Monday, December 31, 2007

The Taunting

Having recently read The Shining, I suppose it's time I said something about the book in relation to Stanley Kubrick's excellent film.

Ground that's already been covered a billion times since 1980: whether the film is better than the book? Simply put: YES. The book has its merits, certainly. It's far from being a bad or mediocre book. And the story is sufficiently different from that of the film that it's wholly possible (and probably best) to separate the two entirely. King did his thing, Kubrick did something else, and both are worth your time. But in my mind Kubrick did something vital and original, where King mostly just wrote the second entry in the The Haunting of Hill House-genre, improving on the original in some ways, doing worse in others.

If you want to know why the film is better - well, pretty much any search on Google for "Stephen King Stanley Kubrick" will get you hundreds of reviews, blog entries, college essays etc. explaining the case. You'll probably get even more hits going into the acrimonious public relations war between King and Kubrick that resulted. King feels Kubrick mangled his book by cutting out its most important themes. He has a point - and I would take it a step further: significant parts of the movie come across to me as Kubrick deliberately taunting King with the changes that were made. In particular, this is true of the alcoholism motif. Kubrick hasn't so much cut it out as deliberately inverted it.

One scene that might have seemed a bit discontinuous to movie-goers in the Kubrick film comes right at the beginning. Jack is talking to Mr. Ullman, the hotel manager, who goes a bit too far expressing full confidence in him. Nicholson is already creepy this early in the film; his Jack Torrence hardly seems the type to make such a glowing first impression (and indeed, Mr. Morgan, who is also present for the interview, sits silently slumped in his chair through the whole thing with a look that is one part resignation, one part dread and one part disgust). More to the point, Mr. Ullman seems wholly unconcerned when he finds out that, in fact, Jack is no longer a schoolteacher but now a writer. If he's curious as to why Jack changed jobs, or why he apparently neglected to mention this on his resume, he certainly doesn't let anyone know. Absent having read the book, of course the impression you get is that Mr. Ullman is making a virtue out of necessity: there aren't any other candidates, only a desparate family would take the job in the first place, best to put the best foot forward, keep the applicant you have and give him a pat on the back before sending him off to the mill. Given the tragedy that happened, Ullman needs Jack as much as Jack needs him - and he needs Jack to do a good job.

Of course, if you've read the book it won't escape your notice that this is exactly the opposite of how the interview goes in that story. In the book, Mr. Ullman lacks confidence in Jack and never misses an opportunity to say so. Jack needs Ullman, not the other way around, and he only got the job at all because one of his rich friends called in some favors. Mr. Ullman is a competent manager on fiscal matters, but not on personnel matters; it quickly becomes clear that the staff resents him (though the book is told in third person limited, so we're technically getting our information filtered through Jack). The contrast between the two interview scenes is in fact so stark that it feels like a taunting. And thematically, of course, it is. One of King's axes to grind with Kubrick is that Jack is supposed to have been a basically good guy who falls off the beam. There's a loving father and devoted husband buried in there somewhere, but he's frustrated and weak, and he drinks, and he's made a lot of mistakes. The hotel magnifies all of his bad qualities and supresses his better nature and ... well, you know the rest. The interview with Ullman in the book serves to make two points, I think. First, to showcase Jack's attitude problem. A truly determined and repentant individual's primary reaction to Ullman's dressing down would be to admit that Ullman has a point: Jack's record isn't good and he has pulled some strings to get Ullman to skip better-qualified candidates. He owes it to Ullman and himself (and most of all his high-placed friend Al who got him the job) to prove Ullman wrong. But of course, if Jack were that kind of person, he would hardly be in this situation in the first place. Ullman is a genuine asshole in the book, and noone suffers the kind of verbal abuse he gives Jack without at least a little resentment. Intellectually, we understand what Jack's character flaw is, but emotionally we also see where he's coming from. King has but to exaggerate slightly a natural resentment we all have to get from us to Jack. So where King is setting up a "there but for the Grace of God go I" story, Kubrick is doing just the opposite. In the movie, Jack is just a bad seed. He has no one but himself to blame. He got the job on his own, and not because he tried for it but just because it's there to be plucked from the trees by anyone crazy enough to take it. There's no convenient enemy in the form of Mr. Ullman. Ullman in the movie probably knows Jack's no good for the job too - but he's a good personnel manager and he knows he has to make the best of a bad situation. He's every bit as condescending as Ullman in the book - but in a much more believable, and forgivable, way. King tries to convince us that Jack is at least partly a victim; Kubrick is throwing that attempt in King's face and making it clear that he is no such thing.

This comes to a head in the way Kubrick deals with Jack's alcoholism. The scene in the movie that seemed most of all like taunting to me was that bit where Jack sits down at the bar and says he would sell his soul for a drink. As if by magic ... erm ... by magic ... the bar is fully stocked and complete with bartender to give Jack whatever he wants. Jack's credit is good; the bartender is dressed in red. And so is the bathroom Jack ends up in with Delbert ... nee Charles ... Grady (the other fellow who hacked up his family here ten years prior) the second time he comes to this bar. It's very, very RED. Get it? We're in hell. Jack made a Faustian Bargain for alcohol (for "just a glass of beer," actually), and everything's going downhill from here. First-year film students rejoice! We're in the presence of allegory!!! Woo-hoo!

Except ... well, if it all seems a bit too trite for Kubrick, that's probably because it is. Rewind, and watch the scene again. In fact, go back just a bit further than Jack sitting at the bar to what was happening before. He's been having a nightmare that he killed Danny and Wendy - which is to say, the idea is already floating about in his head - the darker parts of his head, anyway. Danny is now attacked by the female ghost, and Wendy blames Jack. He goes off to the bar in what can charitably be described as a bit more of a huff than a normal person would be in. Certainly he's not too concerned what happened to Danny. It's true that the Hotel shot the queue, but the billiard balls were lined up. Jack isn't making a Faustian Bargain for a glass of beer. Remember - he's sitting at a full bar, and his "credit is good." He's sold his soul some time ago - this is just him cashing one of his paychecks.

The point being: alcohol doesn't really make good people do bad things. Maybe, to be fair, it helps bad people do bad things, but it isn't the cause of Jack's problems. In fact, it's almost like a reward for being a bad soul. So once again, Kubrick hasn't just written King's alcohol theme out of the story, he's deliberately inverted it. Far from being a spring to bad behavior, alcohol is an identifier of bad people. It's like a label Jack wears on his forehead that says "I'm no good!" On the surface, alcoholism is one of Jack's many weaknesses in the book. But really, King uses it as a bit of a sympathy ploy. Jack isn't COMPLETELY responsible for what he's done (at least, the stuff that landed him in the Hotel, I mean). Sure, he's responsible for having gotten drunk, but maybe not for all the specific actions taken while under the influence. Frequently in the book Jack's craving for alcohol is one of the pressures that pounds in on his mind. If he could just have a drink - just a little bit. And Wendy is being unsympathetic by not understanding. We the readers can be forgiven for getting the impression that a glass of beer here or there would've let some of Jack's steam off (Jack's like that terrible furnace in the basement - he has to be cooled down every now and then to function effectively), and that Wendy could've helped matters by showing more faith in his ability to keep it to one or two at a time. In any case, King's take on it seems to be the standard line that alcohol itself is hugely addictive for some people. It isn't some character flaw in them that turns to it - that's just the way they are genetically, an extra burden they have to shoulder that the rest of us don't have.

