Thursday, January 31, 2008

Hitchens vs. Boteach: Prelude to the "Month Without God"

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Thanks to Daniel Radosh, last night I got to go to a debate on the existence of God between Christopher Hitchens and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach at the 92nd Street Y, not far north of me, and Hitchens was generally perceived to mop the floor with Boteach (henceforth pronounced “bee-atch”) — and if you don’t believe me, read these reactions from the staff of As Daniel, who also went to the recent Hitchens/D’Souza debate I attended, says, you want Hitchens to drink just enough to be outrageous but not so much as to be incoherent, and I think he must have gotten it just right last night.

(Daniel, author of the book Rapture Ready! about weird Christian pop culture, will be in a debate of his own, at Lolita Bar, on April 2 — the week his book comes out — against former Blightobody lead singer Brian McCarter, on the slightly more earthly question “Does Christian Rock Suck?”)

Hitchens very carefully distinguished in his marvelous opening statement between the lack of evidence for God and the (far more debatable) social consequences of religion — one of the most important distinctions in the world, and one that atheists are sometimes careless about, I must concede. (Indeed, one of my Book Selections of the Month for this very special February will be The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day, on shelves tomorrow, which does a great job of skewering the claim that religion has been a major historical cause of wars.)

Boteach (about whom the audience was audibly alarmed during the intros when the moderator introduced him as “the founder and chairman of This World”), unfortunately, leapt right into the emotional/aesthetic argument that Hitchens and other atheists dwell in a dark and blighted world without purpose or morality, and things went downhill from there, with Boteach making excursions into advocacy of intelligent design theory and some unconscionable abuse of the concept of probability (at one point insisting that if something is improbable, such as a beneficial mutation, it will not only not happen within billions of years but will not happen even over an infinite span of time).

In any case, no evidence for God’s existence was presented, and rational people do not believe in things asserted without evidence. But more on that throughout February, starting (in a way) with tomorrow’s Retro-Journal entry.

Attending the debate, by the way, was Kirsten Giardi of Good Will in New Jersey, accompanying some non-believer friends of the Rabbi. She was my favorite female in fifth grade or so and has since apparently been an unsatisfied financial-sector worker and a more-satisfied social worker — and thus a reminder that even back in fifth grade, I liked hybrids and converts — and that, too, will be discussed in tomorrow’s Retro-Journal entry.

And speaking of career changes, the New Wave online station I was listening to earlier this week played a song by a music group made up of two blonde, female, teenage sisters named Aly and A.J. — who happen to have gone from singing Christian rock to singing mainstream pop, thus making them a Venn diagram intersection of two of Radosh’s favorite targets of mockery: religion and teen girl bands. But what strikes me about them is that in an interview, they reveal themselves as Darwin-doubters (like Boteach), and, while they’re at it, reveal how dangerous post-Buffy sarcasm is, since it can be wielded against Darwin as easily as it is normally wielded against, say, “sexism.” One of the sisters says in an interview that “Evolution is silly. Monkeys? Um, no.” Just because you can train the crosshairs of sarcasm on something doesn’t prove you’re right, people. Please, please remember that, you smug jerks.

P.S. Speaking of irrational beliefs, I’ve been chastised on a comic book website by comic book/TV writer and creator of Eli Stone (the first episode of which is airing on ABC as I write this) Marc Guggenheim for posting the claim that the show irresponsibly repeats anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, as my ACSH co-worker Jeff Stier wrote today in a New York Post op-ed.

P.P.S. All right, yes, I looked at a couple comic book websites — to find out what’s going on in DC Comics before this summer’s Final Crisis miniseries. Turns out Superman-Prime and Monarch (himself a fusion of all the Captain Atoms) blew each other up, while Darkseid’s trying to take over the cosmos. Why has the Source forsaken us?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

DEBATE AT LOLITA BAR: What Do the Primary Results So Far Mean?

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Yesterday’s Florida results were big news, but one week from today, it will be Wednesday, Feb. 6, which means that “Super Duper Tuesday” — when nearly half the states vote — will be behind us. Come vent, query, and argue about what it all means and where both the Democrats and Republicans are headed, with:

JOHN DERBYSHIRE (right), who contributes regularly to National Review and wrote Prime Obsession

SETH COLTER WALLS (left), whose freelance work has appeared in Newsweek and on HuffingtonPost and MSNBC

Plus moderator Michel Evanchik and your host, Todd Seavey.

That’s 8pm Wed. Feb. 6 at Lolita Bar, 266 Broome St. (at Allen St.) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, one block south and three west of the Delancey St. subway stop.

My own hopes for a libertarian-like Republican candidate have already cursed and doomed the candidacies of Ron Paul, Fred Thompson, and Rudy Giuliani, as readers of this blog know — now my destructive sights are turned upon Mitt Romney, perhaps assuring McCain’s nomination. Come find out on Feb. 6 who I cast my futile vote for in New York’s primary the day before — plus whether Derbyshire is still backing Ron Paul — and much, much more!

My thinking on the Romney thing, by the way, is that he’s the only viable, tactically-meaningful way at this point to cast some sort of (admittedly horribly ambiguous) “conservative” protest vote against the centrist-authoritarian McCain, though McCain has his good points and Romney substantial drawbacks, too.

Sad that it’s come to this — and take note, my perfectionist libertarian friends: some of you question the need to work in a coalition with conservatives, but think how minuscule our unaided libertarian power really is if (assuming for a moment that McCain becomes the nominee) even the conservative movement, vastly larger than the libertarian movement and more directly tied to the Republican Party, can’t get someone who’s clearly one of “theirs” into the nominee slot. We are like a flea on a dog whose barking, in turn, is barely listened to by the family inside the house — who are themselves socialists. In this environment, even an unreliable ally who occasionally stumbles in our direction for reasons we find abhorrent may be desperately needed.

We have about as much hope of convincing people to shrink the government as John Derbyshire does of getting his fellow National Review writers to join him in abandoning religious faith (something I’ll succeed in getting all readers of this blog to do during my February “Month Without God,” though, so stay tuned — and something I will see Christopher Hitchens attempt to get a rabbi to do in a debate tonight at the 92nd Street Y [UPDATE 2/7/08: At last night's debate, Derb said he is not an atheist]).

But join us next Wednesday (Feb. 6, 8pm) at Lolita and use the Q&A period and the long, hard drinking period afterwards to gain some insights about why your work for the Kucinich, Hunter, Thompson, Dodd, or other campaign didn’t pay off the way you’d hoped. Or if the whole campaign season is going exactly the way you wanted it to: I am happy for you.

However, if none of the parties with presidential candidates this year — Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green, Socialist, Constitution, or Prohibition — have yet satisfied you, remember that there’s always the one registered independent who has officially declared.

P.S. And in a reminder that things could always be worse — far, far, far worse — libertarian writer June Arunga is trying to get her family out of Kenya’s capital this week as it heads toward civil war, so anyone with job leads for her top-level Kenyan retirement/pension system-managing (and system-reforming) mom should let June know at JuneArunga[at], and I can only begin to imagine how much junk e-mail she’s probably going to get, but that, presumably, is the least of her worries right now.

(I own a DVD of June’s documentary tour of Africa’s socialist and authoritarian regimes — so antithetical to property rights and individual liberty that even in good times in a country like Kenya, the government may simply decide to take arbitrary amounts directly out of people’s bank accounts to fund new projects — and the thought of her family having to deal with even worse problems now is very depressing.)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Dem, LP, and GOP Observations: Romney

The Democrats: Slate’s smart and moderate Mickey Kaus says the best thing for Obama’s campaign would be for him to become the (black) anti-affirmative action candidate, not so unlike the suggestion I made recently. It would certainly be a neat way of underscoring the idea that Hillary is both the establishment candidate and the scary-leftist in this campaign, not him.

The Libertarian Party: As if engaged in self-parody, the LP candidates who have thus far declared (with the nominee to be chosen in May in Denver) are (a) a gambling odds-maker, (b) a California pot-smoker with cancer, (c) a Northeastern antiwar physics professor, and (d) a dopey-sounding businessman who wants the FDA to extract more money from pharmaceutical companies (which doesn’t seem very libertarian to me). The gambling odds-maker, Wayne Allyn Root, actually strikes me as the most credible, which isn’t saying much. So — unless they throw a Nader-sized wrench into the election by drafting Ron Paul — that brings limited-government fans back, wearily, like an abused spouse, to…

The Republicans: It’s looking like Florida’s primary tomorrow may confirm it’s a two-man race between McCain and Romney on the Republican side, so, in one order or the other, perhaps they’ll both end up on the ticket.

Huckabee, it seems, was acceptable only to the religious-partisan Republicans and Giuliani only acceptable to the Republicans (like me) who don’t much care about religion (this blog’s “Month Without God” begins this Friday, after all). A gung-ho Catholic-conservative co-worker and I pretty much demonstrate why neither Huckabee nor Giuliani can win: though we’re both registered Republicans, I’ve vowed not to vote for Huckabee, and she’s vowed not to vote for Giuliani. The End for both of them, I think, though I’m no polling agency, and my co-worker and I are admittedly a sample of N = 2.

•We do have a perpetually BlackBerry-checking co-worker who’s gung-ho for Giuliani, and I couldn’t help thinking of him when Peggy Noonan wrote recently that Giuliani struck her as having a large number of supporters at an appearance of his she attended over the summer, but they all seemed to be ignoring Giuliani and checking their BlackBerrys — instead of getting fired up like, say, Huckabee supporters. The New York fiscal-conservative candidate has to fit into some very tight, cold-hearted yuppie schedules, whereas I’ll bet, say, Kuncinich supporters have a lot more spare time on their hands to fan the flames of political passion.

•So, if fiscal conservatives want to have a real impact, perhaps our (pathetic) fallback position at this point has to be voting for Romney, the one candidate who can fend off McCain (though we may regret that, if Romney fares worse in the general election, since we’ll need those independents who love McCain — and if McCain merely becomes v.p., it seems unlikely he’d be young enough to run for president after a Romney administration, whereas Romney works just fine as a “legacy” for President McCain). As a friend of mine said (indeed, the same one who posed the “sweetest taboo” question in my prior blog entry), the tough McCain/Romney choice is sort of a choice between a man who seems to believe some conservative things strongly and some liberal things strongly vs. a man who doesn’t seem to believe much of anything strongly. Hard to decide which is worse.

