The Supreme court released a bunch of opinions yesterday. One of them isn't all that interesting to me, but a little exchange on a side point caught my attention. From the SCOTUSBlog writeup:
In a five-page concurrence, Justice Kennedy went out of his way to raise concern over the proliferation of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, bemoaning the extent to which "the conditions in which prisoners are kept simply has not been a matter of sufficient public inquiry or interest," even though "consideration of these issues is needed." Thus, he concluded, "[i]n a case that presented the issue, the judiciary may be required . . . to determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them." Justice Thomas responded in a rather curt, one-paragraph opinion, noting that "the accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims . . . now rest," and that "Ayala will soon have had as much or more time to enjoy those accommodations as his victims had time to enjoy this Earth."
I'm not interested in adjudicating that particular dispute, but I'm interested in (1) its very existence and (2) the particular reasoning used in each case. There's a correct moral principle behind each justice's point (just retribution for a heinous act and ensuring we don't ourselves do evil in how we treat those who do evil). It seems as if this might be a case where we can't satisfy either concern without going against the other concern, so we have to decide which principle we'll give more importance to. These two justices end up on opposite sides on that question.
I've long thought that whether something is terrorism is independent of the motivation. You can be a terrorist for financial gain, such as the villains in 1970s spy movies. You can be a terrorist because of political ideology, striking at those you view as your political opponents. You can be a terrorist for an environmental cause. You can be a terrorist to achieve goals in an otherwise legitimate war. You can be a terrorist seeking to achieve legitimate goals of justice. You can be a terrorist purely to get revenge. It isn't tied to religion or especially to any particular religion. It isn't tied to whether the goals are good. And it isn't tied to whether the ultimate target is bad. Terrorism to achieve an overthrow of an oppressive government is just as much terrorism a kidnapping the kids of rich people to get a ransom, blowing up supermarkets to continue a long-standing conflict, or threatening to use bio-warfare on innocents if your fallen comrades don't get acknowledged by their government as heroes (as in The Rock).
I also don't see how it matters who the actor is. A legitimate government can engage in terrorism just as much as a group of dissidents can. The United States military can use terrorist tactics as easily as a militant revolutionary group. Individual people acting on their own, political organizations out of power, and criminal organizations are no more deserving of the term than governments who oppress their people through terrorism or governments who wage war on others through terrorism.
What is distinctive about terrorism is the use of violence or at least some kind of threat to produce fear in a third party, typically someone innocent of the conflict but at least someone who isn't the primary target. The ultimate enemy is someone else, and this person or these people who are receiving the threat or who are actually being harmed are innocents or relative innocents in comparison to the real conflict going on. It doesn't matter if you're threatening to poison the water supply if you don't get money from the government or if you're burning down homes in Long Island communities because a few manufacturing facilities there are polluting. It doesn't matter if you're flying planes into buildings because you see the majority of the people who work there as complicit in an evil system or blowing up entire cities with nuclear weapons to end a war. The real target is someone other than the immediate victim. It sends a message to someone else, and that's what makes it terrorism.
A lot of people in my Twitter feed are saying the church shooting last night is an act of terrorism and that hardly anyone is acknowledging it because the victims were black. If there is a message that this shooting was intended to spread, then I would say that it is terrorism. It's mainly people on the left who seem interested in pointing out this kind of case as terrorism. Most people wouldn't think of it that way, but it seems like it might be. I don't have a problem with that, provided that the perpetrator really did this so that a larger audience would come away with a certain message. That would indeed count as terrorism, I think.
At the same time, the very same people who are quick to call this terrorism were very hesitant to say anything negative about the Baltimore protestors engaging in terrorist acts. On the above analysis, it's pretty clear that it's terrorism to burn down a home for poor black retirees built by a black church, just to send a message about an unjust system of justice and law enforcement. This, of course, happened in Baltimore. The right called it rioting, and the left called it protesting, but it's terrorism. Those outraged about calling the church shooting terrorism are inconsistent if they don't think that was terrorism too. And the difference is that we knew the motives in that case, since it was part of the larger protesting/rioting phenomenon, which was a reaction to a particular incident we already knew much about (and certainly knew the protestors' view on), while in this one it's still a breaking story, and we need to be hesitant about making hasty judgments when we don't know all the facts. But I think it's clear that both sides of the political spectrum need to realize that there are certain kinds of terrorist acts that they're more inclined to recognize as terrorism and certain ones they're less inclined to recognize as terrorism, and it would be nice if we could be more consistent.
The first time I studied Leviticus carefully (about 13-14 years ago), one of the things that stood out to me was the fact that ritual uncleanness transfers very easily, but cleanness does not. If someone is unclean for whatever reason, touching someone or something clean renders the clean person or thing unclean. It doesn't go the other way. Going from unclean to clean requires certain ritual ceremonies, and it often takes time, sometimes even a week or more. Going from clean to unclean simply requires exposure.
That's one of the reasons that it's particularly impressive that in the gospels Jesus touches people who have skin diseases or unhealthy menstrual conditions when he heals them, since those conditions were ritually unclean under the Torah ritual system. And it's clear that this wasn't out of some notion that the Torah ritual system was an ancient superstition that should be discarded. He insists in his teaching about Torah that it is the word of God and will be eternally true. But he also insists that it is eternally true not because it perpetually applies but because he fulfills it himself.
