»  National Review Online Diary

  December 2008

Radio Derb     In response to innumerable requests, I have dug out as many Radio Derb transcripts as I can find, and put them on my website here. I shall be diligent about posting future transcripts — diligent, but slow, as we'd really prefer you listen to the broadcasts for full mellifluous effect. There'll probably be a lag of about a week before broadcast and posting, with occasional weeks when I just forget altogether. Nobody edits these transcripts, by the way, so they come with no guarantees as to spelling, grammar, usage, or punctuation.

Elizabeth Alexander     Poetess Elizabeth Alexander has been tapped to read a poem at the upcoming presidential inauguration. I had never heard of the lady before this news came out. Taking a wild shot in the dark, I guessed her to be a whiny left-wing black feminist. Well, whaddya know.

What topics excite this poet? Let's see. There's the Middle Passage:

Barracoon, sarcophagus, indestructible grief
Nesting in the hollows of the abdomen.
The slave-ship empty, its cargo landed
And sold for twelve ounces of gold a-piece.

And then there's the "Hottentot Venus":

Monsieur Cuvier investigates
between my legs, poking, prodding,
sure of his hypothesis.

Not forgetting childbirth, of course, which is kind of like jazz:

Giving birth is like jazz, something from silence,
then all of it …

 … and kind of like the Middle Passage:

    … Long, elegant boats,
blood-boiling sunshine, human cargo,
a hand-made kite …

On the evidence of the poems Ms. Alexander has put on her website, you could sum up her thematic range as:  "I'm black! Black black black! And I have a vagina!"

And then there are the essays, which are about — what else? — black poets … including herself, natch. Of her own poem "Amistad," which is about, uh, the Middle Passage, she tells us:

I wanted to write a black history poem that was not just about stoicism. I also wanted to explore the past in the face of the aggressive ahistoricity that plagues and misnames this nation and is a tool for misleading the people.

In what way is our nation misnamed? Which part of the name does Ms. Alexander object to:  the "United,"  the "States,"  or the "America"?  Or is it perhaps the "of,"  or the "the"?  Hard to figure.

All this dreary solipsism and picking at historical scabs might be easier to take if it was delivered with any art or wit. No, there is nothing here but formless stream-of-consciousness driveling, padded out with feeble imagery and nonsensical similes.

I dream the OB-Gyn is here
to spend the night with us. He wears
his white coat and his stethescope [sic]
to bed, looks like a loaf
of whole wheat bread.

It goes without saying that nothing rhymes or scans here. I suppose that would be "acting white." Nor are there any familiar forms to rest the eye on — a sonnet, straightforward quatrains, a villanelle. (In one of the interviews on her website, Ms. Alexander refers to having written formal verse, but I couldn't find any examples.) Nothing worth remembering, nothing striking, nothing amusing, nothing of universal appeal, nothing that owes anything to the magnificent centuries-long tradition of English verse; only the monotonous, structureless, sub-literate whining of nursed and petted victimhood.

But what is Ms. Alexander a victim of? Her biography suggests a comfortable upper-middle-class upbringing — considerably more comfortable than my working-class one, I'd guess. Born in 1962, she went to Yale, did "a one-year stint as a reporter for the Washington Post," and has spent the rest of her life since in Academia, teaching bogus subjects like "African-American Studies," of which she is currently a professor.

The modern college and "diversity" rackets have provided a cozy home for whole legions of parasitic sub-intellectuals like Ms. Alexander. You go to college; you graduate; you do a year or two of some kind of marginally-useful desk work, probably editing or lawyering; then you get yourself back into the academy for life teaching some fluff non-subject, or go run one of the "diversity" shake-down scams under some such title as "Community Organizer" or "Community Affairs Advisor." There must be other prominent examples of this career path, though none come to mind just at the moment.

Once this was a nation of farmers, builders, inventors, creators, explorers, and thinkers. Now we are a nation of bubble-head academic poseurs, race-guilt hucksters, and keening middle-class "victims" of imaginary wrongs. Pah!

Oh, well. Let's console ourselves with the reflection that as an Inaugural poet, Ms. Alexander couldn't possibly be any worse than Maya Angelou.

Too much poetry.     The main thing about poetry in the U.S.A. today is, there's far too much of it.

 … more and more poets are publishing books and getting them into the marketplace. Last Year at the Poets House Showcase — an annual event for which new poetry books published in the last year or so are put on display — the nonprofit poetry library received nearly 2,200 books, at least 20 percent of which were debuts.

