Dictionary Sagacious But Not Bonhomous

Child ReadingI have a good vocabulary, but I am constantly looking up words. For one thing, even when you know words, the definitions are usually fuzzy. People often ask me what a particular words means, and I start babbling. If I don’t know what it means, it is fine. “I don’t know” is one of my all time favorite sentences. But when I do know, oh boy: watch out! And the more basic the word, the harder it is to define. For example: if you try to define “creation” you will almost certainly use the word “create” in the first sentence. “It means something that you create. I mean…”

But if you are the writer of a dictionary, you may very easily define the word: something that is created. This is a very annoying aspect of dictionaries that most of us found exasperating when we were young. It has even created (Ha!) a kind of folklore where the entry on “creation” sends you to the entry on “create.” And there you find, “Create: the process of creation.” I do not know of this ever actually occurring. The writers of dictionaries may be annoying, but they aren’t sadistic.

When I was a kid, I always wondered why dictionaries didn’t just insert the definition of “create” into the definition of “creation.” Suppose that create is defined as “bring into existence.” Rather than define “creation” as “something that has been created,” define it as “something that has been brought into existence.” I think there are two reasons that this is not done. One is that dictionaries are already long enough. It isn’t that big a deal to make the reader look at another entry, which after all, is probably on the same page.

The second reason is more important: words often have a number of different definitions. Which one ought to be chosen? Well, in the case of “create,” all of them. Thus, it is better to send the reader to the entry on “create” and leave it there.

As you can see from this, I’m sympathetic to the creators of dictionaries. But online, the first excuse for this kind of “research project” definition doesn’t make sense. We are not constrained by book size. But the second reason remains — at least with regard to many words like “create.” But it isn’t always true, and it tends not to be true for the more obscure words that people are likely to look up. Take for example, my run in with Google earlier today.

I entered “sagacity define” into Google. And it dutifully spit back: “the quality of being sagacious.” This greatly annoyed me. You see, I already knew pretty much what both “sagacity” and “sagacious” meant. And I knew they didn’t have lots of different meanings like “create” and “creation.” For the record “sagacious” means “of keen and farsighted penetration and judgment.” So Google could have provided a better definition of “sagacity.” Perhaps: “having keen and farsighted penetration and judgment”?

If you go to Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, you get the definition, “the quality of being sagacious.” Yes, I know; it is the same. Well, almost. Because at least it makes that would “sagacious” a link to their definition of sagacious. And that is really what you would think is the least they could do. But as we know from Google, at the very least, they could do even less.

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Amazon-Hachette Is Not About the Little Guy

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman wrote an interesting column today, Amazon’s Monopsony Is Not OK. I don’t disagree with his overall conclusion: Amazon has way too much power. But when it comes to the specific issue of eBook prices, the situation is far from clear. Yes, Amazon is abusing its power. But the publishers are also abusing the public and their writers.

When CDs replaced albums, the music industry used the change to make a whole lot more money. At that time, vinyl records cost more to make and distribute than CDs. But vinyl records had cost about $10 at that time and the industry charged $15 or more for CDs. Whatever the market will bear, right? CDs were the new whizbang technology and even though the sound quality was worse than vinyl, CDs never wore out — at least in theory. So even though on the supply side, there was no reason for the record companies to make this extra money, consumers were getting something they thought was better.

Pretty much the same thing has happened with eBooks. When they first came out, publishers wanted to sell them for $15 a piece. But it turns out that publishers would be making the same amount for a $10 eBook as they made for a $26 physical book. So why exactly should the publishers get a huge boost in profits for doing less? Note also that publishers generally give a smaller royalty to writers. This is because the publisher get a higher percentage of the retail price. So the publishers think the new technology should enrich them, but not their writers. Nice!

But this all might be okay if consumers were getting something more from eBooks than they get from printed books. As a user of both, I think they pretty much are. For research purposes, eBooks are better. But for simple reading, it is at best a wash. I still prefer to read printed books. But I’ll admit that I am (1) more tactile than most people and (2) old. But there are ways that printed books are better. To start, I can sell them. They can theoretically last for thousands of years. And perhaps most important: I don’t need a device to read them. With records, one needed a record player already, so needing to own a CD player wasn’t a big deal. Someone entering the market had to buy a device just like always. That isn’t true of books.

