Critiques & Controversies: August 2004 Archives

For a long while after Andrew, it was difficult to be insured in Florida. The state more or less forced insurance companies to insure new homeowners. However, the state continued to make concessions to the insurance company to the tune of the present calamity. While it is estimated that there was something on the order of $15 billion in damages caused by the hurricane, $10 billion will have to be paid by the individual homeowners.

It is right a poper for the insured to bear some part of the burden of so great a disaster. What strikes me as a bit unfair is that the state has a disaster fund into which insurance companies may dip if their pay-out goes over a certain amount, but to which homeowners have no access. Thus the average homeowner has anywhere from a 2% to a 5% of the cost of the house deductible. For many, this is insupportable.

But there doesn't really seem to be any other way to deal with the enormous costs that occur in the wake of such a disaster.

Traveling through Orlando, I found myself occasionally gasping at the extent of damage possible from what amounted to a Category 1 storm. I saw brick fences that had been "blown out" (not fallen on by trees). Signal lights that had been torn from their moorings. (And boy are those lights big. You don't realize how large a signal lamp is as it hangs up above, but down on the ground, I was shocked at how large it seems.

I may try to go and photograph some of the local damage during the day today and will post a picture or two. In the meantime, you might want to look at this report (see the section titled "Picturing Charley's Wake) as you continue your prayers.

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Via Amanda, This delightful tidbit about how the Church is once again under persecution at Tyburn. There is a time for the aggressive pursuit of the rights of the oppressed and a time to have some sense of what this will entail to small groups and businesses. It is a pyrrhic victory if for lack of a ramp a shrine is lost.

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See this delightful piece of reasoning, with all the moral astuteness of "To make omelettes you must break a few eggs."

from Founding Brothers
Joseph Ellis

[Excerpts from letters to Coxe and William Short]

"The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the contest [the French Revolution]" he observed in 1793, "and was ever such a prize wond with so little blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed I would rather have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and Eve left ine very country, and left free, it would be better than it is now."

[A later comment by Ellis]

But Jefferson was the kind of man who could have passed a lie-detector test confirming his integrity, believing as he did that the supreme significance of his larger cause rendered convention distinctions between truth and falsehood superfluous.

Along with his questionable actions in the treason trial of Aaron Burr, his conduct toward his slaves, etc., I'm finding myself hard-pressed to work up much respect for Jefferson these days. That will change as the data change. But for the time being, I think Jefferson. . . Clinton. . . Jefferson. . . Clinton. . . The latter certainly had an appropriate middle name, did he not?

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As noted below I was looking for the life of George Wythe, a prominent Virginia Lawyer, teacher of Thomas Jefferson, Signer of the Declaration. In all of the noted biographies of the man we get a statement like the one that follows.

Reflecting a lifelong aversion to slavery, Wythe emancipated his slaves in his will. His grave is in the yard of St. John's Episcopal Church in Richmond.

And every time I read something like this, I think--"If the aversion had been so lifelong, why did he endure it until he died?" Why not choose to put an end to what you have been so aversive toward? It lies within the power of the individual farmer/planter to do so.

This was part of the problem of slavery. I think it must have been rather like an addiction. People knew it was bad, but they just couldn't shake it. Most of the famous people who liberated their slaves, protesting how bad slavery was all the while, did so upon their deaths. In George Washington's case, I believe it was in waves, one set upon his death, the remainder upon Martha's death.

Or perhaps they devised ingenious arguments about why it would be harmful to the slaves themselves to liberate them. For example, Thomas Jefferson, despite the vaulted language of the Declaration with its famous excised clauses concerning slavery, not only kept his slaves until his death but did not manumit them upon death because "they did not have sufficient learning to care for themselves and must be cared for."

Like the addiction of slavery before, we are societal, and some individually, addicted to death. We call it choice, or "death with dignity" or any number of other euphemisms to disguise that what we really want is convenience. If someone is inconvenient to me and to my purposes, they should die and make things easy for me. Again, the attraction of such an addiction is understandable. And as with slavery, society has all sorts of clever reasons as to why it should be permissable. It boils down to the fact that we need death on demand to fulfill our own purposes. (I'm speaking societally.)

There is a cure for this addiction as for any number of addictions. His name is Jesus Christ. He died on the cross so that we would not have to bear the cross of our addictions. Nor should anyone else be faced with that terrible fate because He took it upon Himself.

