»  National Review Online Diary

  September 2007

Conceptual Art.     Here on NRO back in December of 2001, I took note of Martin Creed's having won the prestigious Turner prize for a superior work of art. This prize is awarded annually over in the U.K., usually at London's Tate Gallery, and carries a cash award of twenty thousand pounds.     Well, Martin Creed won it in 2001 with his "conceptual art" exhibit titled "Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off." The work is just that: 67 track lights illuminating an empty room, switching on and off at five-second intervals.

I'm sorry to say I was not very charitable to Mr. Creed in his hour of glory, nor to his admirers either:

What do I think about all this? Well, first I think that the directors of the Tate Gallery, which receives funding from general taxation, should be locked up in prison and made to do hard labor scraping the rust off bolts for twenty years or so with nothing to eat but cold oatmeal porridge. Then I think Mr Creed should be stripped naked, sprayed all over with bright blue paint, and made to run round and round Piccadilly Circus until he drops from exhaustion, after which he should be killed by some not-very-humane method. Then the Tate Gallery should be reduced to rubble by aerial bombardment, the rubble carted away to be used as landfill, and the ground sown with salt. Then the fools who pay good money to look at this "art" should be packed into boxcars and tipped off the white cliffs of Dover, and their mangled corpses left to be feasted on by dogs, crows and crabs.

Perhaps I got out of bed the wrong side that morning.

Anyway, for NRO readers anxious to see Work No. 227 up close and real, here is some great news. Martin Creed's prize-winning masterpiece is on show at Boston Center for the Arts, September 14 to October 28. Jeff Jacoby unloaded on it in the Boston Globe. And reading Jeff's piece, and thinking about the thing again, I believe I got out of bed on exactly the right side that morning.


Phobia.    My September 20 Islamophobophobia piece drew lots of email, of which I think I responded to all the non-abusive ones.

A popular theme in the emails was the inadequacy of our "-phobia" suffix. Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon defines phobos as "fear, terror, fright, dismay." That's not really accurate for the emotions that Islamophobes have about Islam, as a lot of reaers observed.

Several readers thought the "miso-" prefix more promising (Greek misos = hate, hatred), but nobody could make it work with "Islam" following. In any case, nobody—especially on the political Right!—wants to own up to hating anything nowadays. The Southern Poverty Law Center would have you blacklisted in no time. You'd be refused service in restaurants, be cut in the street by old acquaintances, and have to resign from all your clubs.

There's really a gap in the language here. How do you say "don't much care for" in classical Greek?


Whack-Muslim movies.    When you think of how long the bad blood between Christians and Muslims has been going on—we're well into the fourteenth century of it—it's surprising there haven't been more whack-Muslim movies. Nobody ever seems to have made a movie of the battle of Tours, for example, nor of Lepanto, from which G.K. Chesterton got a very fine poem. I can't even recall a decent crusader movie, though there surely must have been some. There are whack-Muslim subthemes in a few movies—The Vikings, if memory serves, and True Lies—but the only real all-out whack-Muslims movie I could recall when asked was El Cid.

It's too late to complain now, of course. I'm not privy to the secrets of our big movie production companies, but I'd be very surprised to learn that a Lepanto movie, a Tours movie, or a crusader movie is in the works anywhere. To make such a movie would be hateful (see previous item).


How's the website coming?     Readers ask this a lot. I blogged a while ago about escaping from the horrors of Microsoft FrontPage into the sunlit uplands of native XHTML/CSS, by building an entirely new website from scratch.

Well, the new website is still in the early stages of construction, but I'm learning a lot and confident I'll have something presentable by year end. I have settled on a structure that works for me, anyway, so that now the main task is just to populate that structure.

Please don't look too closely. This is still early days. A lot of links go to nowhere, or to dummy pages. My style sheets are all over the landscape—I need to rationalize and simplify them. I haven't really worked out a logical color scheme for the page banners... and so on.

