Why Is Our Intelligentsia Getting Dumber?
February 28, 2011, 11:03 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

On Libya, the New York Times opens an article like this:

BENGHAZI, Libya — Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces struck back on three fronts on Monday, using fighter jets, special forces units and regular army troops in an escalation of hostilities that brought Libya closer to civil war.

I don’t know any other way to read this than that the New York Times doesn’t think what is occurring in Libya right now is a civil war. Events are bringing it “closer to” a civil war but it’s not one right now.

This is symptomatic of what I’ve complained about many times: Almost everyone in the West, especially among the intelligentsia, seems to have utterly forgotten basic, common-sense facts and simple knowledge about warfare. If what’s occurring in Libya right now isn’t “civil war”, then I don’t know what the heck is. People who don’t understand that – it’s not clear what they do understand about warfare.

I can only conjecture that the NYT is unsure it’s okay to call what’s happening in Libya a “civil war” because it doesn’t quite seem to fit the template laid out in movies like Gone With the Wind and Glory. Doesn’t there need to be a pitched-battle in a muddy field like Gettysburg, and legs getting cut off due to gangrene, in order to call something a “civil war”?

This is similar to how the entire intelligentsia still – here and now, in 2011 – refers to the situation in Iraq as “The Iraq War” (tm/2003). Ask anyone. People still discuss and speak about whether they agree with “The Iraq War”. That’s because, as everyone knows, there’s an “Iraq War” going on right now – which one? – “The” Iraq War. And why, you might ask, is there an “Iraq War”? Because the United States has soldiers stationed in Iraq. No one can conceive of the war being over, and us having won it (which actually occurred with the capture of Saddam Hussein), because it doesn’t fit their template of ‘winning a war’, which – as far as I can tell – comes from the ending of the original Star Wars trilogy: big thing is exploded, the Emperor is tossed down an endless pit, and all the people cheer, because there’s now permanent peace. Unless/until that happens, you can’t “win” a war, so the war can’t be over, so it’s still going on.

Describe the events of Iraq to a person plucked from 200 years ago, and they’d go: “I see. So, let me summarize: the U.S. successfully invaded, occupied the country, decimated and scattered the army, and the former leader was captured. I gather the U.S. won, then.”

Similarly, describe the events of Libya today, and they’d instantly recognize it as a civil war.

So the question is: why are people today dumber than people of 200 years ago?

My Oscar Goes To The Funny One
February 27, 2011, 11:17 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’m not a big believer in the idea that the Oscar is any genuine measure of a movie or an actor in the first place. But if we must take Oscar seriously, then I would point out what I think is its most glaring deficiency: the short shrift given to comedy.

Not an expert but I reckon that being funny on film has got to be one of the more difficult things to pull off in movies. It truly takes skill and talent. Lots of people can fake at being all pouty or sad that such and such Dramatic Thing happened. But not a lot of people, when you get right down to it, can actually be funny in a movie.

When they do, and are, I’d like to see them get Oscars. Why don’t they? Well because Oscars are too Serious and take themselves so Seriously that they’d be embarrassed to do it. At most they’ll give it to a comedy if the comedy gets all solemn and tear-jerky near the end (for example, Life Is Beautiful.) This is just one of many reasons that Oscars are meaningless, but it’s a big one.

Let’s look at 2004′s awards (honoring films from 2003). Here were the Best Actor nominees: Sean Penn for Mystic River, Ben Kingsley for House of Sand and Fog, Bill Murray for Lost In Translation (who got in via the ‘solemnness’ comedy exception), Jude Law for Cold Mountain, and Johnny Depp for Pirates (which, ok, fair enough). Sean Penn won for some movie you’re never going to watch again for like the 5th time and there you go. Whoop de doo. Raise your hands, how many of you want to go back and rewatch Mystic River because Sean Penn was so damn Oscary in it? (And how many of you even remember anything at all about Law in Cold Mountain?)

I submit that the winner should have been….Jack Black, for School of Rock (which I also think ought to have won Best Picture). The problem is that Black isn’t a Serious Actor, so he wasn’t considered. But he should have been. With all due respect to Mr. Kingsley who did well enough as that Iranian guy, no single actor that year stood out as much in a movie performance as Black.

Let’s go back and identify some other great comedy performances – and compare them to the actual Oscar winners:

2004 – Jon Heder, Napoleon Dynamite. (winner – Jamie Foxx for Ray)
2003 – Jack Black vs Sean Penn
1999 – Ron Livingston, Office Space. (winner – Kevin Spacey, American Beauty)
1998 – Jeff Bridges, Big Lebowski. (winner – Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful)
1997 – Mike Myers, Austin Powers. (winner – Jack Nicholson, As Good as it Gets)
1990 – Macaulay Culkin, Home Alone. (winner – Jeremy Irons for Reversal of Fortune)
1988 – Leslie Nielsen, The Naked Gun. (winner – Dustin Hoffman for Rain Man)
1983 – Eddie Murphy, Trading Places. (winner – Robert Duvall for Tender Mercies)
1982 – Sean Penn, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. (supporting actor winner – Louis Gossett Jr)
1979 – Bill Murray, Meatballs. (winner – Dustin Hoffman for Kramer v Kramer)
1978 – John Belushi, Animal House. (supporting actor winner – Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter)

Now, I don’t say that every guy on my Comedy List was better than the actual Oscar winner, and some of the matchups here are tricky. I’ll give my props to Walken and Duvall – those were their best performances after all. And choices like Culkin, or Nielsen, may seem downright stupid (though I can kinda defend them – they left their mark, didn’t they?).

But imagine that, for each pair, you had to go back and watch one of them again. Is it so much of a stretch to think you’d pick more from the comedy list? And mightn’t that say something? Which list contains more performances that stand out in your mind as distinctive, as good performances? I know my answer…

Data About Music

By popular acclaim, here is some DATA for your DATA processing pleasure. Because nothing says music and artistry appreciation like DATA!

Out of curiosity – or simply because I’m just the sort of nerd to do something like this – I threw my iPod listening history into a pivot table and, where necessary, grouped artists together by one-degree-of-separation associations (for example the top item, which is 1/6th of what I have ever listened to, are all groups that contain Jack White, Brendan Benson, or both).

I think it’s clear this shows me to be a not-well-rounded, non-diverse music listener of high order, not likely to impress a SWPL diversophile anytime soon (for one thing, the list is very white. No Kanye West whatsoever! In fact, I think the only nonwhite you’ll be able to find below is a Brazilian, singing in Portguese – singing David Bowie songs).

Measuring this way (by number-of-songs-listened), a third of my listening is accounted for by essentially three acts, and fully half of what I listen to ultimately comes from seven sources: the aforementined White/Benson axis, the Canadian band Sloan, Tim Rogers or his band You Am I, Dr. Frank or his band the Mr. T Experience, Green Day or the albums they’ve released incognito, the Easybeats (? I guess because they’re the canonical iTunes band – also, because their songs are short, it’s easy to rack up listens), and various projects having something to do with what I still think of as my favorite band of all time, Redd Kross.  It’s even less diverse than it appears, because there are numerous incestuous collaborations with the preceding that I probably haven’t accounted for (for example, for reasons too boring to go into if you don’t already know them, one could justify merging Jason Falkner into the Brendan Benson category, the Posies in with Big Star, the Muffs and the Mr. T Experience, Beck and Redd Kross, etc.) I just noticed that I didn’t merge Fountains of Wayne with Tinted Windows, but kinda should have. Then of course you could expand the metric: didn’t Redd Kross tour with Teenage Fanclub? And didn’t they cover a Shangri-Las song or two?

