»  National Review Online Diary

  June 2005

The Power of Negative Thinking     That is the title of a piece by Roger Scruton in the 6/25/05 issue of The Spectator. The article is about the appalling French lefty intellectual con-man Jean-Paul Sartre, who was born 100 years ago this month, and died, not a moment too soon, in 1980. Roger's take-down of the old poseur suffers (for me) from the Scrutonian problems I have noted before. Reading Scruton is like some peculiar dream where you are alternately flying like a bird, then wading through molasses. You get delicious quips like this:

Sartre disliked the Germans for the same reason he disliked the French — namely, that they were for the most part ordinary human beings, who lived by custom and loyalty.

Or this, of Sartre's disciples Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, and Bourdieu:

 … who have continued the master's work of hunting down meanings and spearing them with their finely honed negation signs.

But then suddenly you are stuck in something like this:

The account of sexual desire in L'Être et le néant exemplifies a peculiar trait of Sartre's philosophical writing, namely his tendency to focus on our condition as incarnate creatures, and to discover therein a kind of betrayal.

Er, yeah. Well, Scruton is a professional philosopher, and I confess I haven't much patience with philosophy. In any case, Paul Johnson, whom I find irresistibly readable, already did a comprehensive demolition job on Sartre in his book Intellectuals.

Scruton is not wrong about Sartre being a "pernicious influence" though. I can testify to this personally. Back in my student days, I read all the way through Sartre's novels, and a couple of the plays. In one of the novels a character steals a book, not because he has a genuinely criminal nature, or because he can't afford to buy it, but just as a gesture of existential authenticity. Well, I was so impressed by this, I followed his example. I stole a book from a bookstore, to assert my precious existential authenticity, though also to see what it felt like.

It didn't feel like anything much at the time, but I've been nursing guilt about it ever since. My fundamental instincts are all utterly, boringly bourgeois — I am the last person in the world who should attempt a life of crime.

I can't remember the name of the bookstore (much less the book), but it was one in Ranelagh Street, in downtown Liverpool, England, circa 1967, and I am really, truly sorry.

The more shameful thing is not the insult I committed against someone else's property, but the revelation, to my later self, of my own weakness in having been influenced to do a dumb and wrong thing by the gassy, pretentious, bogus ideas of a scoundrel — and a French scoundrel at that! Who wasn't even a good writer! I believe I have built up some moral fiber since then. I certainly hope so. But the guilt lingers.

[It occurs to me, reading back over this, that the name of Jean-Paul Sartre may nowadays be most widely known via the Monty Python sketch where he is visited by two British housewives, Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion.

Mrs Premise:  How's the old man, then?
Mrs Sartre:  Oh, don't ask. He's in one of his bleeding moods. "The bourgeoisie this is the bourgeoisie that" — he's like a little child sometimes. I was only telling the Rainiers the other day — course he's always rude to them, only classy friends we've got — I was saying solidarity with the masses I said … pie in the sky! Oooh! You're not a Marxist are you Mrs Conclusion?
Mrs Conclusion:  No, I'm a Revisionist.

Etc., etc. Let's hope so, anyway. That's how he should be remembered.]

Shuttle to nowhere     My biggest email generator of the month was my column on the stupid, pointless, murderous, and outrageously expensive Space Shuttle. I shan't repeat any of the points I made there, or in subsequent Corner posts, or Radio Derb spots. I only want to note that a launch date has now been set for the next Shuttle flight, which, natch, I shall not be watching. The date for the flight — the first since Columbia blew up — is July 13th. From the news item:

Discovery will carry seven astronauts to the international space station, along with sorely needed supplies and replacement parts. If Discovery suffers irreparable damage en route, the astronauts will move into the station and await a rescue by Atlantis — a situation NASA considers an extreme last resort.

OK, all repeat after me: "The purpose of the Shuttle is to service the International Space Station. The purpose of the International Space Station is to provide work for the Shuttle."

Britain empties out     What's going on over there? A few diaries ago I noted the fact that my nephew had bought some property in Turkey. Latest news is, he's sold his house in the UK and gone to live in Turkey. This is a 40-something lower-middle-class English bloke, happily married with two teenage girls. The girls are staying in England, but Mum and Dad have gone to Turkey. Amazing. Peter is the British Everyman. You couldn't imagine a more normal person. My brother is incoherent about it, thinks his son has gone nuts. I checked with my sister, who is more detached. She: "John, property prices here are through the roof. If you watch TV here, half the programs are about how much cheaper property is in other countries — including the USA! So everyone's buying property abroad. Then you figure, if you sell the UK property, you can live pretty much for ever in one of these foreign places. With a great climate, and everything."

So, what? — Britain's just going to … empty out?

Jay Nordlinger likes to tell of a conversation he had in London once with David Pryce-Jones, about some constitutional outrage the British government was perpetrating. Jay: "Why do the British people put up with it, with that great tradition of liberty they have?" P-J: "Jay, the British people don't live here any more."

Looks like this may soon be literally true!

