Friday, February 28, 2014

Judge finalizes stay in marriage case, Conway "sleepwalking" through case

"Attorney General Jack Conway appears to be sleepwalking through the most important case that has faced him during his term of office," said a spokesman for The Family Foundation after the judge in the Bourke vs. Beshear case finalized a temporary stay order.

In his order, the judge remarked the Conway "has not made a strong argument" for the stay, but the judge issued the order anyway after another meeting which Conway failed to attend.

"The Attorney General has a constitutional obligation to defend the rights of voters in this case," said Martin Cothran spokesman for the group. "Instead he's apparently decided to take a long siesta." Cothran had charged Conway yesterday with "spiking the marriage case." He pointed to another meeting held today at which Conway failed to show up, sending instead underlings who were confused and indecisive.

"Doesn't someone in Conway's office have access to smelling salts? Kentucky citizens deserve more than this."

Ky. gay-marriage ruling a case of judiciary usurping voters' say

My op-ed on the judicial usurpation of voter rights on the marriage issue is in today's Lexington Herald-Leader

NEWS: Where has Jack been?

For Immediate Release
February 27, 2014

LEXINGTON, KY — A spokesman for The Family Foundation today called on Attorney General Jack Conway to explain why today's motion for a stay in the same-sex marriage case was the first time he has signed his name to any motion in the case.

"Why has it taken so long for the Attorney General to put his name to a document in this case? And why is it that the only thing he has signed up until now is a motion for a stay?  So far, the motions have been signed by Conway's underlings," said Cothran. "Everyone in the Attorney General's office had signed motions but the AG himself. "

"Until today, the only people in the Attorney General's office who hadn't signed a motion in the marriage case are the janitor, the office boy, and Jack Conway."

The Family Foundation has criticized Conway for dragging his feet in the case.


Over 200 national news outlets carry comments on the Conway marriage charade

Below is a list of news outlets that carried my comments on Jack Conway's spiking of the marriage case. They include the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Herald, and USA Today. Duplicates appear to be separately filed stories: 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

"We shouldn't have to babysit the Attorney General" on the marriage case


LEXINGTON, KY—"We shouldn't have to babysit the state's Attorney General in order to make sure he does his job," said Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst with The Family Foundation. Cothran had criticized Attorney General Jack Conway for spiking the case defending Kentucky's marriage law after it declined yesterday to file a stay after being asked by a judge.

The stay was filed this morning at the eleventh hour and an hour and seven minutes after Cothran's organization issued the criticism.

"The Attorney General was clearly not intending to do his job. It only did what it was supposed to do after someone shed light on the fact that he was about to take one more action that favored those who are trying to disenfranchise Kentucky voters on the issue of marriage."

"We need an attorney general who is going to fight for the rights of Kentucky voters against judges who are trying to take important issues out of the democratic process, not someone who is helping the other side by dragging his feet.”

Cothran had criticized the Attorney General earlier in the morning for intentionally not putting forward the best case for the law.


NEWS: Group charges AG with legal malpractice in marriage case

For Immediate Release

LEXINGTON, KY—"This is a betrayal of Kentucky voters," said a spokesman for the group that spearheaded the fight for the Marriage Protection Amendment in 2004 of Attorney General Jack Conway's conduct in the defense of the Kentucky law. "The only thing missing is the thirty pieces of silver."

Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst for the group, charged Attorney General Jack Conway with spiking the state's defense of the Marriage Protection Amendment by failing to use arguments that could have made a difference in the judge’s ruling and by not taking actions he could have taken. "Not only was his brief in the Bourne vs. Beshear case badly argued, but yesterday attorneys for the AG and Gov. Steve Beshear didn't even ask for a stay in the judge's ruling despite being asked by the judge point blank if they wanted one."

"If this were a private case, it would be legal malpractice."

Cothran said Conway should either put real effort into defending Kentucky voters or admit that he is complicit in letting the court disenfranchise them on this issue. "The longer the Attorney General drags his feet on this case, the worse it is for Kentucky voters."


The Black-Robed Supremacy: How courts are making the most important decisions for us

The following is the first several paragraphs of an op-ed on the recent federal court ruling on same-sex marriage I submitted to the Louisville Courier-Journal yesterday:

Kentuckians should be greatly comforted by the recent decision by a federal judge overturning part of the state's Marriage Amendment: It relieves us of the uncomfortable burden of governing ourselves.

The decision in last week's case, Bourne v. Beshear, forces Kentucky to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. It did this by overturning the decision of Kentucky voters in 2004 that amended Kentucky's constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman and to ensure that Kentucky does not have its marriage policy dictated by other states.

After being passed by elected lawmakers, the Marriage Amendment was approved by almost 75 percent of Kentuckians—more votes in favor than votes for and against any previous constitutional amendment. But the will of the people is becoming increasingly unpopular with what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has called the "black-robed supremacy": judges who see it as their role, not to interpret the law, but to pronounce it.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Bourne Supremacy: How courts are disenfranchising conservative voters on social issues

Below is the first few paragraphs of an opinion piece I submitted today to the Lexington Herald-Leader on the recent court ruling on Kentucky's Marriage Amendment:

Politics is a messy business. Thankfully, we have the federal courts to deliver us from it.

On Feb. 12, a federal judge struck down a part of Kentucky's Marriage Amendment and in the process partially nullified the votes of 1,222,125 Kentuckians who voted in 2004 in favor of the traditional view of marriage—more than voted for and against any previous amendment on a Kentucky ballot.

In the ruling, Bourne v. Beshear, Justice John Heyburn struck down the part of Kentucky's marriage law that allows Kentucky to determine its own marriage policy by not having to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. The decision is one of an increasing number of court cases that nullify democratically enacted laws and referenda—or, as in this case, constitutional amendments— that had been placed on the ballot and ratified by voters.

The Bourne case, like similar cases which are systematically invalidating marriage laws in other states, forcibly takes marriage policy out of the hands of voters and their elected representatives and places it in the hands of unelected federal judges whose political opinions differ starkly from those of the general public.

In fact, on almost every social issue, from marriage to school prayer to abortion, policy is now being made in the least democratic of our branches of government: the federal courts.


A prominent Kentucky conservative caves on the marriage issue

I've got a question for David Adams.

Conservatives who get marriage wrong are, insofar as they do so, no more conservative than is a conservative who supports socialism. Traditional marriage has been the lynchpin of conservative social policy every bit as much as property rights and a free economy are the lynchpin of conservative economic policy.

What would we say to a so-called conservative who whole-heartedly supported Obama's economic policies? We would want to know on what grounds he can do so and still call himself a conservative.

Are the conservatives we now see running with their tails between their legs on the marriage issue to be trusted even on economic policy? What happens when the polls start going against conservatives on, say property rights? Will they bail on that issue too?

I have said it before: Marriage is such a central conservative issue that any conservative who caves on it cannot be trusted on any other issue.

After the Bourne v. Beshear decision striking down a part of Kentucky's Marriage Amendment, David Adams took to the blogosphere (and apparently the radio) to support Justice John Heyburn's decision to disenfranchise the over 1 million Kentucky voters who ratified Kentucky's Marriage Amendment in 2004 that defined marriage as between one man and one woman and allowed Kentucky to determine its own marriage policy by not recognizing marriages that didn't meet this definition performed in other states.

Adams, who has made a name in the state championing economic conservatism, gave up all critical judgment and accepted at face value Heyburn's tortured interpretation of the Constitution the judge employed in striking down the state's ability to refuse recognition to same-sex marriages performed in other states.
U.S. District Judge John Heyburn said that for Kentucky to refuse to recognize same sex marriages performed elsewhere violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. And it does. The 14th amendment forbids states from denying any person equal protection under its laws. 
But the whole question is whether defining marriage the way it has been defined throughout history constitutes a violation of equal protection. If the definition of marriage is between a man and a woman, as the testimony of history (and the majority who voted for the Marriage Amendment) would indicate, then same-sex couples are excluded, not by discrimination, but by definition. Homosexuals who want to marry are no more discriminated against by laws that employ a traditional definition of marriage than fathers are discriminated against by not being allowed to classify themselves as mothers, or brothers as sisters, or Whites as Blacks.

