All posts by Sean Curnyn

The Supreme Court, My Father and Roe v. Wade

The leak of Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey has made me think of my father (quite unexpectedly, I might add). This is not because my father served on the U.S. Supreme Court—he didn’t—and neither is it because I ever knew him to leak confidential documents to the press, in order to interfere with a judicial process or for any other reason. It’s rather because of something he said to me during the last year of his life.

For context, I should confess that my father and I were at odds for pretty much the entirety of our overlapping time on Earth. It involved family issues, in the main, and there’s nothing to be gained by going over it. We always maintained a relationship, and I never stopped visiting him and my mother, but it’s hard for me to remember a single day of my life I wasn’t mad at him; that is, until about the final year of his life. He died aged 91 (about six years ago).

I saw him several times during that final year or so (which required flying from the U.S. to Ireland where he and my mother were living together, at that point in a nursing home). I saw that something had changed in him, at that late date, and my inner anger at him melted away. It wasn’t by reasoning or choice: it just happened. For that, I’m deeply and humbly grateful to God. Changes of heart come from God, I happen to believe; I also think they are the most powerful of miracles.

Anyhow, during one of those visits, my father brought up, on his own, the subject of the U.S. Constitution. I don’t recall him ever talking about it before, but, strangely enough, it was on his mind in those final months. He was remembering his swearing of an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, which he would have done when he joined the National Guard, and again when he received U.S. citizenship, and likely again when he served as a peace officer with the Bridge and Tunnel Authority in New York City. He was recalling this oath, and saying, with a great deal of emotion, “I never would have done it! If they’d told me that abortion was a right in the Constitution, I never would have done it!” He was crying, truth be told.

I attempted to argue that there really wasn’t a right to abortion enumerated in the Constitution: that Roe v. Wade was a poorly reasoned opinion and that there were many who still hoped to see it overturned one day. But he seemed to ignore my words. He was somewhere deep in his own mind, and, besides, he was correct as to the practical reality of the thing. What did it matter what I or anyone else thought about the legal soundness of Roe v. Wade? It had been the unopposable law of the land for over 40 years, helping to facilitate the termination of over one million babies during each of those years. That’s some pretty solid soundness, in the real world.

I guess it’s a good thing I wasn’t angry at him anymore, because if I’d wanted to twist the knife, I might have asked him why he voted for all those Democrat politicians all his life, many of whom had supported the abortion regime. My father was, in his way, a very conservative Irish Catholic, attending mass diligently and certainly expressing his belief in what the Church taught. Going through his papers after his death it was obvious he had contributed to pro-life organizations (and also to charities that helped the poor in Africa). Yet, when he voted, to my knowledge, it was always according to his perception of who would be better for his pocketbook. And he never stopped worrying that the Republicans would cut Social Security. Also, in fairness, in my father’s time in the U.S., things weren’t quite as clear-cut as today. There were still some pro-life Democrats back then. Abortion was definitely an issue, but not quite the Supreme Holy Sacrament of liberalism that it has now (so very weirdly) become.

As Samuel Alito observed in his opinion, neither Roe nor Casey settled anything, in the way that big Supreme Court decisions are traditionally supposed to do. The Supreme Court’s short-circuiting of the democratic process on this issue has twisted the politics of America. The people who were allegedly in the more compassionate wing had to prove their compassion by supporting the easier killing of the most innocent and the most helpless. Politicians have compromised their (ostensibly) most sacred beliefs, and adopted incredible, pretzel-like morality, in order to be seen as being on the correct side of this issue (a case in point being the current occupant of the Oval Office). The U.S. electorate has only become more deeply divided and mistrustful, year by year. And that civic poison is just one of the ways in which the nation has already seen judgment. The absence on the streets of this nation of those tens of millions of human beings who were killed before they could take their first breaths: that is a judgment and indeed a punishment which America will be reckoning with until America is no more.

***

I’m thinking today that my father’s surprising, late anguish at having sworn allegiance to the U.S. Constitution speaks well of him—that he was sensitive and cognizant enough to have that on his mind. Serious things ought to be taken seriously. When the Supreme Court conjured a fundamental right to abort babies out of America’s founding documents, and it was allowed to stand and to override all objections and create the horrifically exploitative abortion industry, on a certain level everyone in America was implicated. It has been a true national sin, albeit that some good people have dedicated themselves since that very day to turn that decision back.

It would have been nice to be able to read Samuel Alito’s opinion to my father, and have him understand that he didn’t swear allegiance to anything evil when he swore to uphold the U.S. Constitution. It’s just that the “upholding” part is heavy work.

We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled. The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision, including the one on which defenders of Roe and Casey now chiefly rely—the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. That provision has been held to guarantee some rights that are not mentioned in the Constitution, but any such right must be “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.”

At least my father didn’t live to see his beloved Ireland embrace abortion in 2018; it’s the only country, as far as I know, that legalized abortion in a popular referendum, accompanied by celebrations when it was carried with 66% of the vote. In a meaningful way, since then, Ireland is just not Ireland to me anymore. Now, I hold no truck with the glory days of old Roman Catholic Ireland. I think that the Church had far too much political and temporal power, and there were people who abused that power, as people will do. There’s been an enormous backlash against the Irish Catholic Church over the past couple of decades, with examinations of history and airing of horror stories. But a fair response to such abuse need not involve celebrating the abortion of helpless babies. To celebrate such a thing is equally anti-human as it is anti-God.

And that’s a very bad combination.

It’s a combination that also exists in the U.S. today, where the “safe, legal and rare” formulation that helped Bill Clinton get elected in 1992 has been thoroughly overwritten by a pro-abortion movement that flaunts its pride at eliminating human lives. The uncompromising insistence these days is for the right of abortion up to the final moments before natural birth, to enable “doctors” to be paid to dismember and kill full-term infants in the birth canal, as is the case in the much-celebrated New York State law of 2019, which will stand, along with the abortion regimes in every other state, even if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

All of this is happening while we have shifted gears firmly towards an unsustainably aging and shrinking population. If you step back and look at it coolly, for even a moment, I think you would have to say that all of this is positively freaky.

***

In any case, my Dad, being the Catholic that he was, would expect to be in purgatory about now. You can spend a long time there, as I recall from my childhood. Certain novenas would specify how—if you repeated them often enough—you would gain indulgences that could shorten your time suffering in purgatory by substantial numbers of years. My young self marveled in horror at how long I must expect to spend in purgatory. It seemed it had to be centuries at least. (Now, having become the Lutheran I always was, I hopefully wield an express ticket to the better place.)

However, if the U.S. Supreme Court does actually accomplish the overturning of Roe v. Wade, I wonder if St. Peter will have to do a little housekeeping. Maybe he’ll take a trip to purgatory and call out, “Paddy Curnyn! Will Paddy Curnyn come forward?” (Is he still the old man with the flat cap or has he reverted to the younger man with the flat cap—his appearance hardly changed through the years.)

“Paddy,” says St. Peter,  “that thing you confessed at the gate to me, about swearing to uphold the U.S. Constitution and its right to abortion—well there’s been some mistake down there, and it seems they’ve fixed it, and we can’t hold you for that one any longer. And what with your good behavior in purgatory, and since we’re pressed for space, we’ll just put you on the bus to the New Jerusalem today.”

St. Peter pauses then, and gives my father a stern look. “Your wife is there already,” he says. “It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that she went straight in.”

“I’m God – I Can Do It” (and All the Trouble in the World)


In New York City a few days ago, a deranged and homeless 61-year-old man pushed a 40-year-old woman directly into the path of an arriving subway train, causing her immediate death. It’s far from an unprecedented crime, and the New York news has been filled with disturbing events for some time now, but this was one of those incidents that rises above the stream and engages people’s sense of horror for a little more than the typical 10 minutes. The woman was by all accounts an exceptionally lovely and decent person, and one who actually did voluntary work on behalf of the homeless. The man pushed her in front of the train without warning and for no reason at all. Later he publicly confessed the crime, shouting to reporters, “Yes I did. I’m God, I can do it.”

It’s a haunting statement, even from a lunatic, because we can actually understand his logic. “I’m God”—I possess the power of life and of death. That woman was alive, with friends, family, energies, affections, things to do, a future; he just gave her a quick push and now she no longer exists in the material realm. He delivered death, to be sure. Unlike God, however, he does not have the power to give life. That’s where his logic breaks down. He can neither create life where none is manifested nor resurrect what once was living. Dishing out random death is a cheap and evil imitation of God. But it does get people’s attention. This man should have been receiving compassion and help—in the form of mandatory treatment as needed—as should countless other broken human beings wandering the streets of New York City and similar places. Allowing them the right to horribly degrade and destroy themselves in full public view is not compassionate, as if that should even need to be said; and yet this society is so off the rails that it does need to be said.

