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I'm on research fellowship this upcoming year (meaning I don't have to teach), and my department needed my office for people that were actually teaching. Yesterday I went over to campus and cleaned out my stuff.

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It's a bit depressing, looking at it without my little taped-up comics and books. I left a huge stack of envelopes, file folders, etc. and also a few books that that I'm leaving behind. Also some wine from our semesterly symposia. I'm a bit jealous, actually, that the new people get all those bookcases to fill up and new desks/comfy chairs and a new computer. The new computer came in early May and the office was renovated over the summer, so I barely got a chance to enjoy it all.

I've had good luck in having mostly-absent office mates - people I liked but for whatever reason our schedules jived well enough that we both had the office for about as much as we needed it. Still, I'll miss knowing that other people are around and just hanging out with friends waiting for students to come by. I've taken to working at the local public library. I just wish they'd let me leave a crate of my books behind the desk. I'm tempted to "donate" them just so I can leave them on their shelves, and if I thought they wouldn't be reshelved at other branches I think I would.

(P.S.: I've gotten into a weird sleep schedule and didn't sleep at all Wed/Thur night. So this is me after eight hours of sleep. Those eight hours just started at around 5 PM yesterday evening.)

(Originally posted at LJ.)
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 (This post is part of the August synchroblog.)

A few weeks ago Jared Wilson entered my world for the first and what I hope will be the last time with a sexist screed that rocked the blogosphere, or at least my corner of it. His original post has been deleted, and I don’t exactly want to give his words any more air-time than they already received by posting them again, plus they are rather trigger-ish for anyone with an exposure to rape or domestic violence, and to a lesser extent to women generally. So let me just summarize them briefly.


Warning: Triggerish for rape, DV, and general ickness )

The thing is, I’m not sure it’s that simple. Don’t mistake me, Mr. Wilson is 100%, outrageously wrong here. But to be fair here, he does have one Biblical land to stand on. To wit:

I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception;

In pain you shall bring forth your children;

Your desire shall be for your husband,
And he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16, NKJV)

The problem for folks like Mr. Wilson is they’re a few thousand years out of date:

Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:24-27, NKJV)

I don’t want to turn this into testimonial or anything. If I wasn’t a Christian, I’d probably find lots to object to about this statement, like the implication that we need faith to know that that rape-triggerish junk is, if you’ll excuse my language, complete and utter crap. We don’t. All we need is to be decent humans.

But speaking as a Christian, within that tradition, there’s something that’s especially wrong with Mr. Wilson’s language. Not only is it wrong and insulting but it turns the whole of Holy Scripture – you know, the sola thing you evangelicals are so keyed into – on its head. Because curses like this that were clearly temporary and the results of sin are quite honestly the only Scriptural evidence I can find that one group gets to lord it over the other. I don’t particularly accept the idea that men and women are innately different, but I sure don’t accept the idea that this gives any other human the right to dominate, particularly in such a violent way. And if that was ever the case, the whole thing about being sons (and daughters) of God through faith pretty well proves it. Alike in dignity, alike in worth, and each of us precious and unique – whatever bits of anatomy we might have between our legs.

This summer session I read Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship” with my ethics class, and we got into some interesting discussions on human dignity and autonomy and whether having God dictate right and wrong got in the way of all that. Russell writes,

A strange mystery it is that Nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurrying through the abysses of space, has brought forth at least a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking Mother. In spite of death, the mark and seal of the parental control, Man is yet free, during his brief years, to examine, to criticise, to know, and in imagination to create. To him alone, in the world with which he is acquainted, this freedom belongs; and in this lies his superiority to the restless forces that control his outward life.

Russell’s point, as I understand it, is that there is a certain dignity and a moral worth in being the one to choose. This idea seems very Kantian to me: we are the moral legislator, the one that makes sense of the chaos, and to submit to someone else’s authority is a betrayal of self. Is this idea at least reconcilable with the Christian ideal of submission, of following? Obviously the rest of Russell’s essay is thoroughly atheistic, and I don’t want to Christianize him. But the idea expressed in the quote above is a naturally attractive one, and I see it in a lot of religious peoples’ attempts to live well through horrific consequences. How does submission come into all this?

Years ago, when my grandfather died after a long illness, I remember standing against a wall at the wake and being unable to cry. We weren’t all that close as he had been chair-bound for most of my life, and I thought that was it. So on top of feeling, well, as bad as one does at funerals, I was feeling royally guilty too, but strangely stoic at the same time. My cousin Lisa (who even then “got” me very well) saw what was going on and said that, just for that day, she would be my big sister. I was maybe thirteen or fourteen and the oldest of three siblings, and I thought it was my job to be “strong” for them.  I was wrong, and only when someone showed me that could I start to cry like we all need to at those points.

Christianity glorifies submission and weakness but at the same time many Christians rely on human dignity to find worth in their lives, particularly in life’s dark allies. (This is what I think Paul is really getting at in 2 Corinthians 12 – not that humans are decrepit without God, but that we are strong enough to see even weakness in our strength, something greater than ourselves.) I think, particularly in the wake of tragedies like the Colorado shooting or the recent attack on the Sikh temple, we need what Russell pointed to: “to examine, to criticise, to know, and in imagination to create.” It’s also for me the beauty and salvific power of Tolkien’s mythic vision of a world where “the [story’s] cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands.” As humans, we need to stare into the void and find more than emptiness. And if there isn’t anything but vacuum, we need to fill it ourselves.

That requires a very different kind of submission, of following, than the one Mr. Wilson points to, and for reasons that go beyond the obvious ones. It isn’t about giving up our authority and dignity as rational beings, capable to act on something other than simple instinct. It’s about recognizing our limits and choosing to rest a bit, let someone else carry the load for a mile or two, so we can take it up again all the better.

That’s a kind of submission even this dyed-in-the-wool egalitarian can get behind.