However, on the principle that the only way to get anything up and running is to start using it a.s.a.p, I am now—as of September 1st— archiving only to the new site. Nothing new is going on to the old site.

The really big chore is going to be porting all the old stuff over to the new site. I converted a couple of pieces by hand, and learned that this is something you do not want to do by hand. So then I wrote some KEXX routines to automate the process. They worked OK—I used them to port over all of my Straggler columns—but I really need something even more labor-saving than KEXX will give me. I am therefore coding up some VBASIC routines to do the work. This is going to take a while, but it'll keep me off the streets.

And yes, I know I really, really need some new pictures of myself. It's the first thing everyone says.     


Republicans Say the Darnedest Things.    Politics isn't all personalities. Parties matter, too. So what's the state of our party?

I was having a conversation over drinks with a friend, a lifelong Republican, big Wall Street legal brain (but now retired), sometime generous contributor to party funds, normally good-natured and mild-mannered. We weren't even talking politics. The topic was the current woes of the poor old dollar.

Suddenly, with uncharacteristic anger, my drinking buddy said something like this: "The federal government's main functions are to maintain a stable currency, keep us out of unnecessary foreign entanglements and wars, and patrol the coasts and borders. That's three strikes on George Bush, [blasphemous expletive]! The man's been a total [sexual expletive] disaster. What the [blasphemous expletive] [sexual expletive] hell was I thinking of, voting for this [cognitive-function expletive]?"

I asked him who he liked for '08. He said Rudy, but with no detectable enthusiasm. State of our party.


Might we win?    In spite of which, might the GOP win the presidential race next year? Might the 44th POTUS be a Republican?

If you'd asked me this question up to a few weeks ago, I'd have responded with a sad smile and a significant silence—or, if you caught me at a bad moment, with a blunt "Are you nuts?" But now, you know, I'm not so sure.

The reason I'm not sure is that there are signs that 2008 may be the first U.S. presidential election in which white tribalism is a big factor; and that if it is a factor, it will be to the GOP's advantage.

Thomas Schaller had a go at this rather delicate issue on Salon.com, September 17, though he approached it from the Left. Schaller pointed out that the male "Anglo" (a very approximate term meaning "non-Hispanic white") proportion of the vote has been dropping for decades. Altogether, Anglos will be around 66 percent of the electorate in 2008, so that male Anglos will presumably be only around one-third. Schaller:

The remainder of the electorate, meanwhile, is composed of white women, among whom Democrats are competitive, and other minority groups that lean Democratic. Kerry won Hispanics, Asian-Americans and Native Americans by margins of at least 20 points in 2004, and all are growing as a share of the total electorate.

And of course, lots of male Anglos vote Democrat anyway: union members, government employees, lefty intellectuals, and so on.

Will they go on doing so? And, much more important for the Democrats, will Anglo women go on doing so?

As the Anglo proportion of the population dwindles, (a) the blithe confidence that Anglos have carried forward from the days—not so long ago, well within the memory of middle-aged citizens—when the U.S.A. was close to 90 percent Anglo, and (b) the feelings of sentimental, mildly guilty indulgence towards minorities that Anglos have been encouraged to hold since the Civil Rights revolution, will collide with (c) the rising awareness that continuing voluntarily to exclude themselves from the racial spoils system may not be a terrific idea.

That inevitable moment of collision when (a) and (b) meet (c) has been brought much closer, I believe, by the recent spectacle of Hispanic racial triumphalism. We live by images, and those images of the great ¡Sí se puede! marches of 2006 linger in Anglo minds. People talk about them a lot. In 2004 no Anglo had heard of La Raza. Now we've all heard of it, and we all know how it translates.

When you talk to ordinary Anglos, they still speak the old platitudes about race meaning nothing to them and ours being a country that welcomes immigrants; but often you can detect, in their tone and gestures, a voice whispering away in the back of their minds: Hey, wait a minute...