Nevertheless, that statement of his—“I’m God, I can do it”—has been lingering in my mind, and it has seemed to me that he is far from alone in that aspect of his derangement. There are a lot of mad things going on in the world. And two particular afflictions which have descended upon us in very recent years can both be seen to be springing from extremely arrogant and ham-handed attempts to take the place of God.

***

The first, I would suggest, is the COVID-19 virus, and its associated global dislocations. When it first emerged in Wuhan, the desperate attempts at cover-up undertaken by the Chinese regime were strong evidence that it had escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where it was well known that they were experimenting with coronaviruses. At this point—over two years later—the continued refusal of the Chinese regime to release all of their data, along with the total global failure to identify a natural origin, make it a lead-pipe cinch that it did indeed come from that laboratory. If the Chinese regime could provide strong evidence to the contrary, they would assuredly have done so by now. The conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies (who have unlimited resources!) some months ago that they couldn’t come to a conclusion on the origin of Covid-19—because the Chinese weren’t being open enough!—is laughable to the point of obscenity, and is alone reason to burn those organizations to the ground and build something superior in their place.

Yet for everything that has happened due to COVID—five and half million deaths and counting, the disruption of every aspect of human activity—there remains a stunning lack of interest in identifying the true cause of the disaster and taking action to prevent a repeat of something similar or even worse. We fight amongst ourselves about masks and lockdowns and vaccine mandates, and meanwhile as far as we know there are continuing experiments being done in China (and other places) on dangerous viruses, to enhance their transmissibility and lethality. It is as if we just accept that this is OK. Or, at least, it’s probably OK; it just doesn’t rise to the level of real concern. Time is much better spent yelling at each other about masks. Well, maybe it is OK: maybe that experiment that went wrong has been worth all of the deaths, the suffering, the damage to societies all over the world. After all, the smart people seem to think so. In 2012, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States anticipated such a turn of events and said it would be worth it. Addressing the risks of gain-of-function viral research, he said:

In an unlikely but conceivable turn of events, what if that scientist becomes infected with the virus, which leads to an outbreak and ultimately triggers a pandemic? Many ask reasonable questions: given the possibility of such a scenario – however remote – should the initial experiments have been performed and/or published in the first place, and what were the processes involved in this decision?

Scientists working in this field might say – as indeed I have said – that the benefits of such experiments and the resulting knowledge outweigh the risks. It is more likely that a pandemic would occur in nature, and the need to stay ahead of such a threat is a primary reason for performing an experiment that might appear to be risky.

However, there’s no evidence that this pandemic came from nature, despite the continued attempts to obfuscate by the Chinese regime and others who have an incalculable stake in evading blame. So it seems the wrong bet was placed. The consequences of this kind of experimentation going awry have now been felt, and are continuing to be felt and to multiply. Should we not be asking, and very, very loudly: Was it worth it? And what can we do to prevent it happening again?

Yet other than a precious few, those in a position of responsibility in our societies don’t seem to be asking these crucial questions at all, and the rest of us in the seething masses seem satisfied enough to continue being consumed with our distractions. The man who made that statement in 2012 about how it would all be worth it is currently the Chief Medical Advisor to the President of the United States, and someone we all know very well from listening to his advice these past two years about how to protect ourselves from this escaped gain-of-function experiment.

To summarize: the rationale for doing work that some would simply call evil on its face—fiddling in a lab with viruses to deliberately make them more contagious and more deadly—was that it was scientifically necessary in order to “stay ahead” of a similar virus appearing in nature. But how “ahead” were we, for all this experimentation, when COVID-19 did emerge? Two years into it, the best U.S. and global medical scientists are still utterly failing to come up with a way to end the pandemic and its associated miseries. And since it’s all but certain it didn’t come from nature, we can add that scientists have also failed to come with a way of stopping the very menace that scientists themselves created in a laboratory.

Simply put, this is unacceptable. These gain of function experiments which have cost the world so much constitute a clear example of recklessly and stupidly playing at being God. They create new and lethal pathogens which no one can prove that nature would ever generate on its own. Yet, instead of outrage, it is as if a fog has descended on everyone’s mind. We argue and brawl on the sidelines while the architects of the disaster supply us with brickbats to use against one another. Why are people so far unwilling to rise up and demand a certain end to this horrific research, in China and anywhere else it may occur, and for accountability from those who created and (we can only assume) accidentally released COVID-19?

One reason, I’d suggest, is that science itself is today held up as something to revere, and never to question. Yet science is merely a method of acquiring knowledge through experimentation, and through trial and error. It is a tool: an effective one, but one which has no consciousness of its own. Science as such possesses no inherent rightness or morality or concern. It is up to us to impose and expect those things of those who use the tool, i.e., those who practice science. As with any tool, it can be used for good or for evil. You can worship science if you like—and it seems many do—but you would be just as well off in worshiping a rock. Just like the rock, science as such has no knowledge of you, and has no salvific quality in and of itself. The rock can fall and crush you and it will never know or care. It is exactly the same with science. And scientists who believe themselves to be qualified to operate on a God-like level are deeply wrong and they are among the most dangerous people on Earth today.

This fallen world possesses countless diseases already. Science should not be put to work in devising new, Frankenstein viruses that no one can understand or control. It is appallingly arrogant and plainly evil to do so. How about devoting those brains and resources instead to creating broad spectrum medicines, therapeutics and treatments aimed at making people well? That, God knows, is the proper business of scientists.

***

The second example of an affliction of very recent years that I’d suggest has sprung from a false sense of being God is the amazingly successful movement to abolish the concept of biological sex. The idea that maleness and femaleness are simply social constructs has been around for a long time, of-course, brought up intermittently by lovable kooks. But the lovable kooks have turned into therapists, doctors, teachers, administrators, bureaucrats, lawmakers, judges, and much more. This doesn’t make the abolition of biological sex any more sensible or based upon fact. A denial of reality on that scale, for an individual or a society, can only end in catastrophe. We are already seeing the blowback in terms of an increasing number of those who “transitioned” since the hysteria began on this subject seeking “de-transitioning,” but the abuse inflicted upon their bodies and minds by ready and willing medical professionals will never be completely undone.

There used to be a line you’d hear—I’m sure it’s out of fashion now—that goes something like: “God doesn’t make mistakes.” There are variations. “God don’t make no junk.” But lucky us: we’ve moved on from all that kind of thinking now. Another mantra used to be, “Love yourself.” Also there was the idea of demanding others to “accept me as I am.” All of these concepts can be abused, but they all are getting at a fundamental truth. You are neither born useless nor broken. Everyone is precious and has a purpose and worth in the eyes of his or her Creator, and should likewise be valued by others. When it comes to sex, there have always been girls or women who favored more “masculine” styles or pursuits, just as there have always been boys or men who have inclined towards the “effeminate.” This is not even to talk of sexual behavior, which is, after all, another subject; this is simply about personality and identity. There’s nothing wrong with being a butchy female or a flamboyant guy, or anything along the spectrum. There never has been anything wrong with it. People get made fun of, naturally, especially as schoolchildren, but it’s the people making fun who are in the wrong.

Or at least that’s how decent people used to think. We’ve forgotten all that now. Now, being a somewhat masculine female or a slightly feminine male is something that is all wrong; in fact it’s something that needs to be fixed. You need surgery, hormones: you need to shape up! Chop off the breasts, slice up the genitals, get the silicone, swallow the chemicals: get right, get happy! Now kids are being raised to look in the mirror—even as toddlers!—and question if they’re in the right body or not. (And I thought childhood in the 1970s was hard.) This is all so utterly crazy and cruel that no amount of browbeating and politically correct intimidation should ever force anyone to accept that it is in any way right.

Life is very properly a journey in finding out both who you are and who you want to be, but this is in a holistic and especially a spiritual sense. Allowing your body to be mutilated by unscrupulous quacks in the name of “fixing” some mistake allegedly made by your Creator is not a path to happiness, but rather an exercise in self-hatred. People, and children most of all, should not be encouraged to hate themselves. They need to be encouraged to hold themselves in high regard, despite the inevitable confusions that are part of growing up. And they need—what’s that word?—oh yeah, love.

