." Tolkien doesn't go that far, but he clearly loves his landscape, describing it in greater detail than many of the animate characters. The villains use and despoil the land (and in the form of the Ents, the land strike back).

This attachment to certain places and ways of doing things, in a world that keeps stubbornly changing, is what gives LOTR its gloomy feel. And it's what dooms paganism in today's world, I think. The great missionary religions of the world, that have succeeded outside their homelands -- Christianity, Islam and Buddhism -- all accept the transience of this earth and seek permanence elsewhere. It's what Tolkien did, apparently, but not without a longing, backward glance.

Friday, December 27, 2002

Kitsch lives on

I was surprised by the number of hits on this site while I was out. Turns out 90% of them were on search engines looking for that darned Huggy Jesus Doll. One of them was looking for "squeeze me jesus doll." I don't think I want to know...
Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine

Since I've been hanging around churches and talking to Christians lately, my mother has taken to asking me questions about the faith, which never made much sense to her. This is a futile endeavor, as she learned a few weeks ago when she asked me, "What does it mean to say that Jesus died for our sins?"

"I don't know," I said. "I'm still trying to figure that one out."

Recently on Sursum Corda, I learned I'm not the only one having trouble explaining this concept to a relative:
The other night, my 4-year old son pushes a chair against the wall, stands on it, holds out his arms and says “Look Daddy, I’m Jesus dying on the cross!”

I was a little unprepared for this conversation, which went something like this:

“Joseph, do you know why Jesus died on the cross?”


“Uh…to take away our sins.”

“What are sins?”

“Well…uh…well there is a lot of meanness in the world and God wanted to take the meanness away, so he—"

“But I don’t want God to take the meanness away because I want to be a pirate.”

Peter asked readers for advice in explaining this to a four-year-old. His favorite answer, not surprisingly, came from Master Work, who took the pirate concept and ran with it:
"On Good Friday, the whole world played pirate, only for real. We made Jesus walk our plank. And though it hurt him terribly, he let us all be mean to him. Only Jesus hadn't done anything wrong. In fact, Jesus turned out to be the captain of God's ship! And after God saved him, Jesus had every right to fight back and make us walk his plank.

"That was a very scary time. It was then that playing pirate stopped being fun.

"Only Jesus wasn't mean back to us. He forgave us. Then he made us officers on his ship – imagine that! – and taught us a whole new game to play. It's called the Way. We're still on a ship, we still sail around and adventure, but now we help people instead of hurting them. God even helps us play! Some of the people who see us playing start wanting to play too, and we let them.

"To people who still think playing pirate is fun, the Way sounds boring and silly. But to us, it's the best game in the world. It's hard to go back to a ship of your own when you've served on God's ship. It's hard to enjoy being mean, or even just pretending to be mean, when you remember how people hurt Jesus and he wouldn't hurt them back. It's no fun once you know that hurting other people hurts Jesus most of all.

"And that's one of the many ways that Jesus saved us from our sins on the cross."

I don't know how I would have reacted to this at age four. I probably wouldn't have related, since I didn't aspire to be a pirate. (I think most girls don't like pirates until they're old enough to read romance novels.) But now I'm 31, I have a Stanford education, and I still don't get it.

For one thing, I don't get how the whole world was responsible for his death -- 99.99% of the world had no way to know he was alive, so they could hardly have anything to do with killing him. But more importantly, I still don't see how this story explains why he had to die that way, and how this saved us from our sins. So he taught us the Way. What does that have to do with getting killed? Why was that necessary? I mean, obviously preaching the Way got him into hot water, but clearly getting crucified wasn't supposed to just be a nasty side effect of his preaching -- it supposedly accomplished something in itself.

Acts 2, which Telford says his story loosely paraphrases, isn't much help. In fact, it never mentions dying for sins. It quotes St. Peter saying Jesus was killed wrongly but was raised because "death cannot hold him." Rising from the dead would suggest Jesus is divine, but that doesn't explain his manner of death -- he could just as well be raised from dying of pneumonia. Peter also goes on about how this fulfills Jewish prophecy, but that seems more about establishing his lordship over Israel than explaining his death.

So, what's the deal?

Friday, December 20, 2002

Out to get me

Apologies for the fact that half the archive links aren't working any more, nor are the permalinks on this page. This time it's not just me though -- everyone on Blogspot seems to have toasted archives. Well, you get what you (don't) pay for, eh?

Also, sorry that posting has been light and is going to get lighter. Work, Christmas stuff, etc. have crowded out those long posts I've been daydreaming about. Tomorrow morning I'm flying off to my father's house for Christmas. I may squeeze in a post or two from his computer, but no guarantees.

New Year's resolutions are: a) move to Movable Type and b) post more. Stay tuned, true believers!

UPDATE: Well, through the mysteries of Blogger, links are back. I still want to get out of here tough...
Two become one

Continuing the Camassia Cost-Cutting Program, I've decided to become one of the 3 million people in America with only a mobile phone and no land line. This is not because I am like so many people in L.A., having a phone to my ear wherever I go. In fact, it's because I don't use either phone that much. Most people I interact with are either distant friends and family I communciate with mainly by email, or people I work with and plan things with face to face. Given that, I realized I was spending a truly ridiculous amount of money on phones. I can get a $30-a-month plan and still have minutes left over.

I've also been feeling lately like I have a case of technology pile-up. There have been so many technological changes in my lifetime that, rather than keep switching formats, I keep adding things. Music is the most conspicuous example: I have LPs, cassettes, and CDs, and equipment to play all of them. A lot of people my age don't have any vinyl any more, but I feel like they're perfectly good records, why replace them? Especially since now some are saying the CD is dead and it's all about mp3 or some such thing. I just want it to settle down already.

The phone is like that. Like most people, I think of a land line as a basic utility: you move to a new place and get the power turned on and the water turned on and the phone turned on. But that's already being superseded not only by cell phones but maybe by broadband. Either way, it may disappear as a separate technology. Cell phones themselves are turning into little handheld computers.

I kind of hope that technology change, rather than getting faster and faster, follows a model of punctuated equilibrium, with rapid change interrupting periods of relative stability. Certainly it feels to me that in the communications realm, we are groping around for new standard forms to settle on. But maybe that's my wishful thinking.

Thursday, December 19, 2002

Catholic blogs starting with "D"

I incorrectly identified Dappled Things as Disputations in the last post. It has been corrected. Apologies to both...

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Getting a move-on

Busy day today -- right after work I'm going out to dinner and then to the movies, so all I have time for is a quick post from work. Unfortunately, I can't think of any quick posts to do. I can think of long posts. I'd like to elbow into Peter Nixon's discussion with Dappled Things, and add to Sappho's response to Eve Tushnet on gender. But alas, there isn't time. However, if I say publicly I'm going to write these posts, I think that means I have to do it...
That sounds like my editorial meetings

Jonathan Chait thnks the Wall Street Journal is run by James Bond villains:
When I try to visualize the editorial meeting that produced this bit of diabolical inspiration, I imagine one of the more rational staffers--maybe Dorothy Rabinowitz--tentatively raising her hand and asking, "Isn't that idea a bit, you know, immoral?" Then Robert Bartley or Paul Gigot would emit a deep, sinister laugh and press a hidden button, depositing the unfortunate staffer into a tank of piranhas. Come to think of it, I haven't seen Rabinowitz's byline in a couple of weeks.

