Monthly Archives: August 2008

Cyprian of Carthage, Bob Dylan and “Masked and Anonymous”

Many thanks to reader Anthony Harmon who e-mails with a very interesting discovery:

… I noticed an interesting connection today. In the 3rd century A.D., St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, wrote a letter to a certain Donatus:

“This seems a cheerful world, Donatus, when I view it from this fair garden, under the shadow of these vines. But if I climbed some great mountain and looked out over the wide land, you know very well what I would see. Brigands on the highways, pirates on the seas; in the amphitheatres men murdered to please the applauding crowds; under all roofs misery and selfishness. It is really a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. Yet in the midst of it, I have found a quiet and holy people. They have discovered a joy, which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of this sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians… and I am one of them.”

Already some phrases and ideas may have rung a bell in your head, depending on your familiarity with Masked and Anonymous, in which “Jack Fate” says toward the end:

“I was always a singer and maybe no more than that. Sometimes it’s not enough to know the meaning of things, sometimes we have to know what things don’t mean as well. Like what does it mean to not know what the person you love is capable of? Things fall apart, especially all the neat order of rules and laws. The way we look at the world is the way we really are. See it from a fair garden and everything looks cheerful. Climb to a higher plateau and you’ll see plunder and murder. Truth and beauty are in the eye of the beholder. I stopped trying to figure everything out a long time ago.”

The idea is the same, just compressed, and the quaint phrase “fair garden” and some other parallel words are too striking to be coincidental, in my opinion. Of course, the Dylan quote comes off more pessimistically, as he doesn’t mention the last part of the Cyprian quote, about the Christians. But I find it fascinating that Dylan may have, consciously or subconsciously, borrowed an idea and even some exact words, from this 3rd century Christian bishop. Just imagine if Dylan is trying to subtly imply the rest of the quote, the part about the Christians and his being one of them, by referencing just the first part of the quote. It wouldn’t be his style to include that last part and so blatantly identify himself as Christian; plus it wouldn’t work in the dark context from the movie. But I think he likes to plant little hints that will only be picked up by people who really care; kind of like a parable: it’s a built-in filter so that only the dedicated hear the real message. I hope I don’t sound like the next A.J. Weberman or something haha …

Well, as I wrote back to Anthony, I don’t think this is Mr. Weberman’s territory at all. Another way of putting it might be that because Dylan’s awareness of God is such a constant underpinning of his work, it comes out in countless different ways. If you’re attuned to it, I think, you pick it up, and it is inspiring and encouraging (as great art ought to be). If you’re not attuned to it, then it’s just part of the rich and mysterious tapestry of his work. Is he being allusive to these words of Cyprian of Carthage because he deliberately wants to send a message to anyone, or is it just because the words came to his mind in the writing of this script, or would he even know himself? I don’t know, in any case. But I think the fact that he is echoing Cyprian’s words here is beyond doubt.

And one can easily see how these words of St. Cyprian would have stuck in Dylan’s mind whenever he himself read them. Dylan’s work always has this consciousness of the big picture, and of the fact that “happiness can come suddenly and leave just as quick.” His songs have always known that and always posed the question as to what this knowledge means for everyone. In other words, his work never turns a blind eye to the human condition, and this is what makes it distinct from so many of his contemporaries in popular music. Even in as happy and carefree a song as I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, you can hear the world outside with all of its pressing dangers and troubles, from which the singer is trying to snatch a few hours of escape with his sweetheart. A fair garden, indeed.

By the way, I told Anthony a couple of days ago that I would post about this today (Sunday) and he later wrote back with another interesting discovery. Today just happens to be the feast day of Cyprian of Carthage in the Orthodox Liturgical Calendar.

Scary, huh?

Recently Bob Dylan has been performing I Believe In You in concert. Here’s a clip from his August 23rd gig in Indiana.

Don’t let me drift too far,
Keep me where you are
Where I will always be renewed.
And that which you’ve given me today
Is worth more than I could pay
And no matter what they say
I believe in you.

Sarah, Sarah

The Weekly Standard moved fast and they have Sarah Palin on the cover of their new issue. Playing on the Obama catch-phrase from some months ago (which he probably wouldn’t dare use now for fear of being laughed into oblivion) the story by Fred Barnes asks “Is she the one we’ve been waiting for?”

