Archive for March, 2012

Japanese Sculptor Motoi Yamamoto Makes Art Installations From Salt

March 31, 2012

Salt Installation by Motoi Yamamoto

See more of Motoi Yamamoto’s work here.


Has the Sexual Revolution Been Good for Women? Mary Eberstadt Says No.

March 31, 2012

Mary Eberstadt, author of  “Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution,” managed to get a plug for her book in the Wall Street Journal. Her article’s title is, “Has the Sexual Revolution Been Good for Women? No.”

The “No” puts Eberstadt’s conclusion right up front, as if to head off any plans the reader might have to ponder the question. But how has she arrived at such a conclusion? She read a paper entitled “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” written by two Wharton School economists, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. Their paper is an analysis of data from a 40-year longitudinal study done by the General Social Survey. Their findings were that female happiness had in fact declined somewhat since 1970.

Stevenson and Wolfers did not propose an explanation for this decline. Instead, they discussed several possible causes. (For more details, see my earlier article about Eberstadt and her book.)

Eberstadt’s agenda is obvious. Her reading of Stevenson’s and Wolfers’ paper is a “mining operation” whose aim is to find support for her a priori conclusion that sex, severed from procreation, makes women less happy. Such an approach is highly unscientific because (1) we form our conclusions after analyzing the data, not before, and (2) there is no data to support her conclusion. What is more, the authors of “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” would be unlikely to endorse her conclusion, if their own caveats are to be believed. Their only conclusion was that female happiness had declined, and they provided no data to support any conclusion whatsoever about the causes of the decline.

Eberstadt acknowledges that Stevenson and Wolfers “were careful not to draw conclusions (about causes) from their data.” But, as the “No” in her title demonstrates, she is not quite so scrupulous as they, and she is willing to negotiate if necessary: “Is it not reasonable,” she writes, “to think that at least some of that discontent comes from the feeling that the grass is greener elsewhere—a feeling made plausible by the sexual revolution?”

Before recommending a roll-back of the sexual revolution, Mary Eberstadt should conduct some peer-reviewed research to support her thesis. Until then, the cure she advances for feminine malaise is quintessential agenda-driven speculation.

For an informed and non-agenda-driven discussion of the many possible causes of unhappiness, see the  “World Happiness Report” edited by John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs.

Is Abortion a Form of Human Sacrifice? (Ctd.)

March 30, 2012

Leo Walker responds to my previous post:

Thirteen is quite a lot of kids! No wonder your grandma was worn out. Yet these are choices that she made along with your grandpa. Even back in deepest darkest 19th century the connection between conjugal relations and children was understood. They made choices and, so far as your narrative illustrates, they accepted responsibility for those choices. Poverty is not the worst evil in the world, nor is it an impediment to joy, love, or any other virtue, though it makes some harder. You imply that your grandparents suffered unremitting misery and despair. Was there no love, joy, peace, sense of accomplishment, surprise, curiosity or triumph in their lives? I doubt that this would be true of them, or their children. If poverty is difficult to bear, should we then grant them sweet release by some form of murder under another name? I notice that the poor; I have known and lived among the poor who aspire to what passes for poverty in the USA; don’ t seem to be hungering for death. On the contrary, they often live more fearlessly and fully than so many who have more to defend. The Catholic position on the issue balances openness to receive the gift of children from God and a prudent stewardship of the procreative act. Planned parenthood, as it now constituted, is a repudiation of both of these principles. The hungry millions are the result of the sinful mis-allocation of resources. Justice consists not in murdering, sterilizing or otherwise outraging their lives, but in working to make God’s bounty available to them. Life is a greater good than material well being. Condemning to death those whose standard of living is suspected of not meeting some arbitrary standard set by the road-to-Hell-pavers is no mercy. Oh, and I might mention that arguing from a particular to a universal, which you do above, is a logical fallacy and any conclusion drawn from it is ipso facto false.