Wrath of God

Mark at Minute Particulars responded to my earlier post with a helpful clarification of the Catholic view of anger. I've heard Christians toss off the phrase "anger is a sin" before, but I kind of suspected that for intellectual types it's more complicated (I'm sure if Telford weren't so distracted, he'd have a long disquisition on it himself). Coincidentally, I ran across an article on the same subject in an old issue of First Things:
Of course it is true that in the Sermon on the Mount, as in the most otherworldly passages of Paul’s Epistles, Christians are told to (in Paul’s words) “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you” (Ephesians 4:31; cf. Colossians 5:8, 1 Timothy 2:8). However, the full Christian teaching on anger is subtler than such passages might lead one to believe. Not only does Paul himself assume the possibility of making crucial moral distinctions when he tells us: “Be angry but do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26); but Christ himself becomes angry on several occasions (Matthew 21:12; Mark 3:5, 11:15; John 2:15) and even describes God the Father, by way of a parable, as responding with anger to human beings who behave unjustly (Matthew 18:34–35). (It should go without saying that this verse conforms quite closely to the numerous chapters of the Old Testament in which God becomes angry.)

At the very least, such passages complicate the somewhat facile denigration of anger heard so often today. Anger—as everyone from Jesus Christ to the wisest philosophers and theologians seem to recognize—is not inherently depraved. It is, rather, a salutary expression of the same natural love for one’s own that motivates human beings to assert their God–given rights and dignity against those who would deny them. It is thus also rooted in mankind’s innate love of justice—a love that ultimately draws us closer to God.

So, I stand corrected. (Well, technically I lounge back in my desk chair corrected, but same thing.) I was also probably too hard on Mark with the "bloodless obeisance" line. There is a difference between being righteously angry and heaping abuse on people, and he was trying to point that out.

Also, I apologize if the NPR tale sounded like an anti-Catholic stereotypes. I did not mean to imply Mark would side with the nuns either. The main reason I brought it up was to describe my thought process. Often my unconscious will send me a smoke signal in the form of a dream or a persistent thought or image, so my forebrain goes, hmm, what's this about? You could see the same process happening in this post. I suppose I don't really need to include the smoke signal in the post, and perhaps it's distracting. But I think it's more interesting that way, and it better shows where I'm coming from.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

You plant a demon seed, you raise a flower of fire

Slate today explained why the Ku Klux Klan burns crosses. It was a case of life imitating art: Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman included a cross-burning, as did the movie version, Birth of a Nation. So even though the KKK hadn't previously burned crosses, they took it up after the movie.

The inimitable Cecil Adams covered this some years ago and added another life-imitating-art layer to it: the idea had originally been popularized by Sir Walter Scott's poem Lady of the Lake. It really was an ancient Scottish custom, but Cecil adds a wrinkle:
Just one problem. The fiery cross of Scottish legend wasn't the upright Roman cross commonly used by the Klan. Rather it was the X-shaped cross of St. Andrew. St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, and an X-shaped cross probably also was a lot easier to make a signal bonfire out of. But nobody ever said the Klan's big attraction was its meticulous sense of detail.
Falling from grace

The Gutless Pacifist fears he's heretical for linking to Razormouth's laceration of a Huggy Jesus Doll.
Running low on awful, possibly blasphemous Christmas gift ideas this year?

Fear not, for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great schlock; kitsch shall be to all the people.

For unto you is placed this day under the tree in your living room a doll, which is Huggy Jesus!

Verily, for only $29.95, plus a mere $7.00 shipping and handling, your child can receive from you this "collectable, soft and cuddly, hypoallergenic" Jesus doll designed to let kids know how much the Lord loves them. By parting with a piddling 37 bucks, says HuggyJesus.com, "All can enjoy the warmth and comfort of Huggy Jesus."

Hey Pen, since you're a heretic too now, you want to join me in a rousing chorus of Plastic Jesus? That's sure to get us both hit by lightning...

In the gloaming

My gym is (mostly) closed for repairs this week, so I've taken up the very un-L.A. habit of walking. This is especially unusual because the weather has been, by SoCal standards, bad. Today I walked to Venice Beach, about two miles from my apartment, in a howling wind.

I arrived at the beach just after sunset. I'd never been there when it was like this. The tourists, buskers, bodybuilders, trinket-sellers, even the surfers were gone. The ocean was roiling, the palm trees bowed, and the sand blew low to the ground in currents and rivers of wind, overtaking the pavement in sinous patterns. Although it was cold and the sand kept blowing into my eyes, I was thinking: yeah! Woohoo! Nature is so tame here most of the time, there's something thrilling about being out in it when it gets dramatic.

I walked home, thinking how tomorrow we'd wake up to cleaner air, a bluer sky and dead palm fronds scattered all over the road. Then I got home to find that the wind was the southern edge of a storm that killed nine people. Such is nature, in all its beauty and destruction.

Monday, December 16, 2002

Time out

I fell on my bad wrist yesterday and it's swelled up and sore, so my typing stamina is rather limited. Such as as it is, I feel obliged to save it up for work. I'm especially annoyed because I'd really like to respond to Minute Particulars, but that will have to wait.

Saturday, December 14, 2002


Since I've been retooling the template, I decided it was high time to add a blogroll. And my, what a motley crew they are. I'm sure if I got them together at a cocktail party there'd be some great arguments.

Friday, December 13, 2002

Back to normal...whatever that is...

Blogspot let me have my template back, but I stuck with the manually-entered archive links to the left. Except -- whoa! -- when you click on them they're still mysteriously in the Chroma template. OK, whatever. So long as they're there.
UPDATE: OK, fixed that problem. Whew.
Scene stealing

Some folks from the office and I are going to see The Two Towers when it opens on Wednesday. I'm looking forward to it; the only thing that worries me is that if it follows the book, it has a giant spider in it. This could be a problem. But actually, giant spiders in movies don't bother me as much as you'd think. They're usually not very realistic, and blowing them up to human size actually isn't as alarming as shrinking people down to fly size Anyway, I know what happens in the scene, so if all else fails I can shut my eyes.

Actually, there's something else that's curious about that scene. I read the book about a year and a half ago, and when I read the spider part I realized it was very familiar. Just a few months before I'd read Edar Rice Burroughs' sci-fi novel Pirates of Venus (well, half before I bailed out -- it wasn't very good), and it had an almost identical scene. In both books (spoiler alert!) two friends meet a giant spider, and it attacks one of them; the other one valiantly fights off the spider with a sword, but returning to his friend, finds him apparently dead. He dithers about whether to abandon the body, finally deciding to stay. Presently the friend revives; it turns out he's only been paralyzed by the poison, not killed.

Burroughs' book came out in the 1930s, so he certainly came up with the scene first. It's hard to believe Tolkien plagiarized, though -- he was apparently a fan of Old English and opposed to everything since the Battle of Hastings, so could he have read tripe like Burroughs? Well, you never know what people's secret vices are. But maybe there are only so many things you can do with a giant spider in your plot.
It's a Gen-X thing

I think Dahlia Lithwick must be my age:
Out of nowhere booms the great, surprising "Luke-I-am-your-father" voice of He Who Never Speaks. Justice Clarence Thomas suddenly asks a question and everyone's head pops up and starts looking madly around, like the Muppets on Veterinarian Hospital.

OK, everyone knows the Star Wars reference, but even I had almost forgotten that Muppet Show skit. Remembering it this morning almost sent my coffee through my nose with mad giggling. Thanks, Dahlia!
Whoa, it's all gone blue!

If you're wondering why the template changed, so am I. I was mucking around trying to fix my archive problem, and screwed up the original template code so bad that I decided to change to another template and then change back so I'd have the original code. Well, Blogspot let me change, but not change back. And the archives it did not let me republish at all, so I entered the links in manually. So now you have full access to my past posts, but at this rate, I think I'm headed for Movable Type.

Thursday, December 12, 2002

I told my wrath, my wrath did end

Do you ever wake up in the morning with a thought already in your mind, as if it had started when you were still asleep? This morning I woke up with a memory, ten years old at least. It was of a piece I heard on NPR, it must have been from Maureen Corrigan, who was remembering a scene from her childhood in Catholic school. The Pope was visiting New York, and the nuns took the students out to wait on the sidewalk for the papal motorcade to come by. It was winter, but the nuns did not let the students wear their coats, because "it was important that His Holiness see our green-and-white school uniforms."

