»  National Review Online Diary

  February 2011

How bad will it get?     That's the question hovering in the air. Back of that is the deeper question: Is this recession of the past three years just like other recessions that we eventually pull out of and recover from, or is it some new thing?

That deeper question lurks behind a great deal of commentary nowadays. Occasionally it pokes a claw through the surface. Here's Bob McManus in the Feb. 28 New York Post:

Some governments — California, Illinois and Connecticut — are in denial. This won't get them very far.

Some — New York, city and state — are finessing the problem; that, too, is a stopgap.

And others — Wisconsin and New Jersey in particular — have confronted the issue, both rhetorically and substantively.

Even so, the long-term goal for all seems to be to get past the instant crisis, to secure a little breathing room … and to hope that the wolf now clawing at the front door eventually just wanders off. But what if the fearsome beast climbs snarling through the bedroom window?

My italics there.

So what's the answer? As always with these large matters, there is no certainty. Some new technological wonder may show up — a new Internet — to whisk us off into another decade of prosperity. Who knows? Who foresaw the Internet boom? And there are big worldwide variables in play that are beyond anyone's control — oil prices, food prices, chaotic regions lurching into war (next item).

Absent some big stroke of good luck, though, it seems clear that the present half-hearted U.S. recovery will sputter and die. We shall just sink right into another one; and this time there will be no bail-out option, no stimulus, no pump-priming. We're all spent out.

Ziel over at YourLyingEyes has an interesting set of charts that seem to show plainly that no, this is not just another recession, it's a new thing. Look at those reds and blues.

So how bad will it get? My guess at this point: real bad, very bad indeed. Heads between knees, brace for impact.

Tilting into chaos     Just as this recession is not just a "correction" from which we will bounce back hale and hearty as before, so these disturbances in the Maghreb-Mashriq zone seem to me to signal some kind of sea change, some tilt into a long period of chaos.

That's not what you read in most commentary. The assumption is always that a new equilibrium will soon be found: democracy, theocracy, or some new Big Man dictator. Yes, that might happen. Or there might be a long Time of Troubles such as afflicted the Russian and Chinese empires.

Most often the great wheel turns. Once in a while, though, it comes flying off the axle into the ditch, and there's a devil of a job to get the cart moving again.

Who not to have running your country     Never mind the hot desert zone; let's turn to the politics of somewhere cool and damp. That would be Ireland, which held a general election on February 25.

Ireland has been enduring very hard economic times following the collapse of its credit and property booms. The Irish electorate acted appropriately on the 25th, turfing out the ruling Fianna Fáil party in a sensational rout.

Irish historian Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote an op-ed on the result. It contained the following little nugget of general political wisdom:

The former teacher [i.e. Mary Hanafin, Fianna Fáil's Minister of Culture] is, however, a perfect example of the kind of politician that has dominated modern Irish political life, few of whom are economically literate or have experience in business or administration.

The Cabinet which disastrously mishandled the economic collapse consisted almost exclusively of teachers, lawyers and career politicians.

Just the kind of people you do not want running your country.

Books: Manning Up     Off to the launch party for Kay Hymowitz's new book Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys.

I covered some of the same ground in Chapter 5 of We Are Doomed, and other commentators have weighed in on the theme too. Kay makes a neat book of it though, and she gave us a brisk, funny presentation.

Sitting there listening to her, I had one of those Waiting for the Barbarians moments that come over me rather often nowadays.

I thought of Eric Kaufmann's book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, which I'd reviewed a year or so previously.

If Kaufmann's right — his answer to his title question is "yes," and he argues a good case — this ascendancy of post-industrial woman that Kay, me, and the rest of us have written about, is just a blip, an anomaly. When the supercharged TFRs of the Quiverfull folk, or the Haredim, or the fundamentalist Muslims, have overwhelmed the pathetic 1.3 kids per woman that is all these over-educated career women can manage, the issue will become moot.

So by all means buy and read Kay's excellent book, but don't let the theme bother you. When those differential TFRs deliver us up unto the Rule of the Righteous, female ascendancy won't be a problem any more.

Alternatively women will sort out the problems with parthenogenesis. Then they'll be able to just kill off all us men, and cook and eat us with rice and collard greens.

Life at the bottom     You want underclass? Scotland's got underclass.

A friend sent me that link. I emailed back: "We should have finished the job at Culloden."

Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

Movies: Agora     We're way behind on movies chez Derb, so don't be looking for any Oscar evaluations here.

