»  National Review Online Diary

  January 2005

War mentality     The other night I sat at dinner next to a gentleman of some age. We got to talking, and he told me he had been a bomber pilot in WW2, had served on thirty-odd missions over Europe, including the firestorm-bombing of Dresden in February 1945.

I asked this very pleasant and personable old gentleman whether, in all the time he served on bombers, he and his comrades ever spoke about the morality of mass aerial bombing of German cities. No, he said, it never came up. Not even once? No, he replied emphatically, not once. Did he, himself, ever think along those lines? No, not at all. Did he think that perhaps one or two of his comrades might have thought about such issues? "Possibly, but I doubt it. Nobody was thinking like that, nobody I knew anyway. It was a war. They were the enemy. Our missions were very dangerous — I was lucky to survive so many. Some of my friends were killed or captured. We just wanted to end the war, and one way was to bomb the enemy into submission. Which we did — and a good thing too."

The Larry Summers flap     Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers got into a spot of bother by suggesting that women may not have the same innate abilities in math and science as men. Shock! Horror!

"We have now sunk to a depth at which re-statement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men," said George Orwell sixty years ago. Plainly we have sunk some way further since Orwell's time. A re-statement of the blindingly obvious nowadays will get you denounced on the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times.

A friend reminds me of the definitive remark in this zone. It comes from anthropologist Lionel Tiger: "The only distinction in biology more profound than 'male' vs. 'female' is 'alive' vs. 'dead'."

Feet of Clay     Couple of weeks ago I wrote a column about public intellectuals, wondering who qualified, and making some suggestions. Well, I got a good e-mail bag on that one, with lots of people offering names — names of people who deserve to be listed as our leading public intellectuals — that I had missed. Well out at the front of the pack was Richard A. Posner, about whom I knew next to nothing.

In a spirit of self-improvement, I decided to read one of Posner's books. He had one out at the end of last year, as it happens: Catastrophe: Risk and Response. A publisher had sent me a proof copy. (You don't have to buy too many new books in my line of work.) I dived into the Introduction. Page 10:

Suppose there's a one in a thousand chance that the coin when tossed will land on its edge rather than on either of its sides. Suppose further that the coin is tossed only once a year. Then in a thousand years the coin can be expected to be observed on its edge only once.

Hmm. The probability that the coin will be observed on its edge only once in those thousand years is 36.82 percent, which I don't believe rises to the level of an expectation. The probability that it will never land on its edge even once in those thousand trials is almost as great: 36.79 percent. There is an 18.41 percent chance that it will be observed landing on its edge twice, a 6.12 percent chance that it will be thus observed three times, a 1.53 percent chance for four times, and an 0.33 percent chance it will land on its edge five times or more. This is basic probability theory, taking terms from the binomial expansion of (0.999 + 0.001)1000.

Perhaps, as Judge Posner says on page 9 of his Introduction: "The human mind does not handle even simple statistical propositions well."

All gas and gaiters     The calamity in south Asia brought out much theologizing in the Op-Ed columns. The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a piece for the London Sunday Telegraph, telling us … well, you had better try to figure out for yourself what His Grace is telling us; I couldn't make much sense of it. Tom Utley was of the same mind, and rebuked the Archbishop for having written "an article so obscure that its meaning was almost impenetrable."

The following day, however, Charles Moore came back with a much more sympathetic appreciation of the Archbishop's homily. The prelate was, said Moore, "extremely reluctant to find excuses for his boss. He suggested that 'making sense' of such disasters was almost insulting to those affected by them. Dr Williams's piece has been unfairly maligned: most of it seemed to me true and subtle, and I was particularly struck by his point that 'those most deeply involved … are so often the ones who spend least energy in raging over the lack of explanation'."

Meanwhile, over at the Wall Street Journal, Eastern orthodox theologian David B. Hart gave what seemed to me the best summary of all, pointing out that since man is part of the natural order, the evil caused by human acts and the evil caused by convulsions of nature are part of the same issue:

The Christian understanding of evil has always been more radical and fantastic than that of any theodicist; for it denies from the outset that suffering, death and evil have any ultimate meaning at all. Perhaps no doctrine is more insufferably fabulous to non-Christians than the claim that we exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe, that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is the shadow of true time, and that the universe languishes in bondage to "powers" and "principalities" — spiritual and terrestrial — alien to God.

Whatever you may think of all this theologizing, it is oddly comforting to see it going on in the main pages of broadsheet newspapers. But where have the atheists been? Perhaps my Op-Ed reading is too selective, but I have missed Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett's Op-Eds on how the extinction of 100,000-odd lives by a tidal wave offers us no cause for reflection on the human situation at all, being merely a random physical event of the kind to be expected in a random physical world.

Silence of the shepherd     Since I have mentioned the Archbishop of Canterbury, let me tell you a story about another senior member of the Anglican communion, Bishop Andrew Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut.

