Commentarile dysfunction. The Democratic National Convention, yes. I am supposed to have something to say about it — right. Given time, I bet I could think of something, but nothing comes to mind just now. I could fob you off with some line about, oh, Kathryn and Rich and Kate and Ramesh and the gang have that all covered. That wouldn't be entirely honest, though. Fact is, I haven't been able to summon up any interest in the Convention.
That is awful, I know, and I am actually in a bit of a funk about it. If you make a living writing commentary, you always have this terrible fear lurking in the back of your mind that one day you might find that all your interest in politics has drained away. Then what will you do? It would be like sexual impotence — you really can't fake an interest in politics if you haven't got one.
I'm hoping that it's just this particular Convention that has failed to stir my blood, not politics in general. However, an editor at a very respectable newspaper sent me a copy of the 9/11 report last week and asked me if I'd like to write something about it. I read the thing, sat and mulled it over for a while, and couldn't think of a darn thing to say. Uh-oh. I swear this has never happened to me before …
At any rate, unless I can get my hands on some political equivalent of Viagra before my filing deadline, the rest of this diary will be a Convention-free zone.
Nork nightmare. Daymare, actually. I was reading Bradley Martin's new book about North Korea. Then I took a break and had some e-mail exchanges with friends about the possibility of China making her move against Taiwan while we are busy in the mideast. Then I took in the mail, which included the 8/2/04 issue of The American Conservative, the one with Eamonn Fingleton's article about how the Chinese & Japanese are co-operating more and more without anyone noticing.
Suddenly it all came together in a vision. Something like this: The Norks overthrow Kim Jong Il and say to the Souks: "OK, we've had it with this socialism nonsense. Let's unite and make Korea great!" The Chinese make their big move on Taiwan, and that island returns to the warm bosom of the Motherland. The Japanese come out into the open about their friendship with China and enter into a formal alliance. Newly-unified Korea follows suit. Suddenly we are looking across the Pacific at a monolithic bloc of East Asian states with most of the world's manufacturing capacity and a big ol' race grudge against the round-eyes.
When I mentioned this vision to a friend who is well-connected in the worlds of business and politics, he offered the following reassurance: "Don't worry, I already have my Russian Mafia friends lining up their Chinese contacts to provide the necessary smuggled technology to reindustrialize North America …"
Dealing with defectors. Still on North Korean issues: What are we going to do with Charles R. Jenkins? Jenkins defected to North Korea while his US Army unit was on patrol in the DMZ back in 1965. Settled in the North, he married one of the very few other foreigners living there, a woman kidnapped from her native Japan and set to teaching North Korean spies how to speak Japanese. Jenkins made a living playing the evil American in Nork movies, and probably also by teaching English to Nork spies.
Jenkins's wife went to Japan in 2002, and now he has followed her, thereby placing himself within the scope of our extradition treaties. Should we demand his return, so we can court-martial and shoot him?
I wouldn't lose a minute's sleep over it if that happened; but what are the arguments against? That he is 64 years old and unwell? So, I am sure, were some of the foreign victims of North Korean state terrorism this past 39 years, not to mention numberless people murdered by the regime in North Korea itself — the regime Jenkins obediently served. That he might have useful information to tell us? The aforementioned book by Bradley Martin makes it clear that we have a good crop of North Korean defectors, some of them from high positions in the country's military, security, and political apparatus. It's unlikely Jenkins knows anything they don't. That there ought to be a statute of limitations on desertion? Perhaps there ought to be, but there isn't. That the quality of mercy is not strained, but droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven? Then why punish anybody for anything? Nah: Let's claim him, court-martial him, and shoot him.
Breaker Morant. Speaking of courts-martial: I saw this fine Australian movie at the weekend, some way behind the curve (it came out in 1980). Breaker Morant ia a very well-acted work-over of its theme, which is: The placing of the line between moral and immoral, permissible and impermissible, in a dirty war against non-uniformed guerrillas.
In this case the guerillas are the Boer farmers of South Africa, fighting the British in the Boer War of 1899-1902. A unit of Australian special forces (as we would say nowadays) is out on the veldt living rough, playing the guerillas' own game against them. Very successful they are, too; but of course they don't have much time for formal rules-of-war procedures, and can't possibly do their work while schlepping prisoners around with them …
The Boer War was a nasty, dirty little affair, and controversial at the time. (See Kipling's poem "TheLesson," published nine months before the war ended.) Breaker Morant was made when the tide of republican sentiment that has always been present to some degree in Australia was running particularly strong, and some of the anti-Imperial and anti-British stuff is gratuitous, and probably anachronistic. It's still a powerful movie, though, with an obvious relevance to current events. Some nice Australianisms, too. I especially liked Hancock's justification of his affair with a married woman: "A slice off a cut loaf won't be missed."
