Friday, March 10, 2006

Póg Mo Thóin

It is pronounced POAG muh HONE, anglicized as Pogue Mahone, and in Irish Gaelic it means "kiss my ass." Shane MacGowan has been inviting the world to do so for 25 years now, and on Thursday night Washington DC obliged. I was there, I saw it, and I was glad to join in.

Shane MacGowan is the founder and animating spirit of The Pogues, the groundbreaking 80s group that invented the category "Celtic Punk" now inhabited by more derivative acts like Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys, and The Tossers. MacGowan shortened the band's name in 1984 to end a daytime airplay ban by the Beeb -- who had not been amused to learn they'd been the laughingstock of their Irish speaking audience every time they announced a Pogue Mahone tune. This might be the last time MacGowan refrained from telling someone to kiss his rear.

MacGowan is one of the best songwriters to come out of the British Isles in the past thirty years. It was his pure genius that married the angry energy of the Sex Pistols with the lyricism of Yeats and the comic irony of Flann O'Brien. But that's not all MacGowan has in common with these legends of Irish art: he is also a prodigious drunk. Not one of these apologetic, woeful, Twelve Step alcoholics, mind you, with their remorse and excuses of self-medication. He's an unrepentant drunk, who acknowledges that his erratic behavior forced his fellow band members to abandon him for a decade, and who therefore dials back the inebriation just enough to stay on stage for two hours, but not enough to fool anyone into thinking he's sober.

I went into this show with a good bit of foreboding. We'd paid fifty bucks apiece for the tickets, after all, and there was no guarantee there'd still be a lead singer standing by the time the doors opened at 10 pm. Their entrance onto the stage did little to allay my trepidation: MacGowan was already visibly unsteady, and carried a partially consumed quart of whiskey in a left hand death grip. They opened, appropriately enough, with Streams of Whiskey, a song haunted by the ghost of Brendan Behan, another legendary Irish drunk. (Behan looms large in the Pogues oeuvre: they recorded his Auld Triangle early on, and he also appears in Thousands are Sailing.)

Halfway through the second song, If I Should Fall From Grace, I formulated this pointyheaded theory that a live performance by Shane MacGowan in 2006 only made sense as an iconic representation pointing backwards to his earlier recordings. The words were a complete muddle. No one seeing him for the first time could understand how good he had been, and why everyone in this club adored him.

But then I noticed something very strange: as he sang, his head seemed to clear. This seemed physically impossible, since we had watched him consume at least a half-pint of whiskey in the space of fewer than two songs. But it was undeniably happening: he moved more surely about the stage, sang more strongly, and by the time he began Broad Majestic Shannon, I was sure I'd see, and enjoy, a full show. And I did ever.

MacGowan's voice is not what it was twenty years ago, and never will be again. Like his body, it is weighted with the burden of heavy experience. Somehow, this just makes the songs even more his own property. In comparison, the idiotic japery of Mick Jagger is embarrassing and pathetic.

The critics all agree that If I Should Fall From the Grace of God is the Pogues's best album, but I have always preferred Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, where the Irishness of their instrumentation comes through most clearly, with the addition of uillean pipes and fiddle. The enduring appeal of Celtic Punk is, for me, the Celtic rather than the punk. (Although I admit that Grace of God contains one of the finest songs of the 20th century, Turkish Song of the Damned. Even there, though, the supposed "world beat" influence is true to their Irish roots. It has the anglo-oriental exoticism of Burton or Doughty or Coleridge. In fact, I am informed you can sing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to the tune of Turkish Song of the Damned, which would have impressed the hell out of my high school English teacher.)

