Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Blasphemy Day: Sex Fiends, Lizard Men, 80s Videos

•The Center for Inquiry has declared today, September 30, Blasphemy Day, and they’re encouraging people to show their skeptical courage by e-mailing them blasphemous thoughts by midnight tonight at BlasphemyContest[at] — all of which strikes me as even worse PR than Richard Dawkins. A well-adjusted skeptic, it seems to me, shouldn’t be going out of his way to blaspheme any more than a non-believer in talking horses should wake up each morning asking how he can desecrate a My Little Pony action figure in a new way today. It should just be a non-issue, whether due to politeness or mere apathy.

•If we are to root for blasphemy today, though, here’s the kind I’m rooting for: We are sadly overdue for a mainly-English-language Paul Verhoeven film (the last being 2000’s mediocre Hollow Man) — but if he makes a film of his 2007 book Jesus: The Man, depicting Jesus as a non-supernatural political terrorist leading an uprising against the Romans, all is forgiven and the world becomes interesting again (Verhoeven is part of a Jesus Study Group that shares unorthodox research about the historicity of Jesus, when he’s not making some of the greatest films of all time, including RoboCop, Starship Troopers, and the perfect Total Recall — “See you at tha pahty, Richta!”). The star of the (wondrous) Mad Max movies got his chance to do a Jesus movie, why not the RoboCop director?

•For many people, religious unorthodoxy seems to lead straight to weird sex, and I notice that this past Saturday a couple New Agey acquaintances of mine spoke at an event in NYC called the Sacred Sexuality Round-Up, teaching such things as “Tantric chivalry,” which I assume means deferring to the lady’s preferences on how much chi to put into the chakras or something.

•On a sex/religion note that is either highly orthodox or utterly bizarre, I see that Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, with whom the floor was mopped about a year and a half ago in a debate with atheist Christopher Hitchens, now has a book coming out based on his interviews with spiritually- and otherwise-confused Michael Jackson, of all people — and weirder still, they met through “psychic” Uri Geller (who tends to sue people if they replicate his stunts using stage magic or con man tricks), with whom Boteach co-wrote a book, a dialogue between a rabbi and psychic on the things that cannot be proven. Boteach is also the author of Kosher Sex, which presumably does not touch on Jackson’s sex life.

•One of the weirder recent revelations about Michael Jackson: he knew he looked like a freak from all his plastic surgery, likening himself to a “lizard.” I can only imagine how much this revelation will excite the small group of very odd conspiracy theorists who believe that the world is secretly ruled by a race of shape-shifting lizard men. Here is what appears to be one of the conspiracy theorists’ videos, ostensibly showing proof that German chancellor Merkel is a reptile-woman. After her recent electoral victory and its possible free-market implications, I for one welcome our new reptile overlords.

•For all their woes, accused child molesters Michael Jackson and Roman Polanski at least got to live in cool, fanciful places like Neverland and France. By contrast, not long after a news story about restrictions on released sex offenders forcing some to live under a bridge, there’s this story about a bunch being forced by similar residential restrictions to live in the woods. Now, I’ve never been the mushy liberal type who thinks we must bend over backwards to make criminals feel accepted into the broader society, but surely there are few surer ways to turn socially-marginalized people with dangerous inclinations into monsters divorced from the norms of society than to make them live under bridges and in the woods. Are we trying to create a tragic “troll-attack” incident?

•The disturbing and hellish topics above will be compensated for somewhat by the idealistic “Month of Utopia” blog entries I’m starting tomorrow, looking at roughly one utopian (or dystopian) text per day — though tomorrow I must also formally announce our next Debate at Lolita Bar, one on a topic that some think could end the whole American Dream and plunge us into civil war: the strange recurring question of whether Obama is really a natural-born citizen.

•And to compensate for all the Michael Jackson talk above — and the lizard video — here are some genuinely wonderful videos (say I) from the 80s with no connection to Jackson or reptile men:

“Castles in Spain” by Armoury Show

– the same live

– a better-known band that also featured the late guitarist John McGeoch, Siouxsie and the Banshees, here doing “Israel”

– a clip of a teenage girl learning the bass part of “Israel” and thus keeping goth tradition alive

– Alphaville doing “Big in Japan,” which I always thought should have been a bigger hit

– Real Life doing “Send Me an Angel”

– and on a more blasphemous note, in conclusion, one for the naughty Catholic in your life, “It’s a Sin” by Pet Shop Boys (though I prefer this one in which they cover the Village People’s “Go West” and gaily fuse the USSR and U.S. — dialectical synthesis of some sort).

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tribe of Individualists

After noting dissent among libertarians in the second of yesterday’s entries, I should note that I really don’t place that much value on tribal unity or team loyalty per se — except in so far as they’re necessary (a) to achieve some goal more important than the issues that divide or (b) to demonstrate one’s capacity to make peace and avoid needless conflict. I don’t normally think of sticking with the team even when it’s wrong as a virtue, though (and would rather get at the truth than maintain a phony united front).

The whole point of justice is to treat like cases alike — rather than saying, for instance, “When my tribe murders, it’s OK because we are inherently glorious, and when the other tribe makes great art, it does not count as beautiful because I dislike anything they do.” We should be distrustful of any “philosophy” that encourages, say, always siding with women, always siding with the poor, always siding with whites, always assuming the truth of certain favored texts, etc.

Justice aims to be global, impartial, and objective, even if practical limitations argue for great deference to local customs, etiquette, and knowledge — and for avoiding imperial ambitions. Rather than sticking up for one’s own neighborhood, nation, workers’ local, class, or family, the thinking — and moral — person’s first duty, before all else and before any specific policy or ethical disputes are examined, is to step back and attempt to survey things more objectively. Loyalty/disloyalty, then, is not per se a good heuristic for spotting wrongdoing.

The comparable error among the abstract/globalist thinkers would be “sticking to one’s principles” even when the evidence mounts that they lead to disaster or are simply inadequate for certain tasks. The left and right both do it, albeit in slightly different ways: I’d say the left and liberals refuse to rethink their ideas, convinced they’re already quite refined and sophisticated, while people on the right tend to think in a deliberately obtuse fashion that keeps things from getting too complicated in the first place.

In either form, though, stubbornness is not a virtue (though endurance and consistency often are). It’s bad enough people are biased, partisan, stubborn, bullying, and self-righteous without declaring all those things inherently virtuous. Time and again, though, you’ll hear people say with admiration things like “That guy doesn’t back down,” the sort of attribute useful for picking your lawyer, perhaps, but not for getting to the truth — useful for defending your “side” but not necessarily for being on the correct side in the first place. (And I’m increasingly convinced that people’s loyalty to certain principles or teams is so strong that they care more about these things than about producing good outcomes — not really an argument against utilitarianism but another reason to adopt a pessimistic “futilitarianism” when it comes to predicting humanity’s chances for happiness.)

With all that in mind, let’s take a moment in tomorrow’s entry to mark the arrival of Blasphemy Day.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Ron Paul vs. Bernanke vs. Reason vs. Friedman

It’s delightful to see Ron Paul’s book End the Fed in the top ten on the New York Times bestseller list.  I have to confess I thought criticism of the Federal Reserve, while warranted, was probably one of Paul’s fringiest issues back when his presidential campaign started in 2007, but now it looks like one of the his most mainstream and relevant.

What’s a bit weirder — and ought to cause more division among libertarians — is the fact that Paul, like a recent article from Reason by Penn Bullock, faults Fed chairman Ben Bernanke not for being in thrall to pro-spending Keynes but for being in thrall to money-printing Milton Friedman, of all people — since Friedman argued that an overly tight monetary policy may have worsened the Crash that led to the Great Depression.  We certainly aren’t repeating that mistake now.

(An economist friend of mine swears Friedman would have been skeptical of any attempts to hastily alter Fed policy to cope with short-term crises, but Friedman may nonetheless inadvertently have contributed to the current establishment view that we can print our way out of disaster after all.  Perhaps he is a “father of global misery,” as the left likes to say.)

Adding to the odd mixing of the usual teams, Bruce Bartlett and some other free-marketeers have been sympathetically reevaluating John Maynard Keynes (now of all times!), arguing that aside from his spend-in-a-downturn philosophy, he was actually quite the limited-government buff, seeing little role for government in normal economic times.  Meanwhile, Jeffrey Friedman, no relation to Milton, has been sparring with usually market-friendly Richard Posner over whether Posner has become too pro-Keynes (a fear shared by economist Don Boudreaux).  These are confusing times, plainly, and perhaps we should be as wary of mapping simple ideology onto them as some of us were of letting ideologues (of any stripe) deduce proper foreign policy from basic principles after 9/11.


On the bright side, the current bailouts, for all their evils, have produced reactions that for the most part suggest that, regardless of practice, we all sort of know in theory that free markets have by now won the everyday microeconomic battle — and that the main remaining struggle is convincing people that markets can handle big systemic problems, whether financial or climatological.  I think they can and that government just makes it harder for them to do so — but a bit more on that (and on Jeffrey Friedman’s view of the question) in a few days, during my October “Month of Utopia” blog entries.