The other notion in vogue—that people can simply call themselves by any gender or invented gender they like regardless of their biological reality—is obviously even more absurd, although at least bodies aren’t wrecked by it if it goes no further. But compelling others to use patently false pronouns and other deceitful language is an assault on truth that seriously impoverishes and demeans us all.

At the root of these problems, again, is a failure to acknowledge the role of God, and to instead take it upon oneself, or to be taught that one needs to take it upon oneself. But we didn’t create ourselves, and taking knives and chemicals to supposedly make our bodies match our identities is like trying to use a hammer to bang a snowflake into a better shape. It is destruction and not creation. Those who are at the present time successfully selling this hideous lie to helpless children ought to rethink it, or failing that, find themselves some millstones and a sea to swallow them up.

***

In all of the above, and much more besides, things seem so wrong these days. But in the long-term, the terrible conceit inherent in presuming oneself to be God and acting accordingly always brings its punishment upon itself, and a correction occurs. As someone once sang, “There’s a law, there’s an arm, there’s a hand.”

Of-course what one longs for is an ultimate correction, so we can’t make the same mistakes over and over again.

That, I guess, is still somewhere beyond the horizon.

***

Death On Demand (Now with Home Delivery)


“The person will get into the capsule and lie down. It’s very comfortable.” So says Philip Nitschke, he of the organization Exit International, which has developed a device called the Sarco. It is a lovely, blue, pod-shaped machine. You get in, get comfortable, answer a few questions on a computer screen, and then press a button which causes the interior of the device to be flooded with nitrogen gas. Within 30 seconds you’re expected to be even more comfortable—if unconsciousness equates to comfort—and in 5-10 minutes you can look forward to being dead as a doornail. Luxurious indeed!

It has reportedly passed legal review in Switzerland and could go into operation in 2022. You’ll be able to have it delivered to your home, or some idyllic pastoral setting, or even—the better to reduce transportation costs—right beside your pre-dug grave. After all, it seems sensible to make the whole thing as easy as possible. Back to Philip:

Currently [in Switzerland] a doctor or doctors need to be involved to prescribe the sodium pentobarbital and to confirm the person’s mental capacity. We want to remove any kind of psychiatric review from the process and allow the individual to control the method themselves.

It’s a wonderful world, and getting more so every day, it seems. Just for fun, I wonder if someone might start up a competing service. In this case, someone would come to your house, but without having to carry the blue Sarco suicide pod with them. They wouldn’t have to bring anything. They come in, sit beside you, and talk to you. And they listen to you, to anything you want to say, about your suffering and your hopelessness. When they do speak, it is to remind you of the immeasurable value of seeing the sun rise on another day, of breathing in the air, and of your own incalculable worth as a human being. They get to know you, and to know the things that encourage you and move you. They return regularly, and help you squeeze every drop of value from the remaining days of your precious life. In so doing, they also reap a rich reward and are themselves immeasurably improved.

But, let’s face it, that’s all quite a bit of effort. Better the blue pod: no muss, no fuss—just the nitrogen, please!

The practice of euthanasia has for some time been spreading in the Western world. This is at the same time as birth rates (and not only in the Western world) have been shrinking well below replacement level, making the extinction of particular nations and cultures something that is coming down the track with the steadiness of a freight train. As this syndrome seems to affect societies more intensely as they become more affluent, it may well turn out to be the final solution for the whole human race. Imagine!

Activists devoutly fight for the right to die, and the right of others to kill themselves without compassionate interference. And at the other end of things, activists passionately fight for the right to eliminate babies in the womb before they can take a breath for themselves or see the sun rise even once, and all this even as the population is headed for catastrophic aging and decline.

What is the source of this kind of unnatural hopelessness that is afflicting entire societies? Is it only short-term comfort and convenience that matter? Is there no higher purpose? If so, then what’s really the point? Why not just put in an order for the lovely blue pod right now? Skip whatever suffering remains; avoid those repetitive trials and obstacles. All in all, it’s most likely better not to have been born (as in the recent court decision in the UK).

“[G]et into the capsule and lie down. It’s very comfortable.” So goes a civilization. No dramatic climate catastrophes or nuclear conflagrations required. What a relief!

Yet, I just wonder if that last person, right after pushing the button for the nitrogen, will for a fleeting moment recall a flash of—oh, say something along the lines of Deuteronomy 30:19, and experience one nanosecond of terrible regret.

For all the wokeness going around, we truly need to wake up, and with unseemly haste.

Just a Notion: ABBA, Gratitude, Faith and Forgiveness

“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.”
– C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer

The Swedish pop music quartet known as ABBA—Agnetha, Benny, Björn, Ana-Frid—must be known by just about everyone in the world, and everybody likely has an instant take on them; mainly it’s either “I love them” or “I can’t stand them.” During their career together from 1972 to 1982, they became popular in Britain and Europe well before the USA, and have been in general a lot more popular in Europe. Yours Truly first encountered them as a young transplant from America to Ireland in the mid 1970s, and at 8 or 9 years of age became enraptured by Agnetha on the record sleeve but also by the insanely catchy tunes and alluring recordings.

Of-course—excepting the prodigious among us—no one has discerning taste in music at 8 or 9. Still, I maintain in the face of argument that I have ultimately developed decent musical taste, and have journeyed through various phases of taste and discernment to the present day, discarding some affections while acquiring others. Yet, I never discarded ABBA. Their lack of coolness in many circles never bugged me; I’ve liked (and disliked) the cool and the uncool, and watched many artists journey through stages of coolness and uncoolness, but all that had no influence on how I enjoyed the music. (Truth be told, I’ve enjoyed being perverse that way.) And as time went on I came to realize that in the end what I like is just pop music. Even when listening to debatably-different genres like jazz, folk, punk, country: it’s all just pop music to me, and I’m always on the lookout for that special transition to the sublime that happens when a great pop song, in the right hands, produces chills, tears or unfathomable joy.

For the epitome of a great pop record, I could do no better than to point to the example John Lennon liked to reference: “Be My Baby,” the Phil Spector tune and production, performed by the Ronettes.

While great popular music can obviously get considerably more sophisticated and mature than “Be My Baby,” that track possesses all the essential elements—irresistible tune, great sound and performance, a persuasive pathos and terrific pithiness—and it hits you good and hard with all of that stuff, which makes it such an attractive archetype.

Over their career, ABBA hit the heights, occasionally the depths, and everywhere in-between, but all in all delivered an amazing number of superb tunes that have more than proven their worth by virtue of their longevity in the popular consciousness. I’ve always had a soft spot for their simplest pure pop confections, like “Ring Ring,” “Hasta Manana,” and “Honey, Honey.” Sure, there’s a treacly quality to those early sides, but a little bit of sugar never added to the bitterness in this world.

And a little later in their career, is there a better pop record about a struggling-to-survive marriage than “One Man, One Woman”? Or a more poignant take on watching a child grow up (and grow away) than “Slipping Through My Fingers”?

I’m deliberately avoiding mentioning the biggest hits of all, because everyone knows them so well anyway. Again, the longevity of these songs is amazing, and—by their own account—shocking to the members of ABBA themselves. Something’s going on when so many thousands of contemporaneous hits are all but forgotten, while these continue to be played and discovered anew by millions of listeners. The use of the songs in movies and musicals has been part of that, of-course, but the fact of their usage in those new forms itself attests to their durability. (Personally, I never dug any of that stuff: I continue to just like the original records, though there are one or two cover versions I’ve enjoyed.)

I’d suggest that for a pop artist or group to generate the continuing public affection that ABBA demonstrably have done, there needs to be some inspirational quality in what they do. There needs to be an evocation of something higher, whatever one calls it; there needs to be a stretch towards the sublime. Cynical music (which unfortunately there’s plenty of) doesn’t last, certainly not in the popular consciousness.

In the case of ABBA, I think this inspirational element is their implicit joy in and gratitude for music itself. It’s audible in the records, and it is contagious, and it infects and uplifts the willing listener. It comes across both in the craft of the songwriting and the obvious care and pleasure the artists take in their performances and recordings.

And, conveniently enough, they actually have a song that expresses it directly. That would be “Thank You for the Music.”

