Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Punks, Dogs, Soldiers, Vader

Seeing the band the Baghdaddios on Saturday night not only afforded me the opportunity to meet a conservative member of the band Beauty School Dropouts but led to the odd experience of me popping outside the club to retrieve Baghdaddios leader Kenn Rowell so that he wouldn’t miss a song being dedicated to him by the band RewBee, only to find that the song turned out to be called “You Suck” — but I am assured he wasn’t being insulted.  (I wouldn’t want to see RewBee anger Kenn’s impressive amazonian bodybuilder girlfriend, either.)  An additional good moment: the Hormones’ hardcore version of the “Science Fiction” opening song from Rocky Horror.

All this is a reminder that I should focus a bit more on actual punk in September, as we approach October’s release of my “Conservatism for Punks” essay in the volume Proud to Be Right (or PBR, as you Williamsburg-types should start calling it).  As Bono said back in the old-timey days of 2003, when obscenity on TV caused legal scandals: “Keep fooking oop the system!”

I think I may have hastily passed up a chance to toy with the system the other day, by the way, when I got a robocall (somehow defying the Do Not Call list, as non-profits can) saying merely: “This is Survey 2010!  Do you own a small dog?”  Saying no caused it to hang up, though perhaps I should have investigated further by saying yes.  Surely many people will do precisely that.  Then again, I never lie, not even to robots.

Two imperial notes before we exit this blog’s troubled and anemic “Month of Imperialism,” though:

•They’re planning a 3D movie about The Battle of Midway, arguably the largest battle of all time, and one of the most historically significant.  Take that, Japan, with all your stupid manga!

•And speaking of old-timey imperial battles, Dimitri Cavalli notes this silent-movie-ized version of the climactic battle from The Empire Strikes Back.  I can’t end on a more fitting note than that.  I’m not saying I shouldn’t, mind you, just can’t.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Emma Watson and the Race Issue

I’ve long said that East Asians should be the most vocal opponents of affirmative action in America, given that their numbers on college campuses have been kept artificially low relative to their test scores by lefty proportional-to-the-population regulations. But there’s no reasoning with people attached to the symbolic anti-racism of such regs, regardless of practical outcomes.

A reminder of just how dangerous it is to let government wade into these matters at all was noted on Drudge, in the form of an ABC piece that paints blatantly racist Mississippi middle school rules about which students can hold which school positions as a legacy of Jim Crow — when in fact the rules in question were put in place in 1969 as an ostensibly-progressive quota system to ensure black participation. Just stay out of the whole area, politicians. And abolish public schools while you’re at it — but more about that this coming weekend.

In more-elite school news, Emma Watson’s short haircut has left people saying that she’s left her youthful Hermione days behind, but what they really ought to be saying is that she finally looks like a Brown student. Might the haircut indicate that the time for an experimental lesbian phase has arisen? Has Brown taken steps to ensure that a resulting sex tape does not leak out? I’m only asking questions.

Watson will, of course, appear on film in one of the year’s three big remaining nerd films (after this week’s Machete, the year’s most perfect date movie). November brings the first half of the final Harry Potter film, and December brings both The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Tron: Legacy, which is arguably the major-movie sequel longest separated from its original, at twenty-eight years. Let us hope we are not in for another Phantom Menace experience.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Total Remake, plus Zombie Ants, Germans, More

•Normally, when you think of hive minds being invaded by brain-controlling, zombie-making parasites — and I know you do — you are thinking about a dark potential future (or at least Washington, DC — speaking of which, if you haven’t already watched this weekend’s Freedom Watch, airing again tonight at 7 and 11, note that it features Mort Zuckerman explaining his concerns about Obama fiscal excess and the effect on Democrats).  Nature has been fighting creepy struggles involving mind-controlling parasites for millions of years, apparently.

This revelation leaves me wondering, as E.O. Wilson might put it, why everyone isn’t studying zombie ants.  Then again, militaristic and imperialist ambitions could take on whole new, more terrifying forms if militaries around the world really figured out the mechanics of mind-controlling spores, so maybe the zombie ant phenomenon would benefit from a period of benign neglect.

•Speaking of turning people into arthropods, I have only recently learned (from Byrne Hobart) of the most disturbing horror movie premise of all time, as notoriously explored in the film The Human Centipede, about a German scientist whose goal is to do something which is far worse than whatever you’re imagining, and which I will not describe on this blog but which is explained on Wikipedia, for the not-easily-sickened.

•Real-life Germans may not be much saner, given not only their history of producing dark or violence-admiring thinkers such as Marx, Nietzsche, Hitler, Heidegger, and Carl Schmitt — not to mention, apparently, plans for a cannibalism-themed restaurant.  What is wrong with German people?

•In other movie news, Paul Verhoeven — whose films, he admits, have been influenced by his youthful fascination with the Nazi conquest of his native Holland — plans to look at Dutch colonialism in Indonesia in his next film, which sounds interesting to me.

•Less promising, I fear, is the plan to let the director of Underworld remake the 1990 Verhoeven movie Total Recall, which, as Scott Nybakken likes to point out, is an already-perfect film.  There is no way the Underworld guy is going to improve it — and presumably without Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, or Michael Ironside, just for starters.  It’s as foolish a fool’s errand as remaking The Wizard of Oz.   How about a J.J. Abrams remake of Blade Runner while we’re at it?

The only way I think a Total Recall remake could be made worthwhile, at least as an exercise in metafiction, is if the protagonist kept having the sneaking suspicion that instead of reality he’s experiencing…a remake.  (By the way, if you rewatch the original Total Recall — and you certainly should — you’ll be struck by how heavily The Matrix, which came out nine years later, must have been influenced, to put politely, by the pill-vs.-illusion scene.)

•On a brighter (and at the same time darker) note, the protracted legal wrangling over whether Peter Jackson will be able to produce two Hobbit movies has led Guillermo del Toro, who eventually had to give up on plans to direct the films, to make plans instead to direct H.P. Lovecraft’s Antarctic horror classic (imitated in The Thing, the first X-Files movie, and other works) At the Mountains of Madness…in 3D…co-produced by James Cameron.  This may prove to be, at long last, the first big-budget movie to do Lovecraft justice.  Can Cthulhu be far behind?

•Finally, the aforementioned Nybakken, himself a veritable ayatollah of rock n’ rolla, notes that you can live one of the greatest sci-fi series of all time — and skip Burning Man — by attending a three-day Mad Max reenactment.  Good practice for the end times, after the empire collapses.  But tomorrow: a look at Emma Watson.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

He's a New World Man

In 1632 (144 years before the Declaration of Independence and one year after William Seavey arrived in the New World and built Plymouth’s first church), the Tuttle family began farming on the New Hampshire/Maine border, a region whence hail several of my favorite people.  Now, 378 years later, the Tuttle family is considering selling the family farm.  Think of the dusty knickknacks they must have in the back room.

Then again, what Americans consider “old” is laughable to inhabitants of the Old World.  Plymouth, England, for instance, traces its founding not to 1620 (or 1607 like Jamestown, lest we neglect it) but to the Bronze Age.  America just got here yesterday, really, and we’re still getting our footing.  I still recall pointing out Manhattan’s oldest church to my British friend Sangeeta Sahi and getting a “So what?  Oxford has been around for over a thousand years, Cambridge for two thousand” as a compassionate response.  Of course, Sangeeta is also the sort of softy who once declared a teddy bear’s facial expression that of “a gormless idiot.”

But enough about the English — tomorrow a look at those thuggish, brooding latecomers to the New World, the Germans (who, like the English, have been known to display imperialist tendencies).

Friday, August 27, 2010

Science vs. Religion, Macro vs. Mumbo

Catch the sacred and the profane on this weekend’s Freedom Watch, first shown at 10am Eastern tomorrow on FBN, as the guests include prostitute turned novelist/activist Tracy Quan, defending the profession, and a polite debate between two libertarians with decidedly different philosophical foundations: Skeptic editor Michael Shermer and the Acton Institute’s Father Robert Sirico.  They might make you believe that atheists and Catholics can get along.  Maybe.  Possibly.  Well, watch it anyway.

