Friday, July 31, 2009

Philosophy Is Like Sawing the Limb You Sit On (and "The Collector" Is Like "Saw")

No sooner had I asked Helen (who likes boxing, monster movies, and other violent manifestations of culture) whether she likes the Saw movies and been reassured to find that she doesn’t…than I learned that a friend of mine, Courtney Balaker (who herself portrayed a vampire in the film Sleepless Nights), helped produce the horror movie The Collector, out today, which began life as a proposed Saw prequel (about a burglar entering a home only to find that a madman is already holding the family inside hostage).

Her husband Ted Balaker’s works, such as these libertarian shorts about iPods-vs.-protectionism and P.J. O’Rourke, are probably better suited to keeping me happy, but you sort of have to see your friend’s horror movie, no matter how sadistic, don’t you? (Heck, I even said in a comments thread on my entry from two days ago that I’d read a comic book if the author gave me a copy and asked me to.) And a movie about hostage-taking and home invasion is in some sense a movie celebrating freedom and property anyway, isn’t it?

Now, don’t get me wrong — I’m not worried one bit about the quality of the The Collector (which I gather has already gotten positive reviews — and should not be confused with the somewhat similarly-premised 60s novel/movie of the same title about a lovelorn kidnapper). I’m flat-out admitting I’m afraid of The Collector. And I don’t mean I’ll leap or weep there in the theatre. I mean I’m worried about the long-term effect on my psyche. I’ve never seen any of the Saw movies, but I fear I will nonetheless take to the grave my memory of just hearing a flesh-rending scene described by my friend Diana Fleischman (ironically, a vegan who I believe was involved romantically with a vivisectionist at some point and has a family name with “meat” in it, so she sort of sounds like a horror movie waiting to happen — but more about her tomorrow).


Well, if I do see The Collector, I guess August will be one terrifying month, since this coming Wednesday (8pm), of course, will be our Debate at Lolita Bar between Lillian Waters and Jen Dziura on the eerie question “Have We Ever Been Visited by Extraterrestrials?”

And by the way, if neither The Collector nor UFOs scare you, maybe you’re ready to face Jen Dziura’s alarming one-woman comedy show on August 7 (one week from tonight at 9:30pm) about What Philosophy Majors Do After College (a topic clearly meant to strike terror into the hearts of people like me, Dan Greenberg, Koli Mitra, Ken Dornstein, Holly Caldwell, and a few others who spring to mind — Holly even getting laughed at once by a job-placement expert when she revealed her major, but that was before she became a patent attorney).

Note that by buying tickets to the show through the green ticket service linked above you are supposedly able to choose which of multiple good causes right in your own area to donate part of the proceeds to — and I decided to think of the children, since I don’t notice much in the way of animals needing rescue on the Upper East Side.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Corpse-Eating, Lawn-Mowing Robots


Given humanity’s boundless capacity to blame the other guy when things go wrong, I wouldn’t be too shocked if I lived to see humanity exterminated by out-of-control robots and the last living pundits fighting over whether nerds should be thanked for warning of this possibility (in sci-fi) or condemned for building the robots.

(Certainly, such a scenario would settle the “monkey butler vs. robot butler” controversy, on opposite sides of which Helen and I sometimes find ourselves — and she’s not that crazy about dogs, so I find it hard to believe she’d be comfortable around an actual monkey butler, primates being far more dangerous — but more about primates in two days.)

There’s already a fight over who to blame in the recent attack on a factory worker by a robot.

Much as I love seeing (real) headlines like this: “Hate to cut your grass? Check out the best robotic lawn mowers,” I can’t help worrying that the lawn-mowing robots’ programming will at some point inevitably be mixed up with that of the corpse-eating, steam-powered robots the military is supposedly designing (if that rather ludicrous and steampunk-sounding idea isn’t just some psych-warfare tactic meant to gull Middle Easterners). As my friend Chris says, you’d sometimes think the military has seen no cautionary horror movies at all.

(If the lawn-mowing robots become commonplace, though, perhaps they can be used to mow artificial lawns.)


Would we be able to stop a robot uprising, perhaps caused by some out-of-control a.i. predator drone interpreting its “kill the enemy” mandate too broadly? Beats me, but this Wikipedia paragraph — concerning just two of the forty or so movie Transformers we’ve seen so far (specifically, the bad helicopter and the burrowing scorpion-thing that attaches to him) — is a reminder how hard it is just making a movie about robots:

Frank Welker provided vocal effects for Blackout, who transforms into a MH-53J Pave Low III helicopter, with his minion Scorponok attaching to him. Soundwave had been considered for this role, with Ravage as his minion, but Hasbro insisted Soundwave have a music-based role. Scorponok was chosen after the writers discovered him in the pages of The Ultimate Guide and felt he was appropriate to the setting. A model of his head and tail was built, while primacord explosives were used for his ripple movements in the sand. This was potentially dangerous to cast members, generating genuine terror in the actors’ performances. During production, Blackout was preliminary named Incinerator, Grimlock, Devastator, and Vortex, being referred to by Ben Procter as the Transformer with “the most name changes during development.”

On a less ominous movies-come-true note, Jacob Levy points out to me a story about Star Trek IV’s beautiful dream of transparent aluminum becoming reality (though Chuck Blake reminds me that this superheated material is of little use in the low-energy everyday world).

And as for whether we really stand on the brink of forming a galactic federation, being invaded, or simply continuing to cope with messes of our own creation, remember to help us settle that question next week at Lolita Bar when Lillian Waters and Jen Dziura debate the meaning of the UFO phenomenon.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fables of Liberty


Walking last night to an event hosted by an anarcho-capitalist I know, I heard my name called out and realized I’d been spotted on the street for the second time by a guy I know as he attended an anti-government-spending protest, and unlike last time (when I was doing a quick pass through the Times Square Tea Party protest), I didn’t even know there was a protest going on this time until I stumbled by it (specifically, by the midtown office of Sen. Chuck Schumer).  They were protesting socialized medicine this time, and I wished them luck.

Speaking of libertarians, you may recall that I decided to use my remaining comic book store credit (just before reading my final comic book last week) on a Pete Bagge anthology of comics from Reason.  It was sold out, though — which is good for society, if not for me personally — so I instead got the first volume of DC’s comic Fables, Bill Willingham’s noir-like saga of familiar fairy tale characters living underground in modern New York City.  (On another retro-hip New York-meets-old-timeyness note, you might check out Molly Crabapple’s new graphic novel, Scarlett Takes Manhattan.)

And I swear I’d genuinely forgotten, in my quest for something hip yet classic, that Willingham is a libertarian/conservative who has even written for the conservative site BigHollywood.  Indeed, Snow White’s opening speech is about how the “mundanes” (normal humans) look to government to solve their problems, but fables-beings solve their own problems, and their Snow White-run “government” explicitly lacks even the power to tax, relying on donations.  That’s hardcore anarcho-capitalism, my friends — or should I simply say, that’s liberty.  (It’s also perfect fodder for a movie or TV show, and I think there’s something in the works.)


On another libertarian-yet-traditionalist note, Willingham joked at the recent San Diego Comic Convention that he’s 97% sure he won’t turn a gay character from the Justice Society of America, which he’s just begun writing, straight, but he leaves the 3% chance “because I’m a Republican.”  The highlight of San Diego, though, was no doubt this rousing speech by my friend Ali Kokmen, who sells manga for Random House.

Ali, one of the nicest people on the planet, has also recently been encouraging people to donate to pay the medical bills of ill and cash-strapped comics writer John Ostrander, if you’re interested in looking him up and helping out.  We wouldn’t want him becoming the new host-body for the Spectre, after all.

Speaking of ghostly figures:

(a) That apparition in the photo above is the marvelously-named Elva Beene, one of Indiana’s most-wanted criminals and a woman who strikes me as looking rather like she could be the sister of Elric of Melnibone, the albino swordsman from Michael Moorcock’s stories (whose look was imitated for the evil prince in Hellboy 2).

(b) Remember to attend our August 5 (8pm) Debate at Lolita Bar one week from tonight between Lillian Waters and Jen Dziura (herself a friend of the aforementioned Crabapple) to find out the answer to the question “Have We Ever Been Visited by Extraterrestrials?” — and find out whether your dreams about ghostly figures probing you are more than imagination.

(c) And for anyone out there who is still buying comics, you might consider Marvel’s Marvels Project, depicting with realistic painted art the rise of the first wave of their hero characters seventy years ago, in 1939, starting, according to a teaser sequence seen online, with a clever bit in which an elderly man dying in a hospital foretells the coming age of heroes — because, it is revealed, he is the cowboy-era hero Two-Gun Kid, whose adventures have included time-traveling to our era to meet the Avengers.  It’s all connected by coincidence and causality, as in real life.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

World Peace Through Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and the Coolatta

The comments thread under my Saturday blog entry, about Henry Louis Gates’ overreaction to the police, contained a couple jokes about Starbucks as a place of ethnic blending — and that’s fitting, of course, since even in other parts of the world, American-style franchise restaurants (much as the cultural-protectionists of both left and right, not to mention that recent Starbucks bomber near me, may hate to hear this) often become a sort of calming, neutral safe haven for people needing a little escape from all the local culture. (Or as a friend of mine from a rural background once put it: sure, small towns have rich local cultures — that’s why so many people want to get away from them.)

Almost as interesting as seeing commercial space become ethnically-neutral and thus liberating space is seeing commercial brands that have fought so hard for individual recognition sharing space. The brand-watching modern mind reels in much the same way hardcore racists of old must have recoiled at mixed-race individuals: How can a Baskin-Robbins and a Dunkin’ Donuts exist in the same space at the same time?! That strangeness is celebrated to hilarious effect in a hiphop song (pointed out to me by Helen, who is obviously more street than I) called “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.”

I am reminded of Kramer’s bafflement on Seinfeld in the implausible episode revealing he’d never been downtown, climaxing with his panic upon reaching the intersection of First Avenue and 1st St. and thinking he “must be at the nexus of the universe!” (That was clearly one of the most sci-fi-influenced jokes in sitcom history, with perhaps the most out-and-out nerdy being the moment on Seinfeld when the “Bizarro Jerry,” with essentially no background explanation for the uninitiated, ended the episode by declaring “Me am so happy!”)


Turnabout being fair play, I notice that in New York City at least, Indians appear overwhelmingly to staff the Dunkin’ Donuts shops — one of those relatively random and probably in no way sinister ethno-commercial flukes that renders the equal-representation-everywhere expectations of affirmative action and EEOC defenders ridiculous. (Does anyone really think the Indian hegemony in the U.S. oppressed all the white applicants to Dunkin’ Donuts? More likely, word of mouth and path-of-least-resistance social ties contributed to friends and relatives of the first workers there attracting the next, etc., no more mysteriously than a Chinese man who opens a restaurant thinking, “Where will we find chefs? I know — call my cousins!”)

