Thursday, April 29, 2004

Annie Banno about Silent No More at last weekend's March.

And Peter Nixon reflects on his activist days on both sides of the fence.

Look, I don't want to piss off certain of you. I really don't.

But what disgusts me about the leadership of "abortion rights" activism is the fact that they will never acknowledge one thing everybody knows, regardless of how they think abortion should be treated in law. Abortion is awful, something you wouldn't wish on anyone you know; even if they argue it's necessary in a bad situation, situations so bad one might contemplate it ought not to occur so often in a decent country.

1.3 million abortions per year is a hideous, terrifying number. Let's say that 1.3 million women were going to clinics each year, say, to cut off their right hands and sell them to alleviate financial need. We would be horrified and try to figure out a way to order society so that women aren't driven to that extreme. Why does nobody (exception for crisis pregnancy centers and the like) seem to offer anything at all that would address the problems that lead so many women to undergo invasive surgery to dismember a living being in utero?

Even if you don't share my conviction (and I believe the arguments are on my side) that this is the death of a human person deserving protection, you must acknowledge that something has gone awry with a society in which one out of every four women eventually has an abortion. Maybe you think the best answer is the right kind of sex education, or financial care to women who want to bear their child, or a better organization of the adoption system, or something totally different. But you have to admit that 4,000 abortions every day represents a problem that we are ignoring. And NARAL and Planned Parenthood refuse to do this, and they lobby against anything that might have an effect (say, parental notification) because to try and address a problem requires a public acknowledgement of its existence.

I realize that the following objection can be made: "We all know abortion is a bad thing, and that it happens way too often. But to concede these facts in the public sphere is to give ground to those who would criminalize all abortion immediately. And even you would have prudential concerns about that policy."

Concealing the truth, particularly if it's one that many people recognize, is never an effective strategy. In this case, it's positively callous. And stupid, too: if there was ever any devotion to the last of the "safe, legal, rare" trio, it would probably cut down on the squeamishness of most America that causes a majority to identify themselves as "pro-life" rather than "pro-choice". Abortion had more popular support when it could be portrayed in just the extreme cases, rather than as the way for a 20-year-old creep to cover his tracks with a 15-year-old girl, or as the "only choice" for a woman who feels she'll be fired if she's pregnant.

So in the long run, it's a good thing that Planned Parenthood refuses to question the main source of its income. People are starting to realize that the rhetoric of theirs being the compassionate side isn't much more than rhetoric. My generation, I hope, will be ready to look for better responses to bad situations than doing nothing and later "providing" an abortion. I know we can do better, and it's not a moment too soon.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

I would seriously buy one of these bumper stickers...

I brake for processions.

Happiness is a warm thurible.

We have a penance for that.

Anathema sit!

I'd rather be chanting.

My other car is a confessional.

I don't brake for Marty Haugen.

My altar boy excommunicated your honor student.

Concupiscence happens!

Thanks to the fantastic Catholic nerds at The Shrine of the Holy Whapping.
I Meme, You Meme, We All Meme For... Well, Something

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 23.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions.

I'll do this one better: the sentence in that position from my textbooks this quarter. Let's see if this is amusing at all...

"Show that the cuspidal cubic (y squared) = (x cubed) in affine 2-space is normal."

"To men of the seventeenth century, for example, dogma contained nothing that unsettled reason."

"When techniques for the examination of DNA became established, gene structure was naturally one of the first areas where efforts were concentrated."

"It is interesting to note that the above method can also be used to give another proof to Theorem 2."

Meme donated by Bill Cork.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Nota bene: From now on I'll be rambling a little as I type. It's an effort to beat out writer's block. See, whenever I pause in typing it seems I get stuck and I lose my train of thought. I've discarded or put on the back burner at least a dozen posts, all of which made a lot of sense to me in my mind, and all of which I lost the gist of once I started writing. They just didn't look right once I typed them out. So I'm just going to keep typing from now on, and try to edit later. I'm not used to this form of blogging at all, which is perhaps why it's a good idea for me to try it once.

It's fortunate for a number of reasons that I plan to stay in the academic world rather than the business universe. Still, I believe I have a good answer to one of the more clich├ęd interview questions out there.

Interviewer: So, Patrick, what do you think is your biggest weakness?

Me: Leadership, or lack thereof. Once you have me, you are never, ever allowed to promote me. I don't do a good job directing other people and setting my own goals.

I wouldn't say exactly that it's indecision at work here. If you give me a well-defined project that's difficult and requires creativity, I will set to it and I will produce something I'm proud of. I've done it a thousand times, and I'll make all the little decisions that are involved in a larger project. But ask me to take charge of an enterprise and I'll become paralyzed with fear. Apathy destroys everything I wanted to accomplish; I'll dream up ideas and I'll never actually get around to doing them.

