A long time ago, as a young man far, far away, I stepped off a train in Marseille, France, with my then girlfriend, a long-haired blonde, both of us wearing down jackets and, of course, backpacks. (I also carried my guitar for accompanying her, something we did quite lucratively in streets, subways, and clubs, thanks to her amazing voice.) I forget where we were coming from or going to, but for the next few days we’d be in Marseille and in need of a cheap hotel.

As we walked along the platform toward the street, a middle-aged woman ran up to me and in a fevered whisper leaned in to ask, “Juif?”—Jew. Naïve as I was, I said “Oui, pourquoi?”

Because, she explained, Marseille was filled with Arabs and, outside of certain areas, not safe for Jews. I laughed—scoffed, actually—as if such a thing could be true so many years after the end of WWII (though not, in retrospect, as many years as it seemed to me at the time). Right on cue, three Arabs in full dress passed.

Aside from a somewhat prominent proboscis, I’d never considered myself particularly “Jewish looking”—and in 21 years my ethnicity had never been either an asset or a burden—so I asked how she’d pegged me as a Jew.

Her eyes widened as she shot me a look that roughly translated to: You idiot. (Indeed, some weeks later we arrived in Morocco, where young Arab men constantly asked me “Juif”? And I, in my still touching naiveté, always answered, with pride, Oui.)

The woman insisted that we follow her to a “safer” part of town, and I insisted it wouldn’t be necessary; we’d be fine anywhere we decided to stay. Besides, I assumed that “safer” meant nicer, and our budget didn’t accommodate nice.

When at last she recognized that I wouldn’t listen to reason, she broke away, throwing up her hands in exasperation. My girlfriend, who didn’t speak French, asked what all the commotion was about. I said it was the ravings of some mad old woman.

Well, I thought of that not-so-mad and not-so-old woman and her ravings this morning when I read this story about a French girl, 16, arrested on her way to join ISIS in Syria. Ponder this terrifying nugget:

Among the youngest French people ICM surveyed — ages 18 to 24 — the favorability rate for Islamic State was even higher: 27%.

I also thought of that woman as I read this story about the precipitous increase in anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence across France.

Just as I thought of her when I read this story about rising anti-Semitism all across Europe.

For decades now France has had the third largest Jewish population in the world, behind the U.S. and Israel. But for how long? Jews are history’s canary in the coalmine, and they’re abandoning France in record numbers. Meanwhile France, a frequent battlefield in civilizational wars, is becoming increasingly Islamized. This does not seem like a recipe for ushering in another belle époque.

The last words that woman said to me before hitting the wall of my stubbornness seem unusually prescient: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

No, I didn’t. But she was old enough to know better—to know that those few, those happy few, years were a holiday from history made fewer by naïve people like me who wanted to believe what we wanted to believe, all evidence to the contrary.

Unlike my naiveté back then, naiveté today is fatal.

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How rich is this? The man who accused Americans of being “a nation of cowards” when it comes to talking about race is playing the race card. Again.

Eric Holder, the US attorney general, has accused some of the Obama administration’s conservative opponents of being motivated by “racial animus,” suggesting that both he and President Obama are treated differently because they are black.

As future Psych 101 textbooks will describe in detail, this is what’s known in the trade as projection. And it of course validates why anyone who doesn’t feel unencumbered affection for the policies of the president and his attorney general might feel a wee bit cowardly about expressing such an opinion.

For that matter, the bravest people in this country are black Americans who criticize the administration publicly. Being called a “boot lickin’ Uncle Tom” can’t be pleasant.

But this isn’t new behavior from either Holder or the president. Back in 2006, when he was two years into his term as a U.S. Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama exhorted blacks in Maryland to vote for the white opponent of African-American Republican Michael Steele in the state’s senate race.

“You don’t vote for somebody because of what they look like,” Obama said. “You vote for somebody because of what they stand for.”

(Attention Eric Holder: What he said is true.)

