»  National Review Online Diary

  December 2003

Never mind the quality, feel the width.     At the time of writing, in mid-December, my work-log spreadsheet tells me that I have published or e-published 225,961 words this year. That's just columns, blog-columns, magazine and newspaper articles, and book reviews, and doesn't include fugitive postings to chat sites like The Corner and the e-lists I belong to.

Ye gods! That's more words than there are in the New Testament! Quite a lot more in fact — there are only 180,552 words in the King James version of the NT. Put another way, it's as many words as there are in two Huckleberry Finns.

Well, it's a living; but if I could write just one book as good as Huckleberry Finn, I'd die happy.


Be of good cheer.     The depressing thing about writing columns is that only a tiny proportion of what you write sticks in people's minds, and the rest blows away like chaff in the wind. It's a bit like — though of course on a much less significant scale — being one of those poets who toil away for years turning out verses, but who only get remembered for one or two lines, or perhaps even for just a single phrase, like Stevie Smith's "not waving but drowning".

One of the few columns I've written that people refer to again and again, sixteen months after the event, was my "Unpleasant Truths" piece of August 2002. It got me a reputation as the NRO house pessimist.

Well, just on the Sunday morning when we heard about the capture of Saddam Hussein, someone reminded me of that column. I went and looked at it, and I confess felt a little repentant. Hey, the world isn't really so bad. Great things happen, especially when you let us Americans loose on a problem.

I have therefore resolved to wage war on my native pessimism from now on. Sometime soon I am going to write a counter-piece to "Unpleasant Truths," spelling out all the great things that might happen to us. That, I hope, will expunge the stain.

My inspiration here will be Hugh Latimer, a martyr of my church. That there actually are Anglican martyrs might come as a surprise to those of other confessions, who see Anglo-Catholics as a wishy-washy lukewarm lot, always looking for an accommodation and a compromise. It is none the less true.

Latimer was a bishop in the Anglican church during the reign of Mary Tudor. Mary, a Roman Catholic, had the bright idea of trying to reverse the English Reformation carried out by her father, Henry the Eighth — to return her kingdom to the Roman fold. Latimer refused to accept this, and was burned at the stake.

Along with him, though at a different stake, was burned another bishop, Nicholas Ridley. As the flames rose, Latimer called out the following words of encouragement to his fellow divine: "Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by God's grace shall never be put out." There is a good, though slightly grisly account of the joint martyrdom here.

Well, I am going to take Bishop Latimer's words to heart in the New Year, and do my best to be of good cheer. This is, in fact, my New Year's resolution.

I don't guarantee any results. It will go against the grain — I wish I could remember which English novelist described one of her characters' attempt at self-transformation as "walking south on the deck of a north-bound ship" — but I shall give it my best shot. Watch this space.


Punctuation.     The hit book of the Christmas season over in England is Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

I am not very surprised. Anyone who writes for the public prints knows how passionate people are about tiny points of usage, grammar and punctuation. You can bad-mouth the President, insult the Pope, commit atrocities of Political Incorrectness, and come out of it all with your skin intact; but split an infinitive, or say "gender" when you mean "sex," and watch the vitriolic e-mails pour in. Language matters to people (see below for another view on this) in a way that mere events or personalities don't.

If I open Ms. Truss's book it will be with some trepidation, as I am not very confident of my own abilities in the punctuation area. When I started writing for American magazines an editor took me aside and told me that if I would just drop my British habit of putting commas and periods outside trailing quotes, it would save him five minutes a week of editing on my submissions.

It seems unnatural and illogical to me, but I have finally made the change. Doing so has, however, further weakened my self-confidence about punctuation.

Commas are themselves a vexation, and I blow hot and cold on them. One week, I'll put a comma, after every third word; the next I'll write a thousand-word book review without a single comma in it anywhere regardless of whether there ought to be one or not and without the least consideration for my reader's patience and perseverance.

The semicolon is another enemy. I still have to stop and think every time I use the wretched thing. I once mentioned this fact to a German girl I was dating. "Ach," she said, "it iss no problem in Cherman. Ve haff prezisely zirty-seven occasions on vich it iss correct to use a zemicolon." George Orwell wrote an entire novel (Coming Up for Air) without using a single semicolon, having decided that it was an unnecessary mark.

If I had my way we'd go back to the style of the classical languages, with no punctuation at all.


The greatest century.     My daughter Nellie, aged 10, danced in The Nutcracker again this year, in a production put on by Huntington Ballet Theater, a terrific outfit that gives young kids the opportunity to dance with professionals in full-dress performances. Year by year she is inching her way up the hierarchy of roles, this year doing a trepak dancer and a polichinelle (in alternate performances), as well as being a boy in the party scene.

