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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Friday, 16 September 2005

Topic: World View

Germany: The Weekend's Election

Tuesday, September 13, this, along with a flood of articles in German, arrived in Hollywood from Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis:
Saw the album of hockey photos.

What's next? All-star curling? Orange County senior horseshoes? The semi-pro donut league?

It's a slow night in Europe so I checked into Der Spiegel up in Hamburg, to see if reading German still makes sense. What's wrong with them? They haven't got their accents coded right. All those 'ä's and 'ö's and 'ü's have to be replaced by hand. I thought they were supposed to 'reform' themselves and do away with that muck because nobody under 29 has any of these letters on their PlayStation 3DIII.

What did I see? Well, Spiegel has a lot of NOLA coverage, also in English. But the big story is that Merkel dame going to blow away Gerhard next Sunday. Maybe not - she's got a finance guru who hot for a flat tax, one size fits all from the unemployed Turks to Prussian steel barons.

Then there's Pamela Anderson's photos in the museum in Munich, until the 15th, in the Haus der Kunst no less. Trouble is it costs 5 euros to get in and there's only about 20 photos, and well, Spiegel says Pamela might not be all real. And, to make matters worse, in the nearby Englischer Garten in the fine beer-garden weather, all the Munich honeys are lying around topless, and being what they are, some are bottomless too - on view for free, and most of them are all real.

I remember seeing this. It was a Sunday, the 31st of October to be exact, and the weather was breathtakingly fine, the sky was Bavarian blue and it was warm warm warm, and everybody was in the beer-garden under the Chineser Turm and the strings were zinging on terrace of the next-door teahouse, and further on all the honeys were stretched out on the grass like fresh trouts in the sun. So cool. Next day the temperature dropped 20 degrees to about five, the sky slate gray huddled overhead, and I started work at Seimens Hoffmannstraße, driving a Bulgarian electric lifttruck outside around in their elektro-kampus. By Wednesday it was snowing. It's not far from the Alps in Munich. And where I was - far, very far, from the Englischer Garten and further from that Sunday, that last day of summer in 1969.

Maybe Pamela is in the right place. There was a disco in the celler there. But there were always more girls in the gardens, up north beside the Schwabing end.
From here in Hollywood, back to Paris -
Curling. When living in Canada, and worn out from a long day at work managing a team of twenty odd computer folks at the locomotive factory, I would sit quietly in my hotel room and watch the all-curling channel. It was an end-of-the-world all-hope-is-gone so-this-is-exile thing. I cannot imagine photographing curling. December 2001 I caught some curling on television in my hotel room in Paris - in German, from Switzerland. A walk across the street to the Flore for a cognac fixed that right up. There was no such place in London, Ontario.

That Merkel dame gets a bit of press here - but such stuff is only for us oddballs who follow world events. Gerhard gets points with us lefties for stepping away from George's war - but otherwise, we know little. Merkel wants a flat tax? Here only the oddest of the right want that, and one of my conservative friends ("If I'm going to pay thirty-percent then the poorest of the poor will pay that too, damn it!).

As for Der Spiegel and diacritical marks, I downloaded a few pages of HTML code for every single one of them imaginable. Painful stuff.

Pamela Anderson's photos in the museum in Munich, until the 15th, in the Haus der Kunst no less. Wow. Yes, but with totally naked young women in the park outside daily, the five-euro ticket price may be too high. As I have mentioned, I dated Pamela Anderson's midwife for a bit a few years ago. Hard to imagine Pamela Anderson as a mom. Also hard to imagine this midwife's medical partner was a famous local OB-GYN, Heidi Fleiss' father no less. But was so.

Will work through the German emails in a bit.
Well, I didn't work through the German articles as I said I would. I was able to read German for about a week, long enough to pass a reading comprehension test in graduate school after a six-week intensive summer class, but that was decades ago. I've lost that all.

But there has been a flurry of comment stateside, like this in SLATE.COM

Das Flat Tax
The conservative economic proposal flopped with American voters. Now Germans are learning to hate it, too.
Daniel Gross - Posted Friday, Sept. 16, 2005, at 12:12 PM PT

His question? Will the flat tax do for Angela Merkel's campaign for German chancellor what it did for Steve Forbes' ill-fated presidential campaigns in 1996 and 2000?

Maybe:
Until recently, Merkel, the leader of the center-right Christian Democratic Union party, enjoyed a healthy lead over incumbent Gerhard Schröder, whose Social Democrats are listing after eight years in office and a growing national malaise.

American conservatives hope that Merkel will turn out to be a Teutonic Margaret Thatcher: an up-from-the-bootstraps woman from a right-of-center party, an economic conservative who favors structural reforms of a bureaucratic welfare state. On everything from the war in Iraq to the potential accession of Turkey to the European Union, American conservatives had hoped that by electing Merkel, the German electorate would effectively abandon some of the policies that had recently put it at odds with the United States.
Yes, that's the reason there are any articles at all on this side of the pond. American conservatives need a Teutonic Margaret Thatcher person to prove what the claim about how the world should be run is right - a sort of anti-Chirac, someone who will get Germany revving up economically to prove their point about cutting taxes for the rich and services to the poor and going to war without any direct threat for abstract reasons. A hero would be nice - or a heroine in this case. They miss Reagan's ballsy British sister in unfettered low-tax screw-the-needy capitalism and elective war (remember Grenada and the Falkland Islands wars?) - so this Merkel dame is the darling of the guys who run the United States now. What with the hurricane embarrassment and the nearly three hundred dead in the streets of Baghdad this week, her winning this thing would raise their spirits.

But at the last moment her lead has just about disappeared and Schröder was good in the televised debates. And the flat tax idea bombed. Gross says it has become a millstone around Merkel's neck.

The background:
The first clue that the flat tax is an unwelcome import: The Germans, who have a word for everything, don't have one for the flat tax. They call it the "flat tax."

As a childless professional woman from the East, Merkel is an anomaly in German politics. And she has conducted the campaign in an anomalous way. One of the radical things she did - a move that would strike U.S. voters as perfectly normal - was to look beyond political professionals for advice. In Germany, former CEOs and even academics rarely figure in campaigns or in governments. But Merkel brought on former Siemens CEO Heinrich von Pierer as an adviser. And in August, Paul Kirchhof, a former judge and professor at the University of Heidelberg, was enlisted as shadow finance minister. His task: to come up with a plan to kick-start Germany's large and lumbering economy into higher gear.

