»  National Review Online Diary

  April 2011


More anarcho-tyranny     I'll start and end this month with gun stories.

This first one is local, but a few weeks old. A friend just brought it to my attention.

The owner of a New Hyde Park business and his son were among nine people arrested following an undercover investigation into the sale of assault weapons at gun shops throughout the county, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice announced Thursday … Rice said that shop owners were breaking the law by temporarily modifying the weapons to appear as though they lacked the required characteristics of an assault weapon. However, the temporary modification was easily reversible, thereby making them full-fledged assault weapons. For example, a pin was placed in the stock of a weapon in an attempt to prevent its collapse. However, the pins were designed to be easily removable making the stock collapsible.

These guys are being charged with a crime for selling firearms that could be modified to be assault weapons. As sold, the adjustable stocks were pinned in place giving them few enough "evil features" that they fall outside the "assault weapon" category (which is political, not functional). But the D.A. is asserting that because the guns could be modified by the purchaser, they thereby qualify as assault weapons.

A gun is a thing of components fitted, screwed, and bolted together. If, by rearranging things, I turn my gun into an "assault weapon," I guess I have broken the law. It's a fair cop, guv'nor. But how has the guy who sold me the gun broken the law?

If I remove the butt plate from our family shotgun (two screws), insert an 8-inch screwdriver down the hole that goes through the stock, and remove a third screw therein, the stock comes off and I can replace it with a pistol grip. Is this legal in my state? I have no idea; but if it's not, and I do it anyway, how is the gun seller at fault?

That's how the law enforcement authorities keep themselves busy in my neck of the woods.

One of the many ways they do not keep themselves busy is by assisting the feds in identifying, detaining, and deporting illegal immigrants. Which is too bad for the victims in this story and a thousand like it:

A possibly drunken driver killed two men when he hit another car yesterday on the Wantagh State Parkway in Levittown, State Police said.

Oscar E. Ramirez-Lopez, 29, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, was driving a Ford Windstar north on the parkway when he sideswiped a Kia Sephia.

Driver Ilario Scuteri, 49, and passenger Daniel J. Gambardella, 46, died when the car went out of control into a tree at around 4:50 a.m. Ramirez-Lopez, who cops said had been drinking, was charged with first-degree vehicular manslaughter.


Two Sisters     Nice to see the dear old Queen turn out for her grandson's wedding. Though I have no time for the Royals in general, I grew up with Elizabeth and nurse some sentimental nostalgia towards her.

When I see her, though, I can't repress a twinge of pity for her sister Margaret. I grew up with her, too. When I was a little kid the two sisters were hard to tell apart. Elizabeth was slightly better looking, but Margaret had her charms.

As the years passed, though, they diverged. Elizabeth aged gently and gracefully, doing what she was raised to do — and I'm setting aside the issue of whether it was worth doing — with dignity and good humor.

Margaret, though the younger, aged faster, with assistance from booze, shady boyfriends, and a pack-a-day habit. By the time Elizabeth was a handsome English matron, Margaret was a raddled old tramp.

It was a little tragedy, played out before the eyes of anyone born in mid-20th-century England. Someone should make a movie of it. Hey, I'll do the screenplay for a decent advance. Contact me via National Review.


Mating Intelligence     I thought the definitive commentary on the Royal Wedding was Geoffrey Miller's Darwinian take in New Scientist. (There's a registration thingy, but it's free and not arduous.) Prof. Miller:

To me as an evolutionary psychologist, [Kate] exemplifies the triumph of female mating intelligence over the male mammalian brain's default modes: complacency, indecisiveness and sloth.

Oh come on, you know it's true.

These days any celebration of mating intelligence is a guilty pleasure, consigned to costume dramas, romantic comedies and women's tabloid journalism. What has been a central application of female savvy throughout history, across cultures, even across species — getting a high-mate-value male to commit — has been devalued. Perhaps with this royal wedding we can rehabilitate mating intelligence as a fascinating and laudable form of human cognition.

Say what you like about equality and "self-actualization," the best career choice for a healthy, pretty, and clever young woman is marriage to a high-status male. The converse is not true, and never will be.


Cleopatra     Speaking of queens, the March 23rd death of Elizabeth Taylor inspired Mrs Derbyshire to order up some of Taylor's movies from Netflix. So there we were in early April watching Cleopatra.

