Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Memorial Day Virginia Blog Carnival

Spank That Donkey -- a delightfully named blog that requires a double-take -- hosts this week's Virginia Blog Carnival in a special Memorial Day edition, which includes a link to a recording of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address dating to 1898.

Toward the end of the post is a lump-in-the-throat sound file of a bugler playing "Taps" -- quite apropos for the holiday.

'Don't Throw Me in That Briar Patch, Mr. Bush!'

The commander-in-chief of the armed forces, President George W. Bush, has handed a major victory to the bigot-in-chief of Westboro Baptist Church, the Reverend Fred Phelps.

On Memorial Day, Bush signed into law the "Respect for Fallen Heroes Act," which, according to an AP report in the Washington Post, was

passed by Congress largely in response to the activities of a Kansas church group that has staged protests at military funerals around the country, claiming the deaths symbolized God's anger at U.S. tolerance of homosexuals.

The new law bars protests within 300 feet of the entrance of a national cemetery and within 150 feet of a road into the cemetery. This restriction applies an hour before until an hour after a funeral. Those violating the act would face up to a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison.

Fred Phelps, for those who have not heard of him, is a repulsive, anti-gay demagogue who once ran for governor of Kansas as a Democrat and was also a big supporter of Al Gore during the 1988 presidential campaign. He heads up the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, where the congregation consists largely of his own wacko family.

Phelps has become notorious because of his "God Hates Fags" website and demonstrations, first outside the funerals of prominent gay Americans (such as journalist Randy Shilts and student Matthew Shepard), more recently at military funerals. I have written about Phelps and his military protests earlier this year, when state legislatures began considering anti-Phelps legislation.

Why do I say that President Bush and Congress have handed Phelps a victory? Two reasons:

First, Phelps has an infantile need for attention. He is like a five-year-old who uses a string of naughty words just to see his parents reaction, or runs naked around the neighborhood to get people to look at him. He thrives on the attention he gains through transgressive behavior. What the Respect for Fallen Heroes Act says to Phelps is this: "You may be a pervert, but you are consequential" -- consequential enough that the full power of the federal government is called upon to deal with him. Like the parent who screams at a misbehaving child, to the child's delight, the government is giving Phelps just what he craves.

Second, the law is transparently unconstitutional. It is aimed at a specific individual and it is a violation of our First Amendment rights to assembly and speech.

Writing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Adam Jadhav reports:
...free speech advocates and scholars have, perhaps more hesitantly, questioned whether public distaste has overrun free speech.

"There's no question the majority of Americans would want to protect their family at such a terrible moment," said Gene Policinski, executive director of the Nashville-based, non-partisan First Amendment Center. "But this is a road we may not want to go down. Today it's a message that we don't like, tomorrow it might be my message that someone else doesn't like."

* * *

"Our position is that you don't honor fallen heroes by trampling on the constitution that they swore to uphold," said Marv Johnson, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.

An oft-cited U.S. Supreme Court case, Frisby v. Schultz, in 1988 upheld an ordinance in a Milwaukee suburb that prohibited picketing outside an individual residence because it invaded the privacy of a home. But the ruling hinted that restrictions beyond that are less likely to be constitutional.

Courts have upheld bans of picketing within 100 feet of a polling place. But others have ruled that a 300-foot buffer zone around an abortion clinic isn't constitutional. How a court would rule on the bevy of laws passed or contemplated could come down to how they're applied.

"Are the police giving the demonstrators a chance to be seen, or even a chance to be heard, by their target audience?" said Ira Carmen, a University of Illinois professor who teaches political science and constitutional law.
While on the surface the law may look like a content-neutral, simple time-place-manner restriction, if you go deeper it becomes clear that this is an act of Congress aimed at stifling a particular point of view belonging to a specific individual or group.

Fred Phelps must be salivating at the prospect of taking his case to court to defend his First Amendment freedoms, winning the case, and seeing headlines that say "Phelps Defeats Homo-Loving Government." (OK, a real newspaper wouldn't write a headline like that, but the newspapers of Phelps' fevered imagination do.)

In other words, despite his protestations about the passage of this law, Phelps is telling the President and Congress, "Don't throw me into that briar patch!" He wants nothing more than an opportunity to bring his rabid views to a wider audience through litigation and the attendant publicity.

Next month, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, in his own bit of demagoguery, plans to bring the anti-flag-desecration amendment to the floor for a vote. This would change the text of the U.S. Constitution to carve out an exception to the First Amendment, saying that we are free to say anything we like as long as we do not burn a flag to express our opinions. (The House version of the amendment was sponsored by disgraced former Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California.)

Writing in the Memorial Day edition of the Washington Times, Nat Hentoff related the stories of two veterans who oppose the so-called "flag-burning amendment":
The day before Flag Day last year, the Houston Chronicle underlined what we will lose if this amendment becomes law: "It makes no sense to set fire to the Bill of Rights to prevent a few people from protesting in a way that many find offensive. The right to speak our minds in public and engage in protest is at the core of our system of government. The only way to effectively desecrate the American flag would be to undercut the freedom for which it stands." And Sen. Robert Byrd, who carries the Constitution in his DNA, speaks for James Madison across the centuries: "In the final analysis, it is the Constitution not the flag that is the foundation and guarantor of the people's liberties."

Among the many veterans opposing the Flag Desecration Amendment is Gary May, who lost both legs in Vietnam while serving with K Company, 3rd Battalion, 27 Marines. Last year, he said: "This amendment would not honor veterans; it would attack the very principles that inspired us to serve our country... We fought for a society free of repression and filled with open debate." This year, on May 6, Mr. May added: "I did not lose my legs, and nearly my life, to protect a symbol." Of all the personal stories by veterans against this attempt to change the Constitution to limit open debate in this country, the most powerful was by James Warner, who, during a previous debate, told of his imprisonment by the North Vietnamese from 1967 to 1973 after volunteering for duty there and flying more than 100 missions before being shot down. Refusing to accede to his captors' offer to be released if he admitted this country had been wrong in Vietnam, Mr. Warner was tortured and spent 13 months in solitary confinement.

During one interrogation, an enemy officer gleefully showed Mr. Warner a photograph of Americans protesting the war by burning the flag.

"There," the officer crowed, "people in your country protest against your cause! That proves you are wrong!" If only Congress and the president would listen to Mr. Warner's answer to the rejoicing jailer: "No. That (photograph) proves I am right. In my country, we are not afraid of freedom, even if it means that people disagree with us. The officer was on his feet in an instant, his face purple with rage. He smashed his fist on the table and screamed at me to shut up. While he was ranting, I was astonished to see pain, confounded by fear, in his eyes. I have never forgotten that look, nor have I forgotten the satisfaction I felt at using his tool the picture of a burning flag against him." The much-decorated Mr. Warner went on to serve in the White House as a domestic policy adviser to President Reagan during his second term, and is a recently retired corporate attorney.
Tom Walls of the Republican Liberty Caucus put the argument against this amendment forcefully when he wrote during a similar debate nearly a decade ago:

To oppose this nonsensical amendment does not mean one disrespects veterans or is somehow anti-American. I say to support it does not mean that you are a patriot. Leave it to the false patriots to wrap themselves in the flag.

I love America, and the Stars and Stripes always bring a smile to my face. I know how to respect the flag, how to fold it and even how to dispose of it respectfully when worn or tattered. I performed flag duty for years as a Boy Scout and in ROTC.

What needs to be protected from desecration are the principles of freedom our Founding Fathers sacrificed so much to establish. I define patriotism as one's effort to understand these principles. The American Constitution and the Bill of Rights were designed to constrain the use of government power in order to protect liberty. What we need is not more laws but more education in our country's history.

