Monday, April 30, 2007

Seavey Letter in Wall Street Journal Today

Hey, I’ve got a letter in the Wall Street Journal this morning, defending drug patents and criticizing Doctors Without Borders (my general attitude is, why go after the usual targets?).

It’s fairly typical of the sorts of arguments made by the group I work for, the American Council on Science and Health. With even a friend (!) of mine (and one of our past debaters at Lolita Bar, to boot) accusing libertarians (like me and two or three of my co-workers, I suppose) of lacking “empathy” (based on my recent post “Aborting Feminism,” to which hers is the seventy-first posted Response), I think it’s worth reading the WSJ letter and making a good-faith effort to discern how my reasoning in it is motivated at base by utilitarian concerns rather than, oh, say, evil.

(The commenter in question has expressed concern in the past that I’m not only insufficiently feminist but insufficiently concerned about Third-World poverty or else I wouldn’t be so keen to protect First-World profits — but I offer as an exercise for the similarly-concerned reader the finding in the WSJ letter of a kernel of explanation of how I might see the developing-world and developed-world situations as connected, and both in need of more capitalism, not less — but happy May Day nonetheless, comrades.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Capt. America Has a Burrito in His Pants

Capt AmericaDrudge linked to a story about a man (a doctor, no less) dressed as Captain America, with a burrito in his pants, being arrested for sexually harassing women at a costume party in Florida (the story was brought to my attention by Dan Raspler, the man who edited the three Justice League stories I wrote for DC Comics years ago — which in turn recently inspired this piece about audio technology by Mike Kobrin, one of the writers I met on a recent junket to Scotland).

I bring up the burrito in Captain America’s pants, though, because it strikes me as a sort of cultural crossroads that touches on many of the topics recently covered in this blog. Even as DC Comics has recently depicted World War III, Marvel has recently depicted a Civil War among its superheroes, followed closely by World War Hulk, and in between, tragically, Captain America was shot and killed. It’s bad enough he died mere weeks ago, but the burrito incident makes it difficult to think of him having died with dignity. (And as it happens, a reproductive burrito figures prominently in the plot of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie.)

But what is more important is that the burrito in Captain America’s pants is a reminder that responses to my most recent post, criticizing feminism, boil down in the end to the complaint that women get a lot of nasty comments from anonymous online commentators or encounter lewd behavior by men and thus feel intimidated a lot (this strikes me as either a pre-feminist or post-feminist complaint — at least in so far as feminism proper was an apparently temporary pretense of equality, versus the current frank recognition that women scare more easily or are intimidated by different things than men are). And I am not defending Captain America (or any of those louts) now, merely noting that I am unaware of any pre-feminist philosophy that committed one to supporting his behavior. People have been saying we must protect the womenfolk against boorish men since the Victorian era or perhaps the dawn of time, so it’s not clear to me how one needs feminism for that — and despite several people accusing me of having an unrealistic view of feminism, no one really did (as of this writing) spell out what we do need it for — but let’s leave the rest of the feminism discussion for bar conversation on May 2, at Lolita Bar (when one of our debaters will herself be someone known to have a thing for superhero costumes but perhaps not burrito-crimes).

In the meantime, I find that the Captain America incident also turns my mind to national electoral politics, since America, mostly for ill, increasingly defines itself through elections. I recently concluded that in the next year’s primaries it would be foolish of me not to seize a rare opportunity to vote for a full-fledged libertarian who is also a major-party candidate — Republican Ron Paul — thus sending a clearer signal than ever to the GOP that it should be moving in a libertarian, fusionist direction. In the general election, by which time Paul will probably have been defeated, I can always do the sensible thing and vote for Giuliani or McCain or whoever survives the whole ugly process — unless McCain gets still more “maverick” left-leaning ideas instead of sticking to budget cuts, or Giuliani loses his newfound interest in federalism and just starts acting upon his authoritarian impulses, in which case I may end up voting for a libertarian in the GOP primary and then a Libertarian in the general election, which will really mean losing with my purity intact, by my political standards.

On another libertarian-conservative fusionist note, I see that the site recently reported the apparent defection of New Hampshire state representative Bea Franceoeur from the Republican to the Libertarian Party to run for governor of that state, which happens to be the one targeted for political takeover by a group of libertarians calling themselves the Free State Project. A couple (center-left) friends of mine at Dartmouth tell me most of the state’s existing populace pretty much reacted by worrying about this influx of hippie weirdoes coming in from out of state, perhaps worried the state will get transformed into Vermont.

And speaking of Ivy League campuses and politics, I was lucky enough to see a screening of the funny and infuriating Evan Coyne Maloney documentary Indoctrinate U. last night, about campus political correctness. I walked about 200 blocks to see it, in fact, counting both the walk home and the earlier walk down to Tribeca from the office, during which I saw pop culture essayist Chuck Klosterman on the street, clinching proof my brain only spots famous pedestrians I actually care about, since I never seem to notice major movie stars such as Harvey Keitel or Robert Redford on the streets of Manhattan the way my parents have when they’ve visited, whereas in addition to Klosterman I’ve spotted the nerdy likes of Gilbert Gottfried, Penn Jillette, Bill Clinton, Madeline Kahn, Rick Moranis, and Joe Franklin (or back in Providence, Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth) — and I bet I’d spot, say, Leonard Nimoy in an instant. By contrast, though, I overlooked my own ex-boss, John Stossel, once while he was walking along with his neighbor John McEnroe (I don’t follow sports at all), and I once pointed out a beautiful woman on the street while completely failing to notice that her companion, every bit as visible and nearby, was the lady-pleasing John Cusack. The brain sees what it wants and needs to see, I guess.

And speaking of cherry-picking (no pun intended), I mentioned in a couple recent posts the tendency of people to believe what they want to believe, and that I think thorough examination of empirical evidence is the antidote. Context-dropping can make even the most accurate data worse than useless, though, so it’s important to keep in mind points like one made recently by Dawn Eden, hardly an arch-materialist but in this case doing empiricists a favor, when she notes that in the rush by many critics to point out the failure of abstinence-only sex education to keep kids from losing their virginity at a young age or to get them to practice safe sex with greater frequency (something the website I edit at work has itself repeatedly noted), often omitted is the fact that all forms of sex education seem to be pretty ineffectual at altering the rates of these phenomena. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of abstinence-only classes but reason to wonder how much difference sex ed makes in general. (Of course, if you took the time to listen to both traditional and abstinence-only classes, you might discover a vas deferens — thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week. For similarly sophisticated laughs, by the way, I recommend the Wikipedia entry on flatulence.)

Don’t think all this means I’m for having fundamentalists run all the schools now or anything, though — indeed, I was pleased to hear that the brilliant atheist Richard Dawkins was scheduled to face Christmas-loving dunderhead Bill O’Reilly last night, and though I haven’t seen it yet, I trust some serious floor was mopped.   [UPDATE: Here's the interview, less than five minutes, and a reminder that Stephen Colbert is almost redundant, since O'Reilly is so self-parodic.]  (It crosses my mind, by the way, that popular television shows would be great fodder as recorded discussion topics on outgoing voicemail messages that, combined with voice-recognition software, gave unwanted callers the false impression that you were in fact talking to them on the phone: “Hello…I’m sorry, I’m a bit distracted — could you say who’s calling again? Have you called to discuss a television show? What show have you called to talk about? Could you say that again? Is the show…The O’Reilly Factor? No? Is it…Lost? Why don’t you tell me in detail what happened on the most recent episode? All right, let’s begin…”)

In other British-rationalist TV news, by the way, I am pleased to see that in an interview with my friends at Spiked-Online, the documentarian Adam Curtis, who has examined the influence of propaganda (including what he sees as neocon and hyper-individualist propaganda) on twentieth-century politics, says that the fascism-satirizing sci-fi movie Starship Troopers was one of his biggest influences, and I’m just glad someone else noticed how strange that film was, since even the people who produced the sequels didn’t seem to understand the dark humor in having Doogie Howser’s Neil Patrick Harris play, in essence, a heroic outer-space S.S. captain or having characters deliver lines like (approximately) “You take that walk down Washout Lane, Johnny Rico, and you’ll be letting down the whole squadron!” (Curtis also praises the new Battlestar Galactica, as does about every other person I talk to in the past year or so, including Bill Frist’s speech writer and a deputy assistant attorney general who expressed regret about not working a Galactica reference into her recent Senate testimony.)