It's aged well, I must say. Rex Harrison's a fine commanding Julius Caesar. Richard Burton is unconvincing as Mark Antony; but I remember thinking so at the time, so this is nothing to do with the age of the movie. Tell the truth, I never found Richard Burton convincing at anything other than being an obnoxious Welsh blowhard. Fine actor? Pshaw!

Still the movie's a period piece. Not only do studios not have that kind of money to throw around nowadays; not only would their first thought when planning those crowd and battle scenes be to call in the computer-animation guys; but the base of citizens who have any clue who Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra were, or which millennium they lived in, is likely much smaller today.


Bring back the nit nurse!     And speaking of my childhood, one feature of it was the nit nurse.

For those whose formative years were less favored, let me explain. The OED defines "nit" as: "the egg of a louse or other insect parasitic on man or animals." Lice and their nits were a pretty constant feature of working-class English life in the middle of the last century.

The lice came in two or three varieties — I forget the details — which colonized different parts of the human body. Hairy parts: they liked to lay their little eggs — the nits — halfway up a human head or body hair.

As kids we had no body hair, but we had head hair. The nit nurse was a functionary of our town's public health department, assigned to travel round the elementary schools examining children's hair for nits. If nits were found, the child had to be sent home, as the nits were contagious.

This actually happened to me one day. The nit nurse found nits in my hair and sent me home. Took me home, actually — I was no older than six. I have a clear memory of riding home on a Number 7 bus with the nit nurse.

My mother was mortified. A professional hospital nurse herself, trained in the days when the medical arts could do little for patients but keep them clean and comfortable, my mother was obsessive about hygiene. That one of her children should be brought home by the nit nurse was very distressing to her. For days afterwards I was anointed and shampooed with foul-smelling potions, and of course scourged with the nit comb, which still appears to me sometimes in nightmares.

It wasn't really Mother's fault. The nit-generators had hopped onto my head from another child's. I have a pretty good idea who it was: Roger Labrum, an exceptionally disheveled and noisome lad even by the low standards of that time and place. (He wore boots but no socks.) I have kept the dark secret all these years, Roger, but now I must name names.

Why am I telling you this? Because some parents in Wales have circulated a petition for the return of the nit nurse.

Nit nurses were phased out in the 1980s and 1990s as health officials abandoned what many saw as the "embarrassing and humiliating" practice of subjecting pupils to hair examinations by school nurses.

Instead the responsibility for diagnosing and treating head lice shifted from schools to parents. A growing number of parents now say the system has failed and they want the nit nurse back.

Are there nit nurses in Obama's health plan? I do hope so, if only for old time's sake.


Milton the anti-Papist     I have a question, one I'm honestly curious about, for any reader who studied English Literature at one of the big Catholic universities.

I've been listening to Seth Lerer's Teaching Company lectures on John Milton. I wasn't very surprised to know that Milton was anti-Catholic in person, but Lerer tracks anti-Catholic themes all through the poet's work.

One of the arguments for freedom of publication in Areopagitica, for instance, is that censorship is a popish thing, and therefore ipso facto wrong.

In Paradise Lost (says Lerer) there is even a theme that Heaven is Protestant but Hell Catholic. This goes with a parallel theme about the populating of the Americas — still, in Milton's time, a great spur to the literary imagination. Here North America (Protestant) is Heaven and South America (Catholic) Hell. The Puritans crossed the Atlantic to farm and practice virtue; the Conquistadors went for gold.

(In Paradise Lost Mammon is one of the angels cast out from Heaven with Satan at the Fall. He gets a bad press:

                Mammon led them on —
Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From Heaven; for even in Heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of heaven's pavement, trodden gold,
Than aught divine or holy else enjoyed
In vision beatific.

It was he, says the poet, who taught men to dig into "the bowels of their mother Earth / For treasures better hid.")

Possibly Lerer is making too much of this, though looking into the texts it seems plausible enough. But what I'm curious about is: How do lecturers at the Catholic institutions cope with Milton's angry Protestantism? They can hardly ignore the guy. He's Milton. Any information on this would be appreciated.


