Friday, October 14, 2005

"It's Halloween", Robert Zimmerman said, from the stage of Philharmonic Hall on October 31st, 1964. "I've got my Bob Dylan mask on." And four decades on, you might ask, "Which one?" We've seen the self-conscious heir to the legacy of Woody Guthrie (or at least a portion of it), the psychedelic troubador, the evangelical Christian, two stages at least of relative burnout, and lately, the folk revivalist and synthetist who is putting out albums that are certainly written from a different place from his mid-'60s psychedlia, but to me (and Diana Moon to the contrary) are at least the equal of Blonde on Blonde.

His Chronicles, published last year, were hailed by critics as a glimpse behind the mask. (Which one? All of them?) It struck me as revelatory too, but in a different way. "If you told the truth, well that's all well and good", says Dylan, "and if you told the un-truth, well that's still well and good. Folk songs had taught me that." And what you see in the book is a bill of the materials that Dylan has used to build and shape the folk scholar, his latest persona, one that's no less a creation than the rest.

To begin with, Dylan repeatedly acknowledges not being one to let facts get too far in the way of a good story, or even a good line. You can sometimes see it in his character studies, which take wild hairpin, contradictory turns: "blood in his eyes, the face of a man who could do no wrong --- a total lack of viciousness or even sinfulness in his face ... I don't know what kept him out of jail," as if he's trying out different visions of the same character. One of his role models, the "Jesse James" balladeer, did something like when he turned a bloodthirsty crook into a hero because that would make a better song.

Does Dylan treat the characters of his memoirs the same way? Surely, beginning with himself. His accounts of his childhood, and his descriptions of his relatives, go on for pages. Left out, perhaps because it would clash a bit with "American kid from the Iron Range", is any mention that he, or they, were Jewish. At one point, there's a description of the Holocaust, and the trial of Eichmann, with no hint that he might feel any personal connection. He might as well be talking about the Khmer Rouge, or the Trail of Tears. A more debatable case is Woody Guthrie. Guthrie was an enormous influence on Dylan, but the Guthrie of the Chronicles is exclusively a musician. The activist Guthrie, whose guitar was emblazoned "This Machine Kills Fascists", is absent. Here, what's not so clear is what's going on in Dylan's mind --- whether he's consciously cutting the character, again, to fit the story, or whether he never was much aware of the activist side of his work in the first place. Which would certainly explain his professed bafflement at folkies' sense of betrayal when he, as "the new Guthrie", abandoned politics.

So, do you choose to believe that his autobiographical album from the '70s --- a fairly clear reference to Blood on the Tracks --- was entirely based on Chekhov short stories? That the truly dreadful verses that he presents as deletia from "Oh, Mercy", as if to say to collectors of bootleg recordings, "Is this what you want? Take it!", were genuinely from serious drafts? Perhaps they were. But you're making a choice. Dylan is a trickster --- the same one who arrived with his invented name and ludicrously padded travelogue in New York in 1961. You only see what he lets you see. (Do you have a problem with that? The man's entitled to his privacy. He'll tell you that himself, and there, at least, he's clearly dead serious, with reason). But his public life --- this stage of it, anyway --- is once again a performance. And it's worth of applause.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Once Tom DeLay was actually indicted, he finally lost the perks of his position as House Majority leader. But not, apparently, out of power:

"DeLay is driving the agenda," said one senior Republican lawmaker who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of talking about internal party matters. "I guess he has to be because he is the only guy who can get this done."

In a closed meeting last Thursday, he was still dominating discussions of policy. And that extends to his nuts-and bolts role in House management:

Mr. DeLay was serving in his familiar role last Friday, rounding up elusive votes on the floor of the House as Republicans barely staved off defeat of a measure they said would spur construction of oil refineries.

The explanation for this, which you get from spokesmen for more than one House member, is that the guy just gives good advice:

"He is still dialed in and gives good counsel, and that is what we are seeking," said John Scofield, a spokesman for Representative Jerry Lewis, the California Republican who is chairman of the Appropriations Committee, in explaining why Mr. Lewis called in Mr. DeLay for advice last week.

Well, gosh darn it, they just don't know what they'd do without him. Fortunately for the Republicans, House members can seek counsel from anybody, even if, for some reason, they're kicked out of the House altogether. So, no matter what happens to DeLay, they'll still be able to contact him and seek his sage advice. As followers of mob literature know, there are precedents for large, economically significant American organizations being run out of prison...

