»  National Review Online Diary

  September 2006


Islamo-fascist     We had a wee discussion in The Corner about the appropriateness of "Islamo-fascist" as a description of the terrorists we are fighting. There was much discussion of the point elsewhere in the blogosphere, too. Randall Parker had some sensible things to say at ParaPundit (especially his comments at the very end there).

Personally I can't see what's wrong with "jihadist." That's what these guys are doing: making jihad. As Randall points out, there are just too many differences with fascism. Fascism was atheist; jihadis are devout. Fascism was nationalist; jihadis want the whole world under one rule. Fascism was blood-and-soil racist; Islam is (in theory, at least) oblivious to distinctions of race. As Randall also points out, sticking the word "fascism" on the phenomenon just reinforces the silly idea, which already has too much currency, that nothing much important happened in the world before the 20th century.

If we do go with "Islamo-fascist," though, then considering that Hugo Chávez, at the U.N. the other day, pretty much lined up with the blighters, we should start referring to him and his pal Castro as "Hispano-fascists." (No insult intended here to the memory of the late Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who, though he used them when he had to, didn't much care for fascists. He didn't much care for anything that had appeared later than about A.D. 1600.)


Allen vs. Webb     The George Allen vs. Jim Webb PC-fest in Virginia is deeply depressing, but I've said all I want to say about it on Radio Derb. I would, though, like to point to the following passage in Tom Wolfe's splendid apologia pro operibus suis "My Three Stooges" (it's in Wolfe's 2000 book Hooking Up.) Wolfe is arguing for "strong realistic fiction" as opposed to the artsy, self-referential variety that seems to have swallowed the modern novel.

Looking back over the past quarter century, I can think of any number of wonderful books: James Webb's Fields of Fire, in my opinion the finest of the Vietnam novels; Richard Price's Clockers, product of a reporting foray into the underbelly of the drug trade in Union City, New Jersey; Carl Hiaasen's Strip Tease, a newspaper reporter's romp through end-of-the-century South Florida; Pat Conroy's The Great Santini; Louis Auchinloss's The Golden Calves; Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale; Jimmy Breslin's Table Money; William Price Fox's Ruby Red; Joseph Wambaugh's The Choirboys; Po Bronson's Bombardiers.

Webb is running in Pennsylvania as a Democrat. I'm a Republican, and George Allen sounds like one of the few U.S. Senators who "get" the immigration issue, which I think very important. Still, if I were a Pennsylvania voter, faced with a ballot sheet containing the name of a guy whose fiction had been praised by Tom Wolfe, I'd find myself in a heck of a bind.


Letter of the month     I am speaking, of course, of Letters to the Editor. This particular one was to the editor of The Economist, and appeared in the "Letters" columns of the September 23rd issue.

An earlier issue of The Economist (Sept. 9th) had run a spoof piece titled "Welcome Aboard," pretending to be the in-flight announcement of something called Veritas Airways, "the airline that tells it like it is." Sample: "Your life-jacket can be found under your seat, but please do not remove it now. In fact, do not bother to look for it at all. In the event of a landing on water, an unprecedented miracle will have occurred, because in the history of aviation the number of wide-bodied aircraft that have made successful landings on water is zero …"

Well, the letter-writer in the Sept. 23rd issue had the following to say:

Sir — The bright yellow life-jackets are not intended to act as flotation devices. They are there to make it easier for the recovery services to spot the bodies strewn across rough terrain. (I was once asked to put on a life-jacket over central Germany, some 300 miles from the sea.) And the advice to adopt a head-down fetal position in the event of a crash landing does nothing to preserve life, given that the stall speed of a modern airliner means it will connect with the ground at terminal velocity. However, the position does tend to preserve dental data, useful for identifying dilapidated corpses.

News you can use.


Shrink memories     This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of my going in to psychoanalysis. No kidding. For several months in 1976-77 I attended a shrink in Scarsdale, New York. He was a real honest-to-goodness shrink. He even had a couch, though I did not avail myself of it, preferring the armchair. Did he do me any good? I can't say so, and in fact I soon afterwards — say, about $5,000 afterwards — came to think that psychoanalysis is a complete crock.