When The Pogues were enjoying their greatest commercial success, I preferred their Stiff Records colleagues: Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury. I haven't listened to any of them in ages, but I have five Pogues CDs on my iPod. There are rumors that several of the Pogues are writing fresh songs, and a new album may be forthcoming. Here's to success with the rest of the too-short American tour, which included only eight dates in four cities.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Sam's Hole In One-And-A-Half

My esteemed colleague Sam Karnick comes oh-so close to the central point about assessments and property tax liabilities in his recent post, although it must be said at the outset that the arguments that he does muster are utterly correct. But in terms of standard public finance principles, the real argument is that government has specific functions to achieve, and is supposed to conduct them "efficiently," that is, at minimum cost. (Please stop giggling.) Accordingly: Rising assessments should be accompanied by falling property tax rates, so that only the needed revenues are raised. Sam hints at this with his "because they can" point---which is clearly correct, in that governments exercise their monopoly powers as well as anyone---but the larger point is that government is not entitled to some share of rising wealth, or more crudely, to have its thumb in every pie. As for the economic burden (or "incidence") of property taxes, that is a story for another day; suffice it for now to say that the homeowners sending the checks to the government do not necessarily bear the (full) incidence of the tax. Off to Berlin Saturday to talk about the Chinese economy. Bratwurst and beer, and oh happy me.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Welcome Development: Property Tax Revolts

The Christian Science Monitor reports today that homeowners around the nation are increasingly angry about property tax increases. It is true that property taxes in many areas have been rising much more quickly than either the overall inflation rate or increasing values of homes, and not just for the wealthy but for everyone. These windfalls, moreover, are not being collected because the communities desperately need additional swimming pools in the local schools. (You should see the astonishing luxuries in most schools in decent neighborhoods.) No, the local governments are collecting these high taxes simply because they can: people living in highly preferred communities are at the mercy of their local taxing bodies, and the latter are increasingly taking advantage of local residents.

Citizens around the nation are utterly fed up with this legalized extortion and have begun to take action, the Monitor reports:

This year, legislative proposals, citizen initiatives, and lawsuits are on the agenda in at least 20 states. These new efforts reflect both residents' distrust of how their property tax dollars are being spent and concerns that rising assessments are driving working-class people out of popular towns and cities. . . .

"The intensity of outrage has not been this high since Prop. 13's heyday," says Pete Sepp, spokesman for the director of the National Taxpayers Union in Alexandria, Va. . . .

Revolt is in full swing in Incline Village, Nev., on the shores of Lake Tahoe.

There, Maryanne Ingemanson's tax bill is now $80,000 a year for a 5,000-square-foot house. She and a group of residents raised $400,000 to fund a lawsuit claiming recent assessments are unfair. Last week, 17 residents won a battle against the tax assessor when an elected county board threw out the new assessments.

Of course, many believe homeowners should be glad that their homes are worth more, says Ms. Ingemanson. But many people - especially the working class and those on fixed incomes - can't always afford the new taxes and have to leave. "This runaway taxes situation is driving people from their homes," she adds.

South Carolina last week passed a law that caps the increase in property assessments at 3 percent per year.

Many Georgia lawmakers are backing a measure to put a similar cap in the state constitution. The bill's sponsor, first-term state Rep. Edward Lindsey (R) from Atlanta, argues that it's unfair to hit homeowners with a big tax boost years before they sell their home and profit from its increased value.

"Not even the IRS is so bold as to tax people on unrealized gain," says Mr. Lindsey. "These are essentially backdoor tax increases that give government no incentive to be efficient or responsive."

I deliberately retained the mention of Lake Tahoe here, because I think it's important in that it is a relatively hard case with which to sympathize. It's easy to suggest that people living in very expensive homes in beautiful places such as Tahoe should be taxed higher than others, but I think that even the most wretchedly coldhearted socialist must see that charging a person $80,000 a year just so that they can keep their home is an outrageous act of greed and malevolence.

The value of these homes is indeed very great on paper, but the people living in these places are not actually benefitting from any increased value from their homes if they do not sell them (except for their ability to take out home equity loans, which is not a special advantage)—at which point they are no longer subject to paying the property tax! And of course, the burden is even harder on people of lesser incomes, as the Monitor story points out. This property tax revolution is a welcome development indeed, and I wish its purveyors godspeed.

Dana Morosini Reeve, RIP

I wrote a few elegiac words in honor of the life of Dana Reeve. They were published over at Jewish World Review.

