Consider Primitive Rebels (1959). That book examines "archaic forms of social movement," by which the author means the sort of protest that mid-century Marxists usually wrote off as inarticulate, populist, "primitive," "anarchist," or "reactionary." It is, at once, a very interesting study of such movements and an inadvertently hilarious peek into the Stalinist mind. Hobsbawm doesn't just explore his subject: he gives us a running commentary on how the modern Leninist vanguard party is such a tremendous advance over these archaic forms of revolt.
And so we look at the social banditry of the world's Robin Hoods ("little more than endemic peasant protest against oppression and poverty"), the original Mafia ("a somewhat more complex development of social banditry"), and millenarian movements, which "differ from banditry and Mafia because they are revolutionary and not reformist, and because, for this reason, they are more easily modernized or absorbed into modern social movements. The interesting problem here is, how and how far this modernization takes place. I suggest that it does not take place, or takes place only very slowly and incompletely, if the matter is left to the peasants themselves....This is illustrated by the contrast between the Andalusian village anarchists and the Sicilian village Socialists and Communists; the former converted to a theory which virtually told the peasants that their spontaneous and archaic form of social agitation was good and adequate; the latter converted to a theory which transformed it." See what I mean?
But I'm getting sidetracked. His book also examines the city mob, radical religious sects, and proletarian secret societies. He uncovers a lot of interesting material, he subjects it to a sometimes brilliant analysis, and then, just when you've been nodding your head almost long enough to forget where the man is coming from, he coughs up some more Stalinism.
SELF-PROMOTION: I just published a piece on the Reason site about the strange career of W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel: '30s crooner, Texas governor, and precursor to the current California circus. If I had more space, I might've gotten into the career of another country balladeer turned politician, Gov. Jimmie "You Are My Sunshine" Davis of Louisiana -- and perhaps even cited the Robert Byrd fiddle album a fellow DJ showed me back in my college-radio days.
Speaking of Texas, a low-power radio station there interviewed me Sunday afternoon, mostly about the politics and economics of broadcasting. A recording of the interview is now online.
What embarrasses me is that, following further prompting, I was able to recall the entire chorus to "Islands in the Stream." What vitally important facts have I forgotten because the necessary brainspace was occupied by that?
Those two sentimental favorites aside, there's a sad-sack quality to the also-rans that's a little depressing, though it makes the contest all the more fun. Are there any minor celebrities in California who haven't entered the race? This is starting to turn into one of those events where people sign up thinking it'll be a boost to their fledgling or sagging careers, and then more has-beens and never-weres join in, and suddenly you look around and wonder how you got to be surrounded by all these losers. And then it hits you: You're a loser, too.
Unless, of course, you happen to have a shot at winning.
DECENTRALIST RANT: I published a piece on the Reason site today about "smart growth" and regionalism. This is a topic I used to write about a lot, but I moved away from it after smart-growth booster Al Gore started giving speeches on the topic, prompting other reporters to realize that there was a story here. Now Gore's brief crusade is forgotten, and the subject isn't getting the national attention it received a few years ago. But the movement's still out there, even if it doesn't have a major presidential candidate carrying its water.
The regionalists like to claim that we're entering a new era, one in which power will simultaneously flow upwards, to the global level, and downwards, to the metropolitan region. But if we follow their prescriptions, power will only flow upwards. National power, as they suggest, would be restricted by multilateral agreements and international bodies. Municipal power, meanwhile, would be absorbed by cross-jurisdictional agreements and regional bodies. The two processes reflect each other, like a fractal pattern. As above, so below: both local and national sovereignty get the shaft.
The regionalists have got things exactly backwards. The cities don't need more centralization, but less. We shouldn't hand the suburbs to the same giant governments that have wrecked so many cities. We should allow urban neighborhoods the same self-determination that the suburbs already enjoy.
There are several ways to do this. One is simple secession -- allowing a neighborhood or group of neighborhoods to incorporate and take over the city's tasks. If it doesn't have enough resources to handle a service, let it privatize, or contract with its former municipal overlord. Or perhaps it won't secede outright. Perhaps it could score itself an exemption from the city's provision of some services (and the taxes that pay for them), which it could then either provide itself or turn over to competing private companies.
The city can privatize services too, of course, bypassing the neighborhoods. I don't mean contracting out to an independent company. I mean getting the government out of the service entirely. When this happens, the problem of jurisdictional boundaries -- bête noir to the regionalists -- just disappears. No one wonders at the fact that Taco Bell manages to operate stores in both Dallas and Fort Worth. No one is shocked when a shoe store in Tacoma buys stationary from a supplier in Seattle, or when businesses in Flint trade with their counterparts in Ypsilanti. Why not apply the same principle to public policy?
