Sunday, December 29, 2013

Author Interview: UVA's Paul A. Cantor on zombies and liberty in popular culture

Professor Paul A. Cantor
Speaking at the Mercatus Center on the Arlington campus of George Mason University last November about the topic, “The Economics of Apocalypse: Flying Saucers, Alien Invasions, and the Walking Dead,” University of Virginia English professor Paul A. Cantor drew upon his research on popular culture to discuss opposing visions of individualism and collectivism in contemporary catastrophe narratives in film and television.

Cantor, a Shakespeare scholar, is author of a recent book, The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV, a follow-up to Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization, published in 2001.

Cantor is also co-editor, with San Diego State University professor Stephen Cox, of the 2010 volume, Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture. He and Cox (who is also editor of Liberty magazine, now an on-line publication) are perhaps the most prominent libertarian thinkers working in the field of English literature today.

After his lecture and a discussion moderated by Reason magazine's Jesse Walker, Cantor explained to me why he was looking into the presence of zombie themes in pop culture today.

“These zombie stories are a very interesting way of exploring questions that Americans are interested in,” he said.

What he has noticed in zombie stories, he explained, is that “almost the first thing that results from the zombie apocalypse is the collapse of the federal government. These stories explore what life would be like in a world that was more like the American western, more like the frontier, in which people are forced to rely on their own resources.”

Sometimes, he said, those situations are “frightening but for many of the characters, particularly in The Walking Dead, the experience is empowering. They develop a sense of self-reliance, they face a a challenge, and they meet it.”

In his book, Cantor traces recurring themes in film and TV since the 1950s, a time when there were just three television channels available to most viewers, compared with the hundreds available through cable and satellite services today.

The proliferation of channels, he said, “has really opened up the creativity in television.”

Citing The Simpsons and The X-Files as pertinent examples, Cantor explained that “a lot of shows almost certainly wouldn't have made it onto television in the era of the three networks. It was the Fox Network, the fourth network, that really opened things up.”

Despite the increase in the number of networks and shows, he said, “there's a lot of continuity. Again, what I'm seeing in these contemporary zombie narratives is in many ways a reconstitution of what westerns were like in the Fifties. What we certainly have now is greater variety and, frankly, greater quality because people are able to take more creative chances.”

Cantor's new book, The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture, he said, “carries on some of the same issues” addressed in Gilligan Unbound.

One section of the more recent work “is devoted to globalization,” the primary theme of Gilligan Unbound, which was published the same week as the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

“This book has given me a chance to see how things have played out in popular culture” over the past decade, Cantor said.

Writing the book gave him an opportunity to ask “how shows like Fringe, V, Invasion, [and] Falling Skies have reacted to developments since 9/11 and [a] world with a threat of terrorism but also the problems created by the war on terrorism.”

He was also able to compare and contrast pop culture during the Cold War and during the post-9/11 era.

“I look at flying saucer movies in the 1950s,” he noted.

In those days, Cantor said, “the invaders are an image of real foreigners. It's Soviet Communism that's showing up in the flying saucers.”

By contrast, he pointed out, “when you look at shows like V, The Event, Invasion, [and] especially Fringe, the people invading us are us. 'We've met the enemy and he is us.' These shows explore a disturbing image of the American government as having moved in totalitarian directions.”

With so many choices of movies and TV shows to watch, Cantor sometimes relies on serendipity to find what he's looking for.

“It's chancy,” he said.

“Sometimes I just like a show, often because I like the characters or the actors in it. Sometimes I force myself to watch a show because it's obvious it's raising the kind of questions I'm interested in. For example, The Walking Dead, I really just like. It's really well-made, well-done.”

On the other hand, he watches Revolution on NBC “even though I don't think it's such a good show because it fits into my thesis and I've got to consider the evidence” as he continues exploration of libertarian and apocalyptic themes in popular culture.

(An earlier version of this interview appeared on

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

'A Century of Christmas Memories' - A Book Review

A Century of Christmas Memories, 1900-1999, by the Editors of Peter Pauper Press. White Plains, N.Y.:  Peter Pauper Press, 2009. Hardcover $12.95, 120 pages.

One hundred years ago today, President Woodrow Wilson lit the first national Christmas tree on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.  Ten years later, Calvin Coolidge presided over a tree-lighting ceremony on the Ellipse south of the White House, beginning a tradition that endures today.

These are two of the historical tidbits included in A Century of Christmas Memories, 1900-1999, a stocking stuffer book attributed to "nameless" editors working for the Peter Pauper Press.

While it contains more than 100 pages spanning ten decades, the book itself can be read cover to cover in less than an hour.  Each item consists of just one or two sentences, and the pages are dominated by photographs and other illustrations.

Designed more to entertain and to evoke nostalgia than to be a serious reference tool, A Century of Christmas Memories has the capacity to send readers scrambling to the encyclopedia or to the Internet to learn more about the events, trends, and commercial products it mentions.

To get a flavor of the book, check out some of the items reported every ten years ending in "3".

