Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Xenophobia's Paradox

"Immigration without assimilation is invasion."

This phrase, spoken frequently by presidential candidate Bobby Jindal, has a pleasant, familiar sound. It has the same form as the more famous American slogan "taxation without representation is tyranny"--that is, x - y = z, where x is "something kind of bad," y is "something acceptable" and z is "something really scary bad."

Jindal is privileged to be able to say such things with relative impunity. One might call him an Indian-American except that he does not like such hyphenated descriptions. His assimilation says everyone is just to be described as an American, or, if you will, a Melting-Pot American.

I heard Governor Jindal speak at what looked like a cabin near Iowa City earlier this month. The small setting reflects ominously for him, but fortuitously for political geeks like me, who get access to famous politicians without having to brandish press credentials. I asked Jindal about Christianity, the death penalty and military strength, trying to go all Pope-Francis on him, since he's a Catholic Republican. I was unable to rattle him, though. He was gracious and well-reasoned, and responded to my kind challenge with kind dignity. His answer, at least about military spending, is that the world is safer with a strong American military, because America has proven itself a gracious world player, by not, for example, taking territory from the vanquished. He answer was persuasive enough that I did not write him off as what I take to be a typical Republican pandering to Big Military. So any differences between our views are just religious, since I do not see how what he says about the military is a Christian view. (It sounds to me more like the philosophy of pagan Rome.)

I wish I had asked him about the immigration quote, though. His belief in assimilation falls into what I am calling Xenophobia's Paradox. Zeno's Paradox is a familiar philosophical mind-trip. Like the taxation-representation quote, it has relatively unimportant origins and various forms. In one form, a person is running, say, one mile, and has to by necessity travel one half of that distance before they reach the goal. Yet in order to reach that half, they have to travel half of that distance, and so on. Since we cannot just half-up space forever, the conclusion is that motion is an illusion.

Xenophobia's Paradox is this: If everyone should assimilate, then national identity is an illusion. There is no point at which an original model can be determined. This is evident from the quip found on the cartoon that has a white man pointing out the problem with illegal immigrants, and having a Native American look on. Yet as satisfying as this, one has to also appreciate how it is unsettling this is culturally. After all, what claims does the Native American have to primacy of culture? Jindal (and other politicians to be sure) seems to be talking about conforming to a culture, but we don't know where to begin in identifying an appropriate culture to which to assimilate.

Should immigrants assimilate to English, or to Algonquin, or to Proto-Algonquin? Should they wear business suits, bluejeans, or moccasins, or walk barefoot? Undoubtedly, the crowd to whom Jindal was speaking would stipulate either business suits or bluejeans, but definitely English. For his part, Jindal wore bluejeans and spoke in a southern-state American-English accent. Had he worn a headdress I would have been both appalled and impressed.

I couldn't think of a good, succinct question to ask on this topic, though. Later, it occurred to me what to say: "President Obama recently changed the name of Mount McKinley to Denali. Don't you think that is a great step toward assimilation?!"

--Tadd Ruetenik


Saturday, September 26, 2015

Carly Fiorina and Pro-Life Feminism: New Ideas in the Quad Cities

When presidential candidate Carly Fiorina spoke to a crowd at St. Ambrose University September 25 as part of a Quad Cities New Ideas Forum, there were indeed new ideas presented. I will mention three that didn't get picked up by the larger media:

1) Singing "Happy Birthday" to a unstable audience member. Carly deserves credit, both personally and professionally, for handing a difficult situation creatively and compassionately. As soon as she took the podium, a vociferous veteran loudly introduced himself to her for some reason. She gave the obligatory thank-you-for-your service line and asked him to wait for the questions, at which time he walked to within 10 feet of Fiorina (making security jump) and spoke, somewhat incoherently, about low wages and destroying ISIS. When he mentioned something about the Chinese people and said "cutting his head off on national TV" Fiorina wisely interrupted him and asked him politely to sit down. As he left, with a cordial "yes, ma'am," he noted that it was his birthday, and she encouraged the crowd in the most awkward rendition of "Happy Birthday" that ever was sung.

I tried to look up his reference, having recorded a portion of his question, and found a site called "Now the End Begins: The Magazine of Record for the Last Days." This site has a story about the Chinese government warning its people about ISIS with a big screen TV showing the beheading of journalist James Foley. I of course do not know if this is precisely the site that informed him, but many, including Fiorina, were surely concerned that this would be another unbridled Trump-supporter moment, with dangerously ambiguous references to getting rid of "them." What makes this different is that the man was more obviously mentally unstable. I talked with the Super PAC staff and they said he claimed to be homeless, smelled of alcohol, and asked for money. The Trump supporter was personally stable, but just an apparent listener to mentally unstable right-wind radio. Either way, as the conservative rhetoric intensifies, so intensifies the likelihood that some Smerdyakov will actually do the dirty work that they imply. The hawkish conservatives managed to sing their way out of this one.