Nellie was of course foot-perfect, or whatever the expression is for ballet. I confess my thoughts drifted a bit, though. It's our third year watching the show, after all, and we know how the story comes out.

The actual direction my thoughts drifted was towards Charles Murray's new book Human Accomplishment, which I had reviewed for the print National Review a couple of weeks previously (and which, by the way, is the first book, so far as I know, to include Prime Obsession in its bibliography).

In his penultimate chapter Murray discusses the issue of whether the rate of great achievement in the arts and sciences, allowing for population, is declining, and he comes to the conclusion that it is. Furthermore, he locates the point at which the decline began: in the middle and later decades of the 19th century.

This is one of those things that is obvious once you have been told it, even if it never occurred to you before. Just look at The Nutcracker, first staged 1892. What can our generation offer to compare with it?

And look at the bourgeois values that radiate from the stage in the opening scenes: the stern Papas and stately Mamas, the kids on joyful vacation from their Latin verbs and piano lessons, the servants in their livery and pinafores, the hierarchy and order and confidence.

Sure, there was another side to that world — my own ancestors were digging coal for a dollar a day while Tchaikovsky was writing out his score. In the matter of great accomplishment, though, Murray has got it right: we just don't measure up.

Going down into the Chancellery bunker near the end of WW2, Joseph Goebbels took a look around at the burning wreckage of Berlin and exulted to his diary: "These flames are consuming the last of 19th-century bourgeois civilization!" He got that right; and look at what was left when the flames had done their work.

The 19th century was the greatest of all centuries for the human race, and the 20th simply didn't compare. Murray's statistics notwithstanding, I think this is especially true if you take the loose definition of "19th century" offered by historian John Lukács: that is, as its being the period from 1815 to 1914.

Lukács's "20th century" is a short one, from 1914 to 1989. While this was a simply wonderful era in which to be a crazed ideologue with a program of systematic mass murder, so far as great accomplishments are concerned, it was a waste of time.

Now, heading in to its fifteenth year, Lukács's "21st century" is shaping up to be even worse achievement-wise, though at least holocausts have gone out of fashion (except, I suppose, among the Arabs). We have some nifty gadgets, but ballet? Opera? Music? Novels? Poems? Painting? Architecture? Fugeddaboutit.

Oh, there I go again.

[Added in Ocrtober 2018Six years later I had changed my mind: "I used to take the 19th century as my personal favorite — all that wonderful science and math; the social improvements; the comparative peace. The more I learn, the less sure I am of this, and the more I favor the 18th."]


100 years of flight.     All right, all right, I'll be upbeat. The 20th century — the calendar one, not Lukács's re-engineered one — gave us flight. This was a wonderful thing, a magical thing, a dream of the ages fulfilled at last.

It was a step forward not only for technology but also, in some way, for human consciousness. In what way? I'm not sure; I don't think many of us have really internalized the change yet. A few visionaries — people like Arthur C. Clarke and John Gillespie Magee — have given us some hints of what flight means for the human race, but it will be a century or so before we really understand all the consequences.

Flight has had its dark side too, of course, as all human things must have. America's three great wars of modern times began with aircraft: WW2 with the Pearl Harbor attack, the Cold War with the Berlin airlift, the War on Terror with the 9/11 civil-airplane hijackings.

I am going to stay upbeat though and celebrate the 20th century for this, at least: These were the years when we took to the skies, when we "slipped the surly bonds of earth." That, I will grudgingly admit, is worth a ballet or two.


Episcopopoly.     The Episcopal Church USA has had an unhappy year, a year many Episcopalians might prefer to forget.

To dispel the gloom brought on by all that intradenominational rancor, and to help while away those long winter evenings, the good folk at ECUSA have come up with just the thing: a new board game called — you guessed it — Episcopopoly.

Adapted from the classic Monopoly game, Episcopopoly features a competitive race to build up one's church by accumulating parishes and cathedrals, which are paid for with "offerings." In place of the familiar railroad stations are theological seminaries. Instead of "Go to jail" there is "Go to fundraising" (with a passing-through lane titled "Just meditating"). The banker is replaced by a Senior Warden, and the Community Chest by a "Time, Talent and Treasure" deck of cards.

I have not yet had time to scrutinize the penalties demanded and incentives offered on the cards, but if there is one that says: "Congratulations! You have been selected to go on a weekend retreat with the Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of New Hampshire," that is a card I would much rather not get.


The gladness of early Greece.     I confess I have not read Louis Crompton's new book Homosexuality and Civilization, so I can't fairly pass comment on it. [Added later:  After reading this, Claremont Review of Books asked me to review Crompton's book. My review is here.]  I read Edward Rothstein's review of the book in the December 3 New York Times, though, and I thought the review very shifty.

