Saturday, December 25, 2010

Today's Tune: Johnny Cash And Friends - Silent Night, Little Drummer Boy

America’s First Christmas

How we reversed our fortunes in the Revolutionary War

By Rich Lowry
December 23, 2010 12:00 A.M.

"Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Leutze

Gen. George Washington’s army retreated from New York in ignominy in November 1776. As it moved through New Jersey, Lt. James Monroe, the future president, stood by the road and counted the troops: 3,000 left from an original force of 30,000.

In December 1776, the future of America hung on the fate of a bedraggled army barely a step ahead of annihilation.

The Americans confronted about two-thirds of the strength of the British army, and half of its navy, not to mention thousands of German mercenaries. Ron Chernow recounts in his new book, Washington: A Life, that when the British fleet showed up off New York, an American soldier marveled that it was as if “all London was afloat.”

The defense of New York was barely worthy of the name. When British troops crossed into Manhattan at Kips Bay, the Americans ran. Washington reportedly exclaimed in despair, “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?”

Later, from the New Jersey Palisades, he watched as the British took Fort Washington across the Hudson, held by 3,000 American troops, and put surrendering Americans to the sword. According to one account, Washington turned away and wept “with the tenderness of a child.”

British strategy depended on shattering American faith in the Continental Army and reconciling the rebellious colonies to the Crown. As the Americans fled to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, the British occupied New Jersey and offered an amnesty to anyone declaring his loyalty. They had thousands of takers, including one signer of the Declaration of Independence.

As David Hackett Fischer emphasizes in his classic Washington’s Crossing, the American revival began spontaneously. Low on supplies, occupying troops had to forage for food. The forage turned to plunder. That fueled a grassroots rising among “the rascal peasants,” in the words of a Hessian officer.

With New Jersey boiling and expiring enlistments about to reduce his army further, Washington decided on a scheme to cross the Delaware on Christmas and surprise the Hessian garrison in Trenton. “If the raid backfired,” Chernow writes, “the war was likely over and he would be captured and killed.”

Behind schedule, Washington’s main force of 2,400 started crossing the river that night. Yes, most of them were standing up in flat-bottomed boats. Yes, there were ice floes. It wasn’t until 4 a.m. that all the men were across the river. They had nine miles still to march to Trenton in a driving storm and no chance of making it before daybreak. Washington considered calling it off, but he had already come too far.

Arriving at Trenton at 8 a.m., his spirited troops seemed “to vie with the other in pressing forward,” he wrote afterward. They surprised the Hessians, not because they were sleeping off a Christmas bender. Harried in hostile New Jersey, the Hessians had exhausted themselves on constant alert. They didn’t expect an attack in such weather, though. The battle ended quickly — 22 Hessians killed, 83 seriously wounded, and 900 captured, to two American combat deaths.

“It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world,” British historian George Trevelyan wrote.

The American troops found 40 hogshead of rum in the town, which temporarily blunted their effectiveness. Washington followed up soon enough with another victory at Princeton. In the space of a few weeks, the Americans killed or captured as many as 3,000 of the enemy and irreversibly changed the dynamic of the war.

David Hackett Fischer sees in that resurgence after our fortunes were at their lowest a reassuring aspect of our national character in this season of discontent: We respond when pressed. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a great supporter of the American cause, wrote: “Our republics cannot exist long in prosperity. We require adversity and appear to possess most of the republican spirit when most depressed.” May it still be so.

— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.

Album Review: Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - III/IV

By Greg Gaston
December 17, 2010

Has there been a more polarizing artist in the last 10 years than Ryan Adams? Maybe so, but the little-dynamo-that-could still riles critics up with his one-man assault on the outer bounds of prolific creativity. Releasing III/IV, the second double-record set with his band the Cardinals, Adams continues to challenge his muse with this solid but too long-by-half collection.

These 21 songs come directly out of the NYC Electric Ladyland studio, Easy Tiger sessions from 2007. He had so many leftover cuts that he’s been unloading them in bunches since then. This is his second release in the last 12 months; the first was Orion, an underpublicized project described as his “sci-fi, metal concept record.” III/IV comes out on Adams’ own label, Pax-Am Records, who modestly call it a “double-album concept rock opera about the ‘80s, ninjas, cigarettes, sex, and pizza.” Why not?

The great thing about Adams and his inconsistent but ample output is you never know what will ricochet out of his studio next. He pinballs between genres, whether alt-country, garage rock, or new wave-style pop-rock, in always entertaining if uneven ways. He can be fun to follow, and it pays off every few records—his last great set was 2005’s Cold Roses, a raggedy, but twang-tight, jam-guitar drenched double-album with the Cardinals, inspired by Jerry Garcia.

III/IV verves off in another direction, a crunchy distillation of guitar pop and lite-metal sheen complete with Adams’ freewheeling attitude. His crucial touchstone influence here are his buddies, the Strokes, with whom he shares a love of British ‘80s New Wave shot through with NYC’s grit and grind-you-up streets. This set definitely ranges in the mold of his earlier Rock N Roll, a record that temporarily put his roots-country sound in check.

“Breakdown into the Resolve”, the fiery opener, pushes us straight into this record’s catchy dynamics: Both Adams’ and Neil Casal’s brash guitars lead the Cardinals with streamlined hooks intact, and then the verse peels open as Adams welcomes us back into the fold with his greeting, “Hi, hello, it’s me again, don’t worry I’ll talk slow / So you probably heard / I went away, where do we start?”

Though Adams never goes away for long, he has been on hiatus lately following his marriage last year to the actress, Mandy Moore. All signs point to another fertile period, though, as he has scheduled several new releases coming up in the next year. But, however, we choose to classify this guy, there’s no denying his songwriting DNA gift, and the livewire rush that runs through some of his music.

The songs just pile up here on III/IV, ranging from the clever synth riffs of “Happy Birthday” to the muscular power pop glaze of “Wasteland” and “Users.” Adams tries out different vocals here too; on one song he echoes the mopey theatrics of Morrissey, one of his idols, and on the next he’s giving us a decent Bono impression. All of this bodes well, if that’s what you look for on an Adams’ record. Though often, Adams’ weakness lies in the fact that he’s such a musical chameleon that much of his music reminds us of other artists, and sometimes he suffers in the comparison. I find this to be less true with his country records, which more than capably stand on their own compared to his more derivative rock releases.

If this is a concept record, there’s no narrative that connects the songs besides the overall sound. I couldn’t find the “ninjas, sex, and pizza” here so much, but the 1980s’ influence bleeds through the tracks. He even references “Star Wars” in a clunky, throwaway rocker named after the movie, as he yearns for a girl he can love as much as his favorite film. Let’s call it sci-fi, geek rock; at least he left the godforsaken Star Trek franchise alone—Adams projecting Spock would be one alien too far.

As with many double records, the first disc is stronger than the second, which dissipates into mediocre genre exercise writing like “Icebreaker”, an annoying metal rehash, and “Numbers”, a thrashed out concoction, and numerous others. Since these are leftovers culled from Adams’ overflow, maybe we should expect some lesser efforts along the way. The second disc winds down with a lovely, loping ballad, unfortunately named “Death and Rats”, just for good measure.

This always leads to the question, why release so much material? Why not whittle this down to one stronger package? And, of course, these concerns always dog the obsessive Adams with almost every record. It depends what you want as a fan: Songwriting quality or quantity? At his best—say every three or four records, Ryan Adams offers both. The rest of the time Adams is clearing the decks, making way for the next inspiration, and letting us hear about it. He is a songwriter, after all; this is what he does.

Today's Tune: Darlene Love - Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Dave Camp's plan: Taxes made simple

By George F. Will
The Washington Post
Thursday, December 23, 2010

Many parents have heard FICA Screams. Indignant children, holding in trembling hands their first paychecks, demand to know what FICA is and why it is feasting on their pay.

FICA (the Federal Insurance Contributions Act tax) is government compassion, expressed numerically: It is the welfare state; it funds Social Security and Medicare. Sometimes it makes young people into conservatives.

Dave Camp was 14, working for his father's garage in central Michigan, when he made the acquaintance of FICA. Now 57 and about to begin his 11th term in Congress, he will chair the House Ways and Means Committee, where he will try to implement the implications of his complaint that "the tax code is 10 times longer than the Bible, without the good news."

His aim is "fundamental" tax reform, understood the usual way - broadening the base (eliminating loopholes) to make lower rates possible. He would like a top rate of 25 percent - three points lower than Ronald Reagan achieved in 1986, with what proved to be perishable simplification.

In George W. Bush's 2004 speech to the Republican convention, he denounced the tax code as "a complicated mess" that annually requires "6 billion hours of paperwork" - now estimated at 7.6 billion. He vowed to "simplify" it. The audience cheered. Then he promised new complexities. There would be "opportunity zones" - tax relief for depressed areas - and a tax credit to encourage businesses to establish health savings accounts. The audience cheered.