This is important to me for two reasons: 1. my apparent affinity for India and 2. my need for the occasional Coolatta.

1. It seems as though there have almost always been a few prominent people in my life with ties, ancestral or otherwise, to India, it occurs to me — my naturally-surrealist friend Prasad Kantharaj in elementary school (influencing my sense of humor forevermore by being prone to say things that made no sense in any cultural context, such as a whispered “This sheep is Julius Caesar” during class, often punctuated with “arooga” noises and other manmade sound effects), college acquaintances Viraj and Munia, Kaplan co-worker turned purported “quantum healer” Sangeeta Sahi, a couple writer acquaintances, and of course ex-girlfriends Indrani and Koli (and I’m not even counting possibly-related phenomena like my friend Diana now moving to India or the time I kissed a Pakistani woman named Teniyah I met on the bus while we were still on the bus, only to have her bid me a sad farewell and reveal her engagement ring — which I swear I hadn’t noticed — when we exited after this very brief affair, which, given her very anti-Bush and somewhat anti-U.S. sentiments, my friend Ted Balaker may have been correct to declare a shameful triumph of gonads over principle).

Indeed, Helen thinks I have two main “types”: Indians and “theologically-troubled blondes” (two members of the latter category having announced their weddings in the past month or so, as it happens). If these two types are actually important parts of my psyche and not simply side effects of me seeking out intelligence (don’t forget the Jewish exes, after all), then there’s probably an ashram near Deli [CORRECTION: make that Delhi -- Foodian slip] that would be a paradise for me, as long as none of the residents are mystics or hippies, but that seems unlikely, by definition.

2. Also, the ashram would have to be within walking distance of a Coolatta machine.

The coffee Coolatta is, of course, the wondrous frozen beverage from Dunkin’ Donuts that tastes for all the world like a sub-zero thermos full of coffee mixed with a sugar packet as big as the entire beverage. Since discovering it, I have been attempting to wean myself off the more acidic and less fun Starbucks mocha frappuccino — and often trying in vain to find places with working Coolatta machines, since my impression is that they’re frequently out of order (perhaps suggesting a market opportunity for Coolatta-machine engineers — or rival beverage-makers — out there).

Admittedly, a few times after discovering them, I was stymied by mistakenly asking for one in a Baskin-Robbins. You see, the first one I consumed was from, yes, a combination Baskin-Robbins/Dunkin’ Donuts, and (demonstrating the danger of mixed branding) I misunderstood which chain was responsible for the divine drink. Now I know — and there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts one block from my apartment (where I am now, taking the week off) but none at all near the ACSH offices on the Upper West Side for some reason, so perhaps I should stroll over now while this unusual mid-day opportunity presents itself.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Dismal Science, Private Prisons


While I was in DC Saturday, Helen and I stopped in the Cop Shop, the giftshop portion of a crime and police museum, and we were pleased to see they had copies of a book by libertarian Alex Tabarrok on private prisons. Coincidentally, earlier this month I’d seen Donald Boudreaux’s announcement that Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen have co-written new textbooks on the basics of economics, which society sorely needs, lest it keep voting for Obama or having socialist revolutions in Latin America. The microeconomics portion can be found here.

I’m sure they’ll do a fine, free-market job even on the macro volume, but I almost wish our society had never devised macroeconomics, with its vast, oversimplified, statistics-derived abstractions warring against and inflating and deflating each other and leading to all manner of false causal inferences — such as, say, the belief that if prosperity tends to be associated with spending, we can create prosperity via government-induced spending. Likewise, to use an example I’m certain I’m stealing from someone else, if straight A students get cars as gifts when they graduate, all we have to do to make everyone as smart as straight A students is give them cars when they graduate. QED (and the D is for Democrat). You can believe things like that and still get a Nobel in econ these days.

I don’t know whether the Tabarrok book on private prisons goes into the slightly tangential issue — which to me seems even more fascinating and important — of experiments in prison reform that encourage market-based thinking among inmates (as opposed to theft-based or welfare-based thinking, to be redundant). There was a prison experiment in Maine, I believe, where prisoners earned more privileges as they became more economically productive while imprisoned, so that, in theory, by the time they got out, they were already accustomed to a fair amount of freedom, accustomed to earning a living, and able to make restitution to their victims, which the current criminal (as opposed to civil) justice system doesn’t do.

I tend to think of the small leftist movement that favors abolishing prisons completely as loons, but this gradualist and market-based approach to phasing each individual prisoner out of prison life and back into society (as opposed to suddenly thrusting him from a world of violence and inactivity into the rough and tumble of the market) might be the next best thing (in fact, better, obviously). The usual prison reform advocates would probably decide the whole thing smacks of exploitation and chain gangs and shut such efforts down, which is a shame, not just for us but for prisoners who might’ve been reintegrated successfully.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Oops: NY Giving Back Half a Billion Medicaid Dollars

More evidence we probably wouldn’t be better off with government controlling all of healthcare (instead of just the half it does now): the half-billion dollars in Medicaid fraud New York State was found to have committed that just led to my already cash-strapped state having to give the money back to the federal government.  Yes, let’s put government in charge of using resources more efficiently — and ethically — than we could do ourselves through diverse, competing, private mechanisms.

Reagan once joked that he liked to go to DC — to visit his money.  I’m in DC today, and this Medicaid incident — especially coming amidst the current healthcare wrangling (which in turn comes amidst unprecedented and economically insane government “stimulus” spending) — makes me feel more than ever like I’m visiting the prison where part of me is enslaved.

Or to put it in simpler terms: If you’re pro-government, you’re wrong.  You may have arrived at that position for what seemed the noblest reasons, whether hippie-derived, neocon-inspired, tree-loving, equality-seeking, drug-hating, or community-seeking.  But you’re wrong.  Stop it.  Now.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Henry Louis Gates vs. the Cops -- and Me in the Same Situation

I’m in DC today and thus once more in a position to give advice to Obama, if he’s reading the blog (my apologies to him and others for still tending to do one long entry per day instead of the multiple short ones per day, which is the rhythm I’m still moving toward). My advice this week would be to apologize to the Boston-area cops who arrested Harvard prof Henry Louis Gates.

I suspected from the get-go that Gates had brought the whole thing on himself by overreacting — if a cop had simply walked away without doing any questioning after getting a call about an intruder, then we’d all say the cops were stupid. But it wasn’t so much the details of the procedure that made me suspect Gates was in the wrong — cops can be very stupid and corrupt, after all — nor, despite what Jesse Jackson and other opportunists would likely think, was it simply that I distrust the black guy in any dispute. Rather, I distrust Ivy League professors steeped in poststructuralist theory. Those guys thought I was an oppressor, from what they said in their lectures, back when I was at Brown. Of course they’re going to freak out and think they’re being oppressed when an actual cop comes in the door.

And let it not be said that I am simply too far removed from crime to appreciate the whole situation. True, I’m living in America’s safest large city (that Starbucks bombing notwithstanding), but I was here back in the early 1990s before Giuliani worked his magic as well, and I remember moments such as the time I was at my apartment front door, returning, just like Gates, exhausted after a long trip, and had to desperately pry at a big, fat column of accumulated mail in my mailbox, making it look for all the world as if I was using some big crowbar on the front door — while wearing black, I might add. Sure enough, a cop car shined a powerful spotlight on me, and unlike Gates, who may well think cops’ brains are wholly unlike his own, I immediately imagined the situation from the cops’ perspective, realized how bad it must look…

…and employed my acting skills to look as innocent and baffled and unconcealed as possible, staring straight into the light even though it was blinding, tilting my head around like “Huh?” and letting a whole bunch of mail slide out of my mailbox before turning back with a sigh to sift through it unhurriedly. Luckily, I was not shot. I will leave it to the deconstructionists to decide whether I partook of the white hegemony-thing.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Three Hip Women (One with a Three-Leg Dog)


I saw a huge poster of model Agyness Deyn in a clothing store this week — and that’s hardly unusual, but her British-raised New Wave tendencies are somewhat unusual at this late juncture in history (though growing less so in the past couple years, which is nice). A few months ago, I praised a super-cool perfume ad she was in as something that’s sort of an example (like much New Wave) of “conservatism for punks” in at least the shallow aesthetic sense, combining traditional notions of class and beauty with an obvious punk influence, like many of the good things in life.

And as if she weren’t cool enough already (not that I’m endorsing her interest in numerology or anorexia), on July 9, NYT said Deyn might appear on Doctor Who (with the entire series unhelpfully identified by NYT as “a BBC Christmas special,” as if the other four decades of the world’s longest-running sci-fi series didn’t exist).

I guess everybody’s meeting aliens these days — but learn more about whether that’s true at our August 5 Debate at Lolita Bar between Lillian Waters and Jen Dziura, of course.

Another hip lady on my radar this week is Laura Lovelace, who played the waitress in the opening scene of Pulp Fiction and, more important, picked the soundtrack music for that highly influential film. She’s apparently posted a couple comments below a recent blog entry of mine, in effect rewarding me for getting her name wrong. I don’t deserve the resultant increased hipness points of my blog but will accept them nonetheless.

This weekend, though, I’ll be in DC visiting the hippest retro-yet-punk lady of all, Helen Rittelmeyer (who like a lot of people could use a writing/editing job of some sort preferably in NYC but unlike a lot of people is a witty, hyperlexic genius, if you have use for that), so I think a couple actual political entries are in order to keep you amused for the next two days while I’m gone.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The A-Team: Anarcho-Capitalists and Aristotle

Three years ago, this article made the case that the A-Team would make good representatives of anarcho-capitalism. The point is every bit as relevant — and important — today as it was then.

Oddly enough, in the past few weeks I’ve also seen a blogger at First Things’ site refer to Aristotelians as the A-Team and to Tocqueville as Mr. T. Like Peter Griffin and friends in that episode of Family Guy, everyone wants to claim the moral and political mantle of the A-Team. And naturally, there’s a movie remake in the works now, too.

I’m pretty burned out on remakes at this point — and franchise-type films in general — though as noted before, I’ll still see the Narnia, Hobbit, Potter, and Avengers (Iron Man et al, mentioned in my entry yesterday) series through to their respective bitter ends — starting with gathering at 9 tonight in the top-floor IMAX 3D theatre at 68th and Broadway to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, if anyone wants to join my nerd posse.

