Monday, December 24, 2007

Attempts' Top Ten Posts of 2007

Every time I say something like this I seem to turn around and put up another post within moments, but as currently planned this is my final post for 2007 -- a "best-of" list seems like a good note to end on. Happy New Year to all of my Noble Readers, and (FSM willing) I'll see you in January.

Listing one's own top ten for the year is a meme I've seen elsewhere -- at Hugo Schwyzer's blog, for one -- and I think it's a good one.

I must admit that I could easily have listed twenty. While a lot of posts on this blog are quite intentionally just little squibs, or time-deliminated pieces, I do put a lot of work into my more substantial posts, and I think they tend to hold up well. So after having a look at these ten, if you want more, explore the archives in the sidebar.

Note that unlike some bloggers, I am not listing these in order -- choosing ten was difficult enough! So, alphabetically, here are my ten favorite of my own posts of this year. Check 'em out if you missed 'em:

1. 100 Greatest Pages: Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby, page 131
2. 100 Greatest Pages: J T Waldman's Megillat Esther, page 84
In all honesty, I could probably make a top ten list just from this series: the twelve entries to date are among my very favorite pieces I've done. But I decided, arbitrarily, to limit myself to two. I choose these because I think they may be my best analyses in the series... although on another day I might choose a different two. If you want to read more, indexes of the entire series to date are here: by creator, by title. (And, yes, I do intend to continue the series -- when I find the time, for they are very labor-intensive posts.)

3. Absolution Requires a Commitment Not to Repeat the Sin
A political post: it makes an important point, I think.

4. Changing My Name: A Tale with An Announcement in Lieu of a Moral.
A personal essay.

5. Covering Cerebus (an eight-part series)
I'm cheating here by including this eight-post series as a single entry. But I definitely conceived it as a single long essay, so I'll put it up as one. This is a discussion -- not quite a review -- of Dave Sim's monumental comics series Cerebus, including a lengthy discussion of the covers.

6. Deamonte Driver is Dead and You Can Thank Bill Kristol
Another political post: this one was written in the heat of anger... but despite that, or maybe because of it, I think it holds up. Poor Deamonte Driver!

7. Grief and the Uses of Grief
I put this up on 9/11 this year; but despite a bit of politics, it's really about death and how we relate to death.

8. The Justifications of the Prayers of the War Prayer
The third more-or-less purely political post on this list. This one's all about Iraq.

9. The Writer as Werwolfe: Mixed Thoughts on a Wizard Knight
A long, decidedly mixed review of a two-volume novel by one of my favorite writers, Gene Wolfe. It's hard to review Wolfe, because he's so devious that you're always afraid you're missing something; and it's hard to give a negative review to a writer you like enormously. But I think this came out well just the same.

10. A Zen Tale
Far briefer than the others -- and, unlike them, not really an essay (i.e. not really an "attempt" as I see it). But I like the piece, so I'm including it here.

Bonus round: favorite new feature: random sidebar quotes. This isn't a post as such, but I've wanted to do some version of the random quotes I put over in the sidebar ever since I began this blog. So I'm glad they're there. Reload the page for a new quote; or, if you want to read all the quotes, the entire file is here.

If anyone reading has a blog and put up a top-ten (or howevermany) of their own, please post a link in comments. Or (yeah, right) if anyone remembers fondly any of my other posts from this year, you can mention those too. Otherwise, just enjoy!

See you next year.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Recent Links, End of the Year Edition

Let's clear out the "hey this was good, I should link to it on my blog" folder before the year's out....


• I think this Mark Schmitt piece about the "theory of change" primary is the most interesting analysis of the Democratic field I've read.

• Commentary from some of the best political bloggers out there on the telecoms and illegal wiretapping: Scott Horton on illegal wiretapping; Glenn Greenwald on the same; and Greenwald again on the crucial by temporary victory that was won.

• Also from Scott Horton, an essay on the squandering of our posterity's possibilities.

Darius Rejali writes about the role that democracies have played in developing & spreading torture in the last century. Important historical context for our times.

Michael Pollan in the NY Times on our unsustainable food industry. Chilling.

Mitt Romney wrestles the facts, & looses. Not all that significant, but funny.


You're a Good Man, John Stewart Mill. This one is awesome. (Source.)

Harvey Pekar & Nick Bertozzi on politics.


Caleb Crain writes in the New Yorker about what life would (will?) be like in the post-literate age.

• Your BoingBoing-Did-You-Click-Through?™ link of the week: Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my very favorite authors; this interview with him about the climate (in both the environmental & political) was quite good.

John Scalzi wants your head to explode.

(Update) Christmas Links:

Ezra Klein posts a classic Christmas wish from Steve Martin. Hilarious.

• On a more serious note, Glenn Greenwald has some thoughts on the use and abuse of Christmas wishes.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

From the Annals of Wonderfully Wacky Holiday Gifts

Prepare to turn green with jealousy, Noble Readers: I now have the holiday gift to end all holiday gifts, the single artifact towards which all Western Civilization -- nay, billions of years of evolution -- has been striving, the single thing that all right-thinking people want most.

Behold... B-movie victim action figures!

Click for a larger image. -- C'mon. You know you can't resist. If you can't read what the guy on the far right is saying, you aren't getting the full experience.

I particularly like the play suggestion from the back of the box. Take a gander:

Don't you like how the "you provide the monster" was exemplified with a one-eyed teddy bear? I thought you did.

All I need now is a Cute Galactus, and my toy collection will be Complete...

(Imagine that last word said a Jedi voice (Have you ever noticed how the Jedi are really into completion? That and not underestimating.))

I can only hope everyone else's holidays are going half as well...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Why My Laughter at Jonah Goldberg's Risible Book Rings Hollow

Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascists is now out, and various left-wing blogs -- especially Sadly, No!, which is definitely the go-to blog on this particular topic -- are having themselves a roar of laughter over it. (Actually, left blogs have been mocking it since well-before its publication; but more so now that they've got the book in hand, unsurprisingly.) And, of course, they're right -- any book that includes chapters titles like "Adolf Hitler: Man of the Left" deserves little more than simple laughter and mockery. It's patently silly at best. I mean, it's like people took seriously ridiculous things like stories about the world being six thousand years old and dinosaurs co-existing with humans...

Oh, wait.

Which is why, funny as I find all this stuff, I can't quite get behind the spirit of mockery. I mean, I know that they're probably right -- that (apart from simply ignoring it) mockery is probably the best response to stuff like this. But I actually find it quite disturbing that this sort of up-is-down-ism will likely seep into the national discourse... and that soon newspapers like the NY Times will be reporting on the issue in their classic "opinions on the shape of the Earth differ" fashion we've all come to know and love.

(It's worth remembering here that Goldberg himself is hardly a marginal figure in our national discourse: in addition to being an editor at the National Review, Goldberg is a columnist in the L.A. Times.)

And I'm remembering stories like this:
I have now received three (3) student papers that discuss Iraq’s attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11. All three papers mention it as an aside to another point. I’ve had two papers on the virtue of forgiveness that argue that if we had just forgiven Iraq for the 9/11 attacks, we wouldn’t be at war right now. I just read a paper on the problem of evil which asked why God allowed “the Iraq’s” to attack us on 9/11. The thing that upsets me most here is that the the students don’t just believe that that Iraq was behind 9/11. This is a big fact in their minds, that leaps out at them, whenever they think about the state of the world.
And I worry that John Cole is right about the likely outcome of all this:
The most depressing thing about Jonah Goldberg’s new book is that this whole “liberals are fascist” argument is going to morph from something idiot frat boys would argue after three credit hours in poly sci. and a dozen Mickey’s Big Mouth and would be laughed out of the room to something that idiots like Peggy Noonan and David brooks will peddle with straight faces on Hardball.

Our national historical memory is messed up enough as it is. So even if Goldberg's book is worth nothing but scorn, I can't quite laugh whole-heartedly at it. Too many of us are too likely to swallow this nonsense whole... and then we'll have to battle with these falsehoods the rest of our lives.

