Ahem. Prank campaigns do not exist to encourage people to participate in the system. They exist to make fun of the system. Think back to would-be governor Howard Stern's suggestion that New York fill its potholes with the bodies of executed prisoners. Dead bodies in potholes are funny; fruitcakes in potholes are not.
I prefer Richard A.C. Greene, who without campaigning nonetheless became Washington's Republican candidate for state land commissioner in 1968. Greene quickly high-tailed to Hawaii, leaving the campaign to his staff. Some excerpts from the platform they concocted:
* Land Use: Land should be used gently but firmly.
* Whidbey Island: Whidbey Island must be replaced.
* Indian Fishing Rights: Individual catches will be limited to four Indians. All those under five feet two inches must be thrown back.
* If Elected: I shall be the sort of Land Commissioner who will go out fearlessly and commission the land.
Greene also demanded that Idaho "annex a large part of Eastern Washington, especially Spokane." And what did he think of the Democratic incumbent, Bert Cole? "Cole is simply too good a man for the job. I'd like to see him move on to something more challenging."
The campaign had its semi-serious side, or at least a semi-serious point to make. A week before Election Day, Greene staffer Lorenzo Milam wrote and delivered a speech on the candidate's behalf. "Sometimes I think about that 15,000 vote plurality I received in the primary campaign for state land commissioner," he said. "Richard A.C. Greene became Republican nominee for the office of Washington State Land Commissioner not because of his pretty smile, nor because of his knowledge of Greek and Latin -- but because all these people thought it was their duty to vote. They didn't give a damn, really; I know, because that's why they got in the booth and fumbled around with all those unfamiliar names and finally said: 'Land Commissioner. Hm. Greene. That sounds nice.'"
Guilfoil might want to meditate on those words the next time he urges people to bum-rush the ballot-box. And on these, from the same talk: "I think the voters who have to be dragged from the offices, yanked from their TV sets to get them to vote: those are the wrong ones to be in the booth. If their motivation is so lousy, their knowledge of the candidates and issues must be equally as lousy; I'd just as soon see them stay in bed on election day."
Surely there is no shortage of Greenes, or at least of Guilfoils, in America's precincts this year. If there's a prank campaign worth noting in your neck of the woods, please let me know about it. It can be funny or it can be lame; it can have its own spot on the ballot, or it can rely on write-ins. Someone's got to keep track of this stuff, and it might as well be me.
Taranto has not been reading very carefully. With regard to air travel, for example, my article cites "federalized airport security" and "new unfunded mandates on local transportation authorities," which are obviously federalist issues, whether or not you think the feds have "no business in such matters as airport security." Similarly, while the piece does allude to the prisoners at Guantanamo, it does not claim that their detention is related to federalism. (It's interesting, though, that Taranto describes the detainees as "prisoners of war," a phrase he's previously made a point of rejecting.)
Taranto's actual problem with the article is that it describes him as an "Arab basher." The characterization is obviously true -- Taranto's column discusses Arabs the way much of the Arab press discusses Jews -- but he objects to it because "we're actually of Turkish descent." Note to Taranto: Turks aren't Arabs. Both groups do tend to be Muslim, but by that standard, you could refer to Boris Yeltsin as a Frenchman.
Some of this goes back before the 9/11 attacks, of course. The IMF roundup, for example, had more to do with what happened in Seattle in 1999 than with what happened in Manhattan in 2001. But the fact that there's more than one source for the trend does not make it any less alarming.
Fortunately, I don't have to worry about any of that for the next few days, as I and other wedding guests assemble freely on the New England coast. See you next week.
SNIPE HUNT: Paul Sperry of WorldNetDaily has jumped aboard the blame-Osama bandwagon, with an article arguing that the white van murders may be an Al Qaeda operation. While I continue to believe that this is extremely unlikely, I also hope it's true, for the same reason that I hoped bin Laden's network was behind the anthrax mailings. The last time that group carried out an operation on our soil, it killed 3,000 people in a day. Now someone's shooting one person at a time, every other weekday. If this is the follow-up attack, then the terrorists have really -- to use the technical military expression -- shot their wad.
"So they were dismayed and outraged when they learned their new home was on a list of properties to be seized by the city to make way for a proposed biotech park north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex."
Mr. Turner told The Sun that "they're doing the same thing to us they did to the Indians," and though he's been spared the smallpox-blankets and the cavalry charges, his point is well-taken. A sympathetic councilwoman may yet save the Turners and others from the government's wrecking ball, but their property's future is still undecided. Nor is such eminent-domain abuse without local precedent.
I'm not usually given to advocating political violence, but surely there's a case to be made for kidnapping the guilty planners, locking them in a room with the collected works of Jane Jacobs, and not letting them leave until they can pass a pop quiz?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
THE RANDIANS AGAIN: Skip Oliva has 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.
TWO MORE THOUGHTS: In my 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.
SNIPER WATCH: I know I 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.
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 Worldreports 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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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 toldThe 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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
ZOG SPELLED BACKWARDS IS GAUZE: While amateur 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.
"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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
"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 PhildickianSeconds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?