»  National Review Online

June 18th, 2002

  Outrages of the Week


Sometimes the outrages come so thick and fast a poor commentator can't keep up. People sometimes ask me: "How on earth do you find a topic to be scathing about twice a week?" Are they kidding? Other columnists may speak for themselves; my problem is never that I can't find a windmill to tilt at, my problem is selecting one from the half dozen that every day's news presents me with. Once in a while I shall yield to the temptation to package up a handful of them in a single piece. Here goes with three outrages from the past week.

The Gotti Funeral.   Civilization has three principal adversaries: barbarism, madness and crime. A peculiar feature of civilized life is the sneaking attraction that we feel for these, our enemies. The noble savage, the charismatic lunatic and the shameless criminal have been stock figures in literature since ancient times, by no means always as villains.

Perhaps their appeal to us is not so peculiar. Civilized life, with all its comfort and security, can get awfully dull. "Human kind cannot bear very much reality," T.S. Eliot famously said. Nor too much restraint, either, and it's not surprising that we cast envious sly glances at a Geronimo, a Jim Jones, an Al Capone. We are not fools, of course. We know they are monsters. None of us — well, no regular reader of NRO — would vote for any one of them to be President. They sure do put on a show, though, don't they?

That's the perspective from which I view Mafia boss John Gotti. Readers outside the New York area may not know that our tabloid newspapers have been filled with stories about Gotti, who died from throat cancer last Monday in a federal prison. Various family members, neighbors, and "business associates" have given gushing testimonials to what a stand-up guy Gotti was — a model father, staunch friend, asset to his neighborhood, and so on. Even a few journalists have gushed: Steve Dunleavy did a tear-jerker piece for Sunday's New York Post: "I placed a pink carnation in a vase and touched the bronze coffin out of respect …"

Now, I don't begrudge the relatives their grief, and I quite understand that Gotti's associates, given the kind of people they are, must have held him in genuine esteem. These tributes from neighbors and reporters turn my stomach, though. They are so keen to tell us about Gotti's personal qualities: his courage, his loyalty, the warmth of his family life. I don't doubt that it's all true. So what? Human beings are social creatures, and our virtues are only praiseworthy when they are socially positive. You can, if you like, praise Gotti's courage in facing down competitors, or refusing to buckle under pressure from prosecutors. If you do that, though, you subtract from any praise you might later give to 9/11 firefighters, or soldiers risking their lives in our country's wars, or cops patrolling our streets. Courage doesn't exist in a vacuum; it has to be put to some use, for good or ill. Any human virtue — even, as the Mafia reminds us, one as basic as the love between members of a family — can be employed for evil purposes.

I am certainly willing to believe that John Gotti was fearless, loyal, a devoted husband and father. There is no doubt, though, that from the point of view of free citizens in a free republic, enjoying liberty under fair laws, Gotti was a very wicked man, who died unrepentant in his wickedness. Bronze coffin? If the law required that we be interred in a style appropriate to our contributions as citizens, John Gotti would have gone to his mausoleum in a trash can.

Learning to Kowtow.   Iceland … I have always nursed negative feelings about Iceland. The headmaster of my secondary school had done his war service there, and could actually speak Icelandic. Worse yet, he had been some kind of amateur cameraman in his youth and had movies of the place — terrible, jerky, grainy black and white movies, that have left me with the lifelong impression that in Iceland it is always drizzling black blobs. From time to time, when school cricket was rained out, or for any other reason, the Head would assemble us in one of the science lecture rooms and show his wretched movies about Iceland. "And this was the postmistress, Mrs. Finneboggasdottir, who provided valuable liaison with our operational HQ …"

Now my worst suspicions about Iceland have been confirmed. Jiang Zemin, the President of China, visited Iceland June 12th to 16th. (Why? A five-day trip to Iceland? By the president of China? If anyone has an explanation for this, please let me know.*) Preparatory to Jiang's visit, the Icelandic government banned all members of the Falun Gong cult from the country. "To prevent large demonstrations our puny police forces can't control," was the official explanation. This is hard to swallow. Whatever you think of the Falun Gong people (for the record, I think they are harmless crackpots) they have no record of violent demonstrations. At any rate, the Icelanders spared no effort to keep the cultists out, sending police to U.S. cities to screen customers at offices of Icelandair, the state airline. Some cultists who turned up in Iceland anyway — including five U.S. citizens — were arrested.

After a lot of negative publicity, Iceland released those they had arrested. A hundred or so more had got in anyway, somehow, and a demonstration took place. It was peaceful.

The ChiCom bosses are frightfully sensitive to criticism. When Jiang visited Switzerland in March 1999, he was shocked that Tibetan protesters were allowed to demonstrate within earshot of him. "Don't you have the ability to run this country?" he snarled to the Swiss justice minister, apparently unable to understand why the demonstrators had not been flattened by tanks, as they would have been in China. Later, in a speech to the Swiss parliament, he told them: "You have lost a good friend … I have been president of the People's Republic of China for 10 years and have visited many countries in this capacity. Everywhere else I have been received warmly."

It is not an easy thing to pinpoint what is most loathsome about these thuggish apparatchiks, but surely near the top of the list is the way they think they can browbeat and insult the citizens of free nations in the same way they do their own long-suffering people. If I were running a country that was to be graced by a visit from Jiang Zemin, and the Chinese ambassador showed up in my office during the preparations with a demand that no demonstrations mar the occasion, I know what I should say. Minus a few colorful intensifiers, it would be along the lines of: "If your President-Elected-by-Nobody doesn't like the way free peoples conduct their affairs, tell him to stay in his own country."

Sir Michael Jagger.   Mick Jagger has been made a knight in the Queen's birthday honors list, and will henceforth be properly known as Sir Michael Jagger. It is not clear, at any rate to me, why the old rocker has been elevated to the gentry.**  You are supposed to get these honors for service to your country, or to your fellow men. I've been observing Mick for several years, and if he ever did anything for anyone but himself, it escaped my attention.

Don't get me wrong. Mick's not a bad sort — a very agreeable fellow, so far as one can judge from a distance. And he did a clever thing: packaged the rough, raw Mississippi Delta style of blues in a way that made it appealing to bookish white kids like me. I used to be a major Stones fan. Mick's life, however, has been one of unadulterated (not the best possible choice of adjective, I agree) hedonism, 24/7, and I can't see why he merits public recognition.

That aside, I think the system of handing out honors once a year to worthy people is a good one. It doesn't have to revolve around old feudal titles and ranks. Most of the British honors, in fact, are more like honorary degrees — strings of letters you can put after your name. There is, for example, the Order of St. Michael and St. George, of which the gradations are: CMG (Companion), KCMG (Knight Commander) and GCMG (Grand Cross). In the higher ranks of the British civil service, where these awards come up with the rations, they are know as: "Call Me God," "Kindly Call Me God," and "God Calls Me God."

* I was going to show off my mastery of matters etymological by observing that "Iceland" is just a mis-spelling of "island" and has nothing to do with ice. Someone told me that years ago and I have believed it lazily ever since, without checking. Now that I do check, Messrs. Merriam and Webster advise me that "Iceland" does, in fact, mean "ice-land," not "island." Never hurts to check these things. The Chinese cover both bases: they call it Bing-dao, which means "ice-island."

** Not, as some Americans suppose, the aristocracy. Dukes, Marquises, Earls, Viscounts and Barons are aristocracy: Knights and Baronets (i.e. hereditary knights) are gentry. Got that?