Wednesday, November 26, 2008

On this day before we give thanks

While we all get ready to gather with family and friends and give thanks for all the blessings and good things in our lives tomorrow, we should all take a minute to think about the people of India and particularly Mumbai/Bombay.

Gambling for the family

On Mateo's walk today—I'm still walking him in spite of his nefarious breaking of my nose—I passed one of the many charming neighborhood businesses, the Palomar "Casino". It isn't a casino, but just a cardroom, where mostly middle-aged, mostly men spend pretty much their entire days playing poker and pai gow and watching horse-races and sporting events. Given the odds of the things, it is obvious that most of these people are losing money, money that they probably don't have. There just aren't that many people with actually disposable income coming to El Cajon Boulevard to gamble.
Parked right in front of the Palomar Casino was a rather large, red pickup truck, prominently displaying several bumper stickers claiming that California's Prop 8 against same-sex marriage was necessary to save the family. Whatever the merits of that argument, the irony of the person making it spending his day gambling in a crappy little cardroom wasn't lost on me. If you want to save the family, get the fathers of those family's out of the cardrooms and casinos, stop them from gambling and idolizing professional poker players. That's one hell of a lot more serious threat to the family than people of the same sex entering into legally binding contracts to take responsibility for one another off the state's hands.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Something quizzical

So, the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Knights of Columbus together with groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council dumped literally millions of dollars into California, most of it from outside the state—so much for any idea of states' rights and the self-determination of states—because there was a very important ballot initiative this year, one that goes to the very center of the family and deals directly with what some Catholic Bishops and other religious conservatives have called America's "culture of death".
That's right, there was a ballot initiative to require minor girls to either inform a parent or, in cases where parents are abusive, another designated relative or, in cases where there are no good family relationships, a judge before they could procure an abortion. It is hard to imagine something more central to family life than the protection—in most cases—of the rights of parents over an overzealous interpretation of the right of privacy of minor children. After all, in almost no other cases do we think that minor children have a right to privacy against their parents. Their school records are open to their parents, their medical records are open to their parents, they cannot get a flu shot without the permission of their parents, they cannot buy cough syrup, and so on. In fact, we think that parents have very strong rights over their children—to deny this is either truly radical individualism or totalitarianism, either of which is inimical to the family and to religion.
And certainly, a group like the Knights of Columbus that has fought so hard against abortion would want to do all it could to prevent these abortions by at least interposing this important bit of familial dialogue before the decision is made.
But, you see, religious conservatives who care so deeply about the family spent very little on this initiative, which failed. Instead, they poured over $30 million dollars into making sure that gays and lesbians could not enter into civil marriages in California. They bought ads that claimed that Churches would lose their tax-exempt status—granted by the Federal Government, not California—when they refused to recognize such marriages—ignoring the fact that any Church currently can deny marriage to anyone they choose. They used the images of children without their parents' permission and over their parents' objections. They spent and lied and used people because gays and lesbians are the greatest threat to the family.
So, the next time I am told by anyone involved with Yes on 8 just how much they care about babies and families, I'm going to explain just what they ought to go do to themselves. What they care about is icky gays, aborted fetuses and familial relationships be damned.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mea culpa!

So, today, Alan Greenspan realizes that the economic theory that has guided his life for forty years—and that he used to run the monetary policy of the United States—rests on incorrect assumptions. Apparently, overseeing the internet bubble didn't help him see it or prevent him from beginning the housing bubble as a way to help us out of that one. I never understood why he was highly regarded when he was in office—I suppose it was the way he nurtured the image of the incomprehensible mandarin, with his mysterious mutterings that made us all think he must really be smarter than the economists who could actually make themselves understood or perhaps his long-ago associations with Ayn Rand—but I don't think he gains any merit for figuring out now that he helped screw everything up. 
He's done us no good; it's time for him to shut up.

Keep your money for your campaigns

Quite rightly, American political law forbids foreign nationals from donating money to candidates or campaigns. So, for instance, my partner, who is a permanent resident of the United States but a citizen of Argentina, cannot donate money to McCain or Obama or for Proposition 7 here in Californian or against Proposition 8 or in favor of either of the two very annoying people running for our City Council seat—seriously, guys, if I keep getting mailings from you, I will write in someone else.
The idea, of course, is that those who are not citizens should not have a say, either through their votes or through giving funds to help people or campaigns gain others' votes, in our political campaigns. All for the best, I say! 
For, while there might seem to be something mildly unfair about being governed by those you did not get to pick, that is the difference between citizenship and non-citizenship, or anyway one of the differences.
But, by parity of reasoning, it seems that people from outside California—i.e., non-citizens of the State—should be barred from donating to campaigns within the State. There is something distasteful and disingenuous about the massive amounts of money pouring into California to support Proposition 8—a referendum to change the State's Constitution to bar same-sex marriage, since the (mostly conservative) State Supreme Court has ruled that there is no basis in the Constitution for making a distinction between heterosexual and homosexual marriage. By what right should residents of New Jersey or Minnesota or Utah (the campaign is largely bankrolled by the Latter Day Saints and there aren't that many Mormons in California) have a say in campaigns that affect Californians? We don't let them cast ballots here, why should we allow them to spend money to influence the vote here? (And, I'm willing to be fully principled: I don't think any out-of-State money should be allowed in our campaigns, whichever side it's on.)

Saturday, October 04, 2008

On causality

One of our Vice Presidential candidates believes that, without worrying about what causes global warming—after all, that is living in the past and everyone knows that the past is utterly irrelevant to the present or, heavens, what we really care about: the future—we can come up with a solution for it. Many other people might have thought that to stem the effect one would need to eliminate or alter the cause. Could her lack of basic causal reasoning abilities help explain why she also doesn't believe in evolution or seem to have a grasp of scientific method? What else might she be unable to fathom?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The first non-Christian President-to-be?

