Archive for March, 2009

Nightline and the Devil

March 27, 2009

Last night, Nightline proclaimed that they would be airing a “great debate” over the existence of Satan. I really hope Ted Koppel was otherwise occupied, because what his successors broadcast bore no resemblance to Koppel’s various great debates and town meetings. If Koppel had done last night’s show, it would have featured Satan and God, or at the very least the Pope and Anton LaVey. Koppel would have advised the networks that the broadcast would be running over its usual time by at least an hour, and it would have actually included the entire debate.

Instead, we got slightly more than half an hour of mostly voice-over from the moderator summarizing whatever the participants said. And the participants were a bunch of second-stringers with not a serious theological brain among them.

Well, if you want to look up Rabbi Hirshfeld on Beliefnet, you can get a somewhat more literate treatment of the subject (though Hirshfeld attributes the bit about G-d fashioning good and forming evil to the Jewish liturgy of the good old days, rather than to the original source, Isaiah 45.)

Anyway, does Satan exist? For the earliest picture of his M.O., see the Book of Job, in which Satan is clearly one of G-d’s operatives. From the point of view of an occasional practicioner of criminal law, I find it easy to see the Satan of Job as an overzealous and sleazy prosecutor who is not above engaging in entrapment to keep up his win-lose stats. But I’m not sure I believe in this overblown Ken Starr wannabe. It was hard enough believing in the real one.

OTOH….yes there is evil in the world, and some of it really seems to have no rational explanation. Genocide, for instance, or child abuse. Or torture. It is easier to believe that such things are caused by diabolical possession than by elements that can be found in the nature of all human beings, from Mother Teresa to Adolf Eichman. If there is no devil, then all of us are capable of serious evil. Nightline not only missed that point, it trivialized the entire issue.

Jane Grey

Marriage–A Mother & Father for Every Child

March 26, 2009

Last Monday, 200 same-sex marriage opponents showed up on the law of the Vermont State House with buttons proclaiming, “Marriage—A Mother and Father for Every Child.” This perturbs me a bit. The main cause of children not having both a mother and a father in the home isn’t gay marriage, it’s runaway men. Occasionally it’s runaway women. But what is the Religious Right doing, or even saying, about the all-too-frequently exercised right of fathers to walk away from their children? Not a whole lot. In most states, the statutes criminalizing desertion and nonsupport of home and family are either unenforced or have long since been repealed. I don’t know of anybody trying to get them back on the books.

And so far, medical science has not devised a way to prove a particular man is the father of a particular child without a DNA sample from both. I would support a Nobel Prize in medicine for any solution to this problem, or perhaps even a Peace Prize, given the social significance involved. Actually, in the interests of gender equity, what I’d really like to see is something that would cause every man who impregnates a woman to develop a facial rash and some other highly visible, bothersome but not dangerous symptoms that would last at least 9 months.

But obviously, if we can’t find runaway fathers, we can’t persecute them. As long as homosexuals were closeted, they had the same protection. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is a basic moral principle in our culture. Which suggests very strongly that what most anti-same-sex-marriage advocates really object to isn’t what gay people do in the bedroom, but the fact that they have the nerve to talk about it in the public forum. Marriage is only the most public way to make homosexuality public. If they’d stop holding parades, and publishing books and periodicals and blogs, and forming organizations and support groups, they could **** and *********** to their hearts’ content.

Which is a constitutional issue. We don’t object to gay sex. We object to gay speech. Speech is protected by the First Amendment. Maybe that’s because the Framers knew how much people want to limit public speech, given half a chance. Sex—well, it depends which Supreme Court opinion you read and when and by whom it was written. A lot of the folks on the Warren Court seemed to consider sex protected by the First Amendment, but these days that argument doesn’t fly, even with the current court “liberals.” But it wouldn’t really have to fly, if people would just shut up about it. Even the most restrictive of conservative judges has never advocated setting up an entire corps of jackbooted thugs to randomly police bedrooms, because we would really rather not know what goes on in them.

