»  National Review Online Diary

  May 2003

The national game     Having an office conversation about the Bill Bennett flap, I was surprised at the vehemence of my colleague's passion against gambling. This is really a tricky one for conservatives, and was even before Bennett came along to muddy the water. It overlaps with a lot of other issues. With statism — states and nations having run out of ideas for taxing us directly, they set up lotteries to do it on the sly. With affirmative action — the nonsense about "Indian tribes" having rights that other citizens don't have. With personal responsibility — should I be free to beggar myself playing the slots if I feel like it?

The issue has a strong class angle, too. Oh, sure, plenty of rich people gamble, and it occasionally even happens that a rich person ruins himself by it. (Among the super-wealthy of Hong Kong, the greatest fear is that a son will fall into the gambling habit. As a Cantonese plutocrat once explained to me: "With drink or women, nature sets a limit. With gambling — mou haan-jai! [there is no limit].") Still, most of the people whose lives are ruined by gambling are poor people; so hostility to gambling usually contains some element of paternalism — seeking to protect the feckless poor from the dire consequences of their own folly. By the same token, though, that hostility is, like anti-smoking fanaticism, a wish to deny the poor one of their few pleasures.

I am sorry for the people whose lives are ruined by gambling, and even more so for their dependents. I suppose if I were one of those dependents, I might have a different opinion, but as things stand I am a libertarian on gambling. Amongst other reasons, I plead romantic infatuation with that "old, weird America" I keep mentioning. Gambling was woven all through that America, in a way that makes the gambling excesses of our own time — even those on the Bill Bennett scale — seem tame.

My current bathroom book (you know what I'm talking about) is a little gem of 19th-century American social history titled Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi. It is the autobiography of George H. Devol (1829-1903), who for fifty years made a living as a gambler, working first the Mississippi steamboats, then the new railways of the West. Devol is the fifth one in this scoundrel's gallery. His book a fascinating, if somewhat repetitive, read. One striking thing is the sheer amount of money floating around in the mid-19th-century USA, and the readiness of people to wager it at the least opportunity.

He pulled out a big roll and slashed down $1,000 … I beat a man at poker out of $1,200 on the steamer Wild Wagoner … Adam downed his man for $4,000 at one bet … he put up the $2,000, turned a card and lost …

Devol died penniless, of course, but he seems to have had a lot of fun.

The book is a reminder of how much a part of American life gambling has always been. This shows in our language, which is exceptionally rich in metaphors taken from gambling. Mencken:

The national game of draw-poker has also greatly enriched American with terms that are either quite unknown to the Englishman, or known to him only as somewhat dubious Americanisms, among them, cold-deck, kitty, full-house, jack-pot, four-flusher, ace-high, pot, penny-ante, divvy, a card up his sleeve, three-of-a-kind, to ante up, to stand pat, to call (a bluff), to pony up, to hold out, to cash in, to go it one better, to chip in and for keeps.
                     — The American Language

And that, of course, was written before the New Deal.

[Two footnotes to all that. First, my vote for best American gambling movie, from — here's another one of those metaphors! — a crowded field: The Cincinnati Kid. Second, I offer belated congratulations to Chris Moneymaker of Tennessee, winner of this year's world poker championship. Mr. Moneymaker [sic] is reported by the New York Post to be only 27 years old … which kind of cancels out the theme of The Cincinnati Kid.]

No opinion     There used to be an ad for the Financial Times showing two suits talking in an animated way while a third suit stood off to the side looking folorn and out of it. The punchline was: "No FT, no opinion." At any given time, there is always some topic of engaging public debate on which I can't summon up enough interest to have an opinion. I am left standing off to one side like that third suit in the ad.

Right now it is the Laci (is that really a name, "Laci"? is it short for something? or what?) Peterson case. The woman got dead. Looks like hubby did it. (It practically always is hubby that does it. Who has a better reason to kill you than your spouse? Every married reader knows what I mean.) The woman was pregnant, so there is an intersection with the whole business of abortion and the rights of the fetus. I guess I should care, but I don't. Sorry, I've tried, but I don't care, don't give a fig. I am apathetic, indifferent, uninterested (and also disinterested, as it happens), unconcerned, uninvolved, incurious, detached, distant, and withdrawn. Hannity & Colmes just gave over half their show to the miserable business. Why? I have no clue, no opinion. Am I reading the wrong newspaper?

