»  National Review Online Diary

  October 2006


Kerrygate     I got into trouble last week with my comments on John Kerry's ambiguous joke. (Remember it? Right. Stuff flies by fast in a political season — I just wanted to make sure.) I said I thought there was some bogus outrage out there, and I am sure I was right. (That's the other thing about political seasons — a widespread feeling that all's fair.) I did not mean to imply that everyone who thought Kerry was insulting our troops was lying, and I'm sorry to have given that impression. It's fugitive stuff we post on these blogs. We don't always get things right, and in the nature of things, editing is fast and rudimentary. Anyway, I do see that I was at fault, and I'm sorry about the whole thing.

Yes, different interpretations of John Kerry's remarks are possible, by fair-minded people. All right. But Kerry's intent — to make a cheap Bush-the-moron crack — seemed plain as eggs to me; and as a Kerry-hater from way back, I thought I would be the one to see what he said in the worst possible color, if anybody did. But I have a way of saying things that sometimes sounds as though I'm imputing bad faith to the differently-opinioned. I'm not. I wasn't. I'll work on it.


Chickenhawk     Do people who make the "chickenhawk" argument have a point? At times like this I find myself wondering. For a lot of us chickenhawks, I think there are some nerve endings a bit close to the surface here — a sneaking feeling that perhaps, no, we shouldn't be passing comment on military matters, never having been shot at ourselves. Sure, sure, I know all the counter-arguments. Heck, I've made some of them myself, here and here. I'm just saying. It does seem like kind of a fraught area.


Joke botchers anonymous     Perhaps it helps to work your way back from Kerry's mouth to his brain if you are a joke-botcher yourself. That's me; I can't tell a joke to save my life. I've known people that were worse, though. I had a classmate who was renowned for his hopelessness in this zone. People used to gather round to hear him tell a joke, just to see how he would mess it up. Thus, in one of those peculiar inversions the human world is full of, by being a terrible joke-teller, he got a reputation as the funniest guy in the school. I won't embarrass him by using his real name. His school nickname was Noddy. Here's Noddy telling a joke:

A little boy got a teddy bear for Christmas. His Mum said: "What are you going to name the bear?" The little boy said: "I'm going to name him 'Gladly.'" His Mum said: "That's a funny name for a bear. What made you choose that for a name?" The little boy said: "Well, I got the idea from that hymn we sang at church last week: 'Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear'." Oh, I forgot to say: the bear was cross-eyed.

[The hymn is of course "Gladly the Cross I Bear."]


Snobbery 101     I yield to no-one in my dislike of John Kerry, and I have a track record to prove it. I was in fact the librettist for a brilliant, but surprisingly quite forgotten, anti-Kerry song in the '04 campaign.

My own antipathy to Kerry is fired by his snobbery. I am powerfully allergic to snobbery, which I found out all about at an early age, at the receiving end. There isn't a lot of class snobbery around in the U.S.A., thank goodness (nor is there, to be fair, anything like as much in England as there was 40 years ago). I therefore feel qualified, by way of illuminating John Kerry's mind a little, to give a brief lesson in class snobbery to my American readers.

Imagine yourself on the battlefield at Agincourt. You are a noble English knight, clad in full armor. Across the battlefield you see a noble French knight, also in full armor. A worthy opponent! You make your way towards him, hewing aside with your sword the unarmored peasant pikemen who are in your way. They may be English or French — who cares? They're just peasants. Noble combat is the thing!

That's Kerry's mentality. A Bush-is-a-moron quip would come as naturally to him as breathing. An insult to our common soldiers would not come easily to him at all. Not because he's too decent (he isn't), or because he has too much respect for our troops (he doesn't), but just because it would never occur to him to think about ordinary soldiers. To a guy like Kerry, they are just … scenery.


The Bush Disaster     Having thus tried to get myself out of trouble with readers, I shall now dive right back into trouble again. Sorry, but I think this George W. Bush presidency has been a disaster for conservatives. Yes, I know: tax cuts, Alito & Roberts, zero domestic killings by Al Qaeda. The real, true, key index of conservative success, though, is the size of the government. Guess what: It's increased. A lot.

There is a sad little bar chart to illustrate this fact, affixed to an article by Kevin A. Hassett in the Nov. 6 National Review. Check it out. "Number of non-defense federal employees" went down by a dramatic 13 percent under Bill Clinton — 200,000 fewer federal employees. The only other president since 1952 to cut the number was Reagan. George W. Bush has increased the number by 79,000. Only Johnson and Nixon did worse.

Hassett points out that the Clinton number "is not as rosy as it might seem," as it omits the number of private contractors the feds employed under Clinton. Fair enough: but a private contractor can have his contract terminated. You can't fire a federal employee — well, I suppose in theory you can, but I doubt it happens much.

