Sunday, December 19, 2010

Offending Marriage

On Twitter this morning, I ran across a link to a story celebrating the marriage of a couple that met at their kids' school activities, while each was still married to the other parent of said kids. The article takes and odd "Isn't that something?" attitude toward two families being torn apart because the adults saw something they liked better (though it's hard not to notice that the only people who seem happy in the picture are the couple themselves), including passages like:

As Mr. Partilla saw it, their options were either to act on their feelings and break up their marriages or to deny their feelings and live dishonestly. “Pain or more pain,” was how he summarized it.
Given such a choice, I tend to think the better option is to choose the "pain" that also doesn't go along with completely uprooting one's family.

“The part that’s hard for people to believe is we didn’t have an affair,” Ms. Riddell said. “I didn’t want to sneak around and sleep with him on the side. I wanted to get up in the morning and read the paper with him.” 
I think some people may have forgotten why there's a societal sanction against extramarital affairs.

“He said, ‘Remind me every day that the kids will be O.K.,’ ” Ms. Riddell recalled. “I would say the kids are going to be great, and we’ll spend the rest of our lives making it so.”
Objection!  Leading question on direct examination!  But I guess if they think the kids are going to be great as a result of them doing what they want to do, what can we say?  And by the way, what about that other person you had promised to love and honor all the days of your life?

They finalized their divorces this year. “I will always feel terribly about the pain I caused my ex-husband,” said Ms. Riddell, 44 and working freelance. “It was not what I ever would have wished on him.” Or on her children.
“My kids are going to look at me and know that I am flawed and not perfect, but also deeply in love,” she said. “We’re going to have a big, noisy, rich life, with more love and more people in it.”

Pity those children who are stuck with thei original parents for their entire childhood, and are thus deprived of the "big, noisy, rich life" of those whose parents follow their hearts.

And can you find in this article one reason to believe this will last other than that the couple are "really in love."  What  will happen if the T-ball coach or dance teacher is very attractive, and one of the parents feels an irresistible connection?  We can't expect them to deny their feelings, can we?  Well, not with the precedent they've set.

And spare me the "don't judge" speech.  They put their story out there in the  New York Times, not me.  Part of what they were trying to do by doing so was increase the acceptance of what they did.   Note the asides about being "ostracized" by those around them, likely parents who would prefer their children not be constantly worried if one of their parents will bolt the instant they feel an instant "connection" with someone of the opposite sex.  If we don't want this type of behavior to become more common, we criticize it when it's put in our face.

This was a deliberate action, and the actors are presenting it for us to evaluate.  This is mine.

Of course, this is 2010, so we don't just offer straightforward criticisms of immoral behavior -- there has to be a "hypocrisy" angle.  And so, the tweet I read pointing to this story was quickly followed by this one:

On that NYT story: next time some talking head says we need to protect marriage from the gays, remember Carol Anne Riddell & John Partilla.
When I replied that many of those opposed to SSM believe they are pushing back against a culture that enables things like this, I received the reply:

well funny how they take that out on the gays instead of, say, trying to make what this couple did illegal.
First, I will say that a society that applauds this couple has no non-bigoted basis for not allowing same sex couples to marry.  And that seems to be where we're headed.

I will also concede that bigotry is probably a reason why there is more energy behind opposing same sex marriage and other efforts to bolster marriage.

However, if I had to bet, I would suspect the writer of that piece supports same sex marriage.

Which vision of marriage would the Riddell-Partilla marriage more comfortable fit into?  Something like Conor  Friedorsorf offered a couple years ago:

Marriage is the union of people who fall in love with one another, decide that they want to spend the rest of their lives together, and commit to do so monogamously
or the "thick" marriage described by Ross Douthat?

This is the essence of the non-bigoted case against same-sex marriage.  It's not that gays are going to ruin marriage.  It's that a vision of marriage that would include same sex couples is flimsier than a thinker one in which same sex marriages would make no sense.

The problem is that reality, as evidenced by this story, is pretty far from this ideal, so opposition to same sex marriage looks a lot like bigotry.

But for those who think that "defenders of marriage" should focus on couples like this instead of opposing same sex marriage, I have a question: What law would you join us in supporting that would address situations like this?  Ban no-fault divorce?  Cooling off period between divorces and second marriages?  I'm up for it, but my experience is that those who favor things like this are considered reactionaries out to turn back the clock. 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

What It Means If You Win the Heisman Trophy

  • You are on a team that in playing in the BCS National Championship Game
  • You are QB or a RB (or a defensive player and special teams star if no QB or RB qualifies).
  • You are the best player on your team..
  • You either were hyped from the beginning of the season, or you had a great breakout game.
  • Your personal narrative is more appealing than the best player on your BCS Championship Game opponent.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Voting and Rationality

Imagine the following premises for some kind of popular voting for an award:

  • Every uses a correct objective set of criteria to determine his vote.
  • There is one candidate who is 1% better than his closes competitor.
Question:  What percentage of the vote would you expect the 1% superior candidate to receive?

The answer is 100%.  If every voter is objective, one would expect the to independently each reach the same conclusion.  Just as if you sent mathematicians a math problem with a correct answer, I would expect them all to respond with the same correct answer, and any incorrect answers (even ones that were close) to be dwarfed by the correct responses.

So, I'm a bit puzzled by Christina Kahrl's disappointment that Joey Votto received 31 of 32 first place votes for the National League MVP over Albert Pujols.  If Votto is the deserving winner (which Kahrl does not dispute), then one would expect that voters using the same sound criteria would all reach the same conclusion.  Even if the difference between them was narrow.  

Kahrl is on more solid ground in criticizing those who placed others like Carlos Gonzales second over Pujols, but I don't really care that much about down-ballot selections, except when they skew the outcome at the top.

Now, I suspect that Votto's margin of victory has more to do with some of the other reasons Karhl sites (Votto's team winning the division, fatigue of voting for Pujols, Pujols being punished for having a great, rather than historically great, year) than a sudden embrace of objectivity on the part of BBWAA.  But if they had embraced objectivity, this is what the result would look like.

In any case, if you're worked up over the margin of victory for someone you believe to be the rightful winner of an award, it may be a sign you don't have enough things to worry about.


While I'm on the topic of anger over votes that don't matter, it is obviously ridiculous that Bristol Palin is a finalist in Dancing with the Stars.  Even more absurd is the notion that the undeserving daughter of a political figure winning a competition is some kind of political statement.  If people didn't care for Sarah Palin before, I don't think they're going to give her a second look because her daughter won a TV dancing competition.

Then it occurs to me that the "rightful" winner of a competition involving novice dancers learning how to dance with the help of an experienced professional dancer is a woman most famous for her role in a movie as a novice dancer who learns to dance with the help of an experienced dancer.  Stressing out over the integrity of an "amateur" dancing competition that includes a competitor who is world-famous as a dancer seems a bit strange.

Which leads us to wonder what exactly we're consuming when we watch Dancing With the Stars.  It's not excellence in performance, since professional ballroom dancing is the stuff of non-pledge time PBS filler.  And it's not just seeing celebs embarrass themselves, since the truly awful dancers do seem to get voted out early, and the best dancers usually do win or make it to the finals, and nobody seemed to enjoy watching pseudo-celebs make fools of themselves on Skating with the Stars.  And it's not just relatability, since some relative unknowns have won or made it far.