I may not agree with Curtis on everything, but I suspect he, like Starship Troopers director Paul Verhoeven, would appreciate the burrito in Captain America’s pants, which is my real point.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Aborting Feminism, Adding Links

Not surprisingly, some feminists framed this week’s Supreme Court decision allowing states to limit second- and third-trimester partial-birth abortions as an attack on women’s rights. Like a lot of Americans — though not the ones you tend to see arguing about abortion on television, for reasons more aesthetic than political — I’m fairly moderate on the abortion topic, inclined to think that fetuses are less than full persons but more than, say, tumors and thus arguably due some degree of moral concern and legal protection, particularly the farther along they are in the development process. Rough, centrist legal remedies like, say, allowing abortion in the first trimester but limiting partial-birth abortion in the third trimester are thus OK by me, though inevitably we will always be without a perfect solution on this topic. So I’d rather talk about feminism instead.
I mentioned my opposition to feminism in an earlier post called “Brief Statement of Principles,” which is now also posted as one of the Permanent Things in my right margin, as is my half-joking Personal Ad — something you should read instead of the current post if you happen to be a feminist who might be willing to date me but will cease to be willing if you read my denunciation of feminism. Also among the Permanent Things is information on the monthly Debates at Lolita Bar that I organize and host, which next month (May 2) will feature an intra-feminist argument between comedian-debaters Charles Star and Jen Dziura over the question “Does the Beauty Industry Oppress Women?” So come hear them and, if the current blog entry upsets or inspires you, come give me a piece of your mind while you’re at it.
There’s bound to be something in the following Ten Complaints About Feminism you disagree with (all that I really have time for now, though one could write a multi-volume encyclopedia with tiny little footnotes):
1. Making A Priori Moral Assertions About Thoroughly Empirical Questions
This is really my main complaint about feminism, as philosophy, and I mentioned it in the Principles post already. I get the sense whenever listening to feminist arguments that there are conclusions I am being morally goaded into drawing about how the world works even before I have been allowed to investigate — that women and men’s intelligence “must” be found to be equal, or that if men are smarter at some things, women “must” be smarter at others in such a way that it all evens out (in some grand, ill-defined metaphysical sense) so that everyone feels like an equal partner in democracy at the end of the day. That’s just bad science.
And speaking of science, I should preface this entire list of complaints with the comment that I am well aware that individuals frequently defy the broad, relatively subtle generalizations made about them, and in my own life I’m lucky enough to have frequent contact with highly rational female colleagues, for example both ones with science expertise greater than my own (at work at the American Council on Science and Health) and ones with phenomenal writing skills in my off-hours existence, which so often involves rubbing elbows with various media folk.
Yet the data suggest that there are intelligence differences between males and females, and without going into each sub-category of intelligence (ability to negotiate three-dimensional spaces, ability to read emotions from faces, recall, math, etc.), I will say that there seem to be both more male geniuses than female geniuses and more male idiots than female idiots. For a moment, the reader hoping (for whatever a priori reasons) to find “balance” in evaluations of the two sexes might feel relieved that in some sense the IQ differences appear to “even out” — but a tendency for women to bunch near the norm while males are more likely to rise to the top and to end up in prison is hardly, I think, the sort of simple “equality” that underpins most traditional, idealistic feminist thinking. Those differences have huge implications that we’re still sorting out and may render, for example, the application of affirmative action laws to gender “balance” absurd (and unjust).
2. Refusing to Define “Feminism” Clearly Enough to Judge Its Value
If people are going to say “I am a feminist” — or be outraged by someone’s statement “I am not a feminist” — you’d think they’d have some sort of definition of the term in mind. Yet in my experience, defenders of the term are perfectly content to give slippery reformulations of it that to a less than fully magnanimous listener might seem to be offered more for moment-to-moment strategic purposes than for clarity — usually for the purposes of either reading someone out of the feminist movement (if, say, they find that someone unattractive) or insisting that someone is indeed a feminist whether he likes it or not (perhaps, for instance, because he is deemed attractive).
This problem of amorphous, not terribly useful definitions crops up repeatedly on the left — as in the case of the term “global warming” being craftily and strategically replaced in much recent discourse by the ludicrous catch-all “climate change,” no doubt in part so that anything that happens (since climate is not, and never has been, unchanging) can now count as evidence for “climate change” — which either implies business as usual or an imminent crisis demanding takeover of the global economy, depending on rhetorical circumstances (this sort of terminological chicanery tends to be closely associated with another of the sophist’s favorite tools, cherry-picking of data — the sort of selective attention that now leads to each hurricane being spoken of as “possibly” caused by “climate change” but does not, of course, lead to headlines this month saying, as they might well have: COLDEST EASTER IN SIXTY-SEVEN YEARS: DOES PLANET FACE “FREEZE PERIL”? [but for more on climate change, see the recent debate about it posted on the blog I edit at my real job, HealthFactsAndFears, which often examines the way weak data is turned into overblown doomsday rhetoric]).
One female friend and past commenter on this fledgling site has summarized feminism as the belief that “women are people too,” to which I am tempted to say that perhaps Black Nationalism, then, is the view that “black people have lungs and circulatory systems,” in which case I’m a Black Nationalist and a feminist. But it seems as if feminism is supposed to be something more than that, certainly something that implies a moral veto power of some sort over aspects of traditional male behavior.
3. Feminism Often Demolishes the Very Traditions That Could Solve Our Problems.
Fittingly, I once had a notion that turned out, like most good conservative ideas, to have been better stated by someone else before me, in this case Irving Kristol. He observed, back in the 70s, before we’d even gotten in the habit of calling politicized campus speech codes “political correctness,” that feminist and leftist taboos are not so much opposed to traditional etiquette rules as they are a hastily-constructed, ramshackle substitute for traditional etiquette. To take a collegiate example: tradition dictated that young men shouldn’t walk around half-naked in front of women they hardly know, and the left demolished that taboo with the result that women — even smart, “liberated” women — found themselves quite alarmed by the naked men walking around their dorm rooms but unable to articulate their objections in (hated) traditional language (“boorish,” “unseemly,” “not gentlemanly”) and so had to concoct (proper) leftist rationales — not always terribly good ones — for a de facto return to the old order and in some cases separate bathrooms (“All those men are potential rapists!” “If we’re all naked, they may objectify me!” “I can see his patriarchy hanging out, for goodness’ sake!”). Being a lefist means, above all else, never admitting you made a mistake — or rather that predecessors thinking along the same lines as you made mistakes — and so we “progress” on to a new set of rules, learning almost nothing from the experience of abandoning the older, more nuanced set that preceded them. So it is with liberalism, always.
4. In Any Truly Useful Gendered Analysis, Ineradicable, Natural Inequalities May Well Matter Most.
I think the degree to which people prefer pleasant illusions to truth is often underestimated. In the specific case of relations between the sexes, it is largely the women’s delicate sensibilities that determine what illusions we will all agree to use, the main one being the pretense that humanity isn’t driven largely by the animal impulse to be what the hip-hop community refers to as pimps and hos. But lest that comment be misinterpreted, let me first describe the psyche, as near I understand it (never having hired any), of the prostitute.
Libertarians tend to look upon prostitutes — hos for present purposes — as simply another sort of worker engaged in financial transactions. Liberals tend to see them as among the downtrodden, indeed perhaps the patriarchy’s lowest victims. Conservatives see them as sinners and threats to the social fabric. All those analyses fly out the window, though, if we are to believe the claim made by multiple pimps in the documentary American Pimp that their hos receive no money for doing their “jobs.” All the money goes to the pimp. And, if anecdotal psychological evidence is to be believed, this is not simply because the ho gets paid by the pimp in diamonds, shelter, and fur. Rather, many hos are psychologically dependent on their pimp in more the way we expect of cult members orbiting a revered father-leader. Many even get started on their “careers,” apparently, by doing sexual “favors” for the pimp’s friends. Something less pristine and far more sad than a cold transaction is taking place — or so it reportedly is in at least some cases (I don’t mean thereby to rule out the possibility of some hos being just as strong and sane as the rest of us and simply deciding to take up the most easy, lucrative line of work available to them at the time — people vary).
But what it comes down to is that most men, far from needing to dominate women, may actually be more naturally prone to seek out an equal, an attainable partner, while women are naturally inclined to throw themselves in huge clusters at the one alpha male — or at a tiny handful of alpha males — at the top of the social heap. This makes evolutionary sense, since the one alpha can easily impregnate them all, especially if he’s already killed off all his male rivals (whereas women basically can’t have babies any faster no matter how many rivals they displace, so there’s less point in a woman trying to amass a he-harem of ready males). Why settle for a lower-caste male, girls, when you can be one of countless harem-girls who gets a tiny portion of the endlessly-flowing sperm of The Best Guy? And, yes, some small minority of men will calculate — or simply feel on a gut level, as a result of instincts produced by evolution’s mating calculus — that they have a better shot at flourishing in a competition to become the pimp-daddy themselves than in a culture that strongly encourages permanent pair-bonding. But most males, I think, simply want an acceptable, normal girlfriend.
This is the fundamental asymmetry at the heart of all human life, and any philosophy that purports to show that the two sexes are “equal” — or that they would behave the same way if only the cruel, arbitrary rules of the “patriarchy” were somehow abolished — is as hopelessly at odds with fundamental human nature and social reality as a theory that says deer “ought” to live in an aquarium in the same tank as the octopus. Any honest examination of human life ought to start from this evolutionary psychology insight about the differential behavioral implications of wildly different sperm and egg production/usability rates.
Otherwise, feminists are doomed (and the rest of us along with them to the extent we have to listen to them or abide by the laws they inspire) to be shocked and offended anew each time, say, a Bill Clinton (or someone else with the most resources or power) amasses an army of fellatrices even while talking the talk of feminist empowerment, or all the female interns sleep with the same male partner at the law firm, or all the women in some ostensibly egalitarian art- or free-love-oriented collective all rotate through the bed of the one male guru in charge in part because all the other women have so it must be the most desirable thing to do, or half the parish women throw themselves at the priest, or countless amoral she-yuppies become mistresses to one rich already-married businessman while turning up their noses (and instinctively protecting their vaginas from entry by the genetically inferior) at more sincere romantic overtures from lower-caste, single, monogamous males.
The power of women to delude themselves into not noticing these patterns even while engaging in them would be breathtaking were it not by now so familiar. But all talk of “equality” is nonsense so long as women continue to behave like harem-girls, and the evidence is ample that their doing so has nothing to do with some slight income disparity or tragic but temporary bought of low self-esteem — this, Dr. Freud, is what women want. Having failed to hold the attention of the CEO, football captain, or other pimp-daddy at the top of the social heap, they will eventually settle (marriage rates would be far lower otherwise), but whether de jure or merely de facto, harem-formation will always be a natural tendency among mating humans.
And who knows, if I were sleazy enough to lie, behave callously, or jockey for position, perhaps I too could one day become a pimp-daddy (surely it’s at least natural for all males to think so).
But the tragic thing is that I am perhaps more feminist in one narrow sense than anyone: I want one truly equal (intellectually, emotionally, morally) partner and had assumed since imbibing the feminist messages pervading pop culture in the 70s and 80s that that was a natural, relatively easily-found thing. And while I was in effect being a naive feminist and trying to engage women in respectful conversation about philosophy, women were sleeping with the callous football captain and the even more callous professor (hey, beats dating your equals). So it shall ever be, and it’s time men stopped letting women dupe them into feeling guilty about it and time we all stopped denying it. They may try to silence you, boys — call you bitter, even oppressive — but we have to start breaking the silence if things are going to get better. Though they won’t. Ever. Not with this species — and the pattern is roughly identical in almost all others, as zoologists know (but probably never admit in front of their feminist spouses), right down to the male dung beetles competing to see who can offer the coy female the biggest piece of dung. (Species that don’t fit the pattern are usually abnormal in some other way that does not fit the human pattern, as with seahorse males being the ones to carry the fertilized eggs. On a related note, I think that people who worry that awareness of evolutionary theory will lead people to behave like animals have it exactly backwards — those who forget evolutionary theory are most likely to passively follow evolution’s dictates, as with religious fundamentalists who don’t believe in the centrality of reproductive drives to human behavior but “coincidentally” claim that God wants us to “be fruitful and multiply.” Cretins.)
