Saturday, November 17, 2007

Woody Talks

Review by DAVID KAMP
The New York Times
November 18, 2007


His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking.

By Eric Lax.

Illustrated. 390 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $30.


By Woody Allen.

160 pp. Random House. $21.95.


The Complete Prose.

By Woody Allen.

342 pp. Random House. Paper, $15.95.

Not only does Woody Allen profess not to care one whit about his legacy as a filmmaker; he’s also fashioned some choice Woodyisms on the topic. Here’s one: “I’m a firm believer that when you’re dead, naming a street after you doesn’t help your metabolism.” Here’s another: “Rather than live on in the hearts and minds of my fellow man, I’d prefer to live on in my apartment.”

Point taken, maestro. This is the Woody we’ve come to know well: the godless, affectless, clarinet-tootling, awards-ceremony-shunning workaholic who will give neither himself nor his audience the satisfaction of sitting back and taking pleasure in his achievements. (The working title of his most acclaimed film, “Annie Hall,” was “Anhedonia,” meaning the inability to experience pleasure.)

Would it be churlish, though, to suggest that Allen is being a tad disingenuous? For if he really were indifferent to his legacy, then why would he sanction the publication of a hefty book called “Conversations With Woody Allen,” and why would he have sat for hours and hours of new interviews with Eric Lax, the man who wrote a quasi-authorized biography of him 16 years ago?

This is a legacy-burnishing project, plain and simple. Allen is a big Orson Welles fan — he tells Lax he considers “Citizen Kane” the greatest American film ever made — and “Conversations With Woody Allen” is essentially the Woodman’s chance to do his version of “This Is Orson Welles,” a magnificent book (published in 1992) that collected years of talk between the orotund “Kane” auteur and his interlocutor-protégé, Peter Bogdanovich. Lax is well positioned to play the Bogdanovich role: he first met Allen in 1971, when he interviewed the then fledgling director for an abortive New York Times Magazine profile, and has since spent a significant chunk of his adulthood in Allen’s company, sometimes on set, sometimes in the intimacy of his subject’s screening room or apartment.

“Conversations” reveals, happily, an Allen who’s game to range freely over his oeuvre. We learn that his favorites of his own films are “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Match Point” and “Husbands and Wives” (the last one a bit of a surprise), with “Stardust Memories” and “Zelig” ranking a notch below. Sometimes Allen’s assessments are bracingly contrarian. He expresses bafflement over the high regard in which “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” continue to be held (“People really latched on to ‘Manhattan’ in a way that I thought was irrational,” he says) and makes a strong case for “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” his underappreciated 1993 reunion picture with Diane Keaton. In other moments, no less fascinating, he borders on the delusional. He can’t fathom, for example, how “Hollywood Ending,” a patchy, forgettable effort from 2002, “was not thought of as a first-rate, extraordinary comedy.”

In his introduction, Lax promises his book will offer “a clear view” of Allen’s transformation “from novice to one of the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers.” And it is indeed startling to witness the Woody of 1973, on the eve of the release of his mock-futurist romp “Sleeper,” getting giddy over positive advance notices from Scholastic and Seventeen magazines. (Lax claims Allen stopped reading reviews after “Annie Hall.”) It’s also telling to discover how much the younger Allen sought the approval of Gordon Willis, his cinematographer from “Annie Hall” through “Purple Rose.” Willis, late of Francis Coppola’s first two “Godfather” pictures, was arguably the bigger deal in filmmaking circles when the two men began their collaboration. When he told Allen during the making of “Annie Hall” that there was no rule against letting characters wander in and out of the frame while they talked, the director, thus emboldened, embraced this approach and turned it into a stylistic trademark.

Yet for all the measurable ways in which Allen has gone from callow neophyte to seasoned pro, Woody-the-person seems never to have changed much. Lax’s interviews are arranged not chronologically but according to broad categories related to the filmmaking process — for example, “The Idea,” “Writing It,” “Directing,” “Editing.” So even when Lax jump-cuts from 1973 to 1987 to 1989 to 2005 in the “Directing” chapter, there’s no palpable change in voice, tenor or outlook. Allen evidently emerged from Flatbush fully formed, prepackaged with abundant self-confidence and enduring obsessions with Dixieland jazz, Freudian analysis, Knicks basketball and ladies’ bosoms.

