»  National Review Online Diary

  September 2003


My Country, 'Tis of She …     We had a lot of fun with that proposed new citizenship oath, now apparently withdrawn. NRO's John J. Miller blogged very eloquently about the oath and its problems. He pointed out that, for example, the first sentence in this passage:

My fidelity and allegiance from this day forward is to the United States of America. I pledge to support, honor, and be loyal to the United States, its Constitution, and its laws.

 … has a plural subject but a singular verb, a thing that would have got your knuckles rapped in any fifth-grade classroom up to about forty years ago.

I had another issue with that passage, though — with the second sentence this time. I guess you could argue that "United States" is a singular, not a plural, by common usage, so I'll let that go; but what happened to the convention that a nation is feminine? I would much prefer "… her Constitution, and her laws." Am I being fogeyish here? Should a present-day Kate Smith sing

God bless America,
Land that I love!
Stand beside it
And guide it …?

Surely not. Where are the radical feminists when you really need them?


When in Rome     More on citizenship. Reading J.P.V.D. Balsdon's fascinating book Romans and Aliens this month, I came across the following little nugget:

Under [the Emperor] Claudius we hear of the Lycian who had himself received Roman citizenship but who could not understand Latin, or at least could not understand the Emperor's Latin when cross-examined by him in the Senate in A.D. 43; he was one of a Lycian delegation. "Nobody has a right to Roman citizenship who can not speak Latin," Claudius pronounced, and canceled the man's citizenship forthwith.

The footnote reference is to the historian Dio Cassius. Lycia was the southwestern "bump" of what is now Turkey, just east of Rhodes.

I think I shall just leave that there without further comment for you to meditate on; though perhaps I should add that the proceedings here may not have been entirely fair, as Claudius was a notorious stutterer.


Speechless     It's not often a situation leaves me totally at a loss for words, so the following is worth recording just for its scarcity value.

Sunday I was at the NASCAR race in Talladega, Alabama. I was on magazine business, so I got passes to go to all the restricted areas. Well, I was crossing an open lot in one of those areas with my NASCAR minder when I saw a very beautiful young black woman sitting in the back of an SUV with the door open, a scattering of people standing around in a protective sort of way. I asked my minder who the woman was. "Oh," he said, "that's Miss America." I recalled that she was booked to appear at the event. I wondered aloud if she would give me an autograph for my daughter. The minder said it wouldn't hurt to ask, so I went over and asked.

Miss America — her actual name is Ericka Dunlap — turned out to be very charming. She agreed to the autograph, and at once one of the people nearby whipped out a glossy promotional photograph from a bag and handed it to her. While she was inscribing the photograph with my daughter's name and a very sweet message, Miss America commented: "This is my first experience of a NASCAR event."

"Hey," I said, glad of a conversational opening. "It's my first NASCAR experience, too."

Miss America favored me with a glance from her big dark eyes, and a mischievous smile, and said: "Well, how 'bout that. We're having our first experience together."

Like I said, it doesn't happen often.


Stay in there, Tom     I am a huge Tom McClinock fan. I think he should stay in the race, and I think every Republican in California should vote for him. Apart from anything else, look at McClintock's résumé. This guy knows the machinery, and how to work it, and where the problems are, and how to fix them. Yeah, sure, I know there's a case against professional politicians, but McClintock is not that case. At a certain level of conservatism, the case doesn't apply. Think Calvin Coolidge.

On this point, E.D. on Fox & Friends the other morning was talking about Kelsey Grammer's recent remark that he might run for the U.S. Senate. Why, asked E.D., do these showbiz types never think of starting a little lower down the political ladder — PTA Chair, Town Selectman, that kind of thing? One of her colleagues batted the point back to her: What about the Cincinnatus ideal, the citizen leaving his farm for a while to do a spell of public service? Isn't that just what Schwarzenegger is doing?

