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February 28, 2013

The Sanctity of Logic

By Glenn Fleishman

I got into a long debate a couple of nights ago with a self-identified Catholic pro-lifer, Suzanne Fortin (@Roseblue), who has an answer for every question as to why same-sex marriage shouldn’t be allowed. None of them rely precisely on legal precedent; rather, they seem to stem from a specific set of historical values, a reading of what “natural” means, and an insistence on a property that only a pair of men and women can share.

I spent hours engaged with this woman partly because I wanted to know exactly what people who maintain this line of reasoning are really espousing. Here’s what I came away with.

She was game, almost so much that I thought she might be a troll, making up stuff to confuse those of us who support the notion of government not intruding on personal decisions about who we love and how our children are raised in safe environments. I appreciate that we had a long and civil, if tense, discussion that ultimately involved dozens of other people, including a woman in a same-sex relationship who has given birth to five children, and another who lost the ability that afternoon to ever have children, and was outraged at Fortin’s statements.

Here’s what I learned from her, if you’re trying to understand the thinking of religious fundamentalists on the issue. This is apparently a bit of catechism among people who think like this and it starts with three principles.

The first is a complicated wrapper of things, and I didn’t quite understand the term as she used it. It means that men and women were created differently by her supreme power and only when matched as a gender-differentiated set can a marriage be valid. (She left out in her discussion all the issues associated with this concept about men being “rulers” and women being suitable only for bearing children and household operations which is associated with this concept in theology.)

@glennf @matthewperle @skennedy8975 Sexual complimentarity is always at the base. Homosexuals can’t make kids or be mom and dad.

— Suzanne Fortin (@Roseblue) February 26, 2013

It’s clearly and repeatedly the basis of a lot of dispute over the future of marriage as a secular institution, even though the principle is theological. If you either disagree about a creator god or you don’t believe that one’s private religious beliefs should be the test for how civil rights are handled, then it’s irrelevant. Even if one finds legal precedent that cites it in America (or elsewhere), there are plenty of things one can find in old laws related to theology that have been ruled unconstitutional or that faded away over time.

The second point is fascinating, as Fortin asserted repeatedly that male-female unions are natural. But her “natural” is about natural law. She links in her Twitter stream to this essay, which starts with the assertion of a specific (capital G) creator god, which is in this context the Christian God, and more to the point, her Christian God (not one of the many thousands of variant beliefs that involve Jesus). This is part of the religious notion that without a god, there is no morality, and thus we exist in a vacuum. Without a foundational principle, we will all act without any restraint as if we were all demons in hell.

What’s interesting here is that in our discussion, I pointed out that homosexuality is commonly found in nature, and that there is an increasing body of evidence that finds a biological basis for homosexuality (and other spectrums of body identification and blurred boundaries) in human beings.

@glennf And killing progeny is found throughout nature too. Doesn’t make it acceptable.

— Suzanne Fortin (@Roseblue) February 27, 2013

But this is logically weak. She asserts that one form of coupling, to produce children (as if that is the only reason among animals and humans to copulate), is natural, while other strong bonds are not. Killing progeny is found in nature, she notes, but there she trips up. Her moral judgement is that killing one’s young is wrong (which society generally agrees, despite widespread behavior in India and China and elsewhere in female infanticide and abortion), but male-female procreation is good. She doesn’t back nature; she backs god-defined “natural law,” an entirely different thing.

The same principle is used, of course, to dismiss any construct that isn’t “natural” by that religious definition of natural. One could argue that all human-made technology and many modern constructs of society aren’t natural (even though they may be deconstructed into aspects of human behavior).

The third point is easier. She said, about 100 times in different ways, that because gay couples cannot have children together, they lack some special something she asserts is necessary to marriage. That something isn’t encoded in modern law: any male and female in most countries may marry without the intent nor ability to produce offspring. The only time you need a special something is when you invoke magic from the sky in which a marriage is a religious act rather than a secular one.

Her response to me and many others who asked where this puts infertile partners or couples, those who don’t want children, those who are too old to have children safely, those who are either adopted or adopt children, and those who use birth control, her answer was the same variation on this theme:

@skennedy8975 Heterosexual sexual acts and homosexual sex acts are not equal. One is potentially procreative, the other is not. #Catholic

— Suzanne Fortin (@Roseblue) February 26, 2013

In every scenario presented, she said the theoretical potential of procreation overrides the fact that people were not or could not actually create a child.

When pushed, she started to offer blatantly magical thinking, positing that any fertility problem could be solved by medical science in the future, clearing up that problem, and any attempt to not have children didn’t matter because of this incredible potential.

@glennf She can have an artificial uterus. Gays will never have that.

— Suzanne Fortin (@Roseblue) February 27, 2013

Asked about using medical science, including the Star Trek-style notions she advanced, for gays was bad because there wasn’t a mom and dad involved. She declined or evaded answers about sperm donors for infertile couples, in-virto fertilization, egg donors, and other issues, but did say that surrogacy was bad for children.

On adoption, she repeated this, in this case directly insulting one person’s parents:

@leahntorres @glennf Adoption is for the welfare of the kid, not for the parents. Your adoptive parents have it wrong.

— Suzanne Fortin (@Roseblue) February 27, 2013

This doesn’t answer the question, either, about why and whether in her view adoption by people who cannot have children together may adopt and still be ok. She also noted that marriages that weren’t consummated could be annulled, which apparently fixes that problem.

@cowboyinbrla No, but if a marriage is not consommated, it can be annulled, i.e. declared to have never existed.

