»  National Review Online Diary

  June 2002

Journo-droids on Fox     I like to watch Fox News Channel. I am still a big O'Reilly fan, and I watch some of the other shows when I get a chance. It's not that Fox News has a "line." I don't think they have a "line," and I find something to disagree with in pretty much every program. I do feel, though, that I'm not just watching a bunch of blow-dried journo-school graduates all kitted out with the Arthur Sulzberger Jr. set of acceptable opinions. There are signs, with a lot of the Fox people, that they can think for themselves.

Clinging to brand loyalty like a good little consumer, I also watch the regular Fox channel — the one that isn't Fox News, I mean — which has a good track record for sitcoms that appeal to my sense of humor: MWT, Malcolm, King of the Hill, etc. So it was that the other day I caught the 10 o'clock news on that regular channel. Lead item in the local (that is, New York area) news: a high school salutitorian had told her school she wanted to give her salutitorial (? bear with me, I'm trying to get fluent in these Americanisms) address in Spanish. The school had refused.

It was plain, from the way the newsreaders presented this story, that they thought the school's refusal was an outrage. If fact, the next night, looking mighty pleased with themseves, they invited the moronic brat on to deliver her speech, in Spanish, to the Fox audience. The presenters fairly glowed with multicultural virtue. You could see them thinking, or whatever it is journo-droids do in place of thinking: That'll teach those narrow-minded bigots!

All right, let's take it nice and slow, Fox people, and see if we can get through to your blow-dried brains. This is a free country, and citizens are free to speak, study, give speeches in any language they please, so far as their private exchanges and associations are concerned. A public school, however, is public. It serves, and is paid for by, citizens in their capacity as citizens, not as private agents. In all its doings, therefore, a public school should cleave strictly to the common denominators that define citizenship: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the nation's flag, the nation's language. For a public school to authorize a graduation speech in Spanish is equivalent to it flying the Saudi flag. As a private citizen, you can fly the Saudi flag if you feel like it; but this nation, in its public affairs, only knows one flag, and one language. If you don't like that, don't send your kids to public school. Better yet, go live in some other country. (NB: Don't choose Saudi Arabia. Saudi law prohibits the flying of any flag except the nation's own, by anyone, in any capacity, anywhere.)

Knowing, from my own mailbag, how strongly people feel about these things, I did enjoy a quiet moment afterwards imagining how the Fox switchboard must have lit up with calls from enraged patriots after Fox aired that disgraceful segment. It's too much to hope that someone at Fox got fired; but I hope that at least someone got yelled at.

A Distant Mirror     I am in the doghouse. Actually, I am in the Derb house … which is small, and rapidly silting up with books. I can't resist buying books, and can't bear to get rid of them. My long-suffering wife was starting to grumble. Then, last week, I was in my local second-hand bookstore talking with the owner (Hi, George). He had just taken delivery of a full set of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the so-called "scholars' edition," because of the number of big-name academics and intellectuals that contributed articles. (Alfred North Whitehead did "Geometry"; a lot of the Eng. Lit. stuff is by Edmund Gosse.) He grumbled about the difficulty of moving such a big set of books. Second-hand booksellers nowadays sell most of their stuff by mail, thanks to wonderful sites like Abebooks. Now my man had to find a buyer for a 29-volume set, and then box it up and mail it out.

While he was telling me this, I was leafing through the volumes, and the little red demon perched on my left shoulder was winning out over the little white angel on my right. There was a brief spell of bargaining. I got the whole set for $115. Then came what Basil Fawlty used to call "the tricky bit" — explaining it to the wife. Heck, I don't care, she'll have to start speaking to me again sooner or later. Meanwhile I have a window into knowledge as it stood a century ago. "The capture of the Conservative party [i.e. in 1892] proved the high-water mark of German anti-semitism." Oh boy. And you should see the article headed "Negro."

