Monday’s Mtg: Will Pope Francis Transform Catholicism?

We first talked about Pope Francis in June 2013. Just a few months after he was elevated to the position. That meeting focused on the many problems facing Catholicism. In the pre-meeting post, I listed them as the:

  • Need to reconcile Church doctrine and practice with the modern world without alienating Catholics in traditional societies that now make up the bulk of Church membership.
  • Loss of moral authority stemming from the worldwide sexual abuse and cover-up scandals.
  • De-Christianization in Western countries, especially in Europe and especially among young people.
  • Loss of authority over American Catholics.
  • Shortages of priests, nuns, and other church officials.
  • Challenge in developing countries posed by other religions, particularly evangelical Christianity.

Certainly, no single pope could be expected to turn the tide against many of these long-term, structural problems. Also, the pope has limited freedom to make bold changes even if he wants to do so (opinions vary on how much fundamental change Francis really wants). Francis is constrained by the Vatican bureaucracy; the global network of Cardinals, Archbishops, and other Church officials; and public opinion of multiple laities all over the world.

Despite all of these obstacles, this pope has made a lot of bold moves and excited a lot of people with hints of broader reforms. I thought we could discuss some of these moves and what might and might not be coming.

I’ll try to sum up Francis’ biggest and most controversial actions to pen the meeting, assuming I’m able to do the reading. I think the Vatican is a great example of how hard it can be to make international organizations – even one that is not democratic – work.


  1. What have been Pope Francis’ biggest changes?
  2. How have others centers of power in the Church responded to Francis’ moves, and what does that say about the difficulties he faces?
  3. What changes has Francis signaled that he will NOT make?
  4. What will American Catholics think of Francis’ new-ish direction?  Will it go far enough for them?
  5. The Catholic Church’s center of gravity is moving from Europe and North America to the global South. How will that change the Church? How does that constrain and empower Francis?


Next Week:  The Changing Definition of Whiteness.

Monday’s Mtg: How Does Pornography Affect Our Perceptions of Sexuality?

Two psychology-related topics in a row!  And, one I’d considered for a while before Ali suggested. Porn is part of the fabric of modern culture, thanks to the internet. Porn is very widely viewed in the United States and around the world. Estimates are that up to 30% of daily U.S. internet bandwidth is used to download porn. It’s everywhere, and since so much of it is in cyberspace, it’s nowhere. This makes it almost impossible to regulate or control. Beyond its ubiquity, the biggest worry about our brave new porn world is that porn’s content may have changed, too. Opponents say it is much nastier today than in the pre-internet days. More violent and cruel. More misogynistic. More perverse, or at least much more varied in the sex acts it shows.

Ali asks, does all of that porn, viewed over and over from a young age by most men and boys (and some women, too) warp people’s view of sexuality? Intuitively, it seems like it must. We are a country where basic sex education is controversial. Kids may be using porn to learn the birds and the bees and infer what normal sexual behavior is. Yikes.

But, not every moral panic is appropriate. What we see in media is only one factor that shapes our views of intimate relationships. After all, they are still debating whether violence on TV and in the movies causes violent behavior, inures kids to violence, or has any ill effects at all. Our discussion on this topic should be as complicated and nuanced as any other.

Now, this is a delicate topic to discuss in a big group. I’ll try to keep us focused more on the discussion questions (below) than in most meetings, and let’s all try to keep our comments only moderately explicit. Fair warning: We will have to get into some of the details of what porn actually shows these days in order to explore how it might influence people. I will try to keep us R-rated at worst. But, if you are easily offended consider skipping this one.

Re: Jokes. We’re going to have some fun and get our share of one-liners, some from me. But, how about not so frequent that they kill the flow of discussion nor so crude they’re offensive?


  1. How much: How ubiquitous is porn today,, really? Does “everyone” really use it? What about women? Teens? Other groups?
  2. How bad: Is pornography really “worse” than it used to be?
  3. How mainstream:
    1. Is porn widely accepted in our culture now?
    2. Is the porn POV and themes surfacing in other parts of popular culture? How bad is that?
  4. How study: How do experts study pornography’s impact on people’s attitudes and behaviors?
  5. Impact on adults views of sexuality:
    1. Men’s view of women? Women’s views of men?
    2. Expectation in a relationship?
    3. What is normal sexual expectations or behavior and what is deviant? Homosexuality?
  6. Children/teens: Same Qs.
  7. Violence: Does porn promote misogyny and sexual violence?
  8. What to do:
    1. Are we panicking needlessly; e.g., teenage sex and sexual assaults are down, etc.
    2. If not, what should be done? Can anything be done?


