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).

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Dodging my way through the week

Had my semi-regular gastroscopy today - related to a reflux problem, blah, blah. This procedure is painless and easy to recover from, so don't ever hesitate to have it done if indicated by chronic reflux or other relevant symptoms.

However, it wiped out the whole day, as there were some emergencies that apparently came up for the doctor and threw out his schedule. That's all fine - I got some reading done. Now I just have to await the results.

As I previously mentioned, my father had to have an eye operation at short notice last Friday. He's been recovering since and has been staying at my sister's place. Tomorrow night he'll move in here for a few days - which is also fine: we're well set up for that. All in all, though, a bit of a tricky week here, what with Jenny supposed to attend a conference in Sydney, over the weekend, while I am supposed to be preparing to attend this year's AAP conference, which starts on Sunday (however, I'll be pulling out of most of it - I still hope to turn up and give a paper, but if so it'll be a half-baked one this time).

Monday, June 25, 2012

Moar cat poems!!

Jenny on the need for more poems about cats, or at least her current success in placing cat poems -most recently one in the high-circulation NSW School Magazine:
Oddly, it's NOT one of the, ahem, three cat poems that I read at Continuum 8 (which was a marvellously warm and friendly Con, and all praise to the organisers). I was one of four people reading, in a batch including Kelly Link; I'd been deputed to read something suitable for kids, and I wasn't all that enthused about the idea of reading MY prose after Kelly's prose. Cat poems seemed the perfect answer [...]
From all accounts (I had a clash and couldn't get to it), the cat-poem reading at the convention was a great success.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sunday supervillainy - some responses to the Northstar/Kyle wedding

First a non-villainous response from Mayor Bloomberg's office. Sample:

Chris Coffey of the NYC Mayor's Office of Media & Entertainment spoke with CBR News about the move and what New York hopes to achieve in participating in the historic issue. "We've had this partnership with Marvel that goes back to the special edition they did of Peter Parker trying to find a job with some of the city resources that were available. The city was really pleased with the partnership and thinks Marvel is a great corporate citizen," Coffey told CBR. "So from the city's point of view, we're always looking at new ways that we can get a message out -- whether that's through more traditional ways like television, radio, newspapers, blogs and digital media or others. And this presented a real interesting way to get a message out to folks.

A more villainous response comes from an organisation called the National Organization for Marriage.

Brian S. Brown, whose five-year-old nonprofit group is dedicated to fighting same-sex marriage, is troubled not just by the Marvel comic depicting the wedding of Northstar and Kyle Jinadu but by the real-life ceremony it inspired at Midtown Comics in New York City. However, Brown, whose job is to help ensure state legislatures don’t pass marriage-equality laws — or if they do, that they’re overturned by ballot measures — isn’t bothered by the wedding of two men, either fictional or real. Heck, he even wishes Midtown couple Scott Everhart and Jason Welker well, offering a not-at-all-condescending “bless him” to the former.

So it’s not that; oh, no. It’s the crass commercialization of the whole thing.

Yeah, yeah, okay. You can follow up for yourself what Brown has to say about all this in his original piece. Another sample to, um, whet your appetite:

A comic book shop in New York City spotted a commercial opportunity, a chance for some nice publicity, according to LifeSiteNews.

They decided to fund an all-expenses paid wedding for two lucky guys, in their comic book store.

No, I'm not making this up.

Scott Everhart, bless him, at 39 years of age, saw an opportunity of his own. He applied online to win the comic book store wedding prize—and waited to tell his partner Jason until he was asked by the store to come in for an interview.

"That's when I broke the news to [Welker] and kind of proposed at the same time," he said.

Thor Parker, social media and events director at Midtown Comics, said, "They really stood out as super fans."

After the ceremony the store sold copies of Astonishing X-Men No. 51, which features Northstar and Kyle tying the knot.

(Same-sex weddings are becoming commonplace in comic books, from Archie to X-Men. Batwoman—originally a love interest for Batman—has become a lesbian.)

Why am I telling you this story? I don't know Scott or Jason and I wish them both well.

But something is wrong when huge companies push gay marriage into children's literature in order to make money. Something is wrong when a comic book store decides to host a wedding, again for commercial purposes. And something is really wrong when a man proposes because, well, somebody else is going to help pay for the wedding and it might mean a cool trip to New York City.

Somewhere there may be some foolish man and woman getting married in a comic book store. But nobody else is paying for it and nobody in the media is covering it.

Are we really supposed to believe in the "sanctity" of gay comic book weddings?

The promotion of gay marriage continues apace.
Hmmm, to adapt an old song title ... smells like mean spirit.


Review here.

He concludes: "Freedom of Religion & the Secular State could not be more timely. If it becomes a standard text in colleges and universities, and, more generally, became a handy reference to those intimately concerned with questions regarding the separation of religion and state, then possibly, despite continuing heat over the subject, a little cool reflection could mediate the divide."

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Whoa! Salvation Army on practising homosexuals

This is food for thought - a Salvation Army guy is stuck with the extreme homophobia in the Christian scriptures.


As of this morning, it seems that my father's eye operation late yesterday afternoon was a lot more successful than we understood last night. Best news I've had for a long time! (This is proving to be a difficult year at my end, for one reason or another, but hopefully it will end up at least being a productive one.)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Fascinating just-released information from the last Australian census

This is worth linking to. Note the size of the "no religion" group, which has now moved well of ahead of self-identifying Anglicans.

School chaplaincy program struck down by High Court ... but there is a big "but"

Yesterday, the High Court of Australia struck down the program by which school chaplains are federally funded.

