»  National Review Online Diary

  August 2004


Privatize Yosemite!     A month of family adventures in the open air. We spent the first week of August hiking (and one day biking) around Yosemite National Park in California. Back home in Long Island, Danny and I were busy the second and third weeks of the month doing a sailing course run by the local YMCA, three hours a day out on the water in a Club 420. I have a book to get finished and so shall be chained to my computer the next few months, but at least I have some marvelous scenery, excitement, and relaxed family bonding to look back on. Isn't that what August is for?

Before going to Yosemite I had some doubts, having read up on the Internet about how the national parks are being "loved to death" by hordes of visitors. In fact, in the first week of August — which must be close to peak season — Yosemite was not over-crowded at all. We had a great time, and it included plenty of solitude. I saw no signs of desecration by stampeding throngs of citizens. Everything was peaceful, clean, and lovely.

It's hard to avoid the impression, in fact, that most of what you read on the Internet about our national parks is put up there by the kind of people for whom nature conservation is a substitute religion, whose principal deity is Uncle Sam and principal demon Joe Citizen. I am as keen as any American to see the natural beauty and wildlife of the Parks kept intact, so far as is compatible with allowing us to enjoy them; but I can't see why the best agency for accomplishing this aim should be the feds — those efficient, caring people who have brought us Section 8 Housing, the US Postal Service, the Transportation Security Agency, and the Immigration Bureau.

Why not privatize the parks? Sure, that would mean they would be run for a profit; but what's wrong with that? All sorts of vital national interests are served — and served very well — by organizations seeking profits: defense-equipment industries, for instance, and the press, and a large chunk of higher education and health care.

At the very least, complete privatization would stop the endless whining — there was a specimen of it in the Sierra Club publication I browsed in Yosemite Village Store — about how the National Parks Service is the runt of the federal litter, constantly being pushed down the priority list for government funds. That's not going to improve without some changes. Government funds are tight, and as the boomers start tapping into Social Security and Medicare, they will get tighter. Agencies like the NPS will find it harder and harder to get the funds they need.

The only solution the conservationist fanatics have for this very real fiscal problem is to whine about it (and urge you to vote Democrat, of course — as if doing so would make the boomer crunch go away). Privatize, I say.


Invasion of the Language-Snatchers     We left Yosemite from the south on Route 41 because we wanted to see the sequoias at Wawona. Having seen them we made for the expressway, Route 99, to head back to our friends' house outside Sacramento. The place to pick up 99, according to our map, was at the small town of Madera, so to Madera we went.

The California roads are so badly signposted, though, you can drive right through Madera and out the other side without having any clue where to pick up 99. We did just that. Then, realizing our mistake, we doubled back. Still no clue where Route 99 was. At this point my masculine faith in maps crumbled, and I yielded to my wife's suggestion that we just stop and ask directions. So I pulled over to where a guy was fixing his pickup truck. "Through town, go left," was all I could get out of him, in poor English with a thick Spanish accent. At a red light, I rolled down a window and called out to the lady stopped next to us, to clarify matters. She couldn't understand our queries at all, could only smile and shrug helplessly. I don't believe she understood one word of English. The next person we asked did better, though it was still a linguistic struggle.

I started to notice that the store signs and notices in the center of Madera (where we now were) were mostly in Spanish. At this point I was overcome by a rather creepy — and, I acknowledge, highly Politically Incorrect — feeling; one rather like the feeling Brooke Adams got in The Body Snatchers when she realized that everyone she knew had been replaced by pod people. Bear in mind, please, that Madera is in north, or at any rate north-central, California, 350 miles from the Mexican border. Yet three random stops of townspeople turned up no-one fluent in English, and one person without a single word of our nation's language.

This was one of those moments when suddenly, after dozing inattentive through years of some slow social development, you realise with a jolt how far things have gone.


Poetry Corner     Our fearless leader, Rich Lowry, gave us a fascinating account of his trip round Central Asia with Donald Rumsfeld — see Rich's columns and Corner postings for more details. This was at an editorial dinner party, where everyone had lots of questions and it was hard for a meek, retiring fellow like myself to get a word in. I did get to ask Rich one question, though, and here is the question: "Did you catch a sight of the Aral Sea?" No, he said to my disappointment, he hadn't.

I have been mildly obsessed with the Aral Sea since, at an early age, I read Matthew Arnold's "Sohrab and Rustum". You can, and should, read this lovely poem for yourself. In a nutshell: It's the story of Sohrab, a mighty Tartar warrior who, in a war with the Persians, challenges the champion of the Persians — Rustum, but fighting incognito — to single combat. Well, they fight it out and Rustum wounds Sohrab mortally … at which point both combatants realise that the victor and vanquished are in fact father and son. (There is a back story about Sohrab's mother having sent word to Rustum at Sohrab's birth that the child was a girl, so Rustum wouldn't come and claim the boy and train him up to war.)

