»  National Review Online Diary

  November 2003


Dinosaur Derb.     Gay marriage, gay marriage, gay marriage. I don't think I've ever written a column on gay marriage. Perhaps I should. Trouble is, I can't get my mind around it. In this zone, I am totally a dinosaur. When I hear people talking about gay marriage, it falls on my ears as if they were saying: "OK, from now on, we are going to have Mars revolving round the Sun in Venus's orbit, and Venus in Mars's." Oh, are you? That's nice. But how are you going to do it? By an edict from the Supreme Court?

Sam Schulman said this much better in an article in the November issue of Commentary. Sample: "However much I might wish to, I cannot be a father to a pebble — I cannot be a brother to a puppy — I cannot make my horse my consul. Just so, I cannot, and should not be able to, marry a man. If I want to be a brother to a puppy, are you abridging my rights by not permitting it? I may say what I please; saying it does not mean that it can be." Exactly.

André Gide (since I have wandered into this neck of the woods) liked to scandalize his contemporaries by saying: "Je ne suis pas un homosexuel — je suis un pédéraste! " In a similar spirit, this whole topic makes me want to shout from the rooftops: "I'M NOT A CONSERVATIVE — I'M A REACTIONARY!"


The movie Dragon.     The American Movie Channel showed the 1993 movie Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story earlier this month. Some readers, taking me to be NRO's resident Bruce Lee expert, wanted to know what I thought of it. Well, I liked it. It doesn't follow the facts very closely, and all the supernatural stuff was a bit hokey, I thought. (I have long been of the opinion that dream sequences in movies should be banned by law.) Still, taken just as a movie, I found Dragon pretty enjoyable. Both the principals — Jason Scott Lee as Bruce and Lauren Holly as Linda — are excellent. JSL especially catches Lee exactly right: the high spirits, the impish sense of humor, and of course the terrific martial arts skills. In that last respect, he's not Bruce: but then, if you want Bruce, watch one of his movies. JSL is as close to Bruce as he needs to be to pull off this particular movie, and a lot closer than I thought anyone could be. A good story, well acted — better than the average movie.


Key lime.     Speaking of movies, we caught a favorite oldie on the Women's Entertainment channel the other night: Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson in Heartburn. What terrific actors they both are! Watching them, you realise that about acting, at least, Doctor Johnson was wrong: there is much more to it than just clapping a hump on your back and crying "I am Richard the Third." Here are two brilliant actors at the height of their powers. Absolutely the best scene, and one of the best scenes in any movie ever for my money, is the one where Meryl whacks Jack in the face with a key lime pie at a friend's dinner party, then utters the unforgettable line: "Can I have the car keys, please?" I wonder how many times they had to rehearse that before they could do it with straight faces? I can never hear the words "key lime pie" without thinking of that scene and that line.


Too hard to explain.     I am sometimes a bit scathing about Irish-American activists in these columns. In part this arises from the frustration I feel when trying to discuss Irish matters with them, because all too often, while they have the tiresome whingeing about "eight hundred years of oppression" down pat (so to speak), they don't actually know anything about the place. To some degree they can be forgiven: Ireland is not an easy place to know about. Here, for example, is an e-mail from an Irish friend. I imagine it would have the average supporter of Noraid scratching his head in bafflement.

I was at an absolutely fascinating evening the other night: a reunion dinner for the Irish Guards in London. Have you ever heard of Sir John Gorman? He was the main speaker: Catholic Unionist gentry from Kilkenny, father was in the old RIC [i.e. Royal Irish Constabulary], went North in 1922, attended a Catholic primary school and a Protestant secondary school, won an MC [i.e. Military Cross] in Normandy for ramming a Tiger Tank, became a senior officer in the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary], and BAOC's [British Army Overseas Command] head of security, and is now a Unionist Parliamentary candidate. Talks like a 1940s BBC radio announcer. Has a son and a grandson in the regiment, both just back from Basra, where they lost two men, one Ian Malone [the first Irish citizen to die on service with the British Army for 50 years] and the other a Zimbabwean, who apparently joined because he was fascinated by Irish music and wanted to be a piper.

One of the most extraordinarily eclectic group of people I have ever met: public school Anglo-Irish, working class Dubs [i.e. Dubliners] who had got commissions, but made no effort to gentrify themselves, Belfast Protestants, second and third generation Irish from Liverpool. All of them happy to drink to the Queen, all drunk and singing rebel songs by the end of the evening. Someone ought to do a piece on it: I think it would just be too hard to explain to the Irish Americans.