While the students waited with chattering teeth, Corrigan saw the owner of the Jewish deli behind them come out and speak to one of the sisters, gesticulating fervently. Presently he went back into his shop and came out with cups of hot chocolate -- one for each student. "I didn't hear what he said to the sister," Corrigan recalled. "But I'm sure one of the words he used must have been meshugenah."

In my opinion, meshugenah is too kind a word for it. I heard this story when I was in college in Massachusetts, and I knew well what those northeastern winters are like. And why was it so "important" that their uniforms be visible? Why should the Pope care? Even if it is important, this seems like using children to suck up to authority -- to a rather demented degree.

Why was I thinking about this today? I think this might have followed from the exchange I read the day before between Mark at Minute Particulars and Peter Nixon at Sursum Corda. Mark criticized Peter's angry rhetoric last week at Cardinal Law, saying Catholics should show proper respect for the office of bishop, even if they disapprove of the bishops' conduct. Now, I've been reading Sursum Corda for a while and Peter always struck me as one of the nicest guys in the blogosphere, but he admitted he'd flipped out:
I think many of Mark's points are well taken. His ability to maintain detachment and take the long view of this crisis is a good thing. I have usually tried to do that myself.

But I just lost it last week. I'll freely admit that the latest revelations pushed me over the edge into a blinding rage that made me want to bang my head against my keyboard in frustration. Why these revelations in particular? Who knows? They were certainly no worse than some of the things we heard earlier this year. Maybe I just reached my personal tipping point.

Like Mark, I believe that the office of Bishop is one of God's gifts to his Church. It's precisely because I believe this that the actions of Law and other bishops who have concealed abuse make me so angry. Does the sacrament of orders confer grace? You bet it does. But as with all graces, the recipient must cooperate. Respect for an office becomes increasingly hollow if the actions of the officeholder himself continues to undermine that respect.

Now, I don't like to get involved in intra-Catholic disputes, since I am not a Catholic and never have been. But this made me think about the general Christian idea that anger is a sin. I understand anger is highly dangerous, but I also know it does not always lead to evil. I am sure the gesticulating deli owner was angry, and he probably did not say very nice things to the nuns, but his anger led him to give away his own merchandise to help others. I have no doubt who acted most Christlike in that story. And I am sure that Peter's love of his church, so apparent in the rest of his blog, fueled his rage last week. I'm not that angry at Cardinal Law, but why should I be? I'm not personally invested in him. Give me a little passionate anger in the face of child abuse, over bloodless obeisance to authority, any day of the week.
Making marry

A few weeks ago I blogged about Noah Millman's response to Stanley Kurtz's argument against gay marriage. (I can't link to my own posts, because of the !@#%ing missing archives.) I didn't respond to Kurtz's article itself, but Julian Sanchez did. He now regrets his nasty tone somewhat, and writes a more sober post on the legal issues. I agree that his tone was nasty, though I admit I cracked up at his lede: "Once in a great while, there comes an article so breathtakingly stupid, so heroic in its inanity, that as one reads it, even inanimate objects in the surrounding area seem to radiate intelligence by comparison."

Wednesday, December 11, 2002


I haven't been covering the Trent Lott story here since folks like Josh Marshall are doing it so ably already, but certainly it's been the talk of my office. I tell you, there are folks in my newsroom who are the right of Attila the Hun, and they're all disgusted with Lott. "He's too comfortable hanging around with white supremecists," one editor remarked.

Indeed. But what's also striking is how many conservatives never really liked Lott to begin with. They put up with him, and now they see no reason to. Jonah Goldberg summed it up hilariously: "Regardless, Trent Lott only does two things well, freeze-dry his hair and say stupid things."

Now Lott is trying to apologize more abjectly, but I doubt that will change anyone's mind. The question is, are there enough other freeze-dried white supremecists out there to keep him afloat?
Give me smut and nothing but

In case anyone's getting tired of the high-minded philosophizing around here, take a look at the Bad Sex Prize. Not for actual bad sex, but for bad writing about sex. It's a hoot, but be warned: you may come out with fewer brain cells than you went in with.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

The monkey in the middle

The world is still waiting for the sequel to Telford's God and nature post, so I'm still reading the book I said a while ago I'd be blogging about.

It doesn't really cover the topic I was questioning, but it does have a chapter on evolution and what it means for human nature. The chapter's focus is somewhat the opposite of what I was writing about; I was interested in the origin of evil while the author, Francisco Ayala, is concerned with the origin of good.

Actually, "good" may be too vague a term. He's considering the origin of ethics, which are not quite the same as goodness. He argues rather convincingly that human ethics are different from simple empathy or altruism, which can be seen in some animals. Ayala defines ethics by three traits that necessitate human-level intelligence: 1) the ability to anticipate the consequences of one's actions; 2) the ability to make value judgments; and 3) the ability to choose between alternative courses action. Those traits are innate to human beings, Ayala says, and so all societies have codes of ethics. The content of those ethics, however, is culturally determined. He compares it to language: everyone's brain is made for language so everyone speaks one, but there are many different languages out there.

It does seem to me that there is a difference between "animal pity" and ethics, which sometimes require you to do what you know is right even when your feelings tell you something else. This aspect of ethics cuts both ways, morally speaking: you can overcome your bad feelings by making yourself do good, but you can also overcome your good feelings, as when a misguided sense of duty leads a soldier to torture or kill innocents under orders. Yet there is a certain commonality to human ethical codes, at least the ones that I know of. They all involve some degree of subsuming self-interest to others, but the question is to what others. Family? Tribe? Race? Nation? Species? God?

Ayala doesn't really go into how this relates to Christian theology, though I expect Murphy will revisit it at the end of the book. One thing that's curious about his theory as that his second factor in ethics, making value judgments, or knowing good from evil, is what got humans into trouble in the Garden of Eden. It reminded me that in Telford's recent essay on the subject, he never quite explained why that piece of knowledge is the one thing forbidden. Telford explains the serpent's message to the humans thus: "In fact, you will die seeing and knowing the good and evil that God sees and knows. You will die with eyes wide open to what you have done."

Well, that explains why humans would know evil by eating the fruit -- by having disobeyed they will have done evil. But the Tree of Knowledge supposedly yields knowledge of good as well. Perhaps this is simply saying that without evil there is no contrast to call "good," though it still seems peculiar that the story would consistently describe the tree with both -- mentioning good first, in fact. If knowing good from evil is an innate capacity that humans have evolved, as Ayala asserts, how does this translate to the Fall? I mean, like Telford I take this story to be a fable, not history, but even as a fable this is rather problematic. But I will keep reading, and see what turns up.
All you geeks out there, hear my cry

As some of you may have noticed, my archives stopped archiving on Nov. 16. Blogger claims the subsequent weeks do exist, and I keep republishing them and they keep not showing up. The best I can get from Blogger's help page is instructions to reset and republish everything, which I have tried to no avail. Do any other bloggers out there know what the frell is going on? Is this the dreaded "Blogger archive bug"?

Monday, December 09, 2002


That was the movie I went to see Friday. I haven't read the 1961 book by Stanislaw Lem, but I saw the first film version a looong time ago, when I was about 13. I remember little about it; I had trouble following it, since the subtitles were rather incomplete (there was a lot of talking with no translating!) and it was the slowest film I've ever seen. So seeing the new version was really like seeing the story for the first time.

One interesting thing about the movie was that it was a sci-fi film that wasn't really trying that hard to be a sci-fi film. Although it had some neat space shots early on, it doesn't focus on the gadgetry nor does it tell us anything about what sort of future society we're operating in. Indeed, Earth seems much like it does now, except with a few touches that seem almost like shorthand for the future these days: video phones, collarless shirts. There's a ray-gun of sorts in the movie, but we don't actually see it used.

