Friday, July 25, 2008

One more reason to vote against Hope

He voted for the Farm Bill. You can't find something our legislature has passed that irks libertarian sensibilities more, and quite aside from irked sensibilities it just absolutely terrible policy. And, as i am a megalomaniac who loves independent validation I must direct attention to a Q&A with Daniel Sumner, and economist who specializes in agri-biz and policy. Key quote:

Q: Are there any good arguments that support farm subsidies? If so, to what extent and in what manner may they be justified?
A: No.
My longer answer is here.
I look at a dozen suggested rationales for farm programs and reject them all except the last one — which is we have farm programs because we have had them for 75 years and people are afraid of even thinking about a world without subsidies.

And if you want to how exactly this market distorting and price inflating policy keeps being renewed you have to get to the end but it pretty much sums things up:

Q: Why is there such a deep emotional attachment to growing cotton in the U.S.? Given the historical connection with slavery, I would have thought there would be no appetite to prop up an uneconomic industry.
A: The attachment is financial, not emotional. Cotton is a significant crop economically and politically in a few places and the cotton lobby has been very successful in explaining their case (and providing election assistance) to members of Congress.

Fantastic. On the bright side though I learned that Australia which has no farm subsidies recently passed the US as the worlds fattest nation. McCain voted against this malign behemouth now if only he weren't a senile ball of confusion I might have a candidate. At least this makes hash of the notion that we will all starve from high food prices without protectionism.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Comrade Zhang demands deregulation in the name of the people!

Once communist China advises Syria that "before we invest in Syria you most open your markets, cut your subsidies, and reduce regulation..." I guess one of the benefits of living in a plutocracy is that ever now and then the plutocrats get the right ideas, though something in me doubts this model is sustainable. And once the people really have control its obvious ho bad things can become. Irony of ironies, I think this will become a trade off between 10% growth under a free market plutocracy or 3% growth under a social democracy.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Not that I wasn't already sold on this but...

the greatest benefit of globalization has been revealed:

For instance, the real price (in 1988 prices) for the basket of the entire Top 100 list [for the U.S.] was $4,313 in 1988; $3,132 in 1993; $2,533 in 1999; and $2,421 in 2004. That is nearly a 44% decrease in prices from 1988 to 2004. At the same time, there was no significant change in the quality of the wines on the Top 100 list.

And lo! Globalization isn't just for wanna-be foodies and fake wine conneisuers.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

I'm Starting to like McCain More

I do find it discouraging when the only candidate open to changing with the times in any specific way is the 71 year old Republican. Against a backdrop of Clinton and Obama peddling change as an ethos more than a plan, McCain goes to a group of people hardest hit by free trade and tells them that they really do need to change:

"I think the answer is to understand that, free trade or not, we are in an information and technology revolution," he said. "So we want people to be part of that revolution, and we've got to be part of that new economy, rather than try to cling to an old economy."

A world apart from the constant use of verbs without objects by the Democrats. "HOPE," "CHANGE!" Hope for what? Change to what? At least McCain gave an example.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Happy Sol Invictus

I like a good solstice as much as anyone. And in that spirit I shall toss back some eggnog to toast the victory of the sun god.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Republican Irony Alert

Republican Orin Hatch just denounced opposition to the new FISA bill as based on an "irrational fear of government." Odd for a member of a party that supposedly champions small government.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Romney's character

Why didn't Romney disavow his church's official racism until they repealed it in 1978? Frank Rich offers a succinct answer:

Mr. Romney didn’t fight his church’s institutionalized apartheid, whatever his private misgivings, because that’s his character. Though he is trying to sell himself as a leader, he is actually a follower and a panderer, as confirmed by his flip-flops on nearly every issue.

A nicely distilled assessment. Romney comes from a family with quite a lot of pull in the LDS cult, and it might have meant something. And even if it didn't he could have simply left it. After all even though I doubt my departure would make much difference I would certainly make it a point to leave were I to find myself a member of a racist organization. But Romney is a follower and a panderer, and his life is a story of seeking approval from the most proximate authority figures. How else could he believe the insane teachings of the LDS church, or keep a straight face when denying he's a flip-flopper?