Which brings us back to Amazon. It really is a problem. Right now, Amazon is behaving itself reasonably well. And its pricing policies really have done a favor for readers. But the whole dispute between Amazon and publishers just highlights the fact that capitalism only works well when real limits are placed on it. For over two decades, neither of the two major American political parties is at all interested policing the excesses of capitalism. And that, to me, is the bigger problem.

The fact that Amazon is abusing a huge publishing conglomerate like Hachette isn’t really on my radar of Really Important Things. But this whole issue has gotten a lot of play exactly because Hachette is a big company with lots of power. I was appalled recently when the company went whining onto The Colbert Report. And then, instead of being honest, they were allowed to present it as a great threat to writers as if publishing companies themselves hadn’t long been the greatest threat to writers.

A much more important issue is that Amazon pays its employees really badly. They pay their associates really badly. They totally ripoff sellers. But these are not likely to get the high profile treatment in The New York Times because, you know, they’re the little people. Of course, Krugman’s focus is on the ultimate effects on the little people. But that isn’t why anyone is paying attention to the Amazon-Hachette battle.

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Flag Decals, Yellow Ribbons, and Pink Bracelets

Pink RibbonI’ve loved John Prine’s first album since I was a kid. One of the (many) standout songs on the album is, “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.” It’s an anti-war song for the Vietnam era. The line following the refrain is, “They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war.” But I don’t have much a visceral connection to the Vietnam War. So what has always spoken to me is the use of signifiers to represent which “side” you are on in complicated issues that really do not lend themselves to simple binary positions.

The best example of this is the yellow ribbon. These usually go along with the jingoistic slogan, “Support the troops!” I’ve given this a lot of thought and the reasoning behind this slogan goes something as follows, “The troops have to do whatever the government tells them. Therefore, supporting the troops means supporting whatever the government tells them to do. Therefore, support the war you commie bastards!” The yellow ribbon, just like the flag decal before it, is meant to shutdown debate.

The other side of it is that the yellow ribbons allow people to feel good about “supporting the troops” in a theoretical sense but to not do so in a practical sense. We have a long history of lavishing money on defense contractors while low-level military personnel live in near poverty. We go into war with high tech, whizbang devices (that made some rich guy even more rich) but without basic body and transport armor because, “As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” And, of course, after the wars, the military personnel are largely forgotten. The conservatives who were so keen on “supporting the troops” tend to forget about the former troops and their needs.

This issue of the meaninglessness of such signifiers is discuss today by Danielle Kurtzleben at Vox, Pink Breast Cancer Awareness Ribbons Sell Because They Don’t Really Say Anything. It discussed how the pink ribbons mean something different to everyone. But as I have already indicated, they don’t actually say anything about the person or entity sporting one:

“Ribbon-wearing requires very little commitment to a cause. Indeed, wearing a ribbon does not mean that one is an active or staunch supporter of a given charity,” writes Sarah EH Moore in her 2009 book Ribbon Culture. And though she’s talking about [the] person wearing a ribbon, her comment can easily transfer to a yogurt or a football league — the pink ribboned advertisement can often signify very little in the way of how much money that company is giving to fighting cancer, as “pinkwashing” opponents often warn. There are several instances of companies saying they will give “a portion” of a product’s proceeds to cancer research, without specifying exactly what the amount will be.

The article goes on to discuss how most businesses just see the pink ribbon as good PR. It’s just fondness by association. But this is nothing new. I’m more bothered with it on a personal level. What exactly would it say if I wore a pink ribbon? That I’m against breast cancer? That seems like a non-statement, like, “I’m against things that are bad!” Or perhaps it says that I’m in favor of finding a cure? Ditto. Or maybe it says that we should put more resources toward finding a cure for breast cancer? Well, there I have to break ranks. Sure, I’m for more research. But in our current “pay as you go” environment where we absolutely positively cannot raise taxes (and people are constrained in their giving), more money for breast cancer research is less money for something else. It would depend upon what that something else was.