Palin is a different kind of Republican. She’s a conservative reformer who, somewhat like McCain but more like Ronald Reagan, is forever poised to challenge the sluggish (or corrupt) Republican establishment and shake up the status quo. “I didn’t get into government to do the safe and easy things,” she declared after McCain introduced her as his running mate. “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not why the ship is built.”

She brought down Alaska’s governor, attorney general, and state Republican chairman (see my “Most Popular Governor,” July 16, 2007). She killed the “bridge to nowhere.” She used increased tax revenues from high oil prices to give Alaskans a rebate. She slashed government spending. She took on the biggest industry in Alaska, the oil companies, to work out an equitable deal on building a new gas pipeline. Obama can’t match even one of these accomplishments.


With Palin on board, the change issue is no longer Obama’s exclusive possession. She and McCain are more likely to clash with special interest groups than are Obama and Biden, who have yet to buck a single liberal pressure group. Palin and McCain are more likely to produce both “change we can believe in” and “change we need.”

Palin provides

Early this week, RWB said this about John McCain’s then pending VP choice:

McCain is now perched in the catbird seat. Where Obama faces a divided and nervous Democratic convention, McCain has the opportunity to capitalize on recent progress with the Republican base, and create a huge bubble of G.O.P. enthusiasm by picking a solid conservative running mate.


Picking a solid conservative running mate will do two big things for McCain: (1) Give the conservative base and the evangelicals a reason to get out and vote big in November and (2) fire up the kinds of grassroots people needed to organize and get the vote out.

Via Hot Air, I see that McCain has raised $7 million dollars since yesterday’s announcement that Governor Sarah Palin would be his running mate. And Politico is reporting a big surge of volunteerism for the G.O.P. So, as also said in that post some days ago (with McCain now having gone with a solid conservative VP) I think that this election is now McCain’s to lose. Barring an enormous perception-shifting event for the electorate, I believe that he is positioned for a substantial win in November. This is not about today’s poll numbers; it’s about how things will shake out as the Republican convention comes and goes and as the debates take place and as we get down to the wire and all the gloves come off. Nevertheless, a day’s a long time in politics, as they say, so I for one will still be holding on tight.

They’re off

John McCain’s pick of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for his VP certainly meets the basic criteria outlined by yours-truly as far back as February; i.e., she’s a solid conservative. For that reason alone, I think, he chose well. The rest is gravy. It’s mind-boggling that the Obama people are criticizing her for lack of experience. As a successful mayor and governor in Alaska, she has real experience as an executive, getting real things done. By contrast, Barack Obama (who is running for president, not vice-president) has how much executive experience? Let me see; that’s right: zero. There’s precious little evidence he can give people orders and get anything real accomplished. (He couldn’t even tell the Clintons that they’d lost.) It’s beyond absurd for Obama to maintain that Palin is less qualified than he to be president, when she, after all, will at least have some kind of opportunity for on-the-job training as VP. Is she less qualified than him simply because she’s a mom from Alaska, instead of being some high-falutin’ elitist community organizer type from Chicago? It’s outrageous.

We shall see how Palin shakes out, but at the very least McCain has picked the right kind of person ideologically speaking (which was crucial for the base). Beyond that it is at least quite possible that he has hit another home run. It just seems a little too early to say for sure on the day she was selected.

Obama’s acceptance speech last night didn’t entirely keep me awake, what with his laundry list of policy goals. Nevertheless, it was probably the right speech for him to give, and he’ll get some kind of bounce from his performance. It struck me, listening to his standard Democratic party lines, that just about any Democrat could make that kind of speech. It raised the question, then, of “why him?” Why is it someone up there who has served less than four years in the U.S. senate and achieved very little before that?

Then I started thinking, “what if?” Imagine if the Republican nominee were a guy elected to the senate in 2006 2004, who had been merely a lowly state senator previous to that. No great accomplishments to his name — just a couple of books about himself. Imagine, however, that this guy was a great speaker, and had been rallying huge crowds of conservatives and evangelicals and such like with mesmerizing speeches. His oratorical ability by itself was such that he beat out McCain, Romney, Giuliani and everyone else — people with many decades more real experience than himself. So he gets the nomination, and he accepts it in front of a crowd of 75,000 cheering, adoring conservative Christian-types in an outdoor stadium at night.

