Sunday, January 30, 2005

Bravo, Iraq!

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Iraq election log: 30 January 2005

I'm not going to be one of those liberal bloggers who grinch the Iraq election. If you want to get an earful of that, start here. There is no doubt that democracy is a good thing, and that the election is a good thing--most Iraqis certainly think so. Here are some links to blogs. Here's a site linking to some Kurdish blogs). And here's a good one from London, were Pakistani, Palestinian and Algerian Muslims tried to intimidate Iraqi ex-pats going to the polls.

It looks like voter turnout in Iraq is comparable to what we get in the US--where cities don't have to be locked down on election day. On the other hand I'm not overly optimistic. Democracy by itself doesn't fix violence, poverty, ignorance and bigotry. After the first blush of enthusiasm there will be more violence and grinding disappointment. But it will be worth it, I think, because democracy is a good thing that changes people's way of viewing the world and their place in it.

Bush, riding the crest of the wave, is on TV making noises about decent Iraqis' victory over the "thugs." I just hope it doesn't carry his domestic agenda through: "democracy is good, therefore we should privatize Social Security." Then again, Winston Churchill was booted out after WWII, and this animal is no Churchill.

But "thugs" they are, those angry young men we dignify as "insurgents." The recipe is always the same: where there's poverty, misery and oppression, there will be cadres of young men eager to do violence; they can be used by ideologues and by self-serving politicians. The fatal mistake is to imagine that they, the "Street," are the authentic voice of the people.

We played this scenario out 40 years ago when the received view was that the Black Panthers were the authentic voice of black Americans, that the NAACP had sold out, and that Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks were Uncle Toms. (I'm proud to say that my name is inscribed on the Rosa Parks Wall of Tolerance maintained by the Southern Poverty Law Center--hit the link and contribute!). It plays out if we imagine that IRA "militants" are the authentic voice of the Irish people. It plays out whenever we reflexively take the position that whatever is countercultural is good and that the rhetoric of freedom, democracy and liberation is nothing more than a cover for racism and oppression.

How do we, as liberals, shake off the burden of this perennial adolescence, the rhetoric of revolution, radical chic and facile adolescent cynicism?

Wednesday, January 26, 2005


Academic Integrity Workshop Day 2. This was even better than Day 1. We had a presentation on, an online service that maintains a burgeoning database of potential cheat materials against which we could check student papers.

Some of us (including myself) were thrilled; others, faculty as well as students, were horrified. We had a lively discussion of the respective merits of Hobbesian cynicism vs. Trust and the macroscopic projection of our microcosmic views when it came to politics and world affairs: strong military and cops to beat up the Bad Guys vs. Trust and Niceness. Needless to say I was for the military, cops and

Meanwhile those of us who'd brought our laptops were cruising around the internet looking at the site, the Rutgers Academic Integrity site recommended by the presenter and, in my case I was checking to see whether was public so that I could buy stock in it. It isn't--yet. But I'll sock in bucks as soon as I can.

There were significant differences by department in our attitude to this item. English, which had been offered access to turnitin as a pilot project were not enthusiastic. In one sense they were the ideal subjects to test it: they assigned the most papers and were most directly concerned with assessing student writing. But they were also by and large Luddites who didn't like the idea of having students submit papers electronically and, quite apart from moral qualms about the cynicism inherent in the project, were uneasy about the technical issues. Theology was ambivalent. Turnitin was a nasty, cynical thing: G. said, it could also be used for pedagogical rather than punitive purposes to teach students how to cite references properly but I thought this was a little self-deceptive or disingenuous. As I pointed out to Fr. R. on our break, "Hey, you guys believe in Original Sin, right?"

I don't understand why trust, or faith, is supposed to be a virtue. It's simply an empirical conjecture about how people are likely to behave, and I do not understand why it is supposed to be a good thing to guess, a priori, that people will behave well rather than badly. I've been to quite a number of retreats and other programs where participants were supposed to fall backwards into the arms of others there to catch them. I could never understand the point of this exercise: of course, given the set up, it was highly probable that we would be caught. It does not follow that it is likely we would be caught in ordinary life situations and, as a matter of empirical fact, it seems highly unlikely. What is the point of attempting to instill empirically false beliefs? Even if we recognize that people are not likely to be kind and decent to us, or to catch us when we fall, it doesn't follow that we shouldn't do what we can to be kind, decent and fair to others.

