Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Taking them at their word

The backers of Amendment 2 are fond of saying that all Amendment 2 does (its 2000 words notwithstanding) is ensure that Missourains will have the same access to cures that other Americans have.

To do this, it removes from the Missouri legislature the power to restrict embryonic research. It essentially permanently punts these ethical questions to the federal government -- you know, the folks who brought us the Iraq War and the Katrina disaster relief.

Isn't this an odd thing for a state to do? To amend the constitution to explicitly strip itself of power?

Are the proponents of Amendment 2 so distrustful of the democratic process?

Speaking of amendments numbered 2, imagine if instead of stripping the state legislature of its power to regulate research, the amendment stripped the state government of its power to restrict firearms. If it essentially said, if a weapon is legal under federal law, it must be legal in Missouri, and there's not a darn thing the state legislature could do about it. (To make the parallel complete, imagine that it included a ban of "assault weapons," then defined assault weapons to only include, say, bazookas, and then the proponents went on and on about how the measure explicitly bans assault weapons.)

It seems to me that this will lead to even more political polarization. If amendments like this pass, then as an opposer of embryonic research, my only recourse is to attempt to influence the federal government. So if it's midterm election time, and I'm not thrilled with the Republicans, and my choice is between a Republican incumbent who opposes funding embryonic research and a Democrat who supports it. It seems that I have one more reason to not consider voting for the Democrat. Essentially, proponent of the Amendment want to limit debate of this issue to two high-stakes venues -- the debate over this amendment, and federal restrictions. Is it surprising that in this environment, people tend to dig in their heels on their own side?
One of the charges those opposing embryonic research often face is that they are opposed to "science." An example comes form Scott Adams's blog today:

Statistically speaking, any hacker who is skilled enough to rig the elections will also be smart enough to select politicians that believe in . . . oh, let’s say for example, science. Compare that to the current method where big money interests buy political ads that confuse snake-dancing simpletons until they vote for the guy who scares them the least. Then during the period between the election and the impending Rapture, that traditionally elected President will get busy protecting the lives of stem cells while finding creative ways to blow the living crap out of anything that has the audacity to grow up and turn brownish.

Now, I realize Scott Adams is a humorist, but similar assertions are a regular part of our discourse.

Since almost all of the opposition to embryonic research comes from religious groups, most prominently the Roman Catholic Church, which has made some serious missteps in its relationship with science, the debate can be framed as religious luddism vs. scientific progress, with an obvious conclusion.

But there's a significant difference in the motivations for opposing Galileo in the Middle Ages and opposing embryonic research today. Galileo was opposed because those in power saw his conclusions as dangerous -- a heliocentric solar system was a direct challenge to the Creation narrative, and thus to the authority of the Church. The same goes for evolution.

In fact, some who challenge the Church's position on embryonic research point back to Aquinas and other Church scholars putting personhood at "quickening," which is several weeks into pregnancy. But the Church's position has developed since then based on what science has taught us about the early stages of development.

The driving force behind opposition to embryonic research is not fear of its conclusions, but opposition to the methods involved. The Church was wrong to suppress Galileo. However, if Galileo's research involved launching condemned criminals into space,the Church would be correct to oppose this method.

This isn't another round of the same religion vs. science fight. The sides may have the same general names, but we're playing a different game.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Shouldn't a newspaper run stories that are actually news?

One more note -- I'm wondering if it would be a good tactic for people who want all human beings protected to threaten to leave states that do not, or to move to states that do so. We hear a lot about how we have to accept things like stem cell research or same sex marriage because it sends a message about what a with-it state we are and attracts smart people. (I find this argument deeply insulting), but let's put that aside for now.

What would happen if those of us opposed to Amendment 2 committed to leaaving the state if it passed? Who would Missourians rather have -- the hotshot researchers, or the decent people who live here.

Now, I don't know if such a strategy is plausible, since there is probably a high correlation between wanting a society that protects all members and putting down roots. But it's something to think about.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Archibishop Burke highlights an important contradiction in this week's column:

Mr. Danforth and other proponents of Amendment 2 believe that human life begins with the implantation of the embryo in the womb of a woman, denying the identity of human life to the embryo before implantation. But what is the human embryo before implantation, if not a human being? Implantation adds nothing to the identity of the being, it only provides the natural place for the next stages of its development. The standard textbooks of embryology define the beginning of human life at fertilization or artificial generation by cloning.

