»  National Review Online Diary

  October 2003

Glory at last     One of my lesser ambitions was fulfilled this month: I have been banned from the campus of a U.S. college on the strength of my opinions. The college in question, though perfectly respectable, is not very big or important, but I am flattered none the less.

I shall tread carefully here, because, in the first place, friends are involved and I don't want to make trouble for them, and in the second, the outcome of this issue is not altogether clear, and I want to see how events take their natural course. In outline, though, here is the story.

Earlier this year I published a book about the history of a great unsolved mathematical problem. This got a lot of interest from college math teachers, some of whom have invited me to speak to their students. Nothing very surprising there.

Well, a math teacher at a Midwest college, who is also a conservative, invited me to give a talk. To make the trip worth my while, he also set up talks at a couple of nearby colleges, including one quite well-respected liberal arts school.

We were some way into the arrangements when my friend called me with a piece of news. Apparently a professor of Political Science at the liberal arts college had taken strong exception to my NRO column of June 25 If you can't be bothered to read the piece, the gist of it is that a sufficient concentration of open homosexuals in the higher levels of an organization — and I was writing with particular reference to the Episcopal Church — changes the character of that organization, to the degree that heterosexuals feel unwelcome in it. This was one of several pieces I have written about "gay ghettoization" and "straight flight" from gay-dominated institutions — bad social trends, in my opinion. Our poli-sci professor thought this "extreme," and objected to my presence on her campus.

Bear in mind here that I was coming to this college to talk about analytic number theory, not homosexuality or "straight flight." It was not the topic of my address that bothered the lady, but my opinions about unrelated matters. Her position was not: "Mr. Derbyshire is coming here to voice unacceptable opinions." (A position that would be deplorable enough in itself. As if the minds of Midwestern liberal-arts students are so delicate they need to be shielded from dangerous ideas!) Her position was: "Mr. Derbyshire holds some opinions I consider extreme, and so I do not want him on my campus at all, in any capacity." She would presumably object to me being hired as a janitor on her campus, because of my opinions.

This is so horrible, so obscurantist, so totalitarian, as apparently to cause even an academic to have second thoughts. The above was the Poli Sci professor's initial position, as it was relayed to me through my intermediary. (I have never spoken to this professor personally.) After some to-ing and fro-ing, she seems to have backed off to something like this: "Mr. Derbyshire should not come to our campus because his presence might cause a disturbance." I am not sure whether I am supposed to be deterred personally by this or whether she fears for college property and the physical well-being of students. If the former, let me make it clear that I am not a person easily deterred. I am a large adult male blessed with vigorous good health and quick wits, and can take care of myself. If the latter, then apparently the college authorities do not have sufficient control of their premises to ensure the safety of students … in which case, the state should close down this college as an unsafe place.

I have suggested that if the department of Political Science at this college really finds my opinions about homosexuality challenging, I should be glad to participate in a debate on the topic with someone of different opinions. This suggestion has been met with silence, of course. Academic fascists of this woman's stripe are not the least bit interested in debate. They don't want my poisonous opinions to be heard on their campus at all. They want me shut up or shouted down — or best of all, turned back at the college gate.

Curious to explore the meaning of the word "extreme" as it is understood in the minds of tenured academics at U.S. universities, I asked my intermediary for the names of some speakers who had been welcomed at that campus without incident. He named, among others, Angela Davis. Are you getting this? Derb — extreme. Angela Davis — mainstream. These are our colleges, "educating" the next generation of our cognitive elites. God help America.

Derb, opera critic     Went with Jay Nordlinger to the Met to see The Barber of Seville. Jay was there in his capacity as opera critic for the New YorkSun. I was thrilled to see, when the review came out, that he had quoted me in it:

As for the accuracy and panache with which [Antonino Siragusa] dispatched his final, florid music, I can do no better than to quote the man sitting next to me, an English-born writer and intellectual of exquisite manners: "He kicked a**."

(I posted this little story to The Corner earlier in the week. A reader wrote in to ask: "What's this — the George S. Patton school of opera criticism?")