Arkansas Fashion

Love the suede arm patches.

Post Script on Huckabee

I just realized that the popularity of Huckabee somewhat vindicates my long held belief that the Christian wing of the Republican Party cannot properly be called conservative, if you understand the term to imply favoring free markets, opposition to social libertarianism, commitment to civil liberties and property rights, low taxes, fiscal restraint, and sparing use of military power. Read the statements of Barry Goldwater regarding the key issues of the religious right if you think my definition lacks a pedigree. Whatever a platform including faith based programs, a Human Life Amendment, and a marriage Amendment, is, its not conservative as I understand it. I always thought American conservatism had some affinity for classical liberalism but I may be out of it. Their platform is nothing more than a bit of Christian utopianism with a bit of identity politics mixed in to get people riled. Christian Bolshevism is a term of my own coinage that has never caught on but which I like. Huckabee is its epitome. Tagging himself as a "Christian leader" and displaying knowledge of not much more than his religion, he has a spending record any liberal would need to run from and a willingness to do anything to soothe the wounds of the "Values Voter" contingent.

I Heart Huckabee

But apparently few others in his party do. I for one would love to see him nominated. The ensuing contest would be essentially an execution and for once the evangelical base would be responsible for the humiliation of the Republican Party rather than being its lifeblood. Those in the right wing blogging community know this and their tone is beginning to resemble northern liberal secularists. To my mind the most entertaining was Lisa Schiffen's at the National Review:

You're not in Little Rock anymore. It's hard Huck, when your decisions matter.

Like back home, you were just trying to be nice to that castrated guy who had raped a few women. He had served some time. Why couldn't they forgive him? You could. You have a good heart. Lots of Christian love. So you pardoned him. And what did he do then, Huck?

What if you make a call like that on Iran, Huck? Or Iraq? Or Osama? Or some guy from China who is very civil and polite at the State dinner, and has a little plan for dominating Asia? Everything that happens, Huck, all those reporters are going to want you to say something, everywhere you go, 24/7. And lots of people will act based on what you say. And not all of them have lots of love in their heart, Huck.

and the priceless round up conclusion:

That bait shop on the lake — it's looking good. You'll be surrounded by nice neighbors, real Christians, and you can be the smartest guy in the room. You can go out running every morning. Remember Huck — Jesus wouldn't be dumb enough to go into politics.You were right on that one. Maybe it's not what he wants from you either.

Oh, that's fun to read. This was the post that Ross Douthat said may as well have been titled "Go back to dogpatch you stupid hillbilly!" John Cole has a compilation of similar reactions to Huckabee, and Kevin Drum's reaction gives a pretty good outsider's perspective:

There are a variety of ostensible reasons for this: lack of foreign policy bona fides, too compassionate for their taste, too willing to consider spending money, etc. But I think the real reason is simpler: as with blogosphere conservatives, mainstream conservatives are mostly urban sophisticates with a libertarian bent, not rural evangelicals with a social conservative bent. They're happy to talk up NASCAR and pickup trucks in public, but in real life they mostly couldn't care less about either. Ditto for opposing abortion and the odd bit of gay bashing via proxy. But when it comes to Ten Commandments monuments and end times eschatology, they shiver inside just like any mainstream liberal. The only difference is that usually they keep their shivering to themselves because they want to keep everyone in the big tent happy.

But then along comes Huckabee, and guess what? He's the real deal. Not a guy like George Bush or Ronald Reagan, who talks a soothing game to the snake handlers but then turns around and spends his actual political capital on tax cuts, foreign wars, and deregulating big corporations. Huckabee, it turns out, isn't just giving lip service to evangelicals, he actually believes all that stuff. Among other things, he believes in creationism (really believes), once proposed that AIDS patients should be quarantined, appears to share the traditional evangelical view that Mormonism is a cult, and says (in public!) that homosexuality is sinful. And that's without seeing the text of any of his old sermons, which he (probably wisely) refuses to let the press lay eyes on.

I think this brand of yahooism puts off mainstream urban conservatives every bit as much as it does mainstream urban liberals. They're afraid that this time, it's not just a line of patter to keep the yokels in line.

