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Thanks to all who entered. An email has been sent to the winners. If you are listed as a winner and did not receive an email, contact Ben Kunkel. If you didn't win this month, enter November's drawing.
Prior to last evening I thought Andy Ferguson's recent characterization of Bob Dylan fans as "the battered wives of the music industry" might have been over the top.
His voice gets worse with every track. You wonder whether someone left the karaoke machine on in the emphysema ward at the old folks' home. He doesn't sing notes so much as make exhausted gestures in their general direction, until at a break he falls silent and is rescued by the backup singers, who reestablish the melody in the proper key. But then he starts singing again.
I had just read his Chronicles and thought his remarks on Thucydides and Machiavelli, and his praise of Barry Goldwater might reflect deeper strains in his many marvelous lyrics. And so they may. But the Dylan I heard last night at George Mason University was a caricature of himself at his best (nothing up yet on Youtube).
The evening's consolation was my Beatrice (an ex-rock music journalist who is now an aspiring theologian) who led me through the Night of Hell with her witty commentary. She thought he was imitating Maurice Chevalier.
I thought he sounded like John Belushi's Samurai grunting out barely recognizable lyrics from his past. In this apotheosis Dylan was the Unreal Presence--someone who looked like the 20-year old named Dylan plus about 50 years (grinning all the way) but sounded nothing like him.
We heard none of his new Christmas album. But Ferguson is likely right about it too:
It's not a misstep. It's not a gag. It's an affront, a taunt. He's giving us a choice. He's saying, Okay, this is what it's come to: You've got two options. You can cover your ears and go running from the room in horror, or you can call me an enigmatic genius who's daring to plumb heretofore unexplored archetypes of the American imagination. But you can't do both.
Addendum: Here's a clip from the November 11 concert. The WaPo's description of his concert is as reliable as Pravda's Cold-War reporting on the West: Reading between the lines brings the truth to light, for example:
Dylan tours endlessly, turning up at a half-full arena or a minor league ballpark near you again and again, as if to prove he's no sage, just an itinerant song-and-dance-man. Though late-period albums like "Time Out of Mind" and "Love and Theft" have evinced a creative renewal, he's often been erratic, even indifferent onstage. Still, there's something noble in his doggedness, singing on even though thousands of shows have curdled his voice into a viscous, gut-shot croak.
Scott Johnson of Powerline recently reminded us that "Bill Buckley used to characterize a liberal as someone who wanted to reach into your shower and adjust the temperature of the water."
Today's Wall Street Journal reminds us that they also want to adjust the water. Since the 1990s, the federal government, under what provision of the constitution I'm not sure, has claimed the right to regulate our showers. "Tthe 2.5-gallon-per-minute shower head remains the legal standard." Having lived in Southern California, I can understand the need to manage the water supply. The question is how. Should it be a one-size-fits-all regulation like this? How about (in those communities where there's a shortage) charging a fixed price for the first x gallons, and then y for every gallon above that. That way each of us can decide for himself. Those who want large lawns can pay for watering them. Those who wish to take longer, stronger showers may do so. Those who wish to save money by doing one, but not the other, may do so. Etc.
What happened was, in 1992, Congress passed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which declared that, to save water, all U.S. consumer toilets would henceforth use 1.6 gallons of water per flush. That is WAY less water than was used by the older 3.5-gallon models -- the toilets that made this nation great; the toilets that our Founding Fathers fought and died for -- which are now prohibited for new installations.
As Mr. Barry notes, the result has not been pretty:
Unfortunately, the new toilets have a problem. They work fine for one type of bodily function, which, in the interest of decency, I will refer to here only by the euphemistic term "No. 1." But many of the new toilets do a very poor job of handling "acts of Congress," if you get my drift.
