»  National Review Online Diary

  November 2005

Northeast Asia heating up?     The USA had its most unpleasant geostrategic experience of the last century in Southeast Asia, so we tend to forget that Northeast Asia has, historically, been a more combustible region. It is just a hundred years since the Russo-Japanese War , blame for which, as readers of Fire from the Sun will recall, rests partly on a novelist:

Madame Butterfly (Madama Butterfly.) Opera by Puccini, 1904. The American Pinkerton, visiting Japan, light-heartedly contracts a marriage of convenience with a young Japanese girl, Butterfly. Her family disowns her. Pinkerton, after impregnating her, sails back to the U.S. Butterfly waits patiently for him to return; but when he does, it is with his American wife. Butterfly does the Japanese thing. Everybody's mother's favorite opera. But mothers know stuff: Butterfly is a masterpiece.

Pierre Loti's 1887 novel Madame Chrysanthème has a lot to answer for: an opera of its own (by Messager, 1893), a short story (by Long, 1898), a play (by Belasco, 1900), a war (Russia vs. Japan, 1904 — the Francophile Russian officer class, knowing nothing of Japan but Loti's disparaging, semi-comic portrait, fatally underestimated their enemy), and Puccini's opera (also 1904). The opera created its own spin-offs: a silent movie (Mary Pickford and Marshall Nielan, 1915), at least one pop song ("Poor Butterfly," words by John Golden to music by Raymond Hubbell, 1916) and the ineffably silly play M. Butterfly (by Hwang, 1988), from which an even sillier movie was made. Write a novel, see what you get.

                     — Fire from the Sun, operatic glossary.

A quarter century later came the Manchuria crisis, and twenty years after that was the Korean War. We are overdue for some nasty stuff in Northeast Asia.

The Iraq War may help get the ball rolling. The four nations who meet in Northeast Asia — China, Russia, Japan, and Korea — have been watching our Iraq travails with cold eyes, and coming to their own conclusions.

Tokyo's blunt-speaking Governor Shintaro Ishihara recently voiced some of his own conclusions out loud: "If tension between the United States and China heightens, if each side pulls the trigger, though it may not be stretched to nuclear weapons, and the wider hostilities expand, I believe America cannot win as it has a civic society that must adhere to the value of respecting lives … U.S. ground forces, with the exception of the Marines, are extremely incompetent and would be unable to stem a Chinese conventional attack … China would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons against Asian and American cities — even at the risk of a massive U.S. retaliation … The U.S. military could not counter a wave of millions of Chinese soldiers prepared to die in any onslaught against U.S. forces. After 2,000 casualties the U.S. military would be forced to withdraw. Therefore, we need to consider other means to counter China. The step we should be taking against China, I believe, is economic containment."

Mr. Ishihara's views are probably those of most East Asian observers, and also of observers in nations like Australia and the Philippines. The logical consequence will be a quiet effort by these nations to build up their own militaries independent of the U.S. China will beef up her own forces when she sees this happening, and a merry old arms race will be under way. With Russia grimly conscious of her weakness in Siberia, the Chinese bumptious with economic prowess, post-Hiroshima pacifism going out of style fast in Japan, and North Korea gibbering off quietly in a corner, there is plenty of kindling here.

And Ishihara's main point is of course correct. Our squeamish, casualty-averse, punctiliously legalistic approach to conflict would not serve us well if push came to shove with China.  草菅人命 is the Chinese idiom:  cao jian ren ming — "to treat human life as so much straw." It is in that spirit we should expect the Chinese to fight, to take and inflict casualties. If the balloon goes up in Northeast Asia and we are such fools as to get involved, we shall learn some bitter lessons very fast.

Enviro-catastrophe in Manchuria     There has in fact been a modest environmental catastrophe in Manchuria this month. Jilin Chemical Company — my wife's old employer, as it happens, and one of the welfare-heavy state-owned behemoths that ChiComs have no idea how to privatize — accidentally let loose masses of poisonous chemicals into the Songhua River. This has caused an international incident of the lesser kind, as the Songhua flows north and northeast into the Amur, which then proceeds further northeast across Russian Siberia, through the cities of Khabarovsk, Komsomolsk, and Nikolayevsk. All these places will be getting dosed with poison. The Russians are being nice about it, but that is only because of the weakness they feel vis-à-vis China in their Far East. Putin is probably fuming.

The ChiComs were remiss about dealing with this, not even admitting to the spill until they had absolutely no choice. It was the SARS epidemic all over again — part of the legacy of utopian socialism, which can never willingly admit that anything is wrong in the Paradise of the Proletariat.

