The rock and the hard place

Democracies are not such good things. [but then again, what’s the old Churchill quote? “Democracy is the worst form of government until  you’ve tried the rest.”]  Often times, democracies can be short-sighted and act as a giant wealth transfer from wealthier voters to poorer voters.

In America, we’ve got two parties.  The party that talks about the deficit and runs it up and the party that doesn’t talk about the deficit and runs it up.  It can sometimes be very difficult to tell one party from the other (I can remember back in 2000 when common wisdom on my campus held that Bush and Gore were essentially the same person, which I think, is why so many progressives went for Gore that year.  They learned their lesson and haven’t left the reservation since then.)

And sometimes it is difficult to tell which party is which.  Sometimes, though, the differences can be very, very stark.  The last week or so has really shown a rift between the Republican and Democrat parties and their relationship with democracy.

The first was the (non-)vote on the Iran Nuclear deal.  Most Americans were opposed to it (according to Pew and Quinnipiac, the less reliable ones (and some older polls) showed a more favorable opinion).  Call it Republican propaganda (or just good old fashioned persuasion), but at the time when Senate Democrats filibustered a vote on it, America, democratically-speaking, did not want it.  Your friendly neighborhood Granola Republican understands that the measure, if passed by House and Senate, would have been vetoed by our president, but Democrats kept to from even getting that far.

Before I continue: let’s talk about Republican filibusters.  The Republicans filibustered a hell of a lot of nominees by Obama (some hoping that he’d lose the 2012 race and Romney (sigh) would have gotten to make the picks).  Like, a lot.  Like, probably too many for most people’s tastes.

What about actual legislation though?  I racked my brains trying to come up with actual filibusters of actual legislation.  I had to go back to 2009 to the Affordable Care Act, which the Republicans never actually filibustered.  More recently, the Republicans (well, Rand Paul), filibustered the Patriot Act.  That’s it.  That’s the only thing that I could come up with that the Republicans filibustered.  Did having 60 votes keep legislation from being proposed? Sure.  But there haven’t been any major legislative pieces since the ACA (you know, like, six years ago…).  There have been lesser things.  You can go read about them on Bernie Sander’s website (they include leftist things like a $15 minimum wage).  But major, structural changes to the way America works?  Complex treaties with other countries?  You can say that the Republicans don’t want to negotiate on immigration now (Democrat readers, you had that chance in 2007), but Republicans haven’t actively squashed debate on it.

So, back to Democrat filibusters.  Most people in the US opposed it.  A majority of both Houses Representatives opposed it.  Democrats protected it, not just through veto, but from even being voted on in the house.  This is the opposite of democracy.

The other bill blocked by Democrats this week would have banned abortions after 20 weeks (with the customary exceptions for rape, incest, and health of mother).  This one is worse, in terms of what Americans actually believe.  The polls are pretty clear.  Most Americans want legal abortion in the first trimester (12-13 weeks).  Overwhelming majorities oppose abortion after that (like over 70 percent for 2nd trimester and 90 percent for 3rd trimester).

This bill would have protected abortion legality for two months past the first trimester, or about the first half of a pregnancy.  This is entirely in line with what Americans want.  Like, literally, it’s the compromise on abortion.

Senate Democrats blocked it.  Sure, there are a lot of Republicans who would like to outlaw all abortions.  That’s not what this bill did, though.  It drew the line where Americans wanted it drawn.  Democrats are nowhere near the middle on this issue.  They are waaaaaaay out of step with Americans on this.  Democrats are defending a position taken by maybe a quarter of the population who are very, very hardline on abortion.

Somewhere, I have a feeling that the 1990’s Democrats would have passed this, and that “Safe, Rare, and Legal” Bill Clinton wouldn’t have signed it.  The Democrat party needs to look very, very closely at where it is on this issue before it really comes back to bite them.

I guess I’m not surprised at this.  The Democrat Party since 2006 has shown very little appetite for actual democracy.  George Bush garnered huge bipartisan support for both wars he got us into, as well as the Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind, and Sarbanes-Oxley (Medicare Part D was much more partisan of a vote).  The Bush administration was very, very willing to try to construct an immigration bill, including several points of compromise to try to move things along.