I love it. A Huckabee nomination would be the realization without the unfortunate consequences of my long held fantasy of turning the country over to the religious right simply to let them discredit themselves so we could all move on. Thankfully if Huckabee gets nominated it will accomplish this but since he will never be elected the evangelicals will be responsible for making the Republicans unelectable, and the religious right will be humiliated and abandoned by the party. This has always been the problem with the evangelical base. Their agenda appeals to almost no one outside the megachurches. Exactly how can you motivate the Charles Krauthammer's of the world to vote Republican with anti-gay hysteria, a religious persecution complex, and a spending record worse than LBJ's? Huckabee has all these things and he's going to humiliate all parts of the party. Good. Roll with pigs and you'll get covered in shit. All this and we don't have to watch what happens when a President uses the Book of Revelation as a guide to foreign policy. Grand.

Not convinced he's unelectable? Browse this post and the assorted links.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Andrew Stuttaford fires back on my behalf

At Freddoso:

Freedom, Faith, and Postwar Europe [Andrew Stuttaford]

David, you write that "one grave consequence of post-war Europe's loss of faith is its approaching demographic extinction." Putting aside the question as to whether Europe is heading for "demographic extinction" (I don't believe that it is) I think it's important to point out that birth rates are now falling just about everywhere across the globe. There is little or no evidence to suggest that this can be linked to any loss of faith in Europe, or for that matter, elsewhere. Rather it is a by-product of modernity, and it's one that's very welcome too.

Journalists should be history majors

David Freddoso:

To the debate over Krauthammer's piece, I'd add a Steynian note. One grave consequence of post-war Europe's loss of faith is its approaching demographic extinction. The Italians are on pace to be as dead as the Romans. The Russians are headed there even faster. Can you be free if you don't exist? Or even worse, if you end up under Islamic law?

I'd also point to pre-war Europe, whose loss of religious faith (it's not like it started in 1960 — try 1660) had ghastly ideological consequences — Communism, German National Socialism — that led to countless deaths.

I agree with Ramesh — Romney's statement isn't that absurd.

Typically shallow historical analysis by the religious. If communism were the result of a loss of faith then why did communism take root in Russia, the most highly religious and backward nation in Europe. Indeed its religiosity set it apart so much that many across the Atlantic didn't even consider it to be part of Europe, and its exclusion from the EU is a testament to this attitude's survival. Until 1917 it was ruled by a monarchy whose claims to divine right were supported by the Russian Orthodox Church and believed by many of the people who were kept in a kind of serfdom that despite 19th century reform efforts by Alexander II, was not substantially different from it medieval predecessor. And this monarchy had as much contempt for the lives of its subjects as the Communist regime that followed.

National socialism was never atheistic, there is no case to make that Hitler was an atheist, and it specifically appealed to Antisemitism cultivated by the Catholic Church and dominant Protestant sects. Enough of this. How much intellectual shabbiness is required to take two opposed ideologies that couldn't stand each other's existence, and attribute them to the same nebulous cause?

And while they bemoan the demographic decline of Europe they fail to mention that the Islamic world's population is increasing far faster than even America's yet is far poorer and lives under theocratic oppression. Shall we then take their example and reduce ourselves to poverty and religious backwardness for the sake of demographic expansion? It apparently has never dawned on Freddoso that poorer, less educated societies (and people) are consistently more religious and have higher birthrates. The Economist puts out a fact book that compiles these, often jaw-dropping, stats. Does this then confer some virtue on their poverty and ignorance? After all such widespread ignorance and poverty as seen in Africa and the Middle East is the quickest way to raise the birth rate, though at the expense of any semblance of freedom for women and the brutalization of men. "How can you be free if you are poor and ignorant?" will then be the question that replaces Freddoso's. Is it asking too much to expect that religious people will evince even a modicum of intellectual honesty and constructiveness on this point or will they be constantly blinded by heartache over the approaching nadir of their influence.

