Win a war, lose an election The polls aren't looking good for W. To some degree this is media distortion, as our own Larry Kudlow has noticed. It may be time, too, to recycle the observation, often made in the 2000 campaign, that there is a political graveyard full of people who underestimated George W. Bush. Still, any way you look at the numbers, they are close. We could lose this one. I have been rather blithely assuming we shall win, just because Kerry seems to me such an awful candidate. Isn't he an awful candidate, regardless of your political preferences? Well, obviously a lot of Americans don't think so; or else they hate Bush so much they are willing to swallow Kerry's awfulness.
One of the possibilities for the near future is that George W. Bush could win the Iraq war but lose the election, thus creating a surprising symmetry with his father's Presidency. What we are hearing from the Middle East is that more and more of the people of that region are waking up to the fact that they need to get themselves some modern, rational forms of government. Probably some of them were thinking along these lines, anyway, but surely it has been the Iraq War that has concentrated their minds.
I doubt that affection and gratitude for the U.S.A. plays much of a part here. To the contrary, the motivating force is probably anger and resentment against us. "We've had these Islamist and monarchist and socialist systems for decades now, and what did it get us? Humiliation at the hands of the Great Satan! Time to try consensual democracy. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em …" Whatever the motivation, this is a good result.
If that's right, in fact, the war has been won already. Unfortunately, it's been won in a way that will be obvious only ten or twenty years from now, and you don't come out ahead in U.S. elections on successes of that sort. History, I feel sure, will look much more kindly on George W. Bush than the November electorate will.
Smacking the TV A few weeks ago, a friend who is hostile to the war asked me why I support it. I said I support it because after 9/11 I didn't feel the status quo was tenable. We just couldn't go on letting these rogue regimes fester away in darkness and despotism, trying to keep them out of our hair with bribes, U.N. talk-a-thons and resolutions, and half-serious military threats. We had to do something, if only to demonstrate that we are still capable of doing something.
Yes, said my friend, but why this particular thing? Why invade Iraq? I replied, in all honesty, that I wouldn't have much cared what the administration did, I just wanted to see action against loathsome despots who hate us and who are all (it seemed plain to me, and seems even plainer now) to various degrees in cahoots to harm us and our interests.
"It's like when your TV doesn't work," I added. "You know, you're just getting fuzz and static. You twiddle with the controls, you switch it on and off, you jiggle the aerial or the cable connection. At last, if all else fails, you give the TV set a good smack."
(Playing this back to myself later, it occurred to me that I had dated myself here. It's been at least 20 years since I smacked a TV set, or needed to. Our family TV, in fact — it's a 31-inch Sony Trinitron — has served us wonderfully well for 12 years without a single smack, and with only one visit from the repairman. You used to have to smack TV sets, though, and it worked as often as not.)
"Muslim" or "Moslem"? The Muslim Council of Britain had an item in its weekly newsletter back in 2002 complaining that some British newspapers were still using "Moslem" instead of "Muslim." Did you know that "Moslem" is politically incorrect? I honestly didn't.
And does anyone have any idea why "Moslem" is incorrect, while "Muslim" is fine? My dictionary says that they both derive from the Arabic verb aslama, which means "to submit" (i.e. to God's will). So shouldn't the second vowel be an "a," making both "Moslem" and "Muslim" incorrect?
Personally I have no problem with Islam as a religion, and don't want to give unnecessary offense to anyone, so I shall try to remember to write "Muslim" in future. It would just be nice to know why I am doing this.
France outlaws discussion of Islam At least we can still talk about Islam. An e-acquaintance who lives in France tells me that over there things are now at the point where you can get into trouble just for mentioning the fact that Muslims are ever any kind of a problem. Synagogue burnings — a pretty regular occurrence in France — are routinely blamed on "right wing neo-Nazi white males," he tells me. In fact the perpetrators are extremist Muslim Algerian Arabs. French people all know this, but have to pretend not to.
