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

Monday, May 19, 2003
THE WRONG DEBATE: A fellow from Salon called me last week to talk about media consolidation. I rambled, as I often do, and criticized both sides of the debate -- so much so, in fact, that I'm not really sure how I'm going to sound in the finished article. Maybe he'll have me attacking the Clear Channel types, maybe he'll have me attacking their critics, maybe he'll bring in a bit of both -- and then again, maybe he won't quote me at all. Like I said, I rambled.

For those who came in late: On June 2, the Federal Communications Commission will decide whether to loosen the remaining regulations constraining media mergers. (Fearless prediction: It will.) We're talking about a legally enforced cartel here, which means I don't really have a cock in this fight. On one hand, we have purported deregulationists with no interest in removing the regs that have skewed the marketplace toward the current media giants. On the other hand, we have purported defenders of independent voices sticking up for rules that do very little to foster real media diversity, at a time when a much more important fight -- the battle for spectrum reform -- could really, really use their support.

I'll begin with the second group. They're worried about consolidation for a lot of reasons, most of them valid. But because the rules on the table deal specifically with the number of TV and radio stations a single company can own (and, similarly, with limits on the cross-ownership of print and broadcast outlets), they've been thrown into the role of defending the current regulations, none of which are particularly defensible. Consider the most controversial of the proposed changes: the removal of the 35 percent cap. This rule governs the number of TV stations a network can directly own, as opposed to just providing them with programming, restricting them to 35 percent of the national audience. The FCC is likely to replace this with ... a 45 percent cap. Man the barricades!

What, speaking frankly, would such a change do? It would give the networks a chance to make more money. It would give the remaining independently owned stations a little less room to maneuver. But it strains the imagination to believe that it would seriously reduce the number of local voices on the air, if only because so few stations present meaningfully local material during network programming hours anyway. Indeed, when The Washington Post
covered the issue last week, the example it cited of a station-network conflict involved an effort, not to put a local show onto the air, but to take a national one off: "When [an affiliate in North Carolina] received Fox's 'Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?' reality show, station management refused to air it, saying it would offend Raleigh community standards."

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.


posted by Jesse 12:04 AM
. . .
Friday, May 16, 2003
THE LOST SAYINGS OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN -- THE FINAL CHAPTER: "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. I, on the other hand, am a bit of a lard-ass."


posted by Jesse 8:59 PM
. . .
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.


posted by Jesse 4:40 PM
. . .
JUNE CARTER CASH, R.I.P.: What a sad loss. I saw June Carter play live with her husband many years ago, and she was terrific. To quote the anonymous young man who approached the couple in Johnny's
autobiography: "Mrs. Cash, you kick ass."


posted by Jesse 2:23 PM
. . .
POSTMODERN META-ALBUM: Reader Justin Slotman informs me that he received his copy of Boom Selection the same day
I did. Like me, he got his copy without the anthologist collecting his payment; unlike me, he got it without mentioning his long wait on his blog. So much for my theory that I'd been singled out on account of my online babblings.

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.


posted by Jesse 1:26 PM
. . .
Thursday, May 15, 2003
THE POWER OF THE PEN: Ask and ye shall receive. Months after I ordered it but just 10 days after I
mentioned on this site that I didn't receive it, a copy of Boom Selection_Issue 01 arrived in the mail. And they say no one reads weblogs!


posted by Jesse 12:50 PM
. . .
THE LOST SAYINGS OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, CHAPTER FOUR: "Hoard copper and get rich."

(Today's installment comes courtesy of
Micah Holmquist, who evidently has his own cache of lost Franklin bon mots.)


posted by Jesse 10:41 AM
. . .
Wednesday, May 14, 2003
THE LOST SAYINGS OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, CHAPTER THREE: Benjamin Franklin, Disraeli, and Nasrudin walk into a bar. "You see that horse?" asks Franklin. "I'll bet you ten Euros that Nasrudin here can teach it to fly."

"That would depend," comments Disraeli, "on whether he embraces its principles or its mistress."

