Friday, March 30, 2012

The Ethics of Bag Fees

Did a bit of flying last week and the thing that always annoys me is what people believe counts as carry-on baggage.  If it has wheels and you have to roll it, then you aren't carrying it.  If you aren't carrying it, then, by definition, it isn't carry-on.  If it weighs more than you can bench press, you aren't going to get it into the overhead compartment.

The situation has only gotten worse since airlines have figured out a new way to nickle and dime us -- the bag fee.  They realize that we all go to one of the travel websites that allow us to compare prices and that small differences of just a couple of bucks will steer us to one airline over another.  So, in an attempt to make their prices seem lower than they are, what they do is to lower the base price for the ticket and then tack on invisible fees.  This allows them to make the same amount of money on the ticket while seeming more competitive. 

On the one hand, this is deceptive.  It is intended to make the flight seem less expensive than it is.  On the other hand, the main factor fueling the soaring rise in airline prices is the cost of jet fuel.  The more weight in the plane, the more fuel it takes to get you there and the more money the flight eats up.  Those who have the most baggage are therefore costing the most money.  Shouldn't they pay more for the flight since they cost more to get them and their stuff to the destination?  Could we think of bag fees as user taxes and therefore fair?

At the same time, less time in destination means less baggage.  Business travelers are often in and out quicker than pleasure travelers and have fewer bags.  It is the vacationer who therefore pays more for the flight.  Business travelers aren't even the ones paying for their tickets, their employers are.  Are bag fees a way to get ordinary people to subsidize corporate activities?  Is it a tax to fund a hidden sort of corporate welfare?

Are bag fees fair?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

DC Congressional Representation

Today is the 51st anniversary of the ratification of the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution which granted the residents of Washington, D.C. the ability to vote electors for the Presidency to the electoral college.  Folks who live in the District are American citizens who pay taxes and live by the same laws, yet who have no voting representation in the Congress.  They have limited home rule because their budget is overseen by Congress and as a result, representatives from places very distant will use the power of the purse strings overturn democratically supported initiatives from the citizens because these representatives have ideological agendas they want to force upon them.  The irony, of course, is that those who keep their clutches on Washington are also ones who crow the loudest about "freedom" and "democracy." 

Washington D.C. has a larger population than the entire state of Wyoming and about the same as Vermont.  Should they get Congressional representation?  Should they be attached to Maryland  or Virginia?  To have the capital of a representative democracy not be represented in that democracy ought to be a point of embarrassment.  How should the situation be resolved?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Irony Can Be So Ironic: Affordable Care Objections

Listening to the arguments from the Supreme Court yesterday, the "irony can be so ironic" file had to be opened wide.  When President Obama approached the health care debate, he looked at recent history.  Republicans went nuts over "Hilary-care" and he wanted to avoid that kind of spectacle, so what did he do?  He listened to Republicans -- mistake number 1.

When the Clintons came out with their managed care approach, the extremely conservative Heritage Foundation came up with a different approach.  In line with their free market idolatry, it forced everyone into private insurance.  Never mind that government controlled Medicare provides better service, better outcomes, and better cost-savings, they put forward a plan that took government out of the game except as an enforcer to drive everyone into the private insurance market, thereby enriching the insurance companies.  This conservative approach was embraced by Republicans and pushed by several prominent Republican senators.

So, when he started out working on healthcare issues, Obama figured that it would be a thoughtful thing to reject the common sense approach that works in every other industrialized country, the approach that has empirically demonstrated better outcomes for less money, and he would instead build the Republicans own plan into his as its very core.  He would champion the conservative approach to healthcare coverage.  He would appease the conservatives and tell the rest of the country that such a move was politically necessary to get health coverage for all Americans.  It was a pragmatic surrender.  To get something, he would have to give them pretty much exactly what they wanted.  I mean, after doing that, the plan would have to garner Republican support, right?  I mean, there's no way they could lampoon their own plan as "socialist" or anything.  That would be hypocritical and dishonorable, and these are Republicans who aren't looking to score cheap political points by harming innocent Americans, right?

And so the entire law -- the one that makes sure that those who have pre-existing conditions will not die from lack of care or bankrupt their families from conditions that are no fault of their own, the one that takes newly graduated college students who cannot find a job because the last administration wrecked the economy and allows them to remain on their parents' health insurance plan, the one that keeps immoral and uncaring insurance corporations from searching for legal loopholes to deny care to very sick people --  that law may be undermined.  Why?  Because the part of the plan that the Republicans put forward turns out to possibly be unconstitutional.  If Obama had put forward Medicare for everyone or some version of a robust public option, the arguments that conservatives made in opposing their own idea would not be possible.  The law would stand.  But because he tried appease Republicans, the Republicans may have successfully run him over.

