Monday, February 27, 2012

February 27, 2012

Fox News has amused us with its self-mocking slogan "We report, you decide." Some news media, however, take it to heart, and extend it, following a practice of "we report, superficially, you draw any conclusions." I’ve mentioned stories on extreme weather which manage not to refer to climate change. The local media provided another example on the 22nd.
A nine year old boy took a loaded gun to school, where it went off, apparently while in his backpack. An eight year old girl was seriously wounded. KING-TV reported on the incident, on two successive evenings, without any comment on the absurdly easy access to firearms and without even asking how the boy got hold of the gun. The problem wasn’t lack of time. It’s true that KING has reduced most news reports to a few seconds, consisting of badly written summaries badly read. However, when it wants to — and it always wants to when there is a disaster — the program can allocate a longer segment to a story; it did so with the shooting.
Tonight NBC News reported on another school shooting, again without comment or question as to our oversupply of deadly weapons, and aired a report on rising gas prices without asking why they are going up.
This is carrying "just the facts" a bit far.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

February 26, 2012
In several columns and articles the authors have seen the recent directive concerning contraception as a political loss for President Obama. It’s true enough that announcing a policy and then modifying it in response to criticism was clumsy, and it reenforced Obama’s reputation for backing down. However, on the merits, the new policy, as modified, may work to his political advantage, as well as being right. A principle, that all women should have access to birth control, has been established. It offends Catholic Bishops,7 who have opposed it 8 and have asked the Senate to intervene, 9 but it has wide support among the public, including a majority of Catholics.10 Republicans have assailed the policy, but they will attack anything Obama does, so no matter.
This is in part a religious issue, internal to the Catholic faith, but the Bishops have intervened in a debate on a government program, in effect making doctrine an adjunct to public policy, so examination and criticism of that doctrine is fair.
The principal source is the Papal Encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968),11 which prohibits any non-natural form of birth control. It is tempting to conclude that the Church, ruled by a celibate male clergy, simply is unaware of the real-world implications of its policy. However, Humanae Vitae recited many of the practical considerations:
In the first place there is the rapid increase in population which has made many fear that world population is going to grow faster than available resources, with the consequence that many families and developing countries would be faced with greater hardships. . . . There is also the fact that not only working and housing conditions but the greater demands made both in the economic and educational field pose a living situation in which it is frequently difficult these days to provide properly for a large family.
Also noteworthy is a new understanding of the dignity of woman and her place in society . . . .
Given those considerations, the Encyclical asked, reasonably, "would it not be right to review the moral norms in force till now, especially when it is felt that these can be observed only with the gravest difficulty, sometimes only by heroic effort?" As a further inquiry, it posed this question:
Moreover, if one were to apply here the so called principle of totality, could it not be accepted that the intention to have a less prolific but more rationally planned family might transform an action which renders natural processes infertile into a licit and provident control of birth? Could it not be admitted, in other words, that procreative finality applies to the totality of married life rather than to each single act? A further question is whether, because people are more conscious today of their responsibilities, the time has not come when the transmission of life should be regulated by their intelligence and will rather than through the specific rhythms of their own bodies.
The answer, unfortunately, was negative: doctrine excludes "any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means." The Encyclical did not expressly recognize that the burden of pregnancy is on the woman but, given the doctrinaire solution, any greater awareness likely wouldn’t have changed the outcome.
The web site Catholic Answers 12 implies that the Church always has opposed birth control, and cites several comments by early church fathers. However, it cites no Papal Encyclical earlier than Humanae Vitae of 1968. According to an article 13 in The Washington Post, the Church did not have an official doctrine opposing birth control until Casti Connubii, an Encyclical issued in 1930. The author also states that Humanae Vitae was opposed by a majority of the Church leaders on the commission Pope Paul appointed to advise him on the subject.
In any case, the 1968 Encyclical’s rationale for its contraception doctrine seems weak as a matter of theology. It is based on a vague concept of natural law. It cites no Biblical source on the point. (Catholic Answers cites two, Genesis 38:8-10 and Deuteronomy 25:7-10, the force and applicability of which are dubious, to say the least). The distinction drawn between natural and artificial birth control is declared rather than supported, and allowing the former seems inconsistent with the Church’s position on the purpose of sex: "each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life."
As a matter of doctrine, or of morality, the Bishops’ opposition to contraception is self-defeating. The Church opposes abortion, a position which certainly can be defended on non-doctrinaire grounds. One way — realistically the most effective way — to reduce the number of abortions is to make contraception readily available, but the Church’s edict on birth control stands in the way.
As the quotes make clear, the Church’s teaching about the function of sex is limited to the marital state. The Encyclical barely notes the possibility of any activity outside that relationship, and disapproves; contraception will lead to
marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.
This is similar to the conservative attitude toward sex education and the availability of birth control to teenagers: it will encourage immorality. Unfortunately, withholding contraception is as likely to result in pregnancy and abortion as in chastity.
As the laity disagree with the Bishops’ stand on the policy, and a large number of them likely decline to follow the church’s teaching on birth control, the Bishops’ stance has little effect other than to introduce Catholic doctrine into a question of health care and to give aid and comfort to the political right wing. They are, in other words, playing politics, intentionally or not. 14
Religious belief obviously must be respected, and its free exercise protected, but allowing it a veto over secular policy is another matter.