Spyware     The home computer network has settled in pretty well. My computer up in the attic, and the kids' in their respective bedrooms, and the family computer (mostly Mom's) downstairs, are all connected by cable, with a wireless didgeridoo for the laptop. The main problem so far has been spyware on the kids' machines. Websites that kids are likely to visit seem particularly likely to drop nasty stuff on to your system. We do regular purges (Spyware Blaster, AdAware, SpyBot), but it's like sweeping water uphill. One of these little devils actually disabled my daughter's Norton Antivirus, which now doesn't work. Even after you purge these things, the damage is done.

What horrible, loathsome psychopaths they are, the people planting this stuff on the Internet! Is any punishment too severe for them? Targeting kids, especially — kids who just want to have a little fun on some Internet game site, and end up having to call Dad to reset their messed-up system. As if Dad doesn't have enough things to do. I would cheerfully support capital punishment for these wreckers, if they could be tracked down. Their entire contribution to the culture, to the economy, and to human life, is negative. Capital punishment might be too good for them, in fact.

To try to get my blood off the boil, I have been researching curses that I can apply to these antisocial swine. Results so far haven't been very satisfactory. Arabic isn't as rich in curses as I had been told, though I rather like: "May the fleas of a thousand camels lodge in you armpit." Irish curses, at least the ones listed here, are mostly incomprehensible. "May you not see the cuckoo nor the corncrake" — say what? Why should I want to see them? Yiddish curses are mostly either feeble or a bit too clever, though "May you back into a pitchfork and grab a hot stove for support" is cute. I still haven't found the mother lode of really good curses, though. Help me out here, readers.

Last lawnmower in Sears     Does Sears still sell lawn mowers? Haven't been down there in a while. This may be the last decade they do, if they still do. Mowing your own lawn is going the way of churning your own butter. I just don't see people mowing their lawns any more. In my suburban street, it's pretty much down to me and old Jim Finley, who is nearly 80. Everyone else has their lawns done by crews of guys whom it would, of course, be invidious and mean-spirited — if not downright racist! — of me to attempt to characterize by ethnicity, nationality, or likely immigration status, but who I feel pretty sure, at any rate, are not third-generation Swedish-Americans.

This week I had to do some research on the Shinnecock Indians of Long Island for a National Review editorial. The Shinnecock, backed by some casino developers in Detroit, are trying to claim back some land their ancestors sold back in 1859. One of my sources was a New York Post article from June 19. It contains the following:

Many Shinnecocks work in the massive Hamptons service industry — cutting lawns, cleaning pools and looping golf clubs for their affluent neighbors. While it is enough to subsist [sic], tribe members said it's not enough to put up a decent home or send their kids to college. Others added that even those jobs are more difficult to secure with the influx of Latino laborers on the East End.

My italics. But aren't these good-hearted immigrants just coming here to do the jobs Americans won't do? And aren't the Shinnecocks Americans? Oh, what's the use!

Birkhoff & Jews     The way we are remembered, after we have shuffled off this mortal coil, is often very unfair. The American mathematician George Birkhoff (not to be confused with his son Garrett Birkhoff, of "Birkhoff and Mac Lane" textbook fame) is remembered mainly for Albert Einstein having said of him: "G.D. Birkhoff is one of the world's great antisemites." The grounds for this remark were that during his professorship at Harvard in the 1930s, Birkhoff would not admit the Jewish refugees then pouring out of Germany and Eastern Europe, many of whom were fine mathematicians.

Now, antisemitism was widespread among Americans of Birkhoff's time and background, no doubt about it, and it's pretty clear that Birkhoff was not at all uncomfortable with that. Einstein may have been overstating his case, none the less. Some, at least, of Birkhoff's hiring policy can be put down to plain patriotism. Here is Saunders Mac Lane, who died earlier this year, in an interview I found in the 1990 book More Mathematical People, Ed. Donald J. Albers, Gerald L. Alexanderson, and Constance Reid.

Interviewer:  The 1930s must have been the worst possible time to be looking for a position in this country. Not only was there a depression, but you were also facing the competition of all those people coming from abroad.
Mac Lane:  There was some contrast between the policy of Princeton and the policy of Harvard at that time. As best I understood, Veblen [i.e. American mathematician Oswald Veblen, 1880-1960], who really set the style at Princeton and the Institute for Advanced Study, was greatly influential in taking care of the refugees from abroad, bringing them to this country and getting them jobs. This was magnificent that he did it [sic]. George Birkhoff at Harvard had a different policy. He felt that we also ought to pay attention to young Americans, so there were relatively few appointments of such refugees at Harvard. Instead, there they tended to appoint young Americans.

I mentioned this to a mathematical acquaintance. "Well," he said, "Veblen's policy was the wiser one in the long run. Princeton came out of that period way stronger in math than Harvard." Maybe so; but I don't feel quite as bad about Birkhoff as I did before reading Mac Lane's comments.

And that of course leads us to …

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

Some statistics this month for a change. I owe this one to Hareendra Yalamanchili, to whom many thanks. Hareendra says: "It is from the MathCounts competition for middle schoolers. You get about 30 seconds to solve it." The clock is ticking.

A person is bowling and has scores of 140, 85, 125, and 150. In his fifth round his score is within 3 of the average score for the first 5 rounds. How many possible medians are there for the set of 5 scores?