There is no magic number -- 35 percent, 45 percent, 25 percent -- that represents the perfect amount of stations a TV network should be allowed to own. Nor should the government be in the business of trying to compute such a figure. If you're satisfied with TV programming now, you will probably continue to be satisfied with it under the new rules. If you're dissatisfied, there's no way to rejigger this reg upwards or downwards that's going to please you.
Perhaps for that reason, the ideological opponents of media consolidation -- as opposed to the miscellaneous industry lobbyists who oppose the changes for reasons of their own -- have also made an issue out of the way the new rules are being passed. It's happening too fast, they say, and with not enough public input. When the FCC reduced the number of public hearings it held on the issue, Democratic commissioners organized independent forums of their own, in theory to get more views on the table and in practice to show how the decision-makers at the agency aren't interested in listening to The People.
On one level, the critics have a point: Federal communication policy is made by unelected bureaucrats with closer ties to the industry they regulate than to the public they nominally represent. On another level, though, the critics are playing make-believe. The commissioners are already aware of all the arguments about these issues, and delaying the decision so more people can be heard isn't likely to change the outcome. If the system is undemocratic, it is because it concentrates so much power into so few hands, not because the rest of us have so little time to make our case. At best, those guerrilla forums are a form of theater, a way to dramatize the cozy relationship between the regulators and the regulated. At worst, they're complaints aimed at the wrong target.
Meanwhile, the defenders of deregulation are being even more disingenuous. The revised rules will (mostly) loosen the government's control of the airwaves, and so the reformers present themselves as the advocates of economic freedom. But when it comes to a much more important libertarian issue -- opening the spectrum to new users and uses -- most of them have been AWOL. Serious changes in the way spectrum is allocated and allowed to be used could radically alter the airwaves, bringing in a world of cheap or free broadband-quality Internet access that is portable, wireless, and therefore capable of competing directly with AM, FM, and TV broadcasters. There is a serious debate over how best to accomplish this technically, but virtually everyone who's a part of that argument recognizes that the most important prerequisite is a matter of regulation, not engineering. The FCC must allow much more flexibility in how licensees may use their spectrum, thus eliminating the allocation bottlenecks that so aggravate the telecom industry; and it must make more room for unlicensed use of the ether, so shared-spectrum technologies such as WiFi and UltraWideBand can flourish. FCC chief Michael Powell has, to his credit, given a rhetorical boost to these new technologies. But his agency has offered very little in the way of real reform.
That could change. But if that happens, it will not be because the beneficiaries of the government's entry barriers make spectrum reform part of their "deregulatory" agenda. They care about real economic liberty about as deeply as their opponents care about the precise level of the ownership cap.
SELF-PROMOTION: My new column for Reason Online is about media bias. In retrospect, it's one of my weaker pieces -- poorly organized and not especially well-developed. But I do get off a few good lines.
Meanwhile, my brother Andrew has a long and fascinating article in the Baylor Law Review, Winter 2003 edition. It's a history of the application of Mexican law in the Texas courts, a topic that should interest anyone curious about polycentric legal systems. Along the way he covers a host of colorful tidbits, of which my favorite is the briefly independent Republic of the Rio Grande.
At any rate, it's a terrific collection, one I've been exploring slowly over the last 24 hours. So far my favorite track is Osymyso's "Intro Introspection," an epic mash-up that combines the introductions of maybe 100 famous songs, from "My Way" to "Come On, Eileen." No mere novelty, this mix is DJ genius.
Johnny Learns His Manners (Charles McGirl, 1946): A while back I mentioned a classroom movie they showed us every year at Glenwood Elementary School, in which a little boy named Johnny is so rude that he turns into a pig. I've since learned that this film is called Johnny Learns His Manners, that it was released in 1968, and -- most oddly -- that it's a remake. The original movie (available online) isn't quite as weird as the '60s version, but it tells the same basic story and is filmed in an entertainingly low-budget manner: as a series of hand-drawn still shots that only occasionally seem to move, with a narrator who plays all the parts himself.
The Star Wars Holiday Special (Steve Binder, 1978): Speaking of elementary school: For years I half-remembered the other kids at Glenwood going on about a Star Wars Christmas special. For years I assumed that I had either imagined this or completely misunderstood what they were saying. Then, in 2000, I found a bootleg copy and watched it, mouth agape.
