»  National Review Online Diary

  April 2004

East Asian strings     What is it about East Asians and stringed instruments? Here is the violin section of the Honors String Ensemble of my school district, who gave us a fine concert last night:

Stephanie Chang
Eleanor Derbyshire
Anna Guo
Priscilla Ramirez
Clare Tonks
Lindsey Whiffen
Grant Zhong

Our Nellie is of course half Chinese — "one half Chinese peasant, one half English coal miner, one hundred percent American," as both my kids are weary of being told — so we have three and a half East Asians out of seven violinists. That's fifty percent. This, in a school district I would judge (from the surnames in class lists) to be no more than three percent East Asian. What is it?

Bland envelopes     I just got hit with a late fee by one of my credit card companies. I must have thrown out last month's statement, thinking it was junk mail. This would not have been very surprising, as the statement comes in an extremely plain envelope, the only clue to its contents being YOUR ACCOUNT DETAILS ARE ENCLOSED. Half the junk mail I get says something similar, and I don't bother to open them.

See how sly these people are? The trick with junk mail is to get you to at least open the envelope. With credit card statements, the trick is to make you think it's junk mail, so you won't open the envelope. Then the credit card company can collect a late charge. Even if only 0.1 percent of account holders are as inattentive as I am, that must still mean several million dollars a year to the credit card company.

Any day now I expect to get a credit card statement with CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE WON A SENSATIONAL PRIZE!! printed on the envelope, or REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE, or something else equally indicative of the recycle bin.

Everything is equal to everything else     The feeling that America is losing its grip on reality grows daily. The essence of having a grip on reality is the power to discriminate, to make distinctions. A tree is not the same kind of thing as a fence post, a faun is not a snake, a garden shed is not a cathedral, a fleeting urge is not a deep passion, and so on. Discrimination is the essence of common sense.

Unfortunately, two generations of Americans have now grown up believing that "discrimination" means "being unkind to black people." A dark shadow has now fallen over discrimination of every kind, even the most sensible and legitimate, and we are increasingly encouraged to believe that everything is just the same as everything else. Madness and nihilism lie at the end of that road, but few people seem to be aware of this.

I gave an example of what I am talking about in National Review a couple of issues ago, when I wrote about Britain's new "Gender Recognition Bill," a law — an actual law, currently being debated in the London Parliament — which in effect makes it illegal to discriminate between men and women for any purpose whatsoever, or even, under certain circumstances, to notice that a man presenting himself as a women is, in fact, a man.

Here in New York we have another instance. City Councilman Bill Perkins (D-Harlem) is sponsoring legislation that would give legal but non-citizen immigrants the right to vote in New York City elections. Now, I myself was a legal immigrant for some years before I became a citizen, and I can tell you that voting is just about the only thing that separates legal non-citizen from citizen. (Not quite the only thing. I lost my one shot at a National Book Award because I was not a citizen at the time … And I suppose that if your ambition is to be one of POTUS's Secret Service protection detail, you are not going to make it without being a citizen. Still, in everyday matters — finding work, getting credit, paying taxes, traveling round — there is no difference between citizen and non-citizen.) Councilman Perkins's legislation would therefore eliminate the distinction between citizen and non-citizen, at least for purposes of political participation in the affairs of New York City.

Men and women? No difference! Citizen and non-citizen? No difference! What, I wonder, will be the next barrier to fall? The one that separates the child from the adult? The mad from the sane? The criminal from the law-abiding citizen? The animate from the inanimate? We are spiraling down to our doom, doom, doom.

From Yao to Mao     My dog-walking entertainment is currently Prof. Ken Hammond's lecture series From Yao to Mao, which covers the entire span of Chinese history. (This Yao is a mythical emperor of the third millennium B.C., not the basketball player.) The lectures are excellent, dealing with all the essentials in a matter-of-fact way, relating historical developments to intellectual and religious ones, and bringing everything to the listener in a way that makes sense. Knotty points in Chinese history — I mean, the bits that scholars bicker over — are dealt with briskly, the consensus view being the one presented, which I think is the correct approach in popular lectures of this kind. The down-to-earthness of Prof. Hammond's approach reminded me of Geoffrey Blainey's Short History of the World.

If I have a quibble, it's only that in such a long series — there are 36 lectures altogether — a few more spots of color would not have gone amiss. For example, the only historical record Prof. Hammond mentions for the "feudal" period of 722-481 B.C., when China was fragmented into scores of tiny, wellnigh independent fiefdoms — rather like 18th-century Germany — is the dry-as-dust Spring and Autumn Annals. This has the danger that a listener might go off and try to read the Spring and Autumn, thereby putting himself off early Chinese history for life. A much better read is Zuo's Chronicle, which brings out the great vitality of the period.

Parts of Zuo's Chronicle read like the livelier passages of the Old Testament — as well they might, since the events in the two books are partly contemporary. At other times the reader seems to have wandered into an Icelandic saga. Some great battle is fought and won. The victors celebrate with wine and song in a timbered hall, while behind the stables a bold groom dallies with the Earl's daughter.

I can't resist a genuine sample. Here is a slice of life at the court of Duke Ling, ruler of the state of Chen (in northwestern Anhui Province) around 600 b.c.

The Duke and his two ministers Kong Ning and Yi Hangfu all had affairs with my lady Xia Ji, and the three of them each flaunted an article of her underwear, and joked about it in the court. The official Xie Ye remonstrated with the Duke, saying: 'When rulers and ministers advertise their lewdness, what is there for the common people to model themselves on? If such things beome public knowledge, we shall all be dishonored. Your lordship should get rid of that article.' The Duke promised to reform. However, he told the other two what Xie Ye had said. They asked permission to kill Xie Ye, and the Duke did not forbid it. So Xie Ye was killed.

If you buy the audio-only version of From Yao to Mao, I recommend that you get hold of some decent historical maps of China to help you see what's going on. I am still relying on Albert Hermann's Historical Atlas of China (1966 edition), but people tell me it's been superseded on some points, and a few minutes' energetic googling could probably turn up something more up-to-date.

No other stain     The story of Donna Mills, the black New York judge acquitted by a Bronx (that is, black and Hispanic) jury of drunk driving after backing her Rolls Royce into two parked cars, staggering out, and refusing to take a breathalyzer, reminded me of an old legal story from the days when Britain ruled Ireland.

Irish juries did not always take kindly to circuit court judges coming into their counties to try local people. They sometimes did pretty much what that Bronx jury did. The county of Limerick was, for some reason, particularly notorious for this kind of jury favoritism. There is supposed to have been a case of a defendant acquitted and sent home by the judge with the following words ringing in his ears: "You have been found Not Guilty by a Limerick jury, and leave this court with no other stain on your character."

Diffugere nives     I've mentioned before that, though a deeply incompetent Latinist, I like to browse Horace now and then. Especially now, in the spring, when Ode IV.vii, "Diffugere nives," always comes to mind. I don't know, but I suspect, that T.S. Eliot had it in mind when he wrote "April is the cruelest month." Here are the first few lines in Housman's translation:

The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
And altered is the fashion of the earth.
The Nymphs and Graces three put off their fear
And unapparelled in the woodland play.
The swift hour and the brief prime of the year
Say to the soul, Thou wast not born for aye.

Horace is an aquired taste. He pushes his language to its limits, which are wide, and is very free with allusions, mainly to classical mythology, which you have to keep looking up. (James Michie's translation in the Penguin classics has a good index.) It's a taste well worth acquiring, though. His voice is unique, and so penetrating that when you get used to him, you can almost fancy he's sitting there in the room with you, talking. I don't know any other writer who strikes the same balance of worldly-wise-ness and … what? Definitely not optimism — he can hardly go ten lines without reminding you that you're going to die. Something like affirmation — the conviction that, with all its follies, failures and disappointments, and for all that we know how it will inevitably end, life is still worth living, and savoring.

Daffodils     As readers of NRODT will know, I've spent the last few days immersed in the life and work of the poet William Butler Yeats. It's been an interesting experience. Yeats was the first poet that seized my imagination in a big way, when I was around age 15. This was a by-product of my obsession with science fiction. A sci-fi classic that I had read and enjoyed was Ray Bradbury's The Golden Apples of the Sun. In an idle moment, I looked up the poem from which Bradbury took his title. The poem swept me off my feet.

I went right out and bought Yeats's Collected Poems — the first such book by any poet I ever bought. I read it right through, and got Yeats-crazy. This was all autodidacticism: in fact, I didn't even know how to pronounce "Yeats," and rhymed it with "Keats" until my high-school English teacher gently corrected me. (It rhymes with "fates.")

Well, the enthusiasms of our youth always bear a tinge of embarrassment when looked back on from adult life. I felt like that about Yeats for some years, and the Collected Poems gathered dust, then disappeared in some move. Now, reading through a newly-acquired copy, I am struck by how good they still are. This was no adolescent infatuation, this was a brush with greatness.

Even "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" still makes the bristles stand up on the back of my neck. Yeats came to hate this poem, through having had to recite it, by request, at every reading he gave, all his long life. (He wrote the poem when he was 23; he lived to be 73.) You can understand how he felt, but there is no denying that it's an exceptionally beautiful poem, one of the half-dozen best in our language.

It is a measure of the greatness of poems like this that they almost cannot become trite or worn. They are like gold, that never rusts. ("Almost" because obviously the poor poet, having to declaim the thing to a roomful of adoring listeners for the 1,079th time, is an exception.) The same is true of Wordsworth's "Daffodils", which still does it for me, though it really ought to come across as corny as Kansas in August.

Now, here in a Long Island suburban April, the daffodils are out all around. The poem comes to mind at the sight of them, and is as fresh and lovely as the flowers themselves.

This I hope I shall never lose — I mean, I hope I shall never get so world-weary that these spells no longer work for me.

How are things in Iraq?     Terrible! says reporter A. Not so bad, says reporter B. Whom to believe? At times like this, it is as well to remember that a country — even a single city — is a very large place, and that news reports concentrate on the much tinier zones where the action is.

The writer Alistair Cooke, who died March 30, told a story about this. He was in the U.S.A. when Luftwaffe blitzed London. The New York newspapers were full of pictures of St. Paul's cathedral seen rising from a pall of smoke, and headlines screamed LONDON IN FLAMES! Cooke spent hours trying desperately to get a phone call through to friends who lived in a London suburb. Finally he got a connection, and yelled down the line: "Harry! Harry! Are you all right?" Back came Harry's voice: "Well, my rheumatism's been playing up a bit …"

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

This month's offering isn't so much a puzzle — though I shall dress it up as one to start with — as a gape of admiration at the ingenuity and amount of work one of my correspondents has put into a perfectly useless pastime.

OK, here you go. First try the puzzle, then look at the website. The puzzle is: What does the following sentence mean, and in what sense is it true?

This sentence has one thousand one hundred a's, one b, ten c's, one hundred thousand one d's, one million one hundred e's, one f, one g, ten thousand one hundred eleven h's, one hundred ten i's, one j, one k, one thousand ten l's, eleven m's, one million one hundred one n's, one hundred one thousand eleven o's, one p, one q, one thousand one hundred r's, eleven thousand one hundred s's, ten thousand eleven t's, ten thousand one hundred one u's, one hundred ten v's, one w, one x, one y, and one z.

The answer, and many similar artifacts, are on this website.