»  National Review Online Diary

  May 2005

Stem cells     We've had some to-ing and fro-ing about embryonic stem cell research on The Corner. A friend whose two children were both created via Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) commented as follows:

When [wife] and I signed the Informed Consent forms for our nine ART cycles, we were asked what we wanted done with any 'excess' embryos. We always specified that they be frozen for later use.

The form also asked what we wanted done with our frozen embryos if, somehow, years passed and the ART company was unable to locate us. We gladly checked as first/second choices 'Donate Them To Another Couple' and 'Use Them For Scientific Research.' For us, even the latter was vastly preferable to 'Destroy Them.'

We must have created 75 embryos to get the two children we are now raising, and on balance, we judge that the potential good that might result from what medical science might learn from our excess embryos vastly outweighs the harm of having them experimented on. (Truthfully, try as we might, we can't see any harm such experimentation would cause, and my impression is that our preferences are typical of couples who engage the assistance of ART.)

The task the Right To Life people have set themselves is the task of convincing decent, thoughtful, well-educated people like this that they are complicit in a moral crime. Lots of luck.

Reductio ad servitum     The ancient Greeks gave us reductio ad absurdum, the technique of reducing to an absurdity — proving a proposition by asserting its negation then using deductive logic to reach a contradiction. Leo Strauss (I think it was) gave us reductio ad Hitlerum. You know: Hitler was a tobacco-hating vegetarian, Hitler was a mass murderer, therefore all tobacco-hating vegetarians are mass murderers. (Or something like that.)

Well, there is a style of argumentation in present-day America that is starting to annoy me mightily. I call it reductio ad servitum — reducing to slavery. The arguer wants to show that some change, or some refusal to change, is desirable and correct, even though masses of people are opposed to it. "After all," he says triumphantly, "masses of people supported slavery …"

I got a variant of this from a reader emailing in to take issue with me on embryonic stem-cell research. Extract:

The fact that different people will reach different conclusions about the moral status of an embryo is not in itself evidence that the answer to the question is unknowable, any more than the fact that different people reached different conclusions about the moral status of black slaves 150 years ago was evidence that the answer to that question is (or was) unknowable. I'm assuming you wouldn't make the claim that if the Civil War had turned out differently, the moral status of blacks, or slavery, would also be different?

Leaving aside the virtues of that particular line of reasoning, see how quickly a modern American falls back on race slavery as the template for all moral arguments, even ones — like, in my opinion, this one — where the template is a very poor fit. You get the same thing from proponents of homosexual "marriage." Interracial marriage used to be banned, too! It's just like that! Well, no, it isn't, any more than the destruction of a blastocyst is "like" the buying and selling of people for their labor.

I think I see signs that reductio ad Hitlerum is gradually being mocked out of our public discourse. It used to be much more routine than it is. Nowadays you only hear it from the lowest and stupidest kinds of politicians and commentators. This, if I am right, is a welcome development. I wonder how long it will be before reductio ad servitum goes the same way? Couple of hundred years, would be my guess.

Knife control     I guess you saw the news story about knife control in England. it's been going round the Internet, and we posted a link to it on The Corner.

I'm as outraged as you are by this silliness, but I'd like to point out that the English have always nursed a mild prejudice against knives. One of the first generalities I learned about the world, growing up in 1950s England, was that honest Englishmen fought with their fists (though a broken bottle, should one come to hand, was an acceptable force multiplier), our American cousins fought with guns for preference, and those despicable, dwarfish, greasy, garlic-scented, cowardly, gibbering continentals — lesser breeds without the law! — fought with knives. Living in seedy areas of north London during my student days, I learned that of all the city's immigrant groups, the least popular were the Greek Cypriots, and a principal reason for their unpopularity was their habit of sticking knives into each other at the least provocation.

These prejudices naturally inspired some contrarian fascination in young teen Englishmen. Every one of us had the ambition to own a "flick knife" — that is, a switchblade knife. These were illegal in England, but the underground economy being what it was, and is, they weren't actually hard to acquire, and we all got possession of one eventually. We had no idea of actually doing anything with our flick knives, of course. We just sat around in each other's drawing rooms when parents were out, singing along to "Mule-Skinner Blues" or the Everly Brothers and flicking our knives as casually as we could contrive.