One might be surprised to learn, for instance, in one of the entries for 1903 that that was the year that Advent calendars were first introduced:
they are attributed to printer Gerhard Lang.  Legend has it that Lang's mother gave her son a piece of cake or biscuit on each day in December, giving him something to look forward to as he counted down to Christmas.  This inspired his creation of the calendars that offer children treats or favors for each day leading up to December 25.
Besides the debut of the first national Christmas tree, 1913 also saw the birth of the Kewpie doll and the Erector Set, as well as the Goo Goo Cluster candy, the crossword puzzle, and
On December 1, the first "drive-in" gas station opens in Pittsburgh, current home of the Gulf Oil Company.  The price for a gallon of gas?  Eight cents!
Ten years later, when Coolidge lit the Christmas tree outside the White House ("illuminated by 2,500 lights"), Paul Whiteman's orchestra had a hit with the holiday-themed "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" and the Hasbro company, eventually known for producing popular toys left under the Christmas tree, was founded.

In the midst of the Depression, 1933 saw the erection of the first Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and the first Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular (featuring the Rockettes).

During the Second World War, the U.S. government suggested giving war bonds as Christmas presents.  In 1943, Bing Crosby had a hit record with "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and -- despite otherwise suspending the expansion of the TV industry -- there was an experimental broadcast of Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  (How many -- or how few -- viewers saw it is not noted.)  Overseas that year, American GIs decorated Christmas trees in Italy with the leftover foil from their C-rations and sailors on the U.S.S. North Carolina sent a large check to Macy's with instructions to provide gifts to their families across the country.

In the peace and prosperity of 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower produced the first White House Christmas cards, featuring his own artwork.   Classic holiday recordings introduced that year included Eartha Kitt's sultry "Santa Baby" and Louis Armstrong's novelty number, "Zat You, Santa Claus?"  That was also the year that Matchbox cars were first found under the tree on Christmas morning.

In the wake of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, Christmas 1963 was somewhat subdued, as suggested by Roy Orbison's recording of Willie Nelson's song, "Pretty Paper," but that year in England, the Beatles sent their fans the first of several special recordings of holiday greetings and Andy Williams first recorded the now-seemingly ubiquitous "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year."  Toy manufacturer Hasbro introduced the Easy-Bake Oven in 1963, selling half a million units that first year.

The OPEC oil embargo dimmed some lights for Christmas 1973, but that year saw the debut of Dungeons & Dragons and the first Hallmark collectible ornaments.  Songwriters Johnny Marks ("Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer") and Irving Berlin ("White Christmas") received the 1973 Spirit of Christmas Award from the International Society of Santa Claus.

Today we think a 24-hour cable-TV marathon of A Christmas Story is a tradition whose origins are lost in the mists of history.  It turns out that movie premiered in 1983, as did the Eddie Murphy-Dan Aykroyd vehicle Trading Places and ABC-TV's annual Mickey Mouse Christmas parade broadcast from Disney World.

The fourth year of the last decade of the twentieth century, 1993, featured the release of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, a hybrid holiday film.  Big toys that year were action figures based on the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV series and the biggest bubble commodity since tulips and before Bitcoin, the Beanie Babies:
this is the year the first Beanie Babies are unleashed on an unsuspecting public, creating a craze that would last for years.  The Original Nine?  Spot the Dog, Squealer the Pig, Patti the Platypus, Cubbie the Bear, Chocolate the Moose, Pinchers the Lobster, Splash the Orca, Legs the Frog, and Flash the Dolphin.
The twenty-first century is beyond the scope of A Century of Christmas Memories, but let's take a look back at what happened on December 25, 2003, just ten years ago, to continue the nostalgia,  The top three films that day (per box office receipts) were The Lord of the Rings:  Return of the King, Cheaper by the Dozen, and Paycheck.  Billboard's top single for that week was "Change Clothes" by Jay-Z.  The AP headlined a story: "‘Secret Santa’ spreads $40K worth of cheer" about a man in a Santa suit passing out $100 bills to strangers.

What will a future edition of A Century of Christmas Memories have to say about the holiday season of 2013? Perhaps we'll be remembering Pajama Boy, but only the editors of the Peter Pauper Press know for sure.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Look Back at Jimmy Carter's Human Rights Speech: 'Morality and Foreign Policy'

Today is Blog Action Day, an annual participatory event for bloggers across the globe.  This year's theme is "human rights," which brought to mind another day in which that topic sparked a global conversation.

Thirty-six years ago, in a speech to college graduates, a new American president launched a worldwide discussion on the question of human rights and how best to promote them.

On May 22, 1977, President Jimmy Carter delivered an address on foreign policy at Notre Dame. Carter’s speech was widely seen and read and was the subject of much commentary.

Jeane Kirkpatrick
Shortly after Carter’s speech was delivered, the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) published a book entitled Morality and Foreign Policy: A Symposium on President Carter’s Stance.

That slim volume -- the first book under the imprint of the EPPC, which was then affiliated with Georgetown University -- included nine original essays that reacted directly to Carter’s address and three previously published articles on the general topic of ethics and international relations and, more specifically, the role that the promotion of human rights should play in foreign policy. Contributors included future U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol, and New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

It has become something of a commonplace, and a jocular one at that, to make facile comparisons between the Carter and Obama administrations, especially with regard to foreign policy. (The comparisons were raised even before the 2008 election as a warning to voters about Candidate Obama and were accelerated by Obama's premature receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.)