This makes for a book that’s plenty entertaining as a flip-through read but ultimately lacking in drama. “This Is Orson Welles” benefited from the tragic dimensions of its subject’s life: Welles’s early success as a boy wonder, his bitter rejection by Hollywood, his peripatetic later existence, his reduced circumstances, his unfulfilled dreams. Allen, on the other hand, just keeps hitching up his corduroys and going about his business. He hews to the same cyclical filmmaking schedule he’s been on forever, churns out a picture a year, and, if he’s lucky, the movie turns out half-decent. Or as Allen puts it, “I’d like to make a great film provided it doesn’t conflict with my dinner reservation.”

Even the one big negative associated with Allen in the public mind — his breakup with Mia Farrow and subsequent marriage to Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn — is something he shrugged off a long time ago. Unprompted, he brings up the subject with Lax, conflating the people who criticized the age difference between his and Mariel Hemingway’s characters in “Manhattan” with those who were up in arms about him and Soon-Yi. “Speaking of Soon-Yi,” Allen says, “it is ironic that my marriage to her, which was seen by many as so irrational, to me is the one relationship in my life that worked.”

I don’t blame Lax for not pursuing that subject further, since “Conversations With Woody Allen” is meant to be about the movies. But I do wish that the author had occasionally been less James Lipton-ingratiating and more Mike Wallace-aggressive in his line of questioning. There is, for instance, the unignorable fact that Allen is not as culturally relevant as he once was. There was a period, from “Annie Hall” (1977) to “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986), when the release of a new Woody Allen movie was an event — when Allen, as esoterically a New York-Jewish figure as he was, was verily plugged into the zeitgeist. What happened? Why is this no longer so? And how on earth did it happen in the first place?

Given Allen’s penchant for brutal self-critique, I doubt he would take offense at such questions. But Lax never raises them. The closest we get, very late in the book, is when Allen, in a January 2000 sit-down, takes issue with the notion, put forth by the critic Richard Schickel, that his audience left him at some point. No, no, no, Allen argues: “It was that I left them; they didn’t leave me.” Eminently sane analysis or Norma Desmond-style sophistry? And which party was it, then, audience or Woody, that initiated the 2005 reconciliation that was the critically and commercially successful “Match Point”? I guess those are questions for another conversation.

One area where Allen unequivocally did leave his audience behind is in print. From the late ’60s through the ’70s, he wrote enough humorous stories and essays to fill three wonderful collections, “Getting Even,” “Without Feathers” and “Side Effects.” Like many an impressionable young fan, I read and reread these books so often — rife with genre parodies, absurdist pensées and flamboyantly prolix S. J. Perelman homages — that their contents became committed to memory. “Her figure described a set of parabolas that could cause cardiac arrest in a yak”: those are words from a 1971 Sam Spade sendup called “Mr. Big,” and I just summoned them as automatically as if they were the lyrics to “Happy Birthday.”

Alas, Allen abandoned print humor in the ’80s. Then, around the end of the last decade, he decided to give it a go again, submitting material anew to The New Yorker, where most of his earlier print work had first appeared. He’s kept at it, and “Mere Anarchy” collects the pieces he’s written in this second phase of his literary life. Meanwhile, the earlier three collections have been combined into an anthology called “The Insanity Defense,” now out in paperback. I’ll say it again: for someone so unconcerned with his legacy, Allen sure is taking up a lot of shelf space.

“Mere Anarchy” isn’t a full return to the glory days. The Perelmanisms are sometimes laid on too thick (“The heady conflation of lilac Pinaud and stale White Owls subverted my hypothalamus”), and there’s nothing on the level of “The Kugelmass Episode,” his flawless short story from “Side Effects” about a bald City College professor who, via a magician’s cabinet, is transported into the novel “Madame Bovary.” Still, it’s good to find Allen redevoted to a form — the silly short, or “casual,” in New Yorker parlance — that few besides him and Perelman have mastered.

“Above the Law, Below the Box Springs” is a soberly presented piece of crime journalism in the detail-laden, “In Cold Blood” vein: “Homer Pugh stands 5-8 in his stocking feet, which he keeps in a large duffel bag along with his actual feet.” “How Deadly Your Taste Buds, My Sweet” is an espionage potboiler based on a real news report of a white truffle that sold for six figures at auction. In it, a femme fatale announces with urgency, “A network of gourmands originating in Istanbul and frantic to shave it over their fettuccine has infiltrated our borders.”

It may not be fashionable to say so, least of all in Woody Allen’s house, but the man, when he’s on form, is as capable as ever of delivering pleasure.