This is one of those eternal arguments in the politics of a democracy, like that other one about whether you should vote for the guy whose politics you like, even if he's going to split the ticket and let the enemy in. I don't have any general principles to offer. I think these things have to be played as they come, case by case. In the particular case of Arnold vs. Tom, I prefer Tom, and I'd vote for Tom. I hope he'll stay in, and of course I hope he'll win. A weak kinda-conservative can be worse in office than a liberal. I don't have a vote in California, but I have one in New York, and I can tell you all about RINOs, any time you have a couple of hours to spare. A strong, experienced conservative is worth fighting for, and worth voting for, and yes, even worth losing for. I don't care what your high-school sports coach told you: Winning is not the only thing. (Though he was right about there being no "i" in "team.")

There's just one tiny thing about McClintock that gives me pause. Don't get me wrong: he's a great candidate, will be a great governor, and I urge Californians to vote for him — and work for him, if you have the time. It's just that … I wish he didn't look so much like Al Bundy.


Pessimists' corner     Quote of the month.

I'm very depressed. As I say in the later essays in my latest book, for years and years I've sneered at the old farts who say the world is going to the dogs and now I realise they're right.

That was historian / travel writer Jan Morris, interviewed at length in the September issue of Literary Review.

(Who, bless them, still show no interest in putting up a web page, or any kind of internet presence at all. You want conservative? These people are conservative. The only place I know of in the U.S. where you can buy Literary Review over the counter is at the newsstand in Grand Central, the one on top of the escalators on the north side of the concourse. Otherwise you just have to subscribe: FREEPOST LON 17963 London SW20 8YY, England; $84 per annum.)


A fashionable venereal disease?     I got my knuckles rapped by several readers, including the ever-loyal Andrew Sullivan, for referring to AIDS in a piece I wrote last month as "a fashionable venereal disease," and then again, later in the same piece, as "chic." Sullivan wound himself up into high dudgeon over this, calling me a "smug, sickening bigot," and claiming that I was "spitting in the face of the sick."

Fiddlesticks. (And for the record, since I have been given a fair opening here, I think Andrew Sullivan is a hysterical nitwit.) Of course AIDS is a venereal disease. What else is it? Sullivan complains that: "It can be transmitted by non-sexual means." Why, so it can. So can syphilis; so can gonorrhea; so can most diseases characterized by the presence of pathogens in body fluids. My dictionary (Merriam-Webster's Third) defines "venereal disease" as: "a contagious disease that is typically acquired in sexual intercourse." AIDS is, on that definition, a venereal disease. That it is fashionable seems to me just as indisputable. Leaf through the glamor and showbiz pages of your favorite newspaper or magazine for any period during this past 20 years. Count the number of extravagant AIDS benefits organized by, and attended by, the high glitterati of Hollywood and similar centers of fashion. Then count how many benefits these same people have put on for, say, testicular cancer. Q.E.D.

AIDS is also just about the most easily-avoidable disease known to man. Unless you live a bizarre lifestyle, or are extraordinarily unlucky — on the scale of winning-the-lottery unlucky — AIDS is, as blogger John Ross has spelled out in detail, not your problem. Now, as Christians, we should of course feel compassion for anyone in pain, and I am certainly very sorry for anyone sick with AIDS. Few of us are sufficiently saintly to be able to encompass the entirety of human suffering, however, and it is human nature to be selective about our compassion, feeling more for some cases than for others. My own face to face experience of suffering has included both a little girl with leukemia and an old man who was dying from lung cancer as a result of a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. Both were very pitiable, but I was more deeply moved by the first than by the second. On strictly Christian grounds, this partiality cannot be justified, but I doubt anyone would react much differently.

We should always do our best with the Christian virtues, and I honestly do; but faced with the sheer stupendous quantity of suffering in the world, the quite disproportionate attention given to people with AIDS — most of whom got the disease as a result of irresponsible, antisocial hedonism — often seems to me, to speak frankly about it, offensive.

Nor am I alone in feeling this way, to judge from my e-mail bag. Millions of Americans are suffering in agony and destitution right now because they are afflicted with diseases that neither Barbra Streisand, nor Elizabeth Taylor, nor Michael Jackson, ever wore a cute ribbon for, and for which the U.S. Congress never passed a special bill providing free home care, including free meals, at federal taxpayers' expense. Those people, and their distraught relatives, are entitled to feel — and, they tell me, actually do feel — that their faces are being spat in by people like Sullivan, who lobby for ever more public and private money to be spent on research into AIDS, and therefore, since the supply of money is finite, subtracted from research into less fashionable diseases.