So what's going on when he heals people whose conditions would normally require a week or more of cleansing ceremonies? Sometimes he does tell them to go to the priests in the temple and do the ceremonies the Torah prescribes. Other passages don't mention him saying that. But certainly what's odd about it is that he touches them himself, when there are plenty of cases where he heals people without touching them. Are we to assume that he takes on the uncleanness himself voluntarily and then has to go through the rituals to be cleansed himself? The first would be a nice symbol of how he elsewhere describes what he would do at the cross, but I don't think that's the right way to think about these cases, because he's even telling them in some cases that he has simply made them clean (e.g. Matthew 8:3, although there he does say to make the sacrifices with the priest, but he says it's to be done for proof, not for actually making the guy clean).
I've long thought of this as just an exception. Normally cleanness doesn't spread to the unclean, but these passages are presenting Jesus as demonstrating something about himself as different. He can make unclean clean instantly, and that shows that he's superior to the Torah ritual system, which only looked forward to him.
But that turns out to be wrong, on closer inspection. For one thing, it can't be mere superiority. The Bible is clear across the entire canon that God can't entangle himself with sin or sinful beings, and that's why sacrifices are needed to begin with to deal with that sin. Isaiah 59:2 describes sin as separation from God. Jesus couldn't, merely by being God, do something that the scriptures clearly present God as not being able to do without sacrifice. So it has to be tied to sacrifices in some way, and it would be nice if we could find something explicit in the ritual ceremonies that looks more like what Jesus was doing in these passages.
It turns out that these cases in the gospels are not unprecedented. There is at least one mention in Leviticus of a case where holiness spreads to something common (although it isn't described as cleanness spreading to something unclean). That's in the description of the sin offering in Leviticus 6:27, where anyone who touches the flesh of the animal offered as a sin offering is made holy. I know of no other place where something is made holy merely by touching something in the entire Hebrew Bible, although maybe there are others that I just never connected with this issue.
What's going on in the gospel passages, then, given that there is a precedent for holiness spreading from a sin offering to something else? Perhaps the implication is that Jesus could reverse the normal flow of the symbolic status of ritual uncleanness to the clean because, as a future sin offering, he is in fact able to touch something and make it holy, whereas being divine without being the sin offering wouldn't do that. That seems to make these things fit together a lot better than the way I had been thinking about it.
I once thought David Hume's reasons for being skeptical about scientific laws were inconsistent with his arguments against miracles. He argues that we can't know about scientific laws or causes, because all we perceive are one thing happening followed by another thing happening. We don't perceive any causing, just the things we take to be cause and effect. Our taking it to be cause and effect is thoroughly irrational, Hume says, and thus we know nothing about whether there are any causes or scientific laws. For all we know, a ball you throw into the air could come back down, as you expect it, or it could turn into a bird and fly away. We expect it to do the former, but there's no reason we have to think it can't do the latter.
Hume goes on to say that we should never believe in miracles, because you should always proportion your belief to the evidence, and there is zero evidence for miracles. He rules out the very possibility of miracles, it seems, and he does this in the very same work where he has spent so much time setting up worries about whether our entire scientific understanding of the world might be wrong, leaving us with the result that, for all we know, basketballs might turn into seagulls and fly away. How can he consistently say both of these things?
But then I read Hume more closely in subsequent readings, and I came to the conclusion that Hume's approach is consistent after all. What he says in his skepticism about science is that we don't know there are scientific laws of the sort that we believe in if we think one thing makes another happen. He also says that, for all we know, unexpected things that would seem to violate the laws of physics that we believe in could be possible. But he does go on to give a pragmatist account of why we might as well believe in scientific laws anyway, since it's served us well so far, and it's not as if we can help it anyway. It's also not as if we have a choice.
But then in the miracles chapter, he gives a careful argument. He first defines probability as how often something happens in our own personal experience. Then he says that, if you haven't experienced miracles, it follows that miracles have zero probability. But why, then, could he say that plants could sprout legs and start walking around, as far as we know? Isn't that like a miracle? But he's careful here. If we believe that a plant did such a thing, we'd be believing in a miracle. We shouldn't do that, because it has zero probability. It's never happened, in my experience, so I should think it has zero probability. At the same time, I can't rule it out. So it's not impossible, as far as I know. If I did witness it, I'd have to proportion my beliefs with the evidence I then had. But as it is, I shouldn't believe in such things. I should just believe in their possibility, but I shouldn't allow for anything more than zero probability.
The key here is in defining probability in terms of how often it's happened in your experience, while defining possibility in terms of whether it's consistent with your experience. Something could then have zero probability but be well within the realm of possibility. So, because of that, I came to think that Hume's view was indeed consistent, even if it's a strange set of views.
But now I've become convinced again that there's a deep inconsistency in Hume's approach to these two issues. It has to do with his willingness to extend pragmatist arguments toward functioning the way we ordinarily do with respect to the scientific skepticism he begins with, while not extending pragmatism toward functioning the way we ordinarily do with the issue of miracles. He accepts our ordinary views on scientific laws, even though he insists that such beliefs are irrational and not grounded in anything more likely to produce true beliefs than crystal-ball gazing, at least as far as we can be sure. He relies on the testimony of other people in order to believe in regularities in nature that he can rely on to live his life. He refuses to accept the testimony of other people when it comes to miracles, however.
