Friday, May 27, 2011

Cowed by udderly insane regulations

By Mark Steyn
The Orange County Register
May 27, 2011

Cass Sunstein, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, poses for a photo in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building across from the White House in Washington, March 16, 2011.(AP)

Cass Sunstein is head of something called the "Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs." I've seen enough conspiracy thrillers to know that when someone has so obvious a blandly amorphous federal job description as that it means he's running some deeply sinister wet-work operation of illegal targeted assassinations in unfriendly nations that the government spooks want to keep off the books and far from prying eyes.

Oh, no, wait. Actually, Covert Operative Sunstein passes his day doing more or less what the sign on the door says: He collects information about regulatory affairs. More specifically, he is charged by the president with "an unprecedented government-wide review of regulations" in order to "improve or remove those that are out-of-date, unnecessary, excessively burdensome or in conflict with other rules."

How many has he got "removed" so far? Well, last week he took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to crow that dairy farmers will henceforth be exempted from the burdens of a 1970s EPA-era directive classifying milk as an "oil" and subjecting it, as Professor Sunstein typed with a straight face, "to costly rules designed to prevent oil spills." But Ol' MacDonald and his crack team of Red Adair-trained milkmaids can henceforth relax because now, writes Prof Sunstein, Washington is "giving new meaning to the phrase, 'Don't cry over spilled milk.'"

That's a federally licensed joke from Sunstein's colleagues at the Agency of Guffaw and Titter Regulation so feel free to laugh.

Did you know milk was an oil? It is to the federal government, and, if a Holstein blows in the Gulf of Mexico, and beaches from Florida to Louisiana are suddenly threatened by a tide of full-fat crude, they want to know you've got the federally mandated equipment to deal with it. With hindsight, the president's remark in the early days of the BP oil spill, that he was meeting with experts "so I know whose ass to kick," was not just a bit of vulgar braggadocio but the fault of early Department of Energy findings that the spillage was caused by asses' milk from BP (Burros & Poitous Ltd, a member of the Big Ass cartel). "Your ass is on the line!" as the president told BP's Tony Hayward after his donkey was found wandering down the first $38 billion stretch of the federally funded high-speed rail track.

Whoops, sorry, I made the mistake of hiring Cass Sunstein's federally accredited "spilled milk" gag writer. Where was I?

Oh, yeah, federal regulation. So this EPA directive requiring milk to be treated the same as petroleum for the purposes of storage and transportation has been around since the Seventies, and it's only taken the best part of four decades to get it partially suspended even though it's udderly insane? Hallelujah!

At that rate of regulatory reform, we'll be ...well, let Sunstein explain it. Aside from his crowing over spilled milk, he cites other triumphs: The Departments of Commerce and State are "pursuing reforms"; the Department of Health and Human Services "will be reconsidering burdensome regulatory requirements"; and the Department of the Interior will be "reviewing cumbersome, outdated regulations."

Wow! "Pursuing," "reconsidering" and "reviewing"? Meanwhile, back at the Department of Bureaus and Agencies, they're pursuing a review of their reconsideration of reforms. That's great news, isn't it? I'll take a wild guess and bet that the upshot of this frenzied "pursuit" will be a ton of new regulations about streamlining regulatory oversight and improving regulatory harmonization: The big growth area in America's post-modern Republic of Paperwork is regulations about regulating regulations. For example, in New York City, applying for the "right" to open a restaurant requires dealing with the conflicting demands of at least 11 municipal agencies, plus submitting to 23 city inspections, and applying for 30 different permits and certificates. Not including the state liquor license. Recognizing that this could all get very complicated, the city set up a new bureaucratic body to help you negotiate your way through all the other bureaucratic bodies.

And, for every little victory, there are a zillion crankings of the government vise elsewhere. Plucked at random from the ObamaCare bill:

"The Secretary shall develop oral healthcare components that shall include tooth-level surveillance."

"Tooth-level surveillance"? Has that phrase ever been used before in the entirety of human history? Say what you like about George III but the redcoats never attempted surveillance of Gen. Washington's dentures. Why not just call it "gum control"?

The hyper-regulatory state is unrepublican. It strikes at one of the most basic pillars of free society: equality before the law. When you replace "law" with "regulation," equality before it is one of the first casualties. In such a world, there is no law, only a hierarchy of privilege more suited to a sultan's court than a self-governing republic. If you don't want to be subject to "tooth-level surveillance," you better know who to call in Washington. Teamsters Local 522 did, and the United Federation of Teachers, and the Chicago Plastering Institute. And as a result they've all been "granted" ObamaCare "waivers." Rule, Obama! Obama, waive the rules! If only for his cronies. Americans are being transferred remorselessly from the rule of law to rule by an unaccountable bureaucracy of micro-regulatory preferences, subsidies, entitlements and incentives that determine which of the multiple categories of Unequal-Before-The-Law Second-Class (or Third-Class, or Fourth-Class) Citizenship you happen to fall into.

And yet Americans put up with it. According to the Small Business Administration, the cost to the economy of government regulation is about $1.75 trillion per annum. You and your fellow citizens pay for that – and it's about twice as much as you pay in income tax. Or, to put it another way, the regulatory state sucks up about a quarter-trillion dollars more than the entire GDP of India. As fast as India's growing its economy, we're growing our regulations faster. Oh, well, you shrug, it would be unreasonable to expect the bloated, somnolent hyperpower to match those wiry little fellows back at the call center in Bangalore. Okay. It's also about a quarter-trillion dollars more than the GDP of Canada. Every year we're dumping the equivalent of a G7 economy into ever more ludicrous and wasteful regulation.

As my fellow columnists Charles Krauthammer and Victor Davis Hanson like to point out, decline is not inevitable; it is a choice. The voters of New York's 26th District chose it just the other day, presumably on the basis that it will be relatively pleasant, as it has been in certain parts of Continental Europe. But genteel Franco-Italian decline is not on the menu. As those numbers suggest, the scale of American decay is entirely different: a trillion-and-three-quarter dollars in regulatory costs, a trillion dollars in college debt, four-and-a-half billion dollars spent by Washington every single day that we don't have, 70 percent of which the United States government "borrows" from itself because nobody else wants to lend it to us – and a governing party whose Senate leader boasts about not passing a budget and whose plan for Medicare is not to have a plan at all and whose crusading regulatory reformer's greatest triumph is getting Daisy the cow moved out of the same federal classification as the Exxon Valdez.

Stand well back, that Holstein's about to blow.


Today's Tune: Magnolia Electric Co. - Leave the City

Where Dreams Die

By Victor Davis Hanson
May 24, 2011

I was given a great gift — but see below — to travel throughout California the last week, by land and by air over the state. It was hard to determine whether the natural beauty of the landscape or the ingenuity of our ancestors was the more impressive. The Sierra is still snow-locked and towers in white above a lush valley floor below. The lakes of the 1912 Big Creek Hydroelectric Project — Shaver, Huntington, and the still snowbound Edison and Florence above — belong in Switzerland. The squares of grapes and trees below look like a vast lush checkerboard from above.

I prefer the beauty of the Napa and Sonoma valleys to Tuscany; the former lacks only the majestic Roman and Renaissance history of the Italian countryside. Human genius in just a half-century has almost matched 2500 years of Italian viticulture. The California coast — the hills, beaches, and landscape — could be in the Peloponnese and easily stands the comparison. When early summer finally comes to the state in late spring, as it did last week, the result is almost divine: warmth and light without high humidity, daily rains, or high winds.

They say the Central Valley is the ugliest part of the state; I disagree. Last week from my great-great-grandmother’s upstairs balcony I could see snow capped mountains tower just thirty miles away; in-between were millions of green trees and vines and the water towers of small towns in every direction. Nothing in Spain or southern France is prettier. A man would have to be mad to leave such beauty, and the brilliant work of his predecessors who as artists built the dams and canals, laid out the agrarian patchwork, founded these communities that serve as bookends to the works of architectural and municipal genius in San Francisco, or Los Angeles and San Diego. Yes, a man would have to be mad — or quite rational — to leave paradise lost.

You see, here is the situation in California. Tens of thousands of prisoners are scheduled by a U.S. Supreme Court order to be released. But why this inability to house our criminals when we pay among the highest sales, income, and gas taxes in the nation? Too many criminals? Too few new prisons? Too high costs per prisoner? Too many non-violent crimes that warrant incarceration? God help us when they are released. We know what crime is like now; what will it be like if thousands are let go? I doubt they will end up in the yards of the justices who let them out.

I think I have a clue to what’s ahead. Here is an aside, a sort of confession of my last six months in the center of our cry-the-beloved state:

December 2011: rear-ended by a texting driver; I called 9/11 and the police; she called “relatives” who arrived in two carloads. You get the picture. Luckily the police got there before her “family” did, and cited her. Still waiting to fix the dented truck.

March 2011: riding a bike in rural California, flipped over a “loose dog,” resulting in assorted injuries. Residents — well over 10 in various dwellings —claimed ignorance about the dogs outside their homes: no licenses, no vaccinations, no leashes, no fence. Final score: them: slammed door and shrugs; me: ruined bike, injuries, and a long walk home.

May 2011: two males drive in “looking to buy scrap metal.” They are politely told to leave. That night barn is burglarized and $1200 in property stolen.

Later May 2011: a female drives in van into front driveway with four males, “just looking to rent” neighbor’s house. They leave. Only later I learn they earlier came in the back way and had forced their way in, prying the back driveway gate, springing and bending armature.

Later May 2011: shop is burglarized — both bolt and padlock knocked off. Shelves stripped clean. It is the little things like this that aggravate Californians, especially when lectured not to sweat it by the academics on the coast and the politicians in Sacramento.

NB: I have been hit three times in the last 10 years: 1) driver ran stop sign, slammed into my truck, limped off, was run down and detained by me until police arrived; 2) speeding driver hit a mattress in the road (things such as that are rarely tied down by motorists in California), swerved, was hit, did a 180, braked, but still hit me at 45 mph head-on (survived due to the air bags of the Honda Accord); 3) rear-ended as explained above. But this time your wiser author, when the car rear-ended me at 50 mph, was driving a four-wheel-drive Toyota Tundra with huge tow bar in back; the texter was driving a Civic. Nuff said.

Such is life 180 miles — and a cosmos away — from the Stanford campus.

Our schools rate just below Mississippi in math and science. Tell me why, given our high taxes and highest paid teachers in the nation? Can the governor or legislature explain? Is the culprit the notoriously therapeutic California curriculum? The inability to fire incompetent teachers? The vast number of non-English speaking students? Derelict parents? How odd that not a single state official can offer any explanation other than: “We need more money.” What is the possible cure for the near worst math and science students in the nation? Yes, I see it now: the California Senate just passed a bill mandating the teaching of homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered history, just the sort of strategy to raise those English composition and vocabulary scores among the linguistic and arithmetic illiterate.

Try driving a California “freeway” lately, say the 101 between Gilroy and San Luis Obispo or the 99 between Modesto and Stockton, or an east-west lateral like the 152 between Casa de Fruita and Gilroy, or the 12 between Napa and Stockton. In other words, just try driving across the state. These stretches are all nightmarish death traps (the concrete divider on the two-lane 12 is a sick joke, a sort of kill-contraption), no improvements from 40 years ago when there were 15 million fewer people and far better drivers. But how did this happen when we pay the highest gasoline taxes in the nation; where did the revenue go? Is there some cruel joke I’m missing — a stash of billions in gas tax money buried somewhere and never used? And how can we even begin discussing “high-speed rail” (stage one planned from Fresno to the megalopolis of Corcoran no less!) when millions do not yet have “high-speed roads”? Madness, sheer madness.

How did we suddenly save the 250,000 irrigated acres on the west side, recently idled to ensure that rivers run into the delta and the sea to save the three-inch smelt? Brilliant legislative compromise? Judges who finally came to their senses? Massive dam and reservoir construction?

No, the land is being irrigated again only because we have a near record wet year. The Sierra snowpack in the age of global warming is about 180-190% of normal, one that will last well into late July. When things go bad in California, we pray for supernatural help.

Our governor just stepped down. We discovered two salient facts about his departure. As he exited, he vastly reduced the prison sentence of the son of former Assembly speaker and self-described “friend” Fabian Nunez, who had been tried and convicted of voluntary manslaughter for his role in aiding and abetting the murder of a San Diego area student. That surely was a pressing issue for the departing governor, key to the safety and well-being of 37 million Californians.

Two, he announced that in fact when he ran for office in 2003, despite adamant denials of his supposed womanizing, he had recently impregnated his household assistant, and was now eight years later to be the admitted father of an illegitimate son (she got a nice home but mysteriously still defaulted on her car loan). The usual sordid stories followed. In 2003 the tabloids that trafficked in such unbelievable rumors were dismissed as liars as Mrs. Schwarzenegger defended her husband’s virtue; eight years later the two are out of power, and suddenly we are to be told the sleazy tabloids sort of had it right: the child is now ten, and Mrs. Schwarzenegger is no longer defending her now governor emeritus, soon-to-be-ex-, soon to be far poorer husband. Shocked, shocked, she is, as they say in Casablanca.

Just as Strauss-Kahn is a metaphor for the bankrupt socialist technocracy in Europe, so Schwarzenegger is a metaphor for our California times, though the latter is a kinder, gentler sort, committed no crime, and charmed rather than brutalized his willing, rather than unwilling, servant. He entered under less than candid circumstances in response to an inept Governor Gray Davis who had left the state a mess, and for his part left as an inept duplicitous governor who left the state in a larger mess.

The ball is now in Gov. Brown’s court to either refute or trump all that, and either save or bury the nearly dead state. I wish him well, and pray that he has the courage and wisdom to speak the truth and act on it, a truth that would earn him dislike from some of those who supported and funded him and now are crowded up at the for-a-while- longer-above-water bow of the sinking Titanic. He has the opportunity to be either a savior and renaissance figure, or both the youngest and the oldest failed governor of a failed state.

Such are the thin strands of reform, on which our hopes hinge, here in the far, far west.

What Obama did to Israel

By Charles Krauthammer
The Washington Post
May 27, 2011

Every Arab-Israeli negotiation contains a fundamental asymmetry: Israel gives up land, which is tangible; the Arabs make promises, which are ephemeral. The long-standing American solution has been to nonetheless urge Israel to take risks for peace while America balances things by giving assurances of U.S. support for Israel’s security and diplomatic needs.

It’s on the basis of such solemn assurances that Israel undertook, for example, the Gaza withdrawal. In order to mitigate this risk, President George W. Bush gave a written commitment that America supported Israel absorbing major settlement blocs in any peace agreement, opposed any return to the 1967 lines and stood firm against the so-called Palestinian right of return to Israel.

For 21 / 2 years, the Obama administration has refused to recognize and reaffirm these assurances. Then last week in his State Department speech, President Obama definitively trashed them. He declared that the Arab-Israeli conflict should indeed be resolved along “the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”

Nothing new here, said Obama three days later. “By definition, it means that the parties themselves — Israelis and Palestinians — will negotiate a border that is different” from 1967.

It means nothing of the sort. “Mutually” means both parties have to agree. And if one side doesn’t? Then, by definition, you’re back to the 1967 lines.

Nor is this merely a theoretical proposition. Three times the Palestinians have been offered exactly that formula, 1967 plus swaps — at Camp David 2000, Taba 2001, and the 2008 Olmert-Abbas negotiations. Every time, the Palestinians said no and walked away.

And that remains their position today: The 1967 lines. Period. Indeed, in September the Palestinians are going to the United Nations to get the world to ratify precisely that — a Palestinian state on the ’67 lines. No swaps.

Note how Obama has undermined Israel’s negotiating position. He is demanding that Israel go into peace talks having already forfeited its claim to the territory won in the ’67 war — its only bargaining chip. Remember: That ’67 line runs right through Jerusalem. Thus the starting point of negotiations would be that the Western Wall and even Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter are Palestinian — alien territory for which Israel must now bargain.

The very idea that Judaism’s holiest shrine is alien or that Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter is rightfully or historically or demographically Arab is an absurdity. And the idea that, in order to retain them, Israel has to give up parts of itself is a travesty.

Obama didn’t just move the goal posts on borders. He also did so on the so-called right of return. Flooding Israel with millions of Arabs would destroy the world’s only Jewish state while creating a 23rd Arab state and a second Palestinian state — not exactly what we mean when we speak of a “two-state solution.” That’s why it has been the policy of the United States to adamantly oppose this “right.”

Yet in his State Department speech, Obama refused to simply restate this position — and refused again in a supposedly corrective speech three days later. Instead, he told Israel it must negotiate the right of return with the Palestinians after having given every inch of territory. Bargaining with what, pray tell?

No matter. “The status quo is unsustainable,” declared Obama, “and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.”

Israel too ? Exactly what bold steps for peace have the Palestinians taken? Israel made three radically conciliatory offers to establish a Palestinian state, withdrew from Gaza and has been trying to renew negotiations for more than two years. Meanwhile, the Gaza Palestinians have been firing rockets at Israeli towns and villages. And on the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas turns down then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer, walks out of negotiations with Binyamin Netanyahu and now defies the United States by seeking not peace talks but instant statehood — without peace, without recognizing Israel — at the United Nations. And to make unmistakable this spurning of any peace process, Abbas agrees to join the openly genocidal Hamas in a unity government, which even Obama acknowledges makes negotiations impossible.

Obama’s response to this relentless Palestinian intransigence? To reward it — by abandoning the Bush assurances, legitimizing the ’67 borders and refusing to reaffirm America’s rejection of the right of return.

The only remaining question is whether this perverse and ultimately self-defeating policy is born of genuine antipathy toward Israel or of the arrogance of a blundering amateur who refuses to see that he is undermining not just peace but the very possibility of negotiations.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Celebrate John Wayne's birthday -- and line up his films for Memorial Day

Posted by Michael Sragow at 8:24 AM

It's John Wayne's birthday -- a time to remember him at his best, and line up some prime viewing for Memorial Day.

In his most popular and enduring non-Western, John Ford's 1952 "The Quiet Man," he plays a boxer afraid of his own strength because he once killed a man in the ring. He does one of the slowest burns in film history, expressing the splutter with a hitch in his rolling walk and the way he dispatches a butt like a spear to the ground as if to say he finally means business. And his reluctance to be violent makes him likable, even noble.

That valiant manliness is at Wayne's core as a performer, even when he plays against it in movies like "Red River" (1948) and "The Searchers" (1956). It's what made Wayne an enduring luminary even when his politics and tactics seemed to rival Slim Pickens' riding the A-bomb to Armageddon in "Dr. Strangelove."

"The Duke" had the true star's instinct of delivering what his followers wanted before they even knew they wanted it. For example, in the smash romantic comedy "Without Reservations" (1946), Wayne co-stars with "It Happened One Night's" Claudette Colbert. But Wayne is the one who carries the comedy, especially when espousing values that aren't 19th century - they're 17th century.

He sums up his stance in a remarkable speech that memorializes the pioneers:

"Do you think these pioneers filled out form number X6277 and sent in a report saying the Indians were a little unreasonable? Did they have insurance for their old age, for their crops, for their homes? They did not! They looked at the land, and the forest, and the rivers. They looked at their wives, their kids and their houses, and then they looked up at the sky and they said thanks, God, we'll take it from here."

Whether you find that statement inspiring, appalling or both, there was no question Wayne believed in it. It took him 10 years to develop his role in Hollywood movies as the personification of rugged individualism. He sustained it for 3 1/2 decades.

More than any of his peers, he retained a rabid fan base and an image forceful enough to bring Old Western style into modern settings and make viewers of all political stripes enjoy the incongruity. His unpretentious flamboyance evoked nostalgia for wide open spaces even in urban boys and girls.

Wayne had been acting for 10 years as an extraordinarily eager kid, just making friends with the camera, when Ford cast him in 1939's "Stagecoach" as the Ringo Kid and brought out all his rough-edged amiability. The Kid is handy with a gun and cagey around the law. He has a steady intelligence. Yet he's so unworldly that he's surprised when the other stagecoachers shun a whore. When he stares with love at the touching Claire Trevor, he looks ready to melt. Wayne is never more of a man's man in "Stagecoach" than when he's most like a boy.

It took Howard Hawks to toughen Wayne's image into the grizzled patriarch who could make taciturnity seem belligerent. His most famous role for Hawks was as the Captain Bligh of the cattle drive in "Red River." When Ford saw what Hawks could do with Wayne, he gave him even meatier parts.

On Memorial Day weekend, TV channels generally trot out Wayne's World War II pictures. But Wayne's Westerns were often better military movies.

In Ford's "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," which Wayne made the same year (1949) as "The Sands of Iwo Jima," he plays Captain Nathan Brittles, who must try to halt the spread of a vast, pan-tribal Indian war following Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn.

"She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" accents the virtues of Wayne's leathery sagebrush sage, who could handle any job without raising a sweat. Every word Brittles says counts. He isn't overly sensitive - or at least not overtly sensitive - but he feels the ties of family, community and country.

In this movie, Wayne brings an audience inside qualities that in lesser performers could be dramatically intractable, like rough-hewn dignity and reticence. The extra second it takes for him to bark out an emotional command only adds depth to his authority, and when Ford gives him a chance to express his feelings directly - at the graves of his wife and two daughters - he has a mellow, rueful veracity.

Although the movie hardly questions the role of the cavalry in the Indian Wars, Brittles and an Indian chief agree that they are too old to fight wars - and that old men should stop wars.

No movie actor ever showed a more exquisite control over values and emotions like faith, duty, honor, or loyalty than Wayne does in "Yellow Ribbon" or in Ford's "Rio Grande" (1950). In "Rio Grande," co-star Maureen O'Hara embodies just the kind of woman the Wayne hero would set his cap for: fiery, beautiful, independent, not standing for any guff. Few evocations of tormented love equal the scene when the regimental chorus serenades Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (Wayne) and his estranged wife, Kathleen (O'Hara). As the couple listens to "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen," longing and sadness, sweetness and hurt play through their faces.

Wayne was at his seriocomic peak in Hawks' giddy oater, "Rio Bravo" (1959). He was so confident, so self-sufficient without seeming self-satisfied, that Hawks played the rest of the cast against him for laughs. Wayne could fall down a flight of stairs and knock himself out and risk his neck on the reliability of a wheezing drunk (Dean Martin) and an old geezer (Walter Brennan) without ever losing his dignity. It had become a trick of nature that nothing could unhinge John Wayne.

Movie buffs may remember these specific performances. Most Americans will think of Wayne in random images rolling from the expanse of his prairie-like career. Some may miss the big-cat walk he's said to have modeled on Ford's. Others may miss his dry voice and even delivery, which sometimes went on rambling even after his brain raced ahead.

He could be pompous in propaganda films like "Big Jim McLain" (1952) and "The Green Berets" (1968). But one year after "The Green Berets," he showed in "True Grit" that he didn't have to take himself too seriously. His Rooster Cogburn was an intentional cartoon reactionary, an unwashed, law-and-order autocrat of the drinking table, ordering a rat to stop chomping a friend's dinner and shooting it when it refused.

Wayne never lost the eagerness that was his first discernible trait. In his last film, "The Shootist" (1976) he used it to weld together everything he knew. The film was set up, distastefully, as a premature obituary, with Wayne playing a gunslinger who knew he was dying of cancer. But Wayne knew exactly what he was doing - he was playing an outsized character, a myth, himself. And he lived up to it. Wayne didn't truckle to our sentiments.

It was inevitable that Wayne should end his career with a Western. Wayne helped invest the form with his own brawling good nature - and in films like "Red River," wrestled with its dark side. He created a cowboy legacy that every other Western star or filmmaker would have to grapple with. Even today, you can hear them lining up and saying, "Thanks, Duke - we'll take it from here."

Film Reviews: 'Bridesmaids'

'Bridesmaids' Catches the Bouquet

By Joe Morgenstern
The Wall Street Journal
May 13, 2011

If this is only a chick flick, then call me a chick. Witty, raunchy and affecting, "Bridesmaids" crosses boundaries by blithely ignoring them. At one moment it's a broad-gauge farce that examines sex from a woman's point of view. (The findings are mixed at best.) At another it's a sophisticated comedy of manners, and class, that pits two bridesmaids against each other for control of the wedding, if not the bride's destiny. Through it all—the free-form conversations, the brilliant set pieces, the preposterous gross-outs, the flawless performances—Kristen Wiig's forlorn maid of honor, Annie, seeks her own destiny with a wrenchingly cockeyed passion.

A woman's point of view is one of the film's great distinctions. The screenplay was written by Ms. Wiig and Annie Mumolo—both women are wise in the ways of improv, as well as TV—and directed with extraordinary finesse by Paul Feig, who created the TV series "Freaks and Geeks." As a man, though, I'd say its greatest distinction is its inclusiveness, and I'm not using that sticky term to be PC. The filmmakers and their producer, Judd Apatow, see the comedy genre as including all sorts of quirks and qualities that make us human—effusiveness, obtuseness, tenderness, fury, delicacy, idiocy, eloquence. Their characters cannot stop talking. A bad thing? No, a great thing, because the talk is so smart. They've staged the best highway sobriety test since "The Man With Two Brains," turned baked goods to the best romantic advantage since "Waitress." And the movie's Mr. Right couldn't be odder, or righter.

The bride, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), is forlorn in her own way. She knows her impending marriage will distance her from Annie, her best friend since childhood. She also knows that her wedding plans are being hijacked by the richest and pushiest of her bridesmaids, the ethereally insufferable Helen (a beautifully measured performance by Rose Byrne).

The Annie-Helen rivalry fuels much of the plot. It starts slowly and slyly at a celebratory party, with rival speeches that keep on going and building and getting funnier. That seems to be the script's organizing principle—first do this, then add that, then top it, then push it a little higher and keep it going as long as there's something to build on. The result isn't organized all that well—a few scenes misfire and the whole thing goes on a bit too long. (The film might have done with less, or with none, of Annie's grotesque English roommates; they're built on nothing but arbitrary notions.) That said, though, the wonder is how often "Bridesmaids" reaches the heights and sustains the altitude.

