Friday, April 08, 2016

Inconvenient Genocide

The reason that Obama has ignored the mass slaughter of Mideast Christians.

Caroline Glick
April 8, 2016

ISIS militants march a dozen Egyptian Coptic Christians along a Libyan beach before beheading them in a mass murder Feb. 19, 2015. (Photo: Al-Hayat Media/Zuma Press /Newscom)

The Christian communities of Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon are well on the way to joining their Jewish cousins. The Jewish communities of these states predated Islam by a millennium, and were vibrant until the 20th century. But the Arab world’s war on the Jewish state, and more generally on Jews, wiped out the Jewish populations several decades ago.

And now the Christian communities, which like the Jews, predate Islam, are being targeted for eradication.

The ongoing genocide of Middle Eastern Christians at the hands of Sunni jihadists is a moral outrage. Does it also affect Israeli national interests? What do we learn from the indifference of Western governments – led by the Obama administration – to their annihilation? True, after years of deliberately playing down the issue and denying the problem, the Obama administration is finally admitting it exists. 

Embarrassed by the US House of Representatives’ unanimous adoption of a resolution last month recognizing that Middle Eastern Christians are being targeted for genocide, the State Department finally acknowledged the obvious on March 25, when Secretary of State John Kerry stated that Islamic State is conducting a “genocide of Christians, Yazidis and Shi’ites.”

Kerry’s belated move, which State Department lawyers were quick to insist has no operational significance, raises two questions.

First, what took the Obama administration so long? Persecution of Christians in Iraq began immediately after the US-led coalition brought down Saddam Hussein in 2003. With the rise of Islamic State in 2012, the process of destroying the Christian community went into high gear. And now these ancient communities are on the brink of extinction.

In Iraq, Christians comprised 8 percent of the population in 2003. Today less than 1% of Iraqis are Christians. In Syria, the Christian community has lost between half and two-thirds of its members in the past five years.

One of the appalling aspects of ISIS’s deliberate, open targeting of Christians for destruction is how little resistance it has received from local Sunni populations. As Raymond Ibrahim from the David Horowitz Freedom Center has scrupulously documented, the local Sunnis have not stood up for their Christian neighbors, who have lived side-by-side with them for hundreds of years. Rather, in areas that have been conquered by ISIS, the local Sunnis have collaborated with their genocidal masters in raping and murdering Christian neighbors, plundering their property, destroying their churches, and driving them from their ancestral homes.

Although precise data is hard to come by, it is clear that thousands of Christians have been slaughtered. Thousands of Christian women and girls have been sold as sex slaves in ISIS slave markets, subjected to continuous, violent rape and beatings. Nuns and priests have been enslaved, crucified, mutilated, kidnapped and held for ransom, as have lay members of Christian communities. Christians have been burned alive.

For years, the administration said that the persecution doesn’t amount to genocide because according to ISIS’s propaganda, Christians are allowed to remain in their homes if they agree to live as dhimmis – that is, without any human rights, and subjected to confiscatory taxation.

But as Nina Shea from the Hudson Institute has reported, these claims were shown to be false in Mosul, Nineveh and other places where ISIS has claimed that such practices were instituted.

The jihadist genocide of Christians isn’t limited to Iraq and Syria. Boko Haram – ISIS’s affiliate in Nigeria – is undertaking a systematic campaign to annihilate Christianity in Africa. ISIS’s affiliates in Sinai and Libya have similarly targeted Christians, staging mass beheadings and other monstrous acts.

And of course, a region needn’t be under direct ISIS control for Christians to be targeted for destruction. The Easter massacre in Pakistan was further evidence that wherever radical Islamists gain power, they use it to murder Christians.

And as Larry Franklin from the Gatestone Institute noted in a recent article, the exodus of Christians from the Palestinian Authority is the direct consequence of deliberate persecution of Christians by the PA.

Given the prevalence of Christian persecution, why is the West – which is overwhelmingly Christian – so reticent about mentioning it? And why are Western leaders loathe to do anything to stop it? There are two ways to end genocide. First, you can defeat those conducting it on the battlefield.

If you destroy the forces conducting the genocide, then the genocide ends.

The second way you can stop genocide is by evacuating the targeted population and providing its members with refuge.

After stipulating that ISIS is carrying out a genocide, Kerry made clear that the US will not defeat ISIS to end it. Instead, Kerry said, “We must bear in mind... that the best response to genocide is a reaffirmation of the fundamental right to survive of every group targeted for destruction. What Daesh [ISIS] wants to erase, we must preserve. That requires defeating Daesh, but it also requires the rejection of discrimination and bigotry.”

