»  National Review Online Diary

  December 2011


Global warming hysteria hysteria.     In our 2012 predictions symposium, under the heading "Things that will get worse in 2012," I included "the weather." This prompted some emailers to wonder whether this particular prediction was inspired by what one of them called "the anthropogenic global warming mega-hoax."

Not really; it was just my Englishness breaking through. Since the subject's come up, though, I may as well take the opportunity to record the following opinion: The global warming hysteria hysteria (GWHH) of the political right is now every bit as annoying as the global warming hysteria (GWH) of the left.

I understand of course that leftist globalist power-maniacs want to use global warming to advance their knavish schemes. As a conservative, I'll fight that as enthusiastically as I'll fight all other globalizing, nation-hating, liberty-destroying projects — mass immigration, imperialism (e.g. China's in Tibet), multiculturalism, missionary wars, "refugee" rackets, common currencies, the United Nations, etc.

The fact remains that some things are true even though Comrade Zilliacus says they are true, and global warming is one of those things. Yes, the atmosphere is on a warming trend. Nothing the least bit surprising about that: the chronic instability of Earth's climate was one of the first large facts ever to come to the attention of our species. And yes, human activity is making some contribution, as, again, it has been doing since our paleolithic ancestors started setting grass fires to flush out game.

Rightist GWHH has in fact passed over into the zone of religious zealotry, as all psycho-social movements tend to do if not restrained by a proper skeptical empiricism (cf. communism, nationalism, "diversity," etc.) — and as, of course, leftist GWH did long since. A conservative is now supposed to assent to the GWHH holy dogma in every syllable and particular, or else be cast into outer darkness. Loyalty oaths can't be far away.

So just as the gap-toothed legions of Intelligent Design are giving up trying to overturn a century and a half of accumulated understanding in biology, here come reinforcements for the forever war against plain fact and rational inquiry: the war to which American conservatism seems irresistibly drawn, moth to flame. Where is H.L. Mencken now that we need him?

[Added December 31st]:  I see Newt Gingrich has pulled a global warming chapter from his forthcoming book. Katharine Hayhoe, the climatologist who wrote the chapter at Gingrich's invitation, had the audacity to agree with the overwhelming majority of her colleagues that, yes, the atmosphere is warming, and yes, human activity is a contributing factor. Burn the witch!


Men versus the Man.     Speaking of Mencken, illness kept me from this year's conference of the H.L. Mencken Club. I was at the 2010 meeting, though, and gave a talk on a nearly-forgotten Mencken book, Men versus the Man.

Now the club tell me that they have brought out a new version of Men versus the Man with my 2010 talk included as a preface. Amazon actually bills me on the author list with Mencken. That's the best, or at any rate the most satisfying, billing I've had since my name appeared above Malcolm Muggeridge's on a cover of the London Spectator thirty years ago.

I'm immensely flattered (THANKS, guys!) and look forward to the Fall 2012 Mencken bash.


Manhood versus the Girly-Man.     And speaking of Newt Gingrich … Well, I've never pretended to like the guy, but when he turned on the waterworks the other day in Iowa, that was the first time he's driven me to the edge of actual physical nausea. Newt:

But I identify my mother with being happy, loving life, having a sense of joy in her friends, but … late in her life she ended up in a long-term-care facility … Alzheimer's, which I did with Bob Kerrey for three more years, and my whole emphasis on brain science comes indirectly from dealing with the real problems of real people in my family," the former House Speaker continued, at moments stopping to cry …

As a person with some modest experience of life under East Asian communism, I've had a lot of people asking me whether the tears being wept at the funeral of Kim Jong Il are genuine.

Here's my answer: Those tears are more genuine than Newt's.


Moscow wrap-up.     I don't have much anything to add to the comments about Moscow in last month's diary, just a couple on the talk I gave at the Polytechnic Museum.

1.  Those introductory lines of Russian verse excited the interest of some readers. I've posted a full explanation here.

2.  I credited the translation into Russian of the Riemann Hypothesis Song to Alexei Semikhatov. It was in fact the work of Serge Elnitsky, with Bill Everett as intermediary. I knew this (and wrote about it here) but had momentarily forgotten.


Christopher Hitchens.     The death of Christopher Hitchens presented a bit of a conundrum to some conservatives.

