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

Thursday, October 31, 2002
SELF-PROMOTION: My most recent
article for Reason Online is about the instant (and baseless) conspiracy theories that have emerged about the death of Paul Wellstone.

posted by Jesse 2:09 PM
. . .
HAPPY HALLOWEEN: In my early twenties, I decided that the best policy toward Halloween was, each year, to try to create a costume more minimal than I wore the October before. So in 1991, my then-girlfriend and I put on some relatively fancy clothes and declared that we were dressed as "Republicans." A year later, I attached a pair of makeshift fake ears (two pieces of cardboard, I think), put on a homemade button that said "Hi, I'm Perot!," and otherwise relied on a vocal impression to impersonate the presidential candidate. By 1994, my costume consisted of a single magic-marker dot at the end of my schnoz. Asked who I was, I replied, "a man with a big black spot on his nose." And with that, I drove the idea into the ground.

Subsequent costumes were mostly unmemorable, except perhaps in 2000. That year, I went to
Eugene Volokh's Halloween party, which had a film theme: you were supposed to come dressed as a movie title. I affixed a halo to a Microsoft baseball cap, and went as Errol Morris' classic documentary, Gates of Heaven.

Most of the guests seemed to think this was pretty good, though several -- far too many -- guessed that I was Angels in the Outfield. Others reversed the title and asked if I was Michael Cimino's western Heaven's Gate (not bad, but the guy's named "Gates"), while a few others guessed Heaven Can Wait. I guess they'd had some bad experiences with tech support.

I'd like to report that I wore the evening's best costume, but there were quite a few people who outdid me:

* A woman adorned with ten peanut-butter logs. She was The Decalogue.

* A heavyset fellow with a tiny doll attached to his shirt. He was Fat Man and Little Boy.

* A guy wearing a copy of the First Amendment. He was Say Anything.

* A woman carrying half a pair of dice and a Viagra pen. She was Die Hard.

* A man wearing a picture of Clinton and a picture of Gore. He was Liar, Liar.

* A man decked in orange with a watch dangling from his pocket. He was A Clockwork Orange.

* A man wearing a calendar page for May 2000 and the cover of a box of Trix. May ... Trix ... yep, he was The Matrix.

* A man with ten sticks of gum and a bag of mints hanging from his neck. He was "ten gum and mints," which, if you squint your ears real hard, sounds like The Ten Commandments.

I figured out some of the tough ones, but stumbled on a couple of costumes that should have been easy. Like the woman dressed in normal street clothes. I made a few guesses: first Ordinary People; then, noting her drink, A Woman Under the Influence. After a few more tries, she took pity on me and mentioned that her mother's name was Rosemary.

"Ah!" I said. "You're Rosemary's Daughter!"

She gave me a look, and I suddenly felt Dumb and Dumber.

posted by Jesse 11:42 AM
. . .
Wednesday, October 30, 2002
DAVID HOROWITZ MENTAL STABILITY WATCH: I was under the impression that Communism had only miniscule support in this country. David Horowitz feels differently.
Writing in FrontPage about last weekend's antiwar demonstrations, the red-diaper baby turned right-wing firebrand headlined his report "100,000 Communists March On Washington To Give Aid and Comfort to Saddam Hussein." I presume all those heretofore hidden commies learned their Leninist catechism at America's leftist universities, despite Horowitz's valiant efforts to debrainwash them via carefully placed newspaper ads.

Comparing today's antiwar movement to what he calls the "communist New Left left" (sic), Horowitz declares, "The size of these demonstrations is a reflection of the growth of a treacherous anti-American radicalism in this country that has no Communist Party per se, but is just as dedicated to America's destruction." I think he means it's the radicals, not the country, who want to destroy America, but sloppy construction is the least of that sentence's sins.

If you want evidence that "the desire to hurt this country and its citizens is uppermost in the protesters' minds," Horowitz has the proof: "The demon singled out by the demonstrators for the greatest opprobrium was Attorney General John Ashcroft -- the man responsible for the security of 300 million Americans." I guess that settles it.

Horowitz's claim to expertise is that he used to be a Communist himself, though why this should make us take him seriously is beyond me. At any rate, I'm glad he's managed to wash the red out of his diapers. I look forward to the day he removes the infant underwear altogether.

posted by Jesse 2:46 PM
. . .
Tuesday, October 29, 2002
STAND DOWN: Several bloggers of both the left and the right -- plus some politically non-Euclidean folks like me -- have created a cooperative weblog for writers opposed to the pending war with Iraq. It's called
Stand Down, and I recommend reading it regularly. I probably won't have time to contribute to it very often, but I did write something for its first day, called "When Do-Gooders Kill." It's about the Moscow hostage disaster and its implications for the war on terror.

posted by Jesse 11:35 PM
. . .
Monday, October 28, 2002
JESSE'S HELPFUL HINTS: There is one surefire way to get out of jury duty. You wait until they ask if anyone has any questions. You raise your hand. And then, in as flat a tone as you can manage, you ask:

"If we find him guilty, do we get to keep his stuff?"

Guaranteed to work. Don't tell too many people, or they'll spoil it for the rest of us.

posted by Jesse 6:06 PM
. . .
Friday, October 25, 2002
eulogize the late Sen. Wellstone on Reason Online today. I don't often say kind things about politicians, but I've long had a soft spot in my heart for this one -- one of the few men in Washington with principles, even if they weren't always the same as mine.

posted by Jesse 6:28 PM
. . .
LEADERLESS RESISTANCE: Justin Raimondo has written a blistering
column about pundits who equate the accused snipers with Islamist terrorists. Most of his points are well-taken, but I think he's giving short shrift to the notion of "leaderless resistance." As I understand it, that model allows people to act without any coordination at all; it is not a conspiracy, or even necessarily a network, in the conventional sense of those terms. If it turns out that Muhammad and Malvo were motivated by some sort of support for Osama's jihad -- and that still isn't clear one way or the other -- then it may make sense to categorize their spree under the leaderless-resistance label.