David Kamp is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Vote on Grand Socialist Plan Stirs Passions in Venezuela

The New York Times
November 17, 2007

CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov. 16 — In two weeks, Venezuela seems likely to start an extraordinary experiment in centralized, oil-fueled socialism. By law, the workday would be cut to six hours. Street vendors, homemakers and maids would have state-mandated pensions. And President Hugo Chávez would have significantly enhanced powers and be eligible for re-election for the rest of his life.

A sweeping revision of the Constitution, expected to be approved by referendum on Dec. 2, is both bolstering Mr. Chávez’s popularity here among people who would benefit and stirring contempt from economists who declare it demagogy. Signaling new instability here, dissent is also emerging among his former lieutenants, one of whom says the president is carrying out a populist coup.

“There is a perverse subversion of our existing Constitution under way,” said Gen. Raúl Isaías Baduel, a retired defense minister and former confidant of Mr. Chávez who broke with him in a stunning defection this month to the political opposition. “This is not a reform,” General Baduel said in an interview here this week. “I categorize it as a coup d’état.”

Chávez loyalists already control the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, almost every state government, the entire federal bureaucracy and newly nationalized companies in the telephone, electricity and oil industries. Soon they could control even more.

But this is an upheaval that would be carried out with the approval of the voters. While opinion polls in Venezuela are often tainted by partisanship, they suggest that the referendum could be Mr. Chávez’s closest electoral test since his presidency began in 1999, but one he may well win.

“We are witnessing a seizure and redirection of power through legitimate means,” said Alberto Barrera Tyszka, co-author of a best-selling biography of Mr. Chávez. “This is not a dictatorship but something more complex: the tyranny of popularity.”

One of the 69 amendments allows Mr. Chávez to create new administrative regions, governed by vice presidents chosen by him. Critics say the reforms would also shift funds from states and cities, where a handful of elected officials still oppose him, to communal councils, new local governing entities that are predominantly pro-Chávez.

Interviews this week on the streets here and in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city, offer a window into the strength of Mr. Chávez’s followers and the challenges of his critics. His supporters, many of whom are public servants in a bureaucracy that has recently ballooned, have flooded poor districts to campaign for the overhaul.

“The comandante should have more power because he is the force behind our revolution,” said Egda Vilchez, 51, a pro-Chávez activist, as she campaigned in favor of the new charter this week at a busy intersection in Cacique Mara, an area of slums in eastern Maracaibo.

Such statements may sound dogmatic, but they are voiced with a fervor in organized campaigning that is unmatched in richer areas of Venezuela’s largest cities, from which much of the opposition to Mr. Chávez is drawn.

Aside from a nascent student movement, which has held protests of increasing defiance in recent weeks, the middle and upper classes seem largely resigned about the outcome of a referendum that is less about specific issues than Mr. Chávez’s resilient support among the poor.

In comments after a summit of Latin American leaders this month in Chile, Mr. Chávez laid out his project in simple language. “Capitalist Venezuela is entering its grave,” he said, “and socialist Venezuela is being born.” Indeed, socialist imagery is pervasive throughout this country, from the red shirts worn by Mr. Chávez and his followers to the chant of “Fatherland, socialism or death!” repeated at the end of his rallies.

But walking into a grocery store here offers a different view of the changes washing over Venezuela. Combined with price controls that keep farmers from profitably producing some basic foods, climbing incomes of the poorest Venezuelans have stripped supermarket aisles bare of items like milk and eggs. Meanwhile, foreign exchange controls create bottlenecks for importers seeking to meet rising demand for many products.

Such imbalances plague oil economies elsewhere, with oil revenues often making it cheaper to import goods than produce them at home. But the system Mr. Chávez is creating is perhaps unique: a hybrid of state-supported enterprises and no-holds-barred capitalism in which 500,000 automobiles are expected to be sold this year.

Lacking here, for instance, is the authoritarianism one might expect in a country where billboards promoting Mr. Chávez have proliferated in the last year.

Looming above the Centro San Ignacio, a high-end shopping mall here, is one of the president hugging a child while he explains the “motors” of his revolution. Others show him kissing old women, decorating graduates of the military university and embracing an ally, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

Beneath these images, a lack of order persists at the street level, reflecting a state flush with oil money but weak when facing systemic problems like violent crime. The country had 9,568 homicides in the first nine months of this year, a 9 percent increase from the same period last year.

