Monday, March 31, 2008

Book Selection of the "Month Without Buckley" (which ends today): William F. Buckley's "Getting It Right"


One other book-related note before we begin: my review of Matthew Parker’s Panama Fever, about the building of the Panama Canal, was in the Sunday New York Post (delayed from last week). As it happens, the next page had a review of a book about the 1950s Congressional hearings that were used to persecute the comic book industry, and the page after that had reviews of books on the pharmaceutical industry and Gen X pop culture, all topics close to my heart.

The evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould attributed some of his core insights to his youthful Marxism, but one of them strikes me as being far more conservative than Marxist: the idea of “radical contingency.” This is not an escape plan for dealing with street warfare during an insurrection but rather the point — very difficult to impress upon narrative-loving human brains — that each step in history (whether biological or historical) must simply follow causally from whatever the prior step is. There is no (apparent) master plan, teleology, or “direction” to things (no evidence for either Marxist Iron Laws of History or a Divine Plan). If rat-like creatures come to dominate the Earth in a million years, it will be in part simply because there were rats all over the place in preceding centuries rather than because ALL PRIOR HISTORY WAS DIRECTED TOWARD THE PLATONIC IDEAL OF RATNESS. Or as my science-buff friend Chuck Blake once put it, evolution is just a bunch of “lame hacks” based on whatever was at hand in the previous generation.

Similarly, one of the chief virtues of conservatism as opposed to radicalism (even the libertarian kind of radicalism, which I like) is that it recognizes (or at least is supposed to) that the world cannot be remade from scratch just because someone comes up with a fantastic idea for how things “ought to be.” That is not to say — as non-ideological people all too often do — that because some course of action would be a big departure from current practice, it ought not even to be attempted or used as a measure of real-world progress. It just means that to get to There, you have absolutely no choice — none — but to start from Here, no matter how much you despise Here.

So, much that now appears “inevitable” in retrospect — solidified in our minds as it is by post hoc narrative retellings — could have gone quite differently. You might never have met your spouse if you’d gone back for that second drink at the party, despite what the romantics tell you — and the conservative movement, for good or ill, might well have been dominated by the anti-Communist conspiracy theorists of the John Birch Society or the libertarians associated with Ayn Rand had things gone differently in the early 60s, as Buckley reminds us in his novel Getting Things Right, in which the Society, Rand, Buckley himself, and numerous other real-world political figures play roles big and small, held together by the fictional romance of an assistant to Robert Welch (founder of the John Birch Society) and an assistant to Barbara Branden (a member of the Rand circle).

For people uninterested in political history, this novel might just seem like a bunch of odd anecdotes strung together, filled with unfamiliar names. For the rest of us, this is ideological crack of the finest quality.

Even if, as is entirely likely, Buckley used a ghostwriter and young researchers more eager than he to dig up details about Rand and company, the novel suggests just how seriously he took his rivals for leadership of the movement. I’ve often heard about Buckley reading the Birchers and Randians out of the movement, but this novel makes clear that was no casual, high-handed, or dismissive move — it was, or certainly seemed at the time, a tactical necessity for holding together the Goldwater campaign coalition, the watershed event that made conservatism the dominant force (it wasn’t always) within the Republican Party.

From the novel, too, one gets the impression that if other conservatives thought they could do without Rand, it wasn’t because they didn’t understand or didn’t care about her radical anti-statism but because at that time, all conservatives took it for granted that the good guys would fight against Communism abroad and creeping socialism at home. Why add Bircher conspiracy theories or divisive anti-altruist atheism to the mix when everyone, in essence, was already a libertarian, more or less?


Alas, much has been forgotten or lost since then — and if we had it all to do over, maybe we would have been better off with more Rand and less religion, even if it meant more time in the electoral wilderness. But it’s still a tough call. As Al Regnery — both a publisher of and character in the Buckley novel — noted in his recent speech to the New York Young Republican Club, it is fair to see the predominance of the religious right today as a sad commentary on the withering of other conservative factions — yet in Congress, it is often the religious-right politicians, even more so than those ostensibly elected for “fiscal conservative” purposes — who hold fast to free-market principles, for the simple reason that religious zealots are accustomed to holding fast to principles without much regard for earthly consequences.

Who am I, a marginal anarchist-atheist-determinist, to tell people pursuing a potentially-popular blend of constitutionalism, religion, and by-your-own-bootstraps belief in free will (three things Americans clearly love, according to polls, and three things I’m not sure I’d want them to discard overnight) that they don’t know how to build a successful conservative political coalition? As the commenter nicknamed “Brain” said in response to my prior post, if I find myself looking with even the slightest interest at a Mike Gravel/Bob Barr coalition for salvation, my plan for victory has probably already failed badly.

Then again: there is something to be said for the long-term battle for clear ideas, present-day electoral coalitions notwithstanding. In some ways, things like David Mamet’s conversion to free-market conservatism — or simply the growing willingness of intellectuals to talk openly about changing their minds on things — are more promising signs than the teeth-gritted ability to hold together a ramshackle and sometimes-winning coalition (as a certain Rand-inspired rock band sings, “the men who hold high places must be the ones to start…”). Intellectual history, like biology and political history, has to start from Where We Are Now — but it doesn’t have to end there. And though this year’s presidential election and whatever legislation is currently up for debate matters more in the short run than philosophy, philosophy has a way of subtly steering things in the long run.

And if the goal is not merely “getting it right” in the sense of “being perfectly, truly conservative (or libertarian, or what have you)” but really “figuring out the truth even if it means discarding some beloved ideas, adopting some previously-hated ones, and altering others,” then we should never let battles over labels and tribal affiliations become a substitute for the deeper, subtler, harder, and more humbling work of figuring out how the universe works. I’m not sure what the winning mix of ideas a century from now will look like, but I hope it will closely approximate the truth rather than closely approximating the winning-mix-of-2008, and I for one am very interested in getting at least a century ahead of the game.

P.S. And, yes, for anyone who was wondering: that was an actual case of radically conjoined twins in the picture accompanying yesterday’s post: one body, two twin heads with independent and fairly normal personalities, and let anyone who desperately needs distinctions and definitions and dividing lines to be clear-cut dwell on that for a while. And if you get bored with that, feel free to post comments about whether you could date two women with one body, if it came to that. I’m inclined to think men would be more willing to date two heads with one female body than women would be to date two heads with one male body, but I admit this is tangential to the political themes addressed above.

P.P.S. And tomorrow I discuss my April (Fool’s) Book Selection of the Month, Rapture Ready! by Daniel Radosh, who, remember, you can meet the next day, Wednesday, April 2 at 8pm at the debate I’ll host at Lolita Bar featuring him vs. Brian McCarter on the question “Does Christian Rock Suck?”

Sunday, March 30, 2008

I Want Fusionism, Not Merely Any Old "Fusion Ticket"

With a certain longshot libertarian Republican presidential candidate having, inevitably, failed to get the GOP nomination (and having been all-too-aptly skewered in this cartoon forwarded by Marcia Baczynski) and having said he won’t seek the Libertarian Party nomination (his Quixotic followers now turning their attention, I’m told, to organizing April anti-Fed and anti-IRS protests), it’s tempting to instead look to the LP for a possible Mike Gravel/Bob Barr ex-Democrat/ex-Republican fusion ticket — but it’s worth remembering that (Buckleyesque) fusionism, not just fusion, is the goal.

(I actually inquired about registering Independent with the Registrar of Voters when I first moved to New York City, lest anyone think I’m just a gung-ho partisan, and I was told the closest thing I could pick was “Independence Fusion Party,” the innocuous-sounding but deranged and Marxist political organization of the activist Lenora Fulani, who, like so many other campaign-funds-seekers, went on to try fusing with the Reform Party, necessitating a brief, profoundly weird alliance with Pat Buchanan in 2000.)

In this Year of Obama, it’s easy to forget sometimes that finding common ground, blending opposites, and uniting different elements is not necessarily a valuable accomplishment.  Tempting as it is to think that if the two major parties would just find some way to come together and stop fighting, all our problems would be solved, it’s the wider world that presents us with problems to be solved, not just overheated electoral politics.  The Democrats and Republicans could learn to love each other so much that they decided to fuse into one happy party, perhaps called the Repocrats, and we’d still be profoundly screwed policywise and perhaps even become, as a nation, more comfortable embracing stupid spending and regulatory ideas, since, at long last, “We’re all the same team, hurray, all of us in this together!”

That’s the last thing we need.  We are not all in this together.  We are 300 million people — 6 billion, really — with wildly differing agendas, and anyone trying to replace that delightful diversity with one unifying vision (“East and West!” “Democrats and Republicans, working together!” “Bipartisan solutions!”) is a totalitarian monster at heart, warmed by the thought of everyone sharing his goals and plans in much the same way kings of old no doubt thought themselves at their most warm-hearted when surveying the masses prostrate as one before them, looked upon with condescending love from the throne.  Trust least anyone who speaks of unity or the brotherhood of Man.


