»  National Review Online Diary

  February 2006

Khrushchev     February 25th marked the 50th anniversary of Nikita Khrushchev's "secret speech" to the Soviet Communist Party, in which he repudiated the ultra-hard totalitarianism of Stalin. Khrushchev** had in fact been a reliable functionary in Stalin's system. He was as blood-soaked as the rest of the gang, and just as hard-hearted. In the matter of anti-semitism he may have been even worse than the average in Stalin's circle, which goodness knows was bad enough. When death-camp survivors came straggling back to the Ukraine (Khrushchev's own birthplace and fief) after WW2, he had to be persuaded by Lavrenty Beria to give them their homes back. By Beria!

Khrushchev's grand-daughter Julia Khrushcheva was adopted by Nikita and Nina after her mother was shipped off to a labor camp by Stalin. (Her father, Khrushchev's son, had been killed in action in 1943, and the widow had been spotted consorting with foreigners.) Julia thinks that resentment over this may have contributed to Khrushchev's 1956 turn against Stalin. While the dictator was alive, however, Khrushchev said nothing.

(There is a joke, true or not I don't know, that Khrushchev's secret speech was interrupted by a voice from the audience calling out: "What were you doing while all this was going on?" Khrushchev looked out over the audience and said: "Would the comrade who just spoke please stand up to be identified?" Nobody moved. "Well," said Khrushchev, after a very awkward silence in the hall, "now you know what I was doing.")

For all the horrors, Khrushchev redeemed himself to some small degree by releasing his memoirs in his retirement. Those memoirs were, for many people of my generation, a factor in our awakening from youthful leftism. I particularly remember reading the account of the lengthy Politburo debates about whether the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich should be allowed to perform abroad or not. Khrushchev included this in his memoirs to show how "enlightened" he was by comparison with his colleagues. However, what I came away thinking was: "These guys are supposed to be running a vast country, building socialism, and they sit around for hours discussing this?"

** Or "Kruschev," or "Khruschov," or any one of half a dozen other transliterations — we never did settle on one. It's pronounced "hroo-SHCHOV," with a hard initial "h" like a German "ch," and final "o" slightly longer than an English-speaker would naturally say it.

South Dakota     The South Dakota legislature has passed a law banning most abortions. This has got my Right-to-Life colleagues very excited, and no doubt will generate a lot of heat and fuss in the months to come. Those are news items I'll be skipping, since I couldn't care less about RtL issues, as my RUDY-ARNOLD '08 bumper sticker illustrates. (Yes, yes, I know Ahnuld will need a Constitutional amendment — we'll get one from somewhere.) Every man to his own enthusiasms.

Here's one of mine: the liberating of our universities from the iron grip of totalitarian leftism. In this, too, South Dakota is at the forefront. A bill has passed the lower house of that state's legislature, requiring the six universities which receive state funding to annually report what steps are being taken to insure "intellectual diversity." Paul Weyrich waxes eloquent on the issue here.

People who aren't connected with college campuses don't realize how far things have gone. I have another math book coming out soon, and my publisher wants me to go off on a promotional tour around campuses. I am bracing myself to do so, in the expectation of getting yelled at as a fascist hyena, getting pies thrown at me, and so on. I shall bear it all manfully, in the interest of, well, making a bit of money, but it's awful that things have gone this far. Good luck to South Dakota state congressperson Phyllis Heineman (R-Sioux Falls) and her bill. Add her to your list of Women Who Make a Difference.

Larry Summers quits     That brings us to the Larry Summers fiasco. I'm a bit short on sympathy for Summers because of the way he caved to the lefties over last year's women-in-science flap. Still, now that he's resigned, perhaps he'll take time out to have the operation he needs — you know, the one to surgically implant a backbone.

The broader context here is the rottenness, extravagance, and futility of our whole higher-education system. I have this fever dream — I mean, it ain't going to happen, but I can still dream it — that the parents of America will launch a mass boycott of the whole higher-education racket, bankrupting all the colleges and wiping them from the face of the earth. To take care of the necessary credentialing, a nationwide system of baccalaureats then comes up (I'd like to keep the federal government out of this, but I think it would have to stamp its approval at some point), so that if you want a degree in, say, computer science, you study for it yourself, on any schedule you please, using public libraries and the Internet, proving your proficiency by taking some standard test open to all.