The result has been a disaster. Kirchhof had long recommended a serious reform of Germany's progressive and deduction-riddled income-tax system, which has a top rate of 42 percent. His preferred plan is to rip up the tax code, institute a flat 25 percent income-tax rate, and make up for lost revenue by boosting the value-added tax. An analyst for Hypovereinsbank dubbed Kirchhof "the miracle worker."
Ah, there, like here, turning to the theorists is always a bad idea. Remember the Laffer Curve - USC economist Arthur Laffer's idea that the more you cut taxes the more money pours into the government because the economy grows fast due to those lower taxes. Neat idea. Wonderful concept. Since the Reagan administration this has been the core economic theory of the Republican Party. Of course it's never worked, and there is good evidence it never will. But it's a great theory. It sounds like it could be so. See Samuel Johnson on the triumph of hope over experience. Substitute evidence for experience in the phrase. Of course note that the Republican Party is not big on the idea empirical evidence matters - consider global warming (the evidence is mixed, folks), evolution (the jury is still out on that, as Bush has said), democracy in Iraq (it could happen in a sort of way, maybe, if we stay the course), Terri Schiavo was not brain dead at all (Doctor/Senator Frist said so on the senate floor). So with tax cuts. They could fix everything. You never know. And there is talk in the right-wing think tanks that maybe we shouldn't tax income at all, only consumption, with a national sales tax, or a value-added tax (VAT) like some countries have. That way, the richer you are, the smaller the portion of what you pay in taxes! No one pays any income tax and Joe, the struggling Wal-Mart clerk, pays twenty-eight percent extra for a quart of milk, and so do you! Cool.

Is seems the Germans are a tad more skeptical than we are. They, and their leader at the time, thought our Iraq war was a monumentally bad idea. It made no sense to them. Where was the evidence that it would do any good?

But we've moved beyond the Enlightenment - a European thing that actually stared in France, of all places - with its reliance on experiment and evidence. We've moved on to the world of faith-based government, while those Europeans are still stuck thinking real events and facts matter. It's the old-fashioned fuddy-duddy realists versus the bold dreamers and idealists. Merkel is one of the new reality-doesn't-matter types. The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld folks love her.

But the problem is she's stuck in a culture that doesn't get it - they don't see things her way:
Germans tend to see progressive income-tax rates as part and parcel of a democracy. The notion that a secretary would pay the same proportion of her income in taxes as a CEO doesn't strike Germans as egalitarian, it strikes them as unjust. What's more, the trade-off of taxing consumption rather than income seems counterproductive in a nation where the lack of domestic demand is a continual problem. Germans need more incentives to consume, not fewer.
What's more, they don't like pie-in-the-sky experts:
In the United States, the involvement of professional economists, Wall Street executives, and CEOs in political campaigns and the formulation of economic and tax policies is not only accepted, it's preferred by both parties. Not so in Germany. Although Germany has more than its share of world-beating, world-class companies - Siemens, DaimlerChrysler, SAP, and BMW, to name a few - its CEOs possess little juice. At a moment where there is a wide perception that the political system can't adequately address Germany's economic problems, there is still no room in Germany's political life for a Ross Perot, a Robert Rubin, a Paul O'Neill, or a Larry Lindsey. No wonder German executives are perpetually gloomy.

In the United States, anti-intellectualism generally flows from right to left, with conservative populists ridiculing liberal pointy-heads. In Germany this fall, it's flowing in the opposite direction.

Schröder has dubbed Kirchhof the "professor from Heidelberg." Even Merkel's own CDU has hardly embraced Kirchhof's proposal. Its platform calls for a more modest move on taxes, bringing the top rate down from 42 to 39.
So what does Merkel do? Wednesday she comes out and says, "Our program says nothing about a flat tax."

What?

Ah, just as George Bush (or his advisors) finally realized, sometimes you do what you must. Bush grudgingly ended his vacation early and five days after the event went to New Orleans and did the hug-the-black-folks say-the-right-thing photo op, then three more, then a speech. Sometimes you just have to account for the public's ability to detect bullshit. It's often a dormant ability, but it's there, and it's real.

__

As of Friday night you can find about 4,300 news articles on the Merkel campaign in the English-language press using Google. It's hot. One of the best is the cover story in The New Statesman - far more detailed that any of this above. The war of the realists (the reality-based community) against the idealists (the neoconservatives who run the United States at the moment) has gone worldwide.

Sidebar: In the early eighties I found myself at USC in the same elevator with Arthur Laffer. He's a short guy. We didn't speak. No one speaks on elevators.

Posted by Alan at 22:00 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 17 September 2005 08:26 PDT home


Topic: In these times...

The Speech: Thursday Night as seen on Friday Morning

From the White House site this is the transcript: President Discusses Hurricane Relief in Address to the Nation, Jackson Square, New Orleans, Louisiana, Thursday, September 15, 2005, 8:02 pm CDT - and some of us watched it.

This was the speech that was to save the president's political bacon after the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

We're going to get the biggest reconstruction project the world has ever seen, because we care, and so on and so forth. Lots of initiatives, the locals get their say, we'll make the whole place better than before - that sort of thing. No mention of how we'll pay for it. Float more debt when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have racked up more than two hundred billion and counting, and the tax cuts for the wealthy have cut federal revenue by more than a third on the hope the fat cats would goose the economy by spending it all wisely, and the federal deficit skyrockets to levels never seen before? He didn't say. Folks are calling for winding down the wars and saving the bucks for use here, for rolling back the tax cuts the rich, if not increasing their taxes, for stopping this nonsense about abolishing the estate tax so the ultra-wealthy can pass along every single penny, untaxed, to their heirs - for many things. Since no ideas like that were mentioned, one must assume we just issue more bonds and hope the Chinese and all the rest will keep buying them. We may have to offer more return on investment - higher interest rates - but they'll keep buying, won't they? Our children's children can deal with the debt.

Reactions? On PBS, one could watch David Brooks on the right and Tom Oliphant on the left actually agree. Nice ideas, but how are we going to do this without thinking about how the whole government is being run and to what end? If this is going to cost two or three hundred billion shouldn't we think of the interrelationship of this project to the war "project" to the tax codes to what we do about healthcare with the forty-five million uninsured, to the four-year rise in poverty rates and four-year drop in real income for most Americans, and all the rest? Nice ideas. No context. And there's the whole question of whether this current crew has the managerial ability to pull this off. No one has seen it. And on MSNBC you could watch Tucker Carlson say the conservatives would eat Bush alive for this speech where Bush sounded more like LBJ or FDR with all this throw-money-at-the-problem stuff. For those government-is-the-problem guys, this is something like heresy.

But the man was trapped by events, and the speech was for show. The polls numbers - depending on the poll a record-low thirty-six to forty-two percent approval rating - determined the content of the speech.