Thus it was somewhat jarring to read this paragraph in the essay by Charles Burton Marshall. Substitute the word “Obama” for “Carter” and this reference to political messianism could have been written yesterday – or next week – rather than in 1977:

“Sooner or later events will demonstrate even to the tight inner circle that the Carter administration no more knows the secret for walking on water around the world than it has a formula for cleansing the public service or any other manifestation of the Old Adam. The self-enthrallment then will cease.”

That oddity aside, the substance of Carter’s speech was meant to lay down a line of demarcation between his administration’s foreign policy and that of previous administrations. As the book’s editor, Ernest W. Lefever, explained in his preface, Carter, “perhaps more than any other president since Woodrow Wilson, has sought to make morality the touchstone of his foreign policy. In so doing he draws upon a persistent and fundamental strand in the American experience. He has emphasized respect for human rights throughout the world, not only as a valued goal, but also as a specific objective of U.S. statecraft.”

Blog Action Day: October 16, 2013
In Carter’s own words at Notre Dame, he stated his belief that “we can have a foreign policy that is democratic, that is based on fundamental values, and that uses power and influence which we have for humane purposes. We can also have a foreign policy that the American people both support and for a change know about and understand.”

In the single phrase that may have, more than any other, thrust Carter’s address into heightened scrutiny, he referred to the “inordinate fear of Communism.”

Given that May 1977 was in the midst of the Cold War, for those who believed the Soviet Union was an authentic threat to the West, the phrase “inordinate fear of Communism” rang untrue. As Eugene Rostow put it in his essay, “American foreign policy during the years between the Second World War and the end of the Vietnam War was not dominated by an ‘inordinate fear of Communism,’ but by a legitimate concern for policies of Soviet expansion and aggression.”

The comments of the contributors to Morality and Foreign Policy were cutting, even as they were respectful and, in some cases, shared the basic hope and optimism that Carter manifested. Re-reading them more than three decades later, it is surprising, given the different historical, diplomatic, and political contexts of the times, how relevant the remarks seem today. Listen to the words and ask yourself if you have not heard similar expressions in the months since January 20, 2009.

For instance, Robert Bartley wrote: “Almost certainly it is a mistake to look to President Carter’s professed morality to explain our concerns about his foreign policy. His version of morality is not that sharp a departure, and on experience so far not that powerful a force in shaping his policies. We would do better to worry about sheer inexperience.”

John P. Roche, then dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, tried to set Carter’s speech in a wider context:

“As a thirty-year veteran who long since reached the conviction that commencement addresses were drafted by computers, I am certain I have heard this one four times. Indeed, had I absorbed it without advance information on the source, I might have attributed it to Eleanor Roosevelt, Arthur Goldberg, Harold Stassen, or George McGovern. (At half an hour it was a bit brief for Hubert Humphrey, God bless him.) In short, it was standard commencement pap by an American ‘statesman’: ‘Speech 5c—American Policy, Morality, and the World (for use at a liberal religious school).’”

Roche went on to say: “Part of Mr. Carter’s problem in world politics is the lack of any ideological roots, a weakness which has been buttressed by a McGovernite ‘issues staff’ which sincerely believes that the world began in January 1977, when they took office. In this state of historical amnesia it is hard to deal with the degrees on the scale between ‘good’ and ‘bad.’”

The two contributors most sharply critical of Carter’s speech were Michael Novak and Eugene V. Rostow.

Novak, then a religion professor at Syracuse University, said in his response that it “is a profoundly embarrassing and disturbing speech…. [The] President’s vision is deficient. It is deficient both in realism and fact. It is deficient in its moral vision. The President uses the word moral and its cognates – values, principles, social justice, and the like – very heavily indeed. But he does not use them well.”

He later added: “One of the best ways to create an immoral foreign policy is to try too hard for a moral one.”

'Morality and Foreign Policy'
Rostow, who served in the Johnson Administration’s State Department, wrote that “President Carter’s Notre Dame speech is his most ambitious attempt thus far to define the American national interest in its course. The speech is deeply flawed: inconsistent; incomplete; and excessive in its claims of novelty…. The speech lacks any conception of the relationship between power and morality in international affairs.”

While generally content with the themes underlying President Carter’s remarks, Jeane Kirkpatrick raised six questions demanding clarification or explication. One was: “Why does the President think that ‘a peaceful world cannot exist one third rich and two thirds hungry’? The implication is that the frustration of poor nations causes war. In fact that the notion that poverty causes war doesn’t wash. Poverty causes hardship, suffering, and death … but there is little evidence to support the notion that it causes war… Poverty is abominable, not because it leads to war, but because it perpetuates human misery. We can approach problems of war and poverty more effectively if we are clear about the relationships between them.”

Ronald Berman, once chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, parsed the language of Carter’s speech. “Where the language of this speech is moralistic,” he said, “it tends to have an effect just about the opposite to that intended: By devaluing our past motives it makes our present ones suspicious. How reliable can policy be which is based upon the acceptance of our moral fallibility?”