Kerry then explained that the US’s plan is to cultivate the formation of a multicultural society in Syria. Given the brutal nature of the war, Kerry’s plan is tantamount to saying the US intends to defeat ISIS and rescue those it is currently exterminating by bringing unicorns and leprechauns to the slave markets of Raqqa. Substantively, Kerry’s plan is to deny Christians refuge, and to abandon them to the mercy of their murderers.

While delusional, Kerry’s statement was in line with the Obama administration’s timid, feckless military campaign against ISIS. Everyone knows that the US military could take down ISIS in a matter of weeks if Obama ordered it to do so.

But rather than act decisively, the US has limited its operations to timorous aerial bombing.

By conducting a barely there campaign, Obama tells the world that although he will be happy to take credit for any defeat ISIS suffers, he will not allow the US to lead the fight against the jihadist death machine.

As for providing refuge to the populations targeted with genocide, the raw data make clear that Obama does just the opposite. He is providing refuge for Sunni Muslims, who are not being targeted for genocide, which is being conducted by Sunni Muslims.

As Ibrahim has documented, although Christians made up 10% of the Syrian population in 2011, they comprise a mere 2.7% of the Syrian refugees the Obama administration has allowed into the US. And when presidential hopeful Senator Ted Cruz called for the US to provide refuge to Christians, who pose no security threat and are targeted with genocide and persecution while banning Muslim immigration, Obama accused him of bigotry.

Despite the fact that FBI Director James Comey told Congress that the US lacked the capacity to effectively screen Muslims from Syria for ties to jihadist groups, Obama said that a policy of saving those marked for extinction over those who come from the population conducting the genocide is “shameful,” and “not American.”

Beyond refusing to take the necessary steps to ensure that persecuted Christians are rescued from annihilation, the State Department has been rejecting visa requests from Christian activists and leaders from persecuted communities to visit the US to share information about their suffering with the American public. This, at the same time that the administration has welcomed Muslim jihad sympathizers, including Muslim Brotherhood members, to Washington.

For instance, last May, the State Department denied a visa to Sister Diana Momeka, an Iraqi nun and ISIS survivor. Momeka was the only Christian member of a delegation of persecuted minorities. Representatives of every other group received visas. It took a public outcry to force the State Department to reverse its decision.

Also last year, the State Department gave visas to all Muslim regional governors in northern Nigeria to participate in a conference sponsored by the US Institute of Peace. They denied a visa to the region’s only Christian governor, Jonah David Jang. Christian activists alleged that Jang was denied a visa because he spoke up to US officials about anti-Christian persecution in 12 states in northern Nigeria that have instituted Sharia law.

What accounts for this behavior? The answer is not ignorance, but ideologically- motivated bigotry. The Aid to the Church in Need organization explained in its 2015 report on Christian persecution, “Christians have been targeted [because]... Christianity [is seen] as a foreign ‘colonial’ import. Christians are seen as linked to the West, which is perceived as corrupt and exploitative.”

In another report, the group explained that the Western media has avoided covering the story of the Islamic genocide of Middle East Christians because of “misplaced embarrassment about the 19th-century colonial powers evangelizing ‘the natives’ in far flung places.”

In other words, Middle Eastern Christians, whose communities predate Islam, are targeted because they are perceived as Western implants.

And the West ignores their suffering, because the Left in the West perceives them as Western implants.

In both cases, prejudices, rooted on the one hand in jihadist Islam, and on the other hand in Western self-hatred and post-colonialism, reach the same bigoted conclusion: the only “authentic” people in the Middle East are Muslims.

Everybody else is a colonial implant. And as such, they deserve what they get.

This then brings us back to Israel, and the Jews.

The same ideological prejudice that refuses to recognize that the Islamic State is Islamic, refuses to recognize that jihad is unique to Islam, refuses to recognize that Christians as religious minorities are being targeted for annihilation, and refuses to recognize that the Christians of the Middle East are ancient peoples who have lived in their communities since the dawn of Christianity, also refuse to recognize the rights of the Jewish people as the indigenous people of the land of Israel.

This is the reason that Western governments, led by the Obama administration, are unwilling to defeat ISIS. This is why they are giving preference to Muslim asylum-seekers, who they are incapable of screening, over Christians, who it is unnecessary to screen.

This is the reason that the same governments are far more willing to attack Jews for living beyond the 1949 armistice lines, in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria – the cradle of Jewish civilization and the heartland of the land of Israel, than they are willing to end their support for the PA which sponsors and celebrates terrorism. This is why the same governments eagerly embrace every allegation of Israeli racism, real or imagined, while they ignore, or even fund racist Palestinian efforts to deny Jewish history, a history which leads to the inevitable conclusion that the Jews are the indigenous people of the land of Israel.

The reason Obama refuses to protect Middle East Christians from extinction is because he cannot rescue them – either on the ground or by ensuring they can flee to safety – without abandoning his ideological faith that the only “natives” of the Middle East are the Muslims.

