»  National Review Online Diary

  March 2007

Secular Muslims meet in Florida.     If you put the Islamic world into a steel press with the pressure gauge set to "maximum," you can squeeze out a few drops of decency and good sense. This was illustrated by the Secular Islamic Summit held in St Petersburg, Florida this month.

The Summit was oddly named, since some of the participants speaking on the video clips posted to that website, declare themselves believers.

At any rate, the summit ended with the St. Petersburg Declaration:

We are secular Muslims, and secular persons of Muslim societies. We are believers, doubters, and unbelievers, brought together by a great struggle, not between the West and Islam, but between the free and the unfree.

We affirm the inviolable freedom of the individual conscience. We believe in the equality of all human persons.

We insist upon the separation of religion from state and the observance of universal human rights …

(The whole thing is here.)

It's hard not to admire these brave people. In one of the video clips Wafa Sultan, the Syrian lady who did that wonderful smack-down of an Islamic cleric on Al-Jazeera, tells us that there are two official fatwas against her, as well as countless unofficial ones.

The problem is that these people have signed on to the modern world and its multi-culti fantasies. There was plenty of courage and good sense on display at St. Petersburg, but not much of those energizing principles that drive the jihadis.

What you need is belief in those high principles, coupled with the energy and confidence to uphold and propagate them.

The English-speaking peoples had that happy combination once upon a time. No longer, alas. These worthy westernized Muslims have, as we now have, the one thing without the other.


Worst FUBAR of All Time?     Reading up Joseph II, the antepenultimate Holy Roman Emperor, I came across the Battle of Karánsebes, which was new to me.

What a screw-up! Was this the greatest military shambles of all time? It must surely be a leading contender. Basically, the Austrian army fought a battle against itself, mistaking itself for the Ottoman army, which had not yet actually showed up.

As the cavalry ran through the camps, a corps commander reasoned that it was a cavalry charge by the Ottoman army, and ordered artillery fire. Meanwhile, the entire camp awoke to the sound of battle and, rather than waiting to see what the situation was, everyone fled. The troops fired at every shadow, thinking the Ottomans were everywhere; in reality they were shooting fellow Austrian soldiers. The incident escalated to the point where the whole army retreated from the imaginary enemy, and Austrian Emperor Joseph II was pushed off his horse into a small creek.

Two days later, the Ottoman army arrived. They discovered no fewer than 10,000 killed and wounded soldiers.

What, I wonder, was the 18th-century Austrian equivalent of the expression FUBAR? Obviously there was need for one.


Magic Flute     The reason I was reading up the Emperor Joseph was, that I have been reading up Mozart. This was as background for the colloquium on The Magic Flute that I've posted some comments about to The Corner.

At the closing dinner of the three-day colloquium, the highlight was an impromptu performance by Larry Vincent of Brigham Young University.

Larry, nowadays an academic, was formerly a professional opera singer. After much pleading from the rest of us, he stood up in the restaurant and gave us a pitch-perfect rendering of Tamino's great aria from the Flute, "Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön." For an encore he sang Belmonte's "Hier soll ich dich denn sehen" from the Abduction.

The people in the restaurant's adjoining room heard Larry. (There is no way you do not hear a trained opera singer, if you're in the same city block.) They were having a birthday party, and sent an emissary in to ask if Larry would go and sing an operatic "Happy Birthday To You." Larry, who is a true mensch, did so, to a sensational reception. He was in fact mobbed. The birthday party was pretty far along, and the celebrants were by no means of the Temperance persuasion. I could swear I saw women stuffing dollar bills into Larry's belt.

The low point of the dinner was my reading of my own verse synopsis of The Magic Flute. Oh, you'd like to see it? Well, if you insist:

The Magic Flute
by E. Schikaneder
with music by W.A. Mozart
(as interpreted by J. Derbyshire)

Act One

Prince meets birdman, ladies, Queen;
Falls in love with sketch he's seen
Of Queen's fair daughter, prisoner of
Evil wizard.  Fired with love,
Prince, with magic flute and bells
Heads for place where wizard dwells.

That's a temple. At the gate
Prince meets priest, who sets him straight.
"Wizard's good! That Queen's the rotter!
Join our club, you'll get the daughter."
Birdman goes by different route.
Finds the Princess, sneaks her out.