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On Crisis

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I have decided to let my subscription to Crisis Magazine lapse. There are many things that go into this decision. (1) I have an unfortunate propensity for packratism. Once it enters the house it may never again leave. If it weren't for the fact that I have a six year old about I would probably be one of those people you read about that have narrow tunnels winding through their house between piles of books and papers. (2) Generally I read the reviews, some letters, and one or two columns. All of which are enormously entertaining, but hardly worth the money. (3) I've decided, quite arbitrarily, that it is constitutionally bad on my psyche to be reading a magazine that every months announces to me that I and all I hold dear are in Crisis. That may well be. However, I don't feel particularly in Crisis. I see the bad things around me and recognize them for what they are but when Jesus promised that the church He would build would be such that "the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it," I made an assumption that the reason for that is because of Him and not because of me running about worried about the latest Crisis.

All of that said, I must recommend both the erudition and the depth of the articles in Crisis. For those whose moods and attitudes tend not to be so easily swayed as my own, it is a wonderful periodical and I have enjoyed much of it for the last five or six years. And here's really the final reason. More and more recently, I find the Deal Hudson, who edits and contributes to the magazine, seems to criticize every motion the Bishops take. While there is undoubtedly much to criticize and we do need watchdogs and people willing to sound the alarms, I have grown tired of the constant barrage of intimations that the bishops don't know what their doing. Perhaps this is more prominent in the e-newsletter, and perhaps it is simply a mistaken impression on my own part; however, I find this perception dismaying and not conducive to increasing my faith life. I fear I may have grown past the place where Crisis Magazine was a help to belief to a place where it may be distracting or delaying further progress.

So all of these conditions come together and I must make an evaluation about how to spend my money. For the price of crisis I could buy two or three really fine books about Carmelite Spirituality, or other aspects of contemplative prayer. It seems better to pursue this course.

Now, talking out of the other face, I do recommend to you all attention to and purchase of one of the finest Catholic Periodicals out there. Crisis along with First Things and sometimes Touchstone (most particularly when our own Mr. Luse is present) present a high point in Catholic journalism and commentary. I almost regret my decision, but I think it a good one for my present state in life. Perhaps there will come a time when the magazine will again hold a place of importance in my reflections on life in the Church. My real hope is that I can attain to the state of our own Ms. Knapp and Mr. Disputations who both espouse an ideal of what it means to be Catholic that I should take to heart--Crisis or no crisis.

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Why I'm Not Green

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TSO makes an interesting point in this post regarding the need for balance. He suggests that some of us might benefit from a swift kick of cynicism while others would do well to inhale the gentling spirit of the "Resurrection People."

For some reason it brought to mind one of several reasons I'm not out and out green. Apart from the pro-abortion platform, my chief difficulty with the green party is the somewhat naive belief in the perfectability of humankind. TSO comments that the "Resurrection People" tend to have forgotten the importance of fallen human nature in much that surrounds us. If the resurrection people have forgotten it, the green party never knew it.

Much of the green platform is as idealist as I was at 17. And that is, perhaps, a very, very good thing. Young people probably should be idealistic because it is on the bare shreds of that idealism that the ski their way into the cold territory of advanced maturity.

However, I can't position myself to vote for a neo-Rousseauian political philopsophy that denies the fact that some people will simply choose to do wrong and that not everyone is interested in seeing that all people do well and have sufficient means to support a decent standard of living. (And by that I don't mean to accuse any group--and not any identifiable single individuals. Suffice to say that I know from personal experience that there are some people whose very existence is made better by knowing that there is an underclass than can be oppressed at will.) There are some people who simply do not will good for themselves or for anyone else. To predicate a philosophy on a utopian vision of everyone giving up excess and surrendering their benefits for the sake of the poor is idealist, but not particularly leadership material.

To continue on TSO's point however--I like the presence of extremists at both ends of the spectrum. (While I may not care at all for the extremists themselves or for the bulk of their philosophy.) Extremists tend to keep ideas flowing and surfacing--sometimes very good ideas. Anti WTO groups are good to remind us that while globalization has the great potential for good, misuse, abuse, and lack of policing is likely only to lead to further oppression.

Extremist views are rarely rational on all fronts, but there is within some of the extremes the germ of something worthwhile. Sometimes an idea is transferred from the very fringe to the heart (for example--Slavery is immoral and evil--this wasn't mainstream thought at all). And that transference redounds to the good of all. So while I prefer to stay somewhere in the middle with no pronounced views on much of anything other than issues of life (I frankly don't know enough to decide whose economic policy is best), I do appreciate hearing from the sidelines--hearing from those who are aware that power can be abused in any number of ways. Sometimes these far-flung views help us to more carefully identify a personal "political center."

