Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Doing Darwin justice

It's a merry Kitzmas

Judge Jones has rendered his decision in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case. Many megabytes of commentary have already hit the Web. Some good entry points to the discussion include Pharyngula, where PZ Myers has linked to other sources (both pro, especially The Questionable Authority, and con) as well as offering his own perspective, and The Panda's Thumb, where Warren Elsberry compiled an extensive overview during the entire court process. These sources are replete with informed opinions by scientists and attorneys who share their professional perspectives on the matters of science and law which Kitzmiller had to straighten out—and did.

Since my field is neither evolutionary biology nor law, I have little more than a layman's point of view on the whole matter. One thing that caught my attention, however, was the unfortunate inability of some news media to do justice to the controversy or Judge Jones's incisive opinion. The leading—or at least most visible—offender is the Associated Press, whose wire service report on Kitzmiller was widely disseminated and published by AP subscribers. AP staff writer Martha Raffaele wrote, "A federal judge ruled Tuesday that 'intelligent design' cannot be mentioned in biology classes." That is definitely not what the judge said, although the AP article provides fodder for those who want to cry "censorship" and portray themselves as martyrs in the cause of the free exchange of ideas. (I was pleased to note that some news outlets rewrote the lead paragraph when running Raffaele's article to eliminate the misleading "cannot be mentioned" phrase.)

Judge Jones ruled that intelligent design is—if you'll excuse the expression—designed to advance the religion-based notion of creationism. It thus violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution for a public school to teach it as an alternative scientific theory. In his own words, after commenting that he was not denigrating the sincerity of intelligent design proponents, Judge Jones said
Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.
Thus ID can even be discussed in a science classroom. It probably will be, too, especially in the wake of the headline news occasioned by the Kitzmiller lawsuit, but ID will not be taught as science. Because it is not. "We don't know what happened, so God did it" is not a scientific theory, even if its proponents hide God behind the phrase "intelligent cause." Burt Humburg and Ed Brayton documented with great clarity the fact that the authors of the recommended ID "science" text Of Pandas and People merely replaced the word "creationism" with the phrase "intelligent design" during the final revision of its manuscript. Science it's not.

My final comment is a celebration of Judge Jones's clear statement (on p. 71 of his decision) concerning one of the fundamentally illogical underpinnings of the antievolution crusade:
ID is at bottom premised upon a false dichotomy, namely, that to the extent evolutionary theory is discredited, ID is confirmed.
This is the exact point I stressed in The Sign of the Fraud, my earlier post on the peculiarly Holmesian approach adopted by ID advocates ("[W]hen you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth... ").

Logic is as much the enemy of ID as is science.

A screenshot of the Discovery Institute's Think Tank (a.k.a. The Amazing DembskiDozer) about to be destroyed by anti-ID panda warriors during a game of Panda-monium. The crusader pandas say "Intelligent design is an attempt by the religious right to establish a theocracy. Oh, no!" and the formally dressed panda says "Intelligent design is just creationism is a cheap tuxedo." For reasons known only to the IDists, the anti-ID pandas always win. (Perhaps it's because the keyboard controls for the Think Tank and its weapon are poorly designed.)

Monday, December 19, 2005

Why do you feel bad, whore?

Cruel to be kind

Some senior citizens have a special "phone voice" that they use during telephone conversations. Perhaps you know what I mean. My mother's phone voice is sing-songy and punctuated with little giggles; the manner is precious and a bit breathless. I suppose the special phone voice is an artifact of the days when telephone conversations were uncommon and called for more ceremony. Today, of course, cell phones are ubiquitous and telephone conversations are everyday occurrences (and seemingly 24 hours a day for some of our young people).

This is all by way of introducing Barbara McGuigan (pronounced "McWiggin") of EWTN's Open Line call-in program. McGuigan has an old school radio voice that sounds like a parody of my mother's phone voice. She anchors the Tuesday installment of Open Line, which is devoted to attacking abortion and fighting the evil pro-choice minions of Satan. She gushes over her callers, squealing with delight when they phone in to agree with her and affecting a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone if they dare dispute with her. McGuigan laughs at inappropriate moments more often than Julius Hibbert. Her closest real-life counterpart is probably the wacky Pat Robertson, who grins like a loon while denouncing various opponents as damned.