In a paragraph that timelessly retains its relevance, Charles Burton Marshall, pondering whether disappointment might follow the non-fulfillment of the president’s high-flying rhetoric, noted that the “distinction [between cynicism and skepticism] is important. A cynic shrugs off differences between right and wrong as merely conventional – a sham, as it were. A skeptic acknowledges such differences as real, but regards them to be often complex and subtle, and refuses to arrive at judgments on the basis of declaratory evidence only. Cynicism goes hand in hand with ennui. Skepticism kindles the critical spirit. Every one of us should be skeptical about foreign policy, because that attitude is what helps exact proper performance from those conducting it.”

Understanding the distinction between skepticism and cynicism is important in any context, but in the field of foreign policy, it can mean the difference between success and failure, between freedom and tyranny, and between life and death.

Monday, October 7, 2013

From the Archives: Review of 'The Benefits of Moderate Drinking: Alcohol, Health, and Society' by Gene Ford

This article originally appeared in The Arlington (Va.) Journal on May 9, 1991, under the title, "The sober truth: The Prohibitionists want to control our lives" and the Roanoke (Va.) Times & World News on May 19, 1991, with the all-caps headline "BOOZE BANS: NEO-PROHIBITIONISM THREATENS OUR FREEDOMS." I have made some minor formatting adjustments so it can appear on the Web for the first time.

- - -

In a recent ("Blitzed," April 22, 1991) New Republic article, Princeton University student Joshua Zimmerman reports that a California school district banned "Little Red Riding Hood" from first-grade classrooms because Grandma has a glass of wine after she is rescued.

He also notes that after a single incident of overdrinking that gave him a bad hangover, a campus counselor told him that he was "teetering on the brink of alcoholism" and should seek treatment.

Fox TV's "Beverly Hills 90210" recently portrayed a similar incident; the teen-age protagonist got drunk once, and by the end of the show he was at an AA meeting.

These are but surface symptoms of a deeper malady affecting American life today: neo-Prohibitionism. Another symptom is the attempt to link alcoholic beverages to illicit drugs -- an inapt analogy heard often in the wake of the drug arrests at the University of Virginia and Radford University.

The net effect is to shame social drinkers, driving the vast majority of drinkers who do not abuse alcohol into social closets. The neo-Prohibitionists are social engineers who want to legislate their moral agenda and increase state control of people's private lives. This is unhealthy, politically unwise and morally reprehensible.

In response to the new Carrie Nations, author and lecturer Gene Ford has written a comprehensive book, The Benefits of Moderate Drinking: Alcohol, Health, and Society. Ford reviews all the relevant literature on alcohol and human health, and charges that fearmongers have exaggerated the negative health effects of alcohol and buried the research demonstrating alcohol's benefits.

These pseudoscientists have cowed responsible physicians and scientists to the point that few are willing to speak in favor of moderate alcohol use.

One exception is Thomas B. Turner, M.D., former dean of The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. In his foreword to Ford's book, Dr. Turner notes that "the moderate use of alcoholic beverages has been with us for millennia; so has alcohol abuse. It is important to understand the difference." The new Prohibitionists, it seems, are unable to make that distinction.

Today's alcohol debate is over whether individuals should be allowed to control their own lives, to make personal decisions about their own behavior.

Ford sees the new Prohibitionists as the foot soldiers in a shadow army of totalitarians who seek to increase state control over individual behavior and decision-making.

He asserts that the anti-alcohol studies are skewed and emotionally biased. "New temperance" activists, as he calls them, use "highly selective and bastardized science to single out alcohol . . . to garner public support for their Draconian measures."

"New temperance devotees are classical political progressives wearing the mantle of public health," Ford writes. "Like stern mothers and fathers, they seek Orwellian control over the conduct of your most intimate personal lives. Progressives like to set standards for others. They suggest what you can eat, what you can drink, how you can exercise, the nature of your sexual practices, even what you and your children should read. Since the middle of the past century, when Christian progressivism evolved into a form of political fundamentalism, there has been a strong undercurrent of repression in American society."

Alcohol use and abuse have been with us since prehistoric times - in fact, some anthropologists believe that civilization itself began because prehistoric man abandoned his hunting-and-gathering lifestyle and began planting crops to ferment grains and fruits into alcoholic beverages.

Those early farmers who consumed beer and mead were better nourished than those who simply consumed gruel.

As man advanced technologically, he began to write; the earliest written record we have found is a Sumerian tablet containing a recipe for brewing beer! The Bible, Greek philosophers, and Roman poets all lauded alcoholic beverages. The moderate use of alcohol is something deeply imbedded in our culture.

Banning Red Riding Hood is just the tip of the iceberg. Millions of Americans who enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, a cocktail after work or a beer at the ballpark suffer increasing ostracism from a vociferous and vocal minority of social "progressives" whose paternalism tells them that they know better than we about ordering our lives.

They want to expand the government's already broad powers to interfere in our personal decisions, something we must firmly resist.

- - -

Note:  Gene Ford is also the author of The Science of Healthy Drinking (2003); The French Paradox & Drinking for Health (1993); and Ford's ABC's of Wines Brews and Spirits (1996), among other books and articles.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Author Interview: Jesse Walker on 'The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory'

Reason magazine books editor Jesse Walker is author of the recent book, The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (HarperCollins, $25.99), which reaches back to the earliest days of American history to examine how conspiracy theories take hold and what kind of influence they have on politics when they fail to fizzle out.

