Monday, December 17, 2007

Heal Thyself

A student asked me the other day whether the only reason I teach logic is so that I can call myself a logician. I explained that I am not really a logician, because although I teach logic, it isn't where my philosophical interests really lie.

"No, no," I exclaimed, "I care about things like meaning and the ontological basis for it, questions centrally located within metaphysics. That's why I'm a metaphysician. You, know, sort of like a physician, but even better, meta!" Or should I say that I am an ontologist? I mean, I can't cure your cancer, but I can tell you whether you exist.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Descended from Apes

Mateo usually has to go out one last time right before I have to go to bed. So, that means that after I have brushed my teeth and--in weather like we have been having--put on my sweats, he has to go for a little walk. Because I don't want to have to get up any earlier than my 6 o'clock alarm, I take him to see if he has to poo.

He's a choosy little devil and won't go on the other side of the street near his normal peeing tree--he has just figured out how to pee on vertical surfaces and I am very proud of his leg-lifting efforts--so that means that I have to cross the street where the exit ramp for the interstate empties into our neighborhood. Since people have just been driving 80 mph or more on the 805, they sometimes disregard the speed limit signs and the stop sign and just barrel into our neighborhood. This makes the late-night dog walk a dicey undertaking.

So, on Wednesday last, I had taken Mateo out for a successful visit to a patch of grass a few blocks away and was returning triumphantly to our condo and bed, when I had to re-cross the 805 ramp. I looked, and the nearest car was a good hundred feet down the ramp and not moving too quickly, so I began to cross, Mateo in one hand and the results of his walk in a plastic bag in the other.

The driver, however, didn't seem to be too concerned with the fact that she was entering a neighborhood or that their might be actual people and not just other cars about. So, though I was in front of her with dog in tow, she didn't stop. No big deal, I suppose. I quickly jumped back and pulled Mateo behind me, but she remained oblivious. She continued driving.

But let me tell you this, it is amazing what a well-aimed bag of dog feces can do to make one realize that she should really look more carefully and actually stop at stop signs. And, in case you're wondering poop against a window makes a pleasing sound.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Aesthetic Judgment: Holiday Edition

The first seven people to put a Christmas wreath on the front of their Cadillac or Jeep or station wagon were clever, clever, clever people. The kind of people of whom you think: "Just what will she do next; I sure hope I'm there to see." All of the rest of you, and even the first seven when they went for a repeat performance, are just jackasses.
The same goes for people who put those bull balls on the backs of their trucks. Except in that case, even the first seven don't get a pass.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Highlight of My Weekend

On Sunday, just before I was getting ready to head out on an errand with Fernando and Mateo, a very drunk and very homeless (there are degrees of homelessness after all) man took advantage of one of the semi-private semi-alcoves of our building, using it as a privy.

My natural emotion in almost any situation is anger. It is part of why I am so charming. But at the same time, I don't really like confrontation--in the past I have relied on being threatening to get around actual confrontation. I am like one of those brightly colored but harmless insects. My buzzed head and bigger than average size and the way that I look angry and menacing when I am trying to remember where it is I was going scares people who don't know me, when in fact I am harmless. So, though part of me wanted to yell at him and I muttered something about the police, I wasn't really going to do anything. Off on the errand.

When we got back about an hour and a half later, the man was still in our alley, sleeping off a drunk on the porch of the building across the way. Dutifully--I am on the board of the damned HOA--I dug around in the recycling until I could find a suitable piece of cardboard to scoop up the feces and then I got to scooping. Having scooped, I sprayed down and went to wake the man. I couldn't be too angry, though I had just nearly vomited inside the shirt I had pulled over my nose as a makeshift mask. I asked him to move along and then he wandered away.

But, then I thought, what kind of pseudo-society do we live in where there's not even a place where people can go to the bathroom. Even that little bit of dignity--a private place to take a shit--is removed from people, unless they are a paying customer. Now, I know the arguments against having public restrooms or making restaurants and other businesses open their restrooms to whomever. It raises their costs; it's an unfair burden on the restaurants; whatever. For what it's worth, I didn't much enjoy having to clean up what I did, either. But, I wouldn't want to be that guy.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Cognitive dissonance

The President today, speaking of the current crisis in Pakistan and President Musharraf's predilection for appearing in military uniform, stated emphatically that one cannot be a president and the head of the military at the same time.