That is, of course, a long way from the model that Jim Robbins, Jonah Goldberg, and others were positing before the apparent snipers were caught, in which the shootings were part of a "Fall offensive" coordinated by Al Qaeda.

posted by Jesse 11:34 AM
. . .
Radley Balko has organized his blogroll, with his hyperlinks sorted by Dylan album. Blood on the Tracks is Balko's favorite, so it refers to sites he hits daily. The Times They Are a-Changin' is filled with political songs, so it covers weblogs by hard-core libertarians. Love and Theft is Dylan's most recent studio album, so it gets the most recent additions to the link list. And so on.

I thought I'd extend the idea a little:

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: A blog of few words.

Self-Portrait: You're not completely sure, but you think it might be a joke.

Bringing it All Back Home: Alternately long-winded and electrifying.

World Gone Wrong: You keep going back to it, even though there's no original material.

Planet Waves: More interested in personal matters than in politics.

Biograph: Tries to cover everything.

Slow Train Coming: Very well-produced, but it gets creepy sometimes, epecially when it starts to talk about Arabs.

Infidels: Hawkish on Israel, incoherent on labor.

Another Side of Bob Dylan: This blog is liberal, but to a degree. It wants everybody to be free. But if you think that it'd let Barry Goldwater move in next door and marry its daughter, you must think it's crazy. It wouldn't let him do it for all the farms in Cuba.

And, of course:

Desire: Really good, except for "Joey."

posted by Jesse 10:46 AM
. . .
Thursday, October 24, 2002
Sara speaks for all of us.

posted by Jesse 7:25 PM
. . .
SNIPER WATCH, CONT.: As the sniper mysteries begin to resolve themselves, we're left with a scenario that has something for everybody. The alleged killers are Muslims, but not Arabs or Asians. One is a veteran, but he isn't a white supremacist -- indeed, he isn't even white. They've expressed sympathy for Islamic terrorism, but have no apparent connection to any "Fall offensive." Assuming that they are indeed the shooters, the biggest puzzle to be sussed out is whether they were working entirely on their own or are part of a larger network. For reasons I've already
laid out, I think the on-their-own theory is more likely, though that doesn't exclude their receiving aid or training, witting or not, through some suspect associations.

Some thoughts. First: Assuming that I'm right and that this is not part of a centrally planned Al Qaeda offensive, this has both good and bad implications for the fight against terror. On the negative side, it shows that, as a lot of us have warned, you can't stop terrorism by simply cutting off the head. Decentralized "leaderless resistance" is almost impossible to contain, especially by conventional military means.

On the plus side, there is the relatively low level of damage involved in the attacks. I don't want to minimize the death and suffering of the last few weeks, but by the standards of war this was a battle with very few casualties -- largely because, even if the shooters had political motives, it isn't war. It's crime, and it can be contained the way crime ordinarily is contained, through good policework and vigilant self-defense. If this is the future of the war on terror, than maybe we should stop thinking of it as a war at all.

As I wrote a few months ago: "You can't fight this [kind of] threat with the standard hawkish strategy. You can't fight it with the standard dovish strategy either. There's no single source to target, no single grievance to mollify. You can only try to make your society as resilient as possible, to minimize the damage attackers can do and maximize the opportunities for other citizens to stop them."

Of course, there's still a lot that hasn't been explained: the Tarot card or cards, the demand for money, the exact nature of the killers' ideology. They may turn out to be closer to the Black Muslim style of Islam than the Taliban kind, while freely adapting ideas from the media image of serial killers (e.g., the Tarot deck). They might have wanted the money to pay for further attacks, or they might have been using their Muslim ideas as an excuse to grab some money. Their motives are still murky, though they seem much clearer now than this time yesterday.

Me, I'm still waiting for the other batch of conspiracy theorists to weigh in. Any moment now, I expect I'll get an e-mail with this header:

Bush Knew Sniper Attacks Were Coming!

posted by Jesse 1:05 PM
. . .
JESUITICAL PARSINGS: A friend faxed me a page from the November issue of Liberty, in which editor R.W. Bradford replies to a reader's letter:

"I did not make the first assertion that Mr. Jett ascribes to me. I wrote that 'it is doubtful that the Pentagon was their [the hijackers'] intended target,' which is substantially different from saying that it was 'probably not the intended target.'"

posted by Jesse 12:07 PM
. . .
misjudged James Taranto. My colleague Chuck Freund suggests that The Wall Street Journal's house blogger may have "taken the phrase 'Arab basher' as a descriptive moniker, similar to 'Italian stallion,' and thus would have prefered Jesse to have called him a 'Turk basher.'" Reader Jim Ancona agrees, commenting that "the way I read it, James Taranto was making a play on words." And John Tabin writes that Taranto was being "deadpan."

Maybe so. When the article Taranto disliked was in galleys, I actually argued for hyphenating the phrase "Arab-basher," precisely because it might otherwise be misconstrued in that manner. My suggestion was rejected on the grounds that no one could possibly be that stupid. It didn't occur to us that someone might be bright enough to understand what I meant, yet thick enough to think there was a clever play on words to be made.

I had forgotten about Taranto's peculiar sense of humor. The one time I met him, it reared its head when someone mentioned the black comic George Wallace. Taranto perked up and commented, in a voice that was far from deadpan, "Are you sure that George Wallace is a black man? I thought he was a segregationist." To this day, he probably believes he's the first person to have noticed that the two men share a name.

I replied, incidentally, with a weak joke about "the gangsta rapper, MC Lestor Maddox." Taranto stared blankly at me, and I realized with discomfort that he thought I was being serious.

posted by Jesse 11:39 AM
. . .
Wednesday, October 23, 2002
READY, AIM, WRITE: I was going to write a parody of Jon Wiener's awful
defense of Michael Bellesiles, published in the October 17 Nation, but I've got another piece due tomorrow and it's gotta take priority. Besides, it's not like there's a shortage of scathing take-downs of the article. Clayton Cramer, one of the first writers to pose serious criticisms of Bellesiles's scholarship, has penned a solid rebuttal, and Glenn Reynolds is doing a good job of linking to other critiques as well as offering sensible comments of his own.

