Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Return of Robert Bork

In an article in Monday's Washington Post about the search for a successor to retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, Robert Barnes and Anne E. Kornblut report:

John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, said there is another way to interpret the president's remarks: that Obama is looking for someone who would show some deference to "the legislative branch's prerogative in making laws that they think are for the benefit of the country."
Am I the only one struck by this as a description of Robert Bork?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Clean Talk about Dirty Bombs

When the concept of "dirty bombs" first came to public consciousness in the months following the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, I reached back in my memory to my years as an activist advocating civil defense preparations against nuclear attack in the 1980s and realized that a "dirty bomb" posed little or no threat.  (For several years, I was on the board of directors and a vice president of the American Civil Defense Association as well as a contributing editor to the Journal of Civil Defense.  I traveled around the country lecturing about civil defense policy and debating people who disagreed with me.)

nuclear war survival skillsAt the time, I shared my opinion with friends in conversation but felt no need to write about it, since the idea of an explosive device used to disperse nuclear material seemed so absurd.

People took it seriously, however, because (sadly) most Americans' "knowledge" of nuclear radiation is based on B-movies of the 1950s and later fright propaganda like The China Syndrome.

I mention this because I just came across an excellent piece on this topic from STRATFOR, a respected provider of intelligence and strategic information based in Austin, Texas.  (Coincidentally, the Austin American-Statesman was the first newspaper to publish my 1996 article headlined "Not All Bombs Are Planted by Terrorists.")  STRATFOR's analysts believe, as I do, that the dirty bomb causes more fear than it should, that is more "hype" than reality.

In its analysis, titled "Dirty Bombs Revisited: Combating the Hype," STRATFOR's analysts write:

In spite of the fact that dirty bombs have been discussed widely in the press for many years now — especially since the highly publicized arrest of Jose Padilla in May 2002 — much misinformation and disinformation continues to circulate regarding dirty bombs. The misinformation stems from long-held misconceptions and ignorance, while the disinformation comes from scaremongers hyping the threat for financial or political reasons. Frankly, many people have made a lot of money by promoting fear since 9/11.

Just last week, we read a newspaper article in which a purported expert interviewed by the reporter discussed how a dirty bomb would “immediately cause hundreds or even thousands of deaths.” This is simply not true. A number of radiological accidents have demonstrated that a dirty bomb will not cause this type of death toll. Indeed, the panic generated by a dirty bomb attack could very well result in more immediate deaths than the detonation of the device itself. Unfortunately, media stories hyping the threat of these devices may foster such panic, thus increasing the death toll.
I might add, such panic could be especially troublesome in the absence of a good disaster-preparedness plan.

The STRATFOR analysis continues:
By its very nature, the RDD [radiological dispersal device] is contradictory. Maximizing the harmful effects of radiation involves maximizing the exposure of the victims to the highest possible concentration of a radioisotope. When dispersing the radioisotope, by definition and design the RDD dilutes the concentration of the radiation source, spreading smaller amounts of radiation over a larger area. Additionally, the use of an explosion to disperse the radioisotope alerts the intended victims, who can then evacuate the affected area and be decontaminated. These factors make it very difficult for an attacker to administer a deadly dose of radiation via a dirty bomb.

It is important to note that a dirty bomb is not a nuclear device, and no nuclear reaction occurs. A dirty bomb will not produce an effect like the nuclear devices dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki. A dirty bomb is quite simply an RDD that uses explosives as the means to disperse a radioactive isotope, and the only blast effect will be from the explosives used to disperse the radioisotope. In a dirty bomb attack, radioactive material not only is dispersed, but the dispersal is accomplished in an obvious manner, and the explosion immediately alerts the victims and authorities that an attack has taken place. The attackers hope that notice of their attack will cause mass panic — in other words, the RDD is a weapon of fear and terror.
In a nice turn of phrase, STRATFOR says that a so-called "dirty bomb" is not a weapon of mass destruction (WMB) so much as it is a "weapon of disruption." Disruption is damaging in itself, of course, but it is not as damaging as the popular imagination has made it out to be.

I have to agree with STRATFOR's concluding paragraph:
As noted above, we believe it is possible that the panic caused by a dirty bomb attack could well kill more people than the device itself. People who understand the capabilities and limitations of dirty bombs are less likely to panic than those who do not, which is the reason for this analysis. Another important way to help avoid panic is to carefully think about such an incident in advance and to put in place a carefully crafted contingency plan for your family and business. Contingency plans are especially important for those who work in proximity to a potential dirty bomb target. But they are useful in any disaster, whether natural or man-made, and something that should be practiced by all families and businesses. Such knowledge and planning provide people with the ability to conduct an orderly and methodical evacuation of the affected area. This allows them to minimize their exposure to radioactivity while also minimizing their risk of injury or death due to mass hysteria. For while a dirty bomb attack could well be messy and disruptive, it does not have to be deadly.
I don't often make suggestions for "further reading," but this is an issue that, as STRATFOR says, requires education and solid information.