Ironically he pinpoints the loss of religious faith as having begun in 1660. This is incidentally a little more than a decade after the treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War, and established a rather delicate and short lived peace but effectively ended the period of international warfare in Europe on at least explicitly religious grounds. This war decimated the population in Germany by as much as 20 percent and claimed around 5 million lives in a Europe with less than 100 million people. This of course leaves out the countless wars rebellions and massacres that tore the continent apart for the preceding 300ish years, which he predictably does not mention.

Weirdly though he doesn't seem to notice that while pinpointing the beginning of religion's decline in 1660, he lives in a world where Europe's population has maybe quintupled (a conservative estimate) since then and has only started declining in the last 5 years though he still manages to claim the loss of faith since 1660 and more recently after World War II is the culprit. Religious people like Freddoso have the unseemly habit of making huge statements that make little sense but and need considerable unpacking, but have the advantage of sounding right to those who want to believe them.

Coda: Notice again that apologists for religion advocate for it without mention to whether or not it is actually true.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

No room for the atheists

Jacob Sullum joins the secular dissenters from Romney's speech.

I have joined the atheist blogroll!

My first attempt at publicity. Must keep up the posting.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What do Muslim girls do for prom?

If this is what they have to deal with just to leave the house?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Going to Church can make you kill people

Ii must confess to breathing a sigh of relief when I found out that the maniac who shot up Pastor Ted "I'm completely straight" Haggard's former flock was not a secular Jew atheist biologist. Instead as one may have been prone to guess, he was the product of a strict, religious upbringing and home schooling. No quicker way to drive someone crazy with hate for their religion than force it on them as children. This is admittedly a rather dark example of schadenfreude, but I don't care. Sorry flymorgue.

"A neighbor, Cody Askeland, 19, said the brothers were home-schooled, describing the whole family as "very, very religious."

See how necessary religion is for morality!

Matthew Murray lived there along with a brother, Christopher, 21, a student at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla.

Oral Roberts University! Another fine example of the high ethical and educational standards of Christian education. I suggest a Google news search. It will keep you busy for a month reading tales of stupidity, graft, and sleaze. All under the auspices of Jesus Christ Savior of Mankind. (JCSM)

"I was just expecting for the next gunshot to be coming through my car. Miraculously — by the grace of God — it did not," she told ABC's "Good Morning America."

Solipsism is never very becoming. Unfortunately for two sisters the next bullets went through their bodies, ending their lives. But I am sure God withheld his grace to fulfill his mysterious, inscrutable plan, which we filthy mortals can't hope to understand. If I were the mother of one of these victims I might be inclined to administer a good kicking to this twit.

About 7,000 people were in and around the church the time of the shooting.

7,000! What a waste of man-hours.

New Life, with a largely upper middle-class membership, was founded by the Rev. Ted Haggard, who was dismissed last year after a former male prostitute alleged he had a three-year cash-for-sex relationship with him. Haggard admitted committing unspecified "sexual immorality.


This story is a sad example of the stifling morass of stupidity surrounding religion. From the home schooled and brainwashed gunman to the almost victim spouting selfish grotesque drivel about how she escaped by the "grace of god" while two people lay dead, to the pathetic life story of the victim Phillip Crouse, a former skinhead who probably felt saved from plotting his own spree against the cursed people of Ham by this ridiculous melange of consumerism, spirituality, self-help, and mawkish bourgeois sentiment.

What would have been prevented this was not more faith in public life but a bit of education. Instead of locking their children up to be homeschooled, isolated, inundated with superstitious, mind shrinking nonsense, and forced to endure personality engineering with all the compassion of Paris Island, it might have helped to try and teach them not to fear and loathe the entire modern world so they would have been able to see a place worth going to when the comfort of fantasy land they were living in disappeared.

Oddly enough they won't release his sermons anymore

"It doesn't embarrass me one bit to let you know that I believe Adam and Eve were real people." -Mike Huckabee 1990

Mitt, I knew John Kennedy. John Kennedy was a friend of mine. And you're no John Kennedy.