Don’t get me wrong — if fusionism of some sort is my goal, I have to look with some excitement upon developments like the new Gravel/Barr camaraderie.  A coalition stretching from Greens to militia-like Bob Barr fans would be big enough to at least make the two major parties worried about close states, for good or ill.

Such a fusion would effectively make the LP part of a new Reform Party-like grab bag of the disgruntled, though, and “being fed up with the current system” doesn’t necessarily lead to someplace better.  And don’t ever say “Things couldn’t get any worse.”  As my Arkansas state rep pal Dan Greenberg wisely says, “Things can always get worse.”

I would describe Americans’ current mood as annoyed rather than revolutionary, though, so I don’t think they’ll be much more likely to grab a drink down at the Gravel Barr than they were to join the libertarian-conservative Love Revolution earlier this year.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Disappointing Candidates and the Obama-Clinton Death Struggle


Much as the left enjoys acting as if conservatives are persecuting them at every turn, it’s interesting that the conservative movement — with five and a half decades of work by Buckley and his associates, not to mention all that preceded them — can’t even get one of their men nominated by the Republican Party. If the twin pillars of Buckely-era conservatism were a passion for markets and a dedication to tradition, conservatives must look with despair upon two defining quotes from their ostensible standard-bearer, John McCain:

•“I don’t understand economics.”

•[When asked about cultural conservatism:] “It’s not the social issues I care about.”

And he’s been unreliable on tax cuts, less than hardcore on some of the Bush national security issues (for good or ill), in favor of global warming regulations, and in favor of restrictions on certain forms of campaign ads. I’m not sure he’s even that much more hawkish, if you’re into that, than countless other politicians.

Nonetheless: Hillary Clinton is a chronically-lying, devious socialist, and both she and Barack Obama are so contemptuous of markets that they’ve talked about pulling out of NAFTA and both see more spending and regulation as solutions to our economic woes rather than, as they plainly would be, added burdens — nor is it even clear whether they care about having consistent positions on NAFTA, a pretty clear-cut disqualification for the office of the President, to my mind.

One almost has to feel sorry for Hillary, though, seeing laughable Obama-adoring news headlines like this one from last month: “Obama’s Crowds Are Awesome for So Early.” Did one of his numerous college-age supporters write that headline? (And Obama has ties to Brown University, always a warning sign — meanwhile, MoveOn has been encouraging people to create video ads for Obama, sort of ironic considering the group’s very name is derived from its origins as a “move on past impeachment so the Clintons can continue their great work” group.) And whether he ends up with Hillary, Bloomberg (?!?), or even Al Gore as a running mate, it’ll still just be an interesting blend of bad things, which we should never be dazzled into forgetting.

Back to hoping for McCain, out of the likely possibilities, it is, then, and as long as he stays above the fray while Clinton and Obama destroy each other, he might just win in a landslide. You have to imagine that even now numerous just-in-case book proposals with titles like Death Embrace: How the Clinton and Obama Campaigns Destroyed Each Other — and Democratic Hopes for the White House are crossing the desks of publishers all over this town.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Retro-Journal: The Peak of Your Civilization in Early 1999

What was a typical day like for the common man in the year 1999 A.D.?

My notes suggest it entailed going to a party organized by Daily Show writer Jon Bines and hosted by Love Boat cast member turned Republican congressman Fred “Gopher” Grandy to benefit a comedy troupe, accompanied by bigtime media lawyer Stephanie Abrutyn (much too smart to get involved with a guy who doesn’t want kids) and there bumping once more into Jill Pope, mentioned in a prior Retro-Journal entry as a figure contributing to my Slaughterhouse Five-like detachment from the timestream.

(“Hey, it’s me!” was her boldly vague but well-deserved intro after what may have been a five-year gap since perhaps the only time I’d met her — I think I’d next bump into her five years later through Daniel Radosh, whose new book I’ll review on this site Tuesday and whose debate against Brian McCarter on the subject of Christian rock and its degree of suckiness I’ll host on Wednesday at 8pm at Lolita Bar.)

But I’m not the one whose judgment about whether the media-saturated world of 1999 was good matters: Agent Smith, the villain in The Matrix, is the one who, from his vantage point centuries later, called 1999 “the peak of your civilization,” the happy, bustling time period on which the virtual reality of the Matrix was based.

This was an amazing script line on the part of the Wachowski Siblings, I think. I mean, here they were, working in a genre (sci-fi) full of doomsday warnings, in a subgenre (cyberpunk) all about media dystopias, in a plot about robots enslaving mankind, in a film filled with implicit endorsements of radical-left liberationist ideas from environmentalism to Marxism to s&m subculture — yet they still have enough admiration for the present day to hold it up as a hustling, bustling peak of civilization, like “the glory that was Rome,” worthy of imitation even by coldly objective robot conquerors.

Even with vague worries about Y2K computer glitches and millennial terrorism starting to nag at us, we, as a civilization, were in love with ourselves in 1999, and it felt right.


And The Matrix did not exactly arise from a sci-fi subgenre known for its upbeat take on present-day society. “Cyberpunk,” a term coined by a short story with that title that came out in November 1983, really existed as an aesthetic before the term was coined. There were precursors — any sci-fi that seemed to revel more in extrapolating from present-day media trends and media technology than from classic engineering and physics technology, I’d say, with an emphasis on social and psychological near-future effects rather than whole new worlds.

Michael Moorcock with his amoral media star heroes and Philip K. Dick with his videotape-editing schizophrenic drug-user characters — and the 1982 film Blade Runner inspired by his work — are obvious forefathers. William Gibson was writing in this mode in short stories even before his 1984 novel Neuromancer became the dictionary example of the genre. And though it’s still not entirely cool for intellectuals or the masses to admit their world has been created by comic books (better Agent Smith’s robot slavemasters than that!), I suspect comic books had a lot more to do with shaping cyberpunk (and thus the default quasi-sci-fi, quasi-psychedelic rhetoric in which the Web was often described in the 90s) than we usually admit.

Again, the term “cyberpunk” wasn’t even coined until 1983, but by then we’d seen:

•Deathlok, the time-traveling rogue government agent cyborg in Marvel Comics (1974)

•Ronin, the ninja displaced into a high-tech cybernetic dystopia influenced by anime, created by Frank Miller (July 1983)

•Thriller, not the Michael Jackson album but the way-ahead-of-its-time (or should I say “Seven Seconds into the future,” for those precious tiny few who know?) DC Comics character and series — a ghostly Catholic woman in a cable-TV-dominated future fighting computer viruses and Islamic terrorism, I kid you not, with the help of family members like her brother, the skilled and goth-looking gunman Anthony “Salvo” Salvotini, whose flesh she can remold (for example) to produce strategically useful eyeballs in the palms of his hands — with both of the heroes watched over by their nine-foot-tall genetically-engineered family priest, Beaker Parish (get it?), all of it brilliantly drawn by Trevor von Eeden in a sketchy style that made the whole techno-dystopian, New Wave-influenced world look like it was literally going by in a blur (November 1983 — the same month the short story “Cyberpunk” appeared)

•The X-Men stories of Chris Claremont who early on tapped into the same cybernetic forces in the zeitgeist, complete with the orientalism (Wolverine encountering high-tech samurai), the punk (Storm, I am convinced, based her outfit on the lead singer of the Plasmastics, Wendy O’Williams, during one period in the comics when she lost her weather-altering abilities and was thus able to cut loose and get emotional for a change — subtle layers to the character’s psyche that, to put it mildly, were never reflected in the Halle Berry version), and even the weird cyberpunk fetish for wisecracking teenage girls (Jubilee, after whom downtown New York comedienne, event hostess, and comics fan Michele Carlo named her cat, by the way).

In perhaps his most giddily early-80s-cyberpunk move, Claremont created the larger-than-life character Lila Cheney, who is — brace yourself — a cute but amoral punk with unlimited teleportation powers who has thus become a rock star throughout the universe and makes her home (and stages some of her concerts) on an abandoned Dyson sphere (a gigantic, hollow artificial planet surrounding a star) created by some ancient alien race.

The Wachowskis worked for Marvel for a while and were well-versed in all this stuff (and no doubt read The Invisibles by Grant Morrison, my favorite comics writer [responsible for what will be my May Book Selection, the impending Final Crisis miniseries], who complains the Wachowskis ripped him off — but then, the Wachowskis borrowed from dozens of places, and we love them for it, or at least the first movie). And for all its machine gun battles and killer cyborgs and environmental sermons, it all seems born of an underlying optimism, a love of technology and progress subtly but significantly different from the more panicked and serious tone of the post-9/11 world, even post-9/11 frivolity like that of and Family Guy, marked as they are by a new viciousness and urgency that wasn’t yet dominant in the 90s — but more on 9/11, obviously, in five weeks.


