Dec 23

Gay Marriage

If I needed any reminder of why I’m not a conservative, the bizarre contortions that right-wingers have been putting themselves through lately in opposition to the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision on gay marriage would provide one. Watching this has been almost as much fun as watching the left thrash itself to pieces in a futile attempt to stop the War on Terror.

IsntaPundit points us at Jennifer Roback Morse’s analysis of the issue in National Review Online which he correctly describes as hilarious in a frightening way. It’s full of bloviations about the “natural and organic‘ function of sex and how we’ll all be happier if we adjust our behavior to conform to nature. It further argues that sex is not an individual activity but a social one, deriving much of its importance from the fact that it create and involves communities.

IsntaPundit acidly points out that the “natural and organic” purpose of sex is to recombine genes, and that casual ‘meaningless’ sex of the kind associated in conservative minds with gays and libertines is not just natural and organic but optimal strategy for the 50% of the population that is male. While InstaPundit is correct, he is missing some even more entertaining subtexts.

Conservatives have spent decades lambasting leftist feminists for their claim that the personal is political. They have argued that a world in which feminists and the state claim an ever-encroaching right to reinterpret sexual relationships as power relationships and intervene to ‘equalize’ them is a world slouching towards totalitarianism and the panopticon. Ahhh…but now watch the deft reverse spin as, when a conservative shibboleth is at stake, Ms. Morse suddenly argues that sexual choices are never private!

This whole business about ‘conforming to nature’ is almost funnier, in a bleak way. Exercise for the reader: chase this Google search on the phrase fascism nature organic and discover how very close Ms. Morse is sailing to the reasoning and rhetoric of classical Fascism.

These are the parts that are funny, at least if you get the kind of dark amusement I do from watching right-wingers obligingly behave like every left-wing caricature of conservatism ever cartooned. I would say that National Review Online ought to be ashamed of itself if I actually expected better from them on this issue. Hypocrites. Idiots. Ms. Morse’s reactionary rant is every bit as bad as the poisonous humbug that issues from the mouths of lefties like Robert Fisk or Noam Chomsky.

What’s even more comical is that when you corner a conservative about the consequences of gay marriage, what you’re more likely to hear than not is: “But what if the really icky people, like (gasp) polyamorists, use it as a precedent?” This is very revealing. Conservatives know that the gay lifestyle will never appeal to more than about 5% of the population — the rest of us ain’t got the wiring for it. What really terrifies them is the thought that people in the 95% of the population that is normally heterosexual might get the idea that they, too, could choose plural marriage or other forms of relationship that conservatives think of as ‘unnatural’, and not suffer for it.

But the part that’s really frightening is the argument that is not being made, but which seethes beneath every polished sentence of Ms. Morse’s screed. One cannot read it without sensing that all this namby-pamby “natural and organic” stuff is a thin pseudo-Deist cover; what Ms. Morse really wants to do is scream “IT’S GOD’S LAW AND YOU’LL BURN IN HELL, SINNERS!“. This is the “ancient religious rage” of Margalit and Buruma’s
penetrating essay Occidentalism; fundamentally Ms. Morse is railing against Babylon, and in this she is at one with the hot-eyed Islamists who gave us 9/11.

I must make a point of committing an act that is technically sodomy tonight. Perhaps I should see if I can’t mix with it some blasphemy against the evil authoritarian Nobodaddy-God shared by Islamists and Western conservatives like Ms. Morse. The whiny identity politics of the Queer Nation crowd turn me off, and their buddies in NAMBLA utterly revolt me — but ultimately I have something in common with the gays that I never will with Ms. Morse.

That commonality is the belief that isn’t up to anybody else, feminist or conservative, to tell me and my consenting sexual partners what kind of sex is “natural” or “correct”. “Do it for the chillldren!“ is no more honest or respectable an argument against the liberty of the individual coming from Jennifer Roback Morse than it ever was from Hillary Rodham Clinton. Neither kind of moralism is more than a fig-leaf over the lust for power over others, and that is a lust I will always oppose with my words, my actions, and my weapons.

Dec 23

The 2004 election is over

From the Telegraph:

A spokesman for Mr Berlusconi said the prime minister had been
telephoned recently by Col Gaddafi of Libya, who said: “I will do
whatever the Americans want, because I saw what happened in Iraq, and
I was afraid.”

This is the quote that will re-elect George W. Bush president.
Because after 9/11, what Americans want is a president that will make
tyrants and terrorists very, very afraid. Bush, for all his other
failings, has delivered on that. As Edwin Edwards (four-term governor
of Lousiana) might put it, Bush couldn’t lose the election now unless
he got caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.

Dec 22

Racism and group differences

At the end of my essay What good
is IQ?
, I suggested that taking IQ seriously might (among other
things) be an important step towards banishing racism. The behavioral
differences between two people who are far apart on the IQ scale are
far more significant than any we can associate with racial origin.
Stupidity isn’t a handicap only when solving logic problems; people
with low IQs tend to have poor impulse control because they’re not
good at thinking about the long-term consequences of their actions.

Somebody left a comment that, if what I was reporting about group
differences in average IQ is correct, the resulting behavior would be
indistinguishable from racism. In particular, American blacks (with
an average IQ of 85) would find themselves getting the shitty end of
the stick again, this time with allegedly scientific justification.