Not that I have any great love for JFK but I must say Romney's insipid speech on his religion didn't exactly meet that standard. I can't help but resent being told the requirements of freedom by a man who believes it somehow credible to think that Joseph Smith, a serial polygamist, rapist, fraud, demagogue, theocrat, and fantasist is a latter day prophet and revelator of the will of the creator of the universe. Apparently we need a person of faith in the White House but to even deign to wonder what that faith entails is hideousl un-American and tears at the fabric of our society. I can't help but notice a parallel between this and the importance Romney believes should be placed on the record of his entire political career before he began running for president This might be a clever way of preempting any questions on why a grown man in his late twenties and early thirties couldn't find it in himself to leave what was an officially racist cult until 1979.

Steve Chapman at Reason says it better than I, though I will have more to say so maybe I can gain ground.

Daily ejaculation of stupidity

No not Christians breeding, but a column by Pat Boone. Notice how easy it is to be welcomed by the religious right webzines as a commentator. No qualifications in journalism or even anything to recommend his intelligence. Just a washed up shitty singer willing to shill for the logically deficient and paranoid. What does Pat nominate as the number one threat facing the country? The ACLU. I would have gone with SARS but maybe he's more with it than I am. Nonetheless, for a lesson in how to ignore history, science, the Constitution, logic, and even the basic rules of causality, check it out.

I liked this little nugget of wisdom:

It's not just "happening." Somebody's got it in for us, and doesn't intend to stop until we are no longer the America we've been for 250 years.

Yes 250 years. I guess if you placed the founding at 1776 (the earliest possible date) 231 might equal 250 if you are either looking for a nice number that will melt warmly with a quartile ring into the ears of believers, or can't do second grade math.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Religion is child abuse

For those who take such objection to the notion that religious instruction constitutes child abuse I do wonder how they would answer two questions. If this had happened as a result of anything but religious belief would the judge have allowed it, and would there be any reason not to label the boy's indoctrination as child abuse. Its a filthy lie that kills and, unlike history's other great fantasies, we applaud it.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I am now a postgrad

I hope its not by virtue of unreadable writing but I have been upgraded to postgrad level blogging.

Marcus Ross and hilarious irony

Marcus Ross has a phd in paleontology from the university of Rhode Island. The only problem is he is a young earth creationist who was granted that phd because he wrote a dissertation which disproves everything one would need to believe to be a young earth creationist. How he resolves the cognitive dissonance as reported in the NYT is the sweetest irony:

'At the conference I asked Ross whether he still believes what he wrote in his graduate thesis. His answer confirmed him as the product of the postmodern university, where truth is dependent on the framework: “Within the context of old age and evolutionary theory, yes. But if the parameter is different, portions of it could be completely in error.”

So now to justify their nonsense creationists are making common cause with the only group of intellectuals who can rival them in the dubious category of bullshit artistry, post-modernists. This isn't new. I wrote about a Harvey Mansfield column defending religion when he claimed:

Atheists today angrily hold religion to a standard of justice that the most advanced thinkers of our time, the postmoderns, have declared to be impossible. Some of those postmoderns, indeed, are so disgusted with the optimism of atheism that, with a shrug of their shoulders, they propose returning to the relative sanity of religion.

It is a bit of poetic justice that I get to watch religious people attempt to salvage dignity for their beliefs by allying themselves with nihilistic nonsense developed by people who don't share their beliefs, despise them, and who rarely offer anything but obscurantist gibberish. The liberal university may yet be a friend to religious conservatism.

Defending the meaningless

An article by Stephanie Coontz makes the case for less government involvement in marriage. I've long believed the entire controversy over gay marriage could be diffused if the government restricted itself to granting the only thing it should grant, civil unions. There is less opposition to gay civil unions and granting the attendant rights. The battle is over nomenclature but as Coontz points out the practices surrounding marriage have been subject to such historical flux that aside from the one aspect of it being between a man and a woman nothing else is consistent:

For 16 centuries, Christianity also defined the validity of a marriage on the basis of a couple’s wishes. If two people claimed they had exchanged marital vows — even out alone by the haystack — the Catholic Church accepted that they were validly married.

In 1215, the church decreed that a “licit” marriage must take place in church. But people who married illictly had the same rights and obligations as a couple married in church: their children were legitimate; the wife had the same inheritance rights; the couple was subject to the same prohibitions against divorce.

