The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Monday, October 14, 2002
KILLERS: Some people have asked if I'm afraid of being killed by the Tarot Sniper. No, I tell them, I'm not. I live in Baltimore, which produces murders the way Seattle produces coffee. Even if I do get shot before the gunman gets caught, chances are overwhelming that it'll be someone else who pulls the trigger.

Meanwhile: Is it just me, or is the sniper getting more coverage than the bombing in Bali? I could be wrong about this: Here in the eye of the serial-killer storm, the local press may be giving more weight to the shootings than their colleagues in the rest of America. But Bali is obviously a much bigger story, with a significance that extends far beyond those poor people who were murdered in the nightclub blast. Terrorism in the archipelagos off Southeast Asia is a mysterious beast, obscured still further by our natural tendency thus far to pay more attention to Afghanistan and points further west. We'd be well-advised to look more closely at East Asian terror -- and at the relative
failure of American efforts to contain it.

One place to start: Reyko Huang of the Center for Defense Information has written an informative paper on Jemaah Islamiah, the Bin Ladenite group that's been widely blamed for the Bali bombing. "Here one finds scattered but substantial pieces of evidence," he writes, "that several radical Islamic groups, overcoming national and geographical barriers, have maintained deep and long-running ties with one another toward a shared fundamentalist goal. Their clandestine, elusive 'cells' are dispersed throughout everyday-life places, functions, and businesses, rendering Afghanistan-style military campaigns impractical. Furthermore, many of these organizations forged partnerships with al Qaeda long before authorities began unearthing the scale of their transnational reach."

I know: It's not exactly pleasant reading. Maybe I'll stay focused on the sniper after all.

posted by Jesse 4:08 PM
. . .
Sunday, October 13, 2002
SAMHEIN IS ICUMEN IN: Hallowe'en approaches, and even the Family Channel, formerly owned by Pat Robertson, is celebrating with horror-themed programming. A lot of you will be renting creepy movies between now and the end of the month. If you're looking for suggestions, keep reading: I make 10 of them below.

I've tried to skip the horror classics everyone already knows, from The Bride of Frankenstein to Dawn of the Dead -- yes, they're great, but you don't need me to tell you about them. Instead, I've focused on some less obvious choices:

Freaks (1932)
Directed by Tod Browning
Written by Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon, from a novel by Tod Robbins

Forget Dracula: This is Browning's greatest film. Even its flaws work in its favor: Stiff acting usually drives me crazy, but here it actually adds to the movie's mysterious flavor -- perhaps because it reminds us that these folks aren't actors in weird get-ups, but honest-to-god circus freaks.

Vampyr (1932)
Directed by Carl Dryer
Written by Dryer and Christen Jul, from a novel by Sheridan Le Fanu

Keep forgetting Dracula: Dryer's early masterpiece may be the best vampire picture ever made.

Island of Lost Souls (1933)
Directed by Erle C. Kenton
Written by Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie, from a novel by H.G. Wells

With the possible exception of The Bride of Frankenstein, this is my favorite horror flick of the '30s: a mad
pre-Code picture based on H.G. Wells' best book, starring Bela Lugosi and the great Charles Laughton. Still later, it inspired an Oingo Boingo song.

The Black Cat (1934)
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by Ulmer and Peter Ruric

Ulmer's best movie -- and the best movie to star Karloff and Lugosi together -- isn't just a weird experience and a terrific entertainment. It's an isolationist parable.

Isle of the Dead (1945)
Directed by Mark Robson
Written by Josef Mischel and Ardel Wray

Not merely a good thriller, but a fine illustration of a theorem formulated by the sociologists William and Dorothy Thomas: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences."

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Written by Nigel Kneale

Horror and science fiction don't always mix well. Here they do.

Hour of the Wolf (1968)
Written and Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Bergman isn't usually regarded as a horror director, but several of his efforts might make good Halloween rentals. The Virgin Spring was the acknowledged inspiration for Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left. Persona was an unacknowledged inspiration for Fight Club. (I've also seen it classified as a vampire movie, and while that's an eccentric interpretation, it makes a certain sense.) And then there's this psychologically intense character study, with its chilling images, its surreal narrative, and, yes, its horror.

Images (1972)
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Altman and Susannah York

Altman's underrated drama is told from a schizophrenic woman's unreliable point of view. It isn't usually classified as a horror movie, but it's one of the few films that genuinely scared me as I watched it.

Videodrome (1983)
Written and Directed by David Cronenberg

My favorite Cronenberg movie. Idea for a (non-Halloween) living-room film festival: start with Network, continue with Being There, and end here.

Safe (1995)
Written and Directed by Todd Haynes

A parable about an egoless person who consumes her life rather than living it, even -- or especially -- when she turns her back on "consumerism." Like Images, it isn't usually classified as a horror film. But there's more eerieness here -- more honest fear, among both the characters and the viewers -- than in a dozen ordinary suspense flicks put together.

posted by Jesse 2:42 PM
. . .
caught me in a mistake. The Randian writer notes that, when I was ranting last week about the Ayn Rand Institute's essay on the Eldred case, I said that Amy Peikoff had called Lawrence Lessig a Marxist. In fact, as Oliva notes, the writer merely described Lessig's "attack on money, success and big business" as Marxist, an accusation which falls short of designating Eric Eldred's attorney a full-fledged devotee of Das Kapital.

Not that this makes Peikoff look any better. Attacking money, success, and big business is neither necessary nor sufficient to make an argument Marxist; and at any rate, I don't think that's a very fair summary of Lessig's position. I'd say more, but I'd be repeating myself: It's been nearly three years since I first wrote about Eldred, and readers curious about my take on his battle to reverse the copyright extension can read that article.

I will say something, though, about the larger issue of intellectual property and the Randians. There is a substantial difference between Oliva's argument that the copyright extension may be bad public policy but should be reversed by the legislature instead of the courts -- a reasonable and defensible position, though not one that I share -- and Peikoff's more sweeping statements. Oliva thinks I was wrong to say Peikoff wants to freeze every creator's work in time, but it's hard not to infer that from her essay. I quote: "If those in the 'digital liberties set' plan to have a field day with others' works of creative genius -- bastardizing them into whatever fragments they find appealing, adding any distorting content they choose, then blasting the results all over the Internet -- what is the point of trying to convey to the world one's own vital viewpoint? What is the reward offered for trying painstakingly to create one's vision of truth or of an ideal universe, and to invite readers to share in it, if our nation's highest court gives Lessig's gang a formal sanction to practice intellectual vandalism on the finished product?"

There is a parallel, as I noted, between Peikoff's position on "bastardizing" other people's work and the Ayn Rand Institute's attacks on anyone who uses its idol's ideas in ways that it does not approve. The chief of the institute even describes himself as Rand's "intellectual heir," not on the strength of his own work but because his guru more or less willed her intellect to him upon its death. Whatever your views on intellectual property, you must admit that this is taking things to an extreme.

posted by Jesse 11:34 AM
. . .
Friday, October 11, 2002
last post, I said it was "possible" that the snipers were inspired by Osama's jihad. I said this because I was trying to yield as much ground as I could to Jonah Goldberg's theory before explaining why I disagree with it. But I don't actually think that these are Islamists of any kind. Hard-core heretics aside, Muslims do not write things like "I am God."

Also, I let pass Jonah's comment that Al Qaeda types "make such a big deal about our foreign policy being a product of our thirst for oil to feed our cars." But really: Is the editor of National Review Online genuinely unaware of the difference between Islamists and Greens?

For some more cogent thoughts on the serial murders, read Chuck Freund's article on Reason's website today.

posted by Jesse 4:45 PM
. . .
said I wasn't going to theorize about the Beltway sniper, but Jonah Goldberg's speculations over on National Review's clusterblog, The Corner, have smoked me out. Jonah thinks this is part of an Al Qaeda "Fall offensive," because of "the possibility that this is a two man team. That just strikes me as way too professional."

Yeah. Because only Middle Eastern terrorists ever work in pairs.

Let me go on the record right now and say that, while it's possible that these two people were inspired by Osama's jihad, the chances of their rampage being part of an organized "Fall offensive" are about as high as the chances of it being an elaborate product placement by a manufacturer of white vans. If this were organized by the people who orchestrated the attacks of September 11, there would be simultaneous shootings, folks. From more than one vehicle. In more than one part of the country. Not just one or two bozos winding around the mid-Atlantic coast, firing at children and dropping tarot cards.

The only conceivable scenario in which this is part of an Al Qaeda plot would be if the shootings are supposed to distract police attention from the terrorists' real target. And in that case, I think the other boot would have already dropped.

Jonah adds: "Also, and this, I think, might be a bit of a stretch, but the fact that so many victims are people pumping gas sounds like it might be symbolic. All of these al Quaeda [sic] types make such a big deal about our foreign policy being a product of our thirst for oil to feed our cars. Maybe that means something."

The key phrase here, I think, is "a bit of stretch."

