Wednesday, January 24


A deafening silence from the Moral Certainty tubthumpers. How about that?

Y'know, Nicholas Kristof of the NYTimes had a nicely turned phrase in his column comparing Bush to Ahab of MOBY-DICK fame:

"The siren call of moral clarity."

Which got me thinking about just exactly what seems to be so seductive about it, and what kind of people are so easily seduced that they will cheerfully ignore reality.

More on that later; I have to get to work.

As for the couple of folks who claim that firefighters, cops and soldiers risk their lives out of moral conviction, I say: Pshaw.

Love, compassion and courage are related only peripherally to moral conviction, clarity or certainty. I don't need moral certainty to dive into freezing water or dodge among speeding traffic to save an endangered child (or even some drunken asshole who staggered the wrong direction). Shit, I'd do the same for a dog or a cat. But not for a squirrel or a raccoon. Well, maybe a raccoon. Or a coyote. But not for squirrels, opossums, or deer.

That's not a moral distinction; it's just a matter of taste.

Hmp. On reflection: it srikes me that many of our Tubthumper Moral Clarity Elite are really only trying to elevate their tastes to the status of Laws of God. More on that later, too.

Saturday, January 20

Goldberg responds:

A few quick points (well, okay, neither few nor quick -- but I hope you might find them worth reading nonetheless):

1.) Notice how his first, and only, idea is to attempt to denigrate and devalue me and my position without addressing any single argument. Without answering a single question, or even attempting to defend, say, his preposterous characterization of Socrates. ("I am the wisest of men, for I know that I know nothing.")

2.) I never accused him of believing, or even suggesting, that all moral certainty is always right; I accused him of shoddy scholarship in his examples, of using cheap straw men to pretend he's answering a real objection, and (by implication, anyway) of displaying, in a single column, nearly every negative intellectual characteristic of "moral certainty" short of advocating actual political oppression or violence.

3.) I do not feel threatened by any defense of moral certainty. I feel that our nation, and the world, is threatened by ignoramuses who act out of moral certainty. My objection to Mr. Goldberg's article was not that it was in defense of "moral certainty," though I find the whole concept intellectually bankrupt. My objection was to his misrepresentation of fact, and his substitution of slogan for argument, and his smears of anyone who might take issue with him (exactly, by the way, what he accuses his opponents of doing).

Breathtaking arrogance, indeed.

4.) The anonymous example of his "lot of email like this" is unfortunate, but hardly unexpected. My skill (or lack thereof) as a writer, which he takes care to insult, is actually irrelevant to any point in my original email. Nothing I said was predicated on my being anything other than the author of the Episode III novelization. My objections are based on the flaws in his positions, not on any presumed Authority as a Great Writer. Which flaws, I cannot resist pointing out once more, he apparently can't be troubled to explain away, or defend in any manner beyond a variation of the schoolyard classic: "Oh, what do you know anyway, you four-eyed dork?"

As for the opinion of the anonymous "fan," my vanity demands I point out that every major publication which reviewed my book disagrees with this anonymous person's assessment.

All is vanity, y'know. The Bible says so.

5.) If he (and his nameless supposed "email correspondent") knew half as much about my business as I know about theirs, they both would have realized that the scripts he has linked linked to his blog actually underwent considerable editing and redaction in the shooting process. Those may be shooting scripts; they are not transcripts of the actual film.

6.) As for the idea that I am misrepresenting what Obi-wan and Yoda trained Luke to do:

There's still good in him.

I also thought he could be turned back to the
good side. It couldn't be done. He is more
machine now than man. Twisted and evil.

I can't do it, Ben.

You cannot escape your destiny.

The anonymous fan may very well find some contorted way to pretend that Obi-Wan isn't telling Luke to kill him . . . but if that's the case, why would Obi-Wan not correct Luke's obvious misperception?

Especially, for example, a few lines later:

I can't kill my own father.

Then the Emperor has already won. You were
our only hope.

I am forced to wonder if Mr. Goldberg presented his supposed point in an "anonymous email" because he knew the "point" is a conscious, fully intentional and malicious lie. This is, at the very least, another example of Mr. Goldberg refusing to do the most minimal homework to support any of his positions.

But then, he doesn't have to have a reason to hold a position, does he? Fact is irrelevant in the face of his "moral certainty."

