»  National Review Online Diary

  May 2009


Sotomayor's tribal allegiance     It's awfully hard not to be cynical about the outrage over Judge Sotomayor's tribal allegiance, as revealed by her comments about "wise Latinas," not to mention her twenty-year membership of La Raza — which, for those readers who've been in deep coma the past few days, means "the Race."

Why cynical? Well, what did you expect? The common, approved protocol on race this past few years has been that if you belong to one of the protected minority races or ethnicities, you are allowed to celebrate the fact, and to agitate for the advancement of your group. Allowed? You are supposed to. If you don't, you come in for much scorn from your co-ethnics: Uncle Tom, lawn jockey, Oreo, coconut (brown outside, white inside), banana (yellow ditto), and so on. If you do not belong to one of the approved minorities, however, then celebrating your group identity is regarded as unspeakably wicked, a sure sign that you are an evil person with a diseased mind.

This protocol never made much sense on the face of it, and those of us who reached adult life before it became established, have never really been able to swallow it without gagging. Still, everyone has pretty much gotten used to it, and Judge Sotomayor was just doing the what-comes-naturally, probably without thinking about it much. She must be wondering what all the fuss is about.


Can the protocols survive?     The interesting question, though nobody will thank you for raising it, is:  Just how natural is ethnic pride and solidarity? Fifty years ago the U.S.A. embarked on a grand idealistic project to recreate itself into a society in which race doesn't matter — in which each of us is judged by the content of his character, not the content of his family tree. The project achieved some significant successes. The flagrant insulting of black Americans that was commonplace before the Civil Rights Revolution, was shamed out of existence — a great moral and humanitarian victory. Irrational obstacles to success were demolished, and a capable person of any background can now rise to the elite levels of U.S. society, as the career of our current President illustrates.

In its stated ultimate goal, though — the creation of a race-blind society — the project has to be counted a failure. Race and ethnicity still matter tremendously. Haven't we all been talking nonstop about them this past couple of weeks?

The interesting question, I repeat, is whether things might conceivably have turned out differently. Might they? Or is human nature so constrained that a race-blind society is not possible?

I don't know the answer to that question, though I have my suspicions. The best evidence for the optimistic view has been the willed de-tribalization of white Americans these past few decades. There are of course white-American equivalents of La Raza and the National Association of Black ———s (you can fill in the blank there with pretty much anything: a google on "National Association of Black" got 535,000 hits). Such white-pride outfits are regarded by most white Americans with disgust and loathing, though. In a tremendous act of collective forbearance, white Americans have de-tribalized themselves.

A cynic might say:  Well, they could afford to. With ninety percent of the population (in the 1950 census figures), the cost to them was marginal. And there has surely been much hypocrisy involved. Beneath the scrupulously de-tribalized public discourse, actual white-American behavior continued to be considerably, though quietly, tribal. Just look at patterns of voluntary segregation in housing and education.

What we shall soon find out is, how well these established protocols, and in particular white-American forbearance, will survive in a majority-minority U.S.A. Perhaps we shall cope somehow. Four of our states are already majority-minority, after all, and they seem to be coping well enough so far. My guess is, though, that the current code of ethnic etiquette is increasingly unstable. That, I think, is the social truth behind the ructions of the past few days over Judge Sotomayor. Probably a majority-minority U.S.A. will need some different, revised system of protocols.


Appeasers vs. Confronters     Within the Republican Party (is it still there? yes, I think so …) the battle lines for the Sotomayor confirmation are pretty clearly drawn between Appeasers and Confronters. To continue the argument of my previous section, the Appeasers are those who are happy with the current ethnic protocols, have internalized them, and assume they will continue into the indefinite future.

As I have said, I personally doubt this. When you blog on a popular forum like NRO's The Corner, the reader-email bag sometimes surprises you. The surprise for me recently has been to see how many of my readers, including many gentle souls I have come to know well across the years, are strong Confronters. In response to a broadly Appeaser posting from my boss, I tweaked him with:  "What, we can't be just a little bit mean-spirited?" In came the reader emails, with a message that said pretty unanimously: Right on!

•  I'm with you, stick it to her good. It's not like they won't call us mean spirited either way.
•  Oh right, let's be courteous and scrupulously peecee. Like … John McCain?
•  Isn't there a single Republican that knows where nice guys place?
•  So a person who for years has belonged to an outfit named "National Council of THE RACE" gets to sneer at us as "racists"? And we smile and nod and apologize and offer up little points of order? The hell with that!

Something's stirring out there. The kaleidoscope is being shaken by mass immigration, demographic trends, discoveries in the human sciences, and the fast spread of ideas over the internet. When it settles down, all the little bits of colored tinsel will be in some different configuration.