The show is gloriously, hilariously bad. Somehow they managed to bring in most of the cast of the original movie, yet the picture itself is directed on the Ed Wood level. It's over 90 minutes long, with much padding devoted to matters such as domestic life among the wookies (there is a long, preternaturally dull sequence of Chewbacca's wife watching a cooking show) -- and, in what is surely one of the most disturbing sequences ever aired on television, some asexual virtual-reality wookie porn.
I thought I was going to be able to get through the tape without hitting fast-forward, but then special guest star Bea Arthur started to sing...
Shaft (John Singleton, 2000): There's things I like about this movie, and there's things I don't. If you draw just one lesson from it, let it be this: Samuel L. Jackson is one bad motherfucker.
Except the drive there and back. Driving on I-85 is enjoyable enough. Driving on I-95 is not. If there's a part of the country I've come to hate, it's that swath of northern Virginia that long ago ceased to have any connection to the south and now consists mostly of office parks, D.C. spillover, and the occasional crazy driver. (Friends of mine who live in this area needn't worry: My distaste applies to the landscape, not to the people who live there. Well, not all of them, anyway.)
Hope turns 100 later this month, and the tributes are beginning to flow; Mark Steyn published a very perceptive one in the Sunday Telegraph earlier this week. I'm a big fan of Hope's movies from the 1940s (my favorite is The Road to Morocco, but almost all of them are good). Tell that to most people these days, and they'll look at you kinda funny, like you've just confessed to crying whenever you read the verse of Rod McKuen. It's been so long since Hope was funny that most of the hip young turks who dethroned him 30 years ago have themselves become witless gasbags in the latter-day Hope tradition. My own father thinks I'm nuts for liking the man. As a comedian, Hope hasn't aged very well.
But those early movies have -- and, by Steyn's account, so has his early standup. Indeed, Steyn argues that Hope invented modern standup comedy, an argument that is at least partially true. But it's the pictures that have got a hold on me: Monsieur Beaucaire and The Ghost Breakers and all those road movies with Bing Crosby. (Well, not The Road to Hong Kong. That came from a later, fatter period.) They're still out there, on tape and DVD. Come May 29, when Hope becomes a centenarian, rent one in the old man's memory. Once upon a time, the guy was really good.
SELF-PROMOTION: My new column for Reason's website is about political speechmaking. Also, a couple of short squibs I did for the May Reason -- one on "empowerment zones" and one on radio censorship -- are now online.
Meanwhile, I see that Steve Kaye is telling his readers how we spent my first evening in New York last week. Monkeys make a cameo, as do chandeliers.
The book's title contains two lies: first, that it is libertarian; second, that it is journalism. Aside from its mild (some would say half-assed) opposition to the war on drugs, the book's libertarianism never extends beyond the most universally held pro-freedom sentiments: that Communism is bad, that government regulation sometimes goes too far, that there are goofy goings-on on college campuses. Meanwhile, Buckley issues paeans to Sidney Hook and Richard Nixon, defenses of military action everywhere from Vietnam to Nicaragua to Iraq, and unqualified praise for Franco and Pinochet.
So what kind of libertarian is Buckley? "I do not understand," he writes, "where Congress got the idea that it has any business telling an adult American what he can and what he cannot purchase from a willing seller, if you're not talking drugs or machine guns." Ah -- a libertarian for drug laws and gun control. Interesting kind.
As for journalism, its primary purpose is to relate facts, and this book offers little more than passing, effervescent opinions. A few of these are odd enough to become news in their own right, in a Ripley's-believe-it-or-not way (e.g., Buckley's bizarre belief that Princess Di is the most attractive woman in the world). More often, we are treated to this sort of drivel:
"Bob Dylan comes on stage, and on either side of him are two famous guitarists from the Rolling Stones. He last shaved, oh, three days before (Why?). He is wearing blue jeans and a scruffy T-shirt arrangement of sorts (Why? Trademark? Change trademarks?). The two guitarists arrive smoking cigarettes, which dangle from their lips for the first minute or two of the first song (Why?). Their arms are entirely bare, and they otherwise wear what looks like a stripped-down dark-colored T-shirt (Why? Heat?)."
...and so on, and on and on, for longer than I care to transcribe. I don't necessarily object to reading a columnist's passing thoughts, if he or she is a columnist who writes particularly well or whose opinions I've come to respect. But I find it hard to respect someone who wastes my time wondering whether blue jeans and a T-shirt are Bob Dylan's "trademark."
