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December 31, 2002
I have been remarking for some time that the social protocols, controversies, shibboleths, and recreations of science fiction fandom are gradually taking over the world, and nothing I have seen in 2002 has lessened this view. About this time last year, newspaper columnists were solemnly debating the relative wizardly powers of Gandalf and Dumbledore. Today, the New York Observer reports that Manhattan’s most prestigious literary circles have become infected with “Mafia,” a multiplayer game of shifting alliances and remorseless dissembling which involves no pieces, no cards, no printed directions, but rather a dozen or more people who sit in a circle and follow the directions of a gamemaster. Which has been an obsession for several years at science fiction conventions and at several of the SF and fantasy field’s better-known writing workshops.

According to the New York Observer, Patient Zero in this epidemic among the mainstream literati is (why am I not surprised) Jonathan Lethem, whose 1990s ascent from genre science fiction to mainstream renown was so rapid that his decontamination was, evidently, incomplete:

These days, if you’re looking for a bunch of New York writers, magazine editors and publishing types on a Friday night, track down Mr. Lethem, who has become a kind of mob boss among an ever-growing salon of poker-faced literati obsessed by the spiky parlor game they call Mafia. There’s no money involved, everyone stays clothed, and the alcohol intake is surprisingly moderate-—but to witness Mr. Lethem’s disciples in the throes of their favorite game is to know that the stakes run high.

“People got so upset,” said Ms. Schappell, “stalking around and screaming: ‘I can’t believe you don’t believe me! How come you don’t believe me?’”…If the conflict is fictional, it also has an uncomfortable grain of reality to it, playing the edge between a game and actual social torture. Mr. Lethem’s converts talk about it with the flushed, exhilarated fervor of people who have just tried acid for the first time. “It’s so intense!” said Ms. Schapell. “People are so flipped out. You’re playing a game, and there’s tears in people’s eyes.”

Make that the brown acid. “It’s even more venal than what you experience in daily life,” said Todd Pruzan, a senior editor at Blender magazine. “Most people sell themselves, but most don’t sell out their neighbors, too. This is about selling your neighbors down the fucking river. It’s about saying to your mugger, ‘Don’t mug me, mug him.’ It’s a zero-sum game.

According to the Observer, “A Russian psychologist claims to have invented it in the 1980s, to show how an informed minority (the ‘mafia’) power-play against an uninformed majority (the ‘village’). Since then, it’s developed avid followings at Harvard and Princeton, where clubs have formed around it.” That may be so, but I don’t believe that’s where Jonathan Lethem picked it up.

Coming in 2003: The American diplomatic corps takes to all-night sessions of Dungeons and Dragons. It is a proud and lonely thing to, er, never mind. (Via Gawker and BoingBoing.)

[03:39 PM : 6 comments]

More on claims that slavery wasn’t the cause of the Civil War: Neel Krishnaswami directs us to the Mississippi Declaration of Secession, January 9, 1861:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery— the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
Sam Heldman remembers being told in fifth grade, “One of the questions on tomorrow’s test will be ‘What was the cause of the civil war?’ And if you answer ‘Slavery,’ that is wrong and you will get no points.”

Can’t imagine why it’s still such a divisive issue. I mean, lying to people for generations always works.

[02:18 PM : 3 comments]

White House Cuts Estimate of Cost of War With Iraq. Oh, well, that’s different, then. Who could question a White House estimate?

In next week’s headlines: “WHITE HOUSE REVISES ESTIMATE OF SPEED OF LIGHT. Asked about outgoing chief economic advisor Lawrence Lindsey’s figure of 186,282 miles per second, OMB director Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr. said ‘That wasn’t an estimate. It was more of a historical benchmark. Our new figure of 55mph is nothing more than prudent contingency planning.’ Mr. Daniels then red-shifted backwards across the room, pursued by monkeys emerging from beneath his chair.”

[01:56 PM : 0 comments]

Kevin “Calpundit” Drum outs himself as a member of that globe-girdling freemasonry, Lefties Who Love Heinlein. Other members include Samuel R. Delany and, well, me.

In characteristically orderly fashion, Drum lists all of Heinlein’s major books in order from good to terrible. I could quibble a bit. Good on him for putting Starman Jones so high up the list, but Podkayne of Mars all the way up at #20? As Northrop Frye said in a letter to Startling Stories, gag me with a sevagram. And my choice for the top slot would certainly be The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, a novel that shares with The Lord of the Rings the interesting characteristic that many of its most strenuous boosters miss the fact that it’s a tragedy.

Chip Delany, in his introduction to the Gregg Press edition of Glory Road, wrote “The arch-conservative Balzac was one of Marx’s favorite novelists. And Heinlein is one of mine.” Well, then.