(Originally posted at LJ.)
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I was explaining to someone just what decompressing from a summer session had been like, and all of a sudden I was struck by what seemed like the perfect fannish analogy. This has been me these last several days as I finished up the actual teaching portion of summer school.

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All of which raises the question, just what is my inner Gollum here? What i'm like in that intense of teaching? The stress itself? Regardless, the freedom and the wanting to dance all around? Yeah, I was totally like that.

(Originally posted to LJ.)
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This has been my life the last month - getting these handouts ready, walking through them with my students, meeting one on one to work out what they didn't understand in class, then rushing home to start the cycle all over again. It's all done now except for the grading, but I still thought some of you might enjoy seeing my handiwork.

(As a heads-up: these were the starting point of my class's discussion. If you know philosophy and my discussion seems simplistic or flat-out wrong, that's because I probably used this as a jumping-off point to get to a better way of approaching the issues. I'm mainly sharing this because several people asked just what I've been so busy with.)

Day #1: What's this course all about, anyway?Day #2: Can we be Good without God?
Day #3: Does our society decide what counts as moral?Day #4: Morality and the LawDay #5: Can we really act against our best interests?Day #6: Do we have a duty to help others?Day #7: Utilitarianism vs. LibertarianismDay #8: Is true equality even possible?Day #9: Does motive matter?Day #10: Kant on Choosing RightlyDay #11: Criticisms of Kant's EthicsDay #12: What counts as a human, anyway?Day #13: How do we become good?Day #14: Does our society decide what counts as moral?Things I Learned
  1. Aristotle and Kant require more time to show why they're relevant and convincing.
  2. Kant in particular needs more focus. To say nothing of more understanding on my part. Next time I'm finding time, somehow, to do Kant's kingdom of ends and maybe a little out of the Religion book. Really.
  3. Even though these students all have had an introductory philosophy course, I can't expect them to be exposed to the things I teach my students in that first course. In particular, I can't expect them to know the problem of free will. Since Aristotle really ties in to those same problems, I need to find at least an hour to introduce that problem.
  4. The things that I think need refuting before we can get on with the business of philosophical ethics. Cultural relativism is much less a part of my student's mindset than it ever was with mind, as is the whole idea that religion and ethics are tightly bound. The bigger problem is to show why you can't just pick and choose pieces from different approaches.
  5. Having a class willing to think and talk makes all the difference. My group rocked.
(Originally posted to LJ.)
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Over at Slate, Ron Rosenbaum has an interesting review of a new book on nothingness and the universe's origins. (The book in question is Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?). Based on what he says, the book looks well worth a read and has officially gone on my Amazon wish list. At the moment I'm too burned out from teaching summer school - which, huzzah, is done now except for the grading - to take on deep thoughts like why there's something rather than nothing or even what nothing truly is, in any prolonged fashion. So the book itself will have to wait a few books, at least.

But this review, like most reviews of philosophy books, is more than just a review of the book. It's a condensed introduction into why this topic matters, and so I think it's worth reading for that reason alone. Just what do we mean by nothing, and what counts as proof for it? It's also a nice look back at the whole Lawrence Krauss dust-up. Obviously as a philosopher I have some very strong and long-winded opinions on Krauss, but Rosenbaum did a better job of explaining just what was so wrong with Krauss's assertions than I ever could have, and in less space. So as someone sitting on her hands through that whole set of interviews, it was nice to see a response with a bit of distance.

Anyway, back to the point of this whole book review. Rosenbaum starts by pointing to Aristotle's famous question of how we get something out of nothing. He notes that it "isn't, by the way, as some who have tried to discredit it have suggested, a "religious question. It's a philosophical question. And at its heart, it's a common-sense question." I took a little bit of issue with the "not a religious question" bit, because I think it's one that's intimately and immensely important to religion, particularly to a philosophy of religion. Religious people sometimes point to the fact that without God as a kind of first cause there's no way the whole chain of one thing causing another could ever get started in any way. This is motivated by the claim that everything has a cause. Atheists naturally argue that if everything needs a cause then a God that exists would too, so saying that God causes everything eosen't really get us anywhere. On the other hand if we're going to choose something and say this one thing doesn't have a cause, why start with God and not something less unlikely, like a particular law of physics or the Higgs-Boson particle or whatever?

And the atheist is on to something here, so far as the argument I've laid out goes. People like Aristotle pose a harder question by finetuning the principle driving the whole problem. It's not that everything needs to have a cause, but that everything that changes needs to have a cause behind the change. (At least that's how I remember Aristotle; it's been a few years since I've read the Metaphysics where this is all laid out, so bear with me.) The Prime Mover causes change, but not by changing itself, like one moving ball striking another and causing it in turn to move. It's more like a magnet that is itself stable but attracts everything else to it. Based on that definition, I don't think it's so obvious that God (or the Prime Mover) has to be caused by something. Of course there's still the major issue of whether this first cause need look anything like the Judeo-Christian God (or any other conception of God!). And it wasn't Aristotle's position that this proved Zeus or anything of that sort actually existed, so I don't want to push him there.

But Christian theology and christian philosophy - including some of the greats of western philosophy like Augustine and Aquinas - was premised on the idea that not only was their a first agent involved in the creation of the universe, but that this Creator actually created something out of nothing. Or at least they say they do. Christians at least often speak of a God who spoke into the darkness and created the light. And even if darkness is simply the absence of light (like with Augustine's privation theory), the fact that God could speak into implies there is a something, a space even if it is a vacuum. And as Rosenbaum makes clear, this isn't what we mean by nothing at all.

