An Assembly of Pieces

James Anderson Merritt's piecemeal thoughts and observations, and the occasional attempt to put some of the pieces together.
Write to James!

All material except cited quotations Copyright (C) 2004-2008 by James Anderson Merritt. All rights reserved.
Friday, April 26, 2002

I actually did send the following letter, concerning recently-passed faux "campaign-finance" reform, to my local paper, and it was printed in the January 30th Santa Cruz Sentinel. Unfortunately, I signed it with my full name and they somehow omitted my surname. Oh well...

January 23
Big government always corrupt

The Sentinel promotes campaign-finance reform to help us avoid future Enron-type fiascoes.

Yet for decades, campaigns have operated under layers of regulation enacted to prevent corruption. Clever lobbyists and politicians always find ways around the rules.

Reformers now demand additional restrictions, although modern candidates already need considerable funding and organization simply to ensure compliance with campaign laws or eligibility for matching funds.

If passed, Sen. John McCain’s reforms won’t be the last, but history suggests that "machine politicians" will be better able to withstand challenges from independent and third-party candidates.

Companies like Enron court politicians because citizens let government commit billions of tax dollars to boondoggles and "bailout" schemes, and to micromanage individual behavior. Could Enron have fleeced California so thoroughly without politicians to establish a captive market and enforce counterproductive rules masquerading as "deregulation?"

While we were still dazed from the Sept. 11 attacks, politicians quietly rescinded the right of Californians to choose their own electricity suppliers, only months after locking the state into expensive, long-term contracts. That’s power! New regulatory obstacles may thwart some lobbyists, but those who can beat a tougher system will be capable of using government to help them grab more undeserved wealth than Enron ever could.

Libertarians correctly observe that real campaign reform can come only from reducing the power and wealth controlled by government. Ask yourself: Has big government, given us by Democrats and Republicans alike, ever protected us as effectively as its inevitable corruption and failure have hurt?



Thursday, April 25, 2002
Back in May of 2001, my local paper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, ran an editorial concerning the Supreme Court's then-recent ruling that there is no "medical necessity defense" against the federal Controlled Substances Act. I never sent the following response, but only because I couldn't squeeze it down to their 250-word limit. I'm proud to publish it here now:

Wednesday May 16th, 2001

To the Editor:

In today’s editorial on the Supreme Court's Medical Marijuana ruling, the Santa Cruz Sentinel describes the public as “uncomfortable” with drug legalization. On the same page, Janie Adams' letter reminds us that government continues to commit the same types of costly policy errors that led good men like Bob Kerry to do bad things in Vietnam.

Although we were able to end the Vietnam War after only fifteen years or so, the Drug War -- another costly policy error in the minds of many -- continues into its thirty-first year with a renewed commitment by President Bush.

Alcohol Prohibition was another costly policy error. Only ending it outright enabled friends, families, communities, the doctors of the body, and the ministers to the soul to address the real problems of alcohol abuse. Only those same groups can fight drug abuse. Prohibition showed us that government and law enforcement cannot win this kind of "War." Drugs won’t be conquered in the battlefields of urban streets or South American jungles. This struggle really takes place -- and can only be won -- on an individual basis in the human heart.

We fear drug legalization because of the harm that drugs may do to us, our families, and our communities; yet we are geatly harming ourselves by waging an unwinnable war on drugs. I wonder: How can legalization of even the most harmful drugs be worse than innocents being shot down over Peru, or gunned down in their bedrooms during mistaken no-knock raids, or having their valuable property seized and lives ruined without ever having been convicted of a crime? Hundreds of thousands of people have learned criminal ways while imprisoned for non-violent drug law violations. People are dying while the Supreme Court unanimously upholds the law that impedes their access to helpful medication. News reports of such incidents are ever more frequent. All this and more, in the name of “saving us” from drugs.

I believe that the justices are good men and women, who want to preserve liberty. In a way, I can actually appreciate the logic of their decision. But will they, a decade or two from now, regret their actions in the Drug War, as Kerry regrets Vietnam War misdeeds?

-James Anderson Merritt

Wednesday, April 24, 2002
Here is something I wrote to the auteurs of O Brother Where Art Thou?, just to show that somebody was paying attention. No response yet from Joel or Ethan...

January 28, 2002

Joel & Ethan Coen
C/O United Talent Agency
9560 Wilshire Blvd. #500
Beverly Hills CA 90212

Dear Sirs,

I finally caught O Brother, Where Art Thou? on cable last week. It was one of the most remarkable films I have seen in the past few years, and I wanted to thank you for making it. I especially enjoyed the integration of memorable, sometimes haunting music with dreamlike pictures. I grew up in the age of rock and roll, occasionally hearing my father sing or whistle music from the period and place in which your movie is set, but not really “getting” his fondness for those “old hillbilly tunes.” In a strange way, I think I am now a bit closer to understanding, thanks to your movie, and you.