[01:27 PM : 8 comments]

Quod erat demo: Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, In Words of Four Letters or Less.
They said, what if mass puts a bend in this four-way here of ours? The more mass you have in one spot, the more bent that spot gets. So now pick out a spot A and a spot B, one on each side of some mass, and each at its own time. What does it look like when a body goes from A to B? You will say: A line. Well, yes and no. It is a line, but it’s also bent, as it goes past the bent spot. You see, this line will only look like a line if you can see all four ways! If you can’t see one of the ways, if for you the way you can’t see is what you call time, then you will see it as a line with a big old veer in it, half way in. Now, take a lot of mass, as much as our sun has, and pick spot A and spot B to be near the mass, and to be the same spot but for the time. Well, when you do that, the line from A to B in the four-way here will be an arc to you and me! An arc that will spin on and on, with that mass as the axis!
(Via Incoming Signals.)

[11:45 AM : 0 comments]

Our pal James D. Macdonald (author, gentleman, vet) emails to remark on Rep. Charles Rangel’s brainstorm:
What is this goofball thinking? Has he forgotten why we abolished the draft in the first place?

And as far as “more reluctant to authorize military action,” ha ha, it is to laugh. We have the Prez saying words to the effect of “I don’t have to ask your permission anyway,” and Congress rolling over and saying “Yes sir! Anything else we can do for you, sir? Shall we lick your boots for a while?” If Rangel wants to actually do something useful and intelligent, he could say “No war without a declaration of war,” which is actually, you know, constitutional and everything, and sit back satisfied with a job well done.

Our conversation moved to AIM:
(08:48:11) patricknh: I do think that it’s a perfect illustration of Liberalism Gone Rotten, when someone like Rangel convinces himself that the only solution is something this coercive.
(08:48:17) warsnit: Based on the story I saw, Rangel thinks that (a) we have a draft, (b) rich kids go into the army, (c) congress will be reluctant to send their big campaign donors’ kids to get their heads blown off.
(08:51:13) warsnit: What we’ll have instead will be rich kids pay $300 to be excused (Civil War) or go to college, or get a nice cushy slot in the National Guard (where they don’t even have to show up, especially after drug testing starts), and poor kids who don’t have the bucks, or the connections to pull the strings, get their heads blown off. All this, plus riots in the streets.
(08:51:43) patricknh: I’m sure Karl Rove could work with that.
(08:51:47) warsnit: Plus, the professionalism in the services gets shot straight to hell.
(08:51:58) warsnit: And the pay will start to suck again.
(08:52:07) warsnit: Which will kick your career people.
Young Matthew Yglesias, whose sharp weblog is a daily must-read here at Electrolite World HQ, opines that “this is a complicated question and there are lots of factors to consider, including the fact that a conscript military would probably be less effective than the volunteer one we have now. Nevertheless, I hope the country has a serious debate about the issue and that perhaps it will make everyone think a little more seriously about foreign policy.”

The current-serving Sgt. Stryker, on the other hand, takes a dim view of screwing around with the military merely in order to “make everyone think a little more seriously about foreign policy”:

Rangel’s the flip-side of the draft coin used by some conservatives who feel that we need the draft to “toughen up” young people or make them appreciate America. That same conservative feeling is the basis for those inane “Boot Camps” where young criminals get yelled at, then released. It’s inept social engineering no matter how you slice it. […]

The U.S. military is not your daycare center. We’re not here to correct mommy and daddy’s errors or make your son a better man. We’re here to defend the Constitution and we employ whatever tools necessary to ensure the success of our mandate. The values the military attempts to instill in its members are those that have traditionally proven to be successful in providing a disciplined and orderly force capable of success in battle. Any secondary benefits these values provide to society at large are irrelevant. […]

Rangel and his spiritual brethren on the conservative side care more about their own little agendas than having an effective military. A draft will weaken and diminish the military, because anyone with the least amount of talent, skill or money will be able to legally dodge the draft, leaving only the worst this society has to offer to fill our ranks.

Right now, we have the most powerful military force this world has ever seen and it’s manned solely by volunteers. That’s a powerful idea and it’s something Americans can be proud of. […] An all-volunter force is more motivated, professional and dedicated to mission accomplishment than a bunch of conscripts forced to be there. If you want to weaken our military and demoralize our forces, then institute a draft.

[11:11 AM : 4 comments]

New Media uberpundit Michael Wolff claims that “AOL’s fundamental business—which has always been a level or two down from the family-oriented opening screen—is dirty talk.”

So is it just me, or is it just a little weird that the music in the current Juno commercial, targeting AOL, is “Dueling Banjos”? I nearly fell off my chair.

Says Teresa: “Oh, that movie was a long time ago.” Okay, I’m old.

[10:17 AM : 5 comments]

December 30, 2002
I’m mildly boggled to discover that, as the male descendent of a Confederate soldier, I’m eligible to join the Sons of the Confederate Veterans.

As their web site informs us:

The citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America. The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution.
Let’s take a look at these “best qualities of America.” Where better, than the well-known speech of Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederate States of America, at Savannah, Georgia, March 21, 1861?
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. […]

As I have stated, the truth of this principle may be slow in development, as all truths are and ever have been, in the various branches of science. It was so with the principles announced by Galileo—it was so with Adam Smith and his principles of political economy. It was so with Harvey, and his theory of the circulation of the blood. It is stated that not a single one of the medical profession, living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by him, admitted them. Now, they are universally acknowledged. May we not, therefore, look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests? It is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society. Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material—the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so.

