»  National Review Online Diary

  May 2004

Cheerful warmonger     So how bad has the panic been out here in the vast right-wing warmongering conspiracy this past few weeks? Not very bad, to judge from my own off-line e-mail exchanges. About the nearest to "panic" I have encountered was when, in an exchange with a fellow pundit, I asked if he no longer thought the Iraq war justified. Oh, he replied, he had no doubt the war was justified. What he was beginning to doubt is whether it was wise.

Ah, wisdom. When shall we locate the genes for that? But whatever you think on this point, at least acknowledge that George W. Bush and his administration are decent, intelligent, and patriotic Americans, with a century or so of collective experience in government between them, doing their honest best for the country. As opposed, I mean, to the stuff you hear from Bush-haters on the Left and paleo-Right, to the effect that the Bushies are

For myself, I am serenely optimistic about the war. I think we did the right thing taking down Saddam, I think we should do more of this kind of thing, and I believe we shall get out of Iraq in a way that leaves the American public satisfied as to our national honor. As to what the Arabs think about us: Try as I might (and I confess I haven't tried very hard) I can't summon up an ounce of interest in what the Arabs think about us. Nor the Bushmen of the Kalahari, neither. Though I think the Arabs should be considerably worried as to what we think about them.

From Jessica Lynch to Lynndie England     The Iraq war has had some minor secondary benefits we don't hear much about. There is, for example, the document dump. No doubt Saddam's people managed to destroy a lot of government documents while our armies advanced; and we hear that Ahmad Chalabi's people grabbed a lot more. Given the age of the regime, the speed of our advance, and the number of government and military locations in a dictatorship as thorough as Saddam's, though, it's hard not to believe we still got a good haul, which will be of considerable use to us for purposes of intelligence and diplomacy.

Another secondary benefit is the work-out our military got. I'm willing to take instruction from military readers on this, but it seems to me that a military recently experienced in the organization and fighting of a hot war has, other things being equal, a tremendous advantage over one that has not been so experienced. Soldiers want to fight, and soldiers like ours and Britain's, who have recent experience of hard fighting, are keener, better motivated, swifter, calmer, and more skilled at their trade than armies that have spent twenty years doing training exercises and "peace-keeping" missions. (Back in the 1980s a lady reporter from the U.S. asked a British officer on patrol in Belfast how he had come to be assigned to such difficult, dangerous duties. "Oh," he replied, "I pulled a few strings …")

Hot war also offers a penetrating audit of one's military and its capabilities. Surely — surely! — one thing about our own military that this war has exposed beyond any doubt is the folly of mixed-sex units, and of putting servicewomen into combat zones. Two of the incidents of this war that will be long remembered are the capture and rescue of Jessica Lynch, and the pictures of Lynndie England taunting prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Both are embarrassing to the military, though in different ways. No normal person, seeing pictures of the frail, pretty Pfc. Lynch could understand what on earth she was doing in a combat zone. (I don't mean that it is OK for sturdy, ugly women to be there; I only mean that Pfc. Lynch makes the case against women in combat zones particularly strongly.) Nor could anyone contemplating the inanely grinning Pfc. England, and reading the accounts of her high jinks with male comrades, believe that mixed-sex training and assignment is anything but a horrible disaster for those branches of the military on which they have been inflicted.

RIP Melvin Lasky     Encounter was a favorite magazine of mine for a while. This was late in its history. Lasky, who was editor of Encounter from 1958 to its closing in 1990, and died this month aged 84, had passed his journalistic prime by the time I picked up the magazine in the late 1970s. Encounter still fizzed, though, and was still outrageously Incorrect in the mostly left-wing circles I moved in. I think they printed a letter of mine once.

The great scandal about Encounter was the revelation, in 1967, that it was getting some indirect funding from the CIA. I couldn't, and still can't, see what the fuss is about. If you read a periodical, you bring your own judgment and knowledge of the world to bear on what you are reading. If you are decently well educated and have some modest experience of life, you can usually figure out when someone is selling you a bill of goods. What does it matter where the money comes from?

My favorite highbrow conservative culture magazine, The New Criterion, reminds me a lot of Encounter in the days I knew it. Same plain-vanilla layouts, same wit and sparkle, same firm, calm determination not to be taken in by the politico-cultural fads of the day. This is work that badly needs doing, now as much as thirty years ago. We should be glad there are conservatives out there doing it, getting little praise for their efforts, getting in fact a lot of abuse, and not much monetary reward.

Poetry corner     The thing that most caught my imagination this month was the bayonet charge by the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders (a Scottish regiment) in Iraq. I've blogged about this on The Corner, and won't repeat myself here. Several readers e-mailed in to tell me about the bayonet-themed heroism of Captain Lewis Millett in the Korean War.

