»  National Review Online Diary

  March 2008


Obama fatigue.     This was the month I realized how much I dislike Barack Obama. I have known since he first appeared on the national stage, of course, that he is a 1980s-college-lefty-radical, and that was obnoxious enough in itself. Since the Jeremiah Wright flap came up, I have fleshed out that initial aversion with what I believe to be some true insights into the Barack Obama personality. For example:

(1) "Post-racial" fiddlesticks. This is a man whose head is so empty of anything with real substance, he has filled it with a lifelong obsession about his own négritude.

The fact of his being half-African is endlessly interesting to Obama. Heck, he wrote a book about it. No, dang it, I haven't read the book, nor ever shall; but enough extracts from it have now been aired to give me the aforementioned insights into Obama's soul. He's a puffed-up, self-obsessed, spoiled middle-class brat.

(2) His shifty reaction to the Wright business was all wrong.

What we got instead was a shifty, lawyerish, Obamian weenie lie, enveloped in clouds of gassy uplift-rhetoric. Feugh!

This kind of thing doesn't just make me puke, it would have made any honest-to-goodness old-style lefty puke too. Can you imagine Eugene Debs or Norman Thomas or Woody Guthrie sitting straight-faced through an Obama speech? Let alone giving one. The sooner this preening neurotic poseur gets his electoral comeuppance, the better.


The Typhoid Marys of socialism.     In a column about Eliot Spitzer I made passing reference to the hell-hole that New York state is turning into as a result of a state politics dedicated to the care and maintenance of (a) public-employee unions, (b) ambulance-chasing trial lawyers, and (c) nobody else at all. (Unless, I suppose, you count the proprietors of high-end call-girl enterprises.) I opened the column by wondering aloud why I go on living here.

A reader made a significant observation:

Derb: I see you've got the "New York Funk". I was born and raised in NYC, and couldn't get a job in the metropolitan area (about 30 years ago), so took a job in New Jersey. Wanted to be close to kinfolk still in NY.

At the time, New Jersey was a better state (no income tax, lower property taxes, lower sales tax, etc.) than NY.

A curious phenomenon has occurred over the last 30 years, however. I moved here because I couldn't get a job in engineering (my skill) after I got out of the Army. Been conservative all my life. In the 30 years, many New Yorkers have been moving to NJ to escape the taxes, and etc. that you pointed out in your column.

These newcomers were, for the most part, liberal. Unbelievably, these people have brought their liberal voting habits with them, apparently not understanding how they ruined NY and now, New Jersey is no better than New York in almost any measure.

I have received parallel observations about British fleeing abroad (see below). It's encouraging to conservatives to see people leaving the homeland in droves to escape the multiculti borderless socialism of Blair and Brown, but you can't help wondering what they are bringing with them.

If New Jerseyans welcomed refugee New Yorkers only to discover too late that the refugees had carried the dread infection of socialism with them, should we perhaps look askance at refugee Brits? (Not this one, of course. I'm different.) See more below.


Bawdier connotations.     This month's opera outing was to see a dress rehearsal of Verdi's Falstaff at New York City Opera, to which a friend had tickets. It's an opera I didn't know at all, so preparatory to the performance, I bought a CD set of the 1956 Karajan recording, with Tito Gobbi as Falstaff, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Alice, and Anna Moffo as Nannetta. (What a line-up you get in these older recordings!)

These CD sets come with a little libretto booklet. Being the diligent type in matters of this kind, I read every word of the booklet, or at any rate every English word, including Richard Osborne's preface. There I found the following remark:

The effects range from simple jests ... to the extraordinary sophistication of Fenton's exquisite love sonnet, where the line "Bocca baciata non perde ventura" has altogether bawdier connotations for those who know their Boccaccio.

Alas, I am not one of those. To the very best of my knowledge, I have never read a single word Boccaccio wrote. The line quoted there is translated in the libretto as: "Lips which are kissed lose none of their charm." What are the "bawdier connotations" here? Anybody know? I hate to miss out on a bawdy connotation.


Long Walk exploded.     Another thing I hate is having one of my pet bubbles popped. I tend to go partying with people who really know stuff, though, so I'm resigned to this happening from time to time. Case in point:

I was terrifically impressed a few years ago by Slavomir Rawicz's book The Long Walk. It's a first-person account of how some prisoners, Rawicz among them, escaped from a Siberian labor camp in 1941, and walked across Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet, and the Himalayas, down into British India and freedom.

The book came out in 1956. Among the reviewers was Cyril Connolly, who called the story "positively Homeric."

Well, I was enthusing about the book the other day among a group of people that included Robert Messenger, editor at a conservative magazine whose name is an anagram of   KEENLY ADD STRAW.  Robert, whom I've know for years, since his days at The New Criterion, has read all the books ever written, and has a thoughtful and well-informed opinion about every darned one. He frowned and made small head-shaking movements, and I knew I was in trouble.