This is an ethically troubling point. It’s the main reason most
people who know the relevant statistical facts about IQ distribution
are either in elaborate denial or refusing to talk about what they know.
But is this concern really merited, or is it a form of tendermindedness
that does more harm than good?

Let’s start with a strict and careful definition: A racist is a
person who makes unjustified assumptions about the behavior or
character of individuals based on beliefs about group racial
differences.

I think racism, in this sense, is an unequivocally bad thing. I
think most decent human beings would agree with me. But if we’re
going to define racism as a bad thing, then it has to be a behavior
based on unjustified assumptions, because otherwise there
could be times when the fear of an accusation of racism could prevent
people from seeking or speaking the truth.

There are looser definitions abroad. Some people think it is
racist merely to believe there are significant differences
between racial groups. But that is an abuse of the term, because it
means that believing the objective truth, without any intent to use it
to prejudge individuals, can make you a racist.

It is, for example, a fact that black athletes tend to perform
better in hot weather, white ones in cool weather, and oriental asians
in cold weather. There is nothing mysterious about this; it has to do
with surface-area-to-volume ratios in the population’s typical
build. Tall, long-limbed people shed heat more rapidly than stocky and
short-limbed people. That’s an advantage in Africa, less of one in the
Caucasian homelands of Europe and Central Asia, and a disadvantage in
the north Asian homeland of oriental asians.

And that’s right, white men can’t jump; limb length matters there,
too. But whites can swim better than blacks, on average,
because their bones are less dense. I don’t have hard facts on
how asians fit that picture, but if you are making the same guess I am
(at the other extreme from blacks, that is better swimmers and worse
jumpers than white people) I would bet money we’re both correct. That
would be consistent with the pattern of many other observed racial
differences.

Sportswriter and ethicist Jon Entine has investigated the
statistics of racial differences in sports extensively. Blacks,
especially blacks of West African ancestry, dominate track-and-field
athletics thanks apparently to their more efficient lung structure and
abundance of fast-twitch muscle fiber. Whites, with proportionally
shorter legs and more powerful upper bodies, still rule in wrestling
and weightlifting. The bell curves overlap, but the means — and
the best performances at the high end of the curve — differ.

Even within these groups, there are racially-correlated
subdivisions. Within the runners, your top sprinters are likelier to
be black than your top long-distance runners. Blacks have more of an
advantage in burst exertion than they do in endurance. I don’t have
hard recent data on this as I do for the other factual claims I’m
making here, but it is my impression that whites cling to a thin lead
in sports that are long-haul endurance trials — marathons,
bicycle racing, triathlons, and the like.

It is not ‘racism’ to notice these things. Or, to put
it more precisely, if we define ‘racism’ to include
noticing these things, we broaden the word until we cannot justifiably
condemn ‘racism’ any more, because too much
‘racism’ is simply recognition of empirically verifiable
truths. It’s all there in the numbers.

Knowing about these racial-average differences in athletic
performance would not justify anyone in keeping a tall, long-limbed
white individual off the track team, or a stocky black person with
excellent upper-body strength off the wrestling team. But they do
make nonsense of the notion that every team should have a racial
composition mirroring the general population. If you care about
performance, your track team is going to be mostly black and your
wrestling team mostly white.

In fact, trying to achieve ‘equal‘ distribution is a
recipe for making disgruntled underperforming white runners and
basketball players, and digruntled underperforming black wrestlers and
swimmers. It’s no service to either group, you get neither efficiency
nor happiness out of that attempt.

Most people can follow the argument this far, but are frightened of
what happens when we apply the same kind of dispassionate analysis to
racial differences in various mental abilities. But the exact same
logic applies. Observing that blacks have an average IQ a standard
deviation below the average for whites is not in itself racist.
Jumping from that observation of group differences to denying an
individual black person a job because you think it means all black
people are stupid would be racist.

Let’s pick neurosurgery as an example. Here is a profession where
IQ matters in an obvious and powerful way. If you’re screening people
for a job as a neurosurgeon, it would nevertheless be wrong to use the
standard-deviation difference in average IQ as a reason to exclude an
individual black candidate, or black candidates as a class. This
would not be justified by the facts; it would be stupid and
immoral. Excluding the black neurosurgeon-candidate who is
sufficiently bright would be a disservice to a society that needs all
the brains and talent it can get in jobs like that, regardless of skin
color.

On the other hand, anyone who expects the racial composition of the
entire population of neurosurgeons to be ‘balanced’ in
terms of the population at large is living in a delusion. The most
efficient and fair outcome would be for that population to be balanced
in terms of the distribution of IQ — at each level of IQ the
racial mix mirrors the frequency of that IQ
level
within different groups. Since that minimum IQ for
competency in neurosurgery is closer to the population means for
whites and asians than the mean for blacks, we can expect the
fair-outcome population of neurosurgeons to be predominantly white and
asian.

