Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bias Sometime

The Christmas season brings the usual flood of Christmas cards from friends and relatives. I love getting them and dread writing them, but it’s part of the annual tradition. I especially enjoy reading those form letters people send telling all they accomplished during the past year. I think you can download them from the Internet and simply insert your name at the bottom.

When I reflect on the past year with respect to the Church, I can’t help but think about the controversy revolving around the political stance of Catholics, both in and out of government. Living only a few miles from Notre Dame, we found ourselves in a hotbed of debate on whether an abortion-friendly President should be honored at a Catholic University. I try to be a very orthodox Catholic and therefore find those soft on intrinsic evil to be troubling.

Everyday, I am flooded with emails from conservative causes that try to raise awareness of the doom we face if liberals succeed in their quest for power. Conservative Catholic groups are constantly bashing Bishops for not being aggressive enough in making Catholic politicians toe the line. Being conservative myself, I agree in principle, but I also think that constant liberal bashing can be counter-productive. Conservatives can further their cause by sticking to policy issues rather than trying to stir up dirt. Political mudslinging does nothing but obscure what is really important.

One of the Christmas form letters I received bothered me a little. It was from a Catholic priest, a relative of mind who I love and respect. He has devoted his life to God and to serving the poor, underprivileged, and especially racial minorities. In his letter, he said he experienced a deep personal satisfaction when Barack Obama won the election, and that his personal experience in dealing with the plight of African-Americans caused him to be ashamed of his white skin at times. His statement made me very uncomfortable. Whether biased for or against, some people never see beyond skin color.

I have always felt that believing American people to be racially intolerant is itself a stereotypical view. We all have a natural tendency to gravitate to people of similar circumstances to our own, and look down a bit to those who are different. These differences are not limited to skin color. They can be economic, cultural, or religious. They can be ethnic, political, or geographic. They can be authoritative, philosophical, or social. Democrats may cast dispersions on Republicans. Marines may think less of sailors. Constituents may disdain politicians. Boston Red Sox fans boo the New York Yankees. Environmentalists criticize lifestyles of the affluent. Anytime we associate ourselves with a certain group, we may take on a feeling of superiority to those who march to a different drummer. Skin color, in my opinion, is of little consideration today except to the most shallow of minds. The problem is, we still have an abundance of shallow minds.

Even in cases where distinction among groups is not chosen (such as race), I believe prejudicial bias is more the result of behavioral choices. Black athletes and entertainers are cheered or jeered by whites, depending on performance. White teenagers often copy clothing styles from trends started in Black neighborhoods. Others wouldn't be caught dead dressing that way. White singers and musicians have mimicked the style of Black musicians for decades. Some like it; some do not. Much of the music I listened to in the 1960’s was written and produced by Black artists. I didn’t even realize it at the time, nor did I care. All of this has little to do with skin color. Yes, we do have a tendency to stereotype, but stereotypes are learned, and sometimes earned. While we may associate them with the most obvious difference, which may be skin color, they are really more a result of other traits or behaviors.

This brings me back to the letter. Why would a Catholic priest who spent his whole life in the struggle for human and civil rights, experience a deep personal satisfaction in the election of a Black president who also happens to support the right to take of lives of the unborn? I can understand a certain feeling of satisfaction in having elected a minority President. I often find myself pulling for the underdog, but not at the expense of throwing all other factors out the window. What does the election of Barack Obama prove? Is it a victory for civil rights? What about the right to life? Does it mean we have finally overcome our racial prejudice in this great country of ours? Was he elected despite the color of his skin or because of the color of his skin? Does skin color trump all other factors just to make a point? While racial bias against minorities may have waned over the years, perhaps the pendulum has swung too far the other way.

Some Catholic clergymen seem to have a propensity for supporting liberal political causes. They assume anyone with money or power got there by victimizing someone else. I suspect they are also the ones inclined to question the authority of their own superiors. Certainly all priests and bishops have the duty to speak out on matters of faith and morals, but when proper actions are debatable, that is, not clearly defined by Church teaching, they should keep quiet.

The recent Copenhagen Climate Summit took place among revelations that some of the global temperature data had been biased to make the problem seem worse than it actually is. For many investors in green technology, the fear of imminent global warming disaster is essential for keeping government money flowing their way. Whether we have a problem, whether we are causing the problem, and what we should do about it is a matter for the scientific community to decide, not the Church. So, what do I find in the December 9, 2009 issue of the South Bend Tribune? An article with the headline “Bells to ring for global warming” says that Churches in the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne – South Bend are being encouraged to toll their bells at 3 PM on Sunday to show solidarity with the effort to call attention to global warming. The article did not say who was doing the encouraging, but I have to assume it was someone within the diocese since only Catholic Churches seemed to be involved. I wonder if they will be encouraged to toll their bells on January 22nd.

The Copenhagen Climate Summit dominated nightly news coverage in early to mid December. Whenever a global warming story appears on television, we are shown the obligatory video of smokestacks with huge white clouds billowing into the atmosphere. I have spent nearly 37 years of my life working in a coal-fired power generating station. We have four large turbine-generators, each with its own furnace and emissions controls. Each unit has its own 500 foot tall smokestack. On any given day, with all four units running at or near full capacity, and with all systems working properly, two of the smokestacks will have the huge white plumes billowing into the air like you see on television. The other two will have little or nothing visible. They never show you those on TV. Now, here is the irony. The white stuff you see billowing into the air is harmless water vapor, a byproduct of the government mandated sulfur dioxide scrubbing process. The other two clean looking units do not have scrubbers, hence no plume. They burn a low sulfur coal, but generally are not as clean as the ones emitting the plume. That white plume is clean technology at work. Don’t be fooled into thinking you are looking at something bad.

I have some questions I would like to ask Al Gore, the Nobel Prize, Oscar and Grammy winning global warming expert. The latest environmental crusade appears to focus on reducing carbon dioxide emissions. If the density of carbon dioxide is about 1.5 times that of air, why doesn’t all the carbon dioxide settle to the earth instead of floating above where it can absorb infrared radiation? If coal fired power plants consume oxygen and produce carbon dioxide, why does the oxygen content of air remain a constant 21 percent? If the water level in a melting glass of ice water decreases, why will the ocean levels rise when the polar ice caps melt? My questions probably reveal my own bias against people who claim expertise in areas where they lack qualification.

God gave us many natural resources to use for our benefit. Yes, we must be good stewards and use these resources responsibly, but I wonder if many who blame us for creating climate change are motivated by their own biases while underestimating the power of the true creator.