Saturday, January 19, 2008

How to Ignore Him Now?

So results are in from Nevada and it looks like Ron Paul has done very well indeed. He's in second place with 13% to Romney's 51% - his best showing yet. This means he's officially beaten all of the Republican candidates save Romney (the presumed nominee) in at least one contest. Any media outlet that would now like to claim he isn't a serious candidate will be indulging in fantasy.

Better yet, the linked article points out that 25% of the Republican caucus-goers in Nevada are Mormon (it is next-door neighbors with Utah after all) and that about half of Romney's votes owe to this group. If you look at the non-Mormon vote, Romney's lead over Ron Paul is slight at best, and Ron Paul's lead over McCain more substantial. In other words, without the homecourt identity politics advantage, Romeny would still have beat Paul, but not nearly as convincingly.

It should be poined out that Romney has yet to win a contest without resorting to identity politics. In Nevada it's his religion, in Michigan it's because he "grew up there." He obviously can't identify with every region of the country; we'll see how well he does out of his homecourt(s).

But I'll think about that later. Right now I'm positively ecstatic at Paul's 2nd-place showing. This means my hopes for a third party run are far from out of the question. Maybe Paul will forge libertarians into a viable voting block after all.

There Oughta be a Law...

Anyone who doesn't see the guns behind government has never tried disobeying a law.

Indeed. That's Brian Doherty of Reason Magazine writing in the LATimes in response to a kind but subtle smear of libertarianism by former New Republic writer Michael Kinsley.

I'm generally with Virginia Postrel when she implies that Reason is these days too concerned with being hip to give libertarianism a serious face. But when they get it right, they get it right - and this LATimes article is ... right. If libertarianism has one indisputably useful thing to offer mainstream political discourse, it's this: that every law you pass is a restriction of someone's freedom, and before you jump on the bandwagon you really need to ask yourself if it's worth putting someone in jail over it. Because invariably, that's what laws mean. Sure, you can comfort yourself by "only" slapping fines on something - but if a person refuses to pay the fine?

No, the inescapable fact is that there are always guns behind government power. I blogged yesterday about this in regard to Mitt Romney. There is a video on YouTube where a medical marijuana "patient" (probably not really, but that hardly invalidates the question) corners Romney and asks him whether he would put him and his doctor in jail for using medical marijuana. Romney, coward that he is, walks away and ignores it. But the truth is this is something that every Drug Warrior needs to ask himself. Is marijuana - recreational or otherwise - really so dangerous to the general public that you think people should go to pound-me-in-the-ass prison over it? People should be separated from their families, companies should lose productive employees, shops should lose valuable customers, the government should lose tax revenue and instead incur a cost, a person should be locked in a cage with other, more violent offenders, children should lose parents and become wards of the state, people with promising careers ahead of them should forever be consigned to the underclass... Is marijuana really so dangerous to "the public" that you can justify all of this? And ditto for every other law. Because every law you support comes with precisely this price tag associated. Mitt Romney should not have been allowed to dodge this question. Reporters should be hounding him with it in every press conference until he looks the camera straight in the eye and admits that this is indeed what he supports. Ron Paul, for his part, could spend more time at the debates asking questions like this rather than banging on about Muslims' feelings, actually. Because what's good for the Romney the goose is at least as good for ganders Huckabee and Giuliani. And of course no Dems off the hook here. Least of all the Dems, actually - because that is the party whose supporters indulge the vanity that they are the party of individual liberty. If that's the case, why does Hillary Clinton want to put people in jail for making video games she doesn't like? Why does Barack Obama want to put people in jail for owning guns that don't meet his cosmetic specifications?

If libertarianism has one valuable thing to contribute to public political discourse, this is it. Reminding people that all their feel-good measures come with a real social cost, and that they need to be more careful about when they say "there oughta be a law..."

Friday, January 18, 2008

Candid Camera Does Mitt

Here are two YouTube links to Romney being a prick.

The first one shows him cornered by a medical marijuana patient. It seems like a setup to me - that is, I doubt this guy and his oh-so-conveniently placed friend with the video camera are really on the up-and-up. Nevertheless, they ask him a point-blank question that everyone who opposes medical marijuana use needs to be able to answer, and that's "will you have me and my doctor arrested if I use marijuana for medicinal purposes?" Where, I wonder, is our vaunted press on this issue? That is, why do citizens have to stage instances like this to get answers? That question ought to be par-for-the-course in press conferences. Do you believe in your policy enough to actually beat someone to the ground and throw them in jail for it? Is medical marijuana so harmful to the public that you feel you can justify this? If you can't, you need to back down. Romney, slick coward that he is, simply ignores the question and walks on.

The second one shows a reporter challenging Romney on his claim that he "does not have lobbyists running [his] campaign." The reporter points out that someone called Ron Kaufmann, who happens to be a lobbyist, is a senior adviser to Romney's campaign. Romney retorts that because Kaufmann is neither his chief advisor nor his campaign manager, that he is therefore not "running [his] campaign." Sensibly, the reporter asks if any campaigns have lobbyists running them by that definition. Point, set, match to the reporter. Honestly, what a moronic technicality to come back with. "My senior advisor is not a lobbyist, ergo I am completely free of their influence?" Does ANYONE buy this crap?

Romney is a weasel and a prick.

Computer Saccades

Via a link to a link to a link to someone's link in the comments section to a post on Reason Hit and Run, there's this really cool web app that shows you the computer's thinking pattern as it plays you in Chess.

Have fun with it here.

The point, really, is that it's pretty useless on the whole. It tells you what you always suspected: that computer chess is hugely "brute force," consisting of considering a staggering combination of moves. Silicon computers are massive speed, smallish memory capacity, whereas human brains (which are computers) are slow speed, huge memory capacity. The mystery in Chess is sorta why humans are able to do it so well at all. What tips us that certain lines of thought are probably fruitless early enough to stop them and move on to something else?

It's sort of an urban myth in Japan (I say that because I haven't been able to verify this on the web) that best all-time Shogi player Habu Yoshiharu is at his most relaxed when playing. That is, it's widely said that brain scans of him playing show that he's thinking less than normal. Maybe true, maybe not, but it certainly squares with the idea that whatever humans are doing when they're doing things like playing Chess well, it's manifestly NOT "brute force." I can't remember which of Habu's biographers said it, but I remember reading a book about Habu in Japan that said something like "it's an open secret in the Shogi world that the move you make is just the one you like. There isn't any great reasoning that goes into it - rather, one just occurs to you and you spend all your clock time justifying it to yourself." I can vouch for that for myself. I play Chess pretty well. I'm not great by any means, CERTAINLY nothing like a pro - but I do a good job. And that's pretty much how I play too, yeah. Some move just "seems right." There's one that I just want to do for whatever reason. And most of what looks like "thinking" to an outside observer is just me playing devil's advocate with myself, trying to figure out what would go wrong if I did that move that I "want" to do.

Still, click the link and enjoy a round. It's fun watching the computer play through pretty much every possibility before making up its mind.

All of this, of course, is occasioned by the fact that Bobby Fischer's just died. Not the great loss for the Chess world that it probably should be (he hasn't played professionally in decades), but a great loss nonetheless. My favorite alltime Chess game is one of Fischer's. I haven't been able to find the transcript online, but if I run across it I will post it in an update as a my memorial.

A Cool Blog to Celebrate Entry 400

This is The Only Winning Move's 400th entry.

To honor this occasion, I link to a very cool blog from the "now why didn't I think of that?" genre. It is, in its own words, "an ongoing screed against the most self centered group of people who ever walked the planet." That's right, it's an anti-baby boomer blog.

About bloody time!

Best of luck to you.

The Real Maverick

George Will has a column today taking a slice out of John McCain. No general complaints here: McCain is indeed one of the bad guys running this year. But I do have some complaints on specifics.

Regarding the reimportation of drugs from Canada, which McCain supports, Will has the following to say:

In ABC's New Hampshire debate, McCain said: "Why shouldn't we be able to reimport drugs from Canada?" A conservative's answer is:

That amounts to importing Canada's price controls, a large step toward a system in which some medicines would be inexpensive but many others -- new pain-relieving, life-extending pharmaceuticals -- would be unavailable. Setting drug prices by government fiat rather than market forces results in huge reductions of funding for research and development of new drugs. McCain's evident aim is to reduce pharmaceutical companies' profits. But if all those profits were subtracted from the nation's health care bill, the pharmaceutical component of that bill would be reduced only from 10 percent to 8 percent -- and innovation would stop, taking a terrible toll in unnecessary suffering and premature death. When McCain explains that trade-off to voters, he will actually have engaged in straight talk.

Erm - nice straw man, there, George. But let's give him his due: it's true that this is an example of McCain failing to engage in the "straight talk" which is supposedly (if you hyptnotize yourself to believe everything you read in the New York Times) his signature. Reality is, as Will says, that allowing mass reimportation of drugs from Canada will not end up saving consumers all that much money in the long run, a fact McCain seems loathe to mention. But that is not because of the reason Will gives. Look, Mr. Will, the pharmaceutical companies are big kids. They're capable of looking out for themselves. When the Canadian government places price restrictions on sales of their product in Canada, they have a choice whether or not to sell that product there. What they've been doing so far is complying with Canada's restrictions to the extent they can still make a profit and making up for the loss below projection by selling their stuff at higher prices here. What these restrictions amount to, really, is a price subsidy all wrapped up neatly in bows from the consumers of the USA to the consumers of Canada. Removing the reimportation restrictions is the free market thing to do. It forces the drug companies to put some teeth into their negotiations with the Canadian price czars, because those price czars will no longer be able to shield their caps from market competition (for the economically challenged reading this: yes, market competition can drive up prices too in the event that maintaining the current low price would result in a shortage, as would be the case for certain drugs in Canada if their reimportation were allowed). And now let's be realistic about what kind of effect this is all going to have on the market. There are about 30million Canadians and 10 times as many Americans. It's simply implausible that a market that is 1/10th the size of ours with a smaller range of available products is going to have all that much effect on how business is done here. Remember that drugs reimported from Canada mean shipping and delay markups. No - all reimportation is going to do is dry up the supply in Canada and force the price board up there to approve higher prices (and, hopefully, eventually shut down). In some twisted Democrat worldview, I suppose that's "mean" to Canada - but that's really their problem. They are free, after all, to scrap their single-payer system and let some market sanity back into the deal.

