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May 09, 2003
Southern Comfort

One thing I've always wondered: how come more rich people don't spend their excess money more creatively? It's possible, of course, that they do, but you just don't hear about it...

But take Jerry Seinfeld, for example - I can see buying 20 or 30 really expensive Porsches, but after 40 or 50 or so, doesn't it get pretty boring? It's the same with philanthropy: it's great that Bill Gates donates so much money to libraries and other public institutions, but on the other hand, creating and/or donating to big bureaucratic foundations that apportion money to smaller bureaucratic institutions via formal distribution processes just doesn't seem very innovative, dynamic, or fun.

I bring this up because I just read Terry Southern's The Magic Christian, a short book about an extremely wealthy man who spends millions playing mean practical jokes on people. I wouldn't recommend pranks as a complete substitute for philanthropy; it just made me think about all the many ways rich people could spend their money...

As for the book itself, Nelson Algren called The Magic Christian "the most profoundly satiric and wildly comic account of our life and times in years." I think that's overstating it, but it is a short, funny read. Basically, it documents the various pranks multi-millionaire Guy Grand plays on people. These pranks don't come together in any way that leads to narrative momentum, and Grand undergoes no discernible change in character, making The Magic Christian more like a series of writerly SNL sketches than a novel or even a short story. At the same time, comparing it to SNL sketches doesn't do it justice either: instead, it's more like a cross between an S.J. Perelman piece (i.e., it's meticulously written) and a Bill Hicks monologue (i.e., it's aiming for more than just laffs). Ultimately, with its focus on subverting convention, exploiting notions of decorum and authority, and pushing the limits of meretriciousness, it's sort of like a prescient primer on the current state of reality television: part pranks-show (i.e. The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, Punk'd, Trigger Happy TV, etc.) and part what-will-you-do-for-money show (Fear Factor, Survivor, etc.) In other words, a worthwhile read...

Over the years, I've come across many references to Southern but had never actually read anything by him, nor did I know much about him, other than that he was the author of a novel called Candy and screenwriter of Dr. Strangelove. Last night, I did a Google search on him and found this interesting story about a rich person doing something cool with his wealth: film director Steven Soderbergh has donated "a sizable hunk of money" to the New York Public Library to buy Southern's archives. Prior to Soderbergh's involvement, Southern's archives had been sitting in a storage facility while his son tried to find a buyer who would pay enough for them to erase the debts his father had racked up before dying in 1995.

For more on Terry Southern, see his official site. There's even a war angle: if you live in New York, there's going to be a benefit screening of Dr. Strangelove on May 14th, with a discussion panel afterwards featuring John Leonard, Janeane Garafolo, Art Spiegelman, and "Get Your On" creator David Rees, amongst others. Proceeds will benefit "groups still working hard for peace, justice and relief in Iraq."

Meanwhile, if you want to read some Terry Southern, click on the Amazon link and buy The Magic Christian or Now Dig This: The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern: 1950 - 1995. Proceeds will benefit me and Jeff Bezos.

Posted by Greg Beato at 09:16 AM
May 06, 2003
All Bennett All The Time

Interesting passage from Mother Jones review of a Jacob Sullum book:

Even drug czar William Bennett acknowledged this in 1989 when he wrote, "Non-addicted users still comprise the vast bulk of our drug-involved population." To Bennett, this was even more reason to clamp down on all drug use, because those who got by all right would encourage those who lack self-control, whose lives would be screwed up with a few puffs or lines.

And here's some more judicious counsel from Bennett, excerpted from an essay about ethics and capitalism:

In the past a number of us--Republicans and Democrats--have criticized companies like Seagram's and AOL Time Warner Inc. for profiting from violent, misogynistic rap lyrics, and networks like Fox and CBS for broadcasting degrading television shows. These companies, while not acting illegally, acted irresponsibly and immorally, putting profits ahead of all principle. The problem is in some ways with capitalism itself. It is an economic system that requires virtues and character that it does not, of itself, develop in capitalists...In short, capitalism requires capitalists with moral and ethical tethers... A "greed is good" mentality seeped into our business schools; playing "fast and loose" was praised by corporations. This must stop.