This is something that warms my heart, too. Romania was one of the first foreign countries I ever visited. That was back in my student days, when the place was a Soviet satrapy under the rule of old-style Leninist Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. My passport of the time shows me entering Romania on Friday, September 11th, 1964 and leaving ten days later, on Monday the 21st.
I think I may have been the first person ever to hitch-hike across Romania. Hitch-hiking across Europe in the summer vacation was a popular thing with English students in the 1960s, Spain and Greece being the usual destinations. Ever the contrarian, I decided to head in the opposite direction, making for the Black Sea via Hungary and Romania — both countries, at that time, part of the Warsaw Pact. I had a terrible time getting visas, and broke all sorts of rules, sleeping in my one-man bivvy tent by the roadside (or once, very memorably, under the stars in back-country Hungary, in an orchard behind a lovely old village church) instead of checking in to state-owned hotels as the authorities demanded.
I made it, though not without some adventures along the way. I ended up at Mamaia, a dismal Soviet-style resort on the Black Sea, filled with East Bloc apparatchiks, none of whom seemed to be sober after twelve noon. A few miles walk along the cliff-tops, however, was the atmospheric old town of Constanța, where Ovid died in exile. (It was a wild frontier outpost of the Roman Empire in a.d. 17.)
The main things I recall about Romania are:
- The great variety of peoples, each with a distinctive costume, which they actually wore all the time, not for show to tourists — I was the only tourist. There was one nationality in Transylvania — Ruthenians, I think — whose men wore a loose outfit all in white, with black boots and belt, and always a big, mean-looking knife tucked into the belt. Further on, around Buşteni, I rode in a horse wagon with a plump blushing peasant girl who wore an astonishing sort of vest in embroidered white leather over her blouse. I tried to buy it from her, but without success.
- The difficulty of knowing where you are in Transylvania, where every town has three names: one each in Romanian, Hungarian (the region was part of Hungary until 1920), and German. What appeared on my traveling map as Sibiu, for example, was also Nagyszeben or Hermannstadt, depending on whom I was talking to.
- The stunning beauty of the Carpathians: glowering wolf-haunted (that's wulfhleothu to all you Eng. Lit. majors) forests out of the Brothers Grimm, Dracula castles looking down from rocky crags, misty blue mountains rising in layers behind each other in the far distance.
- The awful food — I am sorry, but I got a terrible impression of Romanian cuisine, who main feature seemed to be a watery fish soup washed down with flavorless mineral water. This was especially noticeable after Hungary, which has one of the world's great cuisines, a standard they maintained even in greasy-spoon cheap diners.
- Crossing the wide estuary of the Danube on a ferry boat, when a party of young peasants quite spontaneously formed a circle and executed a boisterous singing, heel-kicking dance on the open deck.
- Some students in Bucharest who knew all the lyrics of every Beatles song to date, but no other English at all.
Anyway, fish soup notwithstanding, I have nursed warm feelings towards Romania ever since. I can still count to ten in Romanian, and offer a breezy "Bună dimineaţa!" to the Romanian street vendor I buy my coffee from at Park and 32nd Street on my way to National Review editorial meetings. I am glad to know Romania is in NATO now, and part of Rummy's "new Europe," with a contingent in the Coalition forces in Iraq. I can't remember the Romanian for "Welcome!" but whatever it is, I extend it to the people of this beautiful, hospitable, long-oppressed nation. Welcome to the world of normal countries, co-operating in freedom and friendship against barbarism, despotism, and the French.
Added later : A Hungarian friend has this to say about his country's cuisine: "Hungarian cuisine was largely killed by decades of communism: unfortunately the best cooks either left the country after 1945 or 1956, or they simply died out. The next generations after the 1950s were trained to mass-produce food for factory canteens. In the meantime people moved en masse to the cities, where they no longer had access to quality ingredients, and in the countryside the production of quality ingredients was also thoroughly destroyed by collectivisation. (Many Hungarians believe that much was preserved, but with very few exceptions it's best not to believe them.) Also, cookbooks were mass produced by cooks trained under communism. So most Hungarians now believe Hungarian food means cooking with a lot of fat and putting a lot of paprika in it. When in fact we did have a good cuisine before the war (and many people say there were good restaurants in Budapest until the sixties or early seventies, when old chef cooks retired).