Following the logic of Mr. Danforth, I suppose, Amendment 2, which claims to prohibit human cloning, actually prohibits the implantation of the embryo produced by somatic cell nuclear transfer or cloning in the womb of woman. Why? The obvious answer is: Because it is a human life which, once implanted in the womb, will simply continue its growth, in accord with the full identity which it already has.

I'll draw this out a bit. The pro-choice, pro-research position rests on these premises:

  • The embryo is not a human life until it is implanted in a uterus.
  • A woman has absolute dominon over her body, including the right to end a pregnancy.

Given those premises, why would implanting an embryo created via somatic cell nuclear transfer into a woman's uterus be at all morally problematic, indeed so very problematic that it's the one thing proponents say they explicitly ban.

This seems a strange place to draw the line. And indeed, it is an extremely bright line. If they have there way, everything on one side of the line would be constitutionally protected, so precious that it cannot be touched by the democratic process; on the other side everyhing is banned.

The only reason I can see for drawing the line there is political expediency -- the proponents know that people have a negative reaction to the word "cloning," so they have tailored te amendment so they can plausibly say they share this rejection of cloning.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

I attended Washington University during William Danforth's last year as Chancellor, and I admired what he did in making Wash U. and elite university, so going attacking him feels a bit like I'm attacking my own grandfather.


The ad that ran tonight featuring Dr. Danforth saying something like, "we enjoy watching the Cardinals play baseball, but when it comes to important medical issues, I hope Missourians will listen to experts."


First of all, which medical school did Sheryl Crow attend, again? How about Michael J. Fox? Or even your brother, former Senator John Danforth. Oh, that's right, they're not medical experts, are they? They're celebrities Amendment 2 supporters brought in and put in front of the cameras in the hopes that we'd be so star-struck that we'd go along with whatever they tell us. But those opposed run an ad with the Cardinals #3 starting pitcher, and now we shouldn't listen to anybody but experts? Right. I anxiously await Missouri cures pulling all the ads from endorsers who do not possess medical degrees, and removing the names of "Civic, Business, Government & Faith Organizations," "African American Leaders," and, for heaven's sake "Faith Leaders," because, as Dr. Danforth said, Missourians should only listen to medical experts. Anyone else's opinion is irrelevant.

Secondly, think about the attitude Dr. Danforth is inviting us to have. Chill out, Missourians, don't think about what those silly baseball players have to say, don't think at all. The experts say it's good; that ought to be good enough for us.

I seem to remember being invited to have this attitude about four years ago, and now our country is mired in a civil war half the world away.

UPDATE: I should mention that the context is an ad featuring Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan, among others, opposing Amendment 2.

While I'm here, I have to rant a bit about the lack of savviness on display here. On the other side, we have an ad by a well-liked actor best known for his roles in sitcoms and comedy movies. One theme of the debate is that it's a choice between scientific advancement and religious fundamentalism.

So, how do we begin our response? We start with an actor best (perhaps only) known for portraying Jesus in a film that many had derided as anti-Semitic (for now, it doesn't matter whether it was in fact anti-Semitic, what matters is the perception) directed by someone who recently was shown making an anti-Semitic tirade. In case any viewers didn't make the connection, this actor then mutters something in Aramaic, so it's ultra-clear that opposition to Amendment 2 is fueled by Mel-Gibson style religion.

The appeal to those who have not already committed to voting against Amendment 2 is not at all clear to me, but the turn-off is.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Reagarding the Sports Nut article on why the Cardinals are not receiving the affection that usually greets unsing teams making postseason runs, I first thought that it had to do with where they are on in the success cycle. The Cards aren't some sort of an upstart team surprising everybody. This is a team that has been successful for some time (but had not won a World Series) , was predicted to do well this year, underachieved a but but still managed to make the playoffs, then got hot in the postseason, and squeaked by the team that had dominated the league during the regular season.

