Friday, August 31, 2007

DEBATE AT LOLITA BAR: "Is Muslim Immigration a Threat to Democracy?" (and what about Miss Teen South Carolina?)

u-of-sc.jpg VS. center-for-islamic-pluralism.gif

Reading Tehran in Lolita — that’s part of what we’ll be attempting to do this coming Wednesday, Sept. 5, at 8pm. Our main goal, though, will be figuring out whether Western nations should fear becoming more like Tehran and other totalitarian or terroristic hotspots produced by Islam.

Brian McCarter, now working in movie production but at one time the lead singer of the band Blightobody (dubbed the Best College Band in America on Conan O’Brien’s show in the early 90s), understandably fears that the freedoms he knew as a University of South Carolina rocker and now a New York City resident will not endure under the global Caliphate.

Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, the aptly-named director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism (and prolific, conservative writer), objects that only a few radical, Wahhabist bad eggs (funded largely by Saudi Arabia) are responsible for most of the terror and trouble — and defends the otherwise positive contributions of Islamic immigrants and culture around the world.

Join us Sept. 5 (8pm) on the air-conditioned basement level of Lolita Bar (266 Broome St. at Allen St., one block south and three west of the Delancey St. subway stop) — even if your religion forbids you to drink alcohol, which is fine — and hear these two debate one of the biggest questions of our era, moderated by Michel Evanchik and hosted by me.


A related debate, of course, is how the U.S. should respond overseas to the tide of Islamic radicalism, if at all — and the past several days have been a reminder that my acquaintances are as divided on the issue as the country in general. I attended two weddings last weekend, one for House Constitution Subcommittee counsel Paul Taylor and Jenny Davis — where I was seated for the reception at a table with anti-interventionist Republican candidate Ron Paul’s legislative director, Norm Singleton (and hawk turned doubter Megan McArdle, among others) — and the other for New York Post film critic Kyle Smith and Self editor Sara Austin, Kyle being one of the very few New York media people I know who actually served in the first Gulf War and thus hoped (like me) that the current conflict would go comparably smoothly.

I’d hoped to cap it all off with a dinner this weekend that would have brought my liberal girlfriend, Koli, face to face with Ellen Bork, employee of William Kristol’s uber-hawkish foreign policy thinktank and daughter of conservative judge Robert Bork, but Ellen had to cancel due to back pains — hopefully not as bad as the ones that have caused her father to sue the Yale Club, after he fell while ascending a speaker’s podium there, leading the New York Times, quite understandably, to mock him while he was down, in an editorial saying this experience might teach the conservative judge the value of letting people file big lawsuits against companies instead of being left to their own devices.

(I defended the man against some of his more overheated detractors in my first political column in college, back when he was nominated for the Supreme Court, and since then he has been nothing but trouble: defending anti-trust laws, majoritarianism, censorship [with a book in which he claimed that he watched NYC's pornographic "commercial use" station for a long time one night purely because he was riveted by the "sociological significance" of it all], and now the principle that property owners rather than walkers are responsible for the effects of gravity — though I hope both he and Ellen will heal nicely.)


In case the above passage sounded too anti-Bork, let me add something pro-Ellen: The ease with which left-leaning media can turn any one of us into a cartoonish, top-hat-wearing villain for a day was driven home for me a few years ago when I bumped into Ellen on the street, saying she’d just come from a job interview and sounding as ambivalent about life’s economic vicissitudes as the rest of us, and within a short time thereafter — perhaps months, certainly no more than a few years — saw that the leftist magazine Adbusters had put her on a short list of neoconservatives ostensibly controlling U.S. foreign policy, and the list was explicitly constructed to show how many of the neocons are Jewish, with a tiny Star of David symbol next to each Jew, including Ellen — even though she technically isn’t one.

Back in the 1980s, which I have come to regard as an underappreciated high point in U.S. race relations (simply because people were starting to politely avoid the topic, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan had wisely, cautiously advised years earlier), I never would have thought that the left would be railing against the Jewish conspiracy twenty years later (or denouncing fluoride for that matter, though the oft-quoted and Heinz-Kerry-funded Environmental Working Group has taken up that ridiculous, Strangelovean cause). I suppose, though, that in an era when paranoia and antiglobalization-style adversarial politics is considered idealistic rather than twisted and dangerous, none of this should come as a surprise. (It was nice to see the current hip-paranoid mode among the young folk mocked a bit in Live Free or Die Hard, so perhaps it has become a cliche and will soon fade away, except in Austin and the San Francisco area, of course.)


I don’t think my official neutrality as host of the Sept. 5 debate will be at all compromised by my own wariness of Saudi Arabia (a wariness that has existed ever since I learned, at the time of the first Gulf War, that by allying with them we were defending a country where Wonder Woman comics are illegal, as I noted recently after learning that Lolita Bar debate veteran Jen Dziura will be traveling there and elsewhere in the Middle East to perform comedy, hopefully without wearing her Wonder Woman costume in the streets — but for more on comic books, come back to this blog in a few days, when I do a massive look back at my recently-ended three decades as a comics collector, as the September Book Selection[s] of the Month).

My fear of the Saudis was not diminished by a mid-90s trip to London, where DC Comics editor Scott Nybakken (a purveyor of the aforementioned Wonder Woman comics, among other things) and I met a young, female Saudi Arabian citizen who was in London for a while and paying a visit to my friend Sangeeta Sahi (a Brit with family ties to India and Hinduism but with friends from all over the globe). The Saudi woman berated me and Scott for the U.S.’s imperialistic desire to spread its rotten values around the world, and Sangeeta, a good liberal, chimed in in agreement — but luckily, we were wise enough to press the Saudi woman (who was perfectly intelligent, worldly, unveiled, articulate, attractive, well-traveled, and self-confident — hardly an oppressed, glum, frightened mouthpiece of unquestioned propaganda) about how the U.S. could learn from Saudi Arabia.

She proceeded to scare the bejeezus out of me and Scott by saying that the U.S., too, should behead drug dealers in the public square, keep all foreigners living in a handful of designated buildings, and forbid women to drive, among other things (she loves being chauffeured by male relatives — an indication that she’s probably rich enough not to have to worry too much about such things back home, a bit like the oblivious, slave-owning party-girl princess C.S. Lewis clearly modeled on Muslim culture and depicted in the Narnia book The Horse and His Boy, which, for understandable plot-rhythm reasons rather than any politically-correct conspiracy, is not slated to be turned into a film, alas).

Perhaps if Scott and I had taken that encounter more seriously, we would have seen things like 9/11 coming — and indeed, it is because of things like that encounter that I’ve never been comfortable with either the neocon notion that we can pacify the Muslim world simply by dropping bombs on a few terrorists or the left/anti-interventionist mantra (much as I like Ron Paul for other reasons) that all the craziness over there will settle down to manageable levels if we just tweak some of our military and Israel-related policies. There’s a whole lot of crazy in Saudi Arabia, at least, as both our Sept. 5 debaters appear to agree.


One writer, much revered back when I was at Brown (an institution discussed in my previous blog entry), who certainly did not have a good handle on the issue of radical Islam is Michel Foucault (but then, Foucault and the other deconstructionists were confused about a lot of things), as a recent article explained. It’s a shame, too, because I think a relatively simple version of decon-like quasi-Freudian analysis might go a long way toward explaining some of the nuttiness in Islamic culture: when you repress things, they tend to become both more frightening and more tempting. Americans forget that in many Islamic nations, men and women are essentially never supposed to interact with each other unless they’re related — even here in the U.S., I’ve noticed that Iranian immigrants are very hesitant to admit that they’re dating, since back in the old country such an admission could lead to criminal penalties if premarital sex was involved.

This is not only a formula for producing a lot of frightened women and angry, very frustrated men but also a formula for convincing poorly-informed and propagandized Muslim populations that all the decadent things they dare not imagine, such as homosexuality, are going on over here twenty-four hours a day every day in every orifice in a constant orgy of evil evil evil. It’s not so different from the way each of us probably feels upon realizing that the neighbors are having a big, wild party to which we were not invited, the decadent bastards (though, for the record, I hate the guy who plays loud techno music in the apartment above me even when he’s alone). Or as one of the most insightful and inspiring Americans who ever lived, H.L. Mencken, put it, a lot of repressive laws are created by farmers envious of big city nightlife (you’ll notice I was too lazy to look up the exact quote, but it’s not like his are the words of the Prophet or anything). And I say this as a guy who likes the Victorians more than the hippies — but then, I think the Victorians actually had a better understanding of the trade-offs between desire and civility than either the hippies or the Bible-thumpers, the latter two groups lacking an instinct for moderation.

