Bring Back the Angels

September 7, 2017

Abraham Lincoln ended his first inaugural address with these words:

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

It took some time for the angels’ presence to begin to manifest itself again. Five fierce and bloody years of conflict followed Lincoln’s first taking office. Slavery and other intense issues fuelled the rancour of the first conflict enabled by emerging industrial development. Here behind the lines, this was a time that did not seem at all hospitable to better angels.

Yet the return of the angels was not long in coming. The day after Generals Grant and Lee met at Appomattox and hostilities ended, it was arranged for the members of the Confederate Army to parade and surrender their arms. A guard of the Union Army was on parade for the event, under the command of Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. He took the opportunity to let the touch of the angels have effect.

Chamberlain was not a professional soldier. He was a young, though already established scholar from Bowdoin College, Maine, where in 1861 he was Professor of Modern Languages. He was fluent in nine languages. He volunteered for military service, and as the Colonel commanding the 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment, directed an action that possibly saved the existence of the Union, and certainly saved the Union from defeat, at Little Round Top in the Battle of Gettysburg. He was twice wounded in that battle, and later as a Brigade Commander at the Second Battle of Petersburg was severely wounded, almost dying. By the time of Appomattox, he was a Brigadier General, breveted to Major General, and chosen by General Grant to command the guard.

Chamberlain was by then an acknowledged and established scholar who further had established himself as a capable and brave commanding combat soldier. He had every cause to be vindictive and triumphant as he commanded the guard at the surrender. But it seems the better angels were around, and Chamberlain let them touch him. He looked past the policy issues of the war, the carnage and death his former foes had administered, and his own grievous wounding. He directed his attention to the good qualities that existed in the defeated men coming forward to surrender their arms and colours, and ordered the Union guard to present arms. The better angels were back, and Chamberlain was touched by them. Not all unionists were thrilled by what he did, but throughout his life, the scholarly commander stood by his action. It actually did much good.

These days behind the lines, there seems to be little accommodation of better angels. In an orgy of iconoclasm, memorials to Confederate leaders are being ripped apart. There is no evidence that they were erected to commemorate the policies of the Confederacy, any more than Chamberlain’s salute was directed at those policies. If spirits are being heeded, they are spirits of the accuser, who prompts the destroyers to ascribe to the monuments the purpose of commemorating policies such as slavery, and tearing them down. Over a century after hostilities ended, the notion that they could have any other purpose has been, by them, proscribed. At the end of the hostilities, a scholar acted in a manner that sought to build up, Today, there is an orgy of tearing down. Would that the attacks were limited to only Confederate monuments, or even physical monuments of any kind. These monuments that are under attack can serve as a representative example of the wide spread, poisonous iconoclasm that seems to be in the process of running amok.

It is time to bring back the angels here behind the lines. Lincoln and Chamberlain surely knew that men are no angels, and really have no angelic component to their nature. They would have known, though, that as God’s messengers, human beings made in His image could benefit from listening to His messages from the better angels. To predicate one’s actions on the worst possible assumptions to the deliberate and forceful exclusion of all others is to act hatefully. It is to insulate one’s self completely from the touch of better angels. It is, in its destructive violence, to keep others being touched. It has nothing to do with the promotion of goodies, harmony, and compassion. It is a growing malignant tumour.

The challenge before those who value goodness, harmony, and compassion is to be courageous enough to permit themselves to be touched by the better angels and receive the message of Him who sends these messengers. In the midst of a situation where anger, bitterness, and hatred can more than easily make themselves at home, the call is, in the manner of the scholar soldier, not to give way to base behaviour but to present arms. Bring back the angels, and be touched by the message they deliver. And prepare for the worst if people continue to thwarted, through intimidation and violence on the part of those who seek only to destroy, from being so touched.

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Supply and Demand

August 31, 2017

Supply and Demand

Here behind the lines, one of the most common things we encounter is the principle of supply and demand in action. This is a tremendous influence not only on what things cost, but whether or not they even exist. If no one wants it, no one will likely make it. Even if people want it, if you can stop them from acquiring it, then it tends to disappear. Sweden, for instance, used that approach on prostitution, by decriminalizing its practice, but criminalizing its purchase. The prevalence of prostitution, and with it such other unsavoury practices as human trafficking, decreased markedly. It demonstrates that a very potent influence on supply itself is demand.

One of the things in an ample supply these days is “news” that is rather lacking in veracity. In a rather curious place (which I will identify later) I came across an example of this kind of news. It concerned the pronouncements of a Catholic archbishop in Australia, and the article I came across was so distorted that it came very close to being hateful. You can find it here:

http://countercurrentnews.info/2017/08/catholic-archbishop-id-rather-go-to-prison-than-report-child-abuse-to-police/

This is how it begins:

One of the highest-ranking officials in the Catholic Church has stated that he would “rather go to prison” than report pedophilia to police.

Australia’s most powerful clergy, Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart, says he’s prepared to be jailed for failing to report child sex abuse by pedophile priests.

So imagine. We are to believe that a Catholic Archbishop is espousing covering up pedophilia so intensely that he will go to prison rather than report the it. Well actually, that’s not his position at all. A subscriber to the page that posted the article noticed that himself and place the following comment:

Why on Earth does this article directly quote Hart as having said that sexual abuse was “a spiritual encounter with God through the priest” when in the video he actually says “Confession in the Catholic Church is a spiritual encounter with God through the priest”??
That is a direct, blatant, and intentional lie. I mean, I’m against the Archbishop here, but you don’t get to flat-out lie when writing a news article.

Another observed:

This article misquotes the Archbishop. I’m all for exposing truth, but reporting falsities, never helps anyone.

There’s a link to the video of the Archbishop’s interview right in the article itself. If you watch it, you can see the basis for these comments by the readers of the page. So presumably could the people who wrote the article, but what they wrote what they wrote anyway. The Guardian newspaper, not exactly a pro-Catholic organ, began their story on the interview with this paragraph:

The archbishop of the archdiocese of Melbourne, Denis Hart, said he would risk going to jail rather than report allegations of child sexual abuse raised during confession, and that the sacredness of communication with God during confession should be above the law.

So what the Archbishop was declaring was that he would protect the sanctity of the seal of confession, not shield pedophiles. Quite a difference. Why would anyone write such a distortion? Who could possibly be interested in it? Now we come to where I came across the article.

There’s a Facebook page that was started and is administered by the Canadian members of a particular denomination. It is what used to be termed a main line denomination, one which, along with others previously so labeled, is becoming a sideline denomination. Those members of the denomination who frequent the page are people who embrace what is generally termed a liberal approach to Christianity. Their approach is highly favoured by those who control the denomination. Ostensibly, they espouse love, peace, and tolerance. It is on this page that the distorted article appeared. It was placed there by someone who actively makes posts there and elsewhere promoting love, peace, and tolerance. Here’s an example:

Don’t know about you but
there’s just too much hate happening these days.
So let’s balance things out.
Let’s plant LoveSeeds!
Let’s sprinkle a bit of
… loving kindness
… loving thought
… loving prayer
… loving words
… loving action
in the world around us on social media like
… Facebook …

It was placed with the preamble, “And some wonder why people want to have nothing to do with religion. May the archbishop go to prison …”

This raises a few questions. Which of the above five items is this grotesquely distorted article supposed to be sprinkling? Is it supposed to represent love, peace, or tolerance, those being the values so valued on the page where it was posted? Analysis is difficult. To look at a call for love and this grotesquely distorted article and realized they were posted by the same person is to end up shaking your head and asking what’s going on here? I really don’t have an answer.

There is one thing, though, the encounter with this article did serve to confirm. You can find this kind of news, if you wish to call it that, because not only is there a demand for it, but the demand is so widespread it appears where you might least expect it. It fulfills a demand made by an advocate of love. It finds a happy home on the page that claims to promote love, peace, and tolerance. Jurisdictions that run “John schools” to counter prostitution uniformly report that the attendees are a very broad cross-section of the community, not just a small enclave of the deranged. It seems that here behind the lines the demand for hateful, distorted articles, such as that one, is also a very broad one indeed. While it persists, so, no doubt, will this hateful journalism. Yet these articles can serve a purpose. Like the John who hires a hooker, people who trade in this kind of journalism reveal more about themselves than they either intend to or realize.

