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Robert Wargas

Robert Wargas is a contributor to PJ Media. A native of Long Island, he was educated at the City University of New York and Yale University, and has also written for The Daily Telegraph of London and The Weekly Standard. Outside of opinion writing, he has worked as a professional historian for a major research laboratory and university, documenting the history of biotechnology since the 1970s. He has also reported for both weekly and daily newspapers, including Newsday. He maintains a personal blog/website at robertwargas.org. Follow him on Twitter @RobertWargas
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Is YouTube a ‘Garbage Can,’ as Jerry Seinfeld Says?

Friday, April 17th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

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Jerry Seinfeld recently called YouTube “a giant garbage can [...] for user-generated content.”

I can’t fault him for saying this. In this narcissistic age, YouTube is just one of the many receptacles of vanity available to the demos.

That said, Seinfeld’s comment is ultimately inaccurate. I think it’s useful to think of YouTube not as a garbage can but as a flea market. Flea markets are full of junk whose owners think it worthwhile enough to attempt to sell to the general public. Most of the stuff is worth only a quick glance and a shrug or a scoff. But there are also little treasures to be found—things that are available quite literally nowhere else on the planet.

Consider all the things you’ve searched for, and found, on YouTube. Now consider where else you would have been able to find them absent YouTube. Nowhere. Well, perhaps somewhere, but not without onerous searching, waiting, and probably paying.

Old debates? Documentaries? Tutorials on fly fishing? Old episodes of Miami Vice? That boxing match from 1992? That cartoon you watched as a kid? Winston Churchill speeches? Phil Collins singing at Live Aid? You found it all on YouTube.

Now play the same game, but with the Internet in general. I’ll wait….

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Why Do All Men’s Colognes Smell the Same?

Thursday, April 16th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

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I used to be a cologne fanatic — I bought a lot of them — until a few years ago when I suddenly admitted to myself, after perhaps a few years’ worth of denial, that all men’s colognes were starting to smell the same. I got bored and stopped buying them.

Has anyone noticed this? There is no genuine variety. Somewhere around the Acqua Di Gio era, all manufacturers began top-loading their fragrances with overpowering citrus and other potent “fresh” scents. We’ve reached the point where there’s very little to distinguish between what a teenager douses himself with when he wants to pick up girls at Mike the quarterback’s keg party and what an adult wears to a wedding or romantic date. Must we all smell like we’re in the middle of Abercrombie & Fitch?

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Was The Sinking of the Titanic 103 Years Ago a Conspiracy?

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

The Titanic sank precisely 103 years ago today. A huge ship made out of iron and steel strikes an iceberg and therefore sinks—a fairly straightforward scenario, one would think. During a casual stroll through Wikipedia, however, I came across a page called “RMS Titanic alternative theories.” One of these theories concerns—of course!—the Federal Reserve:

Several of Titanic’s passengers including John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, Isador Strauss, and George Dunton Widener were among the richest men in America. Some conspiracy theorists claim that these wealthy individuals were opposed to the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank and that financier J.P. Morgan saw the opportunity eliminate them by convincing them to sail with him on the maiden voyage of the new Titanic which was really the badly damaged Olympic that he planned sink in an insurance scam. As victims of a maritime disaster nobody would suspect that they had really been murdered to prevent them from opposing the Federal Reserve Act. In addition to Morgan, several of his close friends and associates are known to have cancelled their plans to sail on Titanic at the last minute, as did the wife of J. Bruce Ismay. Morgan also had several bronze statues he had planned to transport to America removed from the ship a few hours before she sailed leading to speculation that he knew her fate.

The writer of this passage provides no citations, but this sounded like something that members of the Ron Paul cult would believe. So I searched a bit more and found this 2013 post from—surprise!—The Daily Paul, titled “Did the Federal Reserve Sink the Titanic?”

Some people are just desperate to be rebels. In their quest to believe nothing, they’re willing to believe anything. Cynicism is the ultimate naiveté.