There's also the fact that I don't tend to notice things around me. I don't think of all the little details, and I don't see the big picture either. I have a very intense, direct focus on one thing at a time. It also hurts me that I never take the time to organize myself. I'd really manage much better if I did, but I refuse to. So I need to be given a mission, worked into a larger whole.

I'll be your best employee or your worst manager. I give you the choice.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Stop Averting Your Eyes and Splitting Your Infinitives!

You are a GRAMMAR GOD!
If your mission in life is not already to preserve the English tongue, it should be.
Congratulations and thank you!

How grammatically sound are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

Sunday, April 18, 2004

The Easter Octave:

*Experiencing the Easter Vigil Mass again.
*Watching Francesco put foot in mouth.
*Ceasing to wear long-sleeved shirts.
*Humiliating myself in Telephone Charades and Freeze.
*Debating original sin, purgatory and the universal salvific will.
*Whittling five classes down to three.
*Finding out Alice is psychic.
*Eating at Cedars of Lebanon, Rajun Cajun, and Grand Lux Cafe.
*Continuing the habit of Daily Mass.
*Claiming a much-needed tax refund.
*Sustaining an Easter candy sugar high.
*Cantoring for the first time at Mass.
*Frisbee in front of the Shoreland.
*Laughing about nuns with Super Soakers on lavender Vespas.
*Missing Shoreland ScavHunt meetings.
*Rocking Algebraic Geometry.
*Buying plane tickets for summer in California.
*Watching the U-Boat sitting out in the sun.
*Being with Alice.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Christ Is Risen, Alleluia, Alleluia

Friday, April 09, 2004

Some ill-formed thoughts off the top of my head. If this is ridiculous, or heretical, tell me. I'm just now writing these down for the first time.

Death and Good Friday

My professor smells like decay. His teeth jut out at odd angles. His ugly and thin beard, off-white, shoots out from his chin in violation of any aesthetic standard. What's disturbing about him is the pervading sense of mortality, something that is hideous to us because we want so badly to avoid the subject while we're young and healthy and sharp.

But death is at work in all of us, even now, even before we were born. We developed our fingers and toes by apoptosis: making certain cells between the fingers and toes destroy themselves, leaving the shape of the hand and foot behind. We grew by death. Now that we're older, another process is taking place. Each time our cells divide, they shorten the protective telomeres at the ends of the chromosomes. Eventually, first in the continually growing cells like the skin, but eventually in all cells, we will begin to degrade the necessary genetic information. Our skin develops the blotches of age, our hair turns gray if it stays in at all, and we begin the slow process of decay while still alive.

The Catholic perspective is that this mortality is the consequence of the Fall and of Original Sin, as is all the suffering of life. By our rejection of God, we have chosen death, and if that death takes seventy years to arrive, it is no less certain for that reason. In our current bodies, death is at work from us at every moment we are alive. So, too, the other deaths: the sad loss of memory and mental acuity with age; the disintegration of families and friendships, churches and marriages; the wars and famines and injustice throughout the world; the hatred of self that grows into despair and suicide. There is no moment in which we are not dying.

"OK, Pat," you say, "now you're going to tell us that God will make it alright at the Resurrection, so it's all great in the end. Well, I don't want to hear it. A God who would put us through this, afterlife or no, I can't count as loving. Even if it's somehow our responsibility, it's not enough for Him to heal us."

The implicit demand there is totally unreasonable, of course, just as was Job's demand that the Lord come down and personally answer to him why he was suffering. As C.S. Lewis put it, to complain to God about the way He ordered the cosmos is to cut off the branch you sit on, for our very powers of reasoning are a gift in that cosmos and subordinate to the reasoning of God.

The strange thing is that the Lord did respond to Job, though not at all in the way he expected. (Read those chapters of Job if you haven't already.) But what about this petulant human demand for the impossible, that God do more than make everything wonderful at the end of time?

We are miserable of our own doing, and misery loves company. We asked that God Himself suffer and die with us. We asked because we resent the asymmetry of the world: that we are not gods, that our actions have consequences we do not control, that any meaning our lives have is external to ourselves, as much as we would like to create our own. We do not want to be second fiddle in the Universe. And we resent God for having made us so.

The situation is not reciprocal; a dying God is of value beyond any of our suffering, even collectively from the beginning of time. We demanded that God purchase us at a price which we are not worth. And the strange part of the Christian mystery is that God accepted our blasphemous and unreasonable demand that He suffer with us. He took on our imperfect, weak, dying flesh, the humiliation and pain of life, and at the end the suffering and death we find so unfair; then, He made that the summit of His plan to heal us, to redeem us, to save us.

