Saturday, December 24, 2011

Today's Tune: Frank Sinatra - The Little Drummer Boy

The House of Christmas

By G. K. Chesterton

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.

This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

Rembrandt - The Adoration of the Shepherds (1646 [2])
oil on canvas (65 × 55 cm) National Gallery, London

An upside-down family tree

By Mark Steyn
The Orange County Register
December 23, 2011

Birth of St John the Baptist by Artemisia Gentileschi oil on canvas, c. 1635, Museo Nacional del Prado

Our lesson for today comes from the Gospel according to Luke. No, no, not the manger, the shepherds, the wise men, any of that stuff, but the other birth:

"But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John."

That bit of the Christmas story doesn't get a lot of attention, but it's in there – Luke 1:13, part of what he'd have called the back story, if he'd been a Hollywood screenwriter rather than a physician. Of the four gospels, only two bother with the tale of Christ's birth, and only Luke begins with the tale of two pregnancies. Zacharias is surprised by his impending paternity – "for I am an old man and my wife well stricken in years." Nonetheless, an aged, barren woman conceives and, in the sixth month of Elisabeth's pregnancy, the angel visits her cousin Mary and tells her that she, too, will conceive. If you read Luke, the virgin birth seems a logical extension of the earlier miracle – the pregnancy of an elderly lady. The physician-author had no difficulty accepting both. For Matthew, Jesus' birth is the miracle; Luke leaves you with the impression that all birth – all life – is to a degree miraculous and God-given.

We now live in Elisabeth's world – not just because technology has caught up with the deity and enabled women in their fifties and sixties to become mothers, but in a more basic sense. The problem with the advanced West is not that it's broke but that it's old and barren. Which explains why it's broke. Take Greece, which has now become the most convenient shorthand for sovereign insolvency – "America's heading for the same fate as Greece if we don't change course," etc. So Greece has a spending problem, a revenue problem, something along those lines, right? At a superficial level, yes. But the underlying issue is more primal: It has one of the lowest fertility rates on the planet. In Greece, 100 grandparents have 42 grandchildren – i.e., the family tree is upside down. In a social democratic state where workers in "hazardous" professions (such as, er, hairdressing) retire at 50, there aren't enough young people around to pay for your three-decade retirement. And there are unlikely ever to be again.

Look at it another way: Banks are a mechanism by which old people with capital lend to young people with energy and ideas. The Western world has now inverted the concept. If 100 geezers run up a bazillion dollars' worth of debt, is it likely that 42 youngsters will ever be able to pay it off? As Angela Merkel pointed out in 2009, for Germany an Obama-sized stimulus was out of the question simply because its foreign creditors know there are not enough young Germans around ever to repay it. The Continent's economic "powerhouse" has the highest proportion of childless women in Europe: one in three fräulein have checked out of the motherhood business entirely. "Germany's working-age population is likely to decrease 30 percent over the next few decades," says Steffen Kröhnert of the Berlin Institute for Population Development. "Rural areas will see a massive population decline, and some villages will simply disappear."

If the problem with socialism is, as Mrs. Thatcher says, that eventually you run out of other people's money, much of the West has advanced to the next stage: it's run out of other people, period. Greece is a land of ever-fewer customers and fewer workers but ever more retirees and more government. How do you grow your economy in an ever-shrinking market? The developed world, like Elisabeth, is barren. Collectively barren, I hasten to add. Individually, it's made up of millions of fertile women, who voluntarily opt for no children at all or one designer kid at 39. In Italy, the home of the Church, the birthrate's somewhere around 1.2, 1.3 children per couple – or about half "replacement rate." Japan, Germany and Russia are already in net population decline. Fifty percent of Japanese women born in the Seventies are childless. Between 1990 and 2000, the percentage of Spanish women childless at the age of 30 almost doubled, from just over 30 percent to just shy of 60 percent. In Sweden, Finland, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, 20 percent of 40-year old women are childless. In a recent poll, invited to state the "ideal" number of children, 16.6 percent of Germans answered "None." We are living in Zacharias and Elisabeth's world – by choice.

America is not in as perilous a situation as Europe – yet. But its rendezvous with fiscal apocalypse also has demographic roots: The baby boomers did not have enough children to maintain the solvency of mid-20th century welfare systems premised on mid-20th century birthrates. The "Me Decade" turned into a Me Quarter-Century, and beyond. The "me"s are all getting a bit long in the tooth, but they never figured there might come a time when they'd need a few more "thems" still paying into the treasury.

The notion of life as a self-growth experience is more radical than it sounds. For most of human history, functioning societies have honored the long run: It's why millions of people have children, build houses, plant trees, start businesses, make wills, put up beautiful churches in ordinary villages, fight and, if necessary, die for your country. A nation, a society, a community is a compact between past, present and future, in which the citizens, in Tom Wolfe's words at the dawn of the "Me Decade," "conceive of themselves, however unconsciously, as part of a great biological stream."

Much of the developed world climbed out of the stream. You don't need to make material sacrifices: The state takes care of all that. You don't need to have children. And you certainly don't need to die for king and country. But a society that has nothing to die for has nothing to live for: It's no longer a stream, but a stagnant pool.

If you believe in God, the utilitarian argument for religion will seem insufficient and reductive: "These are useful narratives we tell ourselves," as I once heard a wimpy Congregational pastor explain her position on the Bible. But, if Christianity is merely a "useful" story, it's a perfectly constructed one, beginning with the decision to establish Christ's divinity in the miracle of His birth. The hyper-rationalists ought at least to be able to understand that post-Christian "rationalism" has delivered much of Christendom to an utterly irrational business model: a pyramid scheme built on an upside-down pyramid. Luke, a man of faith and a man of science, could have seen where that leads. Like the song says, Merry Christmas, baby.


Friday, December 23, 2011

Today's Tune: The Yeah Yeah Yeahs - All I Want for Christmas

Today's Tune: The Ronettes - Sleigh Ride

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Buckley’

By James E. Person Jr. - Special to The Washington Times
Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Give the late William F. Buckley credit: The witty conservative writer, editor, talk-show host, debater and bon vivant was unafraid to allow liberal biographers extensive access to his life and private papers. In 1988, socialist true-believer John B. Judis published his wide-ranging, well-researched “William F. Buckley Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives.”

At some point in the future, editor and historian Sam Tanenhaus, known most recently for a book-length study of conservatism’s death, will release his authorized life of WFB. At the present time Carl T. Bogus, a self-styled liberal and a law professor at Roger Williams University, has brought forth “Buckley,” a remarkably perceptive biography.

“We often get a better grasp of our own perspective by reflecting on opposing perspectives; sometimes, in fact, that is the best method of self-understanding,” he writes. “It is for these reasons that I believe the story of William F. Buckley Jr. and the rise of American conservatism is not only interesting but also relevant to our present moment.”

And indeed, Mr. Bogus rises to the occasion, crafting a formative biography and history that is not only interesting and relevant, but an essential study of Buckley and the post-World War II conservative movement.

“This book is about the rise of modern American conservatism - about the last time conservatism was refashioned,” Mr. Bogus writes early in his book. He adds, “I hope that by examining that period, conservatives may gain a better understanding of the direction they now wish to take. Although the book is about the rise of modern conservatism, I believe it can be just as helpful to liberals looking to the future.”

His work focuses upon the signal role Buckley (1925-2008) played in shaping the movement into his own image as well as the image of his father. That is, when he founded the conservative magazine National Review in 1955, he wrangled sometimes-grudging buy-in from his editorial team, contributors and readers - including such significant figures as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, among others - to affirm the essence of conservatism as militarily interventionist, free-trade oriented, anti-tax, laissez-fair in terms of economics, and (among his co-religionists) pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic in terms of worldview.

In terms of facing the threat of communism during the Cold War, Buckley and his editorial cohorts generally leaned toward playing offense, advocating active rollback of Soviet and Chinese gains rather than containment, the strategy famously advocated by diplomat George Kennan.

