Commentary Magazine


Topic: Los Angeles

Review: Where Things Are Allowed to Have Complexity

Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (New York: Scribner, 2011). 235 pp. $24.00.

Nobody much likes the term literary fiction, but nobody knows what else to call it. Publishers and booksellers feel the need to reassure shoppers that the novel they are weighing in their hand is not a “thriller” or a “detective novel” — it’s not, God forbid, “genre fiction,” whose readers know exactly what they are looking for. But in the process, as Howard Jacobson grouses in the Independent, intelligent readers are put off and 1,000 good writers are consigned to “the scrapheap of oblivion.”

“The truth is,” Jacobson concludes, “the best novels will always defy category.” Maybe that should be the category term. It sure fits Dana Spiotta’s breakthrough novel Stone Arabia, which is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Partly about the relationship between a sister and brother in middle age, partly about a “garage band” rocker who compiles detailed scrapbooks of his career as a secret rock star, partly about the sub-middle class life of marginal and dislocated people who are not quite Bohemians in L.A., Spiotta’s novel is made up of parts that fit together only in the unique logic of family and personal­ity.

The miracle is not only that the novel fits together at all, but it does so in a way that is continually surprising and unexpected without ever becoming pretentious, self-conscious, “experimental.” Better perhaps than any other novelist I have read recently, Spiotta is successful at avoiding the “neat­ness” of conventional form and structure, at wrapping things up in literary artifice, while not overbalancing into the fallacy of imitating ordinary life’s untidiness in an extraordinarily untidy narrative. Her story is carried along, not by “observations” on the American scene or framed samplers on the human con­dition, but by Spiotta’s style of exacting and remorseless sympathy.

Stone Arabia also defies summary. The year is 2004; the place, Los Angeles. Denise Kranis is a 47-year-old personal assistant to a real estate mogul. Her three-years-older brother Nik is a guitarist and songwriter, whose real art is not rock music but his life. Although he played with a pretty decent warmup band as a teenager, and though he later discovered a natural gift for songwriting, Nik is without ambition or career. He spends his time drinking, smoking, and taking drugs (“a lifetime of abuse that could only come from a warped relationship with the future”). Outside of work—to pay the rent he tends bar—he obsessively chronicles a fantasy life as a famous rock star, compiling scrapbooks of his invented career “in minute but twisted detail.” He began the Chronicles in 1978, when he was 24:

They were all written exclusively by him. They are the history of his music, his bands, his albums, his reviews, his interviews. He made his chronicles—scrapbooks, really—thick, clip-filled things. He wrote under many different aliases, from his fan club president to his nemesis, a critic who started at Creem magazine and ended up writing for the Los Angeles Times, a man who follows and really hates his work.

Nik writes and records the music documented in the Chronicles; he even designs the album covers and painstakingly hand-letters the liner notes; but outside of Denise and an ex-girlfriend or two, his only audience is Nik himself. Four decades ago, Robert Coover wrote a novel about a solitary obsessive who creates a parallel universe for himself, but The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is about a man who gradually loses touch with reality. Nik Kranis (or Nik Worth, as he calls his rock-star self) does not go insane. He is not ashamed of his secret vice. He ignores all entreaties to “get real.” His life, like his music, is entirely self-referential. And there is, according to his sister, some integrity in that:

Nik was liberated from any dialogue with the past work of others and certainly with the current work of others. His work was his own exclusive interest now and had been for years. I knew his solipsism had become his work, in a sense, that this was complicated to think about, but at some point there is the unyielding, the concentration, and the accumulation that becomes a body of work. Whatever the nature of that work, it is hard to argue against.

But what is left out of account is Nik’s relationship with his sister Denise, and the toll it takes on her. As she wryly comments, “It is easy to fill up the space when you get to make everything up.” Denise does not have any such luxury. Her work is the ordinary business of living, although their complicated closeness—Nik calls her an extension of himself—complicates her life as well. By all appearances she leads a fairly normal life (a job, a daughter, a house and mortgage, boyfriend, an elderly mother whom she cares for), and yet Denise is the one who is more disabled for living. She experiences memory problems and is tossed by the nightly news—the abduction of an Amish child, the Abu Ghraib scandal, the Beslan school hostage crisis—between extremes of terror and apathy.

“Imagine total freedom,” Nik tells his niece in trying to explain what she calls his “fake life.” But if total creative freedom ends in the sterility of an interesting solipsism, as Spiotta suggests, then its converse—responsibility to others, not seeing them as extensions of yourself—entails a submission to the real. Significantly, Denise calls her story at one point the Counterchronicles. Whatever normality she attains, whatever happiness, is the product of a sustained resistance to the gigantic want into which her brother disappears.

“A novel is a place in the culture where things are allowed to have complexity,” she told an interviewer four years ago. And perhaps that is what Dana Spiotta has reinvented—the novel of reality’s complications. In a literary age of adolescent wizards and romantic vampires, that may be more than enough. Stone Arabia stands as a subtle testament to the allure and damage of obsessive fantasy, the reconstructive work of ordinary living.

Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (New York: Scribner, 2011). 235 pp. $24.00.

Nobody much likes the term literary fiction, but nobody knows what else to call it. Publishers and booksellers feel the need to reassure shoppers that the novel they are weighing in their hand is not a “thriller” or a “detective novel” — it’s not, God forbid, “genre fiction,” whose readers know exactly what they are looking for. But in the process, as Howard Jacobson grouses in the Independent, intelligent readers are put off and 1,000 good writers are consigned to “the scrapheap of oblivion.”

“The truth is,” Jacobson concludes, “the best novels will always defy category.” Maybe that should be the category term. It sure fits Dana Spiotta’s breakthrough novel Stone Arabia, which is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Partly about the relationship between a sister and brother in middle age, partly about a “garage band” rocker who compiles detailed scrapbooks of his career as a secret rock star, partly about the sub-middle class life of marginal and dislocated people who are not quite Bohemians in L.A., Spiotta’s novel is made up of parts that fit together only in the unique logic of family and personal­ity.

The miracle is not only that the novel fits together at all, but it does so in a way that is continually surprising and unexpected without ever becoming pretentious, self-conscious, “experimental.” Better perhaps than any other novelist I have read recently, Spiotta is successful at avoiding the “neat­ness” of conventional form and structure, at wrapping things up in literary artifice, while not overbalancing into the fallacy of imitating ordinary life’s untidiness in an extraordinarily untidy narrative. Her story is carried along, not by “observations” on the American scene or framed samplers on the human con­dition, but by Spiotta’s style of exacting and remorseless sympathy.

Stone Arabia also defies summary. The year is 2004; the place, Los Angeles. Denise Kranis is a 47-year-old personal assistant to a real estate mogul. Her three-years-older brother Nik is a guitarist and songwriter, whose real art is not rock music but his life. Although he played with a pretty decent warmup band as a teenager, and though he later discovered a natural gift for songwriting, Nik is without ambition or career. He spends his time drinking, smoking, and taking drugs (“a lifetime of abuse that could only come from a warped relationship with the future”). Outside of work—to pay the rent he tends bar—he obsessively chronicles a fantasy life as a famous rock star, compiling scrapbooks of his invented career “in minute but twisted detail.” He began the Chronicles in 1978, when he was 24:

They were all written exclusively by him. They are the history of his music, his bands, his albums, his reviews, his interviews. He made his chronicles—scrapbooks, really—thick, clip-filled things. He wrote under many different aliases, from his fan club president to his nemesis, a critic who started at Creem magazine and ended up writing for the Los Angeles Times, a man who follows and really hates his work.

Nik writes and records the music documented in the Chronicles; he even designs the album covers and painstakingly hand-letters the liner notes; but outside of Denise and an ex-girlfriend or two, his only audience is Nik himself. Four decades ago, Robert Coover wrote a novel about a solitary obsessive who creates a parallel universe for himself, but The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is about a man who gradually loses touch with reality. Nik Kranis (or Nik Worth, as he calls his rock-star self) does not go insane. He is not ashamed of his secret vice. He ignores all entreaties to “get real.” His life, like his music, is entirely self-referential. And there is, according to his sister, some integrity in that:

Nik was liberated from any dialogue with the past work of others and certainly with the current work of others. His work was his own exclusive interest now and had been for years. I knew his solipsism had become his work, in a sense, that this was complicated to think about, but at some point there is the unyielding, the concentration, and the accumulation that becomes a body of work. Whatever the nature of that work, it is hard to argue against.

But what is left out of account is Nik’s relationship with his sister Denise, and the toll it takes on her. As she wryly comments, “It is easy to fill up the space when you get to make everything up.” Denise does not have any such luxury. Her work is the ordinary business of living, although their complicated closeness—Nik calls her an extension of himself—complicates her life as well. By all appearances she leads a fairly normal life (a job, a daughter, a house and mortgage, boyfriend, an elderly mother whom she cares for), and yet Denise is the one who is more disabled for living. She experiences memory problems and is tossed by the nightly news—the abduction of an Amish child, the Abu Ghraib scandal, the Beslan school hostage crisis—between extremes of terror and apathy.

“Imagine total freedom,” Nik tells his niece in trying to explain what she calls his “fake life.” But if total creative freedom ends in the sterility of an interesting solipsism, as Spiotta suggests, then its converse—responsibility to others, not seeing them as extensions of yourself—entails a submission to the real. Significantly, Denise calls her story at one point the Counterchronicles. Whatever normality she attains, whatever happiness, is the product of a sustained resistance to the gigantic want into which her brother disappears.

“A novel is a place in the culture where things are allowed to have complexity,” she told an interviewer four years ago. And perhaps that is what Dana Spiotta has reinvented—the novel of reality’s complications. In a literary age of adolescent wizards and romantic vampires, that may be more than enough. Stone Arabia stands as a subtle testament to the allure and damage of obsessive fantasy, the reconstructive work of ordinary living.

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Muslim Leaders Blame FBI for Foiling Portland Bomb Plot

While most around the country breathed a sigh of relief after undercover FBI agents foiled an Islamist extremist bomb plot in Portland, Oregon, this past weekend, apparently some Muslim leaders are unhappy about the bureau’s tactics. A “news analysis” in today’s New York Times details the complaints made by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which described the successful police work as having gone too far. The head of the Los Angeles branch of the group claimed that the agents who monitored Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the man who planned to turn a public Christmas-tree lighting into a scene of mass murder, had somehow pushed the alleged terrorist “over the edge” from mere anti-American rhetoric to terrorism.

Seeking to deflect attention from yet another Islamist terror plot uncovered in the United States, CAIR and other Muslim leaders were quick to blame the firebombing of the mosque Mohamud attended in Corvallis, Oregon, on the FBI. The responsibility for that crime (which thankfully resulted in no loss of life) belongs to the perpetrators, who, we hope, will soon be caught. But it is not the FBI’s fault. If the members of the mosque are unhappy with the publicity that was drawn to their place of worship, the fault lies with their fellow congregant who sought to commit mass murder, not the law-enforcement officials who prevented the planned crime. Also unmentioned in the story is the possibility that he may have been inspired to terrorism by his religious mentors, not the FBI.

While the Muslim groups seem to be implying that the FBI agents acted as agents provocateurs, there is no evidence that this is the case. Left unsaid here is the fact that the alternative to such proactive tactics is a situation where legal authorities simply sit back and wait for the terrorists to do their worse, which reflects a pre-9/11 mentality that is simply unacceptable.

Instead of a legitimate complaint, this appears to be yet another example of how CAIR (which was originally founded as a political front for a Hamas fundraising group that has since been shut down by the federal government) and other allies and fellow-travelers of Islamist ideology have sought to change the subject from the very real issue of home-grown Muslim terrorism to discussion of a “backlash” against Muslims. While crimes such as the attack on the mosque are deplorable, they are the exception that proves the rule of American tolerance for Muslims. Such attacks are, as I noted recently, quite rare and still outnumbered by a factor of eight to one by anti-Semitic hate crimes.

Even more to the point, as the Times article illustrates, most American Muslims are eager to cooperate with the FBI in the very real fight against domestic terrorism and have proved invaluable in preventing many lethal attacks planned by Islamists in the United States. Instead of putting this cooperation in jeopardy, as the Times’s piece alleges, the Portland plot proves the necessity of such cooperation. Rather than continuing to focus on a mythical backlash against Muslims, this story again demonstrates the very real nature of the threat from Islamist terrorists and the need for law-enforcement agencies and patriotic citizens of all faiths to do everything possible to stop them.

While most around the country breathed a sigh of relief after undercover FBI agents foiled an Islamist extremist bomb plot in Portland, Oregon, this past weekend, apparently some Muslim leaders are unhappy about the bureau’s tactics. A “news analysis” in today’s New York Times details the complaints made by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which described the successful police work as having gone too far. The head of the Los Angeles branch of the group claimed that the agents who monitored Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the man who planned to turn a public Christmas-tree lighting into a scene of mass murder, had somehow pushed the alleged terrorist “over the edge” from mere anti-American rhetoric to terrorism.

