Friday, May 21, 2010

Setting it Straight, One More Time... ad infinitum

In yet another illustration of how the most literate and studied among us have missed the point, this morning's story by an L.A. Times reporter on the vandalism of an "Adopt A Highway" sign, sponsored by a local group of atheists, proves that the idiocy lives on.

"Atheism, broken down, means no theology. Atheists simply believe there is no God, or no evidence to support the existence of God."

To this, I wrote him this clarification:

"I wonder how much you bothered to research what atheism actually is before you wrote this piece. Atheism is the rejection of the claim of a positive belief that god(s) exist, not the assertion that no god(s) exist. It's an important distinction, the default position is a response to a claim, not a claim in and of itself, and I would hope that the press (especially the print press) would work a little harder to get it right."

To which he responded:

"Thanks for the words, Casey. For the record, my exact words were: “Atheists simply believe there is no God, or no evidence to support the existence of God.” Isn’t “rejection of the claim” similar to what I wrote, a belief (claim) there is no God? For example, I claim there was a man called Jesus; that is my belief.

Atheists claim there is no God. That is their belief."

/facepalm... and then finally:

"I still think you're not getting it. Atheists don't claim there is no God, they reject the claim of a positive belief in the existence of god(s).

Atheism is a lack of belief, not a belief. Not being a Libertarian is not a belief either. Or as we atheists jokingly analogize "bald is not a hair color."

You may be confusing the position of a "strong atheist" (one who asserts an explicit belief that there are no gods) with the position of "atheism." It would be bad precedent to set by misrepresenting the atheist position because you simply don't have a grasp of the distinction between a claim, a rejection of a claim, and a belief.

And if you aren't inclined to trust the word of "some guy from the internet," put in a phone call to someone in the philosophy department at UCLA. I'm sure they'll set you straight."

Was I too heavy-handed there? Too snarkey? We report, you decide.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mike Gillis' Defense of "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day"

I am posting this for my friend Mike Gillis, Board Member of Seattle Atheists. Today is "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day," an idea conceived by Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris who jokingly floated the idea in reaction to South Park's debacle with portraying Mohammed in an episode of the animated series. While there is nearly universal agreement among atheists that the sort of violence and intimidation visited upon Dutch cartoonists and British novelists for exercising free speech is reprehensible, "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" might not be the best approach to express this opposition. Some of the representations it has spawned are silly, harmless or irreverent; others are unnecessarily crass, scatological or grotesque. Norris has since disavowed the movement resulting from her idea and repudiated the "vitriol" that came from it. Nevertheless, it seems an apt discussion to continue. Mike's passionate defense of participating in this exercise of absurdist internet activism really woke me up this morning. I hope you can pass it along:

I support "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" Why? Because I support free speech. Even speech I don't like. Especially speech I don't like.

Just the same way I'd support "Everybody eat a hamburger Day" if it were Hindus using threats of violence against people who ate beef. Just the same way I'd support an "Everybody draw Jesus Day" if Christians were acting like this.

In a free society, free speech means having the right to say exactly what someone doesn't want to hear. If you don't like what someone has to say, you need to answer with your own free speech. Violence and the threat of it is not free speech. It is the admission that you have a losing argument in favor of your position. Nothing justifies violence to chill free speech, not one having their religious sensibilities offended. Nothing.

If some religious person drew an offensive cartoon or wrote an offensive Op-Ed about atheists, it would be insane and morally reprehensible for me to kill the person who wrote or drew it. It would be wrong for me to cut off their head, shoot them eight times and stab them through the heart. It would be wrong for me to set embassies on fire and beat people up. It would be wrong for me to chant for their deaths and call upon other atheists to kill them for being offensive. It would be wrong for me to heavily imply a death threat to the writer or cartoonist and then post pictures of the above beheaded murder victim on my website. It would be wrong for me to break into the writer or cartoonist's house with an axe and try to kill them in front of their grandchild. Ever. No matter how much I was offended. No matter how bad the cartoons or op-ed was.

And it would be insane for anyone on the outside of this -- especially liberal-minded people who claim to support the right to free speech -- to be more offended by the cartoons than by my threats of violence, or the actual execution of said violence. It would be insane for well-meaning liberal folks to take the side of militant fundamentalists' violence enforcement of their blasphemy laws against people who aren't even a part of their religion. Yet, this is exactly what we've done with Islam.