@Leo Walker: Referring to my great-grandmother’s 13 children, you write, “…these are choices that she made along with your [great]-grandpa.”

You make her sound like a modern woman who has voting rights and a real range of choices for her life. She was not and did not. She was poor and uneducated, powerless and voiceless. She lived in an intensely patriarchal culture where her life plans were laid out for her by men. Women’s educational and employment opportunities were restricted or non-existent, and they were cruelly shamed for making any effort to better their lives. These are just facts, not generalizations off a particular case history.

I recognize that many women of that era were happy with their lot, but my point is that those who were not did not have any choice. Choice became so important to American women that they were finally willing to fight for it. Their crowning achievement was passage of the 19th Amendment, giving them the right to vote. From there to here (via Roe v. Wade) is an unfolding story of liberation and greater choice. As long as women have the same choices as men do, they will continue to want control over their bodies and their reproductive cycles.

A severely malnourished child lies down after being admitted to Banadir Hospital in Somalia's capital Mogadishu on July 26, 2011. AFP PHOTO/ Mustafa ABDI

To your point about poverty, I would just reiterate that overpopulation leads to social and ecological collapse. Those affected by extreme poverty may not want to die, but often they will kill others over scarce resources. Again, this is just an empirical fact. The earth’s resources are not inexhaustible, and the goal of equitable and efficient distribution may be a chimera. Water, for example, is plentiful but extremely hard to transport in the quantities needed to sustain populations in areas affected by drought. “Prudent stewardship of the procreative act” (your words) must be coupled with—or even guided by—prudent stewardship of resources. Stewardship does not mean “maximizing births.” It may require limiting them, for its goal must always be to bring supply and demand into balance.

Abdifatah Hassan who is eleven months old and suffers from severe malnutrition lies on a cot at a hospital run by Medecins Sans Frontiers in the biggest refugee camp in the world in Dadaab on July 4, 2011. AFP PHOTO/Roberto SCHMIDT

You write, “The hungry millions are the result of the sinful mis-allocation of resources.” If that is true, then let’s get the supply chains in good working order before encouraging people to have more and more children in areas susceptible to drought and famine. In 2011, 12 million people living in the horn of Africa were in urgent need of food and water. The U.N. estimates that six million children die of malnutrition every year, worldwide.

Finally, I’d like to call out your straw man. I am not advocating abortion, the murder of poor people, or forced sterilization. I am advocating family planning and education around reproductive issues so that women can, together with their husbands, make informed choices. These choices should include contraception, of course, because contraception decreases the likelihood that a woman will seek an abortion, licit or illicit. Abortions are not a desirable outcome, but when they occur (as they will), they should be performed under optimal medical conditions to protect the health of the mother.

Is Abortion a Form of Human Sacrifice?

March 30, 2012

Gil Bailie responds to the final paragraph of my previous post:

The efficacy of a sacrificial regime – understood in terms of the anthropological analysis of René Girard – does not require that the sacrificial community hate or revile the sacrificial victim. All that is required is the conviction that the elimination of the victim is necessary to the preservation of the community as presently constituted, and that the present constitution of the community is worth the sacrificial costs required to preserve it.

Understood in this way, the existence of abortion on demand qualifies as the greatest single sacrificial system of all time. The killing of the unborn is – explicitly or implicitly – considered to be indispensable to the continuance of the regime of the sexual revolution, and the sheer number of those sacrificed to its continuance exceeds that of any regime in history. Moreover, the unborn undeniably constitute the most powerless and voiceless category of victims imaginable.

In the late 19th century, my great grandmother, living in Texas, was virtually a baby factory. She bore thirteen infants (no twins). She was poor, and her husband offered very little help in raising these children. She did all the care-taking herself—the washing, cleaning, cooking, and shopping—all during an era when there were no electric appliances or motorized transport to make the work easier. She even made and patched the children’s clothes, grew vegetables, and looked after chickens.