I expect that the director simply decided to be upfront about the truth in a lot of sci-fi: they're really stories of the supernatural with a high-tech gloss. In a lot of sci-fi the aliens are like magical beings from pagan lore, but Lem seems to be more ambitious. His alien is a planetary ocean, intelligent, creative, unfathomable, capable of interacting with humans in its weird way, but distinctly not human itself. It is a good picture of how God seems to a lot of people in the modern world.

More specifically, Solaris represents the afterlife, or the hope of one. The humans who visit the planet are themselves visited by their lost loved ones -- not ghosts, but fully embodied beings. The characters spend most of the movie trying to sort out if this is something good to be embraced or a delusion to be fought against, and in the end it still isn't clear. "There are no explanations here," says one character in a dream. "Only choices." Indeed. Is the hope for heaven a friend or an enemy? I have been wondering the same thing myself.
Technical issues

Sorry for the absence of posting. Saturday I was busy, yesterday I had a bad headache and just now I was dealing with technical difficulties with my modem. The fun never stops!

Speaking of technology, when I wrote my post about convergence on Friday I didn't realize Microsoft was coming out with its own Box That Does Everything, the Windows XP Media Center. Salon covered it today. Since this is Microsoft, its version of The Box is a PC, not the DVD player as I discussed in my earlier post. I kind of ignored PCs in that post, partly because they seem so bound to the desktop; Microsoft is trying to get over that problem by encouraging you to move it to the family room and hook it up to the TV. Having it connect to both a TV and a monitor resolves the problem of text vs. video viewing I mentioned before. The trouble with having them in the same room, though, is that you have a problem if you want to work on the computer while the kids watch TV. I suppose if these boxes become cheap enough they'll proliferate in houses the way TVs have, but it still seems to me that the reading/writing function and the entertainment functions of electronics may take a while to merge.

The Salon article also touches on something I mentioned in this post: the fact that the old huge-block-of-channels model of cable TV seems out of date. In fact, the TV industry feels threatened by the Media Center because it will make it very easy to download, buy and sell individual TV shows. But the idea of only buying stuff you actually want to watch seems like an irresistible idea. I just hope somebody figures out how to make money doing it...

Saturday, December 07, 2002

The urge to merge

While sitting in a movie theater today, waiting for the picture to start, a friend and I were talking about technological convergence. (I'll blog about the actual movie later.) Back during the tech boom there was a popular idea that a single box would do everything -- Internet, word processing, audio, video, communications etc. Since the dot-com bust that hasn't been discussed as much, but to a certain extent it's still happening.

I was telling him how a while ago I interviewed the CEO of a company that makes components for DVD players, who was arguing that the DVD player would become that converged box. I think as far as entertainment goes, he's probably right. Already the DVD player is taking over the functions of the stereo; many players play CDs and mp3s nowadays. And some new players are capable of recording TV shows, thereby delivering the final death blow to VHS. (How this will compete with the TiVo format remains to be seen.) I can certainly imagine this souped-up player being the conduit for TV, movies, radio (both regular and Internet), and recorded music. Since music, video and computer files seem to be merging into one CD/DVD-type disc format, I can imagine that single disc being downloaded or recorded on in the main box and transported to walkabout players and car stereos.

As to whether this object will converge with the PC, I'm more doubtful. I've never tried them, but I suspect one reason set-top boxes never really took off is that TV sets aren't very friendly to text. People like video to be big, so you can sit a few yards back and watch, while text we like close up. And no electronic device has yet equalled the book in terms of reader-friendliness. I imagine that will get better with improved technology that will be less hard on the eyes. But my personal feeling is that text will be handled in a separate device from the audio/video box, and that device will be something like a laptop, since that's the most booklike format there is. You'd want some sort of connection between that and the DVD thingy, but I do think you want a separate screen.

Of course, who knows what future generations will want? I'm the lady who still has a record player, after all. But that's my two cents' worth.

Friday, December 06, 2002

Beauty and the beast

The Village Voice reviews a new book about female competitiveness. The Ani DiFranco line it quote ("Everyone harbors a secret hatred/for the prettiest girl in the room") reminds me of my roommate in graduate school. She was a former model, and when I mentioned this fact to female classmates, the general reaction was pity. "Oh my God," said one woman, "you must hate her."

I didn't see much point in that, and indeed, living with her made me even less inclined to envy her. Her romantic history wasn't any better than any other single woman's I knew; if anything worse, because as a teenage model she had unsurprisingly attracted a lot of predatory men. I was a bit more surprised that she had a similar problem with dating that I've always had -- she was good at being friends with men, so they tended to see her more as a buddy than as a romantic prospect. That sounds strange coming from a model, but knowing her I could see how that could happen. There was a lot of the stringy tomboy in her, aggressive and direct, and not much feminine mystique.

She broke up with her boyfriend, in fact, while I was living with her. We weren't close enough for her to talk to me about it, but obviously it was extremely painful. I remember tiptoeing around the house, trying to be inconspicuous, while I heard her sobbing in her room. Whatever advantage beauty may give to starting things, it doesn't make the difficult business of human relations any easier.

Actually, the one area where resentment did sometimes spring up on my part wasn't over beauty but money. She had been modeling since she was 12 or something, and had made ridiculous amounts of money at a young age. Life as a medical student was a serious downgrade that she complained about rather a lot, and I was not inclined to feel sorry for her since she was still living better than I had for about the previous five years. But I realized that the money wasn't all good for her either, because here she was in her late twenties and she would probably never have that kind of income again. Instead of moving upward like most of us, she was heading down.

She had gotten interested in medicine from volunteering in some sort of emergency service. She discovered not only that she liked the adrenaline rush of all the running around (not surprising, since her favorite hobby was skydiving) but that it brought her spiritual fulfillment that she had never experienced in the modeling world. She was not happy with med school, though, and had serious doubts about whether she would practice medicine. I thought that, in terms of the job, she would probably have been happiest as an EMT, charging into danger zones and saving lives. But she didn't know how to live on an EMT's salary. And so whatever I could have envied her for, it tended to be complicated by reality. Like most things.

Thursday, December 05, 2002

Camassia downgrades!

After coming close to this a few times before, I've finally decided to cancel my cable TV service. This is partly for financial reasons: in the last few months my rent was raised and my ethical eating kick has jacked up my grocery bill, while my employer has frozen our salaries for more than a year. And cable in my neighborhood is costly: about $50 a month, and that's not even digital.

My TV-watching habits have waxed and waned over the years, but lately they've definitely waned. The blogosphere is part of the reason for this, not so much because of the time spent blogging (as you can see, I'm not the most prolific blogger out there) as the fact that I'm reading more both to find things to blog about and because of books mentioned by other bloggers. (A few days ago when Telford brought up another book he wanted me to read, I drew the line: I'm already reading three books because of him, I'm not taking any more till I'm finished!) Also, going to church has given me more to do and think about. So TV seems a lot less interesting compared to the other stuff that's going on. I'm going to miss a few things, but it's not worth the money to me any more.

The way cable TV works is so...20th century. This business of having great blocks of channels that you pay for en masse, some of which you're never going to watch, seems to go against the general tech trend of personalization and choice. The competition, what with satellite and digital, seems to be pushing things even farther in that direction -- bigger and bigger packages with more and more channels at ever-higher prices. They may cost less per channel, but past a certain point, how much TV are you going to watch?

Speaking of tech trends, I'm keeping my cable modem. Now there's something that's worth the money.
Muscular Christianity

The woman on the cross-trainer next to me at the gym today was reading the Book of Mormon while she worked out. Gotta love L.A...

Nice article about modern fatherhood in First Things. It makes a good point about working mothers:
In the premodern world of the traditional family, life was predominantly agricultural. While the mother cared for the young children and supervised the chores of her older daughters in the home, the father worked in the fields along with his older sons, usually within walking distance of the front door. The nuclear family would come together for meals and social gatherings, frequently joined by members of the extended family who, when they did not reside under the same roof, usually lived nearby.