What a wonderful opera the Barber is! When someone asks an opera lover where they should start at getting acquainted with this art form, the recommendation is usually to start with La bohème. I disagree; the only time anyone ever asked me that question, I took her to a performance of the Barber. It's such a happy opera. The interior of Dr. Bartolo's house is, like the gardens of Blandings Castle, an Eden from which we have all been exiled, but of which kind Providence allows us a glimpse one in a while. I defy anyone to come out of the Barber feeling glum. The thing fizzes like champagne. Even opera singers — very few of whom have any more acting talent than the average fence post — can get laughs out of the knockabout scenes, and those wonderful arias just lift you up and float you away.

The arias at the front of the opera are best known, of course. You will hear people say that the whole thing is front-loaded, and you might as well leave after the interval. Again, I disagree. Berta's arietta in the middle of Act II is a little gem — totally irrelevant to the action, doing nothing whatever to advance the plot, just a whim of the composer's, a curlicue — but worth the ticket price by itself if well done. And then there is the extremely difficult tenor aria that Jay commented on, the one whose a** Siragusa kicked so comprehensively on Friday night. It starts with a dazzling display of technique, then works its way through some exchanges and choral stuff to a stunning cabaletta, leading into the glorious finale.

Such a joyful opera! Which is odd when you think about it. Contrary to the popular perception of Rossini as a jolly wise-cracking fellow who wrote light, funny operas, he was in fact a melancholy hypochondriac, and most of his 38 operas are dead serious. What a very strange thing is human creativity!

Reductio Ad Hitlerum     A report by a British government agency says that the teaching of history to schoolchildren over there is dominated by Hitler's Germany. Apparently graduates of British high schools can identify quite obscure members of the Hitler regime, while being unable to name a single Prime Minister or U.S. President, or to tell you which century the Wars of the Roses occurred in.

One cannot help but suspect that this has something to do with the fact that the British educational establishment, like our own, is dominated by lefties, who all hold the peculiar conceit that Hitler was "right-wing," and therefore an ideological ancestor of, say, George W. Bush. Important to show the kiddies where these modern conservatives have their roots, you see. Important to impress on their receptive little minds the fathomless wickedness of the Right.

Just where the fascist movements of the early 20th century fit on a left-right spectrum — if they can be fitted at all, and if such a one-dimensional view of political affiliation really captures anything significant — I shall leave for readers to argue among themselves. (Not with me, please, my interest in this point is close to zero.) To describe Hitler as a conservative is preposterous, though. As someone once remarked: "Anyone who thinks that Hitler is a conservative should be challenged to name one single thing he wished to conserve."

Hitler and his party were in fact revolutionaries, who wished to overturn the existing order and replace it with something entirely new, a form of society that had never existed before. In this respect, they were actually more revolutionary than the Marxists, whose goal was communism without any private property. In the Marxist scheme of history, the very earliest stage of human society was "primitive communism," a tribal order with no concept of private property. The Marxists' desired future was of course at a higher level than "primitive communism," but it shared its most essential characteristic, and there is a sense in which a Marxist is, you might say, a reactionary who wished to return to the past … a conservative!

An industry headed for extinction     Discussing the last flight of Concorde with a friend, the friend suggested that not merely supersonic airline travel, but airline travel per se will soon be a thing of the past. His argument:

This strikes me as highly plausible. I don't really see any downside. Airline travel is a nightmare — does anybody like it? Airports are terrible blights, making the terrain uninhabitable for miles around. Airline security has mushroomed into a vast business employing hundreds of thousands — except that, of course, it is not a business in the commercial sense at all, but a bone-headed government bureaucracy, staffed by otherwise-unemployable dimwits, captured by don't-even- think-of-firing-our-people labor unions with Treasury-busting pension plans, accountable to nobody, and spending untold sums of taxpayers' money to very little purpose. Travel by train, boat and automobile is vastly preferable. Evelyn Waugh got it right.

Air travel a thing of the past? Good riddance!