Not until the 16th century did European states begin to require that marriages be performed under legal auspices. In part, this was an attempt to prevent unions between young adults whose parents opposed their match.

The American colonies officially required marriages to be registered, but until the mid-19th century, state supreme courts routinely ruled that public cohabitation was sufficient evidence of a valid marriage. By the later part of that century, however, the United States began to nullify common-law marriages and exert more control over who was allowed to marry.

By the 1920s, 38 states prohibited whites from marrying blacks, “mulattos,” Japanese, Chinese, Indians, “Mongolians,” “Malays” or Filipinos. Twelve states would not issue a marriage license if one partner was a drunk, an addict or a “mental defect.” Eighteen states set barriers to remarriage after divorce.

In the mid-20th century, governments began to get out of the business of deciding which couples were “fit” to marry. Courts invalidated laws against interracial marriage, struck down other barriers and even extended marriage rights to prisoners.

But governments began relying on marriage licenses for a new purpose: as a way of distributing resources to dependents. The Social Security Act provided survivors’ benefits with proof of marriage. Employers used marital status to determine whether they would provide health insurance or pension benefits to employees’ dependents. Courts and hospitals required a marriage license before granting couples the privilege of inheriting from each other or receiving medical information.

The article also does me the turn of obliquely demonstrating how the current battle over marriage has nothing to do with control over what relationships we feel are competent to rear children. If it were then the those involving a partner who was a "drunk, an addict or a 'mental defect'" would also be prohibited. But I suspect this smacks too much of eugenics to be said aloud so as the number of groups we can vocally discriminate diminishes, conservatives focus on those still sufficiently loathed.

Every other tradition surrounding marriage has changed and this one will as well. And if we're to avoid the affront to good sense that is a marriage amendment, the government should simply stop issuing marriage licenses and restricting itself to granting recognition which has no relation to a shifting cultural institution over which it has never effectively exerted control and where it has, has usually reinforced the worst bigotries of the unwashed many.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Mumbling like he's on drugs

McCain rehashes the same tired lines of the supporters of the War on Drugs but on thing intrigued me. He claims that in his state (AZ) first time drug offenders are sent not to prison but a rehab program where their progress as they come off drugs can be closely monitored. I don't think they should be sent to prison or to rehab or even paid attention to by the state, but the lack of effort these days on the part of Republicans to even try to reconcile their proposals with what have traditionally been called conservative principles is shocking. I do remember hearing that government programs of social reform and behavior modification cast a net a bit too wide (and expensive) for those of the small government, personal liberties, and individual responsibility cloth but evidently John McCain sees no dissonance with these principles and endorsing a program that welcomes first time, private users of senselessly illegal substances into the loving arms of state run, tax payer funded rehab. I am sorry but I don't think I could be called indifferent to my civic duties if I don't wish to pay to rehabilitate someone who never asked to be rehabilitated for using a substance that I didn't give to him. But alas being soft on drugs must mean you are soft on hippies or some other pariah group conservatives fear.

And another question: Why the fawning and utterly obsequious thanks to the police officer for... being a police officer? The cop spoke about three times as intelligently as McCain and I doubt needed his gold star of approval for his life's work. Is it impossible to disagree with someone without thereby impugning the dignity of everything about them? Or was McCain just attempting to use another opportunity to pander to talk-radio conservatives who gain life strength from paeans to those who carry guns like Mormons from goofy underwear? Because I really doubt the cop cared at all.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Those Ingrates in Darfur

How Can We Raise Awareness In Darfur Of How Much We're Doing For Them?

A tragic lack of gratitude.

I use only the finest vests for my martyr missions

Yes it is their religion. It is not poverty, not depression, not mental illness, and not the injustices imposed by the West. The wealthier you are, the more likely you are to support terrorism. We've known this for a while but reluctance to seem intolerant and denounce one religion to the exclusion of others makes many silent. To all secular people suffering this malaise... psst: Their all laughably stupid, but they're not all as violent and crazy. Alan Krueger from Princeton synthesizes the data here well enough for me to read it on the bus ride home.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

More abortion logic.