I suppose that, even without the base of rusting socialized industries, disasters like this are part of rapid industrialization. It's not a pretty process anywhere. Remember the lines Robert Burns wrote at the Carron Iron Works 220 years ago:

We cam na here to view your warks
In hopes to be mair wise,
But only, lest we gang to Hell,
It may be nae surprise.

Still, it always seems especially sad to me to read of such things happening in China, a nation whose art and poetry was built for 3,000 years around the beauties of nature.

The ultimate source of the Songhua River can be seen in the background here, by the way.

Narnia     I assume that faithful readers of our print magazine all caught John J. Miller's fine piece on C.S. Lewis in the December 5 issue. My kids had all the Narnia books read to them at bedtime when they were younger — the whole lot, including the later-added "prequel." My impression, from subsequent conversations, is that they remember the early books better than the later ones; and from my own recollection of the last book in the series, I think this is all to the good.

Lewis, if anyone wants my opinion, was a very odd bird. Not the least odd thing about him was that for all his Anglicanism, tweed jackets, steam trains, nautical obsessions, bossy governesses, horrible schools, neglectful parents, and lack of interest in food and sex, he is more read and admired in the USA than in England.

Adam Gopnick had a go at making sense of Lewis in the November 21 issue of The New Yorker, with mixed results. He points out a thing that bothered me, too, about the Aslan allegory:  If Christ were to come back to earth, or any other place, a lion is surely the least likely disguise he would assume. A donkey would be more appropriate to the Christian message, which teaches humility and patience in suffering. There's nothing very humble about lions, is there? Yet in that last Narnia book, if memory serves, the donkey is the anti-Christ… or is that the monkey? As a conscientious writer I should really go and check, but somehow I don't want to.

Well, Gopnick writes a good entertaining piece, which I urge all Lewis fans to take a look at. I especially savored the adverb in this sentence: "After she [i.e. Joy Davidman] Yokoishly insinuated herself into Lewis's life, in the early fifties, she also brought him passion." There is at least one blooper, though: Bertrand Russell was a Cambridge man (a very Cambridge man), not an Oxford one.

C.S. Lewis was, in any case, a fine imaginative writer, and there are not so many of those that we can neglect one. Though before the emails arrive urging me to read his books of Christian apologetics, let me quickly say that I have tried them, and got the same impression I always get from Christian apologetics: While they are comforting and persuasive if you are already a Christian, I doubt any unbeliever was ever converted by them.

Footnote to all this: Narnia was the name of a real place, was in fact the birthplace of one of the Roman Emperors. I'd offer a modest prize for the first reader to tell me which emperor that was, but Google makes that kind of thing too easy now. I bet Lewis, who had had a decent classical education, knew this.

Jennifer's bristols     Did I buy, or browse, a copy of the November 17 GQ, in order to get a look at Jennifer Aniston's bristols?** No, I didn't. While I have no doubt that Ms. Aniston is a paragon of charm, wit, and intelligence, she is also 36 years old. Even with the strenuous body-hardening exercise routines now compulsory for movie stars, at age 36 the forces of nature have won out over the view-worthiness of the unsupported female bust.

It is, in fact, a sad truth about human life that beyond our salad days, very few of us are interesting to look at in the buff. Added to that sadness is the very unfair truth that a woman's salad days are shorter than a man's — really, in this precise context, only from about 15 to 20. The Nautilus and the treadmill can add a half-decade or so, but by 36 the bloom is definitely off the rose. Very few of us, however, can face up to this fact honestly, and I am sure this diary item will generate more angry emails of protest than everything else I have written this month.

** Bristols.  Cockney rhyming slang. There is a well-known soccer team in England named Bristol City.

[Note added later:  For reasons I am at a loss to understand — something to do with the Puritan Tradition, I suppose — my mild comments about bristols unleashed a storm of hysteria from bloggers. Several of them referred to me roundly as a child molestor. Garance Franke-Ruta at the American Prospect blog swooned in horror at my "barely legal visual preferences." That wasn't so bad, Franke-Ruta being a hysterical leftist old maid; but Nick Gillespie at the Reason blog, who is normally quite sensible, felt moved to sneer that: "Alas, Derb's clock ticks even for the Olsen twins." The Olsens, be it noted, were at that point nineteen years old. I suppose bloggers must find something to say about something, but for goodness' sake. If it is now eccentric for adult males to find late-teen females sexually attractive, the human race is in worse trouble than I thought.]