Peasant poet     Jonathan Bate has just published a biography of the Northamptonshire "peasant poet" John Clare. (Never complain we don't give you enough links here on NRO.) I myself was born and raised in Northamptonshire, so this is of some personal interest to me. It warms my heart — slightly (see below) — to see "our" poet get a little coverage in the metropolitan press.

Northamptonians are an under-achieving lot. Northampton Town, our only major-league soccer team — known far and wide as "The Cobblers" (Northampton was an old shoe-making town) — has been propping up the bottom of the lowest division of the league (currently the Third Division) for as long as I can remember, except for a brief moment of glory in the early 1960s when they shot up into the First Division for a season, before falling right back down to the Fourth again. You can buy bumper stickers that say: Sorry! I'm from Northampton. Ours is a sleepy rural county where nothing ever happens. Well, not quite nothing: Thomas à Becket made a dramatic escape from Northampton castle in 1164. Things have been pretty quiet since then, though.

Under the circumstances we naturally make the most of the minor talents that show up once or twice per millennium. John Clare is our poet. When I was at school we had to "do" his works, so I was familiar with his style and his story from an early age.

A number of problems arise, though. In the first place, Clare was not really from Northamptonshire at all. He came from the Soke of Peterborough, which is, culturally speaking — as the locals will be glad to tell you — much more Huntingdon than Northants. In the second place, though Jonathan Bate seems, judging by the reviews, to have made a good case for him, I never thought Clare's poems were very interesting. I know when a poet appeals to me because I can remember his stuff. I mean, it sticks in my mind: precisely, if I took the trouble to memorize it, approximately if not — but it's there, waiting to be summoned up.

The only lines of Clare's I can summon up are those he wrote during one of his incarcerations in Northampton Lunatic Asylum — the very same place where, 140 years later, my own father died in the grip of Alzheimer's. Here are Clare's lines, which I think are exquisitely beautiful, though infinitely sad. They are from a poem titled "I am," one of only three Clare poems in my 1972 New Oxford Book of English Verse:

I long for scenes where man has never trod,
A place where woman never smiled or wept;
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below — above the vaulted sky.

Up on the roof     Paul Johnson's Spectator column for the September 27 issue was given over to a discussion of rooftops. Well, I have a rooftop story of my own, and here it is.

Seven or eight years ago I was working at 509 Madison Avenue in New York City. (And, yes, I often thought of Ogden Nash's couplet: "I sit in an office at 244 Madison Avenue / And say to myself: You have a responsible job, havenue?") I didn't rate an office with a window — don't think I ever have, not in New York City, anyway — but a close colleague did, and his window looked out over neighboring rooftops. One day I was sitting in this guy's office passing the time of day when I noticed some men walking around on a nearby roof, carrying long staves of wood, which they were stacking up. I called my colleague's attention to it. We watched them for a while, then lost interest.

A day or two later, this colleague put his head round my door and said: "Come check this out." I followed him back to his office, where three or four other colleagues were assembled. All were staring out of the window. Beyond it, where the guys had been stacking wood, a structure was rising. There was a platform … some uprights … long wooden staves were being fixed in place. I watched for a while before I understood what was happening: they were building a water tower!

\If you have ever looked out over New York rooftops, you must have seen those old-fashioned water towers. Each is a wooden cylinder, ten feet or so wide, perhaps twelve or fifteen feet high, standing on a metal platform, and crowned with a conical roof. I had always supposed these things were antiques, relics of the old New York. Apparently not: there are firms still erecting these things, or at least there were in the mid-1990s. It is a fascinating process to watch, requiring prodigies of co-ordinated teamwork on the part of the erecting crew.

Of the two or three years I spent working in that office, I remember practically nothing of what I did to earn my salary (I think it was something to do with mortgage-backed securities) but I vividly recall watching that work crew struggling to fit the last few staves into the outer iron hoop that was to contain them all.

Hankomania     One thing I did on my Alabama trip, of course, was feed my Hank Williams obsession. All right, all right, I know Hank isn't everyone's cup of tea, but we all have our private fixations, and you should let me indulge mine for a paragraph or two.