Coincidentally, I am scheduled to have dinner the next night with an Italian, Catholic, libertarian economist of my acquaintance, whereupon I should begin my recruitment drive for our second Debate at Lolita Bar for September because, yes, we’re doing two, the first asking “Are Bosses Usually Jerks?” (Sept. 7) and the second, the one for which I still need a “no” debater, asking “Is Macroeconomics a Fiction?” (Sept. 23).  Decide for yourselves which is more illusory, God or “trade deficits.”  Don’t feel obligated to pick just one, though.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Tough Dames and an Imperial Icon

Some people get accused of wanting to rule the world, and I was recently accused of subconsciously wanting to destroy it for liking things like this Road Warrior-esque Pink video for “Funhouse.” Did a male comics nerd have a hand in writing the chorus about “evil clowns,” I can’t help wondering? Dave Whitney notes that Pink in that video, always a tad 80s-ish, looks a bit like Wendy O. Williams. She also looks a bit like a striking punker recently moved into my neighborhood — and like Storm from the X-Men in the 80s plotline in which she lost her weather-manipulating powers and so could cut loose emotionally for the first time in her life. So much simpler, and thus more aesthetically coherent, than Lady Gaga, recently condemned by Camille Paglia for “overkill.”

Speaking of wild costumes and tough dames, it occurs to me that Wonder Woman, whose costume change I mentioned yesterday, looks better as subtly redesigned by this Halloween costume company than she does as normally depicted by DC Comics (with star-spangled panties, no cape, and mere knee-high boots), and a Halloween costume being an improvement over the real thing is rare, perhaps even unique, so kudos to someone. I’m pretty confident the Darth Vader costume I wore for Halloween as a kid was not as impressive as the filmic original, though I’m sure I was terrifying.

And two more comics notes for the month: Matt O’Brien e-mails to note this list of forty comics arguably good enough for classroom discussion, topped by one about Iran, while both Paul Taylor and the Raspberry Brothers have, in the past few days, found themselves discussing the comedic wonder that is the “Italian Spiderman” trailer.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bears' Gonads, Wonder Woman's Pants

I’m not sure how much of the comedy value here was intentional, but my former employers at the American Council on Science and Health have created probably the funniest thing the organization has done, by plugging a dialogue about the (harmless but nonetheless feared) chemical BPA into this personalizable cartoon of talking bears.

In other cartoonish news, my drawing of the superbeing Fondue-head (a monster who skewers his enemies and dips them into the vat of bubbling cheese in his skull) got me first prize in the Raspberry Brothers’ create-your-own-suphero contest last night. Victory is mine, and this makes up for Evan Dorkin’s response to Fondue-head when I presented the character to him years ago as a suggested foe for his characters Milk and Cheese, which was to send me back a letter simply showing Fondue-head skewered with his own fondue forks (for which I’m quite grateful, in all seriousness).

The most exciting thing going on involving comics this summer is arguably something that has nothing to do with new or changing characters, though: It’s the family whose home was saved from foreclosure because they found a copy of Action Comics #1 as they were cleaning out their stuff to move. Now they’re loaded.

J. Michael Straczynski, much as I love him for creating Babylon 5, sounds like he may not be bringing the same level of excitement to the Superman and Wonder Woman comics he’s now writing for DC. After fighting a vast, complex war in space, JMS is now depicting Superman deciding, I kid you not, to go for a very long walk. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman’s entire reality has been altered by time travel-type shenanigans, with the primary headline-getting result being that in the new reality, she wears pants. I guess if JMS combines the walking and the pants-wearing plotlines at some point, we’ll really have something. (A more beautiful walkabout idea, it seems to me, is Steve McCurry’s quest to make fitting use of the very last roll of Kodachrome film, with which he was entrusted.)

I think this ad for one of the Superman comics in question sums up how much the stories may resemble bad heartbreaking-dilemma-of-the-week “traveling loner” TV shows. One good thing to come of the Wonder Woman pants is that DC executive Dan DiDio, called upon at a comics convention to sum up what he thought of the change, uttered the funniest (intentional) thing I think I’ve ever heard him say, which was: Wonder Woman’s pants are “the epitome of where we’re standing at right now as a people.”

Two superpowers I’m not feeling enthusiastic about lately are (a) veganism, which is amusingly depicted as a source of psychic abilities in the swell Scott Pilgrim but still doesn’t tempt me to try it (much as I admire those disciplined enough to do so), and (b) combining Rainman-like data-sorting abilities with a trade-off in the form of lost emotional, empathic, or moral sensibilities, which I gather is for some reason a real mental tension, valorized to some degree in that popular Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series (not to mention House to some extent, etc.). There is no math score high enough to give you license to be a jerk, please recall. We wouldn’t want the bi punker sociopath genius of the Tattoo series becoming an across-the-board role model, much as we like some of those qualities.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Of Montreal and Williamsburg

All right, I’m back from visiting my ancestral homeland of New England, which I have to admit is perilously close (geographically and culturally) to Canada, with which I have a love-hate relationship.  On the downside: the socialistic tendencies that the U.S. now threatens to imitate.

On the plus side, it’s the land that educated the Williamsburg-dwelling rock writer with an interest in conservatism who just e-mailed me to say she wants my opinions on rock and the right — and on a similar note, it’s where my libertarian friend, McGill polisci prof Jacob Levy (at my suggestion) recently saw Montreal-dwelling, formerly Williamsburg-dwelling band Metric.  I offered to give him his money back if he didn’t enjoy them, and he reports that no refund was necessary.  Here’s a reminder why we are both correct.  I almost tear up when she hits those really high notes, which helps aesthetically even if it’s just a nails-on-chalkboard auditory nerve response thing having nothing to do with the emotions conveyed (I find myself having a similar reaction at times to the slightly more nasal Aimee Mann, though I have multiple reasons to cry when I think of Mann).

On a nerdier entertainment note, my one-week vacation may justify taking the time to see my acquaintance Jerm and his Raspberry Brothers mock superhero film clips tonight at Knitting Factory (361 Metropolitan Avenue, again with the Williamsburg) at 8pm, all MST3K-style.  I’ll just say: Batman and Robin.  Another option tonight: 6-8pm artsy storytelling at Cornelia Street Cafe (29 Cornelia St.) featuring my friend Michele Carlo among others.  The brave and bold man might be tempted to catch both events.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Empires, Spiritual and Science-Fictional

By now, everybody and his uncle have probably used this JibJab animation to put their faces into a short version of The Empire Strikes Back, but I dare say I make a natural Luke Skywalker in this version, with photos entered by co-worker Austin Petersen. Of course, I’m not saying it’s as funny as Chewbacca singing “Silent Night” (nor as slickly produced as the frenetic and funny Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, about which the lukewarm critics and uninterested masses are all wrong, by the way — go see it even if, say, you only have one evil ex instead of seven).

The Empire is a fitting topic for this blog’s “Month of Imperialism,” and I’m reminded that about seven years ago, the fictional empire and the real one blended for me briefly when The Weekly Standard posted an article, around the time it was one of the chief proponents of attacking Iraq, half-jokingly arguing that the Empire was superior to the Rebels in the Star Wars series. I good-naturedly e-mailed to say that if the Standard built a Death Star, they might find there are Rebels willing to assault it. Little did I realize the jittery Standard had received some death threats over their pro-war position, and a flurry of carefully-worded e-mails was exchanged in which it was clarified that I was not planning to kill anyone. (I think I likened myself to Andrew Sullivan jokingly challenging someone to a lightsaber battle at one point, which sounds kind of gay in retrospect but was reassuring.)

But despite some reservations about U.S. military policy, I won’t claim we have an empire in the sense that the British had one — and it was a bad thing in some ways, but it’s hard, as someone for whom all that is now history, to regret that the strange blend of West and East in India has helped bring about things like this strange video of a breakdancing dwarf (pointed out to me by Gena Binkley — and speaking of psychedelic experiences and John Stossel staffers, note that this weekend’s Freedom Watch features a Stossel cameo, with him sparring against conservative biped S.E. Cupp over pot legalization, airing four times on FBN).

