29 November 2007

And now a look at some brilliant Republican logic

Like Lose an Eye I didn't bother watching the debate last night. In fact, I don't watch debates since the last Presidential election season. As one who has actually read parts of The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, the debate between Bertrand Russell and Father Copleston on the existence of God, and a whole host of other debates, I find most political debates to be pathetically sophomoric.

Also, watching something I can just read a transcript of -- or a news story about -- is a terribly inefficient use of my time: I can read faster than anything will every happen in a debate. So I have read.

Most distressing was Giuliani's exchange with Romney on immigration. America's Mayor is supposed to be a hot-shot lawyer. Boy he must be out of practice.

In an effort, no doubt, at a tu quoque, he took Romney to task for employing illegals to do landscaping at his home. In order to deflect Romney's criticism of Giuliani's sanctuary-city-like immigration policy, Giuliani accused Romney of having a sanctuary mansion. When Romney explained that he didn't hire the people himself, but rather employed a landscaping company (which company -- not Romney --employed the illegals) Giuliani dismissed it as irrelevant because no matter how it occured the fact is that Romney had illegals working right under his nose.

What ever happened to intent? Because that -- and not the simple presence of illegals within one's jurisdiction -- is the issue. Giuliani intended to be lax in his policies. Romney didn't. Giuliani knew he had illegals; they weren't exactly under his nose. Romney didn't know, even if only because he didn't think it proper for him to ask about someone's legal status simply because they spoke with an accent. (Think about what Giuliani would have done with it if Romney had done so!)

Intent. It's relevant. It's absence on Romney's part is what separates him from Giuliani.

Then there was Senator McCain on waterboarding:

McCain, who has shown no love for Romney during the campaign, seized on Romney's response to a question about the legality of waterboarding as an interrogation technique. Romney said that as a candidate he would not publicly discuss what techniques he would rule out. That prompted McCain, a former Vietnam POW, to assert that waterboarding is indeed torture and should not be tolerated.

"Governor, let me tell you, if we're going to gain the high ground in this world ... we're not going to torture people," McCain said. "How in the world someone could think that that kind of thing could be inflicted on people who are in our custody is absolutely beyond me."

The Senator may want this thing he calls the high ground, but I want this thing I'm calling victory in the war on terror. Victory in a war and this "high ground" the Senator speaks of may be mutually exclusive objectives. There are some who think our doing nothing in response to 911 would have gained us this "high ground". Getting their idea of the "high ground" certainly will not get us a victory in a war. Since the Senator and these other people are both using the term "high ground" it must be something subjective. Victory in a war, on the other hand, is pretty objective, if not elusive at times.

And as for the legality of waterboarding -- as I've said at least once before: Let them continue to urge Congress to illegalize waterboarding if they object so strongly to it. Senator McCain can assert that waterboarding is torture. But as objectionable as waterboarding may be, it is not torture unless and until it is defined as such in the law. It isn't torture because McCain says it is. It's a rule of law kind of a thing. (Look at this way: Some people think abortion is murder. It isn't, not until Roe is overturned, returning the matter to the states and the states define it as such.)

So there it is. We have one candidate who can't (or just won't) distinguish between actively assisting illegal immigrants and simply being unaware of the immigration status of someone else's employees. And we have another candidate who thinks his opinion of what the law should say has the force of law, and people should be appraised accordingly.

Oh. Yeah. Senator McCain's we're-all-God's-children slap at the so-called based was a truly precious moment. We're all God's children is supposed to have some sort of specific implications for border enforcement policy I guess. Gosh. We're all God's children. Therefore what? His comprehensive immigration reform isn't really a logical implication of the proposition. We're all God's children. Well, heck, let's just do away with all borders. Then we won't have any illegal immigration to worry about. Anywhere.

You are now free to move about the globe.

H/T: Professors R-Squared
28 November 2007

Science, stem cells, and (pro-life) scruples

I don't think this news will really "quell" the stem cell debate. Even if this puts an end to the quest for embryonic stem cells, it really constitutes only an "armistice" , not a true end to the debate. "We're not going to do it this way after all because we found another way," is not the same as "We're not going to do it this way because doing so is unethical."

In reality, I don't think it will be a long-lived armistice, either.

The reprogrammed skin cells may yet prove to have subtle differences from embryonic stem cells that come directly from human embryos, and the new method includes potentially risky steps, like introducing a cancer gene. But stem cell researchers say they are confident that it will not take long to perfect the method and that today’s drawbacks will prove to be temporary.

If the researchers are wrong and cannot perfect the method; if they are wrong and the drawbacks prove not to be temporary -- then the debate will prove not to have been quelled.

Then there is a certain prejudice here. You know how you know people whom you so dislike that if they are for something you are just positive you need to be against it? There are some people who, in addition to scientific curiosity, just cannot stand the idea that the pro-life movement might "win" something.

Much of this goes back to Galileo's conflict with the Church over heliocentrism, from which the Church still has a black eye. (Of course, the problem is that the Church had made Aristotelianism synonymous with Christian orthodoxy. But any Church which makes that sort of move deserves the black eye it gets as a result.) If anyone associated with any religious perspective objects to a research program, then it is another "Galileo" moment, with affected scientists in the role of persecuted scholar, in the second-oldest conflict in human history: academic freedom versus religious orthodoxy. (The oldest conflict is good versus evil.) Then, of course, there is the conflict between evolutionism and its opponents. "Which scientific breakthrough have these people not opposed?", one might well ask.

