Saturday, September 24, 2011

Stars Add New Tunes to Country King’s Lyrics

By Alan Light
The New York Times
September 23, 2011

BOB DYLAN has long claimed Hank Williams as an influence and an inspiration. In his 2004 memoir, “Chronicles Volume One,” Mr. Dylan recounted his discovery of that country giant’s music in the 1950s. “I became aware that in Hank’s recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic songwriting,” he wrote. “The architectural forms are like marble pillars.”

Mr. Dylan added that when he got word of Williams’s death at the age of 29 on New Year’s Day, 1953, the news “hit me squarely on the shoulder.”

“Intuitively I knew, though, that his voice would never drop out of sight or fade away,” he continued.

With a new project titled “The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams,” Mr. Dylan is doing his part to keep the work of one of America’s greatest songwriters — the author of classics like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Cold Cold Heart,” and “Hey Good Lookin’ ” — in the spotlight. The album collects the lyrics for a dozen unrecorded songs by Williams, set to melodies and recorded by an array of rock and country stars, including Jack White, Norah Jones, Merle Haggard and Sheryl Crow. “The Lost Notebooks” is being released on Oct. 4 on Mr. Dylan’s imprint, Egyptian Records, in conjunction with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Columbia Records. (The only previous release on Egyptian was a 1997 group tribute to the country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers.)

Artists who participated in the album, which has been in the works for almost a decade, expressed their sense of honor at being asked to complete the work of such a monumental musician. “There’s a lot of magic still left in these songs,” said Alan Jackson, who opens the album with “You’ve Been Lonesome, Too.” Ms. Jones, who sings the bluesy, melancholy “How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart,” said she found the idea behind the project “really daunting,” but that “the people who were putting it together were doing it with respect and love and creativity, and I had trust in that.”

Lucinda Williams — whose poet father met Hank Williams the month before the singer died and Ms. Williams was born — felt such an emotional connection to her selection, “I’m So Happy I Found You,” that she sang it immediately before she and her husband exchanged vows at their onstage wedding in 2009. The seeds of the project were planted in 2002 when the all-star Hank Williams tribute album “Timeless” (also with Mr. Dylan, Ms. Williams and Ms. Crow) won the Grammy for country album of the year. One of that record’s executive producers, the veteran manager and A&R executive Mary Martin, was approached by Peggy Lamb, the Hank Williams authority at Williams’s publishing company, Acuff-Rose. Ms. Lamb told her about the cardboard box containing four notebooks and scattered scraps of paper full of Williams’s unrecorded lyrics (66 songs in all) that was locked in a vault in her office. Williams’s family had passed the material to Acuff-Rose soon after the singer died, but its existence wasn’t widely known until a few of the pages were reprinted in the book “Hank Williams: Snapshots From the Lost Highway,”

“Nashville is a small community,” said Ms. Martin, who worked with Mr. Dylan’s legendary manager Albert Grossman and first introduced Mr. Dylan to the members of the Band. “If three of us have a passion, we’re bound to end up in a bar together.”

Initially Ms. Lamb’s idea was to ask one artist to record a full album based on the manuscripts. Ms. Martin approached Mr. Dylan, sending him 27 of them; he weighed the idea for “about a year and a half,” she said, before replying that “the task is too mighty.” He chose one song, “The Love That Faded,” for himself — setting lines like “Vows that we made turned into lies/My life is empty, my lonely heart cries” to a chugging waltz with a pedal-steel guitar refrain — and they started coming up with a roster of potential contributors and sending them lyrics to consider; Mr. Jackson was the first artist asked.

Ms. Martin said that some of the choices — Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young — opted not to participate and laughed as she described Mr. Dylan’s wondering why they weren’t involving Luciano Pavarotti.
The finest of the “Lost Notebooks” lyrics offer the economy and precision that characterized Williams’s work. Given the range of styles in which Mr. Williams wrote, from the spiritual revelation of “I Saw the Light” to the physical joy in “Jambalaya (on the Bayou),” the selections of each artist can be telling. Though there were a number of gospel songs among the lyrics, only Mr. Haggard chose a religious theme, the album’s closer, “The Sermon on the Mount.” The sly humor of “You Know That I Know” feels like familiar territory for Mr. White. The tradition-minded country singers Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell utilize a recited section, like those on the records Williams made as the street preacher character Luke the Drifter, in “I Hope You Shed a Million Tears” (and called on Williams’s pedal steel player, Don Helms, for what turned out to be his final recording session; he died in 2008).
Ms. Crow said she didn’t feel intimidated by the idea of finishing a master’s work. “It’s meant to be a project honoring him and his legacy,” she said. “It’s not really a contest, so I didn’t feel there would be any judgment.”       
Still, most of the songs on the “Lost Notebooks” album hew to Williams’s sound; Ms. Martin noted that it was difficult to settle on a sequence because so many of the artists submitted waltzes.

The least familiar name among the contributors is Holly Williams, Williams’s granddaughter, who has previously released two albums of folk-inflected country originals. She had to add two verses of her own to the song fragment “Blue Is My Heart,” on which her father, Hank Williams Jr., adds backup vocals.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten so much into my family’s heritage,” she said. “Growing up I really didn’t understand his legacy. It was when I heard Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and Neil Young talking about Hank Williams that I started to understand. Now I just want to make sure that someone keeps it going for the next generation in our family.” (Williams’s grandson Shelton Hank Williams, who performs honky-tonk country and punk-metal as Hank 3, was not asked to participate, and has said that “it seems a little strange for somebody to finish a half-finished Hank Williams song.”)

Others have also expressed apprehension about the concept, whose closest precedent is the use of unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics on the two “Mermaid Avenue” albums that Billy Bragg and Wilco released in 1998 and 2000. There is a Facebook group called Stop the Desecration of Hank Williams Unfinished Songs. Chet Flippo, the editorial director of CMT and, recently wrote that the album is “utterly fascinating” but also asked, “If you were a painter and were asked to execute a painting based on a very rudimentary fragment of sketches by Picasso, would you do that?”

Jakob Dylan, Bob’s son, whose inclusion on the album marks the first time his work has appeared side by side with his father’s, was circumspect about the project. “I wouldn’t be so lofty or arrogant to think I was actually co-writing with Hank Williams,” he said. “This was one way to interpret the lyrics, but I don’t think it defines the song.” Ms. Crow saw it as a challenge that might help her own songwriting. “I think whenever you’re playing tennis with John McEnroe, it ups your level a little,” she said, “so I hope this did something for my own art.”

Most of the musicians, though, immediately recalled the thrill they felt when first given their assignment. “This has got to be one of the coolest things ever,” Mr. Jackson said. “To be credited as writing a song with Hank Williams, that means more to me than winning a Grammy.”

‘It Felt Like I Did Conjure the Ghost’

Some of the artists who participated in the “Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams” album discuss how they approached the song they selected.

Alan Jackson

“You’ve Been Lonesome, Too”

The song I chose was pretty complete, where some of the others felt a little more rambling. The melody just kind of jumped out — that was the easy part. I wanted it to be a tribute, to do it as much like Hank as I could. I recorded with the same instrumentation he used, no drums. I was trying to sing like Hank. The guys in the band all said it felt kind of haunting in the studio. Everybody got goose bumps.

Sheryl Crow

“Angel Mine”

Hank had such a distinct cadence to his writing. I just picked up the lyric and read it, and the flow of reading it set up how I would sing it. I could feel the tempo, how he would have sung it, where he might have yodeled. I tried to picture myself sitting around with Hank or the Carter Family, to get myself into that place. I played a 1930s Martin guitar, something that felt like it would have been in the room.

Jakob Dylan

“Oh, Mama, Come Home”

All the lyrics I looked through already had a melody inherent in the writing, so I picked something where it just kind of busted out at me. I thought it was important to stick with a melody that he might have used, but I didn’t try to mimic or replicate his sound. These songs really are timeless, so I didn’t think there was a need to be precious.

Lucinda Williams

“I’m So Happy I Found You”

I immediately picked this one, because it was so unusual for a Hank Williams song: it’s a happy love song. I didn’t change anything in the lyrics, I felt like that was sacred. I initially cut it with my band, but it sounded too straight or something, so I cut it with just me and my guitar. That gave it a more languid, jazzy feel. It felt like I did conjure the ghost, but that wasn’t a new feeling. I’ve always had such affinity for his music, I felt that connection already.


Popcast: Opening the ‘Lost Notebooks’ of Hank Williams -

Global economy getting ready to blow

By Mark Steyn
The Orange County Register
September 23, 2011

"It's the end of the world as we know it," sang the popular musical artistes REM many years ago. And it is. REM has announced that they're splitting up after almost a third of a century. But these days who isn't? The Eurozone, the world's first geriatric boy band, is on the verge of busting apart. Chimerica, Professor Niall Ferguson's amusing name for the Chinese-American economic partnership that started around the same time REM did, is going the way of Wham!, with Beijing figuring it's the George Michael of the relationship and that it's tired of wossname, the other fellow, who gets equal billing but doesn't really do anything. The deeper problem may be that this is a double-act with two wossnames.