Indeed, aforementioned debater Brian McCarter and I have an ex in common, who shall remain nameless (one of his South Carolina cohorts), who to my mind summed up the dangers of seeing repression and unfettered id as the only viable options (much as I like her and am pleased she’s gotten more moderate with age): she acknowledged being personally drawn (and not in a merely theoretical way) to certain taboo sexual practices but also, to my surprise, really liked Pat Buchanan and even applauded Atlanta’s bizarre practice of periodically raiding stores to confiscate vibrators. She also swung from rock groupie to religiously-devout person, not so unlike another ex of mine. Please, people, try spending a little time in the middle of the road (metaphorically, at least). It’s very calm there, very soothing, and you’ll still find lots of your fellow Americans living there, perplexed by the weird things the intellectuals are doing on each curb.

Speaking of the symbiotic relationship between repressive laws and fear of one’s own potential for inappropriate action, I think Reason editor Nick Gillespie wrote a fine summary of the absurd situation of anti-gay senator Larry Craig being arrested for making gay advances in a men’s room — and I’m pleased that Nick went the fusionist route of urging Republicans to stop thinking like Craig and go back to thinking like freedom-loving Barry Goldwater (or Ron Paul, I might add).


P.S. One disadvantage of living in a culture that applauds women for parading around in skimpy outfits, of course, is that we had to hear Miss Teen South Carolina, one week ago, say, in answer to an onstage question about why she thinks Americans are so bad at geography:

[S]ome people out there in our nation don’t have maps, and, uh, I believe that our education like such as in South Africa and, uh, the Iraq everywhere like, such as and I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., er, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future for our children.

I will only say that, frankly, I don’t think her answer is that much worse than the blather we usually hear from beauty pageant contestants, which may be more grammatical but usually still comes down to a desperate, p.c.-yet-conservative attempt to verbally touch on all the topics that a warm-hearted, presentable young person is supposed to have some sort of opinion-thingy on: Third World trouble spots (an oddly dated one in this case, given that Apartheid ended around the time she was born), war and peace, children, blah blah blah, smile, global warming, baby seals, smile, smile, etc. Is she so different from Mitt Romney or Hillary Clinton?

Unlike our debater Brian McCarter (not to mention the diabolical Hootie and the Blowfish, who I saw for $3 one night in a bar before they were famous and was later perplexed to hear being played on the radio as if they were actual professionals [I'd originally meant to hear Brown alum Lisa Loeb that night but hadn't realized tickets for her were selling like hotcakes back then]), Miss Teen South Carolina will not be spending much time at the U. of SC campus (where she could have learned history from Christine Caldwell Ames, whose comments can be seen in my previous blog entry). She apparently plans to attend North Carolina’s Appalachian State University, which may well be a fine school (my friend Jamie Foehl — now living in NC, as noted in a previous blog entry — thinks some of her ad-industry co-workers went to ASU) but produced a promo video — and accompanying jingle — that are almost as painful as Miss Teen South Carolina’s geography comments (my thanks once again to PiecesOfFlair for first drawing my attention to this disturbing video clip).

(By the way, our growing reliance on YouTube-sized digestible video clips means, of course, that Homer Simpson was ahead of the curve when he picked “Football in the Groin” as best film, you know that.)

One last word on South Carolina: James Petigru, a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives and a former state attorney general, is reported to have said the state is too small to be a republic, too large to be an insane asylum. And that bit of info I owe to my history-buff girlfriend, Koli — who is also a lawyer and a fine writer working on her first novel, a circa-Civil War piece of historical fiction, so anyone looking to hire a lawyer (with a background in the financial sector) or a writer (fiction or non-fiction, not to mention legal analysis or biography) can contact her through me.

As for whether one needs to avoid places like ASU and U. of SC in favor of the Ivy League in order to flourish, that will be the topic of our Debate at Lolita Bar on October 3 (8pm) — during the month when all my old college tales will also begin to unfurl on this blog — but in the meantime, don’t forget to join us Sept. 5 (8pm) to learn what to do about Islam and democracy (and Muslim or not, you get to vote on the debate question at the end of the evening, so come be part of our demos).

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Brown University and the GOP to the Rescue in New Orleans


On the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, (who two years ago ran one of the three pieces I wrote on New Orleans) has posted an interview with Louisiana gubernatorial candidate Bobby Jindal, a politician and living cultural crossroads of special interest to me for multiple reasons.

First, Jindal attended Brown while I did, and (unless my memory is way off) I was briefly his writing tutor.

Certain classes were assigned mandatory consultations with so-called Rose Faculty Writing Fellows like me, and we tutors had to train for a semester to do the job, spending an inordinate amount of time hearing about how the tutoring program was a first step toward the deconstruction of all professorial authority and its replacement with radicalized peer-based learning, one of Brown’s many hippie-era ideas that has endured, in considerably yuppiefied form, into the modern era — I recall the class being appalled that I thought George Orwell’s “On Politics and the English Language” was one of the best essays ever about writing, since circa-1989 Brown was the pinnacle of deconstructionist, politically-correct thinking, and Orwell argued against politicizing language — ironically getting labeled fascistic by at least one of my ignorant young cohorts. The one guy in the class who clearly sympathized with me was my friend Andrew Corsello, now of GQ, who wrote an essay about the class dynamics, likening the group to the robot called Nimrod on Star Trek [CORRECTION: Nomad, as noted in the Comments below], who regarded all those who thought differently than himself as a contagion to be destroyed (I’m told Corsello was still so peeved about the class a decade later that he tried to slip into a GQ piece a reference to me as one of the greatest minds of our generation, presumably out of a lust for vengeance, but it may be for the best that that bit got edited out, and I am grateful regardless).

Our instructor, English professor Rhoda Flaxman, would end even the most philosophically radical discussions of relativism and egalitarianism in the class by insisting that we had, as a group, achieved “consensus” on the issues under discussion — and in a private conference, she insisted that my continued apostasy on certain philosophical and pedagogical issues was inhibiting the ability of other class members, particularly females, to freely speak their minds — though they not only spoke their minds, they even in at least one case wrote a condemnation of me in the school paper. Imagine if they had to deal with a real reactionary, say, someone who actually believed in God or was profoundly traditionalistic instead of me, an anarchist-atheist who was a vocal admirer of the Enlightenment.

Brown was a psychotic, left-wing moron-factory, and no matter how preppie those photos in the alumni mags look, I won’t be easily convinced that much has changed in the past two decades — but more about that in October, both on this blog and at Lolita Bar, where we’ll debate the merits and demerits of the Ivy League (unlike next week, specifically Sept. 5 [8pm], when we’ll discuss the merits and demerits of Islamic immigration, and I hope you’ll join us). Now let’s get back to one of Brown’s success stories…

Jindal’s parents are from India, as are the parents of my girlfriend Koli and one of the parents of my ex-girlfriend Indrani.

Interestingly, Jindal has converted to Catholicism (I can’t recall if I knew about this at Brown, though I believe he was involved in student government or political writing and that many of his views were well known at the time) but still isn’t mainstream enough for Papist-hating northern-Louisiana Democrats, who have been running ads calling him an enemy of Protestantism, according to an earlier article.

Jindal is a free-market Republican.

What is more amazing than Louisiana producing a non-white, son-of-immigrants, reformist, free-market Republican is Brown University producing a free-marketeer (some close friends and I were libertarians but were definitely not the norm despite our concerted effort to sound like 1/3 of the campus political dialogue all by ourselves — an experience not so unlike, though slightly philosophically different from, the experience of being a lonely Republican at Brown, as described with great passion and too little editing in the self-published memoir Out of Ivy by Travis Rowley [like Jindal, Catholic], which some conservative editor reading this blog really ought to snatch up and revise for a second edition; Rowley’s opening anecdote is about meeting a recent Brown grad at a bar and angering her — after she describes what she does for a living — by pointing out, accurately, that she is a pimp [or madame or pimpette or whatever the conventional term is for a female of that profession], while she insists that she is merely a provider of paid, hands-on orgasm-counselors [or something like that] to repeat customers, the former being grotesquely patriarchal and the latter solidly feminist, in keeping with Brown’s enlightened, progressive values [you don't want to know how many strippers, prostitutes, and dominatrices that ivy-covered institution has produced]).

Jindal explicitly wants to treat this troubled juncture in New Orleans’s history as a chance to rebuild in a free-market way, sweeping away decades of corruption and bureaucracy.