Caution: Some have explicit descriptions – but NOT images! – of porn content.

Next Week March 2: Will Pope Francis Transform Catholicism?

Monday’s Mtg: What Does Science Tell Us About Good and Evil?

The field of study is called “moral psychology.” It’s the study of why we have a moral sense and why we depart from our moral values sometimes and not at other times. Mike suggested we discuss a topic related to – but not equivalent to, necessarily, at least in my opinion – the basic questions moral psychologists try to answer: What does science tell us about “good” and “evil?”

I think they’re not the same because I’m assuming (I’m not sure, not my field) that moral psychology is like all science: It sets aside the idea of whether there is a supernatural force that shapes the natural world. If God or the devil is the source of our acts of good and evil, science cannot know that by definition, right? That is a matter for philosophy or religion, isn’t it?

Still, I like this topic precisely because it begs the question of whether good and evil, in both its individual and societal-level manifestations, can be understood by any one way of thinking about the world. I’m a little dubious that psychology or neurology or any –ology that we have now can fully explain human morality and behavior.

But, Mike had me read this very interesting book on the subject (Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, by Paul Bloom.) Armed with at least a little knowledge now, I’m looking forward to our discussion and to Mike’s brief opening remarks.

A note on links this week. I found a bunch of stuff on the science of morality and linked to what seemed like good ones below. But, since I am an ignoramus on this subject, I cannot vouch for how mainstream or accepted the points-of-view are, or whether I am excluding any major points of view or key findings in the field.


Next Week: Is Pornography Changing Our Perceptions of Sexuality?

Gary’s Club

FYI, Gary’s Meeting of the Minds club has a new name (Philosophical Minds) and location.  You can find that info, and the group’s current schedule through April 7., by clicking on the “Philosophical Minds” page, above.

Monday’s Mtg: Who Runs the Republican Party?

Congressional leaders and state-level elected officials. Tea Party networks. Neocons, Theocons, and Reformicons (I’ll explain). Fox News and the rest of the conservative news-entertainment complex. Upscale libertarian voters. Downscale white working class voters. Southerners. Westerners. Big corporations and rich donors. The Republican National Committee and other formal party groups. “Shadow party” organizations controlled by the Koch brothers and other super-wealthy donors. Ted Cruz. Jeb Bush. Scott Walker. Rush Limbaugh. John Boehner (just kidding).

You get the idea. How can we possibly understand who’s in charge of the Republican Party? Political scientists have spent decades studying how American political parties function and they still disagree (academic paper, pdf) about how decisions get made. In a way, it’s an especially bad time to ask who’s running the GOP, since it’s had no president for six years, 25+ potential 2016 nominees, and a congressional leadership that cannot even control their caucus, much less anything larger.

Still, the 2014 election gave the Republican Party a lot of power, about as much as a party get without holding the presidency. The GOP controls Congress and more than one-half of all state governments. They have vast amounts of money, their own news media, and they are united ideologically (mostly). I think it’s a great time to debate who is setting the Party’s agenda and priorities.

I am not particularly well-versed on the polysci of how our parties operate, and ‘m having trouble finding good links on the subject. Still, I am working on it and on Monday I’ll open with a few remarks on the subject that I hope will help us to understand how different actors influence what the GOP stands for. Then, we can discuss whatever.

Note: I feel that some of our meetings have been a little unfocused lately. So, I’m going to try a little harder to keep us on topic this time. The topic is who runs the GOP and how that may be changing, not what do we think of conservative ideology. I’m going to crack down on people giving long history lessons and personal anecdotes, too.

Note II: A lot of links, but not much yet on the (1) polysci or (2) conservative POV.


  1. HOW: What does it mean to “run” or “control” a major American political party? How is that attempted and accomplished (e.g., via organizing, activism, money, promoting popular ideas, control of the news media, etc.)?
  2. WHO: What are the major factions in the Republican Party these days? On what do they agree and disagree?
  3. WHICH: Which faction has the most influence? Why? Are any major disagreements unresolved or finessed?
  4. TODAY: So, what does the Republican Party stand for? Has that changed recently? Was it because of new forces, or just the waxing and waning of old factions?
  5. TOMORROW: Will the factional balance of power within change? How? How will losing or winning the 2016 election contribute?
  6. How do conservative and liberal answers to these questions differ? Can we learn anything from the other side’s answers?


Who controls the GOP?

Which faction dominates?

Which Individuals Matter Most?

Next Week: What can science tell us about Good and Evil?

