Do Poets Write Verse this Good?

Do you remember a fragrance girls acquire in autumn? As you walk beside them after school, they tighten their arms about their books and bend their heads forward to give a more flattering attention to your words, and in the little intimate area thus formed, carved into the clear air by an implicit crescent, there is a complex fragrance woven of tobacco, powder, lipstick, rinsed hair, and that perhaps imaginary and certainly elusive scent that wool, whether in the lapels of a jacket or the nap of a sweater, seems to yield when the cloudless fall sky, like the blue bell of a vacuum, lifts toward itself the glad exhalations of all things. This fragrance, so faint and flirtatious on those afternoon walks through the dry leaves, would be banked a thousandfold on the dark slope of the stadium when, Friday nights, we played football in the city. (John Updike, “In Football Season” from Olinger Stories)

Empathy Matters (but maybe not the way you think)

While recent discussions of police brutality have brought attention to the so-called racial empathy gap, other research suggests that empathy can create as much harm as good. First, racial empathy gap:

For many people, race does matter, even if they don’t know it. They feel more empathy when they see white skin pierced than black. This is known as the racial empathy gap. To study it, researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca showed participants (all of whom were white) video clips of a needle or an eraser touching someone’s skin. They measured participants’ reactions through skin conductance tests—basically whether their hands got sweaty—which reflect activity in the pain matrix of the brain. If we see someone in pain, it triggers the same network in our brains that’s activated when we are hurt. But people do not respond to the pain of others equally. In this experiment, when viewers saw white people receiving a painful stimulus, they responded more dramatically than they did for black people.

The racial empathy gap helps explain disparities in everything from pain management to the criminal justice system. But the problem isn’t just that people disregard the pain of black people. It’s somehow even worse. The problem is that the pain isn’t even felt.

On the other hand:

Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive sciences at Yale, has written a thoughtful criticism of the widespread assumption that we can improve the world by increasing our empathy. In his farewell address, for example, President Barack Obama said that empathy for those who are different is an essential pillar of democracy. Political polarization could be reduced if Republicans and Democrats had more empathy for one another. Teachers, psychologists, and politicians suggest that lack of empathy lies behind complacency toward Native Americans, judgmentalism toward opioid addicts, and hostility toward immigrants. If we felt the pain of the afflicted, it is often assumed, we would want to take proactive steps to help them.

Bloom doubts it. He rejects the assumption that empathy is either a strong motivator of moral goodness or a proper guide to moral decision making. One can identify emotionally with the suffering of others but not do anything about it; conversely, one can offer effective assistance to another person without echoing his or her internal states.

Bloom goes even further in arguing that empathy is actually responsible for more harm than good. A wide array of studies in social psychology and neuroscience show that empathy is highly context sensitive, shortsighted, mood dependent, narrowly focused, biased, and parochial.

Turns out that moral reflection (not moral outrage) may be better than empathy:

The good Samaritan was moved by the victim’s sorry state, but there is no reason to think he felt anything like what the victim would have felt lying on the side of the road. What was important was the Samaritan’s good will and good judgment about how to help the poor man. More generally, the point is that we do not have to feel any particular way in order to do what is right in any given situation. What is essential, as Thomas Aquinas put it, is a “constant and firm will to give each his or her due.”

Once again, the value of emotions, experience, and authenticity may be way less important than pietists (among others) think.

Why Crawford Gribben is Holier than I

He has read much more John Owen than I and in the introduction to his recent book, John Owen and English Puritanism, he explains that one of the ways to mortify sin is to read Owen:

My own sense in preparing this book is that biography is an especially demanding medium that continually refuses to permit intellectual shortcuts: at times, when I was overwhelmed by the demands of reading Owen’s millions of words in their very different contexts, I felt that he could not die soon enough. (20)

Sometimes when I read Owen, I think I can’t die soon enough.

So Owen’s affect on Gribben and me is opposite, either to wish the Puritan or the reader dead.

Wait, doesn’t that make me holier?

That Was the Day

I think I listened to this game on a transistor (not transformationalist) radio:

After Bunning set the Giants down 1-2-3 in the seventh, Philadelphia took the lead in the eighth on an unearned run. Gonzalez led off with a single. Richie Allen walked with one out. Marichal induced a ground ball from Johnny Callison that might have ended the inning. However, reserve infielder Bob Schroder failed to handle it, and a run scored.

Bunning failed to hold the lead in the bottom of eighth. He retired Alou to begin the inning, but Haller homered for the second time to tie the game.