A brief excerpt:

Dana Reeve lived the celebrity life, where people can only appear outdoors in full performance mode, prettified and primped and preening, what Irwin Shaw called "polished fruit". Then she was thrust from the limelight into the harsh spotlight, where there is no down time, no dressing room, no backstage. Every minute of every day you have to be on, and if you're not for real the folks will spot it in a flash. She showed us solidity beyond compare, throughout her husband's infirmity and her own illness.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Sis Fire

Pity the poor fans standing on line, shivering in the snow, waiting for the midnight release of the latest Jay Homnick column. Suddenly, bleary-eyed, they see a group of elite types being guided through the crowd by a passel of bodyguards.

They look at each other in a resentful flash of recognition: it's those Reform Club guys who always get the early glimpse.

Here's a peek:

A poll, than which no greater intellectual authority in our culture is conceivable, has declared that it is high time for a woman to accede to the Presidency. The mensuration of temporal height is not a discipline I have mastered, but I have scored a high mark or twain in political science. And in that field the time had grown to its full height almost four decades ago.

In 1966 Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister of India and served for fourteen of the next seventeen years; Golda Meir became her counterpart in Israel in 1969, Thatcher in England in '79. When Geraldine Ferraro ran for Vice-President alongside Walter Mondale in 1984, it was a familiar refrain among Republican types that "if Margaret Thatcher would be heading our ticket we'd vote for her in a heartbeat". Although it was kind of lame and pathetic that they felt the need to buttonhole everyone with that information, lest the chauvinist stereotype prove too adhesive, it had the homely virtue of being true.

Larry Summers and Harvard

Mike Rappaport over at The Right Coast
is entirely right about the Larry Summers thing. Once he decided to engage on the big issues (and did he really think the folks around Harvard wouldn't get upset with even a question about women's "innate" abilities?), he had to win. Or, failing that, he had to go down trying. Instead, he just wimped out. Maybe men are just not as able to stand up and fight - or maybe he just didn't want to hit a girl (even if just metaphorically)...

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Religious Right as "American Taliban": Calumny or Just Slander?

Our Burkean-in-training, Connie Deady, asks the right questions, ones that are being asked everywhere right now:

Was it Aquinas or Augustine that differentiated between the secular and the divine and said that the two should be separate and we should leave the divine to God and the state to be secular? (I always get those two mixed up in my mind.)

Most everybody does, Ms. Deady, except for those of us who have no mind for such things at all. Actually, it originated with Jesus, with the "render unto Caesar" bit.

I see the argument often these days that Christian thought is founded on superstition ("revelation") alone and that modern secularism is the heir to all human reason, from Aristotle 'til now. But that's simply not accurate.

You'll find the philosophical father of our constitution John Locke's moral and political vocabulary closer to St. Thomas Aquinas' natural law than to modernist philosophy: like Aquinas, Locke does not use the Bible directly to advance his political arguments. And you will find Christianity philosophically and historically in easier accomodation with the Enlightenment and the Founding principles, and frankly, vice-versa. It is in post-Enlightenment thought, "modern" philosophy (as opposed to what we like to call around here "classical liberalism"), the realm of Marx, Rawls, and Freud, where the true radicalism, the modern Jacobins, are to be found.

Theories of natural law do not depend on the Bible, which is why I'm fond of pointing out that the Dalai Lama is also a natural law theorist, his philosophy not dependent on any holy book, but on reason alone. His Holiness is a useful control in our thought experiment: like the Dalai Lama, Christian thought does not reject ordinary moral reasoning. The Bible is nowhere near comprehensive enough to get by without it.
It seems to me that one outcome of your position is what we are getting in Iraq and the Mideast, which is complete intermingling of State and Islam. Doesn't that give you pause to worry about letting the divine control the secular laws?

OK, this what makes me start to bristle these days, and I'll tell you why. It's a facile but unfounded equivalency, that "all religions are (somehow) the same," and you're by no means alone in making it. There were 500 Islam-inspired bombings in a single day recently in Bangladesh, a Muslim country that virtually nobody gives a geo-econo-political damn about. There is a phenomenon here that has nothing to do with us.

This is where today's routine equivalencies of Christian and Islamic fundamentalisms fall short: in their founding documents themselves.

The specifics of Islam, that it is not seen (and does not offer itself) merely as a religion (muzdhab), but as a self-contained Tao, a comprehensive way of life (din) both moral and legal, make liberalization ("Enlightenment") far more difficult, especially in accomodation with pluralistic Western secularism, which seeks to pop Islam into its conceptual pigeonhole as mere religion. I wish it were that easy, but the Western mind from neo-con to modernist loses the flavor, nay, the essence, in translation.