This is perennial mischief - using the tax code not simply to raise revenue efficiently (with minimal distortion of economic behavior) but to pamper pet causes, appease muscular interests and make social policy. Since 1986, the tax code has acquired more than 15,000 complications.

"Targeted" tax cuts are popular complexities because they serve a bossy government's agenda of behavior modification: You can keep more of your money if you do what Washington wants. The tax code, says Camp, "should not be a tool of industrial policy" or of "crony capitalism": "Politicians should not pick the industry of the day."

One of Camp's objections to the health-care law is its obvious design to cripple health savings accounts. With HSAs, an individual who buys high-deductible health insurance becomes eligible for tax-preferred savings out of which he or she pays routine health expenses. (No one expects auto insurance to pay for oil changes or new windshield wipers.) This gives consumers of health care an incentive to shop wisely for it. Camp says the health-care law will make HSAs less attractive because "a qualified plan will be defined by the government rather than the market." And government will make HSAs unnecessarily expensive by requiring them to have "all the bells and whistles."

Many conservatives, including Camp, believe that although most Americans should be paying lower taxes, more Americans should be paying taxes. The fact that 46.7 million earners pay no income tax creates moral hazard - incentives for perverse behavior: Free-riding people have scant incentive to restrain the growth of government they are not paying for with income taxes.

"I believe," Camp says, "you've got to have some responsibility for the government you have." People have co-payments under Medicare, and everyone should similarly have some "skin in the game" under the income tax system.

In addition to the one-third of the 143 million tax returns filed by individual earners for 2007 that showed no tax liability, additional millions of households have incomes low enough to exempt them from filing tax returns. The bottom two quintiles of earners have negative income tax liabilities - they receive cash payments from the government via refundable tax credits.

Camp remains amazed by the slipshod practices by which banks and other financial institutions made mortgage loans without due diligence. He remembers that "the president of the bank approved my first Visa card." Other things have changed, too. "I used to do my own taxes," Camp says, "until I got on Ways and Means." No more. The tax code is so complex that the chairman of the tax-writing committee, like many millions of Americans, cannot be confident he can properly perform, unassisted, the duty of paying taxes.

If Barack Obama is accurately reported to be considering serious tax simplification and lower rates, he will have an ally in Camp - up to a point. Serious arguments about taxes are never just about taxes. They are about government's proper size and purposes. Concerning that, Obama differs with Camp, who says: "Washington doesn't have a revenue problem. It has a spending problem."

Obama's new start

By Charles Krauthammer
The Washington Post
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 8:00 PM

Riding the lamest of ducks, President Obama just won the Triple Crown. He fulfilled (1) his most important economic priority, passage of Stimulus II, a.k.a. the tax cut deal (the perfect pre-re-election fiscal sugar high - the piper gets paid in 2013 and beyond); (2) his most important social policy objective, repeal of "don't ask, don't tell"; and (3) his most cherished (achievable) foreign policy goal, ratification of the New START treaty with Russia.

Politically, these are all synergistic. The bipartisan nature of the tax deal instantly repositioned Obama back to the center. And just when conventional wisdom decided the deal had caused irreparable alienation from his liberal base, Obama almost immediately won it back - by delivering one of the gay rights movement's most elusive and coveted breakthroughs.

The symbolism of the don't ask, don't tell repeal cannot be underestimated. It's not just that for the civil rights community, it represents a long-awaited extension of the historic arc - first blacks, then women, now gays. It was also Obama decisively transcending the triangulated trimming of Bill Clinton, who instituted don't ask, don't tell in the first place. Even more subtly and understatedly, the repeal represents the taming of the most conservative of the nation's institutions, the military, by a movement historically among the most avant-garde. Whatever your views, that is a cultural landmark.

Then came START, which was important for Obama not just because of the dearth of foreign policy achievements these past two years but because treaties, especially grand-sounding treaties on strategic arms, carry the aura of presidential authority and diplomatic mastery.

No matter how useless they are, or even how damaging. New START was significantly, if subtly, damaging, which made the rear-guard Republican opposition it engendered so salutary. The debate it sparked garnered the treaty more attention than it would have otherwise and thus gave Obama a larger PR victory. But that debate also amplified the major flaw in the treaty - the gratuitous reestablishment of the link between offensive and defensive weaponry.

One of the great achievements of the past decade was the Bush administration's severing of that link - first, by its withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, which had expressly prevented major advances in missile defense, and then with the 2002 Treaty of Moscow, which regulated offensive weapons but ostentatiously contained not a single word about any connection to missile defense. Why is this important? Because missile defense is essential for protecting ourselves from the most menacing threat of the coming century - nuclear hyper-proliferation.

The relinking that we acquiesced to in the preamble to New START is a major reversal of that achievement. Sure, Obama sought to reassure critics with his letter to the Senate promising unimpeded development of our European missile defense system. But the Russians have already watched this president cancel our painstakingly planned Polish and Czech missile defenses in response to Russian protests and threats. That's why they insisted we formally acknowledge an "interrelationship" between offense and defense. They know that their threat to withdraw from START, if the United States were to build defenses that displease them, will inevitably color - and restrain - future U.S. missile defense advances and deployments.

Obama's difficulty in overcoming the missile defense objection will serve to temper the rest of his nuclear agenda, including U.S. entry into the test-ban treaty, and place Obama's ultimate goal of total nuclear disarmament blessedly out of reach. Conservatives can thus take solace that their vigorous opposition to START is likely to prevent further disarmament mischief down the road. But what they cannot deny is the political boost the treaty's ratification gives Obama today, a mere seven weeks after his Election Day debacle.

The great liberal ascendancy of 2008, destined to last 40 years (predicted James Carville), lasted less than two. Yet, the great Republican ascendancy of 2010 lasted less than two months. Republicans will enter the 112th Congress with larger numbers but no longer with the wind - the overwhelming Nov. 2 repudiation of Obama's social-democratic agenda - at their backs.

"Harry Reid has eaten our lunch," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, lamenting his side's "capitulation" in the lame-duck session. Yes, but it was less Harry than Barry. Obama came back with a vengeance. His string of lame-duck successes is a singular political achievement. Because of it, the epic battles of the 112th Congress begin on what would have seemed impossible just one month ago - a level playing field.

In defense of Santa and the cult of Christmas

By Michael Gerson
The Washington Post
Friday, December 24, 2010

An earnest academic, writing on the Web site Patheos, recently made the case against Santa Claus. Saint Nick is a multicultural nightmare: "A person shouldn't have to pander to a white man - sit on his lap and beg, even! - to enjoy the good life. . . . If Santa were a refugee, or a woman of color, or even a plant or animal, I could probably get on board."[1]

But Saint Nick's offense is also religious. He is "in direct competition with God, and it seems Santa may have the upper hand." "They're both invisible characters that appear from time to time," Jenell Paris continues, "so how does a Christian parent convince a child that God is really real (especially if you once told the child that Santa was also real)?"

This was never much of a problem in my home. My eldest son from an early age was a Santa skeptic - the Christopher Hitchens of his elementary-school set. Having spied out our Christmas preparations, he delighted in dashing the illusions of other children, including our youngest.

Still, I rise to Santa's defense. It is true that the Thomas Nast version of Santa Claus is the same pale shade as Bull Connor.[2] Yet perhaps even mythical figures should be judged, not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character - which, in this case, seems pretty admirable. And, though outwardly resembling Haley Barbour, Santa is unlikely to commit racially charged gaffes in the future.

The second critique is more substantial. Christmas has become a kind of alternative religion, offering watered-down versions of profound theological doctrines. Its miracles are found on 34th Street, not in Bethlehem. The visitation of Gabriel has become the visitation of Clarence, assuring us that it is a wonderful life. The modern cult of Christmas offers a domesticated form of transcendence. Naughty or nice instead of good or evil. A jolly old elf rather than an illegitimate child, destined for an early death.

One's reaction to the modern cult of Christmas depends on one's view of comparative religion. Believers often assert that other religious traditions are simply wrong and inherently dangerous, worthy of attention only to condemn or debunk.

Admittedly, it is not credible to assert that all religions - from Buddhism to Aztec human sacrifice to Quakerism to Wahhabi Islam - are equally true. Religious differences are not trivial. But most faiths share a similar striving. Across the world and across history, human beings have been hounded by an instinct to seek meaning beyond the material - a desire for forgiveness, acceptance, holy awe and ethical behavior. This search takes many forms and faiths, from animism to Zoroastrianism. If the instinct is not merely a cruel evolutionary joke, the practice of religion has produced varied insights and wisdom. As a Christian, I believe that the claims of Christianity are true - but this does not mean other faiths are devoid of all truth.

