»  We Are Doomed — The Blog


On this page I have logged some common queries, objections, discussion points, and errata sent in by readers of We Are Doomed.

If you'd like to contribute something, send it to my gmail address (which you can find on my home page) with a subject line beginning with the word DOOMED.

In what follows, when I want to refer to text in the book, I give the page number followed by a one-digit decimal to indicate placement in the page. So "169.4" means about 40 percent of the way down page 169.


Contents of this web page

The CPI and Inflation Yet Another Gloominary
Pope Alexander European Fertility
Dürer's Melancholia Female Suffrage (cont.)
Sun People, Ice People "A Toast to the Melancholic Writer"
Female Suffrage The Pessimists' Chorus
Autoplagiarism False Negative
Fiction? Noticed by The Economist
Bibliography and Index No More Wild Places?
Diversity Mood Music
The Power of Negative Thinking Mood Music (cont.)
Another Great Gloominary Diversity versus Modernity
The Power of Negative Thinking (cont.) More from Kansas City
My Social Preferences Conservatives are happier than Liberals
Camus (cont.) James Gould Cozzens
Strong Hereditarianism The Tangled Wing
Quoting Hume  


*  The CPI and inflation

• Reader's point:     In the paragraph beginning "The website Collegeboard.com reports …"  [103.9], you say that many economists believe the CPI understates inflation, which suggests that the increase in college tuition may not be all that bad. In fact, many economists believe the CPI overstates inflation, mainly by not properly accounting for the effect of new technology. That's why, for example, they argue for cutting the rate of growth in Social Security benefits.

This view would make your point much stronger: the cost of college is increasing faster than the CPI, which is already too high. It has the added virtue of being correct.

• Author's reply:     My first reaction here was that I had made a blooper. Certainly it is the case, as my reader says, that my text makes more sense with "overstates" in place of "understates". What is the truth of the matter, though? That's not so easy to find out. As this investment site notes:

For several years, there has been controversy about whether the CPI overstates or understates inflation, how it is measured and whether it is an appropriate proxy for inflation.

Not having a very high opinion of economics as a science (see Chapter 12), I'm going to pass on the whole thing and just quietly wish I had said "overstates" to improve the sense of the point I am making.


*  Pope Alexander

• Reader's point:     "Pope Alexander"?  [249.5]

• Author's reply:     Indeed. It is a little-known fact that the great Borgia, in the intervals between his serial assaults on the Seventh Commandment (the counterparties thereof including, according to William Manchester, Alexander's own daughter), was wont to compose long satirical poems in heroic couplets. In English. Eighteenth-century English.


*  Dürer's Melancholia

• Reader's point:     I'm surprised you didn't make more of Dürer's Melancholia [4.0], as it helps make your point about "Why you should consult a melancholy pessimist."  [153.5]

• Author's reply:     It occurred to me; and an early draft of Chapter 1 had a long riff on the link between melancholy and creativity, noted by the ancients and illustrated in that engraving of Dürer's. When I read over the chapter, though, it looked like too much of a digression; and to really make the point involves writing a detailed description of the picture, which is tiresome to the reader. (I estimated my chances of getting the publisher to include the picture itself as infinitesimal.) So I chopped the whole thing down to a passing mention.

There is actually a fair literature on the links between melancholy temperament, creativity, and the reality principle. A new paper popped up just too late to be included in my book:  "The Bright Side of Being Blue: Depression as an Adaptation for Analyzing Complex Problems," which appeared in Psychological Review, July 2009. There's an abstract here.


*  Sun People, Ice People
Note on the Sun People / Ice People business:   My intention here at 33.4 was just as I stated it. The term "NAMs" for Non-Asian Minorities (i.e. black and Hispanic Americans) is gradually rising into general usage; but there is nothing as snappy for the complement: whites-plus-East Asians. This is a bit of a gap in the vocabulary of current U.S. demographics, and I wanted to fill it for the duration of my book. Prof. Jeffries supplied the need. He is of course an ignorant crackpot. I am not endorsing his barmy theory (which, someone has told me, is not even his, but poached from some other crackpot). I can't imagine anyone would think I am. Nor am I endorsing any other theory about human population divergences in the Paleolithic, about which I know little (though not much less than science seems to know). I'm just temporarily — for the duration of the book — plugging a terminological gap, while tweaking a local lunatic and the bizarre academic culture that, to its shame, has supplied him with a professorship.


• Reader's point:     In your new book you state that "Sun People kids are, in the broad generality, unacademic and unruly."  I was wondering if you knew that Indian-Americans are, on average, the American ethnic group with the highest academic achievement and (by far) the highest median personal income.

And, assuming that you do in fact know this, I was wondering if you would classify Indians as "Sun People," given that they come from a hot sunny subtropical country and have very dark skin.

• Author's reply:     The precise terms of the Arctic Alliance are still in draft stage, and subcontinental Asians are giving us a lot of trouble.

IQ-wise, the population is multimodal, with low overall means. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka are listed here with mean IQs of 82, 84, 82, and 79 respectively, ranking them at 123rd, 104th, 121st, and 135th out of 190. Some of the subpopulations in this area seem to show much better statistics, though, and among Hindus the caste system adds complications. In the matter of heredity, there are both European (from the Aryan invasions) and East Asian (from the Moghuls, who were a Turko-Mongolian blend) ancestries mixed in with a confusion of aboriginal stocks. See Chapter 36 of Michael Hart's Understanding Human History for a fuller account of subcontinental ancestry.

The general opinion on the Alliance drafting committee is that subcontinental immigration into Arctopia should be generous but highly selective, focused on the professional and entrepreneurial classes …

 … just as it currently is for the U.S.A.


• Reader's point:     [Same reader as last]   If the alleged unruliness of "Sun People" is genetically determined, then another problem presents itself: namely, the fact that Hispanics are a genetic mix of whites ("Ice People") and Native Americans (a racial group renowned for being taciturn and restrained). How do two non-unruly groups mix to make an unruly group? A related issue is that Native Americans are thought to be descended from Asiatic peoples, who migrated south from very cold climes as recently as 10,000 years ago — meaning that their ancestors were probably "Ice People" just as recently as the ancestors of the South Asians or the Vietnamese

(And if the unruliness of "Sun People" is culturally determined, then surely Indians have been living in the sun long enough to have become unruly — not to mention the Cantonese, who are generally above-average in business and academics among the Chinese.)

And regarding your proposal for "generous but selective" Indian immigration, why should a different standard hold for Africans and Latin Americans? Surely it is only to our advantage to recruit smart blacks and Hispanics for our population. In other words, it seems unclear to me why the existence of aggregate racial disparities in the U.S. population (which itself may be due in part to selection effects, e.g. slaves being selected for economic poverty and physical strength) should have any implication whatsoever for our immigration policy, since a method exists to evaluate individual intellectual abilities quite easily (i.e. look at their job skills).

• Author's reply:     There is nothing "alleged" about Sun People unruliness. Violent street gangs in the U.S.A. are almost exclusively black and Hispanic. When Ice People form criminal fraternities (the Mafia, the Triads) they have an utterly different character, more structured and (comparatively) disciplined, and mostly stay off the streets. U.S. prison life is dominated by Crips and Aztecas, not by wiseguys and hung gwan jai. For the situation in schools, which is what I was actually writing about, ask a teacher, or conduct the experiment I recommend at 128.2.

(Apropos that last, here's me conducting the experiment. It's not difficult; you can do it pretty much any day of the week, with any newspaper.)

On the ancestry point, the ancestry of Hispanics in most parts of the US is 60 to 70 percent European, though for immigrants since the 1980s, the proportion is more like 40 to 50 percent. The overall average is around 65 percent European ancestry. Razib at Gene Expression has some good diagrams & comments here. For a detailed academic study, with lots of cool charts and state-by-state analyses, see here.

