Saturday, August 17, 2013

Robert Hilburn Talks About Johnny Cash

515rDaYukBL._SY300_Robert Hilburn's upcoming Johnny Cash: The Life is one of the Fall books I'm most excited about. Hilburn knew Johnny Cash throughout his life, and his book is well researched, appreciative, and clear-eyed. Cash is one of the most authentic guys you'll find in music, and this book makes that clear–Cash had a lot of problems in his life, and he caused problems for others who were close to him, but he remained a man of genuine artistry and empathy.
Robert Hilburn was kind enough to answer some questions about Cash and I'm thrilled to share that interview here.
Johnny Cash: The Life will be available October 29, 2013.

Chris Schluep: You were at the Folsom Prison concert. What was that like, and did you have a sense at the time that you were partaking in something historical?
Robert Hilburn: I was just getting started as a freelance music writer for the Los Angeles Times and I thought the idea of writing about Johnny Cash—the man who wrote "Folsom Prison Blues" actually singing the song at Folsom State Prison—was a natural. To my surprise, an editor at the paper rejected the idea. His words, "We don't want to give any space to that drug addict." And that was Cash's reputation at the time. He missed so many concerts that his own record label, Columbia, refused to invite press to the date; the last thing they wanted was another "no show" article. But I heard about the concert through a Los Angeles disc jockey and, after getting my editor to change his mind, found myself the only music writer on the scene.
The show was spectacular. Cash was as charismatic as anyone I had ever seen on a stage. More importantly, he conveyed grand artistry and purpose. Rather than simply do his regular show at Folsom, he tailored a set list specifically for his audience. Because of his own troubled lifestyle, he empathized with the prisoners. He knew how it felt to stand before his loved ones in handcuffs and to face the future without hope—and he reflected those shared feelings in his music. I left Folsom with a standard of artistry that I applied to performers for the rest of my years as a pop critic. I didn't know the album would open the door to superstardom for Cash, but I knew it was a classic moment in American pop culture.

CS: How do you feel he was misunderstood as an artist?
RH: Cash was more troubled in his personal life and more influential in his professional life than even his biggest fans realize—and it was that mixture of career accomplishment and frequent personal turmoil that was at the intersection of Cash's story and legacy. The drugs were just the tip of the iceberg in the story of Cash's troubles. Even more daunting was his lifelong guilt over having abandoned his four girls and his failure to fully live up to his spiritual ideals. At the same time in a profession where success is measured almost exclusively in hits, Cash wasn't a singer whose ambition was another hit on the jukebox. He wanted most of all to make music that lifted people's spirits, especially the downtrodden. Cash's music was rooted in folk and country, but his recordings eventually reached all the way into rock and even hip-hop circles. There was something wonderfully universal about him.

CS: You knew Johnny Cash through his life, but you also did a lot of research for the book. What's an example of something that surprised you about him while you were performing your research?
RH: One of the first things I learned about Johnny is I had to double-check everything he said: He wasn't one to let facts interfere with a good story. He wasn't so much trying to mislead people as make the stories more colorful. One of my favorites involved the writing of "Folsom Prison Blues." Though Cash said time and again that he wrote the song in 1951 after seeing a movie about Folsom during his Air Force days in Germany, I learned he, in fact, wrote it three years after seeing the movie—and then only after hearing another song, pop composer Gordon Jenkins' ‘Crescent City Blues," that gave him the outline. I had heard pieces of the story, but didn't know the specifics until I sent an email questionnaire to the members of Johnny's old Air Force squadron. One of the questions was whether they had ever heard of "Crescent City Blues."  To my delight, one airman, Chuck Riley, replied he had not only bought the Jenkins album on a "whim" but that he was also playing it in the barracks in late 1953 or early 1954 when Johnny happened by. Cash was so intrigued "Crescent City Blues" that he asked Riley to borrow the album so he could make a tape of the song. Over the next few months, Cash changed the song from a tale of lost love to a lonely prison setting. Though he made significant alterations, Jenkins eventually sued for copyright infringement—and Cash agreed to a $75,000 settlement. It was a small price to pay. If Cash had never heard Riley's copy of the obscure album, it's unlikely he would have ever written a song called "Folsom Prison Blues."

CS: In your view, why is Johnny Cash a legend?
RH: Early in life, Cash was moved by music—especially country and gospel—because it lifted his family's spirits as they worked the cotton fields in Arkansas. As he got older, he would see music continue to give people comfort and hope, and that appealed to him. Cash also had a remarkable ability to empathize with his audience, whether it was young soldiers in Vietnam or Native Americans or the aged. In turn, his audience felt an attachment to him. He wasn't just an entertainer, but someone who shared his audience's hopes and concerns and values. He came across as authentic, trustworthy and unique. As Bob Dylan said, "Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him—the greatest of the greats."
Learn more about Johnny Cash: The Life and see more in Amazon's Big Fall Books Preview.

C.J. Box returns with ‘The Highway’

By Bruce Desilva
Published: Saturday, August 17, 2013, 6:29 p.m.

Sixteen-year-old Gracie Sullivan is book-smart and resourceful, but her 18-year-old sister, Danielle, is impetuous, self-involved and boy-crazy. As “The Highway” opens, they're driving cross-country from their divorced mother's home in Colorado to celebrate Thanksgiving with their dad — until plans change.

Over Gracie's strenuous objections, Danielle detours toward Helena, Mont., to woo her boyfriend, Justin Hoyt, who doesn't want her to come. Ronald Pergram, a long-haul trucker and sexual predator who calls himself the Lizard King, trails them through Montana in his Peterbilt semi. His “fun,” as he calls it, has been discovered by a couple of creeps who want to get in on the action.

When Danielle and Gracie vanish on their trip through the mountains, Justin calls his dad, Cody Hoyt, whom we first met as a swashbuckling, rule-breaking lawman in Box's 2011 thriller, “Back of Beyond.” But when Justin reaches him, Cody is on a drunk after being fired from the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff's Department for planting evidence.