 Tags: Christian PersecutionChristianityISISMiddle East

The New Man and his Gender Gap

By Mark Steyn
April 7, 2016

On New Year's Eve, Michelle, 18, was strolling past Cologne Cathedral when she was surrounded by some two dozen men who groped her legs, buttocks and breasts before stealing her phone. But don't worry, Michelle; Doug Saunders says you're just imagining it. (

Robert Spencer's Jihad Watch is the latest to weigh in on last Friday's clash of, er, titans:
Tragically, most people don't know what is happening, but as the Munk debate proved, when we have the opportunity to present the truth, we have a very strong likelihood of winning people over to the side of reason and righteousness and the defense of Western civilization.
Andrew Lawton also has some thoughts on hispodcast.

As noted yesterday, at issue during the debate was whether the alleged Northern Europe gang-rape epidemic was merely a kinky sex fantasy for me and Nigel Farage. Is it even happening? The National Post's Jonathan Kay:
Mark Steyn seems to suggest that Muslim refugees raped 500 women and girls in Germany in single night. Seems very dubious
If you're going to present yourself as a fact-checker, you could at least get off your arse and check facts. Actually, I said there were 500 "sexual assaults", a crime which includes not just penetration by an unwanted penis, but apparently trivial and unimportant stuff like, for example, being surrounded by a dozen menacing, predatory men and finding that "Ich hatte Finger an allen Körperöffnungen" - I had a finger in every orifice.

Nor did I say there were 500 sexual assaults "in Germany". I said there were 500 in Cologne alone. From Süddeutsche Zeitung:
Bislang wurden laut Staatsanwaltschaft Köln 1139 Anzeigen gestellt, davon 485 wegen einer Sexualstraftat.
That's to say, the Cologne state prosecutor's office is (as of a fortnight ago) up to 1,139 New Year's Eve attacks, of which 485 are for sex assaults. So you got me there, Jonathan. I ballooned it out of all proportion and alleged there were not a footling 485 sexual assaults in Cologne in a single night, but a grossly exaggerated and "very dubious" 500. As for the number throughout Germany, there were also mass coordinated gang assaults in Bielefeld, Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Stuttgart - totaling just shy of 2,000 victims.

But let's keep it with Cologne. Jonathan Kay was a colleague of mine at The National Post for many years, and we have shared a stage and, on one occasion, a synagogue podium together. So I'm reluctant to go full shagged-sheep on an old friend. I will, however, observe that the great liberal virtue of "empathy" appears to be all but entirely absent among a certain type of Toronto male. Perhaps I've spent more time in Continental cities than Jonathan has, but the reality of what happened in Germany that night is very vivid to me. To translate it into local terms, given that Toronto is roughly two-and-a-half times the size of Cologne, it's the equivalent of about 1,200 women being sexually assaulted on New Year's Eve in front of Union Station or Queen's Park.

Would that not be ...unusual? And worthy of note?

Apparently not. As the debate progressed, Jonathan found himself fighting vainly the old ennui:
At #MunkDebate, Mark Steyn returns to his theme of Muslims raping "3-year-old girls." He's already mentioned this three times.
Oh, dear. Since attacks on three-year-olds are such a bore to him, he'll be glad to hear that this week in the new Europe they've advanced to targeting two-year-olds:
Asylsökare satte kniv mot tvåårig flickas hals
Which means: Asylum seekers put a knife to two-year-old girl's neck. That's a Tuesday night in a small Swedish town (population 4,000) hitherto noted mainly as the birthplace of England footie manager Sven-Göran Eriksson.

[UPDATE: Still not young enough? Okay, here's a migrant threatening to hurl a newborn baby at police.]

We didn't do a lot of strategizing before the debate, mainly because Nigel had leaned on the Munk minders to fish out a rather decent bottle of Niagara vin rouge for the green room, and he kept nipping out for a fag, which I tried to explain meant something entirely different in Toronto. (He was amused to find you weren't allowed to smoke within nine meters of a building, and marveled at the lengthy negotiations into the small hours that had produced such a finely calibrated exclusion zone.) But we did at one point mull over what our audience might be expected to be familiar with on this topic and agreed that it would not be much: Sentimentalism certainly, class attitudes, virtue-signaling, but it was more than likely that, for CBC listeners and Globe & Mail readers, Cologne on New Year's Eve would be an entirely novel topic.

Still, I don't feel writers who purport to be experts on the subject have the same excuse. The Globe & Mail's Doug Saunders:
A very large part of his [Steyn's] debate argument involved retailing urban myths involving refugees and rape etc
By "urban myths", Mr Saunders means hundreds and hundreds of Continental media reports. If you recall (from the aforementioned clash of titans) that flurry of child-rape stories I cited from a week's worth of German newspapers in January, I could have read out similar individual European headlines until the end of the debate at 9pm, and never repeated myself.