One living embodiment of this peak time of civilization, for me, was my neighbor Katherine Taylor, a classy (and libertarian) dame with a theatre background who worked as a bartender for a time (once being treated a bit condescendingly by a customer who was one of my acquaintances, as I recall, which just goes to show you shouldn’t assume you know whether you’re in the company of your superiors, though the wit and beauty should have been a hint to my acquaintance) at establishments including one co-owned by Quentin Tarantino (as much an embodiment of early-90s retro-irony as The Matrix was an embodiment of late-90s cyberoptimism) and Lucy Liu (star of Charlie’s Angels, which so well summed up that mid-90s period when half the action movies had giant budgets and not an iota of realism but were sometimes cartoonish fun anyway, like The Big Hit and Lost in Space). Katherine would go on to win the Pushcart Prize and other accolades for her fiction writing, eventually becoming the author of one of my Book Selections, Rules for Saying Goodbye, and one of our debaters at Lolita Bar.

She was also one of the first people to explicitly share with me the fear that this whole cyber-culture was a bit of a bubble waiting to pop, since she worked briefly for an ambitious but failed site called Lavaspoon with which I’d actually interviewed as well, growing suspicious when I noticed that they had not only failed to get back to me about working with them but didn’t even seem to have gotten around to getting all their office phones hooked up or their logo designed yet — despite ostensibly having over a million dollars at their disposal. My techno-optimism was becoming tinged with nervousness.

Katherine is flourishing without Lavaspoon, though, and as I type this, I think she’s between a trip to Paris and a glacier-climbing expedition to Patagonia.

And indeed, two cosmopolitan friends of Katherine (meaning international in this case, not cosmo-drinking), males visiting from the UK who surprised me by getting manicures while they were in Manhattan — and swear to me that straight males do this all the time in Europe (perhaps a side effect of socialism) — were pivotal in pushing me into making an important travel decision: They encouraged me to try visiting India, as I’d been contemplating doing, and so I’d do just that later that year, with new girlfriend Indrani Nicodemus (who’d worked with Keanu Reeves once back when she lived in L.A., as it happens — one of many reasons the people at Page Six should get to know her).

Thursday, March 27, 2008

DEBATE AT LOLITA BAR: Does Christian Rock Suck?


“Does Christian Rock Suck?” — with former rock singer Brian McCarter (yes) vs. Rapture Ready! author Daniel Radosh (no). Michel Evanchik moderates, and Todd Seavey hosts. Wed., April 2, at 8pm.

Just to keep things interesting, you’ll note we have a rocker and God-believer from South Carolina arguing yes, it does suck and arguing no, it does not suck will be self-proclaimed “ignostic,” Jewish, New York humor writer (author of a book on his tour of Christian pop culture, which will be my Book Selection for April Fool’s Day, when it’s released). And expect some singing/playing from McCarter and song samples from Radosh.

Free admission, cash bar. The debates, usually pitting two opponents against each other (in a civil and often humorous fashion), take place on the basement level of Lolita Bar at 266 Broome St. at the corner of Allen St. on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, one block south and three west of the Delancey St. F, J, M, Z subway stop.

I think Radosh will make the case for Christian rock narrowly defined — stuff by self-consciously Christian-first rock bands — but I must say, his case would become “all too easy” (as the Sith Lord once said) if he included Christian-themed songs by mainstream rock bands, like “All You Zombies” by the Hooters, “Sanctify Yourself” by Simple Minds (whose “Don’t You” I just sang in karaoke last week), “I Still Believe” by the Call, or “Gloria” by U2 — which has Latin, no less.

On a related note, here’s video of rock-writer-turned-Christian Dawn Eden giving away a bunch of stuff from the days when she rocked — with atheist cameo by me. And on a non-religious note from the heathen nation of France (a magnet for fabulous babes), here’s Nouvelle Vague doing their “Girl from Ipanema”-style rendition of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

Weirder still, here’s an amateur montage from Silence of the Lambs accompanied by a great song inspired by it — done in the style of the 60s rock Dawn Eden loves, as it happens — the Greenskeepers’ beautiful and creepy “Lotion.” Gives “eat of my flesh” a whole new meaning.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

...And Finally a Synthesis: Presidential Candidate Switches to Libertarian Party


Effective as it might be to turn one of the larger political factions in a libertarian direction — either bringing conservatives to their government-limiting senses or, less plausibly, getting people to see libertarianism as the forgotten foundation of liberalism — it might be libertarianism’s (humbler, slower) fate to grow by serving as a neutral ground to which refugees from left and right escape.

As if to illustrate that point, a long-shot major-party presidential candidate has announced his intention to continue his run as a Libertarian Party candidate — and it’s not who you might expect. Nader-approved ex-Democrat Mike Gravel has made the switch, as I am informed by New York Times bestselling author and Go-Go’s fan (I happen to be listening to Beauty and the Beat as I type this) Michael Malice.

As I’ve said before, some mutual admiration between Gravel and libertarians doesn’t mean I think Gravel’s anticorporate philosophy is actually compatible with libertarianism properly understood, but it’s nice to see the LP become a sort of safe haven for people with principles, even slightly incoherent ones. Better the LP than the Green Party, after all — as long as the LP doesn’t simply become (as it was in its early-to-middle days even more than it is now, if you ask me) a Reform Party-like catch-basin for disaffected loons of all stripes.

Then again, the Reform Party gave us Jesse “the Mind” Ventura, who I was at one point hoping might be the centrist/libertarian system-smasher we may need — and who recently hinted he may yet run for president. I don’t think opting out of the whole “two-party system” is the easiest route to victory, but a truly broadminded fusionist — one who thinks beyond the limits of Buckley’s old coalition — has to keep his options open, tempting as it always is to hunker down and become calcified. How wonderful it would be if libertarianism were at least a mushy common ground on which society’s factional disputes, even horribly confused ones, about right and left routinely occurred, in the way that liberalism’s assumptions tend to be its default conversational backdrop now.

But this weekend, as this blog’s “Month Without Buckley” draws to a close, let’s take a closer look at how Buckley crafted — and policed — his coalition, by reviewing his novel about it all from five years ago: Getting It Right, featuring special slightly-fictionalized guest stars Ayn Rand and the John Birch Society!

EPILOGUE: Today’s little exercise in dialectical synthesis comes on what happens to be the one-year anniversary of this blog’s first real-time post, though I posted some experimental pre-launch material before that March 26, 2007 entry and some retroactive archival material later, for anyone (besides me) trying to keep that straight.  Have we learned anything in this first year?  I suppose I’ve learned that after the “Month Without Buckley” I need to switch to doing short little entries — or rather, after my April Fool’s Day review of Daniel Radosh’s book Rapture Ready! — which you can ask him to sign after the debate he appears in one week from tonight at Lolita Bar (April 2, 8pm).

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

On the Left Hand...


Since I sounded pessimistic about conservatism in my last entry, since there are currently only two significant ideological factions in the U.S., and since people inevitably think that if you sound like you’re souring on one thing you must therefore embrace its rival, I should perhaps post a very-basic reminder of how deeply unacceptable liberalism is, regardless of conservatism’s current problems. Keep in mind that since I think it’s fairly obvious governments cause harm by interfering with vastly more efficient voluntary human activity in the free market, any time I suggest a political philosophy or faction is failing, I essentially mean failing in the one worthwhile political task, restraining government — and even “anarchism,” by embracing the trade-restricting cause of antiglobalization in recent years, has disgracefully abandoned that most basic of political tasks. But about liberalism:

It’s worth noting liberalism failed before conservatism did, as you may recall — liberalism is a form of hypnosis, you might say (not that I believe in hypnosis), in which mesmerists (in the form of philosophers, politicians, lawyers, and college professors) keep chanting “individual rights…constitutionalism…personal autonomy…”all of which sounds great — except that somehow when the chanting stops you find that your money’s been stolen, regulation controls every aspect of your life, and bureaucrats are making a pathetic attempt to replace your dying culture with pamphlets from the CDC and the Department of Labor. And this is no accident: liberalism was, in a sense, too highbrow from the get-go, replacing the old, real aristocracy with a new one ensconced in parliaments and college campuses.

As long as people passively assume that their lives are rightly run, for their own good, by the outside forces of law, regulation, elite expertise, and complex “theory,” they’ll inevitably surrender their liberty, gradually, to the self-serving and self-congratulatory eggheads. That’s why we should all be sifting the ruins of conservatism for signs of hope, not deluding ourselves that cozying up to the liberals will turn them into friends of freedom.

If freedom is to survive, we would be better off with generations of children growing up, in arch-conservative fashion, singing patriotic songs about why when the taxman comes to take our land “he deserves to get shot in the face, bang bang, in the face, bang bang!” (I just wrote that — as a hypothetical example of a culture shift, not a recommendation for a current course of action, I should add) than with a six-volume explanation of why John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, when read sideways, yields results that are not 100% antithetical to everything free, libertarian people believe.

