»  National Review Online Diary

  July 2009

What's up, Doc?     I stay away from doctors and hospitals as much as I can. I'm whatever is the opposite of a hypochondriac. If I have a pain I just tell myself it'll go away, which it almost invariably does. My wife nags me to have regular checkups, though, so here I was one Saturday morning in July at the doctor's office having my body poked, listened to, and drained of various fluids.

I've known our family doctor for close to twenty years, and we got chatting. I asked him what he thinks of Obamacare. Well, that prolonged the visit some.

Bottom line: not much. I wasn't taking notes, but I recollect the following.

The President insulted the entire medical profession with that remark about a doctor deciding to remove a kid's tonsils unnecessarily to make a few more bucks. Doctoring is a proud profession, and that won't be forgotten in a hurry.

Better public awareness of, and personal control of, the Big Three would save cartloads of money. The Big Three are diabetes, hypertension, and cholesterol. "Hypertension leads to strokes. You've got incapacitated people sitting helpless in nursing homes for decades because treatable hypertension wasn't treated. There are enormous savings here."

The uninsured. "If the federal government told me, 'Doctor, you're going to have to take three pro bono patients a day,' I'd say, 'Sure, no problem.' Heck, I do anyway. I have patients lose their job, lose their insurance, I treat 'em anyway, give 'em samples. Every doctor I know does the same."

Tort reform, tort reform, tort reform. "The whole system is nuts. The state's tort lawyers are looking for a fourteen percent hike in malpractice premiums. [Apparently without success so far — JD.] I'm not getting any fourteen percent hike in reimbursements from the HMOs. Those numbers have barely moved in a decade. Without tort reform, nothing makes sense."

The doctor told me of an online petition you can sign, urging Congress to include tort reform in any healthcare legislation. I went right home and signed it. The petition is here (under ACTION CENTER at top left).

Black-armband history     That's the phrase coined by conservative Australian historian Geoff Blainey to describe the endless keening over historical wrongs, real or imagined, that has taken over so much of his discipline.

There was an example of black-armband historicizing this month, when the California legislature approved a bill apologizing for past discrimination against Chinese immigrants. What on earth is the point of these sniveling "apologies" to various "communities"? The past was what it was, and people thought differently then. Nineteenth-century Chinese were glad to come to the U.S.A., to escape the poverty, cruelty, and chaos of late-imperial China. If they found the various kinds of discrimination against them obnoxious, they were free to go home. That's just what things were like back then.

I can't fathom the motivations of lawmakers who promote these empty, posturing, cheap-grace "apologies" for wrongs that nobody thought much wrong at the time, and whose perpetrators are in any case dead or decrepit. I suppose it's just a variety of that moral preening with which our age is sore afflicted; but doesn't the California legislature have more important things to vote on? The state's finances are in a hole deep enough to go all the way to China (yeah, yeah — please don't write in to tell me California and China are not antipodal). Yet they have time on their legislative calendar for this meretricious, posturing, self-regarding mush?

I thought I would at least be able to offer for your praise some members of the California legislature who voted against this rubbish, but as best I can find out, nobody did. There are some "absent, abstaining, or not voting" names, and I'm going to cherish the faint hope that one or two of them might have been principled abstentions. Just grasping at straws here.

The role of pure reason in human affairs (series #92,848)      My township has a taxi firm named Orange and White. Here is a picture of one of their vehicles:

Orange & White

WW1 vets     We not only lost Air Mechanic Henry Allingham this month, the oldest man in the world and a veteran of both land, sea, and air actions in World War One, but then, a week later, Harry Patch faded away. Harry was the last British survivor of the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele, in which more than 70,000 British soldiers died. Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory:

The attack toward Passchendaele, on the northern side of the Ypres Salient, indicated once more the old folly of reiterated abortive assaulting. Sometimes dignified as the Third Battle of Ypres, this assault, beginning on July 31, was aimed, it was said, at the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast … The artillery was relied on to prepare the ground for the attack, and with a vengeance: over ten days four million shells were fired. The result was highly ironic, even in this war where irony was a staple. The bombardment churned up the ground; rain fell and turned the dirt to mud. In the mud the British assaulted until the attack finally attenuated three and a half months later. Price: 370,000 British dead and wounded and sick and frozen to death. Thousands literally drowned in the mud.

Britain is now down to just one veteran of the war that made a greater impression on the British imagination than any since the Civil War of the 1640s. Unfortunately he lives in Australia. There are two other living WW1 veterans, both in the U.S.A. We think this is the case, anyway. There might be Russian or German veterans still alive, but certain events in the middle of the last century destroyed crucial records, and we can't be sure.

Britain's new Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, about whom I had something to say a few weeks ago, extruded a tribute to these last WW1 vetereans. You can read it here. It's not much good, but then hardly any current poetry is. I get the impression Ms. Duffy is at least trying.

