»  National Review Online Diary

  November 2007


Upright Abe's Gettysburg Address.     I guess you read about the high school students in Kansas City, Mo., who got ten-day suspensions for using the n-word. Yes, I know it's hard to believe that anyone could be so insensitive in this enlightened day and age, but there they were, classmates Travis Grigsby and Alex Coday, tying up the equipment after band practice. They were having trouble with the knots, and Alex asked Travis if he knew how to tie a noose. Travis said, yes, he knew how to tie a noose. A third student overheard and reported the exchange to the principal. Ten days' suspension!

So now we have another n-word to avoid. First there was the n-word. Then there was "niggardly," a fine old English word (first in print 1571, according to the OED) that no-one dares use any more for fear someone within earshot might burst into tears and go running for an attorney. Now we have to find some other way to say "noose."

My fellow Americans, I have a suggestion. Let's pre-empt future embarrassments of this sort by just dropping the letter "n" from our alphabet altogether. It's obviously just going to cause more trouble. It's a hurtful letter, a mean-spirited letter.

Of course, we'll have to rewrite all the great documents of our so-called civilization, but surely it's worth doing that in the cause of racial sensitivity, isn't it? How hard can it be, anyway? We're only dropping one letter out of 26. There'll still be 25 of the little suckers to work with.

Let me get the ball rolling here. I'll start with something short. How about the Gettysburg Address?

Four score plus five years ago, plus two, our fathers brought forth to the people of this very large territory a fresh republic that arose from Liberty, that furthermore was dedicated to the idea that all people are created equal.

At this time we are busy with a great civil war, to test whether that republic, or some other republic that so arose, that was so dedicated, might last for a good while. We are met at a field where a great battle of that war was fought. We have come to dedicate a part of that field, as a last repository for those who here gave their lives that that republic might live. It is altogether suitable, altogether proper that we should do this.

But, from a larger perspective, it is impossible for us to dedicate, it is impossible for us to set aside as a place to revere, it is impossible for us to make holy, this earth. The brave people, alive as well as dead, who struggled here, have made it a place to revere, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little regard, will quickly forget, what we say here; but it will always remember what they did here. It is for us who are alive, rather, to be dedicated here to the partially-accomplished work which they who fought here have thus far so heroically pushed forward. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task still before us — that from these esteemed dead we take fortified loyalty to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of loyalty — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall have died to good purpose — that this republic, subject to God, shall have a fresh birth of freedom — further, that rule of the people, by the people, for the people, shall survive as a feature of earthly life.

Piece of cake. Now for the Declaration of Independence — Oops, sorry, I mean the Decree of Self-Rule:

At those times, while history proceeds, that a people must dissolve the political ties which have...


Early drop-out.     Reader, I have a problem — a rather serious problem for a guy in my line of work.

Here's the problem: I'm bored out of my skull already with this election.

This is bad. It's bad in a citizenly way, I suppose. I mean, it's my duty as a citizen to ponder the issues, assess the candidates, and come to a reasoned opinion about which one I support.

Way worse, though, it's my duty as a National Review blogger to keep up with the campaign events; watch the candidates' standings; catch their bloopers — cheering or groaning according to preference; catch their little learning moments, with the converse reactions, and so on. Well, I am failing in my duty.

It's not that there's anything wrong with the candidates as such. In fact, we're lucky to have such a rich field. This is how things are supposed to be — choice! I even like some of these guys. War hero... confident and successful businessman/governor... tough no-nonsense mayor... laid-back, witty showbiz type with good conservative creds... There's plenty to like, almost an embarrassment of riches.

What's dragging me down into the swamps of indifference — aside from the fact of having grown up in a nation where election campaigns last two weeks if you're unlucky — is more a generalized feeling of despair about the entire federal government. They can't do anything. They're hopeless. No president could do much with them.

Our financial regulators have let a ghastly credit crisis develop. Our customs controllers have let the country be flooded with poisonous toys and toxic pet food. Our intelligence agencies, we now know beyond any reasonable doubt, have essentially done nothing useful for about half a century. When they've managed to agree on anything, it's been wrong. Our diplomats screw up our relations with other countries so badly we get into wars; then the diplos balk at going to serve in the war zone.

The folk who direct our armed forces have spent four and a half years struggling inconclusively with a rabble of fanatics who have no navy or air force, no armored units, no regular formations at all in fact, and munitions they operate with cell-phones and lengths of string. In three and a half years, our grandfathers turned two mighty, sprawling fascist empires to rubble. What am I missing here?

