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?
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, Ministerdivide. 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.
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.
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.
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.