Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Kim and Sony

I suppose it is time for me to comment on the Sony Pictures hacking scandal. Now, before I begin, I must say that I have worked on many projects at Sony, and I have long regarded their executive team as one of the best and brightest in the studio system. For me, SPE is a kind of second home in the film business. In particular, Amy Pascal, the co-CEO, whom I have known for some twenty years, has become a good friend. I consider her to be among the most honorable, intelligent, sincere, honest and supportive executives in the industry, and her friendship is among the proudest possessions of my career.

Now to hear her pilloried in the press by people who cannot even pronounce her name properly is painful to me. On the strength of a few casual, joking remarks about the President's taste in films, she has been branded a racist. This accusation is obscene. Amy Pascal has given more opportunities and breaks to people of color than anyone I know in the business. There is not a racist instinct in her being. But such is the reflexive venom and vulture-like mercilessness of the cable news cycle.

To my mind there are two principal questions that arise out of the hacking scandal. The first is: Why was The Interview made in the first place? It appears to be a silly, shallow comedy, scarcely worth local attention, let alone international debate. Now I am aware, perhaps more than most, that the studios routinely crank out such glossy insignificance. But why, through the years-long production process, did no one say: Change the dictator's name. We all would have known who was being referred to, and the whole mess might have been avoided.

The answer is a phenomenon I have often observed in Hollywood: Once a film is green-lighted and goes into production, no one asks any of the fundamental questions anymore. There is simply too much at stake: millions of dollars, hundreds of jobs, dozens of careers. So if anyone (like me, for instance - I am famous for it), dares to raise a basic question, such as: Is this necessary? Does this make sense? Is it any good? Isn't it stupid or dangerous? he or she (usually me) is simply fired. Once the giant engine of production is set in motion, no one is allowed to derail it with even a hint of logic. Now, we all know that, like the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, the government of North Korea has no sense of humor. And yet no one at Sony appears to have said: Won't making this film have serious political repercussions? It simply reinforces a point I have long argued -- that if any other business were run like the film business, it would be out of business.

The second question that arises is: Why did Sony decide to pull the film? I thought at the time, and I still think, that the correct course would have been to put the film into as wide a release as possible, challenging the public to rally to it as an affirmation of the power of free speech, even if it meant charging a buck for admission. That the public would have responded appears to be proved by the fact that The Interview has made fifteen million in its secretive, selective release. People seem to want to see it precisely because the North Koreans have threatened reprisals (though there is absolutely no evidence that the hackers are capable of carrying out such violence).

The Interview might thus have been transformed from an embarrassment into a cause célèbre, a rallying point for those of us who refuse to be intimidated by bullies and tyrants. Instead, Sony compounded the fiasco by seeming to cave in to pressure from, of all places, Pyongyang. This craven capitulation before thuggishness sets a very dangerous precedent that goes beyond Sony and even the film business: it represents nothing less than an abandonment of faith in the principle of free speech in face of official intimidation.

And so I think that Sony's decision not to release the film, based on the apparent unwillingness of theater chains to distribute it, was a serious mistake, but a fairly typical response of institutional self-preservation. When push comes to shove, protect the institution. This, to my thinking, reveals a deeper fault than even the hackers could have exposed; namely, that the instinct of any corporate body in the face of moral crisis is not courage but fear; not self-examination but self-defense.

This is the same reflex that was exhibited by the Catholic Church and Penn State in response to their child sex abuse scandals, and it is always self-destructive. What Sony really needs to learn from this experience, it seems to me, is not how to revamp its technology, but how to revive its corporate courage.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Which Ones Are the Roses?

I have from time to time quoted here from my favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, both from his published poems and from his diaries and notebooks. With regard to the latter, I have made the point that they contain prose that is finer and more lyrical, more poetical and profound, than most other writers' polished work. And yet these were notes that he jotted down, usually inspired by his observations of Nature.

I read from Hopkins every day, and just yesterday I came across the following notebook entry (October 29, 1870), prompted by an early frost:

...I found one morning the ground in one corner of the garden full of small pieces of potsherd from which there rose up (and not dropped off) long icicles  carried on in some way each like a forepitch of the shape of the piece of the potsherd it grew on, like a tooth to its root for instance, and most of them bended over and curled like so many tusks or horns or, best of all and what they looked likest when they first caught my eye, the first soft root-spurs thrown out from a sprouting chestnut. This bending of the icicle seemed so far as I could see not merely a resultant, where the smaller spars of which it was made were still straight, but to have flushed them too.

And a few days before, he noted this about the flood of the nearby river:

...Yesterday it was a sallow glassy gold at Hodder Roughs and by watching hard the banks began to sail upstream, the scaping unfolded, the river was all in tumult but not running, only the lateral motions were perceived, and the curls of froth where the waves overlap shaped and turned easily and idly... Today the river was wild, very full, glossy brown with mud furrowed in permanent billows through which from head to head the water swung with a great down and up again. These heads were scalped with rags of jumping foam. But at the Roughs the sight was the burly water-backs which heave after heave kept tumbling up from the broken foam and their plum heap turning open in ropes of velvet...

As I have remarked before, no one sees the world in this way anymore. We are losing our sense of Nature, and with it, our sense of our own humanity. Earlier in my life this numbing disconnect was a question of speed and an obsession with productivity and materialism. Now, increasingly, it is a question of technology. Everywhere I turn, people's faces are fixated on miniature screens, of cell phones and iPads and laptops. Even at the dinner table people not only do not talk to one another, they no longer so much as look at one another, so fascinated are they by the virtual reality in their palms. And this palmistry, I fear, bodes the future. Yet it is nothing new.

Recently I read with my son Ray Bradbury's short story "The Veldt" about children in his imagined future so addicted to the fantasy world of their electronic devices that they lose all sense of humanity, morality, even reality. They prefer the pixilated projections on the walls of their room to contact with their fellow human beings, even with their parents. And that, in Bradbury's story, results in tragedy.

Our current obsession with a miniature video world is, I think, stripping us slowly but surely of an essential aspect of our humanity: the ability to see Nature, and to understand that we are a part of it, and not of the virtual flat-screen world. That manufactured world is an adjunct to our consciousness, not an expression of our essence. And while that adjunct is useful and entertaining, the essence is what we are and why we are on Earth. To the extent that the virtual world is supplanting the Natural world, especially in the lives of our children, our future is in peril.

We must, I believe, rescue our young people from the addiction to electronics just as we would from an addiction to nicotine or alcohol. For both serve to dull and distort and destroy consciousness, and with consciousness go morality and humanity.

Hopkins clearly understood that Nature is the affect of the divine; that through it we gain an understanding not only of ourselves, but of that transcendent reality from which our souls spring. Nature, in his view, is what connects us to the truth about our humanity - our human nature: that it is beautiful and ordered, spontaneous and meticulously plotted and paced by a spirit that both infuses us on Earth and summons us to eternity. For him, Nature is a mirror in which our destiny is reflected.

Now, I am not saying that we should all go gazing at the icicles, but we must retain a basic understanding of and sensitivity to the world of Nature around us. We ought to encourage our children to spend at least some time learning about Nature, and to looking at it and thinking about it; time, in effect, to take the world outside into our world within. If we do not, I fear, that Nature within us will wither and die.

Not long ago I asked a young friend of mine to look after my garden while I was out of town. As it was very hot, I asked her to please water the roses. She looked at me with a bland expression and inquired, "Which ones are the roses?"

Wake up and smell them? She couldn't even dream of them. And that, in itself, is a tragedy.

Monday, October 20, 2014


In watching television news, I find myself experiencing more and more frequently a moment of stunned silence.

Just now, while getting ready to pick up my son at school, I turned on CNN and watched a senior correspondent report that government officials had been saying that the besieged Syrian city of Kobani was of no importance. It was, she quoted them as saying, "just a spot on the map." But now all that has changed, she went on to say, "because ISIS wants it, and we don't want them to have it."


(The ellipsis represents my moment of stunned silence.)

It is the fact that the enemy wants a city or town or bridge or anything that makes it important! Gettysburg was just a spot on the map, until the enemy wanted it. Passchendaele was just a spot on the map until the enemy wanted it. El Alamein was just a spot on the map until the enemy wanted it. It is not the place, but the enemy's intention to occupy that place that makes it a military objective.

Yet the senior CNN reporter dutifully recounted the inane proposition that Kobani, which has been under attack for weeks, is only now of military importance "because the enemy wants it."

Does anybody know anything anymore? Will public officials and media personalities say anything, no matter how stupid and pointless and misleading, as long as someone in authority has said it to them first? Where has this vapidity come from?

Recently, the head of the Centers for Disease control, a respected physician, was asked by a Congressional panel whether it was possible to contract Ebola from someone sitting next to you on a bus. He replied, No, you can't get Ebola from someone on a bus. He then went on to add that, if you are sick with Ebola, you should not get on a bus, because you could give it to someone else.