We have all kinds of definitions in the law and they all exclude someone from inclusion in some category. Are we going to find all of those laws in violation of the Constitution?

And, of course, if the logic of this decision is followed through on, then we will have to strick down laws against polygamy and incest. Is David Adams for that too?

He says, "Treating people unequally under the law also violates Section 2 of the Kentucky Constitution."


Adams is apparently not aware that that interpretation is based on a whole slough of judicial doctrines the legitimacy of which is doubtful.

"Supporting traditional marriage is still a right," he says, "it's just not something we can resolve with the force of law."

What does David think a legal decision is? A legal decision is nothing if not the exercise of the force of law. Oh, but that's a definition, isn't it? And we apparently don't like those. The question is not whether anyone can define marriage by the force of law, but who is going to do the defining: An unelected judge, or the people of a state?

Decisions like this basically take marriage policy out of the hands of voters and concentrates it in the hands of the least democratic branch of government: the judiciary. To support this exercise of judicial legerdemain is quite a position for someone to take who argues just the opposite on other issues.

I have one question for David Adams: We know what judge Heyburn's interpretation of Section 2 of the Constitution is: that it means that excluding same-sex marriage from the definition of marriage constitutes unequal treatment. What does he think would have been the interpretation of Section 2 by the people who actually wrote the Constitution?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Piers Morgan was not fired because of his accent

It's the attitude, stupid.

After making the incompetent decision to hire Piers Morgan in the first place, CNN has now found a way to blame Americans for the demise of his show. The narrative constructed to explain the Piers Morgan firing really takes the biscuit. The problem, they say, is that he was British and, for that reason, was just not the American viewer's cup of tea. This allows CNN to blame Americans for the network's lousy decision by implicitly accusing them of xenophobia.

He thought football was soccer. He had an accent. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Uh, sorry. No. Not blooming likely.

Seth Mandel has the cracking best comments on this when he points out that the problem with Piers Morgan was not the accent nor was it the confusion between the gridiron and the pitch. The problem was that Morgan was both ill-informed and arrogant:
In reality, the problem with Piers Morgan was twofold: first, he opined on complicated issues without the slightest–and I mean the slightest–understanding of them, and second, he mostly called his guests names when they endeavored to explain those subjects to him.
And despite the fact that he got his ears boxed time after time on the gun control issue, displaying his ignorance and getting called on it, he blithely did it again and again. And every time he got schooled, he just rolled out more epithets.

And then, of course, we got treated to every species of Dada sexuality, night after night. We could tune in and watch a transgender person one night, and Boy George, whom Morgan called a "great singer," the next.


As a tribute to Piers, we hereby link to several posts, the first in which we live blog Piers' coverage of Whitney Houston's funeral. He does his bleeding best to figure out this whole God thing, which the Black people in the funeral want to talk about, but the White people don't.

Secondly, we have my article on why we should ban guns. From liberals, that is.

Finally, we have Piers' discussion with a "transgender" person named Janet Mock who is upset at Piers for saying that she was "born a man" despite the fact that she had herself authored an article, written in the first person, titled, "I was born a boy."

Finally, I link to the NFL's website, where Piers can find out what football really is.


Please ignore that asteroid that passed by the earth last week in another cosmologically close encounter. Keep your mind focused on the real threat: Global Warming. It will relieve the anxiety the might result from thinking about large space rocks that could destroy the earth.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

P.Z. Myers' Corrections Keep Rolling In

P.Z. Myers has corrected just about everything in his recent response except for his coprophagia. However, there are still two glaring errors left to fix.

1. P.Z. Myers claims that I am an intelligent design apologist. I am not. In fact I have written refutations of ID theory that date back to my college days. For example, in 2008 I wrote:
“ID theorists are guilty of procedural errors, and the scientific community has already focused on the specific scientific errors…. ID as an intellectual movement has its essence in ontological ambiguity and methodological error.”
2. P.Z. Myers thinks that Jerry Coyne did not make conclusions about David B. Hart's arguments in his book The Experience of God. Instead, Myers says, he made conclusions merely about reviewers of the book, which he had read, rather than Hart, who he had not read.

This too can be disproved by simple quotations. Here's Jerry Coyne, making conclusions about Hart's arguments:
  • "Hart’s god, therefore, is immune to refutation."
  • "Hart’s argument fails in the only way it can be tested."
  • "Hart’s arguments are simply made-up stuff, and even though he’s smart and uses big words, there is no more evidence for his God than there is for the anthropomorphic Gods of Alvin Plantinga, Pat Robertson, and Rick Warren."
  • "People like Hart, despite their intelligence, have no more handle on the nature of God than do Joe and Sally in the street."
But, on second thought, perhaps its best that P.Z. Myers not correct these mistakes. If he did, the only thing left would be his portrayal of his own coprophagia. Better factual errors, perhaps, than his revolting portrayal of his dietary adventures.

My atheists are better than your atheists

One of the best moments I have had in a while was to wake up this morning to a post by several of the atheists who frequent my blog and who harass me on a regular basis.

Last night I spent some time in the comments section at P.Z. Myers' blog, after a post pronouncing a malediction on me and all my works, dealing with people whose idea of intelligent conversation consists primarily of the hurling of epithets and insults.

If you've ever been to Myers' blog and read the comments there, you'll know what I mean. The average post is written by some anonymous person who responds to anything you say they disagree with by calling you names, telling you you are an imbecile, and questioning your worth as a human being. If you spend any amount of time there you just get depressed. It's literally impossible to have an intelligent conversation. You feel almost soiled by the whole thing.

So after getting my fill of that and going to bed last night, I wake up this morning to Singring, a German scientist, bashing me about claiming that I do not support Intelligent Design and offering reasons why a person would conclude that I did. He's wrong of course (he usually is, God bless him), but the important thing is that he offered evidence for his position and gave a reason why he thought I was wrong. He does this all the time and he does it pretty darn well.

And then Art, a UK scientist and another detractor, posted, using a word whose use I had condemned just last week, to describe me, employing actual wit (something completely absent at Myers blog) at my expense.

There were a couple others.

As soon as I finished reading these comments, I stood up from the chair I was sitting in and raised my hands in the air and shouted, "Yes!!!" I danced around my living room. I opened the back door and ran out onto the grassy hill in my back yard that is surrounded by Austrian hills, opened my arms and spun around singing, "The Hills are Alive ..." I found some old firecrackers and set them off.

It makes me proud of the atheists on my blog. And saying this gives me extra added pleasure, knowing that my saying it will really bug the heck out of them, and will rile them up for even more invective--invective that actually has some thought behind it.

Life is good.

Monday, February 17, 2014

I deserve better insults than the ones coming from P.Z. Myers

So I respond to atheist scientist P.Z. Myers, who, on his blog got just about everything wrong about an article that my son Thomas wrote on this blog, including who actually wrote it. And after writing it, I am waiting expectantly for Myers to respond to me with some clever insult.

He likes insults: They're so much easier than arguments.

But you know, I'm down with a good insult. Even one at my expense. Insults are one good opportunity to prove your cleverness. I can appreciate a good insult like the next guy and I have been known to laugh uproariously at a well-fashioned insult hurled in my direction.

So I'm watching the comments section of Myers' post (which, by the way, has less need for a moderator than for a babysitter) and, oooh, here it comes: "He’s a creationist," says Myers in the comment section of his blog, "a right-wing nutcase, and proponent of patriarchal organizations who is so ashamed of who he is that he constantly denies it."