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What’s the Best New York Movie?

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

I just learned by accident that the actor Paul Sorvino turned 76 on April 13. You’ll recall that Mr. Sorvino played the role of the mob boss “Paulie” in Goodfellas, the classic New York gangster movie released in 1990. Seeing this news, and reflecting on the 25th birthday of Goodfellas itself, I have ask myself: Is Goodfellas the greatest New York movie ever made?

I will doubtless get pushback on this for all kinds of good reasons. Maybe you think the best New York movie is Taxi Driver, or When Harry Met Sally, or The French Connection. Those are all fine choices, to be sure. Or maybe you don’t think there is such thing as “the best New York movie.” I admit the question presupposes its own importance.

But I bring it up because casual conversation is full of such unanswerable questions as “what’s your favorite movie?” In fact, I was asked this recently… twice. I always find myself answering Goodfellas. It has become a reflex. I generally trust my reflexes.

Maybe it’s because I’m from New York and half Italian, and despite the fact that my Italian heritage includes no mob connections, I can still see flickers of my past in the way the characters talk, act, and eat. How many people’s favorite movies are merely those which remind them of their childhoods?

In any case, there are fewer movies with better dialogue than Goodfellas. (Perhaps The Last Boy Scout?) And New York retains a certain mythical quality for everyone, including those who hail from its streets. It’s a city simultaneously full of immense beauty and ugliness. What better way to represent this duality than the mob, which is itself a bizarre combination of opulence and violence?

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Would You Kill Hitler if You Had a Time Machine?

Saturday, April 11th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

From The Independent:

It is a common ethical dilemma set by philosophy professors – is it right to kill someone to prevent further deaths?

According to scientists the answer differs depending on your gender, with women less likely to commit murder because they have a stronger aversion to harmful action.

Researchers from the US, Germany and Canada analysed data that asked 6,100 people a range moral questions, including whether they would kill a young Adolf Hitler to stop the Second World War.

While men and women both calculated the consequences of their decision and computed how many lives might be saved, females found it harder to commit murder and were more likely to let Hitler live.

Of course there are logistical problems with this, as in any hypothetical time-travel scenario. Would this time machine drop you off armed with a suppressed pistol in Hitler’s bedroom while he slept, or would you simply be dumped onto Unter den Linden in broad daylight with nothing but a cheap folding knife? It says “kill a young Adolf Hitler,” but what fun would that be? Most people would want to kill the 1930s version—before the Holocaust, of course, but not so long before it that he’s not recognizable as the scummy dictator on the cusp of a genocide. Seeing him in full uniform and armband is a potent motivator.

Anyway, who might have guessed that men and women were different? It’s almost as though there’s some biological reason men and women are not exactly the same.

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Hey Pop-Nutritionists, Stop Using the Word ‘Toxins’

Thursday, April 9th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

I’m about to link to Gawker, so please, perpetually aggrieved Internet dwellers, do feel free to leave some indignant “Why are you linking to Gawker??!!1!?”comments below.

To those of you still reading: An analytical chemist—that’s the writer’s self-description—has written a piece criticizing Vani Hari, apparently a popular food blogger, for her trendy, pseudoscientific nonsense. It’s a solid, sensible piece and an introduction to the many scientific, logical, and rhetorical holes in the “organic”-obsessed, pop-nutritionist sect. One target is the overuse of words like “toxic”:

The word “toxic” has a meaning, and that is “having the effect of a poison.” Anything can be poisonous depending on the dose. Enough water can even be poisonous in the right quantity (and can cause a condition called hyponatremia).

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Hari uses this tricky technique again and again. If I told you that a chemical that’s used as a disinfectant, used in industrial laboratory for hydrolysis reactions, and can create a nasty chemical burn is also a common ingredient in salad dressing, would you panic? Be suspicious that the industries were poisoning your children? Think it might cause cancer? Sign a petition to have it removed?

What if I told you I was talking about vinegar, otherwise known as acetic acid?

