Sunday, 26 April 2009

On Eve Tushnet and The Gathering Storm

The unclassifiable Eve Tushnet has a couple of posts on the notorious Gathering Storm advertisement on her blog.[1] I'd heard about the ad being objectionable --- and indeed, it is --- so I was surprised to learn that Ms Tushnet actually does some work for NOM, the organisation that produced it. On the one hand I couldn't see how that could work out; on the other, I was fascinated, given my own situation.[2]

Here she is speaking, from a position opposed to gay marriage, about criticisms of that position:
The best counterargument is the same as the best counterargument on all gay-marriage topics: “This isn’t just about gay marriage but about a whole panoply of prior changes, most of which have obvious good qualities as well, so you’re not seeking status quo so much as rollback.” ...

I see the force of that argument, and of course I acknowledge that there’s no way we would be having this conversation without the prior cultural changes which led to e.g. laws against discrimination based on sexual orientation. For that matter, every single day I take advantage of the cultural changes which have made it possible for me to be an out lesbian while facing very limited explicit hostility.

But I still disagree that gay marriage is only a trivial turn of the ratchet (do ratchets turn?? I’m really not the home-improvement kind of dykey!), a mere formality, or something you can only worry about if you also reject all of the prior cultural moves which brought us here. I think prudence can allow you to draw a line, and frankly, gay marriage is a really obvious place for that line. Gay marriage is a big deal for the same reasons given by its supporters!--it is a real change in the culture, a deeply significant change, and a change with far-reaching public implications. I don’t think you can write paeans to marriage as a public and cultural status, then turn around and say that gay marriage will have very limited public effects. Marriage isn’t designed to have limited public effects.
Her other comments ad loc are incisive, quite wide-ranging, and well-taken; and some of the links are fascinating. At the end of the day, though, I'm still confused about how she can reconcile herself to a group running an ad that she herself describes as fearmongering, and as “really, really cheesy”.

Because belonging to a lobby group or a movement is not the same as belonging to a church. I've elsewhere posted in admiration of Ms Tushnet's Catholicism and the resources it gives her, and the home it provides her; and for another example, the USCCB's Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children, also cited by Tushnet, is a good advertisement for the Catholic Church: one could disagree with the position, and still respect the practical advice; one could disagree with the advice, and still admire the humanity and maturity of its conception. I understand how one could disapprove of the church in other ways, but value the tradition that makes this sort of thing possible: I understand that because it's pretty much my own position. A propos of this, a friend pointed out that a church is not meant to be admired from a safe distance ... which is a good point, so let me put it this way: I can see how, being a Catholic, one might choose to stay one; I can see how, having become a Catholic, one might judge it to have been a good choice, any drawbacks apart.

But a lobby group or a movement is not like that. Achieving an effect, pushing a point of view or policy, effecting a particular change in society, is the point of the endeavour. That's what a lobby is about: there is no other “there” there. So when a lobby comes up with a cheesy, fearmongering advertisement, it is reasonable to view it as essentially discrediting, in a way that it's not when a person does something wrong, or a country does something objectionable, or a church says something silly. If a lobby is in the business of saying silly things, or saying things in an objectionable way, isn't it Just Bad?

Which brings me back to my own local concerns. One of my criticisms of the evangelical church, at least in this town, is related: I think it's confused about whether it's a movement or a church --- even worse, whether it's an insurgent movement or The Church, simpliciter. This has all sorts of implications for how one views membership, duty, loyalty, and the ethical position of both individuals and officials: I take a rather different view, for example, of a minister on the one hand, and a cadre of a movement on the other; if they are the same person, there is potentially a serious problem. But that is really a matter for its own post, on another occasion.

[1] I can't seem to link to individual posts there. The ones I mean are from April 2009: scroll down to Wednesday, April 15, and look for "POLITICS AND THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE" and “'When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'I always pay it extra.'".

[2] Short version: I am a conservative Christian, in the Anglican tradition (and happy to be so), I live in Sydney, and while it would be misleading to call me an evangelical I'm probably more like that than anything else; and I was taught and trained by evangelicals, and I have friends in that ministry. And yet I find the public stance of the Sydney Diocese, in particular its official media presence, absolutely unbearable.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

A guilty pleasure

Returning home late last night, I stumbled over a favourite film from my early teens: Firefox, the one where Clint Eastwood steals the Soviet Union's eponymous superplane.

