Sunday, February 28, 2010

Seavey vs. Rand Video Redux

Even though this “Month of Ayn Rand” I declared saw me reading a Rand speech at Yale and mentioning her frequently (though not in as much depth as I’d planned) on this blog, it’s worth mentioning again that I’m not an Objectivist.  Indeed, as I noted last month, in this clip, at the four-minute mark, I ask Ayn Rand Institute head Yaron Brook if we really want more selfishness and can plausibly call the motivations of burglars and labor unions “altruistic” in anything other than a sense so linguistically idiosyncratic as to be obfuscatory.

I asked in my capacity as a four-time Stossel audience member, almost as prestigious an honor as multiple Oscars.  I also attended a taping about healthcare and one about food at which I actually made a comment in defense of Twinkie-eating, but the only time I spoke and made it into the final edit besides the Rand clip was my before-and-after double-comment the night of Obama’s State of the Union, with the URL of this very blog flashed under my talking head — ah, multimedia.  I can’t find my Obama-mocking comments online, but you can at least glimpse my head as Cato’s David Boaz starts talking in this clip from that same broadcast.

One day soon, I should really upgrade all my (notoriously limited) electronic media capacity so that I can easily do things like transfer my SOTU comments from DVD and/or VHS to online — and in general make fuller use of the mighty media power of Fox Business Network.

Face-to-face is good, too, of course (thus things like our impending religion debate at Lolita Bar between Richard Spencer and Helen Rittelmeyer), and the three nights in the middle of last week saw me at social/networking events run, respectively, by a Randian, a group of skeptics, and Institute for Humane Studies libertarians — the third at religious King’s College in the basement of the Empire State Building, presumably taking its name from the powerful being above us who always goes through one’s mind in that location, King Kong.

And on that note, I will turn my attention for most of the coming week of blog entries to movies, just in time for the Oscars.  Rand loved Hollywood and would no doubt have approved.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Huckabee vs. Ron Paul; Domestic Terror; Southern Women; DC

Today, with a Tea Party occurring at 11am in front of New York City Hall, I’m reminded that fat statist bastard Mike Huckabee said one reason he skipped the CPAC event this year is that the libertarians are taking it over, and they’re not real Republicans. He says he prefers the Tea Parties. Actually, I prefer libertarians, real Republicans, and Tea Parties to Huckabee. I’m a big-tent guy.

A plurality of CPAC attenders voted Ron Paul their favorite for 2012 presidential candidate (though plenty of other CPAC-goers greeted his victory with boos), so Huckabee may be factually correct, anyway. Glenn Greenwald thinks Huckabee is also more honest than most of the GOP, which only feigns anti-government sentiment when out of power. In response, I’d say that of course politicians love power more than principle — but unless one believes that hypocrisy itself is a sort of deadly radiation that directly kills American citizens, better (at least sometimes) to have imperfect government-limiters in power than honest government-expanders. At least the hypocrites may occasionally feel obliged to live up to their rhetoric, if only to keep up appearances. God help us, by contrast, if the Democrats ever live up to all their socialist promises.

But to look at the Paul/mainstream divide less cynically for a change: what if one is essentially moderate on military and security issues — and thus genuinely untroubled by the gulf between the Paulites and Cheneyans in that area, perhaps even seeing the two as balancing each other out in a relatively healthy way? Does that not perhaps make the acceptance of this ragtag coalition reasonable for a typical supporter? No party is unanimous, but it can “average out” to an acceptable coalitional message. It may prove useless for other reasons, but internal contradictions alone can’t be sufficient to damn any political party large enough to make a difference, especially in those cases where the contradictions capture some genuinely perplexing tensions — and let me just note again that all I really want are some damn budget cuts.


There are always still-more-radical approaches to fighting the power than voting for Ron Paul, of course. It’s interesting that the daughter of that guy who flew a plane into an IRS building in Austin still calls her father a hero.

I’m not that radical/crazy/homicidal, but a quick Google search suggests I’m not the first to think that someone ought to write a “Ballad of Joe Stack” anti-government folk song about the incident. Lotta musicians in Austin, albeit mostly left-wing ones — but, hey, the left-wing ones could always do it ironically and then sit back and watch the resulting single sell surprisingly well in some other parts of Texas (I say all this solely in the interest of art — and politically, it’s worth noting Stack seems to have hated both government and capitalism, not unlike a lot of angry people who end up barricading their compounds, if you know what I mean, people who lately probably don’t seem nearly as strange to many cash-strapped Americans as they once did).


Speaking of the South, I have in recent years dated a liberal lawyer from Virginia and, starting one year later, a conservative writer/editor from North Carolina (it’s not a strict rule that anyone who has dated me must eventually be a Lolita Bar debater, by the way, but the tally so far is five, those two among them, for those keeping track — and I don’t think that’s so many, given that we’ve done about sixty debates over a period of five years now, usually with two smart people who know me in each debate, and given my tendency to date only smart women — and let me add that “Lolita” stands for LOwer East Side near Little ITAly, just in case you suspected otherwise).

Anyway, at the risk of offending numerous people (but I’ll try to be fair even while brutally brief), the Virginian often charged that by being a right-leaning libertarian, I was no mere econ-loving man of the Enlightenment but in fact an enforcer of rigid traditionalist social hierarchies, especially regarding women, that I was insufficiently concerned with social justice, that I sound like a callous jerk sometimes on this blog, and that I was in effect rubbing shoulders with neo-Confederates and slavery apologists whose talk of being “libertarian” was a mere cover for a specific right-wing cultural agenda. I assured her I barely knew what she was talking about, my agenda being mainly dictated by supply and demand curves, and suggested her concerns might be rooted more in Southern experience than in my dry Northeastern bean-counting notions.

Then, a year later, the North Carolinian, who says she’s in some sense technically libertarian, began criticizing me precisely for not sufficiently valuing rigid social hierarchies, especially regarding women, for being too “reform”-minded, and for not being combative enough, and she even complained that the South’s history of slavery is often too glibly condemned by outsiders who consider it uniquely evil and manifestly un-Christian but fail to place it in historical context amidst various other old, oppressive social systems.

I’m not saying that getting attacked from both left and right proves I’m the sane middle ground here (as with healthcare legislation and bank bailouts, sometimes the left and right attack the middle because the middle genuinely sucks), nor even that I want the two of them to fight it out while I watch (though, again, I do organize debates), but merely that sometimes a brutha can’t get a break. That is my real message to the world. Write that down. I want that on my tombstone and, who knows, may well need one soon for all I know.

(Incidentally, the North Carolinian, Helen Rittelmeyer, notes an excellent summary by Fred Siegel of recent political corruption scandals in the New York area and beyond, lest we think the North is perfect. If you’re a liberal like the Virginian, Koli Mitra, you should read it as another reminder that government may not be a likely means of improving society — and Koli might well agree. I will admit government is generally more bearable than slavery, though.)


Meanwhile, my favorite free-market Southern politician (who ironically used to work for Huckabee), Dan Greenberg, has won the National Review Institute’s Ideas Challenge award for 2010. His idea (or at least an idea of Ed Meese and some of his fellow conservative constitutional legal scholars that Dan would like to popularize): re-limit the federal government via a constitutional convention called by two thirds of state legislatures instead of waiting for Congress. David Boaz, another of Dan’s former bosses, has half-jokingly warned that the first Constitutional Convention did enough damage without risking another one, but Dan argues that the scope of the convention could be carefully limited by the states.

On a closely related note: If I can’t get budget cuts from the feds, I’d happily settle for a massive move toward the fifty states just ignoring Washington, DC (the way parts of China ignore Beijing). Let DC do nothing but make payments on the debt until it’s gone. There’d be plenty of government left over on the state level — and fifty times more experiment and diversity. This idea is no more radical than racking up a $13 trillion debt and then spending still more. And let me be clear that I am not invoking states’ rights as a backdoor means of oppressing the black man. To steal a joke from the leftist Yes Men: I personally am an abolitionist. You need not call me hero.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Tea Parties, Snow, Hackers, and Death

Tomorrow, Saturday, Feb. 27 — one year after the small first New York City Tea Party protest at City Hall that led to a gigantic, underreported Tea Party protest there a month or so later (both of which I attended) — there will be an 11am Tea Party anniversary rally, once more at City Hall.  If things are still cold and slushy from the snowfall of the past twenty-four hours, though, I fear attendance may be more along the lines of the smaller first protest.  I will be with them in spirit but physically somewhere warm and dry — but, y’know, you should go, because why should I suffer?

I should note, once again, that despite the attempts to label the Tea Partiers crazy or racist, I saw countless signs with Rand quotes and anti-spending slogans at the events and no racist slogans (though with thousands of people at the larger rally, I’m sure you could find something awful if you insisted on trying — though not as easily as, say, finding anti-Semitic slogans at antiwar rallies).

If you go tomorrow, in fact, consider wearing this snazzy Atlas Shrugged book cover t-shirt pointed out to me by Ali Kokmen (who is not an Objectivist and indeed isn’t even sure he approves of Rand’s fondness for James Bond, arguably not her most shocking position).

I’ll say this for print books, even though I’m one of those people who thinks paper is doomed sooner or later: At least books on paper can’t be hacked, as this site recently was, and my apologies if it takes me and my able webmaster a while to delete some of the freaky-looking but mercifully infrequent glyphs now scattered in my old entries.