On December 6, 2005, McGuigan set her sights on the Los Angeles Times article Offering Abortion, Rebirth. With the assurance of the true believer, she repeatedly described as a liar the abortion doctor who was profiled in the article. McGuigan denounced him for saying he waived his fee for women with financial hardship, stating that this had to be untrue. It's strange how she calls him as a tool of Satan one moment and in the next moment declares that his only motivation is the money he makes from abortion fees; that's a pretty lame tool of Satan if he doesn't offer the infernal procedure under all circumstances. But logical consistency has never been one of McGuigan's strong suits. Minutes later she vigorously agreed with a caller who denounced the abortion doctor for charging money: "If he really thinks he's providing a service, he should be doing it for free!" "You are so right!" said Barbara, who knew that the doctor didn't waive his fees because she had already decided he was a liar.

The abortion doctor told the Times that during the first two trimesters he completely deferred to the woman in her judgment of her condition: "It's not a baby to me until the mother tells me it's a baby." We could argue whether the doctor's professed lack of a personal opinion is an exercise in sophistry, but McGuigan is ready to deal in certainties. Barbara stumbles, however, when she tries to raise the unassailable standard of life: "Every abortion flattens a heartbeat," observed Barbara, noting that the fetal heart begins to beat within 18 to 24 days of conception. She regarded this as a telling point, yet did not consider the obvious problem that such a criterion for "life" opens the door to birth control medications like Plan B, which prevent implantation in the womb and thus preclude there ever being a beating heart. Surely she did not mean to imply a loophole in the Catholic dogma that life begins at conception. Fortunately, she had a "brilliant" caller on the line who agreed with her.

McGuigan also helpfully embroidered the comments of the abortion doctor's clients. Where one woman was described in the Times article with the sentence "Ending her pregnancy seemed easier, she says," McGuigan smoothly changed that to "Killing her baby seemed easier, she says" as she read excerpts to her radio audience. She did not bother to admit that she had redacted the text, allowing her listeners to assume they were hearing actual quotes.

On this particular Tuesday, Barbara's prize exhibit was a caller named Charlotte, who reported that she had had an abortion as a teenager over twenty years ago, had converted to Catholicism, and was now a basket case. Charlotte was a textbook example of the pro-life approach to women who have had abortions. Now that she was Catholic, she was being made to understand that she was a murderess. Forgiven, naturally, but a murderess just the same. Strangely enough, Charlotte was having trouble gaining comfort from her new insight.

"I am drenched in guilt," Charlotte confessed. "And I think that being in the Catholic Church now has heightened my consciousness and I’ve been Catholic for three years and it’s just been—ever since then—eating and gnawing. And the guilt has grown exponentially every day that I get out of bed until I was not functioning. I had to go into counseling." Barbara was happy to point out to Charlotte that she was now washed in the blood of the lamb and surely she must realize that. Charlotte agreed that she was forgiven, but she was still acutely suffering. McGuigan cheerfully announced that all was well and dispatched her caller with a wish for continued enlightenment. It doesn't seem to me that Charlotte was particularly benefiting from the knowledge of her iniquity.

Open Line is always a happy gabfest on Tuesdays. McGuigan is generous in her praise of agreeable callers, while suffering penitents like Charlotte are jollied along and earnestly told that all is well now (even if it clearly isn't). It smacks a bit of those Protestant healing ministries where the lame and halt rise up and run to and fro in the revival tent; we don't get to see how they scramble to recover their canes and crutches after the cameras are turned off and their adrenaline rushes have faded. McGuigan isn't as skilled as the faith healers in pumping up afflicted callers like Charlotte, but she forges bravely ahead. She knows the truth and it has set her free—free to step sprightly over the shattered souls of those she has helped to understand their evil, evil ways.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Here's looking at you, kid!

Welcome to the surveillance society

So the government's been spying on us. Is anyone surprised? The president has "authorized" federal agents to spy on American citizens without benefit of warrants or sanction of congressional statute. Is anyone surprised?

