Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Chemistry is a dark art

Back when I thought it was science

My chemistry professor was a rat-race drop-out, a refugee from a southern California job in an industrial laboratory. He had traded his high-income, high-stress occupation in the big city for a modestly compensated academic post at a rural community college.

“It was a question of whether the smog or the alcohol would kill me first. Or maybe a heart attack in the rush-hour traffic. I decided it wasn't worth it.”

He loved his faculty position, playing the wise old professor to the bright-eyed and generally mystified students. Dr. K shuffled about the school's chem lab in backless carpet slippers, popping outside at intervals for a quick nicotine fix. Wreathed in tobacco smoke, he opined that his last major vice was something he could not give up. He was content with having calmed down and dried out.

One of Dr. K's favorite lab experiments concerned the identification by the students of unknown chemical components in solutions mixed up by the professor. We students husbanded our vials of mystery solution, doling out small amounts for various tests as we strove to sniff out what Dr. K had included in each one. After we identified—or thought we identified—each ion floating around in the solution, we presented our results to the professor, whereupon Dr. K would vanish into the back room where he kept the master list of solutions and their constituents. He would smile with pride at those of us who successfully analyzed our samples and he would smile sympathetically at those whose lab results were works of fiction.

Dr. K smiled at me and noted I had made only one mistake in my identifications. My test solution did not include nitrate ion. The others were correct, but I was mistaken about nitrate. Sorry.

“But I saw the brown ring!”

The professor's unruly eyebrows went up a notch.

“Perhaps you thought you saw a brown ring, but it must have been a false positive. I didn't mix any nitrate ion into your solution.”

I marched back to my work station and sacrificed the dregs of my mystery solution to run the nitrate test again. I acidified the solution with a splash of sulfuric acid and a dash of ferrous sulfate. After heating the solution and letting it cool, I tilted the test tube and carefully poured in some concentrated nitric acid, letting it trickle slowly down the side of the tube so as not to get mixed up with the solution already in the tube. The nitric acid sat atop the solution without combining with it. At the interface between the two liquids I saw the tell-tale brown ring that indicates the presence of nitrate ion in the original solution. Aha!

I returned to the teacher station to present my results to the professor. I was quite pleased with myself.

“See, Dr. K? I have a brown ring. I do have nitrate ion in my solution.”

The chemistry professor tilted his head and put his eye up close to the test tube. I eagerly awaited his concession. A small smile quirked Dr. K's lips.

“That's not a brown ring. It's more of a burnt orange color. That's probably because you have a lot of chloride ion in the original solution, which you did correctly identify. But what you have here is not a positive test for nitrate ion.”

Burnt orange? Burnt orange?

I don't recall saying anything further to the professor, although I suspect my eyes were bulging as I walked mechanically back to my lab station and plopped down on the stool. That was the moment—the split-instant of time—when I first realized that chemistry was one of the dark arts. It was magic. Magic! Not science. It was the end of innocence.

The old alchemists were still running the show, grinning at me through veils of sulfurous fumes.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The fairness doctrine goes to school

By definition

The disgruntled student had made an appointment with the dean. She had a complaint.

“I have a complaint about Dr. Z.”

Handling student complaints was one of the dean's regular duties, but she hadn't heard too many grievances against Dr. Z. She asked the young woman to take a seat.

“Please describe your complaint to me.”

“He's unfair. I'm not getting the grade I should get and it's because of him.”

The complaint was still a bit vague. The dean probed for more information.

“Can you show me any examples where you think Dr. Z treated you unfairly?”

The student was ready. She fished around in her backpack and pulled out a recent exam.

“I got the right answer on Problem 2, but he did not give me full credit.”

The dean was working her way through a standard checklist for student complaints. She moved to the next item.

“Did you show that to Dr. Z and share your concern with him?”

If the student could come to terms with the instructor, the dean would not need to worry about any further intervention.

“Oh, yes, I tried to talk to him, but he refused to listen to me. He left the grade just the way it was!”

“Did he give you an explanation for his decision?”

“Oh, yeah. He admitted that my answer was right, but he said that wasn't enough.”

The student handed the exam to the dean. The dean examined the problem in question. The instructor had put a check mark next to the answer, acknowledging its correctness, but he had nevertheless docked the student several points and written a note in the margin. The note said, “Your work does not support this answer.” The dean regretted that she did not know how to read the steps of the calculus solution for herself, but she suspected that the work must be gibberish and the correct answer a mere coincidence—or worse, a case of good eyesight examining a neighbor's paper.

“Your teacher says in his note that your work doesn't support your answer. Did you check to see that the steps are correct?”

“I think he's just being picky. I have the right answer. He's just unfair. It's unfair to pick on every little thing. He just doesn't like me!”

“He did this just to you?”

“Oh, no! He does it to everyone. If he doesn't like your solution, he'll take off points. Like I said: He's unfair!”

“Actually, that's the definition of fairness—treating everybody the same. You might not be happy that Dr. Z has demanding standards for your solutions, but you just told me he's grading all of you consistently.”

The student glared at the dean in exasperation.

“You just don't understand! I am a straight-A student and I know what I'm doing. Thanks to Dr. Z and his unfair grading, I can't get more than a B! He should give me more credit!”

“I will be discussing your complaint with Dr. Z at my earliest opportunity. I won't be accusing him of unfairness, especially since it says right here on his exam that you must show your steps if you want full credit. He's within his rights to require that. However, I want to thank you for pointing out how good a student you are. That could be a significant factor if you've demonstrated a uniformly high level of academic achievement. Perhaps he should look at your work again and consider whether it's better than he gave you credit for. Do you have a transcript showing your 4.0 grade point average? No? That's okay. I can request one from the records office.”

The dean reached for the phone, but the student yelped before she could pick up the handset.

“Well, I'm not exactly a 4.0 student. I do have a couple of B's.”

The dean smiled brightly at the student.

“No matter. I will confer with Dr. Z and you may wish to speak with him again yourself.”

“Are you going to make him change my grade?”

“I'm sorry. I thought perhaps you understood. In the first place, I don't have the power to overrule an instructor's grading decisions. In the second place, his grading appears to be consistent and fair. I see no basis for further pursuit of a grievance, although that is up to you. I will encourage Dr. Z to continue to make his grading standards as clear as possible to his students and I would encourage you to provide him with adequate supporting work for each of your exam answers.”

The student snatched her exam back from the dean's desk, picked up her backpack, and stalked from the dean's office. The dean picked up her phone and dialed my office number. She left me a voice mail: “Hi, Zeno. Come see me in the dean's office when you get a chance. One of your students just left after asking me to change her grade in calculus. I'll tell you all about it. I'm looking forward to hearing if you have any good stories about her. I'll bet you do.”

As it turned out, I did.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Driving along in my Mugglemobile

Although the suspension is shot
Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker's art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ”true”: it accords with the laws of that that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from the outside.

—J. R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories
My copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows from Amazon UK arrived on Tuesday. I've avoided the American editions because of the tin-eared retitling of the historically rooted Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to the meaningless Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. (The philosopher's stone was an actual obsession of the ancient alchemists, who sought it unsuccessfully for hundreds of years, hoping to use it to achieve immortality and unbounded wealth. The “sorcerer's stone” is a vapid marketing construct.)