Gratitude itself is kind of a holy thing. (From way back.) And expressing gratitude for music is inescapably a “thank you” to the Creator of music. Now, the song has those cute lines wondering who originally “found out that nothing can capture a heart like a melody can,” and then asserting, “well, whoever it was, I’m a fan.” However, although Mr. Gore invented the internet, everyone knows that no politician, industrialist or even any noble peasant invented music. Music is built in to the universe: the music of the spheres, generated from the form and harmony of reality itself. Humans were not needed to create it, but only, perhaps, to hear it. (And make hit records with it.)

I should say that I don’t mean to tread on the religious beliefs or lack thereof of the members of ABBA here. I have no idea what they are, and I’m happy to assume for the sake of argument that all four are securely secular Swedes. That doesn’t matter: a great song is a song which both emerges from somewhere mysterious and continues off to somewhere mysterious. It is not a manifesto of the songwriter’s opinions, because by definition then it would not be a great song. (Not all songwriters know this, to their detriment, but as attested to by their work, Benny and Björn most certainly do.)

When the first new songs to be heard from ABBA in almost forty years were premiered, there were people assembled in various places to enjoy and share the moment. On hearing “I Still Have Faith in You,” and “Don’t Shut Me Down,” many cried, and some compared it to a sacred experience. It might be easy to deride such reactions, but I think what many fans were experiencing did indeed have a sacred element, in that the tears were ones of gratitude. There was a sense of overwhelming gratitude that something extraordinarily unlikely—and quite beautiful—was actually coming to pass.

After all, ABBA were not supposed to get back together and create new music. For decades, it was never seriously contemplated that they would. They’d been there, done that, couldn’t top it, and obviously preferred to leave it as it was. Their breakup was also not merely the run-of-the-mill ending of a musical partnership, but also involved two broken marriages. Reuniting and trusting one another sufficiently to record an album of new songs (some quite personal) cannot but have required an inestimable level of forgiveness.

And one must also consider the unlikeliness of it purely as a matter of physics and biology, if you will. All four are now in their seventies. What are the chances—not merely that all four would still be living—but that all four would be in sufficiently good physical and mental health to make music like they did forty years ago? That part was completely out of their control, and out of everyone’s. There’s a line in “I Still Have Faith in You” about being “humble and grateful to have survived,” and, honestly, no kidding! The tears of gratitude that listeners shed on hearing that song were unavoidably (even if unconsciously) aimed at that Source of things way beyond human power to fashion: things like the very fact of music itself, and of life. When one is crying tears of gratitude for such things, one is not imagining oneself crying into a void, after all. Where there is gratitude, there is a recipient.

The song celebrates faith in one another, and that is surely a wonderful thing, but of-course our faith in one another is not infinite. We are human. We betray, we fight, we divorce; we get sick and we die. Like gratitude, faith also demands a worthy object, and though unnamed and almost surely unintended, that idea envelopes this song.

And it’s a great song: classic ABBA. As is the album as a whole. In addition to being moving, it was really quite funny hearing these new tracks, because it actually sounds as if they’d just gone back into the studio the week after recording their last album and got started again. In their time, their sound was their own but also quite cognizant of contemporary trends. But on this new record they completely ignore the last 40 years of whatever has gone down in the pop music world and are just right back where they left off. (If anything, maybe more 1978 than 1982.)

One of my favorite songs on the album is in fact an outtake from those years that they pulled out and refashioned. That is “Just a Notion,” and hearing it was the impetus for writing this piece in the first place. I felt something strange and remarkable in it and just had to try and put my finger on it. I have no doubt others have heard it too, although I don’t bump into too many ABBA fans round these parts. But, speaking frankly, it was Bob Dylan who helped me hear it. When he recorded his five LPs worth of Great American Songbook/Sinatra tunes, he uncovered (to my ears and mind and those of others) how so many of these great songs of extravagant romantic love can be heard as part of a heavenly dialogue; as a kind of loving conversation with our Maker. I have no idea how Dylan did this, because he didn’t change a single thing about the songs. (He even copied most of the arrangements from Frank’s records.) But do it he did, and quite resoundingly, and in every way those recordings stand as some of the greatest work he has done in his rather otherworldly career. And in doing so, he highlighted how, when even pop songwriters are doing their best work, they cannot but intersect with that higher order of things, and pull down notes from an ineffable melody being played by the most masterful musician of all.

“Just a Notion” is, as Benny has said, a ridiculously happy song. Musically, the recording evokes the aforementioned Phil Spector just a bit for me, as it delivers a pretty decent wall of sound. (I guess the background brass riffs also evoke Spector for me.) It also defies the usual dynamics of a pop record, in that it doesn’t start low and go up, then go back down and go up again, but instead it builds and explodes, then builds more and explodes more, and then builds MORE and explodes MORE. It’s a lot of fun, if you like that kind of thing.

In the song, the singer is apparently possessed by an inexplicable certainty that she is about to meet her dream lover and they are about to embark on their happily-ever-after life. She is exhilarated by this thought and by her sureness about it, and that’s the whole song—just emphasizing over and over again how much faith she has that this encounter will imminently occur.

Just a notion
That you’ll be walking up to me
In a while and you’ll smile and say hello
And we’ll be dancing through the night
Knowing everything from thereon must be right

In real life there’s a thin line between this kind of thinking and terrible tragedy, of-course, but the song brooks none of that. It is 3 1/2 minutes of perfect joy; indeed, it is ecstatic.

And, recalling the lessons from Bob, the thought of ecstasy might suggest another kind of encounter. On that level, I can’t escape the notion that this song expresses the very kind of intense joy that a true believer—someone gifted with a rare and profound faith—might feel when meditating upon the love of God. Think of “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” if you will, or other hymns on the theme. It is the confidence of being secure in the Master’s hand. Even, most blessedly of all, at the very moment of death.

Some may think that a rather macabre idea, but death is the one thing that comes for everybody—much more reliably than a new ABBA album—and wouldn’t it be a consolation if one were able to greet that departure (and arrival) with such a song?

Just so, it would also be wonderful to be able to greet every day of life on earth with such a spirit of hope, faith and joy. Gratitude is due, after all.

Thanks, ABBA.

A Prayer for U.S. Soldiers in Kabul


In part simply to try and retain my own tenuous grasp on reality in this ever more deranged world, I’m offering the following review of the situation in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, this August 20th of 2021.

  • For the first time in 20 years, the Taliban are operating at will, without fear of bombardment by the U.S. or anyone else. They are free to organize, bring in reinforcements, prepare and plan future actions.
  • The Taliban surround the airport in Kabul, in which are currently penned something like 6000 American troops.
  • The Taliban are free to operate because Joe Biden has invested everything in the hope of getting out of this situation without a fight. In any other circumstance looking anything like this over the last 20 years, all holy hell would have been rained down on the Taliban long ago in order to prevent them from building up strength to attack a U.S. position.
  • The American troops in this situation are at a strong additional disadvantage because they were inserted on an emergency basis, with limited numbers and equipment and assigned an uncertain mission in an impossibly volatile environment. Over the past 20 years, nothing like this ever happened. Troops were only deployed intentionally, with ample preparation and planning. No massacre of U.S. troops was ever going to happen under those circumstances. But now it is different.
  • This is not a situation that all the smart and highly-paid people should have allowed to develop, in case that’s not obvious.

At this point, there are simply no positive resolutions possible, unless the Taliban are actually changed men, and desire to allow the U.S. troops (who have spent the last 20 years blowing thousands of Taliban soldiers to pieces) to complete their mission and leave peacefully and proudly. I would suggest (albeit that I would prefer to YELL it from the roof) that this potential positive scenario is simply not going to transpire. The Taliban have a golden opportunity — and they surely see it as handed directly to them by Allah — to do to the Americans what has been done to all other invaders over the course of Afghanistan’s history; that is, to deliver them such a brutal parting blow that they will never, ever consider returning.

And please add the following to the mix, in case the Taliban might have any hesitation on their own (which I seriously doubt):

  • The Iranian regime dearly wants to repay the U.S. for Soleimani (and just on general principles for being the Great Satan). They look on Kabul airport today and they see fish in a barrel. They will not attack directly, but they must be scrambling to find any and every way they might aid and encourage the Taliban to turn this into a massacre of U.S. troops.
  • The Chinese regime is already delighted beyond expression with the way in which the U.S. has made itself appear impotent and untrustworthy in this turn of events, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t like it to get much, much worse. What are the odds that they are informing the Taliban that if they should see it clear to doing whatever they can to massacre the U.S. troops at Kabul airport, that they will be taken care of, with future military supplies, trade, outright bribes? — you name it.
  • The Russians would also be delighted to see the U.S. deeply damaged by a catastrophe in Kabul, but whether Putin really has the money to spend to underwrite it is another question. (If he does, he’s spending it.)

