»  National Review Online Diary

  May 2002

Don't Trouble Trouble Till Trouble Troubles You     Rosie has had a new hobby this past few weeks. She decided that she would switch our telephone service from company A, who we've been with for years out of sheer inertia, to company B, who offer all sorts of enticements to new subscribers. When she told me she wanted to do this, I ran from the room screaming: "I DON'T WANT ANYTHING TO DO WITH IT! YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN!!" She went ahead anyway, and found out what I knew by instinct: that telephone providers, like internal organs, are best left alone so long as they behave themselves.

We have two lines coming into the house. One is a regular phone, one runs a phone/fax combination machine, with different numbers for fax and phone, and different ringing tones. This configuration proved to be far beyond the understanding of any company B employee. To them, it was nuclear physics. Rosie spent, I would estimate, several dozen hours on the phone trying to explain it to them, and also to sort out their weird post-modern billing system. She was never able to make them understand our requirements, though, nor could she ever figure out their statements. (I myself refused to look: "Sorry, honey, life's too short to go messing with phone companies.") In frustration at last she switched back to company A … Who by this time had expunged all memory of us from their databases, and had to have everything explained to them all over again … A word to the wise: if your telephones work, for God's sake leave them alone!

The Good Old Days     My May 3rd piece on clerical celibacy drew a lot of responses from readers who took issue with my declaring myself a fan of the sexual revolution ("with some reservations," I added … but people never notice qualifiers like that). No, no, these readers insisted, things are far worse today than in the past. The country's going to hell in a handbasket, haven't I noticed? What kind of conservative am I, anyway?

I am going to return to the particular issue of the sexual revolution in another column, perhaps a few weeks from now. (If you write too often about this sort of thing, people at the office start to avoid you.) I do, however, have a personal perspective on the larger topic of whether the past was better, on the whole, than the present. The conservative temperament — and this is, let's face it, mainly a temperamental issue — inclines to the view that it was. Recall Malcolm Muggeridge's remark about his friend George Orwell: "He loved the past, hated the present, and dreaded the future." In that respect, I am not an altogether solid conservative. Here's why.

My father, who failed in life, was one of those people who look back on their childhood and youth through rose-tinted glasses. He believed that everything was better in "the old days." The beer was stronger ("Not like this ditchwater they sell nowadays!") the food was better ("If you got a slice of ham, it was this thick!" — marking off the length of his thumbnail to show the thickness), men were men and women were women, and so on. My mother took the opposite line. Born in great poverty, she had gone into training as a professional nurse at age 16, in a large industrial city in the English west midlands. She once remarked to me that by the time she was 20, she had seen more deaths than Dad saw in his career as a combat infantryman, which I think was very likely true. She had witnessed all of society's horrors, was perfectly un-shockable, and had no doubt in her mind that the world had improved greatly since her childhood. So when Dad started in on the "good old days," Mother would give him a spirited argument. After several hundred hours of exposure to these exchanges, I mainly came down on Mother's side.

(From my mother I caught, and have retained, the conviction that you can't beat seasoned medical professionals for insights into human life and society. An outstanding advertisement for this truth is Dr. TheodoreDalrymple, who occasionally writes for NR. Here is a sentence at random from Dr. Dalrymple's latest column in the London Spectator: "Let us not descend, however, into the ranks of the self-pitying: that is to say, of 99.9 per cent of the human race." Who but a medical man could have written that sentence?)

There is plenty to deplore in the world of today, and I do my share of deploring here in these pages. The social movements that so improved life for ordinary citizens of the western world through the middle decades of the last century have, most of them, long since reached and passed the point of diminishing returns, and so far as I am concerned are fair game for mockery and resistance. But did they, in their original manifestations, do good? And are we, on balance, better off than our grandparents? Yes, of course they did; and yes, of course we are.

Settlers or Pioneers?     There is a general impression going around that those Israelis who go to live in settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza are some kind of glittering-eyed fanatics. "Israeli Taliban," they are called by one writer of my acquaintance, who pushes this point of view rather strongly. Well, reading that account of settler life in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, I found myself thinking: "Why, they sound just like pioneers in the old American West." Yes, many of them (though by no means all) are deeply religious — as were many (but not all) of the pioneers. Yes, they are surrounded by hostile natives, who resent their presence, and frequently murder them. Yes, there is a government some miles behind them, in civilized territory, which gives them support — sometimes more, sometimes less — and deploys an army to keep the hostiles at bay.