Our military do not serve, fight and die so our government can criminalize flag burning. This law is an insult, not a tribute to them. I come from a military family. My own grandfather was at Pearl Harbor when bombs rained down on his ship. Luckily, he is still around to inspire me. He concurs with me on this, and is enraged by the fact that our government wastes time pursuing victimless crimes instead of real, violent criminals.

As a law enforcement officer told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in reference to a soldier killed in action whose funeral was targeted by the Phelps Klan:
"The reason that Christopher Donaldson died was he was fighting for our country and freedom of speech," said Effingham County Sheriff John Monnet.
These two bits of legislation -- the anti-Phelps law and the anti-flag-burning amendment -- are shamefully related. They elevate symbol above substance and in the process erode our liberties.

Monday, May 29, 2006

May 29, 1981

May 29, 1981 -- the Sunday before Memorial Day, hazy in the morning in the Nation's Capital and unseasonably hot (with temperatures eventually reaching the 90s). It was Bob Hope's 78th birthday, it would have been John F. Kennedy's 64th, and it was the anniversary of Wisconsin's 1848 admission as a state in the Union and Rhode Island's ratification of the Constitution.

A Chorus Line was in its seventh year of a record-breaking Broadway run, but Cats (which would eventually overtake that record) had opened in London but not yet in New York. "Bette Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes was the Number 1 song hit. Jonny Lang was precisely four months old and Britney Spears would come along nearly six months later.

The Falklands War was a year away, John Belushi was still alive, and virtually no one had ever telephoned a friend to ask, "Where are you now?"

May 29, 1981, was also a day of significance for me. It was the day I was graduated from Georgetown University.

As graduation ceremonies go, it was something of a turning point for Georgetown, too, as it proved to be the last of the unified ceremonies for all the graduates of the University's main campus schools. (The Dental, Law, and Medical schools had long held separate ceremonies.) This meant that SFS, SLL, SBA, the College, and the Nursing schools all gathered together on Healy Lawn to have their several degrees conferred -- undergraduate and graduate degrees alike.

Our class, however, turned out to be unusually rambunctious and rowdy. As you can see from the accompanying photo, I was seated quite far from the podium. Yet my most distinct memory of the afternoon was a champagne cork that was launched behind me and shot right over the head of University President Timothy S. Healy, S.J. (He was, later reports indicated, furious, swearing never to allow such behavior again. If I recall correctly, the next year's graduation speaker was Mother Teresa, in a gambit to stifle rudeness with reverence.) I still have my cap and gown from that day, and my academic hood is splattered with red and pink dots from nearby champagne spills.

The day was also marked by a political protest by those who objected to the choice of commencement speaker, Georgetown government professor Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, who at the time was on leave serving as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Like our current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who recently met a similar protest at another Jesuit school, Boston College, a number of graduates in the Class of 1981 chose to turn their backs on the speaker, and others wore white armbands to show their objections.

To put this in context, the Reagan Administration had been in office for about four months. One of its first diplomatic objectives was to stem the tide of Communist influence in the Western Hemisphere, particularly in Central America, where the Sandinistas had been ruling Nicaragua for two years and a civil war continued to rage in El Salvador. A few months earlier, during the waning months of the Carter Administration, four American Catholic missionaries, all women, had been murdered in El Salvador. A few weeks earlier, on May 3, an estimated 100,000 people marched in Washington to protest the administration's Salvador policy.

Kirkpatrick, as a member of the Cabinet and National Security Council, was a key decision maker in the Reagan Administration's foreign-policy apparatus. As Ambassador to the United Nations, she was also one of the administration's chief foreign-policy spokesmen. So it should be no surprise that she would be a target of protest aimed more generally at the administration.

In her speech, Kirkpatrick tried to deflect the political intensity of the occasion. She began by recounting her strong ties to the University community:

The pleasure I feel in addressing you today is of a very special sort. It is the kind of pleasure one feels upon being reunited with members of one's own family after a prolonged and perhaps traumatic separation. It is the kind of pleasure that Samuel Johnson called "the wine of life" and that St. Augustine said "rejoices the soul." It is, in short, the pleasure of homecoming.

Receiving an honorary degree is naturally gratifying, but sharing a graduation with some of one's own students is a very special pleasure. So is the opportunity to see once again my many friends in this university's faculty, student body, and administration.
Alluding to the objections that greeted the announcement that she would be the commencement speaker, Kirkpatrick recounted -- quite literally -- her travails as a Georgetown professor:
Although I am not in residence, I remain objectively and subjectively a member of this community. That is the reason why I could not possibly oblige the request that one member of this community made to me that I withdraw from this commencement because of some views I presumably hold. I have earned my right to membership in this community. It is my sober calculation that, in the past fifteen years, I have graded at least 10,000 examinations, at least 3,500 term papers, read at least 100 dissertations -- including one whose author is receiving a doctor's degree today -- given at least 3,000 lectures and 738 makeup exams, attended 4,714 committee meetings, and eaten 892 hotdogs from Wisemiller's. In the process, Georgetown University has become part of me. It is an identification I cherish.
The line, "I have earned my right to membership in this community," was met with scattered catcalls and jeers, but the rest of the passage was received with enthusiastic applause and cheers.

During the next few minutes, Kirkpatrick hearkened back to Georgetown's history and its place in U.S. history.
I cherish it because this university is, in my firm opinion -- an opinion based on detailed knowledge -- a serious and distinguished university.
(I'll second that.)
Moreover, I like it. I like the way its history is intricately intertwined with that of our nation. Born the same year as the nation's Constitution, situated on the river that George Washington walked beside, Georgetown has for two centuries embodied and communicated the moral and intellectual commitment and discipline that characterize our civilization at its best.

Of course, not everyone has always shared this benign view of the university and of its founders and owners and managers, the Society of Jesus. One of the nation's Founding Fathers, I discovered, wrote to another of the nation's Founding Fathers not long after the establishment of Georgetown: "I do not like the reappearance of the Jesuits. If ever there was a body of men who merited damnation on earth and in hell it is the Society of Loyola's. Nevertheless we are compelled by our own system of religious toleration to offer them an asylum." Thus wrote John Adams to Thomas Jefferson. Oh well, it's never been possible to please all the people all the time.
(She does not say how Mr. Jefferson replied.)

In the rest of her remarks, framed as a discussion of the quality of the students at Georgetown, Kirkpatrick proved unusually prescient.

Keep in mind that, at the beginning of the Reagan administration, the United States was still suffering from the stagflation of the 1970s, with accompanying high interest rates, record-high gasoline prices (and gas lines and gas shortages), and a major recession featuring huge swathes of unemployment. We were at the height of the Cold War and knew not who would win (or even if victory was possible). Even the Pope had recently been the victim of an assassination attempt by a Communist agent. It looked like the United States and the Soviet Union would be locked in a generations-long conflict, forever on the brink of nuclear war. This was the world in which we lived, and in which we expected to live for a long, long time. In short, we were feeling pinched by our circumstances, so pessimism would not have been unrealistic for many graduates at the time, who were uncertain of gaining employment even with a prestigious college degree.

The Reagan tax cuts and regulatory reforms had not yet taken effect, nor had they jumpstarted the economy to begin the longest uninterrupted, peacetime economic expansion in history. So Kirkpatrick's speech at the 1981 Georgetown commencement exercises showed both optimism and, it turned out, foresight.

"We come here today," she said
neither to praise nor to blame Georgetown but to talk about you, the graduates, and to a lesser extent your parents. I know rather more than the average commencement speaker about both of you. I have read the statistical profiles of your class since before you entered as freshmen. Moreover, I know a good deal firsthand about the anxieties and gratifications and the expenses of parents. I've been there -- indeed, I am there. But what do I know about your futures?

