Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Big Damn Movie

OK, I am officially getting pretty geeked out now, with a mere 30 days to go and the "Serenity" movie site getting a makeover today. I haven't gotten around to writing about the story of "Firefly" the TV series and "Serenity" the movie that debuts Sept. 30, but for now let me just repeat my prediction that "Serenity" will be the biggest gorram movie of 2005 (sorry, Anakin) and that this is the next Big Damn Movie Franchise. Shiny!

Geezers know how to rock

The Rolling Stones are knocking them dead everywhere with their new tour, with reviewers like this one in the Ottawa Sun reduced to writing not much more than "Ohmygawd, it was the best concert ever!"

It's the latest evidence that Jethro Tull was wrong way back when - there's no such thing as "Too Old to Rock and Roll." Here are these guys in their 60s blowing crowds away.

It's not just the shows, either, which are heavy on the oldies of course - I've been finding that the older folks are doing some of their best new music ever in what you'd think are their declining years. Johnny Cash is the greatest example of this: His last four albums, and the multi-disk set "Unearthed," show an artist whose voice may have aged but whose ability to create great music was still peaking. The stuff he created the last 10 years of his life was so breathtakingly good, I'm reduced to writing "ohmygawd, it's the best Johnny Cash music ever."

I'm going out on a major limb here, but I think Neil Young and Crazy Horse outdid themselves a couple years back with the "Greendale" album. That's a big statement about a guy who's been making great music since he started recording with Buffalo Springfield in 1967, but these 10 tracks that tell a haunting story take just about everything great about Neil and pack them into 78 just-damn-entertaining minutes. You've got the rambling, jamming Crazy Horse that rolls out 10-minute tunes full of jangling solos; you've got the characters and images and stories; you've got the social commentary that spells it all out in clever rhymes. Who needs "Cinnamon Girl" and "Pocahontas" and "Down By the River" when you've got "Carmichael" and "Grandpa's Interview" and "Be the Rain"?

He must know what he's got, too, because Neil has made "Greendale" a little cottage industry, with a solo acoustic DVD and a performance DVD with actors and a couple of other intriguing projects. I haven't checked out all of that stuff, but I keep playing the heck out of the original CD two years later. I own more than 30 of Neil Young's albums, plus all of Buffalo Springfield and the important CSNY projects -- "Greendale" is my favorite. Not bad for an old guy!

I can't say enough about "Brian Wilson Presents Smile," either, even though technically it's not new music and his band is sprinkled with younger folks (nothing old about Taylor Mills! but I digress). Brian performed a miracle by producing an album that lived up to literally 38 years of anticipation and expectation. It's simply the greatest pop-rock composition ever (there I go again).

When I saw this incredible band perform "Smile" earlier this month, I must have lost a gallon of water, tears sprang to my eyes so many times. It's that beautiful, that entertaining, that inventive, that satisfying, that moving.

Brian put out a fairly disappointing collection of new tunes just before "Smile," called "Gettin' in Over My Head," but he also had a very nice project a few years back called "Imagination." I wouldn't be surprised if the relief of successfully completing "Smile" sparks his creative juices; the best may still be ahead!

I haven't even gotten to Tom Petty's "Echoes" and "The Last DJ," or Springsteen's "The Rising" and "Devils and Dust," or Ry Cooder's "Chavez Ravine," but I've gone on long enough. Bottom line, a lot of old folks are just repeating themselves and resting on the laurels of their greatest hits, but a pretty good handful keeps working at it and producing incredible new music. Geezers rock!

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Study of fetal pain is a fraud

I'll be honest: I hate to talk about abortion because it's so hard to keep the conversation from becoming inflamed. I admit it's often my fault; as you can tell by the headline I chose, I have passionate views on the subject.

Views, I must add these days, that have only tangential relationship to my religious views. Frankly, science more than God informs me that a distinct individual grows in a woman's womb, and my political philosophy tells me that individual's rights count. I envy those who can blithely assert that the mother's right to control her body trumps the unborn child's right to have a body. It must be nice not to feel the conflict I feel over this issue.

