Sunday, January 31, 2010

Rand Prelude, 100 Cheesiest Film Quotes, plus Phantom Menace

You know, a libertarian novelist friend of mine is visiting the City, and it’s sort of amusing timing, since tomorrow sees the start of my “Month of Ayn Rand.”  The friend is arty and subtle; Rand, notoriously, was not.  My friend will probably have to spend a substantial portion of her life saying “but not like Ayn Rand.”

But as I’ll explain in more detail in February, I think people sometimes judge Rand too harshly not only philosophically but in the aesthetics department as well.  Consider, after all, the several factors she was attempting to juggle in writing Atlas Shrugged: novel as extended philosophical argument, novel as depiction of an entire economy, novel as broad array of socially-intertwined characters in (unsurprisingly, given her childhood) a rather Russian fashion, and perhaps novel as an attempt (by an awed immigrant) to capture the broad-strokes romanticism she’d seen in the Hollywood movies that drew her to America.  Atlas could have turned out a lot stiffer than it did, really.

And as a reminder that even some very fondly remembered Hollywood films are not exactly works of subtlety, here’s a video montage of “The 100 Cheesiest Film Quotes” — don’t be shocked if some of your favorite films are in there (NOTE: This is unrelated to parody lounge singer Richard Cheese’s offer of free CDs to troops, which he dubs Operation: Cheesey Freedom).


You’ll see at least one scene from Attack of the Clones in there, and if the past eleven years have numbed the childhood-destroying pain of Phantom Menace enough, maybe you can take some pleasure from a series of videos wittily — but quite accurately and devastatingly — explaining why Phantom Menace was a manifestly awful film that cannot hold a candle to the simple but effective movie-making of which George Lucas was capable a decade and a half earlier.  The first installment contrasts the strong characters of the 70s/80s films with — well, the crap from the 90s/00s that we’re still bitter about.  My thanks to Paul Taylor and Scott Nybakken for pointing out the critical videos, even with all the pain and anger they bring back.

Writer and radio commentator John Hodgman poignantly admitted that he still lies awake at night sometimes trying to imagine how Menace could be fixed, even though what he’s really trying in vain to fix is his shattered childhood hopes.  One friend with whom I saw Menace on opening day cried afterwards, it was so awful.  She had used one of her “floating religious holidays” from work to see it with the proper air of reverence and was betrayed by her gods.

Comics editor Dan Raspler warned me after Phantom Menace not to hold out any hope that things would get better in the remaining two films (though I thought Revenge of the Sith was OK — unlike Kyle Smith, a professional film critic, whose first words as the credits rolled were “That sucked!”).  Dan noted that even though Anakin is supposed to be destined to become Darth Vader, Lucas never even found time in the first prequel to show Anakin having, say, a perverse fascination with evil.  As Dan warned, and he wasn’t far wrong: We’re not going to see an interesting psychological evolution — the Emperor’s just going to suck all of Anakin’s goodness out with a lightning bolt and “put it into an egg” or something.  As Dan also lamented, “Couldn’t he at least have had the kid look at Darth Maul with envy and say ‘Hey, nice boots’?”

Dan went on to watch a bootleg “improved” version of Menace once, in which fans made tweaks such as replacing Jar Jar’s stupid voice with a normal one, but to Dan’s credit, he still stood up and turned off the movie halfway through, asking his friend: Why do this to ourselves?  It’s still awful.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

"Lost" in Eight Minutes

I was always the sort of nerd who, once he decided he liked some TV show, saw every episode and remembered all the plotlines — thus, too, my musings on comic book continuity in more than one entry on this blog over the past three years.

At some point in the past few years, though, I started to realize, in a tragic irony worthy of a Twilight Zone episode, that while Hollywood’s been taken over by nerds who think like me, I’m getting too burned-out on protracted obsessive-nerd drama to keep consuming the stuff.  I think in some ways it was X-Files that broke me, eight years ago: a glorious, nine-season-long pole vault straight into a brick wall.  Pointless.  And don’t get me started on that terrible second movie again.

So now, when I see, for example, Julian Sanchez write with enthusiasm about how Fringe is designed to be watched with TiVo so that you can slo-mo certain clues that hint at what the next episode’s about, or I hear that the plot of Battlestar Galactica changes before your eyes if you Twitter about it while using a secret decoder ring (the latter I made up), it just sort of makes me tired.  I’m sure it’s all cool, but I just don’t know if I have the energy — the naive optimism, really — to ever again dive into multiple seasons of something that “works 400 times as well if you follow it for the whole five years” (much as I will always love Babylon 5, don’t get me wrong — or at least the first four seasons).

For a long time, I thought I’d catch up on all this stuff on DVD, which also sounds great in principle, but then the creeping mathematical awareness dawns that I can’t imagine cramming, say, three whole days into my schedule to watch Arrested Development.  I may yet watch the David Tenant Doctor Who.  We’ll see.  Watching a season of 24 in twenty-four hours still sounds like a good performance art idea, but I wouldn’t want to bet I’ll get around to it (naturally, one would have to press play at the time seen in the timecode on-screen, for maximum effect).  I saw a few seasons the normal way.

In conclusion, I’m sure Lost has been good and that this coming Tuesday’s season-six premiere will bring joy to many people — but watching this eight-minute summary of the first five seasons sort of makes me want to lie down, as Scott Nybakken once said of the high-spirited posters for the musical Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Fourth Kind as Fraud, Spartacus as Dress-Up

Let’s do a weekend of entertainment-related notes before starting my “Month of Ayn Rand” on Monday:

The alien abduction movie Fourth Kind is a good example of the bad things a culture produces when people care more about whether claims are interesting than whether they are true. Since Fourth Kind is, in truth, a monumental fraud — fiction trying very hard to attract attention and ticket sales by pretending rather convincingly to be a documentary with no obvious “wink” to the audience — I would not be troubled by, say, a class action suit aimed at getting moviegoers’ money back. Nothing unlibertarian about saying so, either: fraud should be legally punished. (Ideally, even everyday non-business lies ought to be legally actionable, I’d say, if you accept the logic behind punishing fraud and are able to come up with reasonable assessments of damage.)

I was pleased, then, to see these two paragraphs in the Wikipedia entry for Fourth Kind, which hint that at least some small pressure may have been brought to bear on Fourth Kind by people caught up in its lies:

On November 12, 2009 Universal Pictures agreed to a $20,000 settlement with the Alaska Press Club “to settle complaints about fake news archives used to promote the movie.” Universal acknowledged that they created fake online news articles and obituaries to make it appear that the movie had a basis in real events.

On November 13th, 2009 by Staff: “Universal Pictures has just reached out to us to let us know that the studio was not sued and the money was just a contribution Universal made to the Alaska Press Club. The contribution was not a result of any lawsuit.”

On a far less sinister note, how do we rate this costume from the new Starz series Spartacus: Blood and Sand for historical accuracy? Any historians want to weigh in?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Waiting for "Waiting for Superman"

This has been a pivotal week in my relationship with a loved one: I mean, of course, Fox News.  I will have appeared briefly on their spin-off Fox Business Network twice, the second time in just over an hour, as I type this, since I’ll be seen defending Twinkie consumption at the very end of the 8pm Eastern Stossel broadcast, in my capacity as American Council on Science and Health staffer and Audience Guy.

Last night, by contrast, I was visible in Stossel’s studio before and after Obama’s State of the Union, joking about the fact that we’ve reached the point where math is apparently considered irrelevant for government spending purposes.  With a $12 trillion debt and a couple trillion more in “stimulus” spending, I asked, why not spend quadrillions or septivigitillions (the latter, as I only now recall, being a word, likely misspelled here, that I think I got from H.P. Lovecraft’s hyperbolic descriptions of how old the Outer Gods are or something like that)?  Then, being more serious, I suggested abolishing Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and the military if we want to get serious about debt reduction (hey, we’d still have the state governments, remember, so don’t say it’s all that radical).


I was pleased to discover that seated near me in the front row of the non-randomized Stossel audience were fellow libertarians Nick Gillespie and David Boaz, and we spoke briefly about a very different video production I’m rather excited about: the new documentary from the director of An Inconvenient Truth.  Astonishingly, his upcoming Waiting for Superman, about public education, apparently does not hew to the leftist party line but rather exposes the way in which teachers unions, probably the most sinister force in domestic politics, systematically and deliberately block innovations such as magnet schools that might help students but weaken unionized teachers’ bargaining power and bureaucratic authority.  When Woody Allen’s Sleeper suggested that mid-century teachers union leader Al Shanker destroyed civilization, he wasn’t too far wrong.

Already, the leftists are complaining about Waiting for Superman.

And speaking of waiting for Superman, I’m pleased that due to a programming delay, I can wait until Friday next week to watch the Smallville episode slated to feature the Justice Society of America — which means tomorrow I can watch the final episode of Dollhouse.  It’s a good show,  but with characters whose personalities are completely malleable and programmable, I think it was always an uphill battle trying to popularize it among audience members who, not being sociopaths, want familiar characters they feel they know, can predict, and can relate to.  Many people may also have found the basic moral dilemma of Dollhouse — the fact that the main characters are essentially slaves — creepy and off-putting, though it was interestingly fleshed out over the course of the short-lived series (speaking of slavery: a note on the new Spartacus TV series tomorrow).  Poor Joss Whedon deserves another big hit one of these days.