Where does Hankomania come from? I have no idea. There is just something about the guy — his life, his art — that I find deeply fascinating. Hank's life was a moral tangle, all mixed up with postwar U.S. history, the genius of American folk music, love, religion, poverty, booze, class, race, destiny. Also with the deep, deep mystery of performing art — why a fellow human being, standing up on a stage, doing something that doesn't sound like much if you just spell it out in words on paper, can seize and hold our attention so, entrance us so. Everyone who saw Hank perform live — I tracked down two on my Alabama trip — testifies to the fact that when seen performing on stage, he was utterly mesmerizing.

If you are in need of a time-wasting obsession and would like to acquire this particular one, I have a recommendation to make. Back in 1989 a bunch of country singers and musicians got together to make a tribute to Hank Williams. The result was a 60-minute movie, which you can buy on DVD. The movie simply consists of these people — Randy Travis, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Hank Jr., Dwight Yoakum, Kris Kristofferson, and some old-timers like Chet Atkins, Minnie Pearl, and Roy Acuff — talking about Hank and doing "cover" versions of his songs. There is just one grainy clip of Hank himself. He is singing "Hey Good Lookin'."

I don't know why this movie works, and if you had described it to me in advance I would have said it couldn't work, yet somehow it does. The Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery plays it on a loop in a small room. I passed the room, paused to take in a song I particularly like, and ended up sitting through the whole thing twice. Then I bought the DVD and have watched it, oh, a dozen or fifteen times more. It still works. Randy Travis doing "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Emmylou Harris singing "Half As Much" is worth more than all the albums Madonna ever made. (As well as being far more talented than the Material Girl, Harris, even at 42, is approximately five hundred times better looking.) The last three DVD tracks, concerning Hank's death, are heartbreaking. In the middle one of the three the whole crew, including all those great old-timers, join in a rousing version of "I Saw the Light." That's followed by the credits, backed by Hank himself singing the old gospel song "I'll Have a New Life." Watch those last three tracks alone or with someone who you won't mind seeing you cry.

This is the real, the full Hank Williams. They don't skimp on his social and religious songs. A lot of people nowadays don't realize that the connection between country music and church music is intimate and fundamental. Country music came up out of religious ecstasy — not the only possible inspiration for art, but the most fertile and reliable one. Visiting Hank's boyhood home in Georgiana, I strolled over to the town theater, where he played some early gigs. Hand-painted across the side wall of the theater outside is the following:

"Dedicated to real country traditional Southern Gospel music."

There, now; I just wrote 500 words about Hank Williams, and I was only clearing my throat. Maybe I should just give in to this thing completely and write a book about the guy.

Math Corner     The solution to last month's puzzle is here.

Readers of Prime Obsession will know that, contrary to what your schoolteachers told you, the number "minus one" does so have a square root, the friendly little number i. In fact, not only is the square of i equal to −1, so, by the rule of signs, is the square of −i.

If you are still with me, see if you can find the flaw in the following argument. Out of consideration for Aaron the Webbie, I am going to use "Sqr(x)" to indicate the square root of x and an asterisk to indicate multiplication.

Start from this obvious truth: Sqr(x − y) = i * Sqr(y − x).

Since this is plainly the case for any numbers x and y, put x = a and y = b. Then

Sqr(a − b) = i * Sqr(b − a).

On the other hand, since that obvious truth I started with is the case for any numbers x and y, I could equally well put x = b and y = a, to get another, equally true statement:

Sqr(b − a) = i * Sqr(a − b).

Now, if P = Q and R = S, then obviously P * R = Q * S. So:

Sqr(a − b) * Sqr (b − a) = i2 * Sqr(b − a) * Sqr (a − b).

Since i2 = −1 and the other components of each side are identical, it follows that 1 = −1. It easily follows that every minus sign can be replaced by a plus, all debits are credits, all liabilities are assets, and the Pope is Jewish. (Proof of the latter: Since 1 = −1, adding 3 to each side gives 4 = 2. Halving both sides, 2 = 1. Now, the Pope and Jackie Mason — who is Jewish — are two people, therefore they are one person, therefore the Pope is Jewish.)

Where is the logical flaw?