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Worst Date Movie Ever

I made it a goal to see "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhistan" this weekend. This is harder than it sounds, because I have a rule about seeing movies in the theater: I do it only if (a) I believe the movie is so visually and thematically spectacular that it cannot be properly appreciated on the relatively small screen of a television set, (b) if I share the experience with someone else, or (c) screw the rule, I can't go on with life as I know it unless I see the movie immediately.

"Borat: (etc)" was clearly not a case of (a), and after a bit of soul-searching, I decided it probably was not a case of (c) either. So I accepted the possibility that I might not be seeing it this weekend after all; it would depend on the schedules of others. In any event, I had chosen this weekend as a good one to hang out with my friends in Houston, and so I thought to pose the question to them.

My circle of friends in Houston includes a few people I don't know all that well--friends of the friends, whom I like well enough to get to know better. One happened to be cute and recently single; and, sure enough, she was available for general socializing on Sunday.

This set two separate plans in motion. First, of course, was the culmination of my desire to drag some unsuspecting friend to the theater, thereby making a theater viewing of Borat an example of rule exception (b) and therefore worth the time and money. But knowing that I had the opportunity to spend some time with a friendly single woman, I instinctively knew that no one else could be invited to participate in our goings-out. This was time to be reserved solely for the two of us. Very like, had I allowed my mind to wander into that dangerous territory, a date.

Now, I'm happy to be dating this woman. I liked her right away when I first met her, and if someone had set me up with her for a date, I'd have been quick to accept. But I've discovered that when I think of an impending meeting with a woman as a "date," I panic a little. I think of third dates, expensive dinners and flowers and candlelight and moonlight and serenading and all that. So as a rule, when I'm in a first-date scenario, I try to avoid applying that label to it. It's just me and some interesting woman I'd like to get to know. We can call it a date afterwards, if we must.

Had I reflected on it, however, I'd have realized that much as I wanted to see Borat, there was the excellent possibility of the movie being horribly unsuited for a date.

Sure enough, it was cruelly, brutally funny, so impolite that one wondered from time to time whether it was a faux pas to not avert one's eyes. There was cringing and wincing from both of us, as if we had been watching one of the "Jackass" movies. In all, I loved Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhistan; and she liked it, though her appreciate of it appeared to have been marred by its being extremely rude. But next time we see a movie together, it's probably going to be something warm, and light, and perhaps just a little bit safer.

If you're still wondering whether this is an endorsement of the movie, let me assure you that it is. So long as you do not think of yourself as easily offended, you will either learn something about yourself by watching it, or enjoy the hell out of it, or both. Just... don't bring a date. All I'm sayin'.
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On the Golden Rule and its prison dilemna

"Do unto others," the philosophers say, "as you would have them do unto you." This is also known as the Golden Rule. Seems fair, doesn't it? I know the sorts of things I'd like done unto me, and I imagine people would generally appreciate it if I did those very things unto them. Nor have I met anyone who professes to disagree with this principle, which is honored in many cultures and throughout the ages.

So why do we throw people in prison? Or, rather, how do we justify it with this principle, as we would never ourselves wish to be put there?

Prison (and it is to be understood that there are a great many other penalties which could serve equally well as examples, such as fines, injuctions, and capital punishment) is used for several reasons. We hope, perhaps in vain, that the person who experiences it will emerge rehabilitated, and return to society with a newfound respect for compliance to its laws. Others who do not wish to ever go to prison may learn the lesson in advance, and be deterred from breaking laws. And if a person is a danger to the public, that danger is greatly minimized with him locked away.

And yet, whatever virtues I can ascribe to the existence of prisons, I must confess I should never wish to be required to live in one. And so long as I believe in doing unto others as I would have done unto me, it must follow that I cannot wish a prison sentence on anyone.

If I did not believe in this principle, I could claim that I need not be treated like a criminal, and that it was acceptable for me to defend myself against him with methods which I myself should never have to suffer. But then, I could also claim it was acceptable to steal from others without being robbed, to kill others without being killed. If it becomes useful for me to do such things, moral principle would not restrain me from them, and I would therefore be all the more worthy of a prison sentence.