I have no particular objection to the rest of Will's column. Indeed, on a personal level McCain has long been my least favorite candidate in the race (though Huckabee is my actual overall least favorite) largely for the reasons Will mentions: his intolerance for dissent and the media myth that he's a "straight talker." "Maverick" is indeed "the media encomium reserved for Republicans who reject important Republican principles." (If it weren't, Ron Paul would rightly receive the same accolade, which of course he doesn't.) But I reject the idea that it's somehow the government's responsibility to enforce the pharmaceutical companies' regional pricing schemes. Private industries should not get this kind of government protection. If the drug companies decide to comply with Canada's fantasy pricing schemes, that's a decision they should take fiscal responsibility for. It is not the job of the American consumer to help Canada pretend it has a healthcare system.

There is, of course, one Republican candidate who "gets it" on this issue.

Pharmaceutical companies certainly own the drugs they produce, and they have every right to sell them at any price they choose. They also have the right not to sell their products to foreign pharmacies, or to condition sales on an agreement that such pharmacies will not reimport into the U.S. They do not have a right, however, to use government to prevent Americans from buying drugs from any willing seller they choose, regardless of where that seller may be located.

Those, of course, are the words of Ron Paul, doing some actual "straight-talking" on the issue.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Ignoring Ron Paul for a Living

I think the most incredible thing about this election so far is that while the Republicans flounder - for the first time in living memory, really - on a choice of candidates, you hear so much griping about how there isn't really a conservative candidate in the race. I mean, there's Fred Thomspson, but he's a regular in the 4th-place spot in all the primaries (and caucuses) so far. Doesn't seem much hope he'll win. Nobody mentions the elephant in the living room: Ron Paul. In addition to regularly beating Giuliani and Thompson in all the primaries so far (OK, granted, he finished just barely behind Giuliani in New Hampshire), Paul actually is conservative. We're talking the Real Deal. The kind of conservative that makes up the base and that Barry Goldwater was supposed to have reintroduced the Republican Party to in 1964. Honestly, Ron Paul's voting record speaks for itself on this. If I may borrow a talking point from Carl Worden:

He has never voted to raise taxes.
He has never voted for an unbalanced budget.
He has never voted for a federal restriction on gun ownership.
He has never voted to raise congressional pay.
He has never taken a government-paid junket.
He has never voted to increase the power of the executive branch.
He voted against the Patriot Act.
He voted against regulating the Internet.
He voted against the Iraq war.

To which I might add

He is reliably federalist.
He is reliably pro-life.
He believes in Jesus.
He is firmly against amnesty for illegal aliens.

(Of my addendum list, only the first item appeals to me, but there is no denying that these things are all ambrosia to run-of-the-mill Republicans.)

So what's up? Why is it that the nominal party of small government is scratching its head over McCain, Romney and Giuliani, of all people, when the conservative to end all conservatives is sitting right there under their noses on the ticket?

I think it's fair to say at this point that the Republican Establishment has been hijacked. To cite some general examples... Yesterday Michelle Malkin ran a column on Townhall begging for "a man who can say No:"

I need a man. A man who can say "No." A man who rejects Big Nanny government. A man who thinks being president doesn't mean playing Santa Claus. A man who won't panic in the face of economic pain. A man who won't succumb to media-driven sob stories.

Taking her at her word, it sounds like the man she wants is Ron Paul. But guess who doesn't even get a mention in her column?

She finishes with

As we head toward Super Tuesday, the subprime mess and the economy will dominate -- and the Do Something Democrat candidates will turn their spigot of overextended homeowner sob stories on full blast. Do Republicans want a clear alternative to liberal-nomics? Or will you settle for a lip-service conservative who will reward fiscal recklessness with only slightly less government intervention than the Dems?

Which is about as well-articulated an argument for nominating Ron Paul as it is possible to write. So why is he off the island? I mean, to not even get a mention? No mistaking it - that's not an oversight, it's deliberate.

And then there's Fox News, which banned Paul from the New Hampshire Debates without explanation. As the LA Times aptly put it just ahead of that event:

Fox doesn't return phone calls or e-mails seeking an explanation for excluding Paul, probably because it's very difficult to explain how you invite Giuliani, who's already lost one election to Paul, and the more-famous Thompson, who ran ahead of the lesser-known Paul in Iowa but trails him in New Hampshire polls. And, frankly, Paul probably leads all Republicans in fourth-quarter fundraising with his nearly $20 million haul. But you won't be able to hear him on Fox Sunday where he would be the only Republican candidate to oppose the Iraq war, advocate pulling our troops home from all around the world to save money for domestic needs and slashing numerous federal departments.[emphasis in original]

(Of course, now that Giuliani's managed to beat him once, he's back in their good graces.)

And then there's the matter of Jacob Sullum's column about the newsletter authorship controversy. That was a hot story for conservatives back when it looked like Ron Paul wrote them and was just covering his ass by blaming it on a ghostwriter. But now that the preponderance of people involved in the Libertarian movement have weighed in and as good as all of them think the real author was either Lew Rockwell or Eric Dondero, and now that even high-ranking NAACP men vouch for Ron Paul on the race issue, Jacob Sullum can't get his column onto Townhall's front page. Jacob Sullum's columns ALWAYS make the Townhall front page - even when they're about things conservatives don't like to hear (like how the War on Drugs is destroying civil liberties). But not yesterday. Gee - wonder why that is?

Ron Paul supporters are supposed to all be conspiracy theory nuts, so here's one of my own: there is a media conspiracy to ignore Ron Paul. I don't mean a spy-novel conspiracy. No deliberate planning, no smoke-filled backrooms, not THAT kind of a conspiracy. I just mean a confluence of conscious, deliberate decisions to exclude Ron Paul from national attention on the part of people who are responsible for bringing conservatives the news.

Granted, some of this is the result of legitimate policy differences. The Republican Party might be new at making the world safe for democracy, but they've long prided themselves on being the party that takes national security seriously. They're also generally less likely to shy away from patriotic sentiment than the Dems. Paul could've been forgiven for opposing the Iraq War, I think, if he didn't have such a tendency to couch his opposition in "Blame America" terms. Giuliani and McCain still wouldn't be satisfied, of course, but there are ways to articulate your opposition to the war that pluck patriotic heartstrings. All he really has to say is that soldiers sign up to defend Country and Constitution, and sending them away to unconstitutional wars with ambiguous goals based on shoddy intelligence work and with no clear homeland defense motivation was hardly in their noble job description. But of course, that isn't how Paul phrased it. And the more he hammers on implying that the US brought 9/11 on itself, the less like a fit for the Republican Party he seems.

But I think there's more to it than just legitimate distaste for the whiff of "blame America" motivations behind Paul's foreign policy. Indeed, if that's all it were they would probably WANT to parade him in front of their voters; he would discredit himself. Unfortunately for the Republican establishment, on every other issue Paul is about as solid a traditional Republican as it is possible to be, and this is embarrassing for them.

It didn't take long after Bush's first election for it to become quite clear that he was nothing like the small-government/"humble" foreign policy president he had campaigned as. The man was clearly allergic to vetos, and this despite some of the worst pork spending in the history of the Republic. There were steel tariffs almost immediately: welcome back Herbert Hoover. And that "humble" foreign policy was anything but. The man who might as well have said "read my lips, no nation-building" didn't hesitate to propose exactly that. And in the meantime, of course, there was the federalization of education, the largest growth in entitlement spending in recorded history, budget surpluses turned into record-smashing deficits, all manner of due process abuses, etc. etc. etc. None of these things are traditional "Republican" positions, and yet the "Republicans" in Congress didn't seem to have much objection to them as they passed.

The whole Republican schtick over the last 8 years has been to excuse it all by pointing to the Democrats and warning that things would be worse under their leadership. As they no doubt would have been. But a feeble excuse is still a feeble excuse, and in the 2006 midterms the base made known just how thin that excuse was wearing. Now the Republican Party is in richly-deserved disarray. It's hardly surprising that the leading candidates haven't learned a new game yet. They're trying to rehash all that "you'll be worse off under the Dems" crap - and they might even get away with it but for Ron Paul.

But there he sits. Good ol' Dr. No. The one Republican of the bunch who never flinched, never relaxed into the political comfort zone of larding his constituents with pork and trusting the voters to return him because "the Dems are worse." The one Republican who never failed to point out just when and why they were acting outside the constitution. For a party that prides itself on being for "principled, constitutional government," it must hurt to have Paul put the lie to it all. He's living proof that they could and should have been doing a lot better than they did.

Truth be told, I don't think most media outlets know what to do with Paul. Politics has become a flag-flying game. For the average voter, it ceased to be about policy a long time ago. What it is now, really, is an extension of the culture wars. People affiliate with a party because it flatters their self-image in some way. Most commentary operates on a left-wing right-wing scale the simplicity and illogic of which can hardly be overstated. And so I think media outlets just don't know what to do with Paul. He's "right wing" as far as that whole small government and pro-life thing goes. But then, he doesn't play ball on Iraq. Or on gay marriage. Or on PATRIOT or the War on Terror or even Social Security and Medicare. He can't easily be pigeonholed into their neat little categories.

If his ideas were sweeping the nation, they might look on this as an interesting challenge. And if he were completely unpopular, of course, they could safely write him off and wouldn't have to face the issue at all. Frustratingly for most media outlets, Paul is neither popular nor unpopular. He has just enough support that they have to cover him a bit, but not so popular that it's worth their time to really investigate his appeal. And so they all think it would be nicer if he would just go away and let them get back to their tried-and-true "stupid party" vs. "evil party" story.

And that's where I think it comes from, this "conspiracy." The media just doesn't know what to do with him; it's easier if he's either ignored or written off as a nut. And if you wondered why it was Fox News in particular that seems complicit, that's because in addition to being a puzzle to them, he's also embarrassing.