Rothstein starts by telling us that:

[Crompton's book] begins in the gladness of early Greece, where homosexuality had an "honored place" for more than a millennium and concludes with the madness of 19th-century Europe.

The reviewer goes on to sketch a picture of human history as one long jolly saga of insouciance towards homosexuality, spoiled only when those horrid 19th-century European bourgeois came along in their starched collars and button boots and imposed their absurd reactionary homophobia on everyone.

This is nonsense. Whenever the topic of attitudes to homosexuality in other times and places is raised, the raiser should be asked the following two-part question: Has there ever been a human society at any civilizational level in which (a) "egalitarian" — that is, adult with adult — male homosexuality has been an approved social norm, or (b) male-male buggery has been acceptable behavior with no taint of immorality?

So far as I have ever been able to ascertain, the answer to both parts of the question is "No." People will offer you plenty of candidate societies — ancient Greece, 15th-century Florence, the Sambia of New Guinea, and so on — but when you look closely at the facts, the claims evaporate.

That does not in itself prove anything about the rightness or wrongness of homosexual acts, but it does illustrate what a stupendous revolution in human affairs is being pressed on us by the "gay rights" lobbies.

There is a case to be made, in fact, that militant homosexuality is the most revolutionary social force the world has ever see. John Heidenry, in his book about the sexual revolution, What Wild Ecstasy, says that a certain practice favored by male homosexuals since about 1970, but too disgusting to name on a family website — the reference is to page 67 of Heidenry's book — is "the first original sex practice in centuries." 

The demand that homosexual behavior be accepted as a perfectly moral "lifestyle choice," free of any stigma, with those who object to it ostracized, marginalized, and preferably punished by law, is just as revolutionary as that. We are only a sliver away from having the Roman Catholic Church, Western civilization's oldest continuously-existing institution, labeled a "hate group." Revolutionary, indeed.

All this applies a fortiori to the notion of homosexual marriage. If homosexual marriage is just an obvious matter of simple fairness, how is it that this never occurred to anyone, anywhere in the world, in any era of human history or in any of the multifarious types of human society, until about 1990? Why did it not occur to Plato or Aristotle? To Confucius or Lao Tsŭ? To Buddha, Zoroaster, or Jesus Christ? To Aquinas or Abelard? To Spinoza or Kant? To the French revolutionaries or the Founding Fathers? To Schopenhauer or John Stuart Mill? To Bertrand Russell or Jean-Paul Sartre? To Lenin or Mao Tse-tung?

It is the great conceit of our age that we are wiser than our ancestors were, but this is taking the conceit (which anyway dissolves readily in a couple of hours TV watching) too far.

On the long historical view, who is out of step here? The 99 soldiers going left-right-left, or the one going right-left-right?

The more often I hear the phrase "gay marriage," the more I think that the most parsimonious explanation for the current prominence of this issue is that we are passing through a temporary period of collective mass insanity.


Illegal immigration.     Imagine the following experience.

You are driving on an expressway with a posted speed limit of 65 mph. You are in a stream of traffic, not passing anyone, and everybody is going at 75 mph. Suddenly a patrol car comes up on your left and instructs you to pull over. The officer then gives you a ticket for speeding.

You complain hotly that this is unfair, that everyone else in your lane was going at the same speed, yet only you have been ticketed. The officer points out that while this may be so, you were definitely speeding, and therefore breaking the law, and so you have no legal grounds for complaint. He then suggests you study Exodus 23.ii: "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil."

This has never happened to me, but it must have happened to somebody somewhere. It is, in fact, effective law enforcement. Seeing you being ticketed at the roadside, other drivers will slow down, at least for a few miles.

This came to mind the other day when I was watching some talking head on the telly argue that there is "nothing we can do" about the ten million (eight million, twelve million, who knows?) illegal aliens currently taking advantage of American hospitality, because "we don't have the resources."

Maybe we don't have the resources, but we should do what we can with those we have. Our immigration police should arrest and deport as many illegals as they can; and they should be hauling into court as many illegal-hiring businesses as they can. Even if only one illegal in a hundred is deported, that would have a chilling effect on the other 99 — especially if it were done at random. Who could know if it might not be his turn next? A lot of illegals would just drift back to their home countries rather than face deportation, particularly if it came with serious prohibitions against future entry, as of course it should.

Like the expressway cop, we can't catch 'em all, but we should enforce the law to the best of our ability. And if a deportee complained he was being treated unfairly, we could quote Exodus 23.ii at him.


Nursing.     One of the first books I ever knew well was Evelyn Pearce's Anatomy and Physiology for Nurses. My mother's copy stood on the family bookshelves, along with David Copperfield, What Katy Did, Kon-Tiki, half a dozen Agatha Christie thrillers, and the full 1908 edition of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopædia. (How that ligature used to fascinate me!) My mother was a professional nurse, and Pearce was her Bible.