The government waxes. Its power increases. Our liberties diminish in proportion. And if George W. Bush has ever said anything to indicate he sees anything wrong with this, I missed it.


Ye Gods     Biggest email bag of the month was on my God piece. I haven't got very far into the bag yet, I'll confess, but all will be read over this coming weekend. The ones I have read are all good-natured — nothing abusive. There were a few cases where the writer's contempt for me broke through the carefully-polished surface, but I could see that even they were trying to be nice.

There's an extreme position on religion, as both a personal and a social phenomenon, which I often find myself slipping towards, but which I can think of counter-arguments to. This is the position that religion makes nothing happen. In other words, that an individual person, or a human society, would be pretty much what it is, with or without its faith, or lack of faith — that religion is just, so to speak, a thin coat of paint over something whose salient features are caused by other factors.

One of the English lady novelists — Elizabeth Bowen, I think, or possibly Rose Macaulay — has a character say that trying to change what you basically are is like "walking north on the deck of a south-bound ship."

I have said this is an extreme position, and of course it is. To a devout person who thinks that all of history is shaped by God's hand, it must look very extreme. I think it's tenable, though, just about. Suppose, for example, that Christian doctrine had settled down not with a Trinity, but a Quaternity. Would the history of Western civilization actually have been any different? Why? More broadly: Does religion actually make anything happen? Or would the same stuff, or pretty similar stuff, have happened anyway? And then the meta-question, which is much more interesting: Could we ever know the answer to the foregoing? How?


Atheist Civ     Come to think of it, here's another one to ponder. In his new book (see below), Mark Steyn asserts that: "There are no examples of sustained atheist civilizations." Reviewing Mark's book for that well-known web magazine A.N. Other, I said: "Matteo Ricci would have had a brisk reply to that."

The remark of Ricci's I had in mind was this one, noted in Ray Huang's fine book 1587, A Year of No Significance (p. 245).

They [i.e. the Chinese officials Ricci dealt with] really believe that they are practicing a high form of religion if they are tolerant of falsehood and do not openly spurn or disapprove an untruth … Most of them openly admitted that they have no religion, and so by deceiving themselves in pretending to believe, they generally fall into the deepest depths of utter atheism.

You might object, of course, that Buddhism had a considerable hold on the Chinese from the Middle Ages onwards. You would be right; but this doesn't help, as Buddhism is an atheist religion. It was, in any case, never the state religion of China. (Though lots of emperors were Buddhists … but that is not the same thing.)

You don't have to like imperial Chinese civilization. I'm not crazy about it myself in a lot of ways. It was indisputably a civilization, though, and only a bit less disputably atheist. And it lasted for ages.


Neal Stephenson-a-thon     How's it going? people keep asking. Er, stalled by month-end obligations. I finished Cryptonomicon and got a few pages into Quicksilver before the tsunami hit. Shall resume soonest.

I must say, I liked Cryptonomicon. Not many people can carry off a style as florid as Stephenson's, and even he doesn't carry it off all the time. My own advice to a fiction writer would be: keep it plain and brief. Stephenson is elaborate and l — o —n — g. He can pull it off, though. The famous six-page account of a guy preparing and eating a bowl of Captain Crunch cereal didn't work for me, but this did:

The room contains a few dozen living human bodies, each one a big sack of guts and fluids so highly compressed that it will squirt for a few yards when pierced. Each one is built around an armature of 206 bones connected to each other by notoriously fault-prone joints that are given to obnoxious creaking, grinding, and popping noises when they are in other than pristine condition. This structure is draped with throbbing steak, inflated with clenching air sacks, and pierced by a Gordian sewer filled with burbling acid and compressed gas and asquirt with vile enzymes and solvents produced by the many dark, gamy nuggets of genetically programmed meat strung along its length. Slugs of dissolving food are forced down this sloppy labyrinth by serialized convulsions, decaying into gas, liquid, and solid matter which must all be regularly vented to the outside world lest the owner go toxic and drop dead. Spherical, gel-packed cameras swivel in mucus-greased ball joints. Infinite phalanxes of cilia beat back invading particles, encapsulate them in goo for later disposal. In each body a centrally located muscle flails away at an eternal, circulating torrent of pressurized gravy. And yet, despite all of this, not one of these bodies makes a single sound at any time during the sultan's speech.

Simply from a narrative point of view, that could all have been accomplished by saying: "No-one made a sound during the sultan's speech." That would have been so much less fun to read, though! Or try this:

It would be an idyllic tropical paradise if not for the malaria, the insects, the constant diarrhea and resulting hemorrhoids, and the fact that the people are dirty and smell bad and eat each other and use human heads for decoration.