One real-world dame who seems to be programmed with an unusual combo of physical talents, by the way, is former figure skater and now boxer (that has to be a rare combination) Tonya Harding, whose henchman years ago brutally kneecapped daintier skater Nancy Kerrigan — but poor Kerrigan must feel like the kneecapping was nothing now that her own brother has apparently murdered their father.  That girl has seen some ups and downs.


One final thought on education: I hope somewhere out there there’s a professor who’s using this week’s trio of literary deaths to teach a class on class: Howard Zinn, chronicler of the poor, Louis Auchincloss, chronicler of the wealthy and powerful, and J.D. Salinger, chronicler of the fictional prep school teen turned morbid social outcast, are all gone.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dziura, Swift, Hayek, Rand, Stossel

I’m pleased Jen Dziura is devoting this week on her blog to wordplay inspired by my favorite childhood sci-fi character, Tom Swift, boy industrialist. Jen, one of the most entrepreneurial liberals I know and a dweller in the Wall Street area, also e-mails a link to this Keynes vs. Hayek rap Russ Roberts co-created — which is quite good, though it’s also a bittersweet reminder that the really important insights in life do not necessarily work well as short slogans.

You can’t blame the masses for wanting a pithy Bible verse or a political chant instead — but that doesn’t make the masses correct, unfortunately. Reality never promised you these things would be easy — or poetical (speaking of which, anyone have a job for a young history-minded libertarian econ prof from Italy, since I know one who may be seeking a new gig?). Sadly, points out Scott Nybakken, you can even sense from listening to the rap — despite the fact that libertarians made it — how much easier it is to get Keynes’s erroneous views across in this form than it is to explain Hayek’s take on Austrian economics. Sigh. Maybe I need to make more use of my years-ago experience in advertising to turn all this free-market stuff into usable bumper stickers.

Somewhere in between slogan and complexity lies Atlas Shrugged, and if that seems like a good balance to you — or at least a worthy topic of conversation — you’ll have to keep reading this blog during its “Month of Ayn Rand,” which begins next week and will include everything from the band Rush to a little bit of performance art by me at Yale, if all goes as planned.

As a prelude, remember to check out tonight’s Stossel-hosted town hall with me in the audience, probably voicing an opinion (8pm Eastern until 11pm or so, with Obama’s State of the Union and presumably the GOP response heard in the middle) — not to mention my “Twinkie defense,” no disrespect meant to Harvey Milk, at the end of tomorrow’s regular 8pm Stossel broadcast.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Libertarian Voters and One Libertarian (Me) on TV

David Boaz, to whom many libertarians like me owe a great deal, announces he’s written a report with David Kirby about what portion of the voting public is libertarian or near-libertarian (not nearly enough but more than you might think).  The executive summary is here and the full PDF here.

Boaz notes that some 14% of the electorate may qualify (and that the number goes as high as 59% according to Zogby if you simply use a broad “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” test) and admonishes that this is enough to swing elections.  An observation about swingers gleaned from Ramesh Ponnuru, though: as Boaz notes, libertarians were moving away from Bush in 2004 and toward McCain in 2008, but in each case the general public seemed to move in the opposite direction — so maybe self-interested politicians should flee the libertarian embrace.

It seems fair to say, though, that there are times when libertarians capture the zeitgeist and times when they don’t, with 2010 possibly being a time when libertarians, Republicans, and fed-up Tea Partying members of the general public are all on the same anti-government page.  Boaz and Kirby hope that’s the case (and that Scott Brown’s elections is evidence) and that we’ve gotten past the point when, as they put it four years ago, “Social conservatives have evangelical churches, the Christian Coalition, and Focus on the Family…Liberals have unions…Libertarians [only] have think tanks.”

I think anytime the public is focused on government-as-a-whole, it’s good for libertarians and fiscal conservatives.  Government, looked at with even the slightest awareness of economics, is manifestly a predatory and almost uniformly socially-destructive force, but in relatively comfortable times, people are lulled into paying attention to only their favorite bits of government — whether healthcare provision, welfare to favored groups, or trash collection — and forget that the entire institution is the most massive of net losses for us all, worth opposing on all fronts.

And if you want a glimpse of what a libertarian-led chunk of the electorate might look like in a televised town hall meeting responding to a presidential State of the Union address, look no farther than Fox Business Channel, this Wednesday starting at 8pm Eastern, hosted by John Stossel — during which, prior to and/or after Obama’s speech, you’ll likely see me weighing in from the audience (and speaking of weight, catch me defending Twinkies in the final minute of the regular Stossel broadcast the very next night, Thursday, shown at 8pm and again at 11pm, if you aren’t completely sick of my Audience Guy character by then).

Monday, January 25, 2010

Ernest Borgnine, Ali Kokmen, Television, Linda Stein

Actor Ernest Borgnine turned ninety-three yesterday.  From the Poseidon to Airwolf, the freaky-visaged actor has served us well.  Last year, at ninety-two, he starred in the film Another Harvest Moon.

This reminds me, though, of a likely injustice: Years ago, when my friend Ali Kokmen was in the habit of leading several of us to a West Village bar for Bingo, that bar also had such contests as inviting people to imagine the best possible title for an Ernest Borgnine comeback project.  Ali suggested Ernest: Deep Borg Nine.

And here’s the thing: I contend that Ernest: Deep Borg Nine — which puns not only on (a) Borgnine’s name but simultaneously on a Star Trek (b) title, (c) race, and (d) female character (e) known for being considerably better looking than Ernest Borgnine — is the best Borgnine comeback project joke title logically possible.

We never found out who won the contest or what their title was, but it wasn’t Ali — and even without knowing who won, I call shenanigans on this no doubt unjust verdict, and not just because Ali is one of the finest men who ever lived, and a noble Bingo team leader to boot.  A curse be upon anyone who would rob him of his rightful joke-contest glory, Bingo winnings, or margarita money.

On the bright side, one of those Bingo outings was the site of one of my musical-good-ear detective triumphs.  I can often guess from listening that, say, No Doubt has some connection to the Cars and that sort of thing — and I first heard the band Television on one of those Bingo outings, guessing it was them based solely on the fact that it sounded like an authentically proto-punk 70s band and there simply weren’t that many of them, so by process of elimination…  And that’s how I first heard what indeed turned out to be the excellent album Marquee Moon.

In grimmer entertainment news, I see the trial of the suspected murderer of former Ramones manager Linda Stein is set to begin today (not to be confused with the trial for murder of former Ramones producer Phil Spector).  Rest assured the suspect is not invited to our Debate at Lolita Bar next week (Feb. 3) between ex-Misfits members Bobby Steele and Michale Graves.  Perhaps, though, since the accused was an employee of Stein, we should mention the case at our planned April debate on the question “Are Bosses Usually Jerks?”

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Is New Wave Fascist? Is Alan Cabal Dead?

It was naively scientistic 1960s sex researchers — more than hippies in the proper sense — who were targeted last night in Jonathan Leaf’s play Sexual Healing — but thoughts of hippies in general reminded me of the very pro-hippie novel Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, who has a bit of that ecstatic/paranoid Thomas Pynchon vibe: You’re either a California-style postmodern anarchist-hippie or else you’re part of the conspiracy.

The novel, out the year of Reagan’s reelection, is a powerful reminder that not only did the punks dislike the hippies, the hippies often disliked New Wave, with its mechanistic aesthetic of self-discipline and order. Robbins realized that both New Wave and the right were threats to his hippie ways — and so, in this novel about supernatural perfumes, New Wave is the name of one with authoritarian powers (and, interestingly, he plausibly aligns the hippies with backward-looking agrarian ways and New Wave, despite its right-wing tendencies, with futurism, in much the same way hippies tend to self-sort toward fantasy novels of the sword-centered variety and New Wave fans toward sci-fi):

“We are predicting that for many people the fascination with nostalgia — with a past reputed to be more simple, more honest, more natural than the present — will soon subside…For the avant-garde, and for those who will flock to join it, LeFever is developing New Wave, a truly modern scent — sharp, hard-edged, assertive, unisexual, urbane, unromantic, nonmysterious, cool, light, elegant, and wholly synthetic…Were I to add but a trace note of leather to New Wave, Claude, I would say that I had drawn on my canvas the olfactory silhouette of the Nazi.”

Indeed, that list of adjectives including “hard-edged” reminds me of the best lines from the typically sado-masochistic-sounding Eurythmics song “Love Is a Stranger”: “It’s gilt-edged, glamorous, and sleek by design/ You know it’s jealous by nature, false and unkind/ It’s hard and restrained and it’s totally cool/ It touches and it teases as you stumble in the debris.” Leave it to the guilt-wracked French to make one of the most fascistic-looking New Wave videos, though, “C’est Comme Ca” by Les Rita Mistouko — which in turns reminds me of the more recent UK video for “Cish Cash” by Basement Jaxx, with Siouxsie Sioux fittingly doing guest vocals, the sort of thing the military should use instead of Kid Rock if they ever want to recruit lots of hipsters, though it’s not clear they should want to.

It’s not so hard to believe, as I’ve mentioned before, that a friend of mine went in her black trenchcoat years ago to what she thought was a New Wave retro night at a club only to discover it was in fact Nazi Fetish Night. On the bright side, the fact that people see Naziism as so evil that it can be treated as a fetish akin to Satanism is a good measure of how completely marginalized that political movement really is. Let us hope not too many people feel similarly about conservatives or libertarians — though I have met a Republican woman with a “Ronald Reagan” tramp stamp who finds that it excites liberal men.