So, if "these people" are against it, then we must be on the right track.

I wonder, though, if our pro-life scruples are really understood. Because of the religious connection (most pro-lifers are Christians, Jews and Muslims) those scruples are summarily dismissed as primarily religious in nature. Being summarily dismissed, those scruples may not be understood, not because opponents of pro-life positions are stupid, but because those scruples really haven't been contemplated.

Our scruples are rooted in the fact that we think the human embryo is, well, human. Some believe that the humanity of the fetus, though not explicitly asserted, is implicitly asserted by the way Scripture talks about the life in the womb. Others of us believe that the embryo is human because this proposition seems to follow from the proposition that like begets like. The proposition is at least arguable. It is also a philosophical proposition, not a religious one.

That the embryo is human is an important idea for us, with specific regard to scientific research, because most people recognize that scientific research involving human subjects, at least in the U. S., must be guided by four principles:

1. Respect for autonomy of humans
2. Beneficence
3. Justice
4. Non-maleficence

Right there is where we get into difficulty. Respondents usually talk as if we mean by human with respect to the embryo what we mean by human with respect to, say, a neophyte, a toddler or even an adult. Since, on their view, embryos are not human, the principles of bioethics do not guide research involving them. And, of course, they usually do not fail to ridicule our contention about the humanity of the embryo.

The fact is we don't mean that an embryo is human in terms of consciousness, especially as respects the ability to feel pain. We simply mean that, as the offspring of two humans, the result of the union of two gametes, it is human offspring. And, whether conscious or not, humans are entitled to protections.

No, unlike a fetus (arguably) an embryo doesn't feel anything, isn't conscious -- probably. So more than likely it has no awareness of what is happening to it. But to stress this is to make consciousness the essence -- or close thereto -- of being human. Is it? Certainly consciousness is an attribute of being human. But it's only one attribute. How important an attribute is it? Is consciousness the essence of what it is to be human, the most important (or simply just the most relevant) attribute of a human? Perhaps it is, but that is not a scientific question; it is a philosophical one. And people who argue in the negative (i.e., against the proposition that consciousness is the essence, or most important attribute of being human, etc) are not offering a religious answer. (Indeed, I doubt that we shall find in Scripture an assertion -- explicit or tacit -- of the most important attribute of being human.)

And as a philosophical question it's problematic. It may be that of all the attributes which humans possess, consciousness is the most important one. So important that the fact that an embryo is not conscious (right?) means that it may be used for purposes of scientific research. On the other hand, it may be that simply being the offspring (at any stage of development!) of human parents is the most important attribute, perhaps even the essence of what it is to be human. Regardless which of the many attributes humans possess is the most important (for purposes of bio-ethical matters), it is problematic for a member of the human race to say which of all the attributes possessed by members of the race is essential, or at the very least the most important attribute when it comes to legal protections.

We can concede that this probably is not conscious:

Neither, very likely, is this:

For Jewish and Christian pro-lifers, it is irrelevant that an embryo (or even a fetus) is not conscious or pain-capable. It is wrong on our view to harm people even if they are not aware of the harm done to them. It is wrong to curse a deaf man; and it is wrong to flip off a blind man. Of course, this is one of the reasons the issue gets labelled as a conflict between religion and science.

But even aside from the religious element, there is still the problem of the decision that what separates those with a right to legal protections from those without is consciousness or pain-capability. Whether that decision is right or wrong, it is not a scientific question. It is, again, a philosophical one. And with specific respect to the debate over embryonic stem cells, any benefits to we the conscious simply go no where in answering the bio-ethical question. In other words, that there are a great many benefits to be obtained by embryonic stem cells doesn't tell us that (and certainly not how) consciousness and pain-capability constitute the difference between being subject to protection and not being subject to protection. My father is diabetic. The fact that fetal, or embryonic, stem cells could perhaps benefit him is irrelevant to the philosophical question. How could it be?

Here's what the argument would look like:

If anyone will benefit from fetal stem cells, then consciousness is the most important human attribute.
C will benefit from fetal stem cells
Therefore, consciousness is them most important human attribute.

In addition to the fact that it's a non sequitur, no one is really arguing that. My point is simply to show the irrelevance of any putative benefits to the question of whether consciousness is the essence, or most important attribute, of being human.

In support of embryonic and fetal stem cell research, we are informed of all the benefits possibly to be derived from this research. Just knowing that, apparently, is supposed to convince us. But are putative benefits relevant to the bio-ethical question? I think this is the form that an affirmative argument would take:

If anyone will benefit from fetal stem cells, then their use is ethical.
C will benefit from fetal stem cells.
Therefore their use is ethical.

I doubt that anyone would argue that consciousness, or pain-awareness, is irrelevant, so the argument (or a similar one) really assumes that consciousness (whether the essential human attribute or not) is relevant and that embryos and fetuses are not conscious. Here's an argument:

Assuming (1) that consciousness is a relevant consideration in distinguishing those with legal protections from those without, and (2) that embryos and fetuses are not conscious,

If anyone will benefit from R and R is not conscious then R's use is ethical.
C will benefit from R.
Therefore use of R is ethical.

But we still have the question whether consciousness is a relevant consideration in distinguishing those with legal protections from those without. For those of us who believe that human life, whether conscious or not, begins at conception (and this is a philosophical position, not a religious one), conception ought to be the point at which legal protections begin.

