»  National Review Online Diary

  August 2010


Ron Paul for the mosque     I got some nyah-nyah email from readers after Ron Paul came out for the Ground Zero mosque. "How'd you like your hero now?" etc.

For one thing, I don't really have heroes, not in politics anyway. For another, Ron's weakness has always been a too-strong adherence to ideological consistency. You can't get past a certain point in politics without some small quantity of the fudge factor. From that point of view Ron isn't operating so much in politics as in what Kingsley Amis (who was speaking of Enoch Powell at the time) called "some obscure branch of the truth-at-any-price business."

For another, in the case of the mosque, Ron seems not to have done his due diligence. He sounds ill-informed, talking about the mosque issue as if it's entirely a matter of private property rights. But if the money is being put up by foreign governments, how is the mosque private property? And since we don't know who is putting up the money, but the funders of mosques and "Islamic cultural centers" have a long and slimy trail of duplicity in these matters, why should we not suppose the worst?

And then Ron says: "the neo-conservatives who demand continual war in the Middle East and Central Asia … never miss a chance to use hatred toward Muslims to rally support for their ill conceived preventative wars."

Say what? Wellnigh the first thing über-neocon George W. Bush did after 9/11 was show up at a local mosque to make a gassy speech saying the attacks had nothing whatsoever to do with true Islam, which is a religion of peace, doncherknow? The people Ron calls "neo-conservatives" and the people who have been most shamelessly kissing up to the CAIR thugs, the slippery Imams, and the shady Saudis this past nine years, look to me like the same people.

And come to think of it, Ron does know how to fudge. When he was campaigning in 2008 he departed considerably from the libertarian True Faith on immigration, even going so far as to give a friendly interview to the immigration-restrictionist site VDARE, if I recall correctly.

Well, perhaps Ron only fudges on the campaign trail. That would make him only nine times more honest than the average politician, versus my previous estimate of ten.


Trendline Test     Having been somewhat dismissive of libertarianism there, let me try to make up a bit. There are some follies in libertarianism, but some excellent good sense too.

As a math geek, my favorite chapter in Charles Murray's book What It Means to Be a Libertarian is the one titled "The Trendline Test." Murray shows us a marvelous way to illustrate the futility of most government action.

What you do is, draw a graph of some social-progress indicator over time. Murray uses "Deaths Per 100 Million Vehicle Miles Traveled" as an example, but the Trendline Test can be applied to any such indicator: poverty, health, education, and so on.

Now see whether, by examining that graph, you can spot where the government took strong action to affect the indicator. In Murray's example, the strong action was the imposition of the 55-mph speed limit in 1974. Did the fatalities graph thereupon take a sharp downward turn? Nope.

Murray allows that there have been cases where government action made a positive difference. Mostly, though, as he says:

Among trendlines involving social indicators — crime, the family, community, education, welfare — deterioration has been the rule and improvement is the exception. Among trendlines involving safety and health by far the most common result is … nothing. Whatever was happening before the government got involved continued to happen after the government got involved.

I spotted a very striking illustration of this great truth in the August 21 issue of The Economist, page 31. The graph in this case is titled "China's fertility rate, live births per woman."

I rest my case — I mean, Charles Murray's case.


Eagle Scout     A word of congratulation to our friends the Meagher family of Greenlawn, New York, whose son Brian made Eagle Scout this month. We attended the presentation ceremony, which was nicely done, and a timely reminder in this, the BSA's centenary year, of how much good the organization does in that most challenging of all social endeavors, the civilizing of young males.

The event also gives me a chance to expiate my guilt at having nursed uncharitable thoughts about the Boy Scouts in my own adolescence. Youth-training-wise, there were two games in town when I was a teen: the Boy Scouts and the Cadet Force (i.e. boy soldiers). There was a strong expectation that every boy should join one or the other. Boys who'd been in the Cub Scouts naturally gravitated to the Boy Scouts. Never much of a joiner, I'd missed out on Cub Scouts; and anyway the Cadets looked more exciting, with guns and stuff. So I yielded to expectations and became a cadet.

Once committed to the Cadets, we of course got caught up in an ethos of rivalry with the Scouts. We thought they were juvenile, with their shorts and toggles and made-up code words and rituals. They thought we looked ridiculous in our army surplus uniforms (generally a couple of sizes too big), squeaking out orders at parade-ground drill and stamping our boots theatrically as we did about-face.

Looking back, I'm not sure they were wrong. We all had fun in our own way, though, and kept out of trouble for a few years, and learned to take orders and carry out disagreeable tasks without complaining.

