Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Miss Romney?

Surely RomneyCare undermines Romney’s ability to criticize Obama for ObamaCare (though the real debate on ObamaCare happens April 7 at Lolita Bar, as I will explain in greater detail tomorrow).

Nor can I imagine McCain, Palin, Huckabee, Giuliani, or Paul getting the nomination in 2012 and having much chance in the general election.

In fact, of all the weird almost-but-not-quite candidates in the GOP primaries in 2008, the only one I can imagine mounting a serious comeback is…Fred Thompson, and that’s not saying much.

But who in 2012, then?  Gingrich?  Pawlenty?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Cons and Corn

One silver lining of the Obama era: more and more, I overhear New Yorkers — especially older women, it seems — saying things like “We need less government, not more!”  Never before in my years in NYC have I overheard such sentiments on the street or in restaurants — except among my acquaintances, of course.

Speaking of restaurant conversation, I was told by my friend Justin this past Saturday that he once worked at a restaurant and was troubled to see a mysterious, abandoned suitcase sitting behind the place for days.  Finally, with some small amount of fear, he sent a subordinate to open the suitcase and see what was inside.  His subordinate came back inside, visibly baffled.  The contents?  Corn.  Many ears of corn, as well as a bag of kernels removed from the cob.

I assure this terrifying tale is not an April Fool’s joke, nor in fact will anything in my April 1 entry be, but that entry will touch on Obama again, as he is part of the subject matter of our next Debate at Lolita Bar (coming up April 7).

Monday, March 29, 2010

Fellow Travelers and a Flash Tea Party Suggestion

I was fortunate to get a grant for writing from the Phillips Foundation over a decade ago, and I’m pleased to see one of my fellow Fellows, Paul Crespo, running for Congress in Florida.  As a well-educated Catholic ex-military man who’s done hostage retrieval and talk radio and loves free markets, I think he should have the conservative vote safely sewn up.

Meanwhile, our fellow Fellow Kathleen Monaghan reports from Georgia that she’s working on the congressional campaign of Tom Graves but is also trying to draw attention to a bill in the state legislature that does many of the things free-marketeers want, all in one fell swoop: the Jobs, Opportunity, and Business Success Act of 2010 (JOBS 2010).  Not quite the “omnibus repeal act” abolishing government that libertarians sometimes dream of, but a step in the right direction.

But just to show I can think outside the conventional electoral/legislative box, two suggestions for the bourgeoning conservative protest movement:

•If you wanna make the Tea Parties even bigger, don’t let any more people get the impression that anger is the events’ only underlying emotion; the leftists do fun (even when rioting), and they get big turnouts in the process — not that I didn’t have fun at the Tea Parties I went to.  Puppets?

•And: instead of flashmobs, flash-Tea-Parties.  You heard it here first.

Also thinking outside the box is New York State Libertarian Party activist James Ostrowski (the poor guy whose gubernatorial campaign was derailed when Howard Stern temporarily took over the party to run for governor, though I admit I was cheering Stern at the time, mainly because of the publicity potential).  Ostrowski has a new handbook for Tea Party organizers and activists out, so check that out, if only to see how it compares to my suggestions.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Year's Biggest Film?

I’ve been saying for a couple years now that it would be amazing when Sylvester Stallone’s mercenaries-vs.-Latin-American-dictator movie The Expendables came out, as it does in August, with a cast consisting of every bemuscled action star you can think of, from Jason Statham and Jet Li to Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger — and Randy Couture, Charisma Carpenter, and more to boot.

Given how many famous mugs would have to clutter up the poster to do everyone justice, I think they took a wise minimalist approach instead.  And they don’t even list Willis or Schwarzenegger.  Every American male with a pulse will feel morally obligated to see this film at least once, no matter how stupid it might be.

And tomorrow, as it happens, a note on a guy I know who has actually done hostage retrieval work in Latin America and is now running for Congress…

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Blackest Night/Brightest Day Prediction

I may be focusing on politics like never before in the near future, but since a comics-reading friend is in town, I think today’s entry should be geeky.

Though I haven’t collected comics for about nine months now, I know from online info that the DC Comics series Blackest Night ends with a big fight against the deathgod Nekron — and that the sequel series Brightest Day begins with Aquaman restored to life.  My prediction, which I would bet $450 trillion is completely accurate: Nekron is and has always been Aquaman, as will be revealed when the heroes rip off his skull mask.  It all makes perfect sense that way because all life came from the sea, and now Nekron/Aqauaman’s simply come to reclaim what he created back when he was named Neptune eons ago and invented the fish and the seaweed.

Most likely, he will henceforth have telepathic control over fish again but only zombie fish and DC will attempt to make him a “morally grey” character on the edges of criminality, akin to Wolverine, since he’s killed millions of people.  Atlantis will perhaps become a “city of the dead,” and Aquaman will charge people admission to visit their dead relatives there, like a cross between Heaven and Seaworld, perhaps as a means of atoning for his attempt to kill the whole universe.  This obviously creates all sorts of team-up potential with old, deceased characters except they will wear SCUBA gear and be zombies, which is sort of cool.

Speaking of people who eat people, if all goes as planned, I’m attending a cannibalism-themed party tonight and possibly visiting Coney Island beforehand, so if any comics nerds think the predictions above sound inaccurate, chalk it up to me thinking of human-eating and of freaks near the sea.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Phoning, Kissing

I noticed a man with an accent, likely an African immigrant, walking on the street talking on his cell phone and telling someone on the other end, perhaps his wife, about some roughhousing by a child. “He kept going like this,” the man said, and began demonstrating with whacks of his arm that could not be seen by the person on the other end, then resumed talking about related matters. Strange result of being from a culture less accustomed to modern communications technology? Momentary slip-up? Insanity? Hard to say.

On a similar but less futile note, a woman I used to date, Marah Fellicce, was on online radio this past Sunday in her new role as an expert on kissing. Maybe that actually works better without visuals — forces you to describe it and everything. The cell phone guy’s approach would not be good radio.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Random Thought on Fiction-Writing

Yesterday, an entry on lies.  Today, a gentler thought on mere fictions:

The whole idea of realism in fiction is, well, a bit phony, as most fiction writers would agree.  I sometimes wonder, though, what it’d be like if more writers (and filmmakers) really bit the bullet and tried to make art that looked just like life, with all its boring pauses and incoherent dialogue and unattractive people and bad lighting and so forth.

Also, if you’re really dedicated to realism in fiction-writing, you should probably consciously resist even doing things like letting the fictional events reflect any awareness on your part of readers’ expectations of those events.  For instance, a long-awaited new character should not first appear by striding into a room of expectant onlookers.

(This is not to say that real life is always boring, as my planned musings on Genghis Khan in next month’s Book Selections entry shall remind you all.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Michael Moore: He Loves to Lie and It Shows

The combination of socialized medicine and a British Airways strike has made me think of Michael Moore, who promoted the French and/or Cuban healthcare model in his documentary Sicko and who reported in his documentary Capitalism: A Love Story that commercial airline pilots make such frighteningly low salaries that they must routinely supplement their incomes with food stamps and the like.

This is apparently another typical Michael Moore lie — er, I mean “use of artistic license in the service of the people’s revolution,” though I’m sure after enough searching he talked to some tiny rural connection-flight trainees or cropdusters or whatever of whom it was true.  However, if this report is accurate, it’s more conventional for airline pilots to make between $100,000 and $300,000, which sounds like a decent amount to me.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

David Brooks: Will It Be Red Toryism or National Greatness?

The same weekend that the political movement David Brooks ostensibly used to represent, conservatism, was suffering one of its worst defeats in the form of the further socialization of healthcare, he had a column in the Times defending Red Toryism, more or less a form of smaller-is-better paleoconservatism that chastises government and bigtime capitalism equally for disrupting small, local institutions and the subtle ties that bind them.  The perverse thing about Red Toryism, especially as praised by statist Brooks, is that whatever its stated intentions, it is, of course, an invitation for government to come up with new methods of micromanaging the culture (in a more neocon than paleocon way), all in the name of fending off the depredations of capitalism.

I once asked Brooks whether he thought government intervention was preferable to letting markets and tradition evolve organically (since he’s supposed to be such a Burke fan), and, giving the example of a public school that had become the heart of its troubled, inner-city community, he said that he doesn’t prefer government to tradition but prefers it to nothing.  For a conservative, he seems oddly unacquainted with the idea that it is government (not markets or some even more mysterious force) that has crowded out the usual alternatives to nothing.

To think government can do the job of shaping — or even being — local culture is to invite it to do the same bang-up job with culture that it’s been doing for the economy for the past century.  That whole mess was the result of government (ostensibly) thinking it could intervene on behalf of “the little guy,” and there’s no reason to think it’ll do any better if it decides to start intervening on behalf of “the little institutions.”  Local institutions thrive when left alone by centralized government power — and not all institutions should be local.  Some work best on a local, some on a far-flung basis — even, yes, a standardized basis.

(One would not want to fall into the common paleo error of talking as if local is always better, otherwise one’ll end up saying, for example, that hammering things with the rocks you find in your own back yard is morally superior to using an inexpensive steel hammer manufactured on the other side of the continent — or on another continent altogether, for that matter.  One can almost hear the undoubtedly poetic-sounding paleo essay about it now: “Rocks are a natural extension of the human hand — and thus of the human spirit — in a way that cold metal objects mass-produced in distant factories cannot be.  True, houses built using rocks as hammers are likely to be less stable, but they will make up in cultural solidity what they lack in walls that keep drafts out.  Might stronger families result?  Sounds good to me — and tougher than any nail.”)

But to get back to this Red Tory interest in the local: it would be fine if it just meant restricting government instead of asking government to “help” local institutions fend off capitalism.  Don’t keep coming up with exciting new ways government can intervene, you imbecile statists!  You’ve done enough damage to enough nooks and crannies of this battered civilization already.  Brooks, who is especially prone to come up with a paradigm-of-the-day in his columns, should be told to stop getting excited about the prospect of government taking an interest in things: Please do not suddenly discover two years from now that, say, reading is very important and so imply that government should take a bigger role there…and then discover two years later that informal information networks are very important and so government should intervene more there…and then discover the conservative usefulness of gathering places for the elderly…and then the importance of pets…and then…

Stay out, technocrat!  The damage you claim to be responding to with things like Red Toryism was caused by the previous round of pro-government tinkerers like yourself.  I’d say go back to your birth-country of Canada, but after Sunday’s healthcare vote, I can’t really joke about Canadians anymore, and there is little point in exaggerating differences between the U.S. and other lands if they no longer exist.  We are all Canadians now.

In the highly unlikely event that big central governments learn to respect and foster local institutions, maybe someday, if we go too far in that direction and there’s nothing left of civilization bigger than a subsistence-level family farm, Brooks et al can shift back to writing essays about how we need government to foster large-scale, continent-spanning projects that contribute to “national greatness.”  Remember that idea?  Say, might that kind of thinking have been part of the reason our tiny, local, non-governmental institutions ended up dilapidated?  (I recall Cato’s Ed Crane, shortly after 9/11, grumpily mocking Brooks’s national greatness phase as the belief that a country achieves magnificence by “digging a tunnel to England or something.”)

Brooks, ever eager to appear moderate and cautious, would no doubt say some projects are meant to be done at the local level, some at the national, which is true, as I said earlier — and that’s why we have markets to sort out these projects and their proper scale, not government planning committees operating on the basis of the latest manifesto or op-ed column.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Non-Monetary Exchange and the Ascetics

There are few stupider sentiments than the ones implied by popular phrases such as “money can’t buy happiness” and “money isn’t everything.” As any good free-marketeer — but virtually none of our opponents — knows, money is simply an easily-exchangeable marker of value, a thing into which virtually anything else is fungible in order to make exchange easier. People who denounce money are usually not literally opposed to currency but are in fact struggling to express an even more emotive and even less rational sentiment: that we should live in a world devoid of trade-offs, calculations, or the necessity of paying (one way or another) for what you get. It is as irrational as saying (faced with difficulty traveling or combating tall, violent people) that “the world shouldn’t involve inches.”

This is not to say that one can’t engage in exchanges without actual currency, of course, and that’s where the more primitive system of barter comes in — disastrous on a broad, global scale between wholly anonymous agents, but downright fun in groups sufficiently small and intimate to have some awareness of each other’s needs and capacities, partially alleviating the need for some metric like currency. Take the participants in the annual Burning Man art festival, for example, some of whom I was socializing with last night — and who certainly provide non-currency rewards. They ostensibly eschew commercial exchanges during the two-week festival but certainly engage in a plethora of alternative voluntary, cooperative exchanges — ones that many of them probably imagine taking back to the streets of Chicago or Seattle or wherever they came from but would, in practice, find ungainly on a normal trip to the local convenience store.

Now, if small, intimate groups are best suited to non-monetary exchanges, then surely the easiest realm in which to gauge non-monetary incentives is individually, within one’s own mind. There are things I’d do just for the satisfaction of knowing I’d done them or because they fit aesthetically into my secret lifeplan — but that’s no way to run corporations and impersonal financial markets, of course (one great example of a personal non-monetary reward is the joy of learning, of course — far more effective, studies find, than teaching through threats of punishment, not that I’m knocking all use of punishment as a teaching tool; indeed, tonight at 7 I plan to attend a reading about how various historical figures including Abraham Lincoln defined a “good education,” at Half King bar, 505 West 23rd, so find me there if you’re similarly intrigued).


One reason people often find accounts of money or any other incentive scheme intuitively unconvincing, I think, is that many incentive structures may be bundled up together, while we tend to analyze only one sort at a time. In a recent article, ACSH advisor Sally Satel does a nice job of breaking down how this blinkeredness muddles our thinking about the phenomenon of addiction. People long for all-or-nothing answers in which something is either a matter of choice or wholly beyond our control and thus immune to incentivizing.

Half the reason people tie themselves into knots needlessly on these questions is their misplaced desire to find a shiny dividing line between determined, causal processes and some magical kernel of pure, utterly free choice-making, I think (something I discussed after a recent NYSalon event on genetics with materialist Ron Bailey, non-materialist Helen, and others). But human action, I think, is all causal — and shaped by incentives — including the important causal process we call choice. Stop trying to artificially bifurcate the universe (and the mind) into the caused and the mystically self-moved and it all gets a lot less muddled, which is to say, all causal, all non-mystical.

Like Hayek, I worry that our instincts are ill-suited to thinking in terms of abstractions such as econ, the scientific method, and, I would add, determinism. We instinctively want things to be tribal, obvious, and freely-chosen. We barely notice when, for instance, the President tosses math to the wayside and claims that his monstrous socialist health plan will not only reduce health insurance premiums but reduce them by an impossible “3,000%.” We instinctively disregard economic, monetary thinking and instead wonder childish things like “Is his heart in the right place?” and “Is he on our side or part of a rival coalition?”


A related topic: the wackiness of the ascetics. Example: Grothendieck.

The important German mathematician (expert on topological algebra and other areas) Alexandre Grothendieck turned down a prestigious and lucrative math prize (due to his radical pacifist-anarchist beliefs, many assumed, but more likely because he viewed math and science as rife with plagiarism and didn’t want to share the prize with his co-winner). He went into seclusion, where he spent years transcribing his dreams, convinced they were dictated to him by God.

Now, the fact that so many people who fast or head off into the desert or live in solitude (or simply get put in solitary confinement) end up having some sort of visions — seeing themselves as cosmically significant, or perceiving a lovable mind somewhat resembling their own permeating the universe, with time and space as we know them being illusory — might be taken as a sign that we should all try this, tossing aside the trappings of the material world and joining in this great Truth.

But might it simply be that humans tend to go the same kinda crazy when their brains are in unnaturally isolated conditions? As the evolutionary psychologist E.O. Wilson has argued, it’s not as if the human brain evolved to exist in solitary confinement — it evolved to react to an environment of stimulation from other humans. Absent that, it gets nutty and starts making up stimulation (auditory hallucinations are common among long-term solo travelers, for instance).

