The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

by Jesse Walker

Friday, October 31, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: Every now and then I set aside my journalism career, such as it is, and write something that's supposed to be fictional. The latest such story to see the light, titled "A Short History of the Roosterville Poetry Massacre," appears in Polyphony 3, newly published by Wheatland Press. In addition to my modest offering, the anthology includes stories by Barry Malzberg, Michael Bishop, and various other people who are much better-known than I am.

You can order the book from
Amazon, and you can order it directly from the publisher. And, of course, you can fail to order it altogether. Suit yourself.

Meanwhile, the December issue of Reason has just been released. I have three articles in it: a profile of Robert Anton Wilson, an interview with Bob Barr, and a brief bit about how some Ukrainian con artists bilked a bunch of Leninist sects.

posted by Jesse 12:12 PM
. . .
SEASON'S GREETINGS: This year's costume: John Walker Lindh.

posted by Jesse 9:43 AM
. . .
Thursday, October 30, 2003

Yabba dabba doo
Barney Rubble lives next door
Pebbles and Bam-Bam

posted by Jesse 6:47 PM
. . .
Wednesday, October 29, 2003
UNDER THE BOONDOCKS: Boondocks is a comic strip for people who think sophisticated social commentary consists of namedropping. It reminds me of the old Jean Shepherd
bit about "the non-controversial controversial comic":
He has this bitter look on his face, this very special bitter look that says I know....He looks with this kind of casual look, as though it's building up, this anger. And then finally it comes out, and he says:

"Governor Faubus."

(canned laughter)

The word is beginning to come. You can feel it!

"Ad-lai Stevenson."

(canned laughter)

Now he's beginning to really swing. He's really giving us the truth! He waves his hand for silence. His face has assumed the bitter look of the tea that General Yen long ago himself drank deeply to the dregs. Disgust is evidenced for the entire world -- all of the things, everything he sees!


(canned laughter)
Cartoonist Aaron McGruder's niche lies in applying this brand of comedy to black pop culture. Where Shepherd's prototype says "Ike," McGruder says "Sisqo"; where the prototype says "Adlai Stevenson," McGruder says "Juwanna Mann." There's rarely an effort to say something clever about the targets. It's easier just to pronounce their names with a sneer.

For all that, Boondocks is actually one of the less objectionable strips out there: It has one genuinely funny character (Huey's grandfather), the Sunday art looks great, and occasionally it pisses off the right people. It's come under severe criticism recently for mocking Condoleeza Rice -- the gag behind a dozen or so recent strips is that the woman just needs a good man to warm her heart, and while that isn't especially funny, it's entertaining to watch the political class get discombobulated over it.

It also shows how slow the pundits can be to catch onto these things. This is hardly the strip's low point, but it's still unleashed rants like this one from National Review's John Derbyshire:
Never mind Doonesbury. For a REALLY offensive comic strip, check out "Boondocks." The basic premises here are:

----White people are scum.
----Black people are wise and good, except that...
----Any black person not an anti-war white-hating socialist is a self-loathing moral criminal with a tortured soul.
----Capitalism is evil.
----Black and non-black Americans are engaged in a zero-sum game.
----Blacks are losing that game because they don't hate whites enough.
----Blacks who collaborate with The Man in any way are either evil or mentally ill, or both.
Which is just strange. Administration officials aside, white people are not the target of Boondocks. Black people are. They are mocked not for failing to be "anti-war white-hating socialists" but for being "embarrassing," a trait which sometimes consists of espousing the very ideas that Derbyshire is attributing to the strip. McGruder's politics are on the left side of liberal, but when his protagonist, the boy radical Huey, goes off on a real tear, chances are it's Huey and not his hate object that's being satirized.

But the biggest problem with Derbyshire's critique is that it's looking in the wrong direction. Boondocks is not mediocre because of its "premises." It's mediocre because its creator seems to think his job stops once his premise has been stated.

posted by Jesse 12:17 PM
. . .
Wednesday, October 22, 2003
Boondocks. I was there first.

posted by Jesse 4:35 PM
. . .
Monday, October 20, 2003
column for the Reason site today about the upheaval in Bolivia. Also, I wrote a brief review of Joe Conason's Big Lies for the October/November issue of Hampton Roads Monthly. The review isn't online, so here's the short version: The book sucks.

posted by Jesse 5:02 PM
. . .
CYNICAL PUNDIT CONFESSES: I WAS A CANDIDATE FOR THE LIBERTARIAN PARTY!: The Libertarian Party backed itself into a corner almost immediately after it was founded, and it's never been able to wriggle itself out. If it is an instrument for spreading a radically anti-statist message, as embodied in its uncompromising
platform, then it doesn't have much to say to voters, who tend to be interested in issues more immediate and mundane than the abolition of central banking and the privatization of outer space. But if it is an instrument for nudging the government in a less authoritarian direction, then it has saddled itself not just with an unpopular platform but with an unlikely strategy for victory, given how hard it is for a third party to win in America. It would make more sense to form caucuses within the major parties, push for candidates there, and endorse a slate of nominees from both parties in November.