I am reminded of a female co-worker in my ABC News days, one who considered herself both a libertarian and a feminist, who said she resented men so often choosing to date younger women, as though this were entirely up to the (icky) men. “When you were a high school freshman,” I asked her, “Did you want to date the freshman males or the seniors?” The seniors, she admitted. “Well, then, think of this as payback time,” I told her. Truer words were never spoken, if I do say so myself. In a sane world, the Women’s Studies departments would close and classes would instead be built around my words. Maybe someday.
5. The Feminsts Often Recapitulate Traditional Patterns While Demanding that No One Point This Out.
Only days ago, as it happens, I heard a left-leaning feminist of my acquaintance, one not only trained in psychology but philosophically inclined to claim some sophistication on sexual matters, express surprise that a man she’d kissed is a Republican. How did this philosophical interloper win over our sophisticate? From what little I observed, it had a great deal to do with him (a) talking about money and (b) using (consciously or not) the infamous “negs,” or offhand insulting comments, seemingly delivered without ill intent, that lower the woman’s self-esteem enough to make her think the guy must be her superior — someone from up near the top of that aforementioned alpha-male-capped heap — and thus to be desired (this technique is apparently all the rage with men who teach courses and write books about how to pick up women, and more than that I’d just as soon not know — though I’ve already witnessed it working its magic in at least two cases in my extended social circle and I’m sure it goes on all the time).
Imagine how insulted these people would be, though, if I were to suggested they’d simply repeated the widespread pimp-ho behavior pattern written (as at least one mating strategy among many, the human brain being admirably flexible) into our genes and celebrated by countless abrasive rappers. If modern women behave like hos, feminism tends to insist, the blame must belong to men, the evil capitalist system with its income disparities, or some aberrant self-esteem problem on the part of select females. But what happens to feminism’s egalitarian worldview if this is simply the way women tend by nature to like it, absent lots of rationalistic or religious haranguing to behave otherwise?
Traditional, 70s-style feminists have spent the past four decades honing their arguments against conservatives and capitalists, but I suspect their cause is ultimately going to be done in instead by a rising generation of trashy hos.
6. Feminists Tend to Disparage Current Social Arrangements Even When They Are in Fact Working to Women’s Advantage.
To what extent, I wonder, will monogamy (including marriage, so often depicted as something of a trap by feminists) be looked back upon as the chief cause of the egalitarian-feminist impulse in the past two centuries? The male-female diatom does, after all, lend itself to thinking of two equal partners. As that diatom becomes less common, I suspect the illusion of equality will also naturally erode — though that illusion will not go quietly. Liberals, being naturally inclined to totalitarianism, are willing to expend a great deal of (other people’s) resources trying to shoehorn social reality into their mental picture of how it ought to operate. As women end up poor, without husbands but saddled with children, liberals are perfectly willing to denounce traditional ideas of marriage in one breath (Who needs a male breadwinner?) and call for ever-increasing wealth redistribution with the next breath — to pick up the shattered pieces of the society they’re destroying. (I don’t pretend any of this was fully intended on the left’s part — the left, to my mind, is not so much a sinister conspiracy as a grand tragedy in which we are all players as participants in modernity.)
On a similar, though perhaps less consequential, note, I think feminists often tote up as patriarchal wrongs things that were produced precisely by the leftist/feminist sense of irony, as with an upcoming movie that might as well be entitled Vagina Dentata: The Motion Picture. If everything in pop culture that’s stupid (say, sunny weather girls with no real knowledge of meteorology) automatically counted as conservative or patriarchal, then opponents of conservatism and patriarchy would indeed have a strong case. But stupidity is transpartisan.
7. In Its Recent Manifestations, Feminism (While, Thankfully, Less Ideologically Rigid) Seems to Encourage Women to Insist They Are Not Only as Good as Men But as Bad.
What exactly is this “girl power” (for lack of a better term) form of feminism that the Generation Y members now fall for if not simply the usual feminist hypocrisy — regard us as equals even while giving us special treatment — gussied up in its latest form, in which we are ordered to believe that in addition to being exactly as smart and employable as men they are also just as macho (until they cry)?
Lately, it almost seems that “feminism” is now mainly a brand of spunky pugnacity — like they’ve gone from trying to “be men” (becoming lawyers and whatnot, as was the ideal back in the 60s and 70s) to simply trying to “be boys” (loutish, crude, oversexed, drunk, etc.).
Why is everything that’s supposedly wrong when men do it OK when women do it? Having heard for decades about how crude and exploitative it is for men to look at women’s bodies, for instance, are we now supposed to think at the same time that it’s cool when lesbians or bisexuals do it? I’m inclined to think that if it’s OK for the lesbians to do it, feminism owes a memo of apology to Hugh Hefner and company. (“But when I do it, it’s cute!” as Homer Simpson once insisted, in one of the most succinct summaries of moral double-standards ever written.)
As always, what the feminists seem most to want to be liberated from is…intellectual consistency. So if you say women today still behave in a more feminine manner than men, you are condemned by them. If you then say women behave in a more masculine manner than they used to, you are condemned. If you say that they deny the validity of such categories as “masculine” and “feminine,” you are condemned for depicting them in an outmoded, straw-(wo)man form. And on it goes, never arriving at a point where one can comfortably describe reality in anything resembling a familiar form without the feminist seeking some sort of leg up on discourse by asserting that more respect must be paid to them and their (vague) cause. And even if they found that last sentence accurate, they would most likely just assert that it is a moral triumph of some sort to perpetually complicate and render problematic all attempts at discourse — until you asserted that that was the effect they were having, at which point they would probably assert that you’re overreacting and switch back to the “we’re just ordinary women who want the usual, non-radical things” mode. It’s all quite mercurial, in my experience.
8. Feminism Seems Increasingly to Point to Worst-Case Scenarios as Evidence Feminism is Still Needed.
As evidence their movement has some point, feminists trot out things that (virtually) all non-feminists already agree with, such as opposition to rape. Claiming that opposition to rape — or intense forms of verbal abuse, for that matter — makes one a feminist is a bit like saying that opposition to the Klan makes one a Democrat.
They will also try these days to take credit for the most basic, nigh-universal rules of civility, as if thinking that listening to what people have to say and refraining from punching them in the face were feminist moral innovations (indeed, tolerance and not hitting people in the face seem to me principles that, if consistently observed, make one more eligible for inclusion among libertarians than among feminists, since libertarians are the only philosophical faction aside from pacifists to consistently condemn the initiation of force).
9. Feminism Is Quite Plainly, Though No One Ever Seems to Point This Out, Self-Interested Rather than Dispassionately Just.
Is a woman being a feminist really any more admirable — weighed purely in terms of altruistic motivation — than a white guy becoming a white supremacist? After all, I don’t think even the white supremacists these days hold out much hope of passing anti-black laws…but they are always fighting for their tribe against others and seeing the world in those terms, even while condemning others for acting as self-interestedly. What has feminism become if not self-interested, tribalist pleading on behalf of a group that has already won all its morally relevant battles? Far from feminism being a feather in the cap of all respectable “intellectuals,” perhaps it should be a sign that someone has wholeheartedly immersed herself in naked partisanship and is unfit for the polite, civil, and disinterested discourse that makes philosophy and (rational) politics possible.
The goal of the movement, one suspects, isn’t to make sense of the world or to push some coherent model of justice — the whole thing is just one more guilt-tripping tactic, no more indicative of them holding the moral high ground than their ability to make males feel bad by crying (a tactic that I think has finally completely lost its power over me — if they’re crying, they may well deserve to be crying).
If I may, by way of compensation, plead on behalf of my own sex for just a moment: it is worth remembering that there is consistent, constant state violence (in the U.S.) against men, in the form, for instance, of affirmative action laws, tax-funded set-asides for women, and speech-restricting sexual harassment laws far more likely to be deployed against males, all enforceable by fines and (like all laws) ultimately by forcible imprisonment when people refuse to pay fines (though so pervasive is the legal threat that the guns rarely need to be displayed) and no such state violence (in the U.S., as opposed to many Islamic countries) uniquely directed at women. (Even abortion laws, of which there are precious few, apply in principle to both sexes — it’s just that biology, not law or society, has placed fetuses inside only one sex, but we’re skipping that topic and its endless complexities for now.)
And to those of my fellow libertarians who covet the “feminist” label — some calling themselves “individualist feminists” or “iFeminists” to show their opposition to the socialism so common in feminist writings: if some would contend that “conservatism” is too much entangled with the use of coercion for anyone of a libertarian bent to want that label, what on Earth are we to think of the label “feminist,” which seems to me almost invariably bound up with some of the most intrusive statist schemes ever devised, from legally policing what can be said in the workplace to what the composition of our workforce can be and, in many instances, what its members can be paid — not to mention the ever-looming threat of using vast, aggregate statistics regarding social power as a moral-legal trump card for demanding more spending or further changes in the law, rather than “letting the chips fall where they may” in terms of social power and marketplace performance, based on individual achievement (as laissez-faire thinking would counsel, and as most men, I think, would naturally prefer, competitive sorts that they are)? (The oft-cited “income disparity” stats about how much women earn vs. how much men earn are Marxist nonsense of the most presumptuous sort, based once again on the a priori assumption that women ought to be making the same career choices and displaying the same work habits and thus making the same amount of money as men — have we forgotten all those chaos theory lessons about how tiny initial differences can lead [without chicanery] to vastly different outcomes?)
Rather than pleading in a tribalistic fashion for women and feminists, intellectuals would be wiser to condemn all sorts of legal and intellectual double standards as a system of anti-male oppression — a matriarchy, if you will. Luckily for feminists (or at least, luckily for the handful of feminists who really mean it rather than just deploying feminist arguments as one more weapon in the quiver when, say, wiles or crying fail), men are less inclined to this sort of self-serving, tribalistic whining than women are, so an organized men’s movement — largely for reasons of chivalry — is never likely to become very aggressive. I may not even bring it up again myself, as fighting with girls seems mean.
Oh, and that raises a side point that I think is worthy of a few books and doctoral theses: far from feminism being the opposite of chivalry, it should by this late juncture in history be obvious that both chivalry and feminism are just systems for getting men to treat women more gently than they treat other men. The difference is that under chivalry, both sexes admitted this was the arrangement and under feminism, we are supposed to pretend women are being held to the same standard even when they aren’t.
If I am nice to women — and some will probably say that this post itself means I am not, itself an interesting and all too common argumentative tactic in feminist discussions — it may be precisely because I am not a feminist and recognize, chivalrously, that (for instance) when, on rare occasions, I make the mistake of arguing with women as vigorously as I would my male acquaintances, bad emotional consequences are likely to ensue.
10. Feminism Unwittingly Inspires Some Downright Bizarre Postmodern Arguments.
Getting back to abortion again, just briefly, there’s the absurd argument that men can’t have an opinion on it, since they can’t get pregnant. This seems roughly as absurd as (though of course not perfectly analogous to) saying, in the 1850s South, that only blacks can oppose slavery. This is a postmodern parody of argument, designed to discredit arguers instead of arguments — and what then happens if the same argument is made by people of both sexes? Is it at least potentially valid when women utter it but inconceivable when men do? Nonsense — and I say this regardless of the correct position on abortion. I say it merely to preserve something about as fundamental as life — the freedom to form moral opinions.
And some surveys suggest, by the way, that women are in fact more pro-life than men, so consider that before you make your next (unprincipled) strategic decision, pro-choice sistas.
I think that’s enough for one short blog post, though obviously volumes could (and ideally should) be written. I am just one man, though.
UPDATE 5/7/07: Well, in defiance of the critics, I have a new girlfriend, who you can read about here — though I admit that as I write this, she hasn’t yet read the above blog entry.

