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

Monday, April 28, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: I did the cover story for the June Reason, now wending its way to subscribers. It's a trio of interviews on the post-Iraq world order, with three rather different analysts: Ralph Peters, Benjamin Schwarz, and Gene Sharp. I also have two short pieces in the magazine's opening "Citings" section, one on
Jeffrey Frankel and one on Muammar al-Qaddafi.

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.


posted by Jesse 6:36 PM
. . .
GAMES AS ART: "A beautifully designed videogame invokes wonder as the fine arts do, only in a uniquely kinetic way. Because the videogame must move, it cannot offer the lapidary balance of composition that we value in painting; on the other hand, because it can move, it is a way to experience architecture, and more than that to create it, in a way which photographs or drawings can never compete. If architecture is frozen music, then a videogame is liquid architecture."

(from Steven Poole,
Trigger Happy, 2000)


posted by Jesse 5:08 PM
. . .
Sunday, April 27, 2003
PARTY PEOPLE: This weekend I saw 24 hour party people (2002), a movie about the Manchester music scene of the 1980s. It's a smart, wry, and entertaining film, and I enjoyed it a lot. I would have enjoyed it even more if it weren't built around music that, for the most part, I just don't like.

Oh, it starts out well enough, with good British punk bands like the Sex Pistols, the Stranglers, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. But once the actual Manchester scene erupts, the movie zeroes in on Joy Division (who I've never much cared for, except for "She's Lost Control"), New Order (who I've never much cared for, period), and the Happy Mondays (who I knew little about before watching this and, on the basis of the soundtrack, have no desire to listen to again). As the film moves from new wave to rave, my ears' impatience increases. I don't dislike all electronic dance music, but for years I thought I did; and these are the bands that gave me that impression.

So no, I didn't care for much of this movie's music. The best thing I can say about the flick is that it made me wish I did.


posted by Jesse 9:23 PM
. . .
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.

(The best museum in the country? It's Los Angeles' Museum of Jurassic Technology.)


posted by Jesse 8:59 PM
. . .
Friday, April 25, 2003
ON MY PERSIAN RUG, I CAN STRAY FAR AWAY: Steve Postrel writes: "Interesting
piece in USA Today. Congrats. I'm no expert on the Iranian Islamic republic, but just from general reading I question this statement, however: 'It's not because Saddam was especially more oppressive than Iran's rulers: When democratic ferment began in Iran, it faced one of the world's most repressive regimes.'

"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."


posted by Jesse 11:55 AM
. . .
Thursday, April 24, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: With due respect to Alan Jackson, it may be time to consider some of the differences between Iraq and Iran. I attempt to do just that in a
piece for this morning's USA Today. The essay's radical edges were dulled a bit in the editorial process, but the essential point survived.

Also, my article "Inside the Spiritual Jacuzzi," from the May Reason, is now online.


posted by Jesse 1:02 PM
. . .
PERVERSE INCENTIVES: Those of you who don't read
The Volokh Conspiracy have been missing out on an enjoyable oddity: a sustained, Santorum-derived discussion of the legal and moral status of consensual adult incest. I'd like to toss a tangentially related question into the fray: Why do so many people say they oppose abortion except in cases of rape or incest?

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.


posted by Jesse 11:16 AM
. . .
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: "One day you are going to look out into the streets, and the streets are going to be filled with turbans and fezzes, and the highways are going to be blocked." --
Noble Drew Ali (attributed)


posted by Jesse 9:43 AM
. . .
Wednesday, April 23, 2003
TALES FROM THE VAULT: It was 1997. A Washington institute had awarded me a journalism fellowship, so I was in D.C. to attend its annual dinner. I knew that a few luminaries would be there, and I expected that many in the crowd would be a bit to my right, politically speaking. But I didn't expect the dinner speaker to be Malcolm "Steve" Forbes Jr., who had run for president just a year before.

Nor did I expect to meet him. But there I was, chatting with a colleague, when the institute's president tapped me on the shoulder. "Steve," he said, "this is Jesse Walker, the new fellow."

"Congratulations," said Forbes, smiling in that wobbly way of his. I shook his hand; I said something meant to be funny; he chuckled politely. It should have ended there, as neither of us really had anything to say to each other. But then some photographer said, "Let's get a picture of the two of you together. Pretend like you're talking."

