[Note: What follows is actually a concatenation of two pieces posted at National Review Online at the end of 2001. The first piece, comprising the first four segments here, was posted on Tuesday, December 4th; the second piece, making up the rest here, on Thursday, December 6th.
Blogging hadn't yet settled in, and we were still making it up as we went along.]
Slim pickings. This is going to be a booger piece …
That doesn't look right. Hang on, let me just pull up the Jonah column that started this train of thought. Oh, yes, here it is … Jonah:
"[W]hile I've moved toward long essay-type doohickeys, it seems like the whole world is going in the other direction. Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Reynolds, Virginia Postrel, Jim Romenesko, the Pope (no, no not the Pope), Mickey Kaus, and even our own Jay Nordlinger are just a few of the folks adopting what industry experts call the 'blogger' format." — NRO, 11/19/01.
I beg your pardon. I should have written "blogger," not "booger," to mean the kind of column where you just stack up a few short cogitations on disjoint topics, as opposed to what Jonah calls "long essay-type doohickeys." Sorry about that.
I am still not really fluent with U.S. juvenile slang — though, living in a street full of kids, and with two of my own in elementary school, I am catching up fast. "Booger" is a fairly recent addition to my vocabulary. My kids, as it happens, have just acquired the British equivalent. We saw that Harry Potter movie the other day, and they were baffled by the references to "bogies." Our 12-year-old neighbor Bridget, who knows everything, chirped up with the explanation: "'Bogie' is British English for 'booger'," she instructed them. Indeed it is. So the little ones learn … though the things they learn are not always things we want them to learn.
Always on the lookout for column topics with which to edify and uplift my readers, I came home from the Harry Potter show wondering if there was an NRO column to be written about boogers. Plenty of literary references came to mind, from Swift's Strephon snooping round his sweetheart's dressing room:
No object Strephon's eye escapes,
Here pettycoats in frowzy heaps;
Nor be the handkerchiefs forgot
All varnish'd o'er with snuff and snot …
… to Joyce's Ulysses and Samuel Beckett's Molloy. The Irish seem to be big players here — Swift was a sort of honorary Irishman, after all. Possibly that cool, moist climate has some especially enriching effect on the material under consideration. Although, now I come to think of it, non-Irish authors have fingered the subject, too: there is a long rumination by the narrator in one of Nicholson Baker's novels, that I prefer not to recall too explicitly.
Seeking further inspiration I pulled down from the shelf my usual recourse in such matters, William Miller's authoritative book The Anatomy of Disgust, and looked up "snot" in the index. "See Nose" was the only entry. "Nose" got me to a page and a half on that majestic organ, the close scrutiny of whose contents is apparently too much even for the otherwise intrepid Mr. Miller, who says: "I don't wish to go into excessive detail because of the reader's likely difficulty in allowing the topic any chance of seriousness …" He does, though, note that: "Certain advocates of celibacy in the early church thought it a sovereign remedy for intrusive sexual desires to meditate on the presence of snot inside beautiful female exteriors …" and fortifies this observation with a long quote from the 4th-century divine John Chrysostom. Something to keep close at hand for the next time Gwyneth Paltrow intrudes on your spiritual tranquillity.
I dumped the idea of a booger column, though, after realizing that you can't improve on perfection, and perfection in this area was attained 25 years ago by Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore in "one of their Derek and Clive sketches."
This particular sketch is premised on the conceit that the Titanic (or, as Peter Cooke calls it, "the Ti-[expletive]-tanic") was not really a ship at all, but a colossal booger extruded by a certain very famous Englishman. My poor words are utterly inadequate to transmit the comic genius of those two; I only report that when I heard the sketch, they damn near had me convinced. So, anyway, this will not after all be a booger piece, only a "blogger" piece.