All those franchises should be completed (essentially) by late 2012 if all goes according to plan, just as Obama’s preparing to leave office. Then the economy can be rebuilt, hopefully in a slightly more anarcho-capitalist — and maybe even Aristotelian and Tocquevillian — fashion, unless the dread skygod Quetzalcoatl appears to destroy us all, in keeping with the prophecy. I’m sure something interesting will happen, anyway.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Final Comic: Leisure of 3 Decades


So. Today I purchase my final comic book, the fifth and final issue of the miniseries Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds, written by Geoff Johns (who’s now writer/producer on the Flash movie, apparently) and drawn by George Perez. This comic nicely encapsulates comics history and my own history of comics-reading, long an important element of how my brain works. Observe:

Superman was the first comic book superhero, debuting in 1938. Twenty years later, publisher DC Comics began depicting what is now technically regarded as another Superman, dwelling in a hipper, more modern universe, where he interacted with characters such as the Legion of Super-Heroes, time-traveling crime-fighters from a thousand years in the future.

That conceit of multiple universes was imitated by Marvel Comics in the first superhero comic I recall ever reading, Avengers #149, drawn by George Perez — who, with the editor of that issue, Marv Wolfman, went on to do the ultimate multiple-universe story for DC, the aptly-titled 1985 miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths, by which time George Perez had become my favorite comics artist and I’d started buying the futuristic Legion comics as well, seeing in them something akin to sci-fi movies (such as the then-current original Star Wars trilogy). In Crisis on Infinite Earths, which drew me away from Marvel and more fully toward DC, DC Comics’ entire fictional reality was nearly destroyed, and the original 1938 Superman was sent into extra-dimensional exile, along with a younger version of him from the “real” world, Earth-Prime.

Long story short, that Earth-Prime denizen went homicidally insane while in exile (in a slightly metafictional way that makes him unable to regard the other characters as “real”), killed the original Superman (who now exists only as a zombie, per the current horror miniseries Blackest Night), and later traveled a thousand years into the future, where he has summoned an army of supervillains and now threatens to kill not one but three different versions (from alternate universes, as depicted over the years) of the Legion of Super-Heroes (hence the title of the comic I’m buying today), while the main, current Superman goes to the end of time to confront my favorite Legion villain, the history-manipulating Time Trapper (who I was for Halloween once, as Jill Pope, Mike Carlin, Scott Nybakken, and others may recall).

Indeed, the tale technically pits four versions of Clark Kent against each other and promises to resolve years’ worth of plot threads — perhaps even revealing that one of the Legions hails from the aforementioned Earth-Prime, since their universe’s Kryptonite seems to work on the evil/insane Clark.

The time-hopping story also binds together my childhood, Superman’s childhood, our time, a sci-fi future a thousand years away, and the literal end of time, all wrapped in a universes-crossing temporal Crisis. It literally all ends here. You can’t blame me for using up the last of my store credit on it — and just a tiny bit more of my precious time.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Zoltar, Zolar, Zordar, Zoltan


Our celebration of space continues today with a reminder that the Japanese animated series Gatchaman, known in the U.S. as Battle of the Planets, had an odd lead villain called Zoltar who, like a lot of Japanese animated villains — but almost no American animated villains — was a hermaphrodite. Interestingly, the inevitable interpretation of the character’s mixed gender cues (deep male voice, big red feminine lips, high heels, no discernible breasts, concealed long blonde hair, occasional skipping while going “tra la la!”) in Japan would be that Zoltar is some sort of she-male, whereas the almost-certain interpretation in the U.S. would be simply “Zoltar is a woman, disguised as a man” — which is less disturbing and destabilizing for the kiddies, though perhaps something that some Gen Xers are still talking about in therapy.

(Next year we can see how they handle it in the computer-animated movie version, not to be confused with this year’s guinea pig adventure G-Force, despite the Gatchaman team of science-ninjas also using that team name.)

Zoltar is not to be confused with the strange space-themed (and fake-language-speaking) rock band Zolar X, nor with the title character in the film Zoltan, Hound of Dracula, a perfect example of one of those trashy movies that has enriched all our lives simply by existing and having a title, without us needing to watch it. (Though with vampires becoming increasingly chic, maybe it’s time for a remake.)

Zoltar also should not be confused with Zordar, the villainous leader of the Comet Empire from the second season of the great Japanese animated series Starblazers about the flying battleship Yamato/Argo. Zordar, as this awesome and solidarity-inspiring second-season opening song reminds us, could “destroy the universe.” However, it’s the season one song that I have memorized from childhood to this day, so listen to that version if you want to sing along with me. It’s almost as moving a love letter to militarism as the Transformers movies. And I’m not sure I can think of another song that works so well while giving such complex plot exposition, with the possible exception of the Gilligan’s Island theme. Beats the crap out of the strangely surreal Gumby theme song, which was clearly meant for hippies and dope fiends (as was that real episode about Gumby and others having fun by crawling into an oven and discovering a magical land inside, something that I don’t think would get past the network brass today).

If I seem to be waxing strangely nostalgic, or just waxing nostalgic strangely, chalk it up to the fact that I will read my final comic book — itself time-travel-themed — tomorrow. But more about that then. (It concerns Superman, which at the moment reminds me that for all the cool animation mentioned above, you sometimes have to wonder whether animation’s ever gotten any better than the Fleischer Brothers’ Superman cartoons of seventy years ago. Where is progress? Likewise, one could argue comic strips have been all downhill since the ornate and surreal Little Nemo in Slumberland a century ago.)

On a similarly mournful note, let us end with the one moment of Starblazers that struck me most as a kid: the moment the long-feared Leader Desslok suddenly becomes a sympathetic character — because his mind cracks as he realizes that duping the Starblazers team into coming to his planet has doomed his world to destruction after a year of struggle against Earth. That’s gotta hurt a guy. I hope our August 5 Debate at Lolita Bar about extraterrestrials proves as moving.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Punk Gang Leader Arrested, and Fight Club-Loving Teen

I was delighted to hear about the arrest of Kyle Shaw, the teen and ardent Fight Club fan accused of bombing a Starbucks not too far from me on the Upper East Side. As Fight Club teaches us, nothing’s more inspiring and noble than pointless destruction and physical punishment, without which we would have no choice but live as civilized, happy, prosperous beings — with coffee. Like a lot of people, I watched Fight Club as a trip into a Nietzschean Bizarro-land no decent person would want to inhabit, but when I saw the massive and boisterous and overwhelmingly young-male crowd that turned up at a Chuck Palahniuk reading at the Union Square Barnes & Noble first began to fear that some viewers simply saw in it the timeless allure of acting like violent complete assholes while pretending to have some sort of vague “cause.”

On a similar note, it sounds like the violent gang whose leader’s arrest is described in this article (pointed out to me by my fellow punk sympathizer Christine Caldwell Ames) and who sought to control Chicago-area punk venues probably imagined themselves to be on a crusade against “Nazis.” Once the tribal bloodletting begins, it usually becomes easy for everyone to stop reasoning and convince himself on a gut level that the other guys deserve more pummeling. With this guy and our UES bomber apparently out of commission, a troubled world gets just a bit better and the people in it able to live just a bit more like human beings, less like savage animals.

Space: $1999 Billion


I dread the inevitable David Brooks column cheering talk of a new manned mission to the Moon (forty years after Apollo 11), calling it national greatness to waste even more money we don’t have on grandiose projects (whether it’s Obama visiting Earth’s satellite or Bush going to Mars — though I suspect NASA largely stumbles along doing its own thing, simply leaving to presidents the dubious honor of announcing the next step — which used to be how the left suspected the military also works, except now they suspect that was actually run by Cheney). I often think NYT is dumb, but you gotta hand it to them leftist-ideological-maintenance-wise, hiring the only “conservative” columnist in America who hails Obama’s “bold” leadership for doing things like spending (other people’s) money on community colleges.

In a reminder that people find it hard to prioritize rationally about big numbers (necessitating the organization I work for), NASA periodically loses billions of our dollars in space in the form of malfunctioning equipment without voters revolting, but people go berserk if the DMV line takes an extra five minutes. The closest thing we’ve had to an anti-NASA revolt might be the conspiracy theories suggesting we never really landed on the Moon. I have some sad author’s book proposal making that argument sitting permanently on my shelf, a gift from a friend in book publishing who couldn’t believe someone was peddling the idea (and with NASA losing some Moon original landing footage this year and Hollywood cleaning up and remastering a copy, I’m sure the conspiracy theorists will be extra-crazy this week).

But with our Lolita debate on extraterrestrials — the first in a trilogy of conspiracy-related debates for us — two and a half weeks away, let’s take at least a few days to consider some more entertaining and positive space-things, starting with a mention of the approaching tenth anniversary of the day the Moon blew out of orbit. You didn’t hear about that happening on Sept. 13, 1999 (and even being celebrated with a party thrown by Liz Braswell — inspiring me to join in and abandon the completely separate nerd party that I, too, had been planning for that date)? I speak, of course, of Space: 1999, which I still contend has one of the very coolest title sequences in the history of television — and almost disco-funky enough to be worthy of, well, Prince. Apparently, it was an influence on the opening of the Battlestar: Galactica remake series (and was created by the producer responsible for my all-time favorite TV open, the ominous five-vehicles countdown from Thunderbirds).

It’s impressive we even had a Moonbase in 1999 given that civilization was destroyed in 1994, not by the election of a Republican Congress as some would contend but by “a runaway planet” hurtling between the Earth and the Moon, as seen in the opening of the 80s sci-fi cartoon Thundarr the Barbarian.

Getting back to funk for a moment, though, consider two TV opens almost as good as the Fat Albert theme: I think it’s worth watching the Wonder Woman open with twenty-first-century eyes — and listening to those godawful lyrics about satin tights and making the Axis fold — then checking out the vastly classier S.W.A.T. open and wondering how much the Beastie Boys (or the director of the “Sabotage” video) must have loved it (and if you in turn loved the “Sabotage” video, including the credit “and Nathan Wind as Cochese,” which had a hyper-ethnic ring to it reminiscent of the Hawaiian guy in the Hawaii 5-0 open, you’ll be delighted that some creative person has refashioned a horned troll-or-something action figure to look like Cochese).

I for one was inspired by S.W.A.T. as a small child to run around with a black plastic M16 rifle, blue clothing, a blue baseball cap, and a brown vest representing bulletproof material, using my first two initials, T.J., like the blonde guy in the series by that name. Ever since then, my ongoing fight against evil just seems to come naturally.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Comics For and Against Government

John Farley of the Phillips Foundation pointed out to me a recent article by Jonathan Last (who I first met because he wrote a Weekly Standard article about Star Wars and was briefly worried that an e-mail I sent him about blowing up the Death Star might have been part of a series of threatening messages the magazine had been receiving) chronicling the chronic adulation of Obama in comic books (a phenomenon making it easier to quit the comics habit next week and to laugh loudly the next time I encounter a leftist — such as Kyle Baker — who tells me the media are conservative).