Opera notes.     One of the local PBS stations ran that German production of Don Giovanni, with Thomas Allen as the Don. Enthusing about it to a friend the next day, I launched myself into an impromptu "Il mio tesoro" (the opera's best-known aria). "I hate that aria," sniffed my friend. "In fact, I hate Don Ottavio [the character who sings it]. He's sappy."

Funny how people get these strong feelings about imaginary characters. Staying with opera, I must say, my own strongest dislike is Papageno in The Magic Flute. I cringe every time this idiot comes on stage with his stupid costume, his silly ditties, and his lead-balloon Germanic "humor." I have mentioned this often to friends and acquaintances, and discovered that I am not alone. There is a secret underground of Papageno haters out there, waiting to give their hearts to the first opera producer who stages a Flute without this ponderous buffoon disfiguring it.

Returning to Don Giovanni, though, I never truly realised it until my friend brought up Don Ottavio, but I could actually do without Donna Anna. I mean, what am I supposed to make of a character whose big line is: "Lascia, o caro, un anno ancora, Allo sfogo del mio cor" — loosely translated: "I have been so upset by all this that I'm going to make you wait another year before you can boink me"? Looks to me like one of the nastier sort of feminist, the sort that needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle … Or like an opera about enlightenment through suffering needs a dude in a bird costume cracking unfunny jokes.


On my mind.     The ex-Soviet republic of Georgia was in the news this month. President Eduard Shevardnadze was chased out of the parliament building by a mob who thought he had rigged an election. Shevardnadze's friend Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote a touching, though cold-eyed, piece about the "white fox" (Shevardnadze's nickname) in the London Daily Telegraph.

Georgia is a pretty rough place to be President of. Sample, from the Telegraph: "Survival was a constant tightrope walk. His enemies blew up his car. He appeared on television in a dynamite-shredded, blood-speckled vest. 'I'm getting a little bored,' he told me recently. 'No one has tried to kill me for a couple of years.'"

I can't summon up much interest in Georgian politics, but I think the Georgian language is fascinating. My guide here is George Hewitt's Georgian: A Learner's Grammar, which is never far from my elbow. This book is the subject of what must surely be the most hilariously vituperative reader review in all of Amazon.com's bazillion pages, the one by Professor Dodona Kiziria — scroll down the Amazon page a bit.


Deeper into Hankomania.     Two more ventures into Hank Williams territory this month: a movie and a CD.

The movie has Sneezy Waters doing a Hank impersonation in the style of Jason Petty, but in a different "frame." Where Jason Petty's stage show is a sketch-biography of Hank's life, The Show He Never Gave is framed by the last few hours of that life, Hank in the car just before he died, imagining himself doing a typical honky-tonk gig. The CD is of the man himself singing gospel songs.

The movie is better than you'd think from the Amazon reviews. Waters does a decent impersonation, and his acting skills are well up to the part. There is a scene with a black janitor — Hank pushes a guitar on him and gets him to sing — that is beautifully done. The faces and voices of the honky-tonk patrons are also very good, looking just as they would have looked in a place of that kind.

It was the CD that really got my attention, though. How sweet they are, those old gospel songs! No, "sweet" is not always the right word. My colleague Rick Brookhiser observed that songs of that kind speak much more directly about God and death than anything anyone would write nowadays. Too true. Just look at the lyrics to The Angel of Death, the twelfth track on this CD:

THE ANGEL OF DEATH

In the great book of John you're warned of the day
When you'll be laid beneath the cold clay;
The angel of death will come from the sky
And claim your poor soul when the time comes to die.

               [Chorus]
               When the angel of death comes down after you
               Can you smile and say that you have been true?
               Can you truthfully say with your dying breath
               That you're ready to meet the angel of death?

When the lights all grow dim and the dark shadows creep
And then your loved ones are gathered to weep,
Can you face them and say with your dying breath
That you're ready to meet the angel of death?

               [Chorus]
               When the angel of death etc.

Hank pronounces "poor" as "purr," both on this track and on Wealth Won't Save Your Soul. Fred Rose tried mightily to get him to say "poor," but Hank wouldn't. "That's the way we say it, where I come from …" So at last Fred had to instruct the backing group to say "purr," too.


