Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Persecution of Conservative Christians

As it stands now, Americans pledge allegiance (when they do) “Under God.” According to our money “In God We Trust.” Public officials swear to uphold their duties on Bibles and witnesses swear to the tell the truth on Bibles. Nearly all public and private institutions have Christmas Day off, and many have a week or more off around Christmas. Almost as many institutions have the time around Easter off as well. Every single President has been, at the very least, nominally Christian. There will be a woman president before there is a Muslim president and there will probably be an openly gay president before there is an openly atheist president. By virtually every rubric, America is a Christian nation. 

Unless, of course, you ask a conservative Christian. Then, Christians are under attack from a coalition of radical college professors, Hollywood elitists, liberal media, and some vague collection of other leftists. Despite consistent policy victories all over the country, especially in our schools, where conservatives Christians have forced things like intelligent design and abstinence only sex education into our, legally, secular schools, and despite everything else I've mentioned, conservative Christians in the media consistently talk as though Christians were being thrown in jail. So, when parents take a school district to court because they don't want their tax dollars spent on the recitals of words sacred to a faith that is not their own, it is not a rational concern for the appropriate allocation of scarce resources, or the simple desire for teachers to teach rather than preach, or even the desire to have a little control over the belief structures taught to their kids, but an assault on Jesus Christ himself. (Quick aside. There's a technique I like to use that is pretty good at exposing when someone is being a self-righteous hypocrite. Simply take whatever situation their discussing and replace “Jesus” with “Allah,” and imagine what the reaction would be. Can you imagine what would happen if a Muslim teacher got a bunch of students down on the ground bowing towards Mecca?) Or when someone argues that they don't want their, constitutionally a-religious, judges displaying a system of governance that opens with “Don't you dare worship anybody else but me” and only gets to “Don't kill anybody” at commandment 6, that person is not ensuring that the agreed upon jurisprudence of the United States of America is the primary method of determining cases, but attacking all of the Christian faith and everyone who believes in it. 

For an almost unnaturally rational person, like yours truly, this is absolutely baffling. Most Americans believe in angels, intelligent design, and identify as Christians. And a vast majority wouldn't trust an atheist as far as said atheist could be thrown. Why do conservative Christians believe they are being persecuted despite all the evidence to the contrary?

The idea behind childhood trauma is simple; traumatic events in a person's formative years can have lifelong effects. Things can happen to our brains when we are children that are almost impossible to change later in life. I think the primary source of this persecution complex is essentially the same thing; a series of traumas in the formative years of the culture.

Essentially, Christianity was formed when a man was tortured to death. It was Jesus's death by crucifixion, not his message, that redeemed humanity from original sin. The foundational moment of Christianity was not a man telling everyone to love one other, but a man getting nailed to a cross for doing so. For the next several hundred years, or to go with the metaphor, during the formative years of the culture, Christians were persecuted. They were harassed, tortured and killed, and the memory of this persecution stayed with the culture even after Christianity, in the form of the Catholic church, became one of, if not the, most powerful institution on Earth.

There's another layer for American Christians, as one of our founding myths is of the Puritans coming to America to escape persecution. (Forget for a second that they started persecuting people practically the instant they got the chance. Cycle of abuse, maybe, since we're going with a psychology metaphor.) From then on, many groups of people came to America to escape persecution. America was the escape hatch for minorities, both religious and ethnic, all over Europe. Furthermore, the nation was born through the trauma of the Revolutionary War, a series of events often depicted as throwing off the shackles of British oppression. In short, on top of the fundamental trauma of Christianity, American Christians, especially if they belong to one of the many Protestant sects, come from a long history of persecution.

Now, that persecution is engrained. Arguing that abstinence only education almost always leads to higher teenage pregnancy rates is an attack on Christian family values, so is the suggestion that intelligent design, not being a scientific theory and all, shouldn't be taught in science, that public school teachers should not lead their students in prayer (of course, nobody is stopping the students from praying by themselves if they want to, but, that's another essay), that all people have the right to form partnerships that provide access to a host of tax and legal benefits, or really anything that doesn't fit with their very particular socio-political philosophy.