D'Souza vs. Atheists, the Human Brain vs. Reality

Able webmaster Michel Evanchik forwarded me a link to an essay on the DailyKos blog by an atheist professor at Virginia Tech who objects to (the decreasingly intelligent?) Dinesh D’Souza saying atheists have nothing to offer in the way of solace after Monday’s massacre at Virginia Tech. The professor responds with an eloquent description of the perfectly human way that atheists react to such events.

But then, no one should ever promise that the truth will be comforting. People insist that it should be, though, and I think it’s important to note how that warps their perceptions of reality.

I am increasingly convinced that humanity has not evolved to care about the truth (nor have media markets, I should add) — sure, having some extremely vague idea about some basic truths has survival value: where the big rocks are, who likes you, who’s trying to eat you, that sort of thing. Get even a smidgen past those bare survival needs, though, and I think the human brain quickly loses interest in an accurate picture of reality and starts focusing instead on entertainment and wishful thinking. Further, I think most people’s brains tend to alight naturally upon the beliefs most comforting to them in the short run — not necessarily because they are the ideas that promise the happiest ending or depict the happiest world but because they “sit well,” in an almost aesthetic sense, in the believer’s brain, providing a sort of intellectual equilibrium — often precisely because the beliefs oversimplify the universe and exaggerate its fundamental harmony. This may be the source of most political ideology, religion, excessive use of simple algebraic constructs in economics, and many taboos and social generalizations, not to mention many people’s groundless sense of optimism.

The truth about the world, I think, is both dark and complex (surely I’m not the only person aside from a couple assassins who read Catcher in the Rye as a teen, not knowing how dark it was meant to be, and thought “This Holden Caulfield fellow is doing a fine job of exposing all the phonies in the world — we could use a few more fellows like him in this world”) and, crucially, much of social bonding depends upon respecting the tacit agreement not to mention this fact. Whether it’s a “community of faith,” a “shared political vision,” the pretense that most countries in the U.N. are not authoritarian and savage, or a willingness to listen without giggling while old Uncle Ed finishes telling his UFO abduction story, the human project devotes an immense portion of its intellectual energy to shoring up the bullshit by which we pretend to have to a really good thing going here (even when we don’t).

D’Souza’s specific attack on atheists at this most tasteless of times reminds me, in its cold-bloodedness, of a religious friend of a former co-worker of mine who not only condemned two of their acquaintances for engaging in premarital sex — a standard enough religious posture, and not entirely unreasonable — but went on to say, in an e-mail, that the two acquaintances must feel they are “in love,” with scare quotes. The two acquaintances are now happily married, by the way, and I would have thought it was the Stalinists who look icily down their noses at romance, dismissing it as a bourgeois illusion if it gets in the way of ideological purity. But religious fanatics are capable of that sort of inhuman lack of empathy too, and I suspect D’Souza (whose most recent book suggests that American conservatives should make common cause with traditional Muslims overseas instead of Western liberals) comes closer to this sort of sociopathic inability to recognize emotions in others than do the atheists he criticizes.

I always used to think that the common leftist complaint that the religiously devout are closed-minded jerks was beside the point — the (much less heated) question is merely whether they are philosophically mistaken, not whether they have nasty motives. But I’m starting to wonder. Indeed, this outburst from D’Souza almost alleviates the guilt I (an atheist) have long felt over accidentally stiffing him and some of his entourage for drinks once.