Investing in China. My column last Friday about the rising tide of pessimism among China watchers drew a good mailbag with lots of solid argument pro and con. One of the best and most informative emails came from a person who has been doing investment research in the Asian stock markets for ten years. He pointed me to a presentation given this past September by Mark Matthews, chief Asia-Pacific strategist at Standard & Poor's, about the prospects for China in the near future from a portfolio manager's point of view.
Mark is more upbeat about China than I was in my Friday piece, but he is no gull and knows China very well. His conclusion: China's probably going to make it, but your investments may not. Warning: this is a long presentation, targeted at professional investment managers, and presupposes a certain amount of knowledge about the economic and political development of East Asia over the past 20 years. It's a good counter-piece to the one by Gordon Chang that I gave a link to last Friday, though.
If, after reading Gordon's testimony, you were thinking of cancelling your trip to China next year, read Mark Matthews before you call the travel agent.
Words, words, words Three or four readers of that same piece emailed in to ask about "gull." What did I mean by "China gulls"? they asked.
What's the matter, you folk don't have dictionaries? Merriam-Webster's Third: "gull, n. — a person who is easily deceived or cheated: dupe, sucker: 'had been brought down to be the gull of this intriguer' — R.L. Stevenson."
Evelyn Waugh, who was as good a writer as it is possible to be, wrote with a dictionary on his desk, and "consulted it frequently," his son told us. I do, too, sort of: I have the excellent Third loaded on my hard drive and permanently visible on my task bar. Even then I occasionally get caught out — most recently over "flounder" versus "founder." With words, you never stop learning.
Chinese humor. Do Chinese people have a sense of humor? someone asked me the other day. They certainly do: a sly, wry, dry type of humor that I personally find very appealing. I included a couple of specimens in my dispatches to NRO from China this summer.
Here is another one from Bertrand Russell's autobiography. Russell lived in China for a while in the early 1920s. While there, he wrote articles about the country for English publications. One of the articles had the title: "Causes of the Present Chaos." It happened that he had a Chinese research assistant named Chao, a well-educated man fluent in English. Seeing the article on Russell's desk, this assistant remarked with a perfectly straight face: "Why, the causes of the present Chaos were all the previous Chaos."
Many years ago, in a university library in England, I read a very good book about the Chinese sense of humor. Yes, here it is — I have just looked it up on the excellent Abebooks web site for second-hand books: George Kao's Chinese Wit and Humor (1946). I have, in fact, ordered a copy, and shall report back further on this topic when I've re-read Kao.
Optimism & pessimism on China. China again: My piece last Friday prompted one reader to ask an interesting question. What (he wondered) does it mean to be "optimistic" or "pessimistic" about China? Suppose I say — as I have said — that the communist dictatorship is sufficiently entrenched, and has co-opted sufficiently many of the urban middle classes, that they can go on holding power indefinitely. Is that point of view "optimistic"?
Well, as a lot of Chinese people would see it, it is. Bearing in mind what Chinese people endured through the 20th century — revolution, war, occupation, famine, every kind of upheaval — this past couple of decades have been an oasis of peace and tranquillity, even allowing for the 1989 disturbances. If that were to continue for another 20 years under the communists — hey, fine.
You might say: "Yes, but the longer the present dictatorship continues, the worse will get all the problems that go with them — corruption, environmental degradation, militarism, the widening city-country gap, the widening rich-poor gap, oppression of minorities, etc., etc." To which he will reply: "Have you ever lived through a revolution?"
Of course China needs democracy, and can't become a really modern country — even economically — without it. And of course the present problems will just get worse and worse, and the danger of some military folly greater and greater, if the dictatorship continues. But what if the transition to democracy requires another upheaval, with economic dislocation and widespread disorder? To a lot of Chinese people, the answer to the conundrum is simple: "Better the devil you know!" For them, an optimistic view is one that offers no change, and a pessimistic view is one that foresees major change of any kind.
All right: from now on, I am going to use "optimism" in only the following precise sense when speaking of China. To be "optimistic" about China is to foresee a peaceful transition to constitutional government sometime soon. Everything else is, to some degree, pessimistic. OK?