"Only recently has there been a revival of a sort, but the first Hungarian restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star had a Portuguese chef, and the food is fine, but not quite typical Hungarian. Recently there is an effort (on the part of the gourmet public) to have a revival of Hungarian cuisine. In the 1990s there was similar interest in Hungarian wine (we Hungarians are very proud of our wine, but it was also thoroughly destroyed by communist mass production methods and nationalization of wineries), and by the beginning of the 2000s we started to have some very fine wines. (In the above mentioned Michelin star restaurant I was served Hungarian wine — and it was fine.) I think a similar revival is to be expected with our cuisine.
"Since the revival of vineyards and wineries is among the few real success stories since Soviet troops left, I think a revival of cuisine will also happen. The few cases where I'm actually optimistic regarding my country's future!"
To my riposte that I distinctly remember the excellent food I got in those 1964 Budapest "greasy-spoon cheap diners," he added: "Even in such diners (and I think most restaurants looked like that at the time, although I have to rely on memories of older people, including my parents) … the chef cooks could easily have been raised pre-1945. At the time the retirement age was 60, so after about 1975 cooks who still had some experience in a real restaurant (where the purpose was not to feed the highest possible number of people at the lowest possible cost, but rather to give good food) were mostly out. At least that's how I know: in the sixties it was possible to have good food in Budapest, by the seventies it became all but impossible."
White teenage girls at high risk for contracting HIV were less likely to have unprotected sex after participating in an HIV prevention program emphasizing ethnic pride and communication skills, researchers reported. The study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, and to be published in the July 14 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, is to be presented today at the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand. Integrating poetry written by white women with role-playing workshops on how to negotiate condom use, the prevention program encouraged the young women to use protection for the sake of the European-American community at large …
— Newsday, 7/11/04
Interesting, huh? … but see if you can spot which three words I changed.
Newsday cooks the books. Ah, Newsday. This is the local daily newspaper here on Long Island. It has a strongly New Left editorial line, robustly supportive of special rights and privileges for homosexuals, illegal immigrants, and other designated "victim" groups.
Well, Newsday is in a spot of bother. Turns out that the newspaper, along with its sister Spanish-language daily Hoy (that's why they have such a fawning attitude to illegal immigrants, I suppose) has been inflating its circulation figures so as to be able to raise the rates it charges advertisers.
I can't say I'm surprised. We get Newsday delivered every day here at home, which is why I often quote it. However, we have never requested daily delivery, and never pay for it. My daily paper is the New York Post, which I find much more simpatico. We started taking Newsday on a Sunday-delivery schedule only, because my wife likes to get the Sunday coupons. The way it's been working this past few years, though, is that Sunday-only delivery goes along fine for a while, then the paper starts appearing in my driveway daily. I complain to the distributor, insisting that we shall not pay for deliveries we have not requested. The daily delivery stops for a few weeks … then it always starts up again. I never pay for it, but it keeps arriving anyway. I guess the Derbs are there in those inflated circulation figures.
How gay are Cole Porter's lyrics? You get incoming fire from all sides in this business. I have been getting two kinds of negative e-mail about my piece on Cole Porter From (1) Fellow homophobes angry that I skipped so lightly and non-committally over Porter's homosexuality without condemning it. (2) Homophiles who wish I had been (as one of them said) "honest enough" to acknowledge that Porter's genius was inseparable from his homosexuality, and to pay proper tribute to the huge contribution made by homosexuals to this part of our culture.
Well, fiddlesticks to both crowds. Now, there certainly is such a thing as the "gay sensibility," and there are cultural products that shout it out at you. The first time I ever heard Benjamin Britten's music, for instance, I knew nothing whatever about the man; but hearing the music, I said to myself: "This fellow's a poof." So he was. (It probably helped that the piece I heard was one of those that Britten wrote for his boyfriend, the tenor Peter Pears. It was Pears, I am pretty sure, who inspired Kenneth Tynan's naughty aphorism that: "Some are born great, some acquire greatness, and some have greatness thrust into them.") Likewise, Noël Coward's lyrics are "gay" — remarkably so, for their time:
Mad about the boy
It's simply scrumptious to be mad about the boy,
I know that quite sincerely
Wrote The Shropshire Lad about the boy …
— "Mad About the Boy," 1932
The fact that something was created by a homosexual does not mean that it must necessarily have this "gay" flavor, though. Human beings are much more subtle than that. I don't see anything very "gay" about Tchaikovsky's music, David Hockney's paintings, Somerset Maugham's stories, W.H. Auden's poems, or Alan Turing's math. Likewise with Cole Porter's work — either his music or his lyrics. Porter's preference therefore didn't seem relevant to what I was writing about, which was mostly his songs. I mentioned it only to point up the strangeness of Porter's marriage, the subject of the movie De-Lovely, which my column was originally intended to be a review of. (It got a bit out of hand in the writing.)
