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Archive for June, 2012


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Sometimes, no matter what I do, the writing of fiction just does not happen.  Or it happens, but then I throw it all out.

It was that kind of day today, and that brings me back to the Puritans.

Actually, it also brings me back to the High Middle Ages, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

I’m still reading Perry Miller’s The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century.  It’s a truly wonderful book, but it needs careful reading, and I’m going to be with it for a while.

If Miller is at all accurate in his description, the Puritans were a sort of reincarnation of the Medieval mind, with a lot of the fancy ornamentation stripped away.

They didn’t believe in the Real Presence and they didn’t hold for fancy decorated churches with stained glass windows and paintings of the Virgin Mary, but their concepts of everything from epistemology to civil government were solidly 13th Century.

They thought they disputed Thomas Aquinas and the Schoolmen.  Instead, they were virtually recreating everything the Schoolmen did.

The reason this is important is that it brought to the American continent a theory of civil society that I think may be exclusive to Christianity.

It’s not that all Christian societies follow this formula, but that I don’t know of any other societies that do. 

But I don’t know as much about other societies as about the ones that arose in Western civilization, so I may be completely wrong. 

This theory of society goes like this:

The purpose of secular government is to provide an environment where men and women will find it possible to practice the virtues.

It is important to note that we’re talking about practicing the virtues, not following a lot of thou-shalt-not rules.

The thou-shalt-not rules mattered, but they were secondary to things like maintaining and active and vigorous faith in Christ and his Church, treating all people with charity and as you would if they were not themselves but Christ appearing before you, and dozens of smaller things.

The smaller things for the Puritans included things like modesty, sobriety, and that work ethic Max Weber kept going on about.

A lot of the things that seem outrageous, or tyrannical, or just plain stupid about both the societies of the Middle Ages and the Puritans in New England can be understood if you start with the premise that their idea of what a government was and what it must do was radically different from our own.

Well, okay–radically different from what we say is our own idea of government.  I’ll get back to that.

But seriously, look at it.

If my purpose is to construct a society where you will find it possible to practice the virtues, and I believe that men and women are inherently prone to be led into vice, then I must suppress heresy and censor heretical publications.

I must do that because a diversity of religious opinions must, by definition, consist of mostly wrong ones.  When they are allowed to flourish, people will be seduced by them, or confused.  Men and women find it hard to practice true religion and believe the truths God gave them.  Therefore, to make it possible for them to live their faith, we must as far as possible eliminate the temptation.

In a world where only true religious views are allowed a hearing, men and women will find it easier to accept such views and to trust in them completely.

The same is true about things like laws against vice.  You prohibit prostitution and gambling and public drunkenness because if you allow those things then it will be harder for ordinary men and women to practice chastity, modesty, prudence and sobriety.

It’s true, of course, that in a society where the vices are not prohibited some people will still lead virtuous lives–but those are the strong ones.

Concern must be focussed on the weaker vessels, who find temptation difficult or even impossible to resist.  In order to make it possible for them to lead virtuous lives, we must take temptation out of their way. 

In a rightly ordered polity, all encouragement is given to virtuous behavior, and vicious behavior is so circumscribed that most people don’t even conceive the thoughts that might lead them down the garden path.

Let me note here that the psychology of this isn’t entirely wrong. 

A man with the urge to have sex with children may not even know that that is what he has the urge for if there is no sign of any such thing in the world he lives in.  If he does know he has the urge, he thinks he’s alone and perverted, a freak of nature.  He suppresses his desires, or does what he can to take himself out of the way of having them aroused, because actually acting on them is unthinkable and repugnant. 

That same man, confronted by the NAMBLA web site and its arguments in favor of doing what he wants to do anyway now sees that he is not alone after all, that other people feel what he feels, and that some of them have plausible arguments for why feeling that way and acting on it are not bad things.

A world full of lotteries and Indian casinos will have more gamblers than one without, and will of necessity have more compulsive gamblers. 

A world full of alcohol will have more driners than one without, and will of necessity have more alcoholics.

You can do that all the way down the line.

If you think I’ve abandoned my principles and signed on in favor of morals legislation, I haven’t.

The argument for a libertarian polity has never been that in libertarian circumstances all people will behave well.  They won’t, and in libertarian circumstances, lots of people will ruin themselves who would not have in a stricter and more constricted environment.

And it’s true that even in the strictest societies, some people will go ahead and practice vice anyway, no matter what the penalties.

But the Medieval scholars and the Puritan New Englanders didn’t need, and didn’t expect to get, one hundred percent success.

The City on the Hill was not conceived as Paradise Regained or as the uncorrupted world which Christ would institute on His return.

The idea was only to create a society that would minimized the losses, a society in which even the weakest of human beings had a chance to achieve the daily practice of virtue.

Reading Perry Miller, what keeps hammering itself into my head is this:  a society so conceived is what the people promoting speech codes, hate crimes legislation, Bloomsberg food and smoking restrictions, and all the rest are trying to construct for the rest of us.

The idea of government as a moral enabler has become almost entirely a phenomenon of the secular left. 

The religious right wants to ban vice, but not because they believe it will mean that fewer people will commit sin. 

The religious right wants to ban vice because they think it is intrinsically evil, and that evil should be prohibited even though people will commit it right and left. 

Some day those people may Get Religion (literally), but that will be the Grace of God and not anything we’ve done about it.