We wouldn't tolerate this violence or the threats if the Catholics or Mormons or Scientologists were doing it in response to having their religion mocked in a cartoon. In fact, they all have been. Part of living in our society means that your culture WILL have to integrate into a few ways. We want your language, your sense of humor, your food, your clothing, your historical narrative and your music. We want all of the things that other immigrant groups have brought to add to and enrich American and Western culture.

But there are some basic principles we WON'T compromise on. Freedom of speech and expression being the big one. The proper answer to speech you don't like is more speech. Not violence. Not because you're offended. I'm offended to the core by what various religious people say all the time. That doesn't give me the right to use law or violence to silence them. It burdens me with the responsibility of responding with words, not fists, blades, bullets or threats.

Welcome to the Western world. You will occasionally be offended by what you hear people say here. And things you say will inevitably offend someone else. That's the price of admission. We're not allowed to kill or threaten people because we don't like what they say. Period.

We don't let Pat Robertson do it. And we won't let you.

And to my well-meaning liberal friends that seem to believe that blasphemy is a worse crime than murder, battery, arson or incitation of violence. Ask yourself if you'd feel the same way if the Pope had called upon Catholics to kill cartoonists for depicting Jesus in an offensive way.

I support "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" not to be pointlessly provocative or to single anyone out for being mocked. In fact, I believe the very opposite. Islam, like every other religion, isn't immune to mockery or criticism. And no one should try to make themselves immune through death threats.

I'm participating because the point needs to be made that religious sensibilities don't give someone license to use violence or the threat of it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Epistemology: A Critical Approach

The lecture I delivered to the Seattle Atheists organization is now online in video form. The title is "Epistemology: A Critical Approach."

Topics covered are a basic introduction to epistemology, the philosophical 'theory of knowledge', basic history and biography of prominent epistemologists (Plato, Augustine, Kant, Locke.... to name a few), belief as a component of knowledge, and our fight against the dual enemies of skepticism and solipsism.

Stay tuned until the end wherein I deftly deflect the audience's attempts to make me appear like an amateur.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Bane of My Existence

Only because it fits no where else, I can't help holding this in any longer: sports video games of the past have NEGATIVE VALUE!

You may consider my usage of all caps in that last sentence a bit extreme when we're speaking of such a trivial concept, but as my daylight alter-ego, Vintage Console Game Scavenger™, I can't help but broadcast this increasingly justified revelation. Of the millions of discarded second-hand console games, a growing number ending up in thrift stores, used game stores, and online auctions, reveal metric shit-tonnes of languishing sports titles. I can only speculate that this is a result of millions of now grown sports-loving, junior-varsity-worshipping, witless-jock-kids-turned-brainless-media-consumers having lost track of their old consoles, and being chucked out or donated to Goodwill by their Moms (along with their old Bo Jackson "Double Trouble" posters and Upper Deck Baseball binders). It's the detritus of an American childhood, reduced to the status another anonymous piece of junk sullying the nation's basements, attics and garages.

There seems a perfectly rational reason why I see so many of these unwanted little bastards on my endless quest to attain classic console perfection, why these games go largely unsold, and eventually taken down, thrown away (and possibly buried under several tons of concrete for future wasteland scavengers to unearth and gaze quizzically at these Enfant terribles from the gaming era). The obvious answer is: no one wants them!

They're like the Freddie Prinze Jr. of the video gaming pantheon; they are distant memories of a by-gone era now looked back upon with ridicule and shame. Now, while saavy cartridge hunters such as myself troll around the back alleys and opium dens of junk stores looking for a forgotten gem (and looking to pay less than 2 dollars for it), you will find that after a grip of console game loot has dropped, the more recognizable goes first (think Super Mario Bros. 3, Sonic, Chrono Trigger, etc...), then the obscure (anything by Koei, or with an extremely limited run) and then the absurdly common (Super Mario/Duck Hunt, Top Gun, etc...) and all else are sports. Most shocking about this phenomenon is that it spans all console eras. NFL Madden '08 for PS2 will sit side-by-side with Joe Montana Football for the Genesis; their odiousness is cross-generational.

Perhaps you are thinking that by revealing this obsession I am projecting my distaste and disdain for the whole sports industry. Sure it's just another form of mass entertainment; devoid of any useful knowledge or intellectual stimulation; consisting of pointless and manufactured rivalries; sowing emotional enmity and divisiveness along imaginary and/or arbitrary geographical boundaries; exploiting nationalistic and patriotic gullibility; stoking the fantasies of undereducated teenagers for unattainable fame and success; glorifying a lifestyle of another tier of unworthy celebrity rife with utter banality; draining critical funds from primary and college education; compelling us to remain docile, and fat, and uninformed; all solely for the enrichment and propagation of a small number of corporations and media outlets. But, it also produces worthless video games.