Which, I suspect, is only a special case of a much larger issue. We Americans don’t want to hear about people who are different from ourselves. We particularly don’t want to hear about how oppressed they are, or how badly we behave toward them. We will allow each oppressed group, as part of the “liberal bargain,” a few days a year to air their grievances all over the mainstream media, coast to coast, in glorious Technicolor and stereophonic sound, while we tune out, turn off, and watch football. Our willingness to grant them that much proves what nice people we are. After the few properly licensed days of exposure, the issue, whatever it may be and regardless of what, if anything, has actually been done about it, becomes “dead,”. As in dead horse, comma, beating.

Indeed, the Religious Right seems to value most the right of its members not to be thought of as bigots for being mean to various oppressed minorities. Being called a bigot is apparently an existential threat to many conservatives. It is often the reason given for opposing not only same-sex marriage, but even public advocacy of same-sex marriage. “If we let you talk about it, you’ll call us bigots for not letting you do it.”

Enough already. I favor same-sex marriage because, as a divorce lawyer, I see so little of fidelity and mutuality and sharing in this world that I refuse to be picky about who practices them. I also favor it because any excuse for a good party is a significant contribution to the quality of life. Also, it’s good for the economy. Caterers, wedding planners, dressmakers and haberdashers, and the manufacturers of small appliances all need all the help they can get. If you don’t like same-sex weddings, don’t have one.

Red Emma

Late Night with Obama

March 20, 2009

Last night, Mr. Wired and I watched the President on Jay Leno. We had been wondering why on earth he would bother appearing on a purely entertainment show. Later, it hit me—I don’t normally watch Jay Leno (sometimes Nightline, more often the History Channel or NatGeo), and for that matter I don’t usually watch presidential broadcasts either. But this unlikely combination drew me into doing two things I don’t normally do. This is obviously a productive strategy for both Obama and Leno.

Obama did a pretty good job guesting—it would be interesting to know if he wrote his own material. And Leno had a really good serious question: should we be making federal tax policy by slapping a tax on anybody we suddenly don’t like? Obama didn’t exactly respond to it, but it was obvious this wasn’t the first time the issue had come up. My own feeling is that the hoopla about the AIG bonuses is populism on the cheap—a way of turning a substantive issue of public policy into an emotional safety valve for a lot of people angry at losing their jobs and going broke. It has been officially sanctioned by the media as something it’s okay to get angry about, that doesn’t require any serious thought. Fortunately it’s not likely to generate any real lynchings.

Jane Grey

Holy Hydration, Batman! Florida’s Exporting Water!

March 20, 2009

Just heard this on NPR, of course. A very large proportion of our most popular brands of bottled water comes from Florida. The bottlers pay a minuscule fee for the right to pump it. Then, of course, they put it into plastic bottles which ultimately end up in landfills. Now the sovereign state of Florida wants to tax the water, and the bottlers are very upset.

What NPR doesn’t mention is that Florida is running out of fresh water. The notion of Florida as a desert is a bit mind-boggling, of course, and that isn’t exactly what’s happening. Florida is surrounded on three sides by water, after all.

Salt water.

Which, as the fresh water is pumped out of the aquifers, gets pulled in to replace it. This is not good for the local flora, including many important farm crops, like tomatoes and citrus. Most Floridians didn’t start worrying about this till about ten years ago (my aunt, of blessed memory, was keeping an eye on the situation thirty years back, being a birder and environmental activist.) A couple of years ago, Florida was hit by a drought so severe that weeds on the dried-out bottom of Lake Okeechobee (Florida’s largest source of fresh water) caught fire.

I had known about the drought, and the salt water intrusion into the water table, and the periodic fires in the Everglades (I remember those from when I was a kid.) I had not known that, through all this, Florida was actually exporting fresh water, and doing it for a mere pittance. It’s particularly annoying here in Illinois (which, along with the rest of the Great Lakes states, has recently been characterized as the Saudi Arabia of water.) Dasani (marketed at and by McDonald’s), Zephyrhills (Perrier/Dannon—both foreign companies), Crystal River, and several other nationally popular brands turn up on our shelves, when fresh water is one of the few things Illinois has more than enough of, and Florida is running out. Not to mention the landfill burden caused by the bottles.