The Harry Potter books have given me immense—if not unalloyed—pleasure. The initial volumes were especially delightful, cleverly crafted, involving, and smoothly plotted. They bogged down a bit for me as the drama overcame the comedic elements and the story turned darker. I also think the books suffered a bit from J. K. Rowling's gargantuan commercial success, since I think a good editor could have tightened some of the self-indulgent maundering in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. By that point, I'm sure, Rowling had become all but editor-proof, secure in her ability to do whatever she pleased. I still enjoyed the books and found them worthwhile, but I became conscious of struggling occasionally to maintain my forward motion. It was the opposite of the problem I had had with the earlier installments, which I found quite difficult to put down.

A tiny semi-spoiler alert

Deathly Hallows fulfilled the promise of the series with a deeply satisfying climax and conclusion. Rowling's virtues as a writer were on full display and her occasional tendency to spin her wheels was under control (coming into view only, in my opinion, during the over-long account of the furtive wanderings of Harry and his companions as he and they dithered over what to do next). The author also managed to avoid the temptation to take undue advantage of her magical milieu and resolve all of the tangled plot points by winching a convenient deus ex machina down onto the stage. I might quibble over the extremely late revelation that elves have the ability to Apparate and Disapparate under some circumstances where wizards and witches cannot, but that was a relatively minor transgression. To be fair to Rowling, it's possible she hinted at it earlier and I did not notice; she's had the big picture in her mind all along and has usually been diligent in planting clues and foreshadowing future developments. Those of us who page rapidly through her novels can easily miss her subtle intimations.

All of that said, however, there are aspects of Harry Potter's world that simply do not work for me. As Tolkien observed in his 1938 essay on fantasy, a fairy-tale's world must be “true” in the sense that it maintains an honest internal consistency. As clever as Rowling's creation is—a masterful amalgam of legend, lore, and imagination—I was too often reminded that I didn't “believe” it.

Harry is always having trouble with his glasses. They've been lost, broken, and magically repaired at various times. He's almost helpless without them. How does this make sense in a world of magic? When one can use polyjuice potion to completely transform oneself into an exact physical replica of another person, why is it not possible to alter one's lenses the tiny amount necessary to correct one's vision? You'd think there would be wizard optometrists with the ability to out-do any Muggle practitioner, even those with Lasik clinics. (I imagine a wizard optometrist could outperform a Muggle Lasik operator with a creative application of splinching, but that is just idle speculation on my part.)

Another puzzling point to me is the peculiar disjunction between the worlds of the wizards and the Muggles. It's understandable that the Muggles don't know about the wizard world that exists all about them because there are policies and magical practices in place to preserve their happy ignorance. I'm a bit nonplussed that it also seems to work in the opposite direction. Arthur Weasley, for one, is supposedly fascinated by Muggle technology and is always being surprised by their wonderful cleverness, yet he has every opportunity to soak up as much knowledge of the Muggle world as he could desire. His obsession must be a dilettantish sort of obsession, otherwise a few weeks' vacation among Muggles would clear up most of his questions about Muggle society and its devices. I wouldn't want to deny Rowling one of her richest veins of humor, but there were a number of “Yeah, right” moments when she'd depict a witch or wizard being bemused by some Muggle practice. It strained credulity.
I can achieve (more or less) willing suspension of disbelief, when I am held there and supported by some other motive that will keep away boredom: for instance, a wild, heraldic, preference for dark blue rather than light. This suspension of disbelief may thus be a somewhat tired, shabby, or sentimental state of mind, and so lean to the “adult.” I fancy it is often the state of adults in the presence of a fairy-story. They are held there and supported by sentiment (memories of childhood, or notions of what childhood ought to be like); they think they ought to like the tale. But if they really liked it, for itself, they would not have to suspend disbelief: they would believe—in this sense.
I do like Rowling's tales. Do I “really” like it, in Tolkien's sense of seeing it as “true”? Perhaps not quite. I found the world of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings more consistent internally and felt fully immersed in it while reading his epic fantasy. Rowling, of course, is setting herself the challenge of overlaying her fantasy world on our personally experienced real world. It's a bold endeavor and more susceptible to jarring us out of our involvement. That she has succeeded to the degree she has is a tribute to her story-telling skills. I doff my hat to her.

Yes, I can see my way clearly to “believing” the Harry Potter stories—in Tolkien's sense. Most of the time, anyway.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Paying for your education

Easier than studying

A large community college in northern California is getting a lot of negative ink in the local press. The news broke earlier this week, when county prosecutors filed criminal charges against 34 people—both students and former students—for conspiracy related to alteration of academic transcripts for money. Over a period of six years, hundreds of grades were modified in return for cash payments.

Wednesday morning I was sitting at breakfast with the San Francisco Chronicle in front of me. The article about the grade-change scheme contained a thoroughly shocking paragraph:
When the grade scheme occurred, the district had about 100 people authorized to change grades, including some employees who were also students, school officials said. In the wake of the scandal, the college has changed its policies to allow only 11 people access to the grades and has set up a committee to review requests to add people to that group.
A hundred people? Including some student employees? What utter craziness.

Yet I think I know how it happened. Community colleges are places where a lot of the lines are blurred. There are many overlaps in the populations that you might have thought to be distinct: students, faculty, and administration. Lots of people are in two or more of these categories, managing some campus operation while also teaching a course and simultaneously enrolling in someone else's course. I've taken several classes in my district while serving as a full-time math professor.

When people stress the “community” in “community college,” they are making an extremely important point. There is a strong sense of being a community and serving the community. It's usually a very comfortable work environment and less bureaucratic than most organizations. (My sense of things, of course, may be limited by my lack of experience on the management side, which is probably where bureaucratic tendencies are the strongest, but even there a lot of the managers are former teaching colleagues who congenially maintain our collegial environment.)

We hire a lot of students for campus jobs. These jobs are scattered all across the campus, providing assistance in many different offices. Collegiality usually extends to these student employees, causing us to treat them as full participants in the mission of the institution. As we see from this week's shocking story, there are community colleges where this trust has extended entirely too far. The students who sold grade changes to their classmates did not have to resort to skulduggery to perpetrate their crimes. They had access to the student database as part of their jobs. For some reason, no one considered it necessary to restrict access and impose strict controls on who could alter student transcripts. There was a clear conflict of interest in students having access to their own course records.

As noted in the Chronicle article, the college in question has already cut back sharply on access to its grade database. They're shutting the barn door after some of the horses have escaped, but most are still within the stables and the runaways are being rounded up. Students at multiple campuses of the University of California and the California State University are now at risk of expulsion or other academic discipline for having used altered transcripts to gain admission to those schools as transfer students. We haven't heard the end of the story, but the lesson is already being learned.

(Check out the beginning of the following Malcolm in the Middle clip for a tender-hearted look at the question, “Is our students learning?”)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The incredible shrinking fund

Say ten Hail Marys

Jesus is quoted in Matthew 19:24 as saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” but Thomas S. Monaghan is thinking positive thoughts. The multimillionaire founder of the Domino's Pizza chain is liberally using the largess from the sale of his fast-food franchise to do good works. He must be in possession of a ruling from the Vatican that his sorry excuse for a pizza was merely a venial sin rather than mortal. That's a lucky break for him!

Monaghan is apparently obsessed with the Virgin Mary. He is one of the big backers of Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Florida. He lives on One Ave Maria Drive in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is on the board of advisors of Ave Maria Mutual Funds.