What would Democrats and all of those on the left be saying about such a guy right now?

Obama accepts the nomination

The election of an African-American to be the nominee of one of the two major parties is a definite milestone, and one which is deeply resonant with many people. I’m glad to see this milestone reached. America is truly a great country.

Now, it would sure be nice if the individual achieving this milestone were not such an empty suit. And as for Barack Obama’s Temple of Doom, from which he will address over 70,000 disciples tonight: there seems little point in mocking it any more than it already is being mocked, including by the increasingly sharp and funny McCain campaign. The fact that it was designed by someone who has also designed stage sets for Britney Spears is just the crowning cherry. The degree to which the Obama campaign is walking right into these laugh lines ought to have Democrats pretty worried. And indeed, I believe the sensible ones are pretty worried.

Whatever takes place tonight, the 70,000 + worshipping fans who pack the Invesco Stadium are not the ones that Barack Obama needs to persuade, in order to win the presidency. How this spectacle will play with the actual voters he needs to persuade remains to be seen. These voters are likely a good deal more pragmatic; at least pragmatic enough to realize that they are electing a president, and not a deity.

Obama has explained the grandiose setting this way:

“We’re going to be moving to Mile High Stadium tomorrow, and I want to let you know why,” he said. “We want to open up this convention to make sure that everybody that wants to come can join in the party and join in the effort to take America back.”

In fact, this is just as much a staged event as anything that has taken place at the convention, obviously — it is merely on a much larger scale. Obama will stand and make a prepared speech to a crowd. What’s the difference?

On the other hand, had Barack Obama accepted McCain’s invitation to a series of pre-convention town hall debates across the nation (as he said he would back in May) that would have truly been something like opening this campaign up to the people. Obama likes the symbolism, we know. It has turned out that he just doesn’t much like the reality.

More conventional wisdom

Just a note: Democratic strategist and Clintonista James Carville is out there criticizing the first night of the Democrat Convention:

“You haven’t heard about Iraq or John McCain or George W. Bush — I haven’t heard any of this. We are a country that is in a borderline recession, we are an 80 percent wrong-track country. Health care, energy — I haven’t heard anything about gas prices,” Carville also says. “Maybe we are going to look better Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. But right now, we’re playing hide the message.”

Carville also said the party needs to do a better job of communicating its message to the American people.

“If this party has a message it’s done a hell of a job hiding it tonight, I promise you that,” he said.

What James Carville is doing is setting the table for Hillary Clinton. Hillary can come out tonight and deliver a barn-storming, stem-winding, roof-raising, Bush-bashing speech that tickles all the erogenous zones of those zany Democrat conventioneers. They will be saying to themselves, “Carville was right! The first night of the Obama convention was a total waste of time! This [the first night of the Clinton convention] is the kind of stuff we really want!” Such a performance will, for many of those conventioneers, induce buyer’s remorse to the tenth power (especially with all of these relentlessly declining poll numbers for Obama). And that will suit Hillary just fine.

Addendum: OK, it wasn’t exactly as anticipated above. Hillary would have done better to take RWB’s advice, but she was — typically — trying to cover too many bases. There are reasons she lost the nomination.

Some conventional wisdom

Yours-truly returned from travels just in time to turn on the TV and catch some of yesterday’s goings-on at the Democrat convention. I may disagree with him on just about everything, but God bless ol’ Teddy Kennedy — one must assume it was an heroic and Herculean effort for him to get out there and make his speech despite his terrible illness. Michelle Obama’s speech was just the inoffensive goop she needed to wallow in, and it was written competently for her.

As of the morning news shows today, last night’s feel-good kick-off was already well over (did it even really happen?) and the 2008 Clinton National Convention had well and truly begun. What will Hillary Clinton say today? What will Bill Clinton say tomorrow? It’s all anyone wants to know. (Oh, and there’s some curiosity as to whether that Barack Obama guy will be able to pick up the pieces on Thursday.) With Obama’s pick of Joe Biden merely greasing the slide for his poll numbers, no Republican could have scripted a better slow-motion disaster for the Democrats than the one currently unfolding. It’s rather mind-boggling.