(Not long ago the Mises Institute offered an interesting series of lectures by Walter Block as .mp3's that included a fascinating libertarian approach to the question of abortion, one that of course I liked because I substantially agreed. He started to lose me when he tried to tie it to embryonic stem-cell research, but that's another issue anyway. You can go to the Mises home page and find it by exploring the Mises Media database.)

The Journal of the American Medical Association stuck its foot in it last week when it published a political treatise disguised as a scholarly study that suggested fetuses don't feel pain until seven months after conception. Within 24 hours the authors had been outed as having a particular pro-abortion ax to grind.

In fact, just reading the introduction to the JAMA study makes the political aspect of the study clear -- the first reference after the list of authors is to the politics of it:

"Proposed federal legislation would require physicians to inform women seeking abortions at 20 or more weeks after fertilization that the fetus feels pain and to offer anesthesia administered directly to the fetus. This article examines whether a fetus feels pain and if so, whether safe and effective techniques exist for providing direct fetal anesthesia or analgesia in the context of therapeutic procedures or abortion."

So the purpose of the article is not to provide an objective analysis of the facts but to present a counterargument to the assumptions behind the legislation. It's mind-boggling that the biases of the authors escaped the notice of those who wrote the initial news stories about the study. There's a laziness among journalists that leads them to believe what they see in JAMA without critical questioning. How many people now accept the study at face value because they missed the follow-up articles the next day?

You know what, though? Much as I sympathize with the intent of the legislation, which is to relieve the pain the fetus will feel as it's shredded, the bill sends Congress even further astray from the purposes for which the Constitution created it. I haven't done the research, but I'll bet you a nickel I would not find a single writing by the Founders that proposes a federal government that would micromanage the practices of health care providers. I agree with the authors of the fraudulent study on a single, narrow point -- the bill should not pass -- but for a reason completely unrelated to theirs -- because the bill is unconstitutional.

A radical, not a revolutionary

James Leroy Wilson makes an important distinction between radicals like me who believe our government has lost touch with essential American concepts like liberty, and want to see it changed, and revolutionaries who would change it by force.

Among his nine very good points (and congratulations to James for resisting the temptation to come up with another point to make it a "Top Ten List"):

"A radical will live for and sacrifice for his highest values and principles; a revolutionary is willing to make others sacrifice for an ideal ...

"A radical will work for the repeal of laws and reduction of government; a revolutionary will use government, and even expand it, as an instrument to achieve his ends ...

"The radical prefers political separation - secession - to resolve irreconcilable differences, just like the American 'revolutionaries' did. But revolutionaries since then have instead focused on overthrowing the government, rather than separating from it."

These are important differences that take into account that some people actually like to live this way. They feel safer if a government clone mugs them before they enter a courthouse or arena, for example. A radical respects these people (who unfortunately now comprise a vast majority) and perhaps commits himself to educating them about why such muggings are un-American. A revolutionary would forcefully remove the clones, tear down the bars, and tell a frightened populace, "Fly! Be free!" It may sound like a wonderful dream until you confront the fear in the eyes of those who wanted the bars, who have not prepared themselves to live in true freedom.

It seems more appropriate to agitate for liberty and educate about the beauty of a system where everyone is free and respects his/her neighbor's freedom. This approach is agonizingly slow, but change that occurs from the inside out is far more permanent than change imposed from above by some Revolutionary Council.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Maybe we're all ambidextrious

As someone who came to libertarian thought from the right-hand side of the dial, I find the various discussions in the blogosphere about the Libertarian Left fairly interesting. Near as I can tell, I have moved from being a right-wing Republican wack job to being a leftie lunatic, without really budging much from my core beliefs.

When I recently discovered Murray Rothbard's seminal exploration "Confessions of a Right-Wing Liberal," I learned that I am not the first to experience this phenomenon. "Twenty years ago I was an extreme right-wing Republican, a young and lone 'Neanderthal' (as the liberals used to call us) who believed, as one friend pungently put it, that 'Senator Taft had sold out to the socialists,'" Rothbard wrote. "Today, I am most likely to be called an extreme leftist, since I favor immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, denounce U.S. imperialism, advocate Black Power and have just joined the new Peace and Freedom Party. And yet my basic political views have not changed by a single iota in these two decades!"

I am bringing a water pistol to a nuclear conflagaration, because while all of these writers have sped through the works of Rothbard and Mises and a whole slew of other deep-thinking philosophers, I have always preferred to curl up with a good novel, an album or a movie, and fill my head with ideas that way. As you can guess by the top of my page, my influences are not the great essayists but Heinlein, Bradbury and Orwell, most significantly "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," "Fahrenheit 451" and "1984."

I don't know how important it is to define one's self as left, right, moderate or whatever. The lines between them have blurred to the point where they're all advocates of what John Twelve Hawks calls the Vast Machine anyway. The "left" I have always known created the Great Society, a lumbering bureaucracy that claims to care about the poor and downtrodden. The "right" seduced me with the absolute truth that "government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem," but when it defeated the "left" and took the power, nothing changed except the priorities for which the lumbering bureaucracy is deployed. Our supposedly limited-government administration, confronted with 9-11, expanded the power of the Vast Machine and created two new Cabinet posts. Much like the ancient Mickey Rooney shorts where the solution was "Hey! Let's put on a show!" the answer to the challenges that confront us has become "Hey! Let's create a new government agency!"

I don't believe in left or right anymore. I don't look at the pigment of a man's skin and decide what I think of him, and I don't look at a big business leader or an aging hippie and make assumptions about their thought processes. The key to understanding a person lies in getting to know that person as an individual, not in knowing what category he belongs to. The real divide in America is not between left and right, which have turned out to be different flavors of the Vast Machine, but between those who trust government and those who trust individuals.

Am I left or right? I despise abortion because I see human life being flushed out of existence as if he or she was a cancerous tumor. I despise the death penalty because two wrongs don't make a right and state executions make my skin crawl. I don't think it's the government's business to license marriage, and if some church wants to declare a gay couple married, more power to it. I think the larger any organized human venture becomes -- church, state or business -- the more dangerous it becomes and the less it nurtures the best of humanity.

Again, maybe better thinkers than I have already come to these conclusions in scholarly tomes, but it comes down to this: If you think the state is the best vessel for solving our dilemmas and challenges, you've lost my attention. If you think we as individuals can work together to find solutions -- voluntarily and nonviolently -- I'm listening.

It's a huge task. Ninety-nine percent of those participating in last year's election voted for a candidate who advocated state solutions and expansion of the American empire. Most of the time it seems the best we can do is keep talking about these ideas and stay out of the way of the Vast Machine.

I guess I now belong to the libertarian left, having watched the nation lurch to the right around me as Rothbard and many others did before me. But I'm also still a Reagan Republican in many ways -- with the emphasis on Reagan's words, not his administration's actions (and deleting any references to asserting the American promise at the point of a gun). What is "left" and what is "right" seem to vary with the seasons. Maybe we're all ambidextrious in the end. The real eternal theme seems the individual versus the state. I'll trust the person next to me as opposed to the amorphous bureaucracy every time.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

What do ya mean, 'Book One'???

I knew something was up when things weren't quite coming to a tidy conclusion toward the end of "The Traveler," the current hot libertarian novel by John Twelve Hawks. "Wow, Self, this is a lot of loose ends to leave hanging in a 456-page book," I said to myself.

I'm more naive than I care to admit. It didn't begin to dawn on me until there were two or three pages left that I was being set up to buy the sequel. Sure enough, at the bottom of Page 456 is the clincher: "The End -- Book One of the Fourth Realm."

Damn. I have avoided trilogies and massive series books like the plague. Everybody thinks they can write the next "Lord of the Rings" or Foundation or Dune books. Well, kids, a Tolkien or Asimov or Herbert doesn't come along that often, and stories worth sustaining over three or more books are pretty rare.

By making "The Traveler" the first book in a series, Twelve Hawks and Doubleday up the ante on whether I recommend it. So here's the bottom line: Absolutely, this is a nice summer read that tells a compelling story and sounds important alarms about where we're going as a culture. But he should have added 100-150 pages and finished the story, because he did not make me care enough about these characters to want to read 900 more pages about them (assuming we're talking at least three books).