Acknowledging that his new book draws partial inspiration from and is partially a reply to Richard Hofstadter's famous monograph, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Walker explained in an interview with me last month at the Cato Institute that The United States of Paranoia “grew out of a lot of things.”

'Folklore of conspiracy thinking'
He had “been writing stories that touched on these issues for many years. At one point in the book, I quote from interviews I did way back in 1995 for a magazine article.”

In particular, Walker said, he “wanted to explore the folklore of conspiracy thinking in America and just what we can learn from these stories – even the ones that aren't true [and] hat they say about the anxieties and the experiences of the people who believe them.”

Walker acknowledged that conspiracy theories and urban legends “overlap,” but they are not the same thing.

“The two big differences are that sometimes a conspiracy theory is true and, by definition, no urban legend is true,” while “not all urban legends involve conspiracies, but many do.”

He pointed out that “one rich source of material in the book was just looking at the works by the sociologists and anthropologists who collect urban legends and that sort of folklore.”

Anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism
Similarly, while some conspiracy theories have anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic roots, not all do.

“There are a lot of anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which is not to say that anyone who believes in a conspiracy theory shares those bigotries,” Walker explained.

“Of those conspiracy theories that involve scapegoating a group, the three that seem to have the most potent influence in American history were those involving Catholics, blacks, or Indians. Obviously, there are also ones involving Jews, gays, liberals, conservatives, and others, but those were the big three.”

On the other hand, he said, “if I were writing a history of European paranoia, anti-Semitism would be much closer to the core,” adding that there are “a number of anti-Semites in the book,” which focuses on American history.

Even little-known and generally forgotten conspiracy theories can re-emerge unexpectedly, Walker said.

Some of them “will continue to be around and mutate and find new forms. I never would have guessed in the 1980s,” for instance, “that there would be all sorts of rap lyrics about the Illuminati” two decades later.

At my prompting, Walker commented on some well-known conspiracy theories involving President Barack Obama, the AIDS virus, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

One common conspiracy theory of the past few years has been based on the claim that President Obama was not born in the United States. This has earned the sobriquet “birtherism,” and includes such elements that Obama was born in Kenya and his official birth certificate from Hawaii is a fake.

Jesse Walker
“There's a lot to unpack there,” Walker said about that theory.

In the book, he said, he gives three reasons for why “birtherism has taken hold and even has believers now, even though it's pretty hard to make the case for it being true at this point.”

The first is a “desire for a magic bullet, something that can win you a political victory without the pain of political persuasion. It's worth noting,” Walker explained, “that birtherism initially caught on among the diehard supporters of Hillary Clinton during the primaries in 2008 before it migrated to the right.”

A second reason “is the fear of the foreign.”

If someone is “afraid of foreign Muslims and [doesn't] like the president, it's easy to be attracted to the idea of the president being foreign and/or a Muslim.”

In general, he continued, “if people who are uncomfortable with the idea of America as a multicultural nation, to them, the President is metaphorically foreign for all sorts of reasons and a conspiracy theory is very good at making the metaphoric into the concrete.”

The third reason, Walker said, is that birtherism is “a way to maintain your respect for the presidency while rejecting a president. If you can say, 'he's a usurper, pretender to the throne' – you actually see these sort of royalist metaphors in a lot of birther literature” – the birther can claim respect for the office if not for the man.

Walker added that he is “not saying that every birther subscribes to all three of those. Those groups overlap.” There are people for whom none of those reasons fit, “but those are three themes that often come up in the birther literature.”

AIDS created by U.S. government?
Another conspiracy that emerged relatively recently was the idea that the U.S. government created the AIDS virus.

There a lot of different AIDS theories, Walker said, but the one he addresses in his book “is the idea that white doctors were injecting black babies with AIDS. You might remember that rumor in the '80s.”

That story is “obviously not true,” he noted, but still “it's easy to see how it could catch on among people who have experienced a long history of high-handed or abusive treatment from the white medical establishment, including some genuine conspiracies, like the Tuskegee Experiment. That sort of lays the ground work for believing other conspiracy theories.”

9/11 truthers
Those who refuse to believe that Islamic-extremist hijackers destroyed the World Trade Center by crashing jet planes into the Twin Towers are known as “9/11 truthers.” They often say that the U.S. government engineered the collapse of the buildings in order to trigger a war and reduce Americans' civil liberties.

The question of 9/11 trutherism is “one that has people have adopted that for so many reasons, I really hate to reduce it to any one or two.”

Sometimes, Walker pointed out, “people say that trutherism is a paralyzing idea because everything is stacked against you. The flip side is that you just have to worry about what's happening in Washington not trying to disentangle what's going on in foreign lands.”

That is not, however, “the only reason that trutherism catches on,” and he addresses some of those other possibilities in his book.

As it happens, Jesse Walker was also a guest of Coy Barefoot on WCHV-FM's “Inside Charlottesville” on August 27, talking about The United States of Paranoia.