According to a recent profile piece on Cindy McCain in The New Yorker—yeah, I read it; I'm elite that way; I read The New York Review of Books, too—while they attend her family's church in Phoenix, Senator McCain has not himself ever been baptized. According to the New Testament view and the traditional view of all Christian traditions, one becomes a Christian by baptism. This would mean that, if elected, McCain would be the first non-Christian—unless you exclude Unitarians—President of the United States. And you thought he was beholden to the Christian right.

One of my favorite signs

A few blocks from my house there is a condo development populated by retirees. Like many newer developments, the ground floor is set aside for commercial use. And, like almost every other such building in San Diego, the only businesses occupying any of the space are a Starbucks—one on the chopping block—and an H&R Block—open for four months every year. So, the majority of the ground floor is empty. Because empty buildings with some protection from the elements attract sleepy homeless people, the owners or managers of the building have posted the above sign. Enjoy the absolute refusal to accept any of the spelling suggestions that the word processing program certainly must have offered.
As a bonus, you almost get to see me as I walk Mateo.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

On saving babies

I believe that abortion is seriously morally evil. And, I think that most people, most Americans for certain, believe that it is a morally questionable practice, though many often adopt something like a knee-jerk relativist “it’s wrong for me, but who am I to say?” reaction when the issue is raised. I know from my experience with students that this is more or less the way they react—in my experience with students in ethics classes, this is the more or less standard reaction from male students, while female students are more likely to think that there is a serious moral problem with it. And, as I have said before on this blog, I think that it is a shame that the Democratic Party has become so deeply wedded to the pro-choice side in the abortion debate.
However, with Thomas Aquinas, I do not think that legislating what is morally best is always what actually gives us the morally best outcome. If Roe were overturned tomorrow—and, no matter what side of the issue you are on, Roe is one of the most horribly argued decisions imaginable; the sections on the philosophical and religious tradition are just horrible—I know that there are many states, because of laws already on the books, that would immediately outlaw abortion, but I also know that many states, like California and New York, would make no such move. Or, I think that it is unlikely that they would do so. Recall that many states had very liberal abortion laws before the decision. My problem with pro-life politicians is that they package their opposition to abortion together with other policies that remove options for poor women who might end up single mothers. (To be fair, this is not the case with all pro-life activists, but it is with almost all pro-life politicians.)
At the same time that we hear that we need more conservative Justices so that Roe will be overturned, we hear that we need fewer social welfare programs, that we need to push people off of assistance and into work, that we need laws that are more favorable to business and less regulation, that we ought to tax health benefits, that pro-union laws ought to be repealed, that we ought to have vouchers that allow those who can to choose schools other than the poor inner-city schools that so badly serve the underclass, while ignoring the effects that these policies have real effects on the poor and, in particular, on those who might feel that they have no option other than to abort. At the same time, they advocate further cuts in any sex ed class that would actually discuss ways to prevent pregnancy in favor of abstinence—certainly a noble idea but not realistic in such a sexualized society given the failings of human nature. And, these same conservative Justices who are most likely to vote to overturn Roe tend to embrace a legal philosophy in which the government has no role in protecting individuals from business practices, in which the government more or less has nothing more than a very minimal role.
The right response seems to me to be that which was advocated by Hillary Clinton a few years ago—and for which she took a beating from the pro-choice activists—namely, that we ought to make abortion as rare as possible. That is, we ought to work on building a society in which no one feels pressure to abort, where raising the child, even on one’s own, seems like a viable option, where we praise those who work hard to raise their children rather than sneering at “welfare queens” or “unwed mothers” and where contraception is available—for even if one thinks that contraception is a moral evil, it is one of a very different order than abortion. This, I believe is the best way to reduce the number of abortions, better by far than to overturn Roe.
That is why, though it always pains me to do so, I will probably continue to vote Democratic, in spite of my opposition to abortion.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

More politics

I just finished listening to McCain's acceptance of the GOP nomination and I must say that I always find his war heroism inspiring. In fact, I find his call for the need to subsume one's interests to a greater cause very compelling—though I am not sure that the nation is the right level—but I am at an utter loss as to the way in which the modern GOP (not the party of Lincoln or TR or even the Rockefellers) has ever asked any of its members to do anything more than look out for themselves. I can sometimes find McCain a compelling figure, but not in the version in which he has now had to rebrand himself.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

I'm sorry but...

...if Governor Palin gets to use her family and family experience as a qualification for the Vice Presidency, her family's flaws become fair game for criticism in the campaign. One cannot fairly have it both ways.

Monday, September 01, 2008

A point of rhetoric

In the recent discussions of Sarah Palin's youngest child and now of the pregnancy of her teenage daughter there have been numerous iterations of the "courage" of Palin in "choosing to have her child though he has Downs Syndrome—we will leave aside the deep insult that this is to people with Downs, many of whom I have counted as friends—and know of the "pride" that her family has in their daughter for "deciding" to keep the child. While this rhetoric may serve Palin and McCain well, it is utterly confused. Palin believes—or claims to—that abortion is immoral, it is the taking of an innocent life. We call the taking of an innocent life murder
So, if Palin really believes what she claims to, her rhetoric and that of her supporters makes no sense. We don't speak of the courage of someone who doesn't commit murder when it might be more convenient so to do. We don't speak of pride in the non-murderer when they decide not to murder. It may be that she and her daughter are praiseworthy for doing what is morally required, some might say, in a society where many do not, but only exactly in the same way as one is when they refrain from any other immorality. It is not as if she has done the supererogatory.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Why I am a bad liberal (and gay man)