Of course, pink ribbons don’t express jingoism. But otherwise, they are the same as the yellow ribbons. They either say something so vague that they are meaningless. Or they say something contentious, so they divide us. Kurtzleben briefly discussed this issue in her article. Recently, Susan G Komen has twice gotten into trouble by being something other than the anemic, “We’re taking a bold stand to be against breast cancer!” The first was the Planned Parenthood fiasco and then the pink fracking drill-bits.

I would never give Komen a cent, because their real intentions are too clear. No one is too dirty for them to partner with. If a rich neo-Nazi wanted to give them billions for the cause, they would take it. All that matters is that they get the cash for their one cause. Of course, it doesn’t even take billions (it probably would for a neo-Nazi); Baker Hughes only had to donate $100,000 to equate fracking with breast cancer awareness. What’s more, the Planned Parenthood case showed that Komen doesn’t even care about women generally. So unless you believe that nothing matters as much as breast cancer, I can’t see why you would support Komen.

That gets to the very heart of the flag decals, yellow ribbons, and pink bracelets: they don’t actually mean anything to the people sporting them. But they mean a great deal to the people pushing them. And what they mean is at best complicated and at worst downright evil.

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Obama Was Always a Milquetoast

Thomas FrankEven if I didn’t agree with him almost all the time, I would read Thomas Frank because he is a great writer. But the truth is that I very rarely disagree with him. We are both liberal populists who think that there is a very big problem with the Democratic Party: it has turned conservative on the issues that most matter to people — economic issues. And that means we both get attacks — from fellow Democrats — who think that we just don’t get it. They think that if the DLC hadn’t taken over the Democratic Party we wouldn’t have had a Democratic president since Carter. They are wrong, of course. Political science tells us they are wrong, but they are as resistant to evidence as conservatives are. That may be because they too are conservatives and want to hide under a cover of being slightly reasonable about abortion and same sex marriage.

But yesterday, Thomas Frank wrote an article that bothered me, Paul Krugman’s Sloppy, Wet Kiss. It is a response to Krugman’s Rolling Stone article, In Defense of Obama. I had read it when it first came out and my reaction to it was more or less the same as Frank’s: Krugman is putting the too positive a face the Obama presidency. And Frank did it using an important idea from economics: opportunity cost.

Let me put the Obama years into context like this: What the times called for was a second New Deal, for a wholesale makeover of the economic system. What Obama chose to deliver instead was a second round of ’90s-style bipartisanship. As I have written before, the president looked out over a nation laid low by epic white-collar misbehavior and decided that what we needed was for politicians in Washington to get along with one another…

So the crisis went to waste and our smart young president let an era of possibility slip through his fingers. The cost of missing this opportunity is impossible to measure.

I am completely with Frank on this. And I’m with him when he criticizes the fecklessness of the Obama administration in believing that the Republicans would want to work with him. Where I disagree with Frank is in thinking that Obama “seemed like exactly the right man for the job.” No! He never seemed like the right man for the job. During the 2008 primary, I wondered if Clinton mightn’t be the better president. For one thing, she had something to prove: that she wasn’t her husband. And she might be strong in standing up to the Republicans. There was never any doubt that Obama was a milquetoast politician and that once in power, he was going to yield to the same old power elite as ever.

Obama NopeIt seems kind of obvious now. Only Nixon could go to China because he was such a rabid anti-communist. Only Clinton could destroy welfare because he was labeled a liberal (and even a socialist). And only rich boy FDR could really take on the power elite. The last person for the job was a black man so nonthreatening that the Harvard Law Review allowed him to be president of it.

None of this is to say that Obama is bad. I admire him. I think he has been about as good a president as we are ever likely to have. I can say that because I am a pessimist. But no one who tells you he is going to bring “change” is actually going to bring change. People who bring change tell you what they are going to do. And that’s why any liberal bringing actual change would be cut to pieces. Our “liberal” media would never allow it. We’ve seen conservatives bringing change and they’ve delivered. Oh, how they’ve delivered! And we never learn. But all you have to do in this country is shout “Socialism!” and everyone cowers under our bridges that are falling down because of lack of infrastructure spending.