What I know about my great-great grandfather is that he fought in Company K, 4th Kentucky Mounted Infantry. That he was probably at Shiloh, Murfreesboro, and Chickamauga, among others. And that he came home to his small Kentucky farm, raised a family, and refused to talk about the war to the end of his days.

Says Frank Hall, “Commander” of the Olympia, Washington chapter the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, “Most people think that the whole Civil War was about slavery, but that’s just not accurate.”

What I know about Frank Hall is that he wears a Confederate-flag necktie. And that he’s a lying son of a bitch.

[11:34 PM : 0 comments]

December 29, 2002
From the Associated Press: “Statue of Liberty Sees Huge Tourist Drop.” I trust paramedics were on the scene quickly.

In other news, Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim.

[07:01 PM : 0 comments]

Lots of Tolkien discussion lately. Avedon very sensibly took the exchange that proliferated on her site and moved it into a Sideshow Annex, to which I hope she will append the thoughtful response that Eric Tam was good enough to cc to David Bratman and me. [UPDATE: She did, along with further comments from David as well. Worth reading.]

Meanwhile, Chris Mooney has posted links to two Tolkien pieces of his own. One, in the Washington Post, makes a point similar to what Eric Tam was saying, which is that, notwithstanding Aragorn and Gandalf’s entreaties to Theoden in The Two Towers (a bit of plot punched up in the movie), attempts to enlist Tolkien as a cheerleader for aggressive war are liable to founder on his deep distrust of power.

Mooney also says something I tried to get across in the Sideshow argument, which is that it’s probably a mistake to read Tolkien’s orcs as fully and irredeemably evil. In fact, Tolkien goes out of his way on several occasions to depict them as brutalized infantry rather than ravening hellspawn. Interestingly, the passages Mooney quotes in this regard are the same ones cited by Tom Shippey in his very intelligent J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Shippey argues that Tolkien’s universe encompasses an unresolved and unresolvable tension between two views of evil: one, the “Boethian” (and Catholic) view that evil is only the absence of good, and the other the pagan (and Manichean) view of evil as an active and malign force in the world. The narrative constantly pulls us in both directions: we overhear orcs who wish for creature comforts, who demonstrate a sense of justice (even if self-serving and depraved), and who long for the war to end; and we also sympathize with the Rohirrim who overtake a party of orcs and slaughter them without mercy.

This tension is also alluded to in Mooney’s other piece, in the Boston Globe, taking issue with the evangelical Christians who have laid claim to The Lord of the Rings as a work of unalloyed Christian apologetics. Of course it’s a novel by a Christian, and Tolkien himself called it “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” But for such a supposedly Christian work, the morality of The Lord of the Rings is as much infused with the stoical pessimism of the ancient world as with hope for redemption. Professor Shippey addresses this at length, observing that Tolkien spent his academic life on works like Beowulf and the Elder Edda, works of grim paganism passed down to us by later Christian writers. “The whole poem Beowulf,” writes Shippey, “is a meditation between contrary opinions, with strong similarities to The Lord of the Rings.” Mooney quotes Christian critics who extol the trilogy’s images of “Christ-like sacrifice,” but as Mooney points out, The Lord of the Rings is a story of universal loss. Evil is defeated for a while, but the world is diminished. As a medievalist quoted in Mooney’s article observes, it’s a “very Norse outlook: Even the winners lose.”

Tolkien was serious, serious about his Catholicism and serious about his love for the virtues of ancient Northern myth and legend, the virtues of courage in the face of hopelessness and certain defeat. He never fully resolved the contradictions between them—as David Bratman notes, at his death he was still worrying over matters that hinge on them, such as the redeemability of orcs. The actual text of The Lord of the Rings encompasses both outlooks, stated at various points with dramatic energy and rhetorical force, which is one of many reasons the book exerts more appeal than the more morally-schematic fantasies of, for instance, C. S. Lewis. Or, well, pick a name.

The Lord of the Rings is an affectingly Christian work. It’s also a work of abiding darkness and loss. Which may be one reason that, for all its obvious flaws and sometimes silliness, it still inspires so much thoroughly-engaged argument. Like the real world, Tolkien’s subcreation is haunted by contradictions and warring impulses. Those who read Tolkien’s novel as a simple Christian allegory are missing half of why it works. I’ll end this overlong post with more from Shippey:

It would be quite wrong to suggest that [Frodo] is a Christ-figure, an allegory of Christ, any more than the Ring is one of nuclear power—the differences, as Tolkien pointed out in the latter case and easily could have in the former, are greater than the similarities. Yet he represents something related: perhaps, an image of natural humanity trying to do its best in native decency…with no certain faith in rescue (or salvation) from outside, from beyond “the circles of the world.” In this he is once again a highly contemporary figure, an image for a society which Tolkien knew perfectly well had largely lost religious faith and had no developed theory to put in its place. Could “native decency” be enough? As a Christian, Tolkien was bound to say “no”, as a scholar of pagan and near-pagan literature he could not help seeing that there had been virtue, and a wish for something more, even among pagans. The myth, or story, that he created expresses both hope and sadness. It is a mark of its success that it has been appreciated by many who share its author’s real beliefs, but by even more who do not.