It seems to me that Governor Palin is on the wrong side of almost every issue, not just those affecting women, but those that are of the utmost importance for America. I think it is ridiculous that she believes that creationism should be taught in science classes—perhaps in some sort of humanities class, sure—and I think her place on any ticket is nothing short of calculating pandering and, ultimately, dangerous to the Republic, should she succeed to the Presidency
However, abortion is the one issue that I don't see her as being on the wrong side of. I've never seen how (except, perhaps in cases of rape and where the mother's life is in danger), abortion is a woman's issue and I wish that the Democratic party and liberals in general could at the very least remove it from being the central issue discussed anytime women are mentioned. Or, they might actually have a rational discussion about it, but I fear that this is unlikely to happen. 
Of course, someone might see my thoughts here as just a holdover from Catholicism. But that itself is a further trivialization of what is an important moral issue. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

I don't quite understand

Why is it that a particular flavor of evangelical Christian marks his car with logos and words signifying "not of this world"? I get that Jesus said to store up one's treasures in heaven and not in this world, but then it seems like marking your Lexus with a sticker saying that you are not of this world might actually show that you are of this world.
There needs to be a word for the use or utterance of a phrase that demonstrates the falsity of the phrase, sort of like "performative" means a phrase like "I hereby pronounce you man and wife" the utterance of which makes them man and wife. 

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Mysticism on the cheap

St Teresa was transfixed by the love of Jesus and flew into ecstasy. The Buddha sat under a tree and saw the truth of all life. I was walking Mateo tonight and became convinced of the truth of Lewis-style possible worlds semantics. Mystic experience just isn't what it used to be. But I guess I have to take what I can get.

Friday, August 22, 2008

More things I love for no really good reason

I just have to love it when a bicycling woman passing Mateo and me on our walk, looks at him and says, "Oh my God, it's a horse!"

An argument, merely for consideration

1. Traditional marriage is defined not just as the union of a man and a woman, but rather as the union of a man and a woman with different roles for the purpose of the formation of a family, i.e., for the purpose of procreation and/or the raising of children. Those who claim that the traditional definition does not include this notion of child-rearing either do not know their tradition or are being disingenuous.
2. The civil notion of marriage contains no requirement or expectation that children will be raised within the union. Though it may have at one time, it no longer does. This is evident from the fact that civil marriage licenses are issued to the naturally and artificially sterile and those beyond child-bearing age and from the fact that not even consummation of the union is required for a marriage to be considered legally valid at this point in time.
3. There is no expectation in the civil notion of marriage, unlike the traditional notion, that the husband and wife have necessarily different roles. Rather, civil marriage is looked at as a contract between two equal partners. Witness the notion of community property and the gradual erosion of notions such as alimony.
4. Moreover, many religious groups which defend fail to consider many civil marriages as true marriages. For example, Roman Catholics do not recognize the marriages of divorcés as true marriages.
5. Thus traditional marriage is not the same thing as civil marriage. In fact, "marriage" is not univocal.
6. In conclusion, the granting of civil marriage licenses to same sex couples cannot harm traditional marriage directly nor change the definition of "traditional marriage" since they are two very different things.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Things I don't understand

There is a laser-eye-surgery outfit here in San Diego—I am sure that it just part of a chain—that is currently running a two-for-one special. That's right: two eyes for the price of one. This I do not understand. If there's one place that I don't want crazy cut-rate prices and half-price specials and coupons, it is when someone is pointing a laser at my eyes and probably royally ruining my sight. It is not like I will be needing those eyes later.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Things I love for no apparent reason

I love that the man at the meat counter at the Iraqi/Mexican market around the corner calls me "big man" when I am standing there ordering.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Et in Arcadia Ego

Partly because there is a new film version—I probably won't see it because it is reported to be sympathetic to the minor character Hooper and to emphasize the relationship between Charles and Julia at the expense of that between Charles and Sebastian and to give short shrift to the religio-tragic element, arguably the entire theme of the book—I have begun re-reading one of my favorite novels, Brideshead Revisited.
Having just disembarked with Charles at Brideshead and read the lines, "'Yes, Hooper, I did. I've been here before.'/The words seemed to ring back to me enriched from the vaults of my dungeon.", I felt that frisson of feeling that I get when I meet again an old friend or an old flame and I remembered why reading and re-reading is such a great joy. Et in Arcadia ego.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

So is it a sovereign nation or a client state?

Senator Obama, in his visit to Iraq, outlined a withdrawal plan that would see American troops out of Iraq in sixteen or so months. Leaving aside whether that speedy a withdrawal is even logistically possible—others have said that it would take at least two years to get everyone and all the equipment out of Iraq—this was praised by the Prime Minister of Iraq as a reasonable and desirable timetable.
Senator McCain and his substitutes have claimed that doing this would amount to defeat and that Obama is willing to sacrifice victory in order to win a political campaign.
Whether such a withdrawal would amount to victory or defeat, it may be time to ask ourselves whether America really believes itself when it claims that Iraq is now a self-governing, sovereign nation. Because, if it is a sovereign nation that we are merely—at this point—helping to stabilize, then we must respect the wishes of its leaders. And if its leaders, such as the Prime Minister of Iraq, say to leave, we must leave. If, on the other hand, we are going to stay until we think the job is done, the government of Iraq be damned, then we really have just created a client state and we ought to admit that.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Random, unoriginal thoughts I

I am morally responsible for my actions, if I am morally responsible for anything.
Given the numerous causal chains in which every event and action is involved, there are uncountably many consequences of any of my actions, most of which are unforeseen and unforeseeable by me.
That is, the majority of the consequences of my actions are unforeseen and unforeseeable.
Even those consequences of my actions which are foreseen or foreseeable are uncertain and reliant on innumerable other events and actions of others.  
I can only be morally responsible for those things that are within my control.
That which is unforeseen and unforeseeable is beyond my control.
I cannot be morally responsible for the (majority of the) consequences of my actions.
If I am morally responsible for anything, it is an aspect of my actions independent of their actual consequences.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Greasy bags of goodness