I have only one thing to add: Please, don't limit your criticisms to cyberspace. The many bloggers who are damning Wiener's piece on their sites should also write letters to The Nation, keeping their tone moderate (no "fiskings," please) but their critique sharp. Wiener's article could not possibly be meant to persuade people who are actually familiar with Bellesiles's errors and frauds; it was more likely intended as reassurance for Nation readers who were vaguely aware that the Second Amendment crowd was winning an argument but hadn't been following the debate closely. They deserve to hear the other side make its case.

posted by Jesse 1:39 PM
. . .
LITMUS TEST: There are two types of people in the world: those who will find deeply hilarious, and those who will be puzzled and annoyed that I sent them there.

posted by Jesse 11:25 AM
. . .
Tuesday, October 22, 2002
babble a bit about the Beltway sniper on Reason's website today. The manuscript originally included a paragraph that I later suggested the editors cut, for reasons of taste. I'm going to put it here instead, partly on the grounds that you folks are an elite group of readers capable of recognizing irony, and partly on the grounds that no one looks at this website anyway.

The published piece includes this sentence: "With so many revelations and un-revelations to choose from, it's easy to absorb whatever facts serve your theory and ignore the rest -- or else to accept on faith that the contradictions will eventually resolve themselves in your favor, like a devout believer's conviction that fate's twists will be reconciled by God's ineffable plan."

Then came the part we decided to cut: "God is, in fact, the only force to actually take credit for the murders, at least so far as we non-cops know, having identified Himself on a calling card left for policemen two weeks ago. No one seems willing to take the Tarot message literally, but doing so would explain, if nothing else, the Killer's ability to elude capture so completely."

posted by Jesse 1:34 PM
. . .
ENTREPRENEURIAL DEAD END: For years I've wanted to make a bumper sticker that says Infanticide: A Woman's Right. Trouble is, I can't figure out which side of the abortion debate would be my market.

posted by Jesse 12:52 PM
. . .
Monday, October 21, 2002
A CALL FOR READER INPUT: One thing you'll never read here is a mindless exhortation to cast ballots before swine -- or to cast ballots at all, for that matter. I'm not one of those anarcho-purist types who believes it's immoral to participate in the political process, but I'm not one of those goo-goos who thinks it's oh so important to get out the vote, either. Elections are spectacles, and are best regarded as such; my favorite candidates are invariably those who want nothing more than to make the race more interesting. When Norman Mailer promised to bring jousting tournaments to New York's Central Park, when Hunter Thompson pledged to put Aspen's dishonest drug dealers in stocks, when Jello Biafra announced he would rehire San Francisco's laid-off city workers as panhandlers at 50% commission -- those were candidates worth voting for.

Of course, like anything else, such prank campaigns can be done poorly. When I lived in Seattle, one Jim "Davy Jones XLV" Guilfoil, who played a pirate at the annual Seafair,
ran for mayor on a platform that consisted mostly of stale jokes about fruitcake. Apparently, no one eats them, so gosh, maybe we could use them to fill potholes. (What's next, a platform of mother-in-law jokes?) The worst thing about the campaign wasn't its weak wit, though -- it was that it advertised itself as a get-out-the-vote drive. "The real motivation behind this campaign," a Guilfoil aide told the Seattle Weekly, was to get "a huge number of people" to "come out to the polls." And then, naturally, to vote for one of the real candidates.

Ahem. Prank campaigns do not exist to encourage people to participate in the system. They exist to make fun of the system. Think back to would-be governor Howard Stern's suggestion that New York fill its potholes with the bodies of executed prisoners. Dead bodies in potholes are funny; fruitcakes in potholes are not.

I prefer Richard A.C. Greene, who without campaigning nonetheless became Washington's Republican candidate for state land commissioner in 1968. Greene quickly high-tailed to Hawaii, leaving the campaign to his staff. Some excerpts from the platform they concocted:

* Land Use: Land should be used gently but firmly.
* Whidbey Island: Whidbey Island must be replaced.
* Indian Fishing Rights: Individual catches will be limited to four Indians. All those under five feet two inches must be thrown back.
* If Elected: I shall be the sort of Land Commissioner who will go out fearlessly and commission the land.

Greene also demanded that Idaho "annex a large part of Eastern Washington, especially Spokane." And what did he think of the Democratic incumbent, Bert Cole? "Cole is simply too good a man for the job. I'd like to see him move on to something more challenging."

The campaign had its semi-serious side, or at least a semi-serious point to make. A week before Election Day, Greene staffer Lorenzo Milam wrote and delivered a speech on the candidate's behalf. "Sometimes I think about that 15,000 vote plurality I received in the primary campaign for state land commissioner," he said. "Richard A.C. Greene became Republican nominee for the office of Washington State Land Commissioner not because of his pretty smile, nor because of his knowledge of Greek and Latin -- but because all these people thought it was their duty to vote. They didn't give a damn, really; I know, because that's why they got in the booth and fumbled around with all those unfamiliar names and finally said: 'Land Commissioner. Hm. Greene. That sounds nice.'"

Guilfoil might want to meditate on those words the next time he urges people to bum-rush the ballot-box. And on these, from the same talk: "I think the voters who have to be dragged from the offices, yanked from their TV sets to get them to vote: those are the wrong ones to be in the booth. If their motivation is so lousy, their knowledge of the candidates and issues must be equally as lousy; I'd just as soon see them stay in bed on election day."

Surely there is no shortage of Greenes, or at least of Guilfoils, in America's precincts this year. If there's a prank campaign worth noting in your neck of the woods, please let me know about it. It can be funny or it can be lame; it can have its own spot on the ballot, or it can rely on write-ins. Someone's got to keep track of this stuff, and it might as well be me.

posted by Jesse 9:53 PM
. . .
YOUNG TURK: While I was away, James Taranto, the man behind The Wall Street Journal's ineffable "Best of the Web,"
discovered a short article I wrote about federalism and 9/11. Taranto complains that the piece is "mostly a mishmash of complaints about things that don't really have anything to do with federalism, unless you think that the federal government has no business in such matters as airport security, the detention of prisoners of war, and criminal investigations that cross state lines or involve terror-related offenses."