I am not a "hard" genetic determinist. Genetics determines a lot — much more than any "culturist" will allow — but not everything [144.4]. At the individual level, any large population includes great variation: fat and thin, extrovert and introvert; short and tall; smart and dumb. At the group level, overall population characteristics revealed by statistics — supplemented, increasingly, by population-genetic studies like the HapMap — give clues as to the limits within which that population, as a population, can be expected to achieve on the various indices of civilized social behavior.

I don't believe we know enough about population genetics to make predictions about mixed populations. Mixtures can deliver results that defy simple arithmetic, as Mark Steyn's well-worn analogy involving ice cream and dog poop illustrates. Unruliness in any case seems to be strongly influenced by social environment: in particular, by mismatches between (a) the skill set distributions among young people, especially young men, and (b) the opportunities for useful, non-unruly employment in the surrounding society. A surplus of young men relative to opportunities in trade and farming gave us the Vikings and the terrifying Magyar Horde … who then settled down to be polite, pacifistic — in fact, "taciturn and restrained" — Scandinavia and the Christian Kingdom of Hungary. In the Magyars' case, the settling down took less than a century, suggesting that no genetic changes were involved.

Major-scale group unruliness might arise like that from factors having nothing to do with population genetics — just from overpopulation, for example, as seems to have been the case with Vikings and Magyars. In other cases, pop-gen may play some part. If population A, with a distribution of capabilities shaped like X, settles among population B, with not much requirement for X-shaped capability distributions, you have a mismatch with a pop-gen component. The young men of population A, with not many prospects for employment, might become unruly. In a different society, with different opportunities, those young men might indeed be "taciturn and restrained": in the society they actually find themselves in, not.  (And by the way, I am not sure that the inhabitants of  Wolstenholme TowneSwanseaMound CityFort Dearborn,  etc., etc. would concur with your description of Native Americans as "taciturn and restrained." And by the way again, aren't you stereotyping there? Eeeek!)

As to your "as recently as 10,000 years ago," that span of time is quite sufficient for significant genetic changes. Here is a recent book on the subject. Living in the sun doesn't do it (apologies to Prof. Jeffries here); what seems to do it is agriculture, a late arrival in the Americas.

Your last paragraph seems to suggest an immigration policy based on job skills. Lots of luck getting that through Congress! Current policy favors (a) persons with relatives already settled here, and (b) persons able and willing to cross an international border without permission. [201.7]  Would your policy be a better one? For sure! Where do I sign?

There are other factors to be considered, though. Morality, for example. IQ studies suggest that at least part of the problem in big under-achieving populations like sub-Saharan Africans or Native Americans is that these populations don't contain enough smart people. Now you want to lure away the few smart people they have? And then there are those results from psychology telling us that unconscious biases cause great numbers of us to be uncomfortable around persons of obviously different deep ancestry. (Presumably a factor in Prof. Putnam's findings on diversity. [16.5]  By the way, I have posted my own results from that Harvard test here. It would make discussions of these topics a bit more interesting, and a lot more honest, if more people would do the same.)  It may be that, even if you take job skills and IQ out of the equation, multiethnic societies can't be stable. Perhaps we should postpone further experiments in multiethnicity until we understand more about this.

In any case I am an immigration restrictionist and so can blithely finesse the issue. I'd like to see immigration cut dramatically — to a few ten thousands a year. At that level we could take the people we want from absolutely everywhere, without any possibility of dire effects, to us or them.

It's how you salt your stew. [212.7]  Or, as the great English immigration restrictionist Enoch Powell used to say, and say, and say:  Numbers are of the essence.  Indeed they are, always and everywhere.


*  Female suffrage

• Reader's point:     Your first section heading in Chapter 5 [87.6] is "The Case Against Female Suffrage."  Say what? You're against female suffrage?

• Author's reply:     It doesn't take much, in a book for conservatives, to make a case against female suffrage. The male/female voting gap makes it. The gap works against conservatism; so, if you're a conservative, female suffrage is a negative. "Who says A, must say B."

There's a case against, just as there's a case for. Weigh the cases and make up your mind, according to your value system. You trying to tell me there is no case whatsoever to be made against female suffrage, from anyone's point of view? Fiddlesticks. This is an open society. We argue cases, pro and con.

However, neither that chapter in my book, nor even that one section, is arguing a case for the abolition of female suffrage. What on earth would be the point? Female suffrage is in no danger, certainly not from me (see next paragraph). The argument of the chapter is, that women favor the Left; that increasing feminization of society is therefore bad for conservatism; that such feminization is in fact happening; and that therefore We Are Doomed. It's one strand in my polemic, not a Heritage Foundation position paper, for crying out loud.

I'm pointing out a negative. Are there countervailing positives? Sure: the 150-year-long American commitment to equity under the law, which I think is inseparable from our national character, and which has my entire approval. (That's not even to mention some of the other positives,  pastpresent,  and  future, of which I likewise approve.) Things inseparable from the national character may none the less contain the seeds of national doom. This argument has been made not merely in respect of female suffrage, but of democracy itself. Our Founding Fathers had some startling opinions on this topic, a couple of them quoted here.

(Though I acknowledge there is much more to be said about the voting gap. Much more: numerous books have been written on the subject. It seems to be the case that in voting and party affiliation, the gap favored Republicans until 1964, since when it has favored Democrats. That doesn't give a clean liberal/conservative split, though, as there were a lot of very conservative Democrats to vote for in 1964. See the Congressional roll calls on the Civil Rights Act of that year …)

Having said all that, I can't forbear pointing out that you can have a harmonious modern society without female suffrage. Switzerland didn't have universal female suffrage until the 1970s, and I believe some conservative cantons held out even later. Was postwar Switzerland a wasteland of backwardness, poverty, and oppression? My impression is that it was a pretty nice place. You get a gain in equity from female suffrage, and that's worth getting; that you get a gain in anything else, is not clear to me.

[Added later]:  There's a follow-up post further down.]


*  Autoplagiarism

• Reader's point:     Your book just seems to be an expanded version of your 2002 "Unpleasant Truths" column.

• Author's reply:     What are you suggesting? That a respectable commentator, idly looking back through some of his old stuff, would find himself lingering on one particular column, and thinking: "Hey, I bet I can get a book out of that."? Is that what you are implying? For shame!


*  Fiction?

• Reader's point:     I am puzzled to find that the publisher has marked your book on the dust jacket (on the back, just over the bar code) as "Fiction." Nothing that I have read so far suggests that that is the case. Surely that is a mistake and will be corrected in subsequent printings.

• Author's reply:     I hope so. Let us not contemplate the possibility that my publisher really does think it's fiction. "We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men." — George Orwell, Jan. 1939. Perhaps what is obvious to me seems so strange to Random House they cannot distinguish it from fiction.


*  Bibliography and index

• Reader's point:     Why does the book have neither a bibliography nor an index?

• Author's reply:     Well, that was deliberate. It doesn't have a prologue or an epilogue, either. (My editor at Crown thought that Chapter 1 should really be an introduction or a prologue, but I disagreed.)

I have a clear idea in my mind about which nonfiction books should have what. A heavy-duty scholarly book from a university press should have both bibliography and index. Something lighter and more popular probably needs an index, but not a bibliography. (That is the case with my two pop-math books.) Down at the polemical end, where you are really just sounding off, I don't think either is called for.

So far as a bibliography is concerned, this is less of an issue now than it was before these really good internet search engines came up. Nine times out of ten nowadays, if you want to follow up on a quote, you can just throw the first few words into Google and get the source immediately. Professor Putnam's diversity paper [16.5] is on the internet in its entirety; so is Elvin Lim's paper on presidential rhetoric [46.8].

Wherever I have quoted some source, I have taken care to name the source. These things are so easy to look up nowadays. What need for a bibliography?