What? This is it? This is all I get? I haven't been insulted like that since the third grade.  I deserve better insults than this. No, take that back: I demand it. This insult is, to use an expression of a friend of mine, as "weak as puppy pee."

Is it too much to ask for, I don't know, some wit or something? Did Myers even put any effort into this? Is this really the best he can do? If we can't have wit, could we at least have smidgen of cleverness? Something?

If Myers can't give me anything better than this, I'm filing another complaint with the Bureau for Better Atheists, a group that monitors atheist quality and tries to maintain some semblance of rational and rhetorical integrity among the Unbelievers.

And let me tell you, that's not an easy job.

See the problem is this: Something appears to have gone wrong in the genetic atheist code from about the 1920s to now. I haven't quite figured it out yet, but something has happened to degrade the rhetorical abilities of atheist populations to the point that, if this degradation continues, atheists will shortly be capable only of monosyllabic grunts, groans and other audible but incoherent expressions.

In fact, if Myers' combox is any indication, we may already be there.

All I know is that the atheists of yore were far more developed in their rhetorical capabilities than their contemporary colleagues. How else to explain the fact that Meyers and Jerry Coyne and Laurence Krauss aren't even remotely in the same class as atheists like H. L. Mencken and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Just go back and read few lines of the old atheists and you'll get the sensation, going from the old to the New, of having fallen off an intellectual and rhetorical cliff.

Seriously, guys. You can do better than this. And I'm willing to help.

I propose remedial insult training: A clinic in contumely, a boot camp for barbs. Just think of it: Instead of simply employing bad manners or relying on primitive impudence or using expressions that the lack of having a mother who washed your mouth out with soap somehow made habitual, you could learn the art of the tactical wry comment and the subtle disparaging remark that your opponent will realize only later have cut him to pieces—longer, perhaps, if you use them on another atheist, who may never figure it out.

Seriously. You need to put down the blunt instruments and learn how to use something a little more sophisticated.

Get on the stick here.

P.Z. Myers, Coprophagist

A blogger named P.Z. Myers has responded to my article on Jerry Coyne. He begins by getting the author wrong, and things don't get better from there.

According to Myers, I was wrong to say that Coyne had criticized David B. Hart's arguments in The Experience of God—which Coyne admitted he had not read. Instead, Coyne was responding to "the ideas that other fans of Hart have promoted."

Myers must be a devotee of the coynian method (that is, the method of criticism by which one imagines what another has written instead of reading it). Had he actually read Coyne, he would have discovered that Coyne explicitly stated that Hart's argument for God is "immune to refutation" and therefore that "Hart's argument fails."

PZ Myers then recounts a series of coprophagic fantasies. Really. I do not share Myers' tastes, and I will leave it to the hardy reader to decide whether to read the more odious portions of Myers' post. (This certainly does not help the fact that Myers' blog seems to already have a reputation as a sewer.)

I have to add, again, that I am not trying to tar the whole atheist tradition with whatever one might find stowed away in the back of one of Myers' drawers. Myers would be just as lost in the works of sophisticated atheists (say, Gilles Deleuze or J.L. Mackie) than he is in the works of philosophical theology. As a taxonomic matter, one should not regard Coyne and Myers as belonging to the same species as Nietzsche or Feuerbach, but as distant and much less evolved second cousins.

Myers' is not a household name like Dawkins or Hitchens, and I have to admit the name sounded only faintly familiar to me. But, as it happens, I had apparently written a post previously on Myers inability to understand Hart and the philosophical issues at stake in the God debate:
This much, at least, can be reasonably inferred from his recent post on Pharyngula, a response to David Hart's new essay in First Things. Despite Myers' claim that he attacks all arguments for the existence of God, he frankly admits that he does not comprehend the terms employed in the cosmological proof for God's existence: "composite", "contingent", "finite", "temporal", "absolute plenitude of being", and so on. 
These terms are, of course, slightly technical; but they are the basic vocabulary used in metaphysics in general, and the cosmological argument in particular. Hart is prone to unusual verbiage, but this is simply not the case here. Anyone who is even slightly familiar with the cosmological argument from the original texts knows these basic terms. 
"Composite" just means a thing composed of matter and form; two elementary concepts from Aristotle's metaphysics. "Contingent" is simply a being that might exist or might not, but doesn't exist necessarily. "Finite" simply signifies that a thing is circumscribed within limits. "Temporal" signifies that a thing is subject to change over time. "Absolute plenitude of being" is simply a reference to God as pure actuality in Book VIII of Aristotle's Physics. This is Philosophy 101 level material. 
P. Z. Myers' bafflement indicates that he has not made the slightest effort to familiarize himself with the cosmological arguments as it appears in the primary texts or, for that matter, anywhere. Even Richard Dawkins would have made the effort to scurry on over to, so that he could at least find the (incorrect) stock response. Myers didn't even bother to do a quick Google search. 
I won't say the cosmological argument is easy; it certainly can be formulated in many ways, and implicates the deepest questions of ontology (as I've written about before here). In fact, my only complaint about Hart's piece is that he doesn't make the cosmological argument, he just describes it in an oversimplified way. It's a bit as though P. Z. Myers explains to someone that evolution is a biological process whereby fitter animals survive, speciation occurs, and the animal kingdom gets more complex over time, on which his interlocutor would express dismay that anyone could possibly understand the concepts "fitness", "speciation", or biological complexity. Myers would no doubt end the conversation there, and instruct his interlocutor to at least get the basic ideas down so that the subject may be intelligently discussed. 
The same thing is going on in Myers post. He doesn't understand the most basic of the philosophic issues involved, and he cannot expect competent philosophers or theologians to take him seriously. Why should they? They can't read the Physics for him; he must do that for himself. 
What would Myers think of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason? Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit? Heidegger's Being and Time? If he can't get the concept of actuality straight, I can only imagine what he would think of transcendental idealism or an immanentalist ontology. Or what he would think of David Hart's academic philosophical writings (which are actually difficult). 
In the end, Myers just proves Hart's point. Unlike the great atheists of yesterday, the neo-atheists don't have the faintest clue about the very arguments they claim to reject. Myers has the courtesy not to pretend that he does. For his honesty, I suppose, we should be grateful.

In which New Atheist P.Z. Myers criticizes me for an article I didn't even write

And it just goes downhill from there.

Well, after having just gotten finished correcting New Atheist P.Z. Myers for his last set of mistakes in responding to one of my posts, here we are again to do the same thing. I wouldn't mind correcting Myers so often if I didn't not have to correct the very same mistakes over and over.

And over.

Can't the atheists come up with someone who can at least get his facts straight? Do they have no quality control at all? Where is the Bureau for Better Atheists?

Today Myers once again repeats the same mistake he's made, what? At least twice already? He's got it in his teeny little scientific brain that I am a creationist. An "Intelligent Design creationism." And he is undaunted in his belief that I am an "Intelligent Design creationist" by the fact that I am neither a) a creationist nor b) an advocate of Intelligent Design.

I have never advocated either of these things.

In fact, we had a back and forth a couple of years ago about the fact that I take no position on how life developed. He was upset because I had said that I don't take a position on scientific issues because I have no expertise in science. It would be like a New Atheists taking a position on philosophical issues despite having no philosophical expertise, which they do all the time and look pretty silly doing.

What particularly upset him was my unwillingness to accept on mere authority everything said by people in white coats just because they said it.

So now he accuses me for taking a position on an issue he previously criticized me for not taking a position on. If you're going to be a "New" Atheist, you ought to at least be an improvement over the old ones. Unfortunately, we have here proof that they just don't make atheists the way they used to.

Myers, who is unwilling to accept on mere authority anything said by people in cassocks just because they said it (and criticizes anyone who does) thought it the height of wisdom to take positions on issues about which you are singularly uninformed and in which you aren't terribly interested.