Bottom line: This is a much deeper and difficult-to-solve predicament for the U.S. military than anyone seems to be acknowledging (least of all the ones who have the most solemn obligation: Joe Biden, the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff). The advantages the U.S. had over the Taliban for the last 20 years have all evaporated. We should all be praying intensely for the lives of the American soldiers in Kabul. And for the rest of the Americans still in Afghanistan, likewise: God please help them, and in the same way all of those Afghans who have sincerely if vainly tried to serve the cause of freedom in their nation.

In terms of Joe Biden himself: We have been living the story of the Emperor Who Had No Clothes, and we are quickly approaching the final page. That’s all.

The others — Joint Chiefs’ Chairman Milley, Defense Secretary Austin, Secretary of State Blinken — ought already to have resigned, because the situation they allowed to develop is already inherently a catastrophe. In truth, they ought to have resigned in advance rather than attempt to implement Joe Biden’s rambling senile goal of removing all U.S. troops before September 11th, in the middle of the long-established Afghanistan fighting season, and regardless of the success that the Taliban were having on the battlefield.

A final reiteration of the current reality: If the Taliban choose, at their own discretion and on their own timing (and with all of these days to prepare) to initiate a battle to the death for Kabul airport, there is no big red button that Joe Biden can press to somehow instantly defeat them and rescue the U.S. troops. The Bagram airbase was surrendered on July 1st. There is no way to bring in U.S. reinforcements to the airport in Kabul under intense fire. There is nowhere to go at that point except a return to all out war in Afghanistan, albeit beginning from a considerably greater disadvantage than the U.S. faced in the autumn of 2001, when there was a strong organized opposition to the Taliban in the form of the Northern Alliance.

And yet Joe Biden’s intention here was to end the war in Afghanistan?! The bind that he now finds himself in is far beyond his mental capacity to comprehend and deal with in practical fashion. For him, however, we need have no care or regard. It is — as far as this writer is concerned — a criminal matter that a clearly cognitively impaired individual occupies the office of the presidency of the United States.

But for the soldiers at the airport in Kabul, dropped there to clean up this inconceivable and insoluble catastrophe, we ought to be praying. Let us truly pray.

Bob Dylan’s Shadow Kingdom

For about a month now fans have been awaiting this somewhat mysterious “exclusive broadcast event,” a pay-per-view-type online streaming performance by Bob Dylan, and now it has aired, and will continue to be available to watch for 48 hours. Access in the United States costs $25.

It features Dylan performing in a stylized small club setting, alternating between at least three different stagings. The arrangements and performances are sharp and quite beautiful. The instrumentation includes accordion, mandolin, Spanish guitar, and acoustic bass, and sometimes electric guitar and bass. No drums at all. Dylan’s singing is superb (assuming you’re someone who can take his singing at all).

He has an audience of heavily smoking actors and actresses. (It appears that they inhale very little smoke, the better to blow it out for effect. Still, this viewer appreciates Bob’s support for the struggling tobacco farmers.) The band wear black masks while everyone else breathes and smokes freely.

The whole thing is directed by one Alma Har’el, an Israeli-American who has a prize-winning feature film and documentary in her belt, as well as various music videos.

While initially the show was billed as featuring songs from throughout Dylan’s body of work, this broadcast is actually subtitled “The Early Songs of Bob Dylan.” And indeed it does focus on the 1960s, although there are a couple of exceptions in “What Was It You Wanted?” from 1989 and “Forever Young” from 1974. The show is about 50 minutes in duration. That surprised me: I thought it would probably be around 90 minutes.

Taken together, the subtitle “Early Songs” and the relatively short duration leads this viewer to conclude that this is going to be a series, and that there are likely at least two more “episodes” in the can.

It’s a brilliant business idea, to be sure: I bet Dylan could easily fetch a million views, globally, for something like this, and at $25 a pop, well … I’m not great at math, but it’s a fair bit of revenue for all concerned. And after the last year and a half of worldwide Wuhan weirdness, people are certainly well accustomed to substituting online experiences for the real thing.

In the end, for a fan, it’s one of life’s miracles, and something for which to be grateful. Bob Dylan is 80 years old, and here we get to see and hear him — in exceptional form — reworking his songs yet again in a scintillating and eye-opening manner. The version of “Forever Young” he performs is jaw-dropping: I’ve never heard him sing it so movingly (and I’ve heard him sing it quite a few times). “To Be Alone with You” is an almost entirely rewritten lyric, incorporating something of a religious passion. “Queen Jane,” “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” “Tombstone Blues” — all standouts. Every song reveals something new of itself. It seems to this listener that the enormous work that Dylan did in recording five LPs worth of songs from the Great American/Sinatra songbook has enhanced his ability to reinterpret his own songs in especially gorgeous and sensitive ways.

The songs often sound like a commentary on our strange times, but that’s how Dylan’s songs always sound, grounded as they are in an awareness of death, eternity, human nature, and the things that remain.

And it’s all going to stand up to quite a bit of re-watching.

Mourning Rush Limbaugh

Maybe the world’s always been divided between those who’ve actually listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio and those who never have. Today, however — the day of his death — this feels dramatically true.

Rush was a phenomenon on multiple levels. With all that’s being said about him today, it would be redundant of someone like me to go on about how much he transformed the American radio industry and influenced the political landscape. However, you could never appreciate what Rush did or how he did it without having listened to his show. It was his ability to be there for three hours a day, five days a week, and to be engaging, entertaining, provocative and human: this is what made him without peer. If one was getting one’s view of Rush from what the big media outlets said about him — generally only in moments of controversy and/or ginned-up outrage — then one would merely know a caricature. What made Rush tick with his audience was not the single soundbite, but the whole of what he did, even the rare uneven moments. Listening to just one show was always a journey of sorts — let alone the decades of indefatigable work.

As much as he was a giant, proven by all the achievements and numbers, I wonder how people in the future who never listened to him in full roaring topical context will possibly be able to understand what he was all about and how important he really was. Perhaps this is similar to how no one really knows anything about Will Rogers today, except that he was huge in his time. Yet, even if so, that’s OK: Rush’s thirty-plus years of ruling the moment from behind that golden EIB microphone will stand in the ether of time and resonate forever. There’s just no taking it back.

He’ll be missed not only by those who loved him and what he did, but also by those who hated him, even if they don’t realize they’ll miss him yet (and even if they never consciously realize it). If he did anything at all, he made those who felt scorned and ignored by the east coast/left coast media elite feel that they had a voice in their corner, and it was a big, cheerful voice, a reason not to despair in depressing times. Despair is dangerous. After the last 12 months of general horror and chaos in much of America, this writer can’t escape the nagging but unwelcome perception that Rush’s death and disappearance from the radio constitutes one more brick taken away from what remained of coherence in America’s body politic, after so much else has already fallen apart.

In a time of waiting for the next shoe to drop, a very big one just did.

I remember well when I first listened to Rush. Maybe all of us Rush-listeners do. It was about 25 years ago, when I was working an office job in New York City — a mind-numbingly boring niche in publishing — and one of my co-workers would have his headphones on through a large part of the day, and was frequently laughing to himself, albeit vainly trying to suppress his giggles. (In other moments, he seemed pretty normal.) One day he made reference to who he was listening on the radio: Rush Limbaugh. He emphasized that he didn’t agree with his politics — and I believe he meant it — but said that he just found him funny. Having no concept myself about Rush Limbaugh other than the media caricature already referenced — ideas like “blowhard,” “hate radio,” everyone knows the rest — one day I decided I might as well get a laugh if one happened to be available, and I fired up my Sony Walkman AM/FM cassette player and stuck the headphones on. American talk radio was a world unknown to me (one factor at least being my growing up in Ireland). Politically speaking, I was out of my youthful socialistic fantasies but not particularly committed to any other ideology. Rush was in a way a perfect voice to clarify the thoughts then floating around in my cranium about political correctness, which I’d flirted with as a young skull full of mush but had come to loath. Rush made me laugh about it.

It was the Clinton years, his second term, and El Rushbo was firing on all cylinders. There was zero real fear of what Bubba might do to the nation, at least as I recall; it was instead all powered by laughter at the looney things the left was trying to do, undergirded by a certainty that it would backfire and fail. Halfway between agreeing and disagreeing with Rush’s stance on various issues (idiot that I was), I couldn’t help but be carried along by his good humor and humanity about it all. Paul Shanklin’s musical parodies were delightfully outrageous and in the same spirit.