The funds offered by the Ave Maria Mutual Funds organization are designed to provide Catholics with investments opportunities consistent with Church teachings, such as shares of stock in corporations that are found to be in compliance with certain moral guidelines. The level of compliance is determined by an advisory board that focuses on two criteria:
... first, those involved in the practice of abortion, and second, companies whose policies are judged to be anti-family, such as companies that distribute pornographic material or whose policies undermine the Sacrament of Marriage.
The first requirement effectively bars the Ave Maria Mutual Funds from holding any stock in pharmaceutical companies because most such companies offer birth control drugs or drugs that Ave Maria would consider an abortifacient. The second rule is interpreted by Ave Maria as barring stock in any company that offers health benefits or any other services to the unmarried partners of its employees. For example, Ave Maria dumped its shares in Eli Lilly when Lilly added nonspousal partner benefits to its employment package.

The Ave Maria prospectus notes that the funds seek to maximize the return on investment by buying low and selling high. When a formerly under-valued stock improves, Ave Maria unloads it: “When a stock appreciates substantially and is no longer undervalued, according to the Adviser’s valuation criteria, it is sold.” The stock may also be sold if the company departs from conformance to Catholic moral standards, although the prospectus language in this case is surprisingly hard-nosed; apparently the stock might continue to be held if the advisory board decides there's money to be made. “Additionally, a stock may be sold (but is not required to be sold) if the Catholic Advisory Board determines that the company operates in a way that is inconsistent with core values and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.” Sounds a little situational to me.

The Ave Maria Mutual Funds have been doing well in providing its clients with good returns on their investment dollars. There are, however, signs of future difficulty. In addition to dumping Eli Lilly, Ave Maria divested itself of both Sear and PepsiCo. In each case, the company was deemed to be “anti-family.” In each case, “anti-family” meant benefits for employees' nonspousal partners. The Catholic Church stands strong against anything that endangers traditional heterosexual marriage. (The celibate priesthood is one obvious exception to the strenuous promotion of man-woman marriage, although a significant number of priests do not appear to be tempted by the purported joys of heterosexual marriage.)

Corporate America is not known for its special devotion to the teachings of the Vatican. While the business world may be stuffy and conservative, its dedication to the dollar greatly exceeds its tendency to bow to clerical influence. Last year, for the first time, a majority of the Fortune 500 companies offered domestic partner benefits. The trend is steady, as shown in this chart compiled by the Human Rights Campaign.

The end result is obvious: Ave Maria is going to run out of Fortune 500 companies to invest in. By degrees, it will be more and more difficult to produce the earnings expected by its clients. Will the discrete escape clause kick in at that point, or will the funds be true to their claim to be completely faithful to Catholic moral standards? They're probably busy praying already.

Monday, July 23, 2007

On the seventh day he rested

Sorry, Mom!

I wasn't courting their favor, but most of my students seemed pleased when I postponed the exam on multiple integrals. It was clear they needed more practice, so rescheduling the exam from Thursday to Friday just made sense. I warned them that it would slightly increase the time pressure on the next chapter, but they were living in the moment and delighted at the stay of execution.

Except for G. He was overwrought with dismay. G came up to see me after class. Friday was not a good day for him. His mother was leaving on an international flight to her native country on Friday and G had promised to drive her to the airport.

“Could I please take the exam a day early?”

Sorry. That does not compute. My exams are almost never ready a full day in advance. I usually tweak them right after the class's review session on the day before the test. My student was distraught. No one else could take his mother to the airport. She relied on him. He had a serious family responsibility to discharge on Friday. He had promised.

“How about Monday? Could I make up the exam on Monday?”

That was not a good plan either. On Monday I would return the exam and review the solutions with the students. G was not doing so well in the class that he could afford to miss the post-exam post-mortem. Fortunately, there was an ideal solution.

“You can take the exam Saturday morning. Our math lab is open for a few hours on weekends and I can give the lab assistant a copy to hold for you. Go in on Saturday and tell them the class you're in. They'll pull the exam and put you in the testing room with it. I'll pick the test up from them Monday morning. You can come to class as usual Monday and not have to miss the post-exam review session.”

G seemed nonplussed, but he eventually nodded his head. I sent him to scout out the location of the math lab to make sure he would know where to go on the weekend. I congratulated myself on having dealt with the problem in a fair and effective manner. On Thursday night, as I assembled the exam, I carefully set aside a copy for G, complete with a cover page letting the Saturday math lab exam proctor know how much time to permit for the test. All was well.

On Friday I showed up for class my typical few minutes early and got things squared away for the big exam on multiple integrals. My students came streaming in, fewer late stragglers than usual because of the special occasion. Then G strolls in.

I don't know if he spotted the expression on my face. I believe one could have called it a scowl. I quickly rearranged my features into my typical benevolent mien. It was obvious what G had decided. Mother could go find some other ride to the airport. No way was G going to mess up a Saturday morning by taking a calculus exam.

G did not say anything to me about his unexpected appearance. If he's smart enough, he'll know there is no reason to say anything to me in the future about unavoidable family obligations. No one will be listening to that one.

Perhaps he and I both learned a lesson.


G did not bother to turn up for the post-exam review session. After all, when you pull a high D on a test, why fret over the solutions? (Mom would be so proud.)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

More on education

The diversity lesson

My nephew was wrapping up his degree in business, preparatory to raking in tons of money. (To their surprise, many business majors don't make it to that next stage.) He was chafing a bit because, for some unconscionable reason, even business majors were required by the university to take courses outside their major. “Mike Chamberlain” had reluctantly opted for a sociology class to fulfill his graduation requirements. He figured a passing grade would not be a great challenge. On this particular day, the professor seemed inspired even in the face of his students' apathy.

“Today I'll like to lead everyone through a visualization exercise.”

Huh? Some students felt their curiosity piqued. Mike rolled his eyes, a particularly favored exercise in his case.

“I want you to imagine a couple going out on a date. A first date. Imagine them in your head. Do you see them?”

A few nods. Mike rolled his eyes back the other way, perfecting his technique. No one could say he was wasting his education.

“Now I want each of you to imagine your own situation for the dating couple, but let's stir the pot a bit by offering some situations as grist for the mill.”

A big grin split Mike's face. He dearly loved mixed metaphors, although he supposed one could pour grist from the mill into the stirred pot. More cooperative students tossed out some ideas:

“Dinner and a movie!”

“A trip to the beach!”

“They go out for coffee.”

The professor beamed. “Those are all good ideas. Keeping thinking. Imagine how the evening progresses as the couple continues their date. I want you to assume that it's going well. Very well, in fact, okay?”

Mike has tired eyeballs by now, but several of his classmates have pensive expressions—dreamy even. Mike is perhaps the first to sense an impending gimmick, but others begin to notice that the professor is herding them toward a “teachable moment.”

“So, what are you thinking about now?”

Silence. He prods a bit.

“Can't you tell me? There aren't really any wrong answers. This was an exercise in free visualization.”

The silence continued a moment longer. Then one student ventured a tentative response.

“Well, you did say to imagine a date that was going really well, right?”

“That's right. So where did that lead your imagination?”

Several students were now grinning. One of the boys piped up.

“I imagined them in bed!”

“Hey, me too!”

Students began to laugh. So did the professor.

“Okay, okay,” said the professor. “I'm not really surprised by that. I did rather push you in that direction. How many people ended up with that thought in their heads?”

A large majority of the students raised their hands. The teachable moment had arrived, so the sociology professor delivered his coup:

“Okay, okay. Let me ask you: How many of you imagined a boy and girl on the date? You know, an opposite-sex couple?”

