»  National Review Online Diary

  July 2006

Purity and prejudice     Look, I don't even like Mel Gibson's movies. The last time I mentioned him on NRO, it was so negatively that I got a raft of emails reviling me as a sick, twisted, Godless psychopath for daring to say a critical word about the producer of The Passion.

As little as I care for Mel and his splatter-fest Brit-hating oeuvre, though, I care even less for the schoolmarmish, prissy, squealing, skirt-clutching, sissified, feminized, pansified, preening moral vanity of the vile and anti-human Political Correctness cult. Here they come, piling on poor old Mel with all the Two Minutes Hate buzz-words that, they so fondly think, demonstrate their own dazzling moral superiority for all the world to see: "bigot,"  "racist,"  "repugnant,"  "abhorrent,"  "spewing,"  "hate-filled," etc., etc., ad infinitum.

The guy was drunk, for heaven's sake. We all say and do dumb things when we are drunk. If I were to be judged on my drunken escapades and follies, I should be utterly excluded from polite society, and so would you, unless you are some kind of saint. And those pilers-on? Well, just bear in mind that they are people who lay out great wads of money to buy houses in districts where their kids won't have to go to school with too many black or Hispanic classmates. Let him who is without sin …

What about in vino veritas? Aren't we seeing the real Mel here? Isn't the courteous, civilized, thoughtful Mel just a mask he wears to deceive us? Well, duh, of course it is! That's what civilization means — masking the Old Adam with good habits, good manners, nice clothes, social graces, well-constructed sentences full of soft words. The Old Adam is still there underneath, as anyone with any self-knowledge at all knows perfectly well. Fill up Christopher Hitchens with liquor, or Jonah Goldberg, or Kathy Lopez, or Deroy Murdock, or John Derbyshire, and see what you get. Chances are, you won't like it half as much as you like the stuff we put out when we're sober. Chances are not negligible you might hear something offensively insulting about Jews, or Gentiles, or Blacks, or Whites, or Brits, or Papists.

The notion that we are not fully human until we have washed ourselves pure all the way through, pure and white as the Lamb, is, to my mind, highly obnoxious. I don't know where it came from, or why it has taken such a grip on us in this age. I think it is a Protestant doctrine — Roman Catholics have always been much more sensible about human weakness (so I'm guessing that Mel finds it as obnoxious as I do, whatever his lawyers are telling him to say to the press). It certainly has some deep roots in American culture, from the Puritans and the old Philadelphia Quaker sects.

I know this much, at least: All the people I love the most in this world nurse some racial or religious prejudice and will, under provocation or intoxication, voice it. None of these people would, in actual fact, hurt a fly. And I love them anyway. So all you P.C. bed-wetters, put that in your pipes and smoke it.

You'll never eat in this town again     Setting aside my own sympathy for Mel in this case, will he eat in Hollywood again? Or is this going to be a replay of the "Kings of the Deal" witch-hunt of 1994? I'm betting on Mel. For one thing, William Cash, the 1994 victim, was an unknown young British journalist. The people piling on him — Barbra Streisand, Leon Wieseltier, etc. — were mostly the natural bully type, thrilled to have a powerless victim they could lynch. Mel Gibson, whatever his sins, is still a heavyweight character, a person of money and fame, not so easily trampled.

For another, I just don't think Jewish solidarity is what it was twelve years ago. At the end of Yuri Slezkine's fascinating book The Jewish Century, he argues that American Jews are at last becoming just another ethnicity, melting quietly away into the pot. ("In 1940, the rate of out-marriage for American Jews was about three percent; by 1990, it had exceeded 50 percent …" And: "a Jewish style of life may be more endangered when everyone eats bagels than when Jews eat hot cross buns.") That sounds right to me. There are probably people who won't go to lunch with Mel any more, but I doubt there are many.

Mots justes     The arrest transcript from the L.A. County Sheriff's Department tells us that among Mel's recorded utterances that fateful night was: "My life is f—ed up." Derb (or Fassbinder) fans know that this can be said much more elegantly in German.

Death of a theory     What else happened in July? Oh, yes: Crisis in the Middle East. My boss wrote this: "It's been a good couple of weeks for the 'to hell with them' hawks."

Well, yes, it was. Here's one who's been sitting grimly in front of the TV nodding & saying "Yep, told you so." The theory that democracy promotion would solve the problems of the Middle East is looking pretty bedraggled right now.

Then again, what Rich said in that post puts the case for democracy promotion (with all the qualifications he added) as well as it can be put. If you won't buy it from Rich, you won't buy it from anyone.

