»  National Review Online Diary

  May 2008

Raza Studies.     Like the rest of you, I've been wondering how the lead organization lobbying on behalf of special privileges for Mexicans in the U.S.A. manages to get away with calling itself "National Council of La Raza." Those last two words, I'm sure I don't need to tell you, mean "the race." The idea, as I had it explained to me, is that by blending the European race with the Mesoamerican, Mexico has brought forth a new race, the mestizo or bronze race, which is claimed to be superior to both the contributing races, I suppose by dint of hybrid vigor. This bronze über-race is "La Raza."

This notion, if it was explained to me correctly, considerably misrepresents Mexico's population, around forty percent of which is unmixed (ten percent pure-European, thirty percent pure-Mesoamerican). Leaving that aside, how do they get away with it? The U.S.A. is currently in a condition of hyper-prudery about race. I get a regular trickle of emails telling me I am an evil, evil person for thinking that such a thing as race even exists. In this atmosphere, you would think that an outfit declaring itself, in its very name, to be promoting the interests of The Race, and whose published material shouts an ethic of racial triumphalism, would belong out on the kooky fringes of society along with Aryan Nation and Black Liberation Theology.

Yet La Raza is as respectable as it is possible to be. Its "corporate partners" program lists all the biggest names in U.S. business:  Allstate, Ford, Wal-Mart, Xerox … Its spokesmen regularly appear on TV talking-head programs. Presidential candidates line up to address it. On a respectability scale, "The Race" is up there with the Kiwanis, American Cancer Society, and the Episcopal Church.

And still they show not the faintest sign of being embarrassed about their name. "We are The Race," they seem to be telling us cheerfully. "We're promoting the interests of The Race. Why would anybody object to that?"

In fact, they are spreading it around. There seems now to be a growing trend towards "Raza Studies" in schools and colleges. (The definite article is sometimes included, sometimes not. On general linguistic principles, this probably means it's on its way out, like the slowly disappearing hyphen in words like "e-mail.") Most of us first found out about this from the May 21 column in Tucson Citizen by high school teacher John A. Ward. Ward's column has been bouncing around the web for the last few days, generating a lot of comment. Ward, who describes himself as Hispanic, was assigned to teach "a U.S. history course with a Mexican-American perspective" under the aegis of "the Raza/Chicano Studies department." (And this was five years ago, please note.) When he found out what the course material consisted of, he balked.

The basic theme of the curriculum was that Mexican-Americans were and continue to be victims of a racist American society driven by the interests of middle and upper-class whites.

In this narrative, whites are able to maintain their influence only if minorities are held down. Thus, social, political and economic events in America must be understood through this lens.

This biased and sole paradigm justified teaching that … the Southwestern United States was taken from Mexicans because of the insatiable greed of the Yankee who acquired his values from the corrupted ethos of Western civilization.

It was taught that the Southwest is "Atzlan," the ancient homeland of the Aztecs, and still rightfully belongs to their descendants — to all people of indigenous Mexican heritage.

When Ward protested about this material he was called a "racist" — by the administrators of the Raza Studies program! He was reassigned to other classes.

Raza Studies is metastasizing. A google on the phrase got 14,200 hits even with the Tucson story subtracted out ("raza studies"  –tucson  –tusd). San Francisco State University offers a B.A. in Raza Studies. It seems to be the only college offering this particular degree, but I doubt that will be the case for long. Watch out for Raza Studies at a high school or college near you. But don't dare let on you believe there is such a thing as race!

Russian noses.     My comments in last month's diary about Vladimir Putin's odd nasal obsession included a passing mention of the nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. The writer's name sat there among my neurons for a while, then stirred and fired off a cascade of mental processes, most of them no doubt unconscious, that ended with my logging on to Abebooks.com and purchasing a copy of Vladimir Nabokov's 1944 book Nikolai Gogol.

I had owned the book in my student days, and relished its quality of concentrated Nabokovitude. For example: the first sentence in the book deals with Gogol's death, while the last describes his birth. However, I lost the book in my wanderings, and retained little memory of its details. Well, here is the Russian nose-obsession in full-blown Nabokovian prose:

We shall meet the nasal leitmotiv throughout his [i.e. Gogol's] imaginative work and it is hard to find any other author who has described with such gusto smells, sneezes and snores. This or that hero comes into the story trundling, as it were, his nose in a wheelbarrow … There is an orgy of snufftaking … Noses drip, noses twitch, noses are lovingly or roughly handled; one drunkard attempts to saw off the nose of another; the inhabitants of the moon (so a madman discovers) are Noses.