As Bill Montgomery over at Whisky Bar puts it -
There's no point in parsing every point in Shrub's big speech last night - not when we've learned, through bitter experience, that there's rarely a connection between the real world and the text on his teleprompter.

Bush said all the things he was expected to say, and very few that he wasn't. He ran down the laundry list of relief supplies provided and federal agencies mobilized. He heroically declared that New Orleans would rise again. He promised to open up Uncle Sam's checkbook and keep writing and signing checks until his fingers were worn down to bloody stumps. And of course, his text was sprinkled with the obligatory heartwarming anecdotes about the courage, generosity and plucky optimism of the local residents - none of whom were raped, spent three days sitting in their own shit, or had shots fired over their head as they tried to escape to the white side of the Mississippi River.

Naturally, a lot of it was self-serving spin (what does a "normal" hurricane look like, anyway?) and a lot of it sounded like a Heritage Foundation seminar on enterprise zones. Also as predicted. The acceptance of presidential responsibility sounded even more insincere than it did the first time around - probably because he's been practicing how to say it without staring off into the middle distance, like a sullen teenager ordered to apologize to his father.
Was the man was trapped by events, and the speech for show? Note this from NBC news anchor Brian Williams in his web log:
I am duty-bound to report the talk of the New Orleans warehouse district last night: there was rejoicing (well, there would have been without the curfew, but the few people I saw on the streets were excited) when the power came back on for blocks on end. Kevin Tibbles was positively jubilant on the live update edition of Nightly News that we fed to the West Coast. The mini-mart, long ago cleaned out by looters, was nonetheless bathed in light, including the empty, roped-off gas pumps. The motorcade route through the district was partially lit no more than 30 minutes before POTUS drove through. And yet last night, no more than an hour after the President departed, the lights went out. The entire area was plunged into total darkness again, to audible groans. It's enough to make some of the folks here who witnessed it... jump to certain conclusions.
No kidding. New Orleans as a Potemkin Village? You remember Prince Grigory Potemkin had fake villages constructed on the shores of the Dnieper River in order to impress the Czarina Catherine during an official inspection tour. That's where we get the term. Same thing.

The first reaction received here in Hollywood was from Marc Schulman. Who's he? A former Wall Street man, retired to Florida, who blogs at "American Future" - a very conservative (old style) Republican. He wrote last week and said he really liked my Status of the Blame Game essay, in spite of our different politics. We traded a few emails and we crosslink now. I'm on his mailing list. He send us all his reaction, as he was reminded of Vietnam so long ago. -
An increasingly unpopular war. A growing credibility gap. A rapid growth in spending on domestic social programs. That's what was happening in America in early 1968. Public support for the war in Vietnam, which had been gradually eroding before the Tet offensive, collapsed in its aftermath. Tet was a military victory for the American military, but a psychological defeat for the American public. Televised pictures of the Viet Cong attacking the US embassy in Saigon destroyed the credibility of the Johnson administration's claim that there was light at the end of the tunnel. And while this was taking place, spending on Great Society programs was skyrocketing.

Now fast forward to the present. Once again, we have an increasingly unpopular war. We also have a credibility gap. This time, the gap isn't related to the war - Bush has never tried to sustain support for the war by promising an early withdrawal from Iraq. Instead, today's credibility gap is the result of the mismanagement of the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina. As memories of 9/11 faded, out-of-sight, out-of-mind prevailed. With Katrina, heads have come out of the sand, as it's now abundantly evident that the US isn't prepared to cope with the aftermath of an act of catastrophic terrorism. Four years after 9/11, the ability of the federal government to provide security has now been called into question. As a perception-changing event, Katrina is to Bush as Tet was to Johnson. And the massive spending that will be required to undo the damage done by Katrina is to Bush as the Great Society was to Johnson.

Two months after Tet, Johnson announced that he would not stand for re-election. Eight months later, control of the White House passed into Republican hands, where it remained for 20 of the next 24 years. It's fortunate for today's Republicans that 2006 isn't a presidential election year.
I passed along the Schulman link to my friends and got this from Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis:
• Sure, blame the public for the politicians' failure.

• The Viet Cong pointed to the left-field fence and said we're going to blast a triple home run over it.

• The US Military command in Saigon told the world's press corps that the Viet Cong claims were fantasy.

• On Tet the Viet Cong struck, where it said it would and everywhere, all over Vietnam.

• The US Military might contest the Tet victory, but the Viet Cong did what it said it was going to do. All the US military could do was react to it, not stop it from happening. This is what the US public realized. I maintain that Tet was a military and political defeat for the United States. It was a major factor causing the US withdrawal from Vietnam.

• I don't understand why the conservatives continue to insist that Tet was a victory for US forces. This kind of thinking leads to the situation in Iraq today, where US military force is hampered by fuzzy political convictions unrelated to reality. In short, the United States is conducting a mission of pure folly. The conservatives' plan is utter nonsense.

• Wonderful then the bungled response to Katrina. Too bad so many had to die or be uprooted from their homes. Too bad this happened, to be the only way to for the public to absorb the message that foreign and domestic policies are related. If Washington can't imagine that New Orleans' dikes would fail, how can it imagine that its so-called plans for Iraq will prevail?

• Meanwhile there is terrorism. The problem with it is the word describes tactics. Small, independent units choose an undefended target and attack it. 'They' will always choose undefended targets. It's not the kind of tactic that an army can defend against.

• Against the tactic of terrorism, strategic thinking is required. As they used to say in Vietnam, you have to win the minds and hearts of the opposition. You have to offer them a better future. To those simple minded souls in the White House 'democracy' might sound like a better future, but how do you sell it to people who haven't the faintest notion of what it is?

• Using the US military to promote democracy... well, it's very unlikely. If it's the best idea that Washington has, Americans should be dubious.

• And democracy. Do we know what it is? Is it real? Do the slogans match the reality? We can vote for democracy but what we eat are politics.

• And in Iraq? The way things are going my guess for a slogan would be: They can vote for tribes but what they will eat is religion.
I'm afraid I have to agree with my friend in Paris. We had Tet in 1968 - in 1954 they had Dien Bien Phu.

(Was Tet a military, as well as a political defeat for the United States, as Ric in Paris claims, or as Marc Schulman claims, a military victory for the American military, but a psychological defeat for the American public. See the sidebar at the end.)

Be that as it may, over at TMP Café you can find "Swopa" asking some essential questions -
• Do you trust this federal government, which has spent $200 billion in Iraq, was bragging up until a week before hurricane Katrina about how much it was spending on homeland security and emergency response, to spend this money wisely?

