Friday, March 15, 2019

The Bulwark Embarrasses Itself Further With Attack on Victor Davis Hanson

March 14, 2019

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Being of a charitable disposition, I early on decided that the kindest response to The Bulwark, the NeverTrump redoubt started by Bill Kristol following the implosion of the Weekly Standard, was silence. If this tiny cohort of bitter and unhappy souls was determined to embarrass themselves in public, the best we could do was turn away. Non ragioniam di lor, as Dante says in another context, ma guarda e passa. It would be cruel to let daylight in upon madness.

I said nothing when, for one of their opening acts, editor-in-chief Charles Sykes pronounced anathema upon me and Henry Olsen, the distinguished ethics and public policy scholar, for the sin of supporting the president of the United States on some issue or other. I was planning to continue to follow Wittgenstein’s advice at the end of the Tractatus and pass over in silence the twisted attack on Victor Davis Hanson’s new book on the president, The Case for Trump, by Hudson Institute Fellow Gabriel Schoenfeld, but the ad hominem viciousness of the piece together with its surreal mischaracterization of Hanson’s argument prompts me to weigh in.

“This is not to say that Hanson’s book lacks value,” Schoenfeld writes:
As a part of a larger phenomenon, it is instructive in its way. Anyone with an iota of historical awareness is familiar with the fact that intellectuals in Europe and the United States lauded Joseph Stalin even as he sent millions to the Gulag and their death. By the same token, Adolf Hitler, one of the 20th century’s other mega-mass murderers, also found his share of admirers in the academy …
And they’re off! Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and military historian, has said admiring things about certain of Donald Trump’s policies -- his judicial appointments, for example, his handling of the economy and attention to modernizing our military -- ergo he is an intellectual in the service of evil. Hanson treats this calumny with some portion of the contempt that it deserves.

“Schoenfeld,” he writes:
… insinuates that I am a racist for not calling out Donald Trump’s alleged bigotry. For a supposed racist enabler, I have an odd way of living -- in the house where I was raised in an impoverished multiracial rural community, part of an extended family that is far from exclusively “white,” and teaching for over 20 years at a state university attended mostly by minority students, many from communities near my home. If advocating melting-pot policies of assimilation, integration, and intermarriage -- and living in minority neighborhoods and putting one’s children in underperforming but diverse public schools -- is also proof of past “service to a genuine evil,” I plead guilty.
That answers the ad hominem part of Schoenfeld’s effusion. What about his estimation of the president’s supposed “evil”? “Trump’s economic agenda.” Hanson points out:
… has done far more for minority job seekers than have the policies of past Republican or Democratic presidents. Unlike many of his opponents in the Democratic party, Trump does not deprecate Catholicism. He has been on the forefront in calling out the new generation of progressive anti-Semites in Congress. No president has been more adamantly opposed to abortion on demand, which has devastated the African-American community, and which a number of black leaders have called black “genocide,” and whose effects in the past have earned either at best liberal assent or at worst outright progressive support for eugenics. In 2020, for all those reasons and others, Trump may well receive a higher percentage of the black, Hispanic, and Jewish vote than, for example, Mitt Romney in 2012.
The point is, these policies have had a palpable and beneficent effect on millions of people, helping to lift them out of poverty, to secure them against the depredations of criminals and dependency-inducing government intervention. They are, in a word, morally positive policies.

It is a favorite trope among critics of the president, including ones more circumspect and temperate than Gabe Schoenfeld, to argue that Donald Trump is a man of bad character and draw all sorts of dire inferences from that contention. I have had occasion to challenge that trope myself -- here for example, and here -- but Hanson gives a fuller account than any I have seen of exactly how it is that Donald Trump’s presidency, for all its rhetorical bluster and occasional crudity, has been a salubrious and morally uplifting enterprise.

The emotive, moralistic side of Schoenfeld’s argument is the thing that most readers will come away with. He thinks Donald Trump is a bad man, and he believes that anyone who does not repudiate him is a patsy, a collaborator in evil, or both. But he also endeavors to support this torrent of temperament with a bill of particulars. This is where his piece becomes truly embarrassing. Discussing and dismissing the importance of the infamous dossier compiled by Christopher Steele and surreptitiously paid for by the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s campaign as oppo-research against their political opponent, Schoenfeld asserts that it is unimportant because there was no effort to broadcast its smears against Trump before the election. “Why,” Schoenfeld asks, “did [the Democrats] not leak the dossier, already in their possession, to the media before the election when it could have done the Trump campaign serious damage?" Unsurprisingly, this is a question that Hanson opts not to entertain.”

Hanson answers this preposterous claim in great detail, but let me merely recapitulate what the unidentified Twitter maven known as Undercover Huber says about this:


—The Weekly Standard
—New Yorker
—Yahoo News
—Mother Jones

And by the Clinton campaign:
—Press release “bombshells”
—Tweets read by millions


There follows a thread which cites chapter and verse, destroying any last shred of credibility that might have been attached to the scarecrow that is Gabe Schoenfeld.

To date, the only response from this fellow of the Hudson Institute is a tweet that links to Victor Davis Hanson’s rebuttal under the rubric “He doth protest too much.” As of this writing, every single response to that feeble rejoinder is along the lines of this pithy but not inaccurate comment: “He destroyed you.”

Epiphone Interview: Jason Ringenberg

February 18, 2019

For over 15 years, Jason Ringenberg, the leader of the legendary proto-Americana band Jason & Scorchers and one of the greatest “front-men” in the history of modern Rock & Roll, took on the persona of Farmer Jason, performing at small theaters and high school assembly halls to the one audience that all entertainers—past and present—have feared the most: kids.  Kids either like ya or they don’t. And no amount of logic or bribery—be it juice box or cheese stick—will influence them. But kids loved Farmer Jason, and Ringenberg went on to win an Emmy Award for writing, singing, and teaching to a new generation of youngsters how to be a friendly farmer provocateur, heal the environment, and honor all the creatures in the circle of life. (Eat your heart out Vice President Gore.)  
But for those of us lucky enough to have witnessed the first generation of the Scorchers in full bloom and watched Mr. Ringenberg walk across long tables seated with record executives from Warner Brothers, Capitol, Asylum, and Sony, and squash their cocktails glasses to dust with his boot heels while singing Hank Williams at Mach 5 volume, we always knew there had to come a day when Jason the rocker might trade his chicken slop boots for cowboy boots one more time. 
Now, Jason Ringenberg is indeed back with a new album, Stand Tall, which shows that his verve, uncanny stage presence, and rock mojo is in perfect running order.  But his return to “adult music” was not inspired by a Scorcher’s wannabe band with perfect skin and an Instagram account but instead by the forced tranquility of a month-long writing residency at the Sequoia National Park. From the galloping beat of the title track through the entire album, it’s clear that nature has been kind to Jason who has entered a new musical era where the only limits are his imagination. Rockers of all ages, this is your final warning: Mr. Ringenberg will not be going down without a fight, nor will his ever-present and battle- weary stage hands, the Epiphone EJ-200 and his Masterbilt DR-500MCE.  We spoke with Jason in the middle of a month long residency at the 5 Spot in Nashville, one of the city’s great music bars that is a regular haunt for friends and collaborators including Epi fans Todd Snider and Fats Kaplin. Thanks to Scott Willis for the fab photograph
Thanks for speaking with us, Jason and congratulations on a truly great new album. Did the arrival of the songs for Stand Tall come as a surprise? 
Yeah I’ve been just doing the children’s music thing for so long. For about 15 years I was really heavily into that. So, it was a big adventure going into the grown up world. I did a month writing residency at Sequoia National Park. That’s where the whole thing started. I had pretty much given up being a recording artist anymore, honestly. I didn’t think it was in me or there was a demand enough to do it. So, the National Park Service called me up—
That sounds like an artist’s dream…
I know! I thought someone was joking. I thought someone was playing a trick on me. And when I found out they were for real I said Yes! before they finished their pitch. I went out there and spent a month in the mountains and wrote a bunch of songs. So that spurred me to get myself together and make some music. 
When did you become aware that what you were writing might turn into an album? 

I think the second or third day I realized something special was going on and this was going to be a very unique situation. It was just wonderful. I don’t think I’ve ever been away from the normal grind of reality before. I’ve had breaks like we all do—a few days in Ireland or something like that. But when you do it for three weeks it’s a whole different deal.   
Now that you’re back in the adult world as you say, what stands out as far as your performance on this record? 
I find that I’m singing as good as I’ve ever sung. There’s something about my voice now where I’m singing better than I ever was. So that was a big help in the studio. It did surprise me. Most folks as they get older they lose the quality of their voice. Fortunately for me the opposite is happening. 
Like Sinatra…
Exactly! (Laughs) And also, for this album I decided to go outside of Nashville, not because I don’t like Nashville. But I just felt since I work here and live here I needed a break. So, I went to Carbondale, Illinois where I went to college. There’s a studio there and a guy named Mike Lescelius, who does really great work. I got with him and I got the rhythm section from my first band and I got some fine guitar players from up there. I ended up bringing a little bit of help from Nashville, too.  Steve Fishell played some God-inspired steel guitar. But mostly it was done in southern Illinois—back to my roots. 
The musicianship on the album is terrific. What did you notice about recording with musicians from outside of Nashville?
Well it's true that Nashville musicians are the best players in the world. And I’ll record here for the rest of my life, more than likely. But also, Nashville players…they really don’t remember they played on your record. Whereas these guys, they told me this is the opportunity of a lifetime. They said thank you for having me, I’ve always wanted to play on an album. That reallly touched me. They gave it something way down deep. It was that kind of thing. They brought deep emotions to the table. And that helped me a lot because I didn’t know if I was valid as an adult music artist anymore. To hear people say that sort of thing was a big help and inspiring. 
Was there a track on the album that pointed the way for you?
I think “God Bless the Ramones” is a pretty cool track and “Lookin’ Back Blues,” which is the single. Overall, I think this is some of the best writing I’ve ever done. It gets harder and harder to get the songs as you get older. It is for everybody.  But now I’ve got to make a living for myself. I’ve got two kids in college. The music business is a very different world from when it was when I last put out a record in 2012. And my last 'Jason' record was 2004.  So it’s a whole different reality.
I’m sure a lot of the people you knew in the industry have left now. What stands out to you about the music business after being away so long. Is it easier in some ways to be in more control?
Certainly for the people who can manipulate technology it’s a great world (laughs). I’m not one of those people. 
How are your Epiphones holding up?

The Epiphone EJ-200 and the Masterbilt they are just workhorses for me. I don’t just say that because I’m an endorser. Golly, they take a beating. They are amazing and they sound great. No matter what Epiphone you pick up off the rack, they all have a certain level of quality to them.  And for a touring musician, I’m sold. I’ve now been an Epiphone player for 25 or 30 years and exclusively an Epiphone player for the past 15 years. That’s it! They can’t be topped. 

Also read our classic interview with Farmer Jason here

Three Weeks in the Wilderness Put Jason Ringenberg Back in the Groove

The Scorchers frontman discusses Stand Tall, his first solo album since 2004, ahead of his residency at The 5 Spot

By J.R. Lind
February 7, 2019

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As the twangy, whirligigging supernova of a frontman for the seminal cowpunk band Jason and the Scorchers, Jason Ringenberg has fired up fans and confounded the establishment since the early ’80s. In recent years, he’s delighted children with his Farmer Jason persona. But in early 2017, he felt a pang that strikes plenty of artists sooner or later: Perhaps he just wasn’t vital anymore.
For Ringenberg, of all people, to question his vibrancy runs counter to the mythos that has surrounded him for more than three decades. This man — who struts and wails through exhausting live shows, consuming the energy of alt-country aficionados (or their smiling kids) like the firebox of a steam locomotive — is having an existential crisis?
“I didn’t think the audience was there, and my own muse wasn’t there,” Ringenberg tells the Scene. “I’m not going to be a martyr, but I had been thinking it was time for me to accept my recording career was over.”
But then he got an unexpected call from a ranger at Northern California’s Sequoia National Park. The National Park Service has an artist-in-residence program, wherein artists — usually visual artists, naturally — live in the park, and in exchange for room, board and inevitable inspiration, they produce works of art. Or as in Ringenberg’s case, they perform.
“I thought it was joke,” Ringenberg says. “But they were experimenting with doing musical artists, and I think it was Farmer Jason that drew them to me. It didn’t take them 30 seconds into their pitch before I agreed.”
Ringenberg headed west in June 2017 with the idea that he’d perform “Take a Hike” for visiting kids and get three weeks of head-clearing vacation on the Department of Interior’s dime.
“When I got there, everything just changed,” he says.
With the majesty of the Sierra Nevada mountains and the quiet (except for the diesel generator that ran his refrigerator) surrounding him, a dam broke within. Out poured song after song after song, in what he calls the easiest songwriting experience of his career.
The result is Stand Tall, Ringenberg’s first album under his own name since 2004’s Empire Builders. And whereas that earlier record was a product of its time — it’s the post-9/11 middle finger to the Bush era that Green Day’s American Idiot tried to be — the new effort is definitely the product of a place. 
Ringenberg’s songs often evoke a strong sense of place, but as is appropriate for a country-fried band with a lead singer from rural Illinois, the Scorchers’ geography is Southern and Midwestern. Stand Tall looks toward the setting sun. The instrumental title track opens the album, leaving no question that these songs come from beyond the Marfa line, sounding like the theme to the unmade fourth Man With No Name film.
Other tracks were clearly inspired by Ringenberg’s residency. “Here in the Sequoias” stands back to back with “John Muir Stood Here,” the latter a shouty paean to the Scottish-born naturalist, who after wandering to the South from his home in the Midwest, went to California to advocate for public land. 
There are hints of the wilderness elsewhere, too. At first blush, Jesus’ cousin seems an odd subject for a biographical rock song. But “John the Baptist Was a Real Humdinger” leaves the listener wondering why it took so long for the bug-eating, establishment-hating wild man to be so honored.
“I had been compelled by the character, and the Baptist was a wilderness-driven human, so I think the Sequoia experience compelled me,” Ringenberg says. “It doesn’t make fun of him or deify him.”
Throughout the album there are fun Easter eggs for those whom he describes as “old-school folks who care about sequencing.” “God Bless the Ramones,” a remembrance of the Scorchers’ first big out-of-state tour (a loop through Texas with the punk pioneers), leads into a cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride.” It’s a sort of two-song microcosm of the sonic amalgam Ringenberg has been perfecting for decades. The Rodgers tune is followed by “I’m Walking Home,” the tale of a disaffected Confederate soldier heading west (appropriately enough) to Bristol, Tenn., where Rodgers and others would record the foundational songs of country music.
Armed with the new tracks and a handful of covers, Ringenberg knew he had an album. Not wanting to be beholden to a record company, he funded it through an IndieGoGo campaign for release on his own Courageous Chicken imprint. If the solitude of the Sequoias had convinced him he still had music to give, the crowdfunding effort convinced him he still had an audience. 
One of the rewards for donating to Ringenberg’s IndieGoGo campaign was the promise that the singer would record any song in his catalog with a personal message for the donor. And 186 recordings later, he felt vital again: Fans requested not just beloved anthems like “Broken Whiskey Glass,” but deep cuts he hadn’t thought about in decades.
“These were songs that meant something to people, and I said, ‘I really should be making music,’ ” Ringenberg says. “It is a value to people. Not tens of thousands of people, but people who matter.”
Filled with new confidence, he set to record. He enlisted bassist Gary Gibula and drummer Tom Miller, his bandmates from his pre-Nashville college days at Southern Illinois University, and recorded at what he describes as a “tin-shack studio” in rural downstate Illinois.
“I had thought about recording in Southern Illinois for a while, because there’s some good records coming out of there, so it made sense to give it a whirl,” he says. “It wasn’t a return to roots, but it was neat chemistry. It was a good choice. They’ve known me for decades, so I was able to have a sense of history.”
Long past the days of piling into a van for months on end, Ringenberg will instead do a four-night residency at The 5 Spot, playing the 6 p.m. slot every Thursday in February — a concession to his fans that Ringenberg is happy to make. Back from the mountains with renewed confidence and new songs, the frenetic live shows that built Ringenberg’s reputation should feel fresh again, like the bracing wind blowing through the tall trees.

Today's Tune: Jason Ringenberg - God Bless the Ramones

Jason Ringenberg Recounts Opening for The Ramones on 'God Bless The Ramones': Premiere

February 5, 2019

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Jason Ringenberg hasn't made much music as either himself or with his longtime band The Scorchers in recent years, spending most of his time in the guise of family music act Farmer Jason. But an invitation from the National Parks Service to spend a month in northern California's Sequoia National Park creating music was too good to pass up -- and resulted in the new Stand Tall album, whose feral "God Bless the Ramones" is premiering exclusively below.
"The National Park Service called me up and said, 'Would you like to be the Artist in Residence at Sequoia National Park for a month?' and before they said 'month' I said yes," says Ringenberg, who's releasing the partly crowd-funded Stand Tall Feb. 7 on his own Courageous Chicken Entertainment label.
He did a couple of shows during that time, both as himself and as Farmer Jason, but mostly Ringenberg says "they just wanted me to wander around and write songs. I didn't even have to write songs about sequoias. I could write what I wanted to write about.
"It was a life-changing experience. Any time you spend that much time in one of our great national parks, it's gonna change you, no question about it."
The experience led to Ringenberg's "first adult music in a long, long time" -- since 2004 on his own and since 2010 with the Scorchers (if you consider that adult). He took the Sequoia songs to Murphysboro, Ill, where Ringenberg recorded the 11-song set with co-producer Mike Lescelius, blending anthems such as the title track with cheeky historical observations ("Lookin' Back Blues," "John the Baptist Was a Real Humdinger," "John Muir Stood Here"), the solemn "Hobo Bill's Last Ride" and, yes, a song about his circumstances in "Here in the Sequoias." And, Ringenberg notes, "I wrote a song about the Ramones and us opening for the Ramones underneath this giant Sequoia tree named after the first African-American colonel in the U.S. Army (Charles Young) and also the first African-American commandant of the National Park Service -- how can that go wrong?"
"God Bless the Ramones" is, in fact, a real-life musical memoir of the week the Scorchers spent opening for the iconic punk troupe in Texas back in 1982. "We were just a bunch of hillbillies from Nashville; We'd done shows around the country, but this was a whole new level," Ringenberg recalls. "We didn't have a clue what was going to happen. I have nothing but good things to say about how they treated us -- Dee Dee, especially. He gave us bass strings, chicken wings, beer from their dressing room. Everybody was really nice to us -- except the crowd.
"This was before you could check things out on the Internet. We had no idea that it was tradition at Ramones shows to absolutely bombard the opening band with...well, things I can't repeat in a publication. Very, very vile stuff. Having said that, we got a lot of fans out of it, too, because we didn't back down."
Ringenberg is planning to support Stand Tall with four weekly residency shows starting Feb. 7 at the 5 Spot in Nashville along with a March 9 show in Carbondale, Ill., followed by a U.K. tour -- in addition to Farmer Jason concerts. He also has "another half a record" written that he hopes to settle into recording at some point soon. "This is challenging me enough, I can tell ya," Ringenberg says of Stand Tall. "There’s a lot more to keep up with in the music business now than there was 10 years ago. I really can't believe the response we got for this; People were just stepping up and contributing a lot of money. It really touched me, actually -- very deeply."

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Last Godfather Is Dead, And So Is The Myth And Magic Of The Mafia

March 14, 2019

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Carmine “the Snake” Persico

“Michael Corleone says hello.” That line from an iconic scene in “The Godfather 2” is uttered just before an attempted hit on the character Frank Pantageli. The garroting in a bar is broken up by a beat cop who just happens to walk in.
The incident is not entirely fiction. In August 1961, Carmine “the Snake” Persico tried to take out Larry Gallo in a very similar incident the scene was based upon. Ten years later, Persico became the boss of the Colombo crime family, and he stayed the boss until last week, when he died in federal prison.
With Persico’s passing, the last major “godfather” of one of New York’s five mafia families to serve during La Cosa Nostra’s heyday is gone. Although he spent the majority of his leadership in prison, from the early 1970s to the late 1980s the Snake controlled a criminal empire unfathomable in today’s New York City or America. 
Along with the Bannano, Genovese, Luchesse, and Gambino families, the Colombo “borgata” in the late 20th century ran crime operations that rivaled corporations like General Motors in profit. Outside of New York, they controlled mafia families throughout the country. In the United States, there has never been a criminal enterprise quite like the Italian Mafia.
In 1986 a U.S. attorney general for the Southern District of New York named Rudolph Giuliani decimated mafia power in the Commission Case. Three heads of families were taken down, Persico among them. But like any wild animal, the mob had some death throes.
In 1991, Vitterio “Little Vic” Orena allegedly tried to snatch power from Persico. (Some mob experts believe Orena was actually loyal to Persico but was framed by another Colombo Capo named Greg “The Grim Reaper” Scarpa.) The second Colombo war, a major mob war in New York, was incited, and 12 mobsters and an innocent civilian died. It is the last time that a New York mafia family would “go to the mattresses.”
Today, it is difficult to fathom just how powerful economically, politically, and culturally the Italian Mafia was for much of the 20th century in the United States. It controlled vast industries in New York, like concrete and trucking. It had elected officials in its pocket, and it peopled some of America’s most popular movies and books. With the possible exception of pizza and pasta, it is the most iconic element of the Italian experience in America.
By the time Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Salvatore “Little Caesar” Maranzano created the five families commission in New York, mobsters were already becoming a staple of American culture and entertainment. Prohibition had given mafia leaders like Al Capone a ticket to vast riches, but unlike Jewish and Irish mobs, the commission, with its strict rules, created an infrastructure that allowed Italians to dominate organized crime by midcentury.
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The Golden Age of the mob, indelibly memorialized by Mario Puzo in “The Godfather” and the films that followed, was a period of astounding growth, aided by the creation of Las Vegas as a gambling mecca and a growing control over almost every aspect of economic life in New York City. Mafia leaders were celebrities often unmolested by local law enforcement or an FBI that barely even admitted it existed. “This thing of ours,” as mafia members called it, was generally only bothered by occasional wars between the families. Those wars were further fodder for journalists and novelists to create its legend.
After the Godfather movies came out in the early 1970s, some of its biggest fans were actual mobsters. They reveled in the classy and honorable depiction of their lifestyles. But in reality, the mafia was always a disgraceful organization, bilking billions from the United States and most often extorting their fellow Italian Americans. It was a charade the mafia itself tried to encourage.
In 1971, Joseph “Joe” Colombo (worst mafia nickname ever) was murdered in broad daylight at Columbus Circle during an Italian American pride rally he organized. It was his death that led to Persico becoming boss. Colombo understood public relations. While running a nefarious crime outfit he pretended to be an oppressed and honest Italian American businessman unfairly targeted because of racism. It was an utter joke, but one that some Italian Americans and members of the media bought.
By the 1980s, mafia power in America was already starting to unravel. Successful law enforcement efforts such as Joe Pistone’s “Donnie Brasco” operation in the Luchesse family were successfully nabbing mobsters and in some cases turning them into witnesses, in defiance of their sworn “omerta,” or silence. This culminated in the Commission Case of 1986, in which Giuliani employed the relatively new and untested Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). RICO finally allowed prosecution of mob bosses who could not be physically attached to crimes.
But it wasn’t just the mafia that was changing. Italian American neighborhoods, the natural habitat of La Cosa Nostra, were slowly dissipating as well. Today, as a result of urban flight and intermarriage with non-Italians, there are essentially no Italian American neighborhoods in New York City. Manhattan’s Little Italy (where Larry Gallo’s brother Joey was gunned down in 1972) is a block or so of mediocre and hokey Italian restaurants. Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst, once of the hub of the mob, still has a few traditional Italian delis, bakeries, and ravioli shops, but is slowly being overtaken by Chinese and other immigrants.
Persico’s death punctuates with a bold period not just the 20th century phenomenon of the Italian Mafia, but in some ways the phenomenon of the vibrant Italian American communities of the last century. Today people in their early 40s are the last ones who can really remember visiting their Nonnas in “the old neighborhood.”
The five families still exist, and we still know who their bosses are, but they learned the lesson of camera-hungry godfathers like John “the Dapper Don” Gotti and Nicademo “Little Nicky” Scarfo. They stay off TV and try to keep a low profile. Notwithstanding, that, or the broader desire for the mob to lay low, killings still happen. Just yesterday, reputed Gambino boss Frank Cali was murdered outside his Staten Island home.
Frank Cali, shown here in 2008, was reportedly shot six times in the chest and run over by a pickup truck. (New York Daily News/NY Daily News via Getty Images)
It is difficult to know what the lasting legacy of the mafia will be in American culture. TV shows like “The Sopranos “and, later, “Boardwalk Empire” are receding into the past. The number of mafia movies also seems to be shrinking, notwithstanding Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film, “The Irishman.”
Books and TV documentaries on the mob still draw audiences, but also seem to be abating. Put simply, the mafia seems to be losing its magic. This may well be for the best. Like Western criminal gunslingers along the lines of Jesse James before it, the mob doesn’t really deserve a rich legacy. It was, after all, a terrible and criminal institution that caused enormous pain and suffering in our nation.
For Italian Americans, and really any Americans in major northeast cities, the mafia is complicated. Its faults were (and to some extent still are) grievous, but it was also an avenue for Italian American culture more broadly to be introduced to America. It is a part of our history, a bloody and shameful one in many ways, but also one that casts a long shadow over the 20th century.
The Snake is dead, and so is the vast power of the Italian Mafia. No history of the United States is complete without it, but its declining influence over New York City and America can only be considered a blessing.
David Marcus is the Federalist's New York Correspondent and the Artistic Director of Blue Box World, a Brooklyn based theater project. Follow him on Twitter, @BlueBoxDave.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Rashida?

March 13, 2019

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Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar

Upon her accession to the U.S. House of Representatives last fall, practically the first words out of Rashida Tlaib’s mouth were: “We’re going to go in there and we’re going to impeach the motherf—er.” The object of the freshman Michigan Democrat’s derision was, of course, President Trump. This sentiment naturally got whoops and cheers from the guests at a reception, who were there to celebrate the election of the Muslima from Dearbornistan, one of two female followers of Mohammed—the other is Ilhan Omar—now occupying chairs in the Capitol.

The triumphalism was multi-layered: not only had the Democrats—thanks, Paul Ryan!—retaken the House by both hook (free stuff for everybody except old toxic-male white guys, served up piping hot by the media) and crook (ballot harvesting in California that delivered once solidly Republican Orange County over to the Democrats) but, in the guise of “diversity,” they had also put two more co-religionists of the 9/11 hijackers into the Congress. Tlaib and Omar have wasted no time in getting to work against American norms and the republic itself.
Omar, born in Mogadishu, has been getting most of the attention lately; her unfiltered mouth can’t help but spout anti-Semitic drivel, and a recent attempt by a flailing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to rein her via a resolution against Jew hatred wound up as a boilerplate denunciation of “bigotry”—thus handing Omar a propaganda victory. As Britain’s hard-left Guardian put it in a headline: “Everyone’s against bigotry, right? Not 23 House Republicans, apparently.” Well played.
But Tlaib may be the more dangerous of the pair, cannily redoubling efforts to blame some (Jewish) Democrats’ antipathy to Omar’s casual slurs on . . . you guessed it: “I think Islamophobia is very much among the Democratic Party as well as the Republican Party. And I know that’s hard for people to hear, but there’s only been four members of Congress that are of Muslim faith. Three of them currently serve in this institution. More of us need to get elected, but more of us need to understand as we come into this institution that I have a lot of work to do with my colleagues.”
This is typical Muslim thinking, to always be the aggressor and yet simultaneously the victim as well. Tlaib comes by it naturally. Born in Detroit to Palestinian parents—her father is from Arab East Jerusalem, and apparently spent some time in Nicaragua before winding up in Michigan—Tlaib has been hailed by the Left as “the way forward,” as in this laudatory article in Politico from last summer:
The left—particularly the new-school, say-it-loud-and-say-it-proud democratic socialist left inspired by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 primary run—has a tendency toward maximalism. And it’s only natural: The progressive project, as both its subscribers and Fox News scaremongers alike would tell you, is revolutionary, seeking to fundamentally remake the relationship Americans have with their government and that the government has with the economy.
In Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, where the former Rep. John Conyers Jr. resigned the seat he’d held for more than a half-century after facing allegations of sexual misconduct, another Sanders-backed candidate scored a primary victory that might prove more ultimately instructive: Rashida Tlaib, a former state legislator who ran on a platform of “Medicare for All,” a $15 minimum wage and tuition-free college.
For years, Democrats have struggled with a top-down, executive-focused approach to electoral politics that has left them with their smallest representation in Congress since the Truman administration—and now, thanks to Donald Trump, no White House to protect them . . . . Tlaib, on the other hand, represents the most logical path for the left to claim its seat at the table, both within the Democratic Party and in national politics: a candidate unabashed in her progressivism, politically skilled enough to implement it, and, most importantly, savvy enough to identify a constituency ready for her brand of unapologetic socialist politics.
Aye, there’s the rub—or rather the nub. With an own-goal assist from the Bush Administration (“Islam means peace”), the Left quickly forged an alliance of convenience with the more respectable elements of Islamic activists in the West, in order to attack their common enemy, Western civilization. Tlaib is unabashed in her defense of “progressive” socialism while at the same time wearing her faith loudly and with a chip on her shoulder.
“We always said the Muslims are coming,” she told an audience from the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago. “We’re not only everywhere in all kinds of different governments but, mashallah, we’re in the United States Congress. And it was after this president, not once, twice but three times issued a Muslim ban against our community."
So it wasn’t surprising that Tlaib immediately led the calls for the president’s impeachment and has continued her agitation. Last week, she warned she and others are preparing an impeachment resolution in the House. For what, you ask? “We cannot allow the pay-to-play to continue. We cannot allow the direct violation of the Emoluments Clause. Anybody else would already be in impeachment proceedings.”
Might as well throw in the Logan Act, spitting on the sidewalk, and picking your feet in Poughkeepsie while we’re at it. It doesn’t matter. For Tlaib as a radical, Trump is an affront to every discredited idea she holds; for her as a Muslim, it’s personal.
Although the old-folks’ home known as the Democratic “leadership” has sought to downplay the likelihood of impeachment, it’s more likely that Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) are simply playing good cop to the Omar-Tlaib axis of bad cop. Pelosi has to walk a tightrope between hanging on to her own power and accommodating the infantile demands of her instantly restive kiddie corps of radicals without losing the 2020 election in a landslide of revulsion.
Count on a sympathetic media to cover for the young turkettes:
Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota were hailed as symbols of diversity when they were sworn in last month as the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress, Ms. Tlaib in her mother’s hand-embroidered Palestinian thobe, Ms. Omar in a tradition-shattering hijab.
Four weeks later, their uncompromising views on Israel have made them perhaps the most embattled new members of the Democratic House majority. Almost daily, Republicans brashly accuse Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar of anti-Semitism and bigotry, hoping to make them the Democrats’ version of Representative Steve King as they try to tar the entire Democratic Party with their criticism of the Jewish state.
The tussle over Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar has exposed a growing generational divide within the Democratic Party, pitting an old guard of stalwart supporters of Israel against an ascendant wing of young liberals—including many young Jews—willing to accuse the Israeli government of human rights abuses and demanding movement toward a Palestinian state.
For the Democratic Party, where most Jews have long made their political home, the risks are clear . . .
That was written a month and a half ago. Today, it’s abundantly clear where Tlaib’s sympathies lie, and they’re not with the Jews. Nor are they with traditional American values, although in the Muslim tradition of taqiyya they’re cloaked in benign appeals to the usual suspects: diversity, tolerance, religious freedom, and fairness.
And then recall that in her first public statement she wants to “impeach the mofo.” That tells you all you need to know about her.
Right now, she’s the Democrats’ problem. As Henry Kissinger famously said about the Iran-Iraq War, “it’s a pity they both can’t lose.” Left unchecked and unopposed, however, soon enough she’ll be our problem. And then where are we?

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Conflicted But Redeemed: James Como’s Life of C.S Lewis

Let me throw the gauntlet down. This is the single finest biographical survey yet written on C.S. Lewis. Yes, I’m quite sincere. No exaggeration, no typical Birzer hyperbole. As far as I know, I’ve read all of the serious biographies over the last 30 years. Of those, Chad Walsh’s 1949 Apostle to the Skeptics is excellent but incomplete; Humphrey Carpenter’s 1978 The Inklings is too scattered, unsure of what it wants to be; Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper’s 1974 C.S. Lewis: A Biography is too (often) adulatory; and A.N. Wilson’s C.S. Lewis (1995) is too cynical. Each is good, to be sure, but none of them actually capture the personality, purpose, and essence of the endlessly fascinating and complex C.S. Lewis.
(For the sake of sanity, I’m excluding the myriad of bizarrely and superficially pietistic and evangelical treatments of Lewis as quasi saint. In these latter—all too many, we must lament—Lewis comes across as a two-dimensional prig, devoid of will and choice, more fitting as a Precious Moments figurine than as a flesh-and-blood human being. These books are as painful to read as they probably were to write, the saccharine oozing in pustules from each page.)
A poet, professor, public speaker, editor, and essayist, James Como has spent much of his professional life exploring every aspect of C.S. Lewis’s life and writings. Even if Dr. Como had not written this biographical survey, he would always be listed among the greatest of Lewis scholars, especially for his extraordinaryC.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table. That Dr. Como has finally pieced together over fifty years of his own findings and thoughts on Lewis in A Very Short Introduction perfectly solidifies his position at the top of an impressive and mighty list. Indeed, this book finds the perfect balance between the Lewis that became famous and the Lewis that remained—generally—hidden to the public. To be sure, Dr. Como’s Very Short Introduction is, as advertised, a very short biographical survey, but it’s delightful and reminds me much of Theodor Haecker’s forgotten little 1934 gem,Virgil: Father of the West, in tone and scope. It’s the kind of book that we need far more of. It’s much longer than an Atlantic Monthly expose, but it’s also much shorter than, say, a David McCulloch life and times. It’s the kind of book you can devour in one long sitting and feel quite satisfied after reading it. In a little over one hundred pages, you’ll happily come to know the complexities of the most famous convert to Christianity in the twentieth century and Oxbridge don, Jack Lewis.
Though written as a biographical essay rather than a footnoted academic treatise, Dr. Como’s Very Short Introduction employs the best sources possible, fully understanding the evolution of Lewis’s own thought and writings while also incorporating the finest reminiscences of the man.
In his C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics, the first study of Lewis’s work (1949) and a template still very much worth reading, Chad Walsh makes Lewis’s wholeness clear, and his title is perfect; Lewis is the apostle to sceptics, not necessarily atheists. Also well worth reading (for their first-hand accounts of Lewis) are Roger Lancelyn Green’s C. S. Lewis (1963), Jocelyn Gibb’s edited work Light on C. S. Lewis (1965, nine essays that evidence the breadth of Lewis’s work and personality), C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table (1979, a collection of essays mostly by those who knew him early and late), Carolyn Keefe’s authoritative C. S. Lewis: Speaker and Teacher (1971), Stephen Schofield’s In Search of C. S. Lewis (1983), and John Lawlor’s beautifully written C. S. Lewis: Memories and Reflections (1998).
No one could find a better summary of the best written about Lewis. Equally important, though, Dr. Como understands Lewis not as an ideologue, pre-programmed to become Christian and spread God’s word, but as a fallible man who more often than not made almost supernaturally wise choices in his intellectual life, if not always in his personal life. Just as Lewis believed every culture possessed some element of the true Christian story—no matter how small—so, too, every man possessed some element of God’s grace, no matter how small.
In his personal life, though, Lewis desperately needed to find and accept that grace, especially when it came to his relations with women—whether Mrs. Moore (his war buddy’s mother), Joy Davidman (his late in life wife), or Ruth Pitter (a poetess he admired more than a friend and hoped to marry after Joy passed away). Indeed, according to Dr. Como, Lewis had a “fraudulent, secret self” against which he had to come to terms and, actually, overcome. “Nevertheless, any consideration of Lewis’s ‘self’ is something of a minefield. He hid, distorted, invented, denied, and finally transcended it. Always he coyly warned us against discussing it,” Dr. Como explains. Those who knew Lewis best as a child and young man—his father and his brother—were horrified by Lewis’s relationship with women, and his closest friends in the 1920s and 30s—such as Owen Barfield and J.R.R. Tolkien—knew absolutely nothing of this aspect of Lewis’s life.
Dr. Como’s writing style is quite enjoyable, a cross between Ernest Hemingway staccato and the more refined intellectualism of Tom Wolfe’s gonzo journalism. Effectively alternating between past and present tenses, Dr. Como’s hard-earned wisdom and life-long learning reveal themselves in every sentence of the book. Dr. Como also possesses the eye of an outstanding biographer, knowing exactly when to make the quirky quirky and when to make it expressive of the norm. In discussing Lewis’s own style, Dr. Como stresses that Lewis feared that a “republic of letters” might very well collapse in upon itself, with each writer thinking himself a pope. Instead, Dr. Como notes, Lewis knew that one must speak and write to his audience, academic or not. Certainly, Lewis’s BBC radically popular radio addresses during World War II convinced him of the necessity of communicating to and with the broadest audience possible. This should not suggest that Lewis did not write for an academic audience. He often did, and, when he did, such as with his Allegory of Love, he did so very well. Unlike most of his academic colleagues, though, he knew that he had a duty to speak to those who did not necessarily agree with him. Frankly, one might readily write the same of Dr. Como’s biographical survey. He has all the scholarship and ability of an academic, but he writes in the voice of the intelligent reader of whatever profession.
Lewis was, as Dr. Como so correctly notes, always his own man, and his own forceful actions toward colleagues, friends, family, and students—tended to attract or repulse those around him, with little middle ground for neutrals. Those who loved him, loved him dearly. Those who despised, despised him just as dearly. Dr. Como brilliant explains Lewis’s playful and deep love of myth, his extraordinary charity (quite similar to that of Russell Kirk), his normalization of the genre of science fiction, his rather complex and sometimes downright bizarre relations with women, and his vast reading of every possible book. The latter, especially, matters to Lewis’s own writings, as many of his articles and books are really gothic autobiographical reflections of his readings (again, quite similar to that of Russell Kirk).
While I have been reading Professor Como’s work for three decades now, I have never had the pleasure of meeting or corresponding with him. After reading this glorious biographical survey of Lewis, though, I’ve just added having a “beer with James Como” to my goals-in-life checklist. As for now, I’m quite content to have read the thoughts of one great man on another.
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