The trouble is, people would feel the need to (a) join together with others studying the same subject, and (b) sit at the feet of acknowledged masters, for instruction and inspiration. So study groups would spring up, and itinerant scholars would go round collecting fees for their presentations. Inevitably the study groups would merge into super-groups, acquire premises, pay premiums to star scholars to settle down in one place, … and pretty soon you have a university system up and running again. With any luck, though, it might all take a few hundred years, as it did last time.

Poor, uneducated, and easily led     That was how a Washington Post reporter described evangelical Christians back in 1993. The phrase has been bouncing around ever since. It bounces my way now and then, usually when I have dissed some topic (Right to Life, Intelligent Design) dear to the hearts of evangelicals, or some evangelicals. Do I, actually, think that evangelicals are p., u., and e.l.?

No I don't, and I'll tell you one reason why I don't. As I have grumbled many times on this site, I have a philosophy-proof head. I just can't get on with philosophy. It sends me to sleep. I keep trying, though. I recently decided that I should try to get a handle on postmodernism. I bandy that word around a lot, and have a vague idea of its content, which I don't think I like a bit. Until recently, though, if you had asked me to deliver a brisk two-minute run-down of what postmodernism actually is and where it comes from, I would have been embarrassed.

Well, I decided to improve my understanding and went off to the library to browse basic introductory texts on postmodernism. Most of them I found impenetrable, but at last I came across Stanley J. Grenz's A Primer on Postmodernism. It was exactly what I was looking for: a clear, well-written brief survey of the thing itself and its roots in earlier ideas.

And Grenz is an evangelical Christian, who wrote the book, he says in his introduction, to help Christians "engage postmodernism critically." Whether he succeeds in that particular aim I cannot say, but he has written a very good and useful book, built on a wide and deep acquaintance with philosophy. Any time I fear I may have ingested whatever poison it is that makes people think evangelicals are anti-intellectual hicks, I have Grenz's book here on my shelf as an antidote.

Derb's believe it or not.     Did you know that 90 percent of the cells in your body don't have your DNA?

Biological humans have about ten trillion cells with their own DNA, but there are about one hundred trillion microorganisms in the digestive tract, basically bacteria.

That is from Ray Kurzweil's 2005 book The Singularity is Near (p. 386), which I just got around to reading this month. If you like Popular Mechanics style hyperbolic nerdism, this is definitely the book for you. Just a few more tweaks from the genome & artificial-intelligence labs, says Ray, and we'll be uploading our minds to more durable substrates and skipping stones off the Local Group's magnetic field. Yeee-haaaa!

To a sour old pessimist like me, who thinks that by 2045 (Kurzweil's date for the Singularity) we shall more likely be grubbing for roots in a radioactive desert and shooting at each other with bows and arrows, it all sounds a bit comical. But hey, you never know (as the ads for New York State lottery say …) In the meantime, you can always enjoy a nerd book for those strange little factoids that nerds can't resist including.

Though Kurzweil missed a trick with this particular factoid. What about all the DNA in our skin fauna, that fauna about which W.H. Auden wrote a slightly disturbing poem? (Note the LOTR reference — Auden was a great Tolkien fan.)

Now how about that — I just out-nerded Ray Kurzweil!

Bloviating on the Web     I had a spate of emails this month about a piece I wrote that wasn't posted on NRO, but which I then archived as "not posted" on my personal website. The general tone of the emails was sympathetic: "Oh, your stuff is too strong for those pantywaists at NRO, bravo for posting it anyway!" There was an overlay of anger at NRO for "suppressing" me. One kind reader offered to make up any revenue loss I'd suffered as a result of the article's not having been posted. (Thank you, Sir, it was a generous thought.) Several readers assumed I must have been fired.

Well, I haven't been. In fact, all that's really illustrated here is the unsettled nature of opinion journalism on the web. It's a new thing, and we're still finding our way, with a lot of stumbling. In the old days of print-only opinion journalism, you'd send in a piece, the editor would look it over and decide whether to use it or not. If he wanted it, he'd probably have objections or quibbles to this sentence or that factoid, and let you know. There's be some to-ing and fro-ing with the editor and his fact checkers, and eventually the piece would appear. A month or so later, a check would show up in your mailbox, assuming the magazine hadn't gone out of business in the interim. (Which happens more often than you'd think. It's happened three or four times to me in 25 years of opinionating.) If that editor didn't want your piece, you'd try another editor, unless you were under exclusive contract, which you hardly ever were.

