Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Creta Delenda Est

I borrow here the phrase for which Cato the Elder, that jolly fellow, is famous.  He is said to have ended each speech he made to the doubtlessly stupefied Roman Senate with the words "Carthage must be destroyed" or more accurately I would think: "Furthermore, I think Carthage must be destroyed."  In Latin, Carthago delenda est.

Substituting for Carthago in my post is Creta.  Now it seems this is the Roman name for the island of Crete, but I am not urging that Crete be destroyed.  Creta is also, as far as I can determine, the Latin word for "clay."  Perhaps the Romans considered the island of Crete to be especially clay-like.  Regardless, clay is what I refer to, or more specifically clays, as in those targets which are called "clays" by those who blow them up using shotguns.  Since creta is a feminine noun in Latin, I think the title to the post serves to state, perhaps melodramatically, that these clays must be destroyed.

As one might guess, I have recently joined many others in shooting clays, in my case with a 12 gauge shotgun.  In this post, I confess that I enjoy doing this; yes, I enjoy blowing these little orange targets apart...something I wish I could do far more often than I've managed thus far.

It is in some ways a surprising, perhaps even disturbing, admission for me to make.  I'm not a hunter.  The little shooting I've done in the past has not been with a shotgun, but with a rifle when I was a wee lad, popping what I think were .22s at cans on one occasion, and more recently with a .357 magnum handgun owned by another, on another occasion.  I found this uninteresting.  I don't like the political stance of the NRA, which seems to be run by shills for manufacturers of firearms and ammunition.  I don't think the Second Amendment creates an absolute right to own guns, any more than the First Amendment creates an absolute right to free speech.

However, I feel a certain (and undiluted) satisfaction when I manage to shoot clays, particularly when I do so in such a fashion as to cause them to explode into many small pieces.  I'm not sure why I do.

Perhaps we humans have an appetite for destruction, as the '80s band Guns 'N Roses would say.  I think of the scene in the Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey in which the proto-human creature, thanks to inspiration received from the enigmatic monolith, begins to use a nearby bone as a hammer, bashing the other bones strewn about him.  Later, he uses it to beat the leader of a rival group of proto-humans.  Then, he tosses it in a fit of joy or ecstasy into the air.  We watch it fly up.  Cut to a view of a space vehicle or satellite of some kind.

Which raises the question:  Does our capacity for (and desire for?) violence lead us to develop tools, to think, to create not just weapons but everything else we create?  Another question:  What would we be without our capacity/desire for violence?  More questions:  Without that capacity/desire, what would we do, achieve, have done?

I comfort myself with the thought that the sport of shooting clays in its various forms (trap, sporting clays, skeet, etc.) involves a certain skill, and that the satisfaction felt results from the successful exercise of that skill.  But I tell others, in order to amuse them or perhaps only myself, that it is a great way to relieve stress, and that I like to imagine that I shoot not just clays but other things, even certain people.

Well, I'd rather not speculate that my enjoyment of the noise and feel of a shotgun and the effort involved in managing to shoot a flying target and watch it explode is in some sense profound, or gives me a knowledge of our animal nature, or even that it creates in me or others some kind of savage, primitive joy.  Perhaps it does. That in itself would not necessarily mean that this enjoyment will lead to the destruction of something other than orange clay discs.  I suspect that it is merely another and new way to amuse myself.  A hobby, in fact, to occupy my time.

But I wonder why I take this up now, and haven't done so before, and what it is that makes shooting a shotgun so satisfying, and how it relates to the gun violence we see and hear of with increasing frequency in these times.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Regarding "Obamaphobia"

Grandpa Munster look-alike Ted Cruz has been accused of "Obamaphobia" and we see this condition mentioned elsewhere as well.  I don't know whether this word is relatively new or whether it has been around for some time, but it seems apt in describing reactions to the president, given the definition of "phobia" as being an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.