Alarmed by Justin's call, Cody quickly sobers up, and with the help of his ex-partner, a feisty but inexperienced investigator named Cassie Dewell, he sets out to track down the girls.
The result is a violent, tension-packed, well-written thriller spiced with Box's vivid portrayal of the Western landscape that he loves. Along the way, Box also drops in surprising insights about the itinerant lives of long-haul truckers.

Box's previous thrillers, most of them featuring Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, have all featured strong, tough-talking male protagonists, but the heroes of this one are the underestimated Cassie, who proves to be both tough and resourceful, and the courageous Gracie, who keeps her head when her flighty sister falls apart.

“The Highway” is the second thriller this year from the prolific Box, who seems to get better with every book.

Bruce DeSilva, winner of the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award, is the author of “Cliff Walk” and “Rogue Island.”

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Friday, August 16, 2013


August 16, 2013
Evidence that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was directly involved in the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, where Americans including U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens were killed, continues to mount.
First, on June 26, 2013, I produced and partially translated what purported to be an internal Libyan governmental memo which was leaked and picked up by many Arabic websites.  According to this document, the Muslim Brotherhood, including now ousted President Morsi, played a direct role in the Benghazi consulate attack. “Based on confessions derived from some of those arrested at the scene,” asserted the report, six people, “all of them Egyptians” from the jihad group Ansar al-Sharia (Supporters of Islamic Law), were arrested.  During interrogations, these Egyptian jihadi cell members:
confessed to very serious and important information concerning the financial sources of the group and the planners of the event and the storming and burning of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi…. And among the more prominent figures whose names were mentioned by cell members during confessions were: Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi; preacher Safwat Hegazi; Saudi businessman Mansour Kadasa, owner of the satellite station, Al-Nas; Egyptian Sheikh Muhammad Hassan; former presidential candidate, Hazim Salih Abu Isma’il…
Four days after this memo appeared, the military-backed June 30 Egyptian revolution took place.  Many of the Islamists in the Libyan document have either been arrested—includingSafwat Hegazi and Abu Isma’il—or have arrest warrants under terrorism charges.
Walid Shoebat followed up with some important investigative work concerning the Libyan document, including by documenting that Western sources had finally acknowledged that there is a group called Ansar al-Sharia operating in Egypt with a cell in Libya, and that, with the ouster of Muhammad Morsi, it (along with al-Qaeda) had declared jihad on Egypt’s military (not to mention regular civilians in general, and Coptic Christians in particular).
The fact is, days after the Benghazi attack back in September 2012, Muslim Brotherhood connections appeared.  A video made during the consulate attack records people approaching the beleaguered U.S. compound; one of them yells to the besiegers in an Egyptian dialect, “Don’t shoot—Dr. Morsi sent us!” apparently a reference to the former Islamist president.
Most recently, on July 29, 2013, Ahmed Musa, a prominent Egyptian political insider and analyst made several assertions on Tahrir TV that further connected the dots.  During his program, while berating U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson for her many pro-Brotherhood policies—policies that have earned her the hate and contempt of millions of Egyptians—Musa insisted that he had absolute knowledge that the murderer of Chris Stevens was Mohsin al-‘Azzazi, whose passport was found in Brotherhood leader Khairet al-Shatter’s home, when the latter was arrested. According to the firm assurances of political analyst Musa, ‘Azzazi is currently present in Raba‘a al-Adawiya, where he, the seasoned terrorist, is preparing to do what he does best—terrorize Egypt, just as the Brotherhood have promised, in revenge for the ousting of Morsi.
But why would Morsi and the Brotherhood attack the consulate in Libya in the first place?  The day before the embassy attacks, based on little known but legitimate Arabic reports, I wrote an article titled “Jihadis Threaten to Burn U.S. Embassy in Cairo,” explaining how Islamists—including al-Qaeda—were threatening to attack the U.S. embassy in Cairo unless the notorious Blind Sheikh—an Islamist hero held in prison in the U.S. in connection to the first World Trade Center bombing—was released.  The date September 11 was also deliberately chosen to attack the embassy to commemorate the “heroic” September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda strikes on America.  (Regardless, the Obama administration, followed by the so-called mainstream media, portrayed the embassy attacks as unplanned reactions to an offensive movie.)
The theory is this: in order to negotiate the release of the Blind Sheikh, the Islamists needed an important American official to barter in exchange.  And while the violence on U.S. embassiesbegan in Egypt, it seemed logical that kidnapping an American official from neighboring Libya would be less conspicuous than in Egypt, where Egyptians, including Morsi, were calling for the release of the Egyptian Blind Sheikh.   Thus the U.S. consulate in Libya was attacked, Chris Stevens kidnapped, but in the botched attempt, instead of becoming a valuable hostage, he wound up dead.
Add to all this the fact that, despite the very serious charges filed against them—including inciting murder and terrorism, and grand treason—the Obama administration, first with Anne Patterson, and now with Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, keep pressuring Egypt to release Brotherhood leaders; McCain personally even visited the civilian al-Shatter, whose raided home revealed the passport of ‘Azzazi, whom Musa claims is the murderer of Stevens.
Needless to say, at this point, tens of millions of Egyptians are convinced that U.S. leadership is fully aware of the Brotherhood’s connection to Benghazi—and hence desperately pushing for the release of Brotherhood leadership, lest, when they are tried in Egypt’s courts, all these scandals become common knowledge.
Meanwhile in the United States, to a mainstream American public—conditioned as it is by a mainstream media—all of the above is just a “conspiracy theory,” since surely the U.S. government is transparent with the American people—except, that is, when it’s not.
Photo: Reuters

Idiot Big Brother

The prospect of NSA abuse is now a reality. 

August 16, 2013

Political Cartoons by Michael Ramirez

On Thursday, the Washington Post’s revelation of thousands upon thousands of National Security Agency violations of both the law and supposed privacy protections included this fascinating detail:

A “large number” of Americans had their telephone calls accidentally intercepted by the NSA when a top-secret order to eavesdrop on multiple phone lines for reasons of national security confused the international code for Egypt (20) with the area code for Washington (202).


