About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, May 31, 2012

So ends The Avengers month .. plus something about the future of this blog

I had no idea a month ago that this would turn out to be The Avengers month on this blog. I was saying, just a month ago, that I'd be cutting back in posting, which has kind of happened, at least in time spent, if not (so much) in the actual number of posts. I said then: "The bottom line is that the mix has gradually changed here just lately, and, as per the previous para, the quantity of posts is going to have to scale back a bit as well."

Because I saw The Avengers at the start of its initial theatrical release - before it opened in the US - I was able to give it a brief review at a very early stage, and that has turned out to be one of my most popular blog posts ever. In fact, it may eventually become my most popular single blog post. Furthermore, May 2012 has turned out to be just about my most popular single month ever, measured in total views (I don't think it will quite achieve first place, but it will go close and be a very clear second). So I've benefited here, as by a side wind, from the extraordinary popularity of The Avengers.

By the way, over the next couple of days The Avengers will move into third place (overtaking The Dark Knight) among the highest grossing movies of all time in the domestic US market - measured in raw, unadjusted dollars.

It will also, maybe a day or so later, move into third place (overtaking Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2) among the highest grossing movies of all time worldwide - measured in the same way.

In unadjusted dollars, it will be behind only Avatar and Titanic (though there are classics that are higher than any of these when you adjust for inflation). I don't think anyone expected success on quite this phenomenal a scale, and it's intrigued me over the past five weeks just how it should be explained (when I, personally, had some reservations about it even as a superhero movie).

I still expect The Avengers to end its initial theatrical run with a worldwide gross of about $1.5 billion. Note that all of my predictions so far have been bold in prospect but conservative in retrospect, so we'll see with this one. So far, it's panning out.

I doubt that there will be any phenomenon quite like The Avengers to keep up my popularity as a blogger in June and beyond. So what I previously announced still holds. I.e., this place will still be scaling back a little bit, with a different mix (probably more personal and fun/pop culture stuff in the mix).

On the other hand, you'll be able to read my literary/philosophical reflections in more places than ever, what with my column in Free Inquiry, my blogging on philosophical issues at Talking Philosophy (a blog that is worth following), and my occasional contributions at the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal ... plus, no doubt, occasional contributions in still other places (I'm always looking for additional and larger soapboxes).

Plus there are a couple of new books that will be completed this year ... and in the pipeline for publication from very respectable imprints.

Anything of note will continue to be reported here.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

New York Times gets it right on First Amendment and contraceptive mandate

Especially in these paragraphs:
Under the Constitution, churches and other religious organizations have total freedom to preach that contraception is sinful and rail against Mr. Obama for making it more readily available. But the First Amendment is not a license for religious entities to impose their dogma on society through the law. The vast majority of Americans do not agree with the Roman Catholic Church’s anti-contraception stance, including most American Catholic women.      

The First Amendment also does not exempt religious entities or individuals claiming a sincere religious objection from neutral laws of general applicability, a category the new contraception rule plainly fits. In 1990, Justice Scalia reminded us that making “the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land” would mean allowing “every citizen to become a law unto himself.”
Go here for the full editorial on the contraceptive mandate and the First Amendment.

H/T Jean Kazez.       

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Religious liberty and discrimination

Over at richarddawkins.net, Lawrence Krauss has a piece about religious liberty (or, as I prefer to say, freedom of religion) and discrimination. Krauss's thoughts are worth reading.

However, much of the confusion around such issues relates to confused idea of freedom of religion. Freedom of religion in itself does not give you a positive right to do whatever you want, irrespective of what the neutral, generally-applicable law says. It merely gives you freedom from religious persecutions and impositions by the government. As I say in a long comment:
Freedom of religion basically means that the state will not persecute you for your religion or impose a religion on you. Instead the state should simply make decisions to protect and promote the secular welfare of its citizens (i.e., their interests in this-worldly things).

It can get a little bit more complicated, but that's basically it. Sometimes a decision made on a secular basis will offend the religious or in some way constrain them, but they can't claim persecution if the state was simply acting in a religion-blind way, doing something that it would have done anyway, on secular grounds, even if the religion concerned did not exist.

Much confusion is caused when definitions of freedom of religion are used that do not start from this core meaning.

No one is being persecuted for their religion if the state, for secular reasons to do with its citizens' this-worldly welfare, makes a decision to recognise same-sex marriages in the same way as it recognises opposite-sex marriages. Nor is any religion being imposed on anyone if the state simply does this for reasons relating to the worldly interests of the people concerned. Thus, freedom of religion doesn't come into it.

However, if the state refuses to recognise same-sex marriage for a religious reason ... well, freedom of religion certainly does come into it. Public policy is then being used to impose a religious viewpoint.

At the risk of being accused of spamming, I do my best to sort all this out in my book FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE. In any event, the idea of freedom of religion (the state will not persecute you for your religion or impose an alien religion on you) is manipulated unconscionably in these debates. Properly understood, freedom of religion is a good thing, and it is compatible with other liberal freedoms such as freedom of speech (the state won't try to control what you say and how you express yourself). However, manipulation of the idea can give it a bad name.
Laws of general applicability can include anti-discrimination laws, which, among other things, protect the secular interests of people in education and employment - organisations such as schools, universities, business corporations, and individuals such as landlords are required not to discriminate in certain respects and on certain grounds. As private individuals we can, prima facie, discriminate as much as we want, however irrationally. But governments tailor anti-discrimination laws as exceptions to this where private power might otherwise be oppressive. Anti-discrimination law needs to be drafted carefully, but prima facie it is not contrary to freedom of religion if it is enacted for a secular purpose.

There is much more to say, much of it in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, but as I say in my comment on Krauss's piece, we should stick with a pretty clear core idea of freedom of religion as freedom from state persecutions and impositions. If we don't stay anchored to that idea, we'll end up getting lost at sea.

Year's Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2011

Contents announced.