•••

The dwarf video in turn reminds me of perhaps my favorite mistranscribed interview quote of all time. Avant-garde comics writer Grant Morrison (whose Final Crisis I now have in hardcover thanks to a generous Scott Nybakken, raising the possibility that it will cohere if read as a single work) was asked what things on the Web interested him lately, and he was quoted as saying he loved “the site American Dwarf,” but it turned out that excellent as that title is, there was no such site, and what he really said was “the South American dwarf,” referring to a mysterious and creepy dwarf with a sack over his head who had been appearing to startled people and gamboling about before disappearing into the woods. It’s a weird world.

Morrison is making it weirder this month. I see no evidence that his planned non-fiction book Supergods from Random House on superheroes as gods has yet come to pass, but he is releasing this collection of his ideas for an animated series that never happened, with the Hindu gods depicted as superheroes. You just know that the psychedelically-minded, Scottish, and more or less left-anarchist Morrison loves the fact that absorbing a land as weird as India into the British Empire was a bit like inadvertently taking a tab of LSD.

If Morrison’s planned Multiversity maxiseries, meant to start in one year, doesn’t climax with (a) the complete transformation of DC reality again, (b) an unofficial cameo by his mystical-anarchist characters the Invisibles (or at least some Morrison-looking bald guy implied to be an amalgam of King Mob, Lex Luthor, the Time Tailor, the Writer, Robotman, and Professor X), and (c) an issue that comes out close to the mystically-ballyhooed date Dec. 22, 2012, I for one will be disappointed in Morrison, even if I’m not reading the stuff anymore.

I also get the impression he’s subtly resurrecting something akin to Hypertime, DC’s model of timelines as fluid and overlapping, in the current Return of Bruce Wayne series, perhaps in rebellion against the rigid yet sloppily-enforced idea that there are exactly fifty-two DC universes. The corporate hierarchy is a tad muddled at DC these days, so it may not be a bad time for an ambitious writer to remold reality without editors noticing. Since Morrison likes variant, alternate-reality Batmen so much, perhaps he should use the unauthorized 1973 Filipino film version in one of his stories (note: Fight, Batman, Fight! was not directed by Chris Nolan).

•••

If you get tired of mystically- and spiritually-significant superheroes, though, there is an atheist superhero film on the way, which sounds promising and a tad anarchic (pointed out to me by the aforementioned Austin, who also forwarded this amusing/creepy photo of a warlike child, whose attitude reminds me of Churchill…or someone).

On another atheistic note with political implications: Nybakken looks like the world’s one real prophet, for saying back when we were in college that he had a one-word retort to Francis Fukuyama’s then-popular thesis that we’d reached the “end of history” and all would be liberal democracy henceforth, and that one-word retort was ISLAM. Nearly two decades later, Ayaan Hirsi Ali says the same thing in the Wall Street Journal, but Nybakken still wins by the standard of brevity.

If I were an atheist superhero — and aren’t I, in some sense? — yesterday would have to be regarded as the day I made it into the enemy lair, since I paid a (perfectly pleasant, actually) visit to the national headquarters of the conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei. Nice place, no evidence of a sinister plot to kill Tom Hanks, though I couldn’t help but be reminded of a vexing religious-convert ex or two. Or three. Patterns can be broken, though. (Indeed, at the same time I was visiting Opus Dei, yet another ex of mine, I was somewhat disappointed to learn, was in the midst of Landmark Forum classes, that being the cultish self-help group that basically charges you money to remind you that you can do whatever you want and chart your own destiny. Some of us know that already.)

Back at the office after my Opus Dei visit (and a few hours before dinner with Michael Malice to balance things out), on my last day at work before starting a much-needed one-week vacation, religion correspondent Lauren Green, herself an iteration of the “woman who loves music-and-religion” archetype, revealed she once existed on the fringes of a cult-like organization that dabbles in religion, self-discipline, and sexual self-discovery with arguably greater panache than any of the aforementioned groups, though: She knew Prince in high school and as a result appeared in her capacity as an early-90s Minneapolis reporter in one version of the Artist’s “My Name Is Prince” video. As she was also Miss Minnesota 1984, not to mention a classical pianist, this seems like a typically smart move on Prince’s part. There is much wisdom to be gleaned from Prince’s life.

P.S. On an unrelated musical note, Richard Cheese claims that unless he sells 2,500 more copies of his album OK Bartender of comedy-lounge-music covers of rock and hiphop classics, he could go out of business and face “the End of Cheese,” so buy that to have something to listen to after Prince.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Non-Monetary Compensation

My fellow Film Bulletin alum Jenny Foreit notes that an Ayn Rand fan drove across North America tracing out the giant message “Read Ayn Rand,” and thanks to Google Earth and the guy’s GPS system, you can view the results.  This is a reminder of a phenomenon that gets sarcastically commented upon with some regularity: libertarians doing things that obviously are not profitable in the conventional monetary sense (perhaps the GPS guy has a bright future in advertising, but let’s assume for the sake of argument he’s just in it for the sake of getting the message out and helping to save the world). 

In a similar vein, I recall a column a year or so ago that mocked young libertarians for lamenting how little money they were making at their thinktank and magazine jobs, as if this showed something was horribly awry with the profit-driven system they espouse.

In truth, of course, money is just one of many ways — arguably the most efficient one in many situations but not the only one — of (1) keeping track of who owes what to whom and (2) of gauging how much benefit you’re reaping from your investment in an activity.  There are countless situations in which a widely-recognized, stackable, countable medium of exchange is not necessary, though: if you can gauge the quality of your jokes by the size of your best friend’s resultant smiles, if your family repays your kindness with love and entertaining anecdotes, if your work as a volunteer webmaster gives you the deep satisfaction of knowing you are part of a noble project (one that helps put your name in the public mind in a positive light), and so forth.

Free-market ideology (to my mind, though I’ve lately encountered dissent, of course) merely suggests that property rights adherence is more efficient (and thus more happiness-enhancing and thus more humane and thus more moral) than property rights violations.  Free-market ideology alone does not dictate what you should prefer to do once your property rights are secure.  Ayn Rand has a specific, narrower vision of the good life that does seem to imply one should be seeking profit, creating businesses, etc., but a free-marketeer or libertarian in the broader sense is behaving in accord with his philosophy so long as he does not violate property rights and thus could, with perfect consistency, devote his life to tilling one small (owned) plot of vegetables in the woods and playing ultimate frisbee all day while trying to expunge egotism through meditation. 

It’s a very flexible philosophy, and I should perhaps have made it clearer in my Reason pieces about left-libertarians over the past couple years that I’m not saying free-marketeers need be culturally-right but rather that they can be anything they want, even adherents of a sort of “conservatism for punks” (at least without violating free market groundrules — there may be countless other reasons that they should be Henny Youngman fans instead of Robin Williams fans, Mozart fans instead of NKOTB fans, etc., but they aren’t free-market reasons per se).

II.

So, having accepted the logical possibility of being a proper market-adherent without looking outwardly like a businessman, we shouldn’t be much surprised — especially in local, informal, highly personal settings — by the fact that people negotiate reality and gauge reward through such non-monetary means as praise, party invitations (of which I could use more nowadays, it occurs to me), critical acclaim, fame, affection, sex, the satisfaction of showing up rivals, and the greater satisfaction of ceasing to care about petty things like showing up rivals. I also enjoy being on a dog’s good side when possible. 

And let us not forget maintenance of reputation as a big motivator.  Adam Smith wrote about it, and it seems to be the concept that bridges the gap between his econ writing in Wealth of Nations and his moral writings in Theory of Moral Sentiments.  More recently, the somewhat left-libertarian-sounding sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling toyed with the idea of “reputation servers” that replace money by keeping constant track of who can be trusted to help out when needed.  Not a bad idea — assuming you think money is a problem in the first place, which I don’t.

If any of the above sounds contradictory, I think it is only because of the deeper, more complicated question of altruism — which is a problem for ostensibly anti-altruistic Rand followers (like the ones I plan to see at a conference here in New York City on Sept. 14) but not for free-marketeers per se.  If you accept that altruism is rational and good, there’s no difficulty explaining phenomena like those young wonks I mentioned earlier who are toiling to save the world without making much money.  Of course, the mystery is a complete non-issue if you simply dimiss the idea that altruism is their motive and instead say, in econ-class fashion, that their utility functions, properly understood, include non-monetary rewards such as the satisfaction of seeing the world remade to their liking. 