Blogging: just a phase. No, I'm not going to blog for ever. It's just a phase I'm going through. Bear with me, please, till I've got it out of my system.
(I'm assuming I have formed the verb correctly here: "blog, v.i. — to yoke together random thoughts on unconnected topics and present them as a newspaper, magazine or webzine column.")
The French know who they are. On the phone with my sister in England. She tells me that a mutual friend has bought a house in France, and adds: "A lot of people here are doing that, now."
Stirred to indignation with thoughts of Agincourt, Crécy, Blenheim, Waterloo and my father muttering They let us down in the War, you know, I asked her why so many English people wanted to live in France.
She: "Because the French still know who they are. We don't, not any more." Poor old England!
George Harrison, R.i.P.. I can claim one tenuous link with the Beatle George Harrison, who died last week: Like him, I am a Lancastrian. "Derbyshire" and "Harrison" are both Lancashire surnames from far back. My father's family moved to Shropshire when Dad was an infant and he was raised a Shropshire lad, but he had been born in Westhoughton, five miles east of Wigan, which is the ancestral hearth-place of the Derbyshire clan, and was the home town of both of his parents.
The essayist and historian Paul Johnson, whom I quote a lot because I find him very quotable, is another Lancastrian, born in Preston I think, and in many ways a typical representative of the species, with all the points (as they say at dog shows) very well displayed. Peter Brimelow, author of Alien Nation, co-proprietor of the excellent VDARE immigration-restrictionist web site, and formerly an NR editor, is another Lancastrian.
[Added later: At the time Peter Brimelow was born there, Warrington was indeed in the county of Lancashire. Bureaucratic reorganizations have since put it in Cheshire. Culturally, however, Warringtonians are Lancastrians, although they won't necessarily thank you for saying so. Their accent is, to my ears, indistinguishable from that of central Lancashire.]
All the Beatles were technically Lancastrian, of course, since Liverpool is a city in Lancashire.
[Note: At the high tide of bureaucratic managerialism in England, in the 1970s, the old county system was reorganized, and Liverpool is now in an administrative area named "Merseyside." However, no sane English person — certainly no true conservative — pays any attention to these arbitrary and artificial new regional designations.]
Liverpudlians, however, are for the most part only geographically Lancastrian. Like any great port city — New York, Shanghai, Marseilles — Liverpool has a culture, and even a dialect, of its own, separate from its immediate hinterland.
It seemed to me, though, that George was more Lancastrian than Liverpudlian: introvert rather than extrovert, witty rather than cheeky, action more than talk.
Until the Industrial Revolution came up, Lancashire was a backwater place, poor and neglected, vegetating in obscurity under the control of a few powerful families who had mostly mastered the art of being left alone by the Crown. The Reformation largely passed by the county without stopping. Nobody much cared whether these uncouth folk were Protestant or Catholic, with the result that many of them — whole towns and villages — just stayed Catholic, down to the present day. My dad's mother, whose surname was Daniels, was was one of these "recusant" Catholics, though Dad's own father was staunch Church of England.
There is in fact a strong strain of mysticism in the Lancashire character, much encouraged by the landscape. The Pendle witches, a great 17th-century cause célèbre, came from the Forest of Pendle, over Burnley way.
North Lancashire is dominated by the Trough of Bowland, a huge expanse of wild, empty moors (called "fells" in the north of England) broken up with pleasant wooded valleys — one of the great unknown beauties of England, and a terrific place to be a hermit, if you feel like taking twenty years off for some serious meditation.
South of the Trough, in the middle of nowhere down by Clitheroe, is Stonyhurst, a forbidding pile of gloomy square stone containing a boys' boarding school run by Jesuits. Paul Johnson went to Stonyhurst. So did Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes; though Doyle's lineage was Irish Catholic, not recusant. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins taught there, as did J.R.R. Tolkien, the hobbit man — the school has a Tolkien Library.