Currently the received wisdom seems to be that Liberals believe that people are inherently good so that Trust is warranted while Conservatives believe that people are fundamentally bad so that it takes soldiers, copes and coercion to keep a lid on things. I'd with the Conservatives when it comes to their pessimistic view of human nature and views about the importance of coercion. What I don't understand is how this supports their views on domestic policy. If people are fundamentally bad, as I believe, employers will certainly exploit their employees because they can, men will beat their wives because they're bigger and stronger and none of us will contribute substantially to take care of people who can't take care of themselves. We're bigots and selfish jerks because our nature is fallen but our rational nature, imagio dei, isn't wholly corrupted, so we can see what we are and establish schemes to circumvent our sinfulness--coercive taxation and the welfare state.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Academic Integrity

I've just spent come back from the first day of a 2-day workshop at school on cheating which was actually quite interesting. Tomorrow the real good stuff: and other technical devices for catching cheaters.

I've never cheated. I've been to Traffic School 11 times for speeding and committed a variety of other sins--I am, after all, a Utilitarian. But I've never plagiarized, copied or done any of the stuff which, according to the presentations, the majority of students currently do. First, it never occurred to me until late in my undergraduate career when someone stole one of my papers (Mill on phenomenalism) for the fraternity files. Secondly, I knew I could write a better paper than anything I could buy or steal. Thirdly, I just liked playing the Game: I wanted to do the stuff, I liked writing and competing. I'm trying to remember now, but I just can't remember anything I didn't like in college. The closest I can come is a psych course but even there I liked the stuff on perception.

There were a number of students at this affair and one of their chief complaints was that they had to take general education courses that had nothing to do with their future lives or careers. These, they said, were the courses in which students were most likely to cheat. True: I teach those courses, in particular the most hated of all undergraduate requirements and my favorite: logic.

But remembering my undergraduate career, I loved these irrelevant courses. Career preparation is what you have to do; courses that are irrelevant are gravy. I objected to the science requirement because I had a misguided notion that college should make me a cultivated person on the model of 19th century graduates of Oxbridge colleges--and that didn't include science. But I had to take 3 quarters of biology and I loved it. I must have because I remember all about adp/atp cycles, chlorophyl, the structure of the cell, and especially the stuff on genetics. I loved the labs especially: we typed our blood (I'm AB+), grew yeast cells and charted their growth on semi-log graph paper and did an experiment where we hooked ourselves up to machines monitoring heartbeat, respiration etc. while pedaling stationary bicycles. What's not to like?

I think it's the inverse Tom Sawyer Principle: make out drudgery, whitewashing a fence, as a treat and people will like it; make out education as a series of hoops to jump through, something they have to do, and they'll hate and resent it--and cheat.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Plato at Stanford

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

I'm jazzed. I'm preparing my analytic philosophy course, cruising around the web looking for stuff and one thing leads to another. This is what it was like for me as an undergraduate when I spent days surfing the library but in excelsis because I can hit links to anything, get everything I want. It's like some fantasy pig heaven of instant gratification--think "macademia nuts," Haydn's Emperor Quartet," "red Mazda Miata convertable" or whatever you please and it instantly materializes for your pleasure.

I was preparing my lecture on the JTB account of knowledge and wanted something on blindsight. Does a reliably blindsighted individual know what he takes himself to be guessing at? This and other good stuff comes through David Chalmers' splendid website. For fun, especially good for pedagogical purposes, the link to disorders of consciousness (scroll down) including blindsight, face blindness, synesthesia and the like is a blast.

But as everyone knows the Empyrian Ninth Heaven of the Beatific Vision in philosophical cyberspace is the Stanford Encyclopedia at Philosophy at, everything with links to everything, omnipotent, omniscient and if not omnibenevolent as good as it gets in one place. In principle, any literate person with a computer and internet connection could get a complete philosophical education browsing and following links. So far it's free and I've contributed to keep it that way.