If I can walk into Half Price Books, saunter over to the gaming section, and see a line of Madden NFL games spanning from years '05 to '09 that clearly no one wants to buy, something is wrong. A copy of Super Mario RPG (even without a box or a manual) would last less than a week on the same shelf. Why?

Once the new season of game debuts, simply by virtue of the change in team roster from the previous season to current, the old game becomes obsolete. More shocking is the gullibility of the devout sports-game-playing automaton that finds it acceptable that their Overlords at EA can demand their allegiance of sixty American Dollars (plus tax), just so they can be blessed by being allowed to buy the EXACT SAME GAME AGAIN with some insignificant changes of a few player names and tweaking of some stat numbers.

Now, perhaps you could make the same claim about any number of popular video game genres. You would be correct. Across the continuum of the video game pantheon, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is so similar to Call of Duty can hardly be considered a real divergence. In fact, if you aren't constantly prostrated, in silent devotion for the epoch-shifting, world-shattering, Unicorn-fucking masterpiece that is Wolfenstein 3D, you're doing it wrong.

My disgust for sports games lies in the static nature of the type of gameplay emulated in these games. A football game will forever feature some number of dudes, dressed in identical uniforms, on the same length field, playing under the same rules with the same narrow range of gameplay possibilities. It will always be dudes playing football, in the strictest and most literal construction of the game, and no one will demand otherwise. Sure some extremely fun, geeky variations on these games exist, but they remain unpopular, unappreciated, and largely ignored. In this sense, the continuation of these sports game franchises appears to me, a sad waste of resources and attention, doomed to leave in their wake millions of dejected plastic discs as worthless as the fliers for escorts you throw on the pavement in Vegas.

And just like those heaps of naughty paper, in the end, we assume cost of hauling them away as trash. I would rather that we, instead, demand the creation of games that will have a lasting artistic value, worthy of finding and cherishing, and protecting from oblivion.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Letter to Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Writers of the new 'Star Trek' flick)

In the wake of the new Star Trek film being released into the wild, critical reactions have been stellar, hardcore Trekkie feedback runs the spectrum from 'ecstatic' through 'nit-picked to oblivion.' Although it was inevitable that the new film could not have pleased everyone, it seems all-but-certain that writers behind this incarnation as set to take the reigns for the next feature. As a lifetime devotee, I thought it proper to write a letter to the new Patrons of Star Trek's legacy and while promoting myself as Temporary Ambassador for Trek Fandom give these fellows a little bit of perspective that I feel has been absent in the recent buzz:

Dear Bob and Alex,
I can, on behalf of long-time Star Trek fans everywhere, say you two fulfilled the promise and reignited the dream after all of these years our franchise has been in mothballs. Our immense gratitude will be reflected not only in the enormous box office returns your glorious new film will reap, but also in our collective reawakened imaginations to the possibilities of the characters and universe that Gene Roddenberry built.

This hefty praise should be considered doubly significant because of the overwhelming amount of obstinacy and skepticism accumulated since the “reboot” was announced. And you deserve the lion’s share of this praise, as the film was not written (as so many summer action flicks are) in a committee of banal studio executives and mercenary script hacks, but by guys who have now earned the begrudging respect of the hardest of the hardcore geeks.

But now you have a legacy to uphold, and as I have chosen to speak as ambassador of Trek fandom-at-large, I will humbly outline the hurdles that will face as you take the step of imagining the next step of this bold new journey:

The Return of Science Fiction – There is near universal agreement the film was an astounding success in crafting a great action movie. And Trek would be a non-starter if photon torpedo blasts, phaser fights, and window-shattering explosions were not a part of the experience. But one error that Mr. Abrams made in pitching this film to the press during its production was to intimate a desire to make Star Trek more like Star Wars. For reasons that are patently obvious, you should not make this so (even if they are, in some small sense, true); nor can you hope to bring along the tens of millions of Trek devotees by telling them that you are going to perform the same butchering of our collective childhoods that George Lucas did with his prequels. By the last movie, Lucas defended the direction of his franchise by claiming, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that Star Wars movies “are for children.” That admission spoke volumes about his estimation of his audiences’ intelligence. Star Trek is Science Fiction, not Space Opera.