Apparently some people are. My senior U.S. senator says it's "astounding." Come on, Dianne. You've had a front-row seat in Washington, D.C., for five years of the most corrupt administration since Richard Nixon's. While Nixon was the chief executive who actually said, "When the president does it, that means it's not illegal," it's George W. Bush who really took it to heart. American citizens have languished in prison for years without even being charged—let alone tried—for crimes real or imagined. Prisoners of "war" (there's been no congressional declaration of war, by the way) have been incarcerated and tortured with complete disregard for the Geneva conventions to which the U.S. is a signatory. Just as federal law apparently doesn't restrict what the administration can do at home, international treaties don't restrict what the administration can do abroad. We have become a form of despotism, under the rule of a man (and his minions or controllers) rather than under the rule of law.

These big issues have come front and center during the controversy over reauthorization of the Patriot Act, which is fortunately stalled for the time being in the U.S. Senate. (Thank you, Russ Feingold!) On the national stage we will see it played out, and patriotic Americans should be contacting their Senators and Representatives to demand a rollback of the act's more pernicious intrusions into personal privacy, especially any provision that allows federal agents to forgo the acquisition of a search warrant. (For those of you who haven't paid any attention to the U.S. Constitution since the Bush administration declared it inoperative, don't forget that the Fourth Amendment specifically says, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." That's the entire amendment. Do you see any clause saying "unless the president disagrees"?)

The Patriot Act is currently under attack by an unlikely coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans who fear the aggregation of unrestricted power by federal authorities to interfere in the private lives of Americans. Given Bush's damaged public standing in the wake of the Iraqi misadventure, indictments of political allies and White House aides, and revelations of paid propaganda efforts both domestic and foreign, it may be the ideal moment to clip his wings. That would set the stage for a three-year lame-duck period until he can be evicted from the White House to make way for a more responsible chief executive (which at this stage would be almost anyone else). We might even hope that the 2006 mid-term elections will cost Bush the complaisant congressional majorities that normally wink at his depredations. That might check—or even force into retreat—the president's reign of error.

In the meantime, we must be eternally vigilant against further abuses of our civil rights. A rollback of the so-called Patriot Act is overdue.

All politics is local

Many people seem to take comfort in the mindless adage "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear." By definition, most of us constitute the "faceless masses" of the population and may feel secure in our anonymity. This position is not tenable.

While it is difficult to forecast when the tipping point will occur, we see every day that daily life is increasingly under routine scrutiny. Orwell's 1984 was clearly fiction because there was no way imaginable in which Big Brother really could be watching every individual's private life, but Orwell was writing his dystopian fantasy in the era before the rise of electronic surveillance. All large metropolitan areas and most mid-sized cities are festooned with webcams. You are captured on video every time you go downtown. Or pass through an airport. Or visit an automatic teller machine (which, of course, is also recording your transaction electronically, as indeed it must).

Our privacy is protected only to the extent that it is not yet possible to integrate all of our electronic spoor into individual profiles. We don't need much imagination, however, to visualize how well our financial institutions know us and to grasp how completely our lives could be characterized if our credit card transactions were matched with our appearances on surveillance cams, our library acquisitions, our magazine subscriptions, our website visits, and our political contributions. As an ACLU member who contributed to Clinton, Dean, Kerry, Boxer, and Hackett, I probably already qualify for residence at Guantánamo. Once computer programs learn to parse video and recognize faces, we could all have dossiers as detailed as those J. Edgar Hoover used to collect on the disfavored few. Imagine how helpful those could be to people who want to sell you stuff, discredit you, or harass you.

I don't think we can reasonably expect to reverse the trend toward greater availability of personal information on-line. How artfully could laws be drafted to retard the growth of on-line databases and what enforcement mechanisms would be required to make them effective (and would the medicine be worse than the illness)? Cameras will proliferate. Databases will grow. Network connections will increase. It's too late to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Perhaps prevention would have been nice, but that needed to happen yesterday. And it didn't.

I think we have to take a different tack. We need to be ready to punish the abusers of personal information. It won't be an easy task. Our progress toward the protection of personal privacy has been minimal, hampered by an administration that does not even recognize the notion of personal privacy (after all, the word "privacy" is not in the constitution) and the reluctance of elected officials to interfere with the lucrative information market. Yet it can be done. One small victory is the national "do not call" list, which requires telemarketers to refrain from intruding on the household serenity of those who put their names on the list. That seems like a small thing, perhaps, but it's an example of the kind of legislation that can be enacted when people become aggravated by constant disturbances.