That's from the current (Jan./Feb. '09) issue of Poets & Writers magazine, trade journal of the MFA set. I'm willing to bet that in those 2,200 books of poetry there are some verses worth reading. Who on earth would go looking for them, though? Who would go wading into that ocean of Elizabeth-Alexander victimo-gynecological sludge in hopes of finding a pearl or two?

Azores.     Just one more on poetry. Back in May I mentioned David Yezzi's book of poems, Azores. I'm pleased to report that Adam Kirsch at Slate magazine picked Azores as one of Slate's best books of 2008. Congratulations to David! For further promotional purposes, here's me last Spring actually reading Azores (I am pretty sure).

Hero of the crash.     That's it for poetry, I promise. I have one more book recommendation for you, though. This financial crash has thrown up a lot of villains, but very few heroes. One qualification to be a hero in this mess would be, that you were trying to warn everyone of what was coming when nobody much was interested in hearing it. Well, here's your man: investment advisor Peter Schiff. Here he was back in January making fools of Steve Forbes and George Gilder. Here he was in August 2007 doing the same with Ben Stein. Here he was a year before that being jeered at by Art Laffer. (Schiff was right, Laffer was wrong.) Here he was six years ago talking investment and economics basics. You can pretty much just do YouTube searches on "Peter Schiff" and then sit back and spend the afternoon listening to what you should have been listening to this past one, two, three, four, five, six years.

Still, it's never too late. Peter has a new book out, and it's well worth your time. It's also well written, clear and straightforward. (No surprise to me — I've long believed that clear, sound thinking and good writing travel together.) Sample:

In the next few years, I believe U.S. citizens will undergo a profound identity crisis. No longer citizens of the world's wealthiest creditor nation, they are now citizens of its biggest debtor, though most continue to act as if the rest of the world bows to the United States' economic might. In the 1930s, the Great Depression affected not only the United States but nearly every nation on earth, so hard times here were matched by hard times elsewhere. This time it will be different. Even the most uninformed U.S. citizens will be forced to notice that other nations' living standards are on the rise, just as ours is on the decline. This may finally force them to realize just how badly the United States has lost ground as an economic power — and how much work it will take to dig ourselves out of this gigantic economic hole.

You have been warned. You were warned before, but you didn't pay attention. Now listen.

[Incidentally:  I once, in my checkered career, was a teacher of accounting to total beginners at a community college. They had trouble keeping the unfamiliar jargon straight, so I thought up little mnemonics to help them. The mnemonic for creditors and debtors, to help them remember which was which, was:  "Creditors Chase you, Debtors Dodge you." Many years later I happened to encounter one of my students, by this time running a nice little business of her own. She still remembered all my mnemonics, and quoted that one back at me.]

Are old people wise?     So it is generally assumed; though Tom Sawyer's Aunt Polly said: "There's no fool like an old fool." Well, the University of Chicago is looking into the matter.

Here's another paradox about wisdom — the elderly are the wisest people on Earth because they've been around so long. Or so many people say. But as we age, our mastery of language starts to drop and many of us sound, to be frank, more stupid. Our sentences get shorter. Our grammar tends to decline. And we have trouble recalling … what is the word? … vocabulary. And proper nouns.

I'm mostly with Aunt Polly on this one. I think what happens as you get older is, you trade in certain kinds of folly for certain different kinds. At 62, you still do plenty of dumb things, just not the same dumb things you did at 22. Folly's reservoir never runs dry. Also, youthful follies, which are the follies of ignorant audacity, tend to have more interesting consequences than later follies, which mostly result from excessive caution, and rarely have anything but negative outcomes. Alexander set out to conquer the world at age 22 — a sensationally dumb thing to attempt. He soon had himself an empire. The dumb things you do in middle or old age generally just bring sadness and loss.

In large general matters, of course, a person who reads attentively, thinks steadily, compares notes with his intellectual peers, and is blessed with good judgment, can exhibit wisdom beyond the ordinary. I'm thinking here of Samuel Huntington, who died on Christmas Eve at 81. Huntington first put forward his Clash of Civilizations thesis in 1993, when he was already 66. It went round the world: When I was in China eight years later, everybody I met wanted to talk about it.