Unfortunately, Bush was not wearing his jumpsuit or talking about how his decisions cannot be questioned insofar as he is Commander in Chief, at the time.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hate at the funeral

Albert Snyder lost his marine son in Iraq, but today he gained almost $11 million in compensatory and punitive damages from Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas. (According to the claims of the defendants, there is no money to pay any of these damages, though that's hardly the point.)

Phelps and his churchmembers, especially his two daughters and other relations, are well known for the protests they stage around the country at events of all stripes. Whatever the event, their protest always has the same theme: God hates fags! Their signs are always some variation on that message and their website is even Phelps and his kith and kin spend more time and energy thinking about homosexuality and gay sex than a whole circuit party and RSVP cruise of gay men combined. Among their more spectacular protests was their performance at Matthew Shepard's funeral, where their signs read, among other things, "Matthew is in Hell".

The reason they have been ordered to pay Snyder $2.9 million in compensatory damages, $6 million in punitive damages and $2 million more for causing emotional distress, is their protest of Snyder's son's funeral. Snyder wasn't gay, nor does the Phelps crowd care. Instead, they have decided that the reason that things like 9/11 and the debacle in Iraq have occurred is because of the tolerance of gays and lesbians in the US. In this, they share a line of reasoning with the unjustly mourned Jerry Falwell and that master of the legpress Pat Robertson. But the Phelps put their signs where their fellow-God-is-zapping-us theorists' mouths are. They protest at the funerals of fallen soldiers in order to point out what they take the iniquity of the US to be. In doing so, they villify the dead who have fallen for the country they take to be evil and they cause a great deal of pain to the families.

They are horrible and dastardly people. And, I imagine, if there is a Hell, they will be quite welcome in it. (It seems to me that Jesus said something about mistreating orphans and widows.)

But the issue that is important legally is whether they have a right to their very distasteful protests. Snyder's argument was that his privacy was invaded. But of course, they didn't enter his home; they didn't trespass, or at least that's not the claim. The attorney for the Snyder's rightly called the Phelpses bullies who attack the weak, and asked for a high judgment from the jury "that says don't do this in Maryland again. Do not bring your circus of hate to Maryland again." That seems designed to chill speech, hateful speech to be sure, but speech, indeed.

As much as I hate their message, it seems to part of me, that it is the really hateful messages that test our commitment to the ideas expressed in the Bill of Rights.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ahhhhhhm, fahhhhhn. Haah aaah you?

There are few experiences in my life as insultingly infantilizing as going to the dentist.

The hygienist asks me questions as her hands and sharp tools are in my mouth. My responses can only approximate those of an infant who hasn't yet mastered the contours of his own palate and tongue.

She tells me things I already know. "You grind your teeth when you sleep." "You breathe through your mouth when you sleep." "You have geographic tongue."

Seriously, there is such a condition. It's one of those things that I am proud of, like Gilbert's (JILL-bairs) Syndrome, something that's slightly exotic and really pretty much harmless. As with Gilbert's Syndrome, I've known that I have a geographic tongue for going on 20 years now--and I also know that it is not, pace her opinion, caused by tomatoes or other acidic foods--so it's a lot less exciting for me than it is for her.

She tells me that I have plaque. That is really why I'm here, I think. She tells me that although I floss pretty well, I could do better and suggests which fingers to use.

In a world that constantly strips away at our dignity, I think I ought to be treated as an adult when I'm paying for healthcare, but then I do get grumpy.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Not every issue is a gay issue

Last Sunday, Mateo and I, together with several thousand others walked in San Diego's AIDS Walk to raise money and awareness for HIV/AIDS research and treatment. At the beginning of the walk, Jerry Sanders and Toni Atkins, respectively San Diego's Mayor and an openly lesbian City Council Member who represents a big chunk of the gayborhood--and who very kindly and personally responds when you write her letters disagreeing with her decisions and positions--read the proclamation before the walk. Now, Sanders had just the week or so before reversed himself and gone in favor of the city's amicus curiae brief arguing for same sex marriage, after revealing in a press conference that his own daughter is a lesbian.
Before actually getting to the reading of the proclamation, Atkins and Sanders had a self-congratulatory exchange about the win for fairness and equality represented in the brief. Surely, this was motivated by being in front of a crowd most of whom would agree and would help to bolster support for Sanders' recently announced bid for re-election, especially since he is now likely to lose quite a bit of Republican support. That is all well and good, however, AIDS Walk is precisely the wrong forum for this. Why? Simply because HIV/AIDS isn't a gay issue. When it first arose in the US, it was centered on the gay community, but it is not primarily or even noticeably gay-related throughout the rest of the world and it is a serious concern for the whole nation. So there is something both a little overly opportunistic and misguided in taking an event about AIDS (not an event about AIDS in the gay community) and making it into a platform for positions--however admirable or popular they might be--that are so closely tied with the gay community. We probably don't want one's position on same sex marriage to be a litmus test for whether we can cooperate with them on HIV and AIDS.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Truth hurts