I looked at Forbes. I couldn't think of anything more to say. So I said, "Talk talk talk talk talk."

"Blah blah blah," he replied. "Blah blah blah blah blah."

I glanced at the photographer. He was struggling to replace his film.

I looked at Forbes again. "I'm saying something witty now," I said, "and you're laughing."

He mimed a belly-laugh -- there was no sound, but it would look like laughter in a photo.

Still no flash. I glanced back at the photographer; he seemed to be having trouble with the camera.

"Talk talk talk talk talk," I repeated.

"Blah blah blah," Forbes obliged. And then, just as the dialogue was getting a bit too Ionesco, the photographer snapped a few shots.

My celebrity partner disappeared, and I turned back to the writer I'd been speaking with before. "You know," he said, "I've heard a rumor about Steve Forbes."

"What's that?" I asked.

"I hear he isn't much of a conversationalist."


posted by Jesse 7:17 PM
. . .
Tuesday, April 22, 2003
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.


posted by Jesse 2:28 PM
. . .
THE PARTS LEFT OUT OF THE RADIO BOOK: The most important part of writing is probably erasing, and when I wrote
Rebels on the Air I left a lot on the cutting-room floor. The section that lost the most text was the chapter on broadcasting abroad. The book's focus was American radio, after all; what's more, that chapter relied heavily on secondary sources, and I preferred to highlight my original research.

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.


posted by Jesse 12:02 PM
. . .
Sunday, April 20, 2003
YOUR EMBEDDED FILM CRITIC: Some movies I've watched recently, or in some cases not recently at all:

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?


posted by Jesse 7:35 PM
. . .
DISTINCTIONS:

Patriotism: I love my dad.

Nationalism: My dad can beat up your dad.

Imperialism: Here he comes now.


posted by Jesse 6:04 PM
. . .
Saturday, April 19, 2003
NOLAN MEETS NIELSEN: College pal
Steve Koppelman writes: "The more I think about it, the more I believe you were only halfway there with the West Wing/Yes, Minister divide. Really, the right thing to do is draw the graph with 4 quadrants like the Libertarian Party people used to. The political-beliefs matrix is a 2x2 grid: one axis is which show you think politics resembles (as you postulated), and the other axis is which show you like.

"For instance, you think the world works like Yes, Minister and you also strongly prefer Yes, Minister. On the other hand, I think the world works like Yes, Minister but I strongly prefer The West Wing. That is, I'm deeply suspicious of government but I believe in government's ability to benefit society. You're deeply suspicious of government and want it to go the fuck away."

Steve has a point, and he's certainly pegged my politics properly. I'd like to propose a third axis, though, for people who wish, like Steve, that government could be like The West Wing -- but nonetheless regard the show itself as an overwritten piece of crap.


posted by Jesse 1:34 PM
. . .
Friday, April 18, 2003
A RADIO FABLE: "The radio is an instrument that kills communication; it robs people of their tongues; it broadcasts the voice of a single individual to millions of listeners, reducing them to passive recepticles. If communication has the same root as common and community, the radio is an instrument for uprooting all three." --Fredy Perlman

"The audience was believed to consist of an individual, whose intention was to listen. The listening individual was assumed to have an alertness, an intelligence, an interest and an attention-span commensurate with those of the persons preparing and airing the program. There was no wish to persuade persons in the audience to listen beyond the range of their interests or at the sacrifice of their preoccupations....It was, in fact, a hopeful assumption that the radio would be turned off, or to another frequency, when KPFA's particular program had less than the compelling value for the audience of one." --Lewis Hill

July 23, 1997: my first sustained exposure to Adult Album Alternative radio. I was driving across Wyoming, scanning the FM dial, when I stumbled on what seemed at first to be the local public station. It turned out to be the state public station: a single signal originating at the University of Wyoming and rebounding off translators in every corner of the territory. Each translator had its own call letters, but they all sounded the same and they all sounded terrible: imagine an Adult Contemporary version of Alternative Rock -- the Clash as heard through a Kenny Loggins lens, dimly -- and then imagine your tax dollars paying for it.