There's a more fundamental sense in which this is a religious question, too. On the Christian view of things, God spoke into the nothingness and created something. More specifically he created everything - implying that the something, whatever it is, didn't exist before God spoke. This seems to mean that God isn't something, doesn't it? This is one of the questions that's at the heart of my own research. What does it mean for God to exist? If by nothing we mean true nothing - no space, no time, no matter, etc. - then what does it mean to say there is a God as opposed to there not being a God? A lot of this will depend not only by what we mean by nothing (which is hard enough to define precisely) and what we mean by something. I know some philosophers, particularly early-medieval philosophers, looked at the question of whether God existed as part of space-time or all of space-time or in some other way entirely. Does that get around this question? To answer that I'd need to bone up on my Boethius but I'd also need to understand more of what we mean by something. But that's a curious idea, isn't it? That something could exist without being something?

Welcome to the fascinating world of philosophy of religion. ;-)

But what I think Rosenbaum really means is that Aristotle's question isn't just a religious question, and not one that depends on what a certain religious tradition has to say. And on that point I think he's definitely right. It's not just that people other than those with religious motives should be interested in it, but that it has implications that go far beyond whether or not God exists and what kind of God there is. What we mean by nothingness probably has serious effects for causality, freedom and responsibility, even the possibility of knowledge because it looks at how far back our explanations can and should go. As Rosenbaum puts it: "Any proposed First Cause such as "the laws of quantum mechanics" will presuppose a cause previous to it that caused the purported First Cause. You can never get back to the big question: How do you (initially) get something, anything, from nothing?"

For the record, Rosenbaum doesn't think this is a scientific question either, or at least not a purely scientific one. And here, I think, Rosenbaum is spot on. Or rather, philosopher Gary Gutting is, because Rosenbaum quotes him at length. I'll throw in that same quote, because it's worth repeating:

While Krauss could appeal to philosophy to strengthen his case against 'something cannot come from nothing,' he opens himself to philosophical criticism by simply assuming that scientific experiment is, as he puts it, the 'utlimate arbiter of truth' about the world. The success of science gives us every reason to continue to pursue its experimental method in search of further truths. But science itself is incapable of establishing that all truths about the world are discoverable by its methods.

Precisely because science deals with only what can be known, directly or indirectly, by sense experience, it cannot answer the question of whether there is anything - for example, consciousness, morality, beauty or God - that is not entirely knowable by sense experience. To show that there is nothing beyond sense experience, we would need philosophical arguments, not scientific experiments.

Let me say something that I really hope is completely unnecessary: I like science. More to the point, I believe in it. I watched the search for the Higgs-Boson over these last several months with great interest. I also believe that science is incredibly useful and that it's the best tool we have to explaining how atoms, forces, and other such things interact and affect our lives. But I also think Dr. Gutting is right here, to say that if you want to prove there's something (or nothing) that our senses can't detect, you need to go beyond what our senses tell us. In this particular case, to show that something really can come from nothing, you need to work out what nothing would look like. And it's not obvious you can get that by looking at the world around you, not directly. This is where philosophy gets really cool: propose a certain conception of nothing and ask whether it's even possible, what the implications are.

Really, go read the book review. I can't speak to what it says about the book, not having read the book myself; but it's a good primer on a really fascinating conversation going on these days between physicists and philosophers.  

(Originally posted at LJ.)
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Over at the NY Time's "Opinionator," Seyla Benhabib took on Obama's decision not to deport a certaion groups of undocumented immigrants. It's really quite interesting.

To lay my cards on the table, I happen to believe that most of our laws on immigration are unjust laws. While a country certainly has a right to keep accurate tabs on who comes into a country and even to limit who comes in, either individually or as groups if there's a legitimate reason to do that, I think our laws often go too far. ("This man is a known narcotics trafficker" would be one such reason, as would "This group is too large or too poor for our society to reasonably support them." I'd even say many countries could give a third type of reason, "We cannot absorb them into our culture without losing our own identity," though I wouldn't put a melting-pot-based society like America in that group.)

My real beef with American immigration policy is that we depend on the illegal immigrants out of one side of the mouth and label them as criminals in who they are, not what they do out of the other. As this article points out, California agriculture depends on cheap labor. So do any other number of other businesses. These jobs are typically sub-minimum wage and paid under the table (so no taxes paid by the business). I'd argue we all rely on cheap labor that's denied legal recourse for whatever bad things are done to them. It basically sets up two classes of citizens (and I do consider immigrants – people who permanently join a society, legally or otherwise – to be citizens in the philosophical sense if not the legal one), and I'm not crazy about living in a society built on that. Not that any other society is really any better here, and not that there's a whole lot I can do about it, but it does make me feel complicit in something I don't like.

So I'm predisposed to be in favor of this argument. My main qualm with Obama's DREAM-like action is that it affects so few immigrants, and siphons off the most sympathetic immigrants from the larger community. But still, I find Dr. Benhabib's argument confused. She seems to be drawing on two different philosophical traditions and acting like they're compatible. Since I'm going to be teaching these two approaches to justice with my students in just a few hours, I thought it might be interesting and useful to lay them out here, and apply them to this particular argument.

(By the way, this discussion of communitarianism vs. voluntarism is taken more or less from Ch. 9 of Michael Sandel's book Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do; I highly recommend it.)

Dr. Benhabib appeals to Kant's "duty of hospitality." She writes:

If conditions in a person's native country so endanger his life and well-being and he becomes willing to risk illegality in order to survive, his right to survival, from a moral point of view, carries as much weight as does the new country's claim to control borders against migrants Immanuel Kant, therefore, called the moral claim to seek refuge or respite in the lands of another, a "universal right of hospitality," provided that the intentions of the foreigner upon arriving on foreign lands were peaceful. Such a right, he argued, belonged to each human being placed on this planet who had to share the earth with others.