(This article is based on two previously published pieces on

Monday, August 5, 2013

TV Review of 'Now You See It: Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film' by Richard Dyer

For a few years in the 1990s, I was roving correspondent, sometime co-anchor, and book reviewer for Gay Fairfax, a weekly television magazine series telecast over Channel 10 in Fairfax County, Virginia, and bicycled to other cable-access TV channels in the Washington, D.C., area and elsewhere around the United States.

On episode 35 of Gay Fairfax, I reviewed Now You See It: Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film by Richard Dyer for the regular "gay book beat" segment. What follows is a transcript of that review, delivered orally on a program that first aired on Fairfax Channel 10 on October 7, 1991.


I'm Rick Sincere with gay book beat.

We'll be looking at exciting and unusual books by, for, and about gay men and lesbians.

Today's book: Now You See It: Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film by British film scholar Richard Dyer.

About ten years ago, Vito Russo wrote a book called The Celluloid Closet, which examined the portrayals of gay men and lesbians in mainstream films from America and elsewhere.

Russo really did not look behind the scenes, however. This is what Dyer does.

Dyer looks at films made by and for gay men and lesbians, that is, gay filmmakers making films for specifically gay audiences.

This is something that wasn't really easy for Russo to look at when he wrote his book ten years ago but with archival material becoming available, Dyer has been able to unearth a number of films that are very significant in historical perspective.

Dyer starts by looking at the films of Weimar Germany right after the First World War.

One very famous film of that period was called Different from the Others ("Anders als die Andern"), which starred Conrad Veidt, a matinee idol who became famous in our country as the wicked Nazi major in Casablanca.

Veidt portrayed a gay man who is being blackmailed and that film was not only very popular in Weimar Germany, it eventually became banned.

At the end of the Weimar period was a film made for lesbians which also has become quite famous, Mȁdchen in Uniform.

Between these two films of 1920 and 1933, Weimar Germany produced the bulk of films for gay audiences. They set the trend for the rest of the world – England, France, Sweden, America – and set standards for film making from then on.

The lesbian and gay films that Dyer examines include Genet's classics Un chant d'amour and Possession, which revolutionized gay cinema with their exciting, vibrant imagery and dramatic style.

Dyer's book is an important contribution to film studies and gay literature. I recommended very highly.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

TV Review of 'Over the Rainbow: The Wizard of Oz as a Secular Myth of America' by Paul Nathanson

For a few years in the 1990s, I was roving correspondent, sometime co-anchor, and book reviewer for Gay Fairfax, a weekly television magazine series telecast over Channel 10 in Fairfax County, Virginia, and bicycled to other cable-access TV channels in the Washington, D.C., area and elsewhere around the United States.

On episode 47 of Gay Fairfax, I reviewed Over the Rainbow: The Wizard of Oz as a Secular Myth of America by Paul Nathanson for the regular "gay book beat" segment. What follows is a transcript of that review, delivered orally on a program that first aired on Fairfax Channel 10 on December 30, 1991.


I'm Rick Sincere with the gay book beat.

Today will be looking at a book about culture, Over the Rainbow: The Wizard of Oz as a Secular Myth of America by Professor Paul Nathanson.

There are many famous movies. There are many movies that are considered great by critics and by film scholars. There are many movies that are popular but there are few movies that have inserted themselves into the collective consciousness of America.

One movie like that is The Wizard of Oz, Victor Fleming's 1939 classic version of L. Frank Baum's turn-of-the-century novel.

Who's not familiar with the characters like Dorothy Gale of Kansas, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, Glinda the Good Witch of the North, the Wicked Witch of the West, and, of course, the Wizard himself.

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

There: Didn't you recognize that line automatically?

Nathanson is a Canadian scholar who's written a multi-disciplinary analysis of The Wizard of Oz -- the movie, the book, the music, the lyrics, the actors, and the way the movie has inserted itself into American culture.

Americans have been fascinated by The Wizard of Oz for more than fifty years and this is a fascinating book in its own way but it has one serious shortcoming.

For the gay community, especially for gay men, The Wizard of Oz is a defining myth that helps us come to terms with our identity. It's a coming-of-age myth in its own way.

For many years the question, “Are you a friend of Dorothy?” was a coded way of asking if someone was gay

Over the Rainbow” has become a gay anthem of love and desire and Judy Garland is a gay icon.

So the Wizard is important for for much of gay America, yet Professor Nathanson in this book only mentions the gay community – gay subculture – once, in a single footnote on page 354.

Can he be serious?

Even with this unfortunate missing link, Over the Rainbow it is a fascinating book and anyone who has loved Dorothy Gale or liked the music of The Wizard of Oz should take a look at it

Over the Rainbow: The Wizard of Oz as a Secular Myth in America from State University of New York Press -- it's just been published. It's by Professor Paul Nathanson.

On the gay book beat, I'm Rick Sincere.

Monday, March 25, 2013

2013 Virginia Festival of the Book: Christianity

Historian Robert Louis Wilken gave a presentation about his most recent book, The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity, at the 2013 Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville on March 22.