I was running ahead of schedule, so I took a quick detour to Laramie, to find out just who was putting this music on the air. The answer: a machine. The program director kept up with all the latest charts and focus-group studies and plugged them into a computer, then out came a playlist. Or so he had told the fellow I was speaking with, who seemed rather skeptical about the process. "Someone's making the decisions," he told me. "I don't think there's an artificial intelligence in the computer."

Maybe, maybe not. There's not so great a difference between a tin ear and a silicon one.

I was on my way to Colorado and the second annual Grassroots Radio Conference, a gathering of broadcasters who would never dream of asking a machine which songs to play. I was excited: I had been researching my
radio book all year, and I was full of passion for the medium. It was two months before the FCC would start seriously cracking down on the micro radio movement.

As I neared the Colorado state line, I caught a whiff of something burning. To my right, firemen were fighting a blaze that had wiped out at least an acre of grass, leaving a long stretch of charred nothingness.


posted by Jesse 8:09 PM
. . .
HOLLYWOOD MINUTE: Joel Schumacher is reportedly directing a $60 million adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. It will presumably resemble the other dozen or so Phantom movies -- but this time with really bad music.


posted by Jesse 7:24 PM
. . .
Thursday, April 17, 2003
AND NO, I'M NOT A SORKINITE: Left and right? Democrat and Republican? Bah. If you must divide everyone into two political tribes, here's a more useful split: those who think government looks like
Yes, Minister, and those who think it looks like The West Wing.


posted by Jesse 11:21 PM
. . .
WHY IS THIS BLOG DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHER BLOGS?: When I was a boy, Passover was my favorite Jewish holiday, mostly because of the food. (I am the only person I know who actually likes gefilte fish.) Sometime in my teens, though, it occurred to me that the whole point of Pesach is to celebrate the slaughter of the Egyptian firstborn -- or, at best, the fact that the Angel of Death passed over the Jews while attending to the business of killing Egyptian children. This offended my humanist sensibilities, especially since the Egyptian firstborn didn't have anything to do with the Pharaoh's refusal to let the Jews leave Egypt.

In fact -- according to the Bible, which is one weird book -- even the Pharoah didn't have much to do with that refusal. He keeps saying he'll let the damn slaves go, and then God "hardens his heart" and makes him change his mind. If it's revenge you're after, it would make more sense to kill God's firstborn -- which finally happens, I suppose, in a subsequent testament. (That's a pre-Vatican II interpretation, of course.)

Fortunately, I don't actually believe the story, so I can still settle down and enjoy the meal without any twinges of guilt. I went to a pleasant family seder in Philadelphia last night, and we'll be heading to a local synagogue for seder number two tonight. I've never celebrated the second seder before, no doubt because I'm a secular assimilationist child of intermarriage. A category, by the way, that never seems to turn up on the Census forms.


posted by Jesse 3:30 PM
. . .
Sunday, April 13, 2003
TRUE TALES OF BALTIMORE: So last night R. and I are walking the series of blocks that separate our car from a party. We pass three elderly women, and R. decides to mess with them by suddenly saying, "I don't know if I feel right about having an affair."

There's a pause. Then one of the old ladies yells, "GO FOR IT!"


posted by Jesse 5:25 PM
. . .
Saturday, April 12, 2003
LOOKING BACK, LOOKING AHEAD: A new hypothesis: political movements are most boorish in their times of triumph. The only time I came close to regretting my dovish sympathies was when the prospects for quick American victory looked most grim: an inadvertent glee had crept into some of the antiwar commentary, as though the prospect of making the hawks eat crow was more palatable than the prospects for a rapid end to the fighting. Now that Baghdad has fallen and the war is reduced to a mop-up mission, it's the prophets of belligerence who look their worst -- and believe me, their worst is a lot uglier than ours. The smug self-righteousness that mars so many warblogs even on better days has now shifted into overdrive. Apparently, the fall of Baghdad proves the antiwar forces were wrong, because of course the only reason anyone opposed the war was because he thought we might not win it. Apparently, the doves didn't care about Saddam's victims, because of course an invasion was the only possible way to bring his dictatorship down.