No, it's some odd combination of the above.  We like familiar celebrities, but not too famous.  We want to see them struggle, but not make fools of themselves.  We want them to be good, but not too good.  It's a delicate balance.  And I'm not sure what it says about us that this is what we seem to want.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The mission of the pro-life movement is not to "reduce the number of abortions"

Alternative title:   If pro-lifers want to stop abortions so much, why don't they cut out all these legislative efforts and "common ground" approaches and go disrupt some abortion clinics?

Will Saletan has posted some lessons pro-lifers should learn from the recent conference with pro-life and pro-choice* activists working to find common ground.

In general, Saletan suggests that pro-lifers embrace initiatives that may lower the abortion rate at the margins, but neither legally or socially sanction abortion.  All of his suggestions are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what motivates most who call themselves pro-life.  What Saletan, and many commentators who strike similar notes (many of them pro-life themselves) is that the mission of the pro-life movement is not to lower the abortion rate.

I'll write that again: The mission of the pro-life movement is not to lower the abortion rate.

At first, this sounds absurd -- what is the pro-life movement about if not to reduce the number of abortions?

But to me, and many pro-lifers, abortion is a tremendous injustice and national shame. And people who fight against what they consider to be an injustice don't set about to reduce the incidence of that injustice; they seek to eliminate it and establish strong social and legal sanctions against it.

Those (including me) who opposed waterboarding did not seek to lower the frequency with which the US resorted to waterboarding, but to get the government to permanently set it aside. Appeals that we only waterboarded a handful of hardened terrorists did not dissuade me. And a suggestion that if I really wanted to reduce waterboarding, then I should support the war so as to eliminate the need for waterboarding would be a complete non-starter.

The same goes for every cause against injustice. Anti-war activists don't just want to reduce the intensity of the war. Civil rights activists didn't just want to reduce the incidences of segregation. And so on.

I understand that many people (including many who consider themselves to be pro-life) don't deem abortion to be an injustice on this scale, and consider comparisons to grand injustices like slavery and the Holocaust to be counterproductive.  And in the public debate, that may be the case.  My point here is in trying to explain the motivations.   Even if pro-life people were to refrain from these comparisons in making their case, it would not change that this is how they feel about the issue in their hearts.

This is not to say that reducing the number of abortions is not a laudable goal, or that some of the efforts Saletan describes aren't worthy of support, because they are. But I don't think they are the proper primary focus of people claiming to be pro-life, or that those who fail to are revealing that they're not truly pro-life.

One of Saletan's suggestions is that pro-lifers should embrace contraception, even though many pro-lifers are opposed to it, while seeing it as a lesser evil than abortion.  The assumption is that, someone who opposes abortion should be willing to compromise on any and all other issues in order to reduce the number of abortions.  But if this were the case, perhaps better advice would be that all pro-lifers should focus their energy to disrupting abortion clinics, using all means at their disposal.  Ironically, Saletan's common ground moderating advice assumes a pro-life worldview that is closer to Operation Rescue than, say, Harry Reid.

I understand that the perception of many is that there is already too much of a pro-life presence at abortion clinics and harassing women getting abortions and those working at clinics, but those engaged in these activities represent a tiny percentage of those who consider themselves pro-life, even using strict definitions of "pro-life."  If everybody who opposed abortion were to focus their efforts on disrupting abortion clinics, that would likely have a greater effect than legislative efforts or any of the items Saletan suggests.

But we don't do that.  Why?  Because the pro-life movement is about establishing justice, not just preventing marginal abortions.  And many see disrupting abortion clinics as counterproductive to that ultimate goal.

A more egregious example is Saletan's suggestion that pro-lifers should abandon efforts to restrict abortions because they push abortions later into pregnancy, which we are supposed to acknowledge is "worse."  It would be difficult to craft a paragraph that is more revealing of a fundamental misunderstanding of what motivates a movement.  It is not the pro-life movement's job to make push abortions into a zone where they are more superficially palatable.

Those who work to prevent marginal abortions through some of Saletan's suggestions and others like counseling and adoption are indeed doing God's work, and deserve our support.  But that is not the same things as saying that these efforts are the proper primary focus of the pro-life movement.

* I understand that both names cover up more than they illuminate. I find it simplest to refer to the groups by their chosen names, rather than get tendentious.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The state of discourse

If you haven't seem Rachel Maddow's interview od Jon Stewart, I would encourage you to do so.

One important point that Stewart seemed to be struggling to articulate is that, contrary to what is presented by the cable news networks, the real battle isn't between left and right.  Stewart offered "corrupt vs. non-corrupt"  and "extreme vs. non-extreme" as an alternatives, but I don't think either quite captured what he was trying to say.

I think what Stewart was trying to get across was more like "good vs. evil" or, since that may sound a bit too familiar, "good ideas vs. bad ideas."

I think the section on Bush and waterboarding was particularly powerful, though I'm not sure Stewart managed to drive the point home.   To many, the interesting thing about the waterboarding debate is what it says about George W. Bush, rather than what it says about us.

I don't want to pin waterboarding on Bush or the Republicans.  I want all parties to reject waterboarding.   I don't want to convict President Obama of being "pro-infanticide;" I want him and the Democrats to back off their support for abortion.

To many, it's a good day if they can prove some member of the other party is guilty of some depravity.  To me, that's a bad day.  It has to be done sometimes, but I hope we usually have better things to do.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Embracing the title...

First, let me say that this will be my one and only post about the elections.  I am finding elections and the conversations surrounding them increasingly depressing, and am not positive that my contributions are an exception.

Catherine Kaveny has a piece in America exploring the question of Catholics voting for candidates who support legalized abortion.  Unlike some of her previous piece, this seems to be a good faith effort to reconcile the sides of the issue, rather than to lead cheers for her side, so I mean this to be a constructive engagement with the piece versus a "takedown."

Prof. Kaveny closes the piece by dividing Catholics engaged in politics into two camps -- "prophets" who provide bold witness to where we need to be, and "pilgrims" who are engaged in the world as it is, and calls for a more productive conversation between the two.

She does not endorse either camp, though I don't think there's much doubt which she would put herself in, or would advise others to join.  Unfortunately, those who responded to the piece were not so reticent about which camp has, like Mary Magdalene chosen the "better part."  And that's not surprising -- would you rather be seen as the haughty prophet boldly proclaiming the sinfulness of those around you, or the humble pilgrim, dirt under your fingernails, dealing with people where they are, sins and all.

I would challenge those eager to accept the title of pilgrim to consider what a pilgrim actually is.  The defining characteristic of a pilgrim is not humility or moral flexibility to work with the world as it is.  Indeed, the American Pilgrims came here because they believe it was impossible to reconcile their religious beliefs with the Church of England.  The defining characteristic of a pilgrim is one who is journeying toward a destination.  If one is looking for a word to express willingness to accept and work with the sinfulness of the world as it is, one could scarcely do worse than "pilgrim."