Our argument, then, runs something like this:

It is wrong to kill a human being, whether conscious or not.
A human fetus (whether conscious or not) is a human being.
Therefore it is wrong to kill a human fetus.

Having it some other way involves a certain amount of arbitrariness. For example, Peter Singer holds that the right to life is grounded in a being's person-hood; that is, rationality and self-consciousness. He thinks the central pro-life argument is equivalent to this:

It is wrong to kill an innocent human being.
A human fetus is an innocent human being.
Therefore it is wrong to kill a human fetus.

He will grant that a fetus is a member of the human species. However it is not a person because it is not a self conscious being that sees itself over time.

And this -- not religion versus science -- is where the disagreement lies: To us, species membership is morally relevant, while person-hood (manifested by consciousness) is not. To our opponents species membership is morally irrelevant, and person-hood is morally relevant. (This was the same issue in the Terri Schiavo case.) The two positions are primitive (or axiomatic, if you prefer): I can't think of a way to derive either of them from more primitive assertions. So the two positions are discreet and probably don't share much in the way of significant common ground, and therefore the switch from one position to another really does amount to something like a religious conversion. Both positions are ultimately fairly religious in nature.

The religious nature of the two positions makes debate difficult: each side accuses the other of not being rational in approach. Resolution is impossible. Each side thinks it is being rational. But the more obvious religious connection among the pro-life makes it easier for pro-life opponents to charge us with being irrational, easier for them to characterize the debate as one between "religion" and "science".

It is awfully convenient, however, for those who are conscious to decide that this is the attribute separating those with legal protections from those without. Awfully convenient.

No. I don't think the debate has been quelled. Why should scientists not seek after another method of utilizing stem cells just because this one has been discovered. If there are more roads than one to a panacea, why should we be limited to this one? Just because religious nutters object?
25 November 2007

"Hidden martyrdom" -- Wisdom Sunday

Unwelcome thoughts while praying? (“Unwelcome” is putting it generously.) This may not be the end of the world. And it need not signal the death of your prayer life – if handled properly.

It is of the nature of inner prayer to reveal the hidden passions concealed in the human heart and to tame them. Inner prayer shows us our captivity to the fallen spirits, making us realize our imprisonment and freeing us from it.

There is no need, then, to be disturbed and perplexed when passions rise up from our fallen nature or when they are spurred on by evil spirits. Since passions are tamed by prayer, when they arise we should practice the Jesus Prayer inwardly, very quietly and without haste: little by little this will allay the up-surging passion. At times the onset of passions and the invasion of hostile thoughts are so powerful that it leads to a great struggle in the soul. This is the time of hidden martyrdom. When assailed by passions and devils, we should proclaim our faith in the Lord by devoting ourselves with the utmost persistence to prayer. This will invariably bring us victory. – St. Ignatii Brianchaninov

Now, whether or not one practices the Jesus Prayer, the principle is the same: one just may, in the course of earnest prayer, have one's hidden passions revealed. St. Ignatii’s advice would then be the same.
19 November 2007

Shocking news on the book front

Well, it might have been, but when the book store in your local mall can't make it, while every store catering to every interest an adolescent (including the over-forty adolescents) can possibly have (especially clothing and music), a story like this just doesn't surprise you.

Sometimes I think it would be great to be able to control the thoughts of the weak-minded in order to make them read more -- like that scene in "Attack of the Clones":

Elan Sleazebaggano: Wanna buy some death sticks?
Obi-Wan Kenobi [using a Jedi Mind trick]: You don't want to sell me death sticks.
Elan Sleazebaggano: I don't want to sell you death sticks.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: You want to go home and re-think your life.
Elan Sleazebaggano: I want to go home and re-think my life...

It would be great to do that to the kids and young adults selling trinkets in the kiosks at the mall.

Trinket-seller: Excuse me, sir. Would you like to buy a gnome?
James [using a Jesuit mind trick]: You don't want to sell me gnome.
Trinket-seller: I don't want to sell you a gnome.
James: You want to go home and re-think your life.
Trinket-seller: I want to go home and re-think my life.
James: And read some books.
Trinket-seller: And read some books.
James: Lots of books.
Trinket-seller: Lots of books.
James: Especially non-fiction.
Trinket-seller: Especially non-fiction.
James: But you'll finish your shift first, of course.
Trinket-seller: But I'll finish my shift first, of course.

That would be fun. Sort of.

Of course, reading more in and of itself wouldn't signify anything. Some time ago we were treated to news that liberals read more than conservatives, as if reading simply more books is an unqualified good. The content of the books themselves would, apparently, be irrelevant. It could be that we're reading less in terms of quantity, but better in terms of content and quality.

Not, of course that we'd all agree on quality. A relative of mine thinks Stephen King is a wonderful writer. I don't. Neither does Harold Bloom. I think Walker Percy is a wonderful writer -- well, was.

But I doubt Americans are reading better in terms of quality than they are in quantity. And I don't think it would pay very well to speculate. One could proffer the suggestion that we just enjoy ignorance. After all, we are notoriously "anti-intellectual." Of course, I think we are so in the best possible way: we don't mind them. In fact, we value them as long as they remember their place. We don't mind being advised by them -- just being ruled by them. We'd sooner be ruled by people selected at random than by the top one hundred graduates of an Ivy League university.