The bayonet is actually a very useful instrument, and not only for terrifying and killing the enemy. Here is one of its incidental appearances in English verse, in a poem I have loved since childhood.

The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna

NOT a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corpse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where our hero we buried.

We buried him darkly at dead of night,
The sods with our bayonets turning;
By the struggling moonbeam's misty light
And the lantern dimly burning.

No useless coffin enclosed his breast,
Not in sheet nor in shroud we wound him;
But he lay like a warrior taking his rest,
With his martial cloak around him.

Few and short were the prayers we said,
And we spoke not a word of sorrow;
But we steadfastly gazed on the face of the dead,
And we bitterly thought of the morrow.

We thought, as we hollow'd his narrow bed
And smoothed down his lonely pillow,
That the foe and the stranger would tread o'er his head,
And we far away on the billow!

Lightly they'll talk of the spirit that's gone,
And o'er his cold ashes upbraid him;
But little he'll reck, if they let him sleep on
In the grave where a Briton has laid him.

But half of our heavy task was done
When the clock struck the hour for retiring,
And we heard the distant and random gun
That the foe was sullenly firing.

Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory;
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,
But we left him alone with his glory.

For background, here is the note on this poem and its author from Michael R. Turner's Parlour Poetry, a lovely book.

This perfect short elegy, which has a place in The Oxford Book of English Verse and many other anthologies, shows how verse can upon occasion be universally popular and also rank as poetry of the highest order. Inspired by Southey's account of Sir John Moore's death at Corunna [i.e. in the Peninsula War of 1808-14], it originally appeared in the Newry Telegraph in 1817 and was discovered by Byron five years later, whereupon numerous would-be authors claimed it for their own. Wolfe himself wrote only a scattered handful of poems: this is the only one to catch the public's eye.

Rev. Charles Wolfe (1791-1823), born in County Kildare, entered the church [i.e. the (Anglican) Church of Ireland] after refusing to read for a fellowship at Trinity College, Dublin because he did not relish the prospect of celibacy. Unfortunately, the object of his passions refused him, and, never robust, he fell victim to consumption.
[Added later:  I like this poem so much I have made it one of my readings.]

From Yao to Mao (cont.)     This month I finished listening to Prof. Ken Hammond's 36-lecture series From Yao to Mao, which covers the entire span of Chinese history. Final conclusion: a good basic course, though I thought he was much too nice to the communists. You would never know from listening to Prof. Hammond the thing that any educated Chinese person will tell you: that the 30 years from 1949 (when Mao Tse-tung took over the country) to 1979 (when Deng Xiaoping finally knocked Maoism on the head) were utterly wasted. Twenty billion man-years down the toilet. China could have taken almost any other course in 1949 but the one she took, and ended up better off. This is one of the greatest, most horrible tragedies of the modern age, and it wouldn't have hurt to say so.

In Prof. Hammond's defense, though, he might reply that it is not his job to present argumentative viewpoints like this. The purpose of these Teaching Company courses is to acquaint listeners (or viewers — they have video courses, too) with the basic facts about a field of knowledge the purchaser knows next to nothing about.

The key question one should ask about a course like this is: Does it leave you with a good foundation for further study and exploration — as a result of which you might eventually end up disagreeing with some aspect or other of the course? On this criterion, I think Prof. Hammond has done a bang-up job. I myself now have more respect for the thinkers of the Song Dynasty than I had before — I think Prof. Hammond is especially good on the Song, and on intellectual history in general. All in all, well worth the money, if you want to establish a good basic background in Chinese history. But don't leave it at that: when you've finished with Prof. Hammond, read more!

Yale or jail     "Comedian" (I can't personally say I have ever found him the least bit funny) Bill Cosby caused a bit of a stir at an NAACP event to commemorate the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that led to school desegregation. Instead of doing the usual NAACP shtick — blaming everything on the maleficent white demons — Cosby laid into the parents of black kids who don't teach their children to speak properly.

They're standing on the corner and they can't speak English. I can't even talk the way these people talk: "Why you ain't,"  "Where you is?" … I blamed the kid, until I heard the mother talk … And then I heard the father talk. Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth!

There is a great deal to be said about this. There is the matter of setting the bar too high, for example. How many of our kids, black or white, are equipped by nature to be doctors? I'm not sure my own kids are. Why shouldn't a black kid, or any other color of American kid, aspire to be a truck mechanic, a landscaper, a soldier, a farmer, a nurse, a forester, a storekeeper, a plumber or a carpenter? Aren't these honorable lines of work? Shouldn't these trades be taught to speak correct grammatical English, too? But it is useless to argue this point. Education is now an established religion, and heretics get burned at the stake. Everybody must go to law school, or else be written off — "Yale or jail," as Steve Sailer says.

Many commentators on the Brown decision anniversary noted the obvious thing: that schools in the U.S.A. are very nearly as segregated now as they were fifty years ago. My own local newspaper, Long Island Newsday, tells the dismal story:

West Islip students attend schools that are 97 percent white, while students a few communities away in Copiague go to schools that are 37 percent white. In Roosevelt, 99.8 percent of the students are minorities. Less than 10 miles away, kids who attend Wantaugh schools are 96 percent white …

(Taking Long Island as a whole, around one-third of school students are minorities.)

The reason, of course, is residential segregation; and the reason for that is, that black Americans and nonblack Americans don't much want to live amongst each other. No, that's not quite right. A Gallup poll commissioned by the American Association of Retired persons, published in the May issue of their magazine, turned up this:

A majority of all three groups [i.e. whites, blacks and Hispanics] say they would prefer to live in mostly a mixed neighborhood — including their own and other racial and ethnic groups. But a substantial number of whites, 40 percent, prefer mostly white neighborhoods, while only 14 percent of blacks and 19 percent of Hispanics prefer mostly black and Hispanic neighborhoods respectively.

A small number of blacks, four percent, and Hispanics, eleven percent, say they would actually prefer to live in predominantly white and non-Hispanic neighborhoods respectively, while almost no whites would prefer to live in predominantly black neighborhoods.

So apparently we don't much care to be among great numbers of other races; but whites care even less for this — much less — than other citizens.

Now, why is this? Is it just "racism" — that esthetic distaste that we white folk carry in our genes towards skin colors different from our own? Possibly not. Perhaps it is just an awareness of facts like those contained in this University of Washington story. Facts such as that, for example, "[M]ore young black men in the United States have done time [i.e. in jail] than have served in the military or earned a college degree." Here's one aspect of the great American problem that's got worse since Brown, not better:

The incarceration rate for black men born in 1945-49 was 10.6 percent by the time they were in their early 30s, but increased to 20.5 percent for those born in 1965-69. Among white men the overall risk of imprisonment grew from 1.4 percent to 2.9 percent over the same time period.

It's not the skin color, folks; nor even, pace Mr. Cosby, the incomprehensible speech patterns. It's the b-e-h-a-v-i-o-r.

Disgraceful, disrespectful, derogatory mass stereotyping corner     A staple of news items for Iraq in the years between the two Gulf Wars was the two-hanky report about how the poor little children of that nation were being denied food and medicine by the cruel, cynical Yanks and their stoolpigeons at the UN. In fact, the UN was running a $70 billion operation to send humanitarian supplies to Baghdad under the so-called "oil for food" program. Problem was, the program leaked like a sieve, most of the funds sluicing through to the private bank accounts of Saddam and his family, and UN officials like Undersecretray Benon Sevan, a Cypriot of Armenian origins.

Now, if I remember my Lawrence Durrell correctly:  "It takes two Turks to cheat a Greek; it takes two Greeks to cheat an Arab; it takes two Arabs to cheat a Jew; it takes two Jews to cheat an Armenian." Perhaps the next time the UN has an oil for food program, they should put Turks in charge.

Math Corner     The solution to last month's puzzle is on this web page somewhere.

This month's math puzzle I have stolen, shamelessly and brazenly, from Eugene Volokh's blog, just because I like it so much. (Oh, all right, also because I am a lazy slob. I didn't even spot this one myself: Mike Zorn passed it on to me.) Gene: If this ticks you off, please feel free to steal any of mine that takes your fancy.

OK, here it is. There is a suggested solution right there behind a second mouse click, but you should restrain yourself from looking at it until you've given the question some thought. Or you can just not go to Gene's site at all and take the puzzle from me right here instead:

Most countries have concave regions in their borders, where a neighboring country "bulges in." For example, Canada bulges into the US up by the Great Lakes. If you wanted to fly from, say, Sault Ste. Marie, MN, to Buffalo, NY, you could fly straight there going SE. That would only be about a 370 mile flight, but you'd have to pass over southern Ontario.

If you wanted to fly there while remaining in US airspace, you'd have to first go almost straight South to about Toledo, and then turn ENE to Buffalo, for a total distance of maybe 590 miles. That's about 1.6 times as far. Let's call that ratio the "concavity index." More generally, for any two points within a single country, the concavity index is the shortest distance that is entirely within the country's borders [counting bodies of water that are in between two points in a country as within the country's borders — EV], divided by the absolute minimum distance.

Now to the puzzle. What two points exhibit the highest concavity index in the world?