Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Book Selection: It's Not Easy Being Green, Radical, Dumb, Moronic, Cowardly, Comic, or Broke

dumbocracy.JPG Book Selection(s) of the Month (April Fool’s Day 2009)

Ten idiocy-related texts for this April Fool’s Day (which is also the day of our big Debate at Lolita Bar about religion between Secular Conscience author Austin Dacey and Up, Up, and Oy Vey!/Shtick Shift author Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, of course):

It’s Not Easy Being Green and Other Things to Consider by Jim Henson (edited by Cheryl Henson): Kermit the Frog might be even more relevant a month from now, when our debate topic will be animal welfare, but today he interests me mainly because this book, filled with his creator Jim Henson’s relentlessly optimistic and life-affirming sayings, plus affirmations from the people (and Muppets) around him, is such an endearing case of taking the opposite approach from my own basic philosophical orientation (critical, analytical, and dissecting, in the Enlightenment style) — the Henson approach, like that of all good artists, is simply building something positive that makes criticism and griping beside the point. I hope it’s possible to do both — “Rainbow Connection” contains some rather dopey, sentimental, Hollywood-dreamy, anti-rational advice, but it’s a wonderful song, isn’t it? (Much better than anything in Labyrinth, if you ask me — so I’ll have to introduce young Helen to the older and far superior Muppet Movie, much as her cohort seems to love Labyrinth.)

Still, it’s also fun to have Kermit’s unauthorized opposite, SadKermit, around — seen here singing Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt.” I don’t want to know anyone who genuinely prefers SadKermit to Kermit at the end of the day, though, which is worth keeping in mind when making psychological evaluations, especially among hipsters.

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey: An adult from civilization who’d rather chuck it all and live among animals in the wild is in some important sense a moron, an ingrate, a traitor to the cause of human advancement, and an idyllically-inclined naif. And yet…there is something about being out there in the great outdoors and breathing free — as Abbey, writing at the 1968 peak of chuck-it-all sentiment in the U.S. — was well aware, explicitly juxtaposing his year as a park ranger and its simple pleasures with the interlocking, hyper-complex insanities of our fragile modern world and its regimented, clockwork lifestyles (like the “anti-work” anarchist Bob Black, he sees Soviets and American industrialized citizenry as almost interchangeable in their robotic predictability and servility).

In the long run, I suspect we’ll use high technology precisely to recreate the peace and quiet Abbey found by running away to the desert instead of gorging on ever more confetti-like bits of fast-paced, media-driven, twittered and tweeted distraction. Or at least I have no plans to upgrade my old TV rabbit ears when the great digital conversion comes, which is a small start (by the way, my sophomore roommate from Brown, Marc Steiner, is a tad green and from Spokane, WA, so it’ll be interesting to hear his reaction to that Drudge-linked story about Spokane residents being reduced to smuggling to get non-green dishwashing liquids — a reminder the greens are dismantling civilization, one product at a time).

Terrorism, Radicalism, and Populism in Agriculture by Luther Tweeten: Liking the idea of more time for pseudo-agrarian moments in the long run does not make anti-biotech, anti-agribusiness, anti-trade radicalism and terrorism a good idea in the short term (or ever), though, and Luther Tweeten, who has been covering these sorts of topics for decades now, does a great job in this volume of rationally, calmly surveying the various animal-loving, plant-liberating, ostensibly friendly-hippie-sounding movements now out there burning down homes, smashing labs, and uprooting potentially Third World-rescuing crops. You might want to hand this volume to the next college-age green-primitivist type you run into — possibly at that May 6 debate I mentioned earlier (but more about that in a few weeks).

Dumbocracy: Adventures with the Loony Left, the Rabid Right, and Other American Idiots by Marty Beckerman: Possibly the most valuable book ever written, Beckerman’s simple approach here is to spend time talking to radicals across the political spectrum, and his simple message is that virtually all of them are delusional jerks eager to control your life. If this point were as obvious to everyone as it is to the very funny Beckerman, we’d be in OK shape and could largely ignore politics, the way we were meant to.

Cyril Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons” (readable online): The obvious inspiration for the amazing eugenics-based Mike Judge comedy film Idiocracy as well as the “B Ark” sequence from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and a similar scene in a Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episode, this 1951 short story (recommended to me, like a few short stories in my planned Book Selections entries for the fall, by Arkansas legislator Dan Greenberg) depicts a future struggling to deal with the fact that the less-intelligent people have for centuries been outbreeding the smarter ones, with consequences that (a) none of us are supposed to talk about, (b) I am personally planning to do nothing to alleviate reproductionwise, and (c) will either have to be solved by a defrosted hero from a brainier past, as in this short story and Idiocracy, or by genetic engineering and cybernetic enhancements. I’m doing my small part to promote the engineering/enhancement solution.

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn Joyce: I had planned to meet up with my London-bus-driving friend Joe Brennan and my job-needing genius/hot chick girlfriend Helen Rittelmeyer at the pleasant bar/literary locus Half King two weeks ago to hear a reading from a book called Quiverfull about a movement by that name with thousands of adherents in modern America that strives to teach females Biblical-style, old-fashioned subservience to father and husband from birth, often homeschooling with an emphasis on kitchen chores and the like — and having as many babies as possible. I ended up being the only one who could make it to the reading, so I didn’t get to hear the reactions of Catholic-turned-atheist Joe or outspoken, Ivy League-educated religious-traditionalist and anti-feminist Helen to the whole strange phenomenon.

I’m against it (but don’t call me a feminist — and don’t ask me to applaud if the state intervenes). For good or ill, though, is it all really that much stranger than the upbringings of some of the acquaintances of Rabbi Weinstein who might even show up at tonight’s debate — or for that matter, the Orthodox upbringing of, say, Shterna Friedman, the smart and seemingly well-adjusted managing editor of the libertarian journal Critical Review? (Not that I mean to imply they’re all interchangeable, obviously.) Beats swear-filled white trash brawls over who stole the remote control, perhaps, and that is, after all, the default mode of socialization in the U.S., I sometimes suspect.

•And speaking of Critical Review, in Vol. 20, No. 4, just out, you’ll find me quoted in the transcript of their August 31, 2008 Boston conference, p. 520, for Seavey completists — during a daylong discussion of the very substantial but rarely-acknowledged fact of the public’s near-total ignorance on politics. I said this to a panel featuring Jeffrey Friedman, Ilya Somin, and others:

TODD SEAVEY: Hello. Sort of a two-part, depressing question. If you draw people’s attention to how dire public ignorance is, do you think it might simply encourage people to start reading more about politics and become members of that very dogmatic class that are already at the top of things, and now you’ve just got a bigger dogma-loving, fighting, feuding class, and maybe things get worse? And then secondly, is there a danger that drawing attention to public ignorance might just encourage diabolical statist monsters like Cass Sunstein to think that they have a new argument for why elites should run everything and come up with new regulations for herding the stupid ignorant masses? Like in Nudge, I mean is it possible that the more clear it becomes that the public is ignorant, the more the technocrats will have a plausible argument for letting them run everything?

What did the panelists say in response? Subscribe to Critical Review and learn the thrilling answer.

In Character: A Journal of Everyday Virtues: There are, of course, subtler ways of inculcating polite, respectful behavior than cultishness and dogmatism — take for example this excellent, moderate, reasoned quarterly about one core ethical principle per month (such as Courage, in the most recent issue). It’s so encouraging to see these basic topics addressed without the usual partisan or culture-war craziness. Copies of In Character for every school in the land, say I.

Meltdown: by Tom Woods: To teach people about the current economic crisis, by contrast, I recommend a book by one of my fellow Tuesday Night Traditionalists from Jim Kalb’s discussion group of that name over a decade ago. Woods also ghostwrote Ron Paul’s Manifesto and was duped into bringing jars of his urine to public buildings thinking they were needed for a psych experiment when he was in college and targeted by pranksters. That should not make you suspicious, though, of his grasp on the inflationary and bubble-causing dangers of easy-money policies at the Federal Reserve, to which he — and the Austrian School of economists — trace many of our boom-and-bust economic woes.

Holy Sh*t!: The World’s Weirdest Comic Books by Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury: Speaking of economic rationality, I’m not prone to impulse buys, as you might imagine, but how could I pass up this item sitting on the Barnes and Noble counter? From it, I not only learned about the special “lesbian unicorns” issue of one comic book for “furries” and the blasphemous erotic adventures of the Leather Nun (not to mention Fantagraphics’ Trucker Fags in Denial) but learned something both enlightening and disillusioning about the comic book character Octobriana, who I’ve praised before. Ostensibly an unowned left-anarchist character shared by underground artists in the Soviet Union, she was really, according to this volume, created by one Czech writer interested in spreading the rumor of an underground artists’ movement in the USSR, using illustrations copied from another writer’s non-political comic book about an Amazon adventurer.

The idea of an underground anarchist character was inspiring not only to me but to Bryan Talbot, who used her in The Adventures of Luther Arkwright (my favorite comic book miniseries), and to David Bowie, who at one point considered producing a movie about her. Indeed, I’ve never before heard anything that made me more tantalizingly convinced Bowie and I have similar aesthetic sensibilities — and Talbot modeled Arkwright in part after Bowie, so the circle is complete (and come back in two months for my June Book Selection, by the other big influence on Arkwright, Michael Moorcock).

EPILOGUE: Speaking of Eastern European subversion, today is Milan Kundera’s eightieth birthday. Kudos to him and to the anti-socialists of all parties. (Thanks to Paul Taylor, I just rewatched the East Germany-depicting movie The Lives of Others on my trip to DC a few weeks ago — as if being there to celebrate Helen’s birthday with the likes of Megan McArdle weren’t anti-socialist enough — and that film’s another great reminder how tragic it is that so many intellectuals who fancy themselves the compassionate ones still lean socialist, the most tragic idiocy of all.)

Then again, intelligence isn’t everything: Who among us would root against well-meaning imbecile Navin Johnson in The Jerk, a VHS copy of which is lying mere feet from me at this very moment, tempting me with its comic brilliance, while I blather on obsessively about a handful of big ideas, like a man fixated by the handle of an Opti-Grab device?

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Speaking of intelligence tests, thanks to trivia hosts Jen Dziura and Michael Malice for giving me and Helen copies of the Kermit book as prizes for being on the winning team at their regular Chelsea Mind Games trivia night — and note that despite her quiz-mistress braininess, you can now see Jen being stupid for all of twenty seconds as she drives a car badly on an unaired Sci-Fi Channel reality show pilot, about people attempting to employ everyday problem-solving skills.

This is quite a contrast with Malice’s stellar performance on Cash Cab (aided by a timely “shout out” phonecall to me for the final answer), needless to say. Lesson: it’s easier to think when you’re just the passenger. (This is not, however, an argument for more public transportation spending or for letting other people control your destiny.)


Christopher said...

“In the long run, I suspect we’ll use high technology precisely to recreate the peace and quiet Abbey found by running away to the desert instead of gorging on ever more confetti-like bits of fast-paced, media-driven, twittered and tweeted distraction. Or at least I have no plans to upgrade my old TV rabbit ears when the great digital conversion comes, which is a small start”

You are, of course, a very bad example here. You still don’t own a cell-phone, for Christ’s sake. Much as I wish you were right about the direction technology would take us here, I see absolutely zero evidence to support it and plenty to the contrary. We didn’t used to have phones ringing in classrooms or people seemingly talking loudly to themselves on buses and streets (or at least those who did were clearly insane, not just rudely yelling into their blu-tooth things). I’m generally fully supportive of the forward march of technology, but I do think it will make some of everyday life less pleasant, while making much of it much more convenient and safe. Until the machines take over, that is. When we’ll just have the constant hum of obliteration.

Todd Seavey said...

Speaking of which: the fine series _Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles_ apparently ends April 10, in a final confrontation with the character played by Shirley Manson from Garbage.

This will at least make its twenty-nine-episode run easy to watch on DVD — and will, one would hope (if marketing honchos have any brains at all), be accompanied by a big plug for next month’s _Terminator Salvation_ movie.

P.S. Whedon’s _Dollhouse_, by contrast, just doesn’t quite work for me: amnesiacs do not make for compelling characters, somehow.

(And while it crosses my mind: I’d be willing to bet the scene with the British lady returning her agent’s gun at the end of last week’s campus-craziness episode was originally written to be an embarrassed post-craziness meeting between her and the Whedon-like scientist guy but that the actor was unavailable for shooting that day or something. That would have been the logical place for a coda to that subplot. These things happen in TV production, I assure you.)

Dylan said...

I ordered Dumbocracy and have to say I was kind of disappointed. Not that I disagreed with Beckerman for the most part — his message is valuable, although it’s one I’d accepted a long time ago. What was disappointing was that I didn’t find him very funny. Crude jokes don’t necessarily equal funny jokes …

Hardcore right-wingers wish to shove God down our throats, but hate the freedom of guys who shove things down one another’s throats. (Hint: It’s their cocks.)

Thanks for the parenthetical explanation. I’d never have gotten it otherwise.

Anyway, P.J. O’Rourke he ain’t.

Meltdown, on the other hand, I’ve recommended to a few people already. Understanding monetary policy and financial markets is not my strong suit by any means, and I’m not saying I completely accept what Woods and other Von Mises people argue. But I think there’s a lot to be learned from that school of thought, and the book is a very concise and coherent discussion of the Austrian business cycle theory and its implications for our present debacle.

Todd Seavey said...

The parenthetical is supposed to be funny because it’s _not_ subtle. Like when Homer says “I’m being sarcastic.”

Dylan said...

Fair enough. I can see that. But I still don’t find it particularly humorous. I don’t really remember a lot of the rest of it — maybe I’ll pick it up again and appreciate it more.

But I shouldn’t be too critical of it whether it tickles my funny bone or not. His arguments all make sense and are worth listening to.

Christopher said...

Shame about Sarah Connor Chronicles. I really did think it was pretty good on balance. Certainly better than 90%+ of the shows out there.

I also couldn’t warm to Dollhouse. I’ve watched everything else Whedon has done and love all of it. This was really weak. From the beginning I didn’t think he could make a character with no personality of her own work. Maybe she’s gotten more developed after the 3rd or 4th episode, but those first ones just weren’t enough to get me to care.

dave said...

Is that true about TSCC, or is that an April Fool’s joke.

Todd Seavey said...

I’m not sure I even understand what part of the Terminator stuff would be funny, but in any case, it’s all accurate as far as I know.

dave said...

I just can’t find anything saying this is the last season of the show.

Todd Seavey said...

[...] In last week’s Book Selection(s) of the Month entry, I mentioned the comic book character Octobriana, ostensibly created by underground Soviet artists as a bit of anarchist subversion but really created by one hoaxing Czech writer.  In a similarly complex case of a fake-fake, it’s possible that the original story of “Potemkin villages” — fake villages created by minister Potemkin to exaggerate the extent of Catherine the Great’s new conquests — may be apocryphal. [...]