Even if there were not this spirit of "anti-intellectualism", intellectuals themselves have rather harmed the notion of the importance of reading. Once you've read through a handful of texts in contemporary literary criticism (and especially after you've learned to deconstruct everything from your favorite author to the evening news), why bother reading? What can the written word possibly have for you? Truth? Certainly not. A regime of truth, more likely. Entertainment? Perhaps. But then why bother with the tedious process of decoding the written word, for entertainment, when you can play HALO, or whatever else floats your boat?

Reading, for fun? Why bother?

Note: My reference to "Jesuit mind trick" is not to suggest that Jesuits have -- and use -- unethical mind tricks to work their will in people. As a former wanna be Jesuit, I have a great deal of respect for Jesuits, despite the fact that I am outside of Roman Catholic orthodoxy.

18 November 2007

Where earth receives heaven – Wisdom Sundays

John Chrysostom, on preparing for Sunday worship (or Saturday, for you 7th Day brothers):

[W]e are to-day to set foot within the holy vestibule, wherefore I have also put you in mind of the charge.

Since, if the Jews, when they were to approach “a mountain that burned, and fire, and blackness, and darkness, and tempest;” or rather when they were not so much as to approach, but both to see and to hear these things from afar;—were commanded for three days before to abstain from their wives, and to wash their garments, and were in trembling and fear, both themselves and Moses with them; much more we, when we are to hearken to such words, and are not to stand far from a smoking mountain, but to enter into Heaven itself, ought to show forth a greater self-denial; not washing our garments, but wiping clean the robe of our soul, and ridding ourselves of all mixture with worldly things. For it is not blackness that ye shall see, nor smoke, nor tempest, but the King Himself sitting on the throne of that unspeakable glory, and angels, and archangels standing by Him, and the tribes of the saints, with those interminable myriads.

For such is the city of God, having “the Church of the first-born, the spirits of the just, the general assembly of the angels, the blood of sprinkling,” [Heb. 12.22, 23, 44] whereby all are knit into one, and Heaven hath received the things of earth, and earth the things of Heaven, and that peace hath come which was of old longed for both by angels and by saints.

Herein standeth the trophy of the cross, glorious, and conspicuous, the spoils won by Christ, the first-fruits of our nature, the treasures of our King; all these, I say, we shall out of the Gospels know perfectly. If thou follow in becoming quietness, we shall be able to lead thee about everywhere, and to show where death is set forth crucified, and where sin is hanged up, and where are the many and wondrous offerings from this war, from this battle…. From "Homily on Matthew 1.1"
16 November 2007

Yes, let's abandon that Iraq

According to Greyhawk, there are two Iraqs, one in which things are going well and one, a media creation, which is a distaster.

The Iraq we need to abandon is the Iraq that the media have created. It's a lengthy post, well worth the read. It ends like this:

So I'm walking to the gym. Under my feet: four inches of gravel pave the way. Concrete t-wall sections form unbroken fortress walls on either side of my path. It's early in the morning, so the shadow of the wall on my left is shading that half of the road. A breeze is blowing, and in the shade in the moments just after dawn that breeze hits me in my shorts and t-shirt and chills me just enough that I take a few steps sideways and into the sun. And then it hit me - I'd been walking in the shade because that's what I - and everyone else here - had done throughut the 120 degree summer and on into the merely 90 degree days of early fall. And while the change has been gradual, it was only today that I noticed it, as I broke a time-worn habit and passed from the too-cool shadows into the glowing warmth of the morning desert sun. And I'm whistling a tune...

The media have been rather interesting to watch with respect to the war issue. They do seem to be doing much of their reporting so selectively as to give the impression that they are committed to undermining the war effort.

By and large they certainly give that impression. But I wonder about something.

I have a friend who is a counselor, a Christian counselor. For some time he taught the adult Sunday School I attended a few years ago. In the course of one session he made the comment that after decades of counseling he's convinced that most people are doing the best they can -- even if their best, quite honestly -- stinks. Failure, he said, is not prima facie proof of not trying.

Maybe the real problem, as it concerns the media, is not that they are trying to undermine the war, though I recognize that possibility. Maybe the real problem is that many of them just don't like war, an obvious enough point, but bear with me.

When I was an early teenager I complained to my dad about someone who didn't like me, despite there being not the slightest possibility of my having done something to this person. "Son," my dad said, "learn to accept now the fact that no matter where you go in life, someone, somewhere is just not going to like you for no reason. And there won't be anything you can do, up to and including sexual favors, that will change their minds about you."

I have noted over several decades that my father was indeed correct.

I have also noted the way people treat those they dislike in comparison with those whom they like. Take this person I just mentioned. One day (it was winter, junior high) a friend of his slipped and fell on some ice and he helped his friend back to his feet. They both got a laugh out of it, but it was the laughing with, not laughing at. Just a few days later, I slipped on some ice and (wouldn't you know it!) this nemesis of mine was there and got a great laugh out of it (i.e., laughing at, not with). I also noticed that this guy's friends could say something, and I could say the same exact thing. There was a problem only with things I said. One day, one of this guy's friends told him I soiled his shirt with my nasal discharge -- which was certainly not true. But because it was me, he believed it.

It is easy to believe the worst, to see only the worst about someone or something we do not like. That guy didn't like me; and everything I said or did was wrong, even if it was the exact thing one of his friends said or did. That's life.

