»  National Review Online Diary

  April 2005

Holding paper     News item:

Hundreds of Armenian-Americans gathered in Times Square yesterday to observe the 90th anniversary of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, in which 1.5 million people died at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish empire. They demanded that the mass extermination, which they say served as a model for Hitler's "final solution," finally be acknowledged by Turkey.

That, as readers of The Corner will know, is called "holding paper." The Armenians are certainly entitled to hold paper on the Turks in re the appalling 1915 massacres, as are the Irish on the British, the Chinese on the Japanese, and so on. Paper-holding-wise, this is penny-ante stuff, though. For really tenacious holding of paper, nobody can come close to the Jews. In the course of an e-conversation on the topic, Noah Millman sent me this:

Parshat Zachor is read the Sabbath before Purim each year (which this year is in late March). The section ends as follows:

Deuteronomy 25:17-19
17. Remember what Amalek did to you by the way, when you came forth out of Egypt;
18. How he met you by the way, and struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you, when you were faint and weary; and they did not fear God.
19. Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget it.
Amalek was a tribe that dwelt in the Sinai and Negev desert during Mosaic times (about 3500 years ago according to the traditional dating). So we're already talking about holding a grudge for a very, very long time.

But the interesting thing is that 2000 years ago or so the rabbis concluded that the mitzvah of wiping the nation of Amalek off the earth was no longer operative because Amalek no longer existed as such; all the nations of ancient Canaan were, they said, mixed together during the Babylonian exile of 2500 years ago, and so now there was no way to distinguish Amalek from anyone else — or even from Israel! NONETHELESS, even though it is impossible to perform the mitzvah, the mitzvah remains, and we are obliged to remember never to forget to blot out the name of Amalek, because of what they did to us in the desert.

So the Jews bear the following distinction: we are under a RELIGIOUS OBLIGATION to hold a 3500 year-old grudge against a group of people WHO DON'T EVEN EXIST ANYMORE.

Now that is holding paper!

Caesar's bath     Yeah, I know, this has been and gone, but going to get that link for Noah's site, I notice he's been playing the Caesar's Bath parlor game, where you have to list five things that people in your circle of friends or peer group are wild about, but you can't really understand the fuss over. Says Noah, after listing his five: "I would love to hear what Mickey Kaus, John Derbyshire and Michael Blowhard list." Glad to oblige, Noah.

History quiz     For an offbeat, humiliating, but very instructional test of your history knowledge, check out this one from Cal Lanier. I scored a wretched three and a quarter out of 14, and I always thought I was a history buff. I bet Rick Brookhiser would ace it.

The powers that be     Current hot topic among the constitutional wonks: Does the separation of powers need a tune-up? Is the judiciary out of control? Should Congress use its restraining powers?

Count me a Don't Know on this one. Do I want big decisions about the shape of society made by a bunch of self-important lefty law-school grads, their brains all addled with 1960s-ish flapdoodle about rights and penumbras? Or would I prefer to have it done by a crew of not-very-successful not-very-bright small-town lawyers whose pockets are stuffed with cash from teachers' unions, chicken-processing magnates, Saudi princes and Mexican drug lords? Pass.

I'm an old Tory. I don't want anyone telling me how to live, and I think society will keep its shape well enough if we all cleave to some common, traditional understandings, support a strong executive leadership on the rare occasions it's called for, give over our minds to communal religious observances for an hour or two per month, and mind our own businesses the rest of the time. I don't want anything to do with the law, unless I get mugged and need to stand witness, or my neighbor starts dumping his garbage in my yard. I think Congress should sit no more than ten days a year, fifteen max. Leave us alone, for Pete's sake. The purpose of law is (a) to suppress private feuds, and (b) to identify and punish criminals. It's not to tell me how or where to live, or when to die. Let me figure that stuff out for myself. Otherwise, leave me alone. This used to be bedrock Americanism. Nowadays it's come to sound eccentric. We can't blow our damn noses nowadays without permission from three lawyers, five accountants, and a couple of divinity professors. I hate the modern world.