7.See the web site of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, , postings of 2/6, 2/9 and 2/13.
11. _humanae-vitae_en.html
13. "How the Catholic Church almost came to accept birth control," by Elaine Tyler May, 2/24.
14. The Bishops deny this; see item six of their supplemental statement:  (2/13/12)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

February 23, 2012
There hardly could be a dumber way to select a presidential candidate than the way we do it. (The election, determined by the Electoral College, isn’t much better). The nominating process takes forever, subjecting every public issue not only to partisan interpretation but to competition to see who can most distort it. It costs hundreds of millions of dollars, reducing the field to the rich or servants of the rich. The danger that an election will, in effect, by bought, is greater thanks to Citizens United.
An early poll among a fraction of Republican voters in a small, unrepresentative state, forced one candidate, Tim Pawlenty, from the race before the primary season began. Now, after months of debates and attack ads, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and John Hunstman have dropped out, and the race is down to four, none greatly popular with GOP voters, let alone a good choice to be president. To be sure, the present state of the Republican Party all but guarantees a relatively poor choice, but the process aggravates that tendency.
The delegate-allocation process is somewhat less than transparent and not overly logical. Through February 22, the Republicans have held nine contests — four primaries and five sets of caucuses — but not all of the available delegates were determined by those contests; some will be chosen later and the contest results may be influential in the eventual choice or they may be irrelevant. For that reason, the number of delegates awarded to date varies with the source, ranging from something over 200 to about half that number, out of a total of 2,286. After all the expense, effort and mud slinging, that’s where things stand.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

February 11, 2012

For many centuries, until well into the Nineteenth, bloodletting was a standard medical practice. Only rarely did it make any sense, and often it was bizarrely counterproductive. An example of this ignorant, programmed reaction is found in a Nineteenth Century novel:
. . . Enraged, the hussar turned around and delivered a blow with all his strength, which cut through Fabrizio's sleeve and entered deep into his arm: our hero fell.

The sergeant approached the wounded men. Fabrizio had already gotten to his feet; he was suffering little, but losing a great deal of blood. . . .

After riding an hour, he felt quite weak. "And now am I going to faint?" he wondered. Two girls assisted Fabrizio off his horse; no sooner had his feet touched ground than he fainted dead away. A surgeon was fetched, and Fabrizio was bled. . . .5
Is the patient wounded and weak? Drain his lifeblood. One rationale was that the body’s humors were out of balance, and negative humors needed to be purged. Medicine has progressed beyond such ignorant, counterproductive remedies.
Conservative political economics has not. As Paul Krugman noted,6 the recent jobs report was good, but we’re far from full recovery. "Policy makers should be doing everything they can to get us back to full employment as soon as possible. Unfortunately, that’s not the way many people with influence on policy see it." Although the economy still is in a deep hole, and borrowing to stimulate it could be done at very low rates, the establishment worries about the debt, which is important but secondary, and about inflation, even though there is very little of it. Austerity doesn’t work, as the example of Europe has shown. But the common wisdom has it that
there’s something wrong with cheap money and easy credit even in a desperately weak economy. I think of this as the urge to purge, after Andrew Mellon, Herbert Hoover’s Treasury secretary, who urged him to let liquidation run its course, to "purge the rottenness" that he believed afflicted America.
Is the patient wounded and weak? Purge those evil humors.