I know that students, all of you, are now and will for some time continue to be faced with more freedom and more choices than any other comparable generation in human history, in part but not only because this is an extraordinarily free society, one that permits us to live where we like, to read and write what we choose, to worship according to our conscience, to practice any profession we are able. Those freedoms were also enjoyed by Greeks in Athens' Golden Age providing they happened to be free and not slave, providing they happened to be citizens and not foreigners. But we, you and I, enjoy freedoms of which the Athenians never dreamed because contemporary technology has given us unprecedented powers and their attendant choices. You graduates are blessed and cursed with the freedom and the necessity to define yourself, to choose from among the dazzling array of attitudes, values, roles, your own -- what has come to be called -- life style.
(So true, so true indeed.)
Once your role would have been settled at birth. The son of a swineherd, you would have been a swineherd. The son of a merchant, you would have been a merchant. And the daughter of either, you would have ben the wife and mother of more swineherds and merchants.

Just for the record, I am not quoting Ambassador Kirkpatrick's speech from memory. The text is found in her 1982 book, The Reagan Phenomenon and Other Speeches on Foreign Policy. Oddly enough, I had to find the book at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library. I say "oddly" because I compiled the index for that book, as a favor to its editor (and for a reasonable fee), during the World Series of 1982 -- but I don't have it in my collection of books I have had a hand in. (Also strange: Although Kirkpatrick wrote a dozen or more books, this was the only one of hers in the library's entire collection. Luckily for me it was shelved at the Central Library branch in downtown Charlottesville.)

Next weekend my classmates and I will gather on the Hilltop to celebrate at our 25-year reunion. No doubt individuals have advanced to varying levels of success. Some will be doing exactly what they expected they would do upon graduation; many others will have taken their lives in totally unexpected directions.

Last Friday over dinner, a friend of mine who graduated from the University of Virginia asked me who was the most famous member of my own graduating class at Georgetown. He was fishing for names of Members of Congress or other political figures.

I could not think of any members of my class who have become successful Washington politicians. Perhaps there are a few. I suspect some may have been elected -- or tried to be elected -- as city councilors, mayors, even state legislators. I hope they show up at the reunion so we can trade campaign war stories.

I am sure that there are more than a few 1981 alumni who are well-known and well-respected in their professions (lawyers, doctors, scientists). At least one is a university president. I am unaware of any Oscar-, Tony-, Grammy-, or Emmy-winning 1981 Hoyas -- but I would be most pleased to learn of some.

But "most famous"? That actually turns out to be easy to answer, if by "fame" one means known to the largest number of people.

If that's the case, my classmate (and one-time Living-Learning Project floormate) Amy Dickinson is the "most famous member of the Georgetown Class of '81." Amy, as the successor to the Chicago Tribune's Ann Landers, is a syndicated advice columnist in at least 200 newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. She is also heard as a sometime panelist on NPR's "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me."

I'm looking forward to the reunion, in particular, for the opportunity to see again my fellow Mask & Bauble alumni. As anyone who has done college theatre can tell you, working together on shows is a uniquely, intensely bonding experience. (I sometimes estimate that I spent more hours in Stage III during my first three years of college than I did in the classroom. My fourth-year grades demonstrate the likely accuracy of that estimate.) A special cocktail reception for M&Bers is planned.

Next year I have a twofer -- or double whammy, depending on how you look at it -- 30 years since my graduation from Marquette University High School in Milwaukee and 20 years since receiving my master's degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science. I guess 2007 will be a big year for parties.

Addendum: Since posting this article, I came across an amusing compilation of excerpts from this year's crop of commencement addresses, in the Reliable Source column in Sunday's Washington Post Style section. Very funny on line, but best seen in the print edition for full effect.

Update and Correction, July 3: I just made an embarrassing discovery, and as a blogger I have an ethical obligation to correct it. (We talked about this sort of thing at length at the Sorensen Institute bloggers' summit.) It turns out my graduation from Georgetown was not on May 29, 1981, but rather on Sunday, May 24. (I found this date on the program for the "Baccalaureate Mass, 182nd Annual Commencement of Georgetown University" and confirmed it by looking at my diploma. D'oh!) This means, of course, that all that nifty trivia in the first two paragraphs is irrelevant. The rest, however, is accurate. I apologize for the error but have to ask -- why didn't anyone else catch it before now?

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Ballots at 40 Paces?

Some of you may have seen recent news reports about a bound volume of Virginia state government papers, dating from 1863, that fell out of a ceiling during the renovation of Mr. Jefferson's Capitol building.

As Hugh Lessig described the find in the Newport News Daily Press:

The Virginia General Assembly sits in special session. The governor addresses the transportation crisis. The nation is at war.

Also in the headlines: The latest report from the Joint Legislative Committee on Salt and a patient count at the insane asylum, where people suffer from "political excitement," "suppressed perspiration," "excessive use of tobacco" and "close reading of the Bible."

So went the Old Dominion in 1863, according to a bound collection of government papers that literally fell into the 21st century as workers renovated the State Capitol.

As a window into history, it shows how far things have progressed and how some problems never go out of style.
One would think that such a discovery would be viewed as extraordinarily valuable by archivists. Nope. The Library of Virginia turned down an offer to take custody of the papers, saying it already had a copy in its collection.

Meanwhile, last week in Charlottesville, we had a similarly exciting discovery -- though not of the same magnitude.

While cleaning out a closet, members of the staff of the Office of Voter Registration found two old paperbound books, copies of the "Virginia Election Laws" from, respectively, 1932 and 1938.

Each volume is rather slim, perhaps about one-quarter to one-third as thick as the current book that contains the Virginia election code. Of course, why should election law and regulation be different from any other component of government? All government functions have grown exponentially in the past 70 years.

To an elections junkie like me, reading these old laws is fascinating. The code book includes definitions of all the legislative districts, which were far more contiguous and compact than districts are today. The type of gerrymandering we see today did not take place then, though I am sure there were some manipulations of districts.

Today's political-party- and racially-based gerrymandering actually became possible only after the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution requires "one man, one vote" and after the Voting Rights Act.

In the days of multimember districts, some of the apportionment may have seemed capricious, or at least ad hoc, but it was nonetheless intriguing. House and Senate districts were not described in intricate detail by metes and bounds but rather by grouping cities and counties together on the basis of geography.

For instance, according to Section 78 of the Code (which is numbered differently today), "Albemarle, Charlottesville, and Greene shall have two delegates," while "Richmond city shall have six delegates" and "Fairfax shall have one delegate." (I imagine that apportionment was largely made on the basis of population, though not entirely, so those three examples alone show how much has changed since 1938.)

And although Electoral Boards still serve with only token compensation, the pay the board members received in the 1930s is a real pittance compared to today: Section 89 states that
Each member of the electoral board shall receive from the county or city, respectively, for each day of actual service the sum of five dollars, and the same mileage as is now paid jurors; provided, that no member of such board shall receive more than twenty-five dollars in any one year exlusive of mileage
with certain exceptions. (Perhaps some economically-minded reader will tell us what $25 in 1938 dollars would be worth today.)

Reading the old code, however, made it clear that the current law does not consist simply of additions to the previous laws. Some things have been removed, though it is not always clear why.

One paragraph immediately jumps out at the reader. This is from the Virginia state constitution of 1902, still in force in 1938:
Section 22. Persons exempt from payment of poll tax as a condition of right to vote.---No person, nor the wife or widow of such person, who, during the late war between the States, served in the army or navy of the United States, or of the Confederate States, shall at any time be required to pay a poll tax as a prerequisite to the right to register or vote. The collection of the State poll tax assessed against anyone shall not be enforced by legal process until the same has become three years past due.
I suppose the current constitution leaves this out because there aren't a lot of Confederate war widows clamoring to be exempt from paying their poll taxes. Or maybe it's because the U.S. Constitution outlaws poll taxes. Or maybe both.