C.S. Lewis put it this way: "If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view."

So I choose to take a more liberal view of the Christmas cult. Its tacky materialism can be unattractive. But the desire for Christmas miracles and visiting angels - for Tiny Tim not to die and for hooves on the rooftop and for George Bailey to be the richest man in town; for just one night of calm and hope - are not things to be lightly dismissed.

"If I find in myself," says Lewis, "a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." In this argument, the sentimental desires of Christmas are hints and rumors and reminders of a birth that somehow represents their culmination. Put another way: The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.




Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Internet Access Is Not a Civil Right

Net neturality is the Obamacare of the Web.

By Michelle Malkin
December 22, 2010

When bureaucrats talk about increasing our “access” to X, Y, or Z, what they’re really talking about is increasing their control over our lives. As it is with the government health-care takeover, so it is with the newly approved government plan to “increase” Internet “access.” Call it Webcare.

By a vote of 3–2, the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday adopted a controversial scheme to ensure “net neutrality” by turning unaccountable Democratic appointees into meddling online traffic cops. The panel will devise convoluted rules governing Internet-service providers, bandwidth use, content, prices, and even disclosure details on Internet speeds. The “neutrality” is brazenly undermined by preferential treatment toward wireless broadband networks. Moreover, the FCC’s scheme is widely opposed by Congress — and has already been rejected once in the courts. Demonized industry critics have warned that the regulations will stifle innovation and result in less access, not more.

Sound familiar? The parallels with health care are striking. The architects of Obamacare promised to provide Americans more access to health insurance — and cast their agenda as a fundamental universal entitlement.

In fact, it was a pretext for creating a gargantuan federal bureaucracy with the power to tax, redistribute, and regulate the private health-insurance market to death — and replace it with a centrally planned government system overseen by politically driven code enforcers dictating everything from annual coverage limits to administrative expenditures to the makeup of the medical workforce. The costly, onerous, and selectively applied law has resulted in less access, not more.

Undaunted, promoters of Obama FCC chairman Julius Genachowski’s “open Internet” plan have couched their online power grab in the rhetoric of civil rights. On Monday, FCC commissioner Michael Copps proclaimed: “Universal access to broadband needs to be seen as a civil right . . . [though] not many people have talked about it that way.” Opposing the government Internet takeover blueprint, in other words, is tantamount to supporting segregation. Cunning propaganda, that.

“Broadband is becoming a basic necessity,” civil-rights activist Benjamin Hooks added. And earlier this month, fellow FCC panelist Mignon Clyburn, daughter of Congressional Black Caucus leader and number three House Democrat James Clyburn of South Carolina, declared that free (read: taxpayer-subsidized) access to the Internet is not only a civil right for every “nappy-headed child” in America, but is essential to their self-esteem. Every minority child, she said, “deserves to be not only connected, but to be proud of who he or she is.”

Calling them “nappy-headed” is a rather questionable way of boosting their pride, but never mind that.

Face it: A high-speed connection is no more an essential civil right than 3G cell-phone service or a Netflix account. Increasing competition and restoring academic excellence in abysmal public schools is far more of an imperative to minority children than handing them iPads. Once again, Democrats are using children as human shields to provide useful cover for not-so-noble political goals.

The “net neutrality” mob — funded by billionaire George Soros and other left-wing think tanks and nonprofits — has openly advertised its radical, speech-squelching agenda in its crusade for “media justice.” Social justice is the redistribution of wealth and economic “rights.” Media justice is the redistribution of free speech and other First Amendment rights.

The meetings of the universal-broadband set are littered with Marxist-tinged rants about “disenfranchisement” and “empowerment.” They’ve targeted conservative opponents on talk radio, cable TV, and the Internet as purveyors of “hate” who need to be managed or censored. Democratic FCC panelists have dutifully echoed their concerns about concentration of corporate media power.

As the Ford Foundation–funded Media Justice Fund, which lobbied for universal broadband, put it: This is a movement “grounded in the belief that social and economic justice will not be realized without the equitable redistribution and control of media and communication technologies.”

For progressives who cloak their ambitions in the mantle of “fairness,” it’s all about control. It’s always about control.

— Michelle Malkin is the author of Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks & Cronies. © 2010 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

Film Reviews: 'True Grit'

Wearing Braids, Seeking Revenge

The New York Times
December 21, 2010

NYT Critics' Pick

That old-time American religion of vengeance runs like a river through “True Grit,” a comic-serious tale about some nasty, brutish times. Beautifully adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen from the parodic western novel by Charles Portis, it turns on a 14-year-old Arkansas girl who hires a “one-eyed fat man” to hunt down her father’s killer. First published in 1968, Mr. Portis’s tall tale was brought to the screen the next year custom-fitted for John Wayne, who rode the role of that fat man, Rooster Cogburn, straight to an Oscar. Now it’s the thinner scene-stealer Jeff Bridges who sits and sometimes drunkenly slumps in the saddle.

Much as he did in the raucously entertaining original film directed by Henry Hathaway, Rooster enters on his best behavior, seated in a courtroom amid a fog of cigar smoke and conspicuous lies. The pale, ghostly light comes courtesy of the Coens’ frequent cinematographer, Roger Deakins, while many of the twisty, funny sentences have been plucked by the filmmakers right from the novel. A deputy United States marshal, Rooster has attracted the interest of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, in a terrific film debut), a half-pint who, with her bloodlust and severely braided hair, is an authentic American Gothic. As she listens to Rooster recount his bloody deeds and high body count, her eyes shine with a true believer’s excitement.

Avenging her father and keeping close track of her family’s expenses are what preoccupy Mattie, a richly conceived and written eccentric, as memorable on the page as she is now on screen. Softened for the first film (in which she was played by a 21-year-old Kim Darby, in a bob), she has been toughed up again by the Coens so that she resembles the seemingly humorless if often unintentionally humorous Scripture-quoting martinet of Mr. Portis’s imagination. At times she brings to mind D. H. Lawrence’s famed formulation that “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.” At other times, as when she wears her dead father’s oversize coat and hat, she looks like a foolish child left to perilous play.

Those dangers are telegraphed early by the public hanging that occurs soon after the story opens. Mattie, along with a family worker, Yarnell (Roy Lee Jones), has traveled from her Yell County home to Fort Smith, Ark., to identify her father, who has been gunned down by another worker, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). After doing so, she sends Yarnell home and gets down to business, first by settling her father’s accounts. She then hires Rooster because she hears that he has “true grit,” a quality that mostly seems to entail a disregard for preserving the lives of his prisoners. It’s no wonder she watches the hanging with such avidity, and no wonder too that she takes off after Chaney, armed with Rooster and her father’s heavy gun.

Their journey leads them into Indian country (with few Indians) and increasingly tense and violent encounters featuring corpses, severed fingers and a bad, bad man (Barry Pepper, spewing fear and spittle). On occasion a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who calls himself LaBeef, joins in the search. Wearing jangling spurs and a luxurious mustache that sits on his lip like a spoiled Persian cat, LaBoeuf hopes to bag Chaney for a large reward. Dead or alive, everyone in this story — snaggletooth thief or boardinghouse owner — has a price either on his head or in mind, usually in the form of the dollars and cents one person hopes to extract from another. “Why do you think I am paying you,” Mattie asks Rooster, “if not to have my way?”

The Coens deliver that line with a touch so light you might not even notice its sting. They have been surprisingly faithful to the tone and idiomatic tang of Mr. Portis’s novel, perhaps because its worldview suits their ironic purposes. The whiskey-soaked Rooster still likes to “pull a cork,” as he does in the book, and the Coens and Mr. Bridges get into the boozy spirit of things with slurs and pratfalls.

Despite Mr. Bridges’s showy turn, the movie opens and closes with Mattie’s voice-over, which shifts the story away from Rooster and back to her. The Coens also restore the novel’s framing device: “True Grit” isn’t just the story of a gutsy 14-year-old; it is her story as called from the memory of the woman (Elizabeth Marvel) she became.

The Coens opened their last film, “A Serious Man,” about a 1960s Minneapolis professor who endures trials worthy of Job, with an enigmatic short story about a 19th-century tale involving a possible dybbuk. That story is prefaced with a quotation attributed to the medieval Jewish scholar Rashi (“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you”) that appears in a 19th-century comic story, “The Gilgul, or The Wandering Soul,” about a dybbuk, or restless spirit, that inhabits a person. In “True Grit” the Coens switch to Solomon, opening the film with the first half of Proverbs 28:1 (“The wicked flee when none pursueth”), a line Mattie quotes early in the novel. Like Mr. Portis, they notably omit the second line: “But the righteous are bold as a lion.”

Mr. Portis’s book hit in 1968, in the midst of a pop-cultural cycle that, partly fueled by the Vietnam war, was revisiting the cowboy myth with degrees of cynicism and nostalgia. “True Grit” sticks to the western template, but with characters who, at least initially, fall far short of the heroic ideal of the type that Wayne himself embodied for decades. Yet no matter how roguish (and laughable) in the novel, Rooster can’t help registering as a larger-than-life hero on screen because the legend who played him, by then a survivor of cancer and countercultural assaults (for the jingoistic “Green Berets”), had played his role for so long. When Wayne won best actor for “True Grit,” it was for playing John Wayne.

The first “True Grit” opened in New York in early July 1969, a week after “The Wild Bunch,” the Sam Peckinpah western that’s widely seen as a metaphor about interventionist follies like Vietnam and that remains an enduring evisceration of the genre. The Coens, who like to play with genre, often with giggles and winks, haven’t mounted an assault on the western. But in Mattie they have created a character whose single-minded pursuit of vengeance has unmistakable resonance. In the first “True Grit,” when Rooster watches Mattie cross a river on horseback, he jocularly says, “She reminds me of me.” The line isn’t in the remake, but from the long, hard look Rooster gives her now, it’s clear that she still does, for better and worse.

In classic Coen style, the brothers punctuate the image of Mattie riding to dry ground with a cutaway to a slack-jawed Rooster, his mouth agape in wonder. By the time the scene ends, the mood has switched again, and Rooster has drawn his gun on LaBoeuf in deadly seriousness. (Mr. Damon plays the designated clown with grace, as Mr. Bridges slides between buffoonery and malice.)

In some ways, much like Charles Laughton’s “Night of the Hunter,” which the Coens quote both musically and visually, “True Grit” is a parable about good and evil. Only here, the lines between the two are so blurred as to be indistinguishable, making this a true picture of how the West was won, or — depending on your view — lost.

“True Grit” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Three severed digits and several holes to the head.


Opens on Wednesday nationwide.

Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Charles Portis; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production design by Jess Gonchor; costumes by Mary Zophres; produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

WITH: Jeff Bridges (Rooster Cogburn), Matt Damon (LaBoeuf), Josh Brolin (Tom Chaney), Barry Pepper (Lucky Ned Pepper), Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie Ross), Bruce Green (Harold Parmalee), Roy Lee Jones (Yarnell) and Elizabeth Marvel (adult Mattie).

True Grit, Odd Wit: And Fame? No, Thanks

The New York Times
December 19, 2010

A photograph of the camera-shy Charles Portis, left, with John Wayne during the filming of the first “True Grit” (1969). (Paramount Pictures)

The arrival of the Coen brothers’ movie “True Grit” on Wednesday is likely to bring Charles Portis a new surge of attention he has no use for. Mr. Portis, the author of the 1968 novel on which the new film is based (as was the 1969 John Wayne version) is allergic to fame.

He’s not a Pynchonesque recluse, exactly. He is occasionally spotted in Little Rock, Ark., where he has lived for 50-odd years; he even went to a gala sponsored there recently by the Oxford American, a literary magazine, and consented to receive a lifetime achievement award, though he sat in the 14th row, or as far from the stage as he could. But Mr. Portis doesn’t use e-mail, has an unlisted phone number, declines interview requests, including one for this article, and shuns photographs with the ardor of a fugitive in the witness protection program. He hasn’t published a novel in nearly 20 years.

The writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron, who got to know Mr. Portis in the early ’60s, when he was a reporter for The New York Herald Tribune, recalled that back then he was more sociable. “Charlie was just charming, the life of the party almost,” she said. “But he was a newspaper reporter who didn’t have a phone. The Trib had to make him get one. So even back then the pattern was there.”

His elusiveness has only enhanced his status as a cult writer’s cult writer, cherished by a small but devoted following. He has published four novels besides “True Grit” (all five have recently been reissued in paperback by the Overlook Press), and for years those in the sect have been pressing them on new readers like Masons teaching the secret handshake. The journalist Ron Rosenbaum, the unofficial grand vizier and first hierophant of Portis admirers, has called him “perhaps the most original, indescribable sui generis talent overlooked by literary culture in America.”

“True Grit,” Mr. Portis’s second novel, which was serialized by The Saturday Evening Post and appeared on the New York Times best-seller list for 22 weeks, is actually a divisive matter among Portis admirers. There are some, like the novelist Donna Tartt, who consider it his masterpiece, a work comparable to “Huckleberry Finn.” Others, like Mr. Rosenbaum, resent “True Grit” a little for detracting attention from Mr. Portis’s lesser-known but arguably funnier books: “Norwood” (1966), “The Dog of the South” (1979), “Masters of Atlantis” (1985) and “Gringos” (1991). The writer Roy Blount Jr., an old friend of Mr. Portis’s, suggested recently that Mr. Portis himself was a little embarrassed by the success of “True Grit.”

“I think that’s why in his next book, ‘Dog of the South,’ he set himself the challenge of a funny book written by a boring narrator,” Mr. Blount said. “That’s why other writers love him so much.”

“True Grit,” the story of the 14-year-old Mattie Ross, from Yell County, Ark., who with the help of the one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn sets out to avenge the murder of her father by a drunken hired man named Tom Chaney, is not unfunny. It’s simultaneously a thoroughly satisfying western and a parody of one. But unlike Mr. Portis’s other books “True Grit” is a period piece — the story takes place in 1873 but is recounted decades later, when Mattie is by her own description a cranky old spinster — and the narrative voice is a feat of historical ventriloquism.

Mattie’s prose is stiff, formal (a quality lovingly captured by the Coen brothers), a little pious and platitudinous, given to scriptural quotation and fussy quotation marks: “I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, that is superstitious ‘claptrap.’ My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33.”

Mattie is lovable in her way, and though grit is what she admires in Rooster, she is hardly lacking in that department herself. But she is also humorless, righteous and utterly without either self-doubt or self-consciousness. She has no idea how she or her words come across on the page, nor would she care if she did.

“The Dog of the South” and “Gringos” are also written in the first person, and the two others might as well be. The voice in all them is loose and informal, even a little digressive, with a noticeable Southern quality. Mr. Portis’s friends say he talks much the same way, and to judge from “Combinations of Jacksons,” a memoir he published in The Atlantic in 1999, his nonfictional style isn’t much different from his fictional one: in both he is a great noticer, always alert to the odd but telling detail.

What the other novels have in common with “True Grit” is their deadpan quality. Most comic novels — think of anything by P. G. Wodehouse, say, or Ring Lardner — are fairly transparent: they unabashedly try to be funny and let the reader in on the joke. The trick of Mr. Portis’s books, especially the ones told in the first person, is that they pretend to be serious. They’re full of odd events and odd people with names like Norwood Pratt, Raymond Midge and Dr. Reo Symes, inventor of the underappreciated Brewster Method, a miracle cure for arthritis. But these are presented without a wink or a nudge, or any sense that slapstick touches like smooth-talking midgets, bread-fondling deliverymen or elderly gents wearing conical goatskin caps are at all unusual.

Mr. Portis evokes an eccentric, absurd world with a completely straight face. As a result there are not a lot of laugh-out-loud moments or explosive set pieces here. Instead of shooting off fireworks the books shimmer with a continuous comic glow.

Unlike the tightly plotted “True Grit,” the other books are all shaggy-dog stories of a sort. In “Norwood” (which was made into a 1970 movie starring Glen Campbell) Norwood Pratt travels all the way to New York from his home in Ralph, Tex., to collect a $70 debt and winds up engaged to a girl he meets on a Trailways bus. In “The Dog of the South” Ray Midge drives to Mexico from Little Rock in search of his wife, who has run off with her first husband and Ray’s Ford Torino. “Masters of Atlantis” is about two guys who create the Gnomon Society, an esoteric, Rosicrucian-like sect based on wisdom from the lost city of Atlantis. And in “Gringos” an American expat in Mexico falls in with some U.F.O. nuts and archeologists searching for a lost Mayan city.

But in one way or another the subtext of all these novels is the great Melvillean theme of the American weakness for secret conspiracies and arcane knowledge, and our embrace of con men, scam artists and flimflammers of every sort. In Mr. Portis’s pantheon of tricksters, moreover, writers rank pretty high. There’s John Selmer Dix, author of “With Wings as Eagles,” an inspirational manual for salesmen, whose admirers rank him higher than Shakespeare; the hack writer Dub Polton, author of “Hoosier Wizard,” a political biography that pretty much makes everything up; and Lamar Jimmerson, compiler of the Codex Pappus, the sacred Gnomon text, which deliberately includes a lot of obfuscation to “weary and disgust the reader” and put him off the track.

All these texts, you can’t help noticing, are in their way not unlike Mr. Portis’s books in the degree of devotion and enthusiasm they evoke in their readers. They’re not self-parodies but, rather, warnings about the dubiousness of reputation and about the dangers of taking the cult of authorship too seriously.