It's good to look for patterns. But take it too far, and you end up chasing Saussure's anagrams.

posted by Jesse 2:26 PM
. . .
Thursday, October 10, 2002
DOING ANYTHING THEIR RADIO ADVISED: The Federal Communications Commission
approved a digital broadcasting standard called IBOC today. (The initials stand for "in-band, on-channel.") The new technology is certain to cause some substantial interference problems, but this didn't bother the commission -- Radio World reports that "If any interference occurs...the commission hopes the parties would work it out. The agency would be ready to intervene in cases where stations are unable to come to an agreement about how to solve the interference."

A couple years ago, Congress virtually destroyed an already heavily restrictive plan to put new low-power radio stations on the air. Why? They said it was because the stations might cause interference, which in that context was considered too horrible an outcome to let the affected parties work it out themselves.

The difference: The established radio industry hated the idea of low-power broadcasting, since that would have meant more competition. But it wants IBOC, which it believes -- probably falsely -- will boost its profits. The government, as is almost always the case, has fallen in line.

posted by Jesse 5:02 PM
. . .
Wednesday, October 09, 2002
SELF-PROMOTION: One of my articles from the November Reason is now
online. It's called "The Secret History of Television," and it's about corporate power, patent law, and the connections between the two.

posted by Jesse 10:11 PM
. . .
GO ELSEWHERE: I won't be writing anything substantial for this weblog today, because I'm too busy writing things for ... well, for money. I do this for a living, y'know. So g'wan, scat.

Scat to where? I'm so glad you asked. The best piece of writing I've spotted on the Web today is Tony Woodlief's witty
commentary on the ongoing sniper attacks near D.C. I knew Tony slightly back in college, and I'm happy to see he's still out there writing good stuff.

Meanwhile, the bloggers at LawMeme are offering almost-live coverage of the Eldred arguments before the Supreme Court. The wags at The eXile have composed a helpful guide to intra-European bigotries, complete with detailed charts. And right-wing readers who wonder how I can admire that scurrilous Red Alexander Cockburn should check out his column on dwarf-tossing and the United Nations. (I don't mean to single out conservatives, of course. Left-wing, no-wing, and swing-wing readers should check it out, too.)

Alternately, you could turn off the computer, walk outside, and buy yourself a nice burrito. Which reminds me: I haven't had lunch yet...

posted by Jesse 2:16 PM
. . .
Tuesday, October 08, 2002
comment on the New Jersey Senate race on Reason's website today. The piece concludes with a proposal that is only partly tongue-in-cheek.

posted by Jesse 2:12 PM
. . .
WHY I AM NOT A RANDIAN, PART XXIII: For further evidence that the Ayn Rand Institute dwells in some naval-gazing nether-zone, check out its
take on the Eldred case. There you'll learn that building on someone else's creative work is "intellectual cannibalism," that there's no point to "trying to convey to the world one's own vital viewpoint" if other people can then adapt it for their own purposes, and (chortle) that Lawrence Lessig is a Marxist.

This bizarre essay may actually be a subtle self-justification. Since its creation, the Ayn Rand Institute has devoted a large fraction of its energy to policing anyone interested in adapting Rand's ideas for non-approved philosophical purposes. I've never been much of a Rand fan myself, but I've long noticed a division between the people who digested her influence and then moved along their personal path, and those with a cultish reverence for her every word. The first group includes many intelligent and admirable figures -- including, as it happens, Lawrence Lessig. The second group includes the humorless cadres of the Ayn Rand Institute, who now want the law to freeze every creator's work in time.

As long as I'm writing about the Randites: What exactly is the deal with those Objectivist pamphlets that got seized in Canada -- the ones defending "Israel's moral right to exist"? Most of the commentary on this case has focused, quite properly, on the gross violation of the Randians' freedom of speech. But I'm curious about the pamphlets themselves. I thought Objectivists believed that only individuals have rights, and I don't think the essay was a defense of Israel Kirzner.

posted by Jesse 12:46 PM
. . .
Monday, October 07, 2002
THE BEST MOVIE OF 2002: It just might be The Girl on the Train in the Moon, a video art installation by the Portland filmmaker and photographer
Bill Daniel. I write this realizing that few phrases are more frightening to the experienced experimental filmgoer than "video art installation": It usually means "poorly executed assemblage that I'll expect you to judge for its intentions instead of its results." Not so this time. Daniel's piece is a strange hybrid, a documentary sculpture, in which footage of the railroad hobo's world is projected onto two screens, one situated so as to resemble a campfire, the other a moon-like disc in the sky. On the soundtrack, we hear the sounds of trains, the crackle of a fire, and snippets of interviews with rail riders and other devotees of hobo lore, telling the legends of the men who leave their mysterious tags on the sides of railroad cars. When I saw the installation Sunday night, Daniel actually set it up outdoors, with the audience gathered around his virtual campfire and two bags of kettle corn circulating among us.

The hobo documentary is the highlight of the Lucky Bum Film Tour, which stopped this weekend at a Baltimore venue appropriately named the G-Spot. (Like its namesake, it's hard to find the first time you look for it, but well worth the extra effort.) Aside from a slight but amusing short by Bryan Boyce -- State of the Union, which reimagines The Teletubbies with George W. Bush as the Baby Sun God -- the other films on display were directed by Vanessa Renwick. They're a mixed bag, as experimental films tend to be -- in cinema as in science, most experiments are failures -- but in this case, the good outweighed the mediocre. I especially liked Richart, a profile of an outsider artist, and Worse, a deliberately ambivalent film about abortion.

The tour started in September and will continue through December, stopping at offbeat venues across the United States and probing occasionally into Canada. As moviemaking becomes cheaper but conventional distribution grows more difficult, it's great to see ultra-independent filmmakers finding new ways to get their work before the public. Especially since, in this case, the work includes one of the best pictures of the year.

posted by Jesse 11:03 PM
. . .
FEAR DU JOUR: It's interesting that so many basically mainstream people are
regarding the ongoing shooting spree in the D.C. suburbs as Al Qaeda-style terrorism. Just 13 months ago, such a theory would have been laughed off as paranoid.

There's a good article to be written on the different glosses that different eras put on serial murder. Today, with terror plots in the air, people look for political conspiracies. Before 9/11, almost everyone would be hunting for a psychological motive. A few decades back, public fears would've focused on cults. And so on...

My theory? The shootings are the work of a very bad person. Beyond that I won't speculate.

posted by Jesse 12:34 PM
. . .
BLOGBURST: Today is the
BlogBurst against the War with Iraq, a.k.a. Gulf War II, a.k.a. The Meaningless But Bloody Distraction From Fighting The Actual 9/11 Culprits. The BlogBurst was dreamed up by someone called Ampersand; the idea is for a lot of people simultaneously to send antiwar letters to their congressthings and/or their local papers, making the point that there really are Americans out here in the hinterlands who oppose the pending bloodshed.

I'm not usually one for contacting my representatives, but every now and then I feel like giving the system a chance. And so I wrote this letter, and sent it to each of my senators and to my congressman:

Dear [politician's name],

By now you have surely heard most of the arguments against war with Iraq. I write only to mention one more: If you support such a war, you needn't expect me ever to vote for you.

Now, just one vote might not make much of a difference to you. But I can assure you, I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Best wishes,

Jesse Walker

posted by Jesse 11:03 AM
. . .
Sunday, October 06, 2002
OPERATION ACADEMIC DADA: "Zapata's role in Mexico was important but it cannot be understood without reading about what he did in Poland. In all of the scholarship about Emiliano Zapata, there is so little about his life in Poland."

(My brother Andrew's proposal for something "to say at a party of semi-drunk graduate students, or a line to be heard in the background of a movie.")

posted by Jesse 4:57 PM
. . .
Friday, October 04, 2002
LAST WORDS: For the last word on Ann Coulter, check out Tony Shepps' pornographic
fantasia in The Cellar. Be forewarned: It's rather graphic.

Actually, for the last word on this controversy, read Sara Rimensnyder's
comments in her blog. After all, it was the boorish abuse Sara received at the hands of Coulter's fans that started all this.

posted by Jesse 4:46 PM
. . .
COULTER, CONT.: Ann Coulter
may be the Karen Finley of the right, but her boosters have more in common with the followers of 'N Sync. A fanboy named Dawson, who runs a blog subtitled "I Was Coulter When Coulter Wasn't Cool," has been aroused to defend his pinup queen, accusing me of being a "girly-boy." Probably not a wise accusation for a man who "was Coulter" to make.

Meanwhile, several of you have written in with thoughts on whether AC is, in fact, an attractive woman. One fellow who used to work with Coulter at the Center for Individual Rights reports that she's "shockingly skeletal, especially in person....The camera does put on 10 pounds, but she needs 30." Another correspondent declares that Ann "has that same hatchet face problem as Sarah Jessica Parker," a concern echoed by the man who said "she has a bad nose and jaw line/chin--almost masculine." The latter fellow explains that he likes Coulter's politics and bombthrowing style, just not her appearance, then adds, "I do think Laura Ingraham is attractive, and would certainly bone her." No comment.

Jim Muchow, on the other hand, writes that he thinks the belle of the hour "is attractive if a bit skinny." He also reports that, like me, he puts Cholula sauce on spaghetti -- in addition to "pizza, pasta salad, lasagna, even tried it on grapefruit (I wasn't impressed)." Coulter aside, Muchow appears to be a man of excellent taste.