I can’t help thinking how inspiring it would be on multiple levels if a free-marketeer rebuilt New Orleans, simultaneously becoming a beacon of hope to despairing Republicans, stealthily politically-incorrect Brown students, non-leftist immigrants, and beleaguered New Orleans residents, while overcoming racial and religious divisions in Louisiana to boot — and helping undo the biggest domestic blunder of the Bush era. Not to put any pressure on you, Bobby.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Ron Paul Meet-Up Afterthoughts

WHILE I’M AWAY OVER THE NEXT FIVE DAYS, I will have to brood occasionally upon the following thought: even many Republicans dismiss Ron Paul’s libertarian-themed presidential run as too far-out to win — yet I honestly don’t know who among the other Republican candidates is fully acceptable not just by my “extreme” libertarian standards but even by mushy, broad fiscal-conservative standards. A checklist of the grim basic facts:

• Fred Thompson: won’t rule out tax hike.

• Rudy Giuliani: not sure if he endorses a flat tax.

• John McCain: opposed Bush tax cuts.

• Mike Huckabee: imposed state sales tax on Arkansas as governor.

• Mitt Romney: also imposed new taxes on the state he governed, plus created state-imposed health plan.

• Duncan Hunter: opposed some free trade agreements (but then, so did Paul in some cases, albeit for different reasons — this gets complicated).

• Tom Tancredo: so obsessed with cracking down on immigration he suggested this week that the families of recent murder victims in Newark should sue New Jersey for having lax immigration enforcement (though George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux has noted that immigrants are far, far less likely to commit crimes than non-immigrants in the U.S.), which makes me think he, too, would likely show a paleo aversion to foreign trade, which is as irresponsible as being pro-global-depression, as anyone in the ostensibly more-free-market of the two major parties ought to know — and he explicitly supports some farm subsidies on his website’s short list of principles.

• Sam Brownback: not too bad on economic matters, actually, but at the high price of ardent opposition to cloning, violent videogames, and other things unpopular in the de facto church he was living in last I knew (housing provided by some radical Christian group he joined, though I think he’s now a Catholic).

Anyway, to coin a bumper sticker: Screw ’em all, vote for Paul.

So, yeah, OK, maybe there was a John Birch Society member or two (they actually exist, apparently) at the Ron Paul meet-up I attended last night (join the Ron Paul Meet-Up and you can see for yourself — perhaps by attending their August 25 benefit rock concert while I’m away), but then, Lyndon LaRouche is a Democrat, and you don’t see people staying away from the Democratic Party in droves because of it. Takes all kinds, candidate doesn’t necessarily endorse blah blah blah, etc.

I miss Steve Forbes sometimes. Still have a 2000 campaign hat. But then, aside from having less acceptance among the establishment — Ron Paul is better.

(And I should note that none of these shortcomings among the GOP candidates makes the Democrats, who want even more spending, remotely acceptable, so please don’t suggest that as a “solution.”)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

If I Could Google the Animals

Oh, it’s easy to hate nature. Contrary to what the idyllically-inclined will tell you, it has inflicted death and disease on us since time immemorial — and, as I write this, is sending a massive hurricane toward Jamaica, where I happily vacationed just last month (at the wedding of a Ms. Gray — little realizing that another friend, Keisha-Gaye, was there at the same time for a different wedding, while the same weekend Gore, at his LiveEarth rock concerts, was in effect urging the world to pay less attention to the likes of Gray and Gaye and more to Gaia [AND NOTE: I’LL BE AWAY FOR A COUPLE MORE WEDDINGS AUG. 22-26, SO DON’T BE SURPRISED IF I’M OUTTA TOUCH THEN]). Hurricanes won’t make you averse to nature, of course, if, like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his ilk, you essentially believe that all bad weather is nowadays caused not by nature but by George Bush’s hatred of black people.

But for the record, despite nature’s cruelty, I really do love animals — even if I frequently eat them and passively support processing them in factories, as I found myself discussing in an e-mail exchange with my friend Chris Nugent last week. He, like a few other friends of mine, has, with admirable self-restraint, decided to avoid eating the output of factory farming — and without obnoxiously imposing such restraints on other (often hungrier) people (for an analysis of more obnoxious manifestations of the anti-industrial-agriculture impulse, though, see this past week’s swell five-part series by Thomas R. DeGregori on the blog I edit at work, — since some arguments against industrial agriculture make a lot less sense than others).

So, as a celebration of nature — for all its faults — here’s a list of some of my favorite recent wacky animal video clips and articles, ranked in order of increasing entertainment value as judged by me (this is a much easier way of celebrating nature than becoming an anarcho-primitivist — and anyway, if I did that, as the documentary Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa suggests, I might have to face marauding, thieving bands of desert-dwelling vegans — goddam vegans!):

20. Cat named Oscar, says a Brown prof, predicts deaths in nursing home (not through any psychic powers, presumably, since none have ever been demonstrated to exist, but perhaps from noticing changes in people’s odor or behavior — so remember, if your cat is reluctant to leave your room, it may mean you have the death-stink).

19. Absurdly fat cat with diabetes. I am reminded of a couple I knew, Andy and Kantha, whose cat Buddy ate another cat’s pituitary medicine and grew to weigh some twenty-five pounds before, years later, dieting back down to normal dimensions — I’d been sure he wasn’t long for this world.

18. World’s most juvenile website likens this cat to David Bowie because of his different-colored eyes (though, for the record, Bowie simply has one pupil permanently dilated, not two different eye colors).

17. Mitt Romney takes heat on various sites (including that of another of my non-factory-farm-inclined friends — this one, too, a libertarian, contrary to what I’d expect of the organicy people) for having once driven for hours with his dog caged atop his car instead of riding cozily inside, a story that outraged some but mainly caused me to think, “Hey, Romney’s competent at dog-cage-building — good for him!”

(This isn’t the strangest thing about Romney, by the way — that has to be his claim that L. Ron Hubbard’s mammoth sci-fi epic Battlefield Earth is his favorite novel — though a friend of mine, I think it was Jonathan Leaf, suggested that Romney may have picked a novel by the founder of Scientology just in order to remind voters that there are religions weirder than Mormonism. On the other hand, with Tom Cruise supposedly being considered for the role of Capt. Pike, captain of the Enterprise prior to Kirk, in next year’s new-fangled Star Trek movie, Romney could just be one more pawn in the imminent Scientology conquest of the culture. Hubbard and Roddenberry were friends, you know — and Hubbard also helped inspire Est, which has since turned into the cultish Landmark Forum self-help group [which in turn helped inspire the Matrix movies, Fight Club, and], and Hubbard was also friends with the inventor of rocket fuel, who was a Satanist, so it’s all connected, man, but let’s get back to the animals.)

16. Cats manifest a strange, repetitive and apparently somewhat common — “pattycake”-like pawing behavior with each other (best with the annoying music track off).

15. Dentist gets sued for giving employee/patient temporary boar tusks while she’s sedated.

14. Dramatic Chipmunk (a video snippet, with new music, of a moment from a Japanese TV show featuring kids learning about what appears to me to be a prairie dog rather than an actual chipmunk — and I thank the site PiecesOfFlair for pointing this one out, most of the other items on this list having simply been found perusing YouTube and Drudge).

13. Falcor the Urinator (this clip presumes as a prerequisite a familiarity with Strong Bad and his song about the dragon Trogdor the Burninator, and if for some reason you’re not familiar with Strong Bad and his friends, you could certainly be putting your time to better use than you are by reading my blog).

(Note: Jill “Red Stapler” Friedman reacted to the Falcor clip by saying that it was as if, by parodying Strong Bad, the clip had destroyed part of her childhood — Strong Bad? Childhood? How quickly am I aging? What year is this? I’m still mentally getting used to this whole “grunge” phenomenon, never mind long-running Web toons. [See correction in first Comment, below.])

12. Kitten vs. husky — an interesting reminder that animals instinctively go just so far and no further when sparring.

11. Lamb born with seven legs in New Zealand. This one ranks high in entertainment value only because it reminds me of Homer Simpson singing about “Spider-Pig” and of portentous H.P. Lovecraft monsters (and Spider-Pig in turn reminds me that I hold the heretical view that the Ramones’ best song was their last — their own cover of the Spider-Man themesong [what could be more Queens, NY than this band/hero combo?]).

10. And on another less-than-cute note, it’s: shark vs. octopus!

9. Not to be outdone: tiger vs. python!! One of the most amazing things I’ve seen, period.

8. The liger! (They do exist, as do tions — which is so freaking cool that I feel cheated that the whole world didn’t get a heads-up memo about these hybrid big, big cats at some point.)

7. The headline that may long stand as the world’s best: “Man Pummels ‘Vampire’ Peacock” (pointed out to me by the aforementioned Chris Nugent).