2) Medical marijuana and Military Service. An advocate for medical marijuana challenged Fiorina about her position. A few alternative news sources, like American Green Zine, picked up on this. The headline is telling: "Veteran Confronts Carly Fiorina Over Medical Marijuana." When the woman stated she was a nurse and veteran with high security clearance, Fiorina forgot to also give the thank-you-for-your-service line to her. This woman was not unstable, but not on Carly's side. Fiorina's honest response, "you're not going to like my answer ..." began her criticism of medical marijuana.

What is interesting to me is the headline. What does the fact that the woman is a veteran have to do with the topic? When SAU Librarian Stella Herzig asked Fiorina about long work hours and lack of maternity leave, the QCTimes did not mention she was a librarian. And yet American Green Zine obviously regards being a veteran as helping make its criticism of Fiorina stronger. As admirable as the questioner's background is, it still remains irrelevant. In philosophy, we call this an illegitimate Appeal to Authority. Among Republicans especially, the military is an authoritative figure for American values.

3) Pro-life feminism. Politicians develop a friend-or-foe sensor as powerful as our earliest ancestors who were hunted by saber-toothed tigers. When the vociferous military veteran first stood up, Fiorina at least perceived a friend. When two women lined up later, she likely saw foes. Hippie, progressive, and hipster in appearance, they probably looked like a challenge, and her heart rate went up again.

Fiorina is a pro-life conservative. Two of the questions from the audience were from women who were part of pro-life feminist groups. One of these groups, Feminists for Non-Violent Choices
challenged Fiorina about economic matters that affect women and child-bearing. I talked with the questioner afterward, and we discussed how she was anti-death penalty, anti-war, and, even personally, a vegetarian. FFNVC is no disingenuous group of conservatives wearing "feminism" like knock-off fashion. These are serious and respectful progressives who see anti-abortion as a natural part of their beliefs. This is a welcomed departure from the entrenched pro-choice people who obnoxiously confronted Fiorina Sept. 26, saying "How can you, as a woman, not support our health care?," failing to understand that what constitutes appropriate health care is a matter of dispute. This is as unhelpful as if someone were to confront Bernie Sanders by saying "How can you, as a man, not support patriarchy?"

Unfortunately, at least one local newscast merely stated how Fiorina defended her pro-life position at the event. If that were true, then indeed there would have been no new ideas presented at the Quad Cities New Ideas Forum. For example, Fiorina just towed the Republican foreign policy line that the USA should support its allies and intimidate its enemies. (This is, incidentally, a departure from Jesus' belief that we should love our enemies, and a flouting of Jesus' saying about how even the Pharisees love those who love them.)

By being presented with pro-life feminists from the Quad Cities, Fiorina now has the opportunity to be truly new and antiestablishment in her views. When I talked with her afterward, I mentioned I was a philosophy professor, and she noted her interdisciplinary undergraduate degree, at least in part, was focused on philosophy. I admire that. I hope she uses that training to step outside of ordinary political categories. If so, even I, who have only voted for one Republican in my life, would consider her candidacy.

--Tadd Ruetenik

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Feelin' the Bern at Liberty University: When You Point, Three Fingers Point Back at You.

When Bernie Sanders spoke recently at Liberty University, among the most conservative Christian schools in the nation, he received appropriate praise from those enamored with his unconventional campaign. Of course Liberty University deserves praise as well for entertaining a speaker so seemingly antithetical to its beliefs. Progressive states schools, on the other hand, have a record for being intolerant of certain beliefs.

The great thing about St. Ambrose University is that it is none of the above. It tends to be both progressive and Christian, thus avoiding the double-edged hypocrisy of both progressives and conservatives. Consider the following description of the event at Liberty. 

David Nasser, the university's senior vice president for spiritual development, asked Sanders directly to "reconcile" his view that he wants to safeguard the most vulnerable without protecting "the child in the womb." A deafening applause erupted for more than 20 seconds.
But Sanders, in his typically stern tone, didn't shy away and gave a vigorous defense for his views on abortion rights.

"I do understand and I do believe that it is improper for the United States government to tell every women in this country the very painful and difficult choice she has to make on that issue," Sanders said. "And I honestly, I don't want to be too provocative here, but very often conservatives say, 'Get the government out of my life, I don't want the government telling me what to do.'"

A small section of the crowd cheered in support of Sanders.