I have endless contempt for “alternative medicine,” which is certainly alternative but most certainly not medicine. The alternative crowd loves the vague word “toxins.” If you are sick, you are full of “toxins”; you must therefore “detox.” Everything from pancreatic cancer to bipolar disorder is due to “toxins.”

One way to know you’re talking to a quack is that, no matter the problem, he always has one diagnosis and thus one treatment.

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Can You Drive and Apply Lip Balm at the Same Time?

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

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So a woman from Nevada received a $200 ticket and points on her license for…putting on lip balm while driving. More precisely, she was at a red light. This, as the Nevada highway cop who pulled her over said, is because “we have zero tolerance for distracted drivers.” Indeed, it seems we have zero tolerance for pretty much everything these days. From The Daily Mail:

She said: ’I told him it was ChapStick. 

‘He said, ”It could have been anything; you could have been drinking water, shaving your legs.”’

The ticket caused Fragoso to receive points against her driving record.

The crackdown is part of a campaign for the state to have zero driving fatalities in 2015, CBS Las Vegas reported. 

The “zero driving fatalities” plan sounds like utopian cant, the product of some state technocrat’s lust for billable hours. Now, I think texting while driving is indeed dangerous, and the self-absorbed perpetual teenagers who engage in it ought to be punished. But applying some lip balm? Lipstick, yes, because it requires precision (or so I’ve observed).

And what if she had been drinking water? Can we turn on the radio? Sneeze?

Even if you do think lip balm is distracting, expect this kind of thing to continue until we’re not allowed to talk to other passengers.

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Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?

Monday, April 6th, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

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Writing in The Daily Caller, Erica Wenig examines some of the nuttiest conspiracy theories to come out of the Middle East—all of them, of course, starring Americans and/or Jews as the culprits. Just a taste:

A presenter for an Egyptian TV channel slammed Jewish lobbies and Rupert Murdoch for “The Simpsons,” apparently claiming the show was an avenue for Jews to conspire against Egypt.

“['The Simpsons'] is a very influential TV series in the U.S. This animated series is an American production, behind which are basically-Jewish lobbies,” Rania Badawi said.

Why do people believe things like this? What drives their subscription to the most far-fetched “explanations” for events? Apart from obvious hatred of the blamed group, there are many reasons. I have found that one reason is the frisson and excitement that comes with believing you have “discovered” some “truth” that others have not. This proves, in the conspiracist’s mind, that he is smarter than everyone else and privy to some bit of secret knowledge that the masses don’t know.

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What Did Jesus’ Wine Taste Like?

Friday, April 3rd, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

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I do remember, during religious instruction as a child, hearing the constant references to wine in the Bible and wondering what it tasted like. Being quite young then, I imagined it was like my delicious grape juice. As I grew older and began to love dry red wine, I still wondered whether ancient wines tasted anything remotely like my Pinot Noir.

From the Orange County Register:

Grapes were the first cultivated plants mentioned in the Bible, she said. In her book, [author Kitty] Morse writes: “Grapes grew in even more abundance than olives… Wines from the Holy Land provided a significant source of income, especially during Roman rule. The wine from Bethlehem was of particularly high quality and considered a gift worthy of royalty.”

Still, she thinks it couldn’t have been delicious.

“It wasn’t intended for the Roman emperors,” Morse said, explaining that the peasants in the Middle East weren’t as sophisticated about wine as the ruling class. “They were happy if it fermented and if it cured some ailments.”

If that’s the case, then the wine served at the Last Supper would have been peasant table wine. Much more rustic than the wine enjoyed at the wedding at Cana, a special drink reserved for a stately occasion. The difference between the two would come down to farming and styling.

That peasant table wine can’t have been any worse than some of those horrendous pseudo-wines they sell in the supermarket. There are some great wines that are very cheap—one of my favorite Chiantis is about eight bucks—but most cheap things are cheap for a reason.