*  Diversity

• Reader's point:     Your "Diversity" chapter [14.0] smells racist to me. Taken together with your comments about immigration in Chapter 10 [207.8 to 211.5], it seems to me you are arguing for immigration restriction by race.

• Author's reply:     I don't give a fig whether anyone thinks it's "racist" or not. I have not the slightest interest in what is, or is not, "racist." What interests me is whether something is true. If you want to point to something in my book and say, "That's racist!", I'm afraid I will just shrug and say: "Whatever.  Is it true?"

My standard is the one in the law of libel: truth is a complete and dispositive defense. If I have said something in my book that is not true, by all means point it out to me. You might be right; I'm not infallible; possibly there's some evidence I've missed, that swings the argument your way. That's the way reasonable people settle things. Shrieking "racist" is the way crybaby liberal bedwetters think they can settle things. Well, the hell with them.

To find out whether something is true, you go to the data, the best data you can find. The question here is:  Is diversity a good thing or a bad thing for society? Prof. Putnam demonstrated that it is a bad thing, reducing our social capital.

You may not like Prof. Putnam's results. He didn't like them himself, being a liberal. That's why he waited six years before publishing them, and buried them in all the fluff about "challenges" that I make fun of.

If you say, "Well, I think Putnam's wrong," your words have no weight. To give them weight, you need to point to a study equiponderant with Putnam's. That is to say, you have to point me to an award-winning study by a highly-respected social scientist, taking in tens of thousands of people in dozens of locations, proving that diversity increases social capital, or at least does not decrease it. To precisely counterbalance Putnam's, your study should be done by a conservative who is so disturbed by his findings, he waits six years before publishing them.

Can you point me to such a study? If not, you have nothing to say. Data talks, bullshit walks.*

And of course, if diversity is a negative for our society, we would be extremely foolish to engineer more of it. Why would we want more of something that is bad for us? Let's try to deal with the diversity we've got, and have always had [30.3].

[* Footnote to the above:  A reader objects to "Data talks, bullshit walks."  He: "it seems to be misstated. Consider the saying, 'You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?' The contrast is between mere words (= talk) and action (= walk). So your phrase should be 'Bullshit talks (= mere self-satisfying bloviation), data walks (= actually means something).'"

This is one of those things that makes me think I'm trapped in one of the late Bill Safire's columns on language. My model here was actually the common saying (well, around New York City): "Money talks, bullshit walks."  The idea there is that if you can present some money, you (by metonymy, the money) will be listened to. If all you can bring to the transaction is bullshit, then you will soon be walking (away, empty-handed).

I agree that this is at cross-meanings with "talk the talk" etc. It's one of those little knots in language, that's all, like the well-known fact that some words have two meanings that are not merely different, but opposite — the verb "to sanction" is the one usually quoted, but I'm sure there are others.]


*  The Power of Negative Thinking

At 154.9 I say that:

Up to a point, the more depressed and maladjusted you are, the more likely it is that you are seeing things right, with minimal bias.

This has got a surprising amount of attention. Surprising to me, at any rate: I have never thought that happy and well-adjusted people can have an accurate picture of the world. Since the book went to press, though, new studies have come out offering further validation. I mentioned one up above. Reuters reported another in early November 2009 under the headline Thinking Negatively Can Boost Your Memory, Study Finds.

The study, authored by psychology professor Joseph Forgas at the University of New South Wales, showed that people in a negative mood were more critical of, and paid more attention to, their surroundings than happier people, who were more likely to believe anything they were told.

"Whereas positive mood seems to promote creativity, flexibility, cooperation, and reliance on mental shortcuts, negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking paying greater attention to the external world," Forgas wrote.

"Our research suggests that sadness … promotes information processing strategies best suited to dealing with more demanding situations."

You heard it from me first.


*  Another Great Gloominary

• Reader's point:     I have been a conscious, card-carrying intellectual pessimist for 45 years, 10 months, and 16 days (as of 1 November 2009). I can be so exact because I know when my pessimism gelled, if you will, or when it precipitated out of a soul that was evidently primed for it. It happened while I was a student at the University of Paris and was occasioned by my reading of Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus. His twin concepts of the "humiliation of thought" and the "absurd hero" immediately captivated me and have subsequently shaped my intellectual beliefs and pursuits.

I presume you are familiar with Camus and so can't help but wonder what your reactions to him might be. He did not have the advantages of our current insights into cognitive science, but he nonetheless reached some of the same broad conclusions, e.g., that rational knowledge is limited by certain inherent design flaws in we humans and that coming to Know Thyself is as impossible as raising ourselves by our own boot straps.

But what interests me more with regards to you and your personal beliefs is his concept of the "absurd hero." Given his (and your and my) beliefs regarding human nature and its limits, he was left with the not inconsiderable dilemma of how to preserve human dignity and sustain effort in the face these insights. He characterized our hunger for answers to the Big Questions as "an appetite for the absolute" and spoke of our "nostalgia for God" as the divine guarantor of Truth. I think this an excellent formulation of things, being a rather poetic expression of the deep biological/psychological roots of our outlooks and the challenges we face when challenging them. Given the kinds of bears we are, it's only natural we tend to seek the honeyed truths of desire rather than the more bitter fruits of scientific intellect.

As you have pointed out, being brutally honest with oneself is a lonely, unnatural, and ultimately dangerous business. Camus called in "peering into the abyss" and recognized that it was not for the faint of heart. He also recognized the ultimate futility of our quest for absolutes, which he characterized so effectively by Sisyphus' perpetual rock-rolling. Moreover, he was painfully aware of the adverse mental and emotion effects that would threaten anyone who truly appreciates out lot.

Indeed, he came to the stark conclusion that "There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide," that "Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy." He also warned that the two other great temptations to those who embraced his outlook were cynicism and despair. Camus unquestionably wanted to encourage his followers to embrace life, to live it to its fullest. But he also wanted us to maintain a clear-sighted view of the human situation, or predicament, while somehow managing to avoid both the intellectual Scylla and emotional Charybdis of a corrosive, ruinous pessimism or debilitating hopelessness.

But how does one do this? That, as he knew, was the biggest and most challenging question facing man. Given what we really and truly are — i.e., our natural drives, inherent desires, unavoidable longings — and given the limits nature has set on our ability to either achieve or comprehend it all, why not cash in and check out?

I can see you facing these same questions and wonder what your answers might be. For Camus it was the concept of the "absurd hero," a being, as he said, who was both "lucid and lyrical," one who had the clarity of vision to see into the abyss yet retained the poetry of soul needed to rise above the temptation to throw in the towel. In his final moving, motivating, and yes, heroic, image Camus envisions Sisyphus watching the rock roll back down the hill and then striding down after it, head held high, and with a kind of fierce joy in his heart. Camus concludes: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

I must admit that Camus never manages to explain where Sisyphus' courage and determination actually come from. He seems to imply there are some who have it and some who don't. It's a predisposition, perhaps, a quirk of nature, perhaps even her idea of a joke. Nonetheless, for those who have it, and who can force the act of will, it is a beautiful thing to behold. When ultimate meaning and insight become impossible, when a God-guaranteed nobility of our being is dead and gone, perhaps the only thing remaining to us is gracefulness of style. Maybe it all comes down to how we hold ourselves, our sense of humor even, the twinkle in our eye, the determination of our gate. I'm not sure, but I remain convinced Camus was on to something. For those blessed with clarity of vision, the fundamental question remains that of suicide; the graceless things we need to avoid are still cynicism and despair.

From my readings of you, both in your book and at National Review, I know you to be a man of both consummate and courageous lucidity. Being such a confirmed rationalist, however, you display few flashes of lyricism. But I assume it's there. In short, you strike me as a rather happy warrior. Yet I am not at all sure why or how you keep at it. How it is you get up each morning, suit up for the ball game, as we Americans say, and then march out on the field to once again take on the world as you view it? This is what fascinates me most about you and those like you. What sustains you and your efforts? Do you see yourself as a version of Camus "absurd hero?" Are you ever tempted to answer his "only truly philosophical question" in the negative? Would you call yourself a cynic? Does despair often grip your heart?