Private companies here, meanwhile, are in the awkward position of profiting from a growing economy even as many are dreading what is to come, their fears illustrated by the accelerating capital flight that has caused the currency, the bolívar, to plunge in value against the dollar since Mr. Chávez proposed the constitutional overhaul in August.

Sparse details as to how Mr. Chávez’s government would carry out measures a like a six-hour workday or finance a new social security system have done little for economic confidence, with Fedecámaras, the country’s main business association, urging voters to oppose the new charter “by all legal means.”

The proposals have also revealed sharp divisions among the president’s own supporters, symbolized by the sharp criticism from General Baduel, who had helped reinstall Mr. Chávez in power after a brief coup in 2002.

Marisabel Rodríguez, the president’s ex-wife and former first lady, came out against the new charter this week, saying it would lead to “absolute concentration of power.” And previously pro-Chávez governors like Ramón Martínez of Sucre State, sensing their power could be curtailed, have begun criticizing the measures.

Under the project, term limits would be abolished only for the president, not for governors or mayors. Another item raises the threshold for collecting signatures to hold a vote to recall the president, effectively shielding him from one option voters have to challenge his power under the existing Constitution of 1999.

Other measures in the project are considered progressive by both critics of Mr. Chávez and his political base, which includes leftist military officials, academics, civil servants and a large portion of the urban and rural poor.

The voting age in this demographically young country, for instance, would be lowered to 16 from 18. Discrimination based on sexual orientation would also be prohibited. Many of the items are vaguely worded, however, like one giving the president the power to create “communal cities.”

“Clearly there are positive aspects to the reform, but the government has committed a political error by trying to rush it to voters without enough discussion,” said Edgardo Lander, a sociologist at the Central University of Venezuela who is generally sympathetic to Mr. Chávez. “The opposition can argue this is illegitimate if it is approved by a low margin.”

Mr. Chávez, 53, who recently hinted at staying in power until 2031, might also be preparing for resistance here if oil revenues prove insufficient to finance his ambitions. One of the reforms allows him to declare states of emergency during which he can censor television stations and newspapers.

“Chávez wants to liquidate challenges to his rule to enable him to govern Venezuela for the rest of his life,” Manuel Rosales, governor of Zulia State and the main challenger to Mr. Chávez in presidential elections last year, said in an interview at his office in Maracaibo.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Rock ’n’ Revolution

The New York Times
November 11, 2007

COUNTLESS rock bands have sung about rebellion. One of the few that can claim it spurred a revolution is the Plastic People of the Universe, who — starting with no political agenda — catalyzed democracy in Czechoslovakia.

The story of the Plastics (as fans call the band) is central to Tom Stoppard’s play “Rock ’n’ Roll,” although it is told from the sidelines by fictional characters. It’s a story not of activism but of whimsy treated as sedition, stubbornness met by brutality and a regime unknowingly consolidating its opposition. Repression amplified the band’s impact, though at serious personal cost to the musicians.

Throughout “Rock ’n’ Roll” music is never mere entertainment. It’s not propaganda, either; there are no political or protest songs. (The Plastics have recorded only one directly political song during their career.) Instead music is variously a refuge, a cry from the heart, a flag of defiance and a token of freedom. “The play perhaps could be called ‘It’s Not Only Rock ’n’ Roll,’” Mr. Stoppard said. “Because it’s not.”

The Plastic People of the Universe got started in Czechoslovakia in 1968, the year Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and shut down the liberalization known as Prague Spring. The band was a gaggle of arty hippies who considered themselves outside politics. But in the mid-1970s the Plastics’ run-ins with an increasingly stifling Communist government spurred the Czech human-rights movement named after its petition and manifesto, Charter 77, which was a direct response to the trial and imprisonment of musicians. From a decade of resistance by Charter 77 came the bloodless Velvet Revolution that ended Communist rule in Czechoslovakia.

The Plastics’ dark, low-fi music is far better known to human-rights groups than to rock fans. It has appealed to downtown New York musicians with its angularity and intransigence, and the critic Ritchie Unterberger gave the band a chapter in his 1998 book, “Unknown Legends of Rock ’n’ Roll: Psychedelic Unknowns, Mad Geniuses, Punk Pioneers, Lo-Fi Mavericks & More.” A Czech label, Globus, has reissued the complete Plastic People catalog on CD, and most of the albums are available at .

