»  National Review Online Diary

  May 2007

Status Striving     The exchanges about the Senate's new immigration bill have made it plainer than ever that a big chunk of our political elites, including our President, seek to win arguments by assertions of moral status. That is, their killer argument is not: "I am right because A, B, and C. You are wrong because X, Y, and Z." It is more like: "I am right because I am noble and have high motives. You are wrong because you are base and have low motives."

Thus Linda Chavez telling us restrictionists that we are wrong not because we have wrongly costed the fiscal impact of mass unskilled immigration, or because assimilation of Hispanics is proceeding much better and faster than we think, or because the numbers we have researched on the dire social-statistical profiles of immigrant Hispanics are wrong, but because we hate Mexicans. Thus the President asserting that opponents of amnesty are "trying to frighten our citizens." Thus the editors of the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed pages telling each other that National Review's objections to the bill are "cultural … but they can't say that." (Translation: National Review hates Mexicans.)

What frightens me is the speed with which the bill's supporters — including some of the cleverest, most accomplished, and most prominent among our journalistic and political elites — have retreated to this emotive reptilian-brain-stem stuff. It would be nice to think (as in fact a lot of my friends do think) that they have no choice, the bill being so barf-inducingly execrable that there are no rational arguments to be advanced in its favor. I don't agree. There are arguments the bill's supporters can bring forward. Apparently the temptation to strike moral poses and accuse the bill's opponents of harboring sinister dark thoughts, is just irresistible.

What a sorry comment on the state of our intellectual culture. What low, shoddy stuff. Something poisonous and malodorous seems to come over people when they get infatuated with mass low-skilled immigration. Clever, bright, witty and personable people turn to snarling and scratching. And always, always the insinuation that you are a bad person and I am your moral superior.

(I leave George W. Bush out of that "clever, bright, witty and personable" category. The man's an idiot, and I'm ashamed I ever supported him. However, I am not going to claim I am his moral superior. My refusal so to claim surely makes it clear that I am a better person than he is.)

Is the Middle East Important?     No, says Edward Luttwak in this excellent piece in Prospect. Luttwak's piece a wonderful validation for those of us — I would estimate it as now around 95 percent of the U.S. population, and headed upwards — who are thoroughly fed up with the Middle East, wish the entire filthy place would go to hell, and wouldn't mind giving it a push to get it started going there. Sample quotes:

Strategically, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been almost irrelevant since the end of the cold war … The relationship between turmoil in the middle east and oil prices is far from straightforward … between 1981 and 1999 — a period when a fundamentalist regime consolidated power in Iran, Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year war within view of oil and gas installations, the Gulf war came and went and the first Palestinian intifada raged — oil prices, adjusted for inflation, actually fell. And global dependence on middle eastern oil is declining: today the region produces under 30 per cent of the world's crude oil, compared to almost 40 per cent in 1974-75. In 2005 17 per cent of American oil imports came from the Gulf, compared to 28 per cent in 1975 …

It is true enough that if Iran's nuclear installations are bombed in some overnight raid, there is likely to be some retaliation, but we live in fortunate times in which we have only the irritant of terrorism instead of world wars to worry about — and Iran's added contribution is not likely to leave much of an impression. There may be good reasons for not attacking Iran's nuclear sites — including the very slow and uncertain progress of its uranium enrichment effort — but its ability to strike back is not one of them.

Etc., etc. I urge you to read the whole thing. The Middle East — that vile sinkhole of ignorance, fanaticism, cruelty, and depravity — occupies far too much of our attention and resources. Screw the Middle East. I'm in a mood to agree with the War Nerd:  Either nuke 'em, or bribe 'em, or leave 'em alone. With a very strong preference for choice number three.

Desert Springs     Reading the label on a bottle of water the other day, I was surprised to see that it came from the United Arab Emirates. Isn't that whole area just a big hot desert? How can they be exporting water? Well, they are. http://www.masafi.com/english/default.aspx I suppose this fits somehow into the Theory of Comparative Advantage, but I'm going to leave you to sort it out for yourself.