The article also mentions that Romans liked to spice their wine with cinnamon. Who else wants to try this immediately?

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How Blogging Can Kill You…

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

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Andrew Sullivan, of whose posturing and pettiness I’ve been critical in the past, retired from blogging in January, citing burnout and health problems.

In a recent interview, Sullivan described in starker detail how constant blogging (up to 40 posts a day) destroyed his health and personal life:

“The truth is, I had to stop primarily because it was killing me,” Sullivan said Sunday night at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. “I used to joke that if blogging does kill someone, I would be the first to find out.”

Sullivan also described the “dehumanizing” aspect of ceaseless online commentary:

“I spent a decade of my life, spending around seven hours a day in intimate conversation with around 70,000 to 100,000 people every day,” Sullivan said. “And inevitably, for those seven hours or more, I was not spending time with any actual human being, with a face and a body and a mind and a soul.”

I don’t blame the guy for leaving, and I wish him well in a life away from the often soul-wrending glow of the computer screen.

What Sullivan is describing is something all of us in 2015 face to some degree: with our lives increasingly synced and integrated with electronic online devices, there is a constant need to be “on,” in the moment, all the time… but not with any real people. This is exhausting, in a way that interaction with actual humans is not.

When I first read the Sullivan interview, I laughed a bit when he said that blogging was killing him. After some reflection, I do think it could happen.

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What Kind of Person Pretends To Be a Military Veteran?

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

If, on any day of the week, you type “stolen valor” into a search engine, the Internet will reward you handsomely with the newest tranche of American losers pretending to be military veterans. When I first became interested in this topic, sometime last year, I was utterly amazed at how common this fakery is. It seems to happen all the time, all over, every day.

One of the latest stolen valor cases comes out of Florida and involves a panhandler—trying to get money from people is a common theme among loser-fakes—trying to pass himself off as a soldier. In most stolen valor videos, the phony is confronted and outed by a real veteran, who can always spot fakes by, among other things, how incorrectly they wear their uniforms. Here we go:

Consider what kind of person would pretend to be a military veteran. The loser-fakes know that military service affords real veterans a certain amount of respect and social status. The loser-fakes wish to replicate that status in their own, necessarily empty lives, so they pretend to be veterans. Now, the average functioning human being would not be able to do this, since the guilt of knowing you’re a fake would negate any pleasure derived from being thanked for your service. The loser-fakes are rather untroubled by this.

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Are You Really Helping Others by Holding Doors for Them?

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015 - by Robert Wargas

I am one of those who always hold doors for other people. We door holders are a kind lot, but we are also (maybe) a bit sensitive. The other day, as I was leaving the post office, I stood outside the threshold for about three seconds longer than was necessary to hold the door for a middle-aged woman as she approached to enter. She walked through without even making eye contact, let alone saying “thank you.”

Now, I’m not going to pretend I didn’t walk away without muttering angrily to myself. Looking back on it, I am very slightly ashamed of this reaction. (Very slightly.) Was I really holding the door out of kindness if I got angry so easily? Or was I doing it to make myself feel good?

Can it be both? Probably.

In any case, I believe it is in our nature to overstate our own sense of morality. In Book II of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes:

Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.

This quote, with its rolling rhythm and timeless language, struck me as oddly comforting when I first read it. It seems to say, “Don’t worry. You’re OK. It’s everyone else who’s bad.” But how helpful is it to tell yourself that?

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Please Stop Worshiping ‘Bad Boys’

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014 - by Robert Wargas

In one of his most memorable roles, as the eponymous character of Tim Burton’s 1990 film Edward Scissorhands, Johnny Depp plays a semi-human manboy with shears for fingers, stuck in eternal youth as those around him wither. I thought of this film last week, as I watched a fifty-something Depp, drunk and clad in his usual get-up of randomly placed crosses and scarves, stumble to the microphone at a televised awards show and deliver a slurred “speech” in which he giggled, cursed, rocked, and swayed his way through a painful two minutes. Here was another manboy on display, albeit one lacking the charm and innocence of Burton’s creation.