From the LA Times, Gary Wills has a column raising some some of the objections to the anti-abortion crusaders that I've made here. He adds a few insights from science, Aristotle, and Aquinas. I reproduce here in full:

Abortion isn't a religious issue
Evangelicals are adamant, but religion really has nothing to say about the issue.
By Garry Wills

November 4, 2007

What makes opposition to abortion the issue it is for each of the GOP presidential candidates is the fact that it is the ultimate "wedge issue" -- it is nonnegotiable. The right-to-life people hold that it is as strong a point of religion as any can be. It is religious because the Sixth Commandment (or the Fifth by Catholic count) says, "Thou shalt not kill." For evangelical Christians, in general, abortion is murder. That is why what others think, what polls say, what looks practical does not matter for them. One must oppose murder, however much rancor or controversy may ensue.

But is abortion murder? Most people think not. Evangelicals may argue that most people in Germany thought it was all right to kill Jews. But the parallel is not valid. Killing Jews was killing persons. It is not demonstrable that killing fetuses is killing persons. Not even evangelicals act as if it were. If so, a woman seeking an abortion would be the most culpable person. She is killing her own child. But the evangelical community does not call for her execution.

About 10% of evangelicals, according to polls, allow for abortion in the case of rape or incest. But the circumstances of conception should not change the nature of the thing conceived. If it is a human person, killing it is punishing it for something it had nothing to do with. We do not kill people because they had a criminal parent.

Nor did the Catholic Church treat abortion as murder in the past. If it had, late-term abortions and miscarriages would have called for treatment of the well-formed fetus as a person, which would require baptism and a Christian burial. That was never the practice. And no wonder. The subject of abortion is not scriptural. For those who make it so central to religion, this seems an odd omission. Abortion is not treated in the Ten Commandments -- or anywhere in Jewish Scripture. It is not treated in the Sermon on the Mount -- or anywhere in the New Testament. It is not treated in the early creeds. It is not treated in the early ecumenical councils.

Lacking scriptural guidance, St. Thomas Aquinas worked from Aristotle's view of the different kinds of animation -- the nutritive (vegetable) soul, the sensing (animal) soul and the intellectual soul. Some people used Aristotle to say that humans therefore have three souls. Others said that the intellectual soul is created by human semen.

Aquinas denied both positions. He said that a material cause (semen) cannot cause a spiritual product. The intellectual soul (personhood) is directly created by God "at the end of human generation." This intellectual soul supplants what had preceded it (nutritive and sensory animation). So Aquinas denied that personhood arose at fertilization by the semen. God directly infuses the soul at the completion of human formation.

Much of the debate over abortion is based on a misconception -- that it is a religious issue, that the pro-life advocates are acting out of religious conviction. It is not a theological matter at all. There is no theological basis for defending or condemning abortion. Even popes have said that the question of abortion is a matter of natural law, to be decided by natural reason. Well, the pope is not the arbiter of natural law. Natural reason is.

John Henry Newman, a 19th century Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism, once wrote that "the pope, who comes of revelation, has no jurisdiction over nature." The matter must be decided by individual conscience, not by religious fiat. As Newman said: "I shall drink to the pope, if you please -- still, to conscience first, and to the pope afterward."

If we are to decide the matter of abortion by natural law, that means we must turn to reason and science, the realm of Enlightened religion. But that is just what evangelicals want to avoid. Who are the relevant experts here? They are philosophers, neurobiologists, embryologists. Evangelicals want to exclude them because most give answers they do not want to hear. The experts have only secular expertise, not religious conviction. They, admittedly, do not give one answer -- they differ among themselves, they are tentative, they qualify. They do not have the certitude that the religious right accepts as the sign of truth.

So evangelicals take shortcuts. They pin everything on being pro-life. But one cannot be indiscriminately pro-life.

If one claimed, in the manner of Albert Schweitzer, that all life deserved moral respect, then plants have rights, and it might turn out that we would have little if anything to eat. And if one were consistently pro-life, one would have to show moral respect for paramecia, insects, tissue excised during a medical operation, cancer cells, asparagus and so on. Harvesting carrots, on a consistent pro-life hypothesis, would constitute something of a massacre.