Terry Major-Ball     Before Tony Blair was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, there was John Major. John Major had a brother, Terry Major-Ball, as ordinary an Englishman as you could ever wish to meet. Terry was so ordinary, in fact, and so English, that he became a minor celebrity on that account. Born in 1932, he reached late middle age without ever having flown in a plane, been abroad (except as a draftee in the Army Medical Corps, to Germany) or stayed in a hotel. Well, Terry died at the end of April (I'm late with this one) and was duly obituarized

My favorite Terry story is in Alexander Chancellor's memoir of his spell as an editor at The New Yorker in 1992-3. British control freak Tina Brown was in charge of the magazine at the time. Terry was brought over to New York by a London newspaper, and Chancellor showed him round the New Yorker offices. As he was doing so, "a brisk clicking" noise was heard, and there stood the formidable Ms. Brown. Chancellor introduced Terry to her. Terry launched into a cheerful but vapid account of his impressions of New York. This quickly bored the mighty editrix. To no-one in particular, she remarked: "You never know who you're going to bump into in the office these days," and walked away.

Terry called out at her retreating figure: "I hope that's not supposed to be a disparaging remark, young lady." Chancellor says that the staff at The New Yorker were laughing about this for weeks afterwards.

Glory     No, I haven't made the cover of Rolling Stone. However, early this month I did get my picture in the New York Times. That's a first. This was part of their coverage of the AEI "Darwin and Conservatism" event.

You don't get something for nothing in this fallen world, though; to compensate for having put my picture in the paper, they misquoted me. When I said, as I always carefully do (heck, I've read Ramesh's book, haven't I?) "embryo-destructive stem cell research," they dropped the first two words.

I think I know why. The Times reporter, a charming lady, engaged me in a five-minute conversation, jotting down my side of it in longhand. Don't reporters have to know shorthand any more? Failing that, can't the Times afford Dictaphones for its reporters?

Not Getting Science     The Darwin/Conservatism event went off very well. It left me realizing, though, that a great many people simply don't get science. In the question period afterwards, a very pleasant gentleman, with whom I had chatted at the pre-event mingling, and who had declared himself an evangelical Christian, asked this:  "The Ptolemaic system for describing the orbits of the planets was orthodox science for over a thousand years, yet we now know that it was all wrong. Would you have had that system taught in schools if you had been around in, say, a.d. 1200? Me: "Of course I would! It was the best explanation then available. What would you have had them learn — the Newtonian system? Newton hadn't been born yet!"

I sort of see what the guy was getting at, though. He wants certitude; and anything that is not a hundred percent certain seems wrong to him. Scientific truths, which are always relative and provisional, leave a bad taste in this guy's mouth.

In a lot of other people's, too. There are people who yearn for certitude, and who believe they have found it in sacred books. To people with this cast of mind, the relativism of science is abhorrent. Contrariwise, there are others to whom the questing, testing, curious, provisional approach of scientific inquiry, is very fascinating and exciting. To this company, the certitude of believers is disturbing and presumptuous.

I doubt there can ever be a meeting of the minds here. For a further example …

Not Getting Religion     Take Christopher Hitchens. Here he was on Hannity & Colmes refusing to lament the May 15 death of Jerry Falwell:

Listen, he established a business, a racket, in my opinion. He was a religious businessman in the same way as Mr. Ralph Reed is a religious entrepreneur. He's left the business to his children. It's a hereditary job. Let that console them. You can't have me on and say that I have to say I'm terribly sorry he's dead … I think we have been rid of an extremely dangerous demagogue who lived by hatred of others, and prejudice, and who committed treason by saying that the United States deserved the attack upon it and its civil society of September of 2001 by other religious nut cases like himself.

Hitch has a new book out, God Is Not Great, an addition to the recent slew of books promoting atheism.

The problem with Hitch's viewpoint is that it offers no explanation for the survival — indeed, in the modern world, the flourishing — of religion. That contrast I noted above, between the yearning for certitude and the questing for large empirical, provisional explanations, is not evenly balanced. Far more people, perhaps increasing numbers of people, want certitude. Faith gives it to them.