The next section of the constitutional provisions affecting voting contains two separate items worth noting.
Section 23. Persons excluded from registering and voting.---The following persons shall be excluded from registering and voting: Idiots, insane persons and paupers;
Let's stop there.

I know there are a lot of political activists out there, on both the right and the left, who are wondering why anyone would have left this provision out of current election law. After all, don't we usually wake up on the day after an election and ask aloud, "Who let those idiots vote?"

Now let's continue, skipping a few lines. We're still talking about "persons excluded from registering and voting":
... persons who while citizens of this State, after the adoption of this Constitution, have fought a duel with a deadly weapon, or sent or accepted a challenge to fight such a duel, either within or without this State, or knowingly conveyed such a challenge, or aided or assisted in any way in the fighting of such duel.
Political party officials, take note. You now have another reason to challenge a voter at the polls. Just don't slap him in the face with a glove.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Even Charlottesville Has a Carnival

It seems we're being crushed this week by blog carnivals -- the Virginia Blog Carnival, the Carnival of the Mundane, the Carnival of Liberty -- not that we're complaining.

Now Waldo Jaquith has posted this week's Charlottesville Blog Carnival, with a collection of stories from the greater Charlottesville blogosphere.

Among other things, I learned from Waldo that Richard Herskowitz has created a blog about programming the Virginia Film Festival, always one of the most exciting (and exhausting, in a good way) weekends of the year. The theme of the 2006 festival is "Revelations: Finding God at the Movies." Richard's latest entry is about "Mormonsploitation."

In other Charlottesville/blogging news, Waldo also reveals that Virginia Attorney General Bob ("Not that I recall") McDonnell will be the opening speaker at the Sorensen Institute's second annual Virginia blog summit, which already has a long list of registrants.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Joining the Life, Liberty, and Property Community

Astute readers might have noticed the addition, in the sidebar to this blog, a lengthy blogroll entitled "Life, Liberty, and Property Community." At the suggestion of Doug Mataconis at Below the Beltway (also a member of the Old Dominion Blog Alliance -- see sidebar, as well), I joined the LLP Community a few days ago.

The Life, Liberty, and Property Community is a loose association of bloggers that began about 11 months ago. As explained by its founder, Eric Cowperthwaite, the purpose is

To promote the big tent libertarian and classic liberal ideals of life, liberty and property. It doesn’t matter if you are a big “L” or small “L” libertarian, anarchist, rational anarchist. We want the big tent of people who believe that individual liberty and inherent rights are more important than the collective.
Doug goes on to note at Below the Beltway that
Since then, the LLP Community has grown from a handful of bloggers to a community of more than 140 bloggers from all over the United States and Canada. While we don’t always agree with each other, the community is the modern-day equivalent of the pamphleteers who helped started the American Revolution and firmly in the tradition of thinkers ranging from Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine to Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand. If really want to know what we’re all about, then there’s no better way to find out than to read our blogs.
It's possible to get an overview of what the LLP bloggers are saying by visiting the community page at The Truth Laid Bear.

For the record, I'm a small "L" libertarian, a natural-rights minarchist who is sympathetic to the ultimate goals of anarcho-capitalism but skeptical of its success in a world weaned on collectivism and the nanny state. In other words, I'm more pragmatic than my ideals should allow, because I can't get it out of my head that success is better than failure.

I encourage readers to visit the many blogs belonging to the Life, Liberty, and Property Community. Tell them that Rick sent you.

Horror Funhouse of the Mundane

This blog was highlighted today in the Carnival of the Mundane, described by its founder, Dean Abbott, as

a carnival for those of us whose material is everyday stuff, a showcase for those dedicated to drawing out the humor or insight from the humdrum.
This week's carnival is posted at Run Jen Run, who writes:
I’m sure that for many people, the idea of a carnival conjures up happy Technicolor memories of cotton candy and roller coasters, corn dogs and stuffed animals. For me, when I think of carnivals, aside from flashing to scenes from this one really horrible B-movie [I think it was called The Funhouse] where a deformed man terrorized teenagers in a carnival, I am hurled into a series of painful childhood memories that I worked hard to repress....

I found it ironic that my own recollection of carnivals is one of fear and shame, and somehow, every single submission that people sent me revolved around those exact ideas. Apparently, these are the most mundane of emotions. And here, I always thought that was love.
I'm not sure if my particular post -- in which I muse about the lack of a AAA-equivalent for homeowners -- qualifies as "one of fear and shame," but I appreciate the mention nonetheless.

Stossel Meets Steigerwald

In last Saturday's edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the paper's associate editor, Bill Steigerwald, interviews John Stossel of ABC News about Stossel's new book, Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity: Get Out the Shovel--Why Everything You Know is Wrong.

In the interview, Stossel confirms what I have long suspected -- despite disagreements on some issues, conservatives are closer to (and more comfortable with) libertarians than liberals are.

Steigerwald asks Stossel how he defines himself, politically speaking. Stossel replies:

I’d say I’m a libertarian. And I prefer the word “liberal” except that the liberals stole the word and have perverted it to mean “big government running your life.” So I’m stuck with “classical liberal” and no one knows what that means, so I call myself a libertarian.
The interviewer then points out that libertarians disagree with both liberals and conservatives -- with conservatives on issues like the drug war, with liberals on issues like the minimum wage. How, Steigerwald asks, do the two other groups treat libertarians like Stossel? The answer may surprise you:
I think homosexuality is all right. And yet the conservatives will pay me a $40,000 speaking fee -- which goes to charity, by the way – and invite me to their events and have me on their shows. But the liberals will have nothing to do with me.
This disdain extends to the mainstream media, Stossel says, with a complete lack of interest in his new book:
I've got no NPR, none of the big national NPR shows. No New York Times. No Washington Post. No Larry King....

The left only wants to talk to people they like. They view me as "icky." And these ideas are not even interesting enough to them to have them want to argue with me. They just don't want to think about it. ... I think a lot of journalists consider me somewhat of a pariah. I have betrayed the "objectivity" thing. There are some people at ABC who are furious at me who demand that I be fired for having a point of view. What's peculiar is that I have always had a point of view in my reporting. I won 19 Emmys doing consumer reporting where I had a point of view. I might say, "This company sucks" or "This product is better than that." I would do the research and say, "Here's my point of view" and "Here's what the other side says." What I do now is no different, but now I no longer win any Emmy awards and I'm criticized for not being objective.
I really like Stossel's answer to the question of how he became a libertarian. For Stossel, it was an important libertarian publication:
I watched government fail in the regulation I cheered on as a consumer reporter. And I kept reading, trying to find somebody who would explain to me what was going on. The New York Times and the Globe and the Post were all saying the same things, which didn’t make sense to me. And the National Review and American Spectator were all bashing Democrats and saying we should have soldiers more places. Then I finally found Reason magazine -- and that opened my eyes.
In my case, I like to say that it was because in the late 1980s, the Cato Institute served better food at its lunchtime seminars than the Heritage Foundation did. But that's just being glib -- the real story is more complex, and someday I might tell it here.

By the way, the interview with John Stossel also appears in that old war-horse of conservative publications, Human Events. I can't imagine seeing it reprinted in the Village Voice or Mother Jones.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

New Carnival of Liberty

Left Brain Female ... in a Right Brain World ... is the host of the 46th weekly Carnival of Liberty.

The new carnival includes links to articles on issues ranging from U.S. policy toward Israel to the Canadian census. In between are pieces on the Beijing Olympic mascots, dispute resolution organizations, and the child soldiers of East Africa.

It's all well worth a look!

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Mark of the Beast

The newest Virginia Blog Carnival has been posted by James Martin over at The Virginia Progressive. As Waldo Jaquith observed, this week's carnival is post number 666 on that blog, which rounds up all the usual suspects ... and then some.