At UC-Berkeley or Michigan State, for example, the distribution of cheers would surely have been reversed. Yet there is a profound hypocrisy in both cheers--provided the group of cheerers were mutually exclusive sets. I think Bernie is great, but needs to be called out for his pro-choice advocacy. If anyone, a socialist like him is best able to be anti-abortion with a good conscience. In his world of economic justice (which I firmly support) the choice to abort becomes less justifiable. Instead, his answer to his hypocrisy is just to hypocritically point out the conservatives' hypocrisy. 

I've heard Bernie speak, and he stresses the family-value morality of having maternity leaves. When Democrats claim Republicans only support babies when they are in the womb Republicans can throw the poop back at them by saying that Democrats only care about babies when they are out of the womb. Christians, it seems to me, can stay out of that monkey match by being anti-abortion and socialist. There is support for both of those in both scripture and tradition.

Economic justice is a moral matter. Transnational welfare is a moral matter--and insofar a conservatives are Christian, they are hypocritical. I think single payer health care--or at least Obamacare, whose idea was originally promoted by Republicans--is also a moral matter worthy of Christian concern. So is not going to war, and not executing criminals. Bernie gets just about everything right, but he refuses to be thoroughly unconventional until he--and all other Democratic presidential candidates--forsake the stale pro-choice rhetoric. Choices are not ends-in-themselves. 

--Tadd Ruetenik

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Gay Marriage and the Christian Conscience: What is that Kentucky Clerk Doing in the First Place?

A Christian woman is refusing to give marriage licenses to gay couples. “Kentucky Clerk Is Wrong to Deny Gay Marriage Licenses, Says Same-Sex Marriage Opponent” is the headline of a recent article in The Christian Post. When many people want to respond to the case of this Christian womanwith empty statements like “get to work,” “do your job” or “do your job, bitch!,” it is encouraging to see that clear and independent thinking is being done. As with many things, behind the dumb-gut reactions on either side is a more complicated—and even philosophically interesting--situation. 

The opponent says that the woman is justified in personally exempting herself, but that she has no basis for making a policy for the whole office. I personally am skeptical of having religious exemptions for things. Pacifist though I am, for example, I would not require the state to protect me from military service if it were required. I would take my legal consequences. The early Christians were martyred; the least I could do is endure fines and jail time.

This is what the Kentucky clerk is facing right now. Unlike the marriage opponent of the article, I see no need to protect her legally. Yet I also do not see a need for ad hominem arguments. In the meme below, the answer “because Jesus” is indeed sufficient. Those who are on the side of compassion—which generally include the progressive people who support gay marriages—should not argue with the Christian idea of forgiveness. Indeed the woman has been married 4 times, and there is evidence of adultery in her past. Nonetheless, her subsequent conversion to Christianity is important, or else we do not ultimately believe in Christianity. Sure, one should judge not lest you be judged, but I also believe we should judge not those who judge--lest we be judged for that judging! Let he who is without hypocrisy throw the first stone.

And there is no hypocrisy here. Her statement to those demanding licenses is that God is giving her authority (presumably through her interpretation of the Bible) and she will face her worldly judgement just as the gay marriagers will face their otherworldly judgment. If any homosexual came to repentance, gave up homosexuality and the desire to marry, then she would (we hope) have no problem with them. Perhaps she would even be happy simply with a homosexual couple who repented only from the desire to marry.

In this case, you have to admire her. This is, in her mind, part of Christian civil disobedience, and we need to quarrel with her politics rather than her principles. What can we learn from her? As I argued before we can learn something even from Westboro Baptist Church (see January 2015 post here). In the case of the Christian clerk, we are forced to consider this question:

Why is the government involved in licensing marriages in the first place?

Marriage is a paradox. When people decide to get legally married, they are saying that they love each other so much that they must legally coerce each other into staying together. This is indeed odd, since marriage I think we are often confused about the concept of marriage to begin with. The idea of love in marriage is relatively new to human history. The essence of marriage is found in ancient ideas of possessing people.

In order to possess someone now, we think of contracts. The philosopher and lifelong bachelor Immanuel Kant talked about marriage—without any kinkiness, we presume—as the mutual ownership of each other's sexual organs. We have more romantic notions, however. For us, marriage is about two things: love, and a legal relationship. But this is a confused idea. Love shouldn't be about the sanction of the state. At most it should be an affirmation of the community, and not just the couple. But this is not a legal matter as much as a communal matter.

So here is what we should do: Instead of worrying about who should be considered married according to the state, and who should not, we need to get the state out of the concept of “marriage.” To protect people's rights when they are sharing property, we should have domestic contracts covering anything we would like regarding what we previously regarded as marriage. Gay or straight should be able to enter into such contracts. All of the other mystical union-of-bodies stuff we should just leave to the churches, and all of that sentimental love stuff we should just leave to the greeting card industry.