What does Hitch — and what do Dennett, Dawkins, and the rest — think about these people? That they're stupid? No, he can't think that. It's a matter of plain observation that some religious people are very intelligent, and Hitch himself is too smart not to have noticed this.

I can see the fun of slagging off believers, and telling them how absurd their beliefs are. (A point answered long ago by Tertullian.) I can especially see the fun of it when the person being outraged is a sanctimonious prig like Sean Hannity. Still, I always come away from watching or reading these exchanges feeling that Hitch, or whoever the militant atheist of the hour is, is missing some important point.

Portuguese     I was in Portugal, and some Portuguese territories, earlier this month, naturally hearing a lot of Portuguese. That's another first — I was never surrounded by Portuguese speakers before. I had been told that Portuguese is "Spanish pronounced with French vowels." (Portuguese has those nasalized vowels common in French, where you make the vowel sound half through your mouth, half through your nose.) In fact, I kept thinking I was hearing Russian. There seemed to be a lot of sibilant clusters. It's odd, the impression you get, listening to a language you completely don't know.

The dictator of Portugal when I was growing up was a chap named Salazar. He was one of those minor world figures who seemed to have been around for ever. (He was in charge of Portugal for 36 years, 1932-1968.) I grew up hearing him called a "fascist" — he was yoked with Spain's Francisco Franco in everyone's minds. In fact there was much more to Salazar than that — so much more that Paul Johnson, in his book Modern Times, had to coin the word "cathedocracy" — rule by college professors — to describe the style of government Salazar imposed.

He was … the only one [of the 20th century's tyrants] to run a dictatorship of intellectuals (though Lenin came near to it). Between 1932 and 1961, university professors never made up less than 21 percent of Salazar's cabinet. They held half the cabinet posts 1936-44; about one in four of the dictator's colleagues came from a single department, the law faculty at Coimbra University.

Salazar was put out of action at last by a British-made deckchair, which collapsed when he sat on it. The shock induced a stroke, and his colleagues had to remove him from power. I recall hearing at the time that the British Embassy in Lisbon had offered an apology to the government there for the poor workmanship (i.e. of the deckchair) that had caused the unfortunate event. The story might, though, be apocryphal.

Math Corner     I gave a lecture on the Poincaré Conjecture this month. I think I managed all right, but it's a devil of an idea to get across to non-mathematicians because it involves curved three-dimensional spaces, a thing no-one can visualize.

Probably the best approach for beginners is via analogy from two-dimensional spaces — "surfaces." Imagine a two-dimensional creature trapped in a two-dimensional universe. Can he figure out, "from the inside," whether his universe is just an infinite flat sheet, or the surface of a vast sphere, or some more exotic surface — a torus, a double torus, or a Klein bottle? Math says: yes, he can.

Similarly, there are ways we can figure out the shape of our three-dimensional universe "from the inside." We haven't yet, but it's an active area of research in cosmology. My favorite shape, the Poincaré dodecahedral space, seems to have been ruled out.

(To construct this space — you're going to need four dimensions to work in, unfortunately — you start with a dodecahedron. Label the twelve faces in opposite pairs: A and a, B and b, C and c, D and d, E and e, F and f. Now bend your dodecahedron through the fourth dimension to join face A to the opposite face a. You'll need to give the thing a slight twist — through 36 degrees — to make the pentagons match up. Bend again to join B to b. Again to join C to c, … and so on. That gets you a Poincaré dodecahedral space. Apparently our cosmos is not shaped like this — or, if it is, it is too big for us to observe the evidence.)

Our best guess at the moment is that the universe is either (a) flat (I mean of course "flat," the three-dimensional equivalent of flat), or (b) a humongous 3-sphere (that's the three-dimensional equivalent of the two-dimensional surface of a sphere). If it's flat, then it's infinite, which raises some tricky philosophical and physical problems. I'm betting on a 3-sphere, and hoping we find out in my lifetime.

With some clever educational aids, you can get close to visualizing different kinds of three-dimensional spaces. A good starting point is Jeff Weeks' geometry and topology website. Among other things the site takes you on trips through various curved spaces, including the dodecahedral one. Which, alas — I was rooting for it — is not the shape of our universe.