Sure enough, it looks as though Rawicz's compelling story has been, as an eighteenth-century gentleman would say, "quite exploded." Here is the Wikipedia page on Rawicz, which indeed makes the whole thing sound dubious.

Oh well. It's a great story, anyway. Why didn't he just market it as a novel?


The ones they trust.     In another column this month I stated my belief that Tibet will one day be free of Chinese rule. Several readers emailed in to ask what explains my uncharacteristic optimism. Well, here's a clue. Note that these are the "tame" monks, the ones the Chinese trust, the ones thoroughly vetted for presentation to foreigners. Tibet will be free.


We Give Our Hearts to Dogs to Tear.     That's the title of a book due out in April from Transaction Publishers. You can pre-order it from Amazon, and if you ever loved and lost a pooch, I recommend you do so.

The author is Alston Chase, one of the more interesting and reflective writers about nature and the wilderness, one of the few who doesn't come at these topics from a position of Goreite "give-a-ton-of-your-money to-us-wise-leaders-and-stop-doing-all-the-things-you-like-and-then-we'll-fix-the-problem" leftism. He is a friend of Stephen Bodio, of whom I would say the same; and Stephen is a friend of mine, so I guess Alston and I are grand-friends. I hope so, anyway, because I really like his book. (Though with one quibble: I think he gets Kurt Gödel wrong.)

Among the delights of the book are the snippets of poetry and prose Alston has used as chapter epigraphs. I did not know this one, for example, from Ogden Nash.

Ten years ago she split the air
To seize what she could spy;
Tonight she bumps against a chair,
Betrayed by milky eye.
She seems to pant, Time up, time up!
My little dog must die,
And lie in dust with Hector's pup;
So, presently, must I.

All this is of course aftermath to the loss of our own beloved mutt back in January. We still grieve for him. The house, which he came to nearly sixteen years ago, just after we bought it, is eerily different without him.


Missing Boris moments (1).     I'm the first up in our house. At six o'clock, still no more than half awake, I go downstairs and into the kitchen.

If you look to your right while entering our kitchen, you can see through the dining room to a glass sliding door leading to the patio. There's a doggie door alongside; but in winter we'd keep the doggie door blocked, to shut out drafts. Boris would then be let in and out via the sliding door, which we'd have to open for him. If he was outside and wanted to come back in, he'd stand patiently at the door, his face right up against it, occasionally scratching on the glass to get our attention.

Well, walking bleary-eyed into the kitchen at 6 a.m., some trick of the light has caused me to see Boris sitting outside the patio door as he used to. It's just an illusion, but a recurrent one, and it's damn near stopped my heart once or twice.


Missing Boris Moments (2).     He always slept in the bedroom with us; on the bed between us during thunderstorms, of which the poor mutt was terrified, but mostly on the floor by our bed.

I always go to bed first. When he saw me heading for the stairs, Boris would get up and follow me, and we'd go to the bedroom together.

In his later years, though, he got a little slow on the uptake, and it would take him a few minutes to realize I'd gone upstairs. Then by the time he got up to the bedroom, I was in bed with the door closed.

So I'd be lying there in bed when I'd hear this scratching on the bedroom door, and some faint whining noises. (Look, I'm sorry I'm late coming up, and really sorry to disturb you, but you can't possibly go to sleep without me in there, can you? …) I'd have to get out of bed to let him in.

Now I lie there drifting into sleep, and this time it's an auditory illusion: the scratch, the whine. Not as dramatic as the other one, but it hurts all the same.

So … why do we give our hearts to a dog to tear?


Big fat English wedding.     I am finishing up this diary at my brother's house in England. My nephew is getting married on March 29 and I want to be there, I mean here. It's a "hotel wedding," the couple both being perfectly irreligious. We all gather in a hotel meeting room, the local registrar does the ceremony, then we all head to the restaurant.

I suppose I shouldn't complain, having advanced (or retreated, depending on your point of view) far into irreligion myself, but I would have liked to sing a hymn at least.

Perhaps the local vicar, never having seen either party inside his church before, refused to perform the Anglican rite. That's what I call taking religion too seriously.


Talk of the islands.     Pretty much the only things anyone talks about here in England are crime and emigration. Yes, e-migration. People are leaving in droves. Of my brother's two sons, one has gone to live in Turkey, which he finds cheap and congenial. The newspapers, like my brother's Daily Mail, are full of stories about the joys of emigration.

The survey of more than 1,100 expats found they are "wealthier, healthier and happier" than they were in the UK.

Those interviewed included engineers, teachers, economists, accountants, IT professionals and those working in financial services and marketing.

When asked about their new life, they spoke in glowing terms about their decision to quit this country.

