Giving it back Every writer nurses a lurking ambition to say something that will be widely remembered and quoted, even by people who never heard his name. At the extreme, one might even hope to get a few lines in some future dictionary of quotations. (A schoolmaster of mine used to say that there were only two kinds of true immortality available to intellectuals: to have a poem included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, or to have a mathematical theorem named after you.)
This is not easy. Practically all the interesting things that can be said about the human condition were said long ago — most of them by the ancient Jews, Greeks and Romans. Shakespeare, Milton, Dr. Johnson, and the great 19th-century poets filled in the few remaining gaps, leaving us very little to add. To say something that anyone will remember for longer than it takes to turn the page or hit the "back" button, is extraordinarily difficult.
I recently found out that I have, in a very small and limited way, crossed that challenging threshold. Here's the story.
A few months ago, writing about the possibility of war with Iraq, I passed some casual remarks on the nature of war in general. This was cheeky of me, since I have never been in a war. My entire military experience consists of a few years' part-time soldiering in my youth, Junior ROTC sort of stuff. I know parade-ground drill, elementary tactics, how to set up a bivouac, how to look after a weapon, how to take cover, and so on, but all I know about the dust, smoke, blood, panic and chaos of actual war, I got from books and movies. Still, I flatter myself that I understand the basic principles OK, and in that spirit I remarked that: "Improvisation is a core military skill. Waiting for all the ducks to line up is not part of a soldier's job. The ducks aren't ever going to line up. The ducks are trying to kill you."
Well, the thing I recently found out is, that this little observation is being taught to soldiers by their instructors. I found this out because one of those instructors googled it, found my piece, and e-mailed to ask me for the ultimate source of the remark. The ultimate source, to the very best of my knowledge, was my own poor brain. (If this is not the case — if, as sometimes happens, I was recycling something I'd read, then forgotten having read — I would much rather not know.)
Now, you can call me a sentimental dreamer if you like, but here's the image I'm cherishing. There is a unit of American infantrymen advancing across hostile terrain, this year, or next year, or five or ten years from now. They are confronted with a situation that calls for fast thinking and decisive action. As they huddle, deciding what to do, one of them says: "Look, there's no use waiting for the ducks to line up here. The ducks aren't ever going to line up. The ducks are trying to kill us." Thus inspired, the guys take the initiative, press forward boldly, attain the objective, bring ultimate victory a few hours closer, save a few American lives.
Yeah, sure, it's not very likely, and there is no way I would ever know in any case. I can dream, though, can't I? And at least this one is not, or not entirely, a selfish dream.
Why kids from Asian families do well in school My son, who is in second grade — in second grade, mark well — has a classmate named Frankie. Frankie's parents are both recent immigrants from mainland China. We met Frankie's Mom as we were going into the school on October 31 to see the Halloween parade. She, however, was on her way out. Wasn't she going to watch the parade, we asked? No, Frankie was out sick for the day. Nothing serious, just a slight temperature, but she was keeping him home for the day. Oh. Well, shame he was missing the parade. But then … why had she come to the school? "Just to pick up Frankie's homework assignments."
Sufferin' succotash What is it with these "sp—" words? The following headline caught my eye in the sports pages of Monday's New York Post: YANKEE'S HATEFUL SPEW SHOULDN'T SHOCK ANYONE. Writer Phil Mushnick was sounding off about some instances of bad language recently exhibited by Yankee pitcher David Wells and TNT basketball commentator Charles Barkley.
Wells had lost a tooth as a consequence of having come second in a fist-fight at a Manhattan diner last September. During the trial of the gentleman who performed this act of impromptu dentistry, one Rocco Graziosa by name, the tape of Wells's 911 call about the incident was played. On the tape, the courtroom heard Wells, who seems to have been what the London tabloids refer to as "tired and emotional" at the time,* repeatedly telling the operator to "send the [expletive] cops." Asked to describe his attacker, Wells offered the following: "He's a [expletive] Italian, little squatty body mother-[expletive]."
Wells's comments strike me as well within the range of acceptability for someone who's just had a tooth knocked out in public, but if Mushnick thinks they are deplorable, I suppose he's entitled to his opinion.