It was a shame to see Depp, a genuinely talented and by most accounts kind and gentle man, reduce himself to this display. He is well into middle age—not that any age is an appropriate time for public drunkenness. I suspect his career won’t be dented much, if at all, by the episode. This is not just because he is a celebrity. One can’t imagine, say, Morgan Freeman stumbling onto the stage, delivering a gin-soaked introduction, and walking away with his career totally intact. No, it is Depp’s enduring “bad boy” image that affords him the extra latitude. Those crosses and scarves go a long way. If you can set yourself up as some kind of outsider, those on the inside will start to think they’re caged animals and become desperate for your kind of freedom. The bad boy’s appeal comes from nonchalantly scuffing the social rulebook with his cowboy boots and daring us not to like him because of it.

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What Happened to East Germany’s Brutally Effective Secret Police After the Wall Fell?

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014 - by Robert Wargas
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On November 9, 2006, as the free world celebrated the seventeenth anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s demise, an 83-year-old man died in a peaceful slumber at his home in the German capital city. The man was Markus Wolf, who during the Cold War led the foreign-intelligence section of East Germany’s secret-police apparatus: the Ministry for State Security (Ministerium fuer Staatssicherheit), known colloquially as “the Stasi.” The Stasi’s most renowned spymaster, he controlled thousands of agents, whose purpose was to infiltrate important Western institutions and government positions. Often mistaken as the inspiration for John le Carre’s shadowy Karla character, Wolf for years remained a mystery to Western intelligence services, who didn’t even have a picture of him until the late 1970s—several decades into his career. Historians have marveled at his success in leading the Stasi’s foreign wing, known as the HVA, or Hauptverwaltung Aufklaerung. Perhaps his most well known accomplishment is having one of his agents, Gunter Guillaume, become a trusted aide to Willy Brandt, the West German chancellor.

Seven years after Wolf’s death and twenty-five years after the Wall’s, the West still doesn’t appreciate the breadth and depth of the Stasi’s brutality. (The KGB still reigns in the popular imagination as the ultimate secret-police force.) Formed after the Second World War in the Soviet occupation zone of Germany, the Stasi grew to become the most potently effective Eastern bloc intelligence organization. They possessed a more impressive informant network than even the KGB. When East Germany crumbled, the Stasi employed upwards of 190,000 unofficial informants. By 1989, approximately one out of every 90 East German citizens was a Stasi informant. Referred to as inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (“unofficial collaborators”), most were simply ordinary German citizens, tasked with reporting everything they could about possible (real or imagined) anti-regime activity, as well as details about family and friends. Even children were involved in spying on their parents.

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Mike Tyson: He Has a New TV Show, But Does Anyone Care?

Saturday, November 1st, 2014 - by Robert Wargas

If you had to affix a precise date to the beginning of Mike Tyson’s professional decline, you could do worse than December 9, 1988. On that day, Tyson fired Kevin Rooney, the masterful boxing trainer who had guided him to the world heavyweight championship, and moved firmly into the camp of Don King, a man whose name is interchangeable with corruption and degradation. Once an invincible fighter with precise punches and defensive skills, Tyson got sloppy, trading his scientific pugilism for flat-footed brawling. Seduced by a world of women and money, he abandoned all discipline. His laziness caught up with him in February 1990, when a journeyman named Buster Douglas outclassed him in a championship fight and knocked him out.

This was still merely the beginning of the end. In 1992, Tyson was convicted of raping a young beauty queen named Desiree Washington, and spent the next several years in an Indiana prison. Emerging in 1995, he knocked out a few tomato cans before fighting the bigger names, biting ears and going on ridiculous rants about eating people’s children and stomping on their testicles. He nurtured an obsession with pigeons and exotic tigers, living as an eccentric in his own Xanadu. More arrests ensued, more assaults, more crude outbursts.