7.) The contention that Mr. Lucas had been, even in the Original Trilogy, a staunch advocate of moral certainty can be disposed of with reference to that exact scene, viz.:

Luke, you're going to find that many of the
truths we cling to depend greatly on our own
point of view.

Now, I confess I can't actually remember if that line ever appeared in the film; however, it does indeed appear in the script to which Mr. Goldberg has posted a link. Which seems to reinforce my suspicion that Mr. Goldberg must be too intellectually lazy to spend five minutes on the Internet to make sure he has his facts straight. Or to discover if he has any facts at all.

8.) Please observe that I am devoting this post to answering his points, and highlighting the misrepresentation and general shoddiness of his "response." It's unfortunate that he has not seen fit to respond in a dignified fashion, but perhaps that was inevitable; when one can't attack the argument, all one has left is to attack the arguer.

9.) If my response to his response leaves anyone (including Mr. Goldberg) with an impression I am attacking him ad hominem, they are mistaken; any unflattering characterization of him in the post above is simply the result of reasoning from available evidence.

Moving on:

I would like to point out a couple of really offensive rhetorical tactics that cropped up in the comments section below that original post.

I'm not going to worry about the ones from people too gutless to sign them; I've deleted those posts already. However, there are others, which I am leaving above their byline, because I think they're indicative of the disease of "moral certainty."

"Ah, I think I begin to see. Another anti-Semite and seeing the name Goldberg set you aflame."

This is possibly the most insulting thing anyone has ever written about me on this blog (which is really saying something, as frequent readers will already know). If the author of this post as any evidence to support this incredibly stupid and inflammatory assertion, I invite him or her to post it. Otherwise, I invite him or her to apologize.

The poster goes on:

"I think you would prefer that Israel did nothing and allowed innocent civilians be killed because somehow in your twisted mind they deserve it.

You probably think the US deserved 9/11 don't you?"

Again: post evidence that supports this opinion, suspicion, or whatever you want to call it. Or apologize. Or future posts will be deleted without comment.

It's tempting to speculate why this poster uses a handle; I have noticed it's easier to be an asshole when you're pretending to be somebody else.

Me, I can be an asshole under my own name. Because I'm not a fucking coward.
Hi, everybody.

Just so you can't say you heard it somewhere else first:

I delivered a draft of CAINE BLACK KNIFE the week before Christmas. I've been keeping a lid on it because I still haven't heard an official reaction from my editor.

But my agent liked it.

I'm not thrilled with this story, as it stands. The individual scenes are better, I think, than anything else I've done, and the structure is ambitious, to say the least . . . but the ambitious structure has necessitated some internal compromises that I'm unhappy about. Which I know means fuck all to any of you, but the point is that this particular delivery is not yet cause for celebration. Once my editor, the estimable Chris Schleup, has had a chance to help me whip it into shape, I'll be considerably more cheerful.

Meanwhile: [a subdued] woo-hoo . . .

Saturday, January 6

This is where I sprain my arm patting myself on the back . . .

From the comments a couple posts ago:


Matt, I thought that these things might interest you:

My final project in English this semester is an essay centered around "Getting Away From it All." We could choose any novel we saw fit. I chose Blade of Tyshalle and developed the argument about how most of the novel is Caine's struggle to free himself from the limitations he had set for himself as Hari.

I earned an A. I might add it was the only A anyone received on the paper. And I feel quite confident in asserting that it was not my because of my writing that I got an was the book. So I owe you some thanks.

Also, I have lent my copy of Heroes Die to 9 people, all of whom are promptly going out to buy Blade. Just thought you'd be interested to know that your fan-base is ever growing and that you've shaped and changed many people's lives.

Including mine.

-Ryan Anningson
# posted by r.e.anningson : 2:33 PM


In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that Ryan and I have corresponded a few times, and that I have always found him to be brilliant, scholarly, highly literate and in possession of impeccable taste.

But you knew that.

Here's the actual point: I really do try to change the world, one reader at a time. This is why, as the estimable Bob Urell trenchantly observed, my books don't hold your hand and drag you toward my point (or even my point of view); I really do try to just tell a story, and let each reader decide for himself (or herself -- Jenn, put down that knife!) what it means, or if it means anything at all. Because, try as I might to change the world, I can't control what it changes into, you follow? And trying to impose control on the world is the real path to the dark side.

Look at Darth Cheney, for example.

