Oct 05

The Terror War Comes Home

For the first time in my life, I find that I am seriously considering
voting Republican in a presidential election. What has pushed me to it
is this report of shots being fired into a Bush-Cheney campaign HQ in Knoxville. TN.

It’s not the first shot fired at the Republicans. And it comes on top of a frenzy of anti-Republican hate speech that has been building even as Democrats have watched their electoral prospects sinking into a Vietnam-flavored quagmire brought on himself by the most incompetent and feckless candidate either party has fielded in thirty years.

We’ve seen three-year-old girls reduced to tears by Democratic thugs. We’ve seen swastikas burned into the front yards of those who dared to announce themselves Republicans. And all this from a Democratic left that poses as the champion of dissent.

This caps it. If Kerry is elected, the terrorists will have won.

UPDATE: As I was writing, Democratic protesters stormed and
ransacked
Bush/Cheney headquarters in Orlando. Some now face
assault charges.

UPDATE II: More
thuggishness
in West Allis, Wisconsin.

And these are the people who liken Bush to Hitler…

Sep 24

Deadly Genius and the Back-To-Zero Problem

There are entire genres of art that have self-destructed in the last
hundred years — become drained of vitality, driven their audiences
away to the point where they become nothing more than museum exhibits
or hobby-horses for snobs and antiquarians.

The three most obvious examples are painting, the literary novel
and classical music. After about 1910 all three of these art forms
determinedly severed the connections with popular culture that had
made them relevant over the previous 250 years. Their departure left
vacuums to be filled; we got modern genre literature, rock music, and
art photography.

Other art forms underwent near-death experiences and survived only
in severely compromised forms. Jazz, running away from its roots in
honky tonks and dance halls, all but strangled on its own
sophistication between 1960 and 1980; it survives today primarily as
smoothed-out elevator music. Sculpture, having spent a century losing
itself in increasingly meaningless abstraction, is only now feeling
its way back towards a figurative vocabulary; the most interesting
action there is not yet in the revival of mimetic forms but in artists
who speak the vocabulary of mathematics and machine technology.

What makes an art-form self-destruct like this? Many things can
contribute — hankerings for bourgeois respectibility, corruption
by politics, clumsy response to a competing genre. But the one we
see over and over again is deadly genius.

A deadly genius is a talent so impressive that he can break and
remake all the rules of the form, and seduce others into trying to
emulate his disruptive brilliance — even when those followers
lack the raw ability or grounding to make art in the new idiom the the
genius has defined.

Arnold Schoenberg (classical music). James Joyce (literary
novels). John Coltrane (jazz). Pablo Picasso (painting). Konstantin
Brancusi (sculpture). These men had the knack of inventing radical
new forms that made the preexisting conventions of their arts seem
stale and outworn. They produced works of brilliance, taught their
followers to value disruptive brillance over tradition, and in doing so
all but destroyed their arts.

Artistic tradition can be limiting sometimes, but it has one thing
going for it — it is the result of selection for pleasing an audience.
Thus, artists of moderate talent can imitate it and produce something that
the eye, ear, heart and mind will experience with pleasure. Most artists
are at best of moderate talent; thus, this kind of imitation is how
art forms survive and keep an audience.

On the other hand…imitation Schoenberg or Coltrane is
unlistenably bad. Imitation Joyce is unreadable. Imitation Picasso
looks like a toddler’s daubings and imitation Brancusi is ugly junk.
Worse still is when mediocre artists strain themselves to be the next
disruptive genius. And perhaps worst of all is what happens when bad
artists turn disruption into cliche.

Art forms self-destruct when enough of their establishment follows
a deadly genius off a cliff. And we had a bad streak of this sort of
thing just about a century ago; three of the four deadly geniuses I’ve
named above flourished at that time. Why then?

Tom Wolfe argued in From Bauhaus to Our House that the
breakdown of the traditional patronage system in the late 19th century
had a lot to do with the degenerative changes in modern art. Wolfe never
identified deadly genius as a core problem. but his argument readily
extends to an explanation of why deadly genius become so much deadlier
at that time.

Wealthy aristocratic patrons, had, in general, little use for
disruptive brilliance — what they wanted from artists was
impressive display objects, status symbols that had to be
comprehensible to the patron’s peers. Thus, artists learned to
stay more or less within traditional forms or starve. Evolution
happened, but it was relatively gradual and unsconscious. Geniuses
were not permitted to become deadly.

After 1900 all this changed. Wolfe elucidates some of the complex
reasons that artists found themselves with more freedom and less
security than ever before. In an increasingly bourgeois climate, the
cry went up that artistic creation must become autonomous, heeding its
own internal imperatives as much as (or more than) the demands of any
audience. The breakneck pace of technological change helped reinforce a
sense that possibilities were limitless and all rules could be
discarded.

In the new environment, artistic tradition lost much of its normative
force. “Back to zero!” was the slogan; forget everything so you can invent
anything. And when the next wave of deadly geniuses hit, there was nothing
to moderate them any more.

It is unlikely that anything quite like the Modernist disruption will
ever happen again, if only because we’ve been there and done that now. But
as we try to heal all the fractures it produced, this one lesson is worth
bearing in mind. Genius can be deadly when it goes where mere talent
cannot follow.

Sep 21

The Art of Science

One of my earliest blog essays (Terror Becomes Bad
Art
) was about Luke Helder, the pipe-bombing “artist” who created
a brief scare back in 2002. Arguably more disturbing than Helder’s
“art” was the fact that he genuinely thought it was art, because none
of the supposed artists or arts educators he was in contact with had
ever taught him any better and his own talent was not sufficient to
carry him beyond their limits.

I am not the first to observe that something deeply sick and
dysfunctional happened to the relationship between art, popular
culture, and technology during the crazy century we’ve just exited.
Tom Wolfe made the point in The Painted Word
and expanded on it in From Bauhaus To Our House. Frederick Turner
expanded the indictment in a Wilson Quarterly essay on
neoclassicism which, alas, seems not to be available on line.

If we judge by what the critical establishment promotes as “great
art”, most of today’s artists are bad jokes. The road from Andy
Warhol’s soup cans to Damien Hirst’s cows in formaldehyde has been
neither pretty nor edifying. Most of “fine art” has become a moral,
intellectual, and esthetic wasteland in which whatever was originally
healthy in the early-modern impulse to break the boundaries of
received forms has degraded into a kind of numbed-out nihilism.

