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A tale of suspense, pyromania and sexual tension, coming to an Amazon near you!

For those of you wondering just what I’ve been up to (let’s count hands! That’s one, two, three of you!), the fact is … I’ve been writing a novel. Final revisions to the manuscript are pending, and the book will be published in paperback and Kindle (and probably Nook) format in November.

High Desert Barbecue

High Desert BarbecueLiving as a squatter on public land, Rollo has long waged a personal war against the Forest Service, so it’s little surprise when rangers burn him out of his latest shack. But when Rollo is subsequently blamed for a disastrous wildfire, he seeks help from his close friend, Scott, an anarchically minded outdoors enthusiast, and Scott’s girlfriend Lani, who dislikes Rollo but shares his distaste for authority. While investigating a suspicious new forest fire, the trio interrupts a bizarre but vicious gang of environmental terrorists. Chased through the canyon country of northern Arizona, Rollo, Scott and Lani must rely on their wit and skills to survive. Just steps behind, their pursuers compensate for incompetence and sexual eccentricity with fanaticism and official connections. Hanging in the balance is the fate of human habitation throughout the West — or maybe just peace and quiet in downtown Flagstaff.

This book is a bit of an experiment for me — and not just since it’s a venture into fiction for a writer established as a columnist and blogger. I was raised in an era when self-publishing — known as “vanity publishing” back then — was a sure sign of crappy writing by a self-indulgent author. That was sort of still the case a few years ago when I bounced early chapters of the book off of New York literary agents — only to receive enthusiastic responses for the writing, along with heartfelt assurances that the story was too regional to be picked up by publishers.

So I put the manuscript aside.

But recently — over the past year in particular — the do-it-yourself ethos has revolutionized the publishing industry. E-readers and print-on-demand have made it very attractive to bypass the traditional publishing houses. In fact, I no longer see a reason to go the traditional route at all. So, out of the drawer (well, an old folder on my laptop) the manuscript came, and I set to work revising and finishing the story. The biggest surprise may have been the extent to which technology has changed in just a few years, necessitating an important plot revision.

Then an old friend who works as an editor and knows my fiction from long-ago days in a Boston-based writers group offered to review the manuscript. And here we go. The Kindle version will be priced at $2.99. Paperback pricing has yet to be set.

I’ll post news of the novel, links for purchasing, and reactions thereto, here and on High Desert Barbecue‘s Facebook page.

If the upcoming book piques your interest at all, please feel free to pass along the information.

Don’t shrug off ‘Atlas Shrugged’

It can be painful to anticipate seeing the film version of a book you enjoy — especially a “difficult” book that requires a lot of massaging to make it ready for the silver screen. The pain level can only be exacerbated when the movie is made on a small budget by an acolyte of the book who may have a different vision than you, or even lack the savvy and resources to carry the project through in a professional way. So, when my buddy told me that Atlas Shrugged was coming to Sedona, I … well … shrugged and told myself that, if it sucked, at least we’d grab a few drinks after the showing.

I’m happy to say that Atlas Shrugged is a good movie. It’s not perfect, by any means, but it’s professionally done, and does credit to the book while remaining watchable. The cinematography isn’t just Hollywood-worthy, it’s beautiful. The story builds at a good pace and it grabbed my attention — perhaps a testimony to the moviemakers’ skill in trimming down some of Ayn Rand’s excesses without losing the message and urgency of the book. Also the characters struck me as more human and accessible than their printed-page versions, both in their motivations and their conduct — that’s important not just for the heroes, but for the villains, who I found less cardboard-y on screen than in the book.

The feel of a crumbling America propped up by a dwindling class of producers is well-captured by backdrops to scenes, newscasts and conversations among the characters

Now, the weaknesses… Of course, it’s didactic. Even shorn of a few of Rand’s beat-it-to-death hammer-blows, Atlas Shrugged remains a political story, and that either works for you or it doesn’t. The audience started tittering after a few repetitions of “who is John Galt?” But that may be a product of the cultural familiarity that the phrase has acquired — the giggles died down after a while. I know that I grew more comfortable with the phrase as an expression of fatalistic resignation in the movie’s near-future setting.

The acting, while generally good, had a few week spots. Taylor Schilling comes off a bit lightweight and wooden as Dagny Taggart. I thought Grant Bowler was good as Hank Rearden, but my buddy thought he had an off scene or two before hitting his stride. The rest of the cast is heavily salted with familiar Hollywood character actors who do an excellent job of projecting despairing good or weaselly evil, as required. Michael O’Keefe pops up, very nicely, in the small role of Hugh Akston. By and large, the cast fills out the characters’ presence in a way that Rand’s writing sometimes didn’t.

And sometimes, there was no getting past Rand’s dialogue. Let’s face it, Atlas Shrugged is a compelling book because of the story she told, not so much because of the dialogue.

But let me sum it up this way: Atlas Shrugged is better and more enjoyable (a key point!) than most Nicolas Cage movies, at a fraction of the budget.

Sadly, Atlas Shrugged didn’t come to Sedona as a regular booking. It was a special one-night event sponsored by the Sedona Tea Party, and advertised largely through the group’s email list. Even so, 115 people turned out. Although you can probably expect a healthy future of DVD and streaming-video rentals for the flick, the movie seems to have lost its initial steam, and special showings like this are mostly going to preach to the choir.

Speaking of choir … This was the first Tea Party even I’ve attended, and yes, the gathering did include a prayer, as well as a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Interestingly, the president of the local group, a local businesswoman, was careful to remain non-partisan in her political statements, and inclusive in her religious ones — to the point of acknowledging alternative and non-traditional views, and describing her own views as such. She also claimed to have read Atlas Shrugged about two dozen times.

I walked away with the impression that the local Tea Party group is older (at 45, I was on the youngish side in the room) and generally conservative, but with a strong libertarian presence. The age range may be an artifact of Sedona, which is where slightly artsy wealthy people go to get all new-agey and then die. And the libertarian tone is, happily, to be expected in this state, nativist convulsions not withstanding.

So, if you get a chance, go see Atlas Shrugged. And don’t see it as a chore or a duty, but as a movie you might well enjoy. And keep your fingers crossed for parts 2 and 3.

Obama for … Pope?

Renegade historian Thaddeus Russell forwards this delightful little tidbit from White House cheerleader … errr … journalist Kevin Drum of Mother Jones.

Obama has been a disappointment on civil liberties and national security issues, but since I frankly don’t think any modern president can buck the national security establishment in any significant way, I haven’t held that too deeply against him. The escalation in Afghanistan has been unfortunate too, but he did warn us about that. The scope of both his conventional escalation and his soaring use of drone attacks in the AfPak region have been disheartening, but it’s hard to complain when he made it so clear during the campaign that he intended to do exactly that.

But now we have Libya. ….

So what should I think about this? If it had been my call, I wouldn’t have gone into Libya. But the reason I voted for Obama in 2008 is because I trust his judgment. And not in any merely abstract way, either: I mean that if he and I were in a room and disagreed about some issue on which I had any doubt at all, I’d literally trust his judgment over my own. I think he’s smarter than me, better informed, better able to understand the consequences of his actions, and more farsighted. I voted for him because I trust him, and I still do.

So, let me get this straight. Drum disagrees with Obama on virtually everything the president has done regarding civil liberties and foreign policy — with the shiny, new war in Libya being just the cherry on top — and he still deferentially bangs his head on the floor because he “literally trust[s] his judgment over my own.” This is basically the doctrine of papal infallibility, isn’t it? The words and policies coming out of the man may be monstrous, but we have to go along because of his direct line to righteousness!

Oh yeah, that kind of tribal, follow-the-leader deference is just inspiring to watch.

Note to any remaining Bushies: Your fanatical devotion to Dear Leader is no longer an embarrassing national outlier.

