»  National Review Online Diary

  August 2006

Back to school     The kids have long faces. They mope around glumly, sighing and looking folornly at the growing piles of school supplies Mom and I bring home from trips to Staples, big happy grins on our faces. Yes, we are just a week from GOING BACK TO SCHOOL.

Which reminds me. I was remiss in my July Diary in not mentioning an encounter I had in central Pennsylvania early in that month. The encounter was a friendly one, with an NRO fan who recognized me. Turned out the fan is a high school history teacher. Let me say that again for effect: this is a conservative guy teaching history in a public high school!   Not only that, but his school Social Studies department has a little nest of conservatives. They call themselves the SSCC, for "Social Studies Conservative Caucus." This fan told me: "We try to be balanced in our teaching efforts, but without a doubt we all sneak a lot of good conservatism into our classes, on purpose, and hopefully we're teaching our kids the way a good conservative would want their kids to be taught." He said he even occasionally uses NRO columns as classroom material.

So all is not lost in public education, at least in central Pa. Here's a toast to the SSCC. May they thrive and prosper!

Progress? Pah!     So we've all gone from tapes to DVDs. Was that a good deal? I don't think so. Let's face it, DVD is a crappy technology. We get our family weekend movie from Netflix. It's a good, efficient service, but we rarely get all the way through a DVD without the thing freezing, then jumping back to an hour earlier. Taking the DVD out and giving it a wash with a soapy sponge sometimes fixes the problem, sometimes not. This is progress? I don't recall washing video tapes.

War on the middle class     We're hearing a lot about this — Lou Dobbs runs a regular segment on it. I think the real war is on the working class, who are being priced out of jobs by floods of illegal immigrants. Of course, nobody much cares. In a modern meritocracy, all the articulate members of the working class — the kind of people who might organize, agitate, and make trouble — are siphoned off into colleges and law schools at an early age, to become members of the elite, agitating for elite interests. Those left behind can eat cake, or welfare — that seems to be the general attitude, certainly the elite attitude.

The lower-middle and middle classes really do seem to be hurting, though. I mean, I live among such people, and I hear about it. I don't care how many feelgood pieces Larry Kudlow posts on NRO, telling us how wonderfully well the economy is doing. It may be doing fine by Larry over there on his gated private estate, but I've never heard so much grumbling down here on Main Street.

The following is not an original observation, but it's one worth repeating: Much of the talk we hear from economists and government financial panjandrums nowadays treats the national economy as a thing in itself, to be egged on and expanded and caressed and cherished, without any concern for the actual citizens of this country. Sure, I'd rather live in a rich country than a poor one, and a healthy economy is a jolly good thing; but "expanding" is not necessarily synonymous with "healthy," not for economies any more than for waistlines. A swelling economy is not ipso facto a good thing. It might lift all boats; or it might just lift a few and swamp the rest. It depends how things are organized. As Oliver Goldsmith noted:

Ill fares the land, to hast'ning ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

That's about where we're at, it seems to me. And no, it's not a leftist remark; Goldsmith was a Tory.

P.C. in the Rockies     I spent the third week of August traveling round Montana and Wyoming with my family, visiting Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, and the Grand Tetons. We topped off the experience with a day of whitewater rafting. I wrote about the trip in a column, what follow are just some afterthoughts.

The state map we got from the car rental company lists several Indian reservations: "Flathead Indian Reservation,"  "Blackfeet Indian Reservation,"  "Crow Indian Reservation," and so on. Now hold on here a minute: Aren't we all supposed to say "Native American" nowadays in deference to the feelings of this minority? Is the Bureau of Indian Affairs still called that? (Yes, it is.) Yet if I were to say "Indian" in this context, my daughter, the P.C. enforcer of the Derb household, would scold me mightily. How come the feds, and Montana Department of Transportation, who produced my map, get passes on this? Is this like the United Negro College Fund, still proudly soliciting contributions under that name when a citizen can be thrown in jail and stripped of his possessions for saying "Negro"? I guess I really don't understand P.C.