Opponents of abortion will say that they are defending only human life. It is certainly true that the fetus is human life. But so is the semen before it fertilizes; so is the ovum before it is fertilized. They are both human products, and both are living things. But not even evangelicals say that the destruction of one or the other would be murder.

Defenders of the fetus say that life begins only after the semen fertilizes the egg, producing an embryo. But, in fact, two-thirds of the embryos produced this way fail to live on because they do not embed in the womb wall. Nature is like fertilization clinics -- it produces more embryos than are actually used. Are all the millions of embryos that fail to be embedded human persons?

The universal mandate to preserve "human life" makes no sense. My hair is human life -- it is not canine hair, and it is living. It grows. When it grows too long, I have it cut. Is that aborting human life? The same with my growing human fingernails. An evangelical might respond that my hair does not have the potential to become a person. True. But semen has the potential to become a person, and we do not preserve every bit of semen that is ejaculated but never fertilizes an egg.

The question is not whether the fetus is human life but whether it is a human person, and when it becomes one. Is it when it is capable of thought, of speech, of recognizing itself as a person, or of assuming the responsibilities of a person? Is it when it has a functioning brain? Aquinas said that the fetus did not become a person until God infused the intellectual soul. A functioning brain is not present in the fetus until the end of the sixth month at the earliest.

Not surprisingly, that is the earliest point of viability, the time when a fetus can successfully survive outside the womb.

Whether through serendipity or through some sort of causal connection, it now seems that the onset of a functioning central nervous system with a functioning cerebral cortex and the onset of viability occur around the same time -- the end of the second trimester, a time by which 99% of all abortions have already occurred.

Opponents of abortion like to show sonograms of the fetus reacting to stimuli. But all living cells have electric and automatic reactions. These are like the reactions of Terri Schiavo when she was in a permanent vegetative state. Aquinas, following Aristotle, called the early stage of fetal development vegetative life. The fetus has a face long before it has a brain. It has animation before it has a command center to be aware of its movements or to experience any reaction as pain.

These are difficult matters, on which qualified people differ. It is not enough to say that whatever the woman wants should go. She has a responsibility to consider whether and when she may have a child inside her, not just a fetus. Certainly by the late stages of her pregnancy, a child is ready to respond with miraculous celerity to all the personal interchanges with the mother that show a brain in great working order.

Given these uncertainties, who is to make the individual decision to have an abortion? Religious leaders? They have no special authority in the matter, which is not subject to theological norms or guidance. The state? Its authority is given by the people it represents, and the people are divided on this. Doctors? They too differ. The woman is the one closest to the decision. Under Roe vs. Wade, no woman is forced to have an abortion. But those who have decided to have one are able to.

Some objected to Karl Rove's use of abortion to cement his ecumenical coalition, on the grounds that this was injecting religion into politics. The supreme irony is that, properly understood, abortion is not even a religious issue. But that did not matter to Rove. All he cared about was that it worked. For a while.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Answer!

The answer to the question on which I ended my previous post, via Matt Yglesias:

The problem is exacerbated by a dramatic drop-off in U.S. expertise on Pakistan. Retired American officials say that, for the first time in U.S. history, nobody with serious Pakistan experience is working in the South Asia bureau of the State Department, on State's policy planning staff, on the National Security Council staff or even in Vice President Cheney's office. Anne W. Patterson, the new U.S. ambassador to Islamabad, is an expert on Latin American "drugs and thugs"; Richard A. Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, is a former department spokesman who served three tours in Hong Kong and China but never was posted in South Asia.

Its Cheney's influence. This kind of needless incompetence and cronyism populated Rajiv Chandrasekeran's book Imperial Life in the Emerald City like baseball hats at a frat party. Putting incompetents in places of high power has become quite the leitmotif: Remember Michael Brown, Harriet Miers, L. Paul Bremer, Rumsfeld, Karen Hughes and of course Alberto Gonzalez and his minions from Pat Robertson's Regnet University Law School.