Saturday, February 24, 2007

Mark Steyn: The Moderate Mosque

Mosque at Regents Park in London

from National Review, January 29th 2007

“Mosque” is a term that covers a multitude of architectural sins these days, but the one at Regents Park in London is the real deal. Big golden dome above the tree tops, 140-foot minaret. I used to live nearby and I must have strolled past it hundreds of times and, if I ever did give it a second glance in those days, it was only to marvel: “Wow! That Hindu temple is totally awesome.”

I walked by it the other week for the first time in a long time. How did it get to sit on such a piece of prime London real estate? Well, you can thank His Majesty’s Government for that. In 1940, they allocated a hundred thousand pounds to buy land for a London mosque. The British Empire had millions of Muslim subjects and on the whole they’d been supportive of the war effort and it seemed appropriate that this should be acknowledged in the heart of the metropolis. King George VI opened the Islamic Cultural Centre on the site in 1944. It’s the best attended mosque in Britain. If there is a “moderate” Islam in the west, this is it.

So what goes on there? Well, if you swing by the bookstore, you can pick up DVDs of hot preachers like Sheikh Feiz, who does these hilarious pig noises every time he mentions the Jews – “Oh, Muslim, behind me is the Jew. [snort-snort] Come and kill him. [snort-snort].” You can also buy tapes from Sheikh Yasin, a celebrity American “revert” (ie, convert) to Islam, in which he explains that you should “beat women lightly”, and that a Muslim can never be friends with a non-Muslim, and that Christian missionaries deliberately introduced Aids to Africa by putting it in the vaccines for other diseases. Another “revert”, Jermaine Lindsay, got the jihad fever at the mosque and then went and self-detonated in the July 7th bombings.

If the Regents Park Mosque has been “radicalized”, then there are no non-radical mosques.

When I lived in the neighborhood, you’d see t-shirted tourists snapping each other with the dome in the background. That’s what it was for most of us: an exotic backdrop. Inside, one assumed, they talked about Allah and Mohammed, and where’s the harm in that? We looked on it in multicultural terms – that’s to say, as a heritage issue: a link for immigrants back to the old country. It never occurred to us that it was an ideological bridgehead. But listen to Dr Ijaz Mian, secretly taped by Britain’s Channel 4 at the Ahl-e-Hadith mosque in Derby:

“King, Queen, House of Commons: if you accept it, you are a part of it. If you don’t accept it, you have to dismantle it. So you being a Muslim, you have to fix a target. There will be no House of Commons. From that White House to this Black House, we know we have to dismantle it. Muslims must grow in strength, then take over… You are in a situation in which you have to live like a state-within-a-state - until you take over.”

Where’s the religious content? Where’s the contemplation of the divine? Don’t look for it at the Sparkbrook mosque in Birmingham recently praised by Tony Blair for its contribution to tolerance and diversity. Last June they were celebrating the killer of a British Muslim soldier in Afghanistan:

“The hero of Islam is the one who separated his head from his shoulders.”

These aren’t sermons and these men aren’t preachers. They’re ideological enforcers on an explicitly political project with branch offices on Main Streets across the western world. Imagine the Second World War with St Adolf’s Parish Church on every English village green, or the Cold War with a Soviet Orthodox Church in every mid-sized town in all 50 states.

Dr Mian trained in Saudi Arabia. The bookstore at the Regents Park Mosque is run by a company headed by a Saudi diplomat, Dr Ahmad al-Dubayan. The Saudis control mosques, and schools, and think-tanks, and prison chaplaincy programs and much else, too. I’d be calling for a blue-ribbon commission to investigate Saudi subversion of the US but pretty much everyone who’d wind up sitting on it would be on the Saudi gravy train one way or another. As Christopher Hitchens put it:

“If, when reading an article about the debate over Iraq, you come across the expression ‘the realist school’ and mentally substitute the phrase ‘the American friends of the Saudi royal family,’ your understanding of the situation will invariably be enhanced.”

Very droll. The trouble is there are so many “American friends of the Saudi royal family”. Jimmy Carter’s Carter Center was founded on King Fahd’s mountain of cash and, in the last year, its biggest donors included Saudi Prince Al-Walid bin Talal. It never occurred to me in the fall of 2001 that five years on nothing would have changed, except that we’d be shoveling even more gazillions of petrodollars into Saudi Arabia and they in turn would be shoveling even more back at us in a brilliantly synergized subversion operation, funding not only the radical imams and their incendiary progeny but also the think-tanks and study groups and Nobel Prize winners who ponder the best way to appease them. The Saudis are hollowing out Britain from within, and in America are hollowing out significant non-military components of national power - diplomatic, academic and cultural. Listen to the men in those mosques and then ask: Where’s our ideological offensive?

Music Review: Happy Songs From Rattlesnake Gulch by Joe Ely

Texas Platters
The Austin Chronicle
February 9, 2007

Joe Ely
Happy Songs From Rattlesnake Gulch (Rack 'Em)

Although four years have passed since Joe Ely's last studio release, 2003's Streets of Sin – bracketed by 2000's Live at Antone's and '04's Hightone Records compilation Settle for Love – Austin's onetime train-hopping troubadour comes roaring back for his 60th birthday with Happy Songs From Rattlesnake Gulch. AARP will have to wait on the West Texan because there's no sign of easing up here, nor of Ely giving any less than his 1000%. The evidence lies in Rattlesnake Gulch's dynamic performances, conforming to what we've come to expect in the Lord of the Highway and Flatlander. From the post-Katrina ode "Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes" to "River Fever," a love song to River City, Ely's songwriting is as hearty and varied as ever. The sole exception, "Miss Bonnie and Mister Clyde," is a forced rewrite of "Me and Billy the Kid," but the reinterpretation of Butch Hancock's "Firewater" into a horn-filled funkfest is inspired. You'd have to go to Ely's homestead just outside of town to see him weed out critters from the Rattlesnake Gulch behind his house with a shotgun, but barring that, these Happy Songs are all the shooting gallery necessary.

Feb 12, 2007, 14:29 GMT

A companion to his new book of road recollections and observations, 'Bonfire of Roadmaps,' Ely`s latest serves as a reminder just how fine a storyteller he is.

Whether it`s the tale of the common man ("Hard Luck Saint") or outlaws - "Miss Bonnie and Mister Clyde" is an update of his signature "Me and Billy the Kid" - Ely paints vivid pictures of his subjects and their situations. When on "July Blues" Ely sings that it`s "too hot for snakes, my cow won`t milk and my bulldog shakes/It`s flat tough to watch water go down the drain," the listener is right there with him in the summer heat.

Longtime collaborator Butch Hancock contributes the only non-Ely-penned tune to the album, "Firewater," which Ely easily makes his own. Ely, who turns 60 Feb. 9, is still relevant and at the top of his game.

Texas maverick Ely will never top his own Honky Tonk Masquerade (1978), a seminal album that defines the best of the Lone Star school of songwriting-and-swagger. But at 60, his quavering vocal remains as urgent, skittish, and distinctive as ever, and he's still a free-flowingly eclectic writer, as capable of a sweet, affecting Cajun love song ("Little Blossom") as an erotic and insinuating blues tune ("July Blues"). Happy Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch is a misleading title for this group of 10 originals and a lively cover of compatriot Butch Hancock's "Firewater," for most of Ely's protagonists carry an air of desperation, either hustling for love or money (the excellent "Jesse Justice," a tough-edged portrait of an itinerant pool shark), or gripping the windowsill of life with grimy fingertips. Too many of the songs here ultimately disappoint--"Miss Bonnie and Mr. Clyde," one of Ely's epic outlaw ballads, is as shot full of holes as the real-life bandits, and "Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes," about the displaced victims of Katrina, fails to elicit either the outrage or the poignancy it seeks. But the hardest-working live entertainer in Texas always finds a way to charm his listener. "Sue Me Sue" wears out its refrain way too soon, yet in laying a "She's About a Mover" riff over some early Elvis rockabilly, the Lubbock Kid connects all the right musical--and emotional--dots. --Alanna Nash

Track Listing

1 Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes
2 Sue Me Sue
3 Hard Luck Saint
4 Jesse Justice
5 Miss Bonnie and Mister Clyde
6 Little Blossom
7 Firewater
8 July Blues
9 Up a Tree
10 So You Wanna Be Rich?
11 River Fever

Steve Beard: Force for Good

Youssou N'Dour and Ioan Gruffudd in Samuel Goldwyn Films' Amazing Grace - 2007

February 23, 2007 9:00 AM

Amazing Grace is an inspiring story.

If you’ve seen the movie Crash, there is a scene where Anthony, a car thief played by the rapper Ludacris, discovers a van with the keys dangling in the driver’s door. Since no one is around, he hops in and drives to a chop shop to sell off the parts. When they open up the back of the van, Anthony and the white shop owner are startled to find a dozen Asian men, women, and children. In stunning immediacy, the shop owner offers Anthony $500 for each one without a tinge of reluctance—haggling for humans like used auto parts.

