Politics & Policy

Up from Maddox, &c.

The other day, we had Gary Johnson in the offices of National Review. He’s the libertarian ex-governor of New Mexico who’s running for president. At least, he looks to be doing so. Early in our conversation, he said that he was a “states person,” a “states’-rights person.”

I said that, when I was growing up, “states’ rights” was considered code: code for racism, and racist policies. The term was associated with George Wallace, Lester Maddox, and that bunch. Did Johnson think “states’ rights” had been detoxified, so that it now meant the ability of the different states to craft economic policy, independent of the federal government?

Johnson had no idea what I was talking about. He said he had never known “states’ rights” to have a bad association. I thought that was interesting, and surprising.

Anyway, if “states’ rights” now means the ability of Santa Fe, Topeka, or Augusta to come up with its own tax-and-spending policies, or its own education policy, regardless of what Washington, D.C., is doing — so much the better, I’m sure . . .

‐Speaking of racist code, or what is regarded as racist code: You may remember an episode from the beginning of this year. After the State of the Union address, a lot of us said that President Obama had come off as arrogant. I, for example, wrote, “Obama looks arrogant, whether he’s arrogant or not. I don’t think he can help it: It’s the upturned chin.” For this, Keith Olbermann of MSNBC named me and five others the “Worst People in the World.” We were racists, you see. We were using the racist codeword “arrogant.”

I used this bizarre episode as the basis for an essay in National Review: “‘Worst People’: Some notes on racism and anti-racism in America.” Go here.

Well, well, well. Brad Wilmouth of NewsBusters noticed something very interesting. After Obama cut that recent tax deal with the Republicans, Olbermann was mightily upset. He hailed as a prophet a union leader named Tom Buffenbarger, who had warned that Obama would be a sell-out. This was during the 2008 primaries. Buffenbarger was a big supporter of Hillary Clinton.

Olbermann showed a clip of Buffenbarger introducing Mrs. Clinton on the trail. And Buffenbarger said that Obama was just a pontificator, with his “nose in the air.”

Gee. (To see what Brad Wilmouth wrote, go here. And nice going, Brad.)

‐A while back, I received a marvelous letter, which I’ve been looking forward to sharing with you. It concerns the young man in Portland, Ore. — a Somalian immigrant — who wanted to blow up all those people. Our reader writes,

“First, having lived in both cities, I can safely say that — excluding San Francisco, which is sui generis — the only city in this country more left-wing than Portland is Ann Arbor.” As regular readers know, I’m always ragging on Ann Arbor, my hometown, for its political stupidity. The reader continues:

If this guy had stood up on a street corner and railed against our government, our military, the Jews in Palestine, Christianity, etc., he likely would have been cheered. But he wanted more than that: He wanted blood. Do you think any of these Portlanders will ever understand that, no matter whether they say the right things, or vote the right way, or buy those fair-trade coffee beans, or jeer at George W. Bush, they will always be nothing more than enemies and legitimate targets in the minds of these violent little sh**s?

No, they will never understand (is my answer). Our reader says that he was “really struck” by something the would-be bomber said: “To my parents who held me back from Jihad in the cause of Allah, I say . . .” — all sorts of things. He wished them hell’s fury and so on.

Our reader says, “These poor people. Can you imagine coming from one of the most war-torn and poverty-stricken places on earth to the serene Pacific Northwest, making a decent living (I hope), and having your son make his way into a decent university, only for him to succumb to such awful atavism? I feel for them, I really do.”

Hear, hear. And then our reader says, “It reminds me of a story. My parents had emigrated from Croatia in the ’70s and were usually glued to the news in the evenings during the mid-’90s when the Balkans were afire. One evening there was the report of some fresh atrocity, and my father snarled out some comment about the Serbs. I agreed with him” — and then father and son had the following exchange:

Father: “Don’t say that.”

Son: “What? You’re always saying stuff about how awful the Serbs are.”

Father: “Yes, but that’s why we came to America — so you wouldn’t be a primitive like me.”

I just adore that.

‐Some readers have asked me to comment on Henryk Górecki, the composer who died last month. I will. He was impressive. Throughout his life — 76 years — he displayed various types of courage. I will enumerate.

One was physical courage. He was sick for much of his life, and persevered. He never went under.

Another was political. A Pole and a believer, he was part of the struggle against the Communist dictatorship. He could have lived cushily as a member of the nomenklatura, but chose not to.

Another type of courage was musical, or artistic. He came of age when “serialism” — twelve-tone composition — was all the rage. More than the rage, it was the law: and there were penalties for violating it. If you composed in other ways, you were denounced and shunned as a reactionary. Górecki went along for a while, composing like everyone else. Then he said, “Nuts to this” — and wrote the tonal and spiritual music that was in him.