Democracy, constitutionalism, and liberalism are all expendable — and in liberalism’s case even undesirable — while property rights are essential, and for all conservatism’s failures, it has at least produced a vague cowboy-individualist ethos sometimes capable of inspiring people to shoot at the taxman or the invading communist. I do not see the evidence that liberalism, over the long haul, in a sustainable way, is capable of inspiring that sort of action, which makes it useless no matter how much — or perhaps even especially because — it looks on paper so similar to the language of liberty.

The government, quite simply, is coming to take everything from you that it can. Is liberalism really any way to scare them off? Or just a complex language for rationalizing oppression and showing how it can be discussed endlessly, reconciled with the theories of Habermas, seen in the light of nineteenth-century feminist struggles, blah blah blah blah, while taxes rise and the EPA issues fines and people go to jail for dumping dirt in duck ponds without filing environmental impact statements?

We not only need an anti-government ethos, we need one to which the common man feels a traditional, even tribalistic allegiance — the sort of thing that rouses a man to get the flintlock down from the mantle, not just the sort of thing that lawyers and political philosophers find “worthy of discussion.” Conservatism is felt in the bones, liberalism is discussed in academia. Conservatism, then, must be made to serve liberty, since liberalism is too thin a gruel to get the job done, too easily watered down further with the latest statist ideas.

Nadine Strossen of the ACLU is a prime example of why liberalism can’t save us: She is wrong on virtually every issue, as many of my fellow libertarians have somehow failed to notice — she favors gun control, forcing shopping malls to allow forms of speech they dislike, and a host of other property-thwarting behaviors — yet because she speaks the language of liberalism and is happy to attend libertarian events, we are lulled into thinking her way leads to freedom. It doesn’t. Better the NRA — though it, too, is too pro-government and pro-gun-control, I hasten to add — than the ACLU. And I see this pattern again and again.

Buckley once said that if he were on trial he’d rather have his jury be the first twelve citizens out of the phone book than twelve Ivy League faculty members. Likewise, we should never forget that it’s better to be left free by neighbors who think “Jesus hates taxes” (for example) than to be taxed by neighbors who find John Stuart Mill “fascinating” but also really, really dig, say, Robert Kuttner from The American Prospect magazine and tax and regulate you accordingly.

I am aware of conservatism’s flaws — as are more and more conservatives, fortunately — but that’s still where we need to look for lessons and answers, even if there are very few, since the liberal tradition sold out — and sold us into slavery — a century ago. Conservatives are still capable of feeling guilt for abandoning the libertarian principles among their various conflicting impulses. Few liberals even know that liberalism ever had any libertarian principles — beyond the tiny, tiny handful of freedoms useful for the specific, strategic purpose of fighting or enraging conservatives (the right to blaspheme, get naked, be a lesbian, or stage anti-military protests — not that I’m knocking those freedoms, you understand). Conservatism is broken, but liberalism is the great destroyer.

Monday, March 24, 2008

How Lost Is Our Cause?

I mentioned the triumph over European Communism as a high point in human history yesterday — but on a more pessimistic note, it’s worth remembering how weak the cause of conservatism, particularly free-market fiscal conservatism, really is in Europe (though avoiding outright socialist totalitarianism is of course reason to rejoice).  And I wonder: to what extent is Europe a glimpse of the future of American politics as well?

Are we now seeing not some fleeting market correction but the beginning of the kind of permanent economic sclerosis that afflicts places like Italy?  At best, is becoming like England — with its right (despite recent signs of life) almost reduced to ceremonial status at this point — our (somewhat ironic) destiny?  Like Eisenhower, the right in England seems to remain tolerated only to the extent it makes clear its belief that actually rolling back (rather than tweaking/reforming) the welfare state is unthinkable.  Why bother even fighting for that?
Of course…people (such as a feisty and problem-tackling President McCain, even if he lacked clear principles) might be willing to make budget cuts in a big enough crisis…

And if not, becoming England is at least a better fate than being saddled with the far nastier and less libertarian Continental-style left and right, with socialists on one side and on the other side senile aristocrats race-baiting the immigrants and dreaming of restoring monarchy, to oversimplify the situation just a bit.

Or, on a more philosophical note: how badly does American conservatism have to fail before we’re allowed to say the whole enterprise may have started from bad premises — that religion was never a real guarantor of liberty, that patriotism leads to excessive faith in government and thus passivity, that hatred of countercultures may have encouraged anti-intellectualism (which in turn impeded necessary critical analysis and fostered conformism), that snotty traditionalism (in which Buckley sometimes indulged) may have lost us rising generations naturally wary of their elders, that national pride and well-meaning belief in moral absolutes may have led inevitably to poor and simplistic war-planning?

How deeply self-critical is the right willing to be without becoming frightened by the prospect that it might thereby cease to be (recognizably) the right?  How critical can I be before I cease to be regarded as a friendly critic, and before the defensive shields go into place?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Book Selections of the Month: Popery, Politics, and Panama

If all goes as planned, my New York Post review of Matthew Parker’s Panama Fever, about the building of the Canal, will be printed today, and it will eventually be linked right here regardless of when it appears (if it does).  But also read below for something more Easter-appropriate, of which Buckley no doubt would have approved: me saying nice things about Pope John Paul II.

•Since I spent most of last month denouncing religion on this blog — but since my objection has always been more to religion’s underlying epistemological claims rather than its social effects per se — today seems like a good time to acknowledge that religion sometimes has beneficial social effects. And indeed, the book The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister — by one of Buckley’s successors as National Review editor, John O’Sullivan — is a reminder of one of the most important social effects religion has ever had, helping to start the unraveling of European Communism. For that was indeed the greatest-ever achievement of the three-pronged conservative coalition: Western military might, free-market economics, and tradition, the last of the three embodied by Pope John Paul II, who helped inspire his fellow Poles in particular to see that Communism was a morally bankrupt and inhumane system that could not last — a conviction shared by Reagan and Thatcher. How much nobler that Pope’s influence was than the influence of radical Islam’s imams or for that matter Obama’s minister.

•And if O’Sullivan’s book is a serviceable little exemplar of the conservative spirit, it strikes me that Judy Seigel’s photojournalistic book [Read My T-Shirt] for President isn’t such a bad encapsulation of the contrary leftist spirit — immediacy and action taking precedence over the majestic sweep of history, as she chronicles dozens and dozens of mostly Bush-bashing t-shirt slogans and designs from this decade — which frankly started to grate on me more than I expected after a while, like hearing children come up with endless taunting rhymes. I’m sure every goateed, compassionate activist Seigel captures feels he is doing the right thing, but after a while, the parade of sloganeers started to make me feel as if I were hearing the endless hateful epithets of a Klan rally or some similarly mindless frenzy. I started reading the book with a genuine sense of tolerance and fun — and still commend Seigel for recording all that she saw — but by the end of it I was almost rooting for a last-page picture of the whole lot getting teargassed.

•Finally, to right and left I must add libertarian, my own faction, and John Lott — for all his fishy use of statistics and online sock puppets — assembles a fine collection of basic libertarian economic arguments in his retort to Freakonomics called Freedomnomics, an always-welcome effort to explain the basics of free-market thinking to the layman, who could certainly use it.

Right, left, libertarian — three books and three different sorts of “argument” — from history, personal involvement, and rational deduction. There’s something to be learned from them all.

And in merely eight days, I shall return unto you, with my special April Fool’s Day Book Selection: Daniel Radosh’s Rapture Ready! (one day after which, remember, he’ll appear in our April 2, 8pm, Debate at Lolita Bar).

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Top Ten Musical Oddities of the Week

10. I’m out of town and likely doing some karaoke while I’m at, but other items on this list will certainly be on my mind while I’m at it.

9. I finally saw the drum set of my friend Hannah Meyers — who recently created the amusing New Wave-parodying song “Emoticons Turn Me Off” (which you can find on her webpage) — but saw it under about the worst possible circumstances, with her family and friends gathering to mourn her brother Isaac, who passed away this week in a car accident — young, Yale-educated, conservative, and possessed of a sizable comic book collection, as I saw with my own eyes (glimpsing the classic, funereal graphic novel The Death of Captain Marvel in the heap in his room).

8. I had just been thinking the day before about the death and short life of deranged and out-of-control punk rocker GG Allin — wondering whether his life would have been better had he lived longer or whether it had a certain completeness and narrative arc to it the way it was, like that of Jesus, after whom he was named and to whom he’s sure to be paralleled in any future movie about his strange, disturbing life (not quite an Easter story, as you’ll see if you read the Wikpedia entry about him — and, to put it mildly, not quite as easily reconciled with the conservative sensibility as some other aspects of punk that I care about more).

7. I’d been thinking of Allin because his name appears on the short list of examples-of-things-we-play on perfect online music station — which also lists Patsy Cline as an example, another reminder that the station, whose creators I feel like befriending, seems somehow to have tapped directly into my and my friends’ brains and read our preferences, from New Wave to blues — but then, all the dive bars that play both Johnny Cash and the Pixies seem to have our number, too, so we’re not alone, much as we might like to be. And DevilsNight seemed to know I needed a bit more New Wave and obliged me with Epoxies — and then with my favorite non-Top-40 INXS song, the eerily beautiful “Johnson’s Aeroplane.”