So I understand why Obama is the president he is. What I don’t understand is why someone as smart and insightful as Thomas Frank would ever have been fooled. Obama is an establishment man through and through. And he always was. He never meant “change” to be anything that would threaten (Even just a little!) the power elite.

See also: Obama’s Hope Is There’ll Be No Change

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Education Reform and John Dewey

John DeweyI feel I let my readers down this last weekend with the minor publishing schedule. But I do have an excuse. It isn’t just that I was reading my friend Kristen’s novel. It was also that it is about a once promising artist whose life is crumbling to bits — very much by her own doing. And that reminds me very much of myself as I sit here writing this with my bank account recently liquidated by the State of California. But I am determined to be on my regular schedule today. Or at least, I am determined to get five articles out today — I’m not sure exactly when they will come. Onward!

Today is a great day for birthdays. In particular, there are two 17th century painters who I absolutely love: Aelbert Cuyp and Nicolas de Largilliere. There are also two actors I love: Bela Lugosi and Margaret Dumont. There are also French film director Jean-Pierre Melville and stride pianist Jelly Roll Morton. But I just couldn’t go with them. Not with my ever increasing interest in the American educational system and all the education “reform” fakers.

On this day in 1859, the great John Dewey was born. He was an education reformer — a real one, not just one who wanted to diminish teachers and create good little workers for the factories of the rich. In fact, he believed in liberal education. This is something that has largely been abandoned in the modern debate about education. Now it is all about how we can create more STEM graduates, as if all we need is better technology and the rest of our culture can just rot.

I’m reminded of a quote by Jonathan Kozol:

The best reason to give a child a good school… is so that child will have a happy childhood, and not so that it will help IBM in competing with Sony… There is something ethically embarrassing about resting a national agenda on the basis of sheer greed.

Dewey would very much agree with that sentiment.

One thing that Dewey did not do is invent the Dewey Decimal system. That was done by Melvil Dewey, who lived at the same time and place as John Dewey. But Melvil was a librarian. They are not related in any direct way, so far as I know. I admire both men.

Here is a short video discussion about John Dewey and his work. It also discusses his beliefs about diversity in education:

Happy birthday John Dewey!

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Wrapped in the Flag

Wrapped in the FlagShortly after Obama became President of the United States, I noticed something interesting. Some people in the Tea Party movement started to talk about Fluoride. They claimed that it was a toxin and that people shouldn’t ingest it because it was — insert dramatic music here — a government conspiracy. This may not mean much to you, but to me it meant everything: the John Birch Society rides again!

It was founded in 1958, following the death of Joseph McCarthy from hepatitis. Or was it? Certainly those who started the John Birch Society didn’t think it was. They thought he was murdered because he knew too much. And who was he murdered by? Why all the communists inside the government! The founder, Robert Welch, even thought that President Eisenhower was a “conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist Conspiracy.” I know it sounds loony, but for many years, the group was part of the mainstream conservative movement. And, in fact, even in 1964, the group was hugely important in getting Goldwater the Republican nomination for president.

So the rise of the Tea Party did not surprise me. There is always about 20% of the population who gobble up this kind of extremism. The Tea Party was just another manifestation of it. And early on, there were John Birch Society booths at Tea Party events. Despite its terrible reputation, in 2010, CPAC finally allowed the group to sponsor the event. The only thing that had changed in the previous fifty years was the rhetoric. And how could it not? With the fall of the Soviet Union, it was impossible to continue to claim that the commies were coming. But calling the president an illegitimate socialist is pretty much the same thing.

Another person who was not surprised by the rise of the Tea Party was Claire Conner. She was a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s and her parents were some of the founding and lifelong members of the John Birch Society. She chronicles all of this in her book, Wrapped in the Flag. It provides an amazing look inside the cult of conservative extremism. And make no mistake: it is a cult.

