»  National Review Online Diary

  February 2004


It will never end     An interesting "letters" column in the March issue of Atlantic Monthly. The December issue had carried a piece titled "The Forgotten Millions" by Jonathan Rauch. It dealt with the victims of communism, and the general indifference towards them, as compared with the victims of Nazism. This brought all the old commie-lovers crawling out from their holes in the wainscoting.

It is important not to confuse communism, capitalism, or any other ism with the political system in which it is embedded. Following Rauch's model, we may equally well denigrate corporatist capitalism for the deeds of the Third Reich, or liberal capitalism for the millions killed by the murderous dictatorships propped up by the United States throughout the Cold War.
Millions of people suffered and died under communism, but millions of people also suffered and died under Christianity.
No matter how perniciously the Communists implemented their vision of the world, communist ideology — unlike racism — is intensely humanistic and premised on helping those oppressed by society.
Communism is a perfect system for perfectly equal individuals … the evils of communism were in the prosecution, not in the ideal.
Stalin never practised anything that could seriously be called communism; nor did anyone else in Russia from 1917 to 1989.
Like it or not … our post-World War II freedom and prosperity in the West are in part a result of the successes of communism. This is not to excuse the wrongs of communism, or to wish for its return, but we must remember our debt to this failed experiment.

There were eight letters on this topic altogether. Five of them voiced full-throated approval of communism; one was half-throated, one neutral, one hostile to communism. Now, the editors of "letters" columns, in every publication I have ever worked for, always try to balance the letters they print to reflect the letters they get. If incoming mail is 60 percent pro and 40 percent con, they will print pros and cons in that proportion.

So presumably close to three-quarters of the readers of Atlantic Monthly think that communism is a splendid idea; that it is harmless unless a wicked despot gets his hands on it and perverts it; that it is the moral equivalent of Christianity; that it is humanistic, a "perfect system"; that nobody ever practiced it in Russia; and yet somehow, that we owe our freedom to it.

This is not Weekly World News, this is Atlantic Monthly, a heavyweight magazine printing long, difficult articles by deep-browed thinkers. Its readership is up there in the cream of the cognitive elite. And three-quarters of them think that communism is just tickety-boo.

Where is my Weekly World News? — I need a dash of sanity.


The Dead Zone     The other day my son, noodling around with some songbooks on the piano, played "Clementine." My wife, who grew up in Mao Tse-tung's China, was delighted. "I didn't know you had that tune in the West," she said. Puzzled, I asked her what she meant. "Why, it's a North Korean folk tune. We learned it at school. It was in a North Korean movie we all saw."

Far from the least depressing thing about the communist states, but noteworthy none the less, is their utter lack of creativity. What, that is worth remembering, came out of all those years of suffering, cruelty, lies, and murder? What play, what story, what picture, what song? They even had to steal our folk melodies and pass them off as their own. If Rosie is representative, which she probably is, several hundred million people believe that "Clementine" is a North Korean folk song. In North Korea herself, people probably believe it was written by Kim Il Sung.


We are pariahs     One of Jay Nordlinger's pet themes is the loneliness of conservatives. To vast numbers of Americans, Jay will tell you, including a solid majority of the higher intelligentsia, we conservatives are scary, freakish, and probably dangerous. I have heard this a hundred times from Jay, and kind of know it in an abstract way; but once in a while something brings it home to me.

I recently went to talk about my math book to students and faculty in the Electrical Engineering department at a major American university. In the days before I showed up, one of the graduate students googled my name and read some of my NRO columns. He was so outraged, he printed off a selection of them and circulated them round his department. The head of department was obliged to issue a department-wide e-mail warning of my arrival, as if I were a cargo of plutonium.