Seeking to deflect attention from yet another Islamist terror plot uncovered in the United States, CAIR and other Muslim leaders were quick to blame the firebombing of the mosque Mohamud attended in Corvallis, Oregon, on the FBI. The responsibility for that crime (which thankfully resulted in no loss of life) belongs to the perpetrators, who, we hope, will soon be caught. But it is not the FBI’s fault. If the members of the mosque are unhappy with the publicity that was drawn to their place of worship, the fault lies with their fellow congregant who sought to commit mass murder, not the law-enforcement officials who prevented the planned crime. Also unmentioned in the story is the possibility that he may have been inspired to terrorism by his religious mentors, not the FBI.

While the Muslim groups seem to be implying that the FBI agents acted as agents provocateurs, there is no evidence that this is the case. Left unsaid here is the fact that the alternative to such proactive tactics is a situation where legal authorities simply sit back and wait for the terrorists to do their worse, which reflects a pre-9/11 mentality that is simply unacceptable.

Instead of a legitimate complaint, this appears to be yet another example of how CAIR (which was originally founded as a political front for a Hamas fundraising group that has since been shut down by the federal government) and other allies and fellow-travelers of Islamist ideology have sought to change the subject from the very real issue of home-grown Muslim terrorism to discussion of a “backlash” against Muslims. While crimes such as the attack on the mosque are deplorable, they are the exception that proves the rule of American tolerance for Muslims. Such attacks are, as I noted recently, quite rare and still outnumbered by a factor of eight to one by anti-Semitic hate crimes.

Even more to the point, as the Times article illustrates, most American Muslims are eager to cooperate with the FBI in the very real fight against domestic terrorism and have proved invaluable in preventing many lethal attacks planned by Islamists in the United States. Instead of putting this cooperation in jeopardy, as the Times’s piece alleges, the Portland plot proves the necessity of such cooperation. Rather than continuing to focus on a mythical backlash against Muslims, this story again demonstrates the very real nature of the threat from Islamist terrorists and the need for law-enforcement agencies and patriotic citizens of all faiths to do everything possible to stop them.

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RE: Two Big Losers: Obama and Gerrymandering

John, it is certainly the case that ultra-gerrymandered districts have left California House races largely uncompetitive. Living in California for nearly 40 years — in several locations — I never saw a competitive House race. But as bad as the gerrymandering is, there’s another more fundamental reason for uncompetitive seats: to a large degree Californians have segregated themselves by geography.

Even if all the districts were in nice rectangular shapes, rather than the grotesque shapes resembling dragons and other mythical creatures, you still would have loads of safe seats — Democrats in the larger metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose, with Republicans in rural areas and the outer suburbs. In their informative book California Crackup, Joe Mathews and Mark Paul tell us:

“Redistricting is limited in its capacity to create a heavily competitive state,” wrote Bruce E. Cain, California’s leading scholar of redistricting, in a 2008 study. California’s new political geography, with Democrats controlling the coast and Republicans dominating inland areas, affords few chances to draw competitive districts. There are no Republican seats to be conjured up in the Bay Area, no Democratic seats in the Sierra or northern Sacramento Valley.

In fact, to make districts more ideologically balanced, you might want to draw even more creative district lines.

The solution, if there is one, is for the disenchanted to vote with their feet. They are already doing so in record numbers, thereby reducing California’s revenue, population, and eventually its electoral wattage. In the meantime, the new Congress should take a vow: no bailouts for California. Let Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer figure out how to get their state out of a ditch — with no help from the rest of the American taxpayers.

John, it is certainly the case that ultra-gerrymandered districts have left California House races largely uncompetitive. Living in California for nearly 40 years — in several locations — I never saw a competitive House race. But as bad as the gerrymandering is, there’s another more fundamental reason for uncompetitive seats: to a large degree Californians have segregated themselves by geography.

Even if all the districts were in nice rectangular shapes, rather than the grotesque shapes resembling dragons and other mythical creatures, you still would have loads of safe seats — Democrats in the larger metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose, with Republicans in rural areas and the outer suburbs. In their informative book California Crackup, Joe Mathews and Mark Paul tell us:

“Redistricting is limited in its capacity to create a heavily competitive state,” wrote Bruce E. Cain, California’s leading scholar of redistricting, in a 2008 study. California’s new political geography, with Democrats controlling the coast and Republicans dominating inland areas, affords few chances to draw competitive districts. There are no Republican seats to be conjured up in the Bay Area, no Democratic seats in the Sierra or northern Sacramento Valley.

In fact, to make districts more ideologically balanced, you might want to draw even more creative district lines.

The solution, if there is one, is for the disenchanted to vote with their feet. They are already doing so in record numbers, thereby reducing California’s revenue, population, and eventually its electoral wattage. In the meantime, the new Congress should take a vow: no bailouts for California. Let Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer figure out how to get their state out of a ditch — with no help from the rest of the American taxpayers.

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A No Good, Rotten Time for Big Labor

Big Labor is having a tough time. You’d think that after spending millions in hard and soft money to get Obama and a Democratic Congress elected, they’d be flying high. But alas, the public’s approval of labor unions has never been lower. And unions’ No. 1 priority — card check — never even came to a vote. Many of the beneficiaries of Big Labor cash are going to get swept out in November. And now this:

The FBI and U.S. Labor Department are looking into two deals involving Andy Stern — over a six-figure book contract given to the former head of the Service Employees International Union and payments to a labor leader convicted on separate fraud charges, a source familiar with the case told Fox News on Tuesday.

Alejandro Stephens, who was sentenced early this month to four months in prison and three months of home confinement for defrauding a non-profit organization in “bogus consulting agreements,” is former president of SEIU local 660 in Los Angeles.

Questioning of Stern, who is a member of President Obama’s debt commission, revolve around whether he paid Stephens $150,000 to do nothing as the local union boss. Stephens and Stern met with federal agents this summer to answer questions about the relationship.

Do you think it might be a good idea to take Stern off the commission?

As with many liberal groups and activists, Big Labor is experiencing the worst of times. Would you have imagined this two years ago?

Big Labor is having a tough time. You’d think that after spending millions in hard and soft money to get Obama and a Democratic Congress elected, they’d be flying high. But alas, the public’s approval of labor unions has never been lower. And unions’ No. 1 priority — card check — never even came to a vote. Many of the beneficiaries of Big Labor cash are going to get swept out in November. And now this:

The FBI and U.S. Labor Department are looking into two deals involving Andy Stern — over a six-figure book contract given to the former head of the Service Employees International Union and payments to a labor leader convicted on separate fraud charges, a source familiar with the case told Fox News on Tuesday.

Alejandro Stephens, who was sentenced early this month to four months in prison and three months of home confinement for defrauding a non-profit organization in “bogus consulting agreements,” is former president of SEIU local 660 in Los Angeles.

Questioning of Stern, who is a member of President Obama’s debt commission, revolve around whether he paid Stephens $150,000 to do nothing as the local union boss. Stephens and Stern met with federal agents this summer to answer questions about the relationship.

Do you think it might be a good idea to take Stern off the commission?

As with many liberal groups and activists, Big Labor is experiencing the worst of times. Would you have imagined this two years ago?

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Good advice to conservative pundits from Michael Gerson (in defending Karl Rove): “[A commentator] owes his readers or viewers his best judgment — which means he cannot simply be a tool of someone else’s ideological agenda. Some conservatives have adopted the Bolshevik approach to information and the media: Every personal feeling, every independent thought, every inconvenient fact, must be subordinated to the party line — the Tea Party line.” Read the whole thing.

Good time, actually, for those ferocious Rove critics to apologize. It seems she is a loon: “The story of Christine O’Donnell’s past got a little stranger Friday. Bill Maher — on whose former show, ‘Politically Incorrect,’ O’Donnell appeared repeatedly in the late 1990s — showed a previously unaired clip from Oct. 29, 1999, on his current HBO program, ‘Real Time,’ in which the GOP Senate nominee from Delaware said she ‘dabbled into witchcraft.”’

Good line from Mitt Romney at the Value Voters Summit: “Welcome to the Nancy Pelosi-Harry Reid-President Obama farewell party. This has been a pretty tough year for those three—their numbers have gone down the chute faster than a Jet Blue flight attendant.” And a good speech on Obamanomics.

Good critique of the problem(s) with Newt Gingrich: “Like the former and would-be next California governor [Jerry Brown], Gingrich talks big, but has no loyalty to his ideas. He was for tax cuts before he was against them. He supported a $35,000 congressional pay raise and leaner government. Like Brown, Gingrich’s real skill has been in seeing a trend early and jumping on it, unencumbered by any past positions. … The last time Gingrich set out to save America, he ended up burning his career. He taught a college course called ‘Renewing American Civilization.’ That would not have been a problem except that this modern-day John Adams felt the need to raise $300,000 and $450,000 to bankroll his discourses on American ‘core values.’ That’s a long pricey schlep from the log cabin.”

Good move. “Since General Petraeus took on the commander’s job in June, several aides said, the president has struck a more deferential tone toward him than he used with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, General Petraeus’s predecessor. Often during pauses in meetings, one White House official said, Mr. Obama will stop and say, ‘Dave, what do you think?'” Less Axelrod and Emanuel and more Petraeus, and we might win this.

Good golly. “Two Los Angeles departments have received $111 million in federal stimulus funds yet have created only 55 jobs so far, according to a pair of reports issued Thursday by City Controller Wendy Greuel.”

Good luck to Tom Joscelyn trying to explain to David Ignatius (and the Obami): “For the umpteenth time, Iran is not on our side in Afghanistan. They are currently allied with the Taliban, the mullahs’ one-time enemy. Iran is not going to help us ‘undermine the Taliban.’ They are working with the Taliban to undermine the U.S.-led coalition.”

Good job, Madam Speaker! Now 38 Democrats favor full extension of the Bush tax cuts. Maybe more: “Other Democrats have indicated privately that they prefer an extension instead of allowing rates to expire for top earners, and Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who heads Democratic campaign efforts, has argued behind closed doors for taking a political issue off the table by giving a short reprieve to wealthy folks before the midterm elections.”

Good for her. “A politically vulnerable Democratic lawmaker blasted her party’s House leadership as she demanded a vote to cut the salaries of lawmakers by $8,700 next year. In a letter sent Thursday afternoon, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) pressured Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to hold a vote on her bill to cut congressional pay by five percent and save taxpayers $4.7 million next year before Congress breaks for its fall recess.”

Good for him. Greg Sargent rises above partisan cheerleading: “It isn’t every day that Democrats target Latino challengers with nasty anti-immigrant ads, but these are apparently desperate times for certain embattled Dems. … [Rep. Walt] Minnick apparently sees the need to run an ad that stinks of fear and desperation. Quite a specimen.”

Good news for Republicans in the Hoosier state: “The Indiana Senate seat now held by Democrat Evan Bayh remains a likely Republican pickup on Election Day. The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Voters in Indiana finds Republican Dan Coats leading Democratic Congressman Brad Ellsworth 50% to 34% in the state’s U.S. Senate race.”

Goodbye, Charlie: “Gov. Charlie Crist and the disgraced former chairman of the Florida Republican Party took family vacations on party money, an audit released Friday shows. The two men and their families vacationed at Disney World in June 2009 and put the $13,435.99 bill on the party’s American Express credit card, the audit found. Greer also took three personal vacations to fashionable Fisher Island near Miami Beach, one including Crist, at a cost of $10,992.17, auditors reported.”

Good advice to conservative pundits from Michael Gerson (in defending Karl Rove): “[A commentator] owes his readers or viewers his best judgment — which means he cannot simply be a tool of someone else’s ideological agenda. Some conservatives have adopted the Bolshevik approach to information and the media: Every personal feeling, every independent thought, every inconvenient fact, must be subordinated to the party line — the Tea Party line.” Read the whole thing.

Good time, actually, for those ferocious Rove critics to apologize. It seems she is a loon: “The story of Christine O’Donnell’s past got a little stranger Friday. Bill Maher — on whose former show, ‘Politically Incorrect,’ O’Donnell appeared repeatedly in the late 1990s — showed a previously unaired clip from Oct. 29, 1999, on his current HBO program, ‘Real Time,’ in which the GOP Senate nominee from Delaware said she ‘dabbled into witchcraft.”’

Good line from Mitt Romney at the Value Voters Summit: “Welcome to the Nancy Pelosi-Harry Reid-President Obama farewell party. This has been a pretty tough year for those three—their numbers have gone down the chute faster than a Jet Blue flight attendant.” And a good speech on Obamanomics.

Good critique of the problem(s) with Newt Gingrich: “Like the former and would-be next California governor [Jerry Brown], Gingrich talks big, but has no loyalty to his ideas. He was for tax cuts before he was against them. He supported a $35,000 congressional pay raise and leaner government. Like Brown, Gingrich’s real skill has been in seeing a trend early and jumping on it, unencumbered by any past positions. … The last time Gingrich set out to save America, he ended up burning his career. He taught a college course called ‘Renewing American Civilization.’ That would not have been a problem except that this modern-day John Adams felt the need to raise $300,000 and $450,000 to bankroll his discourses on American ‘core values.’ That’s a long pricey schlep from the log cabin.”

