Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Pope Better Be Careful

If Benedict XVI doesn't watch himself, he's in danger of losing any shred of moral credibility.

For those who aren't aware, the Pope recently lifted the excommunication of four bishops who, 20 years ago, were consecrated in defiance of the Vatican's authority. The schism initially occurred when the Society of Saint Pius X broke with Rome in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and the current Pope is acting to bring members of the group back into the fold. But it has since come to light that one of the reinstated Bishops, Richard Williamson, is a Holocaust-denier. Benedict has claimed that he knew nothing of Williamson's views on the Holocaust and demanded that he recant. Williamson is currently "re-considering the historical evidence" before deciding on a course of action.

The Holocaust is not a matter about which reasonable people can disagree. If you think that the Holocaust did not happen, then you have demonstrated, as clearly as anyone can, that you are not in touch with reality. And if you demand evidence that goes beyond the existing historical record before you are willing to concede that the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews, then you have shown that your beliefs about the matter have nothing at all to do with evidence and that such a conversation would be fruitless.

If Williamson asked me to prove to him that the Holocaust happened, I would demand that he first prove to me that he exists. For the demand in each case is equally legitimate (which is to say, not at all) regardless of whether you are able to provide a satisfactory response. In fact, proving the existence of other minds is far more difficult than proving the Holocaust, even though I assume Williamson doesn't doubt their existence.

The issue here is of a kind different from dealing with priests who themselves perform evil acts. One can be weak-willed or vicious in particular ways and still be part of the community of reason. It may be unwise to put such people in certain positions because of the wrong they may do to others. Nevertheless--even though it may sometimes be difficult to admit--such people can still have a moral compass that is overwhelmingly functional. But if you deny that the greatest crime against humanity ever happened, then you have proven that you have lost all sense of moral direction and any claim to represent Christ to the world.

If I were Benedict (and, for so many many reasons, I'm glad I'm not) I would say that Williamson can come back into the fold as a Catholic parishioner in good standing but that he is forever banned from saying mass or in any way speaking in the capacity of a church official. The mere fact that Williamson requires time to mull the issue over is all the proof Benedict should need that the denier should never serve in that capacity again.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Ricky Vaughn, Motivational Speaker

Through the last week of the soul-testing (and often soul-destroying) gauntlet that is the academic job market, I've had a regular source of comfort. I'm not talking about my family and friends (though they have been as supportive and encouraging as anyone could possibly hope). Nor am I talking about the Bible or any of the other typical sources of wisdom people cite when they try to say something profound about a difficult situation. No. I'm talking about the cinematic masterpiece Major League.

There's a scene as the Indians are about to finish up training camp where Ricky Vaughn (played by Charlie Sheen) thinks he's been cut from the team. He storms into the manager's office and delivers one of the classic lines in movie history:

I got news for you Mr. Brown, you haven't heard the last of me. You may think I'm shit now, but someday you're gonna be sorry you cut me. I'm gonna catch on somewhere else and every time that I pitch against you I'm gonna stick it up you're fuckin' ass!

Vaughn punctuates this poetic tirade by throwing a baseball as hard as he can against a locker.

Now in the movie, Vaughn hasn't been cut--he's just the victim of a clubhouse prank. Still, the sentiment captures what I've been feeling of late. I don't want to be comforted or assured that "everything will be alright." I just want to work harder so that I can prove to everyone that passing over me is their loss. Maybe that's not the most noble of motives. But I don't think it's an entirely vicious one either. And anyway, it's where I am.

Plus, I can't help but laugh every time I think about the scene and levity can't be overvalued when you're staring a completely uncertain future in the eyes.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Please Tell Me Why I'm Wrong

I feel like I should have firm convictions about what the government should or should not do in the midst of this financial crisis. But I don't have such convictions and here's why: I think the government should do whatever will work and that we do not really have any idea what will work. Why don't we have any idea what will work? Because economics is as "pseudo" of a pseudo-science as there is.

Figuring out how economies work is really a matter of empirical psychology (or maybe empirical group psychology, if that is a distinct thing). What we are fundamentally concerned with when we are concerned with financial matters is how people are going to behave in various circumstances and in response to various challenges. Are they going to spend or save? Are they going to work hard or be lazy? Are they going to innovate or rest on their laurels?

But how can we know any of these things? If we did--i.e., if economists were really able to tell us how people will behave--then shouldn't they have been screaming (and I mean SCREAMING) from the rooftops that all this was coming? And shouldn't there be far more unanimity on these issues than we have? I suppose we can study past situations and see how people did behave. But as any historian will tell you, even that kind of analysis is fraught with difficulty. It's much harder to figure out "what led to what" than many people think. And even if we can pin down the past, there are no guarantees that the future will be like it. Stuff happens. People and societies change.

As I see it, the fundamental problem is that human behavior is far more complex and inscrutable than economists allow. (I know. I know. Stop the presses.) That might not make for good Nobel fodder or bullet points on a public policy proposal. But if it's the sober truth, shouldn't we acknowledge it and stop pretending that we understand stuff that we don't?

(I'm leaving aside those who think that, as a moral matter, the government should not do anything in this situation, though I'm skeptical that they truly believe this as a moral matter. That is, I'm skeptical that such people would be against government intervention even if they believed that it would help. So even though they are giving this issue a moral spin, I take them really to believe government intervention simply won't work. But as I've suggested, they don't know that it won't work any more than the interventionists know that it will.)

This view has to be wrong. After all, it's just the armchair reflection of a philosopher who skipped ECON 101 a lot and is tired of all these "experts" pretending like they know anything. But if I'm wrong, I'd like to know why.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Great Equalizer

No single player can make more of a difference in all of team sports than a goalie in hockey. Pitchers in baseball come close. At their best, they have the ability to render an opponent's weapons completely ineffective. And if you can't score, you can't win. But only a goalie can allow a team that gets thoroughly dominated--that loses in every facet of the game except the final score--to nevertheless eke out a victory.

That fact was surely on display last night as the Badgers beat Minnesota 3-2. They were outshot 45-23 and seemed to spend most of the game in their own zone. The Gophers simply had more energy and created all of the offensive pressure. And yet, because Shane Connelly made 43 saves, the Badgers won. That's not a pattern they'll want to repeat tonight. But if Connelly can stay on his game, even a less-than-perfect outing might be enough to take the series.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Droppin' the Puck

Say what you will about Paul Bunyan's axe or the recent basketball rivalry between UW and Michigan State. The best rivalry in Badger sports is on the ice: Wisconsin-Minnesota. Each series is good for heavy hitting and a few fights and the games are usually important for the WCHA standings. Good stuff. The puck drops in a few minutes and thanks to the wonders of the Big Ten Network, I get to watch it, even here in VA.