01 December, 2012

Popes N Kids

The Catholic Church comports itself as a moral authority, speaking and lobbying regularly on temporal matters. As a matter of routine its opinions are treated as worthwhile fodder for reproduction by all mainstream news agencies across Europe, the UK, the US and beyond. Meanwhile, many very important people within the Catholic Church, both within individual diocese and within the Holy See itself, covered up and continue to hide the activities of child rapists and child abusers, working to prevent such people from being prosecuted or treated, from their crimes being exposed publicly; they worked diligently to prevent the victims of such crime receiving due compensation and frequently, even, to prevent the paedophile from being removed from a position of trust, thereby actively facilitating their crimes.

People are responsible for their individual failures and it would not be right or appropriate to blame all people within the Church for the crimes, the culture of silence, etc. That being said it is perfectly appropriate to recognise the failures of the Church as an organisation in regards to issues of transparency, justice, and duty of care, for it surely did fail on a truly massive scale in self appointed responsibilities on a very serious issue, and designedly so.

The problem as applied to the organisation of the Catholic Church as it pertains to the shielding of paedophiles, as opposed to the laity, is that a) the Church is highly hierarchical, and it is therefore right and proper to condemn the power structure which deliberately shelters clergy from prosecution for their crimes and even allowed individuals known to have abused children to remain in a position of responsibility to vulnerable charges, b) the sexual abuse and its subsequent concealment was international, occurring in churches, orphanages and places of education in Ireland, the US, Austria, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands etc., c) the Church, even now, has failed to come clean about the full extent of such abuse and continues to fail to even seriously attempt to expiate its sins with its continued zeal in preventing justice from running its course, d) some people very high up indeed have been implicated, or were directly involved in the protection of clergy from investigation by secular authorities.

Additionally it is not merely the fact that sexual abuse happened. Nor is it merely a case of individual serial monsters, nor, to re-emphasise, am I suggesting collective guilt; the fact remains that Catholic Church is an organisation with a hierarchy which facilitated such abuses. For instance the power structure of the clergy was involved in the decision to castrate boys for being abused or for being gay: the structure of the Catholic Church designedly did shield paedophiles, designedly did maim boys for their sexuality or for being abused. Those individual Catholics involved in such decisions are personally responsible for their crimes and their protection of crimes, but one has to also question how they were given such absolute jurisdiction over people in the first place, prerogative they clearly should not have had.

The response to the charges, and to moral blame being laid at the feet of the Church, has almost without exception been ad hominem tu quoque. We are to suppose that the crimes of the church are reduced because they also occur in state schools. We are supposed to be dissuaded that such acts are not heinous because we cannot know how many Catholic clergy participated in crimes compared to the general population in a given nation. We are to prevent ourselves from recognising the role of the Church in protecting paedophiles because paedophiles are ubiquitous, or may be more or equally prevalent in other bodies. We are supposed to fail to recognise the many abuses which occurred in the past couple of decades, because most of the known scandals happened in the 70s or earlier. It is a paltry attempt at relativism by those who, for centuries, when not engaging in insipid political apologetics, feebly claim divinely inspired knowledge of an external moral absolutism. It is not good enough to say that others have been or were at the time as morally retrograde as you were if you purport to be a moral authority of any value, particularly one ordained and guided by God. Frequently, instead, such supposed jurisdiction is merely a dark mirror of our worst inclinations as a society allowed to run unfettered; instead, frequently, it is about control and greed on a massive scale. That there were more such acts that we know of happening several decades ago does not alter the fact of ongoing abuses, and pretending otherwise is a shameful apologetics of such crimes.

The sins of one are not mitigated by the sins of another. Indeed such arguments are an obvious and transparent false equivalence intended to defend some of the worst organised crimes in civilised society, as is pretending such crimes are about gay people in the Church, a claim that demonstrates a complete lack of concern for the seriousness of the crimes or a proper sense of responsibility.

The current Pope himself has been implicated in hiding paedophiles, and certainly knew of both the crimes and the efforts of the Church to hide them, but his efforts to defend the culture of insularity from justice are instead cast as triumphs. No one is absolved by the document, particularly considering how selectively released such information is. Of especial note it becomes clear that at no point does it seem to have entered anyone's head that perhaps child molesters should face actual punishment, removal from society, justice or rehabilitation. It is not a terribly startling display of ethics that inside the Church there was discussion of how hard it should be to demote some of the predators. Although one supposes that since he recognised there would be less fallout for the Church in the event of the wall of silence being breached, Benedict is a hero.

