Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Internal Repression Service

The revenue agency has become a tool for suppressing speech. 

Through months of Obama administration stonewalling, the redoubtable Judicial Watch perseveres in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, finally uncovering bombshell documents that have eluded several congressional investigations. For the second time in a matter of days, we find that standing oversight committees with competing subject-matter jurisdictions and limited attention spans are incapable of the grand-jury-style probe needed to get to the bottom of administration lawlessness. For that, in the absence of a scrupulous special prosecutor reasonably independent from the Obama Justice Department (not gonna happen), it becomes clear that a select committee will be necessary.

Just two weeks ago, the scandal involved the cover-up of administration duplicity regarding the Benghazi massacre. (See my related article in the new edition of National Review.) Now, it is the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service.

For a year, the administration and IRS headquarters in Gomorrah by the Potomac have attempted to run an implausible con-job: The harassment of organizations opposed to Obama’s policies by an executive-branch agency had nothing to do with the Obama administration — it was just a rogue operation by an IRS office in Cincinnati which, though regrettably overzealous, was apolitical, non-ideological, and without “even a smidgen of corruption.”

The story had about as much credibility as the administration’s “blame the video” script that Susan Rice dutifully performed on the post-Benghazi Sunday shows, or the Justice Department’s 2011 assurance to Congress that its agents would never knowingly allow the transfer of a couple of thousand guns to criminal gangs in Mexico. The “Cincinnati did it” yarn has been unraveling since it was first spun by IRS honcho Lois Lerner and, soon afterwards, by President Obama himself. The lie has now been exploded by e-mails clawed from the IRS by Judicial Watch’s Freedom of Information Act suit.

These include one from a top IRS lawyer in Washington succinctly explaining that “EOT [i.e., the revenue agency’s “Exempt Organization Technical unit” in Washington] is working Tea party applications in coordination with Cincy.” This was in July 2012, which is to say, in the key final months of Obama’s reelection campaign. “Tea party applications” were requests by conservative groups to be granted tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. By selectively setting aside their applications, delaying the conferral of tax-exempt status to which the law entitled them, and putting them through inquisitions that violated their constitutional rights to political speech and association, IRS headquarters prevented them from raising funds and organizing as an effective opposition.

The e-mails elucidate that Cincinnati’s strings were being pulled in Washington: “We are developing a few applications here in DC and providing copies of our development letters with the agent [in Cincinnati] to use as examples in the development of their cases.” “Tea party applications,” IRS headquarters elaborates, have been isolated as “the subject of an SCR” — meaning “sensitive case report.” To “resolve” such cases would require “coordination with Rob” — a reference, Judicial Watch contends, to Rob Choi, who was then a high-ranking IRS official in Washington.

It is no more conceivable that IRS headquarters was off on its own anti–Tea Party witch-hunt than that the subordinate Cincinnati office was. The fuse, it must be recalled, was lit by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, affirming the First Amendment’s prohibition against government restrictions of political speech by corporations. The ruling enraged the Left and prompted the president’s tongue-lashing of the stunned justices during the 2010 State of the Union address.

At this point, it remains unclear which, if any, administration officials were — to borrow the delicate term — “coordinating” with the IRS. It is manifest, though, that in the atmosphere charged by Obama’s impertinence, congressional Democrats felt empowered to push the IRS to undermine free political speech through administrative intimidation. Judicial Watch’s FOIA suit reveals correspondence in which Senator Carl Levin, the powerful Michigan Democrat, agitates for IRS action against several conservative groups. In accommodating responses, then-IRS deputy commissioner Steven Miller takes pains to assure him that flexible regulations enable the revenue agency to design “individualized questions and requests” for targeted Section 501(c)(4) applicants.

After a damning Treasury inspector-general report last year, even the IRS concedes that its singling out of conservative groups and obnoxiously intrusive demands for information were “inappropriate.” In truth, they were blatantly unconstitutional. As is always the case in Washington scandals, the question of whether crimes were committed arises — and now, the companion question of whether lawmakers who encouraged executive lawlessness are guilty of crimes.