The wonderful ironic twist on this ironic twist is that because the flaw is of conservative origin, certain Republicans embraced it, including the man who is most likely to be Obama's challenger in the upcoming election.  Romneycare is not like Obamacare because Romney is a moderate. It is similar because it was being pushed at the time by conservatives.  It is a conservative plan that he put into place.  And so, in the end, what could be a massive defeat may be a wash politically.  Of course, for normal American families who suffer unfortunate happenings, it will be a tragedy.  But, hey, the corporations will be happy and THAT is what really matters.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Is Peace Just Internalized Conflict?

Came across an interesting passage in, "The Meaning of 'Ethical Neutrality' in sociology and Economics," an essay of Max Weber in which he argues that there is no such thing as peace:

"Conflict cannot be excluded from social life.  One can change its means, its object, even its fundamental direction and its bearers, but it cannot be eliminated.  There can be, instead of an external struggle of antagonistic persons for external objects, an inner struggle of mutually loving persons for subjective values and therewith, instead of external compulsion, an inner control (in the form of erotic or charitable devotion).  Or it can take the form of a subjective conflict in the individual's own mind.  It is always present and its influence is often greatest when it is least noticed, i.e., the more its course takes the form of indifferent or complacent passivity or self-deception, or when it operates as 'selection.'  'Peace' is nothing more than a change in the form of conflict or in the antagonists or in the object of conflict, or finally in the chances of selection."

So, is peace possible or is it just the internalization of unavoidable struggle?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Stand Your Ground Laws and the Return to the State of Nature

In light of the Trayvon Martin killings, a spotlight has been cast onto so-called stand your ground laws. The idea is that you cannot be convicted of murder if you kill someone with the belief that your life was endangered by the victim. Whether you were or were not actually under mortal threat is irrelevant; as long as you believed your life was threatened, you are legally permitted to kill the person you believed threatened your existence. This is the line that the lawyer for George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin's killer, has been arguing. Zimmerman believed himself to be in mortal danger, so even though he was pursuing Martin and not fleeing from him, his state of mind was sufficient to take murder charges off the table.

What would be the result of this line of reasoning? Are we legislating a return to Thomas Hobbes' state of nature which is, as he argues, a state of war of each against all others in which life is solitary, nasty, brutish, and short? On the one hand, you have as this article from Forbes calls it, a license of kill young black men. but that only makes it more complicated and bizarre. For example:

Premise 1 -- There is a legacy of bigotry from white Christian majorities in many states for which legal remedies remain in place.

Texas, for example, is just one state in which all redistricting plans must receive the approval of federal judges because there is a continuing history of racial bias. There are a number of other such requirements that show that bias against minorities of all different sorts remains a rational belief for minority members in those states.  

Premise 2 -- There is a longstanding history of bias being connected to injury and death of minority members

From slavery and lynching to the murders of Harvey Milk, Matthew Shepard, James Byrd,Jr. and Trayvon Martin, we have many examples where white Christian men have killed Americans who were different in one way or another just for being different.

 Premise 3 -- Many, if not most, of these states now have conceal carry laws

The gun culture of these states have given rise to laws wherein concealed weapons permits are easy to obtain. When you see a white, male, Christian you cannot know if he is armed with a deadly weapon.

Conclusion 1 -- All white, Christian men are potential lethal threats at all times to Americans from all minority groups.

If there is a legacy of hatred towards minorities and that hatred at times results in killings and if you cannot know whether any given white, Christian male is packing a gun, then every white Christian male is a walking potential deadly threat to every American from every minority group whom the person comes across.  

Premise 4 -- Stand your ground laws allow one to legitimately kill those whom you believe pose a deadly threat to you.

This is the point of these laws.  

Conclusion -- If you are a member of any minority group, you have grounds to kill any random white, Christian guy you see on the street before he gets you.

If it is rational that all white, Christian males thus pose a potential deadly threat to all members of t all minorities, then they are legally permitted to kill them, no?

 So, why is this absurdity still absurd given the stand your grounds laws? Is this a legitimate reductio or is there a flaw in the argument?  does it work without the legacy of bigotry to a more general conclusion that would allow any to kill anyone else as a potential threat?