I don't know what we can do. Ignore it, I guess (obviously I'm failing at that one!). I'd also like to see some comments on the book that take the time (and have the stomach) to actually demonstrate what nonsense it is, and not simply assume (as Sadly, No is doing) that it's just obvious. (I'm looking forward to Dave Neiwert's forthcoming review; and I hope there will be a lot more.) Since while it should be obvious, if it were that obvious it wouldn't have been published. And if obvious truths were so easy to uphold, our national discourse would be a lot healthier than it is.

Update: David Neiwert offers a small beginning of a serious demolition (rather than mocking demolition) at the link; more is promised soon. Meanwhile, mockery continues apace: Michael Berube may not match Sadly, No! for quantity (their ongoing look at the book continues here and here), but he gives them a run for their money in quality. Worth a look. In other Goldberg blogging: Ezra Klein has a nice quip: "Even after accounting for the fact that Jonah Goldberg's book is worse than you can imagine, it's still worse than you can imagine. " And finally brief-but-scornful reactions from Tim F., Matthew Duss and Andrew Sullivan.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Liberal Society Must Tolerate Proselytizers -- Even if They're Atheists

Matt Ygelsias links to an essay by Damon Linker in the New Republic about the so-called "New Atheists" -- "Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens". Ygelsias links to it with a hearty amen added, saying:
In a raw power struggle between people who, like Harris, want public schools "announce the death of God" and those who want them to indoctrinate us all in the Gospel, the numbers aren't on the side of the non-believers and the outcome is unlikely to be a happy one for anyone. The liberal consensus, by contrast, has served the country well and undermining it from the point of view of ideological atheism is really no better than undermining it from any other direction.
But I think that both Ygelsias and Linker are conflating two different positions here. They are doing so partly because some of the new atheists say things that can be read both ways, or even make the occasional remark which can be read in the more extreme of the two positions. But they might also be doing so partly out of a less admirable motive too (although, given the two, different ones).

There are three basic points of view, I think, that an atheist can take towards the religious majority:

1) They're wrong, but so long as they don't use the government to force their religion on me, who cares?
2) They're wrong, and I'm going to try to convince them of this fact;
3) They're wrong, and I'm going to damn well make them see this -- by any means necessary.

Almost all atheists, in my experience, are in group one -- and as such can join their hands with a great number of religious people who also don't want their beliefs forced on others. This is the all-important coalition of people who believe in a secular government -- and, given the nature of the Republican party right now, it is a coalition that is hardly assured of winning. That is to say, position one is not really a blasé "who cares", but a more stern, "there are theocrats here, they are the main danger -- keep your eye on the ball". Yglesias is clearly in this camp.

But some atheists are genuinely in group two: they want to try to proselytize to believers, and convert them into nonbelievers. In various ways Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens are all in this camp.*

Linker, however, portrays them as in camp three, and therefore has an argument (familiar in the political world from the likes of David Broder) of the "both sides are extremists" category: Huckabee wants to force his religion down our throats, Dawkins wants to force his atheism in the same direction. (Put aside for the moment the obvious (and, indeed, important) retort that Huckabee has a reasonable shot of winning the presidency, whereas atheists can hardly get elected dog-catcher in this country.)

Now, Linker is absolutely right that Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens all say things that blur the line between two and three at times. (I don't think Dennett does; and as I've said before, I think that it's wrong to lump Dennett in with the other three, although Linker is hardly the only one to do so.) Linker begins his essay with a good example here:
"I am persuaded," [Dawkins] explains, "that the phrase 'child abuse' is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell." Why Dawkins refuses to take this idea to its logical conclusion--to say that raising a child in a religious tradition, like other forms of child abuse, should be considered a crime punishable by the state--is a mystery, for it follows directly from the character of his atheism.
Now, it's worth pointing out that Dawkins doesn't take this claim to its logical conclusion; that he doesn't argue for prosecuting religious parents, and in fact argues for greater (secular) religious education in the schools. This is why I think the overall thrust of Dawkins's position -- and the other new atheists' too -- is in the proselytizing, not forcing, category. (I do wish, however, that Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens would be more careful about not stepping over that line; not calling teaching basic religious doctrine to children "child abuse" would be a very good place to start.)

But Linker does not acknowledge the existence of a stable position between one and three: between the "as long as Government stays neutral" category, and the "make Government do our bidding" category. For that matter, neither, really, does Matt Yglesias. Why Linker does not I won't speculate. But I think that Yglesias does it in the interests of keeping the secular coalition strong.

This is a big impulse among some on the left. Given the power of theocratic believers in this country, they argue, we should simply focus on keeping religion out of politics together. And I see their point, I really do: theocracy is a scarily powerful tendency in this country, and it's important to keep atheists aligned with theists of good will, who believe in freedom of conscience and a secular government.

But -- if you'll forgive me for putting it this way, tongue at least half in cheek -- if atheists can't proselytize for their beliefs (even if just out of fear of religious backlash), then the theocrats have already won.

No one says to believers that they shouldn't go out and try to convince people that they're right. Believers of nearly every faith try, in various ways, to convince others that they're right. From Chabadniks trying to get secular Jews to do mitzvahs to missionaries who go door-to-door to people who hand out Chick tracts, believers try to convert non-believers a lot. And as long as they don't make the government take sides -- whether with their own particular beliefs or with belief in general against non-belief -- that's just fine and dandy, precisely what you'd want to see in a free society.

And at their best, that's all that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens are doing from the point of view of atheism. I grant, as I said already, that some of the statements of some of them can slide into the implication that the Government should get involved. But for the most part they are simply the proselytizers on the other side.

Linker writes:
To be liberal in the classical sense is to accept intellectual variety--and the social complexity that goes with it--as the ineradicable condition of a free society. It is to accept, in other words, that, although I may settle the question of God to my personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all of my fellow citizens will settle it in the same way--that differences in life experience, social class, intelligence, and the capacity for introspection will invariably prevent a free community from reaching unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Liberal atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists do not. That, in the end, is what separates the atheism of Socrates from the atheism of the French Revolution.
But Linker is conflating two issues here -- acceptance in intellectual debate, versus acceptance in a social/political sense -- and ignoring a crucial intermediate position. He is ignoring the point of view that one might be a forceful, even domineering, proponent of a position in intellectual life, while still supporting whole-heartedly the liberal consensus in a political sense. Yglesias, too, is scaring us with nonsense about atheists who "want public schools "announce the death of God"" in order to keep our eye on the preservation of a secular society -- or, really, a secular government.

The issue here is not the French Revolutionaries, but Voltaire, who both mocked religion and famously said "I disagree with what he says, but I will defend to the death his right to say it." In a baby-and-bathwater move, Linker seems to be lumping Voltaire in with the French Revolutionaries, and ruling them all out of bounds. (To be sure, some say that Voltaire led to the French Revolution; but that's like saying that Christianity leads to Crusades. Both can; neither must; we must simply keep the one from becoming the other.)

Or would Linker and Yglesias argue that any vigorous proselytizing -- which inevitably includes scorn for other positions -- is out of bounds in a free society? I find this hard to believe; rather, a society which sees vigorous proselytizing as out of bounds can't in any reasonable way be called free.

Which is to say: while I don't share what Linker characterizes as a "visceral contempt for the personal faith of others", I don't see this as a problem so long as it remains in the realm of ideas. After all, a great many believers think that nonbelievers are Satan's minions, or at the very least going to be tortured for all eternity for their beliefs. It's hard to get more contemptuous than that! Now, again, I don't claim (as DH&H might, at least in their more careless moments) that all religious beliefs are that contemptuous -- but some are. Just as not all atheists are -- but some are. And if the former isn't seen as harming a liberal, secular society, the latter shouldn't be seen as doing so either.

Linker (and Yglesias) are correct that people are right to be "nervous about the future of secular liberalism, to perceive that it needs passionate, eloquent defenders". But being one of the "passionate defenders" of secular liberalism's not what DDH&H are trying to do (at least primarily). They are trying to do something else -- to actively advocate for their own (metaphysical, not political) position. The freedom to do so (as Linker hints (in what could be uncharitably read as a veiled threat)) is dependent upon the existence of a secular, liberal society. But it is unreasonable to squash their advocacy in the name of not frightening those who are ambivalent about such a society.

I see Linker and Ygelsias's position as the equivalent of those who used to say to Jews: don't stand out, don't look too Jewish in public, or take too many Jewish holidays -- it might stir up antisemitism! Those people might, at times, have been right. But the necessity of their saying so was a sign of the weakness of liberal society -- and, ultimately, their saying it was also a weakening of it.