Almost all of the hands previously raised went back up, but some of them rose tentatively as students began to suspect it was the wrong answer.

“Okay, okay. Did anyone imagine a same-sex couple?”

The class was momentarily paralyzed. Eyes flicked about, wondering if perhaps someone would out him- or herself by admitting to imagining a same-sex couple in bed. My nephew casually raised his hand. Heads swiveled toward him. The professor seemed pleased.

“Ah, Mr. Chamberlain. You imagined a couple of the same sex?”

“Yeah, I was visualizing two girls together.”

The professor's face fell as students quickly smothered their laughs. A bold female sitting across the aisle from Mike flashed her teeth at him in a big grin.

“So, Mike, was it good for you?”

He grinned back at her.

“You should know. You were there!”

The girl blushed furiously as the professor tried to retrieve the point of his lesson. Apparently it had something to do with the dangers of falling too easily into stereotyped thinking. For the moment, though, it appeared that the danger was past.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Harry Potter doesn't know Jesus

Christianity cashes in

Coral Ridge Ministries is looking out for me. They want me to know the truth about Harry Potter. It seems that Harry Potter is a wizard! (Sorry: I should have put “Spoiler alert!” at the top of this post.) For a modest contribution (D. James Kennedy's outfit always needs money), Coral Ridge will send me a tell-all book by the distinguished scholar Richard Abanes.
Help for Potter-Puzzled Parents

“Let no one be found among you who, ... practices divination or sorcery , interprets omens, engages in witchcraft” (Deuteronomy 18:10 NIV)

In less than 48 hours, bookstores around the world will open to droves of wide-eyed children and parents desperate to feast their eyes on J.K. Rowling's final Harry Potter novel. While Rowling's book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, will undoubtedly fly off bookshelves, her Potter stories have stirred evangelical opposition because they glamorize the occult and introduce children to the world of sorcery.

But are Christian parents just overreactjng? What about popular fantasy novels such as The Chronicles of Narnia penned by C.S. Lewis, and The Lord of the Rings J.R.R. Tolkien? When does the world of imagination become dangerous to children?

Author Richard Abanes, an authority on cults and religions, answers these questions in his book Harry Potter, Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings: What You Need to Know About Fantasy Books and Movies. He uncovers what is inspiring and healthy, and what is potentially harmful and misleading in fantasy novels. He examines the occult's influence on children, and provides a clear-cut Christian perspective to help parents discern what lurks in the land of make-belief.

Request Harry Potter, Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings now and apply Abanes' insight to help you solve the Potter puzzle. When you do, you partner with Coral Ridge Ministries in helping to shed the light of God's Word in a darkening world.
Abanes must be a pretty smart cookie. How else could he be an authority on things as different as cults and religions? (I do believe that the main distinction is membership size.) This is a scholar of real breadth.

His list of publications is pretty impressive, too. If we check his listing at Amazon, we discover that he has been working on the Harry Potter controversy for some time. This is a man who knows how to cash in on popular marketing phenomena. His earlier treatise on Pottermania, Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick, would seem to have come down on the side that regards Harry Potter as perhaps a bad thing. Readers of Harry Potter and the Bible, however, seem to have concluded that it is Abanes' book that is the bad thing: of the readers who posted reviews on Amazon, twice as many gave twice as many readers gave it the lowest possible rating (1 star) as gave it the highest possible rating (5 stars). Also, if you peruse the reader reviews in “most helpful” order, the negative reviews are heavily front-loaded. I guess the negative reviews were deemed unhelpful.

Abanes presumably rehashes his anti-Potter material from his earlier book, mixing it with some new Narnia and Lord of the Rings material to fill out his exercise in recycling. Since both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were known to be devout Christians, I'm guessing that their fantasy novels fare better in the Abanes book than anything by J. K. Rowling.

The new book has just been listed on Amazon and has only a handful of reviews. It fares just a bit better than its predecessor. I do, however, particularly like the pithy comment by the person who uses the handle “Purple Wizard”: “Since Abanes found Harry Potter he has used Potter-bashing to make a fortune. I wish this guy would stop writing about Harry Potter since he hates him so much.”

Abanes does not limit himself to trying to ride the Harry Potter gravy train. He also took a stab at feeding off Dan Brown's leavings by exposing “the truth” behind The Da Vinci Code. Abanes is also pretty ticked at the Mormon church, which I suspect he lumps in with the cults, despite its millions of members.

How does one become a widely recognized expert on cults and religions? Richard Abanes is a former singer, dancer, and actor. One can hardly imagine a better preparation for taking on the threatening darkness of Harry Potter.


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The conservation law of terrorism

A zero-sum game for zero-sum minds

It seems that any fool can be a political columnist these days. Apparently the minimum requirement is the ability to craft a sequence of moderately intelligible sentences (or, in the case of Jonah Goldberg, not even that).

My negative thoughts about political pundits were inspired today by a worse than usual column by Ruben Navarrette. He's not a complete buffoon, but he does occasionally wander deep into the stupid zone. Get this:
What the Democrats really need to do is to sort through some of the major contradictions in their thinking. On the one hand, they agree with our intelligence agencies that the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq serves as a magnet for drawing terrorists from all over the world. And yet on the other, they're insisting we pull out the troops rather than leave them in Iraq to seek out and destroy the terrorists before those bad guys get another chance to kill Americans here at home, as we witnessed on Sept. 11, 2001. If the Democrats think that Iraq is a terrorist breeding ground now, just wait until we withdraw U.S. forces. Their whole strategy for dealing with this problem seems to be that if we leave these evildoers alone, they'll leave us alone.
Navarrette has exhumed the Iraq-as-terrorist-flypaper excuse for Bush's ill-fated Mesopotamian adventure. Baghdad, you see, is just like a bug-zapper for evil-doers. Why would we abandon a device that is inflicting such attrition on the ranks of anti-American terrorists? If we leave, will they not just follow us home?

It's true that terrorists have an incentive to remain in place in Iraq, whether they are homegrown or imported, because Bush has conveniently provided a shooting gallery that permits them to kill Americans at their convenience. (Thanks to the misbegotten escalation or “surge,” U.S. troop deaths now average more than three per day.) If our soldiers were expendable decoys, I guess we could congratulate Bush on keeping the terrorists so fully occupied—except that they're not. In addition to chewing up American forces in Iraq, terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda are resurgent, bin Laden's group now reportedly back to pre-9/11 strength. Iraq has been a distraction, not a remedy.

The incursion into Iraq has cost our country allies and shredded our international reputation. We attacked a country that didn't attack us—and which, we now know, had no credible capability to attack us, although the Bush administration pretended otherwise, even in the face of on-the-ground reports from UN weapons inspectors.

Worse, our Iraq adventure is swelling the ranks of our enemies. Navarrette referred to Iraq as a “terrorist breeding ground,” and he's right. How would you react if one of your friends or family members were among the “collateral damage” during a fire fight? If you were an Iraqi whose father, uncle, brother, son, or nephew was tortured, murdered, or raped (or all three) by American interrogators at Abu Graib, what would your attitude be toward the United States forces? Would you say, “Well, at least the Americans rescued us from the despotism of Saddam”? I bet you wouldn't. I bet you'd be thoroughly radicalized and eager to strike back. You'd be ready when the al-Qaeda or Sadrist recruiter comes knocking.

