Monday, June 30, 2008

Faster, Pussycat! Blog! Blog!

With America’s most patriotic holiday coming this week, it seems a fitting time to note my favorite bit of dialogue from the movie Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Our heroines — homicidal go-go dancers — drive their cars to a rural gas station and converse about their travels:

GAS STATION ATTENDANT (STARING AT TURA SATANA’S IMPRESSIVE CLEAVAGE): Now that’s what I believe in, seeing America first!

TURA SATANA (STERNLY): You won’t find it down there, Columbus.

I didn’t say it was a great film (though it does seem so perfectly designed for the early-90s retro-nihilist vibe that if it had not existed, Charles Burns and Quentin Tarantino would have had to build a time machine to go back and create it).

And speaking of tough broads in art, here’s a short story by Michele Carlo.  And for a non-tough but busty perspective (don’t blame me — reviewers keep mentioning it, and I’m just trying to come up with a Tura Satana segue), check out this short story by Katherine Taylor.

(And William Huhn also writes good stories.  He’s not a tough broad, though he does live next door to Patty Smyth, who is obviously a tough broad and manages to put up with husband John McEnroe, which must take some backbone.  In largely unrelated but still literary news, I see writer David Lipsky has weighed in in the Responses thread to my blog entry from one week ago, which is cool.)

On another womany note: DON’T FORGET THERE’S NO DEBATE THIS WEEK, but on Tuesday, July 22 (8pm), we’ll have a three-woman panel of egg-sellers at Lolita Bar, talking about how they came to make this interesting reproductive transaction and what it was like.

Unable to join us but originally invited was Jen Dziura, who, being a good feminist, is sometimes wary of framing things in gendered terms and has noted that one risk in using “girl power” terms like, say, “fempreneur” is that it’ll end up teaching people to think of creative activities by women as cute and abnormal instead of just plain human.

She was thus even more annoyed than I was by a mass-e-mail advertisement that said, in part:

Kim Power Stilson, A mom with 4 dogs, 3 kids, 2 birds and a cat & Debbie Cluff, a zany little lady from Pasadena help Momprenuers unlock the mystery to the Internet, the Web and Social Media Tools with Power Strategies Education!

Worst of all — though I can hardly claim to be the final authority on this question — it seems to me they have misspelled “Mompreneur.”  Good to see ladies attempting capitalism, though.  Keeps ’em from dabbling in witchcraft.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Retro-Journal: Catastrophe and Jazz in Late 2005

The second half of 2005 was a very different time from today — it started out for me with a trip to New Hampshire to see college pals Laura Braunstein, Christine Caldwell Ames, and Scott Nybakken, and Laura and Christine’s husbands. Hey, wait, that’s exactly the same as today. In fact, I should head to the train in about two hours and won’t be back until late Sunday, so don’t be alarmed if I don’t blog until Monday (and apparently, I’m not the only one visiting New Hampshire today: Obama and Hillary are making a big joint appearance there, too — perhaps giving me one last, unexpected chance to wear my beloved anti-Hillary “Re-Defeat Communism in 2008″ t-shirt).

One Brown alum whose current activities are tied to late 2005 in a more significant way than my own is Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal (to whom I vaguely recall being a sort of writing tutor — Writing Fellows, they called us, assigning us to certain classes whether they wanted us or not but in an often-helpful fashion). Now talked about as a possible McCain running mate, he is, I suppose, a living embodiment of what the near-delusional critic of capitalism Naomi Klein would call free-market “shock therapy” — responding to disasters with market-based reforms (or as she would prefer to call such policy changes, the infliction of free-market torture on a weakened victim).

It doesn’t seem to occur to Klein that perhaps one reason that some places seem to suffer such high body counts in disasters — witness Burma, most recently — is because they have too much government, which not only makes disaster responses less efficient but makes it less likely the inhabitants will have been free to accumulate the kind of wealth that makes it easier for people to escape disasters without simply relying on a centralized response.

As the aforementioned Nybakken has said, we all knew for decades that New Orleans was run by inept and corrupt Democrats and that the place was economically backward and culturally old-fashioned in good ways and bad — “and we all thought it was kind of cute.” Quaint can have a terrible price — as does entrusting our fates to federal bureaucracies like FEMA, whether run by Democrats or Republicans, though the performance of such bureaucracies may vary slightly over time, occasionally achieving technology-based new efficiency, for instance, but generally suffering the same long-term decline into dysfunction of any government bureaucracy, by definition shielded from the ever-growing efficiency of private, competitive markets.

But no matter: the preferred narrative (one the people of Louisiana don’t seem to fully believe, since they went on to make Republican Jindal governor in their post-Katrina housecleaning efforts) in the media became one in which a heartless Republican president let a thousand people die — for a while, based on nothing more than an offhand comment by the New Orleans mayor that was trumpeted far more than the comment’s later correction (as is routinely the case in the news), they even thought he’d callously let 10,000 people die.

No matter that the state had claimed they had the situation under control and that there were procedures in place for determining whether and when the feds could step in without being asked (as Bush had been criticized for doing too hastily after a prior hurricane). Bush vs. black people became the refrain, and I even found myself having dinner with some displaced New Orleans residents who, like some interviewees treated sympathetically in a post-Katrina documentary by Spike Lee, half-suspected evil Republicans and real estate developers of dynamiting levees. Disastrous events, like 9/11 four years earlier, breed ridiculous conspiracy theories, and one is at least initially hesitant to criticize their saddened and confused purveyors too harshly.

The levee-reinforcement plan — the same one in place under Bill Clinton — had always been a decades-long project that would not have been completed in time to avert the Katrina disaster if, say, Al Gore had been in the White House. It was always a gamble — a fairly rational one, though as with many gambles, it didn’t work out — that no storm of that magnitude was likely to occur before the levee overhaul was completed years hence. Of course, there are probably plenty of people who think if Al Gore were president, he’d have exerted such direct and fine-tuned control over the weather by now that storms like Katrina wouldn’t happen. This borders on madness or a return to belief in pagan storm gods, but it’s also roughly what’s spun as scientific consensus in the media these days, so I’d better save that side debate for another time (specifically, November under my current schedule).

But mark my words: the saner, calmer members of our society are ill-prepared for the extent to which eco-doom narratives are going to blend with mystical apocalypse predictions over the next four years as 2012 approaches, given that some mystics have long believed that to be the time of the end of the world — and the Kyoto Protocol on climate change is expiring that year, which not everyone will see as a coincidence the way sane folk like you and I do. Here’s something that really isn’t a coincidence: the cretins who brought us the climate change disaster fantasy The Day After Tomorrow — laughed at by scientists but praised by Al Gore — are already at work on a movie, filled with more disasters than you can shake a stick at, called 2012, and I’m sure the eco-mystics would already be talking more frequently about climate change as evidence of the Mayan god Quetzalcoatl’s wrath were Quetzalcoatl not so much harder to spell and pronounce than Gaia.


Last I knew, there have been no deaths during this month’s Iowa flooding (some fairly shocking video of which can be found on the New York Times website, my boss Dr. Elizabeth Whelan notes, her daughter Christine being an Iowa resident). Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto has argued that FEMA seems to have learned some things from its New Orleans mistakes, making the narrative about Bush’s purported callousness being the cause of the Katrina deaths seem even more ridiculous. But I think James underestimates the paranoia of that sort of Bush critic. They’ll probably simply say he chose to have FEMA do a better job in Iowa because there are a lot of white people there.

I hope it’s clear I’m not callously indifferent to the fate of New Orleans either — indeed, I’m very worried that its recovery is being slowed radically relative to other areas on the Gulf Coast precisely by the fact that (market-friendly new governor notwithstanding) New Orleans has been a disproportionate recipient of federal money, planning, and regulatory interference since 2005. Not that New Orleans is the only place where, in stark contrast to the Naomi Klein narrative, government saw an opportunity to seize even greater power in the wake of the Katrina disaster, in some cases by declaring flooded land held privately for generations to now be “wetlands” suddenly subject to very onerous environmental regulation (read: seizure by the Army Corps of Engineers), as one resident who led a protest against such efforts related to me just last weekend at that Winning Ideas Weekend I attended.

Far from being callously indifferent, I had felt a bit of a bond to New Orleans since traveling there eight years prior to Katrina, doing research on its musical traditions with the aid of the Phillips Foundation — and I wrote about that after Katrina for National, for, and for Spiked-Online.

You’ll find very little in the way of politics in those pieces, so even if you’ve heard all the politicking you can take on the subject of New Orleans, please read the articles.