Watching the movie, I get the impression that Kubrick is taking King to task for this bit of sneaky excuse-making. King was, after all, an alcoholic himself at the time he wrote the book. That explains why he's so good at Jack's internal struggle with the sauce, but also why that struggle is so sympathetically portrayed. Kubrick's calling him out on that portrayal. Jack in the movie doesn't struggle with alcohol at all; he makes a fully conscious decision to start drinking again, and his first toast is in fact to being off the wagon again after 5 months. And note that 5 months, by the way. In the book it's much longer. In the book, Jack has made a real effort. Kubrick seems to think that's hogwash. If you've made it as long as the book's Jack has, you've beaten it, or it never really had you in thrall to begin with. 5 months is a bit more realistic. It's about what someone without a real committment to stopping could manage - and we get the distinct impression that Jack has never had a real committment to stopping. It was just to pacify his wife after he abused their son that he quit. He quit to place the blame for his dislocating Danny's shoulder elsewhere - on the alcohol, rather than on the person who actually did it. The bargain is that he stays off as long as she's willing to believe he's not abusive; he hasn't really made a personal committment to quitting.

Of course it's always hard to talk about addiction because there are really only two perspectives you can take - and which one you have is determined by whether or not you yourself have ever been an addict. Some people seem really susceptible to addictions of any kind, others virtually immune to dependence even on "highly addictive" substances. I'm in this latter category, and so I can't really say much about what addicts go through. I can only say that most of us who have never been addicts suspect - secretly or (as in my case) openly - that addiction is really not that hard to deal with, and that if addicts really wanted to quit, they would. It's a simple matter of putting your choices in front of you. If alcohol is destroying your life, you recognize that fact and make the obvious decision to stay away from it. It's your whole quality of life vs. some temporary, artificial, chemical-induced comfort, after all. Doesn't seem like a hard choice to me. But some people seem to find it hard, and that's just the way it is. Maybe they're bullshitting me, maybe they're not - but as an outsider it's really hard to just take them at their word, frankly. I'm with Kubrick on this one: I find it more believable that Jack's alcoholism is an effect of his actions rather than a cause of it. Put more accurately, alcoholism is correlated with his kind of personality rather than the reason these types exist.

Another plot point in the movie that I can't help but see as taunting is the death of Dick Hallorann. This is the black cook who also "shines." Danny calls him psychically just when things start to get really bad - and Hallorann drops everything and comes to Colorado from Florida to try to save the day. In the book, he does just that. Without Hallorann's heroic intervention, Danny and Wendy (certainly not Wendy) might not have escaped. In the movie, of course, Hallorann shows up in the nick of time and ... gets killed by Jack within seconds. He's barely in the hotel lobby when it happens, in fact. All that long trip for nothing...

Or was it? Again, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker it would just seem like sloppy plotting. Surely you don't bring a character all the way across the country just to have him serve no further purpose? And so I wonder if the purpose is in fact a meta-fictional purpose: to splash some cold water on King's face. Long-term readers of Stephen King novels will know that black characters are invariably good. And Dick Hallorann is the only black guy in this book, so in King's trite little world this makes him more or less Jesus. In fact, King lays it on pretty thick. When Hallorann is frantically calling on the radio to try to get the authorities to go investigate, they're snotty to him, and the implication is it's his black-sounding voice that turns them off. To push the point as far as King surely intended it, the only white people who are nice to Hallorann are those who "shine." Which is to say, the only ones who are nice to him are those gifted with a special ability to see directly into the soul - without mediation through bodies with their skincolor getting in the way. Takes a special kind of white person not to be racist, it seems.

Now, The Shining was only King's third book, so the pattern of "black=good" that is so pervasive throughout King's other novels wouldn't have been recognizable to Kubrick in 1978 (when filming began) - especially given that I highly doubt Kubrick bothered to read King's other two novels. But that doesn't mean he can't sense an artificial plot element when he sees it and make a damn good guess what it's doing there. I've always felt that the preachy anti-racist types are getting goodness on the cheap, if I may put it that way. The argument against racism is so simple it makes itself, really. It doesn't take a whole lot of intellectual sophistication or devotion to the values of individualism to conclude that people deserve to be judged honestly on their own merits rather than collectively on the accidents of their birth. This simple maxim covers much more ground than racism, in fact. And so anyone who feels the need to get too preachy about it has probably got some other motivation than a simple desire to advance the cause of Justice for All. In my experience, he's usually trying to tell you how good the smell of his own shit is to him, and in order to make it work he has to engage in all kinds of straw man exaggerations of the extent of the problem. A common such exaggeration is exactly the kind King indulges in: imagining all members of the oppressed group to be "good," as though that solved anything. Assuming that being born black makes you a good person is philosophically the same error as assuming that being born black makes you a criminal, of course. Both refuse to see blacks as the individuals they are - with all the variation that implies - and so the one is just as racist as the other. And so I don't think that King is really interested in racial justice: he's using black characters (and, by proxy, black people) as a way to make himself feel like a good person without actually having to go to the trouble to be one.

Whether Kubrick had the evidence before him to see this, I don't know - but an artificial "scratch-my-own-balls" plot development isn't hard to spot even if you're not clear on the motivation. Hallorann's natural purpose in the book was to confirm Danny's "shine." That he's a continued presence after he's fulfilled that purpose is fishy. That he's an unqualified good in a book full of self-doubting characters is more so. That he turns out to be the cavalry on the basis of a talent that's lesser than Danny's, and which he himself admits is often wrong, is downright illogical.

Kubrick could've simply quitely written Hallorann's return to the Overlook out of the film. He could've even left in the parts about him being in Florida and making concerned telephone calls to sympathetic but unhelpful rescue workers and just thrown a roadblock in his way to keep him from going to Colorado. The snowstorm would've done beautifully: can't get from Florida to Colorado in time if the airport's closed, after all. But no, Kubrick sent Hallorann all the way to the Overlook and then had Jack chop him to bits. Sorry, but I can't see that as anything other than embodied literary criticism. There's an almost gleeful quality about it, in fact. As if Kubrick's saying "Aha! Here we have an artificial plot development! And what do we do with artificial plot developments, kids? That's right, Janie! We AXE them! Heh-heh." Can't help but call to mind that great bit from Amadeus where Mozart taunts Salieri with his inadequacy as a composer by not only (flawlessly) playing but improving upon one of his sonatas after hearing it only once.

And so I think King has cause to harbor some resentment about Kubrick's treatment of his book. It's painful to any writer to see themes that are important to him sliced out wholesale - but it seems to be that Kubrick is doing a good deal more than just slicing and dicing. He's doing it with glee, and King can't help but have noticed that.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Haunting

A word or two about the similarities and differences between Stephen King's The Shining (which I read last week) and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House - which partly inspired it.

The premise and structure of the stories are very similar. Both feature a giant evil building as a central (perhaps the main) character. Both use as a narrative premise the slow revelation of the true nature of the place. And both feature a character who is corrupted by flattery at the "favor" the building shows him(King)/her(Jackson). This character becomes the evil building's agent at some point before the end of the story, and ultimately self-destructs.

If the measure of a horror story is how scared I was while reading it, then Shirley Jackson wins hands down. I was a bit frightened by her book, not at all by Stephen King's. But that may simply be a function of familiarity: the basic story of The Shining has been a staple of pop culture since Kubrick's great film. As for writing style - well, I like Jackson better. King is a talented writer who really knows how to keep a reader's attention - but I think Jackson handles subtlety better, and that's what makes a story like this.