Rocky Mountain flora …     Walking the trail at Logan Pass, in Glacier National Park, we were all struck by the variety of wild flowers growing at seven thousand feet on the most unpromising ground. We left the trail on a rock path (being very careful not to step on any living thing, rest assured) and climbed up to a patch of permanent snow, just so the kids could boast of having had a snowball fight in mid-August. On the bare scree around us, with nothing I'd call soil visible, there were at least half a dozen different flowers, and a couple of actual trees. How tenacious life is!

Before leaving New York, I had sent in a piece for the September issue of The New Criterion, commenting on the life and work of the Victorian Englishman Charles Kingsley. Kingsley was a great naturalist, with particular interests in geology, and in the minor sorts of marine life — the creatures who live in rivers and ponds, in seaside pools and shallows. In his time — the middle two quarters of the 19th century — there was nothing at all unusual in that. Practically all Victorian English people seem to have dabbled in botany, or zoology, or geology. At one point in my life I hung around antiquarian bookshops a good deal. I don't know how many times I've had the experience of pulling down some dusty Victorian volume to see it fall open at a place where someone, a hundred years previously, had pressed a flower or a leaf. Darwin's great work did not emerge from a void; it was based on a wide and deep foundation of popular interest in biology.

Standing up there on Logan Pass I wished this were still the case — that I myself, in my education, had been encouraged to know more about the living world. At my secondary school, biology was the poor relation of the science family. We dropped the subject as soon as we could — after one year in my case. Considering the tremendous triumphs of physics in the early 20th century, I suppose this was natural. Physics was sexy; chemistry was useful for getting a job; but biology? Except for those few of us who planned to become doctors (and those who did were regarded as dim bulbs by the rest of us — very unfairly, I hasten to say, and with apologies to Tony Daniels), biology was no use.

What a stupid attitude! Now, of course, biology has taken the lead, and the 21st century will be the Age of Biology. And I, my poor brain addled by age, responsibility, and self-indulgence, am struggling to catch up.

 … and fauna     If I can't get very far observing the flora of the high rockies, I can at least make some notes on the human beings up there — I mean, on the hikers and sightseers like ourselves, visitors to these wonderful national parks.

Here I reach for my curmudgeon hat. What a bunch of lefties you get up there! Why is it that so many of those who take the trouble to engage with all this natural beauty, this majesty, this scenic wonder, are gibbering Deaniacs? (I guess I really mean Goriacs.) I overheard a fierce-looking young woman in hiking gear lecturing her companions: "There used to be over a hundred glaciers here in this park. Now we're down to 27." The tone was unmistakably Left-indignant; the subtext plainly was: "… And it's all the fault of those evil Republicans."

Can we get some conservatives out on the hiking trails, please, to even the balance?

Bad Thoughts in the Rockies     And of course, from observing the people, I became afflicted with Bad Thoughts. These Bad Thoughts concerned the filtering effect you observe on a trip like this. I'm talking about linguistic, cultural, and, yes, racial filtering.

For example: Stopping off to see the sights in these great parks, and taking some modest hikes in company with lots of other park visitors, I was astonished at the quantity of Chinese we overheard. Most of it was Mandarin, but there was some Cantonese and Shanghai dialect, too. It was easily the second language we overheard. No other language even came close.

Why are there so many Chinese people out there in the wilderness? I asked my (Chinese-born) wife. She: "We're just nuts about nature." I guess that's it. And indeed, some of the vistas up there in the high Rockies might well have come out of a Chinese painting — you know, those old pictures featuring peaks and rocks draped in foliage and mist, with, just barely visible here and there, tiny human figures lost among all the vastness.