It was the line drawings that got my attention, and from an early age I could tell you the location of the gastrocnemius, the island of Reil, or the pillars of the fauces. So far as the tissues of this mortal frame are concerned, I was a child prodigy, a Mozart of morphology.

My mother regarded this technical knowledge as necessary to understanding the condition of her patients and communicating with doctors. It was, however, secondary to the main business of nursing, which she defined to be: "Keeping a patient clean and comfortable."

How quaint! How old-fashioned! That attitude to nursing is now as dead as the dodo, and is in fact Politically Incorrect to boot, implying as it does that nurses (mostly female) were subservient to doctors (mostly male). Aaaargh — the Patriarchy!

The horrible consequences of this revolution in attitudes to nursing, at any rate in Britain, were vividly described in an article by Harriet Sergeant in the November 29 Daily Telegraph. Sample:

[A] staff nurse who had recently qualified complained to me that her training had not prepared her at all. In 18 months of study she had spent only one and a half hours learning how to take blood pressure and a patient's temperature. On the other hand, a whole afternoon had been devoted to poverty in Russia …

[A]s an Irish sister of 17 years' experience put it: "No, I have never felt the lack of studying sociology. Kindness and common sense go a long way" …

The staff nurse had been astonished to discover how little anatomy or physiology her course contained … For assignments, her tutors had set her work on social issues and ethics — including patient rights. That patients might have a right to a person qualified in how to look after them did not seem to have occurred to her teachers.

She said: "Theoretically, you could go through the whole three years without anyone asking you about bed sores." She managed to qualify with only a vague knowledge of the bodies soon to be in her charge.

From my own recent hospital experiences (1996, 2002), I don't think matters have gone quite so far in the USA, but they are headed in the same direction.

Given current attitudes to personal autonomy, and the current universal belief that any kind of work at a higher level than fruit-picking requires a 4-year college degree, preferably one larded with sociological gibberish and PC pseudoscience, I see no prospect of any improvement here, until robotic nurses come on line round about the middle of this century — just in time to help me off in comfort to the Happy Hunting Grounds, with a bit of luck.


The power of words.     In last month's diary I mentioned Hank William's rather macabre song "The Angel of Death." Now, I hate to admit it, but this song is kind of catchy. It is so catchy I have been singing it around the house.

This stopped abruptly when Rosie overheard me. "WHY ARE YOU SINGING THAT?" she shrieked. "WE DON'T WANT THOSE KINDS OF WORDS IN OUR HOUSE!" I murmured defensively that it is, after all, only a song.

At such times I think of the Comte de Beauvoir's remark about the Chinese being the least religious people in the world, but the most superstitious. A child of, or at any rate a descendant of, the Enlightenment, with an early training in science and mathematics, I am inclined to think that words are basically patterns of vibrating molecules in air. The idea that singing about the Angel of Death might attract old Azrael's attention to my inconspicuous little suburban homestead seems preposterous.

On reflection, though, I am not so sure of myself. I recall a dinner-party conversation I heard many years ago. The two participants were (A) a college friend of mine, a mathematician of keen intellect who was a single man at the time, and (B) the wife of a friend of his, a woman at about the same level of intelligence, but very practical, skeptical and atheistic. She was also the doting mother of two small children.

The woman had claimed that words are nothing but what I have just said they are — patterns of vibration in the air. They have no power.

"All right," said my friend. "Please repeat the following words after me: 'I hope that my children will soon die from lingering, painful, and disfiguring illnesses.'" The woman would not say those words. He pressed her, but she firmly refused. "Why not?" asked my friend. "They are only words — vibrating molecules. Why won't you say them?"

She would not say them because she knew what we all know in our bones, however much science and math has been pumped into our brains, and however much we may scoff at the supernatural: that words do have power, that the world is not just a cold tissue of atoms and molecules, that without some reference to the supernatural, nothing makes sense — as paradoxical as that seems.

No, I won't be singing "The Angel of Death" around the house any more, not even when I'm here alone. Look what happened to Hank Williams!


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

In spite of all Jonah's efforts, we do apparently still have readers in France. This seasonal brain-teaser is from one of them, François Charton. Thank you, François, and une très bonne année to you and yours. May your great nation and mine be wise enough to remember what we have in common, and forget our differences.

Three children get three different Christmas presents, packed in three boxes. All of these boxes have dimensions which are an integer number of centimeters, due to production constraints at the boxing company. All dimensions are less than a meter.

To their amazement, the children note that
Can you find the possible dimensions of the boxes? Are there any other coincidences to be found among the three boxes? For example, in the surface area of the paper wrapping them? Can any box be a cube? Have a square side?