(My 2004 review of Robert Baden-Powell's book Scouting for Boys is here.)


Iran's doodlebug     Li'l Squinty's got himself a new toy: an unmanned drone bomber.

My first reaction on seeing that picture was: "It's a doodlebug!" Yes, I know, it's a different beast, but it sure looks like a doodlebug.

"Doodlebug" was the name given by the English to the V-1 unmanned flying bomb in World War Two. Before my time, but I heard all about it from the older generation, on whom it made a great impression. The doodlebug had a very distinctive sound, so everyone knew when one was coming over. Then (everyone told us), in that heartlessly self-protective way that people get after a few years of war-weariness, you prayed that it would keep going. If the sound stopped, that meant it had run out of fuel and was falling, possibly on you. "Then you got under the table and waited for the crash."

Nearly ten thousand of the things fell on southern England in the last year of the war, causing around twice that number of casualties. That's war. Squinty should know all about it — he lived through the war with Iraq in the 1980s, which included heavy shelling and air attacks on Iranian cities. For us in the West, it's all a remote memory. To remember hearing a doodlebug coming over, you need to be in your seventies at least.

The experience of war doesn't necessarily seem to make people less warlike; just more determined to get it right next time.


Fat poets     The question came up across the dinner table the other day: Can you name a fat poet? After a moment's reflection I offered G.K. Chesterton. A fellow diner trumped me with Samuel Johnson. We pretty much ran out of names right about there, though. This doesn't seem right. Surely there have been more fat poets than that?


Get a Government Job, Series #19,846     Stephen Meister in America's Newspaper of Record, August 24:

A shrinking group of private workers — now numbering 107 million — is paying the salaries and benefits of more than 22 million government workers. Thus, every five private-sector workers chip in to cover the costs of one government worker. (Maybe taxpayers should get cards with the name and picture of the government worker they're sponsoring.)

That took me back to my days teaching college in China. Reading up the country before I went, I'd learned that 80 percent of Chinese people were peasants. In other words, it took four peasants to feed one townie.

My college was out at the edge of a provincial town, with villages and fields nearby. Once I'd settled in enough to kid around with my students, I used to point to peasants working in the fields, telling any students nearby: "See those four there? They're mine! They're feeding me!" The students would laugh, though probably only out of politeness. (The Chinese, even more than other foreigners, incline to the view that all English people are slightly wrong in the head.)

Now the boot's on the other foot. Some cop, teacher, DMV bureaucrat or federal GS-15 somewhere is reading this and chuckling: "Yeah right, Derb. You're one of my five, pal! You're feeding me!"


In the movies again     I spent an interesting morning being filmed by leftist documentary-maker Justin Strawhand for his new project, a movie about nihilism. He asked me to do a spot and I agreed from simple vanity, though I shall probably regret it. Justin told me the film will be shown at London's Tate Gallery sometime round about a year and a half from now, so there's something to look forward to.

I'm still not sure what I'm doing in a movie about nihilism. I certainly don't consider myself a nihilist, unless having zero interest in the supernatural makes you one. I certainly believe in the natural world and all its countless fantastically complicated productions, among which I include myself. That's not nothing; it's a great deal. But Justin had read my latest book and spotted some themes he wanted me to talk about.

The encounter turned out to be very convivial. We'd read a lot of the same authors and visited a lot of the same websites. The conviviality was marred only slightly by, on Justin's part, a Hitler obsession the size of an asteroid and a failure to grasp the elementary principles of scientific inquiry, and on my part, irritated impatience with all that plus the usual insecurities about my effectiveness at expressing myself in speech. I am much better at writing.

Justin assured me, however, that the couple of hours of me that he'd filmed would be edited down to a few potent minutes, so sometime in early 2012 we'll see what transpires.


Chick flick     Still on movies, but this time big box-office blockbuster ones.

None of the Derbs saw the movie Avatar when it came out last year. Well, this month it came round again, at a local theater with the full IMAX and 3-D deal. We decided to go see it, the whole famn damily. So off we went: Dad, Mom, daughter and son.

When the movie was over and we came out, Dad and son headed for the men's room, Mom and daughter for the other place. The following conversation then took place in adjacent stations in the men's room.

Junior:  So, Dad, whaddya think of the movie?
Dad:  Tell you the truth, Son, I was rooting for the Colonel.
Junior [laughing]:  Me too.
Dad:  For goodness' sake don't tell Mom I said that, though.
Junior:  Course not.


