»  National Review Online

October 18th, 2001

  "Our Lost Land"


Let the whole world know that we shall never accept that the tragedy of Andalusia would be repeated in Palestine. We cannot accept that Palestine will become Jewish.
                — Osama bin Laden, October 7th

Andalusia is the southernmost bit of Spain, which remained Moslem until Ferdinand of Aragon reduced it in 1492. Our bearded adversary is whining about something that happened 509 years ago! This is tough for Americans to grasp, I know. With the exception of a small number of southerners still fretting over Abraham Lincoln's "War of Northern Aggression," and of course the race-resentment cliques banging tiresomely on about slavery reparations and the Battle of Wounded Knee, Americans are a forward-looking people not much inclined to froth and fume over injustices done to their ancestors, preferring instead to use their energies in building a secure and prosperous life for their descendants. Elsewhere, as bin Laden's little rant reminds us, things are different.

Bin Laden's comment about Andalusia brought to mind an incident that happened to me twenty years ago. I was working on contract in Tallaght, a suburb of Dublin. A few months previously there had been a meeting at Dublin Castle between Margaret Thatcher, then of course the Prime Minister of the U.K., and Charles Haughey, her opposite number in the Republic of Ireland. This meeting had enraged the fiercer kind of Irish Republicans. Well, there I was, sitting in a pub in Tallaght with some Irish friends, in the summer of 1981. A song came on the juke box, and I gathered, listening to the words, that it was a protest ballad against the Dublin Castle meeting. The protest was aimed at Haughey, who was referred to in every chorus as: "Our Dermot MacMurrough of Eighty-One." (Which has a pleasant dactylic lilt to it. You can depend on the Irish for a good tune.)

I knew very little about Irish history at that point, and inquired innocently of my Irish friends: "Who is this Dermot MacMurrough he's singing about?" Ah, they instructed me, he was the fellow who first opened the door to let the English into Ireland. And that would be when? I asked. Back came the answer: a.d. 1167 — over eight hundred years ago. An awful long time to be nursing a grievance, I thought quietly to myself.

The next time I encountered this phenomenon was a year later, when I was living in China. Naturally curious to know what image Chinese people had of my own country, I was surprised to find that the only thing universally known about Britain was that we had burned the emperor's summer palace in 1860. Chinese people, I found, were generally too polite to mention this to one's face, but in their government's propaganda materials — a category of literature that, in China, includes things like school textbooks and TV documentaries — it loomed large, forming almost the sole image of British character and policy that most Chinese people were acquainted with. Magna Carta? The Glorious Revolution? Ending of the slave trade? The Factory Acts? Churchill standing alone against fascism? Fuhgeddaboutem — you burned our Summer Palace!

This harping on ancient grievances is, I think, characteristic of people who feel the sting of some national or collective humiliation — people who feel, I mean, that their culture, their way of life, has been elbowed off the sidewalk by one that is bigger, richer, stronger, more potent. Irish people felt that way in 1981, though with the rise of the "Celtic Tiger" and the immigration of unskilled English laborers to work on Irish construction sites, the feeling has much diminished recently. Chinese people, who cannot understand why the glories of their ancient civilization have cratered into the ugliness, cruelty and squalor of a "People's Republic" in which the actual people have no voice, also feel that way. And of course, thoughtful Moslems surveying the complete failure of the House of Islam to come to terms with the modern world, are likewise humiliated, and salve their hurt pride by picking at 500-year-old wounds.

Nations that have modernized successfully do not feel like this. The Moslems were kicked out of Spain? Poor things! For heaven's sake: we British have been kicked out of far better places than that in our history, but you don't hear us whining about it. Matter of fact, at the time of "the tragedy of Andalusia," England was still holding on to the city of Calais, the last remnant of the Plantagenet empire in continental Europe. (Those of you who thought the Victorian empire was a one-time fluke, go to the back of the class. There have actually been three British empires. At the moment we are taking a rest from empire-building.) Calais was not lost until sixty-six years later when, on January 7th 1558, the French seized it after launching a sneak attack. Our monarch at the time was Mary Tudor, who died a few months later wailing that: "When I am dead and opened, you will find 'Calais' lying in my heart." Very few English people nowadays would understand a reference to "the tragedy of Calais," and even fewer — none at all, in fact, I am willing to guarantee — would take it as a call to action to restore our national greatness.