I enjoy as much as the next chap all those Hollywood conspiracy thrillers about the all-powerful security state — you know the kind of thing, where the guy’s on the lam and he stops at a diner at a windswept one-stoplight hick burg in the middle of nowhere and decides to take the risk of making one 15-second call from the payphone, and as he dials the last digit there’s a click in a basement in Langley, and even as he’s saying hello the black helicopters are already descending on him. It’s heartening to know that, if I ever get taken out at a payphone, it will be because some slapdash timeserving pen-pusher mistyped the code for Malaysia (60) as that of New Hampshire (603).

The Egypt/Washington industrial-scale wrong number is almost too perfectly poignant a vignette at the end of a week in which hundreds are dead on the streets of Cairo. On the global scene, America has imploded: Its leaders have no grasp of its national interests, never mind any sense of how to achieve them. The assumption that we are in the early stages of “the post-American world” is now shared by everyone from General Sisi to Vladimir Putin. General Sisi, I should add, is Egypt’s new strongman, not Putin’s characterization of Obama. Meanwhile, in contrast to its accelerating irrelevance overseas, at home Washington’s big bloated blundering bureaucratic security state expands daily. It’s easier to crack down on 47 Elm Street than Benghazi.

Perhaps this is unavoidable. A couple of months back, I quoted Tocqueville’s prescient words from almost two centuries ago: Although absolute monarchy theoretically “clothed kings with a power almost without limits,” in practice “the details of social life and of individual existence ordinarily escaped his control.” In other words, the king couldn’t do it even if he wanted to. What would happen, Tocqueville wondered, if administrative capability were to evolve to bring “the details of social life and of individual existence” within His Majesty’s oversight? That world is now upon us. Today, the king concedes he most certainly can do it, but assures us not to worry, he doesn’t really want to. “If you look at the reports,” said President Obama earlier this month, “even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden’s put forward, all the stories that have been written, what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and, you know, listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s e-mails. What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused.”

But that was a week ago. And the “prospect” is now a reality: “actual abuse” — including “listening in on people’s phone calls” and “inappropriately reading people’s e-mails” — occurs daily. In early 2012, “actual abuse” was occurring at the rate of ten “incidents” a day — and “incident” is a term of art that can cover hundreds of violations of thousands or even millions of citizens.

Privacy is dying in all technologically advanced nations, and it may simply be a glum fact of contemporary existence that the right to live an unmonitored life is now obsolete unless one wishes to relocate to upcountry villages in Somalia or Waziristan. Nevertheless, even by the standards of other Western nations, America’s loss of privacy is deeply disturbing. Its bureaucracy is bigger and better funded, and its response to revelations of its abuse of power is to make it bigger and better funded and more bureaucratic still. For example, after multiple significant violations of the law in 2009, the NSA’s “oversight staff” was quadrupled. Quadrupled! Just like that! And what was the result of putting four times as many salaried, benefited, pensionable, fully credentialed government-licensed “overseers” in place? The rate of NSA violations increased dramatically through 2011. Who would have thought it? In the first quarter of 2012 the NSA’s executive-order violations were running at almost twice the rate of what they were in the second quarter of 2011. Maybe if they’d octupled the number of “oversight staff,” all these overseers would have been able to keep pace with the rampaging lawlessness.

Or maybe the oversight is a lot of hooey anyway. The Egyptian dialing-code fiasco, for example, was never passed on to the NSA’s “oversight staff,” but it was the subject of a “quality assurance review,” which sounds like the sort of follow-up you get when you buy a fridge from Sears. Maybe they could just have NSA customer-service representatives announcing that your call may be monitored for quality-control purposes at the start of every telephone conversation. Of course, most customer-service representatives are based in India (telephone code 91) but there’s a sporting chance the NSA would confuse it with Kansas (code 913), which could do wonders for the employment rate.

NSA personnel additionally fall under the external oversight of the FISA Amendment Act, which means the Department of Justice and Office of the Director of National Intelligence. A leaked document instructs NSA agents to remove all details of the “targeting rationale” except for “one short sentence” in generic language. An actual example from the leaked document:

“Mohammad Badguy was on the buddy list of al Qaeda in Mogadishu, Somalia.”

That’s way too much information. In order to comply with federal oversight, it should be amended to:

“Selector was found on buddy list of al Qaeda in Somalia.”

“Selector was found on selector list of al-Selecta in Selectistan” would probably work, too.

Okay. Well, how about this Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that has to sign off on everything? The chief judge of the FISC court, Reggie B. Walton, says that he can only “rely upon the accuracy of the information that is provided to the Court.” So, if it sounds kosher, it probably is.

I once bought my daughter a Siamese kitten in rural Québec and drove her back to my home in New Hampshire. At the border post, the guard leaned in the window and said, “You better have some paperwork for that cat.” I handed over the official form from the Ordre des médecins vétérinaires du Québec. The officer stared at it for a few seconds, and then asked, “Do you understand French?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Does this seem on the level to you?”

“Yes,” I said. She waved us through.

That’s basically what FISA court “oversight” boils down to. And, insofar as they decide it isn’t on the level, it’s usually after the fact.

What does that leave? Congressional oversight? Senator Dianne Feinstein said that she had not seen the 2012 NSA audit on its 2,776 legal violations until the Washington Post asked her about it. Which means until Edward Snowden brought it to her attention. So she’s just another rubber stamp, too. Most nations that spy on their own citizens manage to make do with one fig leaf of accountability, but in money-no-object Washington there are fig leaves without end.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that the IRS is continuing to target American citizens according to their political ideology — and that’s before they have your Obamacare records to frolic and gambol in.

But, like Obama says, it’s merely a theoretical “prospect” of abuse. You’d have to be paranoid to think it could actually happen . . . 

