Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Presidential Medal of Freedom

Ugh, it's happening again.

Listen, I liked Yogi Berra -- at least I admire his skill as an athlete and his way with words, and he seems to have only friends among his colleagues -- but I think Obama is wrong to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  The same is true of John Wayne; Ronald Reagan was wrong to give him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  If we want to create a medal for the president's favorite performer, my only objection is the award is frivolous (almost as much so as the Nobel Peace Prize).  

Just don't say that the award is "America's highest civilian honor".  By its very nature, surely the Gold Lifesaving Medal, which the Coast Guard can issue to anyone, including civilians, must be a higher honor -- no acting, singing, or sports accomplishment can truly be more meritorious than saving a life!  Particularly when civilians risk their lives to save the lives of strangers -- as Lenny Skutnik did when Air Florida Flight 90 struck the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, D.C. -- whatever the nation's highest civilian honor is, they should have it.  A good case could also be made for someone like Chesley Sullenberger, whose skill, calmness, and good judgment saved many lives.

What Is Poetry?

Perhaps the place to start is by looking at what poetry is not.

Poetry does not consist of "artistically" placed line breaks, ignoring capitalization, or other gimmicks of typesetting.  Nor is a powerful use of the language with memorable phrases necessarily poetry.  Consider the following familiar passage:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
These are stirring words, and the passage is a beautiful use of the English language, but it is not poetry; nor would it become poetry merely by writing it in this form: 

we hold these
to be self-evident, that 
all men 
are created EQUAL, 
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable 
that among these are 
and the pursuit of Happiness....

Others may disagree, but I maintain that this Tony Bennett song is not merely bad poetry, it is not poetry at all: 

If I ruled the world
Every man would be as free as a bird
Every voice would be a voice to be heard
Take my word we would treasure each day that occurred....

Ugh!  Look at what is happening there:  the need to force each line to rhyme with "bird" is ruling over the composition like a Sith Lord, cruel and despotic.  There is no feeling that the rhyme occurred naturally and the poet had real freedom.

I am not, therefore, insisting that rhyming is the essence of poetry, so that anything that rhymes is a poem, and anything that does not rhyme is not a poem.  For example, although my background means that I surely cannot fully appreciate it, I acknowledge that Oriental poetry, such as genuine Japanese haikus, really are poetry.

So what is poetry?  My answer is that poetry is text that has been voluntarily submitted to a significant arbitrary constraint but is written with such skill that the constraint does not seem to limit or force the text.  The constraint is arbitrary, but there must be a constraint.  The constraint needs to be "significant" and "voluntary", or else a term paper or business letter (both of which have the constraint of standard forms) would qualify.  Let me know if you have a counter-proposal!

Let me close with a particularly nice passage from "The Garden Party" by Hillaire Belloc:

For the hoary social curse
Gets hoarier and hoarier,
And it stinks a trifle worse
Than in 
The days of Queen Victoria,
  They married and gave in marriage,
They danced at the County Hall,
And some of them kept a carriage.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Jeb Bush, Baby Hitler, and Prayer

Jeb Bush has recently said that if he could, he would go back in time and kill Hitler while the latter was still an innocent baby.  This was the wrong answer to a question that should have been ignored, and it invites some follow-up questions.  
Close-up photograph of a male baby (4424012923)
© Milan Nykodym, Czech Republic [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