We [Russians] are nose-gay and nose-sad. The display of nasal allusions in a famous scene of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac is nothing in comparison to the hundreds of Russian proverbs and sayings that revolve around the nose. We hang it in dejection, we lift it up in glory; slack memory is advised to make a notch in it and it is wiped for you by your victor. It is used as a measure of length when referring to some impending event of a more or less threatening nature. … The drowsy man "angles" with it instead of nodding. A big one is said to bridge the Volga or to have been growing for a century. A tingle inside it portends a piece of good news while a pimple on its tip means a coming carouse. Any writer alluding, say, to a fly settling on a man's nose used to earn in Russia thereby the reputation of a humorist …

There you have it: Russia is the nasal nation.

I note by the way that next year is Gogol's bicentenary. He shares that birth year with Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Edgar Allan Poe. What a year for geniuses! (Lincoln and Darwin were actually born on the same day.) Wikipedia gives Gogol's birth date as March 31st; but I am more inclined to believe Nabokov, who says April 1 in his chronology appendix.

April 1st    Born in the bright and muddy market town of Sorochintzy (stress accent on "chintz"), Province of Poltava, Little Russia …

If you want to get in shape for the Gogol bicentenary, you may as well start by learning to pronounce his name: GAW-gol, with the "l" palatalized. (As if you were to begin saying "-lyuh," but left off the "-uh.") As Nabokov says: "One cannot hope to understand an author if one cannot even pronounce his name."

Cougars.     I don't know why I'm always so far behind the curve with new trends and usages. Probably it's because I spend most of my time on a very lofty intellectual plane, contemplating grand questions of metaphysics and cosmology. In any case, I only just last week got acquainted with the term "cougar." This was from watching Saturday Night Live for the first time in ages. (I note incidentally that the one I watched was quite funny. Is SNL funny again, after being not really very funny at all for — what was it? — about twenty years?) The guest host was someone called Ashton Kutcher, apparently a movie actor. He looks about seventeen, but IMDb says thirty. Kutcher is married to acress Demi Moore, who is forty-five. I'd never heard of Kutcher, but my wife seems to know all about him. Mrs. Derb is just one month older than Mrs. Kutcher.

Well, SNL ran a sketch in which a sofa full of Mrs. Robinsons, which is to say "cougars," talk about their much-younger lovers, or their hopes thereof. Kutcher played the part of an opportunistic toy boy. Me: "Is that what 'cougar' means? Is this some new trend? Or what?" Mrs. D: "[Sigh] He's so cute!"

Next morning my New York Post arrived with its Page Six pullout magazine supplement. There on page 26: "I'm married to a 'cougar' and proud of it!" by thirty-year-old columnist Tom Teodorczuk. His wife is ten years older. Teodorczuk describes their first encounters, grumbles about his friends' jokes and skepticism, and rhapsodizes about his new baby. His ancient history is a bit shaky: "In 40 B.C. the emperor Octavian caused uproar in the Roman senate when he married Scribonia, several years his senior." Still, what can you expect from a toy boy? (Just kidding.)

Well, good luck to Mr. and Mrs. Teodorczuk. In all generality, I think the traditional idea of the groom being older than the bride — twice her age minus fourteen was the formula I learned — has much to be said for it, but human beings don't generalize easily, and conjugal happiness is something to celebrate however it comes about. My own great literary hero Samuel Johnson married his Tetty when he was twenty-five and she was forty-six. He doted on her till she died seventeen years later, and mourned her extravagantly for the rest of his own life. (To the mystification of his friends: a classic case of "What on earth does he/she see in her/him?")

I'm still perplexed by "cougar", though. I can see the predator angle, but why this particular predator? Is there something about the sex lives of cougars that I don't know?

Reading list.     A good month for reading, with the excuse that I've been needing to try out my new hammock.

Philosophy:  I'm still chewing through my reading list from that consciousness conference in Tucson. Right now: Susan Pockett's book The Nature of Consciousness: A Hypothesis. Susan is the lady I described as giving me a very New Zealandish answer to one of my questions. Well, her book reveals her to be a very New Zealandish gal:

When I first started thinking seriously on this question about five years ago, I had no clue as to what such a theory would look like … However, being a New Zealander and thus imbued from childhood with the notion that I was a rugged individualist who could fix anything with a piece of number eight fencing wire, I was not as daunted by these obstacles as a more socialized person might have been …

She writes with great charm. As to her hypothesis about consciousness, though:  Hmm.  But I'm only a third of the way through yet.

Fiction:  I read Robert Ferrigno's thriller Sins of the Assassin. I thought it was excellent — gripping, scary, and imaginative; and I'm not just saying that because I have a walk-on part in the story (p. 148). Now I'm wondering if I should go back and read the prequel, Prayers for the Assassin. Since it has the same cast of main characters, and is quite extensively reprised in Sins, so that I know how it turns out, perhaps it's not worth the time to actually read it. I understand that Prayers and Sins are the first two of a trilogy, so perhaps I'll just wait for the third.