In a zero-sum game, everything you win is a loss to your opponent, and everything you lose is a gain for your opponent. Terrorism is not a zero-sum game. By not concentrating on those who actually attacked us (Note to Fox News viewers: bin Laden and the bulk of 9/11 terrorists are Saudis, not Iraqis; no Iraqis were among the 9/11 hijackers), we have spawned a bumper crop of new America-haters, playing into the hands of those who wanted to destroy us in the first place.

Now that Bush and his gang of incompetents have so royally screwed the pooch, are we nevertheless stuck with their misbegotten policy? Is it so terrible if we exit Iraq with all deliberate speed? Wouldn't Iraq devolve into chaos and come under the sway of the Shi'ite theocracy in neighboring Iran? Well, it's already in chaos. Iraq is already the scene of sectarian conflict—a robust civil war. The government we helped put in place is already a Shi'ite coalition with minority Sunni participation. The Shi'ite prime minister said that Iraqi forces were ready to assume responsibility if American forces were to withdraw. So let's get out of there!

If we redeploy a significant portion of our Iraq expeditionary forces to Afghanistan, we can tamp down the Taliban resurgence and once again undermine an important al-Qaeda base (assuming we still care about that; it appears that Bush does not). The violence in Iraq would undoubtedly continue in our absence, but we would no longer be a focus of it. In particular, the various Iraqi factions would deal with each other and not with Americans. If the country ends up in Iran's political orbit, it's no more than was to be expected once we decapitated the secular Sunni Saddam Hussein regime and unleashed the religious Shi'ite minority. We broke it, but we can't really fix it.

We can stop, however, feeding our soldiers into the meat grinder.

As for Navarrette's charge that Democrats naively believe in a starry-eyed live-and-let-live policy (“Their whole strategy for dealing with this problem seems to be that if we leave these evildoers alone, they'll leave us alone.”), would it be rude to point out that it is Democrats who want to increase security at our shipping ports? It's Democrats who want to bring our National Guard home to deal with domestic disasters whose tolls have been exacerbated because personnel and materiel have been shipped off to Iraq. It is deeply insulting when policies advanced by experienced military experts like Rep. John Murtha are casually dismissed as ignoring the problem. It is the Bush White House that has just about cornered the market on ignorance, deliberate or otherwise.

Increased security and reduced military adventurism. That's a rational policy, which is why the Bush administration and its thoughtless apologists can't support it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

2 z or not 2 z

That is the answer

I'm not the only person who can't read my students' writing. They can't either.

Although their thumbs are hyper-developed from strenuous daily sessions of text messaging, their fingers lack the practiced dexterity to render faithfully the arcane symbols required in math class. A large majority print everything, cursive being a lost art. Among the printers, a few favor ALL CAPS, preferring not to bother with the trivial distinction between upper- and lower-case letters. I can only imagine what will happen when some of them take their first course in genetics and encounter the usual notation for chromosome pairs: AA, Aa, aA, and aa. I think frustration will be dominant.

Indeed, the big problem is ambiguity. I've been trying to persuade my students that it is important to distinguish between similar-looking symbols. This usually means conforming fairly closely to standard orthography. My more creative students, however, give free rein to their imaginations. Bless 'em all! Why shouldn't they choose to write the Greek letter theta with a vertical slash instead of a horizontal one? They know what they mean. Why is their teacher such a party pooper?

Now that they've met phi, they know. It is the Greek letter with the vertical slash. Several recalcitrant students are now trying to school themselves to to draw the two Greek letters distinctly. Some pounced on the one-stroke variant for phi—one I favor myself—in which the symbol is drawn as a single flowing curve instead as a separate circle and slash. Unfortunately, about half of them start too low and shorten the initial downstroke. The result is a phi that looks a lot like a rho. Is this really a problem? Oh, yes. I'm talking about a Calculus III class in which we're using spherical coordinates. The letters used to represent three-dimensional spherical coordinates? None other than rho, phi, and theta. Yikes!

A recent egregious example of a student unable to read her own handwriting occurred in an algebra class. She was attempting to solve a rational equation whose variable was z. Using a least common denominator to clear all the fractions, she had to multiply each term by a factor of (z + 1). She needed to write down that factor three times, once for each term. She succeeded with the first term, but by the second term the (z + 1) has magically morphed into a (2 + 1). When she wrote the third term, the z's transformation was complete, having become a thoroughly unambiguous 2, sporting a cursive loop that no printed z would tolerate.

I had counseled her on the ambiguity of her z's and 2's, suggesting that she use a European z (“the one with a mustache”), but she had resisted my recommendation. “I can tell the difference,” she retorted.

No, she really couldn't.

We all suspect the source of this problem. These days most of us communicate preferentially by phone or e-mail. We certainly don't use handwritten letters. In classes other than mathematics, where the symbology remains technologically challenging, keyboard skills have become paramount. Handwriting has faded and our students grasp writing implements as if they are foreign objects. Indeed, they are.

I wonder if the curriculum committee would entertain a proposal for a one-unit course in mathematical penmanship?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Et tu, comma?

Take that, prescriptivist!

Since language is a human activity, it shares all of humanity's foibles and frailties. Among these is the exasperating quality of living. Living languages change, sometimes leaving behind those who love them best.

Like many people who love language, I tend to be fond of the rhetorical forms and devices that are familiar to me. Not just familiar, in fact, but—dare I say it?—correct.

Yes, at heart I am a prescriptivist. I like to think that there are ways of expressing oneself that are correct, and ways that are incorrect. In a living language, however, correct and incorrect are moving targets. In addition, language is large. No one knows it all and no one can safely wave an admonitory finger and hold forth authoritatively on exactly what is right and what is wrong. That is a fool's errand. Anyone who tries too hard to fill the role of grammar police is certain to find him- or herself brought up on false arrest charges.

Yet prescriptivism has a certain snob appeal. I'm right and you're wrong. So there! There's the generational aspect, too, in which elders get to decry that sloppiness of the young people. This is great fun for old fogies, especially those for whom complaining is a much-indulged past-time. (I must increasingly plead guilty to that charge.)

Fortunately, as a teacher, I have a ready outlet for my didactic tendencies. Since my field is math, I do not get to hold forth at length about the language crimes in the writing of my students, but math is conveniently less forgiving than English. I content myself with correcting misbegotten calculations and erroneous use of standard notations. I take it easy on any language errors. I'm not alone in hesitating to come down too hard on language faux pas. Even my much-beset colleagues in the English department tend these days to be ecstatically happy when students attempt to express their thoughts and shy away from policing usage and construction too closely. They are most likely right to do so, since rigid enforcement of old norms is a cheerless occupation. I do, however, wonder sometimes if they have given up too much.

The absence of rules is chaos. I often feel a frisson of dismay when I see language rendered ambiguous by clumsy construction. Language Log provides us with the useful parable of a self-appointed grammar cop sparked into action by the civic pride pitch “Run easy Boston.” The Grammar Vandal inserts an appositive comma and renders the motto as “Run easy, Boston.” I admit that her action warms my heart.

Some freelance grammarian at the Boston Globe oversold the Grammar Vandal story by highlighting the “easy” in “Run easy Boston.” The Globe inserted a parenthetical comment:
(Grammar note: “Easy” is an adjective, which must never be used to describe a verb, such as “run”; that task calls for the adverb “easily.” A sentence addressing someone directly, such as “Run easily,” must separate that address from the party being addressed—in this case, Boston—with a comma.)
Go see Mark Liberman's definitive take-down of the “adverbs must end in ly” myth in his post at Language Log. The matter of the missing comma, however, resonates strongly with me. It takes me back a couple of decades.

