»  National Review Online Diary

  December 2009


Ten years on the web     End of a decade — one for which there is still no settled name. This will probably take care of itself. You don't really need a name for a decade until it's past and gone. We didn't talk about "the sixties" in the sixties, though we haven't stopped talking about them since.

There have been lots of imaginative names suggested for the decade now drawing to its close — the Aughts, the Ooze (for "00s"), and so on — but my guess is we'll end up with something pedestrian, probably "the two thousands."

For me personally it was the web decade. I did my first web commentary on March 27, 2000. I've continued to turn out 70 or 80 pieces a year every year since, though the bigger part of my ad hoc commentary on NRO nowadays goes into Radio Derb. I have also engendered a mass of paper journalism and three books. Not bad. "The single talent well employed," I like to think, anyway. For keeping discontent at bay, there is no better rule than the one sailors have traditionally offered to prevent seasickness: "Stay busy, and keep your eyes on the horizon."

For conservatives it's been a lousy decade. A year of Bill Clinton; eight years of George W. Bush; a year of Barack Obama. We're way further left than we were at the end of 1999, having seen massive expansions of federal power into every aspect of our lives. The Aughts (Ooze, Naughties, whatever) saw vast schemes of utopian futilitycolossal new entitlements,  the biggest program of public works in U.S. history, the federally-mandated, PC-driven destruction of rational banking standards (leading — surprise! — to financial collapse and recession), two punitive expeditions against nuisance nations allowed to morph into never-ending wars, …

Meanwhile our own nation's borders were left unguarded, hundreds of thousands were admitted under fraud-addled U.N. "refugee" rackets, and settlement visas were handed out to radical imams. Multiculturalism advanced to the point where it is considered an offense of staggering insensitivity to mention chicken and watermelon in the same sentence, or to refer to a Mexican as "Mexican."

Where things haven't drifted leftwards, they've just stayed the same. In 1999 we had a huge army stationed in Germany, though nobody could tell me why. It's still there, and still no-one can tell me why. We entered the decade with four conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court; we leave it with four conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court. Oh, and the mohair subsidy is back.


Dereliction of duty     In an NRO column this month I said some unkind things — along with some kind ones — about Steven Landsburg's new book The Big Questions. Steven is a total open-borders proponent, one of those people willing to test how many of the earth's 6.7 billion people would come and settle in the USA if there were nothing to prevent their doing so. (My guess? Three to four billion. The open-borders crowd's guess? Try getting them to tell you.)

Steven posted some comments on my remarks in his blog for the book. (Note:  When a person publishes a book nowadays, he starts a blog for it. "Is there a WAD blog then?" I hear a multitude of voices cry. Is a bean green?)

Me having lunged at Steve, he having parried en sixte and riposted, a short bout has commenced. The usual thing is for three or four more thrusts and counter-thrusts, with victory decided on points. But here's the thing: I can't be bothered.

I'll admit I'm uncomfortable about not being bothered. For one thing, it's disrespectful to Steve, who seems to be a decent sort, the open-borders nuttiness aside. The guy has a blog to keep going, and a book to sell. (Did I mention that I too have a blog and a book? I did? Sorry.)

Nor is it that I don't have things to say in response to Steve. I have plenty. Trouble is, I've already said them all, three or four times. See my long exchanges with Gideon Aronoff here, for example. I think they contain answers to all of Steve's arguments. There are writers who don't mind hammering away at the same points over and over again. I'm not one of those writers.

And, to be blunt about it, the open-borders business is so nutty I can't take it seriously. Come on: it's nutty — flat-earth nutty, Elvis-sighting nutty, Eisenhower-was-a-communist nutty. You don't want any restrictions on immigration at all?  Into a nation with 2008 per capita GDP of $47,500 from a world containing populous nations with per capita GDP of $900? YOU'RE NUTS!

It may be that I'm being uncharitable. It may even be, though I think it extremely unlikely, that I'm concocting excuses for my own sloth. Readers with more patience (or energy, or something) are welcome to fill in for me over at Steve's blog, making the case that this is a pretty nice country just as it is, and would not be anything like as nice if its population were, over a handful of years, to be multiplied tenfold.

That the case needs making seems, to me, astounding.


State of unhappiness     I'm not very surprised to learn that I live in the unhappiest state of the Union. So say researchers Andrew Oswald, Stephen Wu, and Peter Dunn in a paper published here.