Like almost every holiday, Independence Day wraps me in a fog of nostalgia. There are some pretty wonderful memories of Fourths of July past and a few bad ones, but they are sufficiently commingled now so that I am left with a vaguely pleasant and wistful image and feeling of the sprinklers and snakes and flaming fountains of my youth, all enjoyed on the sidewalk in front of the two houses I grew up in, with my mom and neighbors watching, followed always by a trip to Kriegbaum Field.
Kriegbaum Field was the local high school's football stadium and track. It had once been a part of the Kriegbaum family's farmland, given to the county, if I recall correctly, in order for the school to have a decent field. It was the only vast open space without trees in the city, so it was where, every year, the VFW put on its patriotic extravaganza, complete with citizenship awards—there's a bad memory tied in with those—and, finally, the fireworks. For a relatively small town, Huntington put on quite a firework display, even if it was always much too long and it was administered by local volunteers. I think it was partly the volunteer aspect that made it go on and on. With older local men lighting each rocket by hand—no computerized or electronic systems for us—it took a while to get them all going. 
The other reason it was such a long affair was a desire to get all the bang possible out of our buck. After one bit of display, it was felt, it just wouldn't be right to light the next until all the excitement had died down. So, having waiting for the concert and the speeches and the presentations to end, a good hour or more of anticipation of the sunset, the veterans and the people in the stands whose donations had made the show possible would be damned if each explosion, each fiery starburst didn't get its full complement of "ooh"s and "ah"s before the next earned its accolades. Anyway, that's the way it seems to me now, but as a child, sitting almost exactly where I would again be seated for the high school football games come fall, it was a long, long night.
But there was one thing that always made that long night special. Before we would go, my mom and I would pop pot after pot of popcorn. Indiana is popcorn country and you grow up eating a lot of it, not out of a microwave, but popped in oil or butter on the stovetop in a regular old pot. We would pop pot after pot of it and pour it into a grocery bag, until it was about full, the bag slowly going from kraft paper brown to the color of oil cloth. When it was full, you knew that the celebration was about to begin. So, for me, there is something about Independence Day that makes me want to pop up some corn, fill up a grocery bag, grab my mom's hand and walk over to the field, through all the cars parked everywhere, and settle in for some fire in the sky.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


If Senator McCain and his auxiliaries are going to tout his experience in the military and as a prisoner of war as part of his qualification for the office of the President, then it is fair for General Clark and other Obama supporters to point out that such experience, no matter how much it may point to certain very real strengths of character, is not in fact a qualification for much of anything other than military (and personal) honor. There is no doubt that McCain showed amazing strength in his imprisonment in truly horrible circumstances, but that isn't all that is called for in a President. Certainly, if he were to be elected President in the parallel world in which 24 occurs—a world in which the ticking time-bomb scenario is our everyday reality and torture really works and where the US didn't develop interrogation techniques from methods the Chinese used to gather false confessions for show trials—if he were in that world, then it would matter immensely how our Presidents could stand up to torture and imprisonment. Fortunately, we do not live in that world. So, what is more relevant are his and any candidate's political credentials. McCain was a hero, but now we ought to care about what kind of leader he would be. So, Vietnam really doesn't matter all that much.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Project for the next week

Things to do in the coming week:

1) Buy a handsfree cellphone adapter, since the law in California requires me to use one if I wish to drive while on my phone, in spite of the fact that there is no difference in accident-risk no matter how you are talking on your cellphone.

2) Buy a gun, since my man Antonin has my back and won't let anyone take away my AK.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Two questions regarding religion (and another)

1. Why do so many otherwise rational people, generally people who reject "traditional" religion because they just cannot bring themselves to believe such ridiculous claims or because they think it's all a control mechanism or they reject authoritarian structures, quickly buy into mass-marketed, slick re-presentations of Eastern thought, divorced of course from the ethical and historical content of that thought? Why is there a market—and, have no doubt, it's about the market—for The Secret and A New Earth, the first a repackaging of New Thought and the second an evisceration of Buddhism and Hinduism (and all their associated texts)? Why does anyone trust a German with a bad beardzlike Eckhart Tolle who changed his name to that of a late-medieval Christian mystic (Meister Eckhart) to bring them enlightenment? Is it because of his slick marketing, or his endorsement by Oprah? She's a not a good guide of literature; why would she be a good guide to things metaphysical?
If you want to read a lot of Eastern texts, I think you should. But you should read the real things and realize that people who have thought about spiritual matters for millennia—and weren't just in it for the money—whether Eastern or Western, didn't think it turned out that you necessarily end up wealthy and healthy and happy, even if you saw the truth or were a very good person. Remember, the Buddha's "reward" was to cease existing. And he achieved that by ceasing to care about anything in the world that he said was made up wholly of suffering. Religion and spirituality were not about making ourselves masters of the universe; that's called magic.
2. Why do so many contemporary evangelical Christians in their megachurches think that Jesus promised them wealth and happiness? Did they miss where he told them they would suffer for him and that their reward was only in heaven? Why do they, too, believe that if they only speak a "word of power" God will be required to make them happy? That, too is magic. Why do they apparently think that the Bible is really an endorsement of capitalism and consumption?
3. And why do these two phenomena come together in society as this time?
Rant mode:off

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Of fantasies and missionaries

For many gay men, there is a typical fantasy associated with young Mormon men on their mission. Driving back from the grocery store today with soup for the recently wisdom toothless, I saw the new "elders" for our neighborhood—the last pair were rude when I said "hello" to them while walking Mateo, the bastards—and they are fodder for no one's fantasy.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

How I know I live in a city, an American city

There's no doubt I live in a modern American city when I have to pass through a cart sale being held by the homeless on my block to "exercise" the dog in the morning. 
It took me a while to figure out that it wasn't a normal garage or yard or alley sale, because in Southern California—or at least in my neighborhood—people have such sales by spreading a tarp on the sidewalk or yard, the driveway or the hedges and then cover the tarp with their wares. It was only when I realized that the goods were being taken out of a sharping cart to be placed on the hedge that I figured out that this was a new phenomenon for me and not the standard collection of old baby clothes and VHS tapes that I couldn't play even if I wanted to. 
I thought about stopping by to see if there was anything that I had put out that was not for sale. After all, since there is a pretty sizable homeless population around here (the result of the gentrification of downtown and the police effort to move them away from where tourist and ballgame-goers might see them), when we have clothes that are beyond donation we put them by the trash, so our trash-pickers can take what they might want. So, I might just have found my winter coat, but then Mateo gets a little nervous around some homeless people—they can be hard for him to predict—so I thought better of it. 