Each tradition has its specifics and self-conception, which cannot be ignored and thrown into one amorphous soup. We must understand them as they understand themselves, or else we're left trying to make squares out of circles, wasting our time and cyberink.

In the American debate, Christian moral thought does not claim any special dispensation from the rigors of reason; it holds itself simply equal to any secular system of philosophy.

But not inferior. It does not accept dhimmitude and second-class status. Everything's on the table, and let the most reasonable moral system be the law of the land, as decided by the consciences of the American people, not a minority of legal theorists who use the constitution as a weapon against we the people.

This was the moral choice that confronted the "religious right," Christian fundamentalists, in the wake of Roe v. Wade, a constitutionally brutal decision. They found themselves thrust, as part of a democracy that the Bible never contemplated, into sharing the role of Caesar and with all the burdens and duties of conscience: to accept those burdens and duties, or in embracing the new legal theory of moral neutrality as the only truly constitutional principle of law, shirk them.

To my mind, they followed the only moral course (with some regrettable and condemnable extremist exceptions)---using moral suasion in the form of protest, and organizing politically to change the composition of the Supreme Court, which was the real author of the inalienable "right" to abortion, not the constitution or the people, and certainly not to their minds, any endowing Creator.

I think they did OK. They respected our social contract in both letter and spirit.

We shall, with your permission, hold for another day the prudence or morality in our present moral dilemma, between accommodating the order that Muslim tyrannies provide their people versus the decimating chaos that accompanies the establishment of political self-determination, and the question of the compatability of democracy with Islam. I first wanted to deal with throwing everyone who believes in anything beyond the material world into the same indifferent soup. I have some charitable things to say about Islam, but charity begins at home.

In Defense of Principle on Campus

Back from Geneva, a third-world backwater where a decent corned beef (sorry, corned boeuf) sandwich is not to be found. Anyway, I see that the Court ruled 8-zip against the campus lefties in
Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, so that a threat to revoke federal funding is not coercion or a threat to free speech, or blah, blah, blah, as the lefties continue to oppose ROTC and miltary recruiting efforts on campus because of don't ask-don't tell policies toward homosexuals. So: Will the campuses deny themselves such federal dollars so as to stand for their principles? Just asking.
Off to Berlin Saturday to talk about China. Corned beef will not be hard to find.

Sunday, March 05, 2006


Oh, it's one of those usual press things, where they highlight a non-story to make stupid Christians look even stupider, but it certainly does seem that

Missouri legislators in Jefferson City considered a bill that would name Christianity the state's official "majority" religion.

House Concurrent Resolution 13 has is pending in the state legislature.

...if we're to believe KMOV's (sic) illiterate and spotty account.

Now, legislatures "consider" all kinds of bills, like proposing to recognize the fact that the earth is flat, illegal Martian aliens killed Nicole Simpson, or that Willie Mays was the greatest baseball player of all time. They usually vote no. (Mays was the 2nd greatest, sorry. Babe Ruth could pitch.)

I like the bill, in its way. The anti-theists can only push so far, and this is the pushback. No Roe v. Wade, no Pat Robertson, and that's a fact. They say you can't impose morality, but you can't impose moral neutrality either. Human beings aren't wired that way.

But let me say I think it's a bad idea for a state to simply declare an "official religion." I think they should put it up for bids, like being the official beer of the NFL. The Mormons would take a pass, but the Scientologists would take a stab at it and the Baha'is could certainly use the exposure. Then again, the UAE would probably just swoop in and buy it for Wahhabism.

The Official Religious Terrorist Cult of Missouri. Now that has a ring to it. Christian Identity skinhead losers* would be really pissed, though. Outsourced again.

*I was going to provide a link to "storm front," for some cheap laughs, but it looks like they've been closed down by their free-website provider. Cleaning up spills on Aisle 4 just doesn't provide much of a revenue base. Not a great act of courage on my part, but come and get me, you bastards. I'm a Republican and that means I've got guns, and enough dough to afford bigger ones than you.