On the bright side, I’m told that the animated series Justice League Unlimited did a neat job of depicting the hero called the Question as a sort of hybrid of the Question, another (more overtly Objectivist) character created by Steve Ditko called Mr. A, and Rorschach, at one point even having him yell the Randian slogan “A = A!” while being tortured by the government. And here’s a comedy piece from Op-Toons reminding us that government, like the supervillain Bizarro, does not think A =A. And with that, I’m off to see Rorschach on the big screen one last time at the Landmark Sunshine 2:30 show.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Book Selection of the Month: "The Devil's Piper" by Susan Price

devils-piper.jpg Book Selection of the Month (July 2009): The Devil’s Piper by Susan Price

With the world excited over the release of the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince movie this week, it’s worth taking a few minutes to laud a fantastical — and far creepier — children’s story by another British author, Susan Price.

I was about ten when I happened across the disturbingly, surprisingly effective children’s horror story The Devil’s Piper in the school library — and unbeknownst to me, the author was herself only a teenager when she wrote it several years earlier.  This may help explain its effectiveness: Grown-ups (aside from a few weirdoes like Clive Barker) have a natural aversion to scaring the bejeezus out of little kids, but kids themselves don’t.

I remembered the book for decades after first reading it, uncertain it was as good as I thought I recalled — and ignorant of the author’s subsequent career, if any.  Finally, I learned recently that my youthful judgment (as usual) was on-target, and that Price went on to a long and successful career, authoring over forty books, often horror, for both kids and adults and winning critical acclaim along the way.  I ordered and re-read the book.

The simple but highly eerie premise (which would make a good film, hint hint) makes me suspect Price had some youthful contact with unsavory older kids or adults: A few ordinary present-day British teens encounter a scruffy, barefoot, odd-seeming man who casually — and increasingly convincingly — claims to be a leprechaun, not wholly evil but amoral, mischievous, hypnotic, and selfish.  And he slowly but surely leads the kids away from town and their parents, deeper and deeper into the nearby woods, which grow larger and wilder due to his very presence, the kids slowly forgetting their normal lives.

Best of all, creepiness-wise — and again, this is something few adults would think to put in a book aimed at kids, perhaps with good reason — when some adults, alerted to the increasingly weird things happening in town, finally intervene, their solution is to go over the leprechaun’s head, as it were, by visiting Hell and complaining to the leprechaun’s boss.  The depiction of Hell is just unconventional but deceptively safe-seeming enough to make your skin crawl, in a sort of proto-Neil-Gaiman, crypto-pagan, “let’s just talk about ultimate darkness over drinks like civilized people” way that perhaps comes naturally to British writers who came of age in the wake of the New Agey hippie era.

If there’s a smart fifteen year-old you’ve been looking to turn into an occult-obsessed goth, this might be a nice, low-key starting place — not that I’m recommending that.

(Of course, as a skeptic, I don’t think there’s much danger you’ll summon demons by reading this book — but perhaps the real question, in advance of our August 5 Debate at Lolita Bar, is whether you’re in any danger of encountering extraterrestrials.  To my surprise, at least one usually-skeptical person I know leans toward saying yes.  As host, I should remain neutral until next month’s debate — and for dramatic effect, of course.  In the meantime, contemplate this footage and consider the irony that even if we did get footage of aliens at this juncture in history, it’s hard to see how we’d ever know it was real given all the special effects available.  They’ll just have to make a really big splash, I guess.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Witch Poet

Since I’ll be seeing Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in IMAX 3D (!) one week from tonight (get your ticket and rally on the top floor of the 68th and Broadway AMC Loews at 9pm for the 10pm show on Thursday, July 23 if you want to join me), I will have to miss an evening of performances and readings hosted by Michele Carlo (part of her Get Lit! series) taking place at roughly the same time (7:30, Belleville Lounge, 332 5th Street at Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, F/R to Fourth Avenue/9th Street), for which poet Boni Joi is opening.

The weird part, though, is that I’ll be watching the story of someone raised by an adoptive mother who eventually discovers that the biological mother was a witch — and in all seriousness, that’s Boni’s real-life story as well, though her mom’s in Salem, not England.  If you don’t join me, maybe you can go hear her and learn more afterwards.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Jem Cohen and Fugazi's "Instrument" Is DIY Garbage


One owes a certain allegiance to people supporting good causes — such as punk rock — even when they stumble. And then there are atrocities so unforgivable, though committed by people whose basic intentions you might admire, that you must speak out against them.

The punk director Jem Cohen created one such atrocity a decade ago with his inept, nigh-unwatchable, and yet wholly uninteresting “documentary” Instrument about the pivotal late-punk band Fugazi. As an article on Decider notes, Cohen will be poisoning minds — pardon me, sharing his cinematic insights — as part of a two-month program of related screenings at New York’s IFC theatre, starting with tonight’s showing of Instrument. I urge any tempted punks to avoid the big-screen disaster like the plague.

And please note that I am not moved to issue this warning by the fact that straightedge-inspiring Ian MacKaye of Fugazi is an ardent anti-capitalist. I expect that from punks, the slogan atop this website notwithstanding. Indeed, I am sufficiently pro-Fugazi that I was quite saddened when reading the Decider article to learn that the band’s members were involved in editing the film, as it may be the most poorly-edited piece of ostensibly-professional visual material I have ever seen (even the films of Ed Wood display a certain basic understanding of human aesthetic needs and narrative expectation utterly lacking here).

Repeatedly, we hear mumbled comments from the band of no apparent significance that reveal nothing, whether aesthetically or psychologically, of any use to the viewer. Virtually no songs are heard at sufficient length for a newcomer even to make the judgment that Fugazi is a decent band. At times, the camera literally lolls about aimlessly showing flashes of light and coiled-up electrical wires of no known relevance to the scene’s main narrative arc. Nothing is learned about the history or meaning of the band, and it is rarely even possible to tell which member is which, let alone what the point of their mumbled half-sentences are.

It is telling that the Decider piece lauds the offbeat inclusion of footage of the band shot by eighth-grade girls at one point in the movie because even now — ten years after I first saw the film — I recall what a relief it was when the eighth-grade video footage comes onto the screen because of the startling increase in the technical and aesthetic quality of the production. Would that Instrument rose to an eighth-grade level throughout.

Fans of the band should be warned that this film is so awful as to force one to seriously reconsider the music itself. If such a cretinous, incompetent production had their hands in it, should I not reconsider my judgment that they have good taste about purely sonic matters? Have I been as duped by the sound as I was when I bought my ticket to the visuals?

We live in a world of aesthetic experimentation, and I have rarely thought that a movie was so bad on all levels as to border on fraud warranting full ticket refunds to the audience, but the appalling, boring, futile, waste of time that is Instrument may be that one case. That Jem Cohen will nonetheless likely generate an audience is a black mark against our entire culture, except in so far as he is trading on the good (albeit anti-capitalist) name of Fugazi — a band that could have been productively brought to the attention of millions had a documentary worthy of their music been created. Alas, there can be no forgiving Instrument.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Panarcho-Capitalists, Tradicals, and More "Conservatism for Punks"

It’s Bastille Day, at least for a few more minutes as I write this, and if now’s not the time to flaunt my radical side a bit more, when is?

I noticed an ever-growing number of alternate-history novels at the Strand recently — a reminder that this branch of literature, more than scientific speculations, looks increasingly likely to become sci-fi’s most substantial contribution to academia and serious thought. And that in turn reminds me of the alternate history of Bastille Day that occasionally crosses my mind: one in which the Marquis de Sade was liberated by the Revolution on that day. Apparently, this didn’t happen in real life, though he’d been held there at some earlier point. The irony and symbolism would have been so perfect if he’d literally been set free by the Revolution, though, since his (ostensible) underlying philosophical message was that if you remove all traditional and moral restraints, you don’t end up with sunshine and rationality but with something far darker, so de Sade was a conservative, in his way.

But I said I was going to talk about radicalism, not conservatism.

Of course, like some of my acquaintances, I try to be conservative about the things that actually work, moderate about the many things that are ambiguous, liberal (if that means, broadly speaking, something like “willing to negotiate through political dialogue”) about things that are debatable (or even just “things I think are widely misunderstood but not worth a nasty fight over”), and radical about the things that are just plain wrong and need to go…like big government, belief in the supernatural, and drawing sweeping conclusions from scanty evidence, with this third thing, I’m increasingly convinced, being the habit that is the source of our other philosophical problems (like belief in big government and the supernatural). People extrapolate such sweeping, world-altering conclusions from so few data points, whether out of laziness or misdirected passion or a bit of both.

But how to get more data, especially regarding sweeping claims about how civilizations should be structured? Diversity helps, of course: federalism, decentralization, multiple experiments, school choice, etc. But given the tendency of our interconnected, modern world to spread ideas (good or bad) in a homogenizing way across the globe (even incredibly risky ideas like a single universal currency), is there some philosophy that would encourage decentralized experimentation without, as if by stealth, simply mandating libertarianism and individual freedom as the proper default from the get-go?

There may be an obscure nineteenth-century term that holds the answer: panarchy.


This term — from the momentous year 1848, indirectly — gets us a long way toward the unfamiliar place I increasingly think we need to be philosophically (farther than the post-structuralism-connoting “post-anarchism”), especially given its overlapping connotations: self-organizing systems generally, but also a specific (and not terribly popular) creed from a century and a half ago asserting that each person should have the right to sign up for whatever law code he chose from numerous non-spatial, non-geographic ones in use around the globe. Of course, you’d want some sort of external signal to warn you what laws bound the people you happened across, as they might differ radically from your own.

I think I’m in some sense a panarcho-capitalist, technically. (Will this make me lonely?) That is, I’m not going to unlearn economics to keep the left-anarchists happy, so I’m still a capitalist and respecter of property rights.

Furthermore, I recognize more than some anarchists the possible benefits, at least for many people, of opting permanently into (or simply remaining in) very structured, even traditionalistic communities rather than maintaining, like jugglers, the sometimes exhausting stance of the individualist.

