I want to sail around the world on the equator

Sail right to the heart of your matter

I would burn my listing ship down on your shores

With my life a wreck and my sails in tatters

You come close through the slow sway of the tall grass

As sharp as all the points of the compass

I would swallow your burning heart whole

If only your blood was my blue stained glass

And your holy waters flowed in my veins

Instead of poisoned wells and a bitter cup

This exhaustion’s got nothing to do with sleep

This death’s got nothing to do with years

You come close through lips made of cloth

As blood and flesh through broken teeth

I would swallow your severe grace whole

I want to fall to the depths of the deepest ocean

Fall with delirious satisfaction

I would burn my sinking ship down on your shores

With my wan hope and my self-confidence shattered

New Location

If you are interested in reading Balaam’s Ass, the new location is www.talkingdonkey.wordpress.com. Please update your links accordingly. We’re downsizing a bit, but it feels like a new beginning. Still working on getting the archives from here moved over there. See you soon.


Moving On

Well, we’ve been here for two and a half years–hard to believe!–but it seems that Worldmagblog is moving on without us. This is part of the message that came to me in response to my inquiry about why we were no longer on the main site: “Because WorldMagBlog is a non-profit organization, we have had to rethink some of our policies towards the authors and sub-blogs listed on our site. As such, Balaam’s Ass is one of the many sub-blogs that will be retired from the WORLDMagBlog directory.” So, it’s been fun, but now we need to find a new place for Balaam’s Ass. If you know of a good, free blog-hosting site to which I can transfer BA, please let me know in the comments or by e-mail. Also, I have absolutely no idea about how I can transfer the archives, so if you can give me some advice about that, I would appreciate it. Thanks for reading. We’ll have a new place by December 31, since that’s when we’ll be removed from the World site.

By the way, I’d like to say thanks to Joanna, who invited us to join World in 2004.


Cider House Rules

A question for those of you who have seen the movie The Cider House Rules. (I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how different it is.) It seems pretty clear to me that the “Cider house rules” are a metaphor for heteronomous rules, or rules that come from outside us. Do you think that Irving’s purpose (he wrote the screenplay, too) is to show us what happens when we get rid of external rules? Or is he advocating throwing them in the fire?


Don’t Worry, They’re Too Small to Care

What is it with Great Britain and hospital beds? Perhaps this is the same issue, but they decided against putting it in terms of money and beds.

Despite medical advances in prolonging life, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics said the chances of an infant surviving after less than 22 weeks in the womb are very slim and that they often develop severe disabilities.

Better not try at all then. Along with those involved in severe car accidents and those who have a “slim chance” of surviving after 99.

In guidelines issued to help doctors and parents make difficult decisions about the care of extremely premature infants, the report recommended parents of babies born after 23 should be consulted and have the final say in whether intensive care is given to their baby.

Well, that’s nice, isn’t it? After 23 weeks, at least they’ll ask the parents before they withdraw care (read: kill). And, sure as shootin’, if a report like this calls a decision “difficult” they mean “don’t worry about it.”

“Natural instincts are to try to save all babies, even if the babys chances of survival are low,” said Professor Margaret Brazier who chaired the committee that produced the report.

“However, we dont think it is always right to put a baby through the stress and pain of invasive treatment if the baby is unlikely to get better and death is inevitable.”

You had to know that this came out of academia. But seriously, couldn’t the professor have considered the implications of her words? Doesn’t anyone consider the implications of talk like this? She can’t even keep herself straight about what might happen without “invasive treatment”: either the baby is “unlikely to get better” or “death is inevitable.” I don’t know about you, but to me they don’t carry the same connotations. If death is inevitable, it’s a little more than “unlikely” that the baby will get better. Even more, who is this professor to say, based on her prognostications, who’s likely to get better and who will die? I guess it’s a little easier if we say “death is inevitable,” while hurrying it along into a little self-fulfilling prophecy.

Religious leaders in Britain welcomed the report saying it sets a clear distinction between interventions to cause death and decisions to withdraw or withhold treatment if it is thought to be futile.

“This reaffirms the validity of existing law prohibiting euthanasia, and upholds the vital and fundamental moral principle that the deliberate taking of innocent human life is always gravely wrong,” the Church of England House of Bishops and the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales said in a joint statement.