Which is the first point, really. The main strength of Jackson's book over King's, as I see it, is that it's truer to what I've come to understand to be the main "horror mechanism." I read somehwere (some sort of anthology of modern aesthetic philosophy, I can't remember exactly) that the central device of a horror story is hinting at but withholding the truth until a climactic moment of revelation. The supernatural nature of the events should remain ambiguous for most of the story, until at some climactic moment it becomes impossible for the reader and central characters to deny that something supernatural is going on. That always seemed to me a sensible guideline. In order to create tension, the reader has to have some idea what the boundaries are. Once you're telling a story about something overtly supernatural, then the hero is effectively powerless because literally anything can happen. And at that point, we cease to be interested in the details. A horror story "spends its load," so to speak, the moment we can no longer kid ourselves that we live safely in scientific reality - in a predictable universe whose laws (the everyday ones, anyway) we know. Indeed, the frightening thing isn't so much the nature of whatever the supernatural entity is, it's the idea that such a thing could exist, because by existing it pulls the rug out from under our comfortable surroundings, taking us from the universe we thought we lived in and had learned how to deal with into one we don't know how to work with and over which we have no control. It's the fear of powerlessness that motivates a horror story, and once you've revealed that, in fact, the universe is unpredictable and malevolent, you've tapped into the reader's underlying fear and need to resolve the story quickly.

One of my big complaints about Stephen King is that he never does. The story goes on far too long after the big revelatory moment. And indeed, in one important way The Shining in particular is more magic realist than "horror:" there are confirmations of supernatural goings on almost from the first page, albeit minor ones. Granted, King plays by the rules with the doctor's explanation of Danny's "premonitions" and, to a lesser extent, with the wasps' nest that came back to life (mysterious, admittedly, but not, the reader assumes, completely inexplicable). Unfortunately, it was all given away long before that with Dick Hallorann actually being able to read Danny's mind - no getting around that one. Jackson's novel, by contrast, really does build up to a supernatural conclusion. The vast majority of the novel is misdirection: strange things happen, but nothing so beyond the pale that we can't chalk it up to nerves. Those things that seem inexplicable mostly get explanations soon after - and if not, they're at least described in an ambiguous way ... so that we're not completely sure what we saw. If Jackson has a fault here it's that she never got explicit enough: by the end of the book it's still largely possible to write off the whole affair as Eleanor's dellusions.

King lacks Jackson's subtlety and talent for understatement, and that's a huge detractor from my enjoyment of his books. The big revelation always comes too soon, and large sections of the book always involve an outright confrontation with whatever the malevolent entity is - something that makes it hard for me to suspend my disbelief, really, because how do ordinary mortals fight ghosts?

Another advantage I felt Jackson's version had over King's was in her description of the central evil building. For a book that's supposed to be about "the hotel," The Shining is a little light on details. We get probably just the right amount about its history, but far too little about what it looks like, how it's laid out, what it feels like to be there, etc. Even though it's status is a bit more ambiguous, Hill House is more convincing as a "character" than the Overlook Hotel.

However, King's book also has one hugely important advantage over Jackson's - and that's our ability to relate to the character of Jack. Perhaps there are women in the world who feel like Eleanor, I really don't know. To me, she seemed far too rare a creature to bring me face-to-face with my dark side. She's SO feeble and SO pathetic and her circumstances are SO stacked against her that it's a bit hard to relate. Jack Torrence, by contrast ... well, he's someone anyone could be. We've met people like him countless times in our day-to-day existence. Jack is a believable "ordinary guy." King only has to exaggerate his faults a little to make his fall from grace convincing, and this is hugely effective because ... there but for the Grace of God go I.

Another (lesser) advantage to King's book, I thought, was that the malevolent entity is actually a metaphor for something (see the previous post to find out what I think it is). I said earlier that we're not really interested in the nature of the malevolent entity, but that's not quite true. While I do think the main fear to which all horror stories speak is a fear of powerlessness, it helps things a bit if the face on our powerlessness is a metaphor for something we're actually afraid of in reality. In Jackson's case, it's really not clear what that is. In King's case, however, it's quite clear, and the beast the hotel stands for is indeed a frightening one.

So each book works in its own way. It's fair to think of them as retellings of the same story. King's is a bit more involved thematcially, Jackson's psychologically, and Jackson's is a shade better-written. But both are enjoyable on their own merits.

An Accidental Libertarian?

I recently read The Shining by Stephen King. The book is old enough (1977) that I guess all the broad strokes have been painted - and I don't really have much to add in the way of general assessments. It was pretty much what I expected: Stephen King's good-but-ultimately-inadequate novelization of Kubrick's great film (chuckle).

Alright - seriously, if there was one thing I noticed that was a bit ... unexpected ... it was the libertarian subtext.

No, really.

I know, I know - King is a big Democrat. He's a 60s-generation hipster who loves America but hates the war, exactly the type whose whole life was devoted to hating Reagan in the 80s. Not exactly the kind of person you'd expect to write the new Atlas Shrugged. And yet, there it is. Like one of those stereograms that used to be so popular: once you've seen it, you can't unsee it, can't deny it's there.

Here's my case.

King himself has said that the story is primarily about a mediocre writer's fears of failure. (Not surprising, really, that this was about the time King himself invented the Richard Bachman pseudonym. Though this was ostensibly a device for allowing him to publish more than one book a year, King has confirmed that he also worried at the time that his success owed to luck of circumstance and that Bachman was a way of testing whether this was true.) It's also, of course, about how alcoholism destroys individuals and families - but it's the "mediocrity" plot thread that's of importance here. Jack's son Danny (get it? Jack Daniel? Anyone?) "shines." He has a special intuitive ability that manifests in few people - and in Danny's case it's particularly strong. Jack, however, has had to earn his keep. He's an ordinary guy who was doing reasonably well for himself by any honest standards - steady job as a teacher, up for tenure, occasionally published in respectable literary journals - but he wants to be more. He wants to write the "great American novel," and he's unsure he can do it. Like so many others in this situation, he subconsciously sabotages his efforts and finds ways to lay his failures at the feet of others. The story doesn't exactly say he doesn't have it in him to be great, but it seems less likely than not, and in any case he never really gives it a go. Most of what Jack does is motivated by envy or frustration - right up to the attempt to kill his family at the end of the book. And if this sounds like the makings of an Ayn Rand anti-hero, you've got the point.

Early in the book, Jack sits down for an interview with Mr. Ullman, the manager of the Overlook Hotel. Mr. Ullman takes a fierce pride in his work and brags that the hotel has housed presidents - Wilson, Harding, FDR and Nixon. Jack quips that he shouldn't be proud of Nixon and Harding. In other words - Jack is a Democrat - a member of the "world owes me a living" party. Nice setup. Ullman is then frank with Jack, stating that without his connections (Jack is friends with one of the primary stockholders) he wouldn't have gotten the job at all. He softens the blow by saying "nothing personal," it's just his assessment. But rather than a determination to prove Mr. Ullman wrong, what we get in Jack is a strong desire for revenge. It is personal. Never mind that there's every reason to believe Mr. Ullman will be happy to be proven wrong and will change his opinion on a dime if Jack does his job well - Jack wants his approval before he's done any work, and he's not at all embarrassed about not having gotten the job on his merits. Very Jim Taggart.

As the story unfolds, we learn that Jack is far from being the victim of circumstances he likes to paint himself to be. It's true that the student he beat (the event that resulted in his firing) had wronged Jack. He was slashing his tires - hardly a benign act of vandalism. But he had reason to: Jack set back the timer to give himself a pretense for cutting him from the debate team. The student in question had a real talent for debate - save for an unfortunate stutter. And so we get an idea of the kind of guy Jack is. A caring teacher devoted to his profession would, of course, have tried to coach the boy through his stutter early on. At the very least, Jack could've been honest with him about the reason he was being cut. But no, Jack's rigged the game against him - a cowardly thing to do. And there are plenty of not-so-subtle hints that the reason for it is because the student is a child of privilege. It isn't really the stutter or Jack's fear of not being able to coach him through it (though no doubt that plays a role): it's good old fashioned class envy.

