Ross Douthat’s Politics Before Religion

Ross DouthatLet’s leave Ross Douthat’s Catholicism aside for the moment. In his most recent column he is skeptical, Obamacare Turns a Corner? He has noticed that now that is working pretty well, liberals are optimistic about Obamacare’s future. Not so fast, says Douthat. The law still depends upon young and healthy people doing the “right thing” by buying health insurance to subsidize the old and sick. He says that this is what happened in Massachusetts, but they are a bunch of liberal people who want to “do the right thing.”

Douthat could not be more wrong. By his logic, young healthy people working for large corporations would not take the health insurance they are offered. After all, their premiums are exactly the same premiums as the old sick people who work there. There is far less unfairness in Obamacare. Young and healthy people want health insurance for the same reason that good drivers want auto insurance. We all want to feel safe. And just as a good driver can have his car totaled by a bad driver, a young and healthy person can go into bankruptcy because some idiot accidentally shot him.

Conservatives are irrationally obsessed with the cost benefit analysis of insurance. It’s as if before Obamacare came along, they’d never heard of insurance. If everyone got out of insurance exactly what they put it, there would be no point to having insurance. Insurance is a way of buying peace of mind. It is a way of paying a little constantly to avoid the possibility of having to pay a lot later. And with health insurance, it’s a win-win. Either you get more from your insurance than you paid in, or you are healthy. That’s a hell of a deal!

Douthat’s article is just seething with conservative anger and the hope that Obamacare will destroy itself. He’s talking to liberals and warning them that the game isn’t over yet. But he isn’t doing it as someone who’s on the team. He’s Tanner from the end of The Bad News Bears, “Just wait until next year!” He doesn’t want to provide healthcare for 50 million uninsured people. That would go against his idea of the American Way.

But would it go against the Roman Catholic way? Douthat is not a cultural Christian. He takes his faith very seriously as we saw in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, even if he was wrong about everything. So I find his clear distaste for Obamacare offensive. The healthcare law is, after all, a way to provide insurance to tens of millions of people with almost no social costs. But in as far as he can do it while retaining his pretense of being a “reasonable” conservative, he is cheering for its defeat.

A couple of months ago, Douthat wrote about Pope Francis. From his perspective, everything the new Pope is doing will be judged on the basis of whether it brings more people into the Church. In other words, to Douthat, it is all marketing and the Catholic Church is just a business. And that, I’m afraid is the edge of the water for Douthat’s Christianity. He’s not as bad as Stuart Varney, but his conservative politics come first. And he will tie up his religious beliefs in knots to justify whatever conservative policies he approves of.

Stuart Varney’s God Is Money

Stuart VarneyI remember some time ago, Stuart Varney, the Fox News business guy, noting how he had to fight adversity. According to him, it is hard to become on-air talent with a British accent on American television. That’s like saying it is hard to become a world class sprinter because you run so fast. But Varney is an idiot—a very common idiot. I run into his type all the time. He understands economics entirely from a Chicago School standpoint. In his mind, economics is very simple. If you raise the minimum wage, there will be mass layoffs. If you increase the corporate tax rate, prices will go up. It’s very much like the logic of someone with a little physics education thinking that a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building will crush someone’s head. It’s strange that anyone could think that prices are set based upon how much something costs to make rather than how much people are willing to pay for it. But that’s what you get when all your knowledge comes out textbooks and an ideological desire to believe.

Most recently, Varney had some very harsh words for Pope Francis. He doesn’t like the fact that the Pope is discussing economic issues. Varney said, “I go to church to save my soul. It’s got nothing to do with my vote. Pope Francis has linked the two. He has offered direct criticism of a specific political system. He has characterized negatively that system. I think he wants to influence my politics.” Oh my God! Say it ain’t so!