Having discovered AM talk radio via Rush, I naturally thought that there must be so much more great stuff out there. However, keeping the radio on didn’t take me to similar places. It turns out that it’s kind of hard to talk for three hours on topical issues and keep it fresh and entertaining. Other hosts veered into repetition and excessive reliance on callers and other gimmicks, and too often fell into being shrill and monotonously negative. Of-course there are — now as then — ones who are better and ones who are worse. But — now just like then — there are none with the perfect touch that Rush was able to deploy, that deft way with the microphone that simply recreated radio and gave an unexpected gift to America. It can only be something he was born with. Exactly like he said to his dying day, “Talent on loan from God.”

God has called back that loan. His timing is His business. He always has a plan.

Times changed for yours truly, and I couldn’t always listen to Rush at length in recent years, but he was always there, like a good friend, someone who’s point of view mattered, and with whom I could check in and share a laugh. Millions of us have lost that very good friend, and I think we all wish him Godspeed on his next adventure.

As much as Rush was so funny about so many things, he was serious about some. You could tell these things if you listened to him. He was serious about his love for America and the ideas of its founding. And he was serious about his joy on hearing about people who bypassed the weaponized misery of the American left — sometimes thanks to time spent listening to his show — and who took their fate into their own hands and embraced optimism, by starting their own business, or just by shaking off the shackles of victim-think, and learning to love freedom.

There’s much else that could be said about Rush, and much else being said. The hate-filled things that are being widely propagated only highlight the mindset of those who are unwilling to tolerate honest discussion. They are the ones saying “Shut up!” all the time: a command increasingly being enforced these days by Big Tech and other sanctimonious authorities, some of them armed. Rush was the one they never succeeded in shutting up, despite extraordinary efforts to do so. We shall all see what happens next. And we are all going to miss El Rushbo.

Paul Westphal, rest in peace

I was deeply saddened to hear that Paul Westphal passed away yesterday, at the age of 70, having been diagnosed with brain cancer last August. He was a legend in the world of basketball, but, as the remembrances currently flowing out everywhere are indicating, he was also legendary in a much more important way: that is, as a truly good man who touched and impressed just about everyone he brushed up against during his life.

In the archives of this website is an interview I conducted with him some years back, when I was pursuing all things related to Bob Dylan, and talked to a few public-type figures about their own interest in Bob. Paul was enthusiastic and insightful on Dylan’s music. He was deeply tuned-in to the spiritual grounding of Dylan’s work, and very sensitive to Dylan’s journey in Christianity (an area where many of the famous critics seem to find themselves quite lost). Being privileged to meet Paul a few times — he was generous in his friendship and his support of my little bits of writing on Dylan — there was never any mistaking his own deep, intelligent and burning faith in God. Nor his love for his wife Cindy and his family. And these are the things that carry on, to be sure.

May God bless and keep him always.

Murder Most Foul

It seems apt that amidst the ruination, Bob Dylan drops a new song. And also apt in that it strikes a lot of us initially as a non-sequitur in today’s context — this worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. What’s Dylan on about? But in the end we get that it’s no more a non-sequitur than anything he’s ever done. The curious thing about Dylan is that all of his songs are relevant to the occasion, because he’s always retained that crucial perspective of death and eternity. It suits every moment. Whether we like it or not.

… good day to be living and a good day to die …

You can drill down to all of the references in the lyrics, if that’s what seems right, but to me it’s so much more enjoyable just to let it all wash over you, igniting so many lovely light bulbs along the way. Deep riches here. And such a beautiful, delicate, vocal.

Dylan accompanied this release with the message: “Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.”

Here we thank Bob for keeping the faith, so many long years now — as short as they seem — and may God be with him, and with all of us.

Age of Light Update

Back in the year of our Lord two thousand and eight, on November the fourth, Barack Obama was elected to the presidency of the United States. Bob Dylan happened to be playing a show in Minnesota that night, and came back for his final encore obviously having heard the news backstage on how the electoral contest was going. He introduced his band as he normally did and then made some off-the-cuff comments, which were covered back then in this space in excruciating (although highly accurate) detail.

So, in total, he said:

I wanna introduce my band right now. On the guitar, there’s Denny Freeman. Stu Kimball is on the guitar too. Donnie Herron as well, on the violin right now, playin’ on the steel guitar earlier. George Recile’s playin’ on the drums.

Tony Garnier, wearin’ the Obama button — [applause] alright! — Tony likes to think it’s a brand new time right now. An age of light. Me, I was born in 1941 — that’s the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. Well, I been livin’ in a world of darkness ever since.

But it looks like things are gonna change now …

Change was the thing: it was “hope and change,” the theme of Barack Obama’s campaign, as older readers might remember.

Dylan’s remarks caused quite a hoopla, hailed ’round the world as an optimistic endorsement of the new president, who would clear away all of that post-Pearl-Harbor darkness for Bob and for everyone.

We took a different view here, as expounded upon in that post way back then. In short, we thought Dylan was being ironic and philosophical rather than triumphalist.

Things always change, of-course. And things have changed. An age of light? With all respect to Tony Garnier’s touching optimism, I think there is now probably exactly no one who would say the past eight years have been an age of light (albeit that we may have wildly varying reasons for saying so).

I was greatly struck, and still am, by Bob Dylan’s performance at President Obama’s White House in February of 2010 (just one year into that presidency), billed as a “Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Era.” He showed up and played only one song, “The Times They Are a-Changin’”; not as a celebratory duet with Joan Baez (who was also there that night) but in a new, spare, and quite melancholy arrangement.

There’s a lot more that could be said, on January 19th, 2017, but it would be way too much. Those times, they sure just do keep on a-changin’. (And that I can tell you.)

religious alchemist

Leonard Cohen: Religious Alchemist [First Things]

religious alchemist

Yet one more appreciation of the great Leonard Cohen, this one from yours truly at First Things:

Leonard Cohen was a Canadian, but he was the poet laureate of another nation: a nation of souls by turns sensitive, lost, alienated, ecstatic, bitter—souls seeking truth through the fog of modernity. Cohen was one of those rock-era poets (and arguably the only genuine poet among them) who sounded like he knew something of the utmost importance, even as he spent most of his time sidestepping … (click here for the rest)

FALLEN ANGELS by Bob Dylan Review

Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels (and Rising Prayers)

Review of FALLEN ANGELS by Bob Dylan

Darling, down and down I go, round and round I go
In a spin, loving the spin that I’m in
Under that old black magic called love

A few months from this time of writing, Bob Dylan will be performing at a big music event in California, sharing the bill with his contemporaries–and fellow septuagenarians–the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. No doubt the Stones will be singing “Satisfaction” and “Paint it Black,” and no doubt McCartney will be singing “Yesterday” and “Band on the Run.” And no doubt Bob Dylan will be singing … well, “Autumn Leaves,” “All or Nothing at All,” and “That Old Black Magic.” You have to pause a moment to contemplate how wonderfully absurd and amazing that actually is. In his most recent shows, more than a third of the titles in his set list have been what we might call these “Sinatra” songs, and of the “Bob Dylan” songs in the show most have been from the past decade and a half or so, with only 3 dating back to the 1960s or 70s. And although some concert attendees have been heard griping (and when has that not been true at a Dylan show?), the most notable fact is that he’s actually been getting away with it in quite fine style. Dylan is conspicuously deriving great joy from singing the standards and puts his whole body and spirit into the effort. Singing these gorgeous old tunes (from songwriters he had some significant role in putting out of business) seems undeniably to be making his own heart feel young. Continue reading Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels (and Rising Prayers)

Unknowing the Enemy

unknowing_enemy
Seven months ago, in the Paris jihad attacks, 130 people were killed. Then there were 14 killed in the jihad attack in San Bernardino in December. In the Brussels jihad attacks, three months ago, 32 were killed. About 12 hours after at least 50 people were massacred this morning in Orlando by a man who pledged allegiance to ISIS before he began shooting, the President of the United States went on national television and said this:

Although it’s still early in the investigation, we know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate.

Is that all we know? Are those generic characterizations the best that those in charge—those with all the inside information—can come up with? Will the President go back on national television later to fill everyone in on the details once they’re certified, or are the real reasons behind this just too insignificant to trouble ourselves with?