Angry talk about "lost territories" that must be "recovered" is, in fact, a sure symptom of a major national or cultural inferiority complex. Who has not felt, talking to an Arab, a Chinese person, or an ardent Irish Republican, that the rage they nurse about Israel, Taiwan and Ulster respectively is wildly out of proportion to the actual issues involved in sovereignty over those tiny territories? "How would Americans feel if Hawaii broke away from the U.S.A. and declared independence?" my Chinese friends ask triumphantly, as if this were a decisive argument for the subjugation of Taiwan. Well, how would you feel? I think that if Americans were convinced that the secession was genuinely the desire of most Hawaiians, they would accept it in a spirit of democratic self-determination. (That the Union did not take this view towards the Confederate States was an entirely different matter, in a very different time.)

Most to the point, the issue is anyway moot, since Hawaii is going to do no such thing. The advantages of being part of the United States — a constitutional republic, with liberty and justice for all under fair laws, and abundant prosperity for all those willing to exert a minimum of effort — are simply too great. There is the rub. Those "lost territories" don't want to be part of the "motherland" because the "motherland" is not a fit place for human beings to live. This is true of the entire Arab world, with its rickety gangster-regimes run by corrupt thugs; it is true of China, where peasants starve and workers go unpaid while the self-elected leaders of the People's Democratic Dictatorship shovel the national wealth into their Swiss bank accounts; it was true until recently of the Irish Republic, for the first few decades of its existence a stagnant rustic theocracy with little appeal to anyone whose aspirations rose to anything higher than sitting around a peat fire discussing the Council of Trent in Gaelic. Zero immigration, or actual net emigration, is one of the distinguishing marks of an aggrieved "motherland" fuming about some "lost territory." Nobody wants to live there. It used to be a regular feature of opinion polls in Northern Ireland — I have not see one recently — to turn up a solid proportion of Northern Catholics who had no desire to be ruled from Dublin (the Protestant majority is, of course, 100 per cent against the idea). One wonders how many Israeli Arabs would actually prefer to be brought under the tender mercies of Yasser Arafat's "Palestinian Authority." Certainly very few inhabitants of Taiwan relish the thought of becoming citizens of the People's Republic.

Instead of taking these "lost territories" claims seriously, we should understand them for what they are: irrational and undemocratic responses to a sense of cultural humiliation, coming under the scope not of political science but of psychopathology.

A plea for help.  A kind but foolhardy publisher has just engaged me to write a book about mathematics, one that will have broad popular appeal. This is not quite a contradiction in terms: there have been several pop-math bestsellers in recent years. To pull it off, though, I need to have some feel for how much math a non-mathematical reader is willing to put up with, and how much math such readers actually know. I myself was originally trained as a mathematician. This has obvious advantages for the task in hand, but it makes it hard for me to see things the way a non-mathematician will see them. So here is a plea for help to readers: Please email in with whatever mathematical point you find most puzzling. For example, I know that "infinity" is a sticking point for a lot of non-mathematicians. Is it true that if I divide by zero I get "infinity"? What happens if I divide zero by zero? I know these are the sorts of things that baffle a lot of people. What other things baffle you? Not deep issues, please ("I am baffled to know why there is no algebraic solution for the general quintic …") just basic points of math that you have never mastered, or find vexing. I can't promise answers — at the rate I am getting email, I can't even promise individual thanks, though I'll do my best — but points I find particularly helpful will get the sender a mention in the book's "Acknowledgments" and a free copy when it comes out, sometime in 2003.