“Talking about himself is something that would feel false and strange to him,” William Whitworth, the former editor of The Atlantic and his old friend, said of Mr. Portis. “It would be like asking him to stand up and sing like Frank Sinatra, or be on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ ”

True Grit

December 21, 2010

In the Coen Brothers' “True Grit,” Jeff Bridges is not playing the John Wayne role. He's playing the Jeff Bridges role — or, more properly, the role created in the enduring novel by Charles Portis, much of whose original dialogue can be heard in this film. Bridges doesn't have the archetypal stature of the Duke. Few ever have. But he has here, I believe, an equal screen presence. We always knew we were looking at John Wayne in the original “True Grit” (1969). When we see Rooster Cogburn in this version, we're not thinking about Jeff Bridges.

Wayne wanted his tombstone to read, Feo, Fuerte y Formal (Ugly, Strong and Dignified). He was a handsome, weathered man when I met him in the 1960s and '70s, but not above a certain understandable vanity. Roo­ster might be an ornery gunslinger with an eye patch, but Wayne played him wearing a hairpiece and a corset. Jeff Bridges occupies the character like a homeless squatter. I found myself wondering how young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) could endure his body odor.

Bridges' interpretation is no doubt closer to the reality of a lawman in those years of the West. How savory can a man be when he lives in saloons and on horseback? Not all riders on the range carried a change of clothes. Of course he's a lawman with an office and a room somewhere in town, but for much of the movie, he is on a quest through inauspicious territory to find the man who murdered Mattie's father.

As told in the novel, Mattie is a plucky young teen with a gaze as level as her hat brim. She hires Marshal Cogburn to track down that villain Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She means to kill him for “what he done.” If Bridges comfortably wears the Duke's shoes, Hailee Steinfeld is more effective than Kim Darby in the earlier film, and she was pretty darn good. Steinfeld was 13 when she made the film, close to the right age. Darby was a little over 20. The story hinges on the steely resolve of a girl who has been raised in the eye-for-an eye Old West, seen some bad sights and picked up her values from the kind of old man who can go and get hisself shot.

What strikes me is that I'm describing the story and the film as if it were simply, if admirably, a good Western. That's a surprise to me, because this is a film by the Coen Brothers, and this is the first straight genre exercise in their career. It's a loving one. Their craftsmanship is a wonder. Their casting is always inspired and exact. The cinematography by Roger Deakins reminds us of the glory that was, and can still be, the Western.

But this isn't a Coen Brothers film in the sense that we usually use those words. It's not eccentric, quirky, wry or flaky. It's as if these two men, who have devised some of the most original films of our time, reached a point where they decided to coast on the sheer pleasure of good old straightforward artistry. This is like Iggy Pop singing “My Funny Valentine,” which he does very well. So let me praise it for what it is, a splendid Western. The Coens having demonstrated their mastery of many notes, including many not heard before, now show they can play in tune.

Besides, isn't Rooster Cogburn where Jeff Bridges started out 40 years ago? The first time I was aware of him was in “The Last Picture Show” (1971), where he and his friends went the local movie theater to see “Red River,” starring John Wayne. Since then, that clean-faced young man has lived and rowdied and worked his way into being able to play Rooster with a savory nastiness that Wayne could not have equaled.

All the same, the star of this show is Hailee Steinfeld, and that's appropriate. This is her story, set in motion by her, narrated by her. This is Steinfeld's first considerable role. She nails it. She sidesteps the opportunity to make Mattie adorable. Mattie doesn't live in an adorable world. Seeing the first “True Grit,” I got a little crush on Kim Darby. Seeing this one, few people would get a crush on Hailee Steinfeld. Maybe in another movie. But the way she plays it with the Coens, she's more the kind of person you'd want guarding your back.

Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper have weight and resonance in supporting roles. Damon is LaBoeuf, the Texas Ranger who comes along for a time to track Tom Chaney. Glen Campbell had the role earlier, and was right for the tone of that film. Damon plays it on a more ominous note. His LaBoeuf isn't sidekick material. He and Cogburn have long-standing issues. Nor, we discover, is LaBoeuf a man of simple loyalty.

As Tom Chaney, Brolin is a complete and unadulterated villain, a rattlesnake who would as soon shoot Mattie as Rooster. In the Western genre, evil can be less nuanced than in your modern movies with all their psychological insights. Barry Pepper plays Lucky Ned Pepper, leader of a gang Chaney ends up with, and part of the four-man charge across the meadow into Rooster's gunfire, a charge as lucky for them as the Charge of the Light Brigade.

The 1969 film, directed by Hollywood veteran Henry Hathaway, had glorious landscapes. The meadow and several other scenes were set in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, near Telluride. This film's landscapes are all in Texas, and although some are beautiful, many are as harsh and threatening as the badlands described by Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry.

I expect Bridges and Stein­feld have good chances of winning Oscar nominations for this film. Steinfeld is good the whole way through, but the scene audiences love is the one where she bargains with a horse trader (Dakin Matthews) for the money she feels is owed her. Here the key is the dialogue by the Coens, which never strains, indeed remains flat and common sense, as Mattie reasons the thief out of his money by seeming to employ his own logic.

I'm surprised the Coens made this film, so unlike their other work, except in quality. Instead of saying that now I hope they get back to making “Coen Brothers films,” I'm inclined to speculate on what other genres they might approach in this spirit. What about the musical? “Oklahoma!” is ready to be remade.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Film Review: 'The Fighter'

Powerful story, performances are a great combo

By Ty Burr
Boston Globe Staff
December 9, 2010

The thing about boxing movies is that they’re never really about the boxing. They’re about everything else the fighter has to contend with: family, friends, anger, addictions, the often-corrupt machinery of professional sports, the body’s failure in the face of age and abuse. David O. Russell’s “The Fighter’’ is no different. Otherwise it would place Micky Ward’s legendary 2002-2003 trio of fights with Arturo Gatti at the center of the movie instead of relegating them to a mention just before the end credits roll.

A Ward biopic without Gatti? That’s like a Muhammad Ali movie without Joe Frazier. Yet “The Fighter’’ is this close to a triumph: a movie that steeps us in the grit of its time and place — Lowell, Mass., in the 1990s — and electrifyingly dramatizes Ward’s battles with the family that almost loved him to death.

The first person we see is Micky’s half-brother Dickie Eklund, and it’s a horrifying sight. Christian Bale has gone back to his skeletal “Machinist’’ weight for the role. His eyes bright and hollow, he sits on a couch for an HBO interview and proclaims his readiness for a ring comeback. Everyone but Dickie seems to realize he’s in a documentary about crack addiction.

Dickie had his shot in 1978, when he knocked Sugar Ray Leonard to the canvas (and he’d be the first to throw a punch if you suggest Leonard might have slipped). Now he’s training his kid brother (Mark Wahlberg), with constant input from the boys’ pit bull of a manager-mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), and her seven fearsome daughters. No wonder Micky’s record in the ring is inconsistent — he has never drawn a breath for himself. Every hook, every jab, is second-guessed by people who know better.

“The Fighter’’ spans the years 1993 to 2000, when Ward pulled away from his family to make a name for himself. After a disastrous bout against an over-matched last-minute replacement (Mike Mungin; the fight actually took place in 1988), Micky understands he’s fighting Dickie’s battles, not his. With the backing of his girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), he finds a new manager and new trainers, slowly pulling himself up the rungs toward title contention. It helps that Dickie’s in prison for much of this time, after a ridiculous shakedown scheme to raise money for his brother has gone bad.

Indeed, at its punchy, profane best, “The Fighter’’ struts along the line between melodrama and comedy. The first time Dickie jumps out a crackhouse window into a dumpster to avoid his mother, it’s alarming; the second time, it’s farce. If the older brother is known as “The Pride of Lowell,’’ you sense that Lowell’s more than a little embarrassed about the honor.

Actually, I’m curious what Lowell will think of the movie as a whole, since it paints the town a deep, bilious gray. A decade-plus of Boston-area movies has rubbed our noses in the yawp of working-class neighborhoods but never as relentlessly as this. The triple-deckers sag with decay and the faces are bloodshot with vanished hopes. You watch half-wondering if there’s a statute for civic libel but also rapt, because Russell makes the place jump with life, his camera swiveling to catch every desperate street-corner showdown.

He shoots the fights on video, a tactic that’s the opposite of “Raging Bull’’-style operatics. It works: The high-key lighting and the jagged VHS lines give the punches immediacy, and even if you know the outcome you’re caught up in the suspense, expecting the worst because that’s what Micky’s used to.