For most of us, things are very different today. For all the hype about “telecommuting” in the 1990s, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of people travel outside the home to work—a journey often involving a substantial real-world commute. Moreover, most Americans now live in suburbs, far away from extended family members. Ever since the 1950s, a woman choosing the life of the stay-at-home mom has faced the prospect of isolation far more profound than would have been typical in earlier times. After her husband walks out the door in the morning, she is usually left alone with only her child for company. Such a life is hardly traditional; nor is it, for many women, appealing. And understandably so.

For all the talk about the newness of women working outside the home, it's almost as new to have men working outside the home, at least in large numbers. I don't envy the lot of the premodern woman, but it does seem like the industrial age put more distance between husbands and wives than ever before. It's not so surprising that some women wanted to go out where the men are, and that some even came to see men as an alien tribe whose interests were opposed to theirs.

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

The ghost in you

By email, Telford also answered my question about the difference between an immortal soul and an eternal soul:
Oh, and the immortal soul of Origen (like the Highlander) can't be
destroyed. It is preexistent and not necessarily related in any
important way to the body. The eternal soul of Augustine and much other
Christian tradition is a creation whose end is physical embodiment and
whose eternity depends on God's grace. Immortal souls, no. Eternal
souls, maybe. I myself tend towards holism: my 'soul' is linguistic
shorthand for my 'self', which seems to be entirely material. When I
die, I'm nowhere but in the casket until resurrection day. Anabaptists
called that 'soul-sleep'. It solves a lot of metaphysical problems (but
not all).

I encountered that idea only recently, and it makes a lot more sense of Judgment Day than the usual version. If everybody's assigned to heaven, hell, purgatory or whatever upon death, what's the point of doing it all over again? But it does put a different cast on "resurrection." Since the bodies of most people who've ever lived have dissolved into the biosphere, the dead wouldn't be so much raised as re-created. They would be brought back into existence from nonexistence. Somehow this reminds me of the Star Trek episode where Scotty gets rematerialized 80 years after he disappeared in a transporter accident. But I digress...

Speaking of the body/soul question, Minute Particulars wrote about it again today. (This is what I love about the blogger geeks I hang out with; you want an analysis of the Aristotelian dualism and transmigration of souls in a comic strip, MP is your man.) I assume that as a Catholic he follows the eternal-soul model, which is still a bit murky to me. Like Telford he opposes body-soul dualism, but in this post he refers to "the soul separated from the body and then subsequently informing a glorified body." I gather this is the Catholic interpretation of St. Paul's lines: "What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body...So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable." (I've moved on in my NT reading to the letters of St. Paul; more blogging on that later.)

Despite being an anti-dualist, MP believes there is a soul that can be transferred from one body to another. Telford, I assume, would regard the creation of a different body as creating a different person, but one that is related to the former person as a plant is to its seed. What this means exactly I don't know, and what this means for the damned I really don't know (these seems to me to lead logically to annihilationism), but I haven't got to Revelation yet, so I'll hold off.
Said the spider to the fly

Telford has part one of his response to my weird dream post. Obviously I have to wait for part two before I can respond, because he hasn't really addressed the core question yet. But I do want to point out that, at least among the scientists I've read, the emphasis on savagery isn't as monolithic as he makes it sound. There's debate about this between scientists as well as between scientists and theologians. In fact, there's always been a bit of Rousseauian romanticism among zoologists, particularly studiers of the great apes.

That's why I was careful to avoid using language like "struggle for survival," or speculating overmuch about the past. You can get carried away with that sort of thing. But one thing that was striking about the spider dream was that it was so terrifying and yet it depicted something so ordinary. It's the sort of thing you can see happen in your own house. So why could I not bear to look?


When I was at church yesterday we were told to do something we'd done only once before when I was there: hold hands in prayer. Holding hands with strangers is a little odd, especially if you're not actually praying. But I think one of the things that attracted me to Pentecostalism was that, compared to more mainline denominations, it doesn't seem to be afraid of touch.

Last week I blogged about the sexual vibe I was feeling during baptism and communion, but I think touch is just as important when it isn't sexual. Our culture inherited from its Northern European forbears an aversion to touching; Americans travelling to places like southern Europe, the Middle East or Latin America tend to notice a lot more casual contact. We Anglos tend to see nearly all touching as sexually charged, but I think part of being a mammal is needing touch for its own sake. It's a shame we deprive ourselves.

In the Bible, descriptions of people's actions tend to be kept to a bare minimum, but you get hints this is a pretty high-touch culture. Grown men embrace, kiss, and cry on each others' shoulders. At the Last Supper one of the disciples is "leaning on Jesus' bosom." (Or at least, that's what the King James Version says; now that I look it up, the NRSV just says he was "reclining next to Jesus," so infer what you will.) Either way, Jesus spends a lot of time touching people, so clearly the habit of not touching people in church is a later development. It's nice that the Pentecostals brought it back. I've heard that in charismatic sects where people fall over from the Spirit and that sort of thing, there are designated "catchers" to make sure they don't get hurt. The CA doesn't do stuff like that, but you could also see the importance of touch in the baptisms I mentioned before. If you're being totally immersed, you need someone -- in this case, two people -- to hold you. Kind of like life.

Monday, December 02, 2002

Google me this

A popular blog pasttime is looking at your tracking software to see what Google phrases people might have typed in that turned up your site. Not surprisingly, this post attracted a few deves (I won't repeat what they wrote, lest I attract more deves!). But today somebody hit on me in search of "Augustine's philosophical views on cheating." I wonder if that was one of Telford's students...?
The nine billion names

Interesting column in the Boston Globe about the formation of Hinduism from a dizzying variety of local cults into a relatively coherent religion. The author says British scholars had a lot to do with it:
These scholars organized their impressions of Indian religion according to what they were familiar with at home: the monotheistic nature of Christianity and its exclusive claims to truth. When confronted by diverse Indian religions, they tended to see similarities among them. They assumed that different religious practices could only exist within a single overarching tradition.

They also had a strong literary bias. They thought that since Christianity had canonical texts, Indian tradition must have the same. Their local intermediaries tended to be Brahmans, who alone knew the languages needed to study such ancient texts as the Vedas and the Bhagavad-Gita. Together, the British scholars and their Brahman interpreters came up with a canon of sorts, mostly Brahmanical literature and ideology, which they began to identify with a single Hindu religion.

There seems to be a trend lately of articles discovering the Western (mis)interpretations of Eastern religions: I blogged a while ago about this in regard to Buddhism, and the Atlantic discussed similar theories about Confucianism a few years back. All this emphasizes the point that, from the standpoint of general religious practice in world history, Christianity is weird. Obviously Judaism and Islam bear a family resemblance, and perhaps it was contact with these that led Europeans to think that all "advanced" religions follow the model. But if you go afield of the Judaic faiths, things get radically different.

The columnist makes an interesting comparison when he says India when the British came was "not unlike the pagan chaos a Christian from the eastern provinces of the Roman empire might have encountered in the West just before Constantine's conversion." Hinduism probably is a lot like Europe would have been had Christianity not taken hold. Hindus tend to deal with the multifarious gods by regarding them as incarnations of higher gods, who are in turn incarnations of the Brahman, who incarnates everything. The Romans started similarly accommadating different gods by equating other peoples' gods with their own -- not only the Greek gods (Jupiter/Zeus, Juno/Hera, Venus/Aphrodite etc.) but all the ones they encountered. "First and foremost, Mercury is regarded as the inventor of all the useful arts, the protector of routes and travellers," Julius Caesar wrote about the Gallic pantheon. "After Mercury, they worship Apollo, Jupiter, Mars and Minerva. They think of these gods in roughly the same way as other peoples." Caesar didn't bother writing what the Celts actually called their gods -- he knew who they were.