• Author's reply:     In my late-teen years (early 1960s) I went through a black-turtleneck phase, one required aspect of which was, one had to read the postwar French philosophical novelists, while drinking cheap wine and smoking those filthy black French cigarettes. Look, it was a phase. I did not retain much from it, other than that vivid scene in Sartre's Nausea where a tree turns into a giant squid … or something. Oh, and a song.

I read my way through Camus' fiction (in English: I can't read French) as part of all that; yet oddly, not The Myth of Sisyphus, though I knew about it at second hand, and certainly heard the famous line about suicide being the only true philosophical problem. I see that in fact I used that line in a column back in 2006.

Now of course I want to read the thing. Looks like I'll have to buy it: I can't find it in its entirety on the web, though there are lots of annotated bits and pieces.

I note in passing that at the Singularity Summit in New York City, October 3-4, 2009, there was the usual discussion about what super-intelligences will do when they emerge into consciousness. One wag suggested that they might commit suicide, this being a rational course of action and they presumably being super-rational. The sense of the meeting was, that we had better make sure they believe in hell …

As to my own view of suicide (and see that same 2006 essay for more), I am of course tempted to it in trying times, as I suppose most people are. Fortunately I am blessed with a life that is mostly un-trying. Also with a sense of responsibility towards my family. Also with great curiosity as to the large events of the world, and to scientific discovery. I mean, I want to see how things turn out. Also with the kind of forward momentum that keeps Winnie going [257.8]:  "One does it all … All one can … 'Tis only human … Human nature …"  Which, after all, is not so very different from animal nature. Why don't dogs and cats commit suicide? (It is widely believed that some animals — ostriches, lemmings — do commit suicide, but I think these stories have been debunked as urban legends.)

Anyway, I shall read The Myth of Sisyphus and report back on this.


*  The Power of Negative Thinking (cont.)

Yet another news story on this:  "Giving Up Hope Makes You Happier"


*  My Social Preferences

• Reader's point:     Seems you really don't want to associate with NAMs.  [I.e. Non-Asian Minorities, 32.9 — JD]

• Author's reply:     Let me tell you who I want to associate with: people like me.

What's the criterion for "people like me"? Obviously it isn't race, or I would have made a different choice of marriage partner. Obviously it isn't nationality, or I would never have left my home country. It's not religion, either: my friends run the gamut from High Church Anglican to Falun Gong. It isn't even politics: my wife, most of our neighbors, and several of my friends, are political liberals.

The criterion, as nearly as I can pin it down, is: I want to associate with bourgeois people — people whose have bourgeois attitudes and behaviors.

It would, it seems to me, be absurd to avoid association with any individual person because of some accidental quality like race (or nationality, or height, or education, or religious confession, or political affiliation). On the other hand, I would prefer to live my life as far away as possible from people who take illegal drugs, or practice promiscuous sexual behavior, or use bad language in ordinary speech, or don't consider industrious support of self and family to be an important value, or are uninterested in the glories of Western Civilization, or break the law often enough to make themselves interesting to the police.

Plenty of NAMs are bourgeois, and plenty of non-NAMs are non-bourgeois. The regrettable fact is, though, that the proportion of bourgeois among NAMs is way lower than among non-NAMs — look at the crime statistics. If I practice generalized NAM avoidance, that is the reason. For example, I want my kids to grow up with bourgeois values. My judgment is, that they are more likely to do so if educated in schools with not too many NAM students. (My local high school is actually 35 percent NAM, which is a tad more than I'd like, but the best I can do on my income. Low-NAM school districts, like other much-desired goods of limited supply, are expensive [32.8].)

To judge from the data in my education chapter [122.9 etc.], my preferences in this regard are shared by most Americans. I certainly don't see anything wrong with such preferences. If you think there's something wrong with them, tell me what it is. Then, go tell the couple of hundred million Americans who, to judge by patterns of voluntary residential and educational segregation noted in by book, share my preferences.


*  Camus (cont.)

Up above there I posted a long reader comment on Albert Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus, which I confessed I had not read.

Well, I bought a copy from Abebooks. This is the Penguin Modern Classics edition, translated by Justin O'Brien. I'm sorry to report that I gave up on it after reading about a third. I read the first couple of essays, "Absurdity and Suicide" and "Absurd Walls," then got a dozen or so pages into the next, "Philosophical Suicide." My eyes having by this point thoroughly glazed over, I dipped around in the rest of the book, hoping to find something that caught my interest. Nothing did, though I spotted a few cute apothegms:  "We get into the habit of living before we acquire the habit of thinking."  Or:  "There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn."

All in all though I have to say I have no clue what the author is tying to tell me. I tried the Spark Notes, but with no more luck. Undoubtedly this is some failing in myself. I have the empirical and practical character common among the English, impatient with abstractions (outside mathematics) and resistant to metaphysics.

I can never follow that kind of thing. It is the sort of thing that makes me feel that philosophy should be forbidden by law.
             — George Orwell, commenting on Bertrand Russell's book
                       Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits
                           in a letter to Richard Rees

The central notion seems to be something called The Absurd, which I think Camus got from some German philosophers (though Camus himself denies that he is doing philosophy). What is it?

In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.

What illusions? What lights? The illusions of religious faith? Nothing sudden about that divestiture. It's been going on since the 17th century — a melancholy, long withdrawing roar. And is this some universal condition Camus is telling us about? None of the people I know seems to feel he is "an alien, a stranger." Was this some condition peculiar to mid-20th-century French intellectuals? If we have no memory of a lost home, how do we know we are exiles? And if we don't know, what need for a remedy?

The absurd enlightens me on this point: there is no future.

Eh? Of course there's a future. We have words for it: "tomorrow," "next year," "the 23rd century," etc.

One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness … There is but one world, however. Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable …

What, like a sort of yin-yang deal?

It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd discovery. It happens as well that the feeling of the absurd springs from happiness.

I guess so then.

I should stop even trying with philosophy. Reading it just makes me want to go hammer nails into wood.


*  Strong Hereditarianism

Writing of human nature as being composed largely of innate characteristics, I quoted an 1821 essay by William Hazlitt:  "No one ever changes his character from the time he is two years old; nay, I might say, from the time he is two hours old …" etc. [155.6].

Browsing the works of Ambrose Bierce recently, I came across the following in an essay titled "The Ancestral Bond," from The Shadow On The Dial, and Other Essays  (1909):

The phenomena of heredity have been inattentively noted; its laws are imperfectly understood, even by Herbert Spencer and the prophets. My own small study in this amazing field convinces me that a man is the sum of his ancestors; that his character, moral and intellectual, is determined before his birth. His environment with all its varied suasions, its agencies of good and evil; breeding, training, interest, experience and the rest of it — have little to do with the matter and can not alter the sentence passed upon him at conception, compelling him to be what he is.

Bierce was apparently even more of a determinist than Hazlitt. Neither man, of course, knew anything about genes.


*  Using Wikipedia

• Reader's point:     Why did you lean so heavily on the ever-dubious (your words) Wikipedia in sourcing your material? It sort of startled me every time it popped up.

• Author's reply:     In a word: sloth. With all its numerous faults, Wikipedia, like TV, is a sore temptation to the lazy person. I think anyone who uses it much knows that it's dubious, but it's still a legitimate "gateway" site — i.e. a convenient place to find external links you can cross-check with. The crime, which I confess I am occasionally guilty of, is not in using Wikipedia, but in failing to cross-check what it tells you via external links.