I do not begrudge AIDS sufferers my compassion, but I do begrudge them the priority they claim on my compassion — not to mention my money! — for what they suffer as a consequence of their own lust, folly, carelessness, lack of restraint, and lack of self-respect.


What's your point?     More election stuff. Here (in USA Today, 9/26/03, page 4A) is a picture of four of the Democrats running for President: Kerry, Graham, Lieberman and Clark. They are all in suits and ties, all smiling, standing in a row looking off at something outside the picture to the left. What are they all looking at? I don't know, but whatever it is, Joe Lieberman is pointing at it. It's the Politician Point: right arm straight out, index finger pointing, other fingers in a relaxed curl, head slightly inclined as if taking aim along the pointing arm. They all do it. I guarantee, if you riffle through your newspapers for pictures of politicians campaigning, at least one in ten of those pictures shows the principal pointing.

What does it mean? Why do they point? In the USA Today picture, Joe Lieberman's expression says: "Hey, guys, look at that over there! Interesting, huh?" The other candidates' expressions say: "Wow, yeah, Joe, that's something, ain't it?" The problem is, this photograph was taken while they were on the stage together after one of those televised debates. It is therefore located in some TV studio or rented hall. There is nothing interesting to see in such a place at such an event, nothing worth pointing out, just the usual seat-fillers the TV folk pull in for a politician's audience — college students, retirees, public-sector unionized types, people with nothing useful to spend their time on — and some TV cameras and lights and stuff. Yet still the politicians point.

Hey look, guys, that's the Dalai Lama over there — and look, he's levitating!
Hey look, that couple over there are buck nekkid! And they're … Oh my God!

I don't think so. Even setting aside the phoniness of this whole silly business, didn't these guys' mothers ever tell them that it's rude to point?

A no-tax pledge from a candidate is always a plus, far as I'm concerned, but here are three more pledges a politician should make if he wants my vote.


Oh, Henry     I did a piece about the Left's demonization of Henry Kissinger, and got a very interesting e-mail bag. Kissinger arouses complex emotions on the Right. I have noticed, since I started mixing with American conservatives, that a mention of the old Metternich produces strange responses. Conservatives older than about 40 either harrumph and shake their heads, or else sigh and shake their heads. Younger cons tend to frown and start their next sentence with: "Well …  …" followed by a long pause. The overall impression one gets from conservatives is that Dr. K. is not one of us. Of course (everyone agrees hastily) he's not one of them, either.

I do understand that Kissinger's impatience with moral idealism as an ingredient in policy sits ill with Americans of all persuasions. Surely he was the right man for the time, though? And just look at what followed. The name Cyrus Vance mean anything? How about Warren Christopher? Would you like to have had them in charge during the Vietnam War?

Not having grown up in the U.S., my psyche is relatively unroiled by Vietnam, and this may be one of those things about America that we foreign-born types can never quite "get." I will still maintain, though, that Dr. K. did great service to his country, that he is not a criminal of any kind (moral, forensic, or war), and that if he needs a place to crash when on the run from the International Criminal Court gestapo, we have a spare bed and he's very welcome to it.


Colin Walters, R.i.P.     One of the sidelines I have to keep body and soul together is book reviewing. I do a certain amount for NR, or course, but I have a list of other editors I can depend on to send me a book once in a while. As a chronically bookish person, I still find book reviewing slightly supernatural. I read a book; I pass an opinion on it; a check arrives in the mail; and I get a free book! Magic!