It could be argued, in fact, that so long as I do not honor the Golden Rule, I can call for prisons and executions and all manner of punishments at the collective hands of society, and that my objections need not be heard if I someday receive these punishments. But if I do honor it, I must object to the punishments being inflicted in the first place, whether to myself or anyone else.

Suppose I accidentally killed a man. What I would like done unto me is to be taught exactly how I caused the fatal accident to occur, and how to ensure I am never again responsible for such an accident. I might also want to learn how I might make recompense for those who were dependent in some way on the victim.

I wouldn't want to be taken to jail, put on trial, sentenced to prison, or experience the stigma of being an ex-convict for the remainder of my life. In fact, I would argue, this fate serves little purpose, compared against the one I have requested. A year in prison will not rehabilitate me nearly as well as learning how to be more careful with the lives of others. It will not deter me from crimes I already do not wish to commit. It may deter others from the fatal carelessness of which I was hypothetically guilty, but it may also deter them from ever admitting to carelessness of that magnitude which luckily does not result in death; and in not admitting it, they might never learn from their mistakes until they are in my imagined position. So it might indeed be better if society does unto me as I would have others do unto me.

But suppose I apply the same standard to someone who adamantly does not believe in the Golden Rule, or its underlying sense of morality. He accidentally kills a man, but does not regret it in any way. What would he have done unto him? He's probably been asking that for years, making a list of all the things the world owes him just for being there. That he has just deprived someone of his life doesn't factor into it at all; he can kill whomever he wants, without ever believing himself worthy of being killed or even punished in return. If I do unto him as he would specify, he has no reason to avoid killing me someday, accidentally or otherwise. By contrast, there are many things I can do unto him which greatly reduce that risk.

So long as I value not being mistreated at the hands of those who do not follow the Golden Rule, I am left wondering whether I should modify it. Perhaps it works better as, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, to the degree that they do unto you as they would have you do unto them."

Or, maybe the rule is correct as written, and I have no moral reason to modify my behavior toward people who may otherwise cause me harm. But if that's true, must I oppose the practice of prison sentences?

Is there some loophole in the Golden Rule I have not considered?

Why the hell am I still awake, anyway?
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Making and Assembling Friends

There's a mini-pumpkin carving and decorating contest at work. I've carved mine into a Jack-o-Lantern which resembles Frankenstein's monster. It's got huge scars where flesh was carefully assembled to make a face, twisted old mini-pumpkin teeth in a dead mini-pumpkin mouth, and the metal bolts from just beneath the base (as if protruding from the neck) where the monster receives that electric current which galvanizes him to life.

The proponent of the contest has brought art supplies to work, and these would be useful in creating the desired effect. Sadly, I did not know of the art supplies, and did not bring my mini-pumpkin with me to work today. So, now the plan is to show up early tomorrow morning, and use a heavily diluted whitewash to give my gourd an unhealthy pallor to its skin. I might even paint a little dried blood inside its scars and retouch the stitches in its face, if there is time before the judging at noon.

The funniest bit is that Frankenstein's monster is typically supplied with a thick mat of hair, which is not the sort of thing which might grow on a pumpkin. I don't know what I'd buy to simulate it, so I'm improvising with what I've got. And what I've got are a pair of old slippers, made to look like the feet of a grizzly bear (complete with fake claws). I've only kept them this long because they amuse me, and I'm not much concerned with wearing them; so I've taken my beard trimmer (I've lost the scissors), and cut a bit of fur from the back of one, so to glue the shavings to the pumpkin top. I wish that wasn't a metaphor for my life, but I happen to be the kind of guy who finds himself with perfectly good reasons to shave his slippers.
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On Introversion and Instinct

It is generally accepted that what we think of as human contact--gossip, idle chatter, jokes--fulfills the same function in our species as the social grooming behaviors found in other species. Any animal can form an extensive social network in this fashion, building trust and fondness among members of its species.

I, introverted by nature and reclusive by habit, am given to wonder how an animal who lacks the benefit of language can convince another animal to lick his butt.