One of the first supernatural events in the story is the wasps' nest coming back to life. Jack finds one in the roof and bugbombs it and then gives it to his son. In the night, not just a couple but a swarm of wasps comes out of the definitely-dead nest and stings Danny all over his hand. Jack's reaction? He's less interested in treating the wound than he is calling a lawyer to try to set up a lawsuit. It's a suit he must know is hopeless: even if there had been any witnesses to testify that he had used the bugbomb correctly, there's no way a swarm can have come out of a nest that looked empty. Faced with a supernatural event that harms his son, Jack thinks "free money." He's all about the unearned.

He does have a productive idea soon, though - in the form of writing a book about the hotel. He wants it to be a reflection of "post-WWII America." Interesting choice of topics that I'll come back to in a minute - but notice that this is essentially a history of welfare-state America. One problem with this good idea is that it's hugely ungrateful to the stockholder friend who got him the job. Smearing his friend's hotel - an investment Mr. Ullman has already told us is barely profitable and on thin ice for the future - is hardly a way to return a favor. Still - it's a productive thing for Jack to do, and if he'd sat down and just done it it might have come to something. He could've even spun the end of the book in such a way as to lend the hotel a kind of glamor, who knows? But of course, this isn't what he does - because that would involve actual work, and Jack isn't motivated to do actual work. He's motivated to get revenge on the world - on Mr. Ullman in particular - and so he trades in his real project for a cheap over-the-telephone blackmail-ish slap at Ullman. He calls Ullman to threaten to write the book, which only results in a predictable call from his stockholder friend warning him off the project.

It's interesting, though, that Jack wants the hotel to be a history of post-WWII America. In reality, as the fact that both Wilson and Harding were there, the hotel greatly predates WWII. And yet, his research into the hotel more or less confirms that the bad vibes grew primarily in the period he's talking about. The hotel is shut down just before the War. It reopens a decade later and is now no longer directly in the hands of the family that built it. Its owners and guests get shadier and shadier as the years go by, culminating in a lot of mafia activity. Jack figures out for himself that the hotel has always been a haven for the "jet set," even before there was a "jet set." Which is to say - it was never really the productive rich that came here, but rather the idle rich - the rich that live off of the achievements of the dead relatives- with politicians and mafia thrown in because ... well, they belong.

The hotel seems to exist out of time. There's an ongoing party - one that never starts and never stops - that features dead guests from its entire history. And the only obvious thing about this party to anyone who's read Atlas Shrugged is that it's the spitting image of the party where Dagny Taggart buys Lilian Rearden's bracelet. The guests are there primarily to show off their status and make each other miserable - not actually to enjoy each other's company. It is, in classic Ayn Rand fasion, a grotesque display of parasitic wealth.

Naturally, Jack wants to be a member of the club. He wants to cavort with power and show off status more than he wants to earn it. And of course the main plot of the book is his rage that it's really his son Danny - the one with the "shining," the one who's actually someone special - that the hotel wants to possess. The hotel (which is a character in the novel, by the way - arguably the main character) only turns to Jack once it's clear Danny won't join it/them. And in classic Randian parasite fashion - what it cannot control it wants to destroy: Jack isn't really being invited into the inner circle, he's just being used as a tool to exact murderous revenge on Danny for not joining. Jack is going to be made "middle management," (the ghost of) Delbert Grady tells him, and that only if he does a particularly good job. That Jack is willing to kill his family to be something so mundane as "middle management" says all we need to know about whether he really believes he could have been great novelist. For all his posturing about hating people of privilege, he's willing to trade a lot for a pathetically low rank in their order.

And what ultimately destroys the hotel? Well, the ancient furnace has to have steam let out of it every so often or the pressure builds up. Some readers will think I'm stretching it here - but for a book written in 1977 I really don't think so: this is a metaphor for inflation. The furnace is the hotel's "economy." It keeps the place warm and running. And in a place that's meant to symbolize welfare-state America - which also happens to be post-gold standard America - it's fitting that the greatest danger to it is that there's too much steam in the pumps. Just like a good Keynsian - you "pump-prime" (their actual word) when the pressure is low by building up steam (money), and you let it out (contract the money supply) once things are good and toasty. Keynes thought this was the proper way to overcome the boom-bust cycle, and by the end of the 1930s all major economies were operating on this theory. By the 1970s, this furnace has gotten really old so that it's only a matter of time (the summer caretaker tells Jack) before it goes. His job is to frantically keep the pressure where it's supposed to be - putting off the inevitable as long as possible. Sounds like stagflation to me. No shocker to any Ayn Rand devotee that fiat money and government meddling will heat you for a time but are ultimately unsustainable. The hotel had to go sometime - and of course the best argument against government meddling in the economy of this kind is ... why put all management in a central system and risk incompetence (Jack) at the controls? And that's what ultimately happened to our hotel - a very real economic fear in the 70s.

And what ultimately is the hotel? As we see in the scene of its final destruction - it's a swarm of wasps. Get it? W.A.S.P.s. It's the good-ol'-boy establishment going up in smoke. And why not? Ayn Rand herself said that racism was the most odious form of collectivism. But this image goes a bit further than King probably wanted. In addition to being an exclusive white privilege club, the point is it's also a collective. No one distinguishable from the others - we are many and we are one. The message is very Randian - you can't build on their foundation. You can't exterminate the wasps and still use the nest they built as decoration, and you can't make a hotel run by favors and inside tips and "friendships" and "jet sets" - as opposed to truly productive people - profitable. The hotel itself is bad. Which is to say, the whole post-WWII society is bad. Or - as I prefer to put it - the welfare state is bad. You can't take a bad hotel and make it good, you can't run a bad furnace forever, and no matter how you micromanage a collectivist welfare state, it ultimately will not function.

Just as in Atlas Shrugged, this particular welfare state (the hotel/post-WWII America) needs to keep absorbing talent in order to sustain itself. It cannot produce any on its own - it must consume it from outside. And when Danny refuses to cooperate, it's really not unlike John Galt going "on strike." Of course, we get a nice death by fire rather than the slow freezing in ice of Atlas Shrugged, but the central point is the same. Without the cooperation of its victims, the hotel cannot survive.

The ultimate clue, though, is the tip Hallorann gives Danny at the end of the book. Danny, Wendy and Dick Hallorann are working together at a wholly different getaway in Maine. It's maybe a stretch to call it Galt's Glutch, but there are similarities: the characters have escaped to a functional haven and are planning a return to the real world. (Ironic sidenote: in Atlas Shrugged Colorado is the site of the safety zone; here it's the site of the evil hotel. Though Maine isn't specifically mentioned, Maine has always been one of the most-taxed and least economically successful states in the union. In that sense, it's an inversion on my central point.) Realizing that this is one of the last times he will see Danny, Hallorann tells Danny that the Shine makes him special - and that the world doesn't hate him for it, but it doesn't love him for it either. The world is what he makes of it, in other words - there is no free lunch but also no deck stacked against us. We are how we play the hands we're dealt. There are no lessons more "Randian" than that.

Of course, Stephen King isn't dead yet, so he can't roll over in his grave that I'm interpreting his book this way - but to tell the truth, even if he could I don't think he would. I doubt he intended his book to come off as an Atlas Shrugged retelling, but I'm not sure he would totally object to my taking it that way either. I'm SURE he doesn't endorse any free-market political agenda; last I checked, he was a faithful Democrat. But he also says things like this, from Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully - in Ten Minutes:

If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.