Not only did Myers get his facts wrong about what I believe about such things, he criticized me for what I said in an article I didn't even write. The article he criticized was written, not by me, but by my son Thomas, a fact Myers would have known had he, I don't know, read the byline.

If survival of the fittest operates in the world of atheists, I'm afraid we may not have Myers around much longer.

But now that we're on the subject, I did find it amusing that in his attack on what I didn't say about Jerry Coyne in the article I did not write about him, Myers defends Coyne for criticizing a book he did not read. You gotta admire these New Atheists: When it come to low intellectual standards they stick together.

In fact, I take back what I just said about P.Z. Myers not being fit to survive. I may have just discovered the atheist mechanism for surviving despite their inability to carefully read and understand their opponents positions: They form a tight defensive ring when threatened by the truth.

Myers proceeds to criticize the arguments I didn't make in the article I didn't write by creating some imaginary fictional dialogue between him and me that goes on and on about various other arguments that have little or nothing to do with Thomas' article.

In addition to being incoherent, it isn't even very imaginative. If I were him, I wouldn't quite my day job for this reason. He should quit his day job (being a not very convincing atheist) for entirely different reasons.

I just noticed that Myers blogs at Freethoughtsblog. I guess you get what you pay for.

Shirley Temple: A life that deserves to be remembered

It is a measure of how short our cultural memory has become that the death of Shirley Temple went by with so little remark. I'm trying to remember when the death of a movie star who was as popular as she was in her heyday attracted so little public attention.

I heard in a radio interview a couple of years ago of a famous disc jockey who said that the normal span of popularity of a hip hop song was about a week. After that, he said, it was largely forgotten. It made me think of the fact that the Beatles "Hey Jude" spent 9 weeks as the number one song in 1968 and many more weeks than that on the charts. Of course, that wasn't normal, but it was not uncommon twenty or thirty years ago for songs to be popular for months.

Maybe this is a cultural anomaly, but I suspect it's not.

This extreme form of presentism seems more and more to characterize our culture. Not only the past, but even the future is a victim. Douglas Rushkoff calls it the "New Now" in a book subtitled, "When everything happens now."

What will future generations have nostalgia for if they can remember no past?

Many people who are immersed in the culture of today, where popularity waxes and wanes on a weekly or sometimes daily cycle, have a hard time understanding the longevity of older movie stars and musicians. They don't comprehend that before the digital revolution there were cultural trends that lasted, not weeks, not months, but even decades.

People of my generation had—and still have—longer cultural memories, and when we hear news like that of Shirley Temple having died, we get all nostalgic and start thinking about how the culture that our generation valued and the movie stars that we thought were so good and the musicians that we thought were worth listening to and literature that was so important to us is ignored and that pretty soon it will forgotten altogether because it won't be too many years now and all of us will have died and no one will remember us and our culture at all.

Have a nice day.

But back to Shirley Temple. She was probably the greatest child star, not only of her generation, but of any generation. She was not just popular, she was phenomenally, outrageously popular. No one hadn't heard of her. Of course, her popularity was at its height in the 1930s. But as someone growing up in the 1960s as I did she was still—despite the fact that she gave up acting early in her life—familiar to everyone and her movies were still frequently aired on television (which, those of us with cultural memories know, was the only way one could see old movies).

Shirley Temple was, of course, almost unbearably cute. But she perpetrated her cuteness on a nation at a time when it was okay to be cute—and innocent. We have forgotten that there was a time when simple innocence was not considered abnormal. It was taken for granted that innocence was a desirable thing. There was a time when people actually thought well of good people and wanted to be like them and our culture didn't conspire to undermine these sentiments.

Today such a person would be lampooned into oblivion on the Daily Show or the Colbert Report. "Animal Crackers in my Soup" would be turned into a striptease act on Saturday Night Live so we could all laugh at the naiveté of anyone who could perform such a routine with a straight face.

Our present culture just can't tolerate what appears to be pure, unadulterated goodness. Our literature (where books are still read) and our cinema invite us to tear down our heroes. We are taught by our culture to suspect anything that appears to be good, and so we are conditioned to look behind the veil of innocence that we know must hide an ugly reality underneath.

This is why modern storytellers have such trouble portraying a good character. I read somewhere that contemporary Disney animators had a much harder time making good characters more attractive than bad ones. This is not an entirely new problem, of course. Milton was criticized for the fact that, in Paradise Lost, his Satan was more compelling than any of the good characters. But the criticism Milton endured was precisely because this was the exception, not the rule.

It is now the rule.

We now think that we are not looking reality in the face if we think that goodness should be more attractive than ugliness. Evil and ugliness are somehow more real than goodness and beauty and not to comprehend this is seen as hopelessly naive. If you appreciate a simple story where the good guys win and the bad guys lose you must be some kind of rube just fallen off the turnip truck.

We now wander a cultural wasteland having to settle for television dramas like "Breaking Bad" or "Mad Men" or "The Sopranos" in which, compelling as they are in their own right, the good, when it is seen at all, is only seen apophatically: that is, through its opposite. We are becoming the moral equivalent of cave fish, with our moral vision still there, except it's not functional. We now spend so much time in the cultural dark that we have no tolerance of the light.

We are fast producing a generation in which cynicism and irony are the only recognizable modes of cultural cognition.

Of course none of Shirley Temple's movies are going to be mistaken for great cinema. But her early films were made during the Depression, when people who faced day-to-day hardships that we today could not even comprehend would go to movies to see something that would relieve their wretchedness, if only for an hour or two. And watching a wholesome, perky little girl sing and dance was like water from a cold well on a sweltering summer day.

They did it in droves.

They led lives of impossible poverty—and hungered for just a little goodness and innocence to lighten up a dark time. We lead lives of historically unheard of luxury and comfort--and watch cynical dramas that examine and sometimes exalt the underbelly of society.

There was a time when men were strong enough not to be repelled by innocence.

And there is an irony to our modern ironic nature that comes into play with cultural figures like Shirley Temple and it's this: That the goodness and innocence that we automatically want to see behind was actually genuine. Temple, as it turns out, not only portrayed a good and innocent little girl on the screen, but actually was one. And this person who was good and innocent as a child star grew up to be a good person in real life.

We find such a thing hard to believe in a time when our entertainment industry is dominated by the toxic likes Lindsay Lohan and Miley Cyrus, but it's true.

I am reminded of the story Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt, about a young girl, Winnie Foster, who, discontented with her family, slips away from home one day in the late 19th century, and in a wood close by her house meets a young boy at a little pool of water at the foot of a giant elm. He looks young, but he is actually 104 years old. He has been drinking from the pool which contains water that will keep him young forever. Not only him, but his whole family, who take her away with them.

Winnie and the seemingly young boy fall in love, and he asks her to wait until she is 17 and drink the water too so they can be together—and seventeen, forever. Through circumstances, she is taken back home. But when he and his family, eternally young, return to her town years later to find her, they discover she has led a normal, happy life. They visit the cemetery and find a gravestone, carved with the words, "In Loving Memory, Winifred Foster Jackson, Dear Wife, Dear Mother, 1870-1948."

She was a good person who lived a good life, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Shirley Temple was almost trapped in her own way by her massive stardom as a child. But she couldn't remain young forever. She left Hollywood at the age of 21. She married (at the age of 17), but the marriage ultimately failed. Later, she married Charles Alden Black in a marriage that lasted 54 years. She became a businesswoman and a diplomat known to a later generation as Shirley Temple Black. She had children by both marriages, and ultimately grandchildren and great grandchildren.

She was a good person who lived a good life, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Her life deserves remembering—all of it, not just its beginning, even by those of us today who worship at the fountain of youth.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Giant sinkhole that swallowed eight Corvettes a Godsend

By now everyone has heard that a giant sinkhole opened up under the Skydome building at the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, swallowing eight classic Corvettes.