Roddenberry’s legacy lies in creating a framework for storytelling wherein mankind overcomes petty grievances and crippling superstitions to explore the possibilities within and without ourselves. At the core of this legacy are marvelous characters whom you have masterfully translated, appealing to our ability to learn from them our own potential to make the “stuff of dreams” something attainable in our own lifetimes. One of my fears is that concepts like relativity and scale seemed discarded for the convenience of swift narrative transitions. This loyalty to pedantic or esoteric details of the Science Fact in Trek is not arbitrary, it is instead a kind of glue that adheres the extraneous details to the larger plot and helps to fuse them into a future that is recognizable to us; something that could be done more easily with fantasy, but would not be as compelling. Sure there is a healthy dose of fantasy in these tales, and the storytelling wouldn’t be as enthralling without it (to see Spock without the mind meld would make him so much less engaging), but the quest for more iterations of Kirk hanging off of a cliff, more planets obliterated, or increasingly large-scale threats to the universe lead us to the point where the storytelling abandons subtlety and plausibility and flies smack into cliché. We need no better reminder of this than to look at Star Trek V. You have already saved what is essential about the stories we love, now you have the opportunity to salvage the potential The Great Bird of the Galaxy left behind.

23rd Century Ethics – Despite Star Trek’s deep symbolic and aesthetic ties to twentieth century military culture, we love it for the opportunity to imagine what Capt. Pike describes as a “peacekeeping armada” could truly be free of militarism, profiteering, and ‘realpolitik’. Of course, the Enterprise has weapons, but they are never used preemptively. The ethical world in which these characters thrive is one where the Science Officer (!) and the Doctor (!!!) often have the Captain’s ear before he makes the decision to fire weapons. They have inherited the chain of command from Starfleet’s naval legacy, but you find that our heroes will rebuke their orders when circumstances necessitate a change of heart.

Most conspicuously missing was any reference to the paragon of Starfleet’s core philosophy, the Prime Directive. It is another principle that we can look up to as a beacon for optimism, and a notion that is due to be reintroduced in our cultural dialogue; non-interference. Granted, the events that take place in the film do not beg the question of a need for it, so its absence for this go round is not a dire oversight. In fact, they faced the gravest of existential threats: total war. Kudos to you that Spock refrains from assigning any number of rhetorically popular labels for Nero but instead refers to him as a “war criminal” for his vile act of genocide. To hear him utter the word “terrorist” would have done an injustice to Star Trek’s fealty to ideals that seem all-too-lost in our popular culture, like the rule of law or speaking truth to power. Also, creating a Vulcan Diaspora is a poignant and heart-breaking statement about the consequences of violence, vengeance, and bigotry. It will also be a wonderful new element for the Star Trek universe to explore; and with it the opportunity for the characters (and the audience themselves) to ask deeper questions.

Where Do We Go From Here – Of course, Trek is not (and never was) all about heady and discursive moralizing. It is a narrative vehicle for adventure. There is no question you succeed, and excel, at crafting a world in which we can delight in these characters, and take us on a hell of a ride to boot. But as you now are undoubtedly locked into penning the next installment, I see no reason why the next could not be an even greater achievement.

However, I could not end this message without speaking of my biggest disappointment, and one that I predicted nonetheless. In preparing myself for what might become of this film, I anticipated that product placements might appear in this incarnation. I must say that their inclusion caused irreparable damage to the reputation of the film. I am not unaware of the constraints of funding and producing studio flicks, but if I can make an appeal for future Trek: Please leave out the product placements! The handful of millions that Nokia and InBev paid to have their brands awkwardly inserted into the story could be sacrificed next time around by replacing the minutes of shockingly expensive CGI with ten (or even 15) minutes of dramatic interplay between these beloved characters. Part of the genius of making sci-fi on a television budget was leaving some things unseen and letting the audience discover some wild ideas through the brilliant performances of an ensemble cast. I hold dear the idea of a future like Star Trek’s, in which brands, corporations, and other affectations of our primitive age can be scrapped for human endeavors of more altruistic motives.

Now that you have established an “alternative” course that the new Star Trek can now venture out on, you have the freedom to take (or leave behind) anything you desire from the four-decades-worth of rich history. I can honestly say because you don’t have to wedge new stories into an increasingly bloated and stogy canon, you need not fall into the same trap as that OTHER sci-fi franchise; you don’t have to tip-toe around retroactive continuity and risk “jumping the shark” to fit your ideas in. Some fans may have preferred you didn’t take this route, but overall, the potential for great storytelling wins out here. I wish you good luck, and can say I have a great deal of confidence in your station as keepers of the Trek. Now that you two boys just got the keys to the car; please don’t drive it off the cliff.