Written by janeh

June 30th, 2012 at 8:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized


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None of you gets to tell me I’m the only  one who heard that Roberts was writing the majority opinion and thought:  oh, God, they struck down the whole damned thing.

I hope I spelled “flummoxed” correctly, because that’s what I am–not over the decision itself, because I never really had any inner sense of the way it would go. 

But that a majority in favor would be made up not by the liberals plus Kennedy but by the liberals plus Roberts–that one I didn’t see coming.

I am where I have been on this issue all along.  I wanted single payer and I didn’t get it.  I hate the individual mandate to  its core–I do NOT want to give my money to insurance companies–and I didn’t l ike the p rovision that would put some seniors into Medicaid instead of Medicare.

I’m unclear about where that last one stands–the court seems to have ruled against at least some of the expansion of Medicaid, but I don’t know which parts, because I haven’t had a chance to read the decision yet–but the rest has definitely been upheld.

My guess is that the New York Times will give out a lot in the way of opinion pieces on how Roberts has “grown” on the court and an op ed columnist or two will award the man the Strange New Respect award.

I just think Roberts is a more complicated man than I thought he was.

I’m going to go off and read the decision now.

Written by janeh

June 28th, 2012 at 11:29 am

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Taking It Seriously

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So, I’ve been a little backed up over the last few days.  I’m still reading the Perry Miller, and I’ve run across a reference to something I find completely–I don’t know.

Consider Petrus Ramus, which is the Latinized named of a French scholar who lived and worked throughout Europe in the sixteenth century.

His first claim to fame was that he completely re-systematized Aristotle’s Logic, saying that up to that point scholars had gotten it all wrong, and were therefore teaching something that made no sense. 

This claim got  him a lot of friends and a lot of enemies, to the point where he had to be sneaked in and out of cities to escape enraged crowds who wanted to see him dead.

This was bad enough when he was still a Catholic, but when he became a Protestant, all Hell broke loose–possibly literally.

And on the 23rd of August in 1572, he was caught up in the “St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre,” and murdered by Catholic forces along with a great many other French Hugenots.\

He was, according to the stories told about him later in New England, first thrown out a window.  When he hit the stoned courtyard, his guts erupted out of his stomach, and they trailed him as he was dragged to the river to be first beheaded and then drowned, or maybe drowned and then beheaded.

The stories get a little elaborate over time.  Also a little confused.

To the New England Puritans, Petrus Ramus was a martyr, and one of them–I forget who, at the moment–produced an abridged translation of his famous work on logic to…give to the Indians.

It’s heartening to know that there was a time when men took the intellectual life seriously, as a matter of life or death.

Either that, or they were idiots beyond the ability of moral human to understand.

I’ve got to go teach a night class.

And the SCOTUS hands down the health care law decision on Thursday.

This ought to be interesting.

Written by janeh

June 26th, 2012 at 5:22 pm

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Getting God Wrong

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Some time back, I was trying to explain something about the relationship between Puritanism, the Enlightenment, and what we now think of as “countercultural” or “progressive” social thought, and I made a mess of it and seemed to be saying that the Enlightenment bred the Puritans.

A number of people jumped in with comments that were mostly puzzled–hey! you know better than that!–and then I never got back around to straightening it out.

At the time, what I was actually trying to get at was that the Enlightenment bred one particular Puritan, Jonothan Edwards–and it did, and I want to get back to that in a post or two.

For those of you who care, if you go to my home page and click on the link to “Reading and Writing,” you’ll find a long essay (of mine) about Edwards, who has fascinated me since I was a teenager.

I’m willing to bet anything that I was the only person who ever read Freedom of the Will on the New Haven to Danbury bus.

All that said, I want to swing around now for a couple of reasons, the first of which has to do with the nature of God.

And no, I haven’t changed my mind.  I’m still an atheist.  But ideas on the nature of God have consequences for human behavior, so let me start with this and then get to God and Government later.

As some of you probably noted from the post yesterday, I’m in the middle of reading the first volume of Perry Miller’s The New England Mind.  This volume is subtitled The Seventeenth Century, which means it is concerned with Puritan thought rather than the history of ideas in New England in general.  I assume that Miller will get to the “in general” part, complete with Deists and New England Transcendentalists, in the second volume.

And I’ve learned one side fact in the process–it’s virtually impossible to read Puritan divines to a background of Baroque music.  Especially when the quotes from the Divines are in the original spelling.

That aside, however, the first chapter of this book brought up something interesting to me.

This has to do with how the Puritans defined God–how they defined what God is.

And the interesting thing about that is that they defined God in the same way Augustine did, and the Church fathers did, and most of Medieval theology did. 

And that’s fine as far as it goes, except for this.

That definition says:  God is Being.  God is Existence Itself. 

God is not a being. 

He can’t be talked about properly the way we talk about persons.  None of the categories that apply to persons actually applies to Him. 

When we talk about God’s will, or God’s law, or God’s wrath, we are using metaphors for a reality that is completely incomprehensible to the human mind. 

This definition of God is almost as old as Christianity itself.  You can find it in the second century writings of the Church Fathers.  You can find it in Augustine.  It is at the heart of Medieval theology and of most high-end intellectual Catholic theology today.

And there’s nothing particularly wrong with a definition like this, except that it’s much more like Buddhism or the Greek “God of the philosophers” than like anything you’re ever going to find in the New Testament.