Still, it's the end of the world as we know it. Headline from CNBC: "Global Meltdown: Investors Are Dumping Nearly Everything." I assumed "Nearly Everything" was the cute name of a bankrupt, worthless, planet-saving green-jobs start-up backed by Obama bundlers and funded with a gazillion dollars of stimulus payback. But apparently it's "Nearly Everything" in the sense of the entire global economy. Headline from The Daily Telegraph of London: "David Cameron: Euro Debt 'Threatens World Stability.'" But, if you're not in the general vicinity of the world, you should be OK. Headline from The Wall Street Journal: "World Bank's Zoellick: World In 'Danger Zone.'" But, if you're not in the general vicinity of, wait, I did that gag with the last headline.

I mentioned in this space a few weeks ago the IMF's calculation that China will become the planet's leading economic power by the year 2016.

And I added that, if that proves correct, it means the fellow elected next November will be the last president of the United States to preside over the world's dominant economy. I thought that line might catch on. After all, we're always told that every election is the most critical consequential watershed election of all time, but this one actually would be: For the first time since Grover Cleveland's first term, America would be electing a global also-ran. But there's not a lot of sense of America's looming date with destiny in these presidential debates. I don't mean so much from the candidates as from their media interrogators – which is more revealing of where the meter on our political conversation is likely to be during the general election. On Thursday night, there was a question on gays in the military but none on the accelerating European debt crisis. It is certainly important to establish whether a would-be president is sufficiently non-homophobic to authorize a crack team of lesbian paratroopers to rappel into the Chinese treasury, break the safe and burn all our IOUs. But the curious complacency about the bigger questions is disturbing.

Greece is reported to be within weeks, if not days, of default. There are two likely outcomes to this scenario: 1) Greece will default; 2) Germany and the Eurocrats will decide that default would be too embarrassing for the EU's pretentions and will throw whatever sum of money is necessary into the great sucking maw of toxic ouzo to stave it off a while longer.

But Option Two doesn't alter the underlying reality – that, if words have any meaning, Greece is insolvent, and given its rapidly aging population (100 grandparents have 42 grandchildren) is unlikely to be non-insolvent under any conceivable scenario, no matter how tightly German taxpayers are squeezed to pay for it. By the same measure, so are many other Western nations.

On the other hand, attempting to postpone the Club Med welfare junkies' rendezvous with self-extinction will destabilize internal German politics (which always adds to the gaiety of nations) and strain to breaking point what's left of the European banking system. BNP Paribas, formerly Saddam's favorite banker and Gallicly insouciant about who it climbs into bed with, was reported in recent days to be cruising the flusher sheikhdoms and emirates in search of a new sugar daddy.

Delivering French banks into the hands of Islamic imperialists seems a high price to pay for bailing out Athenian deadbeats.

The question to ask is: What's holding the joint up? In the case of the global economy, the answer is: not much. The developed world's combined economic growth rate for 2012 is projected to be under 2 percent – and that's a best-case scenario in times that don't warrant much optimism.

As its own contribution to the end of the world as we know it, the Obama administration has just released a document called "Living Within Our Means And Investing In The Future: The President's Plan For Economic Growth And Deficit Reduction." If you're curious about the first part of the title – "Living Within Our Means" – Veronique de Rugy pointed out at National Review that under this plan debt held by the public will grow from just over $10 trillion to $17.7 trillion by 2021. In other words, the president's definition of "Living Within Our Means" is to burn through the equivalent of the entire German, French and British economies in new debt between now and the end of the decade. You can try this yourself next time your bank manager politely suggests you should try "living within your means": tell him you've got an ingenious plan to get your spending under control by near doubling your present debt in the course of a mere decade. He's sure to be impressed.

As for the "Investing In The Future" part of the president's plan, that means lots more government, lots more half-billion dollar payoffs to pseudo-businesses cooked up by cronies, lots more 4.8 million-dollar-per-job taxpayer subsidies paid for with money borrowed from our unborn grandchildren. In a perfect snapshot of this administration's witless banality, the president traveled last week to the Brent Spence Bridge across the Ohio River and claimed that, despite the fact that the structure connects the home states of the Republican House leader and the Republican Senate leader, the mean-spirited GOP is going to kill the jobs bill and thus all prospects for a new bridge between their two states.

The bridge has nothing to do with the jobs bill. Work on a new bridge is not scheduled to begin for four years and wouldn't be completed until 2022 at the earliest. Because in the Republic at twilight you can run up another seven-and-a-half trillion dollars of new debt in less time than it takes to put up a bridge. Even as cheap political showboating the president's photo op was a pathetic joke, with the laugh on you.

If this is the best America can do, there won't be a 2022, not for the United States, or anything that would be recognizable as such. Like REM says, it's the end of the world as we know it. And, as their split suggests, they no longer feel fine. And nor should you.


Friday, September 23, 2011

Rethinking Chesterton

By Jay Parini
The Chronicle Review
September 18, 2011

GK Chesterton at work
Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It has been over half a century since Maisie Ward's major biography of G.K Chesterton (1874-1936) appeared in 1943. Since then, Chesterton has largely been a darling of Anglophiles, conservatives, and orthodox Roman Catholics, the sort of writer often invoked in the pages of the National Review. And oh, yes, read by mystery-story lovers everywhere for his Father Brown series.

More recently, however, he has begun to find a sympathetic audience in wider literary circles, as evidenced by G.K. Chesterton, Ian Ker's detailed and compelling new biography from Oxford University Press, and a generous collection of his writings this year from Everyman's Library, selected by Ker, a senior research fellow at St. Benet's Hall, Oxford University. From my viewpoint, it's time Chesterton was taken seriously as a major critic and biographer, a thinker of sharp wit and deep learning.

Chesterton's work includes nearly every type of writing—poetry, philosophy, literary criticism, biography, political and social argument, playwriting, detective fiction, and Christian apologetics. Yet he was, in the main, a journalist at heart, pumping out weekly columns for a variety of papers, especially The Daily Mail, on every conceivable subject, and his devoted audience included the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, who was "thunderstruck" by Chesterton's fierce independence of thought.

Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine fabulist, never failed to mention Chesterton among his favorite writers. Being a fan of detective fiction, he too adored the Father Brown stories, regarding Chesterton, with Edgar Allan Poe and Conan Doyle, as a founding father of the genre. Yet it was more than the detective fiction that interested Borges; he quoted Chesterton extensively as a linguistic philosopher, crediting him with "the most lucid words written about language."

Writers often gravitated toward Chesterton, including George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, both ardent socialists but good, if contentious, friends during his lifetime. Indeed, Chesterton debated Shaw in public on several occasions, and Chesterton's own idiosyncratic but highly suggestive history of the world (The Everlasting Man, 1925) might be considered a riposte to Wells's The Outline of History (1919). (Wells regarded human beings as a species who evolved from a highly primitive form and might one day use their intelligence to establish a peaceful and prosperous world. Chesterton thought that impossible; human beings would continue to suffer from something akin to what Christians call "original sin.") Among later writers, T.S. Eliot and J.R.R. Tolkien admired him, while W.H. Auden took the trouble to edit a selection from Chesterton's nonfiction in 1970.

The reason for the interest is simple: Few writers have ranged so widely and so well, in aphoristic prose that repays thoughtful rereading. At his best, as in his Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1906), Chesterton ranks among the finest critics of English literature. His studies of Victorian fiction and poetry (there is also a remarkable 1903 book on Browning) still command our attention, and his Autobiography (1936) is among the treasures of that genre—a genial if rambling production that brings English life and letters during the early decades of the 20th century into vivid relief.

Yet Chesterton's reputation has been difficult to assess, in part because so many of his fans from the Catholic and political right have tended to emphasize only his Christian apologetics, as in Orthodoxy (1908). Yet even that is a more complicated work than often portrayed, with little of the theological rigidity and sense of moral stricture one associates with the term. For instance, Chesterton took a detour at one point to discuss the Fenians, the Irish rebels against British rule, whom most of his countrymen regarded as terrorists. With his usual enjoyment of paradox, he argued that "the lawlessness of Ireland is a Christian lawlessness, founded on reason and justice."

Chesterton was a lifelong Christian who, as Ker shows, moved gradually but inexorably from the Anglo-Catholicism of his childhood to Rome (he was received into the Roman Church in 1922). Even then, he remained complicated and ironical, reassessing such major figures in the history of Christianity as Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi—an unlikely duo, drawn from opposite ends of the Catholic temperament.

In truth, Chesterton was a natural democrat who identified more with the beer-drinking masses than snobs with glasses of sherry in their Oxford college gardens. His lifelong interest in the Middle Ages was less about a love of feudalism and hierarchy than a warm identification with peasants and craftsmen. As Ker notes, he held in high regard the idea of "self-government," which he saw in the medieval guild system, of which Britain's "attenuated and threatened" trade unions were but "a ghost."

There is what Ker calls a "defense of the common man" that ran through Chesterton's writings—and separated him from most other writers of his era. As Chesterton put it, the "merely educated can scarcely ever be brought to believe that this world is itself an interesting place. When they look at a work of art, good or bad, they expect to be interested, but when they look at a newspaper advertisement or a group in the street, they do not, properly and literally speaking, expect to be interested. But to common and simple people this world is a work of art, though it is, like many great works of art, anonymous."