--Tadd Ruetenik

Monday, May 4, 2015

An Ounce of Prevention: Victim Blaming and Revenge Porn

As of this week, the UK can now prosecute perpetrators of “revenge porn” with up to a two-year prison sentence. Revenge porn is the act of posting videos or photographs after a breakup that were taken consensually during the relationship. To be revenge porn, the new UK law requires that the distribution of videos and photos of a sexual nature must be done without the consent of the person in them and must have the intention of causing distress to the person featured. Prior to this, although there were over a hundred cases of complaints reported in England and Wales, in the 2 1/2 years leading up to September 2014, only six of those incidents resulted in any kind of police action. There are websites devoted to this and earlier this year an American, 2004 Moline High School graduate Kevin Bollaert, (qconline)was sentenced for his part in a revenge porn site that posted these videos and then charged women to remove their images from the web. 

Women are typically the victims in these situation, with their images posted by former boyfriends or ex-husbands. But this is not exclusively the domain of men. In October 2014, a Virginia woman was charged for posting the nude photo of her ex-boyfriend’s current girlfriend to Facebook. This followed a similar but inverted case two months prior, also in Virginia, where a woman posted her current boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend on Twitter and Instagram. These women were both charged under a new law that had been put in place in July of 2014 and represents the kind of legislation active in a handful of states – about 12 – that have any kinds of laws regarding posting on such sites. In most US states, federal law absolves websites of responsibility for material posted by third parties. Even in the states that do have legislation, pinpointing who the poster is can still be an obstacle to prosecution. Furthermore, the origin of the photo may make a difference – some states won’t protect content that was shot by the victim. 

Some victim advocates, including Dr. Fiona Vera-Gray of the End Violence Against Women coalition, have said that changing legislation has the effect of turning the tide away from blaming the victim and instead focusing on how the intent of the poster is really what makes this situation problematic and wrong. (The Independent) Others, such as Dr. Peggy Drexler, have noted that because the laws are unclear and largely ineffectual, they return the focus to victim blaming because the only way to be sure your private photos remain private is not to take them in the first place. She writes: “This is the philosophy behind most common advice given to teens, among whom the rates of “sexting” continue to rise.  Trust no one.  Share nothing.  Even better: Take nothing.  While we’re at it: Don’t leave the house.  After all, you could get mugged, or raped.  You’d better not fly on a jet, either…swim in the ocean?  No way: sharks!  It’s ridiculous logic.”  Drexler 2014 

Drexler goes onto say that the “blame for a crime lies not with the victim but with the criminal.” I think this is true for two reasons. First, the perpetrators of revenge porn, both those who are posting it and those who are encouraging its posting, are guilty of sexual exploitation in a way that is particularly egregious because the people are being victimized without even knowing it is happening. Someone’s image or private video could be accessed thousands of times online without the victim being aware that it was posted and the way that they are most likely to find out is via the source of the greatest humiliation: someone they know seeing it. 

Second, the fact is that the video or image was created in a certain context for a certain purpose and revenge porn is knowingly and maliciously taking that visual data and applying it in another context.  I would argue that this is as much a case of defamation or libel as was the Shirley Sherrod case where she alleged that Andrew Breitbart had posted highly edited video of her making racist justifications for her work decisions at the USDA. 

In the case of revenge porn, whether the creator of the image was the poster, the victim, or some third party, those in the video were consenting (and I am limiting my remarks here to images that were taken consensually) to the recording of their image with one intent in the context of a relationship of some sort. Whether the poster participated in the video/photograph is irrelevant to whether they are able to provide full informed consent to the posting. Unless all parties portrayed agree to consent to this change of content/intent then the image should not be able to be posted.  (This could potentially raise some questions about the content that is posted on Facebook or Tumblr but I’m not sure that isn’t a conversation worth having.) In any case because of the private nature of the images in question I think the demand of informed consent becomes more salient. In the case of revenge porn, while the images were recorded with consent, either explicit or implicit through their voluntary participation, that consent was for the purpose of private use. They cannot possibly have given legitimate informed consent to the posting of those images on publicly accessible websites if they were not informed at the time of consenting that this was the intended purpose. 

I think this is particularly relevant to the issue of victim blaming. While the victim did consent to having their image recorded, that consent was given in a certain context – with certain intent.   As Illinois State Representative Scott Drury (D-Highwood) told the Huffington Post “They’re not taking that consent back – they never gave it to begin with.”  (Huffington Post) Because the poster has altered the conditions that the images are being used for, the victim’s consent no longer applies to these cases and as such, the victim bares no moral or legal responsibility for the posting and their subsequent humiliation. 