Put another way: Third parties have their uses, but they are neither the best path to radical change nor the best path to moderate change. And they're especially ill-suited for a coalition of radicals and moderates.

I do not write entirely as an outsider. I was briefly a member of the Libertarian Party in college, following a friendly argument with a party activist about whether the LP was good for anything. "Don't knock it if you haven't tried it," he told me, and in just a few minutes he had persuaded me to let the party list me as a candidate for Ann Arbor city council. I got to give a couple of funny speeches and I made a silly ad for public access TV, a Mister Rogers parody whose highlight came when my chair unexpectedly fell over backwards. (I refused to recut it without the pratfall, on the grounds that if I couldn't get votes I could at least get some laughs.) When The Ann Arbor News ran a story about me, its lead quote had me declaring "I'm too young for this job."

Actually, the article was kind of flattering. Here's an excerpt:
The young man, wearing a T-shirt whose graphic designs were half obscured by an unbuttoned long sleeve shirt, had a serious message to deliver to 50 business-suited men and women, but decided to have fun while doing it.

His audience was a candidates' forum last Thursday at Sheraton University Inn -- jointly sponsored by the Ann Arbor Area Board of Realtors, Ann Arbor Apartment Association and Washtenaw County Homebuilders Association -- and they laughed and applauded when he announced he was "pandering" to them.

They applauded his poise behind the microphone and his agile tongue when -- taking liberty with Sen. Barry Goldwater's famous dictum on extremism -- he said that "insanity in defense of liberty is no vice."
I'm pretty sure the insanity line made more sense in context.

I beat the Republican in my home precinct, mostly because the precinct consisted almost exclusively of my dorm. And while my total tally -- I got 2.5% -- wasn't particularly impressive, it might have made the difference in the race. The margin of victory, after all, was less than 10 votes.

But that's wishful thinking. I ran into the Democratic candidate after the election, and I asked him if there was any chance his party would push itself in a more libertarian direction to pick up those vital swing voters. He laughed and said that they'd talked about my campaign after the results were announced; their conclusion was that "Jesse Walker's supporters consisted mostly of people who do not ordinarily vote." I conceded that this was my take as well.

In retrospect, the fact that the Libertarian Party was willing to nominate an inexperienced 18-year-old who'd lived in town for only a few months may be the best argument yet against it. As far as I'm concerned, it's the best argument for it. But I'm biased.

posted by Jesse 1:51 PM
. . .
Thursday, October 16, 2003
THE BLUES: A BELATED REVIEW: Martin Scorsese organized this seven-night series for PBS, inviting a baker's half-dozen of prominent filmmakers to shoot documentaries on some aspect or another of the blues. My quick (if late) reactions:

Feel Like Going Home (Martin Scorsese): The first installment is the least coherent, following a modern blues player (Corey Harris) as he interviews his forerunners in Mississippi and then West Africa. Scorsese's movie doesn't draw any distinctions between the African music of 400 years ago and the African music of today, which is misleading; and it seems to suggest that the blues is the direct linear descendent of African music without any other significant influences, which simply isn't true.

On the plus side, there's a lot of good music and some enjoyable archival footage. Actually, every installment of this series has a lot of good music and footage.

The Soul of a Man (Wim Wenders): Among the critics, this is probably the most roundly abused film in the series. Me, I liked it a lot. These documentaries are personal statements -- Scorsese, Wenders, and Eastwood even slipped in clips from their previous pictures -- and they should be judged that way; not for their willingness to educate us, not for their exhaustiveness as histories, but as personal reactions to the music and the people who created it.

So it's easy to laugh off the framing device of Blind Willie Johnson speaking to us from outer space, easy to write off Wenders' fake silent-movie footage as far too arch. But he's so obviously sincere that it all worked for me. This isn't the story of the music; it's a story about the music -- about how Skip James and J.B. Lenoir were perceived by a filmmaker from another country, another culture, and (in the case of James) another era. Those arty tricks don't distance us from the movie's subject so much as they remind us how distant we already are.

That said, I didn't see the point of alternating James' and Lenoir's songs with cover versions by a bunch of contemporary musicians. A few of the modern performances are spectacular: by Shemekia Copeland, by Cassandra Wilson, by T-Bone Burnett, and by a makeshift trio of Eagle-Eye Cherry, Vernon Reid, and James Blood Ulmer. But most were merely adequate, and a few were pretty bad. Only a couple felt like they were integrated into the film; most seemed like they were there just to add some famous faces and beef up the ratings. And even if that wasn't what Wenders intended, the fact that it looked like he intended it means that at a certain level he failed.

