Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Seavey/Perry Podcast (plus 11 notes on Muslims, anarchists, “UFOs,” and the CIA for 9/11)

1. A day after Obama’s ISIS strategy speech, it’s a bit like we’re at war with both sides in Syria now. That’s more than a little like a great bit in Woody Allen’s Bananas in which it’s revealed by U.S. soldiers facing a foreign government that “The CIA is not taking any chances this time. Half of us are for, half of us against!”

2. I was hoping former (Clinton) CIA director R. James Woolsey would address fishy situations resembling that from the organization’s history when I saw him speak two nights ago, but he mainly talked about the dangers of EMP weapons and oil dependency -- also important topics, to be sure.

3. My position, not quite captured in the rhetoric of any political faction even among my fellow libertarians, is neither that the CIA and other military/intelligence functions of the government are necessary nor that they are wholly destructive but rather that I’d be willing to take the risk of doing without them given all the risks they generate and given our ability to cope in other ways (even privately) with the threats they combat.

You could chalk this up to my increasing (or just increasingly explicit) anarchism, but given that even most of what passes for “anarchism” in this world is a sad history of mob incitements, anti-capitalism, traffic-blocking protests, and occasional pointless bombings, I’m increasingly inclined to feel I should lump the anarchists in with the government and other forms of organized violence. Intellectual honesty sometimes entails admitting how truly alone you are (not that there aren’t a few other nice anarcho-capitalists out there, growing in number).

That in some sense makes me more radical than the anarchists, but (at the risk of baking in some conspiracy theory as well) it might be best to think of me as just someone wanting to roll back most of the radicalism and many of the mainstream institutions of the past 130 years or so -- a sort of reverse-Progressive who now thinks that the ugly intertwining of big government, corporations, banks, militaries, and the external threats those institutions oppose (from small criminal gangs to large international ones) was a half-planned mistake caused by the central-planning mania of the Progressive Era, a big knot of cronyism and inefficiency (deeper and more complex than right and left) that needs to be plucked apart.

Rand Paul, for all his flaws, certainly comes close to being the anti-Hillary Clinton by this quirky metric, and she comes close to being the awful culmination of the incestuous 130-year trend that now worries me so, crony capitalism, militarism, and all.

It’s interesting that for all the current talk of war, even hawkish John Bolton is with me to some extent on this: He said without hesitation on The Independents recently that he’d vote for Rand Paul over Hillary Clinton if it comes to that. That won’t surprise most on the left, but it’s a relief to some like me who suspect that half the neoconservatives are preparing their Hillary-endorsing columns even now in case Paul is nominated by the GOP in 2016 (even as some libertarians condemn Paul as a neocon -- it’s hard to keep everyone happy). Kristol and a few like him may be the real impediments to a new quasi-libertarian consensus on the right at this point.

Progressivism, meanwhile, marches on and is the impulse behind things like the current effort to alter the Constitution to overturn Citizens United, an effort rooted in the Wilsonian reformist idea that the wise central authority should prevent unwelcome, chaotic, outside influences “interfering” with the smooth, rational administration of elections. The impulse sounds like democracy but might as well eliminate voters as the next step, since they’ve been known to have chaotic, partisan interests themselves.

4. Weapons manufacturers win regardless of whether the U.S. military, our authoritarian overseas allies, our authoritarian overseas former allies, or terrorists and drug gangs are in the ascendant. And that may explain a great deal, as the Marxists have always alleged. Hey, it’s OK to admit things are terrible on all sides. That is often the first step toward improvement.

5. It’s also OK sometimes to admit (A) you have no idea what’s going on and (B) you have no strategy for dealing with it. Obama was criticized for saying as much about ISIS a few days ago -- though that admission of confusion may have been more honest than last night’s speech. And I have to applaud the book UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record by Leslie Kean for saying as much about UFOs, a topic that I’ve been embarrassing everyone by mentioning repeatedly recently, despite three (ongoing, I swear!) decades of being a hardcore skeptic/atheist about everything.

Skepticism is not a rigid list of things that can and cannot possibly exist, after all, but a methodology -- and I expect it will remain the correct methodology until
the end of time even as we learn about things we didn’t realize existed. Skepticism is the simple demand for good evidence before believing something. There are so many outlandish, baseless claims about UFOs that it’s pretty reasonable for a casual skeptic to dismiss the entire area of inquiry, and nearly all skeptics do. But Kean in this book drily, rationally sticks to that small handful of cases you sometimes hear about that are well documented, most with simultaneous multiple independent high-quality witnesses, radar sightings, and clear records of events.

The result is that we end up not with a lurid tale of abductions, conspiracies, ancient skygods, interstellar empires, or prophetic dreams about the environment but mainly with a (far more convincing and still unsettling) picture of simple glowing or metallic-looking objects of unknown origin appearing to buzz planes or buildings and move in ways that planes probably can’t (including sudden acceleration from hovering to extremely high speeds, or sudden right-angle turns). It is a tale told not by idiots or wide-eyed, terror-struck yokels but by highly articulate military and commercial airline pilots and other seemingly competent people, relating somewhat boring -- yet not readily conventionally explicable -- events.