Which he follows up with

People who are published steadily and are paid for what they are writing may be either saints or trollops, but they are clearly reaching a great many someones who want what they have. Ergo, they are communicating. Ergo, they are talented.


...the only bad writer is one who doesn't get paid

That's a very libertarian definition of "talent." Fuck what the literary establishment thinks - the question is just "did you do something that people find useful?" Quite literally - I changed my opinion of Stephen King (whom I had previously had a low opinion of) when I read that line. If my dad hadn't told me about him having said this, I wouldn't have read The Shining last week at all.

Another one:

Somewhere along the line pernicious critics have invested the American reading and writing public with the idea that entertaining fiction and serious ideas do not overlap

To which I say (and Ayn Rand no doubt would say): BRAVO!

From On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft:

Read four hours a day and write four hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can't expect to become a good writer.

In other words, he doesn't expect it to come from God; he has a real work ethic.

As for why he is a writer - well, it's the same reason Howard Roark is an architect:

There was nothing else I was made to do. I was made to write stories and I love to write stories. That's why I do it. I really can't imagine doing anything else and I can't imagine not doing what I do.

He was also an early entrepreneur. He was very nearly suspended from high school for selling short stories to his friends: his teacher made him give back the money.

So while I don't think of Stephen King as a political capitalist, he has a lot of personal traits that one could call "Objectivist." More to the point, King himself is an intuitive writer. He doesn't plan his stories, they "grow organically." Writers like that rarely are surprised to see subtexts in their work they themselves might not have conciously intended.

Alright, that's my case. Make of it what you will.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

That Which is Not

I suppose it was inevitable that someone would come up with this idea. What wasn't inevitable was that they would express themselves so persuasively.

The idea is that taxes should be raised slightly on men and lowered on women. And no, I do not support it! But I will admit that I find the argument for this one more persuasive than I do for most social engineering schemes, and I think it's worth spelling out why.

[The policy] would be fair because it would compensate women for bearing the brunt of maternity and for the fact that the possibility of having children can negatively affect their career prospects.

Truth be told, I think most men feel a little guilty that women may be "underpaid" for bearing children and being mothers. Clearly, raising children is essential to the survival of the species (understatment of the decade) - and it's a job we males are not only biologically inequipped to do, but also one that we're biologically unwilling to do. Children are a nuissance, and they're expensive, and they take up lots of time and effort. So unlike every other affirmative action scheme I've heard of, this one hits me in a spot where I actually do feel a bit guilty.

If taken to its logical conclusion, this argument also requires that we end any direct attempts (i.e. quotas, hiring laws and special recruitment programs) to address perceived "hiring imbalances." Since women will have been given a compensatory economic advantage (indeed, since the deck will have been stacked against men in the hiring process a bit by making them more expensive to hire) companies should feel free to choose not to hire a particular woman if she strikes them as the type to pop out kids eventually, costing them all that implies in the loss of a trained employee and in medical bills. Since I feel strongly that employers should be allowed to make their own hiring decisions with only success or failure on the open market as feedback, this addresses one of my biggest complaints about traditional affirmative action programs.

The supply of labour of women is more responsive to their after-tax wage, so a reduction in taxes increases the labour participation of women substantially. Men’s labour supply is more rigid, so an increase in taxes does not reduce their labour supply by much, if at all ... This is simply an application of the general principle of public finance that goods with a more elastic supply should be taxed less.

This one is probably the most appealing argument to me: these particular social planners have actually cracked an economics book. One does get so tired of hearing harebrained schemes from people who are thinking with their ideals at the expensive of public wealth. More importantly, it takes as its standard something that is merely correlated with sex, rather than addressing perceived imbalances directly. In theory, if the labor supply of men ever became more elastic than that of women (and if this policy is successful it might even have that effect), the policy could work to men's benefit instead - assuming the planners had implemented it in good faith. Probably most critical in not triggering my usual allergies for these things is the idea that this affirmative action policy actually has a measurable endpoint. I remember a professor of mine once talking about the post-war consensus and, lamenting the fact that we had never had such a thing in America, wanted to know why the country can mobilize to fight the Japanese but not "poverty." And of course the answer is that "poverty" has no measurable end: as a comparative term by nature, it all depends on what you mean by it. I think a lot of our distrust for affirmative action is similar: these policies have no measurable goals. When someone demands "equality," it's never clear how this is to be measured or when we will stop "affirmatively" discriminating. This is the first affirmative action policy I've heard of that has something like a formula attached to it that tells you when it's over and we're done. It is, for once, achievable.

Often those who care about women’s work emphasise the policy of supporting it with publicly funded childcare facilities. A higher take-home salary for women created by our proposal would allow them to buy more childcare at market prices and, since childcare facilities employ mostly women, they would also benefit on their costs.

And again, this is a more free-market approach to seeing that childcare is provided. A subsidy is a subsidy is a subsidy, of course, but at least this one isn't forced payment creating artificial demand for a service. Women would retain a large degree of choice in where to place their children, and the childcare industry as a whole would continue to function efficiently.

We already have a host of policies that are not gender neutral. We could eliminate many of them by adopting a simple differentiation of tax schedules for men and women.

And the clincher: that the authors of the proposal seem to be sincere in their desire to provide a middle way on affirmative action. They are fully aware that adopting their scheme would mean the end of traditional quota-based affirmative action and openly state that as their intention.

Now, as I said at the outset, I do not support this policy, just as I do not support any such government meddling. Of the many convictions that make me a libertarian, one of the most strongly held is that social engineering is as immoral as it is futile. It is not for the government to look at society and remake it into some idealized image; that's something for individuals to do on their own. And despite the trappings of economic competence, this is nothing other than yet another in a long line of miserable attempts by often well-meaning but ALWAYS misguided individuals to refashion human nature by force into what they wish it could be, regardless of the input and feelings of the actual humans they are manipulating.

The interest of this article is not that it is ultimately convincing, which it is not, but just that it fails, at first glance, to set off most of my usual allergies to such policies. It is of interest because it is an adaptation in the socialist sale pitch.

The cry for more "open-mindedness" that one so frequently hears is a way of stacking the deck in favor of the crier's policies, nothing more. In truth, there is such little variation in the range of political ideas that anyone who has been at this game for long will have ceased to hear much that's new. In order not to spend our time inefficiently endlessly reconsidering but minor variations on policies we've long ago discarded as immoral or impractical (in the case of we capitalists, usually both at once), it helps to develop an instinct that tells you when you're hearing the same tripe over again. Usually you can tell in a few stock phrases, and you know to tune out (not unlike recognizing a song you dislike by the first few bars). And indeed, I have long ago stopped listening to arguments for affirmative action - because the very idea of it is so horrible that I find it difficult to take anyone seriously who supports it.

This is, make no mistake about it, an affirmative action policy like any other. It only seems different because it doesn't approach the "problem" by enforcing the "solution." It places soft constraints on the economy that are intended to have the "solution" as a side-effect. And in some ways, I suppose, this represents an evolution in socialist thought.

I am reminded of Paul Graham's excellent essay on the Roots of Lisp - where he notes that there have been only two stable models in programming language design - the Lisp model and the C model - and that each new generation of programming languages looks more like Lisp and less like C. More specifically, he says that each new generation of C-like languages incorporates more and more of the Lisp model into their design. I think the same is true of politics. There are really only two stable models of political philosophy as well: the libertarian model and the socialist model, and with each new generation of neo-socialist political models, the left wing incorporates more and more design features of classical liberalism into its thought. They become more capitalist with each new iteration - and so in the long term I am quite optimistic for the future of our species. We will eventually "figure it out" - I mean, that socialism doesn't work.