The further claim is that the church is finally getting the problem in hand, that it is working to finally expose and prevent such abuses, we must forgive and forget. The abuse and cover ups, meanwhile, continue; this resistance to justice ran all the way up to the Holy See, as it always has. They are ongoing to a shocking extent in countries across the world. The catholic church at its highest levels cannot be trusted to allow the paedophiles within its clergy to be brought to justice, frequently cannot even be relied upon to remove them from positions where such crimes can be committed easily. Even now!

Ire and frustration at a body conducting this sort of thing is entirely appropriate. Any individual who protects a single paedophile from being exposed to justice is a monstrous evil; any institution which shelters such criminals on a regular basis purely to protect its own reputation, as a matter of course, even now - even now! - is wedded to the evil of the initial crime. To defend that sort of behaviour, to defend the squirming apologetics of the Church's behaviour in this regard, to repeat their falsehoods, is to be wedded to that evil.

Unsurprisingly an international lobby group masquerading as a moral authority cannot be trusted to be open or to serve the public good when short term political gains are to be had protecting its image by protecting the paedophiles in its own ranks. For decades child abuse and rape has been institutionalised across the globe in orphanages, churches and schools; in some places it still is, and only in drips and drabs does the truth out, fought so vigorously against by the Church, often far too late for punishment or rehabilitation to be meted out against individual offenders, let alone to rescue children from such horrors or provide timely assistance or after care. Again and again a power structure obsessed with the personal lives of its laity has the transparency of a brick of lead, and it wields this opacity as a bludgeon against any kind of justice.

And yet, the very same officials partaking in such acts, in such apologetics, in such cover ups, have their opinion on moral and political matters – abortion, contraception, women, and so forth – treated as if it were any less trivial than that of a random punter on the street. Their pretensions to superior knowledge of an external morality are treated as legitimate positions – their faith, in other words, treated as potentially fact. But such notions are a nonsense. The Holy See is a political body with political goals. The fiction of them being anything else is perhaps most amply demonstrated by the child abuse scandals and the way in which they have been handled.

Shorter version:

-The Rev. Schmitt., FCD

26 November, 2012

sceince, facts, theories, laws, proofs, dogs


All the observations in the world are insufficient for proof: we must rely on our senses and instruments, which are necessarily faulty, and repeated experiment, which relies somewhat on the assumption that after seeing a hammer fall hundreds of times, the five hundred and first time it won't turn into a bird. Proof as such only really exists in internally consistent abstractions such as maths and logic. In looking at such a world the theories we construct are based on facts, but a fact in science is only as enduring as mankind is able to determine such a thing.

Rather than seeking truth per se science builds models based on observation and experiment, and such models must by their nature be tentatively held, for there is always the potential for an observation of things acting in a manner that is unexpected. To account for this new data the model must be altered to explain this new evidence. Our theories, even those for which mountains of evidence exist, all follow this pattern, constantly.

To take the example of electromagnetism: mankind was utterly ignorant of the relationship between electricity and magnetism until a battery was accidentally turned on near a compass by a very smart chap who decided to write about it to other smart chaps, and after a lot of thinking and prodding and waving magnets with coils around we now treat the two as a single force. Hell for a long time we had no idea that lightning for instance had any relationship to electricity whatsoever, until, among others, Benjamin Franklin was able to convincingly show it. The concept of an electrical charge, its nature, that all electricity is essentially caused by the same phenomenon, was based on the gathering of decades of observations, experimental data and constantly altering models. Each scientist who contributed to this knowledge was himself in the dark about many aspects of electromagnetism.

Now after so much observation, and empiricism having spent the past few centuries demonstrating its worth, the chances of the phenomena of electricity being completely swept aside by a revolutionary discovery is roughly the same as the falling hammer turning into a pigeon (I worked out the statistics of both using a science calculator). Even if we find our models are mere shadows of a much wider phenomenon, or that we have gotten the wrong end of the stick entirely and our explanations are the ridiculous mewling of man-children, the evidence we have gathered already - the data of the thing - is not thereby suddenly wrong, rather it is incorporated into a much wider body of knowledge, and the resulting explanation may be only dimly recognisable to us as electricity as we know it. 

After centuries of changing models, our understanding of what electricity actually is has become vastly different to that of its first discoverers. In later centuries the future discoveries of mankind (if we hang in there) will similarly make our understanding of it seem paltry. True revolutions in science are rare, some philosophers of science would suggest they do not happen at all, but rather there is a continual and gradual series of reformations, where even the apparently sudden disappearance for the need of the luminiferous aether was really paved by decades of discoveries which made it increasingly unnecessary and an alternative explanation for the data increasingly well-shaped. Even something as socially tumultuous as the discovery of the common descent of all life on earth was presaged by the discoveries and hypotheses of Erasmus Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, again amongst many others, who all gradually added bits and pieces of knowledge, who added claims which could be researched and tested and found wanting or were supported.