The most elementary function of the federal government — one that, in fact, it jealously guards as its own alone — is the management of immigration and border control. This, as we surely all know by now, is a complete shambles. It's not just illegal immigration; the legal kind is fubar, too — read this. I've been blaming George W. Bush and his predecessor for a lot of this. They didn't give a damn, I've been saying. They're sentimental and clueless about immigration, or hooked up with business interests hungry for cheap labor, I've been saying.

Well, there's something in that. Looking at the federal government though, I wonder if the biggest part of the problem isn't systemic. Would our immigration mess be less of a mess under President Tancredo? A bit, perhaps; but I think we've arrived at a point where the president may propose, but the courts, the federal bureaucracy, the interest groups, the lobbies and trial lawyers and the ACLU and CAIR and MeCha and LULAC dispose.

I've missed the last, oh, five or six candidate debates. I shall miss tonight's, too. (This is being written November 28th.) The Manhattan Institute has an event in the city I'm invited to. I'll look through the debate transcripts when I get home, and maybe switch on the TV and check the snippets shown on news programs... but frankly, I'm finding it a struggle to pay even that much attention.

None of these people, decent and worthy and public-spirited as no doubt they are, will be able to do much about the systemic problem. Who thought, when we elected George W. Bush, that we'd be getting an endless war, vast expansions of the welfare state, an accelerating invasion of our country by people whose loyalties lie elsewhere, and — God help us all! — another damn fool Mid-East "peace conference"? I didn't. Will any of these candidates be any better able to cope with "Events, dear boy, events"? What I mean is, will any of them have better luck at getting the federal government to cope?

What to do? Long-term, I'm working on it. For the purposes of this month's diary, my preferred solution is a retreat into triviality, irrelevance, and self-indulgent self-absorption.

The remainder of this month's diary will therefore be policy-free, candidate-free, and significant-issues-free. Ladies and gents, I am going to ramble — deliver personal comments on random things that have happened to me this month. If you don't like this sort of thing, guess what? — you don't have to read it!


The way we speak now.     Sitting down to lunch with a friend. Waiter brings menus. We scrutinize our menus.

Me: "The chicken saltimbocca looks good."
She: "I can't. I'm on a food plan."
Me: "A what?"
She: "A food plan. I'm on a food plan."
Me [after a moment's thought]: "You mean, like ... a diet?"
She: "A food plan. It's a food plan."

Right. A food plan. Not a diet, a food plan.


Life's a what?     The other day someone said to me: "Life's a bitch." Uh-huh. This expression is so well-worn by now, the saying of it is almost reflexive, like clearing your throat.

For some reason, though, this particular utterance set a cascade of little-used neurons firing, deep down into the memory banks, all the way down to my Russian lessons of 44 years ago. Though we were total beginners in the language, our instructor made us memorize verse. That, he said, was the best way to get a feel for the language, especially for the stresses on words, which in Russian are never quite where you expect them to be.

Well, my friend saying "Life's a bitch" brought up a line from Boris Pasternak's poem "Hamlet." The line is: Zhizn' prozhit' nye polye pereyti — "To go through life is not to walk across a field." So far as there's any point in talking about life in the round — which is not very far, in my opinion — this seems to me greatly superior to "Life's a bitch."

Had I got the Russian right, though? I'm fussy about this sort of thing, so I went Googling it. Yep, there it was — the last line of this poem. (There's a translation here, minus the first-stanza refrain.) And then, of course, I had to go and spoil the mood — to part the gathering clouds of fine, dark, introspective Slavic gloom — by hitting the "Translate this page" link on the Google page. Here is what I got.

Gul subsided, I came out on the gangways,
Prislonyas to kosyaku door.
I fishing in the distant otgoloske,
What will happen at my age.

I alive nastavlen night
Tysyachyu binoculars at the axis.
If you can, Avva Our Father,
Chashu this past gleaming!

I love your vision stubborn
I agreed to play this role,
But there is another drama,
And this time me babies.

But out discipline action
And looming end of the road.
I lost every one in fariseystve!
Life is not a live sex go!

Well, I should certainly hope not!


No-test I.Q. estimation.     Following my three-parter on race and I.Q., some readers asked me what my I.Q. is. I actually, honestly don't know, not having taken a test. I can give you a pretty good estimate, though, via heuristic argument. For historical reasons, this argument can't be made to work any more. It worked once, though — as follows.