Now if the Corvette Museum is like a lot of similar attractions, it has a hard time attracting visitors. So here's my idea of how to make lemonade out of lemons.

Think about this. Eight classic Corvettes is a nice thing to see. But you've probably already seen all eight of these cars some time in your life. But eight classic Corvettes swallowed by a sinkhole? When was the last time you saw that?

I would call it, "Gulp: The Corvette Exhibit that Shook the Earth."

I have never bothered to go to the Corvette Museum, even though it is less than a two hour drive. But I would go to that exhibit.

If the Museum operators have the slightest marketing imagination, then once it has been determined that the Skydome structure is safe for visitors, they should not take the Corvettes out of the hole. Leave them there. Open up the exhibit as is, and announce that people can now see eight classic Corvettes swallowed by a giant sinkhole.

Just watch the crowds come.

Just for the record, there is no need, Corvette Museum officials out there, to thank me for this idea. Don't even think about sending me, oh, say, six free museum admissions for my family.


The reaction to Ellen Paige's announcement that she is gay

Actress Ellen Paige announced yesterday to a crowded Las Vegas conference hall that she was gay. Paige said she had "suffered for years, because I was scared to be out."

Of course, she had good reason to be scared, given the reaction of the Las Vegas crowd. Her announcement was greeted with insults and derisive catcalls from the crowd. Several members of the audience were taken out of the room by security police after they threw things onto the stage.

This is just one more incident that demonstrates the widespread homophobia in this country and the need for laws that protect gays from ...

... Wait a minute. Hang on. Now that I have read this story more carefully, I guess I need to clarify a few things.

As it turns out, Paige's announcement was loudly cheered by the crowd and that media reports were universally and lavishly glowing and that if there was anything thrown on stage, it would have been flowers. It also turns out that this happens virtually any time anyone announces he or she is gay anytime, anywhere, without exception and that if people aren't particularly excited about someone's announcement that he or she is gay they politely keep it to themselves and don't bother anyone and that negative public reactions to such news are virtually nonexistent.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Are humans really different than animals?

In the light of new research into human intelligence, some animals have concluded that there simply is no profound difference between animals and humans. According to several recent books by prominent animals, no significant difference can be found in animal research (that is, we assume, research conducted by animals) that would justify the commonly-held believe that humans are somehow different.

“There is nothing special about being human," says Henry Gee (of a species unspecified) in The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution, "any more than there is anything special about being a guinea pig or a geranium ... humans are just one twig in the thicket, and they could easily have never sprouted at all."

The insensitive remarks about guinea pigs and geraniums is in part due no doubt to the fact that none of the books were written by guinea pigs or geraniums, which is understandable: Geraniums have been having a hard winter and the guinea pig community has never been very sympathetic toward scientific research (for obvious reasons).

According to Mark Bekoff, author of Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship and Conservation, humans are different from animals only to the extent that we are "the only animals who cook food, and no other species is as destructive of its own and other species."

Whatever species of animal Bekoff may happen to be, he clearly seems to have a chip on his shoulder (possibly some past run-ins with humans that went wrong), as does Gee. In fact, humans don't seem to fare too well at all in these books.

"Like Gee," says reviewer Stephen Cave, "Bekoff supports his case with examples of altruistic rats, toolmaking crows and evidence of the emotional lives of bees. Towards the end, there is even an account of what appears to be animal spirituality: one group of chimpanzees have been recorded participating in a “waterfall dance”, during which they would stand upright at the water’s edge, swaying rhythmically from foot to foot and stamping for up to 15 minutes.

According to recent research ... Uh, hang on a second.

Let me check these books again. Hmmm. Well, shoot. Actually the books are written by human, not animal scientists. In fact, there are no animal scientists. As it turns out animals don't conduct research or do science or even write books. They don't read them either. In fact, they are not even capable of asking the question of whether they are different from humans.

Only humans do these things, a fact so obvious that even a geranium could have figured it out.

If I couldn't do all these things, I too would be swaying rhythmically and stamping my feet in sheer frustration.

You'd have to be as dumb as a rock to think that humans really are no different from animals. Come to think of it, since we're no less the products of nature than rocks, why should we be any different from them either?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The 2014 Gay Olympics, or A Reporter Goes in a Russian Gay Bar ...

And you thought the Olympics was about athletic competition.

As we all know, the Sochi Winter Olympics, which feature competition in figure skating freestyle skiing, ice hockey, luge, speed skating, ski jumping, snowboarding, bobsledding, short track speed skating, and speed skiing is primarily about ...

... Gay rights.

In fact, everything is now about gay rights. Education is about gay rights. International relations, says Hillary Clinton, is about gay rights. Football too, I just found out, is about gay rights.

It is all gay rights all the time.

In fact, there has been so much press interest in the plight of gays in Russia—and so little to actually report on—that reporters are now reporting on each other reporting on it.

What started it all out was that the international media was outraged that Russia had passed a law that prohibited gay propaganda directed at children. As we all know, access to gay propaganda by children is a basic human right. I think it is in a United Nations' declaration somewhere.

And this must all mean that gays are being beaten and killed in Russia. It logically follows. Trust me.

So, as a result, multitudes of international reporters show up is Sochi looking for gays who have been mistreated. People with gun shot wounds, bruises, or other disfigurements are to be chased down and interviewed, likely having been the victims of anti-gay violence.

But the only thing journalists can find is Olympic athletes who are clutching their throats and gasping because of the bad water in their hotel rooms. But after determining that they are only heterosexuals, the reporters leave them writhing on the ground to continue their search for persecuted gays.

They discover that Sochi has one gay bar, called "Mayak." So they go there, knowing that here there will be gays willing to talk about how persecuted they are. But when they get there, they find out that all the gays have fled and the only people at the bar are other reporters looking for gays who might be willing to talk about how persecuted they are.
“We’ve given over 200 interviews in the last month,” says Mayak owner Andrey Tanichev. Every country has sent its correspondents, he says, “except the Spanish, God bless them.” The Americans have sent the most reporters, but the BBC has set a record: they came by four times. 
As it turns out, most of the gays have fled the bar because they heard that reporters were descending on the bar to interview them about how persecuted they are and they don't want to talk to reporters about how persecuted they are. Largely because they are not being persecuted. And also because they don't want to talk on camera because the whole reason they come to this bar is because its private and other people won't find out about it.

They figure its safer to go somewhere else even if they are killed by the drinking water.

"The bar owner," a Danish journalist told a New Republic reporter, "was busy giving interviews in a private room. “We called last week to schedule an interview and we got 15 minutes between the Finns and the Swiss.”

In fact, they consider all these journalists with their note pads and cameras to be a positive nuisance and the closest thing they have experienced to persecution since the last time the bar was raided by the Soviet Secret Police.

Which is a long time because the bar has never been raided by the Soviet Secret Police.

When the New Republic reporter asks the cashier how many foreign journalists have come through here, she answers, “Questions, cameras. And always with the same questions.” Are they being persecuted or beaten? she is asked. “I always tell them that we observe all the laws. No one bothers us and we don’t bother anyone.”

Well, no one used to bother them, anyway.

Jerry Coyne: The Lowest Hanging Fruit

Probably everyone has at one time or another been embarrassed by incompetent allies. In the debates over religion, Christians have too often suffered from well-meaning but ultimately uninformed apologetic efforts. However, as atheism has increasingly left the confines of the cultured elite, it too has increasingly been vulgarized and adulterated.

Jerry Coyne is emblematic of this trend. Those who appreciate the august tradition of atheism, which once counted Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and Gilles Deleuze as members, are understandably hesitant to include under the same banner Jerry Coyne's intellectually destitute writings. Even among the recent noisome crop of neo-atheists, Jerry Coyne stands out.