Finally, there is Michael Levine, who wrote, "I agree with you on Ann Coulter's looks. You have to admit, though, that the hooha about her is not as odd as the belief that JFK was handsome. His head was shaped like Herman Munster." I don't want to be accused of sexism, so the floor is now open to discussion of President Kennedy's looks as well.

One last question: Since Coulter is curveless and has an "almost masculine" jaw line, is it possible that she is, in fact, a transvestite? After all, her persona is at least partly a put-on already. And it might explain her obsession with "girly-boys."

posted by Jesse 11:40 AM
. . .
Thursday, October 03, 2002
SLANDERS: An angry Republican mob is whipping itself into a frenzy over at, attacking my friend
Sara Rimensnyder for an article she wrote about Ann Coulter. It's an interesting thread, if you're into ad hominem attacks and creative misreadings. (My favorite: the fellow who accused Sara of taking "a gratuitous swipe at [Rush] Limbaugh" with her "poison pen." What horrible thing had she written about Rush? That people associate him with "conservative bon mots.")

Two thoughts:

1. I wrote a piece mocking Ann Coulter a month ago. Where were all these dimwit robots then? How come Sara gets the 10-minute hate and I don't?

2. A lot of the aggrieved Coulter groupies have been going on about how hot their heroine is, usually in the context of claiming Sara must be motivated by jealousy over Ms. Coulter's looks. Coulter's critics, contrariwise, often claim she only gets as much TV time as she does because she's so pretty. I seem to be the only person in America who thinks the pundette is ... well, let's just say unattractive. I'd elaborate, but I don't want to be accused of hurling an ad hominem of my own.

And so I pose a question to any male heterosexuals, female homosexuals, and bisexuals of all genders who are reading this: Do any of you agree with me? Or is this just a peculiar wrinkle in my personal taste, like when I put hot sauce on my spaghetti?

It should go without saying, but just in case: Coulter's merits or demerits as a writer, thinker, and human being have nothing to do with whether anyone thinks she's cute. I wouldn't even bring this up if we weren't already swimming in lustful appreciations of Coulter's physique, of which the most infamous is the man who told The New York Observer that he'd "fuck the shit out of her." Sometimes I just have to know whether I'm a minority of one.

posted by Jesse 6:23 PM
. . .
Wednesday, October 02, 2002
GETTING YOUR FEET WET: Anthony Swofford, a marine in the first Iraq War, has written an
account of his service in today's New York Times. Gene Healy doesn't care for the piece, especially this part: "My six-man night patrol passed near enough to an Iraqi troop carrier to hear the troops speaking. We were outgunned, so we listened and didn't shoot. I urinated down my legs and into my boots." Says Healy: "I'd probably have wet myself too, and curled into a fetal ball. But I wouldn't be writing about it 11 years later on the NYT op-ed page..."

I'm a little more forgiving, because I've known one or two old soldiers in my life. You gotta figure this Swofford guy's been telling this story for years; when the Times came calling with a brand new platform, he couldn't refuse. Put a couple beers in him, and out comes the same old tale: "Hey, did I ever tell you fellas about the time I wet myself fightin' Saddam? C'mon, let me tell you. Hand me another beer -- no, wait, better not."

posted by Jesse 6:45 PM
. . .
SHOUTOUT: A big thank you to
Phil Ringnalda for helping me solve a technical problem that was plaguing this weblog.

posted by Jesse 1:18 PM
. . .
SELF-PROMOTION: The November issue of Reason is wending its way to subscribers as I type. It includes two articles by yours truly -- three, if you count a short squib I did on
WorldNetDaily's efforts to enter the congressional press galley. One is called "Roll Over, James Madison." It's about the ways many conservative pundits have forgotten their federalist principles since 9/11. The other is called "The Secret History of Television." It's a review of two recent books on Philo T. Farnsworth, the forgotten inventor of TV -- or, more exactly, it's a response to Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker piece on the books.

While I'm at it: If you live in the Tucson area, you should be able to hear me this afternoon on John Dayl's radio show on KXAM, from 3 until 3:30. I know virtually nothing about Dayl, except that he wants to talk about a short piece I wrote a while back on the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia. I suspect that the conversation will soon turn to the looming war with Iraq.

And speaking of radio: This summer, a fellow from Houston's KPFT, the most free-spirited of the Pacifica stations, interviewed me about radio history and asked if he could use pieces of my comments in a program the station was putting together. Sure, I said; do what you want. The result can be heard online, and I have to say it's a pretty fun audio mix. Towards the end it starts to feel a bit like an infomercial for Pacifica, but hey, even lefty noncommercial media outlets have a product to sell.

posted by Jesse 12:50 PM
. . .
A TESTIMONIAL, DEAR FRIENDS: An old roommate has sent an e-mail to me and some other friends. An excerpt: "Been sick for a few days. Low grade fever in the morning. Severe exhaustion. Waves of gray passing across my vision. Sleeping almost 12 hours a day....Just started reading Jesse's book about radio. Very interesting."

posted by Jesse 11:34 AM
. . .
Tuesday, October 01, 2002
WAR BULL: Remember the Cold War? There was a debate back then about whether the Soviets were an aggressive superpower bent on dominating the entire world or a conservative empire more interested in protecting its sphere of influence. The hawks generally acknowledged that the Russians had a national interest in defending themselves, and the doves generally acknowledged that the Russians were capable of causing a lot of damage. In other words, the debate as a whole, if not all the debaters, was sane.

Contrast that with the arguments for attacking Iraq. Saddam Hussein is a local tyrant with no more than regional ambitions, not a global player with grander designs. Yet he is discussed as though he had both Brezhnev's arsenal and bin Laden's agility. Even the doves talk about "containing" and "deterring" him, terms borrowed from a conflict that simply isn't comparable to this one. His hatred for the United States is tied entirely to America's presence in his part of the world, and the easiest way to make sure he never targets us is to stop making an enemy of him. Yet to hear this administration and its defenders tell it, Saddam is not merely a Stalin on the domestic front, but casts Stalin's shadow over the world.

Part of the problem is that Americans have grown used to the notion that the country has "vital interests" that require us to either support or oppose virtually every government on the planet. In the 1980s, the U.S. coddled Saddam; in the '90s and since, it has abused him. (From the Iraqi people's point of view, of course, both approaches constitute abuse.) The notion of staying on the sidelines -- of telling Saddam that our one vital interest as far as Iraq is concerned is that it not give aid to those who would kill Americans, and otherwise regarding him as merely one more tinpot thug of the developing world -- seems (forgive the word) foreign. It shouldn't.

In the October 14 edition of National Review, Ramesh Ponurru surveys libertarian opinion on the war. For the most part, the piece is objective and well-reported, but Ponurru's biases flare up from time to time -- for example, when he encounters Harry Browne's suggestion that the U.S. should emulate Switzerland. "This might even make sense," Ramesh writes, "if America were somehow able to stop being the most powerful country on earth." As the old saying goes, What the hell? If you're that powerful, it means you have less to fear from not sticking your thumb in every pie around the globe. Most people won't want to fight an opponent so tough, unless you've gone out of your way to aggravate them.

Such aggravation -- or intervention, to use a more neutral term -- is the only conceivable reason why Saddam would ever want to use nukes, or any other weapons of mass destruction, against the U.S. If he does have a good chance of acquiring such weapons (which I doubt, but I accept the possibility), then bombing or invading his country would not be self-defense; it would be waving a red flag at an angry horned bovine.

A bull, in other words. But not the fiercest bull in the world. Saddam has neither Stalin's weight nor Osama's speed, let alone either man's ambition. To speak as though he does is to insult your audience's intelligence.

posted by Jesse 6:52 PM
. . .
Monday, September 30, 2002
HIS HAIR WAS PERFECT: I haven't joined in the blogosphere's general public mourning for Warren Zevon, mostly because, while I like his music plenty and would be sorry to hear he was dying even if I didn't, I don't have anything to say about him that anyone would benefit from hearing. I own only one of his albums -- yeah, it's
Excitable Boy -- and I'm not very familiar with his other work. He's one of those musicians I've always liked but never taken the time to explore, to my present regret.

Not so my Reason colleague Brian Doherty, who's posted a very nice appreciation of Zevon in his zine-turned-weblog, Surrender. It's exactly what critical writing about rock should be but usually isn't: very precise, almost objective, in describing just what it is that impresses the author about the musician, but at the same time an unmistakably subjective account of one listener's personal responses. Check it out.

