Friday, March 31, 2006

Roomates for Worldcon in LA

I'm thinking about LA Con IV now... on the cheap. Who wants to split a quad or triple? :-)

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Gift of Fear

  1. So we rented this somewhat cheesy but informative video, "To The Hospital". It has a dancing puppet skeleton and live-action kids who tour different hospital departments.

    There's this scene (apparently -- whenever I watched the video this scene had been carefully fast-forwarded past) where a kid falls down on the playground and breaks his arm, or something.

    Aviva was scared the first time she saw it, and when Aviva gets scared, Noah gets terrified. So for a while he wouldn't look at this video, and if it were discussed, he would start to scream.

  2. He calls the video "Loppity Goes To The Hospital". We're never sure who Loppity is, but he(?) figures prominently in Noah's internal cosmos.

    Q: "Does Loppity go to the doctor?"

    A: "No it's not Loppity goes to the doctor it's Loppity Goes To The Hopsital I'm SCARED FOR THAT!"

  3. Our friends who we visited in Texas always say Grace -- Thanksgiving-style Grace, where you hold hands and take turns talking about what you're thankful for. We like this, so we've kept it up, mostly, since we returned.

    Noah's turn is always the same. He waits patiently until he's up, then says with a big grin:

    "Thank you God for Loppity Goes to the Hospital -- I'm scared for that!"

  4. After he started saying that, he was okay watching the video again.

  5. But then we returned it to the video store.

  6. That's still Noah's favorite prayer.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Aviva on Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development

Some weeks ago my five-year-old daughter Aviva started using the word "youfish".

Aviva: Daddy, I want to be youfish.

Ben: What's "youfish"?

Aviva: It's the opposite of selfish. Youfish is when you take care of other people, but you don't take care of yourself.

Ben: Hmmmm.

I was a little worried about the not taking care of yourself part, but I didn't push it.

Then, just the other day:

Aviva: Oh, that's bothfish.

Ben: What is "bothfish"?

Aviva: That's when you take care of other people *and* yourself.

Ben: Oh, cool. So don't you want to be bothfish?

Aviva: Daddy. (Looks exasperated but compassionate). First I have to learn to be youfish. Then I have to learn to be selfish. And then I can learn to be bothfish.

Carol Gilligan got nothin' on my girl.

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Wednesday, March 8, 2006

The Short Version

Paul Melko insisted on one-sentence versions of my and Hal's positions on monotheism, so he wouldn't have to read my previous, insanely long post.

Here's what I came up with:

Hal: We all play nice about monotheism, excusing the excesses of its fanatics as aberrations, but they proceed naturally and inevitably from the core values of the Bible -- absolute obedience to the Law, and absolutely justified brutality against those who fall outside it.

Me: Monotheism functions as a ladder along which different moral positions are available; the oldest, brutal, tribal part of monotheism says "obey God or die", and the historical consensus says "we know the Law and this is it, and deviance must be punished"; but monotheism also contains, equally centrally, the idea of an absolutely moral Law that we cannot ever finally know, which must be continually reinterpreted and reinvented, and this Law is continually transgressive and progressive, always calling power into question.

Then I also say a bunch of stuff about Rabbinic Judaism specifically.

There, don't you feel better now?

Update: Hmm... actually, maybe Vardibidian's summary is better:

[M]y fundamental understanding of the Jews boils down to we were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. And I will still say that, because itís true, and itís true to myself the way I understand it... But itís also true, as Mr. Rosenbaum points out, that you could boil the story of the Jews down to the Temple was destroyed, so we wrote the siddur.

....when my daughter asks me what the universe is like....which one do I want to tell her? Because, honestly, I think that is what I want the universe to be like. What I want her world to be like. Because, letís face it, the Temple is being destroyed (as it is in every generation, as it always is for everybody), and sheíll need a good siddur.

"And yet," Vardibidian goes on to ask, "Where is the Lord in all this? Because when I say that all living things should praise the Creator, I mean it."

So, you know... me too.

Over on David Moles' blog, then, I say "transcendent/immanent is one of those easy distinctions -- like nature/nurture, mind/body, and Left/Right -- that I think, though handy for quick superficial assessments, both collapses on further inspection, and obscures more than it clarifies."

The world is so much bigger than all our tales about it.

It is self-defeating to expect all your beliefs to mesh logically; that mistakes the map for the terrain.

