Sunday, May 31, 2009

Who was that masked Hispanic?

I know you are, but what am I?

Yes, we live in entertaining times. The Republicans wallow in the Slough of Despond (taking such comfort as they can in the mud they find there) and the right-wing is contorted in angst and paranoia. (Are they really paranoid if we're out to get them?) In past years, it seemed that no GOP talking point was too absurd to be treated with respect by the supposedly mainstream media. Now, however, it appears that the Republican noise machine may have blown a gasket or two. When they pumped up the propaganda organ to attack President Obama's first nomination to the Supreme Court, quite a few people recognized hot air when they saw it.


In particular, the snide attacks on Sonia Sotomayor's “first Hispanic” status deflated rather quickly. It must be quite embarrassing to lecture someone for not doing his homework, only to find out that your “correction” needs correcting. In case you missed it, the argument was that Benjamin Cardozo was actually the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court. He served on the high court from 1932 to 1938. Here's a comment from Israel Jewish News that was cheerfully picked up by Free Republic:
Uh, I guess that Obama's PR team isn't capable of looking back in Supreme Court history 70 years? I know the drive-by media can't possibly do any research—that's nothing new. If Obama told them he was going to put the first person on the moon, they would probably just report it without remembering we already did that too.
Was Justice Cardozo a twofer? Hispanic as well as Jewish? It's a bit of a puzzler, because if Cardozo is considered Hispanic, then so am I.

And I doubt that I am.

Wikipedia cites a biography of Benjamin Cardozo as the source for the claim that the Cardozo family considered itself to be descended from the Marranos of Portugal. These were Jews who converted to Christianity (as least in appearance) to avoid expulsion from the Iberian peninsula (the western end of Europe that comprises both Spain and Portugal). There's no particular reason to doubt the Cardozo family folklore. The last name is common enough in Portuguese circles (although the “Cardoza” variant is dominant).

It's quite possible, therefore, that Benjamin Cardozo was descended from Portuguese Jews. Does that make him Hispanic? It gets down to a matter of conflicting definitions.

My own family would deny being Hispanic, although we might concede being Latino. That opens up a whole new controversy, of course.

“Latino” can be construed as referring to Latin America. That would leave out the Portuguese. It could also be construed as referring to descent from Latin-based Roman culture. If one tries to pare that back to those cultures that retained Latin-based languages, we have the nations whose primary tongues are the Romance languages of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, and Romanian. Good luck sorting that out.

In this country, one sometimes hears the term “Luso-American” applied to people of Portuguese descent. (Or, as my college roommate liked to render it, “Loser-Americans.”) It's not very common, however, and I know of no consensus among the members of my ethnic cohort concerning a preferred nomenclature. We aren't a particularly overt minority.

Sonia Sotomayor, on the other hand, is a thoroughly unambiguous case. The Supreme Court nominee is a puertorriqueña who will clearly be the high court's first Hispanic/Latina member. The critics who advance the name of Cardozo as a counterexample are just plain wrong, but I understand their point. They're gleefully mocking the Obama administration for failing to perform the due diligence that would have discovered a false fact. The Bush administration, after all, used to find false facts all the time.

It was sort of its speciality.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

My co-pilot takes early retirement

The problem of going solo

“Excuse me, but how are you doing that?”

“Doing what?”

I looked up from the notebook where I had been scrawling the topology topics given to me by the professor. He was looking back at me with a quizzical expression on his face. We were in his office, where I had dropped in for a consultation on study topics that he wanted me to concentrate on for my oral exam. He had cheerfully rattled off the subjects he considered the most important and I had begun to write them down while we chatted.

“You're talking and writing at the same time,” he said.

Yeah, so? I was multitasking. It wasn't as though we were engaged in more than idle chit-chat now. I could spare a few brain cycles to keep up my end of the conversation while I transcribed the list of topics he had given me. I did not see anything in the least remarkable in what I was doing.

“Oh, sorry,” I said. “I hadn't noticed I was doing that. It's just something I do without thinking about it.”

“Really? It's certainly not something that I could do!”

He was both bemused and emphatic. I was secretly pleased at his evident envy for my mad skills, which until that point I had not even realized anyone would consider to be madly skillful.

That was about thirty years ago. I hadn't thought much about that incident in the intervening decades, but recently it's occurred to me that my multitasking function just isn't what it used to be. The co-pilot who always kept me on course by minding my background tasks appears to have gotten tired of doing all that work without any credit or glory. I think he's taken early retirement. And I miss him.