Act Two

Prince gets voted into club,
But must pass trials — there's the rub.
Queen shows up to tell her gal:
"Kill that wizard, there's a pal!"
Wizard soothes the daughter's hate;
Off she goes to find her mate.

Prince and birdman must keep mum.
Princess thinks she's dumped. She's glum.
Three sprites tell her: "This won't do.
That guy's really hot for you!"
Birdman takes hag, faute de mieux.
Hag turns cute! — but bids adieu.

Birdman from depression's freed.
Gets cute ex-hag, plans to breed.
Purified by fire and water,
Prince is wed to Queen's fair daughter.
Queen and ladies go to hell.
Truth and wisdom make all well!

There now, you don't need to actually go to see The Magic Flute. I've spared you the trouble! Unless, of course, you want to check out the music of this Mozart dude.


Elton John's 60th birthday.     Speaking of birthday parties, did you read about Elton John's 60th?

You or I might rent a restaurant room or the local VFW hall for a birthday party. Sir Elton rented a cathedral — the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, seat of the Episcopal bishop of New York.

Which is a bit odd, given Sir Elton's known antipathy to religion. If he wants to "ban religion completely," why is he having his birthday bash in a cathedral? Perhaps he thinks that filling up the holy structure with yelling, drunken poofters will help to bring forward the Age of the Godless. My guess would be, he's right.

Be that as it may, Sir Elton's choice of venue gives me the opportunity to recycle my theory that the more traditional forms of Christian worship are especially appealing to male homosexuals for esthetic-stylistic reasons. The vestments; the chants; the stylized gestures; the decorative art; the bossing-about of choirboys — is it any wonder there are so many gay priests?

Perhaps Sir Elton himself is secretly tempted to a career in the ministry …


Hell is real, says Pope.     Meanwhile, among the other Catholics, I see that Pope Benedict XVI has re-affirmed the reality of Hell as a place of everlasting torment. I don't see how he could do otherwise. The fear of punishment in the afterlife is a logical component of any religion.

It is certainly a key feature of Chinese folk religion. It there is a Heaven, then it is obviously very unfair to have profoundly wicked people going there. So where are they to go? Hell, of course.

When I showed my son the story, he reminded me of a T-shirt we'd seen in a mall somewhere. The T-shirt had a picture of Satan's face on it, with the legend: "God's busy. Can I help you?"


A little bit of China in New York.     My wife has to go to China on family business, so off I went to the Chinese consulate on Manhattan's West Side, to get her a visa.

Well, a consulate is supposed to be a little bit of Chinese territory, and that's exactly what the New York consulate is. As soon as you walk in the door, you are right back in China. The rude, icy bureaucrats; the overcrowding (the place seems much too small); the shoving and pushing; the elaborate forms and meaningless procedures; all the gracelessness of modern Chinese life is there.

The upside is, that after an hour in the Chinese consulate, when you walk out at last, the streets of New York city seem quite friendly and courteous by comparison …


Ruled by the Other.     Well, here is one guy who likes China; but then, he's Zimbabwean.

Reading all the way through this article, I was getting the impression of a guy v-e-r-y reluctantly coming to terms with reality. Mutumwa Mawere writes about "colonialism and the undying wounds it seems to have inflicted"; yet he has noticed that many countries came out of colonialism rather well:

The world has now many examples of former colonial states that have transformed themselves into developed states in a generation.

So … what about those "undying wounds"?

Mawere in any case gives the game away by quoting former Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah: "It is better to misgovern ourselves than to be governed well by others."

I think that's a pretty universal feeling. "Our masters then / Were still, at least, our countrymen." Thus Lord Byron's imaginary Greek, groaning under the Ottoman heel, when an interlocutor mentioned the true fact that the Greeks themselves had, in the past, thrown up tyrants every bit as oppressive as the Sultans.

Mutumwa Mawere's column reminded me of those lines. In Africa, as in Greece, human beings perversely prefer to be misgoverned by people like themselves, rather than wisely, fairly, and honestly ruled by the Other, or the Other's stooges.

How contrary people are!