 Mark Steyn, a National Review columnist, is the author of After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. © 2013 Mark Steyn

Gilbert Keith’s Cause

Because there are no run-of-the-mill saints.
By  on 8.16.13 @ 6:08AM
Admirers of G.K. Chesterton had reason to rejoice this week at news that an English Catholic bishop is seeking to open an investigation into whether GKC should be declared a saint.

Chesterton himself would have laughed heartily at the idea. The odiferous, 300-pound, cigar-chomping journalist was far from the stereotypical idea of a saint. Then again saints are often distinguished by their differences, their exceptional qualities, whether it be their ability to fly, be in two places at once, or sit atop pillars for decades. There are no run-of-the-mill saints.
It can’t hurt Chesterton’s chances that Pope Francis is said to be a fan (and admired the latter’s biography of St. Francis of Assisi) and an honorary committee member of a conference for the Argentine Chesterton Society.
GKC will have a heavy burden (no pun intended) to meet the requisites for sainthood. Rome’s first step is collect evidence of heroic virtue. This shouldn’t be too hard. Stories abound of the man who once defined Catholicism as “a thick steak, a pint of stout, and a fine cigar” emptying his pockets for the poor and of his impassioned defense of the faith.
Equally important is his defense of tradition. Chesterton often decried progress as just another false idol and mocked those uplifters and secular socialists who were forever trying to jump start human moral progress. Life wasn’t perfect, but man’s ability to perfect it was even more limited. He thought the proper response to life was gratitude. Or rather, as St. Thomas Aquinas had put it, “To be is good.” Similarly he railed against those imperialists on whom the sun never set, writing that a true “patriot never under any circumstances boasts of the largeness of his country, but always, and of necessity, boasts of the smallness of it.” To those who think we should go abroad looking for monsters to slay, he argued that a good nation is the one that cherishes rather than “spreads by invasion” its goodness.
In his day such goodness was in short supply. Chesterton devoted much of his life to righting the huge economic disparities that existed in his homeland. Moved by Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum and Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno , which described the dangers for human freedom and dignity arising from unrestrained capitalism and totalitarian communism, Chesterton made it his life’s mission to formulate a humane, people-centered economics. He came up with Distributism.
THOUGH OFTEN MISUNDERSTOOD, Distributism is really about self-reliance and wide property ownership as the best guarantee of political and economic freedom. He once said that socialists seek to redistribute wealth. Distributists seek to redistribute power.
Distributism was dismissed in his time as “Three Acres and Cow.” If the criticism has waned it is only because few people have heard of it. Where distributism is still discussed, snarky critics usually say it is utopian and a nostalgic return to the pre-Industrial Revolution era, a time when most people worked at home, in common fields, in the bosom of their families. The standard criticism is, if Distributism is so wonderful why did rural folks give up something similar to it to move to the cities to work in cotton mills and factories where you could earn as much as three dollars a week? History abhors simple explanations. But it probably didn’t help that throughout most of the West working class farmers were not allowed to vote, so their only voice in political matters came through riots, which occurred frequently as the rich fenced-off farm and pasture land during the Enclosure Movements. One cannot understand the urbanization of the West without studying the Enclosure Movements, writes George Orwell: 
Stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.
Any investigation for sainthood can take many years, and not all causes succeed. A Vatican investigation and two recognized miracles attributed to the candidate’s intercession are necessary for the candidate to be declared a saint. Though many of us traditional conservatives already consider Chesterton, with his championing of place, limits and liberty, to be our patron saint.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Today's Tune: Eurythmics - When Tomorrow Comes

If Only Charles Darwin Could See His Descendant Now

Catholic apologist Laura Keynes, the great-great-great-granddaughter of the Father of Evolution, says the faith of her baptism was reanimated through intellectual pursuit.


LONDON — According to the commonly held view about her great-great-great-grandfather, Charles Darwin, Laura Keynes has apparently broken all the rules in developing a passionate Catholic faith.
Apart from her family lineage, which includes her great-great-uncle, economist John Maynard Keynes, Laura also holds a doctorate from Oxford University in philosophy.

But in mid-June, the Catholic Herald reported the startling news that this highly educated Darwinian descendant had evolved into a Catholic apologist, joining Britain’s Catholic Voices.

When asked how she found her way to the Catholic Church, Keynes reveals that she was actually baptized Catholic after her mother converted shortly after her birth. However, by the time she was 12, her mother had lapsed, and her faith formation ended.

“From my father’s side of the family, the Darwin-Keynes side, I was getting a different influence: highly rational, scientific, secular, humanist,” she says. “My father is an academic neuroscientist, and I absorbed the view that all phenomena are the product of the material brain. I gradually drifted into agnosticism.”

The reason for her return to the faith of her baptism is quite surprising and something of an “own goal” for Britain’s shrill “new atheists.” She explains that, in her 20s, while she was working on her doctorate at Oxford, the “God Debate” took off, after a flurry of publication from the likes of Richard Dawkins.

Keynes continues, “I expected to be moved from agnosticism to atheism by their arguments, but after reading on both sides of the debate, I couldn’t dismiss a compelling intellectual case for faith. As for being good without God, I’d tried and didn’t get very far. At some point, life will bring you to your knees, and no act of will is enough in that situation. Surrendering and asking for grace is the logical human response.”

Reading and Reflection

During her grandmother’s long illness, Keynes explains that she “returned to the Rosary during those long hours at her bedside and was reminded of the redemptive power of Christ’s suffering. I apprehended a theological underpinning to the question of suffering. Seeing death made me question the spirit: what it is, where it comes from, where it goes. So by this point, I was developing a spiritual awareness, but hadn’t made the step back to the Catholic Church. That step came after much reflection and reading.”

When asked if, partly, she found the anger of the new atheists off-putting, Keynes concurs, saying, “One of the things that made me wary of ‘new atheism’ was the strange mix of angry emotion I encountered there: anger at the thought of God; anger at any restrictions on behavior; anger at thwarted will; pride in the exertion of will; pride in feeling intellectually superior; contempt for anyone who reveals human vulnerability in asking for the grace of God. It’s important to remember that where there’s anger, there’s often pain. I see a lot of pain there. I think it stems from clinging to the idea that we’re in control, that we have autonomy.

