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McCarthyism or Corporate Survival?

Mozilla Firefox is my browser and it works. Every now and again I get an update; sometimes a note asking for a contribution to what is largely/wholly a public-spirited effort to keep the internet open source (or something like that). For some reason, I thought it was an Italian effort (as in Mozarella), but it turns out it organizes itself right here in the U.S. drawing on sources from global techies.

Brendan Eich, its recently appointed CEO is now its recently resigned former CEO. The issue: he donated a thousand dollars to California's proposition 8 campaign in 2008. It was an effort to turn back a California court decision allowing same-sex marriages in the state. Apparently when this contribution was discovered, there was a social media uproar (didn't see it on Mozilla though). There were calls for his resignation, and according to this story in the NYTimes, he did resign.

The great debate: Should Eich have been penalized for his views and his contribution? Andrew Sullivan thinks not in this post on the Dish, "The Hounding of a Heretic."  And continues here. And on Sunnday posted this [HT: Ann Olivier]. Meanwhile,  Farhad Manjoo explains at the NYTimes  why Eich had to go: The very nature of Mozilla required it.

UPDATE: Saturday's NYTimes story: The issue of Mr. Eich's social skills comes up. What would social skills consist of in a libertarian context? The story suggests to me that no Mozillian has much in the way of social skills! Or at least, it can't be much of a job requirement.

UPDATE2: Many comments here link to posts elsewhere on this issue. Michael Kelly @4/7,9:04 quotes some particularly interesting comments on the Supreme Court's treatment of donor lists.

Crumbling Crackers Crisis

No, not Ukraine. Much closer to home. After the Christmas crisis looking for usable pot holders and candy canes, the household now faces the crisis (and mystery) of crumbling crackers. Our long-time favorites "Stoned Wheat Thins," crumble when touched, barely touched.

What are crackers good for? As platforms for peanut butter, herring, and cheese. Shortly after the New Years, opening a new box, I found they did not stay intact long enough to break in half along their perforation. Forget peanut butter!!! Subsequent boxes: more crumble.

Took the matter in hand and wrote to the manufacturer, Mondelez. They have replied: "The differences you noted may be due to a change in the production facility and the process we use to make the cracker. We have also made some minor changes to the formula. Some of the changes we made are: Changed the oil; Removed the Whey Powder; Added Ammonium bicarbonate and sodium metabisulphite (used to make dough rise)....We apologize for this experience. We will make sure our Quality team is aware of your comments. Thank you for your loyalty and we hope that your next experience is a good one."

Can the experience of crumbling crackers ever be a good one?

Same-sex marriage and religious liberty, continued

Since the controversy about (and subsequent veto of) Arizona's SB 1062, a pointed debate in newspapers and blogs has ensued about civil rights vs. religious liberty.  Ross Douthat's New York Times column expressed frustration that religious dissenters are not being permitted to "negotiate terms of surrender" in a culture "war."

What makes this response particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

But is this best construed as a war, or does a less threatening metaphor suffice? Perhaps we're not fighting an apocalyptic war of religion vs. secularism, but instead tinkering with our delicate balance of Constitutional rights.

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Naming What We're Doing: A Case Study

There is a fascinating story in today’s Washington Post about an FDA panel debating the question of whether to allow genetic modification of human embryos to “insert” genes of a third person, when there are genetic defects in the original DNA. Quite apart from how this displays our ongoing hostility toward disability, it has produced the most fascinating set of headline developments I have ever seen. On the paper copy of the Post in my library, the headline reads: “FDA debates idea of three-parent babies.” On the Web, the headline is “FDA panel debates technique that that would create embryos with three genetic parents.” Gone are the three-parent babies. Instead, bring in the “techniques” and the “embryos”! But the headline on the Web front page is even further from the print: “FDA debates procedure that mixes DNA from three people to form embryo.” Hmmm. Is “procedure” a bit more medical and less manufacturing in its resonance than is “technique”? Does “mixing DNA to form embryo” work better than “parenting”?

Herbert McCabe wrote in his magnificent Law, Love, and Language that what ethics is really all about is not simply law or love; rather, it is about developing a language whereby we could see more and more deeply and richly into the genuine significance of human living. The headline variance here provides quite a test case!

That Cadillac ad isn’t about stuff?

If you’ve spent any time in the last ten days or so watching the Olympics you may have caught the ad from Cadillac and thought to yourself: wait -- what? To synopsize: pugnacious, squared-jawed guy speaks directly to camera about why the American way of doing things is so great, as he takes the viewer on a swaggering tour of his holdings: from the vista of his infinity pool, across the natural-lit expanses of his glass-sided home, and ultimately to his serene, manicured driveway, where a shiny new Cadillac ELR awaits the promised imprint of his imperial haunches. The ad is titled “Work Hard,” and on advertising site iSpot it’s summarized like this: “Why do you work hard, foregoing [sic] vacation, family, and personal time? For stuff? No, it’s for a sense of accomplishment.” 