Romney 2008: Given the ambiguity, though, perhaps in next week’s New York primary I should at least cast a vote for the man in that pair who is more widely perceived as fiscally-focused — Romney — to help pull the Republicans some small way back toward focusing on the economic issues that should be their strength instead of the war/populist stuff that may only lead to more trouble.

All right, then: the unwavering and principled has now gone Giuliani > Paul > Giuliani? > Thompson > McCain > don’t vote? > LP? > Romney. My apologies to National Review for not backing their man Romney in the first place. (For sales-maximizing purposes, I highly recommend that The Weekly Standard endorse McCain and then spend the rest of the primary season in an ugly pseudo-spat with NR about it, if any of my acquaintances at either magazine are reading this. I’m also looking forward to all those NR essays about Mormonism being the glorious, logical fulfillment of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.)

Advice for My New Candidate Pick: And Romney should focus his whole remaining campaign on the idea of bringing fiscal stability to the U.S., calming those panicked, Dow-watching Wall Streeters who liked Rudy and those panicked, inflation-fearing Main Streeters who liked Huck — maybe even picking up some fiscal-insolvency-decrying ex-Paulistas while he’s at it — while trying to sound a bit less pleasant/presentable/diplomatic and a bit more like he can make the tough decisions (principally about Social Security and Medicare) that McCain might well make along with numerous bad decisions.

But then, I think the time for talking about “reforming” Social Security and Medicare passed with the nation’s tragic failure to embrace Bush’s partial-privatization plans. You all laughed at him and spent eight years calling him dumb, but now I think we’re fiscally screwed and it’s time to start talking about abolishing Social Security and Medicare, not reforming them.

Luckily for the candidates, none of them have me as a speechwriter or campaign advisor, though. Keep on smiling, keep on shaking hands, brighter tomorrow, everything’s gonna be fine…

UPDATE: No sooner do I drift to Romney than Deroy Murdock argues that he’s the worst of McCain, Giuliani, and Romney — by fiscal standards.  I think I’ll just give up and talk about religion and atheism for a month instead (while Romney and others mourn the death of the president of the Mormon church, as it happens).

Sunday, January 27, 2008

What Exactly Is the Sweetest Taboo (and More 80s Questions)?

A few musical notes, so to speak:

•A friend asks what exactly “The Sweetest Taboo” that Sade Adu (one of the three most attractive women in the world, as I’ve noted before) sings about is, and I have to admit I don’t know. It sounds like it’s just love (or, vaguely, sex), but that’s not exactly taboo, is it?

So the real question may be: what’s taboo yet beloved in Sade’s native Nigeria, which is heavily Islamic? Might the answer be anal sex? Yet the steady build-up of the “quiet storm” sounds more like oral sex (unless they discover early-draft notes for the song in which she considered using the phrase “ill wind” or something).

Siouxsie Sioux from Siouxsie and the Banshees (seen here improving upon an Iggy Pop song), by the way, has her own interesting origins, judging by an early sentence from her Wikipedia entry:

Her mother was a bilingual secretary, her father a laboratory technician who milked serum from poisonous snakes.

That is so goth. And what goth wouldn’t want to see Siouxsie herself milk serum from snakes?

On a related note, my apologies to that bartender and customer I misinformed at Vasmay Lounge about a year ago: I thought Siouxsie had notoriously led Iggy into clubs on a leash during his Berlin period, but in fact she had led her friend named Berlin around the same time, inspired by Iggy’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”

By the way, if the military ever decides to start recruiting heavily from the ranks of goths and club kids, they might want to consider buying this amazing video by Basement Jaxx with guest vocals by Siouxsie (and heavy influences by Busby Berkeley).

•Since I’m praising women who were big in the 80s, I should note that I have only just learned that the lead singer of Face to Face (seen here singing the memorable “10-9-8” — in a video so well-shot you might not know it was over twenty years old…until the big red coat) went on to front the band the Twinemen, created from the remnants of Morphine and named after a comic strip by that band’s deceased lead singer, Mark Sandman, who I wrote about in a recent Retro-Journal entry.

•I notice there was also an unrelated band called Face to Face.

–How they could not know about the earlier band?

–But then, how could the wonderful Primitives of the 1980s not know that the band that transformed into Velvet Underground had also been called the Primitives?

–Almost as sacrilegious, how could a hiphop band call themselves the Firm as if this had never happened (also back in the mid-80s)?

(For the record, though: my favorite song — and video — ever by an ex-Led Zeppelin guy is “Little by Little” by Robert Plant. It was part of a large wave of comeback songs by “classic rock” acts in the mid-80s who seemed to be moving in a slightly alternative-rock direction, which was pleasing. Everyone seemed to have gotten the correct memo — even Don Henley.)

The answer to these questions may simply be that these name decisions were all made before Google made searches easy. I should count my blessings.

•On a less happy note, (libertarian) Dylan Keeler of the band the Disclaimers recently noted that model, chronic physical assailant, and ex-fiancee-of-a-U2-member Naomi Campbell did a fawning interview with Venezuelan thugocrat Hugo Chavez in which she declared Castro the best-dressed political leader — but my vote, for reasons having nothing to do with my political inclinations, goes to snappy-dresser Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, the second paragraph of whose Wikipedia entry, as it turns out, says in its entirety: “Karzai is known for his trademark Karakul hat, which is made from the skin and fur of aborted lamb fetuses.”

Also stylin’ is the unrelated ruler Karza, of course.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Cloverfield, Ledger, Star Trek, and my James Bond advice for the McCain-Romney ticket

Four quick movie thoughts:

•I love to read Kyle’s movie reviews, but he is once more profoundly on crack with his negative review of Cloverfield. Yes, it’s basically just Blairzilla 911, just over an hour of shaky-cam footage of good-looking young people running through the streets of Manhattan during a giant monster attack. And? So what? We need more than that? It shaky-cams better than Blair Witch (which I found too amateurish and random to be scary), it monsters far better than that abominable U.S. version of Godzilla (which subsequently inspired the Japanese to depict the U.S. Godzilla as a separate monster, just so the real Godzilla could kick his ass in a later film), and it even 9/11s in a military-respecting way that I’d think veteran Kyle might appreciate. Still, Kyle is more entertaining to read when I disagree with him than almost anyone else is when I agree with them (even if he is, at heart, an old man living in the 1970s watching serious films featuring Gene Hackman).

I loved “Roar! (The Cloverfield Overture)” during the end credits, by the way, seemingly a conscious homage to the martial-yet-nervous-sounding, here-come-the-tanks music from the old Godzilla movies. (And I enjoyed the simple, unpretentious “also terrible” line, which summed up the movie’s wise no-explanations-necessary approach to things, and am delighted to hear about a pause-button-worthy element supposedly visible in the final ferris wheel shot — but I’ll say no more.)

Heath Ledger: Depression? Accidental overdose? Nightmare of portraying comics’ most notoriously insane and homicidal clown (who looks slightly like a couple women I’ve dated — and not the crazy ones, either)? I say all three.

We all know he’d split with Michelle Williams. Further, though, at that Lisa Loeb performance I went to this week, I overheard some media professional on his cell phone talking about how frighteningly little sleep movie stars get and how they routinely have to use sleeping pills and stimulants to stay on their harrowing production schedules. And Jack Nicholson apparently warned Ledger that playing the Batman’s deranged arch-foe takes a lot out of one’s psyche. Like the upset stomach I described in yesterday’s Retro-Journal entry, I think this death may be attributable to multiple factors.

As an homage, I would love to link to the hilarious YouTube clips from an old clown training video (specifically for Christian clowns working in nursing homes), pointed out some time ago by PiecesofFlair. However, those appear to have been taken down, robbing the world of such sound advice as avoidance of forming potentially-frightening “clown clusters” in the hallways (advice Virginia Postrel would probably second, since she recently noted a big survey of UK children in which they unanimously said clowns are frightening and don’t want to be visited by them while ill — one of the only unanimous psych surveys involving more than 200 subjects I’ve ever heard of).

Instead, here’s the most frightening (fictional) clown I’ve seen: the one from the swell Cranberries video “Salvation.”

Oh, and it appears that poor Terry Gilliam, whose Don Quixote movie famously fell apart because of production problems, may yet salvage The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus by replacing Ledger with Johnny Depp, who had been slated to star in the Quixote film as well. May the results be better than The Brothers Grimm.

•I knew Sylar from Heroes would play Spock in the new Star Trek movie out at the end of the year (from Cloverfield director producer J.J. Abrams, well on his way to becoming the thinking man’s answer to those Stargate/Godzilla/Day After Tomorrow/10,000 B.C. morons), but I didn’t know until recently that Harold of Harold and Kumar is Sulu and — best of all — the awesome Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz guy is Scotty.

Oddly, the film will depict Christopher Pike being replaced by a Kirk played by Christopher Pine, but hopefully movie reporters won’t get confused.

And Nimoy’s in it (with Winona Ryder playing his mom, oddly enough), in some framing sequence, which if they were smart would be solely dedicated to explaining away any continuity issues, e.g., by having a drunk, elderly Spock say, “I gotta tell ya…lotta those earlier versions of the story…total bullshit, man…wouldn’t even be tellin’ ya the truth now if I weren’t so drunk…” More likely excuse: time travel, one more time.

•The upcoming presidential election will occur the same week as (indeed, just three days prior to) the release of the next James Bond movie, the eagerly-awaited follow-up to the series’ reinvention with Casino Royale (the new one’s called A Quantum of Solace, which I see as no weirder than the three or four interchangeable titles that the Brosnan movies had: Another World Will Never Die Tomorrow or whatever they were).

So my simple media advice to the (highly likely, as Tuesday may reveal) McCain-Romney ticket (whichever order the two of them are) is to ride the media zeitgeist circa fall 2008 by playing up their Bond-like qualities: able to endure torture, fight communists, be handsome, handle millions of glamorous dollars, have square jaws. Throw in Roberta McCain as the aging-yet-astonishingly-well-preserved M figure. The ads write themselves, and the Bond movie ads will then subconsciously remind the public of the McCain-Romney ticket (assuming the campaign “reform” laws McCain created don’t result in the film being banned). Half the GOP’s media work then handles itself, courtesy of film industry advertising (and we know McCain likes to compare himself to movie heroes).

And Hillary makes a great villain. But you knew that, and so, perhaps, does South Carolina.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Retro-Journal: The Contract with America and Woodstock ’94

National Review sent me to Woodstock ’94 — and my old friend Paul Taylor came along (at his own expense). We weren’t the only Republicans present, since I later learned that my favorite MTV VJ, Kennedy, was wandering around interviewing people in their tents, asking them if they wanted to engage in “free love.”

