Sunday, December 24, 2006

God Make You Mighty, Gentlemen

I vividly recall traversing the threshold from mainland China into Hong Kong and its environs, because it was as though we slammed into this wall of Christmas. The scarcity of the holiday in the former is hardly surprising -- even setting their wariness of globalization aside, this is after all a country that requires you to renounce faith in God for membership in its sole political party -- but you hit a free-market economy and whoop, there it is.

I had a similar experience around the same time last year, as I returned to the States from another trip overseas to find the airport decked out in full Christmas regalia as early as November fourth. (I also narrowly avoided stepping into a pile of human excrement sitting in the middle of my departure gate, which I observed lying unattended for no less than a full half-hour before I boarded my next flight -- as startling a "welcome home" as I've ever received.)

The season is so relentlessly cheerful that it's hard for contrarians like me to avoid using it as an excuse to brood on all the things missing from our lives.

A lot of people complain that our emotional attachment to the holiday is simply something that was manufactured by advertising agencies. Well, yeah -- but a lot of our attachments are manufactured. In fact, that's what I do for a living -- economically speaking, I create fictional constructs that you develop an emotional attachment to in order to encourage you to continue buying my product. (Of course, artistically speaking, it's somewhat more complicated than that.) But surely that doesn't diminish the validity of the emotion. So what's the sin? That the attachments were created by Big Evil Corporations, rather than struggling artists? If that's the case, God forbid I should ever achieve anything like success.

"But it's such a commercial holiday!" people cry. Well, yeah, but that's obviously not going to be a big barrier to somebody like me. I love capitalism, its hyperactive desire to entertain, its breathless, scizophrenic attempts to capture your attention. The economy booms around Christmastime. "But what about the little guy?" This is when private charity peaks. (Of course, the little guy desperately needs more, not to mention more often -- my point is simply that the season doesn't *damage* us economically.)

"Remember that Jesus is the reason for the season!" cry Christians. Well, we all recognize that for the bullshit argument it is, surely? There's no historical basis for Jesus of Nazareth having been born around this time of year -- it was a co-opting of a number of pagan festivals, which, I'm sure, cannibalized the traditions preceding them, as well. "But what about other winter festivals, like Hannukah, or Kwanzaa?" Oog. I can't speak for the Jews -- whose dates aren't determined by the Gregorian calendar -- but Kwanzaa was invented in 1966 by a Marxist who claimed that Jesus was psychotic. Then people start calling me a racist, and then I curl up into a fetal position and start rocking.

It hardly matters though, does it? After all, they're all made-up holidays, at least in terms of the time of year that they take place. The reason we have a winter festival is because we all get so fucking depressed that we need a socially acceptable excuse to get recklessly drunk and start frantically groping each other beneath exotic vegetation. And that, I can get behind.


Just got back from seeing Santa Man, another zinger of a one-man show from the prolific Rik Reppe. I know this is a backhanded compliment, but it's the most enjoyable holiday show in recent memory. It follows the same predictable arc that so many Christmas stories do -- cantankerous individual discovers holiday cheer through the spirit of charity -- with the significant twist that this story is a true one; Rik, depressed over an impending divorce, set out on a road trip across America last year to hand out toys to Katrina victims.

Towards the beginning of the show, as he was talking about things like snowball fights and road music, I found myself thinking: "His strength as a storyteller is his ability to attach profound significance to events most of us wouldn't consider twice." But no, that's wrong, and I quickly corrected myself. His strength as a storyteller is the fact that he's a man of action, that he aggressively pursues his stories, rather than passively allowing them to happen to him. After all, while most of us (okay, me) were sitting at home feeling sorry for ourselves, he hopped in his car and actually did something beneficial to somebody else.

In an enjoyable twist, the nature of the show became an interactive one, as Rik and his cronies over at Liberal Media Elite conducted a toy drive in conjunction with the performance, which he'll be taking out to kids who lost their parents in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid in Worthington. It's a swell cause, and one that contributes a level of immediacy to his storytelling. Highly recommended, if it wasn't obvious already, and it gets the phil low stamp of approval(TM).


What is libertarianism about? It seems like I've asked that question in every post since I started this thing, and come up with a different answer every time. (To paraphrase an old joke, put five libertarians in a room together and you'll get six opinions.) But it's a worthwhile question: what is it all about?

It's not about greed, or selfishness (contrary to popular opinion, or what Ayn Rand and her acolytes may assert) -- at least, not for me; it's about the power of choice, and assuming personal responsibility for those choices.

Christmas is an emotional time, and it's easy to lash out at the world around you: to blame corporations, or government, or Christians, or secularists, or the idiots who put up nativity scenes, or the idiots who vandalize them. But libertarianism demands that you take responsibility: that you take responsibility for your Christmas. The season can be about whatever you choose it to be: about greed, or compassion, or Jesus, or family, or alcohol. (The best Christmas, I imagine, would be one that managed to combine all of the above.)