If you try to social-engineer a different outcome, you’ll simply
create a cohort of black neurosurgeons who aren’t really bright enough
for their jobs. This, too, would be a disservice to society (not to
mention the individual patients they might harm, and the competent
black neurosurgeons that would be discredited by association). It’s
an error far more serious than trying to social-engineer too many
black wrestlers or swimmers into existence. And yet, in pursuit of a
so-called equality, we make this sort of error over and over again,
injuring all involved and creating resentments for racists to feed
on.

Dec 21

Comment policy

I removed a comment from my blog today. This is only the second time
I have done so, and the first was just cleaning up an accidental double
post.

To whoever left the original comment #6 on Lessons of
Libya:
I won’t suppress a coment for being mindless, formulaic
ranting. Nor will I suppress a comment for being anonymous. But
the combination of both those traits is a crash landing.

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled bloggage…

Dec 21

Lessons of Libya

Muammar Qaddaffi, Libya’s dictator and long-time terrorist
sugar-daddy, has agreed to dismantle his WMD programs and allow
international inspections. The NYT’s December 20th article Lessons
of Libya
, covering this development, is unintentionally
hilarious.

An honest account would probably have read something like this:

When Qaddafi saw the Hussein capture pictures they must have scared
him silly. Realizing that the U.S. is no longer in the mood to take
shit from tin-pot tyrants in khaffiyehs, and that the U.S. military
could blow its way into Tripoli and give him a free dental exam in
less time than it would take for an utterly impotent U.N. to pass the
resolution condemning American action, he crawled to the Brits
whimpering “Don’t let your big brother hurt me,
pleeeassseee…

Instead, we’re treated to a bunch of waffle: “To an extent
that cannot be precisely measured” and “yesterday’s
announcement also demonstrates the value of diplomacy and United
Nations sanctions”. I suspect the NYT will deny as long as it
can the real lesson of Libya, which is the same as the lessons of Iraq
and Afghanistan and, for that matter, Yugoslavia. And that is this:
the disarmament of rogue states has never once been accomplished by
the U.N. or by diplomacy or ‘international opinion’, but
is now being driven simply and solely by the fear of American military
power and the will to use it.

We are in what Karl Marx would have called a world-historical
moment — the first time that American hyperpuissance has
defanged a dictator without actual war. All the rules will
be different from now on, and Qaddafi (wily survivor that he is) has
figured them out well ahead of the Western chattering classes. The
most important rule is this: do not make the U.S. fear what
you might become, or it will break you.

Indeed, it seems very likely to me that future historians will date
the beginning of the 21st-century Pax Americana from Qaddafi’s
crawfishing. The U.S. is not merely maintaining its lead in economic
vigor and military heft over any conceivable opposing coalition, that
lead is actually increasing. Demographic trends (notably the fact that
Europeans and Japanese are not breeding at replacement levels) suggest
that U.S.’s relative power, in both ‘hard’ and
‘soft’ terms, will continue to increase through at least
2050.

The most visible indicator of this change, aside from the collapse
of awful governments in any number of Third-World pestholes, will be
the marginalization of the U.N. That organization, which has never
had hard power, will now lose its soft power as well. It might have
been different — but France and the other nations who aimed to
set the U.N. up as a geopolitical counterforce to the U.S. overplayed
their hand in the run-up to the liberation of Iraq. For that effort,
the capture of Saddam and Qaddafi’s surrender in the face of an
American-led New World Order are fatal blows. The U.N. may survive as
an umbrella for international aid agencies and a few technical
standards groups, but in the future it will constrain American
behavior less, not more.

The ripple effects on Middle Eastern, European, and U.S. domestic
politics will be significant. Even Arab News is
beginning to come around to the realization that the U.S. did the Arab
world a favor by deposing Saddam Hussein, and his capture
significantly betters the odds that the reconstruction of Iraq will
succeed. Since U.S. power has actually accomplished the peaceful
disarmament of a rogue state, making political hay in Europe from a
case against U.S. unilateralism is going to become steadily more
difficult. And in the U.S., the antiwar opposition is increasingly
marginal and demoralized as the war goes well and George Bush’s
re-election now looks like a near certainty.

To borrow Churchill’s phrase, this is not the end of the War on Terror.
But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Dec 18

Sex and Tolkien

Yes, I went to my local instantiation of the all-three-LOTR-movies
marathon on Tuesday, and enjoyed it immensely. The movies were a
delight; Peter Jackson’s Return Of The King fully lived up
to the promise of The Fellowship of the Ring and The
Two Towers
. Despite minor flaws and some questionable omissions,
Tolkien fans have reason to be vastly grateful both for Jackson’s vision
and the fact that Hollywood actually allowed him to make these movies
as good as they are.

The marathon was also quite a geekfest. The theater was
wall-to-wall with SF and fantasy fans, SCAdians, computer hackers,
and the like. A very intelligent, cerebral, imaginative crowd. My
kind of people, talking and meeting and mixing with each other
a great deal more than your typical movie crowd does. The fact
that many people showed up hours early to get good seats, and the
two half-hour intermissions, helped a lot.

In a refutation of stereotypes, many of those attending were
female. And attractive. And often dressed to display it in Arwen or
Eowyn outfits. Had I been actually trying, I believe I would have
taken home at least three phone numbers, which is a significant datum
even given that I’m a lot more self-confident about the flirting thing
than most geek guys.