The next steps will require legislators to enact condign penalties for those who use our personal information in ways contrary to our best interests or wishes. Think about the difficulties. There are civil liberty implications. Can we avoid infringing on free-speech rights? (Some claim the do-not-call lists infringe on the free-speech rights of marketing operations, but that argument has not proved to be very robust.) What would constitute improper use of personal information? Definitions must be crafted and balanced against competing interests. Penalties for infringement must be proportionate. We are at the very beginning of the discussion, but we would be well advised to get started now, while the window of opportunity is still open.

A couple of resources

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is one of the leading voices in the debate over personal freedom in cyberspace. Its website regularly reports on corporate and governmental abuses and intrusions. The foundation's new blogger rights program is dedicated to ensuring free speech rights for the independent voices that speak up in the on-line world. Keep an eye on the EFF site to stay informed on what's happening out on the electronic frontier.

For people who find the EFF to be insufficiently pure and too willing to compromise, the on-line journal The Register may be more to your taste. Based in the United Kingdom, The Register's banner carries the motto, "Biting the hand that feeds IT." Go visit its website for biting rants and amusing items like "Do webcams break when Tony Blair walks by?" (It appears that they do.)

And wherever you are, don't forget to keep abreast of the positions your local politicians take on privacy issues. If your city council votes for more surveillance cameras, where will they be placed, who will have access to the video, how will the information be used, and what penalties will be imposed on those who violate the rules governing and restricting said information? The genie is out of the bottle, so it's already getting late to be thinking about the rules we want to follow when we wish for a safe and secure society. The price may be higher than you think.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The twelve o'clock scholar

False starts
A dillar, a dollar
A ten o'clock scholar
Why do you come so soon?
You used to come at ten o'clock
But now you come at noon
The fall semester is over and it's time to file the grades. As a diligent pedagogue, I always make a point of checking that my grade spreadsheets accurately represent the handwritten records in my gradebook. Once again, I see an unmistakable pattern. Eight of my students' names were originally entered into my gradebook by hand because they did not appear on the original print-out. They were neither pre-enrolled nor on the official waiting list on the first day of class.

Seven of the eight students are gone. The one survivor squeaked by with a C. The others dropped the course (or I ended up dropping them for nonattendance). The moral is clear: It's a waste of time to add "walk in" students to your roster. If they didn't have their act together sufficiently to register before the beginning of the semester (or at least get on the waiting list for classes that are fully enrolled), they aren't going to pass.

If anything, my gradebook understates the magnitude of the problem. As a rule, I do not take a student's name the first day he or she happens to show up. Instead I give each one an enrollment card to fill out and tell the student to bring it to the next class session. Often I never see them again. Absent the instant gratification of an add-slip signed by the instructor, the student goes searching for more immediate rewards. No doubt this simple mechanism is sparing me from quite a number of foredoomed students, although I don't like stating it this way. It just seems to be the truth.

Perhaps I should have a short informational handout for next semester's late arrivals. Will it do any good? Only if they're able to learn a lesson from printed material, and I'm afraid the evidence for that is slender. In any case, here goes:

Dear prospective student:

Thank you for inquiring about openings in my math class. You are welcome to add your name to the "late add" list tomorrow if you fill out and bring back the student information card I gave you. If you had remembered to bring a pen or pencil, you might even have filled it out today.

No, I will not sign an add-slip for you today. I understand you think this is an urgent matter, but in that case you should have signed up for the class in advance. If this class is full, you could have added your name to the waiting list even before the semester began. We can put up to twenty names on the waiting list and there was room for yours, but we did not see you till today.

I'm sorry you think it's unfair that we begin our semester earlier than other colleges. We are an open-admission community college and we have a longer semester than the limited-admission state university. That's why we start earlier. For that matter, the university doesn't even offer the courses that you need, while we can even instruct you in the high school courses that you shirked.

Thank you for informing me that you're going to work really hard and do really well if I let you into this class. Such a result would be contrary to the bulk of the evidence I have seen in my years as a teacher, yet hope springs eternal.


Dr. Z

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The time of red and green

Not what you think

Colors carry associations, reminding people of different events or occasions. Red and green carry some particularly idiosyncratic associations for me, and I'm not talking about the traditional season of Yuletide. It's a weird story, which some people have difficulty crediting, but I swear it's as true as my recollection allows. In this instance, my recollection is vivid.

