»  National Review Online Diary

  June 2007


Blair to Brown     Tony Blair's stepping down to make way for Gordon Brown is, whatever you think of the likely consequences, wonderful evidence of the political maturity of Anglo-Saxon democracy. There was no constitutional requirement for him to step down, no election, no parliamentary defeat, not even irresistible pressure from inside his party. He is just honoring a gentlemen's agreement.

It makes you proud to belong to this wonderful political culture. We — I — spend a lot of time grumbling about the faults of our system. Let's just pause and remember how far we have come from the primitive gangsterism that has passed for politics through most of human history, and is still normative in much of the world today.

As to those actual consequences for the U.S.A., there will surely be some cooling towards the U.S. administration. When George W. Bush was first elected, Tony Blair was well established in power and widely liked by the British. He could afford to display close friendship with Bush, who had barely registered on the collective consciousness of the Brits.

He has registered now, no doubt about it. Our president's domestic approval is bad enough, goodness knows, at thirty percent or less. In Britain he can muster barely half that. Even Brits who are well-disposed to the U.S.A. — which most Brits are — detest George Bush.

Gordon Brown is not a new man in British politics, but he is new as Prime Minister, and lacks the solid base of approval Tony Blair had when Bush came in. Whatever his personal feelings might be, he simply can't, as a matter of plain politics, afford to ignore those poll numbers.

You won't be seeing Brown yukking up with W at some news conference podium. I suspect that if, at some such event, W were to approach Brown with that broad I-love-you-man! smile and hand outstretched, Brown would turn on his heel and run for his life. And if he did so, his own poll numbers back home would get a nice boost.


Whatever Happened to the Alakaluf?     Among the innumerable crimes on the charge sheet against Political Correctness is the gutting of the discipline of physical anthropology. There is still an American Association of Physical Anthropologists, but they are as race-panicked as the rest of the academic world, and strive mightily to keep the subject suggested by the name of their discipline — i.e., the physical characteristics of human groups — at a safe distance, like a cargo of plutonium. Of the five papers to win AAPA student prizes for 2007, only two deal with human beings! The other three have as their subjects of investigation mice, gibbons, and baboons.

Yo, guys, the Greek word anthropos means "man." I might, at a long stretch, allow gibbons and baboons as proper subjects for your investigations, but mice? Come on.

I got my own introduction to physical anthropology forty years ago from Carleton S. Coon's great 1965 classic The Living Races of Man I have never been without a copy since, though it seems now to be out of print.

The 126-page photo-essay at the end of Coon's book is a wonderful record of human variety. There is one picture that always stops my eye, though. It shows a man, a woman, and a child sitting in a dark hut, looking as though they have, always have had, and always expect to have, absolutely nothing to do. The impression given by the picture is inexpressibly sad. The caption under it says: "The twilight of a people: three Alakalufs in their hut."

The Alakalufs are a South American aboriginal people. Coon notes them as the hardiest people in the world in his time, and possibly in any other time, too. They lived at the southernmost tip of South America, in and around Tierra del Fuego. Before coming into contact with Europeans, says Coon, the Alakaluf "used the crudest of cutting tools, made fire, and built warm, skin-covered huts and bark canoes. In weather hovering around the frost line, through rain, sleet, snow, and high winds, they went about naked or nearly naked throughout the year."

Hardy? I would say so. (Wikipedia's description of the south Patagonian climate makes it sound even more grueling. Google Images has some fine old pictures of Alakaluf folk, though you need to try variant spellings, too — see below.)

So what has happened to the Alakaluf since that melancholy picture was taken for Coon's book forty-something years ago? On a whim, I looked them up on the now-indispensable Wikipedia. Someone has changed the spelling since Coon's time. The Alakaluf are now the Alacaluf. As of last year, only 15 full-blooded Alakaluf remained. Their language, Kawésqar, has only six speakers left.