There's a very big "but", however. As almost everyone was predicting (I was among them, but it was not a bold prediction), the case failed in respect of what passes for a "separation of church and state" clause in the Australian Constitution. The relevant section, section 116, will continue to be interpreted in a way that doesn't prevent very much, short of an attempt by the federal government to create an established church (which I actually think is about the least of our worries).

Thus, this is hardly a great victory for secularism, or church/state separation, or any similar concept.

Rather, the scheme failed because its financing was established in a way that exceeded the powers of the executive government at federal level. It should have been backed with legislation.

Accordingly, the government could rectify things simply by enacting legislation - and this would probably have support from the opposition (which is, in fact, the former government that came up with the scheme in the first place!). As the scheme appears to have many flaws - including the fundamental one of what are chaplains doing in state schools? - we should welcome the fact that there will be an opportunity for public debate before any legislation passes through parliament.

And we can certainly be pleased about another aspect. Since the opponents of the scheme won the case, they'll not have to pay the other side's legal costs, and will get some of their own costs paid by the Commonwealth. Scripture Union, which runs the scheme, has not had a costs order made against it.

Of course. the outcome is pleasing up to a point ... but no, this is not especially a step towards a more secular Australia.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Lots of personal/family, etc., stuff happening here

... not all of it good. Maybe I'll be a bit scarce over the next few days. At least, I have been today.

Am just back from my first meeting as a newly appointed Board member of the Hunter Writers Centre, which is fine. The rest of my life seems to be a bit complicated - basically because of health issues in the family - but never mind. Hopefully it'll all work out.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A little respect - on Jean Kazez, trees, and the constraints on our actions

Jean Kazez has a lovely post about her recent trip to Northern California, complete with some beautiful photos of the local flora. Here's her great pic of a mighty sequoia in the Yosemite National Park.

Amongst it, I found this thoughtful paragraph on the subject of respect, and specifically respect for trees:
I'm going with the idea that respecting trees does make sense, but we've got to reject one idea about respect if we're going to apply the concept this way. Kant and Taylor both see respect as an equalizer. If you respect X and respect Y, then you've got to respect them equally. If your respect dictates you have to protect X, then you have to protect Y to the same degree. In my book about respect for animals, I reject that sort of egalitarianism as it applies to members of different animal species, and you're going to be even more obliged to reject it if you think trees and other plants are owed respect.

So, what is it for something to be owed respect? I doubt that judgments that "X is owed respect" are ever objective in the sense of binding on all rational beings, irrespective of their desires, attitudes, and values, but the language becomes awkward if we always try to reflect this. It makes sense to me to talk, albeit perhaps not strictly, about certain things requiring respect from us. It's an issue that I discussed some years ago when I wrote an article (much more than just a review) in response to Margaret Somerville's The Ethical Canary (this piece was originally published in Quadrant, but I've linked to version on my website).

Somerville talks a great deal about "respect", "profound respect", and the like. But again, what is respect, in any event? I wrote as follows:

Although Somerville does not put it in quite this way, it is arguable that to respect X, taken at its broadest, is to perceive X as a providing a constraint on our own spontaneity and self-interest. We must take it into account before we act unthinkingly, or as we think best for ourselves. This idea coincides with one definition of "respect" in The Macquarie Dictionary: "consideration or regard, as to something that might influence a choice". The idea is present if I state that I respect the power of the storm—I will not go driving in it, much less put out to sea, but will stay at home in relative safety.

In other contexts, X's influence on my choice might be moral rather than prudential, and it is this idea of respect as the perception of a moral constraint that I have in mind in the following paragraphs. There are other senses of the word "respect" in which we do not respect every human being whom we encounter, or read or hear about. Some individuals do not seem to deserve our esteem or deference, certainly not our reverence. But we do treat our fellows—all of them—as morally constraining our ability to act without thought, or wholly in our own interests. We must give their separate interests at least some regard.

When asked how other humans can impose this kind of constraint upon us, we may say that it arises from the fact that they possess certain attributes which we cannot ignore. In the case of other adults, these include sentience, self-consciousness, rationality, moral agency, autonomy, the ability to formulate life plans, deep inner experience, and the burden of mortality that they share with us (I owe this composite list to thinkers as various as Bertrand Russell, Robert Nozick, Peter Singer and Raimond Gaita).

Babies and children, it is true, do not possess all of these attributes, but they possess others that may compel us to have regard to their interests, making them seem uniquely compelling subjects for our care and kindness. Not least important are their developing human minds and personalities, and their social dependence if they are to grow and flourish. We are not absolute slaves to the interests of any child in our vicinity, but the welfare of a child is always something we must take into account when our actions, or inactions, touch upon it.

Non-human animals possess few of the attributes I have mentioned, but they do possess sentience, to varying degrees, and some appear capable of suffering in ways that include, yet go beyond, physical pain. These attributes of animals may be enough to create moral limits on how we can treat them. If we think about this seriously, we may feel compelled to become a vegetarians, though it is not clear that this is morally required of an historically omnivorous species such as ours. Perhaps an appropriate response is to kill with the minimum of cruelty, use as much of the animal's carcass as possible to minimise waste and slaughter, perhaps enjoy our meat with a sense of thankfulness tinged with regret. At the least, we may owe it to some animals to ensure that they are not subjected to extreme pain or to lives of suffering.