In his early study of Dickens, he admired the author's "carnival of liberty": the "buffoonery and bravery of the spirit of the Middle Ages," the "large jokes and long stories and brown ale." By contrast, "The Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothicists, the admirers of the Middle Ages, had in their subtlety and sadness the spirit of the present day."

Like Chaucer, Chesterton explained, Dickens "loved story within story, everyman telling a tale. Sam Weller would have been a great gain to the Canterbury Pilgrimage and told an admirable story. Rossetti's Damozel would have been a great bore, regarded as too fast by the Prioress and too priggish by the wife of Bath." In those words the shimmering and paradoxical quality of Chesterton's vision inheres.

The study of Dickens was seminal, sparking a revival of interest in the novelist, granting respectability to a figure whose popularity with the masses had diminished his standing among critics and literary historians. (It was a beginning; Dickens's firm place in the canon took a few more decades to establish itself.)

Chesterton's ideal critic was an oppositional, even quarrelsome figure, one who tore down false idols and found value in unexpected places; he argued frequently that criticism does not exist to say what authors already understood about themselves. Rather, "it exists to say the things about them which they did not know themselves."

In that spirit, far from being a defender of conventionality, Chesterton was a natural anarchist, a beery supporter of small-scale government (he rejected the notion of socialism, calling himself a Distributist, which he defined as "Man standing on two legs and requiring two boots ... his own boots"). In his essays (and the Father Brown stories), he mounted an attack on capitalism and the class system. And he abhorred Britain's class society, which he believed was dominated, in the modern age, by soulless materialism. As for the aristocracy: "The typical aristocrat was the typical upstart" whose family was "founded on stealing" and whose "family was stealing still."

One hears this characteristic note of prickly opposition in the very first sentence of the Autobiography: "Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in a little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge."

In other words, for Chesterton, hardly any firm ground exists. So he bows in "blind credulity" to "mere authority" and the "tradition of elders," though he seems to do so for whimsical reasons. He teases the reader at every turn, pulling out rhetorical rugs wherever he can, seeming to side with religion, then undercutting it as superstition; playing with "believing" in his birthplace and dates while denying any direct experience of the "facts." But he makes sure to place the church of his baptism under the shadow of a waterworks, thereby showing himself already in a contrary stance toward modern life, with its ugly mechanical systems. In a way, all of Chesterton's writing plays with paradox in this way.

Perhaps that is why he had a healthy disregard for "facts," not unlike Oscar Wilde, who complained that the English "were always degrading truths into facts." Chesterton tried in his criticism (which was largely biographical in flavor) to get at the character of a figure before worrying too much about specific details (his critics often pointed to factual errors in his work, although those were rarely deal-breaking, merely a sign of sloppiness).

Like Dickens and Wilde and so many other British writers before and after him, Chesterton was popular in the United States, where he made a good deal of cash by lecturing. He cut a memorable figure, with his flowing cape and walking stick, and his 6-foot-4-inch frame, weighing in at nearly 300 pounds. And not unlike Dickens, he left America with mixed emotions. On the one hand, he condemned the materialism, the worship of success, and emphasis on conformity, which seemed so at odds with the American faith in the individual. Yet he admired the fact that Americans had "a very real respect for work" and for "the dignity of labor," and had no attachment to the English idea of leisure, which had been elevated to a kind of ideal in the Old World. He also liked the fact that Americans were childlike, "not afraid of curiosity," and full of "vivacity." Above all, Americans had an abundant power of wonder.

And for Chesterton, wonder was accompanied by joy: "The mass of men," he wrote at the conclusion of Orthodoxy, "have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul."

It is the quality of wonder that so many readers and critics have lost sight of in the priggish, conservative Chesterton they seem to prefer. This man was an eagle, flying high over the barren landscapes of modernism, and his astute challenges to mundane views challenge us to rethink thoughtless positions on a variety of subjects.

His good cheer was not baseless optimism: It arose from a deep conviction that the human imagination is glorious, has its origins in divine realities, and refuses to lie down. He believed, in a strange way, in belief itself as the ground of experience. As he once said, "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."

- Jay Parini is a novelist, poet, and professor of English at Middlebury College. His most recent novel is The Passages of H.M.: A Novel of Herman Melville (Doubleday, 2010).

Today's Tune: Bruce Springsteen - Follow That Dream (Live 1986)

Return of the real Obama

The Washington Post
September 23, 2011

In a 2008 debate, Charlie Gibson asked Barack Obama about his support for raising capital gains taxes, given the historical record of government losing net revenue as a result. Obama persevered: “Well, Charlie, what I’ve said is that I would look at raising the capital gains tax for purposes of fairness.”

A most revealing window into our president’s political core: To impose a tax that actually impoverishes our communal bank account (the U.S. Treasury) is ridiculous. It is nothing but punitive. It benefits no one — not the rich, not the poor, not the government. For Obama, however, it brings fairness, which is priceless.

Now that he’s president, Obama has actually gone and done it. He’s just proposed a $1.5 trillion tsunami of tax hikes featuring a “Buffett rule” that, although as yet deliberately still fuzzy, clearly includes raising capital gains taxes.

He also insists again upon raising marginal rates on “millionaire” couples making $250,000 or more. But roughly half the income of small businesses (i.e., those filing individual returns) would be hit by this tax increase. Therefore, if we are to believe Obama’s own logic that his proposed business tax credits would increase hiring, then surely this tax hike will reduce small-business hiring.

But what are jobs when fairness is at stake? Fairness trumps growth. Fairness trumps revenue. Fairness trumps economic logic.

Obama himself has said that “you don’t raise taxes in a recession.” Why then would he risk economic damage when facing reelection? Because these proposals have no chance of being enacted, many of them having been rejected by the Democratic-controlled Congress of Obama’s first two years in office.

Moreover, this is not an economic, or jobs, or debt-reduction plan in the first place. This is a campaign manifesto. This is anti-millionaire populism as premise for his reelection. And as such, it is already working.

Obama’s Democratic base is electrified. On the left, the new message is playing to rave reviews. It has rekindled the enthusiasm of his core constituency — the MoveOn, Hollywood liberal, Upper West Side precincts best described years ago by John Updike: “Like most of the neighborhood, she was a fighting liberal, fighting to have her money taken from her.”

Added Updike: “For all her exertions, it never was.” But now with Obama — it will be! Turns out, Obama really was the one they had been waiting for.

That is: the new Obama, today’s soak-the-rich, veto-threatening, self-proclaimed class warrior. Except that the new Obama is really the old Obama — the one who, upon entering office in the middle of a deep economic crisis, and determined not to allow “a serious crisis to go to waste” (to quote his then-chief of staff), exploited the (presumed) malleability of a demoralized and therefore passive citizenry to enact the largest Keynesian stimulus in recorded history, followed by the quasi-nationalization of one-sixth of the economy that is health care.

Considering the political cost — a massive electoral rebuke by an infuriated 2010 electorate — these are the works of a conviction politician, one deeply committed to his own social-democratic vision.

That politician now returns. Obama’s new populism surely is a calculation that his halfhearted feints to the center after the midterm “shellacking” were not only unconvincing but would do him no good anyway with a stagnant economy, 9 percent unemployment and a staggering $4 trillion of new debt.

But this is more than a political calculation. It is more than just a pander to his base. It is a pander to himself: Obama is a member of his base. He believes this stuff. It is an easy and comfortable political shift for him, because it’s a shift from a phony centrism back to his social-democratic core, from positioning to authenticity.

The authentic Obama is a leveler, a committed social democrat, a staunch believer in the redistributionist state, a tribune, above all, of “fairness” — understood as government-imposed and government-enforced equality.

That’s why “soak the rich” is not just a campaign slogan to rally the base. It’s a mission, a vocation. It’s why, for all its gratuitous cynicism and demagoguery, Obama’s populist Rose Garden lecture on Monday was delivered with such obvious — and unusual — conviction.

He’s returned to the authenticity of his radical April 2009 “New Foundation” address (at Georgetown University) that openly proclaimed his intent to fundamentally transform America.

Good. There’s something to be said for authenticity. A choice, not an echo, said Barry Goldwater. The country will soon choose, although not soon enough.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Moneyball and the Ballad of Bill James

By Joe Posnanski
September 21, 2011

OAKLAND — Bill James bought a new sport coat for the occasion. It’s a nice jacket, sensible design, the sort of thing that a college literature professor might wear, and it allows him to do exactly what he wants to do: blend into the scene. He and his wife Susie fly into the Bay Area for the day. They stay at the La Quinta Inn near the airport. They take the train into downtown Oakland. They walk through the huge crowd at the Paramount Theater more or less without being noticed. Every now and again, they see a celebrity, and are happier for it. The absurdity of it all doesn’t throw them much, not anymore.

Hollywood made a movie about sabermetrics. Yes. That word. Sabermetrics. Hollywood actually made a movie about the search for objective knowledge in the game of baseball. Well, of course, you could argue that Moneyball, which had its star-studded premiere here on Monday, is really about an iconoclast named Billy Beane. You could argue that Moneyball is really about the Oakland Athletics’ attempt to win with less money than most other teams. You could argue, perhaps most persuasively, that Moneyball is about Brad Pitt, who might be the only actor in the world with enough juice to get this sort of movie made in the first place.