Europe's gypsy problem     Europe's getting into some nasty problems with gypsies. As movement between EU members has become more and more free, gypsies from Romania and Bulgaria have been showing up in numbers all over Western Europe. Their behavior, wherever they go, has been appalling.

Here's a news story from the East Midlands of England, where I grew up. A riverside park and wildlife preserve has been taken over by Romanian gypsies (the "Eastern European immigrants" of the story). They are slaughtering the wildlife, camping in the carefully-tended picnic areas, poaching the fish stocks, and covering the scenic spots with layers of litter. Local people are now afraid to fish in the river. Earlier this year a man in my home town left his house for less than an hour and found on his return that a Romanian gypsy family had moved in after forcing the locks. (And this was by no means the only such case.)

The British welfare state has been easy game for gypsy criminals, who have milked it for millions, often — as in that case — under cover of "human rights" campaigning. Children are shipped in to be used in these benefit-fraud schemes, and to be raised in Oliver Twist-style pickpocket academies.

Western Europeans are very seriously fed up with the gypsy problem. There is a surprising degree of hostility to the gypsies. You can be sitting with left-liberal, stuff-white-people-like, PC-as-all-get-out, middle-class Europeans, and mention the gypsies, and their faces go purple and they start foaming at the mouth. In Italy there were anti-gypsy riots, followed by expulsions.

Now France is taking action. On orders from President Nicolas Sarkozy, hundreds of gypsies have been expelled this month, put on planes back to Romania. The EU human-rights busybodies are making a fuss, but the expulsion policy seems broadly popular in France (though it hasn't done much for Sarko's poll numbers, which are in the tank on account of economic issues).

This story will run and run. Nobody really knows what to do about the gypsy problem. There is not even general agreement on what kind of problem it is. Human rights? The model here for Americans is always segregation and Jim Crow, where black people were denied bourgeois goods to which they desired access — school and college places, housing and job opportunities — and suffered legal disabilities. None of that is the case with the gypsies in Western Europe. The welfare state is generous to them, and the judicial authorities are scrupulously — over-scrupulously, in the opinion of some of the commenters on those news stories — respectful of their rights in law.

The problem is that the gypsies, or far too many of them, like being gypsies. They don't want bourgeois goods; they want to continue to live as their ancestors did, by begging and stealing. They don't want their kids to go to school; they have no desire or aptitude for regular work. They are Europeans, but nomads, with no allegiance to any country, and only scorn for the law, and for non-gypsies.

What's the answer? I have no clue. I can only assure you that, as I said, you'll be reading occasional stories out of Europe about this issue for many years to come.


Shared vision     Half a dozen people have emailed in to ask if this is me writing under a pseudonym.

No, I didn't write that. I wish I had, though.


Channeling Espy     In some private exchanges about the mathematics of voting, the name of the Marquis de Condorcet naturally came up. My correspondent reminded me that Condorcet's wife, an intellectual lady who ran a famous salon, bore the evocative name Sophie de Grouchy. This inspired me to doggerel in the style of the late great Willard Espy, thus:

Madame Sophie de Grouchy
Was no intellectual slouch. She
Took her knickers off
For a famous philosophe.

So far as I can discover the lady defied her name, being of a sunny and uncomplaining disposition.


When Spain was different     I see that Catalonia is to ban bullfighting, beginning in 2012. Most of the commentary on this puts it down to Catalan nationalism — they just want to differentiate themselves from the rest of Spain, with a view to eventual secession and independence.

I can't say I have any strong feelings about bullfighting, a thing I've never seen myself. It does seem a bit cruel to the bull; but then, the matador risks his life too, and not infrequently loses it, so it's an honorable combat. The real cruelty, as I recall from reading eye-witness accounts, is to the horses of the picadors, when the bull gets his horns under their protective blankets and disembowels them.

It does seem a shame, though, for a nation to lose its distinguishing characteristics and become just another bland modern glorified shopping mall, with airhead politicians babbling about global warming, universities teaching Women's Studies, the populace gawping at "reality TV," and a Starbucks every hundred yards. On those vague, general, and reactionary grounds, put me down as pro-bullfighting.

I was only once in Spain, for a summer month in 1963. The place was still frozen in the Francoist time-warp. None of the buildings in Barcelona seemed to be less than two hundred years old. In the waiting rooms of country railroad stations peasants drank wine from goatskin bags beneath yellowing Proclamaciónes Reales still pasted to the walls. The police were brutish, arrogant, and corrupt. Outside the towns the grinding poverty described in El Cordobés' biography was still in plain sight. The whole country slept through the afternoon. It was another world, far and away the most different place I had been to at that point in my young life (I was 18).