And on another less-partisan note, let me add that though I nearly always expect government to do a worse job than the market would with the same resources, I do not think it follows that government is always completely ineducable. Indeed, my friend Jenny Foreit, yet another Brown alum and no right-winger, now works for libertarian-leaning Philip K. Howard’s Common Good project (his book The Death of Common Sense was one of the first Book Selections I picked on this blog), trying to find smarter ways to handle law and legislation but without just being shrill anarchists about it like yours truly: Here’s a sample of the dialogue they’ve begun, involving New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg and others, on how to improve government, a subject left and right alike are increasingly interested in — and a subject that the Republican Congress perhaps should have taken a greater interest in before the brutal electoral smackdown they received in 2006 — but for that year, we must await my next two Retro-Journal entries, and in the meantime I have a train to catch.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Tin Machine, Time Machine

Heading to New Hampshire to see college pals and their spouses tomorrow naturally turns a man’s thoughts to the music of his college years — and so it strikes me that everything that was new then is around twenty years old now. Take the first Tin Machine album, for example, with the song “Under the God” on it, which turns twenty next year.

(The video for “Under the God” is really just one excerpt from the amazing and rarely-seen twenty-minute-or-so multi-song video for the whole album, in which they perform all the songs on one sound stage as if in one go but do radical restagings of the set between numbers, in a split second between songs — and that live performance I linked a few words before that was the first time the world beheld Tin Machine, on live TV during an awards show, like some glorious, unexpected monster hauling itself into view where an effete elf kingdom had once existed.)

I still think of the two-album lifespan of Tin Machine as “late Bowie” — but now it’s only about halfway through his career, just as Star Trek: The Next Generation’s start in 1987 now marks the halfway point in the forty-three-year history of the Star Trek franchise.

So I think the one great song Bowie did in what I can now call the second half of his career — performed with Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels but without the sons of Soupy Sales, who were the bassist and drummer of Tin Machine — was “Dead Man Walking,” so good it inspired me to buy the Live from 6A album of performances from Conan O’Brien, and, no matter how unhip it may sound to say this, that is probably one of my favorite CDs.

What seems harder to believe than Tin Machine (and the self-titled track from that self-titled first album, a powerful, macho, too-early-to-be-grunge number I like to think of as “The Theme from Tin Machine”) being twenty, though, is stuff that feels decidedly later than that — like my The Smoking Popes Get Fired CD by the Smoking Popes — being at least a whopping fifteen years old. How did that happen? That means in just a few years, given twenty-year pop cycles, it’ll be time for the kitschy retro-grunge/90s-alt-rock “revival,” as if the growling has actually subsided for five minutes since 1992 and given me any time in which to grow nostalgic.

For the revival, though, I suggest imitating Smoking Popes and Sebadoh and Harvey Danger. Oddly enough, one band that already sort of fits the bill is that Christian rock band mewithoutYou that Daniel Radosh likes.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Is America Ready -- for a Teenage President?


Today brings the second issue of Final Crisis, a DC Comics series partly about DC’s many parallel universes. But does one of the universes in their multiverse (as currently depicted) contain the Earth on which their early-70s comic book Prez took place? That was the all-too-plausible series about the then-new development of eighteen-year-olds being able to vote leading to a further change in the law that made possible America’s first teenage president, who pursued a hip, reformist agenda.

Speaking of which: I don’t think Americans are paying much attention to policy details, even extremely important ones (as I’ll discuss in my July Book Selection entry in eight days, examining the journal Critical Review), mostly just the tone and personality of major political candidates. That means politicians adept at sounding like all things to all people — as Bill Clinton was and Hillary Clinton was not — flourish.

And thus Obama is probably wise to stay both optimistic-sounding and vague — he is, after all, trying to get elected by a populace stupid enough to read horoscopes. Right now, I’d say America’s horoscope sounds a little like this:

You are a country that wants to feel optimistic again — you know you can accomplish great things but feel you’ll have to make some tough choices and some hard changes in order to get there. Someone you’ve just met may give you the boost you need

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night, and the White Witch (or Is That White Queen?)

Since I couldn’t quite fit a trip to Bali with a group of very attractive and warm-hearted people into my schedule last month, I was very gratified and honored by some info from the two people at the heart of the trip, Sandy Partowidjojo and Nicole Partowidjojo — formerly Nicole Beaver, who participated in my pro-V for Vendetta protest two years ago. They got married on the trip and at my suggestion included a phrase from another DC Comic, Green Lantern, in their vows: “In brightest day, in blackest night.” Sounds nice, doesn’t it? They didn’t include the part of Green Lantern’s vow about “those who worship evil’s might” being unable to escape “Green Lantern’s light,” but that’s OK.

That makes their wedding probably the nerdiest in which I’ve been involved (in absentia) since Ali Kokmen and Michelle Gengaro had groomsmen with Legion of Super-Heroes flight rings, used Star Wars medal ceremony music as their (perfectly classy) recessional, and introduced the wedding party members to the Star Trek: The Next Generation theme song. Yet both weddings avoided the overt nerdiness of, say, Spock ears, which might alarm the normals by too-blatantly drawing attention to what’s going down.

And on a somewhat related note: Did you know the polyamorous actress Tilda Swinton — perhaps best known for playing the gender-switching fantasy character Orlando, the androgynous angel in Constantine, and the White Witch of Narnia — lives partly in Nairn (not Narnia) in the Scottish Highlands with her husband — named John Byrne — and has twins by him, named Xavier and Honor? There’s something very X-Men about all that.

If she turns out to secretly be Emma Frost, White Queen of the Hellfire Club (a character so S&M she belongs in tomorrow’s issue #2 of the ominous and twisted Final Crisis), and Honor turns out to have the mutant power to possess people or something — and tries to kill the other kid — I for one am not going to be shocked.

P.S. I haven’t yet told Sandy and Nicole that the prophecied “blackest night” is actually going to befall the Green Lantern Corps next year, after millennia, in some big storyline involving a new Black Lantern Corps full of zombies powered by the dreaded Anti-Monitor. But I’m stopping with Final Crisis, because it’s final. Enough with zombies already. Might be a fitting first anniversary gift, though.

P.P.S. Having persuaded a couple to use part of the Green Lantern vow — and not wanting to have children myself — I can now turn to my other goal of persuading some couple to name their kids Voltaire and Groucho, my two favorite pseudonyms. You have to admit Groucho Partowidjojo has a ring to it. And despite someone I once mentioned these pseudonyms to saying that naming a kid Voltaire would be child abuse, I say any bullies smart enough to find Voltaire pretentious (rather than just thinking it sounds like a cool robot name) probably aren’t that thuggish.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Shrugged, Unwanted -- UPDATED


I’m about to head off to an advance screening of the likely-mediocre comic-book-based movie Wanted (not that I’m ungrateful for the opportunity), but I have bad Angelina Jolie-related news (which will greatly disappoint my fellow libertarian Katherine Taylor, who likes Jolie so much she still speaks fondly of Tomb Raider — not that I’m knocking that opening fight with the robot).

Anyway: Vadim Perelman isn’t shooting Atlas Shrugged — disappointing but not a shock. (Maybe Zack Snyder should do it.)

The linked article about it dares raise the possibility that Atlas is simply “unfilmable” — which sort of makes me think I should become a screenwriter. I can shorten anything. (“Then why are all your blog entries at least 700 words long?” some might ask. Simple: No one is paying me to make them shorter.) As a veteran of advertising, TV, and comic books, I know how to excise blather down to barest essentials when necessary. So I should write Atlas Shrugged, dammit — and I know how to do such things without even contradicting the story as shown in the book (elide instead of reimagining, except where aesthetically necessary).

Lots of things in this world would benefit from being shorter. Take David Lynch’s Dune movie (in all its forms: the two-hour version, the two-and-a-half-hour version on TV, the three-hour-or-so director’s cut, the five-hour-or-so director’s super-duper-cut, each more awful than the last). The whole problem there was that they tried to cram in every plot twist from a very dense novel. You want to see my outline for a decent, workable Dune movie? Voila:

1. Family living on desert planet gets attacked by bad guys.

2. Handful of survivors train with giant worms as weapons to

3. Good guys win. The End.

There’s your movie. Anything else is extra and shouldn’t be overly distracting or hard to follow.

Atlas I could do in ninety minutes. Give it an Art Deco feel, maybe. Change the frickin’ world.

To compensate for the lack of this capitalist film-epic, I recommend reading some conservative movie and pop culture reviews at

UPDATE on Wanted: Well, its level of quality, I think, is exactly what you’d get if you told someone the bare-bones plot of Fight Club and then had a typical Hollywood screenwriter write it instead of the actual Fight Club people. No memorable lines of dialogue, no recognizable laws of physics, but “stuff looks cool” and you’ll alternately laugh at cool stunt/CGI moments (we need a new word for that) and laugh nervously at the ceaseless brutality of it, which is (fittingly) like going through some sort of disturbing hazing for cubicle drones who secretly long for the sado-masochism of their old fraternity days.