Why argue, though? This is the premiere of Moneyball, and there has never been a movie quite like it. Downtown Oakland crackles with glamour and baseball. Actors walk across the red carpet, which in this case is green and looks like outfield grass. Producers talk about the journey to get this movie made. Actors talk about how much fun it was to dress up and act like baseball people. Reporters ask each other in sarcastic tones: “So, who are you wearing?” Oakland A’s fans stand across the street and pick up different chants, ranging from “DAY-vid JUSS-tiss” to the less rhythmic “FIL-up SEE-more HAWF-man!”

“I thought they did a great job with the movie,” says Michael Lewis, who wrote the book Moneyball. “Let’s be honest: Did I think they could make a movie out of Moneyball? No. Never. I even told the studio that. And when they did make it, I thought it would suck.”

The movie does not suck, not at all; that’s the wrong word, and that’s a story for tomorrow. The story for today is how we even got here. It is a story about a man who is not really in the movie. No actor plays him. He’s mentioned here and there, but only for a few seconds. Still, without him, there is no Moneyball. There is no sabermetrics, at least not under that name. Certainly people would still be looking for objective knowledge in baseball — people were looking long before him and they will be looking long after.

But without the life’s work of Bill James, they sure as heck would not have made a movie about it.

* * *

What would a formula for Bill James’ career look like? I’ve thought quite a lot about this and have finally came up with one:

(Cu * D) / (CoW) = Bill James

What does that mean? Well, first: What do you think it could mean? See, Bill James believes that baseball statistics and formulas should tell stories on their own. Sometimes he will be at a ballgame, and they will flash some pitiful statistic up on the scoreboard, something like “John Johnson has hit in six of his last nine games,” or, “Lefties hit .268 off Will Wilson in July.” And it will drive him mad. Who cares? Tells you nothing. Fills the imagination with blackness.

Instead: Take a look at these numbers from a season:

.354 batting average, 55 stolen bases, 31 walks

These are made-up statistics, but if you are a baseball fan, you can see this player, can’t you? You can look at those numbers and create an image in your mind. It doesn’t have to be just like my image. You might see a left-handed hitter, while I see a switch-hitter. You might see him as white or African American or Dominican or Asian. You might see a shortstop, while I see a center fielder. Whatever: We both see a kind of player, a fast one, a free-swinger, a slasher. Maybe he bunts a lot. Maybe he has a knack for hitting the ball the other way. Maybe he’s Tony Gwynn. Maybe he’s Ichiro.

Here’s another one:

20-6 record, 4.28 ERA

Just two statistics this time (three if you count wins and losses separately). Again, can’t you picture him? Maybe he’s a workhorse of a right-handed pitcher, maybe 6-foot-1, with a force of will and a refusal to come out of games. Maybe he’s a soft-tossing lefty who has a knack for being on the mound when his team scores five or six runs. But there’s something… an image that emerges from the numbers, like a snake from a basket.

Now look at these statistics:

1,237 yards, 15 touchdowns, 4.2 yards per carry

What does this running back look like? Can you see anything? He’s obviously good, really good. But do those numbers spark an image for you? It’s a personal question: Maybe they do for you. Maybe you immediately think of a certain kind of player. To be honest, they don’t for me. That runner could be Jim Brown or he could be Larry Johnson. He could run with the step-by-step precision of Priest Holmes or dance like Barry Sanders or plow like Jerome Bettis. He could run behind a great line that opens up craters for him or he could be an amazing one-man-show who finds creases where none seem to be. He could be almost anything. The only thing I can really say from those numbers is: I’d like him on my fantasy football team (back when I played fantasy football).

Look at these numbers:

24.7 points per game, 9.6 rebounds per game

Elton Brand? Dirk Nowitzki? Dominique Wilkins? Larry Bird? Maybe it’s Yao Ming towering over everyone. Maybe it’s Bernard King driving hard to the basket. Perhaps you see a story in those numbers, but again, I don’t.

There is something about baseball, perhaps, a rhythm, a blend of individual and team, something that gives its numbers a richness that goes beyond digits and decimal points, and that is what brought Bill James to life.

* * *

The (Cu) in the above formula is curiosity, of course. Bill James grew up in a small Kansas town called Mayetta. He will talk a lot about his childhood, but not so much about the pain. His mother died when he was 5. His father suffered at times in business and with his health. Bill buried himself in baseball. He suspects that he would have anyway, that baseball and its numbers struck his mind in a certain way that would have been there no matter the circumstances. When he was 12, he collected baseball cards off cereal boxes and he would always remember that he was struck by the connection between the season totals of Jim Davenport and Elston Howard.

Davenport in 1960: .251 average, 6 homers, 38 RBIs in 363 at-bats
Howard in 1960: .245 average, 6 homers, 39 RBIs in 323 at-bats

Those two seasons were more alike than any other two baseball cards, he decided. “My brother Bob couldn’t figure out what the hell the point was,” Bill would write years later, “and who cared.”

His mind could not help but make those sorts of connections, though. His mind could not help but ask questions. Always questions. The questions peppered him constantly, so much so that he did not really think much about school or much of anything else. How do teams score runs? How can you judge fielders? How much is pitching really worth? When he went to the University of Kansas, he made friends, and he protested the war in Vietnam (at least for a little while, until he decided that the protesters needed to be protested too), and he listened to a lot of music. But those baseball questions never really stopped coming at him. They still come at him.

“I have a question for you,” he will often write me in emails, and then he will ask something like, “Do you think that writers are more likely to have a song stick in their heads than people who don’t work as much with words?”

As he has often said, if there wasn’t a game like baseball, he feels quite sure that the constant questions would have still filled his mind. That’s just his nature. But because there IS a game like baseball, most of the questions were baseball-related, and when he got out of the army he could not help but try to answer those questions. The idea of becoming a baseball writer was foggy at best. He did not know what he would do. He got a series of jobs, the most famous of those as a night watchman for the Stokely Van Camp pork and beans cannery in Lawrence, Kans. The only bits of clarity came from baseball. And in the dead moments — and there were so many dead moments in those early years — he tried to come up with some answers to pacify the questions raging in his mind.

* * *

The (D) in my Bill James formula is distrust, and maybe you can begin to see the form of Bill James building. Many people have questions about baseball. But most of us are placated by the answers we are given. Bunting is the best way to get that run across? Fine. A walk is about the pitcher and not the hitter? OK, sounds good. There are certain hitters who just have the ability to knock in runs? Great. Let’s go play some ball.

Bill has a sharp and hypersensitive distaste for bull—-. This is true even for his close friends. The answers that people offered to his baseball questions did nothing at all to stop the whistling in his mind. If anything, the whistling grew louder. The questions that troubled him most in the early years seem odd now, but you can see how everything was coming into focus for him.

Take one question in particular: Do great and exciting pitchers like Nolan Ryan draw more fans than others? Why that question? Who really cares? But I think that question was a particular breakthrough for Bill James because it seemed so obvious (OF COURSE Nolan Ryan outdrew other pitchers) and it was relatively easy to answer. All he had to do was look up the attendance when Ryan pitched and when others on his team pitched. This wasn’t exactly EASY in 1977 — it was long before personal computers and, so he had to go through the box scores he had clipped out of The Sporting News — but it was relatively easy. And what he found was: No. Nolan Ryan absolutely did not draw more fans than other pitchers. He didn’t draw more than his Angels teammates such as Don Kirkwood in 1976. And in the Astrodome in Houston, he was outdrawn by Vern Ruhle and Joe Niekro in 1980.

Well, if people could get something that simple wrong, they could get just about anything wrong. It wasn’t in Bill’s nature to trust conventional wisdom anyway, but the more he looked at the box scores — the more hours he spent with the evidence — the more he came to believe that so much of what people said automatically about baseball was silly, misleading, incomplete.

He kept looking at those box scores and kept looking and kept looking, and this is the image that endures of Bill James — him in that pork and beans plant with graph paper and clipped box scores and line after line of numbers. It was around this time that he started to really challenge some of the conventions of baseball. It was around this time that he concocted the word “sabermetrics.”*

*Sabermetrics — now in the American Heritage Dictionary as “the application of statistical analysis to baseball records, esp. in order to evaluate and compare the performance of individual players” — comes from root SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research.

It was also around this time that he started to find people like himself — a community of people. Mostly, though, he worked alone. The very concept of errors — of judging players’ defense based only on the plays that an official scorer thought he should make — drove him nuts. Crediting wins and losses to pitchers as if they and they alone were responsible drove him nuts too. The inability of baseball’s numbers to take into account the differences in ballparks also drove him nuts (how could you judge Jim Rice, who played half his games in Fenway Park, and Bob Watson, who played half HIS games in the Astrodome, in the same way?).

Yes, he was driven nuts early and often, and he raged back with a sort of funny, blunt and often searing writing that appealed to an audience that nobody had realized existed. Bill James was not the first person to search for deeper knowledge in baseball, not even close, but unlike anyone else, he could bring that search to life on the page. Many of his formulas became pretty famous in baseball circles — runs created, Pythagorean winning percentage, favorite toy, secondary average, similarity scores, Hall of Fame monitor, and on and on — but it was the writing that broke through. His essay on the absurdity of the “pitching is 90 percent of baseball” cliché is a classic, and left no survivors.