This makes sense until I remember something else -- last year's Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers had been winning for several years, but not won a Super Bowl during this particular run. The Steelers underachieved during the regular season but snuck into the playoffs as the 6th seed in the AFC. The Steelers got hot and marched through the playoffs, including a close victory over the team that had dominated the conference during the regular season (the Colts).

The similarities don't end there. Both championships are being contested in Detroit. Both franchises have a long heritage of championships and tradition. Both have fan bases considered by many to be the best in the sport and include colorful traditions (Sea of Red, Terrible Towels). Both were facing teams that had even longer droughts from the championship series.

But the Steelers were embraced as lovable underdogs, and the Cardinals are greeted with a shrug and a sneer. So what's the difference?

Maybe one difference is the statistical emphasis in baseball. A team that wins three consecutive NFL playoff games on the road is perceived as having accomplished something significant and survived the ultimate test of its toughness. A team that wins two consecutive baseball playoff series in which they were the underdog is perceived as the beneficiary of random luck and favorable pitching match-ups.

The 2005 AFC was considered the stronger of the two conferences. The 2006 National League was the subject of much analysis about how bad it was.

The Cardinals defeat of the Mets was aided by the Mets losing two of their top starting pitchers; the Colts were going at pretty much full strength. Beating Peyton Manning gets you more love than beating Oliver Perez.

The Steelers had Jerome Bettis, a likable veteran who hailed from the Super Bowl City. The Cardinals don't have such a story, or even many terribly likable players. The closes the Cardinals have to the "aging veteran getting his last shot at the title" is probably Jim Edmonds, who let's just say doesn't inspire the same sort of attention. Albert Pujols has exposed himself as a jerk. Tony La Russa thinks he's smarter than you. Nobody's heard of Adam Wainwright. David Eckstein's a fun story, but he hasn't been hitting. Chris Carpenter is excellent, but doesn't have much to hang on to.

The Cardinals aren’t loved because they’re not lovable.
The post below highlights what I think is a running subtext in the Amendment 2 debate.

In the last few elections cycles, Missouri has turned from a "swing" state to a "red" state. We're home to Branson, the entertainment capital of the RedState world. We've elected a thirthysomething year old Republican governor from Springfield who is the son of the House Majority Whip. Out most prominent Democratic politician, Dick Gephardt, retired. We went for Bush twice. We overwhelmingly approved a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. We elected a Democratic governor and senator back in 2000, but that probably had more to do with a halo effect from Mel Carnahan's untimely death than anything else.

A lot of people aren't happy about this, including some who supported one or more of the developments listed above. Instead of being a battleground in presidential races, we're a reliable source of electoral votes for the Republican candidates. Sure, we might have liked Bush better than Kerry, and we weren't excited about re-defining marriage, but that doesn't mean we wanted to become East (What's the Matter With) Kansas.

This anxiety is espcecially prevalent in the metropolitan areas around St. Louis and Kansas City. There's a sense that outstate politicians are leading us down a path to irrelevance. Hence, "Jefferson City politicians" which cues this distrust of outstate politicians.

This is probably best personified by Amendment 2's most prominent supporter, former Senator Jack Danforth. In addition to promoting Amendment 2, Mr. Danforth has written a lot about how religious people have gone too far, and need to rein themselves back. He supports this amendment while maintaining his stance as "pro-life." He reflects the mood of the state -- we've lurched too far in the socially conservative direction; let's back up.

Enter Amemdnment 2. Here, Missourians have an opportunity to amend their Constitution to protect controversial research from those representatives from tiny towns who get their voting orders from the church pastors. Nobody could say we're in lock-step with the Religious Right then, could they? We'll have shown our openness to technology, and proven we're not some sort of red-state backwater, indistinguishable from any number of other rectangular states. We'd matter, damnit!

This is part of why celebrity appeals are such a feature. The message seems to be -- This is an opportunity for Missouri to prove to us cool Hollywood people that you're not a bunch of slack-jawed cold-hearted religious fanatics, but technologically savvy compassionate cosomopoltian people we'd like to associate with.