But I’ll spare you.

Races:  white, white and white.  Countries:  U.S., Canada, Australia, and (further down) a bunch of Englands. 

Music:  Rock and/or roll.

(Compare and contrast: President Obama’s supposed iTunes playlist circa 2008. Couldn’t find a more recent one, presumably because whatever interns a guy like that has to construct things like this have been too busy to brainstorm, agree on, and focus-group such a list recently…)

The full list is below (for brevity, I’ve truncated a long tail of one-play-wonders, but this shows 98% of all plays), summarized by number-of-songs-played, as a percent of the total. And before you say it, I already know what you’re thinking:

You’re thinking, “FASCINATING”.


Grouping Total
White Stripes/Raconteurs/Brendan Benson/Dead Weather 16.8%
Sloan 9.5%
You Am I/Tim Rogers 6.0%
The Mr. T Experience/Dr. Frank 5.7%
Green Day/Foxboro Hottubs 5.0%
The Easybeats 3.9%
Redd Kross/Malibu Kids/Anna Waronker 3.8%
Rocket From The Crypt 3.2%
Elliott Smith 3.2%
ex-Jellyfish (Jason Falkner/Roger Manning/TV Eyes) 2.9%
The Shangri-Las 2.2%
Weezer 2.2%
Warren Zevon 2.1%
Fountains Of Wayne 2.1%
Teenage Fanclub 1.9%
Macklemore 1.8%
The Muffs 1.7%
Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra & Jansug Kakhidze 1.4%
Mike Patton 1.4%
Matthew Sweet 1.4%
Gene Clark 1.3%
The Hi-Fives 1.2%
Big Star 1.1%
Sam Roberts 1.1%
CAKE 1.0%
Weird Al 1.0%
The Vandals 1.0%
Pulp 0.9%
Superdrag 0.9%
ex-Jayhawks (Gary Louris, Mark Olson) 0.8%
Joan Jett & The Blackhearts 0.8%
Beck 0.8%
Squeeze 0.8%
T.Rex 0.8%
Tinted Windows 0.8%
Seu Jorge 0.8%
The Dickies 0.7%
Sweet 0.7%
Suede 0.7%
David Holmes 0.6%
Utah Symphony Orchestra & Maurice Abravanel 0.5%
Badfinger 0.5%
Alphaville 0.5%
Spacehog 0.5%
John Grant 0.3%


Andromeda Klein
February 27, 2011, 3:53 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

Excellent fan-made video for the author-made theme song to one of my favorite children’s books.

Bill Clinton, Right-Wing Menace
February 27, 2011, 2:47 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

Maybe I’ve missed it but few seem to have noticed that the recent bold, historic, progressive Obama Administration initiatives have ended up being repudiations of no one so much as…the Clinton Administration led by his Secretary Of State’s husband.

It was Bill Clinton who implemented “don’t ask don’t tell”. It was Bill Clinton who signed the Defense Of Marriage Act. (I might add that he also blockaded and repeatedly bombed Iraq, believing them to have WMD programs, and also signed ‘welfare reform’.) To hear the Left today, these were evil, repressive, right-wing policies, and reversing them was of the highest priority.

I’m left wondering why exactly the Left ever liked Bill Clinton at all. Was it just the (D) after his name? Flash back to 1998: Clinton was impeached, and the Left threw a hissy fit, successfully arguing against conviction, of this man whose policies they obviously hate.

Had Clinton been successfully convicted, what would have happened? Al Gore would have become President. And one might argue he would have won re-election easily in 2000. Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?

What exactly was the Clinton adulation and knee-jerk defense based on? Because evidently it wasn’t the substance of his policies.

This Year’s Goldstein II
February 27, 2011, 2:22 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

What I’m trying to get at with the Emmanuel Goldstein post is how strange it is that the Left so often becomes so personality-focused in their counterarguments to right-wing proposals. I say (or more likely/more feasibly, some politician says) ‘let’s do policy X’. Sooner or later, we’ll find that the Left’s response is not that policy X is bad because of reasons ABC, but that the politician advancing it is a bad person.

Let’s say you convince me that that Wisconsin governor guy (whose name escapes me) is a bad person because he took that phone call. Do you think I feel compelled to defend him against your petty attack? What do I care. I have nothing invested in what’s-his-name per se. And it’s not like I’m related to him or anything. It’s not like I’ve married all of my ideas to that particular individual. Similarly, let’s say you convince me that proves that he’s in thrall to the ‘Koch brothers’ (whoever they are) who, you convince me, are super-bad people.

Now what? What the hell do you think you will have proved about public-sector unions? The mind boggles.

The Metric Is Not The Goal
February 27, 2011, 2:28 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

A side eddy that came up in the below-mentioned free trade debate is this notion of ‘GDP-maximization’ as a symbol for what is (purportedly) wrong with liberal economics. Foseti says that there are/should be other values besides simply maximizing ‘GDP’ (here serving as a stand-in for wealth). Aretae says economic growth rate is the god-metric.

Once again – and I’m sorry I know this is getting really annoying – but they’re both right. If you focus on ‘GDP’ (or any similar, actually-existing metric) and construct policies around trying to maximize it, or that you think would maximize it in your thought-experiment, seems to me you are indeed likely to end up with some warped outcomes, that antiliberal skeptics can and will point to, as a weak link in your free-market armor, as evidence that liberal economics ignores (what Foseti terms) ‘higher values’.

Yet I still agree with Aretae that economic growth should be the goal! How can this be?

Growth should indeed be the goal. It’s just that we can’t measure it worth shit. We can’t measure anything worth shit, because these aggregate metrics and statistics are all the result of large calculations by nice-comfy-job’ed well-enough-meaning Smart People, and all large calculations are wrong. What we can do is use reason and economic common sense, to understand which policies are likely to point in the right direction. And then make convincing arguments for those polices, based on reason and economic common sense (NOT statistics like ‘GDP’).

And the right direction is, undeniably, economic liberalism, which is to say, the free market, which is to say, freedom. This is probably why it remains true, as Bryan Caplan wrote, that the more people understand and have knowledge about economics (as opposed to ‘GDP’ or something), the more economically liberal they are.

But if you think ‘GDP’ is a synonym for wealth and ‘GDP growth’ is a synonym for economic growth, and/or if you think that economic liberals actually believe in ‘GDP’ or otherwise only look at part of the picture, then Foseti’s appeal to these or those ‘higher concerns’ left unsatisfied by liberal economics has undeniable appeal. But of course ‘GDP’ is just a made-up metric; surely it’s designed to capture something interesting and meaningful, and does an ok job in the main, but even if measured perfectly it’s ultimately – necessarily – an imperfect approximation to the thing it’s meant to signify. (Interesting discussion of some conceptual problems with the GDP construct, which I have no doubt only scratches the surface, is here.) And we can’t and don’t measure it perfectly anyway. But this is sort of a red herring. GDP is just a metric.

So let’s address one of Foseti’s ‘higher concerns’, the externality caused by an Oregon teenager being unemployed when he could be pumping gas due to their full-service-gas-station requirements. The idea being, a ‘you can’t pump your own gas law’, in creating a job for that teenager, could be better than the nominally ‘GDP-increasing’/efficient solution of not having such a law. Do I agree with Foseti that an unemployed young person is a problem? Of course. Do I think the ‘GDP-maximizing’ mentality could lead one to render the teen unemployed with no (or, insufficient) associated benefit? Sure, perhaps. But do I agree with Foseti that such laws therefore make sense? I absolutely do not.