I've never heard of this particular bit of Kant's philosophy, but it does sound like him. I've proved over the last several weeks how hard it is for me to speak authoritatively about Kant's moral philosophy, so here I'll rely on Sandel's summary of the relationship between Kant's account of freedom and communal obligations:

To be free is to be autonomous, and to be autonomous, is to be governed by a law I give myself. Kantian autonomy is more demanding than consent. When I will the moral law, I don't simply choose according to my contingent desires or allegiances. Instead, I step back from my particular interests and attachments, and will as a participant in pure practical reason. […] Kant's idea of an autonomous will and Rawls's idea of a hypothetical agreement behind a veil of ignorance have this in common: both conceive the moral agent as independent of his or her particular aims and attachments. When we will the moral law (Kant) or choose the principles of justice (Rawls), we do so without reference to the roles and identities that situate us in the world and make us the particular people we are. (Sandel pp. 213-214)

What Sandel's getting at here is that we are only Americans or Britons or whatever, by virtue of a historical accident. There's no reason I had to be born in the American South, with all that carries with it as far as the way I view the world and my moral obligations. So while I may think I have a duty to put other Americans first – "buy American," monitor the border, care more about the lives of American deaths than Afghani deaths or however you want to put it – I don't really have any obligation here. And it may make sense to have communities and develop them, at a practical level. But I think Kant would be hard-pressed to explain why those communities are morally relevant, certainly to the point that they outweigh someone's right to preserve their life. (Someone who's a better Kant scholar than I am, could perhaps offer an explanation of why communal obligations are morally relevant and not just based on a hypothetical imperative, perhaps, but I can't see it based on what I understand of him.)

Anyway, so far Dr. Benhabib's on solid footing as far as I can tell. The trouble is she then makes a very un-Kantian move. She writes:

We do have special obligations to our neighbors, as opposed to moral obligations to humanity at large, if, for example, our economy has devastated theirs; if our industrial output has led to environmental harm or if our drug dependency had encouraged the formation of transnational drug cartels.

These claims of interdependence require a third moral principle – in addition to the right of universal hospitality and the right to self-government – to be brought into consideration: associative obligations among peoples arising through historical factors.

This sounds very much to me like the communitarian approach to ethics that Sandel outlines. Kant (according to Sandel) basically thought we only have two kinds of obligations: natural duties, that we owe to everyone just because they're human, and voluntary obligations, things we agreed to ourselves. So there's really no sense in talking about making up for what your ancestors had done, or feeling proud of it. As Sandel explains:

If, in thinking about justice, we just abstract from our particular duties, it is hard to make the case that present-day Germans bear a special responsibility to make recompense for the Holocaust, or that Americans of this generation have a special responsibility to remedy the injustice of slavery and segregation. Why? Because once I set aside my identity as a german or an American and conceive myself as a free and independent self, there is no basis for saying my obligation to remedy these historic injustices is greater than anyone else's. (Sandel p. 214).

The thing is, the way I understand these points, they can't both be true – at least not for the reasons pointed to. If I have a Kantian duty to hospitality because it's a Kantian duty, can I also have special obligations to those living near me? Particularly since I wasn't alive when America enacted the drug policies that encouraged the cartel (so any special obligation I have to help these peoples because I'm an American is distinctly non-Kantian). Unless I'm missing something about Kant?

I've really enjoyed teaching Kant's and Aristotle's accounts of freedom and justice, and I find the whole contemporary debate utterly fascinating. But the way I read things, the two sides aren't really compatible; if you're a communitarian, you seem to be rejecting some pretty crucial claims made by Kant, and vice versa. That Dr. Benhabib tries to draw from both sides is a bit frustrating, because I think a lot of what she's saying individually works pretty well but put together it just undercuts itself. It's actually a problem I see a lot in student papers, where they will just take bits from different theories, without worrying about whether the foundations for those ideas make sense together. Given that this is a full professor writing this, and given that I'm really and truly not a Kant expert, I'm hoping I'm missing something in Kant's thoughts that makes this move possible.

Regardless, it's good to see professional philosophers working on this issue. Personally, I tend to think if an immigrant is willing to throw his lot in with a society, said society needs a damned good reason to exclude him – particularly in a society built on immigration, as is the case with America (and really, if you go back far enough, is the case anywhere). But that's probably coming more out of my own Christian tradition more than anything you'll find in philosophy. You know, Abraham keeping his tent open on all four sides and all that.

(P.S., I started this before class this morning and only finished it now, nearly twelve hours later. So any odd wording, seeming obsession with certain books, etc. may be explained by that.)

(Originally posted at LJ.)

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I've been spending more time sharing things and writing out my thoughts at FB. These are a lot of times my first-flush reactions to things rather than the more considered thoughts you get here on LJ. Lately, however, I haven't gotten much beyond that first reaction a lot of times. Plus I share comics and other things that amuse me. I thought some people might be interested in them.

So I'm going to try to do a round-up posts of cute things I've shared and also status-updates (kind of like mini-blog posts), and post them here as well. These are often things that other people reading this blog have already commented on at FB, and my opinion may have actually changed a little. (Though usually not entirely.) So take all of this with a grain of salt. However, for the interested:

Things I Said )
Things I Shared )
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Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow-ripening fruit. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 8.3

My FaceBook feed has been hopping quite a bit discussing political issues. I guess it always is, but for some reason I'm more aware of it than I usually am. Between the Chick-Fil-A blow-up and the Colorado shootings (and really, the only thing these things have in common is that they've been talked about a lot lately!), my more liberal friends have been passing around a lot of pictures with pithy quotes or sarcastic one-liners. Some of it is clever (the thought of one I saw a few days saying that Kermit and Miss Piggy had been supporting non-traditional marriage since 1974 or whenever still cracks me up).

But much of it isn't nearly so light-hearted. It makes it seem like "the other guys" (whoever they are) are completely unreasonable, either by taking a thoroughly reasonable point and making it seem like no atheist/Christian/liberal/conservative/whatever could ever agree with it... or by simply creating a straw man of what the other side actually says. And here's the thing. Sharing these things just takes a click of the mouse, and I know a lot of people share what they think is "neat" without necessarily thinking about how it will come across to others. It can create a world-class echo chamber - often from both sides at once!

Sometimes these memes start good conversations. If it's a friend who seems genuinely interesting in discussing these issues, I'll a lot of times comment and explain how and why I reacted. But with some people I get the impression that they're sharing this stuff to create a sense that *everyone* agrees with them (certainly every reasonable person). And it goes beyond that. Just in the last week I've seen three separate "friends" (the label works pretty much the same way on FB and LJ) say that if "you don't agree with me on _______, maybe we shouldn't be friends any more. Where _______ is usually a cause of some kind or a cherished belief, like the idea that gun control was important or that homophobia shouldn't be tolerated.

I've always been bothered by the way FB and LJ use the word friends to mean someone following my blog or updates. I love interacting with people on that level but that isn't what friendship is about. I mean no disrespect to people who choose to end an acquaintance because the person disagrees with you on some issue. That's certainly your right and I don't have any particular bone to pick with people who choose to do that. But when you call people in this relationship friends, I think that just muddles things up in the worst kind of way.

Lots of philosophers discussed friendship, but I think one of my favorite depictions has to be Aristotle's. For the non-philosophers in the house, Harald Thorsrud provides a decent introduction to Aristotle on friendship using Harry Potter examples. The gist is that Aristotle recognizes three kinds of friendships, from friends of convenience up through true friendships built around virtue. The true friendship is one that lasts, but more than that it's one that's built on improvement. I love you and want to become more like you so those virtues that you have and I lack, I try to develop. And vice versa.

When you say a friendship can and should be ended over an "issue," what I hear is that you think I can be dismissed over an issue. That's a pretty pale version of friendship, to my mind. And I realize that on the internet "friend" doesn't mean what it does off the internet, but that's sad to me. I've known lots of people online longer than I have hear in New York. We've probably seen each other through more situations and spent more time chatting, too. Fandom does that, but I think the internet in general does it, too. These are true friendships in the Aristotelian sense, or at least as close as us moderns ever get. I know I can count on them not to run for cover when the going gets rough.

All of which makes me sad to see such an awesome concept and reality used in such a casual way. Because I am much, much more than my stance on gun control, and if our friendship is anywhere close to the authentic ideal Aristotle requires, I need my friends to see that about me. Is this just semantics, a convenient name? Maybe. But even that seems wrong somehow. Because I think that when many people think of and use that word "friends" they really do just mean people whose blogs they follow. I try not to say that, because the word is worth holding on to. Doubly so for the truth behind the word.

Btw, this whole thing reminded me of an old Seinfeld clip; hilarious, but also a nice take on just what's bothering me so much about this use of friendship.  

(Originally posted at LJ.)
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Thanks for everyone who answered yesterday's post. I liked reading everyone's ideas. But I wonder whether I wasn't clear about just what I was getting at?

When I heard the news about a possible third film, my first thought was: the Appendices and other sections of The Lord of the Ring provide nice snippets, but I couldn't imagine many things with a dramatic structure, particularly things that people who weren't already fans of the book would care about.

The one exception is probably the hunt for Gollum and for knowledge of the Ring. I can see a conversation with Saruman piquing Gandalf's interest. Maybe a trip to Rivendell to interrogate Bilbo one more time, along with some other Rivendell scenes. Maybe we meet Aragorn there on one of his trips to see Arwen (because apparently Tolkien movies must have romance, even when they don't). Aragorn and Gandalf realize that Gollum is the key and hunt for him for a while in frustration. Gandalf breaks off and goes to Minas Tirith where we get intellectual maneuverings between him and evil!movie!Denethor (oh, please, couldn't we make him smart? Even that would be an improvement...), and Denethor gives Gandalf access to the archives almost as a dare to actually find something about the founder of Gondor that Denethor doesn't know. Assisted ably by Faramir - in direct opposition to dad, a place for wimpy!movie!Faramir to show his character - Gandalf finds enough to form a theory. Meanwhile, Aragorn through great feats of will and against all odds, finally captures Gollum and meets up with Aragorn somehow. Contrary to what the book is, they don't beat the information out of him but somehow give him a chance to give it up willingly.  Gandalf rushes off to the Shire, while Aragorn takes Gollum to Mirkwood. It could end on a nicely redemptive note, but not in an uncomplicated way - leave the question of whether Gollum is really reformed and whether he'll stay that way.

Even that, though, seems strangely anticlimactic. I mean, how exciting is intellectual discovery if you're not an academic? Even politics seems beyond what Jackson can manage well. And the whole thing ends without the point of all the sacrifice and effort being made clear; it really just is a set-up for LOTR.

There are other things I'd like to see explored, like Balin's colony in Moria or the family struggle to get Frodo to live at Bag End, or how the various elven kingdoms related to each other. But I'm honestly not sure how you'd give that any kind of a dramatic structure, and that's what I was really asking about. We all have our favorite characters and moments, but there simply doesn't seem to be a *narrative* worth telling here.

Anyway, that's the kind of thing I was looking for. I would love to see more of the other places, but I'm simply not seeing where you'd get the plot for a self-sufficient movie. So if anyone who commented yesterday wants to lay out a possible movie that's self-contained and would actually pull from what Tolkien said, I'd be very interested to read it.

I am a little concerned about overmilking the franchise, and I don't want this. I'm not anti-Jackson, but the pieces with true narrative potential all involve characters and types of situations he hasn't shown a great ability to do well. I'm only really concerned about that concern, though, when there doesn't seem to be a point to a further movie and they make one anyway. They're planning a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and that's built off an amusement park ride, for Pete's sake. And Tolkien packs so much backstory that there are definitely places worth exploring. (I can imagine four or five separate SiIlmarillion-based movies, though I'm not sure I'd want Jackson to make them...
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On a slightly lighter note from all the politics/heavy personal stuff...

TOR.n is reporting a L.A. Times story saying the studios are considering making a third Hobbit movie. Specifically:

The Burbank film studio originally planned to release two “Hobbit” movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary prelude to “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and principal photography on those two pictures finished in New Zealand this month. The first is set to come out in December, followed by the second in December 2013. The two films combined cost about $500 million.

But Jackson has concluded that there is enough material from the book, as well as the extensive appendixes to “The Lord of the Rings,” to make a third film, according to three people who were not authorized to speak publicly. New Line Cinema, the Warner Bros. unit overseeing production of the movies, is eager to see it happen, and talks are underway with actors and others who would need to sign off on the plan.

Aside from this being very cool news (icanhas?), I've been wondering how thy were going to break up the movies? I'm assuming the Hobbit itself provides the plot for the first movie, and that after that there's some kind of a LOTR preview. This is a guess completely out of nowhere, but I'd assume it would be about events in Gondor and Rohan, culminating with Gandalf discovering the news about the Ring and the first battle at Osgiliath. But I don't know.

So in light of that, I was wondering. I'm assuming the first move will be The Hobbit itself. If you were to make a movie of the other material between Bilbo's and Frodo's quests, what events and characters would you center it around? What canonical events would you use to create a self-contained story, and how would you tell that tale?

(No spoilers for the actual movies, please.)

(Originally posted at LJ.)
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FaceBook has been abuzz these last few days over a drive to boycott Chick-fil-A. There are several memes and links getting passed around, apparently inspired by the fact that Chick-fil-A's owners donated to an anti-gay marriage group.

To be completely honest I was a bit bored by the whole thing. The idea that the Cathies would donate to such a group was hardly news; I've heard of them doing things like that at least as far back as my high school years (so more than a decade). They also donate to other causes; back in 20080 they won some kind of award where it was announced they'd given away over $100 million, including to foster homes, camps that give inner-city kids a retreat, and scholarships for their employees. They also had a reputation, at least when I still lived in the South where Chick-Fil-A's were more common (this would have been as late as 2006) of working with smaller poultry-raisers with less ethical problems. I'm no fool; I know fast food always has its problems. But Chick-Fil-A always struck me as better than most, even taking the anti-LGBT thing into account.

To put it more generally: they always struck me as a business with a conscience. I didn't always agree with their values, but I liked the fact that they had them. McDonalds always seemed to be about making money, and I'll take a principled company (or in this case owner) whose principles I disagree with over one whose only principle is mammon, any day of the week. I'm also not a big fan of tempting people to hide their agendas. That's just how I am, and I don't expect everyone to agree. None of that excuses Chick-Fil-A's donations, btw. It always made me a bit uncomfortable; I just had always thought having a country that cared about morals and doing the right thing and genuinely felt like a place that respected its employees was worth supporting.

Not so much anymore. In the fall-out from all of that, Jim Henson pulled Muppets toys from Chick-Fil-A. That's every bit their right and privilege as Chick-fil-A's opposing gay marriage is their founders. He also donated the check from Chick-Fil-A to GLAAD; again, their right. (Incidentally: This is how the marketplace of ideas (so much as there is such a thing) is supposed to work: different people advocating for their beliefs and using what resources they have at their disposal to support said beliefs and principles.) Here was Chick-Fil-A's response:

Having principles is good, but it only earns you sympathy in my book if you actually act on them. I don't know if there were problems with the timing of this pull stinks to high-heavens. And blaming your bad press on someone else is not cool (or particularly Christian, for that matter).

I may eat Chick-Fil-A the next time I'm in the South. Maybe. But it will be a mixed joy at best. As for now, here's the only poultry I'm enjoying thinking about just now:

Read more... )

(Originally posted to LJ.)
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 Life mile-stones have a way of making us reflect on where we are and where we'd like to be. In many ways, the fact that I'm facing a milestone just now is pretty inconsequential – it comes down to the fact that humans evolved five fingers on each hand (ergo: base 10 counting) and the way the human psyche thinks round numbers are important. But someone wise once said that the unexamined life is not worth living, so I try to grab those more reflective moments when they come along.

On top of turning thirty, I also was profoundly affected by several things over the last few months. Some of them were political, like the "success" of Proposition 1 in North Carolina – something about that whole political event, the way it was framed and the way I reacted to it, woke up something inside of me. Before that event I had more or less worked myself around to believing the standard picture that Christianity condemned homosexuality was wrong (IMO theologically, but also on general principles as well) – but my reaction to that political event was the first time my gay rights activism felt natural. It was actually a very Aristotelian moment; I was no longer doing things because rationally I thought it was what I was supposed to do, but because deep within myself it seemed like the most natural action given who I was and what I knew to be true and good. There have been other things, too, such as the end of a fannish event I've been involved in for eight years, and other little things in my life. I've just felt more at home in my own skin than I have in years. Some days I'm more at home than others, of course, but even in spite of being exhausted and working too many hours, it feels like I come closer to eudaimonia these days than I have in my adult life.

I'm not saying all of this as a "look at how enlightened I am!" kind of moment. Far from it. What I am trying to say is that part of being self-aware, figuring out what makes me tick and how I can be the best Marta possible, is paying attention to the world around me. That means paying attention to the world around me, and since a lot of how I view the world is through the various news pubs I read (Der Spiegel, the NY Times, and various Al-Jazeera blogs lately, and of course Stewart/Colbert videos), it's news stories that tend to spur on that self-reflection. So perhaps it's not all that surprising that I've been thinking a lot about the Aurora, Col. shootings. Things like this are how I define myself. And James Holmes, the alleged shooter, was a church boy.

I don't know whether he was a Christian or not. I rather suspect that comes down to what you mean by "Christian." The Christian Post bills him as a "'normal Christian boy" (possibly with mental health issues), whereas the Telegraph points to a profile where he described himself as an agnostic. I've seen some sources describe him as very involved in his local Presbyterian church whereas others just say he came a few times and sat in the back. His family was also a long-standing member of Penasquitos Lutheran Church in San Diego, though that could just mean attending services a few times a year. The safest biography I can come up with is he grew up to some degree involved in a mainline Protestant Church, and then as he grew older, he drifted from it (but probably not entirely). The bits I've read about him remind me of people I know, who grew up in church families but for whatever reason become less involved as he went into adulthood.

There're a lot of people like that, and I'm not sure how much we should hold Christianity accountable for these peoples' actions. That was the whole point of the taxonomy I was trying to work up a while ago; there just seems to me to be a big difference between someone who's really involved with a church (even if it's only socially), and someone who just claims that affiliation without getting particularly involved. That said, it's pretty obvious to me that Holmes was a church-goer, even if not a particularly involved one. It was a Lutheran church youth group he would have bee involved in as a kid, and it was a Presbyterian church that didn't catch him before he went off like he did. I'm not into blaming either of those groups, but if people are ready to blame Islam for the Taliban or atheism for Josef Stalin (as I've heard many Christians do), it's only fair to hold Christianity accountable for the James Holmes of the world.

Which leaves me… I'm honestly not sure where, actually. It's so convenient for me not to want to assign blame, since it's my own group that comes closest to being to blame here. I'm not one of those who claim that if you commit murder you were never a true Christian. ("True Christians" have done as much horrific things as any other group.) But even so, I find myself not seeing what good that blame game does. It doesn't seem like it would prevent the next catastrophe, and I suspecct it would make those already affected by this tragedy feel that much worse. At the end of the day, though, I can't escape (nor am I trying to escape) the stark reality: this carnage was created by someone who looks like me in so many ways.

I think in the end that's the most honest thing I can do. I don't know what made James Holmes do the things he did, or why any God that exists lets things like these happen. Believe me, I've been trying to understand that last puzzle for longer than I've been blogging, or studying philosophy, or even writing fanfic. Wrapping my head (or more properly, my heart) around the effing ineffable plan and the idiocy of theodicy, as I call it in my more light-hearted moments, since I've known what it meant to suffer. And I still don't know. But this seems like precisely the kind of situation where honesty and integrity requires I not fill that void in with cheap certainties.

Fancy words, I know, and they feel like lies as I type this, or at least so much of an over-simplification of things that they can't possibly be true. They're entirely too neatly put-together for situations like this. All I can do is sit with the fact that I have no answers here, and live with that (and maybe some day live beyond that?). That seems poor pittance in light of tragedies like this; but, sadly, it's all I've got.

(Originally written at LJ.)

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I just wanted to publicly thank Jenn Calaelen who over the last week or so has read dozens of my stories and given them kudos at Archive of Our Own.

I'm sure should know you, and your name seems vaguely familiar, but I can't figure out where I recognize it from. In any event, it's been a tough week and coming home to those daily reminders from AO3 that someone is reading and enjoying my art has made such​ a difference. Thank'ee!
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A comment over at FB reminded me of this, and it was good for a laugh. Thought I'd share.

God hates figs!!! )

(Originally posted at LJ.)
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music behind the cut )

Today's a sad anniversary for me. While things get less intense every year, this day always strikes me hard and I need a little help remembering it's only a small and passing thing, with a light and beauty beyond its reach (if I'm allowed to borrow a phrase from the idiom that's gotten me through things like these). Over the last several years, listening to John Boutte's song has been part of how I try to do that; it's almost an act of faith hearing these words, to hope that things will get better again. In particular:

When the levees have overflowed
And the street car has seen its day,
When all is gone, the plantations,
The Treme and the Vieux Carre,
I'll be swinging to that music
Way up on higher ground
Where Pops is blowing "Walk On"
With Gabriel making sacred sounds

With all the stuff going on in my corner of the interwebz, I thought this song was worth sharing. I don't know if it will resonate with other folks like it does with me, but even if it doesn't, it's still a nice jazzy, optimistic song - you could do worse than giving it a listen, I think. *g*
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I've put the ones I've read in bold, the ones I intend to read in the reasonably near future in italics (in my case, this means I now own a copy and it is literally waiting in a pile). Feel free to pass it on, or adjust as needed. Some of these I don't think I would ever read, but who knows? Perhaps.


Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)
Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy)
Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky)
Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes)
Gulliver’s Travels (Jonathan Swift)
Le Morte d'Arther (Sir Thomas Malory)
Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert)
Moby-Dick (Herman Melville)
Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens) (pick a Dickens, any Dickens...)
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne) (never liked this book, but I can say it's been read)

Autobiography, Memoir and Essays

The Confessions (Augustine)
The Complete Essays (Michel de Montaigne)
In Praise of Folly (Desiderius Erasmus) (I love his Enchiridion also)
Letters (Marcus Tullius Cicero) (I would add *any* of Cicero's essays, esp. the one on old age)
Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis)
Meditations on First Philosophy (Rene Descartes)
Orthodoxy (Gilbert Keith Chesterton) (this was excellent)
Walden (Henry David Thoreau) (boring and supercilious, but I did read it)


The Bible
The Histories (Herodotus)
The Peloponnesian War (Thucydides)
The Republic (Plato)
Lives (Plutarch)
City of God (Augustine)
The Prince (Niccolo Machiavelli)
Utopia (Sir Thomas More)
The Social Contract (Jean Jaques Rousseau)
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Edward Gibbon)
Democracy in America (de Tocqueville)


Agamemnon (Aeschylus)
Oedipus the King (Sophocles)
Medea (Euripides)
The Birds (Aristophanes)
Poetics (Aristotle) (want to read this one too, but don't have a copy yet)
Richard III (Shakespeare)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare)
Hamlet (William Shakespeare)
Tartuffe (Moliere)
The Way of the World (William Congreve)
A Doll’s House (Henrik Ibsen)
Saint Joan (George Bernard Shaw)
The Crucible (Arthur Miller)
No Exit (Jean Paul Sartre)


The Iliad (Homer)
The Odyssey (Homer)
Odes (Horace)
Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri)
The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer)
Sonnets (William Shakespeare)
Paradise Lost (John Milton)
Idylls of the King (Alfred Lord Tennyson)
Selected Poetry (William Wordsworth)
The Complete Poems (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

(Originally posted at LJ.)
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My dear people. My dear Bagginses and Boffins, and my dear Tooks and Brandybucks, Bracegirdles, goodbodies, Brockhouses and Proudfoots. Also my good Sackville-Bagginses that I welcome back at last to Bag End. Today is my one hundred and eleventh birthday: I am eleventy-one today.

Well, not quite that old: I am thirty today. Like Bilbo I find myself longing for mountains and stretched thin. I know some of you who have more years than you will laugh at thirty feeling old; but the last decade has worn me out. Plus I now feel old enough, not to be old precisely, but old enough that I'm not young. If that makes any sense.

I keep reminding myself that I'm still three years shy of my majority in hobbit-reckoning. So no need to act like a growed-up just yet, and no need to act like it at all, really. I can play the part when I need to better than I once could, but I suspect it will always be an exhausting endeavor.

Since I'm claiming hobbit aging, I should probably treat the birthday like a hobbit. That means mathoms. Lately I've been listening to the Piano Guys, a piano/cello duo that's big on YouTube. Here's my latest favorite song:

Read more... )

I didn't just choose to share this because it's a great song (which it is), or because new, fresh music is always such a gift to me. What I love about the Piano Guys is that they cover popular and classical songs (in this case Coldplay's "Paradise" with an African twist) but make them their own. This is near and dear to my heart because it is exactly what I try so hard to do in my own fanfic. Listening to their music, I've been reminded of one of my all-time favorite quotes from JRRT:

"Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic to the level of romantic fairy-story--the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths--which I could dedicate simply: to England; to my country. [...] I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd."

Not absurd at all, my good professor. For me, fanfic at its best becomes a language, a metaphor, that we can use to talk about the things and experiences that matter most to us - but use a frame of reference that expresses them more intimately than would be possible otherwise. And it provides a framework so we can delve deeper than we might otherwise. A shared religious tradition does the same thing for me, which is why I think I probably spend more time blogging about religion than in actual religious worship. It's a way of talking about things to get beyond the surface, and thinking and talking about that seems to alternately break my heart and soothe my wounds.

In its own way, the same thing can be said for fandom and for my fanfic in particular. A close friend of mine once described her work as "fanfic as therapy," and that description always stuck with me. Fanfic often is therapy but not just for me personally. For me, it almost works as a Freudian psychoanalysis of the real: of whatever is most true, most significant, most in need of examining and understanding. I know other people whose work strikes me the same way, so much so that I wonder how it could happen any way other than intentionally.

That, for me, is the value of fanfic. And of myth, come to it. That's really what a lot of fanfic is, though it can be put to other purposes. And begging Tolkien's pardon, but the drive to do that isn't absurd. Not by a long shot.

Along those same lines I want to thank everyone who has given my birthday wishes, but in particular the people who ahve written me fic for my birthday. Both touched me deeply, albeit in very different ways:

  • Beauty by [personal profile] just_ann_now. There's just so much sun and light and happiness here, in all it. (Alec/Richard)

  • The Wardens by [profile] dwimordene_2011. There's Beorn, and Radagast, and they're just so other in the best sort of way. And of course the transformation of the hunting instinct to awe was beautiful - a very hopeful thought.

Thanks also to everyone who's said such nice things, both here and at FB. I do appreciate it.

On another note, enjoy Christopher Lee reading "The Raven":

Read more... )

This isn't quite as random as it seems. Recently, I was reminded of Dwim's "The Hamster" poem. Listen to Sir Lee, and try hard not to hear in your mind:

And yet the dark-haired stranger wand'ring, called 'Thorongil', set me pond'ring,
thrilled me—filled me with dread suspicions that I'd never felt before;
So that I, to still the craving of my mind, which might be raving,
To know the all of him not saving secrets buried at his core—
I'd have the all of him not saving things he'd shown to none before—
I bought a hamster, nothing more.

Scantily did it resemble he who bore the star-brooched mantle;
'Sir', I'd said, 'or Madam, truly I am not versed in hamster "lore";
Nor care I to risk your biting simply so's to gain a sighting
Of your underside for tidings of your gender that I should ignore,
As I would your namesake's myst'ry' — Here I set 'him' by the door; —
'Yet I can't, and so I'm sore.'

Years later, that poem still makes me laugh like little else.

A happy un-birthday to the rest of you. Thanks so much for making today a good one.

(Originally posted at LJ.)
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Warner Bros. has an app allowing you to create a desktop for computer monitors, smart phones, etc.

What's so cool is you get to choose exactly the bit of several scenes you want to see. I chose Gandalf and beorn having a moment of recognition, and then Bilbo up to his elbows in danger in Mirkwood. A dangerous business, indeed!

Read more... )
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#1. TOR.n shared this collection of buttons available at Comicon (which has apparently been dubbed as #hobbitcon on Twitter this year):

Read more... )

I want, oh, pretty much all of them but definitely the top-left one to go on my bookbag. The pin I got for being an LGBT ally is lonely. But the bottom-right one earned a definite giggle. Am I the only one reading this who remembers OFUM?

#2. The many tweets of KimKierkegaard. In which someone has mashed bits of Kierkegaard's timeless wisdom with Kim Kardashian's not-so-timeless tweets. With friends like Justin Buber thrown in for good measure. I don't know any of these people enough to fully get this as much as I'd like, but I thought someone else could use a good laugh.

#3. Yoda origami - what's not to love?

Read more... )

#4. Another TOR.n goodie from Comicon. Their sign is hilarious, though I rather think it was unintended. Yes, fandom works pretty much like a ring of power at times. (Though I'm sure TOR.n is a great site...)

Read more... )

#5. Yet more goodness of the Star Wars variety:

Read more... )

#6. And finally, because no post should apparently be entirely without religion, here's some hellfire and dalmatians:

Read more... )

(Originally posted at LJ.)


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