Taranto has not been reading very carefully. With regard to air travel, for example, my article cites "federalized airport security" and "new unfunded mandates on local transportation authorities," which are obviously federalist issues, whether or not you think the feds have "no business in such matters as airport security." Similarly, while the piece does allude to the prisoners at Guantanamo, it does not claim that their detention is related to federalism. (It's interesting, though, that Taranto describes the detainees as "prisoners of war," a phrase he's previously made a point of rejecting.)

Taranto's actual problem with the article is that it describes him as an "Arab basher." The characterization is obviously true -- Taranto's column discusses Arabs the way much of the Arab press discusses Jews -- but he objects to it because "we're actually of Turkish descent." Note to Taranto: Turks aren't Arabs. Both groups do tend to be Muslim, but by that standard, you could refer to Boris Yeltsin as a Frenchman.

posted by Jesse 11:28 AM
. . .
Wednesday, October 16, 2002
TO ASSEMBLE FREELY: Tomorrow morning we depart for Maine -- by car. Partly this is because it's cheaper to drive than to fly, and partly this is because road trips are good for the soul. But mostly it's because airports are police states these days. If I can drive somewhere in a day or two and can spare the time to get there, I'd rather travel on the highways than through the increasingly intrusive bullyocracy of the air.

Well, that's my rationale. I think it was the price difference that convinced my girlfriend.

Speaking of police states: There's been a lot of over-frantic talk about the death of dissent since 9/11, which seems a bit premature at a time when Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore can write bestselling books. But if we haven't seen the death of dissent, there has been a slow-motion assault on free expression; if we aren't headed for the gulag, we may yet be bound for Singapore. The free press is surviving, but freedom of assembly has been pummeled over the last year, with cops stopping protestors from holding anti-Bush placards at unapproved spots, police arresting anti-IMF demonstrators without regard for whether they're breaking the law, and -- back to the airports -- peace marchers being barred from planes because they've been put on a mysterious "no fly"

Some of this goes back before the 9/11 attacks, of course. The IMF roundup, for example, had more to do with what happened in Seattle in 1999 than with what happened in Manhattan in 2001. But the fact that there's more than one source for the trend does not make it any less alarming.

Fortunately, I don't have to worry about any of that for the next few days, as I and other wedding guests assemble freely on the New England coast. See you next week.

posted by Jesse 5:38 PM
. . .
SNIPE HUNT: Paul Sperry of WorldNetDaily has jumped aboard the blame-Osama bandwagon, with an
article arguing that the white van murders may be an Al Qaeda operation. While I continue to believe that this is extremely unlikely, I also hope it's true, for the same reason that I hoped bin Laden's network was behind the anthrax mailings. The last time that group carried out an operation on our soil, it killed 3,000 people in a day. Now someone's shooting one person at a time, every other weekday. If this is the follow-up attack, then the terrorists have really -- to use the technical military expression -- shot their wad.

posted by Jesse 10:39 AM
. . .
Tuesday, October 15, 2002
REDEVELOPED: Maddening story in the Baltimore Sun today. "Two years ago, Wade and Occilee Turner agreed to leave their longtime home on a decaying street as part of an effort to redevelop East Baltimore," Eric Siegel
writes. "In exchange, they were given a home a block away, renovated with nearly $100,000 in public money.

"So they were dismayed and outraged when they learned their new home was on a list of properties to be seized by the city to make way for a proposed biotech park north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex."

Mr. Turner told The Sun that "they're doing the same thing to us they did to the Indians," and though he's been spared the smallpox-blankets and the cavalry charges, his point is well-taken. A sympathetic councilwoman may yet save the Turners and others from the government's wrecking ball, but their property's future is still undecided. Nor is such eminent-domain abuse without local precedent.

I'm not usually given to advocating political violence, but surely there's a case to be made for kidnapping the guilty planners, locking them in a room with the collected works of Jane Jacobs, and not letting them leave until they can pass a pop quiz?

posted by Jesse 5:17 PM
. . .
Monday, October 14, 2002
KILLERS: Some people have asked if I'm afraid of being killed by the Tarot Sniper. No, I tell them, I'm not. I live in Baltimore, which produces murders the way Seattle produces coffee. Even if I do get shot before the gunman gets caught, chances are overwhelming that it'll be someone else who pulls the trigger.

Meanwhile: Is it just me, or is the sniper getting more coverage than the bombing in Bali? I could be wrong about this: Here in the eye of the serial-killer storm, the local press may be giving more weight to the shootings than their colleagues in the rest of America. But Bali is obviously a much bigger story, with a significance that extends far beyond those poor people who were murdered in the nightclub blast. Terrorism in the archipelagos off Southeast Asia is a mysterious beast, obscured still further by our natural tendency thus far to pay more attention to Afghanistan and points further west. We'd be well-advised to look more closely at East Asian terror -- and at the relative
failure of American efforts to contain it.

One place to start: Reyko Huang of the Center for Defense Information has written an informative paper on Jemaah Islamiah, the Bin Ladenite group that's been widely blamed for the Bali bombing. "Here one finds scattered but substantial pieces of evidence," he writes, "that several radical Islamic groups, overcoming national and geographical barriers, have maintained deep and long-running ties with one another toward a shared fundamentalist goal. Their clandestine, elusive 'cells' are dispersed throughout everyday-life places, functions, and businesses, rendering Afghanistan-style military campaigns impractical. Furthermore, many of these organizations forged partnerships with al Qaeda long before authorities began unearthing the scale of their transnational reach."

I know: It's not exactly pleasant reading. Maybe I'll stay focused on the sniper after all.

posted by Jesse 4:08 PM
. . .
Sunday, October 13, 2002
SAMHEIN IS ICUMEN IN: Hallowe'en approaches, and even the Family Channel, formerly owned by Pat Robertson, is celebrating with horror-themed programming. A lot of you will be renting creepy movies between now and the end of the month. If you're looking for suggestions, keep reading: I make 10 of them below.