6. Evidence woodchucks prefer cheese wedges to Jagermeister, unlike frat guys.

5. This one requires more patience — eight minutes’ worth — but if it’s a battle between lions and water buffalo that you crave, with a shocking crocodile cameo and a couple plot twists, this is the big one. A reminder, too, that if we weren’t killing and eating the animals, they’d spend all day remorselessly murdering each other, which is why I can’t bring myself to worry too much about them.

4. Alternative rockers TV on the Radio with their werewolf song, “Wolf Like Me.”

3. Late last year, after decades of anticipation, footage of a live giant squid, angry and red like some god-monster from Mars (or from the same nether-dimension that spawned the seven-legged lamb in item #11).

2. Wacky cat antics (best watched with annoying soundtrack off) and a rapid montage of still more amazing cat antics (again, best without sound — what is it about cat montages and annoying music?). Too lazy to find the one that features a startled bear being chased by a cat, but that’s cool too.

1. And probably the cutest thing of which I am aware: kitten in tissue box.

[UPDATE: Oh, and I almost forgot three even-better classics: cats boxing, cat piano-playing, and cat unwisely but adorably taunting much larger cat (who looks like departed Seavey family cat Oscar, by the way -- not the same Oscar who predicts nursing home deaths).]

Some barely-related parting thoughts:

•As a bonus for those who can’t believe I like animals but don’t take much interest in kids, a link to the raising-kids-oriented, which I’ve plugged once before (and is written by a friend of mine who ghosted some Sweet Valley High novel material, so she knows kids, especially teenage twin kids where one is good the other mischievous but both supercute — and now my Webmaster, Michel Evanchik, who complained about me recommending a memoir that he likened to “Sweet Valley High for degenerates” will be really appalled because now I’m recommending an actual Sweet Valley High writer).

•And on another semi-anti-kid note, the photos accompanying this British story about abortion strike me as oddly hip for the topic, regardless of where one comes down on the whole issue morally.

•By the way, here’s a story about a situation that evolutionary psychologists might consider a parent’s worst nightmare (self-interested evolutionary-calculus-wise): a paternity uncertainty case that can’t easily be resolved by DNA testing because the two potential fathers in the love triangle are twin brothers).

•And speaking of evolutionary psychologists, it was an e.p. grad student, Diana Fleischman, who was the lady noted in the comments of a previous post as the person who suggested I watch Brokeback Mountain — and her doing so has inspired a rant by my Webmaster, on his own blog, against being subjected to gayness in the cinema. Michel’s opinions are, as anyone who knows him would attest, not my responsibility but may at least amuse you, perhaps even more than the pattycake cats, if such a thing is possible.

•One last cat note: my friend Jamie Foehl now lives in North Carolina, basically happy but occasionally bored, and she decided to cope with the slow times through volunteerism on behalf of animals but was surprised when local authorities told her that what they really needed was someone to go out at night in the woods laying traps for feral cats so they could be spayed and neutered (speaking of which: congrats to libertarian Drew Carey for getting Bob Barker’s old Price Is Right gig there has to be some way to turn that show into a free-market economics lesson). So Jamie found herself putting cages with sardines in them out in the woods, assisted by an elderly cat-lady, late on a Saturday night. She says that in the morning, they’d caught exactly one cat. “Those feral cats are wily,” comments my friend Scott Nybakken.

P.S. And finally, here’s one for all the lovers of spontaneously-generated silicon-based lifeforms out there, you know who you are.

Friday, August 17, 2007

"Off the Grid" Reactions

In the Q&A that followed last night’s showing of the documentary Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa, one of the producer-directors said he was surprised (as a New Yorker who expects freedom-loving loners like the desert-dwellers depicted in the movie to be leftists) to find that this little community of people living on a southwestern mesa, while loving and raising marijuana and being suspicious of mainstream society, were also eagerly gun-toting self-proclaimed patriots, several of whom had served in the military and would do so again.

I refrained from shouting the L-word — libertarians! — in a crowded theatre. Speaking of crowding, I was saddened to learn that Scott Nybakken and Lefty Leibowitz — and who knows how many other lost souls — tried to get into the movie only to find it was sold out. But given how much construction is going on around Lincoln Center right now, Scott, with his love of architecture and documentaries about constructing oil derricks, and Lefty, with his long history as an “urban exploration” professional, may have been among the few people skilled enough to find the theatre entrance at all.

But we’ll hear more about this well-made documentary, I suspect, and you should all rent it if you, too, have trouble getting to the theatre.

The head of the Lincoln Center Film Society, on hand to lead the proceedings, echoed my own thoughts when she said that if lots of people hear about the free-wheeling, Road Warrior-like (as one of the producers actually called it) life of the mesa-dwellers and want to share it, we may see “the gentrification of the mesa” — reminding me of last month’s Debate at Lolita Bar on such matters.

At the same time, it has to be said, some of the mesa-dwellers display the same psychological tendencies seen in the homeless, so they probably shouldn’t be a model for all of society (any more than Burning Man should be, as I suggested halfway through this entry). There’s always something a little crazy — though not necessarily bad — about leaving civilization behind and heading out into the wilderness. Or, as I believe my friend Deborah Colloton once said, “If men aren’t married by the time they’re forty, they start getting weird and go into the woods and make bombs [like Ted Kaczynski].” There’s probably some simple but profound truth to that. I have two years.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

"Hulking Out" Revisited: Hulk vs. Zak Penn vs. Werner Herzog

hulk.jpg herzog.jpg
I likened the rejection of civilization to becoming the Incredible Hulk in my previous post, so quickly, before I head out to see that documentary about people living outside civilization, I must note two odd bits of Hulk-related movie trivia.

•Zak Penn, writer on the superhero movies X2, Elektra, and Fantastic Four, and the upcoming Incredible Hulk and Avengers, is seen in staged arguments with notoriously driven and combative director Werner Herzog (archnemesis of actor Klaus Kinski) — about a documentary Penn and Herzog were ostensibly attempting to produce debunking the Loch Ness Monster — in a mockumentary about the aforementioned documentary, called Incident at Loch Ness.

•Since then, Penn wrote the initial script for next year’s Incredible Hulk movie but was too busy to complete it, so it has been revised (according to the swell movie site DarkHorizons) by the man playing Bruce Banner in the movie — Ed Norton, who wants to make the film more of a fresh start, a la Batman Begins (a mere five years after the last attempt, which was directed by Ang Lee, if indeed this proves to be a true reboot).

And wouldn’t it have been better, by the way, if Brokeback Mountain had contained at least one inside joke line about Lee’s earlier film, maybe repeating Banner’s line: “What scares me the most is that when it happens, when it comes over me, when I totally lose control, I like it”?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

I Found a Muslim, Others Found Life "Off the Grid" (plus: Ron Paul party!)

I wanted to avoid having two outsiders debate about what to do with an unrepresented tribe of others, so I’m glad I found a Muslim (Stephen Suleyaman Schwartz of the Center for Islamic Pluralism) to argue the “no” position in our planned Sept. 5 (8pm) debate on the question “Is Muslim Immigration a Threat to Democracy?” His opponent, arguing “yes,” will be singer-turned-movie-producer Brian McCarter.

Surely, rational debate is a nicer way of addressing West/Islam tensions than, say, unleashing 3,000 deadly battle droids on Iraq, though that (real) plan, the U.S.’s latest, admittedly bears a strong resemblance to the (fictional?) battle-strategy devised just last month by Meredith Kapushion, L.B. Deyo, and me.

Somewhere in between rational dialogue and war, of course, lies cultural pressure, such as that exerted by the inexorable advance, even in Saudi Arabia, of rock videos and USO comedy shows featuring two-time Lolita Bar debater Jen Dziura. The thought of a woman who blogs about — and has been photographed as — Wonder Woman traveling in a country where Wonder Woman comics are illegal (a law that made me question the wisdom of aiding that nation in the first Gulf War) is a bit troubling.


Luckily, I’m in free-spirited America, where some people abandon rules and laws altogether to live amid guns, marijuana, and ramshackle shelters out in the southwestern desert — and other people make a documentary about it called Off the Grid, which I plan to see at the impending 8pm Thursday, August 16 show. All anarchists, Burners, survivalists, and Tusken Raiders should join me. Jesse Walker of Reason wrote about the production of the film.

Check for my friend Dave Nugent (brother of Chris, who has posted a few comments on this blog) getting thanked in the credits. He also did some distribution work on the indie sci-fi film Robot Stories a few years ago — a film whose writer-director, Greg Pak, has gone on to become a very popular writer of Marvel Comics such as this summer’s blockbuster “World War Hulk” story.