Roll tide!     Every single person I met in Alabama last month seemed to e-mail me to tell me not to miss the Alabama-Auburn game on November 22. Well, sorry guys, I missed it. Saturday evenings we do family stuff — in this case a family movie. I did read the news reports of the game very diligently, but let me tell you, if actually being at a college football game in Alabama is ranked 100 as a sporting experience, watching on TV is probably no better than a 20, and reading about the game after the event barely moves the needle on the dial. I'm going to treasure the memory of seeing a live game last September 27, and otherwise let college football lie for a while.


Where was I and what was I doing?     I was on the M1 motorway (= thruway) from London to Northampton. It was my first semester at college in London, studying math at University College ("the godless institution on Gower Street"). There was no nonsense about majors and minors, it was just math, math, and math. However, first-year students were required to do an ancillary course in some language important for math studies. I did Russian, and my class was held at the nearby School of Slavonic and East European Studies every Friday afternoon. I still had a girlfriend in Northampton — you know how things are in first college semester … — and used to go home for the weekend. Having no money at all, I would take the subway out to Hendon Central in the far north of London, then hitch-hike up the motorway.

Well, that's what I was doing. I got home at last and let myself in. My Mum and Dad were sitting in the living room watching the telly. All that was showing on the telly was the world globe of BBC News, rotating slowly to the dead march from Handel's Saul. "What's going on?" I enquired breezily. "President Kennedy's been shot," said my mother. I can't honestly recall what I said next, though I have an uneasy suspicion it was along the lines of: "Oh. Is there anything to eat?"


Coming to America.     November 22 is a more tender anniversary in the Derb household: It is the date on which Rosie first arrived in the U.S.A. That was seventeen years ago. We had got married in China in August, the rule at that time being that a Chinese citizen needed to supply some good reason when asking for a passport. Being married to a foreigner was a good reason. So first we got married; then I went back to the States and waited while Rosie went through the passport and visa application business. By November the paperwork was all done. At her parents' request, I flew over to China to fetch her.

We arrived at JFK late on a Saturday evening and took a taxi to my apartment on East 46th Street in midtown Manhattan. It was the first time Rosie, then aged 24, had ever been abroad. She was transported, in a matter of hours, from a sleepy small town in provincial China to central Manhattan. Was she scared? "No, not for a minute. Just amazed and excited. When the taxi came up into Manhattan out of the tunnel — Oh! So many lights! The buildings so high — hundreds, thousands of them! And the radio in the taxi."

Huh? What about the radio?

"The voice on the radio was speaking American English, very loud and clear. In China we used to listen to Voice of America, but it was always very faint, the sound coming and going. Here was an American voice on the radio, loud and clear!"

What else had struck her on coming to America? "Black people at the airport. The airport workers and customs officers, I mean. Black people in uniforms, smiling and laughing. All we had ever heard was that the black people in the U.S.A.were oppressed. But they didn't look oppressed at all!"


200 years of victimization.     The nation of Haiti celebrates 200 years of independence on this coming January 1. Haiti is, of course, the basket case of our hemisphere. Two hundred years of self-government have left the Haitians very little better off than they were as French slaves. The U.S. has pretty much given up on the place, acknowledging that the billions of dollars we have poured into this sinkhole during the past few years have mostly sluiced straight through to the rulers' Swiss bank accounts.

Not to worry, though. The causes of Haiti's misery have been discovered and proclaimed by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the U.S.-sponsored president delicately described in our newspapers as "populist." (Haitians are black, and the main social divide is between the lighter-skinned minority and the darker-skinned majority. "Populist" is a euphemism for "darker-skinned.") Sez the prez: "Today's misery is the result of a 200-year plot. Whether it's slavery or embargo, it's the same plot. You are victims, I am a victim."

The "news" report in which I read that little gem of victimology ("Bicentennial with little joy," by Letta Tayler; Newsday, 11/23/03) adds the further helpful explanation: "Whatever the outside world's role, some Haiti experts believe the psychological legacy of colonialism has also stalled this country's march towards democracy." For 200 years? Boy, that's some stall. And how come that terrible "legacy of colonialism" did not stall the people of Hong Kong — a British colony for 150 years — or those of Taiwan — a Japanese colony for 50 years — or … Oh, never mind.


Chinese people who like the Japanese     Speaking of Taiwan: One of my recent columns concerned a riot in northwest China, whose ultimate cause was the rage and resentment that Chinese people still feel over Japan's aggression against their country in 1931-45. Another column was an obituary for Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who died October 23. The following touches on both topics.