She died not many years after giving birth to her thirteenth child. She was, as my mother says, “worn out.” Her husband lived to a ripe old age.

The sacrificial system Gil Bailie has described was fully in place and operational, but instead of sacrificing the fetus, the community (as constituted at that time) sacrificed the mother. Let’s not forget that women of that era were about as “powerless and voiceless” as the fetuses that Bailie would like to protect. (The 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, was not passed until 1920). The siblings also suffered because their quality of life was so diminished by having to share scant resources. They were poor, overworked, and undereducated, and they never forgot the hardships they endured during those years.

My great grandparents probably did not use any form of birth control and would not have considered an early-term abortion. I personally think it would have been better if they had, even though I might never have born as a result.

More life is not necessarily better than less life. The world’s population has more than doubled in the last fifty years, to 6.8 billion, and is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 at latest. Approximately one-seventh of the world’s population suffers from chronic hunger, which causes not just craving but exhaustion and disease. I am much more disturbed by the sight of an emaciated child than by the thought of a fetus that was aborted before it could even experience pain.

I am more concerned about eliminating human misery and improving the quality of life than about bringing new life into this world at any cost. This is why I support the efforts of organizations like Planned Parenthood. Family planning promotes maternal well-being while reducing unwanted pregnancies and the need for abortions.

My own parents, who were poor at the time of my birth, had decided to limit their family size, and I must say it worked out extremely well. I have only one sibling, but we had the benefits of good nutrition, the attention of  two healthy parents, and a college education. Best of all, my mother did not wear herself out as her grandmother had done. She is now 93 and in excellent health, living in her home of the last forty years and about to buy a new car. She obviously plans to be around for awhile. By not bringing those extra lives into the world, she and my dad improved the quality of all our lives. I do not mourn the children that weren’t born, and I certainly don’t regard my mother or father as “murderers” for having used birth control. Nor would I reproach them if I were to learn they had decided to abort an early term fetus. I hope I would recognize that it was a difficult and painful decision for them.

In short, I don’t think the “sacrifice” that my parents made (or might have made in more extreme circumstances) rises to the level of victimage as described by René Girard. My parents simply “tended their garden” in a mature and responsible manner. On the other hand, Bailie’s calumnies of gays and lesbians and his endorsement of organizations like the National Organization for Marriage and the Ruth Institute clearly do cross the line. The suggestion that same-sex marriage will bring about an unravelling of natural law, a birth dearth, and, ultimately, civilizational collapse is not only unwarranted by empirical reality but also obviously intended to stoke deep-seated fears and animosities. No good can come of it.

Will Same-Sex Marriage Bring About an Unraveling of Natural Law and Unleash the Forces of Social Disorder?

March 29, 2012

Gil Bailie quotes historian Glenn Olsen on The Cornerstone Forum’s Facebook page:

For a Catholic, part of the strangeness of living in America is living in a land only superficially touched by natural law teaching. … When someone favorable to religion today wants to defend some bizarre practice, such as killing chickens in one’s rites, the defense very well may take the line that religious belief per se must be respected. Of course in a national experience properly rooted in the natural law this would not be so. In a Catholic position, reason and revelation must be in harmony, and one has no obligation to respect a religious belief which is in opposition to reason.

And Bailie adds,

This is important because there exist today religions that solemnly sanction the killing, not of chickens, but of infidels and apostates and others. In trying, for example, to redefine marriage to include homosexual relationships, we undermine the natural law argument for deeming polygamy illicit or for refusing to interfere with a religion whose highest authorities sanction both polygamy and the murder of homosexuals.

Natural law certainly has an illustrious history, and the laws enshrined in our own Constitution have their roots in it. But it cannot be used as a platform for contemporary American jurisprudence because it has no stable meaning. You can ask a Catholic, a Protestant, and a Muslim to define it, and you will get very different answers. So for historian Glenn Olsen, whom Bailie quotes, natural law must be understood as the Catholic variety. I am not a Catholic, but I am an American citizen, and so I would not like to see our country’s legal tradition uprooted to make way for natural law redux.