Looking at the conversation around Catholics voting for candidates who support legalized abortion, the image of a pilgrimage is not one that immediately comes to mind.  We're still at the "Abp. Burke makes a hard-line statement; liberal Catholics react in horror" stage we were at six years ago.

Some might say that the prophet side has to move some.  Indeed, the 2004 emphasis on intrinsic evil, to the point where many were using the word "intrinsic" as if it were an intensifier, does not seem to have been entirely thought through.

But it seems that those accepting the title of "pilgrim" are also accepting the responsibility to move the conversation forward.  (And, BTW, with little difference between the parties on the war, torture thankfully gone, and health care reform passed, what exactly is the proportionate reason for supporting pro-choice candidates?) A true pilgrim would not be working to make it more comfortable to support pro-choice candidates, but be working to make the conversation irrelevant.  We should be moving forward not standing still.

The use of the word "pilgrim" to describe those willing to support pro-choice candidates may have been a linguistic mistake, but it may point the way forward to a solution.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Well, so much for my theory...

In one moment, I comment that in looking at the very troubling series of suicides from gay teenagers, if one wants to assess blame to right-wing commenters and religious groups, one also has to look at the media for playing up divisive commentators instead of those with more nuanced views.  Most religious, including Catholicism, do not preach anything close to hatred of gays, and that by implying that they do, the media may be leading gay teens to believe they are more hated than they are.

Then, I look at the news, and see that, at this particular moment in history, New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino decided to say this

New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino criticized gays Sunday, saying he didn't want children "to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid or successful option," compared to heterosexuality.

"It isn't," Paladino said at a stop in Brooklyn, New York.
A prepared version of his remarks obtained by CNN from New York affiliate NY1 said that "There is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual," though Paladino did not wind up delivering that line.
"That's not how (God) created us," the prepared remarks continued, though Paladino did not say those words.

Paladino distributed copies of his prepared remarks to reporters at the event, an address to a group of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood. 
The candidate's remarks came a day after New York police announced the arrest of an eighth suspect in a series of brutal, anti-gay hate crimes against four men. 

Well, so much for my contention that real homophobia is a fringe phenomenon being played up by political opportunists.

And, if that wasn't enough, after being criticized by his opponent, Paladino's campaign responded with this:

Carl Paladino's position on this is exactly equivalent to the Catholic Church," Caputo told CNN. "And if Andrew Cuomo has a problem with the Catholic Church's position on abortion and homosexuality, he needs to take it up with his parish priest."
Great.  So now it's Catholicism.  My responses:

  1. Paldino's comments and Cuomo's criticism were not about abortion.
  2. It is true that the Church does not regard homosexual orientation to be an equal calling to heterosexual orientation, even referring to the former as "intrinsically disordered."  It is not the official teaching of the Church that gays are engaged in a brainwashing campaign.
  3. If Paladino were to take up his remarks with his parish priest, I would hope that he would receive some counseling about pastoral sensitivity
Indeed, while I'm not typically a fan of pressuring bishops to take some action in political capaigns, it may be worthwhile for them to not let the Church be used as a cover for pandering to homophobia.

UPDATE:  Dave Weigel suggests that Paladino is a bit of an outlier, and not worth the attention he is likely to receive.  I had suspected that if someone running for statewide office in a blue state would be somewhat close to the mainstream, but Weigel would probably know better than I.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Schumaker Conversion Failed by Succeeding...

In Spring Training of 2009, the Cardinals took their fourth outfielder, Skip Schumaker, and had him learn second base.  The conversion has been considered a success, since Schumaker has been a below average to average second baseman, and, with the exception of a terrible start this year, has maintained his performance at the plate.

Nevertheless, I think the conversion is a major factor in the Cardinals' disappointing year.

Throughout the Tony La Russa era, the Cardinals have employed a series of stopgaps at second base.  They won the World Series in 2006 with trading deadline pick-up Ronnie Belliard, who was gone immediately therafter.  The 104 game winning National League Champion Cardinals had Tony Womack (and I had to look that up).  The next year, they won 100 games with Mark Grudzielanek.  Second base has been a position the Cardinals have generally favored flexibility.

The Schumaker conversion changed all that.  The organization had invested considerable energy into it.   Schumaker himself worked hard to make it work.  The Cardinals let Adam Kennedy, an adequate second baseman, go, eating a bunch of his salary.  Unless Schumaker turned out to be an embarrassment at second, or stopped hitting, he was going to be out there.

And he wasn't an embarrassment.  He was essentially a league-average second baseman.  Which was enough for the organization and the fans to consider the conversion a success.

What this also led to is resistance to considering second base an area for improvement.   If the Cardinals had simply traded Schumaker the outfielder for a second baseman who performed as Schumaker did, they may have felt differently.

The Cardinals roster is generally not flexible to begin with.  Their two best and highest-paid position players occupy the rightmost positions on the defensive spectrum -- first base and left field.  Their next best hitter in the first half of this year was in the next slot over, right field.  So, the Cardinals couldn't just upgrade their offense by acquiring a "bat" -- it had to be someone who could play a key infield position.  Second base is the one position of those where there can be upgrades available, such as the 2006 Belliard acquisition.

But the Cardinals were essentially locked in.  Making a change at second base would be tantamount to admitting the conversion didn't work, and there was too much invested in it to do that unless it was blindingly obvious.  And so the Cardinals were committed to an average second baseman.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Roots of Islamophobia

As I mentioned below, I don't think the current "frenzy of anti-Muslim sentiment" is driven by a belief that all Muslims are responsible for terrorist attacks and 9/11, but more nuanced beliefs.

What are those?  Well, here's some of them:

  • A sense that Muslims are more concerned with telling other Americans not to blame them for terrorist acts than they are with purging their religion of terror.
  • What seems to be a double standard.  When there is an act of Islamic terrorist violence, everyone races first to look for a perpetrator who is not Islamic, second to downplay the Islamic element, and third to explain the motivation.  When there is violence that seems to come from the right wing, commentary centers on exploring why there is so much violence in conservatism, and how we can punish them for it.
  • A sense that the Islam being presented for public consumption is a whitewashed version that bears little resemblance to what is practiced in reality.  Yes, "Islam means peace," but there are a number of troublesome aspects of both its current practice and history that it seems people are hoping we won't notice.
  • A sense that other groups had to earn the trust and goodwill of Americans, whereas Muslims are tattling to the teacher to make us play nice with them.
  • Expressing any of the above will get you tagged as a bigot.
Incidentally, the list of grievances fueling the "rising nativist sentiment" looks pretty similar to the above.

Not all of these are completely grounded in fact.  And even if true, they don't justify a generalized anti-Islamic feeling that we're seeing.

But it's also different, and not as obviously absurd as the notion that all Muslims are responsible for 9/11.  

The only socially approved conversation one can have about the above is, "Shut up, you bigot!"  So when someone comes along and tells people, "I get what you're feeling.  Vote for me,"  it's going to have a certain appeal.

I have absolutely no sympathy for the politicians who go about stoking these simmering embers of resentment, and if the resulting flame gets out of control, they will bear an enormous amount of responsibility.  They should be ashamed of themselves.