The phenomenon suggests, among other things, that specific words are really not all that important in establishing a social connection; it's more a matter of speaking as a way of showing attentiveness and friendly intentions. If the listener is not too defensive in that circumstance to allow the contact, it is generally accepted, and builds a bond of trust.

I ought to view this as good news--that socializing is really much easier than I think it is, and that it only requires me to inflict my social instincts on anyone who looks bored. But dammit, I like specific words. I'm good at them, and it pisses me off that wordcraft isn't worth as much to most people as I'd like to believe.

I can only content myself with the knowledge that words are useful for other reasons, and that the habit I lack is instinctual and easily learned. Or, at least, I hope it is, because it's high time I learned it. My butt isn't going to lick itself, after all.
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Politics of the selfish

Today, I read something in the news--something pertinent to American politics--which made me angry. The nature of the news, however, is not what I wish to write about today; but rather, the nature of the anger.

Anger is a natural emotional state. It is not intrinsically wrong to have anger, although there are certainly a number of undesirable reactions to it. Rather, the presence of anger is an indication that some part of his self-definition has been emperiled by circumstance; that his boundaries have been crossed, and that only by strengthening his boundaries can he preserve the vision of who he imagines himself to be.

And that is all well and good; but what do we say to people who bring anger into politics? On one hand, it is the nature of politics to address a person's values, giving the subject a personal dimension. But it is also a discourse, an exchange of ideas, a finding of fact, and a commitment to the common good. These pursuits may be informed by the observations which anger inspires, but to pursue them with anger is to defy the purpose of politics. I have not met the American who is not all too familiar with the corrosive effect of anger on public discourse.

Politics asks a lot of us. It asks us to look into our hearts, to find our values, and to defend them vigorously; but it also asks us to listen to others, to accept their opinions as equally valid, and to abide the collective will of the people. It asks us to be angry long enough to have an opinion, and then to let go of that anger as soon as we attempt to share that opinion. Small wonder we're so awful at it.

But to frame the question as a matter of both having and letting go of anger does an injustice to the purpose of debate. The idea that we are to respect the opinions of others, to allow ourselves to be challenged with perspectives alien to us, is not one of letting go of the righteous anger we bear in the defense of our values. Rather, it is the equally righteous emotion of love: the love we have of our nation, of our brothers and sisters and communities and countrymen, of the principles and history and future that we share.

We advance our own points of view out of anger, but we listen to others' out of love. It's the only way democracy can ever work.
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That's the statue of the ethicist who drunkenly fought a hundred men

For the last week, I've been training temporary employees. One of these is a part-time English teacher, who today told me that my skills at teaching adults were strong.

It was particularly flattering in the context; it was a response to what I had just told him, which was that I should like to go back to college and make a career out of academic study. I am increasingly interested in earning a Ph.D. in philosophy, specializing in normative ethics. I could then claw my way into tenure, publishing my observations and teaching them to the unwary.

I think I'd be awesome at it. They would worship me like a titan among philosophy departments. People would make statues and shit.

The University of Texas in Austin has a surprisingly strong philosophy department. But I still need to figure out how to convince them they must admit me, and I need to know how hard it is to leverage a diploma from U.T. into a job with tenure prospects. It is a rather daunting idea when I think about it; I've never even considered planning so much of my life at one time.

Collegians, consider this your cue to tell me what I need to know.
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(no subject)

I had a conversation recently about Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, but does it seem right that love is the fatal flaw? The Montagues and the Capulets may have been flawed in their pride and their hatred, but was it wrong for Romeo and Juliet to love each other?

Well... maybe it was, when you think about it. Mercutio died because Romeo wouldn't keep his distance from Juliet. Tybalt was killed for the same reason, though he earned his fate. So the fact that Juliet was a Capulet meant that their romance was dangerous to themselves and everyone around them. Romeo willfully took that risk, because love blinded him to good judgment. That was his flaw.

But who were the Capulets to object? What business was it of Tybalt's whether Romeo was banging his cousin? And anyway, who was Romeo to deny true love? Such weighty ethical issues deserve a moment's consideration.

Wherefore art RomeoCollapse )