(I will probably make this the last film I see in the theatre until — well, until the last big nerd movie of 2007, itself rather survivalist in tone, since it’s the third movie adaptation of I Am Legend, starring Will Smith and previously filmed as The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price and The Omega Man with Charlton Heston — and as if that weren’t an odd enough zombie-film trifecta, I must note this year is also scheduled to see a remake of Day of the Dead, which means the entire “Dead Trilogy” — Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead, has now been remade, which may well be a cinematic first, so to speak.)

You can understand the appeal of being a lawless loner — perhaps even “hulking out” — when you see things like the mayor of Omaha trying to solve the problem of over forty people being shot there last month by declaring a harsh curfew, which surely is (as liberals traditionally decry) a case of fighting symptoms instead of the disease (those darn kids tend to get into such mischief unless they’re snug in bed). Sometimes, it almost seems as if a series of violent death-matches would be a more honest way of getting to the bottom of some intractable social problems, and quickly.

However, I should make it clear that while I am technically an anarchist (and a conservative and a liberal and obviously a libertarian and in some sense even a moderate), because I want to get rid of the government, I am not opposed to civilization in general (nor, certainly, capitalism) — so I am not what has come to be called an “anarcho-primitivist,” “green anarchist,” or “anti-civilization anarchist.” These folks apparently believe that society’s corruption runs so deep we should at the very least reverse the industrial revolution but probably also abolish agriculture, and for the coup de grace, end “symbolic communication” in favor of a return to grunting and smelling. I wonder if any of the anarcho-primitivists are also furries? Shudder.

(I don’t promise that any of these people will attend the aforementioned documentary or be featured in it — but perhaps some freegans, who believe in eating out of garbage dumpsters to avoid wasting food, will show up, like the one who headed the anarchist rally I confronted last year, Adam Weissman — an incident that shows I wasn’t joking around when I said recently on this blog that feuding libertarians can call me “Mr. Diplomacy.”)

I like civilization and think we could do with a lot more of it — though I do love the song “Calm Animals” by the somewhat green-anarchic-sounding New Wave band the Fixx (and having failed to find that song on YouTube, I give you their Luddite lament “Driven Out” by way of partial compensation). I’m not sure they’d be able to use their synthesizers and electric guitars after the green-anarchic revolution, though.

Of course, the under-educated masses all around us already constitute a sort of “urban primitivism” — like the two teens I heard at a local bookstore engaged, I kid you not, in the following dialogue:

TEEN 1 (looking at a book): Do you say that word “librarian” or “liberrian”?

TEEN 2: Uh…I think they’re both spelled the same way. Yeah, they’re spelled the same way.

Perhaps a return to grunting and odors would be the path of least resistance.


If it’s freedom from government you want, though, instead of freedom from civilization, you need to attend the Ron Paul fundraising party — for a mere $20 suggested donation (plus first drink’s free)! — going on at 7pm this coming Monday, August 20 at Village Pourhouse at 64 Third Ave. (at 11th Street), celebrating Paul’s libertarian-themed presidential campaign (I sure hope those campaign workers are hard at work getting him on the ballot in New York when they’re sober, though — hint, hint, if you campaign workers are reading this!).

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Book Selection(s) of the Month: Mutants, Strings, Burners, the Singularity, and More

einstein.jpg elvis.jpeg maclaine.jpg Book Selection of the Month (August 2007):

Science and Beyond (seven books on science — and its opposite!)


I was lucky enough to join my friend Chuck Blake and a few others (including girlfriend Koli) recently in a discussion of physicist Lee Smolin’s book The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. Smolin argues that physics has basically gone down a blind alley the past few decades by assuming, without (as yet) much empirical evidence, that some form of string theory must be true — that all particles are generated by the varying vibrations of multi-dimensional strings. But what if this confidence is little better than stubbornness verging on…faith?

(Indeed, when I saw Richard Dawkins speak at the New York Academy of Sciences last year, he half-jokingly complained to a string theorist in the audience that it was men like him who make it harder to explain science’s superiority to intellectually-reckless religious belief.)

Smolin describes what he sees as the stifling, calcified state of academic physics, with its overly-respected leaders and cowed graduate students — reminding me once again of the book Calculated Chaos by my anarchist law professor friend Butler Shaffer, who argues that all institutions begin for an ostensible outward goal such as uncovering the workings of the universe but end — if they endure — by settling upon the de facto goal of self-perpetuation. (I am reminded, further, of the alarm that I’m told was felt at a branch of one political thinktank when it appeared that branch’s specific political agenda might actually be achieved, stripping that office of the thinktank of any purpose — don’t ask because I won’t tell, but it wasn’t my employers.)

Smolin goes on to offer some tantalizing glimpses of upstart alternative theories, including ones occasioned by recent evidence that the universe, contrary to all prior expectations, is accelerating rather than slowing in its expansion — and evidence, even more shocking to my mind, that gravity may work differently at the fringes of galaxies than at galactic cores, the stuff of Vernor Vinge sci-fi novels such as Fire Upon the Deep.


And even more like something out of a Vernor Vinge novel is the vision of the future described by inventor Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity Is Near (recommended to me by Renaissance man and Intergalactic Nemesis star L.B. Deyo), “the singularity” being the name for the hypothetical — and to Kurzweil’s mind, imminent — fusion of humans and machines. Kurzweil isn’t just imagining you and me with a few extra doodads such as built-in iPods or inborn Net access. Extrapolating (with pseudoscientific precision) from the accelerating rate of computing power and technological advance, he envisions cyborgification within mere decades but, more intriguingly, imagines within centuries the transformation of all available matter in the known universe into ideal “circuit board” material for conveying our immortal, uploadable minds and carrying endless, perfectable, Matrix-like fantasy worlds a trillion times greater than any pleasures or intellectual pursuits currently available to our paltry, flesh-stage brains [UPDATE: Coincidentally, John Tierney contends with the disturbing idea that we might well already live in such a computer-simulated reality, in his column in the Science section of today's New York Times]. And much as I love monkeys, I am inclined to agree with Kurzweil about our destiny — unless we nuke or bioterrorize ourselves into oblivion first, or we fail to blend seamlessly into our natural successors, the robots, and are instead destroyed by them or bypassed by them on their road to near-omniscience and near-omnipotence, like lemurs at the Bronx Zoo. (Think of this video, by the cartoonist/rocker responsible for the monkey-and-scientists-oriented song in the opening credits of the sitcom The Loop, as a glimpse of the tension that defines your future: “Monkey vs. Robot” [and note Andy Samberg as the monkey].)


Incidentally, I have something unexpected in common with Kurzweil: we both took our youthful inspiration as science admirers (and to some extent, I suspect, admirers of capitalism) from the children’s novels about teen inventor and adventurer Tom Swift (Reason’s Dave Weigel also notes Swift as an influence on the sci-fi parody cartoon The Venture Brothers). My parents read those novels to me when I was very young, and looking back at a few of them, I realize how my whole worldview is contained in those half-century-old books: Tom, a basically happy and curious 1950s-type lad with short blonde hair and a nice nuclear family, has no qualms about using capitalism (specifically, his father’s company, Swift Enterprises) to create futuristic inventions with which to fight criminals and communists — even if he has to ask his employees to work unexpected overtime, which they always do with pride (he is not so unlike another of my youthful heroes, Johnny Quest, about whom there may be a new movie in the works, and I only hope it manages, in this globalized age, to capture that eternal youthful sense that the world remains vast and largely unexplored, possibly containing lost civilizations and giant tarantulas living in dormant volcano craters).

The title of each Tom Swift book usually follows the simple formula of naming Tom and naming his invention of the moment, such as Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth-Blaster (no shame about using uranium as a power source, either, I’m pleased to add). My favorite title (though I may not have read the story itself) is surely Tom Swift and His Triphibian Atomicar. Sheer poetry, and of a sort I would rediscover and love in varying forms in comic books, from the intentionally bombastic and unintentionally psychedelic work of Jack Kirby when I was a kid to the intentionally psychedelic and unintentionally bombastic work of Grant Morrison when I was an adult (but more about them — and my entire history of comics-reading! — in next month’s Books Selection entry, dear reader).

Connecticut is my original home state and also where I once saw a lecture by two great-granddaughters of Edward Stratemeyer, the founder of the publishing syndicate that gave mid-century Americans not only Tom Swift but the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and the Bobbsey Twins, all staples in my maternal grandparents’ house when I was small (and for the story of what it was like to grow up with one of Stratemeyer’s numerous writers-for-hire, my friend Katherine Taylor, a novelist in her own right, recommends the new book House of Happy Endings by Leslie Garis).