I am a philosopher--at least I teach philosophy for a living, and I take pretty seriously the importance of living an examined life, thinking rationally, preferring truth to pleasant belief, the power of dialectic and argument to get us a better picture of the world. And I tell my students, when they are paying more attention to me than they are to their cell phones or iPods, that they should really take seriously the role of TRUTH in their lives, that they should strive for the truth, that they should be skeptical and question.

Yet, when a student acts as I would want him to, challenges authority, questions, asks for reasons, is slow to accept what he is told, it still raises my hackles, at least when I am the authority in question. That's a sad statement about my own intellectual virtue.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Our President and the Second Coming

In his infinite wisdom, and his seemingly boundless indebtedness to the energy interests, President Bush, through his Department of the Interior has decided to enshrine in law the practice of removing mountaintops, removing the coal that was in them and filling in the valleys next to the (former) mountains with the remaining debris. So, someday I will be able to tell my students (and my nephews and nieces) that the quarter of my ancestors who were Appalachian hill people lived in what were, once upon a time, actual hills.
At least, once we have no more mountains we will have the coal--oh, wait, we will have burned it; so, we will have at least the warmer environment that coal-burning seems to be giving us.
But, since the LORD, when he returns is supposed to make the roads straight, flatten the mountains and fill in the valleys--I guess it seems better theologically than aesthetically--maybe Bush is just working to bring about the Second Coming, by doing some of Christ's work for Him.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

A new look for fall

While screwing around on the internet today, I designed a superhero identity for myself. I'm thinking that it might work for a teaching outfit this fall; and, with a jaunty cap and coat, for walking about, as well.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Why parents can be so embarrassing

Watching an acquaintance try to control his mom's behavior this weekend made me think a little bit about why we can be so easily embarrassed when our parents mix with our friends, especially when we live far away from our hometowns and the majority of those who know us now didn't know us as children or adolescents.
But then it made so much sense. It isn't just the ways that parents can act silly and do things that we don't want to think of them doing. For instance, a man in his mid-twenties might not want to see how his mom acts when she's drunk--because to him that's his mom, not a complete person with all her faults. And he might not want to watch his dad hit on women half his age, for the same reason. And, a man in his mid-thirties (like me) might blush a little when his mom decides to tell stories about what he was like as a child or what he thought "you hurt my feelings" meant when he was four. You mean my feelings aren't in my butt?
The real thing that embarrasses us, I think, is the way that they uncover our inauthenticity. The majority of people I spend time with, who know me, didn't know me when I was a child or a teenager or even before I was thirty. That means that I have a had a fairly free hand in creating a "me" for them to know. I get to be the author of my own identity, as if I were some sort of autonomous Ayn Rand character. But, when Mom shows up, she tells the lie. Because, after all, there is another "me", one that existed before, one that she knows, one that she had a hand in creating--not just biologically, but socially and psychologically--and that can be a lot like being stripped naked in front of strangers, since it really is stripping off the mask that I have created for myself. So that's why parents shame us; and it's also why it's so good to be embarrassed by them. They remind us who we really are, at least what parts of us are.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The oppurtunism of the Fox