Zimbabwe and the obvious.     For an account of Zimbabwe's present, very sorry, state, Martin Fletcher's reports in the London Times have been very good. "By the time Mugabe dies, there will be nothing of our country left," Fletcher quotes one Zimbabwean saying.

This kind of story always throws me into is-it-just-me? mode. Is it just me, who, reading about Zimbabwe, sees something staring right back at me from these stories — the same thing I saw staring back at me from the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, or from that website showing the city of Detroit slipping back into the bush, or from the recent stories about the 50th anniversary of Ghanaian independence (all of which seemed to have the phrase "shattered hopes" set up as a macro), or from any news at all out of Haiti.

Is it just me? Of course it is! And it is wrong, wrong of me even to entertain the thoughts I am entertaining.

"To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle," said Orwell. I don't know about that. I'm not aware of having to struggle at all to see what's in front of my nose here. It is, as English people used to say when I was a kid, "plain as eggs." (Why eggs? I have no clue. That's what people used to say.)

I can't see, though — I really can't see — how it isn't a struggle for those people who deny the underlying reality here, to go on denying it.


Opening sentence of the month.     "Cricket and death are no strangers to each other."

Come to think of it, the article's headline, The Cancer Destroying Cricket's Soul, deserves an award all by itself.


Nothing last for ever.     Oh yeah? I own a pair of socks that belonged to my Dad, who died in 1984. He wore them pretty regularly, and so do I.

I later bought some other socks of the same type, and still have them all, and wear them. These socks last for ever.

I mention this because I recently turned up a memo I wrote to myself last time I bought a pair of these everlasting socks, so I would know how to find them again if I ever needed to (which of course I haven't). "Manufactured exclusively in England by H.J. Hall & Son, Coventry Road, Hunckley, Leicestershire, LE10 0JX."

I offer this to NRO readers as a public service. Now you, too, can own a pair of everlasting socks.

Do they have a website? Yes they do. So apparently they are still in business. But … how is that, since their product lasts for ever? I shall never understand economics.


Math Corner     March is of course the month containing St. Patrick's Day, so here is some math with a Hibernian theme.

I have taken it from a fun book titled The Magic Numbers of the Professor. One of the authors, Owen O'Shea, is Irish. I hope he won't mind if I copy out the following passage. I bet, in fact, that if I urge you to buy his book, which I hereby do, he won't mind at all.

Indeed there is an affinity between [Ireland and the U.S.A.] Consider: Ireland contains 32 = 4 × 4 + 4 × 4 counties, and the U.S. contains 50 = 5 × 5 + 5 × 5 states. The area of Ireland is 32,000 square miles and 32,000 acres is 50 square miles. The 31st and 32nd digits of π are 5 and 0. The product of 32 and 50 is 1600, the address of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. The northern tip of Ireland lies very close to latitude 55.5° north, and 55.5 × 32 = 1776. The name of Ireland's capital, Dublin, begins with the fourth letter of the alphabet and Washington begins with the fourth letter from the end of the alphabet. Using the usual a = 1, b = 2 … code, the sum of the letters in the abbreviation Ire (for Ireland) is 32, the number of counties in Ireland, and the sum of the letters in America is 50, the number of states in the U.S.

The number five … seems to be a common link between Ireland and the U.S. The digits of 32 sum to 5, and 32 is 2 raised to power 5. There were originally 5 provinces in Ireland. Our Declaration of Independence was drafted by 5 men. The number of states originally in the U.S. was 13, or 2 raised to the third power, plus 5. The number of states now is 2 × 5 × 5. There are just 5 denominational coins in circulation in the U.S. with less value than a dollar, and the motto In God We Trust was added to them as a result of legislation passed in 1955. The 50 states cover 5 time zones. There is just one time zone in Ireland, but it is 5 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. The Gaelic name of Ireland is Éire, whose first and last letter is the 5th letter of the alphabet. The Irish constitution was adopted in 1937, and 37 is 2 to the 5th power, plus 5. The letters in U.S.A. are the 21st, 19th, and 1st letters of the alphabet, the sum 21 + 19 + 1 = 41, and 4 + 1 = 5 ….

This goes on for a while longer, concluding with the observation that the annual St. Patrick's Day parade in New York city goes down — where else? — Fifth Avenue.