If Bill has regrets about his early writing it is that he feels he was often too mean. But I suspect that it had to be that way. He found himself on the front line of a fight that he had no intention of starting. Bill had always thought that if he spent hours and hours looking up numbers and discovering that, say, players who get on base are especially valuable in the leadoff spot, or that pitchers with bad won-loss records are sometimes very good pitchers, well, he thought that people in baseball would appreciate that information and maybe even use it.

But, of course, that’s not what happened. They really did gripe about how he had never played the game. They really did say that baseball is a game of the gut and a game of the heart, and you can’t offer anything of any use about baseball with formulas or science. They really did say that he did not love baseball, not the way that baseball was meant to be loved, and that he was only hurting the game.

The funny thing is that the first people around baseball who did hear his song were player agents, particularly the Hendricks brothers. In a 1982 salary arbitration case, they were representing a pitcher named Steve Trout, who had gone 9-16 for the White Sox in ’80 and then a mere 8-7 in the strike-interrupted 1981 season. The White Sox — led by an assistant GM named Dave Dombrowski — made the point that Trout was clearly not in good shape after the 1981 strike, and all you had to do was look at his record in 1980 to see that he had been disappointing the year before. The Hendricks brothers then pulled out that guy named Bill James, who pointed out that in 1980 Trout lost six games where he had allowed three earned runs or fewer, and that in his first eight games after the strike his ERA was 3.06. Trout was awarded the money.

Bill James kept writing about baseball, though he tried always to keep it fresh. He wrote The Baseball Abstract every year for almost a decade and then decided that it had run its course. He wrote books about managers and the Hall of Fame and so on. At some point he came to expect that nobody inside baseball would ever really listen to what he had to say about it. He made his peace with that. He still loved the game, and loved exploring it. One of my favorite paragraphs that Bill ever wrote was from his New Historical Abstract:

“I was once described by a now-defunct publication as ‘the guru of baseball statistics,’ and by Sparky Anderson as “a little fat guy with a beard who knows nothing about nothing.’ Actually, I’m seven inches taller than Sparky is, but what the heck, three out of four ain’t bad, and it sure beats being described as the guru of baseball statistics.”

* * *

The (CoW) of the formula is the trickiest part — but it’s the one that I think clarifies the genius of Bill James. (CoW) is complexity of the world.

In one of the early, discarded versions of the film Moneyball — the movie had numerous forms before coming to life on the big screen — Bill James was to be played by an animated character. Nobody was at all sure how this was going to work (least of all, Bill) but I think this was a bit of inspired casting because, over the years, so many people have stubbornly insisted on seeing him as a cartoon. The Bill James image — humorless statistician who sees baseball and life through the prism of bloodless numbers — is a transcontinental flight from the real man, but at some point he learned to stop worrying and love the bombast. When The Simpsons asked him to play himself on the show, he happily enunciated his one line: “I made baseball as fun as doing your taxes!”

“What difference does it make?” Bill asks, and then he changes the subject to, say, the music of Roger Miller (“Roger Miller is fun about once a year. I’ve got like eight albums of Roger Miller stuff, like My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died and Lu’s Got the Flu,”) or the varying qualities of George Clooney’s movies or how he has become convinced that Lizzy Borden could not have committed those murders.

If there is a guiding principle to all of Bill’s work, it is this: What difference does it make? The world is a complicated place. Baseball is a complicated game. This, more than anything, is what the Bill-as-cartoon people miss. He does not think that there are RIGHT answers and WRONG answers, certainly not to the questions that rage in his head. He just thinks that there are ways to get closer to the truth.

“We will never figure out baseball,” he says. “We will never get close to figuring out baseball.”

This, I think, is the critical final piece. Curiosity might have been the flint, distrust of conventional wisdom might have been the steel, but that only gives you a spark. What turned the work into a raging fire was that Bill James has never really believed that he had figured it out. He never even believed that you COULD figure it out. All he wanted to do was get the conversation going, advance the ball, give people new things to think about, let the discussion evolve and keep evolving. In the later years, Bill found that his word WAS read by people who mattered. The personal computer changed everything — there have been countless baseball studies done that would have literally been impossible 30 years ago. Television screens got bigger*.

*Bill thinks that bigger television screens might be the No. 1 reason for the explosion of statistics in baseball. “When they put batting average, home runs and RBI on a screen 35 years ago, it took up a fourth of the screen,” he says. “If they’d put the pitch count, the batter’s count, the score and the runners on base on there, the batter would have been entirely obscured. But with the immense TV screens that we all have now, you can shows six channels and see everything.”

Bill James started to be recognized. Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. The Boston Red Sox hired him, and he received two World Series rings.

Baseball people, some of them at least, started to look hard at his work. He captured the imagination of an ex-marine named Sandy Alderson, who passed along Bill’s books to a failed prospect named Billy Beane, who became a successful general manager and shared some of his winning secrets with a marvelous writer named Michael Lewis, who wrote a book called Moneyball that caught the attention of a famous actor named Brad Pitt.

And that is how we got here to the Paramount Theater in Oakland, a big crowd, limousines, bright lights and Bill James wandering unnoticed with a new jacket and his wife Susie on his arm.

* * *

“There are two fruits here that I have never seen before,” Bill James is saying now, and this is the post-movie party in the Fox Theater, which is a few blocks away. There is music blaring, and camera phones flashing, and celebrities who played in the movie at every turn. Oakland A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy — who is 6-foot-7 and throws a good cutter and has a funny and must-follow Twitter account — wanders over for a while. McCarthy, at the moment, is leading the American League in an interesting statistic called Fielding Independent Pitching.

“He’s having a very good year,” I explain to Susie after Brandon leaves. Susie is an artist, and she sees baseball through an artist’s eye. She asks: “What is his record?”

I start to say that his 9-8 record doesn’t really tell how well McCarthy is pitching, but Bill says, “I think it’s something like 14-10.” This is not a time for sabermetrics. This is a time for small talk, for people-watching, and we talk about Brad Pitt movies and the struggling Red Sox and why the DJ won’t play a song released in the previous 30 years (at that moment Hotel California is playing). We also talk about the two fruits that are on the buffet tables, two fruits that Bill has never seen before. The first is kind of like a plum, but not really a plum.

The second is a sort of ball that looks like it is covered with green artificial turf.

“I think that’s just for decoration,” Susie says.

“I know,” Bill says, “but I wonder what kind of fruit it is.”

“No,” Susie says, “I don’t think it is a fruit. I really think it’s just a decoration.”

Bill stays silent for a while after that. Maybe he’s thinking about how crazy it is, his life, from comparing baseball cards to all those hours spent over box scores to a movie premiere where Brad Pitt plays a hero who challenges baseball’s conventions. More likely he’s wondering if that green ball can be eaten and why anyone would.


Moneyball the Movie -

Today's Tune: Jim Ringer - Tramps and Hawkers

Today's Tune: Dave Alvin - Blue Wing (w/ Tom Russell's "Rose of San Joaquin")

Can Israel Survive?

The country has never been in more danger.

By Victor Davis Hanson
September 22, 2011

Will Israel survive? That question hasn’t really been asked since 1967. Then, a far weaker Israel was surrounded on all sides by Arab dictatorships that were equipped with sophisticated weapons from their nuclear patron, the Soviet Union. But now, things are far worse for the Jewish state.

Egyptian mobs just tried to storm the Israeli embassy in Cairo and kill any Israelis they could get their hands on. Whatever Egyptian government emerges, it will be more Islamist than before — and may renounce the peace accords with Israel.

One thing unites Syrian and Libyan dissidents: They seem to hate Israel as much as the murderous dictators whom they have been trying to throw out.

The so-called Arab Spring was supposed to usher in Arab self-introspection about why intolerant strongmen keep sprouting up in the Middle East. Post-revolutionary critics could freely examine self-inflicted Arab wounds, such as tribalism, religious intolerance, authoritarianism, endemic corruption, closed economies, and gender apartheid.

But so far, “revolutionaries” sound a lot more like reactionaries. They are more often retreating to the tired conspiracies that the Israelis and Americans pushed onto innocent Arab publics homegrown, corrupt madmen such as Bashar Assad, Moammar Qaddafi, and Hosni Mubarak.

In 1967, the more powerful periphery of the Middle East — the Shah’s Iran, Kemalist Turkey, a military-run Pakistan, and the Gulf monarchies — was mostly uninvolved in the Israeli-Arab frontline fighting.

Not now. A soon-to-be-nuclear Iran serially promises to destroy Israel. The Erdogan government in Turkey brags about its Ottoman Islamist past — and wants to provoke Israel into an eastern-Mediterranean shooting war. Pakistan is the world’s leading host and exporter of jihadists obsessed with destroying Israel. The oil-rich Gulf states use their vast petroleum wealth and clout to line up oil importers against Israel. The 21st-century United Nations is a de facto enemy of the Jewish state.

Meanwhile, the West is nearly bankrupt. The European Union is on the brink of dissolving, its population shrinking amid growing numbers of Islamic immigrants.