But it is precisely this kind of censorship that makes me hopeful. Ron Paul isn't going to be the next president; my support was never based on a hope that he would win. All I need him to do is make clear to the RNC that there is a strong contingent of voters among their base for whom small-government principles are non-negotiable. That they feel the need to edit him out of the party's image tells me two heart-warming things: (a) that they're worried about him and (b) that there will be no mistaking, come November, what it means if a significant number of Republican voters stay home and cost them the election. Their deliberate attempts to ignore him, in other words, are the surest sign he's succeeding.

The Final Nail

This just in: even Austin Branch NAACP President Nelson Linder vouches for Ron Paul on the racism controversy, thus slamming the final nail into the coffin of the Kirchick smear. If even high-ranked NAACP members come to Paul's defense on the charge, what's left in it? So that's it then: Ron Paul is not racist, and someone needs to fire Jamie Kirchick.

Monday, January 14, 2008

How to Weed a Garden - a Response to stpeter

Via a comment on an earlier post, I came across this interesting blog post by Peter Saint-Andre, who also occasionally comments on Samizdata. Peter writes:

That said, I sense that there has long been a seamy underside to some modern advocates of the Constitution and private property rights. In particular, they are attracted to something like libertarianism because it would allow them to discriminate against people of color ("it's my property, I can decide whether to hire black people at my company" or whatever). Even Ayn Rand, who supposedly held that reason is much more fundamental than liberty, made such arguments in the run-up to the civil rights legislation passed by the U.S. Congress in the mid-1960s, and wrote her lone essay on the irrationalism inherent in racism only upon being urged to do so by her acolyte Nathaniel Branden (or so the story goes).

This undercurrent is disturbing and must be squarely faced.

This is a topic I've been meaning to address for some time, and the recent Kirchick article "exposing" Ron Paul's (allegedly) racist past seems as good an excuse as any.

Libertarian websites and publications do seem to attract their fair share of racists. But why? What is it about us that racists find attractive? Because from where I stand, and as I have said before, libertarianism is the only wholly non-racist political philosophy available. We are the only political movement that wants to write group identity completely out of the public sphere - hardly a position racists can be drawn to!

So why do they sometimes seem to be drawn to us?

I guess Peter's explanation is partly correct. Some of our specific policy positions just happen to resemble those of racists, albeit with completely different goals and motivations. In particular, we have a common enemy in anti-discrimination laws - libertarians because we believe in the primacy of property rights, but racists because ... well, because they need the hurdle out of their way. The same will be true of hate speech laws. Libetarians oppose them because we're the only party that unambiguously defends free speech; racists oppose them for the obvious reason that it's their speech in particular that's being censored. And the same, actually, goes for foreign aid to Israel and Africa. Libertarians do not believe in coerced charity (oxymoron, actually); people who hate blacks and Jews are just happy not to be forced to give money to them.

But anyone looking for a deeper philosophical connection between racism and libertarianism will be disappointed: these surface policy similarities are entirely a coincidence of the fact that racists happen to be out of vogue at the moment. Flash back to Nazi Germany, for example, and libertarians (classical liberals) found themselves attractive to casual communists for similar reasons. Radical collectivists crash our party as it suits them. We definitely didn't invite them.

But as I said, I think this is only part of the story. The rest of it has to do with the kind of racists that libertarians attract. I don't think most of the "racist" lurkers on libertarian sites are actually committed racists. The true Nazis (like the true Communists before them) stay well clear of us. The racists we attract are just misguided, usually temporarily, and are rarely actual fascists. They are attracted to Libertarianism because it offers them a refuge from the pressures of trying to fit in with the mainstream guys.

There is, it must be said, something distinctly Maoist about the way race is discussed in modern society. There are certain approved opinions, not all of which are wholly rational, which simply may not be deviated from. Public statements which seem likely to offend the exceedingly delicate (or, more likely, insincere) sensibilities of minoirty leaders - no matter how irrational the basis for that offense may be - are reqired to be prefaced with some sort of hyperbolic denunciation of racism, especially if the speaker is white. And hyperbolic denunciations of racism are often offered even when there is no particular social basis for it at all. By way of example, a commenter on a post on Samizdata about the Jena 6 writes the following:

I agree with the sentiment with the original article; that said, I hope the fuckers who put up nooses to intimidate black people die a very long, painful death.

Because ... why, exactly? How is dying a "very long, painful death" even remotely commensurate with the "crime" of symbolically "intimidating" someone? But this is the kind of nonsense that issues from the mouths of otherwise rational people on the fear that someone, somewhere - ANYWHERE - even someone reading their comment on the internet they don't know and will never meet, might mistake them for a racist.

A similar phenomenon is the way many people seem to feel the need to justify any opposition to policies that race hustlers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton support primarily on the basis that such opposition will benefit members of some minority class. For example, it is not uncommon to hear arguments against race-based university admissions quotas which feature prominently some statistical argument showing that quotas have not benefitted black people, even though this is really beside the point. Any principled objection to such a program will be primarily concerned about the distorting injustice of allowing an incidental and non-academic feature such as the race of the applicant to be considered in what is meant to be an evaluation of academic ability. The righteousness of the program would hardly improve on discovery that it were effective!

People understandably get tired of playing these self-censorship games. And a common, if wholly irrational, way to lash out is to embrace the objectionable opinions that are their targets. Sensing that the dice are being loaded, they wonder why. After all, can't rational positions stand on their own merits? Why, if the standard narrative on race we're constantly fed is true, is there the whiff of Maoism about the way people discuss it? Why would the truth need to stack the deck against its opponents in this way? And so they become racists themselves, either out of simple frustration or on the intellectually lazy assumption that given a position which employs social taboo to silence objection, that which it opposes must be right.

I think these are the kinds of racists that libertarian sites and publications attract. Not people who are actually dedicated to the subjugation of one race by another, but people who have recognized the disingenuous character of public discussions of race and become confused. Since libertarians are outside of political orthodoxy in general and willing to call bullshit on things like affirmative action besides, such people think they have found fellow travellers in us.

They have not. Racism is anathema to libertarianism. People to us are individuals first, middle and last. We do not believe in collective virtue or collective blame, and so the very idea of a racist policy is off the table in libertarian discussions. This perhaps enables us to discuss racial issues more freely than most people, since we do not suffer from the same unspoken guilt that adherents to collectivist political philosophies do, a guilt they suffer on account of the tacit knowledge that racism, as a form of collectivism, is at least obliquely compatible with what they believe on other issues. This frees us from the goofy taboos that characterize mainstream discussions on the subject, and with it comes the unintended side effect that what we might call "protest racists" (racists who are racists because they are confused by the disingenuous terms of mainstream discussions on the subject, rather than out of a real desire to subjugate along racial lines) think they've found in us their soul mates.

This, then, is the full answer to Peter's question. Some racists are attracted to us because our ideology happens to have positions which enable their cause, and other racists - the kind of half-hearted racist I've called a "protest racist" - might be attracted to us simply because our freedom from social taboos and moral confusion on the subject is refreshing to them.

But since racism is anathema to libertarians, and since these people are unwelcome, the next question becomes what we should do about it? Finding an answer is becoming matter of some urgency. Now that people like Ron Paul are appearing on the national scene, libertarians have a real chance at national visibility and, ultimately, at calling the shots on national policy. Since any growth in libertarian influence is bound to upset the mainstream political balance, we have to be prepared to deal with a certain amount of dishonest mudslinging from the people we seek to replace. Accusations of racism are well known to be a tool in the establishment's kit, and the more racists found hanging around libertarian sites and publications, the more effective this tool will be against us.

So what is Peter's proposed solution? Simple, really - we'll just "be reasonable."

To me, the solution is the one that even Rand did not pursue: the primacy of reason. Where were the Objectivists in the 1960s (or before and after) in denouncing such an abject form of unreason as racism, and in recognizing that such unreason is not to be countenanced in any fashion whatsoever? Instead, too many Randians (and certainly their less-philosophical cousins the libertarians) have focused on the surface political issue of property rights instead of the more fundamental issue of prejudice, bigotry, and unreason.

Here's where I part ways with him a bit. Oh, not on the issue of the primacy of reason. I suppose we all claim reason as a primary value; I am no different in thinking that I am pretty darn reasonable! What I object to here is the idea that "the issue of prejudice, bigotry, and unreason" is the "more fundamental" issue. Or, more accurately, I would argue that reason itself tells us that property rights are fundamental and issues of bigotry are incidental.

In libertarian - or, what the hell, let's call it "Objectivist" since I am indeed an admirer of Rand's political philosophy - philosophy, the state is a means to the end of securing rights and nothing more. Individuals are responsible for their own livelihood and prosperity. In a libertarian society, no one may compel anyone to do anything, save respect his rights.

So the obvious question becomes one of what things are rights and what things are not. Answering that question is a subject which obviously requires more sensitivity than a blog entry can provide, but what I can say is that libertarians hold rights to be almost axiomatic - they are self-evident in light of the nature of man and his place in the world. One thing I've always found a good rule of thumb for identifying such an issue is the test of whether conflict on a subject could be tolerated. If there is "middle ground" between two opposing positions on an issue or a way to ethically compromise, then a principle of rights is probably not involved. Applying this test to property, it is easy to see that a right is involved. I cannot simultaneously own something and also allow that you have claims on how I use it (aside, of course, from any claims you make that I not use it in such a way that violates your other rights - such as my owning a gun and using it to kill you when you have not attacked me) - such a thing violates the notion of "property." Either a thing is mine or it isn't. But no such principle seems to be involved in the case of discrimination. What principle does discriminating against someone on the basis of their race really violate? Well, you could say, as Peter says, that it violates the principle that people should behave rationally. And so it does. But this seems a poor "principle" to write into law, or to make the basis of a claim of rights. After all, every living human is irrational more than occasionally. Some of us may strive to perfect rationality, but we all of us fall short. It hardly seems workable to make a crime out of something that everyone is going to do eventually. It's sort of like if God were to say that He's sending everyone to Hell who farts at least once in his lifetime. So that's all of us, then - might as well get on with some gluttony and lust if we're already condemned, eh? I suppose you could try again and say that it violates the principle that people shouldn't discriminate, but that doesn't seem workable either. If we take discriminate in the broad sense, we'd obviously be prohibiting any kind of basis for decision-making at all, which would be silly. If we take it in the narrow sense of "discriminate on the basis of racial characteristics" then we run into an implementational problem. What constitutes racial discrimination? How do we know when we've seen it? Who gets to say when there's discrimination going on? As we are talking about distinguishing motivations for actions which may, on the surface, be identical (for example, I refuse to hire a particular black man because he's black, or I refuse to hire a particular black man because I don't think he's a good fit for the job - either way the result is that I refused to hire a black man. The situations are indistinguishable on the surface without a lot of outside second-guessing about my motives.), these questions are non-trivial. There doesn't seem to be a way to implement this principle without violating the sanctity of a lot of other things that seem as though they should be rights (the right to one's property, the right to act on one's own reasoning, the right to free association, to name but a few). More tellingly, though, there's a compromise available, and that's that the individuals in question simply have nothing to do with each other. All that we really need demand is equal protection under the law. If we live in a society that affords this, then my property is mine and yours is yours, and if I am so silly as to refuse you service on the basis of your race, then you are free to take your business elsewhere.