Whatever this report does, it does not seem to me to uphold that “vital and fundamental moral principle.” Apparently the bishops and the professors were smoking together before they issued their reports and statements. What, I don’t know.

More circumspectly, I would not say that any artificial means of ventilating and circulating the blood of a dead body is wrong. True, it’s not worth performing futile measures to preserve a corpse. But these aren’t corpses! They’re infants. Not only that, the area around the word “artificial” has grown ever larger and will continue to grow larger as we consider ventilators “artificial.” We’ve already decided food and drink can be considered superfluous to a woman’s life, as long as the husband’s okay with it. And, as is usual with cases like this, ethics whisper and money screams. And, as is usual, we should not be surprised at the depths of the human capacity to rationalize murder.


Sam Harris Takes On Everything

I’m seeing Sam Harris’ name everywhere. First it was Newsweek and “The New Naysayers.” Then it was Wired Magazine and “The New Atheists.” (Do these magazines share writers?) Now it’s Newsweek again.

On his new platform, Sam Harris rehashes his book The End of Faith (or Letter to a Christian Nation; doesn’t matter, they’re essentially the same) for election day, beginning with this idiotic assertion: “It is, of course, taboo to criticize a person’s religious beliefs.” Attention religious police! Sam Harris is criticizing religious belief again! Or maybe he’s just confusing America with Iran.

Sam Harris really likes assertions. But that’s the way emotivism works. The best emotivists are those who can make the most infallible-sounding assertions the loudest. It goes like this: “You idiot. I can’t believe you believe that stuff. No one believes that anymore. None of that is true; you know it and I know it.” That may be how college professors work with nave freshmen, but it’s not all that helpful for civilized conversation. Alisdair MacIntyre cites one description of how emotivists function:

“In practice, victory was with those who could speak with the greatest appearance of clear, undoubting conviction and could best use the accents of infallibility” and [John Maynard] Keynes goes on to describe the effectiveness of [emotivists G.E.] Moore’s gasps of incredulity and head-shaking, of [Lyton] Strachey’s grim silences and of Lowes Dickinson’s shrugs. (MacIntyre, After Virtue, 17)

Not that Harris is interested in civilized conversation or actual argument. Here’s one of his assertions: “Consequently, religious people will devote immense energy to so-called moral problemssuch as gay marriagewhere no real suffering is at issue, and they will happily contribute to the surplus of human misery if it serves their religious beliefs.” C’mon Sam, “no real suffering”? Right, and AIDS has no symptoms and helps its victims to live a full and productive life of 90+ years.

His big example in this regard is embryonic stem cell research, which should play well with the destroy-human-embryos crowd in Missouri.

A case in point: embryonic-stem-cell research is one of the most promising developments in the last century of medicine. [Adult stem cells, what are those?] It could offer therapeutic breakthroughs for every human ailment (for the simple reason that stem cells can become any tissue in the human body), including diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, severe burns, etc. In July, President George W. Bush used his first veto to deny federal funding to this research. He did this on the basis of his religious faith. Like millions of other Americans, President Bush believes that “human life starts at the moment of conception.” Specifically, he believes that there is a soul in every 3-day-old human embryo, and the interests of one soulthe soul of a little girl with burns over 75 percent of her body, for instancecannot trump the interests of another soul, even if that soul happens to live inside a petri dish. Here, as ever, religious dogmatism impedes genuine wisdom and compassion.

First of all, the President never referenced “his religious faith” in his veto. But that’s not good enough for Harris. He can find nefarious motives at work whenever Christians are involved. (Besides, we all know what Bush was really thinking.) But I’m convinced that Harris just hates Christians. Maybe he got run over by a Corpus Christi parade when he was little. Who knows. By the way, it doesn’t matter what he says; I know what he’s really thinking.

But you can’t really argue with ideological atheists like Harris. It’s no surprise that Harris and Richard Dawkins (in The God Delusion) use research on human embryos as a test case. Of course evolution proves that there is a continuum on which both humans and animals lie. Thus, there can be no substantial distinction. After all, if we use “other animals” for experimentation, why not humans? Naturally, their logic doesn’t run the other way–they’re perfectly happy with a ban on all research on animals while encouraging research on humans.

The President finds his way into Harris’ scope once again.

Believing that God has delivered you unto the presidency really seems to entail the belief that you cannot make any catastrophic mistakes while in office. One question we might want to collectively ponder in the future: do we really want to hand the tiller of civilization to a person who thinks this way?

This kind of hyperbole might work in the choir loft, but it’s got nothing to do with actual logic. Whatever Pres. Bush might believe about his decisions, nothing whatsoever about mistakes, catastrophic or otherwise, follows from believing you are where God has put you. How does that even make sense? If I believe that God has put me into this marriage with this woman, does that entail–does it even “really seem” to entail–that I cannot make mistakes in my marriage?

This is what passes for moral debate these days. As if emotivistic assertions–describing Harris’ wishes and desires–have any objective truth to them. He uses sentences that appear to carry meaning about morality, but they are really only worth what use he can derive from them, namely, supporting his thesis that religion is dangerous. Meaning and use have long been separated in moral discourse, but Harris ignores the separation.

“Religion is the one area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give good evidence and valid arguments in defense of their strongly held beliefs,” he writes. One could substitute “Harris’ brand of moral argument” for “religion” in this sentence, and not lose anything. That’s precisely because it is no longer possible, after the Enlightenment, to move from “fact” to “evaluation.” He’s got no good evidence and no valid arguments to give in support of his conception of morality and where it comes from. Just read his book. Sure, you can agree with him, if you feel like it.

His default position on morality is that our human “intuition” tells us what is right and wrong. (If he knew more about what he’s criticizing, he might recognize this, in a Christian framework, as “Natural Law.”) In After Virtue (which Harris significantly omits from his bibliography), MacIntyre wrote:

Twentieth-century moral philosophers have sometimes appealed to their and our intuitions; but one of the things that we ought to have learned from the history of moral philosophy is that the introduction of the word “intuition” by a moral philosopher is always a signal that something has gone badly wrong with an argument. (After Virtue, 69)

Forgetting for the moment that it would be wild exaggeration to call Harris a “moral philosopher,” he seems not to have noticed that his arguments about morality were destroyed twenty-five years ago. Intuitionism and Emotivism are not valid moral foundations.

He is right about one thing, though, as usual, he misses the irony. “Consequently, we are living in a world in which millions of grown men and women can rationalize the violent sacrifice of their own children by recourse to fairy tales.” Fairy tales, he neglects to mention, such as “scientific progress,” “curing all diseases,” and “bioethics.”

I think his conclusion, slightly modified, will work here.

We are living in a world in which millions of [unbelievers] hope to soon be raptured into the stratosphere by [Science] so that they can safely enjoy a sacred genocide that will inaugurate the end of human history. In a world brimming with increasingly destructive technology, our infatuation with [scientistic] myths now poses a tremendous danger. And it is not a danger for which [less] religious faith is a remedy.


“It’s Not Dark Yet, But It’s Getting There”

Well, things pretty much suck all the way around. Politics is politics, however, and Democrats winning the House and (probably) the Senate does not mean the end of the world. But Amendment 2 might. It passed by 51% (the side that spent $30 million) to 49% (the side that spent $3 million), and, remember, constitutional amendments in Missouri require only a simple majority to be enacted, but a 2/3 majority to be taken out. There you have it.

And then there’s this from the Nov. 2006 issue of First Things [Neuhaus, “While We’re At It,” 76] (you may want to hold off on eating until after you’ve read this):

Nobody would want to deny the charms of Barbados, although it is not the Institute for Regenerative Medicine (IRM) that usually comes to mind in that connection. IRM claims that it is making Barbados the “Embryonic Stem Cell Capital of the World.” The insitute imports parts of babies, mainly from Ukraine, who were aborted at six to twelve weeks, liquefies them into a baby puree, and injects the mix into customers, who pay $25,000 per shot. The procedure takes no more than an hour or two, and the website of IRM (www.regenmd.com) includes glowing testimonials of clients who claim relief from everything from arthritis to troubled bowels and poor skin texture. Erectile dysfunction, too. Of course the morally scrupulous may be made uneasy by the procedure, but what’s the point of letting all those human body parts go to waste? The answer to that has never been self-evident to everyone. I note that Webster’s says that the word cannibalism is of Carribean origin.