But no doubt Saunders' agent is already pitching his next book. Forthcoming from Knopf Canada:
Hey, What's The Big Deal About Gang Rape?
by Doug Saunders
"Spirited!" - Jonathan Kay

At a certain level, Louise Arbour is right: Nigel and I are not the best spokespersons for the raped and battered women and children of the new Europe. We are, after all, as Mr Saunders says, mere bigoted cartoon characters. It would be much better for the victims if all the respectable people - like Louise and Simon and Doug and Jonathan - were to take up the cause.

But they don't.

And they mock those who do.

Yet the final score of that debate suggests that at least some of the women in Roy Thomson Hall took it seriously. And it was striking that among the valiant Twitter warriors cheering the Doug Saunders line afterwards there was a very pronounced male bias. The Munk tag line is:
The Munk Debates provide a lively and substantive forum for leading thinkers to discuss the pressing issues of our time.
"Feminist" Cameron MacLeod found that hilarious:
"The Munk Debates provide a lively and substantive forum for leading thinkers & also Mark Steyn to discuss the pressing issues of our time."
Funny. But perhaps not as funny as Mr MacLeod's earlier Tweet of a brand new cardboard hashtag he'd painstakingly created a few days before:
You can take that to the bank, ladies. Cameron MacLeod has whipped out his cardboard hashtag and he's there for you: #IBelieveSurvivors, #IBelieveWomen ...except women from Cologne, Oldenburg, Bad Münstereifel, Solingen, Chemnitz, Salzburg, Helsinki, Stockholm, Oslo, Brussels, etc. They're just "urban myths".

Those cities are not so distant to the liberal châtelaines in Roy Thomson Hall: Toronto 2016 is far closer in its social attitudes to contemporary Scandinavia or Germany than it is to 1867 British North America. And so perhaps those women intuit, in a way that Messrs MacLeod and Saunders do not, what Barbara Kay articulated:
A civilized culture, which takes centuries of painstaking collaborative work to create, can be easily destroyed, and quickly.
Very true. One of the questions asked of Germany in the weeks after New Year was a simple one: Where are all the men? Well, here's one answer from Stéphanie Kay - no relation to either Barbara Kay or Jonathan Kay, I think, but we're all Kay all the time at SteynOnline; as they said in the Seventies, you're a Kay, I'm a Kay. If you see someone in a Kay-Kay-Kay robe wandering around Indiana University, it may just be a Barbara-Jonathan-Stéphanie fan. Anyway, Mlle Kay writes:
So men concerned about sex crimes against women and children are either pathologically obsessed with sex (Schama) or frauds (Arbour). Have we got that? Well maybe that's why, after 40+ years of feminism, no Western men seem to have been on hand to defend the women and children when these crimes occurred.
It turns out the new men - the ones Louise Arbour doesn't laugh at - aren't there for all those German women. And on the evidence of Munk Debate Tweeters they're unlikely to be there for Toronto women, either.

In my speech in the Danish Parliament a few months ago, I mentioned Molly Norris - mainly because nobody else does. She was the impeccably liberal progressive feminist alternative-weekly cartoonist from Seattle who entirely by accident fell afoul of the Islamic supremacists - and so was obliged, upon the advice of the FBI, to vanish from the face of the earth. Or as her gutless colleagues at The Seattle Weekly put it:
You may have noticed that Molly Norris' comic is not in the paper this week. That's because there is no more Molly.
That bland kiss-off became the title of a chapter in my book The [Un]documented Mark Steyn - "There Is No More Molly". Miss Norris and I had some correspondence in the run-up to the vaporizing of her life, and so, as in Copenhagen last September, she pops up from the back of my mind from time to time:
I think a lot about my poor clueless leftie chum Molly Norris. Where is she? And what did she do to deserve having her life erased? And why do none of her liberal friends ever mention her?
As I wrote in my book, "when the chips are down, your fellow lefties won't be there for you".

And so it goes for thousands of women across the most liberal, progressive cities in Europe. In the Nineties, I took Louise Arbour seriously on gang-rape in the Balkans, because I knew victims of it. As I said on stage, she was the first prosecutor to charge mass rape as a war crime. For her generation, as I was obliged to remind Simon Schama, rape is not about sex but about power. New Year's Eve in Cologne was also about power. And, given the coordination via social media of mass sexual assault by thousands of men from the Tyrol to the Baltic, it was also a weapon of war.

And so, to too many "liberal" men, these women and children are just collateral damage: You can't make a vibrant diverse multicultural omelette without breaking a few eggs, right?