So, rather than dishing out yet another saccharine "Merry Christmas!", allow me to articulate a truly libertarian holiday sentiment:

(clears throat)

"I hope that you choose to have a Merry Christmas, and that you choose to share that spirit with those around you."

Amen, brothers and sisters. And to all a good night.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Department of Insecurity

"It's not my fault," he went on harshly. "I didn't do any of this. None of it. But I'm the cause. Even when I don't do anything. It's all being done because of me. So I won't have any choice. Just by being alive, I break everything I love." He scraped his fingers through the stubble of his beard; but his eyes continued staring at the waste of Andelain, haunted by it. "You'd think I wanted this to happen."

"No!" the First protested. "We hold no such conception. You must not doubt. It is doubt which weakens -- doubt which corrupts. Therefore is this Despiser powerful.
He does not doubt. While you are certain, there is hope." Her iron voice betrayed a note of fear. "This price will be exacted from him if you do not doubt!"

Covenant looked at her for a moment. Then he rose stiffly to his feet. His muscles and his heart were knotted so tightly that Linden could not read him.

"That's wrong." He spoke softly, in threat or appeal. "You need to doubt. Certainty is terrible. Let Foul have it. Doubt makes you human." His gaze shifted toward Linden. It reached out to her like flame or beggary, the culmination and defeat of all his power in the Banefire. "You need every doubt you can find. I want you to doubt. I'm hardly human anymore."

Stephen R. Donaldson, White Gold Wielder

I don't own a gun.

I'm a fan of the Bill of Rights. I'll always defend your right to possess one, and to use it in your own defense if necessary. I'm surprised that people aren't more alarmed by the prospect of a government that attempts to forcibly disarm its own citizens. I'm also surprised that the Democrats -- who claim to be the supporters of individual liberty -- are the ones most engaged in trying to repeal that right.

So, politically? Yeah. An unarmed populace is completely *dependent* upon the state. I get that. But that doesn't alter my great personal distaste for them. In fact, "distaste" is too mild a word -- I have an active *revulsion* for the fucking things. Why?

I can conjure up a few possible reasons. For one thing, my background in martial arts: a form whose sole function is to prepare you for the moment of confrontation with your own mortality. If I attempt to kill a man with my bare hands, that takes some goddamn *work* on my part. A gun is a tool designed with the sole function of making killing *easy*.

Of course, I recognize that fine ideals like that won't defend me from a bullet speeding toward my face at 3000 feet per second. And I recognize that that's groping after a rational explanation for an emotional state that is fundamentally irrational.

Because ultimately, it isn't violence I fear: it's *power*.


If I distrust power in others, then it's at least partly because I distrust it so deeply within myself. I'm all too aware of my own capacity for harm.

This, I think, is the area that differentiates me from so many other libertarian writers: that so many of them seem to be trying to re-invent themselves as the Randian "ideal man", preaching with the same brash self-assurance that -- forgive me -- characterized the socialists of many decades ago.

Well, I'm the first to admit that I've got more than my share of preachiness and self-righteous indignation. But though I'm a Libertarian, I'm no Objectivist. And maybe it's all of my clowning training, but that kind of assertiveness just doesn't come easily to me. I look in the mirror, and my reflection doesn't present an ideal *anything* -- I'm not physically imposing, I have no fashion sense -- I'm so hamstrung by my neuroses half the time it's a miracle I can even manage to leave my apartment. If libertarianism offers us the promise of the self-created man, the man who confidently seizes his destiny and conquers his opposition, well, I ain't it. If life is a circus, I'm not the ringmaster; I'm the guy scraping up the elephant shit after the audience goes home.

In fact, the only thing I'm confident of is my right to indecision. The ideal to which I've devoted my life is the pursuit of (t/T)ruth. Perhaps it's that spirit of inquiry that's led me to the libertarians -- because, in my view, they're the ones who are most likely to defend it.

Or, perhaps not. Or...well...maybe...hmm...

"INDECISION NOW!" isn't a battle cry that's going to rouse anybody's blood. But I sometimes wonder if it isn't the sanest one.


The quote at the beginning of this post comes from my favorite modern fantasy work, "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever." (Have I mentioned I'm kind of a geek?) It relies upon a fairly cliched fantasy setup -- unlikely hero is given a ring of unimaginable power to overthrow a dark lord, yadda yadda yadda -- with two twists: one, a compelling moral ambiguity; and two, the fact that the "hero" is writer who suffers from chronic illness, and consequently believes that his own capacity for creation will kill him. I'm reminded of one passage in particular:

"...innocence is a wonderful thing except for the fact that it's impotent. Guilt is power. All effective people are guilty because the use of power is guilt, and only guilty people can be effective. Effective for good, mind you. Only the damned can be saved."