One of those editors was ColinWalters, who died August 25th. Colin was the books editor at the Washington Times for 21 years. I can't say I knew him well. As a matter of fact, I never met him in person, rarely having any occasion to go to Washington. My acquaintance with Colin was like this: Every few months I would get a call from him. He was instantly recognizable on the phone, with a cultivated, rather diffident, English voice very slightly colored by his West Country origins. He would tell me about a book that had come in, one he thought I "might find interesting." I always took his word for it and accepted the book. Then we would chat for a minute or two. The only thing we had in common was the fact of both having grown up in England. On that slender thread we would hang a few exchanges about general matters: the Washington scene, why we both preferred the U.S. to the U.K., the sad state of newspaper book sections (shrinking, for as long as I can remember).

Colin's outlook on life was philosophical, slightly sardonic. That probably served him well in his job: being a newspaper's book editor is inglorious work, and atrociously badly paid.

He had a very English sense of humor — understated, and dry as the Sahara. I remember once calling him to ask why my check was late. "I expect I forgot to do the paperwork," he confessed disarmingly. "Sorry. I'll do it right away. Or … you wouldn't like to take a few books in lieu, would you?" (This is a literary editor's joke. A literary editor spends his working life trying to avoid being suffocated beneath a rising tide of books. He works in an office with books piled on every level surface, against the walls, on the chairs, under the desk. Every mail brings a new flood of books. A books editor — not Colin — once apologized to me that he could not buy me lunch because he was too broke: "… but you can have some books if you like.")

Well, it was a slight acquaintance, but a happy one. I was sorry to hear of the passing of a humorous and gentlemanly colleague. I hope Colin Walters is now in a place where he can read when and what he wants to read, where unwanted books disappear into the ether after 24 hours, where every review comes in on time, where newspaper book sections are forever expanding, and where freelancers never grumble about checks being late.


Vote for Hillary!     No, I can't imagine myself ever doing so. I've seen all I want to see of socialism, in England and China. The country has survived worse things than Hillary, though. It survived her husband, for example. While a Hillary presidency would be appalling, it is possible that it would not be as bad as Bill's, at least in foreign and military affairs.

As an authority for this opinion, I shall cite Richard Nixon. In Monica Crowley's book Nixon off the Record she reports some remarks Nixon made in 1993, when the new Clinton administration was deliberating their course of action in Bosnia. "I don't think Clinton has it in him to make the tough call … you've got to go all the way or [do] nothing. Clinton must not go halfway on Bosnia. All of this Hamlet-like deliberating makes him look weak. We've got to get our allies, the Congress, and the people to go along. Instead of telling them what we are going to do, he's looking for their permission! This isn't leadership! He doesn't scare anybody, and neither does [Warren] Christopher. Hillary inspires fear …" [My italics.]


Math Corner     In lieu of a math puzzle last month I posed a word puzzle:

Two six-letter words, one English and one French, have precisely the same meaning and are directly descended from the same Latin root; yet they have not a single letter in common. No letter that appears in the English word can be found in the French one, and vice versa. What are the two words?

The two words are "bishop" and "évêque."

Here is a logic puzzle from a clever little book by Raymond Smullyan, titled The Riddle of Scheherazade. I'd like to emphasize that this is one of the hardest puzzles in the book — most are easier than this.

There is a pair of identical twins named Edward and Edwin, who are indistinguishable in appearance. One day shortly after they were grown, a strange disease struck them both and changed their lives forever. Henceforth, each twin was in one of three psychological states — State 1, or State 2, or State 3 — that alternated in a constant cyclical pattern: 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, … and so on. Curiously enough, at any given time, both brothers were in the same state — both were in either State 1, or State 2, or State 3. There was, however, a crucial difference. Edward always lied when he was in State 1, but told the truth in the other two states. Edwin, on the other hand, lied when in State 2, but told the truth when in State 1 or State 3.

One day, one of the brothers was asked: "Are you either Edwin in State 2 or Edward not in State 1?" From his answer, is it possible to deduce what state he is in? From his answer, can one deduce whether he is Edward or Edwin?

Incidentally, all the answers to these monthly puzzles are posted within a few days on my personal website here, with the date portion of the URL adjusted in an obvious way. Sorry, I keep forgetting to mention this. In the particular case of this month's puzzle you could, of course, buy Raymond's book, which has worked solutions. I recommend you do that — the book is a lot of fun.