What’s the point of rehashing this ugly tabloid history? The point is that the name “Mike Tyson” comes with a lot of unwanted baggage, which I simply couldn’t set down while watching the premier of Tyson’s new “show,” a 15-minute animated sketch called Mike Tyson Mysteries. It airs on Adult Swim, which is a grown-up portion of the Cartoon Network featuring peculiar and often graphic shows that blend violence and dark humor. The show has Tyson voicing an animated version of himself. A retired boxer, he is inexplicably portrayed as a freelance mystery solver. His team, a cross between Animal House and the Scooby Doo gang, consists of Norm Macdonald as an alcoholic talking pigeon, the ghost of the Marquess of Queensberry, and Tyson’s brainy adopted daughter.

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Would You Survive a Horror Movie?

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014 - by Robert Wargas

Those with long memories will recall that Wes Craven’s Scream, which came out way back in 1996, was praised for its hip “self-awareness,” coming as it did in a particularly “meta” era of ’90s postmodernism, full of overrated cult fare like Pulp Fiction and Clerks. The film’s edginess consisted in banging on the fourth wall without quite breaking it. In one scene, for instance, a horror-movie fanatic and video-store clerk (remember: 1996) played by Jamie Kennedy tells his fellow teenagers about the “rules” of surviving a slasher film.

One of these “rules,” which is now common knowledge, is that in order to survive one mustn’t practice the carnal arts. Those who do it always get it. What the less eloquent might call “c*ckblocking” is an established horror-movie tradition. In the first Halloween film, Michael Myers ruins one couple’s tryst by stabbing the guy and then assaulting his teenage girlfriend—which might sound like a standard Friday evening at Roman Polanski’s house, but for an audience of 1970s suburban teens it was genuinely frightening. Come to think of it, every horror movie has a boyfriend character, football letter jacket and all, who gets his head caved in while fetching a few beers from the fridge. Each series has its own tropes. The Friday the 13th movies rely on the obligatory sex-in-the-woods scene: two camp counselors set up a tent, and before long Jason shows up with his machete for an especially kinky threesome.

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Like a Serial Killer, Mao Zedong Manipulated Everyone

Sunday, October 26th, 2014 - by Robert Wargas
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Editor’s note: this is part 3 in an ongoing series exploring the history of dictators and their evil ideologies. See the previous installments: Part 1:”Why It’s OK to Be Intrigued by Evil Dictators“ and Part 2: “Does Everybody Want Freedom?” Have ideas for who you’d like to see Robert explore next? Get in touch on Twitter: @RobertWargas and @DaveSwindle

Celebrating its centennial, The New Republic recently mined its archive and republished an intriguing piece from its February 27, 1965, issue: an exclusive interview with Mao Zedong by the American journalist Edgar Snow. As TNR correctly notes, as far as interviews go this would be analogous to a Western journalist today being granted exclusive access to Kim Jong Un. The sit-down took place almost seven years before Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger arrived in Peking to re-establish relations with China.

Though the interview has value as a journalistic artifact, it isn’t the most satisfying piece of reportage when it comes to Mao the man. Snow, who was not exactly Red China’s greatest critic, wasn’t allowed to quote the Great Helmsman directly, and most of the discussion concerns issues of policy and military strategy. These are big subjects, and big subjects always make for big answers laden with propaganda.

Mao comes across as intensely theoretical; he seems genuinely infatuated with Marxist theory and its rigorous application to world affairs. When asked about the Vietnam War, for instance, Snow writes that Mao “repeatedly thanked foreign invaders for speeding up the Chinese revolution and for bestowing similar favors in Southeast Asia today.” He ”observed that the more American weapons and troops brought into Saigon, the faster the South Vietnamese liberation forces would become armed and educated to win victory.”