Time to freshen up the New York Times?

In a shocking move for employees of a New York-based publication, Foster Kamer and Tim Heffernan of Esquire‘s Politics blog have come up with a proposal to improve the New York Times that would actually improve the New York Times.

The conceit of the piece is that, with Bob Herbert and Frank Rich tottering off to spout left-of-center-establishment-stroking platitudes elsewhere, it’s time to thoroughly revamp the gray lady’s op-ed page. There’s a long list of improvements to be made, but the three that stand out for me are suggestions that Frank Rich be replaced by Glenn Greenwald, Maureen Dowd be eighty-sixed in favor of Megan McArdle, and Ross Douthat be retired in favor of Radley Balko. Yes, I often disagree with Greenwald — but he’s a rare liberal who holds to consistent standards and applies them to his nominal allies. He’s also excellent on civil liberties. McArdle can be a little frustrating, but she thinks even uncomfortable topics through without mailing in her pieces. And Balko is, of course, just excellent, and deserves an even more prominent spot than his upcoming gig at the Huffington Post.

Kamer and Heffernan would also slide Paul Krugman off into retirement, substituting Bruce Bartlett in his place. Since even a Magic Eight-Ball would be an improvement on Krugman, that strikes me as a fine idea.

I can’t agree with letting Warren Buffett take Joe Nocera’s spot — do we really need to hear anything more from Buffett? — but overall, it’s an interesting proposal that would definitely spice up the undead corpse of the old establishment mouthpiece.

Wikileaks apparently not welcome around these parts

I don’t really fear that the apparent abandonment of Wikileaks by U.S.-based host Amazon.com — presumably under government pressure — really means the end of the excellent anti-state, whistle-blower organization. Truthfully, the sudden denial of hosting services seems like a petulant playground kick in a world of potential alternatives, many of them far beyond the reach of embarrassed American politicians (apparently, the group moved back to Sweden, according to NPR).

Isn’t that telling, though? Governments are reduced to symbolically shuttering Websites for a few days, leaving the actual whistle-blowers and their desire to expose information otherwise untouched. Supposedly, Julian Assange and company have a stash of bank-related documents slated for their next expose. In the unlikely event that they can’t get the Website up and running again, what’s to stop them from zipping and emailing the data to media organizations and bloggers, just as they did the U.S. diplomatic cables? Or I suppose they could go so far as to print the juicy data or save it to thumb drives and physically hand it to people likely to spread the information further.

Ultimately, Wikileaks is about the desire to expose compromising secrets, not about maintaining Websites. And Wikileaks is just one incarnation of that push for transparency — taking the Website, the organization or its leader out of the picture only shifts the action elsewhere.

Beat the crap out of him, Danno

Am I the only one who tuned into the the new Hawaii Five-0 to see Grace Park in a bikini, only to be creeped out by the Gestapo-ish, thuggish, statist undertone to the whole cops-under-the-sun enterprise?

The tone was set in the first episode when the elite police unit headed by former Navy SEAL Steve McGarrett was essentially handed carte blanche by the governor of Hawaii (played by Jean Smart) to solve crimes. How could that go wrong? Since then, McGarrett, Danno and the crew have engaged in such interesting means of inducing cooperation in suspects as dumping a man in a cage surrounded by sharks far out in the ocean. In the same episode, McGarrett helps Danno prevail in a custody fight by getting the governor to lean on the new husband of Danno’s ex-wife.

Yeah. Using political connections to intervene in courtroom family disputes is just so cool.

And I just watched an episode (on DVR) in which McGarrett and company sidelined a team of kidnapping and ransom specialists hired by an American diplomat whose daughter had been kidnapped, just because. They then arrested the chief specialist (after rescuing the daughter, of course) because … he’s a competitor? I’m still not really clear on that point.

Grace Park still looks awesome in a bikini, but every time the show theme music cranks up, I find myself bracing to see the team whip out thumbscrews or steal a box of doughnuts — because nothing can stand in the way of suntanned justice!

