For the Al: Russ Roberts

October 31, 2017

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

One of the underlying themes in awarding The Al Copeland Humanitarian Award, particularly in recent years, has been highlighting a virtue or norm that our present society lacks but desperately needs. As Jay wrote, last year’s winner (Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds) demonstrated the “type of courage in the face of illiberalism that we need more of in these times.” In 2015, the winner (Ken M) “reveal[ed] the ridiculousness of people trying to change the world by arguing with people on the internet.”

This year’s nominees have been no exception. Jay’s nominees appear to be using humor and pop culture to restore some sense of morality in a nihilistic age. Greg’s nominee made great sacrifices to honor the truth and expose both the evil of totalitarianism and the corruption of our ruling class. And Matt’s nominee literally saved the world by refusing to follow orders.

My nominee is economist Russ Roberts of the Hoover Institution, host of the popular EconTalk podcast and author of numerous books including How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life. He didn’t save the world (so far as I know), but he exemplifies many virtues and habits that the world needs today.

In an age when talking heads, radio shock jocks, and Twitter twits confidently bloviate about every matter under the sun, and in which self-proclaimed “experts” and technocrats believe they can run your life better than you can, Roberts demonstrates personal and epistemic humility.

In an era in which TV debates consist primarily of shouting over each other while trading insults, and in which college students frequently shout down or even assault speakers with whom they disagree, Roberts consistently engages in civil and reasoned discourse.

In a time when our attention spans seem to be precipitously shortening, when big ideas are expected to be expressed in 140 characters, when “tl;dr” is a supposedly valid excuse for expressing an opinion about something one hasn’t even bothered to read first, Roberts delivers each week a master class in the art of the substantive interview — getting past the talking points’ sizzle and down to the meat of the matter.

In a generation in which social-media navel-gazing has become our nation’s pastime, self-esteem is unearned, and the number of Twitter followers passes as a measure of achievement and influence, Roberts reminds us of Adam Smith’s wise counsel: it is not enough to be loved, we must also strive to be lovely.

And in moment in which we are obsessed with politics and the political has invaded every aspect of our lives, Roberts turns his — and our — attention to the infinitely diverse and fascinating things in this world that we inhabit.

If you don’t already subscribe to his podcast, do yourself a favor and do so right now. (Go ahead, we’ll wait.) Recent topics have included meditation and mindfulness, technological advances and their effect on our lives and culture, income inequality, philanthropy, self-driving cars, the evolution of language, internet bullying, permissionless innovation, and more. He also draws the highest-quality guests, including (to cite a few well-known recent guests in no particular order) John McWhorter, Megan McArdle, Michael Munger, Nassim Taleb, Tyler Cowen, Sally Satel, Martha Nussbaum, Cass Sunstein and many more. He regularly invites guests with whom he disagrees and yet he is never disagreeable. He never asks “gotcha” questions, talks over his guest, or tries to score cheap political points. Instead, he asks insightful questions and gives his guests the space to make their case, pushing back at times but always thoughtfully and respectfully.

Russ Roberts is the teacher and role model we need now. He deserves The Al.

I’ll leave you with two videos he co-created — raps battle between economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek:

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Stanislav Petrov for the Al

October 17, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A few years ago I watched a documentary about just how close life as we know it nearly ended in 1983. If not for the fact that Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush and Barack Obama had not been interviewed in the piece, I would have had a very hard time believing the story (Gates worked in the CIA during the Reagan administration).

So humanity had a problem back in 1983. Many problems actually, but most acutely was the presence a heavily armed totalitarian communist empire with a vast nuclear arsenal and an ancient and insular leadership that more or less had lost touch with reality. During the first Reagan administration, the Soviet Union’s “intelligence community” and top leadership convinced themselves that President Reagan intended to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. It was an amazing and chilling example of group-think as even minor incidents were interpreted fully through the lens of confirmation bias. When for instance the United States increased security at embassies following the Beruit bombing it was seen, among many other things, as an “a-ha!” moment among the Soviets that the dastardly Americans planned to launch a nuclear strike. Mind you, it also shows that the ancient and insular Soviet leadership failed to grasp Reagan’s true and ultimately successful plan to spend their sclerotic economy into bankruptcy.

