»  National Review Online Diary

  June 2011


The graduate     Nellie Derbyshire, high school graduate. There was a nice little ceremony at the school. Mom and I got a bit teary, trading sentences that mostly began: "It only seems like yesterday that …"

This was the first high school graduation I have ever attended. The cliché is that the British are world-class grand-masters at ceremony — royal weddings, state funerals (I'm in that crowd there somewhere), coronations, and so on.

That may be so up at the high end of society, but for more everyday celebrations, I think this Country of the Common Man beats the Brits cold. These touching little local ceremonies are just the thing for marking life's passages.

I can't in fact recall any ceremony at all to close my own schooldays. They just sort of faded out. We all stopped going to class the last couple of weeks, hanging out in a store-room playing pontoon. Then at some point we got bored and just stayed home. Likewise with college. I think there was some kind of graduation ceremony there, but it was uncool to attend it. Most of us just asked for our degree certificates to be mailed to us.

I guess it's always like that in old aristocratic societies. The colorful ceremonial is reserved for grand unifying state occasions. Joe Citizen is left to plod dutifully through his insignificant life. Americans have a different point of view — a better one, in my opinion. Congratulations, sweetheart.


Optimists without a goal     Readers occasionally bark at me on account of my pessimism, telling me it is entirely against the grain of modern American conservatism as exemplified by National Review.

Oh yeah? Hanging around the office the other day, trying to avoid work, I got to reading some collections of old articles from the magazine. What should I find in the May 11, 1957 issue of National Review but an essay titled "The Bankruptcy of American Optimism" by Roman Catholic intellectual Frederick D. Wilhelmsen.

Wilhelmsen was writing in the shadow of the Hungarian uprising that had taken place, and been crushed, the previous Fall. His essay seems to argue — I confess I find it difficult to follow in places — that American optimism had reached worldly fulfilment and no longer had any place to go:

The forests have been cleared. The cities have been built. The children have been put to school. The slums are largely cleared. Poverty has been reduced from the mystery spoken of in the Gospel to a problem in social engineering. The fire has gone out of our old Radicalism: it takes real genius today to find a typpical American who is oppressed or impoverished. The oppressed lie on the periphery of American society. Mexican migratory workers, Puerto Ricans in New York, marginal farmers, Negroes in the big cities — these are but remnants, the detritus of a people bent on enjoying the fruits of their own productivity. The battle for the Good Life has been won for the broad millions. Our much vaunted American optimism has reached its goal. We have nowhere left to go.

This situation, Wilhelmsen argued, led to "a profound determination to stand still and remain as we are." Hence the Eisenhower administration's inaction on Hungary. "If we mourn in America, let it not be for the Hungarian dead; let it be for our own dead honor."

Wilhelmsen's essay is a fine period piece. I mean, it's hard to imagine anyone writing like that nowadays, even in National Review. "The oppressed lie on the periphery …"? Good grief! If you are not claiming to be oppressed in some fashion nowadays, you're not playing the game. To not be oppressed is practically un-American.

"The Bankruptcy of American Optimism" (oh, let me savor that title once more!) is also a splendid late evocation of the Church Militant:

Christendom is honor and the fatherland and man with his back to the wall. It is the glory of lost causes and the splendor of certain defeat …

Do even Thomists still write like that? The only church showing much militancy nowadays is the one headquartered in Mecca.

The truly amazing thing, 54 years on from that essay, is that there are any American optimists left.


Untold stories     Jose Antonio Vargas, a web journalist at the Huffington Post, formerly a print journalist at the Washington Post, unmasked himself as an illegal immigrant in a long piece for the New York Times.

Vargas came to this country from his native Philippines at age 12, sent by his mother in care of a "coyote" to live with his grandparents in San Francisco. On applying for a driver's license four years later he discovered his immigration documents were fake. Vargas kept his secret, going through high school and college and on into his career as a journalist.

Commenters on the web version of Vargas's confession mostly expressed gushing appreciation of his eloquence and "courage" [sic — I guess I missed the part where he took out an enemy machine-gun emplacement single handed].

That's nice: but there is attentional bias at work here, and some opportunity costs not being entered in the ledger.

Attentional Bias :  All those New York Times readers who swooned to read Vargas's story should pause to reflect on the many stories they did not read, any one of which they might have found equally swoonworthy.

The U.S.A. currently has around fifteen million citizens unemployed, according to the raw unemployment index (U-3 in this table). If you go by the Labor Underutilization Index (U-6 in that same table), which counts everyone who doesn't have a full-time job but wants to have one, excluding non-economic jobless like people who are sick or in training programs, you get twenty-six million. There must be a lot of stories there, some of them I'll bet just as affecting as Vargas's.

(And many of them from unemployed journalists. Print journalism has been dying on its feet for years. Web journalism has taken up some of the slack, but there aren't many salaried full-time jobs in it. There must have been a lot of qualified, experienced American journalists who would have given a limb for that job Vargas got at the Washington Post in 2004.)