Stephenson definitely has something.


Not Your Father's Islam     Read a few other books this month, most notably Mark Steyn's America Alone. Other matters aside, Mark's book definitely ratchets up the degree to which it is now OK to be rude about Islam.

I've been through some phases in this regard myself. As a computer programmer in England in the 1970s, I worked with several young guys who were Muslims. One, an Iranian, I knew particularly well, and we often talked religion. He was one of those people to whom his faith was just, as he kept saying, "common sense." I think he was a bit baffled that anyone on earth should not be a Muslim. He wasn't aggressive or proselytizing about it, he just didn't get it. The subtext to all his religious comments was: Isn't this perfectly obvious? How come you can't see it? You occasionally meet Christians like that, but not often. But he was a nice guy, clever and witty, with a healthy and sensible attitude to life.

There is, though, as Mark points out in his book, a gulf between that generation of Muslims and this one. Four years ago I wrote a piece for NRO titled "Don't Blame Islam", in which I tried, in a feeble and equivocal way, to stand up for what seemed to me to be a respectable religion with lots of sane, well-adjusted, ordinary adherents. I had in mind the Muslims I'd encountered in England, mostly of my own generation or older, like that programmer.

As Mark says, that was then, and this is now. What Mark actually says is: "There are moderate Muslims, but no moderate Islam." An older generation of Muslim immigrants in the West — and, no doubt, many younger ones, too — are horrified at what is being said and done by the young firebrands of their faith. But of course they dare not speak out, and so the firebrands are in charge of it all.

This is a horrible situation, and I don't think the list of suggestions at the end of Mark's book (though it's a wonderfully readable book) is going to help any. As a commentator, the question naturally poses itself: Should I now write a counter-piece to my 2002 piece, with a title something like: "OK, Go Ahead and Blame Islam After All"? Well, no. Islam's a religion. It gives comfort and strength to hundreds of millions of souls. Masses of young Muslims have gone homicidally nuts, and their elders, most of whom are not so inclined, are scared of them. Is that Islam's fault? I still won't say so.

Do I have any idea what to do about it, anything better than Mark Steyn's (according to me) rather lame laundry-list? No, I don't. I'll make a prediction, though. If things are as bad in Europe as Mark (and Melanie Phillips) say they are, we shall be hearing the word "expulsion" from some country over there pretty soon.


Muslims at West Point     Meanwhile, I note that a Muslim chapel (that can't be the right word, but you know what I mean) has been established at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point. This is to cater to the 32 Muslim cadets now studying there. This number is up from just two cadets five years ago. The chapel has a pulpit facing towards Mecca.

When I told this to David Pryce-Jones, he told me that in Britain, the toilets in the prisons have all been moved so that Muslim prisoners can go to the john facing the right way (which in this case, I think, would be away from Mecca). I found this hard to believe even from as weighty an authority as David, but a few hours later read the same thing in Mark's book, and a quick Google confirmed it. Good grief, what a pass we have come to.


Road Safety Alert     Over to the U.K. again for news about the driver's test there. Let me tell you, it's ferocious. I got my first driver's license in suburban New York, drove happily for five years, including a trip right across the U.S.A. and back, then went to live in England again. I failed my UK driving test. As our president would say: It's tough!

However, if you come from Uzbekistan, or Somalia, or the Congo — places where, I venture to speculate, getting a driver's license does not present very formidable challenges, so long as you know the right official to bribe — if you come from one of those places, you can drive around in Britain for a year on your own country's license.

Can you guess the results? High levels of immigrant road accidents, naturally. How lucky we are that this sort of thing doesn't happen here!


Math Corner     My September brainteaser is, as I said, all over the internet. I got it from here, where you will also find a solution. This is one of those puzzles that is deeply counter-intuitive, though you're hard put to say why.

Just a wee quickie for this month, from a pal having trouble, as many of us do, with kid's homework.

Hi John. Yesterday, my friend Kyle called me up to help him with his 4th grader's math homework. He couldn't solve it at all, I brute forced it in Excel, but feel the young lady deserves an explanation as how to solve the problem properly.

The problem: Sally has 100 US coins. They add up to $5.00. None of the coins is a nickel. What coins does she have?

Questions for you: (a) Is there a straightforward solution methodology for this problem? If so, what is it? I solved it case by case, using guides like "quarters must be odd" or "dimes must end in 2 or 7" as applied to each case. (b) Is the Flynn Effect so powerful that this is an appropriate 4th grade math question?

[For some remarks of mine on the Flynn Effect, see here.]