Gravity is a theory, and in many ways not a terribly well understood one.  Newton's universal law of gravity (and it is literally this) is certainly not a theory, but that is because there is no explanatory model or framework there. It tells us very little about gravity; indeed, even at the time Newton knew it was incapable of accurately describing the movements of the planets in the solar system with the required accuracy for the system to be maintained, and Newton himself, one of the cleverest, if not the cleverest bloke who's ever existed, had to fill in the gaps at the edge of his knowledge with such things as God. He was incorrect to do so, and he was more than smart enough to solve the problem himself, had he not shied away from doing so.

The Universal Law of Gravitation is a single datum, an equation which describes a single relationship. A theory of gravitation would seek to explain a collection of huge amounts of such data. I should also point out that Newton's law of gravitation is actually a bit wrong: general relativity (theory!) has already demonstrated that the 'law' is an (albeit a very excellent and eminently useful for most of our purposes in history) approximation, and becomes increasingly inaccurate as the speed of light is approached or the gravitational potential energy increases. Its inaccuracy is demonstrable by observations we can make here on earth (and indeed such observations helped develop general relativity in the first place). To cleave to a 'law' as being a fact where a theory is not, and by that to mean a 'law' is more truthful and proven than a 'theory' by mere dint of the terminology used, is to completely misunderstand what these terms are referring to.

The fact that all knowledge about the natural world is essentially tentative does not mean it is not useful or not to be relied upon. Humanity got a man on the moon relying on Newton, but without Einstein we wouldn't have GPS. There are fundamental problems with the way science is presented in the news media and to some extent I understand that, and a deep disconnect from the increasing specialisation of academia, are perhaps the predominant causative factors of the deeply ingrained wish to remain ignorant amongst many of the kind of people on the internet folk like me enjoy picking on. But to leap from that mistrust in science, which itself is constantly a self-correcting enterprise, to placing your trust in politicians or theologians or laymen pastors to interpret scientific results, to reject a consensus you do not understand the reasons for as so many do in regards to creationism, anthropogenic global warming denialism and so on, will perhaps forever remain deeply perplexing to me.

-The Rev. Schmitt.

24 November, 2012

Don't Godwin yourself you silly goose


'Israel', of course, is not such people any more than 'Palestine' is the febrile and fatuous and autonomous armed wing of Hamas. The geopolitics involved are, as people will go to great lengths to point out, horrendously complicated.

One thing is not quite so complicated however. Exterminationist rhetoric is never excusable, never ameliorated by context, never countered by giving the other side of the story, as it were, because there is no side of the story which makes it anything less than horrendous. For such rhetoric to be increasingly uttered by people in a position of power, for the deputy defence minister, for instance, to literally call for a shoah - that is, a Holocaust of Palestinians - should be deeply unsettling. There is never any excuse for such talk, and the more it is accepted, the more it is treated with blasé indifference, the more accepted it becomes by the power elite then the more translatable into eliminationist and exterminationist crimes the idea becomes. For such thoughts to be uttered in a modern liberal democracy by a cabinet minister should be unthinkable. It is never self defense to declare an intention to wipe out a people. It is never justified. It is never reasonable or rational or rendered sane by context. There is no such thing as balance for calls to genocide. People who say such things should not get away with it. They should not be part of the political process. They should not get to keep their jobs in government, or be regarded as savvy thinkers, or as journalists. That they keep their jobs and their roles and their functions should be of the deepest concern. There is no way of altering that, literally irrespective of anything any group of Palestinians do. They must be rooted out and rejected, and where they are not, the society in which such rhetoric is allowed to flourish must be looked at warily. Its justifications for military actions, policing actions, must be held under intense scrutiny because it is a society in which the idea of mass murder of a people merely for being of that people is tolerated and such ideas are darkly insidious.

We can talk about the feeble calls of genocide uttered by the  al-Qassam brigades - which Israel had prior to the mid-late 1990s allowed to develop and occasionally even supported against left wing and considerably more conciliatory Palestinian groups such as most notably the PLO and its Fatah wing, the only groups the Islamists have ever been militarily effective against - if you like. Morally such comments are of course equivalent, and it is a sign of the desperation and the hatred and the fear and, increasingly, religious bigotry and zealousness of Palestinians that Hamas was voted into power, more or less, and enjoys popular support after waging a low intensity conflict with Israel. All of the same condemnation I uttered against individual Israelis making such comments apply of course to individual Palestinians making such comments. Concern with societies which don't reject such people is echoed, with different nuances: it appears rather more popular amongst the Palestinians which is unsurprising, albeit no more justified, because their system of governance is less sovereign and also designedly protects fewer rights and liberties, and they have the worst of the conflict.