Our current administration, however, has shown almost zero initiative in building coalitions to get things accomplished (with the exception of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  Please for the love of Zeus let me buy a small pickup truck).  The Affordable Care Act will be remembered by generations of Republicans as high perfidy and enough jiggery-pokiness to drive a certain Supreme Court Justice to drink.  President Obama has no other major legislative accomplishments.  His Wikipedia page of accomplishments is filled with trite symbolism (Lily Ledbetter) or not-really-accomplishments like passing funding bills.  His major accomplishments (along with Democrats) during his presidency have been not allowing Republicans to pass bills.

And ultimately, this is caused by the Democrats’ original sin.  Forcing the hugely, hugely unpopular ACA on the nation drove what was left of the Reagan Coalition into the Republican Camp, guaranteeing it a perpetual majority in the House and Senate for the time being.  The very first move by the president was to essentially tell Republicans, “I’m going to do what I want.  I don’t need your help.  I will use whatever underhanded maneuvering I need to in order to do what I want.”  His use of the judiciary and executive branches to bypass the legislative has been remarkable in its willingness to torture the constitution(“mirabile aucacitate!”, in case anyone had been really hoping to see a supine today).

The tied themselves to the ACA, to abortion on demand, and to the deal with Iran.  When those things go south, they are going to have a very hard time blaming Republicans for their messes.

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Abortion is moral (but so is wife-beating, slavery, and pedophilia)

Sometimes I feel like people are arguing pointlessly because they haven’t really settled their terms.  Most of the time, this is because people don’t know what words mean.

I think one of the best examples of misunderstood words is “moral” and it’s counterpart “immoral” (the second of which I tend to view as pretty useless from an argument perspective).

Here’s the deal:  the word moral comes from the Latin word that means “customs” or “habits” in the sense of “Americans really like the idea of freedom” or “Canadians are very polite.” [* “ethics” means the same thing, but is Greek.  Etymologically, there is no substantive difference between “ethical” and “moral”]

By definition, therefore, “morality” is a relative/subjective term.  Infanticide was “moral” in ancient Rome; cannibalism is “moral” in some places.  German sexual morals tend to be more permissive than American, etc.

So sometimes I get frustrated when people talk about abortion being “moral” or “immoral.”  Obviously abortion is moral in America today, because overwhelmingly Americans are okay with some level of legalized abortion (partial-birth abortion, is vastly immoral, however, as is sex-selective abortion), in the same way that Americans used to be okay with some level of segregation, wife-beating, or slavery.

At the same time, America, morally, is “pro-life” / “pro-choice” in the “I hope people don’t have abortions but I’m not going to stop them legally from doing so.”  That’s where the middle is.  America has two extremes (“abortion is murder and murder should be illegal” and “unborn babies don’t have a right to life”) and the big, squishy middle that generally is willing to let women do what they will (even if they personally think abortion is killing a baby, they don’t think the law should punish people who do it).

It wasn’t always this way.  Abortion was immoral in the US as recently as the 1960’s.  I always think of the Doctor in Catch-22, who complains that getting drafted into the war cut into his lucrative illegal-abortion business (reminder: the Doctor is a bad guy).

But morals change over time, which is why marriage rates fluctuate over time, as do church attendance rates, college graduation rates, and the appropriateness of telling racist jokes at work.  Morals are constantly in flux.

Therefore, having an argument over whether abortion, progressive tax-policy, or high levels of incarceration are moral or not isn’t useful.  Sure you can make arguments that the defining traditional moral of the American zeitgeist is liberty, effecting social change requires that new laws and movements have to connect to this idea in order to gain traction.

Consider this: abortion is framed as a “freedom” issue.  Women should be “free” to have abortions.  Women are “free” to do what they want with their own bodies.  But this freedom doesn’t apply to anything else.  Pro-choicers say 13-year-old girls are “free” to control their bodies, but we don’t give them “freedom” to use heroin, become a prostitute, or drink, which is why the “freedom” argument falls apart.  Accordingly, arguing that women should be “free” to control their bodies falls apart, since we appropriately restrict the “freedom” of women on many lesser issues that don’t involve homicide.