It must be clear to everyone that Obama made a huge error in not confronting and frankly slapping down the Clintons before now. He thought that by being accommodating he could avoid a damaging fight at the convention. So, he gave the Clintons everything they wanted (roll call vote, prime time speeches on successive nights, paying off their debt) and in return they are still effectively fighting him at every step and keeping a stopper firmly clamped on the bottle of goodwill from which he so desperately seeks to drink. He’d have been better off showing strength by saying to the Clintons weeks ago: “Listen. I won. You lost. Get it through your heads and get in line or I’ll see to it that you’re declared to be disloyal to the Democratic party and cast out into the darkness.” Sure, he would have lost a lot of Hillary voters — but he’s losing plenty in the current scenario anyway. On the other hand, he would have gained a stature that would have helped him garner votes across the board.

Joe Biden is a VP pick who does nothing for Obama other than highlight his deficiencies. It smells of being a pick by committee, where Biden was the one left after others were ruled out for this reason or that, and it speaks of weakness more than anything else.

McCain is now perched in the catbird seat. Where Obama faces a divided and nervous Democratic convention, McCain has the opportunity to capitalize on recent progress with the Republican base, and create a huge bubble of G.O.P. enthusiasm by picking a solid conservative running mate. If he does that, then I believe this election will officially be his to lose (and he will not be likely to lose it). If he goes the other way, in a mistaken effort to “reach out” to liberals and alleged moderates, then the election will remain a toss-up. Picking a solid conservative running mate will do two big things for McCain: (1) Give the conservative base and the evangelicals a reason to get out and vote big in November and (2) fire up the kinds of grassroots people needed to organize and get the vote out. Couple that with the way the polls have been moving towards McCain anyway, and you’d have to see a huge perception-shifting event for McCain to lose this election.

Take away that enthusiasm from the base, however (as with a pro-choice VP pick) and you can start to see problems with McCain’s turn-out in November. In such a scenario, if Obama’s and the DNC’s organizing is very strong — and there’s every reason to think it will be — then it could well win him the presidency.

For now, in any case, let all the partying continue in Denver.

Odds & Ends

Same ol’ same ol': In Britain, a real estate investment firm named Brixton issued a report which quotes a verse from Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower to illustrate how tough the commercial property market is at the moment.

“The apocalyptic opening lines of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ seem to capture the beleaguered mindset of the UK commercial real estate market:

‘There must be some way out of here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief
Businessmen they drink my wine
Ploughmen dig my earth
None of them along the line
Know what any of it is worth'”


“There is no real depth of evidence of willing buyers and sellers – the RICS Valuation Standards’ assumption. Financing remains difficult and sellers are reluctant to crystallise lower prices.

“If the ‘thieves’ are the funded or equity based opportunist buyers and the ‘jokers’ are the owners who won’t sell, there is no ‘way out’ of this impasse – yet.”

OK. But that doesn’t really warrant much comment. I think we’re fast reaching the point where inserting a quote of Dylan’s is no more remarkable than inserting a quote from Shakespeare. What’s worthy of comment, to me, is instead this bit of editorializing on the story from the Guardian:

Few bosses make reference to the lyrics of popular songs in their comments, despite many of them being members of what might be described as the rock’n’roll generation. Choosing Dylan, who is known for his antipathy to big business, is therefore a radical departure for the head of a FTSE 250 business.

Bob Dylan is known for his antipathy to big business?!? Tell that to certain fans who have started referring to “Dylan, Inc.” to characterize the very large number of commercial offerings and ventures that bear his name these days. From the many ways in which his music is packaged and sold, to all those limited edition “Drawn Blank” prints and his recent deal with Hohner, Dylan has enough fingers poking into enough pies to inspire envy from the board of, oh, say, Halliburton (or insert your own demonic symbol of devouring capitalism here). And the offhand way in which the writer above refers to Dylan’s supposed hostility to big business is even more mind-boggling when you remember that Bob has been involved in not just one but two high profile advertising campaigns in recent years: for Victoria’s Secret and for Cadillac. It just goes to show that it doesn’t matter what he does — to some Bob Dylan will always represent what they want him to represent, and nothing more.

