Reaching for the stars

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Take a look at the William Carlos Williams when young. Intensity and Idealism come to my mind. And so his famous "The Red Wheelbarrow." IAt first, the poem seems fixed in empirical reality; the image the poem presents is precise and clear. It is much like Haiku. And there is no commentary.  But the opening line requires us to wonder what it is that depends upon the red wheelbarrow and the chickens and the rain in just this particular arrangement. The poem thus requires us to go in thought beyond the material realm to another realm of being.

I have read that the poem was written as the auther, a pediatrician, was attending a young girl sick sick in her bed with fever. He was looking out her window as he waited to see if the fever would break and this is what he saw.


Hugging in School

A Middle School in New Jersey had a kerfuffle about a directive from
the Principal that students took as, "No hugging in school." In an
attempt to clarify, the principal sent out a voice message saying that
no student would be suspended for hugging, but that hugging can
sometimes be inappropriate and the school wishes to discourage
inappropriate behavior. Besides, school is for academics.

That got me thinking. I don't recall any hugging at St. Agnes in
Arlington, and certainly not in St. Joseph's in Somerville when I went
to these schools. A nun might smile at you now and then, and any
hugging of an actual girl would have to be done in private. A brother
might refrain from bopping you one or scowling and there were no girls
in the school so that settled that. And yes, these schools do produce
students who earn generally superior scores and college admissions in
similar neighborhoods with similar student populations.

Gloria Allred’s Prank Demolished

 The headline blared that “The Gloria Allred Wants Rush Arrested”


“In a letter dated March 8, Allred, writing on behalf of the Women’s Equal Rights Legal Defense and Education Fund, requested that Palm Beach County State Attorney Michael McAuliffe probe whether the conservative radio personality had violated Section 836.04 of the Florida Statutes by calling Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke the two derogatory words.

The statute stipulates that anyone who “speaks of and concerning any woman, married or unmarried, falsely and maliciously imputing to her a want of chastity” is guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree. Allred explained that the statute recently came to her attention as having never been repealed, and that it could very well apply to Limbaugh’s remarks as his show is broadcast from West Palm Beach.”

 In the actual letter, attorney Allred alleges that since Limbaugh called Ms. Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” he is in violation of the ordinance and the State Attorney should spend tax-payer funds investigating the possibility of crime here.

 Leave asside the irony that Allred wishes to protect Fluke’s right to testify (about her sex life in public in a bid to win a subsidy) by means of completely obliterating Limbaugh’s free-speech rights. That merely speaks to Allred's hypocricy on the topic of civil rights. 

More fun, though is to see her argument itself is devastated and left in shambles by the clever commentor named Thinly Veiled Anonymity posting at PJ Media:

“The imputation of a want of chastity must be false, by the terms of the statute.

Said unmarried woman has testified in front of Congress, by obvious and direct implication, that her chastity is a fiction.”

Some lawyers make irrefutable arguments. Others just grandstand their way up.

Religious insurance

The US Department of Health and Human Services (what is a human
service? what is not a human service? no wonder the federal budget
expands like any balloon and faces the same fate) has issued a policy
that, after a one year grace period, all employers, including
religious groups, must offer their employees health insurance and that
health insurance must cover contraception, abortificants, and
sterilization services or pay a fine. The Catholic Bishops have
declared that they cannot and will not comply with the new regulation.
From their point of view, they are being asked to do something they
deeply consider tantamount to murder. And goes against God's Law.
William Blackstone, the great English jurist upon whose thinking much
early American law was based, maintains in his treatise that any law
that goes against God's is no law at all. Thus, there is the
possibility of civil disobedience: the principled refusal to obey a
law on the ground's that it is negated by higher law.

The Obama administration will argue that this is a matter of employee
rights. Just because you work in a Catholic hospital is no reason you
should not get the insurance that the government mandates for all.
Reproductive services cost money, and these workers should have these
benefits like anyone else.

Some might argue that "contraceptive services" do not belong in ALL
insurance policies. Health insurance is there to cover things that
happen to me over which I have no control. I do not need insurance
against pregnancy if I am male. I do not need fire insurance on a
vacant lot. A celibate does not need insurance against STD. So why is
the government mandating what goes into the mix in the first place?
In a free market, I would be able to find insurance for me, and I
would not have to subsidize others. But the issue under discussion
assumes that the government can mandate for other employers. Assuming
that, can it mandate for churches? (The Supreme Court will soon take
up the question of whether the federal government has constitutional
authority to mandate the purchase of insurance by all citizens under
penalty of fine.)

The Supreme Court recently decided 9-0 that religious organizations
are exempt from federal employment laws when it comes to hiring and
firing within their ministeries. The Obama administration argued that
a church as employer had no more rights than any other employer. ("One
Law for the Lion and the Ox is Oppression"--William Blake). The court
was dumbfounded by this claim, since it amounted to the claim that the
government, and not the church could decide whom a church should hire.
But if the First Amendment means anything at all, it means precisely
that the church must be left alone.