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Playground's Sixth Blogoversary

We're six years old today. That's 59 in Twitter years. So, time for our annual meta-post. How should the Playground change? Longer posts? More politics? Less politics? More academic type philosophy? Less academic type philosophy? Any old features you'd like to see brought back? Any new features you'd like to see gone? More auto mechanics to quantum mechanics? More guest posts?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Einstein's Jewish Science: First Review

The first review of Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and religion is up at Publishers Weekly.

Prior to WWII, Nazi sympathizers dismissed Einstein’s theory of relativity as “Jewish science.” Yet Einstein himself, notes Gimbel, recognized an intellectual style that could be identified as Jewish. In this wide-ranging exploration, Gimbel (Exploring the Scientific Method), chair of the department of philosophy at Gettysburg College, seeks to discover whether and to what extent Einstein’s work could legitimately be called “Jewish” and what difference it makes. He speculates about whether only a Jew could have discovered relativity theory, or whether the style of reasoning characteristic of Jewish theology can influence scientific thinking (as Catholicism informed the reasoning of Descartes). Finally, Gimbel asks, did Einstein’s theory contribute to wider conversations about Jewish themes among contemporary scholars such as Walter Benjamin and Martin Buber? Gimbel felicitously concludes that what makes the theory of relativity so attractive is its cosmopolitanism and intellectual open-mindedness. It is thus only metaphorically Jewish: as the ancient rabbis assumed the existence of God’s truth but could approach it only through their contrasting interpretations, so Einstein assumed that science was the pursuit of truth about the world that still allows us the integration of different perspectives on, and individual beliefs about, the world. Agent: Deirdre Mullane, Mullane Literary Associates.
That's the first time I've been called "felicitous" in public.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Is There Progress in Art? Society?

I'm working through Max Weber's methodological essays and one of the points he argues is that social progress is a myth.  Across the ideological spectrum of founding fathers of sociology, from Marx's communist view to Spenser's free market social Darwinism, the presupposition was that society not only changed, it progressed, that society's increasing complexity was a sign of maturity. 

But Weber argues that it is not change for the better or change for the worse, it is just change.  There is indeed a social progression, but that does not mean it is social progress.  For this, he argues by analogy.  Consider painting and music.  We can talk about movements in art -- cubism, surrealism, baroque, romantic, atonal -- and we can see each as a reaction to what came before it.  There is a progression in musical and artist theory and composition.  We get new techniques, new instruments, new media.  But surely, we don't think that Rembrandt or Mozart are less masterful than those who came after.  We do not, Weber, argues, contend that there is progress in the arts, just change.  the change is necessary to keep the art alive and fresh, but it is not making it more perfect with each new step.

The same, he thinks, goes for society.  It changes and will always change.  But that change is not social progress.  Things are different than they were, but the old days were neither the good old days or the bad old days, they were just what they were.  Similarly, new does not entail new and improved.

But does it?  Are we moving towards a place where there is increased freedom and increased possibility for human flourishing?  Does the analogy work?  Is there progress in art, music, or society?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Rush Limbaugh, Straw Meets Camel

So, I'm wondering why Rush Limbaugh is getting so much flack for his comments about Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke.  Don't get me wrong, I think he deserves it, but I'm baffled as to why he is actually getting what he deserves.  He's been doing the same thing for decades and getting away with it.  Indeed, the entire point of his schtick is to intentionally step over the line of decency, civility, and rationality in order to bait people to denounce him. 

It's a brilliant trap.  On the one hand, if you do denounce him, then it just goes to show how liberals control the media and how they will do anything to silence conservative voices.  Liberals may say they believe in tolerance, but deeming unacceptable speech to be unacceptable brings howls of hypocrisy.  On the other hand, if you do not denounce him, then the silence shows assent, that there is no way to argue against it and therefore it must be true.  If you try to neither ignore nor denounce, but rather to rationally argue against him, then what you've done is introduce his infected invective into the public discourse, you've elevated the nonsense to the status of sense, of a legitimate point of view in the marketplace of ideas.

And it has worked for SO long.  Why are we seeing the push back now?  His advertisers have heard him say things just as disgusting for many years, why now are they suddenly shocked, shocked to find he is uncouth?  Is it that he attacked someone who is not a public figure?  Is it because Sandra Fluke is a well-educated white woman and resembles "us" rather than "them"?  Is it just that she's a woman and it makes him look more like a bully?  Michele Malkin stalked and publicly attacked a child and his family for advocating for public children's health insurance and she wasn't subjected to this.  Yes, she should have been, but she wasn't. 