What got my attention, though, was that word "spew." Why is it that in a context like this, journalists always pull out an "sp—" word? It was the same with John Rocker a year or two back, when he uttered — sorry, "spouted" — his opinion of the kinds of people one was liable to find oneself sitting next to on the New York subway.
Why is it that only an "sp—" word will do for remarks that journalists find unacceptable? And why do they so rarely venture beyond "spew" and "spout"? There are, after all, plenty of other "sp—" words that could be deployed for these purposes. David Wells might have "spritzed" those words into the phone, or "sputtered" his vile anti-endomorphist insults, or spat them out in a spasm of splenetic spite.
It's a sad comment on our times when even sports writers can't alliterate imaginatively.
* That is, drunk. Veteran London journalist Alan Brien once compiled a glossary of these tabloid euphemisms: "attractive" = blonde, "flamboyant" = homosexual, "vivacious" = drunk and female, etc. etc.
A Blighty one The New York Post (it's my daily paper: I just can't stomach the Times) reports that "sidewalk lawsuits" — that is, suits brought by people tripping and falling on the streets of Gotham — have cost an average $61.6m a year since 1999, up a thousand percent since 1978. Lawyers, of course, get around a third of that jackpot.
I have a sidewalk lawsuit story of my own. A few years ago I was walking along a street on the West Side of Manhattan when I came to a pile of wooden police barriers, dismantled and scattered untidily across the sidewalk. I had to step over them. As I did so, I noticed that one of the pieces had a large rusty nail sticking straight up.
I was wearing a pair of beaten-up sneakers. It occurred to me that if I were to step down hard on that nail, hard enough to drive it into my foot, I would have a big fat lawsuit against the city. With any luck I might get tetanus, which would jack up the settlement to such a level that I would never have to work again! Reader, I am ashamed to tell you that I paused and deliberated the matter; but chickened out and went on my way uninjured.
Sheer physical cowardice apart, the thing that turned me decisively against the idea was a recollection of the old World War One phrase "a Blighty one." That was what British soldiers called a minor wound — a wound serious enough to get you shipped out of the trenches and back to "Blighty" (i.e. Britain), but not serious enough to leave you permanently maimed. It was considered a great stroke of luck to get "a Blighty one," to such a degree that some men, who had had enough of fighting, inflicted "Blighty ones" on themselves. This needed to be done with some skill and subterfuge, or instead of sailing for home you might find yourself being court-martialed for cowardice. It was certainly done, though — just as, I have no doubt, there are plenty of New Yorkers who would not have passed by that nail.
Well, I decided I hadn't yet had my fill of fighting, and wasn't ready for my Blighty one. I'm still not, and I hope never shall be.
Incidentally, let us pause a moment to marvel at the ingenuity of these "sidewalk lawsuit" lawyers and their pals. One case quoted by the Post, in which the award had been $500,000, concerned a hole in the sidewalk so tiny, it had had to be highlighted with a red arrow so investigators could see it.
A city councilman, acting as a shill for the trial lawyers (Yes! There are politicians who will do this! Can you guess which political party this councilman belongs to? Oh, go on, try …) argued that small sidewalk faults are worse than big ones, which people can see in time to circumvent them.
Religious discrimination in Ireland One of the consolations of literary journalism (which pays, according to my calculations, slightly less than minimum wage) is that you occasionally get a really bad book to review. You open the thing, read a bit, think: "Oh, boy," and get on the phone to the literary editor who sent it. "Hey, Sam? That book you sent me? It's a real turkey. I don't mind doing it, but in all honesty, I'd have to give it a really bad review. You want me to go ahead anyway?"
At that point one of two things will happen. Most periodicals don't like seriously negative reviews, not from small-name reviewers in any case. In those cases — a majority, in the experience of this small-name reviewer — the literary editor will say: "No, never mind." He may forget about it altogether, or he may give the book to someone else likely to have a more friendly approach.
Once in a while, though, the literary editor — in a holiday mood, or nursing some grudge against the author or publisher, or perhaps just distracted or drunk — will say: "Hey, go ahead. Give it both barrels."
For the reviewing hack, those are sweet words to hear. When he hears them, the clouds part and a shaft of golden sunlight breaks through. He pours himself a shot of Glenmorangie, switches off the ringer on the phone, and settles down at his desk in a warm glow of anticipation. Hardly anything is as much fun as writing a really scathing review of a really awful book.