I was in high school in the sixties. The sixties are remembered today (with some admitted difficulty by many who lived through them) as a period of dramatic change. It was a time of transition and social upheaval. One small aspect of this upheaval took place in my hometown in central California, when revolution struck the high school P.E. department.

The ancien régime that ruled over high school physical education classes embodied a perfect caste system. The coaches operated a tracking system that classified people by physical attainments, not grade level. Twice a year (as I recall) we went through the humbling, sometimes humiliating, ranking process. The coaches eagerly put us through our paces, winnowing each new crop of students, separating the wheat from the chaff. As the scores in various physical tests were tallied, our fates were determined for the balance of the school term. And our fates were embodied in a visible emblem: the color of our gym trunks.

The color line

The students in our P.E. classes were assigned colors to represent the height (or depth) of our physical fitness. Red was a kind of least denominator classification. Everyone started with red trunks. The optimistic boys would get only a single pair, knowing they wouldn't have time to wear them out before ascending to the next level. Blue trunks signified that one had outstripped the mundane and risen above the crowd. Blue was a sign of distinction. Still, blue represented the minor nobility in our feudal society. Gold trunks were more desirable. Gold showed that you had really arrived and had achieved a level of athletic performance that would qualify you as coach's pet. Would qualify you. If the position had not already been filled.

The real coach's pets wore white satin trunks. You think I'm kidding, but I'm not. White satin. These boys were the ne plus ultra of high school P.E. The white satin boys shared a few essential characteristics. For one thing, they did not know how to operate a T-shirt. Yes, T-shirts were part of the standard P.E. uniform, but white satin boys evidently could not figure out how to put them on. The coaches kindly looked the other way. (Actually, some of the coaches didn't look the other way at all, but let's not read too much into that, shall we?) The white satin boys had impaired vision, too, because they kept bumping into other P.E. students. I suspect their hearing was bad also, since they never reacted to the angry cries from those they knocked down. Naturally I was often perplexed that such fine physical specimens were impaired in so many of their senses. (I was not, however, in the least bit surprised that none of them were in my college prep courses, although I imagine some of them ended up in college anyway via the athletic scholarship route.)

Our P.E. rainbow was not limited to the red-blue-gold-white satin spectrum. There was also green. Green happened to be one of our school colors, but green was not a happy color in P.E. Rather, green was used to signify those who were not even worthy of the lowly red. That's right. There were certain minimum qualifications during the classification trials if one was going to be permitted to retain the generic red trunks. If you failed, you were required to suit out in green. This was exceedingly efficient, as it made it all too apparent which boys were available for recreational abuse. If a green complained to a coach, the coach would patiently explain to the green why it was the green's fault for getting in the way of a physically fit student (who might have been running, or jumping, or swinging his fist, for example).

Lest you feel pangs of sympathy for me, intuiting that I know the green experience myself, let me disabuse you. I never dropped below red. Sure, I was a nerd rather than a jock (those terms weren't much used yet), but I was a country boy who routinely wrangled hay bales on a dairy farm to feed a couple hundred head of milk cattle. (Those bales outweighed me in those days.) I could do the pull-ups, sit-ups, etcetera, necessary to hang on to my red rank. In fact, I hit blue on a couple of categories and managed white satin status on the bar hang (though what an ability to hang inert from a bar really has to do with fitness, I don't know; sure was good at it, though). That was handy because a couple of blue scores could be used to cancel a couple of green scores (I couldn't do a bar-dip to save my life) and retain red status.

Bastille Day

The end came abruptly in my junior year. The color system was suddenly scrapped and replaced with a class system. Students now took freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior physical education. I'm not sure how it came to pass, but it was a happy moment for the reds and greens. Whether the principal or the school board was the driving force, I cannot say, but whoever it was also decreed a new standard for our P.E. uniforms. Everyone was henceforth to wear green. It was, after all, one of the school colors.