What these approaches have in common is that they require city planners to give up control. Not to streamline bureaucracies. Not to "steer, not row." To abdicate. To drop the Progressive Era notion that it is possible and desirable to turn government over to a class of neutral, professional philosopher-managers.
1. Petty theft goes on in virtually every election, on both sides.
2. In a statistical tie, petty theft is enough to swing an election.
3. Therefore, if a vote is close enough, whoever loses can make a good case that he was robbed. And whoever won could've make a good case, had he lost, that he was robbed.
I'm bored silly by Gore voters (and Nader voters) who claim that Bush didn't "really" win in 2000, as though there were some Platonic ideal winner out there on some parallel plane. Elections are power struggles, fought on far more levels than asking for votes. Bush won the power struggle, so he won the election. I'm not interested in refighting that battle, and not just because I didn't have a dog in the fight.
But I'm not going to pretend that it didn't get ugly along the way.
THROW HIM OUT: I thought I was being clever Thursday when I contrasted the Democrats' take on Florida 2000 (stopping an election is bad!) with their line on the California recall (stop this election!). Then I learned the recall-bashers hadn't forgotten Florida -- in fact, they're warning that we might see its worst moments repeated, with corrupt and/or incompetent election workers barring likely Democratic voters from the polls. As Matt Welch notes, this would be a lot more plausible if the coming contest wasn't to take place in a state run by Democrats.
My take on Florida 2000 was that both sides were trying to steal an election so close that any victory could be chalked up to theft. Bush won, so the Gore partisans get to grumble that their man was robbed; if Gore had come out on top, the die-hard Bushniks would have been just as entitled to bitch. The legal battle merely underscored how well distributed the rot was: a state Supreme Court dominated by Democrats bent the law to help Gore, and then a federal Supreme Court dominated by Republicans bent the law even further to reverse the earlier decision.
The recall, on the other hand, is a salutory burst of populism -- and with the Republican vote likely to be split among several candidates, it's hardly certain that it's going to end up pushing the state to the right. (This is one reason why the left's willingness to parrot the DNC's anti-recall line is so embarrassing. As Marcelo Rodriguez points out, this saga could conceivably end with California getting a Green governor.) Part of me doesn't care who get elected, partly because I don't live in the state anymore and thus don't have to face the consequences (nyah nyah), but also because just about anyone, left or right, would be an improvement over the sleazy bastard running things now. Yes, even Larry Flynt.
FILM CORNER: The Road to Bali (Hal Walker, 1952): I thought I'd seen all the Crosby/Hope/Lamour road movies, but there this was, staring at me from the hastily assembled "Bob Hope, R.I.P." shelf at the video store. So I rented it. Turns out the Road to... formula was starting to wear a little thin by the '50s. Or maybe it's just my general preference for the pictures of the '40s over the pictures of the decade that followed. But the laugh-to-bomb ratio is out of kilter on this one, and it's only in the last half-hour that it really picks up.
Then again, once it picks up it gets pretty good. Fans of gay subtexts will enjoy the sequence in which Hope and Crosby are tricked into marrying each other, an act that offends the local volcano god and prompts a lava-flinging eruption. The Pope should thus be pleased that the film reflects his views on same-sex unions -- though not, I presume, his views on volcano gods.
Punch and Judy (Jan Svankmajer, 1966): One of the most accessible experimental filmmakers, Svankmajer is obsessed with sex, digestion, death, regurgitation, childhood anxieties, decaying old buildings, fetishes, rocks, and nails. You can watch this play out over the course of the wonderful Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer, two DVDs that anyone even remotely interested in surreal cinema should watch.
I won't write a film-by-film review of the set, but I will single out Punch and Judy as one of the best entries in the package. The famous puppets battle each other in an environment akin to a Cornell box, their familiar fighting gradually evolving into something more like a ghost story. It's brilliant, funny, spooky, and weird.
CaddyShack (Harold Ramis, 1980): Not one of my favorite movies. Still, it was on TV last week, and I watched it just to see if it had improved since I was 13. It hadn't, though it's kind of engaging in a Holy shit, when did this flick become a period piece? way. The strangest thing about it: Is it just me, or does Rodney Dangerfield act and talk a lot like Mae West? Sure, their central schticks are different: Rodney Dangerfield does not pretend to be sexy, and Mae West knows how to command our respect. But so help me, they carry themselves the same way.