Poetry:  David Yezzi of The New Criterion has a book of poems out, title Azores. These are quiet pieces, introspective but never self-indulgently personal, the rhythms very skillfully crafted but not obtrusive. The title poem is actually a cycle of nine sonnets about deep-sea sailing, descriptive enough to leave me feeling slightly seasick. And then of course he had to go and include a dog poem, darn near bringing tears to my still-grieving eyes. Last two stanzas (of eight):

…  I will have a legacy:
some will recall me fondly,
others not. On her, all will
think back with affection,

carry her in their hearts.
For doing what? I ask her.
Not much, she tells me. Nothing?
Not anything at all.

History:  I blegged a while ago for something on the dissolution of the English monasteries under Henry VIII. Way out ahead of the pack in readers' recommendations was Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars. I have done my best with it, and certainly admire the depth of Duffy's scholarship; but he is no writer, and it is dry stuff to take much of at one sitting. The greater part of the book in fact is a description of traditional, pre-Reformation English religion. That's interesting in its own way, but Duffy's approach lacks the human touch I like. Just a matter of taste, to be sure, and probably my taste is lower than it ought to be. And the author got my interest here and there: the ructions at Barking in the fall of 1538, for example, when Robert Ward, a former friar and "self-appointed watchdog against the 'old ways'" clashed with the parish priest, John Adryan.

When Adryan invoked the Virgin's prayers … Ward said "with a submiss voice", "That is naught." … At the end of the service [Adryan] confronted Ward with the missal, asking: "Is there anything in that book which is naught?" This interchange ended in violence with the two men wrestling for possession of the missal …

Now that is history brought alive. The book could have used much more of the same.

Religion:  After reading about Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust from Razib on Gene Expression a while ago, I put it on my reading list and finally got round to buying it early last year. "I didn't get on with it" (funny how we talk about books the same way we talk about people) and put it aside, just picking it up for an idle browse now and then. Not that there's anything wrong with the book. It's just dense and jargony and a bit above my own waning powers of concentrated attention. (Translation: I'm not smart enough to fully understand what the guy's talking about. It's okay to admit this!) Also it leans on the idea of an "evolutionary landscape," which I wasn't really at ease with.

Well, then I read Martin Nowak's Evolutionary Dynamics, which was on my wavelength (translation: lots of math) and got me comfortable with the "evolutionary landscape" business, so I've been having another try at Atran's book. The pons asinorum for me, which I think I have now finally got over, was Chapter 8, "Culture Without Mind," in which Atran takes a chain saw to "group selection" theories like Kevin MacDonald's. The title of the chapter tells you Atran's viewpoint. If you don't factor in the actual cognitive abilities of the actual human brain, you're spinning fairytales. Here is the chapter's closing paragraph, which as well as making the point, is a fair example of Atran's style.

This is, in part, how the distributed networks of representations that we commonly call cultures and religions are created. Norms are nodes with ever-shifting significance and control in these information networks. They are activated by ecological and historical contingencies, and they operate only within structural parameters fixed by the cognitive and computational architecture of the human mind/brain.

Got that? Atran's book has 348 pages.

Fiction again:  A generous friend, having enthused to me at a dinner party about Booth Tarkington's Penrod, actually bought a copy and sent it to me. It's a book about boyhood in the tradition of Tom Sawyer and Richmal Crompton's William books that were the delight of my own childhood. Not really a boy's book, though — Tarkington's rich vocabulary and fluent rhetorical devices would probably stun the TV-addled kids of today. I'm only three chapters in, but I can see why Jonathan Yardley, in his preface, calls it "An American classic".

Math Corner.     Here's a simple problem in computation. I'm going to give it my best shot in HTML (which is what I write these diaries in), but my best shots don't always survive the editing process, so I have also printed off the problem, scanned it in, and posted it on my website in three parts, part 1, part 2, and part 3. Part 2 is the actual problem statement; part 3 is the solution.

OK, here we go. The problem is to compute the value of this expression:

sqr (1 + 2×10–50)   –   1 )   ×   1060

sqr is of course the square root function:  sqr (49) = 7.

The answer, to an extremely close approximation, is ten billion.

Now bring up your PC's calculator. I don't know anything about the Mac, and for all I know (though I doubt it) this doesn't work on a Mac. On a Microsoft operating system, you go to  Start … All Programs … Accessories … Calculator.

Set the calculator to scientific view.

Then enter  10 … xˆy … 50 … +/- … =.
The display now shows 1.e-50, which is correct.

Multiply by 2, keying  * … 2 … =.

Add 1 by keying  + … 1 … =.

Take the square root of the result by keying  Inv … xˆ2.

Subtract 1  (– … 1 … =).

Multiply by 1060  (* … 10 … xˆy … 60 … =).

Answer: zero!  Which is out by, um, ten billion.  You just lost contact with your Mars lander.

Is there a way to get the right answer on a PC calculator? Sure there is. You just need a hidden variable, that's all. See my part 3.