Some of the early reports about yesterday's report from the Vatican conference on family issues seem to me to betray a serious misunderstanding of Catholic teaching on these issues. In the NPR story I just linked, we see two views being put into contrast that I don't think any Catholic who understands the concepts involved would recognize as being in conflict. On the one hand, Catholics have long taught that homosexuality and same-sex sexual relationships are intrinsically disordered, and Catholics insist on the wrongness of any sexual relations outside marriage. On the other hand, this report speaks of Catholic communities "accepting and valuing their sexual orientation" and "positive aspects to a couple living together without being married". It all depends on the context and what is meant by these expressions, but I see no reason yet to take these in a way that contradicts anything in Catholic teaching.
The crucial element is the concept of intrinsic disordering. If something is intrinsically disordered, it means that the good in the relationship is put together wrongly in some way. It means either something is missing, or the parts are not working together the way they ought to. But the concept of intrinsic disordering requires there to be some good, since intrinsic disordering means something is less good, as opposed to some positive evil being introduced, which is impossible on an Augustinian conception of evil that serves as the basis of the notion of intrinsic disordering.
You can't have something intrinsically disordered that doesn't have some positive good. No positive good means no existence. Intrinsic disordering means a disordering of positive good. That means there is positive good. And that means this change in emphasis isn't a change in doctrine, if all it's saying is that there is some positive good in same-sex relationships and in unmarried couples living together (implying sexual relations).
In particular, you can think value all manner of things about a same-sex relationship: you can recognize the good in a couple's self-sacrifice for each other, the good in their parenting of any children they might have, the good in the degree to which they fulfill their desire for companionship, even some level of good in the sexual pleasure they provide each other. You can do that even if you think the relationship itself is immoral and if you think they're seeking the wrong object to fulfill sexual desires and the wrong ways of fulfilling their companionship needs. You couldn't think they are good in every respect, but you have to think there is some good there, or else there would be nothing. That follows from the very notion of intrinsic disordering.
Similarly, the Catholic church holds that there are good things in opposite-sex sexual relationships between unmarried people. Catholic doctrine declares such relationships immoral. There is a difference in that they're not disordered in terms of the object of sexual desire (or at least in terms of the sex of the object of sexual desire). But there's plenty of intrinsic disordering of a different sort in those relationships (e.g. the marital status of the two people, which is an issue to do with the object of one's desire, just not about the person's sex). Most importantly, the person and relationship are placed on a higher level than God, because they refuse to honor God's command to marry before having sex. That is an intrinsic disordering, since it demonstrates one's desires are not well-ordered, which is what virtue is on an Augustinian view. Any sin is an intrinsic disordering, since it involves a disordering within one's desires. That assumes some good in the desiring and in the fulfillment. Otherwise there would be no desiring or fulfillment.
Compare the intrinsic disordering of a shoe fetish. What's disordered about that is that shoes are not an appropriate object of sexual desire. Homosexuality, by contrast, involves a desire for a human being. Human beings are the appropriate objects of human sexual desire in general, even if there is some intrinsic disordering when it involves same-sex desires. That means there's something good about same-sex desire that isn't present for the shoe fetish. It's not clear to me that the Catholic statement is doing anything more than acknowledging things like that. That's compatible with thinking same-sex relationships are intrinsically disordered to the point of being immoral. I think people who don't have a view like the Catholic view will be inclined to think that anyone who thinks homosexuality is intrinsically disordered must think it the height of all evil, with nothing redeemable or good about it, but that's simply not what the view holds. Many who hold the Catholic view might not see this, but there's a difference between how proponents of a view understand it and what the official view is, at least when you're talking about a view held by those who believe their views come from some authoritative source. (The No True Scotsman fallacy is simply not an issue when you have an authoritative person, text, or organization that determines what the official view is. There is a genuine Catholic position, and those who don't hold that view do not hold the Catholic view.)
There may be a different emphasis here, but it's not at odds with thinking the relationship is intrinsically disordered anymore than the idea that it's good to support our troops is at odds with being opposed to a particular conflict they've been fighting in. So don't believe anyone claiming that this is a change in Catholic doctrine. It's not a conflict or departure from the concept of intrinsic disordering. It in fact brings to the fore something that follows from the notion of intrinsic disordering. Perhaps that's something that those who believe homosexuality is intrinsically disordered should be emphasizing more. But it's not a new position. It even follows from the idea of intrinsic disordering. Anyone claiming the two are at odds simply doesn't understand what it means to be intrinsically disordered, or they couldn't think that.