Prompted by an atheist friend who had enjoyed my take on Hypatia in Unknown Quantity, and with Egypt being in the news, we rented the movie Agora from Netflix.

Nice try, but no cigar. In the first place the enthusiasm of atheists for the movie is misplaced. The school of philosophy with which Hypatia was associated, Neoplatonism, was not atheist. That I suppose misses the point. The average Western atheist of today is not driven by any regard for lofty, dispassionate philosophical truth, but by dislike of Christianity. Hypatia was murdered by a Christian mob; that's her appeal to atheists.

In the second place, Agora is not a very good movie. Narratively it's a mess. Even if you know the historical and scientific background, it's hard to follow. If you don't, you're soon lost. I had to keep pausing the movie to explain things to Mrs D., and even then she said the story didn't make much sense to her.

The thing is also full of historical inaccuracies and preposterosities. We don't know Hypatia's dates with any precision, but she was most likely fifty-something, possibly sixty-something, when she met her untimely end. Rachel Weisz looks nowhere near that zone. (She was in fact 38 or 39 when the thing was filmed, but looks ten years younger. In fifth-century Alexandria she'd have passed for twenty years younger.)

After two hours of all this unsatisfactoriness I was consoling myself that at least we'd get an enjoyably grisly death scene. Gibbon reported that:

A rumor was spread among the Christians, that the daughter of Theon was the only obstacle to the reconciliation of the præfect and the archbishop; and that obstacle was speedily removed. On a fatal day, in the holy season of Lent, Hypatia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the reader, and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics: her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster shells, and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames.

Feugh! The movie-makers prettied up the whole thing — no oyster shells at all. They might at least have asked Mel Gibson if he was available.

If you want a decent fictionalized account of Hypatia, my advice would be to hunt down a copy of the Rev. Charles Kingsley's novel. Kingsley was an odd bird, but he knew how to tell a story.

Somerset Maugham     A movie we did like was The Painted Veil, which is from one of Somerset Maugham's novels. Now there was a story-teller of the first magnitude. There is simply no beating Maugham for a cold-eyed, unsparing look at human nature. His medical training undoubtedly had something to do with it; any inclination to sentimentality he may have had — and I doubt he ever had much anyway — would have been stripped away by the daily observation of pain and death that the medical trainee of the 1890s had to endure.

I find Maugham's ruthless reductionism somewhat less appealing now than formerly, and I know now a thing I did not know when I first encountered Maugham's books in my late teens: that cold-eyed reductionists have not always freed themselves of sentimentality, only driven it underground. You don't get to be as popular with middlebrow novel-readers as Maugham was — at one point in the 1930s he was Britain's highest-paid author — without an instinct for finding the sweet tooth.

At that time, though, I was quite bowled over by Maugham's outlook. It was so grown-up, so worldly! I wanted to talk the way Maugham's characters talked, even though they pre-dated me by half a century.

Like Charles Strickland in The Moon and Sixpence, for example. Strickland has left his wife suddenly, for reasons no-one can fathom, and gone off to Paris. The young narrator is summoned by Mrs. Strickland to go to Paris, to see if he can find out something. The narrator is hesitant:

I held my tongue. I saw myself calling on Charles Strickland and sending in my card; I saw him come into the room, holding it between finger and thumb:

"To what do I owe this honour?"

"I've come to see you about your wife."

"Really. When you are a little older you will doubtless learn the advantage of minding your own business. If you will be so good as to turn your head slightly to the left, you will see the door. I wish you good-afternoon."

I so wanted to say things like that to people. Actually I still do: somehow my life has not offered up those kinds of opportunities … though I've been at the narrator end of similar exchanges once or twice.

Singularitarianism     Time magazine has discovered Singularitarianism. The Straggler got there before them.

Petroushka Ball     February 11th was the Petroushka Ball, as always a resounding success.

Scene going up in the elevator to the Waldorf ballroom. Occupants of elevator: Mr & Mrs D, exceptionally beautiful young woman with unmistakably Russian features, silver-haired gent in late middle age with the bearing of a seasoned boulevardier.

Gent could not take his eyes off Russian gal. At length he ventured: "Excuse me. You are Russian, I take it?"

She, very cool, not turning to look at him: "No."

Nonplussed by this response, the gent was silent till we reached the ballroom floor. Then, as the elevator doors were opening, he couldn't resist a further cast of the line: "I can't believe you're not Russian."