The Soviet intelligence community felt absolutely certain of this intent to attack despite the fact that it made no sense and despite the fact they had a spy at the highest levels of NATO insisting that there was zero sign of such an attack. The fact that their spy at the highest possible levels of NATO repeatedly insisted that there was no sign of an attack must have simply served of further proof of sinister imperialist intentions. Likewise, a highly placed western spy eventually reported back to NATO that the Soviets were convinced such a strike was coming, and people like Robert Gates had a very difficult time imagining such a thing to be possible. Have the Soviets lost their minds? Sadly they had.

On Sept. 26, 1983, during this hysteria, Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov was monitoring the satellite systems at Soviet Union’s Air Defense Forces when an alarm sounded announcing the launch of five American nuclear missiles. Protocol required Petrov to alert his superiors to the launch. The flight time of missles from the United States last only 20 minutes, and the ugly logic of “use it or lose it” in a scenario of Mutual Assured Destruction predominated Soviet military doctrine. “The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it,” Petrov related to the BBC in 2013. “There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike, but we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time, that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay. All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders — but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.”

Instead of following established protocol and risking global thermonuclear destruction, Petrov utilized his own judgement. Why would the United States launch five missiles? If the United States were going to launch a preemptive strike, five missiles made no sense. He suspected some sort of error- which in fact it was in the form of a unusual cloud formation that the Soviet system had mistaken for an apocalyptic launch. Fortunately for all of us, Petrov decided to turn the alarm off, not to notify his superiors, and to simply wait a few minutes to see whether or not an attack occurred.

Petrov’s reward for saving the planet-an official reprimand from his “superiors.” A badge of honor to be sure, and it beat the living daylights out of the alternative. The Soviets btw kept their insane theory about a preemptive American attack until the completion of a NATO training exercise known as Operation Able Archer.

The conclusion of the NATO training exercise made it abundantly clear, even to the dimmest Soviet bulbs, that they had deluded themselves into a very dangerous hysteria. A few years later a younger Soviet leader began negotiating an end to the Cold War. The world survives a near brush with nuclear apocalypse: roll credits! This however was no Hollywood fable, it actually happened.

Petrov lived in obscurity for most of the remainder of his life, until news of just how close the Soviets were to going full 99 luftballoons came to light, whereupon he became known as “the man who saved the world.” The single sane man managed to thwart the insanity of a totalitarian bureaucracy died earlier this year in a Moscow suburb. Well done Stanislav and thank you. For choosing not to reach for that phone in what may have been the most crucial exercise of grace under pressure in history, I nominate Stanislav Petrov for a posthumous Al.

 

 


USA prepares to sell off half of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve because…why not?

May 24, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The legacy of Al Copeland Humanitarian Award winner George P. Mitchell just continues to grow and grow. President’s Trump’s budget proposal aims to sell off half of the United States 688 million barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve over the next ten years because…well…we don’t need it any more. We kind of don’t import oil these days. Especially if you consider the exchanges between the United States, Canada and Mexico’s integrated energy markets local rather than international. Read details here.

I can think of a few more assets Uncle Sam should sell…like the badly mismanaged great outdoors of the American West for instance.


For the Al: Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds

October 25, 2016

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(Guest post by (((Greg Forster))))

“They cannot all be Jews!”

The Battle of the Bulge, one of the largest battles in the largest war in world history, produced thousands of prisoners. Among the prisoners in the Stalag IXA camp were about one thousand men of the U.S. 422nd Infantry Regiment, who found themselves under the command of Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds – a non-com, but still the regiment’s most senior surviving member.