What about non-sentient things? Even these may constrain our actions morally, either because they have intrinsic value or because they have derivative value—harming them may harm other human beings or other sentient animals. Some forests and gardens may have sentimental, aesthetic or utilitarian value which requires that we treat them in particular ways. Certain individual trees that are famous throughout the world, such as the General Grant redwood in the US and the magnificent Tule Tree in Mexico, seem to possess extraordinary value, though there is room for argument as to whether this is intrinsic or derivative. To destroy or harm them would seem acts of reprehensible vandalism. The same can apply to works of art, as evidenced by the widespread sadness and condemnation provoked by the Taliban's destruction of the Buddha statues which it characterised as idols, or to certain landscapes and seascapes. It is meaningful to say that all these should be treated with respect: they cannot, morally, be treated however you or I like.

At the same time as I was pondering The Ethical Canary, I also read Rosaleen Love's delightful Reefscape: reflections on the Great Barrier Reef, which also expresses a sense of the connectedness of biological nature, including humankind. However, despite sharing with Somerville a penchant for that clichéd and irritating phrase "other ways of knowing", Love resists the attractions of worshipful "spirituality" and puts a level-headed, convincing plea for the Reef's remarkable beauty and unexpected fragility. Her words must surely resonate with anyone who has ever lived in or visited north Queensland. If I needed convincing, I am entirely convinced that the Reef's "intricacy and beauty" impose a moral constraint on our actions. We cannot just treat the Reef however we like, but must have regard for it, respect it. It is not exactly a matter of respecting its "interests" but, at one extreme, it would be morally wrong to destroy such a thing spitefully or on a whim.

What is interesting about this spread of cases is that the kinds of respect we show to a human adult (whom we may or may not hold in high esteem), a child, a baby, a non-human life form, some other natural phenomenon, or a cultural artifact involve quite varying moral obligations. It is not sufficient to state that "X should be treated with respect" for somebody to read off precisely how we should conduct ourselves in regard to X.

In the case of another human adult, I may sometimes feel constrained to accept decisions that strike me as foolish and self-destructive; that, of course, is the problem about paternalism. While I have an obligation to pay regard to the welfare of another adult with whom I interact, I must also respect her wishes, even if these clash with my perception of her welfare. She may want to take a course of action that I perceive to be harmful, such as using dangerous drugs, lightly abandoning a valuable friendship or a career with good prospects, or frittering away her time and money gambling. While I may take some actions, such as attempts at persuasion, in the hope that she will not do these things, there are many situations where my respect for her autonomy outweighs not only my perceptions about my own interests but even my perceptions about where her best interests lie.

With a young child, paternalism and autonomy are not such issues: my overriding obligation is to avoid harming the child and to protect and nurture her if she falls into my care, even when this means thwarting her own desires and plans. However, there are moral problems about the lengths I may go to in an endeavour to mould her personality to suit my own convenience, or my idiosyncratic beliefs and values. The case of non-human animals is different again.

In a case such as the Great Barrier Reef, what is called for is surely some kind of individual and collective care in preserving the seascape and the wider environment that sustains it. While that much is not controversial, it leaves room for detailed debate about development, climatology, marine science and similar matters. Nonetheless, if we agree that the Reef must be respected in a particular way, that it constrains specific aspects of what we can do unthinkingly or selfishly, we might reach consensus on these more detailed and technical problems. In any event, our goal is surely not to avoid hurt to the Reef's feelings, for example, or to offer it our reverence by never vacationing elsewhere.

It is salutary to be reminded from time to time that a fellow human being, a suffering animal, a beautiful, fragile seascape should be treated with respect. But this does not tell us just what we are obliged to do or refrain from doing, exactly how the person, animal or thing provides moral constraints on our actions. To the extent that we can know what these constraints are in a particular case, the knowledge comes from an appreciation of the person or thing concerned and an understanding, or intuitive sense, of its relevant attributes. The word "respect", then, can sum up the existence of moral constraints. It can also give a useful reminder to stop and look beyond ourselves, but it does not, in itself, contain any detailed normative content. We respect many and various things, and behave towards them in equally various ways.

As I argue in this piece, respect involves perceiving some sort of constraint on how you ought to treat someone or something. It means that you can't do just anything, but must take something beyond yourself into account. The idea actually fits in quite well with ideas of objectification - not treating others as merely fungible or solely as means to our own ends. However, we have reasons not even to treat all non-personal things in this way. Those reasons may require that we have certain desires, values, and attitudes, but they are none the less real for that. On the other hand, respect need not amount to reverence - what is needed is simply a reason to take something about the thing or person (e.g. a person's interests, feelings, etc.) into account.

Finally, I agree with Jean Kazez that not all things that we respect, or perceive as worthy of respect, must be respected or protected to the same degree. Nothing about the concept of respect, at least as I understand it, seems to make that demand.

House of Representatives report on same-sex marriage

The newly-released report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs can be found here, if you haven't already tracked it down. It includes a list of submissions that have been published, with many of the usual suspects. In some cases, we can be pretty sure of what they say ... in other cases, it would be interesting to look it up:
1 Amnesty International Australia
2 Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law

3 The Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG
4 Sikh Council of Australia
5 Lutheran Church of Australia
6 Quakers Australia
7 Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays
8 Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby
9 Public Interest Advocacy Centre Ltd
10 Australian Human Rights Commission
11 Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney
12 Hindu Council of Australia
13 Australian Catholic Bishops Conference
14 Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne
15 Coalition of Celebrant Associations
16 Chinese Methodist Church in Australia
17 Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils Inc.
18 The Salvation Army Australia Southern Territory
19 Lawyers for the Preservation of the Definition of Marriage
20 TransGender Victoria
21 Australian Christian Lobby
22 Law Council of Australia
23 Union for Progressive Judaism
24 Seventh-day Adventist Church
26 Engage Celebrants
27 Episcopal Assembly of Oceania
28 FamilyVoice Australia
29 Rabbinical Council of Victoria
30 Australian Marriage Equality
31 Australian Family Association
32 The Hon. Trevor Khan MLC
33 ACT Legislative Assembly
34 Liberty Victoria
35 Ambrose Centre for Religious Liberty
36 Democratic Labor Party of Australia
37 Australian Marriage Forum
38 The Hon. Mr Greg Donnelly MLC
39 The Australian Psychological Society Limited
40 Castan Centre for Human Rights Law
41 Association of Australian Christadelphian Ecclesias
42 UnitingJustice Australia
Overall, the inquiry received about 276,000 submissions - not a bad proportion of the total Australian electorate - with about two thirds apparently favouring provision for same-sex marriage. The Australian Labor Party is allowing a conscience vote in parliament, but the Liberals/Nationals will vote as a block against same-sex marriage, ensuring that the reform cannot succeed at this stage. There are some rumblings about a conscience vote from that side of parliament, but right now it appears unlikely to happen.