The P.E. coaches were broken men after the color line was shattered. No doubt my memory exaggerates this aspect. After all, I had few sympathies for the coaches and actually disdained most of them (the ones with highly convex beer guts hanging over the waistbands of their gym shorts). The elite corps of white satin boys was gone, either blended into the new polyglot classes (no doubt with remedial training in the operation of T-shirts) or institutionalized for treatment of anxiety disorders. High school physical education became a less stressful hour of the day (although I still would have preferred to do without it) and it was interesting the degree to which the greens were able to vanish into the ranks of the general population. With rare exceptions, there were no dramatically clumsy standouts that reminded us daily of their green status in previous semesters. And for those few exceptions, there was no longer any point in denouncing them as "greens", for that's what all of us were wearing now. A glorious new age of égalité had begun.

I still hated P.E. though.

Saturday, December 10, 2005


Choosing the right targets

I have heard it said that anti-Catholicism is the last socially acceptable form of prejudice. Apparently, these days, the society that socially "accepts" anti-Catholicism is the community of the political left, since liberals are the quickest to criticize Church positions on abortion, birth control, and gay rights. Funny. Anti-Catholicism used to be the special province of the right-wing Christian, who supposedly abhorred popery and its attendant superstitions (as if conservative Protestant Christianity were a rational response to such foolishness). Today the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has largely made common cause with fundamentalist and evangelical Christian sects in their united front against reproductive rights and equality for gays. Perhaps people on both sides of this awkward marriage of convenience are content, at least for now, to mutter under their breath that the other side will surely burn in hell. But issues like eternity can wait till Roe v. Wade is overturned.

It seems like only yesterday that great works of anti-Catholic pseudo-scholarship were produced by Protestant polemicists. The famous tome Roman Catholicism by Loraine Boettner was published in 1962. Despite Boettner's unfortunate fate of releasing the definitive attack on the Catholic Church just before its upheavals of the Second Vatican Council, his book nevertheless became a primary source (both credited and uncredited) for later writers who wanted to take on Rome. To get the proper flavor for Boettner's charming ability to meld profound ignorance with sublime over-confidence, there is no better example than his incisive dissection of the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Boettner knows that papal infallibility is supposed to occur in the pope's ex cathedra declarations on matters of doctrine or morals. Boettner knows that ex cathedra literally means "from the chair"; in this instance, it specifically means from the chair of Peter, the leader of the original twelve apostles who is recognized as the first pope ("I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven" Matt. 16:19) of the Roman Catholic Church. Boettner therefore takes the trouble to insert a scholarly footnote reporting that a Vatican chair traditionally called "the chair of St. Peter" has been scientifically dated to no earlier than the ninth century. Poor pope! How can he issue infallible pronouncements if he doesn't have the right chair to sit on?

Now Boettner has more substantive biblical arguments to marshal against the doctrine of infallibility, but he takes another pratfall at the end of his discourse when he quotes at length an anti-infallibility speech spuriously attributed to a bishop at the First Vatican Council (where infallibility was given its definitive doctrinal form). Boettner was much more successful at demonstrating his own lack of infallibility than in undermining Rome's rationale for the teaching authority of the pope.

Anti-Catholicism today

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights is an organization that serves as a watchdog for anti-Catholic bigotry. That sounds like a worthwhile mission. Somewhere along the way, however, the Catholic League seems to have decided that even Catholics can be anti-Catholic when they do not sufficiently adhere to the League's preferred standards of Catholicism. The Catholic League issues an endless stream of press releases quoting its president, Bill Donohue, the sort of Catholic toward whom I am happy to be anti. Donohue does not like fellow Catholic John Kerry and attacked him constantly during the presidential election. Donohue does not like gay rights, abortion, or contraception. That's all right. He's simply being faithful to Church doctrine on those issues.

Donohue does, however, have a fondness for painting as anti-Catholicism any action that goes against Church doctrine. Or his personal political preferences. Donohue's targets over the past year include Howard Dean (by saying the Republican Party is a "white Christian" party he's insulting Christians and driving them out of the Democratic Party), critics of the Church's handling of the priestly pedophilia crisis (it's not pedophilia, it's gays in the priesthood!), opponents of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance (Donohue wants civil disobedience against any ruling barring the invocation of God during a civic exercise), NPR (for reporting concerns that Alito would be the fifth Catholic on the Supreme Court if confirmed), and Wal-Mart (its employees aren't saying "Merry Christmas"). He's not happy at living in a secular society and is an eager combatant in the phony "war on Christmas." He was especially upset that President Bush did not send out an explicitly Christian greeting card for Christmas. The issuance of a White House "Happy Holidays" card alienated Donohue from the president he has supported most assiduously in the past. On ABC World News Tonight, Donohue said, "We know him as a man of courage. So why is he caving in to the forces of political correctness?" Donohue went on to say that he would expect even a Jewish president to send out "Merry Christmas" cards. Perhaps he thinks Christmas is secularized enough that even non-Christians should be happily worshipping baby Jesus.