Monday’s Mtg: Wahhabism and Its Influence On Islam

Carl suggested we talk about Wahhabism. Wahhabism is a fundamentalist and highly puritanical strain of Islam that became anchored in Saudi Arabia two centuries ago. Throughout the 20th century, the Saudi royal family used its vast oil wealth and political influence derived from their control over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to spread this once-obscure theology around the Middle East and beyond. Wahhabism’s theology and world-view are a potent influence behind a lot of the political extremism that plagues Islam today. Since 9/11, Saudi Arabia’s exporting of Wahhabism has been fingered as one of the Middle East’s biggest problems. To top it off, the sudden rise of ISIS last year and the death of Saudi Arabia’s king just last week makes Wahhabism an even timelier topic for us. The different strains of Islamic radicalism and their many, varied causes is not a strong area of knowledge for me. So, I’ll open the meeting by just giving the briefest thumbnail of “what is Wahhabism,” and then we can right to the discussion. My main goal for the meeting is for us to develop a better understanding of the many different shades of radical Islamism. Americans tend to lump them all together into one giant, undifferentiated, monolithic menace. IMO, this type of thinking is not helpful in understanding how to distinguish and combat the true threats. I hope the background readings as well as our sharing of knowledge at the table will help us to do better. I hope we also will get into the geopolitical questions surrounding the future of Saudi Arabia and our support of it. DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What is Wahhabism? How in general does it differ from other Islamic theologies?
  2. Why and how (both!) did the Saudi monarchy export Wahhabism around the Middle East? Why was it so appealing to do many people?
  3. How responsible (as opposed to other factors) is the spread of Wahhabism for the region’s political extremism? If Wahhabism had never existed, how different might things be?
  4. So, now what? Can the Saudis reign in the monster they created? Do they want to? Can we influence them to do so?
  5. What is the future of Saudi Arabia – the main counterrevolutionary and counter-reformatory force in the Islamic world? Do we really still need the Saudi royal family so much?


Next Week: Who Runs the Republican Party?   (Hint: If you find out let me know.)

Monday’s Mtg: Are Americans Too Deferential to their Military?

This topic idea of mine was spurred by a recent cover story in the Atlantic Monthly, but the basic idea has been building in my mind for a long-time, based on what I’ve been seeing for years in American politics and culture. At the Atlantic, the highly-respected journalist James Fallows argues that Americans have taken their natural and merited respect for the troops to a dangerous place for both our fighting men and women and our country. He says our admiration for the military has warped into a lazy and uncritical acceptance of everything the military does and support for every use of military force by our politicians.

It’s a subtle and multi-faceted argument that’s easily misunderstand or distorted. I’ll summarize it to begin our meeting, but I urge you to read it for yourselves. To me, what Fallows is saying is very different from more left-leaning people like Noam Chomsky or Chalmers Johnson have been arguing for decades. They say America is an inherently imperial and warlike nation. That is not Fallows’ view, or mine. But, honestly, I have been following foreign and national security policy for 35 years, and I have never seen our policy and national conversation so militarized. Maybe it’s just because we were attacked so brutally on 9/11 and our enemy is so vile and undetterable by non-military means.

Or, maybe Fallows – and Andrew Bacevich, who I’ve linked to below since he has made similar arguments – has a point. Maybe lazy, robotic valorization of “the troops” has become a substitute for actually caring about them and the impossible jobs we demand they do. Aaron has been arguing this in the group for years and I’m close to being persuaded.

So, please try to read James Fallow’s article, and the Bacevich one, too, if you’re not familiar with his opinions. I also include some partial rebuttals to Fallows and Bacevich, although I’m having trouble so far finding conservative rebuttals that don’t just illustrate the mentality Fallows is describing. But, I’ll find some by Sunday.

I’ll see you Monday night. And, remember, we call ourselves the “Civilized” conversation club!


  1. Why does Fallows argue we are a “chicken hawk nation?” What about Andrew Bacevich? Is he saying anything different?
  2. How different are their arguments from those of older, more left-wing critiques, like Chomsky or Johnson?
  3. Are you persuaded?  Do these guys provide the evidence necessary to prove their points, or is that missing?  What evidence rebuts them?
  4. If Fallows/Bacevich/et. al., are…
    1. Correct, then how did this happen? Having an all-volunteer military in which 99% of us never serve? The deep fear caused by 9/11? Cynical politicians (and journalists “journalists”) hiding behind the troops’ reputation?)
    2. Wrong, then why? Do they underestimate the threat we face? Overstate the “military-industrial complex “thing? Other?
  5. What to do going forward?


Next Week: What is Wahhabism and how does it affect Islam??

Monday’s Mtg: Are We An Over-Medicated Nation?