I realize I haven't dropped many clues to my musical taste on this weblog. Regular readers know that I like Beck and the Mighty Clouds of Joy, and they may have inferred that I enjoy Isaac Hayes and Marilyn Manson as well, since I've alluded to both. (I do like Hayes. Manson usually bores me.) I won't try your patience here with one of those desert-island lists that fans are fond of composing, but if you're really curious, you can read the list I put together a year or two ago for the All-Music Guide, during my brief spell writing freelance record reviews for them. I still stand by it, I suppose, though I can't believe they let me cheat and include an entire Merle Haggard box set.

posted by Jesse 7:29 PM
. . .
A BELATED REVIEW: I didn't see
Mississippi Burning when it was released in 1988, though I still remember the uproar it caused. Loosely based on the FBI's investigation into the murder of three civil rights activists in 1964, it was damned for historical inaccuracy, for making white cops instead of black locals its heroes, and for reducing a significant historical moment to a genre picture. I finally got around to seeing it this weekend, and I have to admit I enjoyed it, though I think all three criticisms are entirely accurate. If you come to this movie expecting a powerful or even coherent political statement, you will be disappointed. If you come to it expecting an exploitation movie, though, then you'll have to admit it's a pretty good one -- much better than most, in fact, because Gene Hackman and Francis McDormand's performances are so good.

The biggest problem with the film is that it isn't willing to kick back and admit it's an exploitation flick, giving it a somewhat schizoid quality. There are at least three movies here -- a straightforward police procedural with flashes of Dirty Harry, a heavy-handed message-movie with liberal intentions, and a character study showcasing Hackman, McDormand, and Willem Dafoe. The filmmakers obviously weren't sure which film they were making, because they supplied it with not one, not three, but four endings. There is a Dragnet-style summation of the criminals' fates, wrapping up the cop movie. There is a wooden political speech of the kind that Rod Serling might have written and Gregory Peck or Spencer Tracy might have delivered, spoken instead by Mr. Dafoe. There is a well-acted but basically phony farewell between Hackman and McDormand. And then there's one more ending, one so generic that it might have concluded any of those three pictures -- and so it did.

The best reason to watch this movie is Hackman, who breathes subtlety and complexity into a story whose script had no room for either. The worst reason to watch it would be to find out what happened in Mississippi in 1964.

posted by Jesse 12:55 AM
. . .
Hitchens-watchers were keeping tabs on his clashes with Noam Chomsky, The Nation, etc., they probably missed another scabrous exchange, this time with a more obscure fellow named Michael A. Hoffman II. Hoffman has staked out what may be a unique position on the political landscape: He believes that the Holocaust didn't exist but fairies do. His exchange with Hitchens, however, had little to do with genocide and nothing to do with the wee ones, centering instead around such questions as whether Hoffman's habit of describing the present American régime as ZOG -- that refers to our alleged "Zionist Occupation Government," not to the late king of Albania -- makes him a Nazi. A sample from Hoffman's end of the debate: "Hitchens, Podhoretz, Kwitny, Mailer, Hamill, Sontag, Cockburn and the rest of the poseur elite are not fit to kiss the feet of the Ayatollah Khomeni."

In addition to pondering the little people and obsessing about the Jews, Hoffman is a disciple of the greatest conspiracy theorist who ever lived, the late James Shelby Downard. Downard's claim to fame is his system of "Mystical Toponomy," which analyzes the real world with techniques more akin to film and literary criticism, searching for symbolism and attributing it to a Masonic hidden hand. It was Hoffman, thus, who pointed out that the Unabomber was captured outside a restaurant called the Scapegoat Eatery; and it was Downard whose analysis of the Kennedy assassination noted that an Arizona trail called Ruby Road "twists north into the area known as the Kennedy and Johnson mountains." Many people will tell you that "there are no coincidences," but no one has taken that maxim farther than those two. If you think you've explored the farthest reaches of American paranoia and literary outsider art, read Downard's most famous work, "King Kill 33 Degrees." You'll be in awe.

That same essay later lent its name to a Georgia rock band and a Marilyn Manson song. I'm not sure what Downard would have made of the Manson connection, but it does give him a peculiar pop immortality.

Reader participation corner: If Marilyn Manson were to record a tribute to Christopher Hitchens, what would it be called? The winning entry gets a free copy of the CD upon its release.

posted by Jesse 12:54 AM
. . .
Sunday, September 29, 2002
BEER WITH THE BLACK BLOC: I ran into a traffic nightmare Saturday evening trying to get to Washington in time to meet some friends for dinner. I ended up arriving 45 minutes late, and found -- no surprise -- that they weren't there. Despondent and hungry, I wandered up the street and spotted a familiar bearded face in a coffeehouse. It turned out that several of my left-anarchist friends were in town for the anti-IMF protests, and I ended up munching on a sandwich and downing a beer while chatting with my Black Bloc buddies about the day's events and other matters.

They confirmed the news that the police had rounded up and jailed about 600 people that morning. I asked if any of my drinking companions had been arrested. No, they told me: The cops had simply grabbed whoever was in the park when they swooped in, missing many activists but picking up several tourists who had chosen the wrong time to wander by.

Their plans to protest the bank meeting by tying up traffic had been effectively aborted. I told them not to worry: In the territory between Baltimore and D.C., several suburban drivers (the word I actually used was "bozos") had picked up the slack.

"Traffic is always tied up around Washington,"
ChuckO commiserated.

"In retrospect, blocking cars probably wasn't that great a tactic," I commented. "It's like protesting in Los Angeles by releasing a bunch of smog."

On a related note, a blogger called AmSoAPundit has posted a response to my earlier ruminations on the anti-globo movement. ASAP agrees with a lot of my comments, but claims to differ on one point: "I think Jesse is wrong to say that [opposing both protectionism and police brutality] leaves libertarians confused. The opposition to all forms of political oppression is not a confusing position."

I actually agree with this, except for the part about me being wrong. I didn't mean to suggest that the libertarian position itself is confused -- it seems perfectly consistent to me. I meant that libertarians appear confused when other people are defining the narrative, and as a result sometimes end up feeling confused as well. As ASAP notes, the solution -- part of it, anyway -- is to offer a compelling narrative of your own.

posted by Jesse 12:30 AM
. . .
Saturday, September 28, 2002
SEARCH ME: People have landed at this site through any number of strange Google searches, of which the creepiest was "little boy nudist" and the oddest was "Riismandel nude." (Sounds like
Paul has a fan.) But now, for the first time, I've had two seekers arrive at this weblog from the same bizarre search-engine phrase: "perpetual sex machine."

Sorry folks, but you won't find any perpetual sex machines here. I'm not 21 anymore.

posted by Jesse 4:39 PM
. . .
Friday, September 27, 2002
READING RIOTS: Writing on the Volokh Conspiracy website, Todd Zywicki
asks, "So who are these so-called anarchists anyway?" He's referring to the black-clad wing of the anti-IMF protests in Washington this weekend, where the topic of dissent is expected to include global trade as well as the International Monetary Fund. "One thing I'm pretty sure of is that to be an anarchist means to allow consensual interactions among grown adults, such as free trade, freedom of contract, and free movement of capital and people," Zywicki writes. "Yet from what I can tell, these anarchists want to limit free trade for a variety of reasons, such as environmental protection."

On one level, it's a valid question: I've encountered quite a few self-declared anarchists who don't seem to have a problem with big government, and still others with arguments -- intellectually coherent arguments, but not necessarily anarchist ones -- for sticking with certain statist restrictions in the short haul. On another level, Zywicki is making assumptions about the marchers that won't necessarily withstand close scrutiny. Their targets have not always been consistent or obvious, and it can be difficult to discern just what the demonstrators are supposed to be demonstrating. In lit-crit terms, the protests are a contested text, with each leftist single-issue group and Leninist fringe party and capitalist countermarcher trying to put a different gloss on the unwieldy proceedings. Are they against all global trade; or for a more intense regulation of that trade; or for a more just variety of globalization built from the bottom up; or maybe just for freeing Mumia? It depends on which marcher you ask.

If you do manage to tease out a larger message, it won't necessarily have much to do with trade. Consider the targets the marchers have chosen, and consider the implicit symbolism. They are not standing along the Mexican border, striker-style, throwing rocks at trucks as they enter the U.S. Instead, they choose to demonstrate when government leaders gather behind closed doors to make decisions affecting millions of people.

To some extent, this may reflect a rhetorical strategy: The public will grow more angry at the thought of unaccountable authority than at the thought of cheaper goods. But even if that explains big labor's decision to demonstrate against the WTO back in 1999, it doesn't explain why the bulk of the protesters have shown up then and since. They obviously think the summits themselves are a compelling target. (Sometimes they end up hurting people who don't have anything to do with that target, of course, but that's a separate issue.)

That raises another question: Why target the summits? Once more, the answer you get depends on the person you ask. There are two complaints being levied against the gatherings, by two mutually exclusive (but nonetheless overlapping) groups of people. One faction objects to the very idea of the meetings. The other objects to the fact that it was not invited.

Needless to say, the anarchists belong to the first group.

If the summits themselves are a central part of the demonstrations, then the summiteers and their protectors are also influencing our interpretations of the marches. With each new unconstitutional security measure -- or with the wild behavior last year of the police in Genoa, where the American Constitution is moot -- the summits end up fulfilling the role allotted them by the protestors. The protest narrative becomes even less about actual trade, and even more about actual authority.

Libertarians of the free-market kind have been caught in a bind: taking one side (roughly speaking) on what they take to be the topic of the marches, and taking the other side (roughly speaking) when the talk turns to what actually happened in the street. Pro-trade, but pro-civil liberties as well. They thus come off as confused, and they often feel confused, too. Those who have avoided this confusion have generally done so by turning a blind eye either to the repression or (less often) to the illiberal opinions and behavior of many demonstrators.