And while I'm here, thank you, Rush, for turning an interesting conversation about what type of ads and manipulations are in bonunds into a conversation about what a jerk you (an by extension, all those who oppose embryonic research) are. Really, it's a big help. It's not like we're in the middle of a race in which the other side is claiming a monopoly on compassionm and are eager to demonstrate how only a cold-hearted ignoramus could oppose them. Thanks a heap.

I bring this up, but don't know how to effectively counter it, But I think it's something it's important to be aware of. It's bigger than this particular issue, bigger than whether or not the amendment itself is deceptive, bigger than whether it prohibits or protects "cloning," depending on who's defining the terms. For many Missourians, this is a referendum for their own independence from the socially conservative red state pigeonhole they find themselves in, and it's not going to be easy to get them to vote "no."
One of the themes of the Amendment 2 proponents is that medical decisions should be made by families and their doctors, not by politicians in Jefferson City.

This is an appealing argument, echoing the effective Who Decides? pro-choice argument. And it sounds good and makes intuitive sense.

But think about how this type of argument would be applied in other contexts:

  • Soldiers on the ground should decide what methods of warfare are acceptable, not Washington politicians.
  • Cops in the streets shoud decide what methods of search are reasonable, not self-important people in black robes in stuffy chambers based on what some guys in powdered wigs wrote over 200 years ago.

This isn't how we do things. We are proud of the men and women in the armed forces, but we still believe in civilian control of the military. There is some benefit to a bit of emotional distance in determining the best guidelines; those guidelines should not set exclusively by those committed to achieving goals that the guideline would interfere with. They should have a say, but not the final say.

To strain an analogy, it's best that these decisions be made by chickens rather than pigs.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

I'd buy the explanation that Tony LaRussa didn't want all that "BS" if he were a "you put your best nine guys out there, I'll put my best nine guys out there, and we'll see who's better" type of manager.

But he's not.

LaRussa, more than any other manager, inserts himself into the competition. He'll use three pitchers to get the last three outs when his team is up by four runs. He'll bat the pitcher eighth. He'll order squeeze plays. He'll play a .200 hitter in left field because he likes the match-up with the starting pitcher.

This isn't all about between-the-lines strategy. La Russa gets in the opposition's head, and makes the other team do stupid things (like, making several throws over to first base when the runner on first is a hulking slugger with a bad hamstring, and one of those throws ends up in right field).

If pitchers looking for every edge is part of the game, then paying the price when caught is as well. If there's some sort of gentlemen's agreement that opposing managers don't press things like this, then part of that agreement should be that players be somewhat skillful in disguising it -- i.e. don't get caught on camera with a giant smudge on your hand. Kenny Rogers made Tony La Russa look like either a moron or a chump. There's nothing gentlemanly about that.

Monday, October 23, 2006

How To Confront
There's a good discussion going on at Mirror of Justice about how to effectively give witness the Church's teaching on the fundamental dignity of human life.

This is especially topical for me here in Missouri, as I have been struggling on how to most effectively oppose Amendment 2, which will enshrine in our constitution that nobody can get in the way of using embryos for research. (And by the way, where are all those people who were weeping over the purity of the Constitution when it was proposed that it define marriage as it has always been defined... And while I’m ranting parenthetically, the thing is being promoted as ensuring Missourians have “access to cures.” Is there any chance a law preventing Missourians’ access to cures would pass? But there were actual court rulings establishing same sex marriage, but we kept hearing about how “unnecessary” these amendments were).

Amendment 2 has been promoted by a series of treacly ads about the potential benefits of the research that don't even attempt to address why this research is controversial. The ads would be no less true if they were promoting the most brutally unethical type of research imaginable, such as forcibly seizing newborn babies, killing them and harvesting their organs. Just tell people it’s about cures and they’ll go along.

The main opposition to this has been to say that the Amendment is deceptive, and that “it’s cloning !!!” My concern is that if this tactic works in this election, it won’t work going forward.

I suppose the word cloning tests well, because people think of reproductive cloning, which gives them the creeps. But this is therapeutic cloning, which the Church considers even more problematic since the cloned embryo is necessarily destroyed. So the Church’s positions are nearly opposite those of the public. We might be able to get past this by conflating both using the word “cloning,” but I suspect only once, and it feels dirty (similar to how those on the other side conflate adult and umbilical cord stem cell research, which nobody opposes, with embryonic stem cell research under the term “stem cell research.”)