I recently enjoyed this exquisite pleasure when National Review asked me to do Tim Pat Coogan's 1916: The Easter Rising. Coogan grew up in the privileged, corrupt nomenklatura of the Irish Free State, the people who took over southern Ireland after the British left in 1922, and who soon reduced the place to such a condition of hopelessness and squalor that anyone — anyone but their precious selves, I mean — whose ambitions rose any higher than (to recycle a phrase of my own that I am rather pleased with) "sitting around a peat fire discussing the Council of Trent in Gaelic," had no choice but to emigrate.
Coogan has spent the last few years writing pop histories of Ireland and the Irish tailored to the sympathies of the lower and more ignorant kind of "Irish-American" — the kind who, in my experience, can't locate Ireland on a map, and has only the dimmest awareness of anything that has happened in that country since 1846.
My review, in which I not only gave Coogan both barrels, but reloaded and gave him both barrels a second time, drew much angry mail from the "useful idiots" of the IRA's little cheering section here in the USA — descendants, as I pointed out in my review, of the losing side in the Irish Civil War of 1922-3. These people were particularly keen to tell me, as they always are, about the "discrimination" faced by Catholics in Northern Ireland.
This is a larger issue than I can do justice to here, but there is an aspect of it never, ever mentioned by the IRA propagandists. Tim Pat Coogan himself was once confronted with that aspect in an interview on Irish TV. An ingenious female interviewer asked him the following question: "Mr. Coogan, the proportion of Protestants here in the Republic fell from ten percent in 1922 to three percent today. The proportion of Catholics in Northern Ireland rose from 28 percent in 1922 to 44 percent today. Which of those figures, in your opinion, offers stronger evidence of 'religious discrimination'?"
Tim Pat was reduced to silence. Prodded for an answer, he came out at last with this: "That's a Unionist point of view."
The perils of amateur googling One indignant Coogan defender wrote to tell me that not only was I an ignorant idiot, but that he could prove it. By way of drawing attention to the sloppiness of Coogan's work, I had listed in my review some historical and geographical bloopers from the book. Amongst other things, I pointed out that: "Ireland contains no such place as 'Loughall'." Aha! honked my terrorist-cuddling correspondent triumphantly, brandishing his shillelagh, but there is so such a place as "Loughall." If I didn't believe it, why, I should just google the word and see how many links came up!
He is right, of course, that googling "Loughall" gives you hundreds of links. Unfortunately for his argument, the same thing is true for "Los Agneles," "New Yokr," "Chigaco," "Huoston," "Batlimore," and "Washnigton." Pay attention now: The place is Loughgall (Irish Loch gCal, which means "Cabbage Lake").
One more from the Coogan mailbag: In my review I mentioned Patrick Pearse, one of the heros of the 1916 Easter Rising. I called Pearse "a sinister fantasist" and referred to his "atrocious" poems. A number of correspondents took me to task on this, informing me at great length of Pearse's "honor," "nobility," and even "spirituality," and averring that his poems were the best things done in that line since 'Omer smote 'is bloomin' lyre. Possibly so. That Pearse was a fairly typical early 20th-century proto-fascist, however, is not my opinion alone. The writer James Joyce attended some Gaelic classes taught by Pearse at the Jesuit University College in Dublin. Joyce soon dropped out. Pearse, he said, was asking his pupils to feed on "the old pap of race hatred."
You can lead a horse to water … My second-grader wanted $4 for his school book fair. "There's a book I really want, Dad," he begged. No need to beg: I am only too happy to see the boy show some interest in books at last. I gave him the four dollars. He came home with the book: Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets. I guess they were all out of Marcel Proust.
Ivy Mike Just 50 years ago, early in the morning of November 1, 1952, the USA detonated the first true hydrogen bomb on the Pacific island of Elugelab. The yield was 10.4 megatons — that is, about 800 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. To put it another way, the explosive force of the bomb, code-named Ivy Mike, was greater than that of all the high explosive used in both world wars together, including the two atom bombs dropped on Japan. The resulting crater was 1.2 miles across and 164 feet deep. The island of Elugelab was annihilated, and no longer exists. This was only the first H-bomb, not the most powerful. In October 1961, over Novaya Zemlya in the Soviet Arctic, the USSR detonated the Tsar Bomba — "King of Bombs" — a 50-megaton monster, equivalent to five Ivy Mikes, or four thousand Hiroshima bombs. Now that could really spoil your weekend.