On February 6 last year a fine lady named Maggy Brimelow died, after a struggle with cancer that had lasted several years. Maggy was the wife of Peter Brimelow, and was known to many at National Review, where Peter was an editor in the 1990s. Peter currently co-manages the VDARE immigration-restrictionist website, which posted an obituary notice for Maggy here. Our own David Frum wrote a fine tribute to her, which can be found among the links on that obituary notice.

Maggy was that unusual thing, a convert from the Roman to the Anglican style of Catholicism. Travel in the other direction — "doing a Newman" — is much more common. At the time she made the switch, in 1997, the Brimelows were living in Connecticut, and Maggy was actually received into the Episcopal Church by Andrew Smith, at that time a suffragan (that is, a kind of assistant bishop) to the diocesan bishop, Clarence Coleridge. She became an active church member, amongst other things a clear conservative voice on the Bishops' Advisory Committee to Coleridge and Smith. She was strongly against the ordination of openly homosexual clergymen, and at one point distinguished herself by being one of only 5 parishioners out of 5,000 to vote against the "Year of the Jubilee" initiatives — a series of measures pushed by liberals in the Episcopal hierarchy to usher in the third Christian millennium.

Maggy established a strong spiritual relationship with a lay healer working in the Connecticut diocese. At his own request, I shall not name this person. A married man with a distinguished combat record in one of the more strenuous branches of the military, he is also a conservative, with views as strong as Maggy's (and mine) against the ordination of open homosexuals. Perhaps for this reason, Bishop Smith, who is a liberal, would not allow this lay healer to qualify for ordination. (He has since moved to a different diocese, under a conservative bishop, and is to be ordained.)

As her cancer advanced and it became clear that the disease would soon end her life, Maggy obtained great spiritual comfort from her sessions with this advisor. Then, a few weeks before her death, she got something of a surprise. Showing up for a counseling session with her advisor, she was told that a new church rule had been implemented that forbade any male church officer from being alone with any female parishioner. She would only be able to take counseling with a third person in the room. (Oddly, considering the condition of the Episcopal Church, this ruling seems not to apply in the case of male parishioners …) This was part of the ludicrously named "Safe Church" initiative that began in the 1990s, with the purpose, of course, of protecting Episcopal clergy from abuse allegations.

Maggy felt, reasonably enough, that a waiver should be made for herself, a 50-year-old married woman in the last stages of a terminal disease. Anyone who has been in a very close spiritual relationship, of the kind Maggy had with her advisor, knows that it cannot be conducted with a stranger present. She wrote a polite letter to Bishop Smith at the beginning of January last year — a month before she died — begging for such a waiver. She pointed out, amongst other things, that the sessions with her spiritual advisor had been taking place in an office with a large window in its door, this window looking out on a busy corridor. (Off which the advisor's wife worked in an adjacent office.)

Maggy Brimelow's letter — Peter has showed me a copy (and has no objection to my airing the issue here) — is only a little over a page, and closes with an expression of regret for having taken up the bishop's time: "I am sure that the volume of your correspondence is enormous, the time to deal with it scarce … A simple nihil obstat would be more than eloquent." The letter — which was sent by certified mail — received no reply. To this day, Bishop Smith has not acknowledged this very reasonable plea from a dying woman, a communicant he had received into the church himself, but whose views were in conflict with his on a subject which, the bishop apparently believes, is much more important than the spiritual consolation of the terminally ill.

There, in that unhappy little story, is encapsulated a great deal of what you need to know about the current condition of the Episcopal Church.

Math Corner     Last time I asked whether anyone could find anything mathematically interesting to say about the number 2005. Nobody could, much. Far and away my favorite e-mail on the subject was in fact this one:

What I know about this number is that if you put a black dot in each of the zeros you have 2 eyeballs. The 2 and the 5 look like ears … P.S. You can also put a smiley face under the eyes.

The genuinely mathematical responses tended to run along the following eye-glazing lines:

2005 is

 … the denominator of the tenth convergent of the continued fraction expansion of sqrt(386)
 … the 14th coefficient of the power series expansion of (1 − x) /  (1 − x − x 2 − x 3 − x 4 + x 5)
 … the 42nd 5-Knödel number

I guess not every year can be numerologically interesting. The number 2005 seems in fact, to be so remarkably nondescript as to be almost interesting on that account. Almost.

For this month, chew on the following little rhyme from the Greek Anthology, attributed to a 6th-century Byzantine Greek named Metrodorus. (The translation I have given here is by Denise Davidson Greaves.)

This grave contains Diophantus. What a great wonder!
For the gravestone cleverly tells the length of his life.
God granted him the fate to be a child for a sixth of his life.
Then, having added a twelfth part, he put down on his cheeks.
After another seventh part, Diophantus grasped the wedding torch.
Five years after his marriage, God granted him a child.
Alas! Late-born wretched youth, who only reached half
the length of his father's life when cold death took him.
Diophantus, after soothing his grief for four years
by this science of numbers, brought an end to his life.

What can you deduce about Diophantus's age at various points in his life?