Sacrificing chickens is of course bizarre, but so is baptism, whether for the dead or the living. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation seems very bizarre to most non-Catholics, but neither it nor baptism hurts anyone, so a state that respects religious liberty has no compelling interest in prohibiting these practices. Sacrificing chickens is no more bizarre than transubstantiation or baptism, but it is borderline form of cruelty, depending on how the chickens are slaughtered and whether they’re eaten afterwards. Denying contraceptive insurance coverage to one’s employees may be motivated by religious belief, but it deserves no respect from government because it results in harm to the employees.

So I would disagree with Olsen when he writes, “…one has no obligation to respect a religious belief which is in opposition to reason.” Reason is simply the wrong criterion. We respect unreasonable beliefs all the time, and there is no real harm to anyone. Most religious beliefs are in fact irrational, but it’s only when they become harmful that the state has a compelling interest in prohibiting them.

But there are two meanings of “respect.” One is “allow,” as in “the state respects religion.” The other is “have regard for.” I may not have much respect for a belief, but I will respect your right to hold it. However, I may disrespect a religious practice while also supporting efforts to have it outlawed. Denial of contraceptive coverage on religious grounds falls into this latter category.

Killing infidels and apostates, which the Catholic Church used to approve not so long ago, is a religious practice that deserves no respect in either sense of the word.

The Church’s campaign against same-sex marriage (SSM) is based on an irrational belief that I do not respect but that its adherents have a right to hold. However, I do not believe Catholic institutions (other than churches) should have the right to discriminate against homosexuals in hiring or in provision of services.

As for polygamy and the murder of homosexuals, both are of course odious, but no less odious than the effort to link them to same-sex marriage. There is a vast difference between murder and marriage and between polygamy and monogamy. In each case, the former is harmful and the latter is generally beneficial. Recognizing this difference gives us the proper basis for legislation regarding murder and polygamy.

The grim scenario in Bailie’s final paragraph assumes that natural law is preventing both polygamy and the murder of homosexuals. It is not, of course. Constitutional law is serving this function, so there is no need to worry that same-sex marriage will unleash the forces of social disorder and lawlessness. It has not done so in countries or states where SSM has been legalized.

Such scenarios are one more example of the fear tactics and scapegoating that Gil Bailie routinely resorts to. The underlying formula is always the same: X (an individual or group) causes social disorder; order can be restored only by stigmatizing and expelling X. This is the classic scapegoating paradigm as articulated by Gil Bailie’s own mentor, René Girard, and it is unmistakably present in everything Bailie has written about homosexuality during the six or so years that I have been following his blogs. It is one thing to say that homosexuality is wrong according to God’s law, but it is another to suggest that homosexuality is a root cause of social disorder and civilizational collapse. Such irrational accusations are calculated to stoke fear and generate unanimity about the guilt of the intended victim.

Girard’s theory of scapegoating is very powerful and perceptive. I believe he must feel deeply saddened to see it used as an instruction manual for scapegoating.

Goin’ Back to Texas.

March 24, 2012

I don’t imagine my many friends and followers realized I starred (starred!) in The Last Picture Show. Don’t you remember the poster? Here it is: (HT to Dean Hansen.)

Why the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Must Sooner or Later Get With the Program

March 23, 2012

The State of North Carolina has executed a total of 43 people since 1976. In 1985, one of its citizens, opposed to the death penalty for religious reasons, withheld one penny from his state income tax payment to protest the execution of a 52-year-old woman. The state’s response: You can pay the damned penny or you can pay a hefty fine.

The notion that citizens can opt out of generally applicable tax levies on religious grounds is mythical and dangerously misguided. The IRS considers the “religious objection” argument frivolous and may impose a penalty of up to $25,000 for it.