Good move. “Since General Petraeus took on the commander’s job in June, several aides said, the president has struck a more deferential tone toward him than he used with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, General Petraeus’s predecessor. Often during pauses in meetings, one White House official said, Mr. Obama will stop and say, ‘Dave, what do you think?'” Less Axelrod and Emanuel and more Petraeus, and we might win this.

Good golly. “Two Los Angeles departments have received $111 million in federal stimulus funds yet have created only 55 jobs so far, according to a pair of reports issued Thursday by City Controller Wendy Greuel.”

Good luck to Tom Joscelyn trying to explain to David Ignatius (and the Obami): “For the umpteenth time, Iran is not on our side in Afghanistan. They are currently allied with the Taliban, the mullahs’ one-time enemy. Iran is not going to help us ‘undermine the Taliban.’ They are working with the Taliban to undermine the U.S.-led coalition.”

Good job, Madam Speaker! Now 38 Democrats favor full extension of the Bush tax cuts. Maybe more: “Other Democrats have indicated privately that they prefer an extension instead of allowing rates to expire for top earners, and Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who heads Democratic campaign efforts, has argued behind closed doors for taking a political issue off the table by giving a short reprieve to wealthy folks before the midterm elections.”

Good for her. “A politically vulnerable Democratic lawmaker blasted her party’s House leadership as she demanded a vote to cut the salaries of lawmakers by $8,700 next year. In a letter sent Thursday afternoon, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) pressured Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to hold a vote on her bill to cut congressional pay by five percent and save taxpayers $4.7 million next year before Congress breaks for its fall recess.”

Good for him. Greg Sargent rises above partisan cheerleading: “It isn’t every day that Democrats target Latino challengers with nasty anti-immigrant ads, but these are apparently desperate times for certain embattled Dems. … [Rep. Walt] Minnick apparently sees the need to run an ad that stinks of fear and desperation. Quite a specimen.”

Good news for Republicans in the Hoosier state: “The Indiana Senate seat now held by Democrat Evan Bayh remains a likely Republican pickup on Election Day. The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Voters in Indiana finds Republican Dan Coats leading Democratic Congressman Brad Ellsworth 50% to 34% in the state’s U.S. Senate race.”

Goodbye, Charlie: “Gov. Charlie Crist and the disgraced former chairman of the Florida Republican Party took family vacations on party money, an audit released Friday shows. The two men and their families vacationed at Disney World in June 2009 and put the $13,435.99 bill on the party’s American Express credit card, the audit found. Greer also took three personal vacations to fashionable Fisher Island near Miami Beach, one including Crist, at a cost of $10,992.17, auditors reported.”

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Hollywood Celebrates

Will there be fireworks at the Hollywood Bowl? A fantastic bash in his honor, albeit with the guest of honor absent? Yes, from coast to coast, the moral zombies who populate the big and small screen are no doubt jumping for joy that Roman Polanski will not be extradited to stand trial for his rape of a 13-year old child. As a colleague pointed out, really, the man has suffered enough. (“The 77-year-old Oscar-winning filmmaker was first imprisoned and then confined to his ski chalet in the Alpine resort of Gastaad with an electronic foot bracelet.”) The Swiss judiciary seems to have aced out the Nobelians as the best exemplar of the debasement of European society, as we are reminded that “the decision constituted a victory not only for Polanski but also for a broad array of European intellectual and political figures who had come to his defense with petitions and statements of outrage denouncing the effort to continue prosecution after so many years.”

The Swiss Ministry of Justice claims that the verdict is not a statement about Polanski’s guilt or innocence:

The Swiss Justice Ministry said in a statement that the decision reflected doubts over the legal strength of the U.S. extradition request, in particular concerning negotiations between Los Angeles prosecutors and Polanski’s U.S. lawyers at the time. …

Switzerland blamed U.S. authorities for failing to provide confidential testimony about Polanski’s sentencing procedure in 1977-1978. The Swiss government said it had sought confidential testimony given on Jan. 26 by Roger Gunson, the Los Angeles attorney in charge of the original prosecution against Polanski.

Actually, it’s not a statement about Polanski at all. It is, however, a vivid reflection of the mindset of today’s elites (both in Europe and America). If you smoke or drive an SUV, you’re a social pariah. But if you’re an aging millionaire who drugged a 13-year-old child before raping her, why, you needn’t fear that you’ll lose their admiration or support. To the contrary, a special Oscar may await!

Will there be fireworks at the Hollywood Bowl? A fantastic bash in his honor, albeit with the guest of honor absent? Yes, from coast to coast, the moral zombies who populate the big and small screen are no doubt jumping for joy that Roman Polanski will not be extradited to stand trial for his rape of a 13-year old child. As a colleague pointed out, really, the man has suffered enough. (“The 77-year-old Oscar-winning filmmaker was first imprisoned and then confined to his ski chalet in the Alpine resort of Gastaad with an electronic foot bracelet.”) The Swiss judiciary seems to have aced out the Nobelians as the best exemplar of the debasement of European society, as we are reminded that “the decision constituted a victory not only for Polanski but also for a broad array of European intellectual and political figures who had come to his defense with petitions and statements of outrage denouncing the effort to continue prosecution after so many years.”

The Swiss Ministry of Justice claims that the verdict is not a statement about Polanski’s guilt or innocence:

The Swiss Justice Ministry said in a statement that the decision reflected doubts over the legal strength of the U.S. extradition request, in particular concerning negotiations between Los Angeles prosecutors and Polanski’s U.S. lawyers at the time. …

Switzerland blamed U.S. authorities for failing to provide confidential testimony about Polanski’s sentencing procedure in 1977-1978. The Swiss government said it had sought confidential testimony given on Jan. 26 by Roger Gunson, the Los Angeles attorney in charge of the original prosecution against Polanski.

Actually, it’s not a statement about Polanski at all. It is, however, a vivid reflection of the mindset of today’s elites (both in Europe and America). If you smoke or drive an SUV, you’re a social pariah. But if you’re an aging millionaire who drugged a 13-year-old child before raping her, why, you needn’t fear that you’ll lose their admiration or support. To the contrary, a special Oscar may await!

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Flotsam and Jetsam

It took Barack Obama to turn an ex-president into a sleazy “bag man.”

What will it take for the left to break with the anti-Semites, racists, and Israel-bashers? “Democracy for America, the progressive group that grew out of Howard Dean’s campaign for president, is standing by its support for a House candidate who backs a radical single-state solution in the Middle East and suggested in an interview that Jewish Reps. Jane Harman and Henry Waxman should ‘pledge allegiance to this country as the country they represent.”

Will Obama take this opportunity to dump the witch hunt against CIA interrogators? Stephen Hayes recommends that he should: “The repercussions have been severe. CIA operators, already risk averse, are today far less willing to take risks in the field out of fear that a wrong decision, even a legal one that produced crucial intelligence, could send them to jail. Obama should also insist that the Justice Department aggressively investigate the alleged exposure of CIA officials by lawyers representing Guantánamo detainees. Photographs of officials were discovered in the cell of Mustafa Ahmed al Hawsawi and were reportedly provided by investigators working for the ACLU and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. John Rizzo, former CIA general counsel and a 30-year intelligence veteran, said that the breach was far graver than the leak of Valerie Plame’s name.”

It took a few weeks of criticism to reveal Peter Beinart’s vile attitudes toward his fellow Jews: Nathan Diament on Beinart’s latest outburst in the Israel-hating the New York Review of Books: “Peter goes way beyond debating substance and drifts into stereotyping and calumny, saying: ‘the same sort of settler fanatics who burn Palestinian olive groves also assassinated an Israeli prime minister. The same ultra-Orthodox hooligans who burn Christian holy books also attack Jewish women trying to pray at the Western Wall.’ He also slams Rav Ovadia Yosef and, apparently, anyone else in Israel who, we suppose, doesn’t agree with his view — or that of the editorial board of Ha’aretz — as to precisely what ought to happen.”

It took a year and a half of Obama’s presidency to ruin Blanche Lincoln’s career: “[Arkansas’s] larger bloc of conservative Democrats and independents upset over the perception that the incumbent is overly cozy with the unpopular President Obama, the Agriculture Committee chair and Delta farmer’s daughter finds her 18-year congressional career in grave jeopardy.”

It took a determined Jewish mom from Los Angeles to figure out it only took a $15 dollar solar cooker (made of cardboard and aluminum) to help protect “female [Darfur] refugees who were being ruthlessly subjected to physical and sexual brutality when they left the relative safety of their refugee camps.” She’s done more for human rights in Darfur — much more — than Obama and his embarrassingly ineffective special envoy have.

Have you noticed that Democrats aren’t so willing to take unpopular stands for this president on national security? “The Senate Armed Services Committee dealt a big setback to President Obama’s plans to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay when lawmakers stripped funding for a new prison in Illinois to hold the detainees. Committee Chairman Carl Levin on Friday told reporters the committee, in a voice vote, stripped $245 million that would have gone to buy and retrofit the Thomson prison in Illinois.”

Charles Hurt catches Obama taking responsibility for “zilch” at his BP oil-spill press conference: “It was yet another performance of the ‘full responsibility’ flimflam. … President Obama repeatedly took ‘full responsibility’ for the blundering efforts to clog up the geyser of crude oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico coating everything in sight. At the same time, Obama repeatedly denied that his administration was complicit in allowing the catastrophe to happen in the first place, slow to realize the devastating nature of it, or ham-handed in the five-week effort to try to stem the toxic tide. In other words, Obama — as he often does — took ‘full responsibility’ for being awesome.”

It took Barack Obama to turn an ex-president into a sleazy “bag man.”

What will it take for the left to break with the anti-Semites, racists, and Israel-bashers? “Democracy for America, the progressive group that grew out of Howard Dean’s campaign for president, is standing by its support for a House candidate who backs a radical single-state solution in the Middle East and suggested in an interview that Jewish Reps. Jane Harman and Henry Waxman should ‘pledge allegiance to this country as the country they represent.”

Will Obama take this opportunity to dump the witch hunt against CIA interrogators? Stephen Hayes recommends that he should: “The repercussions have been severe. CIA operators, already risk averse, are today far less willing to take risks in the field out of fear that a wrong decision, even a legal one that produced crucial intelligence, could send them to jail. Obama should also insist that the Justice Department aggressively investigate the alleged exposure of CIA officials by lawyers representing Guantánamo detainees. Photographs of officials were discovered in the cell of Mustafa Ahmed al Hawsawi and were reportedly provided by investigators working for the ACLU and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. John Rizzo, former CIA general counsel and a 30-year intelligence veteran, said that the breach was far graver than the leak of Valerie Plame’s name.”

It took a few weeks of criticism to reveal Peter Beinart’s vile attitudes toward his fellow Jews: Nathan Diament on Beinart’s latest outburst in the Israel-hating the New York Review of Books: “Peter goes way beyond debating substance and drifts into stereotyping and calumny, saying: ‘the same sort of settler fanatics who burn Palestinian olive groves also assassinated an Israeli prime minister. The same ultra-Orthodox hooligans who burn Christian holy books also attack Jewish women trying to pray at the Western Wall.’ He also slams Rav Ovadia Yosef and, apparently, anyone else in Israel who, we suppose, doesn’t agree with his view — or that of the editorial board of Ha’aretz — as to precisely what ought to happen.”

It took a year and a half of Obama’s presidency to ruin Blanche Lincoln’s career: “[Arkansas’s] larger bloc of conservative Democrats and independents upset over the perception that the incumbent is overly cozy with the unpopular President Obama, the Agriculture Committee chair and Delta farmer’s daughter finds her 18-year congressional career in grave jeopardy.”

It took a determined Jewish mom from Los Angeles to figure out it only took a $15 dollar solar cooker (made of cardboard and aluminum) to help protect “female [Darfur] refugees who were being ruthlessly subjected to physical and sexual brutality when they left the relative safety of their refugee camps.” She’s done more for human rights in Darfur — much more — than Obama and his embarrassingly ineffective special envoy have.

Have you noticed that Democrats aren’t so willing to take unpopular stands for this president on national security? “The Senate Armed Services Committee dealt a big setback to President Obama’s plans to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay when lawmakers stripped funding for a new prison in Illinois to hold the detainees. Committee Chairman Carl Levin on Friday told reporters the committee, in a voice vote, stripped $245 million that would have gone to buy and retrofit the Thomson prison in Illinois.”

Charles Hurt catches Obama taking responsibility for “zilch” at his BP oil-spill press conference: “It was yet another performance of the ‘full responsibility’ flimflam. … President Obama repeatedly took ‘full responsibility’ for the blundering efforts to clog up the geyser of crude oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico coating everything in sight. At the same time, Obama repeatedly denied that his administration was complicit in allowing the catastrophe to happen in the first place, slow to realize the devastating nature of it, or ham-handed in the five-week effort to try to stem the toxic tide. In other words, Obama — as he often does — took ‘full responsibility’ for being awesome.”

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Progress on Crime

According to the FBI’s Preliminary Annual Uniform Crime Report (see here and here), compared with data from 2008, violent crime in America decreased by 5.5 percent; property crime declined by 4.9 percent; and arson offenses declined by 10.4 percent.