And if a whole month of Utopia sounds unconservative, well, perhaps the financial crisis is a good reminder that even on fiscal matters I am in some sense radical — rather than passively accepting that the existing order and institutions are can’t-fail works of timeless genius, as they sometimes turn out not to be.

On a far simpler libertarian note, though, here’s a heartwarming story from Richmond, VA about a libertarian strip club owner sparring with Obama supporters, and you have to love his sheer lack of diplomacy — and use of the word “ignoramus” — a tactic Americans may be ready for, and for which libertarians are well suited, after too many years of sugarcoated bullshit.

A Pause for Dingleberries

I didn’t quite get around to writing the entry I intended on Bernanke and Keynes having pro-market supporters, but here in the interim is a link to the fascinating Wiktionary page on the word “dingleberry,”* which has some surprising uses.

*Come to think of it, I suppose I should dedicate this lexicographical blog entry to the late William Safire.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Liberals vs. Anti-Nazis

Have you noticed that (after decades of calling people fascists) the liberal elite has now decided not only that you can’t analogize them to the Nazis (or they’ll criticize you as much as they did Liberal Fascism author Jonah Goldberg), which is fair enough, but that you basically can’t analogize anything to the Nazis anymore?

At some point, in a sudden and unfair about-face, it became a smug liberal-intellectual game to declare an argument over (and overheated) the moment a Nazi analogy appears, as Mike Godwin has noted one inevitably does eventually. Well, that’s fine when you’re trying to stop a teenager from declaring his high school’s anti-nudity policy “fascist,” but I think this anti-analogy push has now reached the point that liberals think you can’t even use the Nazis in real cases of strong historical parallelism.

Don’t be surprised, for instance, if you find yourself saying, cautiously and without venom, something like, “I think the mass-murderers in that totalitarian country could have imagined themselves to be justified, though that’s mind-boggling, but then, even the Nazis relied upon a sense of victimhood, the ‘stab in the back,’ to rationalize their subsequent — ” and suddenly having some pinhead leap in and say, “Sorry, but you have totally invalidated your own argument by mentioning the Nazis! Mike Godwin’s rule of Nazi analogies!! Godwin’s rule! Godwin’s rule! I win! Gold star for me! Gold star and a free trip to camp! Duuuhhh…”

And then they drool. Yes, they actually drool. I’ve seen it happen, though I’m not saying the drooling per se invalidates their point. I would not be that petty.

Where’s the good Godwin — by which I mean authority-hating original anarchist writer William Godwin (husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley) — when you need him? Fighting fascism on all sides if he were alive today, I’ll bet. So there.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Andy Richter Rules Wolf Blitzer, Thundercats Rule Viral Marketing


Three TV-related thoughts:

•Thanks to the omnipresence of t-shirts and the like bearing the Thundercats symbol — that black tiger profile on a red background — the viral marketing campaign for the inevitable eventual live-action movie is going to be very, very easy to pull off, as the grinning producers probably already know.

•My thanks to Paul Taylor for pointing out to me Andy Richter’s recent triumph over a fumbling and weak Wolf Blitzer on celebrity Jeopardy, an important victory for comedy-loving nerds.

•And given Leno’s move to 10pm and Conan’s to 11:30, I wonder if NBC’s lineup in 2029 will look something like this:

4PM: Leno in the Afternoon

6PM: Dinner with Conan

7PM: Evening Report with Jimmy Fallon

8PM: Daily with Carson Daly

9PM: After Sunset with Andy Samberg

10PM: Michael Cera: Special Victims Unit

11PM: Every Night Live

Midnight: Late Night with David Letterman Classics

1AM: Dateline NBC

2AM: The Chevy Chase Show

Friday, September 25, 2009

Tiki Bar, "Dive Bar," and Randomized Decemberists

I think I’ll be at Otto’s Shrunken Head tonight for their 60s garage rock night, since bachelor-partying George Fishman likes that stuff (as do a couple of my favorite conservative women, as it happens).

My own tastes appear to have a new name: I can’t help noticing that — the online station that I’ve long said seems to have exactly the same music mix you find in all the faux-dive bars in recent years (punk, rockabilly, Johnny Cash, Pixies, etc.) — now explicitly calls itself a “dive bar” station. It’s as if it were all as coorindated as Starbucks somehow even while looking like shabby, decentralized anarchy.

DevilsNight is using the slogan “The best dive-bar juke box you’ve heard in your life.” It’s fascinating to me how this ostensibly rough-and-random set of culture products — punk, old country music, tattoos, Bettie Page haircuts, darkness — became a coherent marketing demographic. But it works (even for wussy New Wave fans like me).

This past Saturday, I witnessed another — more jubilant — example of musical controlled randomness, since the great Decemberists performance I saw was structured around a completely randomized set list, each of their song titles written on big ping pong balls in a drum — which was churned (and its results bombastically and very amusingly announced) by none other than alternative rocker John Wesley Harding, who said (convincingly) that the band had called him up only that day to fulfill this odd role. The band almost refused to submit to the hand of fate during the encore, when the churning bin of chance happened to cough up: a five-song suite called “The Tain.” But they did it — and “Perfect Crime” to boot.

Harding himself is best remembered (at least by me, back in college) for his rather Aristotelian song “(Why Do You Do What You Do When the Things That You Do Hurt) the Person Your Are?” A good question for the immoral rabble.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Protests Violent and Otherwise

It’s been a hectic week — but one in which I encountered some signs of hope:

Whiteout wasn’t as bad as I’d been led to expect — nothing momentous, but a decent little thriller.

•Walking downtown to watch it last night, I saw thousands of Iranian-descended people protesting against the Iranian regime, with posters saying things like “Freedom yes, Islamic no,” a tad clearer global-freedom-movement message than even some libertarians have been willing to read into the recent protests against the regime.

•This in turn made me wonder if, despite all my recent pessimism about the state of the world (given the debt, the galloping advance of unscientific regulations under Obama, etc.), we might just look back and say the positive trends at the end of this decade were obvious: the Tea Party protests, the town hall protests, the opposition to socialized medicine, the embrace of social networking even for political ends, and so on.

•Disturbing as the murder of that Kentucky census worker was (perhaps simply for being a “fed,” perhaps for stumbling on pot growers, depending on how badly one wants to leap to right-bashing conclusions about the whole thing), I’m pleased to see there are still plenty of more-clever, less-violent protests against government out there — like the one staged by the makers of the impending documentary Not Evil, Just Wrong this past Monday, amidst a big U.N. climate conference here in NYC. The video has gotten some 2,000 hits in about one day, they tell me.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Culturally Tone-Deaf Ideologues

Michael Moore, whose Capitalism documentary goes into limited release today, may be wrong about many things, but he still does a fairly good job, most of the time, of sounding like an aw-shucks regular-Joe populist.

Once in a while, of course, he lets the mask slip and shows an astonishing fondness for Cuba or what have you, but most of the time he manages to stick to the message that he’s just a patriotic, ordinary American fed up with how the country has gone astray from its noble founding principles — though those principles had little to do with the socialism for which he clearly longs.  (In this, he’s not so different from Sander Hicks, the increasingly populist-sounding Marxist turned conspiracy theorist who won our Debate at Lolita Bar this month.)

For good or ill, the complicated but universally-irking financial crisis/bailout(s) is probably the perfect time for this sort of squabbling over what populism means.

As Moore said in his onstage interview by Tina Brown after the premier of Capitalism at Lincoln Center on Monday night, both the left and right will be trying to extend a hand in the days ahead to the very angry people at the bottom of the social ladder, offering competing explanations for their woes (and those explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive, I should add, given the undeniable fact that government has colluded with supposed titans of finance to pour bailout money into the maws of rich institutions — something that perhaps ought to bring about ideological synthesis instead of just ideological competition, but that would take a lot more work than fighting does).

Much as one might prefer elite, high-minded political-philosophical dialogue that does not pander to the masses at all, this would be an unwise time to be a culturally tone-deaf ideologue.  The public is paying a bit more attention than usual and may be in a mood to absorb some new political narratives, if they’re pitched correctly.  I hope libertarians won’t prove culturally tone-deaf in the days ahead, whether deaf in the right ear or the left.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Last Night Moore, Tomorrow Rucka, in the End Cameron

I don’t know which will have been more depressing, last night’s communistic Michael Moore documentary or the reportedly-lame adaptation of Greg Rucka’s comic book Whiteout, which I’ll probably see tomorrow night.

But I think I know what movie this year will have cost far more money — and is, I think, destined to lose far more than either of them: James Cameron’s Avatar, which, as I mentioned once before, looked like a fairly mundane jungle-cartoon adventure from the teaser footage, despite it being in expensive, cutting-edge CGI in IMAX 3D.

Indeed, reading between the lines of this article about Avatar seeming a bit too much like another recent film, you get the distinct impression that all the films mentioned in the article are so banal they need never have been made.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Documentarians and Idiots

I’m scheduled to see Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story tonight, but other documentarians are already in the streets here in New York City, where the libertarian makers of the anti-green film Not Evil, Just Wrong were shooting a scene at the site of a carbon-rationing conference, while nearby minions — at least a dozen of them, it appeared — of the antiglobalization pranksters called the Yes Men (or allies of them) were distributing fake (non-jokey-looking and thus likely lawsuit-worthy) New York Posts denouncing climate change.