But much as I believe in that particular form of satisfaction (my career, mostly spent working for two libertarian TV correspondents and a pro-science organization, would be tough to explain absent at least some such satisfaction), I think there really is altruism — and contrary to the Randians, I think it’s a good and rational thing.  Of course, this risks bogging down in semantics very quickly, since I concede one has to at least feel some initial motivational attachment to morality and making the world better instead of worse in order to act altruistically, and those keen to disprove the existence of rational altruism can always argue that I’ve thereby smuggled self-interest into the picture. 

But if you’ve ever met a sociopath — and I fear I recently have, but the less said about that the better — you will understand that there is a real and palpable difference between someone behaving a in truly selfish fashion, which is usually harmless but can also be quite ugly, and someone who (consciously or unconsciously) declares his intitial allegiance to a system of the world because he recognizes it as good and then, admirably, proceeds to behave in ways that clearly cost him dearly but shore up that system because it is good, the right thing to do, the utility-enhancing course of action for others, even if not for himself

(The notion that utilitarians act only for their own individual happiness is, as I’ve complained before, almost exactly the opposite of what the philosophy actually recommends, which is that we strive to think of the happiness of the world as a whole.  As a practical matter, this will often mean being more easily able to intervene in the lives of people we know well — including ourselves — than in the lives of distant, hard-to-understand people, so utility can be reconciled with paleo-traditionalist and localist notions or mainstream ideas of self-reliance as easily if not more easily than with either global-utopian schemes or selfish hedonism.) 

III.

I should also add that non-utilitarians are behaving altruistically and thus in some sense admirably if they are genuinely working to make the world better instead of worse — they are simply mistaken, sometimes tragically and dangerously so, about the proper means.  We should’t childishly pretend that they aren’t sincerely altruistically motivated, though.  Hardly anyone wastes time pushing unpopular political ideas, for example, unless he really want to help the world.  There are simply too many easier options for those who are just trying to be jerks, though actual officeholders, as opposed to ideologues, are often no doubt little better than self-interested con men (even they probably tell themselves rationalizing stories about being on the side of good most of the time, though). 

The traditional Christian notion that private charity is the most noble form strikes me as true and insightful, whereas the more Objectivist vision of placing giant gold statues of oneself atop every hospital one endows (if one even endows hospitals) strikes us as tacky for a reason — though as a utilitarian consequentialist, I think the important thing is that the hospital get endowed one way or another, not that anyone sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice or suffer in silence.  I want hospitals, not “redemptive” suffering.  So, once more, as long as no property rights are being violated, charitable giving, like non-monetary compensation, is perfectly compatible with markets, even if it doesn’t look like “business” in the narrow sense.

Indeed, we can — and should — have endless conversations about what modes of life are best (and for whom, since the answers may vary radically with circumstances) all without violating property rights and thus overriding one person’s preferences for the sake of others’.

And on that note, around the time this entry posts, I’m off to have lunch, despite my atheism, with a friend at the NYC HQ of the conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei, before starting a sorely-needed one-week vacation during which I do not intend to suffer or sacrifice (let alone punish myself in hope of achieving redemption) one damn bit, except as needed to enhance subsequent net increases in happiness.  After that, a return to duty.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Pros and Cons of Imperialism (and Philosophy)

When I was younger, I tended not to take concerns about imperialism seriously and, in conservative fashion, just wanted to be sure that whoever was being shot at was a bad guy.  But history is a mess, only rarely presenting clear-cut heroes and villains, and one country dominating others is highly likely to present at least some major negatives even if there are some underappreciated positives.

It’s often the case that, rightly or wrongly, one is made sympathetic to a novel position in part by discovering that someone who thinks like you or whose mind you like holds that position.  In my case, after decades of hearing New Left types and Brown University Marxists bash imperialism, I was almost ready to call it a good thing, but finding out that anti-imperialism actually has a long history in the U.S. — and in particular, I must admit, that Mark Twain was active in the early anti-imperialist movement — made me a bit more willing to listen to the argument that U.S. military influence in other countries is a project at odds with our older republican principles. 

On the other hand, one need look no farther than my April and August Book Selection entries, about Genghis Khan and the British Empire, respectively, to see that imperial projects often mingle the good and the bad in ways difficult to extricate, certainly in ways that don’t make clear-cut ideological judgments easy (except for extremists)  Even the dreaded and brutal Genghis Khan helped to create stable trade routes, foster freedom of religion, and make law predictable within his realm.

Similarly, to make the world’s most complex and important topic obscenely brief, local autonomy is swell and all, but there are certain extremely beneficial, broad — even universal — rules that we’d like to see people participate in, especially if we are to have a peaceful global commercial order, an order that people everywhere ought to join somehow (preferably in a smooth, organic, non-violent fashion — but somehow). 

Legal orders and even moral notions themselves get reshaped to suit commercial realities (as my September Book Selection, Martin Sklar’s The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, describes in detail in the case of the century-ago rise of corporations and the Progressives in America — globalization in one country, as it were, given the highly agrarian and local nature of the economy before that time). 

When future historians look back, I hope they will not dimiss libertarians as a mere footnote to (and post hoc rationalizers of) the rise of global capitalism, but historians will likely say that practical circumstances mattered more than the philosophical stories we told about them, left, right, or otherwise.  We’re a product of our (changing) times — but so are centralization-loving Progressives and even socialists, really.  We’ll all look like bean-counting systematizers in historical hindsight, I suspect (and libertarianism may then look as much a part of its time as constitutional monarchy does now to people regarding the Newtonian/contractarian seventeenth and eighteenth centuries).
 
And lest the traditionalists and non-bean-counters think they’re getting off scott-free: might even the dominant world religions be products of humanity’s quest for relatively-efficient, “transportable” rules, after all?  Ten Commandments — or even Sharia — travel better and resolve impersonal conflicts with strangers more effectively than, say, animism based around one local tree or a sacred pond, after all.  
 
At the risk of sounding like an amoral imperialist (which I’m not), then, the question may be, Which eggs are worth breaking to create global commercial order?  Can much of tradition go?  Can national sovereignty?  Can the welfare state and international labor movements?  Can psychological attachment to family homesteads?  Should they?
 
And yet, if circumstances determine philosophy: has the time to think of such things in a specifically corporate manner already passed?  Perhaps trade will be so individualized and decentralized in the very near future as to make any fetishization of lumbering constructs such as “global trade” short-sighted.  Awful as the economy is right now, we may yet be getting most of our goods from personalized nanite swarms in the not-too-distant future and even be so autonomous as to be unconcerned with many of the legal and moral fights of times past.  Dangerous to assume anything about the future.

And if you think ostensibly-timeless philosophies can’t become dated that quickly, think how rapidly “post-colonialism,” dominant in so many 90s classrooms like the ones I alluded to earlier, is starting to look like a brief coda to the specific historical circumstance of the British Empire unraveling.  (I think it was Doris Lessing who observed that the British Empire, the nascent dictatorship of the proletariat, and the Nazis’ purported thousand-year-reich all vanished in her lifetime, taking certain seemingly-eternal philosophical battles with them.)  Who knows what seemingly-permanent things will unravel next?

P.S. And in the interest of thinking outside my own present-day philosophical box, I promise a rumination on non-financial incentives within the next few days.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Rock for Rockefellers

Imperialism is not the only way to rule the world, comrade!  Fidel Castro recently used his column in an official Communist publication to paraphrase with approval a Lithuanian book alleging that the annual Bilderberg conference of global leaders secretly controls the world.  The conspiracy Fidel has publicly embraced goes even farther than that, though, reaching a psychedelic crescendo of conspiratorialness worthy of a Robert Anton Wilson novel (and causing embarrassment, one hopes, among the handful of elderly leftists who still respect Fidel).  Writes AP’s Will Weissert:

The excerpt published by Castro suggested that the esoteric Frankfurt School of socialist academics worked with members of the Rockefeller family in the 1950s to pave the way for rock music to “control the masses” by diverting attention from civil rights and social injustice.