In addition, it was no accident that one of his collections of articles and columns, “Happy Days Were Here Again,” was subtitled “Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist,” for Buckley, again like his father, was primarily a libertarian rather than what is today called a social conservative. Still, he admired conservatives such as Russell Kirk (author of the landmark 1953 work, “The Conservative Mind”), shared some of their key beliefs and saw them as valuable allies within the movement he sought to forge.

The presence of Kirk and other traditional conservatives at National Review, even in a back-bench capacity, lent a sense of well-roundedness and cultural concern to a predominantly political magazine.
Mr. Bogus is sure-handed in his interpretation and presentation of the facts regarding Buckley and the movement. Fairness seems to be his watchword throughout this work, which is not without minor flaws. For example, the author is on less sure ground when, after a nuanced discussion of Reagan, he states, “Modern conservatism came more fully to power with the administration of George W. Bush.”

But when he sticks to the early years of Buckley’s rise as a nationally known personality and force within American culture, Mr. Bogus is reliably good. Of Buckley and the troubled times in which he lived - a time of fear brought on by the Cold War and a seeming decline in the nation’s spiritual vigor - he writes:

“He was a cheerful, confident and attractive personality with a rare and wonderful sense of humor. As Time magazine had pointed out in its cover story, Buckley showed that conservatism could be fun. An ideology so weighted with worries would have been misery if it were led by someone whose personality reflected its fear, pessimism, or even paranoia. Buckley gave voice to his followers’ fears and yet was himself a powerful antidote to those fears.”

This is an important book. Anyone, of any political stripe, interested in learning more about the rise of conservatism as a movement in the mid-20th century needs to read Carl T. Bogus‘ “Buckley.”

James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind” (Madison Books, 1999).


NPR: Bogus on Buckley -

The GOP’s Payroll-tax Debacle

The Republicans have fallen into President Obama’s trap.

By Charles Krauthammer
December 23, 2011

Now that Congress appears finally to have reached a compromise on what must be one of the worst pieces of legislation in years — the temporary payroll-tax-holiday extension — let’s survey the damage.

To begin with, what even minimally rational government enacts payroll-tax relief for just two months? As a matter of practicality alone, it makes no sense. The National Payroll Reporting Consortium, representing those who process paychecks, said of the two-month extension passed by the Senate just days before the new year: “There is insufficient lead time to accommodate the proposal,” because “many payroll systems are not likely to be able to make such a substantial programming change before January or even February,” thereby “creat[ing] substantial problems, confusion and costs.”

The final compromise appears to tweak this a bit to make it less onerous for small business. But what were they thinking in the first place? What business operates two months at a time? The minimal time horizon for business is the quarter — three months. What genius came up with two? U.S. businesses would have to budget for two-thirds of a one-quarter tax-holiday extension. As if this government has not already heaped enough regulatory impediments and mindless uncertainties upon business.

But making economic sense is not the point. The tax-holiday extension — presumably to be negotiated next year into a 12-month extension — is the perfect campaign ploy: an election-year bribe that has the additional virtue of seizing the tax issue for the Democrats.

When George McGovern campaigned on giving every household $1,000, he was laughed out of town as a shameless panderer. President Obama is doing exactly the same — a one-year tax holiday that hands back about $1,000 per middle-class family — but with a little more subtlety. Obama is also selling it as a job creator. This takes audacity. Even a one-year extension isn’t a tax cut; it’s a tax holiday. A two-month extension is nothing more than a long tax weekend. What employer is going to alter his hiring decisions — whose effects last years — in anticipation of a one-year tax holiday, let alone one that lasts two months?

This is a $121 billion annual drain on the Treasury that makes a mockery of the Democrats’ reverence for the Social Security trust fund and its inviolability. Obama’s OMB director took Social Security completely off the table in debt-reduction talks under the pretense that Social Security is self-financing. This is pure fiction, because the Treasury supplies whatever shortfalls Social Security faces. But now, with the payroll-tax holiday, the administration openly demonstrates bad faith — conceding with its actions that the payroll tax is, after all, interchangeable with other revenues and never actually sequestered to ensure future payments to retirees.

The House Republicans’ initial rejection of this two-month extension was therefore correct on principle and on policy. But this was absolutely the wrong place, the wrong time, to plant the flag. Once Senate Republicans overwhelmingly backed the temporary extension, that part of the fight was lost. Opposing it became kamikaze politics.

Note the toll it is already taking on Republicans. For three decades Republicans owned the tax issue. Today, Obama leads by five points, a twelve-point swing since just early October. The payroll-tax ploy has even affected his overall approval rating, now up five points in six weeks to 49 percent.

The Democrats set a trap and the Republicans walked right into it. By rejecting an ostensibly bipartisan “compromise,” the Republican House was portrayed as obstructionist and, even worse, heartless — willing to raise taxes on the middle class while resolutely opposing any tax increases on the rich.

House Republicans compounded this debacle by begging the Senate to come back and renegotiate the issue, thus entirely conceding the initiative to majority leader Harry Reid. But Reid had little incentive to make any concessions. House Republicans would have taken the fall for 160 million shrunken paychecks. Every day the White House would have demanded, in the name of the suffering middle class, that Republicans return from vacation and pass the temporary extension.

Having finally realized they had trapped themselves, House Republicans quickly caved, thanks to a fig leaf contrived by Sen. Mitch McConnell.

The GOP’s performance nicely reprises that scene in Animal House where the marching band turns into a blind alley and row after row of plumed morons plows into a brick wall, crumbling to the ground in an unceremonious heap.

With one difference: House Republicans are unplumed.

— Charles Krauthammer is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2011 the Washington Post Writers Group.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

HD Trailer - "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

A Vandalized Valley

While the elites make excuses, citizens cope with theft and destruction.

By Victor Davis Hanson
December 21, 2011

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA / THE FRESNO BEE - James Freeman, an electrician for the city of Fresno's traffic signal and streetlight division, routes new wiring as crews continually address the loss of street lights due to copper wire theft.

I am starting to feel as if I am living in a Vandal state, perhaps on the frontier near Carthage around a.d. 530, or in a beleaguered Rome in 455. Here are some updates from the rural area surrounding my farm, taken from about a 30-mile radius. In this take, I am not so much interested in chronicling the flotsam and jetsam as in fathoming whether there is some ideology that drives it.

Last week an ancestral rural school near the Kings River had its large bronze bell stolen. I think it dated from 1911. I have driven by it about 100 times in the 42 years since I got my first license. The bell had endured all those years. Where it is now I don’t know. Does someone just cut up a beautifully crafted bell in some chop yard in rural Fresno County, without a worry about who forged it or why — or why others for a century until now enjoyed its presence?

The city of Fresno is now under siege. Hundreds of street lights are out, their copper wire stripped away. In desperation, workers are now cementing the bases of all the poles — as if the original steel access doors were not necessary to service the wiring. How sad the synergy! Since darkness begets crime, the thieves achieve a twofer: The more copper they steal, the easier under cover of spreading night it is to steal more. Yet do thieves themselves at home with their wives and children not sometimes appreciate light in the darkness? Do they vandalize the street lights in front of their own homes?

In a small town two miles away, the thefts now sound like something out of Edward Gibbon’s bleaker chapters — or maybe George Miller’s Road Warrior, or the Hughes brothers’ more recent The Book of Eli. Hundreds of bronze commemorative plaques were ripped off my town’s public buildings (and with them all record of our ancestors’ public-spiritedness). I guess that is our version of Trotskyization.

The Catholic church was just looted (again) of its bronze and silver icons. Manhole covers are missing (some of the town’s own maintenance staff were arrested for this theft, no less!). The Little League clubhouse was ransacked of its equipment.

In short, all the stuff of civilization — municipal buildings, education, religion, transportation, recreation — seems under assault in the last year by the contemporary forces of barbarism. After several thefts of mail, I ordered a fortified, armored mailbox. I was ecstatic when I saw the fabricator’s Internet ad: On the video, someone with an AK-47 emptied a clip into it; the mail inside was untouched. I gleefully said to myself: “That’s the one for me.” And it has been so far. But I wonder: Do the thieves not like to get their own mail? Do their children not play Little League? Do they not want a priest at their funeral? Would they not like to drive their cars without worrying about holes in the street? Or is their thinking that a rich society can cover for their crimes without their crimes’ ever much affecting them — given that most others still do not act as they do?