When Impressionism Distorts

June 29, 2015

When Impressionism Distorts

It seems Canada’s self-identifying (so I guess it really must be) national newspaper is quite unlike the leopard that cannot change its spots. Never a consistent fan of the United States, the Globe and Mail in an editorial of 28 June 2015 (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/editorials/us-supreme-court-strengthens-the-bond-of-marriage/article25152893/) has seen fit to sing the praises of America, on the occasion of their Supreme Court’s deconstruction of marriage. It is quite striking how they have painted a very rosy picture of the U.S. It is another question whether or not that picture can be described as a portrait, or whether the colours used on the palate to paint it are true or contrived, or if we are dealing with a work that is impressionistic rather than accurate. Let’s see.

What a wonderful country the Globe and Mail’s America is. In it, there is an “intimate relationship between equality and freedom is at the heart of the highest and finest ideals that define the United States of America.” Apparently, the whole country’s genesis “was based on the profound belief that these noble abstractions could actually be put into practice as a way of life for ordinary people.” Now according to the Declaration of Independence, America on founding held, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Trouble is, history indicates that the paper went a bit impressionistic with its brush strokes when it painted in the tableau of putting them into practice. It began its existence with slaves. That aspect of practice led to a five year, very destructive, and somewhat inconclusive Civil War. On the showing of recent events involving police and minorities, it seems the practice has not made what is taken there to be a satisfactory degree of progress. The very fact that slavery was left both untouched and unspoken of when the U.S. was founded is a pretty clear indication that, whatever the assumptions around its founding, the referenced profound belief was not only unacknowledged by the founders, but unprofessed.

Yet there was a kind of profession in the Declaration of Independence. It professed that the source of the equality and inalienable rights the Declaration sets out is not human nature, not the country to be founded, but “their Creator.” The rights and the dignity of human beings, it was professed, came from a source that was utterly distinct from the physical and political world, and its inhabitants. In the end, the signers of the Declaration appealed to that source for the “rectitude of their intentions.” They sought not a reality whose propriety was defined by themselves, or other people, but “their Creator.” We’ll come back to that.

In another part of the painted picture, the paper set out a scene in which “our ingrained need to believe that other people’s gains come at our own expense” is a confounding factor in pursuit of an unspecified endpoint in the pursuits of life, liberty, and happiness. Where, one can ask, is the basis for accepting the sweeping generalization that the above cited ingrained need to believe exists? For a good many people in the U.S. who are more than a little troubled by this deconstruction of marriage, this belief does not exist. It cannot, because they hold that, for the ultimate in life, liberty, and happiness, everyone must lose and surrender everything to the Son of the Creator mentioned in the Declaration. There is no zero sum game here for these people. They struggle to lose everything, just as Frodo and those who aided him struggled to achieve the destruction of the one ring to rule them all. What, one might ask, is this unsubstantiated assertion doing in what purports to be a representation of the United States? The kind thing would be to see it as artistic license. However, there is no indication that the paper is attempting to be kind.

And as we examine further scenes in the work, we see that all pretence of accurate portrayal has been jettisoned. “It is unconstitutional, the court decided, to deny an existing right to people who simply want what their fellow citizens already possess,” we read. But no, the court couldn’t have done that, because those rights were already there. As the laws were written, a man who was free to marry could wed any woman who would have him and vice-versa, regardless of the sexual orientation of either party. They applied equally to men and women of any and all sexual orientations already. There were no new rights to be forged here. So whatever the court did in the decision, it did not do that. The picture the paper is presenting is rapidly moving from the realm or impression to the realm of rather grotesque distortion.

The picture the paper painted, in fact, distorts not only the country, but also marriage itself. The reference to “a narrower, more strictly procreative male-and-female definition of marriage – particularly in an age when heterosexual commitments are no longer shackled by the same stern traditional rules” is the definition of marriage. There is no other. And the U.S. should be aware of how that can be. Remember their beginning reference to the Creator who was the source of human rights? To claim that this Creator can be a source of precious rights, but when it comes to marriage what was sourced is narrow and flowing from tradition only is woefully inconsistent. A little further on, reliance on the judgments of God is cited in an openly disparaging manner. The paper, in its portrait, has not only distorted, but has actually incorporated a jarring dissonance that is quite disturbing to the senses. You cannot do that and cling to a claim of representing the reality of a situation faithfully, even if you are the Globe and Mail.

Finally, of course, resistance is not at all futile. What is futile is any attempt to present the picture presented by the Globe and Mail as anything approaching an actual description of the situation. When I was in grade school, we on Earth had never seen the surface of Venus. It was clouded. But since it was closer to the sun and therefore hotter, there must be on its surface, according to the textbooks, rain, tropical forests, and creatures similar to dinosaurs. (Even Carl Sagan got a chuckle out of that situation in his “Cosmos” series.) The description of the situation and marriage offered by the Globe and Mail belongs in this category. No, futility is attempting to interpret the Globe and Mail’s portrayal as anything approaching a representation of either the US., the decision, or marriage itself. Even public opinion can’t save the Globe and Mail from this reality, even though it speaks of it as if it were an incantation that could. So what can the paper do?

Well, there is a long historic tradition in newspapers of providing representations of situations to their readers. Rather than being a reporter, the paper functions as an observer. Perhaps the Globe and Mail should seriously consider incorporating the word “Observer” into its name. Of course, there are historic reasons for the present name, and it would be harsh to suggest that the paper utterly disregard history. However, in the 1930’s and 40’s, a newspaper with that name took an approach to issues very similar to the one the Globe and Mail has taken to this one. The Globe and Mail could connect to that history by adopting the name in the language of that paper, a sort of a trans-cultural act, in an era where “trans” is a concept that seems to have a lot of cachet. On the showing of the article, one is hard put to come up with a more fitting new name of the paper that published it than the “Beobachter.”

Right, Wrong, and Transit Rides

August 15, 2013

Here behind the lines, we are well past the point where our chief concern is with wrongdoers. These days, the main concern is with wrong deniers – people who deny, in word or deed, that right and wrong even exist. In these parts, we are put upon by an unelected body that controls roads, bridges, and transit. It’s named Translink, and it is not at all accountable to the electorate from which it extracts tremendous amounts of money. (They are primarily responsible, through their taxes, for us having the highest gas prices in the country. Not bad clout for the unelected.) They are introducing an electronic fare system, called the “Compass Card,” as part of a crackdown on fare evaders on the system’s light rail component. Currently, a paid fare is valid system wide, no matter how it is paid. However, these unelected despots have announced that, if you pay a cash fare on a bus, you will have to pay again to continue your trip by rail. Hers, from their Facebook page, is the justification:

 

Hi, all. Thanks so much for all your feedback today. We wanted to clarify that if you have a Compass Card, you’ll be able to easily transfer from bus to rail, as well as take advantage of discounted rates compared to when you pay cash. The news today only applies to people who pay cash to buy a ticket on the bus and then want to transfer to rail. Changing the fareboxes to make this possible would cost $25 million. In focus groups, given that there are only about 6,000 out of 1.2 million rides a day that this situation applies to, our customers told us they’d rather we save the money and instead have an extensive education and long transition period to ensure a successful transition for our customers–that’s exactly what we’re doing.

 

So then, by getting people in a room, and dangling big numbers in front of them, Translink has managed to get a few people to go along with ripping off an estimated 6,000 of its customers per day. That’s 2,190,000 ripoffs per year. At the lowest rate of single zone adult fares, that’s $6,022,500 per year. People with a moral compass – not to be confused for a moment with the Translink Compass – know that right and wrong have nothing to do with majority votes (let alone small, tightly controlled groups) and price tags. Remember the lady who wouldn’t sleep with a man for a thousand dollars, said she would for a million, and then got huffy when a suggested price of ten bucks was put on the table? On asking what kind of a woman the bargainer thought she was, he informed her that had been established. And the ethics and character of Translink, as an organization, has been established, too.

