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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Varieties of being Christian, or is there really a universal religion?

Probably because this is the Christmas season, I have decided to write about something that's been on my mind for quite a while. Many people who know me know that I enjoy reading the works of C. S. Lewis, and I think I have read most of his works that don't have to do with literary criticism: in other words, I've read most of his fiction and his pop-theology (he himself denied that he was properly a "theologian").

One of Lewis's most famous pop-theology works is Mere Christianity. In this book, he sets out to explain what he believes is the essence of Christianity, hence the word "mere": Christianity stripped to its bare essentials. (He also sets out to make a not very convincing proof of the truth of Christianity, but that's the topic for another post.) If I read and remember correctly, the main, Christianity requires the recognition that
  1. Humans are depraved and subject to self-worship (Pride). (Lewis does not believe that humans' depravity is total or else, as he says, they would not know it.)
  2. Humans' subjection to pride is inherent in their nature and leads them ultimately to spritual death.
  3. Only Christ--through the free gift of salvation (grace)--can remedy this condition.
Now, two further points that Lewis makesL:

First, he does not insist that one must profess Christianity to attain salvation. Even though he believes that Christ is the only way, he is open to the possibility that others might be saved by Christ without knowing him.

Second, he claims that other world religions actually are approximations to Christianity. He claims that other religions shed their peculiar characteristics and become more "Christian" as they progress. In another work, Abolition of Man, Lewis appends a collection of moral sayings that he claims demonstrates that all humanity follows more or less the same ethical rules.

It's this second claim I'd like to interrogate further. But first, I'd like to discuss what I consider the "varieties" of being Christian so as to avoid mixing terms. Here they are, in rough order from less to more "spiritual":
  1. Growing up in a Christian society (which for the sake of convenience, I'll define as a society in which an overwhelming majority of people self-identify as "Christian") makes one "Christian" in one sense, even if one does not profess Christianity. They are compelled to observe, or endure, Christian holidays and are compelled to undergo the casual references to Christianity-as-the-true-religion: the "in God we trust" logo on our currency; politicians' frequent invocation of a God that is almost always assumed to be Christian--even though they give a shout-out to Judaism and Islam; the sometimes transparent/sometimes not quite so transparent Christian messages.
  2. Being raised in a Christian tradition also makes one "Christian," even if that "one" later rejects Christianity, i.e., converts to another religion or moves into atheism or agnosticism.
  3. Professing "Christianity" makes one Christian in another sense. (I'll not go into what "truly" counts as Christian; it's too complicated and I'm too ignorant to do it well.)
  4. Adhering to a belief system that somehow incorporates "essential" elements of Christianity. In this sense, to use Lewis's thesis that non-Christian religions approximate Christianity, people who don't profess Christianity approximate it in their beliefs. (Also, arguably, people who profess or self-identify as Christians but whose beliefs and actions do not approximate whatever is the essence of Christianity are not "Christian." Still, I'm not going to go into which denominations are and are not accurately called Christian.)
The last point is bothersome. Why say that other religions "approximate" Christianity? Why not say that Christianity, for example, "approximates" Hinduism and that as it sheds its conception of God and salvation it becomes more like the "true" way of Hinduism? Or any other religion. Heck, maybe even some sort of humanitarian atheism is the ultimate way and Christianity "improves" as it approximates that atheism.

Or maybe there is one universal "right" that all sincere religions "approximate." Of course, once I use the word "sincere," I get into trouble. Who is to judge sincerity? What standard is one to use in so judging? Still, I'll not go into that, at least not here. (I'm rejecting the possibility that there is more than one "right way." I do so partly for the sake of argument, but also because it seems to me that the notion of a singular "right" inheres even in the pluralistic notion of "all religions are equal.")

Since the notion of a universal "right" (nb: I'm not using "right" in the sense of, say, the "right to freedom of speech," more in the sense of "truth"; in fact, I should have used "truth," but I don't want to rewrite everything :)) is the last possibility I mentioned, it's obviously--following traditional expository style--the one I want to endorse, at least tentatively.