“All we can do is be sensitive to the anger and note that it’s odd for people who value reason so highly to make such large concessions to emotion,” she continues. “I gather that there are now some new ‘new atheists’ (for want of a better phrase) who’ve spotted the contradiction and realized that it puts people off and doesn’t do their cause any favors, and they might be the ones to take a little more seriously than Dawkins and company who are, by and large, preaching to the converted.”

Family Surprise

The natural question, though, is: How did Keynes’ family and friends react to her newfound Catholicism, particularly with her family’s rationalist pedigree?
“It was a surprise to most, because the process of conversion was not something I shouted about, but nor did I hide it,” she states.
“My family is terribly English: We don’t do emotion, and we certainly don’t do intensely personal spiritual experiences. So word didn’t get out until my confirmation — when I invited my father. That’s when it became clear to them that this wasn’t some vague personal spirituality — which would have been tolerated, so long as I kept it to myself — but I’d actually signed up to organized religion.”

She says that the next time there was a family meal, someone declared, “I hear you’ve gone all Christian.” In their eyes, being Christian colored everything about me, totally defining me. … I hadn’t become a religious fundamentalist, but that was the box they put me in. So it was greeted in two ways: Either people couldn’t get over it, and as soon as they saw me, they would raise arguments against Christianity, unprovoked, when all I wanted to do was get on with a quiet lunch, or else people would look embarrassed if a question led to any mention of my faith, but they wouldn’t query it, just say, ‘Oh,’ and move on as though completely baffled or indifferent. It has been sad to see the confusion and wary distance in the eyes of some family members upon any mention of my faith.”

Overstating Darwin

On her famous ancestor’s theory of evolution, Keynes openly wonders whether she has lived out the perceived struggle of secularist atheism against Christianity.

“I like a good muddle, philosophically speaking, and uneasy truces make for the more interesting intellectual state,” she says. “Atheists prefer certainty and use Darwin’s theory of evolution to state categorically that God does not exist, overegging Darwin in their argument in a way that Darwin himself would be uncomfortable with. He thought agnosticism the more coherent position, saying, ‘I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect.’ Resting in doubt, he allowed others their conscience. He set out to follow the evidence where it led, not bring down Christianity. The evidence did not have to lead inevitably to materialism, but, for various cultural reasons, this is where it led: to materialism and the culture of death. This is the real battle: the culture of life, supported by Christianity, vs. the culture of death, supported by materialism.”

Equally, having studied philosophy, Keynes is well aware of the constant claim that belief in God is irrational.

“To claim that belief in God is beyond reason is to place a high value on reason, so I’d respond by, firstly, asserting that we have this value in common,” she states. “Once we have a shared value, we have a basis for discussion. I would then ask the claimant to consider whether it might not, paradoxically, be anti-intellectual, and therefore undermining reason as a value, to dismiss belief in God as irrational and beyond reason, because this claim represents a threat to the practice of philosophy and theology as academic disciplines. The question of whether the existence of God is demonstrable by rational argument has kept philosophers and theologians busy for centuries. I’d ask the claimant to explain how closing this discussion furthers the cause of reason. So I’d respond gently, but if I really lost my patience, I’d tell them: 'Just go and read Aquinas!'”

Year of Faith Pilgrimage

Having just visited Rome for the first time as part of a Year of Faith pilgrimage, Keynes comments, “Rome certainly put some fuel in the spiritual tank.”

 “I’ll need it,” she concludes. “There’s a lot of work ahead.”

Register correspondent James Kelly writes from London.

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Obama’s unconstitutional steps worse than Nixon’s

By Published: August 14

Political Cartoons by Lisa Benson

President Obama’s increasingly grandiose claims for presidential power are inversely proportional to his shriveling presidency. Desperation fuels arrogance as, barely 200 days into the 1,462 days of his second term, his pantry of excuses for failure is bare, his domestic agenda is nonexistent and his foreign policy of empty rhetorical deadlines and red lines is floundering. And at last week’s news conference he offered inconvenience as a justification for illegality.
Explaining his decision to unilaterally rewrite the Affordable Care Act (ACA), he said: “I didn’t simply choose to” ignore the statutory requirement for beginning in 2014 the employer mandate to provide employees with health care. No, “this was in consultation with businesses.”
He continued: “In a normal political environment, it would have been easier for me to simply call up the speaker and say, you know what, this is a tweak that doesn’t go to the essence of the law. . . . It looks like there may be some better ways to do this, let’s make a technical change to the law. That would be the normal thing that I would prefer to do. But we’re not in a normal atmosphere around here when it comes to Obamacare. We did have the executive authority to do so, and we did so.”
Serving as props in the scripted charade of White House news conferences, journalists did not ask the pertinent question: “Wheredoes the Constitution confer upon presidents the ‘executive authority’ to ignore the separation of powers by revising laws?” The question could have elicited an Obama rarity: brevity. Because there is no such authority.
Obama’s explanation began with an irrelevancy. He consulted with businesses before disregarding his constitutional dutyto “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” That duty does not lapse when a president decides Washington’s “political environment” is not “normal.”
When was it “normal”? The 1850s? The 1950s? Washington has been the nation’s capital for 213 years; Obama has been here less than nine. Even if he understood “normal” political environments here, the Constitution is not suspended when a president decides the “environment” is abnormal.
Neither does the Constitution confer on presidents the power to rewrite laws if they decide the change is a “tweak” not involving the law’s “essence.” Anyway, the employer mandate is essential to the ACA.
Twenty-three days before his news conference, the House voted 264 to 161, with 35 Democrats in the majority, for the rule of law — for, that is, the Authority for Mandate Delay Act. It would have done lawfully what Obama did by ukase. He threatened to veto this use of legislation to alter a law. The White House called it “unnecessary,” presumably because he has an uncircumscribed “executive authority” to alter laws.
In a 1977 interview with Richard Nixon, David Frost asked: “Would you say that there are certain situations . . . where the president can decide that it’s in the best interests of the nation . . . and do something illegal?”
Nixon: “Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”
Frost: “By definition.”
Nixon: “Exactly, exactly.”
Nixon’s claim, although constitutionally grotesque, was less so than the claim implicit in Obama’s actions regarding the ACA. Nixon’s claim was confined to matters of national security or (he said to Frost) “a threat to internal peace and order of significant magnitude.” Obama’s audacity is more spacious; it encompasses a right to disregard any portion of any law pertaining to any subject at any time when the political “environment” is difficult.
Obama should be embarrassed that, by ignoring the legal requirement concerning the employer mandate, he has validated critics who say the ACA cannot be implemented as written. What does not embarrass him is his complicity in effectively rewriting the ACA for the financial advantage of self-dealing members of Congress and their staffs.
The ACA says members of Congress (annual salaries: $174,000) and their staffs (thousands making more than $100,000) must participate in the law’s insurance exchanges. It does not say that when this change goes into effect, the current federal subsidy for this affluent cohort — up to 75 percent of the premium’s cost, perhaps $10,000 for families — should be unchanged.
When Congress awakened to what it enacted, it panicked: This could cause a flight of talent, making Congress less wonderful. So Obama directed the Office of Personnel Management, which has no power to do this, to authorize for the political class special subsidiesunavailable for less privileged and less affluent citizens.
If the president does it, it’s legal? “Exactly, exactly.”
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The Siege of Byzantium