It's hard to express the wonder that hits me occasionally at living in this intellectual pig heaven, not just SEP but all the stuff out there that anyone can grab without sounding like a complete ass. Get a life--sex, parties, travel, whatever. But this is like preaching that drugs are an "escape" and that anyone who had a satisfactory real life wouldn't need to escape. Complete baloney--recreational drugs are just more. Intellectual activity is more too--not a replacement for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, but more good stuff. And when I have a little time I'm going to explore this also. Music is more too--I'm listening to Pictures on Exhibition (orchestral version) now. There doesn't seem to be any point to not listening to music all the time.

Back to work--yum!

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Social Security

Doing my public duty to spread the word, and to spread the spreading of the word on Social Security to any bloggers around, I'm linking this piece from the American Prospect headed Attention, Bloggers

American Prospect Online - ViewWeb

In Buying Into Failure Paul Krugman notes that in attempting to privatize Social Security the US is following the lead of the UK and Chile. I don't know much about Chile but my mother-in-law is an old age pensioner in the UK and it doesn't look like the system is working. She even made it into the local paper in an article on the difficulties old age pensioners in the area are facing with rising costs and inadequate benefits.
It's ironic that the Cato Institute to which Krugman alludes has eliminated talk about Social Security "privatization" in favor or talk about Social Security "choice" because as her savings get eaten up she doesn't have many choices.

I'd like to have some choices when I get old. The notion that security is a trade-off for choice is flat-out wrong: security is a pre-requisite for choice, for effective freedom and willingness to undertake risk. Here for example is an article citing the "cushion hypothesis" to explain why Chinese, contrary to popular stereotypes, are more likely to take risks than Americans. The author notes:

"people in a collectivist society may be more likely to receive help if they are in need. As a result, the adverse outcome of a risky option may not seem as severe to them. They appear to be less risk averse. People in a collectivist culture feel that they are 'cushioned' in case they fall, which is why we call it the cushion hypothesis."

In some countries, individuals are cushioned by government safety nets; in others by extended families and community networks. In the US, we have very little cushioning of either sort. We fantasize a world of close-knit families, neighborly neighbors and communities that take care of their own, but it just isn't so and unraveling government safety nets isn't going to make it so. To have that fantasy world, even if it were a good thing, we'd need to have a higher marriage rate and larger families, we'd have to get women out of the labor force to care for the elderly, and we'd have to stay put geographically to keep extended families and communities together.

Even if that were feasible, I don't find it a very attractive picture: I would not want to be dependent on filial piety, neighborliness or community spirit. Pettit in a defense of Sen suggests, plausibly, that "capability" or effective freedom requires that the satisfaction of our preferences not be "context dependent," that it not depend upon the preferences of others. In any case, I'm a nasty cuss and think I would make out much better getting social security checks direct deposited into my bank account than I would relying on the good will of family, neighbors or community.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Moral Clarity

The New York Times > Magazine > The Way We Live Now: The Moral Cataclysm

Bush's call for moral clarity may be a travesty of both words, but it speaks to a genuine need. People want it so badly that they are willing to project it where it's lacking -- or settle for moral simplicity instead. And we are right to beware of simplicity that offers feel-good kitsch and frank manipulation in place of moral reflection. But it would be wrong to reject moral sentiment just because it can be misused.

Most people, including most academics outside of philosophy, don't know that there's such a thing as ethics. They assume that there are, on the one hand, codes of conduct--professional ethics for various disciplines and theological ethics for different religions--and on the other hand murkey sentimentality. "Moral clarity" is a matter of buying a code of conduct with clear, simple rules--all else is sentimentality. Professional ethics only concern behavior on the job; for an overarching code of conduct we look to religion. Sentimentality may soften the edges of our commitment to a code of conduct in an agreeable and appropriate way but without commitment to a code of conduct we are left with mud, murk and moral relativism.