With Coyne, one sees the shallowest form of unbelief: his is an atheism without profundity, made up of second hand slogans rather than sustained reflection. He not only misunderstands theism; his understanding of atheism is without subtlety or accuracy. His arguments, such as they are, depend on premises that are both conceptually incoherent and historically ludicrous.

Consider Coyne's recent article, "The 'Best Arguments for God's Existence' Are Actually Terrible," which appeared in the New Republic. The article takes the form of a refutation of the arguments in David Bentley Hart's new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. Coyne admits that he has not actually read the book, but nevertheless concludes its arguments are unsound. He claims that Hart's conception of God is "immune to refutation," and therefore that "Hart's argument fails ...."

This I designate the "Coynian method": the rejection of an argument without first reading it, but with the promise to read it in the future.

I am not, of course, an adherent of the Coynian method, having read his article prior to critiquing it. One can, however, see how Coyne would want to avoid reading what he criticizes, since his own argument is certainly stronger if left entirely to the imagination, and most who have read it would prefer, in retrospect, to have put off reading it indefinitely.

What seems to annoy Coyne the most is the notion that if one is to reject theism, one should deal with the best arguments in its favor. This is an application of the principle that to disprove a position, one must deal with the strongest arguments in its favor.

Sophisticated theologians, according to Coyne, have produced a series of arguments for God's existence: first the argument from design, then the ontological argument, and now the notion of God as the "ground of being." When one argument is disproven, theologians retreat to the next. Hart's understanding of God as the absolute source of being is the current safe preserve for believers and, Coyne things a recently invented academic sophistry.

Anyone remotely familiar with the history of ideas will recognize Coyne's almost total ignorance of both the history and content of theistic arguments. The argument from design is hardly the earliest argument for belief in God. In fact, Paleyesque arguments are quite modern, relying as they do on modern mechanistic notions of nature. The idea of God as the source and end of being, on the other hand, stretches back to the very origins of rational thought: Plato is the most obvious example. Coyne is so ignorant of the history of rational reflection that he manages to get it logically and chronologically backwards.

Coyne does not conceal his nescience behind a screen of vagaries. This much can be said in his favor: Coyne gets things wrong with great specificity. For example, he claims that the idea of "God [as] the condition of possibility of anything existing at all" is not held by "Aquinas, Luther, [or] Augustine." Nor does Coyne think he can explain this idea to his friends. This, at least, is beyond dispute.

How could Coyne have arrived at this conclusion? Had Coyne actually read any of the three (in any of the arduous years he dubiously claims to have devoted to the subject of theology), he would have discovered that all three considered God to be the transcendent ground of finite being. The Coynian methodology—refute first, (maybe) read later—has led Coyne to obviously false conclusions once again.

The virtue of Coyne's forthrightness is that it can be falsified easily. Augustine maintained that God is being itself,1 "the absolute fullness of being and thus the sole primeval source of all being ...."2 Luther's notion of God's otherness strongly distinguished divine from finite existence.3 As for Aquinas, one of the most famous aspects of his theology is his notion of God as ipsum esse subsistens (subsistent being itself), which, as Thomas Guarano puts it, means that "God is beyond being, for God is always supra ens, beyond common being."4

Coyne could not have been more precisely wrong. The notion of God as the source of being is not a modern phenomenon, but the traditional theistic notion of God. As Robert Barron quite accurately summarizes it:
"Our greatest theologians, from Origen, through Augustine and Aquinas, to Rahner and Tillich in this century, have maintained that God is not a being, even the supreme being, but rather Being Itself."5

Coyne also poses a series of questions to traditional theism. "[O]n what ground should we believe it?" And "[w]hy on earth does [it] have any force at all?" And again, "what would convince you the God you describe doesn't exist."

A reflective person would have attempted to answer these questions for himself by reading the argument in question and doing his homework on the basics of the subject. But the Coynian methodology will not be enslaved by the chains of scholarly rigor.

Had Coyne read Hart, or any decent statement of theism, he would have discovered that God refers to the "one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason immanent to all things.... He is not a 'being,' at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is in whom (to use the language of the Christian Scriptures) all things live and move and have their being."6

I have no doubt Coyne finds this unintelligible. This, however, has more to do with the limits of his intellect and education than with lucidity of the formulation itself. To completely understand such a formulation requires a fairly solid liberal arts education—it would be useful to have read Plato and Aristotle, as well as have grasped the various doctrines of ontological difference. But the basic idea is by no means limited to an intellectual elite: confusing God with a particular being is idolatry--thus the traditional Jewish and Islamic opprobrium against images. As one finds in Job: "Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?"7

The only actual argument Coyne can muster is that the traditional notion of God cannot be tested. (Or, perhaps more precisely, Coyne expects that were he to study the classical arguments for God, he would them untestable. The Coynian method is pure fideism.) For, Coyne says, if a claim cannot be tested, there is no reason to believe in it.

Coyne's position here is a hash of the Vienna Circle's verifability principle.8 This view has been obsolete for half a century now, for at least two reasons: First, and most obviously, the testability principle is not itself testable. It is self-contradictory. Second, and more fundamentally, the notion of testability is polyvalent. As Carl Hempel pointed out:
"[T]he criterion is either too strict, in that it rules out sentences which are part of science ('All quasars are radioactive' cannot be conclusively verified and 'Some quasars are not radioactive' cannot be conclusively falsified), or too liberal, in that it allows metaphysical sentences like 'Only the Absolute is perfect.')9
Different claims must be demonstrated by different means, according to the formal and material object of inquiry. The claim that life exists on Mars requires a different type of testing than the claim that all even numbers, when added to other even numbers, results in an even number. To even claim that mathematical or analytical theses are testable is to leave the bounds of empirical science and to expand the term "testable" so thin that it means little more than what one can provide an argument for. Testability and verifiability are equivocal terms. It is Coyne's claim that beliefs should be testable, and not the theistic concept of God, that lacks meaning.

But am I not guilty, like Coyne, of attacking the weakest opponents? If I am to refute atheism, had I not better criticize the intellectually competent rather than pick the low hanging fruit? To be clear, I do not believe atheism to be discredited because its worst arguments are false; nor do I mean to imply that the quality of its tradition should be judged on the basis of its most ignorant opponents. Jerry Coyne should not discredit the whole atheist enterprise. Just as Christian theism is not discredited by Pat Robertson, so atheism is not discredited by Jerry Coyne.

Cross-posted at my blog Interstices.


1 See, e.g., The City of God, XII, 2
2 St. Augustine, De Gen. Ad lit., V, 16 34
3 See B. A. Gerrish, "To the Unknown God": Luther and Calvin on the Hiddenness of God," The Journal of Religion, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Jul., 1973), pp. 263-292.
4 Guarino, Thomas G. Foundations of Systematic Theology. Continuum, 2005. P 250.
5 Barron, Robert E. Bridging the Great Divide: Musings of a Post-Liberal, Post-Conservative, Evangelical Catholic. Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.
6 David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss 30.
7 Job 11:7.
8 The question for them was not whether statements were worthy of belief, but whether they were meaningful. See Glock, Hans-Johann. What Is Analytic Philosophy? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 38-9. Though verificationism was no doubt wrong, it had much more subtlety than Coyne's own version.
9 Glock, Hans-Johann. What Is Analytic Philosophy? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 39.

Monday, February 10, 2014

UN lectures the Vatican on being nice to children, except if their not born yet

Wait, the United Nations is still operating? Who let that happen?

Turns out it is still around and lecturing other people on their behavior despite its sorry record of corruption. This is the organization, remember, which elected Sudan to its Human Rights Commission, which is sort of like appointing Joseph Goebbels to conduct relations with the Jews.

Oh, darn. Did I say "the Jews"? I better be careful about that because the UN doesn't seem to like them very much.