I know it is popular to suggest that as we reach our sixties, everything seems “worse,” and, like Horace’s laudatores temporis acti, we damn the present in comparison to the past. Sorry, it just isn’t so. In 1961, 1971, and 1981, city street lights were not systematically de-wired. And the fact that plaques and bells of a century’s pedigree were just now looted attests that they all survived the Great Depression, the punks of the 1950s, and the crime-ridden 1970s.

A couple now in their early 90s lives about three miles away from me on their small farm. I have known them for 50 years; he went to high school with my mother, and she was my Cub Scout leader. They now live alone and have recently been robbed nine, yes, nine, times. He told me he is thinking of putting a sign out at the entrance to his driveway: “Go away! Nothing left! You’ve already taken everything we have.” Would their robbers appreciate someone else doing that to their own grandparents? Do the vandals have locks on their own doors against other vandals?

There is indeed something of the Dark Ages about all this. In the vast rural expanse between the Sierras and the Coast Ranges, and from Sacramento to Bakersfield, our rural homes are like stray sheep outside the herd, without whatever protection is offered by the density of a town. When we leave for a trip or just go into town, the predators swarm.

Last summer several cars drove into my driveway, the surprised occupants ready with all sorts of innocent-sounding inquiries: “We just are looking for a rental.” “Do you have scrap for sale?” “We’re having car trouble.” And so on.

All this serves as a sort of red/green traffic light: If someone comes out from the house, the driver poses the question and then abruptly leaves; but if no one appears, he strikes quickly. I remember three or four intruders I confronted this year who had trucks as nice as or nicer than my 2006 Toyota. Two had sports apparel more expensive than my jeans and sweatshirt. All were heavier than I. In other words, malnourishment, the desire for basic transportation, the need for clothing on their backs — all the classically cited catalysts for stealing — are not what is driving these modern vandals.

At a local gathering last week, lots of farmers — of a variety of races and religions — were swapping just such stories. In our new Vandal state, one successful theft begets another — at least once deterrence is lost. In my case, one night an old boat in the barn was stripped. Soon, the storage house was hit. Ten days later, all the antique bolts and square nails were taken from the shop. Usually — as is true with the street lights — the damage to the buildings is greater than the value of the missing items. I would have given the thieves all the lost items rather than have had to fix broken locks and doors.

I just spoke with another group of farmers at a rural fairground. Every single person I talked to has had the copper wire ripped out of his agricultural pumps within the last two years. The conduits taken from my own 15-horsepower and 10-horsepower pumps were worth about $200 at most. The repair bill was $1,500.

Most farmers have lost any steel or iron lying around their barnyards, whether their grandparents’ iron wagon hardware or valuable replacement furrowers and discs. Stories of refuse piled in their vineyards and wrecked cars fished out of their orchards are monotonous. Did the thieves never eat raisins, a peach, an almond? And did they not appreciate that if we did what they did we would all starve?

As I write, I am looking out the window toward my barn at a strange new trash pile that, presto, appeared overnight while I slept: all the accouterments of an old car — seats, dashboard, outside moldings, etc. — are heaped together, along with household garbage. What am I to do with it? I can’t burn it. (Believe me, an environmental officer would appear out of nowhere at the rising of the toxic smoke to fine me, as surely as he is absent when the garbage and refuse are tossed on the roadsides outside of town.) There is too much of it to pile into my $100-a-month Waste Management bin, where I put the plastic garbage sacks tossed by the mailbox each week. It would take two trips in my pickup to haul it to the distant county dump. So for now, the problem is mine, and not that of the miscreant who tossed it. Was he thinking, “Mr. Hanson has more time, more money, more concern over trash, or more neuroticism of some sort, and therefore is more likely to deal with my trash than I am”? — as if to say, “I can live in a neighborhood where wrecked car parts litter the road; he obviously cannot.” So are these tossers simply comfortable with refuse on our streets, or are they not, but, like irked toddlers with soiled diapers, expect someone else to clean up after them?

And is not that the point, after all? Behind the easy criminality of stealing metal or driving outside of town to toss your garbage is an implicit mentality, as frightening as it is never expressed. Someone will indeed take the garbage away. And someone indeed will have copper wire for others to harvest for their needs. And someone will pay the taxes and costs associated with the commission of the crime, efforts at prevention, and rare apprehension of the criminal. And lastly, someone most certainly should. In our crude radical egalitarianism, the fact that one has more, and another less, is de facto wrong, and invites popular remedies. Now, for every crime committed, a new sociology will arise to explain away its commission. We are back to the bankrupt French philosophers who asserted: “Property is theft!”

In the last 20 years, several vehicles have zoomed off the road and plowed into my rather short stretch of roadside vineyard. The symptomology has always been the same: The driver fled; no proof of registration or insurance was left behind. The cost of replanting the vines and replacing the stakes remained all mine. Even the car was towed away and impounded by the state for its fees. As I drive these days across the valley, I play a game of looking at vineyards abutting the road to spot newly replanted vines and fresh stakes; these car-induced blights are quite common. Occasionally, I see the Catholic version of the Orthodox iconostases so common on Greek roadsides — commemorative crosses and shrines erected to mark the spot where one driver did not survive the zoom into the vineyard or orchard.

I just asked a neighbor how many times he has been rammed at a rural intersection, with the other driver fleeing the scene and leaving the car behind (my tally: twice). He laughed and said, “None, but I can top you anyway. Last month a hit-and-run driver swerved off the road, hit the power pole next to my farm, and fled as the high-voltage cables fell onto my grape arbors — and smoked ten acres of overhead vineyard wire.”

I agreed that I could not top that. Who could imagine electrified grapes? I wonder how much in taxes the hit-and-run driver has paid this year to make up for the cost of a utility pole, and the repair of downed wires and a vineyard’s trellising system? Even more frightening are the thousands in our society — journalists, politicians, academics, activists — who get up each morning more concerned about the fleeing driver who destroys power and vines than the victims who pay for the carnage.

The immediate reaction of the victimized in rural central California is predictable and yet quite strange. As in 5th-century North Africa, farmers feel that civilization is vanishing and they are on their own. The “authorities” of an insolvent state, like petty Roman bureaucrats, are too busy releasing criminals from overcrowded jails to want any more. The stories of cyclical releases are horrific: Criminals are not arrested and let go just twice a year, but five and six and ten times. Sometimes we read of the surreal, like this week’s story in my local Selma Enterprise of one criminal’s 36 arrests and releases — and these are only for the crimes we know he committed and was caught for:


Chief says: Jail revolving door hurting Selma

Crime is Topic No. 1 in Selma, which makes the story of Adam Joshua Perez worth telling. Selma Police have arrested Perez 24 times since he turned 18 in October 2004. Charges against the Selma man have included burglary, theft, possession of narcotics, and weapons-related offenses, according to interim Police Chief Myron Dyck. In that time period, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department also arrested Perez eight times, and the Kingsburg Police took him into custody four times, Dyck said. Fresno Police also were looking at him for some car thefts, Dyck added.

He calls Perez (born Oct. 23, 1986) a career criminal who’s getting the benefit of a broken criminal justice system. And there are other people like Perez on Selma’s streets, Dyck said.

Yes, there are.

There is also an unspoken acknowledgment of how state and local law enforcement now works, and it is predicated on a cost-to-benefit calculus. Reporting to the local police or sheriff a huge pile of refuse in your yard — even when the address of the tosser can be found from power bills or letters — or the theft of a tool from the barn is simply not worth the effort. It is not even worth the cost and trouble of activating a high-deductible farm-insurance policy. I guess the reasoning is that you in fact will replace the stolen item, and even if the criminal were apprehended, the costs of arrest, trial, and incarceration — even without the entrance of immigration authorities into the matrix — are too steep for a bankrupt state.

Indeed, farmers out here are beginning to feel targeted, not protected, by law enforcement. In the new pay-as-you-go state, shrouded in politically correct bureaucratese, Californians have developed a keen sense of cynicism. The scores of Highway Patrol cars that now dot our freeways are looking for the middle class — the minor, income-producing infractions of the generally law-abiding — inasmuch as in comparison the felonies of the underclass are lose–lose propositions.

