Mar 212003

To my surprise and delight, Michael Blowhard exhumes one of my favorite novels, Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, describing its protagonist, one Samuel Glick, née Shmelka Glickstein, as an “unprincipled, asslicking, domineering, will-do-anything-to-succeed Hollywood hustler.” All that and more: Sammy is a force of nature. The book opens with seventeen-year-old Sammy at the newspaper office running copy, and when Sammy runs copy, he runs copy:

The boss told me Sammy was getting a three-week tryout. But Sammy did more running around that office in those three weeks than Paavo Nurmi did in his whole career. Every time I handed him a page of copy, he ran off with it as if his life depended on it. I can still see Sammy racing between the desks, his tie flying, wild-eyed, desperate…

“Hey, kid, take it easy.”

This was like cautioning Niagara to fall more slowly.

“You said rush, Mr. Manheim.”

“I didn’t ask you to drop dead on us.”

“I don’t drop dead very easy, Mr. Manheim.”

“Like your job, Sammy?”

“It’s a damn good job — this year.”

“What do you mean — this year?”

“If I still have it next year, it’ll stink.”

He looked so tense and serious I almost laughed in his face. I liked him. Maybe he was a little too fresh, but he was quite a boy.

“I’ll keep my ear to the ground for you, kid. Maybe in a couple of years I’ll have a chance to slip you in as a cub reporter.”

That was the first time he ever scared me. Here I was going out of my way to be nice to him and he answered me with a look that was almost contemptuous.

“Thanks, Mr. Manheim,” he said, “but don’t do me any favors. I know this newspaper racket. Couple of years as a cub reporter? Twenty bucks. Then another stretch as district man. Thirty-five. And finally you’re a great big reporter and get forty-five for the rest of your life. No, thanks.”

Football scouts have a term, “high motor,” for people like Sammy. (Other characters compare him to an engine, a motor, and a dynamo.) He runs from first page to last. And with every despicable act, as Sammy bullies, plagiarizes, lies, and cheats his way to Hollywood success, you watch, like the narrator, Al Manheim, with horror and fascination, and finally a sneaking admiration, the way you might admire a tornado, provided you’re not caught in it. First shock, then awe.

The novel dates in some ways. Its very title — “a slum childhood” turns out to be the answer to its question — smacks of a sociological determinism that was fashionable in 1941 but now just seems tired. There are plugs for the communists in the Spanish Civil War and Upton Sinclair’s campaign for Governor of California. But the Hollywood dope could have been written yesterday. Schulberg, whose father was a big-shot Hollywood producer, was 27 when Sammy was published. He was a publicist for Paramount when he was 17, a screenwriter at 19, and he knows. Here is Sammy, mid-career, making stone soup in the commissary:

Sammy would walk up to a director and say, “Spencer Tracy and Marlene Dietrich in Titanic. Do I have to say any more?”

Then he would just walk away from the guy, significantly, and leave it in his lap. The director has been desperate for a socko story all year. Tracy and Dietrich in Titanic. Jesus, it sounds like something. Natural suspense. And two great characters. Maybe Spence is a good two-fisted minister who tries to straighten Marlene out. Marlene is a tramp, of course. He’s real. She’s anything for a laugh. Then, even though the boat is going down you bring the audience up with a hell of a lift because Marlene suddenly sees the light.

Meanwhile Sammy bumps into a supervisor. “I was just telling Chick Tyler my new story,” he says. “He went off his nut about it. Spencer Tracy and Marlene Dietrich in Titanic. Do I have to say any more?”

And he drops the hot potato in the supervisor’s lap and runs again. The supervisor knows Sammy hasn’t missed yet. And he’s been trying to get a cast like that ever since he’s been made a supervisor. So he drops by Tyler’s table.

“Sammy Glick tells me you’re hot for his Titanic story,” he says.

“Yeah,” Tyler says, “I think the kid’s got something. And it’s right down my alley.”

By this time Tyler is practically thinking up the acceptance speech he’ll make on receiving the Academy Award. “I could get a great picture out of that,” he says. “Remember what I did with Strange Voyage? That’s for me!”

All this time Sammy is hopping from table to table, pollinating his story like a bumblebee, catching them as they go in and out, asking everybody who can possibly help him if he has to say anything more and running off before they can answer. Everybody is now asking everybody else if they have heard Sammy’s Titanic story. And by this time, through unconscious generosity, they have contributed to the story two characters, a beginning, middle and a climax. Now Sammy manages to cross the path of the General Manager in Charge of Production. Sammy has heard that he’s been a little burned lately because people are saying he is losing touch with studio activities.

“How do you do, sir,” Sammy says. “I suppose Tyler and Hoyt have told you my story for Dietrich and Tracy. Titanic? Everybody who’s heard it seems very excited about it.”