Oh, I know, I know, it's still not altogether polite to talk about this stuff. If I'm not mistaken, though, it's noticeably less impolite than it was in 2004. And even if the old platitudes still rule in our public spaces, the voting booth remains a private place. GOP politicians of course know this. Just look at how the issue cuts in news stories:

"Rep. Pelosi Criticizes Border Fence."

"Minority Debate Undercut by GOP No-Shows"

Republican politicians are slowly waking up to the hard truths in Ramesh Ponnuru's article in the October 8 issue of National Review:

The comprehensivists say that Republicans can't alienate Hispanics; the restrictionists say that more immigration will hurt the party. The political problem for Republicans is that they're probably both right.

While both sides may be right, it is none the less true that with Hispanics at less than ten percent of the vote, the restrictionist argument is the politically stronger one—if enough Anglo voters are angry enough about the issue. Which is a point we are pretty close to, if not at. It seems to me.


O'Reilly goes to Harlem. Since I've opened this regrettable subject, what do you make of the Bill O'Reilly mini-flap? The Big Mick went to Sylvia's restaurant in Harlem for dinner with Al Sharpton. Talking about it afterwards on his radio show, the BM marveled at how much Sylvia's was just like any other New York restaurant. Newsbusters had a comment:

O'Reilly, in a conversation with NPR host and Fox contributor Juan Williams, had said of his visit to Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem, "I think black Americans are starting to think more and more for themselves. There wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, 'M-Fer, I want more iced tea.' They were ordering and having fun, and it wasn't any kind of craziness at all."

So what happened here? O'Reilly went to a tony restaurant run by some (I'm sure) very nice black Americans, and noted that nobody was behaving like the people in rap music videos. That was a bit like going to Le Bernadin and enthusing about there being no fat white guys in plaid shirts trading rebel yells and boasting about the prowess of their coon dogs.

What Bill seemed to be trying to do here was knock down a stereotype that all black Americans are pretty much like the blinged-up thugs in the rap videos. The trouble with this is, it's hard to believe anyone actually holds such a stereotype. The U.S.A. has a large and prosperous black middle class. They're well-educated, good citizens, and like to dine in tony restaurants now and then. Are there actually people who don't know this?

Memo to Bill from a faithful viewer: I understand why a guy in your position wants to stomp on stereotypes, though personally I think stereotypes are just fine—I doubt, in fact, that we could function without them. But please, when you pick a stereotype to stomp on, pick one that someone actually holds. Thanks.


Speed of light.     I goofed in my August diary. Writing about Cerenkov radiation, which is what you get when something is moving through a medium faster than light moves through that medium, I said: "The thinner the medium, the closer you need to get to c [that is, the speed of light in a perfect vacuum] to make that Cerenkov radiation shine. In interstellar space, which is a very thin medium indeed, you'd need to be moving at something like 0.9999995c."

I confess, I just wrote the six nines in that number at random, confident that no-one would actually work through the calculation to see if I was correct. Of course, someone did. Since the density of interstellar space seems to be around ten hydrogen atoms, i.e. 2E-23 grams, per cubic centimeter, while water is at one gram per cc, we have interstellar space about 5E22 less dense than water. Since water reduces the speed of light by about 25 percent, presumably interstellar space reduces it by only 25 percent divided by 5E22, which would be 5E-22 percent, or 0.0000000000000000000005 percent. That puts me off by a factor of, um, oh, about ten thousand trillion. So there should probably be another dozen or so nines after that decimal point. Oh, well.

Another reader wrote in to chide me, as a declared Heinlein fan, for having failed to remember that the interstellar vessels in Starship Troopers are powered by Cerenkov drives.


Greenspan.    The Watergate tapes, [says Alan Greenspan in his just-published memoir], show Richard Nixon as "an extremely smart man who is sadly paranoid, misanthropic and cynical." He recalls telling someone who had accused Nixon of anti-Semitism that he "wasn't exclusively anti-Semitic. He was anti-Semitic, anti-Italian, anti-Greek, anti-Slovak. I don't know anybody he was pro."