I actually have four references to Wikipedia in WAD:

  1. [67.5]  I quote them on the CSI series of TV programs: "The most-watched program on American television …" etc. They provide links, which pan out.
  2. [83.1]  I quote them again on the modernist composer Milton Babbitt: "In 1973, Babbitt became a member of the faculty at Juilliard School …" etc. Juilliard themselves say: "On the Juilliard composition faculty since 1971 …," so we may have hit one of the wiki-potholes there. I wish I'd cross-checked at the time, but I'm not going to lose sleep over it.
  3. [171.7]  Here I pluck six names from the Wikipedia index for "Category: American Atheists." The only one I felt unsure about was Ted Williams, and I did cross-check. Yup.
  4. [208.4]  "Just checking the handy Wikipedia list of Nobel Prize winners by citizenship and nation of origin …" This was cross-checked with the corresponding pages on the Nobel website (which are actually a bit easier to use for the biographies).

After what Wikipedia did to me (see the first link in my reply) I'd be happy to shun them completely, but there are only so many hours in the day. And the alternative to saying "According to Wikipedia …" is usually to put an URL in the book's text, which I hate to do as it looks so clunky.


*  Quoting Hume

• Reader's point:     You mention [178.5] "the thought voiced by David Hume: that while it is not possible that all the world's religions are true, it is possible that they are all false." But where did Hume say this? I can't find it.

• Author's reply:     Oh dear. This is one of those things I've carried around in my head for decades, having long forgotten the source. A diligent scan of Hume's major works on gutenberg.org didn't bring it up, though the discussion of miracles in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding comes close:

Let us consider, that, in matters of religion, whatever is different is contrary; and that it is impossible the religions of ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China should, all of them, be established on any solid foundation. Every miracle, therefore, pretended to have been wrought in any of these religions (and all of them abound in miracles), as its direct scope is to establish the particular system to which it is attributed; so has it the same force, though more indirectly, to overthrow every other system. In destroying a rival system, it likewise destroys the credit of those miracles, on which that system was established; so that all the prodigies of different religions are to be regarded as contrary facts, and the evidences of these prodigies, whether weak or strong, as opposite to each other.

Possibly it's in one of his lesser essays, or his table talk. Or perhaps I have misattributed it … though it is surely a very Humeian remark.


*  Yet Another Gloominary

Reading Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise, I came across this in Chapter XXI. He is speaking about himself at 18; the book was written in his mid-thirties.

Meanwhile I had succumbed to the disease of scepticism. My health was excellent but I could not get rid of ideas of mortality, futility, and death. What was the use of existence? Why did one do anything? All was vanity. Stupidity governed the world and human life was a blot on creation. I searched the classics for confirmation of my scepticism and found an overwhelming support. Job and Ecclesiastes and the author of the Wisdom of Solomon agreed with me; the Greek lyric poets and philosophers proclaimed it, Horace confirmed them as did Voltaire and Gibbon and Villon and Verlaine. I wrote a paper on Pessimism for the Essay Society [i.e. of Eton, his school]. Only two kinds of thought existed, a pessimism which anticipated better things (Christianity) and my own — which did not. But if one believed this then one should kill oneself, which, of course, I was not prepared to do. Why not? Because of the consolations of friendship and learning, because suicide played into the hands of the Jealous God. One lived on to spite him.

In the following chapter, however, Connolly tells us that while he liked the Roman satirist Martial ("crisp and Iberian"), he "resented the sanctimonious Juvenal."  Juvenal has a walk-on part in my own last chapter [251.5].


*  European Fertility

• Reader's point:     Responding to Mark Steyn's assertion in America Alone that the U.S.A. is a "[partial] exception to the softening of the West: a nation that still breeds …," you accuse Mark of fudging the numbers to make his thesis work. To prove your charge, you cite fertility rates for Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland. Huh? That's not Europe. You've just cherry-picked some high-fertility countries. Who's fudging numbers here?

• Author's reply:     All right, let's look at the big picture. Here are 54 territories from the CIA World Factbook that can, I think, be fairly described as "European."  (And please note: If you want to query the inclusion of Israel, I beg to observe that they have participated keenly in the Eurovision Song Contest since 1973.) I have ranked them by the Total Fertility Rate (TFR, 2009 estimates). Included in red are figures for the U.S.A. major demographic groups, taken from the 2007 numbers in the National Center for Health Statistics report (Table 1) — the same source I quoted in my book. (I thought there'd be a later one by now, but if there is, I can't find it. The actual numbers seem to have been adjusted slightly since I did the lookup for my book, though they are still given as "preliminary.")

Name     TFR     Population
U.S.A. Hispanic 2.99 45,578
Israel 2.75 7,233
Faroes 2.44 49
Greenland 2.19 58
U.S.A. Non-Hispanic Black 2.12 38,246
Albania 2.01 3,639
France 1.98 64,058
Iceland 1.90 307
U.S.A. Non-Hispanic White 1.87 201,085
Ireland 1.85 4,203
Norway 1.78 4,661
Luxembourg 1.78 492
Cyprus 1.77 797
Monaco 1.75 33
Denmark 1.74 5,501
Finland 1.73 5,250
Sweden 1.67 9,060
United Kingdom 1.66 61,113
Netherlands 1.66 16,716
Belgium 1.65 10,414
Gibraltar 1.65 28
Isle of Man 1.65 77
Macedonia 1.58 2,067
Jersey 1.57 92
Liechtenstein 1.52 35
Malta 1.51 405
Portugal 1.49 10,708
Switzerland 1.45 7,604
Georgia 1.44 4,616
Croatia 1.42 4,489
Estonia 1.42 1,299
Guernsey 1.41 66
Russia 1.41 140,041
Germany 1.41 82,330
Bulgaria 1.41 7,205
Romania 1.39 22,215
Austria 1.39 8,210
Serbia 1.38 7,379
Greece 1.37 10,737
San Marino 1.36 30
Armenia 1.36 2,967
Slovakia 1.35 5,463
Hungary 1.35 9,906
Andorra 1.33 84
Spain 1.31 40,525
Italy 1.31 58,126
Latvia 1.30 2,232
Slovenia 1.28 2,006
Moldova 1.27 4,321
Poland 1.27 38,483
Ukraine 1.26 45,700
Bosnia-Herzegovina 1.25 4,613
Lithuania 1.23 3,555
Czech Republic 1.23 10,212


Too many iddy-biddy no-account places like the Faroes clouding up the data there? All right: here are just the populations bigger than five million:

Name     TFR     Population
U.S.A. Hispanic 2.99 45,578
Israel 2.75 7,233
U.S.A. Non-Hispanic Black 2.12 38,246
France 1.98 64,058
U.S.A. Non-Hispanic White 1.87 201,085
Denmark 1.74 5,501
Finland 1.73 5,250
Sweden 1.67 9,060
United Kingdom 1.66 61,113
Netherlands 1.66 16,716
Belgium 1.65 10,414
Portugal 1.49 10,708
Switzerland 1.45 7,604
Russia 1.41 140,041
Germany 1.41 82,330
Bulgaria 1.41 7,205
Romania 1.39 22,215
Austria 1.39 8,210
Serbia 1.38 7,379
Greece 1.37 10,737
Slovakia 1.35 5,463
Hungary 1.35 9,906
Spain 1.31 40,525
Italy 1.31 58,126
Poland 1.27 38,483
Ukraine 1.26 45,700
Czech Republic 1.23 10,212


There are some qualifications to go in there. The figures for France include the overseas departments. This doesn't make much difference, though: 97 percent of French people live in metropolitan France, and higher TFRs in the overseas departments would only alter the second decimal place a point, if that. Yes, the TFR for France is really that high. No, it's not the Muslim inhabitants: see here:

In 2004, the departments of Val d'Oise, Essone and Seine-Saint Denis, all of which have very high concentrations of immigrants and first-generation North Africans, had fertility rates above replacement. But so did the departments of Mayenne …, Vendee and Tarn-et Garonne, which are not known for being immigrant magnets, at least not to my knowledge.