Is it a function of the times?  Has the larger discourse changed suddenly?  Have the tea party and the anti-woman policy provisions of the Texas, Virginia,... legislatures brought us to a point where the entire movement is being eyed suspiciously for a change and Rush happened to be the lightning rod? 

I guess the straw that breaks the camels back is no different from the multitude of other straws.  Or is it?  Why now?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Historians, Archaeologists, and Scientists

Are historians scientists?  They frame hypotheses about the causes and effects of real events and use empirical evidence to support their accounts.  But they don't do not look for regularities to make into laws; to the contrary, they account for singular events in their uniqueness.  Isn't science about generality?

What about archaeologists?  Are they scientists?  Are they historians?  Both?  Neither?  Why?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

RIP Peter Bergman

My Fellow Comedists,

This week, we lost another great comic mind.  Peter Bergman has gone up to comedy heaven to take his place next to the Cosmic Comic.

Founding member of Firesign Theatre, Bergman was a master of late 60s intellectual surrealist humor -- cross Monty Python with Lord Buckley.  At a time when the world was in turmoil following the McCarthyist war on ideas, Firesign Theatre provided an absurdist take on the world around them.  They created linguistic dada.  Sophisticated, but innocent, gentle, but sharp, it was clever and insightful humor for the smart and hip. 

Thank you Peter Bergman for all of your playfulness.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, March 16, 2012

Ritual and Superstition

Thinking about the relationship between ritual and superstition.  Clearly some rituals are non-superstitious.  No one thinks that not getting together for Thanksgiving will invite bad luck.  The ritual is culturally enforced, but has clear and explicit social goods (enforcing unity, allowing a time for rest and rejuvenation,...) completely explainable without resort to anything that one would classify superstitious. 

One often hears the claim that athletes are the most superstitious people around.  It's an empirical claim, don't know if it is true.  But, I was a lacrosse goalie for many years and up through the end of my playing days as a college student, I had an intricate pre-game ritual.  Before the game the two teams line up with goalie at the end facing each other to receive instructions from the referees.  this ended when they said "goalies cross" at which point the two goalies met in the middle for a handshake which signaled the rest of the players to do so and then the game would start.

I would always sprint to the middle to make the other goalie come to me.  I would then sprint down to my goal with my stick in my right hand.  When I got to the goal, I would transfer the stick to my left hand and touch the left post, the crossbar, then the right post with the butt end of the stick, pivot around holding the stick in both hands, reach behind me to tap the right post then the left, do a knee-bend while twirling the stick in my hands, and then finally jog out to touch gloves with my three defensemen -- right side, crease, and then left side.  I always did it.  I would feel that odd feeling in my stomach if I didn't or if I deviated from the way it was usually done.  I did not think that it invoked the lacrosse gods, but it seemed a necessity to get things off in the right way.  When I returned to play an old-timers a few years back, thirteen years after I had last played, I found myself doing it exactly that way without thinking.

Was the sense that something was amiss if I didn't do it just so an indication that it was a ritual that was grounded in superstition?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Dignity of Inanimate Objects

Working in Gettysburg and driving past the cemetery where Lincoln delivered his address every morning, you understand the ways in which we take things and places and grant them a special status.  I have a student who argues that this status is dignity and is the same sort of dignity we grant to human beings.  Kant argues that with dignity comes moral consideration and therefore, my student contends, we can understand why certain things that may not have been thought to be moral objects become objects of moral consideration.

It made think of a story told by The Old Man when he and mom got back from a trip to Las Vegas.  They were in a nice restaurant and at the table next to them was a small group of college students who had clearly just hit for a bunch of money in the casino.  They used it to buy an incredibly expensive bottle of wine which they were swilling.  The quality of the wine, the specialness of the vintage, was clearly unappreciated.  The Old Man spoke of this not in objective terms of reporting facts, but indignantly.  The bottle of wine was being treated without the proper sense of dignity, something it deserved for being what it is.  Similarly, a longtime baseball card collector I was talking with recently was saying how his wife cannot understand why his 1909 Honus Wagner card is not "just a piece of cardboard."

Do these sorts of things have dignity and does it carry with it a certain moral responsibility for us?  Or is it just that we have an attachment that creates a sense like dignity, but is different?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Is Compulsory Education Granting or Limiting Autonomy?