On a somewhat similar note, there are these lines from a review of Dylan’s recent show in Connecticut:

Opening with the vintage “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” Dylan’s poetic lyrics shined on the landmark 1963 protest song “The Times They Are A-Changin” that can rival anything by Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger.

For only about the trillionth time: Can anybody tell me what is being protested by The Times They Are A-Changin’? And in the forty-five odd years that Dylan has been singing it, have we made much progress in overcoming whatever the “it” is that is being protested against? Is “the slow one” now fast; is “the first one” now last? Or is it at least getting close? I’d sure appreciate some enlightenment.

It reminds me that in the wake of Dylan’s show last week in Brooklyn, a number of reviewers remarked on his performance of both Masters Of War and John Brown, to the effect that he was commenting on the times and aiming these songs at the presumably sympathetic and anti-war New York audience. Well, I think that anyone who follows Dylan’s set lists knows that the only thing we can tell for sure is that Dylan plays whatever the heck he likes, whether he’s playing some theater in Croatia or a sports arena in Ohio. He doesn’t seem to alter the tunes to suit the audience. And those two songs are songs he likes to play. A look back at when he’s played them will reveal that he sings them in times of war and in times of what some people call peace; during times when the United States is governed by evil murderin’ Republicans and during times when the United States is governed by saintly, peace-loving Democrats. And I’ve written about the various things that I think are going on in the song John Brown on another occasion. As for Masters Of War: Dylan himself has famously said it has nothing to with being anti-war as such, and you can make of all that what you will (that whole argument has been covered too often here, although I do like this story on the subject).

Anyhow, in the case of these continuing mainstream media characterizations of Bob Dylan as a raging anti-war, big-business-hating, anti-establishment ne’er do well, it’s a situation where the times could certainly use some changin’, but, as usual, we are best advised not to hold our breath.

Speaking of harmonicas, don’t miss the quite funny and to-the-point exclusive interview with Dylan on the Hohner website.

Election note: The Saddleback forum on Saturday night was clearly a huge event in the framing of this presidential election — bigger than most people anticipated. In particular, McCain’s performance gave many in the conservative base reasons to want to go out and vote for him, rather than just going out and voting against the Democratic party’s nominee. One of the defining questions was on abortion, and Obama’s answer, saying that when a baby obtains human rights was “above my pay grade”, has inspired an avalanche of bad reviews. See Wizbang’s dissection, see Keith Pavlischek’s pithy response; or listen to Mark Hemingway speaking for millions at the Corner:

That spectacularly inept metaphor is going to haunt Obama throughout the rest of the campaign. News flash: There’s not a job on the planet above the pay grade of the President of the United States. If you can’t solve every problem and are humble about it, that’s fine — but you can’t get away with being unsure about the most defining moral issue in politics.

There are ways to evade answering Rick Warren’s question about when human life begins. Other Democrats do evade it, more artfully if not any more honestly. But there is nothing artful about saying it is “above my pay grade,” and such a lousy answer provides additional evidence as to why Obama may be very justifiably nervous about debating John McCain.

No sooner, however, had this groundswell of pro-McCain feeling erupted from the “Christian-right” base than his campaign started putting out feelers about how he might pick a pro-choice VP. At the time of writing, it looks like the feelers have been retracted, appropriately chastened by the reaction. However, I have no idea what is really going to happen on this issue. If there’s anything that we can be sure about when it comes to John McCain, it’s that he has a little bit of the devil in him, and he would probably really enjoy surprising people with his VP pick. Six months ago, I wrote in this space that McCain’s VP pick could be the deal-breaker or the deal-maker, and I haven’t changed my opinion one iota. With McCain’s age, the possibility that his VP pick could be at the head of the ticket in 2012 is a very strong one, and it figures high in the minds of many conservative voters. McCain, with his historic squishiness on various issues, is one thing, for four years in the presidency. But if he seems to be trying to redefine the Republican party by picking someone further to the alleged center than he is, with a view to that person being his successor, then there will be big trouble. Saddleback or no Saddleback. Saying the right words is good. But doing the right thing is of overwhelming importance.