This isn't a conjecture. We discovered this in a class 2 years ago when, after years of hearing undergraduates use the words "ethics" and "morality" in funny ways I decided to ask the class whether they thought ethics and morality were different and, if so, what the difference was. The consensus that they did was overwhelming so in standard professorial manner I wrote "ethics" and "morality" on the board and asked the class to characterize what they thought these two concepts were all about.

The consensus was again overwhelming and almost perfectly reflected the consensus of non-philosophers at a workshop on "ethics across the curriculum" that I'd attended a few weeks earlier. "Ethics" was, students agreed, "rational" and could be articulated; "morality" was a matter of feeling and couldn't be articulated much less argued for. Ethics, they agreed, should govern our conduct in business, the professions and public life: there were rules for doctors, lawyers, managers and politicians and they should be followed. Morality was for private life and should govern life in the family and among friends. Most were skeptical about about religious ethics though and thought that religion, to the extent that it was of any interest at all, was about morality and had no place in business or public life.

Some of the more astute students then took the next step and opined that the problem with Liberals was that they were sentimental, short-sighted and confused ethics with morality. If an employee was incompetent but had a wife and seven children to support, Morality said you should keep him on but Ethics said you had to fire him: liberals just didn't understand that managers had an ethical obligation to produce results and that firms had a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to maximize profits. It was the same in public life: Liberals just didn't realize that if you taxed the pants off of people to provide for the poor it would undermine incentives, lower GDP and make everyone worse off; they also didn't realize that there were Bad Guys out there who would beat us up if we didn't have jails, armies and get-tough policies. Charity was terribly important--around the edges to heal the wounds--but couldn't be central without disastrous results.

This reminded me of one of C. S. Lewis' Narnia books where, after the boys are issued with weapons to fight for righteousness, Lucy is given a box of elixers with supernaturally curative powers because it's unseemly for women to fight. (I detest C. S. Lewis) The idea now was that guys, both male and female, fight the good fight in management, the professions and public life--girls, both male and female, follow after healing, salving wounds and dispensing charity. When Tsunamis strike the girls come out with their magic healing medicine boxes. If the Market beats people down they operate little charities and faith-based initiatives to make their people's lives better. That's compassionate convervatism. But woe to all if we let the compassion, the woman business, take over.

We ground our teeth and thought, you wait, you just wait. "We" isn't royal, or authorial or any figure of speech but the plain English first person plural: this was a team taught course I did with a colleague in econ. One of my colleagues at my first job, at Northern Illinois University, recalled going to dos with Gustav Bergmann who would lie on his back on the floor with a bottle of beer on his belly and who, listening to the paper a miserable junior colleague was reading would chant, "You wait, you just wait" before beating the crap out of the miserable untenured victim or grad student. I do this myself to the best of my ability.

We didn't convert most students, which wasn't the aim, but we got across the idea that the views they opposed weren't just naive and couldn't simply be dismissed: conservative views can't simply be dismissed, liberal views can't simply be dismissed and addressing that question of how to live ones life is hard, takes some time and thinking about. Most Americans don't seem to get this and it's a stinking shame that most colleges don't require a course in ethics to get students clear about how to deal with this stuff. That required ethics course is part of the Catholic tradition and, contrary to what parents think, at most places it isn't a matter of telling students that they shouldn't screw around. They get the real thing. I'm a pariah at my place because I have a big mouth but I'm happy and proud to teach at a Catholic college.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Buying a Meal Ticket

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: Men Just Want Mommy

"Powerful women are at a disadvantage in the marriage market because men may prefer to marry less-accomplished women." Men think that women with important jobs are more likely to cheat on them....there are evolutionary pressures on males to take steps to minimize the risk of raising offspring that are not their own." men with demanding jobs would rather have old-fashioned wives, like their mums, than equals. The study found that a high I.Q. hampers a woman's chance to get married, while it is a plus for men. The prospect for marriage increased by 35 percent for guys for each 16-point increase in I.Q.; for women, there is a 40 percent drop for each 16-point rise. So was the feminist movement some sort of cruel hoax? The more women achieve, the less desirable they are? Women want to be in a relationship with guys they can seriously talk to - unfortunately, a lot of those guys want to be in relationships with women they don't have to talk to.