Later clarification: I don't seem to be able to say quite what I mean on this issue, so I'll try again. Extremist notions should probably never be embraced, but they should be considered, modified, and adopted if they have merit. I could never embrace the entirety of the PETA philosophy. And yet some of what they have to say has considerable merit and should be taken out of it radicalist framework, adopted, and set as a goal for the entire community. (I frankly haven't found any merit in groups whose extremism is related to hatred. This is one of those times when I thank God for the freedom of speech and assembly so I can readily identify who I want to avoid and pray for in the future.)

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Personally Opposed

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How mysteriously familiar the following may sound. Certain key words have been deleted in the interest of articulating the profound similiarities:

When urged. . . to support the . . . petitions in the House, [he] responded, "Altho I feel the force of many of your remarks, I can not embrace the idea to which they lead." When pressed to explain the dispcrepancy bewteen his hypothetical position and his actual dedication to self-imposed paralysis, he tended to offer several different anasers. Sometimes it was a matter of his . . . constituents: "Those from whom I derive my public station," he explained, "are know by me to be greatly interested in that species of property, and to view the matter in that light."

All through you knew that it wasn't the person who speaks today. But who is the speaker?

The excerpt comes from Joseph Ellis's magnificent study Founding Brothers (p. 113-114 in the trade paperback edition) and the speaker is James Madison. Of course, the subject is slavery.

When Madison and his generation refused to deal with the problem of slavery they simply left a pot on to boil. That pot would eventually erupt into one of the saddest and most divisive struggles in the history of our nation--a war that lasted a little over four years, but the implications and emanations of which survive until the present day.

For those that argue that it is legitimate to allow evil to continue to exist in deference to a majority opinion or out of service to one's constituents, this should provide lesson enough on where that path leads. When such fundamental moral conflicts simmer, the end result is either what we know to be right, or the potential for a great deal more wrong.

Our present debate may take as long to erupt, it may never erupt in this fashion; however, it does tear at the fabric of society.

For those who argue that we should not pass laws that impose our own vision of morality on others, I think it's important to point out that nearly all laws impose someone's vision of morality upon us. If we do not struggle to try to keep that line clearly defined, the laws that will pass will land us in the same world as people in the Netherlands now face. We start with euthanasia upon request and we end with euthanasia at the request of another. A variant of the slippery slide argument I realize.

However, support of a candidate who supports what is unquestionably a moral evil derived from an immoral license tends to dull our senses to what is truly evil. To say that we will vote for so and so and then work to change this stand is like so many women who move from one abusive relationship to another. In each they have great hope for changing the person they knew when they entered the relationship. The sad reality is that it happens all too seldom.

It is unlikely that we will change either the people or the parties that back them. Many have already said, and I agree, that the only recourse is not to participate in one of those two parties, but either to find some other party that represents our interests or start a party that would do so.

The problem with this last suggestion is that given the diversity of opinion just within St. Blogs on any number of non-religious issues, what would be the unifying principle other than pro-life? Perhaps that is enough. But is Pro-life also pro-gun-control? Is it economically conservative or liberal? Is there a prefential option for the poor or "medical spending accounts" as a solution to the problem of no health insurance? What is the face of pro-life once you move beyond that issue? Is that issue in itself enough to form a party? Would the internicine divisions allow it to be effective in any way?

I think the issue is strong enough to form a party. But would it end up being like the Women's Christian Temperance League? Would it work toward an end that society ultimately could not tolerate for one reason or another? Would this one issue group push us toward the new version of the nineteenth and twenty first(?) amendments?

I don't know the answer. But it all comes back to the rhetoric that has been with us since the beginning. "Personally, I find it morally repugnant; however, who am I to force my morality upon others?" Leadership is more than making laws, it is showing the way to live. If you don't feel qualified to speak on moral points and to point the way for a people lost in themselves, then perhaps you should consider another profession.

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I have already broken my reading system proclaimed last week (surprise! surprise!) but I also anticipated that things might intrude--such as books that arrive from the library and must be back. So it is with Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in American.

A short time ago I provoked a correspondent by asserting that everything that was inexpensive was, in fact, quite expensive--we just didn't really pay the price--the poor did. He responded cogently with a clear indication that I had failed to say what I intended. And reading this book, I feel the need to make the point again.