I used to grind my teeth in dismay during the morning commute when I worked in the state legislature in downtown Sacramento. It wasn't the traffic. A freeway billboard on the approach to the capital city used to tempt people with promises of fun and frolic in Reno. Just keep driving and experience the delights of Nevada's legalized gambling! One of the billboard advertisers was Caesar's Palace. This establishment, as you may or may not know, subtly blends the ambiance of the late Roman Republic with twentieth century casino sensibilities—an incipient-empire-with-slots theme park. Caesar's Palace hires actors (or models who want to be actors) to portray Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. The models stroll about the grounds and mingle with the guests, many of whom eagerly buy the photographs depicting their make-believe brush with Roman or Egyptian despotism. Good clean fun.

One of the advertising campaigns mounted by Caesar's Palace included billboard-size head-shots of Cleopatra grinning seductively at the freeway traffic. The words on the sign (in a bold typeface, of course) shouted out, “Party on Caesar! Party on Cleo!” I think we were supposed to assume that Cleopatra was exhorting the dictator of Rome to “party on” and that Julius was echoing the same sentiment in return to the human avatar of the divine Isis. Cool.

The missing commas bugged me every time I saw that billboard. It did, of course, occur to me that I was wrong to think the appositive commas were supposed to be there. Perhaps the text was correct. Guests were being invited to party on Cleopatra. Or, if you prefer, Julius. (History suggests he was universally persuadable in that regard.) It may be that I just don't understand marketing. Perhaps, as Apple says, I should “think different.”

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Some old-fashioned holier-than-thou

One mortal sin suffices

In an age of innumeracy, the numerate will be king. Or maybe this item is just another case of the blind leading the blind.

People tend to give a lot of weight to numeric data, which is why politicians and other liars are so fond of tossing numbers around. The liars I'm talking about today are religiously motivated, which is always kind of sad. You'd think religious people would be more concerned about the sin of bearing false witness. Instead, I'm afraid they are among today's most vigorous devotees of the notion that the ends justify the means. They're lying for God, you see. That makes it okay.

A group called Catholic Advocate has sent me a copy of its Scorecard of Catholics in Congress. While you may have heard that John F. Kennedy made a point of declaring that his Catholicism did not compromise his independent political judgment in serving as chief executive of a secular government, today's Catholics are supposed to take direct dictation from the Church hierarchy—or else. The cover letter from Deal W. Hudson, director of Catholic Advocate, explains, “I'm leading the fight to expose counterfeit Catholic politicians like liberal pro-abortion Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi—and I need your help to do it.... The enclosed scorecard ranks 130 ‘Catholic’ members of Congress on 10 issues recently debated in Congress.”

I scanned the scorecard. The results are shocking. Hudson reports that many U.S. Representatives are faithless Catholics who score zero percent when it comes to voting in accordance with holy Church policy. This roster includes Harry Mitchell of Arizona, Gerald McNerney of California, Joseph Courtney of Connecticut, Phil Hare of Illinois, Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire, Albio Sires of New Jersey, Michael Arcuri, Kirsten Gillibrand, and John Hall of New York, Jason Altmire, Christopher Carney, Patrick Murphy, and Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, Nicholas Lampson and Ciro Rodriguez of Texas, and Peter Welch of Vermont.

Every single one of these representatives in the U.S. House has a 0% record of supporting the Church's teachings, at least according to the Catholic Advocate scorecard. All of them have that in common. The other things they have in common? They are all freshman Democrats and their Catholic Advocate scorecard rating is based on one vote. Not ten votes, as Hudson said, but one vote. The other nine votes used in the Catholic Advocate scorecard occurred in previous sessions of Congress. Each freshman is marked “N/A” for those nine votes, but that does not stop Catholic Advocate from branding them with a 0% score for their religious fidelity. They did, after all, vote for federal funding for stem-cell research. These representatives presumably felt that a vote in favor of such research would reflect the wishes and desires of the people whom they represent, whether or not the Church is opposed to it. That does not matter. These representatives are required to toe the Vatican line and to be condemned when they do not.

In addition to stem-cell research, which the Church is eager to ban, issues of interest to Catholic Advocate included federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, human cloning, abortion in military medical facilities, and the late-term abortion procedure which doctors call “intact dilation and extraction” and pro-lifers call “partial-birth abortion.”

Why exactly would Catholic Advocate send out a congressional scorecard in the middle of 2007? It's not a congressional election year and the data are severely compromised by their paucity (an inevitable consequence of the freshman status of so many representatives). Very simple! It's a fund-raising letter. On the final page of Deal Hudson's eight-page cover letter, one finds a solicitation to send money. You can even check off the amount you want to contribute. The first suggested amount? $1000. Hey, it's for God's work, you know. Pikers can continue down the list until they finally get to $50. An even more parsimonious item is the $39 price of a “brief and refreshing booklet” titled How to Vote Catholic. (The booklet's description is by Father Frank Pavone, leader of Priests for Life and one of the noisier figures at the disgraceful Terri Schiavo circus in Florida.)

So Catholic Advocate would like you to be informed, but they would like it even more if you send them money.

The beam in your own eye

Perhaps you recognize the name of Catholic Advocate's director. It seemed familiar to me, so I googled Deal W. Hudson and learned just what the deal is with Deal. He is a figure of some note, having served as a professor at Fordham University and as editor of the Catholic magazine Crisis. Hudson left both positions in disgrace. A news item originally published in the Washington Times, a newspaper not noted for its willingness to expose right-wing figures, tells the story:
Publisher of Catholic magazine forced to resign

By Julia Duin

Deal Hudson, publisher of Crisis magazine and, until recently, a top Bush political adviser on outreach to Roman Catholics, will resign from the magazine at the end of the year after five of his most influential columnists pressured the board to get rid of him.

The columnists, who include some of the nation's best-known Catholic scholars, told the board in a letter that they would leave the magazine unless the board ejected Mr. Hudson, 54.

According to two scholars familiar with the letter, the columnists were angry about an Aug. 19 National Catholic Reporter (NCR) expose on Mr. Hudson's sexual liaison with an 18-year-old student in 1994, an action that cost him his tenured professorship at Fordham University and a $30,000 settlement.

In addition, specific accusations of more recent sexual misconduct had come to the board's attention, one scholar said.

“This was not about one incident 10 years ago,” he said. “It's surprising it was held down as long as it was. I haven't gone out of my way to track Deal Hudson's improprieties—I could be doing nothing else. But you began to wonder after a while if they are true.”
This article, published on September 21, 2004, is no longer posted on the Washington Times website, but I was able to winkle it out from Google's cache. Hudson's efforts at pre-emptive damage control were documented in an article in the National Catholic Reporter.

I don't know about you, but I can rest easier at night knowing that Deal Hudson is guarding the religious fidelity of the Roman Catholic members of the U.S. House and Senate. Whatever damage he manages to do will probably be limited by whatever scandal is next.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Obtuse creationism

Tastes like ID

I was browsing through The Panda's Thumb when I came across Nick Matzke's post on creationism's latest adaptation to evolutionary pressures. In its bid for survival, intelligent design may be morphing into “critical analysis of evolution” (to borrow Matzke's phrase). One manifestation of this retooled approach is a book titled Explore Evolution. That's a nice title, isn't it? Sounds innocent.