You can't get Ebola from someone on a bus, but you can give Ebola to someone on a bus?! And the media dutifully reported this. Not dismissed it, not laughed at it, but passed it on to the public. It makes you want to scream.

We didn't used to be this way. As I recall, public officials and news people used to say things that actually contained some truth, or at least some common sense. Or perhaps I'm just mis-remembering or being romantically nostalgic. But wasn't making patently false and contradictory statements what got Richard Nixon fired? Wasn't that what Watergate was all about: the fact that our leaders could not just look us in the eye and lie or say something transparently stupid, and get away with it? When did that change?

As always, I think, it comes from the top. President Obama has lied about so many things so many times and gotten away with it so often, that everyone who works for him or reports on him simply falls into line. Another lie? Go on, they'll buy it. Another contradictory declaration? Why not? They're not smart enough to know the difference.

The president's most recent statement on Ebola made it clear to me at least that he has no idea what he is talking about, and, to my relief, at least one national news commentator had the courage to say so publicly. While insisting that he would not impose a travel ban on people from the affected countries, Obama repeated the inane assertion that doing so would just make things worse. For whom? For us?! Keeping a deadly disease for which there is no vaccine out of the US will help protect us, not threaten us! A six year old could tell you that. We do not allow health care workers who have had contact with an Ebola patient to get on an airplane and travel anywhere. Why should we allow foreign nationals from the affected countries to get on airplanes and come here?

But Obama mouthed what is now the party line (a line written for him, no doubt, by some aide) that a travel ban would make it harder to get medical personnel and supplies into West Africa. Let me put this in capital letters so no one can misunderstand: NOBODY IS SAYING BAN MEDICAL AID FLIGHTS! That would be foolish, and would make things worse. Simply stop issuing visas for the US to people living in the affected countries. That way, no matter what country they travel to on the way, they would not be able to get from there to here. Is that clear enough, Mr. President?

It is insane, even criminal, for the State Department to continue to issue visas to people from countries which are experiencing an Ebola epidemic. But John Kerry, bumbler that he has proved to be as Secretary, is no doubt merely following the line spouted by Obama, who, himself, has doubtless not even examined the stupidity of it, just as he did not read his intelligence summaries on ISIS.

And what of the 3600 US service members who are being sent to West Africa? They have been given four hours of training in infectious disease (which is four more than the new Ebola Czar has), and yesterday, a government official hinted that they might come into contact with infected people, contradicting previous assertions. What happens when they come back? They will be quarantined for twenty-one days, yet the World Health Organization says that the incubation period may in fact be sixty-one days. So we may have dozens, perhaps hundreds of at-risk people being released into the population with forty days of incubation period left. And from the president on this critical question? Nothing. Because he does not know; because he cannot lead; because he is clueless.

Meanwhile, America is, apparently, just a spot on the map, which the enemy - either or ISIS or Ebola, or both - wants. That makes us a target. And I for one do not want them to have it.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Oaths of Office

We are now at war again, and again in the Middle East. I reflect with great melancholy that this nation has been at war, hot or cold, in one place or another, the entire length of my lifetime. Now comes Barack Obama, who was elected on an oath of getting us out of war, easing us into his second. Does anyone remember Libya, and the pathetic precedent of "leading from behind"? In that war, there were only four casualties (still unaccounted for), and in this one, in which Obama swears to use air power alone, he hopes there will be none.

Obama, it seems, believes that it is OK to get into a war, so long as no one gets hurt. Well, that is just stupid. Every military expert I have heard has said that his strategy to deal with ISIS will not work, that air strikes alone will not work, that ground troops are inevitable. Yet Obama continues to swear to us, right up to the eve of an election, that no American ground forces will be involved. Keep in mind, of course, that the Pentagon has admitted to the presence of some 1600 American troops on the ground already, which raises the question: How many boots on the ground constitute 'boots on the ground'? Clearly, in Obama-math, it is not 1600. Is it 2000? 5000? 16,000? He will not say; and he will not say because, I think, he does not know, or want to know.

I am reminded of one of the more macabre moments in the Nixon Administration when, having been assured solemnly by Tricky Dick that there were no American ground forces in Laos, we learned that the bodies of American servicemen were being retrieved from that country. Nixon sent out his press secretary, the hapless Ron Ziegler, blandly to inform the public that "Those reports do not contradict the president's statement." The corpses be damned; believe the president!

Apart from all the violated oaths and broken promises, our truth remains that Barack Obama emerged from the boondocks of Chicago politics with nothing but a smile, a Harvard degree, and a catchy slogan. But now that Hope and Change have revealed themselves to be haplessness and chicanery, can we all not just admit that the president is clueless, has always been clueless, will always be clueless? That in six years in office he has learned nothing, that he has no more executive skills or ability to lead now than when he assumed office? That a quip once made about Ronald Reagan is true of Barack Obama: His learning curve doesn't. But, you say, Gwyneth Paltrow thinks he's super, and should have dictatorial powers.

I rest my case.

In the last century, George Orwell and Ray Bradbury predicted that we would eventually reach a state of perpetual war. This would be so in order to justify increasing government power and subversion of individual liberty, and to cover for the scurrilous incompetence of pseudo-leaders. Well, my friends, does it not seem that the dire-est predictions of yesterday's science fiction have become our reality? And does it not appear now that the darkness the literary pessimists described is crowding around us even as I write? Someone observed that Obama is the president that Richard Nixon dreamed of being, and I agreed with the observation. Now, however, I would go farther, and say that Obama is the phenomenon that Orwell and Bradbury feared: amiable incompetence coupled with corruption, hubris, deceit, and unconcern.

I think it is only when the twin crises of ISIS and Ebola become one; that is, when ISIS begins using virus as a weapon of war, that the great mass of our citizenry will finally stir itself into active consciousness that our purported leaders are failing in their most basic Constitutional duty - to keep us safe. In the meanwhile, Barack Obama remains president, still grinning, still lying, still in over his head, and having repeatedly broken the most important promise of all - his oath of office.

The Real Crisis is Confidence

I have been silent on all of the events of recent weeks, simply because there has seemed to me no point in commenting on them. Things in this country stumble and stagger from bad to worse, with no hint of leadership in sight and no sense of direction. However, yesterday came the straw that finally broke the back of my silence.

I told my twelve year old son that President Obama had succumbed to public pressure and appointed someone to head the national effort to prevent the Ebola virus from erupting inside America. I asked him what he thought the minimum qualification for such a person should be. "He should be a doctor," he replied. "A doctor who specializes in what?" I asked. "Infectious diseases," he said.

I then told him that the man Obama had chosen for this critical post has neither qualification; in fact, he is a political hack, a vice-presidential staffer and lobbyist, with absolutely no background, experience, or expertise in any field of medicine or public health.

I put it to you that if a bright twelve-year-old can see that a doctor specialist ought to have been chosen for the job of "Ebola Czar," why couldn't the President of the United States see it? I have argued here since 2009 that Barack Obama is incompetent (and he has demonstrated this fact to anyone who has been paying attention), but this goes beyond incompetence; this is idiocy. Dangerous idiocy.

The only rationale that I have heard for this inexplicable choice came from one of the president's few remaining defenders. "They trust him at the White House," she said. Well, the problem it seems to me is not whether they trust one another at the White House, but whether we trust them. Judging by every single poll one could cite, that is the real problem, and this appointment has only made it worse.

And now, it seems, this Ebola Czar, whose unpreparedness for power rivals that of Nicholas II, will report, not to Obama, but to Susan Rice! This is the same Susan Rice who stated on national television that the Benghazi attack was prompted by a video (since proved untrue), and stated on national television that Sgt. Bergdhal served with honor and distinction (since proved untrue), and stated on national television that the Turkish government had agreed to allow us to use their bases to fight ISIS (immediately proved to be untrue). Fecklessness reporting to fatuousness -- that should inspire confidence in the American public.

(And today we learn that the president called an Ebola summit at the White House... and the new Ebola Czar did not attend. The idiocy becomes imbecility.)

I could catch myself up, I suppose, by pointing out the ISIS debacle, in which the president dismissed the savages as amateurs only to find them within months the single greatest terrorist threat we have ever faced. And then, in typical fashion, he put the blame for his ignorance and inaction on his intelligence agencies, which, as it turns out had been warning him about ISIS for two years. We then learned that Obama, who said himself that his greatest failing is laziness, had not been reading his intelligence briefings. In other words, he had not been doing his homework, which is something I would never tolerate in my twelve-year-old. 

I could remind my readers that after an American journalist was beheaded on television by these same amateur whiz-kids, that Obama took a moment from his Martha's Vineyard vacation to issue a pro-forma expression of outrage, and immediately resumed his round of golf. And that during the ISIS buildup, when they were occupying a third of Iraq, he launched into a series of political fundraisers, which seems to be his instinctive response to any crisis.