Of course, the persecution complex is not without its practical uses; it is very politically convenient. It is one of the ways to defend an idea or policy against criticism, without actually arguing against the criticism. Instead of dealing with facts or rationale, many conservative Christians (or at least the pundits and politicians who purport to represent them) simply point out that the critique is part of a general persecution of the Christian and conservative belief systems and, thus, somehow, inherently illegitimate. (Of course, if an African American makes a similar argument about something, that person is using “the race card,” but well, one can only have so many aneurisms.) Simply put, the rhetorical technique removes the entire mechanism of argument. (And what is Democracy without argument?)

There are many layers to the depth of this problem, only one of which is the political convenience. For example, if you happen to belong to a “Christian” religion that believes the only just society is one in which fundamentalist Christian values rule all aspects of society; if for example you believe teachers should be required to lead their students in Christian prayer, than there are certainly groups, forces, and people working against the fruition of your vision. Like me. With something as important as religious faith, it's not hard to see how “conflict” is interpreted as “persecution.” Furthermore, these cultural beliefs are deeply and personally ingrained. If you've ever doubted how character traits based in religion become ingrained in an individual's personality, ask a Catholic about guilt. You'll learn all about it.

There are aspects of this problem that are simply beyond the forces of intentional social change. But it would be nice if American media spent a little more of their time checking the facts asserted by pundits or politicians. Or perhaps, providing some global perspective on the whole “persecution” issue by covering, I don't know, any of the situations in the world where people are actually being killed, (which, though this might be my liberal elitist upbringing, is different from being disagreed with) for who they are or what they believe. Women in Saudi Arabia, for example, or dissidents in North Korea. China threw Ai Weiwei in jail, and I gotta believe that being thrown in jail is a requirement for being persecuted.

As usual, my argument comes back to the media, to what journalists do and don't do, what they spend their limitless time on and what they don't. What we need is an hour of analysis and context for every hour of “news” instead of this constant assault of new event. Without pundits, opinions, and debates, journalists provide history, background information, and verifiable facts about the previously reported events. And then, with the context of the issue established and a grounding of verifiable fact, you have the pundits and politicians debate and interpret the news. Then, when a pundit or politician says something incorrect, the journalist can make the correction. Sure there will still be bias, still be spurious claims on persecution, but I have to believe, this format will make it easier for people to distinguish argument from evasion and true claims on persecution from political bluster and culturally formative traumas.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Jason Varitek and the Art of Calling the Game

One of the gospels of the New Testament of the Boston Red Sox (Praise be to Tito) is that Jason Varitek is the greatest game caller in the history of the game. I'm a believer and I'll get to why later, but I think “calling a game” is one of those concepts baseball fans never bother to explain to anybody else. What, exactly, does a catcher do when he calls a game, and why is it important?

At its most basic level, a catcher “calls the game” by telling the pitcher what kind of pitch to throw. Simply put, it's really hard for a catcher to catch a pitch if he doesn't know what's being thrown at him. Depending on the catcher and the pitcher, this process can be dominated by one or the other, or be a fluid decision making process.

Catchers are sometimes also responsible for telling the pitcher when to try to pick off a runner, or when to throw a pitch far outside the strike zone to make it easier to throw out a runner they expect to steal. Occasionally, catchers will be responsible for arranging the infielders, but usually the short stop or the manager does that.

Calling a game is one of those things that is very easy to do adequately, but very difficult to do greatly. In any situation, there are lots of pitches and locations that will work, but as with all things, there is only one “best pitch in the best location.” And knowing what that one pitch is very complicated indeed. It involves all the statistical stuff that has now come to dominate baseball; the batter's average against particular pitches, in particular locations, in particular situations, cross-referenced with the pitcher's various statistics.

But it also involves a psychological contest with the batter who, at least the professional level, knows all those statistics as well and knows the catcher knows those stats; the dark arts of getting into an opponent's head. There is no better way to guarantee a strike, or at least guarantee that a hit won't happen, than for the catcher to call for a change-up, when the batter expects a fastball.

