Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Monday, June 27, 2005

The End of the Universe

I work on the fifth floor of a five-story office building. Five stories might seem short unless you've been to West Texas, and then you understand that I can look out the east side of the building and see Fort Worth, out the west side and see El Paso.

Five floors directly beneath my office, in the basement, is a large, open room. A church used to meet there on Sundays. I've always wondered what it would be like to worship in the basement of an office building. I suspect it would be a lot like worshipping in a hotel conference room, which is what I did on Sunday.

On Wednesday evening, my wife, my kid and I bade a fond farewell to the Riverwalk, hopped in the car and began our drive to Dallas, where we would have the privilege of participating in that Fabulous Waste of a Weekend that is often known as a family reunion.

On Friday and Saturday, we did some fun family reunion things, like talk religion. At one point, I found myself seated in the study of a fairly opulent house - complete with hidden room behind the bookshelf - discussing reformed theology and the racial segregation of the Christian church.

In fact, I was kind of surprised that we didn't have more discussion about religion; my sister, who is currently working her tail off in Oakland as part of the Mission Year program, had recently sent a letter to her sponsors - many of them family members - criticizing our particular religious tradition and expressing fear that the church of Christ Mafia would soon be coming after her. Those of you who aren't part of the church of Christ tradition, relax. There is no church of Christ Mafia. If there were, it would have disposed of Max Lucado long ago.

Because our religion is a significant part of our family identity, we usually have a family worship service. On Sunday morning, we all crawled out of bed and made our way to the hotel's Bluebonnet Room.

As I was walking down the hall to the Bluebonnet, I noticed that the hotel had three conference rooms. Ours was the middle room; the first had a sheet of paper that read something like, "Harvest Church International will meet in the Magnolia Room".

"Interesting," I thought. "Two churches. But we probably won't be meeting at the same time."

As I entered the Bluebonnet Room, I noticed that while it contained a folding table at the front and two groups of folding chairs with a center aisle, the Bluebonnet Room did not contain any actual bluebonnets. Also, it wasn't a room. It was the middle third of a long room that had been partitoned using those carpet-covered wall divider things.

"Boy," I thought. "I sure hope that we aren't meeting at the same time as that other church."

By about 9:40, most of the family had gathered in the Bluebonnet Room and taken their seats. We began church with some singing, which we manage without instruments and, on this occasion, which was facilitated by a fairly loud songleader.

Before we could begin singing, a chant started in the Magnolia Room, on our right. It was facilitated by a tambourine. Our songleader hurried to begin our own singing, which I felt sure would drown out the poor chanters with the tambourine, and proclaim us to be the Religious Victors of the Holiday Inn.

Then, from the room to my right, I heard an odd hum. Was that an amp clicking on?

It was. A guitar, a female vocalist and a folksy praise tune quickly subverted both the tambourine and our stalwart a capella chorus.

Eventually, everyone finished their songs and settled down into the contemplation phase of their worship. Everybody did their church thing, and we even beat the Baptists to lunch.

But something about the whole exercise awakens this odd feeling, this insistent tugging at the leg of my mental pants. It's similar to the tug I get every Sunday, when I drive past a Baptist church and a church of Christ that just happen to be located across the street from another Baptist church.

It just seems slightly ridiculous, doesn't it?

But can we do instead?

Thursday, June 23, 2005

It's Thursday Already?

Ok, Ok, I said I would post on Monday, but I lied. Gone to our national users conference for work; scarcely time to breathe, much less write.

Now it's over, though, and I have some time to reflect, particularly on things that I've eaten. The conference was in San Antonio, so we ate on the Riverwalk several times. I know this is off-topic, but if you're going to San Antonio, Texas any time soon, try the following places on the Riverwalk:

Fancy kind of Southwestern stuff. They make guacamole at your table. It's fun.

Italian. Calamari made from strips of giant squid, apparently. Don't miss their appetizers.

