Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Our neighbors to the north

This article from the Ottawa Citizen is instructive:

"If you are at the public trough, if you are collecting taxpayers' money, you should be following taxpayers' laws. And that means adhering to the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms]," says Kevin Bourassa, who in 2001 married Joe Varnell in one of Canada's first gay weddings, and is behind an article titled "Gay advocates fight churches' charity status -
Institutions fear losing tax breaks if they oppose same-sex unions; Rightly so, gay-rights group says."

Over at Jane Galt's place, earlier this spring, we had a long and interesting discussion about gay marriage - or, more accurately, about the unforeseen consequences of changing major social structures such as marriage, with illustrative examples from divorce law in the early 20th century and the concept of "bastardy" somewhat later. The comment thread eventually wound down into my favorite potential logical fallacy - the slippery slope - countered by "That's a logical fallacy!" Thusly:

Gay-marriage opponent: If you can redefine marriage by taking gender out, why not number of participants? Why not age of participants?

Gay-marriage advocate: That's ridiculous!

Gay-marriage opponent: Why? Tell me what would prevent it, once the meaning of "marriage" is on the table.

Gay-marriage advocate: Now you're just being obtuse.

Gay-marriage opponent: Seriously, what would prevent it? While we're talking about social change, what about churches that refuse to marry gay couples?

Gay-marriage advocate: What about them?

Gay-marriage opponent: How long would it be before a church is accused by the ACLU of hate crime for discriminating against gay people?

Gay-marriage advocate: That's ridiculous!

And so on. I will say it again:

The "fallacy" part of the slippery-slope fallacy is not that the undesired end of the slope is possible, but that it is inevitable. And where we have contemporaneous evidence from a culture much like our own that the undesired end of the slope is approaching, "possibility" is not a high hurdle.

This issue is one I struggle with. Marriage has been a powerful shaper of my life. Not having to take extraordinary measures to be able to see my husband in the hospital, not having to adopt one another's children, being free from compulsion to testify against my husband - all right, so far I haven't had much specific use for many of the automatic rights of marriage, but it's nice to know they're there. And I have no animus against committed gay couples, or against gay people who want to find a life partner. (I do have some animus against "players" of whatever gender or orientation. Not my idea of how a person who wants to be good behaves.) So. What to do, when a group, through (I believe) no fault of their own, is unable to take advantage of benefits I enjoy, through no virtue of mine?

This isn't a case of conflicting rights, as the abortion debate is, or as slavery was once purported to be by some. If gay people were to marry, it wouldn't abrogate the right of straight people to marry. But - again let me direct you to the esteemed Jane - we are speaking of the unintended consequences of such a sweeping change. As Megan McArdle (a.k.a. Jane Galt, and no relation, by the way) points out, it's at the margins that the effects of change may be most readily observed. In this case, while the marriage of gay people would not affect my willingness to live in the state of matrimony, there are marginal cases whom it would affect (if I recall, one such case turned up in the comment thread to either the post above-referenced or in the follow-up post she wrote - a minister and wife who have stated their intent to divorce if gay people are allowed to contract legal marriage, because in their minds such a legal right would dilute the meaning of their own marriage). Marriage is good for society; it acts as a stabilizer, provides better for children, on average, than single parenthood or two-parent parenthood in which there is no legal bond between parents, and makes people happier, again on average, than single life. Where marriage falls into decline, other important social structures may as well: while my understanding of the data from Scandinavia and the Netherlands is that it's more correlative than causative, even the removal of all "marriage advantages" from marriage by the introduction of formal civil unions for opposite-sex couples accompanies a drop in both marriage rates and birthrates. So my answer is this:

Ahem. First let me say that, in contrast to the claims of some gay-marriage activists, the lack of a legal right on the books to gay marriage is not equivalent to slavery, and I believe that the epic indignity of slavery is lessened by the comparison. Now. My answer is that, with apologies to same-sex couples who want to commit to one another in perpetuity and desire the advantages that legal marriage conveys on that commitment, I think this is one of those times when we might act in haste and repent at leisure. Therefore, I believe we ought to act ever so slowly, taking careful note of the effects on more precipitate societies around us. If same-sex marriage is an overall good, it'll become clear (or at least clearer) in a generation; twenty years is not too long for society to hesitate when an institution that predates every society now in existence is in question.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Petit poulet

So my husband calls me from his commute today - something that has never happened in the history of his having a cellphone, except for once when he was almost at work and realized he'd left his computer at home. He listens to NPR in the car, and wanted to give me the four-one-one about Climate Change In Our Time. Apparently the bets are being hedged:

Q: Could global warming really slow down the Gulf Stream and cool Europe, or maybe even start a new ice age?

Unfortunately I'm not finding the actual Marketplace piece he was listening to, but the story linked above is the same one: global warming, even 1-2 degrees, could (a similar BBC article said "would") melt the Greenland icecap, diluting the salinity of the waters of the northern Atlantic and slowing or changing the course of the major source of Europe's relatively warm climate (as compared to other places at the same latitude). The results could devastate, among other things, the vineyards of France, and presumably change the range of the rain in Spain.

Well, darn it.

All right. I was trained as a geologist, many a year ago. It didn't take long to learn the fundamental lesson that the Earth is not a hunk of rock that can be held in stasis. Climate change is the norm; the fact that someone is around and able to watch it happen is the most significant difference between this time and, say, the Wisconsinan glaciation of some 20,000 years ago (when, surely, there were people around, but their interest was personal and far from academic). All the agitation of all the "concerned" groups in the United States and elsewhere will not halt the process.

Finally, "concerned" groups appear to have realized that "ordinary" people are on to this fact, and they've changed the nomenclature: no longer is the big bugaboo "The Coming Ice Age" (because many people reasonably believe that we're in an interglacial period anyway, and there will be another ice age no matter what we do) or "Global Warming" (because, first, the evidence is less than compelling in spots, and second, eternally, climate change is the norm) but "Abrupt Climate Change." Abrupt climate change, human-caused, to which the marvelous feedback loop of Mother Gaia will be unable to respond, and disaster will follow.

No, sorry. Disaster will not follow. The Earth, Mother Gaia if you will, has survived and thrived through absolutely no free oxygen but lots and lots of volcanogenic carbon dioxide, through abundant free oxygen (one of the more corrosive gases around, witness rust and tarnished silver), through meteor strikes, through the drift and smash of continental plates into and away from one another such that, at one point, the average summer temperatures in the center of the massive supercontinent known as Pangaea were perhaps twenty degrees hotter than the American interior desert today, through ice ages that buried Great Britain under a mile of glacier (it's still rebounding - measurably), through two-day catastrophic floods draining 3000-square-mile, 2000-foot-deep lakes that carved drainage systems amazing to shutterbugs today, and above all through that terrible scourge life in every available niche. She is as vital now as she was when the biggest land critter was a centipede.

Don't get me wrong: when the polar ice caps melt - again - Manhattan, if it still exists, will be Atlantis, and Orange County will bloom like the rose. I'm not saying that human life will not be affected. But let's frame this debate appropriately: it's not the Earth that's in danger. It's Western civilization's current condition, and only that. Stop Climate Change - as well try to stop an earthquake. The Sahara Desert used to be a garden; can we delude ourselves that its hardscrabble residents today would not welcome more rainfall? Niagara and Angel Falls are ephemeral; the Great Salt Lake is ephemeral; the Nile is ephemeral; the Himalayas are ephemeral. We may not be as ephemeral as all that, we may be able to cheat the fate of most other species through careful application of our intelligence to the problem of our survival under constantly changing conditions, but so far our entire timerange as a genus, not even a species, is only a fifth of that of the apatosaurus. (Ask your kids.)

It's hard for me to get too worked up about "Abrupt Climate Change!"; as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, forest fires, floods continue to wipe our little creations off the map no matter what disaster preparedness and resource management we bring to bear, I wonder just how much effect we humans actually have on the robust and stunningly adaptive system we call the Earth. A major component of my belief in God comes from the presence of our massive oceans - the majority of our home planet, filled with a substance almost unmatched as a heat sink, and with unicellular life that kindly photosynthesizes for our benefit no matter how much forestland we convert to agriculture. It's as if God provided us with "baby gates" to keep us from killing ourselves until such time as we learn to do dangerous things safely.

As such, I hesitate to support, much less encourage, any precipitate action on our part to monkey with the system. Efforts at forest management in this country led to a tangle of underbrush that burned faster, hotter, and more destructively than any natural fire, when it finally and inevitably burned. Efforts to contain the Mississippi in straight concrete banks did nothing noteworthy to stop her cycle of flooding. Efforts to move wild animals too often lead to human tragedy, the animals' failure to thrive in their new environment, or the proliferation of other species just as undesirable - think of rabbits in Australia, or, in the plant kingdom, the nightmare of kudzu in the American South.

I don't claim that we can do no wrong. We have the ability to create persistent toxins; we have been and presumably are being an agent of extinction (but remember that extinction is first and foremost a natural process - many creatures and environmental conditions have brought about extinctions); there is some evidence that it's possible for us to trigger earthquakes under some specific circumstances. What I do advocate is caution, especially of our tendency to hubris. We are only human. We are not the protectors of Mother Earth but just one set of her tenants - arguably the most creative, but not even close to knowledgeable or prescient enough to "save" her from herself.

Monday, June 13, 2005


Says here that activism is "a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue." Recent examples:

  • Perorations against judicial activism from the Right, using terms such as "legislating from the bench" - while I agree in general, I do wish the Supes hadn't ruled the way they did in this case. It's not that I support legalizing marijuana, either growing or use, since I think we have as much as we can handle with alcohol, tobacco, and addictions to legally prescribed drugs - just that it seems to my non-lawyerly ears an overreaching of the Commerce Clause.
  • Barbara Walters's expression of discomfort at the sight of a mother's breastfeeding her baby in the next airplane seat over sparks a nurse-in by breastfeeding moms. I sympathize with Ms. Walters, but as a breastfeeding mom I sympathize more with the mother trying to keep her baby quiet and well cared for in the confines of an airplane cabin, even in first class. Would Ms. Walters have preferred loud squalling from the seat next to her? Oh, wait - possibly she does not know that some babies refuse the bottle, or she believes that any such refusal is "temporary" and able to be overcome, which I suppose is true in the strictest sense - the most recalcitrant baby will presumably take a bottle if it is starving.
  • Amnesty International's un-frickin'-believable equation of Gitmo and gulags brings human rights activism to a perigee. Not to mention their refusal to admit that the comparison is not just ludicrous on its face but weakens their entire mission.
  • Here, with angry tears, the suggestion that the proposed "International Freedom Center," to be located on the site of the fallen World Trade Center, will call out to "great leaders, thinkers and activists'" to visit and hold forth on just how we go about seeking and interpreting freedom in this confusing world of ours. Of all places on earth, that one must be one of the least confused. Let them find another forum for their ideological explorations.

What am I going on about?

Sigh... It's this: activism is a luxury. It's a hobby. Not every time, not to everyone, but it's possible today to be an "activist" by refusing to go to McDonald's for a year (as a friend of ours did) or by giving money to that incurably silly Dr. Dean or by only buying organic produce (in blissful ignorance, I maintain, of the terrible cost to the world if everyone followed your lead).

I'm having word problems, in other words. I believe that one of the most human activities in which a human being can engage is to be serious about an important subject (and, I suppose, one of the greatest freedoms with which our system endows us is to be serious about a frivolous subject) - but to call oneself an "activist" is too facile, too noncommittal, and begs the question, "What action?" There's a great divide between not allowing your children to watch television and spiking trees... I abhor the word as much as I abhor the word "lifestyle." I never want to "have a lifestyle." I want, always, to live.

Similarly, I want to act, rather than to "be an activist." At present, the main way in which I want to act is to inform myself and to do my best to formulate my thoughts in writing such that others can learn some small thing from my interpretation of events... chalk that up to small dependents; my time outside these walls will come.