What's Louisiana doing up at number one in the rankings, though? They can't be serious. Louisiana?  Hawaii at number two I can believe, lingering as I still am in the warm afterglow of this year's family vacation there. Tennessee's number four position is interesting. You don't hear much about Tennessee, which probably means it's a nice place. And who can resist a sneer of schadenfreude seeing California down at number 46? All my life the damn Golden Staters have been boasting about their damn climate, their damn beaches, their damn girls, their damn hedonism, their damn Silicon Valley whiz-kids. Now look where it's all got them! Nyah nyah.


A Koestlerian moment     Here's an odd little story. It's a true one: David Yezzi, executive editor of The New Criterion, a man of irrefragable honor, will vouch for it.

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs — we are actually talking about 1963 — someone urged me to read Arthur Koestler's book The Sleepwalkers. I duly read it. I am absolutely not going to get into Phil. of Sci. arguments about the book's central idea, but it did give me a liking for Koestler as a writer. Over the next few years I read all (I think) of his books. I've quoted him considerably, and have even got a column or two out of him — see here, for example.

I was therefore interested to hear about Michael Scammell's biography of Koestler, to be published January 5. (Amazon says December 29, but I'm going by a publisher's handout.)

Just let me translate that word "interested" for you. On the lips of a freelance book reviewer, "interested" means: "I bet I can get some sucker of a literary editor to give me the book for review, thereby snaffling a couple hundred dollars for the E.M. and D.O. Derbyshire college fund, and a free book into the bargain." I girded up my loins and set out to find that editor.

My first call was of course on National Review's literary editor, Mike Potemra. I had better explain that several dozen significant books are published every month, so that a literary editor needs to (gasp!) discriminate. He needs, I mean, to have firm ideas about what books are and are not suitable for his particular magazine — and, indeed, about which reviewers are suitable for which books. That's the literary editor's domain, and he is jealous of his rights in it, as he should be. Well, Mike thought the Koestler bio was borderline for NR. He hummed and hahed politely, said he'd give it some thought.

I took that as a no and headed down the road to the offices of The New Criterion. David Yezzi was at home, and hospitable as ever. Alas, he already had a reviewer assigned to the Koestler book. We stood chatting outside the door of his office for a few moments anyway: about the reviewer, about the upcoming Christmas parties, and of course about Koestler.

You need to know at this point that among Koestler's own books was one titled The Roots of Coincidence (1972). In his later years Koestler tagged on to a variety of semi-mystical and parapsychological fads. One of these enthusiasms was for coincidences, and what they tell us about the nature of reality. That's what The Roots of Coincidence is about.

Well, there I was standing with David Yezzi outside his office talking about Arthur Koestler. There were books all around us, great heaps and drifts of them. The New Criterion is one of those places where, if you want to take a seat, or put something down, or even just open a door, you first have to move a couple of dozen books. The wall just to my right had books piled about four feet high against it.

I mentioned to David that I had already seen one review of this new Koestler biography, in the New Yorker. Who was the reviewer? asked David. I knew the answer, but had one of those odd episodes where you just can't summon up a name.

"It was … it was …" I fumbled. I glanced down. On top of the nearest pile of books by the wall at my right was one by Louis Menand, his name prominent on the dust jacket. And that was the name I was fishing for. The guy who'd reviewed the bio of Koestler. Who had written a book about coincidences. Uh …


Lipogrammatically yours     It's odd how things work out with your offspring. My girl child, now 17, is bookish — is, in fact, halfway through my supply of classic fiction. My son, by contrast, will pick up a book only to avoid major sanctions from Dad and Mom. So it was a thrill to find Danny asking if I own a particular book. I was glad I could go to my study, pull down that book, and hand it to him. Alas, it wasn't plot, author, or stylistic virtuosity that had drawn my lad to it, but gimmickry. This book, a fairly long work of fiction, is a lipogram (as also — by now you don't want informing — is this part of my Diary). My son was curious to look at such a work.