As the 2006 Academy Award-winning morality tale, Crash is loaded with gut-wrenching scenes meant to prick our racial prejudices and stereotypes. The chop-shop scene came to mind while viewing Amazing Grace, a film about British abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833). Opening in theaters today, the movie’s release was timed to celebrate the exact day of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in England. At that time, the British Empire was heavily dependent upon the slave trade, and Wilberforce dedicated his entire life to fighting the injustice.

Played by Ioan Gruffudd (King Arthur, Fantastic Four), Wilberforce was idealistic, compassionate, eloquent, and tenacious. Being the heir to a sizable fortune, he was elected to parliament at 23 years old (his boyhood friend was William Pitt, the youngest Prime Minister). After experiencing a dramatic spiritual conversion a few years later, Wilberforce struggled with his “secular” political vocation. He was not convinced that he could serve God and Parliament at the same time.

Wilberforce was ready to call it quits until he met John Newton (Albert Finney), a former slave-ship captain and author of the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace” (thus the title of the film). First seen mopping the floor of a sanctuary in sackcloth, Newton is able to convince Wilberforce that combating slavery would be doing the work of heaven. “The principles of Christianity require action as well as meditation,” says Newton.

Albert Finney and Ioan Gruffudd.

In their actual historic meeting, Newton told the young legislator: “God has raised you up for the good of the church and the good of the nation, maintain your friendship with Pitt, continue in Parliament, who knows that but for such a time as this God has brought you into public life and has a purpose for you.”

“When I came away,” Wilberforce recalled, “my mind was in a calm, tranquil state, more humbled, looking more devoutly up to God.”

Faith plays a dramatic and pivotal role in Wilberforce’s actual life. While his conversion and religious motivation are treated respectfully in the film, they are purposefully not preachy. For those who actually have read up on Wilberforce, the depiction is a considerably toned-down version of his religious pulse. Even though the film will definitely be attractive to Christians, director Michael Apted emphasizes a story built around political intrigue, personal courage, and even a dash of British romance.

Gruffudd does sweet justice to Wilberforce. He is fittingly zealous when he stands up in the middle of a refined gentleman’s club and robustly sings “Amazing Grace” to show his well-heeled peers what he believes. In other segments of the film, he is convincingly weak under the weight of various illnesses. These two elements—strength and weakness—are essential to telling Wilberforce’s story and portraying his stoutness of character.

Despite suffering from perpetually bad health, Wilberforce even stopped taking the prescribed opium for his pain because it diminished his mental alertness and rhetorical agility. He collected evidence against the slave trade, introduced abolition legislation, and collected more than 390,000 signatures demanding its end.

Although his accomplishments and courage are celebrated in our modern era, Wilberforce was reviled by many within British society. He was attacked in newspapers, physically assaulted, and forced to travel with a bodyguard because of death threats.

Nevertheless, he was encouraged by lovers of justice such as Newton and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. While on his death bed, Wesley wrote to encourage Wilberforce in 1791: “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be fore you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”

The British slave trade was shut down in 1807 because of Wilberforce’s tireless efforts, yet he continued to work until the end of his life to completely abolish slavery in England. In 1833, a bill to outlaw slavery was finally passed. Wilberforce died three days later.

The filmmakers hope to use Amazing Grace to alert audiences that the global battle against slavery is far from over. “Although most nations have eliminated servitude as a state-sanctioned practice, a modern form of human slavery has emerged,” declares the 2006 U.S. State Department “Trafficking in Persons Report.” “It is a growing global threat to the lives and freedom of millions of men, women, and children. Today, only in the most brutal and repressive regimes, such as Burma and North Korea, is slavery still state sponsored. Instead, human trafficking often involves organized crime groups who make huge sums of money at the expense of trafficking victims and our societies.”

“Twenty-seven million slaves exist in our world today,” writes David Batstone in his book Not For Sale—a companion resource to the film. “Girls and boys, women and men of all ages are forced to toil in the rug looms of Nepal, sell their bodies in the brothels of Rome, break rocks in the quarries of Pakistan, and fight wars in the jungles of Africa. Go behind the façade in any major town or city in the world today and you are likely to find a thriving commerce in human beings.”

At the conclusion of Crash, Anthony finds a moment of redemption by freeing the Asian slaves from the back of the van. That cinematic scenario is what modern-day abolitionists hope will take place with the spread of awareness of this injustice. Supported by more than sixty human-rights and religious groups, the filmmakers initiated “The Amazing Change Campaign” in order to promote grassroots activism to end modern day slavery.

In his first speech to Parliament regarding the slave trade, Wilberforce described the unfathomable conditions upon the slave ships and the despicable practice of slavery. After three hours, he concluded by telling his colleagues: “Having heard all this you may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say that you did not know.” The producers of Amazing Grace hope to relay the same message.

— Steve Beard is the editor of Good News and the creator of—a website focusing on faith and pop culture.

Patrick J. Michaels: Inconvenient Truths

Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth

Novel science fiction on global warming.
February 23, 2007

This Sunday, Al Gore will probably win an Academy Award for his global-warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth, a riveting work of science fiction.

The main point of the movie is that, unless we do something very serious, very soon about carbon dioxide emissions, much of Greenland’s 630,000 cubic miles of ice is going to fall into the ocean, raising sea levels over twenty feet by the year 2100.

Where’s the scientific support for this claim? Certainly not in the recent Policymaker’s Summary from the United Nations’ much anticipated compendium on climate change. Under the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s medium-range emission scenario for greenhouse gases, a rise in sea level of between 8 and 17 inches is predicted by 2100. Gore’s film exaggerates the rise by about 2,000 percent.

Even 17 inches is likely to be high, because it assumes that the concentration of methane, an important greenhouse gas, is growing rapidly. Atmospheric methane concentration hasn’t changed appreciably for seven years, and Nobel Laureate Sherwood Rowland recently pronounced the IPCC’s methane emissions scenarios as “quite unlikely.”

Nonetheless, the top end of the U.N.’s new projection is about 30-percent lower than it was in its last report in 2001. “The projections include a contribution due to increased ice flow from Greenland and Antarctica for the rates observed since 1993,” according to the IPCC, “but these flow rates could increase or decrease in the future.”

According to satellite data published in Science in November 2005, Greenland was losing about 25 cubic miles of ice per year. Dividing that by 630,000 yields the annual percentage of ice loss, which, when multiplied by 100, shows that Greenland was shedding ice at 0.4 percent per century.

“Was” is the operative word. In early February, Science published another paper showing that the recent acceleration of Greenland’s ice loss from its huge glaciers has suddenly reversed.

Nowhere in the traditionally refereed scientific literature do we find any support for Gore’s hypothesis. Instead, there’s an unrefereed editorial by NASA climate firebrand James E. Hansen, in the journal Climate Change — edited by Steven Schneider, of Stanford University, who said in 1989 that scientists had to choose “the right balance between being effective and honest” about global warming — and a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that was only reviewed by one person, chosen by the author, again Dr. Hansen.

These are the sources for the notion that we have only ten years to “do” something immediately to prevent an institutionalized tsunami. And given that Gore only conceived of his movie about two years ago, the real clock must be down to eight years!

It would be nice if my colleagues would actually level with politicians about various “solutions” for climate change. The Kyoto Protocol, if fulfilled by every signatory, would reduce global warming by 0.07 degrees Celsius per half-century. That’s too small to measure, because the earth’s temperature varies by more than that from year to year.

The Bingaman-Domenici bill in the Senate does less than Kyoto — i.e., less than nothing — for decades, before mandating larger cuts, which themselves will have only a minor effect out past somewhere around 2075. (Imagine, as a thought experiment, if the Senate of 1925 were to dictate our energy policy for today).

Mendacity on global warming is bipartisan. President Bush proposes that we replace 20 percent of our current gasoline consumption with ethanol over the next decade. But it’s well-known that even if we turned every kernel of American corn into ethanol, it would displace only 12 percent of our annual gasoline consumption. The effect on global warming, like Kyoto, would be too small to measure, though the U.S. would become the first nation in history to burn up its food supply to please a political mob.

And even if we figured out how to process cellulose into ethanol efficiently, only one-third of our greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. Even the Pollyannish 20-percent displacement of gasoline would only reduce our total emissions by 7-percent below present levels — resulting in emissions about 20-percent higher than Kyoto allows.

And there’s other legislation out there, mandating, variously, emissions reductions of 50, 66, and 80 percent by 2050. How do we get there if we can’t even do Kyoto?

When it comes to global warming, apparently the truth is inconvenient. And it’s not just Gore’s movie that’s fiction. It’s the rhetoric of the Congress and the chief executive, too.

— Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and author of Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Film Review: "Pan's Labyrinth"

Ivana Baquero in Pan's Labyrinth

Review by Jeffrey Overstreet
posted 12/29/06

"You're too old to be filling your head with such nonsense."

