Checking In

Darwin Catholic: Darwin relates an experience he and his wife had with a less-than-stellar witness to the meaning of Christmas.

Foreign Policy: Daniel Drezner shares Ta-Nehisi Coates' mixed feelings about the appearance of academics on cable news.

Per Caritatem: Cynthia R. Nielsen gives us a sneak peek at her upcoming book on Foucault.

Salon: Glenn Greenwald reflects on "the merger of journalists and government officials."

The American Scene: David Sessions berates the New York Times for its balancing act quoting of a socially conservative commentator who's unqualified, in Sessions' opinion, to speak informatively about the government paying doctors who advise patients on options for end-of-life care.

The Daily Dish: Conor Friedersdorf recommends that students read the works of Ayn Rand for their challenges to conventional organization and morality of contemporary society, while noting that "we've all met people who invoke Ayn Rand to justify behaving like a sociopath in their personal relationships."

Vox Nova: David Cruz-Uribe, SFO asks if the Catholic Church should call the death penalty an "intrinsic evil."

A Pause to Listen: Merry Christmas

O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen:

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel by Belle and Sebastian:

Hat Tips: Pentimento and Kain

Is Torture by the U.S. Continuing?

That's a question to which the United Nations may soon have an official answer. The UN's top anti-torture envoy has begun an investigation into whether the detainment conditions of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is charged with leaking classified materials to WikiLeaks, qualify as torture or mistreatment. The conditions include prolonged solitary confinement and the prevention of exercise.

I've argued before that the line between moral and immoral treatment isn't only set by the degree of discomfort or pain, but also and much more clearly by the affect that treatment has on the will. The line is completely crossed when the will of the one detained ceased to be motivated and begins to be coerced and controlled. The systematic infliction of minimal pain can result in a broken will just as surely as the sudden infliction of maximum pain. Both of these can be torture.

When assessing Manning's treatment, the UN envoy will need to determine more than just the level of discomfort Manning has experienced while in detainment, but also the long-term affects this treatment has had and continues to have on his will--his ability to make free, rational decisions.

Dream a Little Dream of Friendship

I vaguely remember walking down some hallway in my high school, probably heading to class, when I saw this girl and my inclination was to say “Hello” and ask about her day. I felt this sense of friendship with her, or at least acquaintance, but I had never once spoken to her. I didn’t know her name or anything about her. I knew her only as someone who went to the same high school because I occasionally saw her in the hallways and maybe in a classroom or two. I wasn’t acquainted with her, friends with her, or romantically interested in her. I had, however, dreamed about her the night before, and in my dream we were close friends. The particular happenings of the dream had vanished with the dawn, but the feeling that we were friends remained. The sense of friendship was all in my head, and I had to stop myself from acting as though I knew her when we passed in the hallway, lest I come across as a creep or more socially awkward than normal.

It’s been almost two decades since I first walked those hallways, and while I have no memory of this girl or even what she looked like, I remember this feeling of friendship that existed only because I had dreamed a little dream of her. I wonder, sometimes, how much of our sense of friendship is based on real friendships, and how much of it is all in our heads, the product or our imagination or our unconscious desire for companionship. I think about this especially in light of the numerous relationships I have over the Internet with people I’ve never actually met, but have gotten to know in blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. I’m not saying these relationships aren’t real, but I do wonder about them and others and about how real my sense of friendship is in each and every occasion that I feel it. I find myself asking questions. What makes a sense of friendship based on something real? Is it enough that both people have that sense? Could a sense of friendship shared by two people merely be the product of their imaginations or their dreams?

Is It Time to Take the Christ out of Christmas?

"It's time to take the Christ out of Christmas...because if this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition, and then admit that we just don't want to do it."

- Stephen Colbert

About that Mandate

My co-blogger at Vox Nova, Morning’s Minion, had this to say about opposition to the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate:
Yet again, the assault on the individual mandate comes from the American “don’t tread on me” individualist tradition. It is the essence of liberalism and is based on a false notion of human freedom. We live in society. What must matter is the common good, not the mere inconvenience of an individual.
This explanation may account for opposition to the mandate that is based on opposition to any public funding of healthcare, but it really doesn’t touch upon opposition that arises from an analysis of the mandate’s constitutionality. Saying the mandate is unconstitutional isn’t necessarily to say that it’s a morally bad thing to do in every circumstance. Its legality and morality are two distinct questions.

Personally, I have no moral problem with an individual mandate or other forms of publicly funding healthcare, but I find it perfectly reasonable and prudent for courts to investigate the constitutionality of the individual mandate (and any other power claim the executive and legislative branches make). Unless I’m mistaken, the U.S. Constitution has never been used to require citizens to purchase a product or service from private businesses in the manner the individual mandate does. It really is an unprecedented move. True, the money collected from taxes goes to private businesses, but this mandate goes further. Eric Brown explained why in the thread to Morning Minion’s post:
The market for health insurance is not an interstate market because presently there are barriers against purchasing health insurance across state lines. Therefore, even if health insurance constitutes “commerce,” it may be held that it is not “commerce among the several States” and therefore this would be beyond Congress’ enumerated powers.