Start with a picture, the one on this web page. Yup, that's Derb (number 4), aged 10, in his class of 40 kids, give or take a couple. There were four classes like this in my age group, say a total of 160 kids.

These classes were streamed by test results. The tests were I.Q. tests, near enough. Those were simple days in the English educational system. They tested us; they placed us. My own class was the top-streamed of the four, so you are looking at the top quartile of a random 160 working-class English kids with parents from the pre-meritocratic age. (I mean, from the fact that our parents were poor, you can't make any inference about their, or our, smarts.)

It's therefore fair to assume that this is the top quartile of an IQ distribution, Gaussian-normal in shape, with a mean 100 and a standard deviation 15. Applying the handy little NORMDIST function in Microsoft Excel, it follows that the kids in that picture all have I.Q.s. of 110 or more.

We were even streamed within our classes, though. The top four in my class — numbers 1, 4, 7, and 11 in the picture — sat in a separate group, doing advanced stuff. As the top four out of 160, we were at the 97½-th percentile. Applying NORMDIST again, that means our I.Q.s were 129+.

And in fact, Alan and I were somewhat ahead of the other two, alternating for first place in the class tests, with Pete and Martin placing third or fourth. A fair guess, therefore, is that those two had I.Q.s in the low 130s, Alan and myself in the mid- or high-130s.

If pressed, therefore, I give my I.Q. at 135, with fair but utterly un-tested confidence. I.Q. is pretty stable through life. Indeed, like many other aspects of personality, it exhibits a "shape-memory alloy" effect, drifting a bit in the buffetings of one's salad days, then returning to its childhood value in adulthood, when you're more in control of your environment.

For a normal distribution with mean 100 and standard deviation 15, a statistic of 135 also has the neat property that it's at pretty precisely the 99th percentile — the 99.0184671th, if you want to be picky. Put it another way, about three million Americans are smarter than me. (I shall introduce you to three of them in just a minute.)

So: If I were to take an I.Q. test, I'd expect a result around 135. If the result came up 145, I'd ask for a raise. If it came up 125, I'd quite drinking.


Reality check.     People who read and write for a living can easily fall into a too-abstract way of thinking. Abstractions are important, of course, but abstractions about human beings need to be anchored in some real experiences with real human beings. They need to have some faces attached.

That cute little heuristic argument I just went through was all about abstractions. What about the people, though? Well, there they are. I can remember most of them to some degree — better than I can remember their names, anyway. I remember street and schoolyard playmates from the other classes, too — the other three quartiles. I remember a boy named Max (after the popular 1940s vaudeville comedian Max Miller, I suppose). Dumb as a box of rocks in any academic way — I think he was in the bottom class — Max was wonderful fun to be around, full of a kind of low cunning and street smarts. (It was a slummy neighborhood.)

It's fun to toss numbers around — to talk of means and standard deviations, quartiles and correlation coefficients. There they are, though, the top quartile — there are their faces. I recall enough from the second, third, and fourth quartiles, too. Some of them, I haven't the slightest doubt, went on to live happier, more useful, and more successful lives than I did.

Good to be reminded of that. Good to get a reality check. In the human sciences, put faces to the abstractions whenever you can.


Loneliness of the late-night Gentile.
     I went on Alan Colmes's late-night radio show at the Fox studios. There were four of us in the studio, just taking calls from late-night listeners. The four were: Alan, myself, "dating columnist" Julia Allison and lefty radio guy Sam Greenfield.

So there we were, sitting around taking calls and chatting among ourselves during the commercial breaks. About halfway through, I started to feel what I often feel in these situations. There isn't a name for this particular feeling, and perhaps it's not altogether polite to talk about it, but it's in the general zone of intimidation, with a dash of claustrophobia.

The thing is, I'm a Gentile. Alan's Jewish, and so was the Greenfield guy. I'd established, in one of the commercial breaks, that Julia is a quarter Jewish. So I was basically the only total Gentile in the room. That makes me uncomfortable.

Why? Because Jews are so damn smart, that's why. There they all were — very nice people, all of them, I hasten to say (Alan Colmes is far more charming & pleasant in person than he comes across on the screen) — but Jewish — fast-talking and wise-cracking in that hyper-worldly Jewish way, and I felt like a provincial clod. Well, maybe I am a provincial clod, but in a roomful of Jews, I feel it more intensely. It's ... intimidating.