As with all sociobiological explanations there's probably something to it but it misses the point. With every 16 point rise in IQ there's that much less reason for women to get married--particularly since men look for ego-stroking and support services. When I was growing up the only way to get a place of your own was by getting married. The only alternative was to be an old maid schoolteacher and take care of your aging parents until they died and you inherited the house. When I was an undergraduate, Miss Cowler, the English professor who instilled my lifelong passion for the Enlightenment (which she, and everyone else at the time called "The Eighteenth Century") invited me to her house for drinks. I still remember the beautiful cylindrical glasses with false bottoms in which she served liqueurs and my amazement at the fact that she, an unmarried women, actually lived in a house on her own. I thought there was some law against it.

My mother's view was that a man was, as she put it, a "meal ticket." You got married to get a house of your own and a man to pay the mortgage, take out the trash and do odd jobs. It was also the ticket out of the labor force, where there were no options for women other than dead-end drudgery at low wages. As my mother said of my cousin Joan, who had taught elementary school, "she couldn't stand dealing with those 30 little stinkers so she got pregnant as soon as possible." Coming from this I wondered why any woman who could get a good job and make enough money to buy a house, get nice liqueur glasses, and pay for handyman services, would get married.

It always amazed me that feminists by and large bought into the male picture of the traditional arrangement according to which women were subservient and oppressed. According to the traditional female picture men were dumb animals with strong backs and weak brains whom women manipulated. My mother told me the story of a remote ancestor, apparently domiciled in Silas Marner country around the time of the Industrial Revolution. He had a loom in his cottage which he worked lying on the floor underneath it. When he tried to come up for a break, pulling backward to sit up, his wife would grab him by the ankles, drag him back under the loom and force him to keep working. Did traditional men ever get the idea that traditional women were using them---flattering their vanity, soothing their egos and providing small services in order to get houses of their own, financial support and household maintenance? Did they ever realize that it was traditional women, not feminists, who were contemptuous of them?

I don't practice what I preach--married very young and now married for 32 years, I wanted a relationship with someone I could talk to and a real Dick-and-Jane family in the suburbs--and I fell in love. But none of my friends are married. Why bother? If you have a decent job and aren't looking for a bail out, if you can buy a house on your own salary and afford to hire a handyman, if you can get the things you want without sucking up, playing games, flattering and doing little services for a male companion, why bother?

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Why Teaching is No Fun

I've just finished preparing my Analytic Philosophy class for Spring. Teaching this course is a kick because I relive my philosophical youth, particularly when I reread papers from time time when Analytic Philosophy was young. I've been sneaking around the Web peeking at other people's syllabi for comparable courses and it seems that we all do what we like--I seem to like reading Russell more than most.

But the constraints imposed by the students I have to deal with and the System in which we operate make teaching miserable. In part it's because I'm female, physically unprepossessing and peculiar: if I don't work very hard to assert authority and display organization I will be treated as a buffoon--a funny fat little women, a figure of fun. Other faculty can afford to be laid back but I can't: I have to exert myself to the fullest to act "professional" since I don't "look professional." Once I've established myself, after a few class meetings, I can let go a little--in fact I sometimes let go a lot sometimes and enjoy myself, but I always have to work at maintaining order and structure. My appearance is against me and I don't have the social skills to "facilitate" discussions or use any of the gimmicks we're encouraged to try, so I lecture, keep strictly on track, and do everything I can to avoid the appearance of "disorganization."

But it's not just me. The System makes things difficult because the brute fact is that the university is both an educational institution and a screening agency for employment and admission to professional programs. I have to grade students, and because they know that they are there to get their credentials, I have to establish a clear scheme for assessing them and rigidly stick by it. This year, after agonizing, I've decided to grade them on the basis of a term paper and objective type quizzes to see that they're keeping up with the reading. I haven't yet decided how many quizzes or how much they'll count and here I have to figure in a number of factors: I have to weigh my own view that these quizzes are a waste of my time and theirs against their interest in not having everything hang on one term paper; I have to have enough quizzes and have them at set times to please students; I have to work at these quizzes to make them good, to see to it that they aren't a complete waste of time.