6. Daniel Radosh, whose book Rapture Ready! about Christian pop culture will be my April Book Selection (when the book is released, on April Fool’s Day), mailed me and others a promotional CD of Christian rock mentioned in his book –the kind of stuff he’ll bravely defend in his April 2 Debate at Lolita Bar (hosted by me) on the question “Does Christian Rock Suck?” with God-believer and rocker Brian McCarter, cast against type, arguing yes.

5. Irwin Chusid informs me that the odd cover we heard of one of my favorite songs, “Burning Down the House,” was by none other than Tom Jones and the Cardigans.

4. Not to be outdone by Wales, Scotland’s Grant Morrison — my favorite comic book writer, as you’ll be reminded when I make issue #1 of his impending series Final Crisis my May Book Selection — also rocks, and not half badly, at least not twenty years ago, when he sang “Tortured Soul” with his band the Fauves (not the later Australian band of the same art-movement-inspired name), as noted this week by the comic industry’s premier gossip columnist, Rich Johnston. The Fauves reportedly broke up after the drummer left, complaining that Morrison’s “poovy” songs were too Morrissey-influenced, not hard to believe considering that I recall Smiths-song references even making it into Morrison’s comic books back then, as in the Doom Patrol story (one of the first things by him I read) in which the old DC Comics villains Mallah and the Brain, a talking French gorilla and a brain in a vat on tank treads, confess their gay love just before being blown up, leaving us with the lyrical narration “Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body? I don’t know.”

3. On a vaguely similar note, I have to confess I only just learned that Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus are in fact the same person.

2. On another body-vs.-spirit note, there’s apparently a movie in the works about the Christian lead singer of Alice in Chains, who died of a heroin overdose — making them just one of numerous major 90s alternative rock bands felled by heroin, without much corresponding generalized outcry against the habit at the time, from what I recall.

1. My friend Paul Taylor just mailed me DVDs of our old home movies from childhood, such as a mock-ad for a line of action figures based on every embarrassing detail we could think of from our friend John Hersh’s life, climaxed (to the tune of the G.I. Joe theme song) by the martial lyrics “Yo, John Hersh in the Chicken Palace — a real American lame-o.” I know it sounds very wrong, and yet I’m going to have to set aside about a day to fully enjoy these. By contrast, I may skip next year’s actual live-action G.I. Joe movie, to protest them turning “G.I. JOE” into an acronym for an international anti-terrorism taskforce headquartered in — I almost can’t type it without vomiting — Belgium.

But for more on geopolitics and the Cold War worldview, come back tomorrow for my Book Selections of the Month, with a dash of Pope John Paul II just in time for Easter, as Buckley would have wanted it.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Retro-Journal: Sex and Voodoo in Late 1998

Late in the Year of Lewinsky (when the Republicans lost some seats in Congress and Newt Gingrich resigned, the impeaching of Bill Clinton having worked against them), I was reminded that Brown, from which I’d graduated, seemed to produce sexually adventurous people almost as frequently as Washington, DC does.

•Brown alum and fellow New York Press writer Amy Sohn published a book about her sex life. (Come to think of it, though, she never did e-mail me her fictional story likening sex to the trash compactor scene in Star Wars.)

•And I dated the faux-aristocratic daughter of an AmGen and McKinsey founder, despite her constant comparisons of me to her father — comparisons in which, needless to say, I tended to come off looking fairly lame (I had not yet founded a mammoth biotech or consulting firm, for one thing) — and her occasional complaints that her upbringing in Denmark and aversion to rock music had left her unable to stomach American pop culture, a conflict that culminated in her literally getting a headache from her disgust during our visit to Disneyland — not that I’m saying that makes her a bad person, and at a time when the swing revival was going on, her fondness for tunes from the Big Band era arguably made her hipper than I in some ways. Regardless, it all ended after a ski weekend in Vermont during which I quite consciously thought, “Well, if she dumps me this weekend, at least I brought these interesting comic books to read — and this new ‘Hypertime’ idea introduced in one of them is a bit like a multiverse, a reminder that reality is full of possibilities.”

Yet there are limits to what is possible, dictated by the inescapable laws of logic, physics, and economics. People often fail to understand this — and so it was that the John Stossel unit at ABC News, in which I worked, found itself producing a one-hour special after my own heart, The Power of Belief, about the myriad ways people deceive themselves and fall for superstitions such as religion and astrology.

One of the most amusing angles of the show was Stossel daring a New Orleans voodoo priest to put a curse on him — and daring him quite politely, in a letter that was meant to be strictly businesslike at the time but which now strikes me as a comedic masterpiece. It began:

“Dear Mr. Glover, I understand you claim to be able to call on the spirits to do good or bad to people. I am a skeptical reporter, so I challenge you to show me the power of voodoo and to demonstrate the power of the spirit Bawon Samdi. Make me have an extraordinary, negative physical experience, like breaking a bone, through voodoo sometime within the month…”

and ended with:

“Enclosed, please find the nail clippings, hair, photograph, and soiled shirt that you requested from me.”

People should call other people on their nonsense far more frequently. (I’m looking at you, Christendom — and you, Islam — and UFO nuts and palm readers, and so on.)


On the same trip to L.A. that included the Disneyland incident, I fulfilled my dream of visiting the movie-memorabilia-filled home of Famous Monsters magazine editor Forrest J. Ackerman — the so-called “Ackermansion,” which even had a suit of Cylon armor from the original Battlestar Galactica, wrapped in tinsel, as its Christmas tree.

I also paid a visit to the genuinely disturbing mock-museum called the Museum of Jurassic Technology (recommended to me by my fellow Phillips Foundation Fellow Bretigne Shaffer, a libertarian, alternative medicine buff, and daughter of an anarchist law professor). The Museum of Jurassic Technology was as dark and serious-looking as a real museum but with some deliberately false exhibits and information, such as a great display about “the penetrating devil,” a South American bat that could supposedly fly ghost-like through solid objects by using its sonar to cause the objects’ molecules to vibrate out of the way, a bit like the superhero the Flash. Scientists finally captured one, a soothing narrator voice told museum visitors, by duping it into trying to pass through a trailer-truck-sized block of solid lead.

Another brilliant, phony exhibit invited patrons to look through a magnifying glass at an image ostensibly painted on a grain of rice, which turned out to be an ornate, vast battlefield image filled with dozens of soldiers, from some medieval tapestry, the likes of which would never in a million years fit onto a rice grain short of painterly nanobots.

It was a time when such silliness seemed about as important as anything going on in the worlds of domestic politics or foreign affairs — and I don’t just mean that dismissively. With the Internet getting people accustomed to cruising all sorts of oddball possibilities they would never previously have taken an interest in, the economy seemingly booming in a way that would never end, the office of the presidency reduced to a laughingstock without obvious negative consequences for society generally, and the absence of any obvious international threats, things were looking good.

On top of it all, CEOs could easily sport noserings for the first time in history, and it was starting to look like that whole phony wall between capitalism and fun that the left had been encouraging people to believe existed since mid-century was simply disappearing (Virginia Postrel’s book The Future and Its Enemies said as much, as did conservative David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise in its condescending and backhanded way, and the era of Nick Gillespie’s editorship of Reason magazine began around then and ended only this year, keeping that same sort of late-90s optimism and playfulness alive throughout).

Why not start musing about painting with actual nanobots, erecting your own Cylon Christmas tree, swing dancing on ecstasy, or experimenting with voodoo and tech stocks? Anything was possible. At the monthly conservative social gathering here in New York City called the Fabiani Society (a brilliant double-pun on both the socialist Fabian Society of early-twentieth-century England and Mark Fabiani, the advisor who warned the Clintons of a “vast right-wing conspiracy”), one man cornered me and insisted he had deduced (and explained in a book manuscript) who really killed White House staffer Vince Foster: the media itself, one major media corporation having assassinated him. Fantastic! Almost good enough to be in the Museum of Jurassic Technology, yet ostensibly part of the real world — the decreasingly-real real world.

In retrospect, it was as if the universe were one big pleasant drunken delusion — particularly at the increasingly large launch parties that every half-baked website in the City seemed be having every single night of the week. Maybe just maybe things would stay this way right up until the androids and cyborgs came to relieve us of all the unpleasant jobs and biotech made us immortal.

In the meantime:

•The joke religion called the Church of the Sub-Genius celebrated X-Day on July 6, 1998, when they swore the world would end and they would ascend to the heavens in the Pleasurecraft of the Alien Sex Goddesses — and when it didn’t happen, they simply started their ongoing practice of promising each year that this July 6 will definitely be the one.

•Dan Greenberg, who would go on to become a state representative in Arkansas, considered opening a record store.