The current policy raises the question, how far does the First
Amendment ("Congress shall make no law regarding an establishment of
religion") go in exempting churches from federal law and regulation.
The court has already said there can be no meddling in the selection
of ministers, teachers, etc. But what about a maintenance worker at
Notre Dame or a receptionist at St. Hilda's Hospital? They are not
involved in sacred duties.

Clearly there are some bright lines. No church should be allowed to
inflict harm on third parties. Religion does not exempt us from
providing appropriate medical care for our children, including blood
transfusions. But an adult is totally free to refuse medical treatment
for religious, or any, reasons.

Many think the new policy will be reversed. The Bishops are not going
to back down. The issue raises passions on both sides. But not just
pro-lifers will oppose it. Those who worry about the ever expanding
reach of the federal government will see the policy as a power grab.
(Already, Rand Paul has written against the new policy from a
libertarian stance. But whether it is or is not, the Supreme Court
will soon have to decide the issue.

Misquotation and plagiarism

As term paper season approaches, it is well to remember that academic
standards of honest attribution of others' words is critical. Just
today I came across three examples of breaches:

1. A Politico reporter lost her job when she re-published material not
her own in her own articles without attribution.

2. A Rutgers professor was caught in a sting in which he volunteered
to the suppose Union rep soliciting a study that he would NOT enter
the deal until he knew the data would support the cause. At least he
also volunteered that he would not falsify the data, but since he
wanted to please his customer, the union, he would first make sure the
data came out on the right side. This is advocacy, not scholarship.
But the money was to be paid outside the University, so hey...

3. Mitt Romney releases an ad that clearly quotes President Obama.
Obama was quoting and mocking McCain, who said "If the election is
about the economy, we lose." The ad makes it seem that Obama said
those words. When called on this, the Romney folks claimed it was
intentional, since they were showing the irony of Obama mocking McCain
for what he would say today. But that is too clever by half. If the
video makers had paid attention in English Composition. they would not
have been this careless. The rap on Romney is that he is plastic and
slick. What might seem brazenly dishonest rhetoric cannot help him.
He should fire the responsible people publicly.

By Charity or by Right?

A complex society like ours will always have people who need help meeting life's necessities.  Widows and Orphans, for example.  The handicapped, like people with ADHD.  In one model, Winthrop's model, a decent society (in his case, a Christian society) will take care of the needy as a matter of charity, which means love (L, caritas) and arises in us through the example of Christ. In such a society, those who prosper will thank God for their prosperity and be sure to share with the less fortunate.  The State's role is to take up the slack and provide bare necessities if all else fails.  From the point of view of the recipient, hardly yet a "client," this system has several drawbacks.  For one, the charity may be bountiful or not, but it is not guaranteed.  For another, some of the givers might lord it over the receivers. A person facing hard luck might be made to feel like a moocher or beggar.

The modern, secular state solves the problem by declaring that certain needs provide citizens with natural rights to have them met.  Basic needs like food, housing, education, health, one knows where the list ends....are to be met by the government as a matter of right.  That means that the government will use its coercive powers to get the necessary funds from those able to pay taxes to redistribute to the needy.  From the point of view of the recipient, this system has some advantages.  It is guaranteed.  Your life does not depend on the whims of others.  And since it never was a gift, there is no need for gratitude.  You need tip your hat to no one.

But is the modern system an improvement?  Or does it erode the virtues necessary for a republic or democracy to endure?  Take the case of gratitude.   Where once the receiver of largess owed and felt a debt of gratitude (else why does gratitude exist?) he or she now feels no gratitude, since whatever is received is received by right.  (Never mind asking whence this right.)  I am entitled to my salary because I earn it and have an agreement with my employer about what I will provide and what I will receive.  Since I try to do a good job, I feel am entitled to the money.  It becomes my property and I enjoy full property rights in it. I feel virtuous about my salary.  It is mine. If, however, I slacked off a lot and short-changed the job, I would not be able to feel the same way.

When one thinks about how some snobs looked upon and treated the poor and the working poor, one must conclude that the modern approach is a great improvement.  It attempts to confer dignity and to introduce order and coherence. As Isaiah Berlin had it, the Constitution lists only negative freedoms (what the government may NOT do to you) but we can conceive positive freedoms (the right to do or have something). European socialist societies moved to meed more and more of these positive freedoms by government action, but now that the money is drying up, and we see a slow down and reversa in Europe. Here, the argument runs, we are moving ever closer to the failed models of Eurpope, the PIGS nations (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain--all in deep, deep financial trouble).