My aunt is no doubt spinning in her grave.

So let’s quit with this bottled water nonsense. If you really worry about the quality of your tap water, filter it, or distill it the way the Wired family does (run the still every night, and have perfectly good water by morning. Sears carries an excellent line of distillers. But for some reason, distilled water does not cause whistling teakettles to whistle. Anybody out there have an explanation?) Most of the crud in your tap water probably comes from the pipes in your house, not from the public water system. But if your pipes are more than thirty years old, that’s probably a good reason to filter or distill. It is not a good reason to turn Florida into a salt desert and fill up all your local landfills with plastic bottles.

Red Emma

In Proportion to Zero: More About Number Theories

March 18, 2009

It’s easy enough to calculate the  rate of inflation in, say, housing costs over the last forty years.  Compare rents back then to rents now.  When we first moved into our current digs, in 1969, our rent was something like $176.00 a month.  Since then, the building has gone condo, and the combined cost of our mortgage and assessment payments on the same apartment is roughly $1500.00 a month.  If we decided to rent the place out, we’d have to charge something like $1700.00 a month, obviously.  So the rental cost of our humble abode has increased by a factor of ten.

But what makes that calculation easy is that both the numbers involved are positive whole numbers.  How do you calculate the rate of inflation of something you didn’t have to pay for at all until a few years ago?  That involves a proportion, one of whose components is zero. Any math buff will tell you it can’t be done.  (See for more elegant treatment of the subject.)

For example, the Chicago Art Institute just raised its admission cost to $18.00 for general admission ($12.00 for students and seniors.)  Up until 1971, admission had been free.  From then till 1989, the “suggested donation” had crept up only to $5.00.  Now it’s $18.00, and there’s no “suggestion” about it.

All the other great Chicago museums and zoos have followed roughly the same path, from free admission through the 1960s to the equivalent of 3 or 4 hours’ work at minimum wage today.  As former Art Institute director James Wood told the Chicago Tribune when he retired in 2004, there is a real qualitative difference between a museum with free admission, and one with any kind of required fee, however small. “One might pop in, say, at lunchtime to spend a few minutes with a favorite work of art…. when a visitor comes and goes without any thought of paying, a truly natural habit has the possibility to develop.”

Another case in point, arguably even more essential to the Good Life than art and learning, is water.  Beginning approximately in the mid-1990s, bottled water in the US suddenly ceased to be the province of health nuts and snobs, and became a universal necessity.  Now, in many places, it is no longer possible to get water with one’s restaurant meal except by buying a bottle.  Back when I was in college and spent some vacations in South America with my family, I was first introduced to two things I would not see in the US for another twenty-odd years: street beggars, and bottled water. The bottled water was outrageously expensive, but necessary if one had not had the opportunity to build up immunity to the local microbes.  Well, not exactly necessary—over a weekend in Lima, I took a look at the price of bottled water and decided instead to buy a bottle of the local rotgut, in which I brushed my teeth for the next two days. Since  I have never had occasion to repeat this practice, I have also never checked with my dentist to ascertain whether it’s better or worse for the teeth than water.  But it was definitely the cheapest and most microbe-free way to go.  Anyway, today, bottled drinking water is a multi-billion-dollar industry.  Mostly, one suspects, that results from the Reaganite suspicion of anything “public” or “government issue” that first arose in the 1980s.  And there is no real way to calculate the proportion of our current expenditures on bottled water to what we spent Back in the Day.