So says Carmen (Ariadna Gil), whose 12-year old daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is reading a fairy tale storybook in the car, early in Guillermo Del Toro's film Pan's Labyrinth.

Are fairy tales just a waste of time? Should children be allowed to read such stuff? And what about adults? Should we bother with movies about magic and enchantment—like Pan's Labyrinth? Or is it all just childish madness and reckless escapism?

Clearly, Del Toro believes that fairy tales have something to say to grownups. Otherwise, he would not have crafted an R-rated story about make-believe monsters. Don't take your kids to this bloody, nightmarish tale. It's disturbing and often terrifying.

But it's also heartfelt and deeply meaningful. By contrasting the conflict of good and evil in the real world with the dramas that take place in fantasy land, Del Toro reminds us that children's stories—especially those dark and twisted fables from the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen—can give us rewarding perspectives on troubling realities. Sometimes, grownups need fairy tales as badly as children do.

It's easy to see what's sending Ofelia off to wonderland. Her pregnant mother is moving them into the Spanish countryside so they can live under the protection of the unborn baby's father, Vidal (Sergi López), a monstrous captain in Spain's civil guard. But Vidal doesn't have much care for his family, outside of his desire for a son. He's more intent on crushing a force of rebels who are resisting the government's oppression. While the Spanish Civil War fades and World War II intensifies, Ofelia's world seems to be spiraling out of control.

As J.R.R. Tolkien once told C.S. Lewis, those who are most hostile to the idea of escape tend to be jailers. Ofelia wants to be—no, needs to be—elsewhere, and her parents are in no mood to help her.

Like Chihiro at the beginning of Spirited Away, Ofelia discovers a gateway to wonderland just beyond a stone guardian who stands in the trees near the village where Vidal is stationed. Then, a curious creature with wings guides her into the most intriguing labyrinth we've seen on the big screen since, well, Labyrinth, twenty years ago.

And when Ofelia meets the host of this mysterious maze, he's even more otherworldly than David Bowie, who ruled the netherworld of Jim Henson's 1986 film. He's a faun with massive horns and a menacing stride. Thanks to the title, some moviegoers will worry that he is a representation of the "Horned God" born of Greek mythology who goes by the name of Pan. But no, this isn't a figure meant to represent male sexuality. The English-language title of the film was chosen for marketing purposes—it "sounded better" than the proper translation of the Spanish title, The Labyrinth of the Faun.

The faun (played with a spooky beastliness by Hellboy's Doug Jones) is not a gentle Yoda, but he's not the Devil either. Instead, this unpredictable creature manifests the untrustworthy aspects of the natural world. "I am the mountain, the woods, the earth," he explains. "I'm a faun." Don't worry, this isn't a pantheistic story. The faun doesn't demand worship, although he clearly enjoys his power. He prefers to bless, punish, and issue unreasonable demands.

And so he informs Ofelia that she is, in fact, an ancient princess who has forgotten her true home—news that would undoubtedly delight an imaginative girl. In order to find that home, Ofelia must complete three tasks (of course). She must confront a giant toad. She must steal a dagger from the chambers of the Pale Man (a ghastly devil played, again, by Doug Jones). And then, she must employ the dagger per the faun's instructions to break the enemy's power.

Back in "the real world," Vidal is beginning to realize that he may have a traitor in his camp. And so he begins a campaign of interrogation and torture to root out those who sympathize with the rebels. All suspects are presumed guilty until proven innocent—and either way, he's likely to kill them.

A slave to his superiors, Vidal is an automaton of evil, a man who has silenced his conscience. He represents the opposite of Ofelia, whose decisions reflect a healthy conscience. His choices are not choices at all, but merely blind obedience. "To obey without questions," says a defiant rebel to Vidal, "that's something only people like you can do."

What is Ofelia's secret? It is her capacity for believing in the "nonsense" of storytelling. Again and again, the films of 2006—Stranger than Fiction, Flags of Our Fathers, The Fountain, The Science of Sleep—have illustrated this. Story can help us endure chaos and suffering. Narrative gives us a framework for our lives in which we are able to apprehend meaning. Even Todd Field's Little Children suggests we'll understand our world better if we consider it through the lens of "grim" fairy tales.

Ofelia finds no comfort or help from religion, for the clergy in Vidal's company are clearly corrupt. She turns instead to another source of understanding—the light of imagination. And there, we see that the greatest power in her world is not fascism, nor a faun, but love itself.

The story comes to vivid life in shadowy worlds—both realistic and fantastic—that merge seamlessly through Eugenio Cabellero's production design, captured by Guillermo Navarro's expert cinematography. Enhanced by a lush, resonant score that recalls Howard Shore's themes for The Lord of the Rings, Del Toro's wonderland is populated by some of the most lifelike fantasy creatures ever created. There is a wondrous quality to the faun and his netherworld neighbors, who resemble figures from Arthur Rackham's storybook illustrations.

The cast members refuse to let their make-believe co-stars steal the spotlight. Ivana Baquero is unnervingly convincing as a child caught in a traumatic situation. Maribel Verdú (Y Tu Mama Tambien) is affecting as Mercedes, the housekeeper who watches over Ofelia. Sergi Lopez, who has portrayed unforgettable villains in With a Friend Like Harry and Dirty Pretty Things, is rather one-dimensionally wicked here; but as he represents the hard-heartedness of a brutal regime, he's not meant to be a complicated character.

Director Guillermo Del Toro

Del Toro directs this tale with the confidence of a master storyteller. Pan's Labyrinth further develops a unique blend of fantasy and history that he introduced in his extraordinary 2001 film, The Devil's Backbone. It succeeds because of Del Toro's uncompromising dedication to his vision. When financiers lost their courage and bailed, Del Toro gave up his salary in order to finish it. As a result, he's given us one of the best fantasy films ever made.

But Pan's Labyrinth is more than just a fantasy. It's an important film about the power of childlike faith to guide us through a darkening world.

Thus, it's disappointing that Del Toro's film writes off the church with one broad stroke, casting the Christian clergyman as hand-in-hand with the devil. It's true that many evils have been committed in the name of Christ, and the Spanish Civil War raises questions about the relationship of the Catholic church and a fascist regime.

In an article in Sight and Sound, Del Toro said that the Pale Man, a devil who has a face without eyes, represents the evil committed by "faceless institutions" like the church. (He also describes himself as a "lapsed Catholic," and tells us that he turned down an offer to direct The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because he "wasn't interested in the lion resurrecting.") But it seems rather extreme to equate Christians and Nazis. And it's a shame that Del Toro can't make a distinction between the message of Christ and the distortion of that message by corrupt and misguided churchmen.

Doug Jones as the Pale Man

Still, whether he knows it or not, Del Toro has given us a story resonant with echoes of Christianity. Consider the fairy tale about the rose of redemption, which was abandoned by those who feared the rose's thorns. Consider the suggestion that those who become too focused on their own suffering will forget their true heritage and home. Consider the reminder that innocent blood has been shed for the salvation of the world.

This film would probably have delighted Tolkien and Lewis, who believed that fairy tales—even dark and troubling myths like this one—serve to help us explore spiritual mysteries and apprehend the reality of grace as it glimmers through a glass, or in this case a screen, darkly. Pan's Labyrinth is a parable so profound it's like the gospel masquerading in a mysterious disguise.

Pan's Labyrinth

Rated R
(for graphic violence and some language)

Genre:Fantasy, History

Theater release:
December 29, 2006
by Picturehouse

Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro

Runtime: 119 minutes

Ariadna Gil (Carmen); Sergi López (Vidal); Ivana Baquero (Ofelia); Doug Jones (The Faun); Maribel Verdú (Mercedes); Dr. Ferreiro (Alex Angulo)

Film Review: "Pan's Labyrinth"

In Gloom of War, A Child's Paradise


The New York Times

Published: December 29, 2006, Friday

Set in a dark Spanish forest in a very dark time -- 1944, when Spain was still in the early stages of the fascist nightmare from which the rest of Europe was painfully starting to awaken -- ''Pan's Labyrinth'' is a political fable in the guise of a fairy tale. Or maybe it's the other way around. Does the moral structure of the children's story -- with its clearly marked poles of good and evil, its narrative of dispossession and vindication -- illuminate the nature of authoritarian rule? Or does the movie reveal fascism as a terrible fairy tale brought to life?

The brilliance of ''Pan's Labyrinth'' is that its current of imaginative energy runs both ways. If this is magic realism, it is also the work of a real magician. The director, Guillermo Del Toro, unapologetically and unpretentiously swears allegiance to a pop-fantasy tradition that encompasses comic books, science fiction and horror movies, but fan-boy pastiche is the last thing on his mind. He is also a thoroughgoing cinephile, steeped in classical technique and film history.