Flamenco memories     Actually my strongest early impression of Spanish culture, even before I went to Spain, came not from bullfighting but from flamenco dancing.

The English country town I grew up in had a theater. They mostly staged lowbrow comedies and thrillers, with an occasional Sheridan or Shaw for the carriage trade. Once a year, though, they were visited by a flamenco dance act. It was a Spanish couple — I forget their names — presumably man and wife, with a guitarist-singer for accompaniment.

Every year through the early 1960s this trio would show up for a few days and perform to sold-out houses. They were sensational; after fifty years I can still recall their act vividly. Their duets practically threw off sparks, they were so erotic (so perhaps the dancers weren't married after all …) but they each did solos, too — to give each other a break I suppose. To us hicks, stuffed up to the gills with English restraint, our upper lips frozen stiff, the sheer sweaty exotic stomping vitality of it was incomparably thrilling.

Perhaps if I saw it today, in jaded late middle age, I'd think it corny, I don't know. I just went browsing on YouTube to see if I could recapture the thrill, but nothing much came up. This clip gives the general idea; but there are no sparks, and where are the castanets? Same remarks for this one. I suspect these people are closer to the real thing, but it's a terrible recording, mostly dark. Anyone know of a good quality clip with castanets and sparks?

(Halfway through writing that segment I thought it might make up a bit for my earlier negative remarks about gypsies, since I've always supposed that flamenco was a product of gypsy culture. Reading it up, though, the gypsy connection seems doubtful. Flamenco was apparently created by 19th-century entrepreneurs working from traditional Spanish folk dances. Oh well. For gypsy cultural influence, we still have Carmen.)


Marmite meets the love fascists     I'm a bit late with this one, but have to post it anyway. It concerns Marmite.

Yes, Marmite, that delicious savory spread so beloved of the English (though not the Australians, who unaccountably spurn it for the loathsome and inedible Vegemite), was in the political news a few months ago, in the run-up to the election campaign for the European Parliament.

In Britain, as here, there is a common political outlook you might call "love fascism." This is the point of view that regards any opinion to the right of, say, David Brooks as a species of "hate." People with correct opinions — opinions, that is, to the left of, oh, Frank Rich — are motivated by "love." People in between are infected to some degree with "hate," though perhaps not irredeemably so. They need to be re-educated over to the side of "love" — or, failing that, lumped in with the "haters" and excluded from polite society.

Well, the Marmite people ran a TV ad for their product that was entirely premised on the love fascist approach. This probably wasn't intentional: love fascism is the default position for the kind of media types who make and approve TV ads. They no more notice it than they notice the air they breathe. The ad compared the Love Party, which of course is pro-Marmite, to the Hate Party (footage of a skinhead rally), which spreads(!) lies about Marmite.

The British National Party, which was running candidates in the election, took umbrage at this, not unreasonably. They've been trying for years, with mixed success, to shuck off their old street-fighting, skinhead-attracting image and present themselves as serious players in British politics. They returned fire with an ad on their website prominently displaying a jar of Marmite.

Unilever, the manufacturers of Marmite, threatened a lawsuit, and the BNP backed down.

That is the end of the Marmite news.


Human dominoes     I mentioned dominoes last month. Over in the People's Republic, someone picked up the theme.

A total of 10,276 people in China's Inner Mongolia have broken the world record for the biggest human domino chain, state media say. The participants in the city of Ordos sat cross-legged and fell backwards in sequence in a record which took an hour and 20 minutes. The group of mainly high school students spent more than twelve hours over three days to train for the event.

Well, I'm glad they're keeping themselves busy over there in Inner Mongolia; though what their world-conquering ancestors would have thought, beggars the imagination.


Math Corner     I'm sorry: in my July diary I posted a dud link to my June solution — the "Tuesday's Child" conundrum. If you haven't already had enough of it, the worked solution, with many notes, is here.

Here's one for this month.

I have an ordinary deck of 52 playing cards. I shuffle it thoroughly. What is the probability that not one card is in its original position?

Related, but more general:

I have a deck of n cards, numbered from 1 to n. I shuffle the deck thoroughly. Then I turn the cards over one by one. If the k-th card I turn over bears the number k, call that a "match."

What is the probability that after going through the whole deck I shall have tallied m matches, where m is some number in the range from zero to n?