He has heard about Glick, of course, and he never likes to appear ignorant of anything. “Yes, I have, Glick,” he says. “Sounds very interesting. I’m going to call you all in for a conference on it some time this week.”

There is real skill in this performance. It’s no mean feat to arrange a conference, on air, with the General Manager in Charge of Production. Push, of Sammy’s superhuman caliber, is as much a talent as talent; ask any salesman. Julian Blumberg, a ghostwriter for Sammy with talent but no push — his reward is to write the nonexistent Titanic script — narrates this tale with “no bitterness or anger,” but “mild wonder and deep resignation.” Without Julian there is no Titanic, but without Sammy there is no Titanic either.

Reading Sammy reminds me that my own Glick-deficiency is a character flaw no less real than Sammy’s Glick-excess. “A little bit of Glick would help us all,” the character who understands Sammy best remarks. “A very little bit.”

Mar 202003

Yes, I’m out of ideas again, so it’s time for a jaunt through the blogroll:

AC Douglas tries to assemble a bookcase, and nearly succeeds.

Cosh on cargo cults and Nigerian spam.

Julian Sanchez interprets the Constitution.

Will Wilkinson thinks, encouragingly, that there may be such a thing as optimal disenchantment.

You don’t like Andrea Harris’s site design? Just wait a few minutes, it’ll change.

Brian Micklethwait on prettifying parking lots.

(Update: As an outside-the-blogroll bonus, a fabulous interview with my favorite living novelist, Richard Price. Buy his books so he can stop writing screenplays. Thanks to the Blowhards, who are in fine fettle themselves.)

Mar 192003

One of my favorite examples of the Hayekian concept of “spontaneous order” is stairway traffic. In the subway at rush hour, when people are trying to get up and down the stairs in a hurry, two lines always form between the guardrails, and they are always on the right. Any idiot who tries to plow through on the left is forced to the right by the sheer mass of the traffic. The escalators, two bodies wide, work the same way. The stationary riders stay to the right, and the walkers to the left, the passing lane, as it were.

Hayek explains far better than I ever could why such rules arise. But why this particular rule? I theorize that it’s because in America we drive on the right and pass on the left. This hypothesis is easily tested: in England or Japan or any number of other countries, where they drive on the left and pass on the right, do they walk the opposite way we do? If so, that would suggest that spontaneous rules are formed by analogy with preexisting rules. If not, it’s time for a new hypothesis. Can any readers enlighten me on this score?

Mar 182003

I wish people would stop talking about bringing democracy to Iraq, as if it were the utmost value in Western political civilization. In fact it runs well behind rule of law, freedom of expression, and property rights — which is probably not a winning platform here, let alone there. Don’t get me wrong, the franchise certainly has its uses. It helps forestall violent revolution, as von Mises long ago pointed out, and it’s a tiny measure of protection against governments running utterly amok. Civil societies are all democracies; it does not follow that all democracies become civil societies.

Democracy, however, is the only good on which essentially everyone agrees, and so democracy it is. Its recent track record does not inspire confidence. Turkey is a democracy of sorts, and insofar as they have a rational polity it’s because the military enforces it. Hugo Chàvez, busily expropriating Venezuela, was elected. They vote in Egypt, which gets us resentment and an enormous foreign aid bill. Hitler* ascended to power through democratic means, even if he never won an actual election. What do you suppose a Saudi Arabian democracy would look like? Or a Palestinian one? Like lipstick on a pig, I’m guessing.

Bush, whatever his other limitations, appears to grasp this much. In last night’s speech he talked about a free Iraq, a vital Iraq, an Iraq without torture chambers, and a self-governing Iraq. The last was almost an afterthought. And remember the howls of outrage when Bush said the U.S. would not negotiate with the Palestinians until they got rid of Arafat? But he was elected! He’s the people’s choice! Exactly. What’s your point?

*I claim a Godwin’s Law exemption on the grounds that this isn’t a thread yet.

Mar 172003

Megan McArdle discusses the necessity, if you wish to socialize in Manhattan, of avoiding political discussion, if you have politics like hers or mine. But sometimes avoiding politics just isn’t enough. I once started talking, at a dinner party at my sister’s, about Japanese painting with a guy I’d never seen before. One interesting thing about traditional Japanese art, I said, is that vanishing-point perspective does not appear. My interlocutor maintained that this was because the artists had no interest in perspective; they were trying to do something else, although he never specified quite what. I pointed out that perspective was a scientific discovery, made by the Italians in the 15th century, and that if the Japanese had known of it they certainly would have used it, at least sometimes. So how does he explain the fact that it never appears until the 19th century?

Sure, I was egging him on a little on the Western hegemony front. But only a little, and I was completely unprepared for what came next. He stood up, announced to the room that he couldn’t take any more of this, gathered up his girlfriend, and stormed out. My sister, who brooks no nonsense, banished him for life.