This Mexican-born filmmaker's English-language, Hollywood genre movies -- ''Blade 2'' (2002), ''Hellboy'' (2004) and the ill-starred but interesting ''Mimic'' (1997) -- have a strangeness and intensity of feeling that sets them apart from others of their kind. In his recent Spanish-language films, ''The Devil's Backbone'' (2001) and this new one, he uses the feverish inventiveness of a vulnerable child's imagination as the basis for his own utterly original, seamlessly effective exploration of power, corruption and resistance.

''Pan's Labyrinth'' is his finest achievement so far and a film that already, seven months after it was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival, has the feel of something permanent. Like his friend and colleague Alfonso Cuarón, whose astonishing ''Children of Men'' opened earlier this week, Mr. Del Toro is helping to make the boundary separating pop from art, always suspect, seem utterly obsolete.

''Pan's Labyrinth'' is a swift and accessible entertainment, blunt in its power and exquisite in its effects. A child could grasp its moral insights (though it is not a film I'd recommend for most children), while all but the most cynical of adults are likely to find themselves troubled to the point of heartbreak by its dark, rich and emphatic emotions.

The heroine is a girl named Ofelia, played by the uncannily talented Ivana Baquero, who was 11 when the film was made. Ofelia is the kind of child who eagerly reads stories about fairies, princesses and magic lands, longing to believe that what she reads is real. Mr. Del Toro obliges her wish by conjuring, just beyond the field of vision of the adults in Ofelia's life, a grotesque, enchanted netherworld governed by the sometimes harsh rules of folk magic.

That realm, in which Ofelia is thought to be a long-lost princess, may exist only in her imagination. Or maybe not: its ambiguous status is crucial to the film's coherence. Like the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, Mr. Del Toro is less interested in debunking or explaining away the existence of magic than in surveying the natural history of enchantment.

The forest around the old mill where Ofelia and her mother come to live is full of signs and portents: old carved stones and half-buried, crumbling structures that attest to a pre-modern, pre-Christian body of lore and belief. In much of the West that ancient magic survives in the form of bedtime stories and superstitions, and these in turn, as Mr. Del Toro evokes them, lead back through the maze of human psychology into the profound mysteries of nature.

Ofelia's second reality -- inhabited by a wide-browed faun, a man whose eyes are in the palms of his hands (both played by Doug Jones), a giant toad, some mantislike insects and many other curious creatures -- can be a pretty scary place, and on her visits to it the girl is, like many a fairy-tale heroine, subjected to various challenges and ordeals. Still, this vivid world of fairies offers her an escape from the oppression of a day-to-day existence dominated by her stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), an officer in Franco's army who seems to live by the maxim that fascism begins at home.

Doug Jones and Ivana Baquero

A patriarch both by temperament and ideology, the captain treats Ofelia's mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), with chilly, humiliating decorum, making it clear that she is of value to him only because she is pregnant with his son. He takes pleasure in the exercise of authority and in the trappings of military discipline, addressing himself to the torture of captured resistance fighters with sadistic relish. He seems happiest when he is inflicting pain.

The partisans up in the hills -- and their sympathizers in the captain's own household, including the housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) and the doctor (Alex Angulo) who attends to Carmen -- represent one of the film's alternatives to the militarized, hierarchical society taking shape in post-civil war Spain. Their easy solidarity and ragged mufti stand in emphatic contrast to the crisp uniforms and exaggerated obeisances of Vidal and his men. At his dinner table the captain gloats that Franco and his followers have defeated the ''mistaken'' egalitarianism of their republican opponents.

Like ''The Devil's Backbone,'' which also took place in the shadow of the Spanish Civil War, ''Pan's Labyrinth'' is not overly concerned with moral subtlety. In Mr. López's perversely charismatic performance, Vidal is a villain of the purest, ugliest kind. For Mr. Del Toro the opposite of evil is not holiness, but decency.

Ofelia serves as her stepfather's foil not because of her absolute goodness or innocence but rather because she is skeptical, stubborn and independent-minded. Her rebellion is as much against Carmen's passivity as it is against Vidal's brutality, and she gravitates toward the brave Mercedes as a kind of surrogate mother.

Mercedes's surreptitious visits to the rebels often coincide with Ofelia's journeys into fairyland, and it may be that the film's romantic view of the noble, vanquished Spanish Republic is itself something of a fairy tale. To note this is merely to identify a humanist, utopian strain in Mr. Del Toro's vision, a generous, sorrowful view of the world that is not entirely alien to the history of horror movies. (Think of James Whale's ''Frankenstein,'' for example, a film linked to ''Pan's Labyrinth'' by Victor Erice's ''Spirit of the Beehive,'' one of the few masterpieces of Spanish cinema made before Franco's death.)

Fairy tales (and scary movies) are designed to console as well as terrify. What distinguishes ''Pan's Labyrinth,'' what makes it art, is that it balances its own magical thinking with the knowledge that not everyone lives happily ever after.

The story has two endings, two final images that linger in haunting, unresolved tension. Here is a princess, smilingly restored to her throne, bathed in golden subterranean light. And here is a grown woman weeping inconsolably in the hard blue twilight of a world beyond the reach of fantasy.

''Pan's Labyrinth'' is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has graphic violence and occasional obscene language.

Pan's Labyrinth
Opens today in New York.

Written (in Spanish, with English subtitles) and directed by Guillermo Del Toro; director of photography, Guillermo Navarro; edited by Bernat Vilaplana; music by Javier Navarrete; production designer, Eugenio Caballero; produced by Bertha Navarro, Alfonso Cuarón, Frida Torresblanco and Álvaro Augustin; released by Picturehouse. Running time: 119 minutes.

WITH: Sergi López (Vidal), Maribel Verdú (Mercedes), Ivana Baquero (Ofelia), Ariadna Gil (Carmen), Alex Angulo (Doctor) and Doug Jones (Pale Man).

Mark Steyn: Blair is right on troops

Eighty per cent of the violence in Iraq takes place within 50km of Baghdad

February 23, 2007

ACCORDING to my dictionary, the word "ally" comes from the Old French. Very Old French, I'd say. For the New French, the word has a largely postmodern definition of "duplicitous charmer who undermines you at every opportunity".

For the less enthusiastically obstructive NATO members, "ally" means "wealthy country with no military capability that requires years of diplomatic wooing and black-tie banquets in order to agree to a token contribution of 23.08 troops." Incidentally, that 23.08 isn't artistic licence on my part. The 2004 NATO summit in Turkey was presented as a triumph of multilateral co-operation because the 26 members agreed to contribute between them an additional 600 troops and three helicopters to the Afghan mission. That's 23.08 troops and a ninth of a helicopter per ally. In fairness, Turkey chipped in the three helicopters single-handed, though the deal required them to return to Ankara after three months.

And these days troops is something of an elastic term, too. In Norwegian, it means "fighting men who are prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Americans, as long as they don't have to do any fighting and there are at least two provinces between their shoulders and the American ones". That's to say, Norway is "participating" in Afghanistan, but, because its troops are "not sufficiently trained to take part in combat", they've been mainly back at the barracks manning the photocopier or staging amateur performances of Peer Gynt for the amusement of US special forces who like nothing better than to unwind with five acts of Ibsen after a hard day hunting the Taliban.

Alas, even being in the general vicinity of regions where fighting is taking place got a little too much so the Norwegians demanded a modification of their rules of non-engagement and insisted their "soldiers" be moved to parts of Afghanistan where there's no fighting whatsoever by anyone at all. Good luck finding any.

Which brings us to that brave band of countries who still use "ally" in the more or less traditional sense. The Old French word it comes from is "alier", which means "to bind to". Au contraire, these days to be an ally of America is to be in a bind. John Howard has just announced that things are pretty tough in Iraq so this is no time for Australia to be heading home. Tony Blair has just announced that things are going well in Iraq so this is exactly the time for Britain to begin heading home. But either way it makes no difference: both Prime Ministers have been greeted with jeers and catcalls, and each man's position has been assumed to undermine the other's, and both by extension to undermine George W. Bush.

Howard, as the most rhetorically surefooted of the Anglosphere's three musketeers, had a good comeback to the suggestion that the Bush surge and the Blair drawdown are mutually incompatible: "Anybody who studies Iraq for five minutes," he said, "knows that controlling Baghdad is infinitely more challenging than controlling Basra in the south. That is the reason why the Americans are increasing their numbers and the reason why, because of the relative improvement in Basra, the British are reducing their numbers."

That would appear to make sense. I had the privilege of being in the Oval Office a couple of months back when Bush observed that 80 per cent of the violence in Iraq took place within 30 miles of Baghdad. If the object is to transfer control to a competent Iraqi military, it would seem likely that a largely Shia army would be more likely to be able to assume control in the largely Shia south before it's ready to police Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle. But to the media and much of the political class throughout the Western world, almost by definition there can be no good news from Iraq: the Bush surge in Baghdad is bound to fail, the Blair handover in the south is bound to fail, and therefore Howard's support for both or either or vice-versa is deluded. In strict numbers, London has been reducing - or "redeploying" or "withdrawing" - forces since 2003, when 46,000 British troops were holding down the southern third of Iraq single-handed.