Predictably, the report is inconclusive on the actual merits of same-sex marriage ... which is probably appropriate. I'm not sure that it is the job of a parliamentary committee like this to purport to determine the merits of such an issue. The final chapter commences:

This was an inquiry held to examine legal and social issues relating to the two bills, and the effectiveness of each bill in achieving its stated purpose. It was not an inquiry to determine the merits of same-sex marriage. It is for the Parliament to determine the passage of the bill and this report aims to inform the Parliament in its debate on the text and outcome of each bill.

The report does offer more technical advice on the drafting of the Bills that are currently before parliament - so we will probably seem them being amended. In any event the report is important if only for demonstrating how strong the support for state recognition of same-sex marriage has become in Australia.

Monday, June 18, 2012

A round-up of posts on Continuum 8

See over here, then follow the links. Obviously no convention is without occasional strong disagreements - whether it's people on panels, or overheard conversations about the merits of award winners, or whatever - but, really, this was a wonderful convention. It was full of warmth and affection, professional support and good will, and above all a strong sense of community.

This is what the convention experience should be like. It was one of the best such experiences I've had in the many, many conventions that I've attended for the past 30+ years. Well done, organisers.

(Bonus photo courtesy of Art Bébé Promotions.)

Currently reading The New Religious Intolerance by Martha Nussbaum

Actually, I'm re-reading this book. I read it for the first time a few weeks ago, having received a review copy from The Philosophers' Magazine. I've decided I need to give it a second reading before I can write a decent review of it.

So, a review is on its way (i.e. on its way to be written). The book is really about intolerance of Islam, something that concerns Nussbaum greatly, but it has some useful discussion of broader issues relating to freedom of religion. There is some good material, but Nussbaum really bends over backwards to be accommodating of Islam and its canons of conduct. I am actually on her side in opposing comprehensive bans on wearing the burqa in public, but is there really nothing problematic about the burqa? Nothing? Not even when parents require little girls to wear the damn thing?

For more, you'll need to see my review in TPM.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Supreme Court of British Columbia upholds physician assisted suicide

I comment briefly at Talking Philosophy. See here for the actual judgment - and here for a story in The Globe and Mail.

All good news in my opinion, but there will likely be an appeal.

H/T Udo Schuklenk (whose report came up in the case, and who is quoted in the Globe and Mail story).

Sunday Supervillainy (2) - the Rogneto thing to be resolved at last?

Marvel's September solicits include this interesting item and cover:

X-MEN LEGACY #273 & 274
Christos Gage (w)
Rafa Sandoval (a) Issue #273
DAVID BALDEON (a) Issue #274
Issue # 273 -
• Trapped in another world and caught in the middle of a war between two alien tribes, Rogue races to end the conflict and find a way home!
• And with the Phoenix poised to raze the Earth, will Rogue make it back in time to aid her fellow X-Men?
Issue # 274 -
• In the aftermath of AvX, Rogue and Magneto are reunited! And he’s got an offer for Rogue that may just leave her speechless…
32 PGS. (EACH)/Rated T+ …$2.99 (EACH)

Sooo, what's happening here? Is Marvel going to resolve the Magneto/Rogue villain/heroine relationship at last? Will they be married off ... or maybe split up? Or is this some kind of misdirection, and the offer that Magneto is going to make to Rogue will be something completely different and out of left field? What else might he offer her if it's not something like marriage? Hmmm.

As it follows immediately from the current Avengers vs. X-Men event ... well, two things. 1. We can now be confident that both of these characters will survive the event. 2. It could take place in a very changed Marvel Universe. And given 1. and 2., surely the biggest villains, like Magneto and Doctor Doom, will have power plays to make.

I'm getting the popcorn ready.

Tom Flynn on overpopulation

Good post by Tom Flynn over on the CFI site.

"The scientific community has spoken many times," Stanford's Paul R. Ehrlich told The Chronicle of Higher Education. "But nobody's paying any attention." Ehrlich, an occasional contributor to Free Inquiry, is best remembered for his 1968 book The Population Bomb which predicted imminent catastrophe due to population pressures. The specific disasters Ehrlich foresaw did not occur when he said they would. Ever since, believers that overpopulation is not a threat have pointed to Ehrlich as an example of "Chicken Little" thinking. Yet if the disasters Ehrlich foretold failed to unfold in the 1970s -- partly due to developments in agriculture and technology that may have bought humanity a few decades -- they seem to be looming now. Look at depleted fish stocks, growing shortages of freshwater, and commodity prices continuing to climb despite a worldwide recession, to name just a few.
In  my article on overpopulation in The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (which you all need in your university libraries, as it's a wonderful resource - end of shameless plug), I wrote:

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, projections of a peaking global population in the middle of the century, combined with a declining birthrate in European and Western nations, had reduced Malthusian fears. Declines in national birthrates, more than global overpopulation, had become a focus of political attention in European and Western countries.