If these people came back down from the mountain, as it were, with one scrap of usable, replicable information about the real world other than how weird everything seems when they’re lonely, they might warrant further examination. As it is, I highly recommend humanity stop humoring the fasters, mystics, meditators, and pole-sitters by trying to eke some sort of meaningful insight out of their solitudinous ravings. Actually sitting in the desert for days might take effort, but treating those who do so as important is laziness on the part of people who’d prefer that reason and real intellectual rigor were unnecessary.

In short: get a job.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

How's That "Liberaltarian" Alliance Holding Up Today?

On a potentially dark day like today, with America poised to socialize medicine and become a de facto European nation, I have to be allowed one more dig at the handful of dissident libertarians who voted for Obama or said, as one did to me, “I think Obama will be a good president.”  But, hey, you helped teach that John McCain a lesson about…something…

I’ll post the promised musings on non-monetary incentives tomorrow, but given that today may spell one of the biggest shifts away from sane financial reasoning in American history, I ought to offer at least a few thoughts on the occasion:

•If Democrats haven’t already rallied the votes they need in the House by the time this blog entry posts, I trust that they soon will.  They have already amply demonstrated a willingness to do the necessary deal-making and favor-granting to sway the handful of undecided Dems.  No reason to believe they’ll stop doling favors out until the job’s done.

•As an aside — since I fear all of us free-marketeers need to get back to the boring but necessary business of reminding people of the simplest economic and political basics, after a couple decades of being distracted by the Internet and the presidential oral sex and the terrorism — let me note that we have this Constitution thing that not only (as people have been saying the past few days) instructs that both Houses must vote yes on a bill before it goes to the President to sign but also was intended to avoid bills of attainder and spending that was not for the general welfare, precisely to avoid federal money being spent on things that only benefit a select region or a single congressman or a special few constituents, but I suppose that highly corrupt ship has long since sailed.

•I should count my blessings, so to speak, that among the anti-superstition “skeptics” I know are a few who work in the sciences and are adamantly opposed to socialized medicine, despite the long history of centralization being falsely touted as rationalization.  Those skeptics are looking at the facts, I’d say.  By contrast, many skeptics of the self-proclaimed “humanist” variety — who would rightly turn their noses up at anyone who invoked the purported word of God to trump scientific or economic research — are happy to respond to historically-rooted pessimism about government’s ability to manage anything in an economically-efficient manner by asserting, in an almost mystical way, that “healthcare is a right.”  Ah, metaphysics erases all the practical real-world problems, does it?  Almost like Jesus magically erasing a person’s track record of sin and antisocial behavior.  If skeptics took econ as seriously as they do science, we’d be getting somewhere.

•Lazy people valorize the sloppy thinking they prefer, whether it’s poetic flights of fancy, vague bursts of “political will,” or nigh-Dadaist rejections of the “straitjacket” of logic — and then rational, empirically-minded people set about cleaning up the resulting mess.  After we’re done with a treasury-busting assertion of people’s metaphysical right to healthcare, we’ll find that the black markets, pharma bankruptcies, diminished care, and various other fallout and clean-up operations in the real world will occupy more sober heads for decades to come.

Disagree about the empirical details all you like, but every time I hear someone make a political assertion as if it trumps the empirical details, I feel a bit like I’m having the following conversation:

ME: Foolishly, the government just poured a whole bunch of sulfuric acid in that mustard jar, and now if people eat it, they will die, so I suggest they not eat it.

LEFTIST: But people have a right to food, you heartless monster!

•Medicare and Medicaid have become almost synonymous with fraud and waste, and, as the left has been fond of reminding people in recent days, these popular programs are run by the government (lest confused elderly GOP voters forget where their handouts come from).  Who in his right mind thinks that the government has special non-money-wasting, non-bureaucratic methods at its disposal that will now be deployed in the running of ObamaCare but haven’t been in the running of Medicare and Medicaid?  This is insanity.  This is failure to learn from induction.  But, hey, people have a right to healthcare.

•When did healthcare costs begin skyrocketing?  Almost exactly a half-century ago, immediately after the government began taking over the subsidizing of hospitals, healthcare for the poor, and healthcare for the elderly.  Government is not just slightly less efficient, it has been estimated to do things at about twice the cost of the private sector on average, and once people think something is “free,” they tend to stop shopping around for the best deal.  ObamaCare will not help.  And if the left says Bush’s Medicare prescription drug coverage was arguably a step down this road, the best response may be to say yes and that furthermore we have been headed down this road since around 1960, haven’t been enjoying the ride at all, and apparently have decided to step on the accelerator.

•As one little, admittedly anecdotal example of government trying to pick the best economic path, let’s just end with a link to the story of Gov. Granholm handing out rewards on TV to favored businesses in cash-strapped, taxed-and-regulated Michigan — only to have cops recognize one of the honored businessmen as a repeat fraudster now wanted for parole violation.  Yeah, government will make things better.  We’ll be fine — and Continental.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Lady Gaga Is Bland

In a civilization largely shaped by its tacitly agreed-upon collective delusions, I gather we are now all supposed to pretend that the singer Lady Gaga is “edgy.”  In fact, of course, Lady Gaga is about as exciting, avant-garde, and aesthetically challenging as a Cher wardrobe change.  And it is indeed big, bland performers like Cher or Celine Dion — or for that matter Britney Spears — that we must look to for comparisons to Lady Gaga, not punk, Dada, sci-fi, or anything else truly strange.

Lady Gaga’s diverse but uninteresting outfits are the sort of things a five-year-old would devise if assigned to come up with “weird clothes”: It’ll be a suit that’s all white but has starfish stuck all over it!  Yay!  I’m reminded of the sorrow and the pity I felt about a decade ago when Britney Spears started wearing a sweat sock on her forearm, about as non-threatening and hollow a pretense of outre as the world has seen since Buzz Killington chose to wear his tophat at a slight angle.  Spears and Gaga’s stage-show antics are the rock equivalent of signifying that you’re “wacky” by putting a lampshade on your head, though that perfunctory action at least has a certain archetypal value that raises it to the level of irony at this late stage in history.

People, any singer with a wardrobe budget and some monotonous drum machines could do this.

And Gaga’s music, of course, is the same stomping-bass-plus-diva almost-ready-for-Vegas inoffensive balladeering that has made most intelligent people ignore the Top 40 for decades.  It sounds like all those terrible disco songs you hear playing in convenience stores run by Iranians late at night, some sort of simple, foghorn-like synth with a second-rate female opera singer being told by some bored producer to make it sound a bit more aria-like when the cymbals come in.

Any intelligent person who has been subjected to hearing about a Gaga TV performance the next day knows how empty the whole thing seems: She did what?  Used some fake blood?  Wow, that’s the most daring thing I’ve heard since…Halloween, I guess.  That’s about as shocking as a horror movie using…an axe, I suppose.  Where does she come up with these “ideas”?  Maybe next she’ll ride a horse.  Or ride a horse and then, in the big finale, have two horses.  Where does she come up with her “ideas”?

But it is not Gaga I blame for all this: I blame you, America.  You know damn well we have seen fake blood and horses and women with big voices playing the piano before.  Do not pretend that you are rewarding this behavior because it is innovative.  Like Spears, Lady Gaga succeeds precisely because she is bland.  She is little different from half the other Stepford Wives robo-blondes America sends up the pop charts.  Nothing more of interest to see here, people.

Friday, March 19, 2010

DEBATE AUDIO (THE THIRD DAY): Is Christianity for Wimps?

Is Christianity for Wimps? 9 of 12: Spencer on moderation

Is Christianity for Wimps 10 of 12: Spencer and Rittelmeyer on…chastity

Is Christianity for Wimps 11 of 12: Audience member on forgiveness

Is Christianity for Wimps? 12 of 12: Seavey closing remarks

And as a bonus religious conflict item, see this piece (which briefly mentions the debate heard above) on Richard Spencer’s new site,, about his fight, as neo-paganism sympathizer, with a quasi-Satanist associate of David Frum, for those keeping careful track of all this and making a diagram. Coming up in the next couple days on non-monetary incentives and why Lady Gaga is boring. ALSO: If YOU want to do a Debate at Lolita Bar on a popular, divisive topic, e-mail me at the address found on my About/CONTACT page, assuming you can be in Manhattan, at your own expense, the first Wednesday night of the month.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

DEBATE AUDIO: Is Christianity for Wimps?

Below, courtesy of Michel Evanchik, you can download the first four of the twelve audio clips from our debate two weeks ago between Richard Spencer and Helen Rittelmeyer on the question “Is Christianity for Wimps?” — beginning with me telling an icebreaking bear joke I got from my skeptic boss’s Catholic husband — and next month, as my Book Selection for April, I’ll post the text I read aloud from History of the Goths. All roads lead to this debate. (And everyone else meets tonight at 6:30 at Merchants NY East for our separate monthly Manhattan Project political chat-and-drink event.) More in the next few days.

Is Christianity for Wimps 1 of 12: Seavey intro

Is Christianity for Wimps 2 of 12 Spencer opening argument

Is Christianity for Wimps 3 of 12 Rittelmeyer opening/rebuttal

Is Christianity for Wimps 4 of 12 Spencer rebuttal

More to come.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Christianity vs. Cupcakes

Just in case anyone’s still confused about the difference between (or wants to be on the two separate e-mail invite lists for) the first-Wednesday monthly Debates at Lolita Bar I host and the third-Wednesday monthly Manhattan Project bar gatherings I also host (mainly for people who like to chat about politics), note that tomorrow should bring a posting of audio files from the former (our March 3 bout on the question “Is Christianity for Wimps?”) and another live iteration of the latter (6:30pm-on at Merchants NY East bar-restaurant, 62nd and First, back of the second floor), with, as admittedly often happens, a bit of crossover: Debater-and-more Helen Rittelmeyer from March 3 pointed out the special booze-filled cupcakes purveyed by CupcakeStop, and so tomorrow’s March 17 Manhattan Project gathering shall feature a baker’s dozen of them, just in time for St. Patrick’s — even though CupcakeStop, recently featured on Gothamist, turns out to reside in a roving truck, so I’ll have to meet up with it tomorrow down at the Flatiron Building (in which I used to work) to pick up the goods. I think it’ll be worth it, though.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Book Selection of the Month: "The Death of Conservatism" by Sam Tanenhaus Book Selection of the Month (March 2010): The Death of Conservatism by Sam Tanenhaus

When Ali Kokmen gave me a copy of this book, I was suspicious because it’s only 118 pages long, basically an extended version of the author’s New Republic article by the same title, but at that length, I figured I may as well give it a gander. I suspect Tanenhaus wrote it as quickly as J. Michael Straczynski wrote last year’s action film Ninja Assassin (two days, reportedly) — but he’s New York Times books editor, so rather than sound too skeptical, I’ll just say, may we all one day be so influential that we can dash something off like this and have it sell.

In one form or another, the thesis is always popular with the left that the right is at its best when it stops behaving conservatively and gets “realistic” (i.e., liberal). Tanenhaus’s premise is that the Republican Party and the conservative movement could be very useful counterweights to liberal excess if only they weren’t so prone to abandon pragmatism and behave in rigidly ideological ways. The epigram in the front pages is Pat Moynihan’s “God preserve me from ideologues.” But is there a Republican Party that behaves in rigidly ideological ways, presumably eliminating government to create a society guided by unalloyed free markets and tradition? I must have overlooked that party while instead observing the train wreck of the real Republican Party for the past three non-ideological, pragmatically-mushy decades — a party that wouldn’t know “ideology” from a hole in the ground if not for some idealistic young low-level congressional staffer occasionally slipping a phrase from some philosopher or historical figure into a speech or two.

Tanenhaus admits briefly in Chapter 1 that the George W. Bush years were not, in the minds of real conservative ideologues, a test of “small government” conservatism — but like Thomas Frank, Tanenhaus somehow evades the implications of that crucial point by the non-sequitur of saying, well, the public doesn’t want small government anyway, so…the massive government growth of the past decade is as close as you’ll ever get to shrinking government…so… somehow this was a period that counts as a disastrous trial-run of small-government principles. Really? This convinces intelligent people? Or do they just write their books and columns too quickly for the feeling of guilt from intellectual chicanery to fully sink in?

Consistent fellow that I am, I’m actually sympathetic to real Marxist anarchists who say the statism of the Soviet Union was not the kind of communism they had in mind — but at least over there, the politicians claimed to be following Marx, so anti-statist Marxists might arguably bear some responsibility for making the regime seem morally acceptable. Did the Bush administration even claim that it was shrinking government in accordance with the principles of Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, et al? If not, how did the ideas of those economists get implicated in the train wreck at all, save by those desperate to find some excuse to discredit them (much like Naomi Klein literally blaming everything from torture under Pinochet to massacres under Red China on distant connections between those regimes and Chicago School economic thinking, like a game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon)?


Tanenhaus really has to tie himself into knots to maintain his thesis that the GOP flourishes when it abandons ideology. You can’t point to principled National Review as the backbone of an American political epoch, as he does, and at the same time claim it’s evidence for your ideology-doesn’t-succeed thesis. He also claims repeatedly and condescendingly that conservatism triumphs when engaged in reality, not when pushing “movement conservative” principle — yet he admits Goldwater and Reagan were great victories, and so he has to remake Reagan as an unphilosophical pragmatist, dismiss Gingrich’s 1994 successes, call Nixon’s criminal excesses ideology-fueled (???), etc. Tanenhaus must attribute successes to pragmatism and failures to conservative ideology at every turn, even when it means unconvincingly calling Reagan a pragmatist and Nixon an ideologue — sometimes mere pages after describing them the other way around, as strategically needed to explain away Reagan missteps or rare Nixon successes.

Tanenhaus spends pages praising Nixon, in essence for being unprincipled — but then somehow manages to pin Watergate on “revanchism” and ideology, as if (A) selling out to the Chinese and Soviets, expanding the welfare state, creating the EPA, and effectively creating affirmative action were wise, pragmatic deeds that advanced realistic conservatism, while (B) condoning burglary was the result of too much high-minded philosophy. Ridiculous. One begins to suspect that only a New York Times editor could vomit out this short, unfootnoted, inaccurate rant and get it slapped between book covers — but then again, Thomas Frank probably has a similar volume in the works.

Throughout, Tanenhaus makes the common mistake of writers overly focused on Washington and its politicians: gauging success in purely electoral or at most political terms without really addressing the broader impact of policies on national life (remember those 300 million other Americans not directly involved in Washington politics?). If the “evidence” for Nixon’s success, for instance, is mainly just his reelection, we should not even bother with books on changes in economic conditions or lifestyles, let alone changes in ideology and political philosophy — we should just declare whoever won the last election a model for us all (hail Obama!). Looking at the real-world fallout beyond DC reveals the nightmarish effects of, for instance, Nixon’s imposition of wage and price controls, perhaps the closest thing to a deathblow the free market has ever been dealt by any American politician (and, not coincidentally, the inspiration for dissident free-marketeers to bolt the GOP and start the Libertarian Party). Imposing wage and price controls was neither a pragmatic success nor an act of conservative principle. It was simply wrong.

And the real insight of conservatism and libertarianism, after all, is the recognition that there is far more to life than politics and far more to the U.S. than Washington and elections (thus the successes of markets, tradition, and anarchic initiative, whether individualist or cooperative, and the chronic failures of regulation and government spending). Since Tanenhaus begins by lamenting that conservatives do not fully accept the usefulness and permanent value of government, it is unsurprising that he ends up thinking that whatever tactic wins the political horserace is thereby morally vindicated. It’s the leftist equivalent of an amoral businessman saying of an act of fraud, “Hey, it got me rich, didn’t it?”

Tanenhaus presumably thinks that signs of a resurgent libertarian-conservative movement focused on basic economic and constitutional principles, primarily the Tea Parties, are a sure sign of disaster, but luckily there are plenty of us who recognize it as the right’s — and the economically-connected globe’s — best hope at this late, debt-wracked juncture.

P.S. If you want evidence that conservatism isn’t dead, don’t look to Tanenhaus for guidance, look to politicians with the foresight to address Tea Party rallies, like my friend Dan Greenberg (now running for Arkansas state senate, with a primary in two months, and actively blogging) and to folks like the New York media-ensconced conservatives and libertarians you’ll meet if you come to our St. Patrick’s Day (6:30pm) gathering of the Manhattan Project at the bar/restaurant Merchants NY East in two days. The road to victory is not paved with mush but with philosophy (and alcohol).

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Belated Happy Birthday, Hensel Twins

Last week saw a birthday for two of the most interesting women on the planet: March 7th was the twentieth birthday of the Hensel twins, two relatively normal-looking Minnesota college students — aside from the fact that they are so conjoined as to effectively share one (fairly normal) body from the neck down, with two heads and two distinctive personalities.

I cannot be the only male thinking that group sex is technically an inevitable part of their future (if it has not already occurred). Are related film offers already pouring in? I would imagine they could command a fair amount in that department. (Female readers are now thinking “What? Who would want to see that?” while males are thinking things like “Yeah, a friend of a friend of mine is a guy who decided he’s mainly attracted to amputees.”)

On a more mature and philosophical note: the Wikipedia entry about them notes what things they do in common, coordination-wise (given that one basically controls the right half of their body and the other the left), and what things they do separately, which is fascinating — particularly (at least to me as a writer/editor) the fact that they not only type together (each controlling one hand and requiring little verbal communication to coordinate efforts) but alternate between using “I” (not “we”) when they agree and their individual names when they disagree, which is not exactly what I for one would have intuitively predicted. (I’m impressed they can even type at a normal speed, but apparently they do — and my naive predictions on that front clearly reflect pre-Hensel limb notions.)

All this warrants discussion in philosophy class, I’d say — I’d give them A’s just for being willing to discuss it in a class on identity theory. Talk about a hivemind. Even the Borg say “we,” which seemed collectivist at the time but is less odd than all of them saying “I” simultaneously.

I’m very pleased that the Hensels seem to be leading relatively ordinary lives and are able to keep out of the media spotlight most of the time, but as one of my favorite bartenders (a Tim Burton fan, a punk, a former Columbia biology student, and a self-professed Nietzschean nihilist who is friends with various sideshow performers) notes, fewer biologically-odd people participating in sideshows explains the big upsurge I’d noted in the past couple decades in sideshow performers who are simply punks, anarchists, or extremists of some kind willing to do bizarre stunts — not that I’m knocking that.

Indeed, if you’re willing to spend $100 per head — or per person, if you will — I see that Gersh Kuntzman is co-hosting a benefit Thursday next week for the Coney Island sideshow. He promises booze and sideshow performers, not to mention the terrifying Kuntzman.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Entertainers Who Try Too Hard; Crime Yarn

•Cirque du Soleil, originally from Quebec, may be trying too hard to seem New Yorky with their new show based here: flappers, jazz dance, Vaudeville, urban motifs — and it’s called
Banana Shpeel.

•George Lucas just had to go and “improve” his original Star Wars trilogy with various digital enhancements and lame prequels — but, despite his billions of dollars, he has paid some small price in lost fan loyalty, as exemplified by this trailer for the impending documentary The People vs. George Lucas.

•In other remake-related news, I only just learned that the classic David Bowie-Bing Crosby duet of “Little Drummer Boy” was later covered on The Daily Show Holiday Spectacular by Bob Mould (composer of the Daily Show theme, now performed by They Might Be Giants) and (then Daily Show host) Craig Kilborn. This may be one of those cases where historians will need diagrams to explain why this is funny. Maybe we already do.

•Strong aesthetic convictions do not give you the right to vandalize or otherwise alter private property without permission — but might knitting tiny sweaters and covertly covering pieces of public property in New Jersey with them be forgivable? I did paste some event flyers onto Post Office mailboxes many years ago, convincing the left-anarchist with whom I was doing it that this was more acceptable than putting them on private property. While we pasted, he chatted, no joke, about going to some poorly-organized anarchist events and sometimes wishing there were a Stalinist to take charge.

P.S. Speaking of knitting and Bowie, I see tomorrow 2pm at Knitting Factory (now located on Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg) brings a singalong to The Muppet Movie, one of the best films of all time, hosted by my acquaintance Jerm Pollet. I associate this event with Bowie only because it will likely be a reminder to any millennials who attend that Gen Xers’ favorite singalong Muppet movie — THE Muppet Movie — is better than theirs, namely Labyrinth.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Celeb Panic

For some reason, my instinctive reaction to this headline from an e-mailed advertisement was alarm, though I’m not sure if I was reacting primarily to garishness, anorexia, or overacting — definitely some instinct telling me that I don’t want to be close to all three of these people at the same time:

Baz Luhrmann & Claire Danes invite you to honor John Leguizamo

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Better Shifty than Socialized

As if the differing Obamacare House and Senate bills being passed as a mere reconciliation bill weren’t an odd enough looming threat, NR points out that Obamacare might get passed without there even being a reconciliation bill, treating the Senate version as passed if the House passes smaller bills tweaking it.  In their official PDF on the health plan, Republicans suggest the current legislation, among other problems, doesn’t even contain the tiny tort reform experiments Obama promised.

NR suggests making lots of phonecalls to wavering Democrats facing reelection battles.  There’s no need to assume waverers are principled agents who can’t be turned against the bills, either, since, as Don Boudreaux recently noted, members of Congress have had a reputation for shiftiness for so long that Mark Twain, for instance, said, “To my mind Judas Iscariot was nothing but a low, mean, premature Congressman.”

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hollywood Magic, Religion Magic, and the Michelin Man

So James Cameron, judging by the stories told about his ego, must be at least a little peeved that his ex-wife got the Oscar for Best Picture after all the money he spent on special effects and 3D. By contrast, the director of the 1953 horror blockbuster House of Wax, which helped launch the original 3D craze, was blind in one eye, thus lacked depth perception, and wasn’t really sure what all the fuss was about. James Cameron has two working eyes, of course, but no soul.

Many an 80s film buff is probably hoping right now that Corey Haim has an immortal soul, after news of his untimely passing. I never met him, though I did once overhear a drunk young man on the streets of Manhattan complaining that he had just come from a party where “That movie guy, Corey Feldman, was hitting on my girl!” So that’s, like, three degrees.

I would be less excited about a connection to Sandra Bullock. Best Actress winner Bullock apparently turned down her role in The Blind Side three times before finally accepting it, because she was uncomfortable portraying a devout Christian. So how good an actress could she be?


More amenable to portraying a Christian woman was my companion at an NYSalon event last night at which Ron Bailey and other panelists discussed genetic reductionism/determinsim, which revealed that even some scientists — in this case British neuroscientist and panel member Stuart Derbyshire — are inclined to think that something nigh-mystical is going on (or at least vaguely Hegelian and non-material) when humans exercise agency and make “free” choices.

To my companion, this sounded about right, even if it was rather vague, but to me, the whole discussion was mainly a reminder that I’m in no danger of becoming a mere genetic determinist because I’m an everything determinist. Genetics is causal, environment is causal, choices are causal, social context is causal — it’s all one big avalanche of events leading inexorably to later events, running downhill from the Big Bang, and just because you aren’t fully conscious of every factor leading to your next action doesn’t mean those factors aren’t there, are wholly under your conscious control, or are in any sense acausal, undetermined, or supernatural.

Disagreeing with this materialist view, no doubt, would be editor J. Bottum and his colleagues at First Things, which just celebrated its twentieth anniversary issue — which reprinted his 1994 essay that I think may have been the earliest instance I’ve seen of something that’s become disturbingly more common since: Religion-defenders distancing themselves from us “modernists,” with our belief in objective truth and a stable, outside universe, and instead embracing postmodernism, with its sketchy plurality of truths and arbitrary epistemological stances.

This move has greatly helped many a young, hip Christian — including ones I’ve met — put a Continental philosophy-like veneer of sophistication on their old-fashioned claims. But it’s a bit like dropping a smoke bomb to create confusion when someone points out that your math doesn’t add up. Very dangerous, intellectually shifty ground to be left standing on, if standing is the right word. (And First Things’ very first essay in their first issue, also reprinted in the anniversary issue, lamented the “monism” of modernity’s search for one solid truth, calling for more “pluralism” — strange in a conservative publication, especially one claiming to possess revealed truth.)


Oddly enough — or by the hand of Providence — I was sitting in Irish-staffed bar Doc Watson’s, reading my twentieth-anniversary First Things, when I saw the new Michelin TV ad that depicts the Michelin Man displaying two superpowers I’m not aware of him having had before: spewing tires from his body, which he can throw like Frisbees, and, more astoundingly, the ability to resurrect the dead — specifically roadkill, since he brings back to life animals run over by a swerving car. Now that’s service.

It also reminds me of the bizarre exhibit I saw at the Museum of Modern Art back when I was in college (and wrote about in the Brown Daily Herald) that surveyed the colorful history of the Michelin Man, who began as a monocle-wearing beer-chugger (the idea of beer and car travel being in the same ad today is unthinkable), depicted in a variety of odd ways including an amazing stained-glass window of the Michelin Man wearing a loincloth and kickboxing toward the viewer to show off the rubber treads on his feet. I declared him an earthbound god akin to Cthulhu in my newspaper column, and after seeing his new powers on display on TV, I’m sticking to that story.

But you can discuss all this with religious conservatives, non-religious conservatives, and likely some drunk Irish people, if you join me at next week’s March 17 (St. Patrick’s Day) Manhattan Project gathering at Merchants NY East bar/restaurant (62nd and First, southwest corner), back of the second floor from 6:30-on. Normally, it’s for people who like to talk about politics, but this time we’ll also accept any ornery drunk. That may be the policy going forward.

P.S. Speaking of drunks, let the record show that one of the only occasions I ever got drunk in college led to me blacking out a period of the evening in which, apparently, I was driven home by straightlaced future architect Dave Whitney but almost refused to complete the trip because I remembered just before reaching my dorm that I’d promised to drop by the Brown Bookstore and retrieve the cardboard Michelin Man display they were planning to throw out that night (Bip being my new god — or Bibendum, as MoMA taught me he was originally called, from the Latin “Bibendum,” meaning “Let us drink,” also unimaginable in an automotive mascot today).

Indulgently, future George Mason law professor and Deputy Assistant Attorney General Michelle Boardman agreed to go in and try to retrieve Bip for her drunk pal — but the impressively loyal staff at the Bookstore said they couldn’t give it to her, as they were saving it for some guy who said he’d retrieve it at the end of the week, and so indeed I picked it up the next morning, after realizing I had no more memory of my trip home after being told the details than if I’d been told I made the journey in a hovercraft piloted by Abraham Lincoln.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Candy, Tea, Alcohol, and Galactica

A colleague points out this unusually slick and funny anti-government song parody from last year, Tim Hawkins’ “The Government Can,” based on “The Candy Man.”  Given how much mileage the left gets out of priding itself on having the edge in hipness and irony, we need more of this.  A half-century ago, they thought they were intellectually superior because they had John Kenneth Galbraith, and now they think they are because they have Jon Stewart.

The Sam Adams Alliance (itself a reminder that brewing and freedom go together, like the fine reading I heard last night by Max Watman from his history of moonshine, Chasing the White Dog, at the bar Half King) has done a survey of Tea Party organizers and finds, as has been my impression from attending a few, that they are admirably focused on the less-spending message instead of tangential social issues.

Among findings from the survey listed on the Sam Adams site:

•A large number are politically involved for the first time. 47 percent of activists surveyed said that they were “uninvolved” or “rarely involved” in politics before their participation in Tea Party groups.
•When asked which issues were “very important” to them, 92 percent said “budget,” 85 percent said “economy,” and 80 percent said “defense.”
•No respondents listed social issues as an “important direction” for the movement.
•86 percent oppose the formation of a third-party.
•90 percent cited “to stand up for my beliefs” when characterizing their initial reason for involvement.
•62 percent identified as Republicans, 28 percent as Independents, 10 percent as “Tea Party”

Meanwhile, within government, things continue to get done through ugly wheeling and dealing, and on that front, retiring New York congressman Eric Massa now says he’s being forced out by Rahm Emanuel and other Democrats because of his opposition to Obamacare, using what he claims are exaggerated sexual harassment charges against him.

Without knowing the details of the accusations against him, though, I just like the fact that he (A) uses being completely drunk as a defense, something you don’t hear from politicians a lot these days, and (B) paraphrases (presumably) his lewd comment to an associate as a remark about “frakking” — which may, of course, mean that Massa, like so many political people I know, is a Battlestar: Galactica fan.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Complaining About Games Instead of Movies

One of my favorite things is hearing people complain about something you barely understand but complaining in sufficient detail that you almost come to share their passion about the obscure problem, like the time a video editor complained to me at length about his dongle being taken without permission, or the letter to the editor I once heard a comedian read onstage by some irate citizen denouncing banks in the harshest possible terms for doing away with change-sorting machines.  When Green Party activist Chris Brodeur ran for office in NYC, his platform included getting rid of mesh garbage cans because he was tired of throwing things into them and having them pass right through — and he wanted more publicly-visible clocks because wearing a watch makes his wrist sweat.

In a similar vein, if you spent last night’s Oscar broadcast hearing friends or family complain about bad movies, you might enjoy, as a change of pace, this brief, list-like denunciation of annoying common problems with role-playing videogames.  I have almost never played these sorts of games, but after reading the article, I too want medieval shopkeeps to stop giving speeches about their wares before I can buy things from them, for example.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

An Unhappy Past Oscar-Winner

Yikes: Shia LaBeouf is surprisingly, perhaps admirably, frank about revealing what a deep emotional crisis his co-star Michael Douglas from next month’s Wall Street sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, is going through.  Douglas won an Oscar in 1987 for playing ruthless trader Gordon Gekko and now returns to the role — with Oliver Stone directing again and depicting Gekko warning about the current financial crisis after he gets out of a long prison stint, reformed.

Ironically, though, Douglas’s real-life son is now in prison, and it sounds like that matters to him a lot more than his movie work, which is to his credit, really.  I was already tempted — half out of a sense of duty, half out of perverse curiosity — to see the film just to discern what fresh anti-capitalist propaganda America’s favorite Chavez-lionizing director is foisting on us.  Now it may become one of those things like Martin Sheen’s performance in Apocalypse Now or Heath Ledger’s in The Dark Knight that we all have to see just to watch the cracks forming.

I suspect the film will not emphasize the fact that the homogeneity bred by regulation contributes to the potential for broad, systemic collapses instead of isolated ones — but that idea is explained at some length in last year’s special issue of Critical Review on “Causes of the Financial Crisis,” soon to be reprinted as a book, so pick that up as a supplement to the film.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Skiing, Dying, Running, Filming

On the eve of the Oscars, I contemplate three odd films 2010 brings that likely will not be nominees in next year’s Best Picture category:

•an ill-advised-sounding thriller called Frozen about three men stuck throughout the film on a ski lift chair after dark (claustrophobic terror done wrong, sounds like)

•a trippy film called Enter the Void about a ghost watching the after-effects of his murder on criminals in Japan, from the same director who did the earlier film Irreversible, which was made controversial in part by having a nine-minute-long one-take scene of Monica Belucci’s character being raped, all of which sounds like stuff the Wachowskis might enjoy

•the parkour-themed sequel District 13: Ultimatum, from a series that I only now realize is not only produced by Luc Besson but directed by the director of Taken. I bought the Taken DVD on Nybakken’s pro-patriarchal-violence recommendation and liked it (Kyle Smith did not).

There’s been talk that the same director may do a Dune remake (which might sound something like, “You have my son. If you give him back, this ends and I will let you go. If you run, or you hurt him, I will find you, I will attack you with giant sandworms, and I will kill you.”) My two main hopes for a new Dune: subtract 80% of the stuff David Lynch tried to squeeze in but add the stuff about Paul Atreides perceiving branching timelines every time he makes a historic decision — one way peace, the other death-dealing hordes marauding across the galaxy with him at their head, etc. Just like when I decide where to eat lunch.

On the parkour thing, it occurs to me that I don’t really know the rules of parkour (or “free running,” the art of running and climbing one’s way across urban landscapes, so frequently deployed in action movies from Bond to Bourne to Hulk in recent years). Would I automatically lose if I concluded, “You know, I think, weighing all my options, I’m going to try running on the sidewalk, thus avoiding the whole scaling-fire-escapes thing and the clambering over a parked bus thing”? Do you get points for climbing extra-crazy objects, even while ostensibly trying to move as quickly as possible? I’m sure the Wikipedia page explains all this, but for the moment I’m enjoying the old-fashioned sensation of not knowing.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Alice, Neo, Jesus, and You

Afraid things will be crowded tonight at, say, the Broadway and 68th IMAX theatre if you try to see Tim Burton’s visually delightful and adventure-film-intense version of Alice in Wonderland? Then why not join me a few blocks away at 2 West 64th St., where the Ethical Culture Society will be taking a trip down a more recent rabbit hole, by watching The Matrix and then discussing its philosophical and spiritual implications?

I must go (reception 6:30, film 7) if only to cap this religious-discussion-themed week (which also included our fine, feisty Debate at Lolita Bar between Richard Spencer and Helen Rittelmeyer, in which a crowd with admittedly few Christians concluded, by not too wide a margin, that Christianity is indeed for wimps). Tonight, I must also spread the insights of my friend Read Schuchardt who has pointed out that the first Matrix movie, while invoking numerous overlapping symbol-systems and philosophies, owes a great deal of its remake-reality-to-your-individual-will vibe to the bland yet creepy Landmark Forum self-help cult, of which the Wachowski Siblings are apparently graduates.

Read correctly predicted before the Matrix sequels came out that Christians enthusiastic about the first film and its messiah narrative would be disappointed by the sequels, which, to stay true to the Forum formula, would have to end with the messiah subverted, slain, and supplanted by individuals’ own diverse efforts. No more Trinity by trilogy’s end, either.

Of course, the Forum grew out of the older self-help cult Est, which was a conscious attempt to create something like Scientology without the aliens — and to some it might seem almost as nutty for Ethical Culture to have something resembling a church without a god, but for all their flaws, I’d say both at least represent slight improvements over their source material, so I may as well check out the latter group for an evening. Icky as watered-down quasi-religions and, say, Unitarianism can be, they may be a crude glimpse of the future if humans retain the social cohesion and moral lectures that religion contains but are capable of gradually shedding specific supernatural claims for lack of evidence (as careful thinkers, with intellectual integrity and honesty, eventually must).

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Krush Groove, Sheila E., More Jackie Chan, More de Beauvoir

Surveying the panoply of classic films easily available to the modern cinephile in advance of the Oscars, I finally watched the DVD of the ensemble rap drama/comedy Krush Groove from 1985 that I picked up at a convenience store recently.  It was pretty awesome.

I admit that for me, no hiphop fan, the big thrill is seeing the charismatic Sheila E., the she-Prince, not only performing numbers like “Love Bizarre” but acting — even doing a big love scene and getting into a heartbreaking triangle with Run from Run-DMC.  She’s so lovely even when just speaking (rather than writhing onstage in pseudo-eighteenth-century garb), I feel it vindicates my long-term plan, formed in childhood, to live in the big city with her and Annie Lennox, not so wholly unlike the way things turned out, really.  Hearing how unnatural E. sounds in the two scenes that require her to rap, I was further charmed, in an admittedly assimilationist way.  She’s no more street than I am.

But in Krush Groove, we also get to see the Fat Boys getting in trouble in high school and celebrating the Sbarro’s on West 49th St. with their heartfelt rap “All You Can Eat.”  We see Run get into a fight with a fledgling hiphop record exec over Run’s last-minute unilateral decision to put the untested Ms. E onstage.  Drama!   And will the exec’s fledgling company, aided by the likes of Kurtis Blow, be able to come up with the $5,000 they need to pay off the loan shark who made the printing of their first big record possible?  Mainly, though: Sheila E. (did you know her brother is the biological father of Nicole Richie?).

Two brief chronal oddities of note: a short-shrift cameo of only a few seconds by some guys called the Beastie Boys — and a DJ wearing a Husker Du t-shirt when they weren’t yet well known (not that they were ever huge, really) — but Husker Du are from the St. Paul, MN area, like Ms. E’s colleague Prince.  Coincidence?

To broaden my horizons, I will make a point to watch the 1940s ballet tragedy The Red Shoes at some point soon, and my friends Jake and Holly’s thirteen year-old son Max recommends this song by They Might Be Giants and Strong Bad, which sort of bridges two eras and oh so smoothly integrates two musical genres in the process.  (Max’s younger sister prefers the Blue Cheer version of “Summertime Blues,” so, like Strong Bad, she’s likely to turn out a headbanger.)


Comparably inspiring is Jackie Chan, whose physical prowess I mentioned in yesterday’s non-wimpy entry — and it occurs to me now that if you love watching his hair-raising, wince-inducing (and completely uninsured) bloopers during the credits of his later films, you should really watch the bloopers at the end of the Thai autistic-girl-martial-artist movie Chocolate sometime, since (unlike with Chan films) I actually had sat through Chocolate repeatedly thinking “How could they possibly have done this scene without people being injured?” (for instance, when multiple combatants rain down upon each other in heaps, falling from fourth-floor balconies), and indeed the blooper reel reveals that they couldn’t do such scenes without people being injured.  The reel even ends with embarrassed-looking cast members visiting one injured actor in his hospital room, politely bowing to him.

But my favorite moment is when the autistic girl spins through the air and neatly lands spread-eagled in a dead stop atop a metal bookcase.  I may try that someday.

(Getting back to Chan: I guess the reason his crews can’t find anyone to sell them accident insurance is their habit of doing things like having Michelle Yeoh, reportedly on the very first day she’d ever ridden a motorcycle, jump said motorcycle onto the roof of a passenger train.)

Speaking of tough dames, since I sorta slighted Simone de Beauvoir’s looks (at least by comparison with Vanessa Paradis’s) in Tuesday’s entry — even though de Beauvoir at least has that stern/impressive Jeane Kirkpatrick thing going on — I will compensate today by linking to a famous picture of her butt.  More culture tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Kick-Ass and Brutally Honest

Tonight’s our big Debate at Lolita Bar on the question “Is Christianity for Wimps?” — and one question sure to arise is whether wimps are, in fact, bad. Take our level of tolerance for violence as an example.

Surely, violence manifests itself in all sorts of horrible ways (else we would have no police and indeed would never even have established the first known written law code, since Hammurabi was as keen to prevent random fights as we are — nothing could be more morally-traditional than the suppression of violence). At the same time, one would not want to so isolate people from the existence of violence that they are incapable of dealing with it when it arises — even dealing some of it out when, arguably, it is necessary.

One of the ex-Misfits at our last debate reminisced fondly about an errant fan who interfered with a concert and was given a necessary — and educational — beat-down, and I have just recently rewatched the impressive early Jackie Chan movie Drunken Master, in which his character is sent off to learn the art of “drunken boxing” because only that fighting form will teach him mental/moral discipline while at the same time producing chaotic physical movements too confusing for opponents to match (the sequel is better, though, as Nybakken would want me to acknowledge).

While I’d love a completely peaceful world as much as the next guy, I was always troubled as a child by the artificial removal of violence from depictions of the world. One of my earliest political thoughts was resentment of a ban in the 1980s on the depiction of realistic guns on kids’ cartoons (would they take my Star Wars action figures away next?). And it is annoying that drivers always pulled themselves intact out of the most spectacular car crashes on The A-Team (thanks of course to the impressive work of the Joey Chitwood stunt team, as we all seemed to know back then). Congressmen on the lookout for violence tend to be pleased that no one gets their limbs ripped off on such shows, but wouldn’t that be more honest and perhaps even a greater deterrent to “trying this at home”?

All of this explains why I’m starting to think that despite Clash of the Titans coming out next month, the April movie I’m really looking forward to is: Kick-Ass, a comic-based movie with the simple but effective premise that no one who puts on a costume and fights crime can do so any more effectively than people would be able to in the real world — and as a result, a lot of bones get broken, bruises get formed, nutcases take to the streets, and much swearing occurs (as is apparent even in the trailer, unless you wuss out and choose to watch the edited version).


Since tonight’s debate is also about religion, let me just put in a plug for skepticism, which — almost like drunken boxing — is not just some nihilistic subtraction of magical, wonderful things from the world but is, of course, mental discipline. There are a lot of loose and woolly ideas out there in the world and, unless you’re Alice in Alice in Wonderland, you may find that believing impossible things undermines your alertness, effectiveness, and intellectual rigor. Indeed, faith can literally get you blown up by landmines, if you’re stupid enough, as elements of militaries around the world apparently are, to consider using dowsing rods as mine-detection systems, a real (worthless, unproven) practice now being urgently criticized by professional skeptic (and inspiration to teenage Todd) James Randi (and pointed out to ACSH by Dr. Chic Shissel).

Of course, rationality, too, can be taken to extremes, and that’s where A.J. Jacobs and his one-man experiment in becoming a living “Rationality Project” comes in.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

In Wonderland, In the Loop, In King Arthur's Day

I saw Alice in Wonderland, about which I am sworn to secrecy for now, but I will just say that from the posters alone you can glean that Helena Bonham-Carter’s character has a sinister grin and a giant forehead, if you’re into that (and if you are, that’s one more weird side topic we can discuss at tomorrow night’s Debate at Lolita Bar on Christianity).

Depp aside: Johnny Depp will apparently be making another appearance with a woman with a sinister grin and giant forehead, Vanessa Paradis, this one portraying an ahistorically hottified Simone de Beauvoir. I’m sure we’ll get to the bottom of some important philosophical and gender issues thanks to that movie.

On the recommendation of Kyle Smith, I also finally saw last year’s In the Loop (in a very limited pre-Oscar re-release here), which combines the feel of The Office, Aaron Sorkin, and all the petty backstabbing young wonks or overly aggressive government men you’ve ever encountered in DC to create an angry, hilarious, alarming depiction of the nonsense that shapes policy, governmental bureaucracy, and committee attendance in London and Washington.

It’s misleading to talk about it as a movie that parodies inept prewar intelligence, really, because the specific political issue the characters are fighting and swearing and sweating over is almost as irrelevant to the viewer as it is to the characters, who are more concerned with getting perks, being noticed by the media, and advancing their own careers. War is to In the Loop as paper products are to The Office — and one is left with the convincing impression that that’s about how big issues work in London and DC as well.

And speaking of movies that leave you questioning whether the British (or any other people) are fit to rule, let’s end by taking a moment to review perhaps the most (left-)anarchist moment in film history:

[clop clop]
ARTHUR: Old woman!
ARTHUR: Old Man, sorry. What knight live in that castle over there?
DENNIS: I’m thirty seven.
DENNIS: I’m thirty seven — I’m not old!
ARTHUR: Well, I can’t just call you ‘Man’.
DENNIS: Well, you could say ‘Dennis’.
ARTHUR: Well, I didn’t know you were called ‘Dennis.’
DENNIS: Well, you didn’t bother to find out, did you?
ARTHUR: I did say sorry about the ‘old woman,’ but from the behind you looked –
DENNIS: What I object to is you automatically treat me like an inferior!
ARTHUR: Well, I AM king…
DENNIS: Oh king, eh, very nice. An’ how’d you get that, eh? By exploitin’ the workers — by ’angin’ on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic an’ social differences in our society! If there’s ever going to be any progress–
WOMAN: Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down here. Oh — how d’you do?
ARTHUR: How do you do, good lady. I am Arthur, King of the Britons. Who’s castle is that?
WOMAN: King of the who?
ARTHUR: The Britons.
WOMAN: Who are the Britons?
ARTHUR: Well, we all are. we’re all Britons and I am your king.
WOMAN: I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.
DENNIS: You’re fooling yourself. We’re living in a dictatorship. A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working classes–
WOMAN: Oh there you go, bringing class into it again.
DENNIS: That’s what it’s all about if only people would–
ARTHUR: Please, please good people. I am in haste. Who lives in that castle?
WOMAN: No one live there.
ARTHUR: Then who is your lord?
WOMAN: We don’t have a lord.
DENNIS: I told you. We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune. We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.
DENNIS: But all the decision of that officer have to be ratified at a special biweekly meeting.
ARTHUR: Yes, I see.
DENNIS: By a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs–
ARTHUR: Be quiet!
DENNIS: –but by a two-thirds majority in the case of more–
ARTHUR: Be quiet! I order you to be quiet!
WOMAN: Order, eh — who does he think he is?
ARTHUR: I am your king!
WOMAN: Well, I didn’t vote for you.
ARTHUR: You don’t vote for kings.
WOMAN: Well, ’ow did you become king then?
ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake, [angels sing] her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. [singing stops] That is why I am your king!
DENNIS: Listen — strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
ARTHUR: Be quiet!
DENNIS: Well you can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!
ARTHUR: Shut up!
DENNIS: I mean, if I went around sayin’ I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me they’d put me away!
ARTHUR: Shut up! Will you shut up!
DENNIS: Ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system.
ARTHUR: Shut up!
DENNIS: Oh! Come and see the violence inherent in the system! HELP! HELP! I’m being repressed!
ARTHUR: Bloody peasant!
DENNIS: Oh, what a giveaway. Did you hear that, did you hear that, eh? That’s what I’m on about — did you see him repressing me, you saw it didn’t you?

Monday, March 1, 2010

DEBATE AT LOLITA BAR: "Is Christianity for Wimps?"

This Wednesday, March 3 (at 8pm), we will broach the weighty question of theologically-inspired wussitude with two dueling conservatives:

Richard Spencer (formerly an editor at American Conservative and TakiMag and now the founding editor of, which launches today) argues YES.

Helen Rittelmeyer (a writer/editor whose work has been used by First Things, Culture11, American Spectator, American Conservative, The Weekly Standard, and New York Post, among other venues) argues NO.

Michel Evanchik moderates and Todd Seavey hosts/organizes.

Voting on the question at the end: you, the audience — bring a whole faction if you like, spreading the good word to Christians, skeptics, and neo-pagans alike.

Free admission, cash bar. The debates, usually pitting two opponents against each other (in a civil and often humorous fashion), take place on the basement level of Lolita Bar at 266 Broome St. at the corner of Allen St. on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, one block south and three west of the Delancey St. F, J, M, Z subway stop.

One arguably non-wimpy manifestation of Christianity that I noticed in New York Times last month: churches (like a lot of other groups in the past decade, I suspect) organizing “fight clubs” (this piece was also pointed out to me by Katie Surrence).

ANNIVERSARY NOTE: This Wednesday event marks five years of the Seavey/Evanchik team overseeing these debates — and on a more personal note, for those keeping track, this period, give or take a month or two, also marks:

•Four years of me organizing the separate Manhattan Project social events for politicos

•Three years of this near-daily blog

•And a whopping eight years of me editing skeptical, pro-science material at ACSH

I think I will celebrate with a trip into an alternate universe where the rules of neither logic nor science apply — or at least, I’ll go see an advance screening of Alice in Wonderland tonight, and, starting tomorrow, I will blog about other films this week as we approach Oscar Sunday.