Aside from things that really used to be available free, gratis, and for nothing, there is yet another set of things that tend to be perceived that way even though it is absolutely clear that the recipient has paid for them. I’m referring to co-pays and deductibles for health care services which have already been paid for with health insurance premiums.  The  theory behind such payments is that it discourages frivolous use of the health care system.  The reality is that it often discourages any use of the system at all.  ( For more detailed treatment, see .  )    This is significant because, if the recipient is dunned for the cost of any individual purchase transaction after having already paid for the whole system, this will enable the providers to collect premiums for services that the purchaser may never actually use because s/he can’t afford the co-pays and deductibles.  From the provider’s point of view, this is as good as it gets.  What the recipient is paying for is not health care services, but merely a remote possibility of access to such services.  Which is a lot cheaper to provide.

More on this later.

Jane Grey

Number Theories

March 17, 2009

One of the things that most vividly distinguishes this economic crisis from its predecessors is the kinds of numbers involved in talking about it. For the first time ever, “trillion” is being thrown around a lot. And “billion” is so casually used as to be almost invisible. Never mind the immortal words of Everett Dirksen (the late Illinois Senator), “a million here, a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” These days, “real money” doesn’t happen till the trillions.

The lack of “realness” of lesser sums cuts two ways. On one hand, if mere billions don’t really count, then spending them doesn’t either.

On the other hand, the really small sums (like the average payment for SSI, which is $674 a month for an eligible individual) are so negligible that not spending them doesn’t count. Thus, General Assistance in Illinois ranges from $182 to $223 per month for an eligible individual. For the last twenty years, it has not increased. Initially, it was considered aid for “very poor people.” Now, as a practical matter, it is considered to be a program for “the homeless.” Nothing has changed in the meantime except, of course, the cost of housing. But the state is now under constant pressure to eliminate the program entirely, on the logic that:

  1. Nobody can possibly obtain housing with this level of income;
  2. Therefore this is a program for the homeless;
  3. All homeless people are addicted to alcohol or drugs
  4. Addicts should not be given cash benefits, since they will only use them to buy their drug of choice.

Similarly, private sector activities used by homeless people to obtain small amounts of cash, ranging from busking, begging, collecting recyclables, collecting discarded valuables, selling blood or plasma, or taking part in medical research, are frowned on by the more “respectable” advocates for the homeless, out of concern for the way these funds will be used. Many such advocates view anyone who facilitates these enterprises as “exploiting” the homeless and the very poor. Their logic is as follows:

  1. Nobody except very poor people would take part in these activities for the compensation available;
  2. All very poor people got that way by being addicted to alcohol or drugs;
  3. Addicts should not be given cash of any sort, even as payment for lawful employment, since they will only use it to buy their drug of choice.

The flaw in these arguments, of course, is that General Assistance, or selling blood or plasma, etc., don’t have to pay such minuscule amounts that only poor people would consider them. If they paid more, then the middle class could be “exploited” too. Of course, if they paid more, the middle class who received that compensation would probably not consider itself exploited.

But this kind of argument applies to people other than the very poor and the homeless. The conventional wisdom, for instance, is that Social Security Retirement benefits were never intended to be the sole means of support for elderly people. Once that argument has been made acceptable, reducing those benefits becomes okay, since of course the recipients must have some other means of support. In the meantime, the other two legs of the “3-legged stool” of retirement income so beloved of financial planners have been sawed away (private pensions and savings, both of which have been wiped out by the current economic mess.)

In short, the way to get rid of any benefit you really don’t want to pay is to reduce it, perhaps on the grounds of economic necessity, perhaps on the grounds of the unworthiness of the recipients, until it becomes so small that “nobody can possibly expect to live on it,” at which point you can eliminate it entirely, without ever bothering to investigate the other sources of income available to its recipients.

So much for the small end of the scale. In the meantime, we are not only talking about trillions of dollars, but about bytes (fragments of digital information) in the umptillions. Strictly speaking, the terminology is kilo- (1000), mega- (10002 ), giga- (10003 ), tera- (10004 ), peta- (10005 ), exa- (10006 ), zetta- (10007 ), and yotta- (10008 ), in case you were wondering. (Thanks, Wikipedia.) So far, we are not actually making gadgets with more than terabyte capacity, but we see no reason to limit our aspirations.