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Amicorum communia omnia

There is a tendency, both by social conservatives and progressives in the United States, in any case—though no less a European than the current incumbent of the See of Peter is guilty of it—to view all of human history as if it were the history of the English-speaking world, and to limit the scope of even this history to roughly the late Victorian period through perhaps the late nineteen-fifties. Few places is this more obvious than in debates over marriage, presumably because it allows us to have a particularly idyllic view of that august institution.
Both those opposed to same-sex marriage and those in favor of it are fond of speaking of marriage as the eternal basis of (all parts of) society. For social conservatives, this claim often has the form of arguing that there have historically been no arrangements in society through which people have allied themselves other than "traditional" marriage. It must be noted that "traditional" marriage is usually meant to be something like the legal construction of marriage in Anglo-American (Protestant-inflected) law and not any of the other traditional models of marriage. (This is much like forgetting that the popular "Wedding March" comes from a scene in Wagner's work that represents rape more than marriage.) Thus, to alter this arrangement can only be detrimental to society as a whole. In addition, it is pointed out that we have made changes in recent years—no fault divorce, community property, etc.—and society has not generally benefited. It is rarely noted either that the relative equality of rights within marriage, the possibility of marrying across class and racial lines, et alia, are recent developments of the institution of that it was good, in these cases at least, to tinker with the institution. Nor is it noted that there is no longer tradition than common law marriage, having roots in the long-standing practice of concubinage in the West and recognized in such practices as the Catholic view that it is the partners to a marriage who make the marriage real, something that the Church can only witness.
For progressives, the claim often has the form of saying that since this is such a basic institution within society it must be manifestly unjust to exclude same-sex couples. But what is often missing from their consideration are the ways in which marriage has traditionally represented an unequal partnership between two already unequal members of society. Or, and I hate to take a page from the conservatives here, the ways in which marriage assumes a complementarity of partners, and not just a complementarity of personality but a complementarity of natures. Or, to put it another way, marriage is traditionally conceptualized as a relationship of difference.
So, you might ask, what am I a getting at here? Well, there used to be members of the gay and lesbian community who imagined different sorts of relationships for themselves. I don't just mean people who imagined sexually open relationships, I don't just mean people who imagined a radical reorganization of all society starting with the family. But I do mean all sorts of people who thought they could form relationships based on responsibilities and obligations and, yes, rights that did not thereby have to be marriage.
And, throughout history, there have been many different sorts of arrangements than just marriage. History is not just the story of husbands, wives and children and those defined by the absence of marriage: spinsters, bachelors, widows, widowers, divorcés and divorcées. There were also people whose lives were not defined in relation to marriage at all: monks and nuns, beguines and beghards, crusaders, hospitallers and nursing sisters, educators like the Brothers of the Common Life and Oxford and Cambridge fellows and many others.
I've picked on a lot of religious groups here both as a reflection of my own educational biases and because they ought to appeal to at least some conservatives. I realize that these were not groups whose lives were defined by sex but, then again, neither are the lives of those in same-sex relationships. No relationship that lasts, that matters, that forms its own society, that feeds into society, is based only on sex. What all of the groups I have mentioned have in common—and have in common with the relationships with which I am here concerned—is a shared view of life, a common purpose, shared goals, an interest in the good for one another, a desire to form a bond in which this view and purpose are furthered in new and interesting and mutually beneficial ways, in ways that themselves build up society. These were relationships built on mutual responsibility and 
You know, there is a figure way back in Western history, Aristotle, who thought that friendship was the basis of society. He didn't think marriage was a particularly good example of friendship either; the conflation of marriage with friendship is quite recent. Perhaps we could all benefit from considering just what sorts of friendship are worthy of society's protection, approbation and sanction. A little history and imagination couldn't hurt.

Friday, May 16, 2008

On forms of the common life

The state's Supreme Court has ruled that California's ban on same-sex marriage is contrary to the state's constitution. What this means is that in about thirty days, city halls within California will begin to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. 
It also means, predictably, that conservatives of all stripes will be more motivated than normal to vote for the referendum already on the November ballot to amend the state's constitution. I'm not sure about the most recent referendum, but some of the most recent attempts have also sought to overturn California's current system of domestic partnership. 
In California, domestic partnership is an almost marriage. It gives you most of the legal and (state-based) tax rights and responsibilities, without calling it marriage. Because I am a pessimist most of the time, I fear that we will end up not just without marriage but also without domestic partnership, an arrangement that was also to the benefit of older couples who may not have wanted to lose federal benefits by remarrying. 
I am perfectly happy as a domestic partner; I think it perfectly well describes and fits the relationship I am in (and have been for the last 11.5 years), one in which no one is a husband or a wife, where two people are united in a home and a life and a life project, where two people have made a common life, but which is not much like a traditional marriage, and I think that I will probably end up losing that relationship either through referenda or through being made to marry.
I just heard on the radio that San Diego's gay and lesbian community was celebrating the decision. Some of us are not as sanguine.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