Fifteen years ago, and about a month after the 9/11 attacks, the singer Bob Dylan (of whom I’m fond) was interviewed by Rolling Stone, as he happened to have a new album out. The interviewer asked him for his reaction to the recent events, and he said this:

Those people in charge, I’m sure they’ve read Sun-Tzu, who wrote The Art of War in the sixth century. In there he says, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself and not your enemy, for every victory gained you will suffer a defeat.” And he goes on to say, “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Whoever’s in charge, I’m sure they would have read that.

And of-course everyone’s read Sun Tzu. You can pick that kind of thing up for virtually nothing and impress people with your cool references and deep thinking. It’s all just too obvious to bear, isn’t it?

At the time, it seemed there was a spirit of highly serious purpose in the wake of the killing of thousands in the attacks in New York and Washington DC and Pennsylvania. The enemy was al-Qaeda, whose leaders were clearly promulgating a virulent form of Islam, sheltered by the Taliban who advocated the same ideology, and by eliminating those players and establishing democracy and freedom in Afghanistan, the enemy might be defeated. That, at least, seemed to be the plan, though concepts like “democracy” and “freedom” somehow did not vanquish all that lay before them in that part of the world.

And, the more time went by, it seemed the lines between things became less and less clear. Words are important; yet generic terms like “terror” muffled more precise characterizations. Then came the war in Iraq, and—while the military did their job with honor—more and more at the level of political leadership things became blurred in a mish-mash of goals and justifications. A new president eventually replaced the one in power on 9/11: one eager to repudiate all that had preceded him. Focusing on the precise nature and motivation of the actual enemy became, even more, something to be avoided at all costs. And, indeed, it seems that there are costs.

… when you don’t know who you’re looking for, how in the world are you going to find them?
The dead perpetrator of this particular massacre, Omar Mir Seddique Mateen, was “on the radar” of the FBI, reportedly interviewed twice in 2013, and once in 2014. Whatever scary jihadi-like statements he had made which attracted their attention, they decided that he was not worthy of the kind of surveillance that could have prevented him from freely marching into that nightclub named “Pulse” with a variety of guns and explosives and murdering more than 50 people at his leisure.

And, after all, when you don’t know who you’re looking for, how in the world are you going to find them?

Fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, those “in charge” seem to know the enemy only dramatically less than the enemy was known even back then. It is a decidedly strange phenomenon.




This slaughter in Orlando has been the worst terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11, and the worst mass shooting ever in the United States. Yet, I doubt I’m alone in sensing a lot less of “Je suis Charlie” in the aftermath and a lot more of “J’ai l’ennui.” If so, what a conspicuous harbinger of our decline. By this, I refer not to the lack of slogans and hashtags, but rather to the absence of a willingness to even pay serious attention for more than 5 or 10 minutes to the war being waged on our increasingly sad civilization.

dog looking in the mirror

The Dog in the Mirror

dog looking in the mirror
Do you believe that looking at yourself in the mirror makes you smart? Do you tend to presume that other people whom you see looking into mirrors must therefore be very smart? You may fail to see the connection between mirror-gazing and intelligence—let alone wisdom—but there’s a school of scientific thought that employs it as a yardstick in judging the intelligence of animals. Coming across this idea recently (not for the first time) made me decide, in consultation with my dog, that it was time to clear it up once and for all.

The theory goes something like this: Chimpanzees can be coaxed to examine themselves in the mirror. They can identify odd things put by scientists on their faces as being on their faces, and can even be seduced into playing around with make-up, hats and funny glasses. It has yet to be proven but perhaps—given sufficient patience and the right equipment—they can eventually come to enjoy such rewarding pastimes as injecting themselves with botox or collagen. Scientists tell us that this all proves that they are self-aware, just like human beings (self-awareness being understood as “the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals”).

Dogs, by contrast, commonly ignore their reflections in mirrors.

Dogs, by contrast, commonly ignore their reflections in mirrors. So, we are told, they lack self-awareness, and this puts them on a lower rung of intelligence as compared to chimps or any other creature that can recognize and be fascinated by its own image in the looking-glass.

Yet, merely by observing my own little dog and making logical inferences based on her behavior, I am convinced that this is the boldest nonsense.

Let’s consider how dogs can be observed to deal in general with two-dimensional images of living beings. Anyone who’s owned a dog will likely have observed these things, but I’ll talk about my own dog, a small female mutt named Billie. Like many owners, I directed her attention to a mirror for the first time when she was quite young — still in puppyhood. And she reacted as most dogs will on first looking into a mirror: she seemed to think she was seeing another dog, and struck a playful stance as she would with most real dogs. She lost interest pretty quickly in the dog in the mirror, however, and trying to attract her attention to her reflection in mirrors on subsequent occasions fell flat. Pointing to her image in a mirror would at best make her sniff the exact spot I pointed to, as if there might be something good or edible there. You would think from her behavior that her own image was completely invisible to her, for all the attention she paid to it.

At the same time, like many dogs, she has proven capable of recognizing images of animals on a television screen. She will pay attention to a nice nature show with good images of interesting animals for several minutes (before falling asleep). On a few occasions she has approached the screen to sniff at especially exciting animals. So it’s quite clear that she recognizes the animals as being animals and on some level wonders as to their reality. She has also reacted with evident interest (signified by perked up ears and close visual attention) to still images of, for example, the face of a wolf or of a cat or even of a person she knows. She therefore has no great difficulty in recognizing what such two-dimensional images represent. (She has no interest in images of rocks or buildings or other inanimate things.)

The inescapable answer is that she does recognize it, and recognizes it as being herself, and for that very reason considers it to be of no interest whatsoever.

But how then can she be so oblivious to her own image in a mirror, which can only be more lifelike than any image on an electronic screen? The inescapable answer is that she does recognize it, and recognizes it as being herself, and for that very reason considers it to be of no interest whatsoever. She is interested in what another animal might do, but quite logically she has no curiousity whatsoever about what she herself might do, and she possesses no scintilla of vanity regarding her own looks.

About a year ago it occurred to me at some idle moment to try the mirror test one more time: she being much older and calmer, and me being slightly wiser as to how to give her directions. I placed her on a chair she couldn’t escape from, directly facing a mirror a few inches away. Getting her to look into the mirror would not constitute success; only getting her to look directly at herself would count. Using the most careful and calm words and gestures, I am of the belief that I actually briefly succeeded. “Look at you, look at Billie.” For a few moments, at least, I saw her look directly into her own eyes. She held her own gaze long enough for it not to have been a random thing. But other than that she had no obvious related reaction. She then turned to look at me, and wagged her tail slightly. If she could speak, I think she would have been saying, “OK … now what?”




And “Now what?” is precisly the unanswerable question. There is no utility to Billie in looking at her own reflection. She is aware it is herself—i.e. she is self-aware—but in the absence of vanity or neuroticism about her appearance, there is simply no response for her to make to it. The image of herself in the looking-glass may as well be invisible.

In anticipation of writing this reflection on reflections, I harassed Billie by putting her in front of a mirror one more time. This time I wasn’t trying to get her to look pointlessly at herself; I was just trying to get an appropriate photo to go along with the piece of writing (as you have to accompany everything on the internet with a picture or else it doesn’t exist). Billie kept turning her head to look at me as I took pictures, because she now expects to get treats when she poses for pictures (she works for peanuts: dry roasted, unsalted). I didn’t want her turning to look at me, so this was a bit of a problem. It was solved when she caught a glimpse of me in the mirror. She was satisfied to keep her eye on me there for a little while — long enough to take a series of shots including the one at the top and the one below here.

dog looking in a mirror

So she watched me in the mirror to keep herself informed as to whether I was reaching for a treat. In other words, she used the mirror entirely appropriately, understanding its function and purpose. She knew that the reflection of me was a true representation of me, in real time. Her own reflection continued to be of no interest whatsoever to her.

I have to conclude that this is not evidence of a lack of intelligence or “self-awareness,” but evidence instead of the employment of exceedingly practical sense and the total absence of useless vanity.

I don’t know if—overall—chimpanzees are “smarter” than dogs or not, but I think this comparison of the two animals’ behavior with mirrors demonstrates only one thing for certain: the moral superiority of the canine. Unless, that is, vanity is now officially listed among the virtues rather than the vices.

And if dogs possess this moral superiority as compared to chimps, the same equation does not come out very well for the only slightly less hairy ape writing these words.

And just to prove that there is indeed nothing new under the sun, the above conclusion is mirrored, after all, in Lord Byron’s famous “Epitaph to a Dog” from 1808.

