Sunday, November 27, 2005

On the Banks of the Wabash

In his syndicated column today, George F. Will points to Indiana as an example of how libertarian conservatives can have a genuine, positive effect on government by reining in its size and scope.

Writing in the Washington Post in a piece entitled "Indiana's Book of Daniels," Will points out the divide in the Republican party and conservative movement between social conservatives, who want to use social engineering to control the lives of citizens, and libertarian conservatives, who don't. Referring to Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who was once a high-ranking official in both the Reagan and Bush 43 administrations, Will says:

In the division between social conservatives, who emphasize nurturing virtue, and libertarian conservatives, who emphasize expanding liberty by limiting government, Daniels is with the latter. For example, regarding immigration, an issue that dramatizes this division, many social conservatives are restrictionists, but Daniels, whose state's population is, he says, "getting older and not growing," welcomes immigrants, who usually are "young people with dreams -- a good development."
Will provides several concrete examples of how Daniels has cut Indiana's state budget. The individual items may seem trivial, but as Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen once said, "a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking about real money."
Ending bottled water for employees of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (annual savings, $35,000).

Ending notification of drivers that their licenses are expiring; letting them be responsible for noticing (saving $200,000).

Buying rather than renting floor mats for BMV offices (saving $267,000 this year).

Initiating the sale of 2,096 surplus state vehicles (so far, $1.95 million in revenue from 1,514 sales).

Changing the state lottery's newsletter from semimonthly and in color to a monthly and black-and-white (annual savings, $21,670).

And so on, and on, agency by agency.
Nor is Mitch Daniels the only Indiana politician who cares about cutting spending to sensible amounts. Representative Mitch Pence (whom I have cited elsewhere), is trying to bring responsibility to the federal government, too:
What is it about Indiana? In this annus horribilis for conservatives, one of their few reasons for rejoicing has been the ascent to influence in the U.S. House of Representatives of the Republican Study Committee, more than 100 parsimonious members under the leadership of Mike Pence, a third-term Hoosier from a few miles east of here. The RSC's doctrine, a response to a one-third increase in federal spending during the current president's first four years, might be called Danielsism, which is: There is more to limited government than limiting its spending, but there will be nothing limited about government unless its spending is strenuously limited.

This tenet of traditional conservatism, although more frequently affirmed than acted on, is producing fresh plans for action. A 24-page RSC proposal calls for rescinding $25 billion in pork spending from the transportation bill, saving $30.8 billion by delaying for one year the start of the Medicare prescription drug entitlement, and much more.
Will suggests that political leaders like Daniels and Pence are learning from the intellectual libertarian movement, represented by organizations like the Cato Institute and Reason Foundation. He cites the former editor of Reason magazine, Virginia Postrel, as an influence on what he calls, not pejoratively, "Danielsism":
Daniels believes that Danielsism, far from being an exercise in small-mindedness, actually serves a large vision. He subscribes to a distinction made by Virginia Postrel in her book "The Future and Its Enemies" -- the distinction between advocates of stasis and advocates of dynamism. The former believe in managing the unfolding of the future.

The latter believe in minimal management of that unfolding; hence they believe in minimizing government, which has a metabolic urge to manage and a stake in preserving the status quo that government's bureaucracies are comfortable serving.

In the introduction to her book (an autographed copy of which sits in the libertarian section of my home library), Postrel explains more fully the difference between stasism and dynamism:
... Static visions depend on hiding the connections between disparate aspects of life. My purpose is to expose them. Stasists gain credibility by treating dynamism as a shallow fad. My aim is to reveal its rich heritage. Stasists thrive by issuing prescriptions that ignore the details of life, believing that details are unimportant, the stuff of anonymous specialists, and can safely be ignored. My goal is to encourage respect for those details, even when they can only be evoked in passing. Piling up widely divergent examples, reflecting a tiny sample of the plenitude of life, is one way to do that.