In 717–18, Western civilization was hanging by a thread. 

August 15, 2013

Theodosian City Walls of Istanbul, Turkey
 The great Theodosian city walls before restoration.

Today, August 15, marks the anniversary of Constantinople’s victory over Muslim invaders in what historians commonly call the “Second Siege of Byzantium,” 717–18. Prior to this massive onslaught, the Muslims had been hacking away at the domains of the Byzantine empire for nearly a century. The Muslims’ ultimate goal was the conquest of Constantinople — for both political and religious reasons.

Politically, Islam had no rival but the “hated Christians” of Byzantium, known by various appellations — including al-Rum (the Romans), al-Nassara (the Nazarenes), and, most notoriously, al-Kilab (the “dogs”). The eastern Sasanian Empire had already been vanquished, and Persia subsumed into the caliphate. Only the “worshippers of the cross” — as they were, and still are, disparagingly known — were left as contenders over the eastern Mediterranean basin.

More important, Constantinople — from a theological perspective — simply had to fall. From the start, Islam and jihad were inextricably linked. The jihad, or “holy war,” which took over Arabia and Persia, followed by Syria, Egypt, and all of North Africa — all formerly Byzantine territory — was considered a religious obligation, or, as later codified in sharia law, a fard kifaya: a communal obligation on the body of believers, to be adhered to and fulfilled no less than the Five Pillars of Islam. As the famous 14th-century Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun put it: “In the Muslim community, the jihad is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and the obligation to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. . . . Islam is under obligation to gain power over other nations.”

This concept of jihad as institutionalized holy war was first articulated and codified into Islam’s worldview by “warrior-theologians” (mujahidin-fuqaha) living and fighting along the Byzantine-Arab frontier (such as themujahid Abdallah bin Mubarak, author of the seminal work Kitab al-Jihad or “Book of Jihad”).

The prevalent view was that, so long as Constantinople stood, the Cross would defy the Crescent. This is a literal point: Symbols played a great role in these wars. Less than a century earlier, at the pivotal battle of Yarmuk (636), where the Muslims crushed the Byzantines, leading to the conquest of Syria, one Muslim complained to the caliph, saying, “The dog of the Romans [Emperor Heraclius] has greatly frustrated us with the ubiquitous presence of the cross!”

Indeed, one cannot overemphasize the religious nature of these wars — which, if still codified in Islam’s sharia, has become all but alien to a Western epistemology that tends to cynically dismiss the role of faith. That the primary way of identifying oneself in the old world was based on religious affiliation — not race, ethnicity, or nationality, all modern concepts — is indicative of the central role of faith. Even useful terms such as “Byzantines” are ultimately anachronistic; “Byzantines” identified themselves first and foremost as “Christians.”

For these reasons, the conquest of Constantinople would take on increasingly apocalyptic proportions in Islamic literature. Ever since the Muslim prophet Mohammed sent a message in 628 to the Byzantine emperor Heraclius, summoning him to Islam, with the famous assertion, aslam taslam — that is, “submit [become Muslim], and you will have peace” — and the summons was refused, Constantinople became Islam’s arch-enemy. Mohammed even prophesied that the Christian capital would — indeed, must — fall to Islam, with blessings and rewards to the Muslim(s) fulfilling this prophecy. Fall the great city would — but not for some 800 years, in 1453, giving an inchoate Europe the needed time to mature, strengthen, and unify.

Beginning with Mohammed’s participation at the Battle of Tabuk (630), recorded in the Koran, Muslims had been harrying the Byzantines for decades, closing in on Constantinople. With the coming of the Umayyad dynasty (660) — which also saw the end of the first fitna (Muslim “civil war”), resulting in the Sunni-Shia split — Islam’s seat of power moved from Medina to recently conquered Damascus, mere miles from the prize of  Constantinople.

By the early 700s, the Muslim conquests were slowing down. There were several “disaffected” parties in the Muslim camp — particularly the losers of the first fitna, the Kharijites and Shia, the former a particularly ruthless sect. To prevent another civil war from erupting, a major campaign against the common infidel enemy was in order.

All these factors — Umayyad consolidation of Muslim power in Damascus, a slowing down of the conquests in general, and the need to direct the bellicosity of the various idle or disgruntled warlike Muslim sects, not to mention an undying enmity for the obstinate infidels across the way — encouraged the caliphate to apply its full might against its arch-foe. Constantinople had been unsuccessfully besieged several times before, most notably during the First Siege, which lasted four years (674–78) and was ultimately turned back by the cyclopean walls of the city.