It's Einstein's birthday today, a good time to think about one of the Einstein quotations you will find on bumper stickers -- "Imagination is more important than knowledge." We have a senior major considering the argument that children have a right to education because they have a right to autonomy, something that is challenged by the influence of their parents. Being raised by parents forces you to be indoctrinated with certain beliefs, in Einstein's terms a limitation of imagination, a shrinking of the possibilities of the world. Education, on the other hand, will inevitably cause you to have to face other beliefs, it will enlarge the pool of possibilities. Since it is only when you have a choice that you have autonomy, to guarantee the autonomy of children when they reach adulthood, it is crucial therefore to counter the influence of the parents to some degree. The children may choose to believe what their parents do, but we only treat them as autonomous beings if we guarantee them the right to make that choice. The odd part of this argument is that we grant a right by coercion, by forcing them to confront something they may not want. We make them autonomous by removing their autonomy. Should children have to think about different ways of being as a part of required education? Is it healthy to think about education as deprogramming?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Moral Responsibility to Friends and Family

We grant special moral considerability to people who are our friends.  Friendship comes with responsibility.  You care about your friends in ways you do not care about strangers and therefore there will come times when you have to do things for them.  But with some friends, we elevate the friendship to a level higher.  We will often say "you are not just a friend, you are family."  This seems to imply that being family grants a level of moral responsibility even higher than that we have to friends.  But we choose our friends and not our family.  Do we really owe a greater degree of moral consideration to our relatives than we do our friends?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Are there Varieties of Ownership?

Our senior thesis writers this semester have been working on some interesting topics.  Want to raise some questions this week that have come to mind listening to them develop their arguments.  One is looking at the notion of ownership.  From the Enlightenment, rights-based approach to property, there seems to be a single thing which is ownership, but is this true?  Does how you came to own the thing alter what it means to own it?  If four people have the same thing, but one person made it for herself, one person bought it for himself, one person received it as a gift, and one person inherited it from a relative who passed away, the object may have different meanings for them, but is the sense of ownership the same in all of them?

If I buy a Picasso, it is my painting, I own it, but in a sense it is not my painting.  Is there a partial sense of ownership here?  Can something with cultural meaning be fully owned or is it partly owned by the culture?  Does this apply to something like a sports team as well as say an important landmark?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Passing of Saint John

My Fellow Comedists,

This week was the 30th anniversary of the passing of John Belushi.  Hard to believe it was that long ago.  He was to comedy what Hunter S. Thompson was to journalism.  The 60s saw an institutionalization of radical comedy with Pryor and Carlin, something that started the generation before with Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory.  But with Belushi and gang in the 70s, it turned into something completely different, something that did not just challenge social norms, but was itself completely out of control.  Belushi wasn't a shock comic, that takes cold calculation, he was a passion comic swept up in his art letting it not only come from him but over him.

He was born in Chicago to first-generation Albanian-Americans in Chicago, growing up just outside the city. In high-school, he was a model student and star middle linebacker and captain of the football team. He had intended to become a football coach, but appearing in school variety shows, he caught the drama bug. He went to college to major in drama, but after a bout of freshmanitis, transferred to a junior college in the Chicago-area.

He found himself preferring comic roles to the serious ones he had been playing and started an improv troupe in Chicago. When it got some notice, he earned an invitation to join THE improv troupe in Chicago. His time at Second City led him to work with some of those who would help him fill out that cohort of comedic geniuses.

His Joe Cocker impression, later made famous on Saturday Night Live, got him a spot in a National Lampoon stage show, "Lemmings," that spoofed Woodstock. It got him in the door with National Lampoon and he became part of their radio troupe, ultimately taking over as director. Here, he worked with many of those who would become the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players" when they made the move to television with Saturday Night Live.

So, what is the greatest Belushi bit?  Man, tough call.  A couple of classics:

Watch John Belushi - Ludwig van Beethoven Part 2 in Comedy  |  View More Free Videos Online at

So, best Belushi bit ever?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, March 09, 2012

Little Paternalistic Lies of Convenience

Driving in this morning, listening to "Marketplace," the announcer recalled the story of a friend whose mother told him when he was a child that when the ice cream truck was playing music, it meant that it was out of ice cream.  Parents play on the ignorance of children with these little lies of convenience -- or are tempted to -- all the time.  Kids don't know how the world works, so they turn to us to construct it for them.  Sometimes we construct their world so that it does not match up with ours, but the constructed world makes theirs and our lives easier.  In this case, the mother not only doesn't have to hear constant pleas for ice cream (pleas as opposed to "please" which is often whined in pleas), but the child does not have to suffer constant hope and disappointment.  His life is better.  But it is a lie.  Is such a little paternalistic lie of convenience justified?