Properly, abortion is really about parental rights.  Pregnant women who have an abortion don’t keep themselves from becoming mothers, they are mothers who kill their children.  Men who pressure a girlfriend/wife/girls-that-they-raped to have an abortion aren’t keeping themselves from become fathers, they are just fathers who are participating in the killing of their children.  There are cultures/moralities where this is okay (Ancient Rome stands out to me, and I think there was an episode of M.A.S.H. where a lady killed her crying baby so that her fellow refugees wouldn’t get caught), but that’s the real legal issue surrounding abortion, not “freedom.”

[Remember that the origins of the pro-abortion movement was the pro-birth control movement, whose roots are in eugenics.  Once eugenics fell out of favor in the 1940’s, the entrenched pro-abortion side needed to reframe their argument around “freedom,” which is a more palatable argument in America than “Let’s kill poor people”]

It’s similar to how slavery was framed as a “property rights” issue.  Since humans are not objects, they can’t really be classified as property, though.  Slavery ultimately was a form of kidnapping, and since kidnapping is a pretty big no-no, slavery (as an extension of it), could not logically stand on it’s own feet.

Which brings us back to morality, since morality ultimately is not logical.  Morals can be contradictory.  We can have both a “women and children first” attitude and a “wife-beating should be tolerated” attitude in society.  We can have a “women can have abortions” idea and a “don’t have sex with thirteen-year-olds” idea in our collective conscious.

But we can’t be logical and consistent if we do.

The history of the quote “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is a little muddled, but I think the sentiment, on average, is true.  Over and over western civilization has done a remarkable job in the last 2000 years of establishing that we should accept the broadest definition of “person” as possible and not allow the law to exclude other humans from our circle.  Just as most of us look back with horror at the morality of slavery in the American South (and the morality of pro-choice attitudes about slavery in the North: “I would never own a slave, but who am I to tell someone else not to”), we, too, will be judged by our posterity as a time of monstrous morals.

The wrongness of abortion is not based on it’s moral-ness, or it’s legal status, abortion is wrong because it is evil to kill (in the same way that slavery is wrong because it is evil to kidnap/steal people).

But America, and the west, has lost it’s belief in good and evil.  Coming to terms with this isn’t a new problem.  Starting with Nietzsche (remember “Beyond Good an Evil”?) there has philosophically been nothing but an existentialist world–one without a God who dictates good/evil.  We are left, as humans, to our own [remarkably] poor devices.

Humans, by themselves, can identify moral and immoral, or legal and illegal, but cannot figure out good an evil.  This is because good and evil are absolutes, irrespective of time and culture.  Isis beheading a bunch of captives and raping little girls is evil, but not immoral (there is loooooong history of these things happening) in absolute sense.

Even though there are laws against these things in Syria and Iraq, ISIS-culture does not recognize those laws (immoral laws tend to be disobeyed, from colonial smugglers to majiuana users).  Similarly, a culture where abortion is moral and illegal will still have lots of abortions (I’m looking at you, South America…). This is why the Catholic church focuses so heavily on the “culture of life” message.  The only way to convince people not to have abortions is to change the morals, the culture, where those people live.  This can start with the law, for sure, but has to eventually end up in the hearts and psyche of a populace.

Morality is tautological: “We don’t eat horseflesh in the US because we don’t eat horseflesh in the US.”  It’s ingrained and taught (at liberal arts college, we called it a “social construct”). Similarly, the pro-life side needs to repeat “It’s wrong to kill babies because it’s wrong to kill babies.”  There’s no need to develop arguments in favor of it, the idea should seem self-evident.  You can present evidence, you can make arguments, but you’re not going to logically convince everyone that killing babies is wrong.  Logic is a smallish part of creating a morality.

Wife-beating, slavery, and pedophilia are all evil, which is why we should stop people from doing them.  Eventually we will come around on abortion.

Endure

As a trained classicist, I have a fairly deep idea for the idea that to know a word, you must know it’s etymology.  One of the saddest things I did as a teacher was watching sixteen and seventeen year old students struggle to express themselves exactly because they didn’t have the vocabulary, and the vocabulary they did have was shallow.