The Romans recognized what Carl Jung figured out 2,000 years later: there are certain common characters and stories that turn up in folklore around the world. But in the European case they might have actually been related. One of the oldest and most mysterious Germanic gods is called Tiw (or Tiuz or Ziu, depending on the source), known to us mainly for giving his name to Tuesday. Scholars have noticed the resemblance of the name to other primary Indo-European gods such as Zeus and the Sanskrit Dyaush. It also may be the root of the generic Latin word for god, deus, and its feminine form, diana. Kind of funny to think all the Latin masses are invoking the name of a pagan god, isn't it?

Anyway, if some foreign power had showed up and seen all this, they could conceivably have taken the various equivalent gods and the works of Greek philosophy and the epics of Virgil and Homer and the Eddas and whatnot and welded it into some sort of coherent worldview. Heck, it might have happened by itself, given time. But a strange thing happened along the way...

Sunday, December 01, 2002

Save As...

Telford is impressed that I put up with his familial distractions when we visited today. I have to say, it doesn't bother me because I feel like I'm the intruder.

I've actually never been friends before with someone who had kids. Single people and family people tend to run in different circles. I suppose this is one of the barriers that the Internet overcomes. So I was never quite sure how to deal with the family, but they have been awfully good at dealing with me. Telford's wife has been very cool about everything, and the kids basically ignore me, which is OK because I ignore them back.

I've wondered, actually, what his children think of me, if they think of me at all. When I was a child, my parents' friends were mostly other parents, as you might expect. There was no one like me hanging around. I don't know if the little Worklings know why I periodically come along and peel their father away from them, or if they figure it's just one of those inexplicable adult things. When you're a kid there are an awful lot of those, aren't there?

Anyway, I was never very good at "parallel processing" to begin with. I like to do one thing at a time. This is rather a handicap for a reporter, but if I'm on something that's important to me I stick with it and ignore distractions. So I'm not about to go wandering off to other apps. Plus I think I got used to the interrupted style of talking from doing it with my mother. For many years I've been having long philosophical conversations with her too, but like most mothers she's got too many things going on at once. So I've learned the art of gently corralling the train of the discussion ("So anyway, you were saying that..."). That's the way it is when you talk to parents, even your own.

Friday, November 29, 2002

The marrying kind, part 2

When I blogged yesterday about Noah's gay-marriage post I hadn't read all of the Stanley Kurtz article he was responding to (my bad) so I didn't think of another form of "polygamy" Kurtz suggested -- gay people who form families with surrogate mothers and inseminators and whatnot. Those families do exist, though again I can't imagine they'd be that common. And perhaps the larger point is, they already exist even without official sanction.

Anyway, as promised, on to no-fault divorce. Noah's objection to it stems from his fundamental vision of marriage:
Marriage is a covenant between two individuals and between those individuals and the society. It is a social institution that involves the entire community, and not just the individuals in question. As such, to allow it to be dissolved at will is a crime against the community.

The first question that sprang to my mind was: what community are we talking about here? Family and friends? Church? Town? State? Country? I ask this because both Noah and Kurtz want to enforce marital norms at a high level -- state or even federal government -- but I don't know if that does much of anything if the lower-level community isn't doing the same. In fact, I can tell you from my own background that some local communities have rather different norms.

Noah seems to think you can influence these subcultures by changing the law, but I doubt it. I would think that for people who see love and family as a private business, the idea that marrying would mean a pact with the government as well as the spouse would make them less likely to get married in the first place, and more likely to shack up. Indeed, the whole shacking-up trend seems to have started from a feeling that the institution of marriage is a sort of state imperialism upon private life. If the state acts too imperialistic, that might only drive more people away from it.

I suppose you could see this as a good thing for marriage, in that it would mean only the people who agree with the covenant model would do it. But I am assuming (though they don't exactly say so) that the societal interest both these guys are positing in marriage is the proper rearing of children, and in particular the prevention of broken and single-parent homes. And it's true that children from those homes are more likely to be trouble to society, whether through crime or welfare (though the latter is less true since 1996). But of course, if more people are cohabiting instead of marrying, that will mean more single parents, not fewer.

And really, the single-parent problem isn't with the affluent shacker-uppers I would know. The larger mass of single parents out there are poor. And with them it seems that the problem isn't so much divorce as failure to marry in the first place. So again, it's hard to see how changing divorce law would help.

It's not that I don't sympathize with how Noah feels. It's that the divorce-law approach is all stick and no carrot. For a lot of couples the local family-friends-church community isn't really there, or if it is there it's not very helpful. The dispute I personally have with the it's-all-private view of couplehood is that it yields a kind of Darwinian attitude towards love: if things go wrong, that's your problem. Sink or swim. To have the state then come along and say, things went wrong but you still can't split up, is not going to make these relationships any healthier.

So I think it's the change and dissolution of local community, not divorce law, that's pushing family toward the matrilineal model Noah indicated. The state is a blunt instrument, and can't really handle the delicate business of relationships. Without the support for good marriages at the intimate level, I fear the law would only trap people in bad ones.

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

The marrying kind

Noah Millman has another good post about intelligent design, and another making a conservative case for gay marriage. In the latter post, Noah raises an issue that comes up a lot in these discussions: if you allow gay marriage, what's to stop polygamy? Or any weird arrrangement among people who claim to love each other?

Noah has a complicated answer involving child-raising, but I always thought this objection was a bit of a red herring. The reason I think this doesn't matter is that, even if the option were available, so few people would actually do it.

I think conservatives fear polygamy for two reasons: its prevalence in world history, and the propaganda of sexual revolutionaries. As to the latter point, I grew up in basically the heartland of the sexual revolution, and I can tell you, propaganda ain't practice. I do not personally know anyone who's successfully managed to pull off a polyamorous relationship, in the sense of having more than one partner of equal intimacy. The more usual arrangement is a pairing that allows a certain amount of adultery, but even that tends to get riven with jealousies. There are people who claim they can do it, but I just don't think this is a model that's going to conquer the world. For most people, it fights their own emotional nature.

So what about polygamy in world history? I think that's largely the product of two (related) things: patriarchy and pro-natalism. You can see both of these at work in probably the best-known example of a polygamous society, the Hebraic one of the Old Testament. Everyone is clearly obsessed with having as many children as possible. God's promise to Abraham isn't heaven or eternal life, but progeny: "as many as grains of sand on the beach." There was also the dubious business with the handmaids.

This is the norm in a lot of agrarian societies, and it's not hard to see how it would lead to polygamy. With every wife a man adds on, his descendants increase exponentially. This also explains why polygamous societies almost always are really polygamous only for men. Reproductively speaking, women have nothing to gain with multiple husbands, and men have everything to lose.

Without this pressure, monogamy (albeit imperfect monogamy) seems to be the human norm. It's interesting to note that, although polygamy is the rule for agrarian societies, monogamy is the rule for hunter-gatherers. As with those of us in the industrial age, they have no great motive to have a lot of kids (indeed, their nomadic lifestyle means they can't handle too many babies). So as with us moderns, their marriages are based mainly on personal affection.

This doesn't mean that polygamy, if it were allowed here, would never happen. Obviously, some people are doing it already. I just don't think it's any real threat to the monogamous model, so we shouldn't worry about it. For that matter, the same is true of gay marriage. Some conservatives, weirdly, seem to agree with the sexual revolutionaries that enforced Judeo-Christian values are all that keep us from total sexual chaos (or freedom, depending on how you look at it). But I don't think the available evidence supports that.

Noah is correct, I think, that conservatives' real beef with the way marriage is headed is precisely that it has become based largely on personal affection. This would generally push marriage away from polygamy rather than towards it, but it does push it toward things like gay marriage and more frequent divorce. Noah says that the real battle should be with divorce laws, since those have more to do with the actual destruction of marriages than gay marriage ever would. I think that's a more internally consistent position, though I see problems with that too. However, right now I'm getting tired and headachy, so I'll blog about later...
When I look at the world

Rachel Cunliffe is grooving on some U2 lyrics. Yep, that's pretty much the story of my life...