— Suzanne Fortin (@Roseblue) February 27, 2013

The logical conclusion of her arguments would be:

What’s odd is that her arguments have a strange eugenics tinge to them along with the religious. Because her worldview doesn’t require actual intercourse as the sole method of procreation, that means she’s concerned essentially about the combination of genetic material from marriage couples.

I asked her if she had heard of parthenogenesis. She didn’t reply.

I brought up anti-miscegenation laws, slavery, and other issues, noting that in years past her arguments about nature and historical practice were given in often exactly the same words, and we’ve moved on. Her response was that procreation was unique.

Later, I examined her full feed, and found that she’s a full-on bigot, not just a marriage-rights specialist, defending the rights of business people, including those offering facilities rental to the general public (not to members of a specific church or religion), to discriminate against gays, lesbians, and others because they don’t like the notion of homosexuality.

@csmith03 How is not wanting to print a gay pamphlet persecution? The gay is FORCING the Christian to do it.

— Suzanne Fortin (@Roseblue) February 27, 2013

“The gay.”

The irony in a Catholic and a woman lecturing others on tolerating discrimination based on a personal belief about that class’s worthiness to exist does not go unnoticed. I would recommend to her a trip to the 1900s in New York City (as a Catholic man) or the early 1950s anywhere in America as a woman of any religion.

Three bits of humor, too.

First, she lives in Canada, which has had marriage equality for years. She said several times that heterosexual marriage is the only kind every allowed worldwide. A little myopic (and increasingly untrue), especially in her backyard.

Second, we had this discussion the day after it was revealed that prominent Republicans had signed to an amicus brief to the Supreme Court (the signatories now number over 100), which is deciding whether a proposition in California to overturn a California Supreme Court decision is constitutional. Major businesses have now also signed on.

Third, she asserts polygamy is fine, though inferior to monogamous marriages. But apparently, she doesn’t follow the issues of polygamy through to their logical conclusions, nor how polygamy is practiced in its many forms historically and currently.

Many people wondered why I bothered. But I wasn’t so much looking to convince her, but to understand the shape of her logic, because so many people clearly believe similar things.

What became clear is that her appeal to nature was “natural law,” a religion-derived interpretation; her invocation of a sometimes magical “potential for procreation” in theory and not in fact a derivation of Catholic thinking and never encoded in American law in this way as a marriage requirement or basis; and her dismissal of adopted parents (but, weirdly, not children) among other characterizations that she finds very few marriages actually meet her test for approval.

If you believe procreation is a blessing bestowed by the, a, or some god(s), you won’t hear any complaints from me. The process and results are a secular miracle if not also a religious one. But when you define that miracle as a protected right that you want to enforce on everyone else, you are the one at odds with the way in which secular society works.

She’s a bigot and lacks empathy. It’s worth understanding her point of view, as we continue to need to counter it to increase the amount of love and happiness in the world.

Posted by Glennf at 1:26 PM

February 26, 2013

Silver Linings MacBook

By Glenn Fleishman

How geeky am I? Lynn and I went to see Silver Linings Playbook last weekend. I’d heard it was good, quirky, and raw at times. The first 15 minutes I was concerned that I might hate it. But then it all snapped together when Jennifer Lawrence appears. She and Bradley Cooper have great chemistry, and the film is full of both tropes (meet cute-ish, etc.) and anti-tropes (some very raw and honest moments in which truth is being spoken).

But the thing I found most amusing is that as the movie progressed, I was more and more confident that it was shot in 2008 and left in the can. The iPod generations shown and a house-wide iPod drop-in system that Cooper’s friend installs. Lawrence’s white MacBook and iPod speaker dock of that era. Nobody has an iPhone (which would have been mostly outside the socioeconomic and technical interests of the movie’s main characters). People are still using flip phones.

They must have shot this in 2008 and left it sitting around, right? But why do the actors not look younger?

We leave the movie and I look it up. The movie was made from a book that tracked the football season and the Eagles performance in 2008. Of course. Lynn and I don’t watch sports, so some of the events that year would be absolutely memorable to football fans or anyone who follows sports with anything like attention. The movie kept the timeframe the same.

We laughed at ourselves. At least half or more of the people watching the film would immediately have understood from the football what year it was. I looked at the tech!

Posted by Glennf at 2:42 PM

February 6, 2013

Get the Name of the Bit

By Glenn Fleishman

I’ve written before about the concept of “get the name of the dog” in reporting. This is an oft-repeated maxim of Roy Peter Clark (who got it from the St. Petersburg Times). When you’re reporting first-hand, details matter, and readers demand them. If you tell a story involving a dog and omit his or her name, they notice, and the story’s incomplete.

I had a “name of the dog” moment while reporting on the Voyager missions recently for The Economist. I’ve got a piece going up online soon at the Babbage blog based in part on an interview with the mission’s chief, Edward Stone, who has run the project since its inception in 1972.

He mentioned that the most recent true glitch was a “flipped bit” in the memory of Voyager 2. They dumped the core, downloaded it (a neat trick at 160bps and 18 billion kilometers), figured out the problem, and reloaded the software. This happens even on earth due to cosmic rays, silicon expansion, and other random facts. It’s remarkable the Voyagers haven’t had more of these.

But I realized when I got back to Seattle from Pasadena, I didn’t know what state the bit had flipped between. Get the name of the dog. I found NASA’s log on the matter, and, sure enough, they report that the bit flipped from 0 to 1. It’s in the story.

Now, the state of a bit and the name of the dog aren’t the same thing. But reading that a bit flipped from 0 to 1 is more specific and more concrete than reading that a bit “flipped.” It also explains what happened to less technical readers: a value changed and they know what values were involved.

No, I didn’t get the memory location. This isn’t a 1980s BYTE magazine article.

Posted by Glennf at 1:18 PM


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