One organization which has suffered the indignity of being rebuked by these questionable people is the Vatican, which was told last week by the UN's Commission on the Rights of the Child that it has not properly handled child abuse by priests and that it needs to shape up—something which the Church has already acknowledged and been working on for almost fifteen years now with no help from the UN thank you very much.

Interesting, the Commission also demanded that the Vatican drop its opposition to abortion. Under the UN's definition of "child abuse," the actual killing of a child apparently doesn't count and, in fact, counts in your favor.

Oh, and then there were the demands that the Vatican change its position on contraception and homosexuality in order to meet its obligations under the Convention despite the fact that these positions are not actually, you know, in the Convention.

Will somebody please inform these people that they are an embarrassment and need to cease operations immediately?

Thanks for your help.

Rod Dreher on literature and evil

My article on evil and literature that recently appeared in the CiRCE Journal was quoted extensively by Rod Dreher at the American Conservative in his article, "The Crap Stories We Tell Our Kids" as well as at The Deeps of Time.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Piers Morgan undergoes reality reassignment surgery on his own show

I get home from work and I turn on the television. There is not much on, so I flip the channels around. I end up on CNN watching Piers Morgan.

Don't try this at home.

There he is. Piers, who, after indiscriminately lavishing approval on anyone who questions or confounds traditional gender roles, ended up personum non gratum (not correct Latin, but it looks so stylishly neuter) with the very transgendered person whose trans, it turns out, he had insensitively gendered just the day before.

Piers had apparently identified Janet Mock, the author of Redefining Realness as having had a sex change operation and as someone who, having had a sex change operation and now being a woman, had once been a man.

Which, in my simplistic mind, is kinda why you have a sex change operation: To change your sex.

But Mock, Piers found out over the succeeding 24 hours, was miffed at Piers for this inappropriate language and had Tweeted about it, causing him (the one who was still a him) to be "viciously abused" on Twitter by the "trangender community" for having "misgendered trans women." So he got her back on his show to find out why she was angry at him simply for pointing out that she had once been a he, and why, since she had written a whole book about this very important pronoun change, she (who had once been a he) was mad at him―particularly since he supported her and went to the trouble of promoting her and her book on his show just the previous day.

There then ensued a surreal discussion in which Piers asked why, after he had so dutifully prostrated himself before the postmodern sexual totem, she was mad him for saying that she had had a sex change operation when, in fact, as she had pointed out in her book, she had had one.

So Mock goes on to lament the fact that, for transgendered people, "so much of our lives are open to dissection and illegitimacy and investigation."

Now I'm thinking at this point that if you don't want your life as a "transgendered" person to be dissected and investigated, it's probably not a good idea to write a book about your life as a transgendered person and sell it to the public so they can dissect and investigate your life. But there must be some part of Redefining Realness I don't get.

So I continue watching.

Mock went on making absolutely no sense at all and saying that transgendered people should be "given space to tell their own story," at which point Piers exploded, pointing out that that's why "I had you on the show, that's why I promoted your book, that's why I told people to go read the **** thing!"

And I'm sorry, but at this point I have to press the pause button on my TV remote which I am having trouble manipulating because I am laughing so hard. After regaining my composure, I press the "play" button.

"What did I do wrong?" Piers asked, to which Mock responded that he had said that she was a "woman who had formerly been a man." So Piers asked why that would upset her when she had written an article in Marie Clair magazine titled, "I was Born a Boy," to which Mock responded that she disagreed with the article.

Which she wrote.

I have to pause it again to fully appropriate this thought. That and to clean the part of my drink that I have spilled on myself. I am past amusement and wondering what reaction I should be having to what I am hearing.

I press play again.

So Mock explained that, although she had been born a boy, she had actually not been born. As a boy. She had been born as who she was. And then had defined herself when she was a young girl. And she had defined herself as who she was, which was the way she was born (which was a boy).

Which was before she had gender reassignment surgery which, she argued, didn't change her sex.

Now what I want for my birthday this year is a picture of the look on Piers Morgans face when Mock explained this. I want to put it up on the wall in my office so I can see it at every possible opportunity because of the intense pleasure it will give me.

So Mock proceeded to explain that we all have a sex that is assigned at birth which "none of us has control over." I guess proof of this statement is that you can't even change it with a sex change operation.

Now I'm thinking at this point that this discussion (which, by the way, should be outlawed as soon as possible) should be about over. Where could it possibly go from here? The question is quickly answered.

"Do you dispute that you were born a boy?" asks Piers.

"I was born," she says, "a baby ..."

I pause my TV again. But this time so that I can rewind it and hear her say this again. Several times.

I let it play.

"...who was assigned 'male' at birth. I did not identify or live my life as a boy. As soon as I had enough agency in my life to grow up, I became who I am ... That's a lot of nuance and it's hard to communicate that in 30 seconds or even in a 140-character tweet."

You can say that again.

Piers goes back to the article that made Mock famous: The "I Was Born a Boy" article in Marie Claire. The one that has her name on the byline and is written in the first person. The article, points out Piers, "repeatedly in your own words says you were born a boy."

"I did not write that article Piers."

This statement is spoken by Mock on Piers Morgan's show. In the first person. I'm wondering if she really said it. Possibly, she might deny it later. But only by undergoing truth reassignment surgery.

Anything is possible.

So Piers, still completely confused by what he has heard, explains that he is supportive of gay rights and same-sex marriage rights and transgender rights and every cause involving any exotic sexual practice he can think of and that he supports Mock and everything she stands for, at which point, after a few more comments by Mock bringing into question exactly what planet she is from, the interview ends.

I am at this point lying on the floor looking at the TV upside down, in the hope that it will make more sense that way.

After a commercial break, there ensues a discussion involving a panel of people of unknown expertise to advise Piers on whether Mock, who wrote a book about changing her sex, was a man who became a woman.

They cannot decide.

The show ends. I turn the TV off. Still on the floor, I am pondering the uncertainty of the universe and questioning whether anything is real. After a while everything stops spinning and I am able to stand up.

I solace myself with the thought that, tomorrow, everything will return to normal and Piers will return to his usual programming in which he tells gun rights advocates that he can't agree with them because they don't make any sense.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Kentucky 11th most religious U.S. State

A new Gallup Poll finds that Kentucky is the 11th most religious state. Mississippi is the most and Vermont the least religious. And just a glance at the statistics shows pretty clearly that most religious states are in the South and the least religious states are in the Northeast.

"Gallup classifies Americans as very religious," says the group's website, "if they say religion is an important part of their daily lives and that they attend religious services every week or almost every week."

In addition, the percentage of "highly religious" and "somewhat religious" is slightly higher than in previous years, which seems to militate against the idea of an increase in secularism.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Is "Breaking Bad" Good?

So I find myself in a debate on a Facebook thread about whether the television series "Breaking Bad" is good. There I am, arguing the point, when I realize that I am trying to have a substantive conversation about something of cultural significant in a forum which, of its very nature, is inimical to the expression of extended thought.

The life expectancy of a Facebook thread is, what? Maybe four hours at the most?

I'm talking to basically one other person, the only one paying attention at that point, with the exception of the host of the thread, and he's only still in the loop because he's the host and he's getting notifications on is iPhone.

A Facebook thread is just one of the things in modern culture that acts to limit our ability to think. And so I find myself trying to defend my very seriousness.

After I realize the error of my ways in trying to make an extended argument in a modern media context that is distinctly unfriendly to extended arguments, I remark that I will write a blog post on my thoughts, at which point my interlocutor, my friend Mike Janocik, says, "Blog away......but I do suggest you lay off the 'narrative structures' narrative [a reference to the argument I had been making]. This is television we are talking about. there is some really good rock and roll music, but to claim it falls short because it is not Miles Davis quintet is to miss the point."