[10:13 AM : 0 comments]

December 26, 2002
Caveat for webloggers: A few days ago, Avedon Carol mentioned how she and I had compared notes about the output of this script, which I’m seeing on more and more weblogs. (Both Gary Farber and Matthew Yglesias have started using it, for instance.) The script purports to display the sites that have recently referred visitors to a page, and orders them by the number of referrals. But while Avedon and I chatted in AIM, we discovered immense differences between the list on her weblog as displayed on her machine, and on her weblog as displayed on mine. For instance, on her screen, the top referrer to Sideshow was Eschaton, which certainly seems plausible. On Sideshow here in Brooklyn, however, Eschaton wasn’t even listed, and the top referrer was Electrolite, which seems entirely unlikely. (And yes, we tried the usual browser fu, like emptying our caches, but the weirdness persisted.)

So I don’t think I’d put a whole lot of stock in those referrer lists we’re suddenly seeing on bunches of blogs. I’m familiar with how results can vary from different tracking services, like Extreme Tracking and Sitemeter, but what Avedon and I were seeing wasn’t minor variation.

[02:55 PM : 0 comments]

Both Gary Farber and Matthew Yglesias have recently posted to disaparage what Matthew calls “civil liberties alarmism”. Unsurprisingly, this has prompted some argument. The comments following Matthew’s post are particularly worth reading, even if I do say so myself.

Incidentally, Gary seems to have blogged more in the last few days than in the previous three months, and it’s good stuff, too.

[02:42 PM : 0 comments]

Mitch Wagner calls into question the account, widely circulated in blogdom, of the man who claims to have been arrested at Portland International Airport after complaining about his wife’s treatment by security guards. Mitch probes the story from several directions, and while he doesn’t disprove it, he finds a significant absence of corroborating evidence as well. (Mitch is an old friend who worked as a newspaper reporter before becoming a tech journalist, and it’s a pleasure to see his blog back up and running.)

I have to confess, I didn’t link to the airport-security story myself because I simply have a hard time believing anything posted to, which probably means I’m missing some important facts about the world because I can’t quite make the time for a site that routinely mixes libertarian polemics with paeans to the glorious Confederacy. So it goes.

[02:22 PM : 0 comments]

Commenting on the controversy over various stores dropping Midge, the pregnant Barbie doll (previously noted by Max Sawicky, blogdom’s dogged reporter of all things Barbie), Sam Heldman remarks that the affair is:
[…A] good—but by no means the only, and certainly not the most important—example of the first thing I wanted to post about, in connection with my holiday journey out of the liberal metropolis. That is this: that if anyone tells you that the Republican-leaning areas of the nation, and the Republican-leaning parts of the population, are more live-and-let-live than us progressives, that it is only the leftists who are humorless busybodies who have lost the art of minding their own business when appropriate—if anyone tells you that, the wise response is “ha ha ha ha ha.”

[12:41 PM : 0 comments]

An enterprising fellow named Phil Gyford is in the process of setting up Samuel Pepys’ diaries as a weblog using Movable Type, with explanatory sidebars and helpful hyperlinks embedded in the text. According to the site, new entries will be added daily beginning January 1, 2003.

Best geeky fine point: The great seventeenth-century diarist’s journal entries will also be available in both RSS v0.91 and RSS v1.0. (Via Brad DeLong.)

[12:37 PM : 0 comments]

December 25, 2002
Just a reminder that you can catch the world premiere of Whisperado in New York City tonight, 9 PM at the C-Note, 157 Avenue C (at 10th St). Two sets! No cover! Revel in that “insider” feeling as you watch a band that’s at least 25% weblogger! What, you were planning to “spend more time with your loved ones”? Oh, we’ve heard that before, Mr. Secretary.

[12:22 PM : 0 comments]

December 24, 2002
Christmas message

Fear not

(Luke 2:10)

[06:59 PM : 0 comments]

December 23, 2002
On a rural road in Kenya, two cars collide by night. Both are driven by American citizens. The driver of one car, a white diplomat, calls the American embassy for help, and is whisked away for medical treatment. The driver of the other, a black teacher, is left to die.

Gosh, it certainly is a wonderful thing that racism is all finished now.

(Full jawdropping story in the Washington Post. Via the infrequent but always trenchant weblog of reporter Peter Maass.)

[09:58 PM : 0 comments]

Liberals enchanted by good ol’ straight-shooting John McCain might want to recall that, for the 2000 South Carolina primary, McCain retained the editor of Southern Partisan magazine—the pro-segregation, pro-Confederate publication that Trent Lott and John Ashcroft have taken heat for appearing in—as a campaign consultant for $20,000 a month. Arizona journalist Sam Coppersmith discusses it here.

McCain was certainly cold-cocked by the Bush campaign, but it’s obvious that he was as willing as the rest of the GOP to sidle up to the hard-core racists. Keep that in mind the next time you’re being charmed by McCain’s skillful handling of the national media.

