»  National Review Online Diary

  December 2002

The trend line test     In my piece titled "On Liberty" the other day, I mentioned Charles Murray's "trend line test":

What you do is, quantify some social phenomenon — poverty, educational attainment, traffic accidents, infant mortality — and draw a graph of its incidence across several decades. Then, by staring hard at the graph, you try to spot where government intervention kicked in. Usually you can't.

Sometimes, though, you can. Reader Mike Levy sent in a good counterexample. It's a chart of the number of black elected officials in the U.S., from 1900 to 2000. This trend line takes a sharp and obvious upwards turn after the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Mike adds: "I would argue (though of course it could never be proved) that if the 1965 Voting Rights Act had not been passed, the increase in black elected officials would have continued its progress at the 1950-1964 rate, rather than the explosive rates of 1965 and beyond."

I sent this on to Charles, knowing him to be a scrupulous and objective scholar, one of that minuscule minority of academics who does not lose his temper when contradicted. Charles responded with another counterexample he had found himself: the number of black people in clerical jobs, which also took a strong upswing in the mid-1960s, largely as a result of government hiring. Neither of these counterexamples makes the trend-line test less interesting or useful; though they do weaken my argument on the civil-rights point, and supply a useful reminder that in the human sciences, there is always a counterexample lurking somewhere.

Nutso North Korea     I mean, really. This guy Kim Jong-Il is definitely several bricks short of a load — perfectly capable of the kind of mad miscalculation that gets a war started. One thing that ticks me off, though, is this idea that we must tread very carefully with Kimbo for fear that he might rain missiles down on Seoul, or launch a full invasion of South Korea.

Excuse me, but South Korea is far more populous than North Korea (48m vs. 22m) and a whole order of magnitude richer (GDP per capita $18K vs. $1K). They spend more on their military than the North does ($13bn vs. $9bn) and have far more men fit for military service (9m vs. 3.6m). They can't deal with this themselves? As for "rain missiles down on Seoul" — What if he does? From September 1944 to March 1945, over 500 V-2 missiles "rained down" on London, destroying 20,000 homes and killing 2,500 people. London got over it.

It would be a shame, of course, if a few dozen of those glittering malls, luxury apartment blocks, fast-food franchises, Hyundai showrooms and Ikea outlets were to be smashed up by North Korean missiles, but hey, worse things happen at sea, and it's hard to believe the South would not quickly prevail. In any case, given that the South Korean people keep electing leaders who sound like Walter Mondale, and register positively Parisian levels of anti-Americanism when polled, it's hard to see why we Americans should mind if their nice prosperous little country gets knocked about a bit on the way to the inevitable defeat of Kim Jong-Il's troops. Japan likewise. Let's give Kim the finger, good and clear, starting with a thorough Osirak-style job on his nuclear installations. There isn't anything Kimchi can do that won't lead to his own swift annihilation. If the downtown Seoul branch of Starbucks gets its windows blown out in the process — well, personally, I can live with it.

From a correlation-of-forces*** point of view, for South Korea to worry about an invasion from the North is a bit like the U.S.A. worrying about an invasion from Mexico. Ah, there's the rub, of course. North Korea is poor and ill-governed; the South is wealthy and well-governed — just like Mexico and the U.S.! If the Kim Jong-Il regime collapses and the border opens up, poor Northerners will be flooding into the South. That's the invasion the South Koreans really have nightmares about. But why are U.S. elites so insouciant about uncontrolled Mexican immigration, while their South Korean counterparts are wetting their pants about floods of Northerners? Here's a clue: distance from Washington D.C. to the Mexican border — 1,500 miles, distance from Seoul to the DMZ — 20 miles. Here's another clue: poor Mexicans don't speak English too well, which means that they are no threat to the jobs of the cognitive elites in the U.S. North Koreans, even the poorest ones, speak … Korean.

Year-end pleasures     One that I especially look forward to is the special Christmas-New Year issue of The Economist. As well as the usual round-up of news, the editors let their staff loose on an unpredictable range of subjects. This year: Marxism (yes, it's still around), Barbie ("Of all the forces against which resistance is futile, Barbie ranks right up near the top"), Texas (is America's future), Christianity (doing well, especially at the fundamentalist end), an account of a truck ride across Cameroon, conspiracy theories (9/11 was Al Gore's revenge), the revival of Vietnamese cuisine, Mongolia, dogs, why Reagan's legacy is in such better shape than Thatcher's, champagne, a fascinating account of life as a foreign ambassador in London circa 1490, doing away with airplane pilots (did you know that more than half of air-travel deaths are a result of what is officially called "controlled flight into terrain" — that is, the plane was working perfectly, but the pilot flew it into the ground?), why people have cluttered desks, the pros and cons of working out at the gym, car designers, a near-future fantasy piece about lawyers bringing down the fast-food industry, sleep, novels about Africa, and the spread of loan-words from English into other languages.