For example, the word tolerance comes from the Latin word that means “to endure” in the sense of to carry a heavy burden or to suffer something you don’t like, but cannot change.  In that sense, good old fashioned American tolerance used to mean “we’re not going to kill you because you are a pornographer, but we’d really like you not to expose our children to smut.” or “We’re generally willing to let you live in sin with your partner, but you shouldn’t get mad when we say nasty things about you behind your back.”

Tolerance is what you do when you go home for thanksgiving and hear your crazy uncle complain about “the spear chuckers.”  You tolerate his boorish, racist behavior, restraining yourself from punching him in the face, but retain your right to think poorly of him and maybe to not show up next year if he gets invited.  You live and let live, generally, but you don’t have to be happy about it.

Modern America has turned tolerate into a Janus-word (one of those words that have two distinct opposite meanings, such as cleave, which either means “to separate” or “to join”).  We can have the traditional meaning of tolerance, in the “this school has a zero-tolerance policy about cheating,” where if a kid cheats, he gets expelled because, you know, the school won’t endure it.

But then we also have the newspeak version of “tolerance,” favored by progressives.  Tolerance isn’t just my willing to live side by side with you, I must rejoice in your choices and lifestyle.  My willingness to let you live in your homosexual relationship without abuse isn’t enough to be tolerance anymore; rather, I must rejoice in the fact that you are doing something I think imperils your soul and is bad for you.  My (traditional) tolerance is insufficient, the New Tolerance demands not only acceptance, but approval.

I understand why conservatives lost the battle over issuing marriage licenses to homosexual couples.  I understand why conservatives now are losing the battle over gender identity.  I understand exactly why a homosexual couple would want to get married (I’m married, it’s great.  I gain social prestige, legal and financial benefits, as well as being able to show a permanent gesture of love to my favorite gal).  I’m not sure that the side in favor of homosexual marriage understands why conservatives were loathe to completely redefine a building block of every civilization on the planet, why that might be scary, or frustrating, or even possibly the wrong thing to do.

America has always had a place carved out for homosexuals, the same way it did for non-married cohabitants.  America has never been as puritanical about sex as some would have you believe.  But it always approached it from the point of (traditional) tolerance.  Hawthorne feels sorry for Hester Prynne; he wants society to not punish her for her failings; but he doesn’t celebrate the fact that she was an adulterous.  He’s not happy about it, but he thinks she should be unpunished for it.  Plenty of non-married couples lived together in the 1800’s, as did many, many homosexuals.

Go look at the list of Americans convicted of sodomy.  None of them are run of the mill homosexuals.  Every one of them is a serial killer, serial rapist, or a zoophile.  I repeat, none of them were just two men who loved each other.  Sodomy laws in America have not been used against homosexuals (there were cases of men thrown out of the army for sodomy, but not civilians put in prison).

Look, I’m not going to say that homosexuals haven’t been harassed, name-called, assaulted, or sent to “pray-away-the-gay” camps during America’s history; but the same could be said for people who play Dungeons and Dragons.  Kids are going to be mean to outsiders, whether that’s two guys kissing or the kid wearing a cape pretending to case magic missiles.

But overwhelmingly, once you’re out of high school, America is willing to tolerate your lifestyle, as long as you don’t rub it in everyone’s face.  That’s the definition of tolerance.

Others have written better on the subject of the intolerance of the left, and so I’ll leave you with this thought.  After winning the right for anyone to marry whomever they want (polygamy is not far behind), the first thing progressives did was try to throw people in prison for not baking cakes and taking wedding photographs.  That’s not embracing tolerance, that’s being assholes.

Gender and fitness

I went to a small liberal arts college that had a terrible athletic program.  So terrible that they let a pudgy, out of shape me run track and field.  I was a sprinter and pole-vaulter (my college was pretty big on letting everyone try anything).  I was the worst pole-vaulter on my team and the worst male sprinter on my team.

But we only had two other pole-vaulters, one male, one female.  Both were little bean-pole people with good core strength.  The guy pole vaulter could do like maybe 12 or 13 feet (that’s not very good).  I think the girl could do like 8 or 9 (that’s like, only a few feet over what some people high-jump).  Both of them had athletic builds (and both were better than me, but like I said, I was a terrible candidate physically for pole-vaulting), but the guy on my team clearly was able to leverage this into being a better pole vaulter (they both also got injured).  Both had heart and drive and determination, but there was a real physical difference in what each could accomplish.