[05:22 PM : 0 comments]

Speaking of Venezuela, I don’t think it’s just me. The version of recent events we’re getting from most of the American media really does smell as fishy as the Fulton Street market. At least, for those of us whose memory of American skulduggery in Latin America goes back further than last Tuesday.

Charles Dodgson was onto this a week ago. Now Ampersand has a crisp post enumerating seven points you need to understand, and trust me, you do.

Ampersand also usefully links to both the Nation’s David Corn and the Cato Institute’s Barbara Conry, converging from left and right to discuss the really quite stunning creepiness, corruption, and flat-out incompetence of the “National Endowment for Democracy,” the nominally-private but in fact federally-funded outfit that appears to be up to its elbows advancing “our” interests in Venezuela. Great.

[05:06 PM : 0 comments]

Chris Bertram thinks Daniel Davies is the best writer in blogdom. It’s a defensible position. I suspect the biggest reason Davies doesn’t get more attention and egoboo is that everything he writes is discursive and nuanced and refuses to come to simple conclusions. Fortunately, as this post about economists, methodology, and lighthouses demonstrates, Davies manages the high-wire art of being breezy while paying minute attention to particulars:
To be honest, a system under which the government of the day gives you the authority to demand a payment from every ship that enters a port, and which states that failure to recognise this authority is treason (at the time, punishable by death), does not really look to me to be very much like a free market exchange. In fact, in giving the producer of a product the authority to demand on pain of death or imprisonment that everyone in a particular market has to buy their product, would seem to me to be very much more government involvement indeed, than the current rather light regulation of the housing market. I’m not saying that the analogy Coase used in that Reason magazine interview was completely outrageously misleading. I’m just sayin’.
A great trick, if you can manage it.

[12:34 PM : 0 comments]

A giant philosophical argument in a little bitty box: Matthew Yglesias asserts that “It just doesn’t matter why Bush does what Bush does or Frist does what Frist does or Matt does what Matt does. What matters is what we do and whether those are good or bad things.”

Indefatigable liberal and Arrow Shirt model Kevin Drum takes issue with this:

Trying to deduce people’s real motivations is absolutely central to all human activity. We talk about it, we think about it, we argue about it, and we make most of our decisons based on it. We fight or follow people based on our assessment of what they really think. We applaud or denigrate the exact same actions depending on whether we think they were made for the right reasons.

Motivation is the key to everything. Actions come in a poor second.

I think this is exactly right. Note that Drum isn’t claiming this is the optimal way to think; merely that it is, in fact, the way we think.

We think in stories. We make narratives; when we need to, we impose them. And we need to a lot.

[11:38 AM : 0 comments]

Speaking of Tolkien, Bruce Baugh offers up a brilliant reading of the movie of The Two Towers and, specifically, the ways it departs from the book: it’s the Rohanian-propaganda version of the War of the Ring.

I won’t spoil the movie or Bruce’s points by quoting specifics, but you can read his post here.

Speaking for Teresa and myself, we saw it at noon on opening day (geeks? us?), enjoyed it like crazy, and have been niggling about the details ever since. As I said coming out of the theater, “I have about four dozen arguments with what they did, and in about two dozen of those cases, I could just as easily argue their side.” But just as with the previous movie, any film of Tolkien that gets so much so right earns a lot of slack from me. We’ll probably see it a couple more times in the next week or two.

[11:23 AM : 0 comments]


To: The Blogosphere
From: A. N. Editor

It’s spelled T o l k i e n.

If that’s too difficult, just remember the central rule of English spelling: I before E except when it isn’t.

(In our next exciting installment: Azimov, Delaney, and Phillip K. Dick.)

[10:22 AM : 0 comments]

I’m amazed that, despite all the weblogs I’ve read in the past day (Technorati is certainly an addictive set of tools), I’ve only just now discovered that Joe Strummer died.

[09:03 AM : 0 comments]

December 21, 2002
Scott Rosenberg of Salon has been linking to one of the most interesting weblogs to emerge from the “Salon Blogs” project: Real Live Preacher, the anonymously-posted thoughts of a Protestant pastor in Texas.

It’s nothing like what you might expect. It’s funny, profane, and profound, and full of belief, unbelief, and the dark night of the soul.

It’s only been going since December 6. Use the little calendar in the upper right-hand corner to read the preacher’s posts in order. It’s worth your trouble.

[11:16 PM : 0 comments]

December 19, 2002
Charles Paul Freund has a history lesson:
It was Inauguration Day, and in the judgment of one later historian, “the atmosphere in the nation’s capital bore ominous signs for Negroes.” Washington rang with happy Rebel Yells, while bands all over town played ‘Dixie.’ Indeed, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who swore in the newly elected Southern president, was himself a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile, “an unidentified associate of the new Chief Executive warned that since the South ran the nation, Negroes should expect to be treated as a servile race.” Somebody had even sent the new president a possum, an act supposedly “consonant with Southern tradition.”