There are exceptions, though — artists who engage the world, who
are deeply involved with ideas, and who playfully incorporate all the
possibilities of our technological age into their work. When I was a
guest of honor at Arisia 2004 I had the good fortune to meet one of
these; Arthur Ganson, an
artist/engineer who creates beautiful and sometimes disturbing kinetic
sculptures.

One that I’ve just discovered is Bathsheba Grossman. She
visualizes and then realizes beautiful ideas from mathematics,
cosmology, and organic chemistry. Contemplate her Large Scale
Model
, an image of the galactic clusters in the three hundred
million cubic light years around Earth — an eidolon of a
substantial fraction of the observable universe laser-etched into a
three-inch-tall glass block.

It isn’t quite “to see the Universe in a grain of sand”, but nobody
with more sensitivity than a brick could fail to have dizzying and
wonderful vistas of time/space and paradoxical thoughts about scale in
the presence of this luminously beautiful work of art. All too many
artists portentiously claim that what art is supposed to do is induce
one to meditate on one’s place in the universe, then deliver pettiness
(or perhaps a toxic political screed) as the punchline.
Ms. Grossman’s Large Scale Model is the real deal, and a hard slap in
their faces.

Or contemplate Ms. Grossman’s gorgeous metal sculptures, derived
from mathematical forms by a process that combines hand-modelling with
CAD and produced with cutting-edge 3D-printing technology. It’s not
just the end results that are beautiful but the whole dialogue between
art and technology implicit in her
technique.
After reading about it, I am not surprised to learn that she sometimes
writes her own modeling software — and, having seen her art, I
would lay a healthy bet that she writes damn good software.

There’s something refreshing even about Ms. Grossman’s most narrowly
commercial work. She will laser-etch the protein structure of your
choice into glass, using the same technique as in the Large Scale
Model, for prices starting at $145. These images of cloudy, intricate
structure are visually beautiful enough as abstracts, but they derive
their true power from being about something. About
hemoglobin, the molecule in your blood that carries oxygen. Or about
the DNA polymerase crucial in cell replication, or the
neurotransmitter acetylcholinesterase. Each one is a joyful
celebration of our ability to know, to find beauty and meaning in the
complexity of the natural universe.

To see these craft objects, unashamedly made for money (that’ll be
$40 extra for molecular-surface etching, thank you), is to have your
nose rubbed in the desperate poverty of most modern art, to be
reminded of the vacuum at its core and the pathetic Luke Helders that
the vacuum spawns. It’s a poverty of meaning, a parochialism that
insists that the only interesting things in the universe are the
artist’s own psychological and political quirks.

Bathsheba Grossman’s art reminds us that exploration of the narrow
confines of an artist’s head is a poor substitute for artistic
exploration of the universe. It reminds us that what the artist owes
his audience is beauty and discovery and a sense of connection, not
alienation and ugliness and neurosis and political ax-grinding.

Forgetting this value rotted the core out of the fine arts and
literary fiction of the 20th century. We can hope, though, that
artists like her and Arthur Ganson will show the way forward to
remembering it. Only in that way will the unhealthy chasm between
popular and fine art be healed, and fine art be restored to a healthy
and organic relationship with culture as a whole.

Sep 20

What Did Dan Rather Know, And When Did He Know It?

Dan Rather’s just-released statement just begs to be fisked:

Last week, amid increasing questions about the authenticity of
documents used in support of a 60 MINUTES WEDNESDAY story about
President Bush’s time in the Texas Air National Guard, CBS News vowed
to re-examine the documents in question—and their
source—vigorously. And we promised that we would let the American
public know what this examination turned up, whatever the outcome.

Where was your skepticism about the four documents you ran with
when your own experts told you two of the original six were bogus, Dan?

Now, after extensive additional interviews, I no longer have the
confidence in these documents that would allow us to continue vouching
for them journalistically.

And why did you ever “have confidence” in those four when you withheld them
from your own experts, Dan?

I find we have been misled on the key question of how our source for
the documents came into possession of these papers.

So, you’re still not admitting that your “source” passed you crude
forgeries that anyone with the nerve to call himself an investigative
journalist should have spotted in thirty seconds flat?

That, combined with some of the questions that have been
raised in public and in the press, leads me to a point where—if I knew
then what I know now—I would not have gone ahead with the story as it
was aired, and I certainly would not have used the documents in
question.

Do you know that the memos were forged? Are you prepared to state for
the record that your source was not a Kerry partisan engaged in a fraudulent
attempt to manipulate a presidential election?

But we did use the documents. We made a mistake in judgment, and for
that I am sorry. It was an error that was made, however, in good faith
and in the spirit of trying to carry on a CBS News tradition of
investigative reporting without fear or favoritism.

Ah, the nebulous “we” — favorite weasel-word of
responsibility-evaders. Will you take responsibility for that
decision, Dan? If you won’t, whose decision was it? If you will,
where is your resignation?

Please know that nothing is more important to us than people’s trust
in our ability and our commitment to report fairly and truthfully.

Oh, we believe that all right. After all, if you don’t
have peoples’ trust, how can you manipulate them?

No admission that the documents are forgeries. No disclosure of
the source. Dan, given your history of appearing at Democratic
fund-raisers and donating to left-wing causes, can you give us any
reason at all to believe you are not shielding John Kerry’s oppo
researchers?

UPDATE: CBS claims
that disgruntled ex-Guardsman Bill Burkett was the source of the
documents, and misled CBS about them to protect the actual source.
Who is the “actual source” of this fraud against the American
electorate? Why didn’t CBS validate the documents before broadcasting
an unfounded attack on the President of the United States during a
time of war? Inquiring minds want to know!

AND MORE: This just keeps getting better! Burkett has not only
admitted that the forged memos passed through him to CBS, he says
he gave them
to Max Cleland
, John Kerry’s triple-amputee token Vietvet. Burkett
has already changed his story at least once about who his source was.

I can’t be the only person thinking Burkett has been set up as the
fall guy in order to make politically-motivated collusion between CBS
and the Kerry campaign deniable.