How’s that for praise, eh?

Oh! And you get to see Angelina walking completely naked from the back without any of the tattoos concealed, so there’s that. Maybe I should have mentioned that first.

The Seavey Diaspora


As mentioned in an earlier entry, I’m off to New Hampshire this coming weekend to visit friends from college (and my leisure reading on the train, largely by coincidence, is likely to be an advance copy of a new book by Pagan Kennedy, who’ll be teaching at Dartmouth in the fall, on the ride up…and an old book by David Lipsky, Brown alum from the late 80s, on the way back down — and there’s your advance glimpse of my September and October Book Selections).

Being in New Hampshire, of course, not only means being in the state whence my father’s side of the family, like many Seaveys over the past four centuries, hails but also being close to Seavey Island, the disputed territory recently fought over by Maine and New Hampshire (I mean legally, not with guns).

Should Seavey Island ever be handed over to me, my resulting royal house will have a readymade slogan, for I have just discovered what is purportedly the traditional Seavey family crest online, with its fine slogan, “Virtue is more excellent than gold.”  Of course, I would have preferred “The gold standard and moral standards” or even “Virtue and gold — it’s all good,” but those might not be considered as poetic by some people.

My empire should include not only automatic citizenship for all who bear the Seavey name — and exalted positions for those precious few Seaveys with Google rankings comparable to my own, such as Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey, military commentator Mark Seavey, and comic book professional John Seavey — but also should involve a treaty of unification with Seavey Township (population sixty-four and population density about two people per square mile) in Minnesota.

Here’s hoping Al Franken will not end up representing Seavey Township’s state in the Senate.  (He might do to America what he did to hapless Air America!)  Should he triumph and Seavey citizens decide to secede from the U.S. as a result, they know what fledgling nation to turn to for support.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

If It's Sunday, It's Satan

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One week ago, I heard punk singer Tibbie X read poetry at a gathering organized by poet Michael Graves — but not the architect Michael Graves, nor the Misfits singer (and Republican) Michael Graves, though it’d certainly be cool if they were all the same person.

•But perhaps the most interesting thing I learned was that Tibbie and a friend, when they were young, briefly ran a business selling blasphemously altered crucifixes as fashion accessories that grew in popularity so quickly, they basically had to shut the operation down for lack of management time/resources. And the best part of the story is that their business, Manic Satanic, was visited by an unpleasant, black-clad bald man who turned out to be an official representative of the local Church of Satan, come to make sure they weren’t using the Sigil of Baphomet on their accessories — not because this would violate ancient and powerful rules of black magic but because the Sigil is a registered trademark of the Church of Satan. Ah, capitalism!

•In less Satanic news, Tibbie’s husband Nico has become the first person from whom I’ve ever received a mass-e-mail about his medical condition that included a file of a video of the relevant MRI scan (of his hurt knee). Can it really be five years already since Nico Westerdale was a vibrant, fit young man sitting near me in the theatre exchanging diarrhea jokes with Michael Malice during the first Hulk movie (right before, as it happens, Banner said, “But the thing is…when the change happens…when I lose control — I like it” — a line Ang Lee could also have used in Brokeback Mountain)?

•And as it happens, this weekend is a bit Satanic, too: Friday night and tonight (Sunday the 22nd, at 5pm), a staged reading of Exorcist writer William Blatty’s comedic play Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing about the production of a terrible movie involving the occult. Your head will rotate — with laughter!

•Before you say “I don’t see the appeal in all this Satan stuff,” do check out this picture of Underworld’s Kate Beckinsale trick or treating with her daughter Lily Mo that I stumbled across — and no, that is not a photo from the Free to Choose Media/ Winning Ideas Weekend where I spoke yesterday to students and their parents about bogus science stories, which was inspiring.

•Speaking of dialogue with the young and stories of fantastical powers, I highly recommend director Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, the beautifully-visualized story (from the director of The Cell and R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” video) of a young girl and a depressed older hospital patient negotiating their way through his tale of five warriors crossing a magical land to combat the evil Governor Odious, our narrator all the while wracked by suicidal despair. It’s all about the power of narratives, personal, filmic, or fantastic, to ensnare people, and I think it’s my new favorite movie of the year, beating out Speed Racer, much as I enjoyed that. Maybe having heard all the basic stories a million times is making me more visually-oriented as I age (or regress).

•And while I’m no Christian and thus cannot be a Satanist, I think Bush awarding a Presidential Medal of Freedom to former Clinton Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala two weeks ago was surely a sign of the End Times. Remember, I told you just recently they never give those things to people like anarchist Samuel E. Konkin III. I recall much was made of Clinton having “a Cabinet that looks like America,” but I hadn’t realized until then America looked so much like the Dick Tracy villains.

•At that same poetry reading after which Tibbie mentioned her Satanic past, by the way, I read a G.K. Chesterton poem from the Templeton Foundation ethics journal In Character, so I figure it all balances out (more on Chesterton in December).

Friday, June 20, 2008

Retro-Journal: The Ownership Society (and Gotham City) in Early 2005

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Things appeared to be going very well from my perspective in early 2005 as Bush began his second term. Consider:

•Bush had unexpectedly seized upon his re-election as an opportunity not to launch another war but to turn his attention to the domestic economic reform libertarians had waited for so patiently, proclaiming his vision of an “Ownership Society,” the centerpiece of which would be privatized retirement accounts, under the Social Security reform plan that he tirelessly toured the country promoting.

•Bush’s Second Inaugural speech was worthy of, well, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose 2004 convention speech I praised in last week’s Retro-Journal entry. Bush actually expanded upon the Schwarzeneggerian theme of freedom’s progress throughout American history — and Republican Party history — to include Republicans’ founding achievement: ending slavery. Who knew that some people would be calling Bush a willing mass-murderer of Louisiana blacks mere months later?

•Iraq held its first democratic elections, citizens holding their purple-stained thumbs aloft with pride.

•Christopher Hitchens, a living embodiment of political fusionism after my own heart, gave a speech here in New York City, on one of several occasions I’ve seen him talk, and put a leftist critic in the audience — who asked whether democracy can be imposed by force — in his place by saying: I don’t know that it’s ever been imposed any other way, and let me add that without the backing of the French army in North America in the late eighteenth century, no one today would remember the name of Thomas Jefferson. Well put.

•I had given a speech in December 2004 at an event in New York City I co-organized with the libertarian Institute for Humane Studies, in which I explained the potentially cozy though far from perfect place of “Libertarians in Bush’s World” — and was invited to turn the speech into an article a few months later in the NYU Journal of Law & Liberty, its own existence a positive sign for the future. You can download a PDF of my whole pro-Bush case here. (I have nothing to hide, obviously.) It may now read like an eerie time capsule from a bygone, more naive era (much has changed in the past forty months), but I still think it’s a pretty good read — and probably not that many people have read it, so check it out.

(My favorite comment at that IHS/Seavey event, though, was from Michael Malice, who responded to a skeptical question about whether the U.S. is any freer than the Middle East by saying, without even blinking or taking a breath, “Well, we let women read, and kosher is a choice.” It’s moments like that I’m willing to believe his neurons fire faster than my own.)

•Early 2005 was also the half-year in which Michel Evanchik and I became the official ongoing heads of the Debates at Lolita Bar — and though this blog was not fully functional until early 2007, you’ll find its archives contain my mass-e-mailed debate announcements all the way back to the beginning of our reign. If I included every mass-e-mail I sent back then, this would be a much larger site.

•My feminists critics will probably snort at our choice for first debate topic, but I for one was trying to take an analytical look at gender relations, more rooted in science than tradition, around that time, writing a still-unpublished overview of evolutionary psychology some 9,000 words long under the editorial direction of Heidi Julavits from The Believer, who’d soon apparently lose interest in having me revise the piece, instead assign me an almost equally-long book review about death and cannibals and zombies, which I think turned out to be quite riveting, then lose interest in that as well and become electronically unresponsive (not that I’m suggesting for a moment people have to like my stuff).

Don’t trust those hipster venues. Luckily, since I hate to waste any effort, multiple good things have come of my faith-shaking Believer encounter:

(1) I fissioned off a section of the evolutionary psych piece to become a Radar item about monkey crimes.

(2) I cannibalized (ha!) the cannibals-and-zombies piece for a Metaphilm article, and I think it holds up well.

(3) I have recruited my informal advisor on the evolutionary psychology piece, Diana Fleischman, to be one of the three women who’ve sold their own eggs for our panel on that topic next month at the aforementioned Debates at Lolita Bar on July 22, 8pm (instead of our usual first-Wednesday). I hope she we will bring her monkey-loving experience to bear.

•Meanwhile, my favorite comics writer, Grant Morrison (whose second issue of Final Crisis comes out in just five days), released one of his most ambitious projects, multiple interlocking miniseries called Seven Soldiers, starting in early 2005, while DC surprised fans by releasing a twentieth-anniversary sequel to their Crisis on Infinite Earth miniseries: the turning-point comic one-shot (so to speak) depicting the death of Blue Beetle, Countdown to Infinite Crisis. DC appeared to have some workable long-term strategy…much like the Bush administration.

•And you know, as much as we’ve all suffered at George Lucas’s hands over the past decade, Revenge of the Sith, out in May 2005, wasn’t half bad, I’d contend, and the fact it was plainly framed as an anti-Bush and anti-imperialist (duh) commentary didn’t even bother me (though I think most neocons are smarter than Palpatine’s useful idiot Jar Jar Binks, in my experience) — but Kyle Smith’s first words when the advance screening we saw together was over were: “That sucked.” And he’s the professional movie critic, not me (though his paper, New York Post, may carry a book review by me this Sunday, if all goes according to plan, by the way). As of last month, he’s also a dad.

•I went to a libertarian wedding or two around that time (I see the female half of one such wedding, Bretigne Shaffer, is now urging journalists to cover the opening of the new Kelo family house, a sequel to the events of the tragic Kelo Supreme Court decision that affirmed government’s power to take private property and give it to other private agents for mere econ development purposes — which reminds me: I think your comfy sofa would aid my writing efforts more than yours, so I’ll be picking that up on Tuesday, and don’t try to stop me or I’ll lock you up in a small room).

•I also spoke to high school kids in Arkansas about my work at ACSH that June, invited there by now-State Rep. Dan Greenberg, who taught at that state’s Governor’s School…

…and as it happens, I speak to high school kids for only the second time in my life (since being one myself) tomorrow, as part of a panel on the topic “What Is America?” at Bob Chitester and Free to Choose Media’s Winning Ideas Weekend event here. I’ll be summing up America, with an emphasis on industrial and technological progress, in seven minutes. I hope I don’t leave anything out.

Of course, some might plausibly argue that Dan Greenberg and I are the juveniles — not only holding onto faint hope that the Republicans will recover their limited-government principles but also going to see Batman Begins on that Arkansas trip in 2005 and loving it. But we weren’t the only ones: It was clearly a big influence on last month’s Iron Man, and I look forward to next month’s Dark Knight — with much more optimism than I feel contemplating politics, believe me.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Exit Left?

In tomorrow’s regular weekly Retro-Journal entry (my fifth-to-last), I’ll have reached early 2005, which also happens to have been the peak of my (always grudging) pro-Bush sentiments.

But since we know that all that must come crashing down and with it perhaps the prospects for the Republican Party and conservatism for some time to come — and since my limited agenda, cutting government and securing property, can perhaps be achieved by other means — I can’t help thinking ahead and wondering what if any paths there are toward freedom on the left.

Obviously, I know plenty of people who look leftward and somehow perceive a more welcoming intellectual environment than I do. But, in all honesty (not just rhetorically), I want to ask: which aspects of the left would they suggest I “engage with” if my goal is to promote laissez-faire capitalism and smaller government?

The skeptical Frankfurt School Marxists? Power-fearing Foucault? The often-inspiring Enlightenment? The traditional Civil Rights movement? Utilitarian, wonky consequentialism (but how pragmatic as opposed to vision-driven are left-leaning activists really)? Maybe some dialogue with Habermas? Correspond with the self-critical folks at Telos? Rawls? Hippies? Anarchism?

It’s weird, foreign territory for the most part, full of statist pitfalls. How much can you cater to the partisans of those worldviews without encouraging their anti-liberty tendencies? And I think they certainly have them — not just a subtly different definition of liberty from my own.

We should never assume our foes have worse motives than they appear to — but at the same time, I think we should work harder to make people realize that many of their motives ought properly to be called evil. That is, just as a young German soldier might well have said in 1942: “What, me evil? What are you talking about — I’m nobly fighting to defend the Fatherland!” so too should we see as both naive and harmful people today who say, for example, “Making me sound like the bad guy is ridiculous — I just want regulations that force everyone to end up with roughly equal amounts of wealth or force them to work for the betterment of the environment regardless of whether they value it as much as I do!”

Right. Exactly. You may be a force-wielding, power-hungry person deserving less moral respect than you’re used to — and it may be important people see you that way instead of continuing to treat you like you have the moral and intellectual high ground.  Much as I respect Aristotle’s observation about the importance of finding common ground with your audience, if you flatter their sensibilities and speak their language too much, they feel no need to change.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Obama and Huckabee Can Talk

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Here’s an amusing/uncomfortable clip from a few months ago, showing one of Obama’s most enthusiastic supporters, State Sen. Kirk Watson, put on the spot and unable to come up with any — any — examples of Obama legislative achievements (not that I consider producing legislation an achievement, mind you).

Obama himself, of course, would never be that tongue-tied — and in his preacher-like ease with speech-making, he’s not so unlike one of his failed potential Republican opponents, Mike Huckabee, who, fittingly, will now be a Fox News commentator, which, as blogger/party animal Karol Sheinin says, is preferable to having him governing something.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Birds Tied to My Bed, and Other Nature Stories

•I couldn’t help noticing a large shrub tied to my old bed the last time I visited my parents’ house in Connecticut — a rope fastened to the frame of the bed and heading out the window was helping to prop up the shrub outside so that it wouldn’t fall over and damage the nest full of eggs that a mother bird was hatching (the shrub would otherwise have been precarious, since my parents had been in the process of chopping it down to remove it when the nest construction unexpectedly began).

Fittingly, when I spoke to my parents on Father’s Day, they said the baby birds appeared to be making their first foray outside the nest, temporarily turning the neighbors’ cat Snickers from beloved occasional visitor into looming, feared menace — but so far so good. (My parents’ own cats, Meow, Salty, and Pepper, mostly stay indoors.)

•The discovery of birds tied to my bed was less alarming than my friend Sarah Federman’s recent discovery that her family’s house upstate actually had an uninvited tree in it, the branches having punctured the roof when the tree fell over. Nice to be reminded once in a while that nature can still pack a punch, though.

•Iowans need no reminding, though, and my friend Debbie Colloton reports that she’s in Rome remaining admirably calm while her unattended house sits back in storm-ravaged Iowa — and it had just started filling with water when she had to make her scheduled departure from the country. It should be interesting to hear what she returns to.

•On another animal note, I found it ironic that there was news last week of a Midwest dog surviving a tornado-induced solo flight and news of that dog in the Bronx getting sucked up and killed by a street sweeper. Lesson: safer to be a tornado-dog than a sweeper-dog, surprisingly enough.

•Last week also saw economist Don Boudreaux drawing attention to this neat, funny quote from nineteenth-century historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, a reminder that even a century and a half ago, there were writers who were sick of hearing from back-to-nature activists:

Indeed, law and police, trade and industry, have done far more than people of romantic dispositions will readily admit, to develop in our minds a sense of the wilder beauties of nature. A traveller must be freed from all apprehension of being murdered or starved before he can be charmed by the bold outlines and rich tints of the hills. He is not likely to be thrown into ecstasies by the abruptness of a precipice from which he is in imminent danger of falling two thousand feet perpendicular; by the boiling waves of a torrent which
suddenly whirls away his baggage and forces him to run for his life; by the gloomy grandeur of a pass where he finds a corpse which marauders have just stripped and mangled; or by the screams of those eagles whose next meal may probably be on his own eyes…

It was not till roads had been cut out of the rocks, till bridges had been flung over the courses of the rivulets, till inns had succeeded to dens of robbers…that strangers could be enchanted by the blue dimples of lakes and by the rainbows which overhung the waterfalls, and could derive a solemn pleasure even from the clouds and tempests which lowered on the mountain tops.

Nature has gone from deadly menace to luxury item and now to ersatz religion, possibly the rationale that will be used to dismantle industrial civilization and return us to a state of being menaced.

Monday, June 16, 2008

In Media Res -


– all the more thrilling for seeming to start in the middle, chaos and conflict already in full bloom! It often works in telling stories. It has become almost a cliche in popular history books — start with some poignant, reflective moment late in [whoever]’s career and then flash back to tell us how the Portuguese came to be using those fishing routes in the first place, etc.

But sometimes it works well in music, too. Witness “The Wagon,” the only Dinosaur Jr. song I unreservedly love (and even if there were more, I wouldn’t dare give them a third chance in concert, since I already tried twice and it just didn’t work — and repeatedly teasing the audience with the start of “Just Like Heaven” didn’t help). Dawn Eden once explained to my why the song sounds as if it’s starting “Already in Progress,” something to do with technical music-structure phrases like “eighths” and “fifths” and “on the redondo” or whatever that I don’t really understand (and fear might cause me to like “Smoke on the Water” less if I did).

Similarly, as I think Dave Whitney once discussed with me (probably two decades ago, around the time that Dinosaur Jr. song came out), you have to love songs that start with the word “And.” “The Wagon” doesn’t, but “Closer to the Heart” does, and so too, of course, does “And She Was.” Likewise Nirvana’s song “Sappy” (the title of which I could not have recalled without Google assistance if my life depended on it, by the way).

And it’s worth stopping to reflect once a year or so on how many correct decisions the makers of the Lord of Rings movies made, including opening with one brief but epic glimpse of the original, ancient War of the Ring. Not quite how the book started, but it sure helped set the tone — not that I’m saying it was technically in medias res, just a prologue (and preceded by that lovely and rather conservative Cate Blanchett narration about things that should not have been forgotten).

Finally, you gotta love that Star Trek: The Next Generation episode that begins, without explanation, with the ship careening out of control and then frickin’ exploding. Yeah. Would that every Next Gen episode started with the ship exploding. That would’ve made it a more exciting series.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Dystopia Gallery: Louisiana, Brown U., New Hampshire, and BioShock

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I. I have but dim memories from Brown of Bobby Jindal, whose consideration for McCain’s v.p. slot led to Jindal being an answer at the Jen Dziura/Michael Malice-hosted trivia contest last week. Not everyone in the crowd yet knew his name, which may not be good news for him but helped me score a point (and thanks this Father’s Day to Dad — and Mom — for sending me to Brown in the first place). (UPDATE 6/16/08: He’s got Newt Gingrich’s approval.)

II. My memories of writing this letter to Brown Alumni Monthly’s May/June 2008 issue, criticizing Lincoln Chafee, are pretty vivid. Fuzzier are my memories of fellow Class of ’91 members who gave some of the answers on this survey of my class’s pop and political preferences (apparently, lots of people like Dave Matthews, which is already enough to make me feel wearily like I’m at a never-ending frat party).

III. In other Brown alum news, don’t be alarmed by my absence Friday through Sunday at the end of next week, as I visit with fellow graduates and their spouses (and one child) in New Hampshire, the state that libertarians were supposed to try to take over but which has so far greeted the tiny trickle of newcomers as “that little group of hippie people who’ve been arriving.” (The number of libertarians there will at least be three higher that weekend, among them Christine Caldwell Ames, to whom I am grateful for suggesting that I nab free tickets to the Feelies reunion/Sonic Youth concert happening here in NYC on July 4 down near the dock for Statue of Liberty tour boats — ain’t that America?)

IV. But is there a popular videogame parodying the libertarian inclination to escape to some Ayn Rand-style utopia, you ask? Why yes, that’s what the popular game BioShock is about, depicting a circa-1960 fictional underwater colony created by insane Objectivists whose dream goes awry and is taken over by mutant monsters. Embarrassingly, this popular game may get made into a movie before the long-delayed Atlas Shrugged movie gets completed, resulting in the movie-going public seeing Atlas though the lens of a videogame parody forevermore.

(In the meantime, it’s amusing that the anticipated star of Atlas Shrugged, Angelina Jolie, currently appearing in the comic book-based movie Wanted, has another movie opening in October — The Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski — that will open on the same day as He’s Just Not That into You, an appropriately-titled comedy starring Jennifer Aniston, from whom Jolie famously stole Brad Pitt. I don’t really care about their private lives as long as we eventually get to see Jolie stolen from Hank Rearden by John Galt — I mean freely traded, not stolen.)

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Minority Perspectives on Politics


In yesterday’s Retro-Journal entry, I described what seemed like simpler political times a mere four years ago. Fittingly, just one day before that entry there were multiple signs of more complex times ahead:

•In a step that I hope history will ultimately record was more important than Hillary Clinton’s exit from the presidential race, Ron Paul officially suspended his campaign in Austin, TX, the same town I mentioned visiting in yesterday’s Retro-Journal entry. As a member of Paul’s staff told me a year ago, the hope has always been that Paul, like Goldwater before him, would inspire a new generation of pro-liberty activists even if he never got to be president. That appears to be happening, and the fact that his fans are going the major-party route, creating a vocal subset of “Ron Paul Republicans” instead of bolting the party, is probably for the best. Regarded as troublemakers today, they may grow to be the establishment someday — and rescue the republic.

•Two-pronged strategies seem wise to me, though, so it’s nice to have Bob Barr running as a Libertarian even if it means short-term victories for the more-united left — and it probably will, I must concede, since…

•Obama and McCain may be nearly tied in popular-vote polls, but Obama’s edge translates into a lock on about half the electoral college as of this week, forcing McCain to chase after essentially all the toss-up states for about half the electoral votes he needs. For all my Paul/Barr-boosting, I am realistic enough that I will not blame McCain in the slightest if he breathes not another conservative or libertarian word in this campaign and devotes all his energy to picking up moderates and anti-Obama liberals. He has little choice.

•Barr’s quasi-pal Cynthia McKinney, I gather, is the likely Green Party candidate for president (to be nominated next month) — so the two Georgians do have certain maverick tendencies in common, apparently. Makes me think even less of the Greens than before, though. The two candidates should do a minor-parties debate in Atlanta at some point, like the Badnarik-vs.-whatever-his-name-was LP-vs.-Green debate I saw in NYC in ’04 while more-normal people were on the floor of the GOP convention at Madison Square Garden (and one friend of mine was staging a faux-zombie-attack protest rally nearby).

•This short item from Thursday about the Kansas Reform Party — and the fairly short and readable comments thread accompanying it — is an amusing reminder of connections between the Reform, Constitution, and Green Parties, Nader as an independent, and the Ecology Party of Florida. Yes, the Ecology Party. (Maybe Barr — who I’ll likely vote for — should seek the Natural Law Party’s cross-endorsement. Their main issue is promoting meditation, though, so he’d better convert to Buddhism or something.)

•Meanwhile, as Jacob Levy (a libertarian who got his teenage political start protesting against nukes and homophobes in then solidly-Republican New Hampshire) pointed out to me, The New Republic lists an alarming litany of “Obamacons,” including Milton Friedman’s anarcho-capitalist son David and my friend Megan McArdle.

They all have their different reasons for grudgingly sympathizing with the socialistic Democrats — in seeming defiance of all free-market principles — but I think W. James Antle III, in an American Conservative review of books by Boaz and Norquist, may have given the best summary of the problem with libertarians who overemphasize their own leftish tendencies: “If you consider pro-choice (on abortion only) Jon Stewart more libertarian than pro-life Ron Paul, there is probably something wrong with your definition of libertarianism.” (And in any case, clips like this one of Paul reacting to getting the endorsement of the owner of the Moonlight Bunny Ranch show how his love of freedom trumps his social-conservative tendencies anyway, without reducing them to irrelevance — but Paul is just a rhetorical example for the moment.)

I’m increasingly sympathetic to bolting from the GOP (though the aforementioned Paulistas suggest that the proper course is to stay and fight for reform), but whereas staying home or voting Libertarian sends the GOP the message “not good enough by your own stated standards,” giving Obama a landslide will simply send the GOP the message “be more like the Democrats if you want to win,” and that’s the last thing we need. If Steely Dan’s last album disappointed you, it may be time to stop giving them your money, but you don’t send them a productive protest message by vocally buying Britney Spears instead, for crying out loud.

And solidly leftist writer William S. Burroughs might add: Republicans, or those who seem like a natural part of the Republican coalition, who vote Dem for strategic reasons are a bunch of mugwumps.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Retro-Journal: Four More Years Since Late 2004

The 2004 election was ugly and divisive, but it was much simpler than this year’s, which had myriad primary contenders. The 2004 election also lent itself to a grand narrative of which libertarian aims, contrary to subsequent pessimism, still seemed a part.

•I recall starting out the second half of 2004 seeing a speech by young Kenyan-born libertarian activist June Arunga, who’d toured Africa from north to south for a documentary and — unlike countless other documentarians and activists — showed how free markets could alleviate Africa’s problems, from the snooping omnipresence of Egyptian government to the private-bank-account-pilfering government of her native land — which, like all governments, only pilfered for ostensibly lofty, noble reasons such as constructing a new hospital but of course still drove away wealth and productivity and economic stability in the process, as government action tends to do whether nominally Soviet, Democratic, Bolivarian, or otherwise.

(I felt a bit like I’d ensnared a celebrity when I talked her into joining a mission to the karaoke bar Iggy’s on the Upper East Side earlier this year after a Cato Institute event, though she didn’t sing. I did “Don’t You” by Simple Minds yet again and am still pleased that some curvy blonde pigtailed neighborhood resident named Melanie enjoyed the performance so much, though sadly I have no idea how to contact her to demonstrate my “Sign of Fire,” that being the Fixx song I’ve now concluded works best in karaoke, much as I enjoy doing their song “Stand or Fall,” largely because it contains perhaps the single most pretentious rhyme in rock history: “Empty face reflects extinction/ Ugly skies divide the nation/ Desecrate the population/ There will be no exultation.” I’m grateful to Bob Chitester for getting me into the aforementioned Cato event — and I notice there’s some talk of karaoke happening next week, during the big libertarian event he’s organizing, at which I’ll be on a panel addressing the simple, unambitious question “What Is America?” — thus that picture of my head. I notice I’ll be joined on the panel by a woman from Sweden, so if we all end up doing karaoke, I just may have to perform “Seven Days a Week” by the Sounds, though I’m no Maja Ivarsson — indeed, I think she gives one of my favorite performances of all time here, so it’s a lot to live up to.)

•I remember seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger on TV — himself not yet having abandoned libertarian-Republican policy goals at that time — giving a speech at the 2004 Republican convention that tied together the themes of freedom, U.S. military action around the world, and support for the Republican Party more effectively than any Bush speech had (perhaps tellingly). He traced a short history of the modern world and his own life, from witnessing the repercussions of Nazi and Communist oppression as a child to his hopes for a liberated Middle East today, ending with a litany of libertarian values and telling the world of each of them that if you believe in that freedom, “you are a Republican.”

•At one convention-watching party here in New York City, I met the reporter Steven Vincent — initially approaching him because I thought he might be libertarian novelist/essayist Neal Stephenson — and would hear one year later of his death in Iraq (much as I’d heard a year earlier of the death there of libertarian-conservative editor Michael Kelly, who’d been interviewed for a John Stossel piece back when I worked at ABC News).

Though the conservative and libertarian movements were going through something of an identity crisis then (just as the Justice League was experiencing rape, murder, and other trauma in the darkly epochal miniseries Identity Crisis that year), things didn’t yet look like a certain disaster/crack-up, so I was still able to take some pleasure in seeing the differing and even feuding elements of the movements as a sort of Epcot Center of possibilities rather than fault lines heralding doom.

Indeed, when I went to Rockford, IL to see libertarian Stossel producer Kristi Kendall married that summer, with our fellow libertarian Michael Malice and an ex-girlfriend of his in attendance, I checked to see if the paleoconservative Rockford Institute was hosting any lectures or events that same weekend — then remembered that Chicago is only about a half-hour away if I needed entertainment, and the city was then still home to my friends Jacob Levy, Shelley Clark, and Chuck Blake. But whether hanging with GOP-wary libertarian Jacob or the Chronicles-publishing Rockford paleos, it was all good then — no need to split hairs as long as we were united enough to stop the left, al Qaeda, al Qaeda in Iraq, Michael Moore, and/or an arrogant faux-aristocratic Massachusetts senator married to a woman whose foundation is directly responsible for about half the crackpot unscientific eco-scares I combat in my day job, a terrifying coalition, in short, that could not in good conscience be handed a victory at that juncture in world history, even if that meant reluctantly voting to re-elect Bush.

(Incidentally, Malice returns to the Chicago area for another wedding this weekend, so he’ll miss seeing his punk friend Tibbie X reading this Sunday circa 5 at Bengal Curry, 65 West Broadway — but you should go.)

Even a staunchly leftist friend who’d touted the Howard Dean campaign in her wedding program that year was expressing newfound sympathy for capitalism since making a foray into yarn store ownership and discovering that regulations and taxes really do make it very difficult to do business — and in ways that did nothing to help her customers or employees, either. I gave her a collection of Rand essays.


That year wasn’t all politics, of course, and I also managed to see the Finn Brothers (of Crowded House fame) in concert in Central Park, the whimsical and They Might Be Giants-like band Life in a Blender, 60s action shows like Green Hornet and The Avengers at the Museum of Television & Radio, the delightfully retro-futurist Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (inspiration for my Halloween costume that year), and on a punk-conservative fusionist note (which combined entertainment and politics) a speech by Michael Graves of the punk band the Misfits, a rock n’ roll Republican whose existence confirms that I did not entirely fabricate the phenomenon commemorated in this site’s slogan, above. Like Schwarzenegger, Graves struck a note both capitalist and globalist, emphasizing the idea that America is a magnet for people seeking freedom from government. Precisely.

I also saw the Pixies in concert late that year and loved them regardless of any political ramifications — and I saw that Muppets marathon I mentioned in an earlier Retro-Journal, the marathon that was a sufficiently effective nerd filter that it led to me bumping into a few friends and one woman I’d dated.

As my birthday outing that year, I saw the live-action Thunderbirds movie with a posse that included the tragically obese manager of Victor Niederhoffer’s libertarian Junto discussion group, who has since passed away from a stroke, in his forties. Happier Thunderbirds-related outings that year, though, included a return to the Museum of Television & Radio to see Supercar (another marionette sci-fi show from the creator of Thunderbirds), and a sangria-enhanced viewing of the Thunderbirds-inspired film Team America: World Police (from the libertarian creators of South Park) while on a visit to Austin, TX to see LB Deyo with Scott Nybakken and Christine Caldwell Ames. While there, I met Diana Fleischman, an evolutionary psychology expert who’ll be one of the egg-sellers on our panel of egg-selling women next month at Lolita Bar.

That half-year at Lolita, though, saw me arguing that America is oversexed (and I was not at that time a living counterargument) against CuddleParty co-founder Marcia Baczynski, who successfully persuaded the audience that America may not in fact be having too much sex — but in truth she won largely on the strength of the admirably moderate, non-radical argument that most people are still uncomfortable even frankly discussing such matters.

Bush also won that year.

Hitchens had wanted it, Andrew Sullivan pre-transformation had wanted it, Central European nations (fond of those who topple tyrannies) wanted it, plenty of libertarians wanted it — and for a very short time, it appeared our considerable patience with Bush would be rewarded by an unexpected renewed emphasis on domestic economic reforms such as Social Security privatization after his re-election. As my fellow hawkishly-inclined libertarian Nybakken liked to say, nothing could pozibly go rwrongg.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

More Then-vs.-Now Rock n' Roll

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Some glimpses of rock across the ages:

•I mentioned Meat Loaf yesterday, and speaking of rockstar weight-gain, here’s Ann Wilson with sister Nancy in the 70s and three decades later (here looking better than she sometimes does, I think), again with Nancy. One half of Heart, still fabulous, the other, a living simulacrum of the fat-lady suit from that scene in Total Recall.

•The Los Angeles Times reported last Friday that Brian May of Queen went on to get a graduate degree in astrophysics and write a book on interstellar dust — a-aaaah! Savior of the universe!

•Mom hates this song, “You Light Up My Life” — and with good reason.

In 1978, it drearily held the record for weeks at #1 on the pop charts — and continued to hold that record until being beaten in 1981 by this song, Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” which for all its silliness lights up one’s life far more effectively — and demonstrates, hands down, which decade was superior (Olivia Newton-John here also looks, not coincidentally, a bit like the little red-haired girl seated in front of me in class a year later — but, then, at the time it seemed there was no other logical way to look).

The song was a very early indication that things were looking up, even though it was not by any means alternative rock or New Wave. (And imagine how much more sanctimonious the implicitly pro-gay finale of that video would be if it were made today, when everyone acts as if they just invented all social patterns yesterday, after some very bold thinking.)

•It was a harbinger of better times much like the band Altered Images, recently praised by Michael Malice, who co-hosts trivia tonight at 7:30 at Chelsea Market with Jen Dziura and will surely work at least one such rock reference into the proceedings. He also likes comic books, which means knowledge of things like Crisis on Infinite Earths may help — though as it happens, I have just determined that “Anti-Monitor,” the main villain from that series, is an anagram of “I’m into no art” and “I, moron-taint,” which I hope is not the universe struggling like a sentient thing to send some sort of message.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Total Eclipse of Subtlety


It’s all connected: I think we knew songwriter/producer Jim Steinman’s songs (such as Meatloaf’s best-known stuff) are Wagnerian. What I didn’t realize is that he got his start in college actually writing an updated version of a Wagner opera. Since then, his stuff has been distinctive enough that I correctly guessed the man behind “Total Eclipse of the Heart” also wrote Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing At All” (which would be almost as cool as “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” it struck me one day, if only Bonnie Tyler sang it instead of wussy Air Supply — hey, wait a second, I thought…).

More recently, it dawned on me (again correctly) that he must have written “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young” by Ellen Aim and the Attackers (a.k.a. Fire Inc.) from the movie Streets of Fire, a film responsible for one of my fondest radio interview memories.


The Fixx were being interviewed, talking about doing a song — the great “Deeper and Deeper” — for the soundtrack of Streets of Fire, and they said they wanted their song to play during the end credits instead of during a scene to avoid having the lyrics contradict the action. But during a commercial at the radio station, due to a technical mishap, you could still hear Fixx lead singer Cy Curnin “discreetly” explaining that he hated movies like Pretty in Pink for making little effort to match music meaningfully with plot.

(And, of course, by that standard, things have gone way downhill since Echo & the Bunnymen and Psychedelic Furs’ fairly-relevant contributions to that film — and Curnin has gone into hat-making, but I’ll nonetheless see the Fixx in concert next month, for what I’m afraid is about the seventh time, along with English Beat and the Alarm, the latter of whom my college roommate Marc Steiner along with me actually saw in concert with the Fixx about twenty years ago in Rhode Island, at what Marc then called the “Fixx the Alarm” concert.)


As a special Todd-alerting bonus, Wikipedia describes Steinman’s political views as “libertarian” (presumably of a decidedly antiwar sort, since he, like Ron Paul, has praised Kucinich), and the entry mentions that, in addition to a vampire musical, Steinman produced a song for the trashy military thriller Iron Eagle, which will perhaps be best remembered as the movie that a laughing Lois on Family Guy, with adorable insensitivity, tells Brian his perpetually-unfinished novel resembles.

Speaking of Wagner, by the way, that Morrison interview I linked to yesterday confirms that he’s cramming everything from Gotterdammerung to the Hopi Fifth World into his Final Crisis miniseries. Bring it on!

ADDENDUM: You know, I just realized the Echo & the Bunnymen video contains a scantily-clad guy in a unicorn mask not so unlike the one I described Rev. Jen Jr., the performance art chihuahua, barking at ferociously in my final Month of the Nerd entry.  If you watch the video and imagine being a chihuahua, you can see how it might be alarming.  And the video unicorn is in significantly better shape and is moving around less.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Crisis Continues

This has to be some sort of record for time elapsed before revising old DC Comics stories: Grant Morrison declares last month’s finales of Death of the New Gods and Countdown to Final Crisis “apocryphal” — and I don’t blame him. As I said in an earlier entry, he clearly wrote his stuff first, and DC had a year to make the other series “fit” but didn’t. Screw ’em. But as Morrison says, it may be a side effect of misperceptions of divine events, if one must rationalize (and that’s a rationale suggested by Death of the New Gods itself, so best to roll with it).

Sounds like the two-issue Final Crisis: Superman Beyond (in 3D) is now mandatory reading, too.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Global Warming: Tourism vs. Alarmism


So hot…nearly…100 degrees…yet…gotta love…new tourism ad…for Ocean City, NJ MD featuring…mayor…implicitly mocking global warming alarmism…by urging people to visit city now because science warns oceans will evaporate…in a billion years…got the level of urgency…about right…stupid greens…so…stupid…

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Gay Marriage Question, Plus Drugs and Grey Areas

Some might say my priorities are askew if I spent last night with a group entirely composed of fellow straight males, passed up a chance this morning to frolic with attractive bisexual women at the beach (on this sweltering New York Saturday), am scheduled to dine tonight with an ex-girlfriend I didn’t marry, and am now spending part of my much-needed afternoon time writing about gay marriage. Philosophy first, that’s all I can say.

One of the major qualms libertarians might have about voting for Bob Barr, who was the subject of my last few blog entries and is the Libertarian Party candidate for president, is that he’s the man who helped give us DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, which essentially defines marriage as male-female for federal purposes but does not, as recent news stories attest, prevent individual states from legalizing gay marriage (as California just did and as New York seems to be in the process of doing). By contrast, the constitutional amendment some conservatives wanted would have defined marriage as male-female for all the states.

I was pleasantly surprised by how forthright, intelligent, and articulate Barr sounded about the issues on which he’s shifted. Unlike a lot of politicians who instinctively take the Orwellian/John Kerry approach of claiming “I have always been at war with Oceania” (but taking several mealy-mouthed, blustery, and upbeat sentences to say so), Barr is quite willing to say what his position was Back Then, what it is Now, and why his thinking changed.

Of course, he pegs the shift in his thinking to the post-9/11 period and watching the expansion of executive power under Bush — which made him more libertarian across the board — while cynics might simply peg the shift to him losing his House seat as a Republican and then adopting a new political party. Regardless, he seems able to quickly and clearly discuss the fine points of his new philosophy without hemming and hawing — and while he now wants the PATRIOT Act repealed, he’s basically sticking to DOMA, while sounding like he’d rather forget the whole issue and isn’t instinctively “bothered” by gays or state-level gay marriage, which is a start (from a socially-liberal perspective).

So he’s clearly an example of a libertarian who leans rightward in the taxonomy discussed in the Response threads of my last two entries — and while I wouldn’t have pushed for DOMA myself, I think that before anyone writes him (or others with his set of positions) off as haters and bigots, it’s worth considering that opposition to gay marriage is one of the most popular and least-divisive political positions in recent American history, with something like 70% opposed and the numbers not that different between the conservative and liberal camps.

Yet some 70% of Americans (I haven’t checked the stats) are probably also fans of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Ellen, and Rosie, so like it or not, gung-ho gay marriage supporters have to concede that something other than mere hate is going on here — and I would even go so far as to say that Americans are libertarian enough (in the broadest sense) that they probably don’t think they’re coercing anyone by failing to legalize gay marriage across the nation, or else they’d be more torn up about their position (I hope).

Must Government Recognize Gay Marriage?

So maybe they’re right — about their position not being coercive, I mean (though as an atheist with no moral objection to gays, I don’t mean they’re necessarily right to pick the do-not-legalize position — I just mean they may be right that failure to do so is uncoercive and thus a morally permissible, albeit not to my mind necessary, position).

As usual, the root of the problem is the unfortunate fact that the government exists. Once you have a single, centralized, governmental definition of something (such as marriage), you’re going to end up with some mushy, bland, majoritarian version of it. We shouldn’t, for example, be giving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the first place, but once it exists, it’s a safe bet it’ll tend to go to widely-respected people as opposed to, say, late law-flouting black-market anarchist Samuel E. Konkin III.

The beauty of the marketplace is the successful avoidance, a billion times a day, of the need for a consensus, one-size-fits-all way of doing things. If we’re dumb enough to render something governmental (whether conservative, moderate, or even progressive-social-democratic), we’re going to get one widely-agreed-upon version of that something. The National Music Album, if there were one, would almost certainly be something by Frank Sinatra, no matter how confident certain pockets of the population are that Doolittle by the Pixies (which I’m listening to right now) is better (or The Wall or Synchronicity or whatever) — and it wouldn’t be because the Frank fans are haters or would-be oppressors. Indeed, given the unfortunate constraints of the situation, Frank might be the correct answer.

Separation of Marriage and State

So the ideal legal situation from a libertarian perspective regarding marriage, I would think, is the one Michael Kinsley defended in a column years ago: get the government out of the marriage business altogether, so that marriage is a purely private contract (and as legally enforceable as any other), which in no way prevents the overwhelming majority of those contracts from following very traditional forms — but also doesn’t prevent gays, polygamists, or for that matter Buddhists (who I’m told sometimes marry in ceremonies that go unnoticed by U.S. law but are treated with respect by their relatives and communities, which surely is the important thing) from making whatever contracts they want.

And despite the argument (which Barr may still buy into) that the diversity of such contracts somehow undermines the old-fashioned, Christian, heterosexual ones, it’s very difficult to see how, say, my parents’ stable, four-decade marriage (congratulations!) would get rockier if two guys in the Village decided to spend the rest of their lives together (as they often already do, of course).

But once we deviate from that ideal situation — and supporters of government are best thought of as deviants — it’s not perfectly clear what the government should do. It shouldn’t be in the marriage business to begin with, but once in, is it so clear it has to formalize a wide diversity of marriage contracts? It may depend partly on how you define “marriage,” and I think people of a contractarian bent — most libertarians, many modern-liberals, and perhaps people who like philosophy and sci-fi — are prone to have a very abstract definition of marriage in their heads (i.e., Person A unites in bond for life or until dissolution of marriage contract with Person B) that, it turns out, seems very hollow and alien to a lot of our fellow citizens, to whom “marriage” has apparently always connoted something with far more empirical detail and historical, traditional baggage to it, which is not necessarily wrong either lexicographically or morally — so long as they weren’t intending to coercively prevent private commitment ceremonies.