My shrink used to sit in another armchair opposite me, listening to me ramble, and making occasional notes on a pad. As the weeks went by, I developed a powerful desire to see those notes. All I got was a glimpse, though.

This happened one day when, in the middle of a session, the shrink got up and went to the door to deal with something. With his back briefly towards me and his pad lying on a side table, I craned forward to try and read it. Just then he finished with whatever was happening at the door and turned back, so I didn't see much. He had just started a new sheet on the pad, anyway, and there weren't but twenty words on the sheet. In the couple of seconds available I could only decipher one of them. It was "over-controlled."

That's been haunting me for thirty years. Even though psychoanalysis is, you know, a total crock.


Classic Sci-Fi     Catching up on classic sci-fi this month, I read Poul Anderson's Brainwave for the first time. Not bad, as 1950s sci-fi goes, or went.

The main idea is that the Solar System, on its 200-million-year orbit around the galactic center emerges from a zone of "inhibition" it's been in for several million years. The thing that had been being inhibited was neuronal activity. In a matter of days, every sentient creature on earth gets an order of magnitude smarter. This includes the higher animals, which creates a lot of problems. (Farm livestock figure out how to unbolt gates, etc.) The main emphasis, though, is of course on humans, who, after a period of disorder, adjust to a higher level of intelligence.

It's very well done. The supersmart humans, for example, communicate in a sort of telegraphese, their supersmart brains filling in all the missing parts of speech by logical inference. Mentally retarded people become normal, and start an agricultural colony of their own, aided by chimps, who have learned to speak some and are handy at basic physical tasks.

The whole thing got me thinking about smarts, though. It's a dodgy subject in today's America, where of course everyone is just as smart as everyone else, No Child Is Left Behind, yada, yada. Smarts, though, or the lack of them, are part of the texture of our lives and society. They are still there, even if we're leery of talking about them as frankly as people did 50 years ago. So permit me to riff on the theme of smarts for a couple of sections.

Poul Anderson, by the way, in spite of being a Pennsylvania native, was politically a Western libertarian of the Goldwater type. Here's an exchange from Brainwave:

"Sorry, no." Mandelbaum shook his head. "Basic personality does not change, right? And intelligent people have always done some pretty stupid or evil things from time to time, just like everybody else. A man might be a brilliant scientist, let's say, but that doesn't stop him from neglecting his health or from driving recklessly or patronizing spiritualists or — "

"Or voting Democrat," nodded Lewis …


Talking across the gap     A friend of mine, an academic psychologist, remarked offhandedly a few months ago that communication between two human beings is difficult if the gap between their IQs is as much as one standard deviation (i.e. 15 points). If you try communicating across gaps bigger than that, she said, mutual understanding quickly becomes impossible.

I've been trying this out on people in conversation ever since. People register mild disapproval at first, with clicking of tongues and shaking of heads. Then, if you press the point, they furrow their brows and say something like: "Yes, I sort of know what you mean." One friend, a professional software developer/entrepreneur, was more blunt. Way more blunt:

Yes, I don't find myself in long conversations with people whose IQs are in the 11x or 10x ranges, let alone any lower. In software development projects us smarter team members end up having rapid fire complex conversations and at the end explain the conclusions to the lesser minds.

If this is a fact about the human world, it's a pretty depressing one. The full range of human IQs you are likely to encounter spans about six standard deviations; so depending where you fall in the range, there could be an awful lot of people with whom, for you, mutually rewarding conversation is not possible. That number will be less, the nearer to the center of the distribution you are (i.e. IQ 100), more the further out on one of the "tails" you are. And the whole effect (if it is an effect) is masked by the fact that we spend most of our time with people whose IQ is roughly equal to our own.

I suppose politicians target their utterances at the middle of the IQ range, or a few points above it (since the left-hand tail of the distribution doesn't vote much). That gives them the biggest potential "catch." Still, for any given speech by any given politician, there must, on my friend's theory, always be tens of millions of Americans who have no clue what the guy is saying, and tens of million more who wonder why he's talking down to us.