I expect to be mostly out of circulation for the next six or seven days — returning in time for the must-see-TV that will likely be the Democratic convention. But who knows?

Good news!

From the close of the show last Tuesday night in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, here’s a clip of Bob Dylan and his band doing Blowin’ in the Wind.

I really love the arrangement of this song which Dylan has adopted of late. For a song that is often performed by others with a mournful air, or heard as some kind of lamentation or protest, this rendition is strikingly joyous. Exhilaratingly so, in fact. Now, Dylan has done “up” versions of the song before, certainly — such as the live version which ends the film “Masked and Anonymous” — but the joyousness of this version crosses right over into jocularity. The bounciness of the accompaniment — including the guitar and Dylan’s own organ playing — is downright humorous to my ears.

There have always been multiple ways of hearing Blowin’ in the Wind, with its litany of questions, its roll-call of injustice, and its seemingly inscrutable refrain. Some have heard it and have sung it, of-course, as a call to action — to take on an injustice of the day. It can also be heard as a meditation on the persistence and inevitability of injustice in this world, with the singer placing his hope only in the justice of a world to come.

It seems to me that with the way in which Bob Dylan is rendering this song these days, another way of hearing it comes to the fore. When he sings here that “the answer is blowin’ in the wind,” it doesn’t mean that the answer is lost, is out of reach or is unknowable. In this way of hearing it, the refrain is instead a joyful proclamation. The answer is found. “The answer is blowin’ in the wind! The answer is right there, right here, blowin’ in the wind right in front of our faces! Isn’t it hilarious? Isn’t it great?”


McCain and Obama at Saddleback with Rick Warren

Home run for John McCain. Simple as that. A grand slam, in fact. Still, there’s a lot of baseball to be played.

Barack Obama, going first in taking questions from Warren, chose to be expansive in his responses and to avoid the nub of certain issues. John McCain gave shorter and more direct answers, and would have allayed the worries of many Christian conservatives tonight as to the level of his commitment on core principles. And that was crucial ground for him to secure.

(Clips and a link to the transcript here.)

The real acid test

When I saw this headline, I wondered what it could possibly mean: “Drugs like LSD and Ecstasy ‘could help terminally ill’.” Turns out (drat!) that it doesn’t mean that those hits of acid you may have swallowed when you were young and irresponsible will help you live longer.

The first clinical trial involving LSD since the 1970s began in Switzerland in June with the aim of using “psychedelic psychotherapy” to help terminally ill patients come to terms with imminent death to improve the quality of their remaining life.

Eight subjects will receive 200 micrograms of LSD – enough to induce a powerful psychedelic experience – and four will be given 20 micrograms. They will then be assessed for anxiety levels, quality of life and pain levels.


The active ingredient in magic mushrooms, psilocybin, has shown promising results in helping people who are dying from cancer.


Prof Roland Griffiths, who published the study, told the Guardian: “The working hypothesis is that if psilocybin or LSD can occasion these experiences of great personal meaning and spiritual significance … then it would allow [patients with terminal illnesses] hopefully to face their own demise completely differently – to restructure some of the psychological angst that so often occurs concurrently with severe disease.”

Well, we’ve got pills for anxiety, pills for depression, pills for short attention span; now pills for finding the meaning of life (and death)?

It occurs to me that the first place where you might be able to drop acid and have it all covered by insurance might well be the state of Oregon. In case you missed the story from a few weeks ago: “Oregon Offers Terminal Patients Doctor-Assisted Suicide Instead of Medical Care.”

Some terminally ill patients in Oregon who turned to their state for health care were denied treatment and offered doctor-assisted suicide instead, a proposal some experts have called a “chilling” corruption of medical ethics.

Since the spread of his prostate cancer, 53-year-old Randy Stroup of Dexter, Ore., has been in a fight for his life. Uninsured and unable to pay for expensive chemotherapy, he applied to Oregon’s state-run health plan for help.

Lane Individual Practice Association (LIPA), which administers the Oregon Health Plan in Lane County, responded to Stroup’s request with a letter saying the state would not cover Stroup’s pricey treatment, but would pay for the cost of physician-assisted suicide.

Hey Mr. Stroup: tune in, turn on, drop dead.