William Buckley was once considered a dynamic young turk, long before I was born. By my day, he had already been absorbed by celebrityhood, and National Review had slipped into boredom and predictability. If the Review has been somewhat rejuvenated since then, it is mostly because Buckley no longer has much to do with running it. His last significant contribution to its pages was the double-issue-length essay "In Search of Anti-Semitism," a dull and intellectually dishonest meditation on whether Gore Vidal, Pat Buchanan, Joseph Sobran, and the Dartmouth Review dislike Jews. Mostly, Bill churns out spy novels and books about sailing, which many people purchase and some presumably read.
Buckley had almost as little to do with the production of this book as he does with the production of his magazine: It was edited by his sister, Patricia Bozell, and contains no original Buckley writing beyond its acknowledgements page. It is, in short, a slapdash commercial product, created with little care and blessed with little merit. It raises only one significant question: After two or three decades of going through the motions, can Buckley tell the difference anymore?
Also: I'm going to be giving two talks in New York later this week, both drawn from my radio book. The first will be at Brooklyn College on Wednesday afternoon. The other will be for a libertarian group, the Junto, on Thursday evening. The first will focus on eccentric and creative alternatives to the radio mainstream; the second will be about the regulations that make such alternatives so rare. Both are open to the public.
Brooklyn College is at 2900 Bedford Avenue. My talk there will be at 2 p.m. at the Radio Lab in Whitehead Hall. The Junto meets at the Soldiers', Sailors', Marines' and Airmen's Club, located at 283 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. The meeting starts at 7 p.m., but I probably won't begin to speak until around 8.
A DAY AT THE RACES: Yesterday the Kinetic Sculpture Race breezed through Baltimore. This is a complicated sport and I doubt any quick summary of it could do it justice, especially since I don't completely comprehend the rules myself. Basically, the competitors have to build manually powered vehicles that run on both land and water. They're rewarded not merely for outpacing the other teams but for making a vehicle that looks especially cool or weird, for wearing the best costumes, and -- if they can't finish first -- for finishing exactly in the middle, thus earning the coveted mediocrity prize. Oh: and you're encouraged to cheat, but you're punished if you get caught.
The race was born in the hippie hinterlands of northern California but soon spread to other locales -- including Port Townsend, Washington, where I lived a few years in the mid-'90s and first became a fan of the sport. Baltimore's annual meet is the only one on the east coast. It was brought here by the American Visionary Art Museum: the second-best museum in the country, the site of my upcoming wedding, and generally a center of all that is enjoyably deranged. Among this year's kinetic sculptures: an enormous rat, an enormous frog, an enormous duck, a big black dog, a psychedelic teacup, and an elephant bearing a life-size Gandhi doll.
"I'm afraid this is not correct. Iran's government is repressive, to be sure, but there were always many more openings for dissent in Iran than in Iraq. First, the oligarchic Iranian regime had competing power centers among the various mullahs, the military, etc. Second, the Iranians never developed the level of internal surveillance that Saddam did -- he actually went beyond Stalin in his use of overlapping and competing agencies, total penetration of society with informers, etc. Hence the prevalence of satellite dishes in Iran, for example. Third, the Iranian repression was less certain and severe than Saddam's. Even when something anti-regime was detected, it wasn't always punished, and the level of punishment seems to have been much, much less than Saddam's -- we don't hear about whole families being tortured or murdered as a result of one member's transgressions, for example. Fourth, the Iranian republic always allowed limited public debate about politics, ran elections that it was capable of losing, etc.
"I'm not saying Iran isn't horribly repressive -- it clearly is. But it is not nearly as totalitarian as Saddam's Iraq."
Steve is quite right. In the classic op-ed manner, I carelessly overstated my case.
I certainly don't think it's impossible for the nonviolent rebellions I'm writing about to emerge in totalitarian countries like Iraq. Gene Sharp, who I cited in my article, has gathered some interesting examples of effective resistance even under Hitler. But I grabbed Iran as my repressive counterexample because it seemed elegant to restrict my discussion to the two countries I'd already brought up, without thinking through the implications of the statement. Bad idea.
For more on a topic Steve raised in passing -- the prevalence of theoretically illicit satellite dishes in Iran -- go to an old interview I did for Reason with Zia Atabay, president of the L.A.-based National Iranian Television. "Everybody in that government wants money for themselves," he told me. "They take a satellite dish down, and after two days, it'll be sold to someone else. So it goes in a circle."
It seems odd, doesn't it? When most people say "incest," they're thinking of parents coercing their children into sex, something which already clearly falls under the heading "rape." Tossing in "or incest" doesn't make sense unless you specifically want to exempt consensual familial sex as well, presumably between siblings.