But those who know better have left this field open to them by answering these concerns with platitudes about Islam being a peaceful religion and how unfair guilt by association is.  If people are interested in stemming this tide, not just feeling superior to it, we're going to have to do better.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Yes, we know not all Muslims are responsible for 9/11.

There seems to be a lot of commentary these days making the point that not all Muslims were guilty of the 9/11 attacks, so it would be wrong to collectively blame Islam or any individual because he happens to be Muslim.

Fair enough, but I don't know of anyone who holds this view, at least expressed this crudely.  Some made statements that are apparently motivated by anti-Muslim sentiments, and it's likely those sentiments were brought about or intensified by 9/11, but I don't know anybody who would say that all Muslims are guilty of 9/11.

As such, it is difficult for me to imagine a reader be persuaded by a statement or argument that it is wrong to hold Muslims collectively guilty for 9/11, because it is difficult for me to imagine a reader who would (even to himself) cop to this view.  Again, this is not meant to say that there is no anti-Muslim bigotry in America, or even that it has dwindled to anywhere near an acceptable level.   But it is a bit more nuanced than can be effectively engaged in a tweet-size message.

Which isn't to say it's right.  But turning it around is going to take more than platitudes about the wrongness of collective guilt.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Let's not be so principled

Right now, it seems the point of almost all discourse is to plausibly characterize your adversaries argument as one of the following, in rough order of severity:

  • Bigotry
    • Sexism
    • Racism
    • Homophobia
    • Religious Intolerance
  • "Hypocrisy"*
  • Support of an enemy group.
  • Failing to support a sympathetic group (soldiers, teachers, "science", etc.)
  • Violating a Constitutional principle
  • "Moral equivalence"**
On the other hand, it is considered a sufficient defense of any action to evade charges of any of the above.

On Catholic blogs, the game is to associate your opponent with "formal cooperation with intrinsic evil."  

There is not space to debate matters of prudence.  Either we don't trust our instincts on these matters, suspecting they are rooted in bigotry, or we just don't want to talk about it.  So, if we disagree with what somebody does, we have to try to fit it into one of the boxes above.

This leaves us impoverished when it's time to discuss an issue that doesn't entirely fall neatly into one of those boxes -- as evidenced by the Cordoba House controversy and the Qu'ran burning.

The Mayor Bloomberg-approved conclusion from the Cordoba House debate seemed to be that our country has a grand tradition of free exercise of religion, and any effort to curtail another's exercise of religion is bigotry.  Don't we remember the ugliness of how Catholic Irish immigrants were treated years ago?  Don't all arguments against it boil down to guilt-by-association bigotry, or accommodation thereof?

And along comes a Florida pastor with his plan to burn the Qu'ran, and we recognize it's a bad idea, but we don't have the language to say so.

On the one hand, it is religious intolerance, but it's also their exercise of religion on their property.

Some have tried to use General Petraeus's statements against it to create a mixture of hypocrisy and failure to support the troops.  But most recognize it's not quite a fit.  Besides, why would this endanger the troops?  Because some might hold them responsible for the church's actions.  Well, isn't that guilt-by-association bigotry?  And didn't we just decide that we don't accommodate that sort of thing?

We need to develop a culture where we can have robust debates about matters of prudence rather than just continuously asserting rights.  And we have to be open to the possibility that even if we have the right to do something, it might not be a great idea to actually do it.

* In public discourse, "hypocrisy" does not mean saying one thing and doing another, it means something like inconsistency; e.g.  you're all for "small government" on Issue X, but that seems to disappear on Issue Y.

** Strictly speaking, this would be asserting that the act in question is exactly like one that is universally disparaged.  But it is typically deployed when any kind of analogy is offered, even if the speaker explicitly denies claiming moral equivalence.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Inclusive or Exclusive?

Slate's Friend or Foe advice columnist passes on the following widely typical platitude about Jesus:

I'm not a Christian myself, but I know that Jesus' message was one of inclusion, not exclusion. It's a shame that Emily has forgotten that lesson as she goes about subtly denigrating those who don't worship in exactly the same manner as her.
Oh, how I love it when non-Christians deliver lectures about what Jesus's message was really about.  But is this correct?

Well, let's take a look at last Sunday's Gospel:

If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple.
In the same way,
anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
cannot be my disciple.
I'd say this pretty much excludes everyone, at least among Friend or Foe's readers.

Perhaps Friend or Foe should repeat the lecture to Jesus about how He has forgotten His central lesson of inclusion...

Monday, September 06, 2010

Baseball Thoughts...

Cardinals and Rasmus
  • Reading this article, it seems to me that the whole "Rasmus wants out of here" thing is a bit overblown.  I suspect if one looked back at most players, they had a bout like this in their history.  I think the Cardinals should just ride it out.
  • Unless, Pujols genuinely can't stand the guy, and Rasmus's continued presence on the team would dissuade Pujols from re-signing.
  • I think part of being a successful organization is giving young talents like Rasmus room to grow.  If the culture of the Cardinals is one that resents hot new talents that come up (and can help the ballclub), they've got bigger problems than just an unhappy centerfielder.

Nyjer Morgan

There was some talk that Nyjer Morgan broke an "unwritten rule" by stealing two bases when his team was down by 11 runs in the fourth inning, and if so, that is a ridiculous rule, since a team shouldn't stop trying to win.

True enough, but Morgan's act wasn't ordered toward helping the Nationals win that ballgame, or any other game for that matter.  From a percentage standpoint, trying to steal bases when your team's down eleven runs is a terrible baseball play.  It was to deliver an "eff you" to the Marlins, and that point was not lost on the Marlins.  And when you do that to people, they tend to react in bad ways, e.g. throwing at you the next time you come up.

The Marlins didn't throw at Morgan because he broke an "unwritten rule," they threw at him because he hurt their teammate the night before, and was acting like a jerk, and they thought he needed a butt-kicking.  And I can't say I disagree.

There isn't a "rule," written or unwritten, against stealing bases when your team's behind.   There is a rule against being a jerk.  The need to fit everything into some hard-and-fast rule and withhold judgement is one of the weaknesses we have these days.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

It's About The Experience

Just finished Chuck Klosterman's Eating the Dinosaur, an interesting romp through music, television, sports, and other fun stuff.

Klosterman devotes one chapter to the stupidity of the laugh track.  His take is interesting, but doesn't really break new ground -- why should I need to be cued to know something is funny?  Doesn't this show how insecure we are?

I think the main point that Klosterman misses is that the purpose of the laugh track is not to enhance our appreciate of the show, but to enhance our experience of watching the show.  I know those sound like pretty much the same thing, so let me explain.

Klosterman uses Friends in an extended example.  I submit that what NBC sold before and syndicators sell now when they sell Friends is not the episodes or the entire opus as an artistic achievement, but the experience of watching Friends (or, rather they are selling advertisers the set of people who opt for the experience of watching Friends).  The laugh track isn't a trick to manipulate people into thinking they're watching a funnier show than they are; it is part of the package they are delivering.

There is something fundamentally enjoyable about laughing with other people.  It is a different experience that laughing by yourself (and the same goes for cheering, crying, singing and other things).  Is it really that funny that Monica's a control freak or that Joey's oversexed?  Not really, but it's fun to commiserate about these things, even if our fellow commiserators are distant or (as Klosterman suggests) dead.