She, stepping out of elevator: "I am not Russian."

He, calling after her from behind, slight note of despair in his voice: "If you're not Russian, what nationality are you?"

She, striding away with full dignity, calling back over her shoulder: "I am Ukrainian!"

Turkish     So how's my Turkish coming along? All right. Pimsleur is just right for my needs.

I've departed somewhat from the straight and narrow, though. Bookishness is the enemy of basic-level language learning. You need to listen and speak. The printed word just gets in the way.

I'm chronically bookish and can't help myself, though. As well as the Concise Oxford Turkish Dictionary I have bought myself G.L. Lewis's Turkish Grammar, which I saw recommended on some website.

A good buy, which I don't regret; but I'd forgotten how intrinsically, intractably difficult grammar always is. Hoo-ee:

As we have seen in §4, -dir indicates supposition or, less commonly, emphasis when used as a third-person copula. It may also be suffixed to verbs (except the di-past, conditional, subjunctive, and imperative) in any person, including the first and second persons of the verb 'to be'. In such situations it generally does not so much emphasize the verb as weaken it, the implication being that the speaker is stating as a fact something of which he has no positive knowledge but only a strong feeling or impression …

Lewis's book has over 300 pages, many of them solid with prescriptions like that.

Our author does, though, include some savory little gems of cultural insight by way of relief. Here's one such. You need to know that Lewis is British, and that is the Turkish word for "work," and that -i is a grammatical particle:

The colloquialism Türk iş, used in self-disparagement when something goes wrong, as we might say 'a typical piece of British muddle' is rather puzzling, since one would expect Türk iş-i 'Turkish work'. One explanation is that this expression is not Turkish at all, but German; a relic of the days when German officers were training the Ottoman Army. That is to say, it is an expostulatory Türkisch! originally accompanied by a heaven-ward rolling of the eyes. Alternatively, it might be an imitation, deriving from the same period, of an attempt to say 'Turkish work' on the part of a foreigner unacquainted with the finer points of the language. The former explanation seems more likely.

Seducing the language learner     And I must say, the Pimsleur people know their market. The Turkish course sometimes sounds like a pick-up manual:

You meet a young woman at your hotel. How do you greet her? …

This impression is much magnified by the quality of the female voice on the Pimsleur Turkish CDs. It is … very feminine. I think I'm in love.

The Towers of Trebizond     Along with the mere language, one of course wants to get some of the color of the place.

My colleague Mike Potemra very kindly lent me Rose Macaulay's Turkish novel The Towers of Trebizond, recently — well, 2003 — reissued by New York Review Books with an introduction by travel writer and chronicler par excellence of the British Empire Jan Morris.

I have so much to say about Rose Macaulay's book I'm going to do a full-dress review, if I can prevail upon some gullible magazine editor to pay me for it. Here I'll just note one thing that caught my eye.

The subject is wolves. Father Chantry-Pigg, a major character in Rose Macaulay's novel, is a very high-church Anglican minister.

Being both old-fashioned and very class, Father Chantry-Pigg called these animals wooves and woof, for he was apt to omit the l before consonants, and would no more have uttered it in wolf than he would in half, calf, golf, salve, alms, Ralph, Malvern, talk, walk, stalk, fault, elm, calm, resolve, absolve, soldier, or pulverise.

There you have one of the minor peculiarities of English speech. There are three levels here.

I hope Turkish doesn't descend to this level of class-distinguishing phonetic minutiae …

Bombardment of Algiers     The murder of those American missionaries by Somali pirates got my blood boiling.

A stick of neutron bombs laid down along the Somali coast would, it seems to me, prove wonderfully instructive. Why are we such whimpering pussies about these things nowadays? It was not always thus.

The rudest man in America     Talking music with a friend, the name of Luigi Cherubini came up. I mentioned the opinion of his contemporaries that Cherubini was "the rudest man in Europe." (See Berlioz's memoirs, for example.)

That got us wondering who could claim the title "rudest man in America." This being the 21st century, we'd better make it "rudest person."

A number of candidates came up immediately: Barney Frank, for example, and Keith Olbermann. That's not quite right, though. Everyone in politics is rude about his enemies, often just for strategic reasons, with no real malice involved. I think we have to rule out political types. Similarly with insult comics: Don Rickles and Joan Rivers are rude, all right, but only to raise laughs. As with politicians, the rudeness is just incidental to the way they make their livings.