So I think I’m either a panarcho-capitalist or…a tradical, if you will. Can I patent those two terms? (Can I at least be linked every time someone uses them?) And can I be the first anti-mayor of Anarchopolis while we’re at it? Perhaps this can be achieved via seasteading, now that I think about it. I’m as prone as the next guy to chuckle at the idea of trying to start countries from scratch in the sea, but two things about that movement that I find interesting are: 1. Milton Friedman’s grandson Patri Friedman, who’s the intellectual guru of the seasteaders, also calls himself a paleoconservative, even though the last person you’d expect to be a respecter of tradition is someone who thinks you can start a new country in the middle of the ocean, and 2. it’s rooted in the same idea as panarchy — that you can’t really know what works best for people unless they have options. Absent real choices (and consequences), their reform ideas will always be rooted more in their own odd intuitions than in reality-based compare-and-contrast.


The mid-nineteenth also provides us with a philosophy based on the opposite intuition from the panarchic one: Stephen Pearl Andrews’ dream of “Pantarchy.” This similar-sounding but quite opposite philosophy was an Americanization of Comte, with science and liberalism becoming an all-encompassing world-government/faith — the sort of thing later dreamed of by some New Age hippies who envisioned the U.N. replacing national governments and a centrally-administered brotherhood of man replacing all traditional religions (without anyone even complaining, and presumably a sort of contented half-smile on everyone’s face, like when Capt. Kirk encounters a planet where everyone’s been sedated).

More recently, Avery Knapp informs me, Wired has written of the rising collectivist cybersphere — eschewing the individualist description of the Net so many of us fell in love with in the 90s in favor of a picture of a fluid voluntarist collectivism, which might just make nineteenth-century left-anarchists start looking relevant again (organic self-organizing communities becoming all the rage instead of either communal rigidity or loner-individualism). Certainly if our economy is as doomed as the winning debater at this month’s Debate at Lolita Bar made it sound, some Burning Man-like capacity for fluid social reorganization would be a welcome thing. Clinging to brittle institutions like the bailed-out investment banks may one day be looked back upon as the final folly of the civilization that preceded a newer Twitter-based society.

(Then again, one of my co-workers informs me that now “Twitter is for old people” — that was quick — so who knows what comes next. I also feel old just reading this Julian Sanchez post on how to mediate yourself for other people, as though we automatically want that — but he is admirably wary of phony mediation in another recent post, hilariously denouncing the recent “Generation M” pseudo-manifesto, which reminds me more than a little of the business-advice guru Seth Godin I briefly worked for in my youth, who advises you to do things like become a “purple cow,” not just good — but extraordinary. Things like the Generation M manifesto are why I’m an empiricist and nominalist and borderline anti-academic at heart: say something clear about reality, dammit, not the Nowness of the Happening amidst the Becoming-Good, or whatever Hegel/mystics/the Pope/Gen M guru guy/Continental philosophy is ostensibly talking about.)

But maybe I’m just blathering about half-baked radical nonsense and it would be more constructive to think cautiously along more familiar channels. Then again, as this comedic video by Ted Balaker reminds us, that way may just lead to these two guys controlling our lives and our minds. There has to be a better way. Discuss it with me tomorrow (Wednesday) at the monthly Manhattan Project social gathering for political folk (Merchants NY East from 6:30 on), why don’t you? No law saying we always have to talk like boring Republicans there. No law at all.

Ah, I see it’s nearly midnight — which reminds me, I’m seeing the 2:30pm Saturday show of Watchmen: The Director’s Cut at the Landmark Sunshine Theatre (one week only), so perhaps some of us can continue the subversion there.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Cass Sunstein and Malicious Online Melees

I wonder how the new, tougher punishments for online political misinformation that Kyle Smith fears Cass Sunstein will encourage would affect things like this semi-comedic enraged rant (pointed out by Helen) about Sunstein himself, Martha Nussbaum, and Nussbaum’s thirtysomething replacement in Sunstein’s life, Samantha Power?

I wouldn’t mind higher standards for gauging misinformation, really, even altered libel laws, done the right way — but I would appreciate it if pedants, including some of my own political persuasion, didn’t go berserk every time someone calls Sunstein “regulatory czar” instead of “likely new Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).” Basic cost-benefit analysis shows one of those takes a lot less time to say, you’ll notice.

CIA/Cheney Note

I just wanna say what all my smarter readers are thinking: Cheney and the CIA were plotting to kill al Qaeda leaders?  Secretly?!  An outrage!  Thank goodness the Democrats are putting a stop to that.

Yeah, civilization’s gonna be just fine.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sarah Palin's Next Move

palin-smile.jpg fox-smile.jpg

I am surely far from the only person to think that if Palin’s next move is a Playboy spread — and surely they’ve called to offer her millions, because they always try — I can forgive her for abandoning her post as Alaska guv and thereby perhaps convincing people she could never tough it out as president. (Being the lead actress in Transformers movies also appears to require only looking good and enjoying being around the military, so if Megan Fox bails out on the next one to do Shakespeare plays or something…)

One thing my girlfriend, Helen Rittelmeyer, and my mother, Margaret Seavey, have in common, by the way, is still being fond of Palin, which crossed my mind after the Rittelmeyer family reunion yesterday. My mother, hardly a right-winger or political junkie, agrees completely with the pro-Palin line that she’s better off stepping down than fending off all the nuisance lawsuits thrown at her. By contrast, I’m inclined to think facing nuisance lawsuits doubles your responsibility to tough it out so that similar tactics, if they are indeed illegitimate, are not deemed effective and repeated on future officeholders.

I think my parents tend to be a good political barometer, though, if not of election victors per se at least of a big swath of mainstream American sentiment (they weren’t much into politics until suddenly deciding they liked this Ross Perot fellow in 1992, for instance). So Mom’s continued — perhaps even increased — Palinism may mean I can’t count Palin out yet. But you can’t become president by making less than a plurality of the voters like you, so it may merely mean she’s got a shot at being the GOP candidate — and will then lose the general election.

I don’t think she’s awful, the way most of her critics do. But would it hurt to aim even higher?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Dr. Occult and Voodoo Crisis Economics

I’m headed out the door for an early-morning bus to DC, not merely to see wondrous girlfriend Helen Rittelmeyer but for a whole Rittelmeyer family reunion. While I’m in the area, though, I think I should try offering the DC establishment some advice (not to be confused with offering the DC Comics establishment some advice, which I tried in vain again last night at McGee’s Pub, suggesting a 75th-anniversary Dr. Occult one-shot to Dan DiDio, who didn’t go for it).

In the wake of the G-8 summit — not to mention columns by Paul Krugman complaining that the stimulus spending is too small (keep in mind his Nobel was for pro-market research he did in his twenties) — my advice is this: If we’ve basically decided that deficit spending (now that it’s not Bush doing it) is a helpful thing and that we don’t care that we have no imaginable way of paying it back, why stop at a couple trillion dollars? Just fix everything by spending twenty hundred quadrillion billion thousand million trillion dollars. Then raise the minimum wage to thirty dollars an hour in case anyone’s been left out of all the resulting prosperity. And if you can’t see why these ideas make no economic sense, please stop voting.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Obama/Ass Controversy: Drudge vs. The Matrix

Drudge still has that photo of Obama seemingly checking out a Brazilian teen’s butt atop his site, even though ABC has shown footage suggesting that Sarkozy noticed her but that Obama was innocently turning to offer his arm to that other woman descending the stairs behind him.  One of my co-workers suggests that this is a good reminder that “the Matrix can be deceiving.”  And in that spirit, I offer for the first time anywhere footage, shot by the Wachowski Brothers, of how the events in question at the G-8 summit really went down.

Other Socioeconomic News of Interest Today

•NYT reports the econ downturn has sparked a new flood of people from Ireland into Bronx and Queens, as was the norm before their own economy started taking off in recent years — this’ll mean a lot more Irish-accented bartenders, like when I first got to NYC, I suspect.  Indeed, I just noticed yesterday that my local karaoke bar, Iggy’s, is suddenly showing off its Irishness, with shamrocks and the like — and still doing karaoke.

•In stranger emigration news, NYT also reports today that laws restricting where sex offenders can live are so restrictive they’ve had the “perverse” effect of creating a shantytown under a bridge in Miami where seventy sex offenders live.  I hope children don’t wander down there.

•And a WSJ cover article today notes the war between a smalltown mayor and the participants in an annual Moon over Amtrak event held at the local traintracks by pants-dropping revelers.  Are traditionalists pro-mooning if it’s been going on since 1979?  I think libertarians have to be.  The real solution, of course: abolish Amtrak.

If the mayor insists on stopping Moon over Amtrak, maybe they should relocate it to the bridge where the sex offenders are.  Synergy!

White Trash, Manhattan Style

I didn’t think there were any poor people left who were able to afford living in Manhattan, but my office looks out on Broadway and on the terrace of an apartment occupied by what appears to be a classic dysfunctional family, featuring only a fat, red-faced mom and a boy with the near-mandatory white-trash overly-thick bowl cut that almost covers the eyes (the only other acceptable haircut for young white-trash sociopaths apparently being the “buzzcut plus monobrow” look that eugenics buff and Goode Family producer Mike Judge captured so well back when he created Beavis and Butt-Head).

The boy likes to start small fires, beat lawn furniture with a baseball bat, physically scuffle with his mom for cigarettes, and, yes, shoot BBs at my office window, in which I am plainly visible, so I told his building’s security and they immediately realized it was “Kenny in 230,” who I suggested they tell he’ll have the cops called on him next time.

Their building has a surprisingly large and classy staff. Perhaps they’re one of the cases I’ve heard about of NYC putting “homeless” families up in swanky hotels. In any case, I was pleased and relieved to see what appeared to be a real estate agent showing the place to a respectable-looking young East Asian couple, so perhaps the dysfamily will soon be gone.

Despite all this, it’s worth noting that New York City is now the safest large city in America, though after the 70s and 80s, it may take a while for that fact to change our reputation. And I suppose this blog entry won’t help things much, but it beats the rioting of old.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

All Roads Lead to Libertarianism, Even in Comics


You may recall that I set out to buy The Case for Big Government, having promised the author, economist Jeff Madrick, I’d read it — and on my first Barnes & Noble foray to find it instead found and bought The Forbidden Apple by Kat Long, which later turned out to cite me in an endnote.

Well, once more I set out honestly intending to expand my horizons — planning for some time now what graphic novel or comics anthology to buy with the $20 of credit I’ll have left over at Midtown Comics after I buy my final comic book, Legion of Three Worlds #5, on July 22.  I decided I would not buy a graphic novel with superheroes or sci-fi — nor anything from DC or Marvel, nor anything by a writer I’d read before.