The main objection you could make, in fact, is that I have broken out non-European demographics for the U.S.A., but not for European countries. Well, that's because the non-European demographics for the U.S.A. are an order of magnitude bigger than those for European countries. The Muslim populations of Denmark, the U.K, and the Netherlands, for example, are 2, 2.7, and 5.8 percent. The NAM (i.e. Non-Asian Minority) population of the U.S.A. is close to 30 percent. (For the European contribution to the U.S. Hispanic population, see above.) I'm entirely justified in breaking out the U.S.A. figures but not the European ones — especially in a book about conservatism being doomed, since U.S. NAMs are deeply and (so far as I can see) intractably anti-conservative in their political preferences, likely more so than Europe's non-European minorities.

Setting aside those quibbles, what do the tables tell us? I would say that they blow a hole in Mark's thesis that the U.S.A. is exceptional, fertility-wise. The U.S.A.'s European population is way up there in the TFR rankings, I'll allow, but it's not jumping out of them. "Exceptional"? I don't see it. You might make a case if you factor in the NAMs, but that's a lousy deal for conservatism.


*  Female Suffrage (cont.)

I learn from the Audacious Epigone that John Lott covers this ground very thoroughly in his book Freedomnomics:

In Freedomnomics (pp. 160-165), John Lott traces the relationship between female suffrage and per capita government expenditures in the US at the state level (several states "preempted" the 19th amendment, Wyoming and Utah by half a century) and finds that as the percentage of women voting increased, the amount of per capita governmental spending rose as well, at faster rates than it did in states where women were prohibited from voting …


*  "A Toast to the Melancholic Writer"

A friend has passed on Arthur Krystal's fine essay "Fretting, Chafing, Sighing, Weeping — A Toast to the Melancholic Writer," from the New York Times Book Review of July 20, 1986. The passing-on was done, quite appropriately, in yellowing original paper form. I have just pasted it up and scanned it in as two images, here and here. It goes without saying that I endorse every word.

For my own personal report from beneath the sign of Saturn, see number 76 of The Straggler.


*  The Pessimists' Chorus

• Reader's point:     I too am an inveterate pessimist, and not the least bit ashamed. But I have often asked myself a question, one I was sorry not to find posed anywhere in your book: is the country really going to hell in a handbasket, or is the sense that it is merely the immemorial expression of a certain cast of mind? Utopians, do-gooders, and bohemians have always been around — "fruit-juice drinkers, nudists, sandal-wearers," etc., etc. — and so have the melancholy doom-sayers.

Just as hope springs eternal in some breasts, so are others eternally oppressed by a nightmare of reason. You refer to H. L. Mencken. If we read him as history, what do we find? Boobs in the saddle, schools run by feminized morons, Washington spewing out "official donkeyisms," and universities filled with conformists who can't think. And that's the generation before the greatest. I'm happy to be a pessimist, but at the same time I recognize that my tribe can't be right all the time: if things really had been getting worse at the rate we have always proclaimed, wouldn't civilization have ended before it began?

The hell-in-a-handbasket motif goes back to the start of European literature. I quote a couple of lines from the Odyssey, Book 2. Athena, in the guise of Mentor, says to Telemachus:

Not many sons can equal their fathers:
A few turn out better, most of them worse.

A funny way to buck up a nervous young man, but the lines are very likely proverbial. Homeric Greeks looked to the past; the future mattered to them only as a repository for the memory of glories it would never match, much less surpass.

I admit that as I get older I find it easier and easier to overcome these doubts about my own psychology, an inevitable process helped along by books like We Are Doomed. I do understand that, whatever satisfactions pessimism may offer to minds of a certain sort, sometimes the world really does go to hell.

• Author's reply:     It certainly does. A friend of mine in England is (or was: we lost touch many years ago) an archeologist, specializing in the very dark period around a.d. 500, when the Romans had gone from Britain but the Germans had not yet established their kingdoms. He had distressing tales about mass burials of obviously (from their skeletons) drastically undernourished people, badly hacked about before death; coin hoards buried near the burned ruins of pleasant villas; plague pits — his period closed out with ghastly Europe-wide plagues. Listening to him, I used to wonder why people bothered to keep going.

There were optimists even in those terrible times, though: St Tatheus (early 500s) encountered a gent in (presumably) South Monmouthshire who still heated water for his villa's baths every Saturday. (See §4 here.)

And of course such times don't come very often — once per half-dozen lifetimes or so. The business of conservative pessimists is to be a warning chorus, reminding our fellow citizens that such times can come, and will come the more often if society takes the primrose path of blithe optimistic fantasy. We are the slave at a Roman general's triumph, hired to ride in his chariot with him and keep whispering in his ear: Remember you are only a mortal man. Civilizations, too, are mortal.


*  False Negative

• Reader's point:     At 82.6 you say: "The last opera that anyone but a nonfantaic wants to see was Turandot (1926)."  Surely you mean "… that anyone but a fanatic wants to see …"

• Author's reply:     Rats. Of course I do. The writer's recourse in all such situations is to blame the editors. Those darn editors!


*  "Noticed by The Economist"

The "Lexington" column in my December 19 issue of The Economist gave a friendly notice to the book, although — like the Wall Street Journal — it lumped it together with Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

For The Economist, the main point of disagreement with We Are Doomed was on immigration. The last two sentences of that "Lexington" column actually read as follows:

Mr. Derbyshire thinks that only those with "treacle for brains" believe mass immigration will benefit America. Yet America was built on the mass immigration of optimists.

Where to begin with that? Perhaps by pointing out that I didn't say quite the thing they say I said. Here is the relevant passage from Doomed:

According to this hyper-moralized point of view, current policy is an expression of America's Intrinsic Goodness and High Principle. Any policy more generous would be an even more emphatic expression of our I.G. and H.P. Persons who object to generous immigration policy are bad persons with malign intentions — "nativists," eiuw!

That liberals, who have treacle for brains, should strike these self-righteous poses is no more than one would expect of them. That conservatives should join with them in denouncing immigration restrictionists as wicked people with sinister intentions, is scandalous.

So my assertion is that liberals have treacle for brains, and that it is therefore not surprising to find them hyper-moralizing about immigration, but that it is regrettable that conservatives (most of whom, in my opinion, do not have treacle for brains) should join in that hyper-moralizing.

There is considerable daylight between that and the sentiment attributed to me by "Lexington."

And then: "America was built on the mass immigration of optimists." My gut reaction to that was: America was built on the mass immigration of Europeans. It needs a bit more unpacking than that, though.

In the first place, what was going on up to 1776 was not immigration but settlement — mostly-British people moving from one expanse of British territory to another. Nor were many of them optimists, as I showed in Chapter One of my book. By early 21st-century standards, they were exceedingly pessimistic. And that is just to speak of the ones who came voluntarily. What about the indentured servants? The prisoners? Those fleeing, for all sorts of reasons, personal, political, and religious, not to but from? And even all that is not to speak of the Africans who came here in chains.

America was built on a great assortment of people, not many of them fired by optimism.

And to return to my gut reaction: American society, culture, and politics was built by Europeans, mostly British. Does The Economist think the country would have turned out anything like it did if the founding stock had been Spanish, or Japanese, or Somali? If the U.S.A. turned out to be a Good Thing — as I personally believe it did — that is an argument for mass immigration from Europe, under British-style government. Mass immigration from any other place might work out well, but the American experience provides no evidence of that. On strict evidentiary grounds, the U.S.A. is an argument for large-scale European — mainly British — settlement, under Anglo-Saxon legal and constitutional principles. Other things may be the case, but they are not proved by the success of the U.S.A. The sentence "Mass immigration from absolutely everywhere is a jolly good thing" has no evidentiary foundations. It might be true; or it might be just wishful thinking. We don't know. Perhaps until there's real evidence one way or another, we should hold off on the experiment.