Apparently, if you've spent a year pretending the only antiwar voices worth noting were those of celebrity airheads and Stalinist sectaries, there's no reason to stop now.

Were all the deaths worth it? There were three arguments for this war before it began, and they look as shaky now as they did a month ago. The least compelling rationale was the one that everyone spent almost all their time debating: that Saddam Hussein violated U.N. resolutions and was concealing "weapons of mass destruction." I do not now care, nor have I ever given a rat's ass, which countries have violated any U.N. resolutions; and I can't see why Saddam's arsenal should be of concern to those of us who live on the other side of the planet. The only reason his regime is America's enemy is because we have deliberately treated him as one; if we weren't entangled in his region's politics, he'd be no more of a threat than any other thug.

This segues naturally into the second argument for war -- that Saddam was allied with our real enemies, the terrorists who attacked us the September before last. But with no serious connections established between Hussein and bin Laden, then or now, the chief question about the war was not whether it would protect U.S. security but whether, by making it more likely that this unlikely duo would form an alliance, it would actually make us more vulnerable. With Saddam out of the picture, the worst-case scenario seems eliminated as well, but that scarcely justifies the policies that made it a possibility in the first place.

The third argument, of course, was that war would liberate the people of Iraq. And indeed, the one positive byproduct of the conflict is that Saddam and his totalitarian state are being torn to the ground. But this only justifies the invasion within the constraining limits of the debate over U.N. resolutions, in which the only options on the table were military conquest or military "containment," i.e.,
lethal sanctions and periodic air raids. The latter policies did not merely drag out the ridiculous where's-the-weapons shuffle. They strangled Iraqi civil society, helping prevent an indigenous resistance from developing. Now, with the country conquered, that makes it all the more difficult to establish a more free system. Except in the Kurdish areas, the popular institutions that should be the heart of the new Iraq have been decimated, not just by Saddam but by his foreign enemies. A dozen years of deprivation will do that to you.

If I was relatively mute on these topics during the fighting, it was because I had so little that was constructive to say. I wanted peace, I wanted security, and I wanted a freer Iraq. War was clearly bad for the first two ends, and was an imperfect path at best to the third; still, once American troops were on the ground, their quick victory seemed like the only route remaining to something roughly akin to those goals. And so I watched civilians die and be maimed, saw honorable American soldiers killed, looked on as hunger and disease seized the "liberated" areas -- and recognized that withdrawal without victory would never happen, and that a drawn-out conflict would only make things worse. The idea that one could support the troops while opposing the war is incoherent to many hawks, but it was literally true for me: I cheered them on as I shuddered at what they had to do, because if they were to bog down I'd only have more reasons to shudder.

But now the war is ending, and the occupation is beginning. As the last Ba'athist resistance is eliminated, we paradoxically enter the time an antiwar movement is needed the most. We need a movement against pushing our battalions into yet more fights, a movement against colonial occupations and corrupt concessions, a movement for disentangling us from every Mideastern struggle except the battle to stop those who would kill American civilians. A movement to withdraw our troops from Saudi Arabia, to quickly allow the Iraqis their long-denied right of self-government, to oppose the neocons' push for global hegemony, and to protect and restore civil liberties. A movement, in other words, that can adapt to a changed situation without ceasing to articulate two of the oldest American causes: peace abroad and liberty at home.


posted by Jesse 11:49 AM
. . .
Friday, April 11, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: My off-the-cuff
comment Wednesday about Iraqi taxes inspired today's Reason Online column, about ... Iraqi taxes.


posted by Jesse 2:42 PM
. . .
AN OLD FAVORITE: "The notice stipulated what could not be done, in order of descending importance. Near the top of the list all parties were told:

NO ONE IS TO REMOVE ASHTRAYS FROM THE WARD.

And later down the list it stated:

FRONTAL LOBOTOMIES ARE NOT TO BE PERFORMED WITHOUT THE WRITTEN CONSENT OF THE PATIENT.

'That should read "prefrontal,"' Doug said, and wrote in the 'pre.'

'How do you know that?' Fat asked.

'There's two ways of knowing,' Doug said. 'Either knowledge arises through the sense organs and is called empirical knowledge, or it arises within your head and it's called a priori.' Doug wrote on the notice:

IF I BRING BACK THE ASHTRAYS, CAN I HAVE MY PREFRONTAL?