“They’re the kind of band that people who follow the history of underground music know about them or reference them, but almost nobody has actually heard them,” said Jimmy Johnson, chief executive of the mail-order company Forced Exposure, which carries many little-known bands and used to stock the Plastics. “We could sell hundreds of copies of their first album, if we could get it.”

Mr. Stoppard, 70, is Czech, but his family emigrated in 1939 and did not return. In an interview at the Bernard J. Jacobs Theater, where the play opened last Sunday, he said he had been aware of the Plastics as a human-rights case since the ’70s but discovered their music only when he began writing “Rock ’n’ Roll.” He also discovered articulate, contentious writings by the Plastics’ manager and strategist, Ivan Jirous, and by the playwright Vaclav Havel, a founder of Charter 77, who became president of Czechoslovakia in 1989. (The Plastics’ album “Leading Horses” was recorded in 1981 at Mr. Havel’s farm, after the farmhouse where the music was first performed was burned down by the Czech secret police.)

Characters in “Rock ’n’ Roll” recount actual events and take up longtime arguments — sometimes in the words of people who made them at the time — as they grapple with questions about ideology and pragmatism, politics and counterculture, materialism and spirit, language and lies, art and economics. As the play moves toward the present, one character proclaims, “‘Make love not war’ was more important than ‘Workers of the world, unite!’” And while the play shows the countercultural triumph of music, Mr. Stoppard said political change isn’t that simple. “Make love, not war: That’s another utopian idea,” he said. “And you can imagine it working very well in a utopia, whether it’s a desert island or a plot of land in the wilds of the Appalachians where 300 people are making love, not war. It might work that way. But it doesn’t seem to be a serious operating factor in the way the world goes.”

Like Mr. Stoppard’s other plays “Rock ’n’ Roll” is full of pairings and balances: parallel characters, contrasted events, dialectics. It takes place in capitalist England and in Communist Czechoslovakia, and it revolves around Max, a die-hard Marxist professor enjoying academic freedom at Cambridge University, and Jan, a Czech student he briefly mentors. Jan’s strongest passion is for the psychedelic LPs he brings back to Prague; his fervor for the Plastics derails his life.

Another thread in “Rock ’n’ Roll” involves Syd Barrett, who led Pink Floyd until the damage from drugs and mental illness left him a recluse in Cambridge; the play makes him one of Max’s neighbors. Rock songs blare between scenes while their discographical information is projected on a video screen, and the play’s finale takes place at the first concert by the Rolling Stones in Prague.

The Plastics themselves begin and end the current Czech production of “Rock ’n’ Roll” at the National Theater in Prague, performing live.

Ivan Bierhanzl, who has worked with the Plastics intermittently since 1979 and is now the band’s manager and plays upright bass, said the Plastics were the first rock band to perform at the National Theater, which is more likely to present opera or Shakespeare. Once, the government would not permit the Plastics to perform in public at all, much less at the capital’s highbrow showplace.

The Plastics started as fans, and mimickers, of iconoclastic American bands including the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and the Fugs. Like other late-1960s rockers worldwide, they turned shows into happenings, collaborating with visual artists; the Plastics performed in wild makeup, wearing robes made of bedsheets. “We were just a band of freaks, playing rock and roll,” Mr. Bierhanzl said by telephone from Prague before one of the Plastics’ National Theater performances. “It was the problem of the Communist government and the party that they didn’t like us. They didn’t like our aesthetics because it was something from the West — longhairs, capitalism.”

Around the same time that the Plastics were confounding their authoritarian government, another psychedelic movement — tropicalism in Brazil — was doing something similar, with sunny, gleefully scrambled postmodern pop that made Brazil’s dictatorship suspicious. Two ringleaders of tropicalism, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, were first jailed and then ordered into exile — going to England, where they ending up learning additional ways to internationalize their music. (Mr. Gil is now Brazil’s minister of culture.) But for years Communist Czechoslovakia kept most of its rock underground inside the country.

The government revoked the Plastics’ credentials as professional musicians in 1970, taking away access to both equipment and official gigs. As they would for nearly two decades, the Plastics persisted, under conditions that make punk-rock look like a luxury cruise. “We were workers,” Mr. Bierhanzl said. “For us it was important just to play and listen to our music, and absolutely not to be some heroes.”