A few days ago I got an email from a paleo-con friend, linked to some paleo site that poured scorn on the idea of war against Iraq, and included the phrase: "All this nonsense about 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' …" I sent him a link to the Ivy Mike website.
Ivy Mike was built with early-1950s technology, remember — the kind of technology any middling industrial power of today could come up with by a concentrated effort across five or ten years, and for which all the tough R&D work has been done and published long since. If I were a mad dictator, or the leader of some worldwide terrorist conspiracy, I wouldn't be fritzing around with mere fission weapons delivering a Hiroshima-sized blast. I'd be going for Ivy Mike and 1.2-mile craters.
Small world As the PC tide ebbs, it is now once again OK to say that women and men differ in overall behavior. One way they differ is that women take much more pleasure than I ever will, or than any man I know ever will, in long telephone conversations with their friends. Rosie has been at something of a disadvantage here, in that her oldest, dearest girlfriend — a high-school classmate — lives in Chongqing, a city in southwest China. Recently, however, Rosie has picked up a tip from the Chinese-immigrant grapevine — some kind of service, entirely legitimate, that lets you make long phone calls to China for next to nothing. Now she sits in the kitchen happily chatting away for an hour at a stretch to her best friend ten thousand miles away.
The news from China So how are things in Chongqing? Well, they are a darn sight better than they were 40 years ago, when the great Mao famine was in its fourth year, with a death toll well into eight digits. They are way better than 30 years ago, when the Cultural Revolution was getting its second wind. Certainly they are much better than 20 years ago, when I was settling into my job as teacher of English at a college in Manchuria. Better, also, than ten years ago, when the unrestrained state terror that followed the 1989 democracy movement had only just begun to abate.
It ain't Kansas, though. Life for China's swelling middle classes still has hardships that Americans can barely imagine. Rosie's classmate has a daughter in her early teens. In the summer this girl sat the exam for admission to high school. She fell short of the pass mark by 80 points. Consequently, she will have to pay to go to high school — high school is free only if you pass the entrance exam. How much will she have to pay? Twenty thousand yuan, plus 100 more for each point she fell short of the pass mark — a total of 28,000 yuan. That is her parents' entire gross income for nearly two years. The family has raised the money somehow, of course. If she doesn't go to high school, the girl will never get a decent job. The classmate's comment: "Thank goodness for the one-child policy! We could never do this for more than one!" Something to think about while you fret over your own kids' college funds.
Has China mastered human cloning? I am not, as regular readers may have guessed, a big fan of "diversity," as the term is currently understood in these United States — that is, as a euphemism for race preferences. When the PC police eventually pull me in for compulsory re-education, though, one powerful tool they might employ is the photograph of the new Standing Committee of the Chinese politburo published in the world's media last week. Here is one from CNN.com, but there is a much better picture in The Economist, page 40 of the 11/23-29 edition (only webbable by subscription). What you see is nine middle-aged Chinese men in dark suits and red ties. "All nine of them engineers by training," adds The Economist. Just like, mmm, oh, Herbert Hoover.
The nine are not totally indistinguishable in appearance. Two of them in the picture have patterned ties! — still red, but patterned, not solid. Wonder how long those two will last! I thought I'd be clever and tell you the names of these two bold nonconformists, so I went to the "gallery" in the sidebar on the CNN.com report and tried to match the faces there to the ones in the Economist picture. Reader, I couldn't. Could it be … No, no, resist the thought! … But could it just possibly be that there's something to be said for this "diversity" business, after all?
Chinese friends here in the States have been telling me for some weeks, by the way, that there has been a tightening-up of social controls in the People's Republic recently. How do they know? Beats me; but it is a fact that people raised in mainland China have incredibly sensitive instincts for the degree of repression current at any time. These instincts function perfectly even at a range of thousands of miles. Rosie always knows the political "temperature" of her homeland to a tiny fraction of a degree. Don't ask me how this works, I have no idea. I only know that I will hear stuff like this from Rosie or from Chinese friends, and then three or four weeks later I will find myself reading articles in broadsheet newspapers by accredited China-watchers, telling me that the Party is clamping down on dissent yet again, that foreign journalists are being roughed up, that a new police campaign is under way against "saboteurs" or "splittists,"…**
** Chinese newspapers, cutting to the chase, frequently just say huai ren — "bad people." Just as in the old Soviet Union there used to be stores whose sign said simply "PRODUCTS," so any kind of social disturbance in China — a strike, a riot, a demonstration, a Falun Gong rally — is liable to be written up in the Chinese press as: "Bad people making trouble." A splittist, by the way, is a person who wants to dismantle the Chinese empire. The Dalai Lama would be an example of a splittist. His Holiness is, in fact, the arch-splittist — the sinister, ever-scheming inspiration for all splittist ghosts and demons everywhere.