Nonetheless, the Earth's carrying capacity remains under stress, huge conurbations continue to grow in the developing nations, and there is the specter of massive unregulated migration to the industrialized First World. This opens the way for science fiction writers to explore a possible future of racial and cultural clashes, as demographic issues play themselves out through the twenty-first century.

Some years later, this still seems to be correct. The problem turned out to be less urgent than people like Ehrlich feared in the 1960s. I should add that it has little to do with whether people are living longer in Western countries, and further extensions in life span would have little effect. What really matter are female fertility rates (go and do some calculations yourself if you don't believe me). But the world remains under threat to its carrying capacity, and this will get worse as more countries industrialise (something that we can hardly deny to those countries).

We'll probably see some stabilisation of the global population in a few decades, but meanwhile a lot of further damage could be done. There's a limit to what can be achieved here, and some of it will have to involve steps to bring down the environmental impact per person in an industrialised country. Unfortunately, there's little political will to achieve this - or so it appears from the pathetic outcomes of negotiations on how to address global warming.

But we can certainly be more sceptical about pro-natalist policies and memes. People who think about the future, such as science fiction writers, could maybe be a bit more encouraged not to forget this threat to the well-being of future people and the environment, despite the events that led them away from it in relatively recent times.

Btw, anyone know any really solid works of fiction that actually do focus on this ... written over the last eight years, say, since I last researched the issue in some depth?

Sunday supervillainy - bigots, homophobes, and gay superheroes

Have a look at this post by Tauriq Moosa about gay superheroes and the "million moms" campaign against them. The post is well worth a look in its own right, but take a few minutes to scroll down and read some of the comments (the topic generated a long thread).

It turns my stomach to see the number of bigots and homophobes - and they don't bother to hide it or equivocate in any way. But even worse, note who are getting the most "likes": generally speaking, it's the aforementioned bigots and homophobes. So ... just a small lesson in what we are up against in a world that is still full of irrational bigotry. Again, kudos to Marvel (and DC, too, though what it is doing seems less exciting) for showing what appears to be genuine friendliness toward the gay community.

Sunday superheroism - Aurora and Northstar at Northstar's same-sex wedding

I like the brother and sister love thing going on here - involving Aurora and Northstar. It's from the newly-released preview to Astonishing X-Men #51, which has been much-anticipated (surely one of the most anticipated single issues of a mainstream superhero comic in recent years).

So we'll finally get to see the wedding between Northstar and Kyle (it feels like we've been waiting forever).

Hey, I'm sometimes critical of pop and geek culture, much as I love them, and not least of aspects of comics. But in this case, Marvel deserves nothing but praise. It's all a friendly gesture to the gay community, and from what we've seen so far it's being done with class.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A bit more on In Defence of Freedom of Speech

On thing that I especially like about this book - In Defence of Freedom of Speech by Chris Berg - is the way it recounts the history of freedom of speech as a concept in Western political thought. In doing so, it goes back to the trial of Socrates and even earlier.

I'm fascinated by the history of ideas, so I love a good book that tries to place our modern philosophical and political concepts in historical perspective. If this is done well, it is an excellent way of digging into what has really bugged people in a certain area, and how that has contributed to the concepts that we have today. That's not to say that we now ought to be bound by whatever it was that concerned people in the past, but the record of what did concern them provides clues as to what modern people may have in mind with a particular concept, why many of our concepts defy coherent explication (perhaps because not-entirely-consistent meanings are getting forced into one package), and what sorts of things may be bugging people even now - whether or not they are clearly articulated.

So, I'm always willing to read narratives involving the history of ideas.

(And I can't resist mentioning that Freedom of Religion and the Secular State also does a fair bit of this (in dealing with such ideas as religious tolerance, freedom of religion, secularism, etc.).)

Berg digs pretty deeply into the ancient conceptions of freedom of speech - those of Greece and Rome - so much so, in fact, that I have to take his word for some of this. I'd have to do a fair bit of checking to be independently confident that he's right when, for example, he discusses the classical  Athenian conception as predominantly about a social responsibility to speak your mind frankly, clearly, and directly to your fellow citizens. It was not seen so much as an individual right of self-expression.

If this is correct, it helps explain why the Athenians' conception of what we'd now call freedom of speech did little to help Socrates.

While it is difficult to get much of a handle on the historical Socrates, given the literary, tendentious, and somewhat conflicting nature of our sources, it is at least plausible that his fellows disliked him partly because he did not speak frankly, clearly, and directly, but engaged, instead, in a kind of philosophical discourse that was calculated to lead people into contradiction and confusion - thus exposing the vagueness and incoherence in their concepts. I'd like to read some more about this (and Berg offers some starting points in the scholarly literature).

In any event, In Defence of Freedom of Speech does an enjoyable job of examining different conceptions of this freedom through the ages, different justifications for it, and different concerns that it has addressed. In the end, Berg justifies freedom of speech on strongly libertarian and individualistic grounds - as something needed for our moral autonomy - and is lukewarm about other justifications, such as its importance in the search for truth or for the functioning of democratic processes. This leads him to a position considerably more absolute than my own (as I mentioned yesterday).

But that is actually rather refreshing! It's nice to read a truly forthright defence of our freedom to express ourselves, when so many contemporary thinkers seem to think this freedom is rather unimportant and should be trumped by many other considerations.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Currently reading: In Defence of Freedom of Speech

I'm currently halfway through Chris Berg's In Defence of Freedom of Speech: From Ancient Greece to Andrew Bolt. At this stage, it's a fascinating book, and it's written in a nice, clear, pleasant style; it packs in a lot of information in an enjoyable manner.

