• Play the sound file
[Music clip: Haydn's Derbyshire March No. 2, organ version]
01 — Intro. And Radio Derb is on the air! Greetings, listeners, from your really genial host John Derbyshire.
Some hifalutin topics this week, ladies and gents. I have poetry; I have philosophy; I have math. A feast for the intellect!
First, though, I have politics. [Boo, hiss.]
02 — You can't debate that! Political event of the week was the Vice-Presidential debate, Mike Pence up against Kamala Harris.
I did my best with this, but it came at the end of a long day mostly spent doing heavy garden work. Then an excellent dinner, with two, or it may have been three, glasses of wine. I fell asleep about a third of the way into the debate, slept for half an hour, then woke and watched the last third. Sorry: I did my best, and that was my best.
Fortunately the excellent news-aggregation website Revolver has published a full transcript, so by the miracle of Ctrl-F I can pick out key topics and see what the two candidates had to say about them.
Let's see: Crtl-F "i-m-m-i-g-r." No hits. Hmm.
Let's try: Ctrl-F "border." Just one hit, Mike Pence saying, quote:
Everybody knows that NAFTA costs literally thousands of American factories to close. We saw automotive jobs go South of the border.
How about Ctrl-F "e-verify." No hits.
Pence talks a good game about, actual quote, "American jobs and American workers first." All right, Mr Vice President, how about you help American workers by coming down hard on businesses that prefer cheaper foreign workers?
It's a good patriotic position to take, and your opponent here has no come-back. Her party wants open borders. It's an easy win for you, a hundred-dollar bill lying right there on the sidewalk — look!
Ah, but what does Mike Pence's party want? We all know the answer to that. Begins with "d-o-n," ends with "o-r-s." So, strategic silence.
Ctrl-F "birthright," as in "birthright citizenship"? No hits.
Ctrl-F "chain," as in "chain migration"? Zero.
How strange. Immigration was the one issue more than any other that got Trump and Pence elected in 2016. An hour and a half of babbling, and … nothing? Nada? Nichts? Niente? Rien? [Clip: Edith Piaf, "Non, rien de rien …"] Yes, thank you, Edith; we'll call you.
Let's try something else. Another big 2016 issue that worked for Trump was the endless, fruitless wars we've been fighting the past twenty years, and the Cold War posture we're still in, with troops stationed all over, thirty years after the Cold War ended. How about that?
So let's try Ctrl-F "a-f-g-h-a-n." No hits.
Ctrl-F "N-A-T-O" gets a lot of hits because the word "Senator" is Ms Harris' job title. There are three actual references to NATO-the-organization, though, one from each of the participants.
So I guess everyone's fine with NATO, coming up to thirty years after the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact.
The what pact? listeners under forty want to know.
Never mind, kids. To our ruling class it's always 1960. Gotta help the European countries rebuild from the devastation of war. Gotta keep close watch on the Fulda Gap.
These weren't even the biggest of the unmentionables. The biggest of all, the Unmentionable above all other Unmentionables, is the stupendous disparity in crime rates, black compared with nonblack. For homicide the black rate is more than eight times the nonblack rate. Any mention of that?
Ctrl-F "homicide." One hit, just Kamala Harris boasting about all the types of crimes she's prosecuted.
You get the picture. There were of course some worthy topics raised, topics they were right to debate: jobs, China, health care, the Supreme Court, the pandemic. Nothing at all surprising was said, though.
To us cynical dissidents, the main interest of the debate was as an illustration of how very, very good the ruling class has gotten at excluding from the public arena things it doesn't want us talking about.
I have been to Portland east, that is to say Portland, Maine — nice little town. I've never been to Portland, Oregon, though. The more I read about the place, the more I hope I never shall have to go there.
On the basis of this past few days' news, for example, Portland, Oregon must have the most demoralized police force in the civilized world. Here's what happened.
Last Sunday around half past nine in the morning, a police officer in Portland was sitting in his patrol car filling out some paperwork when a man smashed one of the car windows, pepper-sprayed the officer, then fled in a vehicle of his own.
The officer called for assistance, giving a description of the attacker's vehicle. Other officers spotted the vehicle six blocks away and arrested the driver, a 41-year-old white man named John B. Russell. I can't discover whether Russell has a rap sheet, but it seems probable. From the police report, quote:
Inside the vehicle, officers found window punch tools, pepper spray, throwing knives, a laser pointer, a slingshot, rocks, and more.
Not the kind of stuff you'd take to a church social.
Punch line here: Russell was taken to the station house and charged with assaulting a public safety officer, aggravated harassment, and first-degree criminal mischief. Then … wait for it … he was released without bail.
I guess they asked if he was a member of the Proud Boys and he said no.
And then, there's an election for Mayor of Portland coming up in November. The current mayor is a chap named Ted Wheeler, a left-liberal girly-man type out of the same mould as Gavin Newsom over in California.
