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Faster, Please!

Monthly Archives: April 2012

Tuesday night we went to a concert at San Carlo Opera House in Naples, the miracle built in six months for King Charles III, and recently restored to elegance.  I’d been in San Carlo before, but had never heard music played live, and Riccardo Muti—a native son of Naples—gave it a real workout with Shostakovich’s intense 5th Symphony, conducting his Chicago Symphony Orchestra, now on a grand tour that has taken them to Moscow, St Petersburg and Rome.

There is a sweetness to the music that I don’t believe I’ve heard before, and indeed Muti had told his musicians that playing San Carlo would be something very special for them.  According to the local newspaper, they were very impressed, not only with the hall, but also with the audience.  When the orchestra was playing, I could not see anyone talking or whispering, we were all totally captured by the power and quality of the music.

All of which took me back to one of my favorite little films, “The Orchestra Rehearsal,” that Fellini made for Italian TV in his later years.  It’s about a rebellious orchestra that rises up against its German conductor, and undertakes to conduct itself.  The tyrannical conductor is driven out, but the orchestra quickly disintegrates into conflict and chaos.  They need the discipline of the conductor to perform well, and he comes back and counts out the time for them…in German.

It was Fellini’s contemptuous reply to the “revolutionaries” of the sixties and seventies, and I’ve always believed—as he did—that true creativity requires a context of firm rules and discipline.  It’s no accident, for example, that so many top jazz musicians—the art form that demands constant improvisation—are also exceptional classical musicians.  Their mastery of the disciplined, written music of the masters helps them improvise when they’ve only got chords and tempo to work with.

So here’s the thing with Muti:  he is certainly the conductor, and there are times when he imposes total control on the orchestra (especially during transitions to different tempos).  But there are also times when he drops or folds his hands, and just lets them play.  Isn’t that terrific?  What a gesture of confidence and esteem! I had the feeling that he was thoroughly enjoying the performance, and I’m sure that his musicians were delighted to give him the pleasure.

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Taxes, Real Cash Money, and Corruption

April 20th, 2012 - 8:49 pm

We’re in Italy, where the new government — headed by the distinguished economist Mario Monti — has three big initiatives: make it easier to fire workers, raise taxes on everyone, and limit the amount of money that can be paid in cash.

The first one was demolished by trade union opposition, and to tell you the truth it wasn’t much of an initiative in the first place, since even “legal” firings would have required the employer to pay a chunky severance, running up to two years’ full salary.  I found myself wondering if I could get myself fired on that basis.  Anyway, it’s dead.  Some variation may resurface in a while, but for the moment, it’s dead.

Raising taxes (which goes hand in hand with cuts in some government spending), on the other hand, is seemingly very popular.  Maybe it’s a Catholic thing (we’ve sinned, and now we have to pay for it), but I rather suspect it’s a conditioned reflex from the old days.  In those happier times, nobody ever protested higher taxes, because they had no intention of paying them anyway.  So their attitude was “look at that!  Another tax to evade, another deal to make with the tax collectors.”  Back when I was reporting from Rome for The New Republic, I once calculated that the marginal tax rate was over 120%.  I went on to describe a few of the myriad stratagems the Italians had devised to beat the system (triple and quadruple sets of books, elaborate overcharges to cover currency export, and lots of cash moving around, just to take three examples).

The turning point in the retail world came with the arrival of computers and credit cards.  Once sales were entered in the computers (yours or Visa’s, it was all the same), the merchants were screwed, because there was no avoiding the taxes, especially the VAT.  You had to take a real risk, doing deals in cash and not ringing them up at all.  Sometimes you got caught (the tax men sometimes paid rewards for informers).

Ditto for the big businesses, who got nailed by bank reporting.  In the old days, there were banks (famously in Switzerland and the Channel Islands and the Caymans) that wouldn’t tell anyone, even a government official, what you were worth.  But that slowly changed, and now that the horribly truthful numbers are flushed out of the computers every evening, it’s hard to beat the system.

But there’s always a way, and the easiest way is to use real cash money instead of American Express.  That puts you outside the tax man’s little black box, and of course everybody knows it (because everybody who can manage it, does it).  So the Monti government is banning all cash transactions over a thousand euros.  Over in Spain, where “austerity” is also the word of the day, the government wants to cap cash transactions at 2500 euros (the official exchange rate is something a bit north of $1.30 per euro.  Yeah, it’s expensive over here).  Both Latin countries are acting on the assumption that their citizens are trying to cheat their governments.