The Charter school scam     The hoopla about charter schools rolls on, the less-than-glowing Stanford report notwithstanding, and much else notwithstanding too. (Dropout and expulsion rates, for example. If you think it's hard to get blood out of a stone, try getting a charter school to tell you its rates.)

Now I read that New York City, which is flat broke (and then some) is giving $60 million for a "state-of-the-art school" in Harlem, the facility to include "a community center, recreation rooms and even a health clinic."

The news article I read puts everything in terms of "kids in poor communities." Yet it also says:

The building will house kids from the existing Promise Academy I, which opened in 2004 and now serves more than 900 kids in two separate Harlem buildings running out of space to grow. Another 600 kids in K-7 attend Promise Academy II, also in Harlem.

According to GreatSchools.net, the student body at Promise Academy I is more than 99 percent black and Hispanic. Promise Academy II doesn't report student data, but since the two schools are in pretty much the same location, student demographics can't be much different.

The building will boast 52 classrooms equipped with Smart-boards and computers, three science labs, a library stretching two floors, a gym, an auditorium, a large cafeteria, a fitness room and a dance studio. Kids would get a longer school day, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and school year of 210 days instead of 180 — extra time considered crucial for student success, studies have found.

But it won't stop there. The after-school program, including homework help, would go until 6 p.m. Then kids could stick around until 9 p.m. for sports, music and other activities …

I guess this is yet another effort to improve the educational achievement of black and Hispanic kids by spending great gobs of money. It might work. These kinds of intensive educational interventions can work.

I'll say it again for emphasis: Intensive educational interventions can work.

But here's the problem, and it seems to me it's a Constitutional problem: Intensive educational interventions can work for kids of all races and ethnicities. If, for instance, these efforts in Harlem raise the test scores of the kids by ten percent, they would likely raise the test scores of white and Asian kids ten percent too.

And there's the Constitutional problem. Raising kids' test scores is, if you can do it, a social good. In this case, the social good is financed with public money … but it is only on offer to black and Hispanic kids.

How is that not unconstitutional? It's all very well to talk about closing test-score gaps, but if intensive, expensive educational interventions are to be paid, or part-paid, from public funds, they ought to be equally available to everyone, oughtn't they? Am I missing something here?


Educational equality     And in any case, the notion that the education of minority kids is under-funded was exploded once and for all this month by a study out of the Heritage Foundation.

The author, Jason Richwine, found that:

Nationwide, raw per-pupil spending is similar across racial and ethnic groups. The small differences that do exist favor non-white students. After breaking down the data by region, the non-white funding advantage becomes more pronounced. In the Northeast, for example, blacks receive over $2,000 more than whites in per-pupil funding per year. The region with the smallest differences is the South, where spending on black and Hispanic students is only slightly higher than on whites.

A few years ago I was chatting with an old lady in Alabama — actually, the custodian of the Hank Williams homestead in Georgiana. She'd grown up poor white in the state at about the same time as Hank (born 1923). How had things been between whites and blacks? I asked her.

"We didn't mix much. Our schools were separate, of course. Not that different, though, that I could see. Their school had a teacher; our school had a teacher. They had a stove; we had a stove."

That last sentence has always stuck in my mind: "They had a stove; we had a stove." I'll allow that very likely the proportion of poor whites among whites was less than the proportion of poor blacks among blacks; but both were in plentiful supply, and educationally equal.


Braggadocio     I wanted to use the word "braggadocio," but took three shots at the spelling before confessing to myself that I had no clue. I'm a pretty good speller, but this one floored me.

I reached behind me to the shelf where I keep my reference books. Nearest to hand was Cassell's Italian Dictionary, so I thought I might as well look in that, since the word is obviously of Italian origin.

It wasn't there! Nothing but bragia (embers), brago (mud, slime), and bragozzo (type of small fishing-boat). Was there perhaps no such word? Had I dreamed it? Was I dreaming now? The walls of my study began to blur and shift. Was the blue pill wearing off? (No, not that blue pill, this one.)

Panic over. "Braggadocio," is taken from the name of a character in Spenser's Faerie Queene. Even so, the spelling for that character is all over the place. It's "Braggadocchio" in the Gutenberg Faerie Queene but "Braggadochio" in The Oxford Companion to English Literature (the usually-dependable 1936 edition by Sir Paul Harvey) and in the online Merriam-Webster, but then again "Braggadocchio" in my hard copy Webster's Third. And the derived English word is "braggadocio" everywhere.