The first day wasn’t so uncivilized, despite our attempt to sleep near a stage that turned out to be having a deafening all-night rave, as was the fashion in those days. We gave up around 5am and rose, trudging like zombies past a grizzled old man sitting on a tree stump telling a tiny knot of listeners stories from long ago — and I’m pretty sure he was Joe Walsh from the Eagles, but a weary Paul muttered something like “Bah, washed-up has-been loser-guy” and kept marching on toward the vast event’s other performance stage.

The second day, the rains began, and a social hierarchy soon developed in which people bold enough to dive into the resulting lakes of mud were afterwards able to go anywhere they wanted without interference, since no one wanted to touch them, while the rest of us squeezed together to maneuver around them, like passengers on a crowded subway. By the second night — after hearing everything from Baby Boomer bands like Crosby, Stills, and Nash (singing “Love the one you’re with”) to rising Gen X superstars like Nine Inch Nails (singing “Bow down before the one you serve/ You’re going to get what you deserve”) — Paul and I had had enough and fled to a nearby bed and breakfast, skipping the final morning of the event. I think a guy who stood in front of us during Violent Femmes urinated in a Gatorade bottle to avoid navigating the crowd, and I can’t say I blame him.

As it happens, it was that same year that I discovered perhaps the strangest urinal in New York City, the lovely cascading wall of water in the lobby bar of the Royalton Hotel, which I was too taken aback to use at that time (December 2, 1994, according to my surprisingly accurate records on this matter) and found to have been completely replaced by ordinary urinals upon my return there just last week, unless I went through the wrong door or something. Who’s to say whether it or the Gatorade bottle was more bizarre.


I assumed things like the Woodstock adventure would be the lot of the non-leftist in 90s culture — ironically observing on the fringes while neo-hippies called the tunes — so I was quite surprised when the Republicans actually took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years. My rock n’ roll-loving friend Dave Whitney (mentioned in my previous Retro-Journal entry as a saddened Cobain fan) called up the morning after the 1994 elections not to sing a number from one of the Woodstock bands but to sing “Oh, what a beautiful morning/ Oh, what a beautiful day!” from Oklahoma.

After nearly a century of government expansion and increased regulation of nearly every aspect of our lives, perhaps — though I was never naive enough to get my hopes up too high — this would be the beginning of a rollback, at least a slight shift back toward the individual liberty that had made peace, prosperity, and happiness commonplace in America as they had never before or elsewhere been in human history.

Things didn’t work out all that rosily — but Newt Gingrich, by almost single-handedly turning the zeitgeist against government spending, did more to make the prosperity of the mid- and late 90s possible than the Clintons who rode the wave (and may yet ride it back into the White House sixteen years after they first entered it). Even that may not have made Gingrich a viable 2008 presidential candidate, but it is his spirit — in some ways his more than Reagan’s — that I hope the Republicans will manage somehow to recapture. Even Mongolia cast off its communist rulers in the mid-90s, citing the Contract with America as a specific influence. That inspires some people less than snide rockers at Woodstock do, though.

Thanks to the anti-government spirit of 1994, libertarian groups like the Cato Institute had a newfound respectability — even as libertarians Rothbard and Rockwell grumpily (but accurately) predicted that the Republicans would start selling out their small-government principles before their first year in power was through. It was also around then that I was in the studio audience — a mere civilian — for the first John Stossel one-hour special, Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?, about irrational risk assessment and excessive resultant regulation, about as libertarian an hour as had ever aired on ABC at that time. Libertarian Chris Whitten (then employed by Andrea and Howard Rich’s Laissez-Faire Books) had invited me along, and while he found the TV production process boring when viewed from the inside (what with the endless retakes, even in news), I was fascinated and would end up working for Stossel about a year later. (Chris, by contrast, is now a website-producing millionaire, as I may have mentioned before.)

It was an exciting time to be a libertarian, and I’m not ashamed to say I had a checklist of the specific promises made in the Contract with America (torn from the New York Post, I think) so I could keep track of them as they were accomplished — and most were. They never guaranteed they’d shrink the government, after all (though it grew relatively slowly for a few years), merely that a short list of reform measures would be brought to a vote in the House (not necessarily passed, let alone passed by the Senate or signed by the President). Most were. And for one glorious year — if I may leap ahead to Fiscal 1996 for a moment — the federal budget technically shrank, by a radical, outrage-producing, anarchic, crazy-go-nuts 1% (mostly due to post-Cold War defense cuts). Somehow, we avoided mass starvation in the streets while the welfare state was thus “dismantled” and “welfare as we know it” ended.


In a bit of personal reform, I’d given up reading comic books for a while, but a two-pronged conspiracy arose to drag me back into the filthy habit:

•First, one of my best friends, Scott Nybakken (a fellow Film Bulletin writer from Brown who’d been living in Seattle and working for the small comic book company Fantagraphics — as well as writing for Seattle’s The Stranger, in part as a result of showing them his old Film Bulletin pieces), moved to New York City to work for DC Comics, the company that publishes Batman and Superman, among other characters. By sheer chance, he moved onto the same corner I lived on the East 20s and worked on the same corner I did in the West 50s, so it was inevitable that the world of comics would again seem near and real.

•Secondly, I have to admit, I’d only vowed to stop reading comics unless DC finally did a real sequel to their 1985 miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths (in which the multiverse blew up) — and with 1994’s Zero Hour, they finally did (this time, the one remaining universe blew up but was put back together again pretty much the same as it was before).

This Zero Hour thing was lucky for Scott in my view, since he hadn’t really been paying much attention to what was going on in DC’s fictional universe himself and, as I suggested, could now start paying attention from Day One, as it were, when the universe got rebooted. Fourteen years later, I’m still not sure he’s paying that much attention, but DC has periodically sucked me back in by doing more Crisis sequels or (due to the fact that the ever-shrinking, ever-aging comics fanbase comes to more closely and narrowly resemble me and a handful of my friends) by doing something else taken almost verbatim from my imaginary comics wish list.

Since they promise a miniseries called Final Crisis this summer, written by my favorite comics writer (Grant Morrison), starring characters created by my favorite comics writer/artist (Jack Kirby), and once more harkening back to that 1985 miniseries that my demographic loved when we were teens, I suppose they’ll get me one last time — but they promise it’s “final” this time, and I’m holding them to that. I think this time they’re blowing up the gods or something. Everything must eventually be blown up. That’s what makes it high-concept art.


On December 19, 1994 appears this first-ever entry in my journals suggesting the onset (at age twenty-five) of physical aging (though I’d also developed occasional neck pain ever since that day riding multiple rollercoasters at Six Flags when Scott and some of the DC staffers decided they wanted to go check out the Batman ride):

“I found myself feeling a bit ill this morning and tried to remember which of my meals this weekend might’ve caused it [never having been made queasy by any meal or amount of food in my adult life before this]: triple-decker ham sandwich [which was Saturday's lunch], multi-dish Chinese [early supper with Derek Rose and Chris Whitten in Chinatown], party snacks from Gummi to sandwiches to vodka [with Kaplan co-workers, at a party where I also met a Romanian-American woman named Mihaela Bardasiu whose father had a cherished video of the Ceausescu execution and who went on one museum outing with me that ended with a kiss but who took the odd approach, luckily unique in my experience to this day, of immediately hanging the phone up on me when I tried to ask her out a second time -- my apologies if there was some misunderstanding], three jumbo flapjacks with scrambled eggs and a root beer float [Sunday brunch], and a large cheese pizza [Sunday dinner]. I conclude it was a combination of factors.”

For the first time, I made a mental note to “take it easy.” It has, of course, been all downhill from there.

Other people had bigger problems than that, though — and ones that seemed to reflect recurring patterns of right/left excess amongst some in my milieu, though I never met this particular anecdote-star. Paul was at the brunch that included the flapjacks, root beer, and ice cream, and there he related the story of a suicide among his acquaintances, that of a young woman who’d lived with a cult-leader as a father (not so unlike that ex-friend of mine mentioned in my 1992 and early 1993 Retro-Journal entries), gone on to seduce two poet laureates while at Wellesley, become a war games simulation designer for the Pentagon and thus learned to drive real tanks and fire Stinger missiles, lost her security clearance after a prior suicide attempt involving pills and vodka and a plastic bag over her head, and finally ended it all just as a new political epoch was beginning. People that troubled and interesting should definitely stick around as long as possible. Who knows what will happen next? Why miss it?

And what will happen next, in fact, will be: 1995.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Rand, Rothbard, Friedman, and Climate on Video -- plus Feb. Book and Debate Teases

Just as two people in an argument who are each screaming “You’re a jerk!” are often both right, so too do a lot of philosophers do a very convincing job of eviscerating other thinkers shortly before getting gutted themselves.

Along those lines, some enjoyable video clips:

•Why, look, it’s the annoying TV host who did so much to define “liberal” in my mind when I was a child, Phil Donahue, who happily went on to co-host a show with former Soviet mouthpiece Vladimir Pozner. Don’t tell me Ann Coulter’s simply crazy when she says liberals’ first instinct is always “treason” (as she said in a book by that title that I reviewed positively for People) — I haven’t forgotten the highly popular Phil Donahue saying over and over again in my childhood that we simply didn’t “understand” the Soviet Union and that its people might consider themselves as free and happy as us. Rotten, traitorous bastard.

But wait! Here’s Donahue interviewing a very different breed of Russian — libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand, who made far less sense to him than Pozner did.

•But Rand was no paragon of reason herself, as suggested in the one-act play Mozart Was a Red by Murray Rothbard (who is visible standing and applauding in the audience at the end) about his jarring introduction to Rand’s circle (thanks to Dimitri Cavalli for this link and the prior one). One of those actors, by the way, is a young Jeffrey Tucker (the pacing guy), himself a close associate of — Lew Rockwell, the man now assumed to have written the long-ago racist newsletters that recently embarrassed a certain libertarian presidential candidate. Perhaps someone will in turn write a scathing one-act about Rothbard, Rockwell, and Tucker?

•But even being as nice and patient and rational as Nobel-winning libertarian economist Milton Friedman is no guarantee you won’t get made to look like a fascist monster — witness this video (noted in a mass-e-mail from economist Donald Boudreaux) contrasting Friedman’s own words with the vicious, nearly deranged caricature of his thinking presented by highly popular left-wing writer Naomi Klein, who has likened market-based reforms to the sadistic thrill of being a torturer (and like so many people, proceeds to believe her own metaphor).