Monday, April 16, 2007

One Rain-Related Problem

My home phoneline appears to be out of commission right now, in case anyone out there’s noticed. Faring better than New Orleans so far, though.  UPDATE: Fixed, and in any case my problems today seem petty compared to those of Virginia Tech (which, as it appears John McCain would agree, might have been spared today’s horror had someone else there been armed), that Columbia student who got raped and set on fire, and even Bryan Ferry (whose sense of style I’ve long thought seemed decidedly non-left).

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Burning Man, Pumping Oil, Spotting Libertarians (Updated)

The two leisure-reading books sitting in my desk drawer at work in recent weeks have been Brian Doherty’s This Is Burning Man, about the wild, hippie-esque annual art festival that takes place in the Nevada desert, and Charles Koch’s The Science of Success, about how he turned his family’s oil company into the largest privately-held company in the world through “Market-Based Management.” I love the fact that both books are animated by the same philosophy — libertarianism — even though there are probably a lot of “Burners” who consider oil tycoons the ultimate enemy (and are struggling to reduce Burning Man’s “carbon footprint”) and a lot of oil tycoons who’d like to see the Burners raided for ecstasy possession. Another reminder libertarianism is more flexible — and let’s face it, just far, far sexier — than the left or right.

Ron Paul?

Yet, perhaps inevitably, one is hard-pressed to find politicians who are libertarians and likely to move our laws in that direction — small government, secure property rights, no intrusions into people’s private lives and sexual habits. So libertarians experience a lot of fatalism-reinforcing moments like the one I did one morning this week listening to Curtis Sliwa and Ron Kuby’s WABC radio show (it’s what comes in clearest on my alarm clock radio): Curtis and Kuby were running down a list of the current presidential candidates and their potential when, lo and behold, a listener called in to recommend Republican candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), the one consistent libertarian in Congress, voting no against any bill that increases the size or power of government no matter how popular.

And, of course, the caller turned out to be the least articulate Ron Paul fan on Earth — libertarians, in my experience, are usually good talkers (it’s a disproportionately intellectual movement for the simple reason that it has no popular support and thus no common people to bring down the average IQ of the movement). The caller sputtered that Ron Paul supports the Constitution, and then he was hammered by Kuby with surprising vehemence for merely trotting out a vague symbol that we all love — and the caller had nothing to add, and I sighed, thinking how every politician except Paul is prone to trot out vague symbols (I’m told Mitt Romney’s speeches are especially prone to this sort of vague, pleasing doubletalk, so perhaps he’ll do well) — favoring honest work, families, America, democracy, what have you — while Paul is quite clearly and concretely and explicitly in favor of abolishing every single government program there is aside from a minimal Justice Department and national defense.

The caller was soon dismissed for bringing up an obscure candidate with unknown and thus irrelevant views, and there’s some sort of perverse self-reinforcing status quo bias at work there, I suppose — or perhaps I should call it social democracy, which seems to be the default view of most people in New York City, not to mention Europe: the view that whatever we all more or less agree is politically palatable is by definition what is true, a great formula for intellectual stagnation if ever there was one, especially in environments that are fairly intellectually homogeneous to begin with. It is a dark time for the rebellion.

(I would also like to note that Ron Kuby, while he looks like a hairy, aging prospector, sounds exactly like Tom Hanks. I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, but for voice reasons alone, Hanks should get the part if there’s ever a biographical movie.)

Looking for Signs of Hope

There are some libertarian-leaning politicians in more local offices, luckily, including my friend Dan Greenberg, a state rep (as a Republican) in Arkansas, who was recently interviewed on a John Stossel special about his efforts to outlaw the practice of politicians naming buildings and monuments after themselves (Dan called the measure — very unpopular with his fellow legislators, as you might imagine — the “Edifice Complex Prevention Act”).

Until Dan runs for president, though, and barring a big surge by Ron Paul, those looking for remotely-libertarian-ish presidential candidates will have to be content with trying to figure out who’s more libertarian, New York City’s own former mayor Rudy Giuliani (who is ahead in the polls, would certainly be the most locally-entertaining opponent for Hillary Clinton, and has a surprisingly coherent and even philosophically rather than merely politically nuanced positions list on his campaign site, with a nice, albeit convenient, tone of federalism throughout — though he’s still the maniac who wanted to enforce anti-jaywalking laws in New York City, which makes about as much sense as trying to outlaw the alphabet) or former senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee. I must say that Rudy becoming the Republican standard-bearer would be a nice way to end the strict allegiance of the GOP to Jesus and Ares and push it back toward worshipping Mammon the way I want it to and would take the wind out of the sails of a lot of easy leftist arguments against the right. I want the GOP off the road to Damascus and back on Wall Street. Blogger Karol Sheinin, one of my co-organizers of the monthly Manhattan Project gatherings, is rooting for Thompson, though, and maybe she’s right.

All this hair-splitting and searching for the least-bad option would be unnecessary, of course, if more people in our society still understood and shared the capitalist sentiments so beautifully expressed by then-young animators Hanna and Barbera in an amazing cartoon pointed out by Katherine Mangu-Ward of Reason and Alina Stefanescu the other day.

Since we don’t live in a society quite that enlightened, I may as well drown my political sorrows by attending the anarchist book fair at 55 Washington Square South today, before seeing the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie. The anarchists will no doubt be left-wing ones, but they will share my anger at having to pay taxes this weekend, which is more than can be said for most Democrats.

UPDATE: Just as I was beginning to feel a bit saddened, amid the very dense crowd of enthusiastic young anarchists at the book fair, by the fact that libertarian events don’t tend to generate the same level of enthusiasm, I looked up and noticed that there were only two banners hanging in the NYU-affiliated church where the book fair was taking place: one for the anarchist publisher Autonomedia, which was unsurprising, but the other hailing the “RON PAUL REVOLUTION” — and the “EVOL” was printed in a quasi-backwards fashion that suggested the word “love,” so one Republican candidate for president in effect had a symbol of his “LOVE REVOLUTION” hanging over all the young anarchists, some of whom might have understood the philosophical logic behind this but most of whom, I suspect, would have disapproved — and I didn’t easily spot any straightlaced College Republican or Libertarian Club types who appeared likely to have hoisted the banner, so I suspect it was put up before the scarier bulk of the crowd arrived — not that I mean to insult them, and even a few minutes’ immersion in their energy was fun.

(It compensates for the previous night, when I was made to feel old by being likened to Grandpa Simpson for talking about the post-9/11 rise of blogs — and also made to feel old a bit earlier in the day when I met Bryan Talbot, writer/artist of my favorite comic book miniseries, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright — who I had thought of as an old, influential hand at his craft — and learned that he was reading the same Jim Starlin comics [about the character Adam Warlock] as a teen that I was, not so much because he is young but because I am, it turns out, getting pretty old myself.)

Wanting some souvenir but reluctant to pay for an item I could not philosophically condone, I ultimately left with a free postcard encourging people to party in Trafalgar Square after Thatcher dies (offensive, but nicely designed).

On the walk from the book fair north to the Aqua Teen movie, I also noticed a college-age male walking along University Place with a stark black and white “AuH2O” t-shirt with a picture of Barry Goldwater’s face. There is hope yet.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Aqua Teen Hunger Force vs. Grindhouse

athf.jpgI’ve seen at least one article that says the poor box office performance of Grindhouse, which reportedly had a budget of some $70 million but made only $12 million or so its opening weekend, has studio executives looking with great anticipation at films with far smaller budgets but cultish audiences potentially just as large as Grindhouse’s — and this week, that means Aqua Teen Hunger Force, or rather Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, which was reportedly produced for less than $1 million. But I’ll call both the Cartoon Network series (on during the late-night “Adult Swim” block) and the movie, which opens tomorrow, ATHF for simplicity.

In a world of increasingly sarcastic, metafictional, and strange animated series, ATHF is still something special — the surreal yet mundane adventures of three talking pieces of fast food (Master Shake, Frylock, and Meatwad) who were originally supposed to be superheroes, patrolling the New Jersey shore and fighting off the monstrous creations of Dr. Weird, but have evolved into just a trio of do-nothing males in a shabby, frat-like house who spend a lot of time using their hairy, balding, hypermasculine neighbor Carl’s swimming pool without permission and getting into stupid arguments. (One of the show’s many non-sequiturs is the title sequence itself, which tells us nothing relevant about the show besides the names of the characters, who are seen in highly unrepresentative adventure montages defending Earth from aliens and the like, set to a gangsta rap by Schooly D about how ATHF is “number one in the ’hood, G.” and how Master Shake is the “Shake-zula, the mike-rulah,” when Master Shake is plainly neither zula nor rulah but in fact one of the most delightful combinations of arrogant jerk and nitwit ever to grace the small screen. As he self-importantly bellows after a perfectly reasonable suggestion from his comrade Meatwad: “I was not put on this Earth to listen to meat.”)

From a crudely-drawn show full of almost free-associative, fever-dream-like plots (as in the episode where a robot appears, claiming to be the Ghost of Christmas Past, and explains Carl’s blood-filled pool as the fulfillment of an ancient curse related to the violent true story of the first Christmas), ATHF has now blossomed into a crudely-drawn eighty-seven-minute adventure with a cool promotional poster painted by legendary fantasy-novel artists Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell.

