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.


Shawn Macomber said...

“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.)”

I’m not saying I’ve seen one, or even convincing evidence of one (despite spending two days in Roswell this summer) but don’t you find UFOs more probable than a Supreme Being?

Todd Seavey said...

Depends what you mean by UFO, I suppose — literally could be any “unidentified” flying object, including ball lightning, swamp gas, etc.

But there’s simply no good evidence of any visitations by alien spacecraft ever having occurred and numerous holes in virtually all the familiar cases — or simply a lack of any corroboration beyond one person’s say-so. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who is invested in and believes in alien visitors who has _non_-nutty/non-weak standards of evidence.

As to whether aliens visitors are _in fact_ more likely or less likely than a supreme being, that’s a different calculation but doesn’t directly affect the judgment that existing UFO buffs are deluded.