So it was that, upon his ascension to the caliphate in 715, the new supreme leader of the Islamic empire, Suleiman, decided that the time was ripe for a massive, all-out offensive against Constantinople. The Byzantines would go on to offer a hefty tribute, but nothing less than total capitulation to Islam would do. Mustering a mammoth army of some 200,000 fighters, with Suleiman’s own brother, Maslama, leading, the former commanded the latter: “Stay there [Constantinople] until you conquer it or I recall you.” (That a caliph sent his own brother is further indicative of the importance of this campaign.)

A single anecdote supports the chroniclers’ claims that a gargantuan army was being mustered. Two years prior to the siege, in 715, a report reached the Christians that the Muslims were felling countless trees in Lebanon, land of the cedar, in order to construct tens of thousands of warships for an “upcoming expedition.” This fact alone caused a mini-war to erupt on the island of Rhodes, where the Byzantines sent an army to intercept the Muslim expeditionary force. One Byzantine ambassador returning from Damascus reported that the “Saracens were preparing an armament by sea and land, such as would transcend the experience of the past, or the belief of the present.” In short, 120,000 infantry and cavalry, and a naval force composed of 80,000, were making their way to Constantinople.

Maslama, leading the land force through Anatolia, crushed and put to the sword all in his way. Women and children were enslaved; tens of thousands of men crucified. While making their way through that great desolate no-man’s land between the Byzantine and Umayyad empires, frequented by nomadic tribes, the Muslims attacked, slew, and burned all in their path.

According to renowned Muslim chronicler al-Tabari, “The [Christian] inhabitants of eastern Anatolia were filled with terror the likes of which they had never experienced before. All they saw were Muslims in their midst shouting ‘Allahu Akbar!’ Allah planted terror in their hearts. . . . The men were crucified over the course of 24 km.” Al-Tabari later goes on to explain that the Muslim forces were successful owing to their adherence to Koranic verses such as 8:60: “Muster against them [infidels] all the men and cavalry at your command, that you may strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of Allah, and your enemies.” (See also 3:151.) (Nearly a millennium and a half after the Koran’s compilation, modern-day mujahidin — “holy warriors” who are fond of exhorting their followers by referring to these otherwise arcane battles — continue relying on such verses and their exegeses to “terrorize” the “enemies of Allah.”)

To make matters worse, as Maslama was marching toward Constantinople, subjugating everything in his path, the Christian empire itself was internally divided — as evinced by the fact that, between 713 and 717, two emperors had come and gone.

Enter Leo III — also known as Leo the Isaurian, Leo the Arab, and, most notoriously, Leo the Heretic. There is little doubt that the Byzantine victory over the Muslims owes a great debt to Leo, who makes his appearance early in the pages of the chronicles as a general and strategist — living up to the Greek word for “general,” strategos.

Born as Conon in modern-day Syria (hence the “Arab” appellation), Leo, stationed in Anatolia, encountered the forces of Maslama early on. All the sources record Leo playing something of a cat-and-mouse game with the caliph’s brother, duping him in various ways. Tabari simply concludes that Leo dealt Maslama “such a deception as if he [Maslama] was a silly plaything of a woman.”

At any rate, Leo gained the necessary time and advantage to slip back to Constantinople, where, as the ablest man to defend the empire from the coming onslaught, he was soon proclaimed emperor. Considering the empire’s strong walls that had withstood countless sieges for centuries, Leo knew that, as long as sea communications were open, the city would be relatively safe. The problem was that, as Maslama was nearing with his land force of 120,000, 1,800 vessels containing the additional 80,000 fighting men were approaching the Bosporus. The city would be surrounded.

On August 15, Maslama was at the city walls, laying siege to it with various engines of war; the navy arrived two weeks later, on September 1. After a few fruitless attempts to breach the walls, Maslama settled to reduce the city by blockade, much of which would depend on the navy.

A close reading of the sources reveals that two important factors saved the empire: Arab inexperience at sea warfare and Greek ingenuity. The Arab warships nearing the Bosporus were heavy-laden with equipment and, in general, cumbersome. To lure the ships, Leo, in another stratagem, had the ponderous chain that normally guarded the harbor cast aside. “But while they hesitated whether they should seize the opportunity . . . the ministers of destruction were at hand”: Leo had sent out his fleet, with the secret weapon of the day, “Greek fire” (an incendiary composition projected by means of siphons), which conflagrated the Muslim ships into “blazing wrecks”: “Some of them, still burning, smashed into the sea wall, while others sank in the deep, men and all.”

Soon after this pivotal defeat, the ambitious caliph Suleiman, who had meant to fulfill Mohammed’s prophecy by conquering Constantinople, died of “indigestion” (according to the chroniclers, by devouring two baskets of eggs and figs, followed by marrow and sugar for dessert). To make matters worse, the new caliph, Omar II, seemed, at least initially, not to be as attentive to the needs of Maslama’s army. Winter set in, and the Byzantines retired to their fortified city, leaving the elements to deal with the Muslim camp. “One of the cruelest winters that anyone could remember” arrived, and, “for one hundred days, snow covered the earth.”

Still, Maslama’s brother, the late caliph, had commanded him to “stay there [Constantinople] until you conquer it or I recall you.” Neither had happened; the latter option was no longer possible. All Maslama could do was wait and assure his emaciated, desperate men: “Soon! Soon supplies will be here!” In the meantime, roaming Turkic tribes, particularly the Bulgars, who had yet to embrace Islam, began harrying the Muslim camp.

By springtime, reinforcements finally came, by both land and sea. It was not enough; frost and famine had hit the massive army of Maslama hard, to the point that cannibalism was resorted to. The Greek chronicler Theophanes relates: “Some even say they put dead men and their own dung in pans, kneaded this, and ate it. A plague-like disease descended on them, and destroyed a countless throng.” The plausibility of the second sentence offers support for the improbable first one. An independent chronicler, Michael the Syrian, wrote: “The hunger oppressed them so much that they were eating the corpses of the dead, each other’s feces, and other filth.”