The worst of Obama     It always strikes me as somewhat surprising that in this nation, where issues of morality are taken with utmost seriousness, the personal character of a presidential candidate doesn't seem to count for much. By the time the 1992 election came around it was perfectly clear to anyone who'd been paying attention that Bill Clinton was a sleazy jerk, but the nation elected him anyway. His sleazy-jerkiness actually got him popularity points from time to time: "Oh, that Bubba! Ha ha ha!"

I don't believe Barack Obama's a sleazy jerk, but he did do one thing in the personal-character zone that shocked me. That was the dumping of his old friends — Bill Ayres, Tony Rezko, Jeremiah Wright. To be sure, none of them much minded being dropped as the price for seeing their ex-pal get elected President, and only Rezko is much in need of friendship right now. And the presidency is an awfully big prize, for which a person will do all kinds of things. Still …

This has some salience for me as I came up against a similar decision myself recently, though on an infinitely smaller scale. Without going into details, I had the choice of standing by a friend, at the price of giving my enemies an opening to sneer at me, or failing to do so, in circumstances nobody would ever know about. Stand fast (upside — satisfaction of having stood fast:  downside — gave ammo to enemies)? Or trim (upside — slightly quieter life:  downside — none)? It's not even really a friend, just an acquaintance with whom I've traded some small favors. And when, after about thirty second's thought, I decided to stand fast, I can't really boast that it was entirely the promptings of conscience. It was as least as much just innate, inherited, damn-the-torpedoes cussedness.

Still, even such trivial conundrums as this sharpen your moral instincts a bit. And there was Barack Obama doing the Judas to people he'd been hanging out with on intimate terms for twenty years. I know, I know, … but still …

He's the President of the United States and I'll accord Barack Obama the respect due to his office. I'm just never going to like the guy.

Teaching moment     And, ecchh! — the condescension. The President told us that the recent flap over the cop and Professor Gates** should be "a teaching moment."

Who is teaching what to whom? We all know what, in the President's mind, is the answer to that. Wise, paternal African American men like, oh, Barack Obama and, say, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., tempered as they have been in the fires of oppression and discrimination, raised up by their suffering to dizzying heights of moral superiority, are going to teach us numbskull white bigots about the pain we cause when we fail to show proper respect to minorities.

Undoubtedly there are always some people in any society who could use a little moral instruction. The idea that the entire nation needs it, though, and is willing to take it from two pampered, scented pets out of the Affirmative Action elite, is condescension on a heroic scale. A few guilt-addled Uncle Tims aside, I suspect that the commonest reaction to the President's suggestion was a raspberry. That's British English for a Bronx cheer, as in this selection:

I never read the proclamations of generals before battle, the speeches of führers and prime ministers, the solidarity songs of public schools and left-wing political parties, national anthems, Temperance tracts, papal encyclicals and sermons against gambling and contraception, without seeming to hear in the background a chorus of raspberries from all the millions of common men to whom these high sentiments make no appeal.

            — George Orwell, "The Art of Donald McGill"

I certainly hope so, anyway.

[**  Let's be thankful, at least, that attempts to tag it as "Gatesgate" seem to have failed.]

Assisted suicide     The suicide deaths of orchestral conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife have caused a stir in Britain. Lady Downes was in the late stages of terminal cancer. Sir Edward was "almost blind and increasingly deaf," according to his son. Assisted suicide being illegal in the U.K., the couple went to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich, Switzerland.

On Friday, the children said, they watched, weeping, as their parents drank "a small quantity of clear liquid" before lying down on adjacent beds, holding hands.

"Within a couple of minutes they were asleep, and died within 10 minutes," Caractacus Downes, the couple's 41-year-old son, said in the interview after his return to Britain. "They wanted to be next to each other when they died." He added, "It is a very civilized way to end your life, and I don't understand why the legal position in this country doesn't allow it."

We chewed over the legal and ethical issues of assisted suicide on SecularRight.com (here, here, and here). It's pretty well-traveled territory, and no-one had anything much new to say.

I always come out of these discussions in a frame of mind somewhat like Dr. Johnson on free will: "All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it." I can see the downsides of assisted-suicide laws — the theory — especially in a hyper-bureaucratized health-care system, and will readily agree that the case for leaving well enough alone is not a bad one.

(Though I'd post one regret to that. Fifty years ago doctors routinely, though of course informally, helped dying people on their way with a much-bigger-than-necessary injection or some such. King George VI of England, the present Queen's father, seems to have had his passage to the Afterlife accelerated by the attending physician in 1952. It was perfectly common at that time, and an open secret among doctors and nurses, though of course not strictly legal. Now lawyers and morality scolds have terrorized those informal death-hastening practices out of existence, leading I believe to a net reduction in the humanity coefficient of Western civilization.)

That parenthesis aside, leaving well enough alone looks logical. "All theory is against" assisted suicide.

But then there is Sir Edward Downes, who was old and disabled but not terminally ill, yet who wanted to die painlessly next to his wife. Why should he not have been able to? True, he could have shot her in the head, and then himself, but I think most of us would prefer he had some other option available to him. He could also have done what a Virginia couple, friends of a friend of mine, did, with plastic bags and helium; but even that is grisly and error-prone, especially if you are near-blind. And then of course there is the Million Dollar Baby situation, instantiated recently in the case of Daniel James .