BTW, the highest numerical value banknote ever printed was a note for 1 sextillion pengő (1021 or 1 milliard bilpengő as printed) printed in Hungary in 1946. In 2009, Zimbabwe printed a 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar note, which at the time of printing was only worth about 30 US dollars. (Thanks again, Wikipedia.) On the other hand, here in the US, the Mint is seriously considering eliminating the hundred-dollar bill (the largest one it currently prints) on the grounds that it gets used mostly in illegal transactions. At the same time, the Mint has been debating for several decades whether to eliminate the one-cent coin, which currently contains somewhat more than one cent worth of copper and is therefore a loss leader for the Mint. A counter-proposal is also circulating to re-monetize the coinage by making the penny worth 5 cents, the nickel worth ten cents, the dime worth twenty-five cents, and the quarter worth one dollar. So far that hasn’t caught on. The other Great Debate is about dollar coins and dollar bills. Now that most vending machines purport to take dollar bills, and in fact will accept only the newest and crispest of them, sooner or later public ire will create a galloping demand for dollar coins, but it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe kicking the machines is more fun than solving the problem.

Jane Grey

Bailout Anger and Other Americanisms

March 9, 2009

Why doesn’t the US have a better safety net? Because, unlike, say, the Czech Republic, we can’t afford it? Probably not. Because we are nasty people with no social conscience? I really doubt that. No, I think the mechanism is more complex. I think many Americans would rather suffer undeserved deprivation themselves than see others gain a single undeserved benefit. They would rather live on Wonder Bread than see, or even hear urban myths about, Welfare Queens spending their food stamps on lobster and caviar. They would rather become homeless when they lose their jobs, than see a single voluntarily jobless lazy bum collect adequate unemployment or disability benefits.

The bailouts, obviously, are tailor-made for this kind of attitude. Large sums of bailout money are certifiably going to the undeserving. Not just lazy uneducated slum-bred louts, but spoiled-brat billionaires and overpaid incompetent greedy CEOs, people even a liberal could manage to hate. Much of this money is not even being used for its intended purposes, though the Administration is working on preventing that in the next round of bailouts.

At the same time, most of us have not yet caught on to the other potential beneficiaries of the current economic crisis—Social Security recipients. When the rest of the economy is going into a deflationary spiral, there is actually a lot to be said for living on a fixed income. The Greedy Geezers win again! No doubt the Administration will ultimately respond by eliminating this year’s Social Security cost of living increase, and raise the retirement age a little faster than it is currently inching upward. But that still leaves many elders better off than the workers who pay for their benefits. Actually reducing current benefits for retirees is just not going to happen. (SSI, disability, and survivors’ benefits, on the other hand, are likely to be considered fair game, since most of the recipients, unlike retirees, are already poor and therefore deserve whatever they get, or don’t get. You heard it here first.) When we finally catch on, will a generational war ensue? The main factor militating against that is that this generation of workers would probably rather support 1.5 retirees apiece through the Social Security payroll tax than move their own elderly relatives in with them, and those may be the only available choices.

It’s hard to tell whether the rabid Rushite Republicans who hope Obama’s economic fixes fail are among the Samsons who would rather bring the temple down on their own heads than let the Philistines escape uninjured. Limbaugh himself and probably at least some of his fans have enough money under the mattress to survive any such failure quite comfortably, so they may just be indulging in anticipatory schadenfreude. Here’s hoping they continue to be a minority among us. And here’s hoping the rest of us can learn to ease up on our unworthy neighbors in time to help our own friends and families.