Speaking of Jesus, Donohue was pinned down by Miles O'Brien on CNN's American Morning, who asked him how the Christian savior would have reacted to the White House holiday card. In the transcript for the December 8, 2005, broadcast, O'Brien says, "What if Jesus got this card? What would he do? Would he be angry about it? He'd be okay with it, wouldn't he?

Donohue replies, "Well, maybe he would, but I've never met him."

Amen, brother.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

When the truth is a lie

Denotation vs. connotation

cel·i·ba·cy: noun
1: the state of not being married
2 a: abstention from sexual intercourse b: abstention by vow from marriage

es·trange: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): es·tranged; es·trang·ing
1: to remove from customary environment or associations
2: to arouse especially mutual enmity or indifference in where there had formerly been love, affection, or friendliness: ALIENATE

Languages are plastic. The meanings of words evolve. Yesterday's mistakes become today's accepted alternatives and tomorrow's preferences. I am a language usage conservative, but I understand and accept that living languages will inevitably change and adapt with time, even if I don't like it.

A curious aspect of language evolution is the creation of windows of opportunity for those who wish to exploit the transitional forms of certain words. Did you know that the original—and still primary, according to Merriam-Webster—meaning of celibacy is "unmarried"? However, celibacy is traditionally associated with chastity, the practice of refraining from sexual relations, probably because unmarried (and presumably chaste) clerics have long been the primary example of celibates. The secondary meaning of celibacy is probably, for most people today, the primary meaning. Think about it. If someone says, "I'm celibate," how would you interpret that? I rest my case.

I was reminded of the evolution of celibacy into its current usage while contemplating recent news out of the Vatican. (See Pox vobiscum.) While thinking about words that now carry connotations outweighing their formal denotations, I remembered a particular abuse that was repeatedly and irksomely brought to my attention during the controversy over Terri Schiavo. The case attained some notoriety and became a cause célèbre in the anti-abortion and right-to-life community. With great regularity, many of those protesting the court-supported decision of Michael Schiavo to discontinue his wife's nourishment via surgically implanted feeding tube referred to him as Terri's "estranged husband." The clear implication was that his relationship to his wife was damaged to the point that it was no longer appropriate for him to be making life-and-death decisions on her behalf, although the courts had repeatedly recognized his right to do so.

What does estranged mean? Strictly speaking, it means "to remove from customary environment or associations." Over the years, of course, it has picked up the additional implication of hostility or active disagreement. Merriam-Webster now gives this as a secondary meaning (as indicated in the definition quoted above), but some sources have now given primacy to the disputatious meaning of estranged. Under the circumstances of the case, there was no way in which Michael and Terri Schiavo could have been said to be fighting or disagreeing with each other, although Terri's parents and other family members were indeed in bitter dispute with Michael. The real reason that people used "estranged husband" to refer to Michael was to discredit him and impute hostility to his actions. This description of Terri's husband was used over and over again on the local Catholic radio station.

I think this was a dishonest usage, for all that the users could have turned to traditional dictionary definitions to argue the innocence of their intent and the accuracy of their description. When a word is heavily freighted with negative connotations, those who use it are responsible for introducing those factors into the debate. It's a reprehensible practice, but not a new one. Sometimes it is easier to lie when you're willing to misappropriate the truth.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Pox vobiscum

And also on you

Dear Lord, they're at it again. I am already on record in support of the notion that Roman Catholicism is the authentic version of Christianity and that all of the other sects are cheap knock-offs. I am not, however, blind to the remarkable foibles of the "one true Church." Problems arise pretty much every time the Vatican has to face some developing circumstance that outpaces its geriatric ability to respond. It happened with the Crusades ("We know God is on our side, so eventually we're going to win, right?"), it happened with the Protestant Reformation ("Geez, your Holiness, do you think we should reform before someone else does it without us?"), it happened with Galileo ("The Bible says the sun goes around the earth, right?"), it happened with Vatican I ("Modernism questions the authority of the Church, so let's get in its face and declare our authority infallible!"), and it happened with Vatican II ("Jesus Christ, the people are taking Church reform seriously! Hit the brakes!"). Now it's happening with gay men in the priesthood.