After the 9/11, Friends had a spike in its ratings.  Did the writing or acting get better?  I suspect not, and that an alien would not be able to choose which Friends episodes came during this spike and which came from more lackluster times.  What was reported was that Friends was comfort entertainment -- we were opting for simpler pleasures, like laughing along at Ross's social awkwardness.

I suspect some people would watch a channel that was all laugh track with no visual.  They would never admit it, but they would tune in.  The show itself can be a pretext to enjoy this (such as baseball games are a pretext for sitting out in the sun drinking beer with your buddies, or football games are pretext for hanging out in a parking lot grilling meat).  Now, it has to be a credible pretext, which is why some shows fail and others succeed, but once the ball is rolling, the content is almost irrelevant.

I think part of the success of American Idol is how it plays on both sides of this tension.  We enjoy watching a half-decent singer deliver a karaoke version of a familiar song, but we kind of hate ourselves for it.  So we enjoy the performance, and then we enjoy Simon Cowell's evisceration of the same performance we just enjoyed.  It's win-win.

The popular story is that the success of laugh-track free comedies like The Office, 30 Rock, and Arrested Devleopment demonstrate that both the craft and the audiences have evolved beyond these simple pleasures, but I'm not so sure.  For these shows, the Internet is the laugh track.  The (mostly affluent) people who enjoy these shows can share their appreciation with each other all over the world.  It may not be immediate or obvious as a laugh track, but it's there, and I'm not sure these shows would be successful without it.

This was driven home to me six months ago when I got to attend a taping of the Late Show with David Letterman.   I was there the night Bill Murray dove into a water-filled dumpster..

The studio audience is managed by pages who are apparently recruited from the same pool of candidates from which the Jungle Cruise guides at Disney World are pulled.  We were instructed to laugh at everything Dave says, assume everything is hilarious, and suspend any critical analysis.

Now, there is some dissonance between these instructions and the persona of David Letterman, who recognizes that half of what he says on the show is crap, and knows that you know it, too.  It would be difficult to imagine Letterman himself respecting these instructions.

But, at the same time, he (or the people running the show) recognize what his job is, and that's to deliver an entertaining hour of entertainment. And part of that is an audience that the people can laugh along with.   It's not the merit of the jokes -- is anyone really blown away by jokes about the hookers in Time Square, or Dick Cheney shooting his hunting buddy? -- but a fun experience for those who tune in.  Perhaps one reason Jay Leno has been more successful than Letterman, at least in terms of audience size, is the degree to which he is willing to surrender himself to that goal.  Leno just wants to entertain the maximum number of people; Letterman wants to retain his dignity.  Perhaps Letterman's approach is superior on a human level, but one can understand why NBC keeps choosing Leno over comedians who enjoy greater success.

Getting back to the original point, the laugh track isn't something bolted on to the show to trick people into liking it, like sugar-coated cereal; it is part of the actual product.  TV's continued embrace of it does not reflect stupidity, but rather a keen insight into what people enjoy.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Courage To Tell me What I Want to Hear

Jacob Weisberg criticizes Obama for not exercising leadership on immigration, same sex marriage, and the "Ground Zero" mosque.  (Apparently, the irony of publishing a "call to courage" at the beginning of a holiday weekend is lost on Weisberg).

Like most people who call for "leadership" (Catholics wanting "leadership" from their bishops being chief among them), Weisberg doesn't want to actually be led.  He just wants a presidential seal of approval for his own positions, which he trusts Obama secretly shares.

For someone like President Obama, which requires greater courage?

  • Angering Fox News
  • Angering Weisberg and his cohorts like Rachel Maddow, Paul Krugman, etc.
I submit that the latter requires more courage.  President Obama has given no indication of caring what Fox News says about him.  He is probably convinced they will criticize him no matter what he does.

Perhaps Weisberg should consider the possibility that Obama is exercising courageous leadership, but the object is not Those People Over There, but people like Weisberg who adopt a Manichean black/white view on these issues and stop listening to the other side.  Maybe he should reconsider his attitude toward those who disagree with him on these issues.

That would take courage.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A project for Commonweal Catholics

This week, Commonweal, published an editorial in support of the Cordoba House project, and criticizing Abp. Dolan for not being more supportive of it, and I'm sure they're quite proud of themselves for it.  Though I kind of see it, as Mark Shea would say, of "bravely facing the applause".

My distaste for the opposition for the House still stands; nevertheless, I had a few problems with the editorial.  It begins:

In the past nine years, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have been invoked, distorted, and exploited to serve a variety of political and ideological agendas. But no such effort has been quite as shameful as the current campaign against the so-called Ground Zero Mosque.
Emphasis mine.

:et's catalog some of the agendas that the 9/11 attacks have been invoked to support:

  • The war in Afghanistan, which continues without a clear path to victory, or even an idea of what "victory" might mean.
  • The war in Iraq, which we are just now getting out of, and required us to defy the United Nations and sully world opinion.
  • The adoption of torture, or "enhanced interrogation techniques."
  • Various civil liberties erosions
  • Rendition
How I wish the most shameful effort that 9/11 is used to prop up is an effort to move an Islamic Center a little further away from Ground Zero!  

It's possible that it represents the clearest departure from our country's founding principles, but I find torture and preemptive war more shameful than property decisions.

The editorial goes into familiar territory (with which I concur, absent the eagerness to brand opponents as bigots), and concludes with a desire for Archbishop Dolan to be more active in support of the project.

Now, this is the same publication that will issue editorials expressing grave concerns everytime a bishop so much as wrinkles an eyebrow at a pro-choice publication.  My understanding of Abp. Dolan's position is that he affirms the rights of the Center to be built, and would like to help mediate a resolution that is satisfactory to all parties.  Which seems quite similar to Commonweal's preferred disposition for bishops on abortion.  But that's just the legally licensed killing of innocent babies, not something as fundamental as the most prudent use of lower Manhattan real estate.  On the Cordoba House, unity!

Anyway, maybe I shouldn't begrudge them their home run trot slamming this fat pitch into the seats.  And there are those who have opposed the project who deserve to be called out for it.

But it seems that Jon Stewart is doing a decent job of that, so it may be time to move on to a more challenging mission.

Dana Goldstein wrote a piece linking the Tea Party movement to socially conservative positions.  She promoted it with the tweet, "The tea party movement is more and more embracing an extreme agenda on abortion, other social issues "  From the article, the "extreme" positions include:

  • Support of an Alaska ballot initiative requiring parental notification requiring parental consent for abortions procured by unmarried minors.
  • Pro-life activism
  • Support of the Mexico City Policy of not allowing foreign aid to be used to fund abortions.
  • A suggestion that rape victims should avoid abortion
I think that Catholics who are involved in the political left are uniquely positioned to help shape the culture such that the positions articulated above are not considered extreme.  Commentators like Goldstein are comfortable labeling them as such, in part because they probably don't know anybody who holds those positions.   Catholics on the political left can change that, and not let commentators get away with that.