Note that Varney never had anything to say about the far more political questions of marriage laws and family planning. While the last two popes went all around the world making the AIDS epidemic worse because nothing was so important to God than that people not us condoms, Varney thought nothing of it. That wasn’t political! It didn’t bother Varney, I suspect, because it didn’t affect Varney. Varney isn’t gay. Varney doesn’t have to listen to the Pope anyway, given that he is an Episcopalian. What’s more, Jesus didn’t say a single fucking thing about homosexuality and birth control. But when the popes who Varney liked focused on these very political issues that are at best on the periphery of Christianity, it was just fine.

But Stuart Varney has a net worth of about $10 million. So when the Pope starts talking about income inequality, well, them’s fightin’ words! Varney wants his soul saved—but on the cheap. The very cheap: the free. The truth is that our modern idea of the soul is very different than it used to be. Now we think of it as some kernel that’s inside us. The Greeks, for instance, thought of the soul as the essence of who we are “that which decides how we behave.” But Varney wants to divorce that from his soul. Like most thoughtless modern Christians, all he thinks he has to do is “believe” in Jesus and his soul is in perfect order. It’s like The Great Pumpkin, but less believable.

What Varney really wants is the good old corrupt Church. The Church that never does anything to offend those who have money or power. And that’s fine. It is clear that Varney’s true God is money. But it is offensive for him to claim to be a Christian. It is even more offensive for him to think that he has any right to lecture the Pope about what his job description is.

The Best Birthday Post Ever

Ada LovelaceThis is a really great and varied day for birthdays. Really some days have a lot of the same kind of people. But as I think you will see, there are some really fascinating people today.

On this day in 1787, educator Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was born. He was a pioneer in the education of the deaf in the United States. As you can well imagine, deaf children at the beginning of the 19th century were largely ignored (and abused). He began teaching a neighborhood deaf child and this eventually resulted in him studying in France where the education of the deaf was far advanced. When he came back to the United States, he founded the American School for the Deaf, which is still in operation with 200 students. It will turn 200 years old in 2017.

The mathematician Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi was born in 1804. Now he actually did work that I understand: elliptic functions and differential equations. He has the distinction of being the first Jewish mathematics professor at a German university. It’s kind of creepy to think about that given what happened there just a hundred years later. But it wasn’t just Germany. Throughout Europe, Jews were seen as some kind of horrible creatures. Remember what Martin Luther thought of them just 200 years earlier. As much as I have my problems with the Israeli government, their paranoia is about a lot more than just the Nazis. And there is a sad irony that I’ve seen with other races. Jacobi basically worked himself to death. I think that is part of trying to prove to the majority that they ought to accept you. But instead, it is used as yet another reason for the majority to hate you.

The great Romantic composer Cesar Franck was born in 1822. Over time, I’ve had to reevaluate my distaste for the Romantic period. What I don’t like about it is the average material. Mediocre Baroque or Classical music is generally quite listenable. Mediocre Romantic music is annoying in the extreme. It tends toward sentimentality and when a composer doesn’t know what else to do, he simply adds unnecessary harmonic complexity. To be fair, the situation gets even worse in the Modern period. But I don’t rant about mediocre Modern composition, because it is rarely played. Anyway, Franck is no mediocrity. I’m sure he had his bad work, just like everyone. But I’ve never heard anything of his that I didn’t quite like. Here is his Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano, which is one of the greatest works of the 19th century. The whole piece is about a half hour long, but I highly recommend listening to it all. You can’t fully appreciate it by listening to just one movement. Unfortunately, I can only locate one live performance of it, which is good, but it is recorded at such a low volume that you miss much of its subtlety. Here is Joshua Bell & Jeremy Denk performing it brilliantly:

Emily DickinsonIt was hard not to give this day to Emily Dickinson who was born on this day in 1830. I feel a great kinship with her because of her agoraphobia. I would rather conduct my relationships through letters. (I’m not saying this is a good thing.) But Dickinson was also interested in a lot of the same things that I am and her thinking of metaphysics certainly parallels mine. Regardless, I thought I would present “The Mystery of Pain.” I found a version online for teachers where it comments, “This poem is suitable to be taught for Junior High School students because it has a great moral value of life. It notices to be patient when we are in a pain, and we have to realize that everything will change, there is no everlasting pain. Since the language used is quite hard to understand, the teacher should assist students to find the correct interpretation of the poem.” All I can say is that I hope the teachers understand the poem better than whomever wrote that! Let me give you my interpretation. We tend to not be able to imagine that we will always feel the way we now do and that’s a drag when we are feeling pain. But the enlightened mind will know that the pain will go away, only to be replaced by another pain. I would find that a depressing thought if it were not exactly what I know to be true.