I know that your movie was not intended to be realistic; for so many reasons, O Brother seems like an extended dream sequence. Still, an obvious anachronism can jolt me awake, and make me wonder if it were placed deliberately, so as to produce an effect that is lost on me. I’m speaking specifically of the dialog spoken by Everett as he walks into the middle-of-nowhere radio station WEZY: “Who’s the honcho around here?”

When I was a kid, growing up in California, I assumed honcho was a Spanish word. Had I seen O Brother back then, I still might have wondered why a southern man was using southwestern slang. But as I found out in college, honcho is actually a far-eastern word, originally from Chinese, which came into American slang with GIs returning from WWII’s Pacific Theatre and the Korean War. You might just as well have had the sirens washing their pantyhose at the river. In fact, had you done so, I would have looked for some hidden meaning in the discrepancy. In this and other films of yours, I have seen you two take great care with (and, in the dialog of characters like Everett, show much affection for) words. So I am writing now, to ask if there was a point to Everett’s use of honcho, perhaps in connection with other anachronisms that I missed. If O Brother had been the usual Hollywood product, by the typical corporate team, I would simply have assumed that someone just missed this small detail. But as little in O Brother was simply what it seemed, I am wondering if that’s not also true about the appearance of honcho. I hope you can find time to satisfy my curiosity concerning this matter. Thanks for your time and attention, and please keep making movies.

Sincerely, James Anderson Merritt

Sunday, April 21, 2002
Billions and billions of blogs, the author of each a star in his or her own mind. That is the online world's apparent direction, one that seemed clear, even inevitable, during the years when I was a Forum Host for America Online. As Host, I posted original messages and articles, reposted news and views found elsewhere, policed the posts of others, and ran live chats in their News Channel's Libertarian Party Forum, which I helped to found back in 1995.

By the time I left, just after the US Presidential elections of 2000, being an AOL Forum Host was less about adding one's individual voice and perspective to the online community (which would in turn attract subscribers), and more about creating a consistent, corporately-approved online experience (which would more reliably retain subscribers). By November of 2000, the position of AOL host entailed -- for me at least -- all of the hassle of having a part-time job, while providing none of the pay or perks. (I never even got a paper hat for this McJob!) I figured there had to be a better way for me to share news and views with other thoughtful people online. So I left, and have never looked back.

While I was waiting to discover a better way for me to be online (or for it to be developed!), I took the opportunity to live my life: spending time with my wife and son, pursuing other hobbies, even resting occasionally. Mind you, I had demanding, full-time jobs all along, and I also never quit using email or the web, so this postponement of online activity was neither a retirement nor a vacation. But it nevertheless often seemed like both. Not having to be responsible for enforcing some mega-corporation's "terms of service" or square off with belligerents in a chat room was indeed a sort of holiday for me.

Having thoroughly enjoyed my post-AOL time, I vowed not to return to the online world unless it could be on my own "terms of service." Additionally, I realized that I no longer wanted to confine my online activity or comments even within the abstract limits of an ideological context, such as libertarianism. My views and opinions are my own, and my life experiences and interests go far beyond some political label. I don't want to be censored (or to censor myself!) for being "off topic."

Now, blogging is all the rage. It seems to offer opinionated people like myself a chance to speak their minds to (and interact with) a potentially wide public, without imposing unreasonable burdens on readers or writers. In many ways, the state of blogging now reminds me of the state of AOL back in the early 90s. With luck, blogging can continue to be more about the value offered by the people with something to say, and less about the value that content publishers seek to extract from consumers. We'll see.

There is also the question of relevance. As I mentioned at the start, we're moving toward an online cosmos of "billions and billions" of blogs. Whatever light my little candle may emit could well be completely lost in the brilliance of the larger online "blogiverse." Beyond that, who the hell cares what I think -- why should they care? I guess we'll see that, too. The one thing I do miss from my Forum Host days is meeting and getting to know people through thoughtful discussion. I was fortunate in the old AOL days to catch the interest and inspire the active engagement of quite a few; I am hopeful that will happen again.

Thanks for reading this far. If this or anything else I write here inspires you to respond, or if you are one of those people who got to know me on AOL as "Presbyte" and who'd like to re-establish contact, please send email:


  This page is powered by Blogger, the easy way to update your web site.  

Home  |  Archives