  • Peter M Ball "Briar Day" (Moonlight Tuber)
  • Lee Battersby "Europe After The Rain" (After the Rain, Fablecroft Press)
  • Deborah Biancotti "Bad Power" (Bad Power, Twelfth Planet Press)
  • Jenny Blackford "The Head in the Goatskin Bag" (Kaleidotrope)
  • Simon Brown "Thin Air" (Dead Red Heart, Ticonderoga Publications)
  • David Conyers and David Kernot "Winds Of Nzambi" (Midnight Echo #6, AHWA)
  • Stephen Dedman "More Matter, Less Art" (Midnight Echo #6, AHWA)
  • Sara Douglass & Angela Slatter "The Hall of Lost Footsteps" (The Hall of Lost Footsteps, Ticonderoga Publications)
  • Felicity Dowker "Berries & Incense" (More Scary Kisses, Ticonderoga Publications)
  • Terry Dowling "Dark Me, Night You" (Midnight Echo #5, AHWA)
  • Jason Fischer "Hunting Rufus" (Midnight Echo #5, AHWA)
  • Christopher Green "Letters Of Love From The Once And Newly Dead" (Midnight Echo #5, AHWA)
  • Paul Haines "The Past Is A Bridge Best Left Burnt" (The Last Days of Kali Yuga, Brimstone Press)
  • Lisa L Hannett "Forever, Miss Tapekwa County" (Bluegrass Symphony, Ticonderoga Publications)
  • Richard Harland "At The Top Of The Stairs" (Shadows and Tall Trees #2, Undertow Publications)
  • John Harwood "Face To Face" (Ghosts by Gaslight, HarperCollins)
  • Pete Kempshall "Someone Else To Play With" (Beauty Has Her Way, Dark Quest Books)
  • Jo Langdon "Heaven" (After the Rain, Fablecroft Press)
  • Maxine McArthur "The Soul of the Machine" (Winds of Change, CSFG)
  • Ian McHugh "The Wishwriter's Wife" (Daily Science Fiction)
  • Andrew J McKiernan "Love Death" (Aurealis #45, Chimaera Publications)
  • Kirstyn McDermott "Frostbitten" (More Scary Kisses, Ticonderoga Publications)
  • Margaret Mahy "Wolf Night" (The Wilful Eye - Tales From the Tower #1, Allen & Unwin)
  • Anne Mok "Interview with the Jiangshi" (Dead Red Heart, Ticonderoga Publications)
  • Jason Nahrung "Wraiths" (Winds of Change, CSFG)
  • Anthony Panegyres "Reading Coffee" (Overland, OL Society)
  • Tansy Rayner Roberts "The Patrician" (Love and Romanpunk, Twelfth Planet Press)
  • Angela Rega "Love In the Atacama or the Poetry of Fleas" (Crossed Genres, CGP)
  • Angela Slatter "The Coffin-Maker's Daughter" (A Book of Horrors, Jo Fletcher Books)
  • Lucy Sussex "Thief of Lives" (Thief of Lies, Twelfth Planet Press)
  • Kyla Ward "The Kite" (The Land of Bad Dreams, P'rea Press)
  • Kaaron Warren "All You Can Do Is Breathe" (Blood and Other Cravings, Tor)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sunday superstuff - Marvel's first gay wedding: Northstar and Kyle

This story has even found its way into The Canberra Times. While cultural and political debates about same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage continue, the comics medium continues to be supportive.

Quote from the Canberra Times story: "Same-sex marriage is still a controversial subject in the real world but for comic characters it became almost passe this week, when one of Marvel comics's X-Men, the Canadian mutant Northstar (AKA Jean-Paul Beaubier), proposed to his boyfriend Kyle Jinadu."

(Now we just have to hope that the marriage is never retrospectively extinguished by the actions of a powerful extra-dimensional demon, as happened to Spider-Man's marriage to Mary Jane Watson.)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Avengers month continues - a movie for Ms. Marvel / Captain Marvel?

Rumours are now starting to fly about a movie showcasing the superheroine Carol Danvers, currently known as "Ms. Marvel", but about to be given (permanently or not, I'm not sure) the historically iconic name "Captain Marvel" - a name that Marvel Comics owns and could use very effectively for one of its most high-profile female characters.

If we got a Captain Marvel movie with Carol Danvers as the version of the character that we see, and if the same character were then segued into a further Avengers movie, the result would surely be to establish Carol Danvers in the public imagination as the Captain Marvel, even though at least two high-profile characters (and several less significant ones) have had the name in the past. As I said before, somewhere in this month's discussion, that would be quite a marketing coup.

It sounds as if we'll know in a couple of weeks. At times like this, I miss my stint of media tie-in writing, but it's fun watching what happens as Avengers-related events now unfold. (Meanwhile, The Avengers has now surely passed $1.2 billion in the worldwide box office, extrapolating from the current almost-up-to-date figures at Box Office Mojo.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Op.ed.-ing for Free Inquiry

As previously announced (at some point!), I've recently joined the team of op.ed. columnists for Free Inquiry, the fine magazine published by the Council for Secular Humanism. My first column, on "scientism", appeared earlier this year in the April/May issue. I've just sent off my second, on the state and the marriage game - so that's something to watch out for!

This is largely a reflection on same-sex marriage, though without the depth of defence in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State or here at the ABC portal. I'm actually a bit more focused this time on broader worries about whether the state might eventually withdraw from the marriage game, so that we no longer have a legal category of "marriage" - though we'd still need laws relating to next of kin, property disputes, the welfare of children and so. If there is eventually no legally-established template of "marriage", but just various relationships with reasonable laws to provide protections to the parties involved, then why would that necessarily be a bad thing? That's pretty much how the law operates now for couples who choose not to marry (though in the US in particular, it is currently difficult for them to access the required legal rights without getting formally married).

Free Inquiry publishes some of its content online to whet your appetite, but to get everything, you need to receive the hard copy ... which I think is fair enough.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Avengers now 4th biggest ever

As of this morning, The Avengers moves into 4th place on the all time worldwide box office list. It is now behind only Avatar, Titanic, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. I can't see it catching up with the phenomenal grosses obtained by Avatar and Titanic, both over $2 billion, but it now looks like it will move into third place over the next couple of months: in fact, an eventual gross around $1.5 billion appears likely (at least to me).