But since the meaning of the marches is up for grabs, there's no reason not to sweep in with an interpretive framework of your own. This would entail recognizing unaccountable authority as the protests' symbolic target, siding (in principle) with those who oppose such authority, and offering the libertarian vision of choice and trade as the alternative. (It's not that big a leap. Malcolm Ball wrote a brilliant piece for the London Review of Books last year that argued, among other things, that the protesters are in some ways truer to "neoliberal" ideals than the neoliberal establishment they're rebelling against.)

"Choice and trade" sounds vague, so I'll offer a more concrete example. The root problem with sweatshop labor is an absence of choices -- not just for those who are actually coerced into working under such conditions (a larger number than you'd guess from the commentary that issues from free-market think-tanks), but for those who are working there because it is the least bad option for improving their lives. When slippery employers exploit undocumented immigrants by, say, withholding their paychecks, the left understands intuitively that shutting down the workplace (or, worse yet, sending the workers home) won't help the illegals. That would constrain their options, when what they need is for their options to be expanded. The same is true for people laboring under even worse conditions abroad: They need, among other things, the ability to take their labor to a less oppressive workplace, and that's not going to happen if you advance policies whose chief effect is to keep workplaces away.

It also isn't going to happen if the authorities assassinate union organizers, seize peasant land, make it almost impossible for a poor family to start an enterprise of its own, or turn a blind eye to physical coercion by employers. You can make a good case that such repressive behavior thrives in the environment fostered by those alphabet soup agencies that meet in Seattle, Genoa, and Washington -- or, at the very least, that they've been rather ineffectual when it comes to making things better. That might help explain why even a Zywicki-approved anarchist would want to march against them.

posted by Jesse 3:22 PM
. . .
SELF-PROMOTION: I've just learned that an interview I did with WNYC-FM a couple months ago has been
archived online. The topic is my book Rebels on the Air, reviewed most recently by the Monitoring Times.

I've done several radio interviews about this book, actually. I'd hunt down more and post links to them, too, but the sad fact is that I've been saying the same things in almost all of them. The NYC interview is short. It'll do.

posted by Jesse 10:21 AM
. . .
CORRECTION ... AND THEN SOME: Emmanuelle Richard has been releasing her interview with Beck in installments, and I've only just gotten to the
section where she asks him about his connection to Scientology. He points out that he grew up around the religion (both his parents were members), and he shies away from confirming that he's any more attached to it now than in childhood. So the journalists who say he's had a "conversion" to Scientology -- a group that, as of this past Tuesday, has included me -- may be wrong. Or perhaps he's just being evasive.

It's all academic, anyway, at least as far as Beck's music is concerned. I think Scientology is a silly belief-system in whose name some rather unpleasant things have been done. But I also think the same thing can be said about obsessive anti-Scientology, which in Europe at least has evolved into outright witch-hunting. What people who don't live in Los Angeles don't understand -- and I never completely grokked this even when I lived there myself -- is that in the Hollywood area, Scientology is just another denomination. It's not as mainstream as, say, the Catholic Church, but it's no more unusual than Zen Buddhism or Christian Science. (Idea for a high school debate topic: RESOLVED: Christian Science and Scientology are the only truly scientific religions, because of their names.) Beck's involvement with L. Ron Hubbard's church is, in a peculiar way, an expression of his local roots.

The oddest entry in Hubbard's checkered résumé may be his youthful association, in the 1940s, with the mystic cum pop-culture icon Aleister Crowley. This is detailed in, among other places, Sex and Rockets, John Carter's uneven but interesting biography of Jack Parsons. Parsons is an intriguing character who was (a) responsible for some important advances in rocket science, (b) a devout occultist and Crowley associate, and (c) taken for a serious ride by Hubbard, who helped himself to Parsons' money and Parsons' girlfriend and generally behaved like a con artist. There are people who argue that Hubbard lifted large chunks of his religion from Crowley. Hubbard himself claimed that he had infiltrated Crowley's mystic order for Naval Intelligence, an unsupported assertion that hardly anyone seems to believe.

I'm not sure how to wrap this up, so I'll give Beck the last word:

Goin' back to Houston
Do the hot dog dance
Goin' back to Houston
To get me some pants

posted by Jesse 12:59 AM
. . .
Thursday, September 26, 2002
ELUSIVE CINEMA: It's been seven months since I moved from Los Angeles to Baltimore. People sometimes ask me what, aside from my West Coast friends, I miss the most. I give two answers:

1. the burritos, and

2. the movies.

Especially the movies. I got spoiled living in L.A., seeing new releases when they really were new and seeing obscure releases that never turned up anywhere else outside New York. Here in Baltimore, the restored Metropolis came and went in a flash, playing just a week and disappearing before I even noticed it had made it to town. Another recent release that looked interesting, Swimming, had a similarly short stay. (I actually knew that one had arrived, but we passed it up its first weekend to watch My Big Fat Boring Sitcom instead. When we tried to come back and see the smaller film a week later, it was already gone.)

Last weekend we saw Sex and Lucia, the latest from one of my favorite filmmakers of the hour, Julio Medem. The problem here wasn't an overly short run: The local paper says Lucia will stick around for at least one more week. The problem is that it didn't show up until months after it had already played in California. It's bad enough we had to wait a year after its Spanish release before the picture arrived in America. Why tack on yet more time?

If that sounds like whining, allow me to repeat myself: I got spoiled living in L.A. Baltimore has many charms, and one of them, I suppose, is a bracing dose of reality.

posted by Jesse 7:18 PM
. . .
SELF-PROMOTION: I've got a new
piece up on Reason Online today. It's about Banned Books Week, and my pal Sara Ryan's novel Empress of the World, and the secret sexual undertones in Dr. Seuss and Robert Louis Stevenson.

While I'm at it, a short item I did for the most recent print edition of Reason is now online as well; it's about the Information Awareness Office and its infamously creepy logo. And I was quoted today in a good L.A. Weekly piece about satellite radio. Ordinarily I wouldn't bother you with the news that I've been quoted somewhere, but it's an article worth reading on its own merits.

posted by Jesse 2:48 PM
. . .
ANGRY BLOG: I don't know who Anthony Allen is, but
his blog is one of the funniest things I've stumbled on in a long time.

posted by Jesse 12:09 PM
. . .
Wednesday, September 25, 2002
UNHITCHED: Christopher Hitchens is leaving The Nation. Josh Marshall
reports in Talking Points Memo that the formerly socialist essayist "seems to no longer believe the Nation audience is a receptive or congenial one for him, given his hawkish stands on the war on terrorism and Iraq and -- I would imagine at least -- more or less everything he's written for the last half dozen years or so." That leaves one less reason to read that increasingly dull magazine. It still has Alexander Cockburn, of course, and some good cultural writing by John Leonard and Stuart Klawans, but the mag as a whole seems headed for whatever graveyard Jonathan Schell and Eric Alterman file their dispatches from.

It's interesting, incidentally, that Cockburn and Hitchens have come to despise each other so much, given that both men have enormous libertarian streaks. Then again, it's not unusual for ordinary libertarians to have radical differences with one another, so I can't see why this shouldn't be expected among libertarian-leaning leftists. I remarked a few years back that Cockburn is to Hitchens as Justin Raimondo is to Virginia Postrel, and that still seems roughly accurate today. (You'll note that all four writers are on my blogroll -- I'm rather catholic in my admiration, especially when it comes to the basic matter of prose style.)

You wouldn't guess it from Marshall's comment, but Hitchens' hawkishness is nothing new. He not only supported intervention in Haiti and the Balkans -- explaining, in a foretaste of his "Islamofascist" formulation, that the left should endorse "wars on fascism" -- but backed Britain in the Falklands War, way back in 1982. I'm thus unconvinced by claims that he's suddenly turning into a neoconservative, especially since he hasn't adopted the neocons' most basic foreign-policy stance: an unwavering support for Israel in all its conflicts. Indeed, he's rather sympathetic to the Palestinians, though not to every thug who claims to be advancing their interests.

I've never cared for Hitchens' interventionist tendencies abroad -- part Woodrow Wilson, part Leon Trotsky -- but I admire his anti-authoritarianism on the domestic front, be it aimed at the Stalinist left, the Clintonist center, or the theocratic right. And, of course, I love his literary skill. I'm sure I'll keep reading him in his post-Nation venues. Whether I'll keep reading The Nation itself probably depends on how long Mr. Cockburn sticks around.

posted by Jesse 9:35 PM
. . .
asked why The West Wing is so popular. Today my friend Bryan Alexander writes in with some cogent thoughts on the matter:

"The politics are what sells it, partly. It's a pretty simple ideology, accessible and easy to follow. So it picks up a whole bunch of followers, who aren't getting this from their TV in other ways.

"The ideology is also tied to Clinton. President Bubba's famous shift to the center spawned a lot of guilt in leftist supporters, who get to watch Sheen do what they wanted, but mortgaged/gave up/argued themselves out of. With W. as pres, the show could look openly oppositional, if it had cojones, which it doesn't.