Yet as well-made as “The Fighter’’ is, the performances put it over. As Dickie’s the loudmouthed star of his extended clan, Bale is the secret star of this movie, his ruinous charisma stealing the spotlight from the little brother with talent. The actor is mesmerizing, unpredictable, much too much — you realize why people are drawn to Dickie and also why they give him a wide berth. I’m not sure whether Bale should be nominated for best actor, best supporting actor, or best animated feature.

With her frosted hair and tips that hide claws, Leo also goes the distance as Alice, overacting in the service of motherly venom. Mama Ward brooks no rebellion; when Micky’s dad (Jack McGee) suggests the boy might be better off with other management, he gets a frying pan to his head for his pains. A shout-out, too, to the chorus of sisters, Irish-American furies who include in their number Conan O’Brien’s sister Kate and the redoubtable Jill Quigg (“Gone Baby Gone’’), a bouillon cube of pure Bay State meanness.

Yet it’s Mark Wahlberg’s movie, and not just because he spent years trying to get it made. The star has the tricky role of a soft-spoken man in a family of loudmouths, and his power in and out of the ring builds in satisfying increments. The scenes with Adams’s Charlene are tender and unexpectedly moving; Micky has finally met someone willing to listen. You could say that Wahlberg’s playing Wahlberg. You could also say the star’s stubborn gentleness fits the part so well it doesn’t matter.

“The Fighter’’ is so good, so engrossing, for so long, that its failure to find an ending to match is perplexing. In part, the shape of its subject’s life works against tidy storytelling: The family issues dramatized here were resolved years before the fights with Gatti that made Ward’s name. Yet the climactic March 2000 bout with Shea Neary isn’t the best replacement, since it closely replicates a fight earlier in the film. As the credits roll, you hear the wind whistling out of the movie’s sails — or maybe it’s our own disappointment that life doesn’t snap together as neatly as “Rocky.’’ “The Fighter’’ doesn’t go out with a bang but with the less showy sound of a man winning a bigger battle by decision.

Ty Burr can be reached at For more on movies, go to


Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Keith Dorrington
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo
At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs
Running time: 114 minutes
Rated: R (language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality)

Will the Glastonbury Thorn Survive?

Another Perspective

By Hal G.P. Colebatch on 12.20.10 @ 6:07AM
The American Spectator

The Glastonbury Thorn Tree before it was hacked apart. Legend says it sprang from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, the man who helped Jesus of the cross. To the right of the tree, in the distance, is Glastonbury Tor

The other week in Britain the Glastonbury Thorn Tree was destroyed by persons unknown.[1] It was a scrubby, undistinguished-looking tree. Few trees have had such links with high religious mystery.

It is said to be in its origins 2,000 years old and to have direct links with Christ. According to legend it is either sprung from the Crown of Thorns or from seeds planted by Joseph of Arimathea, who, according to the Gospel, gave his tomb to hold Christ's body.

In fact it is historically possibly, if not particularly likely, that Joseph of Arimathea visited England. Archeological evidence shows that England had considerable trade with Europe before being absorbed into the Roman Empire after 43 A.D. and travel in the Roman World was relatively easy.

Although the story of Joseph of Arimathea is encrusted with legends, he is described by St. Mark as an "honorable counselor" in Judea and may have been a wealthy merchant.

Whether or not there is any truth in any of the many legends that have grown about the tree is in a sense unimportant. It has been at the very least a place of contemplation.

The important fact is that the Glastonbury Thorn, like Glastonbury itself (Glastonbury Abbey is one reputed burial-place of King Arthur), has been a focus for Christian beliefs in England since ancient times. It had, over the centuries, become a site of pilgrimage, and a cutting from the tree was sent to the Queen to decorate her Christmas dinner table every year.

Glastonbury is also a seat of the legend of the Holy Grail. Many have remarked on a feeling of uncanniness about it.

The thorn tree is said to have flowered on Christmas Day every year for the last two millennia.

G. K. Chesterton, in "The Ballad of the White Horse," telling of Alfred the Great's defense against the marauding and destroying Viking barbarians, referred to:

The Earls of the Great Army
That no men born could tire,

Whose flames anear him or aloof

Took hold of towers and walls of proof,

Fire over Glastonbury roof

And out on Ely, fire …

The fires of the Great Army

That was made of iron men,

Whose lights of sacrilege and scorn

Ran around England red as morn,
Fire over Glastonbury Thorn--

Fire out on Ely Fen.

The destruction of the tree may have been mindless vandalism or a deliberate attack on a symbol of, and aid to, Christian faith -- and there are plenty of anti-Christian fanatics in Britain today (when both convicts and police, as well as members of the remaining armed forces, are, in the name of political correctness, given time off to observe pagan rituals). Or possibly the target was British history and identity, which has been under attack from many quarters, including official ones, in recent times.

Whoever did it went to a good deal of trouble because the tree was protected by a wire fence. Further, the fact that the destruction took place on December 8 suggests those responsible were well aware of the significance of the tree. This has traditionally been the date on which a sprig was cut from it to present to the Queen.

Whatever the motive behind the destruction was, if the tree is lost then something at the core of Western civilization has been diminished. In "The Ballad of the White Horse," Alfred, looking at the senseless destruction and waste caused by the barbarians, tells them:

Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.

The branches were sawn off the tree and piled nearby but a six-foot stump remains. There is apparently some hope the tree may be saved. Tree-surgeons have dressed the tree's wounds in pine resin and beeswax and it has been wrapped up to protect it from the frost.

Arborist Peter Wood Frearson was quoted as saying: "I am 75 per cent sure the tree will survive."[2]

Religious fanatics have attacked the tree previously, but it has proved very hard to kill. During the English Civil War Oliver Cromwell's Puritan Roundheads felled the tree. However locals salvaged the roots of the original tree, hiding them in secret locations around Glastonbury.

Various shoots of it were raised and tended over several centuries and it was replanted on the hill in 1951.

Many people have been distressed by the destruction of the tree. However in "The Ballad of the White Horse" Chesterton had Alfred give an answer to the barbarians' destruction:

For our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
The spirit with whom you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God's death the stars still stand
And the small apples grow.

And, after all, he did win the final battle.

Hal G.P. Colebatch's "Immram," Counterstrike, is being published by Australian publisher Imaginites.




I'm hoping our new album sounds like a dream but it has been hard, admits Glasvegas frontman James Allan

By John Dingwall
The Daily Record
Dec 17 2010

GLASVEGAS are planning to come back bigger, better and stronger than ever, according to frontman James Allan.

But the Scots singer, who caused a scare when he failed to show up at the Mercury Music Awards earlier this year, admits he struggled to deal with the way his band were catapulted to stardom.

After hits such as Daddy's Gone and Geraldine from their self-titled 2008 debut album, the 31-year-old endured a period of soul searching.

He admitted: "I don't know where hell ends and heaven begins. We've been pulled inside out.

"I am quite a resilient person then I fall down.

"I had some kind of ... it was like I was chasing parked cars. Sometimes it is so easy for me to say I am partying. So it's a little more complex.

"It's not just putting my feet up and having a good time.

"Sometime I am trying to make sense of my life and sometimes I feel I'm a stranger to myself.

"Along the way, there are certain things that aren't good for you, that catch up with you.

"I'm not just talking drugs and alcohol or any other cartoon cliches of a rock 'n' roll person. There are other less subtle things that aren't advertised in the rock 'n' roll comic book."

According to James, the madness of being in Glasvegas took its toll on the other members. None more so than drummer Caroline McKay, who quit in March.

James, 31, said: "There are probably lots of reasons why Caroline left. It is quite a tall order being in a band.

"When we started, we practiced and practiced. We didn't just spark up a cigar.

"But Caroline had never played drums before and it grew from my sister saying, 'I'll get you a gig', to something much bigger in such a short period of time.

"Caroline never asked to play gigs at Wembley with U2. In some ways, I feel responsible for that."

James insists his own emotional breakdown took place during the last days of a tour with Kings Of Leon, six months before Caroline quit.

Having been gifted two goldfish on his 30th birthday by his sister and band manager, Denise Allan, he became strangley attached to the newly acquired pets.

"The last two years have been crazy," James recalled. "The tour with Kings Of Leon came to a shuddering halt. We had to cancel the last few days.

"The last thing I remember was being given two black goldfish by Denise. It was my birthday.

"I took the fish to the zoo and I was singing The Carpenters' (They Long To Be) Close To You to the fish 33 floors up in a Chicago hotel.

"I even took the fish into the bar. I remember sitting on the edge of the bed in my bathrobe with the fish in the tank on my lap, flicking through all the TV channels. God knows what happened after that."

Explaining his decision to turn down the Mercury Music Prize last February, he added: "I got invited to the Mercury awards and one of my friends asked me to go and meet them in Central Park, New York. I chose Central Park."