There are some things that need to be enshrined as rights, and some things which will come to be uncommon as society evolves. Property ownership is an example of the former, racial discrimination the latter. Rational behavior is not something we can enforce - but that's OK because rational behavior rewards itself over time. That's the basis for calling it "rational," after all - it's behavior in accordance with conclusions based on obersvations about nature arrived at through the principles of proper reasoning. It is behavior in response to the way the world actually operates, as it were. If racial discrimination really is irrational (as it surely is), then no free-market econonmy will ultimately reward racist behavior. If I am willing to hire qualified candidates regardless of their race and you are not, then obviously my business has a larger hiring pool than yours and will presumably end up with more-qualified staff. Etc. Now - it's worth stressing that the illusion of the profitability of irrational behavior will persist. In this way, it's not unlike a poker game. Sometimes you win big just by accident, by betting high before you have all the knowledge you need to be assured of a win. But such gambles rarely pay off in the long run. They afford you impressive victories on individual hands, but usually not over the course of an entire evening. And so it is with irrational behavior. On the local view, it may appear to be working out - but given time, it will ultimately not pay off.

So what is to be done about racism in the libertarian movement, then? The short answer: not much more than we're already doing. Perhaps we could be doing a better job than we're doing policing our own. That is, we could be quicker and more forceful about showing the racists that do show up the door, or quicker and more forceful about showing them the flaws in their arguments. Still, too much of this - too quick and too forceful - and it gets to be the same kind of hyperbolic witchhunt that characterizes mainstream discourse on the subject. Racism is a political sin - but no more so than fascism of any kind. We must be careful to remain cognizant that the reason we're singling it out for special treatment is simply a kind of pandering to political reality - because the mainstream discourse gives it this importance. Reality, of course, is that it is one among many threats to liberty, and we must not become so focused on exorcising racism that we forget that there are other very real enemies of human liberty as well.

The long answer: we could reach out to minorities. Like it or not - polls show that libertarianism is a white man's club. This should change. For whatever reason, we've done a poor job recruiting minorities to the cause, and this is, of course, an issue that compounds itself. The longer we're a white man's club, the less comfortable minorities will feel joining the club. Maybe on an intellectual level they're attracted to some of our ideas (a commenter on Samizdata points out that blacks bear the brunt of police intimidation tactis and are receptive to the small-state message on that basis alone) - but if they look at us and see a white man's club that includes a disturbing number of racist-seeming hangers-on, they're not likely to take a very close or thoughtful look before moving on to something else. The best way, I think, to dispell the perception (that Peter so aptly characterizes in his column) popular with the public that there's racism simmering just below the surface in our movement is to have a lot of minorities hanging about. It is, after all, just a perception that racists are attracted to our philospohy. That philosophy as stated has no room for racists, and this is a point we should be doing a better job selling to those parts of the public that were victims of racism within living memory.

Of course, it's nice to mouth platitudes like "reach out to minorities," but difficult to put such a suggestion into action. Reach out how? That's the rub. I don't have too many creative suggestions here. What mainstream commentators mean when they say "reach out" usually involves policies that are off limits to us - wealth redistrubtion policies or racist affirmative action preferences policies. If we start compromising our principles just to add a few black faces here and there to our rolls, we'll have given away the farm - become the irrational, collectivist thing we oppose. No, I'm afraid this has to be done on an individual, case-by-case basis - otherwise known as "the hard way." One approach that we could take, though, is to aggressively point out something that is obvious to us, but not to the general public: that the witch hunt against racists is itself counterproductive to minority liberation. Race has been used quite effectively by Jesse Jackson and his ilk to keep his constituents dependent on him. By telling them that only government programs can save them, but that none of the ones that have been provided so far have been adequate, he creates an endless supply of problems uniquely suited for his talents to "solve." It's a dependency cycle, and we should be more aggressive in pointing this out. We should also be more aggressive in pointing out the kind of awkwardness that mainstream discourse about race creates between members of various races. People are not as stupid as their political masters think: they smell a rat whenever they hear silly statements like the one about the Jena Six campaign quoted above. The author of that statment may think he is drawing a hard line against racism, but he's actually accomplishing just the opposite. Any black man hearing that quote in a discussion will sense the insincerity. He will sense that the hyperoble isn't really for him so much as for making the author feel better about himself, a fact which strongly implies that the author is dealing with inner racist demons that any member of a minority would do well to steer clear of. Libertarians have a unique opportunity to cut through the policitically correct fog, in other words, something which I think is ultimately more comforting to members of minorities than it is to the whites who are currently the most vocal in their denunciation of it. What will work, counterintuitive though it currently seems, is being more vocal about the fact that we are the ONLY completely non-racist political philosophy, and not shying away from saying why. Resist the temptation to always flee to "because the War on Drugs targets black men" or "because gun control hurts blacks the most." These are insincere pandering methods, and your listeners are smart enough to see through that. What works in the end is the straight shot. Explain that affirmative action is racist and why, that only entrepreneuship and hard work will create prosperity in the long run, and that we don't trust the government any more than they do and that that's WHY they should avoid depending on it for solutions.

I realize that this is a bit unsatisfying. But that's life as a libertarian, I'm afraid. One emotional downer about our philosophy is that there are no silver bullets. The Democrats get all teary every four years at their convention because they think the man (or, this year, possibly the woman) on stage really does have the power to click the ruby slippers three times and make social ills go away. We have never indulged in such fantasies. It would be unseemly to start indulging in them about race. The truth is we have a hard sell on this issue - like we do on every issue. So what can I say but roll up your sleeves and get to work?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Balls of Steel

This is quite simply the most inspiring bit of reading I've done in a good long time. It's from Ezra Levant, the courageous publisher of the Western Standard who published the Mohammed Cartoons in his newspaper at the height of the ridiculous controversy and then again yesterday on his blog. The link goes to his opening statement to the "Alberta Human Rights Commission," a tribunal that he rightly calls a "kangaroo court." You see, he's been brought up on essentially the complaint that he hurt an imam's very very delicate feelings by publishing the cartoons, as though any religious nutball's feelings were somehow more important than the human right to free speech.

I got this from a post on Samizdata, where Perry de Havilland calls it "a master class in confronting the enemies of liberty." Indeed. It is spectacular. Go have a read, and then watch the videos he's posted of it, and then click the link provided and donate to help with his legal fees.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

What to Say about that Kirchick Thing

In the coming weeks, every serious Ron Paul supporter will have to respond to this attempted smear by James Kirchick. The gist of Kirchick's article is that as recently as 15 years ago Ron Paul published a newsletter that contained some politically incorrect statements, therefore, Ron Paul is a bigot unworthy of the White House.

Unfortunately, the smear has resonance - even with Paul's supporters. Here is a list of reasons why you shouldn't take it too seriously.

(1) Prima Facie - it is an obvious smear. The author himself has admitted as much. Click the link and, in addition to a reprint of a damning email, you will find evidence that the author deliberately held the article until the day before the New Hampshire primary. Clearly, he was going after the journalist's wet dream: to bring down a candidate with "hard hitting" "investigative" reporting. The problem with the "hard-hitting" and "investigative" bits is that this story is old. You don't get reporter points for reprinting old copy at opportune political moments, I'm afraid. Ron Paul answered for his newsletter back during his congressional run in 1996, and then again in 1998. The link goes to a 2001 article which partially addresses the same issue. Of course, just because something is a smear doesn't mean it isn't true - but it is reason to give it a more thorough look than you otherwise would.

(2) Context - almost all of the damning quotes come from a single article published in the wake of the 1992 Rodney King Riots. Anyone who remembers that time will recall just how ridiculous this situation was. The acquittal of Rodney King's attackers was a reasonable outcome given the evidence. King definitely violently resisted arrest and was unfazed by taser attacks on him. The media, of course, had edited out the sequences in the video that showed this, so the public got a skewed view of events. Following the acquittal, Los Angeles erupted in race riots in which 53 people were killed, thousands injured, and $1billion dollars worth of property damage done. All of this violence was racially motivated, perpetrated almost exclusively by black people against members of other races. Absurdly, Korean shopowners defending their property and lives from the mob were ordered arrested for discharging firearms in the city. Imagine - the police are unavailable and a mob is attacking your store, and your government wants you arrested for defending yourself! Rather than do the human thing and condemn the violence, leaders of the black community made public justifications for it - for example, Maxine Waters, who said called it "a spontaneous reaction to a lot of injustice and a lot of alienation and frustration," and excused looting by saying "There were mothers who took this as an opportunity to take some milk, to take some bread, to take some shoes. Maybe they shouldn't have done it, but the atmosphere was such that they did it. They are not crooks." This is the atmosphere in which the article was written. If it seems unfair to condemn a presidential candidate in 2008 for words written during a volatile situation way back in 1992, that's because it is.