More than 90 per cent said they were happier. More than 80 per cent had "a greater sense of well-being" and "feeling better all round for moving abroad".

And then, crime. The police, everyone tells you, have pretty much given up. If you call, they don't come … unless you try to defend yourself or your property against whoever is trying to mug, burgle, beat, or murder you: then the Bobbies are on the spot immediately to arrest you for violating the mugger's, burglar's, or assailant's human rights. Americans, thank your lucky stars for the Second Amendment.

Crime syndicates, frequently run by immigrants, have taken over large areas of British cities. Look at this astonishing picture from the Daily Mail. Caption: "Hundreds of officers in riot gear mass in a residential street in London yesterday afternoon before launching raids on 19 business and shop premises in the adjoining Blackstock Road which are thought to be a front for organized crime."

If you read the adjoining story, you learn that: "In Blackstock Road, officers handed out leaflets in English and Arabic to explain the operation." Arabic, huh? Right.

Another resident, Sean Cooper, 56, said: "Abu Hamza used to preach nearby and that attracted a lot of the wrong kind of people."

Right, again.

As it happens, I used to live in Blackstock Road. I had lodgings there for a few months while studying in London during the mid-1960s. At that time it was a quiet lower-middle-class street populated by English people — people who had not yet really been introduced to the joys of diversity; people who expected that if they called for the police, police would show up; people who would walk in the streets at night, a thing nobody in England does now.


Gratitude.     Here is a story from my brother Noel, who served 22 years in H.M. armed forces. He belongs to an old soldiers' association. Every November he goes down to London from his home town of Swindon, 60 miles away, for the veterans' parade along Whitehall.

Last year, after the parade was over and he'd had a drink with his mates, Noel gathered his wife and got a taxi back to their hotel. "Been on parade, have you?" asked the taxi driver, seeing my brother's cap and medals. "Yes, just came down for it," was the reply. I doubt much else was said, the Derbyshires not being very talkative types.

When they got to the hotel, Noel helped his wife out of the cab, then turned to the driver and asked: "How much is it?" Reply: "No charge. You've paid already." The cabbie would accept nothing, and drove off.

This story has much more force if you have had some familiarity with the general run of London taxi drivers …


Math Corner.     Lots of math news this month. In descending order, from most advanced to least:

(1)   The sixth Abel Prize for outstanding accomplishment in math was awarded to John Griggs Thompson of the University of Florida at Gainsville, and Jacques Tits (pronounced "teets," please) of the Collège de France in Paris. These gentlemen did key work in the theory of finite groups, which you can read about in any good popular history of algebra.

(2)   Israeli mathematician Avraham Trahtman has cracked the Road Coloring Problem, which has been open for 38 years. Roughly speaking, the problem is: given a network of nodes joined by lines, and one particular node specified as the target, is it possible to work out a universal rule for getting to the target from any other node? If I am in Manhattan, but you don't know where, is there a way for you to provide me with directions that will infallibly bring me to your apartment at last? Trahtman showed that it is indeed possible, provided the network meets certain broad conditions.

(3)   A blogger friend in my favorite state draws my attention to this piece of idiocy.

Fractions are a stumbling block to learning math. Kids are turned off, confused and hate math right from the start, due to fractions. Very few other countries in the world use fractions (decimals are used instead), and we should get rid of them forever. In today's world, they are as old-fashioned as the slide rule. Even with a calculator, try adding a series of 20 or 30 mixed fractions quickly. You have to first convert each one to a decimal anyway, it's painfully slow and mistakes are common. Decimals are the only way to go. Tape measures and such should be modified to include decimals of an inch — not fractions!

This is actually one of those the-glass-is-0.5-empty things. From the anti-fractionist's point of view, fractions are a nuisance: easy enough to multiply and divide, but seriously hard to add and subtract correctly. Adding and subtracting fractions is, in fact, the pons asinorum of basic arithmetic, the biggest hump for kids to get over. Heaven forbid we should ask schoolkids to do anything difficult.

To get to any kind of advanced math, though, the concepts underlying fractions must be absorbed. You can't master calculus, for example, without the idea of a limit, which is incomprehensible if you haven't fully internalized fractions, which you can only do by lots of practice in manipulating them. Similarly, you can't really get a start on set theory, the main language in which higher math is expressed, unless you understand the term "irrational number," which means "a number that is not a fraction or a whole number."

(4)   The Daily Mail (who should be paying me a commission at this point) runs a "30 Second Challenge," with which readers can keep their mental-arithmetic skills sharp. You have to carry out three procedures in order and get the three right answers. If your finish time is 30 seconds or less, you are "advanced." If you finished the first two within 30 seconds, but not the third, you are "intermediate." And if you finished only the first within the 30 seconds, you are a "beginner." Go!