The book festival's web site offers this biographical note on Wilken:
Robert Wilken, author of The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity Emeritus. He taught at UVa from 1985 to 2009 and is the author of many books, including The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History and Thought, and The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. He is also the editor of The Church's Bible, a series of commentaries based on writings of the church fathers.
Speaking to a packed auditorium in the Harrison Institute/Small Special Collections on the grounds of the University of Virginia, Wilken gave an engaging and entertaining lecture that spanned topics from apostolic succession to Christianity's intellectual confrontation with Islam to the necessity of bishops for the survival of the church (taking a dig at Garry Wills for asking "Why priests?" in a book of that name).

Wilken explained that he wanted the book to include a full range of the Christian communities from the first 1,000 years of the church, including the Syriac churches of the Middle East, the Greek churches that expanded into Slavic lands, and the Latin church based in Rome, with stops along the way among the Coptic churches of Egypt and Christian churches farther south in Nubia (Sudan) and Ethiopia. He said that he wanted to keep the chapters short for readability's sake and, for the same reason, decided not to include footnotes. The book, he noted, is meant for general audiences, not academic readers.

A video of Wilken's complete remarks, including a question-and-answer session with the audience, is here:
The program on "Christianity: The First Thousand Years" was hosted by the St. Anselm Institute for Catholic Thought, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, and the Center for Christian Study.

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Sunday, March 24, 2013

2013 Virginia Festival of the Book: Eisenhower

Two veteran journalists-turned-biographers spoke at the Virginia Festival of the Book on Friday to talk about their recent books about President Dwight Eisenhower and his administration.

The book festival's web site offers background notes on the speakers for the panel entitled "Eisenhower: The Presidency." First, Evan Thomas, who
was a writer and editor at Time and Newsweek magazines for 33 years. There he wrote more than 100 cover stories and won a National Magazine award. He is the author of 8 books, including 2 New York Times best sellers. He teaches writing and journalism at Princeton University.
and also Jeffrey Frank, who
was a senior editor at the New Yorker, the deputy editor of the Washington Post's Outlook section, and is the author of four novels, including the Washington Trilogy
The moderator of the panel was journalist and author Earl Swift, whom I interviewed last year at the book festival about his history of the interstate highway system, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.

Evan Thomas discussed Ike's Bluff: Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World, which focuses largely on foreign policy but also addresses Eisenhower's personality -- warm on the outside, cold as steel on the inside -- and his way of working with other government officials.

Here is video of Thomas's opening remarks:

For his part, Jeffrey Frank discussed Ike & Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage, which looks into Eisenhower's relationship with his vice-president and eventual successor, Richard Nixon.

Here is the video of Frank talking about Ike & Dick:
The near-simultaneous publication of books about Ike by Evan Thomas and Jeffrey Frank suggests that Eisenhower's presidency is undergoing a historical reassessment, just as Calvin Coolidge's administration is getting a similar treatment.

The panel on Eisenhower's presidency took place on the upper level of the University of Virginia Bookstore, overlooking the bustling commerce on the ground floor.

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Saturday, March 23, 2013

2013 Virginia Festival of the Book: Locavores

Two local authors spoke on March 21 at the Jefferson Madison Regional Library on the topic "Locavore: Hunting and Eating Locally."

Their discussion was part of the 19th Virginia Festival of the Book, which started Wednesday and ends Sunday.

The speakers were, according to the book festival's web site,
Pam Dawling, author of Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, [who] also writes for Growing for Market magazine. For 20 years, she has grown vegetables at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia, feeding a hundred people.
Jackson Landers, author of Eating Aliens and The Beginner's Guide to Hunting Deer for Food, [who] teaches hunting workshops across the U.S., has been featured in the Huffington Post and the New York Times, and is the subject of a documentary entitled Close to the Bone. He lives in Virginia.
The entire discussion was captured on video:
Dawling spoke first about gardening and growing vegetables in an economical, efficient, and sustainable fashion.

Landers followed, explaining how the "blood footprint" of hunting deer for food is smaller than the blood footprint of tofu, which, because it involves large-scale agriculture in the growing of soybeans, necessarily results in the deaths of many small animals -- something that vegans may want to think about the next time they fry up a tofuburger.

He also provided the audience with some entertaining stories of hunting pigeons in New York's Central Park and explained that all of the odd species he has killed and eaten "taste like chicken, beef, or pork."

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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Sole Booklength Biography of SecDef Nominee Chuck Hagel Leaves Much to Be Desired

Today's confirmation hearing by the Senate Armed Services Committee to review President Obama's nomination of former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel as the new Secretary of Defense is drawing plenty of attention from the press and public alike.

Outside of Nebraska and rarefied policy-wonk circles, most Americans are not familiar with Hagel or his career. Consequently, they are looking for information about him so that they can make up their own minds about his qualifications to be the successor to Leon Panetta.

Some will turn to their local libraries or book shops to find a biography of Hagel. They will find there is just one available: Charlyne Berens' 2006 book, Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward (University of Nebraska Press), scheduled to be published by Bison Books in paperback this year on July 1 (a publication date that may, given the current circumstances, be moved up).

Berens, described on the book's jacket flap as a professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, wrote this fawning, uncritical biography of her state's then-senior senator during a period in which Hagel was being widely discussed as a potential Republican presidential candidate for 2008. Ultimately, Hagel decided against a run – the nomination went instead to his fellow Vietnam veteran, John McCain – but Berens' book is little more than a brief for supporters of a draft-Hagel movement.