Here's a suggestion for any young physical anthropologist aspiring to an AAPA student prize for next year: Get yourself down to Tierra del Fuego and try to figure out how the Alakaluf managed to be so incredibly hardy. (And why — the thing I always wonder about people like this — why they didn't migrate to somewhere a bit more hospitable.) You'd better hurry, before they're all gone. Sorry, what's that you say? You've been assigned to another mice project? Oh.


Term Limits     The June 30 issue of The Economist has an article about mayors in the U.S.A. Why are so many mayors seeking higher office? Among the reasons:

Because they are forced to. During a burst of populist term-limiting in the 1990s many were restricted to eight years in office, as were most governors and some state legislators. In California, which has some of America's stingiest term limits, ambitious politicians like [Antonio] Villaraigosa [mayor of Los Angeles] have no choice but to cycle through city and state positions. That is good for their careers. They build reputations as they go, never becoming too strongly associated with the eccentric ways of their cities or the vicious partisanship of state politics.

If term limits are "populist," then please call me a populist. I've always thought term limits are a great idea, and that it's a tragedy for America that the term limits movement got stalled at the state level, never rising to include national legislators. You want an argument for term limits in the U.S. Congress? OK, how about this one?


Home on the Range     Since my town shooting range shut down last year, I've had no place to shoot. The nearest range still open is three times as far away, and I just can't make time. A kind reader, Tom Costello, took pity on me and invited me for a morning's shooting at his own local range in New Jersey. That's even further, of course; but Tom promised to give me an introduction to skeet shooting, which I have never tried before, so I took up the offer.

Not only have I never shot skeet, I don't believe I have ever fired a shotgun. Pistols, rifles, and light machine guns are the only firearms I have any experience of. It seemed a good idea to fill the gap, so off I went to Jersey.

What a great experience! Skeet is that sport where a gadget of the catapult family sends little clay frisbees flying through the air and you shoot them down with a shotgun, from a standing position.

As a first-timer, I spent the morning trying to acquire some form. In this sport as in most others, the learning stages are governed by the iron rule: "An ounce of form is worth a pound of effort." Also as in most sports, less body movement is better. (You should see my daughter doing hula hoop. She moves about a sixteenth of an inch each cycle, and can keep it up for hours.) For skeet, you have to cultivate a swift, smooth, but slight swiveling movement of the upper body — as well as, of course, a good eye and fast reflexes.

I hit a few of the little frisbees, though — including one double! (that's when they fire two frisbees into the air from opposite directions and you have to shoot them both down). I tasted the satisfaction of success. I learned something about shotguns, too — very popular for home defense, I have read somewhere, when sawn down … though the sawing-down is illegal in my state, and I believe every other, too. I PROMISE NOT TO DO THIS.

After skeet we went to the rifle range, and Tom let me target-shoot with a couple of his guns: a splendid old Soviet "91" bolt-action rifle — the one used at Stalingrad — and our old Cold War chum the AK-47, which I found I could do surprisingly well with — surprisingly, I mean, when you consider that it isn't really best known as a target-shooting weapon.

Here is a picture of me working the AK. Seeing the camera come out, I had the passing idea to stand up, tie a hankie round my head, brandish the AK, and yell "Allahu akbar!" as Tom took the picture, but then I wisely had second thoughts. I'm not totally oblivious to the demands of good taste.

Anyway, thanks to Tom Costello for a great morning's shooting — not to mention all the "birds" and shells, which he would not let me pay for. And for all the gun cleaning after, which I likewise did not contribute to.


Islamophobia     People keep trying to convert me to it, and I keep resisting. Most recently, a dear friend passed me an advance reader copy of a 224-page book titled The Submission of Women and Slaves, published by the Center for the Study of Political Islam.

I gave the book an honest try, but it is stupefyingly dull stuff. A lot of it is quotes from what the author (unnamed) calls "the Islamic Trilogy" — that is, the three holy texts of Islam: Koran, Sira (life of Mohammed), and Hadith (the traditions about Mohammed). Those are really dull stuff. At random, this quote from something called Bukhari's Hadith, 3:46:717.