It's probably one of those old-age things. My brain is now so full of facts and life experiences that the works are getting clogged up. (Yeah, that's a good excuse.) It used to be that my co-pilot was content to take charge of all navigational responsibilities. Not anymore. I found myself driving back to the faculty parking lot at school after lunch on a day when I didn't have any afternoon appointments there. I should have gone home! My co-pilot had ignored the day's flight plans. And it wasn't the first time.

I'm also doubling back more often these days to double-check the front door. My co-pilot used to see to it that it was securely locked before I left for work in the morning. Lately, however, he neglects to initial the work order and post it to the “done” file. My conscious mind observes the absence of a completed work order in the memory banks and has me trooping back to jiggle the knob. So far it's always been locked. (Well, except for that one time I left the front door ajar all morning. But that was just a mistake. And I was distracted.)

Now that my co-pilot has taken early retirement, he merely lounges and naps in the back of my mind. He used to helpfully sketch out math examples for me to present in class, but now he's not too keen on tapping some brain cycles to solve problems as a background task while I use the rest of the cycles to lecture to my students as a foreground task. Fortunately, he's still usually willing to serve up previously solved examples from the archives. I have a big collection of those, so creating new ones on the fly has not been a crucial need. (I liked when I could do that, though.)

I have to admit, however, that I understand my co-pilot's decision to retire early, or go on strike, or unilaterally reduce his hours, or whatever it is he's doing. He always got stuck with the boring and thankless stuff: Lock the door. Turn off the light. Drive me to my next destination. Talk to the professor. Prepare an example for lecture. Pop the muffin in the toaster. (But doesn't he suffer, too, when breakfast is postponed because the muffin wasn't ready in time?)

One adapts, of course, but it's difficult to know exactly what to do. Last night he forgot to turn off the water in the rose garden. If the city writes me up for flooding the gutter, how do I explain it's my co-pilot's fault?

Monday, May 25, 2009

When Memorial Day became personal

One small gigantic sacrifice

Mine is not a military family. Very few of us are veterans. World War II broke out ten years after my paternal grandparents transplanted themselves and their children from the Azores to the United States. The two sons, my father and uncle, came of age during WW II but were spared military service because their agricultural work was deemed essential to the nation's security. Neither enlisted during the Korean War either.

The family was a lot bigger during the Vietnam era, with lots of draft-eligible boys. I was enrolled in college and deferred as 2-S. Two of my cousins signed up for the National Guard. One ended up in the army and another became a marine. The marine was eventually mustered out for health reasons, but the soldier became our only family member to be posted overseas. He served a hitch in Vietnam and came back a devil-may-care hellion; of course, he was that before he left, so we were merely disappointed that military discipline had not straightened him out. Otherwise, however, he came back largely intact.

The cousin who died in Iraq last year became our family's first military casualty. In a clan full of gung-ho support-our-troops types, it was a tragically eye-opening experience. These military adventures have consequences. We finally paid part of the price.

The event hardened my family's insistence that the invasion of Iraq was a good, noble, holy (Christian) cause. Now that we had sacrificed a family member on the altar of George W. Bush's adventurism, it was more important than ever before to argue that it was not some kind of horrible mistake or grotesque political calculation. USA! USA! USA!

I tried, and largely failed, to make the point that a soldier's honor lies in his devotion to duty, his dedicated discharge of his responsibilities, and his willingness to lay down his life in his country's service—whether or not he had been deployed for good reasons or ill. No one was satisfied with that argument. Heads began to explode when I asked whether soldiers who died during the relatively peaceful Clinton administration had died in shame and dishonor. That was irrelevant! (I can only imagine what the family's Clinton-haters would have made of my cousin's death had it occurred in Somalia in 1993.)

But I say it again: A soldier's honor is a personal trait. It has nothing to do with the political underpinnings of the mission on which he is dispatched. My cousin was sent to Iraq because the president at that time was eager to strut his stuff and take down the man that his father had spared. It was an absurd policy pursued by a feckless leader who is now one of the most despised ex-presidents in American history. Nevertheless, my cousin died with honor in the line of duty. That is what we need to remember on this Memorial Day, a holiday which is now more meaningful to my family.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

End of semester follies

Traditional last-minute crash landings

After a couple of decades of full-time teaching, I'm seldom surprised by what happens at the end of the semester. We see the same things over and over again. Occasionally there's a variation on a theme, but it's usually a reprise of a classic situation.

The Invincibly Ignorant

She showed up for the final. In a way, I admired her spunk. Sure, she needed an impossible 130% on the final in order to squeak out a passing class average of 70%, but she was entitled to take the exam. Sure, she did not have a prayer of passing, but it was better to go down with all flags flying, experiencing the final exam and perhaps learning some lessons that would benefit her when she repeats the class. Who was I to chase her away?