(3) Authorship - Ron Paul has anyway denied authorship. Certainly this claim is plausible. Congressmen rarely write all the things that are attributed to them, and Ron Paul's schedule has always been particularly busy. That said, of course he bears responsibility for things written in a newsletter bearing his name, responsibility which he has never shunned in the past. If he now issues press releases clearing up the matter of authorship, it is because he feels he has already spent enough time answering for his lack of oversight over his newsletter. Regarding the identity of the person who actually wrote the inflamatory statements (assuming, of course, that it in fact wasn't Paul himself) - that is a matter of some intrigue. The link goes to a blog that claims it is an open secret and asks the author to come forward in the interests of the movement. Virginia Postrel seems to agree that Paul probably didn't write the letters himself and speculates that the actual author is Lew Rockwell. This would explain a lot if true. Ron Paul and Lew Rockwell are close, and Lew Rockwell, as head of the Mises Institute, is important to the libertarian movement. "Outting" him is therefore not a simple matter. It's worth noting that the kind of inflammatory language cited in Kirchick's article is definitely his style.

(4) Most importantly - record - Taking Kirchick's smear seriously requires you to be in a position to believe that newsletters that Ron Paul may or may not have written 15 years ago are somehow more relevant to your evaluation of him as a candidate than his actual voting record. Paul's votes are freely available for examination by the public, and nothing among them indicates that he is a racist. Indeed, it is the most honest voting record of any politician I know. Ron Paul does not mince words. He says what he believes, and once elected he votes the way he promises. For an unambiguous condemnation of racism from Paul that he definitely did write, read this.

As a smear, Kirchick's article is shabby in any case. Among other things, he describes the Mises Institute as a "neo-confederate organization." Heh. It's true that the Mises Institute does not have an overly favorable impression of President Lincoln, but this is a case they argue persuasively from historical fact, not out of racist or "neo-confederate" motives. In short, his characterizations of the company Paul keeps are straw mans.

As for what this incident means for libertarianism - I repeat with only minor changes sections of a comment I made on Samizdata:

There is some worry that Paul has now forever tarnished the libertarian movement. Poppycock. If libertarianism cannot grow beyond a single politician, it was doomed from the start anyway. More to the point, libertarianism is the ONLY completely non-racist political position I know (as it is the only position that unambiguously shuns identity politics and regards all people as individuals deserving of equal rights before the law first, middle and last, completely independent of their circumstances, inherited genetic characteristics, or cultural background). No doubt libertarians will get stereotyped as racists in the coming months, and no doubt a lot of us who self-identify as libertarians will be asked to explain Ron Paul's unfortunate newsletter. If we cannot look people in the eye and explain to them why we are less racist than either the Democrats or the Republicans, then the fault is ours and not Ron Paul's. It is not a movement about Ron Paul.

One of the things that keeps us on the fringe is that we have never been honest with ourselves what being on the fringe means. It means that people laugh at, misrepresent, lie about and are generally uncomfortable with our positions not, in many cases, because they have substantive disagreements with them, but just because these positions are unfamiliar. That is unfortunate, but it is the way of the world. People don't grill Republicans and Democrats on what they stand for because these are familiar and generally accepted banners to fly. Being libertarian means we don't get the luxury of avoiding questions, fair or otherwise.

In the wake of Kirchick's article, clearly questions about libertarian positions on race from people who don't know much about us are fair. But they are questions that don't seem too difficult to answer.

Whether or not libertarians should continue to support Paul is obviously a more complicated matter. I myself will continue to support him to the degree that I always have, which is more as a method for convincing the Republicans that they need to pay more attention to their small-government constituency in the future than as an actual viable candidate for the presidency. I can find nothing in Paul's stated positions or in his voting record to indicate that he is a racist. Quite the contrary, he seems to me the candidate most likely to remove the race question from public life altogether. I will therefore lose no sleep over my vote.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

So NOW He's Good to Go?

Well, well. Fox news has decided to let Ron Paul participate in the next debate.

So let me get this straight. Going into New Hampshire, where he was expected to poll better than 10% and ahead of Giuliani, and yet Fox News thought fit to exclude him. Now that he's safely behind Giuliani again and New Hampshire is over, they let him back in? What can possibly have happened in the meantime to convince them that he's a more viable candidate?

Answer: nothing. They were simply editing him out. This is deliberate. If he rocks South Carolina (as well he might), expect him to be mysteriously dropped again.

Konishiki he Ain't

TOWM quote of the day comes from Jacob Sullum's latest column The Thin Man Goes to Washington:

In his inaugural New York Times column, William Kristol suggests Mike Huckabee may be the right Republican presidential candidate to beat "a liberal Democrat" who will "want to increase the scope of the nanny state." This is like counting on Godzilla to save us from King Kong.

Quite right. Huckabee is about as nanny-state as they come. Support for the fair tax a possible exception (I doubt he is sincere in his support anyway), Huckabee stands for government as personal trainer. He's a social engineer if ever there was one.

I would just like to state again for the record how pleased I am at his crappy showing in New Hampshire last night. (Pitty about Ron Paul, though.)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Off to Bed Without Supper

Alright, well, this whole thing in New Hampshire is pretty disappointing. Ron Paul can't even get 10% - in NEW HAMPSHIRE of all places! He's behind Giuliwhatsy, who didn't even campaign there, for a lackluster 5th-place finish. Crap.

That pretty much takes the steam out of my hopes for him. I don't think he'll do as well in Florida or Michigan.

The good news is that Huckabee seems effectively smacked down. Granted, he's in 3rd place, and granted, New Hampshire was always going to be tough for him, and granted, he may well still go on to win South Carolina. But I don't see it coming together for him in Michigan or Florida. By the time Super Tuesday rolls around, he'll be unambiguously trailing the pack. No doubt God's still got his fingers crossed, but it's looking like 2008 isn't going to be the year He came home.

The bad news is that we still have no f-in clue who the Republican nominee is going to be. And that's - to put it mildly - off the charts unusual. Republicans usually know years in advance who's gonna be riding their steed. Right now there's just no way to know. I guess Giuliani will win Florida pretty handily, but Michigan is anyone's guess. Giuliani and McCain are more likely than Romney there (despite the fact that Romney's dad was once Michigan's governor), but not so's you would rule a Romney win out.

Romney's the center of it, really. Despite one-going-on-two second-place finishes and a win that didn't matter in Wyoming, he's easily the front-runner on delegate strength. If you keep coming in second, but different guys get first each time, you're still good to go. If Romney wins on the strength of his second-place finishes??? Well, it'll be nothing if not interesting come November!

As for the Democrats ... I don't really much care between Obama and Hillary, but I was hoping for an Obama win just because that would keep things interesting for a while. And it looks like it could still happen. As I type this about 70% of the votes are in, and he's only 3% behind her. But it seems more likely she'll cinch it ... and then go on to greater things in the other primaries. Mostly I'm just happy that idiot Edwards isn't charting. The sooner that clown's out of politics the better for all concerned, really. I don't think he's gonna make VP this time. Hatin' it for him.

Mostly I'm just disappointed in Ron Paul. Without a substantial improvement in New Hampshire over Iowa, there's simply no way he'll run as an independent or third-party candidate. More's the pity.

A Long Shot Worth Taking

At the time of writing, voting is still going on in New Hampshire. Here's hoping Ron Paul pulls off some kind of respectable finish.

I know he's not going to be president (or even the Republican nominee). But he's by far the most libertarian candidate in the race - by far the most libertarian candidate to run for either major party in my lifetime. I have a longstanding policy of voting Libertarian in all contests where there is a candidate and Republican otherwise. (I'm not too dedicated to this, by the way. If there were a Democrat worth voting for, I would be happy to make individual exceptions. Like, for example, if the LP didn't run anyone this year and the Huckabee were the Republican nominee...) So it doesn't deviate too much from my algorithm to support Paul.

The main thing Ron Paul can do for me: remind the Republicans that they're supposed to be the party of SMALL government - not the party of wiretapping and steel tarrifs and immigration police and prescription drug handouts. They're the ones who are supposed to be getting government OUT of our lives, but for the past 8 years they've been building it almost as fast as Johnson did. Ron Paul can remind them that a core of their voters is libertarian-minded, and that if they want to win elections in the future, they need to pander to these voters the way they've been pandering to the religious right for the past 20 years.

George Will worries that the conservative fusion is tearing. By "fusion" he refers to the perception (which I share) that while the Democrats have a unified political philosophy, the Republicans are really just a rag-tag group of people without much in common save that they all have their reasons to oppose Socialism. If you've ever wondered, for example, what tax cuts have to do with abortion ... well, the answer was simpler than you thought: nothing whatever. Abortion is the religious right's issue, tax cuts belong in a basket of free-market economic issues, and the only reason these two things show up in the same party is because the religious right and libertarians agree to work together to slow the encroachment of Socialism.

The Republican Party has always been an uneasy alliance, and Will is right to worry that it may now be breaking apart. Really, Reagan is the one who even put it together in the first place: this alliance isn't that old. Before Reagan (or, arguably, Goldwater), the Republicans went through a phase of being something not unlike Canadian Red Tories. The religious right as we know it, after all, didn't exist before the late 1960s: it's largely a reaction to "them dirty hippies." And before the War, of course, the Republicans legitimately were the party of small government - but gee that's been a while!

Too long. And this time around, there just doesn't seem to be a "coalition" candidate. They're all, in their own ways, big-government types - only mildly more sensible than their Dem opponents. In the case of Huckabee, it's PARTICULARLY bad: he's both religious right and progressive populist - just about the worst combination of political stripes you can put on a shirt.

There is, simply put, no one likely to win that I can stomach. And so I do the only thing I can do: support Ron Paul now, hope he does well enough in some primaries that he'll consider a third party or independent run, and then, if he does run third party, SINCERELY hope that he sabotages the Republicans' chances of winning. If the Republican Party is going to crash and burn, as seems likely, then we might as well put our best foot forward and hope that whatever climbs out of the ashes is more libertarian than religious.

To tell the truth, I wouldn't honestly be surprised if this is America's 1993. It was in the federal election of 1993 that the old Progressive Conservative Party in Canada finally collapsed completely. They'd spent the last 8 years or so with a solid majority (in fact, the largest such in Canadian history for Mulroney's first term) in Commons. But by the end of it they were decimated: they went from governing majority to only 2 seats (a net loss of 167) in the space of 1 election - and Canada spent most of the 90s without a real opposition. It didn't last, of course, but what coalition has been strung together to replace the old PC Party is decidedly more "conservative" and less establishment than the old party was. Something like that will need to happen here too, I think, if there's any hope for global capitalism.