In other words, I was making over-grandiose claims against "Breaking Bad" inappropriate to the nature of what it was (a television show). I would have taken it better had not Janocik just previously made a claim at least as grandiose: "Breaking Bad was about as Catholic a tv series as ever has been."

"I can make sweeping claims in support of my position, but you can't in favor of yours." Is that one of the rules of the game? If so, I simply reject them, and so here we are.

And, by the way, I'm interested in pursuing this discussion because I am in the midst of writing a paper I am presenting later this summer on the issue of heroism and irony in modern narrative, and this gives me one more opportunity for thinking about and discussing the relevant issues.

Anyway, ... So television is less significant in its cultural influence than other media? If that's the case, then my friend Jason Hall wouldn't have bothered to write the original post about how good television is now, citing "Breaking Bad" as an example.

So the question is: Is "Breaking Bad" good? Or, more specifically, is it Catholic (and therefore, ipso facto--in this context of a conversation among fellow Catholics, good)?

In saying that some aesthetic thing is "Catholic," I'm wondering what criteria we should employ. What is it that makes any aesthetic human creation "Catholic"? Would it be that, whatever it is--a book, a movie, a television show--that it articulates principles that the Catholic Church teaches--whether it articulates them in some straightforward manner or in some less direct way? That seems fair. So what principles does "Breaking Bad" articulate that the Catholic Church articulates?

Here's a candidate that Jason Hall, the host of this thread, proposed: "It illustrates the truth that there aren't good people and bad people, but people who make good and evil choices. A good man can become evil by embracing evil choices, out of fear, desire for power, or any number of other temptations."

On the face of it, this seems plausible, since Catholic ethics have traditionally been Aristotelian, which is to say that they center on habit formation: The more good things you do the easier it is to do them, and the more bad things you do the easier it is to do them. So Jason's argument would seem to qualify under the latter aspect of Catholic ethics: that it demonstrates that the more evil you do the easier it is to do more evil.

But I responded as follows: "A show whose structure of itself offers no way to distinguish between good and evil can't "illustrate" any moral truth. It simply doesn't provide the context for it. You may bring to your viewing of the show a moral context, but my point is that the show doesn't provide that context. It's very way of telling the story precludes it."

At this point Mike Janocik re-entered the discussion, all guns blazing, with the following comment: " If you don't think the average viewer can deduce a grave moral evil as Jessie measures his neck in a bicycle lock in order to chain his competitor to a post in the basement, I fear you've spent too much time with Blindside or Fireproof in which otherwise perfectly sane men sit in the back yard with diet cokes and King James Bibles......rather than double coronas and Jim Beam in the rocks. BB was a brilliant moral tale of a good man gone bad through a long, arduous series of rationalizations and a rejection of every day graces."

Of course, I've never seen these movies from which I am supposed to have gained my aesthetic sense from (and, in one case, not even heard of it).

My response is simply that Mike is assuming that the viewer has a moral framework by which he can judge good from bad and that to simply assume, on that basis, that this is in the show itself is begging the question, since my claim is that these kinds of shows do not provide, within themselves, any means by which such moral conclusions are necessitated.

Jesse, measuring "his neck in a bicycle lock in order to chain his competitor to a post in the basement" may be a grave moral evil to Mike--and to many viewers who, through the residue of Christian ethics that still permeates an increasing secular culture. But the moral judgment that Mike makes and that other viewers may make does not come from the show, but from themselves. But it seems to me that, if the show is really "Catholic," then this moral judgment should come from the show, not have to be provided by the viewer--a viewer who now, here in 2014 has Christian sensibilities because he grew up in a Christian culture, but who may very well not have those sensibility in another twenty or thirty years.

To make the argument Mike makes only demonstrates that the viewer is (wittingly or unwittingly) is Catholic, but it does not follow that the show itself is Catholic.

I maintain that in order to maintain that any story is "Catholic," that the moral judgment must be implicit in the story itself, and that it should not be dependent upon the reader or viewer to provide it outside the context of the story.

Mike criticizes me for the fact that I watched only the first season of the show and not all, what five seasons?Mike argues that this is "like listening to the first few notes of Vivaldi's mandolin concerto, then asking you to discuss the fundamental difference between the first chorus and the rest of the composition." This from the man who had just previously said, "television is a different vehicle altogether than literature." If it's so different from literature, how is it going to be any less dissimilar to something like music, which he just compared it to?

I acknowledge that I cannot judge the whole series, but I think I (and others who may not have seen the whole series) can expect from those who claim that the show is "Catholic" some evidence from the other four seasons some of us may not have seen that the acts of Walter White are in some way judged within the narrative of the show (without having the viewer have to provide a moral context not contained in the show itself).

And simply saying, "You've just got to watch it" isn't an answer.

I teach literature. I can guide a class of Christian students through something like Waiting for Godot or Metamorphosis or The Stranger and we can benefit from the content and structure of the play or novel because we are Christians who have a particular worldview which is so all-encompassing that it makes sense even of those things that are not themselves Christian. But that doesn't mean those things are Christian―or Catholic.

So my question to people like Mike and Jason is this: What makes "Breaking Bad" a Catholic drama? And what makes it an inherently Catholic drama, not just a drama that can be viewed by a Catholic and making sense only because it is a Catholic watching it?

The show's creator Vince Gilligan supposedly wanted to "create a series in which the protagonist became the antagonist." I'm not saying that it is impossible to do this in a Catholic drama, but it seems that anyone maintaining this has the burden of proof.

I have a lot more to say about the whole issue of narrative collapse and how dramas like Breaking Bad are an example of this, but I'll save that for another post.

Monday, February 03, 2014

How Literature Solves the Problem of Evil

My new article on literature and the problem of evil is in the new CiRCE Magazine here. Here is an excerpt:
When people look for a solution to the problem of evil in its rational or logical form, they are looking for a resolution to a technical problem. But this question—the rational question of evil—is not the real problem of evil. At least it is not the question with which people who experience suffering actually struggle. In fact, the vast majority of those who actually struggle with evil couldn’t even tell you what the logical question was. And even if they were aware of the problem—and even if they knew the answer to it—they would not be satisfied.
How would the answer to a logical question assuage their grief? Their grief is not a logical problem. The logical dilemma of evil would not be satisfying to anyone but a logician—and it would only satisfy him as a logician; it would not satisfy him as a human being. 
The purely abstract philosophical problem of evil is an impersonal question. It is always someone else’s problem. But the real problem of evil and suffering—the existential problem—is necessarily a personal question. It is a problem for me. 
The philosophical question of evil is not the question parents and friends of those killed in Newtown or Japan or the twin towers asked themselves. It is certainly not the question addressed by God speaking from Job’s whirlwind. 
There is, in fact, not just one problem of evil: There are two. The first is the logical question, “How can there be evil and suffering in a world created by a good and all powerful God?” But the second question, which can often sound the same, is actually much different. The second question is “Why is evil happening to me?” This second question is not a logical question, but an existential question--or perhaps we might better say that it is a phenomenological question.
It is not a question about something that happens in the abstract, it is something that happens to us. 
In Job’s story, the characters do not make this distinction, but I think the author does. Certainly God does, as we see by the end of the story. Job is dealing (whether he knows it or not) with the second question—why is evil happening to me?—while his Comforters are dealing with the first question—“How can there be evil and suffering in a world created by a good and all powerful God?” Job’s question is concrete and existential, not abstract and philosophical. But his friends are all philosophers. Job himself seems unaware of this distinction—or maybe, to borrow a phrase from Chesterton, it was in his soul but not in his mind. In any case, this was part of his struggle, and this is the primary reason why the advice of his friends is not a help to him: He thinks they are addressing his question, when, in fact, they are not. 
While his Comforters bring him reasons, God brings the news of the poetic order of the world. God’s words mean more to Job than those of his comforters because the world is more like a poem than a syllogism.