While trying to make my obliques rockhard today at the gym, I watched a little bit of that bastion of journalistic integrity, The Fox News Network. They were reporting on the political side of the Minneapolis bridge collapse. The angle being pursued was to blame politicians for not directing more money towards infrastructure upkeep and instead focussing on new projects, for which they both garner credit in their home districts or states and, if they have the political acumen of Robert Byrd, can also name after themselves. If you've never had the pleasure of traveling through West Virginia--and it is truly one of the densest collections of natural beauty there is--you've also never had the pleasure of listing all of the things dear Senator Byrd has named after him. Of course, there is little glory in appropriating more money for upkeep, so it often goes by the wayside.
I heartily agree with Fox's analysis--and I just threw up a little. Having spent more than a decade on university campuses, I have watched as blackboards cannot be replaced, as classrooms and offices are taken away, even as another Dr and Mrs Hiram P Lucre Center for the Study of MIcronesian Opera at the Mary X O'Coin Institute of Rather Irrelevant Matters in the F J Mercantile Building. No one ever wants to give money for mundane matters and everyone likes to see his name on a wall or stationery or a building. That's human nature, I suppose.
But Fox misses the irony that for 6.5 years we have had an administration beholden to the "starve the beast" mentality of cutting taxes, even during a time of war--for while it is perfectly reasonable to ask soldiers to sacrifice their lives for us it is too much to ask taxpayers to pay for a war as it is fought, much better to put it on credit to be paid for by the next generation--and only instituting policies as unfunded mandates to be paid for by the states, as they themselves are pushed to cut taxes by the same political pundits who have cut them at the federal level. Levies fail and bridges break--by some reports as many as 25% of the highway bridges in the US are in serious need of repair--when there's no money to fix them. And there's no money to fix them when our government wants to make sure that the citizens (or some of them) get to keep as much of their money as possible. When you starve the beast, sometimes it won't do the work you wanted it for.
For now, we should pray for those lost in Minneapolis and their families and friends. And, we should work for a wiser electorate and government that at least realizes the costs of cutting the government in all its functions.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Rudy, down home and stay the course

After a weekend's appearance at Nascar events, unsurprisingly it was his first time, Candidate Giuliani, according to the NY Times, started working in a new section in his stump speech.

“I ask you this question: If America is going in the wrong direction, where is the rest of the world going?” he said at a town hall meeting on Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla. “Where is Russia going? Where is England going? Where is France going? Where is Africa going? If we are going in the wrong direction, the rest of the world is falling off a cliff.”

Apparently, the reception was less than enthusiastic. Rudy has tried to portray himself, in his 12 Commitments--not a bad name for a band, by the way--and in other ways, as a new voice in the Republican party. Does he think he'll win even the nomination with a bland and wide-ranging approval of where the Bush Presidency has led us?

He might be trying to channel the spirit of Reagan who famously used a positive and optimistic message to defeat what was perceived as the pessimism of the Carter years. But Reagan--not the great President people like to make him out to be now--had a positive message about change, not just an "aren't things dandy" position. Good luck, Rudy!

Monday, July 02, 2007

The wages of sin are too excessive

"I respect the jury’s verdict. But I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive. Therefore, I am commuting the portion of Mr. Libby’s sentence that required him to spend thirty months in prison."

Will the President be reviewing all legal proceedings and sentencings throughout the United States' Federal Court system, or only those of men who fell on their swords for his Vice President? I suppose it is unfortunate that Cheney's recent attempt at defining himself as outside the obligations of the Executive Branch qua President of the Senate and outside those of the Legislative Branch qua Vice President have failed; perhaps from his location in the no-man's land in which all power is located--note that Cheney practically identifies himself with God, who is both everywhere and nowhere, whose motives are unquestionable, who brooks no opposition and who is always in an undisclosed location--he could have simply have classified the whole proceeding and made all Americans forget that it ever happened.

I guess in Bush's defense, at least he did it in the midst of his term and did not wait for a last minute pardon.

Any guesses on how long it will be before Libby--unless the President figures out a way that he can save Scooter's law license--is a commentator on Fox?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

License to make crap?

Someone has ill-advisably allowed Robin Williams to make yet another movie--this one in which he plays a minister who puts an affianced couple through hoops trying to decide whether or not he really will let them marry. It looks like he gets to be his old (and tired) crazy self. Isn't it time for him to retire to a Caribbean island, a la the older Brando?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Don't we have enough problems in the region, Joe?

Senator Lieberman is getting a lot of press in the last few days by suggesting that it might be time for us to make military strikes against Iran, not primarily because of its nuclear program or because it has detained Iranians who are also citizens of other countries (e.g., the US), claiming that they are in fact spies--this move is reminiscent of Iran's recent trials of its own clearly innocent Jewish citizens as spies for Israel--but because of their support for insurgent groups and militias in Iraq.

Now, I don't think that Iran's government is one with which we can have meaningful dialogue, but I also don't think that the wisest move in this region is to take on another (and larger and more populous) country to cap off the astounding success we have made of the Iraq invasion. If Iran is supporting militias (and they undoubtedly are), they are doing so with the blessing of at least some of the Shiite players in the government. And, recall, that we praised Iraq for electing just this government.