When disaggregating the data, we find that all four violent crime offenses — murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — declined. Robbery dropped by 8.1 percent; murder by 7.2 percent; aggravated assault by 4.2 percent; and forcible rape by 3.1 percent. Violent crime declined by 4 percent in the nation’s metropolitan counties and by 3 percent in non-metropolitan counties. And all four regions in the nation showed decreases in violent crime in 2009 compared with data from 2008. Violent crime decreased by 6.6 percent in the South, 5.6 percent in the West, 4.6 percent in the Midwest, and 3.5 percent in the Northeast.

In addition, all property crime offenses — burglary, larceny-theft, and motor-vehicle theft — decreased in 2009 compared with 2008 data. Motor-vehicle theft showed the largest drop in volume, by 17.2 percent, larceny-thefts declined by 4.2 percent, and burglaries decreased by 1.7 percent.

The figures, which are still preliminary, indicate a third straight year of crime decreases, along with a sharply accelerating rate of decline.

The New York Times begins its story by saying, “Despite turmoil in the economy and high unemployment, crimes rates fell significantly across the Unites States in 2009.” Richard Rosenfeld, a sociologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said, “That’s a remarkable decline, given the economic conditions.”

Actually, it’s not all that remarkable. Crime rates, for example, fell significantly during the Great Depression. As David Rubinstein of the University of Illinois has pointed out, if you chart homicide beginning in 1900, its rates began to rise in 1905, continued through the prosperous 20s, and crested in 1933. They began to decline in 1934, as the Great Depression began to deepen. And between 1933 and 1940, the murder rate dropped by nearly 40 percent, while property crimes revealed a similar pattern. One possible explanation is that times of crisis, including economic crisis, create greater social cohesion.

The drop in all levels of crime since the early 90s has been staggering and counts as a truly remarkable success story. There are undoubtedly many explanations for it, from higher incarceration rates to private security to improved technology. But surely advances in policing deserve a healthy share of the credit. As William Bratton, the former police chief in Los Angeles and New York has said: “We’ve gotten better at spotting crime trends more quickly. We can respond much more quickly.”

It’s perhaps worth noting that at a time when faith in many public institutions, including government and the media, is almost nonexistent, two institutions that command public trust are the military and law-enforcement officials. It’s no surprise, either, as they have impressive results to show for their efforts — from the battlefields in Iraq to the streets of New York.

One final thought: one of the things that characterized the 70s was a deep distrust of authority and of symbols of authority. Animus and disrespect were directed against our military and our cops. The former were accused of war crimes because of their service to our country in Vietnam; the latter were called pigs. Today the situation is dramatically reversed and dramatically better. In that sense, and in many other respects, our nation is a great deal better off than in the 70s.

We certainly have our share of social challenges. But in addressing them, we shouldn’t forget about the progress we have made, both practically and in terms of some of our social attitudes.

According to the FBI’s Preliminary Annual Uniform Crime Report (see here and here), compared with data from 2008, violent crime in America decreased by 5.5 percent; property crime declined by 4.9 percent; and arson offenses declined by 10.4 percent.

When disaggregating the data, we find that all four violent crime offenses — murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — declined. Robbery dropped by 8.1 percent; murder by 7.2 percent; aggravated assault by 4.2 percent; and forcible rape by 3.1 percent. Violent crime declined by 4 percent in the nation’s metropolitan counties and by 3 percent in non-metropolitan counties. And all four regions in the nation showed decreases in violent crime in 2009 compared with data from 2008. Violent crime decreased by 6.6 percent in the South, 5.6 percent in the West, 4.6 percent in the Midwest, and 3.5 percent in the Northeast.

In addition, all property crime offenses — burglary, larceny-theft, and motor-vehicle theft — decreased in 2009 compared with 2008 data. Motor-vehicle theft showed the largest drop in volume, by 17.2 percent, larceny-thefts declined by 4.2 percent, and burglaries decreased by 1.7 percent.

The figures, which are still preliminary, indicate a third straight year of crime decreases, along with a sharply accelerating rate of decline.

The New York Times begins its story by saying, “Despite turmoil in the economy and high unemployment, crimes rates fell significantly across the Unites States in 2009.” Richard Rosenfeld, a sociologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said, “That’s a remarkable decline, given the economic conditions.”

Actually, it’s not all that remarkable. Crime rates, for example, fell significantly during the Great Depression. As David Rubinstein of the University of Illinois has pointed out, if you chart homicide beginning in 1900, its rates began to rise in 1905, continued through the prosperous 20s, and crested in 1933. They began to decline in 1934, as the Great Depression began to deepen. And between 1933 and 1940, the murder rate dropped by nearly 40 percent, while property crimes revealed a similar pattern. One possible explanation is that times of crisis, including economic crisis, create greater social cohesion.

The drop in all levels of crime since the early 90s has been staggering and counts as a truly remarkable success story. There are undoubtedly many explanations for it, from higher incarceration rates to private security to improved technology. But surely advances in policing deserve a healthy share of the credit. As William Bratton, the former police chief in Los Angeles and New York has said: “We’ve gotten better at spotting crime trends more quickly. We can respond much more quickly.”

It’s perhaps worth noting that at a time when faith in many public institutions, including government and the media, is almost nonexistent, two institutions that command public trust are the military and law-enforcement officials. It’s no surprise, either, as they have impressive results to show for their efforts — from the battlefields in Iraq to the streets of New York.

One final thought: one of the things that characterized the 70s was a deep distrust of authority and of symbols of authority. Animus and disrespect were directed against our military and our cops. The former were accused of war crimes because of their service to our country in Vietnam; the latter were called pigs. Today the situation is dramatically reversed and dramatically better. In that sense, and in many other respects, our nation is a great deal better off than in the 70s.

We certainly have our share of social challenges. But in addressing them, we shouldn’t forget about the progress we have made, both practically and in terms of some of our social attitudes.

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The Left Is Grouchy

Reuters reports:

Five million first-time voters turned out in 2008, many drawn by Obama’s promise of hope and overwhelmingly voting for Democrats. Now disappointed, or at least apathetic, they may not go to the polls this year. Obama’s support has dropped below 50 percent from nearly 70 percent after 15 months in office, Gallup opinion polls show. Gay rights supporters, anti-abortion activists, environmentalists and backers of immigration reform all have seen their agendas stalled, with watered-down healthcare the main accomplishment of Obama’s once-ambitious agenda.

At Monday’s rally in Los Angeles, protesters shouted at Obama to repeal the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” military policy that allows gays to serve if they keep quiet about their sexual preference. Gays believe that makes them second-class citizens, and Obama has vowed to repeal the policy.

“Hey hold on a second. We are going to do that,” he said. “I don’t know why you’re hollering,” he added.

Supporters shouted “Yes we can,” his slogan from the 2008 election, and “Be quiet,” but the discontent lingers.

But didn’t health-care reform boost the Left’s spirits? Not really: “Many on the left who want more are fighting the president and one another. Others are abandoning politics. Both trends bode poorly for Democrats, who have controlled both houses of Congress in addition to the White House since January 2009.” Health-care reform seems to have aggravated as many as it pleased. (“A fight over whether federal funds could be used to pay for abortion tied up the bill and split the party, which has been a strong supporter of abortion rights but now has a significant wing opposed to abortion.”) And without the public option, many on the Left are as angry as those on the Right that Big Insurance now gets enriched as a result of a liberal president’s signature issue. Other liberal wish-list items — climate control, card check, repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and the closing Guantanamo — are not going anywhere.

The Left’s grumpiness is not simply a problem for presidential appearances. It was the new, younger, and largely liberal Democratic electorate that boosted Obama over Hillary Clinton and then John McCain and delivered huge majorities to the Democrats in the House and Senate. When that electorate doesn’t show up supportive in November, many Democrats are at risk: “Four of the 10 Senate races where Democrats may lose, including Majority Leader Harry Reid’s re-election bid in Nevada, are in states that had above-average increases in turnout between 2006 and 2008, Professor Tom Schaller of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, calculated. … Battles for governor that could be affected by the new 2008 voters include California, Texas, Florida, Nevada, Georgia and Illinois, he calculated, noting that new governors will oversee redrawing federal voting districts after the 2010 census.”

It’s a rare president who doesn’t disappoint some starry-eyed supporters. But Obama’s problem is more acute, in large part because expectations were so high, and he consciously played into the cult of personality that worshipped him as the savior of the Left. He’s lost the Center, enraged the Right, and bummed out the Left. Not every president can do all that.

Reuters reports:

Five million first-time voters turned out in 2008, many drawn by Obama’s promise of hope and overwhelmingly voting for Democrats. Now disappointed, or at least apathetic, they may not go to the polls this year. Obama’s support has dropped below 50 percent from nearly 70 percent after 15 months in office, Gallup opinion polls show. Gay rights supporters, anti-abortion activists, environmentalists and backers of immigration reform all have seen their agendas stalled, with watered-down healthcare the main accomplishment of Obama’s once-ambitious agenda.

At Monday’s rally in Los Angeles, protesters shouted at Obama to repeal the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” military policy that allows gays to serve if they keep quiet about their sexual preference. Gays believe that makes them second-class citizens, and Obama has vowed to repeal the policy.

“Hey hold on a second. We are going to do that,” he said. “I don’t know why you’re hollering,” he added.

Supporters shouted “Yes we can,” his slogan from the 2008 election, and “Be quiet,” but the discontent lingers.

But didn’t health-care reform boost the Left’s spirits? Not really: “Many on the left who want more are fighting the president and one another. Others are abandoning politics. Both trends bode poorly for Democrats, who have controlled both houses of Congress in addition to the White House since January 2009.” Health-care reform seems to have aggravated as many as it pleased. (“A fight over whether federal funds could be used to pay for abortion tied up the bill and split the party, which has been a strong supporter of abortion rights but now has a significant wing opposed to abortion.”) And without the public option, many on the Left are as angry as those on the Right that Big Insurance now gets enriched as a result of a liberal president’s signature issue. Other liberal wish-list items — climate control, card check, repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and the closing Guantanamo — are not going anywhere.

The Left’s grumpiness is not simply a problem for presidential appearances. It was the new, younger, and largely liberal Democratic electorate that boosted Obama over Hillary Clinton and then John McCain and delivered huge majorities to the Democrats in the House and Senate. When that electorate doesn’t show up supportive in November, many Democrats are at risk: “Four of the 10 Senate races where Democrats may lose, including Majority Leader Harry Reid’s re-election bid in Nevada, are in states that had above-average increases in turnout between 2006 and 2008, Professor Tom Schaller of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, calculated. … Battles for governor that could be affected by the new 2008 voters include California, Texas, Florida, Nevada, Georgia and Illinois, he calculated, noting that new governors will oversee redrawing federal voting districts after the 2010 census.”

It’s a rare president who doesn’t disappoint some starry-eyed supporters. But Obama’s problem is more acute, in large part because expectations were so high, and he consciously played into the cult of personality that worshipped him as the savior of the Left. He’s lost the Center, enraged the Right, and bummed out the Left. Not every president can do all that.

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Klein of Arabia (Again)

Joe Klein has a characteristically paranoid post in which he says that the criticisms of Barack Obama lodged by AIPAC and other “American Likudniks… teeter on the brink of treachery.” The AIPAC statement called on the administration “to take immediate steps to defuse the tension” with Israel. This is treachery? What happened to dissent being the highest form of patriotism? Klein adds:

They are making their case in ways that encourage right-wing American extremists who deny the legitimacy of our President. They are walking on very thin ice here.

I’m not sure what he’s getting at here, but it sounds like he’s saying that if something bad happens to Barack Obama, it will be because some Americans criticized the administration’s treatment of Israel, including 327 members of the House of Representatives. Klein is indeed an ugly paranoiac when it comes to American politics. But he is also a high-flying ignoramus about the Middle East. He writes that Hebron is “the largest West Bank city and home to 500,000 Palestinians.” And that:

[Jews who live in Hebron] claim, correctly, that Hebron was a Jewish city 3000 years ago (as, of course, Arabs can claim evidence of their presence throughout the current land of Israel as least as long-standing).

There are not 500,000 Palestinians living in Hebron — there are about 163,000, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Klein is confusing the Hebron governorate with the city of Hebron. The Hebron governorate comprises around half the southern territory of the West Bank. This is like confusing the region of southern California with the city of Los Angeles.

But the best Kleinism is the block-quoted text above, in which he says that the Arabs have been in Hebron at least as long as the Jews. He apparently isn’t aware of the Arab conquests. You see, the Arabs originally came from Arabia, and after the death of Mohammad in the 7th century, they emerged from the Arabian peninsula and swept across the Middle East and North Africa, even into Spain, spreading Islam and Arabic in what today Joe Klein would call an illegal preemptive war to spread colonialism and empire.

Perhaps the Arabs were actually the first neocons? Klein surely has an opinion (I think, in keeping with his high political ideals, he should call for the removal of the illegal Arab settlements in Hebron, which are an obstruction to the peace process). But one thing that is not up for debate is how long Jews and Arabs have lived in Hebron: the Jews have been there for over 3,000 years; the Arabs, since the 7th century CE.

