• Play the sound file (duration 37m22s).
[Music clip: From Haydn's Derbyshire Marches]
01 — Intro. Greetings, ladies and gentlemen. Radio Derb on the air here, broadcasting to you from our lavishly-equipped sound studios here on the 95th floor of Buckley Towers, in the heart of Manhattan. This is your irrepressibly genial host John Derbyshire, backed by Radio Derb's incomparable corps of superbly-trained researchers and technicians, bringing you highlights from the week's news. First, since it's such a nice Spring day, let's take a trip to the zoo.
02 — Ex-government employee confronts Obama. You know how Radio Derb is always urging you to Get a Government Job! Well, here's a lady, apparently named Karen, who took our advice — with, I am mortified to report, unhappy consequences. This was recorded at a town hall meeting with President Obama the other day. Karen was a member of the audience, and got to ask the President a question.
Karen : Three years ago … I took a job with the federal government, thinking it was a secure job. [Reaction shot of Obama looking attentive.] Recently I'm told I'm being laid off as of June 4th and it is not an opportune time for me. I'm seven months pregnant in a high-risk pregnancy, my first pregnancy; my husband and I are in the middle of building a house; we're not sure if we're going to be completely approved; [Reaction shot of Obama looking concerned.] I'm not exactly in a position to waltz right in and do great on interviews based on my timing with the birth … So I'm stressed, I'm worried, I'm scared about what my future holds. I definitely need a job, and I just wondered: What would you do if you were me?
Mind if I just break in here for a second? I was just wondering, in that frivolous, irresponsible way I have, what kind of job Karen had at the national zoo. Was it, I wonder, the same job the guy had in the classic old joke? Remember that one? He had a job administering enemas to elephants at the circus, and complained to his buddy that he used to go home every night covered in elephant poop, and could never quite get rid of the smell. So why didn't he quit? his buddy asked. Punch line: "What, and leave show business?" Sorry, that's totally irrelevant. Let's continue with the news clip. Carry on please, Mr President.
Obama : Well look … Let me just first of all say that workers, like you, for the federal, state, and local governments are so important for our vital services [reaction shot of Karen looking brave] and it frustrates me sometimes when people talk about government jobs as if somehow those are worth less than private-sector jobs. I think there's nothing more important than working on behalf of the American people. And …
If you're like me, the first thing that came to mind on watching that clip was the wish that Chris Christie had been running the meeting instead of Barack Obama. The first duty of any public official in a situation like that is to slap down the needy whiner and remind her that this is the nation of self-sufficiency and self-support, where people look to their own abilities, their own resources, and the help of their own families and neighbors for as much security as life can reasonably be expected to afford, not to any government, least of all to the federal government, whose powers are strictly limited by the Constitution.
Why didn't Obama tell this woman that her private difficulties were none of the federal government's business? That if she and her husband find they can't afford to finance the building of their house, they should sell the land and buy a cheaper house, or move into rented accommodation? Why didn't he tell her that she has no business going to job interviews at seven months pregnant; she should be resting up and preparing herself for her confinement? That's what Chris Christie would have told her, I bet; and that's what I would have told her.
In fact I'd have told her things that Chris Christie would not have told her. Based on her description of her job at the zoo, it sounds like Karen is a person with few job skills and not much education. There aren't enough private-sector jobs for people in that situation because of our high levels of legal and illegal immigration, which present employers with a big surplus of low-skilled, uneducated people. Too bad for Karen, but great for the employers getting cheap labor, and for politicians like Christie who depend on those employers for campaign funds, and willingly repay the favor with open-borders rhetoric and sanctuary-state policies.
What most sticks in the throat about that exchange, though, is Obama saying that, quote: [Obama: "I think there's nothing more important than working on behalf of the American people."] The subtext there is that government work is the real thing, the important thing, and that the rest of us are just along for the ride.
It's not at all surprising that Barack Obama thinks like that, as his entire experience of the profit-seeking private sector was a few months in 1983 as a copy editor for a business publication in New York. He described the experience in his autobiography as making him feel, quote, "like a spy behind enemy lines."