A sweetly ridiculous riff with a radar speed gun builds on repetition and expectation—how many cars will it take before…? (I can't resist describing some of this delicious stuff, but I'm not going to spoil it with details.) A tennis game turns savage. Belching forth from nowhere, a gastric event grows too ghastly for words. A gathering of bridesmaids on a flight to Vegas out-airplanes "Airplane!" as it rises to pure—and I use the word advisedly—pandemonium. Each bridesmaid has her daft appeal, though none is as genuinely crazed—or outrageously entertaining—as Melissa McCarthy's Megan, a creature of formidable girth and unstoppable id. (Annie's mother is played by the late Jill Clayburgh, an actress and comedienne whose career constituted an anthology of lovely performances.)

At the heart of the film is poor, desperate Annie, who lost the bakery she had opened just as the economy tanked, and has yet to find herself as a fully functioning adult. Her car is a wreck, though it's a Lamborghini compared to her love life, which centers on a smarmy Narcissus who treats her like a consumer product that's both disposable and renewable. (It's a tribute to the filmmakers' verve that they've kept the sex scenes funny—extremely funny—since what we're seeing is sheer self-abasement.) Ms. Wiig's first starring role on the big screen is a sensation; how could it have taken so long? She is wistful but never tearful in the worst of Annie's turmoil, intensely likable without trying to be, unfailingly interesting and, in her big moments—one of which involves a giant cookie—a paragon of antic energy.

Then there's the man behind the radar gun, a cop named Rhodes who's played to perfection by Chris O'Dowd. (It's an inspired piece of casting.) "The cop talks weird," Annie's Porsche-driving lover observes at one point, and so he does. He talks with a pleasing accent: Mr. O'Dowd is Irish. He speaks with gentle humor and unforced wisdom, whether he's citing Annie for dysfunctional tail lights, or confronting her, to her confusion and dismay, with indisputable evidence of her competence. Rhodes doesn't play a huge role in the proceedings, but he's worth citing as evidence of the movie's excellence. Here's a man, written by women, who is both a fantasy figure—this is wedding comedy, after all, not kitchen realism—and a convincingly endearing original. "Bridesmaids" gets at so many things with deceptive ease and startling skill—women's anger, the loneliness of the single life, the marriage trap, the pain of sex along with the joy, but also friendship, sanity and a vision of love.

Deflating That Big, Puffy White Gown

The New York Times
May 12, 2011

NYT Critics Pick

“Bridesmaids,” an unexpectedly funny new comedy about women in love, if not of the Sapphic variety, goes where no typical chick flick does: the gutter. Well, more like the city street that Lillian, a soon-to-be wife played by a wonderful, warm Maya Rudolph, dashes into, dressed in the kind of foamy white gown that royal weddings and the bridal industrial complex are made of. Suddenly realizing in a salon that she’s been hit with food poisoning, she flees like a runaway bride, except that it isn’t a man who’s making her, uh, run, but the giddy, liberating humor of the writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo.

That may sound disgusting, perfect for the reigning naughty boys of American screens, and it is, a little. Yet the worst is only implied, and given how most wedding pictures enforce the hoariest clichés about the sexes, the go-for-broke outlandishness of Lillian’s pratfall — nicely handled by the director Paul Feig, holding the shot as she sits in a deflated puff of white — is welcome. In most wedding movies an actress may have the starring part (though not always), but it’s only because her character’s function is to land a man rather than to be funny. Too many studio bosses seem to think that a woman’s place is in a Vera Wang.

There is a big dress here, of course, an aggressively foolish Gordian knot of silk and wit that slyly speaks to how women need (and want) to be packaged as brides, dolled up in satin and all but lost in a cloud of tulle and the appreciative din of family and friends. The movie doesn’t push hard in that direction — more than anything, Ms. Wiig and Ms. Mumolo want to make you giggle and snort — but they get at the layers of insanity in weddings as well as the joys. They ask the question facing every modern woman who jumps at the chance to enact the latter-day equivalent of being passed from man to man, father to husband, if without a bushel of dowry corn and 12 goats: How do you survive getting down the aisle?

With a little, or rather a lot, of help from your friends, or so say the filmmakers, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till misunderstanding, jealousy, other people or just life us do part. To that intimate end, Lillian, after announcing her engagement, asks Annie (Ms. Wiig) to be her maid of honor. Best friends since childhood, the two are still tight, but Lillian’s news throws Annie, who, after her cake shop has gone under, is struggling with her crummy job, junker car, weird roommates, everything. She isn’t with anyone, though the hot stuff played by Jon Hamm, playfully riffing on his persona as the thinking woman’s brute, figures into her life with humor and almost too-true pathos.

And so Annie screws up again and again, giving parties that fail and insults that don’t. Along with the other bridesmaids — an excellent Melissa McCarthy and the very fine Rose Byrne, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper — Lillian and Annie laugh, cry, hurl and board a plane to Vegas to test the bonds of friendship en route to a hangover of their own. There’s a guy on the side, too (Chris O’Dowd), but he’s so nice that cranky, complaining Annie almost doesn’t notice. A lanky-limbed blonde who evokes Meg Ryan stretched along Olive Oyl lines, Ms. Wiig keeps her features jumping and sometimes bunching. She’s a funny, pretty woman, but she’s also a comedian, and she’s wonderfully confident about playing not nice.

It would be easy to oversell “Bridesmaids,” though probably easier if also foolish to do the reverse. It isn’t a radical movie (even if Ms. McCarthy’s character comes close); it’s formally unadventurous; and there isn’t much to look at beyond all these female faces. Yet these are great faces, and the movie is smart about a lot of things, including the vital importance of female friendships. And it’s nice to see so many actresses taking up space while making fun of something besides other women. Perhaps the biggest, most pleasurable surprise is that “Bridesmaids” doesn’t treat Annie’s single status as a dire character flaw worthy of triage: she’s simply going through a rough patch and has to figure things out, as in real life.

Ms. Wiig, a longtime cast member of “Saturday Night Live,” and Ms. Mumolo, a veteran of the Los Angeles comedy troupe the Groundlings, know what female moviegoers want: honest laughs with, and not solely about, women. Contra Christopher Hitchens and his 2007 assertion in Vanity Fair that women are not funny, they offer irrefutable proof that along with producing and starring in a hit TV series (thank you, Tina Fey), women can go aggressive laugh to aggressive-and-absurd laugh with men. All they need, beyond talent and timing, a decent director and better lines, is a chance. It helps if the director has a clue, and if everyone involved sees women not just as bosoms with legs, but as bosoms with legs and brains.

“Bridesmaids” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Raucous jokes and salty language.


Opens on Friday nationwide.

Directed by Paul Feig; written by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig; director of photography, Robert Yeoman; edited by William Kerr and Mike Sale; music by Michael Andrews; production design by Jefferson Sage; costumes by Leesa Evans; produced by Judd Apatow, Clayton Townsend and Barry Mendel; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes.

WITH: Kristen Wiig (Annie), Maya Rudolph (Lillian), Rose Byrne (Helen), Wendi McLendon-Covey (Rita), Ellie Kemper (Becca), Melissa McCarthy (Megan), Chris O’Dowd (Officer Rhodes) and Jon Hamm (Ted).

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Interview: Thomas Sowell on Intellectuals and Society

Run, Paul Ryan, Run

Perhaps the only guy who can explain the GOP budget should run.

By Jonah Goldberg
May 25, 2011

Indiana governor Mitch Daniels’s announcement that he can’t play in the presidential primaries because his wife and daughters say he’s not allowed to is terrible news for the GOP and the country.

It’s terrible not because Daniels was obviously the best candidate or had the best chance to beat President Obama. It’s terrible because Daniels would have elevated the debate on entitlement reform and the budget in a way that no one else currently in the race seems able to.

Oh, the “Tea Parties” will have plenty of candidates. Minnesota representative Michele Bachmann, the founder and head of the House Tea Party Caucus, will almost surely run and do quite well. Herman Cain, the black former business executive, remains a Tea Party rock star. On the more libertarian side, there’s Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson. If those two have their way, the dollar will not only be backed by gold, it will be printed on paper made from hemp.

Nearly every stripe of conservative will have at least one standard-bearer, or perhaps several (including gay Republicans, who can rally around the Fred Karger juggernaut). Except right now, no one appears equipped to defend the House GOP budget, written by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, which will likely define both the presidential and the congressional elections in 2012.

The Democrat-run Senate hasn’t passed a budget in more than 750 days, and Democratic leader Harry Reid says it would be “foolish” to try. That’s because the Democrats don’t want to muddy their attacks on Ryan’s idea of “premium support,” whereby the poor get more generous vouchers than the middle class or the wealthy to pay for Medicare coverage. By the way, the “radical” concept of premium support is not so radical. It has deep bipartisan roots, with endorsements from such Democrats as former senator John Breaux of Louisiana and former representative Dick Gephardt of Missouri.