Let's get some important points out of the way first: (1) The film is a shameless, twice-baked piece of Cold War cheese. (2) The idea that in the early Eighties, the Soviets might have been able to surprise the West with a revolutionary-on-all-fronts wonder-weapon, was pretty silly at the time --- although I remember it being taken seriously in the media --- and in retrospect, it's even sillier than the idea that messed-up middle-aged pilot Mitchell Gant might just walk in and fly the plane out of Russia.

Having taken due note of all that, the film is great. The effects are superb, and have not only stood the test of time, but are a pleasant reminder of the days when special effects were just that: occasional, rather than structural. And one can see some of Eastwood's characteristic concerns, both as a star and, in what was a relatively early outing, as a director. (It helps if, as I did, one also reads the book, and can see the changes of content and emphasis.) The ruthlessness of the Western spymasters is downplayed a little, but Gant's ruthlessness is downplayed a lot: in the film he has a code, a respect for others caught up in the events, and a confused-and-weary disdain for his masters and the inhumanity of the conflict.

And the film itself has great sympathy for the professionals among the Soviet officers. Respect for Voskov, the pilot, comes as no surprise, but one finds oneself barracking for the police inspector; for Dmitri Priabin (Oliver Cotton), the 2IC of the KGB team on Gant's trail; and most of all for General Vladimirov (Klaus Löwitsch), head of the effort to recapture the plane. He himself has respect for his adversaries, a hatred of overconfidence and hasty conclusions, and no malice ... and he is very, very good at what he does. The case is oversold by making the First Secretary a buffoon, and such an obvious hindrance to the Soviets' task, but there's great dignity in Löwitsch's performance, and a vision of professionalism-among-the-enemy in the tradition of the great war films.

It's a guilty pleasure of a movie, but a real one.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Two years on

This blog is now two years old, and (I hope) active again after a quiet month.

Well-trafficked posts from the last year, in contrast to the laundry list from the first year, have been completely dominated by the ethics of Joss Whedon:

Mal's speech, or, On not making a better world (1) (2008/09/08)
Simon's speech (2008/05/30)
Top five fantasy battle-cries (2008/09/19)
Updike on neutrinos (2009/01/29)

It was a pleasure to bring a few new readers to Updike's neutrino poem.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Spring readings

Good advice that I'm still struggling with:
On practical ways to end email bankruptcy, and then stay solvent

Interesting articles in the New York Times:
In defense of secrecy
Why imaging should not replace dissection in medical training
On abandoned boats in the US
On the return of wine-on-tap
On earthquake prediction,
and Why young buildings failed in old towns
Why anarchy on land means piracy at sea
The superbug of the moment
Last voyage for the keeper of the Hubble

On blogs:
recently I've been reading Byron Smith on The cost of dying;
discussing church as A good place to doubt, with Michael Jensen;
Christian obedience, work, and rhetoric, with Chris and friends;
and Le Guin, and The Jane Austen Book Club, with Natalie

On freedom of speech and religious freedom:
The US Supreme Court tells people to get real

In the category of news that's too melodramatic for fiction:
Judges plead guilty in scheme to jail youths for profit

(3) spring and sakura

Number 3 of “Ten things I love about Japan”.

Spring is a big deal in Japan, and sakura (the cherry blossom) is a very big deal. Trees have been in flower the last couple of weeks, depending on location, and I've been wishing I was sitting on a blue tarpaulin somewhere with friends, looking at a sea of white flowers.

Because that's what everyone does. Going out to look at flowers has an effeminate feel, to much current Western taste, but there's no such sense in Japan, and well might there not be: the blossoming of the cherry trees strikes any given place like a wave, with a few hints that it's about to arrive, an overwhelming surge for a week as all of the trees bloom together and the world is carpeted in white, a couple of weeks of aftermath --- and then it's gone, moving north through the islands.

That short season of hanami (looking-at-flowers) parties is the peak and the pivot of the year, with the best weather, and everyone out and involved. Picnics are held everywhere, and in cities you can see office girls out early, laying claim to a choice spot laid out with blankets or blue tarp, ready for the whole office to decamp for lunch in the open. This is a country that doesn't do things by halves, and hanami is at least one thing that it's pure pleasure to be a part of.

For more info: Cherry Blossoms (Sakura) at