Health Care Revisited

March 6, 2009

So President Obama has held the beginnings of a Great Plenary Council on health care reform, and inevitably, people are comparing it with the Clinton efforts in the early ‘90s. Which I was watching pretty closely at the time. So far as I could see, the administration made two major blunders. First, they started bargaining on their own bottom line. Last I heard, Yale Law School did have courses in negotiation strategy, like any good law school. Presumably one or both of the Clintons took such a course, so there is no excuse for the fact that they didn’t build any wiggle room into their first and final offer. Especially since there was, and is, an obvious bargaining position to set out with—single payer. It is what a large proportion of the American people wanted then and probably still want now, it is the cheapest way to go, and it has a proven track record of success in other countries. But the vogue then, in business and political negotiating, was the one-time-only take-it-or-leave-it offer. That’s what the administration offered, and the American people left it.

The second blunder was that the administration’s one-time-only-etc. offer built in large goodies for the private insurance companies. This had two major drawbacks: first, all the features of the Clinton plan that the American people liked least were built in to sweeten the deal for the insurance companies. And second, the insurance companies couldn’t be trusted to stay bought. Instead, they came back with the Harry and Louise campaign.

So here we are again. This time, the administration isn’t starting out on its own bottom line, but inviting all the players to contribute to a solution, which is an encouraging start. But the insurance companies are already griping about the administration’s advocacy of a government plan for people who can’t find a private plan they like (or can afford.) “Unfair competition,” they moan. Once again, the government’s relations with business are being attacked from both sides. Government operations shouldn’t make a profit, because that’s unfair competition with the private sector. And they shouldn’t lose money, because that’s a waste of the taxpayer’s dollar. Any government operation that doesn’t exactly break even is vulnerable to these arguments.

And the insurance companies and large corporations are also demanding that employer-funded health care be kept in place, which bewilders me. Health care costs, for employees and retirees, are one of the main reasons for the decline and probable fall of the Big Three auto companies. And, presumably, for similar problems among other private corporations. Health care is why American corporations have such a hard time competing with European, Japanese, and Canadian companies. Indeed, a few years ago, the US government was complaining that government-subsidized health care in Canada constituted an unfair trade practice. And now they want to keep it in place? Or are they just waiting for a better offer before allowing themselves to be lured into the briar patch?

Well, I have no better solutions for this mess than anybody else, but I do have a couple of suggestions. One: the administration should not trust the private insurance industry as far as a paper airplane will travel. If they do not get what they perceive to be the best deal possible, they are perfectly capable of pulling another Harry and Louise and scuttling the whole system.

And two: if the private insurance industry is to be allowed to have any part in the new improved system, the money to pay them should come out of funds clearly labeled “entitlements” or better still, “welfare.” Because they cannot make a single positive contribution to a solution. Single-handedly the private insurance industry has added more waste, fraud, and abuse to the health care system than any government agency over the last fifty years. If we can persuade them to get rid of most of it, that is the best we can expect. And the money one pays an otherwise useless entity to survive without excess harm to its neighbors is normally considered “welfare.” Yes, there are lots of otherwise decent people who support themselves and their families working for the insurance industry. Without that industry, they might have to look for useful work at a time when there isn’t very much of it available. So fine, let’s view it as a WPA or a CCC. Let’s leave it in place until the economy has revived enough to provide other kinds of more socially useful work. And not a minute longer.


Scandinavian Spirituality, the Bible Belt, and the Culture of Pain

March 2, 2009

Conservatives are fond of branding modern liberalism a “culture of death,” because of its lack of objections to contraception, abortion and assisted suicide. For some reason, endorsement of war, the death penalty, and ready availability of firearms do not, in their eyes, have anything to do with “death.” This is an old argument, and I really don’t want to rehash it at the moment. What I do want to look at is the difference between the US Bible Belt and Scandinavia. Apparently they are polar opposites, not only in their level of religious observance and belief, but also in what one might call their lifestyle statistics: levels of violent crime (lots of it in the Bible Belt, almost none in Scandinavia), divorce, illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, domestic abuse, you get the picture. Scandinavians, apparently, are Nice People, and Bible Belters—well, not so much.