But along with all that, the catcher needs to constantly assess the ability of the pitcher; is he getting tired, is his curveball working, does he have enough energy for the high heat. And if there are any problems, the catcher is the first person responsible for figuring it out; is the pitcher tipping his pitchers, are his mechanics off somehow, like he's dropping his elbow or stepping too far towards 3rd base or something like that. And, of course, a pitcher's problems can be caused by the pitcher's own emotions; is he frustrated with the umpire over a call or concentrating too much on one particular aspect of his motion or distracted by something else in the universe.

Of course, in most games, a catcher has to catch for different pitchers, often different pitchers with entirely different repertoires and personalities. Think about another common situation Jason Varitek would have to deal with. Let's say he's been catching soft-spoken, classy, professional, cancer survivor John Lester for a couple of hours and the Red Sox have a 4-2 lead going into the 9th inning. It means he'll be hopping on the express train to crazy town because “My dog ate the World Series Ball,” “I don't care if anybody steals on me,” lazer-eyes, dancy pants, Jonathon Paplebon is coming in. (A little off topic, but imagine what it feels like for Saltalamacchia to spend a couple of hours knocking knuckleballs out of the air and then see Daniel Bard about to throw a 100mph fastball at him.)

To put this another way, a great game caller needs to be a statistician, a strategist, a pitching coach, and (sometimes) a therapist all at once. In some ways, this is one of those skills that is almost impossible to accurately assess. Because the physics of baseball ensure that batters get out the vast majority of the time, it's hard to tell the difference between adequate and excellent. But Jason Varitek was the best at it. Here's why.

The Red Sox pitching staff did not have much success at the beginning of the season. In fact, the beginning of '11 was historically bad. The transition from Jason Varitek as the primary catcher to Jarrod Saltalamacchia upset the entire pitching staff. The staff eventually settled down, though Josh Beckett still won't pitch to anybody but Varitek. This is an indicator, because teams change catchers all the time, without having such a drop-off in performance. For the Sox, this drop off was caused by going from the best game caller in the game to somebody else. It would have happened no matter who ended up doing the bulk of the catching; any of the Molina family, Joe Mauer, Jorge Posado, maybe even (Praise be) Carlton Fisk.

The most concrete statistic for this argument is that Jason Varitek has caught more no-hitters than any other catcher in history; four. Furthermore, he caught them for four different pitchers, unlike Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Lou Criger, and Johnny Edwards (all catchers who caught 3 no-nos), who caught multiple no-hitters with the same pitchers. Furthermore, they were four very different pitchers. Clay Bucholtz in his second professional start, Hideo Nomo with his unique wind-up, Derek Lowe the sinker ball pitcher, and John Lester, the fastball/curveball lefty. He has also been one out away two more times, once with Josh Beckett and again with Kurt Schilling. Had those happened he would have caught twice as many no-nos as anybody else. Red Sox fans of the last decade will know, that 'Tek has guided many pitchers hitless through six, seven, and eight innings.

But perhaps the best argument at how good Jason Varitek is at telling pitchers what to throw next is when his pitchers ignore him. The most famous moment has to be when Schilling shook off a call and gave up a hit, with two outs in the ninth inning, of what would have been his only no-hitter. But I think a lot of Papelbon's struggles last year came from him being convinced, despite what Varitek was telling him, that his fastball was totally gonna blow the batter away.

Finally, when was the last time you heard an announcer, coach, player, or sports writer talk about calling a game? It was probably in reference to Jason Varitek. And the first time? It was probably in reference to Jason Varitek. Essentially, he is the only catcher in recent memory who has been able to draw attention to calling games at all. Calling a baseball game is one of those invisible activities whose results are always debatable. Because there are so many factors, it is almost impossible to know whether the call was the important part of the strikeout. (Ooo look, a real world lesson.) But something congealed around Jason Varitek. Certain statistics implied something atypical. He earned only the third captaincy of the Boston Red Sox. And his place as the greatest game caller in baseball is now gospel.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Alcoholic, The Marshal, and the Process of Morals

One of the amazing things about books, is that different books can ask the exact same questions in radically different ways, bringing us a little closer, through each version, to answering, at least for ourselves, some of the intractable problems of human life. On some levels, Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry and Warlock by Oakley Hall couldn't be more different. Under the Volcano is a poetic meditation on self destruction, focusing its philosophical and emotional considerations on the ultimate deterioration of one man, Geoffrey Firmin, the alcoholic British Consul living in Mexico. Warlock is a gritty Western with rustlers, sheriffs, gamblers, and gunfights, exploring the nature of law, order, and chaos in a young society. One is about a person living with himself, the other about people living together. They're very different books, but they find their way to the same difficult question.