The general tone of that e-mail is, I do not think it is unfair to say, one of barely-controlled panic. "… [S]ome of Mr. Derbyshire's writings are inflammatory, and I am sure that parts of his writings are offensive to persons who value diversity … Nevertheless, I am writing to ask that we treat Mr. Derbyshire with respect during his seminar … please keep in mind that we are part of a university community that truly does value diversity. Like it or not, Mr. Derbyshire is part of that diversity …" You can almost see this poor man's mind straining to get itself round the notion that "diversity" might include — gasp! — different kinds of opinions!

I should say that as things turned out, I had a wonderful time. Everybody concerned, including that department head, treated me with great courtesy and consideration, and went out of their way to make the visit a success, which it was. In addition, I learned a great deal from faculty members who took the trouble to describe their research to me. I had fun, I learned much, and I am very much obliged to everyone who made it happen.

Still, I could not help taking a peek at some of the Derb columns that graduate student had printed off and broadcast in his outrage. There was a sheaf of them pinned to one of the departmental notice boards. I'll admit that in these four years of steady blogging, I have done one or two pieces that might be considered a step or two over the line of strict respectability, so I had an idea in my mind about which columns might have caused such outrage. When I checked, though, the offending columns were not those I had in mind at all. Top of the list was this one, followed by this one, and others along the same lines — columns that seem to me to be perfectly innocuous. I'm sorry, but I just can't see what is objectionable about these pieces, even when I try to squint at them through the lens of Political Correctness.

What (to adopt a Stalin idiom for a moment) do we learn from this, comrades? We learn how fantastically, exquisitely sensitive the PC people are, far beyond anything you — well, I — can predict or allow for; how shocked and terrified they are by any opinions from outside their own narrow range of shared beliefs. And, just as Jay keeps telling us, how lonely it is to be a conservative.


How to attract the opposite sex     I have two friends, happily married to each other, conservative intellectuals, who met in a library. "We just got chatting one day," she told me. "And the thing that caught my attention was, he used a subjunctive."

I record this by way of assisting any of our conservative student readers who would like to find a soul mate. There is no more distinctive marker of the conservative sensibility than accurate use of the subjunctive mood in speech. Outside we few, we happy few conservative intellectuals, use of the subjunctive in spoken speech has pretty much died out. (Would it were otherwise!) But at least we have this tiny verbal marker with which to identify each other, like a Masonic handshake.

If for no other reason, the spoken subjunctive should be cherished because it has survived so long in the teeth of massive popular indifference, and in spite of numerous reports of its demise, going back at least as far as 1856, when the following thing was written:

Our students are taught in school the subjunctive form: if thou have, if he come, etc, and some of them continue in after life to write in that manner, but in the course of more than forty years I have not known three men who have ventured to use that form of the verb in conversation.
                     — Quoted in Jespersen's Modern English Grammar, Vol. VII, §18.2

I urge all conservatives to work at keeping the subjunctive alive. After all, as Kipling did not quite say: "What stands if the subjunctive fall? Who dies if the subjunctive live?"


Buckets O'Blood     No, I don't think I'll be going to see Mel Gibson's Passion. Frankly, his movies are much too bloody for me. Even those movies in which he had no directorial role are way too gory. (And I suppose that even for those, he must have read the script and been attracted to them somehow.) When I do word association on "Mel Gibson," I come up with simulated eviscerations (Braveheart), heads and limbs carried off by cannonballs (Patriot) and spurting arteries (We Were Soldiers, Gallipoli, etc., etc., etc.) A Mel Gibson movie is basically a hifalutin splatter-fest — Blood Diner in historical costumes. I really don't have the stomach for it.

The obvious riposte to this is: Well, that's the way things were. Cannonballs did carry off heads, gunshot wounds do cause fast exsanguination, etc. I don't doubt this is true. (From an account of Waterloo quoted in John Keegan's The Face of Battle:  "At the same time poor Fisher was hit I was speaking to him, and I got all over his brains, his head was blown to atoms.") It is also true, however, that you can make a very fine and thrilling historical movie without buckets o'blood, as any number of older sword'n'sandal epics demonstrate.