That odd streak of mysticism aside, we Lancastrians are a lean, hardy, frugal people, short of speech but long of memory, with a ready wit (practically all English comedians come from Lancashire) and a grim stolid courage in battle. We treasure and honor our own, and I salute the memory of George Harrison: a kind, humorous, thoughtful, watchful man, a man of words few but true — a worthy addition to the honor roll of the Red Rose.
India's population vs. China's. Erratum. In my Christmas book selections for NRO Weekend I passed the remark that India's population will surpass China's by the end of this decade. I should have said "around mid-century": the 1999 numbers are, in billions, 1.25 for China and 1.00 for India. The 2015 numbers, according to a cute little statistical handbook The Economist just sent me, will be 1.41 and 1.23, which gives a cross-over point some time in February 2057 on a linear extrapolation.
Sorry about that — I quoted hearsay without checking. Who could imagine that a journalist would ever do such a thing!
Keeping up with my magazines. I read too much, way too much.
One of the things we do at NR — the print NR — is sit around a large table every second Monday and trade ideas for the one-paragraph snippets that appear at the front of the magazine under the heading "The Week". (Efforts to persuade the editors to change this heading to the much more logical "The Fortnight" have so far fallen on stony ground. Apparently some dismayingly large proportion of Americans don't know what "fortnight" means.)
Well, at the last one of these conferences I put forward a piece I had read in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Harvard's acquisition of the "postcolonialist" theorist Homi Bhabha, an academic mountebank of the first water. Professor Bhabha would make a good paragraph, I said, and started to explain who he was. A colleague gently interrupted to remind me that back in the October 15th issue of NR we had run a 2,000-word piece by Roger Kimball on the egregious Bhabha. The distressing thing was that I had read Roger's article at the time, enjoyed it, … and then forgotten all about it.
It wasn't the first time this has happened. I'm in conversation with someone, on some topic. He says: "Did you see what so-and-so wrote about this in the Standard?" No, I say, I didn't. He gives me a précis. I think: "That sounds fascinating," go off to the library and look up the piece … and halfway through realize that I did read it after all.
The root problem here is that there is just too damn much good writing now for a human mind — at any rate, a middle-aged, non-super-retentive mind — to hold. I feel that, as part of my professional duties, I have to read it all, with the result that half of it slops over the edge of the tub and is wasted. I spend the first hour of every working morning trawling through news and opinion sites on the Web. Then there are the subscriptions that come in through my mailbox. On returning from six weeks abroad in early August, I found awaiting me (you can sing this to the tune of "The Twelve Days of Christmas"):
6 copies each of The Economist, The New Yorker and Science News
5 copies each of The Spectator and The New Republic
4 copies of Human Events
3 copies each of National Review and The Weekly Standard
2 copies each of Chronicles and PC World
1 copy each of American Mathematical Monthly, China Journal, American Renaissance, my local Diocesan newsletter, the NRA magazine, New York Review of Books, Notices of the American Mathematical Society, First Things, Literary Review and American Spectator.
(Yes, I know, the list doesn't make sense. NR is fortnightly; The Weekly Standard is, duh, weekly; how come I had the same numbers of both waiting for me? Beats me, I just report the facts, which I wrote down at the time with the idea of doing a column on information overload. Perhaps the guys down at the Post Office sorting room were backed up in their reading.)
When we lived in Manhattan my wife had a friend who worked as a "personal shopper." That is, she had clients — rich socialite women with full schedules — who wanted to buy clothes, jewelry, and whatever else rich socialite women buy, efficiently, rather than just browsing all the stores. Rosie's friend would help them do this. What I need is a "personal reader"!
The first time I lived in mainland China, in the academic year 1982-3, I had just one magazine subscription coming in to my address in the remote Manchurian town where I lived. It was the London Spectator. How I looked forward to its weekly arrival! How I devoured its contents, like a thirsty man in a desert! How desperately I missed it if it was a day late! How doggedly I fought my way through the crossword (one of the tougher ones)! I can still remember whole articles.