Within a year, it was a fifth of that, and this latest drawdown is significant only because of the opportunity it affords Bush-bashers (and Howard-bashers) for some political sport. The southern provinces are as stabilised as they're likely to get under any regime short of multi-decade colonialisation.

And those British troops who remain will provide serious muscle when the Iraqi authorities need it: the Blues and Royals are shipping out in a few weeks, including Second Lieutenant Wales - that is, Prince Harry - who, according to The Times, "has already made his wishes clear. He wants to be with his squadron, not locked away in a staff job in a heavily protected base."

You don't have to be third in line to the throne to feel that way. Most soldiers from serious militaries want to be doing something real and tough when they're sent halfway round the world. The Americans accept (a little too easily, I'd say) the political reality that these days a military coalition will be 95 per cent US, 4 per cent Britain and 1 per cent everybody else, with the detachment of Royal Marines from Tonga ranking as a greater per capita contribution than any NATO member. But, given the relatively small numbers, they should at least be doing something when they get there.

The British Prime Minister is in a bad position, facing a hostile backbench on his own side and a bunch of contemptible opportunists among the Tory ranks. Howard is, to that degree, in an enviable position: his party supports him, and even Labor would supposedly do no more than withdraw 500 or so personnel from the wider Middle East, which makes Kevin Rudd a more or less loyalish Opposition by the standards of Washington, London and Ottawa.

In other words, it's not the war, it's the home front. If their job is all but done in the Shia south, why could not Blair redeploy British troops to Baghdad to share some of the burden of the Yankee surge? Well, because it's simply not politically possible. Not even for a leader who shares exactly the same view of the Islamist threat and the importance of victory in Iraq as President Bush.

In that sense, the Blair reduction is not a withdrawal from Iraq so much as a withdrawal from the assumptions of the broader Anglo-American relationship: the Prime Minister's successor, Gordon Brown, is likely to prefer something a little more distant, not as distant as those Norwegians in Afghanistan but a little closer to the default NATO model of being supportive without being helpful.

Thus, even for reliable allies with capable militaries, the political price of marching into battle alongside the Great Satan is steep and getting steeper. This does not bode well for the general health of the planet. When the wilier Democrats berate Bush for not maintaining an adequate military, they have a sort of crude point, albeit not the one they think they're making: if the time, money and energy expended in getting pseudo-allies to make pseudo-contributions were to be spent instead on the Vermont National Guard, you'd get more troops more quickly with more capability. Yet for wealthy countries to deny Washington even the figleaf of token multilateralism is, in the end, to gamble with their own futures.

Howard is perhaps the last Western leader to understand this. If he is a pathetic Bush poodle, he was a poodle long before most folks had even heard of Bush. He first committed Australia to supporting American military action against Iraq in 1998, back when Bill Clinton was in the Oval Office. All that's changed is the scale of the threat: an American defeat - or perceived defeat - in Iraq would embolden all kinds of forces around the globe, including in Indonesia and the Pacific.

The French and the Norwegians will never be meaningful American allies again, and even the British will be ordering a la carte. To modify Howard's words on September 11, even if 80 per cent of the allies have gone, this is no time to join them.

Mark Steyn, a Canadian columnist, is a regular contributor to The Australian's opinion page.

Patrick Buchanan: The Sun Sets in the West

February 23, 2007

The Brits are going home.

Forty thousand marched in beside the Americans. Only 7,100 remain; 1,600 will be heading home by Easter.

By August, the Danish force of 470 is to be withdrawn, as is the tiny Lithuanian unit. South Korea has 2,200 troops in the Kurdish north. Though they rarely leave base, 1,100 are to depart by August, the rest by year's end.

The Italians are gone. The Spanish pulled out after the Madrid bombings. Ukraine's 1,600 have departed. The Japanese have gone. Declaring the war "unjust and wrong," Slovakia's new prime minister just ordered home his country's contingent of 110 engineers.

Only the Americans are going deeper in. Aussies excepted, the "coalition of the willing" is no longer willing.

In Afghanistan, Americans, and Brits, Canadians and Dutch fight, as Germans, French and Italians do "reconstruction." In World War I, France, Italy and Germany lost 4 million men. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the three together have probably not lost 50.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi resigned Wednesday, when his plan to stay in Afghanistan and enlarge a U.S. base in Italy, lest refusal be seen as "a hostile act toward the U.S.A.," was rejected in the Senate.

Vice President Cheney hails Tony Blair's announced withdrawal of British troops as a sign of success. Yet, he says the Pelosi-Murtha plan to withdraw U.S. troops would only "validate the al-Qaida strategy."

The White House says the British pullout is an affirmation of our partnership, but the Brits could have sent those 1,600 to Baghdad or Anbar. They did not.

The Brits are leaving with mission unaccomplished. They are being shot at and mortared every day in Basra. Tribal and Shia militias have not been disarmed. The Sunni are being ethnically cleansed from the south. Militant Shia want the Brits gone, so they can take over.

The British people are bridling at the cost in blood and money of a war that destroyed Tony Blair, who is weeks away from resigning as prime minister. One British historian said at year's end he has never seen such levels of anti-Americanism in his country.

There is a larger meaning to all this, and Americans must come to terms with it. NATO is packing it in as a world power. NATO is little more than a U.S. guarantee to pull Europe's chestnuts out of the fire if Europeans encounter a fight they cannot handle, like an insurgency in Bosnia or Kosovo. NATO has one breadwinner, and 25 dependents.

At the end of the Cold War, internationalists like Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana declared, "NATO must go out of area, or go out of business." What Lugar meant was, with the Soviet threat lifted from Europe, NATO must shoulder more of the global burden.

But the Balkan crises of the 1990s showed that Europeans are not even up to policing their own playground. The Americans had to come in, gently push them aside and do the job. The message Europe is today sending to America, with the withdrawals from Iraq and the refusal of Italy, Germany and France to fight in Afghanistan:

"We are not going out of area again. If you Americans want to play empire, go right ahead. We will not again send our sons overseas to fight in regions of the world from which we withdrew half a century ago. You're on your own."

Where does this leave NATO? This leaves NATO as little more than a U.S. guarantee to go to war for the nations of Europe, while Europeans can be freeloading critics of U.S. policy around the world.

NATO is an expensive proposition. We maintain dozens of bases and scores of thousands of troops from Norway to the Balkans, from Spain to the Baltic republics, from the Black Sea to the Irish Sea.

What do we get for this? Why do we tax ourselves to defend rich nations who refuse to defend themselves? Is the security of Europe more important to us than to Europe?

In the early years of World Wars I and II, Europeans implored us to come save them from the Germans. We did. In the early Cold War, Europeans welcomed returning GIs who stood guard in the Fulda Gap.

Now, with the threat gone, the gratitude is gone. Now, with their welfare states eating up their wealth, their peoples aging, their cities filling up with militant migrants, they want America to continue defending them, as they sit in moral judgment on how we go about it.

This isn't an alliance. This isn't a partnership. Time to split the blanket. If they won't defend themselves, let them, as weaker nations have done to stronger states down through the ages, pay tribute.

Sixty years after World War II, 15 years after the Cold War, Europe's defense should become Europe's responsibility.

Gene Collier: Knight dead-on with indictment of one-year wonders

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Friday, February 23, 2007

A number of theories were launched this week as to what Bobby Knight was up to with his comments regarding freshman sensation Kevin Durant of Texas, at least one theory for every facet of The General's complex and often troubling persona.

While the proffered explanations for Knight's lament on "the integrity of college sports" ranged from plausible to stupid, the bigger news slipped offstage, namely that in the course of his comments, the Hall of Fame coach allowed as to how he "wasn't exactly positive" of something.

Put that down under famous firsts:


There's your headline.

Part of what made Knight the winningest college coach of all time has been a kind of monstrous self-assuredness, matched only by his hyper confidence on how the game should be played, how the athletes should be students, when people oughta be slapped, how writers should strive for a position that requires more than a third-grade education, and bedrock convictions on many, many other things.

But unless I was hallucinating, Knight said this the other day on the new NBA rule that prohibits players from turning pro until one year after the high school class has graduated.

"Now you can have a kid come to school for a year and play basketball and he doesn't even have to go to class. He certainly doesn't have to go to class the second semester. I'm not exactly positive about the first semester. But he would not have to attend a single class the second semester to play through the whole second semester of basketball.

"That, I think, has a tremendous effect on the integrity of college sports."

For the record and without displaying the full legislative minutia, by NCAA rule, nobody can play this semester without completing at least six credits last semester. Even though it would surprise no one should credits somehow accrue to a student-athlete who never actually goes to class, Knight is at least half right.