The book is very much what you might expect with that sub-title: it is tracking through the intellectual history of concepts of free speech, and the various justifications that have been used to support the idea. It's filling in some gaps in my knowledge - something that is always welcome - and I'm particularly enjoying Berg's account of various Enlightenment-era debates.

I guess that anything that is going to be very controversial from my point of view is yet to come: Berg is really just starting to foreshadow what his ultimate philosophical emphasis will be, and how it applies to contemporary societies, especially Australia. But even if I find I disagree with some of the analysis in the second half - we'll see, we'll see - the book is worth a read just for the first half. Besides, I'm not looking to have all my prejudices catered for; I'd prefers to have something that will challenge them. I'm guessing that Berg will be more sympathetic to Andrew Bolt than I am, but if so let's see (and consider) the argument.

More generally, we sorely need a debate about freedom of speech in Australia. Ideas of free speech seem to be under attack wherever I look. I detail some of my more specific concerns about this in my chapter in Warren Bonett's The Australian Book of Atheism, which I encourage you all to read (both my chapter, in particular, and the entire book). In the circumstances, Berg's full-length attempt to generate public debate, and to defend one of our most fundamental freedoms, is a laudable project. I'll probably say a bit more about it (perhaps elsewhere) when I've finished reading, but meanwhile I'm glad to have broached this volume.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Continuum 8 highlights

As I mentioned in the previous post, highlights of Continuum 8 included seeing friends whom I wish I could spend time with more often (I've linked to just two of the "snapshots" on Jason Nahrung's fine blog (where I have a snapshot of my own), but could certainly have linked to many others!).

There were some other highlights, though. One was that I'd put myself down to give a reading - something I don't always do, as it's not as if I write a huge amount of fiction. Anyway, I read from my story "The King with Three Daughters" - published in 2000 in the Ellen Datlow/Terri Windling anthology Black Heart, Ivory Bones. This was an interesting experience, since it's many years now since I'd last looked at the story, and it seemed almost like a piece by another writer. (To be honest, Jenny talked me into reading from this particular story, as it is my one and only attempt at a fairytale retelling ... and fairytale retellings were something of a leitmotif on the convention program.)

To make a long story short (as it were), I think that "The King with Three Daughters" has its flaws - that's hardly surprising, as it's typical for me to see nothing but flaws in my own work, once it's published. I won't reveal what I see as flaws, but they're there ... and I'm sure that other writers know this feeling.

But at the same time, I was pleasantly surprised by the story's strengths, especially at how powerfully the voice of the first-person narrator comes across. He's a hardened veteran soldier in an imagined medieval Scandinavia; his voice is full of distaste, even self-disgust, at how he's been exploited and what he's done. As a result, "The King with Three Daughters" reads well in public performance (regardless of whether I had the qualities as an actor and performer to convey what it was conveying to me!). Even though I had a tiny audience, I was mainly immersed in the text as something to be performed and brought alive from the page, and in finding that it brushed up really well for the purpose. I'll definitely use it in this way again, if I get another good opportunity. (In fact, all of my stories are written to be read aloud, and I pay endless attention to the cadences of the prose, but whether they succeed in that way is entirely another thing.)

On this occasion, the experience of doing a reading made me feel that my small body of work in the field of (roughly) heroic fantasy might have more value than I'd imagined ... and that it might be worthwhile getting some of this material back into print, if only I can. That was a nice, and unexpected, feeling.

Another highlight was simply watching Jenny as she moderated a couple of panels (unfortunately I couldn't get to her poetry reading, which went very well by all accounts). She really is a highly skilled moderator, and future conventions (or organisers) ought to bear this in mind. I joked on Twitter that I taught her everything she knows about moderating ... and, hey, it's true that I taught her some techniques. But she may well be better than me these days - even though moderating panels is something that I enjoy greatly and take pride in and brag about just a little.

Perhaps best of all was Jason Nahrung's session of interviewing Alison Goodman - in lieu of a guest-of-honour speech from Alison. Jason did a smooth job as interviewer, while Alison was fascinating as an interviewee. I could listen to her all day once she gets onto her favourite topic: the craft of writing fiction. This was great, memorable, useful stuff.

Somewhere amongst it all, I also appeared on four panels in addition to my reading (moderating one of them: on science fiction and religion). My panel on "Where are the wonderwomen?" was especially interesting, given that we've been talking about similar topics quite a bit on this blog. I also did an interview with Adam Ford (about human enhancement technologies), and I expect this will make it onto the internet at some stage.

I enjoyed the fine cuisine of Melbourne, and - hey! - Jenny and I caught up with lovely Alison Kennedy (who did not attend the convention, but deserves a shout out anyway ... Ali has as many degrees as me, i.e. an almost ridiculous number, but she's currently working mainly on her painting, which is just one impressive side to her amazing talents).

All in all, this was a great week away from home. I hope to do it again soon.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

If it's Tuesday night , I must be home in Newcastle

I'm back from the national science fiction convention, Continuum 8, which was an enjoyable experience. Highlights included - as always with these things - time spent with friends whom I wish I saw more often. (You know who you are!) With luck, I'll post tomorrow on some other highlights. Still, it's nice to be home.

A piece on moral authoritarianism and "objectification"

This should be compulsory reading at school, college, university - as an antidote for all the poorly reasoned ideology relating to so-called "objectification" that so many people get brainwashed into.