But as the article points out, the al-Qassam brigades are undoubtedly a terrorist organisation and Hamas is tainted by the association - they have actively supported numerous terrorist attacks and strategies, actively have had genocidal rhetoric woven into their quasi-repudiated 1988 charter. There's no such thing as a counterpoint for any of the individuals involved or the organisations which allow them to flourish that advocate genocide. In suggesting a state of comparison, in suggesting balanced reporting would more fully compare the genocidal comments between Hamas and Israel one is suggesting a collective moral equivalence between the state of Israel and a band of terrorist mass murderers. Far from excusing Hamas such an attitude condemns Israel in the worst ways imaginable. Are we really going to say they are like entities, the two distinct sides of the conflict?

There's another crucial distinction I suppose, pragmatically, insofar as Israel notably has the power and ability to complete such a genocide, and unlike the Palestinians is a functional and relatively well-established democracy, sovereign over its own territory, with the wealth of a superpower behind it, the full firepower and economic strength of a nation state at its beck and call, the capacity and will to strangle trade and embargo both luxuries and necessities. It kills a magnitude greater Palestinians than Palestinians kill Israelis in conflicts, and considerably more than that in more general terms. You don't get to mitigate such calls to mass murder by suggesting we need to look at the other side. You don't get to play them down by pointing out that the al-Qassam tactic of indiscriminate shelling - which has killed about four civilians during the most recent operations, roughly 11 since 2003, and one soldier - is, and it most certainly is, murderous, callous, and brutal. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been dispossessed of homes and livelihoods, forced into squalor and poverty and hunger; almost all have had goods and services and necessities restricted or prohibited as a matter of course; eliminationist rhetoric has been transformed into dramatically debilitating practice with the ghettoisation of Palestinians into the West Bank and Gaza. These are things Palestinians cannot do to Israelis. They can fling rockets and shells, which is a horrible and terrifying thing to endure. It is not an equitable level of suffering to endure.

The Palestinians are no more fair game than the people of Israel. In a modern, liberal democracy, with freedom of the press and of ideas and to a lesser extent of association, one rather hopes that such ideas as sodding genocide would be crushed mercilessly by better ideas, free from state or militia-driven censorship or the debilitating insular mindset generated by a loss of national sovereignty and repression. We cannot hope for such in Gaza, which enjoys none of these freedoms, opposed as they are by both Hamas and the net military and government actions of Israel.  Hamas is our enemy, irrespective of the mildly softening stance towards Israel brought about by its surge into political power, and suggesting moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas in such points merely suggests Israel is our enemy too.

As for responding to the conflict with a shrug,

-The Rev. Schmitt.

11 July, 2012

Everything is amazing right now and nobody is happy

I find it a bit difficult to accept that the greatest time to be American was in essentially any point in its history, although it seems a culturally popular idea that America has degraded from a perfect vision. Such attitudes are not uniquely American – British and Russian psyches seem in an endless arms race to be the most curmudgeonly nostalgic about an idealised and fictional past, irrespective of which period we're talking about – but in America's case in particular they seem to have gained immense political currency in recent years which has had a dramatic impact on public discourse and policy. My view of things is more or less this.

And yet they – really anyone in the Anglo first world - live in a period of history with higher literacy and numeracy than ever before, exceptionally longer life expectancy, better and more widespread access to information and telecommunications, more freedoms from government and robber baron tyranny – with well established environmental and labour regulations for instance - shorter less severe and less frequent recessions and depressions, better access to nutritional information and fresh varied foods, greater access to financial and legal services, better hygiene and far more leisure time than ever before, and the lowest reported property and violent crime rates in over 30 years. Even what it means to be poverty stricken has improved significantly in recent decades with most poor and unemployed people having access to clean, sanitary drinking water, decent housing with electricity and running water, and access to healthcare and education...sort of...even in America, compared to third world nations and its own history.

Over the past 60 years wars globally have decreased significantly in number, causing fewer direct and indirect deaths, spreading less disease, making fewer people homeless, and creating fewer refugees globally; democracy has taken root in more than double the number of countries that existed in the 40s, and we look set to see even more flourish, trade with each other, refuse to go to war with each other and establish stable, secure nations in their respective long terms.

