Funny Thing

A funny thing happened in writing these blogs. Not funny ha-ha, but funny peculiar. I wrote a blog about a couple who elected to rely on prayer to bring two of their children back to health only to watch them die, and the subsequent attempt by the state of Pennsylvania to take the remaining seven children away from the family and prosecute the parents as criminals. I argued for religious freedom and against paternalism and received one very thoughtful response and several expressions of disappointment: how could I ignore those poor children and take such an indefensible position? It seemed to several readers that I was out of character. (Heaven forbid that I become predictable!) So I wrote a follow-up attempting to spell out my position more carefully and, except for one good comment, the silence was deafening. The issue no longer seemed to interest many people. This raised a couple of thoughts in my mind.

To begin with, it does appear as though most people who read blogs really want to be diverted or entertained, not made to think. I suppose that’s to be expected. Perhaps they are too caught up in what Tom Lehrer once called their “drab, wretched lives” to want to put on the thinking cap. But, come on, the issue of the growing extent of state power and the subsequent loss of individual, liberty is a rather important issue, though even a couple of the folks who almost always comment on my blogs seemed not to be terribly interested in the issue. I found that worth pondering.

But I also found the expressions of disappointment interesting. A couple of my former students who commented on Facebook, where the blog appears, wondered how I could take such a strange position, seeming not to care about the sick kids whose parents choose prayer over hospitals. I do care about those kids, as I do about the kids who are summarily taken from their parents and sent to a foster homes — even though the evidence suggests that they were much-loved by their parents (who just happen to be fundamentalist Christians). But I saw the issue of paternalism as the larger issue, given our increasing tendency to simply sit by and watch the political state take away our liberties one by one. In any event, the blog was not about me, and whether or not I was “in character,” it was about a couple of issues I thought worth some serious thought. But aside from those few comments, what I read was a simple, “I don’t agree.” The important question is WHY don’t you agree? In fact, the important question is always “Why”?

After I retired from teaching I wrote a book that was essentially a collection of blogs before I ever thought about blogging. Like my blogs, it was not a big seller! But I did receive a very thoughtful and careful review on Amazon from a former student who read the book and at the end of his review he noted that he

. . .enjoyed this book. I was an advisee of Dr. Curtler during 1982-86 . . ., and his encouragement, advice, and philosophical principles influence me to this day. As a professor, Dr. Curtler was always trying to guide our thinking, asking us questions: ‘you can say anything you want, but I will always ask you WHY?’ As a result, what he himself thought was often withheld. I was quite interested, then, when I saw this book, to read his open views.

If I ever begin to wonder why I took the vow of poverty and chose to teach, comments like that remind me. From where I stood, the notion that my students had no idea what philosophical position I held on complex issues was the highest possible compliment. You can’t top honest praise from a former student who seems to have seen exactly what you were up to. And even though my blogs reveal my own thoughts again and again, it is important that I return to that neutral role from time to time, take up opposing points of view and defend them as best I can, and play the gadfly in an attempt to stir up some thought in the few readers who follow these blogs. It may not make for popularity, but it is why I started writing them in the first place.

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22 thoughts on “Funny Thing

  1. Good morning! I think that I remember saying that you would make a good judge, as you seemed quite neutral and had the gift of seeing both sides. As for not commenting, I confess to being way behind on WP, and when the internet is fast enough to comment, I am usually sleeping! Other times a page won’t even load! I pulled an all nighter to get a few posts ready before the service slows, let’s see, it starts slowing down around seven (now) and will be legarthic by 8 and brain dead by noon!… And then there’s the floor, the magic carpet, which awaits the final few days of details!

    Deciding if the parents are at fault or not is a difficult call; they will forever be remorseful for what happened, and we should have compassion for them, even if we don’t agree with their choices.

    I loved this: “If I ever begin to wonder why I took the vow of poverty and chose to teach, comments like that remind me”

    • Z, I wasn’t thinking of you! You have so many hurdles to overcome just to get on line and are so busy with your painting I am delighted that you find time to read my posts at all! But I must keep reminding myself that others may not have as much time to do the blogging thing as I do!

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      • it’s very natural to question, “why?’ – when a post gets little feedback. i admire you for asking!
        this morning i am waiting for the electrician, who stopped me in town to ask if he could come today instead of wednesday.. and i wait!

        i’m about to go pull some weeds – a good outlet, and the sun feels so great today!

  2. To take the middle ground – to be able to see both sides and stand there – is a good ability to have I don’t know If I could do that. I would have .. well I don’t know. I know that followers of Jehovah won’t accept blood transfusions.