Yeah, Dirty Harry did it, but there was always a big issue at stake. Not just the intimation that people who tangle with cops in even the pettiest way deserve to get stomped.

No, really. Hawaii Five-0 has turned into an ongoing abuse of power amidst nice scenery. With Grace Park (well, I guess “scenery” could cover her, but she deserves a specific mention). I guess I could just turn off the sound, but isn’t that what Internet porn is for?

Just how hermetically sealed is New York’s insular political culture?

In the September 20 issue of New York magazine, there’s a brief piece by Dan Amira called “Tea House 2011.” Touted in the table of contents as a look at “lesser-known lunatics of the tea party,” the article is supposed to be a peek at the beyond-the-pale madmen who “are operating out of the national spotlight this campaign season.” These aspiring members of Congress get a tiny photo, a brief bio, and a few words on the unquestionable insanity they espouse, to which we’ll all supposedly be subject should the Tea Party get its way come November. Their craziness is taken as so obvious that no analysis is required once their opinions are stated.

And sure enough, of the exactly six would-be congresscritters profiled in this article, there’s an honest-to-God … well … apparent birther in the mix. He’s running for Colorado’s Fourth District. Cory Gardner is also the least outsidery of the bunch, considering that he’s already a state legislator.

But two of the “lesser-known lunatics” are on the list because they (drumroll please) question Social Security and Medicare. Todd Young, running for Indiana’s Ninth District, “[r]eferred to Social Security as a ‘Ponzi scheme.'” And Jesse Kelly, running in Arizona’s Eighth District, “said he ‘would love to eliminate’ Social Security and eventually end Medicare.” He’s also opposed to the minimum wage.

Uh huh. So of the six crazier-than-crazy Tea Party candidates profiled by New York for their “lunacy,” two of them are in there for positions that are widely held by professional economists. Wikipedia’s entry on the minimum wage summarizes surveys finding that as many as “90 percent of the economists surveyed agreed that the minimum wage increases unemployment among low-skilled workers” and “46.8% wanted it completely eliminated.” Similar surveys of economists find that they consider Social security a mess — 85.3 percent agree that “the gap between Social Security funds and expenditures will become unsustainably large within the next fifty years if current policies remain unchanged.” And Hell, even Michael Kinsley agrees it’s a Ponzi scheme (although he thinks that’s OK). And it’s hard to defend Medicare when the program is widely used as an example of a government scheme run amok.

But, in polite New York circles, criticizing Social Security, Medicare and minimum wage laws is just not done — to the point that anybody who ventures in that direction is considered laughable

From time to time, I miss the sophistication of my old digs. But whenever I get to hankering for exotic restaurants, creative theater and innovative arts in my home town, all I need for a cure is a reminder of the … well … lunatics who run the show there.

Journolist leaks: a great reason to drop media neutrality claims

With the exception of Spencer Ackerman’s incredibly stupid and unethical scheme to randomly accuse  conservatives of racism, the latest Journolist revelations from The Daily Caller aren’t all that shocking. Ackerman’s modest proposal was this:

If the right forces us all to either defend Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they’ve put upon us. Instead, take one of them — Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares — and call them racists.

Ackerman specifically wanted to use charges of racism as a weapon against conservatives who were raising questions about then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s relationship with the loony Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

[F]ind a rightwinger’s [sic] and smash it through a plate-glass window. Take a snapshot of the bleeding mess and send it out in a Christmas card to let the right know that it needs to live in a state of constant fear. Obviously I mean this rhetorically.

That willingness to level unfounded accusations in service to a political cause really should get Ackerman fired and render him unemployable.

But the other members of the list seemed, according to The Daily Caller’s quotes, to be more interested in burying the story, or protesting its coverage via an open letter. That’s the sort of thing like-minded people do in support of one of their own. As Alex Pareene snarkily puts it in Salon, “This sort of campaign doesn’t work when you’re trying to discredit avowed liberal commentators by proving that they secretly hold liberal beliefs.”