I've tried to skip the horror classics everyone already knows, from The Bride of Frankenstein to Dawn of the Dead -- yes, they're great, but you don't need me to tell you about them. Instead, I've focused on some less obvious choices:

Freaks (1932)
Directed by Tod Browning
Written by Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon, from a novel by Tod Robbins

Forget Dracula: This is Browning's greatest film. Even its flaws work in its favor: Stiff acting usually drives me crazy, but here it actually adds to the movie's mysterious flavor -- perhaps because it reminds us that these folks aren't actors in weird get-ups, but honest-to-god circus freaks.

Vampyr (1932)
Directed by Carl Dryer
Written by Dryer and Christen Jul, from a novel by Sheridan Le Fanu

Keep forgetting Dracula: Dryer's early masterpiece may be the best vampire picture ever made.

Island of Lost Souls (1933)
Directed by Erle C. Kenton
Written by Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie, from a novel by H.G. Wells

With the possible exception of The Bride of Frankenstein, this is my favorite horror flick of the '30s: a mad
pre-Code picture based on H.G. Wells' best book, starring Bela Lugosi and the great Charles Laughton. Still later, it inspired an Oingo Boingo song.

The Black Cat (1934)
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by Ulmer and Peter Ruric

Ulmer's best movie -- and the best movie to star Karloff and Lugosi together -- isn't just a weird experience and a terrific entertainment. It's an isolationist parable.

Isle of the Dead (1945)
Directed by Mark Robson
Written by Josef Mischel and Ardel Wray

Not merely a good thriller, but a fine illustration of a theorem formulated by the sociologists William and Dorothy Thomas: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences."

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Written by Nigel Kneale

Horror and science fiction don't always mix well. Here they do.

Hour of the Wolf (1968)
Written and Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Bergman isn't usually regarded as a horror director, but several of his efforts might make good Halloween rentals. The Virgin Spring was the acknowledged inspiration for Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left. Persona was an unacknowledged inspiration for Fight Club. (I've also seen it classified as a vampire movie, and while that's an eccentric interpretation, it makes a certain sense.) And then there's this psychologically intense character study, with its chilling images, its surreal narrative, and, yes, its horror.

Images (1972)
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Altman and Susannah York

Altman's underrated drama is told from a schizophrenic woman's unreliable point of view. It isn't usually classified as a horror movie, but it's one of the few films that genuinely scared me as I watched it.

Videodrome (1983)
Written and Directed by David Cronenberg

My favorite Cronenberg movie. Idea for a (non-Halloween) living-room film festival: start with Network, continue with Being There, and end here.

Safe (1995)
Written and Directed by Todd Haynes

A parable about an egoless person who consumes her life rather than living it, even -- or especially -- when she turns her back on "consumerism." Like Images, it isn't usually classified as a horror film. But there's more eerieness here -- more honest fear, among both the characters and the viewers -- than in a dozen ordinary suspense flicks put together.

posted by Jesse 2:42 PM
. . .
caught me in a mistake. The Randian writer notes that, when I was ranting last week about the Ayn Rand Institute's essay on the Eldred case, I said that Amy Peikoff had called Lawrence Lessig a Marxist. In fact, as Oliva notes, the writer merely described Lessig's "attack on money, success and big business" as Marxist, an accusation which falls short of designating Eric Eldred's attorney a full-fledged devotee of Das Kapital.

Not that this makes Peikoff look any better. Attacking money, success, and big business is neither necessary nor sufficient to make an argument Marxist; and at any rate, I don't think that's a very fair summary of Lessig's position. I'd say more, but I'd be repeating myself: It's been nearly three years since I first wrote about Eldred, and readers curious about my take on his battle to reverse the copyright extension can read that article.

I will say something, though, about the larger issue of intellectual property and the Randians. There is a substantial difference between Oliva's argument that the copyright extension may be bad public policy but should be reversed by the legislature instead of the courts -- a reasonable and defensible position, though not one that I share -- and Peikoff's more sweeping statements. Oliva thinks I was wrong to say Peikoff wants to freeze every creator's work in time, but it's hard not to infer that from her essay. I quote: "If those in the 'digital liberties set' plan to have a field day with others' works of creative genius -- bastardizing them into whatever fragments they find appealing, adding any distorting content they choose, then blasting the results all over the Internet -- what is the point of trying to convey to the world one's own vital viewpoint? What is the reward offered for trying painstakingly to create one's vision of truth or of an ideal universe, and to invite readers to share in it, if our nation's highest court gives Lessig's gang a formal sanction to practice intellectual vandalism on the finished product?"

There is a parallel, as I noted, between Peikoff's position on "bastardizing" other people's work and the Ayn Rand Institute's attacks on anyone who uses its idol's ideas in ways that it does not approve. The chief of the institute even describes himself as Rand's "intellectual heir," not on the strength of his own work but because his guru more or less willed her intellect to him upon its death. Whatever your views on intellectual property, you must admit that this is taking things to an extreme.

posted by Jesse 11:34 AM
. . .
Friday, October 11, 2002
last post, I said it was "possible" that the snipers were inspired by Osama's jihad. I said this because I was trying to yield as much ground as I could to Jonah Goldberg's theory before explaining why I disagree with it. But I don't actually think that these are Islamists of any kind. Hard-core heretics aside, Muslims do not write things like "I am God."

Also, I let pass Jonah's comment that Al Qaeda types "make such a big deal about our foreign policy being a product of our thirst for oil to feed our cars." But really: Is the editor of National Review Online genuinely unaware of the difference between Islamists and Greens?

For some more cogent thoughts on the serial murders, read Chuck Freund's article on Reason's website today.

posted by Jesse 4:45 PM
. . .
said I wasn't going to theorize about the Beltway sniper, but Jonah Goldberg's speculations over on National Review's clusterblog, The Corner, have smoked me out. Jonah thinks this is part of an Al Qaeda "Fall offensive," because of "the possibility that this is a two man team. That just strikes me as way too professional."

Yeah. Because only Middle Eastern terrorists ever work in pairs.