Every now and then I come across someone claiming that the word "literally" is now being used as a self-antonym. In other words, it is being used to mean "figuratively". Consider the following sentences:
1. And when he gets into the red zone, he literally explodes. (from a football announcer)
2. [Tom Sawyer] was literally rolling in wealth. (Mark Twain)
3. [Jay Gatsby] literally glowed. (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
4. [A certain Mozart piece was] the acme of first class music as such, literally knocking everything else into a cocked hat. (James Joyce)
As you can see, this isn't that new a phenomenon. It goes back at least a couple hundred years. There seems to be an incredible amount of outrage about it in certain spheres. Vice-President Joe Biden gets made fun of a lot for his excessive use of the term this way. But consider the following sentences:
5. When he gets into the red zone, he really explodes.
6. He was really rolling in wealth.
7. He really glowed.
8. The piece of music was really knocking everything else into a cocked hat.
Those sound perfectly fine. The word "literally" and the word "really" both normally indicate some genuineness to something. Yet both are used in situations where it's not really or literally the way it's being said to be. Both are wrong, if the words are being used literally. But they aren't being used literally. They're being used as intensifiers. He doesn't just glow. He really glows. Saying he literally glows is doing something similar.
What is not going on here is the use of these words as self-antonyms. The seventh sentence above does not mean "He doesn't really glow." That sentence means something very different. Nor does the third sentence mean "He doesn't literally glow." That sentence also conveys something different. These words are being used as intensifiers. Saying "he doesn't literally glow" or "he doesn't really glow" is not intensifying the sentence "he glows". But 3 and 7 are intensifying it. So the word is not being used to mean its opposite, in either case.
The word "literally" is not being used to mean "figuratively". If it were, then we would expect 3 to be synonymous with:
9. He figuratively glowed.
But the two are not synonymous. 3 would not be used if you intended to be talking about the linguistic properties of the word "glowed". A sentence like 9 is commenting on its own language. A sentence like 3 is doing no such thing. Furthermore, 3 has the intensification that 7 has. 9 does not. These sentences are not at all equivalent. If the word "literally" were being used to mean "figuratively" then they would be synonymous. What's actually going on is that the word is being used as an intensifier, the same way the word "really" gets used. That's not at all the same thing as being used to mean "figuratively". I suppose you might say that the word "literally" is being used figuratively. But that's not the same thing being used to mean "figuratively".
I've several times now run across a new linguistic trend, mostly among a certain brand of academic. When writing about people we would normally call slaves, the new trend is to call them "enslaved people". I assume the reasoning here is because we don't want to define someone by their enslavement, as if it's an identity-forming feature of their existence, and we shouldn't let someone in one of the most oppressive situations be defined by something entirely outside their control that has demeaning connotations. In that way, it reflects some of the concerns of person-first language, which I've usually encountered in the context of disabilities.
[See my critique of person-first language. It's a bit over-the-top, as most satire is. The sense you get from it about what my views must be is not quite what they are. I'm not completely opposed to person-first language, and I even think sometimes it's the best way to go in certain settings. I would say that with small children it's far better to speak that way, whereas with older children and adults it's best to help them understand the categories we in fact use while drawing attention to the ways we illegitimately think about those categories and ways we process them unconsciously and thus denigrate the people we're talking about without always being aware of it.]
But this is different. For one thing, this isn't person-first language. Person-first language would not speak of enslaved people. It would speak of people with enslavement or people encumbered by, trapped by, oppressed by, or otherwise affected by enslavement. Person-first language is so roundabout, awkward, and unworkable that even those tempted to apply it in this case have actually refused to go that far. They will avail themselves of adjectives rather than nouns and use the adjectives to modify the noun 'people' or 'person'. It's grammatically parallel to "deaf people" or "autistic people" rather than "people without hearing" or "people with autism". But it's certainly a step in the direction of person-first language when compared with calling people slaves. The only grammatical equivalent is to speak of the deaf with no noun or to talk about people with autism as autists. [I should note that that's a bad idea even if there weren't any other problems with the term, because people will just think you're from Brooklyn or the Bronx and talking about people with very creative abilities and outlets.]
But there are differences, and I think some of them matter morally. One is that ordinary language does allow for slaves, and "enslaved people" is awkward, whereas "autistic people" or "people with autism" are both common, while "autists" is not. Another is that it's generally accepted that calling someone an autist is unacceptable, and it's at least not generally unacceptable to call someone who is enslaved a slave. That's not the only issue, but that's a difference. For example, it was much worse to call people retarded once that became a standard insult for people without any cognitive disabilities than it was when it was the accepted term and had not yet been used as an insult. Whether it was a good term ever is something people can debate, but surely it's made worse once it becomes used as an insult. So the fact that a lot of people do oppose a way of speaking does count more against it, and the fact that many people approve of a way of speaking does mean there's less to count against it, whatever else is true.
Another difference is that one is a disability and the other is an imposed condition. Both are involuntary, at least in most cases of slavery. Slavery can be accepted voluntary, especially in cases of indentured servanthood, selling oneself into slavery to pay off a debt, or accepting slavery to avoid a death penalty (well, that's at least not completely involuntary, although it's not actually a range of choices that anyone would consider sufficient for the choice to be fully voluntary). But one is known, at least by most people today, to be something that is not central to who one is but rather imposed. No one today, at least no one I personally know, thinks that anyone who is a slave is the sort of person whose slavery is necessary because they couldn't otherwise function in life. No one thinks slaved naturally deserve slavery. No one thinks it's part of a slave's nature to be a slave.
This is not true with racial categorizations. As much as we might discover scientifically about how there isn't all that much difference between different racial groups, we do process racial categories with stigmatized stereotypes, and scientific studies for decades now have consistently shown that these stereotypes and stigmatized categories will affect how we treat people, at least in small ways that most of us don't pick up on (and especially in situations where we're tired or busy and have to make decisions quickly without thinking carefully about them). This isn't true of the category "slave" even if it is true of other contingent categories. If I find out someone is a slave, I'm not going to process that the way I do if I find out they receive welfare, are homeless, or grew up in a ghetto. Whether I want to or not, I will make assumptions about the person if I discover they're in one of those other categories, and I won't if I find out someone had kidnapped and enslaved them. We're distant enough from the 19th-century practice of slavery (and what does go on today is both under the radar and officially disapproved of) that we just don't respond that way anymore.
So one of the important reasons for avoiding linguistic constructions that serve to foster innatist, essentialist thinking (which really only matters with small children anyway, according to the most careful psychological studies) does not matter with slavery. That means any argument for preferring "enslaved people" to "slaves" must have to do with how people in those categories would perceive it, not how others will be influenced by speaking or hearing the construction. And I suspect the same debate that occurs with disability would crop up here. People who prefer "person with autism" are usually parents, teachers, and psychologists who want to encourage not defining someone by the disability and who want others to respect them as people, taking their interests and desires as important, assuming competence first before assuming incompetence, and other essential features of treating someone as a person. Yet one can do that while using the word "autistic" as an adjective.
The other side is usually from people who have the condition who have the communication skills to express their view on the matter. They in fact prefer to be called "autistic" as an adjective, just as the deaf community generally prefers to be called "deaf" and thinks person-first language is insulting. Why is that? Because they see their condition (which they don't always see merely as a disability, because it involves both impairments and increased abilities) as something very important to who they are. It shouldn't define them as if it's the only thing that matters, but it is part of how they've formed their identity, just as race is for anyone who isn't in the dominant majority racial group in their social location. White people in the U.S. don't see whiteness as part of their identity, because it's part of white privilege not to be affected by race is ways that make you constantly think about those categories. Most members of other racial groups in the U.S. do consider their race to inform their sense of their own identity in significant enough ways that they wouldn't want people not to think of them according to those categories, as the dishonest color-blind ideal (does anyone really think they can pretend not to see race?) would have it.
How should this affect calling people "slaves" vs. "enslaved people"? Well, not having the chance to interview a bunch of people in that category, I just have to guess, but my suspicion is that it's going to be like race and disability, at least in terms of how they think of their identity while enslaved. It's pretty all-defining of what their life is. I can't see how that wouldn't be identity-forming. It's certainly more easily removed than the other cases I've been discussing, and that's why we can speak of people as former slaves. But that linguistic option show that we can handle the contingency of the category while still availing ourselves of the ordinary way of speaking, and there is at least some moral argument for retaining the category rather than abandoning it, which gives me little reason to want to engage in a major effort to revise our language in a pretty large way.
We got to see X-Men: Days of Future Past today, and I have to say that it's the best of all the X-Men movies so far. (Well, I haven't seen The Wolverine, but I can't imagine that's better. I'm also not sure it counts as an X-Men movie.) I do have a relatively unpopular ranking of X-Men movies. Of the ones I've seen, I think they tend to get better with each one, with one exception. I didn't like X2 nearly as much as the first one. But I think the remaining ones get better with each one, even the much-maligned X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which I do think is better than any of the original trilogy. And I think the third was better than the first two, which is also a very unpopular view among most people I know. (I also think the original Spider-Man trilogy improves with each movie, and hardly anyone agrees with me on that, and I loved Batman Begins but hated the Dark Knight, and I'll forever be on some people's nasty lists for that.) All that is to say that I certainly don't expect people to agree with me on every point when I evaluate this, but at least I can give reasons for what I think.
I wanted to reflect a bit on some of the things I did like and a couple things I didn't. First, what I didn't like. It seems action movies, and superhero movies especially, have lately became averse to explaining things. They include dialogue to explain things enough to prevent you from becoming completely lost, but it's not sufficient to get you a good sense of everything that's going on. A story like this with this many characters should include something to let us understand who it is that we're supposed to be watching. We got nothing about Blink except what she looks like and, after looking at her do what she does a few times, a vague sense of what her power does. We got even less on Bishop or Sunspot (and were there others in the opening future scenes that we haven't seen before? I wasn't sure at first who some of them were). The mutants in Vietnam were almost incognito, even to the audience, except for the obvious Toad, who we've seen a later version of. Ink was probably recognizable to comic readers who started after I did, but I'm sure most people had no idea who any of them were besides Toad. It's bad storytelling to have dialogue that no character would ever say, when everyone in the room should know it, just to explain things to the audience. But it's equally bad storytelling to do nothing to explain things to the audience when they do want to get to know these characters and how they work a bit more. Several of the X-Men movies have this problem, but this was particularly annoying, because some of these characters looked really interesting.