I couldn’t be happier for them, and if number-crunching, dimwitted studio personnel end up seeing ATHF as a huge financial success and sit around torturing themselves trying to figure out how to avoid an imagined Grindhouse “formula” and embrace an imagined ATHF “formula,” so much the better (not because I want fewer movies like Grindhouse — I was part of the admittedly small niche audience it was designed for, and I liked it just fine — nor because I think there’s any hope of studio execs deliberately replicating the insanity of ATHF, but rather just because I like the thought of the dimwitted studio execs sweating and being confused).

An added anarchist appeal to the new film is the fact that it was originally intended for a smaller, earlier release but got pushed back for a wider release after the added publicity caused by the idiotic incident in Boston in which local police panicked over promotional signs, bizarrely mistaken for possible terrorist devices (despite having been up all over the country for weeks without any similar panics erupting), which depicted ATHF’s videogame-like enemies called the Mooninites (who, as it happens, often commit acts of mayhem on the TV show and brag about how much smarter they are than Earthlings). The incident led to the arrest of two marketing workers who’d put up the signs, and they rightly refused to take the arrest seriously, spending their subsequent press conference declining to take questions about any topic other than their haircuts. Their lawyer was probably alarmed, but if we’re ever going to laugh off the state altogether one day, as we should, we would do well to imitate these obnoxious but brave men — and never, never forget the sacrifices made by Aqua Teen Hunger Force. I may have to see it twice.

P.S. We could use more surrealism and humor in music, too, which is why I was very pleased to see my friend J.R. Taylor praising the brilliant band Life in a Blender on his excellent blog, RightWingTrash, the other day.

P.P.S. And by the way, Harvey Weinstein’s reported plan to improve Grindhouse’s box office totals by breaking the movie up into two separate films is wrongheaded and doomed — Grindhouse works, to whatever extent and for however dinky an audience it works at all, precisely because it replicates the feeling of being at a drive-in double feature (for those of us old enough to actually remember drive-in double features, however dimly — I think that’s how I saw The Cat from Outer Space, Corvette Summer, Battle Beyond the Stars, the Get Smart movie The Nude Bomb, and, in a tragic technological miscalculation, Battlestar Galactica in SenSurround). If anything, Grindhouse could use some editing to bring it down to the length of one average film. Break it in two, and what you have instead of one decent film that mimics two trashy horror films is just…two trashy horror films. Let this one go, Harvey, and have Tarantino and Rodriguez atone for it with sequels to Kill Bill and Sin City.

P.P.P.S. I haven’t looked into this, but I’d bet a big pile of cash Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse starred — and indeed, was probably written in large part for — Uma Thurman’s Kill Bill stunt double, because she sure looked the part.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

One Week Until World War III

Although I kicked the comic-book-collecting habit last year (as noted briefly in an article on, I read them for about thirty years, and quitting cold turkey was a bit difficult. Therefore, a sort of comics methadone program was in order, and for the past several months that methadone program has consisted largely of reading about comics online, particularly on the site And the current comic book series most worth reading about has been 52, an aptly-named, weekly, year-long miniseries from DC Comics.

52 — or rather, online summaries of 52 — is a fitting form of methadone, since it depicts a “lost year” in the lives of DC’s superheroes, everything that happened to them in the fifty-two weeks following a 2005/2006 miniseries called Infinite Crisis in which, to make a long story short, the universe blew up and got put back together again (the same thing happened twenty years earlier in the similarly-named DC miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths, and I read that as a teenager — meaning that last year’s sequel series was an appropriate time for me to conclude that the wheel of comic book fate had come full circle and it was time for me to move on to new hobbies, like this blog).

But 52 has proven to have a life of its own beyond what you’d expect from an epilogue to a sequel and has been very popular. The premise is that Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman take a year off to recover from the events in Infinite Crisis and lesser-known heroes have to pick up the slack, doing a pretty decent job right up until almost the very end of the series, when, unfortunately, World War III breaks out. That happens in issue #50 (out of 52), out in one week (on April 18).

World War III in the comics isn’t quite what you’d expect from World War III in real life, though. Basically, the resurrected, superstrong villain Black Adam, who was active in ancient Egypt, finds himself victimized by the villain Egg Fu (or Chang Tzu, as he is more plausibly known in recent comics, but to longtime fans he will always be known by his older, more ridiculous moniker) and plans to retaliate against the Chinese government, of which Egg Fu is an agent, and by extension against anyone in the world who would dare get in the way of Black Adam’s vengeance. The beautiful thing about comics is that they dare to aim for a feeling of real-world political intrigue and personal drama even in a story that involves a thirty-foot-high talking egg with a human face, which is what Egg Fu is and has been since he was introduced some sixty years ago, at which time he was depicted with a more offensively Fu Manchu-like visage and broken-English speech pattern, full of transposed L’s and R’s (it is truly amazing that DC had the courage to revitalize and update this character). And you thought Kim Jong-Il and Ahmadinejad were ridiculous villains. Imagine having to explain to children growing up in the rubble of a world destroyed by Egg Fu how things came to be this way (“Why are you laughing and crying at the same time, Daddy?”).

Interestingly, there is one man on Earth who must be just the slightest bit frightened that the Egg Fu scenario will come to pass in the real world: 52 co-writer Grant Morrison. Morrison has described himself in interviews as a mystic (a practitioner of chaos magic, essentially someone who, like Carl Jung, believes the statistically unproven but intuitively seductive idea that meaningful coincidences occur in everyday life much more frequently than can be explained by chance and selective attention) and in particular has said that he thinks that things he writes about tend to come true in real life. This is quite an assertion, given that Morrison has written about mutants, gods, World War III (twice), cute cyborg lab animals escaping and fighting against the military (that one’s becoming a movie), a man who knows he’s a comic book character, a man who is either schizophrenic or the agent of a group charged with protecting reality against infection, rival time-traveling anarchist and authoritarian conspiracies stretching across the centuries, and of course Seaguy, the bored last superhero on a completely flooded future Earth who spends his time playing chess against the Grim Reaper (who dresses as a gondolier) and watching bad television with his sidekick Chubby, a levitating tuna who smokes cigars (when Morrison — who, I should add, is my favorite comic book writer — was pointedly asked about the unpopularity of Seaguy, he asked with annoyance whether comics fans were incapable of appreciating stories with “symbolic content”).

Nonetheless, if Morrison believes that he tends to encounter events and people in real life shortly after writing them in his fiction — and given that he hails from the UK (Glasgow, Scotland, where I was just last month) — he has to have been watching the recent tensions with Iran over the captive British sailors with just a bit more worry than the rest of us. I don’t wish Morrison ill, but how wonderful, in a way, to think that there may be one man out there genuinely worried that Egg Fu might cause World War III.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Book Selection of the Month: "The First Man-Made Man" by Pagan Kennedy (Updated with hermaphrodite twin and foot-nipple) Book Selection of the Month (April 2007):

The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution by Pagan Kennedy

Since I mentioned a couple amputees in my last blog entry, it’s fitting that today I laud a book that’s partly about body modification. In the first half of the twentieth century, Laura Dillon decided to become Michael Dillon, the first person ever to be surgically altered from female to male — and for a time, Dillon, having become physically male, romantically pursued one of the first male-to-female surgically-altered transsexuals, Roberta Cowell. There’d be a comedy film involving Adam Sandler and some wacky mix-ups in there somewhere except that this story, as great a pleasure as it is to read, is largely about pain and loneliness.

While I don’t think of homosexuals as insane, I’ve always been inclined to regard surgically-altered transsexuals with a good deal more suspicion — not condemning them but wondering if they’re altogether right in the head, not because being born one sex and identifying with the other is so strange but rather because it’s hard to imagine being so incapable of adjusting one’s emotional and mental state to circumstances that elective surgery is the only solution. I mean, whether it’s a sexual or non-sexual issue, if someone says to you, “I’ve decided that radically altering my body parts [for reasons unrelated to physical health] is the key to happiness,” you’re allowed to ask, “Is this really necessary?” (many people are disturbed, as am I for slightly different reasons, by the idea of breast implants, so surely I’m not a hopeless reactionary for thinking genital transmogrification is a rather drastic step).

I once met a well-known libertarian economist when he was a chunky, bearded, stuttering male (I even sang a Guns N’ Roses song, the admittedly offensive “One in a Million,” with him in front of a libertarian crowd, after altering the lyrics to replace the immigrant-bashing and gay-bashing with anti-government jibes) who later became female, Dierdre McCloskey, and I was a bit disturbed by the flippant answer he once gave in an article to the inevitable question “Why do this?” He said “Why not?” Luckily, he also wrote a book-length response to the question, since (again, regardless of the sexual politics) one hates to think of people rushing to surgery if there’s some attitude adjustment that could do the trick.

