»  National Review Online Diary

  June 2009

Losing Mum and Pup     I had to read Chris Buckley's book about his parents, of course. I was a bit surprised to find myself liking it.

Now, no doubt Bill and Pat Buckley had their faults, as we all do. The rule I grew up with, though, was: "Speak as you find." I never experienced anything but kindness and generosity from the Buckleys, and so am not in the market for negative portrayals. Based on what I'd heard beforehand, I therefore expected not to like Chris's book.

A couple of things won me over. One was the reminder (I can't say "revelation," since it wasn't any particular secret) that Bill was not a very attentive parent. I'm an inattentive parent myself — stamped thus by my own parents' English-traditional parenting technique, which consisted principally of shooing kids out of the house after breakfast with a warning to be back in time for supper or go to bed hungry. The effect of Chris's stories was therefore to bond me with Bill all over again, one inattentive parent to another.

I said that to one of my National Review colleagues, in the context of an incident Chris relates in the book — the one where Bill got bored ten minutes into Chris's college graduation ceremony

… and rounded up the family and friends in attendance and whisked them off to lunch at what we now call "an undisclosed location," leaving me to spend my graduation day wandering the campus in search of my family.

I said to my colleague: "I can all too easily imagine myself doing that."

The colleague — who, though not at all Latina, is certainly wise — replied:  "Or wanting to."

Just so. The other thing that won me over was just the book itself, as a book. I do think there is a fair question of propriety in asking whether it ought to have been written at all. Chris having once decided to write it, though, I don't see how he could have written it any better. It's funny, observant, and tender, all in the right places; and it's also grim, also in the right places, giving us an unsparing picture of the miseries and indignities of old age and the thing that comes after old age.

You can, as I said, argue that one should not make books about such matters when they involve your own parents. I had dinner last night with a gentleman, an admirer of WFB from far back, who was spitting furious with Chris for having written the book.

It's an argument. I'm just not convinced by it. I know the feeling of having a book you need to write — not for the money or the recognition, but just to get the darn thing off your chest, or more precisely, out of your head and onto paper.

Writers are really very ruthless people, novelists most especially so. We are jesters, gadflies, and sometimes borderline lunatics, excavating our own little mines of experience to make up stories. It's a funny line of work, really, and bleeds back over into our actual lives. My advice to the parents of America would be not to let your kids become writers if you don't want to end up in a book.

The novelist Jean Rhys was once asked in a BBC interview why she had written a certain novel. She replied: "Revenge."

Having been nice about Chris Buckley's book, I feel I have license to pick a small nit. On page 35 occurs this:

Age six, I had sat on his lap right here in this room and learned to touch-type, "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy cow," on his old Royal typewriter.

It's "… the lazy dog," Chris. The point of that exercise is to hit every letter of the alphabet at least once. You need "dog" for the "g," see? That aside, thanks for the book, and congratulations on its success.

A mighty host of readers leapt to their keyboards to tell me it should be "jumps," not "jumped." Of course it should: otherwise there is no "s" in the sentence. (And "dog" is now doubly necessary, as you need it for the "d.") I posted a long and instructive apology to The Corner.

Book report     I seem to have done a lot of reading this month. As well as Chris Buckley's book, I read Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft, Bruce Hood's Supersense, and Thomas Metzinger's The Ego Tunnel, all very well done and well worth the cover price if you want to know (a) useful and interesting things about the probable future of work, or (b) why human beings believe preposterous things, or (c) why you, your precious self, do not exist.

I'll try to pass fuller comments on those another time. For now, here's a fiction recommendation. Following my comments in last month's diary on the fragility of our electronic civilization, several readers recommended Bill Forstchen's latest novel, One Second After. I bought it and read it. Great stuff — what is more fun to read about than the end of civilization as we know it?

The premise of the book is that rogue nations launch nukes out above the earth's atmosphere over the U.S.A., blanketing the country with massive EMP. All our fancy gadgets (including some the military thought they had "hardened") become junk in an instant. That includes the control systems for our water and electricity supplies, not to mention our automobiles, except for the oldest ones.