Before moving on to the next science-themed tome, I must note a few other Tom Swift novel titles, and to Hell with you if you don’t see the beauty in them:

Tom Swift in the Caves of Nuclear Fire

Tom Swift and His Ultrasonic Cycloplane

Tom Swift and His Deep-Sea Hydrodome

Tom Swift and His Space Solartron

Tom Swift and His Electronic Retroscope

Tom Swift and His Spectromarine Selector

Tom Swift and the Electronic Hydrolung

Tom Swift and His Megascope Space Prober

Tom Swift and His Repelatron Skyway

Tom Swift and His Aquatomic Tracker

Tom Swift and the Visitor from Planet X

Tom Swift and the Asteroid Pirates

Tom Swfit and His 3-D Telejector

Tom Swift and His G-Force Inverter

Tom Swift and His Polar-Ray Dynasphere


For another sort of reminder of human potential, read Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi (recommended to me by medically-savvy former co-worker Aubrey Stimola), an understated historical overview of many of the most commonly-occurring human deformities. From dwarves to cyclopes, it is amazing how much this flesh can vary and still survive, even flourish in some cases (as with more than one dwarf who became the toast of European courts). So often looked upon with pity now, perhaps the mutants will seem like pioneers if the singularity ushers in an age of personal transformation (incidentally, I have long said that if I were a dwarf I’d cloak myself in bogus ethnicity by carrying a battle-axe and wearing a Viking-style helmet and that if I needed a prosthetic hand I’d want a gleaming chrome one with spikes instead of a bland, beige prosthesis, in each case avoiding seeming like a pitiable medical case — and famed architect Stanley Tigerman, who has devoted much of his career to making high-tech accommodations for the handicapped, told me he agrees with my reasoning).

In some ways, of course, that age is already upon us, as I was reminded when Jill Friedman forwarded to me a New York Times story about whether a man with a new type of prosthetic legs is too good to be allowed to compete against normal runners — how far we have come when the normals envy the amputee, and how pleasing it is! (But then, I was rooting for the computer to win in that chess match against Gary Kasparov.) Body modification is so common now that a hoax about two twins swapping limbs seemed all too plausible. We should ready ourselves — especially those prone to cling to simplistic and simplifying notions such as a unitary, non-physical “soul” — for ever-increasing ambiguity in this area. I would imagine, for instance, that those who insist there are clear-cut dividing lines between what is a person with a soul and what is mere tissue, such as many pro-lifers, will experience increasing difficulty in coming years even keeping track of what things they support and what things they condemn, as we learn to turn adult cells into experimental — yet technically unfertilized — pseudo-embryoes and the like. I recall that when the cloning of Dolly the Sheep was first announced, Rush Limbaugh condemned cloning on the grounds that the process could never create anything with a soul. A decade later, religious conservatives instead routinely condemn the process for unintentionally creating souls every time DNA and hollowed egg unite in a Petri dish. It all seems rather arbitrary — as long as you keep trying to shoehorn human complexity into sparse “spiritual” models. (For a more sober note on the limits of human possibility, though, you might enjoy this lecture on the serious limitations of life extension potential, pointed out to me by webmaster Michel Evanchik.)

A likely inadvertent reminder of how different the future of human potential looks to different prognosticators was provided by the op-ed page of a recent New York Times when, on the very same day, Paul Krugman despaired that short people like himself were in danger of being seen as freaks in Europe where, due in his mind to their superior health systems and political culture, the average height of youth is increasing with much greater rapidity than in the U.S., while David Brooks expressed concern that everyone everywhere will soon have such easy access to genetic engineering technology that everyone will be over six feet tall and, much like Krugman, he will be left looking like an ancient pygmy. This juxtaposition was a reminder, too, that no matter what trends intellectuals notice, in no matter what direction, it is always cause for concern and alarm. Shorter, taller, thinner, fatter — we are all doomed if current trends hold (but they never really do).


One current trend that my friend Brian Doherty clearly hopes is a model for the future is the annual southwestern-desert art festival called Burning Man, in effect a temporary city where all manner of games, sex, drugs, machines, structures, and experiences occur (right around this time of the year). Doherty’s book This Is Burning Man reveals an anarchist, pagan-transformational impulse at the heart of Burning Man but also shows, as I’ve come to expect from dealing with some of my own Burning Man-attending acquaintances, that a lot of the people who go to the thing are hardcore techno-geeks (I’ve long noticed art blending with engineering) rather than classic, back-to-nature hippies, despite all the sex and bodypaint. (I don’t know what Ray Kurzweil would think of Doherty’s Star-Trek-replicator-like musings about how Burning Man’s all-art-all-the-time decadence could be a glimpse of the de facto scarcity-free nanotech future, but I know the hippie-averse L.B. Deyo who recommended Kurzweil’s book to me would be aghast — despite the fact that he named his own monthly Austin, TX festival of intellectual oddities the Dionysium.)

Doherty, like me a libertarian, also sees Burning Man as a shining example of what can happen when people spontaneously, anarchically form a community with few legally-enforced rules — though a near-total lack of inhibitions claims the occasional casualty, as in the disturbing and surreal sequence in his book describing the day a temporary nightclub at the festival was set on fire (as many things are at Burning Man when those attending have finished with them) only to have an actual burning man emerge, wild-eyed, from the wreckage, apparently having decided for reasons that will never be known to walk directly and deliberately into the blaze.

(And if neo-paganism plus expensively engineered art projects don’t strike you as achieving the right balance between old and new, you might instead enjoy this unrelated retro typing-machine in a “steampunk” [as opposed to "cyberpunk"] vein or this project to move giant rocks around with only the technology that would have been available in the time of Stonehenge.)

Another reminder that unregulated frivolity (much as I ultimately side with anarchism) has its risks comes to me from my friend Dan Greenberg, state representative in Arkansas, who notes this fascinating and funny look at the notorious deathtrap that was New Jersey’s Action Park — and for another dose of anarchy, consider joining me this Thursday, August 16, at the 8pm showing of the documentary Off the Grid, which depicts people right here in modern American who’ve opted to live lawlessly in the desert, about which I’ll write more later.


Of course, no figure embodies our profound fear of unfettered, morally unbound transformation like that wily, serpentine ur-trickster, Satan, so think of my recent purchase of the 1930s satirical novel The Memoirs of Satan as something of an antidote to all the humanist optimism above. And the novel does (from my brief skimming of it) appear to concern almost exclusively Satan’s power of transformation, as he assumes the form of one notorious historical figure after another. To be honest, I’d considered giving the tome to my friend Michael Malice when I impulsively bought it, since he has taken an increasing albeit idiosyncratic interest in matters of faith of late, but he already owned a copy and an ex of mine, Dawn Eden, was moving to DC to become a professional promoter of chastity for a Catholic organization and deserved a fitting going-away present, so Satan lies with Eden now (and despite our philosophical differences, I hope Eden continues to do well).

As for Malice, I was reminded of another book he says he acquired long ago, the beloved children’s book Little Miss Curious, when I began seeing t-shirts emblazoned with the title character and her logo all over town recently. The first time I saw such a t-shirt, Little Miss Curious was stretched across mammoth breasts, and I had the disturbing experience of immediately thinking of Malice when I saw the shirt. More disturbingly, I thought of him again the second time I saw such a shirt — on a little girl with an immense facial birthmark, standing near the pit of rubble at the World Trade Center site. It’s fortunate I didn’t go mad.

(Speaking of both faith and Islamic terrorism, as of this writing, I still need a brave Muslim [ideally] willing to be one of our debaters — in what I promise will be a friendly, easy-going, humorous, thoughtful yet informal environment — up against singer turned movie producer Brian McCarter at Lolita Bar at 8pm on Sept. 5, 2007, as he argues “yes” in answer to the question “Is Muslim Immigration a Threat to Democracy?” while you argue “no,” via about seven minutes of opening remarks and an hour of largely unplanned but gently-moderated back and forth and Q&A with a likely politically-mixed and open-minded audience. [UPDATE: Got one! Stephen Suleyman Schwartz will be our other debater.])


Finally, in recent months I’ve read essays from the book The Flight from Science and Reason, a mid-90s collection of speeches and papers dealing directly with the question of the conflict between our superstitions and our efforts at science education. As a recent story about a tech-oriented school employing a Santeria priestess in an attempt to drive out the students’ evil spirits reminds us, Western civilization has not yet achieved complete scientific rationalism, and the older I get, the more I am convinced that people’s beliefs are dictated more by whatever primitive forces are at work inside their heads than by the vast universe of empirical facts outside their heads, though finding the courage to change that self-absorbed and self-limiting pattern offers immense rewards, both material and psychological.