If you assume, as I think most Americans of whatever faith do, that the main purpose and value of religion is to make people be Nice, these figures are counterintuitive. But this view of religion is also not quite consistent with classical Christian theology. You should maybe check out Newman’s description of the gentleman in Idea of a University. The gentleman is, above all, Nice. “It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain.” But he falls far short of Christian sanctity.

Some religious leftists, like me, take uncharitable delight in the inconsistencies of Bible Belt morality. It is fun to point out that Texas has a much higher divorce rate than Massachusetts. It is even fun to point out that the way we can tell that Joe Lieberman isn’t a real Democrat is that he has been divorced. If the Pope were a Republican, divorce would be the 8th sacrament. (No no, bad liberal, go to your room. Really uncharitable.)

But there are several ways to look at this discrepancy. One is a teaching I think I picked up from the Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides: the soul recognizes its own defects and chooses the appropriate remedies for them. Thus, most pacifists I know have really nasty tempers. Anarchists and libertarians tend in general to be bossy. And Quakers, whose primary liturgical expression is silence, are some of the talkiest people on the planet. One can view these inconsistencies as expressions of hypocrisy, or as conscious or unconscious efforts to remedy one’s besetting sins. Maybe Bible Belters are stricter in their ideals of sexual propriety precisely because they tend to be more passionate in their personal lives. They still have “dry” counties because they tend to be heavy drinkers. You get the idea.

Another way to look at this discrepancy is developmentally. The Scandinavians were not always Nice. Indeed, they started out as the Vikings, as nasty a bunch of thugs as you would ever not want to meet in a dark alley. (Four hundred or so years later, the Swiss were maintaining their Gross National Product as mercenary soldiers, with a very similar reputation. Now, of course, the Swiss are Nice, too. And then there were the New England gentry, most of whom were dope dealers to the Orient in their heyday.) Maybe every nation or eth has to go through a thug phase before becoming Nice. In the long run, there’s hope for all of us.

Or maybe, as Newman suggests, Nice is not what religion—Christian religion, anyway– is really all about. If we are fallen creatures, it doesn’t even matter how Nice we are, we are still sinners and the remedy for sin isn’t Niceness, it’s forgiveness. For further illumination of this view, read the Left Behind series. The Antichrist starts out as a Nice Person, almost a true gentleman in Newman’s sense of the word. He’s in favor of world peace and prosperity and other good things. That’s how (in the view of the authors) we know he’s the Antichrist. (But of course, the only way the authors can persuade their readers that he is the Antichrist is to portray him doing a lot of really un-Nice things as the novels proceed, like beheading Chloe. The author of Revelation has the same problem, and solves it the same way. Theologians may think Niceness is the work of the devil, but the rest of us still prefer it.)

That is not a mainstream Jewish position, and it sure as hell isn’t a mainstream liberal position. We Jews are primarily concerned with Niceness. For that reason, we lack the Christian obsession with doing the right thing only for the right reason. We are perfectly okay with doing the right thing for the wrong reason, because it is still better to live in a world where the right thing is being done, for whatever reason, than not. But then, we don’t view human beings as fallen, either. Prone to screw up, yes. Fallen, inherently sinful, no.

And, more to the point, unlike the followers of classical Christianity, we Jews do not worship pain. We have devised ways to handle it, and live with it, and even use unavoidable pain for good purposes where necessary. But we still prefer, and work to achieve, Niceness. We believe that suffering does not necessarily ennoble the spirit. So, for instance, most of us recognize that overpopulation leads to suffering, and that, of the possible ways to reduce overpopulation, abortion, enforced celibacy, and famine produce more suffering than contraception. So we endorse contraception. But most of us also believe that, at least in the early embryonic stages, the unborn child is not subject to suffering, and therefore that early-stage abortion is preferable to the other remaining alternatives.

And, apparently, the stats back us up. Societies that have reduced suffering have also produced Nicer people. Or, as Al Capp’s Mammy Yokum said long ago, “Good is better than evil because it’s nicer.”

Jane Grey