So who are the authors of this evidently science-type book? The lead is Stephen Meyer, whose blurb on the Explore Evolution website says, “He is currently the Director and Senior Fellow of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle.” Yes, that Stephen Meyer. What's more: “He has authored articles in scientific journals such as the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington....” You may recall that those Proceedings are notorious for having published Meyer's article. As noted in a statement later released by the Council of the Biological Society of Washington,
Contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process. The Council, which includes officers, elected councilors, and past presidents, and the associate editors would have deemed the paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings because the subject matter represents such a significant departure from the nearly purely systematic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 122-year history. For the same reason, the journal will not publish a rebuttal to the thesis of the paper, the superiority of intelligent design (ID) over evolution as an explanation of the emergence of Cambrian body-plan diversity. The Council endorses a resolution on ID published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which observes that there is no credible scientific evidence supporting ID as a testable hypothesis to explain the origin of organic diversity. Accordingly, the Meyer paper does not meet the scientific standards of the Proceedings.
Yet Meyer (or his flacks) continue to tout his article in the Proceedings. His vita must be weak in publications if he feels compelled to continue citing a paper that was expressly disavowed by the scientific society that originally published it.

Nevertheless, Meyer and his coauthors soldier bravely on as they try to advance the creationist cause. Explore Evolution has a slick website where the curious may browse through the features of this wonderful new “science” book. I was particularly amused by some excerpts from the text, one of which contained an earnest discussion of the importance of defining one's terms precisely. It was, very unfortunately, coupled with a lame attempt at humor. It was the lame attempt that was especially—and inadvertently—funny. Their chosen example for the dangers of ambiguous definitions was a math term:
To be “obtuse” means to be stupid.

Some triangles are obtuse.

Therefore, some triangles are stupid.
Oh, my, but they are treading on dangerous ground! The attempt at humor was accompanied by an illustration of a boy wearing a dunce cap while he sat on a stool. The dunce cap was adorned with a triangle. That's funny, you see, because they had just made a joke about obtuse triangles being stupid. But...

The triangle in the picture is acute. Not obtuse. Decidedly acute. The triangle is not “stupid” and does not deserve to be relegated to the corner of the classroom on the dunce cap of the failing student. The obtuseness clearly resides elsewhere.

It's like a little parable about creationism itself: too dull to get the point.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Damned with faint praise

Apologia pro quondam ecclesia mea*

The pope has spoken and people have gotten upset. As is so often the case, most of them are upset about nothing. Perhaps there is little point in my decrying a hoary tradition, but one does get tired of its incessant repetition. Popes seldom say anything really new (which is why John XXIII was such a remarkable exception). They specialize in nuanced and essentially trivial restatements of old dogmas. People who haven't been paying much attention suddenly notice that they disagree with the pope (as if that weren't an old story in itself) and they shriek in dismay.

Get a life, people.

I am a cradle Catholic who does not believe Church dogma. Any of it. You can't get much more lapsed than that. I am, however, steeped in Catholicism due to my upbringing and it may well be that I won't ever fully recover from it. That's okay. Despite the childhood trauma attendant on membership in such a system, there is still a rosy nostalgic glow about memories of the time when I belonged to the One True Church. While more modern Christian sects might rail against the excesses of the Roman Catholic behemoth, all of the arriviste churches keep beating their heads against the primacy and historicity of Christianity's oldest and biggest operation. There's a whole lot of seniority-envy out there.

Martin Luther did us all a favor, of course, by hammering his theses into the fault lines in the Catholic monolith. Christianity has less oppressive power when broken into fragments, a process that is robust and ongoing on the Protestant side (now up to tens of thousands of denominations). Luther's revolt opened the way to establish today's secular societies, which were untenable under unitary Catholic rule. Competing religions are weaker religions, and we are all beneficiaries of the Protestant Reformation.

Nevertheless, whenever the leader of Christianity's 800-pound gorilla deigns to speak, people listen. And, frequently, misunderstand. Let's get down to cases.

Salvation comes from the Church

Since Cardinal Ratzinger was a well-known conservative in the Vatican ranks, his papacy was expected to hew to a traditionalist line. A Daily Kos diarist using the handle Devilstower posted an article titled The Conservative's Pope in which he or she sought to document that Benedict XVI has turned out exactly as anticipated. I agree that Benedict is indeed an extremely conservative pope, but part of that conservatism has manifested itself in the pontiff's glacial pace in response to Church issues.

For example, it took him over two years to give bishops the authority to authorize local use of the old-fashioned Latin mass (the Tridentine), frustrating those who expected instant action after his election in April 2005. Since the demand for the old Latin rite is relatively small, the pope's new policy may be a difference without a great distinction.

The apparent big news, though, is that Benedict got around to restating the conclusions of Dominus Iesus, a 2000 document written during the pope's time as cardinal in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the successor agency to the notorious Inquisition). The supposedly exciting news is that the pope declared the Roman Catholic Church to be the “one true church” through which salvation was accorded to humanity. This is, in fact, ancient Church doctrine and is embodied in the Nicene Creed. As promulgated by the 381 A.D. Council of Constantinople, the creed concludes with a statement declaring belief “[i]n one holy catholic and apostolic Church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” A number of Protestant sects mouth those words during their services, no doubt causing any number of their members to wince at the self-evident falsity of the “one” church claim.

Benedict was merely restating Catholic doctrine when he averred that Catholicism is the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” Did he claim thereby that all non-Catholics are doomed to hell? No. By virtue of Christ's sacrifice and establishment on his Church on earth (naturally identified by the Vatican as meaning the Roman Catholic Church), salvation was ostensibly made available to all truth-seekers who try faithfully to follow God's will—whether or not they are Roman Catholics (or, for that matter, even Christians). Paragraph 1260 of the Catechism makes this point explicit:
1260 “Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.” Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.
Since I don't believe in salvation or an afterlife, this is an argument akin to reserving space for an angel jamboree on the head of pin. I do, however, think it would be nice if people knew the actual contents of the fictions over which they argue and tear their hair.

In the Daily Kos posting, Devilstower speculated that Benedict's “new” proclamation will shatter the alliance between Catholics and conservative Protestants: “Being told they're going to Hell is... well, it's going to piss them off, that's what it's going to do.” Maybe it will, and that would be a lovely outcome. It would, however, be an outcome based on ignorance. Fortunately, that is not an item in short supply.

The quasi-truth, however, is otherwise. You, too, can go to imaginary heaven. Benedict did not believe or say otherwise.

*Latin scholars are welcome to correct me at their leisure.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

My mother made me an atheist

Dr. Laura objects

I punched the buttons on my radio. It was too early for Dr. Edell on KGO, one of the saner voices in broadcasting. So what were the crazies up to?

Catholic Radio was burbling along with a boring Q&A on Open Line. Too dull. I hit the jackpot, however, with KSFO, the official right-wing station for Bay Area hatemongers. Dr. Laura was on.

Laura Schlessinger is often boring, too, doling out predictable haut moralism—served with a steaming dollop of sniffy disdain. This time, though, she was on a tear. In fact, she was gibbering in horror.

You have to wonder about people who call Dr. Laura's show. As Sam Goldwyn is famously reputed to have said, “Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined.” Fortunately for Laura Schlessinger—whose doctoral degree is in physiology, not psychiatry—plenty of foolish people are willing to line up for her sententious abuse. I guess a certain dullness is necessary if you're going to stick your head in the beast's maw.