Then he writes:
On the TV news of Wednesday night, they presented a conference about "hate speech" on the internet. They took as example the police in action against a "hate web site." The only thing I could read on the web page they were showing was '… against the Islamization of Europe …' Indeed, according to the law, to be against the Islamization of Europe is racism … and forbidden. France not only doesn't recognize there is a war, it forbids by law to say there is a war …
Don't think for a minute there aren't people in this country who would like similar laws.
Bob Dylan Did you see Jonathan Lethem's gushy New York Times review of Dylan's Visions of Sin? The book is a study of Bob Dylan's lyrics, arguing that they are poetry in the grand Anglo-American tradition. The book's author, Christopher Ricks, is an Eng. Lit. panjandrum, Professor of English at Boston University, and recently elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford.
Poet? I don't buy it. Now, I am a big Dylan fan from wa-a-ay back. I can, in fact, clearly remember where and when I first heard Dylan's voice. I had gone to London for my second year at university in the fall of 1964. I was renting a room from a woman in Crouch End (north London). The woman had misplaced her husband in some way I can't recall, but she had a son a year or two younger than me, and a daughter somewhat older. The son had just discovered Dylan, and urged me to listen to some tracks.
The LP he put on was Another Side of Bob Dylan, and the track was "Chimes of Freedom." I sat there spellbound. I didn't even know whether or not I liked it. It was just strange and fascinating, unlike anything I'd heard before. I kept listening, bought the three Dylan LPs then available, and played them until I could pretty much sing my way through all three. (Which I probably still can.)
I was especially struck by Dylan's knowledge of folk music. Traditional English folk music was going through a revival at that time. Every small English town, including the one I came from, boasted a folk club. We used to meet in the back room of a pub once a week — in Northampton, it was the Black Lion in St. Giles Street — and there were singers who'd travel round the country performing for these clubs. Well, there it all was in Dylan's songs: melodies, themes, even entire lines, lifted from the English tradition. Yet he was a Jewish kid from the American Midwest. I was impressed.
I'm still impressed. I class Dylan in my mind with other great 20th-century songwriters like Cole Porter and Hank Williams. A song is a complicated thing, though, and if you look just at the words in isolation, you are missing some of the point. They may look fine as verse, yet fail in the song; or the song might work even though the lyrics don't stand by themselves.
I myself was once asked (I think it may have been on The Corner) whether I thought Dylan a decent poet. I said maybe, and offered his song "Spanish Is the Loving Tongue" as the best supporting evidence I could think of. Unfortunately, as someone pointed out to me, those lyrics are not Dylan's at all. They were written a century ago by cowboy poet Charles Badger Clark. Dylan himself never wrote any lines half that good.
(And by the way, I question Lethem's assertion that at age 16, Dylan wanted to be Muddy Waters. What I have heard is, that at age 16 — that would be 1957 — Dylan, like every other American teenager with a guitar, wanted to be Elvis Presley.)
Poetry corner In last month's diary I mentioned Charles Wolfe's beautiful poem "The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna." Now, every great poem generates parodies. Here is a parody of Wolfe's poem, sent in by a reader (who did not write it, but only found it). I had never seen this parody before. It's sort of cute … though I really have no idea what's going on here.
The Burial of Sir John Thomas
Not a sound was made, but the ottoman shook,
And my darling looked awfully worried
As round her fair body a firm hold I took,
And John Thomas we silently buried.
We buried him deeply in dead of the night,
The tails of our nightshirts upturning,
With squeals of rapture and fits of delight
While the nightlights were so dimly burning.
Few and short were the sighs we gave,
Though we oftentimes groaned as in sorrow,
As with each joyous stroke in rapture we'd rave
With scarcely a thought for tomorrow.
When John Thomas came out of his warm, narrow bed
As droopy as any sad willow,
How lowly hung down his now lifeless head;
How gladly he'd rest on his pillow!