Furthermore, the “individual mandate” — regardless of who came up with it and who is implementing it — is a novel form of congressional regulation. The provision of the health care law does not merely regulate economic activity, it also regulates economic inactivity. For example, it is both constitutional and a commonplace of statutory tort law for legislatures to impose duties on citizens that are engaging in some activity that encourages responsible behavior and a means of obtaining a remedy for adjudication purposes in the event of an accident. This is certainly true in the requirement that people who choose to operate motor vehicles and drive must be both licensed and have auto insurance. But the regulation is merely for those who choose to do this.

The health insurance mandate does not merely regulate those who engage in the activity of having health insurance, it requires those that do not presently have it, purchase it or effectively be taxed repeatedly until they do so. There simply is no precedent in U.S. history of the federal government requiring Americans to engage in a particular economic activity at the threat of a fine.
At present, I’m more or less ambivalent about what the Supreme Court ultimately decides in this case. I lean towards Eric’s position that the federal government doesn’t have the authority defined in the Constitution to issue this mandate, but among its long train of abuses and usurpations, this particular expanse power doesn’t much impress me. However, if the mandate is ultimately deemed lawful, it establishes a remarkable precedent. I’ll put my concern in the form of a question: If the Constitution authorizes the federal government to use the force of the law to compel us to purchase health insurance from a private corporation, what constitutional argument could then be made in opposition to other corporations or businesses seeing to it that Congress issues mandates requiring us to purchase their products of services? On what constitutional grounds could we oppose software companies or the automotive industry having laws written under which taxpayers are fined for failure to buy their computer programs or cars?

We’re in new territory with this mandate. If we continue to tread upon this ground, I say we proceed with caution.

Embryos and Metaphysics

DougJ at Balloon Juice writes:
First off, I’ll admit there is some real hostility to science from the fundies. But I don’t think that conservative opposition to stem cell research is rooted in hostility to science, it’s rooted in the (admittedly non-scientific belief) that Jeebus loves 5-celled blastocysts as much or more than he loves post-birth human beings.
Well, not exactly. Okay, not even close. Moral opposition to embryo-destructive stem cell research is mostly rooted in a metaphysical conclusion about the nature of the embryo. The embryo is considered a distinct human life, admittedly at the earliest stages of development, but nonetheless possessing the dignity and moral rights that come with being human. Now this philosophical conclusion itself isn’t empirically verifiable or testable by the scientific method, but nor does it have anything to do with beliefs about who “Jeebus” loves and how much. If the conclusion is faulty or false, it fails on philosophical grounds or because the metaphysical classification doesn’t make sense given the physical facts about embryos. In either case, philosophical reasoning can put this conclusion to the test.

What DougJ calls the conservative position on stem cell research isn’t reached because conservatives put principle or philosophy ahead of empirical findings, but rather because they conclude that there’s no conflict between their metaphysical pronouncements and the physical data and, moreover, that the latter support and lead them the former. Religious beliefs about the human person – about ensoulment, for example – may inform or influence people’s philosophical speculation about embryos, but this contribution of religious thought to scientific and philosophical thought doesn’t take away the thinking’s scientific and philosophical grounding. Nor does this grounding collapse because some people make exclusively religious arguments against embryonic stem cell research.

Celebrating Christmas

"Christmas can continue to be celebrated in Western societies as a holiday for all, but then it makes no sense to complain that it has become too lay, too mundane, that is, that it has been deprived of its original, authentic meaning."

- Gianni Vattimo, After Christianity

It Ain't All about Us

“The goal of gay marriage, as I have said many times, is to create a legal basis for persecuting and, if possible, legally suppressing the Catholic Church. That's the goal.”

- Mark Shea
Please tell me I’m misreading this statement, because Shea seems to be saying that all those same sex couples taking to the streets in public witness and lobbying public servants in hopes of one day participating in the institution of marriage are either motivated by a desire to create a legal basis for persecuting and suppressing the Catholic Church or are unwittingly participating in this nefarious plot. Really? Should I be interpreting their shouts of protest and tears of upset and success as expressions of an unstated, underlying goal to harm my faith?

I suppose if same-sex civil marriage becomes universally recognized some obsessed grudge-holding anti-Catholics may use the Catholic Church’s refusal to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies as a pretext for persecution or suppression, but that possibility hardly translates into Mark Shea’s “That’s the goal.”

Besides, it’s not as though any heterosexual couple can get married in the Catholic Church. The bride and groom have to be free to marry, both in accordance with civil law and canon law. If either one of them has a previous marriage not declared null, then the couple won’t be allowed by the Church to set a date. Other impediments can just as surely put a halt to any wedding planning. If either of them intends to deny the right of the spouse to have children, the couple won’t be walking down the aisle at their parish. Even pregnancy, cohabitation, or a signed prenuptial agreement can give the pastor cause to deny marriage.