"The show is also monologic, in lit crit terms. There's no real dialogue between forces, no real argument. The preaching is steady, never seriously argued....West Wing doesn't really allow any other views to appear as legit. This makes it easy on the brain.

"Another thing: the regional bias is ferocious. The entire staff is drawn from the Northeast and the West Coast, probably without modern precedent. Check out other, good White House films: Seven Days in May, Fail-Safe, the underrated Twilight's Last Gleaming. They all have characters drawn from the Midwest and South, reflecting the political realities of the country (duh). But Sorkin hates the South, and doesn't seem to realize the plains exist. Hence the Evil Racist Assassins being Southerners -- and arrested at a restaurant called "Dixie Pig" or something. This feeds into a lot of easy regionalism.

"Last point: the show's openly melodramatic, and that simply sells. Lots of the audience, I bet, doesn't think much about the politics. It could take place in imperial Rome, any Shogunate, or Dallas. Maybe not Dallas."

I think Bryan's probably nailed it. I have to disagree, though, about Seven Days in May being a good White House film -- I really expected to like that movie, but found it surprisingly clumsy. When John Frankenheimer died, I was disappointed that so many critics devoted so many column-inches to that picture, while generally ignoring my favorite Frankenheimer film, the surreal and Phildickian Seconds.

posted by Jesse 10:34 AM
. . .
APOLOGY IN ADVANCE: One common criticism of weblogs is that they are unedited, and thus prone to publishing unadulterated drivel. A possible case in point: I have just
posted a lengthy late-night rumination on, of all things, the film career of Chevy Chase. What's more, I've done this just as this site gets an influx of new visitors from two far-more-popular blogs, VodkaPundit and The Volokh Conspiracy.

Hi, guys. Sorry you had to wander in while I'm being so frivolous. If you really want to read about Chevy Chase, go right ahead. Otherwise, you can skip to the posts immediately below it on the screen.

posted by Jesse 1:43 AM
. . .
FUNNY SUBURB: Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller have just published an oral history of Saturday Night Live, titled
Live from New York. I haven't seen it yet, and I wonder whether it could possibly be as good as Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad's Saturday Night, which is occasionally inaccurate and certainly out of date but is nonetheless one of the most interesting and well-written books about television I've ever read. To judge from Entertainment Weekly's review, the new tome has at least one thing going for it: It makes Chevy Chase look really bad.

Now, there's a lot of SNL veterans who went on to disappointing careers. A few random cameos aside, Dan Aykroyd hasn't made a good comedy in nearly two decades. Eddie Murphy has found a nice niche doing voiceovers for cartoons -- but man, it sure took him a long time to get there. Of the show's stars in its first four years, the only one who can really look with pride on his post-SNL career is the great Bill Murray, who's starred in several terrific movies and managed to elevate a lot of lousier ones along the way. In later years, the show launched Phil Hartman and Chris Rock -- the latter being one of the few comedians whose work improved after he left the program -- but stories like theirs are rare. The artistically wretched fate of Al Franken and Adam Sandler is far more common.

But Chase! His one great contribution to pop culture was his SNL impression of Gerald Ford. After that, it was all downhill. It would be tragic if he weren't a jerk, and so, if the book is correct and Chase is a jerk, then the world has been spared a tragedy. Q.E.D.

But is it fair to write off the man's career altogether? Or does it contain nuances that we haven't fully appreciated? On close examination, the films of Chevy Chase are not cut from the same uniformly crappy cloth. Indeed, they fall into four distinct categories:

1. The genuinely good movies. The smallest category -- indeed, you can make a strong case that it's actually empty. But Fletch is good frivolous fun, though the book is better. And Foul Play is a guilty pleasure of mine, and then there's ... um ... well, he had a cameo in Follow That Bird, Big Bird's first major big-screen vehicle, which I must admit I kinda liked.

Like I said, you can make a strong case that this category is actually empty.

2. The tolerable movies. Vacation and Memoirs of an Invisible Man go here, along with Funny Farm and Seems Like Old Times and maybe one or two others.

3. The lousy movies that occasionally show flashes of tolerability. Here we find Vegas Vacation, Spies Like Us, Three Amigos, and, of course, Oh, Heavenly Dog!, co-starring Benji. (If I ever seem too big for my britches, you need only remind me that when I was 10, I owned a novelization of Oh, Heavenly Dog!) I'm going to break with convention and put the cult favorite Caddyshack here, too -- I never cared for it, despite the presence of Murray. And I saw it around age 13, which I'm told is the ideal time to appreciate it.

4. The completely lousy movies. So many bad films, so little time: Modern Problems, Man of the House, Deal of the Century, European Vacation, Nothing But Trouble...


1. It's late. I must have insomnia.

2. I have seen way too many Chevy Chase movies.

Could these two phenomena be linked? Further study may be warranted.

posted by Jesse 1:07 AM
. . .
Tuesday, September 24, 2002
LITERARY VITRIOL: Eugene Volokh is
criticizing "insultblogging," making such common-sensical points as "Invective almost never persuades people" and "when [a reader] hears that Ted Rall has been 'Fisked,' he'll assume that fisking tends to refer to vitriol, rather than to substantive argument." (Personally, I've hardly ever seen a "Fisking" that didn't rely more on vitriol than real argument, but that's a discussion for another time.) I made a similar point a few days back, in reference to Mr. VodkaPundit's attack on Ron Paul, and I'm glad to see Eugene saying something similar.

I do disagree with one notion that I think underlies Eugene's comments, particularly here: "Yes, sometimes spreading the vinegar is fun, but it hardly ever does any good (on extremely rare occasions, extraordinarily wittily constructed rants might actually be effective, but this is a very hard genre to master). And if you just want the catharsis of venting your rage, why not just type the insults in Word, save them on your hard drive, and then blog something substantive that might actually persuade people?"

I get Eugene's point, but I think he goes too far. Invective has a perfectly valid role in publicly published writing: I rarely expect it to be persuasive, but -- at its best -- it can be very entertaining. That is what I tried to do, for example, when I made my ad hominem cracks about Aaron Sorkin earlier today: I didn't think it would convince any West Wing fan to give up on his favorite show, but I hoped it might give someone who already agreed with me a larf. Maybe I succeeded and maybe I failed, but persuasion simply wasn't what I was up to.

The problem with the posts Eugene is criticizing is that they aren't just unpersuasive. They're witless. Ya'll should feel free to let me know when you think I'm guilty of that myself.

posted by Jesse 7:44 PM
. . .
FREE BECK: Beck, the most consistently interesting pop musician working today, has just released a new album, titled Sea Change. As Wilco did with
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, he's allowing his fans to preview it for free on his website, in hopes that we will go on to buy the CD. It's a savvy move, and not just because you have to sign up for his e-mail list to hear the music: Speaking for myself, I've only made it to the album's fourth track, and I can't imagine myself not buying a copy.

Since I haven't heard the entire album, I won't attempt to review it, except to note that it seems to lean more toward Beck's folky/psychedelic side (with touches of country on "Guess I'm Doing Fine"). If, like me, you're mystified by Beck's recent conversion to Scientology, I suppose I should mention as well that I haven't noticed any covert propaganda for L. Ron Hubbard's sci-fi faith -- though, that said, I haven't been paying close attention to the lyrics, either.

As long as I'm on the subject, I'll say a few words about a Beck album that slipped by without many Americans noticing it. Like most rockers of his stature, Beck has produced his share of ephemera. Stray Blues both anthologizes this material -- the disc consists of eight previously uncollected B-sides -- and exemplifies it: For some reason, Geffen has released it only in Japan.

The songs themselves run the artist's usual gamut of influences, from psychedelia to hip hop to sheer noise. None are masterpieces, but almost all are enjoyable. The best may be "Burro," a novelty version of Beck's song "Jack-Ass" with the lyrics translated into Spanish and the music translated into mariachi.

posted by Jesse 6:44 PM
. . .
THE WORST WING: I've never watched the Emmy Awards in my life -- reading the list of winners in the next morning's paper is depressing enough. This year, in response to a TV schedule that included such worthy programs as The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and The Daily Show, the statuette-granters saw fit to award their Best Comedy prize to ... Friends, which has been funny maybe four or five times ever, all in its first season (and whose cast has given the world more bad movies than any other program not aired late Saturday nights).

On the drama side, The West Wing won its usual chunk of Emmys. When I tell people that I hate this show, they generally assume that I dislike it because of its politics. Well, I don't like its politics, but that's almost beside the point; there's plenty of art out there with disagreeable politics that I nonetheless enjoy. The reason I hate The West Wing is because it springs from the pen of Aaron Sorkin, perhaps the worst writer in television today. The fact that Sorkin wasn't locked up for those psychedelic mushrooms he got caught with is the final proof that the War on Drugs should be abandoned: For once, those drug laws had a chance to do the world some good, and they let us down.