That is not to say that the rational and the passionate cannot coexist. Indeed, I have rarely experienced a moment of greater delight than when I recently received a copy of Scientific American Mind in the mail at work, sent by writer Ken Silber, with a big, handwritten note attached saying “Todd — Nietzschean material on p. 85 — Ken” and directing me to a review by Silber of a book that argues that Nietzche’s dichotomy between the “Apollonian” (or rational, refined) elements of culture and the “Dionysian” (or passionate, dark, and dangerous) elements of culture may map rather well onto the activation by differing cultural activities of the left and right brain, respectively (vague and broad though all such metaphors are, even with attached brainscans).

I must say that, for what it’s worth, I tend to love music that features the rational breaking down into more passionate la-la-la melodic nonsense-sounds (say, the “Oh come away, oh come away” part of U2’s “A Sort of Homecoming,” or the “La la-la la-la” part near the end of Peter Murphy’s “Cuts You Up”) — perhaps not so different from the ecstatic transition from scripture to speaking in tongues that some religious believers experience.


I will skip the speaking in tongues (unless we’re referring to the Talking Heads album, of course), though, and stick to promoting science professionally. In fact, I just saw an article about Brown-alum bloggers in Brown Alumni Monthly (the May/June 2007 issue), and (though I think the most prominent blogger mentioned was Duncan Black from the leftist blog Atrios) it included a short inset listing a few “other” bloggers from Brown, including (in a note that technically squeezes about three errors into one sentence but pleases me anyway) Todd Seavey (class of ’91) who, in the magazine’s slightly-off formulation, writes, which takes a conservative look at environmental issues. Close enough.

I may not write FactsAndFears single-handedly (or always end up on the conservative side of environmental issues therein), but, as it happens, today brings my new copy, featuring a letter to the editor from me, of the very pro-science Skeptical Inquirer (the Sept./Oct. 2007 issue) — the magazine that taught me as a teenager to be wary of New Age mystics like those who (along with reincarnation buff Shirley MacLaine) celebrated the so-called Harmonic Convergence exactly twenty years ago this week, on August 16, 1987 (which also happens to have been exactly ten years after the death of Elvis, perhaps explaining his “resurrection” as a ghost in supermarket tabloid stories right around then — but I’ll be spending the thirtieth anniversary of his death and the twentieth anniversary of the Harmonic Convergence seeing that Off the Grid documentary, as noted above).

My Skeptical Inquirer letter chastised them (as did many other letter-writers, apparently) for not being more skeptical, a couple issues ago, about global warming doomsday predictions. Even the skeptics could do with a bit more science and a bit less faith, apparently. Excelsior.

P.S. But seriously, send me a defender of Islam’s compatibility with democracy for that Sept. 5 debate, and I will host in my usual neutral fashion, not favoring one debater just because of my own admittedly atheist inclinations. [UPDATE 8/16/07: The politically and religiously eclectic Stephen Suleyman Schwartz will be our Islam-defending debater on Sept. 5. Join us.]

Friday, August 10, 2007

Wall Street Journal vs. Ron Paul

A brief follow-up thought after my Ron Paul Radio appearance, and then I promise I’ll address some other topic:

The recent Wall Street Journal editorial, seemingly calculated to take Paul down a peg by noting earmarks with his name on them, either deliberately or ignorantly glossed over the fact that, as Paul has quite openly said, most earmarks simply place a politician’s name on money already designated to be spent, which is why any earmark “reform” that merely takes their names off the expenditures is unlikely to have much impact on spending — more important is voting against the appropriations bills themselves, as he does (though surely, even if only as a symbolic matter, he probably ought to have kept his name off the spending he rails against).

An old friend of mine who works for Congress has been saying for a long time that earmarks reform does nothing except push the individual-legislator “carving up” process from the halls of Congress into the subsequent bureaucratic formulations, with no money saved and an even less-public, less-democratic process for achieving the (nominal) distributions.

Still, Sen. Tom Coburn, almost as devoted a foe of government spending as Paul and far more hated by the establishment because (unlike the marginalized Paul) he often gets things done, argues that having legislators’ names enshrined right there in the legislation may have the negative side effect, even if it does not technically add to the total amount being spent, of making them less likely to criticize the overall spending bill for fear that rocking the boat might end up causing the part that names them to be what falls overboard — just as I might be less willing to see a building demolished if it had my name on a plaque on its side (that I could show off to supporters) even if I hadn’t actually called for extra construction work.

In any case, in a race where the other major-party candidates (and, again, I am enough of a pragmatist to want a candidate with the major-party campaign apparatus behind him if at all possible, which is why it’s exciting to have Paul running as Republican this time rather than as a potential-spoiler candidate for the Libertarian Party, as he did once before) get no better, fiscally, than Giuliani (for example) who isn’t sure he likes the idea of a flat tax, you still have to vote for Paul — and with America’s long-term fiscal stability rather than merely its various short-term crises starting to become an issue, picking Paul looks downright pragmatic.

I suggested on the radio show that wonderful as the pro-Paul grassroots zealots are, they ought to be thinking about how to reach out to a broader coalition comparable to the Perot supporters of 1992 (like my parents, at least before Perot had his pre-election meltdown), who may not have been libertarians — indeed, in some cases were quite the opposite — but who definitely responded to the general Perot theme of America needing to get its financial house in order. That huge federal debt doesn’t just disappear when we obsess over other issues.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Hear Seavey on "Ron Paul Radio"

If all goes as planned, you can hear me talk about Ron Paul on Ron Paul Radio, the daily — daily! — broadcast about the Paul campaign, just launched on the Web radio station GCN, which you can hear by clicking on a player option here:

I should be on between 6pm and 7 Eastern time (5 and 6 Central, etc.) tomorrow, Wednesday the 8th — listen for me at about twenty minutes past the hour.

Scroll down to my prior two blog entries to see why they think I’d have something to say about Ron Paul.

Irony note: the host’s name is Steven Vincent, and a more hawkish reporter by that name, who I met, died in Iraq two years ago, unfortunately.

Friday, August 3, 2007

I Know You Aren't, But What Am I?

tribe.jpg Since last night saw (a) half of the House of Representatives walk out angry after concluding that a vote count had been botched and (b) an ongoing spiral of argument on my previous blog entry over Ron Paul and who is or is not a libertarian (or a warmonger or a Qaeda dupe), now seems like a fitting time to strike a note of reconciliation.

Fascinating as some of my fellow libertarians find it to argue about who qualifies as a libertarian, I have never found such debates to be very productive. As a philosophy student, I always assumed the purpose of defining terms (generally speaking) was to clarify arguments, not to win them. So, for instance, if someone makes an airtight case that “You’re not a libertarian,” why isn’t the appropriate response, “So what?” I mean, presumably one is interested in being correct, not necessarily in retaining a narrowly-defined label (whether the label is “libertarian,” “Marxist,” “conservative,” or what have you) — and note that I’m not at all saying “Labels don’t matter,” since that would be tantamount to saying “Language doesn’t work for identifying things,” which would be distressing news indeed.

Rather, it seems to me that even the most hardcore ideologue, confronted with a divisive enough question about whether Position A disqualified one as an example of X, ought (unless he enjoys being bogged down in semantic disputes, a perverse attitude that only linguists, I hope, would have) simply to say, “OK, so maybe we have X1 people, who believe position A fits into the philosophy and X2 people, who believe position A doesn’t fit into the philosophy.” And then you’re free to go on and argue (perhaps in a far less apocalyptic, tribal-warfare, excommunication-like fashion) about whether one should hold Position A, based on its merits, rather than as a hair-splitting definitional matter.

Or to put it another way, the next time someone tells you that you aren’t really a libertarian because you (like Giuliani/think it’s OK to attack coercive foreign regimes/think we should not attack anybody unless attacked first/date someone you met at a state-funded car auction/etc./etc.), why not just respond calmly by saying, “OK, so why don’t we call you a schmibertarian and me zibertarian and then continue the more substantive, non-semantic debate?” I just don’t see how any substantive argument can be won simply by ruling people “outside the tribe” — though I can see immense instinctual reasons, which ought to be anathema to individualistic, libertarian thinking, for wanting to “win” that way.

As my friend Virginia Postrel once said, if you’re defining “libertarian” so narrowly (the most narrow definition that’s used with any frequency at all being one that rules out anyone except strict anarcho-capitalists who believe coercion is always wrong under any circumstances and that as a result any military action that risks even accidentally harming innocents is forbidden) that even Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek do not qualify as libertarians — not to mention Virginia Postrel — something seems to have gone horribly, horribly wrong, though the warm glow of your own righteousness will no doubt be a great comfort to you in your lonely cabin in the mountains of Idaho until the Feds arrive.

And note that I’m not making a substantive argument in favor of bombing anyone or coercing anyone — maybe we really never should — but the impulse to banish people linguistically rather than persuading them is juvenile.