• Do you think we're getting a good return for our money in Iraq? Do you think we're getting a good return on that energy bill they passed? (Seen the price of gas lately?)

• The fact is, there hasn't been a cause or a crisis in the past four years that this federal government hasn't turned into a welfare bill for their campaign contributors. So there's every reason to think that if they're left to their own devices, the Bushites will come up with a rebuilding plan that leaves the ordinary people of Mississippi and Louisiana abandoned a second time.

• It's not that Democrats are opposed to the national government playing a major role - the problem is this federal government, which thinks the highest use of the public treasury is to give their campaign contributors the key to the vault. Democrats believe in using the government's powers to help ordinary people ... but we saw in the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center how this federal government responds to ordinary people in need.

• So, rather than oppose the spending, we should insist on oversight and open accounting so that the recovery program answers to the people it's supposed to help - just as the government must answer to them for its failure to provide help immediately after the hurricane.
That's unlikely to happen, given this from the New York Times two days before the speech:
Republicans said Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff and Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, was in charge of the reconstruction effort, which reaches across many agencies of government and includes the direct involvement of Alphonso R. Jackson, secretary of housing and urban development.
Oh great. Josh Marshall, here:
Let's see. What was the problem with Michael Brown exactly? Let's see. No expertise or experience for the job. Got the gig because he was pals with Bush's political fixer. Also a political loyalist.

So to learn the lesson and get back on track, to run the recovery, President Bush picks Karl Rove.

That's great.

Do we really all need the paint by numbers version of this picture?

Then there's the president's great line from the speech: "It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces."

No, it's not. Actually, every actual fact that's surfaced in the last two weeks points to just the opposite conclusion. There was no lack of federal authority to handle the situation. There was faulty organization, poor coordination and incompetence.

Show me the instance where the federal government was prevented from doing anything that needed to be done because it lacked the requisite authority.

... You don't repair disorganized or incompetent government by granting it more power. You fix it by making it more organized and more competent. If conservatism can't grasp that point, what is it good for?

As for the military, same difference. The Army clearly has an important role to play in major domestic disasters. And they've been playing it in this case. But what broader role was required exactly?

As I've been saying, repressive governments mix administrative clumsiness and inefficiency with authoritarian tendencies. That's almost always the pattern. The direction the president wants to go in is one in which, in emergencies, the federal government will have trouble moving water into or enabling transportation out of the disaster zone but will be well-equipped to declare martial law on a moment's notice.

Another pack of lies. Right in front of everyone.

Here's a project.

Who will be the first and who will be the last to broach the subject of whether the president's chief political operative should be in charge of the largest domestic reconstruction effort since the Civil War.
Yeah, and won't it be odd if he's indicted and convicted in the business of the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame and has to manage the reconstruction of the lower right quadrant of the United States from his jail cell, like some Mafia don passing orders to his wise guys on the outside?

Whatever.

The staunchly conservative, formerly pro-Bush and openly gay Andrew Sullivan (yes, an odd mix) has this reaction:
THE TIPPING POINT? I guess I wasn't the only one who decided to skip watching the president live last night. Across the blogosphere, it seems as if many others decided to catch it later, or on the web, or just read the transcript. Why? Because I knew what was coming: an attempt at spiritual uplift, greased by billions and billions that we don't have, organized by a federal government that, under Bush, cannot seem to organize anything competently. I'm not saying we don't need to spend money on the reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. I'm saying I don't want to hear it from this guy. As a friend of mine commented last night over a drink, I don't hate this president and never have. I'm just sick of him. Sick of the naked politicization of everything (Karl Rove over-seeing reconstruction?); sick of the utter refusal to acknowledge that there is a limit to what the federal government can borrow from this and the next generation; sick of the hijacking of the conservative tradition for a vast increase in the power and size of government, with only a feigned attempt at making it more effective; sick of the glib arrogance and excuses for failure that dot the landscape from Biloxi to Basra. I'm not the only one. See here, here, here, here, here, and more generally here.

THE DISILLUSION: Maybe the fact that I once truly did buy into this makes me more jaundiced today. I really wanted the man to succeed; believed he could; and, given the stakes, I felt it was almost irresponsible not to support him in the war and defend him from his worst and least principled critics (most of whom still make me retch). If so, filter my current negativism through the prism of my previous enthusiasm. Maybe I'm over-reacting. But please don't ignore the facts: the biggest increase in federal government spending, debt and power since LBJ. Here's one tiny example of what we're seeing: hugely expensive trailer parks to create new federal ghettoes for evacuees. If that's why you're a conservative, fine. If you back this because the alternative is so awful, fine. Harry Reid's call for a Marshall Plan for the South was a healthy reminder that many Democrats are still even worse than this profligate crew. But please don't ask me to be enthusiastic about this. Buying popularity by spending billions was not why I originally became a conservative. Increasing the welfare state, burdening the future generations with mountainous debt, confusing politics with faith, failing to impose basic law and order as a primary responsibility for government: these things I thought were characteristics of the left. They now define the Bush administration. I became a conservative because I saw in my native country what a terrible, incompetent, soul-destroying thing big government socialism is. It breaks my heart to see much of it now being implemented in America - by Republicans.
But that's the way it is.

As Bill Montgomery over at Whisky Bar explains -
Ever since the New Deal, successive GOP administrations have regarded the federal government as hostile territory to be occupied and, if possible, pacified. Under Nixon and, to a lesser degree, Reagan, cabinet secretaries were seen as unreliable, and prone to "go native" - especially since many of them were ideological moderates, who were appointed to mollify powerful interest groups with a vested interest in the status quo.

For conservatives, this made the White House the political equivalent of the Green Zone - a fortified command and control center beyond the reach of the insurgent bureaucrats. And out in the agencies, hard-edged conservative subcabinet appointees began to take on something of the role of political commissars in the Soviet military, monitoring both their nominal superiors and their career subordinates for signs of disloyalty.

... in the Cheney administration, policy, particularly domestic policy, is simply a basket of hot button issues - stem cells, climate change, grazing fees, wetlands regulation - that have to be managed on behalf of the various interest groups that make up the Republican coalition. Even the big domestic initiatives, like Social Security "reform," are treated more like election campaigns than serious policymaking exercises. (The one exception, energy policy, was controlled by Cheney, and was treated like a Soviet state secret.)