Today's Tune: Merle Haggard & Dwight Yoakam - Swinging Doors (Live)

Dwight Yoakam on the Genius and Tragedy of Merle Haggard


Two of the most iconic voices of the Bakersfield sound, Dwight Yoakam and Merle Haggard had a musical kinship that ran deep. Their many collaborations included "Beer Can Hill" (also with Buck Owens), and a remake of "Swinging Doors," with Yoakam also covering several of the Hag's songs over the years including "Holding Things Together," which contains what he deems the ultimate verse in all of music. Here are Yoakam's poignant, passionate words about the late legend, as told to Rolling Stone's Patrick Doyle.

To say Merle Haggard was one of the very greatest would be an inadequate understatement. The word 'genius' is used too often to describe people. But I would put Merle Haggard's artistic genius up against anybody in history, in terms of pop culture and chronicling human experience, love and loss, and the gamut of human emotion.

I've been posting a lot of [Haggard] songs for fans. I started thinking about his ability to transcend all the tragedy in his personal life. It started with his father dying when he was 10 years old. He was coming home from church with his mother on a Wednesday night; his father had not gone to church with him. His father was at the kitchen table. He wasn't moving, and they realized there was something wrong. His father was shockingly young [when he died], in his early Forties, I believe. He had a stroke just from the life he had lived trying to help his family survive. He was migrant worker and it was a tough work for those migrant Okies who had blown out of the Dust Bowl when they moved to California.

Merle's sister said that [their father's death] probably shaped him more than any other event in his life. It overwhelmed him. He talked about witnessing the strongest man on earth, his father, in this state — and he was completely helpless. He passed away a few days after that, and Merle couldn't contain himself. He never settled down as a young teenager. It was a very Steinbeck world — Grapes of Wrath was the world he was literally born into, the labor camps. He wrote about it on "Mama's Hungry Eyes":

A canvas covered cabin in a crowded labor camp
Stand out in this memory I revived;
Cause my daddy raised a family there, with two hard working hands
And tried to feed my mama's hungry eyes

It's one of the songs that shaped my experience as a songwriter and taught me what the standard should be for expressing the emotions about the human experience, the shared experiences we have.

His real life was larger than life. I think he was 19 when he was arrested. He used to laughingly say it was one of the stupidest burglaries ever attempted: He broke into a bar that he and a buddy had been drinking in earlier. They were drunk and tried to break into the safe while the bar was still open, so they were caught red-handed. He'd been in a juvenile hall over the years; he had a lot of trouble. I was always taken with Merle by the conflict of his desire to like people and the scar that he carried from that prison experience at such a young age. That wouldn't allow him to fully trust anybody ever, it seemed. And out of that dichotomy came these songs.

He never really escaped being the fugitive that he was in life. A lot of people didn't know he had been in prison at that point. He didn't talk about it publicly; he was ashamed of it. And Johnny Cash famously told him on his show in '69 or '70. . . He said, "Merle, I think you owe it to yourself and the public to talk about your life." Because that's where Merle saw Johnny the first time, at one of the prison shows [Cash] performed in San Quentin, when Merle was a 20-year-old inmate. Of course, he wrote "Mama Tried," which was kind of a fictionalized account of that experience. The other one is "Sing Me Back Home":

The warden led a prisoner down the hallway to his doom
I stood up to say goodbye like all the rest
And I heard him tell the warden just before he reached my cell
'Let my guitar playing friend do my request.'

Imagine going to San Quentin at 18, 19 years old. I can only imagine the devastation of that. And I just felt a sorrow in Merle even when he smiled. It was around him. He wanted so desperately to like people. It must have been an overwhelming burden to not be suspicious the whole time. Just talking with him, being with him and the honor that he offered me his friendship. . . it will always stay with me.

The song that taught me more about songwriting probably more than other song I've come across is "Holding Things Together." It's one verse. When you write a verse like the verse that's in that song, there's no other verse needed:

Today was Angie's birthday
I guess it slipped your mind
I tried twice to call you
But no answer either time
But the postman brought a present
I mailed some days ago
I just signed it love from mama
So Angie wouldn't know

"Holding Things Together" is about a broken family. The man is left with the children, as the mother has left the family — a reversal of the cliché of the more common scenario. And that happened to Merle a couple of times. His previous wives were troubled in their own right. But Merle was able to channel all that through his music.

A father mails a birthday present to a little girl and signs it, "Love from mama," so the little girl won't have to live the tragedy of knowing her mother forgot her birthday. That's Merle Haggard. The love in that song, in that lyric, in that story. . . it eclipses anything I've ever come across.
There was a delivery in Merle that was that effortless. It's Sinatra-like. I was talking to Dick Clark one time and Dick said to me, "I wanted to make [Merle] a pop star back in 1968. . . I told him, 'Merle if you let me, I'll put everything I have into taking you crossover and making you a pop star.' And Merle said, 'I can't do that. It's not in me. That's not my music.'"

