»  National Review Online Diary

  March 2004

Gerald Amirault     This coming month sees a new phase in the saga of the Amirault family of Malden, Massachusetts, who have endured twenty years of the most appalling persecution by the authorities in their state. This month Gerald Amirault, the last member of the family to be kept in prison — he has served 18 years — will be let out on parole, unless his persecutors can come up with some last-minute scheme to thwart the process, as they often have before.

Dorothy Rabinowitz tells the story of the Amiraults, and some other Americans similarly hounded, in her book No Crueler Tyrannies, which I have just been reading. Perhaps the most horrible thing about these cases is the way that all the worst of the persecutors later rose to positions of great power. The odious Scott Harshbarger, who led the witch-hunt against the Amiraults, became Attorney General of Massachusetts, and came close to being elected Governor. Margaret H. Marshall, most obtuse and blinkered of the state Supreme Court justices who left no stone unturned in their efforts to keep the Amiraults in jail in spite of all the evidence of a monstrous miscarriage of justice, is now Chief Justice of that court (and was a prime mover in the recent decision redefining marriage in Massachusetts). The dimwitted and cruel Janet Reno, who carried out a similar persecution in Florida, of course became Attorney General of the U.S., possibly the worst diversity hire in history. And so on.

These loathsome people have all done very well for themselves, while Gerald Amirault has spent 18 years separated from his loving wife and children. May Harshbarger, Marshall, Reno and the rest all burn in hell for what they did to this family, and may Gerald Amirault enjoy what life is left to him in prosperity, tranquility, and good health.

Unstable under reflection     In the current (April 5) issue of National Review there is a review by Thomas Hibbs of Roger Scruton's new book Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. One particular phrase in that review snagged my attention. I'm going to have to quote a chunk of the review to give you the context:

Scruton's Kantian defense of the salutary nature of myth reposes upon a conception of the sacred as entirely man-made. This raises the serious question, voiced in other contexts by the late British philosopher Bernard Williams, whether a conception like this is not "unstable under reflection." That is, can we give our sacred honor, indeed our very selves, to a conception of redemption that we know to be a human construct?

I'm going to let you discuss the larger issue among yourselves (quietly, please). What has stuck in my mind is the phrase "unstable under reflection." This phrase has opened up for me a whole new way of looking at the world. All sorts of things are, when you think about it, "unstable under reflection." Reading further forward in the magazine (I read my National Review starting from the back — influence of my father, who read his Daily Mirror that way, sports pages first), when I got to Ramesh Ponnuru's piece on the death of "compassionate conservatism," I found myself thinking: "Well of course 'compassionate conservatism' is dead. It proved to be unstable under reflection." This is a truly wonderful phrase, a sort of intellectual panacea. John Kerry's economic plan? Unstable under reflection. Gay marriage? Unstable under reflection …

Admission of failure     Scruton is one of those people I approve of in theory, but cannot actually get along with. I don't mean in person: I have met the man twice, and found him charming and amiable, a lucid speaker, and an excellent and engaging conversationalist. The problem is, I can't read his books. I keep trying — I actually own several of them — but they just send me to sleep. I have the vague feeling that there is great wisdom lurking in there somewhere, and people whose opinions I respect tell me that this is indeed the case. I just haven't been able to get more than ten pages into any of them, and retain no clear memory even of those ten pages. The worst part of it is, that I think I know the reason for my failure here. It's not that Scruton is a bad writer. He strikes me as a clever and subtle writer. It is just that I am not smart enough to understand him.

This is a pretty devastating realization to come to. Here is a guy who is, I am told and I do believe, a hero of the conservative intellectual movement, and I can't make head nor tail of his arguments. It's true that I am constitutionally averse to abstract philosophizing, but I can at least read some of it. I have read Hume with understanding, and even some pleasure; I have read Burke, and some Oakeshott, and even some of the American heavyweights — though I draw the line at Leo Strauss. But Scruton, whom I have met, and like, and admire — sorry, no can do. Hit the wall. Is this just me, or do other thoughtful, decently-well-educated conservatives have the same problem?

Decline of the American terrorist     The question came up at the dinner table: What happened to the rabid AmeriKKKa-hating, bring-down-the-system, off-the-pigs radicalism of yesteryear extremists — the Weathermen, Black Panthers, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, and the rest of them? I have figured out the answer. This is now one of those categories of work we hear so much about, work Americans will not do. As 9/11 showed, we now import immigrants for this kind of work.