Someday I Will Rule You All

Don't worry -- I'm not making a proclamation of megalomaniac ambitions.

"SOMEDAYIWILLRULEYOUALL" is the solution to the tap-danced, Morse-Code puzzle in this past Sunday's "Foxtrot" comic strip, in the funny pages of many newspapers coast-to-coast -- more than 1,000 worldwide, according to a biosketch of creator Bill Amend. (I saw it in the May 21 Washington Post.)

If you don't believe me, check it out yourself at the CGI Morse Code Translator.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Why No AAA for Homeowners?

About a week ago, I found myself in the ridiculously embarrassing predicament of locking my keys in my car -- not once, but on two successive days.

Consequently, for only the second and third times since I had become a member of the American Automobile Association, I called AAA for "roadside assistance" (although my car on both occasions was snugly in my driveway). AAA responded by dispatching Lethal Wrecker -- within an hour the first time, and within 100 minutes the second time. There was no charge for the unlocking of my car, as it is one of the benefits included in my AAA membership fee. The second time also required a battery jump, and that was also provided at no charge.

Yesterday I faced a plumbing emergency: A leak sprung from my hot water heater. (I won't go into the details of how it happened, but it turned into the most expensive "free" lawn-mowing my yard has ever had.)

With water flowing from the hole, I found that I could not turn off the spigot above the heater. Attempts to plug the hole with wine corks turned into comedy, as the water pressure increased and the corks flew 10 feet across my crawl space, with a spurt of water as if Moses tapped the rock with his staff.

I turned to the on-line Yellow Pages for help. I called up four plumbers -- this being about 7:00 p.m. on a Saturday -- and received four very different responses.

One, Virginia Plumbing, did not return my call at all. W. E. Brown called back and, without even surveying the situation, told me point-blank that I would need to buy a new water heater at a cost of $900 to $1,300. (I chose to pay my mortgage instead, and searched on.) Roto-Rooter said they could be here in three hours, and the basic fee would be $200, not including parts or labor.

My savior came in the form of AGS Services of Charlottesville. The plumber who returned my call said he could be at my house in 20 minutes, and the basic fee would be $75. (I called to cancel Roto-Rooter, who helpfully said if the other plumber doesn't turn up, he could still be there in three hours. Thanks, but no thanks.)

In the meantime, I called the City of Charlottesville to have the water turned off. To my surprise, the utilities office answered the phone immediately and a truck arrived within about 15 minutes to do the job.

As it turned out, the AGS Services plumber called back and said he did not have the necessary part for the repair in his truck, but he could pick it up first thing in the morning at Lowe's and be at my place between 9 and 11:00 a.m. I told him that was perfectly acceptable, and he did as he said, finishing the job within about 20 minutes after his arrival.

Last evening, during the calm behind the storm, I sat with my friends, David Brown and Richard Morrison, eating pizza and talking about the day's events.

"Why isn't there a Triple-A for homeowners?," I asked. In more than 6-1/2 years of owning and living in my house, this was the first time I had had to call a plumber. With no experience or knowledge of the market, I had to turn to the Yellow Pages and essentially pick out plumbers at random. I had no time to vet them or learn about their prices and reliability or their quality of workmanship.

David and Richard nodded in agreement with me. Wouldn't it make sense, we mused, for there to be a homeowners' version of AAA? With a large number of members, discounts could be arranged with contractors of all sorts -- plumbers, electricians, glaziers (for that baseball that crashes through a window), tree surgeons, pest exterminators -- who might be needed in an emergency.

This homeowners cooperative -- call it HAG: Homeowners Assistance Group -- could choose the contractors through a thorough vetting process, so that I (and other members) know that whomever is sent to deal with an emergency is trustworthy and economical.

Our conversation moved on to other topics, but the question stayed with me, which is why I am writing about it here.

If there is a homeowners' equivalent of the American Automobile Association, I would like to know. Is there? If there is, I'd like to join.

In the meantime, I would like to thank AGS Services for their prompt, courteous, high-quality, and budget-friendly service.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Briefs, Briefly Noted

Leave it to a a reporter for a British newspaper to, ummm, uncover a major moment in American history:

For men, 19 January, 1935, was their equivalent of the day Mary Jacob patented the first bra in 1913 or the moment in 1959 when Glen Mills had the inspiration for tights - it was when Arthur Kneibler's Jockey briefs first went on sale at a department store.
Until reading this article, it had never occurred to me that briefs -- also known as "Jockey shorts" or, in the UK, the more descriptive "Y-fronts" -- had been invented. I figured they just evolved. I had no idea how revolutionary they were. Notes Terry Kirby in The Independent:
Mr Kneibler was an "apparel engineer" for a company called Coopers, originally set up to sell socks to lumberjacks, but which had been hit hard by the recession. While searching for an idea to help the company, he received a postcard from a friend on holiday in the south of France, which featured a picture of man wearing an abbreviated swim suit.

At this point, the only serious challenge to the hegemony of long johns had come from the boxer short, a cotton version of the trunks worn by boxers, and first designed in 1925 by a Joseph Golomb, founder of the Everlast company that still makes boxing equipment. But they were slow in finding customers because they did not provide much of what was termed "masculine support".

One thing that did was the "jock strap", a method of protection mostly worn by sportsmen and named after the bi-cycle "jockeys" or messengers who rode penny farthings for whom they were designed. Mr Kneibler's mission was clear - the Jockey brief was born.

They were so popular that the briefs sold out in every store almost immediately. Coopers sent its "Mascu-line" airplane to bring special deliveries of "masculine support" Jockey briefs to desperate retailers around the United States.
Of course, design did evolve, over a long period of time, but fashions come and go. The lowly briefs morphed into bikini briefs, boxer briefs, and thongs, among other styles. (The traditional boxer evolved along a different genetic line.) And things were interesting in the pre-modern era:
All of these, of course, are just contemporary versions of the lioncloth, which is as old as mankind, was worn by both sexes in Greek and Roman civilisations and still exists as a traditional form of undergarment in many Asian cultures, as well as among primitive peoples. Sometime during the Middle Ages, the loincloth was replaced by a loose, trouser-like garment, called braies, which were laced around the waist and calves; the flap at the front was called the codpiece and allowed men to urinate. It was Henry VIII who began the fashion for padded codpieces.

By the 18th century and the advent of widespread cotton fabrics, the dominant type of undergarment for both sexes was the close fitting union suit, which eventually became long johns.

While women's underclothing spiralled off into all manner of stays, corsets, drawers, chemises and so forth, men were stuck with various types of long johns until well into the 20th century, until Messrs Kneibler, Golomb et al came along.
So that's what codpieces were all about! I wonder if that topic is covered in costume design courses in university drama departments.

Is there any guy reading this who doesn't raise his eyes to Heaven in thanks when he learns about Arthur Kneibler?

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Social Networking: Baby or Bathwater?

Kenton Ngo, as we have come to expect from him, has a perspicacious comment on proposed legislation to force schools and libraries to use filters to ban "social networking" sites from their computers.

As explained in the Allentown Morning Call, a Pennsylvania congressman is leading the effort, although so far he has found few followers:

Bucks County Republican Mike Fitzpatrick is at the fore of an election-year effort in Congress to limit access to popular ''social networking'' Web sites such as MySpace.

Just 15 House colleagues have signed on to Fitzpatrick's bill prohibiting anyone under 18 from accessing the sites on school or library computers.
(According to the "Power Rankings" derived by Knowledgis, Mike Fitzpatrick is the 266th most effective member of Congress, which -- aside from the lack of merit for this bill -- may explain the small number of cosponsors.)