More about teaching

So, it's the end of the semester and this means that I am thinking way too much about my classes and wishing, no matter how much I may like some of my students, that the semester would finally end. So this will be another post about class and, alas, about God.
Thus, I will delay for at least a post any discussion of the California State Supreme Court's ruling regarding gay marriage. I think I am supposed to have a public opinion as a gay intellectual (?). My dream, of course, is to be a public intellectual, but there aren't enough openings right now.
Today, in one of my classes, we were doing a bit of review. And the topic turned to God and the difference between revealed and natural religion. I was explaining the distinction and how it is possible to get from natural arguments for God's existence—assuming they work—to a position of choosing which purported revelation might be best as a student interrupted to ask me whether I personally believe in God. I noted that this was irrelevant—in any case, as I was telling my friend and colleague Kevin (I hope I can call him a friend and I'm at least an adjunct colleague) yesterday, my views on God and what "belief" means when applied to the supernatural are a little much to explain to an introductory student, i.e., more than anyone would want to know—and that we were talking about other people's arguments and not my views.
He interrupted me again, to point out that I ought to believe in God, that he was the Son of God and that he was here to love us all. I herded him out; he was dressed all in white flowing robes and I was scared witless. There are great days in the college classroom and then there are days where I wonder if I shouldn't be armed. They killed Socrates, after all.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

On the other hand

Since I was just complaining, I also got a number of real—not just last-minute grade grubbing—thanks and handshakes and even one thank you card and a nice little gift from my introduction class that had its final today. That is always a gratifying experience: to be reminded at the end of a semester when you are sure that they must long for your absence, that you may have actually connected with a student or two. I even inspired a few to minor or major in the love of wisdom. So, teaching has its moments, too.

End of the semester frustration

While giving an exam today, I powered through the grading of just over twenty short papers on the existence or non-existence of God. I was in a zone and I want the semester to be over. It was the second set of papers about the same topic I had read this semester, and I was reminded of two things: 1) it is unwise of me to teach two versions of more-or-less the same class with totally different structures—granted they are taught at different institutions, but...; and, 2) I ought not to assign God as a paper topic, as it always depresses me.
The one that hit me the hardest today, was the one that informed me that the author's life was eternally happy because of her belief in God and that I, too, could be happy if I were to believe in God. So, I learned from this that my student believes that theism is a guarantee of happiness—apparently not all Bibles still contain Job and not all Christians were raised in the same tradition of 2000 of thinking over problems like suffering as I was—that she believes that the self-deprecating manner I affect in class is truly a reflection of a deep and abiding unhappiness and she assumes that she knows that I am an atheist or at least an agnostic. I take it that they teach youngsters in certain types of churches to evangelize all people at all time, but I wasn't in need of it—and it won't make me happier.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

A refreshing moment

I've mentioned before that teaching philosophy can seem pretty thankless. I am always surprised—and I was reminded this week that I mention this surprise every semester, so my memory isn't too good either, I guess—that students actually enjoy my classes and request to take more classes with me. I am surprised because looking into the sea (or pond) of faces present in a typical class on a typical day I see mostly looks of confusion, boredom, frustration and a little bit of anger
In part, I can understand this. Philosophy and issues like what makes me the same person today as the person who was born in Austin in 1973 matter a lot to me; they are important and I think that they can be deeply mysterious. But, these aren't issues that matter as much to my students, and listening to someone go on about things he cares about can be pretty painful if you don't also care about them. So, I understand. I understand, but to understand is not, in fact, to excuse. 
But, twice this week, students held me after class, not to worry about their grades or what particular issues were most likely to appear on the final. No, they held me after to talk about philosophical issues and the way that they actually impact their lives. In one case, it was issues about the existence of God and our access or lack of access to theological truths. In the other, it was Meno's paradox and how we can learn anything and what it means to communicate how to be a good person to one's children.
To get to be that professor—lecturer, technically—who is standing around talking to students about important issues that relate to class is such a nice feeling. It makes me feel like what I do matters and matters to the very heart of my students' lives. And it makes me about as happy as I can be.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

On the sanctity of memory

Yesterday, as I often do in class, I used a tragicomic episode from my past to illustrate a point. We were talking about the Lockean view that continuity of memory is what guarantees identity of person. In other words, to use the example, what makes me the same person as Tyler Hower in 1980, is that I have within my consciousness a memory of striking out at tee ball in a field at the PAL club in Huntington, Indiana, in the hot August sun. I talked about additions that need to be made to the account to guarantee that false memories don't count and to allow that I can still be the same person if I lose certain parts of my memory—something, I informed my 18-20 year-old students, would become more important to them as they became older. 
Because San Diego was also riveted yesterday by the killing of an early morning swimmer by a great white shark, I also mentioned my ignominious failure at Notre Dame's swimming test and the resulting shame and required swimming class, when a sad, homesick college freshman. On top of my other examples throughout the semester, this led a student to ask if I have any happy memories at all. Given our topic of the relationship between memory and personal identity, this was a particularly apt question; and, it made me think about why I don't talk in class about happy memories.
There are, it seems, two reasons. Unhappy memories, because of the general appeal of Schadenfreude, are just more entertaining. The students remember them, they get their attention, they make them perk up. No one wants to hear about the sepia-toned memories of my youth. But, there is a more important reason. There have been a lot of happy memories in my life, even if I don't always dwell upon them—I am a pessimist or fatalist by nature—but they have a value to me that the others don't. When I tell some funny anecdote about my childhood or college or last week, I don't feel that I have torn down a wall and let anyone see into my real self, but the happy memories, those are sacred, those are few enough that I hold them dear. Those memories would be as inappropriate to talk about to a class or a stranger on a plane (or train) as it would be invite the class to continue our discussion at my home. The unhappy memories are public, the happy ones are mine.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Everything is okay in Zimbabwe

Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa, has assured the world that the fact that Robert Mugabe, long-time President of Zimbabwe, the guiding hand behind its policies of giving productive land to whomever most supports the ruling party and architect of its truly amazing Weimar-esque inflation, has sent the police and military into the streets to make sure that the election he (probably) just lost will end up going his way in a runoff after all, is not evidence of a crisis or a continuing dictatorship. This is certainly the best news Mbeki has given the world since informing us all that HIV doesn't cause AIDS.
Guess it's times for an orgy in Harare.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Respect and criticism