Two days later I had the final exam graded and I e-mailed the results to the students. My doomed student wrote back:
i never got my 3 digit number mr z.

Oh. Now I understand. Each student had been assigned a three-digit identification number at the beginning of the semester so that they could find their class standings when I posted grade distributions on the bulletin board in the classroom. I had used the same ID numbers in the e-mail announcing the semester grades. The student in question had evidently lost the paper on which I had given out her personal ID number, had not remembered the number, and never bothered to ask me about it. She therefore had had no idea that her final exam target score for passing the class was an utterly impossible 130%.

She wasn't spunky. She was just invincibly ignorant.

The Rip Van Winkle

One of my students suddenly came awake near the end of the semester and realized he wasn't passing. He hadn't been passing for quite some time, but he had always cheerfully assumed that he could fix things later. But now “later” had arrived and the numbers were not his friend.
Hello professor Z, i understand that in order to pass the class i have to get a 104% on the final. well even if i get 100% on the final i still come up short. i know i did bad on my first 3 exams, i missed too many quizzes and i didn't turn in the research assignment, i know i cant make up for the quizzes i miss but is it possible to turn in the research paper on the day of the final and get partial credit. i am really trying to pass the class, i feel like i know the subject and i really dont want to take it again. if you can please consider letting me turn in the paper i would really appreciate. and i know is very late but if there is anything i can do for extra credit to improve my chances of passing the class please let me know. thank you..... Pete

Well, at least he knew his three-digit student ID number and had bothered to look at his grade. But “really trying to pass the class”? Not that I had noticed. He had missed about a quarter of the class sessions and had skipped more than a third of the assignments. He wants extra credit after having missed so many opportunities for regular credit? My sympathy was not really kicking in. Nevertheless, I could offer him a modicum of comfort:
Pete, the best time to have buckled down and taken the class seriously was several weeks ago. I am not accepting late quizzes or papers. Homework only.

I do not have any grade for you on the homework for Chapter 4. Did you do it? If so, bring it to the final exam and I'll enter the points in my gradebook. If you didn't do it (or just neglected to turn it in), bring it to the final exam for late (half) credit. That would lower your target score to 101%. And I could justify assigning you a C in the class if you score in the high 90s on the final exam.

Now you have a better view of the big picture. Do the best you possibly can on the final exam.


Pete showed up for the final exam and earned a middling B on the test. That suggested he could have passed the class if he had bothered to take it a little more seriously a lot sooner, but it was too little, too late. He earned a D for the semester. And he wasn't even the highest D in the class.

The Hammock Hangers

One of my students worked her fingers to the bone to pass the class. She spent many hours with her tutor and I saw her hunched over her book and her homework in the math department's study area almost every day. It was a formidable effort, especially since the math anxiety was strong in this one. While other students were coasting along with minimum effort, Tanya was barely moving despite maximum effort. She needed a B on the final to ice a C for the semester. And she missed the mark.

Interestingly enough, Tanya was almost certain she had succeeded. She handed in her final exam with a flourish, smiled at me, and marched off for a post-exam debriefing with her tutor. The tutor later told me that Tanya thought she had nailed all but two of the problems. The truth was quite different. Time and again Tanya had fallen prey to trivial errors in the initial stages of her computations, causing all of her subsequent efforts to be invalid. Those who live by partial credit sometimes also die by partial credit, and Tanya's grade was dying the death of a thousand small red-ink nicks.

Of course, as I sometimes remind my students, my spreadsheet does not assign their grades. I do. It was up to me to decide whether Tanya had demonstrated sufficient knowledge of the material to justify my giving her a C and unleashing her on the next math course in the sequence. I would be doing her no favor if she was actually unprepared to go to the next level (and I certainly wouldn't be doing her next instructor any favors in that case either), but a modicum of success might ease the math anxiety that was sabotaging her efforts. I scratched my head and found myself thinking she was ready to move on.

Then I paused.

There were two students in the “hammock” position. These students had performed significantly more poorly on the final than Tanya had. Nevertheless, they had piled up more points earlier in the semester and the result of their slacking off was ambiguous. They were sandwiched tightly between Tanya's semester average and the fateful 70% boundary for a C grade. If I saw fit to assign Tanya a C, how could I avoid giving the same grade to the two students who were a tiny fraction of a percentage point above her? I couldn't. They were hanging in a comfy hammock suspended between Tanya's grade and 70%. She had outpointed them significantly on the final while they had outpointed her consistently earlier in the semester. All for one, and one for all. I pushed all three over the margin and assigned them C's.

Did I do the right thing? I hope so. Would the two hammock students have gotten their C's if Tanya hadn't been there? I don't know for certain. While I think students should be graded individually and try to adhere closely to that rule, it's definitely possible that circumstances favored the two whose free fall might have gotten them in more trouble if there hadn't been someone climbing up diligently below them.

It hasn't happened exactly in this way before, but no matter. These circumstances are typical at the end of every semester. I will see their like again.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Creationists beat swords into plowshares

First fruits of creationist truce

Creation Ministries International of Australia agreed last month to bury the hatchet in its years-long dispute with the U.S.-based Answers in Genesis. Either CMI and AiG tapped into some unsuspected well of Christian charity, or both sides got tired of their attorneys tapping into their bank accounts.

What has the AiG-CMI “kiss of peace” wrought? Well, first of all, the two sides have stopped saying nasty things about each other. As a result, CMI no longer accuses AiG's Ken Ham of using deception to steal the subscribers of CMI's Creation magazine when he launched Answers magazine in 2007. Although he did. Ham presented Answers as a successor to Creation and not as a rival. If one read only AiG's mailings, it appeared that Creation was being discontinued, when all that was ending was Ken Ham's willingness to continue to distribute it to his U.S. membership base. For his part, Ham treats the controversy with delicate diffidence in a post on the AiG website:
While the intent was to offer both the Australian-published Creation magazine and the new U.S.-published Answers magazine (sometime in 2008 or 2009) as two options for its subscribers, irreconcilable differences arose concerning the printing and distribution of Creation magazine in the United States. AiG-U.S. as a result had to modify its strategic plan to offer just the new Answers magazine, rolling it out two–three years ahead of schedule. While this regretfully meant that Creation would no longer be distributed through AiG-U.S., the prospect of continuing subscriptions through the provision of a brand-new, culturally relevant, apologetics-based periodical (with an enhanced worldview emphasis) was exciting. AiG-U.S. was also very encouraged to learn of the excitement generated about the new magazine as expressed by overwhelmingly positive feedback from its subscribers.
For the most part, the settlement appears to be a victory for Ham, but this month there's evidence of the sop that CMI received to assuage its misery. AiG has used its mailing list to send a complimentary copy of the current Creation magazine to anyone who used to receive it from AiG before 2007. A cover note on AiG letterhead tells the story in nicely neutral language:
We have been asked by Creation Ministries International (“CMI”) of Australia to provide you with a complimentary copy of its Creation magazine. As a former subscriber to it, you may want to know that you can re-subscribe to the same publication through CMI, whose contact information is inside the magazine. Creation continues to be published by that Australian organization.

We hope you enjoy it.
Now that CMI and AiG no longer need to waste precious resources on their long-running legal battle against each other, they can join ranks and present a united front against the evolutionary foe. Surely Darwin's legacy is now doomed!

I know because I read it in the pages of Creation magazine. Or perhaps it was Answers magazine. They're actually difficult to tell apart. But they agree on one thing: the theory of evolution is about to collapse. Its defeat is imminent, just as it has been for several decades.

Oh, and Jesus is due to arrive any second now.

Don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bandying words by the bay

Says You in San Francisco

Arnie Reisman was concerned. He called out to the moderator.

“Richard, we may have a problem with this word!”

Richard Sher strode over from the podium and huddled with Arnie and his two teammates.

“Two of us already know the word,” continued Reisman. ”If someone on the other team already knows it, that rather defeats the purpose.”

Sher turned to the other team. “Do any of you already know the word?”

The rejoinder was quick: “If we did, why would we tell you?”

Good question. Sher grinned and let the game continue. It if turned out to be a bust, the round could always end up on the cutting-room floor during editing.

The word was “strigil” and it was displayed in large letters in front of Benjamin Sher's scorekeeping station. The audience murmured while an octet on stage provided a musical interlude. In hushed voices audience members conferred over the word's possible meaning. My seatmate turned toward me and raised his eyebrows. I grinned back at him and nodded my head. Yes, I knew the word.

“Damon” and I were attending a San Francisco taping of Says You, the word game that is broadcast weekly on several National Public Radio stations. When I can, I routinely tune in to KQED on Sundays at 4:00 to get my fill of “words and whimsy.” Although based in Boston, Says You likes to travel about the country and record its shows in different venues. When I heard that taping sessions had been scheduled for San Francisco, I quickly snatched up a pair of tickets.

One of my math department colleagues is also a big Says You fan. We were both looking forward to the event when family obligations forced him to bow out. I was stuck with two tickets, but I was only one person. After a moment's thought, I took a shot in the dark and pinged an old college buddy. I hadn't seen him in ages.

To my surprise, Damon replied quickly to my e-mail with a phone call. No, he wasn't familiar with Says You, but he was curious. He quizzed me about the quiz program and decided it was worth the venture. He needed to be in San Francisco that weekend anyway to pick up his wife at the airport. My invitation had been serendipity. We arranged to rendezvous at the Little Star Pizza parlor in San Francisco and then attend the Says You taping at Presentation Theater on the University of San Francisco campus.

Back when we were graduate students, Damon and I used to see each other on a daily basis and hang out together. That, however, hasn't been true in more than thirty years. We've stayed in touch intermittently, but we live at least a hundred miles apart and we've been working at different schools for over twenty years. I tried to remember when I had last seen him in person, but I wasn't certain. Once again, though, we would break pizza together and bandy words.

Some friendships are resilient in the face of interruptions, while others simply fade away and are forgotten. As we noshed and chatted, it was clear that Damon and I had one of the resilient kind. How pleasant. We took turns bragging or complaining about our activities at our colleges, swapped family news, and generally did the kind of catching up that good friends do when they're on the same wavelength, as we indeed were.

Later, when Says You was under way and Arnie Reisman's team crafted bogus definitions of “strigil” with which to fool the other team, I scribbled in the notebook I had brought with me and showed Damon what I had written: “sweat scraper.” He frowned at me a bit skeptically, but kept his own counsel. Up on stage, Carolyn Faye Fox, Arnie Reisman, and Paula Lyons took turns explaining the meaning of strigil. (Lyons described it as a tool to “remove excess sweat from an athlete,” whereupon I grinned triumphantly at Damon. I had to be right!) The rival team tried to decide which of the proffered definitions was the true one, finding that they did not believe the one involving perspiration (“Excess sweat? What is excess sweat?), so they picked the wrong one. Sher polled the audience for its preference, and we noisily cheered for the sweat tool. Lyons then revealed that she had had the correct definition. (Arnie had bluffed by saying a strigil was used to separate nut meat from its enveloping shell. I forget what Carolyn Faye Fox chose for her bluff.)

In the pause between rounds, Damon asked me how I had known such an obscure word. I think he was humoring me, since he probably could tell I was bursting to explain anyway.

“Remember the movie Spartacus?” I asked. “In the Roman baths they used strigils to scrap off the sweat after soaking in the hot water.”

Damon gave me a slow smile, then said, ”Well, I guess I'm not as big a fan of gladiator movies as you are.”

I wrinkled my nose back at him.

My friends. They can be such bitches.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Imaginary money denied Notre Dame

Withholding generously

Fox News published an article today about President Obama's participation in Notre Dame's commencement exercises. The title was “Obama's Honor Puts Notre Dame's Catholic Standing at Risk,” but the actual article was obsessed with money. (Money in the temple?) Here's the key paragraph:
According to organizers of, a Web site critical of Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins' decision to host President Obama, more than 1,400 pledges have been received from alumni and donors promising to withhold future donations, a tally of nearly $14 million.
It doesn't surprise me that Fox considers this to be a news item worth reporting. Fox News, after all, is more of a right-wing propaganda organ than a reporting service, so the factoid from fits the company's agenda.

It's an amusingly entertaining claim: A website reports that more than 1400 disgruntled Catholics have generously racked up $14 million in non-pledges. When you're promising not to give money, it's amazing how easy it is to bid high. (It reminds me of the irate Republican donor who claimed he was withholding a million-dollar contribution from Caltech because of an “Impeach Nixon” sign.)

I know that my parents are dismayed at Obama's honorary degree from Notre Dame and I'm fairly certain they've signed their names to an on-line protest petition. But now I wonder. Do you think my folks also promised not to give Notre Dame a $50,000 contribution in the future? It's not like they ever gave the university any such amount in the past, but sometimes you just have to take a stand!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

As I was saying

(Just between you and me)

In January 2007, I poked some fun at erstwhile radio banshee Melanie Morgan for her abuse of parentheses. She was trying to stack the deck for a call-in program that was likely to determine her fate as a talk-show host at KSFO. (That particular storm eventually died down, but in 2008 she was finally dismissed—but not missed.) In her 2007 call to arms, Morgan included the following paragraph, which I embellished with a couple of snide corrections:
Now liberal bloggers are calling for our firing. They are also pushing for implication [sic: she means “implementation”] of the Fairness Doctrine to force liberal radio programming down the public’s throat. (They tried to compete in the free market with “Air America” and that failed miserably, so now they are using these tactics to silence conservative radio voices). [sic: the period belongs inside the parentheses]
I know it's slightly unsportsmanlike conduct to pick at small usage flaws in an e-mail bulletin, but I found it difficult to be charitable toward an eliminationist extremist like Morgan, who cackled cheerfully about abusing people she didn't like. So, as befits a mean, nasty, godless liberal, I couldn't resist taking a couple of cheap shots.

A more gentlemanly individual sprang to her (partial) defense:
Anonymous: The period doesn't necessarily belong inside the parenthesis. That's a stylistic choice—different style guides offer contradictory rules.
Although my unnamed commenter didn't offer an example of a style guide that disagrees with my parenthetical preference, I've seen enough bad guides to believe that one (at least) exists. Yet I remain unmoved.

Logic, of course, is an unreliable guide to usage in as human an endeavor as written language, but it is nevertheless the slender reed on which I rely in this instance. A parenthetical remark is an aside. One should be able to delete the remark without doing violence to the main thought. In Morgan's example, deleting the parentheses and the material they contain would leave an orphaned period. It should have been enclosed in the parentheses, where it would live or die with the rest of the parenthetical remark. (And that's the truth.)

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Papal fallibility

Occam would agree

Robert Moynihan is the editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican. He waxes wroth in the pages of the April 2009 issue. It seems that people are saying bad things about the pope and Robert is at a complete and utter loss to understand why. Unless, of course, it's simply the resentment of the earthly powers who feel threatened by the old man in the white dress. That's Moynihan's theory, anyway. I think, however, that I can offer a slightly more parsimonious alternative or two. Here is Moynihan in full spate:
Any objective observer of earthly affairs—someone, for example, like the emotionless, totally rational Vulcan Dr. Spock from Star Trek—would have to be puzzled by the intensity of the attacks on the Pope in recent weeks from world leaders. Why, such an extraterrestrial might wonder, do the heathen rage?
First of all, Robert, that's “Mr. Spock” to you. You're not off to a very good start.
During the “Williamson affair” in January and into February, the Pope was reprimanded publicly by the chancellor of Germany, his native country, and by other leaders.
Okay, I was actually paying attention during my Catholic upbringing. I know papal infallibility applies only to the pope's teaching authority. It does not shield the pontiff from the everyday mistakes that flesh is heir to.

Even when he does something as boneheaded as lift the ban of excommunication from a brain-dead Holocaust denier.

Benedict's spokesman says the pope didn't know that Bishop Williamson is wont to explain away the Nazi extermination campaign against the Jews.

The excuse is almost certainly true. Benedict is not looking to offer gratuitous insults to the Jewish community. The pope is a victim of spectacularly bad staff work. Perhaps he should excommunicate a few clerks or monsignors who said that Williamson was worthy of a papal dispensation. It's incompetence that sparked the “Williamson affair,” as Moynihan calls it, but it doesn't speak directly to the pope's insight or acumen. This, however, does:
During his trip to Africa in March, after he said that condoms were ineffective as a strategy to contain the spread of AIDS, he was attacked and even ridiculed by the health ministers of almost every single Western European government.
Oh, bad move, Your Holiness! Condoms are not effective against AIDS? Well, they're not perfect, but they're certainly more effectiveness than abstinence education! Please note: I did not say that condoms are more effective against sexually transmitted diseases than abstinence. Abstinence is amazingly effective—when you get people to do it! (Or should I say “not to do it”?) The problem, of course, is that most people don't want to give up sex. Perhaps a few of us are naturally unattached, but don't confuse that with the norm. Just look, for example, at members of the clergy. If you have priests contracting AIDS, there just may be a weak link in your chain of reasoning.
What was the fundamental message of these attacks? Essentially, that this Pope should not be listened to. That this Pope is old, badly informed, confused, out of touch with reality, lacking in common sense. In short, that what he says should be discounted.
Yes, Robert, I'll give you that one. That is precisely the message. Out of touch with reality is exactly what the pope is. Perhaps it's his job to preach the ideal as he sees it (abstinence before marriage, perfect fidelity after marriage, etc.), but as a public health program it's absurd. We already know it doesn't work. We could just as well say that we won't need police if people adhered strictly to the Ten Commandments. It's true, isn't it? It's just not a sensible public policy.

Moynihan isn't thinking about practicality. He's sniffing out motives.
Why would the powerful of this world be so bent on making sure that the people of this world regard this Pope as irrelevant?

The fundamental reason, of course, is one: because the Pope, the Vicar of Christ, is preaching Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is always a stumbling block to the “powers” of this world, because he is the transcendent, the holy, incarnate—incarnate still today, in his Church and in his saints.
And imagine how much more powerful Jesus would be if he existed!
But there is a second reason I would like to propose, and that is the special historical moment we are in. The world's economy is passing through a massive transition, from boom to bust. Trillions of notional wealth are being simply vaporized, and the great challenge now is to assure that a transition to a more sound economy may occur with as much justice as possible, and with as little cruelty as possible toward the “little people” who face destitution, and even death, if the system spins out of control.

Benedict knows his history. Once before when the world's economy passed from a “boom” to a “bust,” at the end of the “Roaring Twenties,” an economic collapse was the context for the rise to power of a very radical and cruel political regime: the Nazis.
The Roaring Twenties gave rise to Hitler and the Big Fat Zeros of the Bush era will give rise to—what, exactly? More stormtroopers and death camps? Is Moynihan correct that this is what Benedict is thinking and that's why the world is upset with him? They fear he will interfere with their competing plans for cruel new political regimes and world domination?

I think Moynihan is silly. The pope is reportedly working on an encyclical on the meaning of a just economy. Will the “powers” of the world recoil in horror at the pope's enunciation of principles of social justice? The Church has a long history of charitable work that has receded into the background amidst recent sex scandals and Rome's alliance with right-wing forces to promote its anti-abortion agenda. It will actually be something of a relief if the pope turns away from the Church's obsession with (and involvement in) sexual sin and promotes Christian charity and economic justice. The only ones likely to object are his erstwhile allies on the right wing of American politics, the Social Darwinists (and, ironically, often creationists) who still hunger for the unregulated law of the economic jungle. They'll accuse the pope of being anti-capitalist.

The powers of the world, on the other hand, will cheer the pope on and happily give lip service to his plea for charity. If they even bother to listen, that is. Benedict has already squandered quite a lot of his credibility.

Friday, May 08, 2009

The rose-colored sixties

Improving your memory

Does nostalgia improve with age? It must. My father has grown ever more adept at revising his recollections of the past. It's now reached the point that Dad is pining away for the sixties. Remember the sixties? I do. The JFK, King, and RFK assassinations. Vietnam. Nixon. Miseries and disasters. The only thing I liked about the sixties was the space program, which climaxed in 1969 with the Apollo 11 moon landing. But Dad sees it differently:
I remember the good old days and that is not just a saying, They really were the good old days.

This brought back a lot of memories and I enjoyed it. I hope you enjoy it too.

The “good old days”? I certainly hope my kid brother is keeping an eye on our father, because dear old Dad is losing it.

Attached to his message was a link to a video. The title is Back to the Sixties. I watched it in perplexity. This was what sparked Dad's nostalgia?

The video opens with “A Summer Place” as its soundtrack. Lines of text appear on the screen, informing us that the sixties were a time when a McDonald's hamburger was only 15 cents. Unemployment was 5.5% and the minimum wage was $1.00 (per hour, I presume). So far, so good, I suppose. The video also pointed out that a teacher's annual salary was $5,174. Ouch! The dollar was worth a lot more back then, but I'm still not impressed. But maybe Dad liked the idea of low-paid teachers. (He should look at my sister's salary. It's still true.)

The soundtrack switched to Elvis singing “It's Now or Never” as The King's discharge from the U.S. Army was celebrated. Was Dad an Elvis fan? Actually, Dad's reaction to Elvis on the television was more along the lines of “Goddam hick! Shaking his hips like some kind of sissy!”

Okay, so there was one little glitch in the comforting retrospective. But why should anyone continue to resent the long-dead Elvis? Perhaps the video has other delights in store for us.

Indeed, it begins to roll out a cavalcade of sports greats from the sixties. Baseball players. Football heroes. And:

“Muhammad Ali was The Greatest!”

Oops! To quote my father from that two-fisted era: “That goddam Cassius Clay is a draft-dodger who hates this country! And white people!”

But now the video has moved on to Chubby Checker singing “The Twist” while teenagers jump about on American Bandstand.

“They call that dancing? What the hell is that? They look like spastics!”

It's the British Invasion of 1964 as The Beatles sing “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” I remember my father's reaction to The Beatles when they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show:

“Goddam beatniks! Look at their hair! Do they think they're girls?”

“The House of the Rising Sun” plays while the video producer's favorite TV shows of the sixties are displayed. Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In? There must be some mistake.