The Appeasers are on the losing end of this process; the Confronters are driving it. A few of the Confronters are themselves white tribalists: "If Hispanics can have a respectable lobby named THE RACE, why can't we?" Far more are old-line yearners for a color-blind society, newly struck by the illogicality and unfairness of the established protocols: "How on earth did we get to this point, where a shameless ethnic booster is being considered for the Supreme Court? Why should anybody have a lobby named THE RACE?" Yet others learned something important from last year's presidential campaigns: namely, that gentlemanly forbearance and ethnic pandering in the John McCain style — that is, in the style of the reigning ethnic protocols — is a sure loser for the Republican Party.

One characteristic of the conservative mindset is the preference for established ways of doing things, and a wariness of great social changes, in ethnic etiquette or anything else. We have all, as I said, gotten used to the protocols established during the past half century, wacky as they are. Conservatives won't easily let go of them. As someone said when those protocols were being erected, though, The Times They Are A-Changin'. Appeasers may hold the conservative fort for a while, but I predict their eventual annihiliation. Sorry, boss.

And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.


Gentleman and scholar     The highlight of my month was dinner with Steven Pinker. This wasn't an intimate one-on-one dinner, but the monthly meeting of my gents' dinner club, at which Prof. Pinker was guest of honor. He talked about the historical decline of violence, the subject of his next book, then a general discussion took off in several different directions. It was a very enjoyable and instructive evening, which, as the saying goes, we all came to with thought for food, and came away from with food for thought. Which is the point of this sort of thing.

It was the first time I'd met Pinker, though I have all his books. (Including Words and Rules, which is the least well-known but the most sheer fun.) I can report that as well as being a fine and original scholar, he is a perfect gentleman — courteous, modest, and engaging, an attentive listener and an articulate speaker. In my next life, I want to be Steven Pinker, or Steven Pinker's best friend.


Homogamy     One thing Steven Pinker got me thinking about — indirectly, I hasten to say — was same-sex marriage. The context of his ideas was the great general changes in attitude that sweep through a society, though usually rather slowly. Long-long-long term, the trend is to less and less tolerance for violence. Prior to the Neolithic revolution 10,000 years ago, all human beings lived in hunting or scavenging bands. From archeology, and from observations of such bands as survived into modern times, we know that levels of violence were extraordinarily high, with typically twenty-five or thirty percent of males dying at the hands of other males.

Things have gotten better across these past few thousand years; and not steadily, but in jumps (Pinker thinks). Recently, following the Industrial Revolution, they have gotten much better. The commonplace brutality of quite recent times can take your breath away.

To my Lord's in the morning, where I met with Captain Cuttance, but my Lord not being up I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy.

             — Samuel Pepys' Diary, Saturday 13 October 1660

The novelist Thomas Hardy, who died less than twenty years before I was born, was witness in his youth to the public hanging of a young woman. The memory of it is said to have inspired Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

So things went not so very long ago. Since we advanced into post-industrial society, the decline of factory work turning us all into a nation of cube jockeys and Twitterers, our sensibilities have become even more refined. Pinker puts it down to a spread of, wait for it, empathy. For some reason, perhaps to do with changes in styles of narrative (movies, TV) we have become more and more able to enter imaginatively into the experiences of others. "How would I feel if …?" we increasingly ask ourselves.

The ebbing of prejudice against homosexuality obviously fits into this general pattern of heightened sensibilities and softening of manners. (As, of course, did the Civil Rights Revolution noted above.) You may say that a radical overhaul of the traditional notion of marriage does not logically follow, and I will agree with you. Empathy, though, is a matter of feeling, not logic.

There has been an unpleasant inversion, too. Cruelty and moral indifference to the plight of others have certainly not disappeared from society. In fact, they have been taken up by the New Empathizers, as the torments inflicted on Carrie Prejean illustrate. I don't say that the same-sex marriage promoters want to hang, draw, and quarter those who disagree with them. You can't help thinking, though, that they wouldn't mind …


Burglary     Burglary is not much of an issue in the U.S.A., thanks to the Second Amendment. The burglary rate in England, for instance, is almost twice ours. In Australia it's nearly three times ours. Furthermore, burglary rates have been in steady decline since the 1970s.

A lot of people must be worried about burglary, though, to judge from the recent rash of Brinks Home Security ads on TV. I seem to see one of these every time I turn the TV on. You know those ads. A young woman's parents go out to dinner, leaving her alone in the house. From the darkness outside, a burglar is watching. When the gal is alone, he kicks down the door. Alarm goes off! Girl panics! Burglar runs away! Phone rings! A Brinks employee, who looks and sounds like a stockbroker, asks earnestly if the young woman is OK. Help is on its way, he assures her.