He seems to be politically incompetent: he's alienated both the municipal police and the anarchist mobs who've been trashing his city all summer. For a trifecta, he's also alienated the feds by complaining when they deployed federal agents to protect federal property.
As CultMarx-compliant as Wheeler is, though, it's not enough for Portlanders. His opponent, fortyish Sarah Iannarone, has a strong lead in the polls, and she's even further out in left field than Wheeler.
Iannarone doesn't just smile indulgently on the Antifa goons as they trash the place, she declares she is one of them. So at any rate she tweeted in January last year, when Antifa control of Portland's streets was already an issue. Tweet:
To those who say Antifa are violent thugs: I am not a violent thug and I am Antifa.
The other day a photograph appeared, date uncertain, of Ms Iannarone wearing a skirt decorated with pictures of communist mass-murderers: Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, and Che Guavara. I guess she couldn't find a picture of Pol Pot for the full set.
And this commie-kissing lunatic is eleven points ahead of Wheeler in election polling!
What on earth is the matter with voters over there in Portland west? Do they enjoy seeing their city trashed?
I thought New York City voters were the nation's stupidest. New Yorkers watched for four years as Mayor Bill De Blasio made unmistakably clear what a lazy, incompetent buffoon he is; then they gave him four more years!
In the stupidity stakes, though, I think New Yorkers have met their match in Portland.
The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded on Thursday to Louise Glück, one of America's most celebrated poets, for writing [inner quote] that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal. [End inner quote.]
Well, that's great, and congratulations to Ms Glück. I confess I'd never heard of her, though.
That's a bit odd. I read a lot, fiction and nonfiction, and I love poetry. The poetry I love trails off in the later twentieth century, though: Betjeman, Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur. I read a current poem now and then — the ones in Chronicles or The New Criterion — but nothing ever sticks.
Am I just past the age at which poetry sticks? Possibly: but nothing current sticks with the larger public, either. Here's a thing I wrote twenty years ago, quote from self:
Whenever you actually hear someone quote poetry, it is always something old. I feel sure that whole days go by when no mouth anywhere in the United States spontaneously, in a non-pedagogical context, quotes any line from any American poem later than Frost's "Stopping by Woods" (1923). Ask any well-educated, but not particularly literary, friend to quote four lines by a living poet. Now ask your dentist, your mechanic, your plumber. You will be lucky to get anything but blank looks and shrugs.
That was from an essay about Longfellow. As it happens, Louise Glück has things to say about Longfellow. In an interview with the New York Times, also published October 8th, she said this, quote:
When I'm told I have a large readership, I think, "Oh great, I'm going to turn out to be Longfellow": someone easy to understand, easy to like, the kind of diluted experience available to many. And I don't want to be Longfellow. Sorry, Henry, but I don't.
Reading that, I found it incredible. How could anyone writing poetry not want to be Longfellow: read, quoted, loved and appreciated by great masses of ordinary people?
But that's what poetry is now: A niche interest for tiny cliques talking only to each other. Popular poetry by living poets is long gone.
Which is odd. Every human culture there has been, from hunter-gatherers in the savannah to the heights of civilization in classical Greece and Rome, medieval China, Renaissance Italy, Victorian Britain — in every one there has been a widespread appreciation for stories told or feelings expressed in a clever, familiarly rhythmic but non-musical way.
Somehow we have lost the ability to create that kind of verse. Perhaps we have lost the ability to create altogether. Ross Douthat, in his recent book The Decadent Society, notes how so many movies nowadays come with numbers attached or implied: Mission Impossible 6, Fast and Furious 9, Star Wars 9 … Which number James Bond movie are we up to? Wikipedia lists 25. It's like we've run out of original ideas.
Perhaps poetry was just a leading indicator — the first creative form to die.
Decadent, yeah. Like the scions of a rich old family, we've ceased any kind of useful work. We're just living off our inheritance.
05 — Crapping on the altar of math. Posting on the contents of my email bag earlier in the week, I mentioned that many, many listeners and readers had directed my attention to the October 2nd statement by a committee of the Mathematical Association of America, the MAA, urging, quote, "all members of our profession," end quote — so I guess that means mathematicians — to embrace social-justice activism. I promised to pass comment in this podcast.
Before I do so, let me just clarify my own approach to math. I can pretty much do this in my sleep, as I've been doing it for seventeen years, since I published the first of my two books about math.
If you write books about math, you get regular emails — I'm still getting them — from people who want you to read and pass opinions about their eighteen-page paper on Chebyshev polynomials or Morse Theory (which, trust me, has nothing whatever to do with dots and dashes).
My boilerplate reply is: "I am not a mathematician, only a journalist with a math degree. Please contact the math department of your nearest university."