The coolest thing about my participation in STAR WARS ON TRIAL was that it gave me a chance to state baldly my fundamental beliefs about the nature of good storytelling (along with ruthlessly needling David Brin for a couple hundred pages).

Like here:

In all his talk of examining premises, and all the things that SF and fantasy and Literature in General Should Do For You, it seems to me that Opposing Counsel has been dragging around an unexamined premise of his own, a somewhat Puritan hand-me-down that needs to be dragged from the closet and shaken out in the sunlight every once in a while, because the mold that grows on it can choke art to death.

It's this notion that art has to be Good For You. That beauty is insufficient, and truth irrelevant, unless there's also some Crunchy Whole-Grain Goodness that's gonna Improve Your Psychic Bowel-Function along the way.

Opposing Counsel's view seems -- from my admittedly only semi-educated perspective -- to be a more limited case of this notion: that art should somehow serve as a comforting social glue. That it should shore up the values of our culture. Or -- as he likes to put it -- our civilization. That any work of art which does not do this -- which presents any other way of living one's life, or which might even, all gods forbid, actually criticize one or more of Our Mutual Sacred Values -- is . . . well, somehow wrong. Bad. Or, as the Soviets used to say, decadent.

Now, I'm not gonna claim he's wrong. There's an argument to be made there. I just think he oughta make it, instead of simply assuming everybody agrees with him.

Because I don't. And I'm pretty sure I'm not alone.

And here:

I avoid stating the "core lessons" of any work of art, for two reasons. The first is that I don't believe the function of art is to teach me a lesson; the second is that such pursuits always result in gross oversimplification. As I advise young writers (advice I once received from a writer older and far wiser than myself): "If you can state your theme in a sentence, don't write a story. Rent a billboard."

And, finally, here:

Now, I have to tell you something about what I mean by Truth, too. I'm not talking about engineer's truth, here: the kind of truth that is visible by microscope, measurable by laser balance, or quantifiable by any contortion of mathematics. That kind of truth is commonly referred to as fact, and as such has no need for the upper case T. There is another, dicier aspect of reality also commonly referred to as truth, and that is the kind that we turn to courts and juries to decide. These are truths that are still describable in plain language, but about which there may be legitimate disagreement, because they can't be reduced to straightforward observation, or measurement. Guilt or innocence, proportional blame -- these are what we call decidable questions. Ones that have more-or-less final answers. That's what we're pretending we're up to here. But we're just pretending.
Because that's still lower-case truth.
When you get to Truth, in the upper case, you face questions of meaning. Maybe I should say Meaning. Upper-Case Truth deals with Who We Are, and What It All Means.
That's when direct language begins to fail. Closing in on that kind of Truth, direct statement falters on asymptotic approach -- the closer you get, the less useful it becomes. You need imagery to even get into the atmosphere, and metaphor for landing gear.
Which brings us back to Star Wars.
Because upper-case Truth is the real subject of Star Wars. Not who we might be, or what might happen someday, or what ought to happen or what we should worry about happening in the future. Star Wars isn't about the future.
There's a reason why the whole Saga takes place "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . ."
It's not anchored in time or place. It's not about some other galaxy. It's not about the future, or about 1977, or 1980, or '83, 1999, 2002 or 2005. It's about wherever is here, and whenever is now.
. . .
Star Wars is about Big Questions.
That's why we bother.
This is why it's worth your time to bother, too:
Because when you get to Truth, you don't get (pacé Regis Philbin) any final answers. You can't measure it, and you can't trust a jury of your peers to decide the question.
Only you can decide what it means, because in the end, what it means . . . is what it means to you.

If you substitute the phrase "my books" for the phrase "Star Wars," you can get a pretty good idea what I'm after. Which brings me back around (the long way -- call it the scenic route) to Ryan's essay.

Because what he got from it isn't what I put into it. It's what HE put into it.

In my mind, I wasn't writing on that subject -- but I was lucky enough to spark his imagination, so that he was participating in the creation of meaning and interpretation. So I get credit for his brains. See?

That means I win.

Thursday, January 4

On learning that Keith Ellison, D-Minn, the United States' first Muslim Congressman, will take his oath of office on a Koran once owned by Thomas Jefferson, I am put in mind of one of the inscriptions within the rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C.:

Taken from a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800 --

Almighty God hath created the mind free . . . All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens . . . are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion . . . No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion. I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively.

