»  National Review Online Diary

  June 2006

No hiding place     Recording our passing thoughts all day long on The Corner, we don't leave much of ourselves unexposed, even on topics we're reluctant address directly. A reader: "You don't like George W. Bush, do you?" Well, no, I guess I don't.

I say that hesitantly and reluctantly because, in the first place, he's my President, and entitled to respect on that account. Saying you don't like someone is not very respectful. And then, I voted for the guy twice,**  and would not change those votes if I could. GWB has been a better President, I am sure, than any of the available alternatives would have been. He has been a better president than any of the top 20 Democrats I can think of would be. He has been a better President than John McCain would have been. Bush hater? Not me.

All right, that's all negative. I'm saying GWB is the least of many evils. There are positive things, too, though. There's plenty to like about GWB.

To analyze a bit further, let me separate out the affect and the effect. By affect I mean how the guy appears to me, as a person. Is he the kind of person I think I'd get along with? The kind of person I wish the world had more of? By effect I mean effectiveness: Has he been a good President?

Affect-wise, I'm at the disadvantage of judging at a distance. This is never very reliable. I've never met GWB, but I know people who have. They tell me he's charming and likeable, and smart, and not a person who'll let you down. He asks a lot from himself, and his Christianity is deep and sincere. I don't see any reason to doubt what these people tell me. Perhaps this is one of those cases where actually spending some time with the guy would turn my opinion round.

As it is, though, he comes across to me as a rich kid. I don't mean just a person whose family has a lot of money. There's nothing wrong with that, and there are some very pleasant people you can say that of. Financial matters aside, however, there is a quality of character I think of as rich-kid-ness, where the fact of growing up surrounded by money has sunk into your bones somehow, deforming them slightly. Wealth, like love and grief, works on different people in different ways, but a few of the effects are universal. I remarked here a couple of years ago that I could never see the face of Poppy Bush, GWB's Dad, without recalling Dr. Johnson's comment on Mrs. Thrale: "Depend upon it, the insolence of wealth will creep out." I get something of that from GWB, though not as much as I get from his old man.

So far as effect is concerned, you can make a good case for GWB. The economy's doing well, and has been for all this past five and a half years. I'm doing well, and so are my neighbors. That's not nothing, and it would be churlish to express ingratitude. The attempt at reform of Social Security was bold and worthy. And the Afghanistan-Iraq expeditions, though they have gone horribly wrong, were inspired by a determination I applauded then and still applaud: a determination that, as I said back then, we would not sit around waiting for something to happen that we could react to, that it was someone else's turn to do a spot of reacting. And of course (though you can't help touching wood when you say this), nearly five years after 9/11, we haven't lost another 3,000 people in another terrorist attack. And we have Roberts and Alito, two fine conservative temperaments, on the U.S. Supreme Court.

And yet … No Child Left Behind. Medicare. Government bloat. Dust gathering on the veto power. Harriet Miers. The unguarded borders and unsupervised visa-overstayers. "When someone is hurting, government must move." The transformation of Afghanistan-Iraq, which should have been swift and ferocious punitive expeditions — present-day exercises in gunboat diplomacy — into trillion-dollar, decade-long missions of loving kindness. The gassy, forgettable commissioned speeches. The toe-curling embarrassment of watching his unscripted utterances. (Can you think of a single interesting or memorably wise thing GWB has ever said? I can't. Back in the Nixon administration someone put out a book titled The Wit and Wisdom of Spiro T. Agnew. The pages were, of course, all blank.)

And all those blunders I started that last paragraph with have the GWB stamp clearly on them. If you look at them, in fact, a lot of the problems seems to arise from GWB's piety. In the 2000 campaign GWB was asked to name his favorite philosopher. He named Jesus. I don't for a moment doubt his sincerity or his piety. Trouble is, Jesus was not a philosopher. The Bible is full of inspiration and spiritual insights, but as a handbook for conducting worldly affairs, it needs to be taken with a dash of, well, worldliness. Taking in strangers may get you robbed. Turning the other cheek may get you killed. All men may be equal in the sight of God, but it does not follow that all kids are equally capable of doing Advanced Placement Calculus.