Part of me was in anthropologist mode, contemplating the mating
behaviors on display, even as I was chatting with the pretty redheaded
theater student from State College, the massage therapist in the seat
next to me, the blonde in the concession-stand line, and the buxom
big-eyed wench in the Ramones T-shirt who told me all about re-reading
the Rings every year since she was eleven, and I’ll be damned
if she didn’t mean that as at least a bit of a come-on. I wondered
what Tolkien, Edwardian prude that he was, would have said of the
human tendency to turn the appreciation of his works into a sort of
pickup scene for the high-IQ crowd. That led me to consider ribald
parodies like the hilarious Very Secret Diaries,
which at least two of the women I chatted with obviously knew quite
well and I’d bet money the other two did too.

I was also thinking, during the movies, about Liv Tyler. Long-time
readers will be aware that I have warm and lusty feelings about our
Liv. OK, so I will cheerfully concede that Miranda Otto is a dish and
well into wouldn’t-kick-her-out-of-bed territory, but her Eowyn
doesn’t nail the releaser circuitry in my hindbrain quite the way
Tyler’s Arwen does. During the first movie I found watching Arwen’s
lips as she spoke Elvish quite an erotic experience. (And it’s not
just me. My sister Lisa reported, after I mentioned this, having been
startled to discover the same reaction in herself. This is amusing
because I have never had any reason to doubt her report that she’s
normally as straight as a laser-beam.) Arwen isn’t any less sexy
in the third movie.

So I was well-primed to read the essay Warm Beds Are
Good
this morning. This is an extended and thorough consideration
of sex and sexuality in Tolkien’s works. Towards the end, the author
makes the telling point that eroticizing various elements in Tolkien’s
mythos is one of the ways in which modern readers adapt it to their
own fantasy needs. This makes sense; giving a luscious version of
Arwen screen time and playing up her thing with Aragorn is not just a
crude sell-it-with-sex maneuver, it’s a way to make the mythos
fundamentally more intelligible to a viewer in 2003 than the rather
dessicated and repressed account of The romance of Aragorn and
Arwen
in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings would
have been.

Warm Beds Are Good fails to grapple with the most
interesting question of all, however, which is how Arwen and Aragorn
could possibly have developed the hots for each other in the first
place. It turns out to be rather hard to come up with any theory of
Elvish reproductive biology under which Arwen’s behavior makes
any sense at all.

Aragorn’s end isn’t that much of a mystery. He’s an alpha male of
a warrior culture, chock full o’ testosterone and other dominance
hormones guaranteed to make him into a serious horn-dog. She’s a
beautiful princess, broadcasting human-compatible health-and-fertility
signals in all directions. If she doesn’t actively smell bad, tab A
fits slot B just fine from the point of view of his
mating instincts.

No, the fundamental problem is Arwen’s lifespan. She is supposedly
something like two thousand, seven hundred years old when she meets
Aragorn. That’s an awful lot of Saturday nights at the Last Homely
Disco West of the Mountains; if she has a sex drive anything like a
normal human female’s, she ought to have more mileage on her than a
Liberian tramp steamer. On the other hand, if her sexual wiring is
fundamentally different from a human female’s, what’n’thehell
is she doing with Aragorn? He shouldn’t look or smell or behave right
to trigger her releasers, any more than a talking chimpanzee would to
most human women.

“B-b-but…” I hear you splutter “This is
fantasy!”, to which I say foo! Tolkien was very
careful about logical consistency in areas where he was equipped by
temperament and training to appreciate it; he invented a cosmology,
thousand of years of history, multiple languages; he drew maps. He
lectured on the importance of a having convincing and consistent
secondary world in fantasy. Furthermore, Tolkien never completely
repudiated the intention that his fiction was a mythic description of
the lost past of our Earth, and that therefore matter, energy
and life should be consistent with the forms in which we know
them.

Therefore, it is entirely appropriate to analyze Middle-Earth as
though it were a science-fictional creation, to assume Elves and Men
both got DNA, and to ask if the freakin’ biology makes any sense at
all under this assumption.

And one of the facts we have to deal with is that humans and elves
are not just interfertile, they produce fertile offspring. That means
they have to be genetically very, very similar. If there
are dramatic differences between elf and human reproductive behavior,
the instinctive basis for them must be coded in a relatively small
set of genes that somehow don’t interfere with that interfertility.
In fact, technically, Elves and Men have to be subspecies of the
same stock.

When this came up on my favorite mailing list just after the first
movie came out, my hypothesis was that elves (a) have only rare
periods of vulnerability to sexual impulses, and (b) imprint on each
other for life when they mate, like swans. This pattern is actually
within the envelope of human variation, though uncommon — which
makes it a plausible candidate for being dominant in another hominid
subspecies.

This ‘swan theory’ would be consistent with Appendix A,
which (a) has Arwen meeting Aragorn when he was garbed like an elven
prince and (as near as we can tell through Tolkien’s rather clotted
chansons-de-geste style) falling for him hard right then and there,
and (b) has Arwen’s family apparently operating under the assumption
that once that had happened, the damage was done and she wouldn’t be
mating with anyone else, noway, nohow.