Or the Old, for that matter. 

If you read the Bible, King James version or otherwise, what  you get is something very different from a definition like this. 

You get God not only as a Being, but as a Being thoroughly engaged in acting  in much the same sense as human beings act.  He gets angry.  He gets jealous.  He does things on the spur of the moment. 

And, of course, he speaks.

In a way, I’m not really surprised that the early Church Fathers came to their abstractionist definition of God. 

For one thing, Christians at this period did not take the Bible as literally true. 

With the New Testament especially, they tended to take the position that the Church wrote the thing, so you shouldn’t try telling the Church what it meant.

That is, largely, the same position taken by the Roman Catholic Church today.

And the Church Fathers were, to a significant extent, intellectually Greeks.  They were learned in Greek philosophy.  They came to the Church via attempts to find peace in secular learning.

And that was doubly true of Augustine, who was one of the greatest philosophical scholars of the end of the Empire.

I’m willing to accept Miller’s position that Puritanism, both inside and out of New England, represented the second intellectualization of Christian faith in the West–that the Puritans were, like the Church fathers before them, people who approached religion as an intellectual exercise first and foremost.

What I don’t understand is how, starting with sola scriptura–which they were definitely committed to–they got to this place.

It’s one thing to start with Plato and end up deciding that God is Being Itself.  It’s another thing to start with the Gospel of Luke and get to the same place.

Even the Gospel of John, which is the most Greek in its approach–in the beginning, there was the Word–won’t get you there in anything like a straight line. 

So the question becomes–where, exactly, did the idea of God as Being Itself, and not A being but To Be–where did this come from in one of the most rigorous strains of Protestantism, sola scriptura, sola fidei, sola gracia?

And, while we’re at it–why did it?

The God of Plato and of Buddhism is an intellectual construct meant to make belief in any God at all logically coherent for people who do pursue reason to its inevitable conclusions. 

It is a definition that is untouchable by the kind of analysis produced by people like Dawkins and Dennett.  It makes arguments about things like “how could a good God allow tsunamis” completely irrelevant, because they rely on the assumption that what we call God does things like allow and will in much the same way we do.

At the same time, it is not a definition that can survive for even a few seconds in any religion that people are expected to live day by day. 

Even the philosophers–and the Puritans–ended up talking about God just the way we do now, when they ended up talking about anything else except His “essential nature.”

Once they got to morality, or Providence, or even politics, God became again (at least in speech) the everyday willing, thinking, acting, mostly like a person as we define it that we’re used to.

That was inevitable, for the same reason there are two paths to God in Buddhism, one for the ordinary mortals who can’t quite get into the esoteric abstractions of the “higher” path.

But that leaves me with my question intact–how do you get to this place from the New Testament, or from the New and the Old?

In the book I’m reading, there is an awful lot about the definition and the ways in which New England theologians expressed it, but nothing about where in the Bible they thought they found support for it.

And I keep thinking that you can’t get there from here.

Written by janeh

June 23rd, 2012 at 9:06 am

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Today, work went a little late, and I’m frazzled.

So, instead of doing a regular blog post, I give you thing:


A link to an article on credentialism from the left instead of the right-ish for once.

I’ll admit its conclusion is rather disappointing.  Complicated and sclerotic credentialism systems have risen and fallen several times in history, in different times and places, but never by the kind of action the author here suggests.

His ideas are part and parcel of the thing that drives me crazy about movements like Occupy–quixotic, symbolic, and based on nothing like reality.

But I do think our own complicated and sclerotic credentialism system will crash and burn, and possibly sooner rather than later–because it’s so expensive it cannot sustain itself, because the underlying racism and classism built into it cannot be ignored forever, because it is in fact connected to no reality of skills acquired or needed by anybody.

But I also think it’s going to crash and burn because of things like–

Well, the first is an article by Chris Mooney in the May-June issue of Skeptical Inquirer.  I’d post a link, but it’s not up yet.  It will probably be up by next month.

It is, you know, one of those things.  There are a lot of them–anybody who is not a progressive is authoritarian, uncomfortable with change and ambiguity, and blah and blah and blah.

Mostly, I wouldn’t even mention it.  We’ve all seen “progressives” and “liberals” shoot themselves in the foot in that particular way literally dozens of times.

This article, though, is absolutely remarkable as a tsunami of sheer smug complacency and self regard, to the point where I began to wonder if Mooney and all the editors who okayed this might be on some kind of psychotropic drug.

In terms of wrongheaded stupidity, however, it pales in comparison to a letter writted to the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s publication Freethought Today a couple of months ago.

FT puts only selected articles from its issue up online, and none of those articles included the mail. 

Which is unfortunate, because this thing was an incredible performance. 

First, the writer said, nobody should be allowed to pronounce on scientific questions except those people who belong to the scientific societies (like the American Academy of Sciences).  Then, nobody should be allowed to belong to the scientific societies except those people who accept the scientific consensus on evolution and climate change.

Take a look at it.

Science as religious dogma. 

And I’ll absolutely guarantee that this guy had no idea what he’d done.

But, of course, according to Mooney, this is one of those people who–being politically progressive and atheist to boot–is comfortable with change and ambiguity and rejects authoritarianism.

A system that produces these two things is not engaged in education in any sense of the word I understand.  It’s not even engaged in indoctrination.