That is, the governments assume that the people — virtually all the people — are corrupt.  Which brings us to the sermon of the day.

In the old days, whenever it rained, the people would say “Piove.  Governo ladro.”  It’s raining, the government’s a thief.  The folk wisdom had it right:  the government was trying to steal the people’s money, and so unpleasant things happened.  When the state’s greed becomes excessive, the people will always find ways to steal their money back.  And there’s always a way.  Down at our level, for example, you can buy a 2,000 euro item with cash by paying smaller amounts several times.  Otherwise you have to pay taxes, and the seller has to pay taxes, all of which are relentlessly rising, and if you don’t beat the system, you’re going under.

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Irving Louis Horowitz

April 18th, 2012 - 2:35 pm

Irving Louis Horowitz died a few weeks ago, and I haven’t been able to bring myself to honor him as he deserves.  He was a force of nature, and you got it all from him, right in your face.  Passionate affection, unbreakable loyalty, great intellectual brilliance, surprising physical strength and dexterity, lots of good humor.  Or else you got derision and contempt, unrestrained criticism—well, you got that always, which was most welcome to me–and, in his younger years, direct confrontation of the sort he knew from the streets.

He never did things by halves.  And if you were going to be his friend, you couldn’t get away with half measures.  It was all or nothing.  So when he left us—after his umpteenth heart attack and emergency surgery—it was a tremendous blow.  One of the basic drivers of our lives has been removed.

His contributions to our understanding of the world are legion, from Renaissance philosophy to Cuban Communism, from totalitarianism to a brilliant discussion of C. Wright Mills, and seemingly countless and invariably significant issues.

I always told him that he wasn’t a sociologist at all, but rather an historian, one of the best.  Few so well understood the passionate irrationality of the modern world as Irving did, and his great work on “radicalism and the revolt against reason” will last a very long time.  He well understood the menace of myth in politics, and dreaded its consequences in our age of mass movements and totalitarians who perfected mob rule.  Those same insights were brought to bear on Castro’s Cuba, on the celebrated but wrong-headed work of C. Wright Mills, and on the often controversial and internally contradictory writings of Hannah Arendt, after whom Irving’s chair at Rutgers was named.

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There’s Life on Mars?

April 13th, 2012 - 7:48 pm

Well, one smart scientist is 90% sure, and who am I to argue with him?  But as the Gershwins once memorably put it, who calls that livin’?  The Martian “life” is…bacteria.  And pretty tiny bacteria at that.

It’s a start, I suppose.  But it’s sure not what Ray Bradbury had in mind.  Not at all.  My generation (pre-Boomers) was quite certain that we’d get to most of the planets, and Mars had a place of special honor and sex appeal.  Space travel was taken for granted–OF COURSE we were going to do it.  Only dullards thought otherwise.

So the “news” about Mars is a double disappointment.  First, Martian life is microscopic, which is extremely disappointing (the existence of life on the Red Planet is simply an article of faith for us, so we’re not impressed to find that the scientists have caught up with us).  And second, we never got to go romp around there ourselves.  Which is serious bad news.

I once heard Bradbury lecture to a group of businessmen, maybe a thousand or so, in his home town, Los Angeles.  He didn’t like traveling, and was intensely afraid of flying, and if I remember rightly he didn’t drive himself, he took taxis, which in L.A. is like proclaiming yourself an alien.  In that talk–one of the most dramatic I have ever heard–he gave us moral uplift.  And linked it to Mars.  Listen up.

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Luigi Grassi

April 11th, 2012 - 6:58 pm
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You never heard of Luigi “Gigi” Grassi, but he was a great man, a dear friend, and an indispensable guide for me, and I must honor and mourn him here.  I dedicated my study of Neapolitan creativity to him and his daughter, Tiziana, the artists who have managed the legendary “Doll Hospital” in the heart of Naples.  Tiziana called a couple of hours ago, with the sad news that Gigi has passed away.

Have a look at this gorgeous video of the Hospital (Ospedale delle Bambole) and you’ll get a first inkling of the magic he created, the beauty with which he surrounded himself, and the love he brought to his work.  You can spot him, in a purple shirt, at 1:45, and there’s a black and white photo of Tiziana carefully tucked away in the background at 2:14.  If you want more, and I hope you do, you’ll find many videos if you Google “Luigi Grassi Ospedale delle Bambole.”