The Road to Memphis (Richard Pearce): A serviceable documentary about Memphis blues, the rise of black radio, the Chitlin Circuit, and the touring lives of B.B. King and Bobby Rush. It suffered a bit from the fact that -- can I confess this? -- I'm no longer a big King fan; whatever his achievements in the past, he's settled into a somewhat generic sound. The thrill of "The Thrill Is Gone" is gone.

On the other hand, I loved the scene where Bobby Rush buys some clothes.

Warming by the Devil's Fire (Charles Burnett): The framing story is dismal: a boy visits his uncle in the 1950s south, and his host talks him nearly to death about the significance of absolutely everything they encounter. The dialogue is stiff, didactic, unnatural, excessively expository. It's not at all what I'd expect from the director of Killer of Sheep.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the archival footage is rich, perhaps richer than in any of the other films. It helps that it features some of my favorite bluesmen: Rev. Gary Davis, Lightnin' Hopkins, Son House. There's some snatches of gospel music, too. I wish there were more.

Cinematically, the high point was some old films of work gangs, crosscut with boy and uncle standing alone on the ground where the convicts used to toil. The sequence drove home how unbelievable oppression could be the foundry for great art. If the whole episode were like that, it would have been the best installment in the series.

Godfathers and Sons (Marc Levin): The story of Chess records, as seen through the eyes of the founder's son. Who is a completely un-self-conscious fellow, in ways that both charmed and embarrassed me. He's joined by Chuck D, who's apparently an admirer of an insane album Chess put together in the late '60s: Electric Mud, in which the music of Muddy Waters is psychedelicized. So along with the old stuff -- there is, again, lots of excellent ancient footage -- we see the duo's efforts to reunite the Electric Mud band with Chuck D and another rapper providing vocals for a couple of new tracks. This idea is so utterly ridiculous that I couldn't help enjoying myself.

Red, White & Blues (Mike Figgis): A conventional documentary -- old clips plus talking heads, your classic combination -- but an informative one. It's about the reception and reinterpretation of American blues in the British Isles, via the trad-jazz, skiffle, and blues-rock scenes. Interspersed is yet another modern jam session. Is this a fucking requirement for a movie about old musicians the pop audience hasn't heard of, that you have to assemble a bunch of more famous people to sing their songs before you can get them on television? As with the Wenders film, some of the modern material is solid stuff: I'm always happy to listen to Van Morrison, and Lulu does a nice country-soul performance of "Drown in My Own Tears." But why should anyone have to listen to Jeff Beck noodle his way through "People Get Ready"? That's a great song, and I don't care to hear it destroyed.

Sorry, I got a little sidetracked. This is actually a decent little movie, much preferable to Figgis' theatrical releases. And I can forgive PBS for devoting a seventh of a series about the blues to a bunch of white guys, though it got a little tiresome at the end when virtually every single interviewee had to say that the Brit bluesmen were really good for American blacks, doncha know, because they uncovered a whole new audience for their music. Yes, they did. It's a legitimate point, and it's OK to make it. But when you spend five minutes getting everyone to make it, over and over, I have to start wondering what you're trying to compensate for.

Piano Blues (Clint Eastwood): Eastwood isn't the world's best interviewer, and occasionally he blurs the definition of blues a bit too much even for me. ("Even patriotic songs can become the blues," he says -- a meaningless statement on multiple levels -- and then he cuts to Ray Charles singing "America the Beautiful," which is pleasant but not especially bluesy.) But his film is loose and unpretentious, it lets the music take center stage, and it doesn't draw an artificial barrier between "blues" and "jazz." Along with Wenders' effort, it's my favorite film of the series.

posted by Jesse 11:50 AM
. . .
Tuesday, October 14, 2003
DIVIDED GOVERNMENT: Comrade Sanchez makes the
libertarian case for Dean on the Reason site today. More exactly, he makes the case that a Democratic president restrained by a Republican Congress is better than a Republican president enabled by a Republican Congress. His argument is both controversial and essentially true, and I have just a few additions to make to it.

If a divided government is more constrained than a regime where the same party controls both the legislature and the executive, it's also true that the combination of donkey president with elephant House seems preferable to the combination of elephant president with donkey House. I certainly preferred living under Clinton plus a Republican Congress to living under Bush Sr. plus a Democratic Congress.