There's a bit more to be said than that. I love math, but it's a unrequited love. Math doesn't love me. I'm not much good at it. I discovered that when I took my degree.
Still the old affection lingers. I belong to both of the professional associations in math, the MAA and the AMS. I mingle with real mathematicians any chance I get.
I still love math, although math still doesn't love me back. I moon about in the street under her balcony, hoping for a glimpse, occasionally playing a mournful love song on my lute.
That's how I feel about math. So now, this October 2nd statement from the MAA Committee on Minority Participation in Mathematics. Title: Anti-Science Policy and the Censure of Discourse on Race and Racism.
Members of the stone-kicker fraternity — people like me, I mean, who scoff at race denialism, critical theory, and the rest of the CultMarx flim-flam — people of our persuasion might respond positively to that heading.
"The Censure of Discourse on Race and Racism" Hey, maybe the MAA is taking a stand against the suppression and outlawing of race realism! "Anti-Science Policy"? Yay, let's have more respect for careful empirical inquiry, no matter where it leads.
You might object that math is a rational inquiry, not an empirical one; and that there is no need for the MAA to take any position at all on race realism. Sure, yeah, but the heading as it stands is open to a positive interpretation.
Alas! Vain are the hopes of man! In fact the statement is mainly an angry denunciation of the Trump administration's bans on the anti-white indoctrination of the federal workforce.
I'll just quote the last paragraph to give you the flavor. Quote:
It is time for all members of our profession to acknowledge that mathematics is created by humans and therefore inherently carries human biases. Until this occurs, our community and our students cannot reach full potential. Reaching this potential in mathematics relies upon the academy and higher education engaging in critical, challenging, sometimes uncomfortable conversations about the detrimental effects of race and racism on our community. The time is now to move mathematics and education forward in pursuit of justice.
"Community" … "critical" … "conversations" … "racism" … "justice" … I don't think they've omitted a single buzzword from the CultMarx lexicon.
And is it actually true that "mathematics is created by humans"? If the human race were to be wiped out by a rogue asteroid next Tuesday, would two plus two still be equal to four? If two stars in our galaxy went supernova, and then two more, would that be four supernovas altogether, without us around to observe them?
Some very smart people indeed have been ruminating on such matters for a couple of thousand years. They still are: If you want to take up the topic, I recommend starting with Lakoff and Núñez's 2001 book Where Mathematics Comes From.
One thing that is indisputably the case is that the math we have today was created by, or stands on foundations created by, persons of white-European or West Asian stock, well-nigh all of them male. I don't think …
Sounds of screaming.
Sorry, sorry, sorry. Never mind.
So how do I feel about this MAA statement? For a person like me, who reveres math, it is crapping on the altar.
Or to revert to my original metaphor: Here I am in the street under the balcony of my one true love, playing a melancholy ballad on my lute in hopes of touching her heart. And there she is in her chamber with a dirty ignorant hippie doped up on meth, some lowlife she picked up in a bar, and they are making the Beast with Two Backs.
That's how I feel. I am seriously contemplating canceling my MAA subscription.
A footnote to the preceding: A friend to whom I showed the MAA statement spotted a thing I'd missed. Of the eighteen signatories to the statement, twelve are female. (It looks like thirteen at first glance, but "Kamuela" is a male name, from Hawaiian.) Twelve out of eighteen: A little math tells me that is precisely two-thirds. Draw your own conclusions.
06 — Living in the material world. At the risk of wading in way past my depth here, I'm going to venture some metaphysical speculations. If you don't like metaphysics, take a couple of minutes away and make yourself a sandwich or something.
In Philosophy 101 we learn that there are two extreme positions you can take on the nature of reality: materialism and idealism. Materialism says that everything is matter, mind is only an illusion. Idealism says the opposite: the material world is an illusion, a realm of shadows. Nothing is real: nothing except our private thoughts.
Bertrand Russell's grandmother thought philosophy was all nonsense. She used to tease him by saying: "What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind." I think most of us end up at that point after half an hour's grappling with the issue.
Really pure materialism and pure idealism are not philosophically respectable, but some thinkers have gotten close. The middle of the last century saw the school of Australian Materialism, whose leading propagandist had the wonderfully reductive name Jack Smart. This school taught that our thoughts, beliefs, and imaginings were just as solidly real as bricks, trees, and I guess kangaroos.
The nearest you get to pure idealism is in the theological outskirts of philosophy proper, among the schools of Buddhism and Hinduism that teach all is illusion. They then have to figure a way to tell you that you should behave properly towards your fellow human beings, even though they are only figments of your imagination.
Speaking very generally, I think that pure idealism looks nuttier, to an impartial observer, than pure materialism. We have a deep conviction, derived from our senses, that we are living in the material world; to think that it's all a dream is, for most of us, just an occasional passing fancy.