In inflation-adjusted terms, The Avengers is still be well behind classics like Gone with the Wind and Star Wars. In fact, The Avengers currently ranks "only" 61st on the American domestic market in inflation-adjusted terms - but its success is still enormously impressive, and there's more loot to come. Also impressively, a high proportion of the worldwide loot is coming from markets outside the US - the movie has captured imaginations all across the world.

Whatever criticisms we might have of The Avengers, its commercial success has been phenomenal ... and if you've been reading here over the past month you'll see that this has been a subject of fascination for me as I've watched the huge numbers of dollars accumulate. Here, it's been Avengers month! I'm sure that much of the movie's success lies with one of its great strengths, namely the extent to which it is (able to get away with being) faithful to its source material in the depiction of the characters. The continued use by the franchise of high-quality actors has doubtless helped, and they have delivered strong performances to lend plausibility to the much-larger-than-life figures we see on the screen (but hey, many movies have high-quality actors delivering strong performances!).

I like to think that the relatively woman-friendly aspect of the movie has also helped a bit: the script, the direction, and Scarlett Johansson's performance have all shown that it's possible to portray a female superhero in a manner that appeals to both sexes. There's also a solid performance by Cobie Smulders as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Maria Hill. (And in her brief appearances at the bookends of the movie, Gwyneth Paltrow's version of smart, capable Pepper Potts is just fine as a counterpoint to Robert Downey, Jr.'s Iron Man/Tony Stark.) Other directors, writers, etc., might take note of this. Of course, the movie is still a sausage fest, but what portrayals of women we do see show the characters in question as highly competent and by no means out of place in the drama.

While I'm not sure what all this indicates for the future, it seems that superhero genre is far from being a spent force in cinema. The success of The Avengers opens up many questions about future directions for the genre - so, what is needed to maintain the good will of the public for it at this unprecedented level, or to take it even further?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sunday supervillainy - Namor's interspecies sex life

During the current Avengers vs. X-Men event, there's a bit of time to focus on Namor's ongoing interspecies sex life. Not long ago he had a sexual encounter with a giant wormlike creature who is Queen in the bizarre land of Tabula Rasa. Now the alien skunk-woman Hepzibah is interested in him (Hepzibah is supposedly hooked up with another character, Warpath, but perhaps they're all as polyamorous as Namor).

Anyway, we get the following discussion in Uncanny X-Men #12 when Namor, Hepzibah, and Sunspot are deployed to Tabula Rasa to try to find the missing Hope Summers and beat up on some of the Avengers if they can.

You're welcome to criticise Greg Land's rather pornified rendering of Hepzibah's facial expressions, especially in the second image (not to mention the compulsory butt-shot of Magik in the first one). I don't mind - even quite like - Land's hyperrealistic art style, but he could tone down the, um, "glamour" aspect of how he depicts women.

 Namor also gets another chance to duke it out with The Thing, which is always good.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Avengers UK

This is sort of funny, but - pfff - couldn't whoever came up with it find at least one female character? There's a fair bit of choice, surely.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Crazy DSM guidelines on alcoholism

I should make nannying a theme of this blog. I get fed up with the constant attempts to treat people's legitimate choices as pathological. These proposed, guidelines would reclassify as alcoholics very large numbers of people (especially young people in university or college) who choose to get drunk now and then. Bloody ridiculous!

The longer term implication of these kinds of changes to diagnostic manuals could be very illiberal. Potentially, many choices could come to be regarded as illegitimate on the basis that someone making those choices must suffer from a mental disorder. A diagnostic manual of mental disorders can end up being used to do an end run around people's political freedom - all sorts of behavioral choices could be stigmatised as revealing mental disorder. It's not as if we lack historical experience with this. Think of how homosexuality has been treated in the past, not to mention any interest in sex on the part of women. If we're not careful "mental disorders" can become, as they sometimes have become in the past, mere political constructs.

How, exactly, we fight back against ubiquitous paternalism by the medical profession and others I don't know. But we can at least protest.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Chrys Stevenson on the lobby group "Doctors for the Family"

This is a thorough debunking by Chrys Stevenson of the (evidently) faith-based group Doctors for the Family and its submission to the Australian Senate on the topic of same-sex marriage. All I want to say is, "Well done, Chrys! Give them hell!"

A sort of okay piece by Ian Grey on The Avengers

Sort of okay in that he mainly talks about The Black Widow, and what he says about the interpretation of the character is more or less right. But he carries on as if he is the first person, or at least the first male person, to notice how competent she is all through the movie. What he says about this is actually rather obvious, and I touched on it (albeit briefly) myself in my own short review of the movie when I came back from The Avengers the best part of three weeks ago - Natasha kicks butt throughout, when we might have feared that she'd be overshadowed by the bigger, more famous male heroes.

Still, maybe Grey is right that various prominent male critics have missed commenting on the character and Scarlett Johansson's tidy performance. If so, the reasons for their silence might, I suppose, be worth speculating about (however, we could probably come up with all sorts of hypotheses if we started the speculation running).

Notwithstanding all this, The Avengers was, let's face it, something of a cock forest. That was  inevitable in some ways, if it was going to be true to the source material. But Joss Whedon's smart and sensitive work with female characters is all the more reason to hope that there are more female characters of some importance in the sequel.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Colin Gavaghan on New Zealand's euthanasia debate

Will your granny be next to the wall if euthanasia is allowed? An interesting post on the policy debate in New Zealand.

I doubt that we can ever guarantee that people who opt for physician-assisted active suicide of some kind always do so without feeling some sort of unconscionable pressure. But think of it this way. You may one day find yourself in the sort of terrible position where issues of this kind arise (perhaps in great pain and/or with no control of what happens around you and to you, while the clock ticks slowly towards your death).