Put another way (and this was in Father Keyes' incredible Good Friday homily), it was not God who demanded the agony and death of His own begotten Son; it was each of us who did so. God gave in to our childish demands and did the impossible- He suffered and died with us. The eternal and omnipotent Lord of Creation made Himself vulnerable and weak, because it was not enough for us that He promised to purify and strengthen us.

This is the mystery of the Cross, the Sign of Contradiction that has triumphed over so many ideologies that seem to fit together more neatly. The Crucifixion juts out roughly from theology like a gray hair or a bad tooth. It's wasteful, it's abhorrent, and it defies our ability to control it. Thus it fits in perfectly with the rest of this slowly dying world.

And the odd thing is, the Crucifixion has a dignity to it above and beyond that of Christ's eventual glorification. It is the center of all suffering, and in a sense it is what is most truly human in the world. Because God Himself took on suffering and death, death itself is transformed. "Where, O death, is your sting? Death is swallowed up in victory." Though our world is dying, it is not for that reason senseless and bad. It doesn't require Heaven to balance the equation of human suffering, for the suffering can be made into a union with God today. An imperfect union, but a true one.

But then, I don't really understand any of this.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

I'm More Than My Blog, After All

And I haven't posted recently on my actual life, as opposed to the things that happen inside my head.

I recently received in the mail two well-printed yellow textbooks, and this means another step into adulthood: my very first graduate books required for courses. Ireland and Rosen's Classical Introduction to Modern Number Theory and Hartshorne's Algebraic Geometry. So far, so good.

(Sample problem from the first Algebraic Number Theory homework: Prove that 1/2 + 1/3 + 1/4 + ... + 1/n is not an integer for any value of n. Stumped me for a week.)

I'm trying to decide which four out of my five current courses I'm taking for a grade. I'll either leave out Algebraic Number Theory, Differentiable Manifolds and Integration, or my class on Durkheim's Elementary Forms of Religion. It's really a tough choice, and depends on how well I can handle the work for three math and two non-math courses.

Speaking of my Durkheim class, I was sitting in Judd this afternoon waiting for class to start, when one of the other students opened the Chicago Maroon to find a picture of the professor, Jonathan Z. Smith teaching a class under the headline, "Professors and their fan clubs: What's behind the peculiar emotional attachment to our local celebrities?"

It was a weird moment. And it seems to be true that some students adore this odd old man, to an extent far beyond his current lecturing ability. Maybe they've read his books and revere him; maybe I've just failed to be duly impressed by his manner of speaking; maybe I never pay the teacher quite as much attention as the text any more.

Oh yeah, and I had my hair cut this week. I want it back.

It's going to be an extremely eventful Triduum, even if I don't have to substitute for Brother Michael as a cantor (let's all pray that I don't; I'm not that good, and his is the high octave, and there would be more cracking sounds in the chanted Passion than in a bag of Pop Rocks if I had to try it). I'm nervous about meeting Alice's parents, excited for her as she enters the Church, falling behind in my work already, having tough times in prayer, trying to work out the details of the summer, and- drat- I've forgotten to speak to my family this week.

And there are only four days until Easter Vigil.
Notes from the Last Post:

1. There is a reason to prefer married couples for adoption, insofar as in most cases (though not all) they either are already raising children or have married in preparation for the task, and as such are likely to be committed to the idea of family. Preparing for a family is still the idea behind marriage for many; the concept that marriage exists primarily to legitimize the relationship of the two parties is a recent one. And the latter seems to be the predominant mindset of same-sex couples who want marriage.

2. Freedom from state interference in sexual matters between fully consenting adults, in lieu of serious physical harm, is a right currently guaranteed by the government, for good reasons including the ludicrous nature of trying to enforce restrictions on such behavior. (Note that the state can and does legislate with regard to consequences of said unions: child support, for instance.) However, the distance between noninterference and legal recognition of marriage is a wide one.

3. Should it be objected that the case is analogous to prohibiting interracial marriage, I disagree. For one, an interracial marriage is fruitful in itself (rather than requiring adoption) and thus the public good includes their children. Furthermore, the traditional institution of marriage has historically been color-blind, save for a few scattered Iagos. It's not the same as throwing our current institution on the scrap heap and building a new one as simply a validation of any legal sexual union.

4. And the existence of infertile heterosexual couples doesn't undermine the argument. Marriage is instituted for the public good, and so the small number of couples who can't have children is no concern (as they don't change the nature of the institution, either). Society deals with large numbers and averages where individual rights are not the concern. (Similarly, if welfare checks included some of those who were living at home and taken care of, it'd be a bit of a financial waste but not an indictment of the social good of welfare.)