Let’s take a closer look at what they propose. As of about 1:00 PM today, 96,795,534 shares have been traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange. If one half of one percent of them were crooked, and people were overcharged, that would mean there were 483,978 crooked share transactions. Would everybody think it was no problem, given that a small, controlled group of customers had said they didn’t want the money spent to make things proper, if the regulatory authorities turned a blind eye to this situation, even if it only meant a scam totaling $16,500 per day, as would the Translink double pay scenario? Not likely. And yet, that would be just under 3½ cents per share, as opposed to about $2.75 per ride that the Translink scheme of double pay would see happening.  One final item. We would expect that such a nefarious scheme on the stock exchange, which regulators would never stand for, would be attempted by some unscrupulous individuals using the system, not by the people who manage it. But it is the Translink management itself that is prepared to inflict this scheme on its client base, and appears to be exerting a great effort to justify doing so. See where those who deny the existence of right and wrong can end up, and what they can inflict on society?

There are so many things wrong – yes, WRONG – with this scheme that an exhaustive list might be impossible to assemble. But even a cursory examination can show us how far things have sunk in the public square when it comes to doing the right thing because it is right. Justification is proposed because only 6,000 people per day will be faced with double paying. It is proposed because small groups in controlled environments (don’t ever confuse a focus group with an objective examination or experiment) went along with the scheme. It is proposed because of costs, which were themselves predicated on the decisions made by those who would now go ahead with the fleecing exercise. In summary, if the right thing would be costly, only a few people would be wronged, and you can get a few people to go along with the scheme, it must be right. There is a concise snapshot of public morality today. Not surprisingly, it has come from an unelected body, with the blurriest and least defined lines of accountability imaginable for an administrative body with the power to extract money from people’s wallets.

The lesson here behind the lines is clear. Do not so much fear the wrongdoer. He at least is aware of the difference between right and wrong. Rather, fear, and do not for a moment tolerate, those who do not, or act as if they do not, acknowledge the existence of right and wrong. How can you tell them? Simple: By their fruits, you shall know them. Unlike the spin-doctors who try to justify schemes like this one, we can, I think, rely on the average person’s innate ability, their sense of smell, as it were, to figure out that, when a scheme proposes to rip off thousands of people a day, and justifies doing so because the percentage numbers are small, and a few people have gone along with it, and there is more than a nominal cost involved in doing the right thing, the people and organization behind the scheme is blatantly unworthy of their trust.

One is reminded of a scene that took place near the end of World War I. The Kaiser was about to go into exile. His Chancellor had just given him a synopsis of the very grim situation. The Kaiser looked at him in frustration, and asked, emotionally, “How did things come to this?” The Chancellor lowered his eyes and replied, almost tearfully, “My God, if only we knew.” Finding out how this travesty came to pass will be much simpler, as would be doing something about it. Will anyone bother? As for the fixing the social environment in which this kind of malignant growth can establish itself, that will prove a thornier problem. Beware being choked by thorns.

An Obscured But Present Danger

December 20, 2011

Here behind the lines, we are pretty good at addressing clear and present dangers.  Governments, even, can act decisively to address them.  No one can deny that drunk drivers are a clear danger, and they are, sad to say, certainly present.  So the Government of British Columbia enacted a set of very punitive laws to curb drinking and driving.  The outcome of a roadside screening, administered by a policeman, led to immediate, significant, and costly consequences to the impaired driver, even at a level of impairment below the criminal threshold of 0.08.  Life got very complicated at 0.05, and things happened automatically and administratively, based on the meter reading.  There was, however, a problem.  The provisions were unconstitutional.  And it was hardly a technicality, either.  There was no judicial review component to the process at all. Everything was bureaucratic and administrative.  Well intentioned the measures might have been, but nothing close to impartial judicial due process was a part of the mix.  It didn’t, couldn’t, and shouldn’t have survived review.  It was important to do something, certainly, but equally important to do it right.

There are few things indeed that are more undesirable, more frightening than a drunk driver loose on the roads.  There can be no doubt that endeavours to keep them off the road in the first place, and get them off the road if they venture on it, are to be encouraged.  Still, care and attention is needed. Among the few things that are more undesirable and frightening are the notion that the end justifies the means, and the prospect of a police state.  The reaction to the judicial ruling indicates that each of these two things has a fair following here behind the lines.

Much has been made of the reaction of those who have been harmed by drunk drivers.  People who have lost loved ones to the predations of these felons have been at the forefront of movement to eradicate the menace, and understandably so.  Yet to hear some of them voice their views is to be left in a state similar to one who has been advised by a physician to stop nosebleeds by putting tourniquets around the patients’ necks.  The law, and only parts of it, we should note, that relate to the provision of due process, was struck down because it was unconstitutional.  This is not a mere “technicality.” It is a fundamental and vital protection against the proposition that the end justifies the means.  It is wrong to drink and drive.  It is morally poisonous to assert that any means at all, irrespective of constitutional protections, is allowed in response to this wrong.  We have been down the road in history where, once the goal is accepted as desirable, the means of achieving it are to be accepted as licit if they prove to be effective.  The symbol of efforts to eradicate drinking and driving cannot be, and cannot even be consistent with the use of, a hooked cross.  The suggestions by the prominent anti-drinking driving group that the application of constitutional principles of due process to the work that needs doing is inappropriate is disturbing, frightening, and diminishes their credibility.  Rather than making them dedicated and determined, the statements indicate that their misfortune has made them bitter and damaged.  And, if they have their way, perhaps even dangerous.  The appeal to emotions that is being put forward is obscuring the dangers they would let loose to achieve their ends. It would be wise to think carefully before tying a red ribbon on one’s car radio antenna this year.  One may end up supporting more than one bargained for.

The attitude doesn’t only reside with the victims of the felons.  It also is found among those who exercise the ultimate authority in a free society – the police, who have the power to take away that freedom.  This morning on a radio interview, an RCMP Inspector was asked about the laws that had been curtailed, and the process that led to the curtailment.  Did he defend the constitution?  (Rhetorical question: I already said it was a Mountie.)  No, he cited the statistics on the reduction in the amont of drunk driving damage since the law’s proclamation.  That, on the showing of his utterance, is all that needs to be looked at.  The blood flow is reduced.  Pull the tourniquet tighter.  When those who wield the ultimate authority in a free society are only results oriented, and will not even speak to the role of constitution protections, we can be forgiven if we become a bit worried.  The new RCMP Commissioner has stated he has work to do vis-à-vis the culture of his organization.  Yes, indeed.

We are left to wonder how it became so easy for expediency to be exalted above all other principles in the conduct of our societal and legal affairs.  Is there, perhaps, a vain and stupid notion about that we can let the end justify the means in only selected areas, and be safe and assured that it will not spread more widely?  That view bespeaks not only moral bankruptcy, but also of an appalling ignorance of history.  And it bespeaks contempt for the citizens of this country.  It is not impossible to address this serious issue in a manner that is consistent with due process, and that is effective.  It will take more hard work and effort that those who make the laws have put forward to this point, and more than those who enforce them seem to be willing to make. (I once heard a good working definition of a police state: It is a state where the job of the police is easy.)  Turning loose enforcement authorities with instruments meant for screening, not enforcement; giving them draconian and arbitrary (given the instruments used) power, bolstered by administrative formations, but bereft of due process and judicial oversight only can work if two wrongs make a right.  And they never do.

Drunk driving is an important issue, and it must be addressed.  It must be addressed with due regard for the fact that expediency is not a synonym for effectiveness.  Here behind the lines, we have to be careful about expedient solutions to pressing problems.  Let expediency have its way, and how long will it be before we will see the mitigation of the drunk driving problem through methods that passed only the expediency test being cited as justification for promoting euthanasia as an expedient means of reducing health care costs?  It is horrible that drunk drivers do such damage to the people whose lives they touch.  It will be more horrible if they succeed in seducing us into foregoing  important principles in response to their reprehensible conduct.  And they seem to be coming close to doing so.

Branching Out

September 20, 2011

Here behind the lines, what happens in the Church is very important to her children.  Sometimes, these happenings reflect what is happening in the secular society, but they chiefly concern the Church and her children.  Rather than comment on those items here, it seemed more appropriate to give the items space of their own.  Enter The View From the Pew.  Feel free to drop by and visit.