Which is scariest for you right now? Which is the worse prospect - (1) finding youself in that terrible position with the option of physician-assisted suicide, but no guarantee that you won't face unconscionable pressures to adopt it (but a whole lot of regulation to reduce the probability that you'll face unconscionable pressures) OR (2) not having the option at all? I'd like some regulation to give me some protections from the unconscionable pressures, but I don't want to lose the option entirely and perhaps have to coninue to endure a terrible situation with no option for escape. Furthermore, while I want some regulatory protections, I don't want them to be so detailed and onerous that, for practical purposes, the option is taken away from me. I expect that this how most of us feel about it.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Mike LaBossiere on Romney's past as a bully

At Talking Philosophy, Mike LaBossiere presents his analysis of the Mitt Romney bullying. It makes some good points, but I think it goes too easy on Romney. This does not seem to be a case of immature young men testing their physical strength against each other - I'd agree that it's not surprising (though it's unfortunate) that young men get into fights, out of anger or whatever other dumb emotions might apply, and I'd agree that that this in itself doesn't necessarily show that they are of deeply bad character. It's the kind of thing that they can grow out of, if there's no pattern of intimidation and brutality.

But getting into a one-off or occasional fight, even provoking it, is rather different from the act of premeditated cruelty and power abuse described in this case. This doesn't seem to me to be the sort of case where you can shrug it off with, "Testosterone-soaked, brain-not-fully-wired young man - meh, what can you expect? He'll grow up." It's not, for example, like times when I might have thought it was somehow cool or impressive to drive way over the speed limit on a suburban road. It goes way beyond immaturity or inexperience, or a certain youthful clumsiness in making decisions, taking risks seriously, and relating to others.

I do agree that we should put some weight on how the person feels about it now, as someone of mature years. Is he mortified that it happened, that he did something like that? If he can't remember it (though how could you forget something like that?) is he mortified even by the thought that he might have done such a thing? If he believes he did not do such a thing and is being unjustly accused, does he reject the notion with evident horror? Or does he appear to see it as something not very serious, even mildly amusing? We base our judgments of people's characters largely on how they react now when confronted with a story about their long-ago past.

How well does Romney show up in that regard?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

On secularism, priorities, Islam, and Waleed Aly

This post at Talking Philosophy mainly repeats an old post of mine from 2007 (thanks to Bruce Everett for reminding me of it), but I think it's timely. The issues in it are, I suppose, always timely, but they are definitely timely at the moment.

No more Avengers! (special supplementary Sunday supervillainy

This I've gotta see. C'mon, X-Men!

Sunday supervillainy, er heroism - 10 LGBT superheroes/couples

Not a bad list from Newsarama - though I should point out that Karolina Dean is now dating Lightspeed from the Avengers Academy, which also has Striker on its roster.

(I've gotta promote Avengers Academy - it has a real freshness and joy about it, like comics used to have when I was a kid.)

Colorado's prayer proclamations ruled unconstitutional

The Colorado Court of Appeals has unanimously held a series of day-of-prayer proclamations, issued by the governor of the state in recent years, to be unconstitutional. The case was decided under the state constitution, rather than the Establishment Clause of America's federal constitution, though the test used was one that is familar from federal litigation in the US, i.e. the Lemon test:

1. The governmental action must have a secular purpose.
2. The principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion. AND
3. It must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.

You'd think cases like this would be straightforward - what on earth is a government in a secular, pluralist society doing enjoining its citizens to engage in a religious activity such as prayer, and how can this not violate any constitutional provisions that separate government from religion? - but it proves difficult in practice.

This is an important victory for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and hopefully it will stick. I'm not sure whether any further appeal is possible - since the matter involves the interpretation of a state constitution, I don't see how the US Supreme Court would or could deal with it (in the US, state supreme courts are the highest interpreters of state constitutions). However, I'm not au fait with the judicial structure in Colorado. Is there any way to get a Court of Appeals judgment reviewed or overturned within the state system there, does anyone know?

Bullying ... and Mitt Romney

This is a good article about Mitt Romney. The only thing is, I'd go a bit further and make the point that Romney was not a "boy" when he allegedly did this. He was evidently about 18, meaning he was a young adult. We should not be infantilising people of that sort of age. It gets tiresome.

But anyway, he most certainly was not a boy when he laughed off the issue the other day. Even if the incident didn't happen quite as described, Romney's reaction to it as a man of mature years is that of an insensitive bastard.

This blog stands against bullying. Always has, always will. I am clear on this issue, and I hope you are. Bullies never deserve support. I hope the American electorate will be just as clear about it.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Avengers need more women on their team

I'm glad I'm not the only one making this point.

See here for an interview with Joss Whedon and the Avengers cast. Scarlett Johansson's comments are very salient (and yes, again, one of the good things about The Avengers was the portrayal of The Black Widow as a strong, sexy, ass-kicking superheroine who was not overly sexualised - no fighting semi-nude or in high-heels, or with huge breasts leading the way).

I'd like to see Janet van Dyne, The Wasp, appear in the next movie, just to keep it true to the original comics, though it would be interesting to see how they could make her suitably formidable. With her ability to shrink to the size of an insect while retaining the full strength of a human being, plus flying around and dodging things, plus her electrical "sting", she's actually a fierce and dangerous combatant, but her original character was as a ditzy young woman.

When we first met Janet she was obsessed with fashion and handsome men. When the Avengers first battled Kang the Conqueror, her main contribution that I remember was to wonder whether he was cute behind his mask ... and then there's her affairs with Iron Man and Hawkeye and everyone else, and we won't even mention the infamous one night stand she had with Magneto on Battleworld. ... Mind you, I have nothing against fashion or against someone of either sex being interested in romance and sexual pleasure. The main thing is that Janet van Dyne at her worst has seemed like a total airhead who'd be better off doing reality TV with the Kardashians than superheroing.

Still, more recent depictions of the character have toned this down, and we've seen over the years that as The Wasp she can be versatile, brave, and feisty.

Better still, perhaps, let's have Carol Danvers, Ms Marvel. Or call her Captain Marvel, since Marvel owns that name and is apparently going to give her that name in the comics. If Marvel Comics could make Carol Danvers the Captain Marvel in the public imagination, overtaking earlier characters with that name, it would be a huge coup for them. I've gotta admit that I've always found Carol a slightly boring character, possibly because her powers (flying, energy-blasting brick) seem so generic. (Yes, there's more to them than that, but that's basically how they are portrayed.)

But she has an interesting back story and a stylish look. Give her a less blatantly sexualised appearance - surely this is holding her back - while retaining something of the same design, and she could still be a great character. Somehow Marvel has just never quite got there with her, despite a lot of unsuccessful attempts to force her down our throats as one of its main stars. If she were well portrayed in an Avengers movie, she could finally be the breakout character that I assume Marvel has always wanted to her be. It would also be good to see a female character on the movie-Avengers team who can rival Thor and Iron Man in raw power.

Who else would we like to see in the movie Avengers when The Avengers 2 comes around?

Bruce Everett gives his retrospective on the Global Atheist Convention

Bruce Everett has a long, thoughtful article on the Melbourne Global Atheist Convention over at Butterflies and Wheels. I'm not endorsing it all, though a lot of it sounds sensible to me. In any event, this is the sort of discussion we could do with.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Defamation law progress and freedom of speech

It has been announced in the UK that a Bill will be brought before Parliament to amend defamation law in order to provide greater protection of free speech. This has been welcomed over here by the anti-censorship organisation Index.

Note, however, that there's a big difference between knowing that a Bill will be introduced and being confident that it will contain all that is necessary to make defamation law significantly less oppressive. We're told that:
Over the coming months, the Libel Reform Campaign which represent the efforts of English PEN, Sense about Science and Index will continue to fight for:
  • a public interest defence so people can defend themselves unless the claimant can show they have been malicious or reckless.
  • a strong test of harm that strikes out claims unless the claimant can demonstrate serious and substantial harm and they have a real prospect of vindication.
  • a restriction on corporations’ ability to use the libel laws to silence criticism.
  • provisions for online hosts and intermediaries, who are not authors nor traditional publishers.
I support these proposals whole-heartedly, but I'm just pointing out that they're still not achieved. There'll doubtless be other organisations lobbying to water down the reforms.

We also need these sorts of reforms here in Australia. In fact, before we even get that far, we need a high-profile public debate about freedom of speech here in Australia. I'm sure that freedom of speech is important to ordinary Australians, but I don't see it as being strongly supported by people with political clout. It's noteworthy that nothing serious was said about its importance in the Human Rights inquiry here a couple of years ago, and I don't see much indication that politicians or their advisers really care about it.

And of course we have plenty of high-profile campaigners who are constantly wanting to impose new limits - or to defend old, oppressive ones - on what we can say and how we can express ourselves.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Staks Rosch in defence of Edwina Rogers

Staks Rosch has written a useful post here. He has also taken part in the ensuing thread, where the debate continues. This observation that he makes on the thread is interesting (I'm not confident one way or the other whether it's true, but it's worth considering):
 It is my opinion that people were already out to get her and that is why she acted so defensively and perhaps dishonestly in some interviews. I don't want to say that all lobbyists lie, but that is the stereotype. I also think that her view of the Republican Party is a very narrow and specific view. She is a Washington insider and the crowd she hangs round with tend to care more about lowering taxes for the rich (themselves) than they care do for religion/secular issues.
Perhaps. My problem with it all, nonetheless, is that the early interviews with Edwina Rogers have not made a good impression. I don't care all that much about her past activities, as long as I can be convinced that she now has the right priorities for the Secular Coalition for America.

I see no reason at the moment to doubt that she has the technical skills as a manager, lobbyist, etc. However, the Executive Director of an organisation has a big say in the priorities that the organisation pursues and how it handles them. That's what I'm unsure about right now.

E.g., she seems to be soft on the idea of religious morality being imposed by the state, as with anti-abortion laws. If she's soft on those sorts of issues, and takes a narrow view of what it is for government to be "secular", then I think she's the wrong choice - that is more important than whether she's been employed by Republicans in the past. But her priorities and her conception of secular government won't be clear for some time. We really do have to see how this plays out.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Gregory Storer on Pell, Deveny, and defamation

There are some good posts on this around the internet - here is one, by Gregory Storer, that seems to me to contain some wisdom (though Storer seems to me to be far too quick and uncritical in accepting laws against "hate speech").

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Pell backs down on threat to sue Twitter/Deveny

See here. But it was only after Deveny removed the offending tweet. We should still be concerned about the way defamation law can be used by powerful people to silence criticism and satire.

Extract (with a snip, plus some minor editing for clarity):
Media law expert and author of Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued Mark Pearson said it was yet to be determined whether Twitter was responsible for the content published by its users.
... Mr Pearson said the case should serve as a warning to others who post similar material on social media.
"Any threat of defamation should send a wake up call to everybody using social media that they are now publishers and they come under the same laws as journalists and other publishers have been subject to for centuries," he said.
"Every one of these cases is a reminder that people should be cautious when they are tweeting or using social media and just because something is funny or satirical does not mean that it is safe.
"Particularly with Twitter, there are so few characters to play with, that it is very hard to both defame someone and to qualify for the defences that might be available."

Edwina Rogers - the new SCA Executive Director

Over at Talking Philosophy, I've been cautiously positive about the appointment of Edwina Rogers as the new Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America. We should at least start to see what her priorities are, and how effective she might be, before we write her off over her past work for Republican administrations. Too much gloom could undermine her and be self-fulfilling.

But ... that said, early reports on an interview she recently did with Greta Christina worry me - see my comment on the post. I'd like to think that Rogers is a hired gun ... or better still someone who has been a hired gun in the past but has now reached a time in her life when she wants to commit to a cause that she believes in. Either way, she could be fine in an Executive Director position, which involves professional management, policy development, public relations, etc., skills. It's the sort of position that I understand quite well, and as far as I'm concerned her past associations don't rule out her being able to do this job effectively.

However, if she comes into the job with a narrow understanding of secular government (the kind of narrow understanding that I argue against in Chapter 5, in particular, of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State), then that will skew her priorities and effectiveness. Likewise, if she has severely deluded views about the Republican Party, and is not just being nice about it in public as a lobbying tactic.

This situation needs to be watched carefully. I want to be open-minded, but I feel cautious .... and now more so.