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Why Smoking Bans Are More Dangerous Than Smoking

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014 - by Robert Wargas
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One lamentable feature of the contemporary West is the ruthless efficiency of the nanny state. It works overnight. You wake up, slouch over your coffee and corn flakes, and read of the new Bad Thing that must be stopped Right Now. In Britain, the latest activity slated for oblivion is smoking in public parks. Readers, I’m sure, do not need to be reminded that parks are outdoor places; the traditional excuse of “secondhand smoke” does not appear to apply (although it is possible to find “studies” on the dangers of “thirdhand smoke”).

Nevertheless, British officials moved quickly. In September 2013, the mayor of London, alleged conservative Boris Johnson, ordered a “major review of health in the capital,” according to The Independent. The results are already in: Lord Darzi, Britain’s former health minister and the appointed chair of Johnson’s special commission, has said smoking needs to be banned in London’s parks and public squares. There is news that ”councils throughout England are also understood to be analysing how the proposals could be applied locally, paving the way for potentially the biggest crackdown on smoking since the Smoke Free legislation of 2007.”

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Does Everybody Want Freedom?

Sunday, October 19th, 2014 - by Robert Wargas

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A few years ago, on a rainy summer’s day, I was browsing around a secondhand bookshop on the east end of Long Island, breathing in the musty wonder of the overstuffed shelves, when an elderly man approached me. I had in my hand a first edition of William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The man started up a friendly conversation about the Second World War, asking me whether I had watched a recent television documentary on the subject.

He continued talking, perhaps unaware that he wasn’t allowing me to respond. I didn’t take this as an insult. Most people prefer to hear themselves talk; this isn’t necessarily a sign of malice or rudeness on their part. I find it’s especially true of the elderly, who are usually lonelier and thus more desperate for the ear of a stranger. So I stood there and listened as politely as I could, not altogether uninterested in his views of fascinating matters like the Nazis and other dictatorships, which are subjects that I could eat with my breakfast cereal.

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Want Great Coffee? Go to Ukraine

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014 - by Robert Wargas

I am not one of those people who reflexively think European goods are superior to American ones—you know the kind of people I’m talking about—but boy do I sometimes wonder about the coffee in this country. The average American takes his or her daily caffeine in the form of a tepid, mud-like beverage that delis, diners, and commercial chains have chosen to call “coffee.” Is it? It can’t possibly be. Even the coffee at Starbucks, which is supposed to be something special, more often than not tastes like the business end of a drainpipe. It’s a shame so many people have been duped by words like “venti” and “macchiato.”

This dislike of mine has nothing to do with snobbery. I don’t care about price, brand, origin, or other markers of prestige. I know precisely nothing about the agriculture of coffee beans or the chemistry of brewing. I do know, however, that the proof of the coffee is in the drinking, and the motor oil served at most American establishments is barely potable.

I suspect I’m not alone in this judgment. If not, follow me, dear reader, on a mental trip to the beautiful city of Lviv, in western Ukraine—a place where I found some of the best coffee I have ever tasted. This was after I had tried the product of Vienna’s famous Cafe Hawelka. In fact, to imagine what Lviv is like, picture Vienna, only not as well preserved, with extra grit and grime on the buildings, and with occasional glimpses of drab Soviet architecture.

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Why It’s OK to Be Intrigued by Evil Dictators

Saturday, October 11th, 2014 - by Robert Wargas

My first memory of thinking about dictators is a day I spent with my grandmother at age six or seven. Staying at her house while my parents worked, I was “reading” my latest edition of MAD Magazine, in which was printed a humorous depiction of such masters of malice as Pol Pot, Augusto Pinochet, Anastasio Somoza, and Hafez al-Assad. I asked my grandmother what this interesting new word “dictator” meant, and she informed me, as best she could to a child, that it was a leader who enjoyed absolute power in a country. Even at that young age, my instincts as an American were strong: I bristled at the idea of tyrannical authority, but naively suggested that the people suffering under these monsters could be free if only everyone agreed all at once not to listen to them.

As the years passed, I learned that I was utterly intrigued by these odd men—all of them bizarre in so many ways, always grotesque morally and usually physically as well.

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Are You a Bad Person if You Give to the Homeless?