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Is Existence Necessary?

A student of mine was discussing a debate he viewed concerning the existence of God and the team arguing in favor of the thesis began with an axiom that existence of the universe is a necessary truth.  Is it?  Is it possible that nothing could exist?  If we think about possibility in terms of possible worlds, is the idea of a possible world in which nothing exists possible?  Would such a world be one among the multiplicity of possibilities or is it a non-world, that is, is it logically inconsistent to have a world in which there is no world?  Does there necessarily have to be something?

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Is the Time of Intellectual Revolutions Past?

A question came up in a seminar I'm team-teaching with a buddy in sociology.  Is it possible to have another "Copernican revolution," that is, an idea so revolutionary that it changes the general worldview?  Thomas Kuhn argues that we think in paradigms, sets of basic assumptions that structure rationality, that define our most basic concepts, tell us what kinds of questions can be asked, what kinds of answers are acceptable, and what kinds of methods must be used to get answers.  A revolution occurs when one way of understanding the world is rejected for another, when we see ourselves living in a different world furnished with different types of objects in completely different relations. 

The question is whether we have overarching paradigms now.  Have we become so overspecialized that we are intellectually splintered to a degree where sub-sub-sub-specialities have their own languages, concepts, and methods and cannot talk across each other.  If so, then we would have mini-shifts, but could never change the whole landscape.  The dominoes are so isolated that even if one tips, it can never reach any of the surrounding dominoes. 

Or is there enough connection at the edges?  Molecular geneticists do not meet with ecologists, but there remain joints connecting them.  Particle physicists and cosmologists are related more than the separate communities would suggest.  We may not see the connections, indeed the practitioners may not see the interdependence themselves, but it is there and if you replace one piece, you will see the ripples radiate out.

So, are intellectual revolutions still possible?

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Contraception, Jewish Deli, and the Right to Be a Bully

I have heard a single analogy multiple times from conservative Catholics who are trying to defend the stripping of health care benefits from Church-employed workers.  You wouldn't support a law forcing a Jewish deli to sell pork, they argue, so you shouldn't be able to force the Church to pay for health care that includes access to birth control.  The argument by analogy here is fallacious on several different levels.  Let's set them out.

First of all, it is factually wrong.  If you want a ham sandwich, go to a Jewish deli for an overstuffed one.  They will be happy to sell it to you.  Jewish dietary laws not only forbid pork, but also mixing milk and meat at the same meal, yet any Jewish deli you go to will gladly sell you a Reuben, a sandwich of corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese.  It isn't kosher despite the fact that it has a Jewish name, but every deli serves it with pride.

Second, the metaphor fails because Jews do something many Christian refuse to, they admit the distinction between theology and morality.  I worked for my uncle when I was in high school.  My Jewish uncle had a pork stall in Lexington Market in Baltimore, a business he inherited from his Jewish in-laws.  We sold ham, bacon, pig ears, tails, brains, fatback,...if it came from a pig, it was sold at Esta's.  Despite the fact that we were Jewish, we did not think ill of our customers for their different choice.  They weren't bad people for eating pork, they were just not observant Jews.

Contraception may be contrary to the theology of the bishops, but that does not make it immoral.  Morality is something we all own, it doesn't belong to just you.  When I tell my son that a certain behavior is immoral, I have reasons.  Maybe it causes unnecessary pain.  Maybe it affects the character of the person acting.  Maybe it shows a lack of care or violates someone's rights.  But it is something that we can talk about rationally and that could be challenged on rational grounds and that we could talk about passionately, but rationally with people of any background or creed.

It highlights a major difference between Judaism and Catholicism that undermines the effectiveness of the analogy.  Judaism is a tribal religion.  You are Jewish by birth.  You are born into the tribe. This tribal origin presupposes an us/them dichotomy.  If you are distinguished as a member of the tribe, it implicitly asserts that there is a world of people not in the tribe.  You are in a group that is different from that group. Our group does things they don't and refuses to do some things they do.  It doesn't make us better or right, it just makes us, us.  It is about action, about doing what we do.  They are the ten commandments, not the ten axiomatic propositions.