It should really have been a no-brainer. Hitchens was a redistributionist socialist: conservatives detest that. Hitchens loathed religion: conservatives like it, or at least (ahem) don't mind it. Hitchens was a hedonist — an actual one in matters of booze and tobacco, a theoretical one at least in other spheres: conservatives are more inclined to favor modesty and restraint.

So the expected response from conservatives would have been to acknowledge the event with some mild negatives, as Hitch acknowledged the death of Princess Diana ("a rather meager personality …," "a not very distinguished life …," etc.) Better yet, just pass over it in silence.

Ah yes, but Hitchens supported the Iraq War long after it had become clear what a hideous blunder that war was. Conservatives who similarly supported the war, and who were desperate to save some shreds of self-respect from the fiasco, loved him for that.

And so we got gushing tributes from some unlikely quarters. (No names, no pack drill here.) Most baffling of all to me were the declarations by various Christian conservatives that they would pray for Hitch.

Why? I can understand why people who believe in the Afterlife, and in the power of prayer to affect events therein, should pray for departed souls who were notably good in this world: to commend them to the special attention of the Almighty, and show thanks for having been blessed with their presence here below. I can also understand why such people should pray for those who were notably wicked: out of charity and compassion, to beg for some relief for them from the torments of hell, and also on the Matthew 9:xii principle.

Hitchens, however, seems to have been neither notably good nor notably wicked. Since there are only so many hours in the day, why not husband one's prayers for those who are so? Did no better people than Hitch die on December 15th? And no worse people? Hard to believe. So why pray for this particular soul? The answer in many cases seems to be: because he was famous.

So apparently celebrity culture is rampant in the Afterlife too. Heaven help us! Or … whatever.

There are respectable excuses Hitch's conservative eulogists can make. Setting aside the Iraq War support and his contempt for Bill Clinton, Hitchens was undoubtedly a man of the left. But then, comes the excuse, so was Orwell. Conservatives like him, don't they? (See next paragraph.) There is also the natural solidarity of people engaged in the same trade, in this case opinion journalism. I suppose members of the carpenters' guild are more disposed to eulogize, and pray for, other carpenters than for electricians or plumbers.

Still I have trouble buying these eulogies. I repeat the opinion I recorded in The Corner: Hitch was a court jester for the liberal elites. He took utmost care not to tread on any of their really tender corns; and that, of course means that he was no Orwell. On multiculturalism, for example, he was (if his shade will forgive my saying so) more Catholic than the Pope.

Hitchens gleefully trashed Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama, yet thought the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (did I get all the titles in there? phew!) was a fine fellow. Why? Because King was a leftist and a hedonist — just like Hitch! What about King's, you know, religion? Ah, well, the Rev. Dr. MLK, Jr. wasn't really a Christian, you see. How d'you figure that? Because he didn't wish his enemies to hell, as Jesus did. (This is the argument presented in God Is Not Great, as I recall it.)

What a muddle! I think at last, in a spirit of un-Hitchensian charity, I shall offer up the Johnsonian trump card on behalf of my colleagues: "In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath."


Joke of the year.     How do people write jokes? I couldn't do that job to save my life. About once a decade I come up with a joke out of my own head; but half of those are probably not original.

Well, this year I scored one, and if this one's not original either, I'd prefer not to know.

During a break in an organized event, I went to the men's room of the host hotel. A colleague, also at the event, had preceded me, and was drying his hands on one of those air-dryer things.

He:  "Hey."
Me:  "Hey."
He:  "These damn things take for ever. I hate them. Don't you?"
Me:  "I dunno. I blow hot and cold on the subject."

Look, I said I could never make a living at it.


Store of the year.     Radio Shack! An annoying infection, which I can't treat properly because of a different underlying condition, has closed up my Eustacian tubes, leaving me 90 percent deaf. The doctor assured me the condition will fix itself in the fullness of time, but after a month of it I was fed up and looking for some relief.

It would be absurd to buy a hearing aid for a condition I am assured is temporary. Do you have any idea how much those things cost? Hoo-ee.

Off to Radio Shack. Is there such a thing as a cheapo personal amplifier — a gizmo that will just make everything LOUDER? Sure there is. Do they have it in stock? Of course they do! Thirty bucks.

I love this store. They've never let me down on something like this. If it's electronic and cheap and you can think about it, they have it.


