Saturday, September 27, 2014

Autism and The Sins of the Fathers

It's been ricocheting around the internets for a couple of weeks now: Catholic research biologist Theresa Deisher -- a rare example of a highly-skilled and -credentialed professional who makes no pretense of her faith, striving instead to use her gifts to glorify God --  published a widely-disseminated study that links the use of fetal DNA in certain vaccines to the increase in autism diagnoses. While the Catholic-blogging-and-commenting cohort have cheered her study, which seems to demonstrate something that they have been hoping for a long time to find, others -- including Simcha Fisher and the science moms at a new blog, Rational Catholic -- have picked apart Dr. Deisher's methodology and (cogently) undermined her conclusions. Other Catholics have tacitly accused these critics not only of making a shanda fur die goyim, but also of being bad Catholics in general, because, evidently, Catholics are supposed to support the work of other Catholics no matter what, and besides, Dr. Deisher's son is very ill, so they should lay off her.

I will not attempt to pick apart the science here; other have done that far better than I ever could. My discomfort with the praise Dr. Deisher's work has received from lay (meaning non-scientist) Catholics is not about the science, which I'm hardly qualified to speak about. It's rather about what I consider to be a disturbing moral and theological fallacy implicit in Deisher's work. Keep in mind that I'm about as much a moral theologian as I am a scientist; but, as we all know, having zero credentials has never been a deterrent to expressing one's opinion on the Catholic blogosphere, or anywhere else, for that matter.

I believe Dr. Deisher's work is based on a faulty theological premise, because it assumes autism to be the logical outcome of cooperation with intrinsic evil. The flaws in Deisher's assumption are twofold:

1. She subtly portrays autism as an evil outcome -- a thing to be feared; and

2. She ignores the revelation of Christ in the New Testament. I will address this flaw first.

The basis of Deisher's research is the fact that the rubella vaccine was derived from a fetal cell line taken from an aborted baby more than fifty years ago; ergo, cooperation with the evil of abortion, no matter how remote, will lead to a bad outcome. This is the doctrine of karma, which is not a teaching of our church.

Deisher appears to have based her assumption on Exodus 34:6-7 and other passages in the Old Testament, which caution that God "visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and fourth generation." (Since today's infant vaccinands are roughly the third generation from that aborted baby, perhaps this means that the evil power of the rubella vaccine will have worn off by the time their own children are born, and that no one, in that happy time, will need Fear The Autism.)

While it is true, of course, that sin, beginning with Original Sin, has ruined the world, we now have a Savior who is merciful and just; even the prophets of the Old Testament offer a perspective on sin and forgiveness that differs from the one in Exodus. Ezekiel, for example, say that

The person who sins is the one who will die. The child will not be punished for the parent's sins, and the parent will not be punished for the child's sins. Righteous people will be rewarded for their own righteous behavior, and wicked people will be punished for their own wickedness.

And while it is true that God does not change, and nor do His covenants or His promises, it is a central tenet of the Christian faith that Christ has fulfilled them, has been our proxy, and has taken the burden of that punishment -- including, I would guess, the punishment of the children's children for the sins of the fathers -- upon Himself.

One of the great mysteries of Christianity is the one that consistently challenges logic: God brings good out of evil. We expect Him to repay evil for evil; justice demands it. But God quite often confounds our expectations. The proof of this is quite simply in the cross itself, the instrument of brutal torture turned into a sign of salvation. In this fallen world we have to work with what we have, and what we have is half-broken, faulty, and tainted, as are we. But God can, and does, bring great good out of these inadequate means. 

Is it not possible that the aborted baby whose cell line has been used to save thousands, if not millions, of other babies from death in utero is a type of Christ him- or herself, a type of the seed that falls into the ground and  dies, bringing about an abundant harvest? The death of Christ was a scandal, but the result is the salvation of mankind. On a smaller scale, the death of a baby by abortion is likewise a scandal, but, in this case, the result has been the saving of many young lives. Deisher's work puts forth the idea that evil always brings forth evil, and, while this makes logical sense, we know that it is not invariably true.

What's more, the evil end that Deisher and her supporters envision as the logical result of evil means is . . .  autism. This conflation of the intrinsic evil of abortion with neurological difference is, to say the least, highly problematic; I would love to know what Christian autistic self-advocates -- and yes, they exist -- think about it. 

The takeaway from Deisher's study -- at least as it's being expressed throughout the Catholic blogosphere -- is that autism must be cured (if not eliminated), and that, in fact, autism can be avoided (if not eliminated) if the rubella vaccine, which was derived from the stem cell line of an aborted baby more than fifty years ago, is no longer used. This assumes that autism is a Very Bad Thing, devoutly to be un-wished for, and that it's worth risking the deaths of countless babies (other people's babies; it always is) in utero to avoid it. This is not just theologically faulty; it's morally faulty.

My own takeaway is that, as I've learned over and over again at great cost, evil usually doesn't appear evil. Evil cloaks itself in the trappings of good. Evil is pervasive; evil wants to destroy all that is good in the world. Life is good. Death is evil. The deaths of countless babies in utero from rubella is evil. Vaccination with the rubella vaccine, which prevents those deaths, is good. And God brings good out of evil.

Hysterical comments will be deleted.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Music and Memory, Back to School Edition: Artificial Pearls

The music department at the community college where I teach moved to a new building over the summer. This is a good thing, even an excellent thing, since, up until now, the music department has been housed in a building that was apparently designed as a bomb shelter. All the classrooms in the old building were in the basement, and all their carpets were mildewed; I stopped reminding my students not to bring drinks to class, because the odor of stale spilled coffee was a marked improvement over what it could have been. The large number of linoleum tiles missing from the ceiling gave it the appearance of a menacingly-grinning, upside-down clown-smile, and the choir couldn't rehearse in the building, because so many of its members were stricken with mold-induced asthma attacks during practice.