•My evolutionary psychologist pal Diana Fleischman is no free-market ideologue yet sent a link to this swell hour-plus video of The Great Global Warming Swindle, a British documentary that, while inevitably imperfect, does a great job of briefly sketching why the current hysteria over climate change is utterly insane and misguided.

•Diana also points out this ongoing podcast of skeptical arguments, debunking UFOs, psychic claims, and the like: Skeptoid. These are the sort of relatively simple take-downs of modern myths that led me in time to realize that government and religion are also packs of lies, albeit slightly more subtle ones than space aliens getting the blame for someone falling out of bed in the middle of the night. Slightly. But still not things adults should believe in.

For more skepticism, though, be sure to check out in February, when the Book Selections of the Month will be the opposing tomes Atheist Manifesto by Michel Onfray and The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day (with some H.P. Lovecraft for good measure), as good an excuse as any for me officially to declare a “Month Without God” in which to hash out a host of related issues — with more rapid-fire posts than heretofore — just in case any of my seemingly-intelligent readers still think they’re going “somewhere” after death.

P.S. And speaking of religion, regardless of what happens in South Carolina with Obama and Hillary this Saturday, I’m glad to see that in Florida (for Tuesday), Huckabee’s currently polling well behind McCain and Romney (though not, alas, far behind poor Giuliani). Huckabee would be disastrous for the Republican Party, but I increasingly think a President Romney would be both harmless in a theocratic sense (he won’t be eager to remind a wary populace he’s Mormon) and highly educational for the religious rightists, many of whom might for the first time have to ask themselves how literally they want to take all this religion stuff: “I, uh, have firm beliefs like the President does…well, not exactly like the President — I mean, I don’t expect to get my own planet when I die, but, I mean, he loves Jesus and all…” As long as he believes in budget cuts — something I don’t take on faith.

And remember: come discuss the primaries with us on Wed., Feb. 6 at 8pm (the night after Super Duper Tuesday) at Lolita Bar — now featuring not only National Review’s John Derbyshire (himself NR’s resident non-religious guy [UPDATE 2/7/08: At last night's debate, Derb said he is not an atheist]) but Seth Colter Walls, whose work has appeared in Newsweek, HuffingtonPost, and MSNBC. I vow to enjoy myself that night even if it turns out to be a Kucinich vs. Huckabee year.

UPDATE 1/24/08: A reminder from Associated Press that neither party’s eventual nominee will have been able to secure enough delegates even on Super Duper Tuesday to officially lock up the nomination — but there may well be a near-conclusive trend in either party by then (and certainly much to discuss). Nearly a four-way GOP tie in Florida as I type this, by the way.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

MLK, Hillary, and Lisa Loeb Clarifications

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As corrected in my Terminator post, Lisa Loeb plays at the Columbus Circle Borders, not the Park Avenue one, this Tuesday (7pm), the day after Martin Luther King Day is observed.

And an afterthought on the important post before that, about utilitarianism: I did not have Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in mind when I mentioned Martin Luther King.

I mentioned King being valuable not only because it’s the truth but in part as a response to praise of him by my ex-girlfriend Koli and praise of him by a certain doomed Republican presidential candidate whose old newsletters were less kind to King.  Ironically, King not only made it easier for whites and blacks to get along (and helped end the coercive Jim Crow legal regime) but, to the occasional annoyance of elderly civil rights activists, made it far easier to be a libertarian or conservative in the 70s and subsequent decades.  After all, some major cultural problems had already been somewhat ameliorated by people on the left like King before I was born, which was in 1969 (as I occasionally remind my spoiled and perhaps not-all-that-ancient self).  I must have been conceived right around the day Nixon was elected.

My political priorities would undeniably be different today — though still thoroughly libertarian, I hope — if I were fleeing a lynch mob instead of railing against regulators and tax collectors.  Similarly, I might think of my libertarianism as more left-allied (and more akin to egalitarianism) if I were facing execution by monarchs and aristocrats in Continental Europe centuries ago instead of worrying today about high Scandinavian taxes and absurd European regulations that make it hard to get an apartment in Italy or do repair work on your own car in Germany.

But only after writing that blog entry did it occur to me that it may have looked as if I was trying to take sides in the more fleeting and petty spat over whether Hillary was insufficiently positive in her recent comments about MLK.  That didn’t cross my mind, and I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’m such an opportunistic reactionary that I suddenly love anything Hillary appears not to love quite enough.

Her reasons for praising Lyndon Johnson as a necessary supplement to King in those comments do, however, run counter to libertarians’ reasons for liking King.  Despite King’s own sympathies for some socialistic causes, we would argue that helping to end Jim Crow laws and change human hearts — that is, enhancing voluntary interactions — constitute his real legacy, not the secondary moral impetus he may have given to regulatory and government-growing schemes from later in LBJ’s administration (or for that matter Nixon’s).  Hillary’s comments were misguided not in a remotely racist way but — in keeping with her overall pro-government thinking — more in the way that Ted Kennedy was misguided when he said once that all change in America “begins at the ballot box.”  Socialists always think that, whereas markets (taken here to mean all voluntary associations from companies to bird-watching clubs to churches, anything not run by government) create billions of changes, big and small, every day.

In any case, if Hillary appears to diminish the achievements of Bob Dylan, I will not suddenly prefer folk music to alternative rock — though Loeb is a bit of both, so I’ll be there, and maybe if fellow Brown alums demand it, she’ll do the catchy “Ten Little Indians” song from her college days.

And here again is a link to another circa-1990 Brown alum performing for you: a PDF file of Jacob Levy explaining “Federalism and the Old and New Liberalisms,” namely the tricky question of when a limited central government should step into local affairs in the name of advancing freedom and when it should stay out.  Would that ours had stepped in to end Jim Crow without immediately imposing countless other regulations.

Of course, a limited period of affirmative action as legal compensation for prior coercion is not hopelessly unlibertarian.  Permanent regulation of the workforce’s ethnic composition is, though.  It would be very hard for a president to end affirmative action without being accused of pro-white bias at this point in history, though — unless, of course, that president were black.  Ah, if only that whole Iraq War thing had gone more smoothly and been more popular, so we could have run Condi Rice…

Saturday, January 19, 2008

McCain? And ALL My Other Remaining Primary Calculations

Romney and Clinton took Nevada as I write this, but the important thing is that I don’t want the dreaded Huckabee to win South Carolina (or the GOP nomination, or the presidency, or the position in the history books of “guy who put the last nail in the coffin of free-market sentiment in the Republican Party”).

It’d be nice if a surging Thompson took South Carolina (I was the sole Thompson supporter in Phil Abramson’s informal poll of about fifty of his friends last week, with half of them pro-McCain — so by that admittedly unscientific measure, I’ve gotten even more fringe than I was while supporting my prior candidate pick). Unfortunately, Thompson might just end up costing McCain victory there and thus boosting Huckabee. Let us assume for purposes of this blog entry (perhaps my last on the primaries until Super Duper Tuesday early next month), though, that McCain is going to win South Carolina, cementing his status as the candidate Republicans seem to be coalescing around (at the moment) in polls across the country. How good or bad would McCain-as-nominee be?

Dueling National Review pieces Friday summed up the pros and cons, both from conservative perspectives, the former by Hoover Institution’s Wynton C. Hall and the latter by Deroy Murdock (perhaps my only libertarian, pro-life, hawk, Deist, Deadhead friend). But the hell with all that: What should we think of a McCain victory from a Seavey perspective?

McCain Pros and Cons

•I know he’s no libertarian (as Matt Welch, the new editor of Reason, has pointed out at book length).

•But he may be religious enough to stave off a Huckabee victory — acceptable to GOP voters who don’t like secular Giuliani and acceptable to moderates in the general election, enabling him (like no other Republican) to beat the Dem nominee (I wish I could ignore the religion factor, but as Bryan Caplan reminds us in this NPR piece, voters are irrational).

•True, McCain says he doesn’t really understand economics — which may make him prone to pushing stuff like the “stimulus package” now being debated. The real question, of course, should be: if it’s really a stimulus, why not do it all the time? (Donald Boudreaux, who pointed out the Caplan commentary on voter irrationality, also notes that another of his colleagues, Russ Roberts, did this NPR piece denouncing stimulus packages.)

•On the other hand, I think McCain may just be brazen and stubborn enough to push through the terribly necessary Social Security and Medicare reforms that Bush tried but failed to enact, which is the most important econ issue there is right now (and the reason Moody’s is talking about lowering America’s bond rating).

•McCain is like a flat, fairly conservative plane with sudden stalactites of liberalism, populism, and opportunism jutting up here and there — but that gives him a triangulatory ability to appeal to right, left, and even Reform Party survivors without even seeming as wishy-washy about it as a Clinton.

•The stalactites can be alarming, though — as when he called pharmaceutical companies “bad guys,” not a position we’re fond of at my day job, though it sells well lately.

•But crucially, when McCain said “Well, they are” in response to Romney saying drug companies aren’t bad guys, McCain was denouncing cases of Medicaid fraud/overcharging, not merely whining about high prices on the open market. Even his misguided position on the importation of drugs from Canada (which is really just the importation of price controls, since the drugs don’t even originate in Canada) is born of a basically pro-market belief that people should be able to buy wherever they want (few people, alas, take note of the elaborate international treaties and price controls that have created the current, skewed market in drugs, a regime to which the drug companies submitted only with the assurance price-controlled drugs wouldn’t be imported back into the U.S.).

•Of course, that basic pro-market orientation will be little consolation if and when he destroys the pharmaceutical industry (likely producing, for once, measurable decreases in lifespan from a single bad policy decision), but it means we shouldn’t extrapolate that he’ll take anti-market or anti-corporate positions on other, less tangled econ issues (even the libertarian Cato Institute, alas, has favored drug importation from Canada).

•I still think the long-term scenario of sneaking Giuliani in as McCain’s v.p. candidate and putting him in an even stronger position to run and win in 2012 or 2016, secularism be damned, is reason to think this McCain thing could be good for us.

•One other small point in McCain’s favor: readers with unnaturally good memories may recall that in this blog’s first entry, posted right after the 2006 elections — even before the blog was officially unveiled to the public — I said that my greatest consolation after seeing the Republicans deservedly ousted from control of Congress was that a chastened-looking McCain was already on TV saying that this was punishment for forgetting the spirit of 1994, which he wanted the Republicans to recapture (and which I’ll write about in this coming Friday’s Retro-Journal entry).