However, I disagree with Drexler insofar as I don’t think it is out of line for someone to caution people against taking images that they don’t want distributed. I don’t think this is victim blaming because I think the notion of blame implies moral or legal obligation and I don’t consider this caution to be expressing a moral or legal obligation but rather a prudential consideration. I wouldn’t write down my credit card information and hand it to a friend to use. This is because while I may trust my friend, she doesn’t have the same incentive to protect that information as I do. If I were to write down the information and she were to lose it, this is her moral responsibility, but it was certainly an unwise thing for me to do. My choice to share sensitive information with another person demonstrates risk-taking and personal judgment. In this case, I judged my friend to be trustworthy and I was mistaken. We can be mistaken about judging romantic partners and anytime there is the potential to be mistaken about something it is reasonable to be cautious to the extent that our mistakes could have bad consequences – the greater the consequences the greater our incentive to be cautious (and that isn’t even factoring in the possibility of cloud hacking.) If someone is going to be mortified by the distribution of private photographs or videos, it makes sense for them to avoid taking them. That is not the same as saying they are morally or legally to blame for their distribution. However, that may be cold comfort to someone who has been the victim of revenge porn.

--Jessica Gosnell

Thursday, March 19, 2015

In Defense of Short Attention Spans

When I hear complaints from people my age and older about the lack of attention spans in today’s youth, I wonder whether this is just the inevitable disconnection that happens with generations, or whether indeed today’s youth have short attention spans.
    I then wonder whether this is really a problem. The idea of an attention span presumes that there is something to be traversed. Here in the Quad Cities, the Centennial Bridge spans the Mississippi River, and it would be a bad thing if the bridge began in Illinois but failed to make it to Iowa. In the case of consciousness, however, the thing being spanned is more difficult to determine. If it is a vital task, then poor attention spans are a bad thing, but if we are talking about intellectual topics, then I am not sure a lack of a span is a bad thing.
    The world seems to be getting increasingly pluralistic. There are multiplicities of truth systems, many religious beliefs, and sundry tastes in art and politics. It seems natural to me that consciousness would tend nowadays to jot among these various things, sampling more than savoring.
    It does seem to me that savoring is the goal of the old school consciousness. The epitome of intellectual savory is the novel, or the treatise, or the tome. These are all names for long written works that are focused more or less on one topic. But there are also the poem, short story, and aphorism. These are short works whose topics have small spans.
    I propose that literature return to the short story, and philosophy return to the aphorism. Attention spans are indeed shorter nowadays, but attention remains constant. In fact, consciousness is always on some object, and the only real deficit of attention we have is when we are not conscious. Otherwise, consciousness is sampling rather than savoring. And what is wrong with sampling many things, especially when the world we live in is so pluralistic? We might be better off adapting ourselves to knowing relatively little about a lot of things than focusing our attention on one thing.
I could continue this post with an extensive review of the literature on attention, but that would be too boring. You have other things to think about, including the other posts on this blog. 

--Tadd Ruetenik

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Check-Up with a Side of Romance: Personal Relationships and the Medical Profession in the Movie Waitress

Two of my areas of study are Philosophy of Sex and Love and Bioethics. It isn’t surprising then that the issue of crossing boundaries in patient/physician relationships is one of particular interest to me. In the film Waitress, this issue is raised because Jenna, an emotionally abused wife who desires to leave her husband, finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy.  For a variety of reasons, she becomes attracted to the new doctor in her small town and begins an illicit affair with him that ends only when she’s delivered her husband’s baby.

The movie illustrates a variety of relationship realities – one of the other waitresses is in a marriage that has lost its spark due to her husband’s health problems and finds herself having an affair with someone no one would have expected.  Another winds up in a relationship with an unattractive man who is well beyond zealous in his proclamations of love.  The movie seems to highlight the involuntary and spontaneous nature of love, showing how it happens unintentionally and in ways we would not have planned.  The majority of relationships in the film are shown as examples of how this spontaneity can be positive and life-affirming. However, the relationship between Jenna and Dr. Pomatter is problematic because of its spontaneous and unintentional character. Both participants are married and both have other plans that are threatened by their participation in this relationship.

The point that I wanted to consider more carefully, however, is the way in which Jenna and Dr. Pomatter’s relationship might be considered a professional violation. It is common sense to think that a physician engaging a patient in a romantic relationship is fraught with ethical trouble. Unfortunately for Dr. Pomatter, it seems that his desire to be accommodating to his patient’s needs (he agrees to see Jenna outside of normal business hours) and responsive to her personal difficulties (he shows sympathy regarding her personal situation and how it complicates her pregnancy) is what creates this unethical romantic entanglement.

