Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Your tax dollars at play

"Brothers Kissing":
One of the "Masterpieces of American Portraiture"
from the National Portrait Gallery

Freeze federal salaries? It may be the first sensible words ever spoken from Barack Kenyatta's throne. What do you think the odds are? I foresee a huge protest in Washington, federal spongers marching on their own offices. Maybe a sit-down strike or work-to-the-rule, in public rather than as usual in their cubicles.

No, stronger medicine is needed. The nations of the world agree about very little, but they would probably put carbon emissions to the side and join together as the 180 Musketeers, one for all and all for one, to declare the U.S. government officially bankrupt.


The assets of the federal government should be placed in receivership. The government should be allowed to keep one house — the Capitol — and a car. No credit for seven years.

Nothing else will work. The government is incapable of self-control, even as it closes in on its ultimate goal of controlling the citizens it allegedly serves.

Not a day goes by without dozens of media pundits sharing their visions of financial apocalypse. Politicians declare total war on deficits. The spending goes on.

Guidebooks for tourists in Washington love to gush about the wonderful "free" Smithsonian Institution museums. Wonderful some of them are; free, they are not. In today's Leftspeak, "free" means "subsidized by the government." Subsidized by the government means you're helping pay for it, if you're foolish enough to be gainfully employed at some boring job, rather than a transgressive artist. Sixty-five percent of the Smithsonian budget comes from the federales.

Planning to take the kiddies to the National Portrait Gallery, one of the Smithsonian's museums, maybe to see paintings of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson? Well, the NPG has a special surprise for you and your nippers: an exhibit of homoerotic art. Merry Winter Holiday.


Meanwhile, the Congress that can't do a thing about its own bloat wants to de-obesify the youngsters after they've had their gawk at an ant-covered Jesus on the cross. Hand in hand with the National Wildlife Federation, the corrupt Sierra Club, and the YMCA (YMA?), our legislators are deeply involved with the issue of how the kids play. It's about encouraging outdoor activity, and (by the way) boosting the Washington State budget, "where the economy is so tied to the Great Outdoors."

The federal government never met a program it didn't like, as long as Congress figured they could buy a few votes with it and add more bodies to the federal payroll. You can donate to these and other projects; just make sure your contribution is postmarked by April 15.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

C.W. Leadbeater: The Inner Life


I put off reading Charles W. Leadbeater's The Inner Life for quite a  while -- it has the stamp and bar code of the Tucson Public Library, where I bought it at a book sale, and it's getting on for nine years since I lived in Tucson.

Why the hesitation? The Inner Life consists of transcriptions of lectures given by Leadbeater at the Theosophical Society headquarters in Adhyar, India, around a century ago. I was afraid that the book would exhibit the excess verbosity of some of the writing at the time; I'm a busy person and both in my own work and in reading I prefer a leaner style. As it turned out, that was no problem. Although some of it is hard to understand -- see below -- its discussion, although the language is a little dated, flows smoothly enough without rhetorical overload.

The second reason why I'd put the book aside was my own ambivalence about Theosophy. Leadbeater was, after Helena P. Blavatsky and Annie Besant, perhaps the most significant figure in the Theosophical Society. I've read a little of the Theosophical literature -- dabbled in it, to be honest -- and don't know whether "HPB" and her followers had the inside track on secret spiritual wisdom, were self-deceived, or were frauds. I suspect some of each.


Richard Hodgson, an investigator for the Society for Psychical Research, went to Adhyar to observe HPB at work and report on claims that she was a fake extraordinaire. His report published in 1885 (as his own opinion; the SPR had and has no corporate views on any paranormal issue) found HPB guilty as charged. Much more recently, another SPR researcher, Vernon Harrison, reviewed the Hodgson report and concluded that it was biased. The whole controversy will make fascinating reading some day when I have time to read both Hodgson's and Vernon's full accounts, but for the moment, I'll admit that descriptions of Hodgson's report and other stories about HPB probably prejudiced me against Theosophy.

Whatever; Leadbeater was not Blavatsky, and deserves to be read for himself. If he has a claim to our attention, it is because (if you accept what he says) he was the most talented clairvoyant of all time, or at least the most talented who ever left extensive writings. In his books (e.g., Man Visible and Invisible) he minutely described the geography of the higher planes of existence, including the astral (where many spirits dwell), the mental, the etheric, and the buddhic. While the lectures edited and published in The Inner Life may not contain the detail he provides about the spiritual realm in the books, they still offer a glimpse of the big picture and the phenomena within it -- not only the planes but the human aura, thought forms, the chakras, and beings on a non-human evolutionary path such as devas and nature spirits.


Here and there, my misgivings about theosophical doctrines seemed to be borne out; come on, "Lords of Karma"? "The Great White Lodge"? But while I reserve my right to be skeptical of some of the terminology and supposed facts, I'm also conscious that words change over time, and what might have seemed an appropriate term a hundred years ago can sound ridiculous now. And the phenomena of the higher planes simply don't fit well into language designed for ordinary sense perception.

Other parts of Leadbeater's lectures that I find obscure may be baloney, or may be true and I simply lack the necessary intuitive or spiritual development to process them.


At many points, though, he has a knack for clarifying aspects of the hidden side of life through analogy and explanations which are both precise and open ended. Take this, on the Buddhist concept of nirvana, which is superficially understood by Westerners as extinction of the individual, or even non-existence:
It is quite true that the attaining of nirvana does involve the utter annihilation of that lower side of man which is in truth all that we know of him at the present time. The personality, like everything connected with the lower vehicles [i.e., bodies], is impermanent and will disappear. If we endeavor to realize what man would be when deprived of all which is included under these terms we shall see that for us at our present stage it would be difficult to comprehend that anything remained, and yet the truth is that everything remains -- that in the glorified spirit which them exists, all the essence of all the qualities which have been developed through the centuries of strife and stress in earthly incarnation [i.e., multiple incarnations] will inhere to the fullest possible degree. The man has become more than man, since he is now on the threshold of Divinity; yet he is still himself, even though it be a so much wider self.
The Inner Life is probably not recommendable for anyone just setting out on a study of the mysteries of existence. It is something of an advanced textbook (and like any textbook, not to be accepted uncritically). But for those with a background of knowledge of spiritual traditions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism -- Theosophy was among the first of their transmission lines to the West -- it is likely to be, at the very least, stimulating and at best, inspiring. We who are far from the threshold of Divinity can still benefit from reading about the much wider self that we truly are.


As the Theosophist Hugh Shearman has written, "The truth about things beyond the separate details of our material existence comes to us more through the liberating emergence from within us of a unitive awareness or perception of ourselves and our world rather than through the occasional revelations handed down to us by sages and seers, valuable though these can sometimes. The best that the sages and seers give us is not so much authoritative and definitive information as evocations addressed by implication to a concealed potential which, collectively, we carry within us."


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Yet another blog post about the TSA group grope

After a few more days of outrage, the agency will dial back the searches somewhat. They'll offer a token concession: no gloves inside the clothing, or some such meaningless distinction.

It will not be a victory for the resistance against a government agency that has abandoned decency and common sense, that puts you through the wringer because they can.

Sovereign Man spells it out well. I don't like his site much — he's a rich jet setter without a trace of patriotism who constantly bops from one country to another to write about where other rich people can find a haven outside the United States. His tone of smug superiority rubs me the wrong way, even though I think it's smart to consider what you would do in a worst-case scenario in the U.S., and have contingency plans that might include financial and legal bases in other countries.

But I agree with this:
Passengers who show up to an airport in the United States are now given two options: (a) go through the radiation bath [don't worry, the government says it's safe...] and let the TSA see you naked, or (b) let the TSA thugs grope you and fondle your children’s genitals.

This is not enhanced security protocol, this is a systematic desensitization to government intrusion. The idea is to get people used to new procedures, then continue to add more layers of government control.
I'm afraid so. No one can be so stupid as to imagine that the present security burlesque is going to make passengers safer. There has to be an ulterior motive — not necessarily within the TSA itself, but within the power centers that issue the policies that TSA managers must implement.
To be clear, some of the tactics are designed to be scaled back as concessions. It’s like turning up the volume from 0 to 10… everyone starts screaming that it’s too loud, so the government turns it down to 8. People think, “ah, that’s not as bad…” and eventually become accustomed to the noise.

In time, the government turns it up from 8 to 20. People pour into the streets again, protesting until the government turns it down from 20 to 15. People once again become accustomed to the noise as the new normal. This cycle escalates until no one can remember the sound of silence any longer.
I believe Sovereign Man is mistaken about this, though:
The fact is that body scanners are as ineffective at threat detection as metal detectors. Furthermore, the government has ruled out the idea of scanning air or seaborne cargo… because, clearly, cargo would never be a target. The little old lady with the prosthetic hip? Definitely. Cargo? No chance.
Neither body scanners nor metal detectors are necessarily ineffective. We haven't had any hijackers waving guns around in airliner cabins since the advent of metal detectors. The body scanners probably "work" in the sense of adding another, and different, kind of detection — although it would be foolish to imagine they are infallible. The lunacy is using them on every passenger, but that's what you get when your front-line employees are largely drawn from the underclass and don't have what it takes to use professional discernment: all you can expect from them is to follow a single ironclad procedure.

Where does he get the idea that "the government has ruled out the idea of scanning air or seaborne cargo"? I have never heard or read of any such refusal. Cargo scanning is probably far less efficient than it should be, and doubtless some baggage goes unscanned, but that's not a policy decision. It's likely that the massive manpower needed for grotesque passenger searches wastes resources that could better be used on cargo. (Frankly, I'd rather board a plane knowing every single checked bag has been X-rayed and otherwise tested than that every passenger has.)

Anyway, Sovereign Man adds:
These tactics are not about security… they’re about submission, obedience, and cultivating the slave mentality– that people should be afraid of their government and happily yield to authority without question or hesitation. 
I wish I could say he's wrong about that. I can only hope he is.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Meet me in St. Louis, and bring a gun

And now, the award for the United States's most dangerous city goes to … the envelope, please … St. Louis!

Take that, Camden, New Jersey. In your face, Baltimore. Up yours, Detroit.


The AP story says, "Some criminologists question the findings, saying the methodology is unfair." Okay, what criminologists question the findings? Why do they think the methodology is unfair? The AP doesn't bother to tell us. The AP says so! What else do you need to know?

I'd bet a dollar to a dime that the reporter didn't talk to one single criminologist about this particular study. Since the study's findings are politically incorrect — one more city with a high minority population wins the gong for crime — doubt must be cast on the result.

This is the kind of shoddy journalism we have come to expect from the mainstream media. Look, I don't know anything about the study (no link to it is provided, so we can't judge for ourselves) or whether its methodology is valid. And a news report should try to give both sides, or many sides, of the story. But casting doubt on the integrity of researchers by reference to unnamed sources with no corroborating evidence or explanation is not balance.


I'm loving it that St. Louis's mayor is named Francis Slay. Absolutely Dickensian.

And then there's this nugget of wisdom from a police spokeswoman: "Crime is based on a variety of factors. It's based on geography, it's based on poverty, it's based on the economy."

I couldn't help myself, Your Honor. Those 14 people I shot, it was down to my geography. If I'd grown up in a better geography, I'd be wearing your robes, Judge.

What geography led you to a life of crime?

Being in St. Louis, Your Honor.


How comforting it must be to believe that a bad economy causes crime. Then again, considering the actions of certain highly placed financial players, crime may well contribute to a bad economy.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

A no-tax society

The phrase sounds absurd. We have become accustomed to being taxed at almost every level of government: federal, most states, and some cities. Add property taxes, school taxes, sales taxes, gasoline taxes, and various stealth taxes in the form of fines.

We can hardly imagine otherwise anymore. We've agreed with Benjamin Franklin's witticism that nothing is certain except death and taxes. (But the great man was mistaken: death is an illusion.)

Yet only a century ago, Americans paid no income tax. But hold on. That was just before we got the Federal Reserve, Woodrow Wilson's progressive vapors, and an income tax.


Back in our colonial days, taxlessness was almost normal. In his A History of the American People, Paul Johnson says that America was "the closest the world has ever come to a no-tax society."
... the American mainland colonies were the least taxed territories on earth. Indeed, it is probably true to say that colonial America was the least taxed country in recorded history. Government was extremely small, limited in its powers, and cheap. Often it could be paid for by court fines, revenue from loan offices, or sale of lands.
New Jersey and Pennsylvania governments collected no statutory taxes at all for several decades. One reason why American living standards were so high was that people could dispose of virtually all their income. Money was raised by fees, in some cases by primitive forms of poll-tax, by export duties, paid by merchants, or import duties, reflected in the comparatively high price of some imported goods. But these were fleabites.
Even so, there was resentment. The men of the frontier claimed that they should pay no tax at all, since they bore the burden of defense on behalf of everyone. But this argument was a self-righteous justification of the fact that it was hard if not impossible to get them to pay any tax at all. Until the 1760s at any rate, most mainland colonists were rarely, if ever, conscious of a tax-burden. It is the closest the world has ever come to a no-tax society.
This was a tremendous benefit which America carried with it into Independence and helps to explain why the United States remained a low-tax society until the second half of the twentieth century.
The taxes the British government eventually did try to impose -- the Stamp Tax, the Tea Tax, &c. -- strike us today as minuscule; it's hard to understand why they were anything to get fussed about. Revisionist historians like to claim that the colonists' claimed resistance to "taxation without representation" was no more than rhetoric and that they just didn't like paying taxes, full stop.

There is probably some truth to that, but it doesn't necessarily mean that 18th century Americans were only greedy. They or their ancestors had emigrated from Europe where taxation often was a form of tyranny and control. They understood from experience Chief Justice John Marshall's famous later dictum, "The power to tax is the power to destroy."


In the past century, the relation between the central government of the United States and its people has changed drastically. The Constitution had as one central idea that the federal government was only responsible for things that individuals or smaller government units couldn't effectively do, such as waging war or "to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States ... ." The 10th amendment, passed as part of the Bill of Rights shortly after the adoption of the original Constitution, explicitly states: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

If the first citizens of the United States could see how the 10th amendment has been virtually obliterated in practice, they would be astounded and very likely appalled. We've gone from a federal government that provides for "the common defence," &c. to one that hectors you about how much salt is in your diet.

The inspiring anti-slavery slogan, "Am I not a man and a brother?" has been turned upside down: "Are you not my keeper?"


To keep 300 million Americans requires a hell of a lot of tax revenue. And as we are constantly told, it still isn't enough to keep us out of debt, $13 trillion and counting, or untold trillions more if you include all the entitlements our vote-buying politicos have lavished on us.

Some taxes are a necessary evil. But we can appreciate why early Americans had such a deep distrust, verging on loathing, of them. Despite the past century, that distrust hasn't been bred out of us yet. We have been anesthetized to taxation through artificial prosperity and socialist propaganda, but the anesthetic is wearing off and no more is left. Only the pain, and another chance perhaps to stop the cause of it.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The airport body snatchers

TSA beta test of new passenger screening device.
(Source: Salem Stock Photo Service, Inc.)

This weekend I took my first flights under the new TSA program that allows them to view your naked bod in all its glory or lack thereof, or alternatively, enjoy a taxpayer-supported massage, including areas that are out of bounds for most masseurs.

My own security screening was the same as usual: flight bag, shoes, belt, keys in the tray; a walk through the metal detector. It probably wasn't because I had an honest face or radiated goodwill, more likely that "the Treatment" is administered randomly (except for Muslims, who are no doubt unofficially exempt) and my number didn't come up.

I had thought beforehand about what I would do if given a choice between the body x-ray and — as the TSA notice at the entrance to the security lines put it — a "thorough" hand search. Reluctantly, I put aside any notion of staging a protest, knowing that the penalty would be severe and would probably prevent me from reaching my destination.


But I did see others given "the Treatment" by our TSA guardians:

A middle-aged woman, who happened to be behind me in the queue, was ordered into the peek-a-boo scanner, which had plexiglass sides; it reminded me of the booth in the photographs of Adolf Eichmann on trial in Israel.

A man and a young woman were given the super frisking. I was careful not to appear to be paying too much attention lest I attract suspicion, but it was "thorough," all right, although you would have to ask one of them exactly how thorough. The passengers' arms were spread horizontally during the feel-up, like martyrs about to be crucified. Both smiled while being palpated, which annoyed me, but I suppose they, like me, just wanted to avoid trouble.

Has the airport security farce finally gone far enough to provoke a serious reaction?

Frankly, I wouldn't bet on it. Not many chumps actually believe these enhanced searches make them any safer, and lots of people are angry, but people are angry about all kinds of things and all their steaming does is cook their insides. The TSA is widely viewed as a dole for bureaucrats and a jobs program for the underclass, but it's far from unique as such, and the public puts up with the others. 


There are calls to abolish the TSA. I don't think disconnecting the agency and turning its functions over to private companies would solve the basic problem, which isn't inefficiency but a screwy, politically correct concept of security.

Aviation security shouldn't be a game of find-the-needle-in-the-haystack, looking for dangerous objects on every passenger. Real security is a matter of intelligence, in both senses of the word. While there is no absolute way of neutralizing every threat, we could do a damn sight better at it if we concentrated on the kind of people who are most likely to be terrorist threats. Everyone, including TSA management, knows perfectly well who they are. But we must pretend that terrorists are found equally among all demographics, as likely to be a 75-year-old man from Iowa as a Sudanese Muslim. So we're "sensitive" to the feelings of the Muslim, but parents of a five-year-old American who don't want his genes subjected to God knows how much radiation have to turn him over to a TSA functionary for a spot of child molestation.

The strategists of al Qaeda must be laughing till tears run down their faces at how easily they've tangled the world's superpower in knots, making it treat its own citizens as war criminals until the TSA decides they are innocent. After all, the alternative of profiling and discrimination is a Forbidden Thought, but looking at you through your underwear is the price we have to pay so Dar al Islam won't be offended.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Armistice Day

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? 
Only the monstrous anger of the guns. 
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle 
Can patter out their hasty orisons. 
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, 
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; 
And bugles calling for them from sad shires. 
What candles may be held to speed them all? 
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes 
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes. 
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall; 
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, 
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds. 
 — Wilfred Owen, Anthem for Doomed Youth 

We call it Veterans Day now, but I prefer the old names.

Here's a story from the Great War. Can't vouch for its truth or remember where I read it. Maybe it means something.

Before the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the French and British forces pounded the German lines with artillery fire for eight days. The theory, soon to be disproved, was that it would decimate the enemy even before the attack.

Eight days. Shells whizzed and detonated. The guns were reloaded. On and on it went, making one hell of a racket.

As zero hour, 7:30 am, approached the firing stopped. For a few minutes, before the deadliest single day of battle in history, quiet reigned.

In those minutes, all the armies in the field could hear birds singing.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Putting the ire back in Ireland

Anybody have a spare leaf?

We Yanks could teach the Irish a few things about bank bailouts and mortgage pathology. Well, actually, it looks like we have.

I can't say I've been following the Irish economic debacle very closely — it's hard work just keeping up with our own — but an article in the Irish Times summarizes it. Apparently, the taxpayers of the Irish Republic are generously going to be picking up the tab, some 70 billion euros, for three big rupt-banks.

The writer, Morgan Kelly, has the traditional Irish gift for words. Some of his juicy observations:
SAD NEWS just in from Our Lady of the Eurozone Hospital: After a sudden worsening in her condition, the Irish Patient, formerly known as the Irish Republic, has been moved into intensive care and put on artificial ventilation.
… The true scandal in Irish banking is not what happened at Anglo and Nationwide (which, as specialised development lenders, would have suffered horrific losses even had they not been run by crooks or morons) but the breakdown of governance at AIB that allowed it to pursue the same suicidal path.
Once again we are having to sit through the same dreary and mendacious charade with AIB that we endured with Anglo: “AIB only needs €3.5 billion, sorry we meant to say €6.5 billion, sorry…” and so on until it is fully nationalised next year, and the true extent of its folly revealed.
Where the first round of the banking crisis centred on a few dozen large developers, the next round will involve hundreds of thousands of families with mortgages. Between negotiated repayment reductions and defaults, at least 100,000 mortgages (one in eight) are already under water, and things have barely started. 
If one family defaults on its mortgage, they are pariahs: if 200,000 default they are a powerful political constituency. There is no shame in admitting that you too were mauled by the Celtic Tiger after being conned into taking out an unaffordable mortgage, when everyone around you is admitting the same.

The gathering mortgage crisis puts Ireland on the cusp of a social conflict on the scale of the Land War, but with one crucial difference. Whereas the Land War faced tenant farmers against a relative handful of mostly foreign landlords, the looming Mortgage War will pit recent house buyers against the majority of families who feel they worked hard and made sacrifices to pay off their mortgages, or else decided not to buy during the bubble, and who think those with mortgages should be made to pay them off. Any relief to struggling mortgage-holders will come not out of bank profits – there is no longer any such thing – but from the pockets of other taxpayers.
Can it be but five years since the Irish were swanking it up with real estate windfalls and foreign investment, buying each other rounds of drinks without counting the cost? Has the whole Western world's government and business Establishment forgotten whatever common sense it ever had?

Best of Irish luck to you, friends, and we'll accept the same from you. Heaven help us all.


Monday, November 08, 2010

National Symphony Orchestra: live

I don't know why I'm telling you this. But I could say that about every posting.

This past weekend, I attended a concert of the National Symphony Orchestra at Washington's Kennedy Center. On the program were Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, the Prokofiev Violin Concerto no. 2, Stravinsky's The Song of the Nightingale, and Bartók’s Suite from the Miraculous Mandarin.


It's not often that I go to live orchestra concerts; I average about one a year. Besides the expense, there's the Hassle Factor. The term "Hassle Factor" was devised, I believe, by a San Francisco Chronicle entertainment writer in the '60s when I was a Berkeley freak. It stands for everything unpleasant you have to put up with surrounding the event you want to attend.

To fetch a concert in Washington, you have quite a Hassle Factor. Unless you live in the city, which I am happy to say I don't, you either take the Metro, a crumbling '70s legacy, or drive in congestion and crazy traffic patterns. The automobile and transportation engineers have long since destroyed L'Enfant's classic, rational street plan for D.C.

Then there is the venue, Kennedy Center. It has a nice location aside the Potomac River. That is the end of its virtues.


The K.C. is a design from the '60s, a real bad period for public architecture. It combines monumental grandiosity with sterility. It's hard to make polished white marble walls ugly, but the K.C. manages to. Now, trying to make the place "cool," the management has filled the red-carpeted corridors and foyers with video monitors hyping shows at the Center, shrines to John F. Kennedy, and bizarre temporary sculptures. The current display consists of lots of piles of rice, each grain representing the number of people in some category — population per square mile of various countries, number of psychiatrists per 10,000 inhabitants of Calgary, malnourished children in Botswana, that kind of thing. The displays take up a lot of the formerly generous space, so with three shows scheduled simultaneously at the K.C. you get airport-like crowds.

The concert hall itself was redesigned a few years ago. It no longer resembles a high school gym. Now it's got a little more warmth, like an oversized motel lobby.


Your reward for putting up with all that is the opportunity to hear a live concert by a fine orchestra with a world-class soloist. There's nothing quite like it. Audiophiles argue about how close even the best recordings and sound reproduction equipment can get to the real thing, but most acknowledge that there's a certain je ne sais quoi about being there with no electronics between you and the musicians.

Seats in the front of the ground level and the back are cheaper than those at a medium distance from the stage. I like to sit up front; I was in the fourth row this latest time. Orchestra seating cognoscenti love to tell you that the best seats for hearing the music are in something like Row XX of the third balcony ("you can really hear the blending of the instruments"). They're welcome to their eagle's nests. Cost considerations aside, I'd rather be up front where I can clearly see the conductor, soloists, and (some of) the musicians.

It's true that the sound isn't perfectly blended — the strings, placed in front, can drown out others such as wind instruments behind them, although a good conductor will see to it that the balances are "transparent." And I'll own that if you're close to the stage, you can't see what some of the musicians are doing; the price for seeing very well what the violinists, violists, cellists, bassists, soloist and conductor are up to.

But that sense of connection with at least some of the musicians is a large part of why some of us still (if we're lucky) go to concerts when there are note-perfect recordings of everything in the standard repertoire. We want a human dimension to go with the sound.


Eh? So how was the music, you ask?

The NSO doesn't have the reputation of being even one of the the top American orchestras, much less a great one by world standards. Well, I'm here to tell you that they can sound glorious, and did. I've heard the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and several of the London orchestras in concert, and they were cracking, but I can't honestly say they were a lot more impressive than the NSO this weekend.

The Prokofiev is perhaps my favorite modern violin concerto. Gil Shaham, the Israeli virtuoso, was the soloist. I don't know how a violinist or a case-hardened music critic would have rated his playing, but it was dazzling as far as I was concerned, fiery and refined as needed.

I've noticed in recent years that violin soloists are getting a lot more animated, using body language and gestures. The first time I was aware of this phenomenon was in a 1991 concert, when Nigel Kennedy (who now bills himself as just Kennedy — why not go all the way and call himself "The Kennedy"?) came out dressed like a rock musician and stamped his foot once in a while to emphasize a point while playing the Elgar concerto.

Shaham didn't wrap himself in flashy attire, quite the reverse, a gray suit and red tie like a Lexus salesman, but he hammed it up just enough to be fun to watch as well as wonderful to listen to. There seemed to be a lot of electricity between Shaham and the first violinist, Nurit Bar-Josef (a woman, and judging from her name, also of Israeli ancestry). Even while playing they often made eye contact. Were they flirting?

I would ascribe this purely to my imagination and think that they just shared a professional admiration for one another (Bar-Josef could probably be a soloist herself if she wanted that kind of life), or maybe a shared nationality had something to do with it. I probably wouldn't even mention it except that I overhead a woman seated nearby mention during intermission that she'd had the same impression.

That's one example of what I mean about the human dimension of concertgoing.


The conductor was Xian Zhang. Yes, she is a native of China. When classical music finally diminishes to obscurity in the West, the Asians will carry on the tradition. Lots of the younger generation of classical artists are from China, Japan, and Korea.

She seemed to know her business, and judging by how well the orchestra played, maybe Zhang inspired them. Or maybe an orchestra, tired of the mannerisms of their regular leader, perks up for a guest conductor. Or — unorthodox thought — maybe 90 percent of the time it makes no difference who is conducting.

After all, surely almost all these musicians had often played the Debussy and the Prokofiev previously. The chances are many had performed the other pieces, too. If any orchestra musician happens to be reading this, tell me, because I'm really curious: do you play your part differently in any significant way when Eugen Jaegermeister blows into town for a guest conducting gig and leads a couple of rehearsals?


The programming for the second half of the concert wasn't ideal. Either the Stravinsky or the Bartók would have been fine, but the two together were too much of a good thing, driven and intense. Nightingale was revised in 1917, when Stravinsky still had Petroushka, The Firebird, and The Rite of Spring in his bloodstream. It is bracing, thrilling music, with the composer's gift for orchestration much in evidence. 

Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin suite is also from his "mad scientist" period, a searing and grotesque piece that ends in a barbaric climax — I don't know how the players had enough energy left by that point to raise the roof, but they did.



Friday, November 05, 2010

Two dropped messages

Obama acknowledges his message didn't get through

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is acknowledging in the wake of this week's election rout that he hasn't been able to successfully promote his economic-rescue message to anxious Americans.
Obama says in an interview with CBS's "60 Minutes" that he "stopped paying attention" to the leadership style he displayed during his run for the presidency.
Obama also said he recognizes now that "leadership is not just legislation," and that "it's a matter of persuading people. And giving them confidence and bringing them together. And setting a tone. And making an argument that people can understand."
"And I think that — we haven't always been successful at that," he said. "And I take personal responsibility for that. And it's something that I've got to examine closely as I go forward."

I know just how you feel, King Barack. I have been unable to get my message through to a certain post-American president, anxious about all the retrograde citizens clinging to their guns and religion. For two years, off and on, I have promoted my rescue-the-country-from-its-government package, but said Barack "Big JuJu" Kenyatta was still campaigning for the office he had already conned himself into.

But bloggership is not legislation. It's a matter of talking sense to people, especially officeholders, including Attorneygeneral Holders, including presidents on a mission to turn the United States into a borderless EuroBureau dependency. I wanted to give you confidence, King Barack, to rise above yourself and set a tone other than skin color.

But I'm not too good at making arguments people can understand. Ask anyone who knows me. I take full responsibility for your failure, as well as the people who voted for you and your hard squad. None of you listened to me me me me me me me me … where was I I I I I? 

Oh, yes. As I go forward, ever forward, sweeping the world along with me, it's something I will examine as I go forward forward forward forward and pay attention to the bloggership style that has brought me where I am, wherever that is.


Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The state of the states

Andrew Jackson's return?

I'm glad to leave detailed analysis of the election results to others who are more hip to the specifics than I am. But what strikes me as especially significant is that, as Rosslyn Smith writes at American Thinker:
The GOP had enormous success is taking control of state legislatures last night. This new power will have an impact in redistricting efforts for U.S House seats, and  for state legislative districts. It also gives Republicans a bigger role in state fiscal issues- budgets, taxes, spending.  It appears that at least 15 State House or Senate chambers had a change in control to the GOP last night, giving the Party control of more chambers than the Democrats now hold. 
Regardless of who controls Congress -- and it looks like, for two years, the answer will be "nobody" -- two immensely powerful governments-within-the-government, to wit, the federal bureaucracy and the federal courts, will carry on heedless. Those institutions, more than the presidency or Congress, increasingly set policy with no outside checks or balances.


State governments, however, emboldened by the example of Arizona and their new (R)-heavy composition, will be in a stronger position to act as a counterweight to Washington. The most red-blooded states may well feel up to telling the federales, especially the agency mobs, to stick their regulations where other waste products go. As to the Supremes, history has never forgotten that Andrew Jackson said of the Chief Justice, "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it."


Did you notice that Oklahoma overwhelmingly passed the proposition banning its judges from using Muslim sharia law as precedents? "The law also banned judges referring to international law, as well as requiring all state business to be conducted in English," a news report says. Good on you, Sooners. Better Sooner than later. 


Tuesday, November 02, 2010

"Only the Tea Party can save us now" says a Brit


James Delingpole's bio note in The Telegraph says that he is "a writer, journalist and broadcaster who is right about everything." Why can't U.S. newspapers allow their pundits a little measure of humor? Maybe because they know they are right about everything, and are serious about it. It won't do for any individual opinion writer to make the claim, even in jest.

Anyway, while most of our newspapers and other mainstream media are unspeakably dull, earnest, and politically correct, Delingpole envies us Yanks because unlike in his country, the spirit of liberty lives.
Arriving back at Heathrow late on Sunday night I felt -  as you do on returning to Britain these days – as if I were entering a failed state. It’s not just the Third World shabbiness which is so dispiriting. It’s the knowledge that from its surveillance cameras to its tax regime, from its (mostly) EU-inspired regulations to its whole attitude to the role of government, Britain is a country which has forgotten what it means to be free.

God how I wish I were American right now. In the US they may not have the Cairngorms, the River Wye, cream teas, University Challenge, Cotswold villages or decent curries. But they do still understand the principles of “don’t tread on me” and “live free or die.” Not all of them, obviously – otherwise a socialist like Barack Obama would never have got into power. But enough of them to understand that in the last 80 or more years – and not just in the US but throughout the Western world – government has forgotten its purpose. It has now grown so arrogant and swollen as to believe its job is to shape and improve and generally interfere with our lives. And it’s not. Government’s job is to act as our humble servant.
Delingpole exaggerates and Photoshops his picture of the States; quite a few Americans ask nothing of their government except everything, want it to regulate away every ill. But maybe it takes an outsider to see the larger truth that it's easy to miss amid the shot and shell of daily political battles. I love being a citizen of a country were so many feel no embarrassment, but rather pride, in speaking such corny slogans as "Don't tread on me." 

Europeans tend to think they represent older and wiser civilizations, that we Americans are brash and immature. Well, in fact we have one of the longest continuous political systems on earth. But more to the point, the idea of limited government that gave rise to it is more than just stale, irrelevant history and myth. Despite a dysfunctional education system and loathsome pop culture, a surprising number of Americans still identify with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other figures present at the creation.

As Delingpole notes, we are sailing against the wind:
What’s terrifying is how few of us there are left anywhere in the supposedly free world who properly appreciate this. Sure, we may feel in our hearts that – as Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe put it in their Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party manifesto – “We just want to be free. Free to lead our lives as we please, so long as we do not infringe on the same freedom of others”. And we may even confide it to our friends after a few drinks. But look at Australia; look at Canada; look at New Zealand; look at anywhere in the EUSSR; look at America – at least until things begin to be improved by today’s glorious revolution. 

Wherever you go, even if it’s somewhere run by a notionally “conservative” administration, the malaise you will encounter is much the same: a system of governance predicated on the notion that the state’s function is not merely to uphold property rights, maintain equality before the law and defend borders, but perpetually to meddle with its citizens’ lives in order supposedly to make their existence more fair, more safe, more eco-friendly, more healthy. And always the result is the same: more taxation, more regulation, less freedom. Less “fairness” too, of course.
It remains to be seen how revolutionary the next stages of our national life will be, or how glorious the revolution if there is one. But the fact that it's widely believed to be possible to reduce government to its proper sphere sets us apart from places like Britain. Our over-taxed, over-regulated, socially engineered population can look its political ruling class in the eye and say, "Don't tread on me," and be heard.