Its sole purpose seems to be to insulate its members from any possibility that the might get onto themselves.

I’m reading, at the moment, the first volume of Perry Miller’s famous The New England Mind.

At the moment, the Puritans are looking more flexible, open-minded and comfortable with complexity and ambiguity than any of this nonsense.

I have to go back to scanning things and sending them out.

Written by janeh

June 22nd, 2012 at 9:56 am

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So, Enter the Health Insurance Policies for the Lambs of God

with 2 comments

Okay, I’ll admit.

I was astonished.

My fear of writing about abortion has always been a fear of starting a comments war, and instead I got no comments at all.


I assume that means you all think I’m crazy. 

But I do want to point out something important–I was being very specific when I said that the government could not be allowed to require you to put YOUR PHYSICAL BODY, YOUR ACTUAL BLOOD AND SKIN AND BONE, to the use and/or benefit of another person against your will.

It can require your tax money.

I can require your service, as in a military draft (eh, okay, maybe not) or in your doing community service work if you’re nailed for a DUI.

I can’t be allowed to demand that you hand over your kidney.

A government that can demand that you hand over your kidney is in fact more tyrannical than one that can demand you had over 80% of your income in tax.

There is a difference in kind between those two things that makes all the difference in the world.

But let me get on to this–if an employer belongs to a religion that rejects standard medicine and allows only faith healing, should that employer be allowed to insure its employees for faith healing only?

And the answer is–depending on the grounds on which it rejects standard medicine, yes.

I say depending on the grounds because there are actual real world examples of this.  Such religious denominations do exist.

But they don’t all look at standard medicine and faith healing in the same way.

The largest, best educated and most well-healed Church is the First Church of Christ, Scientist–the Christian Science people.

The problem is that they don’t view standard medicine in the same way that the Catholic Church views birth control–as a positive evil that will send a soul to hell for eternity for its practice.

In fact, they don’t see standard medicine as evil at all, only as wrongheaded and ineffective.

They do not view themselves as participating in a moral wrong if they pay for your bypass operation.  They just think you’re being silly.

And Christian Scientists who are employers provide health insurance coverage for standard medicine all the time.  They only demand–and get–policies that cover Christian Science practitioners as well.

What’s more, members of the Christian Science Church tend to be, on average, better educated and of a higher socioeconomic status than the average.  A lot of them do in fact run business, including very large ones.  Hank Paulson–CEO of Goldman, Sachs and then Secretary of the Treasury under George W. Bush–is a Christian Scientist.

Christian Science, therefore, is not a good case.  They rely on faith healing, but they do not see standard medicine as an evil they must oppose in order to practice their religion.

The problem after that is this–the other sects that both do practice faith healing and do see standard medicine as an evil tend to be small and populated by people who are most definitely LESS well educated and of LOWER socioeconomic status than the average.

In fact, almost exponentionally both.

What this means is that, although it is certainly true that the Lambs of God see standard medicine as witchcraft and therefore an active work of the devil, the chances that they will have a business large enough to hire enough workers to be caught by the health insurance mandate is–nil. 

There is every chance, of course, that they’ll be caught by the individual mandate, but they can take the easy way out of that by paying a fine.  Most of them are poor enough that they’d most likely be signed on to Medicaid which they then wouldn’t use.

So the test case isn’t going to occur, simply because the conditions for it are not right.

But, in the end, the free exercise clause is the free exercise clause.  The only way the government should be allowed to violate it is if there is no way to institute its policy that will not impinge on the right.

And, in fact, there are several ways to institute even universal coverage without impinging on the right.

One way would be to put in place a single payer system paid for by taxes.  At that point, the members of the Lambs of God would be able to refuse to take advantage of the system put in place, and they would not be required to do anything directly to support it. 

They would pay a general tax.  Some of their tax money would go to pay for the single payer system.  They do that now with Medicaid.

What they are not required to do under such a system is to actively and directly act to support something where such active and direct support would mean they’d go to hell for eternity.

There are lots of good reasons to support a si ngle payer system over the mess we were landed with, aside from the fact that it would remove the requirement that I hand more money over to insurance companies.

Don’t get me started.

But  let me note one more thing–the requirement that all employers pay for insurance that covers birth control was NOT passed as a law.

It was not debated in Congress.  It did not get an airing in the press.

It was issued as a fiat by the Department of Health and Human Services, as thoroughly arbitrary as if Katherine Sebilius had been a king with divine rights.

We would not be in the position we are now if that regulation had been democratically decided. 

It’s time to end government by decree.

It really is.

If a policy is going to have the force of law, we should go back to requiring it to be passed AS a law.

And things like “the Secretary will decide” should not be permitted.

Written by janeh

June 21st, 2012 at 8:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Fearing to Tread

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Every once in a while, I get the idea that I should outline my position on abortion.

Up to now, I’ve successfully resisted the temptation.

The reason for this is simple–most people, on BOTH sides of the debate, are incapable of discussing the subject, or even considering it, rationally.

Positions on abortion are, for most people, not rationally considered policy decisions but visceral responses that are immediate and undeniable.  They’re about right and wrong and good and evil only in the sense that such things are bred into us by nature–in the sense in which our moral compass is a matter of that inborn conscience the Medieval theologians were convinced all human beings possessed whether they believed in God or not.