Can we fault Dr. Pomatter for his kindness and flexibility given our social expectations regarding the prohibition against physician/patient relationships? 

Should we hold him accountable for how his choices ultimately resulted in a romance that he did not predict or desire? 

I think the answers to both of these questions are yes.  Let’s completely set aside the fact that both parties in this particular relationship are married – a point that distracts from the other issues this case raises. There are reasons why medical professional have expectations regarding having chaperones present during sensitive examinations and these expectations do not simply apply in situations where there is a reason to predict a potential problem. The patient’s safety and the physician’s reputation require that precautions are taken in all cases. Furthermore, because Dr. Pomatter is acting as the authority in this interaction, I contend that he is singularly responsible for the problematic relationship that resulted. I hold this in spite of the fact that Jenna, the patient, initiated both their interactions with a gift. While some might hold that gift-giving is a violation of the professional relationship, the fact that the initial gift (a pie) could not have been intended as manipulative or seeking the favor of a young, attractive doctor (as she did not realize that she would be seeing Dr. Pomatter) indicates that Jenna was not attempting to engage in any kind of misconduct. In fact, it may have been detrimental to Jenna and Dr. Pomatter’s working relationship if he had turned down the tarts. They were of very little value, it is unlikely that they would have introduced any kind of expectation of reciprocity into the patient/physician interaction and most likely Jenna would have taken offense that may have made their dealings awkward. This is a very small town, after all, and the expectation of politeness and kindness is ever-present.
But it is the very fact that they are in a small town that I think complicates matters. So far, nothing that has been said here is ground-breaking. Physicians and patients are discouraged from personal relationships and we generally hold the physician accountable for maintaining a professional distance. That said, I wonder if this is a reasonable expectation when those involved are living in relatively close-proximity to each other. When another physician is not to be found for miles, there may be little or no alternative for patients seeking treatment. This certainly seems to be the case for poor Jenna who is limited in her transportation by her husband. Additionally, it is that close-proximity that is likely to create the space for personal relationships to take place. For Jenna and Dr. Pomatter this is not an issue, their relationship is not generated by repeatedly running into each other at the market, but for practicing physicians and other medical professionals who operate with this expectation of professional distance and who live and work in rural areas, this is a genuine concern. Let us consider the alternative are available in these circumstances and the reasonableness of each.

First, Dr. Pomatter could place a prohibition on all personal relationships in the town. Presumably, a romantic relationship is going to be more likely to create conflicts of interest than a friendship but that doesn’t mean that a particularly close friendship couldn’t create them, just the same. Consequently, this would mean asking all medical professionals practicing in rural areas to rule out having a social life in any kind of meaningful way. Given the shortage of rural doctors, it seems unreasonable to place another burden on this already burdened population.

Second, Dr. Pomatter could be required not to live in the town in which he practices.  Again, this creates more problems than it solves in that it may not be reasonable to place restrictions on the housing arrangements when a medical professional is hired. There may be other constraints that require them to live where they do – availability of schools for their children or work opportunities for spouses (a point that would be an issue if we broaden the scope of this issue to all personal relationships – not just romantic ones). Furthermore, in areas of particular geographic distance between towns, it simply may not be practical to have the nearest medical professional living a town or two away and in areas where towns form communities in spite of geographic distance, setting up house in another town may just be a technicality – especially if the medical professional continues to shop, worship or recreate in the town in which he works. And it seems well-beyond the reasonable scope of expectations to place limits on these aspects of a physician’s life.

Both of these alternatives place the burden of policing personal relationships on the physician, and I believe this is where it ought to be. However, if we were to shift the responsibility to the patient, the options are not much better. Jenna could be responsible for finding another doctor (an option we’ve already pointed out isn’t practical in her case) or she could be responsible for limiting personal interactions with her physician. While common sense would tell most people to avoid a romantic relationship with their physician, it would not be surprising to find that few people could clearly articulate why. They might mention conflicts of interest or bad decision-making, but given that no one is trained in how to interact with their physician, it simply makes more sense to put the burden of responsibility on the physician – who is trained in proper interactions with patients.

However, this brings us back to options one and two, neither of which seemed particularly reasonable. For this reason, I would argue that it may not make sense to rule out physician/patient relationships, or perhaps more appropriately, any medical professional’s relationship with his/her patients. While there may be an asymmetry to the relationship in terms of power and knowledge, this can be true of a variety of relationships and unhealthy relationships are going to manifest their problems in a variety of ways. Consequently, rather than a prohibition on such relationships, the expectation should be clear communication, reasoned decision making and informed consent – expectations we would place on any interaction between a medical professional and his/her patient. In this case, Dr. Pomatter would be off the hook.