I believe that pretty well sums it up.

Wednesday, January 3

I guess I'm feeling better.

Dear Mr. Goldberg:

Please excuse the late arrival of this email in response to your column on "Certainty" that apparently appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Dec. 28th of last year. I don't read the Tribune (and I'd be unlikely to read your column if I did), but my mother sent me your column as a clipping, since you bring up STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH. My own connection to that project is well-known, by those with any knowledge of the subject whatsoever; since you are apparently not one of these, it may profit you to Google my name.

I say you are apparently not one of these, because if you were you would know that neither Mr. Lucas, nor any of the films did, in fact, maintain "that the entire Universe is divided into light and dark sides." A somewhat more sophisticated commentator might remember that no one in the films speak of any such thing as "a light side," and that the dual-valued moral certainty whose loss you bemoan was never in fact present at all; this moral conviction was exclusively the province of the Jedi, who, even in the original trilogy, are portrayed as being consistently wrong. A simple example (among many possible such) is that the young hero's mentors both insist his sole purpose in life is to slay his father; but (as all Star Wars fans and most everyone else who was alive in a Western nation during the 80s can tell you) it was Luke Skywalker's rejection of Obi-Wan and Yoda's flawed moral certainty that saves the day. Instead of killing his father, he forgives him -- he offers human understanding and love to the icon of Evil -- and thus triumphs. Insidious moral relativism, no doubt, but the only hackery on display here is that of a columnist too lazy to do his homework.

However, though it was Star Wars that brought your column to my attention, your offhand misrepresentation of Mr. Lucas's work is not my main objection to your column. It is the succession of mistakes, misstatements and what seem to be outright lies. Your assertion of intellectual dishonesty in the critics of absolutism is an insult to whatever intelligence might remain in regular readers of your column; did you actually ask Anthony Lewis that question, and get that response? Have you asked Andrew Sullivan? Barack Obama? Me? (Well, okay, I'll let you slide on that last one.)

Before bringing Socrates into a discussion, for example, you might consider actually reading Plato (or at least Wikipedia); your characterization of Socrates as a man of absolute moral conviction is, quite frankly, entirely false. Thomas More is only a hero to some; to others, he's a dangerous anti-Protestant polemicist and an advocate of Papal control over affairs of sovereign nations. Your speculation as to FDR's motivations is similarly ill-informed. Men of great conviction tend to be more monster than hero, beginning with Joshua ben Nun and running by way of Pericles up to John Brown, Kaiser Wilhem, Rasputin, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao tse Tung . . . You can count heroes of conviction on one hand. Monsters of conviction you couldn't count using all the hairs on your head. I strongly advise you to read more and write less -- unless you are wholly incapable of shame.

"The fact is that unless you know where you stand, it's unlikely you'll have the courage to understand where someone else is coming from."

Leaving aside your misuse of the word "fact" (something else you might try looking up), is there any conceivable support for this preposterous assertion? Did you even read this inanity before allowing it to slip into print under your byline?

As to our supposed certainty that murder is wrong, does that certainty extend to, say, Osama bin Laden? Would you fight to save his life against US Special Forces bent on finding and killing him? How about Saddam Hussein? (And don't try to pretend Hussein wasn't murder; there was nothing lawful about either his trial or his execution.) Have you written a number of columns blasting Israel's use of targeted assinations? If racism is always bad, then why aren't you writing column after column insisting that Israel return all the land stolen from the Palestinians? Is it your position that all Palestinians should be made full citizens of Israel? If you don't advocate these things, how is that not racist? Should Ted Kaczynski's parents have loved him unconditionally (in fact, I believe they did, which is a strong argument against the absolute moral value of unconditional parental love)? If, say, Osama bin Laden's father was shielding and supporting his son out of unconditional love, would you applaud his moral uprightness?

Bear in mind that I am not "dismissing your ideas out of hand." I'm simply trying to elucidate a few of your false assertions, to illuminate your army of straw men, and to castigate the intellectual bankruptcy of your "arguments."

"Close-minded" does not, and has never, meant "people who disagree with me." "Close-minded" refers to people who are so smug in their self-righteous ignorance that they simply can't be bothered about facts.

Does that sound like anyone you know personally?

Matthew Woodring Stover
numquam desisto