A Battle to the Death

April 28, 2011

Here behind the lines, one of the most elusive commodities to come by is closure.  Nasty things, in particular, keep coming back to haunt us – or worse.  And the nastier it is, the more likely it is that we will not see the state of affairs where we can say, “There. That’s it. It’s over, done with, and need not concern us again.”  Sometimes what comes back is pesky, and even in a way, rather amusing.  You thought you’d tidied the kitchen, but someone just made a snack, shared it with you, and now the counter needs cleaning again.  But sometimes it’s like a cancer that seems to have yielded to treatment, but once again shows shadows on the diagnostic image.  Time to rejoin the battle.

On September 30, 1993, in what would become a landmark decision, Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General), the Supreme Court of Canada held 5-4 against Sue Rodriguez in her attempt to strike down the laws against suicide.  She wanted to, and eventually did, take her own life.  This week, Lee Carter and her husband Hollis Johnson filed a suit in B.C. Supreme Court Tuesday (April 26th) seeking to allow mentally competent adults suffering from incurable serious illness the right to physician-assisted suicide.  They assert that the laws against obtaining medical help to assist suicide are unconstitutional because they deny individuals control over their physical, emotional and psychological dignity.  The cancer is back.

No one has ever tried to set out why turning a physician, a healer, into a stone cold killer, is a necessary component in gaining “control over their physical, emotional and psychological dignity.”  No one has ever explained why is makes more sense to assume that one does not own one’s life unless one can destroy it than it does to assume that a small child does not own his toys or his teddy bear unless he can destroy it.  But of course, the challenges do not seek to appeal to sense, or logic, certainly not to ethics and morality in any form.  No, they appeal only to laws and constitutions, neither of which is a bad thing, but nether of which is, alone or taken together, the be-all and the end-all in the factors pertinent to the issue at hand.  And we can only wonder whether or not it will be noticed that the real issue is not who controls life, but the question of what life is.  That question, it seems, is simply being ignored, if not defined into irrelevance.  The peril is quite significant.

The CBC is covering this latest development. To its credit, it has permitted comment on its news page presenting the article.  Several of these comments are worth considering as a means of exploring this latest outbreak of pathology.

For the record, there were, of course, a number of comments saying, yes, the laws prohibiting assisting a suicide should be struck down.  But they all have the same minimal depth, and the same basis.  It’s all about freedom, and doing to people what we do to suffering animals.  If we can do it to the dog, we can, it seems, do it to Aunt Jane, and the law mustn’t try to stop us.  There were, though, some slightly more thoughtful comments.  One person observed:

As long as it can never become a slippery slope, I can understand that there are circumstances where a person may make his last ultimate choice in life. But I certainly want that decision left to me.

How, one must enquire, can it be guaranteed that, in fact, it can never become a slippery slope?  Indeed, is removing the present laws not the first slip down the slope?  G.K Chesterton made the point that, before one removes a fence, it is important to first determine why it was put there in the first place.  I say nothing against free will, but we cannot make the assumption that every decision we might make is totally unfettered.  Free choice is not choice made in the absence of influence, pressure, or even coercion.  If it comes to pass that people have the choice of ending their lives, then it will come to pass that the pressures to have them opt to do so will grow.

Years ago, to support the use of fetal stem cells in research, a group paraded celebrities before a committee of the United States Senate.  One of those who appeared was Christopher Reeves, paralyzed years earlier by a fall from a horse.  In advocating for fetal stem cell use, he stated to the committee that government had to act to do the greatest good for the greatest number.  It was a rather cruel line to have this man recite.  By the cold, hard, numbers at the time he spoke, the funds spent just keeping him alive would surely have dome more good for more people had they been spent elsewhere, perhaps on research, or perhaps on efficacious treatments.  Had the choice been open to him, following his own advice would have moved him to curtail the expenditure on him by opting to end his life.  But that choice wasn’t open, because where he was, laws, like a fence, prevented a slide down that slippery slope.  Would that line have even been written into his script had the fence not been there?

And without the fence, what happens if one cannot make the decision due to incapacity?  What if others must make it?  Without the fence, the slide down the hill can start with assertions like, “I know John Doe better than anyone, and he would want to have his life ended rather than carry on like this, as a burden” (or suffering, or unaware, or as may be).  What will be the disposition of a system strained by shortages and growing demands for access to the prospect of freeing up a space by respecting what would, on the apparent evidence, be the choice of the individual?  Having worked in government service for 30 years, I can state that one would do well not to trust one’s life to the judgment of a bureaucrat chosen at random.  Is it at all reasonable to take away the fence because we can assume that we ourselves will make the decision, let alone make it without fetter?  Think very hard about that; your life may depend on the answer.

While we are discussing choice, what about the physicians?  Will they have a choice in the matter?  Must they turn murderer to satisfy the demand of a patient who may present to them in the context of someplace like a walk-in clinic?  Will they be sued if they refuse?  Will they be denied privileges to practice in hospitals?  Will they be prosecuted?  Given what has happened to coerce their behaviour when abortions are demanded, and given how bureaucrats have utterly ignored the personal convictions of people such as provincial marriage commissioners in forcing them to ply their trade, the prospects for respect of choice on the part of physicians does not look at all promising if the fence is torn down.

Invoking freedom of choice can lead to rhetoric that, on the surface, strikes one as being quite melodious.  However, there is every indication that the melody is that of a siren song that can lead to a ruinous shipwreck.

With the state having a stranglehold (death grip?) on the health care system in this country, comments also involved its role and potential actions in a suicide scenario.

With the state of our savings, retirement finances, healthcare and the increasing average age of Canadians this would be a great help to the future generation.

Oh those old people!  They are such a burden on society.  How dare they want to stand in the way of younger people enjoying life, even if it was their work and tax dollars that provided the wherewithal for the young people to do so?  Why can’t they just get out of the way?

Comments like the one above show just how very near to the surface is the impulse to have recourse to expediency and economy, even where life itself is involved.  Now of course, very few can give expression to that impulse through an overt act of murder, actually gunning down or poisoning Uncle Fred or Aunt Jane, or Dad, or Mom.  But if the system is in place for them to do it to themselves, what’s wrong with them using it, so that care is no longer needed, and resources come available to those who can use them?  If ever it were needed to demonstrate that the concerns about any available choice under the proposed system would be other than unfettered were not without substance, comments like this make it very clear that the concerns do not arise from theoretical whimsy.  Once, behind the lines, it was considered to be not good form to seek to get rid of one’s older relatives to gain access to resources.  Now the push is to institutionalize the process.  I think they label it, “progress.”

It has been observed that, without a respect for life itself, respect for virtually everything else will be next to impossible to maintain.  After all, if it is okay to kill someone, or okay to make it so they do the deed to themselves, what is beyond the pale?  It is absurd to think that if society can see you die, it cannot see you beaten, or robbed, or abused in some other manner.  So then, given that life itself can be taken in order to address problems such as savings, retirement finances, health care, and aging (death certainly solves the problem of aging), what other, lesser steps are to be excluded from being taken to address these issues, and potentially others, among those who are not done in?  Where life is cheap, no virtue can thrive.

The society in which life is cheap is not new to history.  That is tacitly acknowledged in another comment.

Comparing this to the Nazi’s euthanasia policy is RIDICULOUS! How is choosing for yourself to die and someone ordering your death against your will even close to the same thing?

The answer is, of course, that the only dissimilarity between the two is who gets to play God.  We have seen that it is at best a tenuous proposition that such a choice, if ever available, could be one made in a totally unfettered manner.  The issue of solving the problems of limited resources by eliminating those who tax them has been put on the table.  In urging people to allow life to be cheapened, the advocates are echoing a previously enunciated principal.  “Man must realize that a fundamental law of necessity reigns throughout the whole realm of Nature and that his existence is subject to the law of eternal struggle and strife. He will then feel that there cannot be a separate law for mankind in a world in which planets and suns follow their orbits, where moons and planets trace their destined paths, where the strong are always the masters of the weak and where those subject to such laws must obey them or be destroyed. Man must also submit to the eternal principles of this supreme wisdom. He may try to understand them but he can never free himself from their sway.”  To cheapen life, to make it dispensable and a disposable commodity, some pervasive force must be at work, the force characterized in the above passage.  And before we dismiss the proposition that no comparison with Nazi euthanasia is appropriate, we might note that the above presentation of the principle is taken from Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, p. 140.