Geoffrey Firmin's alcoholism is debilitating. Occasionally, he drinks himself sober, but he can never sober himself sober. He starts suffering symptoms of a very dangerous withdrawal after only a few hours without a drink. At one point, his body is so incapable of control his brother needs to shave him. The novel takes place on the day when his wife, despite everything, comes back to him. Though her return would be where the Hallmark channel mini-series ends, it's just another day of spiraling in and out of coherence and brilliance for Firmin.

Though there are some hints at the kind of formative events talk therapy is supposed to reveal, the most coherent, or at least intentional explanation for Firmin's alcoholism is a willful self-destruction. Essentially, he argues that his self-destruction is not a consequence of his drinking, but the point of his drinking. He seeks a kind of self-determined salvation through the ultimate bottoming out, a wholly unique kind of heaven by conquering the depths of hell. (In a way, Under the Volcano shares themes with the work of Jean Genet, particularly Our Lady of the Flowers, but that's another essay.) To me, the important question is not, “Can one achieve salvation through degradation?” but, “How do we know if someone else succeeds in doing so?” Even if we accept that such a course to salvation is possible, as Firmin claims, and even if ultimately Firmin states he has reached this salvation, since it is such a personal, individual, self-centered cosmology, how could we verify his statement?

Warlock is a fictional mining city near the border of Mexico, about a day's ride from Bright's City, the county seat. A gang of rustlers lead by Abe McQuown is the primary, but far from only, source of conflict and lawlessness. For some reason, the authorities at Bright's City refuse to provide Warlock with a professional sheriff and so Warlock must make do with amateur deputies. Eventually, the trouble from McQuown's band is too much and the Citizens' Council (i.e. the property owners, wealthy, and other respectable folk) hire a famous gunman named Clay Blaisdale to be their marshal. A series of conflicts and confrontations lead to Blaisdale shooting and killing several members of McQuown's band, two of which he was not sure were guilty of the crimes he shot them for.

The events and conflicts of Warlock raise many questions about the nature of order in society. What is the minimum level of “law” needed for the law to actually work? What use is righteousness if it is impossible to maintain? What is the value of law when it must be enforced at gunpoint? How much law is there in Warlock? Changes every day, depending on who was paying attention. When it is right to shoot first? You only know after all the shots have been fired.

What joins the two books is the problem of moral assessment. If salvation is possible through self-destruction, what is the moral weight of the Consul's actions towards that end? Ultimately, the Consul inadvertently injures or kills Yvonne, but the Consul did everything he could to assure that he was the only one destroyed. If justice and law are so fluid and confusing, who is the most moral character in Warlock. Tom Morgan comes to be seen as the embodiment of evil in the town, but everything he did, he did to help his friend, Clay Blaisdale, marshal and hero of Warlock. Furthermore, throughout the book the Judge, a raging alcoholic asserts that to be righteous, one must always be right, and that every action after being wrong is tainted with moral compromise.

In both books, before we even get to deciding who is morally right and who is morally wrong, we have to figure out how how we are going to judge. Do we take Firmin at his word, believing that his self-destruction is truly intentional and if not, how do we determine what his true intentions are? And how do we assess his salvation if he achieves it? What is the value of order in a town like Warlock, and what risks are worth taking in pursuit of it? If people have to die to create that order, should it matter who kills them and why? What is the most important thing in these two situations?

Of course, these books are about questions not about answers, so you're not going to find real guidance in either of the books. In a way they almost act like case studies, testing our moral aptitude by presenting intractable challenges. They reveal our own moral processes to ourselves by forcing us to make difficult moral evaluations, so even if we don't ending up knowing for sure who is right and wrong, we still end up knowing more about the processes of morality, and I believe that is progress.