For a contrary point of view, see Chapter 9 of Cathy Crimmins's new book How the Homosexuals Saved Civilization. "His is a very gay sensibility," says Crimmins of Porter. "His haunting song 'After You' focuses on the end of an affair even as it is just beginning. 'It Was Just One of Those Things' is an upbeat, sassy song about an ill-fated one-night stand …"
Eh? Does Crimmins think that these things don't happen to us breeders, too? One sometimes gets the impression that homosexuals and homophiles don't believe anything ever happens to normal people — that our lives are dreary expanses of featureless dullness, emotional sterility, and white-bread sexual unadventurousness by comparison with the exciting, colorful, stylish, edgy, gay worlds of sodomy and sapphism. Perhaps that belief is part of the "gay sensibility." Don't these folk ever listen to country music?
Who's been reading Prime Obsession?. Either Andrew Nicholls or Darrell Vickers. Who they? The guys whose names appear on the "Writers" credits for an animated kids' show titled Jimmy Neutron, which shows on one of the cable channels.
Jimmy Neutron is my son's favorite show. Jimmy is a super-smart kid who gets into all kinds of adventures by tinkering with science. My son has a chess program at the local library Saturday morning when the show is on, so I tape it for him. Well, he was watching one of these taped episodes Saturday afternoon while I was in the next room trying to catch up on e-mail. Suddenly I overheard Jimmy say something mighty familiar. Twenty minutes later, the same thing happened. Later I played back the tape to make sure I hadn't mis-heard.
The quotes were in different episodes of the show, played back to back. The first episode was titled "I Dream of Jimmy." Jimmy has a dimwitted friend named Carl. In this episode, Jimmy gets stuck in one of Carl's dreams. At one point, Jimmy and Carl are being chased by a man-eating lima bean. (Things are proceeding according to dream logic.) Jimmy begs Carl to stop dreaming before they get caught and eaten.
Carl: But I'm not asleep.
Jimmy: Yes you are, and we're going to prove it mathematically using the Riemann Hypothesis. Write this down: "All non-trivial zeros of the zeta function have real part one-half."
Carl: Okay … but my pen just turned into a worm.
That particular formulation of the Riemann Hypothesis (others are possible) is word for word the one in Prime Obsession. I didn't mind too much that Jimmy mis-pronounced "Riemann." (It's "REE-mahn," not "RYE-mun.")
And then, in the following episode, "The Phantom of Retroland," Jimmy's Mom has just put him to bed.
Mom: Would you like some more milk to help you get to sleep?
Jimmy: No thanks, Mom. I find it more soothing to mentally calculate the Mertens function for all integers through ten to the thirtieth power.
The Mertens function, which is intimately related to the Riemann Hypothesis, is described in Chapter 15 of Prime Obsession.
No, I don't want royalties, nor even credits. I am just going to sit here and quietly glow at the knowledge that my book has trickled down to this little corner of kiddie culture.
(Jimmy Neutron's middle name is "Isaac," by the way — a nice touch. This is actually one of the more intelligent kids' TV shows. My daughter's favorite is That's So Raven, a vapid teen sitcom whose principal aim seems to be to teach kids that it is stylish to talk like Stepin Fetchit: "Man, take dat shirt out yo pants — dat's not cool!")
Math Corner Least convincing cop-out from the nature-nurture debate in the month of July, or possibly ever:
… Olson takes on the age-old and politically charged question of whether intellectual talent is innate or acquired. I find his treatment fair and balanced. In the end, he argues that the question hardly makes sense. "[G]enes are 100 percent responsible for our traits, and experiences are also 100 percent responsible for our traits."
— Daniel Ullman, reviewing Steve Olson's book
Count Down in the August 2004
Notices of the American Mathematical Society.
Ullman is professor of mathematics at George Washington University. Let me say that again: he is a professor of mathematics.