I normally spend about an hour with The Economist, but the year-end issue needs an entire afternoon. You will hear people sneer at The Economist as ivory-tower Brit-flavored dilettantism. The New Republic in fact did an entire article along those lines three years ago. Well, speak as you find: I've been reading The Economist for 30 years, and for intelligent, well-informed commentary, I don't know another news magazine that comes close. Especially at year end.

Disney movies are gay     The career of the word "gay" is getting more and more interesting. Originally a common and useful word indicating "joyous,"  "merry,"  or "colorful,"  at some point in the early 19th century, London prostitutes took up "gay" as a descriptor for their trade. The general British public became aware of this in 1856, when Punch magazine ran a John Leech cartoon of two degraded-looking street women, one saying to the other: "Ah! Fanny! How long have you been gay?" In the 20th century the word was of course taken up by homosexuals as a euphemism for their own tendency.

Now something else is happening. I have noticed my daughter (10 years old next week) and her friends using "gay" in the sense of: "patronizing, babyish, boring, contemptible." Anything that it is beneath the dignity of an almost-10-year-old to pay attention to is "gay." Toys and videos that she has outgrown are "gay." Activities imposed on her by teachers and parents that underestimate her age or intelligence are "gay." Disney movies are "gay." Even one of her teachers turns out to be "gay" — no, not like that, it's just that he talks down to the kids, and expects them to do things that are so-o-o 9-year-old. So "gay."

I'm curious to know how this usage got adopted by pre-teens who — certainly in my daughter's case — understand nothing about adult mating arrangements. My guess is that it was originally a teen usage that seeped downwards via siblings and the schoolyard. Though I have little contact with teenagers, I am told that they, or at least a large element of them, are putting up valiant resistance to the PC-indoctrination efforts that have taken over much of today's high-school syllabus, displacing comparatively trivial things like geography, history and mathematics. Good for them. Fight that good fight, kids.

I have not yet heard this usage of "gay" from an adult, though I have a feeling this may not be far behind — in private talk, of course, not on the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. Be interested to hear from anyone who can fill in any pieces of this tiny linguistic puzzle.

Great first lines     Jay Nordlinger's "Great First Lines" (i.e. from books) contest drew a huge response. One reader e-mailed in to ask me why I didn't offer the tremendous opening line from the classic 14th-century Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Answer: I don't know, I didn't think of it. Here it is, anyway: "It is said of all great matters under Heaven, that what has long been divided must unite, what has long been united must divide."

This set me to looking through other Chinese classic books to see how they open. The first line in the Analects of Confucius goes as follows: "Is it not pleasant to study diligently?" Uh-huh. What a grind the old boy was. The second sentence of the Analects, though, is even better known among Chinese people than the opening of The Three Kingdoms, and makes a great ice-breaker when welcoming Chinese guests: "Is it not delightful when friends come from far places?" The Tao Te Ching, founding text of philosophical Taoism,* begins by telling you that you're wasting your time reading it: "The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao." Another ancient classic, The Book of Songs, opens** with a charming epithalamium: "'Fair, fair,' cry the ospreys / On the island in the river. / Lovely is this noble lady, / Fit bride for our lord."

Apart from The Three Kingdoms, the other old classic novels mainly disappoint. The most-loved of them all, Cao Xue-qin's Dream of the Red Chamber (a.k.a. The Story of the Stone) begins with: "This is the first chapter," which deserves some sort of award for sheer flatness. Journey to the West (a.k.a. Monkey) starts at the very beginning of all things: "When chaos has not yet separated into Heaven and Earth, all was misty vastness with no human beings to be seen." (From which, probably, comes the old adage that "all Chinese novels begin in Heaven.") The Water Margin opens in verse, but at least gets going with the story right away: "When the Five Dynasties held sway [A.D. 907-960], in wild Discord's reign, / The clouds parted one day, and Heaven was seen again" … reinforcing the aforementioned adage.