I got to interview him for the Country Music Hall of Fame's Bakersfield Exhibit. He said to me, "Dwight, do you know the difference between country music in Nashville and country music in California?" I said no. He said, "Country music in Nashville came out of the church. California came out of honky tonks and bars." I thought, in a succinct observation of a singular difference, that was an astute and accurate one.

He could be succinctly accurate with all emotion. He did it when he wrote "Today I Started Loving You Again." His ex-wife, Bonnie Owens, co-wrote it. After they divorced, she was still singing backup with him. He told me they got home from a weeklong run and flew back into LAX. He saw Bonnie getting her luggage and looked at her and said, "Today I started loving you again." That's what he wrote that about, looking at Bonnie in the airport. So he was able to capture life's honesty in the moments that were fleetingly honest.

One of my favorite memories was he did a TV special in Vegas and invited me to do "Swinging Doors" together. He was great at doing impressions. His Buck Owens impersonation is hilarious. It's eerily, spot-on Buck. Merle brought me on in Vegas that night and he did one of those for me. He moved his leg and danced a little bit like I'm known to do. And that's something that I'll remember forever.

A few weeks ago, I called him. He was weak, but I didn't realize at the time that it would be the last time I spoke to him. We were talking about Kris Kristofferson, actually, and the fact that Kris may have had good news recently about his own health issues. And Merle was really thrilled about that. We talked for a bit more and said goodbye and said we'd speak again when he was better. Today I thought, "You're better now."

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Postscript: Merle Haggard, 1937—2016

It’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Merle Haggard—the archetypal outlaw, often bearded, a little skeptical around the eyes, a little bit somewhere else—including a song called “If We Make It Through December on a Christmas record, where it could freely rub up against blank, life-affirming hooey like “Jingle Bells” and “Winter Wonderland.” The song, which was an unexpected crossover hit (it cracked the Billboard Hot 100 at the end of 1973, peaking at number twenty-eight), is heavy with yearning, resignation. After that, faith: “If we make it through December, everything’s gonna be alright,” Haggard promises.
I’ve listened to “If We Make It Through December” almost every December of my adult life. Something in Haggard’s delivery—calm, until his voice wobbles halfway through the word “fine”—is, for me, a fail-safe balm for the strange, year-end ennui that skulks up on (and sometimes swallows) even the best of us. The temptation to spend every idle minute calculating and recalculating the year’s missteps and devastations—to indulge in the cruellest kind of stocktaking that December allows—is invariably strong. Haggard acknowledges that. It’s O.K. Look ahead; wait. “I plan to be in a warmer town come summertime.”
By the end of “If We Make It Through December,” after the fiddle comes back in, I’m usually pretty deep into one of those gross, hiccupping laugh-cries, in which it seems like my breath is going in and coming out at the same time. It always feels incredible—a loosening. A warmer town come summertime.
Haggard died on Wednesday, his seventy-ninth birthday, on a ranch not terribly far from Bakersfield, California, a town synonymous with the twangy, rugged, guitar-driven style he helped engineer there. It’s hard to say what country music would look like without him. He was a progenitor—along with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and a dozen or so others—of what’s now called outlaw country; the idea, back in the nineteen-sixties, was to present a grittier alternative to the smooth, overtly professional sounds then piping out of Nashville, often under the tutelage of the producer and guitarist Chet Atkins.
The idea of outlaw country might sound punitive, or at least dumbly macho—“Our thing is less neutered than your thing!”—but listen to Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” a hit from 1968, and then listen to Patsy Cline, or Eddy Arnold, or Jim Reeves singing about anything at all. Haggard possessed—could sublimate—a wildness then largely unknown (it was at least long unseen) in country music. His songs are loose and unstoppable, like a jalopy with the brakes cut, careening downhill in a cloud of dust. And then there was Merle, his head stuck out the window, hat blown off, whooping like a cowboy.
He was either the author or performer of several of the world’s greatest drinking jams, including “Misery and Gin,” “I Don’t Want to Sober Up Tonight,” “Back to the Barrooms Again,” “Drink Up and Be Somebody,” “It’s All Going to Pot” (a collaboration with—who else?—Willie Nelson), and, perhaps most famously, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” The latter is a glorious kiss-off, finished with a long, loping guitar solo and one of the surliest spoken codas ever committed to tape (“We’re gone,” Haggard mutters during the fadeout). It’s a glorious, birds-up protest anthem, an embodiment of the best (petulance) and worst (petulance) parts of the outlaw ethos. That sullen swagger could backfire, like any hyper-masculine manifestation, but when it hit right, like on “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”—bottom’s up, we’re all gone.
Haggard was born in 1937, in a converted boxcar in Oildale, California, to Flossie Mae and James Haggard, Okies who’d fled the dustbowl during the Great Depression. Per the biographies, Haggard was a wily, fearless, impish kid. He was first ordered to a juvenile detention center in 1950, for shoplifting, and then ordered back several times after that. He spent most of his adolescence either hopping freight trains, hitchhiking, driving a potato truck, frying eggs on a kitchen line, or committing petty larceny. In my mind, he is often descending out an open window via a rope made of bed sheets, under cloak of night, hitting the ground hard and sprinting off into the blackness, his boots kicking up puffs of dirt. In 1957, he was arrested while trying to rob a roadhouse in Bakersfield. He spent his twenty-first birthday in solitary confinement at San Quentin. He was there, in 1958, when Johnny Cash showed up with an acoustic guitar.
He recorded his first long-playing album in 1965; “Strangers,” released by Capitol Records, eventually made it to number nine on the country chart. Haggard wouldn’t become known to pop fans until 1969, though, when he wrote “Okie from Muskogee,” a lumbering, boastful paean to Oklahoma, fuelled by anti-hippie rhetoric (“We don’t make a party out of lovin’ / We like holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo / We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy / Like the hippies out in San Francisco do”). There is a whiff of “real America”-pandering to the lyric, and when it was suggested that the conservative message of “Okie from Muskogee” might be at odds, in some fundamental way, with the lawless nature of his work and life, Haggard took a predictably contrarian stance. He later suggested to an interviewer that his vitriol toward Vietnam War protesters was directed at their character, not necessarily their politics. It just didn’t seem right, he insisted: “They weren’t over there fightin’ that war anymore than I was.”
Although he took a few extended breaks, Haggard recorded and performed fairly consistently for the last five decades. In 2013, he was photographed wearing a floppy San Francisco Giants bucket hat and a large gray sweatshirt featuring the phrase “I [Heart] Haters.” He posted the picture to his Twitter account, accompanied by the caption, “How bout this sweatshirt.” He remained irascible well into his dotage.
He leaves behind a considerable discography—dozens of albums, which collectively contain thirty-eight number-one country singles—but, as with most of the great American singers, there is a sense that no one studio recording ever quite captured all of him. The way he moved, or how he got over.
Still, if you watch enough footage of Haggard performing live, you’ll start to notice him doing something sort of curious: he hovers around the microphone, his eyes fixed on some invisible point in the middle distance, narrowed and brutally focussed. It’s the kind of visage people adopt when they’re trying to tell you something important: that they love you, or that they think you’re making some kind of mistake. “His gaze, the way he engages the mic, the timing and weird dips and glide of his voice,” is how my friend Christopher began to describe the scene in an e-mail a couple hours after we’d all learned Haggard had died. “He sings around a song, sort of into it and out of it, like a prospector knowing there’s even more to discover. He does all of this with the audience as a critical part of the process, like they are part of that song-glob he’s navigating. It’s where you really see what he’s about.”
It’s tough, now, to know that those videos are all the Merle Haggard we’ve got left on Earth. There is a generosity to his movement onstage that reminds me, in a way, of “If We Make It Through December,” a song as emotionally generous as any I can think of. Haggard was singing, always, to the person for whom dread wasn’t an abstract concept, but a way of being: the broken-hearted, the broken-down. He scanned the crowd, and found him, and helped him.

Merle Haggard doing Impressions

Merle Haggard, RIP

A great American voice has died.

Fifty-nine years ago, two men and a woman sat around a table in Bakersfield, drinking red wine and cursing the state of the union. "Ain't no jobs to be had," one man said.
"I know it, I know it," said the other. "An honest man might's well quit trying." And then he added: "I know where there's a bunch of money. It wouldn't be no trouble to get it."
The trio, now thoroughly drunk, decided to break into a restaurant on Highway 99. No one would catch them, they reasoned, because it was 3 in the morning. And so they headed out to the roadhouse with a baby in tow, and they started trying to pry their way in through the back door.

Unfortunately for the crooks, they had been too drunk to read the clock correctly: It was actually around 10 p.m., and the joint was still open. And that was how Merle Haggard, who had already spent more than a little time behind bars for a variety of petty offenses, got a ticket to San Quentin.
It was in that prison, inspired by one of Johnny Cash's concerts-behind-bars, that Haggard the inept burglar decided to turn his life around. We're all fortunate that he did. In the time since he left San Quentin in 1960, Haggard—who died today on his 79th birthday—built one of the richest bodies of work in the history of American popular music. A country singer, Haggard was always happy to draw as well from other genres: blues, rock, gospel, and especially jazz. (The next time you watch that famous clip of Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing an odd-couple duet, remind yourself that Haggard was a professed fan of both.) He was an excellent vocalist, a capable guitarist and fiddler, and the leader of an expert band. But he wasn't just a musical giant. His finest songs are tightly compressed stories and character sketches that belong in the canon of American literature.
How much do his best records stand out? Country music is full of songs about truck drivers, but I can't think of any as world-weary and bleak as "White Line Fever," with its aging narrator's lament: "I've been from coast to coast a hundred times or more/And I ain't found one single place where I ain't been before."
The song treats truck driving as an addiction, and when you combine that with the phrase "white line" you may suspect the verses have a hidden second subject. Decades later, Haggard would begin another world-weary song—"Wishing All These Old Things Were New"—with a more explicit reference to that other sort of white line: "Watching while some old friends do a line/Holding back the want-to in my own addicted mind." And then, in the second verse, a moment with more than a hint of autobiography: "Watching while some young men go to jail/And they show it all on TV, just to see somebody fail." Listen:

It's both nostalgic and anti-nostalgic—a song for someone who misses the old times but also knows damn well they weren't as good as he remembers them. This was a recurring theme for Haggard. (It should be no surprise that he recorded a version of Dolly Parton's "In the Good Old Days When Times Were Bad.") His most poetic expression of the idea may be a line from "They're Tearing the Labor Camps Down," a song about a man returning to his hometown and seeing that the camp where he used to work isn't there anymore. "I feel a little sentimental shame," he sings.
Haggard's most famous record—or infamous, in some circles—is "Okie from Muskogee," the Silent Majority's great culture-war anthem of 1969. At the time, people took it as a song for hardhats who hated hippies: Spiro Agnew mashed up with the Grand Ol' Opry. Years later, it became common to claim the tune was intended as a joke. When a man who smokes pot starts a song with the words "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee," you have to wonder whether he was speaking for himself. And Haggard undeniably enjoyed his pot. "Son," he told one interviewer, "Muskogee's just about the only place I don't smoke it."
Haggard himself was always cagey about what he meant by the song, and the answers he gave to interviewers weren't always consistent with one another. But the best way to understand the record, I've long thought, is to take it as a dramatic monologue. "Okie" reports how a conservative character feels about the counterculture, and whether you take his views as inspiring or hilarious is up to you. The fact that it can work either way is a tribute to Haggard's skills.
It could be hard to get a bead on Haggard's politics. After "Okie from Muskogee" was a smash hit, Haggard wanted his next single to be "Irma Jackson," an anti-racist story about interracial love. His label rejected the idea—indeed, it refused to release the song at all for several years—and his follow-up instead was "The Fightin' Side of Me," a ditty about wanting to beat up anti-American protesters. That one could've been the soundtrack to the Hard Hat Riot of 1970, when rampaging construction workers in New York attacked hippies and demanded that City Hall raise the American flag. (Though even here, the politics aren't as simple as you might assume: The singer stresses that "I don't mind them switching sides and standing up for things that they believe in" before explaining that it's "when they're running down our country" that "they're walking on the fighting side of me.")
Haggard's politics got only more unpredictable as he grew older. By the late '90s he was spouting militia-style conspiracy theories and calling for the legalization of weed. In the Bush years he took to denouncing the president as one of "the top three assholes of all time" (along with Nixon and Hitler) and harshly criticizing the Iraq war. ("Why don't we liberate/These United States?/We're the ones who need it the worst," he sang in 2005. The track was called "America First.") In 2008, he wrote a number endorsing Hillary Clinton for president—not one of his most accomplished compositions, though I can't help admiring his ability to fit the line "What we need's a big switch of genders" into a country song. Or maybe I should say he seemed to endorse Hillary: Not long after he wrote it, he went on the Bill Maher show and defied common sense by denying that the song—which builds to the line "let's put a woman in charge"—had been an endorsement. ("I simply wrote a song that said she would be the best buy," he grinned, prompting Maher to comment that Haggard was "parsing it closer than Bill.") Haggard was large. He contained multitudes.
And so did his catalog. It's not just that he wrote so many wonderful hits, from "Mama Tried" to "Silver Wings" to "Big City." Even his obscure compositions could be gems, from the delicate, Blackbirdesque beauty of "The Day the Rains Came" to the blunt paranoia of "Lonesome Day." He was a master interpreter of other people's words too: It was Hank Cochran and Red Lane who wrote "I'll Be a Hero When I Strike," a haunting portrait of an assassin, but the skittish, apprehensive delivery here is all Haggard:
With so many brilliant entries in the Haggard songbook, I'm not sure I could pick a single favorite. But if I had to choose one, it would probably be "Sing Me Back Home," a superficially simple account of a prisoner singing one last song to another convict before the latter is led to the executioner. There are no inspired metaphors or bursts of clever wordplay here, but the song feels infinitely complex; we hear a memory within another memory, and somehow, in the spaces between the chorus and the song's two verses, we feel the weight of a man's entire life. If it isn't Haggard's best song, it's surely the one with which to mourn him:

Books Editor Jesse Walker is the author of The United States of Paranoia (HarperCollins) and Rebels on the Air (NYU Press).