But a day later, in Tennessee, Obama urged blacks to vote for Harold Ford Jr. in his Senate race against a white man “because I’m feeling lonely in Washington.” Ford is black.

Apparently the race card is wild.


The stated goal of the (misnamed) Affordable Care Act is healthcare for everyone. And to that end the law mandates that everyone buy health insurance.

But the law forced millions of us who already had individual policies to buy new ACA-approved policies whose reimbursement rates, approved by the government, are so low that the vast majority of doctors and hospitals refuse to accept the policies. (I lost all of my doctors.) So we who are stuck with these policies don’t have the same access to healthcare as most people, who are on group plans through their employers.

Why isn’t that a 14th Amendment violation?

Why wouldn’t the Equal Protection Clause apply when obeying the law results in a denial of healthcare access for a group disadvantaged against the majority not by its own doing but by distinctions of the law itself?

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Anyone who’s ever tried to build a brand will tell you how hard it is. And anyone who’s ever lost a brand, or tarnished one, will tell you how easy it is. A misstep or two and suddenly your century-old Coke is New Coke and then, in a scramble, Classic Coke.

Which brings us to the formerly hilarious John Cleese, he of Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and A Fish Called Wanda, among other things.

Among those other things, Cleese also played Q in the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films. But it seems he’s no fan of the Daniel Craig Bonds, calling them humorless.

“The big money was coming from Asia, from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, where the audiences go to watch the action sequences, and that’s why in my opinion the action sequences go on for too long, and it’s a fundamental flaw,” Cleese said. “The audiences in Asia are not going for the subtle British humor or the class jokes.”

I, as it happens, am a huge fan of “subtle British humor,” and for decades yielded to no man in my affection for Cleese’s comedic talents. So much so that a few years ago the wife and I bought tickets for his one-man show that had been mounted, he cheerfully admitted, to make back some of what he’d had “stolen” in his latest divorce.

The theater was nearly full, and before Cleese came out there was a giddy buzz, everyone anticipating an evening of frolic and merriment. Total strangers were sharing favorite moments and scenes from his oeuvre.

Alas, the preshow buzz was the evening’s highlight. Cleese walked out on stage and explained that he’d had dental surgery that day and “might” still be under the influence of the drugs. He’d have canceled the show, he said, but couldn’t afford to because of the divorce.

Badda-bing, he intended that as a laugh line. Hardy har har har.

From there it got worse. Cleese mixed film clips from the breadth of his career, as well as some autobiographical footage, with alleged commentary. Aside from the pleasure of reliving scenes that we’d all laughed at dozens of times, and could have seen at home for free in our jammies, the show was less funny than open-mic night at the Stockton Holiday Inn.

Had the show been conceived of that afternoon? Maybe. And the performance—well, to call it a performance is an insult to those brave souls at open-mic night. Every syllable was informed by two things: Cleese’s bitterness at having to be out there and his contempt for the people who’d been stupid enough to pay for the privilege.

The final bit concluded with his walking off into the wings, but no one could tell whether that was actually the end. To clue us—at long last!—that it was, he took two steps out and slumped behind a prop while waving (embarrassedly?) for a few seconds.

Tepid hardly describes the applause. And as we hurried out it was clear from the not-so-murmured grumbles that he’d damaged his brand. I suspect I’m not alone in noting that my trusty Python and Fawlty Towers collection of DVDs that I’d returned to at least once a year for decades (upgraded from VHS’s) has since been mothballed.

The day after, I wrote him a letter to the address then listed on his website, in care of his talent agency. The final paragraph:

During the show you said you sweated blood, agonizing over what to say, the night before Graham Chapman’s memorial service. I only wish that your effort last night in front of Cleesionados who’d shelled out $75 a seat evinced half the effort of that unpaid gig for an audience of your peers.

I never heard back. The feeling is mutual.