Or perhaps the New York Times could run some stories from Filipinos waiting to immigrate legally into the U.S. It's a long wait. This table gives the details. For the F4 category (brothers and sisters of adult citizens) the wait time for Filipinos is twenty-three years. There are some touching stories there, I'm sure.

Opportunity cost :  Vargas attended college on a scholarship for disadvantaged young people. It was a scholarship that didn't specify citizenship; but the fact remains that it went to an illegal alien when it might have gone to a poor American.

There is the matter of affirmative action, too — originally intended, let's remember, to remedy the lingering effects of slavery on black Americans. Vargas is not black, but like many Filipinos he has a Hispanic-sounding name. For reasons I do not understand — something to do with "diversity," I suppose — Hispanics benefit from affirmative action too, so it's a fair bet Vargas did, thereby pushing some non-black, non-Hispanic, non-disabled citizen kid further down the acceptance list.

When reading emotionally affecting stories like Vargas's, it's a matter of intellectual responsibility to reflect on the stories you are not reading, stories that might show other dimensions of the case. "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter," remarked the poet. Told stories may be persuasive, but perhaps those untold would be even more so, if big liberal newspapers gave them the star coverage the Times gave to Vargas.


Paying for discord     And Jose Antonio Vargas has cost Americans a bundle of money. For starters, the property-tax payers of Mountain View must have spent thirty or forty thou putting him through high school.

(Current per-pupil spending for Mountain View High from GreatSchools.net: $12,350. Further Mountain View stats from city-data.com:

How did he get that "disadvantaged" scholarship?)

Then there's his college career, part-subsidized by California taxpayers. Unlike many American youngsters, Vargas graduated college with no student-loan debt. And then there are the opportunity costs noted above.

What have we got for all that money? One of those thrusting, visionary, entrepreneurial immigrants in the absence of whom, according to Michael Bloomberg, we slothful, unimaginative, risk-averse Americans will slide into national extinction?

Not exactly. Vargas's college majors were Political Science and, uh, Black Studies. He has founded an organization named Define America, whose goal is to push amnesty for illegal aliens. He has also been active in AIDS lobbying: which is to say, in demanding government handouts and preferences for homosexuals. (Vargas is himself homosexual. Why is one not the least bit surprised to learn this?)

So what we have got for all those outlays is another lefty troublemaker, a sower of discord.

Jose Antonio Vargas is a prime candidate for swift, exemplary deportation. Of course nothing like that will happen. Under the Obama dispensation, he'll probably be offered a cabinet position.


Follies of our youth     I am occasionally asked how I have the nerve to pontificate about illegal immigration when I once confessed, in the pages of National Review, to having been an illegal immigrant myself.

My usual response is to offer some variation of Luke 15.vii, perhaps by observing that the reformed drunk used to be a star turn at Temperance meetings. I did, after all, eventually tread the long track — sixteen years in my case, February 1986 to April 2002 — from lawful working visa to lawful citizenship. Reading about Jose Antonio Vargas, though, made me realize what a bumbling amateur I was at being illegal.

Vargas kept up a pretense for 14 years, using forged documents and claiming U.S. citizenship when filling out forms. I 'fessed up to the first person who asked, about a month into my criminal career, and thereafter to anyone else who expressed curiosity.

Admittedly my law-breaking was in the early 1970s, when the documentation rules were looser, so that I was not really put to the test. If, like Vargas, I had had to do some serious lying to stay in the U.S.A., how much would I have done?

I don't know. I never had to find out. I got a Social Security card without telling any lies at all; and unlike Vargas, I did not have to doctor it. (I remember my one twinge of temptation when filling out the form, where it asked for place of birth. Would I be denied a card if I told the truth? I told it anyway, writing in "Northampton, England," and the Social Security Administration seemed to find this acceptable.) From there I easily parlayed up to driver's license, bank account, and credit cards, also without making any false statements.

And even in the folly of my vagabond youth, I knew I was doing a wrong thing, and would have gone meekly if collared. (Probably saying something like: "It's a fair cop, guv'nor.") It would never have crossed my mind that I had any rights in the matter other than the right to a swift and humane deportation.

This current romanticizing of, and apologizing for, illegal immigrants is preposterous, and I can't see why I am any less entitled than anyone else to say so. John Derbyshire should have been arrested and deported back in 1973; so should today's illegals be, starting with Jose Antonio Vargas.


News from Derbyshire     Derbyshire is a place up in the wilder part of the English Midlands. I of course have no connection with that place. If your surname is a place, your remote ancestors came from that place to settle somewhere else. Unless you have a family tree going back several centuries, the connection is utterly lost.

So what's going on in Derbyshire? Toe wrestling, that's what.

The old English insult goes: "Derbyshire born, Derbyshire bred: strong in the arm, weak in the head." Strong in the toes too, apparently. As for the head … Let's just say mating choices are restricted up there in the Pennines.


Fighting the good fight     I grumble a lot about the decline of Western Civ. Well, it's not going down without a fight, not in the Old Dominion anyway. I received the following email from a reader named Victor Lamas down there in Roanoke:

Mr. Derbyshire … Western Civ is alive and well in my fifth grade class. Here's what I have been doing for the last few years: reenacting ancient Greek and Roman battles. I started a few years ago with Romans vs. Gauls. Last year we reenacted the Battle of Pydna. (Also here.) We even had an onager. Next year I hope to get 110 kids and reenact Cannae.

This year: The Iliad. I incorporated a soundtrack and a narrator on loudspeakers.

Mr Lamas has restored my faith in education. I've suggested to him that he work his way through Creasy's little classic, a favorite of my own schooldays. He says he has it in mind.

I just hope the girlification brigades don't get Mr Lamas in their sights for promoting militarism among the kiddies. He might be able to ward them off by having the surviving warriors sing "Kumbaya" after each battle. It would spoil the fun a bit, but might keep the lawyers away.


Just a show     I once asked my Dad what thoughts had passed through his mind on seeing the newsreel footage of Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich in 1938, waving his "peace agreement" to a cheering crowd. Dad: "I was thinking: 'You silly buggers.' Anyone with half a brain knew war was coming. The Munich business was just a show."

I feel somewhat the same about the Presidential-Congressional wrangling over the budget. It's an empty play, being acted out in the shadow of awful inevitability. The great crisis is coming, and these petty wranglings over a billion here, a billion there are as inconsequential as Neville's piece of paper. It's just a show.

Politicians of course must be seen to be busy at something, so the purposeless to-ing and fro-ing will go on for a while longer, until the bond-holder Panzers roll into fiscal Poland. I just can't take the show seriously. I dutifully pick up the articles and start reading them, but never bother to finish.

At least one GOP presidential contender feels the same way, according to Brian Doherty's review in Reason of Ron Paul's new book.

Government has lost its way, the book argues, on everything from foreign policy to entitlements. Any way out of the mess is likely to wend through dark moments of economic and civil crisis.

Yep. The crisis must soon come upon us. There is no national will to face reality, no more here than in Greece. Politicians never control as much as they like to think, but there are times when they control nothing at all, times when great events take charge. At such times everything politicians do is mere make-work — just a show.


Doing time     That issue of Reason, by the way — it's the current one, dated July 2011 — is a special issue on penology.

Now there's a thing we'd all much rather not think about. I have never been in a prison, but I have a pretty clear impression I would find it hell on earth. Just the constant noise would drive me nuts.

The Reason folk are against the whole thing of course. Drug legalization! Rehabilitation! "America's National Disgrace!"

I agree with some of what they say, and I'd really much rather my country not be up at the head of that chart showing number of prisoners per capita. And yes, the country is full of arrogant, stupid, and corrupt prosecutors who send innocent people to jail. And yes, the prison officers unions are the usual public-sector rackets, members retiring early on extravagant pensions, state legislators bought and paid for. And yes, I'm aware that even the concept of criminal culpability is retreating before the armies of neuroscience.

On the other hand I detest criminals, don't care what happens to them, and will gladly pay taxes to keep them locked up. If they could be dealt with more humanely for the same amount of money, would I agree to that? I guess so; but the question is academic. With the coming huge squeeze on public funds, not even the same amount of money will be available.

I can't square any of these circles, nor even summon up the mental energy to want to. I'd guess most citizens feel the same. And I'd further guess, therefore, that we'll go on doing what we're doing for a long time yet, though on tighter budgets. Tough on the criminals: but hey, they're criminals. Most of them.


Sacking physics     Science popularizer John Horgan is fed up with physics.

I see what he means. Physics was generating really imaginative ideas at a high rate through most of the 20th century. Relativity! Quantum mechanics! The Standard Model! Black holes! String theory! Many worlds!

Then the creativity tapered off. Now all the action is in the life sciences. As I said myself a few years ago: "The physics building may be hushed and dark while its inhabitants mentally wrestle with 26-dimensional manifolds, but over at biology the joint is jumpin'." Horgan's version is a bit narrower:

If you're looking for science books that pose profound metaphysical puzzles, don't bother with the physics best sellers. Instead, check out works by Oliver Sachs, V.S. Ramachandran, and other intrepid explorers of the brain. Science's most thrilling frontier is the one inside our skulls.

Probably good advice: but why can no-one spell Oliver Sacks's name correctly? One of the commenters on Horgan's piece also gets it wrong.


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

For this month's puzzle you will need to be in Microsoft Word or some other app — Notepad, for example — that uses standard editing keys.

I shall use the word "keystroke" to mean one of the following:

Starting from a blank document you execute N keystrokes (as defined). What is the maximum number of a's you could end up with?

The friend who sent me this one said: "It's tougher than it looks." He was not mistaken.