Friday, January 21, 2005

Time Is Running Out for Opponents of Gay Marriage

There is not much new to say about the issue of “Gay Marriage.” The central matter of contention seems to be that proponents want the government to recognize same-sex unions as legal marriages. Opponents want the term “marriage” reserved solely for the union of a man and a woman.

Even this simple description conveys something of the deeply held personal, religious, and symbolic associations of the term “marriage” for many people. Being married myself, I know I have strong feelings about it. I find married life to be a source of happiness and strength. It is one of the good things in life, and why shouldn't everyone have the chance to experience it?

This is the main reason that I support Gay Marriage and hope that same sex unions in America become legal and recognized as marriage. To me, marriage falls under the “pursuit of happiness” right that we agree – in the Declaration of Independence, anyway – is the birthright of all people.

If a consenting adult willingly desires to be married to another consenting adult, then the government’s obligation is to protect the right of these people to be married. We can all understand the strong fears, feelings, and desires of those who covet a traditional definition of “marriage” and do not want it expanded. But trying to reserve the term for only one combination of consenting adults is childish, immoral, mean-spirited, and undemocratic. Using a moral guise, it attacks the very spirit and core principles of American governance.

More than this, even, the fight to restrict the definition of marriage is a profound waste of moral energy that might be directed toward helping the poor, the ill, and the lost. I cannot help but notice that the same folks who cry to have morality legislated in this case – through a constitutional amendment – are often the same folks who don’t want morality legislated when it comes to helping our country’s impoverished.

Inevitably, “marriage” will one day cover both heterosexual and homosexual unions. Only fear and prejudice stand in the way. But those in power in the government, courts and lobbying groups are aging and on the decline. Those of my generation, who are on the political ascent, will make the issue right and put it to rest.

Perhaps then our country will be better equipped to deal with the serious moral issues confronting us.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Morality and Text

Morality is an endlessly contentious and entangling issue. We can find several examples daily where the general concept of morality becomes critical in assessing a particular political issue. One current example of this is the inauguration ball expenses of George W. Bush, but the debate over a courthouse representation of the Ten Commandments and national discussions of providing values based teaching in public schools also illustrate the ubiquitous concern with morality – as well as how morality is communicated, by whom, and in what context.

Such concerns, debates, and discussions are by and large beneficial. Morality, ethics and values – as they apply to individual behavior, organizational activity, and societal conduct – are a proper focus for virtually any subject, so long as the discussion doesn’t deteriorate into self-righteous posturing and finger-wagging. Wouldn’t it be enlightening, and even entertaining, to consider the policy issues of our day from moral standpoints?

The issue of Gay Marriage, for example, has not actually been treated from any such standpoint, to my knowledge. It’s easy to hear the shouting and stomping that “marriage has always been between a man and a woman” or that “Gay Marriage is a matter of Civil Rights,” but the underlying moral issues inherent in both claims are actually far more important and interesting than the claims themselves.

We never seem to talk about how following or departing from tradition – what’s “always been done” – makes our society morally improved or worsened. At least, we never get any examples or case studies. Likewise, we rarely get discourses that put rights, who grants them, and who protects them, in the context of the moral standards we hope to achieve and maintain as a society.

What do we get instead? Position after position and opinion after opinion. Moral grandstanding, in other words.

Personally, I believe in the concept of a “moral bottom line,” a cultural net gain or loss influenced by our actions, behaviors, and policies. The moral economy is encoded in official laws and programs, as well as social customs and traditions. It is driven by daily contests and decisions made in homes, synagogues, schools, offices, and on TV and the Internet. It is administered by authorities in the courts, police squads, legislative bodies, and religious organizations. But what anchors morality to the individual and collective consciousness is the perception that morality derives from G-d. Whether it actually derives from G-d is unknowable and probably irrelevant.

But the point is that morality works as a textual formation, as a perceived product of a perceived transcendental force. If morality ceased to be understood as such a product, it not only would cease to have a spiritual resonance but also would fragment individuals from each other, from their communities, from their society, and from their government. This, I think, would make the moral economy poorer.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Textual Ecosystem of Football

There are many reasons to enjoy football in general and football games in particular: the complex, coordinated chaos of plays in action; vicious hits and tackles; the poetic arc of the pass; the warrior ballet of catching a football; the martial brilliance of a long scoring drive; and so on.

Yet, among the more arresting considerations of a football game is its textuality. At any moment “in” a game, an entire constellation of texts will link up, intersect, and overlap. For instance, imagine a single offensive play being run from beginning to end. From one point of view, that team’s offensive coordinator, who typically decides which plays the team will execute, functions as an intending agent, the producer or addressee of the play. To the opposing team’s defensive coordinator, the offensive coordinator is communicating a particular message, the substance of which is the change in field position.

How is this change, the message, communicated? Most obviously, the players executing the plan have primary responsibility for carrying – in both a physical and semiotic sense – the message to the opposing team. Their actions and movements anticipate and aim to manipulate response actions from the defensive players.

At the same time, the offense play develops in a rule-governed environment. Everything from the referees to the helmets, pads, cleats, and numbered uniforms forms a code or repertoire – to borrow terms from Roman Jakobson and Itamar Even-Zohar, respectively – governing the conduct of play and the appropriate response from the defense. In this single offensive play, there is also a surrounding context consisting of field position, down, time remaining, and so on.

A single play from a single point of view therefore carries an enormous textual charge. More than this, it reveals a textual ecosystem at work. But what’s truly amazing is that we only considered one play from one point of view. We could consider that play from the point of view of the quarterback, the head coach, the team owner, the television spectator, and many more positions. We can consider single plays, which are really dual plays: offensive and defensive. We can also consider bundles of plays, from a single drive, from a quarter, from a half, from a game.