If I were to use a cellphone while driving and get caught, the state might make an easy $170 for five minutes’ work. If the same officer were to arrest the dumper who threw a dishwasher or refrigerator into the local pond among the fish and ducks, the arrest and detention would be costly and ultimately fruitless, providing neither revenue from a non-paying suspect nor deterrence against future environmental sacrilege. We need middle-class misdemeanors to pay for the felonies of the underclass.

The state’s reaction to all this is a contorted exercise in blaming the victim, in both the immediate and the abstract senses. Governor Brown wants to raise income taxes on the top two brackets by 1 to 2 percentage points, making them over 11 and 12 percent respectively. That our schools are near dead last in test scores, that many of our main freeways are potholed relics from the 1960s, that we just passed the DREAM Act to extend state financial support for college-age illegal aliens, and that the overtaxed are fleeing the state do not register. Again, those who in theory can pay, should — and should keep quiet about why they must suddenly pay a 12 percent income tax that was not needed, say, in 1991, 1971, or 1961, when test scores were higher, roads better, and communities far safer.

There is, of course, a vague code of silence about who is doing the stealing, although occasionally the most flagrant offenders are caught either by sheriffs or on tape; or, in my typical case, run off only to return successfully at night. In the vast majority of cases, rural central California is being vandalized by gangs of young Mexican nationals or Mexican-Americans — in the latter case, a criminal subset of an otherwise largely successful and increasingly integrated and assimilated near majority of the state’s population. Everyone knows it; everyone keeps quiet about it — even though increasingly the victims are the established local Mexican-American middle class that now runs the city councils of most rural towns and must deal with the costs.

Out here in the Dark Ages we depend instead on truth from the oral tradition, in the manner of Homeric bards. Rural folk offer their stories of woe to help others deter crime, cognizant that official accounts in the media are either incomplete or censored to reflect a sort of Ministry of Truth groupthink.

Poverty, racism, class oppression, an uncaring society, government neglect, exploitation, greed — cite them all endlessly, as our coastal lawmakers, academics, and bureaucrats largely do. But most of these elite groups also seek to live as far away as possible from rural central California, the testing ground where their utopian imaginations become reified for distant others.

The influx of over 11 million illegal aliens has had a sort of ripple effect that is rarely calibrated. Sixty percent of Hispanic males in California are not graduating from high school. Unemployment in rural California runs about 20 percent. There is less fear now of arrest and incarceration, given the bankruptcy of the state, which, of course, is rarely officially connected even in small part to illegal immigration. Perhaps because illegal immigration poses so many mind-boggling challenges (e.g., probably over $20 billion lost to the state in remittances, the undermining of federal law, the prejudice shown against legal immigration applicants, ethnic favoritism as the engine of amnesty, subterfuge on the part of Mexico, vast costs in entitlements and subsidies), talking about it is futile. So most don’t, in fear of accusations of “racism.”

For those who do not leave the area, silence for now remains the norm. We pick up the litter from our farms on the implicit logic that the vandal — and, indeed, the state as well — expects us to, given our greater worry that his garbage would be likely to attract rats, flies, and other historical purveyors of illness. Dead cats, dirty diapers, used needles, baby carriages, shattered TVs, chairs, sofas, rotting lumber, broken windows, concrete blocks, tree limbs, used paint cans, household poisons, bags of used toilet paper and tampons, broken toys, fast-food boxes, toddler’s pools, tires, rotting chickens and dogs — anything that does not have easily detachable clean steel or copper — I’ve picked them all up from my vineyard and driveways.

I do not (yet) move wrecked Winnebagos and trailers onto my single-family-zoned rural parcel to garner rental cash, as do many of my neighbors. After all, some must not, if the careful zoning work of a century is to survive. When one dog in four is not licensed and vaccinated out here, we have a problem; when four out of four will not be, we should expect a 19th-century crisis. When there are three outdoor privies used daily behind a neighbor’s house, the local environment can still handle the flies, the odor, and the increase in the chance of disease; but if there were to be 100 in a half-mile stretch, civilization itself would break down.

Cynicism is the result. We pay no attention to news accounts of new state measures to check the source of metals presented at recycling centers, because we know these efforts are futile — as futile as the “seminars” in which we are told to fence everything in, to buy huge guard dogs, to install video cameras in trees, and to acquire electric gates — as if we were not so much being protected but being held prisoner.

I stay here, however, because I now ask: Why should we change our way of life rather than demanding that those who are changing it should look inward and themselves change?

— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author most recently of the just-released The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom.

Margaret Sanger and the War on Compassion

A new book attempts to airbrush a eugenicist’s sins from history.

By Chuck Donovan and Nora Sullivan
December 21, 2011

‘The movement she started will grow to be, a hundred years from now, the most influential of all time in controlling man’s destiny on earth.”

The famed novelist H. G. Wells once praised a prominent woman thus. Such a powerful statement brings certain questions to mind. Who was this woman? What did she do that so deeply affected society? And did she influence the world for the good?

The woman to whom Wells was referring was Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, and he was speaking at a dinner celebrating the release of her book My Fight for Birth Control. The dinner took place in the midst of the Great Depression and, though a full century has not yet passed since then, debate remains heated over the sort of influence that Mrs. Sanger has had, and continues to have, on the world. Many see Margaret Sanger as an iconic feminist leader who helped pave the way for the freedoms of the modern woman. Others see a darker side to her legacy that more closely resembles the contents of a frightening Wellsian, or even Huxleyan, novel.

In a new biography, Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion, Goucher College history professor Jean Baker claims not to be seeking Sanger’s sanctification and, indeed, she does not make her out to be a saint. Baker portrays Sanger as a woman who had a strong will to succeed at everything she set her mind to, and who indulged her every passion during a time of great restriction. Born on the wrong side of the tracks in Corning, N.Y., the young Margaret overcame a rough childhood to succeed in school and eventually become a nurse. She was already involved in socialist politics, and her work in nursing only spurred her activism.

In an oft-recounted (though unconfirmed) story, Sanger recalled being summoned to the apartment of a young woman named Sadie Sachs, who had attempted a self-abortion and almost killed herself in the process. When the woman begged the doctor for information on how to avoid pregnancy in the future, she was rebuffed. When Sanger was called back several months later after Sachs’s second abortion, it was too late to save her life. According to Sanger, it was then that she found her calling to birth control. She saw it as a crusade to free women from the bondage of unwanted motherhood, which she believed led to poverty, criminality, and a plethora of other social ills. Judging by the fact that birth control is now the accepted social norm and Planned Parenthood has grown to be a global birth-control and abortion giant, one would have to say that her lifelong crusade was ultimately successful.

But — is that all? Baker and other Sanger defenders steadfastly deny the dark undertones that many see in her words and her personal associations. Sanger had many famed eugenicists among her close friends and colleagues, and she worked closely for years with the American Eugenics Society. Baker asserts that “anti-choice” revisionists are seeking to distort Sanger’s views and that, in Sanger’s time, most of the American public supported eugenics. Baker writes that eugenics “promoted enlightened parenthood and raising healthy children.” Baker implies that eugenicism was far more positive in Sanger’s day and that, despite the thousands of forced sterilizations (which Sanger openly approved of and Sanger defenders tend to downplay), it was meant to improve heredity and society. Baker also implies that while there may have been some bad eugenicists, Sanger was a good one, intent on improving the lives of others. An earlier biographer, Ellen Chesler, suggests that Sanger “invited the support of powerful eugenicists, whose underlying assumptions were a good deal more offensive than her own.”

But the eugenicist thorn that persistently sticks in everyone’s side is Margaret Sanger herself. Ever the radical feminist, she insisted on speaking for herself, and, to this day, her words stand on their own.