As Kenton correctly points out, this bill is merely feel-good legislation that will not produce the desired effect:

This bill will do nothing to protect stupid teenagers, who are the only ones vulnerable (come on, smart teenagers don’t respond to sexual propositions and post slutty pictures of themselves). Only good parenting and brains will do that, and this legislation does neither. Their solution is to restrict access (which never works) in limited subsector of internet use.

Crazed efforts to parent America’s children from Congress’ election-year pandering will do nothing to protect children, give the illusion that action is being taken, and won’t dissuade the stupid from doing stupid things, such as putting up a pictures, like a Denver teenager who is now being slapped with felony charges, of yourself smoking a bong.

But, more than that, should the legislation pass, it could also have a deleterious effect, essentially throwing out the social networking baby with the putative predator bathwater.

An article by Brian Satterfield on the Digitial Divide Network points out that the numerous social networking sites -- they are not limited to MySpace, which has been getting a bad rap through tabloid TV these days -- are important tools for charities and other non-profit groups to do their good works.

Satterfield, a staff writer at TechSoup, notes:
Social networking platforms give nonprofits a forum for meeting like-minded organizations and potential supporters, and provide a medium for spreading their messages beyond the immediate community, says Alan Rosenblatt, Executive Director of the Internet Advocacy Center.
He explains what "social networking platforms" are:
Online social networking involves connecting and sharing information with other like-minded people via the Web. Internet message boards and Yahoo Groups fall under the general category of social networking, as do social bookmarking tools like del.icio.us and Technorati, applications that let users add their own keywords (or tags) to Web pages and blogs. (For more information on tagging and social bookmarking, read TechSoup's article What Is Web 2.0 Anyway?)

On the other hand, friend-of-a-friend (FOAF) social networking sites such as Care2, MySpace, and Friendster are specifically designed to connect individuals and groups directly with others who share common interests and goals.

A typical FOAF network will display a directory of people or topics. When you find someone with similar interests, you can send them a message asking to be added to their contact lists. This in turn allows you to meet other like-minded folks in that person's network, theoretically expanding your organization's contacts more efficiently and quickly than you could in the real world. Your network grows exponentially with each person you add, and you can interact with others using tools such as public and private messages and discussion forums.

There are hundreds of FOAF social networks on the Internet, each with its own user base and communication tools.
He then lists some of the most popular sites (some of which I have not previously encountered): Care2, Flickr, Friendster, Gather, LinkedIn, MySpace, Ryze, and Tribe. (He doesn't mention Facebook in this list, one of the most popular sites among college students.)

Satterfield then points out how these sites are useful to non-profits:
While many people regard social networking tools as a fun diversion, some nonprofits are leveraging them to accomplish serious goals, such as increasing their visibility, helping constituents find jobs, and raising awareness about time-sensitive issues.

For instance, Interplast, a nonprofit that provides free reconstructive surgeries to persons in developing countries, uses Flickr to help publicize its work. Interplast Communications and Technology Coordinator Seth Mazow initially began using Flickr in March 2005 when he was looking for an easy way to add images to Interplast's blog. Through Flickr, he quickly realized the benefits of sharing photos online. "Flickr is a very powerful tool," said Mazow, "one that Interplast uses to spread the message about our life-changing surgeries."

Eventually, Mazow began to experiment with Flickr's tagging feature, which has increased the visibility of Interplast's photos in Google search results. He points out that one of the top results for the search term "cleft baby" is a photo from Interplast's Flickr page. Mazow also started a Flickr group called International NGOs so that persons or organizations interested in international aid could share pictures, stories, and ideas.
I recommend reading all of Satterfield's article, which does not address political efforts to limit access to social networking sites. Given the information he provides, however, it is clear that, should Congressman Fitzpatrick succeed in getting his bill passed, a large number of people and organizations will suffer for it -- especially low-income people who use library computers to seek out assistance from non-profit groups that use social networking platforms to reach out to potential clients (as well as financial contributors).

Fitzpatrick's bill limits not only teenagers and so-called "predators" from access to these sites, but also the type of civil society organizations that make it possible to reduce the size and scope of government -- which, I would think, is Fitzpatrick's goal as a Republican Member of Congress.

But then, reducing the size and scope of government does not seem to have been on the radar screen of the Republican-led Congress in a long, long time.

Update: Vendetta Studios has produced a very funny video about the intersection of MySpace and life. It's called "My Space: The Movie." (You'll need Macromedia Flash to watch it.)

Language and Assimilation, Then and Now

The fuss over the Spanish-language version of the "Star Spangled Banner," which I wrote about earlier, continues and may even be picking up pace.

The Washington Post reported on Thursday:

After an emotional debate fraught with symbolism, the Senate yesterday voted to make English the "national language" of the United States, declaring that no one has a right to federal communications or services in a language other than English except for those already guaranteed by law.

The measure, approved 63 to 34, directs the government to "preserve and enhance" the role of English, without altering current laws that require some government documents and services be provided in other languages. Opponents, however, said it could negate executive orders, regulations, civil service guidances and other multilingual ordinances not officially sanctioned by acts of Congress.
According to a public-opinion survey released on March 30 by the Pew Research Center on the People and the Press,
One of the continuing sources of conflict over the assimilation of immigrants is language, as seen in recurring battles over English-only policies and statutes. A sizable majority of the survey's respondents (58%) said they believe that most recent immigrants do not learn English within a reasonable amount of time; slightly more than a third (35%) say that they do.

Within the case study communities, the belief that immigrants lag behind in the adoption of English ranged from a high of 66% in Phoenix and Las Vegas to 51% in the Washington metro area.
As linguist Geoff Nunberg said on "Fresh Air with Terry Gross" this week:
What's the Spanish for "poppycock"?

The fact is that the vast majority of Hispanics in America already speak English, and the rest are learning it much faster than the Germans, Italians, or those Norwegian bachelor farmers did a century ago.

Back then, after all, the economic incentives for learning English were nowhere near as great as they are now. Most immigrants lived in isolated rural areas or urban ethnic enclaves, and a lot of cities had separate public school systems for immigrants -- not like today's transitional bilingual programs, but schools where all the instruction was carried out in German or other languages.

According to demographers, the average immigrant family in 1900 took more than three generations to make the complete transition to English dominance. Now it takes just over two. By the third or fourth generation, in fact, most Hispanics are as depressingly monolingual in English as any other American group.
Nunberg's fact-based analysis seems to be reflected instinctively by the majority of respondents to the Pew poll, who think independently of those who are demagoguing the immigration debate:
Most people nationwide (61%) who say they have contact with immigrants who speak little or no English say it does not bother them; 38% say they are bothered by this experience. While people in Phoenix and Las Vegas report more contact with immigrants who do not speak English well, majorities in both cities say they are not bothered by this (58% in Phoenix, 56% in Las Vegas).
My own mother was one of those third-generation descendants of immigrants who became monolingual in English only after an early childhood that was monolingual in another language (in this case, Polish). She decided to speak English exclusively at the age of six when kids on the playground made fun of her accent; she spent the rest of her life able to understand spoken Polish, but unable to read it, write it, or speak it herself. (My grandparents, on the other hand, remained bilingual throughout their lives, while my great-grandparents lost the ability to speak or understand English toward the end of their very long lives -- likely more a consequence of senility than a lack of commitment toward American culture and values.)

Nunberg mentions in his "Fresh Air" commentary an article by Ann Powers in the Los Angeles Times, which reports that one of the most popular songs among the pro-immigrant demonstrators is Neil Diamond's tribute to his (East European, Jewish) grandparents, "(They're Coming to) America":
Amid the mariachi music, socially conscious corridos and civil rights hymns at last week's immigration-rights rallies, a surprising voice arose — a strong Jewish baritone usually favored by middle-aged women and retro-hip college kids. It was Neil Diamond, singing his own exodus anthem: "America," from the pop elder statesman's 1980 remake of America's first talkie, "The Jazz Singer."