Look, I come at politics as a Tory pessimist, with low expectations. We could do a lot worse than GWB. We have done in fact, and shall do again. The electoral system of a commercial republic is not going to throw up too many philosopher kings. Anyway, I don't particularly want philosopher kings running my country. I certainly don't want intellectuals — Heaven preserve us from that! The main things I want from a President are good judgment, the resolution to act when action is necessary, and the steadfastness to see difficult but necessary tasks to completion. GWB actually has two out of those three. Certainly he is capable of resolute action; certainly he has the stubborn staying power to see things through.

The actions, however, must be right actions, based on sound judgment; the determination must be applied to necessary tasks. It is there, in the judgment area, that GWB falls down as a President. He trusts his own instincts too much, is too sure of his own spiritual convictions, and has too little understanding of the lives of un-rich people. He's not stupid, but has no curiosity, and is short on intellectual humility. Bush hater? Not me. Bush fan? I can't truthfully say so.

** Flying fingers. I actually only voted for him once, not having been eligible to vote until I got citizenship in 2002. It just seems like twice.

Joke of the month     Mike Potemra, National Review's literary editor, and one of the world's great readers — he goes through books the way my kids eat nacho chips — was apparently so inspired by my review of Nicholas Wade's Before the Dawn, he up and read it. Now, Wade covers a topic called "gracilization," the evolutionary process by which our distant ancestors developed from squat, heavy-boned, thick-muscled creatures to something more lithe, graceful, and delicate.

Mike:  "I've been trying to understand the 'gracilization' process; but somehow I can't get it through my thick skull."

When the barrage lifts     Saturday, July 1, is the 90th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. They took 60,000 casualties, of whom nearly twenty thousand were killed.

The Tommies were to get out of their trenches and advance across No Man's Land towards the enemy trenches. This maneuver was to be preceded by an artillery barrage on the enemy lines.

The following is from Paul Fussell's 1975 classic The Great War and Modern Memory:

Every day still the Times and the Telegraph print the little "In Memoriam" notices — "Sadly missed,"  "Always in our thoughts,"  "Never forgotten,"  "We do miss you so, Bunny" — the military ones dignified by separation from the civilian. There are more on July 1 than on other days, and on that date there is always a traditional one:
9th AND 10th BNS., K.O.Y.L.I. — To the undying memory of the Officers and Men of the above Battalions who fell in the attack on Fricourt (Somme) on July 1, 1916.  "Gentlemen, when the barrage lifts."
B.H. Liddell Hart, who was in the 9th Battalion of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, explains. Just before the Somme attack, "the officers assembled in the headquarters mess, in a typical Picardy farmhouse. Recent strain between the commanding officer and some of the others led to an embarrassing pause when the senior company commander was called on to propose a toast to the C.O. On a sudden inspiration, he raised his glass and gave the toast with the words: 'Gentlemen, when the barrage lifts'."

The battalion attacked with some 800 men. Twenty-four hours later its strength was 80 men and four officers.

Kid lit.     As a bookish type myself, I'm curious about my kids' reading matter. My 13-year-old daughter could give Mike Potemra a run for his money. She seems to read four or five books a week. Most recently she has chewed her way through this one, this one, this one, and this one. Which did she like best? "Oh, Libba Bray! She is terrific!" Looking into this stuff, some of it is rather lurid, but on the whole the quality of writing is good. I suppose I should try to steer her towards some classics, but I'm fearful of breaking the spell.

My 11-year-old boy is less enthusiastic about reading, but once in a while something gets his attention and he can't be separated from a book. This most recently happened with the Artemis Fowlbooks, a fantasy series about the adventures of a 12-year-old criminal mastermind among assorted elfs, trolls, and goblins, spiced with some cartoonish mild violence and fart jokes. Again, I wish he'd aim a little higher, but you're so glad to see your kids not playing computer games nowadays, you hesitate to interfere.