Should Durant or Ohio State's Greg Oden or North Carolina's Brandan Wright (who all would be in the NBA already without the new rule) eschew classroom attendance for the remainder of this season, NCAA sanctions would not be imposed after the basketball season, a moot point. I'm just a little surprised that Knight didn't know, at least in general terms, what makes his own players eligible for this semester.

Cynics suggested Knight merely had begun a slow burn over having to deal with Durant again, as the 6-9 freshman's jaw-dropping 37-point, 23-rebound performance, perhaps the best individual show of the season, came against Knight's Texas Tech fellas the first time around.

More accomplished (meaning more hopeless) cynics suggested the Knight indictment of one-year wonders was designed to make NCAA executive director Myles Brand squirm on the eve of March Madness, which is always accompanied by a detailed accounting of March Badness, expressed in the rates at which college basketball players are actually graduating. Those observers like to point out that Brand was running Indiana University when that institution decided it could no longer be represented by the likes of Robert Montgomery Knight.

More likely than any of those things, Knight was essentially emphasizing the educational component of a sport that's again set to spring into wild popularity for everything and anything but education. At Indiana, Knight graduated 80 percent of his players when the average was 42 percent and repeatedly proposed NCAA legislation that would punish outlaw schools with the loss of one scholarship for every player that failed to graduate in five years.

Last year, 35 teams in the 65-team NCAA tournament field (64 percent) had graduation rates of less than 50 percent. While most graduation measurements show improvement, the fact that someone can lead a college basketball team to a national championship without picking up more than six credits certainly cheapens the university's higher purposes.

While it's not as if the colleges haven't already figured out eight-dozen ways to compromise their integrity for televised glory, I agree with Knight (speaking of famous firsts) that the one-season-and-gone arrangement does college athletics "a tremendous disservice."

With college basketball about to gorge on the adulation of its most celebrated athletes and coaches, it doesn't hurt for someone to remind everyone what's still supposed to be their mission. It's just a good thing to hear, even when it comes from the prickly old guy in Lubbock.

(Gene Collier can be reached at or 412-263-1283. )

Thursday, February 22, 2007

John Harper: Andy Reaches For Pride

The New York Daily News

Returning ace seeking to restore quiet resolve

TAMPA - If you believe the Yankees have been missing a certain toughness, resolve, killer instinct, whatever you want to call it, the last few Octobers, you have to love the idea of Andy Pettitte being back in pinstripes.
Pettitte's Yankee past is proof enough that he can help as this team looks to get back to a World Series for the first time since he left after the 2003 season. And to listen to him talk yesterday about the agony of pitching through elbow problems in Houston was a further reminder of the level of commitment he brings.

In his very first start for his hometown team, Pettitte tore the flexor tendon in his elbow while trying to check his swing. It was a freakish injury, which wasn't connected to the ligament problem the Yankees had worried about for years, but one that would require repair.

"They told me I needed surgery," Pettitte recalled, "and I said, 'No chance. Just keep shooting me up (with painkillers) until I can't pitch anymore.' There was no way in my heart that I could sit out. I couldn't have lived with myself if I had to have surgery after taking a big contract and then pitching just five innings.

"I felt it was extremely important to get the respect of my teammates by competing my rear end off, even if I was just throwing slop up there."

So Pettitte kept pitching that season, with a fastball that couldn't reach 85 mph, and managed to keep the Astros in most of his 15 starts, as he posted a record of 6-4 with a 3.90 ERA.

He chuckled yesterday, thinking about what turned out to be his final start of that season, Aug.12 at Shea Stadium. His arm had weakened to the point where his fastball topped out at 78 mph, and yet Pettitte allowed the Mets just one run and four hits in 5-2/3 innings, getting a no-decision in a 2-1 loss.

"It was unbelievable," he said. "I was throwing so slow that they couldn't hit it. And I was throwing changeups off the 78. But during that start my arm blew up to about twice its normal size. I remember telling Roger (Clemens) in the dugout to go call our agents and set up an appointment for Dr. (James) Andrews for the next day. I knew I'd pushed it as far as I could."

Obviously the Yankees are hoping that toughness rubs off on Carl Pavano, whom Pettitte has made a point of befriending and counseling in an attempt to get him past all of his problems that have kept him off the mound since June of 2005.

"It's the way I learned to do things," said Pettitte, speaking of the Yankee teams he played on from 1995 through 2003, teams that went to six World Series and won four championships.

With that in mind, you can't blame Pettitte for wondering what happened to the feel-good vibe from the good old days. In his first week back as a Yankee, he watched with some amazement at the string of controversies that have unfolded, including Mariano Rivera's contract ultimatum and clubhouse issues involving Mike Mussina and Pavano, and, of course, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

"I think we need to do less talking and more playing baseball," said Pettitte with a laugh. "But it is what it is. I don't think it's any secret that stuff gets portrayed worse through the media than it really is. That's part of being here.

"What's important is that we're together inside this clubhouse. My concern is that guys in here have a good relationship with one another. I think that's extremely important to having a championship team, and I want everybody to know I'm ready to help in that way."

At 34, Pettitte feels it's his responsibility to help create the type of winning atmosphere he watched former teammates such as David Cone, Paul O'Neill, Joe Girardi and Tino Martinez nurture as clubhouse leaders during the championship years.

"We're a family in here," he said. "We need to genuinely care about each other, not just act like it. I tried to bring that to Houston and we competed a high level there, reaching a World Series, without All-Stars at every position, because guys bought into it.

"There were similarities with that team to my early Yankee years, but I'm not stupid, I know that can't last forever. It's all about people and personalities. It's extremely hard to put that kind of group of guys back together. It's hard to emulate."

Pettitte won't go far as trying to bring Jeter and A-Rod together for dinner. But he's determined to try to restore some of that old Yankee grit.

Or as he put it, "I'm looking forward to seeing what's going on here, see if we can get that feeling again and get back to being world champs."

Something clearly has been missing. Having Pettitte back is a good start toward figuring it out.

Originally published on February 21, 2007

Robert Novak: Death of the Chief

Chief Illiniwek

February 22, 2007

Chicago Sun-Times

WASHINGTON -- Oct. 10, 1942, was up to then the best day of my life. I had talked my father, University of Illinois class of '22, into taking me at age 11 along with him to homecoming weekend. On a golden autumn afternoon, lowly Illinois upset Minnesota, the Midwest football powerhouse. And, for the first time, I was privileged to watch Chief Illiniwek proudly dance down the field to Indian war music.

The last time I watched the Chief was Sept. 16, 2006. It will be the last time I ever see this 81-year-old symbol of my alma mater. The board of trustees last week eliminated Chief Illiniwek, bowing to years of pressure from Native American activists, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and liberal politicians.

This is a melancholy moment for me, many other Illinois alumni and university officials (including President B. Joseph White). The university has been forced to yield to blackmail. The death of the Chief epitomizes some unsavory aspects of contemporary American public life: political correctness, hypocrisy and bureaucratic tyranny.

Only a small minority of Native Americans is shown by polls to oppose Indian nicknames in sports. The campaign against them gained momentum only when the NCAA, which can hardly cope with policing athlete misconduct and illegal payments in college sports, crusaded against dozens of colleges in the name of political correctness. The NCAA, under Myles Brand's presidency, labeled Chief Illiniwek one of the "hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots."

But the Chief is no mascot (the university calls him a symbol). The big-headed depiction of the father of this country at The George Washington University, the turtle representing the University of Maryland and the Demon Deacon for Wake Forest are mascots. Such college mascots are comical figures who engage in sham battles with each other and go into the stands to hug children. Chief Illiniwek did not. He was always austere and dignified.

The accusation that Illinois and other schools degrade Native Americans is absurd. These schools picked Indian symbols in admiration of their valor, ferociousness and indomitable spirit in the face of overwhelming odds. Native Americans were honored in naming states. Illinois is Algonquin for "tribe of superior men." Indiana means the "land of the Indians."

The NCAA originally demanded that the University of Illinois not only dump the Chief but also drop the Fighting Illini nickname. Would Brand next demand that the states of Illinois and Indiana change their names (sticky for the NCAA, which is headquartered in Indianapolis)? The NCAA backed away from its ban on the Fighting Illini, but not on Chief Illiniwek.

Chief Osceola

That may seem irrational but less so than NCAA approval of Florida State University's use of the Seminole nickname and Chief Osceola (no less dignified than Chief Illiniwek) riding his horse at football games to the tune of Indian war chants. Florida State passed the Brand test because of approval from the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which receives scholarship aid from the university. The University of Illinois cannot make such an arrangement because the original Illini were wiped out in inter-tribal wars in the 1760s.

Stanford led capitulation to political correctness, changing from the Indians to the Cardinal in 1972. Other schools -- such as the University of North Dakota trying to remain the Fighting Sioux -- have fought a losing battle. The NCAA was disingenuous when it claimed, in declaring victory over the Chief last Friday, that it "never mandated" that colleges "change their mascots." In fact, it rejected Illinois sponsorship of an NCAA event and was ready to prevent Illinois from hosting a National Invitational Tournament basketball game. Such sanctions threatened Illinois' recruiting of non-revenue sports athletes.