The last time we spoke, James had been set on emigrating to Los Angeles. But he changed his mind when he got there.

"My initial instinct had been that I felt at home in Los Angeles. But I wasn't sure if my instincts had been right," James recalled.

"So we went to different places, including Venice beach, Silverlake and Hollywood. At the end of 12 days, I thought my instincts had been wrong.

"Then Denise suggested Santa Monica. We got there and I had never felt any more at home. I said, 'This is it.' "We took a walk along the beach, saw a house with a To Let sign, called the estate agent and did the deal.

"We took some microphones over, set up some nice amps and came back with about 20 songs."

The next step was to find a producer. The Glasgow rockers chose Flood, best known for his work with U2 and Depeche Mode, and the recordings were completed at his Assault & Battery studios in London.

In the process of recording the as-yet-untitled album, the band also found a replacement drummer for Caroline.

Swede Jonna Löfgren will join the band on their January tour of Scotland which takes in Orkney, Wick, Oban, Dunoon, Troon, Hawick and Dunfermline.

Lead guitarist Rab Allan said: "Jonna is beautiful. She has been working with us for the past couple of weeks. She is a good drummer and stands up when she drums.

James added: "I was speaking to Jonna and saying how funny it was that she was from Sweden.

"I found out that Rab had told the record label that he didn't want a drummer unless it was a girl and she was from Sweden.

"Rab is quite cocky and so clumsy. When she turned up, I just thought what a genius Rab was.

"I am so proud of my cousin for that. It is early days and it's like a new girlfriend. I just want to take things slowly and make sure that she is having fun and she's OK.

"She is pretty and there is electricity dripping off her when she is playing."

Unlike Caroline, Jonna has been drumming from an early age.

"I started playing drums when I was three," she said. "I took the pots and pans from the kitchen and started banging on them.

"I've been taking lessons since I was seven. I am trained and my style is different."

The album, due for release in March, is currently being mixed by Claudius Mittendorfer, who has worked with Muse, Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys.

"This has been one of the hardest points of my life - sometimes I am trying to work out if I am losing my mind," James confessed.

"I am trying to prove to people I don't have OCD. I really need to believe in myself and believe that I'm not a maniac and the sound will work out in the end.

"Somebody asked what I wanted the album to sound like. I said, a dream. So I'm sure over the next week, it'll be wrapped up. I have to cross my fingers and hope it works out. I'm hoping for the best and that the stars align."

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bonhoeffer the Brave

A new look at a 20th-century hero
December 20, 2010

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life was more riveting than most of the novels written this year. And Eric Metaxas (pictured at right), in his new monumental biography of the Lutheran pastor who was executed at the Flossenburg concentration camp after his participation in a failed attempt to kill Hitler, tells Bonhoeffer’s story with the fluidity of a novel. Metaxas talks about Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: When did you decide to tell Bonhoeffer’s story?

ERIC METAXAS: I first heard the story of Bonhoeffer in 1988, when I was returning to the Christian faith. I was so staggered by it — I’m half German — that I thought I must do something with it someday, but what? At the time I was planning to be a fiction writer, not a biographer. But after my first biography came out in 2007 (Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery), many people asked me who I would write about next. Some people asked me about whom I would next write. The latter were, of course, correct. I realized then that there was only one person besides Wilberforce who captured my imagination sufficiently to draw me into the rococo agony of writing another biography. That man was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

LOPEZ: Isn’t he an atheist hero?

METAXAS: He’s not an atheist, but yes, he’s been a hero to atheists! It’s absolutely crazy, as if the Tea Party were to hail Stalin and Bernie Sanders as their ideological icons. On one level it’s really hilarious, almost on par with the late Foster Brooks’s brilliant performances on the Dean Martin roasts. Of course nothing could be that hilarious, but Charlie Callas came clos

But seriously, Bonhoeffer, the ultra-devout Christian, has been celebrated by Christopher Hitchens and the heretical Episcopal “Bishop” John Spong. They thought of him as some kind of “post-Christian humanist.” It’s sheer lunacy. In fact, the secular Left has since the 1950s hailed Bonhoeffer as an apostle of the so-called “God is Dead” movement. It’s all based on a number of myths about Bonhoeffer that I hope are once and for all exploded in my book.

LOPEZ: What are the most prevalent myths about him?

METAXAS: One of the big ones is that he was a pacifist, which he wasn’t. But the Sixties anti-war movement appropriated Bonhoeffer for their purposes nonetheless. They seemed to be under the impression that, had he lived, he would have been the third person in bed with John and Yoko. Another myth about him is that he was an advocate of income-redistributionist “social justice.” There’s just no actual evidence for that.

But the main myth about him is that while imprisoned by the Gestapo he drifted away from orthodox Christianity toward some kind of “post-Christian humanism,” that he became some kind of atheist. This one is based off of a single infamous phrase — “religionless Christianity” — that he wrote in a letter to his best friend Eberhard Bethge. It turns out that Bonhoeffer meant precisely the opposite of what the atheists and agnostics said he meant. This is a classic case of the lie traveling around the world four times before the truth gets a chance to put its shoes on. There was no rebuttal to this misinterpretation for so long that it just got out there as a fact and stayed out there — basically until now, over 50 years later.

LOPEZ: How are you so sure you’re so right and they’re so wrong?

METAXAS: Because we now simply have all the information. In the Fifties and Sixties, when these three myths were born, there was little real information about Bonhoeffer. Eberhard Bethge’s great biography didn’t come out in English until 1970, and by then the damage had been done. So people based their ideas about Bonhoeffer on a very limited amount of information. Bonhoeffer was a Rorschach blot onto which the people could project their own fantasies, which they did in abundance.

And since the Bethge book, more and more information has come out to give us some context. When you see the big picture, which I try to give in my book, it’s all rather clear and simple. Now we have almost everything he ever wrote, including journals and letters and sermons, amounting to 16 volumes, and most of that has been translated into English. We also have the correspondence between him and his fiancée, which wasn’t published until 1992. When most of these myths were formed, all people had was Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. So the secular Left was free to create a Bonhoeffer in its own image. He became a combination of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Che Guevara.

Of course for the full story on all this, you’ll have to read my book. But let me just say that the one thing I’m proudest to have corrected is the awful misconception about the phrase “religionless Christianity.” Amazingly, we have the testimony of Eberhard Bethge himself, to whom the letter that contained the infelicitous phrase was addressed. I give Bethge’s full quote in my book. It’s clear that he was deeply disturbed by how that phrase had been misused.

For Bonhoeffer, the term “religion” meant a false substitute for true faith, so “religionless Christianity” meant true Christianity. Bonhoeffer saw that the people in Germany who called themselves Christians were mostly not real Christians. They were just churchgoers, going through the motions. But they weren’t deeply committed disciples of Jesus Christ. So when the evil of the Nazis came, they were utterly unprepared and just floated along with the red-and-black tide. Again, to get the full picture, you’ll have to read the book. But it’s all pretty clear once you have the facts, which we finally do, thank God. Still, it’s awful to think how Bonhoeffer’s legacy has been besmirched for half a century.

LOPEZ: How does a Lutheran pastor wind up as a spy?

METAXAS: As I say, Bonhoeffer was no pacifist. He had been part of the conspiracy against Hitler and the Nazis from the beginning, but not in any official capacity. He mostly provided moral support to the resistance. But when the war started, everything changed. Bonhoeffer knew that he couldn’t pick up a gun to fight in Hitler’s unjust war of aggression. At first he escaped to the U.S., but no sooner did he arrive here than he knew God was calling him back to stand with his people in Germany. That’s when he got involved in the conspiracy in an official capacity, as a spy.

His brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, was a leader in German Military Intelligence, which was actually a center of the conspiracy against Hitler. So Dohnayni hired Bonhoeffer. Of course both of them and many others in the Abwehr were actually working against Hitler and the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was specifically charged with getting word to the Allies — mostly to Churchill’s government — that there were Germans inside Germany trying to bring down Hitler.

Bonhoeffer had no theological problem with deceiving the Nazis. On the contrary, he felt God called him to do it. He knew that when God commands us not to lie, it doesn’t mean that if the Gestapo asks us if we are hiding Jews and we really are hiding Jews, we are obligated to say so. I write about this in my book. Bonhoeffer has a much more nuanced and deeper understanding of these things and he challenges Christians to go beyond mere religious pieties and to really serve God with our whole hearts. In his case, that meant deceiving the Nazis.

LOPEZ: How does a Lutheran pastor wind up in a plot to kill Hitler?

METAXAS: Well, this is an extension of that same idea. God does not say we shouldn’t kill, but that we shouldn’t murder. So we are forced to think about what murder really is. If I am trying to prevent the death and torture of millions of innocent Jews, am I allowed by God to take the life of the tyrant who is overseeing those horrors? Bonhoeffer didn’t have a flippant attitude about any of this, and he even thought that he might be wrong, but he cast himself on God’s mercy. He didn’t know for sure that he was right, but he didn’t lazily and comfortably ignore his responsibility to do what he thought was right just because he had doubts. He knew what was at stake and he knew he had to act.