“The man charged with ensuring that the Americans liked the Beatles was Walter Lippmann himself,” the excerpt asserted, referring to a political philosopher and by-then-staid newspaper columnist who died in 1974.

“In the United States and Europe, great open-air rock concerts were used to halt the growing discontent of the population,” the excerpt said.

P.S. One of my young co-workers, unfamiliar with conspiracy theories about the Bilderbergers, overheard someone talking about them and thought someone was alleging the world is run by Build-A-Bear, which would be far more entertaining.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ice Cream vs. Combat

Ah, life is good so long as a man can, unharried, enjoy a wholesome pleasure like licking an ice cream cone in public (yesterday in Midtown, as seen at left in photo by Austin Petersen).  And even age and death seem trifles when we hear of a fifty-seven year-old Eddie Munster finding true love with a fan from decades prior, or a seventy-eight year-old riding a rollercoaster ninety times in one day.

But to hear true strife turned into beauty, listen to the war poems of Gregg Glory, who was kind enough to recite them last week before our big Debate at Lolita Bar about imperialism — in which imperialism won, by the way (but more on imperialism’s pros and cons tomorrow, if I’m not hung over from drunkenly riding hotel elevators).

Dim NIMN

By Gregg Glory

Saddam’s boys, fed lion’s hearts
And bad philosophy, were sent into the rape room
Under P.S. 106, Baghdad,
Same ground that saw a Ninevah arise
Same wide-eyed folks that made
A few of civilization’s unending things,
Set golden bird upon a ruby bough to sing.

“Not in my name”
shall we set, we
The people of Hamilton and Adams
Not for such names, nor for our own,
Forgotten since our civics’ texts
Have gone to rot as assuredly as Rome’s poems
Burned by Visigoths to watch
“Vandal Idols” on a commandeered TV
in the fumbled coliseum.

“Not in my name”
shall these be set free.
Not by us, the people of Lincoln and Paine,
Not with our bullets of inalienable rights,
Nor our hatred of tyrants,
Not by our strength, our success,
Not by our sure hand in a selfish world,
Not by our open palm
shall these be set free.

These same who crouched in a shit pit
Or were shot for sheer sport.
Power plus a few roaring lies
And arabist France is your firm friend,
Scoring oil off of marsh arabs’ misery,
Breathing grievance and flattering tyrants
alone in their ego-lovely
palaces of misapplied plaster,
walls caulked with exquisite fear,
real memories of friends, father
or sister suddenly dragged out at 1 AM
and shoved into the State’s Mercedes
and returned in ribbons,
eyeless, legless, earless, hymenless,
or not at all….
The fear of faces too used to fear,
Same faces Stalin made in Russian clay
Holding his neighbors’ feet to the fire
Or cinching raw hands in unforgiving wire.
“Not in my name”
shall these be made free.

Same Saddam, god-damn,
Who put a hit out on a retired president
And called Kuwait his “13th Province,”
Shattering desert quietude with lies,
Living detached as a NYT op-ed writer
From the eternal verities.

Same Saddam, god-damn,
Who paid suicide bombers’ families to live on quince
And retire to palm-shaded villas
After sending Sonny on to see Allah;
Same suiciders who put a two-fer hole
In New York’s presumptuous skyline:
Front teeth fell out square with 3,000 lives
As jerks in Jersey City cheered
And Palestinians rah-rahed in parade,
Making Gaza glamorous once again,
full of light, full of hope, full of song,
As know-nothing Americans knew, just knew
It was all our fault anyway;
Not even giving gashed Jihadis
credit for their kill, not really.

Same Saddam, god-damn,
…. I can’t go on without respite, without tonic,
A cool cloth for my lips, hot cotton
Laid on my ears, much abused,
Carbon darkness for my eyes, my eyes
That see in seemless verity
One nation, under God,
Riddled with raconteurs of the Apocalypse
Who never missed a payment on their Saab.

Allah, Allah, Allah,
Forgive these few, these free,
These blind men holding diamonds
Who think they’re weighted with bricks;
Forgive these few their compassionate disaster
Who see sorrow in a tyrant’s swat,
How sad his up-bringing must have been;
Forgive these few their huddled asses
Who buy the pap and propaganda
of the feckless press.

Allah, Allah, Allah,
Sear me with second-sight enough to see
What comes of free people with no will to be free;
Who shrinky-dink and containerize the globe
After pacifying panzered fascists,
Who set the Technicolor sights of Hollywood
in every human eye
And take air-conditioned flights
To the winds’ four corners
And hear half-good English spoken there
From some kid wearing Adidas
And yet do not believe
Fallujah’s on their subway stop
or Kabul is come to Washington.

Forgive these few, O Allah.

Allah, Allah, Allah,
Walla walla, walla
Washington

The Niggard Heralds

By Gregg Glory

The inverted bodies hang themselves,
Interpenetrated, peeled
For us to write riven songs upon their skins!

Sullied sufferers hang themselves from a glass cross
200 floors toward heaven.
Bitter Christs!
Loudly you fly from flames to the asphalt,
Absent-minded of your mission:
Your religion has not yet arisen.

We may yet decide to be extinguished.
The gossipy mendacity of the Left
Aligning with bin Ladens
To win the miniaturized
Bickerfest with the neighbor;  neighbor
Same as them, hung from the cross the same.

Orange flares
Line the flyway to infinity
Or incineration.

Coda
Here’s a brave man, indifferent to kicks,
Somber under DC’s browning ferns,
Ready to kill the willful killers
And treat his countrymen, confused
As the winter-wind infused weathervane
Like a drunken beloved.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Book Selection of the Month: "After the Victorians" by A.N. Wilson

ToddSeavey.com Book Selection of the Month (August 2010): After the Victorians: The Decline of Britain in the World by A.N. Wilson

Before we get to England: I wrote about the Victorian-era goings-on in my own hometown, Norwich, CT, in last month’s Book Selection entry — and I’m still learning things about the Norwich of that era, thanks to Mom.  She informs me that Teddy Roosevelt’s second wife, Edith Kermit Carow, was born in Norwich and moved to New York, becoming childhood friends with Roosevelt and eventually bearing him many pillow-fighting, rollerskating children, as well as tending to the White House’s menagerie of pets, which included a badger, a bear, a hyena, snakes, dogs, and more.

Meanwhile, across the ocean, though, an era was ending, with the death of Queen Victoria.  Back around the time her era began, incidentally, the old British standards of length and mass were altered — by a fire, oddly enough, since an 1834 conflagration destroyed the Houses of Parliament and took the official physical units used to define length and mass with them, which is not a topic covered in After the Victorians but is so odd I had to mention it.

(Interestingly, though the U.S. has never converted to the metric system, we began defining our units by reference to the metric system in 1893, which means that since that time we’ve unwittingly been using Progressive measurements.  Ha ho!  But more about the Progressives in next month’s Book Selection entry, which will be about Martin Sklar’s The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism — and maybe something by one Judge Andrew Napolitano while I’m at it.)

And now, seriously, or at least half-seriously, on to After the Victorians: The book is a fun blend of serious, detailed history and utterly trashy, vaguely self-loathing tabloid anecdotes, a tone well suited to looking back upon the wreckage of the British Empire from the perspective of a cynical twenty-first century writer.  An important point Wilson makes is one I mentioned in my closing comments after last week’s debate on imperialism at Lolita Bar: The British Empire was primarily an Asian rather than a European empire, if we take the sheer demographic weight of India seriously (on a similar but more petty note, it’s often struck me that with so many speakers of English living in India, it’s not clear that any nation besides India has a right to define what constitutes standard English).

The artificial construct that was the Empire was bound to come apart sooner or later — and the early twentieth century was enamored of trying new things, as Wilson reminds us in sometimes-odd passages like this one: “The flying machines and motor cars of the Edwardian era look like toys built for the amusement of Mr. Toad, but they are harbingers of a new world order.  Moreover, the Mr. Toad at the wheel would be unlikely to have owned Toad Hall for more than a generation.”  (This passage also reminds me a bit of the poem I wrote in college that enabled me to come in third at a Nuyorican Poets Cafe slam once, a poem that began with the lines “Stork!  Stork in a gyrocopter!/ Grim harbinger of the coming age.”  Ah, great minds, etc.)