I applied these criteria to Time magazine’s list of what it regards as the Ten Best Graphic Novels of all time, deciding that it was about as good a filter as any, and that left me with three options:

Ed the Happy Clown by Chester Brown (a libertarian Canadian, despite everything I said about Canada in blog entries one week ago today)

Blankets by Craig Thompson (Christianity vs. secularism in a romantic context, which sounds relevant somehow)

Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Kim Deitch (a hallucinated cat vs. an animator’s sanity)

I would have been tempted to ditch these (and my criteria) to get the latest from brilliant Bryan Talbot (who wrote my favorite comics miniseries of all time, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright), a steampunk crime thriller with talking animals called Grandeville, but it’s not out until November, and I need to finish up this comics-buying thing this month to avoid being a forty-year-old comics-reader.

So, speaking of the unstoppable progress of time, I went into Midtown Comics yesterday to make my penultimate paying comics acquisition — the death-themed Green Lantern #43 (about how Black Hand, first member of the zombie Black Lantern Corps, got his start as a death-obsessed child doing taxidermy, always a warning sign) and the equally death-themed All-Star Superman #1 (reprint) written by Grant Morrison (about an aging and resentful Lex Luthor deciding to take the seemingly immortal Superman out once and for all).

But get this: I’m carrying my copy of The Case for Big Government (a hardcover, despite the author, apparently erroneously, telling me it’s out in paperback), and the Midtown Comics clerk, for the first time ever, asks what I’m reading, so I tell him, adding cautiously (since it’s New York and the population is literally about 83% Democrat) that I don’t expect to agree with it.  To my surprise, he says, “I don’t like big government either” — and recommends that I get Pete Bagge’s new anthology of his libertarian comics from Reason, Everybody Is Stupid Except for Me.  And so now that simply has to be the thing I get with my $20 credit, with all apologies to the other contestants.

P.S. Oddly enough, I also now recall that when, slightly tipsy, I went to a comics shop after seeing the author of The Case for Big Government speak (the night he asked me to read the book), the one libertarian-sounding guy in the audience besides me (he was actually a Republican) popped up in the comics shop as well.  A mysteriously related constellation of mental patterns is clearly at work — all leading inexorably to one grand unified truth.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Pope Sort of Talks Econ Again

I’ll happily take “chaotic” markets over the Pope’s vague vision of some centralized global regulatory body with “human-centered” goals (as opposed to dingo-centered ones, maybe?  or as opposed to leadership by sentient piles of money and nineteenth-century cartoons of plutocrats?).  Division and competition are good, unity and control by regulators bad.

The Pope’s latest wading into economic analysis is a reminder that religious pronouncements about markets (usually harping on their selfishness and limitations) are best seen not as some sort of divine socialism but merely as a recurring form of economic illiteracy (though in many Islamic countries and in medieval Europe, religious authorities have had the actual legal power to back up their bad ideas about econ, making them as dangerous as any starvation-inducing socialist regime).  Not surprisingly, such pronouncements, in the case of twenty-first-century European religious leaders, are steeped in pro-world-government sentiment, environmentalism, and other predictable, fashionable pap that ought to be beneath a revered old institution.  But then…

Catholic traditions even at their most long-lived are only 2,000 years old, whereas commerce goes back to the dawn of humanity — just as the laws of econ and physics are far older (and arguably far more deserving of deference) than the favored few traditions of the traditionalists, even by their own internal logic.  Even science as a discipline, which is obviously younger than the actual laws of physics, is arguably at least as old as Protestantism, if not, by some measures, as old as Catholicism — unless we want to count things like Aristotle’s empiricism as science, of course.  At what point does science finally start getting the respect traditionalists claim is owed to old things?

(And even if you buy the idea that tradition accumulates wisdom from the ongoing iterations of human trial and error — as I do — might we not still logically have to assign greater weight to modernity’s contributions to the process if modernity has involved more people undergoing faster iterations, due to population increases and technological advances?)

In any case, the Pope should stay out of econ (and paleo-inclined folks should avoid thinking distributivism or front porch conservatism or whatever they’re calling it these days is going to keep us from starving in our shacks, if that sort of extreme localism, or “green anarchism” for that matter, ever replaces global markets — though at least the Pope endorsed globalism, so he isn’t all bad).  Render unto Adam Smith what is Adam Smith’s.  (Caesar gets nothing, though, nor should his more spiritual imperial heirs.)

Don't End the Senate Gridlock in Albany, NY

Freedom tends to occur when government is temporarily immobilized, sometimes by orderly checks and balances, sometimes just by stupidity and gridlock. Thus, the last thing I want is an end to the 50/50 Democrat/Republican split that has notoriously kept the New York State Senate from being able to do anything (including resolve which if either party presides). I am worried by talk that Gov. Paterson may resolve the matter today by appointing an arguably tie-breaking lieutenant governor — but pleased to hear State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo quickly jumping in to argue that the state constitution forbids such an appointment (Cuomo has his own intended path to the governorship mapped out, which may influence his legal analysis, but that’s OK — and I’m pleased he’s been urging spending and tax freezes lately, so for all his blowhard-leftist tendencies, he might not even be so bad).

Let us also pause to reflect that the Spitzer scandal (the reason that we now have Paterson as governor and no one as lieutenant governor) just keeps on giving. All this helps make New York almost as interesting as Alaska and South Carolina.

More important, though, it keeps the parasitical bastards from legislating — reminding me of two other moral highpoints in recent American political history, the partial federal government shutdown in late 1995 (capping perhaps the greatest political year in recent American history) and the wonderfully protracted election process of 2000. I am proud of my state for the first time in my life.

The Sound of Doom (or at Least of Our "Economic Doom" Debate)

Thanks to Ken Silber, here’s the audio of our Debate at Lolita Bar one week ago between TakiMag editor Richard Spencer and Sanctity of Marriage Handbook author/health reporter Bryan Harris on the question “Is America Economically Doomed?”  Scary stuff — and an excellent starting point for this blog’s purportedly more rapid-fire, pithy phase, if I’m not too sleepy this week.  Uh, I mean — anarchy!!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Libertines and the Law

Libertarians, I fear, are often too quick to think that “personal” and “economic” liberty go together as naturally in everyone else’s minds as they do in libertarians’ minds. Thus they sometimes end up being tin-eared about the broader political culture, which is dominated by the right and left, and think we’re winning even when we’re losing (or vice versa).

In particular, I’ve repeatedly urged libertarians to stay focused on economics (basically, cutting the government’s budget and deregulating) not because I think war, sex, and drugs are unimportant but because I think those non-econ issues are (a) more divisive than the econ issues among libertarians themselves, causing needless waste of combative energy; (b) genuinely more philosophically ambiguous, since economic theory is where we’re on the clearest theoretical and analytical ground (foreign policy is a crap shoot, addiction is arguably an odd special case even for an advocate of individual liberty, etc., etc.); (c) destined to remain divisive among citizens at large for a long time to come, whereas in theory the economic argument is one about which we could actually create a broad coalition, I think, the more people learn the dry facts and stop associating them with the various unending culture wars; and, yes, (d) arguably of slightly less utilitarian consequence most of the time and for most people than the econ issues, if we grant some of the philosophical ambiguity alluded to in (b), to make a long, complicated story short (and if we remember there’s still a planet full of people living on the verge of starvation out there lest I seem to be worrying about solid gold backscratchers when I mention econ).

Regardless of whether you buy the preceding paragraph, though, you have to admit that there are times when the libertines and the statist authoritarians seem made for each other, engaging in a tango of decreased personal responsibility and subsequent police crackdowns that leave us bourgeois lovers of republican virtue sitting off to one side, in the awful position of trying to decide which we fear more, drunken hippies urinating on the lawn or overly aggressive cops stopping the hippies.


Case in point: Ironically, a friend of mine who might be the most conservative (good) playwright in New York City happens to live right around the corner from a spot that strikes me as the worst nightmare of someone who is libertarian but somewhat socially conservative. The strip of West 27th Street between 10th and 11 Avenues is notoriously filled with bars that attract hordes of trashy-looking, noisy, very drunk, and reportedly often underage party animals — dutifully cordoned off three nights a week or so by a surprisingly large number of cops, who from behind barricades keep an eye out for fistfights, unconsciousness, sexual assaults, and the like.

And this is not some gratuitous police-state presence harshing the mellow of innocent frolickers — it’s a fairly reasonable response to frequent past incidents, ones that caused radio host and former Guardian Angel vigilante Curtis Sliwa to condemn those bars as dangerous “gin mills,” in an amusingly old-fashioned turn of phrase.

If West 27th Street were as self-regulating as, say, Burning Man, that’d be swell, but instead it’s a pretty good reminder that the system a lot of humanity defaults to is “We misbehave, and an outside authority cleans up the mess.” This is the juvenile future I fear — with all the habituation to greater state intrusions it obviously invites — if libertarians take their eyes off the ball and simply cheer every victory for sex and drugs. We should stop to ask whether such victories, rather than being precursors to the collapse of the state, are merely, in effect, the privatization of the delivery of breads and circuses. Instead of the emperor bribing us with a few simple entertainments while all our other freedoms vanish, we entertain ourselves in a few select, juvenile ways (sex, drugs) while the state consumes everything else. What a contrast with the sort of ordered liberty the American Revolutionaries anticipated on the Fourth of July 233 years ago.

I see that (new dad) James Poulos has been warning about the same trend, calling it the “Pink Police State” (he’s more a religious-conservative type than libertarian himself, a reminder that to simply dismiss religious-conservative concerns on these issues as a hunger for greater authoritarianism is to oversimplify).


And note that I’m in no way calling for social-conservative laws (in the sense of banning sex or drugs). I remain an anarcho-capitalist whether you like it or not (and as an atheist and an anarchist, I’m also inclined to think that God often serves the same sick save-me-from-myself police function as the state in some people’s minds, though God, being imaginary, is easier to elude).

I’m just more wary than some of my anarcho-capitalist comrades about saying, for example, “Pot laws are loosening — and porn laws — so society must be trending our way!” That often seems about as far as the trend goes — not surprisingly, if you try thinking in right-left terms instead of like an over-optimistic libertarian for a moment. The left leaves us the freedoms that are strategically useful to them in their campaign to undermine tradition and capitalism, while creating wards of the state. I’m not saying they consciously think of it that way, most of the time. I’m just saying that functionally, it’s not surprising things tend to work out that way (similarly, it’s not surprising that the only parts of the conservative agenda that tend to make it through the maze of governance and get enacted are the more statist items, be they good or bad, such as war, while budget cuts tend to fall by the wayside — all the more reason for everyone who understands econ to stay focused on econ).