Amen to that, brother.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

A Strained Homonym

I guess that you could say that I've always had an issue with capitals.

My name, for example -- I haven't capitalized it since I was sixteen years old. The affectation started with an obsession with e. e. cummings, a pretentious act of adolescent rebellion, the linguistic equivalent of dying one's hair green. When I entered show business, it struck me that a memorable quirk could be professionally advantageous -- so I hung onto it. (Besides, I suppose that I have some objection to my name being classified as a proper noun. There ain't nothin' proper about me, thank you very much.)

Likewise, I've never had much fondness for capitols, either, those industry towns whose industry happens to be the government. I infinitely prefer the bustling nightlife and exuberant cultural scene of Minneapolis to the staid, static wasteland that is St. Paul. I've always distrusted the consolodation of power.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that those are both reasons why I've long resisted making the jump from being a small-"l" libertarian to a large-"L" party supporter. While I align myself with them philosophically -- I find their platform to be just about the most coherent and ethical political ideology I've ever encountered -- I was never quite able to bring myself to join up.

Ironically, one of the main forces that led me to the party -- a profound distrust of authority -- is also one of the things that's kept me from signing on the dotted line. I'm not a joiner by nature. I'm too damned stubborn, too damned skeptical, and Lord knows I've been burned too goddamned many times by just about every organization I've aligned myself with, religious, political, or professional. I mean, Christ, I supported the Democrats for most of my teen years, and that didn't exactly have stellar results.

There's a professional concern, too. I've commented that the greatest casualty of 9-11 was decent comedy writing, as countless skilled comedians eschewed punchlines in favor of trying to re-invent themselves as tiresome political pundits. I've come to believe that my status as an outsider has been advantageous to me as an artist -- since I'm not invested in either of the two major political parties, I'm free to heckle both from the sidelines. Once you swear yourself to an Absolute Truth, you lose some of your unpredictability, some of your effectiveness, some of your, dare I say it, individuality -- not to mention taking the first tiny step to becoming a dictator yourself.

But this afternoon, I finally signed up. Why?

Well, a number of reasons. It's true that I'm in agreement with the bulk of their philosophy, but more importantly, they're in agreement with mine. It's not that I read the literature and tried to conform my opinions to theirs, it's that I read the literature and realized that they were saying things that I'd been thinking -- not to mention writing about, and performing -- for years. There's also the fact that we're coming off of midterm election season, and that's always a pretty emotional time for me. But I think the greatest reason is my return from three countries (or two, or one, depending on how you define it) -- Taiwan, Hong Kong, and, most notably, China.

Seeing China up close was a -- troubling experience. Of course, there were the obvious things -- the state-sponsored propaganda, the omnipresence of the police -- but what really disturbed me, I think, was how effectively they were able to put up a smiling face -- that I could be sitting at a table with men and women earnestly discussing the failure of capitalism of democracy.

On November 24, the day I left, Wan Yanhai, the country's leading AIDS activist, disappeared under mysterious circumstances -- almost certainly murdered by the police. The thing is, within the country itself, I would have had absolutely no way of knowing about this -- it was only after I left that I found it reported. And that's just one destroyed life among many.

It's been correctly ascertained that China is now a Communist country in name only. Their leadership was able to realize that that path would lead them to certain economic self-destruction. So we're seeing the rise of private enterprise, under the control of an authoritarian government. Stalin coined a term for that merger of state and corporate power -- he called it corporatism.

But in the West, we had a different name for it. We called it fascism, and in its day, it nearly brought the free world to its knees.

One of my fellow Minnesotans, Sinclair Lewis, famously said "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." Now our reliance on a two-party system has left our government vulnerable to a takeover by religious fundamentalists. This is one of the most alarming -- not to mention unprecedented -- events in our political history.

I'm equally alarmed by the rise of the religious left, who are trying to adopt the language and tactics of their opposition, apparently dismissing Christ's injunction to "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, render unto God that which is God's" -- perhaps the most eloquent call for the separation of church and state in history. The first priority of Jesus of Nazareth was saving souls (in fact, as I recall it, he was crucified in part for his refusal to enter the politics of the day). He urged men to give of themselves to the poor, because it was spiritually good for them to do so. He did not urge men to create a government that would forcibly redistribute other people's wealth amongst the populace.

So why did I join the party? And why am I writing this blog? In part, because I've come to realize how small I am in relation to that, how limited I am as a single voice -- and, perhaps, a foolish desire to measure myself against the rising darkness of our time. I recognize that you can't fight collectivism with collectivism. But that doesn't mean that you have to stand alone.