Beyond this there are texts in the game planning, from film study to X and O diagrams; texts in the media coverage, from play-by-play coverage to post-game news conferences and interviews; and texts in the team and NFL promotion machines. The incredible textual life and traffic of football suggests the magnitude of our task: trying to make a systematic, incisive confrontation with the multiple textuality driving both the staged and impromptu events of our time.

Perhaps the lesson here is the need to establish the tools of textual analysis that will best assist in generating the results we want.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Mission Statement: Textuality and What Matters Today

This blog has been initiated and inaugurated to serve as a forum on textuality. Specifically, it is intended to support the analysis and understanding of current events, issues, and debates from the standpoint of textuality.

As I understand textuality, it is the quality possessed by a tangible thing of being a text. To proceed further, a text is a tangible thing – such as a piece of paper, a book, a Web page or Internet site, an onstage or onscreen performance, a painting, a sculpture, a building, a location in nature, and so on – that is understood to be or to be comprised of one or more signs. Signs may contain one or more signifying elements, but their referents are conceived of as statements of thought intended to be communicated.

For example, an otherwise blank piece of paper with a single letter “b” scrawled on it may not be understood as a text. Why? Because the letter seems not to be placed to communicate any particular idea. In this view, neither the letter, the physical paper, nor the letter-paper combination is acting as a sign. Signs and texts are not always identical, but in this case no sign, no text.

However, another reader may view the paper and letter differently. This person might see the “b” as imitating a teacher’s grade given to a homework assignment. This reader might deduce the paper and letter work together to make a deliberately ironic comment on education. Suddenly, then, we have a text. That is, we understand the paper to belong that class of objects containing signs and possessing an inferable communicative intent.

My view is that if textuality can be said to exist, it does so in the eye and mind of the beholder. This forum is intended to allow a community of beholders to see and understand the textual themes and dimensions of various current issues. I have no objection to examining any topic of a political, social, or cultural nature.

I recently posted thoughts on morality. It was a response to Dennis Parger’s article arguing the need for G-d-based morality. One of the “hidden” texts of the matter, which I did not raise in my post, involved written law – anything and everything from the Tanach to the Bill of Rights. Prager’s arguments on the subject, as well as my own, implicitly differentiate between (1) a transcendent moral standard issued from G-d’s will and (2) a world-bound moral code set down by societies.

The former morality is purported to be eternal, absolute and stable. The latter is supposed to be flawed and subject to the ingenuity of people to find “loopholes” and manufacture “reasonable” justifications to illegalities.

I use this example to make the point that textuality is “in” many of today’s most discussed and controversial topics. What’s more, the nature of the contention often includes competing views of textualiy, such as a conflict between stable and unstable texts.

Having considered, studied, and written about textuality for some time now – in my master’s thesis and my aborted dissertation, I know that certain textual issues are common and prevalent enough to be almost tiresome: stability, authority, fluidity.

My hope is that the collision of textuality and various current issues will lead to interesting and unfamiliar ideas in both domains. I don’t know exactly how or when such ideas might come about, but I am confident that they will emerge and that they will ultimately be of benefit to a much wider audience than that which would regularly participate in a forum such as this.

I hope that this blog will be an active site for many, a place of challenge, conversation, debate, diatribe, experiment, feedback, flames, news, philosophy, polemic, and more. I have parenthetically titled the blog “alpha” because it is the first incarnation of what I hope will be an extended project. I wish that the blog will one day be morphed into a self-sustaining and self-generating publication. I don’t know exactly how or when such morphing might come about, but I am confident that if the field of textuality can be defined, described, and mapped to the fullest practical potential, then this project will develop most grandly.

Friday, January 14, 2005

The Necessary Illusion of Divine-Based Morality

Does morality derive directly from G-d? And does the derivation make a difference? My answer is similar to what the rat-bastard Voltaire is supposed to have said: "If there were no G-d, it would be necessary to invent him."

In "The Case for Judeo-Christian Values: Divine-Based Morality" (1/11/2005,, Dennis Prager defends the need for G-d-based morality: "if there is no G-d who says, 'Do not murder,' ... then murder is not wrong. Many people may think it is wrong, but that is their opinion, not objective moral fact. There are no moral 'facts' if there is no G-d; there are only moral opinions."

To Prager, moral fact can only issue from G-d's will; more than this, G-d's will creates the very substance of morality. Man-made morality is not and cannot be true morality: it cannot make an objective, transcendental standard.

But there is another approach to morality worth considering: not only are there are no moral facts without G-d, but there are no moral facts anyway -- at least in this world. G-d's moral will may be "Do not murder," but on Earth our defense after the act is "It doesn't qualify as 'murder.' There's a justification. There's a technicality." In some situations, we can even read G-d's will to favor our moral position.

However, just because morality is subjective doesn't mean we must act as though moral facts don't exist. Just the opposite: we can, should, and need to behave as if worldly morality were objective and concrete. Otherwise, as Prager notes, virtually any act or behavior can be construed as permissible. Anything can be justified or explained away.

The fact is that we need to believe in an objective moral reality. And we need to act accordingly, but we don't do a very good job of it -- not the so-called secular moral relativists, not those who proclaim to subscribe to Judeo-Christian values, not Prager, not me.

I hear and read so much name calling these days: "secularists," "conservatives," "elites." There's no end to the names, and attached to each name is a ready-made moral criticism against it. In these instances, it seems to me that those who claim morality and claim themselves to be moral not only discourage honest debate but also attempt to prevent people from approaching G-d.

For myself, I am prepared to let the necessary illusion of G-d-based morality guide my actions, but it will mean little unless I also jettison the unnecessary illusion of self-based morality.