"Stop saying that," mutters Franklin. "It's getting really old."


posted by Jesse 1:09 PM
. . .
MOVIES MOVIES MOVIES: Another roundup of movies I've either seen recently or am just now getting around to describing:

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.


posted by Jesse 11:38 AM
. . .
Tuesday, May 13, 2003
THE LOST SAYINGS OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, CHAPTER TWO: When the Constitutional Convention concluded, a woman asked Franklin what sort of government had been devised. "None of your goddamn business," he replied, and hit her with a kite.


posted by Jesse 12:34 PM
. . .
Monday, May 12, 2003
ANOTHER TRUE TALE: "Hi, Jesse. I'm just dropping by to see if you've got any copies of Hustler I could look at."

It's my neighbor J., the UFO abductee, knocking on my door in 1996. At the time I'm living in the rural hamlet of Port Townsend, Washington, population 8,000; my apartment is upstairs from a convenience store, adjacent to a trailer park, across the street from a funeral parlor, and maybe two minutes' walk from the production offices of an infamous survivalist catalog. It's also close to some sort of outpatient clinic for people who've been diagnosed as schizophrenics, which is why J. lives next door.

I don't know where she got the idea that I might be sitting on a pile of skin magazines, and I tell her I don't have any.

"Oh," she replies. "Well, do you know how I might get in touch with Larry Flynt? I need to write him again."

"You've been writing Larry Flynt?" I'd known about her one-sided correspondence with Alan Greenspan, but Flynt was a new one.

"I used to write him a lot, but it turned out I was sending them to a fake address." I offer her a seat. "This was back in the '70s. I read an article that said that both fundamentalists and feminists hated this man and his magazine, and I decided that I had to see it for myself. So I went down to Pike Place Market and found a copy of Hustler. The cover showed a woman being put through a meat grinder, and the caption said, 'We will no longer treat women like meat.' And right then, I felt the Tap on my shoulder. It was a really spiritual experience. I felt the Tap on my shoulder, and God whispered in my ear: 'Larry Flynt is Jesus Christ.'

"And so I wrote him and I told him about it. But he never wrote back. Later on I found out they'd given me a fake address and my letters weren't getting to him."

As always, I don't have much trouble getting into the spirit of the conversation, which is probably why she and I are friends. "I think Paul Krassner used to publish Hustler for a while," I comment. "I have an address for his magazine The Realist; maybe he could tell you how to get in touch with Larry."

"Oh, The Realist? I've got some issues of that. Thanks, I'll try him." She gets up to leave. "I hope you don't think that I'm interested in the pornography. I hate porn. But I love the articles."

"Really?"

"Oh, yes. If I get some copies of Hustler, I'll let you borrow them, and you can see what I mean. They're brilliant, really funny."

"OK," I say. She never follows up on this promise, which is probably just as well.


posted by Jesse 9:55 PM
. . .
ROLE MODELS: Were there ever any kids whose favorite superhero was Robin? Maybe the young Ed McMahon. "When I grow up, I wanna be a second banana."


posted by Jesse 8:30 PM
. . .
THE LOST SAYINGS OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, CHAPTER ONE: "Those who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security deserve ice cream."


posted by Jesse 2:04 PM
. . .
Sunday, May 11, 2003
WEEKEND HIDEOUT: We're back from a relaxing weekend in North Carolina. My old friend
Meg and her wife Angela hosted us in their cozy Durham home, and Todd Morman gathered a fun group together for a Saturday night dinner (including Fiona Morgan, who edited the first piece I wrote for Salon and is now employed by the Independent Weekly, which I grew up reading). Mostly I wandered through old haunts, took in the distinctive sights and smells of the North Carolina Piedmont -- I had forgotten all about honeysuckles! -- and spent pleasant hours in the company of kind and interesting people. All trips should be this nice.

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.)


posted by Jesse 6:52 PM
. . .
Thursday, May 08, 2003
DAILY KOAN: "You know, I knew a guy who ate a whole chair, just because no one stopped him."