“Restriction should be an order as well as an ideal of the family and the race,” she wrote. Greatly influenced by her friend and mentor the neo-Malthusian thinker Havelock Ellis (co-founder of Great Britain’s Eugenic Education Society), Sanger strongly believed in a “qualitative” not “quantitative” factor for the human race. There was an ideal for humanity, and those who failed to meet Sanger’s standards in terms of physical condition and mental capacity, and those prone to alcoholism or epilepsy, were less “fit” human beings and less worthy of the freedoms that she apparently held so dear. They were the “weeds” of the human garden, and they must be plucked. In her 1922 work, Pivot of Civilization, Sanger remarked that the state should respond with either “force or persuasion” when “the incurably defective are permitted to procreate.”

Most tellingly, perhaps, in her 1920 book, Woman and the New Race, Sanger referred to birth control as “nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit, of preventing the birth of defectives, or those who would become defective.” Her great crusade for birth control was less about helping women and more about preventing the birth of those she deemed to be “unfit.”

Despite the insistence of her ardent supporters that Sanger was caught up in the common thought of her times, she was opposed by many contemporaries, who rejected such theories on the grounds both of faith and of American principles. She may have lived a life of passion, as Jean Baker asserts, but among her great passions was eugenics. It was one of the great legacies she sought to leave to the world.

In many ways, Sanger’s dream has been realized. For generations the sterilization of the poor and the vulnerable has been a reality pushed by government agencies and population-control groups. North Carolina is one of a number of states still debating reparations for victims of the state’s mandatory sterilization program from the mid-20th century. Currently, roughly 90 percent of unborn children diagnosed with Down Syndrome are aborted. Obsessed with plucking the “weeds” from the human garden, Sanger and her fellow eugenicists lost sight of what it means to be human.

In the end, Sanger’s passion waged war on compassion, redefining pregnancy as a battle zone for the survival of the fittest. It is a bleak doctrine, made all the more terrible because of the millions in public funds still being deployed to advance her eugenic struggle.

— Chuck Donovan is president and Nora Sullivan is a research assistant at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reading Václav Havel from His Jail Cell

By Daniel Flynn
December 20, 2011

The curtain came down on the amazing life of the playwright-president this weekend. Václav Havel, the Czech dissident who helped oust the political leaders who imprisoned him, died at 75 in his country home in Bohemia on Sunday.

Havel was the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic. What he didn’t do in both offices far outweighs anything that he did do.

Born into privilege in 1936, Václav Havel lived under persecution for the better part of his years. The Communists expropriated his family’s property in the ’40s, blocked his education in the ’50s, banned his writings in the ’60s, and imprisoned him in the ’70s and ’80s. If ever a man had cause for retribution, Havel did. Yet, when he took power he treated his oppressors the way he wished to be treated—“in a cultured, legal, and civilized manner”—and not in the thuggish manner that they had treated him. “We are not like them,” Havel once told fellow democrats gathered in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. He proved it.

He proved it again upon the breaking up of the multi-ethnic Czechoslovakian state. With the bloody backdrop of the Balkans, Havel wished to preserve national unity and avoid disaster. He succeeded in the latter but not in the former. The idea of war, the first impulse of other national leaders placed in this difficult spot, was not even on the table for Havel. He neither wished to attack his countrymen for seceding nor to preside over his country’s break up. So he resigned his position, becoming Czechoslovakia’s final president. Rather than descend into a second Yugoslavia, Czechs and Slovaks parted as friends. Europe has the peacemaker Havel to thank for this.

Havel shouting “the emperor has no clothes” does much to explain how his rule replaced his oppressors’ rule. “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth,” Havel wrote in 1978’s “The Power of the Powerless.” “This is why it must be suppressed more severely than anything else.” Havel “living the truth” proved so contagious to others living behind the Iron Curtain and so threatening to the Czechoslovakian government that they confined him from 1979 until 1984. The example set by one man saying publicly what he believed privately led others to follow suit.

When Havel wrote “The Power of the Powerless,” it could be read only in samizdat form. In the winter of 2006, I freely picked it up, along with other of Havel’s bound essays, in a thriving little bookshop on the Prague Castle side of the Vltava River. At the same shop, I also bought a copy of The Communist Manifesto, which had escaped a samizdat fate in post-Communist Prague thanks to the city’s new live-and-let-live spirit and Penguin Books.

It was in one of Havel’s former jail cells that I first encountered him—not the man himself but this volume of his letters, speeches, and essays. The cell had originally been part of a convent. The mission of the nuns who occupied it, according to the hoteliers now occupying it, “was to serve the poor, ill, maltreated.” The mission of the Communist secret police who evicted them was to make people poor, ill, and maltreated. They certainly did this to Havel.

The room, on the corner of a dark basement hall, proved cozier for me than it had for Havel. The quarters were Spartan but clean. A fresh coat of baby-blue paint, the thermostat overcompensating for the Czech winter, and a plaque noting its most famous guest were all that distinguished the hostel from its previous incarnation. Writing such essays is what landed Havel in the cell; reading them is what drew me there. That he penned his heretical thoughts to paper brought both of us to the same place but under very different circumstances.

Marx and Engel’s manifesto seemed more curio than current. Often it was only by placing the polemicists’ lines in the past tense that they made sense, e.g., “A spectre was haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism.” If the trust-fund revolutionaries felt subversive writing their manifesto, I felt subversive reading it where their followers had turned a house of God into a house of horrors.

Havel, on the other hand, spoke eerily of the present from the past. “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world,” he noted in one timeless passage. “It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.” Considering the freewheeling nature of present-day Prague, “The Power of the Powerless” reads at times as prophecy. “The specific nature of post-totalitarian conditions—with their absence of a normal political life and the fact that any far-reaching political change is utterly unforeseeable—has one positive aspect: it compels us to examine our situation in terms of deeper coherences and to consider our future in the context of global, long-range prospects of the world of which we are a part,” Havel wrote in 1978. “The fact that the most intrinsic and fundamental confrontation between human beings and the system takes place at a level incomparably more profound than that of traditional politics would seem, at the same time, to determine as well the direction such considerations will take.” Such confrontations toppled the regime in the next decade. “For the real question is whether the brighter future is really always so distant,” he concluded. “What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?” Havel daring to dream a different reality helped to bring it about.

How liberating to study the game plan for the powerless defeating the powerful from a decommissioned Communist clink!

A prison is a place so terrible that its inhabitants will do anything to get out. A hotel is a place so inviting that people pay to stay there. The transformation of the room I read from symbolized the transformation affected by the transformative personality who once stayed as its unwilling guest. What had been a dreary nation caricatured as the epitome of Eastern Bloc backwardness on a famous Saturday Night Live skit is now a tourist magnet for sophisticated Europeans who marvel at all that architecture, history, culture, and commerce. Havel, among so much else, alchemized a Communist dungeon into a cash-cow tourist trap. Somewhere Marx is frowning at this irony just as Havel had smiled at it.

Václav Havel is dead. One need only visit a free and vibrant Prague to appreciate his life.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Today's Tune: The Raveonettes - Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)

On Vaclav Havel -- and Christopher Hitchens

One of the seven individuals most responsible for peacefully ending the Cold War has died.

By on 12.19.11 @ 6:08AM
The American Spectator

Vaclav Havel is dead. Among other forces and powers, he is one of the seven individuals most responsible for peacefully ending the Cold War; the great liberators who brought freedom and democracy. They are Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, and Havel.

With Havel's death, a majority of these seven are now gone, giving new voice and added meaning to what Chesterton deemed the democracy of the dead.

All waged battle against what Reagan inspiringly called the "Evil Empire," a brute creation cobbled out of a diabolical ideology that generated the deaths of over 100 million in the last century. At the core of that evil was what Mikhail Gorbachev characterized as a "war on religion," which, among other forms of malevolence, spawned what Vaclav Havel described as "the communist culture of the lie." As they engaged the beast, John Paul II admonished all to "Be not afraid."

Vaclav Havel was unafraid. He and his Charter 77 movement were courageous, willing to go to jail rather than take orders from the devils who installed themselves as dictators from Budapest to Bucharest, from Warsaw to Prague.

As if all of this, unfolding here on earth a short time ago, was not profound enough, I'm suddenly struck at the profundity of Havel passing into the next world alongside Christopher Hitchens, and both shortly before Christmas.