For the time being, the lawsuits brought by conservative organizations victimized by the IRS have alleged only civil wrongs: principally, the deprivation of their constitutional rights to free speech and association, and of their statutory right to tax-exempt status. Nevertheless, these claims could trigger criminal jeopardy. For example, federal law (specifically, Section 242 of the penal code) makes it a crime for a government official to “willfully subject[] any person . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”

Without a competent, impartial investigation, it will be tough to amass sufficient evidence to prove a willful violation of law. The officials implicated would surely claim — however dubiously — that they were just trying to enforce ambiguous regulations. Moreover, even if executive-branch officials could be proved criminally culpable, any prosecution of members of Congress would face a severe roadblock: the broad constitutional immunity lawmakers enjoy whenever arguably engaged in “legislative acts.” Remember Representative William Jefferson, whose crass acceptance of bribes did not stop a federal appeals court from invalidating an FBI search of his Capitol Hill office.

In any event, as I argued here last weekend, to focus on criminal or civil liability is to miss the point. The importance of government officials lies in the public trust reposed in them and the awesome power it entails. When they demonstrate themselves to be unworthy of that trust, the imperative is to take the power away.

The IRS has become a vehicle of repression — one that Democrats have further empowered through Obamacare. Its budget should be slashed, and we should figure out better ways to raise revenue. In addition, government officials have engaged in conduct that, at a minimum, grossly disregarded the constitutional rights our government exists to safeguard. Whether such serious misbehavior is attributable to incompetence or corruption, the officials who engaged in it should be defrocked. Most of us couldn’t care less whether they are sent to jail or successfully sued, but we should all insist that they no longer wield power.

The most ominous development in the IRS scandal is the confederation of executive and congressional authority in opposition to our fundamental rights. The accumulation of all government powers in the same hands, Madison warned, “may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” In a free society, powers must be separated. The Framers thus gave us a Constitution that heeded the wisdom of Montesquieu:
When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.
The IRS scandal presents a textbook case of tyrannical execution. It is fraught with peril. We are dealing not merely with a single president, who presumes to rule by decree; nor just with his congressional partisans, who presume to pull the executive bureaucracy’s coercive levers. Enormous power is cumulating in an ideological movement that is hostile to free expression, one that views its political opposition not as fellow citizens with a different point of view but as enemies to be silenced and destroyed.

Frightening times.

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute. His next book, Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment, will be released by Encounter Books on June 3.

Today's Tune: The Mavericks - What a Crying Shame (Live, BBC)

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Emerging Junta

The IRS’s illegal actions — and its efforts at cover-up — undermine the foundations of our government. 

I will confess to a little despair over the relatively mild reception that has greeted the evidence, now conclusive and irrefutable, that the Internal Revenue Service, under the direction of senior leaders affiliated with the Democratic party, was used as a political weapon from at least 2010 through the 2012 election. It may be that the American public simply does not care about the issue; it is always difficult, if not impossible, to predict what issues will seize the electorate’s attention, or to understand why after the fact. It may be that the public does not understand the issue, in which case a brief explanation of the known facts may be of some use.

Here is what happened. In the run-up to the 2012 election, senior IRS executives including Lois Lerner, then the head of the IRS branch that oversees the activities of tax-exempt nonprofit groups, began singling out conservative-leaning organizations for extra attention, invasive investigations, and legal harassment. The IRS did not target groups that they believed might be violating the rules governing tax-exempt organizations; rather, as e-mails from the agency document, the IRS targeted these conservative groups categorically, regardless of whether there was any evidence that they were not in compliance with the relevant regulations. Simply having the words “tea party,” “patriot,” or “9/12” (a reference to one of Glenn Beck’s many channels of activism) in the name was enough. Also targeted were groups dedicated to issues such as taxes, spending, debt, and, perhaps most worrisome, those that were simply “critical of the how the country is being run.” 
Organizations also were targeted based on the identity of their donors. Their applications were delayed, their managements harassed, and the IRS demanded that they answer wildly inappropriate questions, such as the content of their prayers. When an internal review threatened to expose the fact that, in the words of the IRS’s inspector general, the agency was “using inappropriate criteria to identify organizations applying for tax-exempt status,” Ms. Lerner staged an event at a tax-law conference at which she used a planted questioner to preemptively disclose the issue on her own terms, and the agency began claiming that the tea-party targeting, while regrettable, was the work of a few misguided agents at a satellite office in Cincinnati. In fact, the direction came from Washington and was, in the words of the agency’s own e-mails, “coordinated with” a senior manager there, Rob Choi, director of rulings and agreements. This began at the behest of Democratic officeholders, including Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, who requested that the IRS disclose to him information about tea-party groups that it would have been illegal for the IRS to disclose. It subsequently emerged that IRS officials had intentionally misled members of Congress and investigators about the matter.

During this period, IRS operatives were, according to the Office of Special Counsel, openly campaigning for the reelection of Barack Obama on IRS time using IRS resources. A few were later disciplined for their actions, but the extent of the political activity of IRS agents remains unknown.

The IRS is not just a revenue agency — it is a law-enforcement agency, a police agency with far greater powers of investigation and coercion that any normal police force. Its actions in this matter are not only inappropriate — they are illegal. Using government resources for political ends is a serious crime, as is conspiring to mislead investigators about those crimes. But so far, other than holding Lois Lerner in contempt for refusing to comply with the demands of congressional investigators, almost nothing has happened. The characteristic feature of a police state is that those who are entrusted with the power to enforce the law are not themselves bound by it.

Context is again here important. The IRS scandal is not a standalone issue but comes at a time when the Democratic party is seeking to radically expand the power of the federal government to regulate political speech; we can safely assume that the same people who were using the IRS’s political-speech regulations for political ends will have precisely the same motives and precisely the same opportunity to use other political-speech regulations for precisely the same political ends: to benefit their allies and persecute their enemies. So committed are the Democrats to keeping their critics under the thumb of federal police powers that they have introduced an amendment in the Senate that would effectively repeal the free-speech provisions of the First Amendment, those having proved inconvenient to Democrats in Supreme Court rulings such as McCutcheon and Citizens United, the latter case involving a federal attempt to make it a crime to show a film critical of a political figure under unapproved circumstances.

The most important question that must be answered in this matter does not involve the misbehavior of IRS officials and Democratic officeholders, though those are important. Nor is it the question of free speech, vital and fundamental as that is. The question here is nothing less than the legitimacy of the United States government. When law-enforcement agencies and federal regulators with extraordinary coercive powers are subordinated to political interests rather than their official obligations — to the Party rather than to the law — then the law itself becomes meaningless, and the delicate constitutional order we have enjoyed for more than two centuries is reduced to a brutal might-makes-right proposition. Elected officials and public servants of both parties take an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and to faithfully discharge the duties of their office. That oath is now being tested. The IRS investigation is no mere partisan scandal, but a moral challenge for the men and women who compose the government of this country. Whether they are sufficient to meet that challenge is far from obvious, but the evidence so far is not encouraging. 

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

The sound and the fury — and the tweet

Mass schoolgirl kidnapping in Nigeria — to tweet or not to tweet? Is hashtagging one’s indignation about some outrage abroad an exercise in moral narcissism or a worthy new way of standing up to bad guys?
The answer seems rather simple. It depends on whether you have the power to do something about the outrage in question. If you do, as in the case of the Obama administration watching Russia’s slow-motion dismemberment of Ukraine, it’s simply embarrassing when the State Department spokeswoman tweets the hashtag #UnitedForUkraine.
That is nothing but preening, a visual recapitulation of her boss’s rhetorical fatuousness when he sternly warns that if the rape of this U.S. friend continues, we are prepared to consider standing together with the “international community” to decry such indecorous behavior — or some such.
When a superpower, with multiple means at its disposal, reverts to rhetorical emptiness and hashtag activism, it has betrayed both its impotence and indifference. But if you’re an individual citizen without power, if you lack access to media, drones or special forces, then hashtagging your solidarity with the aggrieved is a fine gesture and perhaps even more.
The mass tweet is, after all, just the cyber equivalent of the mass petition. And people don’t sneer at petitions. Historically, they’ve been a way for individuals, famous or anonymous, to make their views known and, by weight of number, influence authorities who, in democratic societies, might respond to such expressions of popular sentiment.
The hashtag campaign for the Nigerian girls — originated in Nigeria by Nigerians — was meant to do exactly that: pressure the Nigerian government to respond more seriously to the kidnapping. It has already had this effect. And attention from abroad has helped magnify the pressure.
As always, however, we tend to romanticize the power of the tweet. For a while, Twitter (and other social media) was seen as a game-changer that would empower the masses and invert the age-old relationship between the ruler and ruled.
This is mostly rubbish. Yes, the tweet improves upon the mass petition because tweets contain an instant return address that allows for mass mobilization. People can be summoned to gather together somewhere — Tahrir Square, for example.
At which point, alas, the age-old dynamics of power take hold. If the tyrant, brandishing guns and tanks, is cruel and determined enough, your tweets will mean nothing. Try it at Tahrir or Tiananmen, in Damascus or Tehran. They will shoot and torture you, then maybe even let you keep your precious smartphone.
Michelle Obama’s tweeting #BringBackOurGirls for the nearly 300 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists poses an interesting case of the semi-official tweet. This was no exercise in vanity. She does advise the man who does deploy the forces and who in this case provided serious concrete support — intelligence, reconnaissance, on-the-ground advisers — to help fight the evil.
What was peculiar about her tweet, however, was its uniqueness: It’s the first time she’s expressed herself so personally and publicly about a foreign crisis. And she was nicely candid about the reason: “In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters.”
The identity of the victims here — young, black and female — undoubtedly helps explain the worldwide reaction. Two months earlier, Boko Haram had raided a Christian school and, after segregating the boys, brutally murdered 59 of them. That elicited no hashtag campaign against Boko Haram. Nor was there any through the previous years of Boko Haram depredations — razing Christian churches, burning schools, killing infidels of all ages.
Nonetheless, selective outrage is not necessarily hypocrisy. There are a million good causes in the world, and one cannot be devoted to all of them. People naturally gravitate to those closest to their heart. Thus last week’s unlikely sight: a group of congresswomen holding a news conference demanding immediate U.S. action — including the possible use of drones— against Boko Haram.
These were members, like Sheila Jackson Lee, not heretofore known for hawkish anti-jihadist sentiments. No matter. People find their own causes. Their sincerity is to be credited and their commitment welcomed.
The American post-9/11 response to murderous jihadism has often been characterized, not least by our own president, as both excessive and morally suspect. There is a palpable weariness with the entire enterprise. Good, therefore, that new constituencies for whom jihadism and imposed Shariah law ranked low among their urgent concerns should now be awakening to the principal barbarism of our time.
Trending now (once again): anti-jihadism, a.k.a. the War on Terror.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Interview: 'Longmire' author Craig Johnson

Randy Cordova, The Arizona Republic
May 12, 2014

At age 53, Craig Johnson (pictured above) has the kind of career that most writers would envy. He is the author of the successful mystery series that features Walt Longmire, a plain-spoken sheriff in Wyoming's fictional Absaroka County. The books inspired the A&E series "Longmire," the network's highest-rated scripted series.
The success hasn't changed Johnson. He still lives in Ucross, Wyo. (population: 25), and has no plans to go Hollywood: "Are you insane? This is my ranch. I poured the concrete. I built the barn."
It's a busy period for Johnson. "Longmire," for which Johnson gets an executive consultant credit, returns for its third season Monday, June 2. And he's on the road promoting "Any Other Name," the 11th Longmire book, which finds the sheriff facing the birth of his first grandchild and a suicide in a neighboring county.
Question: How did you know you were a writer?
Answer: My father says I come from a long line of bulls--t, but I'm just the first one smart enough to write it down. I've always been entranced by the idea of people that can tell a story. It's a valuable trait.
Q: Did your background prepare you for this career?
A: I did a little bit of everything. I had one of those Jack Kerouac lifestyles. I traveled around a lot and did a lot of different things. I was either preparing myself to be a writer or preparing myself to be homeless. Thank goodness the writing thing turned out.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of Walt Longmire?
A: As soon as I started developing the idea of Walt, I knew he was not going to be the usual crime-fiction protagonist: Six-foot-two-inches of twisted steel and sex appeal. Walt's a little bit more old-school. He's overage, overweight, overly depressed, yet he still gets up in the morning and tries to do the job. I think that's kind of heroic. And I write them in the first person, because I want it to be as if you went into the Busy Bee Cafe in Durant, Wyo., and the sheriff came over and told you what happened in the last month.
Q: Is Walt based on you?
A: My wife has the best answer. She says this is who Craig would like to be in 10 years, but he's off to an incredibly slow start. He's a better guy than I am. He's a truly decent, kind, caring human being and he really goes out of his way in some very dire circumstances to try and be a good guy. Walt's kind of old-school that way. He's a Gene Autry or Roy Rogers kind of character, and those characters have been missing from the public psyche for so long. It's almost avant-garde now.
Q: But he's a lot more shaded than those guys.
A: He is, but he has to be. He has to be more fully drawn, simply because the world he works in is more complex.
Q:Your first book wasn't published until you were in your 40s, which some people see as a late start. Why didn't you start sooner?
A: There are two honest answers to that question. First, you run out of excuses. I remember finishing my ranch and getting things up and running. When that was done, I knew I always wanted to be a writer so now would be the time. The other thing is you stumble upon a story that you think is good enough to invest the time and energy.
Q: Were you surprised by the success?
A: Oh gosh, yes. I was just hoping for enough response that I would be able to continue being a writer. I got a really great agent, a great publisher and I started getting on the New York Times bestseller list and then I hear, 'Hey, we'd like to do a TV show based on the character.' It's pretty good for a cowboy who lives in a town of 25 people.
Q: How does a TV show change your life?
A: There's a story I like. I was going to jump on a plane in Red Lodge, Mont., and I stopped at a diner wearing a Absaroka County sheriff's ballcap from the TV show. This woman looked at the ballcap and says, "Where did you get that?" I thought, "Oh, she thinks I'm a real sheriff." I didn't want to have to chase (a criminal) down the streets of Red Lodge, so I decided I'd point out it's not a real county. I tell her that, and she goes, "The hell it's not. That's Walt Longmire's county." I felt a little proud, so I tell her that I'm Craig Johnson, the guy who writes the books. She goes, "There are books?"
I've always thought I should tell (my publisher) Viking the slogan should be: "Yes, there are books."
Craig Johnson book signing: 7 p.m. Thursday, May 15. The Poisoned Pen Bookstore, 4014 N. Goldwater Blvd., Scottsdale. Free. 480-947-2974,
'Longmire': Season premieres 11 p.m. Monday, June 2, on A&E.

Reach the reporter at or 602-444-8849.

Book Review: 'Any Other Name' by Craig Johnson

Craig Johnson's "Any Other Name" returns to what he does best

By Reed Eckhardt
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
May 12, 2014

Ask any baseball fan and he or she will tell you: Some teams are just built to play "small ball." They don't have the hitters to go long on a regular basis against teams like the New York Yankees. So they use strategies like ball placement, base running and defense to beat their opponents.

So it is with Upton, Wyoming-based author Craig Johnson.

In his last book, "A Serpent's Tooth," Johnson chose to go out of character. He went big, ending his book with a massive shootout. It didn't work. It simply is not what he does best.

Well, rejoice, Johnson fans. The writer has returned to his game -- focusing on his usual cast of characters, storytelling and a small-town setting -- and he has hit a home run with his new book, "Any Other Name," (Penguin Group, $26.95, 319 pages).

Indeed, this may be Johnson's best Longmire mystery yet in terms of its ability to grab and keep the reader locked in. "Hell Is Empty" (2011) certainly is his most superior work in terms of its literary merit. But "Any Other Name" is a roller-coaster ride of a thriller. You probably shouldn't start reading the last third of the book before bedtime: You will be up at 3 a.m. It is that compelling.

"Any Other Name" has Johnson's small-town sheriff, Walt Longmire, chasing after a mystery, this time in northeastern Wyoming rather than his usual Absaroka County: Why did a longtime detective, Gerald Holman, kill himself? Or did he?

Walt's old boss, Lucian Connelly, wants the question answered, for reasons other than just a longtime professional relationship. But at the opening, it's enough for Walt to know that Holman had come out of retirement to work cold cases for the Campbell County Sheriff's Department. He then is found dead in a motel room east of Gillette with not one, but two bullet holes in his head.

Oh, and Walt is facing a deadline: His daughter, Cady, finally is about to give birth to Walt's first grandchild and she wants him by her side in Philadelphia, damn it.

The story rolls forward as Walt discovers what he thinks Holman also knew: Three of the cold cases -- all missing women -- appear to be tied together. Just what that really is all about will be up to the reader to find out.

As with all of Johnson's books, "Any Other Name" is not really about the mystery but the people who inhabit the work. This is where the author truly excels: He creates finely drawn characters who you could bump into in any small town in Wyoming.

All the familiar names -- the ones that make the Longmire series so compelling -- are here. It is particularly comforting that Victoria Moretti, Walt's spitfire deputy and love interest, is still around and romancing the sheriff. Where that was headed was unclear at the end of "Serpent's Tooth." Moretti had been hit by a knife thrown by bad guy Tomas Bidarte, and she sustained a loss that left fans wondering where the relationship with Walt was headed. Bidarte, by the way, has not left their lives, despite taking several bullets from Walt's gun.