I also can't resist saying that the time travel metaphysics in this movie is just plain stupid. It uses a very common time travel story motif, that when you go back in time and change something you have the contradictory scenario where at one time the timeline is one way and then at a later time the entire timeline is different. At what point within the timeline is the entire timeline one way, and at what point within the timeline is the entire timeline a different way? There's simply no way to make sense of it the way they tell the story. The only way to do so is to have simply different timelines, all of which continue to exist, with no change having occurred, just one timeline that's one way and another that's another way, and someone from the future of one timeline is the explanation for events that occur in the past of another timeline. And it was always that way in both timelines. (This is what Abrams Star Trek did.) But the motivation for the story makes little sense there, and the trick of having everyone disappear and suddenly having always been somewhere else instead is a deception, because it's a switch to an entirely different timeline, and everyone still/always dies in the first one. Only in the new one is it different. No timeline actually was one way and then changed to another way. That would require a timeline of ordering where a whole timeline can be earlier than another, but time only occurs within timelines, not between them.
But I never let bad metaphysics ruin a fun time travel movie for me. I can enjoy a contradictory story, and I did enjoy this one, much as I did some of the worst offenders (the Back to the Future trilogy topping the list, with Timecop coming in a pretty close second). I am always impressed at someone doing it right, as Babylon 5, 12 Monkeys, LOST season 5, TNG Time's Arrow, TOS The City on the Edge of Forever, and a number of other stories have done. But fun stories abound with unworkable metaphysics, and this was certainly one of those. I'm always a sucker from time travel, no matter how badly it's done.
So on to what I liked. This was not just the best of the X-Men movies so far. It was an incredibly good story, rivaling the best of the Marvel movies.
It doesn't beat you over the head with a moral message. It's not even prominent, like in Iron Man, the three Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, or the original X-Men trilogy. Nor is it a debate with unclear answers, as in Captain America: the Winter Soldier (and the followup in the Agents of SHIELD show), much as I enjoyed that. But it's there. And that usually makes a superhero movie better. In this case, it's not so much the usual mutant analogy with race or the like, although you do get references to that. It's actually the Spider-Man message that great power brings great responsibility, one of the things Sam Raimi did really well in all three films that the too-soon reboot of that franchise didn't do so well at. Iron Man had the same message. Charles Xavier was basically abandoning his responsibilities, and we begin the movie with dire consequences of that in the future (although we don't know Xavier is really the one to blame until much later. There were people under his charge who died, we discover from Magneto, all because he felt sorry for himself and his circumstances and couldn't bear to deal with the difficult situation he'd found himself in. And it ultimately leads to mutants being hunted down and wiped out.
It also didn't seem like it was bringing in as many characters as they could just to fill the movie with toys for marketing or to try to set up other movies that will likely fail (cough ... Amazing Spider-Man 2). The people who were in it from previous movies made sense to appear when they did, and the ones that only had cameos made sense only to have cameos. The ones that were in it more made sense to be in it more, and even the big change from the comics of making Wolverine the time-traveling consciousness instead of Shadowcat could make sense from a story point of view (and not just because Logan is a favorite of fans or because they needed someone who could play both parts as the same actor). Their explanation for why it has to be Wolverine is not that bad, anyway, even if it's clear that the writers really did it because of those other reasons. I was dreading Quicksilver, given the photos released ahead of time, but I liked how they pulled that character off, and the references hinting at his true parentage were nice. I'm not sure why they showed Polaris (his younger sister) and not Scarlet Witch (his twin), unless they were worried about too many comparisons with the Marvel versions of the twins from <s)Godzilla</s> Avengers: Age of Ultron. But that was a nice cameo of a very minor character for the sake of fans.
But the crucial thing is that they told a story. They told one story. It was cohesive and mostly made sense from the point of view of the characters, which is really saying something given how out of character some of them were acting at various times in the story. There was one overall problem to be solved, and every scene in the movie contributed toward that problem coming about or someone trying to stop it. It was a compelling, high-stakes problem, and you really don't have any assumptions about who is safe (other than Wolverine, of course), and that goes for either time period. When everything the characters do seems to make things worse, the story becomes far from predictable. But so many details that most viewers wouldn't notice are there to be picked up on by fans of the comic books, but none of them should distract from what else is going on for those who don't pick up on them. In that it very much resembles Captain America: the Winter Soldier. This didn't have the benefit of several successful franchises coming together, though, as the Marvel movies do. The fact that they pulled it all off without that really speaks well of the people Fox has gotten together to make this. I'm really looking forward to X-Men: Age of Apocalypse now.
These are my rankings of Doctor Who stories from the First Doctor period. I have categorized them into five categories, rather than finding a linear ranking order for each story.
Cream of the Crop
10. The Dalek Invasion of Earth: One of the best First Doctor stories. It's the second appearance of the Daleks, and given the original naming conventions (where individual episodes were named, not overall serials, as became standard practice later in the show) you wouldn't have gotten the presence of the Daleks spoiled by the title until the end of the first episode. The TARDIS crew ends up in 22nd Century London, where the city has been devastated, with very few people in sight, all of them acting in a robotic manner. When they discover the first Dalek they come across, it's a bit of a shock, because they'd only met the Daleks on their home planet in their first appearance. Despite a ridiculous sci-fi premise for why the Daleks have invaded Earth, this story works incredibly well, which certainly isn't true of all the Terry Nation Dalek stories in this period. I don't think it's his best. That honor goes to The Daleks' Master Plan. But this is among the truly classic stories of the First Doctor period.