Last year, his son, Rev. Chris Edmonds, had his first full opportunity to share his father’s story with the world – by dumb luck, just a month too late for his father to participate in last year’s Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year Award process.

But The Al has a long memory, and it will take more than a little time to make it forget Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds.

By standing German policy, Jewish POWs were to be separated from the rest of the POW population. By this time, the largest of the death camps in the western theater were no longer in business, so most of these POWs were taken away to slave labor camps where they were, with less efficiency but no less contempt for their humanity, worked to death.

Speaking in English, the German camp commander – a Major Siegmann – approached the POWs of the 422nd. He ordered that all Jewish men were to fall out and stand in formation in front of the barracks, then went to await them.

Whereupon Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds ordered every man under his command to fall out and stand in formation in front of the barracks.

“I would estimate that there were more than 1,000 Americans standing in wide formation in front of the barracks with Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds standing in front, with several senior non-coms beside him, of which I was one,” recalls Lester Tanner, a Jewish member of the regiment.

Siegmann protested: “They cannot all be Jews!”

Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds replied: “We are all Jews here.”

Siegmann drew his sidearm and held it to Edmonds’ head.

Edmonds said: “According to the Geneva Convention, we only have to give our name, rank and serial number. If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.”

Siegmann, having been (in the words of the Jerusalem Post) “outfaced by Edmonds,” turned and walked away.

More than 200 of the prisoners were Jewish (all the time, that is, not just when Nazis were asking). Edmonds saved them all from near-certain death.

Chris Edmonds knew his father had spent 100 days in captivity, but had no idea anything like this had happened until he read a newspaper story a couple years ago about Richard Nixon’s post-presidency search for a New York home. The article mentioned Tanner, who sold Nixon his house, and included the story about his father. Chris Edmonds began tracking down Tanner and other corroborating evidence, culminating in Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds being named “righteous among the nations” by Yad Vashem last December. He is only the fifth American, and the first American serviceman, thus honored.

Just two weeks later, a more contemporary headline showed that the spirit of Roddie Edmonds lives on: “Muslims Protect Christians from Extremists in Kenya Bus Attack.” About a dozen heavily armed Somali terrorists captured a bus in El Wak, Kenya and demanded that the passengers disembark, with all Muslims moving to one side of the bus while Christians moved to the other side. But the Muslim passengers refused to cooperate, preventing a massacre. “These Muslims sent a very important message of the unity of purpose, that we are all Kenyans and that we are not separated by religion,” said Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery. “Everybody can profess their own religion, but we are still one country and one people.”

Tanner recalls of Edmonds: “He did not throw his rank around. You knew he knew his stuff and he got across to you without being arrogant or inconsiderate. I admired him for his command.”

Now, so do we all.


Remy for The Al Copeland Humanitarian Award

October 16, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

If you’ve never heard of Remy Munasifi (a.k.a. GoRemy), I feel sorry for you for two reasons: first, because you have until now been deprived of his comedic genius, and second, because you will get no work done for the rest of the day as you cycle through hilarious music video after even more hilarious music video.

Remy deserves to win the 2016 Al Copeland Humanitarian Award because, like previous winner “Weird Al” Yankovic, he has improved the human condition “by making us laugh at the the absurdity of many who think highly of themselves,” whether corrupt or vacuous politicians, incompetent or abusive government bureaucrats, clueless celebrities, inane media outlets, smug activists or Petty Little Dictators of all stripes.

If ever there were a year when we needed more of that, it’s 2016.

Remy is a thirty-something, Arab-American comedian who, like Weird Al, satirizes society and culture through parody music videos. His first video to go viral was his 2009 gangsta-rap parody of the lily-white “Whole Foods” culture of the D.C.-suburb, Arlington, Virginia–a video that racked up more than 300,000 views in one day and has now been seen more than 2.3 million times. His series of videos about Arab culture are even more popular–his video “Saudis in Audis” has more than 9.5 million views. However, much of Remy’s work is more explicitly political, although not partisan, particularly the videos he has produced for the libertarian ReasonTV.