The bigger difference was in running.  I was, by far, the worst male sprinter on my team.  When we would run in practice, I would usually end up running with the girls.  But here’s the thing:  I was faster than all of them.  I was out-of-shape and overweight, and I was still faster than every one of the girls on my team, many of whom played several sports and had been running track for years.

I’m not saying that there aren’t girls that exist who are faster than me.  There are.  I think there was one girl who had blown out her knee that year in soccer that would have been faster than me on the track team.  But if a guy like me can walk straight from the dessert bar in the cafeteria and into a track team and be faster (and stronger) than every female athlete on the team, that needs to tell you something when we start thinking about putting women in combat roles.

I read an article a few yeas ago saying something to the effect of “every woman should know that just about every man she ever encounters will be stronger than her.”  That really stopped me.  I know that there are some guys that are bigger/stronger/faster than me when I walk down the hallways at work, but there are no women that would be physically capable of taking me in a fight. I couldn’t even imagine if I knew that not only was I somewhere near the bottom of my own gender, but that pretty much I was consigned by genetics to the bottom of the entire species.

I don’t think any guy is going to say that women can’t do amazing physical things.  We’ve all watched female Olympic gymnasts do some pretty impressive stuff.  But that’s not what we’re talking about.  When discussing women in combat, we aren’t looking for assassin/spy/snipers who don’t have to run fast, lift heavy stuff, or carry a giant bag of equipment, we’re talking about people who sometimes need to drag 250 pounds of injured guy + equipment to safety.  We’re talking about people who, for the most part, are really just going to be human mules carrying heavy stuff on their backs from place to place.  And the simple biological fact is that it’s a lot easier to take a 170 pound guy and train him to carry a 100 pound pack than to take a 120 pound female and train her to do the same.

Men build and retain muscle faster.  Our hips make it easier for us to run long distances without injury. (If you ever want to be terrified for your daughter, go look up the injury statistics for things like girls cross country.)  Women are simply not suited for intense combat duties as they exist in our military.  And this isn’t just a “the average girl isn’t good enough.” This is a “95% of girls” aren’t good enough, maybe even higher.  And it’s not just a matter of “they can train more,” there are real, physical limitations on what a woman’s body can do.

There are plenty of places in the military where females can excel, which include lethal missions like piloting bombers, flying drones, and designing better equipment.  I’d be fine with women acting as snipers, spies, and assassins, because those are within their physical limitations.

It is not only wrong-headed, but also morally wrong, to put warfighters at a higher-than-necessary risk of casualty and death, and putting women in combat does just this.

[sidenote; where I work, there are sometimes National Guardsman passing through.  The physical differences between the males and females is shocking.  I am sure there are some Ronda Rouseyish girls in the National Guard.  I haven’t seen any.  I could not imagine any of them carrying heavy packs running around in combat].

Mercy

So my Pontiff just announced an easing of the requirements for women (and I would guess, male contributors) to receive absolution for having an abortion, in honor of the upcoming Year of Mercy.

Some thoughts.

First: good.  Seeking forgiveness for your sins and being able to talk through it with a confessor is a lynchpin in Catholic spiritual life.

Second: this is not what pro-abortion Catholics (and others) think it is.  Nor, I suspect, is it what many women who might avail themselves of this mercy think it is.  It is not carte blanche to abort your child and then have your guilt wiped away for free.

Forgiveness of sins is a deep business in the Catholic Church.  Catholics look much deeper theologically about sin and forgiveness than many people outside the church.  And this is where I’m worried the faithful might be led astray.

One fundamental aspect of receiving absolution is the idea not just that you’re sorry you did something bad, but the attitude that given the same situation, you wouldn’t make the same choice.  Mouthing the words doesn’t relieve you of the burden of sin.  Saying you’re sorry doesn’t relieve you of the burden of sin.  Confessing that you did something terrible in your past to someone else might be psychologically beneficial, but without the conviction that you a) regret the choice, and b) that you wish that you hadn’t done that thing, absolution cannot take place.