(from David Mamet,
Lakeboat, 1980)


posted by Jesse 5:48 PM
. . .
WHERE DID I PUT THOSE MEMORIES?: One of my favorite Dennis Miller jokes is an old one-liner from Weekend Update. "The statute of limitations on respecting Bob Hope for his early work ran out today," he said, apropos of nothing and all the funnier for it. The gag got a good laugh from the audience -- this was in the 1980s, when there were still some people who remembered Hope's early work and why it might be worth respecting.

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.


posted by Jesse 2:29 PM
. . .
Wednesday, May 07, 2003
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.


posted by Jesse 12:50 PM
. . .
AN OLD BOOK REVIEW THAT NEVER FOUND A HOME: In June of 1991, I read a syndicated column by William F. Buckley, Jr., titled "Universities Should Protect Free Thought." I assume that this title was provided by the newspaper's editors, not Buckley, for nowhere in his essay did he assert that universities should protect free thought. Nowhere, in fact, did he assert much of anything; instead, he meandered around the issue of political correctness, fondling a few non-sequitous thoughts before concluding that we should "lean in the direction of civility." Or, more specifically: "The challenge becomes to distinguish between language in the thoroughly abusive mode and language that is merely contentious. Why is that too great a challenge for a modern university?"

It apparently is too great a challenge for Buckley, who ended his column there, the required number of words written and the afternoon free for yachting. In 13 paragraphs, Buckley let his readers know his opinion of a particular university administrator and a particular course description in the Brown catalog, plus three fellow-columnists' opinions about P.C.; he also worked in a sentence-long history of censorship in America. He did not tell us where he thinks the line between "contentious" and "abusive" speech is, nor why he feels that line is the proper dividing-point between protected and unprotected expression. Why did he write the column? Beats me.

"Universities Should Protect Free Thought" is not reprinted in
Happy Days Were Here Again: Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist -- or if it was, I slept through it -- but over 400 pages of other columns are. Five or so are complete, intelligent, well-written essays. The others either lead nowhere or suffer from terminal thoughtlessness; virtually all bear the unhappy marks of Mr. Buckley's flabby and pretentious writing style. Worst of all is the author's self-indulgent assumption that the rest of us are innately interested in whatever happens to be passing through his mind when he happens to be typing.

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?


posted by Jesse 11:58 AM
. . .
Monday, May 05, 2003
WAIT 'TIL SHE HEARS I THINK A ISN'T REALLY A: A woman named Diana Hsieh, apparently an Ayn Randian of some sort, is
accusing me of "moral equivalence." I didn't know people were still using that term. It seems so 2001, you know?


posted by Jesse 4:07 PM
. . .
THE LOST ANTHOLOGY: Mash-ups are homemade remixes, typically welding the music from one pop song to the lyrics of another. They are usually made without the original artists' permission, and the chief place to find them is that grand resting place of semi-legitimate amateur projects, the Internet.

It is also possible -- sometimes -- to buy mash-ups on CD. Several dubiously legal compilations exist, of which the most extensive is the mammoth Boom Selection_Issue 01 (2002), between 34 and 42 hours (account vary) of MP3 files stored on three compact discs. Like the music it collects, Boom Selection begs to be unpacked: It is not an album so much as an album-making kit. Daniel Sheldon, the British boy who assembled the package, urges his customers to select their favorite files and burn their own CDs.

If you have the right software, of course, you can also reassemble those tracks into mixes of your own.

I wanted to review the anthology for Reason. Unfortunately, it seems to have disappeared: My order went unfulfilled, my payment uncollected. Sheldon himself is unreachable, leaving one to speculate as to why a 15-year-old in another country might stop mailing out copies of what is -- as Michaelangelo Matos
put it in the Baltimore City Paper -- "minute for minute...the most illegal album in history." (One or two theories jump to mind.) A substitute writer on Sheldon's weblog declares that the anthologist "is still Missing In Action. I think he went into hiding after receiving dogdirt and razor blades dipped in the trailer trash blood of Mr Marshall Mathers through the postbox of his home." I don't advise taking that literally, but hey, a story's a story.

I ended up doing a piece on mash-ups anyway, without Sheldon's compilation to assist me. It appeared in the May Reason, and was posted to the magazine's website today.


posted by Jesse 11:03 AM
. . .
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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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For past entries, click here.


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