This restaurant is on the second level. Don't go to the pizza place on the first level. I recommend the Tortellini Victoria with shrimp. Yum.

Don't go to:

Rio Rio
Not so great. They served my margarita in a tumbler. What's that all about?

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Curse of a Cluttered Mind

Three things.

Thing #1: The frequency at which I post to this blog.

It needs to be more consistent. Occasionally, I'll drop something every day; more recently, I've been posting once, maybe twice a week. And if you care to read my stuff, it must be annoying to check and not find anything.

So here's the deal: I'll post something every Monday and Thursday. I may post more frequently, but if you've been taking periodic hits of the crack cocaine that is my blog, here's a schedule for you: Monday and Thursday.

Maybe not crack cocaine. Maybe more like cigarettes.

Maybe a foot rub?

Thing #2: Book tag! I like books. I think I'll briefly respond to Paul's blanket book tag.

Total books ever owned: Probably about 100.

Last book I bought:
What are People For? by Wendell Berry. It was a gift.

I'm reading:
Blogs, and more blogs. Also, Lying Awake, by Mark Salzman. Gift from my sis.

Five books that mean a lot to me:
These aren't all good books, but they're responsible for a large chunk of my psyche:

Red Branch, by Morgan Llywelyn
No longer impressed by the writing, but it Celtified me.

The Gospel of Mark
This Jesus guy rocks.

The Once and Future King, by T.H. White
Taste the seductive kiss of the well-written fantasy novel.

Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck
Eh, I just love Steinbeck.

The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis
And now I'm hooked on mediocre philosophy.

And now, three people who should consider themselves tagged:
Shane, K-Rewx and Bryan.

Thing #3: A question for you smart people.

Today at lunch, a bunch of us were talking about the appropriate relationship between the church pulpit and politics. One of us insinuated that racism is prevalent in the church. Several others questioned that assertion.

So are my questions to you:

Is there significant racism in the Christian church?
And what makes you think there is, or isn't?

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Those Darn Mossimos

This weekend I met Randal.

Randal looks to be in his early 50's. He wears a few days' worth of sad grey stubble, a beige cap with cloth flaps that cover his ears, and spectacles held together with medical tape. It's easy to see the dip stains between Randal's teeth, because Randal talks a lot. About all sorts of things.

When you meet a guy sitting on a street corner, a lot of times the guy wants to talk about why he's on the street corner. Or, in Randal's case, why he's coming to pick up his wife, who is panhandling at the intersection of an access road and a four-lane highway.

I've known Randal's wife, Deborah, for several months now. I see her every morning at 8 a.m., marching from her pitiful rent house to this intersection on the edge of town. She always comes to this intersection, even though it's on a highway with sparse traffic. The cops make her move from the intersections in town, she says. At this intersection she can sit all day, hoping people will toss her some rent money. But I hadn't yet met her husband.

I pull up to the intersection with two leftover blueberry muffins and a jug of ice water that Deborah had asked me to refill. Randal's bike is parked next to the concrete island where Deborah camps out, and he is sitting next to her, laughing about something.

I hand the water to Deborah.

"Matt," she says, "this is my husband, Randal.". We shake hands.

"I'm a welder," Randal says. "Least I used to be, until those mossimos came around and started taking my welding jobs."


"Mossimos?" I think.

After a few minutes of diatribe, I figure out that the Mossimos are probably Mexicans, although they could be Italians or Russians, I guess. Whoever they are, they are partly to blame for the loss of Randal's welding job. Them and the robots.

"Robots?" I ask.

The robots, of course, are the other force responsible for the country's economic downturn. Industrial robots, the kind that make cars.

"Ok," I think, glad I brought sunglasses to hide behind. "I'm meeting a racist ex-welder."

Then, perhaps to prove his welding prowess, Randal starts telling me about his bike. It looks like a tandem bicycle, but with a sidecar. On the back, Randal has affixed a 4-cycle, 5-horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine.

"Like a lawnmower engine," I say.

It is, Randal explains, just like a lawnmower engine. But he's made some modifications to keep the engine cool.

At this point, Deborah stops paying attention to us and resumes making pitiful faces at the passing cars.

Randal, on the other hand, is engrossed in our conversation. He talks for a good 10 minutes about the air scoop he added, and how he can get 150 miles per half-gallon of gas, and how he can get his bike going 30, maybe 40 miles an hour, and how he can pull his two nephews (200 and 190 lbs) from Abilene to Tye (that's where they live).

"150 miles per half-gallon?" I ask.

Yes, he says. His motorcycle is the wave of the future, what with gas prices being so high. It's much more fuel-efficient than any car, and therefore better for the environment. But that's nothing compared to the air-powered cars and electric cars and vegetable oil cars that are coming. Why, a good electric car can accelerate as fast as a Dodge Viper! And his motorcycle is also good because you always kill the engine at stoplights.

"Ok," I think. "Add inventor and environmentalist."

"Yeah," Randal says, "My daughter had a dream about how I sold it on Ebay for $30,000. So I wrote them a letter to find out what I need to get an auction started. I thought I might try to sell it for $1,200, because then I could build another one."

"Entrepreneur," I add, smiling and nodding.

About this time, a black truck zips by.

"Get a job!", the passenger shouts, helpfully.

"If only your mom hadn't spent all her money on crack," I think. But I don't say anything.

"You know," Randal says, "the president and government and stuff think that we're over there to protect the oil. But I think God has us over there for a different reason. We're over there to protect Israel."

A zionist! I manage to pull myself together behind my sunglasses.

"Oh," I say.

Randal goes on to tell me some other things: How the river of life will be restored, and how computers are the tool of the beast, and how we will all have to give up our cash money, and have little grains of rice implanted in our foreheads.

After some discussion, I agree to put together Randal's motorcycle auction on Ebay, although I suppose this makes me his emissary to the beast. We shake hands again, and Deborah gives me an embarrassed grin. She squeezes into the sidecar. Randal mounts up, checks for traffic, and pedals his bike out into the intersection. I hear the motor start, and watch the 9-foot motorcycle race down the highway.

"Hm," I say. I climb into my gas-guzzling Toyota and drive home.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Fruit Flies

Gentle readers beware! The following article contains graphic descriptions of Fruit Fly Sex!

Single Gene Controls Sexual Orientation of Fruit Flies

This is an interesting article, mostly because it repeatedly uses the words "sex" and "fruit flies". On the other hand, it contains some particularly nasty material, including the following statement from from Dr. Michael Weiss of Case Western Reserve University:

"Hopefully this will take the discussion about sexual preferences out of the realm of morality and put it in the realm of science."

What? That doesn't even make any sense.

The discussion about sexual preferences can't be "taken out of the realm of morality." Science can ask questions about the mechanisms behind sexual behavior, but the rightness or wrongness of such behavior is inherently a moral question.

So if you get into a discussion about homosexuality anytime soon, please disregard the wild goose of "genetics vs. environment". If eating plums is immoral, then I shouldn't eat them, regardless of whether I want to. Same goes for kissing my wife, kissing your wife, playing kickball, reading books, feeding the hungry, or having homosexual sex.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Put Down Yer Dukes

Sandefur's latest post regarding government and commerce was very helpful: he's obviously given a lot of thought to these sorts of issues. But sadly, it looks like we're coming to the end of our discussion. Sandefur is hanging up his blogging gloves.

In light of this revelation, I'm going to try and bring some sort of closure to the argument. I'll begin with a blatantly simple summary of our argument.

ST. PIERRE: Humans are greedy little beasts, so the government should redistribute wealth.

SANDEFUR: The greedy ones are the ones who want to redistribute the wealth! Redistribution of wealth is tantamount to robbery.

ME: I agree. Redistribution of wealth is tantamount to robbery. But allowing the market to proceed unchecked is tantamount to oppression. So redistributing some of the wealth is morally justifiable.