The Ospedale was founded by Luigi’s grandfather–also Luigi–in 1800.  Grandpa was a set designer for a famous puppet theater in town, and he repaired some of the injured puppets, leaving them outside his shop to dry.  One day a woman passed by and said “wow, it looks like a doll hospital,” and that was that.

The Ospedale is located on one of Naples’ most famous streets, known as “Spaccanapoli” (shatter Naples) because it runs in an absolutely straight line (the Romans did it, natch) through the center of town.  It’s a couple of blocks from the street where the locals create and sell creche figures at Christmastime, everything from the participants in the Nativity to contemporary politicians, a true artisans’ quarter, with baroque palaces and churches mixed in.  And Gigi was one of the most beloved characters.

When I first started going there, somebody took me to the Ospedale because she said it was both wonderful and unique, and that it was a fine window into the Neapolitan spirit.  It proved more than that, for all kinds of customers showed up there, from poor people hoping to have their children’s dolls repaired or cured (some rubber dolls got “infected” by something that turned their skin black), to very wealthy customers from the city’s aristocracy or the business elite.  In all likelihood there were members or even leaders of crime families, but they were never identified as such.  The clientele was a microcosm of the city, in which rich and poor have long lived in the same buildings, and work and play very close to each other.

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Wrong, Wrong, Wrong. But Celebrated…

April 10th, 2012 - 3:29 pm

It’s a tribute to the collapse of modern education that so many people, from pundits and professors to movie stars and policy makers, continue to repeat stereotypes and slogans that are demonstrably false and, in all likelihood, dangerous to our national health.  Yet the advocates of these false and dangerous myths are widely praised as the Best and the Brightest among us.  We should recall David Halberstam’s book of that title, which exposed the B & Bs as the foolish architects of the Vietnam debacle.

I’m going to talk about three current myths, which suck up an amazing amount of airtime, ink, and bandwith.  There are many others, but these should get us going on a serious discussion.

1.  The Syrian Peace Negotiations

The B & Bs generate new “peace” plans by the day, but there is no hope of a peaceful end to the Syrian slaughter.  Too much murder and torture has been unleashed by the Assad regime, too many people have been killed and maimed, to expect the Syrians to reason together.  That moment is gone.

Historians used to know that “peace” usually comes after one side defeats the other in war, and the winners impose terms on the losers.  That is what successful “peace conferences” are about, and the terms imposed on the losers define the “peace.”

So if you want peace in Syria, pick a side and help it win the war.   You may whine — as the Obama administration often does — that we have incomplete information and can’t see through to the “endgame.”  That’s usually the case, especially when you’ve got a bloated and failed intelligence community, as we do.  But once we engage, the situation changes (when America moves, the whole world changes), and intelligence improves.  Dithering won’t help, nor will calls for “peace talks” before one side has won.

Forget about the UN and the NGOs.  Above all, forget about “leading from behind.”  Remember Yoda:  “Not try.  Do.”

2.  The Iranian Nuclear Negotiations

We’ve all seen Iranians herded into the streets of their cities, led by beturbaned men in chants of “Death to America!”  What do you think they mean?  The war they have waged against us since 1979 proves that they mean just that.

So why should they give up the ultimate weapon?  They think it will make them invulnerable to American (and Israeli) military power.  They do not believe that either the American or the Israeli government will take effective action to prevent Tehran from building a nuclear arsenal.  They are not impressed with chest-pounding or bellicose rhetoric from Washington or Jerusalem.  They are, rather, convinced by the American retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the cuts in the military budget.

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Too Good to Check

April 8th, 2012 - 8:28 am

A friend sent this.  I don’t know how to check it, and anyway that’s not the point.  This primal scream is a fine example of how dangerous and stupid statism is, and wonderfully reminds us how important it is to fight against the statists, all the while remembering to laugh at them.  And ourselves, of course…

Here you go:


This is an actual letter sent to the DFAT (Department of Foreign
Affairs and Trade) Immigration Minister. The Government tried
desperately to censure the author, but got nowhere because every
legal person who read it nearly wet themselves laughing!

Dear Mr Minister, 
I’m in the process of renewing my passport, and still cannot believe this.
How is it that K-Mart has my address and telephone number, and knows
that I bought a television set, a golf clubs and 6 condoms from them back in 1997,
and yet the Federal Government is still asking me where I was born and on what date?
For Christ sakes, do you guys do this by hand? 

My birth date you have in my Medicare information, and it is on all
the income tax forms I’ve filed for the past 40 years.. 