Happy birthday to Jenny!!

Monday, May 07, 2012

Reaching for the defamation button

Credible allegations of pedophilia are exactly the sort of thing that defamation law should protect us from. Those are exactly the kind of lies that can destroy us as social beings. So I feel some sympathy for Cardinal Pell in taking legal action to clear his name when he (apparently) felt defamed by Catherine Deveny in a tweet that he evidently took as imputing pedophilia to him.

That said, I see most of Deveny's Twitter feed, and I doubt that there was any real imputation, let alone a credible one, that Pell is a pedophile.

No one suggests that Pell is a pedophile. What they do suggest is that the reputation of the Catholic Church for harbouring pedophiles is now at a level where a church hierarch needs to choose his words very carefully or they will remind his audience of pedophilia. When Pell appeared on the Australian TV show Q&A and used the expression "preparing boys", it immediately caused nervous-cum-malicious laughter from the audience, irrespective of the fact that he may have been trying to say "preparing boys for communion" - and that he added the extra words after the laughter began.

I watched that episode of Q&A. I have seen a lot of Twitter discussion of it. None of that discussion seemed, to me, to suggest that Pell is himself is a pedophile. I am very sceptical that Deveny's impugned tweet did so (it has now been taken down, so we can't easily check for ourselves). But the extensive Twitter discussion does suggest some public concern over the amount of pedophilia in the church, and over the church's responses to it - responses that have involved blame shifting, atrocious priorities, and much all-round managerial incompetence. If the church and its hierarchs are now associated in the public mind with pedophilia, that is the fault of the church's worldwide hierarchy. Yes, the discomfort and censure is mixed with a certain amount of malicious glee ... but the church, through the cumulative actions and statements of many of its leaders, brought all this on itself.

Since I'm not sure that I've seen the actual tweet that is impugned, I can't be sure that it contained no outright imputation of pedophilia. Therefore, I can't be sure that the defamation action by Pell is unjustified. However, I'm very sceptical. I think it's right to be sceptical when we see this kind of legal action taken by a public figure. To be fair, Deveny is also a public figure, and anything she says in public will be heard or read by many people. There is not a total imbalance of public reach here. Still, I'm sceptical. In fact, I'm always sceptical when I see a powerful person reaching for the defamation button.

I'm also sceptical when I see threats to sue Twitter itself. I can see the point of being able to demand the details from Twitter of who owns an account - subject to judicial oversight - but a social medium like Twitter should not be legally responsible for what is said by the individuals who use it, any more than my phone company should be legally responsible if I defame somebody during a telephone conversation.

The Avengers smashes box office records

Well, folks, Box Office Mojo reports that The Avengers smashed the last Harry Potter movie's weekend opening record in the US, with an estimated $200,300,000. Edit: After its initial estimate Box Office Mojo has since edited its story with an even higher figure of $207,400,000.

I was predicting that it would set a new record (before the weekend started, I predicted $172 million, compared with the Harry Potter $169 million), but even I was too conservative. The Avengers is also performing incredibly well outside of the US, so it is on its way to becoming one of the most commercially successful movies of any kind of all time.

I have my complaints about the movie - a certain amount of looseness and self-indulgence, a certain lack of suspense and felt danger - but it's obviously doing something right, or more than one "something".

One of the somethings that it's doing right is giving superb, loving interpretations of all the main characters. I think, too, that the actual choice of an Avengers roster was inspired. We've now seen that Hawkeye can be made a cool character and we've certainly been shown how much depth and potential The Black Widow had - and it's been exploited brilliantly in the movie, as she is made to shine throughout The Avengers; there's no sense here that Natasha Romanoff is overshadowed by, or of secondary importance to, the male heroes.

I'm not the first to observe (though I'm not sure who was!) that she's the breakout character of this movie. She could now become Marvel's most iconic female character, and a much more important player in the Marvel Universe more generally. Expect The Black Widow to turn up all over the place now.

This does raise the question of whether Marvel has other female characters who could succeed so well on the big screen. It's still the case that there are five male Avengers to one female Avenger in the movie, and even when you add in Nick Fury, Maria Hill, and Agent Coulson from S.H.I.E.L.D., you have a very male-heavy cast of heroes. Over in the other cinematic versions of Marvel franchises, the gender balance is a little bit healthier - well, it is in the X-Men movies (which are made by a different studio: in this case, Fox). But for various reasons that we could go into, the X-Men movies have not boosted the female characters in the popular imagination the way they have Wolverine, Magneto, and Professor X. I'm hoping that Scarlett Johansson's ass-kicking version of The Black Widow might start to change things.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Sunday Supervillainy - Avengers vs. X-Men continues


The Avengers vs. X-Men event continues, and has now reached as far as Avengers vs. X-Men #3 (the series will have 12 fortnightly issues). There are also multiple spin-offs issues, including the all-fighting Avengers vs. X-Men Versus (talk about tautology!) series of six issues, plus issues of regular, ongoing series that show facets of the overall event.

The big minuses so far? Well, it's relentlessly plot driven: leading characters on both sides are acting like nutcases, being totally unreasonable and unwilling to compromise. That is certainly the case with Captain America and Cyclops, the respective leaders of the two teams. Wolverine is even worse, in that his solution to the whole problem of what to do about the planet-exterminating Phoenix Force, which apparently wants to come to Earth to bond with the young X-Man, Hope, is simply to kill Hope. Um, apart from the fact that this makes Wolverine look villainous, mightn't it just piss off the Phoenix Force even more if someone kills the young woman that it plans to bond with? As you read this event, you can't help feel that both sides (or all sides, since Wolverine is on a frolic of his own) would be better off talking the problem over and looking for a mutually acceptable solution than wasting their time beating each other up.

The other big minus is that there seem to be all sorts of continuity errors as events covering the same period of time keep getting shown from different angles in different books. In itself, that's an interesting device, but it gets fouled up if we are shown what appear to be irreconcilable inconsistencies - or inconsistencies that can be resolved only by making up stuff of our own.