Maybe the explanation is necessary, because the actual words—to say nothing of the accompanying images of male dominion (docile and quietly occupied daughters, winsomely smiling wife, immaculate open-floor layout)—do allow for other possible interpretations:

Why do we work so hard? For what? For this? For stuff? Other countries, they work, they stroll home, they stop by the cafe, they take August off. Off. Why aren't you like that? Why aren't we like that? Because we're crazy, driven, hard-working believers, that's why. Those other countries think we're nuts. Whatever. Were the Wright Brothers insane? Bill Gates? Les Paul? Ali? Were we nuts when we pointed to the moon? That’s right. We went up there. You know what we got? Bored. So we left. Got a car up there, left the keys in it. You know why? Because we're the only ones going back up there, that's why.

But I digress. It's pretty simple. You work hard, you create your own luck, and you gotta believe anything is possible. As for all the stuff, that's the upside of only taking two weeks off in August. N’est-ce pas?

So: Inspiring, or repulsive? That’s the either/or quality of the debate that’s taken shape in the days since the ad first aired, but after repeated viewings I find it to be neither. Or, at any rate, not simply repulsive; plenty of commercials just by dint of their being commercials are repulsive. But the (quite literal) wink that comes with this ad pushes it into a different category. Come on, it wants to assure us, we know we’re being over the top here; we’re really just joking. But like anything that comes with a wink, there’s the other, underlying assurance to those in the know that it’s not a joke. Don’t be fooled by the appropriation of talismans of cool like Les Paul and Muhammad Ali—these are just two more acquisitions for this guy, accumulated cultural “capital” no more familiar to him than the art he’s purchased for his walls (as others have pointed out, doesn’t he realize that Ali forswore his given American name, converted to Islam, refused military conscription, and criticized U.S. policy on race and economics?). Don’t be fooled that he actually unplugs his little reward to himself—how much of an offset to a carbon footprint like his will an electric car provide? And then there’s the snotty French sign-off, which against the backdrop of international athletic competition underscores the current “maker” contempt toward any system not explicitly tuned to maximize personal wealth, American-style.

But it’s just a joke. And it’s not about wealth or stuff, even though the Cadillac ELR is, according to the advertising, “priced from $75,000,” home-charging station not included. 

What are the ethics of watching football?

Of all the things President Obama said in the long New Yorker profile-interview last week, I found it interesting how many people seized on his remark that he wouldn’t let his son play pro football. Syria? The ACA? Obstructionist Congressional Republicans? There were about seventeen-thousand other words to choose from, but with the two-week gap between conference championships and Super Bowl Sunday, maybe people were itching for something, anything, football-related to talk about (surely it wasn’t just another reason to criticize Obama for positing “imaginary” offspring and apologizing for America?).

The president said something similar this time last year, only then it was that he’d have to think “long and hard about it.” Of course, the twelve months between have served up still more stories of players now living with (and dying from) the effects of catastrophic brain injury tied to playing football, and still more data confirming the connection. So maybe it’s understandable that his position has solidified. And yet then came what he called his “caveat emptor,” that current NFL players “know what they’re buying into. It’s no longer a secret. It’s sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?”

Just how responsible are fans and viewers of football for the well-being of the people playing it?

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Is Catholicism compatible with libertarianism?

It's hard to believe that question is still being debated, isn't it? For over 100 years, the definitive answer is No. Pope after pope after pope, right up to Benedict XVI, has explained this in the most magisterial ways.

But perhaps it has taken Pope Francis's singular history, style, and gift for communication to break through the noise of American-style capitalism. Or perhaps the underbelly of globalization has finally come to light, through a combination of the explosion of financial capital, the worldwide recession, and the opportunities afforded by the Information Age for learning about the distant effects of almost-unregulated markets.

Whatever the reason, Pope Francis is getting through. He is obviously not a Marxist or socialist. But he is leveling strong critiques of the current state of global capitalism -- as it is actually being employed.  And to my mind, one of the best interpreters of his message (especially for those reading from the right-wing) has been Michael Gerson.

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Russell D. Moore: A Manifesto on "Some" Evangelicals

When I saw that Russell D. Moore had written a long piece about the so-called Evangelical “retreat” from American politics and culture wars, I was elated.

I am updating a syllabus for a course in religion and American politics, and I hoped this would be the perfect fresh take to round out our coverage of Evangelicalism. Certainly the media-savvy and next-generation Moore, the newish President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, would help my students understand the movement better than when they read speeches by his predecessor, Richard Land.

In short, I was primed for this essay.