The recording opened and closed the May 1 speakers' program at City Hall. It's made its way into reports of rallies in Dallas, Kansas City and Milwaukee. Although hardly the official anthem of La Raza, "America's" portrait of travelers "traveling light … in the eye of a storm" is outdoing more standard fare such as "If I Had a Hammer," giving Diamond something like the role Bob Dylan played during the civil rights era of the 1960s. . . .

"It's the immigrant anthem," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). "Every time I've been at different activities over time, you'll have the Neil Diamond song. It speaks to the experience."

The song is built like a footpath up a monument, the melody swooping downward to rise up again, its key changes and call-and-response elements ("They're coming to America!" "Today!") forcing the tension. Rooted in the Yiddish music of Diamond's Brooklyn youth, the song moves on to Broadway and the Borscht Belt and lands on the edge of disco — a border-crossing trek unto itself. This intentional hugeness, this insistence on being an anthem, makes "America" easy to mock but also impossible to resist.
I find it intriguing, but not incredible, that today's Hispanic immigrants learn English at a faster rate than the immigrants who arrived at about the same time as Neil Diamond's grandparents and my great-grandparents. To learn it tells me that it is never a good idea to simply accept conventional wisdom, but better to explore the facts and use those as a basis for public policy.

Friday, May 19, 2006

A London Theatre Retrospective: February 2001

About two weeks ago, Washington Post Style section reporter Jacqueline Trescott wrote:

The bad news is that Signature Theatre is delaying its move into its new space in the Village at Shirlington almost five months, until early next year, because construction is behind schedule.

The good news is that because Signature has to juggle its lineup, it has added "The Witches of Eastwick," a musical from producer Cameron Mackintosh that was given a splashy production in London but is being reworked as a more intimate show for Signature.

This article -- and the subsequent news release I received from Signature -- reminded me that I had reviewed the original London production of The Witches of Eastwick just over five years ago, in February 2001. I had spent a couple of days in London in transit from Tel Aviv to Washington, and saw as many shows as I could in a short period of time. Witches was one of them.

The best way to sum up what I thought of Witches is this: Great production of mediocre material. We'll see whether Eric Schaeffer can get the material improved in time for the U.S. premiere next season.

For what it's worth, here is my review of the West End musical, The Witches of Eastwick, along with two other shows from that season, Merrily We Roll Along and Madame Melville, as it appeared in The Metro Herald on March 2, 2001. (There is a temptation, whenever I repost articles like this, to tweak them a bit, change some awkward language, rephrase a sentence or two, or reflect subsequent events. I avoid that temptation because I think it is important to archive these documents as they actually were rather than to alter history -- even though I doubt I could be caught at it.)


Rick Sincere, our Entertainment Editor, has just returned from across the pond where he checked out three productions currently being staged and presents is reviews for those of you headed for merry olde England. Enjoy, old chaps!

When Failure Rises to Perfection:
Merrily We Roll Along at the Donmar Warehouse

It can be said – though some will disagree – that even Stephen Sondheim’s failures as a composer and lyricist are superior to the best work of his contemporaries.

So what can we say about a flawless production of one of those failures? We have, perhaps, two options: one is to close our eyes and swallow, as if to take a mental picture of this impeccable moment; the other is to swallow poison, for after it is over, there is nothing left to live for.

Let’s hope we take the first option, because there’s always an opportunity for an encore, or perhaps a cast album that can later and forever act as a madeleine to bring back, to our minds, that perfect moment in time.

Such is the situation presented us at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London, where Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1980 flop, has been in performance since December 1 and, sadly, closes today, March 3.

Designer Christopher Oram has created the perfect set for this show. In contrast to the “big” musicals in the nearby West End, Merrily We Roll Along is the height of simplicity in its design, emphasizing the words and the music. The show is played on a plain, mostly flat stage of blond wood with white highlights – window frames, curtains. The lighting, designed by Tim Mitchell, is stark and mostly white – a potentially disastrous combination in so intimate a space. The actors perform within only a few feet of the audience, as the Donmar is a small theatre, only slightly larger than Arlington’s Signature Theatre.

In common with Signature is Donmar’s reputation for presenting Sondheim shows of the highest quality – the theatre’s first production was the British premiere of Assassins – as well as recent revivals of Company and Into the Woods. Donmar’s artistic director, Sam Mendes, has been honored for such productions as Cabaret and last year won an Academy Award™ for his film debut as a director, American Beauty.

For Merrily We Roll Along, director Michael Grandage has assembled a youthful cast that, in many ways, returns the show to its original concept, as envisioned by director Harold Prince, who was unable to make it work. The concept was this: A show cast entirely of teenagers and young 20-somethings, many with no previous experience on Broadway. The original production brought Jason Alexander his first major role, for instance.

For various reasons, Prince was unable to fulfill his vision, and the original production of Merrily We Roll Along lasted just 16 performances on Broadway. (At the Donmar, I sat in front of a man who told me he saw the original not once, but three times – a rarity, and a lucky one.)

Grandage seems to have overcome the problems Prince stumbled over. Subsequent productions – including the reworked, rewritten revival at Arena Stage in 1990 – have cast grown-ups in the major roles. (Arena’s Douglas Wager cast veterans Victor Garber as Franklin Shepard and David Garrison as Charley Kringas, to name two parts played by well-known “adult” actors.)

Donmar’s production largely goes back to the original work, reinstating the high-school graduation bookends that were eliminated at Arena, with the exception of two interpolated songs from Sondheim’s 1990 rewrite – “Growing Up,” which sounds like a trunk song left over from Sunday in the Park with George, and “The Blob,” which fits in better with the rest of the score.

Grandage’s cast is filled with youthful exuberance, something aided, no doubt, by Peter Darling’s exhilarating choreography. The dance numbers have the raw, fresh feel of Darling’s choreography for the hit movie Billy Elliot. It is happy and heartfelt.

And where to begin in describing this youthful cast? One place to start is Julian Ovenden, the Young Franklin Shepard. True to Hal Prince’s concept, Ovenden essentially has no résumé – just one professional credit before this one. An unknown in the lead? Yes, and what a find! Grandage has discovered a star, a young man with stage presence, musical ability (he sings and plays piano), personal charm, and movie-idol good looks. We will be hearing from him again.

As Frank’s collaborator, Charley Kringas, Daniel Evans has already been honored with an Olivier Award nomination for best actor in a musical. He certainly deserves it, if only for his stand-out number, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” in which he goes quite mad in the middle of a live television interview. Washington theatregoers who see Evans might be startled by his remarkable resemblance, in looks and demeanor, to local actor Jason Gilbert.

Also nominated for an Olivier (as best actress in a musical) is Samantha Spiro as Mary Flynn, Frank and Charley’s “old friend.” Spiro plays Mary’s transformation, from youthful-optimist-aspiring-writer to hard-bitten-cynical-film-critic with just about as much fine-tuning as can be imagined. And she plays this tranformation backwards, just like the others.

The rest of the cast is similarly gifted, and much credit must also go to dialect coach Jeanette Nelson, who has taught all these “kids” to speak with believable, authentic American accents.

There’s more: Sondheim’s longtime musical collaborator, Jonathan Tunick, has created new orchestrations for Merrily We Roll Along, fitting for a smaller ensemble in a smaller space. What genius it was for Donmar to go to the original orchestrator to adapt his own work. Brilliant, just brilliant.

If this review seems like breathless cheerleading, it’s because it is, in part. Merrily We Roll Along has been my favorite Sondheim show since I saw the first college production at Catholic University almost 20 years ago. To be sure, if Donmar did a bad job with it, I would tell you so in unmistakable terms.