•Blondie reunited — and I saw one of their first, experimental new performances, thanks to another New York Press veteran, J.R. Taylor, inviting me along — that same night — to an unadvertised show they were doing after a Ronnie Spector show.

•On another somewhat musical note, I read Douglas Hofstadter’s brilliant book Le Ton beau de Marot, filled with his friends’ divergent translations of the same half-millennium-old French poem — and with his hopes for artificial intelligence and his desire to keep the memory of his recently-deceased wife alive. Technology, tradition transformed, and an awareness of multiple simultaneous possibilities — a perfect combo for late 1998 (when I also officially completed my own year of research on the topic of tradition, though the ideas generated would echo in my work for a decade and will yet lead to a book, I swear).

On a similarly trippy note, I bought and read William S. Burroughs’ insanely ambitious and absolutely, utterly unfilmable original treatment for a film version of the novel Blade Runner by Alan Nourse (about black market doctors in a vast megalopolis, every nook and cranny of it to be illuminated in the envisioned film) — a treatment later fused by Ridley Scott with a plot based on the separate novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick, about a cop hunting artificial people.

Was the real world, in which I met Nobel Prize-winning libertarian economist Milton Friedman and attended a Bill Gates speech that half-year, that much less cool?

All that was missing was a movie that perfectly encapsulated this pervasive, cyberpunky sense that anything was technologically-economically-culturally possible — and that movie would come out in early 1999, as will be described in next Friday’s Retro-Journal entry. Today may be Good Friday, but next week brings my remembrance of Neo, our cyberpunk savior.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Civil Society Doesn't Necessarily Mean Uncombative Society


You know, before I head off to tomorrow’s book-related speech by Al Regnery (noted in my prior entry), I just have to note that I love the fact that Buckley’s last book before his death has the defiant and in some sense unconservative title Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription. The customer is not always right, as a teenage summer job as a supermarket bagger taught me, and sometimes readers need to be told to get bent.

Regnery is partly responsible for what (as I recall) was the only time I actually spoke to Buckley, at a gathering of the Phillips Foundation that Regnery co-chaired — and I got Buckley to autograph an anthology of libertarian sci-fi stories I happened to be reading in which he had a piece, a brief depiction of what it might be like if the Apollo-Soyuz spaceship docking of the 1970s ended with the Soviet cosmonauts defecting. Take that, commies!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Violated and the Dead

I perhaps hastily called Tim Carney libertarian in a recent entry, though he is in some ways paleoconservative. But the two can overlap, and yesterday’s entry concerned a topic, eminent domain, that sometimes brings those two philosophical strains together (as many strains must be if government is to be defeated in this uncertain, post-Buckley era). I recall seeing Tim’s disgust once when he heard that eminent domain was being used to bulldoze an old Catholic cemetery near Chicago — and I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that only the property rights violation should disturb people. The worst sort of property rights violations are the ones that destroy old, complex, organic social relationships, the way Robert Moses’ demolition of New York neighborhoods did — famously, nearly including the Village.

On a similar note, I was alarmed (though somewhat amused at the same time, I confess) to hear that late Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke’s corpse was among those pilfered for parts in a recent corpse-theft scandal (or as the headline calls it, “Body Parts Scheme”). The phrase “boned below the waist” is disturbing on multiple levels.

In even grimmer news (since the already-dead cannot suffer), I notice that former eleven-year-old pilot, since grown to a twenty-six-year-old, shot herself after years of battling depression without medication. People worried about her pushing herself (and being pushed) too far fifteen years ago when she crossed the U.S. and then the Atlantic, though perhaps her real problem, as with child actors, was what to do next. I don’t know. (And now I see another fan of mechanized flight has just died — Arthur C. Clarke, sci-fi author and inventor of the telecommunication satellite, without whom we wouldn’t have had what is widely hailed as one of the best films ever made, 2001.)

As for resurrecting conservatism, though: perhaps some tips can be gleaned from Al Regnery, who discusses his book Upstream (about how conservatives have gotten this far) tomorrow night (Thur.) at 7pm at the Union League Club at 38 East 37th St. I’ll be there.

ADDENDUM: Another death note: Unfortunate word choice in a Drudge-linked S.F. Chronicle article about the filming in San Fran of a movie about the life and assassination of politician Harvey Milk:

What was fun about having “Milk” shot here is how “in” it made locals feel.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Paterson's Domain

Reading about former NY governor Spitzer’s prostitute, former NJ governor McGreevey’s group sex sessions with his wife and aide, and now new NY governor Paterson’s affair [UPDATE: make that affairs -- awesome], it’s easy to laugh — and laugh and laugh — but it should never be forgotten that policy, not personality, is the important thing. And New York Sun, despite a negative-sounding headline about Paterson being a potential threat to development, reported something about him that pleases me: He’s opposed to eminent domain, that manifest legalized thievery whereby government not only steals private land for public purposes such as highways but, increasingly, for other private groups’ purposes, such as construction of an Ikea or Wal-Mart.

Paterson bucks the liberal trend in this regard, since all five of the liberal Supreme Court justices, in the vile Kelo decision, concluded (despite their philosophy’s ostensible concern for the little guy rather than simply for government for the sake of government) it’s fine to bulldoze old, poor neighborhoods against their will to aid businesses and real estate developers — a great reminder that secure property rights protect individuals, while business interests and government interests merely blend to protect each other.

He may be legally blind, but Paterson sees farther than those justices — like the blind Egyptian seer kept hidden under the floorboards in 10,000 B.C., if you will (or some Homeric reference instead). Actually, if I’m going to reduce it to a cartoonish personal description, I can’t help wondering whether Paterson being black might really have increased the odds of him taking this anti-eminent-domain position, since he probably knows that it’s often black neighborhoods that get plowed in favor of the mighty new forces of enterprise (who don’t want to have to buy things if they can help it — no libertarian since Adam Smith’s warnings about collusion between businessmen has said businesses are inherently libertarian — it’s the law that must ensure property-respecting rather than merely selfish behavior, something the left tends not to understand about libertarianism, refusing to see the world as anything other than classes and interest groups and voter blocs rather than individuals responding to legal and economic incentives shaped by public policy — such as, again, the strict property rights everyone from the little old lady in the dilapidated shack all the way up to Wal-Mart ought to have).

The grander political fusionism I’ve alluded to in this “Month Without Buckley” will require not just a right-wing-style enthusiasm for markets but also a left-wing-style cynicism, as deep as a punker’s, about the nefarious uses to which existing institutions can be put, and it may be a good idea to start by getting more leftists to see the thieving danger of letting government use eminent domain. Try telling the man having his house taken away that government “balances out” the oppression we supposedly experience at the hands of capitalism, with its “cruel” tendency to sell us goods and services. I can choose not to shop at Wal-Mart, but I can’t lie in front of the government bulldozers without punishment forever.

ADDENDUM: While I think of it, lest anyone doubt that Howard Dean is an evil shit, it’s worth remembering that he uttered one of the most brazen lies in American political history, gambling on the complete ignorance of the general public when, on a talk show, he said in response to the public’s outrage at the Kelo decision that to prevent more such decisions we need to get those “conservative justices” off the Court — though he must have known full well it was the liberal justices who supported the decision and hoped the clueless viewers wouldn’t. And liberal “respect for the little guy” wins another round.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Dada = Death = Buckley = Bali = St. Pat's

dada.jpg doane.jpg
Two thoughts on substance abuse for St. Patrick’s Day, traditionally alcohol-soaked as it is:

•William F. Buckley favored drug legalization and once sailed his yacht into international waters to smoke a joint with legal impunity, explaining National Review’s occasionally-mentioned anti-drug-war position, which is not, alas, the default position among conservative politicians.

Buckley, then, might have sympathized with that couple who I mentioned two entries ago who are getting married in Bali: Despite having a fair number of hippie-like Burning Man-attender friends, they feel compelled to remind their wedding guests before travel that Indonesia has the death penalty for illicit drugs.  You can see how that would be a damper on a celebration.

•On a similar note, there was a TV-movie in 1988 about Westerners facing the death penalty for drugs (which are called “dadah” in Malaysia) overseas, with the bizarre result that one day while I was home from college I saw the unusual block-letters-with-no-details one-page ad in the TV Guide that advertised the movie, simply giving its title (with time and plot details on a subsequent page), meaning that for at least a moment the reader just saw the following, writ very large:


And perhaps I’m not the only one who thought, with much greater excitement than any TV-movie could produce, that avant-gardists had bought a one-page ad in TV Guide simply in order to reprint one of the Dada movement’s most famous meaningless art slogans (albeit with an H on the end — but the Dadaists were certainly not averse to weird variant spellings).

That was around the same time Brown deconstructionist film theory professor Mary Ann Doane had a letter published in TV Guide (about sexism or something), and I admit I enjoyed being able to say to a member of Brown’s most notoriously pretentious and Marxist department, Modern Culture and Media: “Hey, saw your letter in TV Guide, professor!”