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Name that deviance

Somehow, I've fallen way behind on my New Yorkers. It's not that I meant to, but this great pile of them seems to have materialized overnight. Which is my way of explaining why I'm just now commenting on an article from the Oct. 28 issue, on a Vermont town's battle with skinny-dippers.

Only it's not called skinny-dipping now, apparently; it's "clothing-optional recreational swimming." I note this because it seems that ever since the counterculture brought certain habits into general view, their practitioners have given them the clunkiest, most bureaucratic-sounding names imaginable. What used to be called "open marriage" or "swinging" has turned to "consensual non-monogamy." When I lived in San Francisco, this S&M group turned up at the gay-pride parade who called themselves, as I recall "People for Consensual Power Exchange."

What I also remember about the group was that they, like their name, seemed totally drained of eroticism. They were walking along in leather and chains, with one person (lighly) flagellating another and someone else be led by a leash, but they were smiling and waving like Miss America contestants. The church service I went to on Sunday was sexier than these folks. What this says, I think, is that sooner or later every fun activity is going to be taken over by the committee people.

I expect that America has a lot of people who swim nude, or swing, or do bondage, without being part of any movement or "scene." But every subset of the population has its organizers and club-formers, the sort of people who would be on the PTA or the neighborhood association. And part of this personality type is a yen for numbingly accurate language. In the New Yorker article, a leader of the skinny-dipper faction says, "I don't call myself a nudist, and most people who participate in nude recreation don't call themselves nudists. Although one in four Americans, based on a Roper poll, go skinny-dipping, it's something people like to keep private about themselves. A 'nudist,' by way of Webster's belongs to a cult. And I'd hardly call one in four Americans doing something cult behavior. The proper term is 'naturist,' which I don't mind, but, basically, I despise labelling of any type. I'm simply not clothing-obsessed."

There's a palpable insecurity under this. I doubt most people would think of a nudist as part of a cult, but clearly what's unusual about him and his friends is not that they swim naked but that they do it with each other (and, at this particular lake, sometimes hundreds of people). But clearly he doesn't like being thought of as weird. He seems to be saying, "This is perfectly normal, and if you don't think so, there's something funny about you -- you're clothing-obsessed."

I felt a similar insecurity underlying the People for Consensual Power Exchange, and that was what made them even weirder. It's like they were worried about what Middle America would think of them. It's just a little consenting power exchange between adults -- it's not like we're sickos or anything! I felt like saying, look, there's nothing politically correct about S&M, it's dark and deviant, and that's exactly why you like it. So give it up already.
I must be in a nitpicky mood today...

First I went after Aziz Poonawalla's etymology (see the comments). Then I read Tony Woodlief's essay on Whitakker Chambers, and all I could think was, there are no "Hollywood beach houses," because Hollywood has no beach! The Hollywood Hills are where movie stars live...the beach houses are in Malibu...

I should say, lest anyone get the wrong idea, that I think Aziz's website is really cool. Islam is probably the major world religion I know least about, and he's an invaluable source of smart, learned commentary on it. (Tony's website I've been to less, but it looks interesting. Great design!)

Sunday, November 24, 2002

Under the water

I went back to the Christian Assembly today, sans Telford this time, but the service was of added interest. It was a special Thanksgiving service that included about 20 people getting baptized. I'd never seen a baptism before, even the infant kind.

The CA baptizes by full-body immersion, which didn't surprise me -- the soaking, messy, over-your-head-and-up-your-nose method is pretty much how they do everything. Watching this I remembered a former boyfriend of mine who briefly attended a Church of Christ, but left when he was told his childhood Methodist baptism by sprinkling was not going to save him, and he had to be rebaptized by immersion. I don't blame him for getting annoyed at the idea that his immortal soul depended on such minutiae, but what I observed at the church must definitely be different from the genteel infant drizzling that he probably got. The mood was excited, charged, frankly kind of sexy. The baptizees were practically vibrating with anticipation as they came to the pool; one young man about to get dunked suddenly looked at the congregation and broke into a huge, mischievous grin, as if he were about to get lucky in a big way. ("Hold him under for a while," the pastor advised drily.)

I was maybe thinking along these lines partly because there was communion before the baptism. This was my fifth trip to the CA, and it was the first time they'd done communion. There's something creepily erotic about putting someone's flesh and blood in your mouth, even if only symbolically. I do not say this to imply there's anything smutty about it, but it's just a bit disconcerting to be brought up against the intimacy of Christian practice. When you spend your time interpreting Bible passages or debating the problem of evil it's easy to forget. Heck, I'm sure a lot of Christians take communion without thinking about the full implications. But for me, watching from within but from the outside, the metaphor of the bride and the bridegroom never seemed more vivid.

Saturday, November 23, 2002

My body is opaque to the soul

Those who've been following the on-and-off dialogue between Telford Work and me may have noticed that my last post directed at him did not get answered. This is not because he hasn't wanted to, but because he's been so busy. (I think if I want prompt responses I'll have to wait till he gets tenure!) This week he's at a theology convention in the Great Frozen North, but before he left he told me he was planning to respond along the lines of a chapter by Nancey Murphy in a multivolume theology textbook he uses, and I was welcome to check it out.

I didn't expect to find this thing even in L.A.'s vast library system, and indeed I didn't. But I found another book by Murphy and some collaborators, called Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature. This looks at scientific work related to the mind, such as Darwinism, genetics and neuroscience, and attempts to reconcile it with the Christian view of the soul. I've only started the first chapter, but Murphy sets out the endgame:
The goal of the book is to demonstrate the possibility of an account of human nature that satisfies the demands of these many disciplines -- to show that the portraits sketched from these various disciplinary perspectives may all in fact be of the same "person." Each chapter in its own way points toward a view of the person that we call "non-reductive physicalism." "Physicalism" signals our agreement with the scientists and philosophers who hold it is not necessary to postulate a second metaphysical entity, the soul or mind, to account for human capacities and distinctiveness. "Non-reductive" indicates our rejection of contemporary philosophical views that say the person is "nothing but" a body...So the difficult issue is to explain how we can claim that we are our bodies, yet without denying the "higher" capacities that we think of as being essential for our humanness: rationality, emotion, morality, free will, and, most important, the capacity to be in relationship with God.

This isn't exactly what I asked -- my original argument with Telford was about the origin of evil. But there's enough of an overlap in the subject matter that I think the book could be productive. Minute Particulars has also been exploring this subject here and here, so look out for future posts as I read the book.

I already have one question though. Murphy starts out with a quick review of historic Western thinking about the soul, which is very interesting, but she evidently expects her readers to already know more than I do. So what the frick is the difference between an eternal soul and an immortal soul? This was apparently Augustine's idea, but she never explains what it means.
Mamma mia

Looking over last night's post, I get the feeling it was one of those very long posts that was also too short. I hit on three or four rather large subjects without really explaining them, and I think I was a bit too flippant in places.

My "quick-and-dirty abortion test" was meant to be somewhat facetious -- there are, of course, more reasons than that why someone would have a certain opinion about abortion. But I do think this is one important reason why the two sides tend to talk past each other. I expect that today, after the sexual revolution, problems with men have swung more toward irresponsibility/abandonment than a guy wanting a woman to become a Stepford wife. That's been true in my own experience with men, I have to say. This does not mean that the Stepford-wife fear was all made up, though, which a lot of anti-feminists seem to imply. For women who, as I said, deviate from the mean in certain ways -- being more intelligent, ambitious, aggressive, less nurturant, and so on -- I can imagine life as a suburban housewife must seem pretty deadening.

I should also say that one way that I deviate from the mean is my lack of desire to have children. I was thinking about this after the last time I saw Telford, because as we were talking and walking around the church he was carrying his baby with him. I treated the baby as if he were a backpack, but sometimes people we encountered would stop and dote on him, and I'd think, oh yeah, that's kind of the normal thing to do with a baby.