While the score of Merrily may lack the depth of Sweeney Todd or the sophistication of Passion or the delicacy of Sunday in the Park with George, it is, for Sondheim, unusually accessible. He does here what he seems to decry here: He creates “hum-hum-hummable” melodies. At the same time, the Greek chorus commenting on the action, the reprises prefiguring (in real time) the main songs, the interplay of themes and variations – all these things combine for an intellectually rigorous, challenging score. It is memorable, it is true.

While some have criticized Furth’s book as being weak, it certainly does not seem so at Donmar. While the premise may seem strange – following a group of friends backwards in time to see their transformation from “good” to “bad” – it definitely works. In terms of the way time travels in it, it’s no different than Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. Thematically, it succeeds where Sondheim’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, failed with Allegro.

Donmar’s next production is the London premiere of David Mamet’s new play, Boston Marriage. Previews begin March 8, continuing through April 14. The Donmar Warehouse is located at 41 Earlham Street, London WC2, near the Covent Garden and Leicester Square Tube stations.

For ticket information: 011-44-207-369-1732.

Entertaining But Empty: The Witches of Eastwick in London

London, England — The problem with The Witches of Eastwick is that it has nothing new to say.

The story, about a stranger who upends a small middle American town, is familiar to anyone who has seen Bye, Bye Birdie – and the use of telephones in a “gossip” song is straight from that 1960s hit. And how often have we seen a Mrs. Grundyish matron get her comeuppance from the more “with-it” characters in a play? The cartoonish sets and costumes seem to come from the closets of the designers of Des McAnuff’s revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying a few years back.

And yet ... and yet ... director Eric Schaeffer, composer Dana P. Rowe, and lyricist/librettist John Dempsey have given us an evening of entertainment thta includes tuneful melodies, clever lyrics, fun-filled dances, and surprising special effects. If you’re looking for pure enjoyment at the theatre, The Witches of Eastwick is a good bet for you.

Based on the novel by John Updike and a Warner Brothers movie starring Jack Nicholson, The Witches of Eastwick tells the story of three women – Alexandra Spofford (Lucie Arnaz), Sukie Rougemont (Maria Friedman), and Jane Smart (Joanna Riding) – who are dissatisfied with their small-town, New England lives. Along comes Darryl van Horne (Ian McShane), who transforms their boredom into excitement and (quite literally) bedevils the town at the same time.

A cute, romantic subplot involves Alexandra’s son, Michael (Peter Jöback), and Jennifer Gabriel (Caroline Sheen), daughter of the town busybody, Felicia (Rosemary Ashe) and her milquetoast husband, newspaper publisher Clyde (Stephen Tate).

The strengths in the show lie in the exquisite sets by Tony®- and Olivier-award-winning Bob Crowley (cartoonish they might be, but also exciting), energetic dancing (choreographed by Broadway veteran Bob Avian and Stephen Mear), and first-rate performances by the principals, particularly McShane and the trio of Arnaz, Friedman, and Riding. Swedish teen idol Jöback also stands out, and his fans seem to be flocking to see him – the night I was at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the audience was peppered with large numbers of Scandinavian tourists between the ages of 11 and 16.

If the plot were not so empty and predictable, The Witches of Eastwick would be a classic in the making. This shortcoming may explain why it is moving from Drury Lane to a much smaller theatre, the Prince of Wales, on March 23. The show’s predecessor at Drury Lane, Miss Saigon, played there continuously for more than ten years, and Sir Cameron Mackintosh, Lord Lloyd Webber, and the other producers no doubt hoped for a repeat of that record with Witches.

Because of its sheer entertainment value, we can probably count on The Witches of Eastwick to have a long run in London, and it is likely to come to New York before too long, as well.

Sweet Memories of Youth:
Madame Melville and Macaulay’s West End Debut

The wonder of London theatre is that one can go, from day to day, from a huge megahit like Starlight Express or The Witches of Eastwick to a perfection-laden, relatively intimate musical like Merrily We Roll Along to a finely-drawn, three-person play like Madame Melville – all within the same price range, all within the same general neighborhood that allows one to walk from marquee to marquee in search of the day’s entertainment.

Richard Nelson is an American playwright better known in England than he is at home, and his work reflects this fact. Most of his plays involve foreigners set in a country not their own and Madame Melville is no exception.

The narrator, and focal character, in Madame Melville is Carl, who presents himself at the outset as a middle-aged American, looking back on an episode in his life at the age of 15, when he was a reluctant transplant (with his parents) in the Paris of 1966. A shy student, he finds himself in the orbit of Madame Melville, a thirty-something literature teacher who takes groups of students to the cinema on Friday nights, and to her flat afterwards for drinks and discussion.

One night Carl (played by Macaulay Culkin, in his West End debut) is left behind by the other students, and discovers he is alone with Madame Melville (Irène Jacob). It is late, and before too long he has missed the last Metro. Unable to get home to his parents, he spends the night ... at first on the sofa, but soon in his teacher’s own bed. She seduces him, and he falls in love.

The affair lasts only through the weekend, though. The next day we meet Madame (really, we learn, Mademoiselle) Melville’s American neighbor, Ruthie (Madeleine Potter), who approves of the budding relationship. (She is, after all, a rather bohemian violinist and violin instructor.) The bliss comes to a sudden end, and in a coda Carl reveals what happens to him and his beloved teacher.

Culkin is surprisingly good in this role. Those who think of him as the mischievous child of the Home Alone movies will be in for a treat. He expresses a range of emotions, and he seems not to be limited by his training in film work, adapting well to the stage and to the necessities of connecting with a live audience.

Jacob is luminous. She’s any 15-year-old boy’s dream of a favorite teacher. The role she plays is fraught with dangers. If she camps it up too much, she might as well be playing Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate up the street. If she stiffens and formalizes too much, she loses her appeal. Jacob walks a fine line successfully.

Potter, for her part, brings a necessary lightness to what, if it were a two-character play, would quickly become cloying and claustrophobic. Ruthie is the world beyond, the recognition that Carl will have a life that simply begins – not ends – in Madame Melville’s flat.

Watching the play, I was struck by the fact that, if the roles were reversed – if the characters were Monsieur Melville and Carla, or if both characters were male – the outcry against this play would be heard from both sides of the Atlantic. There’s some kind of double standard at work that allows men to remember fondly their initiation into sex by an older woman, but not if the pupil is female and the teacher is male.

Oddly enough, at the matinee performance I attended, a school group of English teenagers was in the audience. I wasn’t able to observe the girls, but the boys in the group seemed to have a special appreciation for the show. One wonders if their teachers had a full understanding of the plot they would be seeing.

Richard Nelson – who directs his own script – has done an excellent job in bringing together a cast that has real chemistry. Three-character, drawing-room dramas can be very intense. Nelson leavens the drama with appropriate humor, and Culkin’s introspective, innocent charm carries the play far.

Madame Melville is a pleasant entertainment that also will leave you thinking.

Madame Melville closes in London (now at the Vaudeville Theatre) on March 11, but it transfers to Broadway in April. The Metro Herald was among the first to learn that on April 23, Madame Melville will open at the Promenade Theatre in New York.

Postscript: Daniel Evans and Samantha Spiro did end up winning Olivier Awards that year for their roles in Merrily We Roll Along, which also won the prize for best musical (beating out The Witches of Eastwick). I subsequently was told, by someone who was in a position to know, that Stephen Sondheim did not like the Donmar Warehouse production of Merrily, despite its success and acclaim. The Witches of Eastwick has not yet had a New York premiere, but Macaulay Culkin received a Theatre World award for his performance in Madame Melville off-Broadway. Michael Grandage, who directed Merrily, also directed the Donmar production of Guys and Dolls that I saw in the West End last month.