In telling Karen that there is nothing more important than government work, Obama was speaking sincerely, or as close to sincerely as he ever gets. The truth of the matter is of course the opposite of what he implied, and what I think he sincerely believes. It's not government work that's the real thing and the rest of us that are along as passengers. It's the wealth-generating private sector that pays for government, producing the surpluses that pay for government functions and government workers.
That is the theory of a free capitalist society, at any rate. As current practice is working out, the private sector fails to pay for government, as government has become far too big, and the private sector far too constrained by taxes, regulation, and out-of-control litigation. Since it's hard to see how the private sector could be milked any drier than it currently is being, the only way out is to reduce government. Welcome to reality, Karen.
It's too bad Karen lost her job at the national zoo. But, if it's not impertinent to ask, why do we have a national zoo? Where is that in the Constitution?
Obama : Maybe they'll want a moat. Maybe they'll want alligators in the moat.
That was our president down in El Paso on Tuesday, claiming that his administration has totally fulfilled everything that's been demanded of them by way of border enforcement, so that now it's time for immigration-enforcement advocates to give something back — something like, oh, amnesty of illegal aliens.
This was Obama at his most flagrantly dishonest. He actually claimed that the border has been secured — "They wanted a fence, well, now that fence is basically complete" — when on the testimony of the government's own accounting office, only seven percent of the border is securely fenced.
And then all the weary old verbal tricks we've been hearing for years. Quote: "A full 25 percent of high-tech startups in the U.S. were founded by immigrants." OK, Mr President; wanna tell us how many of that 25 percent were founded by immigrants from Mexico and Central America? That's the mass immigration we've actually been getting from your open-borders policies. How about we identify the nation of origin of those 25 percent of high-tech startups and open up our borders to people from those nations, while closing it to others? Would you be OK with that, Mr President?
He even trotted out E pluribus unum, which, as any sixth-grade student of American history knows, referred to the 13 original colonies joining together in federation — nothing to do with immigration at all, any more than the Statue of Liberty, as originally conceived, had anything to do with immigration.
Look: You can argue the pros or cons of this way of dealing with illegal immigration, or that way. Or you can argue the pros and cons of this policy of legal immigration, or that policy. I'm happy to do that, with appeals to reason and data. In fact we do it a lot here on National Review Online. What raises my hackles is public officials like Obama, and most other Democrats, and a great many Republicans too, practicing cynical deception when addressing us on this topic.
There is no area of public policy where the American public is lied to more consistently and repetitively by those entrusted with the national welfare. They tell us that E pluribus unum is an exhortation to permit mass immigration, when it is no such thing, and the U.S.A. got along happily for decades with very restricted immigration. They tell us that high-tech startups are only possible with open borders, when in fact they are perfectly possible under highly selective policies. They tell us that our southern border is securely fenced off, when on the federal government's own data, only seven percent of it is. They tell us that our country badly needs a "guest worker program," when we already have a dozen guest worker programs, covering everything from concert pianists to fruit pickers. (Your concert pianist would be an O-1 visa, your fruit picker an H-2A.)
By all means let's debate immigration policy. I just don't like being lied to. What would be wrong with just telling us the truth?
Obama's claim is that his opponents are being dishonest: making demands for border security, then, when the demands have been met, adding new demands — "moving the goalposts." Yet in fact no demands have been met; not even the most elementary demand of all, the demand for someone to tell us why, with nine percent unemployment — it's 43 percent among black males, according to the government's monthly jobs report released last week — why, with these huge numbers of Americans out of work, why this nation of 300 million souls, their abilities ranging over the entire human spectrum, why the U.S.A. needs any immigrants at all.
And while Obama pretends to be yielding to demands for enforcement of the laws, his own Justice Department is working tirelessly to subvert the laws. The department's Office of Civil Rights is headed by Thomas Perez, a race activist and open-borders fanatic. Just this week Perez's office sent out a letter to all school districts in the United States demanding that they stop requesting immigration documents for new student enrollees. The letter cites the 1982 Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe that states can't deny access to schooling to any child resident in the state, legally or not. There's nothing in that ruling to prevent school districts gathering information on their students, though. The Justice Department is twisting the law, and lying, lying. This is just another instance of the administration's creeping amnesty by stealth, lies, and bullying.