I consider myself a connoisseur of apocalypse novels, having been reading them since the 1950s — The Death of Grass, On the Beach, Christmas Eve (which is unaccountably missing from Wikipedia's list) … I'd put One Second After in the second quartile with Warday, Down to a Sunless Sea, and Here (Away From It All) (another Wikipedia omission — what the hell's the matter with them?) Not one of the great apocalypse novels — not Earth Abides or The Chrysalids or A Canticle for Leibowitz — but well worth reading. If you don't own a shotgun when you pick this book up, you'll go out and get one after putting it down. The shotgun manufacturers of America should give Bill Forstchen some kind of award.

Iran's election.     My gut reaction to the disturbances in Iran was, I regret to say, RonPaulian: Let the buggers fight each other. None of our business.

Expressing myself thus to a friend, he pointed out that I had cared very much about the 1989 ructions in China. True enough. There were personal factors involved, though. I had at that time recently acquired a set of in-laws over there, and had been visiting the place on and off for years previously. I had even gone to the trouble of acquiring a minor academic qualification in the language.

Personal considerations aside, though, China is an important country with a colossal population. It is wellnigh mono-ethnic (92 percent Chinese), and that dominant ethny is industrious and intelligent (mean IQ estimated at 100, against a world average of 90). Iran, on the other hand, is a country not important outside its region, its ecomony cursed by oil, its culture suffocated by religious fanaticism, its human capital low (mean IQ 84), and with deep ethnic divisions (Persians, the dominant ethny, are only 51 percent of the population). Iran stands between Turkey and the Congo in world rankings by population, and that's also about where she stands on a scale of importance to U.S. interests.

Other things being equal, I'd rather see the Silly Party voted out and the Slightly Silly Party voted in. (There is, of course, no Sensible Party, this being a Muslim nation.) I don't care enough to immerse myself in the minutiae of Iranian politics, though, and I can't see any reason why I should.

Golden lads and girls all must …     What a fuss about Michael Jackson! I can't say he ever impinged much on my consciousness, my interest in pop music having faded before he appeared. To me, Jackson was mainly a name that turned up in the jokes of late-night comics. There are people, though — including sane, grown-up people — who liked his stuff and ranked him up there with the pop greats.

I was across a dinner table from one such the other night — a charming and articulate lady who works for the Wall Street Journal. I challenged her thus: "If you will sing thirty bars from any one of Michael Jackson's songs, I will sing the first thirty from 'Un bel di' in Madame Butterfly." She couldn't. Or perhaps just wouldn't: native Americans hate to sing. In thirty years living in the U.S.A., I don't think I've ever heard an American spontanteously break into song.

Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls, etc., etc., but I was more moved by the deaths of Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon than by Michael Jackson's. Farrah, because we are the same age (uh-oh), and because she made me think of the lovely song from Cymbeline:  "Golden lads and girls all must, / As chimney-sweepers, come to dust." Then Ed, because he was such a fine old trouper — and a fine old trooper, too, having served in WW2, then voluntarily re-enlisted for the Korean War.

A woman of great beauty, who behaved herself better than most such; a patriot and entertainer, who'd sent me off to bed laughing on many a bitter evening; and Michael Jackson.

Partying with economists     The higher-than-average number of dinner-table acquaintances I'm quoting here is the consequence of my being away from home on a "media retreat" in (on? at?) Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

What happens is, a bunch of us hacks are taken from our cramped cubicles in the back offices of Fox News, the New York Times, CNBC, etc., led out blinking into the sunlight, then whisked away to be put up in a very nice private club on the shore of Nantucket sound. There we spend several days being lectured at by a relay of economists. The hope, probably vain, is to make us more economically literate. The affair is organized by the Murray Weidenbaum Center at Washington University in St. Louis.

I must say, I'm enjoying the thing immensely, in spite of a deep aversion to and suspicion of economists, who I rank somewhere bewteen car salesmen and chiropractors in sagacity, honesty, and soundness of methodology. The Cape is lovely, the accommodations superb, the help — a mix of young South Africans and East Europeans — efficient and friendly. (They have a cottage all to themselves across the way, and rumor has it that every night is party night over there. Occasional merry noises wafting over from the cottage in the late hours suggest the rumor may be true.)

The whole set-up is in fact so gemütlich, I have even warmed to the economists. I still don't think I'd want to buy a used hypothesis from any of them, but they can certainly be interesting. The star turn so far — with no offense at all to the others — was Mark Vaughan, whose hour and a half presentation on the differences between the Great Depression and our present spot of bother was an academic tour de force. He left me thinking that perhaps economists do know something worth knowing.