•On a related note, I sympathize with my friend Jacob Levy saying Republicans belong “in the penalty box” for a while after their errors, but isn’t losing Congress and having a quasi-liberal as their prez candidate already penalty enough? Are we done punishing the Dems for all the damage they did to the country during their four decades running Congress? I’m not.

What About War?

•On the military stuff, while McCain is more hawkish than I, his aversion to torture is a plus (I adhere to the real Jack Bauer principle, as does a former White House staffer of my acquaintance who shall remain nameless: this stuff should never be legal but may sometimes have to happen anyway, which is the realistic, more limited, and less-dangerous way of looking at it). Best of all, McCain seems to take the average-American view of military matters: basically, “Don’t go to war unless you’re going to do it right — kick ass or stay home.” Even my fairly-liberal friend Julia Kamin of says the Surge may be the smartest thing Bush ever did, and McCain would probably agree with her.

(One of our December speakers at Lolita Bar, Sarah Federman, who has been leaning McCain for a while now, says opposing our military and terrorist foes is issues #1, 2, and 3 for her and that Obama is thus her worst nightmare — that level of hawkish confidence I cannot achieve, but I can see how people might think that.)

•On the downside, it is hard to forgive McCain for the blow that he delivered to free speech with his campaign “reform” crusade, which has led to political ad-makers having to bow and scrape before judges to prove that their pieces are fit to run in the weeks prior to election day. Ideally, speech should be completely unregulated unless it threatens violence, but even if you accept a narrower, traditional definition of the First Amendment (perhaps restricting obscenity), it’s clear the Founders wanted political speech to be free — yet now the popular view seems to be that we wouldn’t want free speech interfering with politics. And we have McCain and Bush to thank for this, as well as countless liberal (and Reform Party) campaign reform activists. Americans with opinions to share should not have to behave like courtiers — indeed, that’s exactly the sort of point one should be able to put in an ad two days before an election if one so chooses, without having to disclose who funds you or appease some tribunal. (Maybe I can’t vote for McCain. Maybe I shouldn’t vote at all.)

But Who Knows?

•All these calculations could be rendered irrelevant, of course, if the party tickets somehow end up being Romney/Giuliani vs. Edwards/Gravel vs. Bloomberg/Winfrey, but play along with me for now.

•Reminders of how odd this year’s primaries rollercoaster has been: The arguably-most-libertarian/conservative senator, Tom Coburn, endorses McCain — but both Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham are denouncing McCain as a liberal on a daily basis, which may well have some impact.

•Conventional wisdom is that a divided convention is bad because it gives the Dem candidate more time to get established — but maybe a GOP “moving target” until summer is good, followed by a quasi-fresh face (whoever wins) emerging at the end of the GOP convention. Less time for Dems to frame their counter-narratives. (As Robert Novak noted in his autobiography, the divided convention is also a political reporter’s dream — as with the protracted/contested 2000 election, I should perhaps root for this tumultuous process to go on as long as possible, perversely.)

•Sidenote: Drudge linked to an amusing blast-from-the-past piece about Perot still hating McCain for concluding there are no living POWs in Nam. That may mean no endorsement for McCain from Rambo, either (not to mention Chuck Norris).

•I’d also like to note that given how divided the Republican field is, there’s a good chance that I will finish only a few points behind the fifth-place candidate, and I have a much smaller campaign operation than any of the other candidates do.

Worst-Case Scenarios

By pro-capitalist standards, even the populist, Wall Street-bashing Huckabee might be better for the nation than the seemingly-best Democrat candidate, Obama (who praises the “dynamic free market,” for whatever such rhetoric is worth) — but there’s no question that he would lead the Republican Party in a horrible, even-less-capitalist direction, while Reagan-praising Obama might well lead the Dems in a slightly better direction, making it not at all clear I should root for an Obama defeat in the general election if Huckabee is his opponent. (I also had to sympathize with Obama’s recent comments about the debate question “What is your greatest weakness?” being as unlikely to yield honest responses in politics as it is in job interviews.)

One small note in Huckabee’s defense: I don’t much mind his federalist “flip-flopping” on smoking regulations, saying he wouldn’t push federal smoking bans but might applaud state-level ones. As with Giuliani’s federalist compromise on guns — saying bans were good for New York City but inappropriate for the country as a whole — I think he’s flip-flopped his way into a mostly-correct decentralist position, as should more candidates (though ultimately, I want anarcho-capitalist policies at all levels of government, of course).

Taking the Long View

The important thing is never this season’s election but rather the country’s (and the world’s) long-term direction, of course, and I was very pleased this past Thursday by Jonah Goldberg’s speech about America’s fascist political impulses — on the left, not just the right — which is the sort of radical analysis we need if things are ever going to improve substantially (much as he might dislike the “radical” label).

One misguided patriot in the audience at Jonah’s speech suggested it might be unfair to call Woodrow Wilson a dictator, resulting in him getting an earful from Jonah about Wilson’s use of Cultural Revolution-like gangs of thugs to beat up protesters, censorship leading to hundreds of publications being shut down, people being arrested for criticizing Wilson even in the privacy of their own homes (with the approval of Wilson advisor Clarence Darrow, mistakenly remembered as a friend of free thought), and an atmosphere in which the vigilante shooting of a man who declined to say the Pledge of Allegiance (itself then recently created by a socialist) was met by applause from the observing crowd. As Jonah says, don’t say “It could happen here” — say “It already did, mainly under Wilson and FDR.”

I’m pleased to see Jonah’s book (which was the December Book Selection) and the book (this month’s Selection) co-written by Michael Malice (who was our speaker at Lolita Bar this month) and Matt Hughes both way up in the top twenty-five books on the New York Times bestseller list, soaring in the same sales-number heights as Slash, Nikki Six, and a book on the American Revolution, as it should be.

Don’t Think I’ve Gone Soft If I Conclude McCain Is the Best Viable Option

Believe me, I’m becoming very concerned about the consequences for America if it elects Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Kucinich, Gravel, Bloomberg, McCain, Romney, Giuliani, Huckabee, Keyes, and/or Hunter — and the odds of one of these things happening seem fairly high.

Thompson was the only viable one left heading into today’s primaries who doesn’t make me nervous in some way — just very, very sleepy (a colleague who shall remain nameless tells me he’s just as dull in person, too). Then again, perhaps he would become frightening eventually if he remained alert (he might make even more vague, sloppy-sounding comments about terrorist threats from Cuba or something). Regardless, even Thompson-booster Karol Sheinin says he should exit after South Carolina if he achieves nothing momentous there (as should all but the top four GOP and top two Dem candidates, I’d say).

Could be a Libertarian Party year after all. They may be running marijuana-grower Steve Kubby, a businessman, or a sportcaster, all of whom sound far less anxiety-producing.

But in the end: I just want some budget cuts before the economy collapses. Please…someone…budget cuts…help…

(And in an interesting sidenote to that mission: the one doomed GOP candidate who was pushing a libertarian budget-cutting message was referred to as “fringe” by New York Post reporter Charles Hurt recently — but in e-mail correspondence with Avery Knapp, Hurt apparently said that fringe or not, that candidate had been his favorite, too. Gives one hope for a renewed, less-fringey libertarian push in the future.)

Todd’s Super Duper Tuesday Plan Revealed

In conclusion, I’ll leave it up to the Republican voters to decide who they’re comfortable rallying around, neither despairing nor cheering — as long as they avoid Huckabee. McCain, Giuliani, or Romney, fine — and I suspect McCain’s the wisest electoral-strategic choice.

At the same time, contradictory as it may sound, I’m leaning toward casting a protest/hometown vote for Giuliani come Super Duper Tuesday (Feb. 5), just to set a (relatively) good fiscal conservative/social liberal example at a time when that combo has no clear representative — and who knows, by then (just over two weeks from now) maybe he’ll be the frontrunner and it won’t just be a protest vote after all.

UPDATE 1/20/08: The aforementioned Avery Knapp sent this video montage reminder that tonight’s South Carolina winner, despite the positives I noted above, is not really riding a Straight Talk Express. Nonetheless, I suspect it will soon be time for McCain to decide whether he wants Giuliani or Romney as his v.p. running mate. Anyone but Huckabee (and it’s time for the others to follow Duncan Hunter’s lead and drop out).

Thompson, McCain, and the Other Seavey


Remember, for one week, perhaps ending today, I’ve been rooting for Fred Thompson — as is Sgt. Mark Seavey, who is probably a distant relative of mine since he hails from Maine, while my father, like many Seaveys, hails from New Hampshire. Sgt. Seavey is a hawkish American Legion official, Afghan war vet, and anti-John-Murtha activist, and thanks to Michelle Malkin’s praise of him is one of the very few Google hits for “Seavey” to come in above me, along with an antenna-making company and an Iditarod champion. (I’ve only noticed one other “Todd Seavey” online, president of a Maine timber company — Seaveys hate evildoers and nature, obviously.) I can’t locate Sgt. Seavey’s blog despite a lot of Googling, but there’s one out there somewhere.

No sooner did I switch my allegiances from an antiwar candidate to the hawkish Thompson last week (all the while just trying to pick the viable candidate whose economic views I like most) than I got an approving e-mail from Sgt. Seavey.

To make a long story short, though, I’m a foreign policy agnostic myself (and speaking of short: I promise you that each time I revisit an issue on this blog, I will at least try to keep it briefer than the previous time I talked about it — and indeed, after the impending Super Duper Tuesday on Feb. 5, I’ll do more frequent, shorter posts in general).

Because of this agnosticism, when all is said and done, I may well have gone Bush > Paul > Thompson > McCain > Libertarian Party candidate (and thus hawk-dove-hawk-hawk-dove [?]) in my prez-candidate allegiances over the past four years (with accelerating switches during the primaries), depending on how things play out. Let none say I’m careening chaotically, since I’m simply motivated by other issues.

And that does not for a moment mean that I take lightly the service performed by Sgt. Seavey and others like him, I should say — do not mistake complexity for indifference, please (there are several other hot-button issues on which I have no strong position, actually, including abortion, the death penalty, some aspects of immigration, the anarchist/minarchist divide [well, that one's a hot-button issue in my milieu, anyway], gay marriage, some security/policing controversies, various environmental issues, and the social effects of religion — but if I just called myself a moderate because of this uncertainty, you might find me boring [I'm also torn about the use of the label "moderate," in fact]).