A democrat majority in Congress with a President Hillary is going to be painful. The size of the government will go through the roof, taxes will increase to compensate, and we'll lose a substantial amount of our freedoms and individual perrogatives for economic self-determination in the process. But no pain, no gain, right? The Republicans are taking us the same direction - just a little bit slower. If there's going to be a fight, let's at least have an honest one. Wilson the honest Socialist over Heath the disastrous pretender, as it were.

So what I want for 2008: an independent Ron Paul pulls a Nader on the Republicans and sabotages their chances for winning. The Democrats get a chance to show us just how crappy they are. And the Republicans, meanwhile, learn an important lesson: if they want to win in the future, they need to stop acting like Democrats.

Votes for Ron Paul aren't votes for the next president. What they are, really, are protest votes of a highly specific kind. Unlike Nader - who mostly just stood for Nader - Ron Paul stands for a consistent philosophy of how this nation should be governed. It's an old, time-honored philosophy because it's been with us as long as the country has. It is, in fact, the kind of government that this nation was built to establish and offer to the world. It may be lost forever, in fact - but I'm enough of a patriot to hope. The point is - none of the guys up for bid this time are bringing it any closer ... save one, and that one can't win. But maybe he can lose in the just the right way...

Well I NEVER! (And probably never will...)

There you have it. According to the link behind the image, I'm writing to a Junior High reading level. (So, incidentally, is Mr. Tweedy. HA!)

I'd blame it on all the Blake's 7 entries, but Noah's Moribund Blog, which is really just about some stupid online Firefly Cosmoquiz, manages to rate "Postgraduate." And Samizdata got a respectable "Undergraduate."

Guess it's time to crank out a Python script to seed my entries with SAT words, then...

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Sap that Wasn't

My vote for sap column of the day goes to Paul Greenberg's latest - The Laugh's on Us - in which he tries to defend Mike Huckabee's colossally disingenuous attack ad stunt. For those of you unfamiliar with the bit, what Huckabee did was this. He called a press conference on New Year's Eve to announce that he felt deep remorse for having considered running an "attack ad" against Mitt Romney in Iowa. And just to show that his campaign really had produced one, Huckabee was kind enough to show the press the ad in question.

The press reaction was to laugh him off the stage - and rightly so. It doesn't take a political sophisticate to see through this trick.

Making Greenberg effectively politically retarded. Listen to this crap and see what I mean:

The press types' reaction to the Reverend's announcement was just brutal, merciless, and it seemed to go on forever. The Washington Post had a video of the press conference on its Web site. It was painful to watch. You could tell by Brother Huckabee's fallen face that the guy had been utterly serious ...

Mike Huckabee made a mistake, all right, but it was made out of naivete - not political cunning. If he'd been as sharp as Richard Nixon, he'd have said only that he was pulling the commercial - and then had a staffer leak a copy of it to the media on Deep Background. Instead, he became a figure of fun.

Oh please! Granted, if Huckabee were as sharp as Nixon, maybe that's what he would've done. But if he were as sincere as Greenberg apparently thinks he is, he wouldn't have held the press conference at all. I mean, what's wrong with just burying the ad, continuing with the sunshine policy and letting his record speak for itself - letting noone in the public be the wiser that he was contemplating running a negative ad? Surely that's the honest way for a candidate who truly is "above mudslinging" to approach this?

It gets worse:

Just suppose for a moment that Mike Huckabee's prayer the other Sunday for the strength to cast aside his best instincts and rise above his own standards, or rather fall below them, really had been answered. And the answer was No. As in Thou Shalt Not. And that it just took a while, like 24 hours, for it to dawn on him. (Even the Lord may have trouble being heard in the tumult of a noisy, muddy political campaign, for they say His is a still small voice.) And when the Reverend got the message from On High, he really had no choice but to reveal it in the spirit of his denomination's tradition of public confession, foolish as it might make him look, and embarrassing as open confession is to us more buttoned-down types.

Alright - let's suppose just for a moment that this is What Really Happened. Why does public confession require that Huckabee show his vid to the press? When Jimmy Swaggart confessed to sex in a car with a prostitute, did he have to recreate the scene for all to see? Didn't we take him at his word that it was all as he said? And anyway, what's so sinful about responding to attacks that Romney has made against you in the first place? Is there anything - anything AT ALL - unchristian about saying "My opponent said x, y and z, and here's why these things are inaccurate?" He doesn't have to be mean about it, after all. He can say that Romney is simply mistaken, after all.

Nope, sorry, I don't buy it. The whole thing was the cheapest, most pedestrian kind of political ploy, and the press was right to laugh at him for trying. Maybe it was stupid to do something so obvious - but that doesn't mean Huckabee didn't try it. In fact, I don't see any particular reason to doubt that Huckabee was calculating on the perception of stupidity to save him - a la "nobody would do something that dumb on purpose, ergo he must've been sincere." It's a common enough tactic to merit its own name, after all. And this is, let's not forget, the same Mike Huckabee who "innocently" - awwwwww shucks - "let slip" that Mormons think Jesus and the Devil are brothers. Here, too, he was counting on (the public perception of) his "ignorance" of Mormonism to let him off the hook for having taken a cheap shot at Romney's religion. If he were indeed ignorant of Mormonism, why choose that particular fact to ask questions about? Why not ask something more common, like whether Mormons believe in the Trinity? I mean, it takes a certain amount of sophistication about Mormonism to know that they think Jesus and the Devil are brothers - the kind of sophistication that makes it hugely unlikely that Huckabee would have missed the context of that belief (in fact, Mormons believe all angels are brothers, and since Lucifer was an angel then it just follows logically). "Jesus and the Devil are brothers" isn't exactly Latter Day Saints 101.

No, ladies and gentlemen, this is all exactly what you think it is. This Emperor has No Clothes. Mike Huckabee is a conniving, below-the-belt fighter, just like the rest of them. His "above the fray" act is working for him, but it's just an act. Just like I suspect Paul Greenberg's column is, actually. Let me come clean: I am a regular reader of Greenberg, and I don't think for a minute that he's stupid enough to have been taken in by this. He's just running cover for his candidate of choice.

Any pretense Huckabee might've had to feeling remorse over producing the ad was exposed in any case when he went ahead and ran it 10 times anyway - a fact Paul Greenberg can hardly be ignorant of, I hasten to add.

I hate Mike Huckabee. I hate his religion, I hate even more that it's all he's running on, I hate his wholly un-Republican populism, I hate his equivovating about his tax record, hate his bland substance-free answers to questions. I like his speaking style. Huckabee's nothing if not a charmer - and it's nice, for once, to see someone in the debates who thinks quickly on his feet and manages to remain positive no matter what they throw at him. But it's just unnatural at some level. The same way all the flashy packaging in the world doesn't make a bad album good, no amount of charm makes Huckabee anything other than he is: the smarmiest pol in the race. Appearances can be deceiving. Fortunately, in this case, it's a pretty thin disguise to anyone who cares to look without blinking.

Friday, January 04, 2008

What Happened on Gauda Prime

WARNING: This entry pretty much IS a spoiler. Of course, it's a spoiler for an obscure (in the US) 1970s BBC scifi show, so if you're not in to that sort of thing, by all means... If you ARE in to that sort of thing, here is a link to the episode I'm reviewing - though I would strongly suggest you watch the whole series before watching this one. (If the video link ever goes out of scope, there's also a script here).

No question that "Blake," the final episode of Terry Nation's excellent Blake's 7, is the ballsiest way to end a TV show we're likely ever to see. Only the final episode of Twin Peaks compares - and even that one loses for me on lack of continuity (it comes across as an - admittedly well-deserved - dynamiting of a once-beautiful project that had gone off the rails). It isn't just that putting "Blake" on the screen took courage, the beautiful thing about it is that it wasn't even a gimmick: I can't honestly imagine this particular show having ended any other way.

Unfortunately, if internet chatrooms are anything to go on, I think the story has been largely misinterpreted by fans. This is about what I think they get wrong.

Some review is in order.

Avon, having failed to put together a coalition of feuding warlords on his own to fight the Federation, realizes that he's not an inspiring leader. Fortunately, he knows someone who is: Blake. Of course, Blake's been missing in action for two years; where to find him? Since this is Blake's 7, it comes as no surprise to anyone that Avon has known for some time how to figure out where Blake was.

So they tie up a lingering plot thread - why didn't they just ask Orac? - and ask Orac, who tells them that it's highly likely Blake is on Gauda Prime. Gauda Prime is a lawless world which has recently applied for readmission to the Federation, and in the next scenes we see that Blake is taking advantage of this situation to pass himself off as a bounty hunter as a front for recruiting fresh blood to his cause.

And here's the first point that a lot of viewers seem to have missed: Blake is doing a spectacularly bad job with his recruiting. It isn't just that Arlen is a Federation agent who nevertheless passed his "tests," it seems that Deva - the Federation officer in charge of paying bounty on Gauda Prime who is nominally devoted to Blake's cause - is probably a double agent too. (Remember that just as Blake's left to go find Tarrant, we get one final shot of Arlen in the brig, and she tries to buy her way out by trading information about her bounty hunter - presumably that he's Roj Blake. Since Deva already knows this and Blake clearly later thinks she's passed his test, we can only conclude that Deva never told Blake that she tried to use knowledge of Blake's identity to buy her way out of captivity. The only reason Deva would have neglected to mention such an important detail is if he's not as loyal to Blake as he pretends to be - i.e. is a Federation plant. Not to mention, Tarrant has little trouble seeing through Blake's ruse when Blake finds him. Blake's off his game.)

The Scorpio crashlands on Gauda Prime and the crew is separated: Vila, Dayna and Soolin take up shelter in an abandoned farmhut, Avon soon joins them after saving their lives from attacking bounty hunters, and Tarrant crashes with the ship where Blake finds him in the wreckage. Neither is fooled by the other: Blake seems to have figured out who Tarrant is immediately; Tarran's suspicions are confirmed on the trip with Blake back to base. On the way back to base, Blake notices that they're being tailed by a ship that's doing a remarkably good job anticipating their pseudorandom flight changes. Though he doesn't say anything just yet, this confirms Blake's suspicions that Tarrant is with Avon and that Avon is piloting the ship following them (because cracking his random flight pattern algorithm is something Orac would have no trouble with).