It's not the president's opponents who are being dishonest, it's Obama himself, and his placemen in the Justice Department. You want to talk about moats, Mr President? Here's a different kind of moat: different spelling, different meaning, but none the less highly relevant to your dishonest posturing at the border on Tuesday. The quote here is from someone you may have heard about from your pal the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, in one of those occasional episodes when you were paying attention to his sermons. The speaker here is Jesus of Nazareth, addressing the multitudes from up there on the mountain, quote: "Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"
04 — White House poetry gathering. A press release here, from AP, dated May 5, which was last Thursday, eight days ago as we go to tape here. I'll quote the whole thing.
President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, will celebrate American poetry and prose with a gathering of poets, musicians and artists at the White House next Wednesday night.
That's the end of the press release. "Next Wednesday" there means Wednesday the 11th, so as you listen to this, the event has come and gone.
If you heard anything about this gathering, it probably concerned Common, which is the stage name of Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr. Common is a rap singer; though why they call it singing I don't know. It's really just talking along to music — sprechstimme in opera jargon. Rex Harrison in the movie of My Fair Lady does sprechstimme superbly well.
Like Barack and Michelle Obama, Common was for many years an ardent parishioner of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr.; though whether he expressed his enthusiasm the same way the Obamas did, by giving the Rev. Wright scads of money, I have not been able to discover.
Since Common never ran for President, he never had to pretend to be offended by the Rev. Wright's anti-white, anti-semitic and anti-American sermons. He was also free to write and perform songs in support of convicted cop-killers Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Common seems not to have written or performed songs in praise of other living convicted cop killers like Kenneth Allen, who shot two cops in Chicago in 1978, or Donald Dillbeck, who killed a deputy in Fort Myers in 1979, or Gerald Mann, who murdered two officers in Columbia, SC way back in 1957. Why Common has favored those two particular cop killers, I could not say. Some things are just unfathomably mysterious.
Now, some people have said that a guy who writes and sings, or sprechstimmes, those kinds of obnoxious antisocial lyrics ought not be performing at the White House. I agree with those people. Common is an irresponsible jerk. He's also a poseur and a fake — a well-brought-up middle-class kid who has about as much experience of keepin' it real down in the 'hood as your aunt Mabel.
However, the media concentration on Common has left the rest of Wednesday night's guest list unexamined. That I think is a pity, because the rest of that guest list tells us something about the condition of our culture. So let's take a quick look at it.
There are seven names on that guest list besides Common. Number one is Elizabeth Alexander, whom I dealt with to my own satisfaction in Chapter Four of We Are Doomed. I refer you to pages 78-81 of that indispensible book for a definitive judgement on Ms Alexander and her work. Sample quote, referring to the, ah, "poem" that Ms Alexander — who by the way is another pampered upper-middle-class brat: her father was Secretary of the Army — the "poem" she read at Barack Obama's inauguration, quote from my wonderful book: "All this dismal solipsism and picking at historical scabs might be easier to take if it was delivered with any art or wit. No, there is nothing here but formless stream-of-consciousness driveling, padded out with feeble imagery and nonsensical similes." End quote.
Number Two is Billy Collins, who comes with the Homeric epithet "the accessible." This means that his poems are more or less about something, he spells words the way they're spelled in dictionaries, most of his sentences contain a verb, and you can figure out what his poems mean. PoemHunter.com has 41 poems by the accessible Billy Collins that you can read if you want to.
They are all free verse; and if there is a difference between free verse and prose, other than the typographical one, nobody in forty years has been able to explain it to me. "Free verse?" said G.K. Chesterton. "You might as well call sleeping in a ditch 'free architecture'." Or if you'd prefer an American opinion, how about Robert Frost, quote: "Free verse is like playing tennis without a net."
Here's a very brief history of English poetry. Poets labored for centuries to build up a toolbox of devices for generating beautiful, memorable verses. Alliteration and assonance; rhyme and meter; euphony and cacophony; litotes and hyperbole; tercets and triplets and quatrains; odes, elegies, parodies, and ballads; onomatopoeia and enjambment and tmesis; sonnet and ballad and sestina and villanelle … With this toolbox they created masterpieces in verse, that were admired and memorized the world over, glorifying our beautiful language.