Moreover, attacking Iran for its role in conflicts in a third country could only be legally justified if we are requested to do so by the aggrieved party. Since we are consistently claiming not to be occupying Iraq any longer, but merely supporting its government, we would need to have such a request from the Iraqi government. It seems unlikely that this will be forthcoming.

Finally, many observers seem to think that the Iranian regime is not wildly popular with the very young population--young because of the lost generations of the Iran-Iraq War. That might just mean that Iran will ultimately fall to internal pressures. God knows if they didn't have oil revenues--not that we ought to limit our reliance on oil!--they would have fallen already; huge social spending is all that keeps the largely unemployed population content. However, an attack on their land would probably be just what the mullahs need to gain more support from the people. Even anti-Nazis cried when Dresden was fire-bombed, even opponents of the miliary dictatorship mourned the loss of naval cadets in the Falklands.

Saber rattling is fine and dandy when you don't need your saber in another battle. I'm not sure that shaking ours now isn't just what Iran wants.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Oh, Bay, what have they done to you?

Two nights ago, Bay Buchanan, sister of the much-beloved Pat, former Treasurer of the United States, high-flying convert from the conservative Catholicism of her family to Mormonism, one of the scariest-looking people on the political scene and the chair of TEAM America--not the marionette group, but an anti-immigration organization founded by Republican Presidential candidate, Rep Tom Tancredo--appeared on The Colbert Report to talk about immigration and her new book that reveals the "real Hillary Clinton, not the one that she has been portraying"--cue vast right-wing conspiracy music.
The most beautiful moment in the performance was when Bay (why would anyone want to be called "Bay" instead of "Angela Marie"?) commented on the real failings of the new immigration bill. Once these people are on a path to citizenship, she said, they will demand to be treated "fairly".
My God above, how horrible that human beings should want to be treated fairly. And, make no mistake, it was no slip of the tongue, since she made no effort to correct herself.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

On kicking students out of class

As someone who spends a portion of each weekday on a university or college campus, I've been thinking quite a bit this week about the coverage and about the incident itself: the emphasis on the shooter's ethnicity, the way, as David Brooks discussed in yesterday's New York Times, that we don't look at these sorts of incidents as moral failings, but as psychological or moral ones, the danger I am in when I teach a class, etc.
But another thing that has struck me is the rush to blame someone in the University administration for not having done something about Seung-Hui Cho's--I'm putting the family name last here since I'm not going to be considering primarily as a South Korean, but as a product of the country he grew up in--behavior earlier.
As I said, I am on college campuses most days. And, I see students, and have had students, who are of questionable mental health. I know of students of mine who have spent time during their college careers being institutionalized. I have read student papers that are dark, frightening and demonstrate an imagination, at least, that is somewhere I wouldn't want to be. But, as much as we wish that Virginia Tech would have stood in loco parentis in this case, we don't feel the same way in every case. I'm pretty sure that the same people who are now asking why Cho wasn't kicked out would be upset if their own child was kicked out because he creeped out other students and faculty--but never enough that anyone pressed charges. I'm not saying, because I don't know all the details, whether Cho really crossed a threshold so that it was already clear that he might go on a rampage. I am saying that were we to get rid of every creepy and troubled student, there wouldn't be that many left.
Whichever way the ultimate judgment comes down on Virginia Tech authorities--how well their police handled the interim period between the shootings is a different question--we should remember that hindsight is ever so much clearer than foresight.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Pelosi takes a Baath; Bush says it's dirty

Today President Bush had harsh words for Speaker Pelosi, currently visiting the Assad government in Syria. It seems that in Bush's estimation a visit from a high-ranking--though not all that powerful--representative of the US government is likely to make the Baathists in Syria believe that they are part of the main-stream of nations. I suppose it didn't do that when we rendered suspects to Syria for questioning.
Bush is right to point out that Syria is a a "state sponsor of terrorism", but in the real world we deal with Russia, another such state sponsor of terror and a recently-avowed practitioner of assassinations in foreign countries. We also deal with the Saudis, the funders of Wahhabi and Salafi mosques around the world. And, seriously, it's probably a little late to be washing our hands of Syria after we've used their intelligence services over the last five years.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Mateo says knock you out. I'm gonna knock you out.