We get an operatic death scene, following which:

So, on the bloody sand, Sohrab lay dead;
And the great Rustum drew his horseman's cloak
Down o'er his face, and sate by his dead son.

They are on the banks of the River Oxus; and as the night comes down they are still there, while the armies make camp and cook up their evening meals. Then, to close the poem, the poet just leaves them and floats you off in imagination down the Oxus, to where it breaks up into a delta:

 … till at last
The long'd-for dash of waves is heard, and wide
His luminous home of waters opens, bright
And tranquil, from whose floor the new-bathed stars
Emerge, and shine upon the Aral Sea.

I have always been susceptible to strong verse, and those lines went straight to my heart and stayed there. Ever since then I have thought the Aral Sea a wonderfully romantic place.

This is surely an illusion. In fact, I have read that the Aral Sea is drying up, so that what I should probably see if I went there would be an infinity of stinking mud, poisoned by decades of Soviet-era pollution. I don't care. To me, the Aral Sea is remote, mysterious, and romantic, and Matthew Arnold's stars are forever shining on it. Although, if any reader has actually seen the Aral Sea recently, I believe my romantic illusions could survive a factual report.

("Sohrab and Rustum," by the way, is included in The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse, a book no civilized household should be without.)


Encounter in Permetyab     While we're in Central Asia, one of the funniest accounts of that region is the one in The Invisible Writing, the second volume of Arthur Koestler's autobiography.

The date is 1932. Koestler, a member of the German Communist Party, was working as a freelance journalist based in Berlin. With a letter of recommendation from the Comintern in his pocket, he set off on a long tour of the USSR. Koestler included Soviet Central Asia on his itinerary, and eventually found himself in: "The most out-of-the-way place to which I have ever been … a village near the Soviet-Afghan border, called Permetyab. It is inhabited by Afghani and Baluchi tribesmen, compared to whom the Turkomans are a nation of sophisticated intellectuals." Koestler locates Permetyab at: "some fifty miles southeast of Merv, across the desert."

The high point of this visit is an interview with the "bard, story-teller and philosopher of the community," an ancient, blind, and illiterate tribesman of such gravitas that: "Even the Kultprop [that is, the Communist Party minder assigned to watch over Koestler] seemed to be impressed by him." The sage delivers a bizarre account of his life and wanderings, which culminated in the decision to leave Afghanistan for the Soviet Union and socialism, which he speaks of as "this new religion." He ends with the following ringing endorsement of Soviet policies:

Now I will tell you the result of my thinking.
A fertile womb is better than the loveliest lips.
A well in the desert is better than a cloud over the desert.
A religion that helps is better than a religion that promises.
And this secret that I found will spread over there where we come from [i.e. Afghanistan], and more and more will understand it and follow our way. But others will stay where they are and embrace the new religion and preach it to the ignorant …

The Times Atlas of the World has no entry for a Permetyab in its gazeteer, and Google delivers no hits. This might, of course, be a problem of transcription from Russian (or Turkoman, or Pushtu); but I wouldn't altogether discount the possibility that Koestler made the whole thing up.


Affirmative Action Music     I am poaching in Jay Nordlinger's territory here, but while driving along California Route 41 in search of that elusive expressway, we had NPR on the car radio. (My wife's choice! I never listen to it myself!) They were interviewing some promising young classical musicians. One was a very personable teenage violinist named Melissa White. She got to talking about her training, in a way that was both intelligent and interesting. Then either she or the interviewer — one of those emollient northeastern male voices you get on NPR — mentioned a music competition she'd gone in for. The interviewer paused to explain reverently that this competition is a national one "for young Latino and African American string players."

I nearly drove off the road. The competition they mentioned must be the one written up in the Detroit Free Press here. I'm not sure why I find this so shocking, as deep as we now are into our modern race-obsessed Cultural Revolution, but I do. Perhaps I had been nursing this idea of classical music training as an ethereal realm of pure meritocracy, untainted by all this tribal nonsense that is poisoning most other aspects of our national life and culture. Wrong, apparently.


The Stereotype Terror     There was an odd omission from that Detroit Free Press article I linked to in the previous section: the word "stereotype." I say "odd" because, as a connoisseur of current PC mumbo jumbo, I was surprised not to encounter it.

You might have been going through life thinking that stereotypes are, as a very wise man once said: "merely one aspect of the mind's ability to make generalizations, without which science and mathematics, not to mention much of everyday life, would be impossible." Not at all! Stereotypes are, in fact, the all-purpose explanatory principle — the phlogiston or ether — of current leftist sociological pseudoscience. Far from being commonplace and useful aids to navigating our way around the world, stereotypes are actually poisonous fantasies planted in our minds by the sinister puppet-masters who control our fates, for the purpose of making us scorn and hate each other — and not only each other, but our very selves, too!

Nor is it just racial minorities who bear the brunt of this cruel stereotyping. We white folk are also victims! Just look at this story from the Duluth News-Tribune of August 24. (Detroit, Duluth — What on earth is going on with you folk up there in the north country?) It concerns white American runner Jeremy Wariner, who won a gold medal in the Olympic 400 meters race the other day. The writer of the article casts the whole thing as a heroic tale of the shattering of racist stereotypes — in this case, the stereotype that white guys can't sprint: "Perhaps Wariner's gold can help Americans recognize our sad penchant for racial profiling and stereotyping when it comes to sports."

Black runner Otis Harris, who got the silver medal, is on board with the whole smash-stereotypes project: "The most important thing [sic!] in athletics is to help break down stereotypes, whether it's about African-Americans, white Americans, or any nationality [sic!!]." The writer concludes: "What happens now is really up to us. We can open our minds or we can stick with the same stereotypes that have retarded our society for more than two centuries." Those horrid, evil stereotypes! Retarding our society!

There is so much sanctimonious flapdoodle packed into this article I'm not even going to attempt a full deconstruction. Factual fudging, too: the 400 meters is not at all a real hell-for-leather sprint, but a more measured and strategic affair. What is most distressing to a mathematically fastidious reader, even more distressing than the writer's gross condescension and brainless chanting of fashionable twaddle, is the crass ignorance of what stereotypes actually are, and of the statistical theory that underlies them. (Large statistical meta-principle: Outliers prove nothing.)

But I refuse to be distressed. No, I'm going to bask quietly in the knowledge that I too am a victim — an oppressed, deluded victim of those vile racist stereotypes. Just imagine: If the ruling classes of 1950s England had not hammered those wicked, wicked stereotypes into my poor head, I might have been a world-class runner!


A Word from the Wise     For a more penetrating insight into the problems of black America, Jerry Pournelle offers the following.

If I were a Klansman determined to keep the Blacks down I would:

•  Have a lousy school system that concentrates on intellectual abilities and ignores skills;
•  Establish high minimum wages so that entry level jobs are all off the books;
•  Open the nation's borders to bring in lots of cheap labor to soak up the off-the-books jobs;
•  Launch a campaign to get Blacks to think that academic achievement is "acting White."

(It was Jerry, I believe, who coined my favorite term for our elected representatives: "congresscritters.")


MCMXIV     This month marked the 90th anniversary of the outbreak of WW1. I blogged on this a day or two ago, in a spirit of filial piety.

People have been asking me what books they should read about that war. This leaves me at a loss: the selection is so vast, you really just have to browse through it yourself to see what catches your own particular interest. If you just want a plain narrative summary, Michael Howard does the entire thing very readably in under 150 pages. If you read Howard, and then follow up with Paul Fussell's classic The Great War and Modern Memory, you will be as well-informed about WW1 as anyone needs to be.

In the way of personal war memoirs, I think Cecil Lewis's Sagittarius Rising is worth a mention. Lewis, who lived to a great age (his dates were 1898-1997) was a flier on the Western Front, in what was then the Royal Flying Corps.

This was scary stuff. The planes flew low, and the two sides were shelling each other continuously; so the planes were in constant peril of being hit by a passing shell. Here is Lewis on the tremendous British artillery barrages that preceded the Battle of the Somme in July 1916:

At two thousand feet we were in the path of the gun trajectories, and as the shells passed, above or below us, the wind eddies made by their motion flung the machine up and down, as if in a gale. Each bump meant that a passing shell had missed the machine by four or five feet. The gunners had orders not to fire when a machine was passing their sights, but in the fury of the bombardment much was forgotten — or perhaps the fact that we were not hit proves that the orders were carried out. If so, they ran it pretty fine.


Math Corner     Here is a problem I recall from one of the math magazines of ten years or so ago. I didn't keep the original, so I am working from memory, and shall have to come up with a solution before next month, unless a reader does so first.

Draw a circle of radius 1 unit (foot, meter, mile, whatever). Inscribe an equilateral triangle in the circle, the three corners all on the circle's circumference. Now inscribe a smaller circle in the triangle, its circumference just touching the sides of the triangle at their mid-points.

Starting with that smaller inner circle, repeat the process; but this time inscribe a square instead of a triangle. Then inscribe a yet smaller circle in the square, its circumference just touching the sides of the square at their mid-points.

Starting with this yet smaller circle, inscribe a regular pentagon in it … and then a circle inside the pentagon, touching its sides. Keep going in this fashion, with a hexagon, a heptagon, and so on.

The circle you inscribe inside an N-gon will be the (N − 1)-th circle you've drawn. (The circle inscribed in the square, for example, is the third one you've drawn.) The radii of all the circles you have drawn up to that point will form a sequence of (N − 1) numbers, each smaller than the one before: 1, r2, r3, r4, … rN − 1. What is the limit of this sequence?