One of the techies on the list shot the swan theory down by finding a
canonical instance of an Elf remarrying (Finwe, father of Feanor;
first wife Miriel, second Indis). In subsequent discussion, we
concluded that it wasn’t possible to frame a consistent theory that
fit Tolkien’s facts. The sticking-point turned out to be the
half-elven; Tolkien tells us that they get to choose whether
they will have the nature of Men or Elves, and it is implied that they
do so at puberty.

Since that’s true, the difference between Men and Elves can’t
properly be genetic at all. It must be in the cloudy realm of spirit,
magic, and divine interventions. This is not an area in which Tolkien
(a devout Catholic) gives us any rules or regularities at all. Elvish
sexual behavior could be arbitrarily variant from human without any
reasons other than that Eru keeps exerting his will to make it so,
and He very well might be intervening to keep elf-maidens’ hormones
from getting them jiggy Until It’s Time.

Helluva way to run a universe, say I. Inelegant. A really
craftsmanlike god would build his cosmos so it wouldn’t require
constant divine intervention to function. It’s a serious weakness in
Tolkien’s ficton, one that runs far deeper than anachronisms like
domestic cats (which didn’t reach northern Europe until late Roman
times) and tea (to Europe in 1610) in the Shire.

Meanwhile, back in this universe, I’m kind of wishing I’d asked the
buxom big-eyed wench in the Ramones T-shirt for her phone number. Too
many alpha-male horn-dog hormones, that’s me. Tolkien wouldn’t have
understood a sexual culture in which that was even conceivable
behavior for a happily married man. much less one in which the wench
and wife would have then been more likely to become friends than not;
his only category for it would have been debauchery. But I think his
fantasy continues to work partly because it’s so repressed.

Sexual love (and all the mutability of human custom that goes with
it) is essentially a side issue in Tolkien’s work, primarily a symbol
of reward for valor (Faramir and Eowyn; Sam and Rosie; Aragorn and
Arwen, for that matter). His Edwardian restraint produces a nearly
blank ground on which Peter Jackson can project Liv Tyler and readers
can project all their own sexual dramas and hopes, from the romance of
Aragorn and Arwen to the rather weird ones like Gimli/Legolas slash
fiction. Certainly that’s what the women in Arwen and Eowyn costumes
were doing.

And for a good laugh, there’s always the Very Secret
Diaries
. Rather than launch into a postmodernist-sounding rant
about irony and appropriation, I’ll just finish by observing that all
of these things modulate each other; that not only do we project our
sex onto Tolkien’s sex, we read Tolkien’s sex differently after
the Very Secret Diaries, or after seeing Liv Tyler
speak Elvish, than we did before. That much, Tolkien would
have had no trouble understanding.

Dec 16

Giving Up The Gun

In response to my post on The Last Samurai, one reader
asked a question I should have expected: didn’t the Tokugawa Shogunate
successfully suppress firearms in Japan?

No. Actually, they didn’t. Many American believe they did because
they’ve vaguely heard the argument of Noel Perrin’s book Giving
Up The Gun
, explaining that the Tokugawa Shogunate successfully
suppressed firearms in Japan, partly by promoting the cult of the
sword.

But the book was wrong. Arthur Tiedemann, an eminent historian of
Japan, once explained this to me personally. It seems that if you
study the actual weapons inventories of daimyo houses, it turns out
they maintained firearms and firearms-wielding troops from the
Battle of Sekigahara clear through to the Meiji Restoration.

This was especially true of the so-called ‘outside
lords’, the descendants of the survivors of the losing side at
Sekigahara. Their domains were far from the capitol at Edo and the
shogunate’s control over them was often little more than nominal.

But to significant degree it was true everywhere. The shogunate
banned firearms, the daimyos pretended to obey the ban, and the
shogunate pretended to believe them. A very Japanese, face-saving
compromise.

Perrin, alas, was taken in, perhaps because he wanted to be.
Hoplophobes have been citing his book with approval ever since. But
while it doesn’t seem to have been a deliberate fraud like Michael
Bellesisles’s Arming America, it’s just as false to
fact.

Dec 15

The Last Samurai

Hollywood has given us a run of surprisingly good movies recently.
By ‘surprisingly good‘ I mean that they’re rather better
than one might expect from their genre. Loony Toons: Back In
Action
, for example, could have been a mere merchandising
vehicle, a repetition of clichés and tired sight gags. Instead
it was a wickedly funny combination of Animaniac edginess with classic
Warner Brothers wackiness. It has a few moments of true brilliance
— the sequence in which Elmer Fudd chases Bugs and Daffy through
Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” (think of melting clocks)
is jaw-droppingly wonderful, sublime art.

Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World was
also a surprising treat. I’ve read all 20 of the Aubrey/Maturin
novels. The movie doesn’t capture their texture and depth —
that would be impossible, they are deeply literary works — but
as an adventure movie that refers to the books without insulting the
reader’s intelligence it works quite well.

The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter
movies are so good that hard-core fans of their respective books are
still pinching themselves, wondering when they’re going to wake up to
the discovery that they’re actually watching the usual dumbed-down
Hollywood crap. (I say this as a Tolkien fan so hard-core that I was
able to catch nuances of the spoken Elvish that weren’t in the
subtitles.)