Comic relief
Sadly, Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward, despite being brisk and breezy, reads like a book-length answer to a job interviewer's question: “What would you say are your shortcomings?”, with the reply being, “I work too hard and give too much money to charity.”

Relying on interviews with Hagel's family members, friends, and political colleagues, there is not an unkind word said about him – and even the few (slightly) negative comments are spun positively.

Berens is the kind of biographer who seeks out early mentors of her subject who are prone to say things like, what he lacked in raw talent he made up in scrappiness.

That is not a direct quotation, but this (p. 18) is:
Hagel played football and basketball and went out for track. He was on student council and in the honor society as well as in Sodality, a Catholic young people's organization. "He was a kid you never could keep busy because he was so busy," his football coach Dean Soulliere, now retired, said.
And this, from the next page:
Anything he lacked in athletic ability he made up in effort. For instance, [younger brother] Tom Hagel said Chuck really didn't have a lot of talent in basketball, but he wanted to play so badly that he just drove himself until he made the team. "He was kind of the comic relief in some games,' Tom recalls, 'moderately good, at best, but just entirely focused on it."

Slapdash hagiography
It is hard to begrudge Hagel's success in the armed services (a decorated infantryman, with two Purple Hearts to his credit), business (he built up a multimillion-dollar fortune by investing his life savings in the nascent cell phone industry), philanthropy (he rescued the USO from near bankruptcy in the 1980s), and politics (he defeated a popular sitting governor in the 1996 U.S. Senate race, having never run for office before). But Berens writes about Hagel as if he were an angel. This is a Hagel hagiography entirely lacking academic detachment.

The book is also a slapdash effort that should embarrass both the academic press that published it and the professor who wrote it.

For instance, in discussing Hagel's first first major assignment in the U.S. Army, Berens writes on page 28:
So he was sent to Fort Ord, California, and the White Sands Missile Range. He was nearly twenty-one years old, and it was the first time he had seen the ocean. It was only the second time he'd been out of Nebraska; the first time was for basic training at Fort Bliss.

Yet just a few pages earlier, Berens quotes Hagel as saying that, as a teenager, “I spent way too much time with my buddies, driving up to Yankton, South Dakota,” to meet coeds and drink in a state with a lower drinking age than Nebraska's (p. 23). And two paragraphs later on the same page, Berens reports that Hagel had spent a year in Minneapolis, Minnesota, attending the Brown Institute of Radio and Television, where he also worked several jobs – all this before he began his military service.

Then, much deeper into the book, in a discussion of environmental policy and legislation, Berens explains that the Kyoto Protocol (on climate change) “would have required industrial plants – but not automobile manufacturers – to cut pollution from burning fossil fuels to 2000 levels by 2010” (p. 104). Two pages later, Berens describes a bill that Hagel opposed as one that “would have required U.S. industrial plants – but not auto manufacturers – to cut pollution from burning fossil fuels to 2000 levels by 2010.” The only difference is “automobile” becomes “auto.”

This is amateurish stuff, but Berens worst sin, in terms of academic rigor, may be the way she sources her quotations and paraphrases. Her end notes are all in this form: “Omaha World-Herald, August 16, 1999” or “Washington Post, November 15, 2004” – no page numbers, no article titles, no author bylines. If a high-school student turned in a term paper with that kind of format, he would barely get a passing grade. For a college professor to do it in a book published by a university press is simply horrifying.

All those criticisms aside, there are some interesting tidbits found within the text.

Who knew, for instance, that in the early 1990s, before he returned to Nebraska after two decades as a Washington insider, Republican activists tried to recruit Hagel to run for governor of Virginia? He was, Berens reports, “mildly interested but never pursued the option” (p. 72).

It is also largely forgotten that Hagel was talked about as a potential vice-presidential candidate for George W. Bush as early as 1999, and also as a possible running mate (crossing party lines) for John Kerry in 2004.

With a certain prescient irony, Berens recounts that it would be “safe to say Hagel never seriously considered pursuing a spot on the ticket with Kerry. But the suggestions he might serve in a Kerry cabinet were a different matter. 'I'd see that in a different light,' Hagel said in May 2004.”

Continuing, she writes,
Of course, he added, if he, a Republican, were to serve s a member of a Democratic president's cabinet, that would eliminate any possibility he could ever run for president himself. "I'd have to think about that," Hagel said. "Would it be worth it to give up that option" to serve as secretary of state or defense in a Kerry cabinet? Only if he were convinced the position would allow him to make a real difference, he said. As things turned out, the question was moot.
As things turned out, it was only temporarily moot.

Hagel chose not to run for re-election in 2008, fulfilling a promise he had made to voters in 1996 that he would serve just two terms. He went on to become chairman of the Atlantic Council of the United States, in keeping with his lifelong interest in international affairs. And on January 7, 2013, Republican war veteran Chuck Hagel was nominated for Secretary of Defense by a Democratic president.

Will this foreclose future plans for the now-66-year-old Hagel to run for President himself? That remains to be seen but one can only hope that, if that day comes, a better, more analytical biography of him by a less sycophantic author will have been published.  For now, Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward is not that book.

(This book review appeared, in slightly different form, on
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