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Post-Yang Thought: Post-Classic Rock

The virtuosic violinist with the classic-rock repertoire I mentioned yesterday also does “Separate Ways” by Journey, which is, I must say, the only Journey song I like — and predictably, it’s their fastest and most dire-sounding one, since that’s how we alternative rock fans normally roll when not listening to Journey (similarly, as noted in my entry on Bono and Buckley this month, “Eleanor Rigby” is one of the relatively few Beatles songs I like).

True, my tastes are white-trash in plenty of ways, but that doesn’t extend to much tolerance for Journey, power ballads, or Bon Jovi, whose songs seem to me as if they were written to sound like someone singing off-key and unmelodically in karaoke.  Is there any pleasant-sounding way (I just mean melodically, not lyrically) to sing “Shot to the heart and you’re to blame” or “just like every cowboy sings a sad, sad song” — though “Blaze of Glory” is almost OK, in part because it sounds more like an authentic dire cowboy and less like a guy with big hair and a goddam “steel horse.”  Even Aerosmith should have stopped around 1982 — with the possible exception of the oddly Irving Berlin-like “Ragdoll” and, again, the dire “Janie’s Got a Gun.”

But I like Heart and am not ashamed to say so.  We all know “Barracuda” and “Magic Man” are worthy of Zeppelin, and (DJs take note) I think “How Can I Refuse?” doesn’t get enough airplay — falling as it did between the cracks of their “classic rock” period and their “80s pop” period but in many ways combining the best of both phases (“Where do we take it now [guitar]/ Now that we’ve caught fire [guitar]/ [Plaintive] Will something greater grow/ [Ominous] Out of this desire/ [Shrieky] Should have dropped my guard!/ [Sad] At the risk of being used,” etc.).

Indeed, a lot of the best 80s songs, I fear, get forgotten because they don’t quite fit into the classic rock, New Wave, or 80s-pop niches that turn into Rhino collections and the like, kicking just a bit too much ass to be pop or New Wave but falling too late in history to get an automatic classic-rock-status free pass: “Back Where I Started” by Box of Frogs, “Voices” by Russ Ballard, “Beat of a Heart” by Patty Smyth, “Little by Little” by Robert Plant, “Castles in Spain” by Armory Show, the Blasters, the Alarm, etc., etc.  I don’t know that we’re hearing the lesser Big Country songs as often as we should (not even “Fields of Fire,” which was in the Top 40), and I was pained to discover at work last year (where there is only one other Gen Xer, technically, and he listens to jazz) that no one on the staff (of those assembled at the time) remembered Big Country besides me.  This tragic cultural amnesia can even lead to one misremembering one’s own tastes (“Wait a second — I wasn’t just an effete Duran Duran-listener…I…I once rocked…”).

Thankfully, the wondrous online station, while not aiming to solve this precise problem, has the good taste to intersperse its alternative rock and blues hits with “I Wanna Rock” by Twisted Sister and a few other things that show they understand what must be preserved.

But to return to our Journey: I have rarely felt more alienated from my fellow Upper East Side yuppies than one time when my visiting friend Paul Taylor and I witnessed a bar full of them suddenly trying to dance (???) to Journey’s non-rhythmic “Just a smalltown girl…smell of wine and cheap perfume” song (of which I don’t even know the name).  Even I am not white enough to perceive how that can be boogied to without physical/aesthetic calamity.  No crane collapsed onto the establishment, but it wasn’t a pretty scene.  At least there was no REO Speedwagon, though.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Raging Yang

I wonder sometimes if classical music would have such a reputation for moral and cultural superiority among some conservatives if it hadn’t happened to have been the case that William F. Buckley loved Bach.

In any case, it was in part out of a traditionalistic desire to edify myself that I listened to the virtuosic violin-playing of Atlanta’s Bobby Yang, having no idea what sort of material to expect, knowing only that he’d been recommended by a wonderful couple I know, Nicole Beaver and Sandy Partowidjojo (who are getting married in Bali in two months, Bali being part of Indonesia and thus governed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was in the news this week for giving a speeh favoring peace and free-trade zones — thus, now the names of Yang, Beaver, Partowidjojo, and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will be forever linked in my mind, and I’m likely to smile a lot as a result).

Well, imagine my surprise when the first notes I heard from Bobby Yang’s violin were ones I’d just been debating via e-mail with my both-classically-and-rockishly-trained amateur musician and professional architect friend Dave Whitney: the opening of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” — Dave wonders whether its odd, beeping sound might have been more influenced by New Wave synth than, as I would guess, by Eddie Van Halen squeaky-little-guitar-noises.

Making very wise choices about when to adapt vocal parts as the violin’s bit and when to follow what was the guitar in the original, Yang’s next song was Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” (which may be the most recent song I’ve done in a non-home karaoke setting), and he does a beautiful “Space Oddity” and some awesome Led Zeppelin as well — finishing up, as it happens, with what Yang considered the toughest of all these numbers, the transcendent “Hot for Teacher” by the aforementioned Van Halen, Bach-like in its own way.

And thus the defining instrument of Western civilization, the violin, spans past and future, and rock’s beauty is again affirmed.  May philosophy and politics come to see as much fertile mixing as artists naturally and non-tribalistically employ.

P.S. I heard Yang after seeing a free screening of 10,000 B.C., but the film did not fill me with hope that the best aspects of past and future can be productively blended.  It just made me appreciate how much better Apocalypto had been.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Retro-Journal: Client 9 - 10 Years = Lewinsky + ABC

Ten years ago this week, a grand jury was listening to Linda Tripp’s tapes of her conversations with Monica Lewinsky.

In the present, New York’s governor has just resigned over the revelation he hired prostitutes.

In both cases, I think even someone like me who thinks the law should not control consensual sex can rightly take great joy in seeing hypocritical politicians hoist on their own petards. Spitzer has prosecuted prostitution rings, when not busy harassing Wall Street firms for things that in some cases aren’t even illegal. Similarly, Clinton encouraged the enforcement of sexual harassment laws, which make possible things like the Paula Jones suit (he implied she ought to consider servicing him in part because he had influence over her boss), which led to his lies to the grand jury about Lewinsky (and it was this lying under oath, not the moral error of marital infidelity, that led to his impeachment, just in case that’s still unclear to anyone — such as useless ABC News legal “analyst” Jeffrey Toobin, who said at the time that the impeachment outcome should hinge on how much Americans care about adultery — but for some thoughts more directly concerning adultery’s relationship, if any, to law, see my recent post on that topic, from the day before the Spitzer revelations).

But in 1998, despite working at ABC News during the Lewinsky hubbub, I stayed focused on economic matters, like my Stossel Unit co-workers. Indeed, when one of my fellow Phillips Foundation fellows said around that time that he feared the public’s attitude was “As long as the economy’s doing great, who cares how many blowjobs the President’s getting?” I couldn’t help feeling that that was actually a pretty apt summary of my whole political philosophy, and it still is.

Politicians are, statistics show, more likely to be criminals than the general population, and the idea that the fate of the nation hinges on the state of their private consciences is nonsense that exalts them to the status of monarchs or popes. The more conscious the sheep-like general public is of the depravity of their wolfish overlords, the better. Far from needing to put an end to public cynicism, as pols and pundits are constantly saying, we need to put an end to thinking of political leaders as moral leaders. Think of them instead as the organized crime heads they are and we may yet stand a chance of reducing their power accordingly and making the public sufficiently wary.

Mullahs, kings, slave-overseers, senators, presidents, mob bosses, representatives, governors, commissars — may they all be forgotten, archaic terms very, very soon (in grand historical terms). Free people, by definition, do not have rulers. (New York, at least, no longer has Eliot Spitzer, and good riddance.)

And again, I say all this in reaction to thugs and lawbreaking hypocrites, not because adultery per se renders someone unfit for office — though there is something to be said for taking the ideal of vow-keeping seriously despite discouraging stats on the ideal’s flouting. As William F. Buckley wrote back around the time of the Lewinksy scandal, we should not condemn as useless all ideals that get violated or that tend to lead to Victorian hypocrisy — any more than we should stop treating murder as a crime simply because some people get away with it or stop frowning upon rudeness because it persists. There is something to be said for at least making an effort instead of abandoning the fight.


But if Lewinsky wasn’t foremost in my mind in early 1998, what was? For one thing, like a lot of media folk, I was fascinated by the way mainstream media treated as a sort of unwelcome infection for getting to the Lewinsky story before they did. They could condemn the upstart site as tabloidy and gossipy — and libertarian — all they liked, but clearly what they really meant was: Damn him for getting to the story before us. And the plight of mainstream media, thank goodness, has only gotten worse since.