The media do not like war. There is, therefore, nothing about this war which can have any redeeming value. To suggest that a war is going well is to assert an oxymoron, like bad scotch or something. A good war is like a good disease. There's a greater likelihood of someone being "pretty ugly" than of having a "good war".

It only gets worse when you throw in the media's obvious dislike of the President and most of his cabinet.

H/T: Blackfive

The Empress Strikes Back!

A distillation of the debate as reported here:

Clinton: You other candidates are distorting my record.
Others (in unison, with Obama hands clasped in front of him, clearly hearing the National Anthem playing somewhere): No we're not.
Clinton: Yes, you are.
Others (in unison, Edwards poofing his hair): NO, WE'RE NOT!
Clinton: Yes, you are and you're slinging mud too, just like Republicans.
Others (in unison, Biden trying to look like he's been able to keep up): Hey, take that back!
Clinton (trying to overcome the damage done by her campaign's complaining about how the guys keeping beating up on her, a poor, virtually single mother, still married -- and faithful -- to a philandering horn dog): And your doing it not because I'm a woman but because I'm ahead.

After having assumed multiple positions on issues like the war in Iraq and licenses for illegal aliens, Mrs. Clinton had the temerity to assert, “The American people know where I stand.”

Yes. With both feet planted firmly on a single pair of water skis, but holding on to ski ropes fastened to two boats, not exactly traveling in the same direction.

I'm still trying to figure out this assertion by Obama: "As long as we're distracted by this problem, we're not solving it."

Politiconese -- it's like a whole other language.
15 November 2007

What a country!

"It does not take a stethoscope to hear the pulse of New Yorkers on this topic," Mr. Spitzer said, standing with a half-dozen members of New York’s Congressional delegation who had supported his original move to give licenses to illegal immigrants.

Illegal immigrants driving legally.

Admitting he has failed to sell New Yorkers on the merits of the plan, NY Gov. Spitzer is giving up his plan to license illegals to drive.

Merits? What are the merits of making it possible for people in a nation illegally to drive in that nation legally? What hubris: It is not that the plan was without merits, but that the voters just couldn't be convinced of the merits. The plan itself has the merits. The problem is the voters. (Darn them! Idiots!)

I wonder what he'd do for an encore. Offer chips and beer to a man who broke into his house to watch a football game?

"You're here illegally. But, by all means, help yourself to our streets."

Then there's Jose Serrano:

Today, it is not Spitzer that lost, it is America...because we could have gotten a long way in New York to dealing with a real issue.

Frankly I don't see the loss in a nation's asserting its sovereignty. Not licensing illegals is quite consistent with the notion of border enforcement, which is itself consistent with national sovereignty. I don't see the loss in a nation's refusing to make it easier for those who have crossed its borders illegally to travel about on its roads with impunity. (Here's something I'd like to see: for Spitzer and his ilk cross into Mexico, or even Canada, illegally and apply for a driver's license. I'm keen to learn how that works out for them!)

It is amusing -- bit in no way surprising -- to note that, for Serrano, "dealing with a real issue" means dealing with it the way Democrats think it should be dealt with. My way or the highway! So to speak. Like the way some couples compromise.

Husband: I want a dog. She wants a cat.
Friend: So what are you going to do?
Husband: We compromised.
Friend: Oh? How's that?
Husband: We're getting a cat.

One has to wonder just how a nation loses by treating people as if they truly are in said nation illegally.

"Mr. Auslander, you're here illegally. Now, we can't have you driving on our roads without a license. So, here's your license. And remember, Mr. Auslander: if you break any of our really important laws (not our immigration laws, of course) you may be subject to deportation. So behave yourself out there. Seriously. We mean it. Really. No foolin'."

Like Yakov Smirnof used to say: "What a country!"
13 November 2007

More brilliant logic…

from a Liberal, naturally.

Drudge is reporting:

CNN's Wolf Blitzer has been warned not to focus Thursday's Dem debate on Hillary. “This campaign is about issues, not on who we can bring down and destroy,” top Clinton insider explains. “Blitzer should not go down to the levels of character attack and pull ‘a Russert’.”' Blitzer is set to moderate debate from Vegas….

A caller to Limbaugh, identifying himself as a liberal who will vote for Hillary, argues against the report by asserting that the Clintons are smarter than that.

Well. There you go.

1. According to Mr. A it is the case that Ms. B has done Z.
2. But Ms. B is smarter than to have done Z.
3. Therefore it is not the case, as Mr. A claims, that Ms. B has done Z.


If only we all would not do things we are too smart to do.

Note: I am not implying that conservatives don’t offer “brilliant” logic of their own. However, in my experience, it is liberals who are always making sure everyone knows how better educated, how much smarter – and well read!!! – they are than everyone else. (And if the issue isn’t who’s smarter, then it’s who’s more compassionate [with other people’s money, of course].)

Who mourns for the Titans?

According to this story about oil profits, oil companies are going to have difficulty keeping their profits as high as they have been. But of course no one's going to be crying over it: they make billions in obscene profits.

In our innumerate society it is irrelevant that those billions have rarely amounted to more than a profit of around 10% -- give or take a few percentage points. (And yes I have been tracking.) We are supposed to believe, according to the "innumerati", that once a company makes billions it is immaterial that those billions represent a profit of only ten percent. The relative size of the business in terms of the amount of business it does and the scope of its operations are irrelevant.