But more about all that in other venues (I hope). Here, let me just note that Oliver Stone also has an anti-capitalist documentary coming out this year, lauding Hugo Chavez (not to mention a financial-crisis-related sequel to Wall Street coming out next year). And lest we take Stone too seriously, let’s stop to remember that this was his first film: Seizure, featuring a homicidal Herve Villechaize.

This is, of course, only the second-weirdest Herve Villechaize film, though, since he was also in The Forbidden Zone, the black and white early-80s film inspired by 1920s cartoons, featuring him as the king of the Sixth Dimension and Oingo Boingo as Satan and his Cab Calloway-singing lackeys. (And frankly, the original, grittier TV-movie version of Fantasy Island was a tad stranger than the subsequent series, too, with a more badass Mr. Roarke willing to fire a rifle at a man whose fantasy was to be hunted. Despite what the series later implied, he was no angel in the beginning.)

But for real horror, I recommend making a film — whether fictionalized or documentary — about this terrifying real-life incident, and its name must of course be: Horrorcore.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Warding Off the Stupid

Tomorrow, I’m scheduled to see an advance screening of Michael Moore’s no doubt inflammatory and ludicrous new documentary Capitalism: A Love Story. But of course, one ought to gauge ideas by their best and most nuanced defenders, not by their most clownish ones. Sometimes, like a lot of people, I feel guilty about even paying attention to Michael Moore — not to mention distractions like LOLCats, sci-fi movies, pundits, and until recently comic books.

But where does one go for brainier culture fare? The site (Arts & Letters Daily) is some solace. But here’s the weird thing. Much as I love that site, I worry that I might be deluding myself (like a PBS subscriber) if I think I’m really getting a near-random influx of new ideas from it.

On the contrary, if you read it long enough — especially if you just scan a few months worth of their little teaser descriptions of the linked articles — you start to notice certain familiar figures recurring with such regularity — Jacques Barzun, Darwin, Nietzsche, Orwell — that the familiarity almost becomes a soothing lullaby after a while, like knowing classical music radio stations will be playing the same composers ad infinitum.

Like the strange attractors in chaos theory, ALDaily will keep somehow leading you back to read one more surprisingly scandalous thing about the biography of some ostensibly staid writer from the nineteenth century, hear one more argument from cognitive science or behavioral economics for people being stupider (or smarter) than they appear, and enjoy one more strained metaphor from chaos theory written by a former English major. I guess there are worse mental fates.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Another Nerd Superpower: Audio


Tyler Cowen’s recent writing about the virtues of mild autism included reference to autistic people being better than most at detecting subtle changes in sounds (though not necessarily their emotional implications). I was reminded by this of (a) the suspicion I no doubt share with a lot of people lately that someday there’ll be an even broader “autism-Asperger’s-nerd” spectrum, since so many of the attributes of mildly autistic people mentioned in descriptions like Cowen’s seem to be shared by, well, the sorts of people who like to hear Cowen describe things and (b) my own pretty good ear, if I do say so myself, for spotting the fact that “This version of the song must be a slightly different recording” or “That background singer must be the New Order guy.”

In karaoke, this power can be used to recall — and do a “good impression” of — a song’s vocal inflections even when I don’t actually have what a real singer would call range or, y’know, talent. I think my Eric Burdon’s getting pretty good in that limited sense, which is helpful, since “House of the Rising Sun” can be a crowd-pleaser. On the downside, you won’t likely badger me into attempting a song I don’t have a pretty good feel for.

I’m not an “audiophile” in the technical sense of being obsessed with good sound systems — aside from becoming quietly outraged at concerts every once in a while when I’m reminded for the hundredth time that after decades of rock concerts, they still haven’t fully mastered the whole avoiding-feedback problem or the audible-vocals problem (concert organizers also have an odd love of shining incredibly bright spotlights directly in the audience’s eyes, which you’d think by now someone would have told them is unpleasant). And even with the nerd hearing skills I claimed to have in the previous paragraph, I would estimate I have been able to discern only about half the “between-songs patter” I’ve heard rock stars mumble over the years, though I trust Cy Curnin is saying something cryptic yet interesting, judging by the tone of his voice. Generally, though, I feel like if I can hear the melody and the vocals and there isn’t offensive static, my technological needs are met — Hell, half my music’s on audiotape just because it was the most flexible medium when I was a teen.

As it happens, Jacob Levy, whose recommendation of the band Arrogant Worms I noted yesterday, also forwarded what he calls “the strange story of what happens to a kid with Daredevil’s powers” (Daredevil being a blind superhero with super-hearing). It is a reminder that nerd/autistic powers should be used for good and can be terrible when used for evil.

P.S. If the no doubt nerd-filled audience at the Decemberists tonight notice Colin Meloy deviating in any way from his usual, distinctive (and nerdy) vocal inflections, I assume there will be a riot.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Odd Rock of Ages

If all goes according to plan, I see the Decemberists tomorrow night, see the new documentary about the Gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello sometime in the next few days, and then one week from tonight go to the tiki bar Otto’s Shrunken Head for their monthly 60s garage rock night and/or their Saturday psychobilly event (the Otto outing being for the bachelor party of visiting Washingtonian George Fishman, a friend of my childhood pal Paul Taylor and soon the husband of my former ACSH co-worker Tiffany Dovey).

In some ways, I remain a New Wave guy at heart, of course, but Montreal-dwelling Jacob Levy points out this New Wave parody, “Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah,” by the Canadian novelty act Arrogant Worms, which is almost enough to make one embarrassed about New Wave. Then again, it reminds me just the tiniest bit of the more recent (blatantly Morrissey-influenced) song “Take Me to the Riot” by the far more serious Montreal band Stars — coincidence, or is this what combined New Wave and Canadian influences sound like in the 00s?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Reading for the Articles, Not the Sex

Michele Carlo, Janice “Girlbomb” Erlbaum, Rev. Jen Miller, and others are reading at Belleville Lounge in Park Slope at 7:30 tonight (at Fifth Ave. and 5th St. in Brooklyn; F, M, or R to the 9th St./4th Ave. stop). I’ve seen the three named writers all read/declaim before (two of them as Lolita Bar debaters among other things) but never quite seen all three on the same stage, so I plan to go — and I wish to state for the record I’m not just going because the ostensible theme is sex.

Indeed, frankly, I often find it embarrassing how frequently the topic is sex at hip New York media events — and I almost mean professionally embarrassing more than viscerally embarrassing, as in “I can’t believe we’re reduced to this as a topic again” (but none of the aforementioned women have sex as their sole or even primary professional focus, so I know they have range and trust they will do a good job).

•Likewise, I have long found it sad that independent and arty film, which constantly touts itself as more daring than Hollywood — since Hollywood is focused on sex and violence — tends to end up simply doing stories that involve slightly more disturbing sex and violence. Read the Wikipedia entry about Kids writer and Gummo writer/director Harmony Korine and tell me it doesn’t suggest to you a deliberate reaching of the bottom of the barrel (Kyle Smith recently blogged that he has no intention of seeing Korine’s upcoming film Trash-Humpers because “I am a professional film critic, not a masochist”).

•I worry a bit about the filter mechanisms at work that lead me to have at least five sex columnists on my official (somewhat dated, in more than one sense) list of Acquaintances, and I didn’t even know Rev. Jen was doing Nerve sex columns or a book on nerd sex when I compiled that list.

•I am very skeptical of anyone who picks feminism as a primary philosophical orientation, gender issues as a major, or sex as the theme for their museum, since (despite the fact that important things can be said on all these topics) doing so will always strike me as a bit reductive, sort of like looking around at the wide horizon and thinking, “What shall I explore? Science? The vast and tumultuous economy? History in all its complexity? No, wait! What’s this down here, away from the horizon? My own genitals! What could be more important? I’ve found my calling!”

(I feel a similar sadness — and it really is sadness rather than annoyance, anger, fear, or political animosity — when I hear that a smart black student has made it to college and decided to study being black. There’s just something unimaginative about it.)

•Similarly, I have never felt more sorry for bisexual women, I think, than when one expressed concern to me that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with her well without a grounding in queer theory. If people need a college course to communicate with you, something is wrong, and not necessarily with them.

One acquaintance who I didn’t think I knew well enough to put on the Acquaintances page, by the way, is Amy Sohn (a Brown alum and New York Press alum) who, as it happens, has moved on from writing mainly about sex to writing a new novel about the local culture in Park Slope, the area where tonight’s reading takes place. I’m sure her new book touches on sex (because it’s still Amy Sohn), but in some ways you couldn’t find a more fitting, unsexy locale for your transition to writing about less-sexual topics. Park Slope’s dominant constituencies seem to be lesbians, very p.c. liberals, and babies, and those are three groups that tend in practice not to create sexy vibes (much as we all love lesbians in theory, obviously). Let us just hope they don’t ruin things tonight. And maybe I’ll win the sexiest outfit prize. I’m overdue in that regard for some reason.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Student with Samurai Sword Slays Intruder

I hope the left won’t react to this story with a call for a samurai sword ban to combat the “climate of sword violence” in Baltimore. We can’t know the details with certainty, but for me, all political and economic thinking basically starts with whether you recognize our right to fight intruders. That’s a right not only older than modern political philosophy but arguably a right that pre-existed homo sapiens. Dogs intuitively grasped and defended that right for us millennia before anti-gun types started concocting arguments against it. And dogs are often right.