That said, there's also quite a lot of fun as the two sides try to outwit or overpower each other, with plenty of twists and turns so far (bear in mind that the X-Men are already split into two factions on opposite sides of the continental United States - but Wolverine's faction has mixed sympathies when it to comes to the conflict).

At this stage, the Avengers won their invasion battle against the X-Men when a whole crowd of Avengers attacked the beach of Utopia, the island HQ of the X-Men, from the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier (which is featured so prominently in The Avengers ... the movie). Individual Avengers also obtained dubious victories against individual X-Men.

The highlight here has been an epic fight between Iron Man (Tony Stark) and Magneto (Erik Lehsherr) - two of Marvel's most iconic characters - shown at length in Avengers vs. X-Men Versus #1.

Magneto is generally regarded as more powerful than Iron Man, and has frequently had the better of him in past battles when Magneto has fought whole teams of Avengers. On this occasion, though, things don't go all his way - for Iron Man has come prepared specifically to deal with him, with all sorts of dedicated anti-Magneto technology. We see Tony Stark's power, cunning, and brilliance at work as he attempts to eliminate Marvel's (arguably) greatest villain from the chessboard. But Magneto shows some tactical cunning of his own, plus guts, determination, and enormous raw force. He ends up giving Iron Man a beat-down, until ... something shocking happens to cause big, bad Mags to lose interest in the fight entirely. Result: an unlikely victory for Iron Man, while Magneto drifts around in space (where they'd ended up fighting) muttering that they need to involve his volatile daughter, The Scarlet Witch.

This is all quite well done, surely enhancing both characters' reputations for badassery, though when Magneto "sees" something at an interstellar distance that makes him forget about fighting Iron Man, we are not shown it ourselves, and nor do we get a good reaction shot. All we have to tell us what happened is Magneto's interior monologue in the narration boxes. The ending seems rather rushed and thin.

But at any rate, the Avengers chalk up a few of these unlikely and debatable wins over very powerful opponents: The Thing ekes out a dubious and temporary victory over Namor; Red Hulk gets an even more dubious triumph over Colossus (who has the powers of The Juggernaut and is giving Red Hulk a beating until something happens to make him decide to surrender). The Avengers take over the X-Men's island, and Cyclops surrenders to Captain America on behalf of the X-Men.

And then in Avengers vs. X-Men #3 the momentum is suddenly reversed as Cyclops' powerful Extinction Team turn the tables - thanks to some good work by Magik. It turns out that, off-panel, she has scored a rare win for the X-Men, and managed to take down Doctor Strange. The most important X-Men, including Cyclops, Magneto, Emma Frost, Namor, Magik, and Colossus all escape, apparently no worse for their individual battles, and get a step ahead in the quest to find Hope (who, understandably, has run off by now). Meanwhile, Captain America, who is not a murderer when all is said and done, has a falling out (in more ways than one) with Wolverine, and some of Wolverine's group of X-Men decide to help Cyclops and his faction. Right now, the advantage is with the X-Men.

If you can ignore just how plot driven all this is and overlook the continuity problems, it's amusing to watch those twists and turns. There are some good character moments (Iron Man and Magneto get quite a few just in their fight, with both coming off as intelligent, thoughtful, essentially good men who'd rather not be caught up in this war - and both have been acting so far as voices of reason, questioning their leaders' hardline choices).

Guess I'll keep eating the popcorn and watching the show, though even by comics standards this is one plotline that you can't take too seriously.

Mark Hughes on The Avengers

This Forbes piece suggests that The Avengers may be headed for commercial success even beyond beyond what I was predicting the other day...

Whatever its faults, the movie is evidently doing something right (well ... it is in my opinion, namely it is quite brilliantly showcasing these great characters from the Marvel mythos).

Edit: Updated for this story from Box Office Mojo, which predicts that The Avengers will set a new weekend opening record in the US and possibly approach $200 million for the weekend. Its opening day pulled in $80.5 million - which is less than the last Harry Potter movie, but the latter had a quite extraordinary midnight opening that satisfied a lot of the demand. The Harry Potter record now looks shaky.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Udo on Christians and sex

Udo Schuklenk blogs about the little habit of so many Christian hierarchs of fussing about other people's sex lives.

Jane Rogers wins Arthur C. Clarke Award for ...

... her novel, The Testament of Jessie Lamb. Story here. This announcement follows soon (i.e. about five weeks) after a much-publicised rant by Christopher Priest when the shortlist for the award was announced.

Rogers' novel sounds interesting enough, though as one commenter on the site points out there is always reason to be a bit wary of mainstream writers' efforts at science fiction. Or in any event, it's often claimed that mainstream writers tend to re-invent the wheel when they turn to sf tropes. I'm not sure about that, though it's true that mainstream writers often present very bleak, dystopian visions of the future. Moreso, on average (or so it appears to me ... I can't prove it scientifically) than professional sf writers. The Testament of Jessie Lamb doesn't sound like an exception.

But anyway, Rogers is certainly a writer with runs on the board before this. Congratulations to her!

John Wilkins on the GAC speakers

I only just came across this old post by John Wilkins publicly asking why he was not asked to speak at the Global Atheist Convention in either 2010 or 2012. See the whole thread on Wilkins' site.

I've got say that I find this kind of public complaint unseemly, as a general rule, but maybe that's just showing my age - I grew to adulthood in the 1970s, which was a turbulent time in its way, but I suspect that we were socialised to be more self-effacing than is the case these days (mind you, Wilkins is about the same age as me, so I'm not claiming that that's a difference between the two of us, just that my attitude to things like this may seem old-fashioned to some of my readers). [Edit: See comments on thread - John apparently misunderstood the format and has since sort of recanted.]

Be all that as it may, Wilkins has a very good article on secularism in The Australian Book of Atheism, and he would have been a good speaker/panelist. I hope that the committee takes note for next time.

More generally, there's some scope for fine-tuning the mix of speakers. E.g. - people that I've been talking to have been questioning why so many speakers are flown in from overseas (presumably with their fares paid), when there are outstanding speakers available in Australia. It's not as if there's usually a huge amount of reciprocation (though in my case, I did get flown to Orlando to speak to the Moving Secularism Forward conference ... so I can't complain).