Why should anybody be surprised that liberal pundits discuss strategy for defending their ideas and promoting their pet candidates? Katha Pollitt and Todd Gitlin share ideas on how to sell lefty programs and politicians? What a surprise!

But not everybody on the list is “out” as an opinion journalist or professional applier of spin to news stories. Some of the participants are supposed to be objective/unbiased/establishment journalists. To the extent that they participated in these conversations, they undermine their supposed neutrality.

The solution should be obvious: Drop bullshit claims about the unbiased nature of the news media. If journalists come clean about their affiliations and biases — they don’t have to abandon their professionalism, but just admit to the fact that their opinions do, inevitably, color their work — then there’s little risk of embarrassment from leaked emails and discussions.

After all, nobody actually believes that journalists steadfastly keep their opinions out of their work. A little honesty wouldn’t just insulate them from Journolist-style leaks — it would improve their credibility.

David Weigel and the limits of newspaper political culture

Let me just get this out of the way: David Weigel should have known better. He’s a journalist, for Christ’s sake — a digger-out of that which others intend to be un-dug. As such, he has no right to complain when somebody reveals his “private” correspondence — actually semi-private emails passed among a closed group of liberal-ish scribblers.

And Weigel admits he should have known better, describing the conservative-bashing emails he shared on Journolist while covering the broadly defined political right for the Washington Post as “stupid and arrogant.”

But the real fault lies with the Washington Post, for choosing as its “inside observer” of “the right” a journalist who was, at most, libertarian-leaning (not a recommendation among many conservatives), and never really very ideological at all, to judge by his writing. That choice probably has everything to do with the rather insular culture at many major newspapers — a culture that would be frankly uncomfortable with a committed libertarian or conservative. Because of that culture, the Post probably found the not-so-ideological Weigel a palatable hire, and the young journalist with incompletely formed ideas likely found it easy to get along to go along and adjust to his new home — an accommodation that most of us tend to make when inserted into new surroundings.

I have first-hand, though limited, experience of newsroom culture from my brief tenure as senior editor of the online edition of the New York Daily News. Although my stay there came to an end largely because of a personality clash with one of Mort Zuckerman’s more-obnoxious relations, my politics clearly set me apart. Both in personal discussions and through the exposure provided by a short-lived online column, my views became known and a point of contention among my largely liberal colleagues. To judge by the reaction, I might as well have had horns and a tail — and I’m a pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage, pro-drug-legalization libertarian; a conservative would probably have been burned in effigy in the lobby.

After that, I was dropped from consideration for a job at the New Century Network — an early effort to aggregate newspapers on the Web. The editor tossed my resume explicitly because of my “scary” politics, which were on display in the Daily News columns as well as in my civil liberties columns for About.com. (I got the heads-up from a sympathetic junior editor who let me in on the behind-the-scenes discussions in an email exchange.)

You can decide for yourself whether I’m “scary,” but this was a revelation to me after welcoming environments at the tech publisher Ziff-Davis, and at a financial consulting outfit.

I’ve been out of circulation, newsroom-wise, for many years now, but I doubt the nice folks at the Washington Post are much more comfortable with libertarians or conservatives than were the people at the New York Daily News. They needed somebody to cover “the right,” but I’m sure they also wanted that person to be … well … not “scary.”

Weigel has worked for Reason and interned at the Center for Individual Rights, so he had credible credentials for the job (at least from a libertarian perspective). But even in his most recent assertions of right-of-center bona fides, he consistently talks about affiliations rather than ideas.

I chose to go to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. It was there that I became editor of the campus’s weekly conservative paper, and became plugged into the campus conservative journalism network.

Was I really that conservative? Yes.

In his writing for Reason, he struck me not as the stealth liberal that some of his critics claim, but as a very conventional thinker — though one with a strong dose of tolerance and respect for civil liberties. I imagine that the combination of credentials and conventionality sat rather well at the Post.