It doesn’t help that my own position on abortion is bifurcated–my moral reasoning is different from my legal reasoning, and the consequences of the two are divergent.

My moral reasoning says that I can find no moral justification for aborting a child that will live. 

The usual reasons given for the  moral licitness of abortion by people whom I can only think aren’t thinking too clearly–the child might be born handicapped; the child is the issue of the woman and a rapist–seem to me to be not only obviously wrong, but extremely dangerous.

The one about handicaps implies that people who are disabled are better off dead.  The one about the rapist is generally stupefying.  If you wouldn’t go off and kill the man’s born child because he raped you, then I don’t see why you would be morally justified in killing his unborn child.



These are MORAL arguments.  They’re irrelevant to the legal issue.

And the legal issue is this:

Should any government have the right to require its citizens to give their PHYSICAL bodies, their blood and skin and bone, to the use and benefit of another person without their consent?

This is, you will notice, a question of the relationship between a government and its citizens and citizens and their government.

It is not about whether or not the fetus is a human being.  Of course the fetus is a human being.  What else is, or could, it be?

It is not about whether or not abortion is “murder.”  There are all kinds of murder, and there are laws on the books allowing justifiable homicide for a reason. 

All I am considering here is whether any government anywhere should have the power to require its citizens to place their PHYSICAL bodies, their blood and skin and bone, in the service of another person whether they want to provide such service or not.

Well, for one thing–that’s a pretty good description of slavery. 

If the government can require me to carry a fetus to term against my will, then it can require me to provide bone marrow for a child up the street dying of leukemia, to provide one of my kidneys because not enough of them are available for transport, to–

Well, you get the picture.

Essentially, any government with the power to forbid women to terminate a pregnancy is a government with the power (potentially) to do anything at all.  Its citizens are not citizens, or even subjects.  Its citizens are a slave labor force available for the use of the state for any reason whatsoever.

This is the only rational argument in favor of the LEGALITY of abortion.  All the other arguments are essentially rotten at the core.  Like I said, if the child being born disabled is a reason to allow abortion, why isn’t it a reason to allow infanticide?

There’s too much of “life unworthy of life” in that for me to stomach.

But this position has two necessary effects, and they ought to be stated out loud.

First, it sees abortion as a defense against PREGNANCY, not against the fetus.  That means that, should the means ever become available–and those means provide no greater risk to the mother than an abortion–to get the child out alive and keep it alive, rather than destroying it in the process of ending the pregnancy, then that would be what would have to be done.

Second, it forbids the legal restriction of abortion through ALL NINE MONTHS of the pregnancy.  There is no point at which the woman can be required to be a machine for the benefit of the child.  If she no longer wants to be pregnant, the state cannot compel her.  In later stages, it could insist on induced labor or a C-section, but not that she bring the pregnancy to its natural term.

This is, however, ENTIRELY a legal argument, an exercise in political philosophy. 

It says nothing at all about the MORAL licitness of abortion.

I find most arguments that attempt to frame abortion as a morally licit choice to be entirely  unconvincing.  The only abortions that seem to me to be morally licit are the abortions that are not abortions at all–the ones done because the fetus will never be able to survive outside the womb, or because it is already dead.

That said, to say that a government has no right–and violates your rights absolutely otherwise–to prevent you from getting an abortion if you want one is not the same thing as saying that government has to pay for it, or that government has to insure that things are arranged so that, if you want an abortion, there will definitely be people out there willing to give you one.

If your fellow citizens decline to “cover” your costs for birth control, abortion or anything else, it is NOT a case of your rights being violated and it is NOT a case of somebody “forcing their religion” on you.

Governments are not required to cover anything at all. 

I personally think that a single payer health insurance system works best, and that health care is not something that functions well on a market system.

But the decision to provide some of the funding for health care, all of the funding for health care, or none of the funding for health care is discretionary.  It does not violate your rights–which are NEGATIVE ONLY, cases in which the government must leave you alone–if it does not cover some service you want it to.

And, since your rights are negative only, it is also possible that a situation may arise that although you have the right to be free of government interference if you want an abortion, you don’t actually have access to abortion.

It’s statistically highly unlikely in a nation of 350,000,000 people that this would happen, but it COULD be the case that no doctor is available who is willing to perform an abortion. 

You have no more right to coerce a doctor to perform a service he does not want to perform than he has to get the government to stop you from seeking the same service from somebody else.  You don’t own him any more than he owns you.

I bring this up because it comes up every once in a while.  Most doctors do not do abortions, and most are not trained to do abortions.  Medical schools that offer training in doing abortions find that most students don’t opt in. 

Part of that is because most of them will work in specialities–like, say, cardiology–that will not require such a service, ever, and part of it is that even students who want to go into things like gynecology have a strongly negative reaction to the whole idea.

Some of that is certainly the fact that doing abortions in some parts of the US can be dangerous.  There are fringe groups out there who are vowed to kill you for it.

But some of it seems to be a decision medical students make in training once they’ve had enough experience with fetuses, pregnant women, ultrasounds and the rest to come to a decision about what they think of the MORAL licitness of abortion.

And, like I said, most of them don’t opt in.

It is therefore at least theoretically possible that a day might come when you want an abortion, and there are no government restrictions on your getting one–but you still wouldn’t be able to get one, because no doctor would be willing to give it to you.