Let me go on the record right now and say that, while it's possible that these two people were inspired by Osama's jihad, the chances of their rampage being part of an organized "Fall offensive" are about as high as the chances of it being an elaborate product placement by a manufacturer of white vans. If this were organized by the people who orchestrated the attacks of September 11, there would be simultaneous shootings, folks. From more than one vehicle. In more than one part of the country. Not just one or two bozos winding around the mid-Atlantic coast, firing at children and dropping tarot cards.

The only conceivable scenario in which this is part of an Al Qaeda plot would be if the shootings are supposed to distract police attention from the terrorists' real target. And in that case, I think the other boot would have already dropped.

Jonah adds: "Also, and this, I think, might be a bit of a stretch, but the fact that so many victims are people pumping gas sounds like it might be symbolic. All of these al Quaeda [sic] types make such a big deal about our foreign policy being a product of our thirst for oil to feed our cars. Maybe that means something."

The key phrase here, I think, is "a bit of stretch."

It's good to look for patterns. But take it too far, and you end up chasing Saussure's anagrams.

posted by Jesse 2:26 PM
. . .
Thursday, October 10, 2002
DOING ANYTHING THEIR RADIO ADVISED: The Federal Communications Commission
approved a digital broadcasting standard called IBOC today. (The initials stand for "in-band, on-channel.") The new technology is certain to cause some substantial interference problems, but this didn't bother the commission -- Radio World reports that "If any interference occurs...the commission hopes the parties would work it out. The agency would be ready to intervene in cases where stations are unable to come to an agreement about how to solve the interference."

A couple years ago, Congress virtually destroyed an already heavily restrictive plan to put new low-power radio stations on the air. Why? They said it was because the stations might cause interference, which in that context was considered too horrible an outcome to let the affected parties work it out themselves.

The difference: The established radio industry hated the idea of low-power broadcasting, since that would have meant more competition. But it wants IBOC, which it believes -- probably falsely -- will boost its profits. The government, as is almost always the case, has fallen in line.

posted by Jesse 5:02 PM
. . .
Wednesday, October 09, 2002
SELF-PROMOTION: One of my articles from the November Reason is now
online. It's called "The Secret History of Television," and it's about corporate power, patent law, and the connections between the two.

posted by Jesse 10:11 PM
. . .
GO ELSEWHERE: I won't be writing anything substantial for this weblog today, because I'm too busy writing things for ... well, for money. I do this for a living, y'know. So g'wan, scat.

Scat to where? I'm so glad you asked. The best piece of writing I've spotted on the Web today is Tony Woodlief's witty
commentary on the ongoing sniper attacks near D.C. I knew Tony slightly back in college, and I'm happy to see he's still out there writing good stuff.

Meanwhile, the bloggers at LawMeme are offering almost-live coverage of the Eldred arguments before the Supreme Court. The wags at The eXile have composed a helpful guide to intra-European bigotries, complete with detailed charts. And right-wing readers who wonder how I can admire that scurrilous Red Alexander Cockburn should check out his column on dwarf-tossing and the United Nations. (I don't mean to single out conservatives, of course. Left-wing, no-wing, and swing-wing readers should check it out, too.)

Alternately, you could turn off the computer, walk outside, and buy yourself a nice burrito. Which reminds me: I haven't had lunch yet...

posted by Jesse 2:16 PM
. . .
Tuesday, October 08, 2002
comment on the New Jersey Senate race on Reason's website today. The piece concludes with a proposal that is only partly tongue-in-cheek.

posted by Jesse 2:12 PM
. . .
WHY I AM NOT A RANDIAN, PART XXIII: For further evidence that the Ayn Rand Institute dwells in some naval-gazing nether-zone, check out its
take on the Eldred case. There you'll learn that building on someone else's creative work is "intellectual cannibalism," that there's no point to "trying to convey to the world one's own vital viewpoint" if other people can then adapt it for their own purposes, and (chortle) that Lawrence Lessig is a Marxist.

This bizarre essay may actually be a subtle self-justification. Since its creation, the Ayn Rand Institute has devoted a large fraction of its energy to policing anyone interested in adapting Rand's ideas for non-approved philosophical purposes. I've never been much of a Rand fan myself, but I've long noticed a division between the people who digested her influence and then moved along their personal path, and those with a cultish reverence for her every word. The first group includes many intelligent and admirable figures -- including, as it happens, Lawrence Lessig. The second group includes the humorless cadres of the Ayn Rand Institute, who now want the law to freeze every creator's work in time.

As long as I'm writing about the Randites: What exactly is the deal with those Objectivist pamphlets that got seized in Canada -- the ones defending "Israel's moral right to exist"? Most of the commentary on this case has focused, quite properly, on the gross violation of the Randians' freedom of speech. But I'm curious about the pamphlets themselves. I thought Objectivists believed that only individuals have rights, and I don't think the essay was a defense of Israel Kirzner.

posted by Jesse 12:46 PM
. . .
Monday, October 07, 2002
THE BEST MOVIE OF 2002: It just might be The Girl on the Train in the Moon, a video art installation by the Portland filmmaker and photographer
Bill Daniel. I write this realizing that few phrases are more frightening to the experienced experimental filmgoer than "video art installation": It usually means "poorly executed assemblage that I'll expect you to judge for its intentions instead of its results." Not so this time. Daniel's piece is a strange hybrid, a documentary sculpture, in which footage of the railroad hobo's world is projected onto two screens, one situated so as to resemble a campfire, the other a moon-like disc in the sky. On the soundtrack, we hear the sounds of trains, the crackle of a fire, and snippets of interviews with rail riders and other devotees of hobo lore, telling the legends of the men who leave their mysterious tags on the sides of railroad cars. When I saw the installation Sunday night, Daniel actually set it up outdoors, with the audience gathered around his virtual campfire and two bags of kettle corn circulating among us.