This is not an alternate world scenario imagining the results of a Strom Thurmond victory in the 1948 election; it is the real March 4, 1913, the day Woodrow Wilson of Virginia moved into the White House.

As Freund points out, Wilson’s status as a progressive saint is based on his losing crusade to bring the US into the League of Nations. Back at home, though:
One legacy of post-Civil War Republican ascendancy was that Washington’s large black populace had access to federal jobs, and worked with whites in largely integrated circumstances. Wilson’s cabinet put an end to that, bringing Jim Crow to Washington.

Wilson allowed various officials to segregate the toilets, cafeterias, and work areas of their departments. One justification involved health: White government workers had to be protected from contagious diseases, especially venereal diseases, that racists imagined were being spread by blacks. […]

When the startled journalist William Monroe Trotter objected, Wilson essentially threw him out of the White House. “Your manner offends me,” Wilson told him. Blacks all over the country complained about Wilson, but the president was unmoved. “If the colored people made a mistake in voting for me,” he told The New York Times in 1914, “they ought to correct it.”

Don’t forget that Richard Nixon, architect of the modern Republican “Southern strategy,” liked to mau-mau easily-confused journalists by describing himself as a “Wilsonian liberal.” How right he was. (Credit to Jim Henley for spotting this fine Freund piece.)

[10:20 PM : 0 comments]

Nick Denton’s new start-up is Gawker, a “weblog magazine” of compressed Manhattan news, reviews, gossip, and cosmopolitan snarkiness. Urbane crack.

[11:35 AM : 0 comments]

December 14, 2002
Sister Advil: Last June, bass player and all-round Music Guy Jon Sobel, with whom I’ve played before, emailed to ask if I’d be interested in joining a new band he was forming. “Pope,” I answered smoothly. “Does the. Shit in the woods. Also, a bear.” Fortunately, Jon is used to dealing with musicians, so he took that to mean “yes.”

So we’ve been getting together when we can, in Jon’s fabulous rehearsal space deep inside an ancient warehouse in DUMBO (that’s Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), and at last we plan to play in front of people to whom we aren’t even related! Yes, you can attend the fabulous world premiere of Whisperado, 9 PM on December 25 at The C-Note, 157 Avenue C (at 10th St), that’s New York City, home of the blues. Thrill to the excitement of live music! Trade obscure weblog references with at least one musician! A fitting culmination to your holiday celebration! Act now, act without thinking, send money today.

[08:23 PM : 0 comments]

Good question: Virginia Postrel asks, about Trent Lott:
If he was so all-fired concerned about states’ rights and the decentralist ideas behind them, why did young Lott fight to keep northeastern chapters of his fraternity from voluntarily admitting black members? Answer: Jim Crow was never about voluntary actions; it was about preventing voluntary integration.
But claiming to be coerced while actually practicing coercion is a dark art that Southern racists have refined on for over 150 years. The Confederacy’s central claim was that the North was attempting to force change on them—but the central fact of American politics from the Mexican War to 1861 was the remorseless struggle of slaveowners to force Americans outside the South to enforce their “rights.” Whether Americans in Minnesota and Michigan and Maine wanted to or not.

As James M. McPherson put it in his Pulitzer-winning history Battle Cry of Freedom:

On all issues but one, antebellum southerners stood for states’ rights and a weak federal government. The exception was the fugitive slave law of 1850, which gave the national government more power than any other law yet passed by Congress.
Up to and including the power to send Federal soldiers into Northern cities to kidnap free Americans because a Southerner claimed to “own” them.
Yankee senators had tried in vain to attach amendments to the bill guaranteeing alleged fugitives the rights to testify, to habeus corpus, and to a jury trial. Southerners indignantly rejected the idea that these American birthrights applied to slaves. The fugitive slave law of 1850 put the burden of proof on captured blacks but gave them no legal power to prove their freedom. Instead, a claimant could bring an alleged fugitive before a federal commissioner (a new office created by the law) to prove ownership by an affadavit from a slave-state court or by the testimony of white witnesses. If the commissioner decided against the claimant he would receive a fee of five dollars; if in favor, ten dollars. This provision, supposedly justified by the paperwork needed to remand a fugitive to the South, became notorious among abolitionists as a bribe to commissioners. The 1850 law also required U.S. marshals and deputies to help slaveowners capture their property and fined them $1000 if they refused. It empowered marshals to deputize citizens on the spot to aid in seizing a fugitive, and imposed stiff criminal penalties on anyone who harbored a fugitive or obstructed his capture. The expenses of capturing and returning a slave were to be borne by the federal treasury. [emphasis mine]
There’s your “states’ rights” for you. Keep that in mind the next time you hear this vile platitude. It is the voice of the murderer who blames his victim, of the tormenter who claims he was forced. It is the great American lie, reborn in every generation. We may look like we’re taking baseball bats to everything decent, but we’re really the victims, ever think of that, huh? It is the voice of evil, caught in the act of becoming fully itself.