A grim reminder how much snow we got: I think I may technically have heard a man killed by the storm yesterday, or at least, after ACSH let us out of work early, I was near 69th and Fifth in Central Park at about 3:25pm, trudging home and a bit disturbed by the size of the slushy ice clumps falling like a meteor shower from the trees — and then I heard an immense and protracted “crack” that sounded exactly like a huge tree limb breaking off, learning only today that a man died at that time in that area due to a falling limb.  I heard no cries of alarm or anything but recall briefly thinking, “That sounded like a big, dangerous tree limb falling, and I’m glad I’m nearly out of the Park.”  Tomorrow, then, is likely to be better than yesterday.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Rand and God (and Muppets and Killdozer)

It’s disappointing that a movie of Atlas Shrugged with Angelina Jolie didn’t quite happen — and that we’ll never see the ad campaign that likely would have resulted, with Jolie accompanied by the question “WHO IS JOHN GALT?”  In what may be just an odd coincidence, Jolie is now being seen in ads for her upcoming action movie Salt, with the tagline “WHO IS SALT?”

While I await at least a TV miniseries version of the Rand story, at least I have a first edition, first printing of Atlas Shrugged (alas, without the dust jacket, so better to keep the copy than to make a few hundred on eBay) given to me by hippie-ish organic farmer and former Berkeley-dweller Valerie Jackson, ironically enough.   (The one I’ve been lugging around reading lately, though, is a paperback edition kindly provided to studio audience members after the Stossel episode about the book.)

Comparably ironic, perhaps, is the fact that although libertarians like the Institute for Humane Studies folk I’ll see tonight still gather on the lower floors of the Empire State Building — where Rand had her headquarters decades ago — libertarians now gather there thanks to the hospitality of the very-Christian institution King’s College (and they don’t mean “king of freight trains”).   This is no weirder, of course, than the fusionist combo of traditionalists and free-marketeers that makes up the broader conservative movement — but let’s not exaggerate the long-term logical necessity of the religious element of that coalition, regardless of its short-term electoral necessity.

I’ll grant that the most efficient four-word libertarian message in all of history was probably “Thou shalt not steal,” but I am not as convinced as one of my interlocutors at my Yale speech last week was that religious folk will always tend to be the anti-totalitarians and atheists (such as the Communists) to be the totalitarians.   Indeed, it strikes me that, in what should be a relief to secular conservatives everywhere, the time for making that generalization has clearly passed.

After all, authoritarian as China and Russia may be, the nastiest totalitarian regimes on the planet in this century arguably are motivated by faith.  The West threatens them precisely because it is secular, not, as one might have halfway-plausibly argued in the twentieth century, because the West is mostly-Christian.   If we were still in the midst of the Cold War, I’d almost sympathize with the view of some Straussians that intellectuals should “play along” with religion for the sake of its broader social effects — but I’d say that time is over.

Further, the stats apparently suggest that atheists (real ones, not, crucially, people who believe in God but mistakenly call themselves “atheists” because they have become estranged from their churches, an odd but apparently common American linguistic practice) are in fact the best-behaved, most law-abiding segment of the population, whether religionists like it or not.

(An aside: My wise young interlocutor made the important point that some things labeled “faith” are believed due to a proven, empirically-verifiable track record — such as a long-term tendency for church hierarchies to dispense moral advice or encourage charity — but that’s precisely why, as I responded, it’s important not to bundle together under the single label “faith” things proven and things believed without any evidence at all.   I may know from long experience that my neighbor is good at billiards, but that doesn’t mean I also have to trust him when he says he’s convinced his dreams about the world coming to an end in 2012 are true.   In philosophy class, if people refused to use two different words for these things — such as “trust” and “faith” — we’d simply refer to faith-sub-1 and faith-sub-2 to make sure we separated the reliable from the made-up and didn’t let the reputation of one falsely enhance the rep of the other.)

Of course, even if one were not a Straussian but instead a Burkean — generally a good thing, in my book — one might argue that we simply can’t be in the business of trying to prise apart different aspects of religion, saying this part’s bunk and that part’s socially valuable and worth emulating and risking misidentifying which parts are which.   But are we so sure of that?   Would doing that really be that much weirder than all the other mind-boggling and often beneficial social transformations America has undergone over the past two centuries?   I predict we can handle it and that the experienced-vs.-imagined distinction suggested above is the obvious place to start — though those least able to cope with (or imagine) the resulting social transformations will of course be the first to declare such sorting unworkable and forbidden.   (Luckily, we can discuss some of this at Lolita Bar next Wednesday on the occasion of our Richard Spencer vs. Helen Rittelmeyer debate on the question “Is Christianity for Wimps?”)

P.S. As a reminder of where a life guided by supernatural fears can lead when they are not functioning as a productive goad to law-abiding and proper behavior, here are the Muppets in the terrifying video clip “Bear Wit Project” — though I think Rand would have been more troubled by the hint of anti-industrialism in the 1970s TV-movie thriller Killdozer.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Atlas Shrugged -- Others Uttered a Vague "Meh"

Ayn Rand’s novel about a collapsing, overregulated economy, Atlas Shrugged, sold over a half-million copies in 2009 alone — and that was over twice the previous one-year record, set in 2008, according to the Ayn Rand Institute.  This suggests that the narrative of our economic woes being caused by unregulated capitalist greed has not fully taken hold, thank goodness.  (Perhaps without all the bailout and stimulus spending it would have, and in some sense we’d be in worse shape, ideologically if not economically.)

And I’ve been reading Atlas myself, for the first time since college (having read it the same pivotal summer that I read several of her books plus Locke, Smith, Mill, the Constitution, the Declaration, Reason magazine, Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, and de Tocqueville for good measure).  Then, it was the collapse of Communism, not capitalism, that was the hot topic.  Even then I objected to some aspects of Rand, such as the suggestion that altruism must lead to forced redistribution instead of, as has often been the case historically, being the antidote to forced redistribution.  So, I was fully prepared to dislike Atlas now that I’m older and wiser — but I have to confess, at the risk of looking like a hopeless libertarian geek, that I like it even more now.

Despite people usually remembering Rand for her somewhat flat heroes, it’s all the weaseling, mushy-middle, business-oriented but non-capitalist, PR-obsessed, science-politicizing, continually-evasive, chronically-indecisive characters who seem so painfully, urgently real now — and who are not quite captured so well in any other novel of which I am aware, at least not in the sprawling, highly-relevant context of an increasingly hobbled economy.  The book is really more about evasion than heroism in some sense, and it’s the former that is harder to understand intuitively (at least for some of us).

The brain doesn’t like to dwell on the ugly details of evasive, self-contradictory thinking, obviously, whereas the basics of heroism are so intuitively appealing that someone even paid $1 million for a copy of Action Comics #1, as noted by this article, which, oddly enough, quotes the drummer from System of a Down, who is also apparently a comic book dealer.  (This is another reminder that I’d love to know how successful bands have to get before the members tend to quit their other jobs.  Is anyone from Metric working in a Montreal bookstore?  And come to think of it, don’t I love Metric songs like “Stadium Love” precisely because so much other 00s rock sounded wussy and evasive, even when feigning garage-rock wildness?)

If you feel that YOU cannot avoid the topic of evasive thinking and what to do about it, perhaps we can discuss it tonight shortly after 8pm with the group Drinking Skeptically, at the aptly-named bar the Four-Faced Liar in the Village.  And more Rand thoughts tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Misfit vs. Misfit Debate Audio

Music Business Debate Participants

Our recent (Feb. 3) Debate at Lolita Bar pitted two former members of the Misfits, Bobby Steele and Michale Graves, against each other on the question “Is the Music Business Bad for Music as an Art Form?”  Remember the event with us now, with photos by Monty Leman (showing, from left to right, me, Graves, Steele, and moderator Michel Evanchik) and an audio file courtesy of Michel Evanchik (with added music snippets by the debaters themselves: the Misfits song “Dig Up Her Bones” and the Undead song “Evening of Desire”).

(listen to the debate download the mp3.)

As if that weren’t intense enough, remember that Wednesday next week (March 3, at 8pm) we return to Lolita Bar for the mosh-like throwdown between Richard Spencer and Helen Rittelmeyer on the question “Is Christianity for Wimps?”  I think we know what Ayn Rand’s answer would have been, but use your own judgment.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Brief Foreign Policy Note: Dubai

I’m sure to many people it seems like too disturbing a topic to broach, but I must not be the only one over the past few days who’s been thinking, “Even if you find the assassination of a Hamas commander in Dubai troubling, isn’t it sort of nice to hear that it may have been done by the Mossad and Fatah working together?  Cooperation has to start somewhere.”

A side note: If overly-ecumenical Americans ever finally fuse Hannukah and Christmas into one holiday decades hence, I do not think they should call the combined celebration Hamas.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Brain Cancer, Retardation, Coma Communications, and Hypnosis

I’m attending a fundraising event tonight (at which one of my neighbors is singing) for a group that gives gifts to kids with brain cancer, which, since I’m a compassionate guy, reminded me of two other brain-problem-related stories that struck me recently, one from the news, one from my own experience.