Sep 19

MSM Loses its Power to Swing Elections

One of the most notorious lines of the 2004 campaign season came to us
in Mid-July when Evan Thomas, the Assistant Managing Editor of
Newsweek, said: “Let’s talk a little media bias here. The media, I
think, wants Kerry to win. And I think they’re going to portray Kerry
and Edwards – I’m talking about the establishment media, not Fox –
but they’re going to portray Kerry and Edwards as being young and
dynamic and optimistic and all. There’s going to be this glow about
them is going to be worth, collectively, the two of them,
that’s going to be worth maybe 15 points.

Thomas’s admission validated the charges made in Bernard Goldberg’s
book Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the
News
, and capped waves of evidence from recent sociological
studies by the Pew Foundation, scientists at UCLA, and others that
have scrutinized the establishment that the bloggers call “MSM”
(Main-Stream Media). All the evidence shows that the MSM is extremely
left-wing compared to the U.S. population as a whole. Content analysis
has repeatedly demonstrated how this bias both distorts public
perception of specific issues and makes most Americans grossly
mis-estimate where the political center of popular opinion actually
is.

But the reaction to Thomas’s admission from Republicans and
conservatives was more weary than angry. They have been wrestling
with the reality of pro-Democrat and left-wing bias in the MSM since the
counterculture wars of the 1960s. Ironically, however, Thomas’s
public admission may have come just as the MSM’s power to reframe issues
and swing national elections was suffering a critical breakdown.

Part of what I’m talking about the Rathergate
forged-documents scandal, of course. It is not yet resolved as I
write, ten days after the original 60 Minutes II story
and a week after the evidence of crude fakery became undeniable to all
but the most blinkered Bush-haters. Dan Rather is still hanging
tough, and the editorial position of the New York Times
is still “Fake But Accurate”. But the longer the holdouts cling to
their forged evidence, the more damage they will take to their
reputations, with effects that will go beyond the current election
cycle.

Just the prompt effects of the scandal are interesting. The most
obvious one is that John Kerry now seems headed for a Dukakis-like
thrashing in the presidential elections. As I write, the
anti-Bush-leaning Electoral Vote
Predictor
website is projecting Bush at 331 electoral votes and
Kerry at 207. The site notes that this is the most lopsided spread
since it was launched.

There are many reasons besides Rathergate that Kerry is
losing so badly. He’s a pathetically weak candidate — a lousy
stump speaker with no program and a nearly nonexistent legislative
record, who ran on his Vietnam service only to have that prop knocked
out from under him by former crewmates and superiors who accuse him of
having been cowardly, opportunistic, and unfit for command. In fact,
Kerry has no discernable political base of his own at all; his entire
appeal comes from not being George W. Bush.

But Kerry’s weaknesses, glaring though they are, are not the
interesting part of the explanation. It’s the MSM’s inability to
cover them up and make them a non-story that is really
interesting. The attempt to present Kerry and Edwards as “dynamic”,
“optimistic” and “young” to which Evan Thomas admitted has mostly made
them look vacillating, frivolous and jejune instead. CBS, the New
York Times, the Boston Globe and the other centers of the MSM had also
been trying very hard to bury and discredit the Swift Vets;
nevertheless, Unfit For Command is now the #1 nonfiction
bestseller in the United States.

Nor were the MSM, despite a visible effort to do so, able to
suppress the evidence that Dan Rather’s anti-Bush memoranda had been
forged. In fact, as I write they are proving unable to defend even
the exculpatory fiction that Rather was an innocent dupe. The fact has
come out that CBS was told in advance that two of the six documents it
had were almost certainly bogus by its own examiners, and then witheld
the other four from expert scrutiny and ran with the story anyway.
The implications of that fact are being now dissected not just on
partisan right-wing websites but out where the general public can see
it.

There has been a lot of talk since the Rathergate
scandal broke that the rise of the blogosphere made all the difference
this time around. And sharp bloggers fact-checking the mainstream
media made all difference in Rathergate itself, there is no
doubt about that. But Rathergate is only part of a larger
picture that goes back through the Swift Vets at least to the Jayson
Blair scandal, and amidst the peals of blogger triumphalism I think
it’s time to pull back at this point and get a little perspective.

As an immediate reality check, the bloggers had very little to
do with the success of the Swift Vets’ book. It is indeed remarkable
that the Swift Vets were able to get their story past the big-media
gatekeepers, but nothing that the gentlemen at
InstaPundit or Power Line or Little
Green Footballs
uttered can have had much influence on that.

For a more comprehensive explanation, I think we need to look at
a couple of trends that are larger than the rise of the blogosphere
itself, and which actually drove that rise rather than being driven
by it. One of these is obvious: the plunging cost of communication.

Before the Internet and cheap long-distance phone calls, pulling
together a cooperative network large enough to produce and back
Unfit For Command, or to perform forensic analysis on the
Rather memos, would have been an extremely expensive and long-drawn-out
operation. The market for ideas had a much longer clearing time then.
In fact it is rather unlikely these sorts of organization would even
have been attempted more than a decade ago — everybody’s perception
of the time and money cost would have been prohibitive.

Other forces are in play as well. One is that people are less
willing than they used to be to derive their identities and a static
set of political affiliations from the things about themselves that
they can’t change. Your family’s politics is a far less important
predictor of your vote than it was a generation ago (which, among
other things, is why conservative talk of a “Roe effect”, of liberal
abortion supporters selecting themselves out of the population, sounds
so much like wishful thinking). Union membership stopped being
predictive sometime in Ronald Reagan’s second term. Even traditional
racial and ethnic interest blocs seem to be crumbling at the edges.

Increasingly, political power is flowing to consciously-formed
interest groups that arise to respond to individual issues and survive
(if they survive) as voluntary subcultures. The Swift Vets and
MoveOn.org are highly visible examples of the trend. Internet hackers
organizing against the DMCA and for open-source software is another.
Indeed, the blogosphere as we know it is a voluntary subculture formed
largely from the reaction to the trauma of 9/11.

To people in these subcultures, traditional party and ideological
labels are less and less interesting. Case in point: Glenn Reynolds
(aka InstaPundit), the pro-Iraq-war, pro-gay-marriage,
anti-gun-control, pro-drug-legalization king of the bloggers. Is he a
liberal Democrat with some conservative positions? A South Park
Republican? A pragmatic libertarian? Not only do Glenn’s own writings
make it difficult to tell, he seems to determined to flirt with all
these categories without committing to any of them. Other prominent
bloggers, including those who broke Rathergate, exhibit a
similar pattern. The MSM, looking through a left-wing prism, sees it
as conservatism — but most bloggers despise the Religious Right
and Buchananite paleoconservatism as heartily as they loathe Noam
Chomsky.