Just time for another Mateo pic. And, just for comparison and so I can have a picture that I can use as my profile pic, here's what he looked like way back in June when we got him.

I write the lectures that make the young girls cry

I rarely have any effect, emotional or otherwise, on women. And, I'm pretty sure that apart from remembering the rare bon mot or joke, few but the most curious students are affected very deeply or lastingly by my teaching. But yesterday I was able to make one of my female students cry. I've only ever had students cry before when they were going through a personal or familial crisis or when I had caught them cheating. Yesterday, it was the philosophical enterprise itself that brought the tears.
It's springtime and while young men's fancies turn to love, older philosopher's lectures turn to the existence and nature of God. I had asked my students to think of reasons that they might give to a non-believer to convince him that God existed. Alternatively, they could think of reasons to give a believer that God did not exist. As is often the case, almost no one actually put in the intellectual work to think about these issues. So, when I asked at the beginning of class what reasons they could give, only one student volunteered anything. And what she volunteered was, "Faith and testimony".
I took that and worked with it, trying to elicit the difference between faith-based and non-faith-based beliefs. I talked about how I might believe that there is a chair in front of me because I sensed it. How others who didn't share this belief would necessarily be mistaken. How our faith-based evidence for God seems not to be like this. I was not aiming to dissuade anyone from belief. I was, instead, moving us toward a discussion of what other, mutually agreeable, reasons we might be able to give, reasons that would go beyond mere inner states of the individual.
And, the tears began. You see, the very idea of questioning our reasons for belief in God was so upsetting to my student that it caused an emotional outburst, a combination of anger and sadness and unbelief at the way I was leading us to the doorstep of blasphemy. There are some things, she told me, that you just don't question. And, she knew, she knew that God exists.
Now, I am sympathetic to religious belief. Depending on how it's set out, I might even be a believer--one thing too much philosophy does is confuse us about what belief means--but I am also a believer in the idea that we have to earn our beliefs.
My student claimed in the midst of her tears that she thought that everyone ought to believe in the Spirit, a God who was equally available to all, whether they see Him as incarnate in Jesus or having His mouthpiece as Muhammad or Baha'u'llah or Zoroaster or Mary Baker Eddy or whomever. That's a mighty fine thought. But there is dangerous and frightening disconnect between this feeling and the emotional resistance to all questioning that underlies her response to a philosophical investigation of God.
The emotional, angry, sad, incredulous response to the idea that anyone would even question God's existence is the same response that members of al-Qaeda have to those who question the Quran or Muhammad's prophet-hood or those who dare to honor the members of his family, as the Shiites do. It's the same response that leads to inter-religious conflict all over the world and always have. And, it's evidence that the beliefs that one holds so dear aren't really very strong after all. Skepticism about chairs never bothers me, because give me whatever arguments for their non-existence you want--and there are a lot of philosophical arguments out there--I will still believe that there are chairs. If believers of my student's type were equally convinced of the existence of God--if they just knew--they'd have nothing to fear from exploring those beliefs.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