I could mention, too, that we did, in fact, have what is being called an Ebola Czar (or Czarina), in a Dr. Nicole Laurie, an official of the federal government charged with preparedness for something just like Ebola, who has not been seen or heard from since the crisis started. What we do know about her is that she detoured money intended to find an Ebola vaccine to the company of a Democratic donor for research into smallpox. 

The level of corruption, incompetence, callous indifference, and hubris in the Obama Administration is stunning. What other president would have been allowed to get away with this, with the collusion of the mainstream media? What chief executive of any country in the world that was not actually exporting bananas and cocaine could remain in office given this woeful track record? 

In Britain, and in other parliamentary systems, there is such a thing as a vote of No Confidence. Such votes are taken when events have overwhelmed the government to such an extent that the public no longer has confidence in its ability to lead. I submit that that moment has now arrived in this nation, and, had we the ability to take a No Confidence vote, Obama would be back organizing on the South Side of Chicago from whence he came (and what evidence do we have that he did even that effectively?)

But our Founders, in their wisdom, and, I suspect, in their desire for greater stability in government, did not invest us with the power simply to vote the emperor out of office when he was revealed to have no clothes at all. And so, the best we can hope for is that the Republicans take control of the Senate, resulting in total gridlock in government, and in this way, prevent Barack Obama from doing any more damage than he has already done. 

Then, after a sterile and frustrating two years, we can put him out to pasture on the golf course, which is what he seems to prefer anyway.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Where is Gore?

I remember, during the depths of Watergate, a remark made by the novelist Gore Vidal. Commenting on the fact that some people were still defending Richard Nixon despite all the evidence of his paranoia and perfidy, Vidal said: Richard Nixon could go on national television and strangle his wife Pat to death, and there would be some people who would say, 'No, no... he didn't strangle her; she fainted and he was holding her up by her neck.'

I mention this because I find myself wondering why there is still anyone who will defend Barack Obama at this point in his presidency. And yet, despite all the evidence of his incompetence and the corruption and ineptitude of his administration, there are still those, especially in the mainstream media, who leap to his defense with each unfolding crisis and scandal. A commentator yesterday was talking about how feckless, weak, ineffectual and corrupt is the prime minister of Iraq. He might as well have been talking about the President of the United States.

Just consider the events of the past few weeks. The Veterans Administration has erupted in a scandal exposed by whistle-blowers whose consciences no longer permitted them to watch veterans die while VA hospital bureaucrats lied, falsified reports and collected performance bonuses. Now, cleaning up the mess at the VA was an issue on which Mr. Obama ran in his first campaign, and, five and a half years later, nothing has been done. Five leading Taliban commanders have been released in exchange for one American soldier, which the president trumpeted in a Rose Garden ceremony, and then, when the facts began to emerge about both the soldier and the terrorists, he attempted a whole series of lies to try to cover up the blunder. We are now witnessing the collapse of the country of Iraq, after 4500 American deaths and a trillion dollars of expense, and there are currently some 60,000 illegal immigrant children being warehoused on the border in a humanitarian crisis of our own making, and what did the president do? He went to California to raise funds and play golf (yes, yet another golfing vacation in the face of crises).

(On the question of the media response to Obama's blunders, I should point out that while the ISIS terror group had occupied about a third of Iraq, had taken its second largest city (population two million) and was driving on Baghdad, and while every other news source, reporter and expert was predicting the collapse of Iraq, MSNBC characterized the situation as "an outburst of insurgency" in which "a few towns had been taken" by the terrorists. Why this marginalizing and minimizing of the situation? Because MSNBC is nothing but a mouthpiece for the Obama Administration, and the facts messily contradicted the president's recent statements to the effect that terrorism was in decline, Al Quaeda had been defeated and the world has never been safer or more free from violence. This is shameful behavior on the part of NBC, the exact opposite of the principle enshrined by the Founders in the idea of a free press.)

And now what has happened? In the Congress's attempt to get, finally, to the bottom of the IRS scandal, that agency has reported that critical emails of Lois Lerner, whose continued silence stands at the center of the scandal, have been lost. Two years worth of emails! Richard Nixon "lost" eighteen minutes of tape and was impeached for it, but Obama's agents lose two years worth of documents, and the mainstream media registers barely a burp.

I am reminded of the fact that the filmmaker Michael Moore literally counted down the minutes that President Bush hesitated after being informed of the 9/11 attack. Yet Barack Obama was absent for eight hours during the Benghazi attack, and to this day we do not know where he was and what he was doing while four Americans were fighting and dying at their posts. Not deserting their posts, mind you, but manning them and defending them to their deaths. That is why it struck me as nothing less than blasphemy when Mr. Obama tried to explain the exchange of five mass murderers for Sgt. Bergdahl on the solemn grounds that we leave no man behind. Well, he damn well left Ambassador Stephens and his men behind in Benghazi. And what did the president do when at last he surfaced the next morning? He went to Las Vegas for a fundraiser and, no doubt, a round of golf. I am reminded of Governor Christie's question: What are we paying him for? Mr. Obama has yet to grasp the fact that he was elected as commander-in-chief, not fund raiser-in-chief or duffer-in-chief.

I lived through the depths of Watergate and remember those times vividly. The night of the Saturday Night Massacre, when the U.S. reached its gravest Constitutional crisis since the Civil War, we were all gathered around the television in a state of disbelief and fear. Yes, fear, since we knew that Richard Nixon, at that moment, was capable of anything. I am reaching that same state of fear now as I watch these scandals and crises unfold, and observe the implacable unwillingness of the mainstream media to acknowledge them for what they are: Irrefutable proof of the dishonesty, hypocrisy and dangerous ineptitude of this administration. The only difference between this time and Watergate is that Richard Nixon was capable of anything, while Barack Obama seems capable of nothing. That fact alone may yet save us.

I have written before that I have never in my lifetime seen such a leadership vacuum at the top of the American government as I am witnessing now. And that vacuum, like some horrible black hole of incompetence and scandal, seems to be growing every day, becoming denser and sucking more and more of our liberty and security into its gravitational maw. Not long ago, the Belgian people could not gather themselves sufficiently to choose a prime minister, and for some months the country carried on without one. At that time, I wondered aloud how long the United States could function without a president. We now have the answer: five and a half years. But the time has run out, and even as we watch the collapse of the Iraqi regime which we sacrificed so much to establish, we are also witnessing the collapse of the Obama Administration, which will also cost us, and the rest of the world, dearly before it is complete.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Bowe Perplex

I am watching the unfolding of the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with some interest. We all welcome his liberation from captivity with the Taliban; however, there are three rather thorny aspects to the story, two of which, at least, have yet to be played out.

One is, of course, the testimony of his fellow soldiers that the sergeant willingly walked away from his guard post and delivered himself to the Taliban, having become disillusioned, or as he put it, disgusted, with America's role in Afghanistan. These fellow soldiers go on to point out that at least six of the sergeant's colleagues were killed in the attempt to rescue him. However, every combat situation is liable to be confused, and sometimes it is impossible to determine exactly what happened. The truth of all this remains to be seen, though I note that the mainstream media has been careful to distance itself from claims that the sergeant is a hero, pending, I suppose, the determination of whether he was, in fact, a deserter. It would be embarrassing, to say the least, if they trumpeted his heroism, only to see him eventually court-martialed for desertion or worse. (It is interesting to note that on this point, Secretary of Defense Hagel has refused comment.) But on these questions, all of us must wait for answers, and hope that they are forthcoming from the administration, which probably saw the sergeant's release as a no-lose situation, especially in light of the current VA scandal.

The second aspect to this story, however, is not in doubt: The president broke the law in negotiating for the sergeant's release in exchange for terrorist leaders held at Guantanamo, without first notifying Congress. Whatever may prove true of Sgt. Bergdahl's capture by the Taliban, the fact seems clear that, once again, this administration has shown its willingness to break the law when it sees fit to do so, and when it believes it can get away with it under cover from the media. I do not know how many times I have had to write on this blog about Mr. Obama violating the law and his oath of office, as he did, for example, when he unilaterally assumed the authority to condemn American citizens to death because of alleged terrorist associations, or as he continues to rewrite the health care law every few weeks to try to stave off its worst effects and failures. When he assumed office, he laid his hand on the Bible and swore to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. He apparently added under his breath: Unless I disagree with them.

Now, Abraham Lincoln, whom I regard as the greatest of all American presidents, often intervened to grant pardons to young Union soldiers who had been condemned to death for desertion or falling asleep at their posts. Usually, he freed them with the understanding that they would return to their regiments and serve honorably for the duration of the war. He did this for two reasons: first, because he was a compassionate man, and second, because he had the authority to do so, given the power of the pardon. But even if you assume that President Obama shares Lincoln's compassion for soldiers, you cannot claim that he also has the power to do what he has done. The law is clear: He was required to notify Congress thirty days in advance of any such negotiation requiring the release of known terrorists. (If you want to argue that notifying Congress might have resulted in a leak that would have thwarted the affair, then you are simply echoing Obama's own logic; namely, that I will break the law on the grounds that obeying it might interfere with what I am doing. That Nixonian logic would be a slick defense for any criminal to offer in court.)