The word on the street is that the issue is "obscene" profits -- like the obscenity of a 10% profit, which is "obscene", recall, because that 10% amounts to billions, rather than millions, or merely thousands. And whatever the profit margin (as a percentage), billions of dollars in profits are obscene. If those billions represented a paltry 2% they would probably still be called obscene. Even, ostensibly, if some of the people with a right to a share of those profits are old people who own shares of mutual funds whose managers wisely invested in petroleum companies.

I suspect that the real issue is the whole concept of profit. For some, making a profit means selling something for more than it's worth. If you, as a car dealer, buy a car for $30K and then turn round and sell it for more than $30K plus your cost of doing business, then you are ripping people off by selling the product for more than it's worth. (Never mind that two people rarely place identical values on identical goods.) It's just that, for now, "obscene" profits are easier to attack than non-obscene profits. But this is only because economics and mathematics educations stink to high heaven in our republic. As a consequence, people truly believe they can talk meaningfully of profits without considering the margin, as opposed to just the dollar figure.

And it's easy to dislike petroleum companies. (Actually, the behavior of many corporations, though perhaps not most, make them all relatively easy to dislike, especially those which make very bad CEOs into very rich CEOs. Honestly: why shouldn't people think ill of companies which will pay CEOs 364 times what the average employee makes just to run these same companies almost to the brink of disaster?) Where else can you just raise and lower your prices based on the market cost of raw materials?

Well, actually, just about everywhere. In my little corner of the world, people in the construction business have difficulty bidding jobs and guaranteeing the price for as long as 30 days from the date of bid due to fluctuating lumber costs. Sometimes the price can change drastically in the space of just a few days. And it doesn't matter where you get your lumber -- Lowe's, Home Depot. They raise their lumber prices because the lumber companies have done so.

I remember a period, over a decade ago when I was running a restaurant to put myself through graduate school. There were floods and droughts in various parts of the world. And these weather phenomena played havoc with my food costs. On several occasions it would go something like this. One week I might get a case of good lettuce for, say, $16. But the next week a case of lettuce would cost me $30. Why? Flooding in the area of the world my lettuce was coming from destroyed most of the lettuce crop. My supplier, incurring a higher cost, kindly passed that cost on to me.

Now, we decided not to pass that cost on immediately to the customer, betting that the crops in other parts of the world would be better and, thus, the cost of lettuce lower. We were right; and our customers never knew. Yes, it hurt the bottom line a bit; and yes we recouped our losses over the weeks and months after the Great Lettuce Crisis. But it was still a bet, still a risk; and we could have lost that bet big time. (Previously, in a similar crisis, we raised our prices and some of my customers treated me like an oil executive.)

The person who really increases your price at the pump is the owner of the station at which you fill up; and that may not be owned by a petroleum company like ExxonMobile. Apparently, some station owners leave prices alone, betting that crude price (but certainly not refining costs!) will drop again, allowing them to recoup their losses. That's their choice. But the companies that actually supply the local station owner may not have that choice in the long run.

And even if they do, 10% isn't very much. If it is, my employer is more obscene than an oil company. My employer aims at, and usually hits, a profit of 12%. Heavens to Betsy! Twelve percent? I suppose I should take him out back and shoot the greedy, thieving bastard.

(I don't know. Maybe 10% is obscene. That would explain why so many Christians don't tithe.)

Of course, I take some ribbing from my center-left Christian brothers for defending oil companies. But here's the thing. Too many of them seem to me to think that oil companies are evil for various reasons. Perhaps they are. "Vengeance is mine," says the Lord. And these brothers of mine seem to think that they are the instruments of God's justice, seeking to punish the evil oil companies by confiscating their profits and distributing them to the poor. My only problem, if these oil companies are evil, is that the God of these brothers of mine who think they are serving His purposes requires that an accusation be confirmed by two or more witnesses and before a competent and duly authorized tribunal (see Deuteronomy 19.15). (Yes, there are Christians like this on the Right as well. I think I've demonstrated that I am a critic of their approach also.) Now, in that same Law, is stipulated that if accusers make false, unfounded accusations then they are to receive the punishment that the accused would have received had he been found guilty (see Deuteronomy 19.16-19). I wonder how those brothers of mine would like it if someone simply accused them of wrong-doing (or simply of making "too much" money) and helped themselves to some fraction of their profits (i.e, what is left of their take-home pay after they pay all their bills)?

I also have "secular" scruples as well. It is almost a sacred, fundamental principle in U. S. law (see Const., Amend. 5) that before the accused is deprived of life, liberty or property he has a right to confront the evidence against him in a court of law.

The Left have enjoyed telling us about all the rights that the present Administration is slowly wiping away. Perhaps that's true. But when you want to deprive people -- even corporate entities (owned by people, by the way) -- of some of their property for making "too much" profit without accusing them of breaking a law; when you want to do that on the basis of such an accusation, without even bothering to prove the case in a court of law; when you want to do that, without giving the accused the opportunity to confront the evidence against him -- then you're not in much of a position to talk about who's hard at work depriving people of their rights.

It just comes to this. If you are going to insist on treating people like law-breakers, then you ought to demonstrate the law-breaking. And if you want to treat people like law-breakers for making "obscene" profits, then write your congressman and let's get a law passed that will define "obscene" law-breaking and out-law it. But remember, the Constitution prohibits ex post facto laws. So, you can get those evil, greedy oil companies for their future "obscene" oil profits, but the "obscene" profits they've already made are pretty much theirs. Alternatively, Justices Breyer and Ginsberg, et al, could always apply their notion of "public use" in defense of seizing those "obscene"oil profits; or, they could find some obscure provision in the laws of some advanced European nation (maybe Belgium: those cats are always ahead of the curve) which prohibits "obscene" profits.