Like I said, it’s a long shot.  Even in places where abortion providers are being actively hunted down, there are doctors willing to perform the service.  The chances that we’d reach such a point are effectively nil.

But if we DID reach such a point–if we got to a place where no doctor in the country was willing to do abortions, IN SPITE of no government interference, and WITHOUT any threats of violence–well, your rights wouldn’t have been violated, even if you couldn’t obtain the service.

We don’t own each other. 

We really don’t.

We don’t have the right to demand that other people pay for what we want, or that they perform services for us that they do not want to perform.  

We are a nation of citizens, not slaves.  Women can’t be forced to service a fetus for nine months agains their will.  Doctors cannot be forced to perform abortions (or appendectomies) they don’t want to perform.  And the citizenry is not required to fund ANYTHING outside the core functions of government (police, courts, military) unless it wants to.

Tomorrow, I want to get into that “should Jehovah’s witnesses be allowed to provide health insurance that doesn’t cover blood transfusions?” business.

Because my answer to that is:  yes.

But it’s more complicated than that.

Written by janeh

June 20th, 2012 at 9:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Straw Man

with 8 comments

So.  I’ve looked over the comments, and they’re interesting in being largely beside the point.

But let me get to them.

First, Michael gives a disquisition not on the fact that we now live in a world with  no moral consensus but on the idea that somebody wants to do away with all laws and regulations and allow people not to pay taxes for any program they don’t like.

But nobody has said any of this, least of all me. 

In the first place, the illustration I gave last time–the mandate that all employers must pay for health insurance for their employees that includes coverage for birth control–is not a tax.

A single payer system would have involved a tax, but there is no single payer system.  (And, note, I’M in favor of a single payer system.)

Medicaid is funded by taxes–and Medicaid in most states covers birth control, with nobody proclaiming any right to opt out of supporting it, on religious or any other grounds.

The requirement that all employers pay for health insurance policies that cover contraception, however, is a mandate that people personally behave in ways contradictory to their religious beliefs.

And you can’t get out from under it by saying that the government can make “general” laws and require religious people to follow them, because the courts have been adamant that you cannot do that if there is any way not to burden the religious with the requirement.

And they do mean any way.  It is a law of general intent that teen agers must stay in school until the age of 16 in most states and the age of 18 in some, but the Amish are not required to send their children to high school nevertheless.   

The “free exercise of religion” does not mean that everybody gets to stay at home in private and pray.  It means that people may practice their religion right out in the open where the rest of us can see it, including doing things and saying things that the rest of us do not approve.

In fact, it includes religious people doing and saying things that many of us find morally repugnant.

Contrary to what a lot of people like to argue, the separation of Church and State does not mean, and never meant, that nobody should talk about religion in the public square or base her vote on her religious principles or ask people to vote them into office because of those religious principles.

It means, in fact, exactly the opposite–that the government may not prohibit you from doing any of those things. 

If you look back into the history of the idea of the separation of Church and State in the US, what you find is Thomas Jefferson outraged that a  young woman was legally prohibited from giving her religious views in public because they contradicted the opinions of the Episcopal Church.

In other words, Jefferson was not attempt to take religious speech out of the public sphere.  He was trying to insure there would be more of it.

It’s also a little exasperating to get this continual hysteria about how, if I want government prevented from interfering in SOME parts of my private life, that I must be in favor of government having no laws or regulations at all–by people who agree that government should be prevented from interfering in SOME parts of their private lives.

Virtually every single person who makes the “you want anarchy and Somlia!” argument to me is passionately determined that the government has no right to interfere with a woman’s decision to have an abortion–that is, they say, her right to privacy.

It is beyond my comprehension why a “right to privacy” includes my decision to have or not have an abortion, but does not include my decision about what to eat and feed my children and what I weigh, for instance. 

Nor do I understand why my rights to do process should disappear in family court, or my rights to freedom from double jeopardy should disappear in such a way that I can be declared guilty by a civil court after I have been declared not guilty by a criminal one.

And there’s a lot more like that. 

Limits on the power of government are, in general, a good thing. 

And they’re nothing like anarchy.

As to the issue brought up by–redhead?  I really love red hair, but I’m  not sure that’s the way you want to be referred to–

Anyway, there are two different issues here.

First is the religious one.  There are clear indications of a condemnation of contraception in Catholic moral teaching going back to the 2nd Century–that’s the 100s. 

And that teaching has been consistent.

In other words, it is not possible to practice Catholicism and support, abet or practice birth control.

No such moral prescription exists in Catholic teaching about the use of aphrodisiacs. 

Catholics can in fact provide Viagra without violating their religious beliefs.

Is that sexist?


But it doesn’t matter. 

Catholicism represents a lot of moral principles we now find sexist, and most other religions include moral principles that at least some of us find morally repugnant.

The government is not allowed to force us to violate those principles, or to require us to do it in secret where nobody else can see us and where we can have no effect on the wider culture. 

And that’s why a country with no single moral consensus is such an uncomfortable place to live, and why the lack of such a consensus cannot last for long.

Our understand of morality–of right and wrong–is, for most of us, central to our understanding of ourselves as human beings.  It is a vital and uncompromisable part of who and what we are.

A country with a solid moral consensus can in fact allow some deviations from that central understanding without doing any real harm to itself–that’s why the Amish aren’t sending their children to high school and nobody is very much worried about it.