Maybe the best place to oppose this is on my knees.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

It's not the be-all and end-all, but in my opiniion, if Mets starter Oliver Perez steps to the plate with a bat in his hand in tonight's game, the Mets probably win. If not, the Cardinals probably win.

Given how ineffective Perez has been this year, the fact that he's pitching on short rest, the Mets probably only want to get through three or so innings anyway. So if he bats, it means:

  • It's the first or second inning, which means the Mets have had at least three base runners against Suppan in the first two innings, or
  • Perez is mowing down the Cardinals hitters in the first three innings such that Randolph doesn't feel moved to pinch-hit for him in the third.

Either way, it's bad news for the Cardinals, whose greatest advantage in this game is the starting pitching match-up.

If I see Perez in the batter's box, it will mean the Cardinals have failed to capitalize on that advantage.

And then things don't look so good...

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Despite some advice to the contrary, I think it might be useful to draw some lines in discussing ethical research.

There are points of agreement in the research debate.

Most people agree that it would be unethical to kill an innocent child or adult or research purposes, regardless of the potential benefit.

Also, most would agree that it would be unethical to destroy en embryo even in the moment of conception if the benefit is non-existant or trivial (say, to make Coca-Cola taste sweeter).

So, in the graph below, I plotted these point on a graph, and drew a line between them separating destructive research that is definitely unethical based on the above two premises from research that is not ruled out by these premises alone.

But wait, it's hard to imagine a scenario where we would be willing to perfrom on adolescents, and not adults. In fact, most people wouldn't be willing to perfrom this research on infants, so let's move the sticks...

Ok, so now our range of area of debate is bounded by conception and birth on the development access, and no benefit and save the world on the benefit access.

My position, and that of the Catholic Church, is that there is no more lines to draw. Or rather, there is a vertical line on the y-axis -- it is unethical to destroy any human life for research puroposes, regardless of the potential benefit.

In my opinion, this is the most coherent position that has been articulated. In short, I have not seen a convincing argument for why that line (or whatever shape) should be anything other than a vertical line on the Y-axis.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

In the TNR's online debate on Catholicism and politics, Damon Linker, author of The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, proposes that religious people's involvement in politics be conditioned on the following:

Like every other citizen, you must be willing to accept what I call "the liberal bargain." In my book, I describe this bargain as the act of believers giving up their "ambition to political rule in the name of their faith" in exchange for the freedom to worship God however they wish, without state interference. What does this mean, in practical terms? It means that your belief in what the Roman Catholic Church believes and teaches is irrelevant, politically speaking. It simply shouldn't matter whether or not you think that justice has a divine underpinning, anymore than it should matter whether you prefer Jane Austen to Dostoevsky. In a word, liberal politics presumes that it's possible and desirable for political life to be decoupled from theological questions and disputes.

In other words, if I want to participate in civil life, I need to leave my religious beliefs at the door -- they are irrelevant.

But do secularists also take this bargain? I suspect Andrew Sullivan would be on Linker's side in this debate, given his endless prattling on about "Christianists." But elsewhere on TNR's site, Sullivan writes the following about Republicans in the Foley scandal:

There is something deeply sick about a Republican elite that is comfortable around gay people, dependent on gay people, staffed by gay people--and yet also rests on brutal exploitation of homophobia to win elections at the base. These public homophobes, just like the ones in the Vatican, may even tolerate gay misbehavior more readily than adjusted gay people do. If you treat gay sex in any form as a shameful secret to keep concealed, the line between adult, consensual contact and the sexual exploitation of the young may not seem so stark. That's how someone like Speaker Dennis Hastert could have chosen not to know: He was already choosing not to know Foley was gay. In this way, Hastert is a milquetoast, secular version of Cardinal Bernard Law.