I don't find it easy to take Mr. Cruz, or any other candidate for the presidency of our Great Republic, very seriously.  This may change as this election slouches towards its rude end, but if it does I suspect that I will take them seriously only as threats, more or less significant as the case may be, to our nation.  That said, however, I doubt that even the horrifying prospect of one of them being president will cause me to declaim against them in the hysterical, even demented, manner in which our current president is being castigated and has been castigated by Republicans.

The sickening histrionics of the Republicans in this regard invokes a kind of contempt of them on my part, leading me to sympathize with H.L. Mencken, who wrote: "In this world of sin and sorrow, there is always something to be thankful for; as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican."

Naturally, the claim of Obamaphobia is not merely denied, but decried by those accused of it and their defenders, sometimes as being a different way of condemning them for racism.  One wonders, sometimes, at the defensiveness of this response.

I think it is futile to deny that criticism of this president has been extraordinary, not necessarily in its quantity but in its quality.  Even normally sensible people I know become frenzied at his mention.  I can't remember how many times I've heard or read the word "tyranny" used in reference to him--by people who have never experienced tyranny of the kind one finds in history and in other nations.  He's routinely criticized as being godless, or at least described as not-a-Christian (which may amount to the same thing for some).  He is of course called a socialist; this is a milder criticism, however, than others.  Those like Giuliani claim he doesn't "love America."  His efforts to provide a "universal" health care system are considered positively demonic by his opponents. 

How explain such conduct?  It's true that our nation's political history is full of examples of lurid accusations against politicians involving their character (especially by proponents and opponents of our earliest politicians; our Founding Fathers were routinely accused of crimes and moral lapses).  But I can't recall this kind of vituperation directed at recent presidents; not even the much reviled Nixon.

It may be that we simply hear and read more in the way of denunciations because technology now allows everyone to express outrage and to be heard and read, more than ever has been the case.  Anyone can, and will, let all the rest of us know what they think, unsolicited.  It doesn't matter what their qualifications, knowledge or intelligence may be, in general or in particular.  Tell us they will, and the tendency is to tell us in as excited a manner as possible.

It may be that our politics is becoming increasingly contentious.  Some of us may feel that our world is changing, and for the worse, and are rendered furious by the fact that it is doing so.  Obama would be considered a symbol of that change.  That change would seem to be that people who do not conform to what some of us feel is normal and appropriate are obtaining power and becoming prominent in America.  I think this is the case, and is at least in part a cause of Obamaphobia.  He is associated with forces that are anti-Church, anti-traditional America and, I think it must be said, non-white if not anti-white--"white" society and culture being the traditional American society and culture.

Historically, white Protestants have dominated in America.  That began to change as early as the first half of the 19th century when the Irish began arriving.  In the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century people even "stranger" began to arrive, from southern and eastern Europe.

Gradually, these immigrants began to be tolerated and even took positions of power in America.  The change was in some respects grudging.  But there are places where even they are relatively few, in the South and the West, and it is in those places where it seems most Obamaphobes reside.

President Obama is a strange president, to many.  He doesn't act and doesn't speak as presidents have in living memory.  I personally feel that he has in many ways been ineffective, but his "strangeness" has for me no discernible influence or impact.  I think it has effected others, though, to a very significant extent.

I think we see here and in other things a profound change in what many are used to, and that this change is greatly resented.  Especially when we are relatively comfortable and not distracted by the need to see to our immediate survival, our greatest concern is that there be no change.  The old metal band The Dead Kennedys made an album called Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death.  It mocked us for our love of comfortMany of us are being inconvencied by the "new America" and find this intolerable.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Definition Uber Alles: The Obergefell Dissent

I am puzzled by the dissenting opinion in this case.  The majority opinion is, I think, too rhapsodic but ultimately legally sound.  The dissent on the other hand is neither, and I think borders on being weird.  I can do without rhapsody in the Supreme Court, but am disturbed by oddity in that institution.  Both rhapsody and oddity are of concern, as the appearance of either of them in a legal opinion is a sign that the opinion's author has departed from legal analysis and strayed into the Never-Never Land of the zealot.  But oddity is of particular concern when it comes to the consideration of legal rights.

