December 4, 2001
Slim pickings This is going to be a booger piece …
That doesn't look right. Hang on, let me just pull up the Jonah column that started this train of thought. Oh, yes, here it is … Jonah:
"[W]hile I've moved toward long essay-type doohickeys, it seems like the whole world is going in the other direction. Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Reynolds, Virginia Postrel, Jim Romenesko, the Pope (no, no not the Pope), Mickey Kaus, and even our own Jay Nordlinger are just a few of the folks adopting what industry experts call the 'blogger' format." — NRO, 11/19/01.
I beg your pardon. I should have written "blogger," not "booger," to mean the kind of column where you just stack up a few short cogitations on disjoint topics, as opposed to what Jonah calls "long essay-type doohickeys." Sorry about that.
I am still not really fluent with U.S. juvenile slang — though, living in a street full of kids, and with two of my own in elementary school, I am catching up fast. "Booger" is a fairly recent addition to my vocabulary. My kids, as it happens, have just acquired the British equivalent. We saw that Harry Potter movie the other day, and they were baffled by the references to "bogies." Our 12-year-old neighbor Bridget, who knows everything, chirped up with the explanation: "'Bogie' is British English for 'booger'," she instructed them. Indeed it is. So the little ones learn … though the things they learn are not always things we want them to learn.
Always on the lookout for column topics with which to edify and uplift my readers, I came home from the Harry Potter show wondering if there was an NRO column to be written about boogers. Plenty of literary references came to mind, from Swift's Strephon snooping round his sweetheart's dressing room:
No object Strephon's eye escapes,
Here pettycoats in frowzy heaps;
Nor be the handkerchiefs forgot
All varnish'd o'er with snuff and snot …
… to Joyce's Ulysses and Samuel Beckett's Molloy. The Irish seem to be big players here — Swift was a sort of honorary Irishman, after all. Possibly that cool, moist climate has some especially enriching effect on the material under consideration. Although, now I come to think of it, non-Irish authors have fingered the subject, too: there is a long rumination by the narrator in one of Nicholson Baker's novels, that I prefer not to recall too explicitly.
Seeking further inspiration I pulled down from the shelf my usual recourse in such matters, William Miller's authoritative book The Anatomy of Disgust, and looked up "snot" in the index. "See Nose" was the only entry. "Nose" got me to a page and a half on that majestic organ, the close scrutiny of whose contents is apparently too much even for the otherwise intrepid Mr. Miller, who says: "I don't wish to go into excessive detail because of the reader's likely difficulty in allowing the topic any chance of seriousness …" He does, though, note that: "Certain advocates of celibacy in the early church thought it a sovereign remedy for intrusive sexual desires to meditate on the presence of snot inside beautiful female exteriors …" and fortifies this observation with a long quote from the 4th-century divine John Chrysostom. Something to keep close at hand for the next time Gwyneth Paltrow intrudes on your spiritual tranquillity.
I dumped the idea of a booger column, though, after realizing that you can't improve on perfection, and perfection in this area was attained 25 years ago by Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore in one of their "Derek and Clive" sketches. This particular sketch is premised on the conceit that the Titanic (or, as Peter Cooke calls it, "the Ti-[expletive]-tanic") was not really a ship at all, but a colossal booger extruded by a certain very famous Englishman. My poor words are utterly inadequate to transmit the comic genius of those two; I only report that when I heard the sketch, they damn near had me convinced. So, anyway, this will not after all be a booger piece, only a "blogger" piece.
Pessimism on China My column last Friday about the rising tide of pessimism among China watchers drew a good mailbag with lots of solid argument pro and con. One of the best and most informative emails came from a person who has been doing investment research in the Asian stock markets for ten years. He pointed me to a presentation given this past September by Mark Matthews, chief Asia-Pacific strategist at Standard & Poor's, about the prospects for China in the near future from a portfolio manager's point of view. Mark is more upbeat about China than I was in my Friday piece, but he is no gull and knows China very well. His conclusion: China's probably going to make it, but your investments may not. Warning: this is a long presentation, targeted at professional investment managers, and presupposes a certain amount of knowledge about the economic and political development of East Asia over the past 20 years. It's a good counter-piece to the one by Gordon Chang that I gave a link to last Friday, though. If, after reading Gordon's testimony, you were thinking of cancelling your trip to China next year, read Mark Matthews before you call the travel agent.
Words, words, words Three or four readers of that same piece emailed in to ask about "gull." What did I mean by "China gulls"? they asked. What's the matter, you folk don't have dictionaries? Merriam-Webster's Third: "gull, n. — a person who is easily deceived or cheated: dupe, sucker: 'had been brought down to be the gull of this intriguer' — R.L. Stevenson." Evelyn Waugh, who was as good a writer as it is possible to be, wrote with a dictionary on his desk, and "consulted it frequently," his son told us. I do, too, sort of: I have the excellent Third loaded on my hard drive and permanently visible on my task bar. Even then I occasionally get caught out — most recently over "flounder" versus "founder." With words, you never stop learning.
Chinese humor Do Chinese people have a sense of humor? someone asked me the other day. They certainly do: a sly, wry, dry type of humor that I personally find very appealing. I included a couple of specimens in my dispatches to NRO from China this summer. Here is another one from Bertrand Russell's autobiography. Russell lived in China for a while in the early 1920s. While there, he wrote articles about the country for English publications. One of the articles had the title: "Causes of the Present Chaos." It happened that he had a Chinese research assistant named Chao, a well-educated man fluent in English. Seeing the article on Russell's desk, this assistant remarked with a perfectly straight face: "Why, the causes of the present Chaos were all the previous Chaos."
Many years ago, in a university library in England, I read a very good book about the Chinese sense of humor. Yes, here it is — I have just looked it up on the excellent Abebooks web site for second-hand books: George Kao's Chinese Wit and Humor (1946). I have, in fact, ordered a copy, and shall report back further on this topic when I've re-read Kao.
Optimism on China China again: My piece last Friday prompted one reader to ask an interesting question. What (he wondered) does it mean to be "optimistic" or "pessimistic" about China? Suppose I say — as I have said — that the communist dictatorship is sufficiently entrenched, and has co-opted sufficiently many of the urban middle classes, that they can go on holding power indefinitely. Is that point of view "optimistic"? Well, as a lot of Chinese people would see it, it is. Bearing in mind what Chinese people endured through the 20th century — revolution, war, occupation, famine, every kind of upheaval — this past couple of decades have been an oasis of peace and tranquillity, even allowing for the 1989 disturbances. If that were to continue for another 20 years under the communists — hey, fine. You might say: "Yes, but the longer the present dictatorship continues, the worse will get all the problems that go with them — corruption, environmental degradation, militarism, the widening city-country gap, the widening rich-poor gap, oppression of minorities, etc., etc." To which he will reply: "Have you ever lived through a revolution?"
Of course China needs democracy, and can't become a really modern country — even economically — without it. And of course the present problems will just get worse and worse, and the danger of some military folly greater and greater, if the dictatorship continues. But what if the transition to democracy requires another upheaval, with economic dislocation and widespread disorder? To a lot of Chinese people, the answer to the conundrum is simple: "Better the devil you know!" For them, an optimistic view is one that offers no change, and a pessimistic view is one that foresees major change of any kind.
All right: from now on, I am going to use "optimism" in only the following precise sense when speaking of China. To be "optimistic" about China is to foresee a peaceful transition to constitutional government sometime soon. Everything else is, to some degree, pessimistic. OK?