This will require some sacrifice, because labeling the opposition as "extreme" is helpful for Democratic candidates, and raising the cost of using this tactic may result in more Republicans being elected.  But I submit that any victories won on the back of the social marginalization of the pro-life perspective are hollow indeed.

Doing this probably won't be as fun as calling those opposed to the Cordoba House bigots, but needs to be done.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Thoughts on the "Ground Zero" Mosque..

First, a few things to get out of the way...
  1. It is clear the Park51 developers have the right to build the mosque.
  2. I am ashamed that some have tried to use various levers of government to prevent it.
  3. The manner in which politicians have ginned up outrage over this is shameful, and evidence of their general backruptcy of productive ideas.
  4. I have found the appeals to how welcoming countries like Saudi Arabia are to Christian churches particularly unfortunate.  The standard for the United States in embracing religious freedom is not Saudi Arabia, and I weep for the day when it is, and anyone who loves this country should seriously consider the implications of using Islamic theocracies as a measuring stick for our actions.
  5. My preferred option would for the mosque to be built with little more attention paid to it.  But I'm not sure that's possible.

The consensus of elite opinions seems to be that all arguments against the mosque ultimately come down to bigotry.  The challenge is put down for those opposed, or those with any sympathy to those opposed, to articulate and argument against it that is not dependent on bigotry or collective guilt.  If not, then they have exposed the whole enterprise as bigoted and unworthy of consideration.   Some may be offended, but root of that offense is bigotry, which need not be respected.

Bill McClellan (with whom I agree on his distaste for the Carnahan and Blunt dynasties here in Missouri) captured the gist of this thinking in Sunday's column:

Frankly, I have little sympathy for the politicians who say they understand that the Muslims have a constitutional right to build a center — or even a mosque — but don't think they should. Or the president, who acknowledges that Muslims have the right to build a center — or even a mosque — but won't say whether he supports the building of such.
If they have the right, they have the right. Period. Otherwise, what good is a right?
It's as if you were to tell gun owners that you acknowledge their right to own guns, but you think they should voluntarily disarm. 
First, I think this neatly captures the attitude most gun control types have toward gun owners, though I'm not sure I'd vouch for the part where they acknowledge their right to own guns.  They most certainly do not approve of gun ownership, do not welcome guns in a variety of settings, don't wast to see non gun owners acquire guns, and wish those who do own guns would get rid of them.  There are places where bearing arms is not just socially proscribed, but also legally banned.  And I don't think there's anything wrong with that.  

Last year, a pro-life person murdered Dr. George Tiller, who was notorious for performing late term abortions, outside his church in Wichita.  This was the act of a single actor, and the first example of lethal pro-life violence in a number of years, though some claim that the rhetoric of the mainstream pro-life movement equating abortion with murder inspires such violence.

In my opinion, and I suspect in the opinion of most, it would be wise for the pro-life movement to tone down its activities in the Wichita area.  It would not be a good idea to, for example, construct a monument to the victims of violence, both born and unborn, right across from his gravesite or outside the church where he was murdered.  Were the pro-life movement to publicly contemplate such a project, I would expect it to be subject to withering criticism, both from within and from the outside.

I can't articulate a reason for this that doesn't rest on heaping the guilt for this act of a single person on an entire movement that is by and large peaceful.  But, as before, I'm OK with that.  There should be some incentive for large movements to police its more extreme elements.  I don't want a pro-life movement that goes around unnecessarily provoking people.  Heck, we weren't sure if we should allow a pro-life ad to air during the Super Bowl.

It is here where some will quibble with whether my analogy presents a precise analogy with the Cordoba Project controversy.  The mosque is two blocks away, in an old Burlington Coat Factory, almost ten years after 9/11.  And so on.  That misses the point.  The assertion is that if one cannot articulate a non-bigoted argument against an exercise of religious freedom, then that indicates that the opposition is based on bigotry.  It is my opinion that opposition to a monument to the unborn next to Dr. Tiller's gravesite would be proper, and I suspect most would agree.  Given that, we have accepted that in some cases, a group faces some social restrictions on its behavior as a result of the actions of a violent faction.  Now we're just haggling over the price.

It may be the case that the "price" in this case is one we should be willing to pay for the Cordoba Project, and not one we should be willing to pay for the pro-life memorial.  But making such and argument would involve actually engaging those opposed, and it's a lot more fun to just dismiss them as bigots.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Plight of the Liberal Catholic

The rant by Anne Rice announcing she is leaving Catholicism has inspired a couple commentaries on the difficulties political liberals face in reconciling their commitments with being Catholic.

Rick Garnett has an interesting response.

I suppose I would  be more moved by these expressions of anguish (which are no doubt real) if they were coupled with an equal number of expressions of anguish about how inhospitable their political home is for Catholic values.

At least all of these folks claim to be pro-life.  They also fully support the Democratic Party.  The same party whose 2008 party platform expressed unequivocal support for Roe vs. Wade.  The same party that almost lost the opportunity to pass health care reform because it couldn't countenance including explicit bans on funding abortion.

But you will search in vain for anguished posts discerning whether a liberal pro-life Catholic should or should not remain in the Democratic Party.  You will not see someone begging Nancy Pelosi to excommunicate her from the Democratic Party.   Instead, if you look at Vox Nova, dotCommonweal, or In All Things, you will generally find the following posts:

  • Boy, those Republicans are awful, aren't they.  Do you believe this?
  • Quote from a saint
  • I mean really, they sure are terrible.
  • The pro-life objection to this Democratic initiative is a bunch of hot air.
  • Plus, they had no objection to the same thing when Republicans did it.
  • Yes, they really are awful.

If you do find anything challenging the Democratic Party's support for abortion, you will have to dig past ten posts about the evilness and hypocrisy of Republicans to get there.  This with the Democrats in control of the White House and both houses of Congress.

These people seem convinced that, in spite of advocating for the continued legalization of the killing of innocents, the Democratic Party is a great vehicle for pursuing justice and worthy of their support.

But if the Catholic Church doesn't ordain women, or doesn't support same sex marriage? Then maybe they're not so sure about it.


What I think we're seeing here is that the Catholic Church, and religion in general, no longer has a the first claim on people's loyalties.  (and if you think this is exclusively a "liberal" problem, talk to a "conservative "Catholics about waterboarding, health care, or immigration).  If the values of my political allegiance conflict with the values of my Church, then it's the Church's, or my allegiance to the Church's, that needs to change.  Yes, I might look for some loophole so I'm within the letter of the law (it's not an "intrinsic" evil; it's a "prudential judgement", etc.) but our hearts are with our political alliance.

Some might say it's because of the sexual abuse scandals, but I think the scandals are a reaction to this new environment rather than a cause.  We're not willing to look the other way when Church leaders misbehave anymore.  As such, this may not be an altogether bad thing.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Concern trolling on Proposition 8...

Several years ago a Florida judge ruled that Micheal Schiavo could removed the feeding tube that was keeping his (ex?) wife Terri alive, over the objections of her family of origin.

President Bush and the Republican Congress moved to prevent this and managed to delay the removal by a couple days.  Ultimately the tube was removed, government agents were posted to prevent Terri's family from feeding her, and she died.

The Republicans controlled all aspects of both the federal and Florida government, and were only successful in postponing the removal of a couple days.  Nevertheless, this was seen as a massive overreach by the federal government, and was blamed for the Republicans' losses in the 2006 midterm elections.  How dare they overrule the decision of the duly appointed judge?

In said midterm election, Amendment 2 passed in Missouri after a massive celebrity-filled advertising campaign funded mostly by a single family.  This declared that there could not be any restrictions on embryo-denying research.  I don't recall if there was a lawsuit challenging it,  but I had no expectation that we could sue to undo a constitutional amendment that was approved via a public referendum.

Fast forward to 2010.

Arizona passes an immigration law approved by its populace.  The Administration sues and succeeds in blocking it from being implemented.

California's Supreme Court establishes same sex marriage.  The voters approve Proposition 8, restoring marriage to its previous definition.  The federal court overturns it.

Now.  I'm not a fan of Arizona's immigration bill.  And I'm growing inclined to believe that given the trajectory of heterosexual marriage, that it may not be just to excluded homosexual couples.  Dahlia Lithwick, whom I cited above thinking Bush's actions in the Schiavo case violated every constitutional principle, seems to think this is just great.

Still.  If you are a somewhat conservative voter in Arizona or California or anywhere else, wouldn't you get the feeling that if the eggheads in Washington don't like something you did, no matter how duly you followed the correct process to do it, they will find a way to undo it.

This provides ample ammunition to anti-intellectual movements and appeals like the Tea Party and Sarah Palin.  These elites think they're better than you and smarter than you.  They think you're a bunch of bigots who have "no rational basis" for your policy preferences, and they can just decide to overrule it.  I don't think that would be a good thing.

I hate to rain on the parade of same sex marriage advocates, but I see little to celebrate in the further division in our society.  Might makes right.  You don't need to persuade those who disagree with you; you just have to grab the reins of power, determine that your opponents have "no rational basis" for their policies, and impose your will.

Guess I should start working on my lawsuit to overturn Amendment 2.  Who cares if Missouri voters approved it?  I think it declares a class of persons to be outside the protection of the law.  That's got to be unconstitutional, right?  I've just got to find the right judge.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

More LeBron James thoughts...

For some reason, I find the LeBron James decision very interesting, so I've got few more scattered thoughts about it.  I'll put them under the fold.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What We Want From Athletes

We want athletes who are willing to sacrifice individual glory, statistics, and money in order to win a championship, right?  

If the reaction to LeBron James's decision to join Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade with the Miami heat is any indication, maybe not.

On the surface, it seems like James (and Bosh and Wade) are doing what we always say we want star athletes to do.  Go for the rings.  Value your teammates.  Make winning your first priority.

Isn't that what we would do with our careers?  What would we do -- bang our head against the wall trying to drag a group of incompetents to success, or join some friends who also happen to be outstanding in their fields and kick some butt?

Still, something doesn't seem quite right.  The superstar leading his team to victory, "learning how to win," etc. is a great story.  A group of stars getting together and stacking the deck in their favor is not.

But sports is ultimately about competition.  I'l enjoy having the All-Star Game on tonight, but I'll be on the edge of my seat for a tight postseason series.  What we want when we watch sports isn't just moments of brilliance and great plays, but intense competition between teams at the top of their game going all-out to beat each other.   I don't recall any jaw-dropping plays from Game 7 of the NBA Finals, but I watched the whole thing.  I can't remember the last NBA All-Star Game I watched.

This sentiment is captured by Bill Simmons: "Michael Jordan would have wanted to kick Dwyane Wade's butt every spring, not play with him."  

Perhaps.  In terms of judging LeBron James as a human being, I'm not sure this is such a bad thing, judging by things like Jordan's Hall of Fame Speech.

But as an athlete and entertainer, it puts him behind Jordan.  LeBron can never be David; he will always be Goliath.  He will never put a team on his shoulders and carry it to a title, and neither will Wade.  Both players appear to have the potential to do that, and if everything goes according to plan, they never will.

What this feels most like is A-Rod joining the Yankees, A-Rod swung from one extreme to the other.  He joined a team that had to invest all its resources in him and couldn't afford anyone else, then moved to a team that was already dominated by other personalities. 

LeBron is doing the same thing.  Even if the Heat win five titles, we will never know if LeBron could have led a a team to a title.  He's set the difficulty down a few levels.

I'm not a fan of the Orlando Magic and the way they play, but I'm hoping they or another team from the East hand it to the Heat on a regular basis.  And I hope Kevin Durant leads the Oklahoma City Thunder to greatness.  Maybe Kobe can lead the Lakers on a couple more runs.

Because I don't want to see this work, and have every generation of stars get together on the same team and dominate the league.  It's just that not fun to watch.  The Dream Team was one summer.  This is five years.  I want sports to be about competition, not the best players getting together and stacking the deck in their favor.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Nature vs. Nurture on NBA Supporting Casts...

The LeBron James decision is fascinating, and promises to get even more so.

Never before has someone who is such a significant portion of a championship team had an opportunity to choose his next destination.  One player has more impact in basketball than in any other sport, and no player with the stature of LeBron James has ever been a free agent.

Of course, a superstar gets you part of the way to a championship, but not the whole way.  So, if we assume that James should make his choice to optimize his probability and frequency of championships (an assumption I don't completely buy), then the question is what kind of team he should surround himself with.

The Lakers and Cavaliers both played the Lakers in last year's playoffs.  The Lakers won; the Cavaliers lost.  The main difference, as far as I could tell is that when LeBron had a terrible shooting game, the Cavs went in the tank, whereas when Kobe Bryant went 6-24 from the field in Game 7, the team kept him in the game.

So, the fundamental question is whether this is due to the quality of their teammates, or the culture of the teams, as defined by the coach and, yes, the star player.

For sure, anyone would trade the Cavaliers' 2-12 players for the Lakers'.  The Cavs had nobody comparable to Pau Gasol, no veteran leader like Derek Fisher, or anyone with the versatility of Lamar Odom.  In a choose-up game, six Lakers would probably go before the second Cav.

At the same time, it's also true that some of these guys weren't great players before hooking up with the Lakers.  Five years ago, would anyone have thought that Ron Artest and Lamar Odom would be critical parts of an NBA championship team?

NBA history is full of role players who have been parts of many different winning teams -- Robert Horry, Steve Kerr, Fisher.  But it's also true that the list of championship coaches is a short one.  And that these coaches have turned problem players like Dennis Rodman, Stephen Jackson, Artest, and Odom into productive members of championship teams.

Of course, the guys we recognize today as winners are at the tail end of their careers, and probably aren't going to be part of another championship anyway, so it would be silly for LeBron to try to target a team with these guys in place, or with plans to acquire them.

History has shown he will need at least one other solid contributor.  But in terms of role players, I'm not sure you can tell the Mo Williamses from the Derek Fishers before the time comes.

So if I were LeBron James, and I wanted to maximize my ability to win a championship, the single most important factor for me would be the head coach.  Specifically, it would whether I believe the head coach would be an effective partner for me in building a winning culture.