I'm not sure why a pro-lifer would want to do this. It couldn't simply be because he disapproves of such unions; otherwise we'd hear people attacking abortion "except in cases of rape, incest, or adultery." And it can't be because the baby's more likely to be born deformed; that would fly in the face of the entire respect-for-life argument.
So why "or incest"? Talk about your perverse incentives! Under such a law, the government would basically be saying, We won't allow you to use abortion as a means of birth control. Unless, of course, you do it with your brother.
BACKSTAGE: So yesterday I was trading e-mails with my friend Meg, and I mentioned that I had a column due Tuesday and I didn't know what to write about. "I'm sure I'm not the right person to suggest anything," she replied. "Unless you guys haven't covered French Trade Month in Carrboro." I had no idea what she was talking about, but she helpfully provided a link.
I think Meg was kidding, but what the hell. Today, on Reason's website, I write about French Trade Month in Carrboro. Among other things.
Still, I ended up cutting some interesting stuff. I figure I might as well recycle some of it here, with the caveat that it's a few years out of date. And so, for your reading enjoyment: my account of the locally owned, self-managed stations of Bolivia's mining districts, plus some similar operations in El Salvador.
The first of the Bolivian outlets, La Voz del Minero, was apparently born shortly after the nationalist quasi-revolution of 1952, though some accounts claim it actually dates back to 1945. Back then, the story goes, a handful of miners with a homemade transmitter started broadcasting radical messages via loudspeakers to workers as they emerged from the mines. In this version of the tale, the station came to a violent end in the civil war of 1949, but was resurrected after the events of 1952. Whatever its origins, others soon joined La Voz on the air, transmitting an initially primitive mix of music and unionism. As the years passed, the programming grew more sophisticated, as news, poetry readings, radio drama, and local talk shows blossomed in the Bolivian ether.
By the mid-'70s, nearly every mining district in the country had its own station. Most were operated by unions, though two were municipal cooperatives. (This means the townspeople were all shareholders, and that the stations were formally independent of state control -- a useful technicality in times of hostile military governments.) Another station, Pio XII, is owned and run by the Catholic Church. Sympathetic to the miners, it is often classified with the community stations, though it really shouldn't be. Besides the fact that it's run by outsiders, its competition has led some miners' stations to professionalize, hiring outsiders as on-air personalities for as much as three times the miners' wages.
What was really interesting about the mining stations was their willingness to go underground during times of civil strife. "In 'normal' times of democracy," writes scholar Alan O'Connor, "the radios link the miners' union and its members, and the everyday culture of the miners and campesinos. In times of emergency, when the country and the workers face a military coup, the stations form a network of resistance against the approaching armed forces, broadcast decisions made at public and organizational meetings, and allow union leaders and members, women, and students to offer advice, encouragement, or criticism. Finally, in times of military control, when the stations are closed, they are a focus of underground organizing, and the people demand their return to the airwaves" ("Miners' Radio Stations in Bolivia: A Culture of Resistance," Journal of Communication 40:1). Some would keep broadcasting even then, and damn the laws. After one coup -- General García Meza's summer putsch of 1980, if anyone feels compelled to keep track -- the state threatened to jail even those who merely listened to the miners' broadcasts. Some stations kept transmitting nonetheless, pirates for a season.
In El Salvador, by contrast, some formerly clandestine stations turned into legal outlets. When that nation's long civil war ended, the peace accords of 1992 legalized the guerrillas' Radio Venceremos and Radio Farabundo Martí; the former triumphantly moved its transmitter from a covert mountain base to the roof of San Salvador's Metropolitan Cathedral.
At the same time, 11 community radio stations that had emerged in rural areas remained illegal, or at most semi-legal. They continued their broadcasts -- announcing community meetings, relaying emergency messages, reading the news, playing popular music -- despite the opposition of ARENA, the reigning right-wing party. Desperate for an excuse to close the stations, ARENA accused them of being fronts for the ex-guerrillas (who, you will recall, already had their own legal outlets).
The police shut down ten of the stations in 1995. (The eleventh successfully fended off the authorities, with over a thousand loyal listeners building stone barricades to keep the cops at bay.) In early 1996, the Supreme Court tentatively ruled that the stations should be allowed back on the air, but the political fight over their future did not abate. On July 25, 1997, the Salvadoran legislature passed Decree #56. In debate, the law was billed as a minor move to streamline the nation's broadcast regulations. Once it was passed, people started reading the fine print, and discovered that the government had essentially banned the community stations. Loud protests followed, and several politicians claimed not to have realized what they'd voted for.