Let me first recognize a piece I wrote originally as congressional testimony that was later published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center (with a foreword by Lorne Greene) as Civil Defense:  A Moral, Political, and Strategic Approach.

red dawn nuclear weapons dirty bombI would also like to recommend a book (which I reviewed here) by George Mason University physicist Robert Ehrlich called Waging Nuclear Peace:  The Technology and Politics of Nuclear Weapons.

Given the sorts of thinking that lead to misconceptions about "dirty bombs" and other weapons of less-than-mass-destruction, it might be instructive to read The Apocalyptic Premise: Nuclear Arms Debated, edited by E. Stephen Hunt and the late Ernest W. Lefever.

Although all these books were written in the 1980s, they have unusual relevance today, not only because of the insights they might bring to bear on the possible use by terrorists of "dirty bombs," but also because of current debates about the arms treaty recently negotiated between Russia and the United States, and calls by European nations for the United States to remove tactical missiles from their territory, calls that have a remarkable similarity -- mimicry? -- to the nuclear freeze movement of more than 25 years ago.

Is it any wonder that Hollywood is remaking that iconic movie of the 1980s, Red Dawn?

Note:  Excerpts of the STRATFOR report are reprinted with permission of STRATFOR.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day (Plus 40)!

What better way to celebrate Earth Day's 40th anniversary than to listen to the late, great George Carlin, who really understands the resilience of the Earth and how man is dwarfed by the planet.

Crystal Clear Conservative has also posted this video and comments:
Earth Day has taken many twists and turns over the years. Now, thanks to the advent of “An Inconvenient Truth” and a degree of hyper-environmentalism, we are faced with a new slogan “Recycle or die” or Cap and Trade legislation, which would regulate industries that produce clean energy. Earth Day is no longer about promoting conservation within reason....

George Carlin says it best time and again as evidenced in this clip.
We lost not just a wit and an entertainer when George Carlin passed away (shortly after being named the recipient of the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor), but an intelligent, plain-speaking social philosopher who was not afraid to take on the sacred cows of both left and right.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My New Gig on Examiner.com

My posts here have been sporadic lately, owing in part to my paying closer attention to a new writing gig I began about two weeks ago.

I really fell into it at random. Somehow I found myself on the page of the Charlottesville Events Examiner and I noticed a button marked "write for us." Curious, I clicked on it, and within minutes I had filled out an application to fill the vacancy for the "Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner."

The instructions indicated that it could take as long as two weeks to process the application, so I left it there expecting to hear back sometime in the future. Yet within 24 hours I had received an email saying that my application had been accepted, but in order to confirm my interest in being a writer for Examiner.com, I had to post something within a day.

I scrambled to put something together, wondering what would fit Examiner.com's rather specific guidelines for good article writing. I finally settled on repurposing a blog post I had written in February about "affordable housing." That became "Concerns about the affordability of ‘affordable housing’ in Charlottesville," the first of my (so far) 17 articles on politics and policy on Examiner.com.

In my next piece, I drew upon video I took at a Students for Individual Liberty event at the University of Virginia, at which Adam Kissel of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education answered a question I posed about the case before the U.S. Supreme Court called Christian Legal Society v. Martinez.  Both FIRE and Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty filed friend-of-the-court briefs in that case.  The Court heard oral arguments in CLS v. Martinez on Monday, April 19.  My Examiner.com piece was called "Will the U.S. Supreme Court uphold freedom of expressive association?"

Let me note, parenthetically but with some pride, that GLIL's brief was cited favorably by William McGurn in Monday's Wall Street Journal.  McGurn writes:
That public/private distinction helps explain why CLS has also found allies in the libertarian Cato Institute and Gays & Lesbians for Individual Liberty. In their own brief, this latter group stresses that it was the ability of gay Americans to form gay associations—whose membership rules they defined for themselves—that gave them a collective voice in the face of an often hostile majority.

Presumably Gays & Lesbians for Individual Liberty do not share the CLS view of human sexuality. But they understand exactly where Dean Martinez's logic is taking us.

"[U]nder Hastings' forced membership policy, only majority viewpoints (or those viewpoints too banal to interest the majority) are actually assured a voice in Hastings' forum," argues their brief. "That is a patently unreasonable way to 'promote a diversity of viewpoints.'"

Exactly. Traditionally the American contribution to diversity has been the encouragement of thriving—and competing—private institutions and associations. Unfortunately, on American campuses today we see the opposite: an expanding government role in everything from research to how schools are accredited and how student loans are administered. One unintended consequence is that our culture wars are going to escalate as our courts are forced to take up a great many more cases like Hastings.
This is a digression; I hope to write more about CLS v. Martinez before the Supreme Court issues its ruling in June.

My next Examiner.com also recycled something I had written earlier, with a local and current hook: "Is 'income inequality' a serious problem?" With this article, I first experimented with searching the AP archives and using an AP photograph, which I could never do on this blog because that would be stealing, but which I can do on Examiner.com because the parent web site has permission -- actually, pays for a license -- to use AP photos. That's why the article has a shot of Alan Greenspan testifying before Congress.

With my fourth article, "Five reasons to be a libertarian," I began another experiment: carrying with me an audio recorder and asking people to talk into it in response to questions I ask them. In this case, I asked five members of the Jefferson Area Libertarians to explain what it means to be a libertarian.