Pagan Kennedy’s intriguing yet straightforward book does a very good job of explaining all the sorts of social and psychological pressures that might well lead someone to make this most drastic of decisions. With her usual tolerance and compassion, Kennedy — who has told the stories of missionaries, hippies, scientists, and others — shows exactly what sort of corner Dillon felt backed into as a young woman who wanted to be male in early twentieth-century England — and on a more physical level, she explains the historical origins of sex change surgery techniques, which I had never known before.

Dillon longed to play sports, wear uniforms, smoke pipes, argue politics with men, join men’s clubs, dance with women, and so forth — and came to see surgery as the only way to become comfortable in her/his own skin, the only way to officially cross over and become part of this other world. Interestingly, though this story leaves me more able than ever before to understand the mindset of a transsexual, it also leaves me wondering whether Dillon would have resorted to surgery if all this were happening today. On one hand, both surgery and social acceptance of transsexuals are easier to come by, but on the other hand, the somewhat less rigid sex roles of our own era mean that Dillon might well have been content to be butch, lesbian, athletic, and so forth without feeling the need for a complete physical transformation. In any case, as I have often thought of gays (even before I thought about politics), such people clearly lead difficult and confusing enough lives already that the last thing they need is the rest of society mocking or condemning them. So for all my unresolved questions about the wisdom and necessity of sex change operations, I wish the transsexuals well and hope they do find happiness and relief from anxiety.

In Dillon’s case, interestingly, the sex change is really only half the story (and the first half of the book), the second half being Dillon’s journeys through India and involvement in mysticism, sparked by the popular writings of the guru Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (who is also admired, it occurs to me, by my left-leaning theatre-producer and computer-programmer friend Richard Ryan, who is prone to like unsettling philosophical discussions and unsettling theatre experiences such as, for good or ill, the plays of Richard Foreman — anything that makes you less complacent in your current setting). And that just complicates the question of Dillon’s wisdom further, since we could (to put it crassly) say, “See? Even with the operation, Dillon was an unsettled, unsatisfied eccentric with loony ideas, so what good did the operation really do?” On the other hand, we might conclude, “Dillon was exactly the sort of explorer and personal transformation buff who makes sense as a pioneer in this strange area, and what Dillon did on the physical level resonates in an apt fashion with what Dillon did on the mental level later.”

And, it strikes me, there are probably some feminist readers — perhaps even Jen Dziura and Jill Friedman, who posted comments objecting to my anti-feminism — who find themselves thinking “Why should we be at all troubled by sex change operations, given all the bizarre things we expect normal women to do to maintain their bodies?”

And that, by the way, will be the topic of our next Debate at Lolita Bar (downstairs at 8pm on Wed., May 2): “Does the Beauty Industry Oppress Women?” pitting Dziura (who argues no) against her fellow comedian Charles Star (who will argue yes, in what is itself arguably a bit of sex-role-reversal).

UPDATE 4/7/07: As it happens, my friend Diana Fleischman (who looks a bit like the Austin-dwelling Grindhouse character who is a reluctant lapdancer but, unlike that character, is an evolutionary psychology expert) recently forwarded a news item about a hermaphroditic twin who has led scientists to discover a new type of twin-formation, and webmaster Michel Evanchik forwarded a story about a woman with a superfluous nipple growing on her foot.

"Grindhouse": Good Friday = Death-Proof

In our last episode, I mentioned the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino movie Grindhouse, of which I’m seeing an opening-day matinee shortly. Maybe it’s all the comic books that saturated my brain for thirty years (until quitting the habit last year, but more on that another time), but unlike normal audiences who tend to complain when something isn’t realistic, I am often frustrated by the fact that Hollywood films aren’t more self-indulgently unrealistic and ridiculous. I suspect Grindhouse will make me very happy.

I mean, with all the special effects — and just artistry — at their disposal, why don’t more filmmakers do things that are surreal, dreamlike, cartoonish, impossible, or bizarre? Film is a visual medium and, aside from budget constraints, about as broad a palette as any artist could ask for (for an effectively unlimited budget, there’s always comic books). The ancients would have killed to have access to Hollywood’s tools (actually, they might well have made something like Romero-zombie-film veteran and likely Watchmen director Zack Snyder’s film of Frank Miller’s 300, which I loved). Yet most Hollywood films — and perhaps even more so most indie, arthouse, and European films — are aiming to be either quiet slices of life or convincing thrillers or historical anecdotes/epics. Where’s the insanity?

I breathe a sigh of relief, then, over strange flourishes like the giant, menacing eyeballs looming in the sky in the 90s movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula, self-consciously resembling an effect from the silent or early-talkie eras. I loved the fact that Natural Born Killers (written by Tarantino and directed, easy as this somehow is to forget, by Oliver Stone) contained moments such as the switch from L7’s grunge rocking to opera and slow-motion black and white during the knife-throwing shot, the life-as-sitcom sequence, and the background appearance by an angel when Mickey says he thinks he can see angels. I mean, why not do that? I’m stuck in the theatre for two hours, you may as well give me everything you’ve got.

Indeed, I’m saddened by the thought that Jonathan Demme’s reportedly completed script for Jurassic Park IV, like most ideas in Hollywood, will probably not be the version of the story that actually gets produced and makes it to the screen. Supposedly, his script would involve an evil Swiss biotech company (I’ll forgive the obligatory biotech-bashing for now) planning to mix dinosaur DNA with some dog DNA and human DNA to create highly loyal, obedient dinosaurs with opposable thumbs, able to hold tools, follow orders, and even form an army. And then one brave mercenary tries to take down the company by getting a small team of these smart-o-sauruses to imprint on him — giving them names derived from the Greek gods (not so unlike the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles being named after Renaissance painters) and, more importantly, giving them machine guns, with which they have to fight hordes of more conventional dinosaurs as well as corporate hitmen.

I don’t care how ridiculous it sounds, I think that would quite possibly be the greatest movie ever made. But then, one of the first comic books I read as a child was Jack Kirby’s Devil Dinosaur, about a highly intelligent, bright red tyrannosaurus and his furry proto-human sidekick, Moon-Boy, who fought everything from other, stupider dinosaurs to alien invaders who were trying to capture dinosaurs as samples to take back to their homeworld — and creating the Garden of Eden in the process. (Think big, inhibited Hollywood!)

In the meantime, Grindhouse offers an amputee with a stump-mounted machine gun, some sort of zombies, and various trailers for fake movies within the main movie, including two that have already generated their own fan followings: Hobo with a Shotgun [CORRECTION: the Hobo trailer is only showing in Canada, alas -- but I bet it'll be on the Grindhouse DVD] and one featuring a character named Machete armed with a trenchcoat full of knives and a motorcycle-mounted Gatlin gun (geeks of the trash-loving variety will be thrilled to hear that Machete will reportedly be getting his own direct-to-DVD feature film). I’m looking forward as well to the Rob Zombie-directed faux-trailer for Werewolf Women of the S.S., featuring Nic Cage as Fu Manchu. Seeing this with my friend Chuck may make up for all those atrocious Howling sequels he convinced me to sit through when we were teenagers (fine though the first, very different Howling, with its werewolf-colony-as-alternative-medicine-ashram trope was).

This odd drive-in-marathon-in-one-film is not the first time Rodriguez and Tarantino have teamed up, for those keeping track. Tarantino directed a sequence of the Rodriguez/Frank Miller movie Sin City, for one thing, and, as the amputee preacher mentioned in my last blog entry observed, an even split in creative duties between Tarantino and Rodriguez, demarcated by the halfway point in the otherwise inexplicable film From Dusk Till Dawn, suddenly makes a lot of sense. For those who haven’t seen that very odd film — about which I knew nothing going in, which was a startling experience — the first half seems to be the Tarantino half, indeed seems to be derived from his leftover rough draft of Natural Born Killers, and the second half is quite abruptly…different.

May Grindhouse bring similar surprises. And let me note that I am not merely longing for more violence per se. (Indeed, even very artful films like Pan’s Labyrinth, by the somewhat similarly-minded — and Hellboy-comics-influenced — Guillermo Del Toro, lose a few points in my mind by being gratuitously violent, and I’ve skipped all the post-Seven torture fests that seem to come out with such regularity in the past few years.) Musicals, puppets, comedy, robots — I’m flexible — but please make my two hours in the theatre at least come close to being more strange and exciting and colorful than two hours of my real life. Maybe I’ll even end up seeing the next David Lynch movie out of a longing for something inspiring along those lines, despite the terrible crime against audiences that was Inland Empire.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

DEBATE AT LOLITA BAR: "Is Classical Music Better than the Music of Today?"

Violin-playing Mitchell Johson will argue yes, occasional pop producer Christopher Maguire will argue no, and the audience will vote. (In addition to organizing these events, I host, and the very same man who is the able webmaster of, Michel “The Brain” Evanchik, moderates.)

The clash of the rockers and the rococo happens tomorrow night (Wed., April 4 — 4/4, fittingly) at 8pm at Lolita Bar, at 266 Broome St. at the corner of Allen St. on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (one block south and three west of the Delancey St. F, J, M, Z subway stop). Free admission, cash bar.