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

Melvil Dewey was born in 1851. He was my kind of guy. I really like coming up with structures for things. Of course, I’m the worst person in the world to implement those structures. He is, of course, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System. In my opinion, the Dewey Decimal System is better than the Library of Congress System. This is nothing especially against the LCS, but it is designed for a particular purpose and is focused on making libraries useful for specialists. For the generalist (and that’s most people), the DDS is more consistent. The way that “religion” (100s) is subdivided is the same way that “technology” (600s) is. No attempts at all are made to make different categories of knowledge consistent. Intellectuals tend to prefer the LCS, because that is what college libraries use. But that’s not a good reason. What’s more, ethnocentric and sexist aspects of both systems have been demonstrated, but only the DDS has made major improvements in this regard. Melvil Dewey was also a big proponent of the metric system. Like I said: he was my kind of guy!

And the great Shakespearean actor (and much more), Kenneth Branagh is 53 today. I don’t have a lot to say about him, except that I’m a huge fan. Here he is as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, the film I use to introduce Shakespeare to those who do not like him. Here is a very funny part:

And then a more serious scene:

Unfortunately, I can’t find the scene after that where Benedick challenges Claudio. But don’t just think of Branagh with regard to this film. His Hamlet is excellent. And he turns the awful Love’s Labour’s Lost into a fine little film. He was also excellent as Iago in Othello. I’m also quite fond of him in How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog. Why he has taken to directing things like Thor and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, I cannot say.

Other birthdays: astronomer Johannes Stoffler (1452); botanist George Shaw (1751); composer Olivier Messiaen (1908); comedy writer Douglas Kenney (1946); Indian sculptor Jasuben Shilpi (1948); and actor Susan Dey (61).

The day, however, belongs to Ada Lovelace who was born in 1815. She worked on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. She developed the first algorithm for the machine. This makes her the first computer programmer in history. The programming language Ada is named after her. She was, incidentally, the only legitimate child of Lord Byron (hey, the man got around).

It is interesting (Profoundly so!) how much sexism still exists in academia. This first program was created to compute Bernoulli numbers. A number of (male) scholars have tried to claim that Lovelace did not really write the program because Babbage provided her with the mathematics for the calculations. There is all kinds of stupid and bigoted in that contention. First, Babbage himself notes that he provided Lovelace with the mathematics to save her the trouble. It wasn’t as though the mathematics had never been worked out. And when Lovelace got his notes, she found and corrected a major mistake he had made. (None of this should be taken as a slight against Babbage who was brilliant and extremely generous in giving Lovelace credit.) Second, computer programmers use the work of mathematicians all the time. It is not a trivial matter to convert even simple equations (which is not the case with the Bernoulli numbers) into modern computer languages on modern computers, much less on the Analytical Engine.

I think the wish to disregard Lovelace’s contributions comes not just from her sex but also because she was manic-depressive. That is not the picture of the Romantic scientific hero that many (men) want to accept. One scholar claimed that Ada’s correspondence indicated that it was “obvious once again that Ada was as mad as a hatter.” I would note that many mathematicians were pretty far out. Kurt Godel could certainly be described as “mad as a hatter.” The same could be said of that other great computer pioneer, Alan Turing, whose fascination with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs caused him to kill himself by eating an apple he had poisoned with cyanide. There is no doubt of the importance of Ada Lovelace, and the attacks on her are typical of just how small the minds of big brained people can be.

Happy birthday Ada Lovelace!