John McCain, for instance, has said he isn’t bothered by commitment ceremonies despite quietly opposing legalizing gay marriage — and gay marriage opponent Barack Obama probably feels similarly. I hoped, back in the 90s when I addressed the topic in a New York Press column, that the rise of commitment ceremonies would lead to some peacekeeping compromise (of a Bill-Clintonian sort, regardless of whether he signed DOMA) in which the parallel institution of “civil unions” was legalized so that “everybody wins”: The gays get de facto legal equality, and most of the population can go on thinking of “marriage” as something slightly different — which it really is, which is to say the tradition-vetted heterosexual union historically lauded by Christianity and other religions and valued in part for its high likelihood of producing offspring (and again, I say this as an atheist who doesn’t want children, with my present goal — as I hope is obvious, but I won’t be shocked if someone gets angry anyway — being deference to and tolerance of traditionalists rather than seizing a chance to be intolerant toward the more marginal group).

Indeed, I know a libertarian non-Christian who has actually had gay sex and still opposes gay marriage (no one living in New York and no one I want to name), on the grounds that you can’t just rewrite a centuries-old tradition with real complexity and meaning to it by legal fiat. Again — perhaps as a sci-fi guy before all else — it had never once crossed my mind before gay marriage became a hot topic that there’d be anything odd about, say, Chewbacca marrying a sentient computer or some other arrangement far removed from heterosexual norms, but I understand now that many people’s working definitions of things — on many, many issues — are a bit more richly-detailed yet more constrained than mine, and that doesn’t automatically make them wrong. To some people, it can’t be a novel without a plot, etc.

Government-Decreed Social Institutions Thwart Markets

One big underlying problem with letting government wade into these matters is that it tends to end up tampering not just with definitions of social institutions that should remain in the province of tradition or private action, but also decreeing things like insurance rates and hospital policies. The truly freedom-loving answer, of course, is to also get government out of the insurance and health businesses and let the reputational chips fall where they may when it comes to new-fangled institutions like gay marriage contracts or very old institutions like polygamy. If the truth is — and this may well be the case, egalitarian naivete and p.c. notwithstanding — that gay marriages tend to be even less stable and more fleeting than heterosexual ones, the demographers and the compilers of insurance actuarial tables should be free to respond accordingly (and if you don’t like it, you make a contract with a different insurance company or you suck it up, so to speak).

(Of course, some conservatives already argue that things like California legalizing gay marriage portend negative economic consequences, like Ed Whelan — no relation to my boss Dr. Elizabeth Whelan — but this seems like nitpicking to me, not so unlike trying to settle the issue of what drugs people can legally use by looking at stats that warn of a .4% decrease in economic output if pot is legalized. We’re not that technocratic, are we? What’s next, mandatory coffee consumption? Capitalism means you do what you want with your body and property — and pay for it all yourself or with help voluntarily given to you — not that we become cogs in a governmental industrial policy.)

If experience leads to a world in which people announce their gay marriages and other people think, based on experience rather than bigotry, “Yeah, that’ll be over in about a month — or they’ll each continue to have other lovers anyway — so I’m not giving them the special rental discount,” so be it. But if, on the other hand, it turns out that gay marriage — or certain types of gay marriages but not others — are as stable and long-lasting and bring as many subsidiary benefits as straight marriage (or, again, certain types of straight marriage — say, conservative marriages vs. Hollywood celebrity marriages, perhaps), then let time and reputational effects confer upon them the same respect traditionally afforded straight marriage.

But as usual, don’t let the government decree the answer instead of letting the magical combo of ongoing marketplace experimentation and traditional codification continually settle (and unsettle and resettle) the issue.

I’m Willing to Call It a Grey Area

And for the religious folks reading all this skeptically: as with countless other things, if God objects, he supposedly has ample power with which to punish the wrongdoers himself without earthly authorities doing it for him. You’re not a Taliban-style religious totalitarian after all, right? Right? No stoning of heterosexual adulterers, I hope? That’s what makes us better than the Islamofascists and all, isn’t it?

In any case, you can see that I regard the issue as slightly more complicated than do some of my fellow libertarians, one of whom I recall saying that legalizing gay marriage was the “great civil rights cause of our time!” Meh. We’re talking about something like 2% of the population, many of whom may not want to get married anyway and who always have the option of having commitment ceremonies and becoming economically entangled (and even filling out a form making them de facto next of kin for hospital visits) if they choose. Perhaps they should be able to legally marry, in all states, just like everyone else — but I don’t see the issue as having quite the urgency that some on both the anti-gay right and pro-gay left do.

And I say that for utilitarian reasons suggested above, not out of mere callous indifference (indeed, I think I’m more aware than most people of the degree to which moralistic positions are often conveniently structured so as to impose restrictions on people other than the moralists, which is why I try to be utilitarian in my thinking about these things rather than just consulting my gut to see if I personally feel threatened/offended/elated about some controversy — philosophy first).

So it’s one more issue that, to the horror of its partisans, I’m willing to consign to a “grey area” — along with abortion, foreign policy, the death penalty, the social impact of religion, animal welfare, and a lot of other things about which people sometimes refuse to accept moderation or agnosticism as possible positions. I’ll pick my political allegiances and priorities on other grounds. And when I consign something to a “grey area,” I typically do not mean that I have absolutely no preferred resolution to the issue but simply that I recognize that opposing arguments are sufficiently strong that it might be reasonable to accept a compromise, table the issue, or (in a federal system) make it a state but not federal-level issue, if possible. It also means (I hope) that you’ll find me less likely to “freak out” over the issue than about things that some people might consider less important but that I think have more clear-cut answers (usually econ and science issues and for policy purposes mainly just econ, except to the extent government keeps wading into scientific controversies that should be left to the scientists and public to decide, without federal funding, bans, or official verdicts being involved). It also tends to mean I don’t think the partisans on one side of the issue are as clearly guilty of coercion or rights-violations as some might think.

Jeez, now a 3,000-word-plus blog entry (counting the fascinating stuff about drugs starting in the next paragraph). I don’t know how my column became so long, but I’m striving for short, casual ones for the foreseeable future.

Note on Drugs

One more thought, in reaction to some Responses regarding drugs over the past few days: libertarians, at least in the way the term is routinely used in the media and political philosophy (and carefully distinguished from the broader/more liberal term “civil libertarians” and the old-fashioned European use of “libertarian” to mean left-anarchist), want drug legalization, despite the impossibility of ensuring that everyone using the term “libertarian” understands the whole philosophy or accepts all its consequences (though I think libertarians are, if anything, usually thought of as being far more likely — indeed, annoyingly likely, some say — to accept their philosophy whole-hog and without exception than are liberals or conservatives).

At the same time, Teenage Todd was living proof that one can think in somewhat libertarian ways while still opposing drug legalization. I’m not interested in getting into an embarrassing defense of all my sloppy, incipient philosophical ideas from high school, but they weren’t yet libertarian and at the same time weren’t a morass of authoritarianism and hypocrisy either (something worth keeping in mind for adult ideologues rendering judgments on the unphilosophical bulk of the population).

Before politics, my first concern, since about age fourteen (after my earlier period of being primarily concerned with fostering stoic rationalism while surrounded by hormonal junior high kids), was defending scientific skepticism against superstition and forcibly-decreed solutions. So without having heard of libertarianism at all, I was an admirer of the Enlightenment and reason, an atheist, and a fan of America who was wary of both communism and the religious right. Like my hero James “The Amazing” Randi (a magician turned debunker of paranormal claims), I saw avoidance of drugs and alcohol as a logical extension of the desire to foster a world of rational (rather than nutty) individuals and, lacking my later libertarian qualms, had as yet no problem with the government saying No for us.

Furthermore, I would argue that drugs was not such an arbitrary or illogical issue on which to accept external authority even from a libertarian perspective. Note that I’m not saying that one can be libertarian and favor keeping drugs illegal, but if, as an empirical-utilitarian matter, one favors individual liberty not just for its own sake but because one observes (again, as an empirical matter) that individuals usually make responsible, rational decisions, it’s not so crazy to think (especially if you believe government propaganda that implies all illicit drugs turn people into addicted zombies, as I more or less did in high school) that being drug-free may be a sort of precondition of being a rational, autonomous individual who is ready for liberty.

I mean, I still do think that to some small degree (without accepting any coercive agenda as a result) in the simple sense that, like plenty of other people, I don’t think one should go around drunk all the time or that people should make important decisions while on LSD. As with many other things, I just don’t think (and haven’t since about 1989) that the government should be the means of dealing with such problems.

But I’m willing to see even the legal question as slightly greyer than some others — so if you happen to be a religious, drug-warring, anti-gay-marriage, anti-animal rights, non-anarchist but minimal-statist, pro-life hawk, we may still agree on the issues on which I have the strongest opinions — and the same is true if you’re an atheist-pagan, LSD-taking, married-lesbian, vegan, anarchist pacifist.

I just want budget cuts and deregulation. Is that too much to ask?