One of the things I like about Las Vegas is that it's basically capitalism unbridled, and let the buyer beware. What, I wonder, does William Bennett have to say about casino ethics? Most casino marketing tactics are not exactly what I would call principled - here are some "free" chips to get you started, here's a "free" hotel room to make you stay longer. And let's face it, there may not be anything illegal about charging $80 to see Weird Al Yankovic, but there ought to be.

Posted by Greg Beato at 09:27 AM
May 05, 2003
When the Dealing's Done

William Bennett has announced that his "gambling days are over," and you have to wonder, what's next?

As braying helpmeets like Andrew Sullivan, Jonah Goldberg, and Jonathan Last rushed to Bennett's defense, they crafted fairly persuasive arguments for why a man of such obese moral character should be allowed to spend his hard-earned money any damn way he pleases, as long as it's legal in most states.

"Bennett deserves privacy; he deserves whatever means he can legally use to relax when he is off duty," counseled Sullivan.

"The news here is that [Bennett] likes to have a good time in a perfectly legal and unhypocritical way," tried Goldberg.

"On the scale of legal, common, private activities, gambling is much closer to smoking than adultery," theorized Last.

But as much as I agree that gambling is indeed frequently legal, I also think it's reasonable to assume that all of these commentators are either bluffing through their teeth, or have never actually gambled.

Or to put it another way: I don't know how much William Bennett has earned peddling fables to schoolchildren, but I doubt it's so much that losing $500,000 in a single weekend qualifies as a relaxing good time, sort of like having a smoke.

Indeed, if Bennett simply liked the physical dazzle of Las Vegas and Atlantic City, if he was seeking nothing more than the palliative effects of loud bells, multi-hued carpeting, and the close proximity of hookers, then why didn't he just stick to wagering quarters or half-dollars?

In my own limited experience, gambling is about as relaxing and fun as snorting cocaine at a convention of muggers. And the way to make it even less relaxing and less fun is to raise the stakes: when I'm betting a paltry $25 a hand, fun disappears from the universe entirely. If I'm winning I feel omnipotent. If I'm losing I feel vertiginous despair. Either way, adrenalin is coursing through me, making my fingers tremble and my head ache. Casinos are mostly populated with drunks, losers, and zombies. There are a few exuberant winners burning with their temporary good fortune too, and perhaps, in rare instances, there are even some genuinely relaxed people. But I can't recall ever seeing one myself, and I'm pretty sure if I ever do, he will not be playing video-poker for $500 per hand.

People playing for stakes like that either have a desperate need to make money fast and a severe shortage of $50,000 speaking engagements on their calendar, or they have a strong desire to test fate, to engage in a little bungee-jumping of the soul. They're searching for a hearty backslap from God. They're flirting with moral free-fall, chasing after evidence of their invincibility. Most of all, they're looking for meaning: they're determined to pack ample helpings of consequence into a few fast minutes, to get a rush from life that otherwise eludes them.

And $500,000, lost in one weekend, buys a lot of meaning, no matter how you slice it. Presumably, there are a few stretches of intense efficacy and endowment when things are going well. Without question, there are many longer, incredibly monotonous interludes of anguish and self-loathing. I bet it's actually pretty inspiring and illuminating for anyone whose business revolves around morality and character. Maybe, if you write books about virtue and vice, you can even write off such endeavours as a business expense.

Ah, well. Goodbye to all that. For a couple days at least, Bennett seemed interesting, something more than just a mass of gusty rectitude. But now, in the wake of the bad publicity his ardor for gambling has generated, he's quitting Vegas and revolving credit lines and comped hotel suites cold turkey. How will he replace the hole in his life that those things filled? Gardening maybe? Yoga? Perhaps he can start up a weekly bridge game with Sullivan, Goldberg, and Last. I feel tremendous pity for the man.

Posted by Greg Beato at 09:52 PM