DH&H (I'm not so sure about Dennett) aren't working to preserve a liberal, secular society -- at least not primarily -- although I don't have any doubt that they all are in favor of one. They are trying to convert others. As an atheist, that isn't something I'm particularly interested in doing. But as a believer in a liberal, secular society, I think that it's something that we ought to see -- just as we ought to see Christians and Jews and Muslims and Scientologists and Hindus and what-have-you trying to convince people that they are right. It's all in the marketplace of ideas -- which, sometimes, involves calling other people names.

I think politeness is always a good idea (which is one reason I wouldn't say some things that DDH&H say). But I think that politeness can't be enforced in a liberal society -- and it certainly can't be enforced, as Linker seems to want, against atheists but not against theists.

Linker seems to think that a liberal, secular society requires that atheists shut up -- not argue their position forcefully to believers. I think that any liberal society that requires advocates of any intellectual position, argued simply as such, -- religious or atheist or anything else -- to shut up for fear of the consequences, hardly deserves the name. If that's where we are, then the battle's already lost.

I don't agree with a lot of what DDH&H say -- I don't think that religion is always a negative thing (although I agree with DH&H that it is, on the merits, false); I wouldn't use their rhetoric to describe it, and think that they often attack only the simplest versions of religion out there (albeit with some justification). But we have to fight for their right to say it, without fear of a political backlash, as part of the fight for a society we would wish to live in -- all of us, believers and nonbelievers alike.

* Disclosure time: I haven't actually read Hitchens's book, where as I have read Dawkins's God Delusion, Dennett's Breaking the Spell, and Harris's two books, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. I don't intend to read Hitchens's book for a wide variety of reasons, but I've read enough of his articles and interviews that I feel like I know where he comes from. But I suppose you should take my characterizations of Hitchens with more salt than my characterizations of the other three writers on that list.

Ten More Still-Fresh Links

I've said this once before, but I'll say it again: lots of things on the web are evergreens: just as good a year from now as a year ago. Pieces whose virtue are not bound by historical moment. Worth your attention.

So here are another ten evergreens, previously-linked links which are still just as good as when I last linked 'em. As I did last time, I've linked to my previous comments (if, indeed, there were any, I didn't just include the link in a list). But these are all pretty much self-explanatory, so have a look.

1. Craig Conley's Collection of Blank Maps (Link to my earlier comments)
2. Jess Nevins's essay on the history of literary cross-overs
3. Terry Bisson's classic short story "They're Made of Meat"
4. Ian Monk's oulipian writings (Linked to in this post)
5. Web comic: Pup Ponders the Heat Death of the Universe (Linked to in this post)
6. Cory Doctorow's novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (previous link)
7. Bruce Springsteen's single "Radio Nowhere", from his new album Magic* (new link; my previous comments are here).
8. Garfield with the titular character's speech bubbles removed (link to my previous comments)
9. Wallace Stevens reading his poem "The Snow Man" (it's a youtube video: ignore the visuals and just listen)
10. ...and all ten of the evergreens linked to in my previous re-link post.

* Okay, I'm cheating a bit here: I only previously linked to the one single. But while I'm at it I'll mention that you can listen to the whole album on-line; and the entire album is awesome. (I know: duh, it's Springsteen, right? Even so.)

Correction: I was wrong: that site only had samples of the songs. But the album has been uploaded to youtube; click there & follow the related links.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

George Bush, Torturer -- and War Criminal

The latest evidence, from a long and excellent post by Scott Horton:
...this week, a CIA agent, John Kiriakou, appeared, first on ABC News and then in an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, and explained just how the system works. When we want to torture someone (and it is torture he said, no one involved with these techniques would ever think anything different), we have to write it up. The team leader of the torture team proposes what torture techniques will be used and when. He sends it to the Deputy Chief of Operations at the CIA. And there it is reviewed by the hierarchy of the Company. Then the proposal is passed to the Justice Department to be reviewed, blessed, and it is passed to the National Security Council in the White House, to be reviewed and approved. The NSC is chaired, of course, by George W. Bush, whose personal authority is invoked for each and every instance of torture authorized. And, according to Kiriakou as well as others, Bush’s answer is never “no.” He has never found a case where he didn’t find torture was appropriate. [emphasis added]
Oh, and it wasn't just Bush either:
David Addington, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley—these are all name we can now link directly to the torture system. Not just as a matter of theory. As a matter of practical application. They decided who would be tortured and how.
Horton then goes on to talk about how the new attorney general is busy covering up these crimes. Read the whole thing.

And of course the leading Congressional Democrats were complicit in these crimes. Which is probably why they won't impeach Bush -- they knew of, approved and aided his crimes.

Not that impeachment would be enough. We are long past, light-years past, the point where impeachment would suffice for Bush's crimes. He should be tried for war crimes, and should spend the rest of his life rotting in jail.

And no kids should ever go hungry. Which is about as likely.

The question is not how long our country will take to wash this stain off its soul, and to repair the assault on the constitution that this war criminal has perpetrated. The question is whether or not it ever will.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Hey, I Won a Mug!

Some of you may remember that a while back ScienceBlogs, a site run by Seed magazine which hosts a lot of, well, science blogs, ran a contest to celebrate their 500,000th comment. Anyone who commented was automatically entered. The grand prize was a trip to England; runners-up got a mug.

I got a mug.

Actually, for some reason, I got two mugs -- both delivered today, in separate packages. Must've been a human error.

Anyway, I thought I would share. Here are the mugs, front and back:
I particularly liked this detail on the back of the mug, next to the measuring gradations:
Thanks, Scienceblogs!

And I should plug Pharyngula, where I posted my winning comment. Always a blog worth a read. Other ScienceBlogs from my blog roll: A Blog Around the Clock; The Intersection; Dispatches from the Culture Wars; EvolutionBlog; The Loom; Mixing Memory; and Thoughts from Kansas.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Buried in Snow, Too Tired to Work...

...might as well surf the web.

This is what it looks like right now in Ithaca, New York:

(From Cornell's web cam.) So here are some links worth following which I've come across since, well, my last miscellaneous link-round up.

By categories:


This NY Book Review review of two books on the Iraq invasion in 2003 is very well written and quite horrifying -- and good corrective to the bloodless version that persists in our cultural memory.

An example of why the DMCA is ridiculous. For those who like humor in their politics. (via)

Paul Krugman on why calling Dick Cheney Darth Vader is actually too kind.

• There is a lot more on politics right now -- a lot of which has to do with the Democrats desperately trying to be as bad as the Republicans; see, e.g., Congressional Democrats complicity in Bush's torture regime and their pathetic caving on the budget. Mostly it's too depressing to think about. But if you want to look on the bright side, Steve Fraser at TomDispatch has you covered. The key quote:
What if the opposition is vacillating, incoherent, and weak-willed -- labels critics have reasonably pinned on the Democrats? Bad as that undoubtedly is, I don't think it will matter, not in the short run at least.

Take the presidential campaign of 1932 as an instructive example. The crisis of the Great Depression was systemic, but the response of the Democratic Party and its candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- though few remember this now -- was hardly daring. In many ways, it was not very different from that of Republican President Herbert Hoover; nor was there a great deal of militant opposition in the streets, not in 1932 anyway, hardly more than the woeful degree of organized mass resistance we see today despite all the Bush administration's provocations.

Yet the New Deal followed. And not only the New Deal, but an era of social protest, including labor, racial, and farmer insurgencies, without which there would have been no New Deal or Great Society. May something analogous happen in the years ahead? No one can know. But a door is about to open.
As for why that door might be about to open... read the whole thing. Best case for political optimism I've seen in a long while.


Last week's Opus was particularly funny -- and while it pretended to be about politics, it was really about language.

This week's This Modern World is good too.

Morpheus: Neil Gaiman meets the Matrix, drawn by Sandman artist Marc Hempel (via the co-creator of one of the Morpheus's.)

And not one but two essays on 60's Marvel Comics:

• Andrew Rilestone is characteristically interesting on Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and the the question of who created Spiderman.

• And Kate Willaert is equally interesting in arguing that writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby had very different takes on Sue Storm (the sole female member of the Fantastic Four) -- which are still decipherable in the final product.

(Both of these are of specialized interest, I'll admit, but if you're uncertain about whether or not you'd be interested, click the link -- they both have wider interest than their subjects suggest.)

Misc Humor

Nietzsche's anti-Kant attack ad.

Why are there pink lights on my bridge? (From Dave's Long Box.)

Things That From a Long Way Off Look Like Flies

Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker on why IQs are rising, and what that means about what IQ tests measure. My favorite bit:
The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test [which asks people to sort things by category, e.g. mammals with mammals]: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories.
1000 Frames of Hitchcock boils each Hitchcock film down to 1000 frames: a marvelous exercise in Ou-X-po-style reduction, and a fascinating way to look at the films. (via (IIRC))

• Very sad news for Fantasy fans: Terry Pratchett has Alzheimer's. I'm keeping my hopes up for good results with new treatments, and wish Terry all the best.

Why time seems to slow down in emergencies. (via)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Round-up of Responses to Romney's Religious Ramblings

Here are some of the things I've read about Romney's big speech this week. (I don't agree with them all, although obviously I've chosen ones that I found interesting -- and it's probably fair to say I agree with the common thread among them all.) I've tried to encapsulate the responses in the quotes I've chosen, but of course to get a real sense of what any particular commentator said, you should click through and read their whole post.

Kevin Drum: "deeply offensive... Not only does Romney not have the guts to toss in even a single passing phrase about the nonreligious, as JFK did, he went out of his way to insist that "freedom requires religion," that no movement of conscience is possible without religion, and that judges had better respect our "foundation of faith" lest our country's entire greatness disappear."

David Brooks: "There was not even a perfunctory sentence showing respect for the nonreligious. I’m assuming that Romney left that out in order to generate howls of outrage in the liberal press... In rallying the armies of faith against their supposed enemies, Romney waved away any theological distinctions among them with the brush of his hand. In this calculus, the faithful become a tribe, marked by ethnic pride, a shared sense of victimization and all the other markers of identity politics. In Romney’s account, faith ends up as wishy-washy as the most New Age-y secularism. In arguing that the faithful are brothers in a common struggle, Romney insisted that all religions share an equal devotion to all good things. Really? Then why not choose the one with the prettiest buildings?"

Matt Yglesias: "if Romney had wanted to say that the nature of his beliefs about Jesus are irrelevant to the campaign, fine. Similarly, if he'd actually wanted to avoid discussing Mormon theology, fine. But he didn't stick to it. Instead, what he wanted to do was discuss just enough about Mormon theology to make it seem as similar as possible to orthodox Christianity while underscoring the idea that the nature of his belief in Christ is relevant to the campaign just insofar as his beliefs overlap with those of the Evangelical Protestants whose votes he's courting."

Fred Clark: "If freedom requires religion, then the a-religious and irreligious, the non-religious and un-religious are the enemies of freedom. Romney believes, in other words, that atheism is incompatible with freedom. Whatever it is he means by "religious liberty," he does not believe it can safely be applied to atheists. Keep in mind that this is Mitt "double Guantanamo" Romney talking -- he's made it clear what he wants to do to those he regards as the enemies of freedom."

Hugo Schwyzer: " 'any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me.' ... Yikes. I hit my knees a lot, Mitt, and I worship the same Almighty you do. I’m heartened to hear you will be my friend and ally. Tell me, will you also be a friend and ally to my mother, who does not believe in God?... A real commitment to diversity is embracing not only all believers, but embracing all those who are in varying states of unbelief. I say this as a Christian who loves Jesus, and I say it on behalf of those whom I love who share my convictions — and those whom I love who don’t."

Ezra Klein 1
: "What Romney's speech today seeks to do is construct a new "us versus them." Where Huckabee was having some success making the us equal "Christians" and the them equal "Mormons," Romney is making the us equal "believers" and the them equal "atheists." The bet is that voters hate "secularists" more than they're unsettled by Mormons, and that if Romney can set himself up as the foremost opponent of atheists in public life, that will be more important than precisely which version of Jesus he believes in, or how many planets he'll be given to rule after his death. It's a speech calling for tolerance, that hinges on a public display of intolerance. It's classic Romney, and totally disgusting."

Ezra Klein 2
: "there were really two speeches within it. The first 846 words, which were a Kennedy-esque denunciation of elevating religion into political litmus test, and then the rest of the speech, in which Romney elevated his religion into a litmus test, said his faith, and belief in Christ, ensured that he passed it, and then warned the Christian Right to focus on their real enemy: the secular left.... [given the clips the news shows are playing,] Most viewers will experience only the first portion of the speech. Theyll only hear Romney playing Kennedy. But the bits from the second part will undoubtedly receive prominent play within the evangelical community. The speech they will experience is the one in which Romney declares "freedom requires religion." They will hear Romney playing religious warrior, and promising to further destroy the walls between church and state. "

Eric Kleefeld, reporting for TPM: "A spokesman for the Mitt Romney campaign is thus far refusing to say whether Romney sees any positive role in America for atheists and other non-believers, after Election Central inquired about the topic yesterday"

Mark Kleinman: "Romney's recitation of the religious traditions he admires includes only monotheist failths. I'm not surprised he left out pagans and wiccans, but excluding Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Native American traditions couldn't have been accidental, could it? When Romney says: "any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty has a friend and ally in me" he seems to mean that literally: that to be his "friend and ally" you must practice a religion that acknowledges one Almighty God."

David Frum
(via): "Romney is saying: It is legitimate to ask a candidate, "Is Jesus the son of God?" But it is illegitimate to ask a candidate, "Is Jesus the brother of Lucifer?""

Atrios: "It's completely appropriate that Mitt was introduced by George HW Bush, the man who once said, "No, I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God." to give a speech which included the line "freedom requires religion.""

Steve Benen: "This wasn’t the JFK speech; it was the anti-JFK speech. Kennedy believed in an “absolute” separation of church and state; Romney believes government neutrality on matters of faith is a mistake. Kennedy believed in leaving religious institutions free of government aid or favor; Romney believes the government must take an active role in preventing secularism from taking over. Romney didn’t echo the wise words of John F. Kennedy; he repudiated them."

...And if you want still more reactions, you can read Joan Walsh, the Rude Pundit (very much NSFW), more from Ezra Klein, more from Steve Benen (and still more), the NYT editorial board, Melissa McEwan, P. Z. Myers, Charles Pierce, Juan Cole, Andrew Sullivan, Peterr at Firedoglake, Digby, and a more mixed response from Russell Arben Fox. Tbogg quotes some right-wing raves here, and (here) links to still more over here.

(Update: Links added.)

Update 2: More from Fred Clark here.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Ten Pet Peeves About Blog Layout

I'm busy these days, which leads to both procrastination and to being grumpy. Hence this post.

Much of the following may not be under an individual blogger's control -- it may be up to the system the blogger uses. And, of course, as on anything, YMMV. But here are some things that bug me.

1. No second page of main-page material.

If I get all the way down to the bottom of your front page, chances are I'd like to keep scrolling. Many blogs have a "next page" button, or something equivalent ("older posts", "next X posts", etc.). Some don't. I wish they did.

While I'm at it, give us a decent number of posts on the first page, ok? Ten at least. Don't just give us two or three -- it's irritating.

2. No easy link to the home page from individual pages.

If I click through to a specific post on a new-to-me blog and find it interesting, I might want to check out the main page. The link to do so should be obvious and big -- the title of the blog, right there at the top, is a natural place for it. I shouldn't have to hunt around for a small "home page" link somewhere -- I might not be that interested.

3. No easy access to archives.

If I click on an archive link, particularly a content-type link, I should get all the posts on the content -- or at least the first page of a series of those (see #1, above). I hate it when I get only the most recent posts on a topic -- and when there seems to be no way to get at the rest.

4. No easy access to an individual post's permalink.

If I want to link to a post, don't make me hunt around for the link. Make it obvious -- even better, put it in multiple places: the time stamp and the title bar, say.

5. Comments on a pop-up window only page.

Some blogs have comments on a page which opens in your current browser window, with the post visible on top. This, to my mind, is the proper format as dictated to Moses as Sinai. Others have little pop-up windows, that won't open in the main browser, and open in little windows. I hate those -- and am far less likely to read the comments in blogs that do that.

6. Blogs with tiny, thin main columns.

Let us see more than a few words of text at a time. Please.

7. Linking to videos without the least indication what their content is.

I've sort of gotten use to this for text pieces -- you know, links with only a "this is funny" attached to it -- but for videos, I really want to know what I'm getting into before I click over: they take longer to load, annoy other people if any are about and/or make me turn off the music to hear the sound, etc. Give some sort of hint, huh?

8. Keeping most of a post on the front page, but putting a bit behind a "read-more" tag.

If you're going to put the whole post on the front page -- which in my book is usually a good thing, except in cases of spoilers, lengthy technical discussions, picture-heavy posts, etc. -- then put the whole thing on the front page. If you're not, then don't give us enough of the post to really get us reading for a while and then make us click through -- just give us a bit. (The worst form of this is the false "read-more" tag -- when the read-more leads just to comments, or nothing at all.)

9. Multiple-author blogs should let us know who's writing a post at the top, not just at the bottom.

Let us know who we're reading, folks. (Honestly, didn't Patrick already cover this?) People who use guest-bloggers, this means you!

10. No best-of.

This one is less of a pet peeve than a preference -- the others are things that actively annoy me; this is just a feature that I like. A lot of blogs have some sort of "greatest-hits" list in their side-bar: I like that, because if I find a new blog, it lets me get a sense of what sort of thing they do quickly, and often read some good material.

I love the blogosphere, folks, but really: on these I gotta say Bah. Humbug.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Chappy Chanukah!

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah, and some people know just how to celebrate:

Oh, and by the way? This was in New York !@#$% City. (At Balducci's, a store about which I know nothing.)

Image blatantly lifted from here, which got it from here, which got it from the source -- which has several more, plus the news that "As of Tuesday morning 12/4, the hams are now tagged with green 'Perfect for the Holidays!' signs."

As it says in the Hebrew Bible: Oi.

Well, however you celebrate it -- or even if you don't -- I wish everyone a happy Festival of Lights.

(Housekeeping: this blog will continue to be on low-frequency, largely-link posting through much of December. I hope to resume more frequent postings after that.)

Friday, November 30, 2007

Licensed Comics and Actor's Likenesses

I came across an interesting assertion in a review of the recent Angel comic presenting the sequel to the five-season Buffy spinoff ("season six", sorta, although they're not calling it that -- Johanna, from whom I got the link to the review, implies it's for contractual reasons, although I don't know the details). Anyway, in his review of the first issue, KC Carlson writes:
Franco Urru, is the regular artist for this series and does a very creditable job in relation to other media-related (“licensed”) titles. It’s always hard to judge the artwork in licensed titles, because you never know if the book has been okayed to use the actual actors’ likenesses, or if the likenesses were denied, and the artist must use generic likeness (or the third, worst-case scenario: likeness have been approved, but the artist cannot draw likenesses.) I’m guessing that in this case, since the property has been dormant, that actor likenesses weren’t even bothered with (they often add much $$$ to a budget), so that Urru has been instructed to keep the faces generic.
"...if the book has been okayed to use the actual actor's likenesses..."? Huh?? I never knew this was an issue; I always assumed that the rights to make a comic of the show included the rights to make the characters look like the actors. Quite frankly, it seems totally bizarre to me to imagine doing a comic based on a TV show (or movie) on any other terms.

Whenever the comics characters don't look like the actors, I always thought it was due to artistic ineptitude... or, at an outside chance, deliberately artistic choice. Now I hear that it may be a budget issue?

"Generic likenesses"? Is this going to fool anyone? We all know what they should look like; if they don't, it just looks... wrong. And what's a generic likeness anyway... a smiley face?

This is really weird. Does anyone know anything about this? I don't know KC Carlson from Adam; is he right about this?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Recent (and not-so-Recent) Links, Mostly Apolitical

Despite my brief flurry of more substantive posts a week or so ago, my autumn blog-slowdown continues -- or, perhaps, has resumed. Until I have the time to come back with more substantive blogging (mid-December is my current guess, but I'm not sure), here are some links worth following -- some recent, some less so. (In a few cases I've forgotten where I got a link from; apologies to the sources...)

• In case you missed it, John Scalzi's Long-Awaited Creation Museum Report was posted recently. I think the flickr set is more fun than the essay, but they're both good.

• Kung Fu Monkey, in one of his Koufax-finalist lunchtime conversation series, presents the arguments for being ruled by robotic overlords. This one is political, but it's also funny.

• I liked this slate piece on email as an obsolete technology, even if it does confirm my old-fogey status.

• I had no idea that so many famous artists had done LP album covers.

95 Theses of Geek Activism (via).

More Batman humor from BeaucoupKevin.

Jacob Levy on the symbolic inversions of Guy Fawkes Day inspired by Alan Moore's V-for-Vendetta (and its movie adaptation).

James Fallows tours a Panda refuge in China. Major cute overload potential. (via)

Cartoons illustrating letters to the editor in the Guardian Saturday Review. Particularly for fans (if such exist) of my debates with Eddie Campbell. (again via)

• I don't agree with all his judgments, but this review-essay of Buffy -- all seven seasons of TV, plus the first trade of the comics-medium eighth season -- is quite interesting. Chock-full of spoilers, and also not interesting to anyone who hasn't, at least, seen all the TV.

• Whereas I read this essay on Grant Morrison's recent Batman series without having read the actual work, and got a lot out of it. Recommended for anyone interested in (certainly mainstream American, but to some extent any) comics.

Update: This fan-created final Calvin & Hobbes strip is clever, fairly funny, and really, really, really sad. (via)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing.... Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.

-- Psalm 100:2, 4

ANYA: I love a ritual sacrifice.
BUFFY: It's not really a one of those.
ANYA: To commemorate a past event, you kill and eat an animal. It's a ritual sacrifice. With pie.

-- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Pangs" by Jane Espenson
Giving thanks: as always, I thank you, Noble Readers, for reading.

See you when the tryptophan wears off -- say, Tuesday. At the earliest.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Alan Moore's Shakespearean Pastiche

I'm still halfway through Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neil's just-published book, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier -- the third book in the series although not (somewhat confusingly) the third volume, but rather an intermission volume resting between volume two and the promised volume three. But I have to stop and ask the collective wisdom of the internet:

What the !@#$% is up with Moore's Shakespeare pastiche?

One of the reason that I have to ask is that I haven't seen anyone mention yet that it seems off. I've been following the reviews (as linked to by Dirk Deppey and Tom Spurgeon), and everyone so far seems impressed. People whose views I respect will say things like "Those documents are immaculately constructed, whether they're recreating Shakespeare plays or...".

Whereas I thought it was so bad I almost put the book down.

So obviously either I'm seeing something they're not, or I'm just missing what Moore's trying to do, or something. That latter is perfectly plausible: speaking just for myself, Alan Moore is one of my favorite writers, and (I would say) one of the best writers ever to grace the medium of comics. I love his work -- which is why I preordered this book over a year ago.

What bothers me about the sequence?

It's not the visuals. Todd Klein, and whoever else had a hand in their creation, did a bang-up job. And while Kevin O'Neil's pictures are clearly out of place -- Shakespeare's folios didn't have those sorts of illustrations -- I'm willing to forgive them for the larger conceit of the volume (which is a collaboration between Moore and O'Neil).

No, it's the writing.

First of all, it's anachronistic.

...I hesitate to say this, since Alan Moore is the Great Bearded Wizard of Northampton, and I never took a Shakespeare class after high school. What do I know from Shakespeare's folios? And it's possible that I am either A) wrong or B) missing the subtle literary intent -- I haven't even finished reading the book yet! ... But I don't see it. Maybe someone can explain it to me.

It's clearest in the peripherals -- the stage directions and such. They're simply much fuller than any Shakespeare folio would have:
• Directions are given for the character's speech -- "aside", "to gatemen", etc. I don't think that early editions of Shakespeare included these -- oh, modern editors would put them in to clarify matters. But they weren't in the Folio. (Readers were just expected to get when a character was speaking to a particular person, or to themselves.) Maybe it's a crutch for modern readers.
• The same is true for the other occasional stage directions -- "produces paper", in particular.
• Every character enters either left or right. But I don't think that early Shakespeare editions ever indicated this. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong... but take a look for yourself. What's most damning about this is that I can't see that it's making either a subtle literary point, nor making things clear (as the above might be): it just seems anachronistic.
• The Dramatis Personae: I'm not sure that the early editions even had these. But even granting them that licence... the order is wrong. Every Shakespearean dramatis personae I've ever seen -- even in modern editions -- puts the royalty first, nobles second, others third (not according to the size of the role, as latter playwrights would do). It just seems wrong this way.
• Ending with "curtain" -- or for that matter "they sleep" -- did early Shakespeare editions ever use those phrases? In the annotations, Peter Svensson suggests this is meant to indicate a private, commissioned performance.

Again, maybe I'm wrong about some or all of this. But I remember quite clearly learning all this in high school -- it's not overly complex stuff.

Why does all this matter? Well, in another book it wouldn't. But they go to so much trouble to fake the look of a folio -- the fonts, the paper color, the spelling, etc. -- that it really jarred me.

I also strongly suspect some of Moore's word uses were anachronistic. If it weren't Thanksgiving tomorrow, I might pull down the OED and see if I was right. Or maybe I was overly suspicious because of the stage directions. But for me the spell was broken.

Then there's the quality of the writing.

Complaining that Moore isn't as good as Shakespeare is just daft -- no one is, after all -- although it must be said that Moore was really begging for the comparison here. But that isn't what bothered me. What bothered me is that it didn't even seem like a credible pastiche. It felt clunky; it felt telegraphed -- I can't quite imagine Shakespeare writing a line like "Your wit fair spins my head with all its play": he would have made it, well, wittier. To my ear the rhythms often sounded wrong -- one line in an otherwise iambic passage wouldn't scan, for instance. The language seemed far simpler than Shakespeare would use, at least for such an extended passage -- the sentences fit far too tightly in too few lines, there weren't the complexities of sentence structure and metaphor that I find when I read Shakespeare. (To say nothing of the lack of the obsolete language that's everywhere in Shakespeare... which is why modern readers need all those footnotes!).

The conversation between the Queen & the others felt clunky and forced -- as if we were supposed to be so impressed that it was in a Shakespearean mode that it needn't bother to be interesting: but for me the fact that it wasn't interesting spoilt the illusion of the Shakespearean mode. The annotations say that "“Master Shytte” and “Master Pysse” are very Shakespearean names," noting -- correctly -- that Shakespeare didn't shy away from the scatological: but they seemed like cruder jokes than Shakespeare would make, at least to my ear.

All of which is to say that it didn't read well. Not that it wasn't as good as Shakespeare, in the sense that Moore didn't write something that could go head-to-head with The Tempest: but in the sense that it didn't sound credibly like Shakespeare, even in his weaker moments. And what made it so frustrating for me is that I bet Moore could do better: he's such a good writer that I found myself thinking, "come on, Alan, try a little here!"

I'm sure some of my readers will think I'm nitpicking, or trying to be overly clever, or something. I don't mean to do either. Quite frankly my first, gut reaction to this passage was that it was so bad that it almost kept me from reading the rest of the book.

So far I haven't found anything else in the book that bothered me so much: but then, I haven't read Fanny Hill, the other major work which Moore pastiches in the part I've read so far.

So I have to ask: is this just me? Was anyone else bothered by any of this? Or was everyone else just so impressed by the color of the paper and Todd Klein's admittedly impressive work that they didn't care about the details?

I really wanted and expected to like this book. And the rest of what I've read so far has been fine -- not as good as Moore's best work, or even the first two volumes of the League, I think, (I find the amount of sex to be, frankly, tedious (Moore always has had a lot of sex in his work, but in, say, Swamp Thing #34, or Promethea #10, it was frankly done in a far more interesting way)). But the Shakespeare pastiche was the only thing yet that made me really cringe. And I'm curious as to why (or whether) I'm the outlier here.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Polkinghorne, Perdue and Dawkins: Thoughts on the Confused Debate Over the New Atheism

The renewed religious debates continue apace: John Polkinghorne, in a sympathetic review of a new book critical of Dawkins's bestselling God Delusion (link via), writes:
...Dawkins makes no serious attempt to engage with the academic discussion of religious thought and practice. His book is “as innocent of heavy scholarship as it is free from false modesty”. When it asserts that Jesus’ call to love our neighbour referred only to relations between Jews (despite this claim being in clear contradiction to the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan), the only support quoted for this highly questionable statement is a book written by an anaesthesiologist. Over the centuries, theologians have wrestled with how human language can attempt to speak about the nature of God, emphatically rejecting the idea that the deity is simply an invisible object among the other objects of the world. Yet, as Cornwell points out, the God in whom Dawkins disbelieves is a kind of “Great Science Professor in the Sky”, a simplistic notion that any thinking theist would be quick to reject.
There are several points to make here. First and foremost, Dawkins's error about Jesus and the love of neighbors is simply inexcusable; it is this sort of mistake that drives some of Dawkins's critics nuts (see, e.g., Andrew Rilstone). Accuracy is important; as a scientist, Dawkins knows this -- or should. (Polkinghorne himself is not free of this problem: witness his remarks in his article about evolution and altruism.)

But there is a larger point here, too, a common reply to the so-called New Atheists -- one that Sam Harris parodied here -- which is that they are taking on the silliest form of religion; if one is to debate with religion, these critics argue, one should debate with its most sophisticated form.

These debates follow a common pattern, so the New Atheist reply is predictable: theists are ignoring the enormous number of believers who routinely espouse (and the even larger number who silently believe) precisely these so-called "simplistic notion[s] that any thinking theist would be quick to reject". For example, the current governor of Georgia said last week:
Gov. Sonny Perdue wasn't the least bit discouraged Tuesday after his hourlong state Capitol prayer vigil for rain ended with the sun shining through what had been a somewhat cloudy morning.

"God can make it rain tomorrow, he can make it rain next week or next month," Perdue told reporters who asked him if a miracle was on the way.

More than 250 faithful Georgians joined Perdue outside the Capitol to ask for divine intervention to end the historic drought.

"We come here very reverently and respectfully to pray up a storm," Perdue told those in attendance....

The Rev. Gil Watson, pastor of Northside United Methodist Church, urged those in attendance to "pray believing we should have all brought umbrellas.
(Note that a pastor is among the simplistic theologians here -- it ain't just politicians. Link via this characteristically well-done take-down by Publius; read it if it's not instantly clear to you why these ideas are both harmful and ridiculous).

Obviously, as an atheist, I have a biased view here (although so does John Polkinghorne, author of the autobiography From Physicist to Priest). But it seems clear to me that the problem is one of confusion between two notions of God -- one complex, without evidence but also unrefuted (indeed, probably incapable of refutation); the other simple, silly and very widely believed).

Now, some atheists do deal with more complex notions of God -- although their books tend to be academic monographs rather than bestselling manifestos. (A good halfway point between these is Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell -- by far my personal favorite of (what I've read of) the recent spate of "New Atheist" books (and, probably not coincidentally, the one that has sold the least and gotten the least attention.)) But yeah, the simple and widely-believed views rather than the complex and obscure views of theologians tend to be what are critiqued.

But the new atheists tend to rather irkedly point out that if theists want their sophisticated views taken seriously, they need to themselves rebut the simplistic, widely-believed views: and not simply occasionally, in op-eds criticizing atheist books, but prominently and loudly.

Indeed, I think it's fair to say that until sophisticated and theologians begin attacking simplistic theistic ideas with, well, Dawkinsian levels of ridicule and scorn, then atheists will be fully justified in continuing to do so. And while there are exceptions, they are -- for the most part -- very rare, and least in popular discourse (I presume there are obscure academic examples: that's not what I'm talking about here).

This is where the parallel, often made by the proponents of sophisticated theology, between theological and, say, scientific views break down. Theists often say that it's as silly to judge theology on the opinions of simple folk just as it would be to judge (say) evolution on the opinions of simple folk and not of, say, biologists. But of course biologists routinely (and loudly) try to correct the views of the mistaken; theologians don't do the equivalent with the simple believers.

This is, I think, for two main reasons.

First is what Dennett, in Breaking the Spell, calls team spirit, or belief in belief: a lot of believers (maybe even most believers) belief in the value and importance of belief, a belief that is separable from their belief in God -- if any: as Dennett points out, many people believe in belief who (sometimes secretly) don't believe in God. Indeed, one plausible reading of the recent religious debates is that it is largely about the value of belief in belief as much as about belief in God.* Because of this belief, sophisticated theists are reluctant to do anything (or at least anything loud and sarcastic) which might harm or diminish people's beliefs -- even beliefs that they hold to be patently ridiculous (they sometimes attack beliefs that are actually directly malevolent, but those are a small subset of the ridiculous).

But there's another reason too -- one which Dennett also discusses, by the way -- which is that -- historically and textually if not intellectually -- sophisticated theism is grounded in simplistic theism. The Bible -- read for its surface meaning, what we Jews would call "pshat" -- clearly supports a theology that theologians would call ridiculous. But because they are committed, for a wide variety of reasons, to that text -- even those who don't think it was literally inspired -- they have to go into backflips to make the text try and say something more sophisticated. Now, I am on record as saying that I think those backflips to explain silliness (and contradictions) are part of what make theology -- contra Dawkins -- such an interesting and intellectually rich subject: unlike in mathematics, starting with a contradiction is a great way to get a conversational ball rolling.

But, at the same time, it means that the Polkinghornes of the world can't too blatantly scorn the Perdues. They are committed to the same text; they are committed to the same labels ("God" and its many synonyms), regardless of how many different intentional objects those labels point towards; they are committed, basically, to the sanctity of a tradition that began in anthropomorphic versions of God which clearly show Him as either impotent or malevolent, as acting crudely in the world, etc, etc. And so they have to be careful about those who speak most loudly the still-prominent modern version of their traditions' beginnings.

Thus it is left to the Dawkinses of the world to ridicule the Perdues. And this is unlikely to change any time soon. To the detriment of us all.

* And on this issue, Dennett departs significantly from those whose names are frequently linked with his as New Atheists: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and (if reviews (or even the title) are to be believed, as I haven't actually read his book) Christopher Hitchens. Harris, Dawkins and (reportedly) Hitchens spend a lot of time arguing, not that religious belief is false, but that it is harmful. Whereas Dennett's whole point in Breaking the Spell is that we simply don't know enough to say, broadly, whether or not religious belief is harmful. (My agreement with Dennett, against Harris et. al., on this point is (just one) of the reasons his book is my favorite of this group.)

Personally, while I agree with Dennett that more study would be good, I don't think it will ever settle the issue, since I think the question is fundamentally vague and ill-formed -- and I don't think it's the sort of question that can ever be well-formed. Which is why I personally would like to see a teaming up of atheists and sophisticated theists (or, not quite the same thing but close enough, what I've elsewhere called reality-based theists) against harmful theologies -- or (again, not synonymous terms) reality-defiant theists.

But, then, I'd also like world peace, a Nobel Prize, a second season of Firefly, and a pony. (Maybe not a pony.)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Of Eddie Campbell, Useful Distinctions and Distracting Distinctions

Sigh. After many months of determinedly not engaging with Eddie Campbell about definitions of various terms circling (what I but not he would call) comics, I fear I am about to succumb once more. I don't like doing so, because a) I find Campbell a frustrating debater (who abandons the debate every time I feel I've pushed the issue home; see here and here, for example), and b) because I have so much respect for the man's work that I hate to piss him off on a topic he clearly cares deeply about. But what can I say? I'm a sucker for intellectual debate. So, once more into the wolf's mouth (as they say in Italian opera):

In a recent entry on his blog, Campbell wrote:
Anyone who HAS been reading with care will know that I have no interest in naming anybody's medium and I just stand on the sidelines and illuminate assorted moments of verbal befuddlement, just for the sport of it, and also I suppose in some vague hope that those who write nonsense will start to think more clearly.
I think this is disingenuous, however. Claiming to try to get people "to think more clearly" in an intellectually contested terrain is misleading, since rather than simple clarity, what Campbell is after is to convince people of certain things. To claim to merely be making sport of befuddlement, or to seek clarity, is to hide (perhaps from himself, I don't know) the fact that he is actually pushing a particular view of the cultural world -- one which a great many other people disagree with.

But it's a powerful pose, because it lets him retreat behind the "I'm just mocking" claims when pressed on his actual intellectual position.

Ok, putting that aside, what do I think (I might be wrong, of course, as anybody might be wrong about anything) that Campbell is trying to convince people of? I think the answer lies in an earlier sentence in the above-cited blog post:
I reject the notion that there is a great big shapeless field of activity that can all be gathered under the one name (here 'graphic fiction', a term I have never once used).
I submit that this is the key claim that Campbell is pushing in all of his various discussions of the definitions of various terms circling (what I but not he would call) comics. Campbell wants to draw distinctions -- to divide the sheep from the goats.

Campbell is frustrated about the blurring of lowbrow and highbrow culture (he uses these the former of these historically paired terms; I dislike them, but they'll do for now). His oft-repeated quip (which he quoted in the name of "my pal Evans"), "Did Ingmar Bergman have to justify Star Wars every time he sat down for an interview?", is an example of this. As is this related rant:
Bergman is great, Star Wars is fun. Neither needs to know about or explain the other. My beef: everywhere I go, why must I always have to represent the whole customary f*****g stereotype of comic books? It is tied to my ankles like clattering tin cans.
I think the fact that Campbell has made so many of what even he would call comic books, and that he has made many other pieces of art that others (but not he) would call comics, disguises the fact that he disagrees with people about fundamental issues -- namely, the aesthetic value of (what he but not I) would call lowbrow culture. For example, Neil Gaiman wrote on his blog that "suddenly I find myself turning into Eddie Campbell, and wanting to explain that Graphic Novel just means comics anyway, and Graphic Short Story actually means er, comics". But apart from the fact that Campbell rejects the word comics (in the McCloud-like if not strictly-according-to-McCloud sense that Gaiman uses it here), Gaiman is actually moving in the opposite direction from Campbell here: Gaiman is trying to blur the lines between high and low cultures, between serious literature and comic books, and get people to see them all as similar things -- i.e. why be pretentious and call it Graphic Fiction, when it's all simply comics? Whereas Campbell is explaining and explaining to try to make it clear that there is a vast gulf between what he takes seriously (which he refuses to name, but which I would call comics of serious artistic intent which lack certain genre elements) and what he doesn't -- comic books and comic book culture.

This is what makes Campbell so different from others (e.g. Douglas Wolk, or SF writer and (superb!) literary critic Samuel R. Delany, etc.) who contest the definition of various terms surrounding (what I but not Campbell would call) comics: Wolk and Delany disagree with the lowbrow/highbrow distinction, and see the incorporation of narrative art with both words and pictures (including, e.g., Maus and Campbell's own Alec books) into the realm of seriously considered art as part and parcel of the twentieth century's deconstruction of the lowbrow/highbrow (popular culture/high culture, etc.) distinction. I think Gaiman, too, is with Wolk and Delany on this -- he, too, has no patience for the high culture/low culture distinction. It's all comics to Gaiman, which means that it should all be read and evaluated on its own terms -- not subdivided into highbrow and lowbrow.

Campbell, however, insists on it. ("Bergman is great, Star Wars is fun.") Campbell wants it drawn strongly enough that his serious work -- his Alec books certainly, probably others of his work, although I don't know what he would and wouldn't include -- is sharply divided in the public discourse from his non-serious work -- his Batman comics certainly, perhaps others of his work, although again I don't know where he divides the lines. (A list would help. How about it, Eddie? You've said in the past that Graffiti Kitchen was a graphic novel, and Batman a comic book. I know you've abandoned the term "graphic novel" -- but how about expanding the list? Which of your works do you think of as merely fun, and which of them are (or aspire to be) great?)

What differentiates Campbell from anti-low-culture curmudgeons like Harold Bloom is that he wants to expand what's traditionally taken seriously to some degree -- enough to let in books which include pictures with their words, not only his own, but others that he likes too. Campbell is thus in a bind -- he wants to open the door of aesthetic respectability wide enough to admit some works, but narrowly enough to exclude others. (Of course, he might say that claiming the aesthetic seriousness of all of (what I but not he would call) comics simply disgraces the whole lot -- as seen in his annoyance at "the whole customary f*****g stereotype of comic books" being "tied to my ankles like clattering tin cans."

Let me add with the caveat I've put in nearly every time I've discussed this issue: I love Campbell's work. And Campbell and my taste, when discussing specific works, is probably not that different -- I found his list of worthwhile graphic novels (he was still using the term then) at the end of How to Be an Artist to be one of the most reliable guides to good reading that I've used. But I think his distinction between lowbrow and highbrow culture -- and his refusal of terms which deliberately blur it, such as "comics" and (now) "graphic novel" -- to be wrongheaded -- aesthetically, in terms of cultural politics, historically, and in every other way too.

And other people who argue this issue should realise: if you think that popular culture should be taken seriously, if you are against the ghettoiszation of culture into popular and elite forms, than Campbell is not on your side. The fact that he has made some first-rate popular culture shouldn't mislead people here.

One of the reasons that Campbell's stance is often misread is that it goes against the equalizing tenor of our culture. I remember having the greatest difficulty in explaining to high school students (when I was teaching them history, some years ago) how many of the revolutionaries in the English Civil War could be fighting to widen the franchise... but not want a universal one. Rather, they saw those people who would argue for a broader franchise as opponents to their cause... since (in their mind) proponents of an even broader franchise discredited the more limited expansion that they argued for. It's not a move that our contemporary culture understands easily -- but it's the move Campbell is making. He wants serious readers to take seriously books like Maus and his Alec books and others -- and he sees the means to this end not in the destruction of the highbrow/lowbrow cultural distinction (leaving a big stew, each item of which must be judged on its own), but in the redrawing the line in a different place.

Campbell is annoyed that people use Maus to justify Dark Knight Returns -- he rejects terms like "comics" and "graphic novels" precisely because they muddy that distinction. Of course, muddying that distinction is precisely what I (and many, many others) want to do.

I agree that there is good work and bad work; I just don't think the distinctions can be identified as whether or not something is associated with comic book culture or not. (Even superheroes: Watchmen is, to my mind inarguably, a great work -- all about superheroes.)

But Eddie Campbell doesn't want to be associated with the riffraff of comic book culture -- which, despite his participation in it, he really dislikes:
The issue is not about the words. You can have the words. It's about whom I have to be associated with. Thus, if 'graphic novel' now means exactly the same thing as American style comic books, then I don't come under either of these headings. It's like olympic boxing and pro wrestling. They kind of look the same, and there's nothing against being interested in both, but there's no way they can take place in the same ring at the same time. They are in opposition. So let those terms refer to the same thing, and that leaves another opposing thing over here that doesn't have a name. My pal White and I have taken to referring to it as 'that thing of ours' like they did on the Sopranos.

If 'comics' means 'sequential art', then that's not the medium I'm working in either. You can have the words, I don't want them. The medium I'm in is not restricted by McCloudianism and includes regular panel cartoons and EXcludes a lot of stuff that McCloud INcludes, like the Bayeux tapestry and William Hogarth. Including such things as these comes under the heading of 'The lowbrow colonisation of culture' and is despicable. I wouldn't want anybody to think I'd condone that.
But many people -- including me -- don't agree that to "let those terms refer to the same thing, and that leaves another opposing thing over here that doesn't have a name ": we see them as one thing. We are not, contra Campbell, confused about this: we are disagreeing about this.

(I find it ironic that Campbell rejects definitions as excluding things -- "usually about excluding something, throwing out the riffraff", as he just put it -- where it is he who is excluding, trying desperately to keep Bergman safe from Star Wars, Maus safe from Dark Knight: keeping the lowbrow riffraff out of serious illustrated books.)

In addition to disagreeing about Campbell about many other things, I think Campbell is simply wrong that one can include Maus in serious discussions (in general, not in any given instance) without blurring the lowbrow/highbrow distinction totally -- or if not Maus (which sometimes gets a special holocaust exemption), then the Alec stories, certainly. I think the elimination of the lowbrow/highbrow lines will not eliminate good taste, but will simply let us see good works (or, rather, argue clearly over which works are good and which are not), without being bothered by artificial class lines.

Incidentally, I think that Campbell (or his pal Evans, or whoever said it) is dead wrong in the implication of the question "Did Ingmar Bergman have to justify Star Wars every time he sat down for an interview?" -- not perhaps in specific (the timing of Star Wars and Bergman is probably wrong), but in its implication: high artists in film did have to justify film -- long considered a low-brow medium, and used to dismiss all film makers. This ended not when people defined Star Wars and Bergman films as essentially different things, but when film as a medium accumulated enough works of artistic power that people could no longer dismiss it (and when people who grew up with film became the majority in cultural discourse, too). That's when great filmmakers no longer had to apologize for their medium -- not by dismissing the lesser work as something different, but by getting film as such seen as a legitimate form, in which work of all qualities and natures existed.

Returning to where I began, Campbell wrote in his recent post the following comments on the term "graphic novel":
graphic novel: variously and confusingly used to indicate 1)all comic books, 2)a specific format of comic books, 3)indeed the physical object itself (as opposed to the work it contains), 4) what would in prose be a novel but illustrated as a comic, 5) a new form of pictorial literature. Since it is not much use for the purposes of communication, my feeling is that it's better to ditch the term altogether though of course it's much too late for that. However as an overview, I feel that posterity will come to see it as representative of a certain ambition to make something grand out of the elements of the strip cartoon. Its failure will be due to its inability to escape out of comic book culture.
But I think Campbell's wrong that the term "is not much use for the purposes of communication"; it's just that what it communicates (including the blurring of the highbrow/lowbrow culture lines) is not something that Campbell agrees with. (People who argue that "homophobia" is a bad term usually do so because they disagree with an assumption embedded in it, namely, that whether one is straight or gay is a morally neutral question.) But for those of us who take the highbrow/lowbrow blurring for granted -- and as a good thing, not a bad thing -- it is a very clear term: a graphic novel is a book-length work of comics.*

Nor do I see the term graphic novel as failing "due to its inability to escape out of comic book culture"; I think it's succeeding -- readers who would not previously read books with pictures are now reading graphic novels, reviews are discussing them as, well, just normal books, etc. Obviously there is a long way to go -- and a long way to go to overcome the presumption of non-seriousness that some people have about any narrative with both pictures and words (what I but not Campbell would call comics). But the term "graphic novel", the term "comics", and the blurring of the highbrow and lowbrow that these both assume, is helping, not hurting matters -- and, ultimately, leading more people to more good work, rather than the reverse.

Campbell and I would probably agree that promoting interesting, sophisticated works is a good thing. But I strongly disagree that we should see popular culture works -- comic books, to use his term -- and more highbrow works -- for which Campbell has no term, I believe -- as different things. They are one medium -- just as film is one medium, whether or not it's Star Wars or Igmar Bergman. Bergman may not have to justify Star Wars -- but he's clearly working in the same form, albeit to different ends.

If the goal is to talk clearly, then it's easy... as long as one doesn't try to radically distinguish in one's very vocabulary things-Campbell-takes-seriously and things-he-doesn't in the vocabulary one uses: comics is a perfectly clear term (Tom Spurgeon labels some items "not comics": it's clear what he means and what he doesn't.)

If the goal is to get serious works taken seriously, then trying to say that these picture-word combinations are something totally different from these... and Maus has nothing to do with Dark Knight... is also a totally wrongheaded move. The idea that a medium can do lots of different things is a common concept for people, which they assimilate quickly when a metaphor such as film is used. Whereas Campbell's efforts are in fact muddying not clarifying.

...I could keep going, I suspect, but I'll stop here. I hope my point has been made clearly (and accurately); if not, I hope responses will let me understand where I need to clarify.

(Housekeeping note: this long post notwithstanding, my current blog-slowdown will likely continue for the rest of November, and possibly even into December.)

* Well, there is some confusion, since "graphic novel" currently means any book-length work of comics, whether its fiction or non-fiction -- thus works that in prose form would not be called novels are still graphic novels (e.g. memoirs). Like the fact that "comics" don't have to be "comic", I think this is simply a separate meaning that we should simply use and accept as a new meaning arising out of etymologically-but-no-longer-semantically related terms.