Barbarism Stinks     Geometry, Geronimo … No, he's not in the 1911 Britannica. He's in my email-bag a lot, though, since I called him a "barbarian" last week. Stimulated by all the readers who want to tell me what a civilized guy Geronimo was, I did some browsing, reading him up. There are plenty of web sites, most of them sympathetic. I came away with my opinions utterly unchanged. Geronimo was a barbarian. Did he posses some inner nobility of spirit? Yes, he did. Did he suffer horribly at the hands of white people? Yes, he did — though more from Mexicans than from Americans. Was he brave, resourceful and loyal? Yes, at least some of the time. Were his enemies dishonest and treacherous? Yes, they — we! — were.

The treatment of the Indians by 19th-century settlers (and governments, and generals) is something we could argue about all night. I know all the wrongs that were done, and don't need to be told. I've read Blood Meridian and seen Soldier Blue. Personally, I have a clear and uncomplicated attitude to the whole business. The white man took North America from the Indians, by means frequently foul. As a result, we have a civilized nation here, with laws and legislatures, with libraries and hospitals, with colleges and police departments and TV talk shows and orthodontists and supermarkets and second-hand bookstores and gun clubs and lawns and swimming pools. If the thing had not happened, North America would be vegetating in barbarism, as it did for the previous several millennia, with none of the above. I like the above, all of them. I don't want to live in a society with no law but blood revenge, with no medicine or sanitation, with no books or computers, with a 30-something median lifespan, with a famine every five years, with ritual public torture, human sacrifice and chronic tribal warfare. Far as I am concerned, civilization is the bee's knees, and barbarism stinks. Yes, I know how it was done, and I can't say I altogether approve. But it was done, and I am glad it was done.

When anyone tried to push the "noble barbarian" line on the unfoxable Samuel Johnson, he had a sharp retort for them: "Don't cant in defense of savages." Same answer here.

Sunset and Evening Star (cont.)     A number of people, including even an NR editor, expressed skepticism about my assertion that there are sunrise days in Manhattan as well as sunset days. That is, if you stand in a Manhattan street looking west, there are two days in the year when the sun will set precisely at the end of the street; and if you look east, there are two days when it will rise at the opposite end of the street. My own calculations give May 28 and July 12 for the former, December 10 and January 2 for the latter. The proof of the pudding is in the eating: December 10, I want all you Manhattan NRO readers — all six of you! — out there in the street looking east.

(Some other readers tried to refute my assertion that you can get similar results for any city laid out on a grid. Pshaw … but, all right, I forgot to add that, depending on latitude, the solution dates can sometimes come out as imaginary numbers …)

Math for Nazis     Which brings us to math corner. Now, I know a lot of people don't like math, so I'm going to sugar the pill, though perhaps "sugar" is not quite the right garnish here. The comic writer Alan Coren was sitting around one day with his literary agent, complaining that none of his books sold very well. What kind of thing could he write about to be guaranteed good sales? he asked. The agent replied that there were only three categories that were sure-fire sellers: books about golf, books about cats, and books about the Nazis. Coren thereupon wrote a book titled Golfing for Cats, and put a big black swastika on the cover. It sold well. (This is a true story: you can find Golfing for Cats on Abebooks.com.)

I don't know diddly about golf and haven't owned a cat for years (as if you can own a cat!), but I do have math stories with Nazis in them. I recently had to do some research on the great number theorist Edmund Landau, who taught at Göttingen University in Germany. Landau was Jewish, so when the Nazis came to power in 1933 the student council, which of course was strongly pro-Nazi (stuff like Nazism and Communism always sells well among university students), started boycotting his classes. Landau soldiered on bravely for a while, but eventually was blocked from his own lecture hall by an SA squad. A punctilious man, Landau asked the leader of the student Nazis in the math department to write out an official complaint against him. "If I am to be barred from teaching, I want some formal explanation why," said Landau. The Nazi leader duly did so, and his letter somehow survived — I was reading it the other day.

It is plain from the letter that this young Nazi — he was 20 years old — was acting from heart-felt ideological and patriotic motives. He believed strongly that it was not right for a Jewish professor to be teaching German students. This was a very intelligent young man, acting from genuine belief. He went on, in fact, to become a fine mathematician. His name was Oswald Teichmüller, and there is a branch of geometric function theory named "Teichmüller Theory." In WW2 he enlisted, apparently from sheer patriotism, and disappeared in fighting along the Dnieper, on the eastern front, in 1943.