Of course there have been dreadful turkeys where we expected
better, as well. The third Matrix movie and Star
Wars: Attack of the Clones
leap to mind. But dreadful turkeys
are part of the normal scene; what’s abnormal is that New
Line gave Peter Jackson the money and freedom to make
Rings movies that, while rushed and not without the
occasional compromise, are almost achingly good.

Think about it. When was the last time you saw a movie that (a) was
a book adaptation faithful enough for the fans to cheer it, (b) got
great reviews from movie critics, and (c) was boffo box office? Just
counting the Rings and Potter movies and Master & Commander,
we’ve now had five of these in relatively quick succession. Something
is going on here. Can it be that Hollywood is having an attack of
intelligence and taste?

(My wife Cathy suggests Saving Private Ryan as a
precursor of the trend.)

The movie that pushed me to think about this as a pattern, rather
than a series of isolated incidents, is The Last Samurai.
I’d been wanting to see this one since the first trailers six months
ago, but was braced for a disappointment on the scale of Pearl
Harbor
. Hollywood’s record on wide-screen historicals is
dreadful; they tend to be laughably ahistorical — either
mindless spectacles or video sermonettes for whatever form of
political correctness was in vogue the week they were made. Remarkably,
The Last Samurai almost completely avoids these flaws.

I said “almost completely”. The movie is not without
flaws. But even the flaws are interesting. They illustrate the ways
in which Hollywood’s metric for a good (or at least successful) movie
is changing.

Let’s start with the bad stuff. First, way too much camera time
that could have been better employed gets spent on emotive closeups of
the lead’s phiz (a misfeature The Last Samurai shares with the first two Ring
movies and I am thus beginning to think of as ‘the Frodo
flaw’). But this is Hollywood and it’s Tom Cruise and one
supposes such excess is inevitable.

Secondly, the movie is seriously anti-historical in one respect; we
are supposed to believe that traditionalist Samurai would disdain the
use of firearms. In fact, traditional samurai loved firearms
and found them a natural extension of their traditional role as horse
archers. Samurai invented rolling volley fire three decades before
Gustavus Adolphus, and improved the musket designs they imported from
the Portuguese so effectively that for most of the 1600s they were
actually making better guns than European armorers could produce.

But, of course, today’s Hollywood left thinks firearms are
intrinsically eeeevil (especially firearms in the hands of anyone
other than police and soldiers) so the virtuous rebel samurai had
to eschew them. Besides being politically correct, this choice
thickened the atmosphere of romantic doom around our heroes.

Another minor clanger in the depiction of samurai fighting: We are
given scenes of samurai training to fight empty-hand and unarmored
using modern martial-arts moves. In fact, in 1877 it is about a
generation too early for this. Unarmed combat did not become a
separate discipline with its own forms and schools until the very end
of the nineteenth century. And when it did, it was based not on
samurai disciplines but on peasant fighting methods from Okinawa and
elsewhere that were used against samurai (this is why most
exotic martial-arts weapons are actually agricultural tools).

In 1877, most samurai still would have thought unarmed-combat
training a distraction from learning how to use the swords, muskets
and bows that were their primary weapons systems. Only after the
swords they preferred for close combat were finally banned did this
attitude really change. But, hey, most moviegoers are unaware of
these subtleties, so there had to be some chop-socky in the script to
meet their expectations.

One other rewriting of martial history: we see samurai
ceremoniously stabbing fallen opponents to death with a two-hand
sword-thrust. In fact, this is not how it was done; real
samurai delvered the coup de grace by decapitating their
opponents, and then taking the head as a trophy.

No joke. Head-taking was such an important practice that there was
a special term in Japanese for the art of properly dressing the hair on
a severed head so that the little paper tag showing the deceased’s name
and rank would be displayed to best advantage.

While the filmmakers were willing to show samurai killing the
wounded, in other important respects they softened and Westernized the
behavior of these people somewhat. Algren learned, correctly, that
‘samurai’ derives from a verb meaning “to
serve”, but we are misled when the rebel leader speaks of
“protecting the people”. In fact, noblesse oblige was not
part of the Japanese worldview; samurai served not ‘the
people’ but a particular daimyo, and the daimyo served the
Emperor in theory and nobody but themselves in normal practice.

Now for some of the good stuff. It begins with an amazingly strong
performance by Ken Watanabe as the rebel daimyo Katsumoto. From the
first moment that you see him, you believe him; there are no moments
of hey-I’m-Tom-Cruise to mar his immersion in the character, for
which excellent reason he actually upstages Cruise at several key points.

Through Katsumoto and the other Japanese characters, we are made to
see the intertwined quests for perfection of both technique and self
that was so central to the samurai warrior-mystic. Indeed, there are
points at which the filmmakers have some subtle fun with the fact that
Americans of our day, having successfully naturalized Japanese martial
arts into our own culture, have learned to understand that path rather
better than Cruise’s Captain Algren does. I’m thinking especially of
the point at which a bystander watching Algren lose at sword practice
tells him he has “too many minds”. The viewer probably knows what
he is driving at even if Algren does not.