In any case, if it’s late enough on January 19 for the results from South Carolina to be fairly clear, I am in all likelihood officially a (very) reluctant McCain supporter as you read this, so: more tomorrow [CORRECTION: later, that same day...] on how I can live with myself. (My ex-girlfriend Koli, by contrast, sees McCain as a worst-case scenario, as noted on her own new blog — and in this Year of Ambivalence, who am I to say she’s wrong? Please read her stuff.)

Friday, January 18, 2008

Retro-Journal: Howard Stern for Governor 1994

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At work, we had a “death pool” in the first half of 1994 — that is, my co-workers and I would be awarded points depending on how many celebrity deaths we correctly predicted that season (with bonus points the younger they were). The points I got for predicting one death were little consolation for losing the man: Jack “King” Kirby, the most important comic book artist of all time, co-creator of Captain America, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Iron Man, and more.

And I would have gotten Kurt Cobain — big points, since he was only twenty-six at the time of his death, born two years before I was — but I left him off my list at the last second when I realized I wasn’t positive I was spelling his name correctly.

Fittingly, my rock-loving friend Dave Whitney was visiting the day the news broke, and we had similar mixed emotions about the whole thing. We were not the sort of worshipful, wide-eyed fans likely to head off to Seattle for a candlelit vigil over the whole thing, but as Dave said, with admitted selfishness, “We deserved another four good albums or so, at least.” Since Cobain had helped turn alternative rock into a common radio station format after we had spent the previous several years just being grateful that such material existed at all, even in the tiny ghetto of college radio, Dave and I saw him as something like the Ronald Reagan of the music world, helping to cause the Berlin Wall of Top 40 crappiness to crumble at long last so that the citizenry could escape to the freedom of punk-influenced material.

“Basically, we won,” as Dave once said, chastising me for whining about Top 40 still not being punk-influenced enough — and he said it with as much conviction as though he were talking about the Cold War itself, as is Dave’s emphatic way.

On the other hand, Dave and I also have enough moderately-conservative tendencies (as you may have suspected from the analogies used above) to see in Cobain’s death a cautionary tale about the maudlin indie impulse to wallow in cynicism, sarcasm, heroin, and darkness. I had spent most of my teenage years thinking it would be cool to be a black-clad, despairing cyborg, but that fantasy derived its escapist power precisely from the fact that in reality I was a blandly-dressed, mostly-happy, healthy guy with no metal in his body. For the sake of those people actually teetering between happiness and despair, maybe a culture that encouraged light-heartedness and smiling wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all — and thus, I recall thinking in April 1994, maybe I shouldn’t begrudge the teens of that time their increasingly Day-Glo, happy-go-lucky raver outfits or quietly wish they were all wearing black trenchcoats, especially given the way goth was metastasizing into some sort of weird, intense vampire cult instead of just a casual mode of dress and variation on punk.


Since the superhero parody cartoon The Tick, which I had stumbled across by accident back when it was still on Saturday mornings, was hilarious and smart enough for adults — back before all the animated series started trying to be like that — I was watching Fox one Saturday morning around that time and saw an ad featuring a glum-looking, white-guy-dreadlocked twentysomething who sneered and wearily intoned “I’m Generation X,” after which a happy, colorfully-dressed ten-or-so-year-old appeared and said, “I’m Generation Fox Kids!” and metaphorically led the viewer away to a better place. Still in my mid-twenties, I realized my slacking, despairing, demographically-small cohort was over, along with my youth. I might as well turn my profoundly unhip attention to grown-up stuff. I would not feel quite such a sense of cultural loss again until 9/11.

My unhip old-fogey activities that half-year included:

•seeing Phantom of the Opera (with New York Post’s Kyle Smith, who has brought me along to a lot of cool stuff over the years — for which I am very, very grateful — but who, as I am occasionally reminded, still has tastes subtly different from my own)

•hanging out and working with a cabal of volunteer classical music concert ushers (until their ringleader got tired of my anti-Clinton mass e-mails and I lost touch with the lot of them; there had been one member of that extended circle I was tempted to ask out, a fellow Brown alum, but, tragically, she was thrown through a windshield and killed, so that tentative plan went nowhere; another Brown alum, cartoonist-historian-speechwriter Jeff Shesol, was also on my e-mail distribution list throughout those years — and worked as a Clinton speechwriter — which I had completely forgotten about while I was sending out my occasional diatribes, not hearing a word of complaint from him until after Clinton left office, at which time he defended Clinton’s final speech, which argued that entangling foreign alliances are a good thing)

•renting obscure, nerdy sci-fi films such as Frogtown starring Roddy Piper but never quite getting around to renting Frogtown 2, although, like a thousand other things — including writing a script for Star Trek: The Next Generation — it technically remains on my to-do list while time races by and we all hurtle rapidly toward the grave.

I also badgered fellow Brown Film Bulletin alum Margot Weiss into watching the original Star Wars, since it remains unfathomable to me how people can think of themselves as “Americans” without having seen Star Wars — or, in even more alarming cases, without being sure whether they’ve seen Star Wars. Margot was impressed by it but never talks to me anymore for some reason.

Not that Margot was completely above such films: she was the one who talked me into going to see the gross-out zombie movie Dead Alive by then-obscure but talented director Peter Jackson. As she put it, enthusiastically: “It’s the kind of movie where the hypodermic needle never goes into the skin when it could go into the eyeball.” Exactly. In a reminder of another horror from that time, a passing, non-Manhattanite-sounding motorist shouted “Buttafuoco!” at me and fellow nerd Ali Kokmen after we walked out of the film.

It was a simpler time, and I made no effort to be cool. On the other hand…


I was hip enough at that time to see these things:

I went to two free concerts by Morphine, the brilliant, deep-sounding, and doomed band with heavy jazz influences fronted by Mark Sandman, who would die of a heart attack in his forties just a few years later: One of these concerts was in the band’s native Boston area, on one of my then-frequent trips to visit numerous acquaintances there — including the aforementioned Dave, plus Bulletineer Holly Caldwell and our fellow Brown alum Jake Harrison, the two of them marrying that year, just as Jake graduated.

I even met some new people in the area, such as my fellow Kaplan employee (Kaplan is everywhere) Keri Shaffer, a perky Bohemian-hipster redhead, contact with whom helped partially salve that lingering feeling that perhaps I should be living in Allston or Somerville, Massachusetts and hanging out with struggling indie bands — like the one her boyfriend was in, called Orangutang, whose very cool song “Shiny Like Gold” actually got some airplay (I now look back upon that time as an alternative-rock golden age even richer per year than the 80s — something I should have appreciated more at the time [UPDATE: And in retrospect, I realize Joe and his Orangutang pals sounded a bit like a precursor to the awesome Harvey Danger, one of my favorite bands of that period]). Part of my soul seems to reside in the Boston suburbs, and we have not heard the last of that fair land in the Retro-Journal.

I heard Perry Metzger give a lecture at the Libertarian Book Club/Anarchist Forum about “cypherpunks” and the potential of the Web and cryptography and such things just before all that became huge: Fourteen years later (!?!), I found myself talking to him just this past Wednesday at the monthly bar gathering for non-leftists I oversee called the Manhattan Project, which you may notice perpetually advertised over on my front page’s right margin. Mine is a vast yet insular cast of characters.

I had rarely felt so much sympathy for the left and so little for my own capitalist-libertarian brethren as I did at the end of the cypherpunk lecture when one libertarian in the audience unwisely decided to try opening a huge, tangential can of worms by asking Perry’s left-anarchist co-lecturer how he expected the world to be socially organized absent property rights, causing a dialogue that went precisely as follows:

LIBERTARIAN AUDIENCE MEMBER (snidely): What, do expect us all to “share”?

LEFT-ANARCHIST SPEAKER: Yes. I do. [Crowd adjourns.]

Perry had at one point stressed the fact that while the Internet is hard to censor, there is always recourse to “the rubber hose” with which you simply go and beat its users. Chris Whitten walked out of the lecture convinced he should start his own websites. I walked out jokingly saying, “I’d like to hear more about this ‘rubber hose’.” I’m funnier than Chris. Chris, however, is now an Internet millionaire.

I saw a Tanqueray gin focus group, from the inside: Given the timing and the focus group leader’s emphasis on asking us what we’d consider hip and funny, I’m pretty sure we had a small but historic role in helping to launch Mr. Jenkins. I would like gin ads to make me feel sort of as if I’m a younger version of the Three Stooges, sneaking into a swanky party, I remember telling them.


It wasn’t all frivolity, though. I wrote a letter to Reason’s Brian Doherty back then — at incredible length, by hand, something quickly becoming archaic — agreeing with a piece he had written about the potentially disastrous influence of neo-Confederate writers like Sam Francis on the fringes of the paleoconservative/paleolibertarian coalition. Francis had a few libertarian allies such as, crucially, sometime-ghostwriter Lew Rockwell, yet Francis had explicitly called for abandoning the “shopkeeper” philosophy of libertarianism and laissez-faire in favor of what he called a frankly statist and ethnocentric “social nationalism” (something troubling about that phrase). Doherty wrote me back, describing the Francis-type paleos an “oddly bloodless” form of nationalist, more cold and calculating than passionate and nostalgic — the sort of people who might, in short, devise a cynical scheme to boost the popularity of a libertarian Republican congressman by feeding race-baiting rhetoric to conspiracy theorists and militia men. However, I think both Doherty and I had long since forgotten about that correspondence prior to his cover article in the February issue of Reason, on sale now. Live and learn.

How could I have stooped so low? How could I have supported an offensive, race-baiting goofball for office, simply to draw attention to the libertarian message? I am referring, of course, to the Howard Stern campaign for New York governor, since we are, after all, talking about 1994.

Well, keep in mind that prior to the ’94 elections, which swept the Democrats from control of Congress after four decades and began twelve years of Republican dominance, it seemed unlikely that any “legitimate” electoral vehicle would emerge for efforts to slow the expansion of the state. A court jester who could at least attract attention to the Libertarian Party (and its message of small government, secure property rights, and individual liberty) might be just what the culture needed. And so I rooted for Stern and attended the New York State Libertarian Party convention at which he was nominated — and wrote about it for National Review and Liberty. (A second version of the National Review piece later appeared across the land, with only superficial changes, under the byline “William F. Buckley,” to my surprise — but we all owe him too great a debt to complain about such things, and it may well have been ghosted by his intern or something anyway.)

I went to the convention with Chris Whitten and longtime LP member Joe Brennan, even preparing a nominating speech to read for Joe (which wasn’t needed in the end). All of us, Chris, Joe, me — and Stern — were, for a short, strange time, both Libertarian Party members and Babylon 5 fans. It wasn’t as important as a takeover of Congress, but in those less-urgent times, it seemed like a small cultural step forward. And when you don’t really expect to get anywhere politically, you’re more willing to make ridiculous alliances without regard to the consequences.

Stern eventually dropped out of the race to avoid revealing his personal financial information, and the dream died — just a few months after the Seavey family cat, Oscar, died back at my parents’ home in Connecticut, his body soon found by an alert Uber (the Seavey family dog, who drew my father’s attention to the body in tall grasses at the edge of the neighbor’s property). I must confess I did not for one moment foresee the Republican takeover of Congress that was coming in the second half of the year, which would change the political discourse drastically and, in retrospect, make the court-jester approach seem unnecessary — and insufficiently ambitious. Serious change might yet be possible.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" and Time Travel

I have no problem with the fact that the Terminator TV series appears to take place in a different timeline than the events of Terminator 3 (and if you don’t want to know why — in great detail — stop reading now). I mean, hey, it’s time travel, so why not?

By my count (ignoring comic books and other spin-off material), there have been at least three Terminator timelines (though I’m using the term “timeline” loosely, since the general implication in the Terminator universe is that there is, strictly speaking, only one timeline and that it undergoes changes — read my old Metaphilm article about the nerd obsession with continuity issues if you want to see me geeking out about these sorts of issues as they apply to other franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek):

The first timeline, seen in the first movie and in the second movie up until the CompuDyne Cyberdyne HQ gets blown up (don’t examine the causal logic there too closely, please), was characterized by a causal loop in which the sentient computer program Skynet caused a nuclear war in about 1997 but was itself destroyed circa 2029 by post-apocalyptic rebel leader John Connor, who then sent a man back in time to 1984 who became his own father.

At the end of the second film, a new timeline is created (branching off from the point in 1995 [though the film came out in 1991] when CompuDyne Cyberdyne HQ was blown up, two years before it could trigger the nuclear war). In this new timeline, though (as we learn in the third film), the nuclear war still happens eventually (“Judgment Day iss inevidduble”) — specifically in 2004 (though the film came out in 2003) and more dueling robot assassins are still dispatched to the past from sometime around 2032 (when vengeful robots, operating after the destruction of Skynet, kill the adult John Connor).

I think the impending new trilogy of Terminator films, featuring Christian Bale as the adult John Connor, will take place in that second timeline, after the nuclear war of 2004, and depict a kick-ass conflict between early-model Terminators and human resistance fighters. Good!

But a third timeline was created Sunday night. Many fans who were bummed out by the nuclear war of 2004 may be pleased about it. A robot played by Summer Glau comes back from 2027 to stop a Terminator dispatched to kill John Connor in 1999 — with the fourteen-or-so year-old John Connor confusingly referring to the prior robot attack (from Terminator 2: Judgment Day) as “two years ago,” but presumably he means that the originally-scheduled date of the nuclear war was 1997, which is fine.

(Note: as I recall, there was some confusion evident in the third film about whether T2 had taken place in ’91, when it was actually released, or ’95, when it took place, but Wikipedia gets it right, so let’s assume the producers will from here on out, too.)


What makes the TV series a clear-cut third timeline (and possibly a fourth, with the potential for more to come) is that the Glau-bot does not come from a timeline in which the nukes came in ’97 (as in T1) or even ’04 (as in T3) but in ’11. Furthermore, in perhaps the biggest surprise of the premiere, she yanks John Connor and his mom from ’99 to ’07 at the end of the episode (putting them four years prior to nuclear destruction if they’re in her home timeline but well past the point of destruction if they were in their own original timeline, so clearly they aren’t).

So how did the nukes get delayed from ’04 to ’11? The most logical conclusion would have to be that Glau’s removal of the Connors from the ’99-’04 period actually saved civilization (for now) by causing the Terminators to call off the attack seen in T3, which had led directly to the “rise of the machines,” thanks to the code-speaking Terminator played by the lovely, athletic, and rumored-to-be-bisexual Kristanna Loken (she is said to have slept with her BloodRayne co-star Michelle Rodriguez and is seen in the photo montage atop another of my Metaphilm articles — I just mean you can see Loken, not that you can see them sleeping together, which would make Metaphilm a far, far more popular site).

Of course, as I’ve noted before, this all quickly gets absurd if the time travelers of 2032 have potentially unlimited power to keep going back and changing things — Terminator quickly becomes Groundhog Day, or at least becomes that bit from Family Guy where Peter keeps going back in time and screwing up his first date with Lois. But let’s assume there are limits to how many time-missions they can launch and what they can try to change, just to keep things remotely plausible and dramatic.


So: whatever happens next in the series, it would appear we will now have two rival Terminator timelines at work (besides the one in the original film), one on the small screen and one (next year, if all goes as planned) on the big screen, with the big screen world presumably being the T3 timeline in which the nuclear war already happened back in 2004 (which is not much weirder than Star Trek’s Eugenics Wars supposedly taking place in the 1990s, when Khan conquered a third of the Earth without you noticing, I suppose).

Which timeline will prove more popular, I wonder: Summer Glau’s or Christian Bale’s? (And on a related note, who would win a fight between River and Batman?) Interestingly, the TV timeline (or rather, a TV timeline) would still seem to offer the hope of becoming one in which the nuclear war never happens, at least for the as-you-see-them-now version of Sarah and John visiting 2007, which would be nice (though for Glau, the war is already a fait accompli from sixteen years earlier in her native timeline).

One other bit of chronology to keep in mind: unless we’re to believe that time-traveling with Summer Glau (which sounds like a nice Travel Channel show) cures leukemia, Sarah Connor should still die in the TV series within about five years (having died sometime between ’99 and ’04 in the T3 timeline). Perhaps they’ll depict her being saved by treatments that didn’t exist in 2000 but do exist in 2008, which would be entirely plausible (leukemia death rates are plummeting) and a nice little reminder of how quickly real-world technology advances, without any help from time-traveling cyborgs, for good or ill.

Why Glau-bot gives “2005″ for the originally-scheduled time of Sarah’s death (had they not time-jumped to 2007 in the premiere), though, I cannot imagine — Glau-bot comes from a timeline, apparently, in which not only was the nuclear war delayed past the point at which it occurred in the T1 and T3 timelines (1997 and 2004, respectively) but in which for some reason leukemia took at least a year longer to kill Sarah. Hard to imagine why that would be the case — though perhaps her timeline features a time-traveling doctor as well (I recall hearing of such things).

Unless, of course…the Glau-bot’s own trip back to 1999 without the leap forward to 2007 created her timeline (no weirder a timeloop than the one in the original movie) and perhaps gave her the chance to treat Sarah for a few years, keeping her alive past ’04, had the Glau-bot not leapt forward to 2007, the leap perhaps creating a subsidiary timeline in which the TV show now occurs — but that way lies madness, obviously. Madness…

(When in doubt, safest to assume that what we see now is “the” dominant timeline, though — for now, it’s a world with no nuke war yet as of 2007, robot visitors from a possible 2027 who recall a 2011 nuke war, and a Sarah Connor presumably likely to die come 2013 from cancer even without nuclear weapons going off. Interesting to see if the series is still on then — and it might be, as it’s not half-bad, I should say.)

P.S. Brown alum Josh Friedman created the Terminator TV series, and another Brown alum, Lisa Loeb, sings at the 57th and Park Ave. Borders [CORRECTION: the Columbus Circle Borders!] one week from tonight (1/22) at 7pm, if anyone’s tempted, as I am, to represent. And she, too, is a robot, though she’s not all in your face about it, which is sweet.

UPDATE: This Time Out New York article by Andrew Johnston contains an interesting example of how even people paying close attention can get confused about this stuff: he says Sarah can’t meet herself in the TV series because she died in 2005 — and it’s true she’s in no danger of meeting herself, but not because she died earlier in this timeline: that death did not occur in this timeline. In this timeline, as we can plainly see, she simply vanished in 1999 and reappeared, still very much alive, in 2007. In between, there simply was no Sarah Connor walking around (or dying, or getting nabbed by cops for blowing up CompuDyne Cyberdyne Inc.). Must I personally take control of the entire spacetime continuum to prevent these errors being made? Must I?

UPDATE 2: One quick, final question: If you were a human being trying to prevent a robot apocalypse, who would you dispatch backward in time: anti-Dalek fighters, Kitty Pryde of the X-Men, resistance fighter Kyle Reese, Federation officers who like Zefram Cochrane more than the Borg do…or Neo?

UPDATE 3: Or you could send a cyborg monkey — creating an end, as Chris Nugent notes, to the timeless battle of “Monkey vs. Robot.”


Monday, January 14, 2008

From Utilitarianism to Libertarianism

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Given all my recent posts about presidential candidates, it might be worth taking a step back to remind ourselves “why we fight”: in truth, because I just want everyone to be happy.

That is, I’m a utilitarian, seeing increases in general happiness (on balance, long-term) as synonymous with good and decreases in happiness (everyone’s happiness, on balance, long-term) as synonymous with evil. Anyone opposed to this orientation is, to the degree they oppose it, rather fiendish, though few people consciously set out to be evil. More often — if they aren’t mere unreflective predators — they’ve just latched onto some crude proxy for happiness-maximization and come to treat that proxy as if it trumps happiness itself. Usually, they’ve (somewhat arbitrarily, to my mind) picked a set of intuited, metaphysical rules — whether Christian, Muslim, Kantian, Randian, Marxist, or egalitarian-liberal — and decided, as if bowing down before an invasion force of extraterrestrials, that that set of rules “ought” to take precedence over humanity’s happiness. Why? I don’t know.

Of course, it might just happen to be the case that adherence to one of those rule-sets maximizes human happiness — by getting everyone into a blissful Heaven, say, or by ending the alienation of labor — but those rule sets must themselves be evaluated by their capacity to create happiness, which is the more fundamental underlying foundation of all ethics. And there is no point in asking “Is happiness good?” — I’m treating that as definitional, but not in a way that begs the question. If you insist “good” means something else and the dictionaries come to agree with you, then take “good,” it’s yours — but the rational and decent person remains a happiness-increaser, even if happiness-increasing must now be called “schmood” instead of “good.” Happiness, we know from direct experience of it, is not subject to the same “Is this good?” regress of questions that, say, a proposed set of Marxist or Kantian rules is. The regress ends at happiness (and not merely one’s own happiness, as utilitarians are sometimes falsely accused of thinking — indeed, in my experience, are often accused of thinking even after you carefully explain to people that that’s not even what “utilitarianism” means and never has been).

One year ago (!), before this blog was even fully functional, my January 2007 Book Selection of the Month was Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, and for all his brilliance, he still unfairly dismissed utilitarianism as a solution to the problem of foundational ethics in that book on the grounds that basic utilitarianism tells us happiness is good but does not provide rich, detailed advice on how to achieve it (for which, quite rightly, he suggests we may need guidance from tradition and communities). This objection is (not coincidentally, I would argue) very similar to a criticism often targeted at libertarianism: that it presents us with the blank slate of freedom but does not tell us what things to do with our freedom.

But it can still be the case that happiness is the proper moral gauge (or liberty the proper framework for fostering individual happiness) even if we disagree about the substantive details of how to be happy — just as people may agree they want to be healthy without knowing what specific diet regimen or medicines will produce that outcome. Disagreement over the “subsequent” question of whether living like a Catholic or like a hippie or like a tech-nerd is the best route to happiness (or even a more complex and convoluted disagreement over the extent to which happiness should be treated as a conscious goal) need not undermine happiness’s status as the ultimate destination. Indeed, it seems likely that some people will most easily find happiness by living like hippies, some by living like tech-nerds, etc. — all the more reason to deduce the need for some sort of individual-liberty-based social system from the deeper goal of fostering happiness.

As a “rule utilitarian” as opposed to “act utilitarian,” I recognize the practical dangers of inviting people (selfish, biased, fallible people) to guess anew from moment to moment what actions are sanctioned by the pursuit of general happiness, so I counsel adherence to that set of rules most likely to foster happiness — and an extreme reluctance to violate those rules, lest they erode (indeed, they may in practice end up being adhered to more rigidly than the metaphysically-intuited pseudo-rules I mentioned at the start — but we never make the mistake of thinking the utilitarian rules are somehow more important than the total set of humans adhering to them, the way someone might declare, say, equality to be an ideal worth making all of humanity less happy in order to achieve).

“Happiness-Seeking and Free” Ought to Be Just the Beginning

Imagine my frustration in many moral and political arguments: I think that getting people to agree on the goodness of increasing happiness — and getting them to agree that liberty makes possible individual pursuit of happiness — is merely the starting point for ethical and psychological development (and does indeed leave us with a host of barely-explored sociological and psychological questions about how to shape the best possible life), but I can’t even get most people to agree on the happiness part or the liberty part, let alone my own idiosyncratic, more detailed recommendations for fostering happiness (read books, avoid callousness, be skeptical, foster friendships, have a good sense of humor, etc., etc.).

I know it must seem to some readers that by being a utilitarian and libertarian (not to mention a skeptic and an atheist) I’m pushing a very weird, obscure creed indeed, but try to imagine it from my perspective: I often feel like a pacifist in ancient Viking times saying, “Well, here’s my humble suggestion, for starters: let’s just all maybe consider not slaughtering each other constantly” — and hearing the ancient masses respond, “Are you crazy? Stop the slaughtering? We must do the slaughtering! That’s our whole way of life! The gods smile upon the slaughtering!” (No need to write in explaining that I’m oversimplifying the Viking way of life — I’m sure I am.)

But even if very few people are conscious adherents of utility or liberty, I think collectively, over time, humanity participates in some sorting processes (you might almost call them “evolutionary,” though not in the biological sense — for the most part) that produce good results precisely because they tend, in fits and starts, to weed out sources of misery and perpetuate sources of happiness (in analogizing these processes to each other, I echo Jonathan Rauch). Ranking these processes from the least-efficient to the most-efficient, I’d say they are:

•Democratic government (the most primitive of sorting processes, since it basically entails either that most of us must agree on a given course of action or that most of us must entrust some ruler or set of rulers to choose our course, whether those rulers are representatives or monarchs)

•Tradition (which deviates from utilitarian norms to the extent it is imposed on suffering participants by force but is nonetheless prone to some extent to preserve practices that work and aid survival and punish — weed out — practices that do not)

•Science (a competitive process of fact-checking, false-hypothesis-debunking, and constant reimagining with the goal of more closely, asymptotically approximating a correct description of reality, discarding failed hypotheses over time in the process — though science is done by humans, and they can certainly skew the process of science and act to protect an undeserving establishment with almost as much ease as an oligarchy can deform democratic processes or lying priests can perpetuate harmful traditions)

•Markets (the best weeding-out process of all, characterized by constant, rapid experimentation, with rewards for the ideas that work and cost-bearing for the proponents of the ideas that do not — to the extent markets prevail, happiness tends, over time, to be efficiently achieved)

Evolutionary, free markets are like fractals to government’s barbarous, simplistic circles — the millions of music-purchasing decisions made in a decentralized fashion each day occur with a subtlety that a single, once-a-year National Album Purchase could never have (likewise, we might not have fared well in a single up-or-down vote on the question “Reptiles-only or mammals-only?” 60 million years ago).

The need to let constant, decentralized, individuated happiness-seeking decisions be made explains, incidentally, why violence is especially immoral: you can’t easily exit a prison or kidnapper’s den, or even your own living room if a burglar (or abusive spouse) is holding a knife on you. Violence cuts off the evolutionary, happiness-seeking, efficiency-seeking, individual-wishes-respecting process. Instead of acting on your own preferences, they are overridden forcibly by someone else’s — and that other person, to put it in value-neutral terms for a moment, may not gain as much happiness from his actions as you lose. There’s no way to know whether he does, which is why all force-based interactions are dangerous, abandoning mutually-beneficial, mutually-pleasing transactions in favor of ones that may or may not bring about a net gain in happiness and quite likely leave one party weeping.

From Utility and the Epistemological Problem to Libertarianism

The economist Murray Rothbard, who I mentioned in a recent Retro-Journal entry, recognized in this epistemic hurdle for utilitarians a reason to adopt strict property rights (and he thus created a philosophical bridge between utilitarianism and libertarianism and made plain a practical connection between human happiness and markets, a historic intellectual achievement that puts us all in his debt no matter how much some of his associates late in his life, mentioned in recent entries on this blog, may have sounded like deranged militia men).

Property rights give each individual an inviolable sphere of action in which each interaction becomes a mutually-beneficial exchange — no matter how much initial social conditions vary (due to humanity’s barbarous, disutile, non-libertarian history) — mutually beneficial in the sense that the individuals who are party to a trade decide whether the trade (or the party invitation or the conversation or any other human interaction) is worth doing and leaves both parties better off than before by their own subjective, individual standards. The alternative is some subset of people — whether a monarch, “representatives,” or a mob — deciding, in what is quite likely an incorrect fashion, what they think should make everyone else happy and imposing it upon them with the threat of violence, whether in the form of imprisonment, fines, taxes, regulations, or simply a beating.

Well-timed beatings could perhaps in principle make people happier, but experience suggests why the odds are slim, and that realization should be expanded to skepticism about all forms of slavery, government, and physical coercion. Leave individuals as free as possible to dispose of their bodies and property as they individually see fit and the world (while it will not be perfect) will be perpetually improving, by its inhabitants’ individual standards, in a piecemeal fashion, something of which there is no guarantee anytime the tribe or mob or social-democratic collective runs roughshod over dissenting individuals’ wills in favor of its own.

Tragically, we are for now ruled by politicians, but we can hope to see the most pro-government politicians fail and be ousted, be they Democrats, Republicans, Islamists, or Communists — until the distant but hoped-for day that all government functions are finally privatized and words like “rulers” and “politicians” are things for the history books, much like “absolute monarch.”

Some Preference Sets Are Indeed Better Than Others

And one last wrinkle: Contrary to the simplest version of either utilitarianism or libertarianism, in which people’s preferences are taken as given and the question is merely how to get obstacles such as laws out of the way of their fulfillment, I recognize that some sets of desires enable humanity to engage in mutually-beneficial action more easily than others. A nation of sadists will have a harder time achieving happiness than a nation of people who enjoy making each other happy — which is why culture really does matter, and why someone like Martin Luther King (tomorrow being the anniversary of his birth, even if we celebrate it a week from now) is a truly heroic figure: he didn’t just change the nation’s laws, he changed people’s preferences in an immense way and thereby made it easier for all of us to interact happily with each other. That’s an important model for non-governmental change if ever there was one, with the legal changes mainly an after-effect of that shift in attitude.

And all this leaves thousands of questions unanswered — but there are thousands of books responding to those questions, fortunately, and this blog entry is just a tiny, tiny start. It might be enough to produce a kernel of curiosity in the mind of someone who’s previously looked at things in some radically opposed, anti-libertarian way, though. (And I’ll certainly be revisiting some of these issues in the months ahead, as I work on writing Conservatism for Punks, finish the remaining two thirds of my “Retro-Journal” — next stop 1994 — and grudgingly evaluate the presidential race.)

Some Related Items of Interest

•Applying libertarian ideas to something of greater moral urgency than minute variations in marginal U.S. tax rates, Karol Boudreaux and Paul Dragos Aligica suggest to analysts of Africa possible Paths to Property.

•Though I recall having a testy e-mail exchange with him about the utility of some people’s often-conflicted preference for smoking, I was delighted by Bryan Caplan’s recent Washington Post column explaining voter irrationality, which noted in passing the important point that voters’ various forms of ignorance don’t all “balance out” to make government an effective engine of happiness — the ignorant tend to be anti-trade protectionists and the informed to be pro-trade, for instance.

•News reports about the FBI having some of its wiretaps fail because the FBI neglected to pay its phonebills are a great reminder that government is just as inefficient and Soviet-like even when doing the handful of ostensibly vital things the right likes. (I fear this civilization will end not with someone villainous saying “Now your destiny is at hand!” but with someone saying something bureaucratic like “I ain’t authorized to let you use that containment suit here — you can try coming back next week maybe.”)

•If you agree that efficiency, happiness, and individual preference-fulfillment are strongly correlated — indeed, in some ways near-synonyms, rightly understood — you might enjoy this argument against gift-giving (a position Sasha Volokh, who I was lucky enough to have lunch with a couple times in recent months, greatly sympathizes with, at least in theory).