A silly woman had called in to complain about her mother-in-law. Mom-in-law is a fervent Christian who was interfering by indoctrinating her two grandsons with her religious beliefs. The caller described herself as a Christian, but she and her husband had a rather relaxed attitude about religion and were not providing their sons with religious instruction.

“I don't think my mother-in-law should be doing that,“ complained the caller.

“But you're not doing it,” replied Dr. Laura.

“We're not ready yet. We will when we're ready.”

“When will you be ready?”

She said she didn't know. She reiterated that her mother-in-law was infringing on their parental prerogatives by pre-empting the boys' training and by trying to make them embrace her own rigid views instead of their parents' more laissez-faire perspective. Grandma was prompting the boys to say grace before meals and was teaching them prayers. This upset the caller.

“I think we shouldn't impose beliefs on the children. They should be exposed to many views and allowed to make up their own minds,” she explained.

Dr. Laura was deeply offended.

“What you're doing is horrendous! You and your husband are being lax and negligent in your responsibilities!”

Dr. Laura wanted the caller to recognize that she should be thankful to her mother-in-law for trying to make up for her criminal negligence.

“Your children have to believe in something! If you don't teach them, and you don't allow their grandmother to teach them, they could end up as atheists!”

Oh, the horror! Atheists!

Now here's the funny part. (What, you thought that was the funny part?) Dr. Laura was exhorting her caller to allow her mother-in-law to teach the children that Dr. Laura is going to hell. The grandmother was teaching her grandsons a very conservative form of Christianity (as described by the caller), so the boys were undoubtedly being taught that Christ is the only way to salvation. Laura Schlessinger, an Orthodox Jew, is therefore doomed to burn for all eternity.

While Dr. Laura is really keen on religion, and encourages her listeners to brainwash their children with whatever orthodoxy the parents prefer, it doesn't bother her that a probable majority of her listeners must regret that she is condemned because of her lack of a personal relationship with Jesus.

But at least the kids won't be atheists.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The father-son conversation

A family melodrama in two acts

I scrupulously avoid raising political topics in conversations with my father. He doesn't listen anyway, so it's a waste of breath. (I dare say he would say exactly the same thing about me.) Dad, however, can go only so long before he feels obligated to take a poke or two at me. He likes to mix it up, if only a little. The following dialogs are pasted-up snippets of multiple sniping episodes, and therefore fictional mostly in the way I hid the splices.

Act I: January 2001

“If perjury isn't a high crime or misdemeanor, I don't know what is.”

“Clinton has not been convicted of perjury, Dad, even though they tried their best to entrap him.”

“Well, he certainly lied about his relationship with Monica! That's a crime!”

“No, Dad. Fooling around with Monica may have been stupid, but it's not a crime. Lying about it isn't a crime either, although the president can parse it out like the lawyer he is and claim it wasn't even a lie. His accusers can't make it stick that he lied under oath, although they constantly repeat the charge.”

“But he admitted to perjury!”

“No, Dad. Clinton copped a kind of plea bargain on his way out the door and the independent counsel accepted it because he knew he couldn't win a court case.”

“That means he admitted he was guilty of perjury!”

“Guess again, Dad. He cut a deal that meant no further prosecution (I'd say persecution) of him in return for his admission of giving ‘misleading testimony’ in the Paula Jones investigation. Clinton did not admit to perjury, was not prosecuted for perjury, and did not even get indicted for perjury. Whine about it all you like, but Clinton is not guilty of perjury.”

“He should have been convicted because he lied about having sex with Lewinsky.”

“I'm not sure even you really believe that, Dad.”

“Don't go telling me what I believe! He said he did not have sex with ‘that woman, Miss Lewinsky,’ but he did. He's guilty as sin!”

“You may be getting sin and crime mixed up again, Dad. Would you agree that a girl doesn't lose her virginity until she has sex?”

“You're a little old to be asking that question, aren't you? Of course she doesn't lose her virginity without sex.”

“Does a girl lose her virginity if she gives her boyfriend a blowjob?”

“That's a mortal sin outside of marriage.”

“Again, Dad, we weren't talking about sin. We were talking about losing one's virginity by oral sex.”

“Okay, she's technically still a virgin, but she's on the road to hell if she does that sort of thing.”

“So you agree that oral sex isn't really sex?”

“I didn't say that!”

“Not in so many words, but you're agreeing with President Clinton—and a majority of the U.S. teenage population—when you acknowledge that blowjobs aren't really sex, at least not sex in the sense of anything that costs someone her virginity. When Clinton said he didn't have sex, he carefully avoided saying he didn't get a blowjob from her.”

“That's just disgusting bobbing and weaving with lawyer-talk.”

“While I think your choice of words may be unfortunate, Dad, perjury is all about a very specific legal definition of making false statements under oath. If Ken Starr and his staff were too stupid (or prissy) to pin down the definition of sex when they were interrogating the president, they richly deserve to be laughed out of court when they blubber and moan about how he committed perjury when he denied having sex with Lewinsky. They're stupid, Clinton's clever, they lost. I say ha ha on those blue noses.”

Act II: July 2007

“I don't see how they can convict someone for lying about a nonexistent crime. If there's no underlying crime, how can there be perjury about it?”

“Gee, Dad, I thought you were a big fan of perjury convictions, both real and imagined.”

“This Scooter Libby conviction is definitely imagined. They made it all up because he couldn't remember details about a crime that never happened.”

“Oh, there was a crime, all right, Dad. The special prosecutor said he couldn't pursue the original crime because of Libby's lies and misrepresentations during testimony. I seem to recall that lying under oath is the textbook definition of perjury. Don't you think perjury is a crime anymore?”

“I still don't think a perjury charge is fair over something as insignificant as confusing testimony over a non-crime.”

“If the CIA thought Valerie Plame was a covert agent, then Valerie Plame was a covert agent. That makes ‘outing’ her a federal crime—an especially bad one during an era of terrorism because she was working on tracking weapons of mass destruction. A crime was committed and Libby worked his ass off to cover it up.”

“It's still not fair because Libby was singled out.”

“I'd be perfectly happy to see other Bush administration officials tried and convicted. We can always hope. The case of Libby, however, is not ambiguous. He did the crime, so he should do the time.”

“Your big hero Clinton didn't do any time! He got off scot-free!”

“Losing your license to practice law isn't exactly ‘scot free,’ Dad. But if your new standard is based on triviality, then Clinton's prosecution and impeachment were ridiculous over-reactions to an insignificant consensual affair. The business of his fooling around is a domestic matter, by which I mean it's between him and his wife. I'm sure Hillary—one of the scariest people in the world according to your wingnut buddies—can figure out a way to see to his punishment. For the nation as a whole, though, it's practically meaningless.”

“How can you say that? He defiled the Oval Office!”

“Funny you should say that. Been listening to Rush too much? Bill and Monica didn't have their fun and games in the Oval Office. The testimony showed it was in a small side room used by the president as a study. For some strange reason, no reporter or accuser found it necessary to point this out during the impeachment flap. They always said, ‘Oval Office, Oval Office, Oval Office’! Then George W. Bush turned that study into a trophy room, using it to mount one of Saddam's guns on a plaque as a memento of his great success as a war leader. Suddenly everyone was mentioning that the room was also the Clinton-Lewinsky venue. Funny, that.”

“See! At least President Bush was using the room for something honorable, commemorating his victory over terrorism.”

“I'm sorry I brought it up, but I guess it's good that Bush celebrated victory before people found out it was a quagmire instead. Later would have been too late.”

Dad turned up the volume on the television.