Then someone said: "All this studied craftmanship with all these complicated tools is too much like hard work. Let's just throw out everything except metaphor and imagery, and ramble in an unstructured way, and tell people if they don't like it they are hopelessly old-fashioned and fearful of getting in touch with their inner selves."
It was as if painters had decided that from now on they'd work with just two colors. Amazingly, the poets got away with it; or at least a handful of them got away with it well enough to squeeze out a middle-class income by telling people that their shapeless, artless effusions were poetry.
Since there is no form worth speaking of here, we're left looking for something of value in the content. In vain, so far as I can see. Content-wise, what the accessible Billy Collins is giving you access to are ruminations about how the world looks to Billy Collins, decked out with metaphors that are occasionally striking but more often lame, and some artsy imagery just barely visible under smothering layers of irony.
Not, you can deduce, my cup of tea. Billy Collins has a good following, though, and if you're one of his fans, don't take it personally. He has in fact proved that there is still a decent living to be made from poetry — or at least from presenting yourself to the public as a poet — if you are dogged and artful and media-savvy. Perhaps by doing so, Collins is serving some large historical purpose in aid of the continuation of our culture and civilization. If so, I thank him for it.
Rita Dove, like Billy Collins, is "accessible." It's all free verse again, so like Collins she has nothing to snag your memory with, so you can read yards of her stuff and not be able to remember a single line. Still, there's a market somewhere for this formless introspective rambling, and Like Billy Collins, Rita Dove has bought a nice house and a couple of cars and paid the college fees by telling us that trees blush, chimney pots wobble skyward, and, quote, "Night rests like a ball of fur on my tongue." In fact, so far as I can judge, Rita Dove does the accessible free verse thing better than Billy Collins. Translation: Her stuff doesn't send me to sleep as quickly as his does.
At Number Four we have Kenneth Goldsmith, of whom I confess I had never heard until I read the AP release. Here's a snippet from the Publisher's Weekly review of Goldsmith's 1999 book Fidget, quote: "Goldsmith used a dictaphone to note as much of as many of his body's movements as he could, keeping a verbal record of what happened when he walked across his bedroom, shook his head or performed more intimate functions."
Hoo-kay … Perhaps Kenneth Goldsmith has written other stuff, though? — stuff that actually resembles something resembling poetry? Well, there's his 2001 book Soliloquy, whose description on Amazon.com reads as follows, quote: "Soliloquy is a written record of every word (good, bad and indifferent), spoken by New York artist Kenneth Goldsmith during one week." End quote. The one customer review on Amazon describes Soliloquy as, quote, "a work of stupefying boredom."
Call me old-fashioned, but stupefying boredom is not what I'm looking for when I pick up a book of poetry. When I'm in the mood to be bored into stupefaction, I read through the fifty-odd pages of small print that came with my life insurance policy, or watch a few minutes of Jersey Shore, or tune in to a Newt Gingrich speech.
There's a lot of this kind of thing about, though, in the precious little world of modern poetry. You can see why Billy Collins is famous for at least being "accessible." In the country of the stupefyingly boring, the accessible man is king.
Alison Knowles at Number Five is another person I never heard of, though we may be related: Knowles was my mother's maiden name. On her website Alison Knowles is described, or describes herself in the third person, as, quote, "A visual artist known for her soundworks, installations, performances, publications and association with Fluxus, the experimental avant-garde group formally founded in 1962." End quote.
Don't quite see the connection to poetry. Maybe this, from later down on the web page, quote: "Knowles produced what may be the earliest book object, a can of texts and beans called the Bean Rolls, in 1963." Fascinating. Were they lima beans, haricot beans, kidney beans, or mung beans? We are not told. Guess I'll have to buy the book … Sorry, "book object."
At Number Six, Aimee Mann, whose name I recognize from her walk-on part in The Big Lebowski. Having had a walk-on part in one of the greatest movies of all time is recommendation enough for me, though, and it should be good enough for anyone else, too. No objections to Ms Mann.
Finally, Jill Scott, who I see also has a book of poetry you can buy on Amazon.com. The Amazon listing includes that "Search inside this book" feature, so I did. To maybe save you the trouble of doing the same, let me just say that you're going to want to be really, really interested in Ms. Scott's body functions and romantic encounters before you shell out $10.54 for her book.
All in all, and even setting aside the cop-killer-supporting lyrics of Mr Common, the White House poetry evening presents a pretty dismal prospect. Western civilization has been through some rough patches this past three millennia, but even at the worst of times we could still come up with decent poems. I am very sorry to report that this is no longer the case: conclusive proof that we are holed below the water line and sinking fast. Sauve qui peut.
05 — Ructions in Arabia. Radio Derb listeners are chiding me for not saying enough about the disorders in the Arab world and North Africa this past few weeks.
What am I supposed to say? A group of semi-civilized pseudo-nations with not a single creative achievement between them for a thousand years have decided all at once to enter into a transition from one style of corrupt, America-hating, antisemitic dictatorship to a different style. I'm supposed to be interested in this? I'd rather read free verse.
All right, darn it, I'll give it a try. Whadda we got?
Egypt. Big old country. Pyramids. Sphinx. The Nile. Invented fractions. OK, what happened in Egypt?
What happened is, they kicked out that guy — you know, the one who came after that other guy — and now the country's run by something called a military council that, quote from the BBC, "takes decisions in secrecy, leaving Egyptians mystified by its motives," end quote. The previous regime's security forces are demoralized and ineffective, with the natural result that trouble-makers are making trouble all over. Muslim trouble-makers in particular have been attacking Christians. Last weekend a Muslim mob in Cairo burned two churches and killed twelve people. What happened there was of course a tragedy, but if Egypt's diversity becomes a casualty, that would be a worse tragedy.
Syria. Syria is also blessed with ethnic diversity: 75 percent Sunni Muslim; three percent Shia Muslim, ten percent Christian, and three percent Druze, whatever that is. The guy with the squint and the head that seems too small for his body — the guy who took over after his Dad died — comes from the Shia minority, and they run the government and the army, which seems pretty amazing if they are only three percent of the population. And what is it with the squints over there in the Middle East? How do things go when the Syrian guy, let's call him Big Squinty, meets up with Li'l Squinty in Teheran? Which one's the first to say: "You trying to make fun of me?" Anyway, people in Syria there are fed up with Big Squinty and keep staging protests. With the army in his pocket, though, Big Squinty just sends in tanks and snipers, so the demonstrators can't make much progress. Furthermore, Big Squinty and Li'l Squinty have things in common besides strabismus. They're both Shiites, I think. Whatever the reason, there's an affinity there, so if Big Squinty gets into serious trouble, Li'l Squinty will come to his rescue with nukes and stuff.
Libya. The dictator there is Muammar Gaddafy, who was a real bad hat whom everyone hated until about ten years ago when our invasion of Iraq got his attention. Gaddafy cleaned up his act and became everyone's BFF. Now suddenly we all hate him again, I have no idea why, and NATO, which exists to protect Western Europe from the Soviet menace, is trying to kill him. It all seems a bit capricious after Gaddafy's played nicely with us all these years, but everyone seems to agree it's the right thing to do. Gaddafy doesn't have any ocular impediments and isn't a Shiite, so he can't ask Li'l Squinty to fish him out of trouble. He might ask the Saudis, and they might do it, just to show their own people what happens when you mess with established authority. On the other hand, the 12,000 princes of the House of Saud are reluctant to jeopardize their lines of credit at the casinos of Western Europe, so they may tell Gaddafy to go suck a sheep's eyeball.
Yemen. Where the hell is Yemen? Oh, I give up. I can't summon up any interest in these camel jockeys and carpet salesmen. Can't we just fence 'em off for a couple of hundred years till they get their act sorted out? Oh right, they have oil. Forgot about that. The Chevy Volt is looking pretty good right now.
06 — Signoff. Ladies and gentlemen, I have waxed much too eloquent there. The suits have been nagging me to stay within thirty minutes, a boundary I have already passed. My apologies for the excess of loquacity; and if you were so captivated by the enchantment of my address you are late to the interview for that job at the zoo, I offer you my humblest, most sniveling apologies. More from Radio Derb next week.
[Music clip: Gracie Fields, Sing As We Go]