Having worked in TV news, few things could be more satisfying to me than watching the artificial walls of mainstream media dominance crumble. Yet certain myths about media persist. One is that the media, being owned by corporations, must therefore be conservative. This myth is no longer swallowed by the general populace, I think, but is still fervently believed by a lot of leftists, most of them too fringey to have had many close-up encounters with mainstream media. If they actually worked at a big media company like ABC News, they’d know that virtually every employee there is a Democrat, many flouting rules about involvement in political campaigns and activist causes, consciously motivated, as one ABC News exec put it in a rally-the-troops speech, by the desire to get viewers so outraged that “they stand up from their sofas and demand legislation,” and believe me, he didn’t mean tax cuts. It was taken for granted that reform = liberal legislation, corporate money = corruption, government work = “public service,” environmental organization = altruism, and so on. (Years later, I would even meet a New York Times reporter who both organized and reported on antiwar rallies, to give you some idea how flimsy the wall between left-wing activism and journalism — which is in turn “the rough draft of history” — really is.)

If anyone on this planet is still capable of watching TV news and concluding that it is either conservative or middle-of-the-road, that is purely because left-wing ideas, after decades of this video drivel, have become the mainstream view or because the viewer is himself so far to the left that, as Stalin might have put it, Mensheviks seem disappointingly right-wing compared to Bolsheviks. Those truly desperate to maintain the illusion that there is a substantial right-wing presence on TV or in film will always trot out the example of Fox News, of course (with its ratings dwarfed by the old networks), which is a bit like saying that the presence of one conservative columnist at a college makes the campus “right-wing” (and indeed that’s about all it takes to make University of Chicago and Dartmouth “right-wing” in some critics’ minds, after all).

As Lenin so rightly said, capitalists will sell socialists the rope with which the capitalists later get hanged, and as long as simplistic left-liberal narratives appeal to inattentive viewers’ intuitions about how the world works — and appeal to leftist TV producers’ notions of what constitutes crusading journalism and social justice — those media corporations that the leftists fear will go right on pumping the public’s minds full of left-wing propaganda. I’ve heard them planning it, from producers gleefully debating how best to “nail Gingrich to the wall” shortly after the Republicans took Congress to other producers discovering a corrupt judge but declining to report on him because he was Hispanic and they didn’t want to make non-whites look bad, since retrograde conservatives might be driven to a racist frenzy by it. (ABC also distributed lists of approved non-white experts in various subjects while I was there in an effort to decrease reliance on white faces in the news, not that I much care about people’s hues, but it was a reminder that the network has higher priorities than learning economics or military history and perhaps the only top-down instructions on what/who/how to report that the organization as a whole received the whole time I was there.)

Being a veteran of six years at ABC News and hearing some ignoramus at a party say the media are conservative (or even non-leftist) is to this day galling and depressing to me in a fashion (though far less severely, obviously) that I imagine it must be galling to survivors of the brutal Chinese Cultural Revolution to hear aging ex-hippies say that Mao loved freedom and tolerance.

If your picture of reality, shaped in part by TV, is a politically-centrist one, know that this centrist impression is the result of a lot of hard-working people trying desperately to spin the events of the day as hard to the left as they possibly can — and this is the best they can do. Just imagine how conservative the truth is, then.

This is not to say the media aren’t in countless ways just-plain-stupid and therefore often ineffectual in pursuing their left-wing agenda. Ratings matter even more to them than promoting regulation and tax hikes, so one could argue that they are certainly capitalist — even hyper-capitalist — in their day-to-day work habits (they’ll take the story of a good-looking, energetic, ignorant young woman over a wrinkled, untelegenic crone with a Ph.D. any day — which is part of the reason the press jumped on the Lewinksy story after years of ignoring all sorts of other Clintonian wrongdoing). But saying that this formal capitalism makes the press non-leftist in content would be like saying The Nation promotes laissez-faire capitalism simply because they worry about their circulation figures. And some media-theory-type leftists really are that stupid, of course. Spare me.

Even the Stossel Unit, self-advertised lone bastion of libertarian thinking that we were at ABC, back when Stossel did one-hour specials (such as that season’s econ primer called Greed) frequently enough to have a sizable staff all to himself instead of primarily being the anchor on the weekly 20/20 broadcast, was usually majority-Democrat (not that I’m saying that’s bad — heterogeneity forces people to think more carefully), simply because there were so few Republicans or libertarians in the whole company. And being the oddballs meant greater scrutiny from the obsessive lawyers, the final hurdle before broadcast, who would want footnotes every time Stossel claimed markets tend to make products and service become more efficient but without blinking would let Barbara Walters “objectively” end a piece about a gun death by asking when Congress would come to its senses and pass anti-gun legislation, as though every viewer regarded guns as clearly evil things, akin to cancer.

And the scariest part of it all is that if you asked most of these TV people if they lean left, they would probably still tell you no and mean it — they aren’t any farther left than all their colleagues, after all, and though they’ve heard of conservatives, those people mostly live out in rural places that don’t much matter — or maybe down on Wall Street, where the TV people may at least have been to a party or two but not too often. So TV people are the norm. The rest of you are just ratings points. And even if you’re a professional economist, your objections to the most recent broadcast don’t really matter that much, since you aren’t charismatic enough to be on TV regularly, and that undermines your credibility. And in any case, you work for a corporation, and don’t the good economists work in academia? At least, the academic ones seem to agree with TV people more (though their predictions are less reliable, oddly), so they must be the good guys. We should put them on TV…


But I don’t mean by any of this to make it sound like my own life was unpleasant: between the trips I’d been taking for work — including visiting places from Chicago to New Orleans and Santa Fe to San Francisco for my research on tradition — and a second trip to London, waking life was good, and in the realm of dreams, where I apparently died — in a dream my left-leaning fellow New York Press veteran Daniel Radosh had that year — I apparently got a nice eulogy from him, so on a personal level, those left-wing media people aren’t so bad, really. And I suppose nice behavior in dreams does count for something (not that Daniel isn’t also nice in real life — and you can see him defending Christian rock, oddly enough, in our April 2 Debate at Lolita Bar, one day after the release of his book on Christian pop culture, Rapture Ready!).

A trickier question, which I was confronted with just a few days ago, is whether acting in a dream counts as acting: I dreamt that I was doing a scene in a movie, and the other actor and I started improvising, and the improvisation included wondering aloud whether we were in the Matrix and then whether our situation was better than being in the Matrix, and it was unclear whether we meant our fictional situation in some virtual reality within our movie or our “real” situation as actors or our “real” situation as actors in a movie that resembled being actors in the movie The Matrix — but of course, in truth, I was simply dreaming anyway — though dreaming is, after all, nature’s virtual reality and not mere wasted time. That was surely the most “meta” dream I’ve had — but in the Retro-Journal chronology, my first encounter with the Matrix lies one year and two entries ahead, in early 1999 — while next week brings the pulse-pounding events of late 1998!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Goldberg, Norquist, Harris vs. Day, Uribe, and Toilet Lady

Some media updates of interest, the first three being media items pointed out to me by Ali Kokmen:

•Jonah Goldberg got edited from eighteen minutes to an awkward six on The Daily Show — but his book (my December Book Selection) still went to #1, and I hope that means Random House hasn’t really gotten rid of his editor, Adam Bellow, but their loss if they have (not that Random House employee Ali had any official position on that side issue).

[UPDATE: Ali informs me Bellow is now an executive editor at Collins, where he'll be working with a former Free Press editor -- all is well; in other news, Valerie Bertinelli displaces Goldberg at #1 -- I was taken aback recently to hear a middle-aged woman refer to someone else as looking "as good as Valerie Bertinelli," but apparently she's a standard again. And I think the guy who played Schneider on One Day at a Time was the voice of the superhero the Atom on a cartoon show earlier in his career, so maybe he should write an autobiography too.]

•Grover Norquist, in another reminder that there are different ways of carving up the political spectrum (as I discussed in yesterday’s pivotal entry), talked on The Daily Show about his rather libertarian book about the broad coalition of people who just want to tell government Leave Me Alone — a message that’s perhaps a tad easier to sell than Jonah’s point about progressivism and fascism having common roots but no less important.•By some strange coincidence — unless it’s the result of a conspiracy — no sooner does Colombian president Uribe face political tensions with neighboring leftists such as autocratic Hugo Chavez than another man named Uribe, in Mexico City, has to cancel a date with his girlfriend after the flatbed tow truck he’d rented to carry him to the date (he being 800 pounds and needing a forklift to exit his house) crashes on its way to the encounter — coincidence? And which Uribe has bigger problems, really?

In other news:

•A woman in Kansas got fused to a toilet seat after sitting on it for two years despite pleas from her boyfriend to exit the bathroom, possibly indicating problems of a mental nature.

•And on a significantly more philosophical note, atheist Sam Harris officially replied to Vox Day’s criticisms of him (and of the “New Atheism” in general — which is also the topic of a Roger Scruton speech this month at the University Club here under the auspices of Eric Metaxas’ group Socrates in the City, by the way, on March 25 at 7pm sharp, $35 in advance, $50 at the door, space permitting). Day’s book The Irrational Atheist was one of my Book Selections last month, during my “Month Without God” (this month being my conservative “Month Without Buckley”).