Yesterday was a mixed bag for alternative rock fans: The Times reported both that Jim Carroll had joined this week’s list of people who died (serenity now!) and that the second coming of the band Jesus Lizard has come to pass, as foretold by prophecy, or at least by my friend Jake Harrison, who liked them way back when New Kids on the Block were still a relatively new phenomenon (he kind of liked NKOTB, too, actually — I think it’s a Boston thing).

Of course, amusing as “People Who Died” is, Carroll will probably be remembered for sounding hip (and looking hip as played by Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Basketball Diaries due to being so completely screwed up, as if that’s an accomplishment. The late twentieth century, alas, was a time when one could almost say without irony “Insanity is the new black,” what with all the Prozac people and the plagiarism people, you know what I mean. Someone probably did say that. Some rich Valium-user.

On a vaguely “People Who Died”-like musical note, here’s Weird Al doing a Dylan parody that may be the best use of palindromes I’ve seen.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Toward a Metric of Human Waste

I mentioned yesterday that I hope to attend tonight’s Objectivist talk at NYU (8pm, Eisner and Lubin Auditorium, Room 401) by Yaron Brook and John Allison about the causes of the financial crisis — but I also hinted I’m wary of ideologues oversimplifying the highly complex issue.

Demonstrating that one might still analyze the technical details of the crisis and reach largely anti-statist and even anti-regulatory conclusions, though, is the nuanced special issue of Critical Review on the topic (Vol. 21, No. 2-3), about which I’ll write more during next month’s “Month of Utopia” entries. In the meantime, you can read the editor, Jeffrey Friedman’s Weekly Standard article on the topic, a retort to (fairly market-friendly) Richard Posner’s book calling the crisis A Failure of Capitalism (though it depends on what one means by capitalism, of course — one of Friedman’s main points in his intro to the Critical Review issue is that modern finance has been shaped as much by regulations, which now look unwise in retrospect, as by pure market activity).

Friedman and other contributors to the CR issue are now blogging about the important, possibly epoch-defining topic at (Nobelists are cropping up everywhere lately — I mentioned two yesterday, and Vernon Smith has weighed in on the CotC blog already).


If economics could handle vast, mind-bogglingly complicated big-picture systemic questions half as well as it pretends to, my unsophisticated, amateur-curiosity-driven, highly philosophically-loaded big question would be this:

If total human output — all the energy we put into everything, not just big public or business endeavors — is taken to equal, say, 100, I often wonder what percentage would be left if we subtracted all the energy put into things I’d consider (in a fairly tolerant, non-too-judgmental sense) demonstrably socially destructive or irrational (in the sense of thwarting rather than facilitating stated ends).

That is to say, what would be left with if we subtracted all the energy put into (a) governing, (b) fighting about different styles of governing, (c) theorizing about governing, (d) war, (e) crime, (f) fighting and intellectualizing to prevent war and crime, (g) coping with regulations and taxes via grey markets and the like, (h) doing things based on false premises such as the expectation that wheatgrass will prevent cancer or that going to church once a week will grant immortality to the soul (or that reading The Secret will confer telekinesis-like powers over random events or that buying Axe body spray will end your involuntary celibacy), (i) being willfully irrational or self-destructively overemotional, and (j) simply treating other people like crap in ways that defy any game-theoretical expectations of the actor being made more happy or avoiding retaliatory crap (say, anger-induced actions that impede rather than grease the wheels of general human interaction)?

My plainly-vague guess is that not a whole lot of daily human effort falls outside these accursed categories. Or at least, far less than you’d think at first glance from the all the ostensibly-heroic striving and struggling human beings do.


And here’s the more depressing thought — though it’s also exciting in a sort of sci-fi way: How glorious and pleasant a world is the one we are denied by people continuing to do items (a) through (j), that is, how amazing is the just-barely-inaccessible world that I wish I lived in (and am trying in my small, feeble way to encourage, both at work and in my private life)? How badly have we been robbed (by ourselves, so to speak) by the fact that virtually everyone is a nut or a jerk or both, or is at best deluded by macroeconomists, macrobiotics, or cult leaders?

I somehow grew up, without too much effort, thinking logic/evidence and kindness yield the shortest distance between point A (desire) and point B (happiness) — and all subsequent experience has confirmed these suppositions. Yet experience also teaches me that surprisingly few people operate on those premises, and many are consciously not even trying to get to B. There is an infinitude of other operational premises to choose from, after all, and people get very attached to them, whether it’s “Mock others to feel strong” or “Just keep wishing until good things happen” or “Keep eating to distract myself from the problem of my obesity” or “Make our voices heard and government will solve the problem.” People are nuts, or at least are often mildly wrong. Few seem to care. What a waste.

And (speaking of waste) if all this sounds like inhumane, arrogant griping — as if I’m the killjoy here — keep in mind how many people on the receiving end of humanity’s irrationality have it far worse than I do. Take for example the little girl living in statist economic deprivation and religious marginalization in a garbage dump in the documentary Marina of Zabbaleen, which I plan to see tomorrow night at 8 at ImaginAsian Theater — perhaps making the fate of large American banks seem secondary, perhaps making such things seem even more urgent.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Skeptics and Norman Borlaug

I’m preparing to head off to a pro-science “skeptics” brunch — the Lucky Thirteen Club, run by Danny Korostyshevsky the 13th of each month — and I just hours ago received word of a blow to the scientific world. Dr. Norman Borlaug, the agricultural scientist (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) credited with saving a billion lives, passed away yesterday. He was also a trustee of the American Council on Science and Health, the little science-promoting non-profit where I work, so expect to hear more about him on the organization’s site this week.

My hopes on this sad occasion are scientific and secular ones, such as the wish that anti-biotech activists (who have saved no lives but have imperiled many) will stop denouncing Borlaug (just as I wish anti-market activists would stop trashing the late Milton Friedman, the only other Nobelist who ever told me to keep up the good work). Nonetheless, now might be a good time to mention the fact that I have a favorite prayer, not a terribly surprising or original choice.

The Serenity Prayer (not to be confused with the anxiety-inducing mantra “serenity now!”) was likely written by Reinhold Niebuhr (theologian and grandfather of Times culture editor Sam Sifton). Its advice is so rational (after that first syllable starting with “G”) that even Ayn Rand praised it (and my paternal grandmother, who is still with us at roughly Borlaug’s age, used to keep it hanging in her kitchen in New Hampshire):

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference

It’s not a bad summary of a properly integrated conservative, progressive, and skeptical worldview, really. We can’t change the physical laws of the universe, for instance, nor the laws of economics — but people like Borlaug show you are even more likely to accomplish amazing, world-altering things if you understand the scientific and economic constraints within which we operate.

The Lucky Thirteen club, I take it, focuses on spotting and overcoming one’s own superstitious thinking (not just religion per se), the seemingly-helpful heuristics for thought that turn out not to make sense upon closer examination. Some we need, some simply hurt us, and we may not sort them as easily as we think we do. (The desire to sort what works from what doesn’t through some method other than one individual’s intuitions and gut instincts is the best justification for ongoing filter mechanisms ranging from scientific debate to tradition to markets to the multiple-floating-countries “seasteading” plan being discussed in a few weeks at that conference in San Francisco Bay I’ve mentioned.) You can accomplish a great deal — and generate great ideas — starting with some measure of intellectual humility and discipline.

P.S. The more complex the situation, the more cautious we must be about mistaking simple heuristics for the full story — something skeptical-yet-ideological folk like me should keep in mind at tomorrow night’s 8pm Objectivist gathering at NYU to hear Yaron Brook and John Allison try to explain the financial crisis.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Never before in my lifetime have I seen the right function as a sort of rolling, morphing protest movement — and for the most part, I’m enjoying the change.

Today brings Tea Party events galore, which have sort of segued from the outrage a few months ago over the government’s massive deficit-spending and bailouts into town hall-inspired protests against socialized medicine. (Dan Greenberg, running for state senate in Arkansas, also plans to speak to a Tea Party down there and to mention my lamentations over government incompetence here in rebuilding Ground Zero.)

Glenn Beck’s conservative/libertarian “9-12” principles (core American ideas meant to remind us how we united the day after 9/11) provide a fairly decent fusionist rallying point this year — and this week also brings word that my old boss, John Stossel, has jumped from ABC News to Fox, where he’ll probably start sounding even more libertarian, if that’s possible.

Let Ph.D.s scoff if they wish, but America needs all these noisy things. And a measure of just how urgently I think we need them is that I don’t even find myself wanting to waste time complaining that belief in God is Beck’s principle #1 — even though I plan to go to an atheist-skeptic brunch tomorrow.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Ground Zero and Antarctica


•One sequence of events that history will surely record should have gone very differently is the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site, which remains — despite lots of talk and lots of money — a hole in the ground. With so much riding, symbolically, on civilization proving that terrorists can’t deal us permanent setbacks, this remains a colossal failure, eight years on.

•Read Schuchardt wrote, back in 2001, that he and friends saw the Towers collapse from a rooftop in Jersey City, and one of his friends said, approximately: Well, the twenty-first century was getting boring anyway. That understandably struck Read as offensive at the time but now seems so surreal, I’m almost glad the utterance occurred, almost as if one were present when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot and had the prescience to say, “This is going to be big, big trouble, you mark my words.” A veritable Neil Armstrong moment.

•As two examples of how very differently people react to the menace of Islamic terrorism, neither manifestly wrong, check out (a) this perhaps ill-advised Devo side project, Jihad Jerry and the Evildoers, and (when you’re done chuckling at our fear of the Other) (b) this far more earnest lament over the extermination of gays in Iran.

•And as a reminder that life goes on: September 11 brings not only Patriot Day remembrances but also the release at long last of Whiteout (seen here in a slightly scratchy-sounding clip of the trailer), the movie with Kate Beckinsale as a cop in Antarctica (based on a comic by Greg Rucka). There is an indirect connection between the film and Muslim radicalism besides its release date, too: The director’s prior biggest claim to fame is probably Janet Jackson’s Nation of Islam-influenced “Rhythm Nation” video, which remains my favorite synchronized-dance video, for whatever that’s worth.

And now, in a reminder of another national tragedy, she’s the most talented living Jackson.

Book Selection of the Month: "The Gate of Time" by Philip Jose Farmer

two-hawks-from-earth.JPG Book Selection of the Month (September 2009): The Gate of Time (which was later expanded into Two Hawks from Earth) by Philip Jose Farmer (who passed away earlier this year)

The plan for this whole year’s Book Selections, you may recall, was sci-fi and fantasy, one final blowout before putting that (and comics) behind me to focus on (arguably) more serious matters.  Since the mandate expanded a bit and I kept reading other things, this month’s Book Selection is technically the only case so far in which my selection for the month is literally a single novel and that novel qualifies as sci-fi — but then again, perhaps The Gate of Time should be called alternate history.

And speaking of alternate history: a note about 9/11, on this eighth anniversary, before we begin.

I think I may have been present at the moment when the victor in our Debate at Lolita Bar last week, Sander Hicks, became open to 9/11 conspiracy theories.  We had lunch some time after September 11, 2001, and a genuinely pained-sounding Hicks — trying to fit that horrible day into a right-left framework — said he almost felt as if there had to be some alternate universe out there somewhere in which Gore became president instead of Bush and the attacks were prevented and none of the subsequent events ever happened.  Some might argue he imagined his own alternate universe after that point, one with a very different sequence of events than the one most of us accept as the story of 9/11.

I was tempted to do something along those lines myself, as a joke, as the Ron Paul campaign became increasingly strange.

Like a lot of people, I’d been initially enthusiastic about his campaign simply because he’s a libertarian (not because of his coy openness to support from 9/11 Truthers), but I gave up on him abruptly in early 2008 as he fared poorly in the New Hampshire primary and revelations about his ties to racist newsletters suggested he might be as odd as critics claimed.  But some of his fans, with admirable albeit slightly delusional determination, wouldn’t give up on him and were still trying to think of bizarre scenarios whereby he might win, right up until the inevitable end.

My joke would have been to keep blogging as if he had in fact won the primaries, then blog as if he’d won the general election, then blog about how his presidency was going, only occasionally hinting at my concern that I might be inhabiting an alternate reality.  But people think I’m strange enough already, so I didn’t.


The 1966 novel The Gate of Time by Philip Jose Farmer (more famous for the Riverworld series) also features parallel universes.  After two WWII flyers suddenly find themselves on another Earth, the smarter of the two main characters, Roger Two Hawks, chastises his comrade for not reading comic books, which would help him understand parallel universes.  Two Hawks goes on to dub the world they’re visiting “Earth 2″ and their home (our world) “Earth 1.”

The novel was published a mere six years after the same terminology was introduced to DC Comics stories with the famous “Flash of Two Worlds” tale.  In DC Comics (a subsidiary of multimedia DC Entertainment as of this week), Earth-Two has been depicted not only as a nostalgia-drenched world on which old, 1940s versions of Superman and his colleagues dwell but also as an Earth with an independent Quebec and an earlier end to Apartheid.  Watchmen scribe Alan Moore more recently created his own nostalgic alternate Earth, Terra Obscura, populated by a long list of authentic old comics characters with amusingly old-timey character names.

Novels of alternate history — increasingly written by serious history buffs raising interesting questions about how things might have gone differently — typically take some very well-known event from recent centuries and examine how things might have played out afterwards if that pivotal event had a different outcome: England wins the Revolutionary War, the South wins the Civil War, the Nazis win World War II (over and over again, it seems — though not in Inglorious Basterds).  Yesterday, I even alluded to a fantasy in which Continental European “libertarians” and U.S./British “libertarians” are on the same side — but maybe that’ll yet have a happy ending.

What makes Farmer’s foray into the genre interesting and bold, though, is that the point of deviation is thousands of years earlier: Humans never crossed the land bridge from Asia to the Americas.  As Two Hawks wanders an alternate European land mass torn by a war very different from the one he knew, we gradually realize just how sweeping Farmer’s knowledge of ancient history, language families, and popular migrations must be.  Rather than dealing with comparatively small-scale historical differences such as Napoleon triumphing at Waterloo, The Gate of Time gives us a world in which people resembling Asians and Native Americans were pushed farther westward into Europe long ago by their greater population density and competition compared to our world — and a world missing certain key New World ingredients such as rubber and tobacco.

Will Two Hawks conquer this brutal world with grim, manly practicality and a bit of superior technical knowledge?  Will he make peace with it?  Will he find his way back home?  So many outcomes are possible.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Libertarians Without Borders (or Property Rights)

If libertarians and conservatives don’t always get along, and I think a libertarian alliance with modern liberals is unwise (because modern liberals obviously prefer things like socialized medicine to the market, whereas the market is the essence of libertarianism), then how about libertarians allying with the European left?

That seems even less plausible to me, but the Institute for Humane Studies — who I love — advertised the Paris Freedom Fest, starting today and lasting through Sunday, thusly:

You will engage in a friendly debate with libertarian comrades, who may not share free market principles, but otherwise fight the state’s intrusions in our daily lives with the same determination.

Did they have to say “comrades”?  I admit, though, that one of the groups running the Freedom Fest is the Manifesto Club, another fine outgrowth of the cabal of London post-Marxists who’ve given us genuinely anti-green, pro-technology, industry-friendly, anti-p.c. groups like the Institute of Ideas and Spiked, who I’ve met and admire.

I’m nonetheless left with the nagging fear that the Freedom Fest might prove to be a mere meeting of homonyms (much like a typical conversation between a classical liberal and modern liberal), since “libertarian” in Europe often means something akin to the term “libertarian socialist” that’s still used occasionally in the U.S. (usually in reference to nineteenth-century figures but occasionally to the still-living): essentially, left-anarchists who dislike the state as much as they dislike the market (and want spontaneous communes), in contrast to all the more-obvious statist socialists out there.

I don’t know if a twenty-first-century version of this coalition will work out any better than the nineteenth-century version did (with most people eventually siding with the market or the state and anarchism becoming a fairly fringe phenomenon) — but regardless, I hate to see “free market principles” made to sound like a dispensable element of libertarianism.  The food will probably be good over there, though.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Between a Box and Hard Place

While it crosses my mind (after mentioning boxing in yesterday’s momentous entry), here is perhaps the best feminism story ever.

A diminutive male professor friend of mine knows a Third Wave-type feminist (the kind mainly opposed to making any gender generalizations ever). The feminist kept insisting that she could hold her own against him in boxing — and indeed that it’s only societal expectations that lead to men being thought of as boxers and (most) women as non-boxers, etc., etc. (there was actually a book called The Frailty Myth arguing something along these lines, I think).

The professor kept urging her not to test this theory, but she insisted on getting into the ring with him, both of them using gigantic padded gloves and padded kiddy-helmets meant to prevent any possible injury. With about two punches, he literally sent her tumbling out of the ring, where she began crying, no doubt moving even his cold, sadistic, manly heart.

As usual:

Reality: 1. Feminism: 0.

Discussion Questions:

1. How cool was that story?

2. Did you like the part where the feminist cries?

3. What about the part where the diminutive professor clocks her in the head, which was also good?

4. What is your favorite part of the story?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Helen Rittelmeyer Postscript

One year ago this month, Helen Rittelmeyer came to one of the monthly Manhattan Project gatherings that I’ve hosted for about three years now. For the first time, I went on to date someone I met there. For a period of about ten months, she was mentioned so many times on this blog that you deserve some sort of final summation.