Such a cautious, evidence-based approach is of course deplorably mean-spirited.


*  "Wild Places" and the Cold War

• Reader's point:     [Note: This reader declares himself an ex-Soviet citizen: "I was born in the Soviet Union and spent 25 years there before coming to U.S. in 1981. Living under Communist dictatorship was painful but quite useful in forming in me an ability of critical thinking." I seem to have quite a lot of ex-Soviet readers, I am pleased to say. This reader offers some extravagant praise for my book — THANK YOU, SIR! — then adds the following.]

Now I have a point of disagreement. This is on page 93, top line: "[Now] there are no more wild places." And this "wishful thinking" is coming from a pessimist! Islam is just one giant wild place that is sending its "unwashed plunderers" to our shores. They are living here, training in their paramilitary compounds. Other wild places are just next-door — the ghettos choke full of violent gangs armed better than police. So our feminized soldiers and all their lawyers may have somewhat hard time protecting us from you-know-who.

The other thing is minor. On page 11 you say, "The outcome of the Cold War was not in much doubt." But on page 15 you mention that the CIA overestimated the Soviet economic strength by the factor of ten times. As I see it, the outcome was less than certain. If anything, the Soviets had the better chances, with all the "useful idiots" and peaceniks steadily undermining the West.

• Author's reply:     I am a literal-minded sort of fellow. When I wrote "wild places" I had in mind large expanses of land inhabited by uncivilized peoples with, their uncivilized condition notwithstanding, sufficient numbers and technological prowess to pose a real threat to neighboring civilized zones. I had in mind those warriors of steppe and desert who from time to time irrupted into the civilized zones of both east and west Eurasia. Their names are legion, from the Guti and Amorites of four thousand years ago to the Mongols and Manchus who overran medieval Russia and early-modern China.

This particular threat no longer exists. There are certainly lawless places, but they are organizationally and technologically not competitive with modern civilization to the degree that (say) the Mongols were with the Rus. And there are certainly lawless people, and organizations of lawless people, imbedded in modern civilization; but if you want to advance from that and call, say, modern Britain a "wild place" then what place is not wild?

I am only saying that the old folk memory of a zone — an actual extended geographical territory — of civilization, backed by a hinterland of barbarism stretching to the far horizon, is no longer a very useful way to see the world. I say this with regret, as this view of geopolitics is one I personally find appealing, and which I am aware of still adhering to at some level when I think about geopolitics. I'm afraid it is an anachronism, though. If it is ever again useful to think of the world in those terms, it will only be after some major collapse of civilization from within. Which I certainly would not rule out …

On the second point, I can only say that I never doubted it. After seeing Soviet power in action (in a trip through Eastern Europe in 1964) and reading everything I could find — Orwell, Koestler, Kravchenko, Granovsky, Shalamov (what a marvelous writer!), Solzhenitsyn, Conquest, Dyadkin, Amalrik (page 15.5 of my book), Zinoviev, Shafarevich, Bukovsky, and others I have forgotten — I was quite sure by the late 1970s and utterly certain by the mid-1980s that the U.S.S.R. was unstable and that "The outcome of the Cold War was not in much doubt." So were a great many other well-informed people. Perhaps the CIA was reading different material.

And while I yield to no-one in my contempt for the "'useful idiots' and peaceniks" of the Cold War period, with many of whom I was personally acquainted, my estimate of the U.S.S.R.'s position was sufficiently dire that I did not think it would last long enough to fulfill their dreams — which were, of being privileged functionaries in a state run for the benefit of privileged functionaries. I believe rather strongly in reality; and the "'useful idiots' and peaceniks" were as far removed from reality as was the U.S.S.R. itself, though in a rather different style. The U.S.S.R. was in the grip of a false ideology: the u.i.&p.s were much more often led by vanity, ambition, personal-psychological deformations, and the desire to seem clever.


*  Mood Music

• Reader's point:     Your book reads better with some suitable music playing in the background. I recommend the 6th Symphony of Swedish composer Allan Pettersson.

• Author's reply:     I had never heard of this composer. I went to Amazon.com and purchased a recording of the 6th Symphony. (Performed by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Manfred Trojahn, recording dated May 1993.)

I see my reader's point. The liner notes that come with the CD offer some suggestive background information on Pettersson (whose dates were 1911-1980).

It was often claimed … that self-pity was the mainspring of Pettersson's work.

No kidding.

 … a childhood spent in Södermalm, a Stockholm neighborhood marked by alcoholism and its miseries, violence, and large families, a boyhood full of the impressions and influence of an alcoholic, violent father and a defenseless, pietistic mother, an adulthood devoted to the thankless job of an orchestra violinist, a career which seems to have served as an obstacle to Pettersson's yearning to compose, and … his rapidly deteriorating health and the impression of lack of recognition. The curses casting their spell over Pettersson's life may seem evident enough, but the search for its blessings is certainly a more difficult undertaking.

Can Swedes read Norwegian? This guy would have loved Obstfelder.

The first symptoms of the chronic polyarthritis that led to Pettersson's progressive disablement during the early 1960s occurred in 1953. His Symphony No. 5, the last work he was able to commit to paper in his quite legible handwriting thus marked the beginning of a phase of increasingly deteriorating health which culminated in a nine-month hospital stay in 1970.

The 6th Symphony was written 1963-66. two-thirds of the way through that period. It was premiered by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Stig Westerberg on January 21, 1968. Pettersson went on to write ten more symphonies, Nos. 7 to 16, and fragments of a No. 17.

The man himself, speaking of his childhood in the Stockholm slums:

"I see myself as a witness who has survived this time … A life full of poverty, illness, alcoholism, and humiliations. We working class families were the white Negroes. We lived in Nytorget in a small cellar dump with bars on the windows. Rats and lice were the rightful tenants. We were the intruders."

Was he a conservative? Alas, no. We really need guys like this, but …

"I want to be a spokesman for the weak, for those who have it the hardest. This applies to people in Sweden or in Chile and South Africa."

That was from a newspaper interview published June 19, 1975. Leonid Brezhnez was in charge of the U.S.S.R., the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was in its ninth year in China, and the Khmer Rouge had taken over Cambodia.

"My music is the only thing that allows me to bear my hellish fate."

Hey, there's always someone worse off than yourself, pal.

Does all this concentrated negativity come through into the music? You bet. From the liner notes:

The symphony begins with a rather long string introduction of quiet gloom …

How does it end?

The symphony concludes or extinguishes in resignation on the dying deep B flat of the double basses and contrabassoon.

I think my reader nailed it. The composer's politics notwithstanding, this is exactly the right music by which to read We Are Doomed. I recommend Pettersson's 6th to all pessimists.


*  Mood Music (cont.) — Readers' Suggestions

After I aired this topic on The Corner (National Review Online's group blog), I got many suggestions from readers for other pieces of music suitable to be played in the background while you read We Are Doomed. Way out at the head of the pack, joint winners I think, were:

Other suggestions:

Several readers also urged me to check out this movie. Looks a bit art-house & not really to the point, but I've put it on my Netflix list anyway.

[Added later:  We rented it from Netflix & watched it last Sunday. Hoo-ee! Weird movie. If the thing had a point, Mrs. D. & I both missed it.]


*  Diversity versus Modernity

We Are Doomed, 34.5:

It's a curious thing that in the world at large, traditional kinds of ethnic diversity declined through the twentieth century, at least in the advanced nations … The first person to comment on this, so far as I know, was political scientist Walker Connor, in his 1994 book Ethnonationalism …

By no means the first, Mr. Author. Here is Arthur Koestler in Fiji, in an article first published in the Sunday Times (of London), April 13, 1969, reprinted in Koestler's 1974 book The Heel of Achilles, p.190.