'You'll be here ninety days,' Fat said."

(from Philip K. Dick,
VALIS, 1981)


posted by Jesse 1:06 PM
. . .
Wednesday, April 09, 2003
YOU CAN TELL THE MAN AT THE IRS...: My taxes now done, I'm downing the ale like it's orange juice. I have no idea how professional accountants do this every day without becoming alcoholics. As always, I ended up owing money -- I don't think I've ever gotten a refund, come to think of it, except the year I was a full-time freelancer and qualified for the Earned Income Tax Credit. So I owe hundreds to the state of Maryland and hundreds to the feds; even California, where I lived for only a month and a half last year, wants $12.57. Sheesh. That'll pay for, what, one gubernatorial paperweight?

Next year I get to pay Iraqi taxes, too. Or do they pay taxes to us now? Someone get me a Schedule DOD-EZ...


posted by Jesse 9:51 PM
. . .
VICTORIES: It's wise, they say, to find your victories where you can. I can thus announce, with whatever pride I can muster, that I never joined the crowd that was declaring the Iraq war a "quagmire." A premature prophecy like that can only make the would-be seer look like a fool; it also gives hawks a readymade strawman when it comes time to brush aside more serious criticisms of their goals, or for that matter their
military planning.

So: With no basis beyond the enormous disparity between the American and Iraqi militaries, I expected a relatively rapid U.S. conquest from the start. Not a pretty conquest. But a quick one.

If there's a quagmire in Iraq, it's not the fight now ending. It's the endless occupation to come. I've probably heard more casual references to the postwar occupations of Germany and Japan in the last year than in all the rest of my life. People who speak endlessly about "the lessons of history" frequently give the impression that their knowledge of that history never extends beyond World War II; to hear them talk, you'd never dream that America has also occupied such nations as Cuba, Haiti, and the Philippines, with somewhat less beneficial results. Japan is not the historical norm for democratization-by-force -- it's the single strange anomoly. (Germany faced a genuinely multilateral occupation, in a country with some prior experience of democratic institutions. It's in a completely different category.)

I opposed this war on its own terms, because it was both brutal and unnecessary. Now I oppose the occupation, because it endangers American security and because it puts the U.S. in the most imperial garb it's worn since the Marines were semipermanent residents of Latin America. The Bush administration still has a chance to declare its victory, quickly transfer power to Iraqis, and take the opportunity to detach itself from the Middle East. But -- at the risk of turning myself into one of those seers-turned-fools I was mocking just a few paragraph ago -- I don't expect that to happen.

It's nice to see Saddam deposed, anyway. Like I said: Find your victories where you can.


posted by Jesse 12:33 PM
. . .
Friday, April 04, 2003
BEST SEARCH-ENGINE REFERRAL TO THIS SITE THIS WEEK: "Morman Podhoretz."


posted by Jesse 4:56 PM
. . .
MICHAEL KELLY, R.I.P.: You wouldn't guess it from some of my fellow doves' rhetoric, but not every hawk is a chickenhawk. Michael Kelly, clearly, was brave as well as talented. He was a good writer and a great editor -- the best helmsman The New Republic has had since Kinsley, and the best helmsman The Atlantic has had in my lifetime. I disagreed with him often, sometimes severely. But I always had to respect him, too. May he rest in peace.


posted by Jesse 3:59 PM
. . .
Tuesday, April 01, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: The May issue of Reason includes four articles by Your Humble Correspondent. One explores those amateur remixes that fuse fragments of different songs into portmanteau recordings. Another describes some people who are doing essentially the same thing, only with religion instead of music. And then there are two short pieces in the Citings section, one about radio censorship and one about an audit of the "empowerment zone" program.

I also have a
piece on the Reason website today, about England's relationships with Europe, the U.S., and its own national self-image.


posted by Jesse 3:38 PM
. . .
WAR REPORT: Innocent deaths, unexpected reversals: The hawks' defense of the course of the conflict is that this is what even a successful war looks like. A serious dove's reply should be that that's precisely the point.


posted by Jesse 3:24 PM
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For past entries, click here.


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