You don’t need embarrassing personal details (avoiding those saves me having to rehearse the doubts, perhaps deserved, that she had by the end about my verbal comedic timing, intellectual curiosity, and general intelligence — probably exacerbated by the thing that several not-yet-menopausal women have seen as the real Todd problem, namely that I don’t ever want to have kids but they yet may, which is only natural). You do, however, expect me to philosophize on this site once in a while, so a (fairly objective) look back at Rittelmeyerism, as I came to understand it, might be warranted.

Helen’s not simply a textbook example of a conservative, libertarian, moderate, multiculturalist, or paleocon (though there’s some traditionalist affinity to the last of these creeds). She’s also young and fond of ironic conjectures and will no doubt change her mind about some things, so everything I say here should be presumed tentative — and possibly just flat-out wrong, in which case, of course, I defer to the real source, whose byline I hope and expect we’ll be able to follow in major publications for years to come, a boon to periodicals ideological or non-ideological, of any persuasion.

Labor Day is an apt time to examine the riddle of Rittelmeyerism, since Helen’s fondness for labor unions might be the first thing to strike (no pun intended) many rightists as not fitting the usual ideological formula. The easiest way to understand a right-leaning person looking fondly upon labor unions might be to start by imagining the paleo attitude that local tradition is a good thing — rather than the vague, almost-globalist neocon love of “the West” as a whole. Now extend that love of the local — of one’s own little niche or tribe or social class — into a more sweeping, less predictably-Republican admiration for almost any group willing to mount a spirited — and inspiring — defense of itself. If miners are willing to pull together and make great sacrifices on each other’s behalf, even sing songs about their solidarity, they must have something going for them, even if the dry calculus of free-market economists says unions’ costs outweigh their benefits.

Well, but can’t everyone mount a spirited defense of themselves if they put their mind to it? Often, yes — and they should. Indeed, paradoxical as it might sound to someone seeking the One Best Way for everyone, Helen was also developing a fondness, last I knew, for strike-breakers. That’s only a contradiction if you start from the premise (which she decidedly does not) that conflict is a bad thing. And for four centuries, of course, almost all political thinking has been based on the assumption that it is bad — that Hobbes’s “war of all against all” is the worst thing that could possibly happen, the nightmare scenario that leads us to prefer the rule of law and even big dopey welfare states to chaos.

But libertarians, of all people, have to acknowledge the great danger of letting anyone claim to be the arbiter of the peace, the spokesperson for “reform” who will end conflict and impose some regime — however mild — that ostensibly fosters a bare-minimum standard of conduct that “we can all live with.” As the postmodern philosophers rightly complain, people are always trying to smuggle their own values into the “meta-narrative” that ostensibly explains and polices diversity itself. I certainly think libertarianism makes a tempting meta-narrative, for instance — but if no such philosophy can ever really get the upper hand and make everyone happy without squelching many of those things they consider worth fighting for, maybe “Everyone fight it out — forever” isn’t such a bad approach. Think of it as the tragic/pessimistic (yet quite possibly more realistic) cultural analogue of the liberal tradition’s effort to maintain legal checks and balances (and decentralization).

And while the various resultant conflicts might sometimes turn bloody (unlike full-fledged libertarians, Helen isn’t promising peace and quiet), they needn’t always be bloody. Indeed, her fondness for certain ritualized forms of combat such as boxing — violent but carefully constrained — starts to make a bit more sense. So, too, though, does her contempt for some of the favorite things of those of us inclined either to moderate conservatism or liberalism in any form: utilitarianism, “reform,” a focus on the amelioration of suffering, and general efforts to make sure we all just get along.


Indeed, I wish I knew one year ago about a particular pet peeve of hers, which is the Northeastern establishment of which I’m inescapably a product (though she is, too). Witness this (nicely crafted) paragraph she wrote back before we met:

There’s a long-running thread in Southern literature that suggests “Can Meritocracy Prevail?” is not a question that [one] can ask and expect to get a sensible answer. William Styron, William Faulkner, and Thomas Wolfe all wrote about disillusioned young Southerners who headed northward in hopes of finding a place with more appreciation for book-learning (Lie Down in Darkness, The Sound and the Fury, and Of Time and the River), and all three came to the same conclusion: Harvard and Yale are primarily capitals of New England culture, not capitals of academic learning, and New England doesn’t actually care about academic learning any more than the South does. The elite New England way of speaking sounds intellectual, but at the end of the day the resemblance is superficial. The fact that Ivy League graduates all talk like professors doesn’t indicate real erudition any more than the fact that Southern politicians all talk like Baptist preachers speaks to their individual piety.

It is, I suppose, a great testament to my mojo that we managed to last ten months with some of the cultural fissures between us (and me making comic book jokes) — even though on paper we’re also two of the very few publicly self-declared pro-punk traditionalists on the planet, a reminder that intellectuals will never want for hairs to split (one nice side effect of her old-timey Old Worldiness fusing with a New Wave-like sensibility, by the way: she introduced me to the weirdly hip world of contemporary Helsinki fashion).

You can easily deduce from all this the Rittelmeyerian aversion to people who falsely claim to stand above the conflicts of the grubby masses and niche ethnic groups, determining (as if scientifically) how to settle all their problems. The Northeastern WASP establishment — with its countless reform movements and influence within modern liberalism — is of course guilty of too many crimes to name, by this standard. More broadly, though, it is worth noting that Helen’s not too fond of the bourgeoisie in general (initially shocking to me, as a child of the Cold War keen to defend bourgeois America against the class-conflict-loving Soviets). Better the proudly white-trashy folk of North Carolina whence she came or the handful of self-conscious aristocrats left in the world — dressing like fops and recognizing that they are products of tradition, not a largely-imaginary pure-individualist meritocracy concocted as a self-aggrandizing myth by the bland middle class.

Similarly, she notes that (although boxing has surely become a bourgeois, money-fueled sport), boxing began as something beloved by both the upper and lower classes but denounced by the bourgeoisie — the middle class, after all, likes to see conflict settled peacefully, through the exchange of goods and services, occasionally through lawsuits, but not by an old-fashioned brawl. Brawlers are OK with Helen.

Such views, I have to admit, seem at least as natural and human as, say, G.K. Chesterton’s valorization of sentiment (vs. rationalism and science), though even with her love of irony — and defense of ideas that sometimes sound perverse to the modern ear — Helen doesn’t really like to be compared to Chesterton. Fair enough. We’ll get back to him in January. (I’m a cold-blooded, long-term planner, not a brawler, what can I tell you?)


Anytime you talk to someone who is very fond of both Nietzsche and Jesus, you know you’re dealing with someone who is difficult to categorize, but the two strands of thought aren’t as difficult to reconcile as they might at first appear, especially if you approach Jesus via a sort of mutant version of the Catholic valorization of suffering — a theme that blogger Eve Tushnet did a great deal to promulgate back around 2000 within Yale’s Party of the Right, from which Helen and many other conservative writers have emerged.

In Eve’s more quiet and gentle formulation, suffering tends to take the form of dutiful self-denial — something of which we all need to be capable at times, after all. But in the almost frat-like or Fight Club-influenced atmosphere of the Party of the Right since then, suffering has come to seem more like a Nietzschean virtue: a brutal self-overcoming amidst constant testing — the kind of thing that leads to getting tattoos or, in conservative Catholic circles, proving your badassedness by taking a month-long vow of silence.

(Fight Club isn’t the only recent pop culture text to push the dangerous idea that the only alternative to lameness is violence, by the way — listen to the lyrics of the recent Jay-Z song “DOA (Death of Auto-Tune),” which, taken literally, says that the only way to avoid fake, lame rap is to turn off those voice-levels-equalizing synth programs that make every young female singer these days sound like a cross between Nelly Furtado and Cher doing “Life After Love” — and instead go rob and kill people. Surely, there are some overlooked options in between.)

Why all this strife and struggle? (“Because it’s fun to watch?” one baffled libertarian-conservative friend of mine asked.) Well, it makes a bit more sense if you’ve already dispensed with happiness as a goal. Imagine instead a world full of people fighting each other and themselves because their goal is excellence, intuited to be something important regardless of whether it brings suffering (like a prize fighter risking his own death because he does not question the paramount importance of striving to be champ).

Now, I’d argue that most of the things we intuitively recognize as excellent or virtuous are in fact utile. Courage, for example, may be needed to defend against sources of suffering, and we’ve therefore evolved (both culturally and biologically) to respond positively to signs of courage in others and in ourselves. If the virtues led with certainty to suffering, after all, why heed them? Why call suffering not merely a necessary evil but a positive good — and happiness little more than a source of weakness?

(Helen did hang with the goth chicks for a while in high school, I must note — and her favorite director is Lars von Trier, which may tell us a lot. I also notice it happens to be Pain Awareness Month in my original home state of Connecticut, but I suspect they aim to ameliorate suffering, not promote it. Indeed, Will Wilkinson, one half of a couple with whom Helen and I have sparred online, once mocked Helen for implying that we should avoid socialized medicine because it might reduce suffering — which, as Will said, would be considered a great sales pitch for socialized medicine by most people. Now I see just how important a point in the Rittelmeyerian philosophy he’d lighted upon — no mere rhetorical misstep.)