The president’s counterproposal, splashed out in a rambling partisan attack in April, essentially reintroduces the whole “death panels” debate, albeit at a macroeconomic level, by empowering 15 presidentially appointed members of the Independent Payment Advisory Board to take the blame for throwing Grandma off a cliff.

Regardless, by rights, the 2012 presidential contest should be a choice between those two approaches, plus the parties’ wildly divergent views on spending and taxes. But no wonk on a white horse seems to be riding to the rescue.

Mitt Romney can crunch the numbers. But as his attempts to square his Massachusetts “Romneycare” with his opposition to “Obamacare” have shown, his salesmanship needs work.

Newt Gingrich should have picked up the mantle, but he opted to triangulate against Ryan. Almost immediately, triangulation morphed into self-immolation.

Obviously, Gingrich’s spontaneous human combustion had a lot to do with his own problems. If he had merely offered a modest dissent from the plan, he wouldn’t have spent the last week walking back his statements with all the grace of the barnyard dog stepping on a field of garden rakes in the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons.

Still, the Gingrich spectacle confirms one of Ryan’s original strategic aims: to “box in” the various presidential candidates on the issue of entitlement reform. But it also shows why they came up with all of those “third rail” metaphors in the first place.

So the question many are asking is, should Ryan ride to the rescue? If the election is going to be a referendum on his plan, maybe the one guy who can sell it should do just that. On Monday, House majority leader Eric Cantor called for Ryan to get in the race, saying, “Paul’s about real leadership.” Charles Krauthammer on Fox News’s Special Report said he wouldn’t just urge Ryan to run, he’d form a “posse.”

If Ryan ran, he would probably drive the other candidates farther away from his own plan while forcing them to come up with serious alternatives of their own. Many think that if he got the nomination, he would clean Obama’s clock in the debates.

It’s a lot to ask. He has three young kids and would have to get organized and funded from a cold start for a long-shot run. But politics is about moments, and this one is calling him. Unless someone suddenly rises to the challenge, the cries of “Help us, Paul Ryan, you’re our only hope!” will only get louder.

— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Benjamin Netanyahu's Speech at AIPAC 2011

Obama's achievement: the mouse that roared

By Melanie Phillips
22 May 2011
President Obama's Mideast speech set up an awkard meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

I don’t know what strategic purpose Obama had in mind for addressing the Middle East impasse when last Thursday he made the first of a series of speeches on the subject. Whatever this may have been, that speech produced one satisfactory result. The Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, for once started to tell the west a few home truths about what it was doing.

With the world’s cameras trained upon him and looking Israel’s potential nemesis in the eye, Netanyahu at last did what he and other Israeli prime ministers should have done a long time ago. He seized the moment, and used the presence of the icily immobilised President to speak electrifyingly over his head to the American people and the world about the likely terrible consequences for Israel of the President’s policy. He began to strip away the pretence, to tear off the fig-leaf. This President’s stated policy would destroy Israel’s existential security. It’s a message the American people need to hear, over and over again.

This morning, the consequences were already plain. Obama had shifted his position. Not much, but enough to demonstrate one crucial fact: that Israel’s most potent weapon of all is the truth, and when it chooses to wield that weapon its tormentors begin to crumble.
This is what Obama said last Thursday:
‘The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.’
Here’s the thing. Obama spoke correctly when he referred to the ‘1967 lines’ rather than ‘borders’. There are no 1967 borders. Israel actually has no borders. All it has are the 1949 ceasefire lines, which is where Israel was left when it fought off the attempt by five Arab armies to exterminate it at birth. These lines were referred to as the ‘Auschwitz borders’ because within them no country could possibly defend itself against its enemies. They left Israel at its narrowest point a mere nine miles wide -- as Netanyahu said, less than the Washington Beltway. A return to the 1967 lines would mean exposing Israel once more to the likelihood of destruction, and such a proposal runs counter to the spirit and the letter of UN Resolution 242. True Obama added ‘with land swaps’. But no realistic land swaps could make up for this fatal vulnerability.

When Obama was interviewed by a star-struck Andrew Marr on BBC TV this morning, he said the ‘1967 lines’ formula had always been accepted as the basis for a solution. Not true, as Dore Gold and Robert Satloff explain here. Not true, as Glenn Kessler explains in the Washington Post. Successive administrations carefully stepped round this minefield in accordance with Resolution 242. It is the Palestinians who talk about returning to the ‘1967 borders’. The sting in what Obama did was to adopt the Palestinian position as US policy. Wrote Kessler:
He did not articulate the 1967 boundaries as a ‘Palestinian goal’ but as U.S. policy... for a U.S. president, the explicit reference to the 1967 lines represented crossing the Rubicon.
What’s more, he appears to have ambushed Netanyahu with it. So the Bibimouse finally roared.
By Marr’s interview this morning, Obama was signalling that he was shifting his position. Now the 1967 lines were to be not the basis of the solution but the basis for negotiations. In his speech to AIPAC today, although he reverted to his original formulation he did so to cover his tracks as he further finessed this shift in his position:
By definition, it means that the parties themselves -– Israelis and Palestinians -– will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. (Applause.) That’s what mutually agreed-upon swaps means. It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years. (Applause.) It allows the parties themselves to take account of those changes, including the new demographic realities on the ground, and the needs of both sides.
So from being the basis for a solution, the 1967 lines had become 'a border that is different'. It was also notable that, on both occasions, Obama offered the Palestinians nothing. He said the Fatah/Hamas deal was not on. He said Israel couldn’t be expected to sit down with people who were intent on its destruction.

True, he didn’t say what he should have said: namely, that the US would now accordingly cut off the funding to the Hamas/Fatah alliance. Nor did he say that the PA could also not be a partner for peace until it too repudiated its refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state and stopped inciting its people to murder Jews. For the real problem, of course, is that Obama insists that Mahmoud Abbas is a true partner for peace, even though he is just as much of a rejectionist as is Hamas. As the Washington Post sternly observed:
The president appears to assume that Mr. Abbas is open to a peace deal despite growing evidence to the contrary.
And the paper suggested that the precondition for any diplomatic success by the President in the Middle East would be
restoring trust with Israel, rather than courting a feckless Palestinian leader.
Instead, Obama has adopted in these speeches what might be termed the Mafia Gambit: the implied threat to Israel that either it accepts the ‘1967 Auschwitz borders’ or runs the gauntlet of UN recognition and further western delegitimisation.

As a set of demonstrably meaningless and cynical platitudes, Obama’s speech to AIPAC today -- with all its ambiguities and narcissistic petulance skilfully captured here by the Telegraph's Toby Harnden -- was a corker. Try this for example:
And we will hold the Palestinians accountable for their actions and for their rhetoric.
Hey, the man should go into vaudeville. So far, Abbas and co have had a laughably free pass despite their serial aggression, bad faith, reneging on treaties and repeated expressions of exterminatory aggression and incitement to hatred and murder of Jews. Yet it’s Israel alone upon which Obama has dumped, by expecting it to make suicidal concessions to its attackers. At best, Obama remains even-handed between Judeophobic exterminators and their victims; that puts him on the side of the exterminators.

The fact is that, for all his ludicrous protestations of friendship towards Israel, Obama believes the Palestinians have a legitimate grievance over the absence of their state. He thus believes their propaganda of historical falsehoods and murderous blood libels. He therefore believes it is a just solution to reward murderous aggression. And that makes Obama a threat not just to Israel but to free societies everywhere.

Nevertheless, it is a shocking fact that the British government‘s position is now even more hostile towards Israel than is Obama’s. For while Obama was very clear that the alliance between Hamas and Fatah was insupportable, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague actually expressed delight at this deal. As the Telegraph’s Benedict Brogan pointed out on his blog about Obama’s proposal:
William Hague on the Politics Show today backed the plan enthusiastically. ‘I hope Israel and the Palestinians will treat the whole change that is now going on in the Middle East as a case for the, the added urgency of the peace process rather than as an excuse not to engage in the peace process,’ he said. Asked by Jon Sopel whether it wasn’t a bit much for Israel to reduce itself to a 10m wide strip when Hamas and its state sponsors still work for its destruction, the Foreign Secretary sounded weirdly optimistic about what a Fatah/Hamas team up could achieve: ‘The reconciliation of the two Palestinian factions is something that is potentially an important step forward because it means there’s a united Palestinian entity for Israel to negotiate with, but it does require them to enter into negotiations in the right spirit and recognising Israel’s right to exist.’
To stretch an already tired metaphor beyond endurance: Obama threw Israel under the bus, but after cries of horror from passers-by stopped and offered the casualty a sip of water; the British, however, proceeded to kick the injured party’s head in.

Bottom line: Obama has started his re-election campaign. Nothing he says is to be taken more seriously than his need to whip the feeble American Jews back into line. And that’s not hard. The few crumbs he threw out to pacify them should do the trick, despite the unusually wary reception he seems to have received at AIPAC today.