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December 13, 2002
“Choice of words:” From the Nashville Tennessean, a history lesson from Senator Bill Frist, the man George W. Bush would probably like to see replace Trent Lott:
“Senator Lott’s choice of words was insensitive and poorly chosen,” said Frist, a Republican. “Segregationist policies are the saddest chapter in our nation’s history, and comments from any elected official that suggest support for these offensive policies of the past must be condemned.”
Funny, I could have sworn that something called slavery was “the saddest chapter in our nation’s history.” But maybe they don’t teach young Senators-to-be about that down in Tennessee.

(Yes, he really did say Lott’s “choice of words” was “poorly chosen.” More proof that these kinds of statements aren’t much more than ritual speech.)

[12:31 PM : 0 comments]

Paul Krugman, this morning:
To win nationally, the leader of the party must pay tribute to the tolerance and open-mindedness of the nation at large. He must celebrate civil rights and sternly condemn the abuses of the past. And that’s just what George W. Bush did yesterday, in rebuking Mr. Lott.

Yet at the same time the party must convey to a select group of target voters the message 97 nudge nudge, wink wink 97 that it actually doesn’t mean any of that nonsense, that it’s really on their side. How can it do that? By having men who manifestly don’t share the open-mindedness of the nation at large in key, powerful positions. And that’s why Mr. Bush’s rebuke was not followed by a call for Mr. Lott to step down.

Of course, Mr. Lott isn’t alone in that role. The Bush administration’s judicial nominations have clearly been chosen to give a signal of support to those target Southern voters. A striking example has just emerged: We’ve learned that Mr. Lott supported the right of Bob Jones University to keep its tax-exempt status even while banning interracial dating; supporting his position was none other than Michael McConnell, a controversial figure recently confirmed as an appeals judge.

Notice, by the way, who really gets served in this charade. The open-minded majority gets ringing affirmations of its principles; but once the dust has settled, the people who agree with Mr. Lott get to keep him as majority leader, and get the judgeships too.

[08:38 AM : 0 comments]

Slacktivist has an excellent post on the multi-layered hypocrisies displayed in the Trent Lott affair. Excerpt:
The president’s remarks, “White House officials said … were orchestrated to distance Bush and his party from Lott’s remarks while giving Lott a chance to retain his leadership post” (from this reg-req L.A. Times story).

How nice of the White House to reassure the public that the president’s comments, while intended to appear heartfelt, were actually the result of cynical, political calculation, and that the president’s long-delayed response on this matter was crafted with a careful and fearful eye on the polls. (Didn’t DiIulio get in trouble for saying exactly this?)

Regarding DiIulio, the Slacktivist also zeroes in on this quote from Ron Suskind’s much-discussed Esquire article:
As for the Waterloo of South Carolina, most of the facts are well-known, and among this group of Republicans, what happened has taken on the air of an unsolved crime, a cold case, with Karl Rove being the prime suspect. Bush loyalists, maybe working for the campaign, maybe just representing its interests, claimed in parking-lot handouts and telephone “push polls” and whisper campaigns that McCain92s wife, Cindy, was a drug addict, that McCain might be mentally unstable from his captivity in Vietnam, and that the senator had fathered a black child with a prostitute. Callers push-polled members of a South Carolina right-to-life organization and other groups, asking if the black baby might influence their vote. Now here92s the twist, the part that drives McCain admirers insane to this very day: That last rumor took seed because the McCains had done an especially admirable thing. Years back they92d adopted a baby from a Mother Teresa orphanage in Bangladesh. Bridget, now eleven years old, waved along with the rest of the McCain brood from stages across the state, a dark-skinned child inadvertently providing a photo op for slander. The attacks were of a level and vitriol that even McCain, who was regularly beaten in captivity, could not ignore. He began to answer the slights, strayed off message about how he would lead the nation if he got the chance, and lost the war for South Carolina. Bush emerged from the showdown upright and victorious…and onward he marched.
Observes the Slacktivist:
Whether Mr. Bush was directly behind this despicable, sinful, racist behavior or not, these things are clear:

a. Bush knew about it.

b. Bush benefited from it — and would not be president had it not been for this racist appeal.

c. Bush has never, ever publicly apologized for it. (“Technical difficulties” indeed.)

Indeed. Winking at irredentist Southern racism has been a basic tactic in the GOP playbook long time. George W. Bush gets credit, even from liberals, for being personally non-racist, but the record shows that under pressure (like, for instance, after unexpectedly losing the New Hampshire primary), he and his political technicians know exactly what to do.

There’s a lot to enjoy at Slacktivist, in fact. I particularly like his use of the term “CHINO”, to describe slugs like Trent Lott: Christian In Name Only.

[07:46 AM : 0 comments]

December 12, 2002
It’s somehow disconcerting to find that it’s a real place, with a sign and everything.

It’s like discovering that the Holy Spirit has a storefront headquarters, and it’s in Fresno. That can’t be. Like the downward-diving pigeon, Google is numinous, immanent, and everywhere at once. It doesn’t have a street address, for cry eye.

[11:38 PM : 0 comments]

December 11, 2002
Every weblog in the world is full of links to half-clever Flash animations, but this one is particularly smart and well-done. Warning: contains sound.