Japanophobia is a mainland-Chinese phenomenon. In Taiwan, things are very different, very different. Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945, and seems to have been an unusually happy one. After Japan's surrender in 1945 the island was handed back to China, then still under the control of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists. Chiang's troops started to arrive in the island. They generally behaved badly, and were widely resented. An entire generation of ethnically-Chinese Taiwanese grew up disliking China and nursing fond memories of Japanese rule. This is still today one of the dynamics behind the desire of Taiwanese people for independence. It is also a big source of resentment among the more passionately nationalistic mainlanders, who scoff angrily at the Taiwanese as "lackeys of Japan."

I recently had some exchanges about this with a Taiwanese friend. With her permission, I enclose some extracts from her comments.

I prefer to be called "Taiwanese" rather than "Chinese." Under the reigns of Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo, the authorities ordered everybody to call themselves Chinese. As a young girl I was confused about my own identity. I lived in Taiwan, so why should I call myself Chinese?

My parents had lived throught the Japanese occupation in their youth. Although my father told me little about what happened during his lifetime, I knew that he had been very upset and distressed when the Chiang family came to Taiwan. He often shouted at the TV when he heard government news announcements …

Many of my elders told me that during the period of Japanese occupation, the Japanese authorities treated Taiwanese the same as themselves. If a Japanese committed any crime, his punishment would be the same as for a Taiwanese who committed the same crime. They treated everybody fairly. This situation was very different from that of the Chiangs' reigns in which Chinese enjoyed a much better, richer and more luxurious life than the Taiwanese … The Chiangs' followers treated Taiwanese in a different, cruel, and unfair way.

Japanese soldiers looked very dignified and distinguished. Chinese soldiers were so different. Many Taiwanese went to the train station to welcome the Chinese soldiers when they first came over, but found them to be thin, dirty, unkempt, rough and badly behaved …

Many of my elders liked to say that under Japanese occupation, Taiwan was a "paradise." There was almost no crime. If somebody left home for twenty years and left his door open, everything remained untouched after he came back. There was no corruption at that time. My father told me once that if a person brought some fruit with him when on a visit to seek help from a friend, his friend would feel insulted and angry and then ask him to leave his home immediately, thinking this was a kind of bribery. However, the Chiangs brought the habit of massive corruption to Taiwan.

The Japanese sincerely tried to plan Taiwan as a wonderful place. They put up many buildings, train stations, schools and universities. They had good plans for beautifying the streets of our towns. Many present-day architects give credit to the Japanese for having had long-term plan for Taiwan. However, the Chiangs destroyed everything and did very little development. It is understandable … they were thinking that one day they would go back to occupy China again. Taiwan for them was a temporary small hotel.

[Footnote to that: When I asked my Taiwanese friend for permission to quote her, she said no problem … but insisted on my adding that LeeTeng-hui, Taiwan's first post-Chiang (and first Taiwanese) President should get the Nobel Prize. Not a bad idea. How do we get a nomination going?]


Math Corner     Last month's puzzle was really too easy. The flaw is right up there at the beginning. Since, for any number X whatsoever — positive, negative, real or complex — there are two numbers whose square is equal to X, we have to settle on a precise definition of the term "square root." The usual definition is as follows: The square root of X is the number whose square is equal to X, and whose amplitude (Prime Obsession, Figure 11-2) is between zero (inclusive) and π (exclusive).

This means that the square root of 4 is 2, not −2; and the square root of −4 is 2i, not −2i.

If you put x = 13 and y = 9, you will now see that the "obvious truth" I started with is, in fact, false! (Because the left-hand side is the square root of 4, which is 2, while the right-hand side is i times the square root of −4, which is i times 2i, which is −2.)

This month's brainteaser comes courtesy of Gregory Shumate. In what follows, M and N stand for non-negative integers — that is, whole numbers greater than or equal to zero.

Consider the expression 9M + 16N, where M and N range over all possible non-negative integers. Some numbers can be represented in this form: for example, the number 59 (when M = 3 and N = 2). Some numbers, on the other hand, can't be represented in this form: for example, 55. No matter what values you give to M and N,  9M + 16N will never be equal to 55.

What is the largest number that can't be expressed in the form 9M + 16N ? Why is this number the largest?

And:  Suppose that I substitute "positive" for "non-negative" in the above? In other words, neither M nor N may be zero. Now what is the largest number? Why?