I don't buy it because I disagree with the fundamental premise: That our nation, our security, our interests are under threat from the lack of democracy in the Middle East. I don't think they are. To the degree that undemocratic Middle East regimes finance and encourage terrorism, our terrorist problem is somewhat worse on that account. However, as Andy McCarthy has pointed out, Hamburg, Leeds, and Marin County are just as capable of producing terrorists as Jeddah and Damascus — likely more so, since undemocratic nations can deploy techniques of surveillance, detention, and interrogation that are not available to us for constitutional reasons. Terrorism is something we have to keep doggedly fighting, but it will always be with us at some level, and I don't see it as an existential threat to the U.S.A.

What does threaten us is the prospect of a rogue state with a nuke. We could lose cities. The big three threats here are Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea. Sure, there is a chance of real reform in Iran — about the same, I would guess, as the chance of a jihadist takeover in Pakistan. And North Korea seems to be completely intractable. Can these countries be democratized in the long run? Pass. I wouldn't say it's impossible. Can they be democratized before they have the capability and inclination to do bad things with nukes? No.

These are the great issues, so far as our nation's security and interests are concerned. Those are the ones we should be sweating over. By comparison with those, the form of government in Syria, or Saudi Arabia, or Iraq, is a bagatelle, of no importance to us at all.

Weasel words     "President Bush called for a 'sustainable peace' in the Middle East 'for the sake of children' …" That is the diction of liberalism. Bill Buckley is right: our President is an ideology-free zone. What's he going to tell us next — to "address root causes?" Heaven help us.

Walmartphobia comes to china     "Workers at Walmart Stores have formed their first trade union in China, following official demands that the world's biggest retailer allow organized labor in its stores here, according to reports in the state media over the weekend," it says here. I don't quite know what the ChiComs are up to with this, but five'll get you ten it's some scheme to shaft the round-eyes.

Too darn hot     How are things in my attic? countless readers want to know. Well, they are fine right now, because I have the window air conditioner on. (My central a/c doesn't encompass the attic.) Without it, the attic is hot. Way hot. This is in spite of my having insulated everything I could insulate. Being so insulated and all, I figured if I just blasted the a/c for an hour or so, the attic would stay cool for a while, till the outside heat could fight its way through the insulation. Nope; if I switch of the a/c, the place heats up in five minutes. I don't understand this.

Headline of the month     From America's Newspaper of Record, naturally: "Tub Ma Beats Rap." That's Andrea Yates, of course. Is there a case for the insanity defense? There sure is. Would I call Tub Ma — sorry, I mean Mrs. Yates — a poster child for the insanity defense? I sure wouldn't. I even feel guilty about using the world "child" in the same sentence with her name. Five little kids dead. That's a rap nobody should beat.

The real antisemites     Forget about Mel Gibson, who's never going to hurt anyone. If you want to worry about antisemites, worry about guys like this. It's not as though the Seattle incident was a one-off. Remember this one? Or how about this one? The trouble is, of course, we don't remember. In this celebrity-addled culture, the name and words of Mel Gibson stick, and will stay stuck for ever, but the names and deeds of Naveed Afzal Haq, Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, and Rashid Baz just … don't. Perhaps those names are just too hard to remember …

U.N. scolds U.S. on Katrina     This one's from Yahoo.com.

Geneva — The United States must better protect poor people and African-Americans in natural disasters to avoid problems like those after Hurricane Katrina, a U.N. human rights panel said Friday. The U.N. Human Rights Committee said poor and black Americans were "disadvantaged" after Katrina, and the U.S. should work harder to ensure that their rights "are fully taken into consideration in the reconstruction plans with regard to access to housing, education and health care."

What a nerve they have! What a damn nerve!

I have seen the future, and …      …it doesn't have a middle class. Our future may, in fact, look something like Brazil: a few rich, lots of poor, nothing much in the middle. Any time I sing this tune on NRO I get shouted down for being a crypto-socialist leveler. That's nonsense. I'm fine with people getting rich, and still hope to get rich myself one day, if I can just figure out how to do it. America's great strength, though, has always been our possession of a robust middle class. If our middle class really is dwindling, we're headed for trouble: and that is not a Leftist sentiment.

The infantilization of …     (1) Women.  At the risk of being accused of nursing an unhealthy interest in this whole zone, I note that you can now be dubbed a "Lolita" by the tabloid press at age 17.

By age 17, the actual Lolita was married and with child, as were a great many other American women of that age at that time (1952). (And in fact, this lass seems to have actually been 18 when Cook did the deed with her.)

The infantilization of …     (2) Black Americans.  Nicholas "Fat Nick" Minucci is not a hardened Mob boss in a fedora running a million-dollar drugs'n'prostitution business, but a 20-year-old white American ne'er-do-well who spends too much time hanging out in the streets of suburban New York with his buddies. He has just been sent down for 15 years for whacking 23-year-old Glenn Moore, a black American ne'er-do-well, with a baseball bat, fracturing Moore's skull, while simultaneously using the n-word on him. Minucci had two minor prior offenses on his rap sheet. Moore was, as he has freely admitted, in Minucci's neighborhood looking for cars to steal. (He has not been charged with anything.)

Now, whacking people with baseball bats is not nice, and the n-word is not nice either. But … would you like to bet on who'll be back out on the streets first: Fat Nick, or Andrea Yates? My money's on Tub Ma.

The working assumption here is that black Americans are like children, requiring special protection from abusive adults, and not really responsible for their own misdeeds. The corollary is that a crime committed by a white American against a black American is especially heinous, and demands especially savage punishment, because it is really a species of child abuse. The person who commits such a crime is morally rotten in some special and particularly repulsive way — a pervert, a "bigot."

I wouldn't want Fat Nick at my dinner table, personally, but this sentence is a disgrace, and at least as much of an insult to black Americans as to the rest of us.

Answering Bill     Bill Buckley, in one of his columns this month, said the following: "Two challenges are posed. The first is relatively manageable: Lower the flag on American universalism — not to half mast, but not as toplofty as it has been flying since the end of the Second World War. The second is tougher. Why is Islam burning bright? What on earth do they have that we don't get from Christ our King? If what they want is a religious war, are we disposed to fight it?"

A reader, commenting via email: "If?"

Swift to its close     During some Corner exchanges about Bertrand Russell, Rick Brookhiser posted this.

I was of course much too gentlemanly**  to point out that Rick had mis-spelled "Houyhnhnms," but, sharing a dinner-table with Rick a day or two later, I did get to hear him pronounce "Houyhnhnm." It came out something like: "HWIN-im." This jolted me. Rick is a chap not to be trifled with on any literary or historical point at all; yet I distinctly recall my schoolmaster, an equally erudite man, saying "HOO-y-num," and have followed that practice myself ever since. (You know, every time the word comes up in conversation …)

I don't have the courage to gainsay Rick on this one, but I will demand that he tell us how he pronounces the name of the skeptical old Professor in Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies:  Ptthmllnsprts. Come on, Rick, let's hear it.

** All right, all right; I didn't realize he had mis-spelled it till I looked it up just now.

Math Corner     Not a brainteaser this month, just a remark following on from those Bertrand Russell exchanges. A couple of readers have asked me to pass comment on Russell as a mathematician.

The key to it all is the statement in the Autobiography, speaking of his undergraduate days at Cambridge, that: "What I most desired was to find some reason for supposing mathematics true." It was this skeptical attitude — actually quite unusual among working mathematicians, most of whom just prefer to get on with doing math — that led Russell to Principia Mathematica, which is the only reason to remember him as a mathematician.

The point of PM was to derive the truths of mathematics (e.g. "2 + 2 = 4") from the truths of logic (e.g. "if A is true, and if 'if A, then B' is also true, then B is true"). To do this, PM had to tackle some knotty issues in logic itself. It did this via some expedients — the "ramified theory of types," and the "axiom of reducibility" — that even Russell admitted were a bit ad hoc, and which have largely been abandoned now.

Since these logical underpinnings of PM are not now accepted, neither is the success of PM in putting math on a logical foundation. PM was, though, the kind of thing that someone had to do before any further progress could be made — a sort of clearing of underbrush — and all credit to Whitehead and Russell for having been the ones to do it.

Nobody now believes that math can be founded on logic. The modern point of view is rather that logic is a branch of applied mathematics. PM has no descendants, other than the 1940-ish work of W.V. Quine, which itself, so far as I know, has no descendants at all. So it is correct to say, as lecturers always say in the introductory lecture of a course in "foundations of math," that PM is "of historical interest only."

PM is none the less always spoken of with respect because, as I said, someone had to do it, to clarify matters. It was also, for mid-century researchers like G.T. Kneebone, "an exceptionally rich repository of logical ideas and symbolic devices." You could say that PM's failure was the starting point for many later triumphs. Recall for instance that the full title of Kurt Gödel's tremendous 1931 paper was: "On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems."

Russell wasn't a great mathematical discoverer like Euler or Gauss, but having started out with that desire "to find some reason for supposing mathematics true," it is hard to see how, with the knowledge and tools available in his time, he could have done much better than he did.

There is a great number of good popular or semi-popular books about all this. I personally like Martin Davis's The Universal Computer: The Road from Leibniz to Turing, but there are no doubt others just as good.