    Personally I would have done more than the power of prayer for my kids, but that’s me.

  3. Hugh, as I can attest from years as a newspaper editor, sometimes you’re going to hear nothing but silence. It doesn’t always mean that folks are not reading what you’ve written or are not moved to think about it — they often are, but they also are doing many other things that they may not always have time to comment. They may later say something to you in person, or reply to this issue when they, finally with time, are replying on another as well. And other times, I thought I wrote the best story or column or editorial of my career and heard nothing at all! Ever! Then, I’d rush through a half-arsed editorial the next day and get all kinds of feedback, good or bad. It can depend on if you hit a personal nerve with readers, too: I wrote things that I thought were really tame, but which landed in someone’s deep field of interest or passaion. Whoo, boy, would I get letters and phone calls!

    In other words, don’t take it personally! It’s probable that even those who don’t comment are affected, and impressed, by your thoughtful work.

    And the question of “why”. Absolutely, it must be raised! I burned that into all of my reporters: don’t ever leave an interview, a meeting, an event without asking why — why does someone do what they do for a living/hobby, why did a council vote as it did, why was a crime perpetrated. The facts of a story are Step 1 in our understanding of it. The whys of a story are anywhere from Step 2 through Step 222 to our understanding. The whys don’t always give us an immediate answer, and we may need to ask “why” of a dozen sources or more before a complete answer even begins to take shape. But it is in the asking of “why” that we — simply as humans, if not journalists or bloggers or readers, — begin to think beyond Step 1, and take the bolder steps into understanding.

    Keep your head up, keep blogging. In space, no one can hear you scream. In cyberspace, someone most certainly can. Even when it sounds like silence, it’s probably not. You are reaching folks!

  4. Excellent questions you bring up, and I don’t have a universal answer, just my own feelings. I was going to just let this one pass, to mull in my mind, but your post today calls me, and hopefully others, to face our discomfort and say what we feel.

    I read both posts, and was deeply touched, but also, deeply troubled. On the one hand was the issue of the parents, and their right to choose their own beliefs. Then there was the question of imposing their beliefs on others. We wouldn’t stand for this behavior if it was one adult to another, yet it is ok to impose their beliefs, and the fatal consequences, on those least able to defend themselves.

    On another hand, was the possible overreach of the state, and their increasing intrusiveness into peoples private lives. I don’t support the wide reaching arm of the state, as it grows and becomes an even greater part of our lives every day. On the other hand, when does the indifferent foster home, become an improvement over an abusive home life with the parents? There is definately a case for this. We read every week of another case of parents starving their children, keeping them in closets and cages, physically beating and burning them. So where is the balance, where is the line?

    Personally, I am appalled at the loss of these two innocent children’s lives, and in today’s widespread knowledge of life-saving medical treatments, especially for children, they died because of the ignorance of their parents. It was a case of two needless deaths, made more poignant by the second childs death after the first one. These parents had precident of their failed religious beliefs, but willingly sacrificed their second child.

    Two children died, at the hands of the very parents who should have had their best interests at heart. Two children died believing their parents wanted nothing but the best for them. The parents followed the same path of allowing the second child to die, after their failed religious beliefs allowed their first child to die. Two children died who were powerless to make their own decisions, to save their own lives. These were not free-willed adults, and those charged with their care, decided to allow them to die, with no thoughts to the alternatives, no thoughts to the positive outcomes of other ill children’s who were allowed proper medical care.

    So no, this is not a simple case, by any means. But in the death of two innocent children, particularly with the previous earlier death of a child under similiar circumstances, at the least these parents are guilty of child endangerment, and the state had a duty to take action.

    • Terrific comment! I had hoped today’s blog would stir up some hornets. But this surpasses my highest hopes! You see clearly both sides of this terribly confusing issue. I think I come down, in the end, where you do. But I really worry about the mentality of those we are turning those surviving kids over to: it may be even weaker than that of the parents from whom they are removed.