And then, my head stuffed full with interesting ideas and my belly with an excellent dinner, I go down onto the empty, moonlit beach and commune with Mother Ocean (and Uncle Jack Daniels) and turn things over in my mind, and reflect on the past and the future, and murmur scraps of verse to the breaking waves, and make generous, optimistic resolutions I probably won't keep.

Germanophile Corner     Speaking of verse: Earlier in the month a Swiss-German acquaintance chid me thus: "You call yourself a Germanophile [which I do] yet there isn't a single German poem on your 'Readings' page."

I ran home, dug out my Penguin Book of German Verse, and rectified the omission.

Give us our drugs!     I smiled to read in my New York Post about Michael Jackson's pharmacopœia.

In addition to the mind-bending painkiller Demerol that [Jackson] took three times a day, he also took 3 milligrams of the overwhelming narcotic Dilaudid as well as Vicodin daily.

To add to the reality-altering effect of Demerol, Jackson also took a drug called Vistaril, which amplifies the narcotics' effect, experts say.

Rounding out the staggering pharmacopia, Jackson scarfed down the muscle relaxant Soma, antidepressants Zoloft and Paxil, anti-anxiety drug Xanax and the heartburn medication Prilosec on a daily basis …

You don't say. I don't have much acquaintance with seriously rich people (though I'm always up for more) but I know this much about them: they have easy access to a whole range of pharmaceuticals that are unavailable to us proles. This is in fact one of the big class markers in the U.S.A. today. If you are rich, you are probably a regular user of Adderall or Ritalin, or both. If of a certain age, you also self-inject Human Growth Hormone; and if male, you have that rub-on Testim cream. You probably have a lot of other stuff I don't know about — as I said, I'm not that well acquainted with the upper strata.

If you dwell down at the very bottom of society you likewise have access to a good range of drugs, though mostly different ones. Us poor middle-class drones are perforce drug-free: too law-abiding for crack, too poor to afford HGH. It's a rotten deal. We still have our booze and fags, though, at least until the Obamarrhoids unleash their Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices to come kicking down our doors. Let's be thankful for small mercies.

Grumbledon.     It's "Wimbledon," not "Wimbleton." The darn place is spelt with a "d." How hard is this? Why do these damn fool radio and TV announcers still get it wrong? Perhaps I just have hyper-sensitive ears. I think I'll start referring to our nation's capital as "Washingdon" and see if anyone notices.

The role of pure reason in human affairs (series #92,847)     The little town of Huntington (named, come to think of it, after the English town of Huntingdon — do d's change to t's when they cross the Atlantic?), where I live, has a railroad station. Two tracks go through the station, serving two platforms. You get from one platform to the other by walking over footbridges.

One platform is labeled "Platform 1A." The other is labeled "Platform 2B."

I just thought I'd mention it. I notice it every time I go to the station. And just thought I'd mention it.

Better dead than rude (series #2,792,045)     The Ricci decision was good of course, but as usual in these cases — and as Clarence Thomas pointed out in his remarks — the judgment fudged the main issue, which is:  Does "disparate impact" actually make any sense?

The premise underlying the "disparate impact" doctrine is that tests can be devised on which all human groups, of any deep ancestry, will produce scores that are statistically identical: same mean, same standard deviation. The uncomfortable fact is that nobody has yet been able to devise such a test in forty years of trying. This rather strongly suggests that the premise may be false, in which case the doctrine that rests on it is gibberish. Who wants to be the first to say this out loud, though? Not the justices of our Supreme Court, obviously.

The fact of the justices having fudged the issue means that Ricci is probably no more than a speed bump on the U.S.A.'s road to ethnic disaggregation. It's been obvious for some time that our future will be tribal. The only question has been how soon that future will arrive. I can't see why anyone's opinion about the answer to that question would have been changed by Ricci. It's just another judicial fudge-up that the diversicrats will soon figure out how to game their way around.

Still, it would be interesting to see the results of a poll worded thus:

Would you prefer that your local fire department be staffed

A.   by keen devotees of the firefighting arts who can ace any kind of test on the elements of those arts, or

B.   according to diversity principles?

I'd assume that your honest answer would be B only if the buildings in which you live and work contain no flammable materials at all. In the matter of diversity, though, honesty may be too much to ask for.