I notice the August-September issue of Reason has an article by Brendan O’Neill of Spiked-Online warning about the UK’s increasing tendency to treat overly loud sex as a violation of the law. That’s interesting and amusing and maybe even right on the merits (though noise pollution is an inherently ambiguous issue), but we shouldn’t be too encouraged if, say, college students can be rallied to Reason’s side on that issue — but not on tax cuts or deregulation (no matter how many libertine bones they’re thrown as bait).

There are countless laws not so dissimilar from the anti-loud-sex one that can be attacked to good PR effect simply for their sheer pettiness without setting off any culture-war alarm bells right or left, though, and perhaps one day it will be a quiet revolution against those sorts of laws — zoning rules controlling the size and color of people’s houses, for example — that will end up turning back the tide of the state instead of the big econ issues that seem most important to me. That’s fine. I just don’t want freedom-lovers to be lulled into thinking progress is being made if the only freedoms that advance are the one or two the freedom-haters happen to favor.

(And as a reminder that the UK, like us, has bigger things to worry about than loud sex, let’s take a moment to remember that today’s the fourth anniversary of 7/7/05 and that despite all this police-state talk, coercion sometimes takes decentralized but still horrific forms.)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Summer Movies for Political People

I saw Tommy last night at Lincoln Center, for the first time in about two decades, and for the first time since Pete Townshend dismissed the accusations that he was looking for child pornography by saying he was investigating the subject, inspired partly by a fear he was himself molested in childhood.

And I must say, this movie would make a very convincing Exhibit A for his defense, since even beyond the overt molester Uncle Ernie, it seems that every character is engaged in child abuse of one sort or another — and I’d forgotten that the thing that shocks our young pinball wizard into becoming “deaf, dumb, and blind” is his oddly-sexualized mom (an adoring Ann-Margaret writhing curvaceously in baked beans) and his stepdad ordering him to stop seeing and hearing or ever speaking of the evil he’s seen.

It would make a good double feature (with discussion) with the far superior Pink Floyd: The Wall from five years later, since both focus on a British lad who loses his dad in World War II — but Tommy is threatened by male sexuality and responds by becoming a rocker/ersatz Christ figure, while Pink fears maternal smothering and his wife’s adultery and becomes a rocker/fuhrer figure, making the movies a sort of yin and yang of classic rock.

Less philosophically rich but still worth discussing for the right political factions this month are:

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen for neocons (the gung-ho prior film obviously having been made with ample military assistance and depicting our boys in the Middle East in a positive light)

Bruno, which features the faux-gay Austrian fashion reporter attempting to seduce Ron Paul, for paleos and people with a Euro/gay aesthetic streak (perhaps bridging the cultural divide between some fans of our Lolita Bar debaters last week, TakiMag editor Richard Spencer and Sanctity of Marriage handbook author Bryan Harris)

I Love You Beth Cooper for libertarians (well, this is really just a romantic teen comedy from Larry Doyle, but I knew his work even before meeting him [he was in my apartment and we had a mutual friend] and even before his work on The Simpsons, New York magazine, etc. because he used to be a comic book editor when the company First! Comics existed, and he edited libertarian Mike Baron’s excellent series Nexus — all of which makes Doyle’s next announced film project, a sci-fi high school comedy called Go, Mutants!, unsurprising)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for liberal anglophiles who value education and meritocracy

Watchmen: The Director’s Cut (in a few cities the weekend after this coming one) for anarchists

I may have to see them all — despite or perhaps because of the almost astonished-sounding and baffled negative reviews of Transformers: RotF — since I’ve in some sense been part of each of these factions. That’s why I should make an effort to ensure you hear less “party line” and more “plethora of notions” on this blog now. You may find yourself getting even angrier as you read it, though.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Since Last I Poli-Blogged


So, aside from the past few days, for the past two months I’ve theme-blogged about nerd culture and rock music.  That means I’ve barely mentioned politics (by Todd standards).  Did I miss anything during those two months?

Back at the beginning of May, Iran was seemingly united beneath its mullahs and authoritarian president, Obama hadn’t sided with Chavez or any other law-flouting Latin American presidents in any political upheavals down there, the U.S. was not on the verge of adopting socialized medicine, carbon emissions weren’t directly regulated, everyone was hopeful the mountains of “stimulus” money would be spent wisely, there were no (intentional) comedians in the Senate, Iraqi cities were full of U.S. troops, the state of California was still paying its bills, North Korea hadn’t threatened to launch missiles at us yet, and Mark Sanford was sort of my early favorite for a 2012 presidential candidate due to his combination of fiscal and moral sobriety.  How are we doing since then?

Well, details aren’t important.  I’m sort of a philosophical big-picture man anyway.


I like the general anti-government bent of the Tea Party protests, for example, more of which occur today — and the organizers have been challenging Obama to debate at one of them about the proper role of government, if not today then perhaps at the big DC Tea Party scheduled for September 12, which I may well attend.

Since celebrities sometimes crop up at these things, maybe Obama could debate former SNL star and handstand expert Victoria Jackson, who has called him a communist.  Her Christianity has blinded her to a potential ally, though: She laments the possibility of the Fairness Doctrine ridding the airwaves of conservatives and leaving us with only Howard Stern — but he was calling the Democrats communists before she was, and out of much the same fear of government interference in speech.

In any case, happy Fourth of July to the whole nutty lot of you — and I notice that the last patriotic U.S. holiday mentioned on this site, Flag Day, was also the occasion of the fiftieth blog entry to mention my girlfriend, Helen Rittelmeyer, which works out to over one mention per week since we first started dating.  If, today notwithstanding, I’m trying to move toward shorter, more frequent posts, you will either hear about her even more frequently or find that I can’t squeeze her in as easily when I’m making one-sentence cracks about Joe Biden or whatever, which might just spare her embarrassment.  We’ll see.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Utilitarianism: The Noblest and Most Virtuous of Creeds (plus Comics!)

I promised economist John Bellettiere that I’d respond to his concerns, fairly common and understandable ones, about possible perverse consequences of utilitarianism, and I hope he won’t mind if I try to be even more sweeping, addressing many concerns about utilitarianism.

First, in hopes of dispensing with many objections of the sort he raises — should we let a town be flooded if the rescue money can be used to save even more people in a hospital elsewhere, etc. — I think it’s important, always, to stress the “rule” part of the “rule utilitarian” formulation, that is, the idea that we will not simply trust people to make wild calculations about what is morally permissible, willy-nilly, each time they encounter some opportunity to foster happiness or suffering. We adhere to broad moral rules — and intuitively, perhaps even instinctively, shudder at their violation — precisely because we don’t want horrific acts to become commonplace acts, even if their one-time occurrence might create joy (in at least some people).

Utilitarians, more than any other philosophical sect, are obligated to think about the long term — the total happiness of all morally-relevant beings, from now until the end of time. Humility should make us realize that we can’t begin to predict the entire future of the universe and thus must fall back on rules that at least appear to foster the greatest happiness in the widest number of cases — property rights, I think, combined with a tendency to err on the kind rather than sadistic side to diminish not only gratuitous direct suffering but the constant clashing and mis-coordination of interests. But — and this is crucial — I could be completely wrong about the efficacy of property rights, or even about the efficacy of rule-making (as opposed to spontaneous “act utilitarianism”), and it would not make the larger end-goal of increasing happiness and decreasing suffering any less appropriate. That would still be the foundation and we would merely have a (potentially immense) practical disagreement about how to achieve it.


Absent preconceived notions and allegiances to false metaphysical idols (me being in some sense a nominalist, as noted in yesterday’s Comments), we all tend to be utilitarian in the broadest sense, in that we are aware that we have desires, seeking their fulfillment absent other considerations and being pained by their thwarting absent other considerations. Morality consists in abstracting that pattern within ourselves to a recognition that others have preferences and pain as well, then regarding their preferences and pain as being as significant as our own (the only alternative position being selfish bias of some sort).

I think this happiness/good, pain/bad intuition is not merely a pattern of correlation but (as is obvious to people without stubborn prior allegiances) is in fact the sole source and generator of all our moral intuitions and rules. There is simply no reason to believe that in the absence of joy and suffering (however unconscious or indirect our interest in them may be), human beings would ever even have developed the language of good and evil. Why would we have asserted that Object A must be taken to Place B or that Person X must behave in such-and-such a fashion with regard to Person Y absent the underlying assumption that the alternative would cause harm and suffering? It would be like spouting arbitrary square-dancing instructions and expecting people everywhere to heed us.

And I think even people who claim to be resolutely anti-utilitarian tend to betray this profoundly human, reasonable, decent, and necessary attachment to what we might broadly call happy endings. Fans of Ayn Rand condemn utilitarianism and assert that they’d be allied to her vision of man qua man regardless of whether it brought widespread suffering — but why? And is it really mere coincidence that they invariably go on, pricked by conscience and residual sanity, to assure listeners that “of course, our system would not lead to widespread suffering — rather it is socialism and altruism that do.” What a relief! But why should I care if utility doesn’t matter, right?

People almost invariably slip into endorsing some sort of (quite literally) happy ending, even when denouncing its use as the moral litmus test: …and they will know joy in Heaven…and living as man qua man will prevent the suffering that comes from socialism…and the Ubermensch will live full-souled and free instead of cramped and neurotic…and the traditional family unit will know loving reunions and happy times instead of aimless, glum futility…etc.


Even those perverse few religious people who claim that morality consists solely in following whatever rules are spat out, as if in arbitrary fashion, by a God who they claim to serve out of sheer love no matter his cruelty or compassion, cannot resist (and well they should not) predicting that following the moral rules will, funny coincidence, produce everlasting joy in the long run.

If I thought there were the slightest scrap of evidence there were a God, indeed, I might well say that utility dictates doing whatever God says — perhaps even stupid or arbitrary things, given the prospect of divine punishment. But notice how naturally the conventional vision of the afterlife (the perpetually-unseen realm where we’re assured this God character will set everything right) ends up being a utile one, with good behavior leading to joy and bad behavior leading to torture and misery and pointy sharp sticks while roasting in a lake of fire forever, etc.

Indeed, any religious believer who claims to be immune to underlying utilitarian intuitions should try this thought experiment: If God appeared before us, unmistakable and real, and said that he was going to take all of those who worshipped him and hewed to his commandments into Heaven, where they would be roasted over hot spits for the rest of eternity while watching their loved ones torn apart by jackals, while in Hell, Satan would be giving people foot massages and otherwise letting them go about their business, wouldn’t you suspect that something had gone terribly wrong somewhere along the line, that you’d been had or that this God character wasn’t quite as moral as you’d been led to believe? And assume for the sake of argument that he didn’t have some longer-term plan that would bring people joy — not even one that would bring him any joy. He’s God, utility doesn’t matter, and he just sort of flipped his cosmic coin as a matter of divine right and decided on: the hot spits. Sound “good”? No? Then you’re almost ready to begin mature moral reasoning, for which religion has perhaps previously been your crude substitute.