Zone of commitment     Is the human psyche fundamentally rational, but with small areas — "zones of commitment" — fenced off from the ordinary rules of evidence and logic? Or is it mostly irrational, with fenced-off areas in which reason and logic operate?

The main argument in favor of the mostly-rational theory is that we would not be able to find our way around the world if we were otherwise. Reason and logic, often in internalized, "unconscious" forms, are what help us cross the street without getting killed, distrust people who have lied to us in the past, and expect confidently that the sun will rise each morning. The main argument on the other side is the great quantity of self-destructive behavior we see all around us every day, supplemented by minor features of the world like jihadi terrorism, newspaper horoscope columns, the popularity of "reality TV," and the unpopularity of science and math.

I suppose the truth is that the reason/unreason portion varies with IQ. Highly intelligent people are good at weighing evidence and making inferences, yet are still, as that Poul Anderson character implied, capable of believing nutty things, those nutty things being walled off in "zones of commitment" where evidence counts for nothing and logic is suspended. Contrariwise, even very dim people, who live mostly in a fog of superstition and false inference, manage to cross the street safely, do basic arithmetic, and anticipate the sunrise.

Good sound sense in low-IQ people is as striking to notice as off-the-wall nuttiness in very bright people, but both are universally observed. It is the second phenomenon that is more irritating, of course. You're getting along fine in a sensible discussion with someone at about the same mental level as yourself, then suddenly you wander into one of his zones of commitment, and it's off to the races. "Surely you don't believe that?"  "I most certainly do. Look …"  "Oh, come on! …" Etc., etc.

I hit this recently after quoting, in a column in another place, Jon Entine's observation, in his 2000 book Taboo, that "All of the thirty-two finalists in the last four Olympic men's 100-meter races [were] of West African descent." I then got into a long and wearisome series of email exchanges with a reader who wanted to argue the point. He didn't precisely want to deny it — it's not easy to deny — he just wanted to engage in infinitely fine logic-splitting about the definitions of "West African" and "descent" — really just struggling, visibly struggling, to find some way, any way, that he would not have to accept the fact as stated. I stared in wonder at his prose as it got more and more desperately convoluted, thinking to myself: E pur si muove. Plainly I had trespassed in one of this fellow's zones of commitment.


International Math Olympiad     Speaking of Olympiads: The excellent magazine FOCUS, the newsletter of the Mathematical Association of America, had a report in its August/September issue on the International Math Olympiad, held this summer in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Quote:

The U.S.A. team came in 5th among the 90 participating countries. Top honors went to the People's Republic of China (214 points), followed by Russia (174), Korea (170), and Germany (157).

Here is a picture of the U.S. team, with their coaches. The names of our six team members are: Zachary Abel (Dallas, TX), Zarathustra Brady (Van Nuys, CA), Ryan Ko (Allendale, NJ), Yi Sun (Saratoga, CA), Arnav Tripathy (Chapel Hill, NC), Alex Zhai (Champaign, IL).

That "Zarathustra" caught my eye. Is this guy Zoroastrian? Or were his parents just fans of Nietzsche? Zeb (he goes by his initials) says the latter, and declares himself "German/Russian/Irish/Jewish."

Well, he might have been Zoroastrian. They're not that rare. Back in 1976, in a previous tour of duty on this continent — the one where I tried to get my head shrunk — I was on a bowling team with a Zoroastrian, name of Jimmy Udvadia. (Hi, Jimmy.) In those days the resident-alien card had your religion printed on it, and sure enough his said ZOROASTRIAN. It was quite a conversation piece. He used it to pick up girls.


Literary life in old London …     … when magazine editors fought duels. Also on this month's reading list was Jonathan Bate's biography of John Clare From which, the following slice of literary life in early 19th-century London:

In March 1821 Taylor wrote to Clare in considerable distress with news that John Scott, editor of the London Magazine — the journal that had launched Clare's career the previous year — had died as a result of a wound inflicted in a duel with a representative of the editor of a rival magazine.