The down side of the modern as opposed to the tradition way is that it gnaws into private charity. (President Obama would like to delete the tax deductions for charitable giving in the Federal Tax Code, thus effectively reducing what is done privately and increasing what is done by government officials when it comes to good works.) It is a truism that no free society can endure where the people are not virtuous.  Any republic assumes the virtue of its citizens. Policy which reduces this public virtue is suicidal. 

But it is not clear if current policy does reduce virtue.  I am still puzzling.  But I do remember that Plato pointed out that in a democracy (not a republic) "teachers fear their pupils."  Seems to have come true.  And not that long ago even a good New York liberal like Daniel Patrick Moynihan knew that (to paraphrase from memory) "welfare destroys the recipients." (But he always voted to increase it.)

It's a hard one.

The West Point Class Goat

Student Responses and the Two Cultures

Recently, some community college philosophy students encountered a West Point tradition and tried to make sense of it, with only a description of a ritual to go by.  Here is what they had to go on:

An interesting feature of the folk version of Wisdom is that it is often surprising and even paradoxical. I think this is an example.

Last year I was invited to attend the graduation of a friend's son from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It was an impressive experience.

During the ceremony, the names are called and the cadets go up to get their diplomas. At one point, a name was called and the rest of the graduating officers broke into loud cheering and applauding. Those who had already received their diplomas, rolled into white baton-like objects seen from a distance, blandished them enthusiastically.  A great fuss was made over this student who was about to receive the diploma. Who was it? It was the "Class Goat," the student graduating with the poorest academic record.

I was assured by all who are familiar with The Point that the cheering is in no way ironic or sarcastic. This is not a "nya, nya..." but a heartfelt cheer for an esteemed fellow officer.

The cadets are expressing some of their tribal wisdom. Why do they cheer the student with the lowest grades? 

Here are some responses.  As you will see, they all show intelligence and tolerance. 

1. I think they cheer for the student with the lowest GPA because they want to show support. Even though the student didnt do as well as the others that doesnt mean he or she didnt try. Its better to build up than to tear down cause you never know when you will be the one with the loweest GPA. 

2. I think that they cheer for the classmate with the lowest GPA because you are only as strong as your weakest link. As a unit they cheer for "the goat" to show their support and encouragement for this person to continue what they are doing and to become better and more successful. A school like this is more about success as a group not really success for each individual. 

3. I agree with Melissa about only being as strong as your weakest link. I also feel that it simply comes down to hazing, which is sometimes a serious problems in certain military institutes (my brother mentioned this when he was in military school). It was probably just a gentle way of poking fun of their weakest link. 

4. This is just a guess but maybe they aren't cheering for the class goat but for everyone else. It may be a sarcastic celebration of not being last in the class. 

These responses seem fully consonant with the values of our new "inclusive" institutional world-view, which clashes with the "official" reason, the one given by the cadets themselves. 

The West Pointers claim that they cheer this student for his or her achievements and accomplishments.  They cheer not for the trendy "who they are" but for the eternal "what they did."  According to their classmates, getting through West Point (basically, an engineering college) is hard enough when you are good at academics.  When you have to struggle, it requires perseverance, a virtue much valued by the military as "character" or "guts."  It is this heroic quality shown by the class goat that they cheer. (I sometimes wonder if slower learners and students who struggle realize how much the faculty and other students may admire them precisely for their perseverance.)

Of course, since Freud et. al. we instinctively assume baser motives lurking in the unconscious. Maybe projection or reaction-formation is at work and what seems like a cheer is deep down a jeer.  We cannot dismiss such possibilities as mere cynicism. Indeed, it could even be that the class goat is valued for the same reason the scapegoat was valued. 

Still, an application of Occam's Razor suggests we should take the cadets at their word. After meeting and chatting with a few of them, I am inclined to believe them.

Following Directions

Last summer we went to Maine to attend L.L. Bean's one day course for beginners in clay pigeon shooting with shotguns.  I bagged a few.  Shot is much more forgiving than a bullet would be--you only need to get within a few feet.  We were told and shown how to hold the rifle.  You do not want the butt away from your body--you want to absorb all the kick safely.  But in the excitement, I forgot.  Greenhorn that I was, I held the gun away from myself , which meant that the rifle butt now became a battering ram aimed at my upper arm.  See the result of NOT FOLLOWING DIRECTIONS. The photo shows the contusion after a day or two; it began as a small bruise the size of a quarter. Ah, the beauty of nature.

Priestly condolences sans deity

I just watched a short video about the Japanese catastrophes on the site of  America, a Catholic magazine. The good priest described the events clearly, telling the story while images of the survivors appeared onscreen.  He ended with an encomium to the Japanese people for general decency.  What struck me is that he never mentioned God, neither the wrathful Jehovah of the tsunami nor the gentle Jesus of those extending a helping hand. It is as if the good priest feared to give a sermon.  Does he also go around saying "Happy Holiday" at Christmas time?