Friday, October 27, 2006

A Sandinista the GOP Should Love

Attention U.S. Catholics: Nicaragua's Congress has just voted to ban all abortions, precisely what a purportedly "pro-life" Republican majority U.S. Congress has failed to do in four years. All the GOP-run Senate had to do was ratify a treaty signed by President Carter.

The news and the implications that cascade from it in my mind make me think of those Catholics I know who hold fast to the political version of what I call Stupid Catholic Logic. Let me explain SCL with a true story.

Once upon a time I worked with a former nun who had two rambunctious sons from two presumably rambunctious fathers, the only two men with whom she had had sex since leaving the convent. Had she considered using birth control while fornicating with such blissful abandon? "Oh, no, that would be a sin!"

The political version of SCL is what leads some dunderhead Catholics to vote Republican as a way to oppose abortion. Let me make clear that, for reasons different from theirs, I agree with them that abortion is always wrong.

To my mind, abortion always involves the risk of taking a human life since we just don't know with certainty when life begins. Still, what civil law should say about abortion is distinct from its place in moral philosophy. Law in a democracy expresses the sometimes errant wishes of the majority, not pure ethical principles.

A safer course than current U.S. law, however, might be to adopt the absolute ban in traditional Latin America law, which Nicaraguan law will adopt if the bill passed by its Congress is enacted. Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, who now professes to be a devout Catholic, could become next month the president who enacts the statute. (His nemesis Ronald Reagan, a very lapsed baptized Catholic to his dying day, never seemed to find time to make abortion illegal despite campaigning twice nationally on the promise to do just that.)

The Latin American legal principle is embedded in the American Convention On Human Rights. By a quirk of my employment history, I happened to be on hand when President Jimmy Carter signed the document on June 1, 1977 at the OAS General Secretariat, in Washington, D.C.

Signing the convention was a way for President Carter to affirm U.S. policy against human rights abuses, which were then rampant in the regimes of generals Cesar Augusto Pinochet of Chile, Jorge Rafael Videla of Argentina and Ernesto Geisel of Brazil. Funny how in 30 short years the U.S. government has gone from defending to blatantly and explicitly violating human rights, while Latin American governments have become sterling democracies in which even former torturers are tried for their crimes.

Yet it struck me then, and it does now, that in article 4, paragraph 1, the document states:

Every person has the right to have his life respected. This right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.

Accordingly, it didn't surprise me that the pro-choice Carter Administration didn't push ratification too hard, since in U.S. law ratified treaties become a part of the federal code. But I have been amazed that in roughly 26 years of Republican ascendancy, in which the GOP controlled the Senate for a total of 6 years, not a single clever backbencher thought to bring up ratification of the charter as a stealth "pro-life" measure.

This despite the claim in the GOP's Catholic Team Web site, that Republicans have consistently worked to promote a "culture of life," a buzz phrase stolen outright from Pope John Paul II's encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae. Of course, it is easy to see how the broad economic and social terms in which the encyclical describes "life" might give the GOP's Catholic Team headaches, what with the concocted war in Iraq (which John Paul II pointedly opposed) and questionable domestic policies.

There simply is no Catholic logic left, stupid or smart, for voting Republican. Unless one simply enjoys being taken for a ride.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Going to the Atheist Church

If evolutionary biology ever gets tiresome to Richard Dawkins, he can always try standup comedy. That's what I found out this evening hearing him speak about his book The God Delusion at my neighborhood bookstore.

An Oxford University professor specializing in the public understanding of science, Dawkins coined the term meme, which gained currency in intellectual circles after his 1976 work The Selfish Gene. A meme is a unit of cultural evolution that Dawkins theorized propagates itself like a gene; it is a unit of information transferable from one mind to another, such as tunes, catch-phrases, fashions.

The meme became itself a meme.

In The Extended Phenotype Dawkins has also recently contributed to evolutionary theory the notion that phenotypic effects, or the effects of the characteristics or an organism, are not limited to an organism's body but can stretch far into the environment, including into the bodies of other organisms.

Why this is a great contribution far exceeds my knowledge of science. Sorry. That is not why I went to see this grand personage speaking half a block from my abode.

Dawkins is also an ardent defender of atheism and critic of religion. The New York Times review I read Sunday said of his book that "There is lots of good, hard-hitting stuff about the imbecilities of religious fanatics and frauds of all stripes, but the tone is smug and the logic occasionally sloppy."

Tonight I heard mostly the imbecilities and the humor it prompts was quite amusing.

John Paul II, for example, became convinced that Our Lady of Fatima saved him from dying in the 1981 attempted assassination. "One might wonder why she didn't stop the bullet from hitting him at all," Dawkins remarked, "or whether the surgeons who worked on him for hours might deserve just a little credit. But most of all one might wonder what was happening with Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady Of Medjugorje or Our Lady of Knock; they must have been occupied with other errands."

Or, not to be shy, criticism does not elude Abraham the patriarch, the man Dawkins describes as fanatical to the point of murder of his own son, "Except, we learn, God was just joking that day."

He spoke also of the ethnic cleansing in the the biblical book of Joshua. Ethnic cleansing? Here it is:

And when in the seventh day going about, the priests sounded with the trumpets, Joshua said to all Israel: Shout: for the Lord hath delivered the city to you [...]
So all the people making a shout, and the trumpets sounding, when the voice and the sound thundered in the ears of the multitude, the walls forthwith fell down: and every man went up by the place that was over against him: and they took the city, and killed all that were in it, man and woman, young and old. The oxen also and the sheep, and the asses, they slew with the edge of the sword. (Joshua 6:16,20-21)

Dawkins recounted that the text was given to Israeli schoolchildren and they were asked to say whether they agreed with what happened and two-thirds did, saying that God had, after all, promised the land to the Jews. Then the text was modified and instead of Joshua and Hebrews, it contained the name of General Lin and the Chinese. Three-fourths of a different set of Israeli children disapproved and said the killing was immoral.

Dawkins' point was that the morality of the Bible is not the natural ethics that springs to most of us -- believers have to pick and choose the moral parts and ignore the immoral.

As I saw myself laugh and assent with so many others; however, I was reminded of being in church. Here was an atheist sermon, given by a popular preacher. The bookstore was standing room only barely minutes after the scheduled start time.

The people were a little peculiar, just as in church. Not necessarily people one would choose as friends -- although I was later told by my companion that I am a little peculiar myself, a little geeky with the odd button missing from a shirt and the odd stain on another.

Even the preacher had to admit that atheism required a little faith.

Technically, Dawkins said, he is an agnostic, as no one can prove the nonexistence of God. "We are all agnostics about everything from fairies to Zeus to Yahweh," he said. "We go about life as if they did not exist, quite confident they don't, even though of course we can't prove it."


Sunday, October 08, 2006

Reach for Zero

We have heard of the 40 million-plus uninsured Americans so many times that we're inured to the number's cruelty until something in our ordinary life drives the point home.

This was my experience yesterday, when the receptionist at the HMO asked me for my membership card as I arrived for treatment. Then she added "and a picture ID."

Being the sort of fellow who will one day get arrested for making forbidden jokes in this trivially overserious society, I wondered out loud who would want to pretend to be as sick as I felt.

"Someone without health insurance," she said, in a tone that unmistakably bespoke experience.

Suddenly I felt like the rats fleeing the Saigon U.S. Embassy in 1975, protected by gates and Marines from a crowd jostling to get out of town by sundown. Without further ado, the well-spoken, mild-mannered HMO gatekeeper had welcomed me in and made certain to keep others out.

Someone else would be denied a human right to which I acceded merely because I am me. In case you wonder at the term "human right," here it is in article 25, paragraph 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care ...

We are a society that violates human rights to the point that we ration medical care.

Incidentally, the latest figure at this writing for the number of Americans lacking health insurance is 46.6 million, or 15.9 percent of the U.S. population (2005) -- in absolute or percentage terms, this is a record high.

This is not something the richest country in the world need live with, like the common cold. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agree. There are cures for the health insurance problem that fall well short of revolution.

In Australia, Britain, Canada, and most of Europe, the number and percentage of the population without access to regular health care for economic reasons is zero.

There is no good reason the United States can't match that -- except greed and selfishness.