21. The Daleks' Master Plan: This is by far my favorite First Doctor story. A full dozen episodes (a baker's dozen, if you count the prologue episode Mission to the Unknown, which came two stories before but was really part of this story). Unfortunately, only three episodes survive, so you either have to listen to the soundtracks for the rest or watch the fan-created reconstructions based on the large number of set photos that exist and the existing soundtracks. But it's worth it. The stakes are higher than any previous Dalek story, and it has better good science fiction concepts than many of the other non-historical earlier episodes. We get to see a future Earth empire with a military that knows all about the Daleks and is trained to fight them, including two noteworthy characters, a brother and sister played by Nicholas Courtney, who later went on to play Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and Jean Marsh as Sara Kingdom, one of my favorite companions over the entire run of the origianl series. Marsh also had earlier played Princess Joanna in The Crusade and much later returned to play Morgana in the Seventh Doctor story Battlefield, which was also the final appearance of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart in the Doctor Who show. This was the only story featuring Sara Kingdom, unfortunately, but she's present for something like eight or nine episodes of it. Terry Nation wrote episodes 1-5 and 7. Unfortunately, the seventh was a Christmas episode that has nothing to do with the rest of the story, which is its only real low point. By that point in the story, we're reliving The Chase, where the Doctor, The Meddling Monk (from The Time Meddler), and the Daleks are running around through time, and it slows down a bit, but those parts are a little better than the middle episodes of The Chase in my view. But the first half of this story and the last two or three episodes are as enjoyable as the First Doctor gets, even with reconstructions of the episodes.
23. The Ark: This is one of the better "future of humans" stories of the First Doctor. The TARDIS appears on a human ship in the future, and there's another intelligent species serving humans as slaves, in effect, although from all appearances it's consensual, and the humans are unaware of the full intelligence of these beings. Halfway through, the TARDIS crew has resolved their original problem keeping them there, and they reappear in the same spot but much further in the future. Since this is a time when the Doctor had no control at all over where the TARDIS ends up, that seems remarkably odd. Then they discover that a revolution has occurred, and the other species has turned the tables on their human masters. Instead of being victims that we feel sorry for, they are now the villains. This was a nice nod to the common phenomenon in human history of the victims gaining control and becoming just as bad oppressors as those who had oppressed them. We also get to see an invisible (i.e. money-saving) but very powerful alien race that reminded me much of the sort of thing you might see on the original series of Star Trek, which was being made around the same time period as this episode. This episode didn't win me over to new companion Dodo. But it has some funny moments between her and the Doctor, where her slang expressions (that are entirely commonplace now, to a point where it shocked me that anyone wouldn't be used to it) give us a glimpse of the First Doctor's cantankerous nature in his complaints that she's not speaking English (which I should note is her first language and not his). And this is one of the few First Doctor stories that I'd gladly show to someone who wanted to see a good example of what the best of his period was like.
Very Enjoyable Stories
2. The Daleks (AKA The Mutants, not to be confused with a later Third Doctor story): This is the serial that gave the show its initial success. It drags a bit about 3/4 of the way through, but overall this is a great introduction to the Daleks. As with most of Terry Nation's Doctor Who stories, there are deeper themes to the story than just an action/adventure romp. In contrast to some of the emphasis of later Doctor Who stories (including some of Nation's own), here we see the Doctor encouraging pacifists to take up arms to destroy a menace that would otherwise end up destroying them. This is one of the best First Doctor stories.
17. The Time Meddler: In this story we get the introduction of our first Time Lord character (not that we have that name yet) besides the Doctor and Susan, and we even get to see his TARDIS, both inside and out. His chameleon circuit works, so we see a TARDIS properly disguised. The Meddling Monk returns as well in the Daleks' Master Plan, so he's also a recurring villain. A renegade Time Lord seeking to change history for some unclear profit motive (or perhaps for some higher good, but in any case the Doctor disapproves), the Meddling Monk has set himself up at a monastery, where he's pretending a whole group of monks are present by using future technology (including a phonograph with recordings of medieval-style chant) to give the appearance of a larger population of monks (as well as to make his stay more comfortable with appliances such as a toaster). The Doctor and his companions eventually figure out what's going on, and the Doctor manages to show some know-how when it comes to how a TARDIS works by sabotaging the Monk's TARDIS (which unfortunately never manages to help him get his TARDIS working properly again so he can actually control where it goes, not until the Time Lords help him later on during the Third Doctor period). This is the first time we see a historical setting with something non-historical worked in, a formula that the show eventually uses almost exclusively for stories taking place in the Earth's past, but we still have another season or so of purely historical episodes to go before that becomes standard. It's the first time also for the new lineup of the Doctor, Vicki, and Steven. It has some moments of lagging, as historical episodes tend to do, and it's the first historical episode with discussion of the real possibility of history-changing (see The Space Museum for the first instance of this, however, although this doesn't have the complete incoherence of that story). That is a disappointment from the perspective of metaphysics, but the unique elements of this story more than make up for it.