If that teen being unemployed causes an externality, that externality, by definition, is destroying wealth one way or another (this is what externality means). Foseti would probably say that the sort of ‘wealth’ it’s destroying won’t necessarily show up in ‘GDP’, but that’s merely a statement of the incompleteness of ‘GDP’ as a measure of wealth – not a proof that increasing wealth isn’t a good goal. And if it’s destroying so much wealth that it’d be better just to have a self-service ‘tax’ (in the form of that law), then having the self-service law would be the wealth-maximizing solution. It may or may not be the ‘GDP-maximizing’ solution, but if it’s not, that’s (in this hypothetical) a knock against GDP as a metric of what it’s meant to measure. Basically, Foseti in citing an ‘externality’ is saying, every bit as much as Aretae did, that the best policy is the one that maximizes wealth; it’s just that it may not maximize GDP (in which case GDP is failing to capture something important about wealth).

But it would not be so if ‘GDP’ were a perfect metric – if it really were the god-metric. Using the god-metric, the best policy would always show up on top. It’s just that we can’t build, let alone measure, the god-metric.

This all sounds pretty tautological, which it is, which is why once I figured this out I stopped getting into these sorts of discussions.

The ultimate problem for Foseti’s case is that he needs to actually establish his claim – namely, that the externality of the unemployed Oregon teen outweighs the economic damage caused by the inefficient no-self-service law. Unless I missed it, he hasn’t. This would require actual economic argument. Economic liberals have the argument that, if the teen pumping gas were the economically-preferred solution, then people would have been paying up for full service already. Foseti instead just substitutes a call to ‘higher concerns’. And he’s clearly correct that that’s what people do, when they oppose liberal economics as cold and not responsive to other human values. They say that an obsessive focus on ‘GDP’ leads to the neglect of other important values. Is that true? Of course it is. ‘GDP’ sucks, it’s just some human-constructed number that to be measured and calculated, and all large calculations are wrong.

But that doesn’t mean that economic growth shouldn’t be the goal, and it’s not an excuse for substituting your ‘higher concerns’ for those of other people – especially the ones that show up in market prices. Essentially, if you think ‘GDP’ is an imperfect metric, I’m with you, but if you want me to support policy X as economically preferable, you still need to convince me – with actual economic argument – that it increases efficiency and wealth (broadly defined – and I’m willing to entertain quite broad notions of ‘wealth’). But this is hard to do if you make no reference to – or, worse, ignore and wave away as meaningless – revealed preferences whatsoever.

‘GDP’ certainly is, and market prices may be too, an imperfect metric for the thing they represent. I am nothing if not skeptical – to the extent that I can pretty fairly be accused of being an anti-intellectual know-nothingist – of human-created metrics. But at the end of the day, even I think – especially – market prices are probably better than your waving of hands. In short, if you really think it’s so beneficial for the teen to pump your gas, then feel free to express that value – that ‘higher concern’ – by reaching into your pocket and paying full service.

This Year’s Emmanuel Goldstein
February 27, 2011, 1:11 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

It’s been pretty hilarious to observe the rise of “the Koch brothers” in the Left’s pantheon of black-hatted behind-the-scenes right-wingers, secretly pulling the strings and controlling everything.

Whatever happened to “Richard Mellon Scaife”? Was there even a power struggle between the Scaifes and the Koches? Or did he cede behind-the-scenes power peacefully?

The cute little Left. They always need someone to hate, don’t they?

You’re Both Right, Suckaz, So Deal With It
February 26, 2011, 8:15 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

Foseti has written further on his free trade conversation that left me in ambivalent paralysis, so I owe him a response.

To summarize what (I think) their conversation is about,

Aretae reasons from first principles, and using strong examples/reasoning, essentially that free trade (and related liberal economics) is Pareto-optimal, and wishes to emphasize the hidden costs that are obscured or ignored by conventionally-protectionist attempts to do good.

Foseti says that (if only due to human imperfection) what applies globally and in the abstract may not hold locally in some particular implementation, and wishes to emphasize that people may have values that aren’t always easily satisfied by, for lack of a better characterization, ‘GDP-maximization’.

Hmmm. Will I lose my blogging license if I just reiterate that I still think they both make good points, and am inclined to argue with neither one? Because frankly, I don’t even see the two as being necessarily in conflict.

To be sure, on the whole, I share Aretae’s views on free trade. Meanwhile one can easily understand why people, e.g. the displaced worker Foseti invokes, might not in certain situations, and would support e.g. tariffs. The free-trader would say ‘that’s a wrong/immoral and we could help that worker more cheaply anyway’ – which I believe is correct. The protectionist would say ‘however true that may be in the abstract, I live here and now and I doubt your thought-experiment solution would or could become reality’ – which is a fair point. Thus, free traders have correctness on their side, while protectionists are understandably unswayed. That about sums it up and not sure what there is to add.

If, like me, you would like to see freer trade and more liberalized economics, I guess one thing you can do is always try to make hidden costs more visible whenever/wherever possible, which can never hurt. Caplan’s whole point in his book is that the more people know about economics, the more they support free trade and so on. Protectionists of any reasonable intelligence need to acknowledge that they are focusing on the visible/near, and as such are almost inevitably doing a shoddy job of weighing hidden/diffuse costs. Meanwhile, among free-traders, the whole displaced-worker problem is usually waved off by mumbling something about ‘worker retraining’ or some similar, imagined alternative to tariffs, etc they cite as cheaper. This is obviously a chink in our armor; it strikes me as ‘correct’ only in a highly hypothetical sense; in reality I don’t even know what ‘worker retraining’ is supposed to mean, nor do I have any evidence that government-funded ‘worker retraining’ of any sort has really ever accomplished anything for anyone whatsoever, other than the people who got government jobs/funds out of implementing it. Similarly, it’s common to invoke ‘we could just send them a check for $X’, which again, however true, doesn’t seem to have actually ever happened, and if it did, it’s not obvious it would be done well. Basically it’s incumbent on people who cite theoretically-superior alternatives not to stop at the existence-proof but to proceed to the construction as well.

Back to the blog-debate, if we’re doling out points, Foseti does get a point on the technicality that Aretae’s statements are indeed often phrased (needlessly, I think) uber-strongly, such that one counterexample suffices to defeat them. (I took this as rhetorical flourish…) On the negative side of the ledger, Foseti started this conversation by reacting to Bryan Caplan, who (he claims) stated in his book that if everyone knew economics, literally no one would support tariffs. This seems like a slight straw-man to me, as I’ve read Caplan’s book and that’s not quite what I remember its point being. At most, I thought Caplan was dealing in generalities and ‘on averages’ and so on. I could be wrong, but it does illustrate that there are more- and less-charitable ways of interpreting the voices on all sides of this debate. I’m stubbornly insisting that in this situation, I think Foseti and Aretae are both right, dammit.

Two Cheers For DOJ On DOMA
February 24, 2011, 6:30 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Via Tom Maguire, Orin Kerr is troubled by the implications of the Obama DOJ’s decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act:

By taking that position, the Obama Administration has moved the goalposts of the usual role of the Executive branch in defending statutes. Instead of requiring DOJ to defend the constitutionality of all federal statutes if it has a reasonable basis to do so, the new approach invests within DOJ a power to conduct an independent constitutional review of the issues, to decide the main issues in the case — in this case, the degree of scrutiny for gay rights issues — and then, upon deciding the main issue, to decide if there is a reasonable basis for arguing the other side. If you take that view, the Executive Branch essentially has the power to decide what legislation it will defend based on whatever views of the Constitution are popular or associated with that Administration.