The people of every nation tend to believe their wars have been moral ones, and with the advent of democracy conflicts are invariably argued in such terms. Even wars where demonstrable untruths formed the casus belli – such as, obviously, in Iraq – they nonetheless were couched in arguments which appealed to the sense of decency of the populace: Saddam was a mass murderer who killed his own people, generated regional instability and hosted or sponsored terrorists, and he was gearing up fictional development of WoMD programmes which could target the allies of western nations, if not those nations themselves, legally and morally generating a proportionate response. And yet, in modern warfare, as in historical warfare, the decision to go to war and the capacity to pursue it effectively involves numerous key individuals throughout the structure of government, in advisory positions, in the media, in the intelligence community, in powerful lobbyist and industrial positions, and so forth, and all of these will have perhaps even contradictory interests in whether a conflict goes forward. In the US, historically, one could say that wars have been pursued out of a belief of manifest destiny – as in the march west across North America and the various horrors inflicted against the aboriginal peoples encountered, although the truth also involves numerous key private financial, racial, power and economic issues embedded within in addition to overt government policy. Or imperialist land grabbing, as in the acquisition of various islands during the wars with Spain. Or a belief in democracy, loyalty to one's allies and opposition to communism, as in Vietnam and Korea; although, again, the truth also involves dueling spheres of influence, clashes in the name of both personal and national credibility, intra-government deception, confusion and misunderstandings ranging from the fictional cold war missile gap to the cock up and subsequent cover up of the second Gulf of Tonkin incident, and they rather condescendingly tried to persuade you that they were installing a brutal dictator in Vietnam in the name of democracy. While all wars in a relatively open nation are ostensibly conducted out of contemporary moral concerns, lest one's power be stripped through the voting booth or some other check on government power, I am unsure how we are supposed to parse which period is supposedly morally superior when it comes to extra-legally killing other people; very few are not awash in self interest or amusing evil or lies or mistakes. Even the greatest generation only garnered the resolve to enter a war against an obviously immoral warmongering foe after being attacked by its allies at Pearl Harbor. This is a long winded way of suggesting that war is a bit shit. I suspect that suggesting there was ever a period where they were consistently moral is to be a bit absurd and naive.

And we, and even they, for all of their complaints about socialism, are freer now than at any point in history. Those central rights that most of us consider quintessentially American, that are so thoroughly ingrained in her culture that it is unthinkable to even talk about reversing them, that are valued so dearly and so deservedly by Americans, did not even exist through much of the past two hundred years. Like Britain, and many other western nations, America could not meaningfully be held to be a democracy until the 20th century.

For Americans throughout much of the past two hundred years, the restrictions of the bill of rights did not apply to the State governments unless their own constitutions specifically protected those rights, and many did not. Individual States could and did have established churches. At its time of writing the first amendment specifically only protected political speech, and until incorporation and a series of court battles that only ended about 40 years ago, only prevented Congress from limiting it. Plays, books, films and other forms of expression were censored, outright banned by states and cities because of sexual content, bad language, because they glorified or even depicted gambling and drinking and other vices. All of these forms of expression are now protected from such censorship by an incorporated first amendment. A suspicion that one was sympathetic to communists or communism was, for generations, grounds for persecution, a loss of livelihood, for being shunned, having one's privacy invaded by the FBI or others, or to face prosecution or vexatious litigation.

Up until about a century and a half ago people were owned by other people in America, were kidnapped from their homes and transported to toil for the profit of others, were flogged and frequently unprotected by the law; indeed, the law and founding constitution of America protected the property rights of the men and women who did this to their fellow people, and designedly so. Up until the past half a century, black people have been prevented from sharing equally in the public life, the education, the healthcare, the public transportation and facilities of white people; until the 50s, many states prohibited a black person from marrying a white person.

In various periods of America's history, the last ending about 40 years ago, America mass-conscripted its able bodied men and forced them to go to war irrespective of their individual will or desire to fight, their willingness to join the army or their personal beliefs about the morality of the military action.

Throughout most of America's history, and indeed all of these limitations have only been legally nationally reversed over the course of the past two centuries, almost none of her citizenry could vote. States would prevent people from voting unless they held real estate, states would prevent people from voting if they were not men, states would prevent people from voting because they were black or had been slaves, states would prevent people from voting because they were illiterate (although this usually is merely a restatement of prohibiting blacks from voting). The vast majority of people in America through her history had no voice in politics, had no right to vote, surely the most basic civil and political right of all. With the vast bulk of her population lacking the right to vote for most of her history, how could any reasonable person suggest her system of governance was in any way a representative republic? These rights were hard fought for and required a series of constitutional amendments; one evidently necessitated an immense civil war, ending in hundreds of thousands of American dead.

Also, native Americans.

Which is not to say that there are no attacks on civil rights or that the gradual development of civil rights throughout this period is all meaningless. It is to say that those attacks on civil rights pale in comparison to most of the world's, including America's, dark and terrible history. We need to contextualise and understand decisions which contrast e.g. security and civil rights honestly, appropriately, and openly so the debate on how to move forward and its results can be the best that they can be. It turns out some of the decisions we've made – and Americans have made - in the past two hundred years have actually pushed us all in a very good direction indeed. While I am not suggesting that there are no problems in the world in general or the US in particular or that the drive to fix them isn't why the modern world is so brilliant, I am pointing out that the modern world is brilliant, irrespective of our recent financial woes, which have been seen as such a massive problem only because we've had it so damn good for so damn long. One's sense of perspective needs to not be exactly wrong when we look at what needs fixing. Whereas our history is an elegant guide to how awful we can be and our capacity for error and ignorance, we currently inhabit a world with numerous different solutions to different problems, some of them clearly better than others. To cast a glance at the excellence of the Scandinavian financial sector, Canadian banking, Australia's venomous fauna or French healthcare, and then, after pausing for dramatic effect, ramble about how great the US used to be back when mass unemployment was a fact of life, depressions occurred every generation and people died from gangrene because they were too poor to afford a guy with a saw is to rather miss the point of reality.

Otherwise, the video is pretty bang on.

-The Rev. Schmitt., FCD.

04 July, 2012

always more gays

I believe that basic human rights, that equality under the law should be assured; should be fought for by all decent people. I believe this not out of slavish devotion to ideological consistency but because I recognise the fundamental dignity of my fellow person and the fundamental depths of the mutual affinities of the people around me. They are me, and I am they, and would but we could all have a reminder of this in our daily lives.

The civil rights, securities and freedoms of my fellow man are my paramount concern, whether they are assailed by those few in power or those many without. I love the arts and history and the culture I am happy enough to find myself born into, and as a result I find it undeniable that those bonds of emotion which tie lovers together are essentially the same regardless of gender. It is why far too many innocent young women have had foolish young men with a touch too much fire in their heart, a facile appreciation of poetry in their heads and a drop of wine in their bellies recite these lines in a desperate ploy to be romantic, or in an even more desperate ploy for a tumble;

Some dude wrote:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate;
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's ease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer's shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

though the lines were written of a man by a man. Yet we can universally understand and embrace and love and be enthralled by them, because they speak of a mind as bewitched and excited and intoxicated by another as our own is. The love one woman feels of another woman is the same as one man feels for a woman; we do not need to understand why a man could love such a man, or why a woman could love such a man, but we know, nonetheless, that the experience is the same. Excepting, of course, when it happens to us, whereupon it is always uniquely special and revered.

I believe marriage is an important state of being and an important right basic to our society and the way we form bonds with one another. The civil institution of marriage is imperfect in its function of supporting and preserving the interdependency of monogamy, but that is because the slack left by social organisation must be picked up by the frailties of the individual person. It places social entanglements on a couple; the oath is a solemn one, a promise to a commitment, a relatively secure and stable platform to live and grow and age and work and frolic. The civil rights it confers, and we can crudely speak of tax breaks as a for instance, are a part of such financial stability and entanglement; visitation rights, as another for instance, are an example of social boon which, on reflection, seem not only obvious but a necessary thing for a loving couple to have. Marriage is not merely a simple and crude mechanism for procreation, although such stability and security - albeit fragile, as it depends on the strength of man or woman - forms a useful basis for raising a child, if a couple so chooses. The mere notion that couples should be excluded from the freedoms and securities of this institution based on so invidious an excuse as the gender of those wishing to swear into it seems rather a degradation of what marriage should provide and what it should represent. It is about the legal and social freedom of lovers sharing lives.

We are not tied to ritualistic behaviour, and our intelligence grants us the capacity to look beyond the vagaries of visceral impulse, which we certainly do have. In many ways the main achievement of our social cohesion and resulting laws and politics, our verbal and written language, our art, science and our culture, has been to create conditions in which greater values than the satiation of ephemeral impulse, no matter how strong, can be fulfilled. Merely finding homosexuality offensive or disgusting in ways that are evidently impossible to articulate is not the advancing of any reason to oppose homosexuality or gay marriage. Not all of our feelings uplift us. Not all of them advance our own interests or the interests of society. As human beings we do not get to be afraid to confront the sheer intellectual liberty at our disposal and fob off homophobia as some sort of uncontrollable hardware problem with human physiology. By the same boon, the cause of homosexuality is completely irrelevant: it is wrong to be bigoted, and whether you are bigoted against an innate thing is irrelevant; racists have known for a very long time indeed that race is hereditary, and it should not suddenly become acceptable were race a choice. It is wrong because it is unjust, because the assumptions formed about any of the given individuals who comprise such broad demographics are prejudicial, they are not knowledge.

-The Rev. Schmitt, FCD.

11 May, 2012

The American Civil War, apropos of nothing

We'll pretend it's about my favourite American politician though, if you like, who frequently says some very stupid evil things.

Every state that pro-offered reasons for their secession - Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas - stated unequivocally that their reason for seceding was the fear that the federal government had been and would continue to encroach on the capacity for white men to own black men; Georgia even goes so far as to declare that her imminent cause is no reason other than the election of a president hostile to the expansion of slavery. When the future president of the Confederacy announced his state was to secede, he gave but a single cause. The famous cornerstone speech of the Confederacy's vice president unequivocally, literally, explicitly and repeatedly argues that slavery was the raison d'être, and fundamental bedrock - the 'cornerstone' - on which the Confederacy rested. When Robert E. Lee wrote a letter to his wife expounding his view that people should not agitate to end slavery, but wait for God's decree, he prophetically stated that the US would soon be embroiled in a war over the peculiar institution. The Confederate constitution differs little from the US constitution, but those distinctions are significant and repellent: the document that replaced the US Constitution, the document which sought to redress the ills of the federal government, was explicitly devoted to better protecting the property white men had in black men, putting paid to the lie that the secessions had anything to do with 'state rights': they obviated them to protect slavery even more explicitly than the US constitution did. In their speeches, their founding documents, their private missives, the slaver states which seceded and their founding fathers expounded at great length and with great honesty about the reasons for their doing so, only for their descendants and sympathisers to deny them their minds and hearts so as to preserve a false history.

Denialism means to systematically deny the essence of a proven thing. To merely wave your hand that slavery was a factor is to do an immense disservice to reality by making a quasi-concession, but reality does not make concessions. Slavery was the pre-eminent, sufficient and necessary reason for the secessions and to suggest anything less is to deny a tremendous crime. We know this because the slaver states repeatedly reiterate this fact in their founding documents, their politicians reiterate it in their public speeches and private letters and diaries. All other issues pale in comparison to slavery. While excises and tariffs, among other issues, were undoubtedly politically turbulent and a source for grievance, far from being of similar or greater importance than the singular issue of slavery not a single state even mentions them as an afterthought in their reasons and causes for secession. They simply were not close to being of equal importance. They were, moreover, understood to be bound up within the slavery question itself.

There is a strange mythology in denialism. We are supposed to believe that the passage of the 13th amendment in the wake of the civil war is a cosmic coincidence. We are to suppose that because Lincoln prioritised banning slavery in the south during the war and then ensured slavery was banned throughout the country in the immediate aftermath of the war that these facts somehow demonstrate the war was not primarily about slavery -- that the war was not about slavery because Lincoln, during the war, first restricted and then abolished slavery upon having the means to do so. We are to suppose that it was merely a cynical ploy, that its intent was merely to galvanise support for the war, to improve union morale, and then immediately forget that this is stating that the liberation of slaves galvanised support and improved morale amongst the union. We are to forget that this argument immediately concedes everything that matters by acknowledging the undoubted fact that the emancipation proclamation formally codified the possibility of abolition as a war aim, that the union found vitality and strength in this possibility, and that this possibility became a reality upon the war's conclusion. We are to pretend that the emancipation proclamation did not free anyone, which would surely have been a great surprise to those slaves who write of their feelings upon being freed by it; those tens of thousands freed immediately - there were many areas that were previously Confederate but under Union control and were not exempt from the proclamation's decree, and many 'contraband' slaves were thereby immediately free - and would go on to free millions, that is, most slaves.

I would suggest that anger is, sometimes, an entirely appropriate response, a vital part of our being that should not be denied when it is righteous, borne of accuracy, tenderness and moral necessity. Anger is an entirely appropriate response to denying the fact that the Confederacy existed primarily to preserve the institution of slavery. I would expect that every patriotic American, every liberty loving American, every American who recognises the evils of slavery for what they were and continue to be, would be angry when people deny the fact that the war was conducted so as to continue ownership of blacks. Slaver states seceded and then began a war which killed hundreds of thousands of their countrymen. They did so to preserve slavery, and this act, this horror conducted so that further horrors could be perpetuated, remains the closest the US has come to destruction. The very idea fills me with such a feeling of pity and in some respects of dread; it is as unimaginable to me as a Briton claiming we had no part in the Atlantic slave trade, when we were an enormous and vital part of the slave trade. To deny a well-documented and well-demonstrated crime is to defend the actions which constitute that crime, ameliorating its importance and effects; denying its victims justice, acknowledgement, inflicting further harm upon them. This matters.

Further I don't believe there's anything wrong with feeling a great sense of value in one's country or state, in one's ancestry and the history of their home or birthplace. Whether a person is Quebecois, African-American, German, Japanese or Papua New Guinean (these are all of the peoples there are) there will be important stories to tell, valuable artefacts and works of literature and music, art and labour and charity and great acts of selflessness, values and demeanour and humour that we should treasure, each equally convinced that ours is the greatest (the British are the only ones who are, but in our magnanimity we forgive the rest of you for your hubris) because we can look into this great wealth of culture and the people who have contributed to it and we can see how it shaped us.

There will be immense good to come from the nation one feels kinship with and I think it is important to recognise and celebrate it (for instance, I like that when a British person bumps into another one, they will either be disgustingly effusive and apologetic or they will completely ignore the person they have bumped into, because we are not very nice people but sometimes pretend that we are, which is hilarious and cynical and beautiful). But as I suggested earlier I think a fundamental part of appreciating one's nation (state, province, island, whatever one identifies with) for what it is, is to acknowledge the serious crimes, very grievous crimes that the structure of that nation, its government, its military, its people may have participated in. An attempt to tell the story of the place we come from which denies or elides the bad bits is not history at all. Developing a sense of identity or pride which denies or elides these bad bits is not identity with or pride in the nation, state, province, people or what have you at all, but in the fictional narrative one would like to replace it with. It's tying one's sense of self worth to a fairy tale.

Well, I know my country has done a lot of amusingly awful things and I know that without them I would be very different were I here at all. To know how I came to be and what I am, what all the symbols and the attitudes around me are about, why the people of some countries hate my own and how legitimate their grievances are, I need to know about those amusingly awful things. Some of them still have immediate relevancy, political and personal. The IRA were a bunch of terrorist, murderous thugs, but Irish and Britons with grey in their hair will have been alive and aware of when the British Army shot into unarmed crowds, and then the British government dutifully (if rather ineptly) tried to cover it up. I can say that I think Britain is totally tops, I can say it while acknowledging that we killed a lot of people with a different skin colour to myself, we did it, for instance, when they tried to stop us from selling drugs to their children. I don't have personal moral responsibility for its happening, any more than for the magna carta, and I don't take pride in its happening, but it happened, and appreciating my country's history, my country's culture and attitudes, and thereby understanding the person my country has contributed to shaping me into involves appreciating the fact that these things happened.

I think it's good and useful and beautiful for a person to have pride in who they are and in their country. I have no problem with a German having pride in being German (although ideally he should ultimately aspire to be British like all right-thinking folk). I do have a problem with a German who says the Holocaust only involved the killing of a few hundred thousand scattered Jews in an unsystematic manner, that there was no poison gas chambers, that Hitler was unaware of such killings, so that he can take pride in the Third Reich. Not every Nazi killed a Jew. But the Third Reich was created with phenomenal and murderous racism and oppression at its core, far outweighing the few goods it championed, and to take pride in that pack of criminals and thugs is to either deny or embrace their crimes. I have no problem with a Japanese who has pride in being Japanese. I do have a problem with a Japanese who says the Imperial Army never systematised rape, never conducted mass killings of innocents and detainees, never conducted mass pointless torture-experiments, so that they can revel in the militarism of the period. Not every individual person in the Imperial Army conducted themselves so dishonourably, so criminally, so repugnantly, but the Army's structure and leadership condoned and encouraged such mass horror and its entire hierarchy carried them out and as an organisation it was responsible. To claim to take pride in it is to deny or to embrace such crimes.

I have no problem with a southerner of the United States who takes pride in the south. I do have a problem with a southerner who says the Confederate states seceded for nebulous economic or 'state's rights' reasons, that slavery was not the principal cause for secession and the aggressive protection of that dubious right not the cause of the war, who seeks to ameliorate the horror and suffering of slavery or pretend the emancipation proclamation did nothing. Not every Confederate felt in his heart that white men should own black men and that this property was worth the blood of Americans. Nonetheless the Confederacy's raison d'être was an almost unthinkable cruelty and evil, one they began an aggressive and massively destructive war to defend, and to take pride in that cabal of traitors is to either deny or embrace their crimes.

It's a terrible sadness that identifying the south with the Confederacy is so seemingly mainstream in the US. To make that identification and then take pride in it necessarily involves phenomenal dishonesty or massively repugnant views. One either must take pride in slavery or deny the reality of what the Confederacy was. Historical denialism of a crime of that scale should never be popular, particularly in a modern liberal democracy with such a vast capacity for access to information. It speaks to humanity's capacity for deception and deliberate ignorance, our love of self aggrandising fables we weave at the expense of the knowledge of who we are.

-The Rev. Schmitt., FCD.