Back in base, Blake plays his "game" again and turns a gun on Tarrant to pretend to turn him in for bounty. There are signs that Blake isn't serious, but true to character Tarrant sees them without appreciating their significance. Avon soon enters the compound and Blake orders (through Deva) that they be allowed in. He goes unarmed to meet him, but Deva (see what I mean about Deva?) insists he take a security guard. It's Arlen (of course!), and so Arlen and Blake go off to find Avon.

Tarrant escapes (presumably because Deva let him) and goes to warn Avon that Blake is a traitor, which he does just as Blake is entering the room. Avon meets Blake and Blake approaches him unarmed, but Avon is not satisfied with his lamely ambiguous claim that Tarrant has been deceived and so shoots him in the chest - three times in slow succession. A key point here is that we see blood on Blake's shirt: there is no doubt that Blake died in this episode. Federation troopers arrive and a gunfight ensues after Vila's clever diversion in which everyone is hit but Avon. Notably, there is no blood when anyone else is shot. The episode ends on a freezeframe of Avon (who has only just realized what's going on having spent the last minute in stunned disbelief that he's killed Blake) slowly raising his gun to fight back as a grim smile forms on his face. We hear an exchange of fire as the credits roll.

Ok - so that's a lot of setup - but it's necessary to explain what I think people are missing about the significance of this exchange. The standard interpretation is that the story is about a fatal flaw in Avon: his inability to trust Blake is what got them all killed. The irony is supposed to be that despite a handful of signs of genuine caring and some more convincing signs that he's now at least partly devoted to Blake's cause, Avon has learned nothing by the end of the series: he's still the cynical, self-serving criminal he always was.

Well, maybe. But I think this interpretation not only misses who Avon really is (he isn't primarily a criminal) but also doesn't quite square with the events as presented.

Mainly - when have you ever seen Avon hesitate the way he hesitates when he thinks Blake might have betrayed him? Even once in the entire rest of the series? No, and that's the point. Avon HAS learned something, and he DOES have an fledgling trust in Blake - and it's the fact that he has real human feelings about Blake that gets him killed, not the other way around.

I've said before, as have others before me, that Blake's 7 is a deliberate inversion of Star Trek. And perhaps the most prominent thing being inverted is the Kirk-Spock relationship. When Spock was popular out of proportion to Kirk on Trek, the writers tried to put him in his place. When Avon was more popular than Blake, the writers ran with it. Blake(Kirk) even eventually goes missing and Avon(Spock) gets his command after all. More to the point, whereas in Star Trek it's more often than not Kirk's sentimentality that (improbably) saves the day, in Blake's 7 it's usually Avon's ability to think quickly and dispassionately under pressure - his total lack of emotional/sentimental distractions. When someone has to be sacrificed for the good of the whole, Avon doesn't waste any time whining about it; usually he just pulls the trigger himself before anyone can waste his time arguing.

The one time he didn't do that, the one time he let an emotional distraction cloud his judgment, the one time he failed to make a snap, cold decision under pressure was here at the end; it got him killed. The rational thing to do in this situation is to ignore Blake altogether, kill Arlen (the only person on the other side with a raised gun), take Blake hostage and get out while there's still time. There will be time to hear Blake's explanations later. If he is a traitor, they have a valuable hostage. If not, they have ferreted him to safety. Sure, Avon doesn't know Arlen's not one of Blake's trusted associates, but he doesn't know Blake's still on the up-and-up either. The point is Avon frequently does things like this and never apologizes. The only reason he didn't do it today because he was genuinely hurt that Blake might have betrayed him, and it caused him to hesitate. For the first time ever, Avon missed a step because of his heart, and look where it got everyone.

I think it's also telling that you rarely hear pointed out that Avon isn't the only one having trouble trusting people: Blake is - uncharacteristically - having the same problem. What's with all these deceptive screening tests he's using to pick associates now? That's never how he's done things in the past. In the past, he picked up people on gut feeling, and that always worked for him. Now he's taken on an aspect of Avon: he's cynical and suspicious. Of course, loyalty tests aren't exactly something we'd expect Avon to do either - but that's because Avon doesn't really believe in loyalty at all (to the extent he does think others are loyal, he probably takes it as a sign of bad judgment). Avon would just happily take on people he didn't trust (which is everyone), use them as long as they're useful keeping an eye on them all the while, never hesitating to kill them if he thought they had become a danger. The point is that Blake is doing a really bad job being suspicious - because it just isn't in his nature. Just as Avon is doing a really bad job being emotional (he can keep it up just long enough to do something irrational, which isn't the same as having developed useful intuition) - because that isn't in his nature either.

The message of Star Trek was always that Spock should try to overcome his true nature and get in touch with his groovy side. Blake's 7 is a deliberate inversion of Star Trek, and this episode is no exception. The "message" here, to the extent there is one, is that people should stick to what they know and not try to be something they're not. If Avon is a purely rational being who lives by his wits and that's worked for him, then that's what he should stick with. Going soft for Blake "polluted" him, and you see the predictable result. If Blake lives by his heart and his ideals and that's worked for him, then that's what he should stick with. Taking on aspects of Avon doesn't give him Avon's intelligence.

If each has taken on the worst aspects of the other (Blake Avon's suspicious nature without his cold intelligence, Avon Blake's irrationality without his higher instincts), that's because they're absorbing the final product without the developmental phases. A belief in man's better nature is a prerequisite for being able to live by feelings: Avon's "doing it backward" by having feelings before he has faith. A ruthless rationality, an ability to see things unflinchingly as they really are, is a prerequisite for a calculating intelligence: Blake's "doing it backward" by trying to be clever before he's ruthless. Blake and Avon can work together only so long as they are who they are. Once they start trying to be like each other, however much each might have (secretly) admired the other, it doesn't work anymore.

I loved this episode for so many reasons. I love it because it puts a stick of dynamite at the vanity that is at the heart of these shows. Can a rag-tag band of 7 merry men (that's 5 people plus two computers, actually) really bring a galactic empire tumbling down? Star Trek seems to think so - but not Blake's 7. At the end of the series, our heroes don't seem to be much further along than when they started. Can people overcome their natures? Star Trek seems to think so. Blake's 7 not only says they can't but that they shouldn't try. Is it our mysterious and unpredictable feelings that make us human? Star Trek seems to think so. Blake's 7 knows that that you don't succeed by cheating reality. Does the universe reward good and punish evil? Star Trek seems to think so. Blake's 7 doesn't know and doesn't care: circumstances are what they are, you should simply make the best of them.

ORAC When we reach the appropriate coordinates, I can simulate the necessary signals to open the silo and allow this flyer to enter.
DAYNA Oh, sounds good.
VILA No it isn't. Sooner or later we're going to drop into one of these holes in the ground and never come out.
AVON Sooner or later, everyone does that, Vila.

Yes, sooner or later, everyone does that. That's what happened on Gauda Prime.

Some Obligatory Thoughts on Iowa

I suppose I should say a thing or two about Iowa. But what could I say that Jonah Goldberg hasn't already said better? The Iowa caucus is about the dumbest way to open a presidential election season I know of. It's almost deliberately designed to cause upsets.

I wonder if that isn't why we keep it around? This election has been going on for way too long already - and it hasn't even started yet. Maybe something like Iowa is necessary to keep fringe politicians like John Edwards and Fred Thompson hopeful and doing their part long after all rational measures would say they're lost?

I don't know and I don't care. The point I want to make is just that if anyone wants to base their predictions about the rest of the campaign based on what happened in Iowa, they've lost the plot.

Take Huckabee. Contrary to what he no doubt wants us to think, Iowa has not just made him the Republican frontrunner. 80% of the people who voted for him were Christian fundamentalists. Right - so tell us something we don't know. Well, here's one: only 46% of the people who identify as fundamentalists voted for him - meaning over half of them didn't. In other words, his one-issue schtick doesn't seem to be helping all that much. Not to mention, any time the final result is based entirely on how the Baptists voted and Romney is the nominee presumptive, you're going to get a skewed view. They have a specific objection to Romney. So what seems to have happened is that they voted largely against Romney - but not necessarily for Huckabee. In the process, they made it clear that Jesus is Huckabee's only successful campaigning point, which can't make him all that optimistic going into states that don't care as much about all that superstitious mumbo-jumbo.

Take Hillary. So she lost to Obama. That's shocking until you realize that it was the women's vote that backstabbed her. She's been pandering to women voters nonstop in the runup. Unfortunately for her, most women are apparently more intelligent than she gives them credit for. She tells them to vote for her because she's a woman, they say "do you have any other qualifications?," and she doesn't have an answer. She's going to have to find one. And of course, she will, because all of her well-paid campaign advisers are going to tell her to drop the "woman president" schtick if it's just failed so spectacularly to deliver as promised. Whatever they come up with, Obama and his 20min. of actual political experience are going to have a hard time countering.

The only thing that counts as "surprising" and significant for me in Iowa is how well Ron Paul did. The media won't tell you, but he's quietly picked up 10%. If he can do 10% in the ethanol subsidy state, I'm guessing he can do a lot better on the Free State Project's home court. Libertarianism is on the rise, and that makes me feel good about the long-term future, even though I think 2008 is going to be a disaster. My dream of Ron Paul sabotaging the Republicans' chances for a win this year edges closer to reality.

But in terms of the election's outcome, Iowa hasn't changed anything. I'm still calling a Romney-vs-Hillary election. The only thing I learned yesterday is that it might be a Romney-Huckabee ticket vs. a Clinton-Obama ticket. Since I'm not going to be voting for either of those, I don't really care.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Avon Doesn't Love You: Why Blake's 7 is better than Firefly

Don't let him fool you: beneath the cold exterior beats a heart of pure stone.
--Dayna on Kerr Avon

Ok, so this isn't primarily a post about Firefly vs. Blake's 7. It's really about Blake's 7, and I'm only mentioning Firefly at all because I find it impossible to talk about Blake's 7 without calling Joss Whedon to task for failing to acknowledge the significant debt Firefly owes it.