The second requirement would be a solid second banana, but that seems to be achievable for all the contenders.

And right now, I'd take Pat Riley over Byron Scott, Mike D'Antoni, or the void elsewhere.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Soccer, Laws, Rules, and morals.

One of the most fundamental rules of soccer is that except for the goalkeeper, you can't use your hands on the ball.  Even most Americans know that

In the final minute of extra time in Friday's quarterfinal game against Ghana, Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez found himself standing in front of the goal with the ball heading toward him head high.  He swatted the ball with his hand, took the red card penalty.  Ghana missed the penalty kick, and Uruguay ultimately won the game to advance.  Suarez will be suspended for Uraguay's next game.

While some might disagree, most would say that Suarez did the right thing.  The important thing was to win the game.  If Suarez had not swatted at the ball, Uraguay would have almost definitely lost.  His action gave them a chance to win.  You play to win, not to follow the rules.  Suarez did what he had to do to help his team win.  If he had refused to break the rules to help his team win the game, he would be criticized for it.

While perhaps not this stark, in most sports there are times where it is more in a team's interest to accept the penalty for breaking the rules than not.  A defensive back should take a pass interference penalty rather than give up a touchdown.  A basketball player should give up a foul rather than a lay up, and foul on purpose in the final minutes to extend the game.

But this is not universal.  Suarez's action, while against perhaps the most fundamental rule of soccer, was harmless.  If the only way for Suarez to prevent the goal was to cause physical harm to one of Ghana's players, and he did so, I doubt we'd feel the same way.  If he kidnapped the opposing team's players' children to distract them during the game, nobody would be cheering.

It seems to me that a lot of the controversies in the Church boil down the whether the teaching of the Church is analogous to the rule against using your hands in soccer or more significant.  In particular, I am thinking of the case in Phoenix of the abortion given to the woman with the heart condition, and the torture debate.

For sure, some rules should be ignored under some circumstances.  It is a rule that we shouldn't eat meat on Lenten Fridays, but given a choice between wasting prepared food and eating meat, we should probably eat the meat.  Attending Mass on Sundays is a commandment, but if on the way to Church we see someone desperately needing help, we should be willing to miss Mass to help them.

But, in my view, the Church's teachings on the dignity of human life are more fundamental than that.  We don't eschew torture and abortion and unjust war just so that we can have a clean report card.  We do it because it is who we are, who God has called us to be, and breaking those rules takes us away from that.

The Cider House Rules invited us to regard pro-life sentiments as, at best guidelines for order that can be disregarded when deemed necessary, and at worse a tool of oppression.  My view is that living the Gospel, living our true selves, is the true path to freedom.

It ultimately comes down to how we answer the question Jesus posed to Peter in the Gospel two weeks ago -- "Who do you say that I am"  Do we regard Christ and His Church as makers of arbitrary rules that prevent us from getting things done, or as the Lord of our lives who has shown us the true path of life?

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On the basketball free agency...

First of all, I have to say that I find basketball the most interesting thing to talk about.  Unlike baseball, you're allowed to talk about things like team chemistry, character, clutch shooting, and coaching decisions without immediately being shouted down by a bunch of guys with spreadsheets telling you that none of that matters.  Football's a little too technical and complicated.  Basketball seems most analagous to problems in other organizations.  Who's the best lead player?  What kind of players should you surround him with?  How should the teammates relate to each other and to the coach?

This past postseason was a very interesting study in what kind of teams are successful.  LeBron James who seems to get along with his teammates and had rolled with them to a 60 win season got knocked out in the second round.  Kobe Bryant, who occasionally seems to regard his teammates with thinly veiled contempt, won the title.  The difference seemed to be that when Kobe Bryant went 6 for 24 in Game 7, his teammates were able to pull them through.  When James had a bad game, his teammates shrunk.

There's been a lot of talk about where James and the others should go if they want to win a championship.  But I'm not sure James or anyone else can know that for sure.  Do we know how any set of teammates will react in a playoff game when James doesn't have it going?  Who will be the next Derek Fisher?

The critical thing will be the culture of the team, defined mostly by the head coach and James himself.  That could happen anywhere or it could happen nowhere.  We don't know yet if James can lead a team to a championship. It seems likely but we don't know.

Whatever James chooses, it will be interesting to see if it will work.

One more note -- an undercurrent of recent commentary has been the wonders of Pat Riley.  Now Riley is one of three coaches to win multiple championships in the past 25 years.  But his team has been lousy the last three years.  I'm not so sure about the magical tough.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cardinal Rant

It seems like poor form to "rant" about a team that's only a half game out of first place, but I think a 10-3 loss to Bruce Chen and the Royals is sufficient cause.

My problems with this team:

  • Poor situational hitting
  • Boring offense
  • Lack of competitive spirit
  • Old players whose ceiling is well-known and not that high.
This team is playing with all the urgency of a team that knows it's in the NL Central and can win its division with 85 or so wins.

I think part of the problem is that management screwed up the culture of the team by bringing in released veterans like Randy Winn, Aaron Miles, and yes, Jeff Suppan, and shipping down young players.  Suppan is forgivable because the team was desperate for starting pitching and he's delivered some quality innings.    But Opening Day invitees Alan Craig and Joe Mather are long gone.  Remaining young player like Brendan Ryan and Skip Schumaker are playing scared.

If this wasn't bad enough, La Russa like to find ways to get these veterans in the lineup, at the expense of guys like Colby Rasmus and Ryan Ludwick, the one guy who has been hitting as well as expected.

Another problem is that the two longest tenured Cardinals, Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina, play with an occasional and marked lack of hustle.  Both are among the league leaders in double play percentage, and usually seem to be jogging halfway down the line when the DP is completed.

I don't want Albert Pujols blowing his hamstring busting down the line on a third inning ground ball, either, but I think it sets a bad tone for the team.

Of course, the team this year's version most reminds me of is the 2006 Cardinals, a team I also couldn't stand, and we know how that ended.  So what do I know?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Modest proposal for the NCAA

Meta-note: We're back here for now as the host for MBB is having issues.  May turn out to be permanent.  RSS feeds should be OK.  If you have any reason I should prefer Tumblr, let me know.

Two news items from last week in college football:

  • Colorado joined the Pac-10; Nebraska joined the Big 10, remaining Big 12 South teams may bolt to Pac 10.
  • USC given sanctions for recruiting of Reggie Bush.
Look, I'm way past moral outrage about recruiting violations in big time college football.  Let's face it, there will always be some athletes who will come out of high school looking to cash in.  And some college programs willing to facilitate that. (e.g. wherever John Calipari is coaching).  

Meanwhile, you've got Division III tennis players afraid to eat a slice of pizza for fear of running against some NCAA rule.  To maintain the illusion that the two big-time college sports are amateur, we've made everybody's lives miserable.

So here's what I propose -- the losers in the Great Conference Shuffle secede from the NCAA and play by their own rules, including reasonable compensation for the athletes, and compete with it.

I suppose there would be some loss of prestige.  But, in football especially, it seems we're moving toward a world where a few big teams dominate.  Why should the test of the teams just do their bidding?

Anyway, this has zero chance of happening, but it would be interesting...


Testing from blogger.