Led by the composer Milan Hlavsa, who died in 2001, the Plastics turned from imitating American songs to writing their own. They built homemade amplifiers from scrounged transistor-radio parts, and they rehearsed, quietly, in living rooms, perfecting the material they might find a chance to perform at semiprivate concerts once or twice a year. Paraphrasing some ideas from Mr. Jirous, Mr. Stoppard said that the Plastic People “had an advantage in a certain sense over bands in the West, because they never had to face the temptation.”

“There was never the possibility of a desire for recognition being gratified,” he said. “So it was never on the table as something which might, as it were, change the way you play and the songs you choose.”

The Plastics’ songs never sounded like party music. Along with the drone of the Velvet Underground, they picked up the dissonances of Eastern European music, added the counterpoint of instruments like bass clarinet and viola, and tossed in flurries of free-jazz saxophone. The vocals cackled and growled in Czech, singing gallows-humored modern poetry. The authorities called the music morbid and weren’t necessarily wrong. The Plastics defied ever-optimistic official pronouncements simply through their bilious, discontented tone.

The Plastics’ most celebrated album, “Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned,” had lyrics by the poet and provocateur Egon Bondy, like those in “No One”: “No one/Nowhere/Never/Ever/Got anywhere/Who me?/Such a fool/I am not.” The songs were recorded in 1974; tapes were smuggled out of Czechoslovakia and released as an LP four years later in France, and copies slipped into Czechoslovakia. Nowadays, as music easily whizzes around the world via the Internet, “Rock ’n’ Roll” — with scenes of Jan and his fragile, irreplaceable collection of Western LPs — recalls how precious vinyl once was.

Plastics concerts were rare, clandestine events organized with sly humor. After the band’s credentials were revoked, it managed to perform at first under the auspices of its manager, Mr. Jirous, an art historian. He would rent a hall for a lecture-demonstration on Andy Warhol and Pop Art; then, after a brief presentation, the Plastics would “demonstrate” a full-length concert set of Velvet Underground songs. Under Czech law couples getting married could book their own wedding entertainment, so some Plastics friends and fans took their vows and held concerts of the “second culture”: one separate from both officially sanctioned art and the explicit opposition.

The Plastics didn’t set out to challenge the regime, but to ignore it. “Everybody else just collaborated a little bit with the regime because of work, of money, of studying and jobs and so on,” Mr. Bierhanzl said. “So everybody was a little bit in touch with the government but our crazy band. We were different.”

They were not ignored in return; crackdowns grew increasingly severe. The government’s attitude, Mr. Stoppard said, was, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”

In 1974 the Plastics arranged one of their underground concerts in the village of Ceske Budejovice, but the government found out about it. Before it began, fans were shunted into a tunnel and ambushed by club-wielding policemen. All were photographed for police files, and some students were expelled, ending their academic careers.

At first the government took the Plastics more seriously than the opposition did. As “Rock ’n’ Roll” recounts, there was little respect, on either side, between the politicos and the freaks. “The rock ’n’ roll band didn’t think much of the intellectual dissenters, and the intellectuals didn’t think much of these dropouts,” Mr. Stoppard said. “The idea was that dropping out was not in fact an adequate response: opting out, ‘Leave me alone.’ Everybody had a perfect right to do it, but it wasn’t opposition.”

The government took care of that. In 1976, after the Plastics and friends staged another festival of the second culture, 27 people were arrested.

Vratislav Brabenec, the Plastics’ saxophonist and sometime lyricist, and Mr. Jirous were convicted of “organized disturbance of the peace” and imprisoned. “They made a big mistake with this trial,” Mr. Bierhanzl said. “Without it, maybe nobody would be interested about this band, but the trial was big P.R. for us.” At the trial dissidents and dropouts found common ground and forged their alliance.

But it would be more than a decade before they prevailed. In the meantime conditions grew worse. Band members were repeatedly interrogated by the police and sometimes beaten. The Plastics stopped giving concerts after 1981, making music only in private. Mr. Brabenec emigrated to Toronto in 1982. Mr. Jirous spent years in jail. Mr. Hlavsa held the band together until 1988, and then split off his own band with some former Plastic People under a new name: Pulnoc (Midnight), which was allowed to perform in Czechoslovakia and the West. On the eve of the Velvet Revolution the Plastic People were gone. It was hard to tell if the government had finally worn them down or if — despite their conscious intentions — they had somehow served their historical purpose.