Jobs We Won't Do     Randall Parker, a.k.a. ParaPundit, had a nice reader comment on his blog the other day:

Here's a story for you. Just a few months before my high school graduation back in 1990, I was eating lunch with a group of friends when one of them, Charlie, told us he was going to get a job for the summer paying $18 an hour. This was back when teenagers were lucky to get $5 an hour. How was he going to make that much? "I'm gunna remove asbestos from old buildings," he said.

So let's see here now: a job is tough, low status, highly undesirable, and potentially dangerous. So what does an employer do? He offers lots of money to the person willing to do it. But of course, that was then. Today what does that same employer do? He says he can't find any Americans willing to do it and so hires a bunch of illegals.

Somewhere in the very recent past we got the idea that just because a job doesn't require a college education that it shouldn't pay a lot of money. Difficult? Back-breaking? Low status? Environmental extremes? "Nobody doing such grungy work deserves to get paid squat." But if you're a lawyer working in a nice, climate-controlled environment, wearing a suit, and eating lunch at some place with a fancy French-sounding name you deserve to make six figures. Ever had to hire a lawyer? It can empty your bank account right quick. But no one seems to be saying that we have a shortage of lawyers in this country and that we need to import more from Guatemala or Mexico. Is it any wonder that something like half the folks in Congress are lawyers?

This is quite right. I studied at university in Britain 1963-67. In the long summer vacations I worked as an unskilled laborer on construction sites — non-union work in that time and place. After I graduated, it was three or four years before I made as much money, week on week, as I had made wielding a shovel. If you tell things like this to Americans under the age of thirty, they don't believe you. The world sure has changed. For the better?

Love in the Neurology Lab     I'm fairly cold-hearted about experimentation with living tissue, certainly by the standards current among American conservatives, but I have to say this news story made me feel a little queasy.

It will look like any ordinary mouse, but for America's scientists a tiny animal threatens to ignite a profound ethical dilemma. In one of the most controversial scientific projects ever conceived, a group of university researchers in California's Silicon Valley is preparing to create a mouse whose brain will be composed entirely of human cells. Researchers at Stanford University have already succeeded in breeding mice with brains that are one per cent human cells …

I guess there is some point to this, though I can't see what it might be.

The story reminded me of a couple I knew some years ago, he a neurologist at a big New York City teaching hospital. His wife first met him when she took a job as a lab assistant. Their very first encounter was as she walked in to the lab just as he was dispatching some mice. The work he was doing involved feeding the mice with some special mixtures, then extracting their brains, mashing them up, and seeing what proportions of various substances the brains were made of. This involved killing the mice, of course. His habit was to decapitate them four or five at a time, holding down their little bodies with a hand on the lab bench, their little heads all in a row, then removing the heads with one smooth pass of a long, very sharp carving knife. His future wife walked in on him just as he was doing this. Love at first sight? I asked her. "Not really. I was impressed by the size of his hands, though …"

The world before email     What is the greatest letter ever written? The question is probably unanswerable, since letter-writing is mainly a private activity. Unless you are extraordinarily famous, your private correspondence will never appear in print, so whatever flights of epistolary brilliance you might have attained were born to blush unseen.

I have some candidates of my own. I have a whole book full of them, in fact. It's a book of my wife's, a Chinese-English parallel text (English on one page, Chinese opposite) titled World's 100 Greatest Letters. Possibly the English text was poached from some actual English book — the Chinese don't bother much with international copyright law. Anyway, it has all kinds of gems in it: Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn ("Wishing myself in my Sweethearts Armes whose pretty Duckys [=breasts] I trust shortly to kysse"), H.L. Mencken to Will Durant ("What the meaning of human life may be I don't know; I incline to suspect that it has none"), Saint Jerome to a friend ("Well may we be unhappy, for it is our sins that have made the barbarians strong"), Tom Paine to George Washington ("As the federal constitution is a copy, though not quite so base as the original, of the form of the British government, an imitation of its vices was naturally to be expected"), and many others. (Though oddly, for a Chinese book, it omits one of the most famous letters in Chinese history, the one Sima Qian wrote to Ren An — I commented on that letter here, item (2).)