For myself, I wonder whether it wouldn't be better to make greater use of panels, rather than lectures. Panels can vary in quality, but so can lectures.

A snarky review of The Avengers by Andrew O'Hehir

This is a dissenting review because the movie is mainly getting critical acclaim so far.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Predict the opening weekend US box office for The Avengers!

While we're talking about The Avengers ... anyone want to predict the box office for its opening weekend in the US, which is coming up in, like, a couple of days? (Yes, all you Americans reading this will soon be able to see it and make up your own minds about it.)

I say US$172 million (which would set a new record!), based on its impressive takings in the non-US market so far and that it is more US-oriented than other big-opening movies in recent times, such as those in the Harry Potter series.

In a week's time, let's see how close that prediction turned out to be. Anyone think they can get closer than I can? There's no prize except bragging rights.

The Norma K. Hemming Award shortlist

Black Glass
novel by Meg Mundell
published by Scribe Publications (Brunswick VIC)

Bluegrass Symphony
collection by Lisa L Hannett
published by Ticonderoga Publications (Perth, WA)

The Devil’s Diadem
novel by Sara Douglass
published by HarperCollins

novel by Alison Goodman
published by HarperCollins

novel by A A Bell
published by HarperCollins

collection by Sue Isle
published by Twelfth Planet Press (Perth, WA)

Road To The Soul
novel by Kim Falconer
published by HarperCollins

The Shattered City
novel by Tansy Rayner Roberts
published by HarperCollins

Yellowcake Springs
novel by Guy Salvidge
published by Interactive Publications Treetop (Brisbane, QLD)

The future of this blog

Since I started this blog a bit over six years ago, it's been more successful than I'd ever imagined. As far as I can recall or reconstruct, I originally meant it as an online diary, a sandpit to develop some of my philosophical ideas, and a sort of clubhouse on the internet where my little group of close friends could hang out. It never really became the third of those (the friends in question are like cats who can't be herded), but it's done a lot more than the first two in that it's garnered some wider popularity, attracted a bit of attention from larger sites, and made something of a reputation for itself. While by no means a high traffic site, it does attract quite a lot of views per day.

In any event, I've become fond of this place, and I expect it will continue as my personal blog into the indefinite future.

On the other hand, my life has changed since 2006. I'm now also blogging at Talking Philosophy (which I urge you to follow if you read this blog for the philosophical discussions), I've been writing a fair bit for the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal (where I often feel like I'm a dissenting voice, but that's not necessarily a bad thing ... and some kudos should go to Scott Stephens for publishing people like me with whom he is in fairly deep and pervasive disagreement), and I now have a regular (though not frequent) opinion column for Free Inquiry (the first contribution to my new column appears in the current issue, though I also had a recent article about human enhancement technology). All of these places reach larger audiences than this humble blog (and the ABC even pays some money!), so it makes sense to give them a certain priority when it comes to the kinds of writing that can logically go to them.

There's also the fact that I don't have unlimited time. In addition to all the above, I'm currently working on two books (both of which have deadlines and involve a lot of research), plus trying to get a third book off the ground, plus editing The Journal of Evolution and Technology. And I have a recently-published book to promote. Plus, I'm scrabbling around doing some research towards yet other books that I have in mind for down the track. I also spend time doing other things that I think I should, such as peer reviews of articles that are sent to me by refereed journals - unlike most academics, I actually say Yes to almost all such requests, partly because I do still have some time ... and partly because I think that supporting this process is very important.

The reason I still have some time is that I don't have a paying job - my position at the University of Newcastle is an honorary research-only one, which means I can get slightly involved in the department (or whatever it's called: hmmm, it's actually the discipline of Philosophy and Religious Studies within the School of Humanities and Social Science), but I don't have actual students to teach, lectures to prepare, administration to do, etc. I basically have some colleagues, a free staff parking permit, and a free library card. How I keep afloat financially is another matter as I'm not exactly writing best-sellers (any funding sources that turn up on my doorstep are always welcome) - the point is that I can find some time at a pinch.

On the gripping hand, I do have a life outside all this, including a family that I moved to Newcastle from Melbourne to be closer to (among other reasons).

So in the end, my time is actually pretty limited. (This is also why I have to decline most of the requests that I get from people to advise on their manuscripts, school projects, etc., etc.; I get quite a lot of these requests.)

Sooo, the question that's been on my mind is how much time I can really devote to blogging here. The answer, for the indefinite future is that this will, indeed, continue as my personal blog. However, there's already been a shift in its mix of posts, as the more concerted philosophical musings tend to find their way to other places. There's been a drift towards making this blog more like an online diary, a place for quick comment on events of interest, and a place to have a bit of fun (as with my brief reaction to seeing The Avengers the other day ... which is actually proving to be a very popular post, by my standards, for, I suppose, fairly obvious reasons).

I think I'll also have to cut down on the sheer number - it was nothing like this number in the first three years. It really started to take off after 2008, the year when Udo and I completed our work on 50 Voices of Disbelief and I also finished my Ph.D ... these happened about the same time (in fact, 2008 was a busy and difficult year for other reasons as well), and I found myself increasingly drawn into online debates about religion and related issues. In 2010 and 2011, I was writing here very frequently and often at considerable length.

The bottom line is that the mix of topics has gradually changed just lately, and, as per the previous para, the quantity of posts is going to have to scale back a bit as well.

However, this will still be the central place that records my doings (my actual website is fairly up to date at the moment, but it tends to lag well behind this place). You will still find commentary on Australian and world news, popular culture, and even philosophical issues. But I'm unlikely to have as many posts as was the case over the last three years or so, and they have already tended less to be long philosophical discussions - for those, Talking Philosophy is increasingly likely to be the place. (I did mention that Talking Philosophy gets more traffic ... not all that much more, though, and it deserves more, so I'm urging you folks to follow it and participate in the debates there.)

Okay, so that's now official. Please don't go away, dear audience, but also please understand why I can't now run this blog quite as I did through 2010 and 2011 in particular.