Blessed Clemens August Graf von Galen, the Cardinal Bishop (and lion) of Munster stood brave, outspoken, and uncompromising witness to the sanctity of life in the face of the application of this principle that led to attempts at institutionalized euthanasia. And that is, quite simply, what is being advocated today.  Ignoring that is foolhardy, not at all ridiculous.  Thinking we can do the same thing again and get different results here, today, in Canada, fits Einstein’s definition of insanity.

The most bogus part of the claims of those out to institutionalize medical complicity in suicide is the tacit assumption that there are no alternatives.  Another comment highlighted this fact.

It is too bad that we can’t get Canadians to put this much effort to improve our healthcare system as they do in wanting to kill off their relatives because they have become a burden to them.

Before I was 35, I had occasion to stand by the bed of each of my dying parents.  Don’t let anyone tell you that is an easy thing to do.  But likewise, don’t let anyone pervert and corrupt you by coming to think it would have been better had they offed themselves to spare you that ordeal.  Having celebrated 12 birthdays my mother never got to, and 6 my father never got to, I can now appreciate that, indeed, they died young.  But they died in the care of a medical system that did what it could to heal, support, and comfort them, not one that functioned like the exit facility in the movie “Soylent Green.” We have a medical system with problems, but we have at the same time a medical system that does much, much good.  The choice we make will show much of our moral character as a nation.  Will we seek to make the good better, or degrade it by making it the agent of expediency?  And the choice will matter.  People who seek to form death squads would do well to consider that, should they be successful, they may come to be the targets of their services themselves.  Genies, especially evil genies, can be impossible to put back into their bottles.

Here behind the lines, we do get glimpses of what can be accomplished if we stand firm to the temptation of giving ear to the siren song of expediency.  At the beginning of May, the Church will beatify Venerable John Paul II.  There is much to be said about this man’s life, and what he accomplished, and it has been said, and eloquently, and need not be repeated here.  But it would profit us to consider his death as well as his life.  At the end of his life, there was nothing much more to be done for him.  He was failing; he could not speak, and had to have his final addressed read for him.  Everything was an effort, yet he responded in love to the love of the people for him by appearing and greeting them, in his silence and weakness.  One observer described it this way:

“Pope John Paul II left the throne of St. Peter in the same way he ascended to it — as a witness to the dignity of human life.  In his native Poland, that witness launched a democratic revolution that swept Eastern Europe and changed the course of history.  Throughout the West, John Paul’s witness reminded us of our obligation to build a culture of life in which the strong protect the weak.  And during the Pope’s final years, his witness was made even more powerful by his daily courage in the face of illness and great suffering.”

Yes, he had accomplished much in life, but in the end, his witness “was made even more powerful” in the way he faced death.  Rather than beatifying him, would we even be remembering him with anything close to fondness or respect if he had, say, crunched down on a cyanide capsule?  Here behind the lines, there is a lot of flim-flam peddled about.  In this case, the flim-flam takes the form of suggesting that suicide in any way adds to emotional or psychological dignity, or dignity of any kind.  The truth of that will be before us to contemplate as the Church beatifies John Paul II at the first of next month.  A prayer of thanksgiving for such a vivid contrast to what is being proposed yet again would not be out of order.

(For the record, the observation above was not made by a Catholic or for that matter by any religious leader.  President of the United States George W. Bush made it.)

As wearisome as it may be, it is time once again to combat the cancer that has reappeared.  It has, apparently, appeared in a weakened body, for the suit is not brought by someone who seeks erstwhile control over their own life as did Sue Rodriguez.  No, these third parties want to impose this condition on the rest of us, and leave us with a perverted medical system to achieve their ends.  They must be countered, and everyone can help.  Politicians must be told, clearly, that people will not passively yield to the advance of the culture of death.  Religious leaders must know that their followers expect them to display leadership on this issue.  Who knows, there may be a spiritual successor to Blessed Cardinal von Galen just needing a bit of encouragement.  (This Catholic certainly hopes, perhaps against hope that in the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops the will see fit to provide leadership.)  This is not an academic debate or an esoteric point of law.  This is a battle to the death.

Multiculturalism, Silence, and Nihilism

February 14, 2011

James Thurber, in a witty and amusing manner, gave his readers some interesting insights into the foibles of life here behind the lines.  In one story (you can read it at http://www.newsun.com/TheBear.html ) he tells of a bear who had a drinking problem, that caused him to fall over, break things, and cause much concern.  So he quit, and would show people how healthy a decision it was by attempting to perform gymnastics, falling over, breaking things, and causing much concern.  Thurber’s moral: You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backward. Perhaps a copy of this Thurber fable should be given to everyone who is enamored of the idea of multiculturalism.  The case can be made that its supporters are attempting to inculcate into our moral lives something very close to nihilism.

Multiculturalism has been making news these days.  European leaders are looking at it, concluding it is a failure, and saying so.  Closer to home, the Quebec legislature has voted unanimously to ban kirpans from its premises.  A kirpan is a knife.  It can be as small as a dagger, or approach the size of a sword.  The typical kirpan is more like the former, and can easily be concealed.  But unlike other knives, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled it was fine for that one to be carried in schools.  Now the courts have been rather scatter-gun in their approach this kind of question. CBC Toronto reported ( http://www.cbc.ca/canada/toronto/story/2011/02/07/ontario-marijuana-law365.html ) that a claim by some religious practitioners that smoking marijuana was a religious act was thrown out of the Ontario Superior Court.  The report stated:

… Justice Thea Herman of the Ontario Superior Court ruled that “distributing marijuana is not an activity that deserves protection as a religious freedom.” She ruled that giving a legal exemption for the use of marijuana for religious purposes is not feasible due to “difficulties in identifying both the religious user and the religious use of cannabis.”

So carrying a deadly weapon is protected as a religious freedom, and smoking grass isn’t.  It is noted that it is difficult to identify a religious user and religious use of marijuana.  The same can be said of carrying a knife, until, of course, it slips between a pair of ribs, or across a throat.  But that might, all things considered, be a little late in the game.  It’s enough to send one back to the appendix of Orwell’s 1984 to bone up on his analysis of newspeak and doublethink.  Something is going on here that clearly defies logic.

What also defies logic is the set of assertions made by supporters of multiculturalism whenever something is done that gores their sacred cow.  (Please excuse the metaphor if you have noticed that nothing seems to be sacred to these people, most of whom are acerbically secular.)  On February 11, 2011, John Ibbitson wrote an article in The Globe and Mail entitled “Kirpan ban puts Canada on brink of multiculturalism debate no one wants.”  I guess we should not be too surprised that the writer took it upon himself to speak for everyone, because that seems to be The Globe and Mail’s stock in trade.  On the showing of the article, he has a lot of problems with people speaking on a topic, except of course for himself, and perhaps those who agree with him.  We read:

Debating multiculturalism gives a voice to the angry, the frustrated and yes, the bigoted. It makes newer Canadians feel less welcome. It has the best walking on eggshells and the worst throwing eggs.

It is interesting that the writer seeks to define those who are not have a voice in an article where he is ostensibly championing diverse approaches to life.  Heaven help us when the day comes that anger brings with it a requirement for silence.  Even St. Paul spoke of the possibility of being angry but not sinning.  Yet, in the name of diversity, and carrying a knife, the writer demands silence.  But not just anger is a silencer. So is frustration.  There’s a bit of a cruel twist to that.  The writer seems quite content that those who disagree with him remain in silent torment.  They might, after all, be bigots, who he also would deny the right to speak.  One wonders, though, how he can identify whether someone who wants to debate the issue is a bigot before they speak any better than Madame Justice Thea Herman could identify the religious user and religious use of marijuana.