So this is what you might call "third way affirmative action." It recognizes that the original battle is lost, and so it cuts its losses by selling itself in a way that it hopes will allow it to slip under the free-marketers' radar.

I say this with no sarcasm whatsoever: nice try. It really is a lot more palatable than affirmative action policies that I've known. But of course, the arguments all ring hollow. It isn't clear, for one thing, that it's actually socially desireable to achieve full employment for women. If women are biologically better able to raise children ... then shouldn't they generally be the ones entrusted with that task? More to the point, any arguments that this policy is somehow "fair" or that it's "leveling the playing field" are no more valid now than they were for the old approach. Any case one could cite of a woman who wanted to work but didn't get as far as she might have because her employers worried that she would eventually get pregnant and cost the company productivity would, I suppose, indeed be a case of unfairness. But how is it any less unfair if a woman who is biologically incapable of having children - or even just doesn't want to have children - and will never cost the company lost productivity is now "subsidized" for a disadvantage that she does, in fact, not have? Why indeed is demographic group membership ever a qualification for anything? If the injustice is that individuals are judged not on their own merits but on the merits of their social group, then this policy, just like every other affirmative action policy ever proposed, simply redistributes the injustice with no hope of ever eliminating it. Finally, it's not even clear that it would be practical. If men make up most of the workforce, then whatever their going rate for the job is will effectively be the baseline. Just as prices rise to compensate for increases in the minimum wage, destroying the effectiveness of each increase in short order, so will, one imagines, men price themselves back into competition with women, destroying the efficacy of each adjustment to this policy in a similar timeframe. Moreover, this policy would only succeed to the extent that the government is able to guess how much of a tax bribe an employer needs to overcome its trepidation that its female newhire will suddenly get pregnant and leave, forcing them to do without her services while they find and then train a replacement. If all of the previous history of regulation is any guide, then governments are known to be ill-suited to making such determinations. Governments, after all, are not the entities that are directly rewarded or punished for making hiring decisions in the marketplace; they aren't what "sets the premium" on sex. Furthermore, to the extent that the premium they (probably incompetently) set is low, one can really question whether a government intervention is warranted or effective. To the extent that the premium is high, this "soft" policy translates into a policy as hard and visibly discriminatory as any quota system.

So while this policy might fool some people for a little while, it won't, I think, ultimately end up being other than what it is: affirmative action by another name. It's socialism that's more like capitalism, but that doesn't mean it's not socialism. Put more directly, dressing up like a capitalist doesn't make you one. And why buy an imitation when you can have the real deal? Capitalism DOES work, and it DOES free individuals to rise and fall on their own merits. You can try to redress the evils of discrimination by fiddling with the weights on the group level, but so long as you're still thinking about people as groups first and individuals second, you're not overcoming anything, period.

I think if libertarians want to draw a lesson from this it's that we need to be more explicit about why we don't like the IRS. It isn't just because income taxes are an unjustifiable drain on the economy (which, of course, they are), it's that taxes, more than anything else, give the planners the tools they need to tell us how to live our lives. It is perverse that "solutions" like the one above are starting to breed themselves in response to our wholly successful attack on overtly planned economies. "Soft" tax incentives are planning too - more accurate planning, even - and we need to keep hammering that point home. The first step in an eventual libertarian victory needs to be a swapping out of the tax system in favor of something simpler, more visible to payers, and LESS visible to the government (in the sense that it gives them less power to single out individuals and groups for special favors). One interesting proposal I've heard is the Fair Tax. I always say I want to withold support until I've had a chance to read the book and think it through. Well, I'm on vacation for three weeks - maybe I'll do that now.

In any case, if this is the response to the collapse of overt planning, then our response needs to adapt as well. This is the face of the future. If we want to beat it, we need to shift strategy. Let's replace the income tax with something else sooner, rather than later, and head the social planners off at the pass.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

I Just Don't Get It...and Neither do They

The latest conservative to "get it right" completely by accident is Jonah Goldberg in a column on Mitt Romney's "big speech." Mr. Romney, you see, is trying to overcome his "Mormon handicap" in the presidential race. Since everyone thinks Mormonism is a bizzaro cult, it's important that he calm public fears on this point.

Goldberg's essential point is that yeah, Mormonism seems a little weird to him, but that doesn't matter since it's clear Romney is a decent guy with a conscience of faith. And there you have it folks - in the strange, twisted world of religion, it doesn't matter what you believe, exactly, so long as you have no basis for it.

From the point of view of religion, Goldberg makes a compelling case.

Evangelical Christians believe that when the Messiah returns, things won’t go too well for the Jews — two thirds die, one third convert. Gershom Gorenberg, author of The End of Days, once complained to 60 Minutes, “As a Jew, I can’t feel very comfortable with the affections of somebody who looks forward to that scenario.”

Well, boohoo. In the horrible annals of Jewish problems, the fact that a whole bunch of Christians love Jews for the “wrong” reasons has got to rank pretty low. Besides, since presumably Jews don’t believe in Christian prophecy, what’s the problem? If it’s not true, then no harm, no foul. If it is true, well, who are we to argue with God? My guess is God’s response to the morally decent Jew who gets really worked up about this would be something akin to “Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.”

(This reads easier if you understand that Goldberg considers himself Jewish.)

I particularly like this line: "If it's not true, then no harm, no foul. If it is true, well, who are we to argue with God?"

That says so much about how the religious mind works. Things I notice:

  1. Not really knowing if what you believe is true is essential. Which is just perverse, if you think about it, because that makes your whole life a wager. Believing Jews are expected to keep God's laws. And yet, as Goldberg makes quite clear here, believing Jews don't actually know the first thing about what God wants. He entertains as a real possibility the idea that things will turn out just as the Christians predict. In which case ... oh, where to start? I just don't understand how someone could let something not only that they are not sure about, but which is fundamentally uncertain, be the basis of their "moral" code. In other words, morality for these people is something like "I do this because I'm guessing it's right, but I have no real way of knowing" rather than "I do this because is is right" or "I do this because I have good, rational reasons to believe it is right." How can you make people responsible for acting on the basis of something that cannot be known?

  2. Morality can, in fact, be determined apart from God. Or at least, that's the only way I know how to interpret the last bit - the bit about ...God's response to the morally decent Jew who gets really worked up about this would be something akin to "Don't worry, I've got you covered." The whole point of this column, in fact, is that it doesn't matter what you believe or why you do the things that you do so long as they are decent. Well, as a basis for interaction in a society, I can't fault that at all. It is the only basis for a functional free society, in fact. The law should punish actions, not thoughts. It's just that ... well, doesn't that kinda make the whole point of religion moot? It's all fine (in fact, it is essential) to believe that as a basis for running a secular society - but if you are religious and you take the Will of God to be the basis of what's moral (killing isn't wrong in and of itself, it's wrong because God decided it was), then surely this kind of thinking defeats the purpose? Jews can be "moral" even if they get it completely wrong about what God wants. So ... what need God, one hastens to ask?

At the end of the day, it's Gershom Gorenberg who understands what religion really is. "As a Jew, I can't feel very comfortable with the affections of somebody who looks forward to [the scenario where Christians are right and 2/3 of Jews are damned]." Well, right, but what about Goldberg's point? What if this really is what God wants? He's God (and Gershom Gorenberg is not), after all. Who is Gershom Gorenberg to say what God should want?