That's a shame, too, because he DID make me care enough that I'm glad I spent 456 pages with them, and I want to know a few things about what happens next. So all told, I'd recommend the book with a warning that you won't find out the answers to a few key mysteries. And maybe after a few days, I'll even concede that the mysteries are intriguing enough to buy another book or two. For now I'm too disappointed about the "to be continued" nature of the structure.

Don't get me wrong, it's not a cliffhanger; the book comes to a fairly satisfying conclusion. But I felt the story building to a climax, and rather than giving you a payoff, it suddenly (to me) veers into fuzziness. And I feel a little cheated not knowing ahead of time that I was not reading a self-contained book.

I like a book that lets you think about what happens next and wish for more; heck, I grew up reading comic books and paperback reprints of pulp novels, so I obviously love continuing adventures. But tell me what I'm in for; don't spring it on me on Page 456.

Does "The Traveler" stand up next to other action/science fiction/cautionary tales about the very near future? Absolutely. Go buy it and read it. But does it live up to the standards set by Foundation and Empire and Dune and Frodo Baggins? Absolutely not. Be warned! It's very, very good; it's just not THAT good.

Now. The book is packed with frightening images of how the Vast Machine has seized many of our freedoms and is taking aim on the rest of them. More on that another time; for now, I must leave and report to my work station.


Tuesday, August 23, 2005

'Twarnt the WMDs, stoopid

The standard line has become that George W. Bush took the imperial army to war in Iraq because of faulty intelligence or lies about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. The reason so many of us believe that is because of the Big Lie theory: We've heard that lie repeated so many times, we believe it.

Well, here is a truth from someone who hasn't developed political Alzheimer's: Regime change was the U.S. policy toward Iraq from the day Dubya's father rolled his troops into Kuwait in 1991. It was the U.S. policy throughout the eight years of a Democratic administration, and the Republican administration that followed seized an opportunity to implement regime change. This is Exhibit No. 1 for anyone who believes that replacing the Republican administration with another Democratic administration would make any kind of difference: President Bill Clinton's justification of his decision to bomb Baghdad Dec. 16, 1998:

"Other countries possess weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. With Saddam, there is one big difference: He has used them. Not once, but repeatedly. Unleashing chemical weapons against Iranian troops during a decade-long war. Not only against soldiers, but against civilians, firing Scud missiles at the citizens of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Iran. And not only against a foreign enemy, but even against his own people, gassing Kurdish civilians in Northern Iraq.

"The international community had little doubt then, and I have no doubt today, that left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will use these terrible weapons again ...

"The hard fact is that so long as Saddam remains in power, he threatens the well-being of his people, the peace of his region, the security of the world.

"The best way to end that threat once and for all is with a new Iraqi government -- a government ready to live in peace with its neighbors, a government that respects the rights of its people. Bringing change in Baghdad will take time and effort. We will strengthen our engagement with the full range of Iraqi opposition forces and work with them effectively and prudently ..

"Heavy as they are, the costs of action must be weighed against the price of inaction. If Saddam defies the world and we fail to respond, we will face a far greater threat in the future. Saddam will strike again at his neighbors. He will make war on his own people.

"And mark my words, he will develop weapons of mass destruction. He will deploy them, and he will use them.

"Because we're acting today, it is less likely that we will face these dangers in the future."

Bush could have used Clinton's speech as a template in March 2003. It was the final nail in the coffin for anyone who thought that replacing Clinton-Gore with Bush-Cheney would make any difference.

Why did we invade Iraq in March 2003? For the same reason we bombed Iraq in December 1998: To implement the U.S. policy of removing Saddam Hussein from power. The "why" of it can be debated until kingdom come: To prevent or destroy the WMD program. To gain revenge for his plot to assassinate Bush I. To make up for the mistake of backing Saddam in the Iraq-Iran war. Perhaps, probably, all of the above. But if Bush was lying, so was Clinton.

I have no problem believing both lied. In fact, it's a bit liberating to realize that Democrats and Republicans are two sides of the same Big Nanny Government coin; they just have different priorities in the race to control our lives. I heard it once described as Big Brother vs. Big Daddy. Another way of looking at it is what a Libertarian candidate once said: Both parties want the government to be your parent. Republicans want to be your father, and Democrats want to be your mommy.

Some of my friends think the solution is to elect a Democratic president to counter the Republican Congress, so we have gridlock. Or, shorter term, to elect a Democratic House or Senate and hope the Republicans hold the other house, again so we have gridlock. This assumes a major difference between the two major parties, a false assumption.

Other friends think the solution is a strong third party. I've been there for a long time now. The best we can expect is a 10-20 percent showing by a third-party candidate, to "scare" the Big Government Party into behaving for a while. Still other friends have stopped voting, believing that casting a vote is condoning a system corrupt beyond repair. Some days I'm almost there.

I am convinced the solution to this dilemma is not going to come from the ballot box. First we need to re-educate people (and in many cases educate them from scratch) about the Bill of Rights. Unless and until there's a basic understanding of the need for free speech, freedom of worship and assembly, the right to bear arms, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures -- unless and until we realize that the arguments over why we're at war are diversions from the basic problem that we're waging war unconstitutionally and therefore illegally -- unless and until people realize the president is an administrator, not a Leader, and the federal government was not designed to be the Supreme Power -- then we will continue down the road to tyranny, and we really don't want to be there. And yet, surprise, surprise, surprise, here we are.

So what's the answer, Richardson? I'm not quite sure. Let's educate everyone about what the American experiment was supposed to be, and see where an educated populace takes us. I'm the eternal optimist; I think it'll take us back toward liberty.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Serenity/Firefly: From the sublime to the ridiculous

The cats woke me up by trapping a mouse in the dining room. I ruined their fun by getting the poor thing out of the house with a plastic cup and a magazine, and then I couldn't get back to sleep right away. So in the dark of night, I've been exploring online and found a couple of interesting tidbits about Serenity, the upcoming feature film that continues the adventures of the stalwart crew of a Firefly-class spaceship 500 years in the future.

First, a new fan offers up a marvelous summary of why this movie is becoming the most-anticipated film in my life in years.

His thoughts parallel mine in many ways, especially: "I miss Firefly, and it's already been gone for a long time. For me, I only have to wait a few more weeks before I get to see the story continue on the silver screen. I actually feel bad for those fans who discovered the show far earlier than me, who literally had to wait years."

I promised the sublime and the ridiculous, so here is a look at a labor of love that is downright, well, it's a labor of love: the Serenity rendered in Legos.

Sept. 30 can't come soon enough for me, though. I am proud to say I have converted three people to Firefly since I bought the DVD set earlier this summer, and I won't stop talking about it. I don't know if Joss Whedon and company could have maintained the quality of the show if it had survived more than 14 episodes, but the point is the show was killed before its time, and its upcoming translation to the big screen proves that sometimes, there is justice in the world after all.

The latest trailer is worth the long wait for download. Even if you're not a browncoat yet, this should whet your appetite. As for me, it made me almost nuts for Sept. 30 to arrive.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Debt is slavery

A hugely important exchange about debt and freedom has been posted the last 24 hours at Claire Wolfe's blog. These thoughts should be shouted over and over again until everybody "gets it." They are so huge that I'm breaking out of my "yah, I'll post it Montag" routine. You gotta hear this Saturday; you gotta remind yourself about it tomorrow and the next day; you gotta etch it in your soul until it becomes habit. And yes, as I eye up my MasterCard and Visa and think about that scissors in my drawer, I confess it's a Truth I need to take more seriously myself.

The key posts begin as Claire comments about the appalling fact that most Americans are "net debtors," that is, we use the cards to live beyond our means. "Have we really become a whole country of high-rollers who live only for today, believing luck (or the government) will take care of us tomorrow?"

Then Silver checks in with the basic truth: "Freedom means, among other things, not being in debt." This is so obvious it escapes us in the press of everyday life. Hate your job? Ready for any kind of change? How often do you hear "I can't afford to," because that person has racked up so many bills the collectors need to be fed regularly, requiring a steady cash flow? The more debt, the harder it is to take a risk, even if the upside of the risk might increase cash flow in the long run.

"The point is, the only way to have a negative net worth, to stay in debt, is to spend more than you earn. Year after year, decade after decade, you consume more than your income. Your lifestyle exceeds your means. Debt is a way of life. It has its attractions: fine food and wine, new cars and exotic vacations. But it is slavery."

I don't know what effect these posts will have on you, dear reader, but my immediate reaction was hell, I can live with this Dell, forget the Mac G-5 until I have the cash ... there's nothing wrong with the '00 Chevy, let's coax a few more years out of it ... what can I sell to pay down these cards to zero ... and where the #%@&! are the scissors?

Monday, August 15, 2005

You had to be there

My parents tell me I was conceived to Side 2 of the Beach Boys "Pet Sounds" album, which is so much more than I ever really wanted to know. Of course it makes sense to start getting cozy to "God Only Knows," but it gives a whole new meaning to "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times."

That's how I got to be named Brian -- and yes, you have now guessed what the "W" stands for. And it helps explain why "Smile" has become my favorite album of all time. But you don't have to be named after Brian Wilson to know how great that music is.

Wilson brought his band to the Garden State Arts Center (I will not call it the PNC Center, thank you) Friday night, Aug. 12. Good thing they project him up on those big screens; I wasn't exactly sitting near the front. But the visual was not the main reason for being there; the music was. An hour of great old Beach Boys tunes, an intermission, and then it was time for the live performance we've been waiting for my whole lifetime.

The lyrics often don't make sense -- Mike Love was right, WTF does "columnated ruins domino" mean? -- but the music, the music ... the beautiful harmonies of the opening "Prayer," the echoes of "Good Vibrations" in "Song for Children" and of "Heroes and Villains" in "I'm In Great Shape" and of "Roll Plymouth Rock" in "On a Holiday," and the way Brian and the band just can't stop smiling ...!

So many people and writers have said that if the Beach Boys' "Smile" had come out before "Sgt. Pepper" as it was supposed to, then the Beatles album would not have been as groundbreaking. I don't know. Back in '67 the Beach Boys were a little confused and resistant to the flow of "Smile." I wonder if they would have been able to pull it off after all. Maybe this had to percolate in Brian's troubled mind for 37 years, and maybe the music had to wait until he had a band that not only loves Brian but loves "Smile." And there's no doubt they do.

Three encores -- they must have loved the crowd as much as the crowd loved them. After all these years, it is so great to see Brian Wilson's vision of a "teenage symphony to God" redeemed so triumphantly.

You owe it to yourself to get hold of "Smile." I never like live albums better than studio projects, but I make an exception for this one: The performance of "Smile" on the DVD is freer and even more soaring than on the original CD, and you get the bonus of the fabulous documentary "Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of 'Smile.'"

Monday, August 08, 2005

Size does matter

I have been on both sides of the fence, and small is better. Big can be more comfortable, but small is better.

I have worked for small family businesses and big corporations. Small is better.

I went to a big public high school and a small private college. Small is better.

I have lived in big city suburbs and small towns. Small is better.

I have worshipped in small rural churches and big mega-churches. Small is better.

I have dealt with small, local government and the big federal government. Small is better. No government would be ideal, but people have been trained to believe a lack of government would be chaos. As if life is not chaotic under the watchful eyes of Big Brother.

Montag will be a place for me to bookmark important writings, comment on the news, and ohbytheway have fun. Expect to hear a lot about "Firefly" and "Serenity" especially over the next few weeks. I'm absolutely geeked out about them. If you don't know what "Serenity" is, stick around. You will.

I'm still unpacking the boxes, arranging the furniture and putting up the drapes, but grab a beer and kick up your feet. We're going to have a nice ride.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Constitutional convention, anyone?

Justin Raimondo has an examination of what today's thinkers in the U.S. government consider a document that establishes a freedom-based government. It makes you thank God that they weren't around to write the original U.S. Constitution.