My personal vote for greatest letter ever written goes to the one Samuel Johnson wrote to Lord Chesterfield 250 years and a few weeks ago (February 7, 1755). You need a little background: When he agreed to write the Dictionary of the English Language, Johnson, in the style of the times, went around looking for rich patrons to support him while he labored. He dedicated the outline "plan" of the dictionary to Lord Chesterfield, who had a name for encouraging literature and the arts. Later Johnson paid a call on his Lordship, but felt that Chesterfield did not treat him with proper respect. Johnson nursed a mild grudge about this all the years he was at work on the Dictionary.

When the thing was finally ready for publication at last, Lord Chesterfield wrote a flattering review in a magazine, mentioning his own role as a patron of Johnson's work. This ticked Johnson off mightily, and the letter followed. You can read it here.

[Added later:  I have included Johnson's letter in my "Readings" here.]

Same old story     One of the invariants of modern American life is the racial double standard. Some citizens are minding their own business when a gang of teenage punks belonging to a different race decides to beat them up, yelling racial insults as they do so. Hate crime, right? Er, not necessarily.

Immigration 100 years ago     One of the issues in next week's British election is immigration. Many British people feel their country — which, after all, is small and crowded — has been swamped by foreigners. The other day I stumbled across an interesting historical comparison. I was looking up something in the L-LOR volume of my 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica. My attention wandered, I started to browse, and came up against the following under the heading "London":

The foreign-born population of London was 60,252 in 1881, and 135,377 in 1901. During 1901 27,070 aliens (excluding sailors) arrived at the port, and in 1902, 33,060. Of these last Russians and Poles numbered 21,013; Germans, 3386, Austrians and Hungarians, 2197; Dutch, 1902; Norwegians, Swedes and Danes, 1341; and Rumanians, 1016.

What an odd mix. And this was the high noon of the British Empire. Where are the Indians, Arabs, Africans, Malays, Chinese? Perhaps Imperial subjects didn't count as "foreign born." But where are the French and Spanish and Italians? This was also the high noon of anti-semitism in the Russian Empire, so I suppose most of those "Russians and Poles" were Jewish. Still the figures look odd to me. Anyone got an explanation?

Math Corner     In lieu of a puzzle this month, just a note on the joy of computation.

The following passage in Harold Edwards' book Fermat's Last Theorem caught my eye, and so, with Prof. Edwards' permission, I put it in the book I'm currently writing.

Kummer, like all other great mathematicians, was an avid computer, and he was led to his discoveries not by abstract reflection but by the accumulated experience of dealing with many specific computational examples. The practice of computation is in rather low repute today, and the idea that computation can be fun is rarely spoken aloud. Yet Gauss once said that he thought it was superfluous to publish a complete table of the classification of binary quadratic forms "because (1) anyone, after a little practice, can easily, without much expenditure of time, compute for himself a table of any particular determinant, if he should happen to want it … (2) because the work has a certain charm of its own, so that it is a real pleasure to spend a quarter of an hour in doing it for one's self, and the more so, because (3) it is very seldom that there is any occasion to do it." One could also point to instances of Newton and Riemann doing long computations just for the fun of it … [A]nyone who takes the time to do the computations [i.e. in this chapter of Prof. Edwards' book] should find that they and the theory which Kummer drew from them are well within his grasp and he may even, though he need not admit it aloud, find the process enjoyable.

That strikes a chord with me. I'm something of a computer myself (and how nice to see that older usage of the word "computer"! — Prof. Edwards' book was published in 1977), and find great pleasure in toiling through long calculations. It's not for everyone, I suppose, and there is of course no real point nowadays, when you can get a 16-digit result in seconds by punching a pocket calculator. But then, there is no point climbing mountains, since a helicopter will get you up there. Still people climb mountains.

Prof. Edwards is right: computation is fun! Don't knock it if you haven't tried it; and I recommend you do try it, next time you have an hour or so to spare. You can start with simple stuff — how many pennies would it take to equal the mass of the earth? — and work up …