If same-sex marriage establishes a basis for persecution and suppression, then why do not other differences here between U.S. civil law and the Church’s canon law create such a basis? Have there been serious legal challenges to the Church’s denying marriage to the previously married, to those who openly plan measures to prevent any children, or to those already living and sleeping together?

Perhaps I’ve been tricked into letting my guard down by Jason Kuznicki, who argues that churches don’t need to fear being compelled to comply with anti-discrimination law if same-sex marriage becomes legally available throughout the country, but I don’t think so.

Friday Nerd Report

Adam Serwer observes: "Has anyone else realized that the main character in Cartoon Network's hit series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a child soldier pressed into service by a fundamentalist religious sect? Just sayin'."

Jamelle Bouie responds: "To Adam, I say absolutely. I'll only add that this is basically true for the original series as well; in Star Wars and its sequels, failed religious fanatics successfully deceive and coerce a gifted young man into carrying out their insane plan for revenge. It's tragic, really."

I dunno.  Putting aside the problem of child soldiers for a minute, is it really accurate to call the Jedi religious fanatics or fundamentalists?  Yeah, they're pretty strict and all about being on the light side of the Force, but unlike most religions, their religious claims, so to speak, are demonstrable and empirically verifiable.  John Caputo dealt a bit with the religion of Star Wars in his neat little book On Religion, and I remember him noting that the faith of the Jedi blends the supernatural with the scientific, especially with the introduction of midichlorians in the prequels.  The Jedi are dedicated to the Force not so much out of a religious faith, a belief in things unseen, but because they can physically feel and monitor its presence and control it in ways that anyone with eyeballs can perceive.  Kinda hard to be a Doubting Thomas toward those force pushes and lightening attacks.  While the Jedi have rituals and training for responsible use of the force, these hardly seem to qualify them for the f-bombs used to designate certain types of religious believers. 

But, yeah...child soldiers. This here's a spectacle that might warrant a moment's consideration, as Captain Malcolm Reynolds would say.

A Problem with Debating the Impact of Religion

At the risk of appearing to unfairly dodge a fatal criticism, I must confess that I just can’t take seriously these publicized debates over whether religion has proved to be a force for good in the world. The latest debate based on this overarching question featured high profile atheist Christopher Hitchens and former British Prime Minister and recent convert to the Catholic faith Tony Blair.

Analyzing religion’s overall impact and concluding with a litany of sweeping claims results in answers that are just too broad and superficial to be of much benefit. The question itself fails to differentiate between religion practiced well and religion practiced badly, and it doesn’t even consider the possible difference between true religion and false religion. It asks for an ethical calculus of all actions done in the name of religion. It’s like asking whether political power has been a force for good or ill without distinguishing between anarchy and totalitarianism and every political framework in between and beyond. It’s almost like asking whether language has been more of a force for good or for evil. How does one even come close to a resolution? There’s hardly a secure stone to stand on.

Granted, detractors and defenders of religion do tend to get specific when debating this question. Hitchens, for example, will name specific doctrines he finds morally repugnant or the track record of all religions on an issue, such as women’s equality, that he considers universally poor. Even this specificity, though, when offered in response to the question of religion’s overall benefit, can’t provide an answer the grand question. At best, one can chronicle the history of religion’s faults and failings, virtues and triumphs, or at least what one judges to qualify under these headings.

What’s the alternative? More modest questions. Debate the political impact of the Vatican’s religions teachings and pronouncements. Analyze the social consequences of the life of a saint. Discuss the ethical value (or problem) with belief in eternal rewards and punishments. I don’t expect that believers and atheists would come to an agreement on these questions, but at least they’d have semi-solid ground to stand on. I know religion bids us to think big, but religion itself really isn’t one big thing we can understand and judge as a singular object.

Arscenic and New Alterity

Sorry. I couldn't help typing that cheesy, groan-inducing and self-serving headline.  I'm no science geek, but I find pretty freaking cool this discover of a microbe in Mono Lake, California that can replace phosphorus with arsenic as one of its fundamental building blocks.  I love the little things that deconstruct life as we know it. No complaints if that little thing is bacteria.

Update: John S. Wilkins lists some debunking of the hype.

On Skin Color and Casting Hobbits

While sipping a fine breakfast drink this morning at my local inn, I received news from a gossipy group of dwarves on convoy that the casting of actors for the new Hobbit movie ran into some controversy when it was discovered that a casting director was looking explicitly for white actors to play the residents of the Shire. I hear there's been some shouts of racism.

This is silly. E.D. Kain pretty much captures my thoughts on the matter. Given that Tolkien composed his famous fantasies as a suitable mythology for his homeland (he was none too impressed with Arthurian tales), and that his mythological story established a world geography marked by racial, cultural and linguistic differences, it makes sense that filmmakers depicting this world on the screen would look for white actors to play the hobbits of the Shire. There isn't a goblin tooth's amount of racism in doing this.