(Update: Stumbling Tongue says anyone who thinks Manhattan is bad ought to try Italy.)

Mar 142003

It had to happen. Elizabeth Smart’s father, Ed, calls for “Amber Alert” — a program to notify the public of child abductions that is used in 38 states — to go national, at a cost of a mere $25 million. “There is no question that Amber Alert is a necessity,” says Smart, with the usual combination of good intentions and bottomless economic ignorance. “Having it saves children.” Since Amber Alert, by the reckoning of one of its proponents, has been responsible for the apprehension of 47 criminals, whereas America’s Most Wanted has nabbed 746, it might make more sense to call for a national law to broadcast it twice daily, or perhaps a special cable channel all local providers will be required to carry — all America’s Most Wanted, all the time.

Bad luck, it seems, confers instant moral authority. A hitherto obscure person, granted his day before the TV cameras, permitted to say anything he likes, demands — a new law! What could be more American? We need a name for this phenomenon, previously observed in anti-gun crusader Sarah Brady; Richard and Maureen Kanka, parents of Megan and Megan’s Law; and Linda Campion, the motive force behind a pointless New York law allowing relatives of crime victims to testify at sentencing hearings. (There are other instances I’m too lazy to look up, but Kaus says three is a trend.) Any suggestions?

(Update: Paul Dubuc proposes “tragislation.” Not bad at all.)

Mar 132003

I just want to say thank you, to everyone, for the remarkably high class of comments here — so high-class that they often make me wish I had written something better in the first place to justify them. Professional philosophers correct me about philosophy, polyglots about language, lawyers about law, poets and critics about poetry, national champions about bridge, the rest of you about everything else. In eight months of blogging I’ve received fewer than a dozen nasty or pointless comments, and hundreds of well-reasoned, polite, humorous, and pertinent ones. I’m overwhelmed, seriously, and this is just a small measure of my gratitude, to all of you.

Mar 132003

Munitions manufacturers prosper because many countries want weapons. Philip Morris prospers because many people want cigarettes. Conservative talk radio hosts prosper because many people are conservative, and like to listen to them. Lobbyists prosper because many people want the government to act for their particular ends, and the government has the power to do so. (Campaign finance reform always fails for the same reasons.) McDonalds prospers because many people like Big Macs. Drug dealers prosper because many people like to take drugs. Demand precedes supply. A lot of bad legislation and litigation would be avoided if people could tell an effect from a cause. It’s really not that complicated.

Mar 122003

I shouldn’t have done it, I know, but last night I watched 12 Angry Men again on television. Its principal interest is sociological. It preserves in celluloid a representative collection of liberal stereotypes circa 1957 — bloviating bigot Ed Begley, Lonely Crowd adman Robert Webber, hypersensitive slum-dweller Jack Klugman (looking positively fawn-like, if you can believe it), neurotically precise broker E.G. Marshall, short-fused martinet Lee J. Cobb, broad-minded and tolerant architect Henry Fonda. What is it with Hollywood and architects anyway? How come they always get a free pass? Why are there doctor and lawyer jokes in store, but no architect jokes? One of the funniest running gags in Seinfeld was George, pretending not to be unemployed, continually masquerading as an architect. It’s so respectable, and you probably won’t have to answer any embarrassing technical questions. If I ever write a screeplay, I’m going to make my villain an architect, out of sheer perversity.

One thing you can’t help but notice, after you’ve seen this movie a few times, is how obviously guilty the boy is. Henry Fonda demolishes the eyewitness testimony, on which E.G. Marshall, the voice of prosecutorial reason, foolishly bases his case, but eyewitness testimony is usually unreliable anyway. Consider the murder weapon instead. The accused owned a switchblade with an elaborately carved handle, supposedly unique: the storekeeper where he bought it said he had never seen another. A switchblade of the same design was found in his father’s chest. The accused, questioned by the police about his own switchblade, maintained that he lost it through a hole in his pocket. (We’ll presume, though we’re never told, that his pocket actually did have a hole in it.) His alibi is that he went to the movies, whose titles, plots and actors he could not recall. Architect Fonda’s first gambit is to show the jury an identical switchblade that he bought in a pawnshop, reasoning thence that someone else could have done it. Maybe, but if the accused is innocent one is obliged to believe the following: first, that the real perpetrator committed the murder, coincidentally, with a knife identical to the one the suspect owned; second, that the accused lost his own knife on the very same night; and third, that he watched two movies and was unable to recall, when questioned immediately afterwards, a thing about either one. Reopen the deliberations, dammit! I want to hang that jury.

(Update: Jim Valliant, a district attorney, notes in the comments that by not turning the knife he bought over to the judge, Henry Fonda was also guilty of misconduct.)

(Another: Brian Micklethwait comments.)