What nonsense. I never met Nixon, but I've talked to people—e.g. this one—who knew him and worked with him, and the reports are all good. No doubt he had some minor quirks of personality, but who doesn't? No doubt he was less uncomplicatedly normal than Gerry Ford, but that's setting the bar awfully high.

In any case, Greenspan's remark sounds to me like a knock-off of Robert Conquest's on Stalin. Asked if Stalin was an antisemite, Conquest replied: "Yes, but it hardly noticed. He was broadly and generously anti-human."


Khrushchev. Speaking of Russian dictators, there was some to-ing and fro-ing on The Corner about Khrushchev, who held that position from 1958 to 1964. This gives me the opportunity to tell a Khrushchev joke, of which there were many (some of them told by Richard Nixon).

Someone asked Khrushchev, in his retirement, how he thought the world would have been different if he, instead of John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated in November 1963. Replied the old despot: "Well, one thing would have been different for sure. My widow would not have got a proposal of marriage from Aristotle Onassis."


Giselle. Have I written about Giselle? Google says not, so I'm going to lay down a marker here: I think this may be the perfect ballet. I can't commit myself to certainty, never (I'm ashamed to say) having seen a stage performance. I watched this DVD recently, though, and was spellbound by the beauty of the thing, in spite of some annoyingly gimmicky camera work. If you don't know anything about ballet but would like to give it a try, Giselle would be my recommendation. Other things aside, it's shorter and narratively simpler than the big Tchaikovsky ballets.


Missing a cue. Nothing is more annoying than missing a really good cue. Well, I did. This is in the context of some exchanges with Tom Bethell at The American Spectator on, yes, "intelligent design." Of a panel discussion I participated in at AEI, Bethell (for whom I think the adjective "testy" must have been coined) wrote:

Derbyshire displayed a distressing willingness to slander those he disagrees with. He said of the Intelligent Designers: "You don't do any science. You go around the country on your expense accounts, which is one of the things I kick them about. You don't do any research." (Discovery Institute president Bruce Chapman says this is just plain false and lists several ID researchers.)

I responded here (and I thank TAS for the hospitality of their columns), but missed my cue, as a reader emailed in to tell me. There was a much more powerful response I ought to have made, thus, from my reader:

With reference to the legitimacy of the theory of Intelligent Design, and whether there is any actual science behind it, there was a colloquy between Prof. Behe and the plaintiffs' lawyer Eric Rothschild during the Kitzmiller trial that I would have thought pretty much settled the question for the foreseeable future, but which seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle, viz.:

Rothschild. Now you have never argued for intelligent design in a peer reviewed scientific journal, correct?

[Repetitive exchange omitted.]

Behe. That's correct.

R. And, in fact, there are no peer reviewed articles by anyone advocating for intelligent design supported by pertinent experiments or calculations which provide detailed rigorous accounts of how intelligent design of any biological system occurred, is that correct?

B. That is correct, yes.
[My reader continues] All along the Discovery Institute has claimed (which claims continue to this day despite Prof. Behe's unequivocal admission) that there are a plentitude of such articles. (In this regard, I am unaware of any serious academic articles that have appeared since the fall of 2005, when the testimony quoted above was given.) Apparently the Discovery Institute, and people like Mr. Bethell, don't believe even the sworn testimony of the DI's own star fellow. Except for the outcome itself, this was, I thought, the biggest news in the whole trial.

Well, thank you, Sir (for doing my work for me, I mean....) Plainly the I.D. people need to puts their heads together and get their story straight.


Party game.    September ... Labor Day ... Our neighborhood block party. This year's was a great success, and I learned a new party game.

This was courtesy of courtesy of neighbor Kerry Prep, who runs the coolest singing telegram business on the Eastern Seaboard. I'd started the ball rolling with the old English game where you are challenged to sing a song to the wrong tune (e.g. sing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to the tune of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious"). Kerry's game, at which of course he was adept, was to sing a song starting with the second word. For example:

Me out to the ball game. Take
Me out with the crowd. Buy
Me some peanuts and crack-er jack. I
Don't care if I nev-er get back. Let
Me root, root, root for the home team. If
They don't win it's a shame. For
It's one two, three strikes, you're out! At
The old ball game. Take

Once you're got that down pat, try dropping the first two words: "Out to the ball game. Take me / Out with the crowd. Buy me / Some..." This is not easy.