This book is not only a lipogram, it also contains lipogrammatical musings that sound oddly familiar. You know "Ozymandias," no doubt? Try this:

I know a pilgrim from a distant land
Who said: Two vast and sawn-off limbs of quartz
Stand on an arid plain …

Nor is mighty John Milton thought too high for our author's wit:

Whilst I do think on how my world is bound,
    Now half my days, by this unwinking night,
    My solitary gift, for want of sight,
    Lain fallow …

Most striking of all, though, in my opinion, is his imitation of that glorious U.S. classic about a bird — a black bird (though not a blackbird!):

            Black Bird

'Twas upon a midnight tristful I sat poring, wan and wistful,
Through many a quaint and curious list full of my consorts slain —
I sat nodding, almost napping, till I caught a sound of tapping,
As of spirits softly rapping, rapping at my door in vain.
"'Tis a visitor," I murmur'd, "tapping at my door in vain —
                       Tapping soft as falling rain."

Miraculously (or so I think), our author maintains this trick through a full 18 stanzas! Amazing!

[You can't, I vow, grasp how much psychic strain builds up whilst constructing long lipograms. Mind if I unload? Thanks … EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!]


Voting like a gentleman     Democracy in England, 1835, from Thomas Arnold's Passages in a Wandering Life:

Some of the School Trustees were my father's good friends, but of the majority of them it may be said that his Whig opinions were a sore subject with them, and caused them to regard him all along with some misgiving, if not suspicion. But such a friend and supporter as Sir Grey Skipwith must have consoled him for many cold looks and unappreciative words. Sir Grey was the Whig member for North Warwickshire for several years after the passing of the first Reform Bill. Naturally he was a Rugby trustee, for his fine old mansion of Newbold Hall was only about five miles from Rugby, and his family had been connected with Warwickshire for centuries. One could not imagine a more perfect type of the "Fine old English Gentleman." Brave, generous, kind-hearted, cheery, straightforward, and conscientious, he was a candidate whom his constituents must have adored.

And in those days men did not conceal their politics! I do not pretend to say that for the destruction of bribery the introduction of the ballot may not have been necessary and right ; but the old methods were more congenial to the English nature. I recollect, one hot August day in 1835, going with my father into the polling-booth at Dunchurch, when the contest between Sir Grey Skipwith and Mr. Bracebridge of Atherston Hall, the Whig candidates, and two Tory candidates whose names I forget, was proceeding. In the booth was a long table, at the far end of which were several gentlemen and officials. My father took his stand at the end of the booth near the door, and removed his hat.

"What is your name?" asked an official.
"Thomas Arnold."
"What is the nature of your qualification?"
"Freehold."
"For whom do you record your vote?"
"Skipwith and Bracebridge."

A figure rose at the head of the table, and said with a bow, "Thank you, Dr. Arnold." This was Captain Skipwith, one of Sir Grey's sons.

When there is honesty on both sides, surely nothing can be more satisfactory than a simple and open ceremony like this; but if candidates will offer bribes, and voters will accept them, there is, I suppose, no help for it but to resort to those apparently ignoble devices by which the secrecy of the ballot is secured.


Red Cliff     Admiral Robert Willard believes that the Chinese "are making a strong effort to advance the idea of making an aircraft carrier operational between now and 2015." The ChiComs already have a carrier: the Varyag, which they bought as scrap from the Ukraine seven years ago. It's not likely the Varyag that Admiral Willard has in mind, though. The vessel is an old design, with a lot of half-assed compromises in its construction. The Chinese probably just want to use it for training. The key to carrier operations is planes landing and taking off on deck, and that is really, really difficult, as readers of The Right Stuff will recall. It needs a lot of training.

Historically, China is as un-maritime a nation as it is possible to be while possessing a coastline. Everybody knows about the voyages of the "eunuch admiral" Zheng He back in the 15th century. Those voyages were just extravagant exercises in imperial aggrandisement, though, like pyramid-building. They had no practical military, commercial, or colonizing value. The imperial court got bored with the idea at last. Most of the records were destroyed in a palace intrigue, and everyone forgot the voyages had ever happened.

If you ask a Chinese person to name the best-known naval battle in his country's history, he will almost certainly answer: "Red Cliff!" It's an interesting comment on the inwardness of Chinese culture and history that this greatest of all Chinese naval engagements took place 500 miles from the sea! It was actually fought on the Yangtse River in December of a.d. 208 between the warlord of North China and the warlords of the South and West in alliance. (This was at the tail end of a dynasty, when central authority had broken down.) The key events, part-fictionalized, occupy chapters 43-49 of the great Chinese classic novel Three Kingdoms.