If there is a deplorable action of "objectifying" people, it has to be something much more  than merely having regard to the physicality and beauty of their bodies. Human bodies are, indeed, physical things, and can be considered "objects" in that sense. As objects, they are endlessly fascinating, often beautiful - appropriate subjects (!) for art, for admiration, for eroticism. We only objectify people, in a deplorable sense, when we treat them as objects in a different sense of that word - as things with no interests of their own that we ought to take into account, or as solely means to our ends.

And this will only make sense in circumstances where taking into account their interests is relevant (it may not be very relevant, or relevant at all, in a vast range of circumstances where my actions have no particular effect on someone else's interests).

I propose that, whenever it is relevant, we always treat people with kindness and consideration, taking into account their interests and wishes as well as our own. If we do that, we are not objectifying them. But we might also stop shouting "Objectification!" at the drop of a hat. This sort of language just plays into the hands of moral conservatives, who will use their (naive) concept of objectification to try to prevent all sorts of positive, joyful things.

H/T Jennifer Wilson

Sunday, June 10, 2012

"The ethical issues are clear" - really?

So, we might be able to use gene therapy to eliminate mitochondrial disease. Sounds good to me! Surely research on this should go ahead, yes? Well, not so fast - of course there is opposition to it and a law against it.

It would be nice if journalists would spell out what exactly the ethical issues are when they insert lazy wording such as, "The ethical issues raised by the procedure are clear but for many doctors these are overridden by the chance to prevent life-threatening disease."

Presumably the issues are as per the previous sentence, "While gene therapy (inserting healthy genes) has been used to treat patients in the past, this marks a new level of human genetic modification, and sets a precedent by introducing genetic changes that pass down to future generations." But why is that a problem in itself? Why should anyone imagine that there is something intrinsically bad about that? If it's used for some harmful purpose it's a bad action, but just describing the action without reference to its purpose or its consequences seems to leave the issue of what the "ethical issues" might be entirely opaque.

It seems like a nice case to discuss in my forthcoming book, Humanity Enhanced, although I actually propose to defend more radical uses of biotechnology than this.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

New Faiths for New Worlds (i.e. religion in science fiction and fantasy)

I'm chairing a panel on this topic in about half an hour. Should be interesting - and it's the first time ever, as far as I recall, that Jenny and I have ended up being on the same panel at a convention.

The panel will be looking at literary issues, such as how realistically science fiction and fantasy writers portray actual or imagined religions. What are good examples and bad examples of this kind of world building. We won't be coming to blows over whether any religion is actually true. Incidentally, Jenny was on a similar panel at a convention last year, and was the only atheist. I think it's all atheists and only one religious person this time. I think most science fiction fans and professionals are atheists, though the picture may be a bit different with fantasy - there are going to be plenty of people who follow Wicca or some other kind of spiritual belief system that falls outside traditional kinds of monotheism.

Anyhow, should be an interesting panel. Later in the day, I'm on a panel about human enhancement technologies - the subject of one the books that I'm currently working on, Humanity Enhanced (to be published by MIT Press).

Snapshot for Alison Goodman

And here is the snapshot for Alison Goodman, whom I'm also very pleased and proud to have a friend. Alison is guest of honour at Continuum 8, Australia's national science fiction convention for 2012.

Snapshot for Janeen Webb

While we're talking about the "snapshot" interviews of people associated with Australian science fiction and fantasy, here's the one for my dear friend Janeen Webb.

"Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends."

Friday, June 08, 2012

Here I am again...

... in Melbourne, where I've just registered at the counter at the national science fiction convention.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Here I am...

... holed up in a nice motel room in Euroa. All is well. I do like a long drive to help clear my head, though it's not as clear as it should be as there was some smoke around in southern New South Wales. Must be some burning off going on. At least it's nothing like this; in fact, Victoria has been experiencing floods, and apparently some roads (though not ours) are still blocked.

Death of Ray Bradbury

Have just heard about this.

Am in the midst of packing, unfortunately, but let me just say quickly that Ray Bradbury's death is the end of an era - he was one of the greats, an immense, and immensely influential, talent. I'm sure there will be many posts and articles today doing him more justice than I am in just this quick notice.

It doesn't seem that long ago that Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and, of course, Bradbury, were all still with us. :(

Hitting the road

I'm off to Continuum 8, the 2012 national science fiction convention (which is being held in Melbourne this year). I have a fairly busy schedule there, but still hope to have some fun. As always, am looking forward to catching up with friends.

If any of y'all are going - see you there!

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

"Norway goes secular"

This is an interesting story about a decision in Norway to remove the Lutheran Church as the state religion. It doesn't seem to be a total removal, as the royal family will still be required to belong to the church, and there will apparently still be some other constitutional recognition given to it. On the gripping hand, it does appear that any formal political power still enjoyed by the church will now be removed, as will any formal political control of it. We're told that, "The current requirement for at least half of all government ministers to be members of the Church will also be scrapped, and even the minister of church affairs will no longer need to belong to the church."

That is more important - a higher priority - than removing every vestige of establishment where it already exists.

In the longer term, of course, I don't see any role for established churches, even relatively harmless ones. Or for royal families, if it comes to that! They are all silly anachronisms that we could well do without.

H/T Jerry Coyne, among others.

Tales to astonish!! (Vatican condemns liberal views on sex!!)

Well strike me blind, whoever would have thought that the Vatican would take this attitude? I'm totally scratching my head about it all.
The Vatican has condemned an American nun for writing a book in which she praises female masturbation and approves divorce and gay sex and marriage, warning that the book must not be used by Catholic educators.
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/world/vatican-throws-the-book-at-nuns-understanding-views-on-sexuality-20120605-1zub1.html#ixzz1wy0g1adY

Okay, folks,  I'm as revolted by the miserable morality of the Roman Catholic Church as anyone else. But just lately my Twitter feed has been full of people who are acting surprised. Really, how did you all expect them to react to such a book?