But for a country without such a consensus, every deviation from one of the moral codes is a threat to that code. 

And the threat is real in the long term–there WILL be a moral consensus in this country again, but it’s unclear at present whether that consensus will look more like Catholicism or like liberalism.

It is therefore vitally important for people on both sides to try to insure that the other side does not have a chance to spread its ideas, and that government policy tacitly supports THEIR moral opinion and not the other.

Actually neutral policies are the last thing either side wants, although they’ll settle for that rather than have the other side’s ideas imposed on them.

Written by janeh

June 19th, 2012 at 9:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Zero Sum

with 9 comments

So, I’ve been thinking about Mike’s rather cryptic comment yesterday–all abstractions and no particularities.

And I have come back, again, to my conviction that what we’re witnessing in today’s society is not an argument over policy, but a breakdown on moral consensus leading to at least two factions attempting to establish THEIR OWN moral sense as the sense for the whole society.

And the fight to be the reigning moral consensus is always a zero sum game.  If one side wins, the other must lose.

As I’ve said before, the last time we had this problem, we solved it with a civil war.

But let’s take a look, for a moment, about a single question in the present war of moral visions:  whether or not employers can be required to pay for health insurance that includes contraceptive coverage for their employees.

If we were looking at this as a policy question, and not a question of getting the government to validate one moral system over the other, we’d get one of two outcomes:

1) Give up on the idea of government mandated health insurance of any kind, in virtue of the fact that any kind of coverage will automatically end up violating the free exercise rights of at least some people.  Free exercise is a right.  Health insurance coverage is not.  Rights come first.


2) Institute a system where religious and other organizations who dissent from the idea that birth control is just peachy-keen do not in fact have to cover it. 

This second one works because:

it does not put the government on EITHER side of the debate.  Some employers will cover some won’t, and anybody whose employer does not cover will be able to walk into almost any pharmacy and buy the stuff for about $9 to $50 a month.

In spite of all the caterwauling, such a system would not prevent women from having “access” to birth control.  Birth control would not be outlawed.  It would still be on the shelves.  Visits to the gynecologist would still be covered, and HIPPA laws being what they are, those visits could not be monitored for content in any case.

Meaning–if you worked for an employer whose plan did not cover birth control, you could go to your gynecologist (covered) and get a prescription.  You’d just have to pay for it out of your own pocket.

But this argument is not an argument about policy, and it’s not an argument about women’s health.

It’s an argument about morality.

Obama’s “compromise”–the health insurance companies would have to pay for it instead of you!–is a sham on two levels.

The first should be obvious.  If the health insurance companies are going to pay for it, it’s going to be only on paper.  They WILL pass that expense on to employers using their plans. 

Employers with moral objections to birth control will still be paying for it.

But the “compromise” is a sham in another way, and a more important way–it leaves open a government mandate for birth control coverage, and in doing so it puts the weight of the government behind the moral contention that birth control is morally acceptable.

And that’s why everybody is gunning for the Supreme Court.

The issue is not whether women get “access” to birth control.

The issue is whether the government takes a stand on one side of the moral issue or another–if “birth control is morally acceptable” becomes a LEGALLY OFFICIAL policy of the United States.

And that, in the end, is a violation of the Establishment Clause.

By the way–a violation of the Establishment Clause in the other direction would not be either of the two suggestions above, but a law forbidding the use of government money for birth control.

The laws now in place forbidding the use of government money to pay for abortions is a violation of the Establishment Clause in a conservative direction. 

So are laws in some states mandating that all emergency rooms (Catholic or otherwise) must provide rape victims with “emergency contraception,” sex education in public schools that take any stand at all on homosexuality, birth control, abortion and sex outside of marriage, and dozens of other things.

It is extremely difficult to govern a country in which there is no settled moral consensus. 

What is almost certainly not going to happen is anybody considering anything as other than a zero sum game.

Because this IS a zero sum game.

Sometime down the road, we will EITHER be a country that accepts birth control as legitimate or one that does not, that EITHER accepts homosexuality as legitimate or one that does not, that EITHER accepts sexuality outside marriage or does not–and all down the road.

The only way to avoid such an outcome is to strip the government of this country of virtually all its “programs” (including taxpayer subsidized public education) or to adhere to so strict a federalism it would make 1920 look like the era of Big Government.

And we’re not going to do either. 

What’s worse–the issues are by no means only sexual.  It’s just that sexual issues are obviously moral on their face, and a lot can be done with things like TANF and food stamps and the progressive income tax to make them look like something else. 

Everybody on every side of every issue is looking to have his or her moral code declared the Official one for the nation. 

And neither side will sit still for allowing the other guy’s moral code to be installed as Official in place of theirs. 

This IS a zero sum game.

And until one side or the other actually wins it, things are only going to get uglier.

Written by janeh

June 17th, 2012 at 10:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Doing the Enlightenment Rag

with 3 comments

Some time ago–back last October, to be exact–I was in the middle of a long set of posts about education.  I had just gotten to the part where I was about to explain that although we talk about “the Enlightenment,” there are actually two Enlightenments and not just one.

And that’s when the lights went out, the tree fell on my house, and we were without heat, electricity, hot water and phones for nine days.

I am not going to go all the way back into all of that right now, although I’d like to get to it sometime.

Right now, I just want to riff off of the last long section in the book I’ve been reading, F.R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition. 

