In the present, it’s Memorial Day weekend, and we think not only of real-life war dead but of Indiana Jones fighting the twin threats of communist totalitarianism and space aliens on the big screen — even as the Libertarian Party convention this weekend confronts the twin threats of big government and the Martian-civilization NASA cover-up (and the 9/11 cover-up), at least according to dismaying early reports from Dave Weigel, who’s been giving on-the-scene coverage of events in Denver on Reason’s blog.
But in the non-fiction world, five years ago, the totalitarian threat on everyone’s mind was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. That’s not to say there weren’t ample big-screen nerd distractions that year as well. Indeed, in a mass-e-mail to acquaintances, I declared 2003 “the Year of the Nerd” (much as I have declared May 2008 the Month of the Nerd on this blog) because of its plethora of nerdic film releases, from the prior attempt at a Hulk and the anticlimactic Matrix Revolutions to pleasant surprises like Underworld and Kill Bill, plus the predictably — but Oscar-winningly — awesome Return of the King (on a more personal level, I wrote freelance pieces on various science topics that year and read some ten sci-fi novels, which I swear is not my usual m.o.).
One year earlier, I’d also exacted my nerdy revenge upon Seth Godin by depicting a lunatic character loosely inspired by him in one of the Justice League comics I wrote (something I’ve updated my Retro-Journal entry from two weeks ago to mention and which I’d promised to mention nineteen weeks before that, for those keeping track).
But to get back to the more serious business of war in Iraq: while I no doubt have libertarian acquaintances who, because I’m one of their more hawkish comrades, think they vaguely recall me being in favor of striking Iraq, I was in fact cautiously, tentatively against the idea during the 2002 and early-2003 build-up to war. I don’t see anti-interventionism as a necessary and direct corollary of basic libertarian principles (or, more important, as a correct position) and think toppling despotic regimes is, per se, a good thing (arguably the perfect expression of libertarianism) — but I’m also a utilitarian and pragmatist with very little faith that something will be well executed just because it “sounds like a good idea in principle” (a point the left has never understood and which the right, in its spare-me-the-details moralism, has now forgotten). When in doubt about whether a project will yield more benefits than costs, I don’t even think the government should open a new post office, let alone invade a country, so if I were president, I would not have entered Iraq (and was rather nervous, as my coworkers could attest from listening to me react to the Wall Street Journal op-ed page’s increasing drum-beating in the morning, that we were ramping up for a seemingly unnecessary war as early as a year before the fighting started).
At the same time — as the Objectivists, interestingly, tended to argue most eloquently at a Cato conference on war around that time — Saddam was clearly guilty of coercion on a massive scale and had repeatedly violated the terms of his surrender in the 1991 Gulf War (and I might add had tried to assassinate the elder Bush, which in the old days might well have been considered reason enough to go to war, but we’ve become rather timid in some ways about making a big deal out of those sorts of symbolic/personal slights). Furthermore, incredibly unpopular as it now is to say so (since people so enjoy demonstrating that they can tell the difference between Saddam and bin Laden or Iraq and Afghanistan), yes, Saddam had numerous ties to terrorists including al Qaeda, and you can throw out your dozens and dozens of snide, Bush-bashing, trashy little books from 2003 saying otherwise. Indeed, the Philippines branch of al Qaeda was actually run out of the Iraqi embassy there, so don’t give me any of that “Secular government! Religious terrorists! They could never work together! Stop the Bush war machine!” protest blather. We all got plenty of that five years ago.
And so, once the war was underway, I wept not for Saddam and — again, even though I would have advised against the whole venture — hoped it would all work out for the best and go smoothly. At the same time, I told my friend Dave Whitney that I feared that Bush — from whom all I ever wanted was tax cuts and entitlement reform — was putting all of the right’s credibility on the outcome in Iraq like a man piling all of his hard-won poker chips a foot high on one square (to use an analogy my high school friend John Tewskbury, now a dealer I’ll see at Foxwoods this weekend near my parents’ house, would appreciate), with the result that I might well spend the next several years saying things like “We should privatize the post office” and getting the non-sequitur response (given how poorly leftists reason even at the best of times) “That sounds right-wing — and things aren’t going well in Iraq, so that must be a bad idea.” And that’s pretty much how things turned out, of course, with the further result that politics is now about little but the war, except when people are so sick of talking about the war that politics is about nothing at all, by which I mean the candidates themselves.
On a more punk note, I saw David Bowie, Ray Davies, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, and others all singing in a single event — ostensibly a concert for Tibet at Carnegie Hall — that half-year, a more peaceful, one-worldy sort of affair but ever so slightly soured for my by my realization part-way through the concert that my ticket money, far from being used to arm an insurgency against the totalitarians in Beijing or something useful like that, was being used to fund a “Tibetan holistic medicine” center somewhere upstate, probably filled with the same sort of vague, unscientific Eastern pabulum that Amherst is hosting in conjunction with something called the Sham Shung Center or something like that in the weeks ahead, according to a mass-e-mail I happened to receive today about it. Tibet needs help and the world’s sympathy, but spacey, rich New Yorkers do not need homeopathy vials with zen koans printed on the side.
Incidentally, that same month — February 2003 — I saw the Pretenders, Paul Weller, former Young Adults leader Sport Fisher/Dave Hansen (at the suggestion of then Rubber Rodeo-obsessed Michael Malice), and an “outsider music” night, so it was a rockin’ time. The next month, I’d see the band Television but also ex-girlfriend Emily Wigod (in 2008, newly married) in a performance of Cosi fan tutte, so I try to be well-rounded. Witness, too, the theatrical adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft short stories that some friends and I saw, the only play I’ve seen to this day in which someone stared in horror open-mouthed for so long that drool ran in a long strand all the way down to the stage. If that doesn’t say shock and awe, I don’t know what does.
As the first half of 2003 ended, I also saw Nick Cave and Julee Cruise, each frightening in their own way, perform, but what still worries me is that despite all the war and weirdness of that time, the most accurate glimpse of the eventual End Times for humanity that I got came on June 30, when I saw Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines — not so unlike the robot revolt seen in the Animatrix prequel to the Matrix movies released on video that year. And indeed, there was a lawsuit alleging that both movie series were rip-offs of a single massive novel — in which the Neo-like figure was also a John Connor-like figure — that was never published but was seen in manuscript form by the Wachowskis back in their comic book-writing days and related by them to their producer friend Joel Silver, but I have no position on that controversy and had always assumed Terminator was a rip-off of the “Days of Future Past” storyline from the X-Men comics — in which a time traveler comes back to warn us that giant robot Sentinels will take over in the near future.
But then, my favorite comic book writer, Grant Morrison, thinks the Matrix movies were ripping off his Invisibles comics, so who knows? Films have eclectic influences, the Matrix films even more so. Rather than trying to sort all that out, I’ll review Morrison’s Final Crisis comic about the End Times for the DC Universe next week — and in next Friday’s Retro-Journal entry, I’ll turn my attention from war to love, one last time before the Retro-Journal falls silent about such things to avoid reopening too-recent wounds and the like. But don’t worry — we’ll still have politics.