The short answer to the “Why pain?” question seems to be: a fear that the drive to excellence can come only from some form of stern testing and shame-wracked self-hatred — of the sort that also ostensibly produces the best quick-witted yet insecure verbal comedy, in an Aaron Sorkin (or Woody Allen) vein. The alternative is laziness and complacency — and God already thinks we’re a bunch of sinful moral failures and slackers, in some sense. This whole worldview begins to sound so dark in some respects that I suspect the divide here is not, as it might have first appeared, between secular utilitarians like me (who honestly just want everyone to be happy and sane) on one side and spiritual strivers on the other — but rather between virtually everyone who wants the world to be a nicer place on one side and those who think struggle and strife are the only honest way of living on the other.

(Statistically speaking, there’s not much evidence that unhappy or angry people are more productive, despite the well-known tortured-genius exceptions — but I’m willing to accept that we may be measuring such things by the wrong criteria, or even that we ought to stop measuring things.)

And so we end up with an almost sado-masochistic view of the world, in which people deserve punishment but can achieve excellence (through conflict) and redemption (through suffering), a view radically different not just from the relatively boring utilitarian description of things but even from most garden-variety Christians’ notion of what constitutes a pleasant life. (As Helen said, somewhat disturbingly, when she cast a vote in favor of religion in our Weinstein/Dacey Debate at Lolita Bar on that topic several months ago, religion arguably makes people better by making them less nice.)

Of course, it’s easy enough for Ivy League alums (regardless of their region of origin) to say the world needs some hardship and suffering to make it great (and un-p.c. and non-boring). Meanwhile, out in the wider world, other people lead lives such as those of, say, pygmies in Congo, on the run from rival armies of normal-size, machine-gun-toting soldiers all of whom believe eating the pygmies will magically enhance their odds of victory in combat. In short (no pun intended), I’d say life is hard enough as it is.

And you might think all this pro-suffering stuff is so alien to my own pro-market, pro-science, proudly bourgeois way of thinking that I should simply recoil in uncomprehending horror from it — but keep in mind, I started out as something of a moderate conservative intuitively drawn to Platonic ideals and quasi-medieval notions of honor myself — and moved away from such thinking (while in college) largely by wrestling simultaneously with the contradictory appeals of utilitarianism and Nietzsche. I couldn’t really have both, but I could, in the end, sign onto a system (the libertarian conception of property rights) that offered both the hope of increasing the general welfare and leaving individuals the greatest possible scope for their big-souled, free-spirited experiments. Beats a kick in the head, I think, but what do I know?

In the end, though, the mere fact I’m trying to work out a system that might accommodate nearly everyone’s wishes may be enough to brand me a reformer — and thus no fun. Add to that, of course, the fact that no matter which policies I choose, I’m focused on alleviating earthly suffering instead of coping, in pained humility, with the God-shaped hole I should have in my heart (but don’t — nor, lest I sound like I’ve gone soft altogether, do I have a UFO-shaped hole, a Sasquatch-shaped hole, or a valuable swamp land in Georgia-shaped hole — and, crucially, if I did, it would make me all the more cautious and skeptical if someone came along claiming one of those things were real, not more eager to lose myself and my pain by believing in them).


Some of the practical fallout of the political views described above is quite libertarian, I should say, including the educational warning that for all our vilification of “corruption” in government, self-interestedly ethno-promoting political machines like those in Boss Tweed’s day actually spent far less money and created far less bureaucracy — simply by having humbler aims of no broad appeal — than did the so-called reformers (with their pristine clear consciences and world-transforming aims) who displaced them. That’s worth keeping in mind — as are the property-violating, often legally unchecked, aggressive acts of corporations crushing unions back in the early twentieth century, I should say, a horror that ended rather abruptly, and one might almost say conservatively, only when the New Deal institutionalized union-management bargaining in the 1930s, arguably an improvement over the days of machine guns and dynamited coal mines (depending on how much you really do like combat).

I once told Helen I thought I could write a whole book explaining elements of her philosophy — and it appears I nearly have — but as she said, it would make a lot more sense for her to write that book, and I should move on to other topics. Indeed, this fall will be a fresh start for me in many ways: Just before summer, I had TV reception, a comic book collecting habit, a caffeine-consuming habit, a trad girlfriend, and a tendency to websurf. I appear to have left all those things behind and with luck will be more productive for it (in some respects). Wish me luck.

Before the end of the Rittelmeyerian episode, she made one final visit to New York that was almost too fitting: We watched Last Days of Disco, the final film in Whit Stillman’s Young Bourgeois in Love trilogy, with Stillman and star Chris Eigeman in attendance to answer questions, and attended Catholic conservative John Berry’s wedding, with me and Helen ending up seated next to none other than Dawn Eden, who some might regard as part of a pattern of theologically-troubled blondes in my life. (Various young DC wonks can Twitter with amusement about that theory if they like — I’ll likely never know.)

APPENDIX: Todd and Religion

More generally, many people probably wonder why I put up with religion and religious people at all if I disagree so completely with religion’s underlying supernatural claims (though I don’t think it was the deal-breaker this time around). Well, it gets back to fusionism in a way — and shows just how intuitive fusionism seems to me (whereas it seems like a phony cobbled-together philosophy to some people).

I think government is so awful that I am willing to look for redeeming qualities in just about anything that isn’t government, by which I mean anything that might offer people alternative, non-coercive guidance in life. Self-help books can be annoying, but for many people they’ve provided advice that kept them off welfare. Hippie co-ops might make weird green or spiritual claims I don’t like, but it beats putting more strain on Food Stamps programs, if some people are able to stay off them with help from their hippie pals.

And religion comes with moral/psychological instruction and social networks so powerful that some Straussians recommend just pretending the whole thing’s true, to keep the system’s benefits alive (and if it’s really so beneficial, after all, then presumably there are elements of it that actually are true, though that doesn’t oblige me to give the supernatural claims a free pass).

I’m quite tolerant, really — even of Democrats. I just don’t want there to be a government, and I thus prefer almost any other social arrangement or cultural influence. (While government remains, though, would budget cuts and deregulation be too much to ask for?)

One potentially controversial upshot of my fusionist attitude toward religion, though: unlike so many people who admire religion but dislike the religious right, I see the political and social applications of religion as its most valuable aspects. If religion really were kept out of the public square and exerted no moral influence, then I’d have no more patience for it than for stories about fairies. So here’s one atheist who hopes religion keeps moving rightward (in some sense) even as he hopes society moves away from religion. It’s a complex world, full of conflict [UPDATE Oct. 2009: And now we're back together -- still interesting political stuff, though].

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Howl of New York, Poets of Providence, Slaves of the South


I heard a bit of the Allen Ginsberg-inspired Howl! Festival this weekend, on the Lower East Side — where Ginsberg lived in the same building as a poet friend of mine from Brown, Polly Kanevsky. This weekend’s readings included another Providence (turned Sarah Lawrence) poet (I missed the name) who stood out for sounding more whimsical and funny, less tortured, than the others, reciting (from memory) a long poem about “a place where imaginary friends go to retire” — closer to a Nickelodeon show premise than the pain of beatnik life on the streets. And that’s fine. We can’t all be tortured. And the world needs Nickelodeon shows.


This in turn reminded me of Providence poet Brett Rutherford, who also often writes about encountering imaginary creatures — except his are often H.P. Lovecraft-inspired and as much creepy as kooky (I recall him using the ominous title “Curb Your God”). What’s really unsettling, though, is the thought that Rutherford (who is a libertarian of some sort, as I recall) and I corresponded back when I was at Brown and there was no Web.

It’s not just that we’ve quickly learned to take the ease of Net access for granted — we’ve also forgotten how strange and spotty and unpredictable (yet sometimes all the more important because of it) our pre-Web correspondences were, often taking some form like: “I read your letter in the local newspaper and, since I’m not aware of any organizations in the area that address these themes, I thought I’d [hand-]write this long correspondence about some similar thoughts I’ve had, which I hope I’m mailing to the right house…”

That was the life of a young intellectual in 1990, in a nutshell.

As Tyler Cowen has recently written, one important means of overcoming such communication problems back then was…moving to New York City. If you couldn’t find intellectuals’ minds in non-physical cyberspace, you had to go to one of the locations where they actually lived — such as the Lower East Side, as the Howl! Festival poets have explicitly celebrated this weekend. This raises questions about whether communities built upon transient intellectual (or misfit) populations can or should be sustainable as geographic locations over the super-long-haul in the Net era.

I ask whether they should be not only because they may be less necessary now but also because such communities might be more prone to pathology than normal, more organic towns. One big purpose of the Howl! Festival has been to advertise a new service called Howl! HELP, which exists for the noble but rather narrow purpose of providing desperately-needed social services to troubled Lower East Side poets and artists. How troubled must a population that small be to warrant its own social-services non-profit?


If I were as devoted to exposing the plight of the socially- or ethnically-marginalized as the Beats and some of their intellectual allies, I suppose my method of writing about it would be something decidedly drier and more rational than anguished, free-associative poetry. Possibly an alternate-history sci-fi novel (alternate history has become such a big genre — and so respected even within real history departments — one can almost dispense with calling it a mere subset of sci-fi).