Huntington attained even greater wisdom in Who Are We?, published when he was 78. Unfortunately this latter book was politically incorrect, so all right-thinking people ignored or disparaged it, assuming the old boy had gone off his rocker. I have no doubt that Samuel Huntington, like Peter Schiff, will be vindicated at last. Until then, as my mother used to say: "There's none so deaf as them that don't want to hear."

Kings of the deal.     One of the ground rules for current American racial protocols is that members of a group can say safely things about the group that are deeply shocking if said by an outsider. I once asked a Jewish lady friend if it was OK to use the word "Jewess." She: "It's OK for me to use it, but absolutely not for you."

Here's another case in the same zone. Back in 1994, a young British journalist named William Cash caused a minor sensation with his article "Kings of the Deal" in the London Spectator. Cash observed, without any ill intent that I could perceive, that most of the big names in Hollywood are Jewish. The poor fellow was furiously denounced by, among others, Barbra Sreisand and Leon Wieseltier. The latter actually wrote a letter to the Spectator, which they published, telling them that  "You run a filthy magazine."  I mentioned the episode some years later in a piece for Jewcy.com; and since I assumed that nobody by that point would remember the business, I put up some web pages to document it.

Well, guess what. Here's Joel Stein in the Los Angeles Times telling us that  "Jews totally run Hollywood." I await the outraged reaction from Barbra, Leon, etc.

Harold Pinter, R.i.P.     Playwright Harold Pinter died. Pinter was a raving lefty, and bitterly anti-American, or at any rate anti-conservative-American. (I mean, I bet he was cool with people like W.E.B. Du Bois, Woody Guthrie, and Bill Ayers.)

As a playwright, was he any good? A conservative is of course inclined to dismiss Pinter's work on the grounds that Pinter himself was obnoxious, which he certainly was. But here you bump up against the old conundrum of separating the man from his work. Percy Bysshe Shelley was a raving lefty, too, and a pretty awful human being all around; but what a poet! Evelyn Waugh was a notoriously horrible person, and admitted it frankly; but he was a fine novelist, at least before sentimentality kicked in. So can we be objective here? Was Pinter's work any good?

Roger Kimball, whose opinion on this sort of thing is worth a dozen average opinions, says not. I'm going to pass, for the following reason. Pinter came up in my formative years, along with the Beatles — that is to say, early 1960s. I haven't seen a Pinter play since, I think, 1967. (Or listened to the Beatles with any attention since the White Album came out a year later.) Pinter's effect on me was therefore one that in the mature wisdom I have since acquired, I don't altogether trust. I'll say this, though: I thought he was quite thrilling at the time.

We all did — we, English college kids of the early 1960s. We actually used to sit round late at night, smoking and drinking and reciting slabs of Pinter at each other, the way the following generation recited Monty Python sketches. The bucket scene from The Caretaker was a great favorite.

MICK.  … (… A drip sounds in the bucket. They all look up. Silence.)  You still got that leak.
ASTON.  Yes. (Pause. Gets plug from shelf.) It's coming from the roof. (Looks up.)
MICK.  From the roof, eh?
ASTON.  Yes. (Pause.) I'll have to tar it over.
MICK.  You're going to tar it over?
ASTON.  Yes.
MICK.  What?
ASTON.  The cracks. (Pause.)
MICK.  You'll be tarring over the cracks on the roof.
ASTON.  Yes. (Pause.)
MICK.  Think that'll do it?
ASTON.  It'll do it, for the time being.
MICK.  Uh. (Pause.)
DAVIES.  (Abruptly.) What do you do—? (They both look at him.) What do you do … when that bucket's full?
(Pause. Mick looks at Aston.)
ASTON.  Empty it. (Pause.)
That last line of Aston's, "Empty it," was the cue for everyone to fall around laughing. Don't ask me why. All I can tell you is that to callow nineteen-year-olds of forty-five years ago, it was screamingly funny.

Would it still be? I don't want to know. Some things, you should not revisit. You are what you eat, though, so I have a wee bit of Pinter in my blood still, I'm sure.

Math Corner     Solutions to last month's puzzles here.

As usual at year end, your task in the Math Corner is to find something interesting to say about the number 2009. To save you the trouble of two obvious first checks:

  1. No, it's not prime. It factorizes as 72×41.  (Though if it's taken to be a number written in base 11, 25, 28, 29, …, then it is prime.)
  2. No, it doesn't have an entry in David Wells' Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers, at least not in my edition (1997).