Strimpedery? Fuglility?     The gay marriage issue confronts me, and a lot of other morally and linguistically conservative types, with a serious problem of nomenclature: What do we call it?

"Gay marriage" won't do. I can, with only a modest effort of self-control, type these words, but I can't speak them. Even after all these years, I still refuse to accept that the word "gay," in its original meaning, is a lost cause. I myself, at any rate, will not yield this fine old word to the lavender legions. They can have my vocabulary when they prise it from my cold dead fingers.

Nor am I willing to accept that the thing being agitated for is marriage. A word that has meant the same thing across the entire span of English-speaking history ought not be suddenly used to mean something else.

So what do I do here? Say "gay marriage" in scare quotes? I don't really like scare quotes. I associate them with lefties and ponderous, silly po-mo "scholarship." (Whoops.) Yes, yes, I know I use them on ad hoc occasions; but this issue is going to be around for a while, and I am not going to embark on a systematic use of scare quotes just so that I can refer to … the issue This applies both to the whole and the part: to "gay marriage" and gay "marriage"; to "homosexual marriage" and homosexual "marriage"; to "same-sex marriage" and same-sex "marriage." No, it's all too messy and postmodernish.

The only way out that I can see is to make up a word. A couple of minutes on a good random-word generator yielded the following, all of which look quite suitable for my purpose: strimpedery, fuglility, pringility, idlasmity, broxation. I shall cogitate for a while, then announce my choice. Thenceforth, I shall refer to the horrible topic by that word, and that word only.

FDR was queer and gay, says philosopher     Apropos which … The quote below is from the first volume of the Selected Letters of British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), just published in the UK. He is writing about FDR, with whom he became acquainted during WW2 when part of a British mission to the US.

The President really is very queer — not at all what you think he is. I have reached the conclusion that despite the gay and generous nature and all the manners and sweep of an old-established landowning squire, he is (a) absolutely cold, (b) completely ruthless, (c) has no friends, (d) becoming a megalomaniac …

Free Trade     Am I a free trader? No, I don't think I am. I've been getting an education in economics from my readers since publishing a piece on the dismal science last month. I am still an ignoramus, though so many people recommended Thomas Sowell's primer on the subject that I have bought a copy, and shall read it once I have got through doing my *$%@!!*&?* taxes.

One of the most lucid and convincing e-mails I had on this subject was from a Professor of Business Studies (which I suppose means he has to know some economics) arguing that you couldn't be a free trader unless you favored unrestricted international movement of people, which he did. The good Prof. explained that free world-wide movement of capital, which we pretty much have nowadays, is only half of what is required for genuine free trade, and unless coupled with open borders, will lead to "distortions," "inefficiencies," and "irrationality."

This sounds right to me. Therefore, since I am opposed to the unrestricted movement of labor, I cannot be a free trader. Why am I opposed to the unrestricted movement of labor? Because I have knocked around the Third World a fair amount, and have a vivid impression of how unspeakably bad government is in a lot of countries, including some countries with populations in the hundreds of millions. I think I have a good idea as to how many people would come here under an "open borders" regime. I don't want to see that many people flooding in to the U.S.A. in a short period of time. (Nor even, come to think of it, a long one.)

When you make this, as it seems to me, rather obvious point to an open borders proponent, he says something like: "Oh, the flow would level off pretty quickly once economic conditions evened out. Water finding its level, you know." What nonsense. This is to deny the existence of politics altogether. If 100 million Indonesians (say) flee their country for the U.S.A., will political conditions in Indonesia be improved thereby? So that the next 100 million would rather stay put? And what, in any case, happened to the principle of reciprocity? Shouldn't some tens of millions of Americans head for Indonesia to balance the economists' nice little equations?

When I get to this point in my arguments with the open borders people, they laugh in a superior way and say: "Oh, Derb, you really should read some economics." Yes, I guess I should. Perhaps then I would understand what a tiny, insignificant force politics is in world affairs. Free trade? Unstable under reflection.

Call Me Madam     Ages ago — well, a year or two — I confessed to being a fan of Ethel Merman, and mentioned her role in the 1950s musical movie Call Me Madam. This movie was unavailable on video or DVD for the longest time, owing to some legal dispute. Well, the matter, whatever it was, seems to have been resolved. Call Me Madam will be available on DVD April 20. For $10.71 you will be able to hear the inimitable Merman singing late Irving Berlin, in a story that shows off all the wit, confidence, and high spirits of post-WW2 America.