There is hardly any publicly-financed service or endeavor that is not opposed by somebody on moral and religious grounds. A secular state cannot allow its citizens to pick and choose which services they will pay for.

Take preemptive war, to which the Catholic Church has been consistently opposed. Nowhere in this country were parishioners instructed to withhold their taxes in protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Church also opposes the death penalty, and yet 34 U.S. states allow it. No state exempts its taxpayers from helping finance it, even when their objections are grounded in strong religious faith.

So why the recent outcry about public financing of contraception?

Louis A. Ruprecht, writing for Religion Dispatches, speculates that “the death penalty and international warfare simply do not energize the sex-obsessed American electorate the way that women’s sexual autonomy does.”

Yes, women’s sexuality is very close to home for many of us—much closer than wars and death rows. And the idea of female promiscuity is deeply disturbing to many men, even those who find male promiscuity quite unobjectionable.

Ruprecht believes women are now in their “third wave” of achievements. First there was political equality, and then came economic equality (still in progress). Sexual equality may be the biggest hurdle yet, and the U.S. Catholic Bishops and their Talibangelical allies are determined to keep women from jumping it.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), passed by the U.S. Congress in 2009 and signed by President Obama in 2010, mandates that employers must include contraceptive services in the insurance plans they offer employees, whether or not they subsidize these plans. Churches are exempt, but other religious institutions such as hospitals and universities are not. The U.S. Catholic Bishops would like to broaden the exemption to include any employer who objects to contraception on religious grounds. Such was the purpose of the so-called Blunt Amendment, which was killed in the U.S. Senate by a 51-to-48 vote earlier this month.

Should employers have to obey a generally applicable law? One hundred and forty-years of U.S. jurisprudence say, unequivocally, yes. The idea of actually subsidizing a practice that we abhor may seem repugnant and unjust, but we all do it every time we pay our taxes.

Were the U.S. Catholic Bishops to prevail in their offensive against PPACA, then those who believe contraception should be covered might rightfully counter, for starters, that they are being forced to subsidize Catholic institutions whose policies they consider immoral.

Subsidize? Yes. Let’s not forget that almost all Catholic institutions receive massive federal funding in the form of direct payments and tax-exempt status.

Ruprecht sees through the Church’s protestations that this is a First Amendment issue:

It has to do with one of the most powerful patriarchal religious organizations in the world—be sure to recall that the bishops are all men, every last one of them—placing itself squarely in opposition to women’s sexual equality and autonomy.

Read Ruprecht’s article here.

NOM’s Boycott of Starbucks is a Big Waste of Their Donor’s Money—and NOM knows It.

March 22, 2012

The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) has just announced a boycott effort against Starbucks over the company’s support of recent legislation allowing same-sex marriage in Washington State. NOM has launched a website called and has announced that it will mount an advertising campaign in the U.S., the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

If the campaign is to cover such a wide demographic, it will cost them bigbucks.

NOM has an operating budget in the single-digit millions, most of which comes from just two undisclosed donors. Starbucks has an operating budget in the single-digit billions. Which of these do you think has the edge in market analysis for coffee consumers?

Starbucks is no fool. And neither is NOM. The fools are NOM’s donors.

The End of Church

March 21, 2012

by Religion Dispatches’ Candace Chellew-Hodge:

The United States is currently in the throes of a spiritual awakening, says Diana Butler Bass. In her new book, Christianity After Religion, the author argues that we are at a crossroads in history—we can choose to move forward into new emerging spiritualities, or we can heed the siren sound of the traditionalists calling us back to a romanticized, rigid, past.

Read the entire article here.

The Common-Sense Catholics

March 21, 2012

by Timothy Egan, The New York Times, March 21, 2012

Rick Santorum doesn’t just wear his religion on his sleeve, he billboards it in neon. Still, for all the flash and sparks generated by an ostentatiously Catholic candidate’s crusade for the presidency, one thing has been missing from most discussions: the actual Catholic voter.

Read the rest of this article.