Few people can write dialogue with tricky, "literary" rhythms that nonetheless is credible as a conversation; the living writer who's probably best at it is
David Mamet. Sorkin tries to pull this off, and he fails miserably: the accents are in the wrong places, the repartee sounds forced, and everything is way too self-conscious. When I'm watching a Sorkin-scripted movie or TV show, it doesn't matter what's on the screen: All I can see is our smug auteur pounding away at his word processor, periodically yelping, "I'm writing!" to the ceiling. We are speaking of a man who once wrote a hilariously "powerful" scene featuring the president in a church, railing against God for the injustices of the world and in the middle of this -- here's the funny part -- quoting Graham Greene. Now, I could mock this for the sheer unlikelihood that someone angrily pouring his heart out to the Almighty would also remember just the right line from Bartlett's for the occasion, but that isn't necessary. It's enough that Sorkin produced a scene in which the president of the United States quoted Graham Greene to God. I'm sure he felt very proud of himself as he wrote this, too.

Combine that with the didactic fog that hangs over almost every moment, and the program becomes unwatchable. I've tried it twice, just as I've attempted to watch Sorkin's last series, Sports Night, and just as I suffered through two of his movies, A Few Good Men and The American President. I cannot see why this man is considered a good writer or why The West Wing is considered a great show.

posted by Jesse 3:44 PM
. . .
Sunday, September 22, 2002
LUDDITE CORNER: There are people out there who hate all computers. That seems wrong-headed to me. I merely hate my computer.

It's been sluggish for months, but now it's moving at a pace unseen since programs were stored on audiotape. If this machine were powered by a crippled dwarf turning a handcrank, it would still be at least 100 times faster than it is right now. I only wish this thing had a neck, so I could throttle it slowly to death.

The worst thing is, I think I've figured out what's wrong and what has to be done to fix it. Naturally, it requires software I either do not own or cannot find.


posted by Jesse 1:34 PM
. . .
SEE YOU IN THE FUNNY PAGES: Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be in a comic strip -- to shoot planes with Snoopy, or eat catfish with Pogo, or maybe explore Reagan's brain with the cast of
Doonesbury. This weekend I got my wish, though not on so central a cartoon stage: I was quoted in the Saturday edition of Mallard Fillmore, a right-wing comic whose author apparently read an article I wrote last month about the Northern snakehead, the infamous fish that can breathe air, slither on land, and eat virtually anything you put in front of it.

The cartoon reports that I've "found a free-market solution to the problem of controlling the Chinese snakehead fish population: apparently, the fish are delicious!" Delicious they are, but I never said that this would keep their numbers down. If anything, their U.S. population would vastly increase if word were to get out as to how tasty they are. That's the way market incentives work. A small point, perhaps, but if you're going to use me to set up a lame gag about lawyers, you might as well get your facts right.

Anyway, this isn't actually the first time I've been in a cartoon. In college, my friends Marty and Woody wrote me into Full Moon Over McDonald's, a strip they did for the Michigan Daily. By their account, I was part of a "coalition of evil," along with the university president, a corporate CEO, and Ernie's rubber duckie. I don't remember what exactly we were conspiring to do, but it apparently involved flying sheep. (Marty and Woody were prone to cartooning while under the influence of verboten chemicals.)

Mallard Fillmore is in a much bigger league, circulation-wise. Humor-wise, I have to say I prefer my friends' efforts. Still, a debut is a debut. Maybe next month I'll share a lasagna with Garfield. The month after that, Zippy the Pinhead could converse with an enormous roadside replica of my head. And after that...dare I say it...a torrid affair with Blondie?

Good grief!

posted by Jesse 12:26 AM
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Friday, September 20, 2002
rant a bit about the Maryland gubernatorial race on the Reason website today.

posted by Jesse 4:30 PM
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ME AND MY BIG MOUTH: Two Decembers ago, Al Gore conceded defeat at the hands of George W. Bush, bringing the post-election drama of 2000 to a close. Late that night, I wrote up my thoughts on the matter, then e-mailed the results to some friends. This week I stumbled on that e-mail again, and realized I'd be wise to watch what I wish for, even when my tongue's clearly passing near my cheek:

"Already I miss the so-called crisis: the sense of possibility, of speculation; the feeling that anything could happen. We'll look back on this past month for decades to come, remembering a time of furious public debate, a time when the masks fell away, when the world turned upside down. W is a narcotic: I grow drowsy even contemplating him and the bipartisan era he promises. With order restored, the only real joy comes from an unlikely source: Al Gore, whose concession was oddly jovial, as though he could scarcely repress his laughter. Freed from a lifelong quest for the presidency, Gore seems to have undergone a satori experience. Years of accumulated character armor are cracking. Suddenly, his life is filled with possibility, even as the polity's possible futures grow more constrained.

"Or maybe not: maybe the rest of us will be able to breathe the air of uncertainty one more time. First an impeachment, then a disputed election: surely the powers that be can produce another show for us -- something bigger, something badder -- a depression? a revolution? the annihilation of all life? I tremble eagerly, a glutton for interesting times."

See what I mean? There's some things you probably shouldn't joke about. It's bad juju.

posted by Jesse 4:10 PM
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UNPAID ADVERTISEMENT: I neglected to mention, while writing about Smith Island
yesterday, that we stayed at a Bed & Breakfast there called the Inn of Silent Music. Nice name. Nice place, too. There aren't many spots where tourists can stay on the island, but this one is certainly a cut above your average inn. And the food's great.

posted by Jesse 3:39 PM
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Thursday, September 19, 2002
ISLAND AUTONOMOUS ZONE: I've been reading a lovely book, off and on, for the last few weeks, picking it up and putting it down between other literary foods. It's
An Island Out of Time, by Tom Horton: part history, part anthropology, part journalism, part lyric poem. Its subject is Smith Island, an isolated trio of waterman villages in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, which I visited last month.

I bring it up here because, in over 300 years of continuous settlement, the island's residents have never seen fit to set up a government. There are no cops, no jails, and no compulsory city taxes; public goods are provided informally or through the local Methodist Church, which is the closest the island has to a governing body. (I suppose this makes it paleolibertarian.) The only exception I know of is a small school operated by the county. There used to be a second school, but a few years ago they shut it down.

Not that the state has no presence. The local crabbers and oystermen and terrapin-hunters -- virtually all self-employed -- are full of disdain for outside regulators, whose efforts to preserve Chesapeake species and otherwise exert their authority have fallen far more heavily on the independent watermen than on recreational crabbers or on the larger corporate fishing/crabbing/etc. operations elsewhere in the Bay. There's a lot of disdain for environmentalists, too, despite the locals' considerable appreciation for their environment: Thanks to the aforementioned regulatory battles, enviros tend to be regarded as well-salaried yuppies with no appreciation for the ways their rules affect the watermen.

Most of Smith Island consists of marshes, and is thus uninhabitable. Rona and I spent two nights in Tylerton, population circa 70, which can only be accessed from the other villages via the water. The other two towns are Ewell (the largest of the three, with a couple hundred residents and a small tourist trade) and Rhodes Point (which is run-down and arguably dying); to get to them from Tylerton, we had to paddle over on a canoe. There are no cars in Tylerton, though many of the locals drive golf carts. There are a few cars in the other two villages, which are connected by a one-mile road. They tend to be old junkers and are outnumbered by the aforementioned golf carts.

I don't mean to make the place sound like it's cut off from modern consumerist ways. Satellite dishes are plentiful, and I'm told that packaged food is popular, too, perhaps because even the tastiest local seafood (and it's quite tasty indeed) gets tiresome if you've been working with it all day. The work is tough, and if it's not as backbreaking as it used to be, there is now the added pain of watching the island's way of life slowly die.

It's hard to get to Smith Island -- it's a 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland, and not the most easily accessible part of the mainland at that. But if you can't visit, you can still read Horton's book, which I recommend highly. Radio populists will especially enjoy the chapter called "VHF," on the strange and lovely world of marine radio. "Think of it, compared to normal communication, as a military bugle is to popular music. But in the crab boats, kitchens, and shanties of islanders, the VHF is a non-stop jam session, a giant party line, open to anyone with a radio, which out here is absolutely everyone. Across the ether of mid-Chesapeake flows a quixotic, rambunctious stream of consciousness, blends of earthy humor, religion, everybody's and nobody's business, to a background of sea gulls mewing and diesel engines rumbling."

posted by Jesse 10:55 PM
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Wednesday, September 18, 2002
MOVIE REVIEWS: "All films eventually become documentaries." I'm not sure who said that first, but it was posted next to one of the shelves at
Cinefile, my favorite local video store when I lived in Los Angeles. If you're not sure what the quote means, you should examine the "ephemeral" movies collected by Rick Prelinger, many of which can now be viewed online. His archives range from the capitalist realism of Master Hands, a Riefenstahlian tribute to the auto assembly line, to Perversion for Profit, a Charles Keating-financed anti-porn flick that includes the classic line, "Very few blind people join the nudist colonies." There is also a rich collection of classroom films.

The last group brings back memories. When I was in elementary school in North Carolina, from 1976 to 1982, the A/V department's movie collection was inexplicably skewed toward already anachronistic artifacts of the 1950s. I would watch these pictures built around the story frame of a "typical day" -- films about dental hygiene and the like -- and I'd wonder just whose day was supposed to be like this.