I don't know if I'm going to feel this way forever. I have never been married nor come very close to getting married, so maybe this is an emotional realm I just haven't been to yet. But one reason the article rubbed me the wrong way was its unspoken assumption that all women, or nearly all of them, want children. A quarter of women in the West will never have them, we're told ominously. But do they want to? And even if they do, how strongly?

I realize there was a book earlier this year alleging that feminism had convinced a lot of women to put off childbearing for careers, only to discover in their 30s that their fertility declined. But there have been some issues with the data, and even apart from that, I wonder how widespread the problem actually is. Only a fairly elite group of women have a "career" as opposed to just working, and in my experience only the hyperambitious really put off childbearing for that long for that reason. The unnamed TV journalist Shanahan cites regrets putting off childbearing for her career; but clearly this is an ambitious woman. If she'd had kids and slowed her career, would she be pining for her lost shot at being an ABC broadcaster?

Maybe if I don't have kids, one day I'll regret it. I don't know. There are a lot of things I could regret about my life later. But I do resent the implication that I or any other childless woman am so weak-minded that feminist brainwashing has overcome my naturally strong desire to reproduce. Real life is more complicated, more varied, than that.
In praise of deviant women

Eve Tushnet links to a story by an Australian Catholic woman who has nine children. She goes into a screed in the middle against feminism and the Pill, and stuffs a paragraph with extraordinary statistics:
After 30 years and more of militant feminism, almost a quarter of women in the West never marry or have children, one in three pregnancies ends in abortion, and there has been an alarming rise in depressive illness and breast cancer. High divorce rates and the sexualisation of society, meanwhile, are having terrible effects on children. Despite the availability of the pill, there are more teenage pregnancies than ever.

Let's take the last claim first, since that one I know is wrong. The idea that teenagers are getting pregnant and having kids more than ever before has to be one of the most persistent myths of our age. I was discussing this on a message board a while ago and found some great CDC links that showed birth data by age going all the way back to 1960, but since then the CDC rearranged their website and seem annoyingly short on historical data. (The best they have now is a record of births, which is all raw numbers and no rates.) But basically what it indicated was that teen births have dropped steadily the whole time. The birth rate isn't the same as the pregnancy rate, and pregnancy data from before 1970 seems unavailable, but the latest American teen pregnancy data shows we are not at an all-time high with that either.

I am speaking of America, of course, and not the whole West. But I am also looking at Francis Fukuyama's The Great Disruption (a very interesting book, even if you don't agree with all of it), which points out that the whole Western world has followed the same pattern in the last 40 years: a dropping birth rate, and rising illegitimacy rate.

Teens have followed this general trend. While the overall teen birth rate has dropped, the unmarried birth rate has almost tripled. As I blogged some time ago, Western society has been extending childhood in the last century, creating the category of "teenager" as someone who's past puberty but not considered capable of taking on adult responsibility. If there seemed to be no teen pregnancy problem before, it was because the idea of 18-year-olds having families didn't seem so scary then.

Some conservatives have gone ahead and boldly promoted teen marriage, but this is not something society as a whole (or conservatives as a whole) are comfortable with. And there's another problem. One age category where fertility has gone up in the last 40 years is for girls under 15. So while I generally agree that a lot of older teens are kept in an artificial childhood for too long, you'd have a hard time explaining why a 13-year-old should get hitched.

All this is not to deny that there's a problem, but I think the reason why the myth persists that teen pregnancy is something new is that people are uncomfortable with the trade-offs societies have traditionally made with teen libidos, especially with regard to girls. Whether marrying them off, keeping them under lock and key, infibulating them or whatever, people's options have never been wonderful.

Anyway, the other statistics Shanahan cites are problematic mostly in the correlation-causation question. I don't know if it's really true that a quarter of all women in the West will never marry or have kids -- certainly that's not true in America, but in some parts of Europe cohabitation has displaced marriage to a large extent (the cohab rate for twentysomethings in Sweden is 44%, according to Fukuyama) and birth rates over there are very low. I don't know on what she bases the rise of "depressive illness," but mental illness stats are heavily swayed by the reporting and diagnosis rate (especially since it can be quite subjective to decide when someone is clinically depressed and when they're just down). The breast-cancer rate I assume she mentions because of the theory that the increase in breast cancer came because having fewer children means having more periods, which increases the risk of cell mutation and thus cancer. Even if that's true, that strikes me as not a very good reason to have a boatload of kids; and as the article I linked to points out, it could be just as well accomplished by being permanently on the Pill without doing the 28-day rotation.

But there's the larger question: did "militant feminism" cause all this? It's interesting to contrast this with Fukuyama's thesis. Fukuyama is also a conservative who takes a rather cautious view of both feminism and the Pill, but he doesn't think they appeared in a vacuum. In his view, there was a larger shift in the modern age that a) reduced the need and the economic incentives for having a lot of kids and b) turned paid labor from mainly physical to mainly mental, thereby removing men's advantage at it. That, combined with the Pill, meant women no longer had their traditional biological restrictions. This implies that while social forces allowed women to do certain things, it never forced them to.

Conservatives like Shanahan, or certain evolutionary psychologists like Robert Wright, can't really understand why women would go along with what should be against their nature, so they tend to assume women have been conned. Shanahan says:
The contraceptive pill was first marketed 30 years ago as a glossy package of fertility control and sexual freedom. But, like a series of boxes one inside the other, women (and not a few men) have begun to find that at the end there is nothing but an empty box. The feminist obsession with ‘career’, not motherhood, as the central element of women’s self-definition made fertility the enemy. Babies can really wreck your career. They consume your life and your heart...

The irony is that, despite the pill being pushed as an instrument for the liberation of women, its greatest beneficiaries are men. If anything encourages an abrogation of responsibility and an unwillingness to form lasting relationships, it’s the pill. But feminists aren’t going to admit that part of the trick. Instead they try to convince women that they can do it alone. Who needs a husband? Buy a turkey-baster, demand ‘the right’ to IVF — or frozen eggs.

Buried in the second sentence of the second paragraph is what to my mind is the key to the whole thing. The underlying assumption behind this and a lot of other writings of this sort is that there is a single conflict between men and women: he wants sex, she wants commitment. There's a lot of truth to that, of course. But it completely glosses over the possibility that women can also want freedom.

I was thinking when I was writing about abortion a while ago that you could probably do a quick-and-dirty test to predict what a woman's view of abortion would be. What do you fear more from a man: that he'll be irresponsible and abandon you, or that he'll control you and take over your life?

Most women fear both, but traditional gender relations tended to thrive on the former, while a great deal of Second Wave feminism was founded on the latter. The abortion debate crystallizes this nicely: the pro-choice side fulminates against invading and controlling women's bodies, while the pro-life side fears enabling sexual irresponsibility.

I think there's another factor that divides feminists from tradtionalists and ev-psych theorists, which is what you might call "deviation from the mean." Arguments based on the essential nature of woman -- whether it's based on Darwin or Eve -- tend to describe a prototype, an average. Yet women all deviate to various degrees. One accidental experience that helped me understand the older women in my family, and why they're feminists, was the 1960 movie Where the Boys Are. That film featured three college friends, each of whom has a "problem" in landing a husband: one's too tall, one's too athletic, and one's too intelligent. Since some women in my clan go 3-for-3 on that score, and most go at least 2-for-3, it's not surprising they hated that era.

The trouble with essentializing women is that it tries to squeeze such deviations into the norm, and that norm is often defined by how women are different from men. So if women naturally have a closer bond with their children than men, children become their only acceptable business. If they are less aggressive, than all aggressive occupations are unfeminine. And so on.

To my mind, feminism was the rebellion of abnormal women. And since I am a woman who is rather outside the mean in several ways, I sympathize. I think this becomes a problem only when you want to make the deviant into the norm, or deny that a norm exists. So that women like Shanahan -- who, historically speaking, is very normal -- start feeling like there's something funny about them.

I think the world's big enough for women who want nine kids and women who want none. Let's just stop trying to figure out who's a "real woman," OK?