On a more practical, earthly level, ask yourself whether anyone you know is satisfied upon hearing of friends that “they lived unhappily ever after,” or whether you’d truly approve if a stranger showed up at your work station and said, not “I’ve got something that ought to make you happy!” but “I will now inflict terrible suffering upon you.” Which do we think of as an obvious warning sign of evil — “evil,” after all, being the convenient four-letter label for sadists?

Our entire morality, as well as our evolved (and survival-enhancing) emotional structure, etiquette assumptions, concepts of philanthropy and abuse, and civilization in general would be rendered utterly incoherent in an instant if we truly desired (???) the net decrease in happiness or increase in suffering, like a man who tried each day to exit his apartment by breathing heavily and walking into the wall instead of, as sane people do when acting upon desires, taking a route that fulfills them — turning the doorknob, then exiting. Disutile thinking is madness serving no productive end, no moral purpose, like recognizing a widespread desire among humans to reach the Moon and responding by digging a hole to the center of the Earth.

The world has its handful of vicious little runts who like to torture animals — and they have a greatly above-average tendency to grow up to be serial killers, which should not surprise us, unless we’re the sort who refuse to see a connection between the desire to inflict suffering and evil action in general. Empathy vs. evil, happiness-making vs. the infliction of harm, that’s the primary character-formation choice facing all human beings from day one, regardless of the complexity of the moral rules and reasoning that ultimately flow from this choice.


But don’t get me wrong: even arch-utilitarian John Stuart Mill (much like Hume before him) recognized the wisdom in many already-existing creeds, in that they all attempt, often with a subtlety and richness that no cobbled-together modern code could replicate, to foster good (that is, happy) outcomes and prevent bad (that is, miserable) ones — thus Mill’s willingness to see history as progress rather than as one huge mistake and Hume’s willingness to tolerate existing regimes and codes even while quietly holding them up to the philosopher’s yardstick of reason and utility, without calling for revolution each time they fall short. (The Ten Commandments might even be so useful that we should perhaps pretend they’re true and divinely sanctioned, for instance, to use a sort of Straussian argument, but the cat’s out of the bag on that one by now, so I guess we’ll just have to make real moral arguments.)

Even traditionalist Burke was making essentially utilitarian, consequentialist arguments: If you throw out all existing political and moral rules, the results will likely look more like the bloody French Revolution than like Utopia.

If Burke weren’t thinking in a proto-utilitarian fashion, he would have said something utterly circular and utterly unconvincing after the fashion of some of our (very modern, very new-fangled) paleoconservatives, along the lines of: You shouldn’t start doing things a new way, ’cause then you won’t be doing them the old way, and we do ’em the old way on account of that’s the way we do ’em, whereas not doing ’em that way would entail doing ’em different, which would be bad, on account of being different — and unlike how we do ’em.

Now, a more sophisticated objection to utilitarianism — one that is both more ancient (more pagan) than Burke or Christianity but is also voiced at times by people like my girlfriend Helen Rittelmeyer and her friend Will Wilson (not to be confused with utilitarian quasi-Canadian Will Wilkinson, mentioned yesterday) — is that achieving total happiness will render us boring, slack anemones without any of the inspiring virtues deployed prior to reaching that state.

There are countless objections to that fear, but just a few are:

1. Can we worry about that state when we reach it? With some 2 billion people on the planet still not even having electricity and us having struggled some 10,000 years post-hunter-gatherer just to get this far, do we really need to rain all over humanity’s parade already?

2. Aren’t you once more making an unintentionally utilitarian argument, in that you fear (in effect) that we will become too shallow from easy pleasures to retain the capacity for deeper, richer ones? (Mill already dealt with that concern a century and a half ago, suggesting that we do indeed know from introspection that the rich, rewarding forms of happiness, like seeing your opera finally get produced, tend to affect us more than a pleasant scratching behind the ear or humming “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” all day — boredom itself is a form of suffering we would continue to strive against even in a world devoid of enemies or dangers. And it’s simply not true, on balance, that people are more creative when beset by numerous practical worries and sources of suffering. If it were, we would look not to places like relatively comfy Europe for great art or good behavior but to Sierra Leone’s war zones. Perhaps non-utilitarians should go there sometime and admire the local art museums. Bring me back some poetry collections.)

3. Often people’s fears of an envisioned utilitarian world — say, heroin addicts playing videogames all day (presumably dumb videogames, not the cool ones) — amount, quite plainly, to fears that are themselves utilitarian. You don’t really think the heroin addict is happy, do you? And if not, you’ve just shown that he isn’t the outcome utilitarianism itself advises, is he? Of course, there will always be the problem of people causing themselves long-term harm for the sake of short-term pleasure, but utilitarianism is better suited than any rival philosophy to make that dilemma explicit and get people to make wiser calculations. Older ideals didn’t appear to prevent lives being wasted on slaughter or drunkenness.


Likewise, when we look at cases where ostensibly-utilitarian reasoning led to bad outcomes — as in notorious law-and-econ examples of neighborhoods demolished by eminent domain to create new facilities that generate greater tax revenue — we tend to recoil from the outcomes precisely because we don’t believe that in the long run, given government’s inability to gauge individuals’ needs and the immense risk of creating bad legal precedent leading to further authoritarian interventions, such decisions were utile. That’s why some of us counsel libertarianism, here meaning treating property as all but inviolable: to avoid people deciding from on high what’s best for everyone.

(And in law as in morality, though we can always imagine kill-one-man-to-save-twenty scenarios, let’s simply remember the wise insight that “extreme cases make bad law” — rules are for the long haul, not this one time. We could as easily posit imaginary “51% of people vote to kill 49%” arguments against democracy or “This man will ruin everyone’s lives unless we kill him” arguments against anti-murder laws. Realistically, for formulating moral basic rules, we should instead talk about what happens most of the time.)

Utiliarianism is a deeper and richer philosophy than its critics typically make it out to be (all too many even take the utterly disingenuous or simply stupid route of claiming that the philosophy counsels doing whatever makes you individually happy at the expense of others, that of course being the exact opposite of the philosophy, which trains us, like all useful moral codes, to take the wider world into account before acting).

There are, of course, people for whom utilitarian language will always “sound” reductive, and to them I can only say that, like Douglas Hofstadter’s writings about intelligence and levels of analysis/abstraction, you can always describe things in simpler or more complex terms without necessarily doing any damage to the underlying phenomena. We can talk about martial virtues, heroism, compassion, fortitude, frugality, and all the rest without childishly insisting every time we do so that it’s all just smiley faces and soma, as some critics of utilitarianism make it sound.

Similarly, some religious conservatives become so incensed by talk of chemicals or molecules — as if fearful future art critics will talk about the Mona Lisa only in terms of the painting’s physical weight — that they practically drive themselves into a tizzy in which they sound as if they don’t believe in molecules (Dinesh D’Souza gets this bad at times). You can believe in molecules and talk about art, and you can talk about very sophisticated moral traditions while recognizing at the back of them all the ultimate goal, the great hope — the very source of humanity’s desperate and heroic striving for millennia — of happiness.

Happiness is foundational language, but we can build higher upon it — and by building on this foundation will be far less prone to have people claim we should all sacrifice our happiness for some arbitrary goal they claim is so glorious it trumps everyone’s desires, such as building pyramids with slave labor or sacrificing people to create an ethnically pure homeland. Hard to fight those bastards when pointing to all the weeping and misery they cause is dismissed as morally irrelevant. Hard to argue with people willing to see the Earth run red with blood, like al Qaeda, too. They have intuited a higher calling than petty human happiness, and how will you convince them to prefer your own metaphysical constructs and intuited rules?


You cannot escape utilitarian decision-making — it suffuses every moment of our lives even if we stubbornly refuse to recognize it as ethical thinking. With every action, every plan, every thought, you decide whether to make the world better or worse, more full of joy or more full of pain. If you deliberately, on balance and over the long haul, choose the latter, you are quite simply a monster — a living thing that makes the world more horrible, a sort of sentient cancer that the rest of us would do well to combat.

Luckily, I live in a nation explicitly founded on “the pursuit of happiness,” which not coincidentally has become the greatest and most accomplished on Earth. Only a ghoul would wish greater suffering upon it — and I, by contrast, look forward to toasting it privately tomorrow night with Helen and a couple other Americans. May it be a happy, happy Fourth of July for all — and a happy future for humanity.

P.S. As a little reminder that utilitarians, like doctors administering painful injections, are perfectly capable of recognizing instances where short-term sorrow enhances longer-term pleasure, I offer this:

The lost-cyborg-animals story We3, a dying Supergirl, the massive teleporting lunar dog named Lockjaw, a respectful Skrull general, a self-sacrificing Starman, and more appear in an unusual comment thread sparked by the question, What comic books have made readers cry? Thanks to the commenters’ tendency to synopsize, you might appreciate it even without knowing the stories or characters (I knew some).

More than a few are meta-moments in which characters realize the tragedy of their whole existences — or the reader’s. And on that note, though I don’t think I ever actually cried while reading a comic, one moment (aside from We3, which you’ll all supposedly get to see as a film one of these days) that struck me as at least poignant was a moment in Zot! — a comic about one lone superhero boy on a world otherwise pretty much identical to our unheroic own. In one issue, we see that a boy from our world who Zot knows imagines his doomed high school romance as a sci-fi death tableau — and it is made all the more painfully pathetic by the fact that we readers can see that the semi-imaginative youth’s fantasy is, while superficially powerful, terribly derivative of Phoenix’s death scene in X-Men.

If, reading it, you admit to yourself that the Zot! scene works, you suddenly have to confront the shortcomings — and great potential — in your own nerdy life and in your favorite medium, like the experience of hearing a song trope that undeniably works even though you’ve heard it 800 times before and not being able to decide whether you resent the songwriter, his predecessors, the world, or your own weakness.

P.P.S. Speaking of sad animal stories, I fear the two cats who often sat in the window of an apartment near mine have moved away, possibly taking the unbelievably huge, brown, furry, and Chewbacca-like Newfoundland mix with them before I ever got around to taking a picture of him.

On the bright side, I just read a review of the Guardians of the Galaxy comic book in which a telepathic Russian dog named Cosmo (not owned by Jonah Goldberg, unless he’s a double agent) wakes up from unconsciousness with the aforementioned Lockjaw licking his head and looking concerned, and Cosmo asks “Are you God?” Lockjaw is not God, but he’s good — he worries when his friends suffer.