Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Carnival of Hurricane Katrina Relief

Instapundit's list of hurricane relief is duly posted here.

My advice is to give money, and lots of it, to the charity of your choice. They know what they need, and right at this moment they probably don't need many warm body volunteers. The time for in-kind donations and work camp church expeditions will come later.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Atonement, academia style

By now, if you follow such things, you know that Harvard is in another twist over diversity. President Lawrence Summers committed the multi-culti sin of wondering aloud if innate gender differences account for the scarcity of women in high-level math and science position.

In penance, Summers has humbled himself before the Left's trinity: race, sex, and class. He's ponied up $50 million of the university's money for a fresh layer of bureaucracy, hiring more and more people to chase fewer and fewer qualified women and minorities for faculty positions.

It's sad and humiliating to see intelligent, responsible grown-ups turn into dancing bears when the diversicrats twitch their leashes. But, even this disgraceful scene is all part of the students' education.

As usual with societal trends like these, First Things published insightful commentary about it earlier. Barry Bercier:

Diversity can rightly be called a value-free term. All it does, ordinarily, is identify a condition of unlikeness between or among things. It reports this difference as a fact and by itself indicates nothing of the goodness or badness of that fact. Rather, the happenstance of goodness or badness depends on factors other than the diversity itself. [...But in the university], diversity emerges not as a fledgling and friendly standard to be nestled among the older standards that have traditionally defined the university but rather as a proclamation of a transvaluation of all values, an attack on the very heart of the university and on the whole constellation of principles that constitute its life. Here diversity breaks free of questions of racial justice and calls into question the standards of justice themselves as they have historically been represented by the university. The righteous anger roused in the face of black slavery surges forward as a driving force clearing the path for an assault on all authoritative institutions taken to be implicated in such crimes. The anger directed against slavery serves in fact as the spearhead of another anger, one originating at a far deeper level of the soul of Western man and concerned with a host of things that have less to do with racism, American history, or slavery (or, for that matter, the war in Vietnam, “the military-industrial complex,” “the Establishment,” or “globalization”) than they have to do with the constitution of the West itself.

No placating that attitude.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Capital Punishment

First Things usually seems to walk a fine line when it comes to the death penalty. As good Catholics, they can't ignore the Holy See's opposition to it, yet First Things' conservative and educated readership requires more than the Pontiff's say-so. I remember the Seventies, when liberals had just about succeeded in decriminalizing crime, and the death penalty was re-instated after several years' absence and no end of unraveling of the social fabric due to runaway violent crime. So it'll take more than a few hits off the ol' Kum Bah Yah hookah to get me all moist and sniffly at the thought of murderers being executed.

So this time,here comes J. Bottum, who is always a thought-provoking essayist, to convince us of the need to abolish capital punishment. He insists on its essential otherness:

Capital punishment may occasionally be necessary in a modern democracy, but it is never right, for the death penalty is not in a line with other punishments. A five-year sentence and a twenty-year sentence, even a life sentence, are related as more or less severe forms of imprisonment. Execution belongs to another order of punishment.

And he touches base with the authority of government, the divine right of kings, the Marquis de Sade(!), Voltaire, and settles on the irreducible atavism of the death penalty:
If Jesus Christ “sheds light on the meaning of life and the death of every human being,” we can see in that light both how blood demands repayment and how Jesus has forever done the re paying with his death. In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II holds to a delicate line. This is not necessarily a full-blown Anselmian theory of atonement, but it is at least a recognition that two elements in the Cain and Abel story are vital for Christians: the genuine truth that spilled blood calls for justice, and the refusal to demand that this blood-debt be paid with yet more blood.

To leave the argument against the death penalty in the hands of those who no longer much believe this Christian story is dangerous. The people who think there is no such thing as a blood-debt are always surprised to see crowds outside penitentiaries where executions are about to take place, chanting for the execution. But those crowds appear at executions in the United States for a reason—because blood really does cry out from the ground. “He didn’t suffer as much” as his victims, one bereaved parent objected at Michael Ross’ death. Without the Christian revelation to restrain it, the sense of a blood-debt that must be paid will only grow.

So, essentially, society might become too fond of the death penalty. Well, back in the Eighties, during the first crack cocaine epidemic, we did have some short-sighted solons calling for capital punishment for dealers in drugs above a certain amount. Fortunately, we got hold of ourselves before any such laws could be enacted, SFAIK.

Pope John Paul II, who is cited in the article, certainly deserves a careful hearing on the matter. We'll be decades unpacking a lot of his thought, from his encyclicals. And he was not dismissive of the idea of temporal justice. John Paul forgave his would-be assassin--but he didn't ask for him to be let out of jail. Yet it strikes me that doing away with capital punishment for the foulest capital crimes is a bit like pacifism. Pacifism is a private decision; it isn't for the state to leave its citizens undefended out of idealism. Maybe it's just a half-baked analogy, but I can't help feeling that there's some parallel there with the death penalty.

Bottum's argument comes in the end to simply: WWJD. He mentions "cosmic justice", which is shorthand for striving to put things that are out of our control right. We can't free the zeks in Stalin's gulags; we can't rescue the slaves drowned in the Middle Passage; and we can't undo the hideously bloody Islamic conquest of India. More to the point, we can't punish those who were responsible for those horrors. That's being unable to achieve cosmic justice, not declining to execute a murderer. Bottum's right, "You shall not stand idly by your brother's blood" is a powerful call to the instincts. Maybe that's because there's something to it besides a mere urge to vengeance.