Last week, before the semester began, we music-department adjuncts (who make up, incidentally, around eighty percent of the music faculty) converged upon the new building to clean it up and make it ready. It was a beautiful late-summer day, and my heart did strange things when I stepped outside the cinder-block building to make a phone call. The Soviet-bunker-style campus is nestled in a depression in the achingly-green northern foothills of the Appalachian mountains, hills that look so gentle, so kindly somehow. I thought about Wallace Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar," about how the jar on the hill in Tennessee "made the slovenly wilderness/Surround that hill," and how, here, the anecdote was turned upside down: how here the hills surround the makeshift slovenliness of the college, but the artifice of man does not add order to or impose mastery upon those surrounding hills. I thought, too, of Emerson noting that

The God who made New Hampshire
Taunted the lofty land
With little men.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

I've been asked to give a paper at a conference being held in honor of my dissertation advisor, an important musicologist now retired after many years of teaching, an Italian-American woman from Brooklyn with whom I became, during the time we worked together, somewhat uncomfortably enmeshed in a sort of artificial mother-daughter relationship. She remarked to a friend at my wedding that she hoped I wasn't going to take my husband's name, because I had worked so hard to build a scholarly reputation under my own (Italian) name. When my dissertation voice recital was approaching, she, apparently worried over what I would wear, confronted me awkwardly in the hallway of the university, where she was a full professor and I an adjunct, and anxiously enquired how I was planning to do my hair. When my first son was born, she said something I wasn't sure how to interpret at the time about how some people thought you should change your life for your children, and others thought you should fit your children into the life you already had; to this day, I don't know which camp she, a mother as well as a scholar, fell into. I still worry that I'm disappointing her with my hair, my life, and my scholarship, and I still don't know what my paper in her honor is going to be about. But I felt like hanging my head when I saw the website for the conference, and saw my name (the version of it that's trotted out for performance and publication purposes, Italian maiden name first, followed by married name) and my affiliation (northern-Appalachian-county community college) next to the names of well-known musicologists who teach at Case Western, The City University of New York Graduate Center, Harvard, and Yale. I recalled how I wanted to be something great, to do something important, and yet, here I am.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Someone once said that teaching is casting artificial pearls before real swine, which, to the extent that it's true, does not make the thrower of pearls any less swinish than his intended audience. How am I supposed to do this job -- to teach music to my students at northern-Appalachian-county community college? I want to do it, I burn to do it, because, as William Carlos Williams wrote (about poetry, though the same can be said about music):

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die every day
for lack
of what is found there.

I turned on the radio the other day while driving through my ramshackle post-industrial town, and I heard the adagio movement of a piece I know well, Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 27 in B-flat Major. I know it well because, when I was seven or eight years old, my mother had an LP of it that I would play over and over again. We had bought it while out grocery shopping; I had seen a display near the exit of LPs on sale for something like forty-nine cents, and this one had an image on the cover of one of Marc Chagall's designs for The Magic Flute -- Papageno, the birdcatcher -- though I didn't know this at the time. I begged my mother to get it. While driving the other day, I found that, though I hadn't heard the piece for years, I could sing every note of the piano solo and the melodic orchestral line. I noticed that the performance on the radio was actually played on the fortepiano, a forerunner of the modern piano, and that, delightfully, the soloist interpolated a fragment of Mozart's song "Komm, lieber Mai" into the cadenza in the coda of the last movement.
While singing along to the radio, I saw a shabby-looking, morbidly obese man with dirty legs riding in a self-propelled wheelchair in the oncoming lane. I thought about my mother's LP. Where would I be, who would I be, if my mother had not had it? Classical music is not salvific by any means (I remind myself), but, for me, it's always been anodyne, palliative, hallucinogen, and opiate all in one. It dulls pain, it comforts, it heals, it confers vision. Without it, I would be a miserable worm of a person, even more than I am now. And I wonder if this is true for everyone: if everyone, had he had access to my mother's record collection, would be a better person.

I thought about my wonderful voice teacher and mentor, A.B., who grew up, as it happens, in rural Tennessee. His parents were mountain people; his father was a self-taught singer who worked for a biscuit-flour company. The flour company would send out a string band to drive around the rural counties in a flatbed truck, from which they would play music, and then give a baking demonstration with a portable oven. A.B. told me about how, as a child, he was given a recording of the Nutcracker on 78s, and he listened to it until the records, as he put it, literally dissolved. He later found a recording of La Bohème at the public library, and played it, too, into the ground, memorizing every word and note of Rodolfo's Act I aria, but -- as he found when he got to conservatory -- memorizing it wrong, because the record had a skip in it that obliterated part of one measure.

Classical music, discovered as a child, taught me how to live, how to breathe. It did the same for A.B. I wonder if it might do the same one day for one of my students. I think of a recurring dream I've had for years, in which I am walking certain streets in New York that I know as well as I know the Mozart Piano Concert no. 27, but finding them slightly and ineffably altered, and looking for something as I walk -- something that, while I can't quite remember what it is, I know to be the key to everything. There's a beautiful children's book by Barbara Helen Berger called Grandfather Twilight, in which the twilight is personified as an old man who each night takes a pearl from an endless strand and walks with it to the sea, while the pearl grows larger and larger, eventually becoming the moon. I hope that the artificial pearls I offer to my students this semester -- not out of perversity, but because they're all I've got -- might be able to change into something real and beautiful for them, too.