As we enter the season of political debate, the question of who addresses the needs of the poor is, in fact, critical to the determination of how we will vote. But before we can address the question, we should ask ourselves, "Who really sees the poor at all?" The answer is that we all do, though we may not recognize the fact.

People who are working minimum wage jobs and attempting to support a family fall easily into this category. This encompasses many of the people who wait on us at restaurants, who clean the rooms we stay in when we are away from home, who help us when we shop at Wal-Mart or any number of other retailers.

Think about where you live. Now stop for a moment and consider a paycheck that consists of six dollars an hour for forty hours a week--two hundred-forty dollars a week--just shy of $1000.00 dollars a month. Where does one live on $1000/month. How do you pay rent, utilities, food, gas, clothing, etc. on that amount of money. And what if you are not single, what if you have a family?

I know that I am guilty of not seeing the poor and not realizing the implications of these low wages. Ehrenreich's book spells them out clearly. No health care, poor meals, failing health. Some of the people that she speaks of in the book lived in their vans and "borrowed" the showers of others who lived in cheap hotels. I don't know that this is exemplary of the life of all--for example, being a college student is a kind of training in poverty that most of us go through. But most of us are really only in "mock-poverty." If something dreadful were to happen, most have recourse to returning home. The truly poor work without a net. There is no wealthier home for most of them to go to.

I recommend the book as an insight into the world of poverty. Most of us know that it exists, and most of us figure, as Barbara does in the book, that the poor have some mechanism, some means of coping that is beyond our view. Her conclusion--most of them do not.

And so, who offers a preferential option for the poor? I think we're foolish to think that any political party can do so. The best they can do is throw money at the problem through a massive bureaucratic system that tends to eat up the funds before they arrive at their intended goal. With all good will and good intent, the government can only help so much.

Now think about the last time you were in the DMV or had to deal with any part of the local or national government. If your child were ill, is that what you would like to go through to see to it that he was cared for? If you were hungry, would you want to jump through the hoops necessary to put food on the table?

I say, don't look to the government to make the world of poverty disappear. We, each and every single one of us, offer the preferential option for the poor. We do so through our work and through our donations. We also do it through our consideration. I'm sure most of St. Blog's consists of people who understand the necessity of tipping when one eats out. However, bear in mind that the average server gets less than one-half of minimum wage. (At the time of writing, Ehrenreich says that the law required payment of $2.13 an hour with the proviso that tips brought the wage up to minimum wage. If not, the employer was responsible for the entire bill.) The next time you get service that isn't everything you think it should be, consider the circumstances that you may not be seeing.

The poor are not asking for our help. According to the book, many are not expecting a hand-out and don't feel particularly oppressed. But, just because people are resilient enough to adapt themselves to horrendous circumstances, that does not mean we should perpetuate the circumstances. The first step in abolishing poverty is to face it squarely and to be willing to take upon ourselves some share of the burden--even a small share. Perhaps we leave a slightly larger tip for the waitress. Perhaps we treat people who assist us in shopping, who check us out at grocery stores in a somewhat better and friendlier way. Perhaps we bring more food to the pantry and we work with our local Church to expand our services to the poor. We each have within us the capacity to help make the world just a little bit better for others. We need to seize each opportunity. We need to revise our opinions of those who are less well off. (Ehrenreich noticed that when she was dressed as a maid or cleaning person, she could not even get waited on at the restaurant without obvious contempt.)

In short, WE are the preferential option for the poor. The government can go only so far, it is up to us to bridge the gap that makes life livable for those less fortunate. Surely it is part of our duty to consider which government plans are worthwhile and to support them. And indeed, when all other factors are equal, this is one of the issues that should dominate the consideration for whom we elect to office.

The poor are always with us--then and now. They are a direct challenge to us and they are an image of Christ among us. It is up to us to choose whether to help lift them up from poverty or to once again crucify Jesus by leaving them where we find them. We cannot solve all the issues of the world, but we can embrace those issues that come into our lives and in so doing attempt to make life better for everyone. Poverty is a weight upon us all and the responsibility of all. I know that I do not do enough and Ms. Ehrenreich's book brings it home for me. I hope that I can extend what I learned here into a constant practice of alms-giving and genuine concern.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Critiques & Controversies category from August 2004.

Critiques & Controversies: July 2004 is the previous archive.

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