North Dakota Fighting Sioux

Chief Illiniwek finally was done in by politicians jumping on the NCAA's political correctness bandwagon. Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones Jr., no friend of the university, warned that trustees might not be confirmed unless they dumped the Chief, and university officials feared their appropriations coming under attack.

While I can understand dumping the Chief, I don't like it. I could react by withdrawing from my long-range commitments to support the University of Illinois, but I won't. That would put me in the same class as the petty bureaucrats and politicians who killed Chief Illiniwek.

Cal Thomas: Rise of the Anti-Hero

Britney Spears

February 22, 2007

Sacramento Bee

"Anti-hero: A main character in a dramatic or narrative work who is characterized by a lack of traditional heroic qualities, such as idealism or courage."

Consider what occupies and diverts our attention from substantive matters: Anna Nicole Smith; Britney Spears; the astronaut gone wild, Lisa Nowak; the sleeping, dating, marital and divorce arrangements of film stars. It is all about the base, the tawdry and the anti-heroic. Today's heroes are cartoon characters and those (Superman, Batman, etc.) are from another era in which real heroes mattered.

Some blame television networks, especially cable, for our increasingly prurient interests. In recent days, TV has climbed into the septic tank with so many of the rest of us and delivered not what we need ("eat your vegetables, dear, they are good for you"), but what we seemingly cannot get enough of ("never mind the vegetables; eat your dessert"). TV wouldn't be obsessing with it if we didn't demand it.

USA Today reported on a Pew Poll that found most Americans believe the media overdo celebrity news, but they watch it anyway. Sixty-one percent say they think the media overplayed the death of Anna Nicole Smith, but 11 percent said they followed it as closely as the 2008 presidential campaign (13 percent) or the Super Bowl (11 percent).

Anna Nicole Smith

Can you name the last person you heard about who behaved in a classic heroic manner? How about our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan? The media ignore their heroism, even when they are awarded medals for bravery. When the word "hero" is used at all, it is generally to label someone who is simply doing his job or her duty.

There's little time to explore heroism among a people who prefer to indulge themselves in stories about a Qantas flight attendant having sex in the airplane lavatory with actor Ralph Fiennes, or Bridget Moynahan of ABC's "Six Degrees" announcing that she is pregnant with the child of ex-boyfriend and New England Patriot All-Pro quarterback, Tom Brady. Who gets married before having children these days? And what difference does it make in our "anything goes" culture?

Tom Brady and Bridget Moynahan

Politically, heroism disappeared around the time of Harry Truman, with brief reappearances during the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Now, everything is poll-tested and "leaders" follow the opinions and base instincts of those they should be persuading to follow them. Today, when one speaks of "vision," they are usually referring to Lasik eye surgery.

Harry Truman and Winston Churchill

Ronald Reagan

There is little sign any of this is about to end. Last week, ABC drew 9 million viewers to "The Outsiders," a prime time program about a group of Arizona polygamists. Commenting on the appeal of such a show, correspondent John Quinones said, "I guess (it's) the voyeuristic appeal." It's true - we are a nation of gawkers.

To some extent this has always been so, but television has made gawking easier and the objects of gawking more accessible. This indulgence in the base and banal has had a corrosive effect on our collective spirit. It also lowers our defenses against those who would destroy us.

It isn't as if we haven't been warned about self-indulgence in secular and sacred writings. In his "Republic," Plato has Socrates describe the effect on the soul of grace and gracelessness in the material culture: "Our aim is to prevent our Guards being reared among images of vice - as it were in a pasturage of poisonous herbs where, cropping and grazing in abundance every day, they little by little and all unawares build up one huge accumulation of evil in their soul. Rather, we must seek out craftsmen with a talent for capturing what is lovely and graceful, so that our young, dwelling as it were in a salubrious region, will receive benefit from everything about them. Like a breeze bringing health from wholesome places, the impact of works of beauty on eye or ear will imperceptibly from childhood on, guide them to likeness, to friendship, to concord with the beauty of reason."

You won't find such "craftsmen" on television. Better to turn it off, or get rid of this unfriendly guest, than to allow for the creation of another generation of anti-heroes and gawkers.

Thomas Sowell: Obama's worn-out economic ideas

February 22, 2007

Senator Barack Obama recently said, "let's allow our unions and their organizers to lift up this country's middle class again."

Ironically, he said it at a time when Detroit automakers have been laying off unionized workers by the tens of thousands, while Toyota has been hiring tens of thousands of non-union American automobile workers.

Labor unions, like the government, can change prices -- in this case, the price of labor -- but without changing the underlying reality that prices convey.

Neither unions nor minimum wage laws change the productivity of workers. All they can do is forbid the employer from paying less than what the government or the unions want the employer to pay.

When that is more than the labor in question produces, some workers who are perfectly capable become "unemployable" only because of wages set above the level of their productivity.

In the short run -- which is what matters to politicians and to union leaders, who both get elected in the short run -- workers who are already on the payroll may get a windfall gain before the market adjusts.

But, sooner or later, the chickens come home to roost. They have been coming home to roost big time in the automobile industry, where hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost over the years.

It is not that people don't want automobiles. Toyota is selling plenty of cars made in its American factories with non-union labor.

Some claim that it is automation, rather than union wages and benefits, that is responsible for declining employment among the Detroit auto workers.

But why are automobile companies buying expensive automated machinery, except that labor has been made expensive enough to make that their next best option?

Senator Obama is being hailed as the newest and freshest face on the American political scene. But he is advocating some of the oldest fallacies, just as if it was the 1960s again, or as if he has learned nothing and forgotten nothing since then.

He thinks higher teacher pay is the answer to the abysmal failures of our education system, which is already far more expensive than the education provided in countries whose students have for decades consistently outperformed ours on international tests.

Senator Obama is for making college "affordable," as if he has never considered that government subsidies push up tuition, just as government subsidies push up agricultural prices, the price of medical care and other prices.

He is also for "alternative fuels," without the slightest thought about the prices of those fuels or the implications of those prices. All this is the old liberal agenda from years past, old wine in new bottles, a new face with old ideas that have been tried and failed repeatedly over the past generation.

Senator Obama is not unique among politicians who want to control prices, as if that is controlling the underlying reality behind the prices.

There is much current political interest in so-called "predatory lending" -- the charging of high interest rates for loans to poor people or to people with low credit ratings.

Nothing will be easier politically than passing laws to limit interest rates or make it harder for lenders to recover their money -- and nothing will cause credit to dry up faster to low-income people, forcing some of them to have to turn to illegal loan sharks, who have their own methods of collecting.

The underlying reality that politicians do not want to face is that here, too, prices convey a reality that is not subject to political control. That reality is that it is far riskier to lend to some people than to others.

That is why the price of a loan -- the interest rate -- is far higher to some people than to others. Far from making extra profits on riskier loans, many lenders have lost millions of dollars on such loans and some have gone bankrupt.

But politics is not about facts. It is about what politicians can get people to believe.

Ann Coulter- John Murtha: Caving in to Arabs since 1980

February 22, 2007

Rumored ex-Marine John Murtha, Democrat congressman from Pennsylvania, has become the darling of the cut-and-run crowd for trying to place absurd restrictions on our troops, amounting to withdrawal from Iraq. Were Arab sheiks whispering into his ear?

In case you missed the video on "I Love the '80s," Rep. Murtha was caught on tape negotiating bribes with Arab sheiks during the FBI's Abscam investigation in 1980. The Abscam investigation was conducted by Jimmy Carter's Justice Department, not right-wing Republicans.

On tape, Murtha told the undercover FBI agent: "When I make a f***in' deal I want to make sure that I know exactly what I'm doing and ... what I'm sayin' is, a few investments in my district ..."

It is a profound and shocking fact that Murtha even showed up at this meeting, knowing he was going to be negotiating bribe money with Arabs.

Murtha added that he wanted the investment in his district to look like it was done "legitimately ... when I say legitimately, I'm talking about so these bastards up here can't say to me ... 'Jesus Christ, ah, this happened,' then he (someone else), in order to get immunity so he doesn't go to jail, he starts talking and fingering people and then the son of a bitch all falls apart."

For those of you just joining us, no, this isn't a scene from "The Sopranos." It's an actual conversation between a U.S. congressman and an FBI agent posing as an Arab sheik offering a bribe.

Murtha further said that although he was not prepared to accept cash at that time, "after we've done some business, then I might change my mind." You know, just what you or I or any American might say when offered a cash bribe by an Arab.

The ever-helpful media exposed the Abscam investigation before it could be completed, and consequently we were deprived of the possibility of seeing Murtha on tape stuffing cash in his trousers like the other Democratic congressmen (and one "moderate" Republican) convicted in the Abscam investigation. Or, as Al Gore used to call such a fund-raising procedure, "community outreach."