In fact, the book works more as a memoir of a family tragedy than it does anything else. I think most people will learn a lot about conservatives from the book, but I already knew most of it. What kept me reading was watching how people let their political obsessions bankrupt every part of their lives. If Conner’s parents feared communism, they also created their own kind of authoritarianism. Their entire lives circled around their political activities. And this was enforced onto the children. Conner was forced to write her “letters” each day: to newspapers, to politicians, to whomever.

This is hardly surprising: the communists and the fascists always hated each other, even though they were effectively the same thing. And the John Birch Society and the Tea Party are, at base, theocratic fascist groups. They are against “socialism” — the word. They don’t seem to know exactly what “socialism” the concept is. This is why the Tea Party talks about “freedom” but all they same to stand for are restrictions on reproductive rights and same sex marriage. The John Birch Society slogan was, “Less government, more responsibility, and — with God’s help — a better word.” That’s the Tea Party rhetoric.

At the start of the book, Conner’s father has a very successful business. But over time, his work with the John Birch Society takes its toll. In addition to everything else, he becomes a very public figure — notorious to many people. And this has a negative effect on his business. Eventually, his partners force him out and into a less promising part of the company. But the most telling part of the book comes when Conner is in college. Her parents have not helped her at all with college — she had to do it herself with work and scholarships. But even as they won’t help her with anything, her father is flying off to expensive John Birch Society conferences. A man’s got to have his priorities!

The take away from the book is that for both her parents, the political struggle was more important than she was. They were so blinded by ideology and fear of nonexistent threats that they lost sight of what was genuine and important in their lives. There is a similar disease on the left — the parents of the so called red diaper babies. But this was an extremely small group that simply doesn’t exist today. People on the left have turned in their ideologies for a pragmatic approach to politics. I think they’ve gone too far in this regard. But at least no one on the left sees their children as nothing but future warriors in the battle between Good and Evil.

If you want to understand the modern conservative movement, you really need to read Wrapped in the Flag. It explains a lot about how we got to where we are. And it explains why conservatives are so resistant to logical thought. But it is also chilling. Because 20% of the population that is crazy and fearful enough really can transform a nation if they are well organized. And they are.


Filed under Politics, Reading & Writing

Lumière Brothers

Lumière BrothersForgive me the slowdown in posting. I am reading the first draft of a friend’s novel. And there is relatively little traffic here on weekends anyway. And I badly need a break from doing this anyway. I’m not terribly clear what I do it for. Sometimes it seems like housekeeping — just because. Except, of course, that I don’t actually do housekeeping, and I actually do publish about 4,000 words per day here. But not yesterday and probably not today.

On this day in 1862, Auguste Lumière was born. But we celebrate it with his brother Louis Lumière, who was born exactly two weeks later, but in 1864. They are collectively known as the Lumière brothers — cinema inventors and pioneers. You know how motion pictures work, right? An image is displayed on the screen for a fraction of a second; the screen goes dark while the next image is put into place; the next image is displayed on the screen for a fraction of a second. Done over and over, this appears to create action. Well, the Lumière brothers invented the perforations on the side of film that allow it to be moved quickly and accurately through the projector.

In addition to this, the two made almost 200 films together. They are notable in this regard because their films show great care in terms of the framing of shots. Unlike Edison, they were actually interested in photography. So even though their films are all very short (generally less than a minute), they look good. Consider, for example, their most famous film, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat:

Yes, not a lot of drama. But it was made in 1895. The first film was not shown publicly in the United States until 1896. In France, of course, they were already displaying their films publicly. It actually shows the artistic potential of motion pictures and makes the work done by Edison at that time look pathetic. Here is another Lumière film from the same year, The Sprinkler Sprinkled. It is arguably the first comedy ever shot:

Happy birthday Auguste and Louis Lumière!


Filed under Birthdays, Film, TV & Theater, Science & Data

Why MSNBC Continues to Suck

Keith OlbermannDR Tucker over at Political Animal wrote an interesting article, Forward Thinking. It’s about MSNBC’s supposed problem with breaking through in the ratings game. He makes the provocative suggestion that the network give Naomi Klein a show. But this, I think, just highlights the problem with having a liberal network. And it highlights the problem with MSNBC generally.