The next four Examiner.com articles were the result of my attending a Cato Institute briefing on transportation issues in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill.  I was able to speak briefly with Cato's Randal O'Toole, the Heritage Foundation's Ronald Utt, and the Reason Foundation's Robert Poole.  The articles drawn from those interviews are:
Examiner.com exclusive - Randal O'Toole on Virginia high-speed rail
Aviation policy expert Robert Poole talks about transportation privatization
Heritage Foundation's Ronald Utt discusses commercialization of highway rest areas
Meadowcreek Parkway and suggestions to improve transportation policy making
My first candidate interview, with Fifth Congressional District GOP candidate Ken Boyd, appeared on April 12. Subsequently, I published interviews with Third District Libertarian candidate James Quigley, who will be facing Bobby Scott in November, and Eighth District Republican candidate Matthew Berry, who will face Jim Moran in the fall should he win the June 8 primary.

Other articles include a truncated version of my review of Fiddler on the Roof at the National Theatre, called "Reevaluating 'Fiddler on the Roof' from an economic perspective," and a report on the Tax Day Tea Party in Charlottesville.

I also interviewed John Taylor of the Virginia Institute for Public Policy about Thomas Jefferson's birthday, historian Jennifer Burns about Ayn Rand, and the Cato Institute's Brink Lindsey about "liberaltarianism."

What comes next?  I'm not sure, but I have several interviews "in the can" that require transcribing and transforming into article format.  My aim is to have at least six Examiner.com articles a week.  (Did I mention that Examiner.com offers financial incentives for posting good articles?)  Within two weeks, I have already made the "top five" of Charlottesville Examiners, with double and triple the average page hits in the "Charlottesville" and "Politics" categories -- even based on statistics since the beginning of the year.  Somehow the Charlottesville Pet News Examiner keeps beating me out for first place.

I guess I just have to be more dogged in my approach.

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Former NM Governor Gary Johnson to Speak in Charlottesville

The Charlottesville Republican Committee, along with the Albemarle County Republican Committee and the Republican Liberty Caucus of Virginia, will host an appearance by former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson at the Northside Library in Albemarle Square on Monday, May 3, at 7:00 p.m.

Governor Johnson's speech will last about 45 minutes and there will be an additional 45 minutes for questions and discussion.

A triathlete who has climbed Mount Everest, Gary Johnson was elected to two terms as New Mexico's governor after a successful career as an entrepreneur.  He is currently chairman of the OUR America Initiative.

The idea has been floated that Governor Johnson might run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, but currently he is not a candidate for any state or federal office.

According to his official biography:

As Governor of New Mexico, Johnson was known for his common-sense business approach to governing. He eliminated New Mexico’s budget deficit, cut the rate of growth in state government in half and privatized half of the state prisons.

Johnson also shifted state Medicaid to managed care (which led to better healthcare by creating a statewide healthcare network that previously did not exist and which saved money) and reduced state employees by over 1000, with no firings. During his term, New Mexico experienced the longest period without a tax increase in the state’s history.

While in office, Governor Johnson vetoed 750 bills (which was more than all the combined vetoes of the other 49 Governors in the country at the time) and thousands of line item vetoed bills.

For more information about Governor Johnson's May 3rd lecture in Charlottesville, check out the event page on Facebook.

This event is free and open to the public.

Crossposted from Charlottesville Republicans Blog.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Review of 'Fiddler on the Roof' at D.C.'s National Theatre

This review of Fiddler on the Roof is based on the performance last Wednesday evening, April 14, and is intended to appear in the next edition of The Metro Herald in Alexandria, Virginia.

Reevaluating ‘Fiddler on the Roof’
Harvey Fierstein Stars in National Tour’s D.C. Engagement
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

It’s time to reassess one of the central claims of the classic American musical play, Fiddler on the Roof. The current engagement at Washington’s National Theatre offers a chance to look at the play with fresh eyes, adding a different sort of vitality to a work that is so familiar that we may have begun taking it and its characters for granted.

Tony®-winning Broadway actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein is the star of the latest national tour of Fiddler, playing the role of Tevye, the Dairyman, a character created a century ago by Yiddish short-story writer Sholom Aleichem and beloved by millions of readers and playgoers around the world.

Tevye sings one of Fiddler’s biggest hit songs, “If I Were a Rich Man,” in which he first complains of his own poverty and then daydreams about what it would be like to be a wealthy man.

Tevye’s life, however, belies his plaintive pleas of poverty. Digging deeper into the text reveals that, far from being a poor man, Tevye is a man with assets and means – someone we might call a working-class entrepreneur. Indeed, nearly all of Tevye’s neighbors in Anatevka are working- or middle-class and not at all poor in any objective sense.

Although Tevye’s wife, Golde, tells one of their five daughters “you’re a girl from a poor family” and although Tevye says to God, “it’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor either,” the circumstances of their family are not those of poverty, especially not the sort of poverty one would expect in a pre-industrial, traditional society.

First, Tevye is a self-employed farmer. He owns at least one horse and other livestock –probably several cows. Not only that, he has sufficient cattle to meet his customers’ needs and he can every so often sell a surplus cow. (Tevye assumes that the butcher wants to buy his “new milk cow,” which implies he has old milk cows and that he has enough cash to periodically buy a new one.)