Two ideas, for instance:

(1) America becomes so heavily regulated that only Indian reservations, with their gambling and peyote dispensations, are still loci of commerce — and Native Americans thus buy back all their land.

(2) The Civil War never occurs, but instead of slavery gradually giving way to freedom, as many people would like to think might have occurred (and perhaps they’re right), in this nightmare scenario, slavery gradually evolves into an even more totalitarian, condescending, and omni-custodial welfare state, yet a disturbingly familiar-looking one. The happy ending? Unlike in our own world, intellectuals in this alternate universe are more easily able to see the similarities between statism and slavery, and eventually they revolt.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Amish Staying Off the Grid


The Amish are the ultimate paleoconservatives, not merely eschewing technology, as is sometimes supposed, but avoiding connectedness to the outside world, precisely because too much connectedness might erode their established social patterns (and displease God in the process).

Thus, online is probably the last place an Amish newspaper should be, and even if you question the wisdom of being Amish in the first place, you have to think one Amish paper’s decision not to go online is probably apt, despite the Net’s obvious efficiency. They’ll have to work a bit harder, though. And as Labor Day approaches, I’m reminded again that I think efficiency and the never-ending quest to do things the easy way are the real founts of human productivity and creativity, not the masochistic valorization of labor for its own sake. But again, the Amish aren’t just laboring — they’re working to preserve a specific mode of life. So be it.

Fortunately, the practice of rumspringa allows the young to spend some time in the non-Amish world, letting them make a slightly more informed choice about whether to remain in the community (most do). I think that was the topic of the entire hour of last night’s 20/20 broadcast, but I no longer have TV reception, so between that and the lack of cell phone or electronic social networking membership, I’m a little bit Amish-like myself, I suppose.

Which is more freedom-enhancing, I often anarchically ask myself: being off the grid or online? It’s hard to do both, and each has its advantages, one fostering the isolation that often maintains community (or individual autonomy) and the other fostering the efficiency that enables communities to form and spread and fulfill members’ desires. Perhaps best not to pretend we should all choose one or the other, like a war of Luddites vs. robots.

On a related note, I will mark Labor Day with a little look back at the most important paleo in my life so far.

P.S. I don’t think self-conscious irony, such as saying “We realize the irony in putting our Amish newspaper online,” would work for the Amish — but I really did correspond back in the 90s with contributors to an online neo-Luddite magazine called InFormation who took that self-consciously ironic approach — and not wholly hypocritically, since an important part of their argument was that we have little choice but to use tech if we want to keep up these days, and that’s often a grind in itself (I agree, as my late maternal grandfather, who lived in the same small farmhouse for eighty years, likely would too). Inevitably, though, it comes off sounding a bit like Sideshow Bob (a character from the television machine) saying he’s aware of the irony of condemning TV while he’s on the Jumbotron.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Chappaquiddick, the Big-Hearted Moose

Admittedly, in July I planned to increase the frequency of my blog posts from almost exactly one per day (which isn’t bad by typical blogospheric standards to begin with) to several (shorter ones) per day. Looking back, I find that this resulted in my output in July increasing to a whopping 1.5/day, then falling back to what may be’s natural rhythm of 1/day. It just seems easier to find one fifteen-minute interval per day for summing up and posting the day’s thoughts than finding multiple breaks (or faking multiple breaks in one fell swoop of entry-writing).

But a more optimistic reason for wanting to stick to longer/daily is that I’m anticipating next month’s “Month of Utopia” entries, which by design will cover one utopian (or dystopian) text per day, a disproportionate chunk of the things I’ve been reading over the past few months. After that festival of musings, with November’s twentieth anniversary of the collapse of Communism upon us, anything goes and we’ll see what mood and mode seem to capture the moment (and then the future).

Prior to October and Utopia, things’ll probably stay long/daily, but if that doesn’t sound like the vicious, punky approach posited in July, here at least are some quick observations about vicious animals:

•Maybe I just needed the laugh or am deeply disturbed, but I found myself giggling aloud more times at this Onion piece about a squirrel than at any piece of theirs in recent memory.

•And you have to love this headline of theirs this week as well: “New Species of Lobster May Have Come from Outer Space.”

•These pieces in turn tempted me, perversely, to write a book-length poem called “Chappaquiddick, the Big-Hearted Moose,” if that hasn’t been done already: The big lug wants to help everyone with free healthcare, is glommed onto by a female parasite, then goes into the river and unwittingly disposes of it (but never becomes president) — the whole thing writes itself, sorry as I am for thinking of it.

I will atone by writing nice things about the Amish and abolitionists over the weekend.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Conspiracy Debates Trilogy and You (and Yourow)

2. The Truthers’ call to reopen the 9/11 investigation prevailed by a vote of about 15-10 at last night’s debate — and coincidentally, I see today on Drudge that debater Sander Hicks is not the only Truther involved in politics who has a communist past and has transmogrified into more of a proponent of a greened but entrepreneurial economy, given the story about Obama’s “green jobs” advisor, Van Jones.

1. Another Drudge-linked story today noted that Japan’s new first lady believes she was abducted by space aliens, so our debate last month on extraterrestrials also looks more timely today than one could reasonably have hoped.

3. And on October 7, this arguably-fringey conspiracy debate trilogy reaches its giddy and mind-altering climax with the question “Is Obama Really a Natural-Born Citizen?” — with lawyer Howard Yourow arguing “no” (actually, if his name is pronounced “Euro,” can we be sure he is from this side of the Atlantic himself?).

We could still use a defender of Obama’s birth certificate to argue “yes,” though, so let me know if you’re available and informed — and possibly even entertaining.  The President needs you to do your part.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Voting Online, Voting at Our Debate -- Also: Russia!

russian-bear.jpg rollins.jpg

•You can vote already — in an online poll — for my free-market-loving legislator pal Dan Greenberg to become an Arkansas state senator (after his current representative gig). Would that we could all vote for him for real. This’ll have to do.

•And tonight, at our Debate at Lolita Bar (between Sander Hicks and Saul Devitt) on whether to reopen the 9/11 investigation as the Truthers want, you can vote on that question as well, in our traditional audience poll at the end of the evening.

•One less-traditional element of tonight’s debate: possible taping by Russia Today. The downside of this, of course, is that Russia Today has sometimes been criticized for close ties to the Kremlin, so if the debate proves disastrous, there may be theories afoot that the Russian government sabotaged things. I am joking! Joking like mighty Russian comedian!

•In related news, my Soviet-born anarchist blogger pal Michael Malice has an amusing culture-shock (or maybe more like culture-absent-mindedness) story about being an immigrant (like virtually all our scruffy, disreputable ancestors, I might add).

•And if hearing about a leftist punk (Hicks) being taped by Russian TV and an anarchist punk fan from Ukraine (Malice) being addled isn’t enough Eastern Euro-punk action for you, know that young Olga Konanova — originally from Russia but living in the U.S. for several years and now in New York City — among other past gigs helped market The Henry Rollins Show and retool part of it around a free speech theme — and now she could use a media-planner or marketing-strategizer-type job, if you have one to offer (she’s at OlgaKonanova[at]

She also happens to be an acquaintance of an ex-girlfriend of Dan Greenberg (who is now a married man, father, and general pillar of his community), so it’s really a very small world.

P.S. All this also makes me wonder, and not for the first time, what the plot of the impending Red Dawn remake is going to be, now that there’s no USSR, but that’s a topic for another time. (Of course, the very strange but interesting Inglorious Basterds didn’t exactly follow the real history of WWII, so why should a Red Dawn remake follow the Cold War accurately?)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Disney Buys Marvel


I stopped reading comics recently and have already developed the non-comics-reader’s defensive shell of weariness at the thought of trying to figure out what the various characters are up to these days — which is good. That will prevent any relapses, so I can move on to other topics.

Nonetheless, I’m grateful for my past ties to the hobby — resulting in things like (a) an idea for a graphic novel script I hope to devote much of my spare time to completing in the next few weeks, (b) likely seeing the movie Whiteout, featuring Kate Beckinsale as Antarctica’s sole cop, next week (even if it proves to be as lame as the trailers suggest) just because Scott Nybakken once introduced me to the writer of the excellent original comic (Greg Rucka), and (c) getting a voicemail from my mom letting me know that Disney just bought Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion. It’s just nice to know Mom’s keeping me informed.

The Wall Street Journal, in turn, informs me that a single Marvel Entertainment movie, Spider-Man 3, made nearly $900 million, so if I were Disney, I might buy Marvel too. Incidentally, this creates a new source of rivalry between Warner Brothers and Disney, since Warner owns DC. This now means Mickey Mouse and Iron Man are natural allies in a fight against Bugs Bunny and Batman, for those keeping track. But I’m not supposed to think like that anymore. It’s a corporate merger, not a fight between rodents and men. Have to keep telling myself that.

By the way, for anyone troubled by the fact that very-recent movies (often ones that aren’t very good) keep being declared the highest-grossing ever, here’s the solution: the far more classics-filled list of biggest box office hits adjusted for inflation. With Gone with the Wind, the original Star Wars, and the comparably awesome Sound of Music up at the top, the Great Chain of Being suddenly seems righted again.