Finally, I think we need to look at what bloggers call the “cocoon
effect” and understand that it too is a special case of a larger
phenomenon. Even among bloggers who describe themselves as liberals
there is a widespread sense that the MSM has become a sort of cocoon
or echo chamber, in which left-liberal orthodoxy is shaped by a tiny
self-selected elite and never questioned because no alternatives are
ever permitted a serious hearing. Thus the MSM often experiences honest
shock, disorientation, and disbelief when it is forced into
contact with actual reality.

But it isn’t just bloggers who notice that cocoon. So do
blue-collar workers, firearms owners, rural residents, and indeed
anybody who lives in “red state” America. It wasn’t always like this;
before 1965 or so your average auto-worker in Birmingham and an
editorial-page writer in New York City might have disagreed on much,
but they lived in the same political universe and spoke the same
language. The Vietnam War ended that; during and after it, elites in
academia, show business, and the media embraced the preoccupations of
the New Left even as heartlanders were rejecting them.

The journalism schools went with them, and the MSM has been
drifting steadily further out of touch ever since. An index of the
drift is the the way that the degree of trust Americans have in
journalists has plummeted since 1970. Today, survey instruments find
Americans rate journalists lower in integrity and honesty then
used-car salesmen or lawyers.

It’s a commonplace among analysts of American politics that the
dispute over Vietnam has been at the bottom of our culture wars ever
since. So there is some sort of completion in the fact that the
disconnect between the MSM and the rest of America reached a critical
break while the MSM was attempting to boost on its shoulders John
Kerry — the man who cofounded Vietnam Veterans Against The War,
who met with North Vietnamese Communists while still a Naval officer,
and who described our involvement there as an extended war crime.

A long-serving governor of Louisiana once boasted that he could not
fail of reelection unless he was caught in bed with a live boy or a
dead girl. Thanks to Rathergate, George W. Bush has a lock
on the White House unless he’s at least as seriously embarrassed
during the next forty days. Kerry’s approval ratings are hovering
around 36%. It seems that the MSM cannot deliver Evan Thomas’s
15-point swing anymore — or, if it can, that the left-wing
Democrats’ base has dwindled to 20% of the population or less and the
Democratic National Committee, too long swaddled in the media cocoon,
is in far worse trouble than it understands.

Either way, the self-destruction of the MSM and the collapse of
John Kerry’s candidacy looks to me like no fluke. It is, rather, a
culmination of trends that have been building for three decades. The
trend in communications costs is not going to reverse. Therefore
media gatekeepers will continue to lose power, voluntary subcultures will
continue to gain influence, and the MSM’s ability to set agendas will
soon be one with the dust of history.

UPDATE: A reader wonders if the MSM ever had the power to swing elections. The Assistant Editor
of Newsweek thought it could deliver 15%. Popular-vote margins in Presidential elections have often
been 5% or less. What does that suggest?

Sep 19

Top Ten Reasons I’m Neither a Liberal Nor a Conservative:

I’m reposting this screed from 2002 because it’s no longer visible on the Web, and in the near future I expect to post some things that will get me accused of right-wing bias.

Top Ten Reasons I’m Not A (Left-)Liberal:

  1. Gun control. Liberals are completely wrong about this. A fair number
    of them know better, too, but they sponsor lies about it as a form of class
    warfare against conservative-leaning gun owners.
  2. Nuclear power. They’re wrong about this, too, and the cost in
    both dollars and human deaths by pollution and other fossil-fuel
    side-effects has been enormous.
  3. Affirmative action. These programs couldn’t be a more diabolical or
    effective plan for plan for entrenching racial prejudice if the Aryan
    Nations had designed them.
  4. Abortion: The liberals’ looney-toon feminist need to believe that
    a fetus one second before birth is a parasitic lump of tissue with no
    rights, but a fetus one second afterwards is a full human, has done
    half the job of making a reasoned debate on abortion
    nigh-impossible.
  5. Communism. I haven’t forgiven the Left for sucking up to the monstrous
    evil that was the Soviet Union. And I never will.
  6. Socialism. Liberals have never met a tax, a government
    intervention, or a forcible redistribution of wealth they didn’t like.
    Their economic program is Communism without the guts to admit it.
  7. Junk science. No medical study is too bogus and no environmental
    scare too fraudalent for liberals. If it rationalizes bashing
    capitalism or slathering on another layer of regulatory bureaucracy,
    they’ll take it.
  8. Defining deviancy down. Liberals are in such a desperate rush to
    embrace the `victimized by society’ and speak the language of
    compassion that they’ve forgotten how to condemn harmful,
    self-destructive and other-destructive behavior.
  9. William Jefferson Clinton. Sociopathic liar, perjurer, sexual predator.
    There was nothing but a sucking narcissistic vacuum where his principles
    should have been. Liberals worship him.
  10. Liberals, by and large, are fools.

Top Ten Reasons I’m Not A Conservative:

  1. Pornography. The complete absence of evidence that exposure to
    sexually-explicit material is harmful to children or anyone else doesn’t
    stop conservatives from advocating massive censorship.
  2. Drugs. We found out that Prohibition was a bad idea back in the
    1930s — all it did was create a huge and virulent criminal class, erode
    respect for the law, and corrupt our politics. Some people never learn.
  3. Creationism. I don’t know who I find more revolting, the drooling
    morons who actally believe creationism or the intelligent panderers
    who know better but provide them with political cover for their
    religious-fundamentalist agenda in return for votes.
  4. Abortion. The conservatives’ looney-toon religious need to
    believe that a fertilized gamete is morally equivalent to a human
    being has done the other half of making a reasoned debate on abortion
    nigh-impossible.
  5. Racism. I haven’t forgiven the Right for segregation, Jim Crow laws,
    and lynching blacks. And I never will.
  6. Sexism. Way too much conservative thought still reads like an
    apologia for keeping women barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen.
  7. Anti-science. Stem cells, therapeutic cloning — it doesn’t matter
    how many more diabetes, cancer and AIDS patients have to die to
    protect the anti-abortion movement’s ideological flanks. Knowledge –
    who needs it? Conservatives would try suppressing astronomy
    if the telescope had just been invented.
  8. Family values. Conservatives are so desperate to reassert the
    repressive `normalcy’ they think existed in Grand-dad’s time that they
    pretend we can undo the effects of the automobile, television, the
    Pill, and the Internet.
  9. Ronald Wilson Reagan. A B-movie actor who thought ketchup was
    a vegetable. His grip on reality was so dangerously weak that the
    Alzheimer’s made no perceptible difference. Conservatives worship him.
  10. Conservatives, by and large, are villains.
Sep 16

CBS and SCO Charge: Bush stole Unix!