We are all shocked (shocked!), of course, to learn that Catholic priests are perhaps gay in greater proportion than in the general population. For some reason, young gay men appeared to be drawn into an all-male environment where everyone wore dresses and no one was allowed to date or marry women. Surely no one could have anticipated this.

It's easy to offer cheap shots at the Church's expense, so let me take a moment to stipulate a few items. Membership in the Church is voluntary these days, conversion at the point of a sword having been abandoned quite some time ago (which some octogenarians in Rome must fondly refer to as "the good old days"). Hence anyone in the Church's ranks can be regarded as having given at least tacit consent to its policies. Furthermore, like any other organization, the Church has a right to make its own internal rules as it sees fit. (As an aside, I'll mention everyone has a right to fight Church policies whenever they—as they so often do—intrude on the rights of the external society.) To this extent, therefore, I accept that the Church's rules are its own business and no particular concern of mine.

My comments are those of an interested observer, an observer who sees the trustees of his cradle creed in the process of taking another embarrassing tumble. The Vatican has issued a formal policy document (Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations With Regard to Persons With Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to the Seminary and to Sacred Orders) on whether gays can be members of the Roman Catholic priesthood. While it is certainly late in the day to be addressing this issue, the Church gets to decide what the qualifications are for its priesthood. For centuries the main rules have involved the possession of a penis and the avoidance of its use (except for excretory purposes, naturally). Priests must be men who neither marry nor engage in sexual activity. If these are the rules, then it seems rather pointless to fuss over the sexual orientations of those who aren't supposed to be engaging in any sex anyway. Rome should cheerfully defrock those clerics who violate their vows of chastity, whether immorally with other consenting adults or criminally with minors (the latter also to be subject to prosecution by civil authorities, of course). Orientation is moot. Problem solved!

But that would be too simple and fails to underscore Rome's deep abhorrence of homosexuality (especially in men, of course, since women have long been relegated to second-class citizenship in the patriarchal Church). Instead, however, the Vatican has taken a position that is confusing members of its own hierarchy. They can't even agree whether gays are now banned from the priesthood. The Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J., said, "Conservatives will be able to interpret this statement as saying that all gays should be thrown out of seminaries. Or other bishops can interpret it as saying that homosexuals still can be ordained, if they're ready for a celibate life." Of course, if the second interpretation becomes dominant, then the new instruction from the Vatican is nothing but a restatement of current practice. Did Rome mean to maintain the status quo? Permit me to doubt this.

As Father Reese also pointed out in his comments on the Vatican instruction, the document is a relic of an earlier age. It uses old-fashioned terms like "homosexual tendencies" and talks about admitting to the seminary only those men who have "clearly overcome" those tendencies for at least three years. Perhaps "ex-gay" Catholics from the ranks of Exodus International are just what the Vatican ordered (except that so many of them are already in heterosexual marriages to "prove" their conversion to straightness).

What is the Church trying to prove with this new (if uncertain) assault on gay priests and potential gay seminarians? In some quarters, the Vatican instruction is being touted as a bold response to the child molestation scandals that came to light in recent years and have cost the Church dearly in honor, credibility, and cash. If that is indeed Rome's intent, then once again the Church's instincts have played it false. The molestation scandals involved criminal acts involving minors of all ages and both sexes. Most of the victims were boys, but then boys are generally more accessible to priests than girls. To turn it into a primarily "gay" scandal is to miss the essential point of abuse of authority and failure to adhere to the responsibilities that adults have relative to children. Many U.S. bishops and Vatican authorities were unmasked as deficient shepherds of their flocks when they preferred to hide molester priests rather than disciplining and dismissing them. The new instruction on gays in the priesthood is not going to raise the quality of seminarians, but it does pander to some of the Church's worst tendencies in language that reveals a persistent misunderstanding of the nature of sexual orientation. Yes, it's happening again.