Many in the GOP have overcome this shame. The Log Cabin Republicans, for example, have shown how gay people can operate in conservative politics without having to be embarrassed, screwed up, or pathological. Some Republican senators--John McCain, Gordon Smith, Arlen Specter--seem able to deal with gay people and gay issues forthrightly, even if they do not support full gay equality.

But such honesty is scarce in this White House and this Congress. The miserable example of Mary Cheney, Stepford daughter, shows the full force of this syndrome. It isn't pretty. It depends upon knowing when to be silent, tip-toeing around bigotry, and shilling for people who may be personally accepting but publicly so in debt to the religious right that they cannot even formally speak the word "gay" in public.

It is this deeper, more nuanced hypocrisy that this episode exposes. The closet tolerants--and they include both the president and vice president--exist in a party that has built its electoral machine on systematic intolerance and the fueling of populist fear of homosexuals. This edifice cannot stand indefinitely, and the sudden collapse of Mark Foley's career may be a portent of what is to come. The old manners of GOP Washington are being buffeted by the countervailing currents of gay mainstreaming and political opportunism. At some point, Republicans are going to have to choose between the two.

Let's set aside for a moment that what Sullivan means by "equality" is redefining marriage to include same sex couples, and whether that logically flows from tolerance of gay people.

What Sullivan is saying is that there is a sickening hypocrisy for Republicans to privately tolerate gay people but publicly oppose gay issues. Sullivan says that this cannot stand, and will ruin Republicans from within unless they "choose between the two."

But isn't this dis-integration exactly what Linker is trying to sell religious people with the "liberal bargain?" Wouldn't there be a deep hypocrisy in privately believing that legal abortions kill a million unborn children a year, and not using one's political influence to try to stop it? And wouldn't it eventually ruin us from the inside? Is "closet religiousness" any less ruinous than "closet tolerance?"

In the debate, Russ Douthat responded with the following:

This isn't just blinkered, unfair, and contrary to the actual American tradition of how religion and politics interact; it's also dangerous to liberalism, because it vindicates those people--Christians and secularists alike--who have always said that faith and liberalism aren't compatible and that everyone need to choose between Christ and the republic, between God and Caesar. And, if you force Americans to make that choice, I'm not sure you'll be happy with the results.

Secularists like to say that they are proposing no such choice -- merely insisting that religious people compartmentalize their religious and political activities. But this is a ruinous disintegration, and as Sullivan's column exhibits, secularists know that, too.

UPDATE: As I suspected Sullivan has backed Linker's position. So I ask Mr. Sullivan -- why should I accept a bargain that will lead to my ruin?

Monday, October 02, 2006

I’m struggling with a notion I have that out culture has a disordered notion of how to express compassion for those with diseases.

There is a lot of work an effort expended on “curing” diseases, but not much about “caring.” We raise some money, take a nice walk in the park on a spring day, get a T-shirt, and tell ourselves we’re doing what we can for victims of disease. And things like Amendment 2 receive wide support, because we want to support cures for diseases after all.

But I think this is grace on the cheap. It’s a lot easier to take a walk through the park on a spring day than it is to clean up after someone who can’t control his bowels, or hold someone’s hand as they’re going through pain, or give your daughter daily chest therapy and medicine. But I think this type of care is what we’re called to first. I help Meagan more by caring for her every day than I would working for a cure.

The reason I’m struggling is that this all sounds good and makes sense until I look to how Jesus responded to those with diseases. He didn’t just love diseased people where they were – He cured them. He didn’t talk about the virtues of suffering blindness or leprosy or demons, he freed people from those things.
So, that stops me from getting to worked up about what I still think is our culture’s disordered response to diseases.
In respones to the torture debates, a lot of people want those opposed to torture to provide a specific list of what techniques are allowable.

Here's my stab:

If the criminal law on torture plays any role whatsoever in your determination of whether to use a particular tactic, then you shouldn't use it.

So, if you're about to commit an act, and need to consult the torture law to see if it's covered, you shouldn't do it.

If you really think you're in a "ticking time bomb" situation, but would be deterred by the possibility of of criminal punishment for committing torture, then you're not really in a "ticking time bomb" situration, and shouldn't commit the act. If the torture were really necessary to save the worlds, the prospect of criminal prosecution would be the least concern.