27. The War Machines: This is one of my favorite. If it weren't for the musical companions, it would be in the top category. The adventure starts with the Doctor and Dodo arriving in Dodo's own time period (roughly the time the episode aired). She's in the first episode and maybe part of the second. She never even appears to say goodbye to the Doctor. It introduced Ben and Polly, but Polly is brainwashed for most of the episode, so we don't get to see her in her right mind very much. And much of the episode Ben hasn't really connected with the Doctor. So it's not really the usual Doctor and his companion (or companions) sort of piece. That being said, this was a great introduction to what became a much more standard format for the Second Doctor period, where the Doctor (and in the other cases his companions) is in the time period when the show was being made, the mid-late 1960s, fighting off some menace threatening the time period of the viewers of the show. In this case, it's an artificial intelligence that, in a rare case, seems to have nothing to do with aliens, but you do get some rather rudimentary-looking robot threats (in keeping with the era they couldn't have them be too sci-fi looking). The Doctor uses logical paradoxes to undo the machine, as he does in several other stories (The Green Death, Death to the Daleks, and Shada come to mind). I do tend to like Ben and Polly, but we don't see a lot of Polly in this one. There's a nice scene at the end where the Doctor thinks he's all alone for the first time since the show began, but he ends up getting surprised with some unintended stowaways at the end, leading into the next season (and his final two stories).
29. The Tenth Planet: This is the introduction of the Cybermen and the last story for the First Doctor, so there's particular significance to it, but it doesn't work as well as I'd like. The Second Doctor Cybermen stories are much better. They look like they're wearing cloth outfits instead of metal. It's hard to hear what they're saying sometimes. The Doctor is showing his age, and several of his scenes had to be given to Ben or Polly. (Both Hartnell and the character are dying of old age at this point.) At the end, after defeating the Cybermen, he just collapses and dies, only to be regenerated into the Second Doctor. They don't explain the regenaration all that well, and the final episode is missing (although there are copies of the regeneration scene that have been released on DVD and online). Fortunately, this is one of the missing episodes that have now been animated. Still, this is a decent base-under-siege story, a template that becomes much more common with the Second Doctor, and as the introduction to the Cybermen and the final First Doctor story, it's certainly one to see.
Earlier this week the NYT published a critique of Genesis based on, of all things, the appearance of camels within its narratives, and I'm starting to see more and more discussion of this, virtually all of it simply repeating the claims of that article, without much at all in the way of careful reflection on the problems in the broader thesis that it puts forward, which I don't think the evidence actually supports.
This isn't actually a very new objection. Scholars have long objected that there isn't a lot of evidence of domesticated animals within the Canaanite region during that time. But there is evidence of domesticated animals in Egypt and Mesopotamia during the period Genesis describes, and the NYT article even mentions that, and it says they were more commonly used more by those nomadic peoples living in the more desert regions. The only thing new here is some carbon dating of the bones of camels, along with techniques for measuring properties of the bone, which can allow them to determine whether they were wild or domesticated and had to carry greater weight for much of the time.
I think there are several reasons to be very skeptical of the conclusions the NYT article draws. Here are a few:
1. Genesis doesn't report lots of camels being used during the time of the patriarchs, as the article claims. They are sometimes listed among the animals they owned, but usually it's in smaller numbers, and the only reports of their being used for riding are to cross the desert regions or when referring to nomadic peoples like the Midianites who lived within such regions.
2. Abraham and Lot had to cross that desert to get to Canaan, and the only animals they could have used would have been camels. The NYT article even says that no other animals would be able to make that journey so easily, and even their skepticism doesn't apply to that sort of trip. So if Abraham did come from a region where camels were used regularly at this time (as the article admits), and he had to use them to cross the desert (as the article admits), it stands to reason that he wouldn't have killed them all when he got there and would have had at least a small enough number remaining when he had to send his servant to find a wife for Isaac and so on, and we know they kept their own cultural identity and may have been hesitant to trade their camels because of their relatively small number and inability or procure more while there. They might have increased in number during the time he was living in Canaan, as long as there were only a relatively small number of them in this period, belonging precisely to his family, but that doesn't mean we should think there would be evidence of the larger number of them that the NYT article seems to expect there would be if they had them.
3. Abraham is portrayed as being rich, and the existence of a small number of camels in the lists of animals he owned is presented in the book as evidence of his wealth. If they were common around him, the small number of camels would seem insignificant compared with the huge number of other animals he had. But even a smaller number is presented as evidence of his great wealth. So the portrayal of his camels in the book fits nicely with the claim that the locals didn't have them.
4. If his family only used them when traveling across the desert or on long journeys (as the narrative itself indicates) but just maintained them as domesticated by not pack animals or riding animals, then even the ones that they did have might not have appeared to be domesticated by the methods of measuring the bone density and such that these scientists have been using.
5. So I think at best the conclusion being put forward here goes way beyond the evidence. If someone were to conclude from the Genesis narrative that camels were being used throughout the Canaanite region the way the article assumes the book presents things, then it would create a problem. It's still an argument from silence, but it would be odd for there to be no preserved camels from this period if they were that commonly used. But the Genesis narrative doesn't present such a picture, and there's no reason to think the picture it does present is unlikely to have produced the (lack of) evidence this new research provides.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.