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014 - by Robert Wargas

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A few weeks ago, I was in New York City to meet someone for drinks, and got on the subway at 34th and 7th to head downtown. I dislike the New York subway for many reasons. It is the only such system in a major Western city to look as if it had been swapped with the metro of a third-world backwater. Pick any otherwise dodgy country on Earth, and chances are the subway of its capital city is a gleaming tube with smooth rolling stock and palatial stations. Not New York. The trains lurch between filthy platforms like winos stumbling to and from tenement doorsteps.

It is also a place in which I am continually confronted with the human condition. Sometimes it takes the form of rudeness; other times, drunkenness. On this particular day, it was poverty. Immediately after the doors closed, a disheveled man entered the car at the far end, battered cap in hand, and made the following announcement to us passengers:

“Ladies and gentlemen, if I could have your attention for one moment, please,” he said loudly. “I don’t want to bother you, but I am a homeless veteran. If you could spare some money, I would greatly appreciate it.”

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The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013 - by Robert Wargas

“He was, in an idiom he would have understood, a petty bourgeois individualist who esteemed collectivism at least some of the time but never submitted to it himself. He resented the rich and powerful but enjoyed their company.” As I read these words, which appear in the prologue of a new book by Richard Seymour, I made an incomplete mental list of people to whom they could apply: George Bernard Shaw seems to fit quite nicely, as does J.K. Galbraith. Moving along the spectrum from alleged intellectuals to proven fools, one could add Oliver Stone, Sean Penn, and Edward Asner. It becomes clear rather quickly that the only ones susceptible to this charge are those who base their politics on a distinction between the individual and the collective—a dubious premise in itself, and thus one that is bound to lead to stark differences between theory and practice.

The target of the charge, therefore, is usually those on the Left, who are to varying degrees comfortable with the distinction, and who face the ire of both foes on the right as well as their more puritanical comrades. The accused this time around is Christopher Hitchens (Peace Be Upon Him), a man whom Seymour regards as the quintessential “apostate leftist.” Titled Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens, this book (excuse me: “extended political essay”) is published by Verso, ironically the same radical press that put out many of Hitchens’s own books, including The Trial of Henry Kissinger, from which Seymour draws his subtitle. The tradition of Verso is to perform surgery without anesthesia, to get the job done in a hundred pages or less, and to use a shotgun instead of a scalpel. The aim is always nothing less than the pure destruction of one’s opponent: to burn him and scatter his ashes and then send wilted flowers to the mourners.

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Were the Oscars Sexist?

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013 - by Robert Wargas

I only saw a few minutes of the Oscars, always an edifying spectacle if only because it has taught me how not to act in life: self-righteous, dolled up in Tom Ford and Karl Lagerfeld while speaking the language of Mother Jones and Karl Marx, prone to accepting little gold statues from a faceless politburo and then thanking them profusely for the honor, etc. This year the crapfest was hosted by Seth Macfarlane, who I actually think is more talented than people give him credit for.

Immediately after the crapfest was over–well, during it, too, thanks to asocial “social media”–all the hags and eunuchs on the blogosphere and in the glossy mags went into PC-status-seeker mode and began moaning about Macfarlane’s “sexism.” What do you think, dear readers? Was he sexist?

I’m not against denouncing genuine sexism, but I’m basically immune to the word now, except in its most extreme and virulent forms, thanks to its constant presence in our culture. (You can thank the hags and eunuchs for basically making it impossible to identify real racism and sexism in this country.) From what I can see Macfarlane said the word “boobs” too much, and this has offended certain people. Funny how it is now the progressive crowd that’s more offended by sexual language than Methodists and Baptists. On a lighter note, it’s interesting and somewhat refreshing that a media liberal like Macfarlane is finally the one being accused of an -ism. Nevertheless, Billy Crystal seems like the best choice from here on out.

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Previously from Robert Wargas at PJ Lifestyle:

Why Is Identity Politics Evil?

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