Topical protest music can rapidly turn into an artifact; the people involved are gone, the causes won or lost, the slogan grown irrelevant. By the 1990s reggae and hip-hop had outflanked rock as global protest music, although rockers like Bruce Springsteen still lead arena-size protest singalongs. Like much music written under authoritarian regimes, the Plastic People’s songs may well hold double-entendres and sidelong references that attentive local listeners could glean at the time. But their music is more a mood than a manifesto; its bitter, sardonic disquiet lingers.

Mr. Bierhanzl said the Plastics now were “living in contemporary time.” The band reunited in 1997 for the 20th anniversary of Charter 77 and has stayed together, with some new members, since the death of Mr. Hlavsa. It is making an album of new material for its own 40th anniversary and releasing an archival DVD.

But it is still exorcising memories by performing at the National Theater. Back in 1977, as the Charter 77 movement was gaining international attention, the Communist government summoned artists to that theater and pressured them to sign a denunciation of the human rights movement. Many were sympathetic to Charter 77’s goals and close to its members, but they had families to support and jobs to protect; they signed. “For us,” Mr. Bierhanzl said, “it’s some kind of satisfaction that now we can play in the same hall.” He chuckled. “But it’s history.”

The Coup at Home

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
November 11, 2007

AS Gen. Pervez Musharraf arrested judges, lawyers and human-rights activists in Pakistan last week, our Senate was busy demonstrating its own civic mettle. Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein, liberal Democrats from America’s two most highly populated blue states, gave the thumbs up to Michael B. Mukasey, ensuring his confirmation as attorney general.

So what if America’s chief law enforcement official won’t say that waterboarding is illegal? A state of emergency is a state of emergency. You’re either willing to sacrifice principles to head off the next ticking bomb, or you’re with the terrorists. Constitutional corners were cut in Washington in impressive synchronicity with General Musharraf’s crackdown in Islamabad.

In the days since, the coup in Pakistan has been almost universally condemned as the climactic death knell for Bush foreign policy, the epitome of White House hypocrisy and incompetence. But that’s not exactly news. It’s been apparent for years that America was suicidal to go to war in Iraq, a country with no tie to 9/11 and no weapons of mass destruction, while showering billions of dollars on Pakistan, where terrorists and nuclear weapons proliferate under the protection of a con man who serves as a host to Osama bin Laden.

General Musharraf has always played our president for a fool and still does, with the vague promise of an election that he tossed the White House on Thursday. As if for sport, he has repeatedly mocked both Mr. Bush’s “freedom agenda” and his post-9/11 doctrine that any country harboring terrorists will be “regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”

A memorable highlight of our special relationship with this prized “ally” came in September 2006, when the general turned up in Washington to kick off his book tour. Asked about the book by a reporter at a White House press conference, he said he was contractually “honor bound” to remain mum until it hit the stores — thus demonstrating that Simon & Schuster had more clout with him than the president. This didn’t stop Mr. Bush from praising General Musharraf for his recently negotiated “truce” to prevent further Taliban inroads in northwestern Pakistan. When the Pakistani strongman “looks me in the eye” and says “there won’t be a Taliban and won’t be Al Qaeda,” the president said, “I believe him.”

Sooner than you could say “Putin,” The Daily Telegraph of London reported that Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, had signed off on this “truce.” Since then, the Pakistan frontier has become a more thriving terrorist haven than ever.

Now The Los Angeles Times reports that much of America’s $10 billion-plus in aid to Pakistan has gone to buy conventional weaponry more suitable for striking India than capturing terrorists. To rub it in last week, General Musharraf released 25 pro-Taliban fighters in a prisoner exchange with a tribal commander the day after he suspended the constitution.

But there’s another moral to draw from the Musharraf story, and it has to do with domestic policy, not foreign. The Pakistan mess, as The New York Times editorial page aptly named it, is not just another blot on our image abroad and another instance of our mismanagement of the war on Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It also casts a harsh light on the mess we have at home in America, a stain that will not be so easily eradicated.

In the six years of compromising our principles since 9/11, our democracy has so steadily been defined down that it now can resemble the supposedly aspiring democracies we’ve propped up in places like Islamabad. Time has taken its toll. We’ve become inured to democracy-lite. That’s why a Mukasey can be elevated to power with bipartisan support and we barely shrug.

This is a signal difference from the Vietnam era, and not necessarily for the better. During that unpopular war, disaffected Americans took to the streets and sometimes broke laws in an angry assault on American governmental institutions. The Bush years have brought an even more effective assault on those institutions from within. While the public has not erupted in riots, the executive branch has subverted the rule of law in often secretive increments. The results amount to a quiet coup, ultimately more insidious than a blatant putsch like General Musharraf’s.