The prevailing structure of taboos     My, my, is race a raw-nerve issue, or what? Apropos the relationship between what I think and what I publish, I made an offhand comment in my recent FAQs piece that "I do have some opinions that aren't very respectable — on race, for example …" That got more e-mails than the entire rest of the piece, with the general theme of said e-mails being: "Oh, please, tell us more!" Well, it's not very exciting, and I have said most of what I am willing to say about it on this site, in pieces like this one.

The principal non-respectable ingredients of my views about this topic are my convictions that race is (a) real, and (b) important. It is a measure of the height to which the waters of hypocrisy have risen that these beliefs are, by themselves, sufficient to put me beyond the pale of polite discourse. That applies even here in the world of conservative punditry, where the ruling dogmas are: There is no such thing as race! and Well, even if there is such a thing, it's not the least bit important! If you contradict these dogmas, even — I think we are now close to the point at which that "even" can be replaced by "especially" — in a roomful of conservatives, everyone gets really, really uncomfortable.

In the world of practical politics, as revealed most recently in l'affaire Lott, the dishonesty is at a level I simply cannot handle. It just makes me gag. All American politicians are liars and hypocrites about race, from Democrats like Hillary Clinton posing as champions of the downtrodden black masses while buying a house in the whitest town they can find, to Republicans pretending not to know that (a) many millions of nonblack Americans seriously dislike black people, (b) wellnigh every one of those people votes Republican, and (c) without those votes no Republican would ever win any election above the county level. (Am I being beeped out yet?)

I should like to be able to tell you that I am going to ride out to war against this horrid tyranny of cant, that I am going to join with those brave souls who have taken it as their mission in life to try to get us talking in an intelligent, honest, forward-looking, and optimistic manner about race, like the heirs to a great rational and scientific tradition that we are. I should like to, but I can't. I don't go looking for trouble. I have children to feed, and there are a great many more things to write about. If you want to call me a coward, I'm fine with it; in this line of work, I get called far worse things. There is a Buckleyism I rather like: "The prevailing structure of taboos." That's the corner of the vineyard where I am happy to toil, within the prevailing structure of taboos. So no more about race. There is, in any case, as The New York Times assures us five or six times a year, no such thing as race …

Poems in mind     The December 29 New York Times ran an Op-Ed piece by Carol Muske-Dukes, who teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California. The thrust of the piece was that memorizing poetry is a good idea, improves one's understanding of the poems themselves, and carries over into better use of one's language in speech and writing.

Well, duh. Those of us who had the great good fortune to go to schools that expected us to memorize poems know that we are far superior to the rest of you. I myself have impressive (depending, I suppose, on what impresses you) quantities of poetry memorized: the first couple of pages of Chaucer's prologue, great slabs of Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, Keats, Wordsworth, Longfellow, Poe, Kipling, Yeats, and innumerable one-off oddities — "Dover Beach" I can do all the way through, and "Vitaï Lampada," and "Felix Randal," and "Go, Lovely Rose," and "Cargoes"… Even memorizing bad poems is worth while: you don't realize just how bad "Lycidas" is, or why it's bad, until you've thoroughly absorbed it. Likewise much of Shelley, and most of T.S. Eliot. Ms. Muske-Dukes reports that most students nowadays are horrified to be told to memorize a poem. I suppose this is related to the fact that nobody sings any more. What a tone-deaf age we live in!

Memorizing isn't difficult, and requires no great resources of intelligence, only dogged application. I had a character in a novel memorize David Copperfield. That was taken from life: the husband of the lady who taught me Chinese actually had memorized David Copperfield! Personally, I think that's a bit over the top; but I would not consider anyone to be well-educated who didn't have a few moderate-length poems down pat. The ability to memorize blocks of text is not very glamorous. It is, though, part of the mental repertoire of practically all human beings, even unintelligent ones, and so presumably was given to us for a reason. To scorn it is to scorn the One who created us. Take a couple of hours off and memorize Barbara Frietchie. Go on, it'll do you good.

I Slam, You Slam, We All Slam Islam     More fallout from my FAQs piece. I said nice things about Islam again. That brings out the angry readers in droves. Well, I'm not taking anything back, but I will add one point that I think needs saying.

As those angry e-mails show, and as anyone can confirm by striking up a conversation or tuning to a talk-radio station, Islam is now really, really unpopular among Americans. Before 9/11, hardly any of us thought about Islam from one year's end to the next. Now a lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about it, and their thoughts are not happy ones. Islam has a problem in the USA, a huge problem. American Muslims, it seems to me, have not yet woken up to this fact. Guys, you have a lot of repair work to do with your fellow Americans, and whining about "discrimination" is not going to get the job done.