There, I said it. Been wanting to for ages. Absolutely no offense to anyone at all... but next time, Alan, could I not be the only Goy in the studio, please? Thanks!


Nightmare on 21st Street.     I had some business in a big old office building on West 21st Street in Manhattan. After transacting my business, I headed for the elevator to leave the building. Pressed the Down button. Waited. Nothing happened. More waiting. More nothing.

This was only the third floor, so I thought: Sod it, I'll take the stairs. I pushed through a door into the stairwell and went down what seemed like three sets of stairs. The stairwell was ancient, musty, badly in need of cleaning & painting, ill-lit.

I saw a door with a sign over it saying Exit. I assumed it would let me out into the street. Pushing through the door, I found myself on an old fire escape, equal parts rust and black paint. I was in a canyon between two buildings, both at least twenty floors high. No street was visible, both ends of the canyon were shut off by building-backs. I was at least a floor above street level, though, perhaps two, somehow.

There were these ancient fire escapes all around, going up to the sliver of sky, but descending no further than the level I was at. There were also steam pipes venting and ventilation units rotating on the confusion of roofs below me. I felt as though I had somehow got trapped in a Piranesi etching.

The door had closed behind me. It was a fire door that couldn't be opened from the outside.

I made my way along the fire escape. (I should say I was in full business attire, with a natty white raincoat — did I mention all this was happening in a fine late-November drizzle? — and bag.) Another door — it wouldn't open. I peered through windows into offices, all empty — this was late afternoon, the light beginning to fail. I climbed up a couple of levels, trying doors, then back down to my original platform.

My platform gave out a few yards away, onto a slightly-sloping tarred roof slick from the drizzle. I stepped off the platform onto this roof and cautiously made my way along, looking into all the windows. At last I reached another fire escape with a door. This door wouldn't open either, but ... there was someone in the neighboring office!

I tapped on the window with the butt of my umbrella. The lady looked up from her desk and saw me. It must have been the strangest thing she ever saw: she froze, gaping. I pointed towards the door at my left and shouted: "Open the door please!" Unfreezing, she made a shrugging "Wha?" gesture and said something back, but we couldn't hear each other — the glass was too thick (and filthy, and barred). I pointed at the door some more and tried to mime opening it, but lost my footing on the wet fire escape and disappeared from her sight for a moment.

Back at the window, I saw that she had resumed working at her desk, having perhaps dismissed me as some kind of hallucination. I banged on the window again. Now the "Wha?" shrugs and grimaces had a definitely annoyed quality. I banged some more and tried to look as desperate as I was starting to feel. She got up and left the office.

Three or four minutes later she re-entered the office, this time with a male colleague. The woman pointed to me out on the fire escape. The man squinted at me and did a "Wha?" shrug. I repeated my open-the-[expletive]-door mime, but minding my footing this time. The man and woman had a conversation. The man came over to the window and said something to me, but I could hear nothing. I mimed again. He went back and had another conversation with the lady. They "Wha?"-shrugged at each other a good deal. Then the guy walked over and opened the door!

He: "What were you doing out there?"
Me: "I went through a door marked Exit, and there I was."
He: "Well, these are fire doors."
Me: "Right. And you'd better hope there's never a fire because they lead you to ABSOLUTELY NOWHERE YOU CAN ESCAPE FROM."

New York City has, of course, a hundred thousand pages of building codes and regulations concerning fire safety and evacuation procedures, monitored and enforced by legions of bureaucrats and inspectors. For all the good they're doing, they might as well be the Department of Homeland Security.


Fundamentalism lite.     Billy Graham seems to have been with us for ever. I can remember his Wembley crusade (i.e at London's Wembley Stadium) when I was a kid.

He's still with us, though he hasn't been too well lately. I found myself, in an idle half hour in a book store, browsing David Aikman's recent biography. I'd had a vague notion that Graham had drifted somewhat from his original fundamentalism, and an even vaguer memory of some theological conflict between him and Bob Jones University back in the 1970s. I hadn't realized just how far Graham had drifted, though. The Gospels?

He has leaned towards a vision of the Gospels which, if it excluded the Hitlers and Pol Pots of the world, seems to be entirely accessible to just about everyone else.

(That quote and all the following from Aikman's book, with Graham himself in quotation marks.)