The English prejudice against knives has meant that knife-fighting skills are considered dark arts. In the military they are taught only to Special Forces troops. (I don't know if it's the same here.) I recall seeing a notice for a knife-throwing course on the bulletin board of an army barracks in Norfolk circa 1970. These guys — I later spoke to one of them about it — took the knife-throwing art very seriously, and had a lot of arcane lore about binding the grip with tape to get precise balance, hollow blades part-filled with mercury, and so on.

Americans have got more knife-shy this past thirty years, too, at least so far a throwing knives are concerened. When I first came to New York in 1973, there was a sporting goods store in Grand Central Station with a large window display of throwing knives of all different sizes. I often thought of going in and buying one; but my conversation with the Special Forces guy had left me thinking that knife throwing was a skill harder to acquire than playing concert violin, so I passed. Hard to imagine such a window display now, in a place passed daily by thousands of commuters.

When you come to think about it, for Anglo-Saxons to be knife-shy is a bit odd. The very word "Saxon" is derived from Old Germanic seax, a kind of knife our remote ancestors carried for utility and self-defense, and by which they became known. "Wearing a knife may actually have been a symbol of freemanship," says this website. Poor old England! They have no more taste for "freemanship" now.

Most successful British politician     It's not really good form to quote another commentator in big chunks, but this one I can't resist, though I have added in some remarks of my own. The commentator here is Charles Moore, in the May 14 Spectator.

Last week's result [i.e. the British election result — J.D.] proves that there is only one unambiguously successful party leader in modern British political history — the Revd. Ian Paisley. Now in his 80th year, he invented his own party in the 1960s, and has led it ever since. [He not only invented his own party, he invented his own church, too! — J.D.] At this latest general election, the Democratic Unionist Party has at last fulfilled Dr. Paisley's dream of becoming the unambiguous voice of Protestant Ulster. Of the ten Unionist seats in the Province, the Big Man's boys now hold nine. For 40 years he has been unremittingly sectarian and his message has been extremely simple — the British government wants to betray Ulster Unionism. The tragedy is that he has been right …

I have got into trouble with NRO readers in the past for speaking up on behalf of Paisley, who, though I don't share his feelings about the Bishop of Rome, I believe to be a good man and a fine conservative. (Sinn Féin, his principal enemy, is made up mostly of Marxist-Leninists.) Four years ago I wrote this:

Very few of those who voted for him share his theological convictions. They support him because he has stood up for them, fearlessly and consistently, through all these years of torment and betrayal, when they have been badly in want of people to stand up for them. I doubt that will be enough to get him a seat next to George Bush at any White House function; but where Ian Paisley comes from, plain speaking, fierce integrity, and the courage to face down the world's cruelest, most amoral terrorist gangs, still count for something.

I stand by that. I wish there were more of Paisley's iron (he would pronounce that word "eye-ruhn") integrity in public life, and I wish the Big Man a smooth path to his 80th birthday (next April). Not that he needs my wishes, or anyone else's. To arrive at the age of eighty with all your life's work crowned with success, is a thing not given to many of us.

Can I please have the epidural now?     God willin' an' the Creek don't rise, at the end of this week I shall FedEx a large square package to National Academies Press in D.C. Writing a book, as I am far from being the first to notice, is a lot like having a baby. It is surely no coincidence that publishers' contracts speak of delivery of a manuscript — the happy event I am looking forward to this week.

Like pregnancies, some book productions are more difficult than others. This one's been needing a lot of painful pushing. Seduced by a smooth-talking literary agent, I breezily offered a proposal, got it accepted, signed the contract, then realized I didn't know half as much about the subject as I thought I did, and had to spend far more time than I'd budgeted for doing research. I am playing all sorts of cheer-up games with myself — saying, for example, that difficult labors produce stronger infants (is there any evidence for that? I don't really want to know) — but there is no denying that I shall be glad when this one is out of my system — that, in fact, my desire to see it thrive in the world on its own is, at this point, a long way behind my desire to be unburdened of the darn thing.

Well, there are just a few more paragraphs to be written, which I have set aside a quiet day for. After that it's only a matter of going once over the whole thing to check consistency and a few dangling points of fact. Then the beautiful print button, followed by that blessed trip to the FedEx store. Come on, John, you can do it. We're almost there. Push! Pu-u-u-ush! That's a good pain, that's a lovely pain! Once more now …

Word of the month     I mentioned Theodore Fontane's 1895 novel Effi Briest a few weeks ago. This was Germany's entry in the great 19th-century female-adultery novel stakes. France gave us Madame Bovary, Russia gave us Anna Karenina, Germany gave us poor little Effi Briest. Well, a reader emailed in to tell me that Rainer Fassbinder, the postwar German director, had made a movie of Fontane's quiet, understated little masterpiece. I promptly ordered the DVD from Netflix, and that was our Saturday night movie the other day.