It is also on my driver’s licence, on the last eight passports I’ve ever had, on all those
stupid customs declaration forms I’ve had to fill out before being allowed off planes
over the past 30  years. 

It’s also on all those insufferable census forms that I’ve filled out every 5 years since 1966.
Also…  would somebody please take note, once and for all, that my mother’s name is
Audrey, my father’s name is Jack, and I’d be absolutely fucking astounded if that ever
changed between now and when I drop dead!!!… 

What the hell do you people do with all this information we keep having to provide??
I apologise, Mr. Minister.  But I’m really pissed off this morning.. 

Between you and me, I’ve had enough of all this bullshit! 

You send the application to my house, then you ask me for my  address!!
What the hell is going on with your mob?  Have you got a gang of mindless
Neanderthal arseholes working there! 

And another thing, look at my damn picture. …  Do I look like Bin Laden?
I can’t even grow a beard for God’s  sakes. I just want to go to  New Zealand  and see
my new granddaughter..  (Yes, my son interbred with a Kiwi girl). And would someone
please tell  me, why would you give a shit whether or not I plan on visiting a farm in the
next 15 days? In the unlikely event I ever got the urge to do something weird to a sheep
or a horse, believe you me, I’d  sure as hell not want to tell anyone! 

Well, I have to go now, ’cause I have to go to the other side of  Sydney, and get another
fucking copy of my birth certificate – and to part with another $80 for the privilege of

Would  it be so complicated to have all the services in the same spot, to assist in the
issuance of a new passport on the same day?? 

Nooooo..  that ‘d  be far too fucking easy.  
You would much prefer to have us running all over the bloody place and then have to find some ‘high-society’ wanker to confirm that it’s  really me in the goddamn photo! You know the photo… the one where we’re not allowed to smile?!.

Signed – An Irate Australian Citizen. 

P.S. Remember what I said above about the picture, and getting
someone in ‘high-society’ to confirm that it’s me? Well, my family
has been in this country since before 1820!  In 1856, one of my
forefathers took up arms with Peter Lalor. (You do remember the
Eureka  Stockade!!)

I have also served in both the CMF and regular Army for something
over 30  years (I went to Vietnam in 1967), and still have high
security clearances. I’m also a personal friend of the president of
the RSL… and Lt General Peter Cosgrove sends me a Christmas card
each year.

However, your rules require that I have to get someone “important” to
verify who I am; You know… someone like my doctor -who was born in Pakistan
!!!…… a country where they either assassinate or hang their ex-Prime Ministers 
 - and are suspended from the Commonwealth and United Nations for not having the “right sort of government”.

You are all a pen pushing paper shuffling pack of pricks.!

Thurber Died

April 6th, 2012 - 8:49 am

Sometime during the night our airedale went out into the garden, lay down, and left us.  We should all go in such a peaceful way in such a beautiful spot (Barbara made the garden with a combination of love and art that is truly a wonder, and Thurbs knew exactly where he wanted to be).

He was a great friend and it hurts very much to know that i will not be bounced upon when i come home.  At least until the next dog…but for now we’ll just mourn him.

It’s Not the Constitution, Stupid

April 4th, 2012 - 7:45 pm

I don’t think that President Obama believes a word of his remarks about what the Supreme Court can or cannot do about any given piece of legislation.  Attorney General Holder said as much today when he agreed that the Supremes are there specifically to protect against laws they consider unconstitutional. Holder’s not picking a fight with his boss.

It’s not about that.  It’s about power.  And freedom.

Power, because the president and his people think that, since they are smarter and better than the rest of us, anyone who tries to limit their power is bad, and has to be brought into line.  Thus, the tough words of warning to any justice contemplating voting against Obamacare.

Freedom, because the accumulation of power in the hands of the executive branch comes at our expense, bit by bit and law by law, precisely as Alexis de Tocqueville feared.

As he said, “The nature of despotic power in democratic ages is not to be fierce or cruel, but minute and meddling.”  Tocqueville described the new tyranny as “an immense and tutelary power,” and its task is to watch over us all, and regulate every aspect of our lives:

It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd.

We will not be bludgeoned into submission; we will be seduced.  He foresees the collapse of American democracy as the end result of two parallel developments that ultimately render us meekly subservient to an enlarged bureaucratic power: the corruption of our character, and the emergence of a vast welfare state that manages all the details of our lives.  His words are precisely the ones that best describe our current crisis:

That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild.  It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing.  For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

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