I've heard the arguments against assisted suicide, and am not unsympathetic to them. But why should Sir Edward and Lady Downes not have done what they did? And why should those who helped them to do it, not have helped them? Until I hear persuasive answers to those questions, and to the corresponding questions for Daniel James, I'll be ticking the "Yes" box on assisted suicide.

Note:  I was wrong here: It was George V, not George VI. The story is, that palace officials wanted the news of the king's death to make the early editions of the morning newspapers, so they leaned on the physician to do what was necessary. I have no idea if this is true.

Can't help myself     Speaking of free will, this month I read (in galleys) the forthcoming book Mindworlds by philosopher and Consciousness Studies contributor Andy Ross, with whom I have a slight acquaintance. (There's a link for the book on Andy's web page, top left.)

On page 160 Andy's discussing volition, specifically the late Benjamin Libet's 1980s results on readiness potentials in the brain associated with acts of conscious volition. Those results seemed to suggest that the brain "decides" to do something long before (long in neuro-time, that is) the conscious self is aware of any decision-making. Well, cognitive scientist Vilayanur Ramachandran (and some others) argued that we can at least inhibit actions the cortex has initiated. In other words, that once a "volition cascade" of neurological events has started up in the cortex, and prior to conscious decision-making, "I" — which in this context means "some other neurological process at a higher level of integration" — can veto it and delay or stop the cascade.

Andy Ross:

Ramachandran … said that such delays show we don't have free will. What we have is "not free will but free won't."

Tonghua killing     The town of Tonghua, in my wife's home province (and therefore I guess my province-in-law) in northeast China, doesn't have much going for it. When I lived in the neighborhood twenty-five years ago, Tonghua was best known for a sweet red wine the place produced. I couldn't take much of the stuff myself, but a Chinese colleague of mine somehow managed to employ it as the foundation for a serious drinking problem.

Tonghua's been in the news this month. There are steel plants in and about the town, originally of course state-owned. They employ tens of thousands of local workers. In 2005 the provincial government sold a 36 percent stake in the mill to a private steel company, Jianlong. The public-private management mix was not a success, and by late last year Jianlong was getting ready to pull out. Then, in part thanks to China's own stimulus package (lotsa public works needing lotsa steel), business turned around. Instead of pulling out, Jianlong became a majority shareholder, and installed a high-flying general manager, 41-year-old Chen Guojun.

The steelworkers were not happy. They hadn't much cared for Jianlong's partial management in 2005-09. Now they feared for their jobs. On July 24 they rioted, beating the unfortunate Mr. Chen to death.

You can see the workers' point. You can see Jianlong's point, too, though. These old state-owned enterprises are dinosaurs, even after two decades of reform. They are grossly overmanned and inefficient — like the British coal industry when Margaret Thatcher took it on in 1984. A great downside of socialism is that it's awfully hard to get from it to some other arrangement.

I'm sorry for Mr. Chen, who seems to have been blameless. I'm sorry for the steelworkers of Tonghua, who surely will lose their jobs, several thousand of them, in the interests of business efficiency. Most of all, though, I'm sorry for China — my country-in-law — for being stuck today with problems that might have been tackled thirty years ago, if not for that disastrous detour through despotic socialism.

[Footnote:  Though she normally evinces a strong attachment to Confucian principles of right conduct and social order, Mrs. D was unable to repress a spasm of local pride when told of this incident. "Huh! That'll teach 'em to mess with us Northeasterners!" They are a bolshie lot up there in Manchuria. Let me tell you.]

On Holder     Eric "Nation of Cowards" Holder is shaping up as an even worse U.S. Attorney General than Janet Reno.

If I were to tell you that Holder's actions in the case of the Philadelphia Black Panthers had left me speechless, I'd be telling you an untruth (see, or rather hear, the latest broadcast from Radio Derb). On this one, though, I must admit, Roger Kimball surpassed me in eloquent indignation … except that I thought "verbal watercress for the punters" was a metaphor too far. But then, I like watercress, and have fond childhood memories of watercress sandwiches. Do we even have watercress in the U.S.A.? I haven't seen any for decades.

[A bit later:  I checked with Roger. He tells me it's a P.G. Wodehouse allusion. Ah.]

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

This month's problem is from a pal who says:  "I actually stumbled upon it back in high school, and have never seen it anywhere; but I'm certain that it must be known — it's just hard to Google for.

Prove that the following pattern continues:

          1 + 2 = 3
          1×2 + 2×3 + 3×4 = 4×5
          1×2×3 + 2×3×4 + 3×4×5 + 4×5×6 = 5×6×7

My pal won't let me identify him, but I have snuck an oblique tribute to his ancestry into this little extra bonus-points puzzle, based on something in Martin Gardner's latest book:

Tell me the exact significance of all the following seven numbers. (Note: I have rigged it so that you almost certainly can't, but you should be able to get close).