In internet bloviating, it's all different. The rise of the blog means that we can be our own editors, publishing our own "magazines." When an actual old-style editorial process is involved, as with NRO, the economics of the web demands that it be a bare-bones operation, run on a shoestring, with no leisurely discussions over a three-martini lunch about the placement of a semicolon, and no fact-checking, and everyone at the production (as opposed to "content provider") end severely overworked. You send a piece in; it appears or not; the end. The fall-back editor for unpublished pieces is … yourself. Heck, this is fugitive stuff. It won't be lying around in your dentist's waiting room six months from now.

Even a bare-bones editorial operation has the right to decide whether or not to use a submission, though, and that applies to copy from "regulars" as much as to over-the-transom submissions. It has ever been thus, and if you call that "suppression," well, you are living in a world of suppression. Like the captain of a man-o'-war, an editor has to be a despot. There's no other way to do the thing. If you can't handle that, you won't be happy as a freelancer. I personally am very happy doing what I do. I have no issues with NR/NRO, and to the very best of my knowledge, they have none with me. The not-posted piece has not been the topic of any conversations between me and them. Quite possibly they just lost it — that happens. I'm not out of pocket: My NRO contributions (columns, Radio Derb, Window on the Week items, The Corner) are covered by a flat monthly stipend, regardless of whether a particular column (or Corner posting, or Radio Derb segment, or Window on the Week graf) goes up or not.

I do, however, feel a bit uneasy knowing that people — good friends of mine in all cases, acting with generous intentions — are using the "not posted" entries on my personal archive as sticks with which to poke fun at NR, a magazine I love — I've been subscribing for over 30 years — but which some of them, my friends, dislike. I am therefore going to stop posting unpublished pieces to my personal website (a thing I've been doing for as long as I've had a site). I hate to waste copy, and may post these rejects somewhere else, but until I've sorted out the ethical niceties to my own satisfaction, I'll keep them to myself. And all this is just me talking; none of it was commanded, suggested, prompted, or inspired by anyone at NR/NRO.

The long shadow of Kermit the frog     As usual, February encompassed the Derb family ski outing. This one was at Butternut, a small but well-run operation up in the Berkshires. A good time was had by all, except that Dad as usual did not do the 2-3 weeks of squats beforehand that he really ought to do, so he came home with his quads hurting like a witch. Nothing new here: I forget my squats every year, and every year my quads hurt a bit more. However, I won't think about that today, I'll think about that tomorrow.

We had a Kermitian exchange on the ski lift. The context here is that Danny (10) has found a way of skiing that suits him, and isn't much inclined to work at improving his technique. I tried to explain to him that as he gets bigger and heavier, he will grow out of his technique. (Little kids float down a ski run like snowflakes. For a 200-lb adult, the math is way different.) Then his skiing would actually get worse.

Me:  "See, son, if you don't work on your form, you'll just go downhill."
He:  "Dad, it's skiing. You're supposed to go downhill."

I give up.

Beauty School Dropout     One of our Netflix rentals this month was Grease, which the kids wanted to see. It wasn't as "appropriate" for them as I remembered, but they seem to have survived, and they liked the songs. I came away reflecting on how much more pleasure I get from mindless song'n'dance shows now than I did when I was younger. As a dead-earnest 25-year-old, my ambition was to see all the plays of Samuel Beckett performed. Nowadays I'll happily settle for Grease.

The movie caught me in a sociological mood, though. I found myself thinking: Here are all these kids in high school, circa 1956, in a movie made in the late 1970s, and none of them is particularly academic, none seems to be headed for law school or medical school, they're all looking forward to decently well-paid jobs as car mechanics of beauty-parlor attendants, and they don't mind. It was once normal, natural, and needed no apology, to leave high school and enter the working class. I was so struck by this, I wrote a column about it.

Downside to watching Grease: I have had that fool song "Beauty School Dropout" going round and round in my head ever since. What is it about some songs?

(And here's a recollection from seeing Grease when it first came out in 1978. I was at that time friendly with a family who had two small girls. These tots were nuts for Olivia Newton-John, except that they couldn't say her name properly. It came out as "Evolution John." Which, I suppose, is the name by which I myself am known among colleagues better-disposed than I am to Intelligent Design …)

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

A lazy math corner this month: I'm just going to link you to two neat math puzzles posted by Michael Greenspan on his blog. Here you go. Not only do I not have to type out the puzzles, I don't have to put up a web page for the answers. I can just sink back into my armchair and chomp down on some lotus. Thanks, Michael.

Those months I do stir myself to post a puzzle properly, I generally put up the solutions on my personal website, with an URL like the one linked to at the beginning of this section, year and month changed appropriately. I have been known to forget, though.

A happy and healthy March to everyone!