It starts to look as though “the extraterrestrial hypothesis,” as a Belgian government report officially put it after a wave of sightings of apparent black triangular craft there in 1989/1990, shouldn’t be dogmatically ruled out at the start. Kean admirably and explicitly says that even if you accept the strange apparent facts of the cases she and her fellow contributors to the volume recount, we just don’t know.

Perhaps (just a random hunch of mine) the atmosphere has a much greater capacity to produce ball-lightning-like phenomena than we currently realize (we do keep discovering odd new luminous meteorological and geophysical phenomena up there), and perhaps there is some sort of magnetic tendency for these things to be drawn to and then repelled by airplanes while interfering with their electronic instruments.

On the other hand, maybe you reach a point where explanations like that, while comfortingly non-paranormal, are themselves such a stretch that it’d be more plausible to say, “You know what, I think maybe we’re just being buzzed by some simple extraterrestrial drones. Maybe instead of invasions or grand messages of peace, they just do low-budget research surveys sometimes -- much the way we do.”

Regardless, “I don’t know” are the three most beautiful words in the English language, and I think they are far too rarely used (those three words clearly make many people so uncomfortable that they can’t even cognitively process them as an answer to a question, which is a frequent source of confusion in workplace and philosophical conversations). This attitude might technically make me “agnostic” rather than “atheist” at heart, but like “anarchist,” perhaps neither of these terms quite captures what I mean. Good skeptics always leave a little room for doubt, in short (and therein may yet be room for the hardcore skeptic and believer camps of old to mingle productively).

And it’s not as if I’m saying all the accounts in the Kean book, while surprisingly well-documented, are flawless. The chapter on the widely reported Belgian wave, for instance, goes on for a full page about the value of a “black triangle” photograph that has been admitted to be a (rather simple) hoax by the Belgian photographer since the publication of Kean’s book in 2011. It’s tempting as a parsimony-seeking skeptic to let a few small errors like that invalidate the whole subject area. And yet...

6. Speaking of official reports on strange technology and possible biological oddities, I only just learned (after seeing it a third time while it’s still in one last theatre in Manhattan) that X-Men: Days of Future Past shows comics writers Chris Claremont and Len Wein listening to Trask’s address to Congress about the mutant menace -- and shows four cloaked horsemen on the hill behind the young Apocalypse as those crowds chant “En Sabah Nur” in the post-credits sequence.

And the magnificent trailer, if you go back and watch it again, suggests they must have cut from the final film a sassy bit where Wolverine conferred with Mystique, presumably futilely, probably prior to breaking out Magneto (reason to buy the DVD?). Perhaps they decided during editing that it made no sense for Wolverine to talk to her without taking her down, since she’s the real danger in the film.

In other Marvel news, I only just learned that on Nick Fury’s (empty) grave in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it says “The path of the righteous man... Ezekiel 25:17.” I feel hipper knowing that, even though the Tarantino reference is twenty, yes twenty, years old now. (And if, as rumored, the next Captain America movie, in 2016, turns out to be Captain America: Civil War, that pivotal and rather libertarian plot from the comics will by then be ten years old itself. Time flies.)

7. Skeptical as I may be about the efficacy of the U.S. military/intelligence/police complex, the skeptical movement itself, and of course S.H.I.E.L.D., none of that should be mistaken for complacency about the menace of radical Muslims abroad and in Western countries. In fact, even Muslim commentators in the Muslim world apparently think Western Muslims are trouble a-brewing, interestingly, though the foreign commentators and domestic radicals alike seem to agree on wanting America destroyed, alas.

8. Francois-Rene Dang-Vu Ban Rideau points to this video hinting that “What Normal Muslims Think” may unfortunately still be radical.

9. Bill Maher, for all his flaws, recently talked rings around host Charlie Rose about the evils of Islam, a reminder not only that secularism is better than Islam but that liberal comedy is often better than liberal elite journalism.

10. Yet the UK (while it lasts) gets upset about newspapers even reporting inconvenient facts like some killers there being converts to Islam (h/t Sean Dougherty).

11. It all leaves me with growing respect for sweeping yet gentle forms of radicalism, like pacifism and even those goofy anti-gang activists who say things like “Incrase da peace yo.” Violence, whether from bands of twelve people or 100 million, is our real problem as a species. May as well attack it very directly.

•For contrast, please enjoy a mild Unitarian’s hitchhiking travels, as Matt Brandenbrugh gets interviewed by Gerard Perry and me about his road trip to a libertarian film festival.

And a reminder: you can ask us -- including guest commentator Lap Gong Leong -- questions here for possible answering in future podcasts. The next one or two we record will be about Atlas Shrugged (the film trilogy version of which concludes tomorrow), Scotland’s independence referendum (what would Scottish anarchist Grant Morrison do?), and more.

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