Gift of the year.     Santa brought me a Kindle for Christmas. Very thoughtfully, he included the store receipt so I can charge it as a business expense. I'm planning to break into the e-book market and I need to see what the finished products look like.

The thing is amazing. Bookstores are toast. And spare a tear for my heirs, who, while very little enriched by my estate, will somehow have to dispose of two tons of books in a world where nobody buys books any more.


Literary self-improvement project of the year.     The mailman just came with two, count 'em TWO, different translations of Eugene Onegin. Backstory:

In one of my Moscow talks I passed some general remarks about poetry, structured vs. free verse etc. Afterwards Viktor, my interpreter, came to chat with me. He was particularly keen to discuss poetic issues, on which we found ourselves in total agreement. (E.g. free verse is lettuce posing as salad, etc.)

Along the way I mentioned I had read some random Russian poetry (from Dimitri Obolensky's invaluable 1962 Penguin Book of Russian Verse) but somehow had never read Eugene Onegin all the way through. Should I?

Viktor, whose opinions on poetry I was now ready to take with unqualified trust, and who is of course native Russian, said I absolutely should, as a duty to Western Civ. Read in Russian, he said, Onegin is an incomparable masterpiece.

OK, but which translation? I only knew of Nabokov's. Absolutely not Nabokov's! said Viktor. He then named three translations he rated as good: Falen, Johnston, and Mitchell. (This is a very well-read guy, not only in the classics of his own tongue, but in their translation into others.)

Arrived home I ordered all three from Abebooks. It was Falen and Mitchell that just arrived. I have started in on Falen, and shall issue a full report in some future diary.


Album photograph of the year.     Me, the Missus, and Comrade Vladimir Ilyich in stained glass. What was I saying up there above about psycho-social movements all tending to religious zealotry? Yep.


Pucker of the year.     I'm still not completely unpuckered from watching this: the world's most dangerous path.


Person of the year.     Chen Guangcheng. At this point in the history of civilization there is no greater cause than advancing China towards rational, constitutional government. No-one can do it but the Chinese themselves, and brave souls like Chen are sacrificing their health and freedom in the cause. Those of us outside China can only cheer them on, and must do so.


Challenge of the year.     Getting daughter Nellie off to college, for more on which, see my review in the upcoming (any day now, they tell me) Winter 2011-12 issue of Claremont Review of Books.


Major outrage of the year.     What else?


Petty outrage of the year.     Obama's uncle not deported. Compare the full-court press on this lady. And you still don't believe in anarcho-tyranny?


Cheering surprise of the year.     Number of Christmas trees in Moscow. In early December, every public open place in central Moscow sported a huge Christmas tree, elaborately and imaginatively decorated. Mrs Derbyshire took photographs of several.

Is there any U.S. city that boasts as many beautiful public Christmas trees as Moscow?


Depressing surprise of the year.     Being diagnosed with cancer.


Cruise of the year.     Duh.


Most salient auxiliary noun of the year.     "Porn," used to designate any production whose intent is to stir up the lower kinds of emotions.

A guest on the NR Caribbean cruise accused me and Mark Steyn of trafficking in "apocalypse porn." A friend, dragged along by his wife to see the movie The Help, offered the following one-line review: "White guilt porn." I just now saw those ubiquitous YouTube clips of teens, youths, thugs, etc. trashing stores and malls referred to as "flash mob porn."

This usage has been around a while, of course. I can recall hearing TV shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous referred to as "consumer porn." It just seems to have been more salient this year.

Perhaps it's just that, with actual porn a mouse-click away, we need other kinds to keep our imaginations aroused. As it were.


Inexplicably least-asked political question of the year.     Why, with unemployment nudging ten percent, do we give residence permits to a million foreigners every year to settle in the U.S.A.?


Annoyingly over-asked political question of the year.     Who's up, who's down in the G.O.P. candidates' race? I've totally lost track. Wake me when it's over.


Reminiscence of the year.     In my medical adventures I've been getting a fair number of needles stuck in me for one reason or another. That's OK, I'm well acquainted with hypodermic syringes. I was in hospital a lot when I was a kid.

Back then, though, as the nurse was about to puncture your skin, she would invariably say: "Just a little prick."

What I want to know is, why don't nurses say this any more?


Math Corner.     Short and sweet:

I have a circular disk, radius one unit. I pick two points at random on the disk and measure the distance d between them. I repeat this process some large number of times. What's the average value of d?