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  5. Okay, you have inspired me, but for a different reason than I ever would have guessed. I think you have a few things wrong and I will take the time to comment here in part because you helped to create thinking individuals. Some of the choices folks make are the result of “leaps of faith”. They “choose” to believe a certain way. The “why” may not be a compelling argument for someone else to make the same choice, but it is valid for them. I am not convinced that there is one worldwide “ethic” that works for everyone. Thus, although my friend in India reveres cows and does not eat beef, I frequently enjoy a good steak or burger. There are similar differences for many folks about not eating whales that are different in Japan and Norway. While many of us “inherit” our beliefs and ethical bases from our family’s values while growing up, we also develop them as a product of independent experiences, such as my daughter becoming a vegetarian. For some folks this is a reasoned approach about it being more healthy, for others it may be an ethical choice or just a taste preference. They are all personal choices. You may not find some of them compelling arguments to change your own stance, but you should not take your readers’ silence (lack of engagement) as a lack of thinking. That is a mistake and frankly is also a bit insulting for your readers. Many folks may feel that their choices are not something they even want to share, much less argue about. While you have spent a career engaging minds, we don’t all engage the same way as we carry on in “life”.

    I recall one of your final exams (I believe in logic) that simply said, “Name three and tell why” to test what and how students were thinking. We had read the works of many philosophers that term and some students took the full exam period. You gave me an “A” for my short, but adequate answer of “Red, white, and blue are my favorite colors.” I suspect your recent blogging about church and State influence on child welfare is such a topic. Most of us know exactly where we stand and may have worn out our neurons on this subject trail many times to the point where we now concede that there will be irreconcilable differences of opinion. Sometimes agreeing to disagree (even by not engaging in specific debates) is recognizing a respect for one another that keeps friendships and domestic tranquility intact. That mutual respect though is why I do not eat beef when I am having a meal with my friend from India, even though he would be gracious about me doing so if I did. However, our silence on this subject does not mean we do not think about it…..or maintain our own opinions without sharing them.

    • Well said. I stand rebuffed — at least on the assumption that reader silence (and low reader numbers) entail a lack of thought on the part of those who read these blogs. As I wrote it (in a bit of a snit) I thought it something of a leap. But on the topic of your first paragraph, while we can agree to disagree about the sanctity of cows, when people violate human rights, anywhere on earth, it is wrong. And while we condemn the maniacs who bombed Boston we might pause to reflect on the “collateral damage” we are doing in the middle East with our drones. Morality is not a matter of personal perspective or personal opinion, though those clearly enter in. I do believe there is a moral high ground: we just don’t know quite where it is and it is getting harder and harder to find! Thanks for the great comment, Bruce.

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  6. Hugh, I love the back and forth comments and writing. I see a lot of thought from you and your usual suspects. Many thanks to all. On this issue, I would side with taking the kids away provided due process was followed and that was the best action determined. I have noted my reasons why. But, I fully understand your concern over the slippery slope this creates which is why the due process is of vital importance. I did not respond when you noted one of my examples was extreme, but the other two I used were not. If a parent wreaks domestic violence on his family, then the state is obligated to take action if charges are pressed. If a parent sexually abuses a child, the same can hold true. Unfortunately, neither of these situations is uncommon. If a parent’s religious beliefs cause the parent to fail in his or her duties to provide a safe environment, then there is precedent to intervene – this was the extreme example you mentioned – where the the religious leader was married to all females in his compound and through such power forced himself upon children. Thanks again amigo for your judicous manner of raising the points. BTG

    • Thanks BTG! I was a bit out of line and an apology is in order at some point. You are right: due process is the key. But I shudder to think how traumatized those seven children are who were taken by due process from their loving parents. We may not approve of the way they love their kids, but the article suggested they were a close family. I just don’t have a lot of faith in the judicial system to do the right thing. And why is it necessary to prosecute the parents as criminals?

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      • No offense taken, so no apology is needed. This stuff is complex and should be vetted as thoroughly as possible. I wish people like you would do the vetting as I trust your judgment. Thanks bro, BTG

  7. I often want to comment on your blogs, but to comment requires a thoughtful response. I always like to adequately think through what I write because I respect your thoughtfulness. Then one of my kids will require my attention and that is the end of my deep thinking…at least for today.

    • On a side note, I am moving towards a classical education for my kids. I’ve been learning about how the goal of classical education is to bring one to wisdom. However, I feel that as a nation, we have not taught our youth how to think and thus to arrive a wisdom. Most decisions seem to be fueled by emotion. Something I just heard was that truth is the conformity of the intellect to reality; order lives in truth, not in collective thinking. So, I’m going to think on this for a while.

      • My elder son’s daughters are getting a classical education at a charter school in the Twin Cities. Remarkable. His older daughter is taking Latin in the third grade.

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  8. I’m with Katy on this one. Often I would like to comment, but don’t have the time to prepare the response I would like to write. I am reading and thinking and respect your work greatly. The other issue is that I feel I don’t have the standing to comment on US domestic and social issues as I don’t live there.

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