The vagueness and generality of the reference to new Canadians is almost insulting to the reader.  Besides, did they come here to become Canadians, or colonize this country or play the politics of their country of origin from here, in which latter cases, “welcome” is not perhaps the appropriate response to their efforts.  And where issues such as carrying weapons, abusing women, and honour killings present themselves, the reference to eggs is inappropriate and perhaps sinister.  Multiculturalism is, apparently, a “shut up and take it” proposition according to its supporters.  If we don’t, well, we are apparently not a nice kind of people.

But the writer does not stop there. He continues:

It gives rise to demands for a more robust definition of citizenship, which in essence is a demand for a loyalty oath. It forces us to endlessly parse language – like reasonable accommodation, or multiculturalism itself.

As amazing as it may seem, the writer is pushing for a definition of citizenship that is something less than “robust.”  In fact, it seems the definition must be so lacking in robustness that an oath of loyalty is simply out of the question.  Excuse me?  Twice in my lifetime, once when I put my life at the disposal of this country in the military for 8 years, and again when I undertook an office of trust in her government, I had to take an oath of loyalty.  It didn’t hurt a bit.  Surely if one is called upon to declare loyalty when one hands over one’s life, or offers one’s self for trust and service, then it is not a particularly bad thing to do?  But we are, it seems, to proceed uncritically and unquestioningly, not deliberating at all on what the meaning of the concepts we are called upon to espouse and exemplify might mean.  Unconsidered loyalty to unexamined concepts seems to be expected to be true to multiculturalism.  It makes one pause, and wonder, just what this concept indeed involves.

The writer continues:

Worst of all, it undermines the greatest strength of Canadian society – our capacity to get along – and strengthens its greatest weaknesses – the cultural and linguistic divides that undermine the country whenever we choose to let them.

In the context of the demands in the previous paragraphs, the writer seems to be calling for nothing less than a studied indifference to what happens around us, in the interest of “getting along.”  Where nothing matters, nothing can be bothersome.  In the nihilism of indifference, getting along would present no difficulties, and all would blend together into an amorphous, grey mass of uneventful coexistence.  Strength, it seems, involves ignoring such things as honour killings, female genital mutilation, sham marriages for citizenship purposes, illegal entry, funding terrorism, and all sorts of other things that might serve to divide us.  It would appear that, since what happens is what we choose to let happen, indifference to differences is the panacea that will solve all problems related to something like unity in society.  The nihilism of indifference will save the day, because where nothing matters, or at least where we choose to let nothing matter, nothing can divide.  That, it seems, is how ignoring such minor things as language can serve as templates for ignoring everything.  Don’t worry; be happy.  Just “get along.”

At the risk of being labeled as not being a team player, or being some kind of a fanatic, who happens to think that loyalty and principles actually matter, I will suggest that this is not the way to build a country.  If indifference is the price for national survival, then the country in question is probably dead already, and simply awaiting scavenging.  We are not there yet, and we should not go there.  Rather than nihilism, rather than not daring to grapple with what multiculturalism has produced, and what it has equally failed to deliver, we should bite the bullet.  But what is preventing us?

Near the end of the article, we find that multiculturalism is identified as something that “remains an integral value in Canadian life.”  But a value is something that is place on something else.  So then, for what is multiculturalism a value?  If it is a value, it cannot be an end in its own right.  And if it is a value, it is not an absolute entity like a virtue, but merely a circumstantial and variable evaluation of worth.  But the worth of what?  There is the real risk we face behind the lines – the risk of leaving undefined that for which things like multiculturalism express a measure of worth.  As an end in itself, multiculturalism is a trap.  And silence concerning it camouflages the trap.  Silence means acceptance of whatever is smuggled into our lives in the name of multiculturalism, and some of the things smuggled in are downright despicable.  Harm has already been done when lawyers go to court and argue that honour killings, or forcible confinement of women is to be excused on the grounds of cultural considerations pertinent to the perpetrators.   We can’t not know that silence is inappropriate.

Multiculturalism cannot mean the abandonment of principles.  It is not a principle in itself, and cannot hope to serve as a replacement for what it would suppress to survive.  It is fully appropriate that we examine the fruit produced by the branches of the multicultural tree, and where that fruit is bad, according to the principles of honesty, decency, respect, and the other things that are enduring virtues, throw bad fruit into the fire, and if it persists, prune the limb that produces it.  It is this positive action, not the nihilism of silence that consigns all fruit into the same bowl that is called for and will serve to make society decent.  Failure to examine and speak out could end up being something very close to a suicide pact.

If the company is in trouble, protecting the value of the stock will not save it, and is an impossible task.  Here behind the lines, the same applies to the value of multiculturalism in countries.  Calls to silence are calls to nihilism, where there is simply a mute and bland acceptance of whatever accompanies it.  Mind you, I’d bet the writer would object if anyone called on him to be silent in his urgings towards nihilism.  Yet another paradox, here behind the lines.  We are to permit calls to fall flat on our faces from those who would have us lean over too far backwards, by being silent on principles, and boosting values.  Whether or not multiculturalism is an idea whose time is past, the nihilism of silence on issues like it is an idea whose time will never come.

 

 

Challenger: A Study in the Learning Process

February 1, 2011

“Challenger, you are go at throttle-up.”  The last earthly words seven astronauts on that space shuttle heard.

Here behind the lines, 25 years ago in 1986, something happened that caused more than a bit of grief and commotion.  The space shuttle Challenger blew up, in a frightfully bright stream of white plumes.  All aboard died, we all hoped in a quick manner.  There was initially an air of unreality.  Thoughts of “how could this happen?” passed through more than one mind.  The NASA announcer made a couple of height, speed, and downrange announcements even after the plumes had been seen on television, and then noted, a bit shaken, that there was clearly something wrong.  Twenty-five years later, it is not inappropriate to ask whether anything was learned from this event.  At the time, it appeared that not much had been learned from previous events.

Three astronauts, Grissom, White, and Chaffee, had died in Apollo 1, on the launch pad, during a test.  At Senate hearings, another astronaut, Col. Frank Bormann, said no one imagined that the test they were conducting was such a high-risk undertaking.  Lessons were learned. Somewhat.

Apollo 13 was to be the third moon landing.  There had been four flights to the moon, with two landings before it.  The risks?  Well, they were not generally perceived, at least.  Television viewing was down, and scheduled coverage cut, until the famous call to Houston that there was a problem.  Had the lessons of Apollo 1 really been learned, or were needed corrections made without acknowledging the nature of the undertakings themselves?  Twenty-five years ago, 18 years after Apollo 1, Challenger gave some insight into that question.

Thanks to a very colourful, very brilliant, and very unorthodox physicist, Dr. Richard Feynman, the insights were set out.  Not willingly, of course, because the established structures were very much in damage control and image optimization modes in the process of dealing with the tragedy.  Dr. Feynman’s findings were first excised from the final enquiry report, but were put back in, as an appendix, when Dr. Feynman, rather than throwing a tantrum over the doctoring of the report, simply ordered that his name be removed from it.  He had made the news by presenting, in the midst of essentially bafflegab testimony, a simple, understandable demonstration that what was at the root of the tragedy was that the launch took place when it was so cold that the sealing material lost its elasticity.  The rest flowed from that.  Dr. Feynman described the thought processes that led to this happening.  We would do well today to reflect on them.

Dr. Feynman found a pattern.  Using available knowledge, limits had been established, essentially engineering tolerances, within which the operations could be undertaken safely.  There had been a number of successful flights – Challenger was number 25 – completed successfully within these limits.  But thinking now got foggy.  Considerations pertinent to non-technical items, such as public support, political support, funding, image, and the like, led managers to behave as if the successes within the limits provided a basis to relax the stringency of the limits.  Dr. Feynman found that this was happening in an environment where the perception of the chance of a possible major problem had come to be several orders of magnitude (orders of magnitude can be thought of as “multiply by ten repeatedly by the number of the order”) smaller by managers and administrators than by the technical people.  So non-technical people were changing technical parameters, for non-technical reasons, using reasoning that had no place in technical considerations.  Safe operations within limits do not provide evidence that it is appropriate to relax the limits.  New knowledge is needed to determine if limits can be varied.  The fact that I can drive my car safely at a 100 kph speed limit on a stretch of road does not provide evidence that I can safely do so the next time at 120 kph, or that the limit can be safely raised.  Concluding otherwise is a failure in thinking.  A failure in thinking contributed significantly to the fire on Apollo 1; a similar failure resulted in misperceptions on how routine an effort Apollo 13 was; and it led to the launch of Challenger when it was so cold, the sealing material was no longer elastic.  How are we doing, not just in space flight, but in other areas, about avoiding the types of failures in thinking that were manifest in these space flight examples?