Bottom bottom line: it’s all a pile of steaming irrelevance. The Arabs aren’t going to play anyway. The immediate reason for the nine-decade war thus remains firmly in place. The deeper reason, that the aggressor is indulged and rewarded by the west and thus has every incentive to ratchet up his rejectionism and aggression, also remains firmly in place.

That is what Netanyahu has to address. He has to tell America and Britain that this murderous impasse is their fault -- and that only they can end it by refusing for the first time to indulge and reward those committed to the destruction of Israel, the real cause of the continuation of this conflict. Netanyahu did well last Friday. Now he has to turn telling truth to power into a new strategic approach.

My strange encounter with Bob Dylan

By Neil McCormick
Last updated: May 24th, 2011

Musician and producer Dave Stewart knows a lot of famous people (indeed, he’s pretty famous himself). But he has one friend who has almost gone beyond fame, into a kind of mythological realm usually the preserve of the deceased. As an icon of modern popular culture, Bob Dylan occupies the same kind of territory as Elvis Presley and John Lennon, something that was brought home to Stewart when he set out with Dylan on an impromptu stroll through Camden Market in the early Nineties. No one approached them for autographs or photographs. Instead people would go pale, stop in their tracks and gesticulate open mouthed, as if they couldn’t believe what they were witnessing was real. Stewart described the experience to me as “like walking with a ghost”.

I had my own encounter with the ghost many years ago. I was backstage at a massive open-air Dylan concert in Ireland, chatting with two young American guys I had just met, when I noticed this weird looking fellow sidle up alongside us, his jowly face caked in orange make-up and baggy eyes ringed with thick black liner. I didn’t actually recognise him at first, perhaps because he bore so little resemblance to the skinny beatnik with the tangled psychedelic curls whose poster adorned my bedroom wall. But eventually it dawned on me that this paunchy, wrinkled old peach making small talk in a stoned drawl was Bob Dylan. I gaped at this strange vision, simultaneously amazed and disappointed. “He looks so old!” I whispered to my new American friends, before babbling some nonsense about it being better not to meet your heroes. They turned out to be Dylan’s sons, Samuel and Jakob. Not my finest moment.

That was in 1984 and Dylan was all of 43. Today, he turns seventy. It would no doubt have astonished my naïve younger self to know that Dylan would still be rocking at such a venerable age, still producing work of the highest order. And that I would still find him as a relevant and fascinating as ever.

“Contrary to what some so called experts believe, I don’t constantly reinvent myself. I was there from the beginning,” Dylan said in 1985. Well, maybe. But he has certainly changed over the years and he started by changing his name. Robert Zimmerman came out of the Midwest like an updated Huck Finn, leather cap, battered boots and harmonica, a precocious, firebrand folkie who greeted the world with a self-titled debut album in 1962. A contemporary likened his voice to “a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire”, but the songs, dazzlingly poetic, scornful of conformity and tuned in to the spirit of the age, changed the face of popular music forever. Since then we’ve been treated to Dylan the amphetamine-fuelled rocker of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, the countrified spiritual seeker of ‘John Wesley Harding’, the broken hearted gypsy troubadour of ‘Blood On The Tracks’, the deeply troubled soul of ‘Street Legal’ (Dylan’s most underrated album, play it now, I urge you), the sharp-tongued Christian soldier of ‘Infidels’, the disillusioned romantic of ‘Oh Mercy’, the careworn curmudgeon of ‘Time Out of Mind’ and the inscrutable, mischievous old veteran of ‘Modern Times’. Frankly, it seems a hell of a long way from the optimistic, revolutionary idealism of his 1963 classic ‘The Times They Are A Changin’ to the scornful, frightening ambiguity of 2009’s ‘It’s All Good’ but one song doesn’t transplant or negate the other, rather they enrich each other, strands of a complex, contradictory, argumentative, provocative whole, a human life in song.

Dylan is the greatest living figure of popular music, not because he has the loveliest voice (David Bowie once compared it to “sand and glue”), or the greatest way with melody (Dylan favours simple, repetitive chord patterns and borrows liberally from generic song forms), or the most original sonic approach (he has little patience for gimmickry or experimentation), but because he took popular song from the inside, reaching back into its past (of deep folk tradition) and firing off into the future (opening up vistas of language, philosophy and emotion), and in the process investing it with unsuspected depth and gravity, the possibility that something as simple as a song could be a complete vehicle for individual artistic expression. Despite aberrations and periods of decline, a late flourish of substantial albums enriches and deepens our appreciation of his entire oeuvre, a body of work over five decades without compare. This is music to grow up with and grow old to, songs and performances of such depth they reveal ever more with repeated listening. On the best of Dylan, melody and lyric effortlessly mesh together, all those cascading cadences and tripping internal rhymes swept along by tunes of surprising dimensions and perfectly served by Dylan’s dramatic vocal delivery, resounding with heartfelt if often poignantly understated emotion.

Dylan helped invent the generation gap in the Sixties but the vitality and resonance of his work effortlessly bridges it, holding original fans spellbound while continually drawing in new generations of listeners. I was a teenage punk rocker when I discovered Dylan for myself, attracted at first to his Sixties hipster period, when he looked like the coolest cat on the planet with an attitude to match. I played ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ over and over, revelling in the way he heaped passionate, surreal scorn on the straight world, sneering “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr Jones?”

“I do know what my songs are about,” the young bard insisted to a sceptical middle-aged journalist from Playboy in 1966.

“And what’s that?” queried the hack.

“Oh,” replied Dylan, “some are about four minutes, some are about five and some, believe it or not, are about eleven or twelve.”

Bob Dylan: The Way He Sang Made Everything Seem Like a Message

Bob Dylan, who turns 70 next month, is the most obsessively scrutinised and discussed artist in pop history. Yet the man himself resists being mythologised. Mick Brown recalls the day he met the singer in an unexpectedly candid mood.

By Mick Brown
The Telegraph
01 May 2011

Of all the several hundred songs that Bob Dylan has recorded over the past 50 years there is one which I have found myself playing a lot lately. A relic from Dylan’s distant past, it seems somehow to be a song that vividly prefigured his future.

"I Was Young When I Left Home" was recorded in December 1961, one of two dozen that Dylan recorded in the apartment of a girlfriend, Bonnie Beecher, when he was returning home to Minnesota after his first year in New York. Dylan was just 21, but he had already created a stir on the New York folk scene, and a month earlier had completed his first album for Columbia Records, which would be released in March 1962.

"I Was Young When I Left Home" is a reinterpretation of a standard, "900 Miles". It is a song far beyond his years, and it carries portents of some of the themes that would come to define Dylan, with its intimations of twists of fate, the need to move on and not be tied to the past – not be tied to anything – the sense, in the words of Thomas Wolfe, that you can’t go home again. “Gonna make me a home out in the wind,” as Dylan sings.

Dylan’s voice is not yet fully formed – there are whoops and slurs that he seems to have borrowed from somewhere else that he is trying on for size – yet it is utterly distinctive, that plangent, high, lonesome, nasal twang that became his first identifying thumbprint, and that when I first heard it made me think, like most people, who the hell is that?

Beecher would later describe how, after recording the songs, Dylan had told her that she should never let anyone else make copies of the tapes, “so that when someone from the Library of Congress asks you for them, I want you to sell them for $200”. As a mixture of prescience and audacity it is hard to beat. “What kind of remark is that to make,” Beecher wondered, “to somebody that is shoplifting food for someone who is so incompetent that he can’t even shoplift his own food?”

Beecher did not get her $200 from the Library of Congress. The tape was apparently stolen and "I Was Young" would go on to become a staple on any number of Dylan bootlegs. (It eventually received a bona fide release, 40 years after it was recorded, on a limited edition of Love and Theft.)

I first encountered the song through a CD burned by a friend, a collection of “almost and never released” tracks – the bootleg of all bootlegs, if you will – a beautifully designed and packaged artefact, with photographs and meticulously researched sleeve-notes that would put most professionally produced CDs to shame; in short, a labour of obsessive devotion.

It occurs to me that only Dylan fans do this. Not only is he the most bootlegged artist in the history of popular music, as demonstrated by the academic conference at Bristol University that marks his 70th birthday on May 24, he is also the most avidly discussed, the most rigorously scrutinised, the most fervently admired. Everybody has their own version of Bob Dylan, and everybody thinks they know him better than anybody else.

There is a marvellous section in Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles Volume One, where he describes a period in New York in the early Sixties spent crashing in the apartment of a friend named Ray. Dylan describes poring over his friend’s bookshelves; Gogol, Balzac, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Pericles’s Ideal State of Democracy and Thucydides’s The Athenian General – “a narrative that would give you thrills”. There are books on Amazon women, Frederick the Great and Clausewitz, the philosopher of war, who “looks like Montgomery Clift”. As he thumbs through Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Ray tells him: “The top guys in that field work for ad agencies. They deal in air.” “I put the book back,” Dylan writes, “and never picked it up again.”

Whether or not the account is creative fiction, as much of Chronicles is said to be, its story points to a larger truth of a mind avid for knowledge and understanding, sucking up myriad influences – classical literature, the poètes maudits, folk, country and Fifties rock ’n’ roll: somebody cutting himself from whole cloth and resolving to be his own man and nobody else’s.

“All the great performers had something in their eyes,” Dylan writes in Chronicles. “It was that 'I know something you don’t know’. And I wanted to be that kind of performer.”

Chronicles is a marvellous book, probably the only one you really need to read about Dylan. It is a masterful example of Dylan telling you exactly what he wants you to know, and nothing more; a book that casts extraordinary light on his upbringing, his creative processes and the artistic forces that shaped him – and possibly his talent for fabrication – while remaining opaque about his personal life and circumstances.

Dylan realised early on that the best way to cope with the heavy burden of his own mythology – and to avoid being the prisoner of other people’s expectations – was to throw up a smokescreen, and give away as little as possible.

“Do not create anything. It will be misinterpreted. It will not change. It will follow you the rest of your life,” he wrote in a 1964 prose poem, “Advice For Geraldine on Her Miscellaneous Birthday”, concluding with the command, “When asked t’give your real name… never give it.”

The following year, asked at a press conference whether it was true that he’d changed his name, he confessed that indeed he had. His real name, he said, was actually Knezelwitz. “Knevevitch?” the reporter asked. “Knevovitch, yes,” Dylan replied. “That was the first name. I don’t really want to tell you what the last name was.”

The sly evasion, the straight-faced put-down and the outright lie became his first line of defence. Dylan may be, as one friend put it, a man with “so many sides he’s round”. But then again, how can anybody get an angle on a circle?

What is important, as Dylan himself says, has been “for me to come to the bottom of this legend thing, which has no reality at all. What’s important isn’t the legend, but the art, the work”. If Dylan had died in that famous motorcycle accident in 1966, his legacy would still surpass by a country mile that of any other performer in post-war music: the brilliant creative flowering of the early years, the protest (or, as he put it, “finger-pointing”) songs, the amphetamine poetry of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde – three of the greatest albums in the pop music canon released in the space of just 18 months in 1965 and 1966 – nobody could possibly have sustained that.

The way Dylan sang made everything seem like a message about something, as if he was in touch with some place or feeling beyond the mundane – an artist with “power and dominion over the spirits”, in Dylan’s own words.

The songs of social protest, personal love and religious faith have all, in a sense, been of a piece. What Dylan has always been is an uncompromising moralist.

Critics, academics and home theorists have picked their way through the layers of allegory and ambiguity in his songs – is "Like a Rolling Stone" about Joan Baez? Edie Sedgwick? Dante’s Beatrice? Or Dylan himself? Biographers have attempted to hack through the thickets of his tangled love life (“There ain’t no limit to the amount of trouble women bring,” he sings on "Sugar Baby" – and Dylan, one thinks, has had his share), his substance abuse and personal peccadillos. But for all that he is the most scrutinised artist of the last 50 years, he remains the most inscrutable. Do you know where Bob Dylan lives? Who he is married to? How many children he has? Neither do I.

I have met him only once. It was 1984, a time when Dylan was emerging from his born-again Christian phase which had so bewildered his fans. Infidels, released the year before, had been welcomed as a return to secular themes of love and loss – with a little geopolitics thrown in. Dylan was performing in Madrid and I had been sent by a newspaper in the (very slim) hope of securing an interview.

After making contact with his management I was told to stay in my hotel room and await a call that might or might not come. At the moment when it finally became clear that I would not be interviewing Bob Dylan, the telephone rang. I was told to be at the Café Alcázar at 7.30pm. It was 7pm. I arrived at 7.40pm. No sign. Obviously he had come and gone (I have no idea what made me think Dylan would be a fastidious timekeeper). Forty minutes late, he came through the door, alone. A slight, grizzled-looking figure, he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a straw hat that looked like a disguise. He walked quickly to my table, head down, looking neither left nor right.

He ordered coffee and lit a cigarette – the first of a stream he would smoke over the next hour. His manner was courteous and accommodating. Every question he had heard before, but he treated them all with good grace.

“For me, none of the songs I’ve written have really dated,” he said. “They captured something I’ve never been able to improve on, whatever their statement is. People say they’re 'nostalgia’ but I don’t know what that means really. A Tale of Two Cities was written 100 years ago; is that 'nostalgia’? This term, 'nostalgic’,” he said, “is just another way people have of putting you some place they think they understand” – another one of the labels that people had been putting on him since he started out – “and not one of them has ever made any sense.”

“Born-again Christian” was another one. Why all the furore about his religious views, he wanted to know. “Like I was running for Pope or something. I mean, nobody cares what Billy Joel’s religious views are, right? What does it matter to people what Bob Dylan is? But it seems to, right? But why? Why only me? I’d like to know.”

The tone was of a mocking, faux incredulity.

“What it comes down to is that there’s a lot of different gods in the world against God – that’s really what it’s all about. There’s a lot of different gods that people are subjects of. There’s the god of Mammon. Corporations are gods. Governments? No, governments don’t have much to do with it anymore, I don’t think. Politics is a hoax. The politicians don’t have any real power. They feed you all this stuff in the newspapers and this is what you think is going on, but that’s not what’s really going on.

“I believe that ever since Adam and Eve got thrown out of the garden that the whole nature of the planet has been heading in one direction – towards apocalypse. It’s all there in the Book of Revelation, for me anyway, but it’s difficult talking about these things because most people don’t know what you’re talking about anyway, or don’t want to listen. But then again, I don’t think that makes me a pessimistic person. I think a pessimistic person is someone who walks around with their head in their pocket and thinks everything is great. I’m a realist. Or maybe a surrealist.”

What struck me then was the sense of a man at odds with the modern world: mass communications, popular culture, the “sameness of everything”, as he put it.

He talked enthusiastically about poetry – Yeats and Shelley – and the gospel music he loved – the Swan Silvertones, the Highway QCs and Sister Rosetta Thorpe. When I asked what he was reading right now he replied, “Seneca, Cicero, Machiavelli.” He paused. “Last year I read John Stuart Mill.

“I don’t feel obliged to keep up with the times, I’m not going to be here that long anyway. So I keep up with these times, then I gotta keep up with the Nineties… Jesus, who’s got the time to keep up with the times?

“People talk about the Sixties as a romantic time, and it was to a certain degree. You could be different then. For me, my particular scene, I came along at the right time. Ten years later, 10 years before, it wouldn’t have happened, I don’t think. And I understood the times I was in. If I was starting out now I don’t know where I’d get the inspiration from, because you need to breathe the right air to make that creative process work.”

In the Sixties, he would write a song like "Masters of War" and move on to the next one without a second thought. He sighed. “If I wrote a song like that now I wouldn’t feel I’d have to write another one for two weeks. There was something at that time with that particular song that I’ve never been able to improve on. None of these songs I’ve ever been able to improve on, whatever their statement is.

“There’s still things I want to write about, but the process is harder. The old records I used to make, by the time they came out I wouldn’t even want them released because I was already so far beyond them. I was always moving on to something else, and I always felt that calling. Not because I wanted to be different, or change, or was looking for the next new thing. I never was looking for nothing. But I discovered it all. I never dreamed that I would hit upon what I did hit upon.

“But back then it was easier to do it, because there wasn’t any obstruction in the way to doing it. That’s all there was to do. Then you get separated from the air you need to breathe to make that creative process work.” Listening back to the tape of our conversation now, I am struck by how sure he was of himself, and how candid he was. There was no attempt to self-mythologise, or to mystify. Only when I asked about his personal circumstances did he become vague. He had a farm in Minnesota, he said, and a house in Malibu where he had moved to raise his children – “good schools nearby” – but seldom used since his divorce from Sara Lowndes. He had recently visited Israel, for his son Jesse’s bar mitzvah: “his grandmother’s idea”. Israel interested him from “a biblical point of view”, but he had never felt that atavistic Jewish sense of homecoming. He had a 63ft sailing boat in which he cruised the Caribbean “when I can’t think of nothing else to do.

“There’s never really been any glory in it for me,” he said. “Being seen in the places and having everybody put their arm around you, I never cared about any of that. I don’t care what people think. For me, all it is is doing it. That’s all that really matters.”

As we talked, so more people in the café had come to see through the disguise. A steady stream had made their way to the table, scraps of paper in hand. Dylan signed them all in carefully deliberate hand – as if he was practising – but his discomfort at being on view was becoming more apparent. As suddenly as he had arrived, he rose from the table and made his excuses and left.

It was a few years later that he set off on the so-called “Never Ending” tour, which continues to this day – proof that for Dylan, performing is less a living than a life. “Gonna make me a home out in the wind” indeed…

Has the much-vaunted folk revival brought him a new following? Not much, I think. For the most part, the people who go to Dylan concerts now are much the same people who have always gone to Dylan concerts. For them, Dylan is inseparable from all the multiple layers of meaning and myth in his life – the prophet, the poet, the protester – and from all the stations in their own – a man, as he once said of Woody Guthrie, that “you could listen to his songs and learn how to live” – or how not to.

Whatever expectations people may have of him, Dylan at least has proved utterly faithful in his determination to confound them, whether it’s advertising women’s lingerie for Victoria’s Secret, or suddenly popping up as the host of his own radio show – a delightful illustration of his dry humour and impeccable musical taste.

When the controversy blew up recently over his appearances in China and Vietnam, with fatuous accusations that he had “sold out” by not performing "Blowin’ In the Wind" – as if it was Dylan’s responsibility to be the conscience of the world – I was reminded of something he had told me sitting in that café in Madrid.

“What you gotta understand is that I do something because I feel like doing it. If people can relate to it, that’s great; if they can’t, that’s fine, too. But I don’t think I’m gonna be really understood until maybe 100 years from now. Because what I’ve done and what I’m doing, nobody else does or has done.

“And when I’m dead and gone people will realise that, and then they’ll try to figure it out. There’s all these interpreters around, but they’re not interpreting anything except their own ideas. Nobody’s come close.”

Today's Tune: Bob Dylan - Things Have Changed

Monday, May 23, 2011

Book Review: Erick Stakelbeck's 'The Terrorist Next Door'

See No Evil: Challenging the Narrative on Homegrown Islamic Terrorism

A review of Erick Stakelbeck’s The Terrorist Next Door: How the Government is Deceiving You about the Islamist Threat.
May 22, 2011 - 12:57 am - by Patrick Poole
The Terrorist Next Door: How the Government is Deceiving You about the Islamist Threat
By Erick Stakelbeck
Published by Regnery Publishing (May 2, 2011)

As a counter-terrorism consultant, it is both frustrating and infuriating to listen to media figures and talking-heads discuss domestic Islamic terrorism. Anytime a Muslim is caught trying to kill Americans on American soil, these figures rush to tell us that these would-be terrorists are not known to have any connection to international terrorist groups, and therefore we shouldn’t be worried. But as we found out from the cases of Army Major Nidal Hasan and Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, both were actually in communication with foreign terrorist organizations. (Hasan was emailing al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula chief Anwar al-Awlaki, and Shahzad had been commissioned by the Pakistani Taliban).

The message from the media: if a terrorist act isn’t connected to international terrorists, it really isn’t terrorism, but rather “violent extremism” or a “man-caused disaster.”

Another narrative floated by the establishment media in such circumstances: the so-called “lone wolf” jihadist is impossible to diagnose beforehand, and therefore the causes of such are random and ultimately unknowable.

The fact is that these “lone wolf” jihadists have rarely acted alone. We now know about the radicalization process — there are typically a whole host of actors and support networks pushing individuals through the radicalization pipeline. While these individuals and organizations may not have been directly involved in planning a terrorist attack, their participation in terms of indoctrinating would-be jihadists and providing religious justification for acts of violence is essential to the process.

The involvement of these support networks is almost never investigated by law enforcement or the establishment media. One of the few media figures on the terrorism beat who actually gets the problem is CBN News terrorism correspondent and Fox News terrorism analyst Erick Stakelbeck.

In his new book — The Terrorist Next Door: How the Government is Deceiving You about the Islamist Threat — Stakelbeck takes the reader on his journey through the world of Islamic terrorism. He recounts his experience interviewing al-Qaeda terrorist leaders (notably none of whom are living in caves, but in tony London suburbs), and his conversation with Noman Benotman, a former al-Qaeda operative and associate of Osama bin Laden. Stakelbeck has explored the shadowy world of how the international terrorist organization operates.

And he isn’t afraid to go into the belly of the beast: witness his investigation into a network of dozens of Islamic compounds scattered in rural areas across the U.S. The compounds are controlled by a terror-tied Pakistani cleric who has been videotaped conducting terrorist training sessions with his followers on bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations.

Stakelbeck also explores the bizarre and counterproductive policy of the U.S. government — time and again, they turn to those responsible for radicalizing American Muslims for advice on dealing with the radicalization problem.

One such example he cites is the case of Yasir Qadhi, who was invited by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) to speak at a conference on the topic of radicalization. Not only had Qadhi complained about being on the U.S. government’s terror watch list, his associated media company IlmQuest sold audio CD sets of al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and Qadhi was also an instructor in a two-week course hosted by his own organization — and attended by underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Qadhi also gave a sermon attacking “the hoax of the Holocaust.”
When other establishment media outlets interview Qadhi, such as CNN, do you think they make any mention of Qadhi’s extremist background or Saudi Wahhabi religious training?

Stakelbeck broke the story of terror associate Louay Safi — who was captured on federal wiretaps talking with Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Sami Al-Arian and was named an unindicted co-conspirator in his terrorism trial — speaking on Islam to troops departing for Afghanistan at Fort Hood just weeks after Major Hasan’s shooting spree there that killed thirteen. Following the Fort Hood massacre, Safi had attributed the cause of the incident to “Islamophobia,” saying that “the extremist ideology response for violent outbursts is often rooted in the systematic demonization of marginalized groups.” After Stakelbeck’s report appeared, Safi was suspended as a military subcontractor.

Stakelbeck has also been willing to delve deeply into the taboo subject of the widespread extremism of the American Muslim community, and even on the impact such extremism has on American Muslims who dissent from it. Just one day after Anwar al-Awlaki issued a fatwa calling for the killing of millions of Americans, Stakelbeck found that –just a few miles from the White House — the largest Islamic store in the Washington, D.C., area featured a prominent display of Awlaki’s CDs and DVDs, along with other racist hate materials and books defending Islamic terrorism. When he interviewed the store’s owner (who quickly removed the Awlaki display), he was told that the materials were for sale because “they were very good sellers.” Indeed.

He has been willing to ask prominent U.S. Muslim leaders hard questions about their support for Islamic radicalism. His report last October exposed a Pennsylvania professor and Islamic leader who spoke at a rally denouncing Jews and encouraging the destruction of Israel. Needless to say, the professor — and officials from his university –refused to talk when asked for an interview.

Stakelbeck traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, and interviewed supposed “interfaith” leader Imam Mohammed Ali Elahi, who regularly consults with the Detroit FBI leadership. The imam quickly got tongue-tied after being asked about his open support for terrorist groups and the photographs on his own website that showed him with former Iranian dictator Ayatollah Khomeini and with leaders of Hezbollah.

Erick Stakelbeck’s reporting is a refreshing alternative to the drive-by coverage given to homegrown terrorism. When a large cell of would-be jihadists was busted in North Carolina in 2009, after all the networks had given their two-minute superficial coverage of the story and left the area, Stakelbeck continued to report with interviews of those who knew the suspects and provided new details about the case. When Tulsa, Oklahoma, resident Jamal Miftah was expelled and banned from his mosque for writing an editorial in the local newspaper attacking al-Qaeda, it was Erick Stakelbeck who was there to interview Miftah — not CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, or MSNBC. And while the media was huffing and puffing about opposition to the Ground Zero mosque last summer, Stakelbeck looked into the possible foreign funding sources for the wave of mega-mosque building occurring all over the country (he dedicates a chapter in his book to the topic).

These and other incidents from Stakelbeck’s reporting are covered in his book, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in learning more on the topic. It will certainly challenge many of the things you’ve heard from the establishment media and from our own government officials charged with addressing the homegrown terror threat. (Anyone remember Director of National Intelligence James Clapper telling Congress that the Muslim Brotherhood was a “largely secular organization”?) There’s a reason why ten years after 9/11 we’re still flying blind in the War on Terror, and Stakelbeck explores those reasons.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work directly with Erick Stakelbeck on several stories going all the way back to 2007. He investigated the largest known al-Qaeda cell operating in Columbus, Ohio, and the role of an internationally known extremist preacher and Hamas cleric, Salah Sultan, associated with that cell who only lived a mile from my own home in Hilliard, Ohio. I am honored to not only know Erick Stakelbeck as a colleague and sometime collaborator, but also as a friend.

Notwithstanding any personal bias on my part, the reason you need to read his new book, The Terrorist Next Door, is because he is one of the few reporters out there willing to pursue and report a story no matter how ugly and politically incorrect the truth he uncovers. While our government and its allies in the establishment media assure us that the problem of homegrown Islamic terrorism is impossible to diagnose – unless, of course, they blame “Islamophobia” — Erick Stakelbeck’s ongoing reporting shows the problem is much simpler than our political and media elites will ever admit. And the warning he issues about the threat is one that every American needs to hear.

Patrick Poole is a regular contributor to Pajamas Media, and an anti-terrorism consultant to law enforcement and the military.