The dissenters are in a difficult position because it cannot be doubted that the ability to marry has been recognized as a legal right protected by the Constitution since at least 1962.  So in order to dissent, they must necessarily maintain that legal right is not available to certain people who are as much protected by the Constitution as any other American citizen.  Normally, such rights are available to all subject to forfeiture, generally by virtue of conviction of a criminal act.  However, it can't be maintained that gay people seeking to marry have all been convicted of a criminal act (no, sodomy doesn't count as criminal anymore under the Constitution).

The dissenters are thus reduced to contending, in effect, that the legal right to marry is a right that can be exercised only by particular people, but that others are excluded from exercising this legal right not because they have forfeited that right but because of a definition.  According to the dissenters, marriage is a legal right that can only be exercised by one man and one women because that is what the definition of "marriage" requires.

The dissent acknowledges that the definition of "marriage" may be changed, though.  The dissenters think, however, that the people through the legislature must change the definition, and not the court.  Thus we find in the dissent references to democracy and the will of the people which are unusual in a Supreme Court decision, as the Supreme Court has for many years disregarded the wishes of the people in upholding and interpreting the law when it deems it necessary to do so to uphold the Constitution, and this is indeed its function in our system.  The dissenters have all of them done just that themselves.  They simply abhor doing so in this case.

By acknowledging that the definition of "marriage" may be changed at all, however, and that if changed the legal right of marriage may be extended, the dissent creates problems for itself.  It makes the existence of a legal right dependent on something that may change, first, and this is something which the dissenters may find hard to stomach in other cases.  There is in addition a danger in letting the people, or the legislature, define what constitutes a legal right, as one hopes the dissenters recognize, even if that recognition would hint that they aren't being entirely impartial in this case.  The Founders were well aware of the potential for a tyranny of the majority, and took steps to avoid it; one of those steps was the creation of the Supreme Court.

There is also a danger in sanctioning the idea that it is possible to "define away" a legal right.  If one accepts that the Supreme Court must in all cases accept what a legislature mandates as a definition, it would be easy enough for a legislature to adopt definitions which would restrict existing legal rights or create new ones by adopting a particular definition. 

Perhaps it can be argued that in the case of "marriage" the dissenters refer to a definition of long standing, not dependent on legislative whim.  But the same could be said of "property" which until recently had been defined for many years as including certain human beings. 

Now there is talk of civil disobedience, and fears of restricting religious freedom.  There is even talk of the Supreme Court defying God's law by those who think of God as obsessed with human sexual relations (God as voyeur, as it were).  But the majority opinion makes it clear that should not be a concern.  This decision should properly be considered as applicable to marriage as a legal concept, which is in effect a contract or partnership.  Religions may consider it whatever they like, and require whatever rituals they think appropriate governing what they think is a marriage.  That should not be a concern of the law.  Similarly, it should not be a concern of religions what the State provides as governing this particular kind of contract or union.

I think it likely that we will not see the same kind of hysteria we saw in the days when the courts mandated segregation.  Acceptance of gay marriage has spread with remarkable celerity, and, frankly, those who oppose it and oppose modern society generally will die off soon enough, to be replaced with the less intolerant, or will withdraw from that society to live and die in relative isolation, for good or ill.

Perhaps the times really are a-changin', this time. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Habemus Papam Mirabilis

The Pontifex Maximus, a/k/a Pope Francis, is certainly a remarkable Vicar of Christ.  He continues to surprise me and no doubt continues to surprise and horrify, or perhaps delight, others.

I'm fond of his rejection of papal pomp and pretence (and of alliteration).  The creation of a commission to look into efforts of bishops to protect priests who molest children is encouraging as well.  That it took so long for the Church to take this step is sad but unsurprising.  That it took Francis some time to accomplish it is, I think, due more to the fact it likely took quite a bit of searching to find someone willing to sit on such a commission than hesitance on his part.