Dr. Feynman had succeeded in demonstrating the applicability of an old saying to the particulars of the Challenger disaster.  It is an old saying because it labels a long evident phenomenon, one that was pertinent to the Apollo 1 and Apollo 13 events as well.  “Familiarity breeds contempt.”  After the Mercury and Gemini projects, no one imagined that a ground test could be a great hazard.  Flight, yes, but ground?  There’d been countless ground tests, tests in which no one was going anywhere.  Yet there was a fire, because a number of small things overlooked due to familiarity added up to a huge hazard.  Apollo 13 was moon flight five, to undertake moon landing three.  Things were so familiar one couldn’t even attract a TV audience.  And they very nearly lost Lovell, Hayes and Swigert on what many except those close to the technology viewed as a routine milk run. Challenger’s flight, the 25th for shuttles, carried a civilian schoolteacher.  Those who made decisions found the flight so familiar that they acted as if the past successes justified relaxing the tolerance of safety limits.  Who needs tight limits when it’s number 25?  Afterwards, Dr. Feynman noted, on examining the events, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”  Have we learned that lesson about trying to fool nature, and not just in the area of technology and space flight, 25 years later?

Well it seems not.  NASA’s managers who thought that the safety of the technology was about a thousand times greater than the line engineers estimated went ahead and tinkered with the technology.  They ignored the limits that were in place in acknowledgement of its characteristics.  And Challenger was sent flying, for 73 seconds.  Nature wasn’t fooled.  But in the past few years, something much more intricate, much more woven into the human nature, has been abominably tinkered with, and the limits set around it made almost non-existent.  That something is nothing less than marriage and the family.

It is hard to think of a better characterization of the recent attempts to tinker with marriage and the family than that of an attempt to fool nature.  A marriage can take place between a man and a man or a woman and a woman. Really?  Even though conception is impossible for them to accomplish, a pair of men or a pair of women can be parents in the same way as can a man and woman who can accomplish it.  You don’t say?!  Whatever the makeup of a group of people, if they band together and claim the label, then they are as much a “family” as a genetically related grouping.  Fascinating!  One is left to wonder: Now that these people have tried to convince me of this, what will be their next endeavor?  Will they try to sell me a bridge somewhere?  Will they try to convince me that they have a potion that will turn rust into gold?  No, that’s a hopeless task.  But, how about passing laws that will require me to pay for the bridge whether or not it exists, and pay the price of gold for what is produced when the potion and rust are comingled, no matter what its chemical formula turns out to be?  Here behind the lines, this last endeavor has indeed met with the success that would be unthinkable for the former ones.  It even appears that those who undertook it actually think they have fooled nature, rather than actually having demonstrated the link between the words “fool” and “buffoon.”

Challenger disintegrated 19 years after Apollo 1 incinerated because of similar faulty thinking.  The fault was not just that everything was under control, but that everything that needed to be controlled had been identified, and was capable of control.  And there had been development in the fault.  Apollo 1 happened because factors that should have been considered were not considered appropriately.  For instance, the oxygen pressure used in the test to simulate flight conditions in the vacuum of space was so high that combustion was much more highly supported.  And burn Apollo 1 indeed did.  But by the time of Challenger, it was as if space flight had become that which was defined in the operations and maintenance manuals.  The safe margins for undertaking it were those defined by the program managers, and they chose the factors, such as public relations, pertinent to the manipulation of these factors.  Factors such as the loss of elasticity of O-ring material at freezing temperatures were simply ignored.  And Challenger disintegrated.  A failure in thinking was accompanied by a failure in learning.

A chilling parallel exists in the areas of marriage and the family.  Even from a purely secular perspective, marriage and the family were seen as being important items.  Laws were enacted to guard these important items.  However, slowly and steadily, the tail began to wag the dog with respect to these items.  Rather than being an item offered protection through the application of contract law principles, marriage became an item that was defined through considerations of contract law.  Contracts can be terminated by legal processes.  So it came to pass that marriages could, ostensibly, be terminated by legal processes.  This was fundamentally erroneous, because it assumed that marriage was an item that existed only because laws had been passed.  Worse yet, many ecclesial communities saw fit to take their cues from the law crafters, not from the principles of their faith and the nature of the institution of marriage, and accommodated the error.  Indeed they went so far as to utterly abandon attempts to protect marriage, and disavow it as any of their business whatsoever.  By 2002, a Canadian Anglican Archbishop was saying,  “Well– the church can’t decide who gets married– the government, the provincial government controls marriage, and when clergy marry people, they do so as agents of the provincial government– licensed agents– and they have to abide by the laws of the country, the laws of the province, in terms of marrying people.”  The day Challenger blew up, people behaved as if space flight were governed only by the contents of the manuals.  Here behind the lines today, there prevails, evidently, the assumption that marriage is governed only by the contents of the law books.

The family, not unexpectedly, is not faring well, since it flows from marriage.  As with marriage, it is being treated as if it were merely a legal construct, without any basis for existence outside the law books.  Any group of people, and any children (my God, what will become of them?) they can manage to cause to be begotten through perversions of science or outright promiscuous fornication is, it seems, to be considered to be a “family.”  And there is a trap here, and it could be sprung at any moment.  If one eliminates the concept of a family as a faithful married man and woman and their children, what is the basis for assisting broken families?  If anything can be as much of a family as anything else, then why is a broken family, say, a woman and her children who are destitute because the husband has abandoned them, and absconded with the available resources, worthy of society’s assistance?  A family is a family is a family in this brave new world.  Sometimes, though, imposed equalities can be as unjust as imposed inequalities, particularly in cases where mere legal constructs define a situation exclusively.  There is a terrible disconnect here, and the separation gap is being force wider by those who worship the law and hold humanity in contempt.  It is hard to imagine a more dangerous situation.

Lessons from Apollo 1 were badly learned, it seems, and the bad learners gave the world the Challenger tragedy.  What does not seem to have been grasped, on a wider scale, is that policies, procedures, and even laws do not define reality.  Rather, if these things are formulated in a vacuum, as if no other factors or principles were pertinent, bad things happen.  It was bad when a spacecraft burned on the ground, and three men were incinerated.  It was worse when a space shuttle disintegrated, and seven astronauts likewise perished.  How bad will it be for marriage and the family if the course of action in society continues for much longer to be predicated on assumptions arising from comparable thought processes?  Marriage and the family are not human constructs.  They derive from considerations of the natural law.  And to quote someone with a Nobel Prize in Physics whose work was predicated on only secular and natural considerations, “nature cannot be fooled.”  Here behind the lines, there have been many attempts to fool nature of late.  And it is time, past time, to put a stop to this buffoonery.

Private, Public, and Pantry.

January 24, 2011

Reflections on St. Francis de Sales.

One of the most fundamental battles being waged behind the lines today concerns what is properly public and what is properly private.  It is a battle because there is a concerted and vicious effort to consign to the private region of life anything to do with matters of faith, and to prevent them from entering the public region of life.  The effort is vicious because there is punishment in store for those who do not get with the program and leave their faith at home.  Those who wage this battle (knowingly or unknowingly) against faith and the people who profess it seem to consider themselves somehow modern and advanced, leading society in a manner and to a place that no one has contemplated before.  I was reminded today that, in that aspect of the affair, the joke is on them.

Today at Sunday Mass, I arrived to find that the church had been prepared in the liturgical colour of white, rather than the green expected for Sundays in ordinary time.  I surmised that perhaps our parish was jumping the liturgical gun by one day, and I turned out to be right.  The next day, January 24th, would be the feast of St. Francis de Sales.  Our parish was celebrating him on the Sunday the day before, which, given that it is the Parish of St. Francis de Sales, is hardly untoward.  St. Francis is the patron saint of writers and journalists, which is fitting because he was a man with a message.  His message puts the lie to the proposition that faith is a properly private matter, unlike what one hears from those who write and report in a manner consonant with the message of this age.