How many things are there in that ad to make you shake your head in disbelief? At least three.

•  We have the Second Amendment. Why doesn't the woman have a gun?
•  The minimum-wage types who man the phones on night shift at service centers are not stockbroker material. They are more likely DMV-clerk rejects.
•  "The police will be right there." Will they? At the roadside in front of my house I have set a large (300lb) rock painted white, with my house number on it in digits a foot high. The house number is also on my mailbox, and again on my front door, both easily visible from the street. The one time I have called the police for anything, they cruised up and down the street for ten minutes looking for my house. I had to go out and wave them down. This was in broad daylight. These guys are not on minimum wage, though I can't help thinking they should be.

The commonest grumble I hear about these ads, though, is that they are misleading as to burglar demographics. For reasons we all understand (the phrase "Nation of Cowards" ring a bell?), the burglar is always represented as a European white guy. I've heard a lot of jokes and cynicism about this. Yet in fact it's not terribly misleading. The latest figures I can come up with are in Table 5 here, "Demographic characteristics of persons convicted of felonies in State courts, by offense, 2002." They show burglary convictions as 66 percent white, 31 percent black. That does imply black people burglarizing at three times the white rate per capita (240 per 100,000 against 80), but since there are a great many more white people than black people in the U.S.A., it's still two to one your burglar is a white guy. So stop sneering at that feature of the Brinks ad, at least.


Spelling Bee     Here are the eleven finalists in the 2009 National Spelling Bee competition. Usual stuff: Nine of the eleven are of East or South Asian ancestry. The other two are home schooled. Nothing to see here, move along please.

[There are some topics that, if you blog about them, bring in predictable reader responses. This is one of them. If I mention the National Spelling Bee, I am sure to get readers saying, to quote a friend: "I can think of few more stupidly mindless wastes of time than spending days and years memorizing the spelling of words. (I felt this way before computers, but with spell-check this goes double.)" As an above-average speller myself, I'm going to put this down to sour grapes from the lexically challenged.]


Cyberwars     As civilizations go, this present one we are living in is very fragile. Its entire mass is balanced on the head of a pin, the name of that pin-head being "electronics." A general blow-out of all our electronic gadgets would bring the whole thing crashing down. Not only computers and cellphones, but automobiles, planes, power generation, water supplies, police forces, … Everything depends on electronics. It could all come to a sudden stop, either from natural causes — one of those plasma blobs the Sun belches out from time to time — or from the EMP of nuclear weapons detonated high above the atmosphere.

This is one of those topics where you hope the national authorities are on top of it, but rather strongly suspect they're not. Still, at least our current administration is aware of the threat of cyber-attacks. They could hardly not be aware of it, as the computer systems that run our national defense, air traffic control, and banking systems are subjected to thousands of attacks every day.

So the Obama administration has now appointed a Cyber-czar to organize our defences against all this. I don't envy the person who gets the job. As with archery in the late Middle Ages, or ballisstic missiles in the last century, offensive technology has run way ahead of the defensive variety. To judge from my own petty experiences with computer viruses, it'll be a while before the defense catches up.


Dr. Malthus, Call Your Office     I'm reading this story about a refugee camp in Kenya. The refugees are from Somalia. The interviewer finds one of the earliest arrivals, Mohamed Nur Hajin, who's been in the camp since 1991.

I have no hope of returning now. I have to stay here. Every day there are 500 new arrivals, so it shows you that there is nothing to go back to.

Things are rough in the camp.

Our life here in the camp is peaceful, but it is still very difficult … There is a severe shortage of water, and the food ration is not enough for everyone. It is very hard here.

There are consolations, though:

When I came here, my family consisted of three, but thanks to God, I have had six more children so now we are nine.


Math Corner     The solution to last month's puzzle is here.

This month's puzzle was sent in by a longtime correspondent with a name distinguished in the luggage business.

Ken and Bob find themselves in possession of three blank-sided dice. These are ordinary cubic dice, with six faces each.

Ken writes the numbers from 1 to 18 on the sides. No number is repeated. Each side of each of the three dice now shows a number from 1 to 18.

Bob then chooses one of the three dice. Ken chooses one of the other two. The third die is discarded.

The two men then play a game of dice war. The war consists of a hundred "rounds." In each round, first Ken rolls his die, then Bob rolls his. The man with the highest number showing on the topmost face of his die, wins the round.

Whichever man wins the larger number of rounds, wins the war.

Question:   If both men followed the strategy that gave them the best mathematical chance to win this war, what would the numbers on the dice look like?

I'll admit I haven't tackled or googled this problem, so there's no guarantee I'll come up with a solution. Furthermore, my intuition suggests it's much harder than it looks. Let's see.