Loony Right drops the Jew thing     Segueing nicely from the Cockney theme … Living in east London in 1970, I was at a meeting addressed by our local Member of Parliament, Reg Prentice, then the Minister for Overseas Development in Harold Wilson's second Labour government. The meeting was violently broken up by thugs from the far-Right, crypto-Nazi National Front party. The event made a great impression on me, and ever since then I have kept an eye on the British Far Right. (I'll postpone to another time the fairness of referring to them as "Right." The economic ideas of the NF, in so far as they could be said to have any, were fascistic, which is to say statist, so in this respect — to say the least of it! — they were not my kind of Right, nor yours. But Far Right is what everyone calls these types, and I'll use the label here for convenience.)

Well, very interesting things are happening on the British (and European — but I'll stick with Britain) Far Right. The most interesting is, they have dropped antisemitism. On a word-association test with "Far Right," a lot of people — including, I think, most of my NR colleagues — would come up with "antisemitism" as a first response. This is now seriously out of date. In Britain, the old street-fighting, Jew-baiting National Front has morphed into a collar-and-tie party named the BNP — that is, British National Party. Nick Griffin, the BNP head, has been conducting a purge of Stalinesque ruthlessness against the old antisemitic National Front types. FrontPageMag's Robert Locke tells the story here. All the BNP's xenophobic propaganda is now concentrated against Muslims. Jews are OK, on the principle that my enemy's enemy is my friend.

(I note en passant that Jared Taylor, who runs the white-nationalist American Renaissance magazine and website, is way ahead of the game here. For years Jared has been responding to questions about what he thinks of Jews with a cheery: "They look white to me!")

This stuff bears watching. The Far Right may not be your cup of tea; but they're out there, and with intelligent leadership, a tailwind of economic disgruntlement, and the dawning realization among white people in the West that they have, by foolish policies, made themselves into a minority in their own countries, outfits like the BNP might very well become a great force in public affairs in the 21st century.

The fate of Israel     None of that, even if it comes to pass, should be of much comfort to Israel. They may have shed anti-Semitism, but the European Far Right doesn't give a fig about Israel and her fate. They are hypernationalists, and care only about their own people.

The two big news items about Israel this month were Sharon's decision to form his own party, now officially (I think) to be called Forward, and Iranian President Ahmadinutso's declaration that he intends to make the world Judenfrei just as soon as he's got a few nukes together.

The first of those items marks a turning point of sorts, though the turning has been going on for a while. Israel has now pretty much given up on the Palestinians. The path forward (or Forward) is one of consolidation: establishing well-defined borders, marking them with impenetrable barriers, and leaving the Palestinians to do whatever they damn well please. The implication here is that the West Bank Israeli settlements, those that can't be incorporated within the borders, will have to be abandoned. Sharon is not quite ready to say this out loud yet, but it's implicit in everything he's doing. It's quite a turnaround for Sharon, who once upon a time was Mister Settlements. Israel doesn't need a Mister Settlements, though, she needs a Mister Borders, and that's where Sharon is positioning himself.

Israel isn't the only country that needs a Mister Borders … but that's a different topic, for another time … A time around early 2008, if I'm not mistaken.

Before leaving Israel and its future, I can't resist quoting from Charles Moore's very fine piece in the November 26 Daily Telegraph:

Western children of the Sixties … look for a narrative based on the American civil rights movement or the struggle against apartheid. They care little for economic achievement or political pluralism. They are suspicious of any society with a Western appearance, and in any contest between people with differing skin colours, they prefer the darker. They buy into the idea, now promoted by all Arab regimes and by Muslim firebrands with a permanent interest in deflecting attention from their own societies' problems, that Israel is the greatest problem of all.

Well, some will say, that is the way it is: Israel has abused power, and is reaping the whirlwind. I don't want to argue today about the rights and wrongs of Israel's actions, though I think, given its difficulties, it stands up better than most before the bar of history. All I want to ask my fellow Europeans is this: are you happy to help direct the world's fury at the only country in the Middle East whose civilization even remotely resembles yours? And are you sure that the fate of Israel has no bearing on your own? In Iran, the new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes the link. The battle over Palestine, he says, is "the prelude of the battle of Islam with the world of arrogance," the world of the West. He is busy building his country's nuclear bomb.

In Memoriam     Bruce Lee would have been 65 years old on November 27. The city of Mostar, in Bosnia, has erected a statue in his memory. Bruce would have smiled at that. "Mr. Gatalo [one of the statue's proposers] added that Lee epitomised justice, mastery and honesty, virtues the town had badly missed." They are in short supply everywhere, Sir — that explain's Lee's universal appeal. That, and the fact that he had the screen presence of twenty average actors.