So there we were, Mr and Mrs, watching along quietly in the Derb living room, the kids in bed, when suddenly I jumped out of my chair, yelled "Pause it right there!" and headed to the study.

The film's dialogue is in German, with English subtitles. Now, my school German is more than 40 years behind me, so I can't really follow the spoken language, but I like to amuse myself by trying to catch euphonious or colorful phrases. Well, I caught one. Towards the end of the movie, Effi's husband, surveying the debris of his marriage, says to a friend: Mein Leben ist verpfuscht.  "My life is messed up," went the subtitle.

That was where I jumped out of my seat to go get the German dictionary. Yep, there it was:

verpfuschenv.a. bungle, botch, make a mess of, wreck (one's life, etc.)

Now I can't get that word out of my head. "If we're not careful," I said to my wife the next day, in a discussion about car rental, "our vacation plans will be all verpfuscht." I even told my son, stretching the meaning a bit, that he should clean up his room because it was unacceptably verpfuscht.

Verpfuscht! (The pronunciation is: fair-PFOOSHT.) Is this a beautiful word, or what? It would almost be worth making a mess of one's life, just to be able to say Mein Leben ist verpfuscht. Perhaps there is an explanation for the dire — verpfuschtig? — condition of the German economy in here somewhere.

Race-based education     "School Law Spurs Efforts to End the Minority Gap" said the headline in the New York Times (5/27/05). The accompanying story dealt with the fact that, to quote the article's opening sentences:

Spurred by President Bush's No Child Left Behind law, educators across the nation are putting extraordinary effort into improving the achievement of minority students, who lag so sharply that by 12th grade, the average black or Hispanic student can read and do arithmetic only as well as the average eighth-grade white student.

So I read through this thing, and started to get an odd, creepy, not-very-happy feeling. Listen:

 … in Boston, low-achieving students, most of them blacks and Hispanics, are seeing tutors during lunch hours for help with math …

 … in Minnesota, where American Indian students, on average, score lower than whites on standardized tests, educators rearranged schedules so that Chippewa teenagers who once sewed beads onto native costumes during school now work on grammar and algebra …

 … the requirement [in the NCLB Act] that schools release scores categorized by students' race and ethnic group has obliged educators to work harder to narrow the achievement gap …

 … There's nothing right now to suggest that nationally we've begun to invest in poor children at the levels that would lead to widespread improvement in math and reading skills of black and Hispanic children … [Note the easy slip there from "poor" to "black and Hispanic"]

 … community groups can use the law to highlight the educational needs of people of color …

[A school principal in Sacramento] barred 350 low-achieving students — 9 out of 10 of them black, Hispanic or Laotian immigrants — from participating in band, chorus or other elective activities to make time for five hours of unbroken remedial reading and math study each day …

Catharina Stassen, a business consultant whose specialty is quantitative analysis, and Jim Terry, a retired actuary, sat in the academy's library, tutoring five students, including Shatara Rutledge, in algebra …

Now, I don't say that these people's efforts are not worthy and laudable, and I don't say that they are wrong-headed or misguided. What I do say is that there is a virtue in calling things by their proper names, and the proper name for all this is "Race-Based Education" — a thing we supposedly got rid of in this country 40 years ago. How long before we have separate schools again?

Math Corner     This one, courtesy of Boris Zeldovich. Boris credits it to V.I. Arnold, author of this fine Francophobic rant. Here's the puzzle.

For ten years a teacher exposed his student to the following test:

A right-angle triangle has hypoteneuse 10 inches, and the height drawn from the right angle to the hypoteneuse is 6 inches. Find the area of this right-angle triangle.
For 10 years the students satisfied their teacher with the following answer:  Area = (10 × 6) / 2 = 30 square inches.

Then at the eleventh year a smart student came, who could not solve this problem. Why?

Boris adds: "In Arnold's presentation the puzzle is somewhat politically incorrect. The teacher and students are American, and the smart kid is Russian." No comment.