Ibn Aun wrote a letter to Nafi. Nafi wrote in reply that the Prophet had suddenly attacked Bani Mustaliq tribe without warning while they were heedless and their cattle were being watered at the places of water. Their fighting men were killed and their women and children were taken as captives; the Prophet got Juwairiya on that day.

Well, great. The point of the book quoting this is … Well, I'm not clear what it is. The quote is in a section headed "Mohammed and Sexual Slavery," and prefaced with the sentence: "Here is another situation in jihad where Mohammed got a new sexual partner." Uh-huh. And I should care … why? Things were pretty rough back in seventh-century Arabia. I knew that.

The argument of this book, and of the many like it that have been thrust into my hands this past few years by well-meaning friends, is that Islam is a beastly, horrible religion founded by a heartless, crazy guy, and that it is coming to get me. To prove this, someone who really needs to get a life has spent months picking apart the holy texts of Islam — scriptures that great swathes of Islamia can't understand anyway, not being able to speak Arabic, and which actual believers, like believers (except for a few crazy fanatics) in all other religions, selectively ignore when it suits them to. If I don't go along with the author's conclusions — which were also, of course, his premises — I am a dhimmi, waiting with a stupid, trusting smile on my face to greet our new overlords. Fiddlesticks!

The cover of this book assures me that: "Historically, Islam has enslaved members of all races. It has a complete and detailed doctrine of slavery. A dualistic ethical system makes enslavement an act of good."

OK, so let's see. Last month I was in a ship that docked at Casablanca, which is in a Muslim country. I didn't bother to get off; but if I had, in which direction should I have headed to get to the slave market? Where is the slave market in Amman? In Istanbul? In Karachi? In Daka? In Kuala Lumpur? What are the prices of slaves in those cities? Can I get a futures contract? Perhaps the author of this book can tell me.

What a crock. I'll certainly agree that Islamia contains a dismayingly high proportion of violent lunatics, and an even more dismayingly high proportion of non-violent non-lunatics who don't mind the violent lunatics as much as they ought (or who do, but are too scared to say so).

I'll agree, too, that it was very dumb of countries like Britain and France to permit the settlement of ethnocentric Muslims in such numbers they could form their own unassimilated communities. I think it's dumb of any country to permit that, with any highly ethnocentric group. I'm a conservative. I don't like huge social changes, especially ones that the citizenry did not ask for and was not consulted about.

We have a problem for sure; but what would the people who publish these books like us to do about it? Separationism — expel our own Muslims and seal ourselves off from the Moslem world? For goodness' sake: We can't even muster the will to expel illegal immigrants from next door. You want us to expel citizens? To half-way round the world? In any case, when I once called one of these folk a separationist, he hotly denied it, and told me, and the rest of the world, that I am an idiot. So whadda they want? Beats me.

If finding out the answer involves reading books as boring as this one (let alone as wrist-slittingly boring as the Koran), I'll stay ignorant, thanks all the same. Idiocy is not a state I aspire to; but if the alternative is plowing through books filled with the ruminations of 7th-century desert mystics, decorated with comments thereon by 21st-century monomaniacs — well, at that point, idiocy starts to look pretty good.

Fundamentally (if you'll pardon the expression) I can't take religion that seriously. I see it the way Marx saw it, as an epiphenomenon, part of the "superstructure" of human society. (Though I disagree with Marx on the nature of the substructure.)

A lot of Arabs, and a few Muslims elsewhere, are mad as hell at the failure of their civilization, and have taken to religion as a way to vent their anger. It's the failure that's the issue, not the religion. I am of the same mind as Razib Khan:

My own hunch was that all things controlled religion makes a minimal impact upon average life time behavior. Rather, I suspected that religious beliefs tended to increase the amplitude of fluctuation between being 'good' and 'bad.' Religion tends to motivate humans toward intense and acute enthusiasm … On a personal level the immoral often use religious casuistry to absolve themselves of guilt, blame or shame at the same time that the moral are driven toward ever more incredible acts of compassion, humanity and selflessness. In other words, religion may act as a dispersive parameter on the distribution of human behaviors.