More Machiavellian still, Mr. Bush has constantly told the world he’s championing democracy even as he strangles it. Mr. Bush repeated the word “freedom” 27 times in roughly 20 minutes at his 2005 inauguration, and even presided over a “Celebration of Freedom” concert on the Ellipse hosted by Ryan Seacrest. It was an Orwellian exercise in branding, nothing more. The sole point was to give cover to our habitual practice of cozying up to despots (especially those who control the oil spigots) and to our own government’s embrace of warrantless wiretapping and torture, among other policies that invert our values.

Even if Mr. Bush had the guts to condemn General Musharraf, there is no longer any moral high ground left for him to stand on. Quite the contrary. Rather than set a democratic example, our president has instead served as a model of unconstitutional behavior, eagerly emulated by his Pakistani acolyte.

Take the Musharraf assault on human-rights lawyers. Our president would not be so unsubtle as to jail them en masse. But earlier this year a senior Pentagon official, since departed, threatened America’s major white-shoe law firms by implying that corporate clients should fire any firm whose partners volunteer to defend detainees in Guantánamo and elsewhere. For its part, Alberto Gonzales’s Justice Department did not round up independent-minded United States attorneys and toss them in prison. It merely purged them without cause to serve Karl Rove’s political agenda.

Tipping his hat in appreciation of Mr. Bush’s example, General Musharraf justified his dismantling of Pakistan’s Supreme Court with language mimicking the president’s diatribes against activist judges. The Pakistani leader further echoed Mr. Bush by expressing a kinship with Abraham Lincoln, citing Lincoln’s Civil War suspension of a prisoner’s fundamental legal right to a hearing in court, habeas corpus, as a precedent for his own excesses. (That’s like praising F.D.R. for setting up internment camps.) Actually, the Bush administration has outdone both Lincoln and Musharraf on this score: Last January, Mr. Gonzales testified before Congress that “there is no express grant of habeas in the Constitution.”

To believe that this corruption will simply evaporate when the Bush presidency is done is to underestimate the permanent erosion inflicted over the past six years. What was once shocking and unacceptable in America has now been internalized as the new normal.

This is most apparent in the Republican presidential race, where most of the candidates seem to be running for dictator and make no apologies for it. They’re falling over each other to expand Gitmo, see who can promise the most torture and abridge the largest number of constitutional rights. The front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, boasts a proven record in extralegal executive power grabs, Musharraf-style: After 9/11 he tried to mount a coup, floating the idea that he stay on as mayor in defiance of New York’s term-limits law.

What makes the Democrats’ Mukasey cave-in so depressing is that it shows how far even exemplary sticklers for the law like Senators Feinstein and Schumer have lowered democracy’s bar. When they argued that Mr. Mukasey should be confirmed because he’s not as horrifying as Mr. Gonzales or as the acting attorney general who might get the job otherwise, they sounded whipped. After all these years of Bush-Cheney torture, they’ll say things they know are false just to move on.

In a Times OpEd article justifying his reluctant vote to confirm a man Dick Cheney promised would make “an outstanding attorney general,” Mr. Schumer observed that waterboarding is already “illegal under current laws and conventions.” But then he vowed to support a new bill “explicitly” making waterboarding illegal because Mr. Mukasey pledged to enforce it. Whatever.

Even if Congress were to pass such legislation, Mr. Bush would veto it, and even if the veto were by some miracle overturned, Mr. Bush would void the law with a “signing statement.” That’s what he effectively did in 2005 when he signed a bill that its authors thought outlawed the torture of detainees.

That Mr. Schumer is willing to employ blatant Catch-22 illogic to pretend that Mr. Mukasey’s pledge on waterboarding has any force shows what pathetic crumbs the Democrats will settle for after all these years of being beaten down. The judges and lawyers challenging General Musharraf have more fight left in them than this.

Last weekend a new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that the Democratic-controlled Congress and Mr. Bush are both roundly despised throughout the land, and that only 24 percent of Americans believe their country is on the right track. That’s almost as low as the United States’ rock-bottom approval ratings in the latest Pew surveys of Pakistan (15 percent) and Turkey (9 percent).

Wrong track is a euphemism. We are a people in clinical depression. Americans know that the ideals that once set our nation apart from the world have been vandalized, and no matter which party they belong to, they do not see a restoration anytime soon.

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