MSNBC is not going to give a show to someone who is an outspoken proponent of economic liberalism. It’s too dangerous to the rich people who own the network and its too unappealing to the people who advertise on the network. Remember: television is not about ratings; it is about advertising. While it is true that people want to advertise to the 25-54 demographic, they don’t want to do it when the show so aggressively attacks the major advertisers.

I am surprised that most people don’t remember what happens in the movie Network. Everyone remembers Howard Beale getting “mad as hell.” And maybe they remember that the ratings go way up for the show he’s on. But the head of the network, Arthur Jensen, doesn’t like it. So he has a little talk with Beale, who thinks he is speaking to God. (He might as well be!) So Beale abandons his populism for a message about how we are all meaningless cogs in the machinery of multinational capitalism. Ratings plummet so the producers of the show have Beale assassinated.

Martin BashirThat’s the story of Network. And anyone who thinks that the people who own MSNBC are any different than those who own Fox News are deluded. None of them care about same sex marriage or abortion or even foreign wars. But they all care very much about having a political system that is rigged against the majority and for all the rich folks like themselves.

But there are other things. MSNBC (sort of like the modern Democratic Party) has shown it to be a amazingly disloyal outfit. Martin Bashir got fired over a minor thing. Ed Schultz was taken from prime time to the weekends and finally early evenings. And then, of course, there was Keith Olbermann, who was badly treated long before he finally got canned. All of these men are very passionate and that is something that MSNBC apparently doesn’t accept. (Well, it accepts it for Al Sharpton because he’s a legend and, what the hell, he’s not in prime time either.) It’s much better to have Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow, who are both really good, but not especially passionate.

It’s a well worn stereotype that liberals aren’t passionate. And to prove this, people point to Mark Shields. It’s true that the liberals that the mainstream media put on television tend not to be passionate. But that’s just because they’ve decided that passionate liberals aren’t suitable for television. Why? Because liberals on television aren’t passionate! Cenk Uygur has talked about this. MSNBC originally hired him because of his fiery liberal rhetoric. But once he was there, they complained about his fiery liberal rhetoric.

Ed SchultzIn addition to this, I just don’t see a liberal network ever being as successful as a conservative network. It isn’t because liberals aren’t as into politics as conservatives. Rather, the reason that people tune into conservative media is for the dopamine rush they get from the constant diet of fear and outrage. Liberals just don’t have the same resources on the fear issue. When it comes to outrage, there is a lot; but it is an outrage over systemic issues. You don’t feed it with constant small stories.

There is one thing that would greatly help MSNBC ratings: another Republican White House. That will greatly increase viewership as liberals reach out for any shelter in the storm for another four or eight years of everyone’s favorite game show, “Let’s Give More Money to the Rich and Claim it is for Freedom!” And I’m sure the owners of MSNBC would love that: more advertising revue and lower estate taxes. Liberalism rocks!


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Chuck Berry B Goode

Chuck BerryThe rock and roll legend Chuck Berry is 88 years old today. When I a kid, I thought of him as just a great guitarist — certainly the most recognizable and most copied lead guitar player ever. And he is certainly that. But I tend to downplay it now. Sad as it is to say, he is the only lead guitar player who I can play like — basically, I’ve never gotten past the surfer bands of the 1960s, and they didn’t know a thing they didn’t learn from listening to Chuck Berry.

It was only later that I realized that he is one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century. And I’m not just talking about rock and roll. He is as good as Rodgers and Hart, for example. And I can’t really say anything more about a songwriter. There is lots to say about Berry’s life, but I prefer to let the music speak for itself. So let’s listen to a few of his hits.

First there is the classic, and possibly the greatest rock and roll song ever (but not my favorite), “Johnny B Goode”:

Second is one of my favorites, “You Never Can Tell”:

And finally, I could really get into the national anthem if only we would change it to “Back in the USA.” It is the most patriotic song ever written and without a hint of jingoism:

Happy birthday Chuck Berry!