OREM, UTAH — In a startling and unexpected joint press conference, CBS
and SCO, Inc. charged today that President George W. Bush had
conspired with IBM to steal Unix code while Linus Torvalds was AWOL
from the Finnish army.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the podium, Dan Rather and Darl McBride
flourished what they said was documentary proof, in the form of source
code listings found in a wastebasket at Texas Air National Guard
offices.

Open-source hackers and bloggers immediately questioned the report. “In
1972 Linus was like, three years old!” one Slashdotter commented. “I could
be wrong, but I don’t think they let toddlers into the Finnish army”. Others
pointed out that the listings were laser-printed on sheet-fed paper
using a technology not available in any form until 1978 and not deployed
by the Texas Air National Guard until after 1984. The Linux operating
system was launched in 1991.

“We at CBS have consulted numerous experts and believe these to be accurate,”
Dan Rather said, “but it doesn’t really matter whether or not they are
authentic. George W. Bush’s role in flouting the intellectual-property laws
of this country must be fully investigated. It’s not the nature of the
evidence, it’s the seriousness of the charges!”

“SCO is seeking additional discovery from IBM,” added Darl McBride.
“We have confidence that if we can just get our hands on every IBM
code listing from the dawn of time and depose every IBM employee
living or dead, we will be able to drag this case out long enough to
swing not just the the 2004 elections but the 2008 ones as well!”

In related news, the Kerry campaign — still struggling to rebut
charges of computer illiteracy raised by the Swift Vets’ searing
expose “Unfit for COMMAND.COM” — is rumored to have received a
donation from Bill Gates that included both a large wad of cash and
all known remaining copies of “Microsoft Bob”. Spokepersons could not
be reached for comment.

Feb 02

Inciting to riot

Gary Farber asks:

Would you assert that a modest libel law, or copyright law, or
incitement to riot law, inevitably lead to 1984? How about a law
banning private nuclear weapons?

I would say that the risk from a modest libel law or copyright law
is small, though not nonexistent; look at the way the DMCA has been
used to justify schemes that would embed controlware in everyones’
computers. State power is no less real if it consists of NSA or FBI
back doors built in by an acquiescent Gateway or Dell.

If the lawmaker/law-enforcer is a monopoly government, then a law
banning private nuclear weapons would worry me a little more, basically
because I don’t trust governments to have any control over
the weaponry their citizens can keep. History shows that that power
is invariably extended by degrees and abused until the citizenry is
totally disarmed; the case of Great Britain in the 20th century is a
particularly telling one (and its sequel in the 21st is proving
just as bloody and insane as the NRA diehards predicted, with criminal
gangs machine-gunning each other in the Midlands cities while
law-abiding citizens are jailed for carrying pocketknives).

I would prefer the risks of private nukes to the disarmament of the
civilian population. But that’s not a choice anyone will actually
ever have to make, because the intersection of the set of people who
want nukes and the set of people who would obey or be deterred by a
law against them is nil. A law against nukes would therefore be
pointless, except as an assertion of the power and right to enforce
other sorts of weapons bans that are harmful in themselves.

Nukes are different than handguns. Handgun bans are bad, but
they’re not utterly pointless; there is a significant class of
criminals who would carry in the absence of a ban but don’t in the
presence of one. The real problem with handgun bans is that the good
effects of slightly fewer bad guys carrying weapons are swamped and
reversed by the bad effects of far fewer good guys carrying
weapons. It’s all in how the disincentives against crime shift.

An “incitement to riot” law is a huge and obvious red flag. A
political culture in which that becomes entrenched would be one headed
for the überstate fairly rapidly.

But much depends on who makes those laws and how they are enforced. I
could live with a ban on certain sorts of heavy weapons or a Riot Act,
for example, if they were a condition of my contract with my
crime-insurance company, or part of the covenant of my homeowners’
association. Powers that are too dangerous to grant a monopoly
government could safely be delegated to security agencies and
judicial associations that have active competitors, and who do not
in the nature of things have universal jurisdiction.

Mr. Farber may not be aware than anarchists like myself actually
envision living in a society that still has police and courts and a
common legal code, but one in which no one organization has a status
that is uniquely privileged under the law. There would be something
that is functionally not completely unlike a “government”, but it
would be a virtual entity — a contract network of courts,
police, and citizens. I would delegate my right to resist assaults on
my life and property to the police agency that acts as my agents. That
police agency would have reciprocity agreements with other police
agencies; they, in turn, would contract with judicial associations
to arbitrate disputes among their clients. Find a copy of
The Market for Liberty for the details.

Finally, I comment on Mr. Faber’s attempt to reduce the
slippery-slope argument against statism to an absurdity by applying it
to libertarians (“libertarianism, because it values the individual
without regard for society, inevitably leads any individual who
believes in it to become a sociopathic serial killer”).

There are several obvious problems with this argument. First,
sociopathy is a wiring defect only found in less than 1% of the general
population (but including a large percentage of politicians,
and that is no joke). Libertarianism cannot turn people into sociopathic
serial killers because nothing (other than some odd and rare
sorts of injuries to the brain) can turn people into sociopaths.

The argument also ignores a glaring asymmetry in the real-world
facts. Extreme libertarians do not as a rule go on senseless killing
sprees. Governments, even “good” governments, often do. In the U.S.,
the scarifying examples of MOVE, the Branch Davidians, and Ruby Ridge
are before us even if we agree to leave warfare out of the picture and
consider only the last two decades.

But more importantly, the claim that libertarianism values the
individual without regard for society is damagingly false. The
assumption that “valuing the individual” and “valuing society” are
opposed is precisely what thoughtful libertarians reject. Our highest
value is non-aggression, peacefulness — voluntary cooperation.
Our message is that only when individual freedom is properly held to
be the greatest good can a sane, peaceful, and truly just society
flourish.