Don't know much about theology In some e-mail exchanges with unreligious friends recently, I had a flash of not-very-brilliant insight into the thing that separated us. Thus: unreligious people actually have no clue about what religion is. They fail to see the point of religion, in some very fundamental way. It's like being color-blind.
The commonest misconception among unreligious people is that following a religion is sort of like believing in one scientific theory — the steady-state universe, perhaps — as opposed to another — the Big Bang. Now, there certainly is an element of that in religions, though in some much more than in others. (Among Christians, Catholics are much more inclined to this sort of thing that us Prods are.) That's not the real stuff of religion, though, not the main point.
I once asked two Jewish friends — moderately religious, observe dietary laws, temple on high holidays, will not utter a name of the Deity — whether Jews believe in an afterlife. She: "I'm not sure. Do we, Av?" He (Yeshiva-educated, can read Hebrew): "Um … I think so … but I'm not really sure, either."
We Anglicans are like that, too. I've been an Anglican all my life, but I don't think I have spent more than a grand total of one hour reflecting on theological topics. I just have no taste for them. Talking about this with Sarah Maserati, an NR colleague and fellow Anglican, we discovered that we could not come up with a single one of the 39 Articles between us!
Religion, to my way of thinking, is one of those things that go better when you don't think about it too much. You practice the observances learned in childhood, try your best to cleave to the moral precepts, hope (according to one British survey, successfully about a third of the time) for spiritual revelation, and enjoy occasional fellowship with like-minded people. That, at any rate, is the religion that comforts and enriches my life. Whether my God is one in three or three in one, is something they broke heads over back in the 4th century*** — frankly, I couldn't care less.
*** In this context, I can't resist adding Gregory of Nazianzen's eyewitness account of theological enthusiasm in 4th-century Constantinople:
This city is full of mechanics and slaves, who are all of them profound theologians … If you desire a man to change a piece of silver, he informs you wherein the Son differs from the Father … and if you inquire whether the bath is ready, the answer is, that the Son was made out of nothing.
of course, could not let that pass without a skeptical footnote on Gregory: "Every physician
is prone to exaggerate the inveterate nature of the disease which he has cured," sniffs the historian.
White rabbits Sunday is the first of the new month, so of course I shall say "White rabbits!" first thing on rising. If you forget to do that, you'll have a month of bad luck. My whole family knows this, so we all make sure that "White rabbits!" is the first thing out of our mouths on the first day of a new month. American-born friends tell me they never heard of this. Incredible! How do they ever have any good luck?
Math Corner The October diary included a mathematical brain-teaser, the "hockey tournament" problem. A remarkable number of people humiliated me — I confessed that I myself had only got the answer via computer programming — by getting solutions that were not only correct, but often very elegant in their reasoning. I have posted three representative solutions here.
OK, here's this month's brainteaser, sent in by a reader whose name, please forgive me, I have mislaid.
There are 100 doors, all closed. In a nearby cage are 100 monkeys. The first monkey is let out, and runs along the doors opening every one. The second monkey is then let out, and runs along the doors closing the 2nd, 4th, 6th, … all the even-numbered doors. The third monkey is let out, and he attends only to the 3rd, 6th, 9th, 12th, … doors (every third door, in other words), closing any that is open and opening any that is closed. The fourth monkey does the same for the 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, … doors, opening the closed ones and closing the open ones. The fifth monkey does the same to the 5th, 10th, 15th, … doors, and so on. After all 100 monkeys have done their work in this way, which doors are left open?
One nice thing about this puzzle is that the number "100" is arbitrary. In fact, the question would still make sense, and still have the same answer, if the number of doors and monkeys was infinite!