Better: the movie is properly respectful of Japanese virtues
without crossing the line into supine multiculturalism. Captain
Algren appreciates and accepts the best of an alien culture
without renouncing his identity as a Westerner, an officer,
and a gentleman. There is a telling scene after Algren has been
accepted into the life of his Japanese hosts in which he takes a heavy
load from Taka (the female lead), who protests that Japanese men never
help with such things.

Algren replies that he is not a Japanese man. In this and other
ways he refutes an already-standard knock on the movie, which is to
refer to it as “Dances with Samurai”. But this movie,
despite the flaws I’ve pointed out, is more honest and far less
sentimental about the samurai than Dances With Wolves was
about its Sioux. This is progress of a sort.

Algren’s romance with Taka is also handled with a degree of
restraint that is appropriate but surprising. We get no sexual
cheap thrills; instead, we get subtle but extremely powerful
eroticism, notably in the scene where Taka dresses Algren in her
dead husband’s armor just before the final battle.

The film is visually quite beautiful. The details of costume,
weapons, armor, and the simple artifacts of Japanese village life are
meticulously and correctly rendered. In fact there are a number of
points at which the setting is stronger than the script and carries
one through places where the plotting is a bit implausible.

This contrast is an illustration of the uneven way in which
standards have risen. The Last Samurai, the Rings
movies, Master & Commander, and the Harry Potter movies
all have vastly better production values than (I think) they would
have had even ten years ago — perhaps the huge advances in
special-effects technology have created a sort of upward pressure on
the quality of movies’ depictions of reality. On the other hand,
downright silly plot twists are still acceptable and the conventions
of the star-vehicle film remain firmly in place.

One gets ahistorical howlers and (in fiction) violations of the
spirit of the original work, but fewer than formerly. In all these
movies, you can see where they were trimmed to fit Hollywood’s
marketing needs, but the trimming is done with a lot more sensitivity
and taste than it used to be. Occasionally one even sees outright
improvements — the moment in Peter Jackson’s version of
Boromir’s death scene in which the fallen Gondorian hails Aragorn as
his king, for example, achieves more power and poignancy than
Tolkien’s original.

I like this trend a lot, but I’m not sure I understand it. The
Hollywood establishment is in business to make money, but the link
between market demand and the quality of films has always been
tenuous at best. It would be nice to think that film audiences
have required filmmakers to exhibit better taste by developing
better taste themselves, but in the face of all the awful schlock
that still gets churned out and makes money, this is a difficult
case to sustain in general.

It feels to me more as though some balance of power within the
system has shifted and, for whatever reason, creative artists
have gained power at the expense of the marketeers. Thus, for
example, Rowling had more than somewhat to do with the casting
of the Harry Potter movies, and Peter Jackson’s films display
a nearly obsessive concern with getting the look of Middle-Earth
right that could hardly be shared by a typical studio exec.

Whatever the reason, I’m glad of the trend. I spend a lot more
time in movie theaters than I use to — and that’s the
message Hollywood wants to hear.

Dec 09

Ejected in Geneva

The organizers of the Internet Summit in Geneva have had Dr. Paul
Twomey, the president of ICANN (the organization that’s chartered to
administer the international domain-name system), ejected by security
guards after he’d flown twenty hours to participate in the
meeting.

I was not especially surprised. The organizers of the Geneva
summit seem to be very much the same scum of the planet that one
normally finds running these U.N. events — third-string
diplomatic timeservers, addle-brained NGO moonbats, a scattering of
celebrity Eurotrash, and a legion of gray apparatchiks from
authoritarian Third World pestholes. It didn’t astonish me that
they’d use force to keep out anyone who might interfere with their
plans for a government-friendly, politically-correct, censored, and
very thoroughly controlled Internet.

No, the really surprising part is that I found myself sympathizing
with Dr. Twomey. ICANN’s performance, while not the unmitigated
disaster many of its critics like to portray, has not been glorious.
Way too many deals have been done in back rooms and the organization has
been far too kind to expansive trademark claims and other sorts of
corporate land-grab.

Perhaps the one salutary effect of the Geneva summit is to remind us
that things could easily be worse — and almost certainly will be, if
the U.N. gets control.

Dec 08

Cthulhu and Christ

This parody below comes to us from an artist named Howard Hallis, to whom all credit is due. I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing it here because the design of his website leads me to suspect that this cartoon might be replaced by something else the next time he has a fit of artistic inspiration.

This is a brilliant piece of art. While it helps to have a prior acquaintance with the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ that H.P. Lovecraft developed in now-classic horror stories of the 1920s and ’30s, Hallis does a vivid and effective job of conveying the central themes and feel of the Mythos. But the truly subversive genius of this cartoon lies elsewhere…about which more after you have read it.

This is, of course, a parody of a fundamentalist Christian evangelical tract. More specifically, it is a remarkably accurate take on the style of Jack T. Chick, a pamphleteer who has occupied the scungy basement of Christian evangelism since the 1960s. Both the talking heads are recognizable, stock Chick characters — the sinful, scornful unbeliever and the saintly white-haired minister.