I wish I could give students collaborative projects but grading them is a hassle. I wish I could give them take-home tests: I have a stock of very clever, juicy questions and I'm interested in seeing how students answer them. It would be wonderful if students would get together and discuss these questions--that's what philosophy is all about. But they won't discuss them unless they're a graded assignment and if they are I have to worry about collaboration: what is legitimate and what isn't? what do I say to students who've worked on a question together and come up with substantially the same answer but where it's clear that one student engaged with the material and understood what was going on while the others parroted snatches of the solution without understanding it? Furthermore, because the university is an employment agency I have to rank students and get a spread of grades: I have to make sure that some students do badly.

So I'll give true/false and multiple-choice tests where students can't complain about the grades and I'll weight them heavily enough to please students who don't like writing essays. I'll restrict topics for the term paper and impose mickey mouse rules about it to make it harder for them to cheat. By the time students get their grades they'll be home on vacation and less likely to give me a hard time: they can't complain about the grades for objective type tests and they won't complain about the grade for their paper so I'll be off the hook. Pedagogically, this stinks. But I will do it so that I can get this crap off my back so that I have some chance to talk about Russell, Ayer and Quine, about Skepticism about the External World, Puzzle Cases of Personal Identity, Twin Earth and all the things that interest me and got me into philosophy in the first place.

I'm fed up with the whole thing. I love my field: I would gladly learn and gladly teach but the System makes it difficult. My son is now in college and convinced that faculty are out to beat up on students. I've talked to other students who believe that faculty really like to lecture, don't want to hear what they have to say, don't want to engage in discussion. Hardly. We're all of us caught in an evil net

Sunday, January 09, 2005

La Religione Diffusa

WorldWide Religious News

Paul Ginsborg, a prominent historian of Italy, described the overall atmosphere, in Italian, as "la religione diffusa." The religion of everyone or, in his loose translation, "It's in the air."...Crucifixes may hang in public schools, but without the heavy political overtones that come with displays of, say, the Ten Commandments in public places in America..."Everybody thinks that the pope is the only moral figure in my country as far as war and social justice go," said Emma Bonino, a leader of the Radical Party, who spearheaded the campaign to legalize abortion in the 1970's. "But on personal behavior, meaning sex, meaning divorce, meaning motherhood and pregnancy, people frankly do not care.

For the past decade or so I've been following Culture Wars in the US and the debate about homosexuality in the Episcopal Church in particular which, so far, has culminated in the Eames Report. I even published a paper on this myself.

Liberals in the Episcopal Church feel that it is terribly important for the Church as an institution to affirm, officially, that homosexual activity is morally ok. I don't really understand why. Episcopalians have never paid any attention to the Church's official views on "personal behavior" and no one else has every really paid any attention to the Episcopal Church. The whole program has the Quixotic air of a campaign to get the Roman Catholic Church to reverse its position on birth control. Apart from a few eccentric enthusiasts for "natural family planning" no Catholic takes it seriously. Lay Catholics don't take it seriously and know that priests don't take it seriously; priests know that lay Catholics don't take it seriously and know that lay Catholics know that they don't take it seriously either. Everyone knows that the Vatican will keep making noises about it, and other matters of "personal behavior," because it's part of the routine--but everyone knows that no one takes it seriously and that objecting to it is just silly.

Episcopalians, though, are Protestants--indeed, the "P" in "WASP." (If you don't believe it or were told in Confirmation Class that the Reformation in England never really happened see The Stripping of the Altars) Protestants believe that everything in religion should be taken seriously and that anything that isn't is sheer hypocracy or superstition.

In the Episcopal Church, as it had become, it just wouldn't do to view the official doctrines about homosexuality as silly stuff that no one took seriously, like the RC Church's official position on contraception. People who didn't buy it felt that they had to see to it that it was officially repudiated. It wouldn't do to simply to ignore the official position on sexual conduct as one of those silly things that no one took seriously and that everyone knew no one took seriously--if it was wrong it had to be expunged and officially repudiated, whatever the cost.