Hell?

"Hell means separation from God. We are separated from his light, from his fellowship. That is going to hell."

Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists?

"I used to think that pagans in far-off countries were lost — were going to hell — if they did not have the gospel of Jesus Christ preached to them. I no longer believe that. I believe there are other ways of recognizing the existence of God — through nature for instance — and plenty of other opportunities, therefore, of saying yes to God."
Newsweek magazine in 2006 asked him whether "good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or similar people" would be denied entry to Heaven. Graham's reply was: "Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish of me to speculate on who will be there and who won't... I believe the love of God is absolute, and I think he loves everybody, regardless of what label they have."

Abortion?

"There is a Christian position, I think. But I'm not prepared to say what it is."

Fundamentalist? Ol' Billy sounds like he's auditioning for a job as Archbishop of Canterbury.

How does this happen? Where has the thunder and hellfire gone? I suppose Graham has just been out in the world too much. That Old Time Religion can stay intact only if you remain among people with more or less the same kind of faith. A couple of decades of hobnobbing at interfaith gatherings with the Dalai Lama, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, rabbis and swamis and Catholic archbishops, and things just don't look so cut and dried any more.

I guess that's the answer. But then, why does this softening effect work on a Christian fundamentalist, but not, apparently, on Muslim fundamentalists? The more they live among us, the more they seem to hate us. Perhaps they just need to get out more. Sayyid Qutb lived in the U.S.A., to be sure, but only for two years, and he doesn't seem to have been much of a mixer.

Still, Christianity seems to be more susceptible to the softening effect of worldly engagement than Islam. I don't know what to make of this, I just put it out there as a thought.

Anyway, Billy, if you feel you're up to it, by all means go for the Canterbury job. You could hardly be worse than the present guy.


Dream a little dream.     OK, I've mentioned late night matters, and related a living nightmare, so let's talk about dreams. I mean, what happened to dreams? Dreams and dreaming no longer figure in our culture — in our common stock of ideas, in our literature or amusement or talk.

This is really very striking when you think about it. Preliterate peoples are obsessed with dreams, and talk about them all the time, and ponder their significance. Isn't there supposed to be a hunter-gatherer tribe somewhere that believes dreams are the real life, and this one just a ... dream? Perhaps I misremembered that. Along the same lines, there was Zhuangzi and his butterfly.

It was certainly conventional in history for any great deed to be validated by the doer having had a prescient dream beforehand, like Julius Caesar (Suetonius, I.vii) or Osman. Then, in modern times we had Freud, who wrote an entire book about the meaning of dreams. There were less well-known, once-popular but now-forgotten mystics like J.W. Dunne and Carlos Castaneda, who made much play with dreams and the messages hidden in them. Every self-respecting movie had a dream sequence in it, especially if it was a horror movie (there's a superb one in Rosemary's Baby). Even Broadway musical had dream sequences — Oklahoma! had one, anyway.

Now ... nothing. When did you last see a dream sequence in a movie or TV show? Have we stopped dreaming? Or is it just that we no longer attach any significance to our dreams?

You know where this is going, don't you? I'm going to tell you a dream. I actually hate it when people tell me their dreams; but I've had this one three or four times now, at about six month intervals, and it's bothering me. Perhaps publishing it here will vanquish it. So indulge me: this is therapy.

I'm in a room, sitting in a chair against a wall. There's a big window just along the wall from where I'm sitting. I don't know this room. That's odd in itself: the interiors in my dreams are always rooms I know, usually from my childhood home. This seems to be some kind of office. There are other people in the room. I don't know who they are, but they're not strangers to me in this dream-world.

The window suddenly brightens. This is surprising and interesting to the people in the room. They go to the window to look. I'm alarmed, however. I stay seated, though I don't say anything.

Now the window brightens again, but MUCH brighter this time. I know what's happened, I know. Get away from the window, I scream, it's going to blow in! Get away!

Then I wake up. My wife just kicked me. "You were shouting," she grumbles sleepily.

Well, it's not as bad as Paul Johnson's dream, I guess.


Math Corner.     The Huntington Problem, from my October diary, remains unsolved. Obviously we need a new Euler here.

The clever limerick I mentioned in my August diary has been located though, thanks to a helpful reader, and here it is.

With that, and the NORMDIST-ing I did earlier, I'm mathed out for this month. I shall come up with something double absorbing for December.