And here is the third aspect of this matter, which also remains unresolved: Will the release of five dangerous international terrorists, who have already shown their eagerness to murder Americans, have the consequence that we might well suspect it will? Will these men, once freed, resume their fanatical jihad against the people of this nation? I think the answer is clear: They will, the instant they have the ability to do so. And so we must ask ourselves: Has the Obama Administration purchased the life of one man, who may have voluntarily defected to the Taliban, at the cost of the lives of other Americans in the future? I fear that the answer may be Yes.

(Of course, if Sgt. Bergdahl's colleagues are correct, and he did desert to the enemy, then the irony of all this may be that we will see him freed from the Taliban only to be sentenced to prison in this country. That, however, I cannot imagine the administration will allow: To borrow a line from the novel Catch 22: He can either be a black eye or a feather in our cap. And to that end, it seems that several members of the sergeant's platoon have already been required to sign oaths not to discuss the matter.)

Whatever proves to be the case, the release of Sgt. Bergdahl thus presents us with a difficult perplex: Is it wise to trade the lives of captured soldiers for the freedom of captured terrorists? But more importantly: Should we excuse lawbreaking by the President of the United States in the name of a purported compassion?

Again, Lincoln provides the answer. In 1864, he acceded to General Grant's request to suspend the prisoner of war exchange with the Confederacy, which had been ongoing since the start of the war. Grant pointed out that Union prisoners, once freed, were released from the service, while Confederates were immediately returned to the fighting. This, Grant argued, only served to prolong the war, providing the Rebels with troops to make up for those they had lost, and whose loss they could not afford. Suspending the exchange was a difficult decision for Lincoln, but he bowed to Grant's logic and did so. The result was that over 50,000 men died in the camps as the result of starvation, disease, abuse and neglect. Thus, Lincoln made the decision that it was not justifiable to exchange our soldiers for those of the enemy, since that would only enable and encourage them to continue the fight.

Of course, Mr. Obama, who once was mystifyingly compared to Lincoln, does not see this. If it is true that Sgt. Bergdahl defected to the Taliban, for whatever reasons, and that six of his fellow soldiers died trying to recover him, and that more Americans will be murdered by the terrorist lunatics he has freed, then he and the rest of us may have cause to regret this release. But the overriding question remains that of presidential lawlessness, for that precedent will come back to haunt us in future. A commentator observed recently that Barack Obama is the kind of president that Richard Nixon dreamed of being. I am afraid he may be right.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Cooked Books

At last, a scandal that may actually have some impact on the Obama Administration. Whistle blowers have confirmed what we have known for decades -- that the Veterans Administration's healthcare system is a cesspool of incompetence, corruption and sheer disdain for human suffering and need. 40 veterans have so far been identified as having died for lack or care, and because of abuse and neglect. And what began as one VA hospital in Arizona having been exposed for cooking the books to hide its incompetence and inhumanity, so that bureaucrats could collect their performance bonuses, has now grown to an investigation of over 30 facilities across the nation. The sweet little scam that these bureaucrats have been running is to create false lists of veterans who are claimed to have received medical care so that the bureaucrats might be rewarded for meeting their performance quotas. Meanwhile, the vets have been made to wait weeks, even months, for an appointment to see a doctor, and, in some cases that we now know of, have died as a result.

The president, of course, has claimed, as he always does, that he learned of this shocking state of affairs only when he read about it in the newspapers. Now, he has said the same thing with regard to several other scandals, declaring days or even weeks after the fact that the situation is "unacceptable," and that he is "mad as hell" about it. Empty rhetoric, lack of leadership, incompetence and unconcern: these are the Obama style. But, having campaigned on his determination to correct the disgrace at the VA, and having been in office for five and a half years, these particular chickens have come home to his Oval Office to roost. He cannot claim he knew nothing about it (his habitual excuse), since his administration had been warned several times about the situation at the VA hospitals, specifically in 2010 by the Government Accounting Office, which cited the phony waiting lists and faked treatment numbers. No, Obama cannot smile and shinny his way out of this one with the help of the media, for, even if some of us don't much care about reporters being harassed by the government, or citizens groups being targeted by the IRS, or guns being sold illegally to drug cartels in Mexico, or massive NSA spying, or American citizens being marked for summary execution without due process, or even about a U.S. ambassador being murdered in Libya, everybody cares about veterans and how they are treated. So this albatross, at least, has fallen firmly around President Obama's neck, and even his servants in the press can't seem to shake it off him.

But to me, the larger question is this: Who in this nation can fail to understand that the same kind of bureaucrats with the same attitudes toward their jobs and the public who created the scandal in the VA will also be responsible for the healthcare of all of us under Obamacare? If they would do this to veterans who need care urgently, what do you think they will do to the average guy who needs an appendectomy or just a routine checkup? Let me make this clear: Obamacare is in the charge of the federal bureaucracy, and, by and large, federal bureaucrats, as they have shown in the VA scandal, don't give a damn about people or their suffering or their rights. They care about their jobs, their bonuses and their pensions.

And if you think for one moment that such bland, anonymous functionaries aren't going to ration care and set up panels to enforce the rationing, and watch your dear Aunt Millie waste away and die because she's 85 after all and in chronic ill health and the quality of her life doesn't merit the effort to keep her alive, all you have to do is read Barack Obama's response to a journalist who asked him what we should do when an elderly and ill relative is denied the care she needs because there is not enough to go around. Did he outrage against the idea? Did he even try to deny it? No, he said in so many words that all you can do is help the person come to terms with her death and say goodbye. And this is because Obama is, himself, the uber-bureaucrat, incompetent, uncaring and capable only of phony, staged ire at the very behavior which he models from the top down.

The knee-jerk reaction of the liberals to any challenge to socialized medicine is to say (as was recently said to me), "So, you want to see people die!" No, I do not. But the foolishness of the assertion does not, apparently, dissuade leftists from making it. However, we are now seeing people die -- people who have served and, in some cases, risked their lives for the nation -- in the only government-run healthcare system that currently exists in America, the model for the single-payer national system that so many on the left desire. And if I am right, that Obamacare was merely a Potemkin-style way-station on the road to socialized medicine, then the VA system is what we all have to look forward to. Though the media will try to deny it, this is more than just another scandal of this corrupt administration: It is a warning to all of us.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Cable News Nothing

I have just watched CNN for an hour, and I feel I must comment about it. There was a time, during the Iraq war, when I admired CNN and counted on it for reliable news. That time is gone. During the past hour, the best that CNN has been able to manage is an extensive coverage of the first openly gay professional football player, and an interview with disgraced LA Clippers owner, Donald Sterling.

In the first, openly gay anchor Don Lemon questioned a supposedly expert panel about the player's now viral kiss of his boyfriend upon learning that he had been drafted by the NFL. This incident, which ought to have merited a passing comment at most, was the subject of nearly half an hour of national TV time. The expert panel admitted, each in his or her own way, that they had never seen anything like this phenomenon, and, so, could not possibly be experts upon it. Leaving aside the point that this is now professional football player burst into tears and kissed his boyfriend, the fact that Lemon -- the same news anchor who asked a guest whether the missing Malaysia airliner could have been swallowed by a black hole -- felt that it deserved the nation's attention for an entire news program, when children are missing in Nigeria, innocents are being slaughtered in Syria, missiles are being launched in North Korea (over Stalinist prison camps), Vladimir Putin is trying to morph into a latter day tsar, and Democrats are refusing to participate in an effort to learn what really happened the day an American ambassador and three others were murdered in Libya, represents a new high in journalistic lows.

Then there was the continuing public pillorying of 80-year-old Clippers owner Sterling, who had the misfortune to make a damn fool of himself in an illegally tape recorded phone conversation with his girlfriend, who is less than half his age. I have read the transcript of that conversation, and if he could not tell that he was being baited and set up for exposure by a resentful mistress, he does not deserve to have a professional sports franchise, let alone two billion dollars. For those offenses he ought to be dismissed out of hand by the news, not to say by the NBA, but Anderson Cooper felt it was essential to scoop the other cable-gapers by interviewing the hapless octogenarian at length, and to the exclusion of all else that is plaguing our world these days. Who cares?! Sterling is a very foolish, fond old man, as Shakespeare said, who ought to resign in shame and be forgotten. But such is the fodder of cable news these days, which has such low standards that it cannot resist twisting the knife in any open wound.