We're looking more for someone who's rude in the bone — just naturally, chronically rude to everyone. The best we could come up with in the time available — it was an opera intermission — was Mel Gibson. I suspect Mel is rude only in his cups, though. It's an open field. Any suggestions?

The scuppering of the American Renaisance conference

[NOTE:  This diary as originally submitted to National Review Online included the following segment. After I had submitted it I received an email from editor Robert VerBruggen. Wasn't American Renaissance a white nationalist outfit? he asked. I replied that I thought Jared preferred to call his organization "race realist," but I could check with Jared if NRO thought it necessary. I have no record of any further exchanges. When the diary was published on the NRO website, this segment was omitted.]

"I disagree with what you say, but I'll fight to the death for your right to say it." What happened to that noble sentiment? It seems quaint and antique in the atmosphere of soft totalitarianism that now governs all public speech in the West.

For sure nobody — and for double sure, nobody in the conservative movement — strapped on sword and buckler to defend Jared Taylor when his American Renaissance conference was scuppered by Charlotte Mayor pro tem Patrick D. Cannon.

Taylor had booked his hundred or so guests into the Sheraton Charlotte Airport Hotel. When Cannon learned of this, some phone conversation along the following lines took place.

Mayoral flack: "Hmm, I see your hotel is coming up for the annual inspection by our Health Department. Be a terrible shame if our health inspectors found any, you know, bedbugs in the rooms, or mice droppings in the kitchens, anything like that … Could shut you down, cost you tens of millions …"

Sheraton manager: "What should we do? Please just tell me, what should we do?"

Mayoral flack: "Well, see, you have this conference booked …"

Imagine if anyone had tried that with Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam conference at the other end of the month! Of course nobody did. "Minister" Farrakhan was free to tell a cheering crowd at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, IL (five minutes' walk from the Chicago O'Hare Sheraton, which I imagine did very well from the event) that Jews are "demons" and Muammar Gaddafy is his BFF.

Taylor's American Renaissance magazine and website promote the following ideas: that too much ethnic diversity is a source of major social discord; that people in the generality prefer to live among co-ethnics; that there are intractable statistical differences between the human races; and that all these facts have serious implications for policy on matters like immigration, education, and law enforcement.

You might disagree with any or all of those points. (For the record, I agree on all four.) They are all capable of question.

Cranmer: Then the matter is capable of question?

Sir Thomas More: Certainly.

Cranmer: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty — and sign.

More: Some men think the earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? …

               — A Man for All Seasons, Act Two

I think the silence here has been shameful. Jared — who is a gentleman and a patriot, whether or not you agree with his opinions — ought to be able to sit around with like-minded people and discuss issues they believe — correctly, in my opinion — to be of national importance. If shyster politicians like Cannon prevent him from doing so, they should be loudly denounced by anyone who believes in free inquiry and open discussion.

To judge from the utter silence surrounding this incident, nobody in today's U.S.A. does believe in those things.

[For my December Q&A with Taylor, see here.]

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

I can't believe I've done this many math corners with only one passing mention of Benford's Law. In lieu of a brainteaser this month, here's a quick run-down on Benford's Law.

Benford's Law says this: Pick almost any big list of numbers — stock prices, baseball stats, election returns, populations of U.S. counties. Each number has a leftmost, "leading," digit, which is either a 1, or a 2, or a 3, or a 4, or a 5, or a 6, or a 7, or an 8, or a 9. (I'm ignoring leading zeros, and assuming all listed numbers have a whole-number part.)

You'd expect that one-ninth of the numbers on the list would have leading digit 1, one-ninth would have 2, and so on — the possibilities evenly distributed in your list.

Benford's Law says that this is usually not the case. You find that around 30 percent of the numbers on your list have leading digit 1, around 18 percent have a 2, around 12½ percent have a 3, and so on diminishingly, less than 5 percent beginning with a 9.

New Scientist did a brief write-up on Benford's Law recently here. Wolfram's MathWorld has a more technical account here.

Benford's Law flitted into my mind while I was researching some stats on the number of public employees per state. The numbers are here. For leading digits 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 I get observed numbers of states 22, 18, 20, 8, 8, 14, 6, 2, 2. Observed vs. Expected is charted here: not a great fit — I wouldn't even bother with a chi-squared — but suggestive enough for such a small list.

With really big lists Benford's Law is forensically useful. If the list deviates from it significantly for no clear reason, that may be a sign someone's cooking the books.