Peter Robinson, who knows about the collapse of communism, having written Ronald Reagan's Brandenburg Gate speech, interviewed Hitchens for his PBS show Uncommon Knowledge. Robinson was troubled by Hitchens' willingness to concede credit to Havel for the collapse but none to Reagan. He took on Hitchens at that moment, not letting him get away with the slight against Reagan. I wish Vaclav Havel himself would have been there to set Hitchens straight. Havel said of Reagan, ironically at Reagan's death: "He was a man with firm positions, with which he undoubtedly contributed to the fall of communism."

Havel had a lot to teach to Hitchens. Hitchens would have listened to Havel.

Indeed, of all people on this planet whom God might have chosen to counsel a stunned Hitchens as he sits outside the Pearly Gates shaken in awed confusion, Havel would have been perfect, the one intellectual to merit Hitchens' intellect and respect. If Hitchens' un-merry band of atheists will forgive me, the religious romantic in me can't help but indulge an image of Hitchens sitting there, hunched over, head in hands, only to look up at a smiling Havel and saying, "Fancy that I'd see you here. You just getting here?"

Vaclav Havel was not just a man of politics and intellect, but a man of the arts, theater, literature -- and, yes, of God. He exhorted the West and the wider post-modern world to seek "transcendence." Hitchens might have figured God "the ultimate totalitarian," but Havel saw God as the solution to totalitarianism, as tyranny's antidote, as the fountainhead of freedom. This was something Havel deeply admired about America and its roots -- its fusion of faith and freedom and the recognition that the latter cannot genuinely exist without the former. "The Declaration of Independence states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty," Havel concluded in his July 4, 1994 lecture at Philadelphia's Independence Hall, home of that very sentiment. "It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it."

Vaclav Havel never forgot that principle nor its Endower. Neither did any of the Cold War seven that laid waste to the Soviet beast. And it was with the power of that conviction that they tapped the ultimate force that resolved the Cold War and won the victory for freedom and good against oppression and evil.

Vaclav Havel now joins the Heavenly majority. May he rest in peace, at last reaching true transcendence.

- Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and the newly released Dupes: How America's Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.


In Memoriam: Hitch-62 -

In Memoriam, my courageous brother Christopher, 1949-2011

By Peter Hitchens
The Daily Mail
Last updated at 7:40 PM on 16th December 2011

How odd it is to hear of your own brother’s death on an early morning radio bulletin. How odd it is for a private loss to be a public event.

I wouldn’t normally dream of writing about such a thing here, and I doubt if many people would expect me to. It is made even odder by the fact that I am a minor celebrity myself. And that the, ah, complex relationship between me and my brother has been public property.

I have this morning turned down three invitations to talk on the radio about my brother. I had a powerful feeling that it would be wrong to do so, not immediately explicable but strong enough to persuade me to say a polite ‘no thank you’.

And I have spent most of the day so far responding, with regrettable brevity, to the many kind and thoughtful expressions of sympathy that I have received, some from complete strangers.

Many more such messages are arriving as comments here. My thanks for all of them. They are much appreciated not only by me but by my brother’s family.

Much of civilisation rests on the proper response to death, simple unalloyed kindness, the desire to show sympathy for irrecoverable loss, the understanding that a unique and irreplaceable something has been lost to us. If we ceased to care, we wouldn’t be properly human.

So, odd as it would be if this were a wholly private matter, I think it would be strange if I did not post something here, partly to thank the many who have sent their kind wishes and expressed their sympathy, and partly to provide my first raw attempt at a eulogy for my closest living relative, someone who in many ways I have known better – and certainly longer - than anyone else alive.

It is certainly raw. Last week I saw my brother for the last time in a fairly grim hospital room in Houston, Texas. He was in great pain, and suffering in several other ways I will not describe. But he was wholly conscious and in command of his wits, and able to speak clearly.

We both knew it was the last time we would see each other, though being Englishmen of a certain generation, neither of us would have dreamed of actually saying so. We parted on good terms, though our conversation had been (as had our e-mail correspondence for some months) cautious and confined to subjects that would not easily lead to conflict. In this I think we were a little like chess-players, working out many possible moves in advance, neither of us wanting any more quarrels of any kind.
At one stage – and I am so sad this never happened – he wrote to me saying he hoped for a ‘soft landing’ (code, I think for abandoning any further attempts to combat his disease) and to go home to his beautiful apartment in Washington DC.

There, he suggested, we could go through his bookshelves, as there were some books and other possessions he wanted me to have. I couldn’t have cared less about these things, but I had greatly hoped to have that conversation, which would have been a particularly good way of saying farewell.

But alas, it never happened. He never went home and now never will. Never, there it is, that inflexible word that trails close behind that other non-negotiable syllable, death. Even so, we did what we could in Houston, as the doctors, the nurses, the cleaners, and who knows who else, bustled in and out.

I forgot, till I left, that I was wearing a ludicrous surgical mask and gown, and surgical gloves (I am still not sure whose benefit this was for, but it was obligatory) all the time I was sitting there, and – this is extraordinary – time seemed to me to pass incredibly swiftly in that room. I was shocked when the moment came to leave for the airport, that it had come so soon.

Here’s a thing I will say now without hesitation, unqualified and important. The one word that comes to mind when I think of my brother is ‘courage’. By this I don’t mean the lack of fear which some people have, which enables them to do very dangerous or frightening things because they have no idea what it is to be afraid. I mean a courage which overcomes real fear, while actually experiencing it.

I don’t have much of this myself, so I recognise it (and envy it) in others. I have a memory which I cannot place precisely in time, of the two of us scrambling on a high rooftop, the sort of crazy escapade that boys of our generation still went on, where we should not have been.

A moment came when, unable to climb back over the steep slates, the only way down was to jump over a high gap on to a narrow ledge. I couldn’t do it. He used his own courage (the real thing can always communicate itself to others) to show me, and persuade me, that I could.

I’d add here that he was for a while an enthusiastic rock climber, something I could never do, and something which people who have come to know him recently would not be likely to guess.

He would always rather fight than give way, not for its own sake but because it came naturally to him. Like me, he was small for his age during his entire childhood and I have another memory of him, white-faced, slight and thin as we all were in those more austere times, furious, standing up to some bully or other in the playground of a school we attended at the same time.

This explains plenty. I offer it because the word ‘courage’ is often misused today. People sometimes tell me that I have been ‘courageous’ to say something moderately controversial in a public place. Not a bit of it. This is not courage. Courage is deliberately taking a known risk, sometimes physical, sometimes to your livelihood, because you think it is too important not to.

My brother possessed this virtue to the very end, and if I often disagreed with the purposes for which he used it, I never doubted the quality or ceased to admire it. I’ve mentioned here before C.S.Lewis’s statement that courage is the supreme virtue, making all the others possible. It should be praised and celebrated, and is the thing I‘d most wish to remember.

We got on surprisingly well in the past few months, better than for about 50 years as it happens. At such times one tends to remember childhood more clearly than at others, though I have always had a remarkably clear memory of much of mine. I am still baffled by how far we both came, in our different ways, from the small, quiet, shabby world of chilly, sombre rented houses and austere boarding schools, of battered and declining naval seaports, not specially cultured, not book-lined or literary or showy but plain, dutiful and unassuming, we took the courses we did.

Two pieces of verse come to mind, one from Hilaire Belloc’s ’Dedicatory Ode’

‘From quiet homes and first beginnings, out to the undiscovered ends, there’s nothing worth the wear of winning but laughter and the love of friends’

I have always found this passage unexpectedly moving because of something that lies beneath the words, good and largely true though they are. When I hear it, I see in my mind’s eye a narrow, half-lit entrance hall with a slowly-ticking clock in it, and a half-open door beyond which somebody is waiting for news of a child who long ago left home.

And T.S.Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ (one of the Four Quartets)

‘We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time’

These words I love because I have found them to be increasingly and powerfully true. In my beginning, as Eliot wrote elsewhere in the Quartets, is my end. Alpha et Omega.


Christopher Hitchens: 'I wish I'd done more of everything'

The controversial author was a brilliant but challenging conversationalist, as Telegraph writer Mick Brown discovered earlier this year.

The Daily Telegraph
8:31PM GMT 16 Dec 2011

When I interviewed Christopher Hitchens at his home in Washington in February, the discussion – sadly, inevitably – turned to the subject of mortality. He and a friend, he said, contemplating their demise, had mused that there would come a day when the newspapers would come out and they wouldn’t be there to read them. “And on that day, I’ve realised recently,” he went on, “I’ll probably be in the newspapers, or quite a lot of them. And etiquette being what it is, generally speaking, rather nice things being said about me.” He shrugged. “Just typical that will be the edition I miss.”

As a journalist, polemicist, author and indefatigable man of letters, Hitchens devoured the written word as much as he exulted in it, and he would be enjoying the obituaries and tributes in today’s newspapers, dwelling on his fiercely brilliant intellect, the grace and elegance of his language, his combative nature and his raffish charm. Hitchens took a characteristically robust approach to eulogy and remembrance. He could be generous in his praise – he once lionised Professor Freddy Ayer as “a tireless and justly celebrated fornicator”; but brutal in his condemnation: within hours of the televangelist Jerry Falwell’s passing, Hitchens was fixing him as an “ugly little charlatan”, adding that “if you give Falwell an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox”.

In a career spanning more than 40 years, Hitchens had a view on pretty much every subject under the sun, from the war in Iraq to the pleasures of oral sex. And it is odd to reflect that he should have achieved his greatest recognition and notoriety in the last years of his life for his contempt for religious belief and, more melancholically, for the courageous manner in which he faced up to his illness and impending death. Until the publication in 2007 of his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitchens had been, in the words of a late friend, the author Susan Sontag, “a sovereign figure in the small world of those who tilled the field of ideas” – but largely unknown outside it.

God Is Not Great changed all, making him a champion of the New Atheism, alongside such celebrated non-believers as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, the American neuroscientist. His growing public status as God’s fiercest critic would lend a particular poignancy to his struggle with the cancer of the oesophagus that would take his life.

When I met Hitchens, he was in the midst of the genome sequencing treatment which, it was hoped, would cure his cancer. The plan had been to film a conversation to be shown at the Hay Festival, where he was a perennial favourite, but which he was too ill to attend. He greeted me at the door of his apartment with profuse apologies. He felt terrible, he said, and not up to being interviewed on camera. I took that as my cue to leave, but he insisted that I stay.

Over the next five hours – and still more the following day – fortified by cups of tea and glasses of whiskey, he held forth on everything, from politics to literature, to Bob Dylan and “the Bhagwan” Rajneesh. He was gossipy, indiscreet and scabrously funny about his enemies (step forward Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton). It was one of the most entertaining – and challenging – conversations I have ever had the privilege to enjoy. Even on the doorstep of death, he was a colossal force for life. I have not met anybody with such a well-furnished mind – nor such a well-stocked drinks cabinet: he had a prodigious appetite for alcohol, and a happy facility for being able to function under the influence, if not always in the aftermath. Large sections of his memoir Hitch-22 describe him staggering from one hangover to the next.

He also, famously, enjoyed a fight. He was passionate about intellectual freedom and contemptuous of any orthodoxy or ''ism’’. He was often described as a contrarian – a description he disowned; he was disputatious, but never, it seemed, for the sake of it. His opinions were always drawn from a deep well of conviction – although you sensed that the more people scandalised by those opinions, the greater the pleasure he took in holding them. He was an equal opportunity provocateur.

He was also enormously charming and likeable. It seems striking that many of his adversaries in his public debates on religion should have ended up as his friends. Among them was Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian, and the former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, which pioneered the treatment Hitchens was receiving. (I wasn’t sure, I said to Hitchens, whether that constituted irony. “Take your time…,” he replied equably.)

Any suggestion that his illness might have occasioned second thoughts about the existence of God – either as a dispenser of divine justice or of infinite mercy – was met with short shrift. If such a thing were to happen, he said, it would be because his illness had rendered him demented. He seemed discomfited by the fact that his illness had become a battleground on which the forces of belief and non-belief had come to wage war: well-meaning Christians praying for him, and doubters who had come to see him as some kind of champion of non-belief in extremis. “That makes me a bit alarmed,” he confessed, “to be the repository of other people’s hope.”

His attitude to people praying for him could be described as a mixture of polite gratitude and a determined refusal to let it sway his opinions. But he had no patience for bedside evangelists. “They’re allowed to roam the wards,” he said, his voice rising in indignation. “They tried it on me.” He had been thinking that he, Dawkins and Harris might set up a secular equivalent of hospital visitors. “We’d go round – 'Hope you don’t mind, you said you were Catholic? Only three weeks to live? Well, listen, you don’t have to live them as a mental slave, you know; you could have three weeks of freedom from fear of the priest. Don’t be a mug all your life…’. I don’t think it would be considered in very good taste.”

I said that I didn’t think it would be a kindness, either.

“I think it would,” he replied. “Absolutely.”

He could marshal every rational argument against religious belief and deliver it with a lethal mixture of irony and venom, but what he lacked in this regard at least was empathy. When it came to any discussion about the consolations or the empowering strengths of belief, as Hitchens admitted, he simply didn’t ''get it’’.

When I asked whether he felt he’d been a good person, he gave a dismissive shrug: “Not particularly.” For that definition to apply, he said, the world expects a good deal of selflessness. “And while no one scores very high on that, I score lower than most.” He had seen his adult life partly as a sustained act of compensation or redress for the boredom and limitations of his stiflingly conventional, middle-class childhood.

So what, I asked, did he wish he’d done more of?

He laughed. “Everything…”

At the end of our second meeting, I felt the urge to tell him that such was his fighting spirit I was sure that he would win this most critical of battles.

“It’s funny you say so,” he said. “I hope you’re a person of hidden intuition. I actually don’t feel that. I can’t tell you why. It’s almost as hard for me to imagine being around in the next 10 years as not being, strangely enough. But it’s not in my hands, fortunately.”

A few weeks later I sent an email, saying what a privilege it had been to spend time with him, and expressing my hope that things were looking up.

“No need to say anything,” he wrote back. “Have had a vile time since, but still hope for a re-match.” I feel immensely sad that it’s not to be.


On why women aren’t funny

Be your gender what it may, you will certainly have heard the following from a female friend who is enumerating the charms of a new (male) squeeze: “He’s really quite cute, and he’s kind to my friends, and he knows all kinds of stuff, and he’s so funny…” However, there is something that you absolutely never hear from a male friend who is hymning his latest (female) love interest: “She’s a real honey, has a life of her own… (interlude for attributes that are none of your business)… and, man, does she ever make ’em laugh.”

Now, why is this? Why are men, taken as a whole, funnier than women? Well, for one thing, they had damn well better be. The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex, and Mother Nature (as we laughingly call her) is not so kind to men. In fact, she equips many fellows with very little armament for the struggle. An average man has just one outside chance. He had better be able to make the lady laugh.

Making them laugh has been one of the crucial preoccupations of my life. If you can stimulate her to laughter – I am talking about that out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely-teeth, involuntary, full and deep-throated mirth; the kind that is accompanied by a shocked surprise and a slight (no, make that a loud) peal of delight – well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression. I shall not elaborate further.

On wine waiters

There are two main ways in which a restaurant can inflict bad service on a customer. The first is to keep you hanging about. (“Why are they called waiters?” inquired my son when he was about five. “It’s we who are doing all the waiting.”)

The second way is to be too intrusive, with overlong recitations of the “specials” and too many over-solicitous inquiries. A cartoon in The New Yorker once showed a couple getting ready for bed, with the husband taking a call and keeping his hand over the receiver. “It’s the maître d’ from the place we had dinner. He wants to know if everything is still all right.”

The vile practice of butting in and pouring wine without being asked is the very height of the second kind of bad manners. Not only is it a breathtaking act of rudeness, but it conveys a none-too-subtle message: hurry up and order another bottle.

On the burka

The French legislators who seek to repudiate the wearing of the veil or the burka – whether the garment covers “only” the face or the entire female body – are often described as seeking to impose a “ban”. To the contrary, they are attempting to lift a ban: a ban on the right of women to choose their own dress, a ban on the right of women to disagree with male and clerical authority, and a ban on the right of all citizens to look one another in the face. The proposed law is in the best traditions of the French republic, which declares all citizens equal before the law and – no less important – equal in the face of one another.

On the door of my bank in Washington, DC is a printed notice politely requesting me to remove any form of facial concealment before I enter the premises. The notice doesn’t bore me or weary me by explaining its reasoning. A person barging through those doors with any sort of mask would incur the right and proper presumption of guilt.

This presumption should operate in the rest of society. I would indignantly refuse to have any dealings with a nurse or doctor or teacher who hid his or her face, let alone a tax inspector or customs official.

The particular demand to consider the veil and the burka as an exemption applies only to women. And it also applies only to religious practice (and, unless we foolishly pretend otherwise, only to one religious practice). This at once tells you all you need to know. Society is being asked to abandon an immemorial tradition of equality and openness in order to gratify one faith, one faith that has a very questionable record in respect of females.

On the Bible

Until the early middle years of the 16th century, when King Henry VIII began to quarrel with Rome about the dialectics of divorce and decapitation, a short and swift route to torture and death was the attempt to print the Bible in English. It’s a long and stirring story, and its crux is the head-to-head battle between Sir Thomas More and William Tyndale (whose name in early life, I am proud to say, was William Hychyns).

For generations, [the Bible] provided a common stock of references and allusions, rivalled only by Shakespeare. A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory will be a perilously thin one. To seek restlessly to update it or make it “relevant” is to miss the point, like yearning for a hip-hop Shakespeare. “Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward,” says the Book of Job. Want to try to improve on that for Twitter?

At my father’s funeral I chose to read an injunction from St Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” As much philosophical as spiritual, with its conditional and speculative “ifs”, and its closing advice – always italicised in my mind since first I heard it – to think and reflect on such matters: this passage was the labour of men who had wrought deeply with ideas and concepts.

On the last Harry Potter book

For some time now the novels have been attempting a kind of secular dramatisation of the battle between good and evil. The Ministry of Magic (one of Rowling’s better inventions) has been seeking to impose a version of the Nuremberg Laws on England, classifying its subjects according to blood and maintaining its own Gestapo as well as its own Azkaban gulag.

But over time and over many, many pages, this scenario fails to chill. The prejudice against bank-monopoly gobwwlins is modelled more or less on anti-Semitism, and the foul treatment of elves is meant to put us in mind of slavery, but the overall effect of this is somewhat thin and derivative, and subject to diminishing returns.

Extracts taken from 'Arguably’ by Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Books, £30). To order it from Telegraph Books for £26 plus £1.25 p&p, call 0844 871 1515 or go to

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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Even Christians taking Christ out of Christmas

By Mark Steyn
The Orange County Register
December 16, 2011

Christmas in America is a season of time-honored traditions – the sacred performance of the annual ACLU lawsuit over the presence of an insufficiently secular "holiday" tree; the ritual provocations of the atheist displays licensed by pitifully appeasing municipalities to sit between the menorah and the giant Frosty the Snowman; the familiar strains of every hack columnist's "war on Christmas" column rolling off the keyboard as easily as Richard Clayderman playing "Winter Wonderland"...

This year has been a choice year. A crucified skeleton Santa Claus was erected as part of the "holiday" display outside the Loudoun County courthouse in Virginia – because, let's face it, nothing cheers the hearts of moppets in the Old Dominion like telling them, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus – and he's hanging lifeless in the town square." Alas, a week ago, some local burghers failed to get into the ecumenical spirit and decapitated him. Who are these killjoys? Christians intolerant of the First Amendment (as some have suggested)? Or perhaps a passing Saudi? Our friends in Riyadh only the other day beheaded for Amina bin Salem (so to speak) Nasser for "sorcery," and it would surely be grossly discriminatory not to have some Wahhabist holiday traditions on display in Loudoun County. (The Islamic Saudi Academy, after all, is one of the most prestigious educational institutions of neighboring Fairfax County.) Across the fruitcaked plain in California, the city of Santa Monica allocated permits for "holiday" displays in Palisades Park by means of lottery. Eighteen of the 21 slots went to atheists – for example, the slogan "37 million Americans know a myth when they see one" over portraits of Jesus, Santa, and Satan.

I don't believe I've mentioned the city of Santa Monica in this space since my Christmas offering of 1998, when President Clinton was in the midst of difficulties arising from his mentoring of a certain intern. My column that year began:

"Operator, I'd like to call Santa Monica."

"Why? Just 'cause he's a little overweight?"

Crickets chirping? Ah, how soon they forget. Perhaps Santa Monica should adopt a less-theocratic moniker and change its name to Satan Monica, as its interpretation of the separation of church and state seems to have evolved into expressions of public contempt for large numbers of the citizenry augmented by the traumatizing of their children. Boy, I can't wait to see what those courageous atheists come up with for Ramadan. Or does that set their hearts a-flutter quite as much?

One sympathizes, up to a point. As America degenerates from a land of laws to a land of legalisms, much of life is devoted to forestalling litigation. What's less understandable is the faintheartedness of explicitly Christian institutions. Last year I chanced to see the email exchanges between college administrators over the choice of that season's Christmas card. I will spare their blushes, and identify the academy only as a Catholic college in New England. The thread began by asking the distribution list for "thoughts" on the proposed design. No baby, no manger, no star over Bethlehem, but a line drawing of a dove. Underneath the image was the following:

"What is Christmas?

It is tenderness for the past, courage for the present, hope for the future.

It is a fervent wish that every cup may overflow with blessings rich and eternal,

and that every path may lead to peace.

Agnes M Pharo."

The Agnes M Pharo? A writer of such eminence that even the otherwise open-to-all-comers Wikipedia has no entry for her. Still, as a purveyor of vacuous pap to America's credentialed class for all-purpose cultural cringe, she's hard to beat. One unfortunate soul on the distribution list wandered deplorably off message and enquired whether the text "is problematic because the answer to the question 'What is Christmas?' from a Catholic perspective is that it is the celebration of the birth of Christ." Her colleague patiently responded that, not to worry, all this religious-type meaning was covered by the word "blessings." No need to use any insufficiently inclusive language about births of Saviors and whatnot; we all get the cut of Agnes' jib from the artfully amorphous "blessings."

When an explicitly Catholic institution thinks that the meaning of Christmas is "tenderness for the past, vapid generalities for the present, evasive abstractions for the future," it's pretty much over. Suffering no such urge to self-abasement, Muslim students at the Catholic University of America in Washington recently filed a complaint over the lack of Islamic prayer rooms on the campus. They find it offensive to have to pray surrounded by Christian symbols such as crucifixes and paintings of distinguished theologians. True, this thought might have occurred to them before they applied to an institution called "Catholic University." On the other hand, it's surely not unreasonable for them to have expected Catholic University to muster no more than the nominal rump Christianity of that Catholic college in New England. Why wouldn't you demand Muslim prayer rooms? As much as belligerent atheists, belligerent Muslims reckon that a decade or so hence "Catholic colleges" will be Catholic mainly in the sense that Istanbul's Hagia Sophia is still a cathedral: that's to say, it's a museum, a heritage site for where once was a believing church. And who could object to the embalming of our inheritance? Christmas is all about "tenderness for the past," right? When Christian college administrators are sending out cards saying "We believe in nothing," why wouldn't you take them at their word?

Which brings us back in this season of joy to the Republican presidential debates, the European debt crisis, and all the other fun stuff. The crisis afflicting the West is not primarily one of unsustainable debt and spending. These are mere symptoms of a deeper identity crisis. It is not necessary to be a believing Christian to be unnerved by the ease and speed with which we have cast off our inheritance and trampled it into the dust. When American municipalities are proudly displaying the execution of skeleton Santas and giant Satans on public property, it may just be a heartening exercise of the First Amendment, it may be a trivial example of the narcissism of moral frivolity. Or it could be a sign that, eventually, societies become too stupid to survive. The fellows building the post-Western world figure they know which it is.

Photo: A man runs past a sign displays a "Happy Solstice" message along Ocean Avenue at Palisades Park in Santa Monica, Calif. Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011.(AP)