I need a drink.


A deal of ruin     When someone told Adam Smith that losing the American colonies would ruin Britain, Smith replied: "There's a deal of ruin in a nation."

So there is. Our own nation's current fiscal situation is awful, and there are some major downward adjustments in our living standards just ahead. Not necessarily national ruin, though. Sitting around talking with some finance professionals at month end, I was surprised to hear a note of optimism, or at least some qualification of the pessimism I'd come to think of as normal in these circles.

Said one of these finance guys: "I no longer think we're heading for the lip of Niagara Falls. More like some nasty rapids."

Me: "What, you mean like the whitewater scene in Deliverance?"

He, laughing: "Maybe."

Me: "Then who's the guy up on the bluff taking shots at us? China?"

At that point we veered off into China talk. Some of the company had started to look a little nervous, though.

This conversation took place over breakfast at a lodge. We were a bunch of city slickers heading into the woods for a day's sport (next section).

Note to self: In future cases of these precise circumstances, lay off the Deliverance allusions.


Adventures with the family shotgun     I had driven out with my son (who's almost 16) to Eastern Pennsylvania on the last day of April, for some practice with the aforementioned family shotgun. This was a new adventure: sporting clays, which neither of us has ever tried before.

What fun! Sporting clays is a decent-sized branch of the shooting arts — big enough to have its own magazine, anyway. What happens is, you stroll through the woods from one station to another. At each station there's a guy with a skeet catapult, who fires off either one or two of the little bright-orange clay frisbees out to your front, or across your line of sight, or from a tree platform behind you — the geometry is different at each station. Your job is to hit as many of these "birds" as you can.

Along with the "birds" there are "rabbits": same deal, but the disks are differently formed — just flat disks, no frisbee-style aerodynamics — and fired to roll and bounce along the ground, usually with a "bird" going into the air at the same time. You have to pop the "rabbit," then swing up and pop the "bird." If your gun is a pump action, like mine, you have to recycle the mechanism as you swing without of course any unwanted yaw of the gun.

It was royal fun, more so (to my taste) than the more formal discipline of regular skeet shooting. There were eight in our group, so we just took fifty shots each. (A hundred is more normal for sporting clays.) I got 14 hits, which is mediocre but not disgraceful for a first time out. My son, however, scored 27 — tied first in our group with the leader, a seasoned shooter and hunter. I felt the inevitable Daddish confusion of emotions— pride and humiliation uppermost.

With the recession and all, a lot of these shooting resorts are hurting. Go sign up for a day out at one of them with a bunch of friends. You'll get some modest exercise in the fresh air, some experience of handling sporting guns (our place will rent them to you if you don't have your own, and I'm sure most others are the same, with some gun-handling and -safety instruction thrown in), and enjoy the thrill of seeing those little clay frisbees fly apart when you hit 'em. And in case I spooked you by mentioning Deliverance there, you don't have to go deep into the woods …

(When I wrote up a previous shooting expedition a couple of years ago, a reader suggested we organize a National Review shooting party. Well, there are colleagues I'd happily go shooting with. But then … Look, it takes all sorts to put a magazine together, and I mean absolutely no offense to anyone. Let's just say there are people I admire tremendously, and love and respect too, people whose abilities and knowledge in the bloviating arts are, I truly have no doubt, far superior to mine, but who, if I were to hear that they had been seen carrying a shotgun, I'd want to be a couple of states away from.)


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

Last month's math corner was perhaps a bit over the top for light amusement. I shall therefore back off this month, just offering one of my favorite math quotes for your passive delectation.

This is from Charles Darwin, who was not only a great scientist, but a great observer of science, and of himself. It's in his autobiography.

I attempted mathematics, & even went during the summer of 1828 with a private tutor (a very dull man) to Barmouth, but I got on very slowly. The work was repugnant to me, chiefly from my not being able to see any meaning in the early steps in algebra. This impatience was very foolish, & in after years I have deeply regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to understand something of the great leading principles of mathematics; for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense.

Not just an extra sense, Chuck: a good early grounding in math also immunizes you against a lot of non-sense.