Just remember: Someday, someone could be coming after your obscene 10% -- give or take a few percentage points.
06 November 2007

Inner prayer, "vain repetition" and images

Taking up a theme involved with inner prayer (the subject of two previous postings, here and here), one has to ask about the efficacy for one's prayer life of repeating the same prayer over and over (i.e., in this case, the so-called Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me") and, for some people, hour after hour.

Isn't that the sort of "vain repetition" Jesus is talking about in Matthew 6.7 when he says, "And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words." The idea of repeating a simple prayer like the Jesus Prayer seems to be in conflict with the instruction here. Saying, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me" over and over is repetition.

Actually, I don't think it is at all what Jesus is talking about. Yes, it is technically repetition. But is it, for being repetition, meaningless, or vain, repetition? It isn't repetition per se that is forbidden; it's meaningless repetition. Also, there is the matter of "many words". The key is, I think, in the Greek words used in the passage: "battalogeo" is better translated "tedious babbling" (we all know someone...), hence the superiority of the NIV here; "polulogia" (many words) connotes one who uses too many words, one who keeps explaining himself to you even after he's convinced you, long after you understand the point and you start to wonder if he thinks you're stupid for letting him convince you so soon, so he's going to keep on talking until he gets to the point at which you should have been convinced if only you were smart enough to wait that long. Kind of like some callers to radio talk shows, who keep making their point after the host gets it -- and so do you.

In commenting on this passage, Calvin says:

He reproves another fault in prayer, a multiplicity of words. There are two words used, but in the same sense: for battologia is “a superfluous and affected repetition,” and polulogia is “unmeaning talk.” Christ reproves the folly of those who, with the view of persuading and entreating God, pour out a superfluity of words. This doctrine is not inconsistent with the praises everywhere bestowed in Scripture on earnestness in prayer: for, when prayer is offered with earnest feeling, the tongue does not go before the heart. Besides, the grace of God is not obtained by an unmeaning flow of words; but, on the contrary, a devout heart throws out its affections, like arrows, to pierce heaven. At the same time, this condemns the superstition of those who entertain the belief, that they will secure the favor of God by long murmurings.

What Calvin thinks -- and clearly I think he's correct -- is that Jesus is rebuking those who believe "the efficacy of prayer to lie chiefly in talkativeness. The greater number of words that a man mutters, the more diligently he is supposed to have prayed."

Now, it isn't that Calvin is dispositive of anything. But I do happen to think he's correct. There are, in the English translation of it, ten words in the Jesus Prayer. Hardly "battalogia" or "pulologia". (Amaze your friends with words like those!) Hardly the approach to prayer that a used car salesman would take, as if artful expression in a long-winded sales pitch will persuade God more effectively than a simple, heart-felt request. No, a prayer such as the Jesus Prayer is the heart-felt cry of a person with so much to pray about, so many people and their needs, so many things weighing him down with concern (an entire world at war, for example) that the only thought he can cogently express, the single petition which covers and includes all else burdening him is, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me [and hear all the other petitions I would make if words did not fail me for the weight of them on my soul!]."

Most people I know feel a certain pressure to offer specific, detailed petitions to God, as if the longer and more detailed the prayer the greater efficacy in prayer. They sound a bit like people at parties who know it's polite to talk so, fearing silence, they never shut up. I wonder: if you can really do that all the time, just how burdened for those things are you really? I also wonder: do you think God won't know what you're approaching him for unless you deliniate it for him in minute, and verbose, detail?

But then, why pray at all? Calvin, still commenting on the passage from Matthew says,

Believers do not pray, with the view of informing God about things unknown to him, or of exciting him to do his duty, or of urging him as though he were reluctant. On the contrary, they pray, in order that they may arouse themselves to seek him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on his promises, that they may relieve themselves from their anxieties by pouring them into his bosom; in a word, that they may declare that from Him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things. God himself, on the other hand, has purposed freely, and without being asked, to bestow blessings upon us; but he promises that he will grant them to our prayers. We must, therefore, maintain both of these truths, that He freely anticipates our wishes, and yet that we obtain by prayer what we ask.

Prayer is not an exercise in saying or thinking words. Prayer is the natural result of the soul's quest to commune with God. Or, as Theophan would put it, "Prayer is the way of ascent to God."

Now, to get back to images during prayer.

Perhaps you've had the experience of wandering thoughts while you pray. Perhaps (thinking about Theophan's caution against images) images come to mind while you pray. I think it's unavoidable: you are flesh as well as spirit. But recall that Theophan's great concern is not images per se. He is talking about being aware of the "eye of God" on your "inner being". The eye of God -- have no image or concept of that. How could you? Well, you can always try. As Calvin wrote: The human mind is an idol factory. Beware.

No. Images will come to your mind as you pray, repeatedly, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me." (Or any prayer exercise you may engage in, really.) The imortant thing is to have no images of God in mind as you pray.

As for those other images and wandering thoughts. Think about them for a moment. What are they? As you pray, are you distracted by things you have to do? Like shopping? But why ought that be a distraction from prayer? If you acknowledge God's ownership over all you have, and recognize a duty to exercise stewardship, then certainly shopping is a proper subject of prayer.