More to be added if more comments spur more thoughts...

Monday, April 05, 2004

I know I'm late talking about same-sex marriage; that debate was so last year. Now, it seems, the issue is a political one instead: whether the Massachusetts constitutional amendment will pass, what the higher courts decide on San Francisco's frenzy, and so on. However, I haven't blogged about this until now because I've been thinking before I write (for once), and I didn't want to come up with something flimsy.

I want to actually consider the basis of the debate itself. The reason that so many people have been talking past each other is that proponents of SSM discuss individual rights and opponents discuss the common good. Like it or not (and libertarians don't), the USA, as well as most modern nations, considers both rights and the common good important factors in each decision. And this is as it should be; not everything vital can be explained on the basis of one or the other (libertarianism and utilitarianism are philosophically compelling for their simplicity, but are unfortunately too simple to keep a real country from going to crap).

The government takes many actions with regard to its citizens, some on the basis of the common good, some on the basis of individual rights. To take two examples:

Welfare checks are not an individual right: if they were, then all of us not receiving welfare are simply foregoing our prerogatives. Instead, the government gives assistance to a very particular set of citizens, on the basis of the common good. The state selects welfare recipients on certain criteria and sends checks for the public purposes of providing for this set of people, reducing homelessness and ill consequences thereof, et cetera. Now, with time limits on welfare to encourage recipients to look for employment, the distinction is made even sharper between welfare as an action of society for the common good and for the respect of individual rights.

The right to bear arms, however, is in another class. While the state-sanctioned military organizations exist for the common good, the right to own a gun for oneself is an individual right currently guaranteed by the government of the United States. It's a right which I choose not to exercise at this moment. Sure, it has effects on the common good (both positive and negative), but the basic form of this assurance is one of a sphere of individual autonomy. The right to bear arms, incidentally, is here not an inalienable human right, but a positive right our nation has seen fit to allow (positive here in the sense of positive law, that which may be decided in either direction without injuring the primary purposes of human society).

So, to which of these two classes do marriage licenses belong? Is "marriage a human right", or at least a right guaranteed by the government? I argue that it is not. For one thing, it limits the autonomy of each party rather than extending it. Getting un-married is obviously more streamlined than in the past, but it's rather hard to take it lightly even these days. Furthermore, provisions exist for the spouse of better means to take care of the spouse without (and not only in terms of alimony, I believe; if the wealthier one separates and refuses to provide for the children, isn't there some legal recourse outside of a divorce settlement?).

And if marriage today exists for the direct benefit of anyone, it would have to be the children of marriage. Regardless of how seriously one takes the effects of divorced or unmarried parents, the consensus has always been that a good marriage is the strongest and safest structure for raising children, and studies have borne this out (keeping in mind, of course, the selection bias that those couples who divorce or never marry usually have reasons for behaving as they do, reasons which affect their children). So society, by issuing marriage licenses, is indirectly trying to better the state of the next generation. As such, the marriage licenses exist for the common good.

Granted, a great deal of rights have over the years been given special applications to married couples; to use the most common example bruited about, the right of hospital visitation is severely restricted and has specific exemptions in the case of spouses. In the world of today, where confirmed bachelorhood (bachelorettehood?) is a more recognized option than in the past, it only stands to reason that we ought to allow a person to legally designate one or more others to have the right now extended peculiarly to spouses. So while some of the issues being raised in the context of SSM are rights issues, many of these are detachable in fact from marriage itself.

Okay, so even if marriage is an issue of the common good, does that preclude SSM? Well, good question; it is hard to articulate why I believe same-sex marriage will harm the common good of the family structure*. But the point I'm making here is that (1) the burden of proof (that changing the meaning of marriage is for the common good, and balances out its deleterious effects)** is really on those who wish to alter the institution, and (2) few proponents of SSM have argued on this basis, save occasionally in trying to shoot down other authors' criticisms on the basis of the common good. I fail to see how issuing same-sex marriages will really benefit the couples themselves, apart from extraneous legal rights; there is no analogy between children raised by same-sex couples and married opposite-sex couples; and it at the very least decimates many levels of meaning that have come to be attached to the institution of marriage. As such, I can't support it.

*Of course, I have religious reasons why I believe this as well as non-religious reasons. But while it's perfectly legitimate to decide a complex issue on the basis of theological understanding as well as secular reasoning***, the argument therein doesn't communicate to nonbelievers.

**Added in an update in response to a comment. The sentence was a little ambiguous otherwise.

***If this sounds controversial, I may just write another post on this particular subject.