•••

In the process of depicting the Empire unraveling, Wilson treats us to such telling oddities as the despicable D.H. Lawrence writing about his fantasies of gassing to death all of the sick, maimed, and deformed people of the world, to the sound of a softly-playing military band; the sexual license among coal-miners; early pro-sex activists such as Pussy Webbe; and the differing attitudes toward England of brothers Henry and William James, the former of whom once chastised the latter for leaning a ladder against a fence in order to peer over it and gawk at the elephantine form of writer G.K. Chesterton.  Henry was also fascinated by Chesterton’s immensity but would never have used the ladder.  William, after all, was a pragmatist and in some sense more American (and thus was the future, though we may well look back and say the American Empire, such as it is, outlived England’s by only sixty years or so).  Wilson quotes in passing H.G. Wells’ complaint about the prose style of Henry James’ later works: “It is a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea which has got into a corner of its den.”

Somewhat like James Burke, author of Connections and The Day the Universe Changed, Wilson delights in pointing out ironic or coincidental historical connections, even while admitting they aren’t the only connections that could be used to trace the sequence of events.  He notes, for instance, that Bertrand Russell, arch-logician, not only sparred with a young and more linguistically-contextual Wittgenstein but taught arch-modernist poet T.S. Eliot when Eliot was a young philosophy student and Russell was a visiting professor at Harvard.  Who knows how differently twentieth-century culture might have turned out if these men had had just a few conversations with each other that took some other turn?

One of my favorite themes in the past year or two has been the observation that so many allegiances and constellations of political, philosophical, or social ideas that we treat as timeless or inevitable are in fact contingent, recent, and likely temporary, including pseudo-permanent categories beloved by right and left alike.  The fact that the Tories were anti-industrialization in the nineteenth century, for instance, is a reminder that environmentalism could easily have become more a conservative than a left-wing phenomenon.  And Wilson’s reminder that aristocratically-garbed “founding” lesbian Radclyffe Hall was a Tory until she was charged with obscenity for writing The Well of Loneliness makes one wonder in a sci-fi-like way what might have been (indeed, Grant Morrison used Hall as a conservative-sounding character in the steampunk comic book Sebastian O and rightly so).

Wilson’s description of the impractical economic idea of “distributism,” beloved by Chesterton, and some Catholic paleo types to this day, is another reminder how easily the conservative impulse could have morphed into the great anti-capitalist destroyer of modernity instead of the crude shield against socialism it has generally been.  But then, conservatism and even the nature of the aristocracy were being rapidly remolded to suit capitalism’s purposes in the Edwardian period (thank goodness), and soon noble titles were in effect being bought and sold (which, Wilson hastens to add, was really no great break with tradition, since many noble lineages began with the richest man in town, often made rich by some practical activity such as being the harbormaster, declaring himself a permanent landowner).

With everyone panicked about the rapid rise of corporations in the early twentieth century (again, more on that and the Progressives next month), there was a surprising tolerance across the political spectrum for what now sound like blatantly fascistic ideas about subordinating markets and individuals to the state, and people moved freely between fascist and labor parties in search of some solution.  Keynes and Mussolini were almost interchangeable for plenty of respectable intellectuals in that era.  That makes it all the more baffling, suggests Wilson, that King Edward VIII was so easily pressured into abdicating and later vilified over the issues of divorce, romantic attachment to an American, and mild fascist sympathies, since none of these things were generally considered scandalous or illegal in the decades prior to WWII.

And Edward VIII may have been chummy with his German cousins, but then, almost all the European royals were closely related, and Wilson begins his book with a reminder that World War I had been in part a war between England and Queen Victoria’s own grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II.  Would that such spats could have been resolved at family reunions instead of on battlefields.  But again, so much that is treated as inevitable in hindsight was likely chance and contingency, from Franco’s influence on attitudes about fascism and socialism to the inadequacies of the League of Nations.

•••

As World War II breaks out and the end draws nigh for the Empire, Wilson turns his attention for almost an entire chapter to Laurel and Hardy, seeing in them a metaphor for U.S.-British relations generally, particularly a film in which Stan receives a bump on the head that turns him into a more stuffy, aristocratic parody of a British person, a condition of which he is cured at the end before he and Ollie return to America.  Of particular concern to the British at the start of the war was whether the U.S. cared enough to intervene, and FDR sought to decide the matter by dispatching one diplomat to tour Europe and decide whether it was worth disrupting U.S. trade with the continent by taking sides, an approach that led one staffer of the British Foreign Office to conclude that Americans “are a strange people and pursue strange methods.”

Wilson makes the case that Churchill, in some sense the real anti-Hitler among the Western Allies, won the war in the sense of defeating the Axis but in the process lost everything he had perceived himself to be fighting for, since he was an ardent imperialist and had to watch as India departed the fold and socialism took over half of Europe.  Don’t pity Churchill too much, though: He was ruthless in war and apparently held the disturbing view that peace is likely a bad thing and would breed softness, a view not so unlike the pseudo-Darwinian attitudes by which the Nazis justified treating conquest as a natural and healthy expression of competition that rendered morality irrelevant.  Beware those enamored of conflict and violence, especially if they claim to represent human excellence instead of subhuman depravity.

The future Queen Elizabeth II was, Wilson notes, more enamored of Walt Disney movies when she was a child than of conquest, though, and there’s something to be said for that, even if her tastes were a disappointment to her more-Victorian father, King George V.  In an important reminder that our political leaders are far stupider and more ignorant than their intellectual apologists normally let on, Wilson also mentions that when Churchill — an agnostic who feared the atom bomb might well end the human race, with no God to intervene on our behalf — was reelected, President Truman cheerily congratulated Elizabeth on her father’s victory in the polls, apparently not knowing that the King and Prime Minister were two different people, and two different institutions.  Truman controlled — and had used — nuclear weapons.  And, Wilson argues, he likely did so to ensure that the U.S. defeated Japan before Russia did, rather than because the alternative was significantly-longer fighting with Japan.

The U.S. and Russia would dominate the post-WWII world, while England muddled along under a short-lived socialist government that still foisted wartime-style ration cards and the like on a dissatisfied populace.  Wilson makes a case for the anarchist, Max Stirner-influenced novelist John Cowper Powys as an important representative of the post-war spirit of resistance to social conformity and socialism alike, the sort of writer who gives one hope that there is almost as much rebel in the British spirit — and thus hope of the UK resisting regulation and taxation in the long run — as there is in the American spirit.

All the same, Wilson notes, countless other British works, including the fantasy The Borrowers, would fill the half-century after the Empire’s end with a tone of lamentation for something beautiful, absurd, diminished, and sadly lost.  No wonder British writers, particularly the angry leftist ones, so often sound more bitter and defeated than Americans.  Depending on how things go, we may sound that frustrated and nasty eventually, though.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Libertarian-Republican President Ticket Thought

The August 14-20 issue of The Economist tackles the topics of Australian coalitional politics, government-shrinking UK politics as something akin to punk rock, literal “hive minds” (artificial intelligence programs based on insect colonies), and offices that have resident dogs.  Combine all those phenomena and you get…well, something not remotely human.  Best just to look away.

But it does somehow remind me that I was excited recently to see that possible 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitch Daniels’ list of five favorite books was a perfect libertarian box set: society-analyzing works by Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Charles Murray (not The Bell Curve), Mancur Olson, and Virginia Postrel.  This alone (quietly, cautiously) raises the possibility that he would be the best president the U.S. has ever had, something worth thinking about.  Or that he has a libertarian staff member answering questionnaires, but that’s better than nothing.

And he was busted for pot circa 1970 while at Princeton (where at least three libertarians for whom I’ve done work got their start), which in itself seems like a good sign that he would not just turn into an authoritarian social conservative once elected.  If he and anti-drug-war Gary Johnson were a ticket, what on Earth would the hipness-seeking Democrats do?  Lose, I suspect.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Freedom, Robots, Cats, Tomatoes, Misc.