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
BOATSWAIN, a DOG,
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18th, 1808.

Amen!

“The Man in the Looking Glass,” sung by Frank Sinatra

Gun at Robert F. Kennedy school

Karma Comes Up Short for Robert F. Kennedy School

Gun at Robert F. Kennedy school
A few years back I wrote in this space about a public school in New York City that was utilizing the Hindu concept of karma to teach good behavior to its students, as evidenced by prominent signs both outside and inside the school referring to karma and relating it to specific behaviors. That was the Robert F. Kennedy school (PS 169) on the upper east side of Manhattan. The ultimate point of my piece was to highlight the double standard inherent in this vast official employment of a Hindu religious concept in an American public school, whereas posting the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes would have brought speedy intervention by those who are out there trying to protect young and impressionable minds from any Judeo-Christian influence. Why would the latter amount to a “state establishment of religion,” while plastering the entire school with postings about karma was regarded as entirely benign? I concluded that I didn’t really have a problem with the karma stuff, if it worked, but I did have a problem with the message implicitly being conveyed to students that Hindu religious concepts are fine to teach and follow, while the banned Judeo-Christian ones must be somehow toxic. Continue reading Karma Comes Up Short for Robert F. Kennedy School

Bob Dylan "Melancholy Mood"

Bob Dylan, “Melancholy Mood”

Bob Dylan "Melancholy Mood"
It is (in the sense of those things these days) Bob Dylan’s hot new single: “Melancholy Mood.” The song is best known from its recording by Harry James and his Orchestra, with brand new boy singer Frank Sinatra, in 1939. It was the B-side of “From the Bottom of My Heart.” Neither side charted, though both are masterful and lovely records and show the promise of the Sinatra to come. Bob Dylan’s version is embedded below here via YouTube, with a little more on the song and his own quite lovely take on it coming under that.

Comparing Dylan’s to the Harry James/Frank Sinatra side (also on YouTube at the moment) reveals that it is the very same arrangement, as adapted by his five piece guitar-based band. You would think that someone like Dylan would do it as a song, rather than in the style of a big band, where the singer comes in only after the band has gone through the tune already—but you would think wrong. Where Harry James played his trumpet, we have beautiful solo guitar, and on it goes to about the one minute and seven second mark (just as on the James side) and then Bob Dylan steps to the microphone—the most grizzled boy singer you’d ever want to see—and caresses the lyric the rest of the way.

That has been the modus operandi of Dylan on these “Sinatra covers;” that is, to take one of Sinatra’s original recordings (in a lot of cases there were multiple Sinatra versions to pick from) and to simply try to recreate the arrangement with the five piece combo (and occasional extra). In so doing, and in each case, they come up with something beautiful of their own. Dylan’s singing, of-course, is always his own.

And as with his previous interpretations of these old popular songs, Dylan brings resonances to “Melancholy Mood” beyond the boy/girl love theme that would have been the given way of hearing it before. This song, from a lonely soul, even has something to say along those lines, which sounds so right in Dylan’s gentle and aged voice:

But love is a whimsy
And as flimsy as lace
And my arms embrace an empty space

The singer’s soul is “stranded high and dry”—all he can see is “grief and gloom / till the crack of doom.” Still, he prays for release from his melancholy mood, and in Bob’s voice it seems to me this has less the sense of a boy praying for his girl to come back and more the sense of the creature praying to his Creator for an infinitely greater kind of release.

Dylan’s gift to these songs is to show just how deep they can go, without changing a note or a word.

“Melancholy Mood” was written by Vick Knight and Walter Schumann.



Bob Dylan’s forthcoming album, from which “Melancholy Mood” is taken, is titled Fallen Angels, and is to be released on May 20th. The full track listing is as follows:

1. Young At Heart
2. Maybe You’ll Be There
3. Polka Dots and Moonbeams
4. All The Way
5. Skylark
6. Nevertheless
7. All Or Nothing At All
8. On A Little Street In Singapore
9. It Had To Be You
10. Melancholy Mood
11. That Old Black Magic
12. Come Rain Or Come Shine

And to all that I can only say: Golly! It’s a great time to be alive.

Restaurant owner Hany Baransi

One Day in America

Restaurant owner Hany Baransi
Restaurant owner Hany Baransi

It’s all in how you look at it, isn’t it? “Oh, a few people got stabbed in Ohio. Big deal.” Or this:

In Columbus, Ohio, yesterday (Thursday) evening, a man entered a restaurant named Nazareth, armed with a machete. The restaurant serves Middle Eastern food. It is owned by a gregarious man named Hany Baransi. A short review of Mr. Baransi, based on what others say about him and what he says about himself, quickly reveals that he is a man of many loves. He loves his restaurant, and he loves making people happy with the food that he loves. He loves America, where he has lived for thirty-three years. He loves Israel, the country he came from. He loves God, specifically as a Christian (and his ethnic background is Arab). Continue reading One Day in America

Three Score and Ten

bowie_lords_prayer

It was a passing thing, the merest of blips in the constantly gushing torrent of news, if even by chance one happened to have noticed it at all. It was simply this: Two widely reported celebrity deaths happened in quick succession, and both persons died at the age of 69. The first was the pop-music legend David Bowie, who reportedly died on January 10th, and the second was the actor Alan Rickman, who we’re told died on January 14th. (Both were also Englishmen.)

What does the age of 69 have to do with anything? Well, in Psalm 90 (“a prayer of Moses”), the modern translation reads as follows: Continue reading Three Score and Ten

Frank Sinatra Christmas Special 1957

Frank Sinatra’s 1957 Christmas Special (with Bing Crosby)

Frank Sinatra Christmas Special 1957

Directed by Frank Sinatra himself, and sponsored by the good people of Bulova and Chesterfield, it’s surely one of the classiest Christmas specials ever to go out over the airwaves: twenty-five minutes of unassuming Yuletide excellence. And it’s currently available via YouTube (and embedded below). Continue reading Frank Sinatra’s 1957 Christmas Special (with Bing Crosby)

A Jolly Christmas Frank Sinatra

A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra

Review of A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra

There’s a communal feeling about most Christmas music. Maybe this is because we generally hear the songs in the company of others, whether it’s as we’re elbowing our way down the aisles of the department store or perhaps singing along with them in church. I think that the most special thing about Frank Sinatra’s A Jolly Christmas (Capitol Records, 1957) may well be how a very particular mood is created, quite different to that of the run-of-the-mill Christmas album. It is not so much a mood of lonesomeness (although Sinatra was well-skilled with evocation in that area) but a more nuanced and less inherently-sad sense of simply being alone at Christmas. Not miserable, and not necessarily overjoyed either, but simply contemplating and appreciating the season apart from the crowds and the relatives.

In the course of his long career Sinatra recorded plenty of Christmas music, from the sides with Axel Stordahl in the 1940s on Columbia (some very lovely stuff) to The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas on Reprise in 1968 (predictably kind of cheesy). And these Christmas tracks get repackaged and resold over and over again. However, A Jolly Christmas is, to my mind, quite distinct. In 1957 when he went in to record it (during July in Los Angeles), Sinatra was truly at the peak of his artistic powers. Not only was his vocal ability (both the quality of his voice and his sense of how to use it) the best it had ever been or would ever be, but he was also at a peak of good taste. My theory is that Sinatra always personally had good taste, but later in his career he came to believe that his potential audience did not, and he dumbed things down at times in an effort to woo them. At this time, however, in the mid-1950s, Sinatra had a clear idea of what he wanted to do, musically-speaking, and what he was capable of, and he was able to work with arrangers and musicians of great excellence and taste themselves, and together they were able to put out records of a very high standard that in turn reached an appreciative and welcoming audience. All of these factors would never come together simultaneously again, and this is why Sinatra’s albums for Capitol Records in the 1950s stand as his greatest, and indeed as some of the most perfect examples of refined popular music that exist.

To put it in context, A Jolly Christmas was bookended by A Swingin’ Affair! (a sterling Nelson Riddle set) and Come Fly With Me (a masterpiece with Billy May). And released in exactly the same month (September of 1957) was Where Are You?, one of Sinatra’s great sets of lovelorn ballads, this one arranged by Gordon Jenkins, who likewise is the arranger for A Jolly Christmas. Jenkins had his strengths and weaknesses as an arranger, but there’s no doubting that his particular style is crucial in making A Jolly Christmas the unique kind of Christmas record that it is. Continue reading A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra