»  National Review Online Diary

  August 2009


Uruguay     I blogged somewhere or other about small, quiet countries you never hear about, where nothing much happens and the citizenry chug along in cheerful prosperity, enjoying as much happiness as the human condition will allow, minding their nation's own business, and grateful for its obscurity. I raised Slovenia as my model, with New Zealand, Finland, and Taiwan as supporting players.

I may have found another one. Earlier this month I got chatting to a lady from Uruguay. How are things in Montevideo? I asked, honestly not having the shadow of a clue. She said things are just fine: some poverty, a touch of Latin-Americanness still in politics (the place is on its umpteenth constitution), the usual left-intellectual nuisances in the universities trying to make trouble, localized crime problems (which she blamed on immigrants from Brazil). On the whole, though, she made Uruguay sound like a pretty nice place, perhaps deserving membership in my club of happy-in-obscurity nations.

When I mentioned this to a cynical New York acquaintance, she said she thought I should pack "a pair of those weird smoky not quite sunglasses glasses that Third World dictators — especially Arab ones — favor," and also a machine gun, as household essentials for emigrating to any nation whose name ends in "–guay." She's probably right; but hey, I can dream.


Are your nafses mutma'inna?     Robert Spencer has a new book coming out, The Complete Infidel's Guide to the Koran. Spencer belongs to that enviable class of writers who (a) write fluently and well, and (b) have mastered the art of writing the same book over and over in a slightly different form. This works best with fiction — think of Agatha Christie or Patrick O'Brian — but as Spencer illustrates, it can be done with nonfiction too, most easily with polemic. All Spencer's books really have the same title, the one I gave to my review of Religion of Peace.

I am occasionally — very occasionally, I am glad to say — taken with the urge to have a go at the raw material Spencer works with: the Koran and its various supplements and commentaries. The urge came upon me in mid-August while waiting in line at a local fast-food joint. This is a little take-out place run by a Pakistani family, with a nice line in curries, biryanis, and items made with chick peas. (What a lot of things you can do with chick peas!) Well, there I was waiting in line for my order, when my eye fell upon a rack of pamphlets on the wall. I asked someone to hold my place, and went over to take a look. The pamphlets seemed to be Islamic tracts of various kinds, many in English. I took one at random and got back in line.

The counter of the shop has a glass front, behind which are displayed Pakistani delicacies and desserts. As the lady was ringing me up, I decided to go for a couple of pink confections that looked to be made from coconut. I asked her how much they were. "Five dollars a pound." Good heavens, I said, I don't want a pound, just a couple. How much for two?

The lady, who must have missed a couple of classes at Rawalpindi Retail Sales Charm School, rolled her eyes and sighed. "I don't know. We sell them by the pound, you see?"

Just at that moment her husband came by. He asked her something in Urdu. She replied, and nodded towards me. The husband looked at me. Then he looked at my order, and at the Islamic pamphlet I'd put on the counter beside it. The sun came out. I got a big smile. "No charge for dessert! No charge!"

I guess these are people who love their faith, and are proud and happy to see someone take an interest in it. There is, of course, another side to the matter. (Here, for example.) I must say, though, I've never been able to summon up any strong negative feelings towards Islam itself, even after reading a couple of Robert Spencer's books. It is possible to nurse strong negative feelings towards all religions — ref. Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. — but to hate one particular religion, I think you need to be strongly committed to some other one — a sort of Yankees / Red Sox principle.

There might be something atavistic here, too, some folk memory of the British Empire, whose warriors and administrators mostly admired Islam while looking with scorn on Hinduism and Buddhism as grotesque and unmanly. (This comes out clearly in, of course, Kipling.) Some of them — the explorer Richard Burton would be an example — lumped in Christianity with the soft, womanish religions, to be contrasted unfavorably with masculine Islam.

Did I learn anything from my Islamic tract? I can't say so. It is dense and scholarly stuff.

Shaikh al-Islâm Zakariyyâ (rahmatullâhi 'alaih) said, "If Rasûlullah (sall-Allâhu 'alaihi wa sallam) had not interpreted what had been declared briefly in the Qur'ân al-kerîm and if the a'immat al-madhâhib had not explained what had been communicated symbolically, none of us could have understood them."

Thank goodness for their clarifications! Or how about this:

Another lie peculiar to the religion reformers is to say that the 'ulamâ of Islam followed their nafses. The 'ulamâ of fiqh and the a'immat al-madhâhib said nothing in opposition to the Qu'rân al-kerîm or the Hadîth ash-sherîf. Because what they all said was based on the Book and the Sunna, the nafses of their followers got redeemed of the state of ammâra and became mutma'inna. Since those who followed them were so, is it possible that their own nafses would not have been mutma'inna?

Now that's a thing I ask myself a lot. I even wonder about my own nafses sometimes. Are they mutma'inna? If not, what shall I do to be saved?

This kind of thing seems to me no different from the heavy tomes of Christian exegesis, apology, and polemic to which some of my friends and readers are regrettably addicted, or from the rabbinical books of Judaism: a vast waste of human intellection expended on the supernatural, which doesn't exist, when all the wonders of the natural world are there to be explored. Why don't these earnest enquirers take up botany? It's depressing to see great gigawatts of mental energy churning, churning, on nothing, for centuries, with no result but confusion and vituperation. No wonder the Gods are not winning.

[My pamphlet, in case you'd like to order a copy, is Answer to an Enemy of Islam, Waqf Ikhlas Publications No. 10, Hakîkat Kıtabevı, 34262-Fatih Istanbul, Turkey. And to be fair, I should say that the author provides a glossary of Arabic terms.]


Eleven is the new fifty     The thing that struck me about the Philip Garrido story was the detail of his having been paroled after serving only 11 years of a 50-year sentence. Will someone please explain parole to me? Where's the sense in it? If a man's sentenced to 50 years, why shouldn't he serve 50 years?

The usual explanation I get when I raise this is that parole is a means by which politically-powerful corrections-officer unions can get rid of their most troublesome inmates. Possibly: but I hang out with some very cynical people (see above). I think that more likely it's just the soggy mentality of our times — the generalized belief that it would be unimaginative, spirit-constricting, and anal-compulsive to let words mean just what they say, or to let a decision stand without an infinite regress of revisions and reviews.

At any rate, when reading the news it's hard not to think that the abolition of parole everywhere would spare us a huge quantity of innocent suffering. But there is the crux of the matter. The word "innocent," in common with other words like "manly" or "sane," is deeply suspect in a relativistic culture. Who are we to say who is guilty, who innocent? Is not the "guilty" person himself really innocent — a victim of deprivation, child abuse, racism, poverty? As Dr. Heinz Kiosk never ceased to remind us: We are all guilty!


Dog in a basket     I've been remiss in not keeping readers up to date on the Toby case. Well, Toby finally got his day in court August 4th. The defendant did not show up, so we got a nice default judgment against him — most of what I'd claimed. (And of course I had claimed a little more than I expected to get, so the result was entirely satisfactory.)

That was the easy part, though. Now we have to collect. Assuming there isn't a check from the defendant waiting in the mail for me when we get back from Hawaii — and on the evidence so far, I think that's a pretty reasonable assumption — I have to go and file papers and make representations and pay fees at the local sheriff's office, to raise matters to the next level. I doubt anything will come of it all, but I shall do my best, within the bounds of the law, to make an unholy nuisance of myself to this stinking hippie.

Incidentally, many kind readers have expressed concern about Toby's welfare during our absence in Hawaii. The pooch is fine, well looked after by thoughtful neighbors.

I get more email about Toby than about most of the topics I cover. Not sure what to make of that. A common question (2 or 3 times a month) is: Does Toby go in the tree house? Answer: No, not so far. He'd like to; and sometimes when I'm up there he mooches around the foot of the tree in a needy sort of way. I've mulled various schemes for hoisting him up and down in a basket, like the puppy in Rear Window, but he's a fidgety dog and none of them seems very safe. I shall continue to mull, though.


Edward M. Kennedy     Commentators are allowed a few days off a year from perusing the news. It was my immense good fortune this year that the death of Ted Kennedy fell right in my vacation period. This means I don't have to pay any attention to the gushing obituaries and weepy tributes to "the Lion of the Senate,"  "the Last of the Brothers," and all the rest of it, saving myself some unknown number of barf bags. Nor do I feel obliged to come up with any kind of obituary remarks of my own concerning the old … the late senator.

If I thought there were any gods, I would fall on my knees and cry out my thanks to them for this stroke of good luck. As it is, I shall just enjoy it privately, and do justice to the dead by giving over a moment's thought to poor Mary Jo Kopechne.


Hawaii notes     The Derb family spent the last part of the month in Hawaii. Here are some random jottings about the place.


Hawaii kitsch     If you have a low tolerance for kitsch, don't go a-touristing. My own approach is to embrace the kitsch and own it. One consequence is, that I now actually do own the most garish, tasteless Hawaiian shirt you ever saw.

The kitsch content of Hawaii tourism is actually lower than I expected, though. We had to go to a luau, of course, and I expected the thing to be a total kitsch-o-rama, thick with leis, grass skirts, and steel guitar music, and swilling in mai tais and kava. Yet in fact, though the Don Ho element was certainly present, it was well seasoned with what looked to me like very authentic aboriginal dancing — energetic, joyful, and highly suggestive, with only rudimentary instrumental accompaniment. I suppose the sexual loosening-up of American society has made this kind of thing more acceptable, even in a family show, than it was in Don Ho's time. As an amateur anthropologist, I was pleased; as a parent, more ambivalent.


Algorism     The house of kitsch has many mansions. One of them is owned by Al Gore and his acolytes, preaching a sort of Higher Kitsch — a simpering, Pocahontas-style sentimentality about the gentle harmony of the natural world.

There's a certain amount of that floating around in Hawaii, with much guff from tour guides about how the aboriginals "respected" their natural surroundings. Well, fiddlesticks. Didn't our Paleolithic ancestors hunt innumerable species to extinction and dramatically transform several ecosystems? I have no doubt the Polynesians would have polluted their lagoons with mercury, felled their rain forests for charcoal, and set up strip-mining operations on their coral reefs, if they had had the technology to do so. But there is no arguing with the sentimentalists.

There was some relief from all this on a snorkeling trip to Molokini Crater and Manele Bay. The tour guides were young marine biologists. They were all keen for us to preserve the underwater eco-system as we found it — don't touch the coral! — but none was under any illusions about what was being preserved. One young lady gave an impromptu class to the children aboard as we crossed the twenty-odd miles to Manele Bay. She had colored pictures of interesting marine species printed up on cards.

"Look at this little feller! Look at his color! That bright yellow is saying to any other fish in the neighborhood: 'See how tasty I look! Come and eat me!' Then when they swim over and try to eat him, he slices them to ribbons with this little saw here hidden in his tail!"

Ah, the gentle beneficence of Mother Nature! Next to mathematicians, biologists are the most fun kind of academics to hang out with, if you like your realism served cold. Among mathematicians it's all: "Can you rigorously demonstrate the truth of what you just said? If not, then it's just a conjecture, isn't it?" Among biologists you get: "See, this little critter eats the young of this one, which lies in wait for that one, which chomps down on this other one, which has this doohickey here for eviscerating its mate after fertilization …"

Not that these young Pocahontas-raised tour guides were completely free of Algorism. I heard the phrase "global warming" more than once. Somehow, though, you don't mind hearing the occasional lapse into ecological PC from enthusiastic twentysomethings with — to a man and (gulp) woman — bronzed Baywatch physiques and the eagerness to please that comes from being grossly underpaid.


Hawaii bumper sticker     CHICKEN FIGHTING IS NOT A CRIME — PLEASE RESPECT LOCAL CULTURE.


PC orthography     As I noted in The Corner, the orthographic pests who got us saying "Myanmar" and "Beijing" in place of the perfectly serviceable "Burma" and "Peking" have now infested Hawaii, which all the local newspapers now spell "Hawai'i," as if one English-speaking person in a thousand knows what to do with that damn fool apostrophe. The Hawaiian language is certainly entitled to its own orthography, but why should that orthography be inflicted on English-speakers? What next — are we all supposed to master Chinese ideograms?

A common response is that non-Europeans were cruelly robbed of their heritage by European imperialists rendering their place-names in forms acceptable to English ears, and that the liberated masses are just asserting their right to have their place-names written correctly. That's balderdash. I was living in China or involved with Chinese people all through the period (1970-1990) when China's capital morphed from "Peking" to "Beijing." To the best of my knowledge, no Chinese person had anything to do with it. Certainly I never met a Chinese person — the sample size here is several hundred — who gave a fig how foreigners wrote the name of his capital city.

We did not get "Beijing" as a result of long-oppressed non-European people righteously asserting themselves after centuries of subjugation; we got it from over-educated white European and American journalists and editors keen to display their multi-culti street cred and make the rest of us feel inferior to moral giants like themselves. No way is this a case of white "Peking" yielding to yellow "Beijing." If anything, "Beijing." is the whiter of the two toponyms. I suspect something similar is at play with "Hawai'i" and " 'ukulele." I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it.


Hawaiians assert themselves     Whatever the source of those horrid orthographic innovations, there's no doubt that Hawaiian-ancestry Americans are eager to participate in the racial spoils system. The Akaka Bill is the most prominent political expression of this desire. It would give Americans of Hawaiian ancestry a special kind of citizenship, like Native Americans with their sort-of self-governing "nations," or blacks and Hispanics with their affirmative action, contracting set-asides, official victim status through "hate crimes" laws, and locked-in seats on the U.S. Supreme Court.

It's hard to see why Hawaiians shouldn't have what they are asking for. The U.S.A. has long since sold the pass on a single, equal citizenship for all. We are now a nation of castes and groups, with different categories of citizenship by race, and special preferences and protections for groups favored by the state. I might just possibly get rich enough to buy a few thousand acres in upstate New York; but even if I did, I wouldn't be able to build and operate a casino on my land. Why not? Because I'm the wrong race.

Since we have these different racial categories of citizenship, why should one more category not be created for the Hawaiians, as requested by the Akaka Bill? My own preferred solution would be to abolish all race-based legal privileges and just have one class of citizenship for everybody. There is not the slightest prospect of this happening, though. Things have gone much too far, and we are stuck with the racial spoils system. This being so, why should the Hawaiians — or any other common-ancestry group — be excluded from it?


Pineapple management     Yet another cynical friend told me, before I set out, that Hawaii is such a thoroughly artificial place, even the pineapples are imported. I haven't been able to discover if this is true, but it very well might be. From the point of view of economics, it makes much more sense to grow pineapples in places like Costa Rica and the Philippines, and that is in fact where most of the world's pineapples now come from.

Hawaii still grows pineapples, though, and they are a superior item — far better than the pineapples you buy in a Long Island supermarket. I especially recommend the "Maui Gold" varieties. That inedible fibrous core is not present here — the core is as fleshy and juicy as the rest.

I've also taken some lessons in pineapple management. I have learned, for example, that I have wasted my entire life chopping the tops off pineapples. With a certain grasp of the crown and a certain motion of the wrist, you can twist the top off. Twist-top pineapples — who knew?


Traveling with teenagers     Nellie (16½) and Danny (14) are traveling with us, exposing us to the full icy blast of teen sarcasm, snobbery, faux-worldliness, and affected insouciance, 24/7. Sample from Nellie: "Y'know, Dad, nothing says 'geezer' like clip-on shades."

These are not bad kids, it's just the way teens are. The ratio of what you think you know to what you actually do know shoots up to a high maximum around ages 15-17, thereafter declining steadily through to late middle age, after which it plateaus for a decade or two until seen-it-all geezerhood gets it gently rising again.

Mrs. D and I look forward longingly to the not-far-distant-now days when we shall be able to take kid-less vacations … though when those blessed days arrive at last, we shall probably squander them in nostalgic reminiscences about our family vacations.


So you want to live in Hawaii?     What's the news in Hawaii? Well, tourism is such a big thing here, people watch the numbers the way astronauts monitor their air supply. There are two numbers they care about: how many visitors come, and how many dollars they spend.

Figures for July were just published. Number of visitors is healthy, actually a little above the number for July '08, but the dollars figure is down twelve percent. This was front-page news on both local newspapers I saw, The Honolulu Advertiser and The Maui News. Looking like paradise doesn't help when there's a recession on.

And of course, a place can be paradise to visit while being a tough place to live and work. Here's columnist Lee Cataluna in the Honolulu Advertiser poking fun at some New Yorkers who, in the New York Times travel section, declared their intention to move to Hawaii. The letter to the Times began: "My girlfriend and I have lived in Brooklyn for a year, and when our lease is up in August, we're considering downsizing everything we have to a few bags and moving to Hawaii. Given that it is a chain of islands, how does one choose which is best?"

Ms. Cataluna, our Honolulu Advertiser columnist, doesn't just burst these dreamers' bubble: she bursts it, stomps on it, spits on the remains, then feeds them into the garbage disposal unit. Quote from her: "Forget it, dude. There are enough guys pitching tents in the park. We're full up."

Ms. Cataluna's final word of advice to these and other dreamers is, quote: "Unless these unsuspecting people will be getting off the plane with bags stuffed with money, they won't find the island life they're hoping for. Easy living costs too much here."

Well, yes, but life is all trade-offs. I got a different perspective from one of our tour-bus drivers, a merry fifty-something who had come here from the mainland** eight years ago following a divorce. He: "Yeah, it's tough. Jobs scarce, wages low, cost of living high. But you know what? Being hard up on Hawaii beats being middle-class in New Jersey. Way beats."

[** Note: You do not refer to the mainland as "the States" here, not unless you want to end up listed as "long pig" on the menu of some luau.]


Johnny come down to Hilo     On our way back from volcano watching we passed through the town of Hilo. The sight of that name flung me back 55 years to Mr. Mulliner's music class at Far Cotton CPS.

My childhood coincided with the end of the century-long period of volkisch enthusiasm among European peoples. One of the manifestations of that enthusiasm in England was the teaching of English folk songs to elementary-school children. That word "English" has a linguistic, not a geographical, referent. For these purposes, North America, Australia, etc. were annexes of England. We sang "O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie" and "Waltzing Matilda" along with "Widdecombe Fair."

[I should explain to younger readers that this was in the Age of Monocultural Ignorance, before it dawned on the peoples of the West how dull, stale, worthless and exploitative their own cultures are by comparison with those of the vibrant, spiritual, caring, and altogether morally superior Third World.]

Well, in the English understanding, sea shanties were a species of folk song, and we were taught to sing a dozen or more. One of these shanties, which I find I can still sing passably well, was "Johnny Come Down to Hilo." The lyrics we sang, just as I remember them, are here, though I am not surprised to see that there are bowdlerized versions also on the internet.

Imagine nine-year-old Derb and his classmates squeaking out those lyrics while grouchy old Mr. Mulliner pounded away on the school piano. Times sure have changed.


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

Here's this month's puzzle:

You have a suitcase with a 3-digit combination lock on it. The digits range from 1 to 8 You can't remember the combination, but you do remember that the lock has always been defective in that as long as you have 2 out of 3 numbers in the right place, the suitcase will open. So if the correct combination is [2, 6, 3] then [?, 6, 3], [2, ?, 3] or [2, 6, ?] will open the suitcase.

What is the minimum number of combinations you must try to guarantee that you will open the suitcase?

As a bonus puzzle this month:  Looking at that second solution to July's math corner, I got to wondering what number the Hawaiian language generates. The answer seems to be 4,791,352,680; but there may be subtleties of grammar and transcription that have escaped my attention.

Supposing this is the correct number, does it have any interesting or significant properties? A premium prize for any properties associated with pineapples, grass skirts, Don Ho, or presidential birthplaces.