The deserving poor     I got some odd responses to the passage in my April diary, where I revealed that the total 2002 income recorded by the Derbs on IRS form 1040 was $37,323. Well, the responses seem odd to me.

I wrote that paragraph without giving it a moment's thought. Since our most intimate financial affairs have to be laid out in detail to the IRS, and since that is a government agency with, I suppose, the usual proportion of idiots, crooks, blackmailers and psychopaths among its employees, the concept of financial privacy in early-21st-century America seems to me highly theoretical. Politicians and their constituents apparently agree: the latter insist that the former publicize their tax returns, and the former usually oblige.

Under these circumstances — which, let me say, as an advocate for a national sales tax and repeal of the 16th Amendment, I deplore — keeping your financial affairs close to your chest seems quaintly eccentric. Yet several readers reacted as if I had walked naked down Fifth Avenue. One even called me "brave." Brave! — like running into a burning World Trade Center? I don't think so. What funny ideas people have about money.

Another segment of readers wanted to commiserate with me over the pitiful level of my earnings. I appreciate the thought. I have no moral objections to high levels of income, especially if those levels are mine, and I am not the least bit offended when perfect strangers send me gifts of money, should any readers feel so moved. (Just send them c/o National Review, please: 215 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10016.) However, $37K is not actually that low — only a tick or two below the national median, though somewhat worse by the standards of the New York suburbs. The sympathy, in any case, is misplaced. Look: I do work I enjoy doing, in my own time and in my own house. I don't have to be anywhere on time, can work in my underwear if I feel like it, and I call nobody "Sir." To me, those things are worth at least $100K per annum. In any case, I have quite a healthy portfolio of stocks, bonds and mutual funds. (It plainly didn't do much in fiscal 2002, but then, whose did?) I have spent much of my life storing up treasure for myself on earth. Time to give some attention to the other thing.

Several readers expressed surprise, also at the low level of my income, on the grounds that they assumed a conservative magazine like National Review must be staffed by trust-fund kids with yachts and lavish estates, very likely wearing spats and monocles and spending the breakfast hour throwing bread rolls at each other in some exclusive gentlemen's club, in the style of Bertie Wooster. One reader had even thought, going by my surname (which is a locative), that I am the holder of an English title, a member of the peerage, or at least the baronetage or knightage.

Now it is true that you will meet one or two very well-heeled people at the NR offices. Most of us, though, are from lower-middle or working-class families, and subsist on modest salaries or the occasional and unpredictable emoluments of freelance writing.

I can't, in fact, see any correlation at all between wealth and conservatism. Rather the contrary, when you consider the abundance of rich lefties: Dianne Feinstein, Teddy Kennedy, Ted Turner, etc., etc. Why shouldn't there be poor conservatives? Yet some people's minds just can't take in these simple truths. I have a friend, a middle-aged lady of good education but very liberal opinions, who revealed during the 1996 election campaign, by a casual remark, that she believed Bob Dole to be from the Dole pineapple family. When I told her that in fact Dole's family were dirt poor, she would not believe me. What a fog of misconception people live in!

Finally, I had to smile at the reader who told me he had been thinking about taking up a career in writing, but after reading my piece had decided to stick with the day job. You are wise, Sir, very wise.

Mark what ills the scholar's life assail:
Toil, envy, want, the garret and the jail.

(After the dust-up with Lord Chesterfield, Johnson changed "garret" to "patron" in later editions of the poem.)

Captain Underpants     A brief addition to the above: A few years ago, when I began working from home and Nellie was in first grade, her class had a program of inviting the students' parents in to describe their work. I started off my own presentation by boasting that unlike other Daddies, I didn't have to ride a car or a train to go to work, I worked right there in my own house. Then I gave them the line about being able to work in my underwear if I felt like it. This made a great impression on the assembled tots. They had to write up an account of my talk afterwards. Every one of them included the line about working in my underwear. It was the one thing they all remembered. These little reports were taken home to Moms and Dads, of course. For a while after that, it was really difficult to get kids over for a play date with Nellie …

Chimps and Us     I am baffled by the stories that pop up from time to time about chimps sharing 99.4 percent (or whatever it is) of our genetic code. The reason I am baffled — baffled, that is, that anyone should believe these numbers tell us anything interesting about the human race — is that code was my living for many years. Computer code, that is — programs. I have many times been confronted with a 10,000-line program that didn't work, or that did wild and wacky things it wasn't supposed to do. It was often the case that a change to two or three lines, or even just one line, would put things right. Given two large computer programs that share 99.4 percent of their code, one might be a complete dud and the other one might make you a fortune.