Words, words, words     Oh, language! I never cease to get small delights from it, and hope I never shall. Three from this month's crop:

•  Claustrophilia.  This, of course, means a liking for small enclosed spaces. I suppose the word has been around for ever. I only just noticed it this month when looking up Isaac Asimov on Wikipedia. Asimov was a claustrophile. I think I'm one, too. At any rate, I am perfectly happy in my 200-square-foot attic study. There's a big world out there, but I've seen as much of it as anyone needs to for a general picture of the human condition. I can get the fine details from books or the internet. Walls closing in on me? Nope. I made the darn walls, and they'll do as they're told.

•  Artificial artificial intelligence.  You know about artificial intelligence — the effort to make machines that can perform human mental tasks. AI hasn't made as much progress as everyone thought it would when the idea really got going 40 years ago, mainly because we don't yet understand how the human brain does most of the things it does. Well, some websites (like this one and this one) get around the deficiencies of AI by enlisting legions of human beings to fill in the gaps. Artificial artificial intelligence.

•  Muffin top.  That's the roll of fat often — way too often — on display above the belt line of the low-slung pants everyone wears nowadays. (A fashion I can't wait to see the back of. It's not just the muffin tops, though those are bad enough. It's the sheer discomfort of the things. I know, fashion and comfort never went together, and the ladies will always do as they please, but a gentleman's belt belongs at the second lumbar, not the sacrum.)

The perfect footwear     While on the subject of fashion, I see from here that flip-flops are coming into their own at last. This is very good news.

I've been a great fan of flip-flops since they first appeared about 40 years ago. I wear flip-flops by default at all times except (1) when it's too cold, or (2) the ambient level of formality forbids it, or (3) I'm doing some activity (e.g. bike riding) for which they just don't work. I buy the cheapest ones I can find, usually from the local drug store or K-Mart. Even these cheap ones last for weeks, and you can still get a pair for less than a dollar. What's not to like?

Well, I'll tell you what's not to like: Smelly sweat-soaked socks. Smelly shoes. Blisters. Corns. Bunions. Ingrown toenails. Wet feet in wet socks in wet shoes …

Flip-flops RULE!

Stamping out evil     I was on a radio show one day this month, talking about Iraq with the presenters. It was a conservative talk show. Of course we got on to Iraq. One of the presenters, a very intelligent, articulate, and well-read lady, said something like: "We had to overthrow Saddam because he was evil. Not to have done so would have been immoral. We are the United States, and we put down evil." As gently as I could, I pointed out that Saddam-scale evil, or worse, is going on in all sorts of places: in Zimbabwe, in DR Congo, in North Korea, in Tibet, in Libya, in Iran … Are we immoral because we have not sent armies into those places?

The administration's argument for our efforts in Iraq is that if we can get a rational, constitutional government going there, it will be a beacon of liberty for the whole Middle East, encouraging the people of that region to cast aside their despotic rulers and follow Iraq's example. I have problems with this myself, but it's not a contemptible argument.

It's an odd thing, though, that when you get into discussion with supporters of the Iraq effort, they hardly ever raise it. They go for either the we-must-stamp-out-evil line, as above, or they tell you that Iraq is a jolly good place to kill lots of terrorists. Hey, far as I'm concerned, any place is a good place to kill terrorists; but the terrorists who will commit the next atrocity in the West are probably not in Iraq right now. Most likely they are in Leeds, or Hamburg, or Chicago.

Why do people so readily fall back on feeble and unconvincing arguments when there is a much better one to hand?

Bolt hole     Once in a while you make a casual remark that catches the attention of readers somehow, and keeps coming back at you for ever afterwards. This happened with my saying, so long ago I can't even find the reference, that I might organize a bolt-hole in mainland China, a place to flee to if life in the U.S.A. goes seriously bad.

Apparently I'm not the only one with this idea:

Whenever I think about leaving the U.S. I always think about going back to Asian countries such as Japan, Taiwan, China, or Thailand. I never think about going to other "white" countries such as Canada or Europe. Asia (even "communist" China) is generally more free market oriented than Europe, which is very socialistic. I believe in free markets [and] capitalism. I despise socialism.

Math Corner     No brainteaser this month, just one of the best pop-math links for a long time, to the article "Springfield Theory" in the 6/10/06 issue of Science News. It's all about math references in The Simpsons. Now I see I should have listened to Jonah and tried harder to tun myself into a Simpsons fan.