I note that a couple of reviewers — though unfortunately both from the left-secularist press — agree with me about Mel Gibson's over-the-top approach to movie violence. (Though I am working here from a New York Post review of their reviews.) David Denby at The New Yorker calls Passion "surpassingly violent." Peter Rainer at New York magazine tagged the film "the bloodiest story ever told."

I think Mel has a problem. Roman Catholic friends to whom I have expressed this opinion say: "Yes; but he's put his problem to good use here." Possibly so; but there is something peculiarly Roman Catholic about this (and Mel's) point of view. Meditating on the gory details of Christ's passion is a very RC thing. I recall a schoolmaster of mine, a Church of England stalwart, remarking that while the RC approach to Christianity had much to be said in its favor, "they make too much of the Crucifixion." That is part of the general Protestant prejudice: that Roman Catholicism is an over-the-top style of worship, filled with gaudy statues, elaborate rituals, convoluted theology, and so on. Turning the Passion into a splatter flick is just another aspect of that. This is, however, a matter of religious taste, than which nothing is more doggedly intractable; so I shall say no more.


Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom     That is actually the title of a book by Nik Cohn, the guy whose idea for a sociological article turned into the movie Saturday Night Fever. The argument of the book is that the early, fresh, raucous, rude, commercial rock'n'roll of the 1950s — e.g. Little Richard, from whose song "Tutti Frutti" Cohn got his book title — was the real thing, and that the whole business got spoiled when college kids, self-conscious students of Folk Music, and brooding intellectual types got their hands on it. Cohn hates Bob Dylan.

I found myself thinking of Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom as I came out from watching a wonderful performance of Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri at the Met February 9. The title means: "The Italian Girl in Algiers." Rossini's operas belong to the genre called bel canto, in which other aspects of opera — plot, orchestra — are entirely subordinated to the singers, who are expected to go at full stretch, using all their skills to exhibit "beautiful singing," which is what bel canto means. Bel canto flourished in Italy from about 1815 to 1840 (depending to some degree on whom you ask). Italian opera at that time was fizzing with vitality, composers and singers scrambling for the attention of an opera-hungry public. Operas were churned out with gay abandon: Donizetti wrote at least 66. A bel canto composer would frequently write an opera for a singer, then rewrite it for a different singer in a different city. Rossini wrote L'Italiana in twenty-seven days, perhaps less. Says one of his biographers: "The libretto bears no conceivable relationship to real life, either in Italy, in Algeria, or anywhere else." It doesn't matter a bit. L'Italiana is glorious fun.

Later in the 19th century some heavyweight French and German guys came along and opera started to take itself seriously. It then got pompous and boring. Wagner = Bob Dylan in this little analogy. Still, if a bel canto opera is performed in the correct spirit, it is possible to

 … recapture
The first fine careless rapture.

The Met production of L'Italiana on February 9 got it exactly right. Bravi!

(Please note that I am not placing bel canto opera and early rock'n'roll on the same esthetic level here. I seriously doubt that Rossini ever encouraged anyone to play the piano with his foot, as Little Richard used to.)


Christian virtue     My guess is that I am the only NRO writer who has read Little Richard's autobiography, titled The Quasar of Rock. (Sorry, this is stream-of-consciousness stuff you get in these monthly diaries. If it's pondered, composed, researched pieces you want, get a subscription to National Review.) The book is a very vivid account of the world of early rock'n'roll. Most of the vividness is of a kind totally unsuitable for retailing on a respectable website, but there is one passage that has always stuck in my mind — and it's been twenty years since I read it.

When Richard was a child, his father was killed in a bar-room brawl. Richard was thereafter raised by his mother in dire poverty. Many years later, the man who had killed his father came by the house to beg them to forgive him. "And," says Richard, in one of the most luminous examples of Christian virtue in all of Western literature, "we did."