America is $16 trillion in debt. We are tired of three wars. The Obama administration initially thought putting a little light between Israel and the United States might coax Arab countries into negotiating a peace. That new American triangulation certainly has given a far more confident Muslim world more hope — but it is hope that just maybe the United States cannot or will not come to Israel’s aid if Muslim states ratchet up the tension.

It is trendy to blame Israeli intransigence for all these bleak developments. But to do so is simply to forget history. There were three Arab efforts to destroy Israel before it occupied any borderlands after its victory in 1967. Later, it gave back all of Sinai and yet now faces a hostile Egypt. It got out of Lebanon — and Hezbollah crowed that Israel was weakening, as that terrorist organization moved in and stockpiled thousands of missiles pointed at Tel Aviv. Israel got out of Gaza and earned as thanks both rocket showers and a terrorist Hamas government sworn to destroy the Jewish state.

The Arab Middle East damns Israel for not granting a “right of return” to Palestinians who have not lived there in nearly 70 years. But it keeps embarrassed silence about the more than half-million Jews whom Arab dictatorships much later ethnically cleansed from Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo, and sent back into Israel. On cue, the Palestinian ambassador to the United States again brags that there will be no Jews allowed in his newly envisioned and American-subsidized Palestinian state — a boast with eerie historical parallels.

By now we know both what will start and what will deter yet another conflict in the Middle East. In the past, wars broke out when the Arab states thought they could win them and stopped when they realized they could not.

But now a new array of factors — ever more Islamist enemies of Israel such as Turkey and Iran, ever more likelihood of frontline Arab Islamist governments, ever more fear of Islamic terrorism, ever more unabashed anti-Semitism, ever more petrodollars flowing into the Middle East, ever more prospects of nuclear Islamist states, and ever more indifference by Europe and the United States — has probably convinced Israel’s enemies that finally they can win what they could not in 1947, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and 2006.

So brace yourself. The next war against Israel is no longer a matter of if — only when. And it will be far more deadly than any we’ve witnessed in quite some time.

— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


By Ann Coulter
September 21, 2011

For decades, liberals tried persuading Americans to abolish the death penalty, using their usual argument: hysterical sobbing.

Only when the media began lying about innocent people being executed did support for the death penalty begin to waver, falling from 80 percent to about 60 percent in a little more than a decade. (Silver lining: That's still more Americans than believe in man-made global warming.)

Fifty-nine percent of Americans now believe that an innocent man has been executed in the last five years. There is more credible evidence that space aliens have walked among us than that an innocent person has been executed in this country in the past 60 years, much less the past five years.

But unless members of the public are going to personally review trial transcripts in every death penalty case, they have no way of knowing the truth. The media certainly won't tell them.

It's nearly impossible to receive a death sentence these days -- unless you do something completely crazy like shoot a cop in full view of dozens of witnesses in a Burger King parking lot, only a few hours after shooting at a passing car while exiting a party.

That's what Troy Davis did in August 1989. Davis is the media's current baby seal of death row.

After a two-week trial with 34 witnesses for the state and six witnesses for the defense, the jury of seven blacks and five whites took less than two hours to convict Davis of Officer Mark MacPhail's murder, as well as various other crimes. Two days later, the jury sentenced Davis to death.

Now, a brisk 22 years after Davis murdered Officer MacPhail, his sentence will finally be administered this week -- barring any more of the legal shenanigans that have kept taxpayers on the hook for Davis' room and board for the past two decades.

(The average time on death row is 14 years. Then liberals turn around and triumphantly claim the death penalty doesn't have any noticeable deterrent effect. As the kids say: Duh.)

It has been claimed -- in The New York Times and Time magazine, for example -- that there was no "physical evidence" connecting Davis to the crimes that night.

Davis pulled out a gun and shot two strangers in public. What "physical evidence" were they expecting? No houses were broken into, no cars stolen, no rapes or fistfights accompanied the shootings. Where exactly would you look for DNA? And to prove what?

I suppose it would be nice if the shell casings from both shootings that night matched. Oh wait -- they did. That's "physical evidence."

It's true that the bulk of the evidence against Davis was eyewitness testimony. That tends to happen when you shoot someone in a busy Burger King parking lot.

Eyewitness testimony, like all evidence tending to show guilt, has gotten a bad name recently, but the "eyewitness" testimony in this case did not consist simply of strangers trying to distinguish one tall black man from another. For one thing, several of the eyewitnesses knew Davis personally.

The bulk of the eyewitness testimony established the following:

Two tall, young black men were harassing a vagrant in the Burger King parking lot, one in a yellow shirt and the other in a white Batman shirt. The one in the white shirt used a brown revolver to pistol-whip the vagrant. When a cop yelled at them to stop, the man in the white shirt ran, then wheeled around and shot the cop, walked over to his body and shot him again, smiling.

Some eyewitnesses described the shooter as wearing a white shirt, some said it was a white shirt with writing, and some identified it specifically as a white Batman shirt. Not one witness said the man in the yellow shirt pistol-whipped the vagrant or shot the cop.

Several of Davis' friends testified -- without recantation -- that he was the one in a white shirt. Several eyewitnesses, both acquaintances and strangers, specifically identified Davis as the one who shot Officer MacPhail.

Now the media claim that seven of the nine witnesses against Davis at trial have recanted.

First of all, the state presented 34 witnesses against Davis -- not nine -- which should give you some idea of how punctilious the media are about their facts in death penalty cases.

Among the witnesses who did not recant a word of their testimony against Davis were three members of the Air Force, who saw the shooting from their van in the Burger King drive-in lane. The airman who saw events clearly enough to positively identify Davis as the shooter explained on cross-examination, "You don't forget someone that stands over and shoots someone."

Recanted testimony is the least believable evidence since it proves only that defense lawyers managed to pressure some witnesses to alter their testimony, conveniently after the trial has ended. Even criminal lobbyist Justice William Brennan ridiculed post-trial recantations.

Three recantations were from friends of Davis, making minor or completely unbelievable modifications to their trial testimony. For example, one said he was no longer sure he saw Davis shoot the cop, even though he was five feet away at the time. His remaining testimony still implicated Davis.

One alleged recantation, from the vagrant's girlfriend (since deceased), wasn't a recantation at all, but rather reiterated all relevant parts of her trial testimony, which included a direct identification of Davis as the shooter.

Only two of the seven alleged "recantations" (out of 34 witnesses) actually recanted anything of value -- and those two affidavits were discounted by the court because Davis refused to allow the affiants to testify at the post-trial evidentiary hearing, even though one was seated right outside the courtroom, waiting to appear.

The court specifically warned Davis that his refusal to call his only two genuinely recanting witnesses would make their affidavits worthless. But Davis still refused to call them -- suggesting, as the court said, that their lawyer-drafted affidavits would not have held up under cross-examination.

With death penalty opponents so fixated on Davis' race -- he's black -- it ought to be noted that all the above witnesses are themselves African-American. The first man Davis shot in the car that night was African-American.

I notice that the people so anxious to return this sociopathic cop-killer to the street don't live in his neighborhood.

There's a reason more than a dozen courts have looked at Davis' case and refused to overturn his death sentence. He is as innocent as every other executed man since at least 1950, which is to say, guilty as hell.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Comanche Moon

S.C. Gwynne has written a fine book for those interested in the Plains Indian Wars -- or in Texas history in general.

By on 9.21.11
The American Spectator

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History
By S.C. Gwynne
(Scribner, 384 pages, $27.50)

On May 19, 1836, a Comanche raiding party swept down on the frontier settlement of Parker's Fort in northern Texas, killing five adult men and carrying off two women and three children, including nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker. This event had a significant effect on Texas history over the next 75 years, as is outlined in S.C. Gwynne's Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. The book is both a biography of Chief Quanah, and a history of the Plains Wars and following reservation period.

The Comanches were the fierce Cossacks of the Southern Plains. Their mastery of the horse in the 17th century enabled them to dominate the regional geopolitical landscape. They halted northward Spanish expansion from New Mexico and westward French incursions from Louisiana. Their dark forays ranged from the Arkansas River to deep into Mexico. They drove the Apaches off the Texas plains and into the New Mexico-Arizona mesa country. Their boldness sent them to attack Taos, New Mexico, in 1706, and the following decades saw continued savage harassment of the pueblo communities. Raids on Mexican haciendas netted horse herds numbering in the thousands. For two centuries the Spanish, then Mexican, and finally the American presence was mostly powerless against them. The raiding parties traveled at night, and to this day a full summer moon in Texas is called a "Comanche Moon."

Cynthia Parker was raised by the Indians, eventually marrying a chief, Peta Nocona. Like most white captives taken at a tender age, she became totally immersed in Comanche culture, even losing her ability to speak English. Despite her ultimate status as the "White Queen of the Comanches," her life was one of abject drudgery as women did all the "blood and grease" work to maintain a nomadic culture based on buffalo hunting -- every day a struggle for survival. She was "rescued" against her will 24 years later in 1860 by a force of Texas Rangers (the Rangers were the first to deal effectively with the Comanches by adopting their surreptitious tactics) commanded by Sul Ross, a future governor of Texas. By then Cynthia had given birth to three children: a daughter named Prairie Flower; and two sons, one nicknamed "Peanuts," and the other the legendary Quanah Parker. The skirmish (in Texas history known as "The Battle of Pease River") that liberated her left her only with her daughter -- her husband was killed, her two sons escaped and were left to their own devices.