When you read Joe Klein, it’s hard to tell which is worse, the sloppiness or the ignorance.

Joe Klein has a characteristically paranoid post in which he says that the criticisms of Barack Obama lodged by AIPAC and other “American Likudniks… teeter on the brink of treachery.” The AIPAC statement called on the administration “to take immediate steps to defuse the tension” with Israel. This is treachery? What happened to dissent being the highest form of patriotism? Klein adds:

They are making their case in ways that encourage right-wing American extremists who deny the legitimacy of our President. They are walking on very thin ice here.

I’m not sure what he’s getting at here, but it sounds like he’s saying that if something bad happens to Barack Obama, it will be because some Americans criticized the administration’s treatment of Israel, including 327 members of the House of Representatives. Klein is indeed an ugly paranoiac when it comes to American politics. But he is also a high-flying ignoramus about the Middle East. He writes that Hebron is “the largest West Bank city and home to 500,000 Palestinians.” And that:

[Jews who live in Hebron] claim, correctly, that Hebron was a Jewish city 3000 years ago (as, of course, Arabs can claim evidence of their presence throughout the current land of Israel as least as long-standing).

There are not 500,000 Palestinians living in Hebron — there are about 163,000, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Klein is confusing the Hebron governorate with the city of Hebron. The Hebron governorate comprises around half the southern territory of the West Bank. This is like confusing the region of southern California with the city of Los Angeles.

But the best Kleinism is the block-quoted text above, in which he says that the Arabs have been in Hebron at least as long as the Jews. He apparently isn’t aware of the Arab conquests. You see, the Arabs originally came from Arabia, and after the death of Mohammad in the 7th century, they emerged from the Arabian peninsula and swept across the Middle East and North Africa, even into Spain, spreading Islam and Arabic in what today Joe Klein would call an illegal preemptive war to spread colonialism and empire.

Perhaps the Arabs were actually the first neocons? Klein surely has an opinion (I think, in keeping with his high political ideals, he should call for the removal of the illegal Arab settlements in Hebron, which are an obstruction to the peace process). But one thing that is not up for debate is how long Jews and Arabs have lived in Hebron: the Jews have been there for over 3,000 years; the Arabs, since the 7th century CE.

When you read Joe Klein, it’s hard to tell which is worse, the sloppiness or the ignorance.

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Where’s the Good Will?

Has Barack Obama lost the liberal elite? To hear Matt Damon tell it, yes. “I’m disappointed in the health care plan and in the troop buildup in Afghanistan. Everyone feels a little let down because, on some level, people expected all their problems to go away,” he said.

Matt Damon has problems? Sorry to hear it. He should get in touch with Nancy Pelosi. Next time she’s in front of a microphone pitching the government annexation of a fifth of the economy, she can relay the sad tale of Matt from Los Angeles, who needs this bill to pass immediately because the success of the Bourne franchise depends upon it. After all, the workaday folks at the center of the Democrats’ standard sob stories are now more fearful of — than desperate for — a health-care takeover. A majority of average Americans believe the federal government is so big it poses an immediate threat to their rights, so the Democrats are pretty much left with the Hollywood A-list as their support base. (Just imagine the procedures that will be covered by this health-care bill, should it pass.)

This is not a surprise. Progressivism is nothing if not the natural consequence of outsized prosperity. As Irving Kristol put it, “Those who benefit most from capitalism — and their children, especially — experience a withering away of the acquisitive impulse.”

Because progressives still want universal health care, they are, as Damon articulates, upset with Obama. He was supposed to make it happen. Left academia, like its showbiz counterpart, is disillusioned. The late Howard Zinn, weighing in at the Nation on Obama’s first year, suggested that “people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president — which means, in our time, a dangerous president — unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.”

Therein lies the progressives’ mistake. Obama’s direction has remained the same.  He’s still with them. His real problem is two-fold: he’s too incompetent and arrogant to make anything happen; and the country remains stubbornly Center-Right. What the Left considers some sort of ideological betrayal is really a combination of failed leadership strategy and the exceptional continuity of the American polity. Does Matt Damon really think the President is trying to intravenously force universal health care on an unwilling nation because he’s gone soft? Is the President watching his approval ratings and political capital nosedive because he’s a cynical compromiser?

After all Obama’s interregnum talk about how America was not a speedboat but an oceanliner whose course-changes required only incremental adjustments at the helm, he grabbed the wheel and plunged Left. In so doing, he sent the moderates and independents overboard. Whoever remains has been asked to walk the plank and let the captain take the ship into uncharted waters.

The policy traffic jam that has resulted has caused the pro-health-care crowd to declare America “ungovernable.” What they really mean is that America is undictatable. And they are deeply upset about it. Let’s not forget that Obama’s crestfallen celebrity groupies also constitute the Hollywood chapter of the Hugo Chavez fan club. The country doesn’t want universal health care? Well, what would Hugo do? For progressives, “ramming it through” is a far more noble process than all that messy checks-and-balances nonsense.

The Afghanistan complaint is even more baffling. The single unambiguous foreign-policy talking point of Obama’s campaign was that he planned to refocus the war effort on Afghanistan and Pakistan. If he failed to do that once in office, one could see how Damon and others who campaigned for Obama would be “disappointed.” But this is one of those rare political instances when an elected official has done exactly as promised during the campaign. Yet Michael Moore, who endorsed the “exceptional man” during the campaign, is now also “very disappointed” in Obama’s Afghanistan decision.

While the far-Left cries itself to sleep over the breakup with its soul mate, the rest of the country has come to its senses about what Obama really represented: a rebound relationship — a relationship in which, according to the gods of pop psychology, “you spend a significant amount of time focusing on your previous one.” Goodness knows we’ve done plenty of that.  What’s the problem in falling for Obama because he’s not George W. Bush? “The biggest danger of being in a rebound relationship is that you might commit to it when your partner really isn’t suitable for you. In any relationship in the early romantic stages there’s a danger that you’re going to think this is the best relationship you’ve ever had and you’ll want to commit too early.” As polls since last spring demonstrate: danger averted. And the truth is the Damons, Zinns, and Moores don’t know how good they have it.  If Obama had the nationwide support to institute the progressive policies they want, they’d first understand what disappointment really is.

Has Barack Obama lost the liberal elite? To hear Matt Damon tell it, yes. “I’m disappointed in the health care plan and in the troop buildup in Afghanistan. Everyone feels a little let down because, on some level, people expected all their problems to go away,” he said.

Matt Damon has problems? Sorry to hear it. He should get in touch with Nancy Pelosi. Next time she’s in front of a microphone pitching the government annexation of a fifth of the economy, she can relay the sad tale of Matt from Los Angeles, who needs this bill to pass immediately because the success of the Bourne franchise depends upon it. After all, the workaday folks at the center of the Democrats’ standard sob stories are now more fearful of — than desperate for — a health-care takeover. A majority of average Americans believe the federal government is so big it poses an immediate threat to their rights, so the Democrats are pretty much left with the Hollywood A-list as their support base. (Just imagine the procedures that will be covered by this health-care bill, should it pass.)

This is not a surprise. Progressivism is nothing if not the natural consequence of outsized prosperity. As Irving Kristol put it, “Those who benefit most from capitalism — and their children, especially — experience a withering away of the acquisitive impulse.”

Because progressives still want universal health care, they are, as Damon articulates, upset with Obama. He was supposed to make it happen. Left academia, like its showbiz counterpart, is disillusioned. The late Howard Zinn, weighing in at the Nation on Obama’s first year, suggested that “people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president — which means, in our time, a dangerous president — unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.”

Therein lies the progressives’ mistake. Obama’s direction has remained the same.  He’s still with them. His real problem is two-fold: he’s too incompetent and arrogant to make anything happen; and the country remains stubbornly Center-Right. What the Left considers some sort of ideological betrayal is really a combination of failed leadership strategy and the exceptional continuity of the American polity. Does Matt Damon really think the President is trying to intravenously force universal health care on an unwilling nation because he’s gone soft? Is the President watching his approval ratings and political capital nosedive because he’s a cynical compromiser?

After all Obama’s interregnum talk about how America was not a speedboat but an oceanliner whose course-changes required only incremental adjustments at the helm, he grabbed the wheel and plunged Left. In so doing, he sent the moderates and independents overboard. Whoever remains has been asked to walk the plank and let the captain take the ship into uncharted waters.

The policy traffic jam that has resulted has caused the pro-health-care crowd to declare America “ungovernable.” What they really mean is that America is undictatable. And they are deeply upset about it. Let’s not forget that Obama’s crestfallen celebrity groupies also constitute the Hollywood chapter of the Hugo Chavez fan club. The country doesn’t want universal health care? Well, what would Hugo do? For progressives, “ramming it through” is a far more noble process than all that messy checks-and-balances nonsense.

The Afghanistan complaint is even more baffling. The single unambiguous foreign-policy talking point of Obama’s campaign was that he planned to refocus the war effort on Afghanistan and Pakistan. If he failed to do that once in office, one could see how Damon and others who campaigned for Obama would be “disappointed.” But this is one of those rare political instances when an elected official has done exactly as promised during the campaign. Yet Michael Moore, who endorsed the “exceptional man” during the campaign, is now also “very disappointed” in Obama’s Afghanistan decision.

While the far-Left cries itself to sleep over the breakup with its soul mate, the rest of the country has come to its senses about what Obama really represented: a rebound relationship — a relationship in which, according to the gods of pop psychology, “you spend a significant amount of time focusing on your previous one.” Goodness knows we’ve done plenty of that.  What’s the problem in falling for Obama because he’s not George W. Bush? “The biggest danger of being in a rebound relationship is that you might commit to it when your partner really isn’t suitable for you. In any relationship in the early romantic stages there’s a danger that you’re going to think this is the best relationship you’ve ever had and you’ll want to commit too early.” As polls since last spring demonstrate: danger averted. And the truth is the Damons, Zinns, and Moores don’t know how good they have it.  If Obama had the nationwide support to institute the progressive policies they want, they’d first understand what disappointment really is.

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Crime Going Extinct?

In one of the more hopeful and underreported stories in recent months, we learned that for the first half of 2009 — a period of considerable economic distress in our country — crime fell by 4.4 percent nationwide, with the murder rate dropping by a staggering 10 percent, according to statistics recently released by the FBI (see links here and here). The decline in murders from one year to another is one of the more significant decreases we have ever experienced. (All four of the offenses that make up violent crime — murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — decreased nationwide. In addition to the murder rate declining by 10 percent, robbery also fell by 6.5 percent, forcible rape decreased by 3.3 percent, and aggravated assault declined by 3.2 percent.)

In disaggregating this data, we see that violent crime and aggravated assault decreased in major cities of over 1 million residents, dropping by 7 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively. Crime in America’s largest city, New York, has fallen by 11 percent from last year and by 35 percent since 2001. New York, with 461 murders through December 27, is on track for the lowest number of homicides since comprehensive record-keeping began in 1963.

In Los Angeles the murder rate for the first half of 2009 was down by almost 30 percent. In Washington, D.C., the murder rate fell by 26 percent from a comparable period last year, to its lowest in the last two decades. The first half of 2009 also witnessed a 14 percent decrease in homicides in Atlanta and a 10 percent drop in Boston. (It should be pointed out that some cities, like Baltimore and Detroit, saw their murder rate climb.)

The Washington Post summarized things well in its January 2 editorial:

The national decrease in murder began about two decades ago. In 1991, the national homicide rate hit 9.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, prompting forecasts of permanently rising street violence — then fell to 5.7 in 1999. Many wondered whether this “Great Crime Decline” could be sustained for another 10 years. The answer would appear to be yes: By 2008, the murder rate had drifted down to 5.4 per 100,000, the lowest level since 1965. And given the preliminary figures, the rate for 2009 should be lower still. Indeed, if present trends continue, America will experience a degree of public safety not known since the 1950s.

The reasons for the drop we have witnessed in violent crime since the 1990s are multiple, probably including higher incarceration rates and tougher sentencing; advances in policing (including targeting repeat offenders and high-crime areas, utilizing technology such as crime mapping and gunfire-detection systems, which allows police to rapidly respond to incidents, and identifying criminal patterns more effectively); the passing of the crack-cocaine epidemic; the aging of the population; an enormous investment in private security measures; a proliferation of surveillance cameras; more effective intervention and prevention; and more.

It is impossible to ascribe with precision the exact reasons that have led to the progress we have witnessed; they vary depending on cities and circumstances. But the moral of the story is clear enough: problems that at one time seemed intractable can yield, and yield quickly, to the right policies and to a determined citizenry. Fatalism and despair are not options. And the capacity of American ingenuity to address the challenges we face is remarkable. As Irving Kristol put it more than three decades ago, “One of the least appreciated virtues of this society is its natural recuperative powers — its capacity to change, as we say, but also its capacity to preserve itself, to adapt and survive. The strength of these powers always astonishes us, as we anticipate (even proclaim) an imminent apocalypse that somehow never comes.”

It is not terribly fashionable to focus on the progress we experience, whether it has to do with a drop in violent crime rates here at home or a more pacified situation in Iraq. We are prone to focus our attention on the problems we face and the things that are going wrong. But sometimes, to paraphrase James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, cheerfulness does break in.

In one of the more hopeful and underreported stories in recent months, we learned that for the first half of 2009 — a period of considerable economic distress in our country — crime fell by 4.4 percent nationwide, with the murder rate dropping by a staggering 10 percent, according to statistics recently released by the FBI (see links here and here). The decline in murders from one year to another is one of the more significant decreases we have ever experienced. (All four of the offenses that make up violent crime — murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — decreased nationwide. In addition to the murder rate declining by 10 percent, robbery also fell by 6.5 percent, forcible rape decreased by 3.3 percent, and aggravated assault declined by 3.2 percent.)

In disaggregating this data, we see that violent crime and aggravated assault decreased in major cities of over 1 million residents, dropping by 7 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively. Crime in America’s largest city, New York, has fallen by 11 percent from last year and by 35 percent since 2001. New York, with 461 murders through December 27, is on track for the lowest number of homicides since comprehensive record-keeping began in 1963.

In Los Angeles the murder rate for the first half of 2009 was down by almost 30 percent. In Washington, D.C., the murder rate fell by 26 percent from a comparable period last year, to its lowest in the last two decades. The first half of 2009 also witnessed a 14 percent decrease in homicides in Atlanta and a 10 percent drop in Boston. (It should be pointed out that some cities, like Baltimore and Detroit, saw their murder rate climb.)

The Washington Post summarized things well in its January 2 editorial:

The national decrease in murder began about two decades ago. In 1991, the national homicide rate hit 9.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, prompting forecasts of permanently rising street violence — then fell to 5.7 in 1999. Many wondered whether this “Great Crime Decline” could be sustained for another 10 years. The answer would appear to be yes: By 2008, the murder rate had drifted down to 5.4 per 100,000, the lowest level since 1965. And given the preliminary figures, the rate for 2009 should be lower still. Indeed, if present trends continue, America will experience a degree of public safety not known since the 1950s.

The reasons for the drop we have witnessed in violent crime since the 1990s are multiple, probably including higher incarceration rates and tougher sentencing; advances in policing (including targeting repeat offenders and high-crime areas, utilizing technology such as crime mapping and gunfire-detection systems, which allows police to rapidly respond to incidents, and identifying criminal patterns more effectively); the passing of the crack-cocaine epidemic; the aging of the population; an enormous investment in private security measures; a proliferation of surveillance cameras; more effective intervention and prevention; and more.

It is impossible to ascribe with precision the exact reasons that have led to the progress we have witnessed; they vary depending on cities and circumstances. But the moral of the story is clear enough: problems that at one time seemed intractable can yield, and yield quickly, to the right policies and to a determined citizenry. Fatalism and despair are not options. And the capacity of American ingenuity to address the challenges we face is remarkable. As Irving Kristol put it more than three decades ago, “One of the least appreciated virtues of this society is its natural recuperative powers — its capacity to change, as we say, but also its capacity to preserve itself, to adapt and survive. The strength of these powers always astonishes us, as we anticipate (even proclaim) an imminent apocalypse that somehow never comes.”

It is not terribly fashionable to focus on the progress we experience, whether it has to do with a drop in violent crime rates here at home or a more pacified situation in Iraq. We are prone to focus our attention on the problems we face and the things that are going wrong. But sometimes, to paraphrase James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, cheerfulness does break in.

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Nor Any Drop to Drink

The man-made water shortage plaguing California is usually called “man-made drought,” but this bumper-sticker description doesn’t capture the essence of the issue. It focuses us on the frightful word — drought, – evoking associations with natural, climate-induced drought. Unlike natural drought, however, man’s conscious choices about the use of water affect us 100 percent of the time — and are always subject to our discretion.

The man-made drought in California is uniquely emblematic of a shift in the political thinking of the Left toward prioritizing abstract, untested ideas about the environment over the survival of man. Few can be unaware today that in California’s San Joaquin Valley, some of the most productive agricultural land in North America has had its water turned off due to a federal judge’s ruling to protect the endangered Delta smelt. This decision has cost California’s $18 billion economy more than $1 billion in revenues and as many as 40,000 jobs. What is less widely known is that it was an FDR-era public-works project that modernized the irrigation of the San Joaquin Valley to begin with. Regularizing the delivery of water was intended to stabilize crop production, agricultural income, and jobs.

The policy of the U.S. government has thus effectively changed in the intervening decades, with the Endangered Species Act of 1973 increasingly invoked to shut down the artificial irrigation that had been made possible by earlier government projects. Significantly, however, the choice here is not between delivering water for irrigation and letting Mother Nature do as she will. The alternative use of the water is governed by human decision as well. In the case of the San Joaquin River recovery project, for example, water that had gone to agriculture since 1942 is being redirected to the San Joaquin riverbed, with the hope of restoring the river to its condition before the Friant Dam had been built.

The water being withheld out of concern for the Delta smelt, meanwhile, is sitting in reservoirs. It can’t be pumped because the pumps themselves are the menace to the two-inch smelt. Neither alternative in this case delivers a “natural” outcome; both are managed by man with deliberately chosen objectives. But the objective of protecting endangered species is particularly ill-defined and open-ended. As Congressman Devin Nunes, a Republican from the San Joaquin Valley, points out, no California fish put on the endangered-species list since 1974 has ever been removed from it. This casts doubt on the original purpose of the enterprise as well as its methodology.

Governor Schwarzenegger led an effort in 2009 to get California out of the water-infrastructure straitjacket imposed by lawsuits, but succeeded mainly in guaranteeing that state regulation of public water use be increasingly intrusive. Environmental groups are now shifting their efforts to the Santa Ana sucker, a small bait fish whose protection portends, at a minimum, irrigation losses for citrus growers east of Los Angeles. Man’s technology has advanced considerably since the ancient Sumerians irrigated their Mesopotamian fields 6,000 years ago, but his wisdom has a long way to go.

The man-made water shortage plaguing California is usually called “man-made drought,” but this bumper-sticker description doesn’t capture the essence of the issue. It focuses us on the frightful word — drought, – evoking associations with natural, climate-induced drought. Unlike natural drought, however, man’s conscious choices about the use of water affect us 100 percent of the time — and are always subject to our discretion.

The man-made drought in California is uniquely emblematic of a shift in the political thinking of the Left toward prioritizing abstract, untested ideas about the environment over the survival of man. Few can be unaware today that in California’s San Joaquin Valley, some of the most productive agricultural land in North America has had its water turned off due to a federal judge’s ruling to protect the endangered Delta smelt. This decision has cost California’s $18 billion economy more than $1 billion in revenues and as many as 40,000 jobs. What is less widely known is that it was an FDR-era public-works project that modernized the irrigation of the San Joaquin Valley to begin with. Regularizing the delivery of water was intended to stabilize crop production, agricultural income, and jobs.

The policy of the U.S. government has thus effectively changed in the intervening decades, with the Endangered Species Act of 1973 increasingly invoked to shut down the artificial irrigation that had been made possible by earlier government projects. Significantly, however, the choice here is not between delivering water for irrigation and letting Mother Nature do as she will. The alternative use of the water is governed by human decision as well. In the case of the San Joaquin River recovery project, for example, water that had gone to agriculture since 1942 is being redirected to the San Joaquin riverbed, with the hope of restoring the river to its condition before the Friant Dam had been built.

The water being withheld out of concern for the Delta smelt, meanwhile, is sitting in reservoirs. It can’t be pumped because the pumps themselves are the menace to the two-inch smelt. Neither alternative in this case delivers a “natural” outcome; both are managed by man with deliberately chosen objectives. But the objective of protecting endangered species is particularly ill-defined and open-ended. As Congressman Devin Nunes, a Republican from the San Joaquin Valley, points out, no California fish put on the endangered-species list since 1974 has ever been removed from it. This casts doubt on the original purpose of the enterprise as well as its methodology.

Governor Schwarzenegger led an effort in 2009 to get California out of the water-infrastructure straitjacket imposed by lawsuits, but succeeded mainly in guaranteeing that state regulation of public water use be increasingly intrusive. Environmental groups are now shifting their efforts to the Santa Ana sucker, a small bait fish whose protection portends, at a minimum, irrigation losses for citrus growers east of Los Angeles. Man’s technology has advanced considerably since the ancient Sumerians irrigated their Mesopotamian fields 6,000 years ago, but his wisdom has a long way to go.

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What If He Goes?

The RNC is working overtime trying to embarrass Barack Obama about his failure to visit Iraq for a couple of years. After a day of this Obama now suggests he might go–just not with John McCain. If he did, whom would this help?

From McCain’s perspective, he would hope this would focus attention on the divergence between Obama’s position (that all is lost in Iraq) and the reality that there has been considerable political and military progress. And there is always the possibility that Obama would be unprepared for a question with cameras rolling. Reporters might even ask troops questions and receive embarrassing answers indicating that fighting men and women see the potential for victory.

From comments released by his campaign from at an appearance yesterday in Los Angeles you can already see what McCain is up to. You will notice the dig at elevating “ideology” over facts (hmmm, who uses that line a lot?):

I am glad to hear that Senator Obama is now “considering a trip to Iraq.” It’s long overdue. It’s been 871 days since he was there. And I’m confident that when he goes, he will then change his position on the conflict in Iraq because he will see the success that has been achieved on the ground and the consequences of failure if we set dates for withdrawal, as he wants to do. There will be chaos. There will be increased Iranian influence and fights amongst the militias. And there will be al Qaeda establishing a base there and then we would be back. And of course there would be, as I said, increased Iranian influence in the region.

So the fact is Senator Obama was driven to his position by his ideology and not by the facts on the ground. And he does not have the knowledge or experience to make the judgments. Presidents have to listen and learn. Presidents have to make judgments no matter how popular or unpopular they may be. So the success in Iraq is undeniable. It has been long, hard and frustrating and great sacrifice has been made.

But Obama might gain something as well. He might be able to silence this type of ad and show he is not “afraid” to get out and meet with the troops and commanders. He might even impress some voters that he is fluent enough in national security matters to be a credible commander-in-chief.

But if one candidate has essentially been forced into doing something, shamed even, by his opponent it is hard to escape the conclusion that his opponent has the upper hand. And that, it seems, may be a larger concern. After all, if McCain can get Obama to go to Iraq, where will it stop? Could he get him to go to Israel (he was there in 2006, it appears)? Or visit President Uribe in Colombia and explain his opposition to the free trade agreement? (He could also suggest Obama visit the UK and settle their nerves.)

McCain playing the role of the world tour guide for Obama is hardly something the junior senator from Illinios wants to encourage. So I suspect he won’t be taking travel suggestions from McCain anytime soon.

The RNC is working overtime trying to embarrass Barack Obama about his failure to visit Iraq for a couple of years. After a day of this Obama now suggests he might go–just not with John McCain. If he did, whom would this help?

From McCain’s perspective, he would hope this would focus attention on the divergence between Obama’s position (that all is lost in Iraq) and the reality that there has been considerable political and military progress. And there is always the possibility that Obama would be unprepared for a question with cameras rolling. Reporters might even ask troops questions and receive embarrassing answers indicating that fighting men and women see the potential for victory.

From comments released by his campaign from at an appearance yesterday in Los Angeles you can already see what McCain is up to. You will notice the dig at elevating “ideology” over facts (hmmm, who uses that line a lot?):

I am glad to hear that Senator Obama is now “considering a trip to Iraq.” It’s long overdue. It’s been 871 days since he was there. And I’m confident that when he goes, he will then change his position on the conflict in Iraq because he will see the success that has been achieved on the ground and the consequences of failure if we set dates for withdrawal, as he wants to do. There will be chaos. There will be increased Iranian influence and fights amongst the militias. And there will be al Qaeda establishing a base there and then we would be back. And of course there would be, as I said, increased Iranian influence in the region.

So the fact is Senator Obama was driven to his position by his ideology and not by the facts on the ground. And he does not have the knowledge or experience to make the judgments. Presidents have to listen and learn. Presidents have to make judgments no matter how popular or unpopular they may be. So the success in Iraq is undeniable. It has been long, hard and frustrating and great sacrifice has been made.

But Obama might gain something as well. He might be able to silence this type of ad and show he is not “afraid” to get out and meet with the troops and commanders. He might even impress some voters that he is fluent enough in national security matters to be a credible commander-in-chief.

But if one candidate has essentially been forced into doing something, shamed even, by his opponent it is hard to escape the conclusion that his opponent has the upper hand. And that, it seems, may be a larger concern. After all, if McCain can get Obama to go to Iraq, where will it stop? Could he get him to go to Israel (he was there in 2006, it appears)? Or visit President Uribe in Colombia and explain his opposition to the free trade agreement? (He could also suggest Obama visit the UK and settle their nerves.)

McCain playing the role of the world tour guide for Obama is hardly something the junior senator from Illinios wants to encourage. So I suspect he won’t be taking travel suggestions from McCain anytime soon.

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Embraced

There’s a very “balanced” piece about the planned Flight 93 memorial in today’s New York Times. But this surreal tale has been kicking around the blogosphere for a few years now.

In the name of Islam, a group of terrorists turned an airplane full of unsuspecting civilians into a missile packed with corpses. In order to honor the men, women, and children whose last experience was a death plunge over Pennsylvania, a memorial is designed. This memorial, named “Crescent of Embrace,” is a massive landscape sculpture of a star and crescent, the symbol of Islam.

The memorial’s designer, Paul Murdoch, said “The framing of that space is like a large-scale embrace, on a scale commensurate of the heroic acts of the people who died there.” There’s more than enough vagueness in that drivel to leave you wondering just whose acts Murdoch deems heroic.

The original design has to be seen to be believed. It’s as unmistakably an Islamic crescent as Mount Rushmore is a row of U.S. presidents. This is from the Times:

The critics complain that the shape of the memorial – designed by Paul Murdoch, an architect based in Los Angeles – is an Islamic crescent, that a wind-chime tower mirrors an Islamic minaret and that the memorial would point east toward the Islamic holy city of Mecca.

Here’s an experiment: Take out the words “The critics complain that” and take out the “that” after “crescent.” Look at the picture of the original design for the memorial side-by-side with a picture of an Islamic crescent. Can there be any doubt that “the critics” are merely observers? And sloppy observers to boot. They missed something: the little satellite cluster of trees standing in place of the crescent’s star.

Is there a term to describe this phenomenon? Irony doesn’t cut it, and self-loathing misses the irony. Forget the nuances. Let’s go with surrender. For that’s what the symbol literally says. The Arabic meaning of Islam is “surrender” (not “peace” or “love” or any other rubber-bracelet sentiment). Constructing the “Crescent of Embrace” on a Pennsylvania field is simply writing “we surrender” in the very language of our enemy.

People have complained, and the Times reports that the design has been changed. It’s now the “Circle of Embrace.” The crescent’s gap has been (mostly) filled in, giving the Islamic symbolism a “Where’s Waldo?” spin. It’s still in there, you just have to look a little harder. Of course, the design and the designer should have been scrapped altogether. But amid all this embracing, it would be rude to leave him out.

If and when there’s another such attack, one wonders what they might throw up to commemorate victims. Maybe an all-in-one flight school, passport office, and mosque?

There’s a very “balanced” piece about the planned Flight 93 memorial in today’s New York Times. But this surreal tale has been kicking around the blogosphere for a few years now.

In the name of Islam, a group of terrorists turned an airplane full of unsuspecting civilians into a missile packed with corpses. In order to honor the men, women, and children whose last experience was a death plunge over Pennsylvania, a memorial is designed. This memorial, named “Crescent of Embrace,” is a massive landscape sculpture of a star and crescent, the symbol of Islam.

The memorial’s designer, Paul Murdoch, said “The framing of that space is like a large-scale embrace, on a scale commensurate of the heroic acts of the people who died there.” There’s more than enough vagueness in that drivel to leave you wondering just whose acts Murdoch deems heroic.

The original design has to be seen to be believed. It’s as unmistakably an Islamic crescent as Mount Rushmore is a row of U.S. presidents. This is from the Times:

The critics complain that the shape of the memorial – designed by Paul Murdoch, an architect based in Los Angeles – is an Islamic crescent, that a wind-chime tower mirrors an Islamic minaret and that the memorial would point east toward the Islamic holy city of Mecca.

Here’s an experiment: Take out the words “The critics complain that” and take out the “that” after “crescent.” Look at the picture of the original design for the memorial side-by-side with a picture of an Islamic crescent. Can there be any doubt that “the critics” are merely observers? And sloppy observers to boot. They missed something: the little satellite cluster of trees standing in place of the crescent’s star.

Is there a term to describe this phenomenon? Irony doesn’t cut it, and self-loathing misses the irony. Forget the nuances. Let’s go with surrender. For that’s what the symbol literally says. The Arabic meaning of Islam is “surrender” (not “peace” or “love” or any other rubber-bracelet sentiment). Constructing the “Crescent of Embrace” on a Pennsylvania field is simply writing “we surrender” in the very language of our enemy.

People have complained, and the Times reports that the design has been changed. It’s now the “Circle of Embrace.” The crescent’s gap has been (mostly) filled in, giving the Islamic symbolism a “Where’s Waldo?” spin. It’s still in there, you just have to look a little harder. Of course, the design and the designer should have been scrapped altogether. But amid all this embracing, it would be rude to leave him out.

If and when there’s another such attack, one wonders what they might throw up to commemorate victims. Maybe an all-in-one flight school, passport office, and mosque?

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“Patriotic” Chinese Protests

Sunday, thousands of angry Chinese took to the streets in anti-foreigner protests in major cities in China, including Wuhan, Harbin, Jinan, Xian, Qingdao, and Dalian. The demonstrations followed those occurring on Friday and Saturday, which took place around the country, including Beijing, Kunming, and Hefei. They were the largest anti-foreign protests in three years, since anti-Japan riots shook Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities in China.

Young Chinese, upset at foreign media coverage of recent ethnic disturbances and pro-Tibetan protests around the world, gathered in front of foreign stores, declared a boycott of French retailer Carrefour, and carried pictures of Mao Zedong. “Condemn CNN” and “Shut up you French,” seen on banners over the weekend, expressed popular sentiment. “We’re supporting the Olympics and boycotting Tibetan independence,” said the organizer of one of the demonstrations in the Chinese capital. As Zhu Xiaomeng, a student in Beijing who has been organizing a boycott of French companies, noted, “After 5,000 years, we’re not so soft anymore.”

That’s the message Beijing wants you to hear. Chinese state media triggered the protests in China with noxious anti-French stories that began appearing about a week ago, and Beijing has fueled demonstrations in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, London, Birmingham, and Manchester in Europe and San Francisco, Los Angeles, the Twin Cities, and Washington, D.C. by paying “patriotic” Chinese to participate.

The ugly tactic seems to be working. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for instance, will be sending three envoys to Beijing to try to limit the damage (the first left France yesterday). He also invited Jin Jing, a disabled fencer who protected the Olympic flame in the Paris torch relay from protesters, to be his “personal guest.” There is, however, evidence that Beijing manufactured the incident that made the “wheelchair angel” a national symbol of Chinese defiance.

So the West is being intimidated once again by arrogant Chinese rulers. Eventually, we will learn that Beijing has been manipulating us all along. In the meantime, Western leaders will continue to apologize to the Middle Kingdom whenever it gets into a snit.

Sunday, thousands of angry Chinese took to the streets in anti-foreigner protests in major cities in China, including Wuhan, Harbin, Jinan, Xian, Qingdao, and Dalian. The demonstrations followed those occurring on Friday and Saturday, which took place around the country, including Beijing, Kunming, and Hefei. They were the largest anti-foreign protests in three years, since anti-Japan riots shook Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities in China.

Young Chinese, upset at foreign media coverage of recent ethnic disturbances and pro-Tibetan protests around the world, gathered in front of foreign stores, declared a boycott of French retailer Carrefour, and carried pictures of Mao Zedong. “Condemn CNN” and “Shut up you French,” seen on banners over the weekend, expressed popular sentiment. “We’re supporting the Olympics and boycotting Tibetan independence,” said the organizer of one of the demonstrations in the Chinese capital. As Zhu Xiaomeng, a student in Beijing who has been organizing a boycott of French companies, noted, “After 5,000 years, we’re not so soft anymore.”

That’s the message Beijing wants you to hear. Chinese state media triggered the protests in China with noxious anti-French stories that began appearing about a week ago, and Beijing has fueled demonstrations in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, London, Birmingham, and Manchester in Europe and San Francisco, Los Angeles, the Twin Cities, and Washington, D.C. by paying “patriotic” Chinese to participate.

The ugly tactic seems to be working. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for instance, will be sending three envoys to Beijing to try to limit the damage (the first left France yesterday). He also invited Jin Jing, a disabled fencer who protected the Olympic flame in the Paris torch relay from protesters, to be his “personal guest.” There is, however, evidence that Beijing manufactured the incident that made the “wheelchair angel” a national symbol of Chinese defiance.

So the West is being intimidated once again by arrogant Chinese rulers. Eventually, we will learn that Beijing has been manipulating us all along. In the meantime, Western leaders will continue to apologize to the Middle Kingdom whenever it gets into a snit.

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The Artificial Neocon

I know there are a few competing priorities, but at this moment in our long life as a nation I can think of no more urgent task for Congress than to pass emergency legislation banning the further use of the word “neocon.” At least until a committee of deep thinkers can get together to agree on a commonly accepted definition. (A starting point may be the Robert Kagan essay I referred to in an earlier posting.) Until that happens, its use will only continue to muddy and obfuscate the debate over otherwise important issues.

Exhibit 2,348,485 of this terminological confusion may be found on today’s front page of the New York Times. In an article entitled “2 Camps Trying to Influence McCain on Foreign Policy,” Times correspondents Elizabeth Bumiller and Larry Rohter posit a nonexistent death struggle between John McCain’s “neocon” advisers (including yours truly) and those of a more “pragmatic” bent. Several bloggers have already noted the article’s shoddy sourcing and tendentious nature.

For my part, I’m simply mystified by how Bumiller and Rohter decided to assign certain personages and policies and not others to the “neocon” camp. Why, for instance, is John Bolton a neocon and John Lehman a “pragmatist” (as the graphic that accompanies the article has it)? I have no idea–and I bet Bolton doesn’t either, since he has repeatedly said he’s not a neocon. Indeed, he’s been a vocal opponent of the idea that democracy promotion should be at the center of American foreign policy (as many neocons argue). A conservative yes, even a hawkish conservative, but not a neocon.

Support for the Iraq War cannot be the test of “neocon-ness.” It was supported by virtually all conservatives, neo- and otherwise, and by many liberals as well. Aware of this difficulty, Bumiller and Rohter imply that pragmatists display their superior wisdom by criticizing the conduct of the war effort. In assigning Colin Powell and Richard Armitage to the pragmatist camp, for example, they write:

While Mr. Powell and Mr. Armitage supported Mr. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq while they were in office, they have become critics of the management of the war.

By that standard, I’m a “pragmatist” too. So are Bob Kagan, Bill Kristol, Fred Kagan, and just about every other “neocon” you can think of.

Another test that Bumiller and Rohter seem to apply is willingness “to work more closely with allies” –something that pragmatists are for and neocons are supposedly against. Bumiller and Rohter write that, in a recent Los Angeles speech, McCain hewed to the pragmatist path because he “rejected the unilateralism that has been the hallmark of the Bush administration’s foreign policy in favor of what he called ‘being a good and reliable ally to our fellow democracies’.”

How do they square this with their earlier assertion that the “author who helped write much of the foreign policy speech that Mr. McCain delivered in Los Angeles on March 26″ was none other than arch-neocon Robert Kagan? Can it be that “neocons” might actually be in favor of working with other countries and not simply bombing them? What a revolutionary idea. Rest assured, it is not a thought that has ever entered the heads of the MSM–or at least affected their coverage.

I know there are a few competing priorities, but at this moment in our long life as a nation I can think of no more urgent task for Congress than to pass emergency legislation banning the further use of the word “neocon.” At least until a committee of deep thinkers can get together to agree on a commonly accepted definition. (A starting point may be the Robert Kagan essay I referred to in an earlier posting.) Until that happens, its use will only continue to muddy and obfuscate the debate over otherwise important issues.

Exhibit 2,348,485 of this terminological confusion may be found on today’s front page of the New York Times. In an article entitled “2 Camps Trying to Influence McCain on Foreign Policy,” Times correspondents Elizabeth Bumiller and Larry Rohter posit a nonexistent death struggle between John McCain’s “neocon” advisers (including yours truly) and those of a more “pragmatic” bent. Several bloggers have already noted the article’s shoddy sourcing and tendentious nature.

For my part, I’m simply mystified by how Bumiller and Rohter decided to assign certain personages and policies and not others to the “neocon” camp. Why, for instance, is John Bolton a neocon and John Lehman a “pragmatist” (as the graphic that accompanies the article has it)? I have no idea–and I bet Bolton doesn’t either, since he has repeatedly said he’s not a neocon. Indeed, he’s been a vocal opponent of the idea that democracy promotion should be at the center of American foreign policy (as many neocons argue). A conservative yes, even a hawkish conservative, but not a neocon.

Support for the Iraq War cannot be the test of “neocon-ness.” It was supported by virtually all conservatives, neo- and otherwise, and by many liberals as well. Aware of this difficulty, Bumiller and Rohter imply that pragmatists display their superior wisdom by criticizing the conduct of the war effort. In assigning Colin Powell and Richard Armitage to the pragmatist camp, for example, they write:

While Mr. Powell and Mr. Armitage supported Mr. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq while they were in office, they have become critics of the management of the war.

By that standard, I’m a “pragmatist” too. So are Bob Kagan, Bill Kristol, Fred Kagan, and just about every other “neocon” you can think of.

Another test that Bumiller and Rohter seem to apply is willingness “to work more closely with allies” –something that pragmatists are for and neocons are supposedly against. Bumiller and Rohter write that, in a recent Los Angeles speech, McCain hewed to the pragmatist path because he “rejected the unilateralism that has been the hallmark of the Bush administration’s foreign policy in favor of what he called ‘being a good and reliable ally to our fellow democracies’.”

How do they square this with their earlier assertion that the “author who helped write much of the foreign policy speech that Mr. McCain delivered in Los Angeles on March 26″ was none other than arch-neocon Robert Kagan? Can it be that “neocons” might actually be in favor of working with other countries and not simply bombing them? What a revolutionary idea. Rest assured, it is not a thought that has ever entered the heads of the MSM–or at least affected their coverage.

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Democratic Dissembling on Iraq

If they were being honest, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would say: “I want to pull all of our combat troops out of Iraq regardless of the consequences. Sure, a huge civil war could break out which would kill millions of people, foment international terrorism, and destabilize the entire region, but frankly I don’t give a damn. As long as our troops are home safe and sound, I’ll be happy.”

But rather than leveling with the electorate they continue to pretend that they can bring all of our combat brigades home and still leave behind a stable Iraq. Kind of like eating as many Twinkies as you like and still staying thin. Actually they go further and claim that the more Twinkies you eat, the thinner you will get: They contend that the faster we are to set a date certain for withdrawal, the more likely it is that Iraqi factions will reconcile with one another.

This is what they said in their last debate, January 31, in Los Angeles:

Clinton: At the same time, we have got to tell the Iraqi government there is no — there is no more time. They are out of time. They have got to make the tough decisions they have avoided making. They have got to take responsibility for their own country.

Obama: I do think it is important for us to set a date. And the reason I think it is important is because if we are going to send a signal to the Iraqis that we are serious, and prompt the Shia, the Sunni and the Kurds to actually come together and negotiate, they have to have clarity about how serious we are.

It is indeed possible (though far from certain) that greater American pressure could make Iraqi politicos push through much-needed reconciliation legislation, such as the provincial powers law, but only if they think that by doing so they can forestall the evacuation of American forces which, it is generally agreed, would result in a bloodbath.

If, on the other hand, the message that we send to Iraqis is that we intend to withdraw soon, regardless of what they do, what incentive, precisely, do they have to make compromises? The overwhelming incentive under those circumstances would be to do nothing (such as sharing oil revenue) that might empower a competing faction that you may shortly be fighting in an all-out civil war. A guarantee of American disengagement is, thus, likely to retard rather than to advance the kind of political progress that Clinton and Obama claim to want.

A more self-defeating strategy is hard to imagine. The long-run consequence would be to make more likely another American intervention in Iraq under far less favorable circumstances than those that prevail today.

If they were being honest, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would say: “I want to pull all of our combat troops out of Iraq regardless of the consequences. Sure, a huge civil war could break out which would kill millions of people, foment international terrorism, and destabilize the entire region, but frankly I don’t give a damn. As long as our troops are home safe and sound, I’ll be happy.”

But rather than leveling with the electorate they continue to pretend that they can bring all of our combat brigades home and still leave behind a stable Iraq. Kind of like eating as many Twinkies as you like and still staying thin. Actually they go further and claim that the more Twinkies you eat, the thinner you will get: They contend that the faster we are to set a date certain for withdrawal, the more likely it is that Iraqi factions will reconcile with one another.

This is what they said in their last debate, January 31, in Los Angeles:

Clinton: At the same time, we have got to tell the Iraqi government there is no — there is no more time. They are out of time. They have got to make the tough decisions they have avoided making. They have got to take responsibility for their own country.

Obama: I do think it is important for us to set a date. And the reason I think it is important is because if we are going to send a signal to the Iraqis that we are serious, and prompt the Shia, the Sunni and the Kurds to actually come together and negotiate, they have to have clarity about how serious we are.

It is indeed possible (though far from certain) that greater American pressure could make Iraqi politicos push through much-needed reconciliation legislation, such as the provincial powers law, but only if they think that by doing so they can forestall the evacuation of American forces which, it is generally agreed, would result in a bloodbath.

If, on the other hand, the message that we send to Iraqis is that we intend to withdraw soon, regardless of what they do, what incentive, precisely, do they have to make compromises? The overwhelming incentive under those circumstances would be to do nothing (such as sharing oil revenue) that might empower a competing faction that you may shortly be fighting in an all-out civil war. A guarantee of American disengagement is, thus, likely to retard rather than to advance the kind of political progress that Clinton and Obama claim to want.

A more self-defeating strategy is hard to imagine. The long-run consequence would be to make more likely another American intervention in Iraq under far less favorable circumstances than those that prevail today.

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The Bloody End

Despite the consensus view that P.T. Anderson’s latest film is a searing, visionary work, numerous critics have complained about the final scene of There Will Be Blood. The New Yorker’s David Denby calls it “a mistake.” Ross Douthat writes in the most recent National Review that the film’s weakest part is its end. And Chris Orr, writing for The New Republic, argues that it “runs aground in its final act and, especially, its final scene.” But although the final scene is jarring, I think it’s a perfect close for both the director and the film’s central character. (As you might expect, spoilers lie ahead.)

A quick recap: After two and a half hours of quiet, tightly-controlled, poetic naturalism, in which Daniel Day Lewis’s fiercely independent oil baron Daniel Plainview manipulates and dominates everything and everyone around him, the film explodes into a wild—some might say unhinged—absurdism. He confronts Eli (Paul Dano), a wily spiritual huckster—and something of a competitor—who has come begging for help, and then, after growling and howling his way through a riveting, if borderline insane, monologue that features the line, “I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE,” he begins hurling bowling balls at Eli and eventually kills him. It’s transfixing, brutal, uncomfortable, and defiantly weird.

Read More

Despite the consensus view that P.T. Anderson’s latest film is a searing, visionary work, numerous critics have complained about the final scene of There Will Be Blood. The New Yorker’s David Denby calls it “a mistake.” Ross Douthat writes in the most recent National Review that the film’s weakest part is its end. And Chris Orr, writing for The New Republic, argues that it “runs aground in its final act and, especially, its final scene.” But although the final scene is jarring, I think it’s a perfect close for both the director and the film’s central character. (As you might expect, spoilers lie ahead.)

A quick recap: After two and a half hours of quiet, tightly-controlled, poetic naturalism, in which Daniel Day Lewis’s fiercely independent oil baron Daniel Plainview manipulates and dominates everything and everyone around him, the film explodes into a wild—some might say unhinged—absurdism. He confronts Eli (Paul Dano), a wily spiritual huckster—and something of a competitor—who has come begging for help, and then, after growling and howling his way through a riveting, if borderline insane, monologue that features the line, “I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE,” he begins hurling bowling balls at Eli and eventually kills him. It’s transfixing, brutal, uncomfortable, and defiantly weird.

The first thing worth noting is that Anderson has finished other films with similar tonal shifts. Indeed, he seems to enjoy pushing his films both over the top and out of this world in their final moments. His last two pictures both started relatively small and naturalistic, but built towards grand, fanciful scenes of magical realism. Magnolia, an Altman-style California character drama, ended with a literal plague of frogs descending upon Los Angeles, and Punch-Drunk Love ended with a dream-like flight out of L.A. to a confrontation with a surly pimp in mattress warehouse. Anderson, in other words, has never been much for restraint in his finales.

And it seems to me that restraint—emotional restraint—is what finally does Plainview in. Lewis’s phenomenal performance (favored, correctly, I think, to win an Oscar) is centrally about one thing: domination. He’s a conqueror of men, land, and fortunes—not because he particularly cares for any of those things, but because he is driven to conquer simply for conquering’s sake.

And for Plainview, the will to conquer and dominate requires emotional constriction of the sort that is ultimately unsustainable. For most of the film, he’s a sharp tactical manipulator, coolly and calmly assessing his opponents—which is to say everyone—and how he can best them. But such a drive must, at some point erupt, must blow up, and is likely to result in the sort of hysterical violence found in the final scene.
There’s a reason, I think, that Plainview is drawn to oil; they share many of the same qualities, and they grow more alike as the film goes on. Like him, it is a source of great power, great wealth, and great misery, always pulsing, always flowing, always threatening to explode or ignite when others try to control it. One might even say the violent, oddly spectacular explosion in the final scene was inevitable: Like so many of the oil wells he built through his life, eventually Daniel Plainview was bound to blow his top.

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Competitive Victimization

The Hillary/Obama race vs. gender dustup has just given the country a taste of why the Democratic Party spent so many years in the wilderness. The game of competitive victimization reminds swing voters in general and white men in particular why the Democrats can be problematic.

The night of her unexpected New Hampshire victory on the basis of a strong turnout from blue collar female voters, the press began to explain away the polls that had pointed to an Obama landslide by referring to “the Bradley effect.” That refers to the experience in Los Angeles where Tom Bradley, L.A.’s first African-American mayor, who did far better in public opinion polls than at the ballot box where he failed to win the governorship in 1982. The thesis was that white voters, not wanting to appear racist are reluctant to tell pollster about how they truly feel about black candidates. The implication–laid out without clear evidence by Andrew Kohut, a pollster for the Pew Research Center and picked up by the likes of Maureen Dowd–was that Clinton won on the basis of the racism of lower-middle-class whites.

This is something the many Obama admirers in the press picked up and ran with. The problem, as John Judis shows in a detailed New Republic piece, is that “Obama’s support among New Hampshire Democrats without college degrees slightly increased from the pre-election poll to the exit poll.” Clinton’s late gains, Judis notes came from well educated women who might well have been responding to the now famous incident in a dinner where the former First Lady seemed to tear up under the weight on being doubled teamed by Obama and Edwards.

And that’s when matters began to heat up. People around the Obama campaign, though not the candidate himself, suggested that Clinton had played on her supposed victimization as a woman, to win an election driven by economic anxieties. Obama in this view had been victimized by both his race and his gender. As for race; the supposed “Bradley effect” as well as statements by Bill and Hillary which may or may not have had double meanings regarding Lyndon Johnson’s role in achievements of the Civil Rights Era and the constancy of Obama position on Iraq have led to implausible accusations of racial insensitivity on the part of the Clintons.

In the short run, this is good news for the Obama campaign which has done its best to keep its fingerprints off the matches being lit by the press but stands to benefit greatly in the upcoming South Carolina primary if the accusation shift African-American voters away from Hillary Clinton.

On one level none of this hair-trigger “sensitivity” should be taken too seriously. All the parties involved are marvels at playing double games. A practical effect of the race versus gender game may be increased pressure on Hillary Clinton to choose Obama as her running mate should she win the nomination. But it raises the issue of whether Americans who are neither black nor female will be allowed to ask serious question about the two leading Democratic candidates without potential accusation of bias of one sort or another.

The Hillary/Obama race vs. gender dustup has just given the country a taste of why the Democratic Party spent so many years in the wilderness. The game of competitive victimization reminds swing voters in general and white men in particular why the Democrats can be problematic.

The night of her unexpected New Hampshire victory on the basis of a strong turnout from blue collar female voters, the press began to explain away the polls that had pointed to an Obama landslide by referring to “the Bradley effect.” That refers to the experience in Los Angeles where Tom Bradley, L.A.’s first African-American mayor, who did far better in public opinion polls than at the ballot box where he failed to win the governorship in 1982. The thesis was that white voters, not wanting to appear racist are reluctant to tell pollster about how they truly feel about black candidates. The implication–laid out without clear evidence by Andrew Kohut, a pollster for the Pew Research Center and picked up by the likes of Maureen Dowd–was that Clinton won on the basis of the racism of lower-middle-class whites.

This is something the many Obama admirers in the press picked up and ran with. The problem, as John Judis shows in a detailed New Republic piece, is that “Obama’s support among New Hampshire Democrats without college degrees slightly increased from the pre-election poll to the exit poll.” Clinton’s late gains, Judis notes came from well educated women who might well have been responding to the now famous incident in a dinner where the former First Lady seemed to tear up under the weight on being doubled teamed by Obama and Edwards.

And that’s when matters began to heat up. People around the Obama campaign, though not the candidate himself, suggested that Clinton had played on her supposed victimization as a woman, to win an election driven by economic anxieties. Obama in this view had been victimized by both his race and his gender. As for race; the supposed “Bradley effect” as well as statements by Bill and Hillary which may or may not have had double meanings regarding Lyndon Johnson’s role in achievements of the Civil Rights Era and the constancy of Obama position on Iraq have led to implausible accusations of racial insensitivity on the part of the Clintons.

In the short run, this is good news for the Obama campaign which has done its best to keep its fingerprints off the matches being lit by the press but stands to benefit greatly in the upcoming South Carolina primary if the accusation shift African-American voters away from Hillary Clinton.

On one level none of this hair-trigger “sensitivity” should be taken too seriously. All the parties involved are marvels at playing double games. A practical effect of the race versus gender game may be increased pressure on Hillary Clinton to choose Obama as her running mate should she win the nomination. But it raises the issue of whether Americans who are neither black nor female will be allowed to ask serious question about the two leading Democratic candidates without potential accusation of bias of one sort or another.

Read Less




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