Sadly, it is not assignable. This 4000-word feature, authored by the most prominent official of the Southern Baptists, is composed almost entirely of straw men.

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Christian Love In Action: Whitey Bulger Trial Edition

Yesterday, a parade of survivors made their way to the witness stand at the Moakley Federal Courthouse to deliver "victim impact statements" before convicted gangster and long-time fugitive Whitey Bulger is sentenced for crimes committed during his decades-long reign of terror in South Boston.

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen has a terrific column today reporting some of the highlights of an emotionally powerful day.  Among his many crimes, Bulger killed Theresa Bond's father 30 years ago.  Two of her brothers later committed suicide. 

But even as Whitey Bulger ignored her and all the pain inside Judge Denise Casper’s courtroom, Theresa Bond found a weapon to use against him.

“I just want you to know that I don’t hate you,” she told him. “I don’t have that authority. That would be judging you. I do hate the choices that you’ve made, along with your associates, but more so, I hate the choices our government has made to allow you to rule the streets and perform such horrific acts of evil.”

When she was finished with him, Bond left Whitey Bulger with this: “Mr. Bulger, do you have remorse for taking my father’s life? I think you do. I forgive you.”

 

Income inequality isn't going away

A few months ago, there was some good discussion on the blog about the persistently large gap in income inequality. And though the Occupy movement no longer garners headlines, the problem of income inequality remains a core moral issue for many Americans. It is widely thought that Bill de Blasio's focus on the topic has aided his rise in the New York City mayoral race. Andrew Sullivan's influential blog continues its coverage of the data, which shows that just since 2009, top 1% income has grown by 31.4% and everyone else's has been basically flat. Our own E. J. Dionne continues to cover the politics of inequality, and the U.S.C.C.B. has not shied away from it in its advocacy.

Last time we talked about it on this blog, we focused on ratios of CEO-to-worker pay in a given year, and David Cloutier followed up with a longer analysis at Catholic Moral Theology. But the problem is about more than a given year -- it's about the long-term trend from the late 1970's to the present. Timothy Noah has called this period The Great Divergence, in a multifaceted analysis of the possible causes of the growing gap. To my mind, the long-term story offers a compelling moral problem for our time, and one without an easy solution.

A quick way to capture the "great divergence" is this summary of the Economic Policy Institute's report from last year, about which Jena McGregor at the Washington Post wrote:

Average CEO compensation, according to EPI’s calculations, rose 726.7 percent between the years of 1978 and 2011 — more than double the percentage increase in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. Meanwhile, pay for the average private-sector nonsupervisory worker rose a startlingly meager 5.7 percent. ...

My guess is that it’s this inequality that really erodes worker satisfaction and guts employee morale far more than the discrepancy between the top and bottom in any one year’s pay.

I think she's right. Everyone expects annual ratios of 20-to-1 or even 200-to-1 in our form of capitalism. But the fact that purchasing power has not trickled down in the long run -- over my whole lifetime -- is what drains energy and optimism.

One feature of Pope Francis's pontificate has been a renewed emphasis on moral issues that had been thought of as peripheral for many Catholics. He has expanded the core of what counts as a central moral issue. But it's worth remembering that his predecessor had strong words on growing inequality, such as those quoted in the U.S.C.C.B.'s letter from Labor Day:

The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner, and that we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone. . . . Through the systemic increase of social inequality . . . not only does social cohesion suffer, thereby placing democracy at risk, but so too does the economy, through the progressive erosion of "social capital" . . . indispensable for any form of civil coexistence. (Caritas in Veritate no. 32)

Evangelical leader Jim Wallis is famous for saying, "The federal budget is a moral document." I agree. But every budget is a moral document -- from that of Wal-Mart down to that of each family's breakfast table. In a democracy, the problem of income inequality is everyone's problem. And it's not going away.

Unjustified, by just-war standards

Now featured on the homepage: George Hunsinger evaluates the proposed attack on Syria by the criteria of just war--and finds it wanting.

How should U.S. citizens and their elected representatives decide this dreadful question? A defensible case for the attack on Syria would have to satisfy traditional “just war” standards. In its modern form the just-war tradition (jus ad bellum) involves at least four primary elements: just cause, legitimate authority, last resort, and reasonable chance of success. If these criteria remain unmet, the recourse to war is unjustified.

In my view, the proposed attack on Syria meets none of these standards. Let us review them in order.

Read the whole thing here.