•Well, “Freedom Week” on Fox Business Network has reached its climax, and in addition to the six episodes of Freedom Watch that ran this week, there’s the swell five-part online series about “The History of Liberty” on the Fox Nation site.

•But if you need a shorter, simpler summary of how American politics (and indeed all politics — and religion) works, you could do far worse than watch this three-minute music video about the Space Robots who want to save humans from the Terrible Secret of Space by pushing and shoving (h/t Bretigne Shaffer, who recently wrote about Afghanistan).

•Slate asks: “Is It Legal to Eat Your Cat?” after the strange story of the New York State man caught marinating his cat in his car trunk (h/t Diana Fleischman).

•Speaking of the thin line between predator and food, I noticed after writing about my old hometown of Norwich, CT in last month’s Book Selection entry that there is at least one famous son of Norwich besides Benedict Arnold and my novelist English teacher Wally Lamb: There is Costa Dillon, producer of the horror comedy film Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and later a park ranger (I mentioned this at our swell Thursday debate/poetry reading on imperialism, and someone claimed that it’s almost as difficult to get a park ranger job as it is to become president, which I do not believe).

•As if Norwich weren’t Victorian enough, I’ll post this month’s Book Selection entry soon, on A.N. Wilson’s After the Victorians.

•My fellow Freedom Week survivor Austin Petersen notes a few amusing items, which should distract and entertain those suffering from serious-politics overload or post-traumatic stress disorder, or even the sometimes-analogized condition of borderline personality disorder, not to mention people who are just vexed by the humidity:

–Atheists are doing joke de-baptisms using hair dryers. I’m supposed to tour the NYC HQ of Opus Dei this coming Friday thanks to Brian Finnerty and will have to ask them how they feel about this.

(On a related note, Michel Evanchik, creator — not mere webmaster — of the immigration site American-Rattlesnake — notes this cartoon about God loving atheists. I do not necessarily endorse the liberal tone of this cartoon nor the hair dryer thing.)

–As government grows to the fiscal breaking point, perhaps we’ll see a tension in pop culture between libertarian and fascistic themes. On the fascist side of the spectrum would fall these cool superhero posters, I think.

–This lovely sculpture strikes an ecumenical, fusionist tone while also reminding us that communism, Disney, and Christianity are all full of it.

–If those sound like fighting words, stop to consider this diagram of the futility of online arguments (and don’t be a futilitarian).

–And finally, note that the reporter character in this cartoon may resemble me even more than Julian Assange, the editor in chief of Wikileaks, does.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Freedom Watch for Punks

Much has changed since 1992 when I was, I believe, the first person to interview the MTV VJ Kennedy about what it was like to be the sole Republican VJ at MTV — not to mention what it was like to be the girl with the Republican elephant tattoo and a crush on Dan Quayle (I saw her make an appearance at a record store once, and it took me a while to figure out that the thousands of people outside the store were there not to see her but to see Green Day, who I was not interested in meeting).

Back then, she was a passage in an article I wrote for Chronicles (the paleoconservative magazine that I believe David Boaz pronounced “unsavory” the very first time I met him) — and Kennedy was also the quirky, bespectacled, alternative rock-playing proof that hip conservatives were possible, albeit rare.  Tonight, long since turned into a full-blown libertarian and famous person, she was the delightful final guest on the hump-day edition of Freedom Watch, in its special week of daily broadcasts (today’s also featuring Thomas Sowell, author, among other things, of Knowledge and Decisions, which is a marvelous, Hayekian look at libertarianism as the best way of coping with the decentralization of information in society).

Even then, I was fascinated by the tension between the benefits of global pop culture and the benefits of local tradition — and were it not for that rationalistic, somewhat detached admiration for the latter might well have been some sort of across-the-board imperialist-capitalist (to get back to the underblogged theme of this month) bent on turning all the world into a spaceage mall like something out of an MTV video.

P.S. Instead, I remain torn on matters of foreign policy and globalization — and so make a fitting organizer of tomorrow night’s (Thur.) epic Debate at  Lolita Bar about whether there can be benign imperialism.  Be there and help resolve the fate of the world.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Not a Bad Way to Go

You may by now have heard the story of the Jet Blue flight attendant at a New York airport who, after being bumped on the head by luggage, unleashed an angry tirade on the P.A. system, said he was leaving the job after decades, grabbed a beer, and exited the plane down an emergency slide, causing helicopters and police to appear, apprehending him.  If a stylish exit is a crime, surely he is guilty.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

DEBATE AT LOLITA BAR: "Can There Be Benign Imperialism?" (plus TV!)

Thur., August 12th (International Youth Day, fun for all ages and nations), 8pm, at Lolita Bar (266 Broome St. at Allen St., one block south and three west of the Delancey St. F, J, M, Z subway stop).

Arguing yes: Byrne Hobart, Internet marketing consultant

Arguing no: Guy Vantresca, U.S. Army veteran and IT specialist

Moderating: Michel Evanchik

Sharing two of his poems: Gregg Glory

Sharing one of Rudyard Kipling’s poems: Alex Antonova

The idea of attempting benign imperialism has, despite the antiwar sentiments of the past decade, been picking up some stream. Conor Friedersdorf wrote for The Atlantic about the (vaguely racist?) idea of “charter cities” in Africa functioning as Western-run models for battle-plagued and starving parts of that continent. Ron Bailey once mused aloud about a similar idea. By contrast, NYU econ prof William Easterly wrote the book The White Man’s Burden: How the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.

(Easterly, by the way, also wrote a review for the New York Times in June on libertarian Matt Ridley’s book The Rational Optimist, about the benefits of capitalism, which I plan to make one of my November Book Selections on this blog, in a year of rather British Book Selections, including this month’s, which will be After the Victorians by A.N. Wilson, about the decline of the British Empire, augmenting my “Month of Imperialism” and completing my Victorian summer.)

P.S. If the topic of imperialism’s got you down, though, maybe you’ll be cheered up by watching Freedom Week — a special week of daily broadcasts of Fox Business Network’s Freedom Watch, for which I work and which bears no responsibility for stuff like the debate above. Just check out this link for a hint of what’ll likely be on, including Wednesday’s property-themed episode with Thomas Sowell, and there’ll be related online and Fox News Channel material:

P.P.S. And if you come away from this week liking intervention in foreign lands, or by contrast simply preferring small bands of mercenaries to conventional armies, you can celebrate the weekend either way by seeing The Expendables (or by contrast the Taoist-anarchist animated fantasy film Tales from Earthsea, or the less ambitious but more boldly-titled Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, all three of those films debuting this weekend, giving us lonely nerds options).

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Populism and Protest

A commenter on my August 1 entry noted sarcastically that some of the Tea Party protesters are inconsistent in their defense of property rights and oppose letting a mosque be built at Ground Zero.  The Tea Party folk I’ve dealt with have been pretty consistent, but I think most people recognize it’s a coalition, with the healthy thing merely being that its unifying focus is opposing government spending.  It’s not synonymous with libertarianism but is more libertarian a phenomenon than either major political party or much else of significance going on in American politics.

Coincidentally, though, the Tea Party-attending illegal immigration foe being targeted for sarcasm has just posted a piece on American-Rattlesnake explaining why he thinks even protests themselves are something the defenders of illegal immigration can’t get right.

In a way, I’m more interested in populist protest itself than in immigration, and I am well aware that populism can sometimes go too far, as this campaign ad from Tennessee may demonstrate (it was pointed out to me by a lawyer friend from the Hill, the heart of empire, who is visiting New York in a couple weeks but clearly is keeping on top of the important political developments during the August recess).

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Beasties in Brooklyn (and Empire in a Bar)

A book of DIY plush monster toys and puppets called Beasties has its release party tomorrow night (Thur., Aug. 5) at DUMBO’s hip and spatially-odd book-and-arts venue PowerHouse Arena, on 37 Main Street (corner of Water St.), close to the Brooklyn end of the Brooklyn Bridge and the York St. F stop, as I discovered the very first time I walked all the way across the Brooklyn Bridge, mere months ago. (PowerHouse has striking stairs/bleachers, not so unlike the swell new fa├žade of the northern Lincoln Center block, which my architect friend Dave Whitney tells me has been much praised, so I am not alone in admiring it.) What better borough for the Beasties than Brooklyn, after all?