But in this post I'll address his encyclical on climate change, which astonishes even by virtue of the fact it addresses climate change at all.  This is not one of the traditional concerns of the Holy See.  But it may be that the Pope was serious in choosing his name, in which case he has a serious regard for the Earth and its creatures generally, in which case he may also feel that humanity is not the sole concern of the deity.

Such a view cannot but be welcomed by anyone who can no longer accept a God which for reasons it seems would be inexplicable is primarily if not exclusively focused on the conduct of a species which has its home on a tiny planet circling one unremarkable star among billions in a galaxy among billions.  The universe can only be considered a spectacular waste by those who think this and who consider God to be a creator, transcending the universe but in a way we can't understand, being unable to understand what anything beyond the universe would be.

It would seem, though, that a God concerned with the well being of the entire world would appeal to others whose conception of the divine is not entirely anthropomorphic.  I think that conceptions of God can be judged, and that certain conceptions are more reasonable than others.  One that is not exclusively anthropomorphic is I think of necessity more reasonable than one that is, given the magnitude of the universe.  Indeed, I think belief in an anthropomorphic God, or one that is primarily concerned with humanity, is delusional. 

It's stunning as well for a Pope to state that the view of humanity as holding dominion over the rest of nature and its creatures is in error, even if he ascribes that error to a misreading of scripture rather than acknowledging it as the self-regarding dream of a Bronze-Age tribe of primitives who didn't know any better.  But it would be too much to expect a Pope to abandon scripture at this stage in the development of institutional religion.

Even so, the encyclical is remarkable in that it seems to abjure, by implication, what has probably been the view of most Christians throughout the history of Christianity.  Europeans were infamously unconcerned with the world except as a source of comfort and profit, and this attitude must, in part, be credited to Christianity after the extermination of paganism.  Not only has Christianity, due to the misreading of scripture claimed by the Pope, fostered the belief that man is the master of the universe (as it were) next to God, it has also denigrated the world in worshipping a God who's kingdom is not of the world.  This was especially the case in the days when Christians expected the luridly conceived end of the world to be imminent (some, of course, still do).

Regrettably, the view of the world as inferior and insignificant (or unreal as Cardinal Newman put it) in comparison with the afterlife only seldom motivates the renunciation of it by saints and hermits.  For the rest of us, it contributes to its exploitation.  What does the world and its creatures matter, after all? 

Christians or those with a Christian view of the world are not its only despoilers, of course.  And  it must be admitted that there have been efforts in the Western world to curb our destructive tendencies.  But this represent the first time I'm aware of when a religious leader in the West has condemned those tendencies as part of religious teachings.    I think this is significant, and hope it has a significant effect.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Continuing Vulgarization of Conservatism

One of the many aspects of our times, and our country, which sadden me is the deterioration of a once reasonable political, social and cultural perspective--conservatism--into a contemptible, irrational, self-righteous, dull, bigoted, totalitarian and often preposterous ideology, worthy of Jonathan Swift's Yahoos or members of the Know-Nothing Party.

I say "reasonable" as opposed to, say, "admirable" because I think reasonableness is the best we can expect in matters involving politics (and perhaps in anything we humans do).  Even when it was respectable (which stopped being the case not all that long ago) conservatism had its share of loonies and stout defenders of the primitive and immoral.   The normally shrewd and thoughtful Edmund Burke, a great figure in conservatism, wrote, infamously, an extremely silly kind of Romantic rhapsody regarding Marie Antoinette in his work regarding the French Revolution.  John Calhoun, who seems to have had a sharp intellect, unfortunately devoted it to rigorously defending the institution of slavery.  But much the same may be said of liberalism and its devotees.

Conservatism once stood for limited government to facilitate the exercise of individual rights.  This position requires a commitment to laws which protect individuals from the limitation of rights arising from government power and authority, which in turn requires a commitment to the rule of law.  A commitment to the rule of law requires that the law be deemed to apply in all cases, subject only to reasonable exceptions, the purpose of which is not to restrict liberty but to foster it.