It may be no coincidence, of course, that a lot of my favorite people (even when I disagree with them) are somehow boundary-crossers or ambiguous cases, ideologically speaking, from the anti-Green post-Marxists at Spiked-Online to my fellow Phillips Foundation fellow Read Schuchardt (something of a “crunchy conservative” who combines lefty-sounding media theory with fairly orthodox Christianity — as did Marshall McLuhan, for those keeping score) to those libertarians, more patient than I perhaps, attempting “liberaltarian” outreach to the left instead of outreach to the right (witness this interview by the libertarian site Brainwash with Nader-approved Democratic presidential candidate Mike Gravel — which may be further evidence that the young think anti-corporate thinking can lead in a libertarian rather than socialist direction, which I doubt is true, but that’s a separate topic) — not to mention my science-before-politics employers, who sometimes confuse and anger people of all ideological stripes (and who cannot in any way be blamed for my ravings here). I promise a long-overdue set of links to far more of my far-flung acquaintances soon, by the way (my apologies to the as yet unblogrolled).

But even if I disagree with some of the things said by the aforementioned people, I’m not going to waste time saying “You’re not real leftists, Spiked!” (as most of their critics seem to) or “You’re not a real conservative, Read!” (because he dislikes capitalism, Bush, war, etc.). And more than one of my acquaintances has had to endure lengthy debates — with actual smart people — about whether she is or is not really a Jew, and to what productive end I know not (aside from relieving people’s extreme anxiety over ambiguous cases, the source, I think, of everything from zombie myths to resentment of gays, to take two examples off the top of my head).

As for me, I’ve heard all of the following directed at me at some point:

– “How are you ‘conservative’?”

– “That’s not ‘liberal’!”

– “You are not an ‘anarchist’!”

– “You’re an anarchist!!”

– “We’re not ‘moderates’ — we’re radicals for liberty!!”

– “You’re just a yuppie, in others words.”

– “You can’t call yourself an ‘atheist,’ then!”

– “You don’t believe in [government or] God either?! So you’re just a complete idiot!” (I mention this one only because I got the impression that one or the other would have been tolerable)

And of course (intoned sadly — and by one of my favorite people):

– “I’m not even sure you’re a libertarian anymore.”

The last one was uttered verbatim due to my (qualified) endorsement of tradition as a guiding force and was repeated almost verbatim (or at least implied) due to my refusal to rule the Iraq war out of bounds on basic principle alone (truth be told, I voted for Bush twice, though neither time with enthusiasm, so it’s ironic I’m now in danger of being ruled out of bounds for endorsing that anti-militarist rebel, Ron Paul — and I wish there were a link to my NYU Journal of Law & Liberty article making the case for tolerating Bush, but maybe I’ll have to post it myself at some point, relic of a lost past though it now seems).

Anyway, if some issue is so divisive that people on opposite sides of it say that holding the other position disqualifies you for membership in the coalition, it’s probably a pretty good sign that’s not the most constructive place to make the locus of group identity, if one’s concerned about that sort of thing.

Think of it this way: if a large group of, say, plumbers debated military policy, would they waste hours arguing about whether plumbers “by definition” had to oppose the Iraq war and trying to semantically excommunicate each other? Or would they continue to be brother plumbers while debating the underlying issue, hopefully in a detailed, empirical fashion rather than a rule-of-thumb checklist-of-principles way? They’d agree on some things, disagree on others, change their minds (one hopes) from time to time, and continue to unclog drains and so forth (rather than attempting to revoke each others’ plumber licenses on the basis of contentious side issues).

I don’t think it should be substantially different among libertarians when a tricky issue arises, like foreign policy or abortion, which this economics-based philosophy wasn’t really designed to handle with the same ease as economics.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Mr. Fusion: Ron Paul

As if the live bar debate I’m hosting tonight in Manhattan about gentrification weren’t exciting enough, today also sees the long-awaited posting of my article plugging the presidential candidacy of Ron Paul.

There’s never time enough to squeeze in all the qualifiers and footnotes one might like to in a political piece (except in academia, which is basically irrelevant) — but there is this blog, which I should really update far more frequently with such thoughts, and will. For starters:

1. I realize that to many rank and file conservatives, the simple fact that Ron Paul is in some sense a radical rules him out of bounds — even if he’s a radical who agrees with us about virtually everything. I actually have a great deal of sympathy for what might be called the mainstream-populist view, that America works well in large part because most people’s blood just doesn’t boil about political topics here the way it does in more revolution-prone parts of the globe. I think this attitude, picked up from my parents in childhood while I was enjoying shopping malls, Star Wars, the American flag, cheeseburgers, not being in Russia, and NASA — and avoiding weird hippies who take drugs, while hoping cops would catch burglars — without making too many finer distinctions about which of these things arose from good policy, was what set me on the path toward being some sort of pro-bourgeois political guy in the first place, and I still think that’s a pretty healthy frame of mind.

But at some point, as one learns about things like a federal government debt that’s now roughly the size of a year’s worth of the entire national income, one reluctantly, cautiously comes to the conclusion that politics-as-usual is doing radical things to society — and we should not fault the Ron Pauls of the world for offering a jarring wake-up call and corrective but rather the hundreds of idiots he serves with in Congress for making a radical downsizing of government necessary — and long overdue.

2. Speaking of radicals, I fully realize that most of the anarchists I mentioned in my Ron Paul article are not interested in downsizing government for the same reason I am — basically, to let the free market function unfettered — but rather than explain my similarities to and differences with anarchists-in-general, I’ll just refer you to this earlier blog entry that explains the frame of mind in which I came to attend that anarchist rally.

3. I can understand the readiness of conservatives and libertarians to point out Paul’s flaws — ideologues, myself included, can always spot flaws — but stop and think for a moment how many flaws you’ve already trained yourself to tolerate in all the other candidates. Are you considering voting for Giuliani (as I might well find myself doing in November 2008 if my Ron Paul vote doesn’t carry him to victory in the primaries — or if, for that matter, the amateurs who are likely in charge of putting Paul on the primary ballot in New York fail to do so, which wouldn’t surprise me)? If so, you’re apparently willing to tolerate a man who has favored not only gun control but the gubernatorial candidacy of Democrat Mario Cuomo (and who recently told an audience that he’s not sure if he favors a flat tax). And I’m not saying you shouldn’t like Rudy — I do too, compared to most of the alternatives. But why put up with his eccentricities — or McCain’s, or Romney’s, etc. — and not Ron Paul’s relatively tiny ones? All politics is compromise, but Paul requires very few.

And don’t give me that principled non-voter stuff, either. While you have every right to stay home if you choose, that’s compromise, too — the acceptance indeed of whatever candidate triumphs in the absence of pro-market votes. Can’t get much more squishy than that, you pliant, submissive jellyfish.

I think the wariness many conservatives and libertarians feel about Paul actually betrays a good deal of self-hatred, or what the left might call “the internalization of oppression.” A Paul victory seems too good to be true, so some can’t bring themselves to support it. Well, movement intellectuals and leaders can make it happen if they really want to, and unless they don’t really believe all that smaller-government stuff they say, they ought to want to. I hope my article on Paul — not to mention those by National Review’s John Derbyshire, Reason’s Brian Doherty, and The Weekly Standard’s Christopher Caldwell (who’s also the guy who replaced me as the default right-wing columnist at New York Press in the late 90s, by the way) — can be the pebble that starts an avalanche on the right that changes the course of the whole republic, ridiculous as that may sound.

4. I realize I am glossing over immense differences between conservative and libertarian thinking in a way that will inevitably offend some in both camps (and some who aren’t in either camp, who will have to forgive me for not addressing them more directly in this post), but for the moment, that’s the whole point: despite those important and interesting differences, I think Paul can be a unifying figure — and, far, far more importantly, that a Paul presidency would help the entire country regardless of its ideological composition, restoring the vigor of the early republic by getting government off the backs of free-marketeers, traditionalists, and liberal community activists alike. You say wariness about the market shows you’re a savvy skeptic? Well, it’s a start, I suppose, but none of us needs what government’s selling, either, and unlike EMI Records, government can put you in jail if you try to walk away from the deal.

And I hope today will mark the start, at long last, of a one-year period by the end of which I’ll have written (finally, after years of delay) a book, with the working title Conservatism for Punks, explaining all this and more in greater detail — and I’ll start updating you on my progress, just to give me an added incentive to avoid procrastinating.

But maybe we can discuss all that tonight at the bar after the aforementioned debate — which, after all, features punk singer Tibbie X defending the “right-leaning” position, to the chagrin of some of her subcultural compatriots.

P.S. Our debate after that is shaping up to be a Sept. 5 clash, also at Lolita Bar, on the question “Is Muslim Immigration a Threat to Democracy?” — but more on that later.