The Academic Archipelago We who write on behalf of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy get e-mails from all over, but some of the most poignant are from academia. Sample, from an e-address belonging to a large and famous university:
Dear Mr. Derbyshire — Upon hearing the news of President Reagan's death, I bought a ticket to Washington. Being there to see his funeral procession and his body lying in state was one of the best things I have ever done. I was surrounded by good, decent, and lovely people, from all across the country, who had come to pay their respects. Two hundred thousand people stood in miserably stifling heat to get a glimpse of Reagan's casket, and yet a spirit of respectfulness and reverence was everywhere …
Then I returned to [major northwestern city] to find in my e-mail inbox an electronic discussion from another campus circulated by one of the many angry graduate students in my History Department. I will forward it to you. [He did. It is a seething piece of Bush-hatred.]
The chasm between the good people who loved Ronald Reagan and the angry, grumpy, bitter academics with whom I must spend most of my time seems immensely wide. I do not know if I can stand to stay in this business much longer.
Traveling around to promote my math book last year, I mingled with quite a few college faculties. The following are my thumbnail impressions.
- The blight is not uniform. Plenty of colleges have no "angry, grumpy, bitter academics" on display. And even at the most PC campuses, there is always at least one conservative faculty member. Sometimes I would be introduced to him as such, with much strained jollity: "This is our token Republican!" The thing then is to try to get half an hour alone with the guy. (The token, for reasons I do not understand, is always male.) Just let him vent. You may be helping to save his sanity.
- Good manners trumps politics everywhere. Even faculty who I knew — sometimes because they told me to my face — disapproved of my social and political commentary were courteous, hospitable and helpful, often beyond the call of duty. This is very heartening. We still have a civilization going here.
- Among professional mathematicians, there is not actually much strong political conviction of any kind. I have remarked elsewhere that: "If you are going to do mathematics at the highest level, you will not have much time or brain-power left to think about anything else in a serious way." The first and last truth about math is that it is really, really hard.
- There are conservative students everywhere, often noisy, energetic, and very scathing about their leftist faculties. And in accordance with Derbyshire's Law, conservative female students are prettier than leftist ones.
Education … … is, like youth, wasted on the young. Like a couple of other middle-aged people I know, I am chewing my way through the products of The Teaching Company. My current selection is Prof. Seth Lerer's course on Milton.
Lerer is a bit gassy, and his readings are curiously erratic. In the invocation to Paradise Lost, for example, we get: "… whose mortal task …" And since when has Lycidas been pronounced "Lis-i-dus"? My schoolmasters said "Lie-si-dahs." Though since this is a 20th-century American scholar discussing a 17th-century English poet borrowing from a 1st-century-b.c. Latin poet recycling 3rd-century-b.c. Greek pastoral, I suppose you can make an argument for pretty much any pronunciation here.
Still, Lerer keeps your attention, and I am learning things about Paradise Lost I never knew — the significance of all the references to hair, for example. Next selection: probably "Bach and the High Baroque", a zone of personal ignorance I've been meaning to fill in for some time.
The only thing that irks me about The Teaching Company is that they are, to judge by the number of people I know who are buying their stuff, making money hand over fist. Which is fine, but … why didn't I think of it myself?
Billy Liar Bill Clinton's back in the news, let's hope not for long. Two pundits took the opportunity to make particularly good points. Charles Krauthammer did a nice column on the smallness of the ex-President, which I think sets the man in his historical place pretty exactly.
And then there was FNC's Tony Snow, responding to Clinton's outburst in the BBC-TV interview, where Clinton railed against the way Ken Starr went after "little people" and destroyed their lives. Snow pointed out that in the matter of kicking and stomping on little people, the Clintons have few peers. He cited the case of the Arkansas state employee — let her name be remembered: Charlette Perry (she was black, by the way) — who was passed over for a promotion so that Bill Clinton's then-mistress, Gennifer Flowers, could have her job. A state arbitration panel found in Ms. Perry's favor, but Clinton overruled them.