Along the way, the reader of "Any Other Name" gets to enjoy some new faces as well. There is a tough cop from New Mexico, Richard Harvey; post office manager Dave Rowan; rookie patrolman Travis Bradley; the owner at the local strip club, Tommi Sandburg; and Holman's daughter, Connie, a former meth addict who became a teacher, who plays a pivotal role in the tale.

Walt also finds himself out in the snow again; this has become an important theme in Johnson's series. This time, Walt is with friend Henry Standing Bear amidst a herd of buffalo in the Black Hills. This leads to another turn on Longmire's continuing spiritual journey. It's not every protagonist in mystery fiction who sees white bison and spends time talking with spirits.

But the centerpiece of this book is not Walt's solving of the mystery. Fans know he is going to do that with his usual wit and skill -- and with Johnson's usual plot twist.

No, the grabber here is the thrill ride that consumes the story's final act: It is as good a bit of adventure fiction as you will find. Without giving too much away, it concerns Walt's heroic effort to save a woman's life. It involves a train car, a deadly load of coal, an historic revolver and a clock -- a race against time. If it doesn't leave you breathless, stop by and I'll buy you a cup of coffee.

All in all, it is a pleasure to see Johnson returning to what he does best. He doesn't need to swing for the fences to get the job done. Rather, by keeping it small, he has created a dynamic series and, in this case, a winner of a book.

If you go 

Craig Johnson's latest in his Longmire mystery series, "Any Other Name," will hit the bookstores on Tuesday. For now, no Cheyenne stops are planned in the Wyoming author's coming book tour, but he will be in the Front Range next month:

June 1, 3 p.m. Tattered Cover Book Store, 2526 E. Colfax Ave., Denver

June 2, 6:30 p.m. - Old Town Library at the Library Park Stage, 201 Peterson St., Fort Collins, Colorado. Bring a picnic and a blanket.
Published on: Monday, May 12, 2014 - 12:45:05 pm MDT

Science as McCarthyism

Another scientist gets blackballed for his skepticism about global warming. 

Bob Dylan Must Get Stoned

By Stephen H. Webb
May 6, 2014
“Bob Dylan, Live: By Paolo Brillo”
Journalists have always been puzzled by Bob Dylan, but the confusion is of their own making. The pattern of treating him as a trickster whose words cannot be taken at face value was established in the sixties, when the rock intelligentsia wanted Dylan to be a political as well as musical revolutionary. He was neither, of course. His radicalness came from a deeply conservative understanding of musical history: He was reading Civil War era newspapers while everyone else was reading Norman O. Brown and listening to Gospel and Blues when music was becoming “pop” in the fifties. But the story of the sixties wasn’t complete without Dylan as its hero. His so-called followers couldn’t take no as an answer: His denials became obfuscations.
Of course, Dylan can be verbally perverse in interviews, but who can blame him when those who should know better seem clueless to what he is saying? Occasionally in these charades of misunderstanding, Dylan gets so frustrated that he spells everything out, revealing probably more than he intended. Such was the case in a Rolling Stone 2012 interview with Mikal Gilmore.
The interview begins to go wrong for Gilmore (and right for the rest of us) when he asks about “Rainy Day Women.” Dylan says that those who view it as a drug song “aren’t familiar with the Book of Acts.” This comment goes so far over Gilmore’s head that he can’t even respond to it.
Which shows he has no business interviewing Dylan, who has always been immersed in the Bible, its language and its theology. “Rainy Day Women” is more about persecution than intoxication. It sounds like a Salvation Army band playing a funeral march, but its words are deadly serious. When Dylan says that “they’ll stone ya when you’re trying to be so good” and that “they’ll stone ya when you’re tryin’ to go home,” he is speaking straight from the Bible. His comment about the Book of Acts makes the reference more explicit: it’s not just any good man being stoned, but Stephen.
Stoning, of course, was an ancient form of execution, and executions often take on a festive atmosphere. The carnival sound is thus quite appropriate to a song that reenacts an act of scapegoating. Hardly any Dylan fan hears the ritualistic and religious aspects of the song, but that says more about his fans than Dylan himself.
Read the rest of the article:
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon ChristianityHis book on Bob Dylan is Dylan Redeemed.
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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Memo to atheists: God’s not dead yet

A new book exposes a major fallacy in atheist thinking
January 10, 2014

For most of human history, theism was treated as a given. To be sure, there were differences of opinion on the issue. Are there many gods or one? Does he communicate through law? Or prophets? If so, which ones? Might he have become incarnate at some time in human history? These questions and countless others have been answered in many different ways by the world’s great religious traditions. But the underlying presumption in favor of some form of theism remained a constant.
This is no longer the case. Where atheists of old worked to conceal their skepticism for fear of punishment or social ostracism, today they collect hefty book advances and enjoy widespread public adoration. And no wonder: A recent poll shows that one in five Americans has no religious preference, more than double the number reported in 1990 — and the highest rate since the number began to be tracked in the 1930s. According to another survey, nearly a third of Americans under the age of 30 describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or "spiritual but not religious," making the millennial generation the most religiously unaffiliated of any on record.
For those who have led the charge against the forces of faith — Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Grayling, and numerous other wannabes — this change is a welcome sign that the American people have at long last begun to dispel their atavistic ignorance and reconcile themselves to the scientific account of the universe, which is utterly incompatible with any form of theism.
One of the many virtues of theologian David Bentley Hart’s stunning new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, is that it demolishes this facile, self-satisfied position, exposing how completely it relies on a straw man account of God for its cogency. Atheism may well be true; a society of secularists might get along just fine without any form of piety. But until those unbelievers confront the strongest cases for God, they will have failed truly and honestly to rout their infamous enemy.
Without meaning to downplay the very real differences among and within the world’s religions, Hart nonetheless maintains that underlying those differences is a commonly shared cluster of claims about God that can be found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, and various forms of ancient paganism. (He also finds continuities with a number of Buddhist concepts, though he doesn’t press the case.)
The first of these shared claims is that God transcends the universe. Without exception, our clamorous and combative atheists treat God as if he were the biggest, most powerful object or thing in, or perhaps alongside, the universe (a Flying Spaghetti Monster, perhaps). Then they use the findings of science to show that there is no evidence for such an immensely powerful object or thing. And ipso facto, there is no God.
But, of course, the major world religions don’t view God in this way at all. They treat God, instead, as the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world. And that is an enormous — actually, an infinite — difference.
Scientists are heroically proficient at detecting the laws that govern the natural world. They interrogate phenomena, trace effects back to their contingent causes, and then those causes back to even prior causes, developing and testing theories that seek to explain the temporal sequence. In the case of cosmology, that sequence extends all the way back to origins of the universe — to the first contingent cause of every subsequent cause over the past 13.82 billion years or so.
God concerns something else entirely. He is certainly not one of the many contingent causes within the natural world. But neither is he the first contingent cause, setting off the Big Bang from some blast-resistant fallout shelter lodged, somehow, outside of and prior to the universe as we know it.
On the contrary, according to the classical metaphysical traditions of both the East and West, God is the unconditioned cause of reality — of absolutely everything that is — from the beginning to the end of time. Understood in this way, one can’t even say that God "exists" in the sense that my car or Mount Everest or electrons exist. God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.
This can be a difficult concept to grasp, but Hart does an exceptionally good job of explaining it — as he does the way this classical idea of God makes sense of the experience and unity of consciousness, as well as the ecstatic longing for the good and the beautiful that lies at the heart of moral experience.
In a move sure to enrage atheists, Hart even goes so far as to argue that faith in this classical notion of God can never be "wholly and coherently rejected" — and not only because it may very well be self-contradictory to prove the nonexistence of an absolute, transcendent ground of existence.
The deeper reason why theism can’t be rejected, according to Hart, is that every pursuit of truth, every attempt to be good, every longing for beauty presupposes the existence of some idea of truth, goodness, and beauty from which these particular instances are derived. And these transcendental ideas unite in the classical concept of God, who simply is truth, goodness, and beauty. That’s why, although it isn’t necessary to believe in God in some explicit way in order to be good, it certainly is the case (in Hart’s words) "that to seek the good is already to believe in God, whether one wishes to do so or not."
That bracing and bold assertion, like the others that pack nearly every page of The Experience of God, should be questioned and subjected to scrutiny. But it should also be pondered. For provoking deep thought about the profoundest human questions, and for taking an intelligent stand in defense of faith and against its complacent, cultured despisers, Hart deserves the gratitude of a large and appreciative audience.