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your might, with all your heart, and with all your soul." I try to take that one on. I think at my most honest, I am filled with gratitude for the world God has given me, as well as with awe and fear at its immensity.

And I don't find it the least bit incompatible with the historical account: "and here's where we made God up."

After all:

We are very very little. We are doing our best.

We have a radical freedom to choose our interpretations of the world.

There is no default interpretation. The one that feels like the default, that feels like it's "the obvious conclusion unless you make some extreme, perverse effort, some leap of faith", is simply the one that your culture is trying to enforce. Its obviousness is a product of force, not of nature (unless you think your own age is uniquely enlightened, a passing familiarity with intellectual history should be enough to make this clear).

A mighty hand, an outstretched arm.

We told ourselves that story. That doesn't make it any less true.

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Tuesday, March 7, 2006

On "The Stain of Sin"

So I've been engaged in this great debate over at the blog of the brilliant, irascible, thoughtful, immoderate Hal Duncan. It started with his rant about the reaction to the Mohammed cartoons, "Duncan Does Deus"... which is not recommended for monotheists with fragile sensibilities. Then we got into it with Hal's posts Wisdom, Justice, and Mercy" and "The Stain of Sin". I'll give you a little of the former for context -- Hal says,

So I return to Sodom [the city destroyed to show what "you must not be", what you must not even look back at]. I stand in its ruins and I say, I'm the shaitan they hate, those fundamentalists and conservatives. I'm the fucking symbol they use of the other they don't want you to be of the symbols at least. And if you don't think I'm completely wrong, completely crazed, then you're probably part of what's being symbolised, one of the innocents of Sodom, the women or the children, who get wasted just for being a citizen....[T]he Sodom story is disgust, fear, hate and self-righteous satisfaction all packed together into one of the building blocks of a boot-strapping boot camp morality designed to keep the believer from the pernicious influence of all us others, to turn them into God's good soldiers....

So maybe the perimeter of the encampment, where the liberal believers chat happily with the liberal non-believers and with the loose cannon atheist mystic nutjobs like me who wander all over the fucking place, maybe that's a garden. Maybe the whole ground where they've built their machine morality used to be a garden, and could be once again, a place of contemplation and cultivation; but at the moment it looks very much like a boot camp. They've trampled the flowerbeds, scorched the earth and built a bloody big barracks for training people to not think. If that's not what your religion is to you, I'd dearly love to see you.... turf those fuckers off your land. ....I'll keep lobbing grenades at their power generator, that core of disgust and fear and hate they use to keep the system running. If the sprinkler system for your gardens is on a separate power supply then the flowers will be fine, they'll survive. ...All too often it looks like [liberal believers are] more concerned with keeping the system ticking away nice and fine, because the roses are really rather lovely this time of year, don't you think? So I may well be stepping on a few flowers trying to get at that fucking generator. Just... all I'm asking is... before you raise the alarm and shout, Oi! Intruder!... stop a second. And take another look at Sodom.

Hal frames the notion of moral systems using Lawrence Kohlberg's psychology of moral development, arguing that the monotheistic traditions enforce and propagate the "conventional" stage of law-and-order morality, where deviance from the norm must be punished lest order collapse. In the comments on "Wisdom, Justice, and Mercy" I respond:

I do accept responsibility for turfing the fuckers out of the engine room, and for the fact that most days, I'm more likely to be found pruning the petunias....I'm not saying that, in fighting for your life and mine, you don't have the right to trample the flowers.

What I am saying, though, is this: when people offer me a system -- like the Tanak's, like Kohlberg's -- to teach ethics, a system to inspire empathy, a system which offers a moral description of the world, I perk up; I like systems, stories, traditions that do that, since we all have a lot of work to do here, what with the weevils getting on the tomatoes and the early frost killing off the begonias.

When they tell me the system *completely specifies* the good, that it will *ensure and validate ethics*, guarantee empathy, and describe the world *accurately*, I get nervous. And when it sorts people into those who are worthy to be listened to and those who aren't, the saved and the damned, the sheep and the philosopher-kings, I reach for my... well, I don't have a gun right here, but I reach for my pruning shears....

What I'm suspicious of is your confidence in the alternative you offer. I'm saying, "ok, look, I have these tools; they've got problems, I've had to patch them here and there, you wouldn't believe the things I've done with baling wire and duct tape; they're really old and cantankerous, and unfortunately I've noticed a lot of people who don't understand them end up just mauling up themselves and others when they use them. But I've got them more or less working; they mostly do the job I need them for. What have you got? What advantages and disadvantages does it have? What are the costs? What can we mix and match, trade and learn?" And you're saying "fuck those old tools, man, just burn 'em -- I've got the shit right here."

Right, 'cause it's obvious, right, that if we were to ditch this embarassing old tribal crap from three thousand years ago, we'd have, you know, just normal stuff, compassion and science and democracy and stuff. Everyone would just be normal, and we could all breathe a sigh of relief and agree to all the things that every right-thinking person agrees on. Because ethics is really easy, after all. You just take this test. It's from Harvard.

So, that was all just intro so I could post (below the blog entry break) the entirety of my reply to "The Stain of Sin". Just 'cause I like it, and because if I'm going to be typing this many words on Hal's blog, my blog gets jealous, because it's partly a liturgical memoir of a liberal Jewish childhood, and because it contains the line "A whole religion of centralized power, heirarchy, sacred cleansing rituals... hijacked by geeks."

Click here to continue reading "On "The Stain of Sin""
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Friday, March 3, 2006

Small Beer Sale

The magical and illustrious Small Beer Press is having a sale of things like Carol Emschwiller's fantastic The Mount, Kelly Link's exquisite Magic for Beginners, and extraordinary works by Maureen McHugh and Ellen Kushner (okay, I haven't actualy read The Privilege of the Sword yet, but I got to help pick the title, and Swordspoint was amazing).

And you can also pick up my Other Cities chapbook, bundled with other wonderful chapbooks by Clever Young Things Butner, Rowe, Rich, and Irvine (alas, they are all out of Dora's).

Profits (Small Beer's cut as well as mine!) for Other Cities go to the Grameen Foundation, an efficient organization which replicates microcredit programs around the world; it's a very leveraged, effective way of promoting human freedom and prosperity.

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Wednesday, March 1, 2006


Okay, so, I consider George Bush to be one of our worst and most dangerous presidents ever. Not because he's spectacularly personally incompetent (despite all the teeth-gnashing about his grades and so on, he's probably squarely in the low-middle range of historical Presidential competence, given his aims). Nor because he's a raving zealot (my assessment is that he's an extremist in certain regards, and a party hack, but not delusional).

No, it's that because he's charismatic and aw-shucks-good-hearted and mildly-competent and, in certain regards, visionary (that he actually believes in the furtherance of worldwide democracy, while it excuses neither the bloody-minded means, the overreach, nor the rather debased definition of democracy that he holds, is perversely striking in a context of widespread cynicism about the notion) enough that his moral flaws -- the extremely high value he places on personal loyalty to the exclusion of other goods, his stubbornness, his disinterest in the idea of civil rights and actual personal liberty, his extreme degree of comfort with the military-industrial complex and the culture of cronyism, his facile and parochial and fuzzy and circular moral sensibility wherein you can do anything you like to the bad guys because they're the bad guys -- these flaws actually have far greater weight than if he were a madman or a fool.

It's because he's kind of a nice guy with some interesting things to say that we've ended up mired in a land war in Asia, abandoning the Bill of Rights, defending widespread and routine torture by American agencies, on a steep plummet into national budgetary bankruptcy, with an even more bloated Federal bureaucracy even less capable of responding to national disasters, somewhat more (and a good deal more justly) despised by the world.

The thing about Richard Nixon is he knew he was corrupt; he knew he was greedy for power, and I think he felt ashamed about it, enough to obsessively and furtively hide his misdeeds. George W. Bush has, I think, no idea that he's corrupt -- he thinks helping out your buddies is just what you do. I think he has no idea that committing treason, e.g. in the matter of Valerie Plame, is wrong.

Which is why it's with great chagrin that I find myself siding with Bush this week in the matter of the port system.

It seems like if you are going to sell some function of government to private industry, it is spectacularly naive to think that some extra measure of protection will be provided by having the owners of the company in question be (as Howard Dean just implied they should be, in the cafeteria TV in my office building where I was just microwaving lunch) Americans.

It rather seems like government should police the important bits itself, and the other bits, the ones you can sell off to private operators, should be, you know, for sale.

Opposing this -- not restructuring port security in general, mind you, just opposing a one-off sale of a port to some Ay-rabs -- seems like nauseatingly transparent political gamesmanship. How did the Democrats decide, exactly, that the way to recapture the hearts of American voters was to try and be more xenophobic and security-hysterical than the Republicans?

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