Mrs. Pomatter may disagree. 

-Jessica Gosnell

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Stoicism and Insecurity lol

I think the world needs more Stoicism. We seem to live in a time in which the expectation of changing oneself and the world becomes an obsession. Stoicism is the inspiration behind the famous Serenity Prayer found on a oil-stained ceramic plaque above your grandmother’s stove. The prayer says to change the things you can, and accept the things you cannot. Stoicism provides the wisdom to know the difference.
    Evidence of our unStoical times is found in the phenomenon of body modification. Celebrities who employ chemicals or facial surgery in order to look younger are often the objects of our disdain, but they are just a fun-house mirror of our own values. Stoicism says that we must keep our mind in a state conformable to nature. The best compliment you can give to a 40-year-old Stoic is to say “You look 40 years old!” Yet we would offend someone nowadays by saying such a thing. With body modification we fight, like a hissing kitten, against the Behemoth of death. And this is considered admirable in spirit, even if we sometimes smirk at the extreme results.
    But even worrying about aging is a sign of insecurity, and we give in to our insecurities in many ways. The topic I’d like to talk about specifically is our manner of communication. Electronic text communication has familiar drawbacks. Philosophers refer to the concept of a “metaphysics of presence,” by which they mean the belief that our words are accompanied by intentions that determine those words’ meanings. When we speak with someone in person, this seems obvious to us: we think we perceive, in some perhaps mystical way, the intentions of the person talking. But when you think about it, the words are out in the world, orphaned from the intentions of their author. In writing, this disconnect is more pronounced. The writer can be absent, perhaps even dead. We find meaning in the words, but the author of those words does not have authority over their interpretation.
Facebook posts are a useful example. You might intend something perfectly innocent by your words, but some smartass friend is quick to find the meaning that best serves his perverted intentions. (Facebook would do us a great service by providing a “That’s What She Said” button in addition to a “Like” button.) Now notice what happens if we object to this smartass interpretation: We have to enter our interpretation into the comments with all of the others. We have no special privilege here.
So are insecure about our communication. We fear being taken the wrong way (when, in this postmodern world, the right way is only determined by the rare event of consensus by the commentators). As a result, a writing habit has developed in which people add “lol” to the end of what are fairly ordinary statements.

“It is dark and snowy out, but at least I have my coffee lol.”
“Happy Friday to everyone lol.”

The phrase is now divorced from what we assume was its original meaning--that the writer was laughing out loud--and is taken to mean something like “I am saying something lighthearted, perhaps even mildly so.” What it is really saying, though, is “I am insecure about people taking me the wrong way.” Words of the Stoic Epictetus should be heeded here.

"Be for the most part silent, or speak merely what is necessary, and in few words. We may, however, enter, though sparingly, into discourse sometimes when occasion calls for it, but not on any of the common subjects, of gladiators, or horse races, or athletic champions, or feasts, the vulgar topics of conversation; but principally not of men, so as either to blame, or praise, or make comparisons. ... Don't allow your laughter be much, nor on many occasions, nor profuse."

This means that we should not only refrain from gossip and providing inane comments about vulgar topics (“vulgar” meaning “common” rather than just “offensive”); we also should refrain from adding ‘lol’ to these comments. Epictetus is telling us to be confident in our writing. We know what we meant. It is not our responsibility to interpret it for you. We will deadpan all of our jokes, and provide our sarcasm to those with understanding. With confidence, we end sentences with periods.

--Tadd Ruetenik

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Westboro Baptist Church as Performance Art

It appears that Westboro Baptist Church has jumped the shark. What started out as an edgy, creative social critique has become vague and gimmicky. The group, otherwise known as the “God Hates Fags” or “God Hates America” people, is planning to be in the Quad Cities January 24--26 to do their prophetic work at churches in Bettendorf, Davenport, and Moline, as well as a Davenport Public School. WBC indicates the reason for its visit to the Bettendorf church is that the church has “perverted” the true purpose of ministry by making worship “into some sort of social club providing ‘Saturday night kid's club’, ‘lots of coffee’ and ‘pastors in jeans.’”

There is of course nothing unbiblical about kids, coffee and jeans; WBC’s point is just that the church’s happy style of worship is distracting the congregation from being concerned about their salvation, and making them comfortable in their sin. WBC believes this involves disobeying “the commandments of God such as no divorce and remarriage.” The members of WBC see themselves as prophets. Whether you agree with them or not, it has to be acknowledged that WBC shares something in common with all Christian prophets, whether they be found in Bible history, or the history of U.S. civil right movement. They all were hated by the general, unreflective public.