Lonely little petunia     One of the many, many things that seems not to exist any more is the novelty song.

The other day my wife was gardening and I was sitting on the deck with a beer, watching her. (This is a pretty regular state of affairs in the Derb household.) She was directing her attention to a patch of pretty little flowers she'd planted. Now, I don't know from flowers. Roses I'm fairly sure about, and daffodils, and tulips. I believe I would know a pansy if I saw one, though I don't seem to have seen one for ages. My hortico-taxonomical knowledge runs out about there. So I asked the Missus: "What kind of flowers are those, honey?"

She: "They're Petunias of course." [NB: "That "of course" is wifish for "you ignorant, coarse, insensitive dolt."]

I had a Proustian flash from deep memory. Up came a novelty song from my childhood:

I'm a lonely little petunia in an onion patch —
An onion patch, an onion patch.
I'm a lonely little petunia in an onion patch,
And all I do is cry all day.

[Chorus]  Boo hoo, boo hoo
And all I do is cry all day.

Now of course I can't get the wretched thing out of my head.

[There are several renderings on YouTube, none of them very good.]

Pat's no monkey     A reader, knowing I am a Pat Buchanan fan, wants to know what I think of Pat's hate-Darwin rant. I can only answer with a sigh. I really don't know what it is about the American right, even some of its best commentators, that makes them suckers for this obscurantist fish food. Pat's points are the same weary old ones that scientifically-literate people have been refuting for a hundred years. (As usual, I refer readers to the excellent TalkOrigins website for the refutations.) If people can't be bothered to educate themselves, it's not my job to educate them.

Pat's piece is disappointingly shoddy by Pat's usual standards, though. For goodness sake, he has people to look stuff up for him. Can't he at least try to get things right? He tells us for example that

Darwin … stole his theory from Alfred Wallace, who had sent him a "completed formal paper on evolution by natural selection."

"All my originality … will be smashed," wailed Darwin when he got Wallace's manuscript.

Here is the relevant passage from Ross Slotten's 2004 biography of Alfred Russel Wallace. Start a page or two back and read five or six pages. Then tell me, if you can, that the actual events of the Darwin-Wallace interaction bear even the slightest, most microscopic resemblance to the construction Pat has put on them.

The piece is even rhetorically incoherent. Pat gives over 300 words to telling us that Karl Marx, A. Hitler, and Kaiser Bill were all inspired by Darwinism. Then he says: "Yet a theory can produce evil — and still be true." Really, Pat? So … what did you bring up Marx, Hitler, and the Kaiser for? Would you care to give us a justification of everything ever done in the name of Christianity?

And as usual, it's not enough for the creationist to tell us Darwin's theory was false. Darwin also has to be a bad man — a liar and a thief, according to Pat. Darwin was not in fact a bad man. As human beings go, I would rate him a few ticks above the average. But suppose he was a bad man — so what? Bad men can be right, and good men can be wrong. Do you really not know that, Pat, after a lifetime spent in politics? Ideas stand or fall by their agreement with reality, not by the moral status of their originators. Goodness, this is childish, petulant stuff.

And shoddy. Some of the folks at the Discovery Institute are much better propagandists for their dimwitted, nutty, anti-civilizational creed than Pat is. I imagine, in fact, some of them must have winced to read Pat's piece. It's the kind of thing that gives hogwash a bad name.

Ah well. I'm still a great fan of Pat's. I still don't care if my President is a creationist. Matter of fact, I still think Pat would have made a great president. Keep the doom'n'gloom books coming, Pat. Just stay away from biology if you can't be bothered to inform yourself on the basics. Oh, and don't think for a minute that you can out-gloom the Derb.

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

This month's problem is from Power Play, by Edward J. Barbeau, a classic in its tiny field (what you can do with powers of whole numbers) since it came out twelve years ago.

My house is on a street where the numbers 1, 2, 3, … run consecutively with no gaps. My own house number has three digits. Curiously, the sum of all the house numbers in the street less than mine is the same as the sum of all the house numbers in the street greater than mine.

What is my house number? How many houses are there on my street?

(And if you want to know what this problem has to do with powers of whole numbers, the answer is that Pell's Equation is lurking just below the surface there.)