Christianity, on the other hand, is an evangelical post-Greek religion.  It is about belief (a Greek concept) and about recruitment.  A radical brand of your theology is about command and control of the souls of others.  Some of you think you think you have THE way and that is necessary and sufficient  for being a good person.  No other way is acceptable or possible.  As such, extremist versions of your theology doesn't allow the room in which ethical discourse exists, the space in which we see value in conflicting approaches and have to figure out which is best.

My Christian friends, have you ever noticed that no Jew has ever tried to convert you?  Isn't that interesting?  It doesn't bother them that you are who you are and eat what you eat.  No Jew has ever tried to get a law passed here that bans you from eating pork or keeps stores closed on Saturdays (although those might more appropriately be called blue laws...).  That's because there is a difference between religious commands and universal ethics.  That difference undercuts the contraception/Jewish deli analogy at its root.

Finally, will you please stop trying to use us as rhetorical pawns in your bid to strip the rights of non-Catholics?  It is unseemly.  Especially given the history, both ancient and recent.  Along those lines, please, please, please stop invoking Hitler in your discussions of the topic.  Do not compare yourselves to Holocaust victims.  Really, just stop.

If you want to use a misplaced, hyperbolic, inappropriate historical reference, at least use one you own.  Say that it is like the Inquisition where you were forced by those inconsiderate Jews to create new and more horrible torture techniques because they too were denying your religious freedom by refusing to convert to Catholicism.  They objected to coerced conversion, something that your Church leaders said was a part of your religion and which they resisted.  That resistance was a denial of religious freedom just as much as forcing you to allow non-Catholics to choose their own health care options.

The Jewish deli analogy is faulty.  But if you want one that works, it would be that Catholic employers denying contraceptive care to their workers would be like the owner of a Jewish deli getting to tell his non-Jewish employees that they could not use their paycheck to buy any part of their Easter ham.  He keeps kosher and so you cannot use the compensation you've earned in the way you choose, but because the money had crossed his hands, you are now bound to use in ways he would.  Health benefits are part of the compensation you get for working, just like a paycheck.  It is the employee's property, not the employer's.  She has earned it.  It is of no business what she chooses to do with it, even to the business who paid her.

What you are demanding is not religious freedom, but the freedom to be a bully.  Just because you want to make converts does not mean you get to decide what people do or do not do in terms of family planning.  I do have the right to swing my fist as I choose, but that right does end at my neighbor's nose.  Similarly, you do have right to practice your religion as you choose, but that right ends at your employee's body.  The bully swings his fist into the nose of his neighbor and enforces his own theology on the body of his employee.

So, my conservative Catholic friends, if you really want to model things on a Jewish deli, give your employees an overstuffed benefits package with contraceptive care if they choose, a pickle spear, and a Dr. Brown's black cherry soda.  Trust me, everyone will be happier and nothing immoral will have happened.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Is Theater Like Science?

A few weeks back, Gwydion wrote a post on his blog asking if theater is like science?  I replied arguing that theatrical writing is not only exactly like science, but could be seen as a form of applied sociology.

What scientists produce are models, attempts to create a small system that resembles some facet of the natural world as closely as possible.  When this is done well, we can translate the output of the model in terms of the natural system -- we call these predictions -- and a good model is one that produces lots of true predictions for the slice of reality it is meant to represent.  Models are simplifications in that they can only account for a limited number of independent variables, that is, the operative causal factors, but a successful model says something about the ways in which these factors actually do relate to one another in the full complex, messy universe.  When a model succeeds, it gives us understanding about the nature of things we did not have before.

In the same way, what is the playwright's craft?  Create an artificial world populated with characters who are models of real people.  It is a simplified world with a small number of characters and relations, each of the characters having properties, but not full biographies.  Create relations and interactions among them which give rise to situations in which they are forced to act and react.  A good play in one in which we take this miniature model of life and see if there is truth -- if the actions and reactions are those which we find to be faithful to the actual humanity of these limited being, then we can look at them in a way that gives us understanding about the nature of things we did not have before.

Scientists do not think their models are literally true, but reflective of truth.  The same goes for good drama.  The most talented of playwrights have always been a sort of applied sociologists.