I believe that the key question of all politics was posed nearly two thousand years ago, by a satirist named Juvenal: "Quis custodiet ipso custodies?" or, "Who watches the watchmen?" Glancing around at the American political landscape, the answer, I believe, *is* the libertarians. The digital revolution, and the rise of the internet, is changing the way we access information. That's easily the topic of an essay in and of itself, but the point is that voices that have traditionally gone unheard are gaining a larger and larger audience.

I'm still struggling to figure out what my role in contemporary politics is. Even if the nature of military life wasn't in diametric opposition to my disposition, my physical disability would presumably keep me from the battlefield. I know myself too well to believe that I could ever pose as a credible electoral candidate. It's true that I have certain abilities, and that most of my work has an expressly political subtext (not to mention, something of an overbearing, preachy streak) -- but I find the bulk of explicitly political plays to be offensively condescending. I have no intention of becoming a party shill in my work -- I recognize that that would be both financial and artistic suicide.

I'm still trying to figure it out. But for now, I'll be doing it as a (l/L)ibertarian. Capit(a/o)ls and all.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

More Notes from China Journal

Last filler post before I get back to something with a little more substance.


Concluded our visit to Guilin with a visit to a tiger zoo, and maybe it's because I was in such a foul mood at the time, but I thought it was the just about the most miserable, depressing place I've ever been. I don't know what it says about us as a species that we take delight in caging such raw power for our entertainment. The animal act was the worst -- watching them being whipped and yelled at to literally jump through hoops for me is not something I can derive a lot of enjoyment from.

Watching the act, it's almost absurd to see two or three unassuming men so easily cowing a cage full of tigers. It would be so easy -- it would be the simplest thing in the world -- for the animals to overcome them, and yet they don't.

I read a book a while ago that claimed the Chinese have something worse than whips -- they have whips in the soul, an ingrained compulsion to cringe before authority. This idea disgusts me enough that I found myself longing for a fit of Jurassic-Park-like rage, in which the animals would burst free from their captivity and messily devour us, except I know that the government would draw exactly the wrong conclusion from this and start discussing how to build better cages.

After all, isn't that exactly what politics are all about? Building better cages?

Friday, December 1, 2006

Notes from China Journal

Still struggling to catch up with a life that's racing out of control, so I thought I'd toss out some pages from a journal I kept while I was travelling in China.


So stop me if you've heard this before. A group of political and religious refugees flee an oppressive regime and found a new nation overseas. After some initial conflict with the indigenous peoples, they establish themselves for several generations and soon regard themselves as independent. Despite an increasing tendency towards democracy, the citizens of this nation are still regarded as citizens of the regime they've fled. A seemingly inevitable conflict is delayed by those who urge reconciliation on both sides.

Now, here's the ten thousand dollar question -- am I talking about America in 1776, or Taiwan nearly 230 years later?


There's been a lot of concern and discussion lately about the possibility of China becoming the next global superpower. This seems to me to represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the issue at hand. The question is not whether or not China will achieve this power; the question is what China is going to do with the power it already has. China could be the most powerful nation in the world tomorrow if they had the focus and the leadership.

This may not be a politically correct observation to make -- since, after all, everybody's exactly the same and nobody's better than anybody else -- but I believe that the Chinese have more potential than any other race of people on earth. In every discipline, their society, and the individuals within it, have completely redefined our understanding of what the human race is capable of. Our best defense is, perhaps, the fact that many of them do not realize this -- but one day, and one day soon, the Chinese will awaken and realize that they are strong. And the earth will tremble.

In fact, the only credible threat they face may well be the Americans, whose emphasis on the value of the self, and individual creativity and inventiveness, produces its own extraordinary achievements -- and renders them an ideological polar opposite to the thinking of the Chinese. The conflict between the two would be fascinating to watch, if it wasn't me and family getting caught in the crossfire.


Currently on our way out of Taiwan, and even from my (admittedly narrow) outsider's viewpoint, the country has thoroughly charmed me, particularly the bustling metropolis of Taipei.

What the Chinese have built here is extraordinary -- they've managed to preserve their ancient history and roots while simultaneously progressing forward into a more democratic state. They've achieved what mainland China so dramatically failed to do -- they've entered the modern world without sacrificing their own unique identity.

I find the mainland's insistence of ownership to be deeply troubling, and despite conciliatory voices on both sides, I find it impossible to credit that they will simply leave Taiwan alone indefinitely. If I have learned any fundamental truth about politics, it is that greedy and stupid is always finding new ways to be greedy and stupid. One day -- maybe tomorrow, maybe in twenty years -- they're going to make a move, and the real question then for Taiwan will be -- do they resist? Or do they submit?