(Just before leaving New York for Montana I'd posted Li Bai's poem "Dreaming I Roamed on TianMu Mountain" on my web site. As the four of us climbed up alone through the woods above Jenny Lake to Inspiration Point, I couldn't help thinking of the poem. Rosie and I started to recite it. Unfortunately neither of us could remember much, so the recital soon petered out. Note to self: Have poems memorized and ready for next wilderness trip.)

Of course, the proposition that the Chinese are dotty about unspoiled nature is hard to square with the extreme spoliation of nature in China herself this past few years, in pursuit of economic progress. China needs a Teddy Roosevelt. She's not likely to get one from the gray-faced, narrow-minded technocrats who occupy the upper ranks of the Communist Party these days.

Other languages we overheard in the national parks, though ranking far behind English and Chinese, were: German, Italian, French, and Japanese. I don't recall overhearing any Spanish, which is a bit surprising here in the Americas.

The other really striking thing is the paucity of black people at these wonders. I know, I know, it's naughty to notice, but I can't help it. What's going on with this? In a crowd of around 200 people waiting to watch Old Faithful do its thing, I could see just two black faces. I'd estimate the crowd as about two thirds American, from all over the nation, so the statistical expectation would be fifteen or twenty black people. I saw two (both thirtysomething women, apparently together). Check this yourself if you go to one of the national parks, and tell me if I'm wrong. I have no explanation, only an observation.

Ghost town     I finally saw a ghost town. It wasn't really what I'd expected — no tumbleweed, for instance — but pretty creepy none the less.

This was Garnet, just off I-90 out of Missoula. (That "just off" actually hides 12 miles each way of really atrocious road — go by 4WD if you can and allow a good couple of hours. Our poor rental car took a beating, and there was some panicked screaming from my passengers as the wheels spun over the edges of precipices. The modern child has no spirit of adventure. Neither, by the way, does the modern wife.) Garnet was a gold mining town, and had a little revival in the 1930s when the price of gold soared. The post office finally closed for good in 1942, though some inhabitants lingered on for a few years more.

Garnet was quite a family town, not at all the wild'n'woolly kind of thing you associate with mining in the West. (At any rate after reading Mark Twain.) There were lots of wives and kids. This makes it all the more surprising that there seems to have been no church. There's no mention of one in the official guide, and the caretaker of the site didn't know of one. Garnet seems to have had everything else: schoolroom, hotel, stables, union hall … but no church. I guess gold miners just weren't very religious.

Plus ça change     Upstairs in the Garnet hotel, on a table in one of the bedrooms, was an old newspaper. Leaning over the bar across the doorway, I could make out the front page above the fold. This was:

The Montana Standard
Butte-Anaconda, Montana
Wednesday Morning, June 2, 1948         Price 5¢

And what do you think was the main headline above the fold?

Jews and Arabs Accept U.N. Armistice Plea

Their replies leave unanswered such questions as when the shooting in Palestine will stop …

No-o-o-o-o …

Location, location, location     Self, to wife, on discovering that the spacious house we "borrowed" from a generous friend in Missoula has market value less than half our Long Island shed: "We could sell our house, move out here, buy two, rent out one, and start a real estate empire." I did not add: "And we'd be out from under the Manhattan fallout plume," a thing I've worried about a lot since reading Graham Allison's book, and am worrying about more than ever after watching our Secretary of State assure us that all will be well just so long as we place our trust in U.N. resolutions.

Wife: "But I like New York."

Hmm. A woman is only a woman, noted Kipling, but a good cigar is a smoke. And a house in the foothills of the Rockies? Just kidding, honey.

Math Corner     A puzzle, one of Boris's. (Boris Zeldovich, down at the University of Central Florida, not Boris the Hound of the Derbyshires.) In Boris's own inimitable words:

A cylinder is arranged by the "vertical" tangent lines, which are tangent to the Earth's sphere at the equatorial points and are parallel to the axis North Pole — South Pole. The surface of the Earth is projected to that cylinder by the rays, which are "emanated" from the said axis and which are parallel to the equatorial plane. Will the area of projection of France be larger or smaller than the area of France itself?