Stasist social criticism -- which is to say essentially all current social criticism -- brings up the specifics of life only to sneer at or bash them. Critics assume that readers will share their attitudes and will see contemporary life as a problem demanding immediate action by the powerful and wise. This relentlessly hostile view of how we live, and how we may come to live, is distorted and dangerous. It overvalues the tastes of an articulate elite, compares the real world of trade-offs to fantasies of utopia, omits important details and connections, and confuses temporary growing pains with permanent catastrophes. It demoralizes and devalues the creative minds on whom our future depends. And it encourages the coercive use of political power to wipe out choice, forbid experimentation, short-circuit feedback, and trammel progress.

... A word about terminology: Stasis and dynamism are ordinary words, and I use them in a fairly ordinary way, to represent stable or evolving states. The only variation from the conventional meaning is that I use dynamism more precisely, meaning not just change but evolution through variation, feedback, and adaptation. Stasis and dynamism may be actual or envisioned states; their qualities, in either case, are described as static or dynamic. The coined words stasist and dynamist -- which, like feminist or socialist, may be either nouns or adjectives -- refer to intellectual positions and the people who hold them. A dynamist is one who supports dynamism.

For readers who would like more informaiton about the ideas in this book, I have established a Web site at
Using the categories of "stasist" and "dynamist" is not the same as assigning the values of "right" or "left" or "conservative" or "liberal." In Postrel's typology, someone like Pat Buchanan, an icon of the right, is a stasist, as is left-wing thinker Jeremy Rifkin. Wal-Mart bashers, like documentary film director Robert Greenwald, are stasists, as are city and county officials who were among the few who were pleased by the Supreme Court's decision about eminent domain in Kelo v. City of New London, and just about anyone who subscribes to the NIMBY view of life.

Dynamists include people like Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, author and public intellectual Jane Jacobs, and Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto.

Science writer Ron Bailey addresses some of these same issues in his new book on advances in biotechnology and the opposition they face. As noted in a recent issue of The Hook,
If you're like most people, you probably avoid talking about politics and religion. Well, Charlottesville journalist Ron Bailey isn't most people. In fact, he relishes biotechnology debates-- and they usually involve both religion and politics.

As the science correspondent for Reason magazine, Bailey often finds himself extolling the merits of cloning, euthanasia, and harvesting stem cells. And in his most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, he addresses pretty much every touchy subject in the field.

The book, released in July, attacks both the Academy and the Administration. Bailey goes after prominent Boston University bioethicist George Annas for his "precautionary principle" as well as Dr. Leon Kass, the former head of the President's Council on bioethics.

"The Bush administration doesn't much care for me," says Bailey.

What exactly is it about the man that compels him to endorse such unpopular subjects?

"I'm a technological optimist," says Bailey, "and a lot of people-- both left-wingers and right-- focus only on the bad possibilities of science. We create these scary monsters that never come true."
A few weeks ago, I saw Bailey speak before an audience at the University of Virginia, in a lecture sponsored by Students for Individual Liberty, and he gave an entertaining outline of his book based upon his original subtitle (rejected by the publisher): "Why You Should Relax and Enjoy The Brave New World of Immortality, Stem Cells, and Designer Babies." His remarks were both provocative and informative.

But back to the main point: We certainly need more dynamists in public office, so my hat, like George Will's, is off to Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Yesterday was "Black Friday," which sounds much more sinister than it ought to sound. ("Black Tuesday" was the name given to the day of the 1929 Stock Market Crash.) "Black" refers to the fact that it is the day of the year that bookkeepers for retail businesses change the color of their ink from red to black, representing the move into profit-making for the year.

The Washington Post business section reported on Black Friday in a style normally reserved for -- well, reserved for the Post's Style section. The article, "Going for Broke -- and Bargains," focused on the human interest angle, through an hour-by-hour account of the day at several different retail facilities. For instance:

The first customer to get through the sliding doors of the Wal-Mart on Fair Lakes Parkway in Fairfax County had been sitting outside the store in frigid temperatures since Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Others spent the night camped in tents in the parking lot.

It took Wal-Mart store manager Lee Lowe nearly half an hour to usher hundreds of people waiting outside into the store for the 5 a.m. opening, under the watchful eye of police and amid some pushing and shoving. Those last in line had little chance of getting their hands on two of the big specials of the morning: a 42-inch plasma TV for $997 and an HP Pavilion laptop for $398. They were gone within minutes.

Anna Lam of Centreville packed her cart with 12 two-quart slow cookers, on sale for $3.98. She couldn't resist the price, she said, and would give some to friends and family.
Some news reports focused on the ill manners of many shoppers, citing stampedes and injuries that occurred when the doors opened to eager and impatient customers. The Hartford Courant, for example, noted:
In Grand Rapids, Mich., the race for bargains led to a woman getting stepped upon as dozens of shoppers rushed into a Wal-Mart store as early as 5 a.m. When the stampede ended, the woman and a 13-year-old girl had suffered minor injuries.
Despite the hype, Black Friday is not the busiest shopping day of the year. Last year that honor fell on December 18, the last Saturday before Christmas. Mastercard says that, according to its records, Black Friday is just the sixth busiest shopping day.

Perhaps the myth began in with the traditional arrival of Santa Claus at Macy's at the end of the Thanksgiving Day parade, or with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's decision to change the day of Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday, responding to the urgings of merchants who already recognized the day after Thanksgiving as the start of the Christmas shopping season, and who wanted to see that season's length extended. Thanksgiving has been the fourth Thursday of November ever since the Great Depression.

I have written before about the counterintuitive value of Christmas commercialism, both to our economy and to our culture. But it's nice to rise above the pecuniary for a moment to reflect on some of the aesthetic pleasures of the season.

I missed the tree-lighting ceremony on Charlottesville's downtown mall early last evening, but after enjoying the Moscow Boys Choir concert at the Paramount Theatre, I wandered down the mall and took a few photos of Christmasy scenes warmly enclosed inside shop windows.

Consider this to be "photoblogging Christmas."


Although the show had been marked as "sold out," I took a chance on getting someone's canceled reservation at the Paramount Theatre in Charlottesville last night, and lucked out.

I walked into the box office and asked if there were any cancellations, only to be told no. There was, however, an elegantly dressed woman standing nearby who asked me if I needed just one ticket. When I answered in the affirmative, she said she had one ticket available and sold it to me at the advertised price of $30.

Thus it was that I was able to see the Moscow Boys Choir perform from the best seat in the house, Orchestra Row K, Seat 111 -- dead center.

The program was mostly familiar Christmas songs in English with some French, German, and Spanish thrown in. The Ukrainian song that is best-known in the West, "Carol of the Bells," was also performed, as one might expect.

Oddly, the boys (and six adults who sing bass and tenor) sing English with discernible Russian accents, while their French, German, and Latin are unaccented. I find it puzzling that a world-renowned choral group seems not to have an English diction coach on staff to remedy that problem.

That said, the Russian-accented English was a quaint dimple on the smiling performance of the choir, which was polished even if the overall discipline of the group was a bit lacking.

My point of comparison is with the Vienna Boys Choir, whom I have seen three or four times in concert, a choral group which appears strictly regimented in comparison to these boys from Moscow.

The Russian boys seemed more fidgety on stage than their Austrian counterparts, sometimes shifting from foot to foot, or touching themselves, scratching their noses, adjusting their hair. One blond boy with a bad haircut on the far right was clearly daydreaming or distracted; it looked like he was going through the motions while his mind was miles away. Another boy, who bore a passing resemblance to a young Frankie Muniz, looked like a deer caught in headlights during his first solo, although he appeared more relaxed later in the performance.

What's more, some of the boys were wearing ill-fitting suits (they were all dressed in matching tuxedo jackets and trousers, with white bow ties), and a good number of them wore shoes that were obviously too big for their feet.

I think this last observation has more to say about the state of the Russian economy than it does about Russian art and music, because there was nothing ill-fitting about the actual vocal performances.

The boys did their best work when singing Russian folk songs and classical music, especially an opening triplet of songs by Stepanov, Degtiarev, and Rachmaninoff. A second-act medley of Russian folk songs was punctuated with two outstanding solo turns, one (on "Evening Bells") by the choir's conductor, tenor Leonid Baklushin, the other (on "Ochi Tchiornya," "Black Eyes" or "Dark Eyes" ) by Il'ya Kanygin, a young operatic baritone who has real star quality.

Through the course of the evening, at least a dozen of the 30 boy sopranos, trebles, and altos were given their own chance to step forward and sing a solo, even if it was just one line in "The Twelve Days of Christmas." (Believe me, the Moscow Boys Choir's surprisingly animated rendition of this song can give the Virginia Glee Club a run for its money. Anyone who has seen the Glee Club sing "The Twelve Days of Christmas" knows precisely what I mean.)

The program had some unexpected portions, including the "Gloria Tibi" and "Kyrie" from Bernstein's Mass. The jazz-infused tarantella of this work was out of place here, though it must have been a challenge for the Moscow Boys Choir. As good as their performance was, it just served as a reminder of what a second-rate composition Bernstein's Mass is, and that these selections, in particular, would serve us better in a trunk kept in the Bernstein family attic, as rejected tunes from the score of Candide.

Conducter Baklushin brought the audience to its feet to sing along with "America the Beautiful," in infectious Russian-accented English, and again with a rousing finale, the familiar Russian folk song, "Kalinka."

All in all, seeing (and hearing) the Moscow Boys Choir was great fun. I hope to catch them on another American tour someday. Unfortunately, the group has only two CDs available for sale on, and both of them are Christmas collections. I would really like to own a recording of the Moscow Boys Choir singing Russian songs, which is simply what they do best. (A new recording, said to include some of those songs, is available on the choir's North American management's web site.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Ice Ice Baby

In cinemas across the land today, a new film is opening: The Ice Harvest, directed by Harold Ramis.

I saw The Ice Harvest at the Virginia Film Festival last month; Ramis was there to introduce the film.

The Paramount Theatre was packed, and I'm not sure how others in the audience reacted, but I was disappointed. I had been misled by the trailers for The Ice Harvest I had seen; they make the movie seem like a light-hearted, dark-comedy caper flick. It's not. In fact, previews for The Ice Harvest are comparable to the parody trailer for The Shining, the one that makes Stanley Kubrick's thriller look like a warm family comedy. ("Coming this fall, Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall star in a heartwarming story about a family's journey of self-discovery. See it again and again.")

Tim Hulsey, who was with me that night at the Paramount, agrees with my assessment of The Ice Harvest, and he wrote a review of the movie for The Metro Herald, to appear in this week's issue.

Since Tim is traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and isn't blogging while on the road, I'm taking the liberty of posting his review here (which I edited for the newspaper before submitting it for publication; believe me, Tim does not require much editing, though he'd protest that he does -- he's far too modest). When he returns to Charlottesville and is back to blogging, I'm sure Tim will post a version of this himself.

In the meantime, those interested may want to look at Tim's review of Jarhead, another movie currently in theatres and getting a lot of attention.

Here is Tim's guest-blogger review of The Ice Harvest:

The Ice Harvest: Meltdown
Tim Hulsey
Special to The Metro Herald

One of the new movies that had its regional premiere at the Virginia Film Festival last month was The Ice Harvest, directed by Harold Ramis. Ramis made a special trip to Charlottesville to introduce his film to the audience in the newly-renovated Paramount Theatre, serving for the first time as a film festival venue. Now the movie is opening across the country, just in time for Thanksgiving weekend, one of the biggest movie-going weekends of the year.

Sordid, bleak, and unsympathetic, Harold Ramis's The Ice Harvest may be the feel-bad movie of the year. Although the film is being marketed as a subversive Christmas comedy, it offers surprisingly little in the way of humor.

Loosely based on the novel by Scott Phillips, The Ice Harvest is a nasty thriller replete with gratuitous nudity and explicit gore. As directed by Harold Ramis (best known for Groundhog Day and Caddyshack), it feels like an homage to the violent thrillers of Joel and Ethan Coen (Blood Simple, Fargo).

Yet even as a thriller the film falls flat.

The Ice Harvest tells the story of Charlie Arglist (John Cusack), a mob lawyer who with the help of his friend Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton) steals money from a local mobster (Randy Quaid) on Christmas Eve. The crime seems to go off without a hitch. But complications ensue, beginning when a sudden ice storm closes off the thieves' escape route. As the night progresses, Cusack finds himself enmeshed in a web of danger, deceit and murder -- in short, all the elements of a middle-of-the-road film noir.

Ramis’s film begins pleasantly if blandly, with sporadic jabs at holiday excess. (His funniest image -- a plastic elf holding a crowbar -- is prominently featured in the ad campaign.) The script, by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Richard Russo and Academy Award winning writer-director Robert Benton, offers a few razor-tipped one-liners, though not often enough to keep the proceedings lively.

Unfortunately, the humor peters out at the halfway mark, and The Ice Harvest turns into a disappointing, hackneyed crime drama. Double and triple crosses play out much as one would expect, and each character manages to commit some unpardonable act of betrayal and depravity. Ramis overplays the violence for maximum shock value, but never generates real suspense.

To be fair, some of the actors manage to spin gold -- or at least a bit of brass -- from all this straw. Cusack plays his trademark sad-sack character to perfection, while Thornton manages to be cheerfully venal even when committing cold-blooded murder. Randy Quaid’s bitter, explosive star turn provides the only bright spot in an otherwise dismal third act. But the most flamboyant performance in The Ice Harvest belongs to Oliver Platt, as a depressed, alcoholic architect. Platt serves as the film's emotional center, though at one point his character receives a vicious, nauseating comeuppance that will strike many audience members as overkill.

The women in this film don't fare half as well as the men. Danish actress Connie Nielsen (of Gladiator fame) sleepwalks through her role as the manager of a local strip club. She looks and acts like Veronica Lake, which begs the question of why she would work at a third-rate bar. Her vocation proves convenient, however, because it allows the film to exhibit nubile, naked young women in its slower moments. The humiliation doesn’t end there, of course. When Platt and Cusack take a detour from holiday barhopping to visit an ex-wife they happen to share (Meghan McDonough),The Ice Harvest wallows in brutish misogyny.

With so much talent in front of the camera and behind it, one has to ask what went wrong here. Some of the blame must fall on Ramis, who seems ill-suited to the material, and compensates with a litany of film noir cliches. The real problem, though, lies with the high-powered scriptwriting team of Richard Russo and Robert Benton. Individually, they’re masters of their respective crafts, but together, they seem unable to agree on basic scriptwriting concerns like tone, plot and genre. All in all, this film has something to alienate absolutely everyone.

Harold Ramis's Ice Harvest is a lump of coal in holiday moviegoers' stockings, and should disappear quickly from area theaters. It won't be a moment too soon.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Tim Hulsey covered the Virginia Film Festival for the Metro Herald. His film reviews and cultural commentary can be found at

I found The Ice Harvest to include far too much gratuitous, graphic violence to be truly funny. A caper movie brings with it certain expectations of cartoonish violence, but The Ice Harvest goes far beyond that. There are some humorous moments involving violence, to be sure, such as when Cusack and Thornton are dealing with an armed mobster inside a big metal box, accompanied by surreal dialogue about the roominess of a luxury car. But these moments are too sparsely spread across the film.

I was surprised that the Washington Post critic, Desson Thomson, liked the film ("'Ice Harvest': Killer Thriller Goes for the Jocular Vein"). I suspect if the review had been assigned to Thomson's colleague, Stephen Hunter, it may not have been as favorable. (I say that because Hunter and I tend to agree on the movies we see; not always, but most of the time. Consequently, I will go to see movies that Hunter recommends, just as I'll go to see any movie that Washington Times critic Gary Arnold dislikes.)

My prediction: The Ice Harvest will make a lot of money in its opening weekend, then fall precipitously in the box-office rankings as word-of-mouth goes out to say "this is a disappointing movie."

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

It's Been So Long Since Last We Met ...

Last weekend it was my immense pleasure to attend a weekend of activities at my alma mater sponsored by the Georgetown Theatre Alumni. Events included a performance of Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good at the new Gonda Theatre in the new Royden B. Davis, S.J., Performing Arts Center. Our Country's Good, set in early colonial Australia and about the mounting of a play by an unlikely cast of actors, became the premiere production in the long-awaited center, built as an addition to the old Ryan Administration Building (once Georgetown University's gymnasium, later the site of the student bank, run for many years as a branch of the recently demised Riggs National Bank).

Rather than wax nostalgic about the weekend visit to the Hilltop -- my first since the last time I attended a GTA alumni event, in 2002 -- through words, I have decided to photoblog the weekend. Please enjoy.

Any visit to Georgetown University should begin with paying respects to Archbishop John Carroll, founder of the school and first Catholic bishop of the United States, whose statue stands (sits?) in the middle of Healy Circle.

A familiar landmark on the D.C. skyline (such as it is), Healy Tower contains a clock whose hands are a frequent object of larceny (or at least borrowing) by mischievous Georgetown students.

For over 100 years, Dahlgren Chapel has been the spiritual center of Georgetown's campus. Beneath the chapel is the crypt where the Dahlgren family is buried, and a room where I used to practice, under the direction of Elaine Rendler, with the Georgetown University Chapel Choir (which, contrary to the campus ministry web site, was founded and active long before the year 2002).

Drew Courtney, a GTA board member, led a tour of campus sites where Georgetown student theatre groups have performed. Here he points to Maguire Hall, which is featured in the earliest recorded report of a theatre performance on campus that also mentions a specific location.

Gaston Hall, with its highly decorated walls, was another early venue for Georgetown theatre performances.

GTA board member Jason Yarn videotapes part of the historical theatre tour in Gaston Hall. Other alumni sit in the row before him.

Poulton Hall has been the home of Mask & Bauble for more than 40 years, so it was natural for the magical history tour to take us there. M&B has been based in Stage III since 1976, and before that in Stage I (affectionately known as "the Cave") and, briefly, in the ill-fated Stage II, which never saw a performance other than its birth by stealth.

Ron Lignelli, managing director of Georgetown's Program in Performing Arts, makes a point about the technical difficulties of producing shows in Poulton Hall.

The highlight of the tour was, of course, the new performing arts center, named for the former dean of Georgetown College, Father Royden B. Davis, S.J. So please indulge me as I include more than one photo of this fascinating stop on the tour.

The main entrance to the new performing arts center, formerly the Ryan Administration Building.

Ted Parker (right), an adjunct professor at Georgetown and technical advisor to the Program in Performing Arts, conducted the exclusive alumni tour of the new Davis Center, beginning in the spacious lobby.

The new scenic design and construction shop at the performing arts center is truly gargantuan, particularly when compared to what was available to Georgetown theatre groups in the past. This overhead shot shows only a portion of the brightly lit, airy room with state-of-the-art equipment.

A costume shop! With sewing machines and ironing boards and dressmakers dummies.

The Davis Center overlooks the Jesuit cemetery and the Intercultural Center.

Of course, the opposite is true, too: from the base of the ICC is a great view of the back of the new Davis Center, with the Jesuit graveyard in between the two academic buildings.

This image may seem quotidian to most people, but in the context of Georgetown theatre, this is earthshattering: What you see is a shower attached to the dressing room. And nearby is a toilet. And there is more than one dressing room with these amenities! (By the way, there were several actors performing in Our Country's Good last Friday whom I would happily photograph in this setting.)

I couldn't resist taking this picture. Current students will find this hard to believe, but Old North Hall, the oldest building on Georgetown's campus, was once a residence hall. Behind the window in the lower left of this photo is the room I lived in as a freshman. Really.

The banquet Saturday night was meant to add three new names to the Donn B. Murphy Hall of Fame, attracting about 50 alumni, students, and family members. Here are SFS alumna Susan Swope, GTA at-large board member Michael Radolinski, and the namesake of the Georgetown theatre hall of fame, Dr. Donn B. Murphy.

Having a good time? It looks like GTA board members Drew Courtney and Sally Richardson were enjoying themselves.

So too, it seems, was Austin Williams, currently Technical Director on the board of the Mask & Bauble Dramatic Society.

Meanwhile, GTA board member Christina Logothetis appears to be deep in conversation with M&B Executive Producer Sami Ghazi.

Still, Christina couldn't resist working her way to the dance floor to have some fun with Austin.

I took a good many other photos over the weekend, but I thought it best to leave with this image -- a string of balloons decorating the room where the Hall of Fame banquet took place. (I may post more images later this week.)