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December 10, 2002
Busy, trying to get caught up with work, not writing as much as I might. This is temporary. Meanwhile, Ted Barlow is back. Go read him.

In fact, a bunch of weblog writers have been superb lately. Max Sawicky continues to afflict the comfortable with style, swagger, and panache. Kieran Healy has been a consistently -interesting recent discovery, and I duly admired the OS X screenshot, too. BoingBoing is, as ever, the best geek blog on this or any other planet. Jeralyn Merritt just gets better and better, with constant, eloquent legal coverage from a principled liberal position. Atrios has been on fire, fact-checking Trent Lott’s ass with primary-source material like the 1948 Mississippi Democratic Sample Ballot. Jim Henley is, as ever, our favorite wild-eyed libertarian, but we’ve been reading some other smart libertarian webloggers, too, like Julian Sanchez and the new group weblog from the staff of Reason. Finally, the terrifyingly wholesome Kevin Drum, Mr. Calpundit, has practically been our home page here at the high-rise chrome-and-titanium headquarters of Electrolite.

More in a bit.

[06:04 PM : 0 comments]

December 06, 2002
That fabulous, record-breaking Chinese economic growth? It seems likely that, in fact, local officials are making it all up.

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December 05, 2002
Whitfield Diffie invented public-key cryptography, and is one of the smartest people I have ever met. Today he’s Chief Security Officer of Sun Microsystems. Here’s a fascinating interview with him.
I started out thinking of myself as NSA’s opponent, but within a few years, as a result of studying its technologies and activities, I developed a great deal more sympathy for intelligence overall. In the context of the Cold War, the worst possible thing was to imagine two blind men in a room with machine guns. Intelligence was a stabilizing phenomena in international relations in a way that I thought liberals were blind to. […]

The issue of key escrow won’t go away because, to the authoritarian mind, the natural view is, “Of course, a court has the right to issue a subpoena for this information. Therefore, it has the right to have machinery built in that will execute the subpoena for it and provide that information.” The anti-authoritarian mind would think, as I do, that the important thing about a free society is the distinction between being held to account for your actions and being forced to do what society wants.

UPDATE: For some people, the URL above redirects away to a different page. Courtesy of Paul Hoffman, here’s the Google cache of the actual interview.

[08:12 AM : 0 comments]

December 01, 2002
Your Louis Menand moment: Reviewing Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, in The New Yorker, November 25, 2002, p. 98 (not online):
The insistence on deprecating the efficacy of socialization leads Pinker into absurdities that he handles with a blitheness that would be charming if his self-assurance were not so overdeveloped. He argues, for example, that democracy, the rule of law, and women’s reproductive freedom are all products of evolution. The Founding Fathers understood that the ideas of power sharing and individual rights are grounded in human nature. And he quotes, with approval, the claim of two evolutionary psychologists that the “evolutionary calculus” explains why women evolved “to exert control over their own sexuality, over the terms of their relationships, and over the choice of which men are to be the fathers of their children.” Now, democracy, individual rights, and women’s sexual autonomy are concepts almost nowhere to be found, even in the West, before the eighteenth century. Either human beings spent ten thousand years denying their own nature by slavishly obeying the whims of the rich and the powerful, cheerfully burning heretics at the stake, and arranging their daughters’ marriages (which would imply a pretty effective system of socialization), or modern liberal society is largely a social construction. Which hypothesis seems more plausible?

[…E]ver since On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, people have used Darwin’s theory to explain why one or another way of managing human affairs is “natural”. The notion is that a particular arrangement must have been “selected for”—as though the struggle among individuals and groups were nature’s way of making sure that we end up with the best. Evolutionary psychology is therefore a philosophy for winners: it can be used to justify every outcome. This is why Pinker has persuaded himself that liberal democracy and current opinion about women’s sexual autonomy have biological foundations. It’s a “scientific” validation of the way we live now. But every aspect of life has a biological foundation in exactly the same sense, which is that unless it was biologically possible it wouldn’t exist. After that, it’s up for grabs.

[10:54 PM : 0 comments]

Your Matthew Yglesias moment:
Combatting religious fundamentalism, promoting democracy, and committing America’s wealth and power to the betterment of the world are liberal goals in perfectly good standing, and it’s time to start re-adopting them. The recent flap over Saudi Arabia and the now-brewing one over Henry Kissinger are excellent examples—there’s one political party in this country badly in hock to the Islamism-loving oil industry, and it’s not the Democrats. It’s time for us to start acting like it.

[10:34 PM : 0 comments]

Your Jim Henley moment:
From the perspective of the Arab world, they’ve been enduring a half century of smack downs. It doesn’t seem to have improved their attitudes. “The beatings will continue until morale improves” makes a cute cubicle poster, but not an effective foreign policy. […]

Now that Unqualified Offerings thinks about it for a minute, the notion that “a large Arab country like Iraq needs to be smacked down to provide impetus for democratic reform in all of Arabia and destroy Islamic fundamentalism” just seems too stupid for words. We might define “too stupid for words” as the certainty that one’s opponents will see the same virtues in your actions that you do.

[10:32 PM : 0 comments]