All kidding aside, there's a political cost to such regulations teach us to have contempt for the law. "I checked this out with my local plumber, who told me that people are always asking him for 3.5-gallon toilets, but he refuses to provide them, because of the law." I know many people who quite willingly pay cleaning people cash and don't report social security. I know others who have simply ignored building codes, or, worse, filed false renovation plans for their homes when they deemed the regulations to be unreasonable. When regulations get out of hand, more and more of us become criminals because they start to force us to choose between cowing before petty authority and living comfortably. The more regulations we have, the more citizens will ignore them. (Part of the reason why President Clinton got sympathy during the impeachment trial, I suspect, is that many Americans thought he was being pursued under an unreasonable law. That he signed the very sexual harassment law that made the case possible into effect only compounds the irony).
Finally, as Philip Howard notes in his latest work, the excess of law keeps us from being free, responsible adults.
P.S. Would it be fun to create a list of things the government won't let us do in our own homes?
Professor Bainbridge alerts us to the latest development in the Kelo case. Pfizer is abandoning the property that the City of New London, CT took from Suzette Kelo and others and gave it to develop. Bainbriadge provides excellent analysis, including a surprise appearance by Russell Kirk. Liberal jurisprudence in action.
Literature, Poetry, and Books
I'd like to see someone turn Democracy in America into an opera. And evidently Tocqueville was quite a dancer, too. (No, I don't think the late Michael Jackson would have made the best Tocqueville.) But shouldn't this description of his shipboard amusement, from the new collection, be put into song?
One moonless night, for example, water began to sparkle like an electrifying machine. It was pitch black outside, and the ship's prow slicing through the sea spewed fiery foam twenty feet in either direction. To get a better view, I shimmied onto the bowsprit. From that vantage point, the prow looked as if it were leaping at me with a forward wall of glittering waves; it was sublime and admirable beyond my ability to evoke it. The solitude that reigns in the middle of the ocean is something formidable.
And like foreign visitors today, Tocqueville marveled at the huge amount of food Americans consume and complained about the lack of wine at meals. Toward the end of his journey he writes to his future wife: "If ever I become Christian, I believe that it will be through you. What I write here, Marie, is not an improvisation; these are thoughts long harbored " Did this English woman read Jane Austen?
Concluding his love letter, the Frenchman presents himself as more a man of Mars and thus a better man of Venus:
I don't know why, Marie, men are fashioned after such different models. Some foresee only pleasures in life, others only pain. There are those who see the world as a ballroom. I, on the other hand, am always disposed to view it as a battlefield on which each of us in turn presents himself for combatto receive wounds and die. This somber imagination of mine is home to violent passions that often knock me about. It has sowed unhappiness, in myself no less than in others. But I truly believe that it gives me more energy for love than other men possess.
The abrupt fall of the Berlin Wall caught the West by surprise. At the White House, President George H.W. Bush was wary of inflaming a potentially unstable situation and issued a statement so low-key it made people wonder if he was on valium. "You don't seem elated," Leslie Stahl said to Bush. "I'm not an emotional kind of guy," Bush replied. With the time difference between Europe and the U.S., the American news media scrambled to catch up to the story. Naturally the TV news shows began looping Reagan's call to "tear down this wall!" ABC News reached Ronald Reagan at home in Los Angeles, and he agreed to go on ABC's PrimeTime Live, where he appeared to be as astonished as everyone else. Sam Donaldson asked Reagan, "Did you think it would come this soon?" Reagan, subdued throughout the interview, replied, "I didn't know when it would come, but I'm an eternal optimist, and I believed with all my heart that it was in the future." Like Bush, Reagan didn't wish to embarrass or humiliate Gorbachev, so Reagan denied to Donaldson that he'd ever directly spoken to Gorbachev about the Wall, though we know from subsequent transcripts that he had.
Mostly Reagan repeated some of his better known public themes from his Cold War diplomacy ("trust, but verify"), but he did take a mild shot at his critics: "Contrary to what some critics have said, I never believed that we should just assume that everything was going to be all right." Asked to revisit his "evil empire" comment, Reagan said," I have to tell you--I said that on purpose. . . I believe the Soviet Union needed to see and hear what we felt about them. They needed to be aware that we were realists." A nice turn, suggesting that it was the anti-Communist "ideologues" who were the true realists all along. Prompted to revisit his 1982 prediction that Communism was headed to the "ash heap of history," Reagan ended the interview with the short observation: "People have had time in some 70-odd years since the Communist revolution to see that Communism has had its chance, and it doesn't work."
But it was the end of more than a 20th century story. Some of the East German protestors in the streets of Leipzig in early November carried banners that read, "1789-1989." The storming of the Bastille in 1789 could be said to have marked the beginning of utopian revolutionary politics; now the storming of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked its end. As Timothy Garton Ash observed, "Nineteen eighty-nine also caused, throughout the world, a profound crisis of identity on what had been known since the French revolution of 1789 as 'the left.'" The deep unpopularity of the Communist regimes revealed by the peoples of Eastern Europe in 1989 was an embarrassment to moderate liberals and value-free social scientists who regarded these nations as stable and legitimate forms of governance, and it was a source of faith-shaking crisis for the far left that openly sympathized with these regimes. On the intellectual level the death of revolutionary socialism has found a successor in "post-modern" philosophy that preserves some aspects of decayed Marxism. But its obscurity limits its power to convince, and as such is unlikely to advance beyond the barricades of academic English departments. Those artificial intellectual walls will take longer to come down.
Why did House Democrats approve an unpopular health care bill? Rich Lowry reports that it is because they think it was the right thing to do: "it was clear that Democrats considered it a moral and ideological obligation to pass this bill -- consequences be damned."
The real question is why they think that way. The main arguments against the bill seem to be that it expands government control over our lives, that we can't afford it, and that it quite probably will slow down medical innovation. Some also note that it's probably unconstitutional (or would be if our governing class believed in the constitution and not a "living constitution"--i.e: whatever they want it to be).
The reason why this bill cleared the House, in other words, is the same reason why our national government has been creating new hand outs since the 1930s: there does not seem to be a moral argument on the other side. Unless and until that changes, Washington will continue to grow, at ever-rising cost to our liberties.
What might such an argument look like? It would probably emphasize liberty and responsibility. When President Obama speaks about responsibility, he seems to mean the responsibility of the rich, the connected, and the well educated for the rest of us. (Our friends in Washington no longer want to make laws that allow and encourage us to be free. On the contrary, they want to take care of us. All the name of a redefined liberty--liberty from responsibility). That's not the only way to think about it. On the contrary, I would suggest that by taking away from citizens the obligation to care for their necessities, the government encourages us to be irresponsible. That has been the tragedy of Washington hand outs since the New Deal.
Cass Sunstein, President Obama's regulatory czar, suggests that government ought to nudge people to do the right thing. But what incentive do people have to be responsible when Washington takes away from the people the obligation to care for themselves? Charity ought to be as local as possible--that way it can be specific, and, hopefully, reduce the "narcotic" effects of it (to use FDR's term for the dangers of hand outs by government). When our national government (it is hardly a federal government any more) pays our medical bills, it almost inevitably will encourage us to exercise and eat right by law. That's not something I'm looking forward to.
The best news about the health care bill is that only one Republican voted for it and most moderate Democrats voted against it. Even the few moderate Democrats who were persuaded to push it over the top are saying apologetically that, of course, compromise with the Senate is bound to improve it. It's also good, of course, to see Speaker Pelosi, someone most Americans deeply distrust, gushing about her personal triumph.
What we have here, as with the stimulus package, is a failure of presidential leadership. Obama's deference to Congress has pushed his party too far to the left for its own good, united the Republicans, and pushed independents and moderates in the GOP direction. As Yuval Levin pointed out in NEWSWEEK, the Republicans are now far more united against the president than are the Democrats united with him. The moderates from the swing districts fear losing their jobs. The unapologetic liberals from the safe districts are complaining loudly that our liberal president ain't boldly liberal enough when it comes to both social issues and additional stimulation.
Now the Republicans clearly don't need to moderate themselves to get with the tide of History. They need to distinguish themselves clearly to give a real choice to voters anxious about a tide they don't really remember voting for (although in a way they did). Even genuinely left-of-center moderates don't fear right-of-center, socially conservative candidates at this point. The point now is to elect savvy antidotes to the president and especially Pelosi. Let's hope that this great opportunity--partly the result of unforced errors by our president--brings forward Republican leaders worthy of it.