This movie took a lot of heat for its carelessness with facts. But its argument is so confused, its style so hypocritical, and most of its jokes so unfunny that it would be a bad movie even if it were scrupulously honest, just as Moore's Roger & Me was a funny and riveting movie even though it took some liberties with the truth. I stopped being a fan of this filmmaker long ago, but even I was surprised at just how terrible Bowling for Columbine turned out to be.
Behold Michael Moore: here there once was a talented man.
This is, arguably, a very, very bad idea. But it's a sign of how much those folks distrust the authorities and are willing to defy their orders. In three centuries of continuous settlement, Smith Island hasn't ever had a local government; and the islanders don't care for taking orders from the statists on the shore. Even when it really probably is for their own good. I hope they all survive.
Cash was one of the great figures of modern popular music, but as I spend the day cycling through the dozen-plus albums of his that I've accumulated over the years, I'm thinking about more than how much I like his records. I'm pondering his iconic stature: his status as the one American that everybody loved. Once I saw a band from Zimbabwe play a concert, and we all laughed when they announced that they were going to play a song "written for us by Johnny Cash." But then they broke into an Afropop version of "Ring of Fire," and everyone looked kind of nonplussed for about a second -- and then we all started dancing. Because everybody loves that song. Everybody loves Johnny Cash.
It's part of the Cash legend that he "came out against the Vietnam War." That he did, but the way he did it is telling. The song in question, "Singing in Vietnam Talking Blues," relates how he and June Carter Cash went to play for the boys overseas, and how much they liked the soliders, and how rough things are over there; it ends with the declaration that they sure hope the boys can come home soon, "in peace." Even Ann Coulter would feel mighty churlish calling a man a traitor for that, or for this little speech he gave at a concert in 1969, right after singing a tribute to the men who died at the Alamo:
Everywhere we go these days, it seems like, all of a sudden, reporters and people will ask us questions -- ask us questions about things that they didn't use to ask. It seems like everyone's concerned about our national problems, about the war in Vietnam -- as we have long been. And they say things like, "How do you feel about the Vietnam situation, the war in Vietnam?"
I'll tell you exactly how I feel about it. This past January we took our entire show, along with my wife June, we went to Long Bien Air Force Base near Saigon. And--
(loud cheering from the crowd)
And a reporter friend of mine asked, said, "That makes you a hawk, doesn't it?" And I said, "No, that don't make me a hawk. No. No, that don't make me a hawk."
(more cheering, not as loud)
But I said, "If you watch the helicopters bring in the wounded boys, then you go into the wards and sing for 'em and try to do your best to cheer them up so that they can get back home, it might make you a dove with claws."
And then he sings a peacenik folk song, "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream."
I saw Cash play just once in my life. It was 1995, and he was riding high from the success of his American Recordings album; the concert was in Seattle, and he had just recorded a track with some local rockers, including Krist Novoselic of Nirvana and Sean Kinney of Alice in Chains. The crowd was a mosaic of the city: grunge kids and grandmas, hippies and cowboys, Christians and drunks.
Everybody seemed to love the show. Because everybody loves Johnny Cash.
Also: there's a new print edition of Reason, dated October. I don't have any substantial articles in it, but I did write a short item for the Citings section about yet another recent intellectual property fight.
Behind us, a sixtysomething woman was dancing a dance far too sultry for a lady her age. Another woman kept yelling for "Footloose," which got funnier and funnier the more I thought about it. We were amused enough to stay for about a song and a half, then decided we'd had enough. As we left, R. commented: "Six degrees isn't enough."
1. read a piece claiming that the Patriot Act expands the definition of terrorism to include computer hacking.
2. checked the text of the Patriot Act and, sure enough, found language about perfectly non-lethal sorts of hacking, lodged under the header "cyberterrorism."
3. did not stop to consider that, while this indicated that my original source was not lying, it did not demonstrate that she knew what she was talking about. Turns out that much of that language was already on the books. It would be more accurate to say the act expanded the definition of hacking, along with the government's ability to surveil and prosecute hackers.
We all make mistakes, but it's especially unpleasant to make them in print. It's doubly annoying when the error is something you actually checked: There's sloppiness and there's diligence, but what are we to make of sloppy diligence?
The same thing happened a few years ago when, writing a short item about the sanctions against Iraq, I repeated a common mischaracterization of UNICEF's study of the issue -- that it "reports that the embargo has killed about half a million Iraqi children under the age of 5." In that case I had read several sources that misunderstood what UNICEF had said, dug up the UNICEF report, found a reference to half a million dead Iraqi kids, and not noticed that I had confirmed only the raw number, not the significance my informants had attached to it. (In fact, as Matt Welch later noted in "The Politics of Dead Children," the study did not intend to attribute all 500,000 deaths to the sanctions.) Later I repeated the same mistake in a humor piece for the L.A. Weekly -- when it came time to stick in the dead-babies statistic, I just dug up my older article and repeated the faulty figure from there.
Whoa -- is it error-confession time? OK, bring them on:
1. Earlier this year, as longtime blog-readers know, I made a careless misstatement in an newspaper op-ed.
2. Back in 2000, in a Reason piece called "Intolerant Alliance," I described Abingdon Press as a "religious right outfit." A letter to the editor informed me that I was wrong, in time for us to amend the online version but not in time for our print readers.
3. In 1999, in a feature for Reason on the future of radio, I mentioned in passing that the state of Michigan had called on the FCC to legalize low-power broadcasting. In fact, the resolution had passed the appropriate committee but the legislature itself never got a chance to vote on it. I was the victim of a sloppily written press release -- but that's no excuse, really; I should have picked up the phone and confirmed the story.
4. In 1998, the Alternative Press Review published a piece I'd written about the civil war raging within the Pacifica radio network. A year later, when I was incorporating parts of it into my book Rebels on the Air, I noticed a minor chronological error. I no longer remember what this mistake was -- just that it's there in the article and it isn't there in the book. (The APR report also appeared about a year after I'd written it, but I never got a chance to review the galleys before it finally went to press. As a result, it contained some statements that were grossly out of date. But that's not really my fault.)
5. In 1997, covering radio for The Seattle Scroll, I made two dumb mistakes in the same article: I mixed up two Seattle pirate stations that had similar names, and I mixed up two Colorado public stations that the same person had worked for. Making matters worse, my editor added a few mistakes of his own after the manuscript left my hands, including a reference to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as the "Center" for Public Broadcasting.
That's the worst sort of error, isn't it? Yes, everyone makes mistakes; but why should someone else's mistep turn up under your byline?
It isn't just editors who can trip you up. A few years back, I co-wrote a piece about recycling for The American Enterprise. My collaborator was Pierre Desrochers, a very bright guy who'd done some really interesting scholarship in the area. There was just one problem: French was his first language, and he wasn't entirely comfortable with the nuances of English. And so when he was researching the piece, he didn't realize that one of the articles he was drawing on -- a piece I never saw -- was (cough) an April Fool's gag.
And so, in libraries across the nation and on the World Wide Web, there exists an article with my name on it that claims this: "The German paleontologist Oscar Todkopf has unearthed several 50,000-year-old musical instruments made from dead animals, from a mastodon tusk dotted with 16 carefully aligned holes (thus suggesting that Neanderthals used an octave scale) to an item that resembles a bagpipe. The 'bag' part disintegrated long ago, but it left a protein stain on the rock where it was found; it was probably fashioned from a large beast's bladder."
Can I really blame Pierre for that, though? I wanted it to be true. As the old saw goes, some stories are just too good to check.