(Razib, by the way, is the only person I know who actually got part of his education in a madrassah.)


London bombings     A couple of car bombs failed to go off in London. Forgive me for not being very stirred. I was in London when two terrorist bombs actually did go off, one of them just a couple of hundred yards away from me. That was in 1982. It was darn loud, I can tell you. (I was sitting in a diner having lunch. "What the heck was that?" I asked the proprietor, who was making sandwiches behind the counter. "Car bomb, probably," he said, without looking up. Talk about unflappable!)

Those terrorists were Irish Christians. So I guess I had better get to work trawling through the New Testament to figure out how the Christians plan to conquer the world and enslave me, before it's too late.


I See You     An aspect of the London car bombs much commented on has been the presence of security cameras all over the place in the streets of central London. As it happens, when I heard the news of the car bombs, I had just come away from some idle surfing on Google Maps, looking at the satellite views of my old childhood haunts in England.

The two things together got me wondering how soon it will be before we have these satellite views — and perhaps Google's new street-level views — in real time. Of course, nobody could muster the manpower to watch it all, all the time; but with data storage costs disappearing into the infinitesimal, it might all get stored somewhere. And though full-coverage human surveillance might be out of the question, smart pattern-recognition software might do the job. We could be heading fast into the world of Harry Harrison's short story I See You, where everyone is under surveillance, all the time — except that the surveillance will be carried out by anyone who cares to do it, with the aid of clever software.

Great for stalkers, cops, suspicious spouses, and anti-terrorism units. Correspondingly bad for stalkees, criminals, adulterers, and terrorists. For the rest of us? I suppose we'll get used to it, as we have gotten used to employee withholding taxes, seat-belt laws, telephone solicitors, gun-registration databases, no-smoking bars, out-of-control tort lawyers, "managed health care," and campus speech codes. Gradually our liberty drains away, for one terrifically good reason after another. We'll get used to it. Perhaps we should just let those horrid jihadis enslave us all at once, and get it over with.


Allergic to nuts?     This is in the nature of a public service announcement. I had an email from a reader, to the following effect:

Mr. Derbyshire — I will be spending two weeks in Beijing. I am very allergic to nuts. For several decades, I have been able to scrutinize my food or have been able to ask English-speaking waiters about the contents of the food prepared. It did not dawn on me until now that I will not be able to ask this all important question. Can you help? I need to know how to ask, 'are there nuts in this food?' It may sound silly, but if I can't get an answer, I will be going on a two week diet. Any advice is greatly appreciated.

A number of problems occurred to me right away, of a semantic, phonetic, and social nature.

•  Semantic.  The word "nut" does not map well into Chinese. Peanuts, for example, are not nuts in that language. The dictionary translation of "nut" is jian-rer, which literally means "hard kernels," but which includes things like peach and plum pits. Furthermore, those latter fruit pits (and some others, I am sure) are used in Chinese food preparation. Any animal or vegetable matter is liable to be used in Chinese food preparation.

•  Phonetic.  The phonetics of spoken Chinese differ radically from English phonetics, in ways the phonetics of European languages don't. Without special training in making Chinese sounds, you simply won't be understood in Chinese. (This is not to mention the dialect issue — which, since my reader is only going to Beijing, doesn't figure here.)

This is why early European visitors to China could not hold Chinese words in their heads. Even when some utterly unfamiliar feature of Chinese life needed a word to identify it in the traveler's language, more often than not he didn't use a Chinese word. "Mandarin" is a Hindi word, as is "coolie." (The Chinese ku-li is a back-formation.) "Joss" is from Latin deus via Portuguese; "paddy," as in "paddy-field," comes from Malay; and so on.

