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?
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
ROUNDTREE REDUX: Now that I've told you about Tim Virkkala, I'd like to say a few words about another acquaintance of mine. This friend has the singular misfortune to have been named John Shaft.
As if his ill-chosen name were not enough, the Shaft I know happens to be a black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks. Damn right. Furthermore, he's a man who would quite literally risk his neck for his brother man. Can you dig it?
All these coincidences led John S. to be teased quite a bit as we were growing up. But it got worse: As the years went by, it soon became apparent that my friend was a cat that won't cop out, even when there's danger all about. As our school chum Teddy Vanderbilt once sorrowfully put it, "Right on." (He also said that Shaft was one bad mother-- well, maybe I better leave it at that. The point is, he was talking about Shaft.)
I often wondered how all this affected my poor friend. But it's hard to say. He's a very complicated man. Sometimes I don't think anyone really understands him -- except, of course, his woman.
SHAGGY GOD STORY: I just realized that my summation yesterday ignored one ubiquitous genre of weblog post: naked blogrolling. Allow me to rectify that. My friend Timothy Virkkala, from whom I stole the title of this entry, has an interesting essay on his site about religion, history, liberty -- all that good stuff. Mostly, about "this idea that our liberal civilization -- based on a rule of law and a fair amount of individual liberty -- rests mostly on Christianity."
Tim's background: He was raised a Christian, and as a teenager, he took it very seriously. More so than most people. Seriously enough to seriously question it, and eventually to move from zealotry to disbelief. The interesting thing is that, unlike many apostates -- strange, to use that word and realize I'm actually landing somewhere near its original meaning -- he isn't filled with bitterness at his former faith or with the dogmatic fire of the convert. He's tolerant and amused, by Christianity and by its rival spiritual ideologies; he recognizes his former self as himself, rather than as an imposter who must be denounced at every opportunity, and he continues to treat religion with interest and respect. Put another way: He continues to take it seriously.
The result is an interesting commentary, open to historical nuance and wary of cant, be it Christian or rationalist. As the blogger saying goes, read it now.
As for me: I'm not religious in any conventional sense of the word, I don't think "faith" is in itself a virtue, and I think a lot of really lousy things have been done in the name of one god or another. On the other hand, the record I've listened to more than any other in the last week is a gospel album, The Best of the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Any militant freethinker whose worldview shuts out the wonder of this music is living in a mental prison as unpleasant as any Taliban's.
When Congress put its restrictions on low-power FM, it threw a bone to the opposition by asking the Federal Communications Commission to "test" third-adjacent broadcasting, to see if it can be done without causing problems. And now the FCC is preparing to conduct those tests. But as Scott Fybush notes in the NorthEast Radio Watch, the agency could save itself a lot of effort if it would just look at those places where, for one reason or another, third-adjacent stations already exist.
"We've raged before about the inanity of the third-adjacent rules," Fybush writes, "and we'll keep on doing it. Look at Newton, where WZBC 90.3 is just down the road from full class B WBUR (90.9). Look at Corning, N.Y., where WSQE (91.1) shares a tower with a co-owned translator on second-adjacent 90.7. Look at Toronto, where CFXJ (93.5) gets along just fine with super-B CBL-FM (94.1) on the CN Tower nearby. The real-life evidence that third-adjacent spacing works is out there, and there's no need for another series of 'tests.' But it's all about the politics, not the engineering reality..."
Even if you don't comprehend all the jargon, I'm sure you get the point. If you don't, just reread Fybush's final sentence.
If anything, the focus on third-adjacent channels understates how many unnecessary entry barriers confront would-be broadcasters. As I've lately made a career of saying, we could have a radio dial with the diversity and flexibility of the Internet, if only the government would tear down the walls it's built to protect the big broadcast interests. Instead, even the most modest proposal to allow low-power FM gets cut to ribbons, the FCC makes a big deal out of investigating questions it already knows the answers to, and -- oh, yeah -- elsewhere in Washington, another agency introduces new rules that will effectively squash Internet radio.
The biggest joke? People say modern broadcasting is "deregulated."
A co-worker, Sara Rimensnyder, walked into my office. "Are you all right?" she asked. "Is Rona all right?" (Rona is my girlfriend.) "Is everything OK?"
"Why?" I asked. "What happened?"
She looked stunned. "You mean you don't know?"
"No," I said, suddenly horribly worried.
And then she told me. Sometimes when I tell people this story, I say I thought she was pulling my leg. But looking back, I'm not sure what I thought -- not at first, anyway. If you told me any day prior to 9/11 that terrorists had hijacked airplanes and flown them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and that another one had crashed mysteriously in Pennsylvania, and that there were rumors of a fire on the Washington mall, it would have sounded like a joke. But Sara didn't sound like she was kidding, and I think I knew from the start that it really had happened.
She described what was being shown on television, and I decided that I didn't really want to watch the news just yet -- partly because it sounded so heartbreaking, and partly because I wanted to make sure my friends and family were OK before I threw myself into making sense of the world situation. This was a mistake: If I'd watched TV right then and there, I would've learned that the towers had collapsed in on themselves, rather than -- as I'd naively imagined it -- toppling sideways onto Manhattan, crunching half the city into oblivion. And so I started e-mailing everyone I knew in New York and Washington, to find out if they were OK.
At some point, I started looking at news sites, where I discovered an op-ed in The Washington Post by the neocon writer Robert Kagan. "Congress, in fact, should immediately declare war," he had written. "It does not have to name a country." The idea of declaring a war against no one in particular struck me as legally dubious, not to mention ridiculous, and I realized that we were going to be bombarded with a host of similarly useless suggestions over the next few days, months, years. I mentioned this to my editor, and he asked me to do a quick piece for our website making that point. I took a break from my e-mailing and wrote the article, guilelessly employing language that launched me into a debate I didn't know was transpiring, over whether the attacks were a sign of "war" or simply a "crime." Angry partisans of the war scenario then sent me a fusillade of messages taking me to task for a position I didn't necessarily hold, and my e-mail load grew still heavier.
I hope that doesn't sound like whining. As we all know, that was hardly the worst problem anyone faced on that day.
Over the next couple of days, my friends and relatives wrote or called me, all of them safe and sound. I wrote another article about the crisis, and it was much more well-received. I told another co-worker, Brian Doherty, about my strange morning, and he declared that I was probably the last well-informed person in the country to learn about the attacks.
That was a polite way of putting it. I'd say I'm just not that well-informed.