  • Since you are willing to kill an innocent baby because you think it will save tens of millions, Mr. Bush, you apparently believe that the ends justify the means, as long as the ends are serious enough. What if you could save the most lives by deliberately murdering a baby who would not have grown up to be a mass murderer?  What if you "knew" that stabbing to death a baby who would have died of asthma at age 10 anyhow would save over a hundred million lives?  Would you murder that baby?
  • What if we were not talking about the past?  Suppose an angel with demonstrably preternatural abilities told you tomorrow that you could save a billion lives by murdering a certain baby.  Are you in fact prepared to murder this baby?
    • Would it matter whether the baby were a foreigner or an American?
    • Would it matter if the baby were your own grandchild?
  • What if you were not asked to murder a baby, but simply to offer a pinch of incense in worship of Satan?  Would your answer still be, "Hell yeah!"?
  • The most troubling questions probably revolve around situations that Jeb Bush might in fact face during his hypothetical presidency.  Suppose that all the important leaders of ISIS were known to be meeting in the basement of a building full of children -- not just "minors", who may actually be 17 years old, but youngsters who were unambiguously children, aged 8 and younger.  Your National Security Staff are all in agreement that this is a very real opportunity decapitate ISIS and throw them into so much chaos that they would fall apart in the face of the enemies they have already made -- but the only way to be sure is to completely destroy the building, leaving no survivors, say with a bunker-buster followed by two daisy-cutters.
    • Would you drop the bomb if the children are the families of the ISIS leadership?
    • Would you drop the bomb if the children are Syrian civilians?
    • Would you drop the bomb if the children are Western hostages -- American, British, and Canadian children?
Sometimes saying "Hell yeah" is literally saying yes to Hell.

Of course, we can take some comfort in the fact that time travel is, at the very least, technologically impossible, so the question asked of Bush is merely hypothetical.  But what about prayer?  Given that God is omnipotent, and God exists outside of time, is it appropriate to ask God to bring about some effect in the past?

My answer is that it is fine to pray for some outcome in the past if you don't know what happened, but it is wrong to pray for something to happen if you already know it didn't happen.  So let's say you have a Jewish great-uncle who was last seen in Warsaw just before the German invasion in 1939.  Things look very bleak for him, but you cannot be sure he was unable to hide, change his identity, and perhaps end up in a different country at the end of the war with no knowledge that any of his family survived.  Maybe he was never captured, maybe he survived, maybe he was able to lead a long and fairly happy life somewhere; you should certainly be able to pray for all these things, and God will already have known about your prayer back in 1939.  

On the other hand, we know that Adolf Hitler did not die as a baby, so we can be sure that his survival was, in some sense at least, the will of God.  In cases regarding the future, we can almost never be sure what the will of God actually is for events (as opposed to how we are to behave), and even those few events which we are assured will definitely happen are rather lacking in detail.  The past, however, is different:  we can often remember it or reconstruct it from the evidence in great detail, and I think it is safe to say that whatever has actually happened does represent what has been called God's "permissive will".  This, of course, is fraught with all the difficulties of the Problem of Evil, because we who know imperfectly and love imperfectly will often desire things different from what is planned by God, Who knows perfectly and loves perfectly.  To say that the Holocaust was part of God's permissive will is not really any different than to say that God did in fact permit the Holocaust; both are undoubtedly true, though I dare say it is well beyond human understanding to know why and even how either can be true.  At any rate, the phrase "Thy will be done" is at least implicitly present in every true prayer; any request for something known to be contrary to the will of God is not really a prayer at all.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Terminally Ill Man Sentenced to Death

Yesterday, Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr., was sentenced to death for three murders.  This was not a crime of passion, as I suppose is most often the case for murders within families or between lovers -- those cannot exactly be excused, but in many cases they can be pitied, because bad decisions based on raging emotions is a part of human frailty with which we are all familiar.  Nor was this even the callous indifference to life shown by, for example, a bank robber who murders a guard in an effort to get to the cash.  This was murder for the sake of murder, the outgrowth of a hatred that is figuratively demonic -- and perhaps more truly than merely figuratively.

According to a doctor's testimony, Miller is unlikely to live more than a half dozen years.  I'm not sure about the process in Kansas, but given the inevitable appeals, the controversies over the drugs typically used to carry out death sentences and the consequent limited availability of those drugs, and similar considerations, it seems unlikely that the executioner will come for Miller before the Grim Reaper does.  What good does it do to pronounce a sentence that the state will not actually carry out, then?

The sentence was worthwhile and good because it tells the truth about the moral gravity of Miller's crime.  He probably will not die at the hands of the citizens of Kansas, but he deserves to.  This is about the value of his victims, both those he intended to kill and those he actually killed, but it is also about the terrible dignity that is unique to man among the animals:  there is a moral, spiritual dimension to the decisions we make; our choices really matter.  This is a truth that could not be so adequately proclaimed if the only option had been to sentence Miller to prison for twenty five years to life.