St. Francis was first and foremost a kind and gentle soul.  A Bishop himself, he rather exemplified in his life, works, and writings the admonition of an early Bishop, St. Ignatius of Antioch, to stand like a beaten anvil.  In the midst of Calvinist advances and successes in gaining temporal power, he was Bishop of Geneva where they had ensconced themselves.  He faced much worse than the unflattering editorial comment that seems to strike fear into the hearts of many prelates and religious leaders these days.  Yet he persisted with his message and his works.  A consequence is that today he is not exactly universally admired by Christians outside the Catholic Church.  That notwithstanding, his message is as valid and pertinent today as it was in his time.  It is, arguably, more pertinent, and to everyone, in today’s society.

Hard core secularists will permit, if not applaud, the keeping of matters of faith in private places, never to invade the public square.  St. Francis called believers to quite the opposite.  Not only did he call them, he pointed out to them that theirs was no less valid an expression of faith and faithfulness as they brought their faith into ordinary life than what might be envisaged as accompanying what is termed a “religious” life.  He spoke directly to those who lived in ordinary society, doing ordinary things, and in an idiom that embraced, rather than shunned, those things in the context of a life of faith.  For instance, he wrote:

“Let us willingly leave the lofty heights to the souls who have been raised so high: we merit not so exalted a rank in the service of God: we shall be only too happy to serve him in his kitchen and pantry: to be his lackeys, porters, and chamber-maids; it is for him afterwards, if it seems good to him, to advance us to his privy council.”

We can, he assured us, attain a devout and spiritual life no matter what our position is in society.  He thereby assures us that our spiritual life can be properly positioned in society, and certainly need not be separate and apart from it.  St. Francis speaks of kitchens and pantries, places of ordinary work.  And he does so in a manner that indicates they are not private places in our personal lives, but work places. They are not our own places, but places where we do the work of another.  This call to service is patently not a call to withdraw.  It is antithetical to the calls made in society to exclude matters of faith from our public affairs.

Here behind the lines, those calls are all around us.  They are disguised sometimes, but not well enough to mask their real content.  There is a mildly amusing series of ads being shown on TV by an advertising council.  In one scene, an adolescent girl is about to exit her bedroom window, and a music (well, lyrical) group intones that she is on her way to the library.  The tag line of the ad is that dressing it up doesn’t make it true.  Not to be outdone, aquaculture operators (aka fish farmers) have an ad that shows parents coming home to a trashed house, and their son indicating the cat was the culprit.  As the cat is put out, the tag line indicates we should not believe everything we hear from authoritative sources.  Let’s looks at a couple of messages, and examine them for content.

Saskatchewan Appeal Court judges have recently ruled that the province’s marriage commissioners must either marry same sex couples or quit, their religious views not withstanding.  The ostensible reason is because of charter guarantees in the constitution.  But is that all that this ruling constitutes, a balancing of legal points?  Would that it were!  It has two additional effects, at least.  It brutally tears religious faith from the living of one’s life in Canada, and by fiat seeks to thrust it into some vessel where it is hermetically sealed from any and all considerations pertaining to the living of that life.  And second, it is nothing less than vicious coercion to ensure that conformity ensues, in the form of a direct and malignant threat against the livelihood of those who seek to live their lives according to the convictions of their Christian faith.  It might be suggested in many quarters that these are not the intentions of the ruling – that these are merely side effects that are somehow unavoidable.  Given the context in which this ruling has been rendered, I would strongly suggest that anyone who professes a religious faith, and seeks to order their lives according to the tenets of that faith, think very, very hard before they swallow this sugarcoated pill.  The pill is no placebo.

The second message gives some insight into the context of the delivery of the decision.  It will perhaps be helpful in providing information on whether or not the whole concept of living ones life according to the convictions of ones faith (particularly if that faith be Christian) is under attack in some general way.  It was a message that arrived in my work email inbox about ten years ago, as an event known as the “pride parade” was about to take place.  It was sent on behalf or a third level executive of the public service (I confirmed that it had indeed ben authorized by the executive shortly after I received it), and it was a coercion I must admit I did not expect.  With respect to the parade, which is a rather gaudy, raunchy, and unseemly spectacle, quite part from what it promotes, it went well beyond informing me of its occurrence, or even the participation of the local branch of the government formation in it.  Using the not inconsiderable pressure and influence of position and level of the sponsoring sender, the email informed me:

… staff will be walking in the parade under their “Celebration Diversity in the Workplace” banner.  I encourage everyone to support this year’s Pride  events by participating in the parade or by being a spectator along the West End route.

So then, I was being “encouraged,” in the name of this high official, to ignore the teaching of the Church, and my conscience, and participate in, or support, this event that absolutely spat in the face of Christian teaching and of the Church.  And therefore, mine, too.  I didn’t, of course.  In fact, I lodged an official complaint against this official.  It was determined that no wrong was done (not unexpectedly), but I was offered an apology for the “obvious discomfort” I “felt.”  There was no point in going further.  A fatuous claim was made that there had been no choice made in choosing which “life style” to support on the part of the government formation (and JFK’s shooting in Dallas was not a political action, according to that logic), and I never again saw such a missive promulgated.  Still, I am hard put to conclude that the people responsible didn’t know precisely what they were doing.

So what are we facing, here behind the lines?  A simple and unintended dissonance between differing notes being sounded in all innocence? Or, perhaps one of the most malignant attempts possible to banish faith from the public square?   Courts have incredible power, and no citizen is exempt from being subjected to it.  You can’t get on with life and opt out of the courts.  And the formation that sent me the “encouragement”?  Well, if you make money, you are compelled to deal with them annually, too.  Try to opt out of that, and, you guessed it, the courts will have something to say.  So it’s not at all inappropriate to conclude that there is a deliberate and widespread (if not perhaps really well coordinated) effort in governmental formations to turf faith from the structuring of public life, and partaking therein. It has become so ubiquitous that if we don’t notice it, it’s for the same reason a fish doesn’t feel wet.

To read St. Francis’s “Introduction to the Devout Life” (and I recommend you do) is to encounter the reality that, for the vast majority of believers, those commonly called the laity, bringing one’s faith to bear immanently in the living of one’s ordinary life is nothing less than what is expected of the believing Christian.  Indeed, it is hard to picture anyone who professes any faith not bringing it so to bear.  And yet this is precisely what is under attack by governing formations these days.  We had better realize that we are facing an attack, and that it is a pernicious attack, one that strikes at the very heart of living one’s faith.  The last thing we can abide here behind the lines is assuming the classic pose of the ostrich in the face of this.  And it’s way, way too late to leave religion out of politics when governing formation behave the way they are behaving.  They have made that quite impossible, and if there are consequences, they are responsible for them.

Mind you, there is every reason to be hopeful.  Christians have, for millennia, lead devout lives, in the manner for which St. Francis provided such excellent guidance.  They have done this in the face of Imperial Romans, Nazi Germans, Soviets Communists, and Ottoman Turks, among others.  Met any of those folks lately?  Met any Christians lately?  I am quite certain that, years from now, todays tormenters will go the way of yesterday’s tormenters.  It is woeful that they will cause people of faith hardship.  It would be truly tragic if they succeeded in bullying them into trying to keep faith out of their public lives, and interactions with society, effectively stifling the faith.  And it would be best if the attempt to leave faith and God out of public life failed miserably and soon in these parts.  That scheme has been tried, most recently by the previously mentioned Nazis and Soviets, and it didn’t go all that well for anyone involved in or with it.  People of faith have a duty to see that their fellow citizens fare better than that by not giving in to these latest efforts to attach the faith.  And better yet, they have the prospect of sumptuous and generous rewards for even attempting to take the advice of St. Francis de Sales, even if they do not succeed in putting it into practice and well as did this, and other, saints.  May people of faith find these rewards, and this place become one where attempts aimed at making that impossible cease.  There’s much nourishment to be found when you work in the pantry.