Conservatives in this country continue to pay lip-service to these ideals, but are ready and in some cases eager to disregard them.  That's because they take the position that they know what's best for everyone and the country, and seek to use the law and government power to impose what they know is best, whether other citizens agree that is the case or not.  It is, after all, for their own good or if not for their own good than it's for the good of anyone who matters.

This is of course reflective of the same kind of arrogance and totalitarian thinking conservatives once maintained were characteristic of liberals and liberalism.  This repressive stance may explain why many now prefer to identify themselves as libertarians or "independents" rather than conservatives.

An acquaintance of mine who is conservative recently responded to my complaints about conservatism by stating that the view that individuals should be free to do what they want provided they don't harm others was all very well and good when there was a consensus regarding what was appropriate conduct and thought, but that's no longer the case.  So, presumably, individuals should no longer be free to do and think what they like.  It's a telling statement, one that indicates that concerns with individual liberty are not all that concerning, to conservatives.  What is significant is conformity to certain standards.

As may be guessed, given the timing of this post, it was made in connection with the Jenner situation.  We Americans have always been unduly fascinated by sex, of course, as well as gender, or what may more properly be called how we perceive and broadcast our gender and that of others.  In this case we have someone who is or wants to be a woman seemingly eager to relate that to the world at large, thereby assuring an adverse reaction from those who are disturbed by it which has also been related to the world at large.  I care nothing about sex between, to use a cliche, consenting adults, and think it should not be of any concern to others, but think those who try to make it our business one way or another are wrong to do so.

In other words, I have no desire to hear of it.  It may be that Jenner has sought this publicity, in which case an adverse reaction should have been expected.  I assume yet another "reality show" will soon appear.  But the adverse reaction is nonetheless founded on a belief that something is permissible and other things impermissible, and this is a belief today's conservatives take with increasing frequency; worse yet, they seem inclined to use the law and government power to eradicate what they consider impermissible.

Conservatives seem particularly inclined at this time to adopt laws or interpret or apply laws in such a manner as to prevent, or limit, the conduct of those who don't think as they do, and to preclude even the presence of those different from them in the United States.  The U.S. is very much a product of the Enlightenment; it's Constitution is very much the product of Enlightenment thinkers.  Yet it is insisted it is a "Christian nation" which is to attribute a certain religion to the nation contrary to the Constitution and the writings of the Founding Fathers.  It is a nation of immigrants not only because its laws allowed immigration, but because it accorded to immigrants the same rights accorded to other citizens.  Conservatives seem less and less inclined to allow immigration and to allow others to seek let alone possess the benefits of citizenship.

Conservatives have begun to favor certain rights over others.  The fetishistic regard for the Second Amendment, uber alles as it were, is a symptom of this rejection of the rule of law, as is the growing tendency not to take a neutral stance as to religion but to favor religious beliefs and conduct (but only Christian in nature) in legal situations.  Zoning decisions are now subject to strict scrutiny if they involve religious uses.  The use of the law to provide for the teaching of religious beliefs in the form of creationism is another example of the new conservative urge to legislate in such a manner as to assure that what they think appropriate is taught.

In short, conservatism as a political and cultural force has become a threat to individual liberty.  Conservatives want us to be free to do as we please provided we do as they please.  They don't want us to do otherwise, and actively seek to prevent us from doing so. 

It's natural to wonder how far this perversion of traditional conservatism, which has its basis in classical liberalism, will go.  Ultimately, I think, what is now called conservatism has its basis in fear (and loathing, I suppose, as the late Hunter Thompson would day).  Fear of change, of most everything that is different.  It's likely that change will come regardless of efforts to prevent it from taking place, because to put it simply and frankly, people die.  It seems most who call themselves conservatives are older, and overwhelming white.  The demographics of this country are changing, and the older of us generally die before the younger do.