Thy neighbor's ass     Regardless of what you think of religion in general, or Christianity in particular, all those past centuries of widespread Bible reading were wonderfully enriching to our language. Now that is all slipping away, and our language is correspondingly poorer. I noticed this a few years ago, when I complained to my Wall Street boss, a lady with a degree from a good university and a six-digit salary, that in giving me a project to complete without the proper means to complete it, she was asking me to make bricks without straw. She stared at me uncomprehendingly. "Bricks? Straw? What on earth are you talking about, John?"

It happened again the other day. In conversation with some intelligent and well-educated Americans, I used the word "covet." Blank looks. Then, nervously (I am not a stranger to these people): "Er, John, do you mean … cover?" No, I said, I meant "covet," as in the Tenth Commandment. You know: Thou shalt not covet they neighbor's ox, nor his ass … Now they were looking at each other as if I had lapsed into Klingon. Where is Roy Moore when you need him?

Terms of art     I've been hanging out with mathematicians again. I love the way they talk. Speaking of a young lady of abundant charms (not Ms. Aniston), a mathematician observed to me appreciatively that: "She is nontrivially attractive."

That ought to lead naturally to this month's brainteaser. Instead of a brainteaser this month, though, I'm going to indulge myself in a math grumble. Hey, it's my diary, I can do what I like. Here comes the math grumble, with a dash of politics for seasoning.

How many sigmas?     That the No Child Left Behind Act is degenerating into a massive nation-wide cheat-a-thon will not be surprising to anyone who has followed the fate of this law, perhaps the stupidest piece of legislation enacted during the George W. Bush presidency, or possibly ever. In a nutshell: States get benefits from the feds if they can show that the test results of their students are improving, but they get to write the tests themselves. So guess what they do? Right. Or, as my ten-year-old would say: Duh.

My own beef about the tests my kids get, both the state tests and the less formal in-school ones, is that I have very little idea how well they have done on them.

Nellie Derbyshire: "Hey, Dad! I got 98 on my math test today!"
JD: "Really? Out of a possible thousand?"
ND: " Da-a-ad! Come on! A hundred, of course."
JD: "Well done, sweetheart. You're relieved of chores for a day" … while quietly thinking to myself: How many sigmas is that?

Let me explain. If you give a test to a disparate bunch of people, some will get high scores, some will get low scores, some will come out in the middle. The collection of all the scores is called by statisticians a distribution. The distribution has certain properties, measured by other numbers called statistics that you can derive by chewing up the original numbers in various ways. The best-known statistic is the average, officially called the mean. If you gave the test to five students and they scored 69, 56, 47, 53, and 55, that would be a mean score of 56. If you test another group of five students, and they score 84, 32, 41, 59, and 65, that would also be a mean score of 56. To get the mean, you just add up all your numbers and divide the total by how many there are — in this case, five.

However, while both groups got the same mean, the second group's scores are more "spread out," less "bunched together," than the first group's. There is another statistic you can work out to measure the spread-out-ness of the scores. This is the standard deviation. It would take too long to explain how to get it, but it's not hard, and I refer you to Google for the details. The standard deviation of that first test group is 8.062; of the second, 20.43. Yep, the second is more spread out — bigger standard deviation. Standard deviation is usually denoted by "σ" — that's a lower-case Greek letter sigma.

So what I really want to know about my kids' test results is: How many sigmas away from the mean are they, and in which direction? If my daughter was the person in that first group who scored 47, she would have scored 9 points below the mean; that is, 1.12 sigmas below the mean (9 divided by 8.062), or "negative 1.12" for short. If, on the other hand, she was the person who scored 84 in that second group, she would have a sigma of +1.37.

With big groups and reasonably well-designed tests the distribution is the famous "bell-shaped curve," properly known as the normal, or Gaussian, distribution. In that distribution it is always the case that around two-thirds of the scores (to be precise, a shade over 68.2689492137 percent) will fall between negative one sigma and positive one sigma, 94.45 percent between negative two and positive two, 99.73 percent between negative three and positive three, and so on. In fact, you always know where you are with the normal distribution. If my daughter were to come home and announce: "Dad, we had a math test, and I scored one point three five sigma!" why, then, I should know that my princess was easily in the top ten percent of her peers, was in fact at the 91.15th percentile. And I would be happy.

Why can't schoolteachers do this for us? It's just elementary arithmetic. You don't even need a math package; Microsoft Excel will do sigmas for you perfectly well. The answer, I suspect, is that the average (not mean, average) American schoolteacher in this day and age would rather submit to an appendectomy without anesthetic than grade a student as "negative" anything.