About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Philosophy's Future has been sent to printing

My new book, co-edited with Damien Broderick, is Philosophy's Future: The Problem of Philosophical Progress. This has now been sent to printing by Wiley-Blackwell, and copies should be available at the end of April.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Viet Kong - a brief review of Kong: Skull Island

Don't read on if you want to see Kong: Skull Island totally unspoiled. That said, I won't hand out any major spoilers. In fact, I'm not sure the movie has any. Once the action gets going, it's all very predictable - which is one of the problems with this movie. Here's a gap in the text if you want to exit now.

I called this post "Viet Kong" for more than the reason that it is set in 1973, at the close of the Vietnam War and that the characters include soldiers from that era. This might have been interesting (I suppose), but it goes further. The expedition to Skull Island is a sort of coda to the Vietnam War, and the events become a miniature re-run of the war. Efforts to kill the giant ape King Kong seem all-too-analogous to America's failed attempt to overcome popular resistance in Vietnam and the activity of Viet Cong guerrillas. Kong himself becomes almost an analogue for the Viet Cong, and let's not even begin with any puns about guerrilla tactics and gorilla tactics. While the latter pun is merely an example of how my mind works, the parallel between whatever America thought it was doing in Vietnam and whatever the expeditionary team thinks it is doing on Skull Island is not my imagination. It's all-too-obvious and heavy-handed.

I was disappointed in this movie. I really wanted to like it, partly because I have some personal connection with the King Kong mythos (my 2005 tie-in novel, Kong Reborn) and partly because I thought Legendary Entertainment did a good job with Godzilla a couple of years ago. I've been looking forward to Kong: Skull Island ever since it was announced, and it did keep me entertained in a basic way, but it never enthralled me. I never found myself caring about any of the characters, and I found my cynicism triggered too much by all its obvious efforts at melodrama and emotional manipulation. At times, the film seemed to be attempting a remake of Apocalypse Now, with appropriate nods to that movie and, inevitably, to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (among other touches, the main character is called "James Conrad" and another character is called "Marlow"!). But we really didn't need a twisted remake of Apocalypse Now with gigantic, noble mammals standing in for the Vietnamese.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Review of Logan

This is a very short film review of the new movie in the X-Men franchise, Logan, starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Dafne Keen.

No specific plot spoilers follow, but read no further if you want to go into the cinema completely unbiased and clueless about what might happen.

The main thing that I can tell you, if you're wondering what this movie is like, is that the look, feel, and tone are very close to those of a Terminator movie back in the day when Terminator movies were good. It also has a bit of a Mad Max vibe, but I think a comparison with the feel of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (a movie for which I have a special soft spot) would make most sense. The experience is more like that than like a standard superhero movie, though if anything Logan is actually a bit darker than T2. The villain, Donald Pearce (played by Boyd Holbrook), even reminded me a little of the T-1000. He's nothing like as personally capable as T2's liquid-metal Terminator, but he's creepy, psychopathic, seems to have infinite resources behind him, and just keeps coming.

If this appeals as an approach to a superhero movie, do see Logan. It's powerful in every way: it kept me on edge, and it made me tear up at times. The performances of the main actors are every bit as solid as you'd expect from actors such as Hugh Jackman (as Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine) and Patrick Stewart (as a very old Charles Xavier, since the movie is set in 2029). However, Dafne Keen steals the show as Laura/X-23.

Warning, though, Logan is dominated by almost unrelenting high-level violence. Even when it does sometimes relent, you always know that more is on its way soon. The result is a suspenseful, involving, frightening futuristic thriller.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Blog break

I've enjoyed revitalising this blog lately, and my stats are now back to where they were in 2010/2011 at their previous peak (whatever those stats really mean; I have no idea how many actual human beings are reading). Alas, I need to take a break from blogging here for at least the next month or so. I have some tight deadlines on big projects, and while I've spent much of this year immersed in research I'm now trying to hit the ground running with actually producing copy. I also have smaller things that need to be done and give me enough distractions from the big projects. With any luck, I may have a productive September and feel by the end of it that things are under control. Farewell until then!

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Saturday self-promotion - "Lawrence v. Texas: A Right to Personal Freedom?"

This article, "Lawrence v. Texas: A Right to Personal Freedom?" , was first published in Quadrant back in 2003, shortly after the US Supreme Court case that struck down a Texas anti-sodomy law. The effect was not only to make all laws banning homosexual conduct unconstitutional (and so ineffective) in the US; beyond that, it implies a very wide area of sexual privacy and freedom in highly personal matters. Within that area, the law can't be permitted to intervene. Since I'm something of a libertarian in this respect (though I am not a political libertarian in the sense of being opposed to taxes and the welfare state), the outcome was very welcome to me. Of course, it applies only to the US, but what happens there can affect legal and cultural trends far more broadly.

At the same time, I can't help but be bemused at some of the ways in which US constitutional law has developed over the past 50 to 100 years (and to some extent even beyond). The Supreme Court has tended to find a lot more in the US Constitution than is explicitly stated there, including a wide range of "unenumerated rights" - rights that are never stated but are somehow implicit. This approach to constitutional interpretation can't be ruled out entirely, since much in any document must be taken to go without saying or the document would make no sense, or at least not its obvious sense. For example, it seems fair enough to find it implicit in a democratic constitution that there will be no political censorship, even if no such provision (or any provision on free speech) appears explicitly. But how far can such a process of interpretation go? Surely we can't read in just anything (whether it is an unstated right or an unstated restriction on an explicit right) that seems to the courts to be good policy at the time.

On the gripping hand, Lawrence v. Texas does seem to be correctly decided, given the line of cases that it relies on. Constitutional courts need to make sense of the entire body of legal materials relevant to a case, especially past precedents. Even if I thought that US constitutional law went off the track at some point, a time comes when the body of interpretations adopted by the highest courts is sufficiently dense, consistent, and accepted by the society as a whole that there is no turning back. The US seems to have reached that point long ago with the idea of constitutional protection of sexual privacy and a broad area of freedom in personal matters. As you might expect, I'd hope that something like this would operate as a political principle even in a society where the principle is not regarded as constitutionally entrenched.

This article may also be the first time that I commented publicly (and presciently) on same-sex marriage. I say:
Again, some argument may be put forward in future constitutional cases to retain prohibitions on gay marriages. If, however, no sufficiently compelling argument can be found, what is lost? It seems oppressive and unjustifiable that social and sexual partnerships between gay men or lesbians cannot have the same formal recognition by the state (and the same legal privileges and responsibilities) as heterosexual relationships, if that is the wish of the individuals involved. If the law in the U.S. evolves to reflect this, much is actually gained. This now seems to be the legal position in Canada: Halpern v. Toronto (2003). It does not portend the doom of Canadian society.