Thus Fiji provides another illustration of the distressing paradox of our time — that the world is rapidly moving towards a mass-produced, uniform culture, and yet at the same time both the global confrontations and the venomous local conflicts of religion, language and race are getting not less but more acute.

If anyone has an earlier sighting of the diversity vs. modernity paradox, send it in & I'll post it.


*  More from Kansas City

For education realists (if you're one of us: "education cynics," if not), Kansas City [105.0] is the gift that keeps giving. The following is from the 3/11/10 newswires:

Kansas City, Mo. (AP) — Facing potential bankruptcy, the board that governs the once flush-with-cash Kansas City school district is taking the unusual and contentious step of shuttering almost half its schools.

Administrators say the closures are necessary to keep the district from plowing through what little is left of the $2 billion it received as part of a groundbreaking desegregation case. The Kansas City school board narrowly approved the plan to close 29 out of 61 schools Wednesday night at a meeting packed with angry parents.

Although other districts nationwide are considering closures as the recession ravages their budgets, Kansas City's plan is striking. In rapidly shrinking Detroit, 29 schools closed before classes began this fall, but that still left the district with 172 schools. Most other districts are closing just one or two schools.

Emotional board member Duane Kelly told the crowd of more than 200 people Wednesday night, "This is the most painful vote I have ever cast" in 10 years on the board. Some chanted for the removal of the superintendent, while one woman asked the crowd, "Is anyone else ready to homeschool their children?"

Kansas City Councilwoman Sharon Sanders Brooks said the closure plan had prompted some housing developers to consider backing out of projects.

"The urban core has suffered white flight post-the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Education, blockbusting by the real estate industry, redlining by banks and other financial institutions, retail and grocery store abandonment," Brooks said to applause from the standing-room-only crowd.

"And now the public education system is aiding and abetting in the economic demise of our school district," she said. "It is shameful and sinful."

Under the approved plan, buildings will be shuttered before the next school year. Teachers at six other low-performing schools will be required to reapply for their jobs, and the district will try to sell its downtown central office. It also is expected to cut about 700 of the district's 3,000 jobs, including about 285 teachers.

District officials face dozens of issues as they begin the massive job of downsizing the district — reworking school bus routes, figuring out what to do with vacant buildings and slashing its payroll.

Superintendent John Covington has spent the past month making the case to sometimes angry groups of parents and students that the closures are necessary.

Once the district had enough desegregation money to build such amenities as an Olympic-sized swimming pool. But the effort to use upscale facilities and programs to lure in students from the suburbs never worked quite as planned.

Covington has stressed that the district's buildings are only half-full as its population has plummeted amid political squabbling and chronically abysmal test scores. The district's enrollment of fewer than 18,000 students is about half of what the schools had a decade ago and just a quarter of its peak in the late 1960s.

Many students have left for publicly funded charter schools, private and parochial schools and the suburbs. The school district also isn't the only one serving students in Kansas City; several smaller ones operate in the city's boundaries.

Covington has blamed previous administrations for failing to close schools as the enrollment — and the money that comes with it — shrank. Past school closure plans were either scaled back or scrapped entirely.

Administrators warned that without the cuts, the district would have been in the red by 2011.

"None of us liked voting for this," board member and former desegregation attorney Arthur Benson said, "but it was necessary."

It's not a happy story, and is you don't feel a twinge of pity for this dying school system, your heart is harder than mine.

The bare fact remains that this was the most strenuous, most determined effort to solve problems of educational quality and voluntary racial segregation by spending truckloads of money. It was a complete and comprehensive failure on all points.

Now, whenever a liberal starts talking about how under-funded a public-school system is, he should be asked about the Kansas City experiment. If he can't explain why the next spend-a-thon will deliver a different result, he should have rotten fruit thrown at him.


*  Conservatives are happier than Liberals

• Reader's point:     Several readers have directed me to numerous reports suggesting that conservatives are happier than liberals. Here's one … but one of many. A Google search on "conservatives happier than liberals" (with the quotation marks) brought up 588,000 hits when I tried it; "liberals happier than conservatives" got a wretched 119. Does this not confound my main argument? these readers want to know.

• Author's reply:     Perish the thought! I point out early in my book [4.4] that "Plenty of active, convivial, and useful people have a pessimistic outlook." You could throw "happy" in there, too. Pessimism is for everyone!

And that study I just linked to centers on the idea that conservatives are happier because they fret less about human inequality, taking it as just a fact of nature — exactly the kind of unillusioned outlook I am urging on all conservatives. The converse thing — a neurotic hankering for unattainable equality in human outcomes — is indeed bound to generate unhappiness, as the study shows.

Neither of my working definitions of pessimism at [2.3] ("low expectations of one's fellow men" and "a [negative] belief about the probable future") necessarily entails unhappiness. Both are curaisses against disappointment; while the second, if coupled with the sort of calm despair I recommend, is positively life-enhancing.

The main point of conflict here is my contention at [154.9] that: "For a happy and well-adjusted life, practice self-deception. If it's the cold, unvarnished truth you want, seek out a melancholy pessimist. (Which, if you are reading this book, is what you have done.)"

While we melancholy pessimists — look, we can't help it [155.5] — are the people to go to for the pure clear water of truth, cheerier souls can benefit much from drinking that water. My main complaint about conservatives, and the inspiration for my book, is that they haven't been drinking enough of it.

"Tragic truth or feelgood falsehood? I'll go with truth, however tragic." [157.5] So should you. A serene wisdom founded on truth is, the Ancients all agreed, the only true source of happiness, which is not to be confused with the merriment of fools.


*  James Gould Cozzens

• Reader's point:     Tallying novelists who have made the cover of Time magazine [73.4], you say: "For the 1950s, I count seven: Boris Pasternak, James Cozzens (no, me neither), …" Is James Gould Cozzens really so completely forgotten?

• Author's reply:     To judge from scattered enquiries among well-read American friends, not completely, though he's little more than a fading, flickering specter in the literary pantheon.

I'm going to cut myself some slack here. It's my blog, and I can. In England it's no disgrace, even among literary folk, to be unacquainted with lower-ranking American literary figures. I'll bet there are English people who have read all 48 of Anthony Trollope's novels but never opened a book by John Marquand or Booth Tarkington. There are all sorts of reasons for this, snobbery not being a major one. Nobody's going to apologize for it, anyway — certainly not me.

That said, now that I've had my attention drawn to Cozzens, I rather like the cut of his jib. On the recommendation of a friend, I've ordered Men and Brethren from Abebooks.com. I'll add a note here when I've read it.

[Later]   OK, read it. Wrote up the experience here.

I have just (mid-May 2010) acquired Cozzens' books Guard of Honor and By Love Posessed, and shall be reporting further. A kind reader has also sent me the 1957 Dwight Macdonald review of the latter book that is usually credited with killing Cozzens' reputation stone dead, and a 1983 counter-review (i.e. in support of Cozzens) by Joseph Epstein.


*  The Tangled Wing

• Reader's point:     Reading The Tangled Wing … made me think of your book. Melvin Konner argues that religious belief, faith in progress, the desire for children, the search for money and power, the quest for utopia, even gambling and shopping sprees all act to dull our present pain with a questionable focus on the future. We exaggerate how well things are likely to turn out. An animal — especially one aware of its own mortality — simple cannot slog through the drudgery, fear, and hurt of daily life with self-sedation or delusion. Natural selection allows us to internally (hormones, neuro-transmitters and the like) produce drugs that are released when the going gets too rough. The resulting mild sedation and blunted pain makes the next hour or day possible. Hopeful human behaviors and beliefs may be the products of such sedation allowing us to keep an eye on a final, more hopeful future. Survival especially during life threatening illness may depend on self-deception. Sad to say, I enjoyed your book.

• Author's reply:     A real find — thank you, Sir. I have ordered a copy and shall report further. And there's something amiss with that reader's last sentence … can't quite put my finger on it …