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We don't do potpourri here very often, but there were two stories in the news this week worth talking about that aren't even tangentially related. The one you probably heard about is Ashley Madison, the adultery matchmaking website. We'll talk about that down below. The one you probably haven't heard about concerns St. Mary's Academy, a Catholic high school in Portland.
In July, St. Mary's was looking to hire an academic advisor. They offered the job to a 27-year-old woman named Lauren Brown. But upon learning that Brown is a lesbian who intends to marry her same-sex partner, the school rescinded its offer.
There commenced some gnashing of teeth. A group of 20 students showed up to a protest. There were postings on Facebook. A dozen students decided to dress up the school's statue of Mary in gay-pride sunglasses and, even worse, a sign reading "Free to be me"-which shows such colossal theological stupidity that both the students and their teachers ought to have been given the boot that day. (Eve was "free to be me"; Mary said "Fiat.")
You might already guess where this is going: Last week St. Mary's decided to reverse its decision. They're now all in favor of hiring gay teachers, advisers, and counselors, who may, or may not, be living in same-sex marriages. The Oregonian notes that the job previously offered to Brown has been filled, but that St. Mary's is reaching out to Brown for "reconciliation." Whatever that means.
If you want to understand how wobbly some Catholic institutions are on the question of marriage, have a look at this statement by Christina Friedhoff, the president of St. Mary's:
St. Mary's nurtures the Catholic identity, practice, culture and mission on which we were founded. We understand that others may hold different values, and we respect the right of individuals in society to do so. At the same time, as a Catholic high school we are obligated to follow current Catholic teachings regarding same-sex marriage in our employment practices.
The kicker, of course, is the word "current." As someone who actually leads a Catholic institution, where would Friedhoff get the idea that Catholic teachings on the nature of marriage which date to Gospels are likely to change any day now? Oh, who could say.
Francesca Pardi, a same-sex married lesbian who writes books with titles such as Why you have two mummies, wrote to Francis in June because she was upset that some Italian elementary schools were removing her books from their curricula. Pardi allows that she isn't Catholic, so it's not clear what she wanted Francis to do about. But maybe she just knows a fellow traveler when she sees one.
In his response, the pontiff told Pardi that he wished her and her wife "ever more fruitful work in the service of young generations and in spreading authentic human and Christian values."
This seems a bit of a stretch, even for Pope Tambourines. After all, even Pardi doesn't think she's spreading Christian values--in fact, she wrote to Francis specifically because she wanted to get Christians off her case. But who am I to judge.
The next few months-with both the pope's visit to America and his synod on the family-are going to be highly . . . interesting.
"I am a member of the Oprah Book Club, though perhaps not in good standing, having once complained in print that while Oprah Winfrey was certainly a great lover of books, she was no lover of great books.
A couple of years and one major showdown with Jonathan Franzen later, the big O chucked her monthly routine of showcasing mediocre new fiction for a reading commitment that is both looser and more respectable: one classic author about once a year. The result has been a run of books to warm the heart of high school English teachers everywhere: One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Good Earth, East of Eden, Anna Karenina.
As if those weren't respectable enough, this summer Oprah chose a three-pack of William Faulkner novels: As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Light in August."
"Thurston Von Moneybags (not his real name) was scammed once by a girl in Houston. He had arranged to meet her so that he might size her up and determine whether he wanted to give her a monthly stipend in exchange for regular sex and sometimes maybe dinner. In other words: Was there chemistry? Was she blonde and blue-eyed, the way he liked them? Was she thin "but not anorexic, a shapely body, you know?" Could he talk to her? That was very important. It was a little important. It wasn't that important. Anyway, she asked for money up front, and he sent her $800. She didn't show to the meet, and that's the last time Thurston Von Moneybags ever got hustled again. Now he meets the girls for lunch before he offers them an ahem arrangement, and he is very clear. He doesn't give them money until their second date, when they're in the bedroom, which sometimes feels bad, which sometimes chips away at his this-isn't-prostitution line-Thurston was raised Catholic, after all-but what's the alternative? Getting scammed again? I don't think so. A thing you should know is that there are very few people to root for in this story."
The other item for our potpourri this week is the ongoing Ashley Madison hack. If this has somehow been off of your radar, Ashley Madison was a dating website set up explicitly for married people looking to have affairs. Their entire system got hacked-not just member accounts and credit-card info, but internal company data, too. And the most interesting stuff to come out of it isn't about Ashley Madison's clientele: It's about the company itself.
Ashley Madison had always sounded like a scam to me. The site claimed 37 million users, which, if true, would be an enormous percentage of America's married population. (That would be roughly half of all married people between the ages of 25 and 55. (Which sounded incredibly implausible.)
And now we know that Ashley Madison's claims were implausible. An investigation of the site's user database found that there were 31 million profiles for men. However, only 20 million male "users" ever bothered to check their Ashley Madison message box even once, and only 11 million male users ever engaged the website's chat function, even once. A lot of people clearly just signed up out of curiosity.
The database also shows that there were 5.5 million women on Ashley Madison-but when reporter Annalee Newitz drilled down into their user profiles, an astonishing number of these women appear to be fakes-that is, dummy accounts created by the Ashley Madison staff to make it look like there was a pool of women looking for action. And by "astonishing," I mean that it looks like the number of real, live women using the site was somewhere between 1,500 and 10,000.
Which suggests that Ashley Madison might have been the greatest internet scam, ever. They suckered a couple million guys into paying a boatload of money to have affairs with women who were nothing more than sockpuppets of Ashley Madison employees.
The men did this even though the company basically warned them that this was going to happen in the terms of service agreement. Here's Newitz: "[T]here is a clause in the Ashley Madison terms of service that notes that 'some' people are using the site purely 'for entertainment' and that they are 'not seeking in person meetings with anyone they meet on the Service, but consider their communications with users and Members to be for their amusement.' The site stops short of saying these are fake people, but does admit that many profiles are for 'amusement only.'"
But the true genius of the scam is that, as a friend of mine pointed out, once the men got wise to what Ashley Madison was doing, they had no recourse. These were married men looking to have affairs. They were never going to risk public exposure by trying to go after the site for scamming them. It's the online dating equivalent of robbing a drug dealer.
Shortly after the first news of the hack broke, another friend quipped, "Well, the guys using Ashley Madison were looking to get screwed." They had no idea.
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