But this is the point. Gershom Gorenberg doesn't really believe in God, and neither does anyone else. The only possible basis for Gorenberg getting upset that Christians believe in this scenario is if he thinks they do it wilfully. That is, it's either the product of wish-fulfillment - a fantasy - or else it is actively embraced regardless of its truth. Without realizing it, Gorenberg is tipping his hand here: he is uncomfortable with the affections of people "who look forward to that scenario." As though it could be otherwise. As though their religious beliefs are based not on what they know to be true from God, but rather just what they want to believe. He's chastising them for not having chosen to believe in something less offensive.

And of course, he's absolutely right. Religion is just a product of their imagination, and they are responsible for having dreamed up a belief system that specifically says that most of the members of this other belief system are doomed. It could indeed have been otherwise, and it isn't. And Gorenberg himself is guilty of the same thing. Surely it is offensive to just about everyone else in the world that Gorenberg believes - chooses to believe - that there are all these tribes of people on the planet and God only gives a fig about one of them, of which he conveniently happens to be a member.

The farce of it is that any truly religious person can take offense at the beliefs of any other. Anyone who is honestly religious (which is virtually no one) does not get offended by competing religious beliefs any more than I get offended that Isaac Newton was wrong about gravity. To a person who truly believes in religion, false belief is, in the vast majority of cases, just a fault of wrong information, not of moral judgment. You cannot get offended at Christians for believing that 2/3 of the members of your religion are going to Hell on the last day if they are simply mistaken about this. It's only offensive if you believe they deliberately set it up that way. And you are, if you're honest with yourself, only in a position to believe they deliberately set it up that way if you yourself deliberately set your religion up as well.

So Goldberg's got it mostly right. Any truly religious person will not care what members of other religions think about God because he will assume they are simply mistaken. But then of course, Goldberg gives away the farm himself by admitting that he doesn't know the truth about God, and that he nevertheless knows what is right and decent.

My question to religious people, then, is that if you don't really know what God wants, but you can independently determine what is moral without this knowledge, WHAT USE IS RELIGION? Wait for God to reveal himself, then, if that's the case. Stop taking stabs in the dark. Or, if you're going to take stabs in the dark, can we at least leave it out of politics? That is, if you know that you don't need God to be moral, then why does each and every political candidate have to prove he has a faith-based conscience? Isn't it enough that he has a conscience?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Letter in the IDS

OK - a couple of corrections are in order on yesterday's post.

First - Noah points out that the study in question factored in a lot more medical knowledge of the people it surveyed than I had indicated. In addition to checking that they were non-smokers with no history of heart problems, it also made sure that they did not have high blood pressure or high cholesterol - which is sensible given what they were testing for. So - apologies to the authors for misrepresenting their study.

Second, after grousing that the IDS probably wouldn't print my letter, today they did just that. Donnie Morgan, head of the IU Students' Smokefree Coalition and author of the letter to which I was responding, actually took the time to write me a personal email with a bunch of drivel about his intentions, most of the purpose of which was to avoid taking responsibility for the parts of the smoking policy he claims not to support, despite the fact that he has never mentioned anything in public that I'm aware of about not supporting these parts of the policy.

I sent him back a frank reply. I have no use for people like Donnie Morgan. If you support a policy, you need to be clear about what it is that you support. It's cowardly in the extreme to whine when people call you out for supporting a policy that you, in fact, do support on the (purported - though I frankly don't believe him) basis that you don't support all parts of it. If you don't support all parts of it - then either say so in your public statements (which he did not in his latest letter to the IDS), or refrain from lending your support to the policy. It's very simple - if you really don't want to be associated with something, then don't associate yourself with it.

I am reprinting my reply here in its entirety. This contains the entire uncut text of his email.

Mr. Morgan,

I appreciate the polite tone of your response as well as the rapidity with which you contacted me after reading my letter in the IDS. I hope
I hope you will not mind if I am frank in response: the points you raise here
are wholly unconvincing. I have responded to each point below.

> > I noticed your editorial in the IDS today, and I respect your
> concerns regarding what I had previously written. Thus, as you seem
> to be concerned that I am being disingenuous, I would like to take
> the opportunity to explain to you why I wrote as I did.

> > First, I addressed the issue of secondhand smoke (rather than
> smokeless tobacco) because Ms. Low's column primarily addressed the
> issue in that context. My letter was a response to her commentary.

JWH: Be that as it may - the response that you gave took the approach that she had wrongly accused the policy of being paternalistic. That makes the smokeless tobacco issue relevant. Paternalism, as I understand it, means taking decision-making power away from an individual for HIS OWN good, rather than the good of those around him. No non-paternalistic tobacco policy need include smokeless tobacco - and yet the one that you support does include it. Please explain, if you can, how the policy you support can ban smokeless tobacco - the use of which poses no risk to bystanders - and not be accurately described as "paternalistic."

> The university's decision to ban all tobacco as opposed to just
> smoking (a step took by all but one of the 8 campuses--as the
> President Herbert's order only required that we be smoke-free) had
> more to do with sanitation concerns, etc.

JWH: But this is laughable. There are no "sanitation concerns" associated with chewing tobacco over and above chewing gum or routine spitting, neither of which the university has banned. That was the decision of

> the administration. While I sat on the task force that debated that
> issue, the concern of the Coalition I created and lead was secondhand
> smoke, not smokeless tobacco.

JWH: And yet you support a policy that enforces bans on smokeless tobacco as well. The responsible thing to do in such a situation is to publicly announce that it was never your intention that the policy include smokeless tobacco products and to call on the university to remove these clauses. Defending the policy as written without clarifying these objections makes you complicit in promoting the current paternalistic policy, and it makes it disingenuous of you to object to people describing the policy you support as "paternalistic." When people call your policy what it is, it is cowardly to take offense without acknowledging the truth in what they say.

> > Secondly, you argue that if we want to protect pedestrians we should
> simply advocate enforcement of the 30 foot rule. We certainly
> considered this option in the beginning. However, you must realize
> that doorways to buildings are not the only place that students are
> forced to walk through to get to a class where smoke hovers. An
> effective 30 foot rule would also have to encompass 30 feet from bike
> racks, stair cases and accessible ramps, bus stops, narrow pathways
> crossing streams, etc...As you might imagine, the logistics of such a
> policy would be impossible, and thus we ended up advocating for an
> entirely smoke-free campus.

JWH: Do you honestly expect me to believe that a 30-foot rule is harder to enforce than a campus-wide ban? A campus-wide ban massively increases the area that must be patrolled. A 30-foot rule confines the spaces that have to be monitored to a manageable area. Bike racks can be placed within these areas, thus eliminating your concern there - and there is really nothing stopping you from extending the policy to include busstops. This argument is an evasion. If IU can manage the allotment of classroom space for 40,000 students, surely it can properly place a few choice bike racks. I can see your point with regard to the crosswalks over streams (especially near Woodburn), but the short amount of time anyone is exposed to smoke on these walks hardly seems like such an egregious violation that it needs a policy banning it.

> > As to your comments that a campus-wide ban is not helpful in
> protecting the health of pedestrians, I would simply like to mention
> that several studies and research summaries have concluded otherwise:

JWH: The facts you mention here are useless without actual cited studies to back them up. Please provide some.

> There is no quantitative criterion for acceptable exposure to
> [secondhand smoke]?said in another way: there is no safe level of
> exposure to SHS.