As a former teacher, I could always tell when a student who had been caught cheating on a test felt true regret for having done something wrong vs. regret over having been caught.  Yes, as a matter of social convention, we train children to say their sorry even when they don’t mean it, but in adulthood we would want to see a deeper understanding of it.

I’m worried that women will look at the pope’s directives and think “Oh, I had an abortion.  I can be forgiven of it, even though ultimately I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I did it and I would do it again if I had the same choice.”  A woman with this attitude, despite going through the sacramental process in the confessional, is not truly absolved of her sin.  She lacks the proper attitude to be forgiven.

But Catholic teaching about the sacraments tends to err on the “no man can know what is in another’s heart” side in administering the sacraments.  And I’m glad that women who do truly regret their decisions and feel sorrow for them now have an easier path back into the Church’s fold.  Hopefully, some of the women (and male enablers) who enter the confessional unrepentant will benefit from some time with a priest and be convinced of the real wrongness of their decision.

A cautionary tale though.  There’s a story about St. Phillip Neri, who was preaching during a Jubilee celebration which would have qualified the participants for an indulgence.  Blessed by grace though, the saint saw that only two people in the entire crowded church were actually receiving the indulgence, him and some old lady.  Nobody else had the proper attitude to receive the grace.

I would feel very sorry if the faithful were misled into thinking that showing up at confession and receiving absolution were a strictly physical process instead of, at heart, being the honest weeping of the man crying out “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Civil Disobedience from civil servants.

Okay, so I’m an orthodox Catholic, which means I adhere intellectually to the church’s teaching on divorce.  This means that if you were a validly married Catholic who sought a civil divorce and remarried civilly, I think you’re a bigamist.  I don’t think you’re a bad person.  I probably like you.  But I still think you’re a bigamist.

And if I were a county clerk and you walked into my office looking for your theologically bigamisty marriage certificate, I would issue it to you, because my job is to follow protocol and issue marriage certificates to anyone who qualifies for them in the eyes of the state.  You’re asking for a civil service and I, as a civil servant (St. Thomas More, ora pro nobis), am going to do my job.

Because if I was uncomfortable with doing my job, I could resign from it.  Would it be uncomfortable? Sure. Would it be financially burdensome to find a new job?  Sure.  But if I didn’t resign the job out of financial considerations, is it really an exercise in religious freedom?

On the other hand, if I’m a priest and you want me to preside at your bigamist wedding, I’m certainly not going to do it, because you’re asking for a religious service, not a civil one.

In fact, if I was a doctor at a hospital, and the law required me to euthanize you, I would not do that.  And I would probably be willing to go pretty far in defending my right not to do so but to still practice medicine.

The difference is this: euthanasia is a physical harm, bigamy is a spiritual one.  I, humbly, cannot see the spiritual connection between two marriage seekers and their (our?) God.  I must leave it up to him to sort out the details of your spiritual relationships.  Should I advocate for bigamy? No.  Should I vote for it? No.  But if society requires me to allow you to do spiritual harm to yourself (even to facilitate it indirectly), I render unto Caesar.  Marriage is a civil institution as well as a religious one, and if Caesar says you can get married, I’ll issue the license.  If I feel uncomfortable indirectly facilitating sin, I resign my position.  (the same way that I quit working at for-profit universities because I felt like they were a scam; or I imagine, some bar-tenders quit their jobs after serving the local drunk driver one too many times).

But if Caesar requires me to physically harm you as a routine duty, I think I’m within my rights of conscience to refuse.  Luckily, I’m an American, and we have traditionally given wide berth to pacifist sensibilities.  Pacifist soldiers should be allowed to work in non-combat positions, just as doctors should be allowed to not perform abortions or euthanize but still keep their jobs.

If you’re a pizza place that doesn’t want to cater gay weddings, go right ahead.  I don’t care.  Private businesses should be private, with a minisculum of government oversight into how they run. But if you work for Caesar and refuse to follow a non-violent order?

Either resign or carry out Caesar’s wishes.  Actively seeking lions and jumping into their mouths isn’t martyrdom. It’s vanity.