Here is the kind of thing you might do. Our country was savagely attacked, and is now at war with Islamic terrorism. If you are young and able-bodied, you could join the armed forces, and fight the nation's enemies in the most direct way. You could even agitate for the formation of a special Muslim-American unit within the services, analogous to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of Japanese-Americans in WW2.

On one of my bookshelves I have the 1942 Song and Service Book for Ship and Field, the official chaplain's handbook for the U.S. armed forces in WW2. With proper military simplicity, it is divided into three sections: Protestant, Catholic and Jewish. Everything is in English except the Jewish chants and the Kaddish, and even those are transliterated so that in the extremity of battle, a pastor from one confession can carry out the observances of another. I haven't seen an up to date version of this handbook, but I assume it now contains an Islamic order of service. If it doesn't, it should. Islam is part of the American scene now. I welcome it. I honor the faith of my Muslim fellow-countrymen. I think it's a shame that we need to ask for particular evidences of patriotism from them, but I believe that under present circumstances we do, just as we did of the Japanese-Americans in 1942. I'd like to think that they understand that, and will rise to the occasion.

In the prime of life     Happy New Year, everyone! I note that 2003 is a prime number, the first since 1999.

Q:  What is the probability that a number in the neighborhood of N is prime?

A:  The probability is roughly one in log N (i.e. the natural logarithm of N, often coded as "ln" on the keypads of pocket calculators).

Since the natural logarithm of 2000 is a tad over 7.6, in this neck of the woods we should expect around one number in eight to be prime. The next few prime years will be 2011, 2017, 2027, 2029, 2039, 2053, 2063, 2069, 2081, 2083 — ten in the next 80-odd years, or roughly one in eight. See?

For more wonders of this kind, you need to purchase a good book about prime numbers in 2003. Modesty forbids me from mentioning any, but should you spot one in bookstores, or see a mention of one on any of your favorite web sites, please don't hold back.

(I further note that, counting the day of my birth as Day 1, I am a prime number of days old this Tuesday. My last prime New Year's Eve was in 1986, my next won't be until 2029. That is not quite enough information to give you my date of birth, but I think I'd rather not take this any further just now …)

All this math talk is what I think is called a "segue," leading us naturally to …

Math Corner     Last month's puzzle (monkeys, doors) did not give too much trouble. The solution is here.

Now try this, which I got from reader David Odell, though I disagree with David's solution.

I go into a meeting which consists of six people sitting in a line along one side of a table, with a single chairman facing them on the other side. I take a seat at the end of the line, so now there are seven of us sitting in a line, side by side. The chairman announces: "When I say 'Go!' I want you to begin a conversation with one of the people next to you."

Assuming that, on the word of command, people (except the ones at the ends, who have no choice) turn either to their right or their left at random, and assuming that those who find a partner at once in this way stick with that partner, and assuming that those who don't find a partner at once will behave rationally, doing their best to pair off with someone to their left or right, what is the probability I shall find myself with no-one to talk to?

* The English word "Taoism" translates two different Chinese words, which have very different weight in the minds of educated Chinese people. One of them is Dao-jia, which names a school of philosophy, the one founded by Lao Tzu. The other is Dao-jiao, which names a religion. There is some overlap — you will see images of Lao Tzu (philosophy) in Taoist temples (religion) — but they are really two different things. You can be a philosophical Taoist without being a religious Taoist, though I am not sure about the vice versa. That initial consonant, by the way, has some of the characteristics of an English "t," and some of the characteristics of an English "d," so you can transliterate it either way. The "d" seems to be more popular nowadays, so you will see books on "Daoism."

** In the traditional ordering of the poems. Here I have used Arthur Waley's translation. Waley re-arranged the order of the poems to present them thematically. This is his number 87.

*** "Correlation of forces" is a piece of staff-college jargon meaning, very roughly:  "If you want to know who's more likely to prevail in a military conflict, add up the resources on each side." A good example of "correlation of forces" analysis is provided in Gone With the Wind, in the scene where the Southerners are cock-a-hoop that they are finally going to war against the North, till Rhett Butler throws a wet blanket over the celebration by counting off all the things the North has that the South doesn't have: factories, shipyards, coal mines, a fleet …