With the two Willies, Mays and McCovey, up next, a modern manager would likely have pulled Bunning. The Phillies had a strong bullpen, anchored by the two Dicks, Hall and Farrell. But manager Gene Mauch stayed with his ace.

Bunning got Mays on a pop-up, walked McCovey (pitching very carefully, I assume), and then retired Jim Davenport.

Marichal had allowed four runs, eight hits, and two walks through eight innings. Giants manager Herman Franks had good relievers available — Ron Herbal, Bill Henry, and Frank Linzy (ERA 0.60). Yet, like Mauch, Franks stayed with his ace.

Marichal retired Tony Taylor, who led off the inning. Bunning was the next scheduled batter. Surely, Mauch would send up a pinch hitter to bat for his tiring pitcher.

But Bunning stayed in. He wasn’t a bad hitting pitcher. Early in his career, he was a .200 hitter. But by 1967, he had fallen off at the plate. Coming into this game, he was batting .125.

Bunning did have one home run, though. It came at the expense of Atlanta’s Ken Johnson, and was the fifth of his long career.

On this day, he hit his sixth. How embarrassed must the prideful Marichal must have been!

Bunning had given the Phils a 5-4 lead. Now he had to be his own closer.

No problem. In the bottom of the ninth, he set down the Giants in order — Brown on a fly ball, Schroder on a ground ball, and pinch hitter Norm Siebern, an old American League adversary, on another grounder.

Rating Professors is Arbitrary

So warns Jacques Berlinerblau:

Professorial prestige, I contend, is an awfully arbitrary thing.

Among professors, where one works is a marker of status. Thus, the assistant professor employed by an Ivy League college accrues greater glory than her counterpart at a midsize regional university. The latter, in turn, is more esteemed than an assistant professor laboring at some far-flung small liberal-arts college. The same hierarchies prevail, I guess, among high-school seniors comparing their college-acceptance letters as they hotbox their parents’ Toyota Priuses.

The juveniles and, distressingly, the professors are just following the logic of popular college-ranking systems. They are assuming that the greater the renown of an institution as measured by U.S. News & World Report, the greater will be the quantity and quality of research produced by scholars in its employ. Is this assumption accurate?

If it were, it would follow that an assistant professor in anthropology at Princeton University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 1) publishes more and better work than her exact counterpart at the University of Southern California (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 23). The USC savant, in turn, outperforms the identically ranked anthropologist at Clark University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 75). The Clark ethnographer has a heftier CV than a comparable scholar employed at Oklahoma State University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 149). The better the institution, the better the research its tenure-line professors produce. Right?

Well, practice has a habit of trolling theory. Let’s imagine an experiment. All four of our hypothetical tenure-track anthropologists are asked to submit an updated CV and all of their relevant publications. Upon their arrival, these materials are scrubbed of any identifying markers. The anonymous files are then forwarded to a panel of experienced academicians, no-nonsense types who understand how the game is played. Their task: Figure out which CV corresponds to which sage employed at colleges ranked 1, 23, 75, and 149.

Our arbiters, I’m convinced, would fail this blind test. They would fail even if we asked them not to look at mere quantity of publications but quality as well. That’s because the contestants would all look puzzlingly similar. The judges might assume that the assistant professor at Clark worked at Southern California. And, yes, it is not unthinkable that they would place the Oklahoma State ethnographer in New Jersey. The problem is not that the Princeton person is a slouch. The problem is that all four are publishing a lot and all are very impressive on paper. Ergo, it would be impossible for the judges to distinguish between scholarly Coke and Pepsi.

Does this apply to New York City pastors?

What about U.S. Senators?

What about platforms makes an author more of an authority than another author?

Cool or Wretched: Which Kind of Christian are You?

Here is what one of the apostles’ successors says makes Roman Catholicism “cool”:

Guilt. Pundits and comedians make fun of “Catholic guilt,” often described as an overactive conscience that makes us think everything is a sin. For example, when forgetting to floss, or not finishing all the food on your plate becomes confession material. But while people make fun of Catholics for their scrupulosity, in fact, having a little guilt is a healthy habit. It keeps us from getting into trouble and inspires us to do the right thing. Our world today would benefit from a little “Catholic guilt.”

What happened to that sense of the penalty for sin that Paul agonized in Romans 7?

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

Funny how a little bit of guilt goes a long way — all the way to the cross.

How can you be scrupulous and turn guilt into something by which to appeal to youth?