A few reasons I won't be seeing 300

  1. Sparta, contrary to the image apparently being presented in 300, was not a bastion of freedom. The Spartans, like the other Greeks involved in the Persian wars were fighting for freedom from Persian domination. Only in a time like ours could we think that there is no difference between freedom from foreign domination and freedom for one’s citizens. But, even more than other Greek city-states, Sparta was a society that relied on the slave labor of a huge population of agricultural workers, the helots. Now, the helots were really more like serfs than slaves, but in the period here being depicted, the helots were pretty much without rights, so far that they could be killed with impunity during one period of the year; the youth of Sparta were actually encouraged to kill them as a show of courage and virility.
  2. Even for the Spartans themselves, there was nothing that we would think of as freedom. They might have been fighting for freedom from foreign domination, but within the city, its citizens lived a fully regimented life, directed towards one and only one thing: military prowess. Children were taken from their parents and raised in huge boarding schools in which they were trained from youth to be better soldiers. Abuse of younger students by the elders was encouraged as reinforcing discipline and hierarchy.
  3. Though the hero of 300 is fighting, apparently, for love, family and friendship were frowned upon in classical Sparta. Filial, fraternal, friendly and erotic love all took away from love for the city.
  4. Women were, arguably, better treated in Sparta than in some other Greek city-states. But this was because they had to be able and ready to defend the city during the long periods when all the Spartan men were away on military maneuvers. Because Sparta was so militaristic, unlike other Greek cities, it did not use a subset of its population as an army, all men were the army and they were at war all the time. Thus, women were valued for their manly qualities. This is at least one of the reasons—together with the educational traditions of Sparta—that a bride dressed as a soldier and not as a woman on her marital night.
  5. The trailers for 300 picture the Persians as a dark and swarthy (and motley) crew. It’s true that the Persians were a mixed empire, the first cosmopolitan society in some respects, and one in which various different ethnic groups were pretty much allowed to govern themselves and worship in their own ways. It was not for nothing that the Israelites looked upon Cyrus as a savior from their other enemies. It was good to be a part of this empire. However, one of the most common aspersions cast upon the real Persians by the ancient Greeks, for instance by Xenophon in the Anabasis, was that they were light-skinned. That’s right, the Greeks looked down on the Persians because they weren’t swarthy enough. That was because they thought that the Persians spent too much time indoors and thus were too effeminate.
  1. If we were going to look at a culture and society to admire, it would be the Persians, not the Spartans. The Persians didn’t care so much about your ethnicity or your religion or your language; the Greeks thought that only Greeks really mattered and if you didn’t speak Greek you were a barbarian—literally a person whose language sounds like bar-bar-bar-bar. For what it’s worth, even all the ancient Greeks, except for the Spartans, knew that being a Spartan wasn’t a good thing.
  2. Of all recent societies, Spartan society resembled nothing so much as the Third Reich. And, that’s not really an overstatement.
  3. If I want to watch gay porn in which everyone pretends that they aren’t really into dudes, there are other outlets.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

On plans for surges

Rep John Boehmer (R-Ohio) echoed the thoughts (or party line) of many Republican Senators and Representatives yesterday in the House debate regarding the President's plan for a surge. He repeated the chestnut that it just wasn't fair to pass a resolution against a plan that hasn't been tried. Now, I think that there might be good reasons not to pass a non-binding resolution of this sort. For instance, it shows a singular lack of the courage of the Democrats' convictions and an attempt to have it both ways. But to complain that we shouldn't reject a plan that hasn't been tried because it hasn't been tried ranks among the most confused arguments that there could be. Presumably, one cannot try out all possible plans. One must choose one in particular. In order to do this, one must reject a multitude of plans that have not been tried. In fact, trying some of them forestalls trying others of them. The only time it makes sense to reject a plan is precisely before you have tried to put it into effect. If you wait until you have executed it, it isn't a plan anymore.
It could be that Boehmer and others are just claiming that we ought to give the President and his plan the benefit of the doubt. But, of course, his plans for this war haven't exactly been sterling.
So that leaves him to fall back on that other old nut of an argument, that if we were to withdraw we would be giving al-Qaeda exactly what they want. It seems that we already did this when we invaded--we removed a secular albeit evil ruler and opened the way for sectarian violence of exactly the sort that al-Qaeda desires in the region.
Is it in their interest that we leave? Or is it in their interest that we come more and more to look like a long-term occupier of Iraq? Should every decision we take always rely on a consideration of what the many dispersed leaders of al-Qaeda may think is in their interest? I don't know. What I do know is that, in spite of the Pottery Barn rule, sometimes things you break can't be fixed, or at least not very easily.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

On legitimate authority and immorality

Haggard Pronounced ‘Completely Heterosexual'

Published: February 6, 2007

Filed at 9:59 a.m. ET

DENVER (AP) -- One of four ministers who oversaw three weeks of intensive counseling for the Rev. Ted Haggard said the disgraced minister emerged convinced that he is ''completely heterosexual.''

Haggard also said his sexual contact with men was limited to the former male prostitute who came forward with sexual allegations, the Rev. Tim Ralph of Larkspur told The Denver Post for a story in Tuesday's edition.

''He is completely heterosexual,'' Ralph said. ''That is something he discovered. It was the acting-out situations where things took place. It wasn't a constant thing.''

Ralph said the board spoke with people close to Haggard while investigating his claim that his only extramarital sexual contact happened with Mike Jones. The board found no evidence to the contrary.

''If we're going to be proved wrong, somebody else is going to come forward, and that usually happens really quickly,'' he said. ''We're into this thing over 90 days and it hasn't happened.''

Haggard resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals last year after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. He was also forced out from the 14,000 New Life Church that he founded years ago in his basement after Jones alleged Haggard paid him for sex and sometimes used methamphetamine when they were together. Haggard, who is married, has publicly admitted to ''sexual immorality.''