•  Social.  Even if a foreigner can speak tolerably good Chinese, some Chinese people still have a mental block against processing Chinese-language input from a foreigner. Several times in China I have had the experience of addressing people in my tolerably-good Chinese, only to have them squint incredulously at me, turn to each other, say something like: "The foreigner sounds as if he's speaking in Chinese. Is he?" "Yes, I think so. It sure sounded like that. Is that the weirdest thing you ever saw, or what?" then burst out laughing. Round-eye acquaintances whose Chinese is far better than mine report the same thing. This is likely a vanishing feature of the old, isolated China, however, and probably wouldn't happen in a sophisticated, foreigner-rich environment like modern Beijing.

Well, my suggested solution, which my reader tells me he will adopt, is to print off this, laminate it or back it on card, and carry it round with you. I offer this as a free service to NRO readers who are allergic to nuts. The translation is:

I am strongly allergic to all kinds of nuts, including peanuts and fruit kernels

Please do not serve me food that contains any kind of nut products

Thank you


Iraq & the Neocons     The best think-piece I read this month was Charles Kesler's "Iraq and the Neoconservatives" in the Summer issue of Claremont Review of Books. It's a first-class piece of broad-sweep analysis, placing the president's Iraq dilemma in its full intellectual context.

The middle part is a cool, persuasive deconstruction of Francis Fukuyama's America at the Crossroads, in which, says Kesler: "Fukuyama provides a neoconservative critique of today's neoconservatives, summoning the fathers, as it were, as witnesses against the sons."

The deep issues here are (1) to what degree politics can shape culture, and (or "or") vice versa, (2) "realism" vs. "idealism," in quotes because Kesler shows how approximate these are as descriptions of actual ideas and policies, to the degree that our president could plausibly attempt a "fusion" policy.

Like most conservatives (especially this one), Kesler is skeptical of the loftier kind of idealism, and faults the president on that. He notes, however, that there is more than one way to get lost in the geostrategic maze:

Bush embraced democratization as a kind of historical and divine imperative. The neoconservatives came to democratization from a far more modest view of democracy's virtues and benefits. But they ended up in roughly the same place.

There's a who-whom question there Kesler doesn't really get into. Bush's evangelical utopianism was certainly fed by neoconservatism; that there was any transmission in the other direction, I seriously doubt. Still, I think Kesler is right on all the big points, and he had me making small Yesss! noises of keen agreement in several places. For instance:

The writ to use force against [Saddam] and his regime was cogent and persuasive. But the decision to turn that deterrent, punitive, and preventive action into the occasion for elaborate democratic reconstruction was, alas, ill-conceived. Iraq was not that important to us.

There are lots of other good things in this issue of CRB too. My glancing mention above of Bush's oratorical style, for example, leads straight to Diana Schaub's fine review, a few pages later, of two books on American oratory, led off by a key quote from Tocqueville: "[The American public figure] has only very particular and very clear ideas, or very general and very vague notions; the intermediate space is empty."

I just know that quote will be popping up in my mind unbidden the next time I am watching a presidential-candidates debate.


John the Savage     Conversation with a gleeful neighbor about this new gadget, the iPhone.

He:  "Pretty soon you'll be able to watch TV on your phone!"
Me:  "Why would I want to do that? TV is all crap."
He:  "Oh you! All right then, movies. You watch movies, don't you?"
Me:  "Ninety-nine percent of movies are crap. The rest deserve a big screen."

I am more and more at odds with the world. It isn't just a matter of disagreement about principles or taste. There are ever-expanding zones of early-21st-century life that I just don't get. I suppose someone looking from the outside would say that this is just the effect of advancing age working on an innately contrary and antisocial personality.

Possibly that's right. It doesn't feel like that, though. What does it feel like? It feels like being John the Savage in Brave New World, Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Mork in Mork and Mindy, or any of the other literary misfits somehow gone astray in spacetime.