The hobo documentary is the highlight of the Lucky Bum Film Tour, which stopped this weekend at a Baltimore venue appropriately named the G-Spot. (Like its namesake, it's hard to find the first time you look for it, but well worth the extra effort.) Aside from a slight but amusing short by Bryan Boyce -- State of the Union, which reimagines The Teletubbies with George W. Bush as the Baby Sun God -- the other films on display were directed by Vanessa Renwick. They're a mixed bag, as experimental films tend to be -- in cinema as in science, most experiments are failures -- but in this case, the good outweighed the mediocre. I especially liked Richart, a profile of an outsider artist, and Worse, a deliberately ambivalent film about abortion.

The tour started in September and will continue through December, stopping at offbeat venues across the United States and probing occasionally into Canada. As moviemaking becomes cheaper but conventional distribution grows more difficult, it's great to see ultra-independent filmmakers finding new ways to get their work before the public. Especially since, in this case, the work includes one of the best pictures of the year.

posted by Jesse 11:03 PM
. . .
FEAR DU JOUR: It's interesting that so many basically mainstream people are
regarding the ongoing shooting spree in the D.C. suburbs as Al Qaeda-style terrorism. Just 13 months ago, such a theory would have been laughed off as paranoid.

There's a good article to be written on the different glosses that different eras put on serial murder. Today, with terror plots in the air, people look for political conspiracies. Before 9/11, almost everyone would be hunting for a psychological motive. A few decades back, public fears would've focused on cults. And so on...

My theory? The shootings are the work of a very bad person. Beyond that I won't speculate.

posted by Jesse 12:34 PM
. . .
BLOGBURST: Today is the
BlogBurst against the War with Iraq, a.k.a. Gulf War II, a.k.a. The Meaningless But Bloody Distraction From Fighting The Actual 9/11 Culprits. The BlogBurst was dreamed up by someone called Ampersand; the idea is for a lot of people simultaneously to send antiwar letters to their congressthings and/or their local papers, making the point that there really are Americans out here in the hinterlands who oppose the pending bloodshed.

I'm not usually one for contacting my representatives, but every now and then I feel like giving the system a chance. And so I wrote this letter, and sent it to each of my senators and to my congressman:

Dear [politician's name],

By now you have surely heard most of the arguments against war with Iraq. I write only to mention one more: If you support such a war, you needn't expect me ever to vote for you.

Now, just one vote might not make much of a difference to you. But I can assure you, I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Best wishes,

Jesse Walker

posted by Jesse 11:03 AM
. . .
Sunday, October 06, 2002
OPERATION ACADEMIC DADA: "Zapata's role in Mexico was important but it cannot be understood without reading about what he did in Poland. In all of the scholarship about Emiliano Zapata, there is so little about his life in Poland."

(My brother Andrew's proposal for something "to say at a party of semi-drunk graduate students, or a line to be heard in the background of a movie.")

posted by Jesse 4:57 PM
. . .
Friday, October 04, 2002
LAST WORDS: For the last word on Ann Coulter, check out Tony Shepps' pornographic
fantasia in The Cellar. Be forewarned: It's rather graphic.

Actually, for the last word on this controversy, read Sara Rimensnyder's
comments in her blog. After all, it was the boorish abuse Sara received at the hands of Coulter's fans that started all this.

posted by Jesse 4:46 PM
. . .
COULTER, CONT.: Ann Coulter
may be the Karen Finley of the right, but her boosters have more in common with the followers of 'N Sync. A fanboy named Dawson, who runs a blog subtitled "I Was Coulter When Coulter Wasn't Cool," has been aroused to defend his pinup queen, accusing me of being a "girly-boy." Probably not a wise accusation for a man who "was Coulter" to make.

Meanwhile, several of you have written in with thoughts on whether AC is, in fact, an attractive woman. One fellow who used to work with Coulter at the Center for Individual Rights reports that she's "shockingly skeletal, especially in person....The camera does put on 10 pounds, but she needs 30." Another correspondent declares that Ann "has that same hatchet face problem as Sarah Jessica Parker," a concern echoed by the man who said "she has a bad nose and jaw line/chin--almost masculine." The latter fellow explains that he likes Coulter's politics and bombthrowing style, just not her appearance, then adds, "I do think Laura Ingraham is attractive, and would certainly bone her." No comment.

Jim Muchow, on the other hand, writes that he thinks the belle of the hour "is attractive if a bit skinny." He also reports that, like me, he puts Cholula sauce on spaghetti -- in addition to "pizza, pasta salad, lasagna, even tried it on grapefruit (I wasn't impressed)." Coulter aside, Muchow appears to be a man of excellent taste.

Finally, there is Michael Levine, who wrote, "I agree with you on Ann Coulter's looks. You have to admit, though, that the hooha about her is not as odd as the belief that JFK was handsome. His head was shaped like Herman Munster." I don't want to be accused of sexism, so the floor is now open to discussion of President Kennedy's looks as well.

One last question: Since Coulter is curveless and has an "almost masculine" jaw line, is it possible that she is, in fact, a transvestite? After all, her persona is at least partly a put-on already. And it might explain her obsession with "girly-boys."

posted by Jesse 11:40 AM
. . .
Thursday, October 03, 2002
SLANDERS: An angry Republican mob is whipping itself into a frenzy over at, attacking my friend
Sara Rimensnyder for an article she wrote about Ann Coulter. It's an interesting thread, if you're into ad hominem attacks and creative misreadings. (My favorite: the fellow who accused Sara of taking "a gratuitous swipe at [Rush] Limbaugh" with her "poison pen." What horrible thing had she written about Rush? That people associate him with "conservative bon mots.")

Two thoughts:

1. I wrote a piece mocking Ann Coulter a month ago. Where were all these dimwit robots then? How come Sara gets the 10-minute hate and I don't?

2. A lot of the aggrieved Coulter groupies have been going on about how hot their heroine is, usually in the context of claiming Sara must be motivated by jealousy over Ms. Coulter's looks. Coulter's critics, contrariwise, often claim she only gets as much TV time as she does because she's so pretty. I seem to be the only person in America who thinks the pundette is ... well, let's just say unattractive. I'd elaborate, but I don't want to be accused of hurling an ad hominem of my own.