For example, Remy’s “Cough Drops-The Mandate” mocks both Republicans and Democrats for the different ways in which they use government to intrude on our lives, and suggests to the viewer that perhaps we can solve many of our problems without getting the government involved.

But politicians and bureaucrats aren’t the only targets of his satire. Remy brutally mocks people who think they are saving the world on Twitter in “I Need a Hashtag!”:

Remy strikes a similar chord in “How to React to Tragedy.” In recent years, but particularly in 2016, we’ve seen a disturbing trend in the wake of tragedies as people rush to exploit them for their own political ends. Remy doesn’t spare either side:

Remy’s videos are striking not only for their clever wordplay and witty pop-culture allusions, but also for offering a taste of the highest form of social criticism. As the great political theorist Michael Walzer described in his seminal work Interpretation and Social Criticism, there are different types of social critics. The type favored in academia idealizes “radical detachment,” the social critic as “dispassionate stranger,” whose freedom from any attachment to the people whom he criticizes allows him the necessary emotional distance to speak painful but necessary truths. This form of criticism can be beneficial, but it can also lead the critic to despise the people whom he is criticizing, and they know it. That reduces the effectiveness of the critic, sometimes reducing the criticism to mere virtue signaling.

Another model is what Walzer calls the “connected critic,” who stands somewhat apart from the community and can therefore see it in ways that the masses often do not, but who is nevertheless “one of us.” As Walzer writes:

Perhaps he has traveled and studied abroad, but his appeal is to local or localized principles; if he has picked up new ideas on his travels, he tries to connect them to the local culture, building on his own intimate knowledge; he is not intellectually detached. Nor is he emotionally detached; he doesn’t wish the natives well, he seeks the success of their common enterprise.

As with blacks and Jews in America, Remy’s status as a native-born American-Arab in the post-9/11 world makes him an insider-outsider, giving him a perspective that is ripe for both comedy and social criticism. He combines them well. His comedy is biting, but not mean-spirited. His videos contain sharp indictments of the American government and society more generally, but you can sense in them a deep love for the ideals of America. He is not a Chomskyite social critic condemning America as irredeemably corrupt and founded upon the wrong values, but rather a connected critic, in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., calling on America to live up to its highest ideals.

Take, for example, “Why They Fought,” in which Remy contrasts the spirit of liberty for which American soldiers have fought and died against today’s domestic surveillance, airport security theater, pervasive and complex taxes, and mountains of micromanaging regulations (which are recurring themes, as the previous links attest).

 

As an Arab-American, he’s also an insider-outsider in relation to Arab society and culture. His satirical takes on Arab culture–from a hip-hop paean to hummus to an ode to grape leaves set to the tune of a Nirvana classic–are humorous and even loving. However, he satirizes institutions like arranged marriage, laws against women driving, niqabs, morality police, etc.–topics that many comedians fear to touch lest they be labeled a racist or Islamophobe. Coming from someone else, these critiques may have been seen as mean-spirited and fallen on deaf ears, but Remy has a following among people with Arab heritage. He even toured with other Arab-American comedians in the “Axis of Evil” tour as his alter ego, Habib Adbul Habib, who is “Baghdad’s worst comedian.”

 

Whether satirizing Arab or American culture, this Arab-American’s comedy holds up a mirror that exposes our worst selves but also calls on us to be our best selves. He is the comedian and social critic that America needs and deserves right now. Remy may not need to win The Al, but he certainly deserves it.