Quanah, born 1848, grew up to be a warrior, and -- like his father -- eventually a chief. He mastered hunting, riding, and fighting skills at a young age. By his twenties he was a participant in Comanche opposition to white settlement on the Texas plains. In 1871, when the U.S. Army first encountered him in a skirmish on the Brazos River, he was a calculating young chief, known for bloodthirsty raiding to avenge his family's tragic dislocation, which haunted him. Unbeknownst to him, Cynthia Parker died of influenza in 1870 after a decade of living unhappily with a series of white relatives. His sister Prairie Flower had died of pneumonia in 1864, still a child.

Quanah's tenacious struggle continued for four years as outside forces converged on the Comanches. White settlers filled the Texas river valleys (the Brazos, the Guadalupe, the Rio Grande). Buffalo hunters scoured the plains killing literally millions of bison, newly valuable for their hides due to modern tanning methods. And Washington in the post-Civil War era could again turn its attention to the "Indian problem" hindering western expansion. Oddly enough, at the time California was already a state and the Pacific coast settled. But the Great Plains and Rockies remained wild and unsettled, a great gap in American Manifest Destiny.

But a two century-long mounted war culture made the Comanches fierce adversaries. Superior horsemen, they were masters of lightning-strike guerrilla tactics. Not only did they travel easily at night, but they excelled at evasion. At Blanco Canyon in 1871 Quanah deftly avoided engaging a large force commanded by General Ranald Mackenzie by constantly dividing the fleeing Indians (including women and children and a large horse herd), leaving the noted Civil War veteran confused and furious. Mackenzie wouldn't make the same mistakes three years later when he commanded three thousand troops converging on the Comanches in five columns from that many directions.

The Comanches’ final defeat occurred at Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle in 1874 during the so-called Red River War. Though Quanah himself was not present, Mackenzie attacked a large village and inflicted heavy losses. Escaping Indians were sentenced to a fugitive starving winter as Mackenzie captured thousands of pounds of stored buffalo meat and intentionally shot 1,400 horses, thus copying George Custer's tactics against the Cheyennes on the Washita River in 1868. The surviving Comanches eventually succumbed to relentless military pressure and severe winter weather, small pockets surrendering throughout the winter of 1874-'75, with Quanah himself bringing his band to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in June 1875.

Only 27 at the time, Quanah lived long after his surrender, prospering in the cattle business on the Oklahoma reservation, his youth and half-white status easing the transition. He seemed to understand and adjust to the great change that had come to the Comanches. He had at different times a total of eight wives and fathered 24 children, his polygamy a sore spot with government bureaucrats and missionary types who dealt with him as the primary Comanche leader. He built a large home (its prized possession a photograph of his mother Cynthia taken in Fort Worth following her return to the white world) to accommodate this extensive household.

With varying degrees of success, the previously nomadic Comanches settled down to become farmers and ranchers. For Quanah, it must have been bittersweet, considering his family history and former free life on the plains. That way of life was only a vivid memory in his later years. He entertained the likes of President Teddy Roosevelt at his dinner table, and made many trips to Washington to advance Comanche interests. At his death in 1911 he could be thought of as the Nelson Mandela of his people.

Former Time and Texas Monthly editor S.C. Gwynne has written a fine book for those interested in both the Plains Indian Wars and Texas history in general. The story is gripping, dramatic, and steeped in a history both specific and universal.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


By Mark Steyn
from National Review, September 20, 2011

Suppose, for the sake of argument, you share the goal of Osama bin Laden and his surviving lieutenants: In other words, you desire to see the world dominated by a new caliphate. Is it really that helpful to have the livelier lads flying planes into skyscrapers?

As we saw a decade ago, even the most somnolent superpower will feel obliged to respond, and your great warrior sheikh will find himself scuttling over the mountains to hole up in a succession of cramped malodorous "safe houses" with too many child brides, unable to place a phone call or do anything except issue periodic cassette monologues of warmed-over Michael Moore talking points. And one day, eventually, however long it takes, you're watching infidel porn on your grainy 14" TV and the door gets kicked in and Seal Team Six are ready for your close-up before you've had a chance to dunk your beard in knock-off Grecian Formula.

That sort of counter-jihad America does well.

On every other front, it does incredibly badly. So, after a decade in Afghanistan, the strategists at the Pentagon are still hoping to win the "hearts and minds" of warlords, pederasts, and heroin dealers by using the fraudulent touchy-feely memoir Three Cups of Tea. It's ten years since a mass-terror attack on U.S. soil, but we'll be taking our shoes off and much else at the airport until the end of time for the amusement of bloated bureaucracies that have yet to catch a single terrorist but have somehow managed to persuade a freeborn people that the right of minor officials to fondle your scrotum without probable cause is vital to national "security." And that making a wheelchair-bound Florida nonagenarian dying of leukemia remove her adult diaper while a Yemeni madrassah alumnus on a terrorist watch list is allowed to board the plane and attempt to light his crotch over Detroit sends the important message to the world that America is being "true to its values."

With defense like this, who needs enemies? The designation of the "war on terror" was the first equivocation, and one that hobbled its strategists: For, in the absence of "terror," where was the "war"? As I note in my new book, over the course of the decade, the more alert the security state was to shoe-bombers, panty-bombers, implant-bombers, and suppository-bombers, the more indulgent it grew of any Islamic initiative that stopped short of self-detonation. What, after all, is al-Qaeda's end game? They want the West to live under Islamic law. Hey, take a number and get in line. So does Imam Rauf, the Ground Zero Mosque guy, who was in Scotland the other day at a "Festival of Spirituality and Peace" arguing that sharia should be incorporated into U.K. and U.S. law. He's such a "moderate Muslim" that he's subsidized with your tax dollars: The State Department bought thousands of copies of his unreadable book to distribute at U.S.-embassy events throughout the Middle East, and they paid for his book tour, which they've never offered to do for me. Flying Imam Rauf to the United Arab Emirates to talk to other imams apparently comes under State's "multifaith outreach" program. Wait a minute: He's an imam, they're imams. Where's the multifaith? If we have to have taxpayer-funded outreach, why can't we send 'em Jackie Mason, or that gay bishop the Episcopalians are hot for?

But don't worry, he's "moderate." Nanny Bloomberg went to the Statue of Liberty to tell the ghastly plebs he has the misfortune to rule to shut up about Imam Rauf's mosque. "To cave to popular sentiment," he thundered, "would be to hand a victory to the terrorists." If we don't build a mosque at Ground Zero, then the terrorists will have won

In Edinburgh, Imam Rauf was at pains to reassure the crowd that his plans for sharia-compliant common law wouldn't involve any stoning and whatnot. On the other hand, on page 58 of his 2000 book Islam: A Sacred Law, he says that with sharia you can't pick and choose: It's the set menu, or else. So Imam Rauf largely shares al-Qaeda's goal. But why hold that against him? So does the Archbishop of Canterbury, who's argued for the incorporation of sharia into British law. And so does Piet Hein Donner, the Dutch cabinet minister who said he would have no problem with sharia if a majority of people voted for it. And, even if they don't, the French de facto acceptance of polygamy in les banlieues, and the British Department of Pensions' de jure recognition of polygamy for the purposes of widows' benefits, and the American Academy of Pediatrics' proposal that its members meet female genital mutilation halfway by offering to perform a "ritual nick" on Muslim girls, all suggest that, as long as you mothball your Semtex belt and don't rush the cockpit, the Western world will concede almost anything in order to demonstrate its multiculti bona fides.

A few months ago, I walked at sunset from downtown Malmö to Rosengard. The gaps between Nordic blondes grew longer and the gaps between fiercely bearded young men grew shorter, and finally I was in the heart of Islamic Sweden. No blondes in sight. All the women were covered, including those who'd never been so back in their native lands: That's to say, they adopted, perforce, the veil only when they moved to Sweden. Sweden! Land of arthouse erotica: I Am Curious (Yellow). These days, they're yellow, and not so curious. Like the Israelis in Gaza, they're trading land for peace, and unlikely to retain much of either.

No one flew a plane into any buildings in Rosengard. No one had to. Islam's good cop proved cannier than its bad: The losers holed up in the caves want to nuke us. The shrewder Islamic imperialists want to own us. Ten years on, stealth jihad is proving a better bet.

Horowitz’s Point in Time

A review of the conservative critic’s latest book

By Bruce S. Thornton
September 20, 2011

Those who know David Horowitz only as a fierce critic of leftist delusions and a champion of democratic freedom may be surprised to discover that he is also the author of three volumes of memoirs laced with philosophical reflections. Yet a book such as A Point in Time, which joins the earlier volumes The End of Time and A Cracking of the Heart, complements beautifully Horowitz’s other work, which focuses more practically on contemporary ideologies and the pernicious policies they create. Politics, after all, is ultimately about ideas — about human nature, the goods states should pursue, and the limits of the possible given the brevity of a human life subjected to unforeseen change and suffering. Thus, conversations about policy must start first with those underlying ideas and ideals.