And so I pose a question to any male heterosexuals, female homosexuals, and bisexuals of all genders who are reading this: Do any of you agree with me? Or is this just a peculiar wrinkle in my personal taste, like when I put hot sauce on my spaghetti?

It should go without saying, but just in case: Coulter's merits or demerits as a writer, thinker, and human being have nothing to do with whether anyone thinks she's cute. I wouldn't even bring this up if we weren't already swimming in lustful appreciations of Coulter's physique, of which the most infamous is the man who told The New York Observer that he'd "fuck the shit out of her." Sometimes I just have to know whether I'm a minority of one.

posted by Jesse 6:23 PM
. . .
Wednesday, October 02, 2002
GETTING YOUR FEET WET: Anthony Swofford, a marine in the first Iraq War, has written an
account of his service in today's New York Times. Gene Healy doesn't care for the piece, especially this part: "My six-man night patrol passed near enough to an Iraqi troop carrier to hear the troops speaking. We were outgunned, so we listened and didn't shoot. I urinated down my legs and into my boots." Says Healy: "I'd probably have wet myself too, and curled into a fetal ball. But I wouldn't be writing about it 11 years later on the NYT op-ed page..."

I'm a little more forgiving, because I've known one or two old soldiers in my life. You gotta figure this Swofford guy's been telling this story for years; when the Times came calling with a brand new platform, he couldn't refuse. Put a couple beers in him, and out comes the same old tale: "Hey, did I ever tell you fellas about the time I wet myself fightin' Saddam? C'mon, let me tell you. Hand me another beer -- no, wait, better not."

posted by Jesse 6:45 PM
. . .
SHOUTOUT: A big thank you to
Phil Ringnalda for helping me solve a technical problem that was plaguing this weblog.

posted by Jesse 1:18 PM
. . .
SELF-PROMOTION: The November issue of Reason is wending its way to subscribers as I type. It includes two articles by yours truly -- three, if you count a short squib I did on
WorldNetDaily's efforts to enter the congressional press galley. One is called "Roll Over, James Madison." It's about the ways many conservative pundits have forgotten their federalist principles since 9/11. The other is called "The Secret History of Television." It's a review of two recent books on Philo T. Farnsworth, the forgotten inventor of TV -- or, more exactly, it's a response to Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker piece on the books.

While I'm at it: If you live in the Tucson area, you should be able to hear me this afternoon on John Dayl's radio show on KXAM, from 3 until 3:30. I know virtually nothing about Dayl, except that he wants to talk about a short piece I wrote a while back on the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia. I suspect that the conversation will soon turn to the looming war with Iraq.

And speaking of radio: This summer, a fellow from Houston's KPFT, the most free-spirited of the Pacifica stations, interviewed me about radio history and asked if he could use pieces of my comments in a program the station was putting together. Sure, I said; do what you want. The result can be heard online, and I have to say it's a pretty fun audio mix. Towards the end it starts to feel a bit like an infomercial for Pacifica, but hey, even lefty noncommercial media outlets have a product to sell.

posted by Jesse 12:50 PM
. . .
A TESTIMONIAL, DEAR FRIENDS: An old roommate has sent an e-mail to me and some other friends. An excerpt: "Been sick for a few days. Low grade fever in the morning. Severe exhaustion. Waves of gray passing across my vision. Sleeping almost 12 hours a day....Just started reading Jesse's book about radio. Very interesting."

posted by Jesse 11:34 AM
. . .
Tuesday, October 01, 2002
WAR BULL: Remember the Cold War? There was a debate back then about whether the Soviets were an aggressive superpower bent on dominating the entire world or a conservative empire more interested in protecting its sphere of influence. The hawks generally acknowledged that the Russians had a national interest in defending themselves, and the doves generally acknowledged that the Russians were capable of causing a lot of damage. In other words, the debate as a whole, if not all the debaters, was sane.

Contrast that with the arguments for attacking Iraq. Saddam Hussein is a local tyrant with no more than regional ambitions, not a global player with grander designs. Yet he is discussed as though he had both Brezhnev's arsenal and bin Laden's agility. Even the doves talk about "containing" and "deterring" him, terms borrowed from a conflict that simply isn't comparable to this one. His hatred for the United States is tied entirely to America's presence in his part of the world, and the easiest way to make sure he never targets us is to stop making an enemy of him. Yet to hear this administration and its defenders tell it, Saddam is not merely a Stalin on the domestic front, but casts Stalin's shadow over the world.

Part of the problem is that Americans have grown used to the notion that the country has "vital interests" that require us to either support or oppose virtually every government on the planet. In the 1980s, the U.S. coddled Saddam; in the '90s and since, it has abused him. (From the Iraqi people's point of view, of course, both approaches constitute abuse.) The notion of staying on the sidelines -- of telling Saddam that our one vital interest as far as Iraq is concerned is that it not give aid to those who would kill Americans, and otherwise regarding him as merely one more tinpot thug of the developing world -- seems (forgive the word) foreign. It shouldn't.

In the October 14 edition of National Review, Ramesh Ponurru surveys libertarian opinion on the war. For the most part, the piece is objective and well-reported, but Ponurru's biases flare up from time to time -- for example, when he encounters Harry Browne's suggestion that the U.S. should emulate Switzerland. "This might even make sense," Ramesh writes, "if America were somehow able to stop being the most powerful country on earth." As the old saying goes, What the hell? If you're that powerful, it means you have less to fear from not sticking your thumb in every pie around the globe. Most people won't want to fight an opponent so tough, unless you've gone out of your way to aggravate them.

Such aggravation -- or intervention, to use a more neutral term -- is the only conceivable reason why Saddam would ever want to use nukes, or any other weapons of mass destruction, against the U.S. If he does have a good chance of acquiring such weapons (which I doubt, but I accept the possibility), then bombing or invading his country would not be self-defense; it would be waving a red flag at an angry horned bovine.

A bull, in other words. But not the fiercest bull in the world. Saddam has neither Stalin's weight nor Osama's speed, let alone either man's ambition. To speak as though he does is to insult your audience's intelligence.

posted by Jesse 6:52 PM
. . .

. . .

. . .