Now director John Woo has made a movie about the battle, titled of course Red Cliff. That was our Saturday night rent-a-flick December 19. Would I recommend it? Not really. The first time I saw a computer-generated birds-eye view of a great battle scene, I thought "that's neat." The thing has long since worn out its welcome, though — by the second Lord of the Rings movie, in my opinion.

The battle scenes in Red Cliff are anyway more than usually repetitive. To make time for them, much of the narrative excitement of the traditional accounts has been chopped out. The terrific verbal jousting of Chapter 43 in Three Kingdoms, when the West's grand strategist sells the idea of an alliance to the South's warlord, against opposition from the warlord's court, is cut down to three or four curt exchanges. The bolting together of the North's boats, allowing fire to spread among them more rapidly, is described; but there's no mention of the fact that this was suggested to the North's warlord by a daring plant from the other side, claiming it would save the North's troops from motion sickness … and so on.

The overall impression left is the one I get from most modern Chinese movies, and a great many Western ones too. Our interest in subtle, long, connected narrative is fading away, presumably because we don't read much fiction for pleasure any more. In place of narrative we have substituted clever surface effects, lighting up our eyeballs without engaging our brains. In the case of the Chinese, it's almost as if movie directors are striving to reinforce the stereotype about Chinese culture favoring the outward appearance of things with little regard for their inner states.

Since China is still a dictatorship there's a remedy to hand. Let the authorities over there ban the making of color movies for twenty years. Nothing but black and white! You can still obsess about surface appearances in black and white, of course, but the temptation isn't one-tenth as great as when you have color to play with. They might ban computer-generated battle scenes while they're at it.


Bad Sex Prize     The December issue of Literary Review contained the shortlist for this year's Bad Sex in Fiction award, and gruesome indeed are the specimens provided. I see from the magazine's website that they now have a winner:  Jonathan Littell's humongous (995 pages) novel The Kindly Ones. I'll refrain from quoting the winning passage, since we're running a family website here. You can read it for yourself, if you have the stomach.


Mightier than the sword     I know, I gush too much about Literary Review (in which I have no interest, and which in fact HAS NOT SENT ME A BOOK TO REVIEW FOR YEARS). When I see it in the mailbox, I know I'm going to lose a couple of hours' work.

Picking up the book-reviewing theme again, and at the same time continuing on from the previous section, I especially enjoyed Sara Wheeler's review of Mels van Driel's Manhood: The Rise and Fall of the Penis. It's not in the "highlights" on the Literary Review website, so you'll have to get a subscription or cadge a copy of Literary Review.

Why anyone would think it worth while to write a 288-page book about the male organ of generation, I do not know, but with Ms. Wheeler it's in good hands (Look, you can't avoid double entendres in this zone, so I won't bother trying. Ms. Wheeler sure didn't: she opens her review with "This was a stiff assignment …") Did you know that elephants masturbate with their trunks? That a wild boar's testicles weigh 750 grams (1 lb. 10 oz.) apiece? That "in ancient Greece it was considered favorable to sport a little appendage because big ones were associated with barbarians and satyrs"? So many things in the world to know.

Ms. Wheeler ends her review with: "The book is heavily illustrated. Avoid page 127." Talk about a teaser! (Oh, dear.) I'd say she sold 1,000 copies right there.


Math Corner     Belated congratulations to the USA's team in the International Math Olympiad held in Bremen, Germany this July. The USA team ranked sixth among all 104 participating countries. They won two gold and four silver medals.

In case you think I'm slyly pushing male chauvinism with that (sly? moi?), I offer equally hearty, not quite as belated congratulations to the USA team at the 2009 China Girls Mathematical Olympiad held in Amoy (which for some reason the newspapers nowadays write "Xiamen"), August 11-16. The tally there was two gold, three silver, and two bronze.

To show the kind of thing these talented high-schoolers were up against, this month's brainteaser is from the Amoy event.

Show that there are only finitely many triples (a,b,c) of positive integers satisfying the equation  abc = 2009(a + b + c)

In case you should think there are perhaps no such triples, here's one: (60,82,98). There now, I've saved you the trouble of an existence proof!

[And because this is early for a month-end diary, on account of the Christmas season, I'm not going to make you wait till January 31 for a solution. I've already posted one here.]