Filed under Birthdays, Musical Stuff

Firefly Is Not a Libertarian TV Show

FireflyI saw over at Reason Magazine that they published one of those dreadful articles, “The Five Best Libertarian Television Series.” I’m not going to look it up, because it is nonsense and frankly, I don’t feel that the racist and elitist Reason deserves a link. The list included things like House of Cards, which really isn’t a libertarian show. Ditto for The Wire. Apparently, any series that shows the government in a negative light is libertarian. It also contained South Park, which really isn’t libertarian so much as iconoclastic. But given that the creators seem to be libertarian with a much bigger ax to grind against liberals than conservatives, I figure Reason thought that was enough.

The last show I had heard of was Penn & Teller: Bullshit! That’s an interesting choice. I only saw one episode of it and it was definitely what passes for libertarianism in this country: it was a total whitewash and apologia for a huge multinational corporation. They took on the very important issue of whether Walmart was really providing minimum wage jobs. And what a surprise: Walmart pays more than minimum wage on average! Of course, unless even the CEO was paid minimum wage, the average wage would have to be higher. It was an amazing example of straw man argumentation. But the show was more than that. It also showed a whole lot of great things that Walmart was doing for their employees. That’s the great thing about libertarians: corporations don’t even have to pay them to create PR material.

But what most struck me was that many Reason readers were upset that Firefly was not on the list. The only libertarian thing about the show is Mal who talks a lot like a libertarian. But he’s not a libertarian of the kind that reads Reason. He isn’t an idealist. He just wants to be left alone. And he doesn’t live in the United States or Sweden. He lives under an authoritarian government — one far more invasive than even that in North Korea. What I’m saying is that Mal isn’t a libertarian idiot who claims that paying taxes is equivalent to slavery. And he certainly isn’t an Objectivist who who doesn’t believe in altruism, given that Mal is one of the most altruistic characters in the whole show.

The main thing that makes a libertarian a libertarian is their resistance to paying taxes. I wrote about this just yesterday, Why Do Libertarians Tend to Be Republican? I mention this because I know there are libertarians who would claim that the show is libertarian because Mal is self-sufficient. Indeed he is. But I don’t know where libertarians got the idea that they are especially self-sufficient. After all, as Ha-Joon Chang discussed in, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, people in poor countries are more entrepreneurial. Libertarianism doesn’t appeal to these people; it appeals to a bunch of privileged idiots who are just convinced that “they did build that” or at least they would have if only the government had gotten out of the way.

Mal in Firefly has actually headed out on his own. It would be equivalent to disappearing into federal land or taking to the high seas. The libertarian plan is to whine and complain that the government is oppressing them at the same time that they take advantage of every government program available. And more! They actually distort the political system to push more of that sweet, sweet tax money to themselves. Show me a libertarian and I’ll show you piles of government subsidies from student loans to government contracts.

The thing about Firefly is that it is about a group of people who all care for each other. Trust me, I know the libertarian counter to that: those people choose to be part of that group. Well, so do we. There really are places that libertarians could disappear to if they really wanted to. That probably wouldn’t be the case in their libertarian utopias, because literally every square inch of land and sea would be owned by someone — or perhaps just “one.” But of course libertarians don’t run away from it all because they like the things that our mixed economy provides. Well, I’m being unfair. Some people do this, but it usually ends in incest and other less than utopian outcomes.

So please libertarians, keep your ideology off Firefly. I see why you think it is “libertarian.” I’ve long seen it. But there is a very big difference between “This government is authoritarian!” and what you believe, “All government is authoritarian!” Remember, George Orwell was a socialist and Aldous Huxley was a liberal. Huxley was also a mystic, so sorry atheist libertarians. Of course, Joss Whedon is a humanist. Most of us aren’t that fond of government; we just think it is a hell of a lot better than living in Walmart World.


I will provide an exception for drug users. There are libertarians who just want to be allowed their drugs and are tired of paying so much for them and being thrown in jail. I understand such libertarians. But such libertarians would never even consider voting for the Republican Party given that they are responsible for the original War on Drugs and then for really ramping it up under Reagan and then Bush. I am assuming here that drug libertarians are not as clueless as the rest of them.


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