Yes, they're (very) different shows. The characters, plots, themes, setting - it's all different, and I get that, OK? And yes, Firefly has other influences. I get that too. And yes, Firefly is original enough that I don't think Whedon needs to worry about having plagiarized anyone. It's just that ... well, many of these other influences get the traditional scifi wink in Firefly, and I don't see why Blake's 7 should be the exception. The Forbidden Planet, to take one prominent example, gets credit in Serenity when a shuttle with the designation C57D lands on the planet Miranda. This sort of nod is par-for-the-course in Scifi. As a genre, it's remarkably forgiving about borrowing ideas (well, except for Harlan Ellison, of course), and it's just good manners to give your trailblazers a nod, however insider and surreptitious. But I don't recall seing so much as a single unmistakable reference to Blake's 7 in Firefly, and that's unforgivable - because whatever the other influences on Firefly might have been, Blake's 7 was clearly the strongest.

And don't try the "Whedon probably doesn't know what Blake is" line either. He lived in the UK as a student from 1980-82 - when the show was still on the air and drawing as many as 10 million viewers (a fifth of the entire population of the UK) for certain episodes. He's seen it, and it influenced him - period. The striking parallels between the two shows are not coincidence. In Blake it's the Federation, in Firefly it's the Alliance, but what's in a name? Both shows are about a group of outlaws living on the frontier of a totalitarian society. Both shows feature crews of people whose devotion to the idealistic captain's cause runs the entire specrtum from loyal to purely self-serving. Both shows use the tension between the differing motivations of the the crewmembers as the main storytelling spring. Both shows pride themselves on their gritty, "realisitc" protrayal of life on the frontier. Both are a bit cynical about the chances for human nature ever improving, technology evolve though it may. Both showcase, rather than dwell on the tragedy of, their main characters' flaws.

And it's also true that I like Blake a lot better than Firefly. Mostly this column is about trying to work out why I like Blake at all, really - so a bit of a passing shot at Firefly isn't out of the question.

I like Firefly, but I have my reservations about it. If I had to put words to it, I would say that it fails on two (highly related) counts. First, genre fiction is all about wish-fulfillment, and I'm not terribly sure what wishes are being fulfilled in Firefly. I admit it also took a bit to sniff it out in Blake, but I think I got it (and it's that we all want to be Avon - more on that in a minute). The other is - call me old fashioned - that scifi should be about the Sense of Wonder ... which Firefly just isn't.

It's this second failing that kills it for me. If there's no "sensawunder," then there's no need for something to be scifi. And that's how I feel about Firefly. It's a good story, but it doesn't need to be - and therefore shouldn't be - science fiction. And that expands nicely into the first reason: if there's not going to be any wish fulfillment, it doesn't need to be genre TV of any kind. It should've just been a regular drama.

Genre fiction is profoundly escapist. That's its purpose. And though the (preceived) in-your-face pessimism may obscure the fact for a lot of people, few shows are as escapist as Blake. As genre fiction, it's a truly rare gem. Wish-fulfillment? Blake has it in spades - and it's all in the top three reasons people watch the show: (1) Avon, (2) Avon, and (3) Avon.

Blake's 7 fans all want to be Avon. Although I'm sure Terry Nation didn't intend it at the outset (actually, he didn't intend anything at the outset - he's on record saying that the idea for Blake's 7 was an off-the-cuff, ad libed dodge at a program planning meeting when he had to give the Beeb executives something), Avon scratches an itch that desperately needed scratching by the late 1970s. Let's call it the "Spock itch."

Star Trek was a breakaway success story for a lot of reasons. In hindsight, now that there's been Star Trek: The Next Generation, we know that Spock wasn't the main one. But in the late 1970s, I think it was the going theory that he was.

You have to remember that in the 60s there were really only 3 channels in the US. Hard to imagine now, but there it was. Viewers didn't have a whole lot of choice, and writers weren't nearly as free to indulge their fantasies. TV resources were limited, so to speak, and so "the General Public" (whoever they are) had to be kept more firmly in mind. Without a lot of shows to choose from, viewers had to express their preferences in terms of elements within shows - and Mr. Spock was notably more popular than the creators probably expected him to be. Apparently, a lot of people found the idea of a purely rational character, a character above the unpredictable whims of emotion, interesting, and they wanted the idea explored more sensitively and thoroughly.

What the team behind Star Trek failed to appreciate is what interests and vanities Mr. Spock probably appealed to. They responded with trite, sentimental stories about how "logic isn't everything" and "wisdom comes from emotion" and "you can't supress your feelings forever." It was a virtual telethon of bad cliches. And that's exactly what people didn't want to hear. Star Trek must've seemed phony to audiences on a number of counts - but most especially during episodes like The Galileo Seven, when Mr. Spock commands an ill-fated shuttle mission (it crash-lands), makes all the right logical decisions, which of course turn out to be "wrong," and only an "irrational" act of desperation at the end saves the day. It was a remarkable cheat as an episode. Watch it again and you'll find that Spock's decisions are indeed the correct ones, and it's really the crew's unwillingness to follow his orders that exacerbates their problem past the point where it can be solved. And Spock's "irrational" act of desperation (that finally earns the crew's admiration) at the end is anything but: their circumstances are already hopeless, so burning the rest of their fuel in a signal flare rather than staying in a hopeless orbit for another hour makes sense. The cheat is that Spock is never allowed to claim credit for any of this. The end of the episode shows him being taunted as usual for "accidentally displaying emotion," and he, of course, refusing to "own up to it." In a rational universe, the surviving members of the shuttle crew would've been cited for insubordination and everyone taught a good lesson in trusting your wits rather than indulging in sentimentality during desperate life-or-death situations. Dr. McCoy would've been the butt of Kirk's joke, rather than Mr. Spock.

But even if it wasn't always this blatant, Spock fans felt let down throughout the series that their hero wasn't allowed to be ruthlessly rational. We could constantly sense the heavy hand of the writers coming in to "fix" things, and the overall feeling was that Mr. Spock was a straw man for people who wanted to excuse, rather than examine, the extent to which sentimentality rules their lives. What if we had someone who really was all-logic-all-the-time?

Enter Kerr Avon.

It's been said many times before - because it's true - that Blake's 7 is "the anti-trek." I'll cite John Kenneth Muir here, but you'll hear it almost anywhere. It's hard not to look at the show's format (and its air dates) and come away with the conclusion that Chris Boucher and Terry Nation were deliberately inverting Trek.

Fair enough: Trek desperately needed inverting. It was fun while it lasted, but it eventually rang phony, and someone needed to call it out for this. Not just on the strawman treatment of Mr. Spock, but also on the boyscout morality. It's one thing to have heroes that people can look up to. That's a key ingredient in space opera, really - one that Blake arguably lacked, even. But it's quite another thing when your heroes constantly have to do things that just seem needlessly sacrificial and silly in order to live up to their own inhumanly vaunted ideals. This problem only got worse with Next Generation, of course, but it was present enough in the original. After one too many sacrifices for aliens we don't give a shit about, you stop admiring and start wondering whether there's something wrong with the moral values being showcased themselves.

Like Star Trek writers before them, Blake writers quickly found that their homegrown Mr. Spock was popular out of proportion to the rest of the show. The difference - to their credit - is that they let it happen. John Kenneth Muir has argued that the series finale - which ends on a shot of one of Avon's slow, grim smiles - means that Avon was the main character all along. I don't know about "all along," but certainly he was by the time the series ended.

Dayna's quip about Avon, quoted above, isn't quite true. Avon's heart isn't "pure" stone, but it's close enough. Avon is what Mr. Spock should have been: ruthless, unrelenting rationality - a man who can look any situation coldly in the eye and see it for what it is. Of course, Avon is a criminal and Mr. Spock an officer, so the similarity can only ever have gone so far. But the selling point about Avon for me was always that "intelligent, rational" was more prominent than "self-serving criminal." Avon is widely misunderstood, in fact. He's rarely overtly malicious (and NEVER evil) - and ever less so as the show goes on in fact. His motives are believable: he isn't deliberately out to hurt anyone (least of all the people with whom he shares living quarters and who keep him safe!), but neither does he let anyone come between him and his goals. In "me-or-him" situations - which, let's face it, are legion in actual rebellions - Avon's choice is always an unflinching "me." Who can fault him for that?

Many people cite Blake's moral greyness ("ambiguity" is a word frequently found in reviews) as the drawing point for them, and there's no doubt that has a lot to do with it. We got tired of Star Trek's self-defeating, unrealistic preachiness (and we're more tired of it now than we were in the 70s: the newer series only made it worse). But I wonder if the moral greyness will continue to be a draw once Star Trek fades away (IF it ever fades away, I should say). Moral ambiguity is a dependent value, really. But Avon's ruthless rationality is not.

Any person of better-than-average intelligence will have felt held back at some point in his life. And this feeling is at its most frustrating when it's people we care about doing the holding back - when we have to wait for our friends and family to catch up, as it were. Of course we wouldn't trade them for the world - which is naturally why it's so frustrating. But that's what fantasy is good for. If we can't actually live without friends and family, we can at least indulge in a little dreaming about what it might be like. And if we can't actually live by wits alone, we can watch Avon do it for us.

The frontier setting is what makes it all possible. It's hard to believe in a purely rational entity living in a normal neighborhood, after all. And while I guess we don't need a space opera setting for a character like Avon, I'm willing to bet that the pure rationality fantasy he fulfills is stronger in space opera fans than in fans of most other genres. Since it's wish-fulfillment, it should be genre-fiction of some kind he shows up in; space opera is the most likely choice.

Blake has its share of "sensawunder," of course. It's not a space opera for nothing (like, oh, gee, say, FIREFLY). And I do occasionally read about people who list Avon as their least favorite character on the show - saw an example on a Facebook group last night, in fact. But I think I speak for the majority of fans when I say that for me it is a show about Avon first, last and middle - because Avon is someone I've always had a sneaking desire to be. What makes the show great is that Avon doesn't love me - and I can't tell you how long I was waiting to find a hero that didn't.

(There was, by the way, a Blake's 7 answer to the Galileo Seven. At the time of writing, it's here on YouTube. Enjoy!)