Reading another blog this week, I was reminded of a form of argument ubiquitous in contemporary America. I hear it on television, from students, from friends, read it in the newspaper, see it all over the place.
It goes something like this: I chose to do X. You ought to respect my choices. Therefore, you cannot criticize me for X. For instance, I chose to get facial tattoos. You ought to respect my choices. So, I am immune from criticism.
Strangely, this is an argument that appeals to many people. It seems so appealing and compelling, in fact, that it often stops further discussion. Of course, it should be obvious that this argument can't work. For instance, I chose to murder the old woman (says Raskolnikov). You ought to respect my choices. So, don't criticize me.
But the problem with the argument points to something important. Part of respecting a choice, it seems to me, is holding one responsible for the choice and its effects. If I respect you for your choice to hole up in a cave with your three spouses and wait for the apocalypse, then I will hold you responsible for that decision and I am free to criticize your choice. Part of it being your decision, rather than just something that happened to you, is that it is yours, and you have to answer for it and to it. If I treat you as if you are not responsible, then I am failing to respect you. And only when you aren't responsible are you immune from criticism.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Halfway to death

Yesterday was my birthday, or as I have been saying, my "half-death day". I figure that I have about 70 years in me and it was my 35th birthday, after all.
I spent it the way everyone should, helping students draw Venn diagrams, convincing thirty-some philosophy students that the problem of evil is almost intractable for a theist—and so making them think that I am almost surely an atheist—confusing one of my office neighbors who later saw me walking out of the chapel near my office—"Well you are full of surprises,"he said—shopping for jeans, increasing the size of my guns, taking the dog to Fiesta Island for a run through the short-lived greenery and going out to a really nice dinner with mi media naranja. All the while, thinking my life is really pretty good, interspersed with remembrances of that old song, "Is that all there is?"

The Straight Talk Bull

So the highly principled GOP candidate, who stood up to the President, argued against torture—because of his own experience in the Hanoi Hilton—ridiculed Bob Jones University and the lunatic fringe of the Religious Right in his own party and told the American people that he is his own man has decided that, after all, the CIA shouldn't be restricted from torturing people suspected of having knowledge of terrorism, has accepted the endorsement of John Hagee, a man who blames all of my co-religionists for the Holocaust, calls Hitler a good Catholic and identifies Rome with the Whore of Babylon—in fairness, McCain offers the caveat that he doesn't necessarily endorse Hagee and wants to distance himself from Hagee's opinion if anyone finds them anti-Catholic—but why would anyone find them anti-Catholic, John—and basically offered every part of Bush's base exactly what it wants while gladly associating himself with all the glories of the Bush Presidency. He sure is his own man, if what you mean by being your own man is that you only care about yourself. He's starting to make Romney look consistent.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The value of the impersonal

Moving my car into the garage, I overheard a delighted Miami Cuban-American celebrating the retirement of Fidel Castro from his positions as Commander in Chief, Head of the Council of State (i..e, President) and Head of the Council of Ministers (i.e., Prime Minister).
Explaining his joy, he opined, "When you have a dictator who has ruled for 49 years, who has done more damage than Hitler, than Mussolini, than Stalin...."
This is like those who compare Bush to Hitler. Goodness and badness (or evilness) are graded values. Even if Castro was or is bad, there may have been a worse person or two.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Blame the dead German

On a number of blogs, particularly those of an entrenched Christian flavor (see, for instance, Faith and Theolobloggy, written by a philosopher who ought to know better), one can learn the contents of Northern Illinois murderer Steven Kazmierczak's package to his former paramour. He sent her money, a cell phone she had wanted, a holster and bullets, a textbook on serial murderers and—wait for it—a copy of Nietzsche's The Antichrist.
Clearly, the argument goes, it is the influence of Nietzsche, a notorious atheist and the original author of "God is dead!" that led to the killing spree. After all, Nietzsche denied that the traditional Judaeo-Christian dichotomy of good and evil was meaningful, looked down on Christian virtues such as pity—among other things, he was suspicious of any emotion that might gather joy out of the suffering of another—and instead celebrated power and the Graeco-Roman conceptions of virtue, as characterized as what a noble man would do. And, moreover, they claim, it is his atheism and the fact that the philosophers who teach this drivel to students are themselves anti-religious, atheistic and, in particular, anti-Christian. Thus, as I told my introductory students today, apparently philosophy has killed again.
A lot could be said about how wrong you have to get Nietzsche to think that his conception of the Übermensch would be a fellow to walk into a classroom and open fire—Nietzsche's views are unpleasant and he has a nasty word to say about almost every group and every individual he has ever met, but serial killing and mass-murder suicides wouldn't really have been on the books for him; his hero was Napoleon and the Renaissance princes, not the purveyors of random killings.
And a lot could be said about the fallacy of false cause in this very argument. For instance, why isn't the textbook about serial killers more relevant to his psychology at the time of the killings? Why is the mere fact that he had a relatively innocuous book and sent it to his girlfriend evidence that there is a causal relation between that and his having opened fire?
And we could talk about how none of the students I have made read selections from The Genealogy of Morals have ever gone on a rampage. Or why people are able to read Genesis and Deuteronomy and Kings and the rest of the historical books of the Bible, in which men are often praised or barely chided for actions that are pretty morally horrendous without taking away from it wholly amoral lessons.
But I am more interested in the implication that philosophers are the real demons here. As I discussed with the much more intelligent and well-spoken fellow across the foyer from me in my office, there are two big things that you might think of philosophy doing. They are not wholly unrelated.
Philosophy can be a handmaiden to other disciplines and projects. Thus, philosophy can serve theology, or it can help us to understand the rational underpinnings of the state as it does in political philosophy, or of the law as in legal philosophy, et cetera.
Alternatively, philosophy can be seen as a critical or even skeptical concern, stripping away the beliefs we have until we get to bedrock, upon which we can stand with rational self-respect, and from which we can do the building that I spoke of above. Indeed, before philosophy can be a handmaiden, it must strip off the accretion of unjustified beliefs; to do this it has to shake a student up and challenge her. So, introductory and general philosophy classes have to be critical.
From a practical and pedagogical standpoint, you have to face students where they are. It just so happens—contrary to the picture painted by the cultural warriors—that most students are pretty complacent and convinced (if only because they have never thought about any of their positions) theists. And most of them in the United States are Christian.
When I face a class, I can—and do, for what it's worth—provide them with the tools to criticize atheism and agnosticism. But this is not challenging them, nor does it teach them that they have to earn their own beliefs and learn to enter into the space of reasons for themselves. After all, telling them that others have unjustified beliefs doesn't help them see why they should justify their own unless I show them to be in the same situation with regard to their own beliefs. (And I am not paid to teach apologetics.)
So, although I myself have the deepest respect for religious belief and don't count myself as an atheist nor even as a Humanist unless you mean the company of Erasmus and Nicholas Cusanus and Michel de Montaigne (no matter how often I get Humanist links on my blog), I am simply not doing my job unless I challenge my students' beliefs and them themselves, by making them face arguments uncongenial to Christianity or theism or even traditional morality. I am not supposed to be comforting them, after all. I have to make them read Hume and Nietzsche and other skeptics and doubters.
Now, I suppose we could have a higher (?) education system in which commonly held beliefs were never challenged and unreasoned and unreasonable faith was always celebrated. In fact, I believe the Taliban runs some schools of that sort. But, that won't keep murders from happening. It wasn't Nietzsche who opened fire, it was Kazmierczak. And, while I don't believe all ideas are harmless, it wasn't some poor sap teaching philosophy who put the idea in his head.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

And time can do so much (I promise it's not just philosophical)

I am always hard-pressed to find situations in which philosophical reflection seems to have gotten things right—just ask my students or my partner how often I am able to provide a compelling argument in favor of a philosophical account—but one area in which it seems that a lot of different philosophers from different traditions and places and times have gotten things right is in their consideration of time.
While I was trying to motivate skepticism last week, a number of my students brought up the objection that at least they knew that they were a certain age or that they had lived a certain amount of time or something along those lines as evidence against the possibility of a Cartesian evil demon or a mass-simulation in which we all exist or a mere part of which we all are.
But, I countered, our experience of time, an experience that seems to have very little to do with the time of the physicists, is utterly subjective.
"Tell me, does this hour spent thinking about Descartes feel like the same amount of time as an hour hanging out with your friends? As you age, too," I said, "you will begin to see that decades can pass as if they were just a day or a few weeks."
In my own life this was brought home to me both by my realization that I have now lived in San Diego for five years and by a number of contacts by old, high school friends in the last week. I graduated from Huntington North (there was no Huntington South or East or West) almost 17 years ago.
But mostly it was made real to me by a note I received from my dearest college friend, a woman who in some ways played the role of a Beatrice for me, though I am no Dante. It seems like it was yesterday or at most a few weeks ago that I would sit on her sofa bed in the dorm that had once been mine, while she made me tea and talked about the intricacies of the Russian military rank system or interesting issues in paleography, or when we would walk around St Joseph's and St Mary's lake through the Indiana snow or across the way to St Mary's College, playing at being intellectuals and—I think, at least—in a kind of sweet and innocent love. She wrote to tell me of the return of a mass, not malignant, but life-altering nonetheless. And, I was reminded that so much time has passed and I tasted that bitter flavor of the long-ago and longed for past that the Greeks called nostalgia.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

For the (Congressional) record

I don't care if Roger Clemens used steroids or HGH, though he is doing a really good job of portraying 'roid rage.
But I do wonder whether the House and Senate might perhaps have better things to worry about. I don't understand what drug use in professional sports has to do with government reform or the House Committee thereof.
But I do know that we have a huge trade deficit, a huge budget deficit, a burgeoning national debt, are fighting war on two fronts and occasionally threatening another front or two, are (probably) torturing detainees—it's okay, Scalia assures the BBC—suffering through a mortgage crisis and the beginning of a recession, and lobbyists are writing most of our legislation in exchange for treating our Congressmen and Senators more or less the way that Larry Craig wanted to treat that nice policeman in the Minneapolis airport bathroom.
Baseball doesn't really matter; it isn't America's pastime anymore and we aren't talking about a game that is played for enjoyment but for profit and I am personally offended that my tax dollars are being spent to figure out whether just some or all of the multi-millionaires who are baseball stars are shooting up.

What I do

I'm not a particularly good philosopher. At least I wouldn't claim to be. But there are days standing in front of 40 young adults when I feel like the father of philosophy himself. Of course, it is not that I am like him in his reputation or greatness. Rather I am like Socrates in front of an Athenian jury on the day of his trial.
I say relatively absurd things, things that go right against common sense (some of them are things I even believe), things that make my students relatively unhappy. I try to convince them that they don't really know what they think they do and that, although it is of the greatest import that they give reasons for their beliefs—something that they are barely convinced of themselves—their beliefs are largely baseless. Then, like Socrates himself, I tell them that though they are unhappy, I am really making them happy.
Today, in the midst of an explanation of why Lord Russell thought that we were, after all, justified in thinking that the material world exists after two weeks of force-feeding them skepticism, one of the students muttered, "Jesus". I had to reply that He wouldn't be able to help them, at least in understanding Russell; they just didn't get along after Russell wrote Why I Am Not a Christian.
One of these days my coffee is going to taste of Hemlock.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Quote o' the day

From Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, Chapter 10:

I took my dark glasses off and tapped them delicately on the inside of my left wrist. If you can weigh a hundred and ninety pounds and look like a fairy, I was doing my best.

Well, I weigh about 196 and wear dark glasses and I'm doing my best, too!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Having viewed Tom Cruise's dissertation on Scientology, which can be viewed at, I think that I now have no choice but to resign from the teaching of philosophy, at least inasmuch as "We [Scientologists] are the authority on the mind."