Oh well. At least — like Mork and John the Savage, but unlike poor Winston Smith — I'm allowed to roam free. God bless America! And, er, nanu-nanu.


Derb's Seminar on How to Make a Total Idiot of Yourself, Series #19,853     Whether I'm an idiot or not I leave to the judgment of others. (Please don't tell me.) I often enough feel like an idiot, though. The latest occasion was with a magician. This was a friend of mine who does magic. He does it really, really well — been practicing since childhood (he is now in his thirties).

So at a dinner party he tried out a trick on me. The trick was really simple. He showed me a little thin wallet. Inside, when he opened it, were a photograph sleeve, which had a picture of his dog in it, and another sleeve with a small brown envelope in it. There was no room for anything else in the wallet that I could see.

My friend then took a deck of cards and started turning them over one by one. He invited me to tell him to stop at random, at any card I liked. I let him go through a dozen or so cards, then told him to stop at the ten of clubs. He did. Then he opened the wallet again — it had been lying on the table all the time — pulled out the brown envelope, lifted the flap, and slowly slid out the card that was inside. It was of course the ten of clubs.

I thought I had figured out how he did it. I thought I had noticed some hesitation in laying down that particular card, and something in his voice as we were talking, while he did it. The ten of clubs was in the wallet all along; he just had to get me to pick it from the deal, by some psychological trickery.

He then did another trick, which totally baffled me. "I can't figure that out," I said, "though I think I know how you did the other one."

My friend — normally a happy-go-lucky type — had a frown all the rest of the evening, as if distracted by some troubling thought. Just as the party was breaking up, he begged me to let him do the card trick again. "I can't believe you figured it out," he said.

We did it again. This time I was all alert. I resolved that I would pay no attention to the cards as he dealt them out, just fix on a number from 1 to 52 beforehand, and count through to that number card. This I did — picking a high number, so he was most of the way through the deck before I stopped him. I also watched with utmost attention as he handled the wallet and envelope. Same result.

"OK," I confessed, "I was mistaken. I actually have no idea how you did that."

"Thank goodness!" he said. "There are at least three deep principles involved in that trick. If it got about that a total non-magician had spotted them, I'd be drummed out of the magicians' club!"

Which of course I mentally translated as: "No way you are smart enough to have spotted this, Derb! Who the heck do you think you are?"

If you want to be made to feel a complete idiot, hang out with a magician. A really good one.


What a Waste     Steve Sailer said it all.

Let's stop and think about what an enormous waste of six years it has been for the President, aided and abetted by the almost the entire American Establishment, to pursue his delusion of imposing his immigration obsession on the citizenry. Even leaving aside how much better the immigration situation would be if Bush had followed his oath and simply enforced the damn laws, imagine what he would have been able to accomplish legislatively in other areas without wasting time, energy, and political capital on a losing proposition like this.

Well, why did he? Why did the President push this appalling bill with such passion and such arrogance? A number of theories are current. On a realist-to-romantic, or prose-to-poetry, spectrum, they are:

My guess is that there is some combination of all these at work, but with the center of gravity down in the romantic zone. W is an intelligent man, but he's a feeler more than a thinker, consulting his heart before his head, and sometimes forgetting to consult his head at all. This can be an endearing trait under some circumstances. The forming of national policy is not one of those circumstances.


Math Corner     The notable date 7/07/07 is almost upon us. What can we expect?

Nothing good, for sure. Nasty things tend to happen on July 7 (Robert A. Heinlein's birthday was of course an exception), and that extra 7 is just going to reinforce the effect.

How much bad stuff do you want?

So what should we expect? Well, I have been trying out a new method for peering into the future. I call it zipomancy. What you do is, you take the date you are interested in, turn it into a U.S. Postal Service zip code, and see what comes up.

Zip code 70707 is down there in the Pelican State. Town named Gonzales. Uh-oh.