Now: what was in that Spectator issue that arrived yesterday? Er … And when was the last time I did a Spectator crossword? Um …
Paul Johnson on singing. Although, as a matter of fact, there was one piece in the current (so far as airmail subscribers are concerned) Spectator that got my attention.
Regular Spectator contributor (and occasional NR contributor) Paul Johnson — yes, the Lancastrian Paul Johnson — chose this issue, the one dated November 24th, to write a column about singing: the pleasures of it, how people don't do it much any more but ought to …
Now, I myself did a column on exactly this topic, even making some of the same points, for the Thanksgiving NRO Weekend. I wrote that piece on Friday, November 16th, and emailed it to the noble webmaster on the 17th. It appeared in public — that is, on the Web — on the afternoon of Wednesday 21st.
I happen to know the Spectator's production cycle: Paul Johnson's piece would have had to be in final form by at very latest the afternoon of Tuesday the 20th, and would have shown up on London newsstands on Thursday the 22nd.
There is thus no possibility of plagiarism by either of us. This is a pure case of "great minds think alike" … Or possibly evidence of an ocean-spanning Lancastrian super-mind, into whose rich and mysterious workings we individual Lancastrians are mere windows.
Economy & dictatorship. One more China comment. When I assert, as I frequently do, that you can't have a modern economy under dictatorship, a trickle of emails come in saying: "What about South Korea? What about Taiwan?"
What about them? Taiwan: I was working in the Credit department of a big Wall Street investment bank in the late 1980s. One day some very smart young men came along with a scheme for us to underwrite some commercial paper issues for Taiwan companies, a thing we had never done. (They wanted us to get into the Taiwan equity markets, too, but I forget the precise details.)
We set our credit analysts to work looking at the fundamentals — ownership, earnings, management, legal enforcement, accounting practices — and after we'd read their reports, said: "Thanks, but no, thanks."
You might think that Taiwan in the late stages of the Chiang-family dictatorship was a modern economy, but my bank sure as heck didn't think so, and making judgments of this sort was their business.
South Korea: The 1997 crisis revealed very clearly that South Korea had, up to that point, been running a Soviet-style command economy, with all the CEOs of all major enterprises more or less government appointees. The result was that, after they had sucked all the blood out of their own banking system, they could not get any foreign bank to lend to them, and had to call in the IMF. Sorry, but that's not a modern economy.
Now, there is no doubt that a country can make great economic progress under a dictatorship. Hitler showed that, for heaven's sake. So, for that matter, did Stalin and his successors — Russians (well, urban Russians) were much better off in 1980 than they were in 1930. So was the Soviet economy a modern economy in 1980? Of course not.
Seven per cent annual economic growth doesn't mean you have a modern economy. It just means (in China's case) that you are starting from an extremely low base. A modern economy needs a firm rule of law, honest administration, honest justice, openness to foreign competition, well-regulated securities trading, and a host of other things that China has not got, and won't have until they get rid of those damn communists.
A Ground Zero journal. There has been, it seems to me, surprisingly little really first-class reporting from New York's "Ground Zero." Where are the products of all those schools of journalism that now infest the academic scene? Perhaps the magnitude of that horror is too much to be encompassed by journalists trained to sniff out the latest bogus health scare, political sex scandal, "racist" / "sexist" / "homophobic" outrage, or other inconsequential pseudo-news of the age that ended on September 11th.
Where really good reporting has come out, it has often been from unexpected and seriously un-famous quarters. There is an example in the current (December 2001) issue of Father Richard John Neuhaus's monthly First Things: a piece simply titled "Ground Zero: A Journal," by a writer completely unknown to me, name of Vincent Druding, bylined as "a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs in New York City," whatever that means.
Whatever it means, Druding's beautiful and moving record of his Ground Zero experiences is one I feel sure I shall not be forgetting any time soon.