I mentioned this parallel to a friend — a sensible, well-educated female journalist, not Jewish — who has actually visited the settlements. This is what my friend said:

Yes, I met some settlers when I went to Israel, in Shilo, near Ramallah, some years ago. They were a married couple, and, as it happens, both Americans making aliyah, and they had a bunch of adorable children. I thought they were wonderful people. I admired them greatly and in some way felt they were the best part of Israel. They were intelligent and articulate and religious. The young mother was serene and lovely. The young father had a quality of masculinity we're seeing less and less of these days. They spoke of their lives with understanding and eloquence. The house was well equipped but simple, with a rifle standing in the corner. It did in a way remind me of the Old West. In no way could they be compared to the horrible Taliban and their stringing people up and cutting off their limbs in public spectacles.

Sunset and Evening Star     Tuesday, May 28th was a sunset day in Manhattan. That is to say, if you stood in one of the Manhattan cross-town streets and looked west at sunset (around 8:18 p.m.) you would have seen the sun cross the horizon precisely at the end of the street. Every year has two sunset days, and by a simple exercise in applied mathematics, you should now be able to figure out when the other one is. A not-so-simple further exercise will give you the dates of the two corresponding sunrise days (for which, of course, you need to be facing east). You can do this exercise with any city laid out on a regular grid pattern, though the answers you get will depend on the orientation of the grid and the latitude of the city.

Perfection     In table talk a few days ago, someone asked each of us to give an instance of perfection. The question came to me first, and with no time to think, I — which is to say, my unconscious mind — went into pure word-association mode. I said: "Ella Fitzgerald singing 'Every Time We Say Goodbye'." Thinking about this afterwards, I found myself hard put to explain why that particular song, by that particular singer, came to mind. It hasn't figured prominently in my life, and has no particular associations for me, romantic or otherwise. We had a recording at home in my teen years, but I don't think I've even heard the song for a couple of decades. Yet I find it's one of those very few performances of which I have an actual high-fidelity recording inside my head, that I can play back in conditions of peace and quiet so accurately I really don't need any mechanical aid at all. The usual criticism of Ella — and I do see the point of it — is that she was too perfect, her execution so flawless as to leave nothing for you to hold on to, nothing to move you. All right; I certainly agree that there is a case to be made for rough-edged animal vitality. The case hardly needs to be made, though. Pop music nowadays consists of very little else but animal vitality. Surely there is a place too for total mastery of beautiful, melodious songs. Well, that's the place Ella Fitzgerald owned — and, obviously, so far as my unconcious is concerned, still owns.

Derb Makes Idiot of Self (Series #194)     Try this, gentle reader. Go to Drudge and in the list of newspapers click on "U.K. Telegraph." That gets you to the online version of the London Daily Telegraph, an excellent Tory newspaper, and sometime employer of mine. Click on "Opinion" to get the Op-Ed pages. Now look at top left of your screen. The leftmost thing on the banner is … what? I have been logging on to that site since they set it up like that a year or so ago, and I always thought it was a mushroom cloud, superimposed on the Houses of Parliament. After a while, I found myself wondering why they would do that. Was it supposed to be some horrid sort of prognostication? I began to peer more closely. As I did, it started to seem that the motif was not, in fact, a mushroom cloud at all: it was the head of a Negress (am I still allowed to say that? "woman of color," whatever) with an untidy 'fro. Peering ever more closely, I felt pretty sure, in fact, that it was the younger Tracy Chapman.

Totally confused by now, I sent an e-mail to the Daily Telegraph to ask whether this was a mushroom cloud, or Tracy Chapman, or what. I got a rather brusque e-mail back informing me that the motif in question was a silhouette map of the British Isles. Once I had been told this, of course I saw it at once. So … why hadn't I seen it all those months? (This is a rhetorical question. Actual answers are not welcome.)

Multi Culti Dilemmas     For many years now the Chinese people in our town have banded together privately to support a Friday-evening Chinese school for the kids. People volunteer their time and effort to give lessons in Chinese language and culture — painting, martial arts, music and so on — so that their kids will know something of their heritage.