Jan 31

Keeping Freedom Alive: a response to Vodkapundit

In a trenchant essay he posted on the 30th of January, Vodkapundit
fulminates
against people he calls “doctrinaire libertarians”. While I sympathize in some
respects — I too have been attacked for my pro-war position — I
think there is some serious danger that Steve’s arguments are throwing out the
baby along with the bathwater.

I’m an individualist anarchist. In most peoples’ books that would
qualify me as a “doctrinaire libertarian”. I got reminded why
recently by watching a Babylon 5 episode, the 4th-season one in which
Sheridan is interrogated by an EarthGov psychologist who uses torture,
isolation, and drugs, to try and break him. But more frightening than
the torture is the ideology that comes out of the interrogator’s
mouth; the command that truth is fluid and must bend to power; the
disingenuous disclaimers of any responsibility for the hell Sheridan
is being put through; and beneath it all like a constant drumbeat, the
seductive invitation that if Sheridan will just surrender his will to
the State, his pain will end.

The interrogator is never named. Like his prototypes in Nazi
Germany and Soviet Russia, he is a case study in the banality of evil
— the true face, the night face, the real face of the State.
And what is truly terrifying is that the interrogator is not a mere
thug but a man with a subtle and flexible mind. There is an angle on
the world from which all his lies and acts of coercion issue from a
coherent moral position — but it is one that promises everyone
but his masters hell on Earth, forever and ever, amen.

In this episode J. Michael Straczynski gives us a fictional
depiction of a type that is all too real. Anyone who has read Arthur
Koestler’s Darkness at Noon or Aleksandr Solszhenitzyn’s
The Gulag Archipelago knows that if anything, JMS (who
clearly did his homework on the real-world techniques of brainwashing)
understates the soul-destroying depths to which the ideology
of statism can sink, trapping the interrogator and his victim in a
machinery of coercion that will ultimately consume them both.

The moral climax of that episode comes after Sheridan says “You
know, it’s funny I was thinking about what you said. ‘The pre-eminent
truth of our age is that you cannot fight the system.’ But if, as you
say, truth is fluid, that the truth is subjective, then maybe you can
fight the system — as long as one person refuses to be broken,
refuses to bow down.”

“But can you win?” the interrogator asks, almost gently. Sheridan,
knowing it is likely to mean he will shortly die under torture, rasps
out the bedrock libertarian reply “Every…time I…say…no!”

If I were the praying kind, I would be on my knees every day
praying that if there ever comes a moment when I must confront the
night face of the State, I too will meet it with that kind of courage.
And that day may come. Because the hell that spawns creatures like
that nameless interrogator is what waits for all of us down the road
to serfdom that is paved with good intentions like “welfare” and
“protecting the children” and “saving the environment” and, yes,
“necessary war”.

This is why I think we all ought to be grateful for “doctrinaire
libertarians”, even the ones more doctrinaire than me. It’s their job
to keep reminding all of us where that road leads. And it frightens
we when anyone replies to “War is the health of the state” by saying
fearfully “Let’s be blunt here, kids. When foreigners are rearranging
the Manhattan skyline because, in part, our women drive cars, then
goddamnit its time for a healthier state.” Because it’s in
the shadow cast by that kind of fear that creatures like the
interrogator and his masters grow and flourish.

Necessity, as wiser men than me have observed, is the credo of
tyrants and the excuse of slaves. It disturbs me to hear anyone
talking like a slave.

I agree with you in conceding that the state is at this time the
only way we have to answer the terrorist threat. The world in which
Osama bin Laden would be killed by troops hired by a consortium of
crime- and disaster-insurance companies rather than a government does
not yet exist.

But having conceded the present necessity of state action makes it
more necessary, not less, that we listen to the most
contrary, ornery, anti-statist libertarians we have, and to hold
harder than ever to our intentions for a libertarian future. Otherwise
we risk becoming too comfortable with that concession, and letting the
statists seduce us further down that road to serfdom.

Does this mean we can’t slam the LP for its attribution of the 9/11
attacks to American foreign policy? No, you’re right; that position
is not just wrong, it bespeaks a lack of moral seriousness and a kind
of blinkered parochialism that cannot actually see anything outside
of U.S. politics as having causal force.

But there is a big difference between observing that the LP is
contingently wrong about the liberation of Iraq (true) and suggesting
that our only course is to abandon our longer-term commitment to the
abolition of drastic shrinking of the state (false). Beware of
throwing out that baby with the bathwater. John Ashcroft is not yet a
greater threat to liberty than Osama bin Laden — but that day
may come yet. Only libertarian thoughts, libertarian words,
libertarian deeds, and a principled libertarian opposition to the
arrogance and seductions of power will prevent it.

UPDATE: Gary Farber thinks I’m making the same error I slammed John Perry
Barlow for recently. But there is a large difference. Barlow
was being specifically paranoid about a short-term threat which he ties to
specific people he thinks are evil and has (at the very least) grossly
overestimated. I have a longer-term concern about structural tendencies
that are built into the nature of government, and which don’t require
specific evil people running things to take us to some very nasty places.

Or, to put it another way, Barlow has what is essentially a devil theory;
Bush, or Cheney, or Ashcroft or someone like them is evil and wants to put us
in camps next year. This is silly. I, on the other hand, don’t think it
much matters for the long term whether “good” or “evil” people are running
the government; the premises and the process of government,
and the collectivist ethos that underlies them, have a momentum of their own
that grinds away at our liberty regardless. The founders of the U.S.
understood this tendency and erected the Bill Of Rights as a firewall against
it. The fact that in many jurisdictions U.S. law now suppresses “hate speech” and
bans the possession of firearms demonstrates their failure.

The erosion of liberty which I fear is a far more gradual process than
the sudden collapse into totalitarianism that Barlow envisions. But it
is also more difficult to resist and counter. Because the end stages,
where only evil people can adapt themselves to politics, are
probably many decades away, few people can summon the concern and the
will to say “Stop now, before it’s too late!”. There is always some
short-term reason that seems good to accept the state’s poisonous candy
– the new entitlement program, the next round of farm- or steel-mill
subsidies, the airport metal detectors to make us “safe”.

Many (though not all) of the people who can summon that will are
libertarians. Which is yet another good reason to listen to them carefully,
even when they’re more doctrinaire than me.

(Exercise for the reader: Let’s stipulate that littering laws may not lead to 1984,
but can you defend the proposition that laws banning speeech and weapons don’t? Discuss
historical examples such as Nazi Germany and Tokugawa-period Japan. Be specific.)