Add to this the fact that CNN has striven almost singlehandedly to keep alive the missing Malaysia airliner story for nearly two months, pointlessly reporting every day and night that there is nothing to report, while parading the same "I really don't know anything new either" panels of experts. I submit that CNN, which has ceded its news pedigree to cooking shows and faux-documentaries in a feckless search for ratings, has ceased to exist as a serious source of news. This is news as social networking, hash-tag journalism, with stories driven by twitter. It is, quite simply, a bad joke.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Birthday logic

Another birthday has gone by, mercifully unnoticed. However, as I get older (and I am certainly doing that), I find that I appreciate the example and spirit of children more and more. I am fortunate in that I have an eleven year old, a fact which keeps me in touch with young children. I started, and mentor, a literary magazine at his school, and I work closely with the children in its preparation and publishing. We meet at lunchtime once a week, and, while in production, I spend hours with them at weekends. Doing so is more than enjoyable and rewarding; it is inspiring. This year, from a student body of some 330 children, we had over 1000 submissions, and reading them and discussing them with our staff of middle-schoolers was a real joy.

The imagination and native creativity of children far surpass those of most adults, whose consciousness has been narrowed and cowed by the exigencies of daily life and work. Somerset Maugham said that the writer is the only truly free person. Children are the free-est of the writers. Their imaginations can fly to any height or mold themselves to any conceivable (or inconceivable) shape or logic. They are as unrestrained as seagulls, or as the butterflies which seem to fascinate them so, and about which they often write.

This year, for example, we had a first grader who was asked to write about his fears. He stated that he feared only two things: swimming, "because it takes so much power," and... super-massive black holes. How he put those two things together defeats me, though I suppose both are powerful threats, one from the Rose Bowl aquatics center, and the other from interstellar space.

Another first grader wrote about the first Thanksgiving. The winter was so bad, she declared, that "only fifty-two and a half Pilgrims survived." Now, I suspect that I have met the descendants of that half-Pilgrim: they are liberals. And a pre-K child, perhaps four years old, wrote, as so many do, about butterflies; yet in her single paragraph essay, she managed to take the subject from monarchs to megalodons, a kind of pre-historic great white shark, apparently without any mental strain. I submit that no adult writer could have achieved this feat; certainly not with the ease and grace of logic that she exhibited.

Tolstoy famously asked: Shall we teach the children to write, or will they teach us? To me, the answer is obvious: we must go to school to them. However, I fear, we grown-up writers are far too wise, and life and our craft have made our imaginations far too ossified, to allow us to slip back gracefully into the fluid logic of the child. And literature is the worse for that.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Rutting at Rutgers

I was a student for many, many years. In college and in grad school, I was proud of my status as student -- I thought it one of the highest callings of humanity -- and I took my role very seriously. My goal was to learn as much as I could from as many thoughtful people as I could find. It didn't matter to me who they were nor what their backgrounds; it mattered not at all whether I agreed with them or not. In fact, I rather sought out people with whom I disagreed, to test the validity of my ideas and take the risk of acquiring new ones that might change my point of view. This, to me, was what a student was and did. A learner.

Today I was both dismayed and disgusted by the news that Condoleezza Rice has been obliged to decline her invitation to speak at the commencement ceremony at Rutgers University. This, as a result of a protest by a minority of students whose voices were more active than their intellectual curiosity. It was, ostensibly, her role in shaping the U.S. invasion of Iraq that prompted the protests, and the craven response by the faculty and administration which enabled it. This is, or ought to be, viewed by anyone who values free speech, as a disgrace of the first order.

Through years of post-secondary education, both in this country and in France, I had been forced to listen to the ranting, often hysterical, of leftist professors, while I was simply trying to construct for myself the best education I could manage. I will state frankly that many of my professors in college and grad school were socialists, indeed, some even communists, but I endured their strident, irrelevant and occasionally insulting diatribes for the sake of learning what they might have to teach me that would be of value to me in my later life. I recall distinctly a professor of cinematography at the Paris Film Conservatory, a self-professed communist, who was in the habit of singling me out, as the only American at the school, for particular disparagement. I endured it all in silence, because he was a good film teacher, and I needed to learn from him how to calculate the hyper-focal distance of a lens, and how properly to roll up the cable of a 1000 watt light. These things he did teach me, but with a gratuitous condemnation of the Bill of Rights in between.

My favorite professor of all was a far-left socialist who taught Russian Literature. In his classes I was much more interested in his views on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky than I was in those on the Polish labor movement or American imperialism. I valued what he had to teach about War and Peace and Crime and Punishment, and not what he personally believed about American capitalism. I craved to learn from him about literature, and I ignored the political propaganda that came with it.

In my decades of education, I learned to filter out the politically-driven nonsense and focus on the pedagogic core. Much of what my professors said -- even those I most admired -- was nonsense-inspired ideology, but that did not mean I did not listen, and think, and debate, and absorb. Because that is what a student does -- that is what a student is. A learner, above and before all else. And it was for this principle -- the right to listen and debate and be exposed to every point of view, regardless of what those in authority believed -- that I, and many others in the student movement of the Sixties and Seventies, fought and sacrificed for, and strove to establish as a vital principle of academic freedom.

Now, in the twenty-first century, to hear that a student body refuses to listen to someone with whom they disagree is repugnant to me. Do they not understand that, during the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War protests, and the era of Watergate, we fought for the right of students to listen to opposing points of view? That some of us put our freedom, and even our lives, on the line so that others might be exposed to unpopular speech? Do they not understand that their intellectual and spiritual predecessors in protest fought for the right of free speech and discussion, even, as at Kent State, at the point of a bayonet and bullets?

These so-called students at Rutgers, who have said to Condoleezza Rice: We do not want to hear what you have to say, and we do not want anyone else to hear it either, are backtracking. They are undoing what we, in the generation of the students' rights movement, sought to create: the right to be heard no matter how much we, or our superiors, might disagree. These alleged students at Rutgers are not progressives -- they are fascists; they are not new millennials, they are Mussolini. They represent everything we in the Sixties and Seventies, whom they claim to admire, fought against. They are the enemy.

Condoleezza Rice is a woman of extraordinary accomplishments: a concert pianist who has performed with Yo-Yo Ma, a Phi Beta Kappa, a professor at Stanford, the first black woman Secretary of State, a personage admired around the world for her achievements. Whether or not you agree with her foreign policy decisions in the Bush administration, any intelligent person must bow to what she has achieved though her race, her gender and her politics were against her. I say to the so-called students at Rutgers: No matter what you think of her foreign policy decisions, this is a woman from whom you can learn -- this is a human being whom you, as students, ought to hear.

Now, on the question of who you would invite to your precious commencement (which you have already discredited), I would ask the following:

Franklin Roosevelt prepared, and Harry Truman carried out, the nuclear bombing of Japan. Would you allow them to speak?

John F. Kennedy got us involved in Vietnam, disgraced the presidency with his sexual profligacy, and brought us to the brink of World War III in Cuba. Would you allow him to speak?

Bill Clinton presided over a war in Yugoslavia, launched a cruise missile attack on a baby formula factory in Sudan, and had against him credible allegations of rape. Would you allow him to speak?

Of course you would. And that fact reveals the essential hypocrisy of your protest, and the naked cowardice of the professors and administrators who have allowed you to prevail: Condoleezza Rice has the temerity to be a black woman who is also a conservative. And it is for that you will not forgive her, and for that you will forbid her even to speak at your temple of learning. You are not students: in the words of Holden Caulfied, on whom you cut your cultural teeth, you are phonies.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Porgy Perplex

Last weekend I attended a pre-opening performance of the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess at the Ahmanson Theater in downtown Los Angeles. Though I had sung tunes from the show to my eleven-year-old when he was little, I had never seen a live production of it. And so, when it moved here from Broadway, I took him to see the source of the singing which I had once inflicted upon him.

It was a very good production. The voices were uniformly wonderful. Bess was the highlight of it, her voice full, moving and operatic in quality; Porgy's was rather less so, but it, too, was clear and emotive. Also, the women who sang Serena and Clara were exceptional. The dance numbers suffered from the fact that the Ahmanson stage was too small to allow them to breathe properly. However, they were done in a spirited fashion. The acting was of a high quality across the board, and the orchestra, while understaffed in my opinion, did well.

I had read that the show has been controversial from its inception, having been denounced even by black singers and actors, some of whom refused to participate in it. However, it received a new life, and a new respect, when it was revived in the Seventies, and it is now considered an established part of American musical literature.

I must say that there were moments even in this new-millennial production when I understood the original dissension. Especially in the dance numbers, one could see vestiges of stereotyping that must have been more pronounced in earlier stagings. One of the dances in particular - a funeral dance - was reminiscent of arm-waving, hip-strutting voodoo dance, which I found discomforting. I cannot imagine why the performers agreed to do the number this way; why they did not insist on something less cliched and more creative.

Beyond this, the cast did a very good job of keeping the tone dignified despite the archaic language, and concentrating on the emotional power of the story and the music, while deflecting attention away from the 1930s racial ethos which lurks behind the text. Still, there were moments, as in 'It Ain't Necessarily So,' when I felt that more energy and mischievousness were called for, and I found the villain, for all his physical bulk and booming baritone, to be a bit over the top. Nonetheless, when he was killed, the audience actually cheered - the highest accolade for any stage villain.

Having seen it live on stage in a first-rate production, I find I have mixed feelings about Porgy and Bess. George Gershwin's music is of a very high order for what one could call a popular opera or an operatic musical. It combines European opera with folk tunes, jazz and gospel music in a way that is creative without being condescending. In the blending of traditional and contemporary styles, I was reminded often of Kurt Weill's Three Penny Opera. Porgy, I think, falls into that narrow niche between popular and classical, rather like Bernstein's West Side Story, for example, or his Candide. It is not Oklahoma, but neither is it Don Giovanni.

However, there can be no doubt that Porgy has benefited from the perspective of time: We now see it after eighty years as much a historical artifact as a brilliant work of musical theater. There is no question in my mind that if such a piece were written today it could not find a producer, and, even if it somehow did, it would be howled off the stage by the forces of political correctness long before history had a chance to decide on its social and artistic merits. In short, for all its virtues, Porgy would not be possible today.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Dance,Dance and Dance

Tonight I went to see the Paul Taylor dance company at the Music Center in Los Angeles. As I have mentioned here before, I attend nearly all of the dance series at the Dorothy Chandler and the Disney Center, since I have come to believe that some of the most interesting and innovative things being done in the arts in this country today are occurring in dance. I had heard of the Paul Taylor company, of course, but I had never seen it, and so I was anxious to get tickets, since I had long read that Taylor was an innovator-cum-icon in the world of modern dance.

The program began with seven members of the company dancing to selections from the Handel Concerti Grossi, which is among my favorite pieces of music. Now let me pause for a moment to speak of the Concerti Grossi. It was for pieces such as this that Handel was Beethoven's favorite composer; indeed, when, late in life, Beethoven was given as a gift the complete Handel scores, he wept openly. Listening to the music tonight, in accompaniment to the dancers, I was reminded of why this was so: the music is wonderful and varied, alternatively tender and playful, solemn, touching and antic. And the Paul Taylor dancers did it full justice in their interpretation, called Airs. The costumes were as simple and traditional as was the choreography, and it all worked beautifully. The dancers were skilled, well-trained and attractive. There was nothing to complain about, save a sudden slip by one of the females, which just served to remind the audience that the dancers, for all their grace and physical beauty, are, after all, human.

Second on the program was "Banquet for Vultures," a very dark and disturbing meditation on tyranny and the inevitability of war. A charismatic leader arises, sends all the young people off to war, manages to extinguish the last faint spark of hope for something better and more humane; and then another brutal tyrant is born, and the whole dehumanizing process begins again. One of the most interesting moments in this piece was the appearance of the second tyrant, whose tortuous pangs I initially took, in puzzlement, for death throes; but, it then became clear to me, were, in fact, birth writhing. All this was atmospherically rendered, with deep shadows and camouflage and candles, performed to a score that can only be described as sparse and strangulated.

Last on the program was a dance set to music from Smetana's "Bartered Bride," a piece I had often heard and never really liked. Paul Taylor, however, made me realize that the work does, indeed, sound like the buzzing of frantic insects, which is how he incorporated it. His "Gossamer Gallants" represents the fervent mating of insects, and, as planned, it drew a great deal of laughter from the audience. It was, in fact, delightfully silly, the men dressed as Mayflies and the women as, well, some female version thereof. The piece, with all its acrobatic and naughty momentum, served to remind us of the fact that when many species of female insects mate, they consummate the copulation by killing the males. (The equivalent of this in our society, of course, is the divorce court.) It was well and wistfully danced, and was, I think, the audience's favorite.

Overall, the Paul Taylor company's strategy was simple and effective: Make them admire you (the Handel), make them respect you (the Vultures), and make the love you (the insects). All that said, and though I enjoyed the evening, I found there was something trite about the choreography, something dated and predictable; not as if we had seen it before, but as if it presaged much of what we are now seeing and are likely to see in future. For all that Paul Taylor is hailed as an legend, his choreography struck me as comfortably conventional. (I was reminded of a recent reenactment of Nijinsky's choreography of the Rite of Spring, which played merely as ridiculous today, though it provoked a riot in the theater at its premiere in 1913.) Perhaps thirty years ago Taylor's choreography would have been cutting-edge fare; now it just seems adequate and quaint; enough, I kept thinking, to entertain the audience and justify the prices of the seats. It was more entertaining than, say, the Nederlans Dans Theater, whose work I found ugly and depressing, a kind of noir fraud; though not as quirky and delicious as the program of the Hubbard Street dance company of Chicago, which offered one original and clever surprise after the other.

I can't help but feel that Paul Taylor's company, with all its technical skill, unmistakable artistry and fine training, needs an injection of something new. Perhaps it is time, after fifty years of creative brilliance, for Maestro Paul to step aside, and let someone wholly new and eccentric take the reins - the young Matthew Bourne, whoever that may be. I am sure these marvelous dancers could handle it.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Humbled by Hopkins

Every day I read an extract from the diary of my favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. I invariably find that his diary entries are more linguistically sophisticated and more beautifully phrased than most writers' polished prose. I have been a professional writer for thirty-five years and have written millions of words, hundreds of thousands of sentences in several different forms and genres. Sometimes I allow myself to think that I am a pretty good writer, and that I possess a broad and deep knowledge of the English language. And then I read Hopkins' diaries -- not even his poetry -- and I am humbled. Let me quote here a passage I read this morning, from March 12, 1870:

The next morning a heavy fall of snow. It tufted and toed the firs and yews and went on to load them till they were taxed beyond their spring. The limes, elms, and Turkey-oaks it crisped beautifully as with young leaf. Looking at the elms from underneath you saw every wave in every twig (become by this the wire-like stem to a finger of snow) and to the hangers and flying sprays it restored, to the eye, the inscapes they had lost. They were beautifully brought out against the sky, which was on one side dead blue, on the other washed with gold.

Now, I submit that if any other writer had managed that after three or four drafts, he would be proud. But Hopkins does it almost unconsciously, instinctually, on every page of his diary. This is a vision of Nature that no longer exists; it is an idiom of insight that has been lost. Hopkins saw everything in Nature in spontaneous poetic terms, and the reservoir of language upon which he drew was bottomless. His work has shown me possibilities of English that no other writer, including Shakespeare, has done, both in his poetry and in his prose. I always read his musings on poetics with awe -- I think he knew more about the structure and movement of poetry than anyone who ever wrote in English. 

Hopkins collected words from everyday speech in the rural parishes to which he, a Jesuit priest, was assigned. He records them, savors them, delights in them, and then he uses them in his poems, which gives a variety and liveliness and freshness and curiousness to his verse that few others achieve. His poetry, to my mind, is all about rhythm, sound and meaning, and, above all, intensity of language. And these, I think, are the qualities that mark great poetry. His verse tumbles like freshets and rings like stones in wells and lilts and lofts like hawks on thermals. Take these lines from one of his poems:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same...

Now this poem, with which I struggled for many years, I finally concluded was one of the best arguments for the existence of God I had ever found. Brilliant, sonorous, beautiful and utterly persuasive. But it is the intensity of the language that makes it unique and marks it as Hopkins. Also, of course, the sentiment. Hopkins, being a convert to Catholicism and a Jesuit, felt a stranger to his own family, his birth religion, and, since he was often stationed far from home, to his native soil. Desperately he sought solace, and answers to his most pressing queries: Where is God, Who is God, How is God manifest, How may I know Him? Always he found the answers in an outpouring of his soul into Nature. He was a poetic naturalist in very much the same way that Darwin was a material naturalist, each looking for the truth in and of the world.

That he often despaired of finding it is painfully apparent in some of his sonnets. Consider this:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep….

Again it is not only the depth of the emotion and intellectual torment that is striking, but also the breathless intensity of the language and the outre quality of the images. Hopkins sees cliffs inside the mind, dizzying, deadly, that those who never hung at their lips might dismiss, but not those, who, like him, lived at that dreadful edge.

But that he did find comfort and consolation is unmistakable in the later works, and, characteristically, he found it in Nature. In the poem “My own heart more have pity on,” he bemoans the lack of spiritual peace and the impossibility of achieving it:

I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in a world of wet.

But then he takes pity on himself, urges his “poor Jackself” to “call off thoughts awhile/Elsewhere…” and finds consolation in the imminence of God in Nature

…whose smile
‘s not wrung, see you, unforeseen times rather – as skies
Betweenpie mountains – lights a lovely mile.

Only Hopkins would have split the word “smile’s” between two lines, and made of a single word his oft-used invocation of the piebald quality of sunlight on the aspects of the Earth. For me, this is one of Hopkins’ most beautiful and reassuring images: The clouds part and sunlight (God’s smile) dapples down the valley illuminating the traveler’s next mile.

Hopkins did find peace, in Nature and the poetic harmony of his soul with Nature, expressed in a language so intricate yet so moving that, like the gears and springs and levers of a fine watch, the product of the movement is an awareness of the abstract but urgent truth of time.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Night and Day

I have been listening throughout the day to reaction to the Congressional Budget Office's report that 2.3 million jobs will be lost because of Obamacare. When I first heard this announcement I was not in the least surprised, and I assumed, as any reasonable person would, that this was a stake in the heart of this disastrous neo-socialist experiment. However, as soon as the report was issued, the Obama Administration went into full spin mode, dispatching spokesmen, not to deny the report, but to insist that the loss of 2.3 million jobs is good for the economy. This is in the spirit of such other recent absurdities as Nancy Pelosi declaring that Congress had to pass the Affordable Care Act to find out what was in it, or her assertion that continuing unemployment payments is one of the best ways to stimulate the economy, or Obama's monumental whopper: If you like your health insurance, you can keep your health insurance; if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor; which even the Washington Post admitted was the biggest lie of the year, thus branding Obamacare a fraud upon the public.

(We now know that Obama's decision to tell this bald-faced lie was a deliberate political calculation. There were discussions inside the White House about whether it might be expedient to tell the American people the truth - that chances were they would lose both their insurance policies and their doctors. But the political calculation was made that, if the president told the American people the truth, his bill could not be passed. And so he was instructed to lie, and did lie over fifteen times. {I am reminded of the rationale of the Nixon Administration bureaucrats: "I was not authorized to tell the truth."} And then, when his lie was exposed, what did the president do? He compounded the lie by insisting that he never said what he said over fifteen times; but instead he said something quite more nuanced and verifiable.)

The loss of 2.3 million jobs is good for the economy. Congratulations, America - we have now arrived at 1984 (albeit thirty years late): day is now night, black is now white, four legs are bad and two legs are good, the sow's ear has now officially become a silk purse. I actually watched Jay Carney, the official liar for the Obama Administration, insist that the fact that the Affordable Care Act's elimination of over two million jobs is a good thing for the economy, at a time when over twenty million Americans are out of work, real unemployment is over 13% (despite the Administration's persistent 7% lie), and workplace participation is at its lowest point in my lifetime. Watching Obama's spokesmen try to rationalize this point was a carnival in sophistry. While tens of millions of Americans are trying to find good paying jobs (or any jobs at all), the Administration, supported by the New York Times editorial board, is actually arguing that government mandated loss of gainful work is a good thing; that giving millions of Americans an incentive not to work is "liberating". Yes, the New York Times, in unison with the Administration's press releases, has trumpeted that millions of Americans who now are "trapped" in ill-paying jobs will be "liberated" by government subsidies to pursue their dreams to realize their full potential... in the arts. Therefore, I assume, burger-flippers will begin composing piano concertos, janitors will turn to their true vocation as abstract artists, and hotel maids will write lyric poetry.

This is insanity. An insanity inspired by Obama's incompetence and undergraduate obsession with pseudo-socialism. America is not and was never intended to be a socialist country. Nonetheless, Barack Obama, ignorant of the laws of economics and disregarding the intent of the Founding Fathers, is determined to make it so. That is why, despite the demonstrable disaster which is Obamacare, he will not admit its failure. Now, let me put this in quotidian terms: If your child had made a serious mistake, and continued to defend that mistake and attempted futilely to prop it up, and lied and rationalized it to you, and asked you to wait to see the eventual result, would you, as a parent, simply acquiesce? Of course you would not. You would demand that the child stop lying, admit the error, and undo the damage he or she had done. But the Obama Administration cannot do this. Instead, it continues to lie and equivocate exactly as it did on the Benghazi raid, the IRS scandal, the AP scandal, the Fast and Furious scandal, and on and on.

And the mainstream media, zombie-like, nods their hollow heads and absorbs these absurd rationalizations as if they were dum-dum bullets being fired at their undead carcasses. You say that Obamacare will kill 2.3 million jobs? That is good for the economy! You say that Benghazi was a spontaneous demonstration? Of course it was! You say that the IRS was not targeting conservative groups? Certainly!

In face of Obamacare's ongoing, monumental failure, I have come to agree with those commentators who have suggested that it was always intended to fail. And that, on the heels of that embarrassing failure, the federal government was always meant to race in and rescue the American health care industry with... universal, government-provided health care - the single payer system, of which Teddy Kennedy and Barney Frank and Harry Reid and other leftist politicians spoke in unguarded moments on open microphones. In short, that Obamacare is an elaborate charade being played out by the far left to guarantee that socialized medicine will become an inevitability in American life. That, it seems to me, was their intention from the beginning. Look at the numbers: the Administration boasts that six million Americans will obtain health insurance by March first (while claiming that 45 million had none - another lie); meanwhile six million  people who had it have lost it (a net wash), and, when the employer mandate kicks in later this year, as many as sixty-seven million more will lose their policies, for a net loss of sixty-one million people. And so we will end up with ten times more people without health insurance than with it, as a result of a law that was intended, ostensibly, to ensure that no American would be without it. This is madness.

My fear is that the same electorate that would submissively nod its head when lied to on this monumental scale will meekly submit when the federal government declares that It, and only It, can save us from the overwhelming disaster which It inflicted on us in the first place, by assuming absolute control over the most intimate part of our lives - the quality of our health.

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Major B Minor

Yesterday I took my eleven year old to see and hear Bach's Mass in B-minor at the Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. The performance was by the L.A. Master Chorale and its orchestra. I must say that I have come to love the Master Chorale, and I feel that its conductor, Grant Gershon, ought to be named a municipal treasure by the city so that he can never leave. His pre-concert talks are always entertaining and informative, his demeanor on stage, his love of the music and his ideas seem never to flag or fail. I have attended the Chorale's performances of the Verdi Requiem (one of my favorite pieces and, I think one of the most dramatic works of art ever produced), as well as their Carmina Burana (twice), which is simply the best rendition of this musical bacchanal I have ever heard. You rarely hear an audience laugh out loud at a classical concert, and afterwards I said to my son, "Now tell me that's not the most fun you've ever had in a concert hall". And so when I learned that they were doing the B-minor Mass, I bought tickets early.

It was well that I did; the performance sold out. Though I must say that I, and others, knowing this, were surprised at the number of empty seats. The answer came midway through the first half of the performance, when Mr. Gershon had to stop to allow a small army of latecomers to enter. "Typical L.A. audience," I whispered to my son. But the conductor was gracious, even genial about it, and no real harm was done.

Now I should say that I consider the B-minor Mass to be the most beautiful creation of Western Civilization. No, I do not blanch at such a statement, for I know I am not alone. Many years ago, I watched a debate between William F. Buckley and the philosopher, Mortimer Adler, on the question of whether Heaven will be more beautiful than the B-minor Mass. I don't recall what they decided, but for my own part, the answer is No, since the Mass exists and Heaven does not. Thus it is rather like asking whether a tree is more beautiful than the idea of a tree. Perhaps Plato would argue that the idea is superior, but certainly not on a hot summer day when shade is required, or when a storm whisks the branches and leaves. I described this debate to my son on the drive down to the Disney Center, and then I said to him: "You are about to experience the most beautiful thing you will ever experience; so enjoy it, because the rest of your life will be a disappointment." Of course, being my son, he made a face at the suggestion.

The B-minor Mass is a miracle of creation. It has so many colors, so many textures, such a wealth of meaning and emotion and insight, and all of it is so beautiful that, to my mind at least, it transcends any other work, even the greatest of Beethoven, Tolstoy and Shakespeare. For sheer drama, nuance, variety and spiritual and aesthetic power, it is unmatched, and rivaled only, perhaps, by Lear. The Master Chorale's performance lasted over two hours (with an unexpected intermission), and yet as we entered each section in the work, it was as if it, and the world, were being created anew. There is so much variety in the Mass, and all of it so perfectly balanced and profoundly executed (and in this case, wonderfully performed) that one's attention never falters; indeed, it grows and becomes more awestruck with each unfolding gesture of the work.

That said, I did take exception to some of Mr. Gershon's choices of phrasing in the instruments and voices, in which he consistently detached notes rather than treating them legato, but that was purely a matter of personal taste, and I am content to defer to his knowledge and judgment. On the other hand, I very much enjoyed and admired his decision to use members of the Chorale to sing the solos and duets, rather than relying on invited soloists. They did so very well, and while the process of moving them from the risers to a position downstage was a bit distracting, the effect was to make the piece seem more at one with the orchestra and chorus. This was Mr. Gershon's and the Chorale's B-minor Mass; they took possession of it and they did so with marvelous virtuosity, originality, devotion and elan, as they have everything I have seen them perform.

I have said 'seen' several times since one of the joys of their programs is watching Mr. Gershon, the singers and the orchestra. He transmits his personality to the group, a personality that is suffused with genuine love and respect for the music, with brilliantly original ideas and attention to detail, and with humor when possible and solemnity when called for. This is a truly marvelous ensemble, and the orchestra that accompanies it is of a very high quality. Though I have listened to the Mass many times, this was the first time I had seen it performed, and one of the most interesting things to me was to watch how beautifully Bach paired instrumental soloists with vocal soloists, a fact which Mr. Gershon emphasized by having the singers move down into the body of the orchestra, and having the instrumentalists stand as they performed together with them. This was music that was wonderful to watch. Bach's blending of instrumental and human voices is unerring, filled with variety, and moving both for its delicacy and drama. "That is genius," I whispered to my son, and this time, he nodded.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Apology Society

We have become an apology society. This obsessive need to flagellate oneself in public is being driven, of course, by political correctness, which has engendered the idea that there is an inherent right not to be offended, especially by speech. This runs directly counter to the First Amendment, which sanctifies the right to speak freely; but the denizens of PC are systematically undoing this sacred right for, as usual, the sake of political gain and their own egos.

Let me be categorial: There is no right not to be offended. There is, however, a fundamental right to express oneself, free from persecution. But in our society today, though one cannot be legally prosecuted for offensive speech, one's life can be made a hell for it. Those who are accused of offensive speech are subjected to pillorying in the media, and demands are made that they be censured, forced to apologize in public, and fired from their jobs. What makes this current malaise even more pernicious is that it is the bugaboo of one particular political ideology: liberalism. The left has made it abundantly clear that it favors tolerance and freedom of expression, but only for those who agree with it politically. And since it is the left that invented political correctness and defines and redefines and enforces it, the apology society is nothing but politically-driven censorship. "But," they will argue, "we do not demand that people be prosecuted for speech." No, you have your own methods of punishment. You will publicly humiliate the offender and engineer the destruction of his or her livelihood. And you will do so in the name of correctness. Unable to use the law as a bludgeon, you use publicity and economics, the effects of which can be just as harsh and destructive as prison.

We have recently been forced to witness the sorry spectacle of Duck Dynasty. I had never heard of Duck Dynasty and had never seen it and, having learned something about it, do not wish to. It is, as far as I can tell, merely another wart on the face of reality television, which is the latest derogation of the habitual unreality of television. However, its main character was thrust into the public view when he stated that the Old Testament teaches that homosexuality is abnormal. Now, while I do not believe that, just as I do not believe the Creation story, I know that many people do, and I would not demand that someone be dragged before the court of public opinion for having said it, humiliated for having said it, suspended from his program for having said it, clamor that he forfeit his career for having said it, or insist that the force of the government be brought to bear in order to stifle him.

As far as I know, you are free in this society to say that the Bible teaches against homosexuality, and that God created Adam and Eve, and no one should have the power to compel you to remain silent. I may disagree with what you say, but I will not insist that you be shut up; indeed, I might even welcome such assertions since they are so easy to refute. But this is not enough for the daemons of political correctness, who use the power of interest groups to pressure spineless politicians and corporate executives to muzzle any speech with which they disagree. The most troubling aspect of this sinister phenomenon, however, is that it is being mainstreamed in our culture, often with the eager collaboration of politicians and the media.

Now we have the Governor of New York declaring that people who disagree with the left on matters of abortion, gun ownership and the definition of marriage are not welcome in that state. (This scabrous declaration was then echoed by New York City's new mayor.) Earlier we had the Mayor of Chicago telling a restaurant chain that, because its owner contributed to traditional-marriage causes, his business was no longer welcome in that city. Whatever happened to the principle upon which our free society was based that declares: I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it! That was courageous talk; political correctness is craven censorship. The Governor of New York and the Mayors of Chicago and New York City are fools, but they are something worse (since foolishness can be forgiven); they are agents of mischief, because they are undermining the principles of liberty on which our nation was founded. They fail to see that the point is not homosexuality or gun rights or abortion; it is the future of free speech in America.

Every day on the news I hear references to "The N Word" as if it referred to some sort of blasphemy that dare not be uttered. Of course, this expression, which people use in place of the word itself, merely causes the listener to think of the word, producing the opposite effect to that intended; rather like telling someone, "Don't think of an elephant." The fact is that people have become so intimidated by the forces of political correctness that an entire vocabulary of forbidden terms has emerged in our society, and otherwise intelligent, well-educated people skirt fearfully around them as if they were ancient curses never to be invoked. We have seen this sort of verbal paranoia throughout history: Say the name of God out loud and you will be punished! Say the name of the devil three times and you will be punished! Let others know your real name and you will be punished! Now we have our own forbidden lexicon of which we have been taught to live in fear; and who gets to determine its contents? The political left.

I refuse to be intimidated. I am a writer, the inheritor of a profession thousands of years old, whose practitioners have pointed the way to truth and pointed out hypocrisy when everyone else in their societies had gone either mad or corrupt or stupid. I do not fear language - any form of language - and will use whatever words I feel I must to convey to my fellow citizens what I esteem to be the truth of our condition. But, as always, with freedom comes responsibility. I will not use language gratuitously nor with the calculated intention to hurt, but I will use it, all of it that I have at my disposal, how and when it seems to me appropriate. For my colleagues, especially in the film business, who censor themselves and others for political purposes, I have nothing but disdain. The words, "You cannot say that," are to me a challenge to honor and perpetuate the sacred traditions of the writer and the writer's profession, for which many have given their lives, invariably at the hands of political bullies.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Gagging on Gadgetry

I have often said that I am most comfortable with things made of wood; I am a man of the Nineteenth Century. I was uncomfortable in the Twentieth, and am distinctly ill at ease in the Twenty-first. I do not care for electronic gadgets, and am trying my best to get them out of my life. Alas, I cannot. I use my computer to write, as it is far more versatile and efficient than my old typewriter, and my cell phone is connected to my home burglar alarm. Two Christmases ago, my older son gave me a Kindle, possession of which I had carefully avoided, but I must admit that I have read a couple of dozen books on it since. It is an excellent tool for research, which is half of what I do for a living, enabling me to acquire the text of a book (not the book itself) quickly and inexpensively. I read as much of it as my project requires, and then am not obliged to find shelf space for the rest of it. Nor does it collect much dust. As for all the other gadgets, I have successfully resisted them to this point.

Sixty years ago, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote that he was waiting for the rebirth of wonder. I am watching it die, having the life strangled out of it by high technology. Call it a kind of romanticism, if you will; and I suppose it is - a kind of nostalgia. It is nostalgia for a time when there was quaint charm in distance and piquant anxiety in not knowing; when curiosity was driven by that which we had trouble finding out, and mystery had an allure reserved only to Garbo: silent, aloof, and perfect in its inscrutability. Now all these things are fading like daguerreotypes from the American frontier, to be replaced with more and more pixilated images of anything and everything we want to know and don't need to.

Please don't misunderstand: I appreciate the fact that high tech has made our lives easier (though in the latter half of the Twentieth Century they weren't all that unbearable) but it has also made them more precarious. In prior ages, it took drought or disease or barbarians to destroy a civilization; now it can be done by a solar flare or a cyber attack. Take Target, for example: At a stroke, the identities of 40 million people were placed in peril by some mischievous kid in the Ukraine, and for the capital sin of Christmas shopping. I know... I was one of them. And so if high tech has made getting along easier, it has likewise made going under inevitable.

The irony, of course, is that, now that we can know virtually anything instantaneously by looking it up on a smartphone, most of us seem to know nothing much of anything worth knowing. We don't understand, for example, that all this convenience and its concomitant dependence have made us horribly vulnerable. Every day I witness my fellow citizens numbly trading their individual liberty for electronic connectedness. We are accepting the death of personal privacy for the promise of collective convenience. And as the vacuum of liberty deepens, the government, as our Founders warned us, is only too eager to step in and fill it. We watched, just yesterday, as the president offered token fixes for massive domestic spying, unable to specify how even those bandaids would be applied, thereby confessing both his personal ignorance of the true nature of the problem, and his servile acquiescence to the faceless forces that are threatening the very existence of liberty in this nation. And the media, faithful curs that they are, blandly nodded Yes.

In the wonderful play "Marat/Sade," one of the revolutionaries exclaims: Don't believe them when they tell you that you've never had it so good; that is merely the slogan of those who have that much more than you! I would echo that warning to our gadget-dependent culture: Don't believe those who tell you that you've never had access to so much information; that is merely the slogan of those who know that much more than you - and are keeping it secret.