Haggard said in an e-mail Sunday, his first communication in three months to church members, that he and his wife, Gayle, plan to pursue master's degrees in psychology. The e-mail said the family hasn't decided where to move but that they were considering Missouri and Iowa.

Another oversight board member, the Rev. Mike Ware of Westminster, said the group recommended the move out of town and the Haggards agreed.

''This is a good place for Ted,'' Ware said. ''It's hard to heal in Colorado Springs right now. It's like an open wound. He needs to get somewhere he can get the wound healed.''

It was also the oversight board that strongly urged Haggard to go into secular work.

We are definitely lucky to live in a world where a self-selected board of experts in--well, I'm not sure what they are experts in, because among evangelicals there isn't always any real educational requirement for the ministry--who can state unequivocally that Ted Haggard is not only a heterosexual but a complete one. Now, honestly, I don't much care what Haggard does in the privacy of his or his escort's bedroom, but there's more than just forgiveness or rehabilitation going on here.

The argument of the ministerial board is that Haggard didn't have sex with anyone other than just this one escort--with whom he also used crystal meth--and, since there was only the one partner, he isn't really a homosexual.

They believe that they know there couldn't have been any others, since no one else has come forward. It does seem pretty likely, though, that Haggard would have tried to pick discreet partners. Presumably, he used an escort because he hoped for discretion. So, it is not unreasonable to assume that if he had sex with any other men, it was probably with other escorts who are more bound by their sense of professional discretion or with other men, for instance married men, who themselves might have something to lose. My first point, then, is that the experts have no evidence that Haggard wasn't much more sexually active than he claims.

Since there were not other partners, according to the experts, they can be assured that he wasn't really homosexual. I suppose that by this reasoning, monogamous married couples are not really heterosexual, since there is just the one partner. Without a pattern of behavior, we don't have enough to show that they are really heterosexual.

The strategy, of course, is to say that Haggard just committed an act of sexual immorality. In other words, there is no such thing as a homosexual--a person who is naturally or intrinsically attracted to members of the same sex--there are only homosexual acts. And, like Haggard, if we would all just become right with God, we would be rid of the immorality and the non-existent orientation that drives us to it. We aren't supposed to ask ourselves why it is that Haggard, when he strayed, hired a male escort and not a female one. I suppose it was just a throw of the dice.

God help whoever ends up receiving psychological counseling from either of the Haggards.

Friday, January 19, 2007

It may be too easy, but ....

Everyone has an opinion about American Idol or at least it is the hope of Fox and Fremantle Productions that everyone will, but at the risk of being just another among many, I'll add a bit.

After my evening class this Tuesday, I went home to eat some dinner and watch some mindless entertainment. When I got home the second night (Seattle) of American Idol was on and, as I watched, I couldn't help but agree with something I believe David Brooks wrote in the New York Times last year during the beginning of that season's search for the next pop star--Taylor Hicks, really? The fact that so many of us can enjoy the show, particularly in its opening weeks, reflects quite badly on our characters.

To laugh as someone who not only lacks talent and lies outside most people's perception of beauty and is unfortunate enough not to be aware of either of these facts about himself is insulted and called names by a "big time music producer" who himself has mostly produced what philosophers of music call crap, is really sad. Of course, we might be taking the side of the others at the judges' table who waited until he left the room to laugh at him--assuming I guess that he doesn't own a television. There is a long history of comedy getting its points by portraying the high and mighty getting their comeuppance by being shown exactly that they were neither high nor mighty to begin with or by being brought low to the level of the rest of us or below. In fact, many people conjecture that this was one of the modes of comedy that Aristotle was interested in.

But American Idol gets its points in a much lower, nastier way. We laugh at people who probably don't have a lot going for them in the first place, but who quite mistakenly believe that they have musical talent; more specifically, we laugh at them being ridiculed for having had this mistaken belief. We laugh at the low being brought lower in so many cases.

Of course, for those contestants who are most clearly of lower mental aptitude, the judges do show mercy, usually just telling them that music isn't the right career choice for them or that the competition isn't the right one for their skills. But this moment of humanity seems little more than calculated to demonstrate that the inhumanity in the rest of the program is just good fun.

There's just something about the whole performance that makes me ask myself, "What kind of person am I or would I have to be that I could enjoy this?" The answer is not a pleasant one.