I don't want to suggest that you simply make these "distractions" from prayer immediately subjects for prayer. Neither do I want to minimize these as distractions from prayer.

I want to suggest that when your prayer life is right and something like shopping comes to mind, you may actually be praying about the shopping -- or whatever -- you have to do. Perhaps you are praying and you are distracted just momentarily by the thought of someone, a friend, a sick or dying relative. If Theophan is correct, and the words you utter are not essential to prayer, then perhaps those images represent something that you are praying about without being thoroughly conscious of it. Perhaps -- think about it for a moment -- those images represent some of the things you are burdened with and for which the Holy Spirit is praying on your behalf (see Romans 8.26).

Or it may be that God is talking back to you as it were. If you are praying and are "distracted" by the thought of shopping --or something else on an ever-growing to-do list -- perhaps you need to re-evaluate your life. We do a lot. Activity may suggest a life filled with purpose, but sometimes activity is just activity and more activity is just more activity. Perhaps those distractions from prayer are, more importantly, distractions from your entire life (see Luke 10.38-42). Perhaps God is giving you those images and wandering thoughts not as distractions, but because they are His testimony as to what are your real distractions.

Let me suggest, in true Calvinistic fashion there are two areas of thought with regard to images and concepts in prayer: God and Man (i.e, specifically, you). Have no images with respect to the first. As for the significance of images and concepts or distractions, you have to exercise your judgment about their meaning and significance. There is nothing automatic, nothing obvious about their meaning and significance.

As Theophan says,

Attention to what goes on in the heart and to what comes forth from it is the chief work of a well-ordered Christian life. Through this attention the inward and the outward are brought into due relation with one another. But to this watchfulness, discernment must always be added, so that we may understand aright what passes within and what is required by outward curcumstance. Attention is useless without discernment.

We are fools to reject logic like this

Barbara Boxer recently explained why we should accept uncritically scientists claims about global warming.

It's like this. When scientists told us that cigarettes cause cancer, we didn't question them. When they told us that HIV causes AIDS, we didn't question them. (Well, anyone who did, as we know, was a whacko.)

They were correct about smoking and cancer. They were correct about HIV and AIDS. We didn't question them then. They must be correct about humans and global warming. We shouldn't question them now.

Athena has spoken. Let all the earth keep silence before Her.


Then there's Russ Feingold, another Congressional genius. He doesn't think we can rely on Mukasey as attorney general because Mukasey won't agree with Feingold and others that waterboarding is torture.

One has to wonder, why does not the Congress make it a federal crime for a U. S. interrogator to use waterboarding as a method of aggressive interrogation? For you see, if they would do that, then it would not matter whether the Attorney General agreed that waterboarding is torture. The Attorney General is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States and his office, the Department of Justice, must prosecute those who are accused of breaking federal law. What Feingold wants is for an Attorney General to share an opinion with him and his cohorts and, apparently, to have that opinion be granted the force of law, and violators of this opinion to be prosecuted.

Limbaugh's mocking episode; an update

Presently, I am listening to Rush justify his aforementioned mocking yesterday of an 18 year old Inuit girl's testimony on the effects of global warming on her community.

His justification amounts to this. He claims for himself the right to criticise testimony before Congress, and won't apologize for doing so.

He's correct: he has that right. And he should criticise such testimony.

Mocking a girl for crying during her testimony, however, is not the same as criticizing (or critiquing) her testimony. There is a distinction. Limbaugh should make it also.
05 November 2007

A dirty little secret

One of my favorite bumper stickers (right up there with "God is too big to fit in one religion") reads "I'm not rich enough to be a Republican."

The stereotype of the rich Republican is maximized to the highest extent possible during election season. The truth is, in fact, quite the contrary:

Income disparity – to use the class warrior’s favourite term – is greatest among the districts of lawmakers that lead each party’s campaign arm. Maryland senator Chris Van Hollen chairs the Democratic congressional campaign committee. With more than 36,000 prosperous households and a median income of nearly $70,000, his suburban Washington district even out-sparkles Ms Pelosi’s. In contrast, fewer than 5,000 such wealthy households are found in the largely rural district of his Republican counterpart, Tom Cole from Oklahoma. The median income there is only $35,500.

It doesn't matter to me which party has more rich people in it. The question is largely irrelevant. The real question is which party has positions which I think -- by and large -- are better for the country. The answer to that question is not determined by the answer to the question, "Which party has the most rich people in it?"

However, if a party is going to be held up as a party only for the rich, then the assertion should be true, even if it is an ad hominem argument -- the most popular argument in political discourse today.


Speaking of political discourse, it was disappointing to hear Rush Limbaugh mock an Inuit for crying during congressional testimony on the loss of culture her people experience due to global warming. Even if anthropogenic global warming is not true, it's poor form to mock people who think they've been harmed, even if they are incorrect. If your position is that global warming, even if true, is not anthropogenic, it certainly serves no good purpose to mock someone who thinks it is and that she is a victim. And it certainly makes some people disinclined to hear your case.

Did I mention that it's poor form?
04 November 2007

The road to the pharmacy runs through heaven – Wisdom Sunday

About the general connection between Christianity and politics, our position is more delicate. Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster. On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything – even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the state at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately, it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that “only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilizations.” You see the little rift? “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.” That’s the game. – C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, XXIII, para. 4, emphasis mine.

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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