From the new caliph’s point of view, that such a massive force, years to mobilize, was already at the gates of Christendom, made it very difficult to simply give up. As caliph — successor to the warrior-prophet and his companions, who had subjugated much of the known world — he could not accept defeat so easily. While the army made do, a new navy, composed of two war expeditions, one from Alexandria, Egypt, the other from North Africa — nearly 800 ships total — made its way to Constantinople. Under cover of night, they managed to blockade the Bosporus, threatening to cut off all communications from the city.

Moreover, the Muslim commanders were warier of the Greek fire, and kept their distance. Aware of this, Maslama’s army, somewhat recovered owing to supplies and fresh conscriptions, was once again on the move, besieging the city with — considering the abominable trials to which they had recently been subjected — a feral fury. It seemed that the beginning of the end, though delayed, had finally arrived.

Delivery for Constantinople came from the least expected source: the Egyptian crew manning the Alexandrian ships, the Christian Copts. Because the vast majority of the caliphate’s fighting men, the mujahidin, were already engaging the enemy, the caliph had no choice but to rely on Christian dhimmi (second-class) conscripts for reinforcements. Much to the caliph’s chagrin, however, the Copts all fled at nighttime to Constantinople, and acclaimed the Christian emperor.

Theophanes writes that, as the Copts seized light boats and fled in desertion to the city, “the sea looked entirely made of wood.” Not only did the Muslim war galleys lose a good deal of manpower, but the Egyptians provided Leo with exact information concerning the Muslims’ ships and plans. Taking advantage of this, Leo once again released the fire-ships from the citadel. Considering the loss of manpower after the Copts’ desertion, the confrontation was more a rout than a battle.

It is worth noting that this little-known fact — that Copts abandoned the Muslim fleets in droves to join forces with the Christian emperor — indicates that, from the start, Christian life under Muslim rule was not as tolerable as later revisionist history (which claims that the Copts of Egypt welcomed the Muslims as “liberators” from the Byzantine yoke) makes it out to be.

Seeking to capitalize on this naval victory and the enthusiasm of the Christians, Leo had the retreating Muslim fleets pursued on land, and many Muslims were cut down. Simultaneously, the neighboring Bulgars — who, though occasionally hostile to the Christian empire, had no love for the new invaders, the Muslims — were persuaded by Leo’s “gifts and promises” into attacking and ultimately killing as many as 22,000 of Maslama’s battle-weary, half-starved men.

To make matters worse, “a report was dexterously scattered that the Franks, the unknown nations of the Latin world, were arming by sea and land in defense of the Christian cause, and their formidable aid was expected.” (It would be another three centuries before the Franks and Muslims would engage in a military conflict, spanning over two centuries, that would come to be known as the Crusades.)

By now, even the distant caliph realized that all was lost. Maslama, who could only have welcomed the summons, was recalled; and, on August 15 — according to most chroniclers, precisely one year to the day after it began — the siege of Constantinople was lifted.

Still, the Muslims’ troubles were far from over. Nature was not through with them. A terrible sea-storm is said to have all but annihilated the retreating ships, so that, of the 2,560 ships embarking back to Damascus and Alexandria, only ten remained — and of these, half were captured by the Byzantines, leaving only five to make it back to the caliphate and report the calamities that had befallen them (which may be both why the Arab chroniclers are curiously silent about the particulars of these events, and why it would be centuries before Constantinople would be similarly attacked again).

This sea-storm also led to the popular belief that divine providence had intervened on behalf of Christendom, with historians referring to August 15 as an “ecumenical date.” Meanwhile, in the Islamic world, this defeat, earthquakes in Palestine, and the death of Caliph Omar II in 720 (having been caliph in the year 100 of the Islamic calendar) boded an apocalyptic end to the world.

Of the original 200,000 Muslims who set out to conquer the Christian capital and additional spring reinforcements, only some 30,000 ever made it back alive. By way of retribution and before dying, a bitter and vindictive Omar, failing to subdue the Christians across the way, was quick to project his wrath on those Christians, the dhimmis, living under Islamic authority: He forced many of them to convert to Islam, killing those who refused.

It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of this battle. That Constantinople was able to repulse the caliphate’s hordes is one of Western history’s most decisive moments: Had it fallen, “Dark Age” Europe — chaotic and leaderless — would have been exposed to the Muslim invaders. And, if history is any indicator, the last time a large expanse of territory was left open before the sword of Islam, thousands of miles were conquered and consolidated in mere decades, resulting in what is known today as Dar al-Islam, or the “Islamic world.”

Indeed, this victory is far more significant than its more famous Western counterpart, the Frankish victory over the Muslims at the Battle of Tours, led by Charles Martel (the “Hammer”) in 732. Unlike the latter, which, from a Muslim point of view, was first and foremost a campaign dedicated to rapine and plunder, not conquest — evinced by the fact that, after the initial battle, the Muslims fled — the siege of Constantinople was devoted to a longtime goal, had the full backing of the caliphate, and consisted of far greater manpower. Had the Muslims won, and since Constantinople was the bulwark of Europe’s eastern flank, there would have been nothing to prevent them from turning the whole of Europe into the northwestern appendage of Dar al-Islam.

Nor should the architect of this great victory be forgotten. The Byzantine historian Vasiliev concludes that “by his successful resistance Leo saved not only the Byzantine Empire and the Eastern Christian world, but also all of Western civilization.”

Yet, true to the vicissitudes and ironies of Byzantine history — the word has not come to mean “convoluted” for nothing — by the time Leo died, “in the Orthodox histories he was represented as little better than a Saracen” (hence the famous appellation, “Leo the Heretic”) owing to the Iconoclastic controversy. If Charles Martel would be memorialized as the heroic grandfather of the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, it would be Leo’s lot to be all but anathematized — an unfortunate fact contributing to the historical neglect of this brilliant victory.

 Raymond Ibrahim is author of Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians.