Sunday, November 27, 2011

Toys are us


"Black Friday": the name itself has a sinister ring.

I don't remember even hearing anyone use the term before three or four years ago. In the early '90s, when I was a salesman at a place called Santa Fe Sight and Sound (and confided to anyone who was interested, or not, that retail would be a wonderful job if it weren't for the customers), we expected that we would be very busy the Friday after Thanksgiving. And we always were. But it wasn't, you understand, a big thing. Not a make-or-break day. Not an event that people planned their lives around.

The notion that shoppers would have pitched tents outside stores for days before the Friday, gotten into brawls with other buyhounds, used pepper spray on each other, and even caused the odd fatality would have sounded absurd in those relatively calm years.

Thanksgiving in my childhood was a time when, at least ideally and sometimes in practice, we stopped to remember how fortunate we were; how many non-material gifts we enjoyed thanks to the benevolence of -- depending on one's convictions -- God, American prosperity, or both. Now it would seem to be, for many, just a day to catch our breath before plunging into the big box maelstrom. Black Friday is a spike on our cultural fever chart.


Lewis Carroll wrote of a "mythical island, whose inhabitants earned a precarious living by taking in each other's washing." Black Friday is the reductio ad absurdum of a hollowed-out capitalism that now consists largely of selling to each other goods made in other countries, bought with money government must create out of nothing and which the customers must borrow.

Generations of moralists have preached against materialism, but I think what we are seeing here goes beyond the mere craving for goods, which is not bad if kept within reasonable limits. It is the death of belief in country, community, delayed gratification. And the death of hope for a people who elected as their president a smooth-talking Marxist who ran on a platform of hope.

How did we reach this impasse? In large part, it's the fruit of a decade-long story of foolish, ideological responses to 9/11. They are well summarized in an article by Angelo Codevilla of the Claremont Institute.


He writes:
Again and again, the American people are forced to confront the fact that its ruling class is not on its side. After 9/11 President George W. Bush told the American people to go shopping and behave normally. In short: forget that you will never again be free to live as before. Think about money. ...

[The Bush administration] sought to satisfy the American people with the pretend-safety of "homeland security," with images of U.S. troops in combat, and perhaps above all with domestic prosperity fueled by record-low interest rates and massive deficit-spending.

This pretend-prosperity aimed not only to anesthetize criticism of endless war, but also to feed both political parties' many constituencies—the ruling class's standard procedure. Both parties joined in expanding federal guarantees for sub-prime mortgages, subsidies for education, alternative fuels, and countless activities dear to well-connected players. Both parties congratulated themselves for establishing new entitlements for prescription drugs and for medical care for children. When the "great recession" began in 2007 Democrats blamed Republicans' excessive spending on "the wars," while Republicans blamed it on Democrats' excessive spending on everything else. Both are correct, and both are responsible.
Spend, spend, spend. If the government knows no other way to meet life's challenges, why should we be surprised if large numbers of citizens get the message?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Far-left-wing U.K. paper scared of Englishmen


The United Kingdom -- even less united than the United States -- is having a spot of bother with its race replacement army. Here is one minor example (minor to the trendy leftists who call the tune, not so minor to the poor chap driven out of his home). The "migration" continues.

Meanwhile, The Independent Views With Alarm the problems created by marginalizing the indigenous population. The problems are, in its view, troublemakers who protest the mass immigration from the Third World.

It would seem that The Independent had a contest among its reporters to see who could inject the words "far-right" and similar epithets most often into a story. This was the winning entrant, with my own emphasis:
English Defence League prepares to storm local elections

The English Defence League plans to field candidates for the first time in local elections after an alliance is finalised between the far-right group and the British Freedom Party, which was set up by disgruntled members of the British National Party.

Senior figures said that the EDL, which has become known for its protests in English towns with Muslim populations, needed to "detoxify" its name by moving into politics with an existing party. Their new partners hope to capitalise on the EDL's ability to mobilise a large number of supporters. Both groups will retain a measure of independence but will support each other. EDL members will be invited to join the newly affiliated political wing and stand as candidates under its name.

"There is a gentleman's agreement in place, we are looking at the EDL becoming political early next year," said Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the leader of the far-right group. Mr Yaxley-Lennon, who also goes by the name Tommy Robinson, confirmed he had met the British Freedom Party leader Paul Weston and that discussions were at an advanced stage.

Mr Weston confirmed the plans and revealed he would offer Mr Yaxley-Lennon a place on the party's executive committee. He added: "We are going to say we support the principles of the EDL. We will get a lot of people who can stand in local constituencies and they will get a genuine political party in return."
The move is likely to meet with some resistance from those EDL members who want to see the group remain a "street movement". Mr Yaxley-Lennon acknowledged the issue, saying he will consult the leaders of the group's local divisions.

Dr Matthew Goodwin, a specialist on far-right politics, thought the move would receive significant support within the EDL "simply because Mr Yaxley-Lennon is the main face of the movement". He said: "It's difficult to tell at this point as the EDL has a very fluid membership structure. It is not the case, for example, that you ever really join the EDL. There are no official entrance mechanisms."

Babs Davis, an EDL member, backed the move if the leadership thought it was in the best interests of the group. "A lot of people have said that we should go political but the movement never really wanted to do it," she said.

"If that is what Tommy Robinson thinks is the right thing to do, then I agree with him. I think he has done a brilliant job. The whole point of being in the EDL is to follow what the leadership says."

Dr Goodwin, who is a professor at the University of Nottingham, said: "Since the widespread defeat for the BNP in last year's general election, the far right-wing landscape of British politics has seen the emergence of several small political parties and movements, all attempting to fill the gaps left by Nick Griffin's party and exploit wider public concerns about immigration."

He said at least 45 per cent of voters refused to back any of the main parties on immigration, leaving "clear potential" for a far-right group.

Dr Goodwin added: "Having passed through its embryonic stage, the EDL is now very much at a crossroads: it can either remain as a confrontational streets-based social movement, or it can attempt to transform itself into a radical right-wing political party. This shift will require members and money.

"It has also developed links with far more successful radical right parties in other European states, that may pass on successful strategies and tips."
So speaks the voice of the U.K.'s Leftist Establishment.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Leonidas Kavakos in concert at the Kennedy Center


This weekend I was fortunate enough to be in the audience for Leonidas Kavakos's performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Kavakos is one of the world's top classical violinists, as well as one of a very few Greeks currently earning a good living.

Row C -- yes, three rows from the stage -- was a cracking location for seeing as well as hearing him. Kavakos didn't have the somber appearance I expected from his publicity photos, including several on covers of CDs in my collection. He looked quite the middle-aged hippie: shoulder-length hair and a dark silk jacket embossed with what I think were Chinese designs. He made a strange contrast with the conductor on the podium next to him, Christoph Eschenbach, whose head is shaved bald.

Comparisons with other violinists or recorded performances of the Brahms would be pointless; anyway, a live performance is a whole different experience to a recorded one, especially if you're close to the action as my wife and I like to be. I will say this: almost from the moment Kavakos touched his bow to the strings, I was confident this would be extraordinary.


Honestly, I don't know how any human being can play with such virtuosity. You know you are in the presence of greatness with a performer in any field if you can't take your eyes off him. During the first movement cadenza (it seemed familiar, so I guess it was the usual one by Joachim) I literally held my breath for long moments, as if the magic might be dispelled by any action on my part.

Kavakos has been panned in several American Record Guide reviews on the grounds that he is technically brilliant but cold and abstract. It's true this wasn't a gushing, heart-on-sleeve reading. He didn't go in for much vibrato. There is no doubt that he could have applied a richer tone if he'd wanted to, so his style in this piece was clearly a considered decision, and a defensible one: Brahms was German, after all, not Italian. Anyway, Kavakos gave us moments of great delicacy and colorful shadings.



It was also the first concert I've attended when its music director, Eschenbach, conducted the National Symphony Orchestra. I had had a vague prejudice against him. The shaved head, the black smock he apparently always wears on stage seemed very downtown New York, I'm-too-cool-for-this-planet.

I didn't pay much attention to the orchestra during the concerto, being so mesmerized by Kavakos. It was a little surprising that Eschenbach had a score in front of him: this guy has been conducting for decades and needs a score for the warhorse Brahms concerto? But he conducted the second half of the concert from memory, and I concluded that Eschenbach had used the sheet music only where he'd marked it for orchestral effects Kavakos had asked for, or that conductor and soloists had agreed on.

The other item on the program was Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, which I hadn't been particularly looking forward to -- overly familiar, and not one of my favorites (3, 5, and 7) among the Beethoven nine.

The opening allegro ma non troppo was pleasant but didn't quite work -- maybe it was just a letdown after the intensity of Kavakos's Brahms. The same for the brookside scene, fine playing from the orchestra but it didn't register the way it should have. (In fairness, sitting in the third row means you're not getting an ideal instrumental blend; the strings, being downstage, are more prominent than they might at another location in the hall. It's a price I'm willing to pay to feel in the presence of the soloist.)


With the peasants' merrymaking, things picked up. The hints of the oncoming storm were beautifully realized, and the storm itself was thrilling without going all crazy about it. The song of thanksgiving after the storm and the coda were moving. I ended up with a new appreciation of the symphony and Beethoven -- amazing the emotional mileage he got out of variations on a few simple themes.

Eschenbach's conducting gestures were animated at times and restrained at others, sensitive to the mood of the music at each moment. He seemed wrapped up in the sound, and not showing off to the audience. There was nothing of the poseur in his manner, and much that suggested keen musicianship. I think the NSO is in good hands.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

EU to UK: Get over yourself


The Brussels Supreme Soviet, commonly and laughably known as the European Union, is feeling the heat. The seemingly insoluble crisis over PIIGS debt and looming reassertion of national interests have turned the Eurocrats fearful. Their need to hang onto power has made them desperate to counteract centrifugal force and created a new urgency in eroding EU countries' cultural identity as quickly as possible. Typically, the EU is playing the immigration card.

The EU's European Commission -- which according to its Web site "represents and upholds the interests of the EU as a whole" -- wants European countries, including Britain, to admit more non-European "migrants."

The EC press release says:

The EU needs to boost its relationships with non-EU States to better reap the mutual benefits migration can bring. Although migration is high on the European Union’s political agenda [that's for sure!], the Arab spring and events in the Southern Mediterranean in 2011 further highlighted the need for a coherent and comprehensive migration policy for the EU. That is why today the European Commission proposes to strengthen dialogue and operational cooperation with non-EU partner countries in the area of migration and mobility, deepening the proposals contained in the Communication on a Partnership and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean, of 8 May. 

The new approach is detailed in a renewed 'Global Approach to Migration and Mobility' which places mobility of third country nationals at its centre and which makes partnerships more sustainable and forward-looking. Mobility of third country nationals across the external EU borders is important as it applies to a wide range of people, such as short-term visitors, tourists, students, researchers, business people or visiting family members and linked to visa policy.

Translated from Eurocratese, that can be summed up as, "the rights of migrants come before the rights of the citizens of any vestigial 'country' under the EU boot heel."


A Google search shows that as of now, the lowbrow Daily Express is the only U.K. newspaper that has delved into the murky recesses of EU schemes to discover this "migration strategy." Or the respectable papers don't consider it newsworthy.

The Express story says:

The document is bound to trigger concerns in Whitehall that the EU is ready to wreck the Coalition’s drive to curb immigration to Britain. Ministers have pledged to cut annual net immigration from around 200,000 a year at present to “tens of thousands” a year. But campaigners are warning that Britain’s population will exceed 70million within 16 years if current trends continue.

More than nine out of 10 immigrants living in the UK have settled in England, according to a MigrationWatch report published yesterday. Only seven per cent of newcomers to Britain head for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The huge influx has contributed to England’s status as the sixth most-crowded country in the world. In a league table of population density included in the report, England came behind Bangladesh, Taiwan, South Korea , Lebanon and Rwanda.

A crowded house, right enough. But really, how can the U.K. object? It is the Western world's multi-culturalism typhoid carrier, which persecutes the BNP and the English Defence League and has made it virtually a crime to protest immigration, particularly Muslim immigration. Its politicians have bent the knee to the EU for decades, consenting to be a vassal state in everything but the euro currency. 

The end of the EU can't come soon enough, but when it does, it won't be thanks to Britain.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The end of consensus reality

Jodi Dean is a professor of political science -- does anyone really believe that there can be a "science" of politics? -- with the leftist world view appropriate to her position. As much as I dislike the academic humbug of "poststructuralism and psychoanalysis," "feminist theory," etc., she does offer a provocative theory in her 1998 book Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace, in which she interprets the phenomena of UFOs in psychological and political terms:
... The increasing complexity of an age brought about by networked computers, on the one hand, and the inscription of American politics within a televisual public sphere, on the other, have created a situation where political choices and decisions are virtually meaningless, practically impossible. 

Faced with gigabytes of indigestible information, computer-generated special effects, competing expert testimonies, and the undeniable presence of power, corruption, racism, and violence throughout science and law, voters, consumers, viewers, and witnesses have no criteria for choosing among policies and verdicts, treatments and claims. Even further, we have no recourse to procedures, be they scientific or juridical, that might provide some "supposition of reasonableness."

... What is at stake is the question of truth. No expert analysis can decide the matter, can convince a "public" of its rightness. Globalization and the Internet destroy the illusion of the public by creating innumerable networks of connection and information. By their introduction of disagreement, confrontation, and critique, they have always already displaced any possibility of agreement.
A glance at the utterly conflicting positions in issues such as the Tea Party and Occupy movements, immigration, or the European Union seems to bear out her basic theory. The contending factions act as though they are living in different realities, which in a sense they are. Anyone can find almost limitless sources of information or argument to support whatever position they favor. Google "mass immigration good" and you get 4,100,000 results; "mass immigration bad" brings up 2,900,000 results.


In a world swept by data storms that leave their deposits in cyberspace; where volcanic memes erupt and spread from country to country in a matter of hours; the scientific, philosophical, historic, and political records become all things to all people. Facts and theories are debased coinage, increasingly meaningless because we are all consciously or unconsciously aware that each has its opposite-charge mirror image in the electronic continuum.

This is one reason why social issues stay permanently deadlocked, the Palestinians and the Israelis can't sit down and talk over their competing claims, political parties can't split the difference. The sides are not just arguing from different premises, as Sydney Smith wisecracked about neighbors across the street from each other. The premises are on different planets.


The impossibility of reaching consensus has a positive side. With every shade of opinion about anything only keystrokes away, it becomes impossible for mass media -- including propaganda organizations like the New York Times or PBS -- to define reality for practically everyone, as they used to. They still believe in their old entitlement, but when they try to grasp it, it slips out of their hands like soap in the shower. These whales, formerly dominating a small tank, now must share an ocean with countless other creatures.

Their frustrating inability to channel the discourse makes the Leftist Establishment angry and shrill, more determined than ever to set limits on speech and acceptable belief. So far, the Left has mainly ruled through government bribery of various groups -- minorities and unions, for example. It has a totalitarian impulse, but one that for the moment remains "soft" totalitarianism, excommunicating from polite society "racists" and "far rightists." But the Left still feels the threat and, if the experience of (for instance) Britain and the Netherlands is anything to go by, the attempted clampdown will become less and less "soft."


Social Marxism and economic redistributionism are in the driver's seat, but of course other groups like religious fundamentalists and marketers inhabit their own realities as well.

The only alternative I can see to central states imposing their particular reality through various degrees of censorship and coercion is devolution of society into smaller units where some agreement is possible. That's why we need a constitutional amendment setting out legal and peaceful means for states or other jurisdictions to secede. It seems to me almost inevitable that some will, and we have the choice to allow it to happen through agreed rules or risk another conflict like that of 1861-1865 and the occupation that followed -- an attempt to enforce a consensus reality that didn't exist.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Want ad for a president

PRESIDENT -- Down-on-its-luck major nation seeks chief executive. Must lack convictions and be easily led by public opinion. Must have solid record of flip flopping. Whites and men encouraged to apply. 
The state-controlled media have gotten the memo from who-knows-where. They are pleased to inform us that the Republican horse race is over.

That guy from Texas, his name doesn't come to mind just at the moment, another compassionate (toward Mexicans) conservative, has collapsed into himself like one of those dark holes in space the astronomers go on  about. Comedian Cain has a bimbo eruption problem. Maybe he's really driven as the clean snow -- I mean, clean as the driven snow. But one too many accusations have been hung on him, and he now bears the mark of, well, Cain. Unfair, maybe, but that's how things are. 

So, how about Romney? In my view, he was quite a decent portraitist, but not as inspired as Reynolds or Gainsborough. What? Oh, that Romney.

Given the Stupid Party's listless list of presidential candidates, Romney is probably the least awful choice we will have in these waning days of the Republic. He has the virtue of no apparent firm stands on anything.

Look, I know that doesn't sound like the stuff greatness is made of, but a negative virtue is better than positive malice. We're coming up for 12 years of American presidents unable to critically examine their own policies, much less change their minds when reality intervenes. 

At this point I would welcome a weenie with nothing more on his mind than wearing the laurel crown. For a change, imagine having a career politician who -- for his own advantage, of course -- takes soundings of the people and gives them what they want, even if it's less government and real, rather than let's-pretend, national borders. 

Do we need a model? Bill Clinton's saving grace was that he stood for a national policy of maximizing the nookie in his predatory diet, which kept his mind away from all sorts of foolishness. He only sent the U.S. military into places where we had a chance of winning, like Haiti. Oh, and bombing the Serbs from 50,000 feet -- the odds were on our side there, too.

He was clever enough to keep an ear to the ground. What's all this, a clamor for welfare reform? Okay, whatever: "End welfare as we know it." Who cares about a little ideology when he's having so much extra-curricular fun?

True, Clinton's special interests did cause his mind to wander at a few critical times, like when he was being given a briefing on a CIA target named Ben Latin or something. But on the whole, his freedom from core beliefs allowed him to bend to the will of the people if necessary. Needless to add, that has not been the case with either of our two most recent elected monarchs.

Let the demented re-doing of America end. Bring on the flip flopping.


Monday, November 07, 2011

The one-day heresy


The news channels available on the cable TV in the Florence hotel were obsessed, in four or five languages, with two subjects: sports and the Greek political and financial turmoil.

The Greek situation is serious, but American news media, including financial specialty publications like Barron's, have managed to keep it in some kind of proportion. In Europe, the newscasters and commentators were speaking in tones that suggested the approach of an asteroid that would crash into the Earth and start a new Ice Age.


The EU leaders, primarily France's Sarkozy and Germany's Merkel, were meeting in Cannes at the G-20 Summit. Following the endless hand shaking and smiling for the cameras, the Euro-zone grandees would announce the deal whereby holders of Greek bonds would accept less-than-fatal wounds on their investments in return for yet more austerity by Greeks who felt they were already austere enough, thank you. The threat of Greece dropping out of the euro currency system would be forestalled.

And then the Greek prime minister, George Papandreou -- is every Greek prime minister named Papandreou or Papa-something? -- set the cat among the pigeons by announcing that he would ask Parliament to schedule a referendum, so the Greek citizenry could vote on whether to accept the house arrest imposed by the European Union as a condition of further bail-out money.

Now there was something like out-and-out panic (appropriately, a Greek word). Papa had a brand new bag. This was treason to the Eurocrats! Imagine asking the Greek people whether they wanted to go along with the scheme so arduously worked out on their behalf in the smokeless-filled rooms at Brussels!


The Eurocrats, you see, consider themselves equivalent to Plato's philosopher-kings, the knowledgeable class making the decisions beyond the capabilities of the sorry specimens who inhabit the countries they oversee.

For a day, the Papandreou heresy called down thunder from the depths of the French foreign office to the Olympian heights of Murdoch's Wall Street Journal. "A Greek Euro-Zone Exit Could Be a Tragedy," said a headline in the European edition of the Journal. (The U.S. version of the same story had a different headline.) 

In a column titled Brussels Beat -- perfectly situated for an independent, objective analysis -- Stephen Fidler wrote, "The extraordinary events of the past week in Europe have included the shattering of a taboo that could have profound consequences for the Continent: the public discussion by European leaders that Greece could exit the common currency. ... Sending a message that exit is possible risks creating a crisis of confidence that eventually forces a government's hand, with what economists say are potentially disastrous consequences."

The story continued:
"The prospect of Greece exiting the euro area is seldom viewed with the proper degree of fear and trepidation," argues Willem Buiter, chief economist at Citigroup. He says the bottom line of an exit for Greece is financial collapse and an even deeper recession—or even a depression—with significant collateral damage to the rest of the euro zone.

One major issue, as Barry Eichengreen of the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in a 2007 paper, is that if a country signals it is preparing a currency change, it will likely lead to a sharp depreciation as people "rush out of domestic banks and financial assets, threatening a banking and financial-market collapse."
Dark motives were alleged by some TV analysts. Papandreou, it was said, found himself in an impossible situation, an EU gun to his head and the Greeks who held his political future in their hands ready to riot again if the deal went down. His only option was to avoid the responsibility via a referendum.

Then he had to back down because he lacked the votes in the Greek parliament to support it. No referendum. It would be wonderfully entertaining to read an uncensored account of the meetings between Papa and the Eurocrats after his proposal was announced, apparently without prior notice to Sarkozy et al.


In purely practical terms, given the state of play, the EU politicians were right. For Greece to see off the Euro-zone and go bankrupt might have cheered the Greeks for a brief spell, but it would have been a disaster -- not necessarily for world markets, despite the predictions of Messrs. Buiter and Eichengreen, but for Greece itself. 

It would have been like removing life-support machinery from a hospital patient, or forcing a heroin addict to withdraw cold-turkey. Partly because of EU largesse, partly running on dream economics, Greece has lived beyond its means for so long that most of its people have no idea how to create wealth by earning it. The welfare state has set up expectations that can no longer be fulfilled, but expectations die hard. 

Greece, like other countries -- it's only the most critical case at the moment -- needs to rebuild its economic model. That means first getting rid of the old one. The EU mandarins realize that Greece is in desperate straits, and are trying to engineer a controlled demolition of a dysfunctional system. An uncontrolled demolition is something you don't want to see.


Sunday, November 06, 2011

Claire Denamur, je t'aime

I endured the cattle class in Air France recently, aboard the Triple Seven to Paris for the connection to Florence, and on the A330 for the return flight. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the airline for one thing besides safe transportation: the in-flight entertainment system featured some albums one is not likely to hear in English-speaking (or, thanks to our lords and masters in Washington, Spanish-speaking) America.

Claire Denamur was previously unknown to me, but I enjoyed her album, Vagabonde.

Curious about her, I looked her up on YouTube. Here she is in a live performance of one of the songs on the album.

Your blogger is kind of jet lagged, having arrived home at about 3 a.m. counting from the departure time zone. Regular blogging will resume soon.


Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Si, Firenze

Yes, my better half and I are in Firenze, or Florence to us English speakers.

There is no point trying to describe the artistic wonders we have been privileged to see. Somehow, for a few hundred years, art, piety, money, and power converged so that Renaissance masters produced noble and dazzling art.

Travel always brings surprises, and nowhere is like the imagining.

We figured this late in the year the weather would be an affliction but the crowds would have retreated. Ha. The weather has been well behaved, Spring-like, with Wedgwood-blue skies. The mobs, or a serious fraction of them, are still here. 

Another surprise: most of the tourists are Italian (a conclusion drawn from the language overheard); I'd guess 90 percent. The other 10 percent is roughly evenly divided among Americans, British, French, and Germans. 

This is a good place to get over preconceptions about Italians. Both the residents -- it's usually clear who they are -- and visitors are nothing like movie clich├ęs. No pasta-bloated figures. They gesture, like all southern European and Meditteranean people, but they don't wave their arms about like they're drowning. In general they are slim and attractive. 

At first I assumed that was just aristocratic Florentine style. (And you do see women with beautifully molded faces out of High Renaissance paintings; lots of Botticelli blonde locks and blue eyes.) Yet the women I've noticed who were what I take to be classic south-of-Rome types, with curly raven-black hair and olive skin tones, were equally svelte. Maybe they're rich and go out of their way to stay in shape, or maybe modern Italians of all classes are determined to keep the bella figura.

Two more days here and then we are back to America and the crisis-of-the-day world.