“‘Sock it to me’? What the hell does that mean? It's probably some goddam obscene suggestion is what that is.”

The Zombies are singing “She's not There” as favorite entertainments from the sixties continue to be displayed. Movies! Camelot! West Side Story! (Sorry, no movie musicals for Dad, please!) The Dave Clark Five takes over with “Glad All Over.” Then it's the Surfaris with “Wipeout.” The video is paying tribute to the great surfing fad of that decade.

“Goddam beach bums!”

The video switches to Chantay's “Pipeline” and now we're finally confronting Vietnam. And, OMG, there he is! Nguyen Ngoc Loan is using his handgun to summarily execute a captured Viet Cong prisoner. It's the infamous news photo that encapsulated the brutality of the war. (Only the naked little girl running from a napalm strike is more famous.) Ah, the good old sixties! Perhaps the video has lost the thread of its own argument. At least its list of assassinations includes Malcolm X along with Dr. King and the Kennedy brothers. Dad was actually pleased back when Malcolm got hit. And he wasn't certain it was a bad thing with King, either. A pity about the Kennedy boys, though.

The Supremes are singing “Stop! In the Name of Love” while the video takes note of the bizarre unisex fashions of the era. Unisex?

“Goddam queers!”

The Lovin' Spoonful sings “Summer in the City” while the screen displays the happy thought that back then “Foreigners learned and spoke English.” That's right, by golly! (Well, except for my grandmother. I don't recall Dad complaining about his mother's failure to learn English. And now it's much too late to oppress and insult her in the way that patriotic Americans should!)

When I hear Buffalo Springfield singing “For What It's Worth,” I'm thinking: This is a protest song! Dad hates protest songs! (“Goddam protesters! They need a bath and a haircut!”)

And it doesn't get any better when The Fifth Dimension launches into “Aquarius” during the tribute to Woodstock and “Hair” and the psychedelic era.

“Goddam hippies!”

For someone like me, who was a teenager in the sixties, the video was weirdly evocative. But I was conscious of it being a nasty time and wondering what was going wrong. I'd never want to go back there. In his old age, though, Dad has mellowed out and thinks he's singing along with the sixties. Maybe he should watch it again and this time actually pay attention.

Or maybe not.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Thou shalt not kill (usually)

Just war?

The infamous convicted felon G. Gordon Liddy once waxed eloquent on his radio program about the best way to kill federal agents. He recommended against torso shots because agents from the federal Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Agency wear body armor: “Go for a head shot; they're going to be wearing bulletproof vests.” That was back in 1994. Back then most people seemed to understand that Liddy was a psychopath (and probably a sociopath, too). These days he might just be mainstream conservatism, given that the right-wing has contracted into a conspiracy-minded rump caucus that sees itself surrounded by the Marxist minions of the Democratic Party (although they insist on saying “Democrat Party” because they are also jerks).

I admit, though, that I hadn't really expected Liddy's rhetoric to pop up on Catholic radio. Sure, EWTN is a right-wing media outlet. It's run by people who regard Alan Keyes as a statesman, Patrick Buchanan as an insightful political analyst, and Peggy Noonan as a deep thinker. There's not much hope for people like that. Nevertheless, perhaps we shouldn't give up entirely on them and their religion-clouded minds. Apparently they're still capable of being shocked, as I discovered when someone in Minnesota decided it was time to call Catholic radio and ask for some pointers on engaging in religiously correct violence.

I was listening to a rerun of Catholic Answers Live when a man named Paul called from Moorhead, Minnesota. (Moorhead is near the state border and close to Fargo, North Dakota. PZ Myers should watch his back, too, since it's not far from Morris.) Paul had a simple question for Patrick Madrid, one of the regular answer-providers for Catholic Answers:
Paul: In the light of the new abortion and hate crime laws that might lead to arrest for speaking freely against the homosexual agenda, what is a just war? When is it not a sin to bear arms against—or kill—men or government workers to preserve our rights and freedoms? When and how shall we prepare for a resistance?
Madrid hastened to take Paul down a notch. Although Catholic Answers must have screeners, this one had slipped through.
Patrick Madrid: Anything that would involve violence or attacking other people, or anything like that, we have to avoid that completely. As Catholics we are called not just to love peace but to spread peace. There are many formidable ways to combat unjust laws that involve no violence whatsoever, and I'm strongly encouraging people, do not ever resort to violence.
Good answer, Patrick. But Paul gave pause, didn't he? People like Paul think it's okay to call a religion program to find out when it's okay to join the resistance. They think they live in some place like Nazi-occupied France. They're nuts. And consider how much you've inadvertently encouraged them.