Of course, it’s not necessary to be a member of a group in order to cover that group — but it is unhelpful to be revealed as despising the people, ideas and organizations on whom you report. It’s no secret that people tend to adjust to their environments. A much-discussed book — The Big Sort — discussed how conservatives tend to move to conservative neighborhoods and then become really conservative, and liberals tend to move to liberal neighborhoods where they become really liberal. I would think that a young journalist without a strong ideology, dropped into the prevailing culture of a major newsroom, would find it easy to go with the flow. That’s especially true if he starts associating on Journolist with big-name writers he respects and wants to impress — and who are overtly hostile to the people Weigel has been hired to cover. It would have been — and apparently was — tempting to join in the slamming.

Add in a little poor judgment, and Weigel was set up for a fall.

I don’t think Weigel is toast — and, in fact, he’s landed a new gig at MSNBC where his recent misadventures may actually count in his favor. He’s young and has time to rebuild his career — though straight journalism may be a tough sell in the future. I wish him luck; he hasn’t done anything terrible enough to wish him otherwise and he’s obviously talented and hard-working. It’ll be interesting to see how or if his political ideas eventually gel.

As for the Washington Post … The people there need to take this as an object lesson in their cultural insularity and learn to venture just a little bit beyond their comfort zone.

No, really, communists are adorable!

Compare and contrast:

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby’s still-true observation that unrepentant communists are treated differently than unrepentant nazis, despite a remarkably similar track record on life, liberty and mass graves.

IF JOSÉ Saramago, the Portuguese writer who died on Friday at 87, had been an unrepentant Nazi for the last four decades, he would never have won international acclaim or received the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature. Leading publishers would never have brought out his books, his works would not have been translated into more than 20 languages, and the head of Portugal’s government would never have said on his death — as Prime Minister José Sócrates did say last week — that he was “one of our great cultural figures and his disappearance has left our culture poorer.’’

But Saramago wasn’t a Nazi, he was a communist. And not just a nominal communist, as his obituaries pointed out, but an “unabashed’’ (Washington Post), “unflinching’’ (AP), “unfaltering’’ (New York Times) true believer. …

With the Boston-area readers’ furious insistence in the comments that communists really mean well, but seem to have been led astray a few times.

Communism is a textbook example of a concept good at heart corrupted by the sociopaths who put it into practice. Marx would not have imagined leaders such as Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot murdering millions of their own citizens to achieve a dictatorship of the proletariat. …

None of the regime Jacoby mentions are actually communist, they are perversions of the ideology. Communism is not supposed to have a dictator, it is supposed to be rule by the masses. …

You have based your argument on two demonstrably false propositions: 1) I have known good and decent people who were and are a credit to their communities yet who happened to be Marxists. I only need to have known one, and that countermands your entire thesis. 2) One could argue that religion and empire, each or together, have resulted in more homicides than any other “cause”. I’m not sure it’s much of a sporting contest, and indeed one could weakly argue that Marxism is both a religion and empire. Nevertheless, neither capitalism nor free enterprise have proven to be social panaceas …

I lived in Boston for five years, and the area really is overrun with totalitarian dipshits who think that communism deserves another try, but this time with feeling. Most of them are Cambridge-based, of course, giving me yet another reason to resist ever springing for Harvard tuition for my kid (you, too, can fork over fifty grand a year so your kid can learn to pine for a properly regimented society).

Jacoby’s piece reminds me of a misty-eyed April 12, 1990, New York Times laugh riot, titled, “Political Idealists Trying to Hold Back the Night,” about a failing retirement home populated by aging communists with a lingering nostalgia for Lenin. Oddly, the Times piece, while still appearing as a search engine result, has apparently been scrubbed from the site.

Note: MetaThought points out that the Times piece on a retirement home full of old reds is available here, so my inability to pull it up may have been a temporary glitch (or personal incompetence).