The economist Jeffrey Frankel has made a good case that within the executive branch, "The Republicans have become the party of fiscal irresponsibility, trade restriction, big government, and failing-grade microeconomics. Surprisingly, Democratic presidents have -- relatively speaking -- become the agents of fiscal responsibility, free trade, competitive markets, and good textbook microeconomics." The flipside is that, in the '90s, the Congressional Republicans somehow became the party of peace and civil liberties while the Democrats went AWOL on both fronts. (If you were a lefty who hated war or had a fear of federal jackboots, your candidate in 2000 wasn't Gore. It was Nader.) Aside from medical marijuana (which has bipartisan appeal) and the drug laws' racially disproportionate effects (most loudly denounced by the Congressional Black Caucus), there even seems to be more room for drug war dissent among elected Republicans than elected Democrats, though it remains a minority position within each party.

With Bush and Ashcroft in power, this trend has been partially reversed: formerly populist Republicans roll along with the administration's most disturbing requests, while the Democratic rank and file rediscovers its anti-authoritarian principles. The Democratic leaders remain as spineless as ever, though, so this isn't much of a trade-off. (Dean, to his credit, is a partial exception.)

Given all that, and given how bad Bush has been, I'm inclined to cheer for the Democrat next year. Some Dems are better than others, of course, and for all the problems I have with Dean I'd find it a lot easier to root for him than for, say, Lieberman or Clark.

Needless to say, the fact that I could cheer for a Democrat does not mean I would actually vote for him. The chances of one ballot making a difference in a national election are almost impossibly small, and if the outcome ever did come down to my one vote you can be sure the results would be decided in court instead of the polls. So with nothing riding on my ballot, I'd rather not throw it away on a man who's sure to upset me once he's in office. Better to back a third party, to write in a cartoon character, or not to cast a vote at all.

posted by Jesse 6:07 PM
. . .
Monday, October 13, 2003
USE THE FORCE, CHEETAH: By now you've surely
heard about the monkeys with electrodes in their brains that let them control a robot with their thoughts. I'm only mentioning the story here because I really wanted to write the phrase "monkeys with electrodes in their brains that let them control a robot with their thoughts." Also, because I'm glad to hear that the monkeys and robots have finally decided to set aside their feud and get along. But mostly because I'm happy to learn that there might someday be a use for this WiFi port on the side of my head. It itches.

posted by Jesse 5:42 PM
. . .
HAWK-BAITING: So I was remembering how all the hawkosphere was abuzz a few months back about David Kay's then-forthcoming report on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and how it was going to put all the war skeptics in their place. And I was reading the same folks going on about his report after it finally appeared, saying the "biased" media was missing the bits in it that showed that Saddam really was up to no good; and I was noticing how they never seemed to acknowledge that they had oversold his report before they had seen it. And I was thinking, wouldn't it be neat to dig out a quote from one of those pundits a few months back, and compare it to what he's saying now?

Then I found out I didn't have to do that, because Joshua Micah Marshall had already
done it. Here, he points out, is Charles Krauthammer last April:
Hans Blix had five months to find weapons. He found nothing. We've had five weeks. Come back to me in five months. If we haven't found any, we will have a credibility problem. I don't have any doubt that we will locate them. I think it takes time.
And here's Krauthammer today, after his five-month deadline has passed:
Hussein was simply making his WMD program more efficient and concealable. His intent and capacity were unchanged.
While I'm at it, I gotta register a complaint about the double standard at the heart of the war party's line on the occupation. Apparently, it's too early to declare the reconstruction of Iraq is failing, and anyone who says otherwise is a peacenik defeatist. But it's never too early to declare the reconstruction is succeeding, and anyone who says otherwise is a peacenik defeatist.

Fer chrissakes, people, isn't there any room for uncertainty in your world?

posted by Jesse 10:37 AM
. . .
Monday, October 06, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: I spent the second half of last week in Philadelphia, soaking up the National Association of Broadcasters' annual Radio Show. My
dispatch appeared on the Reason site today.

posted by Jesse 11:38 PM
. . .
THAT'S MULTICULTURALISM: I ain't completely sure, but I think R. and I have just become the first people ever to attend Yom Kippur services, eat Japanese food, and go to a Merle Haggard concert all in the same day.

posted by Jesse 11:34 PM
. . .
Wednesday, October 01, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: The November issue of Reason includes my article on business improvement districts, as well as briefer pieces on police harassment of activists and on Internet filters in public libraries.

None of that is online, but my contributions to the August issue now are: a short article on
Cuban poster art and an even shorter one (now outdated) on prison rape.

posted by Jesse 4:43 PM
. . .
Free State Project, which aims to move en masse to a single state and agitate there for libertarianism, has picked New Hampshire. "We're not here to invade or take over," one member told the Associated Press. "We're here to restore the American dream."

My question: What is the American dream? All my life I’ve heard people yammering about it, and I still don't know what the hell it is. I gather it has something to do with homeownership. If you know more details, please fill me in.

posted by Jesse 12:15 PM
. . .

. . .

. . .