•First, I inadvertently found myself in a footrace with a short, seemingly developmentally disabled man last week.  He was walking rather slowly, but each time I moved to try and pass him, he would start speed-walking in a very panicky-seeming fashion until he was back in the lead and would then become calm again and slow down, eventually leading to me trying to make another dash around him.  At first I thought it might be a coincidence, but he kept doing it each time I moved as if to pass.  It was very important to him to stay in the lead, apparently (he seemed to make some exertion noises and was very warmly bundled up, looking a tad insecure).  I lost him at a stoplight, where he seemed transfixed for a time.  But in the end, no one really lost on that day.

(This in turn reminds me, as Michael Malice likes to do, of Rand’s comment in an interview that she admired the Charlie’s Angels TV series because she would prefer to watch beautiful women doing impossible things to watching the retard child who lives in the gutter.  On an unrelated note, here’s a story about a 500-pound fat woman doing something amazing, namely giving birth.)

•Second, that guy in a coma who was supposedly communicating via subtle finger movements — a claim of which James Randi was an early skeptical critic, as I noted back around Thanksgiving — has now been revealed by his doctors to be just a regular, uncommunicative guy in a coma.  His doctors now liken the “messages” that some people thought he was sending to the messages people believe they get from ouija boards, not realizing that they are subconsciously spelling out precisely the words they long to see.  That humans are so quick — eager, even — to engage in such self-deception is all the more reason that we have to be skeptical.  That which seems too good to be true — especially that which fits neatly into our preconceived expectations — may well be bunk, and there is no magic in pretending otherwise, only error.

Unless by magic one means stage magic, of course, which relies heavily on manipulating people’s expectations — just as stage hypnosis always relies heavily on weeding out the people who honestly admit that “nothing seems to be happening,” until the performer whittles his way down to the handful of people who can dupe themselves into thinking they must behave like chickens — or better yet, just the handful of dishonest people willing to play along and get some attention while up on stage.  There is no mind control — but there’s plenty of self-deception, conscious deceit, and just plain acting like a fool once given a handy social excuse.  Welcome to the human race.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

"We the Living," Romney the Vulcan

With my Italian libertarian economist friend, I rewatched the very libertarian Italian movie We the Living, adapted in 1942 without Rand’s authorization (but with her retroactive approval decades later) from her early novel about a young woman in Rand’s native Soviet Union dreaming of escape and torn between two lovers, one anti-communist but driven to cynicism and despair, the other a principled but deluded Communist Party member. Even with the film’s truncation/ambiguity about the end of the original story, things do not go well.

Nor did things go well with the film’s original release — released (in two parts) with the approval of the authorities in Italy during WWII because it was anti-Soviet, it was yanked after a few weeks when the authorities realized its individualist message was anti-fascist as well (Mussolini’s goons apparently having been as slow to figure out that individualist messages are incompatible with fascism as were left-wing British rock critics who condemned Rush as proto-fascist).

We the Living may be the most normal-human-feeling Rand story of which I’m aware, particularly her willingness to make Andrei the Communist a surprisingly sympathetic character. Socialism, as depicted in Rand’s work, is an inexcusable, alien offense in the U.S. but a genuine tragedy in Mother Russia. The convincing scenes of Party meetings at the local university, with their air of participatory democracy (marred by out-of-sight executions and backroom deals), reminded me very much of the unintentionally poignant descriptions in American Bolshevik reporter John Reed’s writings of his experiences in the early Soviet Union, when people really believed that the spontaneous collective bridge-building and so forth that they were engaged in was a model for the freer and more spontaneous future they were creating (with only occasional hints in the Reed essays I read of drafts, food shortages, and other rapidly-widening cracks in the armor of the worker’s paradise).

Depicting Andrei as basically a good man actually does fit neatly into Rand’s thinking, though: She said repeatedly that one would be better off dealing with a principled Marxist, who at least feels obliged to render his thoughts coherent, than with a mush-minded welfare statist with no clear principles. The former offers the opportunity for rational persuasion, but the latter, as we know from everyday life in the U.S., is largely immune and can simply shift gears, in an almost postmodern fashion, when cornered. Indeed, the Rand speech I read to Yale students on Wednesday ended with the prediction that the mushy middle would not hold and that the future would belong to one or the other principled extreme: Objectivism or Communism (this inspired one student to ask if I’m an Objectivist and, when I said no, to follow up with the amusing question, “Well, then, are you a Communist?” — Rand greatly underestimated people’s willingness to muddle along somewhere in the middle, right up to and perhaps beyond the point of the welfare state’s collapse).

For my copy of the We the Living DVD, I should again thank Duncan Scott Productions and Patrick Reasonover (who is more a paleolibertarian than Objectivist, but we like paleolibertarian media guys). My Italian economist advisor notes, though, that the English subtitles on the film are a very loose, sometimes just flat-out wrong, translation, something that future distributors might want to revisit. When Andrei calls himself a traitor to Communism in the English subtitles toward the end, for instance, he actually says in the original Italian that he had been deluded.

P.S. In other video news that raises questions about coercion and freedom, I was amused to read that in an online video, the L.A. rapper who got into an altercation with Mitt Romney on a plane explains that he is not a “salmon” to be seized by a “condor grip” — and indeed that Romney has no right to use a “Vulcan grip” on people (hey, maybe he’s a Romnulan).

If Romney’s using sci-fi battle tactics on fellow passengers, one can only imagine the horrible showdown that will occur if he is ever seated next to Kevin Smith on a plane. At least he didn’t insist that anyone’s dog be transported on the roof of the plane.

Friday, February 19, 2010

More on Weasel Science: Smoking

Just one more example of rampant weasel language in the public presentation of science (to go on about it too much would be to steal material from my job): A tragedy now occurring in public health is the widespread condemnation and/or banning by all the purportedly most-responsible health authorities of “e-cigarettes,” which are (almost certainly) harmless nicotine inhalers that could likely save 400,000 American lives a year if they replaced regular burning-tobacco cigarettes (so you can have your Randian/conservative firestick in hand without having your head in the sand about health effects).

But the health officials are shameless about saying, in effect, “e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco are no safer than regular cigarettes,” even though that’s utterly false (and dooms millions to die) by any normal English-usage standards and can only be excused if taken to mean “e-cigarettes may have the same obscure random cancer dangers as the ambient ‘toxins’ some people worry about from breathing near plastic or any other paranoid hypothetical, and smokeless tobacco may present about 1% of the cancer risk regular cigarettes do, and since that means neither can technically be said to be perfectly safe with certainty, they are ‘equivalent’ in risk to tobacco smoke.  QED.”  (All of this sophistry is of course driven by hatred of the tobacco companies and thus considered morally excusable.)

What can you do when language has lost all meaning?  And the easy skeptical response of saying, “Those officials’ conclusions are based on science, not like Mormonism!  Yay!” simply doesn’t address the rather nuanced problem.  All you can do is work as an anti-junk-science crusader day after day and hope the world catches on eventually.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Skeptical of Skeptical Inquirer

Having learned nothing from the deluge of negative letters they got three years ago (including one from me that got printed) — which caused Skeptical Inquirer magazine to instantly downsize the second half of their planned two-issue, alarmist global warming coverage — the magazine now (in its March/April 2010 issue) unleashes three very short, very perfunctory, very snotty pieces lamenting pompously that we anti-scientific global warming doubters have not given up our campaign of baseless accusations against the well-established facts of climate science. I hope the magazine will once again discover that its readers do not assume that skeptic = climate alarmist (often quite the contrary).

One piece even goes on about climate skeptics not being real skeptics for about three pages before noting in passing that, oh, by the way, if there were, y’know, improprieties in climate research hinted at by that recent e-mail controversy thing, don’t worry because they will of course be dealt with in the time-honored fashion of good science — but that incident is of course no excuse for those ghouls who hate reason to feel encouraged that their nonsense (about the climate situation not being a crisis) should be taken seriously, etc.

There’s a (dare I say it) faith-in-the-scientists problem with organized skepticism — a tendency to think that because the scientific method in its pure form over time gets the best results (which is true), we can already trust the current scientific establishment to have reached sound final conclusions, even on things that aren’t well studied or quite within the speakers’ ostensible areas of expertise. This problem is not an excuse to valorize non-scientific thought nor to throw out all science (any more than the existence of residual mysteries about the universe is a blank check to believe in ghosts and werewolves), but it’s a real problem — akin to making the logical leap from the long-term efficiency of market processes to saying that we can trust in the wisdom of all currently-existing businesses.

The problem is certainly one relevant to my real job, combating unscientific nonsense that is mostly created by real, credentialed (but nonetheless agenda-driven and context-dropping) scientists. I mentioned the problem to a nice skeptic couple I know, and the scientist wife assured me that if there are errors, science quickly weeds them out. I simply don’t believe that anymore (at least not the quickly part, which is key, and not in highly politicized topic areas) — especially once certain rhetorical forms of context-dropping (such as flatly calling things “carcinogens(!)” that are really only “possible carcinogens to some rodents if administered in astonishingly high doses of no relevance to ordinary human exposures”) become so institutionalized that no one feels guilty about using them anymore, be they scientists or university PR departments seeking attention for the latest (likely irrelevant) research, let alone ratings-seeking reporters, who I’m almost starting to feel sorry for, given how irresponsible some of the scientists are. In science as in business: love the process, hate many of the practitioners is increasingly my attitude.