I hope to write later on this topic. But for now, I'll leave myself--and anyone who happens to be reading this blog--with some problems and challenges that this notion brings up:
  1. It does not suffice to say, for example, that Christianity can be interpreted to sound like, say, Buddhism. It's probably possible to interpret any belief system and find elements common to other belief systems.
  2. If I claim to identify certain "truths" that appear to be common in all major religions (the word "major," like the word "sincere," gets me in trouble here, too), maybe all the religions are wrong and there is another truth that they're missing or that they pervert irreparably.
  3. What counts as a religion? Is Spinoza-like pantheism really a religion in the sense that, say, traditional Christianity is? Is the Daoism (Taoism) of Laozi really on the same level as, say, Islam, or vice versa? Is it even on the same level of the "popular" Daoism that appears to have emerged in China during the first millenium A.D.? Is atheism or agnosticism a religion? Is there such a thing as one atheism or one agnosticism, or are there variants?

Caritas in a world ruled by sin

Stanley Fish has a new column (click here to see it) that he devotes, in part, to describing the difficulties of charity when it comes, for example, to giving money to panhandlers:
If I don’t do anything, I feel guilty. If I reach into my pocket and hand over a few dollars, I feel guiltier. I thought for a while that the problem was the amount, so I started giving more, sometimes significantly more; but that only felt like an effort to buy my way out of an imbalance between what I had and what the objects (that’s the problem; I was making them [the homeless, the poor, et al.] into objects) of my largesse either lacked or had lost.

The accounts could never be squared. They would always be behind in resources, I would always be behind in the obligation to care for those less fortunate than I. I could just stop giving altogether, but that would seem even worse. Or I could give away all my earthly goods, but the hook of material possessions is too deeply in me for that. I could do more, but I could never do enough.
Fish goes on to relate this phenomenon with his study of 17th-century English literature (he himself is a specialist on John Milton). He notes that such poets as Andrew Marvell and George Herbert have noticed the same tendencies in their own writing. Instead of glorifying God--in the poems Fish refers to--these poets note the unrelenting resurfacing of the ego, of the selfishness that they believed inhered in their works.

Charity--or, to use a more laden word, caritas, or the unconditional love of others that is supposedly the essence of Christianity--exists, as Fish points out much more clearly than I am, in a world in which we are ever more inclined toward ourselves, to the exclusion of others.

In the case of the column I linked to, at issue was charitable giving (alms), but anything else that threatens to take us beyond ourselves and our own selfish desires can serve as an example. There's the old adage, for example, that "you always hurt the one you love."

The purest of emotions, the purest of acts, are nevertheless still impure in this world

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

More on health care and constitutionality: the 6th hurdle

In previous posts (here and here), I discussed what I thought were the key obstacles to the survival of the health care reform now pending in congress. I suggested that there were 5 "hurdles" that the reform would have to clear before being implemented. I also suggested grounds on which the reform might be declared unconstitutional.

An essay by Richard Epstein (click here to read it: hat tip, Volokh Conspiracy) offers another reason why it might not pass constitutional muster (or, in the way I see it, why the Supreme Court might strike it down). If I understand the essay correctly--and I have only skimmed it--the reform bill might be a "regulatory taking." That is, if the regulations it imposes on health insurance providers is so onerous as to cause a severe loss of profits, then it might be deemed a "taking" of the insurers' property without due process of law and without "just compensation," a violation of the 5th amendment to the Constitution. My fear is that a majority of justices, even the so-called "liberal" justices, might be persuaded by this logic where they might be persuaded by the other constitutional concerns I've mentioned.

One can sure bet that the health care reform will be challenged in court if it passes. If it is, then this challenge is probably the most potentially fatal to the plan, and any court case will be a nail biter.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Is health care reform unconstitutional?

The short answer: I'm afraid so.

First, I'm not going to go into whether the constitution, properly interpreted, allows for the type of health care reform that just passed the Senate (it still has to go into joint conference with the House and be re-passed by both houses). I'm not talented enough to figure out whether I endorse originalism, "plain text" interpretation, or the idea of a "living constitution." (I do have some respect for the notion of a "don't-rock-the-boat-so-much-that-the-whole-republicke-falls-apart," which perhaps is akin to a "living constitution" approach.)

Second, I'm more concerned with, when the health care reform is challenged in the federal courts, which, if it passes Congress, it almost certainly will be.

So, even though I'd like the health care reform to pass, with all its faults (I've heard it called "health insurance reform" because it doesn't really reform the actual providing of health care but only reforms how people can get insurance....six of one if it means more people being covered), here are the reasons I think the reform might be unconstitutional:
  1. The universal mandate, as a mandate, strikes me as unprecedented because it requires people to do things rather than, for example, forbids them from doing certain things. In other words, if one meets a certain income level (past which that person is excused from the mandate), then one must buy insurance. In other words, this has whiffs of "involuntary servitude." One might counter this claim by saying that other "mandates," such as compulsory jury service, compulsory process to testify in court or in front of government committees, and, perhaps the most egregious or at least most invasive for those involved, the peacetime military draft, have been deemed constitutional by the courts. My response is that the first two are so "ancient" and accepted in practice that they are practically ingrained in anything the Supreme Court is likely to uphold. The third, I believe, would not again be upheld in peacetime.
  2. The mandate, viewed as a tax, and not as a mandate, might run into two potential hurdles. The first hurdle is that it could be construed as a direct capitation tax and not, for example, as an income tax. In other words, my reading of the 16th amendment is that only income taxes, and not capitation taxes, are excused from the requirement that taxes must be levied based on each state's population. In other words, the sum total of taxes taken from one state must be proportionate to that state's population so that, on average, each person would pay about the same tax. At least this is my understanding of the 16th amendment.
  3. The second hurdle is the means for which any tax may be levied. A tax cannot be levied to pay for something that would otherwise be constitutional. Article I, section 8, clause 3 of the constitution gives congress the right to regulate interstate commerce, and if this health care reform is seen as a regulation of interstate commerce, then it would be constitutional. However, if it is seen as managing people's access to health care in a way that is non-commercial (whatever that means), then it stands a chance of being declared unconstitutional. (I'm not saying it's properly a regulation of commerce, only that I suspect 5 justices might claim that it's not).

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Five hurdles for the health care bill

As I see it, the health care bill needs to pass 5 hurdles before it can become effective. The first four are obvious, the fifth is not.
  1. It must pass the Senate.
  2. It must pass the joint House and Senate committee.
  3. It must re-pass the House.
  4. It must re-pass the Senate.
  5. Barack Obama must be reelected in 2012.
The major provisions of the bill are not designed to go into effect until 2013 or so. So it is possible to imagine a scenario in which the Democrats lose control of Congress and a Republican who opposes the health insurance reform gets elected president. And in this scenario, the reform could be dismantled before there is enough of an interested sector in society to oppose dismantling it.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Is it really important to prove that humans are different from animals?

A book I'm currently reading about anger, by Carol Tavris,* goes to some pains to distinguish anger as a human emotion from the anger or rage that animals feel when threatened. Tavris says (p. 33)
But in the case of anger, the differences [between animals and humans] are essential. The human symbolic capacity for learning give us a far greater range of choices than lower animals have. Human anger is not a biological reflex like the sneeze, nor simply a reactive display designed to ward off enemies.....
The author then follows with some specific ways in which humans are different from animals.

Tavris is trying to make this distinction between humans and animals in order to qualify some assertions that Charles Darwin made about the congruity between animal and human behavior. This is an introductory chapter in which the author sets up some of the antecedents of current psychological and pop-psychological views of anger that have developed in the last 200 years. (Short answer, as always: the original formulators of modern views about anger, for example Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, never intended their views to be taken as far as they have. In other news, that food you thought was bad for you is actually good for you, "if it's used in moderation.")

As far as I'm concerned, I'm convinced that humans express and probably experience anger differently from the way other animals do. I'm not conversant with all the evidence, but the evidence and argument that are offered are convincing.

But in a wider sense, is it even important? The chapter I took this example from discusses the evolution of thought on the psychology of anger, and I suppose the perception of differences between humans and animals are an important element in that evolution. But the book as a whole is meant as a thought-piece on anger--how to deal with it and whether society's assumptions about how to deal with it are healthy--and simply knowing that humans are different from animals does not really answer these questions. (I'm reminded of the "Simpsons" episode where Mr. Burns is suspected by the IRS of having stolen a trillion dollar bill, and the IRS agent says "we tried to use satellite technology. But all that tells us is that it [the bill] isn't on his roof.")

I don't write this as a crusade against Tavris's book. I've read only the first couple of chapters and it seems quite interesting and capable of offering a challenging and insightful experience. (In short, it will do wonders in yet again delaying my progress toward completing my dissertation.) But I do write this to give one example of something I've noticed in a lot of fields: the seeming necessity of proving that humans are, indeed, different from animals.

Two other examples of where else I've seen this:
  • The debate over an assertion that Noam Chomsky allegedly made (which I allegedly read about in a book that was allegedly written by an author who I've allegedly and conveniently forgot the name of) that language is unique to humans. This assertion has sparked an effort by some linguists to either prove or disprove the contention that animals do not have language as humans understand it.
  • C. S. Lewis (and others, I presume) has asserted somewhere (again, I don't have a citation....it's nice not to have to be tethered by "evidence" or "facts") that the distinction between animals and humans is that the latter, as far as he can tell, have souls while animals do not. (Come to think of it, maybe it's in Lewis's tract on the problem of pain, and in the chapter on animal pain.)
Why do people feel the need to differentiate humans for animals? I don't know. I suppose it has something to do with our spiritual nature or our vanity or whatever.

But for me, the important question is, how useful is it to make the distinction?

I suppose there are theological implications for asserting that humans are endowed with souls while all the rest of creation are not. Still, does Christian theology really depend on whether humans are specially created. Perhaps for some, this is a case, but I doubt that if a Christian who, having died and gone to heaven, finds out that Koko the ape had a soul and got to go to heaven too, would suddenly decline the invitation and go off to the other place. (For what it's worth, C. S. Lewis makes room, at least in theory, for the possibility that there might be other creatures, besides humans, who have souls....I'm thinking primarily of his science fiction trilogy and, if memory serves, of something he wrote in one of his Christian apologetics.)

I suppose also that if it can be shown that animals have language abilities in any meaningful sense (whatever "meaningful sense" means), maybe we can learn to speak to them; and even if animals do not, then maybe the quest to find out if they do tells us something about our own language or helps us define more precisely what we mean by language (because and as an aside, there seems to me to be a bit of circularity in the assertion that animals lack human-like language abilities (and for what it's worth, even if animals can speak, I don't think they'd make too-long, convoluted sentences like the one I am writing right now)). But does knowing that animal communication is different (or not) from that of humans really help us answer the pressing questions of linguists?

I suppose that if one is looking at the history of such things and expects to represent them accurately, one needs to take account of the debate over the differences between humans and animals. But at the end of the day, I think we should be more explicit about why the question matters at all.

*Carol Tavris. Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The emerging white minority

A press release from the AP claims that
The estimated time when whites will no longer make up the majority of Americans has been pushed back eight years — to 2050 — because the recession and stricter immigration policies have slowed the flow of foreigners into the U.S.
Sadly, this prediction, if true, will not necessarily beckon the end of racism in America. If anything, it might--absent other changes--make racism that much more egregious. At least when whites are in a majority, one might plausibly, if unapprovingly, that one reason for pro-white/anti-person of color racism is the "natural" result of whites being in the majority. But I suspect that whites becoming the minority would not erase white privilege. It might still be, even 40 years from now, easier to be white in terms of getting a job than it would be to be a person of color. (All other things being equal, of course: in some sectors, it is sometimes easier for women and persons of color to get hired, but the end result appears to be systemic marginalization of the non-white.)

Of course, demographic changes change things. And my view is one of pessimism.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Gallows humor: to be or not to be (a prig about it)

In the preceding post (click here to see it), I criticized what I called "dead grandmother" jokes among teachers. I claimed that these jokes are wrong and ought not be indulged in. I believe I am right, in large measure because these types of jokes denigrate the students, without whom the teachers would be without a job.

So far so good, but still there must needs be humor in life or we--at least I--will find ourselves looking down our noses at anyone who needs to rely on humor to get through the day. Sometimes one must laugh so one won't cry or get stressed out. I don't always know where to draw the line, and the gallows humor that offends me may not offend thee, and vice versa.

I once temped for several months at an auto insurance company, in particular it was a department of the company dedicated to honoring or rejecting what were known as "PIP claims," (PIP="Personal Injury Protection). In short, the company paid for injuries people sustained in car accidents. It was not uncommon for the claims reps to make jokes about their customers. I remember one instance where one was joking about someone who had maxed out her claims. The "funny" point was that this person had become addicted to some painkiller while being treated. Someone witnessing this incident might write this off on the badness of the insurance industry; another might call it venting (the claims reps' jobs weren't easy, and I think that deep down, they did not enjoy, for example, denying people coverage when the rules called for it).

Although this incident bothered me, I was not really offended, at least not in the same way that I claim to be offended at "dead grandmother" jokes (jokes which, I freely admit, I have at times myself partaken in). Perhaps this is because I was only a temp at that insurance job and didn't know all the in's and out's of the industry. (Also, I really liked the people I worked with. For a temp job, it was pretty fun to go to work and the atmosphere was quite convivial.)

With the "dead grandmother" jokes, I am much better acquainted with the mindset of instructors than I am with the mindset of claims adjusters. I guess my aversion to them has to do with my conception of a teacher's obligations to his or her students: the teacher/student relationship is more than just a service provider/customer relationship. Teaching is more of a "profession" than many other jobs are. (Nota bene: I don't think this is necessarily a good thing. It's possible teaching would be better, especially at the university level, if it followed something more akin to what I call a "consumer model.")

Any job--be it a profession or a "mere" wage job--has its frustrations, and it's healthy to vent those frustrations. I've had retail jobs, food service jobs, and customer service jobs in which, during breaks and outside the work environment, it was almost necessary to "vent" about difficult customers, most of whom were not rude but had legitimate concerns.

I'm not sure such venting is necessary, or at least not to the same degree, for teachers.

(P.S. It should be noted I can really only speak from my own experience, teaching a very small number of introductory courses at the university level. I imagine the realities of teaching, say, at a high school or elementary school might very well be different.)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Teaching and "dead grandmother" jokes

A lot of people I know who teach at the college or university level--adjunct instructors, TA's, professors--point out sardonically the tendency of students to request either time off or extensions on assignments because a relative, usually a grandmother, allegedly passed away. Some of these teachers claim to know of instances where a single student made multiple claims in multiple semesters about the same person dying. As a general rule,these teachers make up ironic stories about how dangerous it is for people to have their grandchildren go to school, since it seems to increase their (the grandparents') chances of dying expnentially.

I have laughed at some of these stories and other jokes that poke fun at the phenomenon of allegedly spurious claims of deaths in the family, but ultimately I think these jokes are disrespectful of the students and should be avoided.

People do die, and death is serious, and we simply don't know in any given individual case that the student is simply making it all up. Most "traditional" college students are at the age when their grandparents start dying. (One of my grandmothers passed away when I was a junior in college. My other grandmother passed away at a time when my oldest brother was of "traditional" college age, even though he chose not to go to college.)

For the sake of argument (but only for the sake of argument), I'm willing to stipulate that 9 out of 10 claims that a relative has passed away are false. I remember one situation in which I had my own private doubts that the student was making the whole story up. (I, of course, didn't challenge my student to produce "evidence," but something in they way she told me what happened suggested to me she was lying. I should add, however, that I have no idea--other than a "hunch," and unlike others who are so confident in their intution, my hunches are wrong at least 50% of the time--whether she was lying.) Even granted this, I think such jokes are inappropriate.

Still, I think the jokes are inappropriate. They encourage a disrespect for the students and almost an expectation that students will be immature.

I will say that in practice, my teacher friends take students claims seriously and respectfully when they're presented with an individual case. They give the time off or extensions as needed.

Teaching Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia

One of the staples of the U.S. History survey course is a selection from Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, which he wrote around 1781, after the American Revolution was mostly over (at any rate, after most of the fighting in America had ended, but before the peace treaty in 1783).

In Notes, Jefferson discusses everything he knows about his home state, Virginia, including its nature, laws, and customs. The most curious part of Notes, and the reason it is taught so often in survey courses, is Jefferson's chapter on slavery and, sometimes, his chapter on Indians. The purpose of teaching these chapters is to illustrate his thoughts on slavery and the rights of man(kind). In particular, the point is to demonstrate Jefferson's racism and his opposition to slavery, and his attempts to reconcile the two and reconcile the continued existence of slavery with his opposition to it.

I have taught the slavery chapter (click here for the link, and start with page 264)--actually a chapter about the laws in Virginia, in which Jefferson discusses what he claims was a proposed bill to abolish slavery--several times, both as a TA and as an instructor. In discussions of the text, I usually find myself pointing out this passage to my students (ellipses supplied by me):
They [black people] secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour....They seem to require less sleep. A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.
The point of calling my students' attention to this passage is to underscore Jefferson's racism. It's as blatant here as anywhere. I also read this passage aloud.

What bothers me about teaching this document is that when I read this passage aloud, I feel that I am "performing" Jefferson's racism. I am the white instructor, standing before the class, re-saying Jefferson's words. True, I am not endorsing his words, and I think the students are smart enough to know that, but I am partaking of enough of the racism in order to repeat it.

(I also, by the way, point my students to a later point in the chapter in which he says that despite his racist views, he believes slaves have the human right to the property in their own labor and that therefore he believes slavery to be unjust. His reluctance to end slavery came more from his belief that doing so would be well-nigh impossible without starting a race war.)

Perhaps the solution to this is to have the students read it over silently and ask them to comment on it. Presumably they would have read it overnight as I usually assign it as homework. I do find, however, that students sometimes don't do the homework (and that the earth is round and that death and taxes are certainties) and when they do, many are not so used to reading older writings that they may not always understand what's written. Jefferson is a good writer, but his writing is more dense than what, in my experience, average freshman-level students are used to.

At any rate, I don't know what the solution is. I do fear that I cannot excise the performative aspect of racism entirely.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

We the weak

In the early 2000s--probably 2002--UPN ran a remake of the old "Twilight Zone" series, narrated by Forest Whittaker. I didn't watch many of the episodes, but one I did see was about a man who got in his car one night on a dark street. As he started a car, a black man ran up to his windshield and begged him for help because he was being chased by some mugger or something. The man, afraid, drove away without helping.

Throughout the rest of the episode, the man experienced himself becoming darker and darker until he became black and found himself being chased by a mugger. He ran to a car and pleaded with someone in a car (who, if I recall correctly, was white) to help him.

I forget how the story ended--I forget whether the driver helped the man or not--but the supposed moral of the story was clear: an indictment against our (by which I mean "whites'," I guess) racist proclivities through a what-if-it-happened-to-you-or-if-you-were-in-that-situation trope.

That episode has bothered me ever since because it did not present what to me was a clear case of racism. Given the scene--a dark street, a stranger desperately pleading for help--it is unclear that the car driver's reluctance and refusal to help was determined, in the end, by his racism or by a sincere, if perhaps mistaken, fear for his safety. Very few situations that involve race or involve helping our fellow humans are ever clear cut. They're very messy, and I, for one, do not always--do not usually--do the right thing, and it's unclear to tease out cause and effect, motivation and rationalization, and self-preservation and cowardice.

I have a few times in my life been presented with situations in which I thought taking some action to help another was the morally right, and yet potentially dangerous, thing to do, even if the potential "danger" was merely being shown to have overreacted.

In most of those cases, I refused to act at all. I pretended not to see what was happening or just cursorily explained to myself that the world is unjust and I ought to have done something about it, but really, what can one do?

In one instance, I did act on what I thought might be the right thing. It was just a few days after an acquaintance of mine had been murdered in a suburb of Chicago in broad daylight. One of the strange things about that murder is that others had seen who was believed to be the suspect and found him suspicious but did not report him (the suspect, to my knowledge, has never been apprehended).

Anyway, it was nighttime, and I was in the parking lot of a grocery store in Uptown (a neighborhood in Chicago not as dangerous as some neighborhoods but certainly not the safest), and a woman was, apparently, being accosted by two other people while she was getting into her car. I walked over there, and unsure what else to do, I took out my keychain, which had a "rape whistle" on it, and started to blow it. (For whatever reason, the whistle didn't work very well.) Finally, one of the men pulled me aside and explained that they were security guards and the woman had been shoplifting. Further events bore him out, and I was, to say the least, a bit ashamed, chastened and embarrassed, but otherwise not harmed one way or the other for "getting involved."

Very recently, I was in a situation that put me in a position to potentially help someone. I won't go into the details, but I and the person I was with did a little bit to help. However, I did not do all I probably could have done. The situation itself was murky: was my refusal to do all I could a result of racism (the person seeking aid was black and I am white)? was it a sense of self-preservation (the scene was not, to say the least, a part of town or time of night where one feels safe, and I certainly didn't feel safe in this situation)?

I don't write this as a mea culpa; I write only to say I don't know the answer.