LOPEZ: Does Bonhoeffer shed light on morality and capital punishment for you? Assassination? Just war? Torture?

METAXAS: Bonhoeffer sheds light on almost everything, so much so that I hope my book will lead people to read Bonhoeffer’s own writings on these subjects. He’s amazing. There’s just no one like him. His book, Ethics, is a masterpiece and is particularly instructive on all these issues. But I do think that his life itself sheds light on everything. That’s really been the missing piece in the great puzzle of Bonhoeffer.

LOPEZ: How was he a prophet?

METAXAS: In several respects. For one thing, he seemed to somehow see the future. But in another, he seems to have been called by God to speak out, specifically to God’s own people, the Church. Bonhoeffer was maybe the single most courageous voice in the German Church in the Thirties. Like all the prophets in the Bible, he took a lonely stand and was not much appreciated during his time. But in retrospect, we can see who was right.

LOPEZ: Why do you say Rome “brought everything together” for him?

METAXAS: Bonhoeffer went to Rome when he was 17 and it marked the first time he had seriously been exposed to Christianity beyond the rather parochial world of German Lutheranism. He attended Mass every day during Holy Week, at St. John’s Lateran and at St. Peter’s. On Palm Sunday, he saw Mass celebrated by men of every race and color and it struck him profoundly. He saw that the Church was something that transcended nationality and race, and this would change everything for him and would lead him to oppose the Nazis, who saw everything through the lens of race. It was a seminal moment in his life.

LOPEZ: What did you learn about politics?

METAXAS: For one thing, Bonhoeffer shows us that Christians have to be careful about allying themselves with a political party. Christian conservatives in Germany during this time were very badly deceived by Hitler. He played them for fools and won. It’s a real cautionary tale. But Bonhoeffer also shows us that Christians cannot avoid politics. Sometimes being a Christian means taking a political stand, period. When there is injustice, it is our job to speak out, to act. We can’t pretend that the Gospel does not extend into politics. We might not like that, but the fact is that it does. It must.

LOPEZ: What did you learn about courage from him?

METAXAS: Courage isn’t something we work up, like an emotion. Courage is simply acting on what we believe. Bonhoeffer simply believed Jesus Christ was Lord and everything followed from that. And he challenges Christians to ask themselves: Do we really believe what we claim to believe? If we do, we will live it; we will act on it fearlessly, knowing that God is with us. If we don’t act on it, we obviously don’t really believe it.

LOPEZ: What did you learn about love?

METAXAS: It’s related to the idea of courage. Love is an action, it’s not a feeling. Bonhoeffer’s love of God was neither a mere intellectual assent to some theological ideas, nor was it merely a warm, fuzzy feeling. His love of God was borne out in his obedience to God, even unto death. If you love God and others, you will act accordingly. You will obey his commandments.

LOPEZ: What did you learn about faith?

METAXAS: Again, this is related to the previous two ideas. Faith without action is simply hypocrisy. Bonhoeffer wrote about that in his book The Cost of Discipleship and he lived it. To say that one believes something must mean that one actually lives it. If one does not actually live out what one claims to believe, one obviously does not believe it. And one is, alas, behaving hypocritically. Bonhoeffer challenges us to really examine what is truth and then to act on that knowledge. That’s what faith is.

LOPEZ: What were you most surprised to learn about him?

METAXAS: That he played drums for Supertramp. Just kidding. I think I was most surprised to realize that, contrary to what I’d heard about him, he was a devout Christian all the way to the end. I had no idea what I would find when I did the research, but to really dig into his life and see who he was, was in some ways very, very surprising. He held a service for his fellow prisoners and preached a sermon 18 hours before going to the gallows. So he was faithful to the very end. Bonhoeffer is the real deal, authentic to the bottom. Anyone who has ever dismissed Christianity probably has not encountered Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

LOPEZ: Why isn’t he a household name? Why should he be?

METAXAS: I think in part it’s because he became a darling of the secular Left and was co-opted by them for many decades, as I’ve said, which alienated him from mainstream America, who probably thought of him as effete and aloof. But now that we can know the real story of who he was, of his extreme courage, and of his profound Christian faith, he seems very different, so I do think that he will become much more well-known. We desperately need to know his story. He is a real hero and we need stories like his to encourage us. So stay tuned.

LOPEZ: Do you enjoy writing? You read like you do.

METAXAS: I mostly enjoy having written. But yes, sometimes I enjoy writing very much! I’m glad that’s evident from this book. I particularly enjoyed writing about Hitler and the Nazis, because I hadn’t known this period of history very well. I had many questions about how this all could have happened, and as I began to see answers I had a real passion to share them. This is such a fascinating period! The Nazis provide such a disturbing and clear picture of what happens to human beings when they push God out of the picture completely. The depravity of who we are apart from God is writ large in them, in a way that is powerfully instructive. At least I think so. It’s a warning we need to heed. And Bonhoeffer’s story gives us the full picture, of what can happen and how we need to behave if and when it does happen. I’m happy to think that my passion on this subject comes across in the writing. How many copies may I put you down for?

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large of National Review Online.

NCAA Volleyball: PSU's dynasty stems from Rose

Monday, December 20, 2010
By Eric Olson, The Associated Press
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Russ Rose has guided Penn State to four consecutive NCAA volleyball titles - no other school has won more than two in a row. (AP)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Penn State's Russ Rose makes it sound so simple, winning those four consecutive national championships in women's volleyball.

"I don't think we're training any different than people," the longtime Nittany Lions' coach said, "but there are some levels of expectations, and the older kids understand it and the younger kids understand it, and that's what we're doing at Penn State."

The Nittany Lions' run to another title, completed Saturday night with a three-set sweep of California, has been overshadowed by Connecticut's domination of women's basketball.

Penn State (32-5) is the only Division I volleyball program to have strung together more than two titles and boasted an NCAA-record 109-match win streak before losing to Stanford in September.

Rose's volleyball program has reached the point where anything less than winning, and winning championships, is a surprise. The Lions are that good, even in a year when they took their lumps early after having to break in a new setter and replace Megan Hodge, one of the greatest players in the history of the college game.

A total of 34 athletes have been part of Penn State's championship teams from 2007-10. Only three of them -- Blair Brown, Arielle Wilson and Alyssa D'Errico -- have been members of all four.

The players come and go. The constant is the 57-year-old Rose, a Chicago native who has been coaching since the mid-1970s, wrote his master's thesis at Nebraska on volleyball statistics and took over at Penn State in 1979.

"Penn State's done it," Rose said. "I've been the coach, but Penn State's really why it's happened. I've had terrific support."

Rose and Hawaii's Dave Shoji are the only (active) Division I volleyball coaches with more than 1,000 career wins, and Rose is the only one with five national championships. His first came in 1999, after his teams had been national runner-up three of the six previous years.

Deja McClendon, Katie Slay and Kristen Carpenter celebrate Slay's championship clinching kill on Saturday night. (AP)

California coach Rich Feller, who has known Rose for three decades and has lost to him four years a row in the postseason, said Rose has an eye for talent and an ability to make a good player great.

"He knows what he wants out of a recruit," Feller said. "He goes out and gets the ones that fit his system. He's probably a little bit like Bobby Knight. If you are willing to do it his way -- probably not quite like that -- but if you're willing to do it his way, you're going to play well."

Wilson can vouch for Rose's ability to bring out a player's best. She finished her career with a Division I-record .468 hitting percentage.

"You usually come in not knowing what you can do, and by the time you leave here, it's like, 'Wow, I didn't know I had that in me,' " Wilson said.

Deja McClendon, the most outstanding player of the final four and the national freshman of the year, is Penn State's next star.

"I was pretty much a blank slate when I came to Penn State, and they just helped me," she said. "All the coaches worked me a lot. Probably the biggest lesson I learned from this team is how to push through, especially when you're having a hard time. We started off really rough this season and the girls never stopped working."

Rose has a reputation for being a straight shooter. He's not one to sugarcoat or tell players what they want to hear about their games. He's big into tough love.

"That's what makes us the best players we can be," D'Errico said. "He's never going to let us settle. It just drives us and motivates us, and it draws in very, very similar players."

Brown, the Big Ten player of the year, fellow All-American Wilson and D'Errico will leave. But Rose will return McClendon, freshman defensive star Katie Slay and sophomore setter Kristin Carpenter.

"Nobody's winning in any sport who doesn't have a great collection of student-athletes," Rose said.

And then there's that great intangible -- the expectation that Penn State will win every time it steps on the court.

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