But Murtha was willing to trade favors in return for investment in his district – and suggested he might take cash down the line. In other words, Murtha wasn't calling for an immediate surrender of his scruples and principles, but rather a phased withdrawal of them.

In fact, according to a co-conspirator's affidavit, it didn't take long for Murtha to warm to the idea of a cash bribe.

About a month after the taped meeting with Murtha, the co-conspirator, lawyer Howard L. Criden, wrote in his affidavit: "Yesterday, Feb. 1, (Democrat Congressman Frank 'Topper') Thompson called and told me that Murtha was ready to go," adding that Murtha had indicated "during January that he was not ready to do business but would be willing to do so in the future."

Criden said: "Congressman Murtha of Pennsylvania would be willing to enter into an agreement similar to that of the other congressmen" – i.e., taking $50,000 cash from the sheiks for legislative favors.

Criden's affidavit went unsigned, according to his lawyer, Richard Ben-Veniste, solely because of the resulting publicity when the press blew the investigation, leading Criden to believe the prosecutors had broken the deal.

Criden was later convicted and sentenced to six years in prison, along with seven members of Congress (six of them Democrats). Murtha was an unindicted co-conspirator. (Would that Patrick Fitzgerald were prosecuting the case!)

As an attorney, let me give you the technical legal description of what occurred: John Murtha was as guilty as O.J. Simpson.

Now Murtha issues high moral pronouncements on the war and denounces our troops, calling the U.S. military "broken, worn out" and "living hand to mouth." Gee, too bad there aren't any Arab sheiks offering them cash bribes. Sounds like they could really use the money.

Murtha accuses Marines of killing "innocent civilians in cold blood" during an ongoing investigation. Semper Fi, Mr. Dirty Congressman.

Instead of toppling brutal dictators and spreading democracy in the Middle East, Murtha apparently prefers the old way of doing business with Arabs, where he gets juice from the sheiks.

The Democrats' cheat-sheet on Murtha demands that it be shouted out: "He didn't take a bribe on tape!" That's their defense. There is not even a pretense that he didn't talk to Arabs about a bribe.

He negotiated with a prostitute at the bar, but never consummated the deal. He's a saint! Let him be my congressman!

It's the Clintonian "incompetency" defense: Murtha was willing to be bribed; he just never got his act together enough to pick up the cash. I may not be honest, but I'm way too disorganized to actually take bribes!

Fine, Murtha was never convicted. Neither was Nixon. Venal hack John Murtha was willing to sell his country's interests to Arab sheiks. This is the man Democrats have put up to lead the anti-war charge today, demanding that the commander in chief stop deploying troops against his Arab friends.

If only this whole war thing would blow over, maybe that Arab is still waiting out there with a deal for him.

Ann Coulter is a bestselling author and syndicated columnist. Her most recent book is Godless: The Church of Liberalism.

Robert Spencer: Covering For Islam

Chicago police officials enter a building in the 6400 block of North Washtenaw Avenue where two women were found beaten to death on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2007. A third woman was found dead in an adjacent building in the 2600 block of West Arthur Avenue. Police said the slayings were "domestic-related." A man believed to be involved was arrested and was receiving treatment at a local hospital.

February 22, 2007

On Sunday morning, a cab driver in Nashville named Ibrahim Ahmed picked up two college students, Andrew Nelson and Jeremy Invus, at a city bar and drove them to the campus of Vanderbilt University. Along the way, the three got into an argument, apparently leaving Ahmed enraged: after they paid their fare and left his cab, he tried to run down Nelson and Invus. Nelson eluded the cab, but Ahmed hit Invus, who was seriously injured.

What were they arguing about? The only widely available news reports on the incident are not very specific. Nashville’s WSMV reports that “a fight over religion became heated.” Newschannel 5, also of Nashville, has little more to add: “Police said Ibrahim Ahmed chased down visiting students Jeremy Invus and Andrew Nelson after an argument over religion.” Associated Press has it that “police said he ran over one of his passengers after they got into a religious argument.”

What kind of religious argument? A comparison of the relative capacity of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism to transport its adherents to Nirvana? A discussion of whether or not Mark 16:18 justifies snake-handling? An examination of Reform and Orthodox Judaism? There’s no telling. Neither WSMV nor Newschannel 5 nor AP give any details about the argument. And all we learn about Ibrahim Ahmed himself is that he worked for United Cab, and that he was charged with assault and attempted homicide, as well as theft, since it turns out that his cab was sporting a stolen license plate. We’re also told that he has previous convictions for “evading arrest in a motor vehicle” and “driving on a suspended license.” But about who Ibrahim Ahmed is, and what may have led him to try to kill two of his passengers because of an argument, we hear nothing at all.

One might suggest to the Nashville news outlets, as well as to AP, that Ibrahim Ahmed’s religion, as well as that of Andrew Nelson and Jeremy Invus, would be relevant to this story, and may help readers understand how a religious argument could turn murderous. After all, AP has not shied away from reporting on the religion of perpetrators of crimes in another recent case. Around the same time that Ibrahim Ahmed was running down Jeremy Invus, a man in Chicago apparently bludgeoned three women – a woman, her stepsister, and their mother -- to death and attempted to kill himself. AP doesn’t give the suspect’s name, but does tell us that according to a neighbor and ex-husband of one of the victims, “the family was Assyrian Christian, a minority group in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.” Is religion involved in this case? Did the murderer kill his victims because of some imperative he believed arose from his Christian faith? That seems unlikely: AP also says it was a “domestic dispute,” and notes that “the couple had been having marital problems.” The Chicago Tribune adds that the suspect, Daryoush Ebrahami, “felt ‘disrespected’ by the women, who had told him ‘he was not a man.’”

So why is Ebrahami’s Christian faith relevant? The Tribune tells us that he was recently granted asylum on the basis of the possibility that as an Assyrian Christian, he could face religious persecution in Iran. That is an interesting detail, albeit irrelevant to the murders, but it is absent from AP’s piece -- which mentions Ebrahami’s Christianity anyway.

Now compare that to the initial AP report about the Salt Lake mall shootings: “Police: Teen Shot Mall Victims at Random,” by Jennifer Dobner. All we learn about Sulejman Talovic beyond his name is that he was a “trench coat-clad teenager” who lived with his mother.

Now, when people point out that the religion of nominally Christian murderers isn’t noted in news stories, and that Talovic’s religion should therefore not have been either, they are assuming that in both instances religion played no factor in the killing, and was hence an irrelevant detail. However, while it is extraordinarily unlikely that Ebrahami killed his victims in the name of Jesus Christ, or would attempt to justify the killings by reference to Christ’s teachings, it was at very least a possibility that Talovic, like so many others around the world every day, as well as other lone jihadists in the U.S. like Mohammad Reza Taheri-azar, killed in the name of Allah and with justification from the Qur’an and Sunnah. That’s why Talovic’s religion at least merited a mention, and some investigation.

The FBI has ruled out Islamic terrorism as a factor in the Talovic killings. One hopes that agents have done so after sufficient consideration of the possibility – which seems to have been absent from other cases with some similarities to that of Talovic. But in the wake of this, some have rushed to condemn me and others who publicly noted the mainstream media’s reluctance to identify Talovic as a Muslim, and to explore the possibility that his killings were jihad-related. This criticism was misplaced, for that reluctance is real, but it does not apply to all religions – as the Ahmed and Ebrahami cases show. Ibrahim Ahmed is, of course, probably a Muslim, and his murderous rage may have been reinforced by Islam’s belief that those who insult Islam have forfeited their right to live. The refusal of the Associated Press even to consider such possibilities, and its inconsistency in doing so, is readily apparent.

All this becomes even more noteworthy in light of the recent revelation that Ali Abu Kamal, who killed one person and injured six in a shooting at the Empire State Building in 1997, “wanted to punish the U.S. for supporting Israel” – according to the New York Daily News. The explanation that has prevailed for ten years was that Abu Kamal was despondent after losing a large sum of money, but the killer’s daughter now says that Palestinian officials fabricated that story in order so as not to “harm the peace agreement with Israel.” She added that she tried to make his actual goal known, but no one was interested: “When we wanted to clarify that to the media, nobody listened to us.”

The media should start listening, and stop covering up details that may be pertinent to the cases they report. While Sulejman Talovic may not have been a jihadist, and Ibrahim Ahmed may not be one, in their selective disclosure of the facts they may find themselves covering up for the next jihadist who does strike. And they may already have done so.

Robert Spencer is a scholar of Islamic history, theology, and law and the director of Jihad Watch. He is the author of six books, seven monographs, and hundreds of articles about jihad and Islamic terrorism, including Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions About the World’s Fastest Growing Faith and the New York Times Bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). His latest book is the New York Times Bestseller The Truth About Muhammad.