I mention this only because we are used to believing that the Nazis were thugs, opportunists and low-lifes. So most of them were; but it is salutary to be reminded that among their ranks were some extremely intelligent people, who were acting from sincere conviction in the truth of Hitler's horrible doctrines. Something to keep in mind when you hear that some mass murderer like Castro or Arafat is "sincere." There are other things beside sincerity.

(Teichmüller wasn't the only one, by any means. At about the same time as Landau was being barred from his own lectures, another fine mathematician, Ludwig Bieberbach, was wearing full Nazi uniform as he conducted spoken examinations for Ph.D. candidates.)

Skál!     Tuesday I did a half-hour phone interview for a radio station in Iceland. Apparently the Iceland segment in myJune 18 piece got their attention out there in Vopnafjöður and Stykkishólmur. I was a bit puzzled to know how the listeners would understand me; but reading up the place beforehand, I learned that pretty much every Icelander is fluent in English, as people have to be in a small, out of the way country, with a language no outsider can be bothered to learn. I rehearsed a few phrases in Icelandic for courtesy's sake (Góðan dag!) and the rest of the thing went off very well in English — a language more popular in Iceland, apparently, than it is at Fox TV.

Down to 47     I have got to stop dissing entire states. After I was rude about Florida a few weeks ago, I was plagued by old ladies with walkers and geezers in double-knit slacks hobbling up my driveway to hurl rotten oranges at my door and shout insults in a mixture of Yiddish, Spanish and Haitian Creole. Now I've ticked off Alaska, in my piece about countries with detached segments. People are e-mailing with: "Who wants to live in Alaska? I do! " Look, it was just an off-hand comment, passed without much thought. I am sorry. Alaska has all sorts of charms, I am well aware of that. Tremendous scenery! Low taxes! Wonderful climate! Yes, Alaska is a fine state, a terrific state. Any rational person would far rather live in Alaska than in some congested, over-taxed, yuppie-infested sinkhole like, say, New Jersey. Oh darn it, there I go again.

Who Wants a Bookish President?     There was an opinion piece by Zoe Heller in the London Daily Telegraph a few days ago, about an apparent PR effort on the part of the White House to overcome the public image of George W. Bush as an anti-intellectual philistine. Apparently the PR folk have poor W toting around the Nicomachean Ethics. Heller approves of the effort: "Literacy rates are not so fabulous that Americans can afford to dismiss even phony intellectual aspirations. Even if he's faking it, Bush's enthusiasm for Aristotle sends out a more laudable message than his drawling philistinism."

I don't know about this. Do we want a bookish president? Generally speaking, of course, intellectuals should be kept firmly away from high office; but this statement needs so much qualification, it's hard to hold on to any general principle. A certain kind of intellectual — the kind that has a good romantic imagination, and who is also worldly and, at least in his youth, physically active — makes a very good national leader. I am thinking of Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt, both of whom not only read a lot of books, but wrote a couple of shelves-full, too.

More purely cerebral bookworms — Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter — are another story. The more I look at it, the more I think that simple bookishness is an independent variable, that isn't tied to any other attribute. A chief executive needs a good base of general knowledge, and some capacity for concentrating on issues and thinking them through. Beyond that, I think that intellectual qualities are pretty secondary to other, more social ones. I'd be surprised to learn that Ronald Reagan was smarter, on any test known to psychometricians, than Carter or even Clinton, but he was a far better president than either.

Knock, and it shall be clopened unto you     Just one more math note, please. The following sentence is from a respectable published paper on higher math. I have not made it up, and it does not contain any typos. Here you go:  "A subset of a topological space is said to be 'clopen' if it is both open and closed."  (Paper titled "Distance from an Isometry to the Banach-Stone Maps," by Jesús Araujo, in the book P-adic Functional Analysis, ed. José Bayod et al., 1990.) What do you mean, you don't understand math?