The talk of China these days is a village in Guangdong province, where the mayor is using violence to put down demands for a recall election:

The villagers sought to exercise the rights enshrined in China's village democracy statutes, which allow them to petition for the recall of the elected local village head. They were angered by the lack of consultation surrounding the 133-hectare land development project, and also made allegations of corruption and the embezzlement of local funds.

After securing the required number of signatures and submitting the petition calling for the recall of village Party Committee chairman Chen Jinling at the end of July, the villagers became subject to reprisals from gangs hired by the local government. The intimidation and arrest of residents escalated into a series of bitter protests and violent crackdowns.

The Beijing-based human rights lawyer, Guo Feixiong, was arrested last week after serving as the legal representative of Taishi residents in the attempt to remove Chen Jinling. Guo is now believed to be on a hunger strike.

The national government knows exactly what to do in cases like this: try to kill the story.

A popular online forum was forced to shut down all discussion of Taishi, then later the whole forum website got shut down.

Foreign reporters who showed up at the village have been beaten; one activist who was serving as a guide to a Guardian correspondant was beaten to within an inch of his life.

They don't want people talking about this. I guess I'm not much good at following directions.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

One of the places that Katrina evacuees got herded by FEMA was an isolated church camp called the Dwight Mission out in Oklahoma, somewhere near Sallisaw. The Times (not Select) has an account of their experience. It wasn't fun.

On the one hand, you had people cooped up in the camp --- trained hotel and kitchen workers, a lot of them --- with literally nothing to do, trying desperately to come up with ways to kill time until a more suitable place could be found for them. On the other hand, you had the people running the place, all volunteer Oklahomans who had lives of their own, and just didn't have time to cook a decent meal every day --- leaving folks used to New Orleans cooking to eat canned spaghetti.

It seems to me, from a distance, as if each of these problems would offer a solution to the other. It probably says something about the nature of the situation that it was never tried. But I'm not sure what...

Monday, October 10, 2005

The folks at are hoping that Senate Democrats will conduct an in-depth investigation into Harriet Miers's early career, including the possibility that funds under her control were used to buy the silence of someone who knew just a bit too much about Dubya's Air National Guard service.

These would be the Senate Democrats led by Harry Reid --- the same Harry Reid who personally encouraged Dubya to nominate the wholly unqualified Miers as a Supreme Court Justice in the first place. And the same Reid who issued this statement on the nomination immediately afterwards:

I like Harriet Miers. As White House Counsel, she has worked with me in a courteous and professional manner. I am also impressed with the fact that she was a trailblazer for women as managing partner of a major Dallas law firm and as the first woman president of the Texas Bar Association.

In my view, the Supreme Court would benefit from the addition of a justice who has real experience as a practicing lawyer. The current justices have all been chosen from the lower federal courts. A nominee with relevant non-judicial experience would bring a different and useful perspective to the Court.

I look forward to the Judiciary Committee process which will help the American people learn more about Harriet Miers, and help the Senate determine whether she deserves a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court.

I'm sure a lot of conservatives like Harriet Miers too, on a personal level --- but that hasn't stopped them from denouncing the nomination, for the very good reason that she simply has no apparent qualifications for the job. But rather than focus on that, the leader of the Senate Democrats chose to mention up front that she's "courteous and professional" --- terms in which you might praise a particularly helpful airlines reservations clerk.

And the ostensible reason Reid suggested the pick in the first place? Wanting to avoid a bruising confirmation fight. Well, what's wrong with fighting? It would give the Dems a chance, at the very least, to show how their own ideals are right for the country, and how the Republicans are wrong. Which is about all that they can hope for right now, with the Republicans in firm control of all branches of government. They need to decide whether they want to be the party of Franklin Roosevelt, or the party of Alan Colmes.

But anyone who has their hopes on the payoff business, current hobbyhorse of left-wing opponents of the nomination, might want to look into her law firm's tax practices, a matter that's getting some attention on the right, particularly since a tax fixup is how she got into Dubya's circle in the first place...

This weekend's wisdom from Times Select: David Brooks:

After a while, you get sick of the DeLays of the right and the Deans of the left.

Remind me again --- what's Dean been indicted for?