Something shocking happened in the early 1990s. A recording of his Symphony No. 3, the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” became a worldwide hit. It sold more than a million copies, which may not be a big deal for a pop album, but which is a huge, huge deal for a classical album. Even more of one for an album proffering newly composed music.

In 1987, Górecki composed an unaccompanied choral piece for one of John Paul II’s pilgrimages to Poland: Totus Tuus. It is beloved the world over, and rightly so. I heard it very, very shortly after it was composed — and was stunned by its bold beauty. If you don’t know it, treat yourself.

‐Did you know that Hugues Cuénod died? The Swiss tenor was a buck-oh-eight — 108 years old. I remember him singing at the Met when he was in his 80s. The guy was built for the long haul. Right now, Elliott Carter is surely in Greenwich Village (I’m north at the office in Murray Hill), composing. He celebrated his 102nd birthday on Saturday.

‐Charles Barkley made some news the other day, talking about President Obama’s basketball ability. (Not so hot, according to Sir Charles.) Barkley is always a joy to listen to, or at least he often is. I remember when I first caught the magic of him. A player named Rickie Mahorn was traded from my team, the Pistons, to Barkley’s team, the 76ers. (Later, Barkley played on other teams. So did Rickie, for that matter.) Someone asked Barkley how he felt about the arrival of Mahorn in Philadelphia. He said, “Great. At last I don’t have the biggest behind on the team.”

‐Norway is a big sender-out of Christmas trees — and this is a wonderful, even a moving, tradition. Every year, the Norwegians send a tree to London, in gratitude for British help during the war. The tree is placed in Trafalgar Square. And every year, the people of Bergen send a tree to Newcastle — whose sons did much to liberate Bergen. And every year, Norway sends a tree to us: to Washington, in gratitude for American help during the war. The tree goes in Union Station.

I was there last week. The tree was enormous and shapely. There was a little sign next to it, explaining that it was a gift from the Norwegian people. And the tree was fake. Fake. I felt the bad boy, repeatedly, just to be sure.

What the . . . what gives? Me no understand. You?

‐Bill Buckley fans might enjoy this: He once sent me a CD (which had been given to him), with a Post-It note on it: “Me no like. You?”

‐So, I’ve received a Christmas card from the Jordanian royal family. I’m on an exclusive list of many thousands. Pictured are King Abdullah, Queen Rania, and their four children (two boys and two girls). The littler boy — the youngest of the children — looks much like his grandfather, King Hussein.

‐A reader writes, “Would you please retell in your column the story you told some years back, about how you and a colleague said ‘Merry Christmas’ to each other, sheepishly and subversively?” Sure. Actually, that story is told in this piece, called “December’s C-Word.” (That word would be “Christmas.”) Or, you can get that piece in the collection advertised at the end of this column, along with a ream of other pieces.

In the last few weeks, I have received many letters reporting various offenses against Christmas: the insistent and absurd substitution of “holiday” for “Christmas,” etc. I got a letter from a publicist talking about the “holiday episode” of some show: “holiday” this, “holiday” that, the letter said. I almost wrote back and said, “What holiday?” But I refrained. I can always fulminate in Impromptus, you know?

Have just one letter from a reader:


I work at a very large, very well-known company that I won’t name. We just received our 2011 holiday schedule. For the first time ever, the company has decided to massacre two holidays:

1. Good Friday = “Spring Holiday”

2. Christmas and Christmas Eve = “Winter Holiday” (one name for both days)

They actually printed this and distributed it to thousands of employees! I’m not the least bit religious, but what the [heck] is a “Spring Holiday”? What, no “Autumn Holiday” or “Summer Holiday”?

I know, I know . . .

‐I hope you are enjoying the Christmas season, wherever you are. I must say, New York is looking spiffier than ever. It sparkles and glows, all Christmas-ed up. London is a wonderful Christmas city. But, frankly, I’ll put New York up there with anybody.

I remember a call we received from David Brooks, later of New York Times fame, just after we moved up to New York. Moved up from Washington, I mean. It was December. Now, I believe David is a lover of New York, unlike many who live in Washington (and elsewhere). On our answering machine, he said, “Just knowing that my voice is in New York, I can almost see the windows at Saks.”

I think we got better windows than those now. (No offense to the creative types at Saks.) In any event, I don’t think I’ll be Impromptus-izing until 2011, and I wish you the happiest and best. But then, that’s what we always wish each other, whatever the season, right?




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