Maturity isn’t what it used to be. Today’s example: Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway was born in 1899, and remained in many ways a man of the 19th century all his life.  Early in 1918—before America’s entry into World War One—he volunteered to become a Red Cross ambulance driver. Sent to the Italian front, he was badly wounded and endured a long convalescence.

At age 21 Hemingway was named a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star and began filing dispatches from all over the Europe that had been changed by the war and was changing still.

Many of those dispatches are collected in his book By-Line: Ernest Hemingway. They are cold, sober, clear-eyed assessments of the (primarily) men and events that would soon be considered history, and while reading you have to remind yourself how old he was when he wrote the words.

I venture to say it’s all but impossible to imagine any of today’s young J-school graduates acquitting themselves as well as this man with a high school education. Why? Because they’ve been through a homogenizing process that ensures conformity. They come out seeing what they believe. Hemingway believed what he saw or had seen, and he’d never seen a unicorn.

In January 1923, three months after Mussolini completed his long, bloody climb to the top in Italy, Hemingway traveled to a conference in Switzerland and encountered Il Duce. At the time, before fascist became a dirty word, Mussolini suffered no shortage of American and Western admirers who considered him Italy’s best hope for peace and prosperity. Pope Pius XI even called him “the man whom God has sent us.”

Here, in part, is Hemingway’s take:

Mussolini is the biggest bluff in Europe. If Mussolini would have me taken out and shot tomorrow morning, I would still regard him as a bluff. The shooting would be a bluff. Get hold of a good photo of Signor Mussolini some time and study it. You will see the weakness in his mouth which forces him to scowl the famous Mussolini scowl that is imitated by every 19-year-old Fascisto in Italy. Study his past record. Study the coalition that Fascismo is between capital and labor, and consider the history of past coalitions. Study his genius for clothing small ideas in big words. Study his propensity for dueling. Really brave men do not have to fight duels, and many cowards duel constantly to make themselves believe they are brave. …

Mussolini isn’t a fool and he is a great organizer. But it is a very dangerous thing to organize the patriotism of a nation if you are not sincere, especially when you work their patriotism to such a pitch that they offer to loan money to the government without interest….

Hemingway committed suicide in 1961. I wish he’d hung on till 2008.


Amid a backlash to the Bergdahl-for-terrorists-and-a-jihad-to-be-named-later exchange that almost certainly was unanticipated by the White House, President Obama maintained today that the choice was right and righteous and above criticism.

“I make absolutely no apologies for making sure we get back a young man to his parents,” Mr. Obama said during a press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron following the G-7 summit in Brussels, Belgium.

The president’s words and tone reminded me of an appearance he made on Jon Stewart’s show shortly before the 2010 midterm elections in which his party got hammered.

Stewart and he bantered back and forth, with Stewart challenging him for not governing more from the left—that is to say, keeping more of his campaign promises.

Then Stewart asked him about his top economic adviser, Larry Summers, who had just left his post as director of the National Economic Council. “In fairness,” Obama said testily, [he] “did a heck of a job.”

That brought a laugh and admonishment from Stewart, who was thinking of President Bush’s patently dumb defense of former FEMA head Michael Brown, the man Bush had claimed was doing a “heck of a job” in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“You don’t want to use that phrase, dude,” Stewart told Obama as the audience roared.

But instead of laughing along at his unintentional echo of a famously stupid moment, Obama bristled defensively—then lied:

“Pun intended,” he insisted.

No, it wasn’t intended. That’s clear. If it had been intended, he would’ve been criticizing Summers, not defending him. The fact that he couldn’t himself see the contradiction was revealing.

Our president can’t stand to think that anyone considers him less than perfect. And he believes that the give and take of a democracy is somehow a slight directed personally at him.

Not even Jimmy Carter’s skin was as thin as Barack Obama’s. His prickliness and cock certainty won’t allow for a sense of irony, a quality without which any chief executive is doomed to fail. Q.E.D.

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