Outside of these political hot spots, the federal bureaucracy has been left floating in a vacuum - ignored not just by the Rovians and their pet president, but by the media, the public and, it seems, by many of the dispirited, apathetic career executives laboring under the hard-eyed scrutiny of their political commissars. Until the hurricane hit.
Did that change things? Montgomery reminds us that something like this might happen, by John DiIulio. That man was Bush's first faith-based initiatives guy, in charge of that whole effort. He just quit in frustration, calling the White House Team "Mayberry Machiavellis." The key passage from the famous Esquire article is this:
In eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions, but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues. There were, truth be told, only a couple of people in the West Wing who worried at all about policy substance and analysis, and they were even more overworked than the stereotypical, non-stop, 20-hour-a-day White House staff. Every modern presidency moves on the fly, but, on social policy and related issues, the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking - discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near-instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, et cetera. Even quite junior staff would sometimes hear quite senior staff pooh-pooh any need to dig deeper for pertinent information on a given issue.

... This gave rise to what you might call Mayberry Machiavellis - staff, senior and junior, who consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible. These folks have their predecessors in previous administrations (left and right, Democrat and Republican), but, in the Bush administration, they were particularly unfettered.
So someone saw a lack of even basic policy knowledge, and only casual interest in knowing more, years ago? DiIulio didn't need no hurricane to see it. The rest of the country did.

Also note this from DiIulio - how we actually got a department of Homeland Security -
Contrast that, however, with the remarkably slap-dash character of the Office of Homeland Security, with the nine months of arguing that no department was needed, with the sudden, politically-timed reversal in June, and with the fact that not even that issue, the most significant reorganization of the federal government since the creation of the Department of Defense, has received more than talking-points caliber deliberation. This was, in a sense, the administration problem in miniature: Ridge was the decent fellow at the top, but nobody spent the time to understand that an EOP entity without budgetary or statutory authority can't "coordinate" over 100 separate federal units, no matter how personally close to the president its leader is, no matter how morally right they feel the mission is, and no matter how inconvenient the politics of telling certain House Republican leaders we need a big new federal bureaucracy might be.
As Montgomery says -
... the Rovians have constructed is a kind of comic opera caricature of a totally politicized one-party state: Joe Stalin meets Huey Long meets the Wizard of Oz - or at least, the little man behind the curtain. Previous GOP administrations only tried to control the federal bureaucracy; the Cheney administration has turned it into a running joke, like the Vogons in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Which would be pretty funny, if it weren't for all the casualties.
And now Karl Rove in is charge, and George Bush is forgiven.

__

Footnote:

The Vogons are a fictional alien race in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams:
Here's what to do if you want to get a lift from a Vogon: forget it. They are one of the most unpleasant races in the galaxy. Not actually evil, but bad tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. They wouldn't even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public enquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters. The best way to get a drink out of a Vogon is stick your finger down his throat, and the best way to irritate him is to feed his grandmother to the ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.
Adams also tells us that far back in prehistory, when the first primeval Vogons crawled out of the sea, the forces of evolution were so disgusted with them that they never allowed them to evolve again. Somehow, though, the Vogons survived, wrecked the planet, and emigrated en masse to the Brantisvogon star cluster, where they form most of the Galactic bureaucracy, most notably in the famous Vogon Constructor Fleets (which allows them a socially-acceptable way to spend their time demolishing things).

See this for more.

Montgomery's comparison works for me.

___

Sidebar: Was Tet a military, as well as a political defeat for the United States, as Ric in Paris claims, or as Marc Schulman claims, a military victory for the American military, but a psychological defeat for the American public.

Noted at Marc Schulman's "American Future" here:
In a post at As Seen From Just Above Sunset, Rick Erickson disputes my assertion that Tet was a military victory for the American military. He maintains that Tet was a military, as well as a political defeat for the United States. Then, for good measure, he throws this into the mix: "I don't understand why the conservatives continue to insist that Tet was a victory for US forces."

Is it only conservatives who make this claim? Erickson would do well to consult Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History , which was published in 1983. Karnow is a Pulitzer Prize winner; his book was a companion to PBS's American Experience Series. For Erickson's benefit, here are three key paragraphs from Karnow (pages 557-558 in the 1997 edition):
If the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies were napping before the Tet upheaval, the Communists also blundered. "We have been guilty of many errors and shortcomings," their first official evaluation of the campaign confessed. They deplored such deficiencies as their failure to inspire the South Vietnamese population to rebel, and their inability to rally Saigon soldiers and government employees to their banners. Numbers of North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops were plainly disenchanted by the realization that, despite their enormous sacrifices during the offensive, they still faced a long struggle ahead. Senior Communist cadres expressed alarm at the erosion of morale among their comrades, many of whom had "lost confidence" in the cause, and had become "doubtful of victory and pessimistic, and display shirking attitudes."

Tran Van Tra, a senior Communist general in the south at the time, candidly admitted in a military history published in Hanoi in 1982 that the offensive had been misconceived from the start. "During Tet of 1968," he wrote, we did not correctly evaluate the specific balance of forces between ourselves and the enemy, did not realize that the enemy still had considerable capabilities and that our capabilities were limited." The Communists had set objectives "that were beyond our actual strength," founded "in part on our subjective desires." Thus, Tra went on, "we suffered large losses in materiel and manpower, especially cadres at various echelons, which clearly weakened us." As a result, "we were not only unable to retain the gains we had made but had to overcome a myriad of difficulties in 1969 and 1970 so that the revolution could stand firm in the storm."

Revisiting Vietnam after the war, I was astonished by the number of Communist veterans who retained bad memories of the Tet episode ? and openly recalled to me their disappointment at its outcome . . .
Not even the North Vietnamese believed that they had scored a military victory. I rest my case.
Also posted at the site, Ric's reply:
What Tet Won

Paris- Saturday, September 17 - Analysis of Tet by red generals is about as valuable as an analysis by General Westmoreland. As true Reds they were playing a traditional commie game called self-criticism. Even if they had scored a victory no one could deny they would have found fault with it.

Meanwhile in Washington, shortly after Tet, President Johnson asked Dean Acheson for a review of the war policy - after everybody else had put in their worthless two cents' worth.

Acheson tapped his contacts in DC and reported to Johnson that the military were attempting to reach an unachievable goal. He said the American public no longer believed anything he [Johnson] said, and the public had quit supporting the war. It wasn't news Johnson wanted to hear. He made an angry speech and the echo said the public was infuriated by his hint that they were unpatriotic. In sum, nobody except Washington was 'interested' in winning the war.

Three days after the speech Johnson recalled Westmoreland for talks, and decided not the send the extra 200,000 troops earlier thought necessary, as a reaction to Tet.

It is technically true that the Communist Tet offensive in late January of 1968 was not a static battle that the Reds won. It was a coordinated attack against 100 targets, mostly in areas where the Communists had not before been militarily active. The ferocity of the attack, even on the US Embassy in Saigon, stunned TV viewers in the United States. Hue fell to the Viet Cong. The fighting lasted a month and launched a debate in Washington.