Second, Tevye is sufficiently secure economically that he is able to hire a tutor for his daughters (“food for lessons,” he says to the itinerant Perchik) at a time when girls were expected to stay uneducated. His third-eldest daughter, Chava, has enough pocket money to buy books for pleasure reading.

Third, when the Russian authorities force Tevye and his neighbors to leave Anatevka, he is given three days to sell his property. What does Tevye own? A house, a barn, and a plot of land big enough to feed his livestock. His ownership is clear enough that he has the courage – and the right – to order the constable off his land while he still owns it.

Fourth, Tevye has disposable income above the subsistence level. He husbands his assets so effectively that he can buy luxuries (candlesticks, goose pillows, and a feather bed) as gifts for his daughter on her wedding day and pay for the food and drink and musicians that make a wedding celebration, too.

To return to “If I Were a Rich Man,” Tevye is not so much asking to be a “rich man” as he is expressing his desire to be a “man of leisure” – a person who does not have to work for a living and who can enjoy a mansion, servants, and free time for prayer and contemplation.

There is no question that Tevye is not “rich” in the sense of a Rockefeller or a Rothschild. Neither is he poor. His family has enough food to eat – indeed, they have enough food that they can routinely share it with strangers and friends who visit for the Sabbath.

Tevye works hard, to be sure, and like any dairy farmer must rise before dawn to feed and milk the cows, plus toil through the rest of the day to make cheese and butter and deliver his goods to his customers. This is not a life of impoverishment. It is a life that produces something of value to trade for other things of value. It is essentially middle-class.

The other characters we meet in Fiddler on the Roof are in similar economic circumstances. Except for Nachum, the beggar, nearly everyone in the play has means and assets.

Mordcha and his wife own a tavern, where they serve anyone from the village, Jew and Gentile alike. Lazar Wolf is a self-employed butcher who could afford to buy strings of pearls for his wife. Motel Kamzoil (Tevye’s eventual son-in-law) owns his own tailor shop and has saved enough money to buy a modern sewing machine. Yussel is a hatmaker. Even the widow, Yente, is an independent woman who provides a service much in demand in a traditional society like Anatevka’s – she is a matchmaker (much like that independent woman of the Broadway season that preceded the premiere of Fiddler on the Roof, Dolly Levi).

We are told, over and over again, that Tevye’s family and the people of Anatevka are poor, but what we see contradicts what we are told.

All that said, it’s not possible to gainsay Fiddler on the Roof’s other theme: what happens when modernity intrudes upon tradition, and the topsy-turvy world that results (or, at least, that is perceived by those who have to engage the intrusion).

Fiddler on the Roof is set in 1905, the time of the first Russian revolution and, consequently, an era of turmoil and upheaval. For centuries Anatevka has been isolated from the outside world and thus, its inhabitants think, the village need not concern itself with the politics of far away. Those politics arrive with a growl and a bite that are unwelcome, and the people of Anatevka are subjected to a pogrom that eventually results in their exile.

Yet the hidden future-story offers a bittersweet life beyond the final curtain.

Through government-induced violence, Tevye and his family lose their home in Anatevka, which, though fictional, in real life would have stood in eastern Poland or western Ukraine.

By being forced to leave their ancestral home in 1905 and emigrating overseas, the people of Anatevka – including Tevye and his family – were spared the scorched-earth battles of World War I. They were spared the horrors of Stalin’s induced starvation of the 1930s. (As a landowner, Tevye would almost certainly have been executed as a capitalist exploiter along with the other kulaks.) They were spared the torture and genocide of the Nazis.

They were, in fact, the lucky ones.

The current production of Fiddler on the Roof at the National Theatre is competent, engaging, and entertaining. The music as performed is rich and robust. The sets and costumes evoke Marc Chagall’s visions of shtetl life without being slavishly imitative.

As Tevye, Harvey Fierstein brings multiple layers and three dimensions to the stage. Although he sometimes mugs a bit – one critic sitting near me complained about too much “shtick” – it is all within the boundaries he creates for Tevye. And Fierstein never goes off book or out-of-character, as his predecessor in the role, Zero Mostel, was wont to do. (Mostel was said to walk on stage, turn to the audience, break the fourth wall, and announce the scores of current sporting events: “Yankees 3, Orioles 2, at the top of the eighth.”)

Susan Cella’s Golde is stern but sufficiently affectionate that the audience can understand all the subtext of her duet with Tevye, “Do You Love Me?”

All three of the oldest daughters – Kaitlin Stilwell as Tzeitel, Jamie Davis as Hodel, and Deborah Grausman as Chava – bring sprightly maturity to their roles. Each of their characters brings an incremental step toward the modern world into Tevye’s purview, and each of them does so in a believable and (in Chava’s case especially) poignant manner.

Zal Owen, still new to this company, has a spring in his step and a youthful exuberance that fit Motel Kamzoil like a glove. Matthew Marks, as Fyedka, looks like he just stepped from a Disney Channel special on Tsarist Russia, but plays his (underwritten) part well. New York theatre stalwart Mary Stout has a lot of fun portraying the gabby Yente, the Matchmaker. She makes a stereotypical character believable.

If there is a weak link among the principals, it is Colby Foytik as Perchik, who sometimes seems to swallow his notes, especially in his big number, “Now I Have Everything.” To be fair, we might have caught him on a bad night, especially since it is a hard allergy season in Washington.

A note to those who care about these things: Although Harvey Fierstein starred on Broadway in the Tony®-nominated Big Stem revival of Fiddler on the Roof five years ago, this is a completely different production. That revival was directed by David Leveaux. This tour is directed by Sammy Dallas Bayes, who was part of the original Broadway cast and is recreating Jerome Robbins’ direction and choreography.

Other elements of this production are different from the recent revival: set design is by Steve Gilliam, costume design by Tony Ray Hicks, and lighting design is by Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz. (Their counterparts for the revival were, respectively, Tom Pye, Vicki Mortimer, and Brian McDevitt.)

This is not to say that one version is better than the other; just that they are different, and that some people might infer that because Harvey Fierstein was the star of both that this production is a recreation of the revival.

Fiddler on the Roof continues at the National Theatre in Washington through May 2. Performances are on Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., and on Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices begin at $51.50 and are on sale at the National Theatre box office or through Telecharge at www.telecharge.com or by calling (800) 447-7400.

Photo credit:  Joan Marcus.  Courtesy of the National Theatre.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Remembering 'New Coke' 25 Years Later

Next week marks the 25th anniversary of one of history's most infamously boneheaded marketing strategems.

On April 23, 1985, Coca-Cola introduced "New Coke" to -- not acclaim, as its top executives expected --  near universal disdain.  So poorly received was the new flavor formula that within months, "Coke Classic" appeared on store shelves alongside the New Coke, eventually replacing New Coke entirely.

Within days of the product's introduction, I wrote an article decrying the decision, assuming, as did most people at the time, that the original Coke formula would disappear forever.

This article appeared originally in the New York City Tribune on Monday, May 6, 1985, about two weeks after “New Coke” was introduced.

Coca-Cola, where is thy sting? Tradition, where is thy victory?

American culture has some perennial certainties. Just as sure as the sun will rise there will be firecrackers on the Fourth of July, there will be heavy beach traffic on summer weekends — and the flavor of Coke will always be the same.

coca-cola coke recipes flavor cookbookThe flavor of Coke? I misspeak. Tuesday on the plaza in front of the National Theatre here in Washington several thousand people were treated to free samples of the “new” Coca-Cola, a bland, wimpy version of the venerable old Coke. Lacking the snap and vigor of the original 99-year-old recipe, this “new” Coke is unworthy of the name. It does not live up to the slogan “The Real Thing?” The preferred beverage of presidents and kings is no more.

Words can barely express the deep pain I felt when I heard the Coca-Cola Company’s announcement that it is changing the formula for Coke for the first time in nearly a century. Their decision shakes the timbers of American society.

In a bold move designed to offset a creeping approach by Pepsi-Cola in the national soft drink market, Coke has used the results of the research that produced Diet Coke and has introduced a drink described by company chairman Roberto Goizueta as “smoother, rounder, yet bolder. It’s a more harmonious flavor.”

A journalist interviewed on NBC News the day of the announcement used a different description: “flat” She said, “It tastes like the can was left open in the refrigerator all night.” A bold move, indeed.

For nearly 100 years, nothing has been quite so certain in American consumer society as the basic flavor of Coca-Cola. Some have argued that there are regional variations due to different sources of water, Coke’s major ingredient, but these variations have been minimal, if indeed they have ever existed. The closest consumer good, in terms of uniformity, familiarity, and certainty has been the recognizable friendliness and responsible service at McDonald’s -- which, of course, serves Coke in all 5,500 of its restaurants nationwide.

Little old lady from Appalachia
E.J. Kahn, in his “biography” of Coca-Cola written about 2 decades ago, The Big Drink, noted that of 100 people tested for their familiarity with consumer products at the New York World’s Fair, only one — an elderly lady from Appalachia on her first trip to a city — could not recognize Coke’s logo or bottle. No other product — including Bic pens, Crest toothpaste, and, yes, Pepsi — came close to that near-universal familiarity.

Similarly, within 24 hours after Coke’s announcement of the new formula, two-thirds of all Americans knew about the change — a level of recognition most politicians spend a lifetime seeking.

Kahn also tells of the importance of Coke to “our boys overseas.” In the days before aluminum cans became the preferred vessel for soft drinks, local Coca-Cola bottlers around the country imprinted their towns’ names on the bottom of the bottle.

coca-cola new coke Like coins, Coke bottles would circulate far from their place of minting. Several bases in Europe and the Pacific during World War II would display empty Coke bottles, bottoms-up in a rack, never failing to bring nostalgic tears to the eyes of American servicemen looking through the bottles for a familiar place.

After the war, Coke became known as an agent of American imperialism, because no sooner would U.S. troops liberate Nazi- or Japanese-held territory than a Coke truck would arrive. Coca-Cola bottling plants, at least in the 1950s and ‘60s, were erected in more Third World countries than any other American industry.

To millions of people around the globe, Coke is synonymous with free enterprise and human liberty — at least to those who look upon the American flag with as much favor as they view Coke. Coca-Cola’s corporate system of decentralization, granting substantial autonomy to local bottlers while providing the secret-formula syrup from corporate headquarters in Atlanta, has been a model for multinational industrial development. Coke is a source of pride for the American spirit of enterprise — and it is thus scorned by the Kremlin and its dupes around the world.

Pepsi’s new television commercial gives us a teenage girl who asks, “Why is Coke doing this?” Indeed, why? What is Coke’s goal in changing the flavor of the world’s best-known carbonated beverage (if not the world’s favorite beverage, period)?

Coca-Cola products predominate in the U.S market — 35 percent of all soft drinks sold are made by Coke. Twenty-two percent of sales are for regular Coke, 5 percent for Diet Coke, about 1 percent each for Sprite and Tab. Basically, Diet Coke’s astounding popularity in the 2 years it has been on the market has narrowed the gap between non-diet Coca-Cola and Pepsi’s 18 percent market share.

Coca-Cola risks losing many loyal customers if they perceive its sweeter flavor as too different. Coke drinkers [drink] Coke qua Coke; if they wanted Pepsi, they would buy Pepsi. Already, the Wall Street Journal reports, loyalists are stockpiling bottles and cans from the last batch made with the secret formula, Merchandise 7X, kept in an Atlanta bank vault since 1886. (I confess to be one of the hoarders.)

Tradition, loyalty, steadfastness, pride in work, and good taste seem to matter not a whit to Coca-Cola Co. executives. Reducing American values to their most materialistic and mocking our spirit of enterprise, Coke’s President Donald Keough said: “The American way is to want more, and we want more,” meaning profits, not good will.

And so a tradition fades, like family squabbles about Milton Berle vs. Bishop Sheen, like barn-raisings, like knickers giving way to long pants, and like Saturday matinees with neighborhood pals — sharing popcorn, a Coke and a smile.

Richard Sincere writes from Washington on national affairs.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Angela Lansbury Receives Stephen Sondheim Award

Arlington County's Signature Theatre tonight presented its first Stephen Sondheim Award to Angela Lansbury, an award-winning and versatile actress who has appeared in every medium available to her: stage, screen, television, and recordings.

Here's the news release from Signature:

Angela Lansbury, Star of Stage, Film, and Television, Saluted with ‘The Stephen Sondheim Award’ Given by Virginia’s Signature Theatre

Gala Benefit at the Embassy of Italy Exceeded Goal, Raising $350,000, a Record for Signature’s Annual Gala

Evening highlights included musical tributes by Broadway stars Victor Garber, Marin Mazzie, and Jason Danieley, and Signature favorite Sherri L. Edelen

Washington, DC − April 12, 2010, 9:15 pm – Angela Lansbury, the great star of stage, film, and television, was honored tonight with the first annual Stephen Sondheim Award, given by Virginia’s Signature Theatre at a black-tie Gala Benefit at the Embassy of Italy. The Sondheim Award, established by Signature last year in the name of America’s most influential contemporary musical theater writer and composer, was presented to the actress by Mr. Sondheim himself.

The presentation followed a dinner and tribute performance to Ms. Lansbury by Broadway stars Victor Garber, Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley, and Washington favorite Sherri L. Edelen, staged by Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, co-founder of Signature Theatre. Signature, the 2009 recipient of the Tony Award® for Regional Theatre, is internationally renowned for its productions of Sondheim works.

When Ms. Lansbury’s award was announced Mr. Sondheim stated, “Angela Lansbury’s first appearance on the musical stage was in a show called Anyone Can Whistle, for which I wrote the score. That appearance was a gift to the musical theater, although perhaps not such a gift to her, since the show only ran for nine performances. I am thrilled that Signature Theatre is helping me make it up to her by giving her the first Stephen Sondheim Award.”

More than 350 guests attended the black-tie dinner and tribute raising $350,000 in support of artistic, education, and outreach programs of Signature Theatre. The Gala exceeded the company’s goal and is the most successful fundraising gala in the Theatre’s history. The Gala was chaired by C. Daniel and Juliann Clemente with Honorary Hosts actors Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bernadette Peters, and Michael Cerveris; philanthropists Helen Henderson and Ted and Mary Jo Shen; political leaders Italian Ambassador Giulio Terzi, Virginia Senator Jim Webb and Mrs. Webb, and Virginia Congressman James Moran and LuAnn Bennett; and Platinum Level Sponsors Bonnie and Kenneth Feld.

Signature Theatre also recognized an exciting emerging artist Patrick Thomas Cragin, with the 2010 Sondheim Award Gala “Young Artist Citation.” The encouragement of an exceptionally talented young person in the field of musical theater was made part of “The Stephen Sondheim Award” at the request of Mr. Sondheim, who has been generous throughout his career in giving his time and insights to young artists. Mr. Cragin, a senior at The Catholic University of America, has appeared on Signature’s stage as an understudy in two productions, Giant and Show Boat, as well as on various stages throughout the Washington area. After graduation he plans to relocate to New York City and make his career as a performer in musical theater. Signature presented him with a certificate and a round trip train ticket to New York for his next audition, and will continue to support his efforts.

Music for the tribute included songs significant to both Ms. Lansbury and Mr. Sondheim. Sherri L. Edelen sang the Styne/Sondheim song “Some People” from Gypsy and George and Ira Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day (in London Town)” which was Ms. Lansbury’s first audition song for Mr. Sondheim. Jason Danieley sang “Not While I’m Around” from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Victor Garber sang “Anyone Can Whistle” and Marin Mazzie sang “There Won’t Be Trumpets” also from Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle. Patrick Thomas Cragin sang “Younger Than Springtime” from Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Oscar Hammerstein II was one of Mr. Sondheim’s mentors.

Angela Lansbury has enjoyed a career without precedent. Her professional life spans more sixty years during which she has flourished, first as a star of motion pictures, then as a five-time Tony Award®-winning Broadway musical star. Two of Ms. Lansbury’s Tonys are for Stephen Sondheim musicals: the role of Mama Rose in the 1974 revival of Gypsy and Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd in 1979. She is currently playing the role of Madame Armfeldt on Broadway in the revival of Sondheim's A Little Night Music, co-starring Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Ms. Lansbury appeared most recently on Broadway as Madame Arcati in the 2009 revival of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit, for which she received her fifth Tony Award, as well as Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards; and in 2006 in Terrence McNally's Deuce, for which she was nominated for a Tony Award. She made her Broadway debut in 1957 starring as Bert Lahr's wife in the French farce, Hotel Paradiso.

In 1960, she came back to Broadway as Joan Plowright's mother in the season's most acclaimed drama, A Taste of Honey, by Shelagh Delaney. Her first musical role there was Stephen Sondheim’s 1964 Anyone Can Whistle. Ms. Lansbury returned to New York in triumph in 1966 as Mame, for which she won the first of her unprecedented four Tony Awards as Best Actress in a Musical; her second was for the Madwoman of Chaillot in Dear World (1968).

From 1984-1996 she starred as Jessica Fletcher, mystery-writing amateur sleuth, on "Murder, She Wrote," the longest-running detective drama series in the history of television, for which she won four Golden Globe Awards.

The tribute performers have many connections to Stephen Sondheim. Victor Garber originated two Sondheim roles, the young sailor Anthony in Sweeney Todd and John Wilkes Booth in Assassins. Marin Mazzie created the role of Clara in Passion, then interpreted it for television on PBS’s Great Performances. Ms. Mazzie has also performed Beth in Merrily We Roll Along, and the roles of Rapunzel, The Witch, and Cinderella from Into the Woods. For “Live at Carnegie Hall,” she performed and recorded Anyone Can Whistle — the musical that started Ms. Lansbury’s work with Stephen Sondheim. Ms. Mazzie’s husband, Jason Danieley, who won a Helen Hayes Award for his Signature Theatre performance of The Highest Yellow, is considered one of leading tenors on Broadway — with roles in Curtains, Candide, and The Full Monty — and joins his wife and frequent co-performer in saluting Ms. Lansbury. Sherri L. Edelen, an outstanding Washington-based actress, is coming to the Gala after performing Ms. Lansbury’s all time favorite role this spring, Mrs. Lovett, in Signature’s 20th anniversary production of Sweeney Todd.

In 2009 Signature Theatre inaugurated The Stephen Sondheim Award in recognition of the importance of Sondheim’s work to Signature and to theater in general. The Award is given on a yearly basis to an individual for his or her career contributions to interpreting, supporting, and collaborating on Stephen Sondheim’s music works. Signature has produced 18 productions of the works of Stephen Sondheim, more than any other theater in the United States. In 2002, Signature’s Eric Schaeffer was the Artistic Director of “The Sondheim Celebration” at the Kennedy Center. In the 2010-11 season, he will direct Side by Side by Sondheim at Signature and Follies at the Kennedy Center.

Sponsorship packages for the 2010 Sondheim Award Gala ranged from $1,000 to $50,000 and included rewarding, year-long visibility and entertainment benefits. Individual tickets and ticket packages ranged from $650 to $5,000.

Recipient of the 2009 Regional Theater Tony Award®, Signature Theatre is a non-profit professional theater company dedicated to producing contemporary musicals and plays, reinventing classic musicals, and developing new work. Under the leadership of co-founder and Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer and Managing Director Maggie Boland, Signature has presented 27 world premiere productions and is renowned for combining Broadway-quality productions with intimate playing spaces. In addition to the finest talent from the DC metropolitan area and New York, Signature has been a home to such theater luminaries as John Kander and Fred Ebb, Cameron Mackintosh, Terrence McNally, and of course, Stephen Sondheim. Since its founding in 1989, Signature has been nominated for 284 Helen Hayes Awards for excellence in the professional theater and has been honored with 70 Helen Hayes Awards, including Outstanding Musical in 1992, 1993, 1995, 1997, 2000, 2005, 2006, 2008, and 2009, and Outstanding Play in 1999.

In the 2007-2008 season, Signature celebrated the work of John Kander and Fred Ebb in a festival that included their musicals, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Happy Time, and their last project The Visit, starring Chita Rivera and George Hearn. In the 2008-2009 season Signature received national attention for its highly successful, revamped version of Les Misérables.

Administering the million-dollar American Musical Voices Project funded by the Shen Family Foundation, Signature has given awards and commissions to Bruce Coughlin, Ricky Ian Gordon, Peter Foley, Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, Audra McDonald, Marisa Michelson, Ted Sperling, Joseph Thalken, and other musical theater innovators. The April 2009 production of Michael John LaChiusa’s Giant was the first of seven musical commissions; the next is the May 2010 production of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Sycamore Trees.

Signature Theatre is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary with a season consisting of productions of Dirty Blonde, Show Boat, I Am My Own Wife, Sweeney Todd, [title of show], and the world premieres of Sycamore Trees and “First You Dream”: The Music of Kander & Ebb,

Signature is partially supported by a grant from the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts and by a gift from Arlington County through the Arlington Commission for the Arts and the Cultural Affairs Division of the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Resources.

Iranian Journalist Wins Milton Friedman Liberty Prize

The Cato Institute has announced that it has awarded Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji the 2010 Milton Friedman Liberty Prize.

From the news release that was distributed today:

Akbar Ganji, an Iranian writer and journalist who spent 6 years in a Tehran prison for advocating a secular democracy and exposing government involvement in the assassination of individuals who opposed Iran's theocratic regime, has been named the 2010 winner of the Cato Institute's Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty.

Ganji may be best known for a 1999 series of articles investigating the Chain Murders of Iran, which left five dissident intellectuals dead. Later published in the book, The Dungeon of Ghosts, his articles tied the killings to senior clerics and other officials in the Iran government, including former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani....

Ganji now lives in New York. His first book in English, The Road to Democracy in Iran, was published in April 2008. He was chosen to receive the award through a public, worldwide nomination process.

The award presentation will take place in Washington on May 13.

More details are available on the Cato Institute's web site.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

That Old Nougat Cross

Many have no doubt heard the story about a syncretistic Christmas display in a Japanese department store that featured a prominent figure of a jolly Santa Claus hanging from a cross. This is likely to be an urban legend but, like many such urban legends, it has wide currency.

Even if the story is true, in a country where fewer than one percent of the people are Christian and, therefore, unfamiliar with Western religious customs and traditions, the odd -- even ghoulish -- pairing of St. Nick and a crucifix can be forgiven as the result of a good-natured desire to be welcoming of foreigners and their beliefs despite ignorance of what we might call "the true meaning of Christmas."

It's a bit harder to be so lenient with residents of a majority-Christian country like the United States, where even non-believers are familiar enough with Christmas customs that they are unlikely to commit religious faux pas.

So I was shocked, to say the least, when I found this item in the clearance aisle of K-mart two days after Easter Sunday: a "Happy Easter Candy Cross" from the R.M. Palmer Company.

Now, I come from a family where Easter breakfast included meticulously-sculpted "butter lambs" made by my grandmother, but they were (to mix a metaphor) cut from the same cloth as dyed-and-labeled-by-name eggs and a basketful of breads, ham, Polish sausage, and horseradish blessed by the priests at St. Hyacinth's, an ethnic Polish parish on the south side of Milwaukee.

Yet when I see a decorated chocolate cross, ready to crunch and mouth-meltable, only one word comes to mind: sacrilege.

Is my reaction a Catholic thing? Do I misconstrue the intentions of something that claims to be "America's Favorite Holiday Candy"? Is my comparison to the crucified Santa out of place?

Next thing you know, they'll be selling lighter-than-air cotton candy to celebrate Ascension Thursday.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Albemarle County, Va: "We're Number 69!"

Last month I noted that Hanover County, Virginia, had been rated as the eighth most conservative-friendly county in the United States by The Daily Caller, Tucker Carlson's new on-line news site.

Two other Virginia localities, Chesterfield County and Virginia Beach, also made the top 100 list.

Now The Daily Caller is ranking the top 100 liberal-friendly counties in the country.  Yesterday it listed 81-100; today it listed 61-80.

It turns out that our own Albemarle County (including, it seems, according to the description, the independent city of Charlottesville that the county encircles) is ranked number 69.  This is what The Daily Caller has to say about our liberal community:

69. Albemarle County, Va.
Largest city: Charlottesville

Charlottesville is an independent city, but the county seat of surrounding Albemarle County is Charlottesville. Just as well, sicne the two entities are basically one and the same. Thomas Jefferson, a native of the county, set up his last great project in Charlottesville — the University of Virginia. The university dominates the economy and culture of the county. The county correspondingly leans Democratic, and Charlottesville is more liberal than the county itself.
Albemarle is snuggled, on the list, between #70 Ulster County, New York (where Woodstock is located; enough said) and #68 Kauai County, Hawai'i.  (Intriguingly, Hawai'i County is #67 and Maui County is #66.)

The rest of the top 100 will be posted in 20-county increments on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. We will find out later this week how highly ranked are Arlington County and the cities of Alexandria and Falls Church -- and whether any other Virginia counties qualify for the honor of being "most liberal."

I know a lot of progressives in and around Charlottesville are going to be grumbling about their low ranking.  They'll do their best on November 2 to change that for next year's survey.

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