There will be drinks, snacks, and lovely music by members of the Debutante Hour. I’m going.

The Beasties author is the talented and whimsical artist Diana Schoenbrun, who we were lucky enough to have lead a puppet show prior to one of our Debates at Lolita Bar. I jokingly — but sincerely — likened the performance to the Muppets at the time, and I have always thought all good-hearted, open-minded people can appreciate good things — like The Muppet Movie — across “age appropriate” divisions, without feeling any more anxiety about whether they “ought” to than about whether they are being sufficiently hip, another pointless anxiety. We’re all in the quest for good things together, from the purchaser of well-crafted G.I. Joe figures to the collector of the works of Macaulay.

And if you’d like to be part of our proud debate tradition yourself, without necessarily using puppets, please e-mail me today (per the address on my About/CONTACT page) and volunteer to argue “no” on the question “Can There Be Benign Imperialism?” (our topic next week, Thur., August 12, 8pm, amidst this blog’s “Month of Imperialism”).

I will add an “UPDATE” note to this very blog entry tonight or tomorrow revealing whether we have our volunteer.  [UPDATE: Not yet!  Watch for an all-new entry with the official announcement Monday, I promise.]

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Immigration, Political Coalitions, Romantic Coalitions

If even my mother calls to say that the editor in chief of Wikileaks looks like me, there must be some truth to it (and since that organization once used a double to help a member elude the authorities, perhaps they’ll call upon me one day).

I hope he’s popular with the ladies, too, since I am told that I am single again, after what was basically a roughly one-year relationship followed by a roughly one-year breakup. My apologies to everyone peripherally affected, most of whom know I generally try to avoid “drama.” Perhaps I can address romantic conquest as a subsidiary theme during this blog’s “Month of Imperialism” entries. In any case, for all the ladies out there who might get me mixed up with the Wikileaks editor, just remember this rule of thumb: I am not the one with the Australian accent.

•••

Before turning our attention to imperialism, though: the sometimes-related topic of immigration, on the august occasion of the launch of Gerard Perry’s anti-illegal-immigration site American-Rattlesnake. I see that my own webmaster/debate-moderator pal, Michel Evanchik, is contributing to the site as well, perhaps concerned that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from hard-working Americans. But I will have to read in the days ahead to find out.

Surveying the topic in a broader — and more imperial — context, it’s interesting to me that there are two constellations of views, neither bound together by logical necessity, that seem to be catching on in recent years, one looking something like:

•more-or-less open borders + free trade + military interventionism

and the other looking something like:

•rigid borders + less trade + opposition to military intervention

By now, neither set of views is that surprising, but it’s not a dichotomy I would have predicted, say, fifteen years ago from the textbook “right” and “left” definitions of thirty years ago, but rather is a dichotomy that now describes both a split within the right and a split within libertarianism, due to the advent of all the Ron Paul types within libertarianism (except that libertarians wouldn’t sign off on the “less trade” part of the second constellation of views, sometimes seeming to substitute an animus against international trade agreements, rightly or wrongly).

Both of those splits are in turn replicated within the Tea Party movement, and indeed I’ve complained to Gerard that he and his allies should not seek to turn the Tea Party rallies into immigration debates, since they’ve been so admirably focused on resisting government spending (and in a way that still manages to partially transcend party affiliation — indeed, if the Tea Party helps the GOP regain power and, in all likelihood, the GOP screws us over again, it may be time at long last to try to steer all the Tea Party-admirers into an enlarged Libertarian Party and hope that someone at least as smart as Bob Barr is minding the store over there when it happens).

Adding to the weirdness of the times, if your views fell somewhere in between the two constellations described above — say, you want heavily regulated but not greatly diminished immigration and trade, with occasional military intervention — you’d arguably be more like a Democrat than like an idealized version of a moderate Republican, meaning that by some measures the right contains wings that are farther apart than either is from the Dems.

•••

People have a hard time accepting “maybe” and “I don’t know” as answers — especially from people who are emphatic on other issues — but I think immigration and military matters both fall into grey areas, so I would just as soon not use them as wedge issues, coalition-splitters, or political tribe-definers, though times change and it may be that these issues loom too large now (compared to, say, the 90s) to avoid taking a stand on them.

Still one of those tolerant, high-minded, and mostly non-combative New Englanders at heart, I have to admit that despite my conservative tendencies I grew up mostly assuming that only troglodytes were anti-immigration, in much the same way I didn’t expect to meet intelligent people who espoused strong religious convictions or who were anti-gay (and for the most part, I still don’t). So I’ve sort of gone from being (1) an open-borders guy, comfortable telling people as much, to (2) semi-agnostic on the topic as it became more contentious in recent years and as the libertarian argument (right or wrong) that illegal immigration is an undue burden on the welfare state became more popular (again, it’s not that I’m completely craven or opportunistic when coalitional opportunities arise but rather that some potentially coalition-splitting issues, like foreign policy during the neocon heyday of the Bush administration, already fall into what I think are grey areas anyway — and, again, the philosophy student in me is comfortable “bracketing” issues for later resolution while the clear-cut ones are addressed first), to (3) now being concerned that the animus against illegals is so illogical — and distracting — that it may be necessary to espouse a radical no borders position just to clear the air.

By “illogical,” I mean primarily that most anti-illegal-immigration activists seem to have convinced themselves that they are not motivated by opposition to, say, Mexican culture but by the very fact that people come here by flouting our laws. Doesn’t this strike anyone as circular? I mean, I realize I’m technically an anarchist and all, but I have rarely heard conservatives take the view that Socrates did when he passed up an opportunity to escape from death row, that is, the view that the law must be obeyed simply because one owes deference to the code that has sheltered one throughout one’s life, even when it errs. Do conservatives feel that way about tax policy? Environmental regulations? Shouldn’t there at least be a very detailed public discussion going on about whether immigration laws are so stupid and Byzantine that they deserve to be flouted? I seem to remember applauding people who defied communist laws and made it over the Berlin Wall. Why am I to treat U.S. immigration law with substantially greater respect? How about simplifying (or eliminating) the laws so there’s no need to break them? Shouldn’t that at least be a bigger part of the discussion?

And by “distracting,” I mean that if, as claimed, the overburdening of the welfare state is the real concern, why on Earth are we passing up an opportunity (if it really exists) to turn all this populist rage against the real enemy, the U.S. welfare state, instead of poor Mexicans? The ready answer always seems to be that there’s little hope of shrinking the welfare state, so stopping newcomers is the second-best but more easily-achieved option. Really? Could we at least try focusing all that rage on what is purportedly the real target? In retrospect, I think California had (roughly) the right idea in the 90s, attempting to limit immigrants’ government benefits. If that’s the real concern, do something about it. Likewise, if someone claims he wants less government, I’d be suspicious if he said that as an imperfect first step we need to set up a massive, expensive new government agency for tracking the number of socialist organizations in the U.S. Cut to the chase.

•••

All this has been complicated by 9/11, history is sure to record. (It arguably shouldn’t be, but one rarely gets to tease out issues for careful rational analysis in real-world politics, as becomes increasingly painfully obvious to one as one ages.) It became a great deal easier after 9/11 to paint border-crossers of any sort, on a vague subconscious level, as an imminent threat to national sovereignty, whereas I suspect people were traipsing across both the northern and southern U.S. borders unremarked all the time throughout much of the twentieth century, with aims no more nefarious than bringing back some primo weed from Vancouver.

In the end, the true libertarian position, which we may as well pursue now instead of waiting for some perfect day a century hence, should be that just as governments have no right to tell us how to live, they have no right to tell us where to live. Humans should wander the globe at will. Mass emigration brought down the Soviet Union at the end, and it might just be the fastest way to unravel all the other states as well. If welfare states collapse like ice cubes in boiling water under conditions of unrestricted emigration, so much the better. States are largely geographically-rooted. Humanity’s shifting desires, economic patterns, and cultural interests need not be (less so now than ever before in history, in fact). If governments can’t handle a human race that moves about freely, government should go away. But we knew that already.