SANDEFUR: Your premises are bad. Capitalism is not inherently oppressive because wealth is not a zero-sum game.

ME: Ok, but it doesn't matter that wealth can be created. What matters is that capitalism excludes people from the market based on factors that are beyond their control. It's oppressive because there is no real correlation between wealth and virtue.

SANDEFUR: No, capitalism is not oppressive. Most of the time, people who work hard increase their wealth. And even if it were oppressive, trying to ensure that people can keep what they have is more important than trying to ensure that everyone gets a fair shake.

And while I'm at it - can you provide a principle that justifies government intervention in providing for material needs, but restricts government attempts to provide for spiritual needs?

ME: [Scratches his head] Well, I'm going to continue to insist that capitalism is inherently oppressive. While capitalism may increase the absolute wealth of a society, what matters more is power in a society, which is determined by relative wealth. And over time, pure capitalism is guaranteed to concentrate relative wealth in the hands of a very few people.

To address the other question: Government should attempt to intervene in the market because there is a right to pursue property, but it should not attempt to enforce spirituality because there is a right to religious freedom.

SANDEFUR: Aha! Your name is no longer Matthew, it is now Mike.

ME: Um, Ok.

SANDEFUR: Furthermore, the only legitimate role for government is to protect people's rights. It doesn't harm anyone for me to practice my religion, so the government can't regulate it. It doesn't harm anyone for me to make money, so the government can't take it. In fact, I have a right to keep it, so the government must defend that right.

ME: Anything else?

SANDEFUR: Well, capitalism isn't oppressive, viz. burgers and blankets. Also, the right to pursue property, as you've defined it, is not a right. Get your stuff together, Mike.

ME: My name isn't Mike.

SANDEFUR: [Leaves.]

After considering this discussion, I think we have two major disagreements - three if you count the one about whether my name is Mike.

1. What is the extent of the legitimate role of government?
2. Is capitalism inherently oppressive?

I'm going to briefly summarize my answer to these two questions, and then I'll be done.

First, I think that the legitimate role of government may extend beyond the protection of the rights of people. I think it may include some secondary role, such as encouraging virtue. But I don't have enough theory to back up such an assertion, so I'll just leave it until I've done some more reading.

Furthermore, I am rethinking my wording regarding capitalism and oppression. I think it makes sense to talk about a system or a society or a person being oppressive, but capitalism is none of these - it is a relationship between government and the market. Therefore, I think I would be better off talking about the tyranny of a society that chooses never to intervene in the market. Such a society would be tyrannical because in choosing never to intervene, it would guarantee that the wealthy would continue to oppress the poor.

This is because, as we observed earlier, the market does not reliably reward virtue. Instead, it gradually funnels wealth into the hands of the people who begin with the most resources.

And as we discussed before, this relative wealth corresponds to real power. Not just power to get things, like cars and Rolex watches, but the power to make people do things. Sometimes this power is expressed in multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns. Sometimes in controlling the work lives of thousands of employees. Sometimes in bribing politicians. But this economic power is as real as physical power, and often more effective.

This, I think, is one thing about the libertarian position that really bothers me. Economic power and physical power are treated entirely differently.

In other words, it's OK for the government to have a monopoly on violent coercion, because then it can protect me from Big Joe who would walk in, beat me up and take my stuff. But it's wicked for the government to attempt to redistribute a little wealth, much less control the means of production, even though this would protect Poor Joe from wealthy me!

So to answer badger's question, yes, I do think it's useful to seek rational principles that could moderate the government's role in religion and economics. If nothing else, the seeking exposes our own ignorance or prejudice. If we're lucky, it may even help us decide how to vote.

Therefore, I'm going to bid a fond farewell to Timothy Sandefur, and hope that we meet more interesting people like him as this blog continues.

Or maybe I could bait Sandefur into coming back.

ME: Ayn Rand sucks!