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March 8th, 2002

  A Day in the Life


My life, that is. Nothing too irritatingly personal, I hope, and some large themes to be glimpsed in the background.


Got up early Monday, rode the train into Manhattan and joined the NR editorial table at 9:45. We picked away for a while at the previous issue, which had included Rick Brookhiser's review of Pat Buchanan's Death of the West. I passed some remarks about the book and about Rick's review, which I said caught very nicely the Nixo-Kissingerian declinism that is fundamental to Pat's outlook. Then we batted around ideas for editorials in the next issue. At noon I collected my editorial assignments and started wondering what to do with the afternoon. I didn't feel like writing, and anyway have got into the habit of sleeping on my assignments and writing them up Tuesday morning. There was no point going home. It's close to two hours door to door, and I was due to appear on a panel discussion for Columbia Political Union at 7pm.

I called Wally Fekula and we arranged to have lunch. Wally, once my boss, is retired after a long career on Wall Street. He lives up on 85th Street by the Park and spends his time doing good works. We met for lunch up there, a nice little place called Demarchelier on East 86th. I ordered oysters and sea bass. We cracked a bottle of wine. Wally, a great music lover, talked about opera singers. The New York Met is currently doing Prokofiev's War and Peace. Wally, who is of White Russian ancestry, had persuaded some big-name Russian singers from the production to perform for free at one of the charity functions he helps organize. He chuckled with satisfaction over this coup. Then he told me about Lang Lang, a terrific new young Chinese pianist he's discovered. We talked more, wandered off into books and movies. I had the crème brûlée. Then we had coffee and liqueurs. It was a fine, delicious, civilized lunch.

Demarchelier has a bistro-style layout, tables close enough together that you get talking to your neighbors at the least excuse. While I was concentrating on my crème brûlée, Wally struck up a conversation with the young couple next to us. They had been to see an exhibition at the Guggenheim. The lady, it turned out, was from Denmark. Wally, who has the combative trading-floor style of making conversation, challenged me to say anything intelligent about Denmark. I muttered something about the Schleswig-Holstein question, a diplomatic issue that had racked northern Europe for decades during the 19th century, but is now utterly forgotten — even by Danes, confessed the lady. (I got my fragmentary knowledge of it mostly from reading Royal Flash.) Then, feeling the sea-floor sloping away under my feet unpleasantly fast, I asked the lady how things were going in Denmark nowadays.

"Terrible, terrible. Much crime. It's all mixed up with the immigration problem, of course. We just had an election in November. The anti-immigration party got a lot of votes. People are getting fed up with immigration."

Death of the West still on my mind, I asked if Danish people were reproducing themselves. How many kids does a married couple have in Denmark?

"Married couple? Nobody gets married any more. I am the only person I know that's married. people just live together."

The lady proceeded to redraw my mental picture of Scandinavia, which up to this point had been stuck around 1975: pale, hygienic, taciturn folk, sleeping through winter under the Northern Lights and spending the daylight months practising bourgeois virtues, manufacturing ugly cars and polishing their cradle-to-grave welfare states to smug perfection. No, she claimed, it's not like that now. All these countries are being overrun with immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, and disorder is starting to spread.

Why do people put up with it? I asked.

"Something in our character. Our men, especially. They will never complain about anything. Just go along, go along."

What about their vigorous ancestors, ravaging the coasts of my ancestors — gold-decked, sword-bright, Beowulf and Hrothgar, Viking and Norseman, Guthrum and Harald and Cnut? Nothing wishy-washy about those guys!

"That was a thousand years ago. We've had the good life too long."

Hedonism is death! There's a nice thought to have in a posh restaurant on the upper East Side while scarfing down crème brûlée and Cointreau. Most likely true on the civilizational scale, none the less.

After lunch, most of the afternoon still to kill, a bit woozy from the wine and liqueurs, I decided to walk up to Columbia, figuring the cold March air would clear my head. I went crosstown to Fifth, up past the Metropolitan Museum — closed Mondays — and into the Park. Round the Reservoir, out and up the West Side, into Harlem. They can talk all they like about gentrification, it still looks like a slum to me. Fell in with a Japanese guy in Morningside Park. He was totally lost, trying to find Columbia. Climbed up the steps with him. How are things in Japan? Pretty bad, but people don't mind much. Just put up with it.

I spent a blissful two hours in the math library at Columbia, researching some points for my book. Where is civilization more obviously present all around you than in a university library? Columbia has every math periodical you could imagine, and then some: Matematicheskii Sbornik, The Journal of Differential Equations, Revista Matemática Hispano-Americana, Nagoya Mathematical Journal, any number of Comptes Rendus, Suomalainen something something — that would be Finnish, wouldn't it? How many people want to read mathematical papers in Finnish? But if you want to, Columbia has them. That's civilization. Does Finland have an immigrant problem, too, I wonder? Time magazine says the terrorists may have a nuke, for use against New York. Not here, please, not Columbia. Don't nuke Columbia, don't fry these neatly-bound ranks of Seminario Matematico Rendiconti and the Mathematical Intelligencer. Don't fry me, with a book unfinished and my kids not grown.

Down to Lerner Hall for a snack before the event. There's a little cafeteria there in the lobby. I stood in line, noticing the things we are not supposed to notice: four Columbia undergrads ahead of me in line, two obviously Jewish, two East Asian. Four servers behind the counter, making the sandwiches and working the register, about the same age as their customers, but all black.

The CPU event was upstairs. It was a panel discussion — me and three other windbags at a long table facing a roomful of students, talking about whether we should strike at Iraq. I was there representing the aggressive option, the view that we should defend our civilization vigorously and confidently. I don't think we should sit around waiting for something to happen that we can react to; I think it's someone else's turn to do a spot of reacting. Why Saddam? Because he's already had way too much time to develop his atom bombs and germ bombs. Let's take out him, and them, before he gets any further along. The other panelists were old NSC war-horse Gary Sick, Paul Starr from The American Prospect, and a guy named Carmen (sic) Trotta, from a pacifist-anarchist group called the Catholic Worker movement. We all said our piece, then bandied the issues politely for a while, then took questions. Good crowd — well-mannered, thoughtful people, intelligent questions, surprising number of conservatives. The anarchist guy took heat for calling this country — his country — "the cancer of the world."  A floor vote, if we'd had one, would probably have gone for Gary and Paul, who basically argued containment; but no-one seemed to mind my position.

I used the men's room on my way out. There was a poster tacked to the door: "INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS: DO YOU WANT TO WORK IN THE U.S. AFTER GRADUATION? The U.A.W. strongly opposes giving H-1B visas to skilled foreigners and has lobbied against legislation …" Rode the subway down to Penn Station, thinking about civilization and its enemies and all the things we're not supposed to notice.