Of course it flies in the face of the Church's moral teachings, which it considers authoritative. Not that I want to make that sound like a bad thing.

Jason Nahrung interviews Russell Blackford

Over here - go and enjoy it (or whatever).

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

My sessions at Continuum 8

Here are my sessions on the program of the national science fiction in Melbourne next weekend.

Continuum 8 @ Rydges on Swanston, 701 Swanston Street Carlton

Sessions |Timetable | Tags | People

Russell Blackford

Participating in Events:
New Faiths For New Worlds Saturday 10:00 until Saturday 11:00 (60 Minutes)
Humanity Enhanced Saturday 15:00 until Saturday 16:00 (60 Minutes)
Apocalypses Through The Ages Sunday 14:00 until Sunday 15:00 (60 Minutes)
Where Are All The Wonder Women? Sunday 16:00 until Sunday 17:00 (60 Minutes)
Readings Monday 11:00 until Monday 12:00 (60 Minutes)

Monday, June 04, 2012

"Snapshot" of Jenny Blackford

Jason Nahrung and others are conducting a series of short interviews with people associated with the Australian science fiction/fantasy community.

Here is the interview with Jenny, posted today.

You’ve had some poetry published recently, after a long hiatus, and one ventures the new stuff is quite different to your first piece in Dolly all those years ago: what do you think has inspired you to not only return to poetry, but poetry of a decidedly darker (?) nature?

As to what has inspired me to return to poetry -– the real question is why I ever stopped writing it. Apparently, I just gave up quietly in my final dispiriting years of high school. The poetry writing asserted itself naturally a few years ago and took a while to nose its way out into the world.

And as to the alleged new darkness: not all my recent poems are dark. My poem forthcoming from The School Magazine is a fairly sweet little thing about a cat (though some might think ‘soft silk sack of bones’ has a slightly sinister edge). And my most recent poetry publication (in Star*Line 35.1 is another sweetish cat poem (though it does start with the potentially sinister ‘Gravity is stern as death’, and does ascribe uncanny powers to cats.) Hmmm…

I wish I could find my copy of ‘Ti-trees Rising’, the poem that was printed in Dolly back in the ’70s, but it seems to have disappeared from my filing system. It’s about ti-tree scrub, but I do distinctly remember the words ‘reptilian silver’ and ‘the cold moon in the dark’, so there’s at least a smidge of a sinister edge there as well.

Getting deeper: it’s true that the definitely dark ‘Mirror’ was my first poem for decades, but it’s based on memories from my teens. I was totally convinced that I saw someone else’s eyes looking back at me in the mirror, and I was terrified. Back then, I’m sure family and friends would have been horrified if I’d put all that fear and darkness into a poem. Now that I’m grown up, I’m allowed to.

That poem about ti-trees that they're discussing was Jenny's first professional sale, made when she was still a teenager in high school - and it also won a regional poetry prize. I hope she does manage to find the damn thing.

I want to read it!

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Sunday superstuff (no villainy this week) - More on Northstar's wedding

Gay superhero Northstar (the white guy with the pointy ears, for those who are not familiar with him) gets married to his boyfriend, Kyle, in Astonishing X-Men #51 ... in the latest expression of support for the gay community from the comics industry, and specifically from Marvel. There is a preview here, with some nice images.

Given that same-sex marriages can now be legally recognised in the state of New York, it's more than appropriate for the comics industry and medium to be showing a same-sex wedding in New York City. Partly, Marvel is celebrating social progress in the real world, however hard won (and fiercely opposed) this progress is turning out to be.

Let's hope that the gains can be held in the real world, even as they're reflected in fictional worlds.

The wedding itself looks cute, with many of Marvel's characters from the X-Men/mutant side of the Marvel Universe shown as in attendance. I wonder whether we'll get villains invading festivities as happened way, way back when Reed Richards and Sue Storm got married (surely Marvel is more sophisticated than that these days!).

As a nice touch, it looks as if Northstar's sister, Aurora, is going to be acting in something like the traditional "best man" role, providing the rings and generally tidying her brother up and sorting him out. I look forward to seeing all this artwork with dialogue so we can find out exactly what is going on. But yeah, it looks like a lovely wedding!

Avengers addendum!

Box Office Mojo is usually a day or so behind, and often a bit more with takings outside of the US. But in any event, it has now caught up as far as last Friday - showing The Avengers now going ahead of The Dark Knight in raw dollars grossed in the US (making it number # 3, measured in that way, behind Avatar and Titanic). And it has now also passed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 in worldwide box-office gross (making it number # 3, again behind Avatar and Titanic).

In inflation-adjusted terms, it is still somewhat behind The Dark Knight in the US domestic market, but will (I'm confident) eventually overtake it. It will not overtake such classics as Gone with the Wind (1939), Star Wars (1977), and Sound of Music (1965), and will probably settle in the end into somewhere in the mid to high 20s on the list of all-time US grosses, adjusted for inflation. Perhaps it will end up in about the same territory as such huge successes of their time as Mary Poppins (1964), Thunderball (1965) and Grease (1978).

But that puts it in impressive company. It's actually very difficult (for me, at least) to compare the performances of movies from different generations. You can adjust for inflation, at least within a particular market, but there are many other imponderables to make fair comparisons difficult. Some of those imponderables give advantages to earlier movies.  Still, one way or another, we can say that The Avengers is turning out to be one of the most commercially successful movies of all time.

And as a further addendum, I will slightly tweak the heading of the previous post in case anyone reading it quickly thinks I'll no longer be blogging at all!