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BONUS MATERIAL. Here are a couple of Remy’s education-themed music videos that JayBlog readers will enjoy:

“Straight Outta Homeroom” on the absurdity of “zero tolerance” policies (think Pop Tart guns):

“Students United (Tuition Protest Song)” on clueless college students who can’t understand why the tuition at their fully loaded, theme-park campus is so expensive:

 


For the Al: Tim and Karrie League

October 12, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So tell me if you have ever had this experience- you find some time and think about going to a see a movie. No? Well you may have noticed that we dig movies here at JPGB so play along please…

Yes-okay so you want to see a movie, you go online to see what is playing, you look at the list of films currently screening at the movie houses you frequent and you think “blech I don’t want to see any of this” or some equivalent thereof.  Just how much we are held hostage to Hollywood became even more apparent to me a few years ago when I rented a house near Zilker Park in Austin for a month. Austin at the time had five Alamo Drafthouse sites in operation, which meant that there were a consistent barrage of older, offbeat and classic films to choose between. I took the kids to see E.T. and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for instance, both of which were more fun than the How to Train Your Dragon 2 meh stuff that Hollywood happened to be shoveling out that summer.

The Drafthouse, with their combination of zany programming and out of the box thinking has brought something crucial back to film- soul. Authentic community is a treasure in life, and you simply can’t get much more of it out of a big-box theater. It is therefore with great pleasure that I nominate the founders of the Drafthouse, Tim and Karrie League, for the prestigious Al Copeland Humanitarian Award for showing us a path forward to redeeming cinema from the tedium of the factory farm film making.*

Like many great things in life, this story starts in Texas at Rice University, where Tim studied Art History and Mechanical Engineering, and Karrie majored in Biology and French literature. What do you do with that? How about “revolutionize the movie going experience” for starters. After Rice, the two opened their first theater, a prototype called the Tejon in California in 1994.  Located on the wrong side of the tracks, the couple began to develop their carnival style in an attempt to lure people to the theater. They for instance got a live band to accompany a silent film (a later Drafthouse regular.) They brought a pig to a screening of Charlotte’s Web. Unable to obtain a liquor license for the Tejon, Tim and Karrie did what a great many sensible Californians do- packed up and moved to Austin Texas in 1997.

Tim and Karrie set up shop in a former parking garage in the Warehouse district in Austin. They got the liquor license that eluded them in California. The rest is history.

Starting as a single screen, small theatre, Austin fell deeply and passionately in love with the Drafthouse. Local directors started hosting film festivals there, followed by non-locals. Some of the non-local directors bought property and became locals.

Big box theaters noticed that the Drafthouse was earning about twice as much per person and started serving food and beer. That’s all well and good, but what makes the Drafthouse the Drafthouse is culture and programming.  Examples include Master Pancake Theater (three comedians mic up on the front row and ridicule a bad movie), Hecklevision (audience text ridicule at a bad movie which appears on the screen), Midnight Blaxploitation (good grief how did this stuff get made?), Sing Alongs and Rolling Road Shows.

So sing alongs, here’s one for the ladies:

and another for Queen fans who want to put on a Freddy Mercury mustache and scream their lungs out with their favorite songs:

You of course already know about rolling road shows like Jaws on the Water:

But they’ve also gone out and about. One of my favorites was a canoe trip with a screening of Deliverance on the shore after a long day of rowing and eating pig sandwiches. They have also gone to filming locations to screen classics:

The Drafthouse is also famous for dealing with certain transgressions firmly and quickly:

Which prompted this gem (NSFW):

which was followed by a similar incident when they had to throw a Sith Lord out:

Anyhoo- thank you Tim and Karrie for making film an absolute blast. I am counting down the days until the opening of Drafthouse Phoenix.

 

* You may choose to infer an education analogy from this post, but I couldn’t possibly comment.


For the Al: John Lasseter

November 1, 2015

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Deserve the Al Copeland Award? John Lasseter practically is the Al Copeland Award.

Improve the human condition? This man has not only reinvented movie animation technology, not to mention Hollywood’s business model. He has proven the superior power of the transcendent – the good, the true and the beautiful – in the marketplace of culture. He beat the purveyors of schlock, and he did it in the only way that really counts – by putting more asses in seats than they could. He didn’t defeat the schlockmeisters by shaming them, but by selling so many tickets that he ran them out of the marketplace. He proved that edifying culture can sell, which is another way of saying it can survive and sustain itself. He and the circle of people clustered around him are almost the only people left in Hollywood who know how to tell an edifying story, and they are literally the only people left who can tell an edifying story that appeals to everyone across all our cultural boundaries.