A Point in Time is one such conversation, subtly interwoven with Horowitz’s reflections on his own memories of loss, sickness, and anticipations of death, and deepened with perceptive explorations of timeless classics of philosophy and fiction, such as Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, that have addressed many of these same issues. The result is a melancholy yet hopeful story of one man’s search for order, meaning, and redemption in a world seemingly devoid of all three.

Central to the book is the recognition that, as creatures who naturally seek order and meaning, humans have been left adrift by the decline of faith and thus prey to modernity’s bloody pseudo-religions that promise a future redemption on earth to be delivered by the new god, “history.” Horowitz’s memories of his father, a faithful member of the American Communist Party, recall how that utopian creed and its failures darkened his family’s life: “Much later it occurred to me that my father’s inattention to primal needs was the other side of his passion for worlds that did not exist. . . . He never suspected that a fantasy so remote from the life directly in front of him might actually be the source of his isolation and gloom.” Yet the wages of this failure have been much more destructive, because the drive for perfection and redemption in this world, as Dostoevsky understood and brilliantly showed in his novels, ultimately justifies unthinkable horrors: “The passion to create a new world,” Horowitz says while concluding his meditation on Dostoevsky’s Devils, “is really a passion to destroy the old one, transforming the love of humanity into a hatred for the human beings who stand in its way.”

The great sin of such utopian ideologies, then, is their scorn for the imperfect, complex world of the here and now, of suffering and loss, in which all humans must live and find meaning. This simple fact is what gives philosophical heft to Horowitz’s own thoughts about the loss, sickness, and disappointments of his life, for such stories are where we find the meaning of our brief lives. Part of that narrative comprises the conversations we have with other minds whose own life stories have been recorded in their writings. For Horowitz, the Meditations, with their counsel to distance oneself emotionally from the shifting changes and losses of human existence, seemed a tempting antidote to the dread of death. Yet the cold comfort of Marcus Aurelius and Stoic apatheia cannot tell us “how one gets through a single earthly day.” Thus, in the end, the emperor’s advice will not provide the meaning and reconciliation we all crave, for it ignores “the sensual pull of the tangible world; the hunger for the life we taste, as opposed to the one we merely think about. The desire for this life, regardless of how much we get of it.” Meaning cannot be deferred to an imagined future or experienced only in the mind, but must be found now, even if only in the pleasure of a walk with faithful dogs, or the fragile beauty of a horse, or the transient vistas of the Santa Maria Valley.

A Point in Time explores further this conflict between the sensuous world of “beauty that must die” and the transcendent realm, with its “stories without end,” that undergirds our existence and makes possible our ideals of order, beauty, and love. Even the Stoic Roman emperor, like the figures on Keats’s urn “all breathing human passion far above,” ultimately must admit, “There are certainly gods, and they take care of the world.” Horowitz wrestles with this assertion, using the words of Dostoevsky’s novels and memoirs to refute the atheist delusion that humans are the real gods, able to reshape the world according to their dreams. Yet Horowitz is too honest simply to call for a return to traditional religion. After quoting a letter from Mozart near the end of his life, in which the composer professes his love of God, Horowitz sadly remarks, “I wish the faith of this great and gifted young man were mine as well. I wish I could place my trust in the hands of a Creator. I wish I could look on my life and the lives of my children and all I have loved and see them as preludes to a better world. But, try as I might, I cannot.”

Despite this doubt, though, Horowitz recognizes the powerful claim such a belief has on us, its ultimate necessity for finding any meaning in a shifting world of pain and loss, such as the one Horowitz experienced with the death of his beloved daughter, Sarah, which he describes in one of the most moving passages in the book. “The life of the world we know,” he writes, “is dependent on one we can only guess at, and this invisible world (or our belief in it) is necessary in order for the world we inhabit to continue.” The alternative is the various materialist creeds that have preached heaven on earth but are compromised by the limits of human nature: “The radical vision of an earthly redemption requires ordinary mortals, fallible and corrupt, to assume powers that are god-like.” And like gods, these “technicians of the soul” take for themselves the ultimate power of dispensing suffering and death on those who block the road to utopia and the “new men” who will redeem history. But, as Horowitz asks, “How can human beings create themselves anew? A glance at the human record reveals this to be a much greater leap of faith than relying on a hidden God.” And the consequences of these political religions in one century have been much more devastating than all the 20 centuries of violence that its enemies have laid at the feet of Christianity.

“Without our stories,” Horowitz observes, “our lives would be chaos and our existence unbearable.” And all stories ultimately embody ideas, good ones and bad, which shape our actions in the world as well as give it meaning. The seductive story of inevitable human progress toward heaven on earth has been destructive in the past, and continues to guide the policies of progressives today who demand increasing political power over our lives in order to achieve their dreams — precisely the delusions that Horowitz has exposed in over 40 years of writing. In this beautifully written, thoughtful memoir, he finds in the story of his own life another refutation of those bloody dreams: the redemptive wisdom of the tragic vision that accepts “that the life we have now is all we will get, and therefore is what is important.”

— Bruce S. Thornton is a professor of classics and humanities at California State University, Fresno.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Obama's Solyndra scandal reeks of the Chicago Way

Those of us from Chicago know exactly what the Solyndra scandal smells like. And It doesn't smell fresh and green.

By John Kass
Chicago Tribune
September 18, 2011

The Solyndra scandal cost at least a half-billion public dollars. It is plaguing President Barack Obama. And it's being billed as a Washington story.

But back in Obama's political hometown, those of us familiar with the Chicago Way can see something else in Solyndra — something that the Washington crowd calls "optics." In fact, it's not just a Washington saga — it has all the elements of a Chicago City Hall story, except with more zeros.

The FBI is investigating what happened with Solyndra, a solar panel company that got a $535 million government-backed loan with the help of the Obama White House over the objections of federal budget analysts.

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden got a nice photo op. They got to make speeches about being "green." But then Solyndra went bankrupt. Americans lost jobs. Taxpayers got stuck with the bill. And members of Congress are now in high dudgeon and making speeches.

Federal investigators want to know what role political fundraising played in the guarantee of the questionable loan. Washington bureaucrats warned the deal was lousy. And White House spokesmen flail desperately, like weakened victims in a cheesy vampire movie.

So forget optics. What about smell? It smells bad, and it's going to smell worse.

Or, did you really believe it when the White House mouthpieces — who are also Chicago City Hall mouthpieces — promised they were bringing a new kind of politics to Washington?

This is not a new kind of politics. It's the old kind. The Chicago kind.

And now the Tribune Washington Bureau has reported that the U.S. Department of Energy employee who helped monitor the Solyndra loan guarantee was one of Obama's top fundraisers.

Fundraising? Contracts? Imagine that.

Steve Spinner was the Obama administration official in charge of handing out billions and billions of tax dollars to "green" energy deals. According to the Tribune story, Spinner the other day invited Obama's national political finance committee to a meeting in Chicago.

The name of the Obama fundraising initiative?

"Technology for Obama."

The idea of the Obama fundraisers getting together, talking "green," and perhaps offering taxpayer loan guarantees to insider businesses in the interest of helping the environment — it all seems rather fresh.

Like a mountain meadow.

Until you realize it's the same old politics, the same kind practiced in Washington and Chicago and anywhere else where appetites are satisfied by politicians. When the government picks winners and losers, who's the loser? Just look in the mirror, hold that thought, and tell me later.

Republicans are hoping to hang this around Obama's political neck, and they're doing a good job of it now because his approval ratings are low and the jobless numbers are abysmal and the Democrats are in full killer-rabbit panic. But there have been Republican national scandals, too, and they're always ridiculously and depressingly similar.

At least in Illinois our scandals are quite ecumenical, with Republicans eager to help Democrats steal whatever they can grab.

In Solyndra, like any proper City Hall political scandal, there are similar archetypes.

There are the guys who count. The guys who bring the cash. They count because they do the counting. They have leverage. They're always there at the fundraisers. And so they're the ones who are allowed to gorge at the public trough.

The bureaucrats are the fulcrum so the guys with the leverage can lift great weight without too much effort. And while they might whine privately among themselves, they don't hold news conferences to blow the whistle.

They keep their mouths shut until the deal is done. If anyone gets caught and the problem becomes public, at least they've got email to cover their behinds. And they're doing a good job covering.

But there's one group that doesn't get their behinds covered.

Instead, their behinds are right out there, suspended foolishly, and waiting to get kicked.

We're the taxpayers — in Illinois we call ourselves chumbolones because we're the ones who stupidly end up covering all the losses. As in the Solyndra mess.

It's the Chicago Way, but instead of a paving or trucking contract, it's a "green" solar panel contract. The company received a $535 million loan.

"The optics of a Solyndra default will be bad," according to a Jan. 31 email from an Office of Management and Budget staffer printed in the Washington Post. "If Solyndra defaults down the road, the optics will arguably be worse later than they would be today. … In addition, the timing will likely coincide with the 2012 campaign season heating up."

I love the use of "optics." It's one of those bloodless words finding favor these days.

"Optics" suggests bureaucrats might think in terms of symbolism, political hieroglyphs, in grand vistas, rather than in hard numbers, like the $535,000,000 that went poof.

But it's not their money, is it? It's ours.

So this is not about Washington optics after all. The Solyndra scandal is about the Washington smell of things.

Those of us from Chicago know exactly what it smells like. And It doesn't smell fresh and green.