Bruce, our group’s doctor, will take the lead on this topic. (Bruce is a neurologist. CivCon probably needs a psychiatrist, but nobody wants that job.) The topic I had in mind had to do with our  – probably – growing problem of prescription drug over-prescribing and abuse.  But, Bruce may prefer to take us a variety of directions, such as:

  • Pain medications: The recent sharp rise in opioid addiction in the Unt4ed States, related to the widespread prescribing of Oxycodone. The big issue, aside from just reducing addiction, is how to balance the need to treat chronic pain with safety issues.
  • Psychiatric drugs: Their alleged overuse by both adults and children.
  • Illicit use of prescription drugs by teenagers and children.
  • Whether widespread legalization of marijuana would make our addiction problems better or worse.
  • Others.

Below are some articles on these and other “are we an over-medicated society” issues. I will add others that Bruce brings them to my attention. I’ll see everybody on Monday night.


Next Week:  Are Americans Too Deferential to their Military?                          ?

New Topics for Feb – May

Thanks to Lace and Ali, we have new topics until June 2.  See sidebar, to the right, for the next few, or the “Full Mg Schedule” tab, above, for all 19 of them.  Some unusual ones, too.

Monday’s Mtg: For-Profit Colleges – Market Niche or Scam?

The Obama Administration’s higher education policies are among its least well-known. But, they’re a big deal and about to get bigger. Yesterday we learned that Obama will announce in his State of the Union address an ambitious new proposal to expand Americans’ access to community college.

The new program’s goal will be to make going to community college basically tuition-free! In participating states, the feds would pay ¾ of the costs (which average over $3,000 per year) and participating state governments the other ¼. Not only would this be revolutionary, it would seriously affect the fate of for-profit colleges, the subject of our discussion this week. Going to a for-profit college (like Strayer, University of Phoenix, ITT, etc.) is one of the main alternatives to community college, so this proposal is basically an assault on this controversial industry.

Another accidentally well-timed CivCon topic! But really, even without this announcement, for-profit higher education has been a huge issue for a long time. Obama has been trying to reign in abuses in the industry for years, bitterly opposed at all stages by Republican Congress. I’m just finishing up a book that deals with all of these issues, too, so we have a lot to discuss.

The private, for-profit college industry has exploded in size in the last 20 years, and it’s grown much more controversial, too. The number of for-profits has quadrupled since 1993, to over 1,200, and the number of students they enroll has grown by 80-fold, to 13% of all college students. Some of them are gigantic, highly-profitable nationwide, NYSE-listed, companies. They are advertised on TV and radio around the clock.

The controversy involves a for-profit education’s very high cost to students and the government via student loan defaults, and seroious questions about the quality of the education they provide. These schools charge much more than all but the most expensive private but non-profit universities (like Cal-Tech or the Ivies). And, close to 100% of for-profit college students borrow from federal student loan programs to pay their tuition (average $32,000). Yet, they default at much higher rates than other students. This default rate and other evidence suggests that students may not get a high-quality education for all of that money they, and we as taxpayers, fork over. Most studies show graduates of for-profit colleges earn less than other graduates, too, although it’s not a slam dunk that poor instruction is the reason.

I want to do a lot more on Monday, however, than bash for-profit colleges and the (mostly GOP) politicians that defend to the death everything they do. Defenders of the for-profits raise some important points. They say our higher education system does a poor job of educating just the kinds of students they specialize in educating: Non-traditional students, especially those that are low-income; older, with jobs and even kids; and first-in-their-families college students. Strayer and Grand Canyon are just innovators using the private sector to do what our political system won’t do. They enroll students quickly, offer flexible class schedules and more on-line classes, and vocationally-oriented curricula in growing fields like health care and information systems.

I’m dubious this is true on a large scale. Still, my point is that there are many bigger issues here. The discussion questions below list a number of them. I’ll start our meeting as I usually do, by explaining a few basic facts about the for-profit college industry, the reasons it has grown so quickly, and the main controversies surrounding it.


  1. History as a guide: What is the history of federal government support for going to college or trade school? Were for-profit schools always a problem, and if so, what was done about it that we could learn from today?
  2. Recently: Why has the for-profit college industry exploded in size in the last 20 years? Was it just marketing hype chasing all of that federal money?
  3. Prosecution: What are the worst problems/abuses of for-profit colleges?
  4. Defense: What arguments are used to defend the industry? Does it serve a legitimate market niche, even if poorly? If they serve students poorly and bury them in debt, why do so many students go there?
  5. Solutions: How has the Obama Administration tried to reign in the industry’s worst abuses? Why has it been so hard to do, and what does that tell us about how and how well our political system functions?


Problems with for-profit colleges –

The Other Side –

Solutions –

Next Week: Are we an over-medicated nation?


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