These, remember, were literary magazines. It makes our own current New York magazine scene look pretty tame. I just can't see Herb Leibowitz (Parnassus) squaring off with pistols at dawn against Roger Kimball (The New Criterion). Not that it wouldn't liven things up a bit …


Hitler and Stalin     Yet another on this month's reading list was John Lukacs's new book June 1941: Hitler and Stalin, a blow-by-blow account of the events surrounding the German attack on Russia. Lukacs does the business very capably, as always.

The main thing I learned that I didn't know before was that Stalin's speech to the Politburo on August 19, 1939, explaining and justifying the Hitler-Stalin pact he was about to sign, has been proved a forgery. Stalin made no such speech to his colleagues. Most Politburo members knew nothing about the pact until the day before it was signed, with Ribbentrop already on his way to Moscow. This was pretty much one-man government.

The book left me with some glum reflections. At the very end, the author says:

We may now see Hitler and Stalin as men of a transitional century. More: their lives were part of the end of an era that lasted, by and large, from 1500 to 2000, the — so-called — Modern Age. Different as that was for Germany and for Russia, they represented their reactions against — again the so-called — Enlightenment, or call it the Age of Reason; more accurately: against the world of a bourgeois civilization that reached its peaks about the time when they were born.

I think Lukacs is shying away from a less palatable truth here. The Hitler-Stalin duel was the end of an era in which white Europeans made major war against each other. It was the end of an era in which we could do so, secure in the belief — the true belief, at that time — that the rest of the world didn't really matter much. With the exception of Japan at the very end of that era, the non-white non-European world was too backward and/or too underpopulated to matter. That is no longer the case.

Six years ago Kevin Phillips published a book titled The Cousins' Wars, about the great internecine wars of the Anglo-Saxons, from the English Civil War to the American one. I think that in a decade or so, that will seem like a suitable title for the great European wars of the twentieth century. It seems incredible now that white, Christian Europeans should have engaged in such orgies of slaughter against each other. Would we dare to do so today, with our declining populations, under the eyes of the Arabs, the Chinese, the Africans?

Half-consciously we know that the great wars of the future, if there are to be any, will be civilizational and racial. That white, European, Christian Germans made ferocious total war against white, European, Christian Russians will seem as preposterous to my children as it seems to me that English people once fought English people, that Britons fought Americans, that Americans fought each other. What on earth were they thinking of?

Look at this report on a recent lecture by Dr. Shelby Steele:

Steele argued that American could not win wars because we "fight with a kind of minimalism and restraint" for fear that our power will appear to be racist and imperialist when used against third world countries populated by people of color.

That's right. Do we really have the heart to fight a civilizational war? To fight it with the total commitment we brought to our wars against each other? To fight it fired up by the fierce tribal hatred our enemies will bring to the conflict? Civilizational war is likely the only kind of war we shall have to fight from now on. Are we up to it? Sooner or later we shall find out.


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

This month's brainteaser is all over the math websites since appearing in Science News Online in August, so — no googling! It was first devised, in a somewhat different form, by computer scientist Peter Bro Miltersen of the University of Aarhus, Denmark, and appeared in a 2003 paper Miltersen read to a computer science conference.

The names of 100 prisoners are placed in 100 wooden boxes, one name to a box, and the boxes are lined up on a table in a room. One by one, the prisoners are led into the room. They may look into up to 50 of the boxes to try to find their own name, but must leave the room exactly as it was.

The prisoners are permitted no further communication after leaving the room. They do have a chance to plot a strategy in advance. Good thing. Unless they all find their own names, they will all be executed.

If each prisoner examines 50 boxes at random, the probability of the group's survival is a minuscule 2−100, or about 0.00000000000000000000000000000008. Even worse, if they all happen to look into the same 50 boxes, their chances drop to zero.
However, there is a strategy that the prisoners can use to increase the probability of success to more than 30 percent. Incredible but true! The trick is to find this strategy.