Pure materialism, on the other hand, seems cold and heartless, and leaves key human impulses unsatisfied; but it's still less preposterous than the tales about everything being dream-stuff.
If that's right, then the generality of people will move from the materialist side of the ledger to the idealist side more reluctantly than vice versa, and only under some extreme psychic pressure.
Yet that's the direction we have been moving these past few decades. We are in flight from simple, obvious material facts about the world: that men and women are biologically different, and the major human races likewise. For all of history these elementary facts were taken for granted by everyone: now we are fleeing from them, into a magical world of vapors, influences, and illusions. Why?
I don't have a comprehensive answer, but the failure of the race-equality project is surely a big piece of it. Sixty years ago we embraced full egalitarianism. If unjust laws were struck down and racist attitudes socially outlawed, soon blacks and whites would have the same social outcomes: the same crime rates, the same academic scores, the same levels of success and dysfunction.
That hasn't happened. There was some slight closing of the academic gaps in the 1970s, but nothing since. As I mentioned before, blacks commit homicide at more than eight times the white rate; Asians score average 290 points higher on the SAT than blacks.
We could respond by dropping the egalitarian idea, but that wouldn't be human. The human response is to retreat into fantasies of "supremacy," "privilege," "oppression," "hate," and the rest. So that's what we've done.
We are living in the material world; but when it offends our sensibilities, we declare it to be an illusion. We retreat into metaphysical idealism. We can't help it; it's our nature, our human nature.
07 — Miscellany. And now, our closing miscellany of brief items.
Imprimis: From the sublime to the ridiculous, I give you … Dolly Parton.
Forty-two years ago in October 1978 Dolly appeared on the cover of Playboy magazine in a bunny suit. Well, last Saturday she told the Daily Mail that she is in talks with the management at Playboy to appear on the cover again.
Wait, you're thinking: Isn't Dolly a bit … vintage to be doing photo shoots for Playboy?
That's kind of the point. The lady will turn 75 in January, and this will be a birthday gift to Dolly from Playboy, which has spent decades trading on the kinds of assets for which Ms Parton is secondarily famous.
Perhaps it will also be a gift of some kind to the Boomers, whose tastes and interests — whatever you may think of them — were the foundation of the Playboy empire. Boomers are generally defined as people born from 1946 to 1964; so Dolly, born in January '46, is one of the very first Boomers.
I wish nothing but good health and continuing success to Dolly, but I'll pass on the January Playboy. It seems to me, in fact, that the real news story here is that Playboy is still in business. Who knew?
Item: I had a bit of fun a few months ago with Gretchen Whitmer, the Governor of Michigan. I referred to her as "Michigan's strict governess," and suggested connotations to a certain genre of salacious fiction in which strict governesses feature considerably.
This week we learn that the FBI has foiled a plot by what all the stories are calling a "militia," a plot to kidnap the strict governess.
A militia, huh? I guess we're supposed to read that as meaning some anti-black group with sworn allegiance to Donald Trump. Perhaps that's what they are.
There is, however, a picture going round on Twitter showing one of the alleged plotters, Brandon Caserta, in front of an Antifa flag. The picture comes from Caserta's YouTube channel, a video where he's bad-mouthing the police.
I confess I can't make much sense of this. I'm just wondering whether, supposing the kidnappers turn out to be an anarchist/Antifa offshoot, the media will continue calling them a "militia."
For the past six or eight weeks we've been slammed with educator and governess requests, from all over the country … During the pandemic, we've done very well.
Then the Times quotes a different lady in the same line of business telling them they've had a huge increase in calls for a governess or a nanny with a background in education. The ideal is a young woman, quote, "generally willing to live in the home for an indefinite period and equipped to instruct their charges in subjects that may vary from math to table manners to a faultless command of Mandarin verbs." End quote.
So we may be looking at a whole new cohort of Jane Eyres and Mary Poppinses serving upper-middle-class families. Well, perhaps it'll soak up those legions of women graduating from college with degrees in useless subjects.
I just hope they're strict.
Boomer listeners will have noticed a couple of sly Beatles allusions back there. They were not accidental. Today, October 9th, is — or would be, if he were among us — the 80th birthday of John Lennon.
Yes, I know: some ambivalence is appropriate here. Lennon in person could be obnoxious, and some of his later songs were silly. I squirm just as much as you do when I hear "Imagine." Taken just as a singer-songwriter, though, Lennon at his best was very good indeed; and he was at his best an extraordinarily large portion of the time.
If you're a YouTube addict, there's a very touching, positive, and entirely nonmusical, little tribute to Lennon in the 2019 movie Yesterday, which I did a mini-review of in my April Diary. Just go to YouTube and put the words "yesterday john lennon scene" into the search box.
And here he is to sing us out.
There will be more from Radio Derb next week.
[Music clip: The Beatles, "Strawberry Fields Forever."]