And speaking of Satanism and politics: a commenter on this blog using the alias Randall Flagg (a Satanic character from several of Stephen King’s novels) claims that Satanist and Giuliani fan Alan Cabal, one of my fellow New York Press veterans, died three days ago in a car accident in Nebraska. If anyone who isn’t named after a demon and has a link to a substantive news report or death announcement knows more, many of us would like to hear, much as I would prefer to learn it’s some sort of twisted Satanic prank.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Stupid-Stupid vs. Clever-Stupid vs. Manly-Stupid

I. Diesel jeans has launched “Be Stupid” ads showing people taking absurd risks — and they probably ought to deploy Weird Al Yankovic’s Devo-influenced song “Dare to Be Stupid” at some point in the campaign. It’s tempting to lament that we’ve hit bottom, to see this as the sad denouement of the anti-intellectual push begun by the emotive Romantics, continued via “Don’t think” tendencies among the hippies, lateraled into the use of “dope” and “stoopid” as praise by the hip-hoppians, and finally come to rest at our feet in the form of a guy who lost his face while attempting to imitate a stunt from Jackass or something.

On the other hand, with so much of the intelligentsia bent on using smart-sounding arguments to frighten us into taking no risks — lest we be killed by environmental devastation, terrorists, economic deprivation, offended people, or what have you — we may simply have reached the point at which stupid is one of the few routes to freedom left to us.

II. And of course, there’s a thin line between clever and stupid, as with the Indian-American band Das Racist — interviewed this week by the Village Voice, as pointed out to me by Scott Nybakken. They’re the band responsible for the simple but necessary song “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” pointed out to me six months ago by Helen Rittelmeyer.

A retro aside: conservative Helen might be less pleased by the rationalizations of the Wingdale Community Singers. Containing members such as novelist Rick Moody and his fellow Brown alum, artist Nina Katchadourian, the band is known for church-choir- and folk-sing-like sounds with simple, old-fashioned acoustic guitars — but they nonetheless feel obliged to say, as Katchadourian does in the January/February Brown Alumni Magazine: “We all have a shared allergy to faux old-timeyness…We live in Brooklyn. We’re not sitting on rocking chairs in Appalachia.”

Then again, we should almost always judge artists by what they produce more than what they say — witness another Brooklyn project, the movie Do the Right Thing, which makes a lot more sense and comes across as much more balanced than the radical things said about it by its director, Spike Lee — who I think I’ve only seen with the naked eye once, when I was touring a video production facility with conservative fellow Phillips Fellows, oddly enough. (The Fellows will be back in town Feb. 12, and this time we’re touring a Federal Reserve gold vault.)

III. If risk-taking is an element of what is traditionally understood as manliness, then, yes, stupidity may be helpful in being manly. And few men are so effete that they do not see some appeal in traditional manly activities such as smashing things and moving large objects. Thus — as Ali Kokmen points out to me — the site TrendCentral has reported on UK and German parks at which people, mostly male, can do things like drive actual military tanks around crushing stuff and breaking up rocks with jackhammers. These places in particular are called Tanks-A-Lot and Mannerspielplatz (“man’s playground”), respectively.

And, you know, even the hippie-filled, art-oriented annual festival that is Burning Man got its start with a lot more burning and explosives and flamethrowers than it is now known for, apparently. In fact, after reading the other day that Nevada is ostensibly the state in the union with the lowest average intelligence, I can’t help thinking that maybe we’re gauging intelligence backwards. I mean, if those purported idiots were to combine three of their most famous attractions — Burning Man, Las Vegas, and brothels — into one giant play-state, who among us would dare call them mere fools? Maybe they could change the name of the whole state to the Burning Bunny Casino. Watch people flock there from other states (many of them likely libertarians).

Despite these fantasies, stupid or clever, I’m off in a couple hours, though, to see at long last an 8pm performance of Jonathan Leaf’s hippie-mocking play Sexual Healing (running only one more week), which apparently features full frontal female nudity. Now, that’s theatre that Nybakken and I can understand.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Maggots and Fox Urine

As if New Englanders sending a Republican to the Senate weren’t exciting enough (in this wonderful week that’s near-simultaneously seen campaign finance rules rightly loosened and Air America going out of business), I see that a Maine resident also threw fox urine on union protesters, which seems like another step in the right direction for the Northeast (and my friend Christine knows the owner of the restaurant the union people were protesting, from back in high school).  My New England-dwelling friend Chris, meanwhile, was mainly reminded that when he spread fox urine near his tomatoes to keep squirrels away, it led to a depraved fox showing up and rolling in the urine (fox news — I report, you decide).

That in turn reminded me that I once saw a confrontation between a squirrel and a rabbit in the woods near Princeton, which led to each creature leaping straight up and then the other one doing so in turn, as if each were trying to impress the other with its leaping skills or escape the planet altogether.  Then, they both freaked out, with the rabbit running away and the squirrel writhing on the ground on its back with its legs waving in the air — apparently a preferred rodent defensive posture, as I learned years later from a man who once worked in a lab that utilized rodents bred to be insane and thus prone to remain in that odd posture all the time, successfully freaking out and frightening away even predatory snakes.  (Perhaps this posture will also be used in the martial arts film Zatoichi: The Fugitive, featuring the legendary blind swordsman, which I’m scheduled to see tonight.)

Speaking of eating freaky things, doing some food-related research at work today, I learned of the most disgusting food thing in the world (far less cute than the chicken-bacon narwhal): the cheese called casu marzu, perhaps the most alarming food of all time.  It’s a cheese considered a delicacy because of the special flavor lent to it by its deliberate infestation with maggots — maggots that some people prefer to keep in the cheese when they eat it.  And, yes, the maggots still have to be alive and writhing because if they’re dead, the cheese becomes poisonous.

But that’s not even the grossest part: you have to eat casu marzu with your eyes closed, not because it’s the most disgusting thing in the world but because maggots like to leap into wet eyeball tissue — and they’ll leap up to fifteen centimeters to do it.  I cannot imagine saying, “I regret the maggots trying to leap into my eyes, but that was fine maggot-filled cheese.”

And speaking of maggots: anyone who thinks it’s barbarous to use two punks who used to be in the Misfits as our next pair of Lolita Bar debaters (Feb. 3) should be grateful I didn’t recruit members of the band Anvil Bitch, who I mainly remember for their ridiculous and fast song “Maggot Infestation,” which I’m proud to say I still have on a mix tape.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Not Punk: Find Your Own Way Home


REO Speedwagon is almost the precise opposite of punk, arguably the opposite of rock n’ roll itself.  Like a sort of anti-Rush, they’re soft in the places they should have been powerful, nasal in places where they should have been operatic, resolutely bland in the places where some small dash of melodic variety could have helped.

Yet now, some twenty years after it might almost have mattered, REO Speedwagon of all bands is an adventure videogame.

Yes, in Find Your Own Way Home, you (presumably a female — again, they’re like the anti-Rush) get to experience the bizarre thrill of finding missing lead singer Kevin Cronin in time to ensure that his prom-enhancing falsetto is part of the big concert.  I can only hope that there’s a way to play the game such that you can make the band break up forever.  (Maybe you can make the drummer o.d. or something?)

I can think of few arts-related developments that seem better calculated to make me almost queasy with boredom — if you know the feeling I’m describing — unless somewhere out there there’s, say, a novelization of the Starship song “We Built This City (on Rock n’ Roll).”

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Brown Victory, Pinera Victory

Sure, it’s a bit sad that we who oppose the growth of government can do little better right now than celebrate the fact that we’re still able to muster a filibuster — but I’m willing to celebrate anyway. Please join us — we of the Manhattan Project political drinking society — in doing so tonight (Wed.) at Merchants NY East (62nd and First, s.w. corner) from 6:30 on, and I’ll see if they can get us some Dr. Brown’s Tonic and Chilean wine.

I say Chilean because this week brings free-marketeers not only the joy of seeing Scott Brown elected to the Senate in Massachusetts, potentially blocking passage of the Obama healthcare overhaul, but, perhaps even more significantly, the election of Sebastian Pinera to the presidency of Chile. Pinera is the brother of Cato scholar Jose Pinera, who was almost single-handedly responsible for partially privatizing Chile’s social security system — and who has crusaded for similar market-based reforms around the globe.

Cato Institute president Ed Crane was so pissed off at me fourteen or so years ago, when I was a fledgling New York Press writer, for reporting a Jose Pinera appearance at a Cato event in a sarcastic fashion that Crane actually called my boss at the time, John Stossel, to complain — but anyone acquainted with the general tone of the Press in those days (when it was cool) knows that a veneer of sarcasm was the only way to get anything reported in those pages (Scott Nybakken, for example, was literally told to make his movie reviews for them “more snide”). I was trying to get the Cato message out — the Pinera message out — while still giving the hipsters of the time their chuckles. Mine is a thankless and difficult, very narrow road.

In any case, here’s hoping that Brown, despite impending Democratic procedural shenanigans, not only blocks Obamacare but — along with S. Pinera — portends a rolling-back of the welfare state across the globe — releasing healthcare from the state’s cold, dead grip here, social security from its grip over there, etc. But let us not get cocky: We may not be down to a mere sixteen Republican senators as in FDR’s heyday, but we’re a long way from convincing people government is inherently inefficient and bad, which is more important than any partisan electoral triumph. Indeed, the post-election opinion polls may end up showing that Brown eked out a victory not because Massachusetts voters are turning anti-government (my New England brethren haven’t become that enlightened that quickly) but only because (a) the economy is bad, (b) his opponent was stupid enough to insult a Red Sox player, (c) his opponent was also stupid enough to insult Catholics in Massachusetts, and (d) seniors are afraid the Democrats will cut Medicare, which indeed we should.

Still, I hope this is interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as an attempt to halt Obama’s expansion of the state — and, like the Tea Party movement, helps give momentum to the anti-statist elements in the GOP instead of the war-obsessed elements and the substantial faction that thinks that mundane earthly politics (and all that confusing state-vs.-freedom stuff) is merely some kind of proxy war for the eternal combat between demons and Jesus’s magical invisible army of angels and unicorns. Back in the real world, no matter how stupid the Democrats and the Republicans get, reality will have its say, and the laws of economics and science will reassert themselves and thwart the overreaching ambitions of politicians at some point, preferably sooner rather than later. That the chances for a climate bill are already regarded as dimmer is encouraging evidence that reality may be reasserting itself.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Lionsgate Buys Terminator for a Mere $15m

Lionsgate bought the auctioned-off rights to the entire Terminator franchise recently for a mere $15 million from its financially beleaguered owners.  I have four reactions:

(1) Now that James Cameron has even more money, I wonder if he wishes he’d found time to buy the killer-cyborg series he created.

(2) Joss Whedon put in a joke bid of $10,000 a while back — but seeing how cheaply it went (and knowing he could probably sell a Terminator movie with his friend and former Terminator Summer Glau in it), I wonder if he also wishes he’d put in a serious, winning bid.

(3) For a mere $15 million, I almost wish I had taken out some loans and bought the franchise myself, or at least had bought Summer Glau.

(4) If they actually get their act together and make another Terminator movie, I hope they’ll skip all present-day and time travel shenanigans once and for all and just have it all take place in the post-apocalyptic robo-wasteland (as the fourth film mostly did), since EVEN IN REAL LIFE IT’S ALREADY FREAKIN’ 2010 A.D.  We live in the future.  No time travel necessary.  Let’s just start fighting the robots already.

Hollywood’s in a reboot/start-from-scratch mood lately with genre films (with Spider-Man now slated to restart with younger actors, too), but Terminator could continue smoothly simply by setting the film in 2019 and having Schwarzenegger-type robots roaming the land and slaughtering human survivors.  That’s where we left off, after all — and it’s where, in our hearts, we always wanted to be.  Why reinvent the wheel when you could just keep the pedal to the metal?  That would give them exactly ten fictional years to play with before all the previous films’ time travel expeditions begin.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Book Selections: Aristotle, Chesterton, D. Friedman, Bussel, and Wisdom Book Selections of the Month (January 2010)

Would you rather be a traditionalistic, sword-cane-owning British eccentric, devoted to his wife, living in the early days of the twentieth century — or a highly attractive young person in the early twenty-first century having covert sex on an airplane?

This is the question with which I was confronted (more so than usual) on my recent fortieth birthday. Not simply because I was myself tipping over an important numerical barrier from youth to decay — nor simply because my worldview is in constant tension between old virtues and new possibilities — but because two of my birthday gifts were The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton (from Dawn Eden) and a copy of The Mile High Club, a Rachel Kramer Bussel-edited anthology of stories about people having sex on planes (from Jessica Seigel). But before we get to all that, let’s start with the ancient Greeks:

•Today, as we celebrate Martin Luther King, it’s worth remembering not only that slavery existed a mere hundred years before the Civil Rights Act he helped promote but that slavery was even more common — and less controversial — in the ancient world. Aristotle’s Politics, for all its strengths, begins with multiple chapters explaining the nature and rightness of slavery, rather dismissively asserting that there are obviously people fit to be heads of households and people who would be lost without the guidance of others’ rationality. Aristotle admits that these people do not necessarily find themselves assigned by society to their proper, natural roles, but, hey, close enough, he more or less concludes.

That people from Martha Nussbaum to latter-day Marxists to Ayn Rand (about whom much more next month) nonetheless find inspiration in Aristotle is a testament to his complexity, I suppose. It is admirable that in the Politics, which was essentially lecture notes, he avoids Plato’s method of deducing the one best way of doing things and instead surveys the empirical reality of the multiple city-states of ancient Greece, seeing what lessons can be drawn from the strengths and weaknesses of their diverse constitutions. And by constitution, Aristotle means not a modern, written document but the entire political system of a given city-state — the traditions and laws and social expectations that make it functional. His characteristic emphasis on habituation as central to real-world morals always gives him an impressively contemporary and relevant feel, even when he’s talking about things now alien to us, such as the importance of buying one’s own armor if one expects to have a say in plans to fight the Spartans.

Since countless matters now considered outside the purview of politics by most people fell within the realm of political philosophy in the tighter-knit, more collectivist/tribal world of the ancient polis, Aristotle also finds time to comment on such things as the ideal age for mating men with women, which he concludes should lead to a man being paired with a woman nineteen years his junior. This seems an excessive age difference by about two years to our modern way of thinking, but much has changed in two and a half millennia.

•Keen to find some thread of cultural continuity in all we have experienced since then is our old friend G.K. Chesterton, whose Autobiography was written very shortly before his death in 1936 (at age sixty-two) but is largely concerned with the social changes occurring in England as the earlier Victorian era ended. It’s full of amusing and heartwarming moments, from his fitting first memory — being spellbound by a toy castle and knight — to such surreal (and drunken) adult incidents as him portraying a cowboy alongside George Bernard Shaw and then being in a food fight with numerous other literary luminaries of his day, all of it filmed by the author of Peter Pan for an avant-garde project that was hastily abandoned as frivolous when World War I broke out, though I sorely wish the film had survived.

Chesterton, for all his religiosity (and often-misguided mockery of scientific thinking, right from this book’s sarcastic very first sentence, about how he takes it on faith and the say-so of his elders that he was born in England, etc.), has sensibilities not so terribly unlike my own, inclined as he is to think that warmth and kindness are keys to making us feel at home in the universe, our grateful welcoming of it helping to make it a place welcoming to others and ourselves. Or to put it in less New-Agey terms, I understand his desire, noted in this volume, to write a story about police investigators who slowly learn that the depraved activity in which a local bigwig is engaged is merely the use of his old toy soldiers, a sentimental activity frowned upon by ostensibly more-sophisticated neighbors. Why ever become cynical enough to sneer at — or stop loving — the things that made us happy, well-centered beings in youth? More important, why ever stop being happy, well-centered beings?

For all the goofiness and pretensions of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle project at the Guggenheim several years ago, I couldn’t help thinking that its mix of sci-fi imagery, racecars, animals, mythological beings, and hot chicks was not so unlike the exuberant sort of thing I probably would have done at the Guggenheim had someone handed me a million dollars when I was twelve years old and told me to decorate the place — though I would have used more Star Wars figures. And is that so wrong?

My thanks once more to Dawn Eden for giving me this Chesterton volume and, as noted in a Book Selection entry a year ago, for giving me a copy of his essay collection Heretics — not to mention a loaned copy of The Man Who Was Thursday years earlier. One of countless interesting revelations from the Autobiography: Chesterton was not yet a full convert from anarchism to Christianity/conservatism when he wrote Thursday and was in fact still struggling with the appeal of nihilism, which makes that whole novel — an influence on his fellow Catholic Patrick McGoohan decades later — even weirder.

With an impatience I can well understand, Chesterton explains his affinity for revolutionary rather than mushy ameliorative thinkers thusly:

I, for one, have always got on much better with revolutionists than with reformers; even when I entirely disagreed with the revolutions or entirely agreed with the reforms…I think the reason is that the revolutionists did, in a sense, judge the world; not justly like the saints; but independently like the saints. Whereas the reformers were so much a part of the world they reformed, that the worst of them tended to be snobs and even the best of them to be specialists. Some of the Liberal specialists, of the more frigid Cambridge type, did faintly irritate me; much more than any mere anarchist or atheist.

Chesterton, who makes quite clear his lifelong affinity for the left, even complains that most socialist fight songs don’t actually contain any fighting or bloodshed or hint of possible defeat, whereas when Hillaire Belloc wrote socialist fight songs, he went into admirable Machiavellian detail about how to slash the legs of the aristocrats’ horses and how to set up barricades, describing corpses littering the streets and so forth, not just some vague wave of human fellowship overthrowing the old order like the sun rising.

Many of Chesterton’s conservative fans would probably be shocked by the extent to which he here reconciles his traditionalism, sentimentality, and religiosity with undimmed fondness for the Liberal Party, anti-corporate “distributivist” economic schemes, and even outright communism.

•Nearly a century later, I’m still inclined to hope that we can produce a world as happy and free as the one the anarchists dreamed of but without using their socially-disruptive and reckless means to get there. Case in point: David Friedman’s Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life (written during the last big upsurge in market-oriented thinking, the Gingrich phase of the mid-90s) springs from his anarcho-capitalist philosophy (the son of Milton Friedman, he believes even police and courts can ultimately be handled by private, voluntary means, making government completely unnecessary — and I cautiously agree), but the book is entirely taken up by profoundly bourgeois calculations about ordinary trips to the supermarket, lunch-planning, job interviews, and what we can learn from them about how humans (almost invariably) react to incentives.

As he puts it with his endearingly nerdy dryness, people may resent economists for claiming that they can reliably predict human action even in a world of lunatics and romantics — but even if people only do the self-interested, rational thing half the time and behave in a completely randomized, berserk way the other half of the time, economics will still be a better predictive tool than any other means of assessing the human psyche.

And Friedman is not without his own sentimental attachments, including one not mentioned in this volume that would make Chesterton very, very happy: A fan of “recreational medievalism” — nerds dressing up as faux-medieval characters and engaging in games, feasts, and other interactions — Friedman was co-founder of Pennsic, the largest annual gathering of Society for Creative Anachronism members and affiliated lords and ladies. (Decide for yourself which is weirdest, Milton Friedman founding the Chicago School of economics, his son David co-founding Pennsic, or David’s son Patri founding the Seasteading Institute, which aims to create new countries in the ocean.) The perfect blend of Friedman’s medievalism and economic rationality, of course, is his earlier book The Machinery of Freedom, in which he uses medieval Iceland as an admittedly far from perfect example of decentralized, privately-enforced justice.

I suppose you could say he is both an anarcho-capitalist and an anachro-capitalist. Ha! (Did I mention I partied with poets last night?)

•Of course, some will feel that a world of bean-counting free-market economics can never hold quite the romance of a world of Icelandic blood feuds — and for the most part, that’s probably for the best. Oddly enough, the Rachel Kramer Bussel-edited erotica anthology The Mile High Club, upon which many social conservatives would no doubt look with horror, is really the perfect example of how staid and bourgeois we have become even in our fantasies.

I mean, sure, this is an entire collection about fictional deviants sneaking quickies in airplane bathrooms, cockpits, and darkened window seats under airline blankets, but the “danger” here arises precisely from the assumption that our protagonists must not only achieve carnal union but must (for goodness’ sake!) do so before landing, without the stewardess noticing, and with the tray table ultimately returned to its original upright and locked position (no double entendre intended). There’s one story about stunt-wingwalkers doing it out in the freezing air as their biplane whirls about, which I almost found myself hoping would end with fiery death at the moment of climax, just to make things a bit more Dionysian, but for the most part these characters don’t even leave a mess or shock anyone.

And I’m not saying they should — just observing that for all our supposed decadence these days, and the decline of so many of the ancient ways Aristotle valued and the traditions and sentiments Chesterton treasured, even our naughtiest writers still regard airline rules as nigh-unbreakable taboos. I suppose that’s just as well.

I sometimes worry about Rachel Kramer Bussel, though — not that she will become too decadent nor even too jaded, but that she may just get a bit bored with it all, not quite knowing where to turn next, adrift like a bag lady on the subway system, unsure where to find the excitement she still manages to parcel out for other people in volume after volume like this one. Stay strong and keep entertained, Rachel.

•If none of the above leaves you feeling you have gained Wisdom, you might pick up the most recent issue of In Character, which makes that particular virtue its focus. I will only observe, after reading its briefs on behalf of old-time moralism, new-fangled ethics, scientific reasoning, and all the rest, that if history is any guide, the people of the future will look back with amazement at the fact that we did such a bad job of taking the seemingly opposed fragments of our civilization’s thinking and piecing them together into something larger and better, which reconciled the disparate strengths of our different approaches to understanding the universe (I mean, there was a time when people argued fiercely over whether people should read Aristotle or Swift, and eventually we realized it might be wise to read both). I’d like to get a head start on things by anticipating — and assuming the eventual existence of — that hypothetical synthesis.

(And speaking of the future, tomorrow another entry about the Terminator franchise.)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Linguists, Poets, Me, and Chris Elliott as FDR

I partied with at least two linguistics experts last week and may finish up partying with poets tonight — but the important things are the clip of me on YouTube asking a Stossel guest about Ayn Rand and the series of clips of Chris Elliott on YouTube portraying FDR. The situation, in ten bits:

1. Adam Braff is a fellow 90s Brown alum now moved to the neighborhood (being feted by people including another former Brown student who once saw a bench-clearing near-brawl between the New Yorker and Onion softball teams) — but before Brown (and before becoming a bigtime business consultant) Adam was an MIT student studying linguistics.

2. And that got me thinking about perhaps the most famous MIT linguist (and America-bashing left-anarchist), Noam Chomsky. I read that the Unabomber, ostensibly a left-anarchist himself, threatened to kill Chomsky, and, horrible as it may sound, I have to admit to feeling just slightly conflicted about that.

3. It then occurred to me, as it periodically does, that if one were out to dismantle industrial civilization and even symbolic language itself, creating a world of combat and tribal savagery devoid of machines or philosophy or abstract ethical codes, so-called “green anarchism” or primitivism is the way to go, since some of these people (presumably few in number) apparently want to do just that, getting humans to revert to non-human ways of life including communicating through grunts and smells. Rather than an impossible dream, it sometimes sounds to me like the path of least resistance, giving in to the weakness of the animal, not summoning the strength of one. Luckily, even amidst terrible earthquakes, people tend to see civilization as the thing to aim for and savagery as something to be avoided if possible.

4. I also think that regardless of how rational or irrational one thinks Chomsky is — and I’ll grant he’s far more sane than the primitivists — you have agree that the MIT building containing his office looks like it’s the Hotel Wacky in the center of Crazytown, East Loonyland.

5. Let me also qualify #2 above by saying that the Unabomber’s no laughing matter, of course, and he in fact killed the ex-boss of one of my old roommates. Murder is bad — and you’ll learn more about extremely basic philosophy and political economy in my Book Selections entry tomorrow, featuring Aristotle and others.

6. I also spoke to linguistics and cognitive science expert Steven Pinker last week, at an event honoring his wife, author Rebecca Goldstein, whose latest book is about the tension between faith and reason. Talking at the event to Nick Gillespie, who’d noticed I recur in the studio audience of Stossel (as in this clip, at the four-minute mark, where I ask Ayn Rand Institute head Yaron Brook if we really want more selfishness), I likened myself to Chris Elliott from the days when he was (among other recurring characters) the Guy Under the Seats on Letterman’s show.

7. And that inspired Gillespie to tell a couple of us that Chris Elliott’s half-hour 1986 performance FDR, a One-Man Show is a hilarious and completely historically-inaccurate parody of “one-man show” history plays and the kinds of overblown actors who star in them — and YouTube reveals that Nick is correct.

8. Speaking of people who have a great facility with language who hate FDR (do I mean conspiracy theorist Chomsky or comedian Elliott?), Gore Vidal was recently nicely skewered by his one-time acolyte Christopher Hitchens for going off the deep end politically (as noted on Kyle Smith’s blog).

9. But if poets are the people who really get language, perhaps I should party tonight — as should you — in honor of the poetry journal Boog, 7pm at Zinc Bar (along with my poet friend Boni Joi, who learned not long ago that her biological mom is a Salem witch), 82 West 3rd St.

10. And that reminds me that the Ramen Girl screenwriter I mentioned yesterday was a poet back when we briefly dated, and we went to a slam at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where, somewhat awkwardly, she did not win anything whereas I — deciding on a whim to participate using the only poem I’d written in my adult life — came in third place. Since two poems were required and I hadn’t realized that, I had to create one on the spot by stitching together unused stand-up comedy lines I’d been saving for possible use.

The pre-written one, though, was a joke poem I’d sent to a Brown literary journal as a prank, called “Stork in a Gyrocopter,” largely a parody of idyllic environmentalist sentiment (with some quotes from my favorite song, “Synchronicity II,” thrown in, not to mention a rhyming bit involving “wish” and copter blades that go “swish,” followed by “Earth” and copter blades that go “swerth”). There was an “Interlude,” I recall, involving a midget boy with green buttocks. The opening lines, at least, stick with me: “Stork! Stork in a gyrocopter! Grim harbinger of the coming age…” Indeed.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Movie Came Out Last Year...

…written by a Brown alum ex of mine (the one ex who I feel I should have treated better, since I was even less adept at philosophical compromise then and quickly freaked out over her mystical beliefs and baffling sense of humor, but we remained civil, and she wanted kids anyway), called The Ramen Girl, starring the since-deceased Brittany Murphy. Film critic Don Willmott, sending some sort of harsh mixed message, called it “a vacuous but atmospheric analysis of the redemptive power of a good bowl of noodles.”

Oddly enough, though, this makes two exes of mine who at least considered writing noodle-oriented romantic-comedy screenplays with an element of magic, since years later, one — who is also a bit mystically-inclined, actually — considered writing a movie centered on the Tiger Noodles restaurant near Princeton. In a future era, all of these sorts of unintended recurring patterns will be as transparent to psychologists and sociologists as fight-or-flight responses are today, I suspect.

The Princeton one was in turn so moved once by a Jonathan Leaf play based on a real-life hostage-taking in DC by Palestinian terrorists back in the 70s that she had to go sit in the lobby for a while — all the more reason to see his current play, running for two more weeks, Sexual Healing, which was slated to have Ray J and members of the Jersey Shore cast attend it last week, I’m told, so maybe the play will be glimpsed on MTV. The Situation is theatrical.

Another Leaf play years ago featured fine actor Harry Lennix (Capt. Locke from the Matrix sequels) as Pushkin, and as it happens, he did a great job on last night’s penultimate Dollhouse episode. Now if only the final episode weren’t airing 8pm January 29, at the same time as the Smallville featuring the Justice Society of America — probably the only two pieces of TV entertainment I’ll have been interested in all season (though tomorrow, I’ll link to both me and Chris Elliott’s version of FDR making TV appearances…).

Friday, January 15, 2010

NBC Head Jeff Zucker and Conan O'Brien Have Sparred Before...

…when one headed the Harvard Crimson and the other the Harvard Lampoon. Mainstream media vs. comedy, in a battle now spanning three decades. You know who I’m rooting for.

If it all ends with the 5’6” Zucker finally breaking down in tears and saying, “Conan was 6’4”, even then! He always got the girl! And he thought he was so funny!” the film version of it all becomes inevitable.

I was reminded of all this after seeing Adam Braff last night, one of the few times I have since many years ago when he was working at the Brown Daily Herald and I’d recently edited the comedic and sometimes libertarian-sounding Brown Film Bulletin. Now, he consults for a gigantic, well-known bank and I just make fun of the government and people who claim household cleansers cause leukemia. Some things change after college, but not all that much.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Scott Brown Could Deny the Dems 60 in the Senate

Sometimes it really does all come down to one legislator or one vote — political history has an alarming way of providing such examples and thus denying us the cynical comfort of indifference to short-term outcomes. All of which means you might want to consider doing something that boosts the odds of voters in Massachusetts filling what used to be Ted Kenendy’s Senate seat (ironically) with a Republican, Scott Brown, who would rob the Democrats of the sixty votes needed to stop a filibuster of their healthcare-socializing bill. The lives of hundreds of millions of people may be palpably worse in the next few decades if he loses on Tuesday.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Un-P.C. Comics and Hiroshima/Nagasaki

I mentioned yesterday Spider-Man 4 being scuttled over the studio’s resistance to having the villain be John Malkovich as the Vulture. This means, in a way, that a conservative destroyed Spider-Man, since apparently John Malkovich is “so right-wing you have to wonder if he’s kidding” and once clarified his joking comments about wanting to kill two British leftists by saying, “I hate somebody who is supposed to be a Middle Eastern expert who thinks Jesus was born in Jerusalem. I hate what I consider his vile anti-semitism. This being said, I apologize to both Fisk and Galloway; they seem like good men but if they make such a heinous mistake again, I will not hesitate to murder them brutally by way of the gallows.”

If the villainous Malkovulture is not un-p.c. enough for you, though, check out these two items from the world of cartoons and comics:

•Scroll down to the final item in this list (compiled by Laura Hudson) of bad comics, a description of and pictures from a recent story arc of the newspaper strip Mark Trail in which Mark largely ignores the plight of a woman he knows who apologizes to her husband for befriending a deer, even after the husband beats her for it.

•For sheer un-p.c.-ness, though, I think it’s hard to beat Marvel’s character the Mandrill, the monkey-headed spawn of an accidental radioactive mingling of black and white human genes — who ends up with will-destroying power over the ladies and a desire to start his own nation in Africa. Aw, yeah (and I do not mean to diminish the important racism-promoting work of the villain Egg Fu, of course, nor Black Manta’s efforts to get black people to live in the ocean). I remember admiring the Mandrill’s army of go-go-boot-wearing henchwomen when I was a lad and was reminded of them upon seeing the Fembots in Austin Powers.

In the real world, of course, radiation does not always result in superhuman powers, and I notice that last week saw the passing at age ninety-three of the only man officially recognized as having survived both the Hiroshima and, three days later, Nagasaki explosions. Has anyone in history had more reason to think “This again? Man, this has not been my week.” On the bright side, the subsequent sixty-five years must have seemed like pretty smooth sailing.

I will think of him tonight while watching his countryman Akira Kurosawa’s film noir Stray Dog — about a cop shamed by the loss of his gun, which is being used in crimes — and will marvel at the fact the Japanese were imitating Western tropes a mere four years after the War.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I Proclaim Stuart Townsend...

…the genre-film prima donna of the century so far.

Almost Aragorn. Almost Fandral. Maybe he should storm off the set of, say, a Narnia film in a couple years (but his is not the biggest genre-movie meltdown of the week, since it appears the Vulture, who the studio was pressuring Sam Raimi NOT to use as a villain, has killed Spider-Man 4).

Monday, January 11, 2010

Is Communism Better Than Democracy?

After hearing people say China (being pro-growth) basically scuttled a serious Copenhagen climate accord — and seeing China act as some deterrent to the U.S.’s absurd borrowing and spending — I am reminded of another wise thing the nominally-Communist regime in Beijing did about ten years earlier: tell Hong Kong it can’t have a U.S.-style social security system.

As noted by my libertarian writer friend Bretigne Shaffer, who lived in Hong Kong around the time of its transition back to rule by the mainland, the Hong Kong pro-democracy politicians, much as we’re all rooting for them, have been inclined to reproduce some of the same bad welfare-statist ideas we have over here.

Beijing, lacking our focus-group-checking and poll-taking aversion to economic reality (despite also obviously lacking our more-reliably property-based legal system), looked at how the major big-government Ponzi schemes were holding up over here (and indeed, one decade ago was about the time that people were starting to realize we’d need to privatize Social Security to keep it from bankrupting us, though we failed to follow through on the observation).  Beijing said no.

There is something to be said for not having to cater to the ignorant masses.  And lest we think politicians over here don’t cater — and can just monarchically do whatever they please — try talking to a Hill staffer whose congressperson boss did something unprincipled and just listen to them plead with real fear, “We had to do it — it was really popular back in our district!”  Politicians’ role as “leaders” is overblown (as is their supposed stake in thoughtful right/left debates or even in the fate of their respective parties beyond their own districts), and the dastardly role of the commoners back home in creating our woes is often whitewashed.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Howley Has a Defender

One Henri Hein, writing in a letter to the February issue of Reason, echoes the basic Kerry Howley line that Dan McCarthy and I don’t “grasp” that freedom in the libertarian sense requires opposing such activities as shunning, mocking, encouraging conformity, and ostracizing.

On the contrary: I understand that just as free individuals will often hunt, eat fattening food, swear, publish books about the evils of taxation, and have sex, so too will they shun, mock, encourage conformity, and ostracize.

The idea that some libertarian philosophical line can be drawn with any logical coherence that explains when these activities by free people are forbidden is absurd.  (Is mean-spirited stand-up comedy unlibertarian now?)  You want freedom, you accept the possibility that numerous people may call you “fatty fat-fat” and that your only right as a libertarian citizen is to respond with words of your own — or even by, yes, ostracizing and shunning the bullies if you so choose.  Libertarianism is a political philosophy, not a (very mysterious and vague) set of etiquette rules kept on file somewhere that has not yet been revealed to the non-Howley-style libertarians.

That there are libertarians who cannot grasp this simple fact — that a free society is not necessarily one where everyone will be nice to you — is alarming.  It is every bit as stupid as, albeit less dangerous than, hippies in the 60s thinking that Maoism would entail not just a certain governmental regime but the implicit promise that everyone living under that regime would “be groovy.”

Do the pro-Howley libertarians (of which I hope and expect there are very few) think we can shun, mock, and ostracize Marxists, I wonder?

But no more of this squabbling — there’s a dominant party in Congress that needs ousting.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Palin, Paul, Brooks, and Tea Parties

I was delighted to see Ron Paul lauding the Tea Party movement on CNN last night, reacting to the news that Sarah Palin will be speaking at the Tea Party Convention in one month. I’ve said before I don’t think she can become president, but I’ve also said she’d have my support — batty or not — if she ends up being the one major-party candidate who really promotes the anti-centralization, anti-socialism themes of the Tea Party movement (by contrast, Romney socialized medicine in Massachusetts). Similarly, unlike most people, I’d like her more, not less, if she went back to flirting with ideas like Alaska secession. Palin/Perry 2012 would be an interesting two-governor ticket, and conservatives inclined to turn their noses up at the idea are, so to speak, part of the problem.

And that brings us to David Brooks, who tried, in his way, to say nice things about the Tea Party movement in his January 5 column — likening its energy to the historically-pivotal enthusiasm of the hippies in the 60s — causing to me to start thinking I’d have to revise my opinion of the big-government-loving, Canadian-born man of mush. But he just had to ruin things in the very last paragraph by saying, “Personally, I’m not a fan of this movement.” He also hates populism and Palin (calling her a cancer on the Republican Party, though I think Brooks is the cancer — and am pleased a search for “David Brooks cancer” still yields my comments to that effect among the first hits). For all I know, he has already half-written a column going completely mental over the fact that she’s going to speak at the Tea Party Convention instead of the more mainstream annual CPAC gathering.

Now, I can readily understand non-leftist intellectuals looking with disdain at any political movement that doesn’t seem to have all of its principles clearly spelled out, all the ideological i’s dotted and t’s crossed, but the Tea Party movement, while boisterous, is surely better in this regard than either of the two major parties (probably helping to explain why, as Brooks notes, it’s currently more popular than either of the two parties), with its rallies explicitly calling for budget cuts, resistance to socialism, an end to stimulus spending, a return to constitutional limits on government, and so on.

We normally listen to mush-mouthed moderates from the two parties vaguely promise change, hope, and good times for America, with its solid families who love work and whatnot — but everything even halfway good that the Republican Party has ever accomplished has been due to upsurges in ideological fervor (Goldwater, Reagan, Gingrich, even Ron Paul), and it was never crucial that the ideology be perfectly consistent or spelled out by academic philosophers. You just need enough ideology to keep the masses aimed in the same direction, as it were. We’re trying to keep America free here, ultimately, not get an A+ on a philosophy exam — much as I might enjoy that exam.

By contrast, the mushy, Brooks-like folk (including Sam Tanenhaus, whose book lamenting what he sees as the overly-ideological tone of the GOP I’ll write about at a later date) push an unconvincing alternate history in which party moderates and non-ideologues supposedly got all the work done. And if by “work,” you mean excessive spending and regulation that might as well have been crafted by the Democrats, then, sure, the moderates and non-ideologues have done a lot of work. This is like saying a senator is “good” because he got a lot of legislation passed, as though legislation is an inherently good product. (What sort of legislation?)

At the same time that I want ideology in my party politics, though, I recognize that when philosophy hits the streets, it has to take a watered-down, coalition-maintaining, more sloganeering form (whether right, left, or otherwise). When my parents attended a Tea Party rally in Connecticut — the first protest these mild-mannered folk had ever been to in their lives, despite being Boomers — we might all wish that they were carrying white papers from the Heritage Foundation, copies of Thomas Sowell books, reams of statistics, and some essays on Rawls just to make sure they were hearing the other side, but in reality they were there armed mainly with (a) the worry that government is deficit-spending our futures away and (b) a willingness to applaud and cheer those publicly vowing to help make that the nation’s new top priority.

If people like Brooks turn their noses up at that, it fuels my worry that there are virtually no real conservatives in public intellectual life — since a popular anti-government movement, you’d think, is exactly what we’ve been longing for. It is something that right-leaning or pro-market intellectuals should be helping by adding theory to existing practice, like Frank Meyer helpfully lending a “fusionist” philosophical gloss to the pre-existing alliance of traditionalists and free-marketeers. Otherwise, prominent potential candidates like Huckabee (who I saw at the latest Stossel taping I attended, a show on food regulations likely to air in a few weeks) will continue to feel comfortable painting themselves as conservatives while running in the opposite direction from the Tea Party movement, lambasting libertarians and spreading the evil and familiar message that welfare statism is the compassionate alternative to cut-throat markets.

Politicians will almost always be opportunistic people willing to utter logically-inconsistent slogans from whatever seems to be the popular script at the moment. I have no plan to cure that problem, nor does anyone else. So, cynical as it may sound to some, I suggest that intellectuals, instead of carping, work on providing politicians with a Tea Party-based script that turns as many anti-government Tea Party goals as possible into real policy. There’s momentum here and a chance for interesting synergy between popular discontent, Obama overreach, Ron Paul-spurred libertarian impulses within the GOP, Tea Party enthusiasm, economic uncertainty, and Palin/Perry-style anti-Washington sentiment. I would be ashamed of myself if I looked back and said I squandered this juncture in history by sneering at the Tea Partiers (my parents included), chuckling along with the likes of Chris Matthews, who irked black Tea Party organizers by calling the movement “monochromatic” and white.

Hell, I’ll proudly wear a Palin button in Manhattan if that’s how all this has to go down.

Who imagined we’d suffer for such a short time under Democratic rule, really, before the chance arose to write a new defining political narrative for this period? With that chance before us, there’s no honor in simply picking up your marbles and going home, waiting for the day when the Tea Party crowd develops better manners. (And speaking of that, on a more pragmatic note, have the people who make the Tea Parties sound unruly not been to any other protests? Seen the vandalism, the traffic-blocking, the retaliatory tear gas, the routinely deranged slogans?) If we’re too proud to make use of this, I don’t know what sort of opportunity we are waiting for. Likely none.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Elvises, Dinesh D'Souza, and Impossible Warren Beatty Sex Claims

Today being Elvis’s seventy-fifth birthday, I had lunch, or at least a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, while watching performances by autistic and otherwise disabled Elvis impersonators at the Osso Bucco restaurant near Union Square.

My lunch companion was once a student of theology (and hails from one of the ten most religious states in the nation, incidentally), and I told her I’ve long thought that if I were to write a mystical fantasy about Elvis, I would make the tenth anniversary of his death a key moment. It just so happens that that day, in 1987, was also the so-called Harmonic Convergence, the day proclaimed by New Age nuts like Shirley MacLaine to be the time when New Age consciousness would sweep the planet (unless it happened in 2000…or 2012…or…).

It also seems as though it was right around then that the trope of “Elvis sightings” and “Elvis’s ghost” stories became an enduring part of pop culture. Why not, then, declare the Harmonic Convergence a success? Clearly, it resurrected Elvis.


While Elvis may not have set up his mystical Kingdom in this world since then, he is part of an American pop culture that has largely taken over the planet (an acquaintance of mine knows an Italian would-be screenwriter who says even the Italians want to make films in English now, since Hollywood blockbusters dominate in so much of the world). Dinesh D’Souza has argued that the perceived threat of the American pop juggernaut — with all the sex and violence it contains — is a big reason that so many people overseas such as radical Muslims hate us, and that maybe we should thus give a more conservative tone to our cultural exports for both moral and tactical reasons.

Setting aside the moral considerations, I think this is completely backwards tactically. If American pop culture is such a juggernaut overseas precisely because it contains women in bikinis wielding machine guns and so forth — and if these images really have the power to erode people’s loyalty to retrograde Islamist regimes — then the more bikinis the better, I say. We might anger some terrorists in the short term, but long-term, they’ll all be dancing to our crazy rock n’ roll beach party music.

Without dropping any bombs, we’ve basically achieved the conqueror’s dream of turning them into us. And not in a wholly morally-arbitrary way. Those rock n’ rollers around the world are drawn to American-style displays because they smack of freedom. I hope D’Souza wouldn’t suggest, for instance, that we’d be better off strategically if the Muslim-Hindu punk bands who were recently in the news dropped the decadence and took up classical violin.

This is one culture war we can win — and hardly an unpatriotic or un-American one. As my friend Stephanie Gutmann, who has written about military matters, once said, U.S. soldiers are often very patriotic and conservative — and they sure love strippers.


Of course, D’Souza is wrong a lot. As I’ve lamented before, he started out sympathetic in my eyes, criticizing campus political correctness in his book Illiberal Education in terms that spoke to my own non-leftist-at-Brown experience. Since then, he has become an opportunistic professional sophist willing to jump on any high school debate-level argument or ironic jab that seems likely to get a chuckle out of less-than-analytical audiences who are already on his side on whatever his topic of the moment is (Reagan, the evils of biotech, the arrogance of atheists).

It should not surprise me, then, though it does sadden me, that he has recently stooped to peddling “near-death experience” stories (often tunnel vision and some dreamlike images of people — the sort of thing also easily induced by riding high-speed centrifuges for pilot training or for that matter by falling asleep) as if they are evidence of, as the title puts it, Life After Death. This is just sad — and very 1970s, I might add (which is around when many of the reports of near-death experiences he touts were first noted — when people weren’t busy chasing Bigfoot or making up fanciful explanations for ships getting lost in the Bermuda Triangle).

As a magician/psychologist named Richard Wiseman ably demonstrated to a big audience at an NYC Skeptics event Tuesday night (the day before our epic deli debate, in which Katz’s, though beloved, did not prevail), the big recurring problem with the human brain is that it easily anticipates certain familiar narratives and reads them into misleading or confusing events, leading to misinterpretations and hasty conclusions. Your eye follows where the coin seems to be headed — and thus misses the fact that it never left the magician’s hand. (Wiseman had a whole roomful of skeptics thinking he was an incredible reader of subtle body language, which he pretended to be examining to determine which of several suggested cards a woman was thinking about — when in fact he’d simply peeked at it without us noticing.)

Similarly, if someone tells you “I am about to describe experiences that may indicate an afterlife,” and you’ve already got a fairly Christian notion of what an afterlife ought to look like, you almost pride yourself on thinking “A-ha! That sounds like Heaven!” when someone says “I saw people all around me — people from my past.” A moment’s reflection, though, ought to make us realize that basically everyone you know is from your past, some of them even dead, but these people also appear in your dreams without you waking up convinced you must have non-materially intersected with their souls during the night. If atheist A.J. Ayer’s near-death experience involved more of a red glow than a white glow, D’Souza is only too happy to imply that Ayer may have been glimpsing the Bad Place instead of Heaven — while ignoring people who saw, say, a purple haze or lots of those squiggly lines you see when you close your eyes really hard.

I think the fellow named Bort in this article, who’s trying to sell a potato that has a cross-shape in it, probably has the most realistic attitude toward these sorts of read-into-it-what-you-will phenomena: Don’t believe they have much significance, but be ready to sell them to people who do.


Lest it sound like I’m suggesting that only religious folk fall for easy narratives — when in fact all of us do — I must note, as a professional debunker, the absurdity of recurring claims about the numerous sexual conquests of male movie stars and athletes, the latest being the Drudge-linked story about Warren Beatty supposedly having had sex with 12,775 women. Foolishly, the article uses all sorts of analogies to town populations to suggest how many women that is (and by implication how amazing Beatty must be). Not once does the article make the calculation that renders the whole story nonsensical: HOW MUCH TIME WOULD THIS HAVE TAKEN?

Let’s assume he bedded exactly 12,775 women over the course of say, sixty years years since he entered puberty. That would mean approximately one new woman every 1.7 days for his entire post-puberty life. I’m not saying that’s physically or logically impossible, but does anyone in his right mind think that’s what Warren Beatty has actually been doing? Are we to believe that even if he’s a sex maniac he never wanted to have sex with some women on many temporally-separated occasions? Are we to ignore the fact that he’s been married and had long-term girlfriends? Does he never take non-sexual vacations? Doesn’t he, you know, make films or something that I’d imagine can be rather time-consuming? Does he not have friends to visit or meetings to go to that do not involve new women to have sex with?

Would he not at some point find it easier to have a stable of, say, twenty women who had sex with him over and over again like a harem, if his powers of attraction are indeed so great, rather than having to continually scour new parts of town for women he hasn’t already been with? The whole thing’s ridiculous, and so are the old Wilt Chamberlain stories. And do we really think men as superhumanly indiscriminate as we’re asked to believe they are would keep careful statistics?

I’m generally happy with just one, myself.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Deli Tonight, Rand/Seavey TV Tomorrow

Tonight’s deli-themed Debate at Lolita Bar (and field trip to Katz’s) was made possible by a complex happy coincidence: After Josh Neuman of Heeb magazine told me about David Sax writing a book on delis, I was told about Yura Dashevsky, a documentarian chronicling Katz’s, by a nice libertarian couple I met — Steven Warshawsky and Kim Ruska.  And I met the couple while I was in the studio audience of Stossel with them.  They had in turn ended up in the studio audience only because they met Stossel while riding a bus earlier that week.

Now, it just so happens that tonight’s the debate — and tomorrow’s the airing of that episode of Stossel, which is about Ayn Rand.  Watch Fox Business Network tomorrow, Thur., at 8pm Eastern or when it’s repeated Friday at 10 Eastern if you want to see me ask a question from the audience about Rand’s excessively anti-altruistic position — though Andrew Corsello of GQ e-mails to say that he knows I’m still a Rand-lover at heart.

Gerard Perry, by contrast, e-mails to ask if being in the Stossel audience means I have an opinion on the debate raging at over whether Stossel should even have a studio audience (Stossel posted an item saying he’s not so sure, but I won’t take it personally — maybe it was a combination of the spirited Young Communist League members in the audience and the confusing instructions the poor communists were given about when it was OK to jeer and boo).

I guess I’m pro-audience, since without the Stossel audience I wouldn’t be on TV tomorrow flashing a Vulcan hand salute as a shout-out to Ali Kokmen — nor am I confident we would be debating deli tonight, for that matter, since I might not have found a second deli expert.  G-d works in mysterious ways.  You never know when one block away may be the person who will be your salvation or undoing.

Clearly, I’m leaning pro-audience for selfish reasons here, though, and as an Aristotle passage I read this week notes, we are always bad at being objective judges of our own cases.  Rand claims that Aristotle was her sole significant philosophical influence (actually, she sounds more like capitalist anti-utilitarian Immanuel Kant sometimes, but she wouldn’t want to hear that), but she definitely didn’t absorb Aristotle’s warning about selfishness and egotism being impediments to objective rationality.  Quite the contrary, which is why I have never quite been an Objectivist, except for about the duration of one lunch period at Brown, and that was long enough to permanently alienate the altruistically-inclined Zeba Kimmel (one of my fellow comedy writers), who was so horrified to hear me entertaining anti-altruism arguments that he not only avoided me thereafter, he recommended that other people avoid me and avoid people who knew me.  I remained part of the broader fabric of society for the most part, though.

One admitted advantage of outsize egos: they inspired Carly Simon’s song “You’re So Vain,” and I’m amused to see that David Bowie and backmasking make appearances in the Wiki-assembled clues to the real meaning of the song.  Howard Stern also makes a cameo as virtually the only guy who knows who really inspired the song.  Is it mere coincidence he was a Libertarian candidate for governor of New York?  Yes.  Yes it is.

P.S. Finally, let me note that Carly Simon is all feminine and emotive and stuff but definitely did the best James Bond theme.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Everybody Wang Chung Four Nights Ago

You know, I think I’ve found a song even drier and more British than the usual monotone New Wave stuff I attempt, and when you imagine this, I think it’ll make sense to you that I contend this worked well during New Year’s Eve karaoke: Picture a dry, apathetic-sounding Todd (as if there’s any other kind) intoning:

And take your baby by the heel
And do the next thing that you feel
We were so in “phise”
In our dance hall “dize”
We were cool in “crize”…

And in her eyes two sapphires blue
And you need her and she needs you
And you need her
And she needs you

Now if I can just find a place with their best song, “To Live and Die in L.A.,” on the selections list.  I would also settle for the fantastic “Don’t Let Go.”

Monday, January 4, 2010

DEBATE AT LOLITA BAR: Is Katz's the Best Deli?

This Wed., Jan. 6 (at 8pm) join us (at 266 Broome St. at Allen St. on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, one block south of the Delancey St. F J M Z subway stop) for a debate on a matter of great local importance — followed promptly by a field trip to sample the wares of the establishment in contention:

Yura Dashevsky, maker of the documentary in progress Katz’s: That’s All, argues yes.

David Sax, author of Save the Deli!, argues no.

Michel Evanchik moderates and Todd Seavey hosts. Everyone “noshes” afterwards, per the above plan.

I’ve been reading Aristotle’s Politics (about which, more in this month’s Book Selection entry), and I think he would say the most important question of the evening — aside from how many of the people in attendance will be consigned to slavery and how many must procure their own battle armor — is really what form the audience’s democratic deliberations, if any, will take.

Now, by tradition, the Lolita audience votes on the question at hand at the very end of the debate. And were we a group moved solely by metaphysical speculations — and custom — it might well seem we should adhere to this rule. Yet is it not the case that the demos’s judgment might best occur after empirical investigation — i.e., the trip to Katz’s to taste their various meats and breads, whether acquired through trade, or as Aristotle would consider more noble, personal farming efforts (or possibly piracy, which was apparently legal in ancient Greece)?

Perhaps two votes, submitted for final resolution to a Seavey/Evanchik oligarchy — though not a tyranny — is the ideal form for the debate. (In Sparta, the question might be resolved by combat, and this too may be worthy of consideration, as I am confident Mr. Evanchik would say.) In any case, though: join us, eat something.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Is There Toilet Paper on Mars?


After describing what is plainly a non-threatening yuppie bar yesterday, I was reminded again of the co-worker of mine at ABC News years ago who said he intended to take a group of children to Mars Bar, by which he meant to say Mars 2112, the latter being a sci-fi-themed kids’ restaurant but the former being perhaps the skuzziest booze-hole on the Lower East Side — which would have delighted the kids’ parents, I’m sure.

(And just for the hell of it, let’s pause for a moment to watch the great Bowie video for “Life on Mars” again, directed by Mick Rock, who Dawn Eden and I met once backstage at a Tony Visconti concert. On a related note, I see the MST3K-like Raspberry Brothers are showing and mocking the millennials-pleasing Bowie/Muppets film Labyrinth tonight, if anyone’s interested.)

I still sort of like Mars Bar — part of the eternal Upper East Side/Lower East Side dichotomy in my soul (one for living, one for debating — debating this week about a Lower East Side deli that we’ll also visit, as it happens). Mars Bar remains, however, one of only two establishments where I have concluded the restroom was simply too frightening to use.

The other — some place in DC when I was visiting libertarian intern friends there with Chris Nugent many years ago, I think — had a pool hall atmosphere and a bathroom door easily visible to patrons that opened upon a rather large space in which there was only one stall, with no door on it (or worse, I think it may have had a damaged door dangling to one side of it unusably) and a the toilet within raised up a foot or so above floor level, so that if you dared do your business there, you would potentially be greeted, as if by commoners seeking audience with the monarch, by anyone who walked through the bathroom door or even passed by it. I refrained.

It’s amazing, really, how many establishments, even mostly-decent ones, neglect their bathrooms. My ex Indrani (a Lower East Side resident herself — and perhaps the ex whose musical tastes most closely match my own, so she likes the punk and the New Wave, too) says that I emerge from restaurant bathrooms with minor complaints so often, I should consider becoming a professional bathroom critic. It’s not that I’m all that picky, but you begin to realize just how many things can go wrong with a poorly-maintained bathroom, from lack of toilet paper to lack of paper towels and/or soap to blockages in need of plunging. Hot water, an obvious necessity if the staff are supposed to be washing their hands after using the bathroom and before making your food, seems to be a rarity in public bathrooms. Sometimes it’s little non-essential things, like no mirror. Often it’s big things like no lock on the door (I’m looking at you, Reservoir Bar).

Over the past few chilly days, I’ve also been reminded of the problem you occasionally run into of the restroom somehow being perfectly insulated, temperature-wise, from the rest of the building, so that you are in effect outside in the middle of winter while using it, as if urinating on Mars.