This seemed to me preposterous. Tony Soprano and his associates never felt that they needed clergy approval for operating protection rackets and whacking people in order to be Catholic. All religions have lots of doctrines and rules on the books. Some, like rules against killing are sensible and most people are on board with them; others, like prohibitions on artificial contraception are completely silly and virtually no one takes them seriously. No one has to take the official doctrines and rules, whether sensible or silly, seriously to belong to a religion: you go through the motions, buy what you like, take what you want and do as you please. That is la religione diffusa.

The Episcopal Church's crusade to recognize homosexuality as officially ok was arrogant, pointless and, like the recent campaign for gay marriage, largely counterproductive. Among coastal elites--the Episcopal Church's (admittedly shrinking) "base"--homosexuality wasn't an issue and, within the Church, the traditional prohibition was not taken any more seriously than the official ban on pre-marital sex or the official ban on "artificial" birth control in the Catholic Church. There's no patching it up now that the issue is out on the table. It won't collapse the Anglican Church: it will simply erode it a little bit faster than the normal course of events would have done, cost more money and make people angrier.

What would have happened if 40 years ago the Episcopal Church had simply continued with business as usual--cranking out Elizabethan liturgy and maintaining phony gothic churches as settings for fancy weddings? What if it hadn't done folk masses in the '60s or liturgical revision in the '70s, ordained women or blessed same sex unions? It would certainly have declined because, much as it eats me, the Episcopal Church could never be a vehicle of the religione diffusa that I envied in the Mediterranean Folk Catholicism I knew as a child or the medieval fantasy of Chaucer's Merry England I entertained as an undergraduate. Great Pan is dead, the semi-pagan folk Christianity I admired is on the way out and the religion of self-conscious conviction and intentional commitment is on the rise. And the US represents the world-wide norm--outside of Italy apparently--where religion is taken seriously or not at all, which, unfortunately, for me means not at all.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Random Acts of Kindness

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: Land of Penny Pinchers

The outpouring of U.S. aid, private and public, for tsunami victims is wonderful. But, frankly, the affected nations will get all the money they can absorb for the moment, and Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka are far from the worst off in the world. "The really big money can be better and more usefully absorbed by developing good health and education programs in the poorest countries," noted Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development. "But that's not as visible or heroic."

A few years ago there was a fad for Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty. Commuters impulsively paid tolls for queues of cars behind them, suburbanites planted daffodils along roadways and everyone made a point of saying "Have a nice day."

"Anne Herbert. Tall, blonde and 40...lives in Marin, one of the country's ten richest counties...It was in a Sausalito restaurant that Herbert jotted the phrase down on a paper place-mat, after turning it around in her mind for days. "That's wonderful!" a man sitting nearby said, and copied it down carefully on his own place-mat. "Here's the idea," Anne says, "Anything you think there should be more of, do it randomly." Her own fantasies include breaking into depressing-looking schools to paint the classrooms, leaving hot meals on kitchen tables in the poor parts of town and slipping money into a proud old woman's purse. Says Anne, " Kindness can build on itself...And as it spreads, so does a vision of guerilla goodness."

My fantasy is a Ministry of Good Works, supplanting all current non-profits and making charitable appeals, fund-raisers and begging in the streets unnecessary. Each year citizens would designate an amount to be extracted monthly from their credit cards for charitable purposes and, if they wished, specify the sorts of projects in which they were interested. The ministry would then disperse its funds to projects geared to accomplish these ends without the overhead costs of begging letters, advertising and gimmickry, and contributors could get their duties of beneficence done without sorting through junk mail displaying pictures of starving children.

Apart from the opportunity costs there is nothing wrong with random acts of kindness per se and, if we worried about opportunity costs we would go crazy. The cost of one holiday party would buy lots of mosquito netting and malaria medication or fund a year's secondary education for a qualified girl in Kenya who couldn't otherwise afford it if we sent it to the Canadian Harambee Education Society. But parties are fun, and being a gracious hostess, making guests feel comfortable, giving them treats and party favors, is a very pleasant thing for all concerned. And random kindness is essentially being a gracious hostess on a grand scale.