5. Stendahl, The Charterhouse of Parma, pp. 68-71
6. New York Times, 2/5/12

Sunday, February 5, 2012

February 5, 2012

A column by Michael Gerson, published February 2 in The Washington Post, but carried today by The Seattle Times, evaluates Mitt Romney as a candidate and speculates on his chances against Barack Obama. Gerson’s analysis is a little wide of the mark in places, but he deserves credit for his ability to turn a phrase, including his (presumably tongue-in-cheek) term for Romney’s flip-flopping: "ideological variability." Noting Romney’s tendency to say dumb things (this time his statement that he isn’t concerned about the very poor), Gerson observed: "The granting of Secret Service protection following Mitt Romney’s decisive Florida victory did not prevent him from immediately shooting himself in the foot" and "There are few things more powerful in politics than the confirmation of a stereotype."
Any evaluation of Romney as a candidate should consider the weakness of his primary opponents: taking Bachmann, Perry, Cain or Santorum seriously would be an act of faith and, although Gingrich may not be out of the running yet, he too falls into the joke category. Only Ron Paul is a real political force, but he probably is too much the libertarian to be acceptable to most Republicans. Given the field and Romney’s funding and organization, the nomination should have been virtually automatic. Most seem to think that it is now, but Gerson noted that "political inevitability can be confounded by the smallest things." He referred to the final election, but the principle still applies to the nomination.
One knock on Romney is that he is not conservative enough; "moderate," bizarrely, has become a term of contempt. An article in today’s Post goes a long way toward refuting the charge of insufficient conservatism, declaring that Romney is "the stealth tea party candidate." That conclusion is based in part on Romney’s shifts to the right but also on a much more perceptive evaluation of the Tea Party than in most of the reporting on the "movement." The writer, Theda Skocpol, co-author of a new book on the subject, described what she and her colleague discovered:

Initially, we assumed that government spending is the chief irritant for the tea party, but we soon realized that anger about illegal immigrants rivals that concern. . . .

After all, tea partyers see themselves as hard-working Americans whose taxes should not fund benefits for "freeloaders." Along with illegal immigrants, low-income Americans and young people loom large as illegitimate consumers of public benefits and services. In tea party thinking, they are all asking for more than they have earned.
Romney has responded by taking a strong anti-immigrant stance and, although his recent remark is considered by most to be a gaffe, "Many tea partyers think the poor are coddled by government and nod their heads in agreement when Romney says he is ‘not concerned about the very poor’. "

Obama’s health-care reform law also fits into tea party views on immigration. Much of the group’s indictment of the president rests on the fantasy that he wants to give free health care — not to mention a blanket amnesty and citizenship privileges — to undocumented immigrants, thus securing millions more votes for himself and the Democratic Party.
Romney has, with no apparent sense of shame, pretended that the federal program isn’t virtually identical to the one he approved for Massachusetts, and must go.
It is supposedly a Tea Party principle to oppose government bailouts, but the authors, in interviews, "rarely heard tea partyers condemn Wall Street capitalists for receiving them. Instead, they contend that corrupt government officials and policies to help minorities buy homes were responsible for the financial meltdown of 2008 and 2009." Blame also is shifted from private businesses to the quasi-public Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; Gingrich has suffered from his tie to the latter.
Dr. Skocpol hasn’t been misled by all the hype about the grass-roots nature of the Tea Party
. . . .Indeed, the tea party is about more than bottom-up activism. Long-standing far-right advocacy and lobbying groups, such as Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, have been part of the movement from its earliest days. Such operations are funded by corporations and ultra-conservative billionaires. . . .
The priorities of the wealthy Tea Party backers are low taxation and light regulation. Romney, perhaps because of his former or supposed moderation, didn’t initially attract support from that quarter, but now he’s a true believer, endorsing and "improving" on the backward Ryan plan.
To the extent rank-and-file Tea Partyers have a priority, it is, in Dr. Skocpol’s words, "[p]ushing the Republican Party to the hard right and denying Obama a second term." That hints at a factor not explicitly mentioned: racial hostility.
"In Romney, the tea party has found the ultimate prize: a candidate loyal to the movement’s agenda, but able to fool enough pundits and moderate voters to win the White House at a time when the tea party has lost broad appeal." That may well be so. Apart from Gerson’s point that unanticipated factors may intervene, there are two reasons to think — hope? — that the outcome will be different. Acceptance of Romney by the far right, whether called the Tea Party or otherwise, may not be complete, prompting many to stay home, and independent voters may not be convinced by a Romney reconversion to moderation and conclude that a hard right turn is a really bad idea.

Posts © 2011-2012 by Gerald G. Day