Generalized abilities.     Had a little fun with David Brooks's piece on IQ. One of the knotty issues here is the connection between IQ scores and the g factor, which is a statistical abstraction underlying different kinds of mental ability, correlated with all of them.

Steve Sailer wondered on his blog whether there were other "deep" general characteristics analogous to g, and suggested "athleticism" as one possibility.

This strikes me as an interesting line of inquiry. Just as we all have a clear notion of some people being smarter than others, even though the smarter person may be no good at some particular kind of thinking—playing bridge, perhaps—so we all have a sense, when we have got to know someone, about how athletic the person is, in a general way, even if he has a lousy tennis serve.

Steve's post made me think of Eddie Charlton. I don't think Charlton was known at all on this side of the pond. There can hardly ever have been anyone more widely and generally athletic. From the Wikipedia article: "Eddie ... was a senior grade footballer, a champion surfer, a good cricketer and boxer. One of this proudest moments was when he carried the Olympic torch on part of its journey to the 1956 Games in Melbourne."

When he got a little old for the more strenuous kinds of sport, Charlton took up snooker—not really an athletic game at all, but very competitive, and needing some ancillary athletic skills like breath control, game strategy, and hand-eye coordination. Charlton was soon winning championships all over, and in his later life most people knew him just as a snooker star. If there were a way to measure general athleticism—AQ, if you like—Eddie Charlton would have been off the charts.

(This gets you wondering what other generalized characteristics we are all aware of in other people, but would have trouble figuring out a way to measure. The anonymous statistician who calls himself La Griffe du Lion has suggested criminality. Joe, who won't even drive over the speed limit, has low CQ; Fred, who robs banks for the fun of it, has a high CQ...)


Kingdom of Heaven... where?    I know I'm asking for trouble here, but a reader responding to my skepticism about the medieval Church having midwifed the Scientific Revolution wondered why anyone would expect such a thing to be true. Christianity, said my reader, is a religion of personal salvation, not one of worldly improvement (except in aberrant forms like 1960s "liberation theology," which all good conservatives anyway deplore).

Well, yes... though there is much more to be said, and I'm sure I shall see all of it in my email-bag. Why would a Christian want to improve the world? Take William Wilberforce, for example—who, after a conversion experience, led the campaign to end the slave trade. Would Christ actually have approved? Might not He have said that the slaves, by virtue of their awful suffering, were extraordinarily well placed for entry to the Kingdom of Heaven? (Did He have anything to say about slaves? It seems to depend on your translation. My 1967 New Scofield Reference Bible, which is basically an annotated KJV, only has "servant" in the New Testament passages, though "slave" is there in Leviticus. Curiously, neither of the words "slave" or "slavery" shows up in Scofield's otherwise excellent concordance.)


Math Corner.     Euler lives! Labor Day, driving into the city (where I was able to park on the street!) around 9 a.m. I was heading west on the Long Island Expressway. Coming up to exit 31. I was passed by a silver Lexus with license plate "E PI I 1." The car contained a middle-aged man and woman in the front seats. It got off the expressway at one of the 31 exits. Salve atque vale.

On last month's question, from a reader:

Mr. Derbyshire,

I don't know an integral expressed as a limerick, but I do know a mathematical limerick. It is written as:

    (((12 + 144 + 20 + 3 × √4)/7) + 5×11) = 92 + 0

And is pronounced:

    A dozen, a gross, and a score,
    Plus three times the square root of four,
    Divided by seven
    Plus five times eleven
    All equals nine squared, and no more!

A different reader directed me to this better-than-average collection of math jokes. Number 8 is his favorite, and I think I agree.