»  National Review Online Diary

  February 2010

February is the boring-est month.     In any month of the year there is something really boring going on that we thumb-suckers in the commentariat are supposed to come up with penetrating observations about. This month was blighted with not one but two bore-a-thons: the presidential-congressional wrangling over the health-care bill, and the Winter Olympics.

On the first, I am settling into the conviction that the president's new strategy is to bore us all into a nationwide coma, so that he can push through whatever bill he, Harry, and Nancy settle on while we are unconscious.

Speaking for myself, I'm at the point where I wouldn't care much. It would be such a relief not to have to think about the wretched business any more.

I did my best to keep up with the health-care debate for a while there. For a few weeks I could sling the bat, and was discoursing knowledgably over the dinner table about premium caps, public options, death panels, and the rest. Now I just want it all to stop. Single-payer National Health Service? Yeah, whatever, just please don't make me think about it any more. Health care is intrinsically boring.

The problem with the Winter Olympics — the second February bore-o-rama — is that most of the sports are pretty esoteric. We all know how to swim, run, jump, and throw things to some degree of proficiency. The Summer Olympics athletes are just running faster, jumping higher, etc., than we can. But how many of us would know what to do with a luge or a curling broom? OK, most of us have some experience of skiing and skating, but not like this. Me running for a train and Usain Bolt running for the tape are basically the same thing in different degrees; me wobbling on skates round the local pond and Evgeni Plushenko doing a triple lutz are completely different things.

And then there are those sports where you mount some kind of contraption, push off, then zoom at high speed down a mile-long half-tube of ice with no visible effort. What's that all about? A sport that requires no movement of the body? Huh? (No visible movement, I mean: where's the excitement in watching someone lean left a half-inch as he passes you at 90 miles an hour?) As Mrs. D. said, watching one of these push-and-go events: "It's just gravity. Won't the fattest guy always win?"

Of course, if the evening's TV viewing is a choice between Women's Bobsleigh and the health-care summit, that's no contest.

Wait a minute: I'm not through with the Winter Olympics yet …

The Ice People Olympics     Now look: My usage of the Ice People / Sun People trope in WAD was, as I have made clear (and thought was obvious anyway) ironical.

In these times we are living in, though, irony ain't easy. Just look at the medal table for the Winter Olympics! (I am actually looking at it midday Saturday, Feb. 27, so your count may differ.) If you subtract out nations with majority Slavic, Germanic, or other Baltic-Scandinavian languages like Finnish and Estonian, and then you further subtract out the northeast Asian peoples (China, Japan, Korea), who's left? France at #8, Italy at #16, and Kazakhstan at #24. Arctic Alliance, anyone? Heck, we could let the Kazakhs in; there's only 16 million of them.

Mitt's problem     CPAC was at least not boring. It was in fact a wonderfully rowdy crowd, as free with boos and hisses as they were with whoops and cheers. There was even the occasional rebel yell. The CPAC crowd makes mainstream political gatherings look like China's National People's Congress.

Who've they got, though? I love Ron Paul, but the guy's 74, and even in that CPAC straw poll, 69 percent of attendees voted for someone else. Besides — don't you know? — he has a second cousin whose dentist's daughter's boyfriend's sister's best friend once worked as dog-walker for a member of the John Birch Society.

Second in that straw poll was Romney, who at least showed up at CPAC, and gave a good stirring speech. What's not to like about Mitt? He's smart, accomplished, experienced, capable … Sure, he's a charisma-free zone, but you can't dislike the guy.

That, far as I'm concerned, is precisely the problem. Those famous flip-flops in the '08 campaign didn't bother me in themselves; what bothered me was that they were so badly done. I took that to mean that Mitt didn't have his heart in the flip-flopping — that he was too nice a guy, and too honest, to flip-flop with conviction. A Bill Clinton or a Barack Obama will shove his best friend under a bus, then sit down to a hearty meal and enjoy a good night's sleep. Hard to see Mitt being that cold-blooded. In short, Mitt's Cardigan Coefficient is too low — no better than a 40, I'd guess.

Which leaves us with Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, and Mike Huckabee. Sarah broke my heart when she endorsed John McCain in his Arizona race — yet another dismaying sign that she'd quickly go native in D.C. Pawlenty has a spotty record as Governor and was lackluster at CPAC — a second-rater, it seems to me. Huckleberry's a lot of fun, but doesn't seem to have much grasp of conservative principles. Well, it's a while yet to 2012.

Obama the Roman     I still have no clue what we're supposed to be doing in Afghanistan. I assume we're trying to maneuver to some point where we can get out of there without it looking like a debacle. That's been the pattern of all our recent wars. Go in there with flags flying and guns blazing and Congress appropriating; occupy the place and install a puppet government; spend a trillion or so on the hearts'n'minds fandango, winning over a handful of locals who will end up getting refugee visas to settle in the U.S., while antagonizing the other 95 percent of the populace; thrash around for a few years losing guys and materiel till domestic support craters and Congressional funding looks like drying up; start the maneuvering for a not-too-shameful exit.

For all that, Obama's showing an impressive mean streak in dealing with the jihadis.

Though Mr Obama is willing to admit his country's failings, he is quite ruthless about blowing its enemies to scraps. American drones fired missiles at suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan's tribal areas 55 times last year, killing hundreds of jihadists and who knows how many civilians. This year, the killing has accelerated; so far more than a dozen strikes have been reported. Mr Obama orders assassinations at a far brisker pace than George Bush ever did …

In September, for example, America tracked down a much-wanted terrorist in Somalia. Saleh Ali Nabhan was accused of helping to blow up the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and was thought to have been the main liaison between al-Qaeda and its Somali ally, al-Shabab. Had he been captured and questioned, he could have been a mine of useful intelligence. But there is no functioning Somali government to hand him over to, so American helicopters vaporised him. This seems to be the rule, not the exception. A recent Washington Post investigation of Mr Obama's war against al-Qaeda leaders abroad found "dozens of targeted killings and no reports of high-value detentions" by American forces.

Not hard to figure out Obama's reasoning here. Whatever your opinion of the man's personality (my opinion: spoiled-brat soft-hands yuppie narcissist), he's a pretty good political athlete. Now, captured terrorists are nothing but political trouble — Guantánamo Bay trouble, KSM-trial trouble, torture-allegations trouble. Better to just waste the suckers in situ. Shame about the civilians, but you can't fight a war without killing civilians, it's a fact of life. Sure, we lose some intel, but net-net it's a political win. And what's the intel worth, anyway? They're all liars.

I think this is an excellent policy, and the President has my whole-hearted support here. Really.

Blaming the victims?     On February I posted to The Corner on the case of the Rhode Island school district that up and fired its entire corps (pronounced "kor," Mr. President) of teachers because they would not agree to work an extra 25 minutes per day.

This got a mixed response from readers. Many shared my glee at the spectacle of public-sector employees getting pink slips. Many others, though, told me I was blaming the victims, i.e. the teachers. Teachers (they said) are asked to do the impossible — in this case, squeeze acceptable, government-mandated academic performance from a student body that is 69 percent Hispanic, presumably including some large proportion with limited English skills.

I'm not unsympathetic. Educational theory and educational policy in the U.S.A. are insane, as I document at length in Chapter 6 of WAD. The ruling dogma is what Charles Murray, in his recent book, calls Educational Romanticism:  "Given the opportunity, most people could do most anything." Teachers are at the front lines of the insanity, being pressed by politicians to make silk purses from sows' ears. When they fail to accomplish the impossible, politicians (and NRO bloggers) turn on them. No fair!

All right, there's a case for the teachers. Our public dogmas — egalitarianism, multiculturalism, Educational Romanticism — are founded in falsehoods, and teachers are charged with proving those falsehoods true. I see that, and of course it's a tough deal for the teachers.

Nobody has to be a teacher, though. I was a teacher once. It didn't suit me, so I changed careers. Then, much later, I changed careers a second time. This is still the land of opportunity; and if you are smart enough to be a teacher, you are smart enough to do a dozen other kinds of work that don't involve extracting sunbeams from cucumbers to make dimwit politicians look good, and might even make some direct addition to the Gross Domestic Product.

If you go into teaching as an idealist, seeing yourself as a missionary to eager young minds, and then find out that you have in fact been enlisted as a foot soldier in a mighty war against reality — that a dismaying proportion of those young minds are eager about nothing but gossip, flirting, fighting, and comparing fashion notes, and that even among those willing to apply themselves to the material, many just can't get it into their heads even with the assistance of your best pedagogical efforts — well, do what I did. You're not chained to the chalkboard.

If you know the score (as most teachers surely do) but continue teaching anyway, don't be surprised if people suspect you of staying in the job because in most places — though not, apparently, in Rhode Island, to that state's everlasting glory! — it's a cozy shelter from market forces.

[I note, by the way, some small but encouraging signs of resistance to the dogmas of Educational Romanticism. Charles Murray's book was one such. Here comes another: political scientist Bob Weissberg with Bad Students, Not Bad Schools, out in April from Transaction Publishers. Bob calls it "an Emperor's New Clothes book," he of course playing the role of the impudent little boy.]

A historic encounter     It's been some years since Mr. Arbuthnot, the world's foremost cliché expert, was last heard from (in an interview with Ben Yagoda here). Imagine my surprise, therefore, going into National Review the other day, while stepping out of the elevator on the 95th floor here at Buckley Towers, to bump into this legendary figure!

Mr. Arbuthnot had just been paying a courtesy call on our esteemed editor and was, as he put it, "out the door" on his way to a "power lunch" with some "big playahs." He did, however, agree to a brief interview if I would ride back down in the elevator with him. I was of course only to glad to do so. Here are my notes from that too-short but historic encounter.

Q:  Mr. Arbuthnot, do you follow the political news?

A:  All over it. Like white on rice.

Q:  What do you think of this new administration?

A:  Whacanitellya? It is what it is.

Q:  But the legislation they're pushing. This health care bill …

A:  Oh, the wheels are coming off that, for sure.

Q:  … and this out-of-control spending?

A:  Not a bug, a feature. Just sayin'.

Q:  May I take it, then, that you nurse a similar skepticism towards the Democratic Congress?

A:  Major suckfest. That Harry Reid? Off his meds.

Q:  And Mrs. Pelosi?

A:  OMG! Total bimbo-tard!

Q:  I beg your pardon? Are you implying that the House Speaker is a special-needs person?

A:  Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. Look, nothing against poweristas. That Sarah Palin, now — what a hottie! Pelosi, not so much. Well, that's my POV.

Q:  Did you get much feedback from the Ben Yagoda interview?

A:  Sound of crickets chirping.

Q:  I'm sorry to hear that. Perhaps NRO can do better.

A:  This could go viral, you mean? I am so psyched!

Q:  Mr. Arbuthnot, you've never revealed much about your personal life. Mind if I ask …

A:  Executive summary: I'm just a beta provider, pal. Oh, this is lobby. Gotta go. Have your people call my people, kay?

Q:  Mr. Arbuthnot, I can't thank you enough …

A:  Later.

So …     And while on the topic of language change, here's a tiny one I've been noticing in the last year or so: I ask someone a question about a straightforward matter of fact, and he begins his answer with a (it seems to me) grammatically superfluous "So …" Like this:

Me:  How do I get to Splatsville from here?
He:  So you take Route 100 south …

The best I can pin down the demographic I'm hearing this from, it's well-educated under-30s from the West Coast. I just heard it the other day from a close-to-40 native Noo Yawker, though, so either it's spreading — going viral! — or my base sample was too small.

How do little shifts of grammar and usage like this get started? So some subgroup will take it up as an identity marker, then …

Those cracks in the butts (cont.)     Major email response to my remarks last month concerning the sounds that bullets make. Several readers pointed out, correctly of course, that the rifle bullets cracking over my head in those butts back in the day, were travelling faster than sound. The crack is a weeny sonic boom. A round from a .22 pistol doesn't go that fast. so there would have been no crack for Victoria Smurfit to hear; though depending on the precise structure of the automobile's window glass, angle of approach, and so on, the glass might have generated a crackish sound as it made way for the round.

I also got a lot of readers reassuring me that yes, the banks and trenches at the target end of an outdoor shooting range are called "butts" in the U.S.A., too. Especially instructive was this email from an … oops, I almost said "ex-Marine." There is of course no such thing as an ex-Marine. This came from a Marine on temporary secondment to civilian duties, name of Jeff Mauney, and I reproduce it with his permission.

The United States Marine Corps still (as of 1993) "pulls butts" at the rifle ranges. When the Army went to mechanized pop-up ranges back in the seventies and eighties, the Corps stuck with the old-school butts system. There are several reasons for it, but in my experience there is one reason more important than all others. Like you, I worked the butts many times and I've heard thousands of rifle rounds snap over my head. That sound, as you well know, is quite startling until you become accustomed to it — and it becomes louder by a square factor each time you halve the distance the bullet passes by your ear.

The Corps, in their wisdom (no sarcasm), decided that they didn't want their young Marines' first experience of that sound to be in combat, when seconds count and reactions have to be unhindered. So the butts stayed. And I can tell you it worked; the first time I was fired upon by the enemy, my mind simply acknowledged the sound for what it was (a sonic boom from a bullet), engaged the well-trained parts of the thinky bits, and went to work.

My first platoon sergeant when I deployed to the Fleet in the late eighties had been in Grenada as a corporal. He told me how his unit was marching along behind an Army battalion when they started taking fire from an ambush up a slope perpendicular to the line of march. Every one of the Army doggies immediately attempted to mate with Mother Nature. The Marines, having heard the sound of incoming rifle fire their entire careers from working the butts, simply turned and assaulted into the ambush. They disrupted the ambush, killed or captured most of the enemy, consolidated their position, and were pursuing by fire before the Army managed to drag themselves up the hill.

Long live the butts!

Yanqui Go Home!     This was also the month of the Tea Partiers convention. I've written up my prognosis for the movement in another place (forthcoming issue of The American Conservative), but I just want to comment on Tom Tancredo's remark about people voting who couldn't even say the word "vote" in English.

I don't disagree with Tom (nor, apparently, do the supervisors of my local polling station). Any time you raise this, though, you get a two-word answer: Puerto Rico.

The people of that place are U.S. citizens, and so are entitled to vote. This is so, even though they do not speak our nation's language and are under no incentive to do so.

This is really a bizarre situation. Puerto Rico is our colony; yet we are supposed to be a nation born in rebellion against colonialism, and with our national face set against the whole idea. Puerto Rico should either be made a state, or it should be given independence. However, there is zero public sentiment in the U.S. for Puerto Rican statehood, and any politician who seriously attempted to push it would vanish into oblivion at the next election. Independence is the way to go.

A canny U.S. president would call in the United Nations Secretary-General and say: "Look, you engineer a vote in the General Assembly demanding that we get out of Puerto Rico under threat of international sanctions, and we'll double our U.N. subscription …" Then, once we've got rid of the wretched place, we should renege on the deal. The U.N.'s just a racket, we shouldn't have any conscience dealing with them, any more than with the Mafia.

[At this point someone says: "How about the Puerto Ricans who've fought in our wars?"  Hey, no prob.: give them U.S. citizenship and full honors. For the rest — independence.]

Mother knew best     Reading Bill Clinton's account of his recent heart trouble, I thought of my mother.

Former President Bill Clinton — who recently underwent a successful heart operation at New York's Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital — said he realized something was seriously wrong after watching himself on TV.

"I saw an interview I did with Nightline in Haiti which terrified me," said Clinton. "I looked like I was 185 years old. My color was bad." (New York Post, Feb. 18)

My Mum, who passed away in 1998, was a professional nurse all her life. She loved her work, had studied up to pass exams for promotion, and had internalized a lot of nursing jargon, to the degree that she used nurse-words in everyday speech.

One of those nurse-words was "cachectic," which is nurse-ish for "looking really, really ill." (Webster's Thirdcachexia … a general physical wasting and malnutrition caused by a chronic disease.)

It was not a word Mum used lightly. If she went sympathy-calling on some elderly neighbor and came back shaking her head and saying, "Old Maisie's looking very cachectic," you could pretty much order the funeral wreath then and there.

So Bubba saw himself on TV, thought he looked cachectic, and took appropriate action. Follow his example, gentle reader. Cachexia is not to be trifled with.

The paradox of our time     In Chapter 2 of We Are Doomed there is a section headed Diversity versus Modernity, in which I ruminate on the odd fact that as the world gets smaller and more uniform, we become less and less willing to live among people much different from ourselves. I say that the first person to comment on this, so far as I know, was political scientist Walker Connor, in his 1994 book Ethnonationalism.

I was out by several decades. Reading my way through Arthur Koestler's formidable œuvre — yes! I found that sucker editor I was looking for! — I came across a much earlier sighting of what Koestler called "the distressing paradox of our time." For details, I'm going to make you go to the WAD blog, which YOU SHOULD BE VISITING ON A REGULAR BASIS ANYWAY.

Math Corner     Last month's puzzle was a stinker. My solution here.

Having imposed that on you last time around, I'll go easy this month. Here is the definition of Ackerman's Function, which has a definite non-negative integer value for any two non-negative integers m and n.

For all n, A(0, n) = n + 1.
For all m > 0, A(m, 0) = A(m − 1, 1)
When neither m nor n is zero,  A(mn) = A(m − 1, A(mn − 1))

Pretty straightforward, huh? OK, so take a few minutes' break, relax, and write out the first few values of A(4, k), say up to A(4, 5). No pressure!