Asteroid Strike     Did you read Dennis Powell's NRO piece about the conundrum that would face a U.S. President if his advisers told him a small asteroid (i.e. a large meteor) was going to hit the Earth in a few days' time … maybe? Now that's a conundrum. What do you do? Tell your citizens to flee from coastal cities, on the probability the thing will hit in the ocean, triggering colossal tidal waves? (Only to see it hit inland whither all the citizens have fled?) Do nothing in the hope it won't hit, then go down in history as the man who did nothing? Any President contemplating this issue must surely come to the conclusion that his only sure chance of escaping eternal obloquy is to be at the place where the meteor hits.

Fortunately this is all pretty hypothetical. We are way out on the tail of the risk/consequences curve here. I mean, the consequences are stupendous, but the risk is teeny. Given that massive strikes of this kind occur only at intervals of 10,000 years or so, the chances of any particular President having to confront this issue are close to nil. They are, none the less, several thousand time larger than your chance of winning New York State lottery after buying a single ticket …

Left behind     I see that "Left Behind" authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins are about to come out with the 12th novel in the series, which will depict the actual Second Coming of Christ. I haven't read any of the "Left Behind" books, but I have seen a movie made from the first one (or possibly the first two or three, I am not sure). I wasn't impressed. On the one hand, as an old sci-fi fan from way back, I felt at home right away. The basic plot conventions, the human reactions, the effects, are all taken from the sci-fi playbook. On the other hand I feel a prickle of irritation at what I think of as the sci-fi-ization of religion. I get it with Paradise Lost, an early effort along these lines, though of course considerably redeemed by the power of poetic genius. I especially get it when confronted with an attempt to sci-fi-ize the Afterlife — that absurd Robin Williams movie, for instance.

To believe that God's imagination should be no bigger than that of a good sci-fi novelist — let alone a mediocre one, which is what I was presented with by the Left Behind movie — seems to me theologically improper, as well as improbable. God's imagination is much bigger than that. He imagined the whole universe, and all the convoluted, billion-layered mystery of human nature. He imagined you and me, and Mr. LaHaye and Mr. Jenkins, too. Do you really expect me to believe that if He chooses to close down the whole show, He will do so by means of this tawdry bag of sci-fi tricks? I don't think so. Personally, I think an asteroid impact is more likely. In any case, He is not mocked, not by Messrs. LaHaye and Jenkins at any rate.

All the news that's politically correct to print     Returning to the print version of National Review, Jay Nordlinger's piece on the New York Times a couple of issues ago prompted me to reflect on my own relationship with the Gray Lady.

I first made her acquaintance thirty years ago, during my first tour of duty in the U.S. I recall thinking what a dull newspaper she is. Dull, dull, dull. The Op-Ed page cartoons, for instance. Where I come from, Op-Ed page cartoons have some point. They are often very funny, and some of them are famous — think of that great WW2 one of Churchill saying: "Very well, alone." Well, in the early 1970s, when I started reading the NY Times, the Op-Ed page cartoons were totally meaningless. I mean, you couldn't make any sense of them at all. The main Op-Ed woud be about, say, energy policy; and it would be wrapped around a huge kind of Rorschach picture of what might or might not have been a man wearing Oxford bags and moon boots, but with the head of an elephant. These things were weird. They have improved a little, but not much.

Then there's that lame "crossword" (actually a quizword, not a true crossword puzzle at all). And then, those pompous editorials, and the silly tendentious lefty flapdoodle of the columnists … Sure, the news stories are sometimes good, the foreign ones at least, but you need to cross-check them with some less ideological publication to make sure you are not being sold a bill of goods, and who's got the time?

I gave up reading the Times in a regular way about ten years ago. Nowadays I'll go to it for some specific story someone has recommended, or pick it up and browse through it in an idle moment, but it inspires no affection or respect in me, and I would feel ashamed to actually spend money on it. It's an awful paper, and I was not the least bit surprised at the recent revelations about race-favoritism and made-up copy. "Who dares give up 'the newspaper of record'?" wonders the subtitle of Jay's piece. Well, I did, and I'm happier, healthier and calmer for it.

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

Here's one for this month:

Augustus De Morgan, the 19th-century English mathematician (whose name, as Martin Gardner pointed out, is an anagram of "O Gus, tug a mean surd!"), noticed that he was x years old in the year x 2. Which year was he born in? Can anyone reading this blog say that he will be x years old in the year x 2? (Whole numbers only here, please.) How about other powers? Can anyone alive say: I shall be x years old in the year x N, for some N greater than 2?