But don't think for a moment that is has anything to do with moral goodness or making the world a better place. Dives was having a party while Lazarus was lying at the gate with the dogs licking his sores; and presumably Mrs Dives, the gracious hostess, was making conversation, passing the canapes and party favors, and making everyone feel good.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

My Moral Awakening

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: The Ends of the World as We Know Them

A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions. That's why Maya kings, Norse Greenlanders and Easter Island chiefs made choices that eventually undermined their societies. They themselves did not begin to feel deprived until they had irreversibly destroyed their landscape.

Could this happen in the United States? It's a thought that often occurs to me here in Los Angeles, when I drive by gated communities, guarded by private security patrols, and filled with people who drink bottled water, depend on private pensions, and send their children to private schools. By doing these things, they lose the motivation to support the police force, the municipal water supply, Social Security and public schools. If conditions deteriorate too much for poorer people, gates will not keep the rioters out. Rioters eventually burned the palaces of Maya kings and tore down the statues of Easter Island chiefs; they have also already threatened wealthy districts in Los Angeles twice in recent decades.

When I was in high school I was a great fan of Ayn Rand. In fact, I read her complete works from Atlas Shrugged to her essays in For the New Intellectual which, at 15, I thought was addressed to me. I liked the feel of her scheme as it seemed to me at the time: hard, intense and angular, achievement through energy and striving, power, glory and heroism. It was a gut feeling, a sensibility--I hated soft. I also believed that Capitalism, the untried ideal, if it were ever implemented would not only raise all ships but give me the chance to exert myself to the fullest and achieve glory.

Then one day when I happened to be awake during American History class, I learned about Market Failure. Mrs. Paul nee Miss Weiss (she got married during the term I was in her class) lectured on the Great Depression. She described how farmers plowed under mountains of grain while people in the cities were starving because it couldn't be any other way. If there were an oversupply of grain farmers wouldn't get a decent price for it and they would starve, so they buried it and everyone was worse off. That and all the other vicious circles ground round and round and things became worse still. It made perfect sense and absolutely no sense at all: all the stuff people needed was there--there was no shortage of food, land, water or natural resources but people were badly off and there was no way out. The disaster was man-made but couldn't, in any way that I could see, be unmade since everyone was behaving rationally.

That was when Morality grabbed me by the throat and shook me until until my eyes bugged out--like my lab worrying his stuffed koala. Before then, as an aspiring New Intellectual I thought I knew all about Morality and was convinced that it wasn't for me: Morality was a matter of making oneself worse off so that others could be better off and I didn't see any reason why I should do that. Mulling over this puzzle it seemed that everything I'd believed was washing away from under my feet: flawless rationality generated the most absurd, pointless waste and not just accidently but with the inexorable a prioricity of a proof in geometry. I realized that Ayn Rand was wrong. But I got a D in the course anyway.

It's still those man-made disasters that get under my skin. News of the tsunami in South Asia, dead children, villages destroyed doesn't grip me in the way that the stories of ongoing war, lawlessness and corruption that ruin people's lives and whole societies do. I remember reading somewhere that Indian pashas became fabulously wealthy because British colonialism freed them from the duty of burning up their resources through socially obligatory warfare. It's the nature of Nature, blindly irrational, to be red in tooth and claw. We can't complain, but just fight it for all we're worth. It's the irrational results of human rationality that haunt me.

The linked article from the NYTimes rehearses that theme--how nations and cultures collapse under their own weight, how the Norse in Greenland and the Mayan elite made rational self-interested decisions that destroyed them and wiped out their civilizations while, predictably, the Germans and the Japanese planned, regulated and flourished. Will we ever get it? The author bravely but without much conviction thinks that we might since, unlike the Mayan kings, Easter Islanders, Norse Greenlanders and Mangarevians we have the benefit of the Historical Perspective and his books.

I'm not convinced because I don't know many people who spend their time worrying about the Mangarevians or have a clue about the Historical Perspective. Most policy makers don't seem to get it either and even if they do they have to answer to voters who don't.