The mot juste     A reader wants to know if I ever use a dictionary when I'm writing. Is he kidding? I have Merriam-Webster's Third on my hard drive, and consult it all the time. I just looked up "emoluments," for instance, and "dependent." (I am chronically insecure about things like "-ent" or "-ant,"  "-ible" or "-able.") . There are words I am perfectly confident of; there are words I am pretty sure about but would like to check just to be on the safe side; there are words I have heard once or twice and kind of sort of think I know what they mean but really must look up to be sure; there are words I don't really need to look up but whose etymology or correct pronunciation I am suddenly curious about … A good dictionary is a writer's most essential tool.

By no means his only one, either. The shelf immediately in front of me, which I can reach by just rising slightly from my chair, is eight feet long. Every one of those feet is filled with reference books, from The Oxford Classical Dictionary to Mawson's Dictionary of Foreign Terms, from Black's Law Dictionary to the 2-volume New Illustrated Encyclopedia of World History. There are also "companions" to English, American and European literature, The New York Public Library Writer's Guide to Style and Usage, The Times Atlas of the World, four different dictionaries of quotations (including Norbert Guterman's Book of French Quotations, very handy for people like me who can barely read French), Graves's Greek Myths, Harbottle's Dictionary of Historical Allusions, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, half a dozen foreign language dictionaries, Roget, Fowler, Follett, Partridge, all seven volumes of Jespersen's Modern English Grammar, … Then of course there is all the stuff on the Internet that I have as "favorites": The Bible, Shakespeare, and Johnson as separate links, and pretty much everybody else on Gutenberg.

These are the tools of my trade. Nobody just sits down to write without a ton of reference materials at hand. And yet … I still manage to screw up spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage and matters of fact on a regular basis! We are poor, fallible creatures indeed.

I don't care what kind of semite you are, son     Last week I did a Q&A for the webzine Enter Stage Right. In the course of the interview, I described myself as "a strong philosemite." That got the e-mail flowing. What did I mean by it? people wanted to know.

In the first place, let it be noted that there is nothing at all to be gained by going round calling yourself a philosemite. We philosemites don't get no respect. We drive the anti- semites nuts, of course; but the really interesting reactions come from Jews. In fact, most Jews are ill at ease with a declared philosemite, and many dislike the whole idea.

I used to think this was because Jews are so much more familiar with the opposite thing — there is always some measure of comfort with what's familiar, after all, even when it is unpleasant. However, conversations with Jewish friends have convinced me that if this is a factor, it's a minor one. I think I can identify at least two much stronger reasons for the unease.

I see the force of these points, but I am going to go on calling myself a philosemite anyway. On the first point: I'm sorry I noticed your Jewishness, I have no power to bring trouble on anyone, and if you catch me condescending to you, please condescend right back at me, just as readily as you would punch my face if I punched your face. On the second, I would replace the word "prejudice" with "stereotype," and then just refer you to my piece on this topic.

[Footnote: Philosemitism in action. A few weeks ago I found myself in conversation with a person who claimed angrily that the Jews run the United States. "Well, " I replied, "to judge by the number of people desperate to get into this country, the Jews seem to be doing a pretty good job. If we could figure a way to get them running China, India, the Philippines, and all those places south of the Rio Grande, perhaps we wouldn't have an immigration problem!"]

Math Corner     Here is a puzzle whose solution rests on a little-known property of square numbers. (I confess I didn't know it till reader George Grenley sent me the puzzle.)

Brothers Angus and Mac raise sheep in the Highlands. They take the flock to market one day, and sell all the sheep. By odd coincidence, the price per sheep was the same as the number of sheep, that is, the total sum — number of British pounds sterling — received by the brothers was a perfect square.

The brothers collect their earnings as a stack of £10 notes and a few £1 coins. They go home and divide it, fifty-fifty. The ten-spots are counted out, but Mac winds up with one more ten-spot than Angus. Mac shoves the stack of coins across the table to Angus and then says: "That makes it close to even, but not quite. I'll write you a draft to square our accounts."

How much was the draft for?