JWH: That is not the same thing at all. In fact, one of the notorious drawbacks of all studies on second-hand smoke to date has been that they fail to reach statistical significance. What that means is that researchers are not entirely certain that the effects they are seeing do not vary widely from individual to individual. THAT is why they are unable to quantify what counts as a safe level of exposure - because for some people, apparently, all levels of exposure are safe. This will be true of most casual pollutants you find in the air; it is not terribly different from saying that some people are simply allergic to second-hand smoke while others are immune. In particular, the substance identified as harmful in second-hand smoke is generally carbon monoxide - which, I'm sure you are aware, people are regularly exposed to just by walking down sidewalks. Will you kindly draw a meaningful distinction between cars and cigarettes that requires us to ban the use of one on campus but not the other? Perhaps you would like to require drivers to park well away from the library and walk the rest of the way in just to protect non-drivers from exposure? Or maybe require that everyone use only public transportation on campus to cut down on the risk? For this reason, authorities recommend that exposure

> of non-smokers to SHS exposure be eliminated or reduced to near zero
> exposure levels?Outdoor SHS concentrations, including fine particles
> (PM 2.5) and carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PPAH) are
> detectable in outdoor environments at levels which are sometimes
> comparable to indoor concentrations of SHS. (?A Report of the Health
> Effects??)

JWH: Sometimes comparable. Have you made any measurements around campus to see if, in fact, people are being exposed to smoke to this level of concentration?

> > ?Failure to ban smoking in [patios, beaches, and outdoor sporting
> areas] may expose non-smokers to levels of environmental tobacco
> smoke (ETS) as high or higher than received in indoor spaces where > smoking is unrestricted? (Repace)

JWH: Again - has any study been done to verify that this is actually the case here on campus? If so, please cite it.

> > Hopefully this note will alleviate your concerns that I was being
> disingenuous or am unaware of the policy that I helped create. Again,
> though, I respect your concerns and appreciate that you are willing
> to join this very important dialogue.

JWH: It has alleviated my concern that you were unaware of the policy that you helped to create, but it has not alleviated my concerns that you were being disingenuous. Thank you for your response. Joshua Herring

> > Best,
> -- Donnie Morgan

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

I Take a Lickin' and Keep on Tickin'

As the dreaded IU smoking ban draws closer, the IDS devotes more and more column space to it - always with a not-so-subtle "pro" bias. And I get increasingly irritated. I even recently went against all that is right and decent and penned a letter to the editor complaining about another letter to the editor from some damnfool organization on campus promoting the ban. Reason being, the idiot actually tried to pass it off as "not paternalistic" on the basis that it is trying to safeguard the rights of others not to inhale smoke. Which was just too much, really, because the ban in question is actually a tobacco ban. That's right, in the interest of "protecting others from second-hand smoke," IU is banning ... chewing tobacco.

Of course they haven't, and won't, publish my letter. But at least the "pro" crowd is starting to let its true colors show. Today's "pro" editorial (unfortunately not linkable as it was only in the print version) was by Jonathan P. Rossing, whose "work" really ought to be studied in graduate school Communications and Media programs as a sterling example of the kind of lefty moonbattiness one finds in print these days. Other of Rossing's gems include this must-read bit about how white people are genetically predisposed to racism. You see what I mean.

And his piece on the smoking ban does not disappoint. All that follows are actual quotes.

All the extreme individualists who claim that people should be able to do what they desire to their lungs must recognize that, in this case,the good of our community necessarily trumps self-centered needs and desires.

So it is "extreme individualism" to think that you can do what you like with your own lungs. Who knew?

And let's assume that even a handful of the people smoke less frequently stop smoking altogether. The overall health of IU students, staff and faculty will improve. The ban will lower the risk of respiratory illnesses and infections, hypertension, heart disease and lung cancer. Improved health potentially translates into fewer sick days for staff, improved concentration for study time and better focus on research and teaching. In short, we strengthen not only the health of the IU family, but also the health of the University as a top-notch educational and research institution. Thinking long term, healthier, productive, longer-living faculty and alumni translates into more financial support for our community through research grants and alumni donations.

Just like that! A "handful" of people stop smoking, and suddenly IU is awash in research grant cash!

The sad thing is, it ain't just him. Not by a long shot. One of IU's distinguished medical faculty has published a study that "shows" that passing a smoking ban in restaurants and bars in Monroe County has been so stunningly effective that heart attacks in non-smokers have dropped by 70 percent in the 22 months after the ban. 70 PERCENT!!!

I mean, how can anyone argue with those numbers?

Aw, shucks, I'll give it a try. Their conclusion relies on hospital admissions data for AMI (heart attack) patients in the 22 months leading up to and following the ban in Monroe County (the location of the ban) as compared with Delaware County (which had no ban but a "similar demographic profile").

The results showed a significant drop in the number of admissions among non smokers in Monroe County after the ban was brought in, but this was not reflected in the figures for Delaware County. The number of heart attacks among non smokers in Monroe County dropped from 17 in the 22 months leading up to the ban to 5 in the 22 months afterwards; a drop of 70 per cent. In Delaware County there was an 11 per cent drop, from 18 to 16, in the same two periods.

Gee, ya think? With numbers that small, it's really not surprising. If the frequency of AMI patients is so low that there's less than one per month on average in the regions in question, is it really so shocking that a 44 month period would've turned up these kinds of results?

Sorry kids, I don't buy it. Show me this pattern over a decade and across hundreds of counties randomly selected across the country and we'll talk. But if you're going to conclude, on the basis of about 50 people over a 44 month period with NO KNOWLEDGE OF THEIR MEDICAL HISTORIES and NO BASELINE STATISIC ON THE FREQUENCY OF AMI IN NONSMOKERS and NO CONTROL GROUP OF NON-AMI SUFFERERS FOR COMPARISON, then I really don't know what to say to you except "try that high school thing again - I think you missed some important points in science class."

Now, the website I got that from also thinks Bloomington is the capitol of Indiana, so they're obviously not too good at fact-checking. Which just makes it twice as embarassing that they do a better job putting the survey in perspective than IU's own newssite does.

Check this out:

The study compared the two counties in addition to analyzing the 35,482 hospital admissions in Monroe county 22 months before and 22 months after the initial smoking ban was adopted.

In other words, they cherry-picked their data. It's sitting right there in print, and none of the stellar editors at IU's newssite are smart enough to have picked up on it. They looked at 35,482 admissions records and only reported on about 50 of them, and NO ONE HAS A PROBLEM WITH THAT?

It gets even worse:

"What concerns us is the fact that about half of all non-smoking Americans are regularly exposed to second-hand smoke, even though more than 500 municipalities nationwide have adopted some form of a smoking ban in public places," said Seo, whose research interests include smoking and obesity prevention.

Now you'd really think that with 500 municipalities known to him that have banned smoking, Dr. Seo's survey could've been a little more ... oh, what's the word? ... comprehensive? I mean, if he knows of 500 places across the country that have banned smoking, why focus on only Monroe County? I'd call him lazy - except there's the matter of those approx. 36000 admissions records he looked at.

Right there on the page, folks! The title might as well be "Cherry-Picked Data Conclusively Shows Drastic Effects of Second-Hand Smoke."

I'm so sick of it. Noah used to worry that Creation "Science" was quietly undermining the scientific establishment here. I would submit that public health axe-grinders have already done much more damage to honest scientific inquiry than the Bible-thumpers could ever hope to do. This stuff is despicable.

But one good thing came out of it. I remembered how much fun smoking is and bought a pack of Marlboro Reds on my walk home today. It's been months since I smoked, so I got to enjoy the full buzz. Thanks, guys!

Of course, I should be more careful. Dr. Seo warns me that

Exposure to second-hand smoke for just 30 minutes can rapidly increase a person's risk for heart attack, even if they have no risk factors.

Scary, eh? It's an amazing feat of human endurance, but I survived not one but two (imagine, TWO!!!) full-on cigarettes - we're talkin' the REAL DEAL® here - and I'm still ticking. I chalk it up to my viking physique.