The most puzzling screening that I remember had to do with railroad safety. Chapel Hill, you see, was not exactly rife with trains. Nonetheless, a heavily accented man introduced the film with a stock speech, no doubt written with more-rural districts in mind, about how "Every year, lots of kids, just like you, are hurt or killed playing at the railroad tracks." Then came the movie, memorable mostly for its forceful admonitions not to throw rocks at trains. "Remember, that engineer might not be your dad, but he's someone's dad" -- cut now to a man in a hospital bed, half his face covered with a bandage, a distraught son moping by his bedside. I can't speak for all the kids at Glenwood Elementary, but it had never occured to me to throw a rock at a train, and I'd never heard anyone else discussing it either. If anything, the movie was putting ideas in people's heads. Good thing there weren't any trains nearby to throw rocks at.

I don't want to give the impression that the school's materials were entirely geared toward rural children of the 1950s. In an effort to be "relevant," an awful lot of the storybooks in my second-grade classroom seemed to involve the lives of black kids in northern inner cities. Since we were in North Carolina, these books resembled the actual lives of none of us, black or white.

Anyway. My favorite classroom movie was probably either Telezonia, a quasi-psychedelic paean to the telephone system, or an animated fable, title unfortunately forgotten, about a rude little boy who quite literally turns into a pig. I can still remember vividly the weird scene in Telezonia in which the protagonists discover that there's no Q or Z on their phone dial. Instantly, two excessively jolly people -- one dressed as the letter Q, the other as the letter Z -- enter the scene. "That's right!" they exclaim. "But you'll still see us later! In the telephone directory!"

As for the pig movie: It really freaked me out. Especially the part where the boy reveals to his mom that he's turned into a pig, and instead of reacting the way a normal mother would, she turns on a TV show about astronauts and explains that they aren't rude little pigs, no sir, not if they want to go into space.

The pig picture was a perennial; they showed it to us almost every year. In the second grade, one of our teachers, Mrs. Ponder, introduced it this way: "We're about to see a movie."

(Sounds of excitement and happiness from the class.)

"This movie is about a little boy named Johnny."

(Sounds of jaded disappointment from the class.)

"And something's going to happen to Johnny."

(Sounds of renewed interest from the class.)

At this point, a light bulb appears over my head: I suddenly know what movie they're going to show us. I lean over to my friend Jim. "He's going to turn into a pig," I say.

"What?" he replies.

I repeat myself, a little louder: "He's going to turn into a pig." He too repeats himself -- "What?" -- and I realize that he has not failed to understand me; he's failed to believe me.

But just then, a little pig head starts bouncing around on the screen, and the film's theme song begins: "Never - ever - be - a - pig! - oink! - oink! - oink!" Jim's face changes expression, and for once in my young life, I feel somewhat ahead of the game.

posted by Jesse 5:48 PM
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Tuesday, September 17, 2002
THE MAILBAG: Some of you have been kind enough to write to me since I started this weblog. Most of your letters have been strangely unconcerned with the actual contents of this site -- many of you, for example, seem to think my genitals could stand to be larger, while others, presumably convinced otherwise, are offering me nude photographs of yourselves. A surprising number of my readers are undergoing financial difficulties due to upheavals in Africa, and have generously offered to cut me in on their riches if I'd lend them a hand. Sorry, folks: Your stories move me, but I just don't have the cash to spare.

There have been criticisms. Martin Wooster, for example, informs me that "bloggers commenting on bloggers have no life." And my sainted mother told me, upon visiting the site, that "It's weird." (I think this was in reference to that bizarre
Shaft post. Sorry 'bout that one, folks.)

On the other hand, Clark Stooksbury, the only Chomsky-quoting graduate of the Marine Corps I've ever shared a pizza with, praised me for being, by his count, "the second non-evil blogger." (The first? Gene Healy.) He adds: "On the subject of blogging, I work across the street from the InstaPundit guy." Hmm. Maybe you two could have lunch sometime.

InstaPundit himself offered some valuable advice on dealing with Blogger bugs, and several of you offered congratulations on the very existence of the site, as though it took a lot of work to start it. That's kind of like the mysterious custom of congratulating someone who's just learned that she's pregnant. If you think about it, all she's done so far is have fun. You can shake her hand later, after she's weathered the tough part.

posted by Jesse 6:51 PM
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Monday, September 16, 2002
TOO MANY VODKAS: The heckling style that mars so many weblogs has reached a
nadir over on VodkaPundit, with a smug series of "answers" to Rep. Ron Paul's questions about the pending war with Iraq. I won't argue with the substance of Stephen Green's post, since Charles Oliver has already done so quite capably in Shoutin' Across the Pacific. Instead, I'll ask why it is that so many people who love to fact-check self-important lefties who talk without thinking are suddenly indulgent towards the same behavior when it comes from their own ideological tribe.

You want specifics? OK. If someone poses a serious question about the costs of war, and gets as his answer "Scare tactics might work against gullible Texans in your district, but don’t try that crap in Manhattan," why should he regard his heckler as anything but a boor? I mean no offense to Green, who perhaps was having an off day -- I don't read his website very often, so I can't say for sure. But what would possess so many people to write, in Green's comments section, that this was a "great post"? Why would generally thoughtful people link to the piece without any critical commentary?

I wouldn't get so bent out of shape if this weren't typical of so many warblog rants. The point-by-point response format seems to bring out the worst in most writers, perhaps because of its origins as a weapon in the Usenet flame-wars. It becomes easy to criticize someone, not for getting his facts wrong or for deploying faulty logic, but for not sharing the critic's starting assumptions; it becomes easy to reply, not with a data point or an argument, but with a witless one-liner. The result may be cathartic for the writer, but it is neither persuasive nor entertaining for the reader. Not this reader, anyway.

posted by Jesse 5:31 PM
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SELF-PROMOTION: Some of you may have seen an
article by Blaine Harden in the Sunday New York Times on a quiet war NPR has been fighting with a religious radio network. It wasn't a very illuminating piece, for reasons I explain on the Reason website today.

posted by Jesse 4:17 PM
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ANOTHER GANG OF IDIOTS: Alexander Cockburn once wrote that there was more radical analysis in a single issue of Mad magazine from the 1950s than in a full year's run of The Nation. J. Edgar Hoover might have agreed: Newly declassified documents reveal that his FBI repeatedly investigated the mag, not just in the '50s but up through 1971. The Independent has published an interesting
story about this, in which my favorite anecdote involves not the FBI but the U.S. Treasury: "Perhaps the strangest of Mad's encounters was after it published a cartoon of a three-dollar bill bearing Alfred's grinning face. Some enterprising readers cut out the notes and used them, despite their having text on the back, in the rather primitive change machines of the time. Enter, at Mad's offices a few days later, two agents of the US Treasury, who not only confiscated the original artwork, but also, lest readers wreck the entire economy dime by dime, demanded the original printing plates. They left clutching the address of the printer." (Eat your heart out, Boggs.)

In another episode, Mad ran a mock ad for "J. Edgar Hoover Tonic": "Special agents go to work in seconds, cleaning out your system and getting rid of all those harmful foreign elements ... and you'll be pleased with what it does to your red cells!" An agent was promptly instructed to contact the magazine "and firmly and severely admonish them concerning our displeasure at the tasteless misuse of the Director's name."

The best thing you can say about this is that it is a profound waste of the agents' time. It is also, of course, official harassment. It may not be the worst abuse of the FBI's authority, but it is among the most telling -- not just about Hoover, but about unrestrained power in general. As voices in Washington (and elsewhere) call for cutting the restraints imposed on the FBI in the 1970s, you should reflect on stories like these. Those restrictions were put there for a reason.

posted by Jesse 12:39 PM
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Sunday, September 15, 2002
MYTHS AND MENTAL ILLNESS: There are people who argue that the Bible's prophetic visions were, in retrospect, simply psychotic episodes, probably schizophrenia. I'm usually averse to this sort of analysis, partly because I have a
Szaszian skepticism about psychiatry in general and partly because I don't think it particularly clever to run about imposing diagnoses on people you've never met. There's times, though, when I feel like the Bible is chock full of mental disorders, and not just the schizoid kind.

Specifically: Though nominally Jewish, I was raised with few if any of that faith's traditions; and even if I had been brought up to keep kosher, I doubt I would've stuck with it upon discovering the glories of shrimp, mussels, and soft-shell crab. Tonight, though, I found myself attempting to aid in the cleanup after a dinner at a kosher household, only to be told that certain plates could not be put on certain counters, that one group of dishes couldn't be washed with the others, that I had to be extra careful not to mix two virtually identical sets of silverware. As my once-simple tasks grew more and more complicated, insight struck me: Leviticus might be nothing more than an ancient case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, passed through the generations because the founding neurotic simply happened to be tight with the Almighty.

That's not a put-down, by the way. OK, it is, but it's a friendly one. If these dietary restrictions were merely a matter of superstition, I wouldn't have much respect for them. But if they stem from a mental illness -- why, then they're outsider art. Dude, I can get into that.

posted by Jesse 8:18 PM
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For past entries, click here.

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