Gwydion disagrees.  He responded:

"The crucial difference between the two models is that we KNOW in advance how the theatrical model is going to turn out. There is nothing to be learned. When a scientist creates a model of some objective truth, and sets that model whirling, it may in fact do something very surprising and unpredictable. This never happens in the theater, except in improvisation... and that's not really a model at all."
But don't scientists develop the models with some sense as to how their picture of the world must turn out, too? Aren't there accepted scientific notions that they know they cannot run afoul of?  Aren't they constrained in the same sort of way?

So, who is right here, if either one?  Gwydion has been a dear friend for almost forty years now and in that time we've have had many, many disagreements.  It wouldn't be the first time he was right and I was, it would be the third.  So, is theater like science?  When we speak of experimental theater are we being metaphorical or is all theater experimental in a literal (as opposed to literary) sense?

Friday, March 02, 2012

Wealth and Immorality

An interesting set of studies out of Berkeley contends that there is a correlation between wealth and the lack of ethical behavior.  Rich people, the study shows, are more likely to cheat, lie, and be greedy, self-serving, and rude to strangers. The primary investigator posits a causal claim.

"The increased unethical tendencies of upper-class individuals are driven, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed,” said Paul Piff, a doctoral student in psychology at UC Berkeley and lead author of the paper published today (Monday, Feb. 27) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."

No doubt, the idea that greed is seen as a virtue and not a vice plays a role.  Since I got where I did through my own greed or the greed of the person from whom I inherited my wealth, and since I am by definition (or at least by the fundamental attribution error) the model of the way things should be, then greed is good.  

But there also has to be a second factor at play, privilege.  I've always gotten whatever I want, so I should get and thereby deserve whatever I want.  When you do a favor for someone more than once without declining, it ceases to be a favor, the other person just expects that you will do it -- that's just the way it works.  The rich are not thankful for their wealth or their tax breaks or their special treatment.  You are only thankful for that which you think could be otherwise.  It is inherent in the way they see the world that things are unequal and they are the ones who get the big end of the stick.  These star-bellied sneetches expect everything and so it is unremarkable that they have and get it.  That lack of mindfulness that comes with being "the haves" also plays a role here.

A colleague at a conference a few months back commented on a similar phenomenon he was observing.  Moving from a working class campus of his large state university full of first generation college students to another campus populated by the children of the wealthy, he noticed a stunning increase in plagiarism and other sorts of academic misconduct.In this case, it is not greed per se, since there is not the accumulation of stuff here.  But there is the quick move to the immoral without much thought or regret.  It is the end and not the means that is important -- something that will be normal for those who are used to having their ends satisfied (or at least kissed). 

What ramifications ought this have on policy?  If we strive to create a more moral culture, what might this mean?

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Happy National Pig Day

Today is the day set aside to honor our porcine pals. We have a curiously mixed relationship with the pig. On the one hand, the pig is an incredibly intelligent and strong animal, yet to be compared to it is almost always a sign of condemnation. You will be called a pig if you eat too much or are unhealthfully heavy, if you are irresponsibly messy, or if you have chauvenist tendencies or treat women as objects. The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Black Sabbath all had pig songs which are condemnatory commentaries on contemporary life. The metaphorical pigs are bad people.

There are a few positive uses. "Piggies" is the term for the feet of young children, but here we have the chubby for kids = healthy, chubby for adults = unhealthy dichotomy at work. Harley riders use the "hog" as a mark of pride.

Strangely, our pig characters do not partake of the properties of the actual pig. The animated Porky Pig is a good guy, if not all that bright. The three little pigs are again not very bright (except for the one who builds the house of bricks) and timid.

But the pig is most often used to represent food. The southern grocery chain Piggly-Wiggly and the bar-b-que chain Famous Dave's both use the pig as a logo. Pork can be found now in everything including chocolate. The Vosges' candy company produces Mo's bacon bar which covers apple-smoked bacon bits in milk chocolate proving once again that you probably want to keep the stoners out of research and development. And then there is this bit from Jim Gaffigan:

And eat them we do -- or you do, I don't eat pork. Not a kosher thing, just never liked it. But it is an animal that is still eaten head to tail. Literally. I used to work for my uncle who had a pork stall at Lexington Market in Baltimore and in addition to ham and bacon, there were feet, ears, and brains. Had a customer one time ask me if I had any pig tails, So I said, "Sure, once upon a time there were three little pigs..." He didn't think it was funny either. Perhaps the scariest thing we sold was fatback and its cousin strickalean which is fatback light; it's for people who want fatback, but not all the extra fat. If selling that stuff doesn't make you a vegetarian, have I got a cardiologist for you.

So, happy pig day everyone.