Catholic commentary round-up on proposed attack in Syria

The past few days have seen a burst of commentary from Catholic writers about the proposed attack in Syria. This blog has featured a lot, and the current issue of the magazine has Gabriel Said Reynolds's essential short take. A few other items of note, and feel free to add more in the comments:

Maryann Cusimano Love on the "just war" question in the Huffington Post

Drew Christiansen, S.J., on the role of prayer in Washington Post "On Faith"

Tobias Winright on "just war" analysis in The Tablet and Catholic Moral Theology

R. R. Reno on "symbolic killing" in First Things

The USCCB's letter to President Obama

E. J. Dionne's column in praise of democracy, today in the Washington Post

Michael Sean Winters taking the liberal interventionist route in National Catholic Reporter

And, of course, the Pope has been leading the way from last week's Angelus to his letter to President Putin to his forceful social media activism, about which I wrote a short piece in the Washington Post's "On Faith" section. My take-home point was: "Prayerful, prophetic denunciation of war is one papal tradition that the reform-minded Francis will not be changing."

Elizabeth Tenety offered a round-up of some of these critiques from the commentariat, and then posed the question of whether all the Catholics in political power in the United States are listening.

Are they???

Finally, if you're in the New York area, I'm sure the Pope's out-front anti-war message will become a topic of conversation at our Fordham panel about Pope Francis on Mon, Sept 9, at Lincoln Center campus.  Info and RSVP HERE.

Christian realism

As more enthusiastic approval is being sought for attacking Syria, we’ll soon be hearing more amplified appeals to “just war” teaching in the Christian tradition, which makes this brand new essay by Stanley Hauerwas, on the case for Christian realism, timely, even required, reading.

Long ago at Notre Dame, where he taught and I tried in vain to learn, Stanley’s course in Christian Political Ethics, left most of his students (and certainly this one) wondering if a “just war” ever had been or could be waged.  Since those days, he’s left countless others wondering the same thing, and here again, he raises a few “questions that advocates of just war must address before they accuse pacifists of being ‘unrealistic.” The essay should be read in full, but Stanley’s questions are worth pondering all by themselves:

•What would an American foreign policy determined by just war principles look like?

•What would a just war Pentagon look like?

•What kind of virtues would the people of America have to have to sustain a just war foreign policy and Pentagon?

•What kind of training do those in the military have to undergo in order to be willing to take casualties rather than conduct the war unjustly?

•How would those with the patience necessary to insure that a war be a last resort be elected to office?

Jesus' parables: Where do you read yourself in?

In preparation for a workshop at the New York Catholic Bible Summit, I have been exploring the ways in which Jesus' parables can be defamiliarized for seasoned Christians. The parables can lose some of their dramatic force through repetition over the years. How many times have you heard the Good Samaritan? When it comes up again in the lectionary next month, will your mind wander, since you know every word of the story by heart? How can we hear the parables anew?

One method for refreshing the parables is to experiment with where one "reads oneself in" to the story. Many of the parables speak to multiple audiences at the same time, as when the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16) brings comfort to the poor, while also rousing the rich from complacency. Parables about sin and mercy, such as that of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18), invite listeners to read themselves in to both characters at different moments in life. It's also among the most clever of the parables because once you imagine yourself as the tax collector ("I'm like the tax collector, a humble sinner, and definitely not like that pompous Pharisee"), then you automatically become more like the Pharisee. The oxymoronic pride in one's own humility springs the rhetorical trap of the story: most of us are both Pharisee and tax collector.

Even that most famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) can be revitalized through this exercise. Many readers read ourselves in as the Samaritan -- of course, the exhortation "Go and do likewise" commands us in this way. But many Christians around the world feel themselves to have more in common with the man in the ditch, as evidenced by research about biblical exegesis in poor communities. Indeed, the oldest extant artistic rendering of this parable (as far as I am aware) titles the parable, "Concerning the man who fell among thieves" (illumination 7 in the Rossano Gospels). Where we read ourselves in sometimes relates to the titles we give the stories (cf. the "prodigal son").

One of the best interpretations of the Good Samaritan develops by imagining oneself in to the characters of the priest and the Levite. Why didn't they stop? What was on their minds? Maybe they had perfectly good reasons -- the same kinds that we ourselves give when we pass by? I am referring to a middle section of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Mountaintop" speech (April 3, 1968). We all know the prophetic ending of that speech, but less known is the eloquent interpretation of this parable in the middle (audio starts about the 29:00 minute mark; text here). For King, this is a parable about two things: race and fear. But I don't want to steal King's thunder by summarizing his take, and it's worth a listen.

In our own society, then, where are our parables about race? What would Jesus tell today? Hard to say, but it's possible that he would have been making short viral videos. Yes, I'm serious. When I think of what medium affects me in the ways that Jesus' parables likely affected his audiences, I often think of the many excellent, short videos that circulate on the web. I'll leave you with one example, a kind of 21st-century parable about race. Granted, this one is not fiction, but a presentation of a social experiment. Nonetheless, it brings for me the same sense of discomfort and self-scrutiny that many of Jesus' parables also evoke.

Where do we read ourselves in to this story?