Some cultural-studies type ought to do a book on the way that the Cthulhu mythos has oozed forth from its pulp origins to become Western pop culture’s generic Nightmare From Beyond. This parody could have been written thirty years ago — Chick goes back that far and has been remarkably, er, consistent in his output — but thirty years ago only a handful of SF and fantasy fans would have recognized Cthulhu. Nowadays ol’ squid-face is all over the place; there are, ironically, plush toys.

I put it down to fantasy-role-playing games, which have reached a far larger audience than print SF or fantasy. Gamers have borrowed the Cthulhu mythos so frequently that it’s a cliché — but one which, thanks to the eerie power of Lovecraft’s imagery, never completely loses its power to send a chill down the spine. Even the mere names — the Necronomicon, Yog-Sothoth, the corpse-eaters of Leng, the Hounds of Tindalos, and of course dread Cthulhu himself — is to feel a vast and threatening darkness.

Hallis’s parody draws on a much more specific tradition. The idea of the Campus Crusade for Cthulhu as a parody of the Campus Crusade for Christ was already live when I was in college in the 1970s. But Hallis makes their point more compactly and effectively, and therein lies the real touch of genius in this piece.

Jack T. Chick’s pamphlets speak plainly the most fundamental message of Christian evangelism: believe or be damned. It’s all about fear, the induced fear that if you don’t get straight with God you will burn in Hell. Not for Chick the sugar-coating of talk about love or morality or becoming a better person. Writing for the lowest common denominator, he zeroes in on terror.

But so pervaded is our culture with Christian ideas and imagery that it is difficult to see how nasty and inhumane Chick and his ilk really are; even those of us who are not Christians tend to respond to the fear-mongering with a kind of numbness, reacting to Chick’s ugly, drab oeuvre mainly as an offense against good taste (or a form of unintentional found humor). For the more intelligent sort of Christian, Chick is embarrassing — like a slovenly relative you can’t quite kick out of your house because, after all, he is family.

What is really incisive about Hallis’s parody is his demonstration that very little about the Christian world-view or rhetoric has to change to make it indistinguishable from Lovecraft’s nightmare. Ah, the rapture of being taken up by the Elder Gods! Worship and sacrifice are good things. Trust the preacher, he will make you fear and show you the way.

It used to be popular among a certain sort of leftist to claim that the collectivist and apocalyptic ideas in socialism made it a proper political analog of Christianity. They were arguably correct in this; where they went wrong was in considering the connection flattering to socialism rather than damning of Christianity. Hallis’s parody is a starker demonstration; the fact that both the fictional cult of Cthulhu and the all-too-real religion of Christianity both depend so fundamentally on the terror of the Gods is not grounds for exonerating the former, but rather for condemning the latter.

Dec 06

Da Big Snow

Yup, the blizzard is big. Here in eastern Pennsylvania we’ve had over a foot of snow and
a lot of drifting today. I shoveled my driveway. I’m going to be stiff tomorrow.

Dec 05

Salaries are dropping. Time to celebrate!

So, the latest trend to hit the business magazines is falling programmer salaries. I can’t lay hands on the article just now, but it seems some CEO under pressure to outsource his programming to India had the bright idea of offering lower salaries (competitive with Indian levels, not U.S. levels) to programmers in the U.S. He got 90 applicants, even though the offer was for about half of what used to be considered normal for the positions.

A pointer to this article was posted to my favorite mailing list by a friend who is depressed about programmer salaries dropping, He wasn’t un-depressed by the revelation, at the end of the article, that said CEO ended up jacking some of his salaries back up to “normal” levels to keep his best people.

There are a bunch of ways I could respond to this. One is by arguing that outsourcing programming work is a fad that will largely reverse itself once the true, hidden costs start to become apparent. Even if that weren’t so, the Indian advantage would be temporary at best; as the Indian programmer’s value rises, so will the price he charges. I believe these things are true. But in keeping with tradition here at Armed and Dangerous, I’m going to skip the easy, soft arguments and cut straight to the most important and contentious one of all — falling salaries are good for you.

If you’re a programmer upset by falling programmer salaries, I hope you’re prepared to be equally gloomy about the continuing fall in real-dollar prices of all the other labor-intensive goods you buy. Because trust me, they get cheaper the exact same way — and somewhere out there, there are people who are pissed off and depressed because the market wouldn’t support their old salaries.

But each time this happens, more people gain than lose. The money programmers aren’t making is, ultimately, money some other consumer gets to keep and use for something else, because the price of the bundled goods programmmers were helping produce have dropped. The corporate cost-cutters only get to profit from this as a transient thing, until the next round of price wars. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The free market is a wonderful thing. I was going to call it the most marvellous instrument ever devised for making people wealthy and free, but that would be wrong — the free market isn’t a ‘device’ any more than love or gravity or sunshine are devices, it’s what you have naturally when nobody is using force to fuck things up.

Sometimes, when you and your friends are on the bad end of one of its efficiency-seeking changes, it’s hard to remember that the market is a wonderful thing for almost everybody almost all the time. But it’s worth remembering, just as it’s worth remembering that free speech is a wonderful thing even when it’s the Nazis or Communists exercising it.

Why is this? Because the alternatives to free speech, even when the people pushing them mean well, always turn into petty tyrannies now and become grand tyrannies in the course of time. The alternatives to markets decay into tyranny a lot faster.