I would have thought this was already the case, and am somewhat shocked that Kerr (perhaps correctly, for all I know) thinks it’s novel or radical for the Executive Branch to:

  • independently evaluate whether it thinks laws are Constitutional, and
  • decide whether or not to defend laws against legal challenge based on the results of that evaluation.

Couldn’t they do this already? Didn’t they do this already? If not, why the hell not?

I. What Does It Mean To Defend The Constitution?

I am not a lawyer so obviously this is all just my opinion. But let me just throw this out for discussion:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will [...] to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

If this rings a bell, it’s because it is an excerpt from the Oath Of Office that is required – by the Constitution itself – of every U.S. President upon entering office.

Now, the Department Of Justice is a part of the Executive Branch, therefore answering to the President. Hence, the President is ultimately responsible for its actions or inactions. This means, it seems to me, that if the President orders, or allows by omission/neglect, the Department of Justice to do or defend something that by his lights violates the Constitution, then he is in violation of his Oath Of Office: he has failed to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States to the best of his ability.

The only question then is what violates the Constitution and what doesn’t. How is a President to know, prior to ordering the DOJ to defend or not-defend laws? Ultimately there is only his judgment, in coordination with and informed by whatever advisors and experts he has amassed around him. Could he be ‘wrong’ in this or that view of what the Constitution requires? Of course. He is a human. So can all the other humans in all the other branches of government. A President nevertheless takes an oath to defend the Constitution “to the best of [his] ability”. If that ability is seriously deficient or error-prone, that is another story altogether. But the activity itself of evaluating laws for their Constitutionality before deciding whether to defend them – it seems to me that not only should fall well within a President’s (thus Executive Branch’s) purview – but is an integral requirement of the office. Indeed, a President who does not do this would strike me as derelict in that regard (and thus, if Kerr’s characterization of precedent is accurate, I suppose all Presidents have been).

Because from what Kerr is saying, it’s a highly radical notion, and the status quo has been for the Executive Branch to blindly “defend the constitutionality of all federal statutes if it has a reasonable basis to do so”, whether or not it actually believes in that basis. Which doesn’t strike me as really defending or protecting the Constitution at all. So what am I missing? One thing’s for sure, clearly I won’t be getting tenure at a law school anytime soon.

II. Let Me Get This Out Of The Way

Now, as the preceding is meant as a discussion of general principles, I haven’t addressed the particulars of this situation in any detail. So let me get that, and my views on DOMA and gay marriage in particular, out of the way:

  1. First I’ll note in passing that ‘marriage’ means ‘a union of a man and a woman’. Words mean things. That’s the definition of this one. As a general rule, words ought not be redefined by legislatures. Instinctively I greet legislative attempts to radically redefine the word ‘marriage’ with the same disgust as I greet legislative attempts to redefine the number pi.
  2. That aside, ‘marriage’ as a social institution is one that predates the U.S. and just on general principles probably shouldn’t be messed with or redefined for no good reason.
  3. There really is no good reason here. The best reasons, are not so good:
  4. The equal-rights argument – ‘heteros can get married and gays can’t, so gays have less rights’. Not true: gays can get married. Remember: ‘getting married’ means, in part, ‘forming a union with a willing member of the opposite sex’. Nothing prevents homosexually-inclined people from doing this if they wish (and indeed, many have, historically!). What’s that? They mostly don’t wish? You don’t say! Similarly, I don’t wish to go fishing, hence I don’t partake of my right to apply for a fishing license. So what? Doesn’t mean I don’t have that right.
  5. Equal treatment under the law – i.e. ‘this denies homosexuals equal access to certain societal privileges, at least without marrying someone they don’t love, hence they’re not getting equal treatment under the law.’ This argument is slightly better, but only slightly. The privileges/conveniences alluded to here, as far as I can tell, consist of stuff like: 1. filing joint tax returns, 2. ‘hospital visitation rights’, 3. spouse benefits from someone’s employment, 4. um, probably some other conveniences, involving paperwork and stuff (mortgage applications? drawing a blank). These all strike me as highly petty and minor (when not cravenly materialistic), not to mention easily resolvable – in fact, in most places they are probably solved under current law already – by means other than redefining marriage (do hospitals really actively not let homosexual lovers visit each other? Even if they don’t, is gay marriage the only or even best remedy to that?). Also,
  6. There’s probably no good reason for most of those governmentally-allocated ‘benefits of marriage’ to exist in the first place. If I had my druthers I’d probably just do away with the benefits themselves & equalize things that way. Actually let me go one further,
  7. There’s probably no good reason the law needs to recognize ‘marriage’ at all per se. That said,
  8. Perhaps it’s true that (if only out of convenience/continuity) most of those legal recognitions of marriage, or of some union anyway, ought to stay in place. In which case,
  9. I have no problem extending those to homosexual couples as well. Big deal.
  10. Which is a long-winded way of saying I support civil unions, I guess. (Or, the ‘garriage’ solution, which I find cute.) I mean, if the government needs to be in the business of Officially Acknowledging With Whose Genitalia In Particular Its Citizens Like Their Own Genitalia To Primarily Come In Contact at all.
  11. But if civil unions must be done, that seems like a state thing. I mean, really.
  12. The DOMA says, in part, that one state need not recognize another state’s ‘marriage’/union definition. This doesn’t seem unconstitutional to me – indeed, the Constitution explicitly gives Congress the power to define the parameters of ‘full faith and credit’.
  13. It also defines marriage on a federal level as a union of a man and woman. I can buy the arguments for this part being unconstitutional. (I also don’t know why it was even necessary to throw in there.)
  14. I am not a lawyer.

III. Here’s A Radical Idea: Everyone Should Defend The Constitution

Anyhow, regardless of what you or I might think about DOMA, or gay marriage in general, one thing is pretty hard to dispute: President Obama, and the people who work for him, probably all do think the DOMA is unconstitutional. They may have good reasons or bad reasons for thinking this (I suspect mostly bad if not downright dumb), but that they think it, is not really in doubt. Given that this is what they think, then, what are they supposed to do when the law is challenged? Vigorously, legally defend a law they find unconstitutional?

Of course not. Were it up to me, I would have Executive Branches evaluating constitutionality on everything, not just on hot-button issues. The fact that they (I gather) don’t, is the real scandal here. It’s an integral part of their job for crying out loud!

Now keep in mind, just because DOJ isn’t defending the law, doesn’t mean the courts should knee-jerkily find it unconstitutional. The definition of ‘unconstitutional’ isn’t ‘whatever DOJ decides not to defend’. People are talking as if this move by DOJ settles the deal and the constitutionality challenge can now be rubber-stamped. I don’t understand why. Maybe indeed Obama/Executive/DOJ are wrong. The courts, too, have a responsibility to uphold the Constitution, by their lights. Obviously the more realpolitik analysis is that the courts here are ideological and this gives them political cover to do what they wanted to do all along. If so, that actually puts the courts more in the wrong than DOJ.

More broadly, if you take in the big-picture thrust of my comments, what I’m advocating for is a world in which all branches of government share the responsibility of defending the Constitution. Current doctrine believes this responsibility rests entirely with Judicial. If that’s what you think too, then I guess I can understand disapproving of this move by DOJ. But if you want a world in which the Executive Branch has just as much responsibility to defend the Constitution as the Judicial Branch does – a world in which President Bush would not have signed the McCain-Feingold Act despite having “reservations about the constitutionality” and believing that somehow only the Supreme Court could declare it unconstitutional – then you should be welcoming this decision by Obama’s DOJ. All things considered, for this administration, at least this has the surface appearance of a belief in actual principles worth defending and actual, legitimate deference to constitutional duties – even if it’s ultimately being done for insincere and ideological reasons.

Which is why, two cheers.

UPDATE: I probably have to take it down to one cheer, at most. In this column where he makes many of the same points I did above (i.e. that it’s not Only The Supreme Court that should concern itself with constitutionality), Jonah Goldberg informed me what I hadn’t known before – that Obama still intends to enforce this DOMA that he (purportedly) finds so unconstitutional. That, of course, is unconscionable and a violation of his Oath of Office – unless Obama is simply being disingenuous in claiming to find DOMA unconstitutional. It’s one or the other, really.

Blogosphere Quandary
February 24, 2011, 1:52 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

What I starred today while at work turned out to be two related posts: touched off by Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter book, Foseti writes in (slight) favor of protectionism, and Aretae argues with him.

The quandary here is that I think they both make some decent points, as both posts are thoughtful and well-written, and I’m glad for having read them both. And that’s about it.

So NOW what am I supposed to do? Being inclined to take neither ‘side’, and with no one really to argue with, what remaining role is left for me, Blogger? Am I now supposed to get a cat and take photos of it and post them, or something?

Answer on your blog.

On Unions
February 22, 2011, 11:56 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

On Wisconsin and unions, opinions will vary but I would think there is one principle that all rational, intelligent people could agree on, which is: however important unions are, they’re more important to have in the private sector than in the public sector.

I am not a union fan. To me unions are just another Insider’s Game: ‘let’s set up an institution where we get to collect part of everyone’s paycheck, and in return claim to speak on their behalf’. Who plays and succeeds at this game? Charismatic, eloquent types who instinctively know they will rise to the top of such crowds. So, unsurprisingly, that’s who wants games like this to exist and clamors for laws to create them. People are naturally inclined to favor games in which they perceive themselves to have a natural advantage. Which equally explains why I don’t support unions.

But unions were not supported or created based on those arguments, obviously. There were and are principled arguments for them. One principled argument is that the ‘right’ to be forced to join a union and have your paycheck garnished unionize is something that flows from free speech, or assembly, or something – something like an obvious emergent right that builds off basic, individual, inalienable rights.

This justification breaks down upon even the most superficial inspection. If all unions were about was speech and assembly (and withholding your labor), there would be nothing controversial about them. Yes of course, people have the right to form ‘clubs’ of whatever sort with each other, go to meetings, give part of their paycheck to other people, to complain about things, and if they are really unhappy with their working conditions (including wages), not go to work and say they’ll only come back if they get more pay. But that is not actually what unions do – none of that is where the rubber meets the road, because it fails to incorporate the key points about modern unions: 1. being able to force people to join them, i.e. monopolize labor, 2. being able to force a company to negotiate with certain dudes that have been anointed the union leaders, and 3. the company is not allowed to fire people when they don’t come to work (which is ridiculous!).

Points 1-3 form the actual teeth of unions. Without them, unions would be superfluous and pointless. With them, unions are what they are. But none of 1-3 flow from the right to free speech, or free assembly, or any other individual right of any kind. ‘Rights’ in general are a red herring when used as an argument for unions: their existence and justification stems from no such thing.

Instead, their existence stems from government edict, from a series of labor laws explicitly enshrining unions as a sort of legally-created institution around which certain rules of the road are stated. Without those laws, unions wouldn’t exist (or they could, but again, would be superfluous). So they are better understood as a sort of neo-medieval institution, as guilds created and specially empowered by the king to do this and that. In the face of this realization, Why should this institution exist at all? is a natural question.

The principled answer here is simply and explicitly power-based: the idea is that corporations need a counterbalance. Corporations, too, are fictitious, non-organic creations of the state, endowed with certain powers (e.g. limited liability). So the argument is that, as constructed, the system of corporations becomes too powerful and if given no counterbalance this would lead to a bad situation for employees. Hence, let’s empower unions too, by whatever right and authority we used to empower corporations.

This argument, I must say, has some merit. It can’t be easily dismissed; there could be something to it. At the very least, even the most instinctively anti-union person (such as myself) must recognize that there could be sectors or industries in which the (government-created, after all) corporate structure leads to a warped situation, and against which unions are a reasonable and feasible solution.


The public sector consists of people who work for the government, i.e. for taxpayers, to give them some service. There’s no valid concern about ‘corporations’ needing a ‘counterbalance’ here. There are no liberterian qualms to soothe or guilt to ease about having creating an unbalanced situation with limited-liability; government workers simply weren’t hired into LLCs, by definition. They were hired into the one institution – government – that by definition and construction is monopolistic (over the use of force). If you believe government should exist at all, then you should make peace with this property of government, and hence, with whatever effect it might have on its employees.

So when we’re talking about government and those in its employ, there is nothing to ‘correct’, no error to rectify, no ‘original sin’ of limited-liability that can possibly justify the creation of unionization as a fix. Government has monopoly power and (since the last 100 years) paycheck-garnishing power. So the criteria for government should be to deliver the best quality it can to the people at the lowest price – period. Hence, even if unionization is justifiable (and I am not convinced that it is, but I can see the arguments), there’s no valid argument whatsoever for (legally empowered as such) unionization of government workers.

Yet what we’re finding out from the Wisconsin and related examples, it seems, is that these are among the most powerful and un-dislodgeable unions. Which is totally perverse and I dare anyone to try and justify it.

Libya: The Gipper Revolution
February 21, 2011, 11:56 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Having (successfully and accurately, I think) christened the recent military takeover of glorious, liberalizing democratization in Egypt as The Porn Revolution, methinks it is now time to set my deft and insightful gaze upon Libya.

There’s a problem however which is that Libya is not as well chronicled in the Hollywood films and related popular-culture paraphernalia which form the backbone of my knowledge about the world.

To my mind, there’s only really The Wind And The Lion starring Sean Connery as a Berber and Candice Bergen as an attractive woman he kidnaps, both of which are hilarious concepts in themselves. And on reflection that may not actually have had anything to do with or been set anywhere near Libya (too lazy to wiki). But you must admit, the Stacy Keach portrayal of Teddy Roosevelt alone is worth the price of Netflixion. Two-and-a-half stars out of four-and-a-half.

What else? I think some of Patton may have taken place there. Is Casablanca in Libya? That was a good movie (though it could have used more nudity IMHO). And if you play Caesar III on your computer you may have some experience in opening up trading routes with Libya (or is that Phoenicia?). But really, aside from these facts, little is known (and even less cared) about this strange, faraway land rumored to be ‘Libya’. Does it even really exist, or am I confusing it with Narnia?

I suppose if you go back to the late ’80s, pre- our troubles with the Panama guy, and check out Joe Piscopo SNL skits and Abrams-Zucker-Abrams productions of the period, you’ll often find some actor dressed as Khaddafi Qaddafi Qadafy the Libya guy and getting his comeuppance of one sort or another (before 1991 came around and Saddam Hussein took over that role for good). In fact all things considered that’s probably what he’s best known for at this point.

Which reminds me, the main thing that Libya calls to mind is us being excitedly told that we had just bombed Libya by my history teacher while we were on the requisite school DC trip. That teacher was so excited by the drama of it all! It was like he was back in the days of Vietnam, I bet. I bet he expected us to stage a walkout or a sit-in or a walk-in or a sit-out of some sort to protest the evil actions of the US Government. He seemed to be so convinced it was all so historic, that my inclination was to play along just to humor him. Meanwhile, the girl I had a crush on DIDN’T EVEN GO. That was a boring school trip (quite inferior to the school-band trip to Disneyland).

Anyway, so if there’s one thing that Libya calls to mind, it’s none other than the Gipper. President Ronald Reagan the one and only. HE is the one who made the crucial decisive decision to bomb Libya, and now here we are, just 25 short years later, with Kadhaffiy teetering on the brink of power. You have to admire the Gipper’s foresight and prescience, in the face of nattering naysayers.

Hence, I hereby christen this: The Gipper Revolution. As far as I’m concerned, this notch belongs squarely on Ronnie’s belt. I mean, to think: he saw the dominoes way back then. While everyone else was playing checkers….he was playing dominoes.

Score another one for the Gipper.

Because I Didn’t Want To Leave You Hanging On The Ending Of eat pray love
February 21, 2011, 2:18 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Yes, as predicted, she has sex with Javier Bardem! I feel so prescient.

(The preceding was a SPOILER)

Overall, I for one was mesmerized by one woman’s journey from a life of not enough money to suit her expensive, entitled New York tastes for lifestyle and travel having married too young and feeling emotionally empty, to having sex with an independently-wealthy, jewel importing-exporting, responsibility-free, basically-lives-in-a-vacation-house Brazilian personal and spiritual enlightenment. The whole experience made me want to stand up and cheer: “Liz Gilbert, you go girl!”

No, seriously, I mean it – just go.

Questions You Should Be Prepared To Field, If You Catch Part Of An Old James Bond Movie (With A Six-Year-Old)
February 21, 2011, 1:59 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized
  1. Is that a bad guy?

  2. Were those bad guys?

  3. Do they know that they are bad guys?

  4. Does she know that she’s with bad guys?

  5. Why is James Bond talking to the bad guys?

  6. Were bad guys in that [e.g., helicopter]?

  7. Why is the bad guy hitting the other bad guy? Does he want to turn good?

  8. Is James Bond married to that girl now?

  9. Does she not wanna be a bad guy anymore?

  10. Did all the bad guys fall down yet?

  11. Are all the good guys okay?

  12. Where are they now?

  13. But why did they go to [e.g., Italy]? I thought they were supposed to be in [e.g., Egypt]?

  14. Is that where the bad guys live?

  15. Are all the people in [e.g., red] uniforms bad guys?

  16. Are all the people in [e.g., blue] uniforms good guys?

  17. Why did they take off their clothes?

Answers, in order:

  1. Yes.
  2. Yes.
  3. Yes.
  4. Yes.
  5. He’s pretending to be a bad guy so he can find out their bad plan.
  6. Yes.
  7. Good guys work together, but bad guys don’t always.
  8. No, they are friends.
  9. [if 1st half of film] No, she’s still a bad guy, and trying to trick James Bond. [2nd half of film] Yes, she wants to be a good guy.
  10. Almost.
  11. Most of them.
  12. [Name the country.]
  13. Because they found out the bad guys were hiding the [thing] in this other country.
  14. They don’t live there, but that’s one of their secret hideouts.
  15. Yes.
  16. Yes.
  17. Because their clothes got all wet and they didn’t want to be cold.

(Based on The Spy Who Loved Me, but should work for almost all James Bond movies, with only minor adjustments.)

Links & Excerpts
February 20, 2011, 10:50 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized
  • The Imaginot Line by Paul Seabright. HT Kling who excerpts the same thing I would:

    The reason why it was so easy to sell securities rated triple-A — like the higher tranches of the now notorious collateralized debt obligations — was not that every potential buyer was a true believer in the theory of efficient markets. It was because financial regulators insisted a triple-A rating was necessary for many of the investments made by pension and mutual funds, which the regulators would never have done had they been convinced that the market would take care of these investment decisions by itself. If the market is always right, why insist that investors choose highly rated assets?

    Too much ‘unfettered’ free market, eh? Yeah right


  • Aretae:

    Regulation/politics is an iterated game. If you don’t understand that there’s folks with different positions who are playing the iterated game…you lose. See, for instance, financial markets. Anyone who makes regulations without understanding that there are folks on the other side planning to game the regulations is simply doing it wrong.


  • Borepatch on what it would take for the left to be intellectually vigorous


  • Russ Roberts wants to “get the government out of the banking business”. Yah, good luck with that. He also tries to make a case that Fannie/Freddie may have had something to do with inflating the housing bubble, which everyone knows is obviously completely incorrect, because Paul Krugman told me so.


  • But if you’re stupid enough to disagree with Paul Krugman that there was never a single thing wrong with Fannie/Freddie, John Hempton has a decent suggestion on what to do with them.


  • Meanwhile, Steven Landsburg destroys Krugman’s favorite ‘baby-sitter’s club’ economic parable.


  • I like this from Arnold Kling: “When you think of the economy, think of a rain forest that you live in and study, not a machine that you fix.” But Smart People like thinking of things as machines for them to fix. So let’s just pretend. Also, that way Smart People get lots of good jobs.


  • Women prefer larger governments – tell me something I didn’t know.


  • Mangan’s zone of arrogance hypothesis is interesting.


  • My new favorite rapper Macklemore shows lots of class, and in a just world, is destined for stardom.


  • Interesting graph that puts complaints about ‘inequality’ in the U.S. into some much-needed context.


  • Foseti cracks me up on DC:

    The neighborhood is . . . unique. First, there are lots of young people. Second, unlike other cities, DC isn’t overly expensive – everyone makes some decent money but no one is rich – so the young people can afford to go out. Third, at least 60% of the young people are girls. Fourth, at least half the men are gay. Fifth, virtually all the girls that move to DC do so to “work in sustainability” or some such bullshit.

    The thesis is that this leads to a sexual culture particularly suited to Roissy-ness, and it’s pretty convincing.


  • I found this post rather poignant: Should I Sell Barry Bonds’ Rookie Card (and the Rest of My Collection)? I still remember when we all thought those little rectangles ‘would be worth a lot some day’. A dream that, like so many other childhood dreams, is dead. In this case, killed by the internet (specifically, eBay).


  • Devastating critique of Mad Men, which I have never watched, and this article certainly hasn’t given me any reason to change that. The one aspect I have a feeling is missing from that critique though is how much of the appeal of Mad Men is simply due to its fashion/art design. Which may as well be phrased ‘designed to appeal to gay men’.


  • Via Underground Man, an excellent description of the Smart People ideology:

    The mainstream elite worldview can best be summed up as “managerial liberalism”, a kind of technocratic oligarchy which sees itself as administrators of a highly complex and pluralistic society with a large, low paid workforce spread across the world.


  • Communism was a cargo cult. I’ve made this observation before about other instantiations of left-wing ideology.


  • Old news I guess, but new to me that Freeman Dyson is a heretic on climate change. (HT)


  • Katja Grace on the strange way we deal with supposed gender inequality, which is essentially to encourage women to become like men.


  • Finally – last but certainly not least – do not miss Sheila’s teenage diary entries about seeing concerts ‘from’ the teen-inspirational-say-no-to-drugs rock group Freedom Jam. I think they came to my school too! Thanks to Sheila for those diary postings – they are truly a gift.

The Logan Rape: Proudly Brought To You By The Porn Revolution
February 20, 2011, 9:15 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Hate to say it, but in light of this, this has got to seem at least 10-15% less dumb now, doesn’t it?

I mean, you’ve gotta admit there’s something to it.

Charley Varrick
February 18, 2011, 6:27 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

When you think of ’70s sex symbols you think of Walter Matthau. That’s why there’s Charley Varrick!

Charley Varrick really has it all together. A smooth operator, quick on his feet, he always keeps it together. You can tell by that casual flick of a stick of gum into his mouth, leaving just a tinge of sugary paste on his bulbous lips. And then, don’t even get me started about the way he always chomps casually on that gum when he’s working some scheme. Nice touch. It says: “I’m just a regular schmo, don’t mind me, nothing underhanded going on here.” But there is! That’s his secret.

Charley Varrick is a ’70s action heist movie from the master, Don Siegel. It starts off with AWESOME action as Charley & the gang pull a good old fashioned bank job deep in the heartland of New Mexico. One thing they do is, the girl shoots two cops. In the head. And then, it turns out the girl is Charley’s WIFE which was really sad because she died too. There was a scene where you could totally tell he was sad about it. But then they had to blow up the car she was in. (Not to leave any traces for the cops). By the time 20 minutes later, you kind of forgot about her.

The good thing about ’70s movies like this though is how, they never drag you down with anything depressing. Like, in today’s modern ‘realist’ degraded Hollywood, if a girl killed two cops and then she turns out to be the wife of the main character, and she dies too, all just so they could get some money, that they’re gonna give back anyways, there would probably be a lot of scenes about him being all torn up. And, feeling guilty. By the time you’re through with that, the audience is all bummed out. And who can even enjoy a movie that way?

But not Charley Varrick! The music especially, keeps the mood nice and light. It’s hard to describe but it’s I’d call it kind of like Rockford Files music. Like, ‘doo-duh-dee-doo, doo-duh-dee, doo, doo’. Light and groovy. So if he’s walking around, or driving some car or they just killed someone, there would be the music. Doo-duh-dee doo. So it’s like, every time you might be thinking, ‘Gosh, the things that just happened on screen, if I consider them objectively, they’re actually kind of sick and murderous and depraved’. Then the music comes back in. ‘Oh, right. This is all in good fun. We’re watching the wacky and entertaining adventures of Charley Varrick. Good ol’ Charley!’

I wonder if it was a TV show too, because it totally could have been. ‘Charley Varrick. A Quinn Martin Production. Don’t go anywhere now, Charley’ll be back in a moment.’ What kind of crazy schemes will he think up next?, you wonder during the commercial break. But it probably wouldn’t have starred Walter Matthau because he’s more of a silver screen type of guy. For the TV version I’m thinking they could have used Larry Hagman or someone like that.

Charley has a sidekick which is good, because all cool movie guys have sidekicks. You got Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Harold and Maude. And all the rest. It turns out I didn’t like this sidekick though because he was the crazy killer from Dirty Harry. But anyways, he was going to doublecross Charley Varrick so he let the killer kill him. Well, I’m not explaining it very well but it makes sense in context.

There’s a bad guy after him. I got confused which bad guy was which because you got Dean Wormer from Animal House and you got another guy (recognizable) playing the hired killer. (Again – don’t worry – the tone always stays nice ‘n light). But annyways, they’ll get their come uppance. That Charley, he’ll figure something out!

Near the end Charley (Walter Matthau) tails the woman who works for the bad guy and then finagles his way into her apartment. After he calls the bad guy she asks what he wants to do and, well I don’t have to tell you the rest. (She sleeps with him)! May seem unrealistic in today’s times and mores but in fairness – a reminder – again, this is Walter Matthau we’re talking about.

The one and only.

Three stars out of four-and-a-half.

UPDATE: For your listening pleasure,

Well Yeah
February 13, 2011, 10:59 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

Overheard SWPL mom: “Have you heard about the administration’s new housing plan? Basically nobody’s going to be able to buy a house. Unless, you know, they can afford it.”

Um well yeah. That’s kind of how Buying Things Or Not was always supposed to work.

Actually it’s rather tautological: if you can’t afford something, you won’t be able to buy that thing. That’s what ‘afford’ means. Or, did.

Socialism makes people retards; basic concepts, lost.

Why I Can’t Wait To See How Eat, Pray, Love Turns Out

So, if I know anything about my blog readership – and I like to think that I do – I can tell that when you woke up this beautiful Sunday morning, the first thought that came into your head – surprisingly, but somewhat understandably – was, “I wonder when Sonic Charmer of RWCG will get around to watching and reviewing the Julia Roberts movie adaptation of eat pray love!”

Well it may have to wait another week or so, as I could only get through half of it last night. But ah, what a half! The eating! The praying! And yes, the loving!

For those who are late to the magical ride that it’s been, eat pray love is some sort of book that you would have seen-but-not-read about a zillion times if you had been to any Barnes & Noble at any time in the past 5 years. Now generally, the great thing about going to a Barnes & Noble is that to see such a book – its trendy may-as-well-have-been-written-by-Malcolm-Gladwell white cover with spare, centered graphics illustrating the title -

- is to not to have to ever read it. Hence, I don’t, and thus haven’t. Likewise, I know I shall never have to read one of those The Girl With.. books, or Freedom: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen, or The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver or, like, The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton. Merely to see any of these books is to instantaneously cure yourself of whatever craving or inclination (say, on the advice of some annoying, flighty acquaintance) you may have ever had the potential of developing for reading them. Thus, countless hours of precious life saved. Thanks Barnes & Noble! It’s like the anti-Oprah.

The writer of eat pray love, which I lowercase-ize in honor of the aforementioned trendy book cover, is one Elizabeth Gilbert. Having seen the book and having heard that it was something about ‘one woman’s travels in search of’ (whatever), many’s the time I furrowed my brow and puzzled and stewed over the fact that the Little House on the Prairie girl had actually grown up to be a bestselling author of this sort of tripe. It was only recently that some halfhearted and perfunctory google searches led me to a definitive conclusion that – however trivial this difference may seem – Elizabeth Gilbert was, technically, not the same person as Melissa Gilbert.

Since as you might guess I still carry something of a torch for the still-hot-in-a-homely-sort-of-way-IMHO ersatz Laura Ingalls, and occasionally dream of heroically defending her against the machinations of mean Mrs. Olsen and thereby winning her heart away from Manly, learning that eat pray love had literally nothing to do with Melissa Gilbert at all (as far as I can tell, Elizabeth Gilbert isn’t even like, her sister or anything; the whole thing is such a scam!) had successfully extinguished all further interest I may have had in the book itself.

But there’s always the movie version. And seeing as how this was rumored to star America’s favorite sweetheart and “pretty woman”, Julia Roberts, the medicine promised to go down a lot easier (or at least more briefly), and I relented. Because, who doesn’t love a good Julia Roberts vehicle where, as in all Julia Roberts vehicles, Julia Roberts plays a character much like Julia Roberts – tall, bony, ‘confident’, ‘strong’, ‘independent’, black-eyeball-having, mantis-like Julia Roberts. America’s heart just melts at the sight of her! Or at least, all the chicks open their pocketbooks.

On to the film then. Overall let me just say that to watch eat pray love is to be transported into an alien society. In a way, it’s an apt, female companion piece to Avatar, just, with less blue. Allow me to recap some of the perplexing-yet-fascinating-in-their-alienness developments of the film’s first hour. (SPOILERS!!1):

  1. At the beginning of the film, we are meant to understand that “Liz Gilbert” is some sort of famous and celebrated author. This is incomprehensible unless perhaps some kind of time travel is involved, because of our knowledge that the events in the film, being part of the eat pray love story, cannot possibly have taken place until after eat pray love came out and became a bestseller. However, for all I know, maybe she was indeed well-known in New York and they would actually line up in theaters to hear her recite from her banal writing. Who knows. New Yorkers will throng to the lamest of things and think they are being cutting-edge. But I’m still going with time travel.


  2. The setup is that she starts out married to a perfectly nice guy. So naturally, we are supposed to understand and sympathize with how miserable she is.


  3. Actually I’m being inaccurate because I’m not fully laying out her motivations and reasons for being unhappy. Her motivations consist of money, money, and money. You see, although Liz Gilbert is an independently-wealthy writer (being such a great and famous writer and all), her husband doesn’t have an Important Job. He is a pastry chef and is thinking about maybe going back to school for a Master’s in education. ALARM! NON BREADWINNER! Pastry chef-turned-school administrator doesn’t get you to Central Park West!, thinks Julia Roberts, and all the head-nodding women in the audience. Hence, she is “miserable”, and in short order, lesbian lawyer at her side, she divorces him, because she “doesn’t want to be married”. Of course not! All this guy is is a nice guy she’s been with for eight years. How is that supposed to be enough. Where’s the MONEY?


  4. There’s also an attempt at a hint that Gilbert is unhappy because she wants kids, or something. I mean, there’s no sign that Gilbert herself wants kids. But her soulful, wisdom-spouting, trendily-black best friend has a kid, and a box with kid stuff in it, and that’s very sweet, says Gilbert. The rest is left unstated. That’s because, clearly, it’s mostly about the money. Indeed, Gilbert’s “box” doesn’t have kid stuff in it, it has glossy travel stuff. Travel which is well nigh impossible, you see, being married to a man who doesn’t rake in the dough to support a lifestyle characterized by pointless and responsibility-less ‘traveling’ everywhere, and only possible if you have an important job as a ‘writer’ who (therefore) gets paid by a magazine to travel places, and of course, to write bestselling ‘memoirs’ at the ripe old age of 32 of your privileged yet basically uneventful life. Oh but yeah, it was about kids, that’s why she was miserable. Right


  5. You may say I’m being unfair. Consider: the movie opens with Gilbert visiting some sort of Hindu wise man in Bali. Among his predictions within the film’s first 3 minutes: you will lose all your money. When the husband isn’t enthused about some trip to Mexico, and instead voices a desire to maybe go to school for a Master’s (which will cost money, and he won’t be bringing in money while he does it, you see), the first thing she thinks is the prediction is coming true. What prediction? The money prediction. After all this is just a painful reminder that being with him, won’t necessarily allow her to travel wherever she wants whenever she wants regardless of expense or responsibilities. The very next scenes are: a thirty-second scene of prayerful soul-searching, and then the divorce. Bye bye!


  6. Then for about seven movie-minutes she has an improbable affair with a 15(?)-years-her-junior, soulful Brando-esque actor played by James Franco. This is done purely to ratify her status as a hot sexy woman whom all the guys crave, presumably. Speaking of, you should really take this opportunity to check out the normally-lame Roger Ebert’s excellent review of eat pray love for some genuine comedy gold – and I mean it, I literally laughed out loud here:

    …her quest involves discipline in meditation, for which she allots three months rather than the recommended lifetime.

    and here:

    …she revisits her beloved adviser Ketut Liyer (Hadi Subiyanto), who is a master of truisms known to us all…

    and here:

    “Eat Pray Love”…mercifully reverses the life chronology of many people, which is Love Pray Eat.

    but, more to the point, here:

    She meets a man played by James Franco, about whom, enough said.

    In his defense let me just say I really liked James Franco on Freaks and Geeks. I even liked Seth Rogen and that other flabby guy who was in that Sarah Marshall movie. That was a damn good show. Wait – where was I?


  7. In short order the movie switches over to Italy for literally the most cliched ‘and then she went to Italy!’ scenes in movie history. The Italians seem to have been none too amused. I will be forever grateful to Wiki for excerpting and translating, from an Italian review, this gem:

    How many platitudes fit in a two-hour-twenty-minutes-long movie? [...] For example, in the long part shot in Rome, the mandolin is conspicuously absent. There’s a shower of spaghetti, Italians who gesticulate all the time and shout vulgarities as they follow foreign girls around. [...] There’s lots of pizza. But no mandolin. Why?


I stopped the thing just about when she left Italy (“eat”?) and went to India, presumably to “pray”. This will leave only Bali for the “love” of the third act, which sounds sordid although the DVD menu screen seemed to promise that Javier Bardem would at some point show up and have sex with her, and you know there’s nothing more that chicks love nowadays than to see Javier Bardem’s droopy eyes and yucky, screwed-up nose bespoiling some previously-high-class movie actress on screen. So there’s that to look forward to and I sure can’t wait to see how it turns out.

The deeper questions have already started to tug at my soul however and foremost among them: Why? Just why? Why was this thing made, why was this book written? What is it all about? Because as I said, the whole thing is essentially foreign to me. All of it. I don’t get it.

What does it mean that some random 32-year-old spoiled chick of no obvious merit or distinguishing achievement suddenly divorces her husband for no reason and then gets a book advance to go ‘traveling’ and write about it? What are we meant to be thinking about it all? And by ‘we’, I mean the target audience – of which I am obviously not a member. I wish I could understand, and get into the head of someone for which this stuff actually works as catnip. To such a person, I ask, in all sincerity: what does it all mean? What are you getting out of this? What am I supposed to get out of this? The generic New York apartment party at the beginning, the black friend, the baby, the divorce lawyer, the James Franco Hare Krishna vegetarian, the charmingly rustic Italian living with no hot running water, the Swedish not-quite-as-good-looking best friend, the spaghetti, the grab bag of Italians (translator guy, guy with beard, jovial fat guy, and their wives/mothers) she suddenly starts hanging out with for no reason, the scene discussing fat stomachs and buying bigger jeans but then inexplicably trying to squeeze into tight jeans anyway – the whole lot? Just why?

This is an alien story told in an alien language with alien grammar of an alien culture of which I know little and understand less. But clearly, someone exists on this wavelength. Well, I wish they could translate for me.

My instinct tells me that what’s going on here is mainly a sort of coronation of Elizabeth Gilbert as high-status female. Status can be achieved in many ways: by having an obscene amount of money, by landing some hunky actor or athlete, by simply being drop-dead gorgeous. Gilbert, presumably having failed at all of these, appears to have hit upon an increasingly-popular alternative strategy: conspicuous celebrity (the close cousin of conspicuous consumption). What is signaled by the divorcing of the husband, the writing of the book, the production of the Julia Roberts movie adaptation, is that Elizabeth Gilbert (whoever the hell she is, exactly) has sufficient means and independence to blow off all the men in her life, eschew any responsibility, go jet-setting on other peoples’ dime, do (essentially) nothing for months and months, and get guys to fall for her anyway. Other women watch this and lap it up because they are keen to see such successful status-signaling in action (if only to scour it for pointers and tips on how to do it, what excuses to tell yourself and others while you’re doing it, etc) and out of simple envy.

I, meanwhile, am watching it out of curiosity and fascination at the patterns and hierarchies, as I might gaze upon a children’s toy ant colony, or a beehive.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 412 other followers