In August, the president of the Legislative Assembly found a loophole: the deputies who had voted for the new measure had not affirmed their support in writing. So Decree #56 was "inapplicable," and when re-introduced it failed to pass.
Back and forth, back and forth. The stations were spared the axe, but still weren't properly legalized. And even as the legal battle continued, an extralegal war began, with vandals sabotaging the community outlets.
So in El Salvador, the actively revolutionary guerrilla stations were legalized, while the merely populist community stations continued to be harassed. Evidently, the Salvadoran state finds it easier to deal with fellow would-be rulers than with ordinary people who merely want to govern themselves.
The Gleaners & I (Agnes Varda, 2000): One of my favorite films of the last few years, so it's high time I talked it up on this weblog. It's a wonderful little documentary by the doyenne of the French New Wave, about people who glean food from the fields after the harvests are over; and urban scavengers who find sustenance (and more) in the trash, sharing their leftovers with the neighbors; and artists who make assemblages from trash-picked materials; and the director herself, near the end of her life, making a movie filled with happy serendipitous moments gleaned from all the hours her camera happened to be rolling.
The film fills its quota of angry social realism, showing people who've been reduced to poverty by varying combinations of social circumstance and personal failure. But it also has a utopian streak, portraying a kind of voluntary cooperation that is outside the market (though not independent of it: market and non-market cooperation interpenetrate one another here, as they usually have and usually must). In her sly, undidactic way, Varda is calling for a gentle kind of anarchism -- finding, as the old slogan goes, the seeds of a new world in the shell of the old.
The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002): Any remotely competent director can make a "powerful" movie about the Holocaust. The horrors are already there; just plug in a story, trim it to the usual Hollywood specs, and go shoot. That's what Spielberg did with Schindler's List, and there are still people who will tell you it's one of the finest movies ever made. Bah.
Polanski's film is much better than that. The first hour, depicting the gradual destruction of Jewish life in occupied Poland, fits the standard pattern: The history is horrifying, the film well-crafted but unexceptional as art. That changes when the title character is removed from his family and, in essence, from the course of history. Important events unfold, from the Warsaw ghetto uprising to the liberation of the city. Our pianist half-witnesses them from a series of windows, near but detached from what is happening outside. With his protagonist locked in barren, isolated rooms, the director's touch suddenly becomes apparent: The Pianist becomes a classically Polanskian exercise in claustrophobia.
Instead of a story about a man living through history, we have a story of a man stripped of everything, including history -- everything but his musical core. That's far more interesting than anything Spielberg has ever set to celluloid.
The Sugarland Express (Steven Spielberg, 1974): Let's not be too hard on Spielberg, though. This early film -- his first theatrical release -- is silly but pleasant fun; it's more like an early-'70s Roger Corman production than like anything the director's done in the last 25 years. One drawback: Goldie Hawn's ridiculously fake southern accent. (Why must Hollywood actors attempt to talk like southerners, when almost all of them always fail?)
Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002): Cronenberg's best movie since Videodrome is an antidote to the cloying platitudes of Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind. Not that Howard's film is worthless: I liked the first half, shot from his schizo hero's point of view, up until we learn how much of what we've been seeing is real and how much is hallucination. It's a strong climax, but it leaves us with nowhere to go; an ably crafted paranoid picture becomes a scattershot collection of "uplifting" moments and formulaic reversals, carelessly constructed and free of any insight or depth. The film's first half was mostly empty calories, but at least they were engaging.
Contrast that with Cronenberg's film -- scripted by Patrick McGrath, from his novel -- which becomes interesting just where Howard's movie fails. It's about a man trapped in his delusions, living in a universe of flashback and fantasy, and neither he nor the viewer is entirely sure where one begins and the other ends. Howard's movie lifts us from his protagonist's madness and drags his hero up with his viewers. In Cronenberg and McGrath's tale, lucidity doesn't bring salvation -- just more horror.
Hit Man (George Armitage, 1972): A fun blaxploitation picture, loosely based on Get Carter, that's just about impossible to find -- the copy I watched was taped off of Mexican TV and had Spanish subtitles. Writer-director George Armitage later made such underrated '90s fare as Miami Blues and Grosse Point Blank, while star Bernie Casey, famous in his day for several blaxploit roles and for playing pro football in the '60s, went on to play U.N. Jefferson in Revenge of the Nerds. Jefferson (have you forgotten?) is the head of the black frat that the nerd house ends up joining. I like to imagine that Casey's Revenge character is the same guy he played in Hit Man: older, more mellow, and more tolerant of his white brothers and sisters. Who says there's no progress?