In a way, the Charlette Perry case encapsulates the awful bogus-ness of Clinton, the reason so many of us felt, and still feel, a visceral distaste for the man. The little people! What on earth did the Clinton crowd ever care for the little people, if they got in the way of Bill Clinton's appetites, or his wife's ambition?
No doubt there are pockets of dishonesty and deception in any administration; but in Clinton's, it came from the top and went right the way through. The man is a liar, a chronic and shameless liar. That was the source of all the ill will, that's why I could never stomach the fellow. It was not, or not so much, his silly, careless policies, or his shady friends, or his tawdry dalliances, or his icily calculating wife. It was his awful, relentless lying. Why even listen to a man like that, let alone spend good money on his book? You know that every word you hear or read — including, as Mary McCarthy famously said of Lillian Hellman, "and" and "the" — will be a lie, a lie, a lie.
My Master's Gone Away Among the death notices for this month I spotted one for Thanom Kittikachorn, who was military dictator of Thailand in the early 1970s. That started me on a trip down Memory Lane.
In a previous life I worked as a proof-reader for The Bangkok Post, an English-language newspaper in the Thai capital. I sat in a windowless room with half a dozen other misfits and vagabonds waiting for galley slips to be pushed through a small hatch. We would scrutinize the galleys, mark up any typos or factual errors, and pass them back. It was dull work, and the pay was terrible — 80 baht per diem, which I think was around $4 in 1972.
To prevent my mental faculties from crumbling, and to make the proofing easier, I committed to memory all 23 names of the Thai cabinet. Kittikachorn was at the head of the list. Now, the trick to memorizing lists is, you tag each word on the list with some irrelevant mnemonic, anything that will impress it on your mind in some curious and picturesque way. I tagged Kittikachorn with the old American camp song Blue Tail Fly:
Kittikachorn, and I don't care.
Kittikachorn, and I don't care.
Kittikachorn, and I don't care.
My master's gone away.
So now I have another piece of junk in my head that is perfectly, perfectly useless.
Clouded with Smoke We have been promoting the National Review post-election cruise, the first one for me. Several kind readers have e-mailed in to say how much they are looking forward to experiencing my wit and wisdom in person. Well, I don't want to say anything that will impact ticket sales, but Doctor Johnson long ago gave the definitive warning to anyone who expects to find a writer as captivating in person as he is in print:
A Transition from an Author's Books to his Conversation, is too often like an Entrance into a large City, after a distant Prospect. Remotely, we see nothing but Spires of Temples, and Turrets of Palaces, and imagine it the Residence of Splendour, Grandeur, and Magnificence; but, when we have passed the Gates, we find it perplexed with narrow Passages, disgraced with despicable Cottages, embarrassed with Obstructions, and clouded with Smoke.
— Rambler #14 (May 5, 1750)
In place of a puzzle this month, I offer the following. It's been going around the internet, but mathematically un-inclined readers may have missed it. It's supposed to demonstrate changes in the teaching of math across the years.
Teaching Math to American kids in …
• 1950: A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price. What is his profit?
• 1960: A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price, or $80. What is his profit?
• 1970: A logger exchanges a set L of lumber for a set M of money. The cardinality of set M is 100. Each element is worth one dollar. Make 100 dots representing the elements of the set M. The set C, the cost of production, contains 20 fewer points than set M. Represent the set C as a subset of set M. Answer this question: What is the cardinality of the set P of profits?
• 1980: A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $80 and his profit is $20. Your assignment: Underline the number 20.
• 1990: By cutting down beautiful forest trees, the logger makes $20 profit. What do you think of this way of making a living? Topic for class participation after answering the question: How did the forest birds and squirrels feel as the logger cut down the trees? There are no wrong answers.
• 2000: A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $120. How does Arthur Andersen determine that his profit margin is $60?
• 2010: El hachero vende un camión carga por $100 La cuesta de producción es …