And I must say, I sure felt like I was at work while recently re-reading that passage in Atlas Shrugged in which Dagny tries to get the head of the government science center to admit to the meaninglessness of the center’s vaguely-worded statement condemning Rearden Metal as maybe-possibly-potentially dangerous in some as yet unknown way (my boss has had similar experiences trying to get National Cancer Institute heads to admit that they know industrial chemicals are not a significant source of cancer). Check out the wording of the FDA’s recent worried-sounding yet non-banning announcement regarding the harmless but paranoia-attracting chemical BPA if you don’t think government-fueled weasel-science is slow-motion-eroding industrial civilization before our eyes in much the same way. I worry.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mother Teresa and Philosophy

Like some of the likely listeners at my Yale rendition of Rand’s “Faith and Force” speech tonight at Harkness Hall, Room 119 (6pm), my fellow conservative Gerard Perry does not share my complete skepticism about religion — and asks how I feel about Mother Teresa being honored with a U.S. Post Office stamp. I think any fair-minded person would agree that this is an unfortunate violation of the separation of church and state — and a case of coercers using stolen money to honor a crank, to boot. As Christopher Hitchens and others have lamented, Mother Teresa often eschewed modern medical assistance as ostentatious and overly materialistic, preferring in many cases to pray futilely over the dying or merely lay hands upon them. A tragic, morally warped figure who serves as a warning to us all of how not to live (one of the reasons I just signed up to attend the April 17 NECCS conference of skeptics here, featuring James Randi and others).

Meanwhile, for example, some of my materialistic, purportedly shallow colleagues at the American Council on Science and Health have literally done things like save a billion lives through improved agricultural techniques and eradicate smallpox from the planet even while being pilloried by ostensible defenders of Nature and/or God’s design — and all that struggle goes on when the more minor players on our Board aren’t merely helping to found hospitals and the like. Ah, what blinkered, cramped little lives the servants of science and industry lead! They’ll pay for it with eternal torture in the afterlife, I’m sure, and no one wants to be eternally tortured.

Of course, lest I exaggerate the divide, it’s worth noting my boss at ACSH is married to a religious man and that long-term co-existence is thus possible (fusionism!). Their daughter, I concede, did a nice job of splitting the difference by focusing on…philosophy. That makes sense to me. Philosophy is a fairly open-ended attempt to talk about truth in whatever language proves necessary to describe it — and wherever the ensuing arguments lead. Like few other disciplines, it is malleable enough to address whatever appear to be the new vexing issues of the day without requiring the jettisoning of the whole field’s methodology or underlying cosmological assumptions when surprises arise — as of course they always should unless one is very stubborn.


In short, if there’s reason to believe there’s a God, the idea ought to be subsumable within philosophical language, just as the implications of a purely-material universe ought to be. Philosophy, bless it, is ready to handle anything — which is why people like me who are (in addition to being pretty rational) a tad stoic and not easily fazed are often drawn to it. If you tell engineers that we’ve just discovered all physical laws are really being faked via telekinesis, they’ll probably freak out, at least in the short term. Philosophers will calmly ask, for example, what ethical implications this revelation has for the permissible range of action of the telekinetics (if they change the laws of the universe at a whim, have we been wronged?).

We philosophy buffs can handle the truth, in other words. I would not lose my mind if it turned out the universe were the product of a planning mind (heck, I’ll even tell you the one remotely-plausible argument I’ve heard for this position, which is the argument from the so-called Cosmic Anthropic Principle concerning the well-suitedness of this physical universe to molecule formation, not that I think it ultimately necessitates a Designer). I only wish I could convince my religious acquaintances (those who have not already permanently lost their minds) that they need not lose their minds if we conclude, after sober reflection, that the universe does not imply a Creator. They seem very anxious and insecure on that front as compared to all the skeptics I know.

Speaking of things poised between science and religion, by the way, in between the inflation-adjusted box office totals for biotech-oriented Jurassic Park and ancient-Hebrews-oriented Raiders of the Lost Ark (both Spielberg-directed) now sits Avatar, at #17 on the all-time box office hits list (with a diabolical $666 million in domestic ticket sales). It’s risen above Phantom Menace and The Graduate in the past week or so — how high will it go? This might, I suppose, be a good time to admit I was wrong about one empirical prediction: I thought Avatar would be a colossal money-loser.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Kevin Smith Too Fat to Fly

Here’s something with political ramifications we can discuss tonight at Manhattan Project (6:30 at Merchants NY East) or tomorrow after my Rand speech at Yale (6pm at Harkness Hall, Room 119): nerd-beloved director Kevin Smith was ousted from a Southwest Airlines flight for being too fat. A side effect of creeping health-nannyism, or exactly the kick in the lard-filled ass America needs? When in doubt, of course, I defer to the owners of the company — but a ticket is a contract. So many questions…so many future jokes at his own expense…

Monday, February 15, 2010

Book Selection of the Month: "Philosophy: Who Needs It" by Ayn Rand

rand-philosophy.JPG Book Selection of the Month (February 2010): Philosophy: Who Needs It by Ayn Rand (featuring the 1960 speech “Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World”)

A fine anthology of philosophical essays and fiction snippets for the newcomer to Rand’s thinking, this collection contains in particular the aptly-titled speech “Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World,” outlining in admirably clear terms the two means by which humans avoid moral and logical consequences — muscle and intellectual evasion.

Of course, I will myself be chopping out long, extra-crazy passages about the evils of altruism when I do my own rendition of the speech in two days (followed by two more renditions right here in New York City a couple months from now).  Michael Malice, who has called himself “more Rand than Rand,” has already chastised me for the planned excisions, saying, oh, sure, the speech has just been influential for fifty years and stood the test of time, so why not chop out the parts you don’t like to suit your own thinking?

Nonetheless, unless the Man (as opposed to man qua man) at Yale stops me, I will deliver the slightly-abbreviated speech at three locations, each on the fiftieth anniversary of the day of Rand originally gave it in that location:

•Yale University on February 17, 1960 (6pm Yale’s Harkness Hall, 100 Wall Street, Room 119, New Haven, CT)
•Brooklyn College on April 4, 1960
•Columbia University on May 5, 1960.

As I’ve noted before, these dates happen to fall on Ash Wednesday, Easter Sunday, and Cinco de Mayo, so I hope Catholics in particular will learn from the speech, despite their stubborn resistance to rational thought and skeptical analysis, knowing as they do that their entire worldview hangs like a shaking, dried leaf upon the outmost branch of human gullibility, unsupported by a scrap of evidence or an iota of common sense.  Religion of all stripes speaks to people — and to their travails — on an emotional level, just as the idea of the boogeyman in the closet or unicorns prancing in an unseen part of the local woods undeniably speaks to a five-year-old.  This is not truth, though.  This is not basic intellectual integrity.

I will endeavor to make that point on Wednesday, possibly to a room full of people with ash on their foreheads who believe that the occasional statue smeared with chicken blood by children or con artists has come to life and is weeping tears.  For shame.

Incidentally, I applied to — and was accepted to — the entire Ivy League back in the day except for Yale, which I had completely avoided applying to because I feared its famed divinity school would mean the campus was crawling with Christians (ha!  the Div School is, of course, instead full of pagans and Sofia-worshippers).  Ironically (due, some would argue, to divine  or Satanic intervention), years later I nonetheless ended up dating a Yale religious studies major, Helen Rittelmeyer, who at one point headed OSGaY (the Objectivist Study Group at Yale), the very same Yale Party of the Right branch essentially devoted to “deprogramming” Objectivists and responsible for hosting me this week — but I will attempt, in both my “performance” as Rand and any subsequent Q&A, to offer something of a middle ground, acknowledging both Rand’s strengths and weaknesses, which only I am fit to judge (having lived a life uniquely devoted to rationality and sober skepticism), as most fair-minded readers of this blog will readily agree.

Incidentally, Rand herself, admittedly waxing rationalistic but hitting on a fairly large grain of truth, said that the answer to the question in this book’s title is “everyone.”  That is, no one is truly without a philosophy — it’s just a question of whether one’s philosophy is coherent or a junk heap of contradictions.  Not that consistency is always less dangerous than a junk heap, of course.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Brutal Valentine's Day with Ayn Rand

Examining Ayn Rand’s novels with fresh eyes all these years after reading them in college, I can’t help but be struck by how pervasive and obvious the (at least superficially unlibertarian) ethos of the “bdsm community” (fans of bondage, domination, and sexual sadism and masochism) is in her work. It’s an accusation routinely leveled at the obvious target of the actual sex scenes themselves — such as the quasi-rape by Howard Roark in The Fountainhead (usually dismissed by Rand’s fans on the technical grounds that it’s implied he knew she knew he knew she wanted it, etc., which is fair).

What’s more disturbing — and what escaped my notice when I was a naive young reader who hadn’t yet met various New York City-dwelling weirdoes over the course of years of living here — is just how often the bdsm aesthetic crops up in the non-sex scenes. It’s dismissible by those fans who might prefer it weren’t there, unmistakable to those who (whether we like it or not) now know what dark signs to watch for.

Again and again, the message is that instead of fostering mutual kindness, one ought to be proud to take a beating, metaphorical or literal, from someone as exalted and noble — as knowing — as oneself. Take the flashback moment, early in Atlas Shrugged, when a teenage Dagny tells a teenage Francisco that she may just give up and deliberately fail classes at school in order to be more popular, causing Francisco to slap her in the face immediately (not quite the proper non-coercive response):

What she felt was contained in an instant, while the ground rocked under her feet, in a single blast of emotion within her. She knew that she would have killed any other person who struck her; she felt the violent fury which would have given her the strength for it — and as violent a pleasure that Francisco had done it. She felt pleasure from the dull, hot pain in her cheek and from the taste of blood in the corner of her mouth. She felt pleasure in what she suddenly grasped about herself and about his motive.