I have no problem with this. I deplore official, state-funded and coercive multi-culturalism; but I have never seen anything wrong with local Ukrainian folk dance troupes, Polka bands, Knights of Columbus, Ancient Orders of Hibernians, Lithuanian social evenings, or any other private events where people can learn, at their own expense and in their own time, something about the world beyond our shores. These are just examples of those "little platoons" Burke enjoined us to cherish. We have been sending our own kids to the Friday-evening Chinese school.

I confess I haven't paid as much attention as I should to the kids' careers at Chinese school. Rosie takes them there and back, and sometimes stops to help out the teachers. There is a small amount of homework, but it's mainly she who helps them with that, too. Not that I'm not supportive — I do what I can, but in the nature of things this is mainly Rosie's sphere.

Now there is mutiny in the ranks. Both kids have advised us that they hate Chinese school. Nellie, aged nine: "What's the point? I'm not going to live in China. China stinks." Ollie, aged six: "I'm American, not Chinese."

Mom and Dad have gone into battle against all this negativity. I believe Chinese school is a good idea, and not just because it gets me one more evening of peace and quiet. I have always regretted that I myself have only a feeble command any languages other than my own. I thought I'd give my kids a head start on that. Rosie, of course, wants them to get some feel for the land of their maternal ancestors — a normal and healthy desire, well worth three hours a week of their time. I know, too, what lousy little conformists children are — how desperately they want to be just exactly like all the other kids. Conformism isn't something I want to encourage: I'm raising people here, not sheep.

I assumed that part of the problem, at least, is that our kids are only half Chinese, while most of the other kids have two Chinese parents. Then, in discussions with Nellie, I happened to ask if any of her classmates hated Chinese school. She said she thought they all did. "Come on, " I said, "that can't be right. What about X?" (Naming one of her classmates, a very bright and studious little girl whose parents are scientists at a local research lab.) "Yes, she hates it." How about Y? "Yes, I think so." Nellie is a sensible and truthful child, who wouldn't say these things without some grounds. Both my kids, by the way, like regular day school, and are good students.

So what do we do now? I hate to let my kids quit on anything, especially anything academic — bad precedent, and flies in the face of all that hortatory stuff we drum into them: Quitters never win, winners never quit, yada, yada. On the other hand, neither child will speak Chinese unless tortured, and then they only have a hundred words between them. On the other other hand …

Meanwhile, what about all those other kids, with two Chinese parents each, hearing Chinese spoken at home (the Derbs speak about 95 per cent English), being dragged off to China for summer vacation every year, and yet hating Chinese school, wanting to be just plain American? When they get to college I suppose they'll discover their "ethnicity" and go and join some damn fool "Asian-American" student club and whine about "discrimination"; but for a few years, at least, we've got their attention. They want to assimilate! Maybe Chinese school isn't such a good idea, after all.

Mathematical Correctness     There is a general assumption among people outside Academe that while the Humanities departments of our universities are sinking giggling into the swamp of postmodernist anti-intellectual fads, over in the hard science departments, people are immune to all the nonsense and just get on with doing real, useful intellectual work.

That is broadly true, but the immunity is by no means total. On the wall in the main room of the Mathematics Library at Columbia University are four huge pictures of mathematicians. Left to right, they are: Henri Poincaré, Sofia Kovalevskaya, Carl Friedrich Gauss and Emmy Noether. Male, female, male, female — perfect sexual equality. Except that neither Noether nor Kovalevskaya were even close in mathematical powers to Poincaré and Gauss.

I can quantify that statement. My colleague Charles Murray (Losing Ground, The Bell Curve) has a book coming out soon in which all the great names of all intellectual disciplines are ranked by the number of references to them in other people's work. He tells me that the rankings — among mathematicians, that is — for Poincaré, Kovalevskaya, Gauss and Noether are, in order: 25, 106, 3, 95.

I am reminded of wartime France, when meat supplies were running low. One enterprising butcher is supposed to have advertised his meat patties as "half horse, half rabbit." When customers grumbled that they couldn't taste much rabbit in them, he replied: "Well, into every batch I put one horse carcass, and one rabbit … "

[Emmy Noether, by the way, was exceptionally homely. This occasioned a famous quip by her colleague Edmund Landau. Asked to affirm that Emmy was an example of a fine woman mathematician, he said: "I can testify that she is a fine mathematician, but that she is a woman, I cannot swear." Kovalevskaya, by contrast, was a babe.]