To understand the metaphor ‘jumped the shark,’ it helps to understand two types of meaning involved in the understanding of metaphor. The first is what a metaphor means--how it functions--and the second is how the metaphor gets its meaning. What “Jumping the shark” means is that a long-going artistic effort has exhausted its creativity, and becomes vague and gimicky to keep itself relevant. But many understand the meaning of the metaphor without understanding how it gets its meaning. In an episode of the 70s show Happy Days, the star character The Fonz donned his characteristic leather jacket, put on water skis, and used a ramp to literally jumped over a shark in the waters below. This scene was taken to signal the fact that the show had run out of good ideas, and was desperately trying to retain viewers for a bit longer. The term has since been applied to other TV shows.

I am applying the term “jumping the shark” to religious movements as well. WBC gained notoriety in large part for chanting and displaying signs at military funerals. Members argue that dead American soldiers are a definite sign that God is punishing the country for its sins. Primary among these sins is the tolerance of homosexuality. For them, it is not just that homosexuals are bad, but that anyone who tolerates homosexuality is just as bad. WBC has spoke out about other things as well. For example, when heavy metal singer Ronnie James Dio (one of my favorites) died a few years ago of pancreatic cancer, WBC was at his funeral, making note of his apparent Satanism and other sinfulness. But to go from addressing military funerals to addressing Dio to addressing blue jeans indicates that they have lost their edge, and are getting a bit desperate.

The media often refer to WBC as ‘protesting’ at events. The word ‘protest’ is misapplied here. WBC does not seem to believe in social change. Their belief that America is doomed follows their deterministic theology. As old-school Calvinists, they believe that God has set the saints and hell-bound in place, and made their lives fit this plan. Indeed, there are some essentially saintly folks who are still unsaved, and capable of being converted, but the majority of people are set up for damnation. The idea behind this philosophy is that, if God is all powerful, then his call for repentance cannot fail to work unless He planned for it not to work. It is like the top salesperson who gives you their best sales pitch, complete with what they believe is the soundest of reasoning, and you still refuse to buy the service. The salesperson leaves the house saying, “Well, I didn’t want to sell it to you anyway.”

It is clear that the QCA is no different from other parts of the country: It does not want what WBC is selling. But reactions to the group are bipolar. One the one hand, there is a Facebook event entreating people to counter-protest. “The HORRIBLE Westboro CULT will be picketing in the Quad Cities. We want as many people as we can to make a human wall around these places.... Lets all band together and keep them out of our cities and away from our children!!!!!!!!” (The missing apostrophe and 8 exclamation points are almost as offensive to me as anything WBC has said.) On the other hand, there is a Facebook event asking people to ignore the group. With considerably better punctuation, this group asks: “What's the best way to annoy Westboro? Ignore them. Don't give them any opportunity for publicity and self satisfaction.”

I think both approaches are misguided. You cannot oppose them directly, since opposition does not matter to them. It is just a sign of humanity’s total depravity, and thus confirms their beliefs. But ignoring the group is haughty. Though not all prophets were ultimately right, all prophets were initially ignored. We should ask God either to forgive them or forgive us, because at this point, no one knows what they are doing.

The best response to WBC is to consider them a form of performance art. With particularly challenging art, we are instigated to reflect on our real values, the ones that are offended. Blessed are those who take no offense, says Jesus. I think those who refuse to be offended, but rather see WBC as opportunity for critical reflection, are the blessed ones. It is not easy to forgo being offended, but no one said being a Christian is easy.

This doesn’t mean we have to accept their cultural critique at face value. I prefer to see the group at its most edgy, and I lament the fact that they’ve jumped the shark by complaining about coffee and blue jeans. WBC offends the most when it preaches at military funerals. Liberal and conservatives both hate this. I think this is what the group is ultimately disclosing, and if there is anything truly prophetic in what they are doing, it is found in the fact that the military-funeral preaching hits such a nerve in America. Soldiers have become saints and martyrs in a post-9/11 religion of militarism. It is of course odious to preach condemnation at anyone’s funeral, but the fact that people get most upset when WBC does it at military funerals tells us that, perhaps, militarism is our idolatry. The common claim that “soldiers died for our freedom” has become a creed in this new American religion. It is an article of faith, and challenging it risks apostasy. WBC says that the soldiers died because of our sins, and I don’t think they are entirely wrong. The soldiers died, after all, because we have sent them off to wars. And we forget that war is sin.

This is the message of WBC. I don’t care that they would disagree with my assessment of them, since I have little interest in their intentions but only their actions. I am choosing to find good in an evil situation. Our response to WBC should be to appreciate them as edgy art, or listen to them as a counselor. We have have hope that they work out our issues, and we can leave open the possibility that we will work out any issues we have as well.

--Tadd RuetenikIA.