It has long sections on George Eliot (whom I can handle, if she isn’t one of my favorites), and on Henry James (who is one of my favorites), and, finally, on Joseph Conrad.

Leavis’s favorite author is actually Jane Austen, but she is so much his favorite author that he declares she needs her own book.  Although he mentions her constantly, she doesn’t have her own section here.

I have reached the long section on Joseph Conrad, and I find myself right up against the same wall I always am with Conrad.

On the one hand, what he writes has no attraction for me at all. 

Obviously, I’m in the minority here. Conrad is one of those writers who sells even outside school settings year after year after year.   A movie (Apocalypse Now) adapted from one of his books (Heart of Darkness) was made as late as the 1970s. 

I still just can’t seem to connect with the man’s writing.  Part of that is mostly setting.  I want domestic settings, mostly, and Conrad tends to sea and jungle settings.  I read The Secret Agent, which I’m pretty sure takes place in the backwaters of great cities–but I’m not sure, because I just can’t remember.

That is my essential relationship to Conrad.  He just doesn’t stick in my head.

But there is something else about Conrad, something that makes me wonder why I don’t take to him more.

Conrad is a writer who focusses, almost exclusively, on the kind of political and moral theme that most of us would consider “modern.”

He looks, that is, at the utopian project–all the utopian projects.  His concern is with the people who want to make the world better by first making it worse.  He follows revolution and tourists at the revolution.

Now, this isn’t a particularly unusual bent for a late Nineteenth Century novelist.  I’ve mentioned on this blog Henry James’s The Princess Casamasima. 

What reading Leavis on Conrad has brought home to me is that this particular theme predominates in many late Nineteenth Century novels.  The utopian project that we think of as our own, including manifestations of it that we think of as entirely modern–feminism, for instance, and Marxism, and sex divorced from marriage and family–was a preoccupation not only of Conrad, and of James in at least two places (The Bostonians is his foray into feminism), but of Nathaniel Hawthorne (see The Blithedale Romance) and others less celebrated.  Even Dickens got into the act on and off.

What’s more, it’s really odd have little to nothing has changed in the terms of the argument.  Margaret Fuller and Mary Shelley are running the same arguments for and against position of women in society and the status of love as a slave of convention.  Characters in James and Conrad are running the same arguments on the need to smash the system to bring about true justice. 

If you read through a pile of these books, you’d think we had gotten into a rut somewhere around–well, around when?

I think the answer is–around the French Revolution.

I think that the Enlightenment–dating it from the work of people like John Locke–made a fundamental difference in the nature of Western Civilization. 

It changed the West’s understand of who we are and what we do–what a human being is, how he functions, and what his relationship is to the the world, his fellow human beings, and even to God.

Because in spite of the fact that we now tend to characterize the Enlightenment as a move away from religion, it only sort-of was. 

It’s not just that most Enlightenment thinkers were Deists and not atheists, or that the French Revolution ended up trying to found a Religion of Reason. 

It’s that Protestant Puritan thought is itself a manifestation of the Enlightment. 

I don’t think it’s an accident that the first great wave of what we would now call “liberal” thinking in the United States arose in New England, among people who were the children and grandchildren of the great New England Puritan tradition.

I’ve said there were two Enlightenments, and there were.  I didn’t make that up.  The two Enlightenments are usually called the French and the English or Scottish.  They are distinguished by their understanding of human nature.

The French Enlightenment saw human nature as intrinsically good.  If evil existed in the world, it was because human society, being corrupt, in turn corrupted human society.  If you could perfect society, you could perfect human beings, and put an end to evil in the world for all time.

The English Enlightenment saw human nature as being intrinsically flawed.  Human nature could not be perfected.  In order to construct a just and good society, we had to work with those inherent flaws of human beings. 

That’s why there are checks and balances in the Constitution, and what the “invisible hand of the market” is all about.

But here’s the thing.

I think I may have been concentrating too strongly on a difference that is huge, but maybe not as huge as I thought it to be.

The Puritans were passionate believers in original sin, but they were still men and women who thought they could and should build the perfect society, the society where Good would reign and men and women would live united to God.

That was what the City on the Hill was all about.

If you think of the tradition of Anglophone liberalism being essentially and foundationall Puritan, a lot of what goes on makes sense.

The Mayor Bloomberg Syndrome, for instance, is essentially Puritan.  It’s changed its list of sins, but  the impulse and the foundation are Puritan. 

It is, after all, a Puritan idea that man can never be free until he is free of his sins, and that man can never free himself from those sins. 

Not only God, but government is necessary to teach human beings how to behave, and to make them behave when they just won’t listen.

Of course, you could make the argument that modern conservatives are doing a lot of the same using of government to enforce right behavior, and you’d be right in one sense.  Conservatives are most certainly doing that.

But by the definitions of the 19th Century, our conservatives are also liberals.  They believe in democracy and not monarchy, for instance, and in the free market.

Conservatives as they existed in 1776 or 1850 have more or less died out.

Like it or not, by the original definitions of these terms, we are all liberals now.

And I think this explains, too, why the more I watch the political news from both ends of the spectrum, the more I fell like I’m listening to different performances of the same musical piece. 

Both of the political parties seem to be telling me that they can cleanse me of my sins, if I’d only just recognize what those sins are.

Written by janeh

June 16th, 2012 at 11:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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