I'm mediocre, I'm happy     Here is an extract from the January issue of that fine periodical China Journal. The article I have taken it from is "The Victory of Materialism: Aspirations to join China's Urban Moneyed Classes and the Commercialization of Education" by Stanley Rosen at the University of Southern California.

All of [China's young university aspirants] are only children, and their parents are ambitious for them. The most successful book in 2001, selling more than 1.1 million copies, was Harvard Girl Liu Yiting, in which proud parents tell how they scientifically prepared their daughter from birth to get into America's most prestigious university. Liu Yiting's acceptance into Harvard and three other prestigious American universities in 1999 at the age of 18 made the book required reading and her parents' strategy a frequent topic on Chinese talk shows and in the media. Provincial education departments organized forums for parents on how to learn from Liu's example. The book was followed by Harvard Boy, Cambridge Girl, Tokyo University Boy, and similar imitations. A literary editor, fed up with the adulation accorded to the obsession with education for material success, published a rebuttal entitled I'm Mediocre, I'm Happy, on how he raised his talented daughter to seek happiness above conventional success as defined by society. The book sold only 20,000 copies, and he was roundly vilified by parents and educators.

I should very much like to meet that literary editor and shake his hand. Mediocre? Happy? Hey, it works for me.


The credentialist state     China had, of course, the original credentialist state a thousand years ago, run by officials chosen for their success in written examinations. That ancient norm is re-asserting itself. China is turning into a pure kind of technocracy, run by nerds.

Another scholar, Bruce Gilley of Princeton, has a piece in China Journal that speaks to this point. Titled "The 'End of Politics' in Beijing," it describes how the ChiComs have not only stamped out politics among the populace, they have even stamped it out among themselves. Those annual leadership retreats to the seaside resort of Beidaihe, for example, at which leadership differences used to get thrashed out in an ambience of sun, sea, surf, sand, and socialism, have now been cancelled. There are no longer any differences. Says Gilley:

Many Chinese intellectuals are attracted by the elitism of technocracy and praise its rise while denigrating the realm of the political. They believe, writes one critic, that it has "left the new technocrats, now liberated [sic] from entanglement in ideological squabbles, free to make more or less independent decisions based on functional rationality and cost-effectiveness." Yet there are costs. [Political scientist] David Beetham notes that "wherever science serves as a source of legitimacy, it works in an anti-democratic direction by assigning the power of decision-making to the expert at the expense of the citizen." Chinese intellectuals, as [Sinologist] Lynn White notes, "have studiously ignored the anti-democratic aspects of the notion that credentialled knowledge confers a right to rule."

None of that messy democracy nonsense for these bright, sleek, well-groomed technocrats, with their laptops and PDAs, floating around Beijing and Shanghai in their government limousines. Imagine — letting people have a say in how they are governed, people who don't even have Ph.Ds! Absurd!


February's Child     Back to Rossini. The biographer I quoted up above was Francis Toye, whose 1934 book Rossini, A Study in Tragi-Comedy has one of my all-time favorite opening lines:  "To the best of my belief there is no demand whatever for a life of Rossini in English."

Since I've got the book in front of me, here's a wee brainteaser. Rossini was born February 29, 1792 and he died in November 1868. How many birthdays did he have? (He died, by the way, on Friday the thirteenth … but that is not pertinent.)


Math Corner     Yes, that was this month's brainteaser. I am disgracefully behind on posting brainteaser solutions to olimu.com, so I shall not post any hard ones till I catch up. December's I thought I had figured out, but in fact hadn't, and have had no time to revisit it. (You can do it by taking length, breadth and height to be roots of a cubic equation, then apllying some basic Diophantine analysis … But I thought I had an easier solution, then found I didn't.) January's was a blooper: I posted as a brainteaser a classic unsolved problem, and asked you to solve it. Well, at least it wasn't the Riemann Hypothesis. I shall try to catch up.

And look! — I just got through a whole month-end diary without mentioning gay marriage!