This is a question of some genuine and vexing philosophical interest to me, since I think many people share the simultaneous but contradictory intuitions that:

(a) aesthetic judgments are subjective, and

(b) Mozart is much better than Britney Spears.

No matter which way you lean, this issue remains pretty baffling. One could argue that aesthetic judgments are objective in that they are “relativized” only in so far as human nature varies, leaving us with plenty of (ultimately) biologically-rooted generalizations to make about what sorts of rhythms will likely appeal to normal human brains — but even then, we are left wondering whether language such as “good” and “bad,” applied to aesthetic products, should be used to connote that which most people (normal people) like or, say, that which very smart people with highly developed taste like (and if the latter, why? and how how much must they know?).

William F. Buckley’s fascination with the harpsichord has perhaps been historically decisive in turning the already loaded question of aesthetic objectivity into a heated moral dispute, with classical ostensibly aligned with traditional virtues and rock n’ roll, plainly, the source of our mid-twentieth-century moral decline (not an entirely absurd position any more than it’s absurd to posit that TV encourages bad behavior — it’d be odd if art didn’t have an effect on our psyches). Buckley, I should note, moderated his anti-rock views rather quickly, going from declaring the Beatles the “High Popes of Anti-Music” to embracing them later in an essay called “How I Came to Rock.”

Anyway, even if we accept that moral issues have to be factored into our aesthetic judgments (though how much is another thorny side issue), we could have endless debates over exactly what moral purposes art should serve: making us smarter? making us nicer? making us better able to appreciate subsequent works of art? perhaps making us less nice? perhaps making us more resistant to appreciating subsequent works of art?

The whole topic’s a big philosophical mess, so thank goodness I’m only hosting and don’t have to take sides. And come to think of it, are there even two clear sides? What if I think Mozart is a thousand times better than Britney but also think “Runaway” by Del Shannon is better than, say, Pachelbel Canon? And that the band Trans Am is both brilliant and ass-kicking? Beats me. And being baffled doesn’t even justify coming down on the subjectivist side, since that might just be an instance of giving up too easily.

Luckily, whatever our debaters and audience conclude, we have culture rich and complex enough to contain both high art and brazen trash like, say, Grindhouse, the Tarantino/Rodriguez movie coming out this week that I inadvertently convinced an aspiring minister to go see by telling him it features a fabulous babe who’s an amputee with a machine gun mounted on her leg stump — a pitch the minister-to-be, who’d been gently criticizing Tarantino over the violence in his films, greeted with enthusiasm, surprising me by detaching his own prosthetic lower leg. True story.

P.S. Unable to resolve the musical-taste question in my own mind, I can at least savor some of my own favorite musical moments with the help of YouTube: Take the Go-Go’s, for instance. They’re best remembered for “We Got the Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed,” but their best song, no matter what anyone tells you, is still “Head Over Heels,” and I’ll bet watching this video would be nearly as effective as antidepressants for many sufferers of clinical depression (though I don’t claim to have done double-blind trials and all that stuff we recommend at my real job at the American Council on Science and Health). In the highly unlikely event I am ever suicidal — but you think I’m worth saving — remind me that this video exists: problem solved:

P.P.S. And as a few of you know, I’m pleased to have this song, taped off-air, on a mix tape from a decade and a half ago, followed by a WBRU DJ saying, “Aw, the Go-Go’s, what a wild and nutty bunch of babes, going out to Todd over at Brown University!”

P.P.P.S. I am also pleased, albeit somewhat embarrassed, that around that same time I requested an arguably dumber song, off UConn’s WHUS, using a hastily-thought-up alias to conceal my shameful, uncharacteristic heavy metal sympathies, resulting in me having a mix tape featuring a far more gravely-voiced DJ saying: “Judas Priest’s ‘Free Wheel Burning,’ goin’ out ta Dirk in Voluntown, from WHUS…”

And then, on the tape, you hear the following operatic bit of lunacy (it really takes off after 1 min. 50 sec., I think — it’s like Mel Gibson driving a truck after the apocalypse but in your ear — and he’s drunk):

P.P.P.P.S. And if anyone cares enough to still be reading and is thinking “Todd likes that Judas Priest song?!?” keep in mind you’re dealing with someone whose favorite song in the whole world may be “Synchronicity II,” which may have more sophisticated lyrics than the Judas Priest song — about the Loch Ness Monster as a metaphor for urban decay — but is still, any way you slice it, a song with the Loch Ness Monster in it (and a video that sort of looks like live-action anime, it occurs to me twenty-four years later, and it holds up very, very well):

Several people told me my dad looked like Sting back then, so I was sort of banking on looking like Sting in this video when I grew up, in part because progress in aesthetics would lead to everyone more or less dressing that way (and living in buildings that looked like sets from Max Headroom, of course), but it didn’t quite work out on any level.

P.P.P.P.P.S. In fact, what happened is that I got old, Dad got older, and various “hip hop” and “dance” bands took over the planet. On the bright side, sometimes the alternative rock folk strike back, like Alanis Morissette doing this brilliant cover (and parody video, pointed out to me by CuddleParty co-director Marcia Baczynski) of the Black Eyed Peas’ goofy “My Humps” song:

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. And while I’m at it, just for the hell of it, here’s David Bowie at odds with Ricky Gervais. Now I’m done:

Monday, April 2, 2007

Uber, Jaycie, and HealthFactsAndFears

The world doesn’t really need more highly personal blogs, but if you really want to know how recent political epochs align with elements of my personal life, I’d say we can break my life, and the past few decades of political activity, into three eras demarcated by the lifespan of my parents’ first dog, Uber, and my own birth.

I was born in 1969, during Woodstock. From that point until about twenty years later, Reagan’s election notwithstanding, I’d say the left was in the ascendant in Western civilization, but on April Fool’s Day in 1989, according to the official records at the pound, my parents’ dog Uber was born (named by me after Nietzsche’s ubermensch, since I was in a sophomore philosophy class at the time and considered the dog “beyond good and evil” — possessed of a great, playful personality, though not very rules-conscious). From Uber’s birth onward, coincidentally or not, it was all downhill for communism and not a bad time for globalism, neoliberalism, neoconservatism, and the spread of libertarian ideas, if not exactly for full-fledged laissez-faire policies (a sort of leveling-off of government growth rather than a radical reversal of it).

Uber passed away, deaf and blind but still even-tempered, in mid-2005, around the time it became apparent that Bush’s re-election euphoria would not translate into Social Security privatization, the creation of an “Ownership Society,” or clear-cut victory in Iraq. (The pound claims Uber was partly golden retriever and Chow, but she sure looked and sounded precisely like a Tibetan terrier to me, from the big feet to the big eyelashes, right down to the specific health problems, personality, and lifespan.)

In these less certain times, shortly before April Fool’s Day 2007, my parents got a new dog, Jaycie, already estimated to be some six years old (my hyper-cautious parents didn’t want a dog who might outlive them, though they’re only around sixty years old and look younger than that). Jaycie looks sort of like Winnie the Pooh (mixed with a Chow) and is afraid of thunder (and very sensitive to noises in general, a big change from living with a deaf Uber in her final years) but is completely unfazed when the cats attack her (this is helpful) and, surprisingly, revealed (on a recent walk at a nature park) a fondness for lying down in the middle of a stream and letting the water rush over her. Read into that what you will. (It arguably makes her less Nietzschean and more Taoist than her predecessor.)

This year, by the way, not only marks the start of the Jaycie and eras but the fifth anniversary of the blog I edit and helped launch at the American Council on Science and Health, The day job deals strictly with human health and unscientific claims, though, not dogs, which will have to be addressed primarily on this site.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Libertarianism in the New York Times

Half the beauty of blogging is getting to do an end-run around establishment media (not to mention editors), but every once in a while the “fringe” figures get noticed by the mainstream media, too. Today, for instance, Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism (from which the author read at our March gathering at Lolita Bar) is reviewed in the New York Times, and the review is in turn reviewed by the Cato Institute’s David Boaz (thank you to Don Boudreaux of George Mason University for mass-e-mailing to alert the world to both pieces).

The Times review, as Boaz explains, picks the weirdest possible handful of tiny footnotes from libertarian history to attack the movement in one sloppily thrown-together penultimate paragraph, but I’m still inclined to think there’s no such thing as bad publicity and that it’s nice to be noticed (and the Times, I should concede, has not exactly been monolithically hostile to libertarians, since its regular columnists have included such libertarians as Henry Hazlitt, William Safire [more or less], John Tierney, Virginia Postrel, and now Tyler Cowen, all of whom taken together almost make up for the damage done to society by Paul Krugman and any of whom individually, including Krugman, is funnier than Maureen Dowd).

Now seems to me the perfect juncture in human history for the mainstream to accept the possibility that the right, the left, and religion (whether Christian or Islamic) have all worked out rather poorly and that anti-authoritarian ideas like libertarianism and atheism, so long dismissed as radical, might be worth serious (and civil) consideration. Given the track records of the alternatives at this point, these ideas, I think, no longer have reason to apologize for or disguise themselves.