Jan 07

The Web and Identity Goods

InstaPundit writes:
This seems to me to suggest that free downloads don’t do much to
cannibalize actual [book] sales.

I have more (or at least longer-term) experience with this than
anyone else. Back in 1991, The New Hacker’s Dictionary
was the very first real book (like, with an ISBN) to be released
simultaneously in print and available for free download on-line. Both
of the books I’ve done since, The Cathedral and the
Bazaar
and The Art of Unix Programming, have also
been released for free download at the same time they were in print.
You can easily find all three on my
website
.

Of all my books, only the very first (Portable C and Unix
Systems Programming
, 1987) didn’t get webbed. It was a decent
seller, but the least successful of my books. It’s now out of print, made
technically obsolete by things that happened in the early 1990s. All
three of my other books, the ones that got webbed, have remained
continuously in print.

My four books do not a controlled experiment make, but the

thirteen years of experience with simultaneous print and Web
publication that I’ve had suggests that Web availability has boosted
the sales of the print versions tremendously. And my publishers
agree. Even in 1991 I didn’t get resistance from MIT press, and
Addison-Wesley was positively supportive of putting my most most
recent one on the Web.

I’m one of a handful of technical-book writers who publishers treat
like rock stars, because I have a large fan base and my name on a
cover will sell a book in volumes that are exceptional for its
category (for comparison my editor at AW mentions Bruce Eckel as
another). I’m not certain my experience generalizes to authors who
aren’t rock stars. On the other hand, it’s more than
possible that I’m a rock star largely because I have been
throwing my stuff on the Web since 1991. It’s even likely —
after all, I was next to an unknown when I edited The New Hacker’s
Dictionary
.

So I don’t find the InstaWife’s experience very surprising.
Webbing one’s books seems to be really effective way to build a fan
base. My impression is that people start by browsing the the on-line
versions of my books, then buy the paper copy partly for convenience
and partly as what marketers call an identity good.

An identity good is something people buy to express their tie to a
group or category they belong to or would like to belong to. People
buy The New Hacker’s Dictionary because they are, or want
to be, the kind of person they think should own a copy of it.

Here’s the causal connection: A Web version can’t be an identity
good, because it doesn’t sit on your bookshelf or your coffee table
telling everybody (and reminding you!) who you are. But Web exposure
can, I think, help turn a book with the right kind of potential into
an identity good. I suspect there is now a population of psychologists
and social workers who perceive the InstaWife’s book as an identity
good, and that (as with my stuff) that perception was either created or
strongly reinforced by web exposure.

If so, this would explain why webbing her book made the auction
price for the out-of-print paper version go up. The price of the
paper version reflects buyers’ desires to be identifiable as members
of the community of readers of the book. By making softcopy available
for download, the InstaWife enhanced the power of the paper version as
an identity token, by making it easy for a larger population to learn
the meaning of the token.

I would go so far as to predict that any book (or movie, or CD)
that functions as an identity good will tend to sell more rather than
less after Web exposure. All three of my in-print books happen to be
identity goods rather strongly, for slightly different but overlapping
populations. I suspect the InstaWife’s book has this quality too. About those
things which aren’t identity goods, I can’t say. Not enough experience.

Jan 06

Narcissism and the American Left

John Perry Barlow, referring to the 2004 elections, writes:

We can’t afford to lose this one, folks. If we do, we’ll have to set our watches back 60 years. If they even let us have watches in the camps, that is.

“If they even let us have watches in the camps.” This is a perfect example
of a kind of left-wing rhetorical posturing that makes me want to go out and
vote for conservatives I normally loathe. In this it has exactly the opposite
effect from what John Perry Barlow intends.

Barlow wants to leave us with an if-this-goes-on image of a Bush-dominated
future in which Barlow and his friends are hauled off to concentration camps
by mirrorshaded thugs, crushing dissent as though the U.S. were pre-liberation
Iraq or something.

I would love to be able to echo Charles Babbage and say that I am
not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that
could provoke such a statement. Unfortunately, I’m afraid I find it
all too comprehensible, and not in a way that’s very flattering to
John Perry Barlow or others like him. It’s a form of posturing by
anticipatory martyrdom, simultaneously demonizing Barlow’s enemies and
inflating his own importance.

“Oh, look at me!” it says. “I’m a brave speaker of truth
to power, so brave that I’m going to say bad things about Republicans
despite the fact that they will certainly throw me in the gulags as
soon as they think they can get away with it.” I’ve been around long
enough to know that this is a line lefties of Barlow’s and my age
originally learned in order to pick up women back in those halcyon
radical-chic days of forty years ago. It gets a bit old after your
third decade of waiting for the Man to bust your door down.

Let’s get real. Even supposing Bush were really the concretization
of all those 1960s nightmares, an evil bastard backed by a cabal of
goose-stepping minions, from their point of view throwing John Perry
Barlow in the Lubyanka would be a ridiculous thing to do.
Remember how conservatives think: from their point of view, Barlow is
just another aging hippie burnout given to occasional quasi-coherent
rants about that Internet thing. In their model of reality, all
they’d be doing by giving him the Solzhenitzyn treatment is conferring
an importance on him that he doesn’t possess.

I have somewhat more respect for Barlow myself, enough that it
survived the fact that the last time I was actually face-to-face with
him he was obnoxiously drunk and patronizing. He’s an erratic but
occasionally brilliant polemicist. But trying to imagine anybody in
the inner circle of Skull & Bones (or whatever the left-wingers’ hate
focus is this week) taking him seriously enough to bother bagging and
tagging him just makes me laugh.

And if I can’t believe John Perry Barlow is enough of a threat to
get gulaged by the mythical Bush stormtroopers, how seriously am I
supposed to take the-Man’s-coming-for-us posturing from the rank and
file of the Bush-haters? Yeah, sure, the black marias are coming for
all of you, all you twentysomething unemployed sysadmins and riot grrls
and latte makers with your piercings and your Green Party T-shirts.
As if.

There are lots of objective reasons this scenario is silly. One of
many is that our institutions won’t support it. I know the police in
my town; they wouldn’t obey orders to throw Dean voters in jail. I
just got through reading a book about the force structure of today’s
U.S. infantry, and I can tell you that even if the second Bush
administration were to complete the trashing of the posse
comitatus
laws that Clinton began and withdraw every damn grunt
from overseas, there aren’t enough troops. Even assuming
100% of them signed up to be concentration-camp guards, there
wouldn’t be enough of them to man the camps.
And the trends are all
towards a smaller, more skill-intensive military, so in the future
assembling enough goons for a darkess-at-noon scenario will be
harder rather than easier.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that Attorney-General Ashcroft is
not pushing for federalized gun control and a ban on civilian
firearms. Which is the first damn thing any right-wing cabal (or any
left-wing one, for that matter) would do if they were contemplating
really serious dissent-crushing. Again, the trend is in the other
direction — the assault-weapon ban is going to lapse, and the
Bush crowd is going to let it happen. Much of the American left
fools itself that civilian firearms don’t matter in the political
power equation, but conservatives know better.

For that matter, I am certain — because I’ve discussed
related topics with him — that John Perry Barlow himself knows
better. Which makes his willingness to posture about the Man coming
to throw us in concentration camps less forgiveable than it would be
in someone who’s a complete moron on the subject, like (say) Michael
Moore.

But what really repels me about the kind of posturing I’m nailing
John Perry Barlow for isn’t the objective silliness of it, it’s the
fact that it represents a kind of triumph of paranoid self-absorption
as a political style. People in the (mainly left-wing) anti-Bush
crowd snort with derision when they hear hard-right propaganda about
how the Zionist Occupation Government is going to come after all true
American white men with those black helicopters; why do they tolerate
rhetoric that is just as narcissistic coming from their own?

Idiots. They make me want to go vote for somebody like Pat Buchanan
just out of spite. Fortunately, I’m not a spiteful person, and have so
far resisted this temptation.

And I don’t think it’s just me that sees people like John Perry
Barlow actually dealing themselves out of the future when they make
remarks like this. Narcissistic politics is not a luxury we can
afford any more. It was OK during our holiday from history,
1992-2001, between the fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11, but we’re in
serious times now. Our nation, and our civilization, are under
continuing threat by terrorists who have demonstrated both the will
and the ability to commit atrocities against Americans, and who loudly
trumpet their intention to keep killing us.

We need people like John Perry Barlow to be in the debate
about how to cope with this. That means we need people like John Perry
Barlow not to trivialize and disqualify themselves with silly
posturing. Please get real, people. George Bush has flaws I could
list from here to Sunday, but pretending that you’re all doomed
victims if he’s re-elected is pathological.

And deep down, you know better, too. The last two years have given
us not just relatively smart people like John Perry Barlow but legions
of mindless show-biz glitterati making a particularly ironic spectacle
of themselves — protesting the crushing of dissent in front of
huge audiences. Thereby demonstrating their own lack of
contact with reality in a way that can only help the very opponents they
think of as a sinister cabal. With enemies this visibly stupid and
feckless, who needs friends? They’ll drive the big middle of the
electorate right into Republican arms.

Let’s state the consequences very simply: Every time somebody like
John Perry Barlow goes on in public about how the camps are waiting
for us all, Karl Rove laughs and, quite rightly, figures his guy Bush
is more of a lock this November. And you know what? He’s right.
Because if I hear much more of this crap, even I am going to
vote Republican for the first time in more than a quarter-century.

Jan 03

War is the Continuation of Journalism

StrategyPage reports that Baathist dead-enders in Iraq are now using
press credentials as cover
. Some Iraqis working for Reuters were arrested
after an attack on U.S. troops guarding a downed helicopter. Reuters is now
protesting that this was an error.

Considering the virulently anti-American slant of Reuters coverage, this
is bleakly funny. Those Iraqi employees thought, perhaps, that they could
earn a nice bonus by doing with lead what Reuters does with ledes. Why not?
After all, the terror network and Reuters share an important objective
— the breaking and humbling of U.S. power.

Watch the aftermath closely. If (as seems not unlikely) there were
Reuters stringers involved in the attack, you will probably see
Reuters condemn the actions of its employees only on the general
grounds that actually shooting Americans jeopardizes the
customary privileges and immunities of the press, not because attacks
on American troops are in any way intrinsically a bad thing. The
anti-American slant of Reuters coverage will doubtless continue —
in fact, any suggestion that it might have contributed to or enabled
the violence of yesterday will be met with shock and indignation.

In the warped moral universe that Reuters and the BBC and much of
America’s own elite media inhabit, American power is so frightening and
loathsome that Islamist barbarians are actually preferable to George
W. Bush. They’ll print with a straight face quotes by al-Qaeda apologists
condemning the U.S. as a ‘rogue state’ and U.S. policies as
terrorism, while refusing to use the word ‘terrorist’ for
Al-Hamas attacks that target Israeli children for mass murder.

Reuters stringers firing bullets at American troops makes concrete
a drama that has previously been abstract. Today’s war on terror is
not just a war between the West and fundamentalist Islam, it is a
confrontation of the healthy versus the diseased portions of the West
itself. The disease is Julien Benda’s trahison
des clercs
and all its sequelae. And Reuters, marching in step
with Old Europe and the American left, is objectively on the side of
the West’s enemies.

UPDATE: Three Reuters employees who were alleged to have been involved in the attack have been
released. This does not change my evaluation that anti-U.S., pro-terrorist bias is
pervasive and deep in Reuters international coverage, sufficiently so to put them on the enemy side.
As an index of this bias, consider that by editorial policy Reuters will not use the word “terrorist”
to describe groups like Hamas or al-Aqsa.

Jan 01

Donald Sensing is so right

Donald Sensing is dead on target in his post suggesting the U.S
military re-adopt
the M1911 .45ACP pistol
. I’ve fired a Beretta 92F and it’s an
ugly, awkward gun that neither feels good in the hand nor inspires
confidence in its stopping power. Those who have actually seen the
sharp end of combat generally agree that the M1911 is a far superior
weapon; even today, more than fifteen years after it was officially
deprecated, many troops carry it by choice. My own carry weapon of
choice is the Colt Officer’s Model, a short-barrel M1911 variant.

If the M1911 design is too old to be politically viable or the
single-action design is an insurmountable obstacle, then my next
choice would be Glock’s double-action 45ACP design, I think it’s the
Model 30. Glocks are very accurate, and rugged in the field. I think
the lighter frame is actually a disadvantage; you don’t get thrown
off target as much by the recoil when you’re shooting a big hunk of
steel, so your second shot with a 1911 is more likely to count.

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.