The remark that characterized the war was first heard - "It becomes necessary to destroy the town in order to save it." The Wall Street Journal suggested that the 'effort' in Vietnam was 'doomed.' Tet succeeded as a shock tactic. It toppled Johnson.

You might think, after the war dragged on for another five years, killing many more Americans and Vietnamese, that Tet was failure. But history says it was the American Stalingrad in Vietnam. After Tet America was not going to prevail.
Should this difference in analysis of what happened continue, you can follow it at American Future.


Posted by Alan at 13:24 PDT | Post Comment | View Comments (1) | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 17 September 2005 09:18 PDT home

Thursday, 15 September 2005

Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

The South: It's Everywhere

I'm hardly an expert on "The South" - living for four years in and around Durham, North Carolina in the early seventies hardly counts. Yes, there was Jesse Helms, before he became a senator, on the television from Raleigh doing his commentary, two or three times a week, ranting about the federal government out to destroy "or way of life" - but that was not the life we knew at Duke University, called by some, perhaps ironically, "the Harvard of the South." While on campus we might as well have been in Cambridge, the one on the north end of Boston, but for the sticky hot weather and the mixed smell of magnolia and fresh-cut tobacco in the air (American Tobacco had a plant near campus churning our Winstons). Off campus it was odd to hear the Civil War referred to as "The Late Unpleasantness Between the States" and sometimes "War of Northern Aggression," and that sort of thing. But one developed a fondness for grits and red-eye gravy after a time, and Smithfield Ham (Virginia's answer to prosciutto) is pretty nice - even if I never got the thing with collard greens. But is North Carolina really The South? It's not The Deep South. My only taste of that was attending a wedding a few years back in Houma, Louisiana - a full Catholic high mass with, count 'em, two monsignors at the local cathedral in the swamp. What can I say? The band at the reception placed "Dixie" and everyone stood and put a hand over his or her heart. Not a Black or Asian or Hispanic within miles. But I liked the crayfish pie, gumbo and crab cakes. The following day was New Orleans - the French Quarter, and walking Bourbon Street in the evening - an odd, dark place. And then there were the two marching bands at midnight and floats and more craziness. Then I assumed no one really lived there - it was a tourist place - and now, no one does. Earlier in the day, mid-afternoon, I had found the Faulkner Bookstore in the place where he once lived and wrote his first novel. Well, he lived there for a time. But to someone born and raised in Pittsburgh, who has worked for stretches of years in upstate New York, rural Canada, and finally out here in Los Angeles, The South is still a mystery - as dense as Faulkner's enigmatic prose.

Sites like Save the South, with its ninety-seven links to web sites like Confederate Pride, The South Will Rise Again!, League of the South National Homepage and Never Give Up, just puzzle me. What's the big deal?

Denver-based criminal defense attorney Jeralyn Merritt tries to help folks like me with a pointer to an item just published in Znet, September 14th by Douglas Dowd, that explains, in rather unflattering terms, what The South is all about, and it seems what it's about is the whole country now. We are them. The item is titled The United States Becomes Its Own Worst Enemy.

This is the introduction:
Since the 1970s the United States has become increasingly captive to consumeristic frenzy and religious zeal at home and to an arrogant and bloody militarism abroad. As we do so, has not the following description come to fit us as a people?

"Violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas, an incapacity for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, an exaggerated individualism and a too narrow concept of social responsibility, attachment to fictions and false values..., too great an attachment to racial values and a tendency to justify cruelty and injustice in the name of those values, sentimentality and a lack of realism... ."

Not all of us, just yet; but those words were written to describe the people of the eleven states of the "New South" that evolved after 1877. The quotation is from The Mind of the South (1940); its author was the Carolinian journalist W.J. Cash.

The New South was a toxic brew of institutionalized cruelty and systemic irrationalities, fueled by fear, greed, and hatred; only the worst of its social crimes was the encouragement and immunity given to the lynching of thousands of blacks after 1877.

That the New South's characteristics were embraced with fervor by virtually all of its whites is well-known; almost entirely forgotten or generally unknown is that in significant degree its roots were in our national history and its values shared to one degree or another throughout the nation - as noted by the historian Howard Zinn, after his many years of teaching and working in the South:

"It is everything its revilers have charged, and more than its defenders have claimed. It is racist, violent, hypocritically pious, xenophobic, false in its elevation of women, nationalistic, conservative, and it harbors extreme poverty in the midst of ostentatious wealth. The only point I have to add is that the United States as a civilization embodies all of those same qualities. That the South possesses them with more intensity simply makes it easier for the nation to pass off its characteristics to the South, leaving itself innocent and righteous."
And that is the thesis here. Zinn nailed it, according to Dowd. We've all become "The South" now. Dowd says, "our nation as a whole is well on its way to having a functional resemblance to that South" - or worse. "That South" that Cash, from sweet Carolina, described? That's the idea.

Dowd of course provides a discussion of "The Southern Mystique." He does a number on slavery and says it was never in "another country" - the Confederacy. Of course Article II, Section 9 of the constitution permitted slavery to continue for years, until the 14th Amendment was passed in 1866, and four of our first five presidents were slave owners. And this: "southern slavery could not have flourished without the spirited slave traders of the North; nor could the North's economy have gained its economic strength as quickly or substantially as it did without slavery." He cites Veblen on that (Veblen, Thorstein. 1923, Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times. New York: Huebsch). Everyone was playing in that game.

But ending slavery fixed all that, right? Not exactly -
Though blacks were formally free after 1877 their lives may be seen as having become more miserable: black slaves had one protection freed blacks did not have: they were property and, as such, treated with at least some care. Also needing explanation is the descent into misery of most whites.

The basis for the explanation lies in an 1877 congressional act put together "at night and by cloud." (Veblen) Then as now, Congress was very much bought and paid for; its "buyers" were conservative northern Republicans and their counterpart southern Democrats; the sellers were congressmen of both parties. The deal came to be called "the Compromise of 1877." How did it happen?
What was that deal? See this - Hayes got become president, not Tilden, and that brought an end to the period of Reconstruction following the war. In effect, an end to military occupation and any enforcement of the Reconstruction policies allowing blacks the rights of citizens. Dowd: "In practice that meant a free hand to mistreat, oppress and murder blacks as, meanwhile, both northern and southern business prospered at the expense of 'poor whites.'"

Dowd:
And its consequences? The symbol of what ensued in the South became the hooded Klansman at a riotous lynching party; for the North, its easy access to the South's cheap natural and human resources served both to strengthen and greatly to speed up overall industrialization. Over the next several decades, the South's economy became "modernized," with what were almost entirely northern-owned - with "whites only" workers - textile factories, mines, railroads, steel mills and banks. However, in that "modernization" the overwhelming majority of both its white and its black population sank into deep poverty. ...
Workers lose, owners win. That sort of thing. And it took years for things to change - by WWII southern white workers finally began to make reasonable wages, and full citizenship for "the others" had to wait until the Civil Rights stuff in the sixties. These "others" got to vote, and ride in any seat on the bus they wanted, and eat where they wanted, and all the rest.

Is this good history? Dowd concedes his view is unusual:
The foregoing history could reasonably be seen as absurdly inaccurate by most, including - perhaps especially - students of U.S. history. My own graduate work was divided between economics and history at a leading university, and I knew nothing of this until after my student years. That my experience was not unique may be at verified by an examination of almost any accepted U.S. history text. Representative of that deficiency is what may be found in a widely-used "dictionary" of American history. Although there is an entry for "The New South" there is no mention of "the compromise" that created that South or of its foul underside; what is discussed are its economic "triumphs."
Okay, he may make too much of "the Compromise of 1877" - but he moves on to where we are today.

That's this:
Setting aside the 2000 election, there has been no simple "compromise" greasing the skids for today's reincarnation of the New South. Instead, the ominous directions in which the U.S. now moves are a product of a grotesque meeting of minds - those of big and small business and the otherwise wealthy plus militarists and pro-gun individuals and groups, fundamentalist Christians, anti-abortionists. anti-gays and a modern variation of the "Know-Nothings." Taken together, both the powerful few and the passionate many provide extraordinary amounts of political purchasing power and political strength - both absolutely and relative to those of us who oppose current trends.

Those millions who feverishly egg on or acquiesce in this rightward shift are all too reminiscent of the majority "poor whites" of the New South who unwittingly brought economic, political, and social damage upon themselves.
So we're there again. And he lists eight "destructive interactions" that define what this new but familiar "there" is, among which are "an increasing concentration of already excessive economic and political power and pervasive corruption, guided by a White House whose arrogance, heedlessness, ignorance and seeming indifference to realities at home and abroad go well beyond anything earlier" (check), and "a notable arousal of U.S. militarism, accompanied and supported by intensifying racism and fundamentalist religion" (check), and "the weakening of already inadequate educational, health care, and housing policies" (check). The whole list is quite detailed and heavily footnoted, and quite depressing.

So where are we as a nation? It looks like post-Reconstruction Alabama, circa 1877, everywhere.

I'm not sure this is what was meant with the vow 'The South Will Rise Again." It has, and it's not pretty.

Let's see, it's 1972 on we're at the little house out towards Hillsboro, sitting around watching Channel Five from Raleigh, and Jesse Helms is ranting about the welfare moms and other assorted black riff-raff not taking "personal responsibility." Any evening here in Hollywood, in 2005, I can watch Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity do pretty much the same on Fox News. And that's national.

Maybe the South won the Civil War after all. Or if it was "The War of Northern Aggression" they staged a guerrilla war against the occupiers and, like the Vietnamese and soon the Iraqis, got just what they wanted.

Posted by Alan at 12:48 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 15 September 2005 12:58 PDT home

Wednesday, 14 September 2005

Topic: Oddities

Trends: Making a list and checking it twice…

As noted in the August 7 issue of Just Above Sunset - Jára Cimrman Finally Gets His Due? - in these pages we have covered the BBC and French polls and found the greatest Brit of all time was Winston Churchill, followed closely by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, then by Diana, Princess of Wales. The greatest Frenchman? Charles De Gaulle was first, of course, followed by Louis Pasteur, then Abbé Pierre, then Marie Curie. Canada chose Tommy Douglas, the former Saskatchewan premier, the man credited with being the founding father of Canada's health-care system, as the greatest Canadian of all time. In this summer's AOL poll, done along with a series of shows on the Discovery Channel, we voted Ronald Reagan the greatest American of all time. The idea failed in South Africa, where apartheid-era leaders cracked the top one hundred of the polling and the show was cancelled. In the Netherlands the contest got everyone grumbling about the citizenship of Anne Frank, who spoke and wrote in Dutch, but who officially was German. That got everyone all messed up. The August subject was the Czech poll, and how those folks just don't take anything seriously. Jára Cimrman wasn't even a real person.

But the Brits really started something. People are noticing the Brits are an odd lot.

That came up this week here:

Entr'acte: Best this, worst that - Britain loves its surveys
Alan Riding - International Herald Tribune - Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Riding asks the key questions. "Can culture be taught by numbers? Is it enough to know the namedroppable Top Ten of universal culture? And to this end, is it useful to rank a nation's most popular movies, paintings, books? Or does it merely underline the gap between popular and high culture?"

He likes the last answer, although he floats some thoughts about Britain being a nation of gamblers, and just enjoying "the chase, the countdown, the winner." Or they love defining things. Or they're hung up on their identity or some such thing.

It's a good read. Recommended.

What you'll learn?

Britain's favorite hymn is William Blake's "Jerusalem," with its evocation of "England's green and pleasant land." Some us realize Tony Richardson was playing on that in his 1962 film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner - Tom Courteney and the other inmates of the reform school assembling gas masks in the school factory as that played in the background.

BBC Radio 4's "Today" program with the National Gallery worked out the "greatest painting" in Britain. Turner's "Fighting Temeraire." See it here. The runner-up was Constable's "Hay Wain." See that one here - and I do recall a copy on the wall in the farmhouse up in Hilton, New York. Not British but in British museums were numbers three and four: Manet's "Bar at the Folies-Bergère" and Jan van Eyck's "Arnolfini Portrait" (here and here). All safe choices.

Riding does mention that The Guardian offered an alternative: It invited ten experts to name the painting they most loathed.
William Blake, George Stubbs, John Everett Millais and Stanley Spencer were among targeted artists. Timothy Clifford, director general of the National Galleries of Scotland, named Adolphe-Joseph Monticelli's "Garden Fête," adding that he refuses to hang nine donated examples of Monticelli's "screamingly awful art."
See them all here at The Guardian site, and click on number four for Adolphe-Joseph Monticelli's "Garden Fête." It's rather awful.

Other matters? Britain's favorite novel - J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," with Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" second – with twenty-three percent of the vote for the first, and eighteen percent for the second. Random House's Vintage imprint invited forty-eight reader groups around Britain to name 20th-century "classics." Their choice was contemporary - Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan way ahead of Thomas Mann and Graham Greene. Riding notes Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" and Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" were the only prewar classics chosen. Britain's favorite crime writer? Agatha Christie, followed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Britain's favorite gay novel will be announced at the Queer Up North festival in May, in Scotland. Kilts?

What else?
A decade ago, Rudyard Kipling's inspirational poem "If" was named Britain's favorite poem in a BBC poll - and it would probably win again. But the BBC was not finished. In 2003, it set out to find a contemporary "Poem for Britain." From some 5,000 entries, the winner was "Harvest Time: A Needlework Map Commemorating the Millennium," an appropriately nostalgic poem about village life by Con Connell, a computer expert.

There have also been competitions for the best text-message poem as well as the nation's favorite sea poem, children's poem, nursery rhyme and tea-towel poem. Few titles, though, were more tightly contested than that of Britain's favorite love poem, with Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet "How do I love thee?" beating out poems by the likes of Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Robert Burns and even Shakespeare's sonnet "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"
Oh yes - Britain's favorite movies, by box office ("Gone With the Wind") and by poll ("Brief Encounter") - the ten most downloaded creators of music, classical (Beethoven) and pop (Paul McCartney). And so on and so forth.

Durham Cathedral in northeast England was voted Britain's favorite building. (The official website is here.) And it seems Britain's Channel 4 will soon broadcast "Demolition," a four-part series in which viewers are invited to nominate their most hated building for demolition. Royal Albert Hall would get my vote. The curious thing is the Royal Institute of British Architects is involved with this - the "most hated" building will actually be demolished live on television next spring. Stay tuned.

It occurs to you that the folks in Baghdad didn't get a "demolition" vote, did they? Oh well.

Will this trend spread? "The Greatest [insert nationality here] of All Time" went around the world. People have far too much time on their hands.

Out here in California we vote on endless referendums for this or that - the governor and legislature are useless, give up and ask the voters to decide things - so democracy may actually be spreading around the world, in a very odd way. But not on important matters.

Posted by Alan at 20:16 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
home


Topic: World View

Our Man in Paris: Hard Day Night

Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, offers us this. Wednesday night in Paris - a jazz club in Montparnasse - and a Beatles revival band - and being there -

Hard Day Night

PARIS - Wednesday, September 14, 2005: Yoko Ono urged me to go to the 'Beatles Story' in Montparnasse last spring but it was cold out so I didn't go and, when she asked why not, I said I had to have breakfast with an aunt visiting from Arizona. It's my all-purpose excuse and it doesn't fit some circumstances.

Last week Yoko gave me a DVD of the 'Beatles Story' while telling me they would be at the Petit Journal Montparnasse Wednesday, which is tonight. And the TV-weather news said it s going to be 26 degrees tomorrow, so it must be warm tonight, and to hell with the aunt. Besides, I don't have a DVD player.

The Petit Journal Montparnasse is beside the train station, down the Avenue du Maine, a little more than a five-minute walk away. It isn't a place that looks like anything more than a café on the street beneath a modern building. I went in there and when I doorguy showed up to take the money I said I had been invited by Yoko Ono. He said, d'accord, turn right and up the stairs.

Yoko waved. I went to the booth, blew on her cheeks, and took a seat. It was in a big, low room, in a booth a bit above the main floor. The lower area, the major part, was filled with booths surrounding tables and they were all full. Waitresses pranced around delivering drinks and food, while folks looked at the blue lights on their phones. A few looked like firemen in town for a convention but most looked like the neighbors, if they happened live in the 6th or more likely, the 15th arrondissement.

The booth behind had party-looking girls. They were joined by guys with ponytails. Jacques was sitting with them and then joined me and Yoko. He said he'd written six books about the Beatles, and he's writing the seventh. He said he used to be an agent, but gave it up when TV began using amateurs. We were joined by a guy who used to be the producer of the 'Beatles Story.'
They go off, telling us to save their seats. Yoko orders an orange juice for me and when it comes it's got a bent straw and melting ice cubes. The replica Beatles come on stage and without much ado launch into a couple of hours of replica Beatles' songbook.

Takes me back. To 'Hard Day's Night' playing in the tiny cinema on Occamstra?e in Schwabing in 1964. The word on the street was that the Beatles were finished but I thought the film was fine. Sissy's, across the street, had their stuff on the jukebox, along with the Stones' 'Brown Sugar.' Opened at five and closed at eight; all you could drink in three hours. Beer in bottles and schnapps by the shot. Beyond Sissy's, about 50 other handy joints, from the big gastatten on Leopoldstraße to cellar dives like the Schabinger 7 or jazz in the Domicil. It was before the Drugstore was on the little Wedekindplatz, before it was ruined.

'Beatles Story' is run by Renaud Siry. He's the drummer so I guess he is Ringo. Hell, I know he is Ringo because he's a Café Metropole Club member. He must be Ringo because he's got a château up north. There's Paul, George and John on guitars, and another joker with keyboards. The first set sounds a bit listless. It's the first time I've heard the Beatles live - who knows what they're supposed to sound like? I don't think they're going to do 'Brown Sugar.' Orange juice doesn't remind me of Sissy's anyway.

They take a short pause and some of the audience light cigarettes, but not that many. Yoko goes off to put on her wig, and Jacques hasn't come back, so I sit and twiddle my thoughts.

They must have got pepped up in the back room because they come back plugged in and forceful. They just - they play the songs - they don't add frills or inventions. They are loud. The sound system seems built to handle it. They play what everybody knows, a good deal of it older than many in the room. A calculation tells me, 42 years ago, they were has-beens. The good-time girls in the booth behind sing along, but the mass clapping never takes hold.

Yoko appears onstage and says her seven lines. I saw them, written in pencil, but it was too dark to read. Folks clap for Yoko. Renaud and his crew do all the Beatles' songs everybody knows. Everybody is happy. Without overdoing it they close down and then come back and do their finale, and get a good hand.

It's not like an audience on a cruise ship. This is Montparnasse, in an up place that mostly features alive jazz names, like Manu Dibango, on a street that looks like a business park in Hartford. This Beatles stuff is just for fun. The guys work hard at it and give it a good hit. Putting in Yoko is showing that they care to add something extra. I'm glad Yoko is in it. She puts on a wig but doesn't sing. It's not that Beatles Story.

Links:

Renaud Siry

Petit Journal Montparnasse

Photos: What you expect with 1.4 Megapix, no light, across a smoky room?





































Ringo:

























Yoko:













Photos and Text Copyright © 2005 - Ric Erickson, MetropoleParis

Editor's Note: This will appear in the Sunday, September 18 issue of Just Above Sunset - in a slightly different format with the photographs in higher resolution.

Posted by Alan at 18:55 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 16 September 2005 10:28 PDT home

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