She braced her feet…looking at him with a mocking smile of triumph.

“Did I hurt you as much as that?” she asked.

He looked astonished; the question and the smile were not those of a child. He answered, “Yes — if it pleases you.”

“It does.”

[When he offered to put cold water on her wounded lip, she] laughed, stepping back. “Oh, no. I want to keep it as it is. I hope it swells terribly. I like it.” [Later, she felt] that the incident was a secret too precious to share.

The description of Dagny’s pain on the tennis court as she forces Francisco to feel pain with her extraordinary playing against him, reveling in the thought that her exertions begin in her aching muscles and end in his, has a similarly violent quality to it.

If Rand were content to depict the characters beating the crap out of each other in merely-private conversation or in the bedroom, that would be one thing — of psychological but no great political interest — but her love of consensual brutality actually ends up affecting her depiction of economics, and in ways that should make libertarians worry about her ability to function as an effective proselytizer for capitalism. Just as the bdsm ethos, in the minds of its more hardcore or pathological practitioners, requires not just some painful-but-pleasant role-playing but a continual escalation in acts of cruelty until the participants are tested to their ostensible limits and then forced to discover new ones (albeit without actually having to, say, join the Marines, climb a mountain, learn the harpsichord, or do something genuinely productive), so too do the Atlas characters repeatedly express their sexually-charged admiration for each other’s willingness to drive such hard bargains that others are driven to the brink of bankruptcy.

Now, I’m not for a moment saying that capitalists shouldn’t be charging the highest prices they can get — that’s the whole idea. But I don’t feel the need — economists don’t feel the need — to justify the practice in part by showing how even the people on the rougher end of the deal can learn to take a sick thrill in being bested. It’s enough to observe that any voluntary exchange is presumably mutually beneficial by definition without turning it into some Germanic tableau of submission and domination. The kind-hearted Amish man selling pricey whoopee pies on the side of the road to beloved neighbors and tourist children with a few kind words of wisdom is as much a capitalist as the gruff tycoon telling a supplier that he’d better cut his prices in half or he’ll never get another large-volume aluminum siding deal in this town again, you little runt-bastard. Indeed, there’s nothing uncapitalist about saying we prefer the Amish guy, so long as we don’t enforce that preference via legal favoritism.

I prefer the Amish guy.

Poor Rand, I fear, was basically making the all too common mistake of embracing one’s enemies’ description of oneself. Just as a child who is told without reason by an abusive parent that he is no good may sometimes decide “Fine, then, I’m a bad seed!” and become worse — or gays decide that it is their role to mock all conventional ethics because they have (wrongly) been told repeatedly that the greatest sources of joy in their lives are unethical — so, too, does Rand seem, like some of the very characters she upbraids for this self-hating mental maneuver, to have thought, “If the Soviets of my childhood insist that only a cruel-hearted, cold person can be a capitalist — then I shall be cruel and cold! If only mercilessness works in business, then I will eroticize mercilessness!” This does capitalists an inadvertent disservice. They needn’t be sadists. Those who admire them needn’t be masochists.


Sadists are the lowest form of human life, by definition, as I’ve said before — arguably the lowest form of life, period, given that non-human animals merely act on self-preserving instinct, not conscious malevolence. Just as one doesn’t need complex philosophy or psychological analysis to see that an avalanche that shatters one’s leg is, all else being equal, a worse outcome than a warm breeze on a sunny day — and marauding jackals keen to eat you a worse set of companions than a playful batch of puppies — so too is the world a worse place for having in it people who enjoy — or admire — the gratuitous infliction of suffering on others instead of the upward spiral of increasing mutual benefit possible from generous and compassionate cooperation.

The damage done by specifically-sexual sadists, of course, can be contained to some degree by their ritualistic dyadic relationships with willing partners, but (as Aristotle knew) we are creatures of habit, and unless cruelty can somehow be performed with cold, scientific detachment (itself arguably dehumanizing) it is likely to foster deformed characters whose ill-will will surface in places other than the bedroom (or boardroom). A friend of mine was rightly alarmed, I think, to read of Penn Jillette, who was casually making a freedom-of-thought point, saying that while rape is wrong, fantasizing about rape all day is harmless. If our fantasies affect our emotional makeup and in subtle ways our behavior, it’s not entirely clear Penn is correct on that point.

For the most devoted of Rand fans, it is crucial to take her at her word that all of her work is joyous and life-affirming, so they’ll likely hasten to deny the significance of this dark streak in her aesthetics and psyche — just as some to whom I’ve talked are (or in the old days often were) keen to deny the non-libertarian, more blatantly Nietzschean tone of her early works, such as the play The Night of January Sixteenth, in which the absent hero-capitalist is likened not to a peaceful trader but to a brutal master who gladly wields “a whip over the world” and would walk indifferent across victims’ corpses to reach his goal, hardly the libertarian ideal (yet the descriptor has its echo in more politically-neutral descriptions of Roark in The Fountainhead and a fainter, more tamed and scrupulously libertarian echo in the sadomasochistic interactions of the main Atlas characters). Rand began by liking a certain type of noble brute, I’d contend, then sublimated that into a (commendable) admiration for capitalists but without fully jettisoning her old, more savage aesthetics (and turn-ons, presumably).

(Highly devoted Rand fans will always insist she was very happy, too, of course, though we can legitimately question whether such a censorious, intolerant hardass seems happy. They’ll sometimes note that she danced around her office listening to ragtime music, but raise your hand if you think that would have been anything other than a terrifying spectacle.)

It’s worth noting that one is playing with fire if pushing an ethos and aesthetic that may be readily absorbed without the crucial accompanying economic qualifiers and side constraints that render it safe. Certainly, with an early work such as January Sixteenth, one could reasonably come away, not with a newfound love of tolerance and individualism, but with the contrary idea that predators are cool. And predators may well be “cool” — I think there are real, hard-wired reasons most of us would rather look like hawks and wolves than like cows despite ironically often approximating such predatory-hunter looks by wearing leather. But predators are not good. And thus neither are people habituated to think like them. And Rand of all people should not be valorizing them. It’s almost as absurd as, say, a meekness-promoting Christian doing so.

There is no stupider or more destructive attitude — common though it certainly is — than the belief that being bad is an accomplishment. A Nietzschean who is indifferent to others’ suffering or to moral rules — the cad who prides himself on being a cad, for instance — is as much a dangerous yet pitiable fool as the gang member who proudly says, “Some old lady tried to teach me to read — so I took her wallet! I’m awesome!” I think we’ve all seen those moments in movies where some naive villain, soon to be defeated, mocks the heroes for being made “weak” by compassion and morals — not realizing these things flow from strength, not weakness. Well, I fear there are a lot of people out there as stupid as that villain — priding themselves on being nasty, gratuitously sarcastic, self-destructive, sadistic, callous, or just resolutely “unimpressed.” These are not our best and brightest, though some of them may move among our best and brightest and imagine themselves superior, like predators among prey.

Likewise, priding oneself on avoiding altruism or kindness or gentleness is misguided — perhaps in a neurological sense even “miswired.” Surely pain and pleasure evolved for the very purpose of guiding us away from things associated with the former and toward things associated with the latter, survival-enhancing signaling devices at the most basic level of our emotional makeup that also function as the foundations of socialization, via the empathy that leads us (all else being equal) to be made happy by the sight of happiness and distressed by the sight of others in pain.

People who don’t feel these things — or even have the polarities reversed (preferring suffering to happiness, etc.) — can be said prima facie to have something wrong with them (though they needn’t necessarily end up bad people), as surely as does a cat that gnaws off its own foot instead of eating its food. We obviously weren’t meant to function via constant conflict or suffering. We are (most of us) humans, not ghouls (and rationalizations about athlete-like testing of limits does little to diminish the fundamental ghoulishness of the bdsm ethos).


Not surprisingly, from what I’ve seen — though I do not pretend to have made a scientific survey — the people you encounter who admit to a Rand-like streak of sexual cruelty tend to be creepy little toads with facial ticks and other obvious problems, possibly people drawn to the bdsm world in part by their social failure (or at least fear of social failure) in other circles: nerds who as children liked to pick wings off flies, impotent but violent men, sociopathic females, fat people of both genders. That’s not to say you don’t meet seemingly-nice people in New York-area intellectual circles who are “into that sort of thing,” though they often still have the facial ticks and other warning signs — or at least very odd aesthetics, such as one chubby computer programmer who I once saw enthuse to a room of mixed company, in all seriousness, about his desire to engage in a tableau of flagellation and then be served some really good waffles from the restaurant next door to his favorite downtown “dungeon.”

A big part of it all, I’m sure, is people wanting the superficial badges of accomplishment — injury, weariness — without actually accomplishing anything, like someone who has no hope of winning a boxing match and so decides instead to just prove he can lie there and take a lot of punches (even though good boxers are of course motivated by the desire to avoid taking punches, which is why their managers tell them “Great job, champ, he didn’t lay a glove on you,” not “I was hoping you’d bleed more, kid, but at least you won”).

Given the statistical rareness of such practices, why have I encountered several avowed practitioners in New York intellectual circles? My explanation — as usual — is another ringing endorsement of culturally-moderate libertarian bourgeois thinking: I suspect that the left and right intellectuals have so thoroughly convinced themselves that mainstream sex is evil and stupid (it being oppressive or depraved, depending on which side of the spectrum they’re approaching it from) that bdsm seems — in classic “hellfire club” fashion — to be an inviting snooty-elite escape from it all, and one they can always claim is marked by irony and detachment and thus not as dopey as the straightforward sex of the bourgeois — though the bourgeois do seem to manage the impressive hat-trick of mixing love, kindness, gentleness, emotional bonding, athletic achievement, and a fundamentally moral heightening of concern for the other person’s wishes that to some might seem a good deal more extraordinary than, say, enduring a punch in the face.

Camille Paglia (herself something of a Rand fan in her youth, and bi and tough) warned twenty years ago that there might be an increase in bdsm in our cultural future — that just as the Enlightenment unleashed not merely Rousseau but de Sade, so too might rising generations’ detachment from traditional morals reveal at first optimism (as with the Boomers), then apathy (Gen X), then perhaps a descent into cruelty (are the millennials statistically more vicious, I wonder?). The cult of victimology of the past few decades could so easily mutate into a cult of creating victims (“I didn’t suffer before, but now I suffer, so I’m special”), a mix of impulses derived in part from Romantic poets, Fight Club/Jackass, and years of valorizing the marginalized — none of it the ruggedness Rand is primarily interested in promoting.

One small film note for those reading this (perhaps with resentment) and themselves dreaming of a lifelong relationship of mutually-inflicted cruelty: I’ve been lamenting needless remakes and reboots lately, and the quickest turnaround ever in that department may now be upon us. Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which featured Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as a couple trying to kill each other — and which was in theatres a mere five years ago — will reportedly be remade as Mr. and Mrs. Jones, with younger actors depicting the initial romance and wedding of an essentially identical couple. If your date seems to enjoy it a bit too much, keep in mind you may have a difficult romantic road ahead, possibly leading to a hospital or police station.

P.S. And despite all the implicit criticism and concerns above, I will read Ayn Rand’s essay “Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World” this Wednesday (Feb. 17) at 6pm at Yale’s Harkness Hall, 100 Wall Street (the New Haven, CT one!), Room 119, thanks to the Party of the Right (POR) and the Objectivist Study Group at Yale (OSGaY). More about that essay in tomorrow’s President’s Day “Book Selection of the Month” blog entry.

P.P.S. We might also benefit from discussing some of these issues at Tuesday night’s 6:30pm Manhattan Project gathering of political folk at Merchants NY East or even at the March 3 (8pm) Debate at Lolita Bar, which will pit Richard Spencer against Helen Rittelmeyer on the vaguely-related question “Is Christianity for Wimps?” Wusses will not be driven from the audience or beaten with sticks.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Cold of the Outer Dark

With DC reburied under snow in the past few days, I was reminded that I recently asked my Austin-dwelling friend L.B. Deyo, who is notoriously opposed to effete and juvenile tendencies in the culture, the following question:

Tell me, L.B., how do we feel about multiple conservatives having themselves photographed sporting “snuggies” — the highly popular blankets with sleeves?  (I’m only two degrees removed, arguably less, from more than one person mentioned in this piece about it.)  And do you, I assume, own an official UT Austin snuggie, since they apparently exist and have been worn en masse to games?

This was L.B.’s apt reply, which I do not think he will mind me reprinting, given the urgency of the issue:

The day I first heard that there was such a thing as a “crunchy con,” a “Birkenstocked Burkean,” I knew there was only darkness left, and no hope or light anywhere forever.

On a warmer note: Valentine’s Day with Ayn Rand tomorrow.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Gary Johnson, Roland Emmerich

Well, the Phillips Foundation gathering scheduled for New York City today fell through because Washingtonians are afraid of snow — whereas little can stop the mighty engine of commerce that is my town, or at least there’s no need to worry that some residual slush will prevent unemployed bankers picking up their welfare checks and using them to buy martinis.

It is not a day without politics, though: Here’s my 2012 presidential candidate pick unless/until someone better than Gary Johnson — some Rand hero, perhaps — comes along. As usual, I’m not saying he’s perfect, but compared to the past, we could do worse than smart, market-friendly, anti-drugwar, and from the coveted and seducable interior West.

Speaking of 2012 and long-term political planning: Roland Emmerich (and the scriptwriter of Saving Private Ryan) will apparently be adapting Isaac Asimov’s revered sci-fi novel Foundation in big-budget 3D IMAX Avatar fashion. I have no idea if the result will bear much resemblance to the novel, which would basically entail multiple segments with different sets of near-identical, bland bureaucrat characters talking about how to run the galaxy through implausible centuries-out statistical planning (the “psychohistory” modeling that tantalized a young Paul Krugman). It would be funny if it were just three hours of IMAX 3D bureaucratic meetings, just to teach audiences a lesson.

But if ever there were a man, however absurd, who we can count on to turn a novel into something gigantic, eye-popping, and ridiculous, it is Roland Emmerich. On balance, I declare this: very good news. Bonus: The greater the emphasis on explosions, the fewer children come away with a Krugman-like fascination with centralized economic planning.

Pure geek addendum: It will be interesting to see if Trantor, in a bit of unfair reverse-chronology, gets likened by viewers to Coruscant, in much the same way that a hypothetical Lensmen movie, if it gets made one day, will probably strike people as being too much like next year’s Green Lantern movie.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Let Greece Sink

As a libertarian colleague of mine once observed: “Greece — what a shithole of a country.” Why should this goat-dependent, chronically-socialistic nation be bailed out by the rest of Europe? It gave us many fine mythological metaphors such as Atlas, but in this case Western civilization may be best served by some shrugging. Like Atlantis before it, it may be best it sink beneath waves of public debt and financial ruin, eventually being separated into two domed cities, one ruled by Aquaman.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Mozart Was a Red" -- and my own Rand performance 2/17

One of the economists responsible for spreading the idea, alluded to in yesterday’s entry, that we should abolish the Federal Reserve — no longer quite as obscure a position as it once was — was Murray Rothbard.  He was also a disgruntled former member of Ayn Rand’s circle who felt that, among other problems, Rand was rude to his wife — who refused to abandon her religious beliefs even after reading Rand’s ostensibly knock-down arguments against them.

Indeed, Rothbard satirized what he saw as the weirdness and dogmatism of the Rand circle in an informal play called Mozart Was a Red — an allusion to Rand’s strong and often idiosyncratic aesthetic convictions, revolving largely around whether artists expressed a positive or negative sense of life (I believe that in real life, Rand preferred the upbeat Mozart to the grim Beethoven, though Beethoven’s heavy brand of Romanticism is not so unlike her own, if you ask me).

Dimitri Cavalli suggested that we do a performance of Mozart Was a Red at Lolita Bar sometime, and while I think that might be appealing to too narrow an audience (or perhaps would be better performed at New York’s oxymoronic-sounding Objectivist Community Center, if they’re tolerant enough for it), I will make it up to you in two ways: linking to video of perhaps the only performance of the play and, more exciting, telling you that if all goes as planned, I will be doing an important bit of Rand-related performance art one week from today on the Yale campus: reading excerpts of her well-titled speech “Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World” on the fiftieth anniversary of her own rendition of it there (at least if my Yale contacts get back to me with the finalized details).

Indeed, I plan to give the speech on all three of the campuses where she gave it fifty years ago, including Brooklyn College and finally Columbia, the three fiftieth-anniversary days happening to fall this year on Ash Wednesday, Easter Sunday, and Cinco de Mayo, which I did not plan to anger Catholics with an anti-faith speech.  It just worked out that way, the void working in mysterious ways.  More details as soon as I have them.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

"Avatar" vs. the Federal Reserve

Avatar is not the most popular movie of all time, I must note.  Those gigantic record-breaking box office numbers that you seem to see every year are largely a product of inflation — another reminder we should abolish the Federal Reserve and privatize currency production.  But in any case: adjusted for inflation, Avatar is only just entering the top twenty highest-grossing films (in domestic box office) of all time, any day now bumping from slot #20 the film Fantasia (which happens to be uniquely empowered to retake the slot someday, given its traditional re-release every seven years).

As I’ve noted before, it’s sort of a reassuring reminder that one’s fellow movie-goers are sane when you see the real list, adjusted for inflation, of the top twenty instead of a list filled with things like the latest Transformers movie (here is the list per the site BoxOfficeMojo, anticipating Fantasia’s imminent ouster):

1     Gone with the Wind
2     Star Wars
3     The Sound of Music
4     E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
5     The Ten Commandments
6     Titanic
7     Jaws
8     Doctor Zhivago
9     The Exorcist
10     Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
11     101 Dalmatians
12     The Empire Strikes Back
13     Ben-Hur
14     Return of the Jedi
15     The Sting
16     Raiders of the Lost Ark
17     Jurassic Park
18     The Graduate
19     Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace
20     Avatar

In short: four Star Wars movies, four Steven Spielberg movies, two James  Cameron, two Disney, plus the Civil War, Nazis, Israelites, Soviets, demons, Romans, con men, and recent college grads, which sounds about right.  It’ll sound even more right when Avatar rises above Phantom Menace.

Oddly enough, the list is also a reminder that decades from now Gore Vidal may end up being remembered mainly as scriptwriter on Ben-Hur.

P.S. Imagine if a big-budget Atlas Shrugged were on that list and people were talking about it half as much as they do Avatar.  Here’s hoping the TV miniseries version recently talked about at least comes to pass.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Prisoner

Tonight, at last, I finally see the recent mini-series remake of The Prisoner.  Will it be as libertarian — almost Randian — in tone as the original?  Or will it sadden me in the same way that recent talk of making a “green technology”-themed Tom Swift movie did?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Milton Friedman, Racecars, and Iron Man

Mere hours after noting Milton Friedman’s grandson in yesterday’s entry, I watched the man himself debating school choice on an old Firing Line DVD (up against Al Shanker and other anti-choice villains).  Milton could fight even bigger battles very effectively, of course (while wisely avoiding the kind of foundational philosophical arguments that draw a few people to Rand and alienate so many others, and likely always will).  Here, then, a six-minute video of Milton explaining and defending free trade as a whole (pointed out by Don Boudreaux, who also praises this comedic video clip documenting what happens to a young woman when she learns free-market economics, about as accurate as that skepticism poem I linked to three days ago).

For even broader video-based education, Katherine Taylor years ago recommended to me this very brief “insanity test,” which surely any sufficiently rational, Rand-like mind should be able to endure without laughing.

The most important free-market video message of the year so far, though, may well be the trailer for the impending superhero blockbuster Iron Man 2Watch as capitalist bad boy/hero Tony Stark tells Congress: You want my property?  You can’t have it.  I’ve privatized world peace.

(Amen, and this may be a real glimpse of the only way left forward for free-marketeers in pop culture: resign ourselves to playing the likable bad boys for a while, like mercenary Han Solo, but take some comfort, however problematic, in the thought that people like bad boys.  Played right — especially by young actors — the characters of Atlas Shrugged might actually come across this way on-screen, especially d’Anconia.  And congrats to Downey on having two bad-boy-hero franchises going at the same time, since Sherlock Holmes turned out to be surprisingly good, too.)

You know what would make Iron Man 2 the best film ever made, though?  A final battle on the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier.  Think about it.  This has to happen in at least one of the Avengers-related movies.  I’m going to be rooting for this scene roughly every fourth time I enter a theatre for the next three years.  Seeing the 90s version of the Helicarrier in the TV-movie with David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury was OK, but we need Samuel L. Jackson on the flight deck throwing someone into one of the big props, obviously.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Somewhere Between Econ and Madness: a Tea Party

Rand’s depiction of Galt’s Gulch in Atlas Shrugged sometimes gets called utopian, but compared to actual utopian novels like the ones I looked at back in October, Galt’s Gulch is pretty plausible. For one thing, it’s small, and there’s a real history of tiny idealistic communities springing up and even faring quite well, if all or most of the participants are adherents to some sufficiently binding ethos. It’s trickier to get that sort of thing to work with a nation of 300 million people, which is why (a) you want the shared ethos — and resulting law code — of a group that large to be something fairly minimalist on which it isn’t hard to get agreement, such as, in theory, “Don’t take my stuff”; (b) we should almost always be delighted by secessionist sentiment and decentralizing tendencies, which make over-broad consensus less necessary; and (c) it’s important to keep one’s eyes open for instances of obscure, elite freedom-promoting philosophy taking on some street-level, likely dopier but nonetheless serviceable form that might actually gain some traction among the masses.

And that’s where the Tea Party movement, which celebrates the third and final day of its National Convention today, with a speech by Sarah Palin, comes in (she’s headed to work at Fox next, not a bad idea). If the movement endures, it has the potential to be a nice translator of highbrow free-market theories to a far broader audience — and if so, intellectuals should be willing to accept the fact that some nuance is always lost in the popularization/translation process.

Right in the middle of the three days of the National Tea Party Convention, as it happens, I was safely in New York City as usual but having lunch with Patri Friedman, son of David, grandson of Milton, who wants to create new nations floating in the ocean. Sounds nuts to most people (for now!) — and thus perhaps insufficiently populist — but isn’t all that weird compared to the annual Burning Man art festivals he’s attended. And I’ve mentioned repeatedly that even without having attended Burning Man myself, I feel I’ve benefited from its lesson that bizarre things you previously only wished existed can in fact be made reality, whether it’s a dance party with a flamethrower, a car covered in AstroTurf, a bodypainting orgy, or an improvised lightsaber battle involving hundreds of people, all built and then disassembled in two weeks. Compared to all that, why not have an ocean liner that offers low incorporation taxes instead of just shuffleboard?

More important, though, the realization that we, as a people, retain the right to attempt crazy shit the authorities haven’t thought of yet acts as an important mental check on what those authorities think they can get away with — and limits what they think we’ll put up with. Furthermore, it encourages us to come up with (revolutionary) new ideas. Two years ago, you didn’t think modern social networking would combine with eighteenth-century libertarian rhetoric to put thousands of right-leaning anti-government protesters in the streets over and over again — but you were wrong (I saw thousands at a Tea Party near New York’s City Hall last year — New York City! — though the Times somehow failed to notice the event).

Burning Man, I’d say, remains an elite event — but combine its spirit and creativity with something populist like the Tea Parties, and you’d have a movement capable of sweeping aside many of the (current) intelligentsia’s condescending assumptions, I think. They can look down at the Tea Party gatherings no matter how large they get as long as they can continue the lie about all those people being angry racists, etc. — but that gets harder to do if the events develop the creativity and hip cachet of events like Burning Man (and if more people notice, as I did at the Tea Parties here, that Objectivist and libertarian slogans were far more common than anything resembling racist sentiment). So here’s hoping for ever more sophisticated Tea Parties. And Tea flashmobs. And, yes, Tea tweets. And in time a broadly-shared pro-spontaneous-order popular sentiment in which government as we know it simply dissolves — or, barring that, people simply becoming daring and imaginative enough to start saying things like, “Hey, since DC is $12 trillion in debt, why don’t we just shut it down altogether, at least until the debt’s paid off, and see if the states can handle things on their own? It couldn’t be harder than building that fake ocean liner we made at Burning Man last year.”

Instead of a movement that starts out attacking current elites and ends by trying to create its own slightly different one, I think the Tea Parties, like Burning Man, have the potential — in part because of their very structure — to spread a more lasting decentralist message. Habituate people to do things on their own instead of awaiting orders and you’re halfway to a healthy, organic anarchism already.


An aside about America’s capacity for craziness: libertarian and Burning Man attender Brian Doherty has noted that one reason Americans may have been more easily roused to mob action in the early years is simply that they were drunk most of the time, beer flowing more readily than water in some parts back then (and often being safer). Times have changed, though, and my libertarian, pro-alcohol friend Katherine Taylor alerts me to the fact that her native Fresno, CA is now considered the drunkest city in America, whereas once-rebellious Boston is the most sober, despite its ostensibly-rowdy Irish (but that’s all right — in the end, we cherish the memory of Boston’s tea parties more than the memory of its beer parties).

It may be that Patrick Kennedy (whose increasingly likely defeat in Rhode Island for reelection to the House would be the sweet cherry on the recent New England-upsets sundae) has single-handedly consumed all of New England’s alcohol, though, since he is such a notorious lush in DC that one friend of mine amused himself by shooting spitballs at a passed-out Patrick Kennedy in a bar, and another once guided Kennedy home while fending off his advances (which is probably the closest I’ve come to having an ex in common with a Kennedy, by the way). Meanwhile, yet another friend of mine has used a fantastic two-decade-old documentary about Kennedy’s initial election to teach high school students how even a very stupid Democrat can triumph over a very smart and admirable Republican if the Democrat has the right last name. (Here’s hoping for an imminent end to Kennedy’s embarrassingly whiny, childlike, pro-union, anti-market rants in Congress.)

But my point here is: there’s a lot to be said for keeping the politicians, even the ones who are drunk themselves, nervously wondering what fresh “insanity” we are prone to attempt next. Complacency isn’t all bad, but it only gets us so far. Unconservative as this may sound, sometimes things get bad enough that strange must be deployed. And America can be very strange.

Friday, February 5, 2010

"Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class: Dreaming in Middletown" (and my Rush lyrics)

Chris McDonald’s obvious enthusiasm for his fellow Canadians, the Ayn Rand-influenced rock band Rush, does not stop him from making some very astute, scholarly observations about the ways in which the band perfectly embodies what might be called suburban ideology. This tome does a good job of making manifest things that are almost too commonplace to be noticed, such as the regularity and comfort of late twentieth-century suburban living and the way in which a band esteemed for its unemotional dryness, technical precision, and ostensibly rootless, regionless individualist themes perfectly expresses the values of that mode of living.

Rush rocks the bourgeoisie, as I happily told ostensibly anti-bourgeois conservative Helen Rittelmeyer when she gave me the book (the most recent books I’ve given her being noirish crime novels and a book on the tragic century-ago Massachusetts molasses flood, given to me to give to her by Boston-area-dwelling Jake Harrison and Holly Caldwell, who lean more punkward than Rushward — and Rush did indeed feel threatened by the rise of punk, after all the hard work the band had done mastering precision and musicianship). Despite Rush’s emphatic embrace of modernity and capitalism, though, they are surprisingly conflicted about the predictability and blandness that these things can produce, at least as typified in their middle-class, North American, largely white surroundings. After all, the song “Subdivisions,” — which I would unashamedly argue is one of the best poems in rock history — is, despite its air of mathematical calm, as negative in its description of the suburbs as any angry punk screed (“Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone,” etc.).

Even the acceptable avenues of escape from the suburbs (to put it somewhat paradoxically) are often embarrassingly feeble (and ones well known to countless late twentieth-century nerds like me): fantasy and sci-fi, immersion in some arcane technical discipline, car rides to somewhere else, “the shopping malls,” etc. McDonald even anticipates the desperate escape gambit of conservatives of Helen’s sort: fantasizing about medieval-style aristocratic traditionalism or working-class/ethnic solidarity, things that do not come naturally to the white middle class.

Don’t get me wrong: In the end, I think the suburbs may be the greatest achievement in human history, and it is almost indecent ingratitude to lament their existence, after the millennia of toil and savagery humanity endured to be able to live in such predictable, comfortable conditions. “Subdivisions” now leaves me worried that Rush — like so many things — is in fact not capitalist and bourgeois enough (drummer-lyricist Neil Peart is quick to note that Rand is merely one of his many influences and that he does not necessarily embrace everything she does). Rush recommends the same avenue of escape that seemed natural to suburban youth like me, though: Don’t start a revolution but rather try to excel, and, when relaxing, retreat into fantasy about far less predictable and mundane environs.

For a Canadian academic, McDonald does a good job of avoiding the usual presumption in cultural studies that simply identifying a pattern of thought is synonymous with exposing and debunking it. He’s subtly impressed by and supportive of most of the elements of suburban ideology he identifies: individualism, a solid work ethic, emotional self-discipline, detachment, cleanliness, abstraction, etc. The book isn’t quite the celebration of suburbia that I now find myself thinking the world deserves (especially when you consider the sci-fi-like improvement in our lifestyles over the past two centuries that made the suburbs possible, industrial plenty tripling the population of Europe in the nineteenth century while America went from a land of freehold subsistence farmers to a land of big corporations), but the book is far from a Marxist lament. McDonald admits he is essentially a libertarian whose views have been somewhat complicated by years of ethnographic analysis and culture studies that lead him to see his values as rooted in a certain culture instead of objective abstraction (perhaps he’d get along well with libertarian multiculturalism-analyst — and former rock radio station manager — Jacob Levy at McGill). Suburban philosophy seems eminently possible, even while suburban radicalism seems a contradiction in terms.


Rand once said that she’d know her ideas were having an impact when they had trickled down even into comic books — and by the time she died, they had in fact found their way into comic books by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko and, thanks to Rush, into the lyrics of one of the most popular rock bands of all time — that epithet being based on album and concert ticket sales more than singles, since, despite having released numerous very memorable singles that dominated Album Oriented Radio stations in the 80s and continue to be played on classic rock stations, only one Rush single actually made it into the Top 40, believe it or not, that being “New World Man.”

As a reminder of how many great songs they had that were, so to speak, just under the radar back then, though, rewatch the videos for “Distant Early Warning” and the slightly more obscure “Red Sector A,” both ominous and perfectly suited to making audiences of mostly-male, mostly-white, sober-minded sci-fi fans swoon. An interesting trivia note about “Distant Early Warning”: the fuzzy noise that seems so clearly to be rocket exhaust at the beginning of the song, I recall the band once revealing in an interview, was actually a sound-mixing static error, but they decided to keep it in. That makes it one of my favorite serendipitous art accidents, right up there with the sudden series of jump cuts at the climactic moment of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, when David Bowie kisses the prison warden rather than succumb to anger, an effect caused by an unintended camera jam but approved on the spot by the director when he watched it back.

Little about Rush is serendipitous, though — not for nothing have they spawned imitators who call their subgenre “math rock.” Two other bands in a similar vein I’ve seen in concert are the even older (unintentionally hilarious yet brilliantly technically skilled) prog rock act Van der Graaf Generator and the fairly recent geeky-but-powerful guitar virtuosos Trans Am (I saw the former with J.R. Taylor and the latter with one of the only left-wing punks I ever went on a date with, Caroline Pozycki — I think she may have soured on me around the time she revealed both her parents worked for the government).

Geddy Lee is even quoted in this book expressing a nerdy, unhip, robotic sentiment that I recall feeling myself when I first went to concerts: disappointment that live bands don’t sound exactly like their albums. Rush basically does in concert. Live or recorded, long may they reign.

In fact, if they run out of material, I here offer a suggestion for a song literally taken from one of today’s nerdiest and most scientifically-baffling news stories, which they might consider recording:

Pluto is a-changing colors
Planet’s getting redder just like blood
Nitrogen ice sheets shifting, moving
Color of a molasses flood!
Can’t blame industrial gases –
So will the greens think it’s good?


Dwarf planet! Dwarf planet!
[shrieking] They cast you out of the Nine
[ominous] Cold but now you’re getting redder
Bold ’cause you won’t toe the line
Dwarf planet! Dwarf planet!
It’s a nitrogen-ice-sheet panic — yeah, rock on, rock on, rock on, rock on

(Twenty-minute drum solo)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Skepticism as Beat Poetry

After last night’s punk debate (yielding a narrow defeat for the reputation of the music biz in the audience vote), I’m in the mood to hear an angry British man on stage — and luckily, magician Eric Walton alerts me to the existence of this amazing nine-minute beat poem by Tim Minchin pretty accurately summing up the mental experience of every skeptic encountering a mystic or other form of non-skeptic at a dinner party.  Who says rationality can’t yield art?

Indeed, tomorrow let’s take a look at highly rational Canadians making art, namely: Rush.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"Who Is Disco Stu?"

You might say my overarching mission is to remind people that their aesthetic and cultural intuitions are not necessarily a good means of making snap judgments about complex topics like economics and science. Just because you hate the sight of corporate logos doesn’t mean you can conclude that everything government does to regulatorily restrict corporations will enhance the public’s welfare. Just because you hate hippies doesn’t mean you can conclude pot is a drug significantly more dangerous than scotch. Even punks, as tonight’s 8pm Debate at Lolita Bar should remind some, benefit from taking some fiscally conservative notions into account when assessing a philosophical issue.

But as long as people do make snap judgments fueled by their aesthetics, one problem with trying to tell them scare stories about government cracking down on businesses is that so many people hate business — especially big, seemingly impersonal ones like those driven to ruin by the government in Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. Leftists just aren’t likely to find the industrialist characters Hank Rearden and Francisco d’Anconia sympathetic in the first place and certainly aren’t going to find them more sympathetic once the two of them engage in a gun battle with a mob of attacking union protesters, Rearden admiring d’Anconia’s gunmanship while they’re at it.

That’s a shame because the world we want to live in is precisely that in which we cheer people as they defend their property and think only secondarily of the fates of the thieving savages who assail them.

So: if you can’t wrap your mind around the idea that industrialists are people too, check out this story, whose heroes might better suit your hip sensibilities: Paul Jacob notes that Ian Schrager, a co-founder of Studio 54, says (in a Vanity Fair interview) that it was really the absurdly high cost of complying with government regulations and licenses that killed discos back circa 1980. The next time you and your knee-jerk-socialist punk buddies find yourselves complaining that the price of your concert tickets was too high, ask yourself how many more clubs there might be — and thus how much more price-reducing competition — if not for that useless, controlling, predatory buzzkiller that is the government. (Tonight’s debate, as always, is free, though.)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Six More Weeks of Statism

On this Groundhog Day, we can safely predict at least six more weeks of Obama disillusionment, even if he manages to start a war with Iran.  Dan Reichwald points out a Jonathan Chait piece noting that despite attempts to spin the election of Scott Brown as if it’s not a referendum on Obama, the recent failures of multiple less-noticed Democratic candidates seem to track disillusionment with Obama pretty well.

I do not expect to see Americans rise up en masse against the government.  Things simply aren’t awful enough, and at least half of them like government.  And we’ll probably never see a revolt of talented industrialists like that Ayn Rand depicts in Atlas Shrugged, either, since most of our major corporations are now bland, board-run entities without principles, happy to suck at government’s teat when it boosts the bottom line and pleases short-term investors while undermining the market as a long-term system.  (An economy composed of less stock-trading and more family-owned firms might have turned out differently over the past century, absent arguably-unlibertarian limited liability laws, and might have been less bubble-prone to boot, but I suppose that ship has long since sailed and that no financial-sector firm is likely to be so radical or right-thinking as to fix this problem.)

The best we can likely hope for, then — much as it might gall some — is to install another Republican Congress, this time with a clearer anti-government mandate (born of Tea Party-type fervor across the nation and a broader growing resentment of Obama overreach and underachievement).  Even then, we shouldn’t expect them to create a laissez-faire paradise any more than they did in the late 90s or early 00s, but imbued with a clearer sense of mission and an acute awareness of how short the electorate’s patience has grown, they might at least block more bad initiatives from Obama.

I mention all this before more narrowly addressing Rand in order to make it clear that I am neither a Rand-like utopian (dystopian?) who thinks that “getting the philosophy right” is the important thing (and that current political calculations don’t matter) nor just a cheerleader for the GOP.  Somewhere in between is that productive middle ground where ideology nudges the public (or the media types who in turn nudge the public), the public nudges at least one consequential political party, and that party then serves some sort of useful strategic purpose, even if only by way of limiting the damage the state continues to do.  A starry-eyed optimist I am not.  (Neither is Ted Balaker, who created this forty-two-second Reason parody of Obama-as-job-creator, by the way.)