As I recently argued at some length, they are in the process of saving American civilization.

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Courtesy of the Onion

There are basically two kinds of Al winners – inventor/entrepreneurs and champions of unpopular causes. They’re either David going up against Goliath, or they’re Elijah calling down fire on the lonely altar. Lasseter is both.

Inventor/entrepreneur? Lasseter dreamed for all his boyhood of working for Disney, and by some miracle he got himself chained to a drafting table deep in the bowels of the Disney dungeon, slaving away as the tenth assistant drawer of left pinkies . . . and then promptly got himself fired from his dream job for taking an interest in computer animation just at a moment when (unbeknownst to him) one of his superiors had decided the future lay elsewhere.

Perhaps because computers would eliminate people like him and elevate people like Lasseter? Can’t have that! Just like any good Al winner, John Lasseter saw the future, and he didn’t care whose cushy job was threatened by it.

So, cast out of the only company he ever wanted to work for, Lasseter chased down the future and seized it by the throat, and made it sing so loud and so beautifully that twenty years later, Disney came crawling back to him and begged him not just to come back, but to take over all their animated movie making, oversee design of all their theme park rides, and direct a good chunk of their other stuff to boot.

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Mr. Incredible, second from the right, poses with some less impressive heroes

Now, all that would be Al-worthy if Lasseter’s innovations were merely technical. And it is hard, now, to remember that back in 1995 the thing that everyone thought was revolutionary about Toy Story was the technology.

But Lasseter’s innovation is as much the way his movie studio runs. He has figured out how to run a team of creative people in such a way that it not only produces material that is simultaneously artisitcally and commercially successful, but does so with sufficient regularity and reliability that you can pitch it to investors. He has taken the Muses to the bank.

And they really are the Muses. Lasseter and his people are not just “artistically and commercially successful.” They are bringing the transcendent things – the good, the true and the beautiful – back into the center of American culture.

Lasseter is as much a deserving Al winner as the champion of unpopular causes as he is so as an inventor/entrepreneur.

And what causes they are! If some have won the Al by standing up for this or that cause which is unpopular, but is nonetheless one of the keys to maintaining our justice, virtue and freedom as a people, Lasseter has stood up for just about all of the causes that are unpopular, but necessary for our justice, virtue and freedom:

  • Do not make your own happiness the aim of your life (Inside Out)
  • Love means putting other people’s needs ahead of yours (Frozen)
  • Accept your mortality (Toy Story 2)
  • Honor the superiority of exceptional talent (The Incredibles)
  • Manhood involves fatherhood (UP)
  • Womanhood involves motherhood (Brave)
  • Let your children take risks and grow up (Finding Nemo)
  • Don’t envy your brother (Toy Story)
  • Legitimate government rests on justice and popular consent (Toy Story 3)
  • Those who live for nothing but pleasure are fit for nothing but slavery (WALL-E)
  • Work your ass off, and be content with a family and your daily bread (Princess and the Frog)
  • Beauty transcends both nature and custom (Ratatouille)
  • Technology is for solving problems, not imposing your will on others (Big Hero 6)

No one else teaches these things and is listened to receptively by all sectors of society. Without this man, what hope would there be for these values in the long term? No, seriously, tell me. I’ll wait.

Two more Al-worthy accomplishments:

Lasseter is almost single-handedly responsible for the English language translation of the beautiful works of Hayao Miyazaki, who was practically unknown over here until Lasseter introduced us to him.

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And Lasseter would be, if he won, the first Al winner to outdo the award’s illustrious namesake in tasteful shirts.

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Lasseter owns over 1,000 Hawaiian shirts and wears one every day.

You can’t ask for a clearer avatar of the Spirit of Al Copeland!