A Hays Code for our time. On January 21st the Screen Actors Guild gave Gary Oldman their "Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role" award for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. The movie is about Churchill coming to power as Prime Minister in May 1940 and the events leading up to the evacuation from Dunkirk. It's been nominated in six categories for the upcoming Oscars.
A friend who belongs to the SAG kindly lent us his voter's DVD of Darkest Hour, in defiance of a stern onscreen warning at the very beginning that the voter should destroy the disk after watching it.
I'm the wrong person to pass judgment on Gary Oldman's acting. All through my childhood in postwar England adult males were doing Churchill impersonations for laughs. The radio comedian Tony Hancock did a particularly memorable one. That makes it hard for a person of my generation to take seriously any stage-or-screen version of the man.
My capacity for unbiased judgment is further warped by having grown up with a Churchill-hating father. Non-Brits are always a bit surprised to learn that while Churchill was loved and admired by many of his fellow-countrymen, he was disliked by, I think, nearly as many. They can't fathom how he lost the 1945 election in a landslide. Meet my Dad.
I survived all that and ended up a Churchill fan — heck, I even attended his funeral — but I'll take a pass on any comprehensive critique of the movie, other than to register my impression that it wasn't half as good as The Gathering Storm.
I do, though, want to vent about political correctness in Darkest Hour.
There is a scene where Churchill, on his way to Westminster, on impulse decides to ride the subway for the first time in his life. I can't believe this ever happened; it would have been contrary to everything I know about Churchill's temperament. Still, I'll allow the scene itself for dramatic license.
In the subway carriage Churchill is surrounded by ordinary Londoners. They all know who he is and are dumbstruck to find themselves riding with him.
Churchill is under pressure from his Party colleagues to negotiate with Hitler. That goes against all his instincts, but he's feeling the pressure. He decides to find out what these ordinary folk think, so he asks them. They urge him to stand firm.
Thus inspirited, Churchill rallies, and begins quoting some lines from Macaulay's Horatius at the Bridge:
To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds …
At this point one of the subway passengers finishes the quote for him:
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods.
Okay, a bit hokey (and already done in a different movie), but hey, dramatic license again. Here's my vent, though.
The subway passenger who finishes Churchill's quote for him is a black guy, the only one in the carriage.
That's not totally implausible in itself. There were blacks in 1940 London, although precious few. I can't find a number, but I think ten thousand would be a generous estimate — one in eight hundred of London's population at the time. Churchill was interacting with eight or ten fellow passengers, so he'd have been running about a one percent chance of there being a black among them. Okay. But did the only one who knew Horatius have to be the black guy?
Two white, hick Union soldiers run up breathlessly and ineptly try to recite Lincoln's Gettysburg address for the President. They forget how it ends, and the recital is finished by the intelligent, complaining black private as he saunters off into the night. Stupid whites and smart blacks. We get it.
Yes we do. It's like some 21st-century version of the Hays Code.
Code Article III.5.a: The smartest extra in any scene must be black.
(Corollary: The dumbest extra in any scene must never be black.)
Okay, we get it: Blacks aren't all dumb like Great-Grandpa thought. We get it, we get it. Could they please now stop banging us over the head with it?
The Anglosphere's worst year. Was 1965 the Anglosphere's worst year?
In January Churchill died. He'd long been out of public life; but his death was none the less a clear punctuation mark.
What it marked was the end of Postwar Britain: of twenty years of national pride in the accomplishment of victory and rebuilding from the destruction of war. Also the consolidation of the welfare state, the restructuring of what many in Britain had come to see as an unjust social order. (That's why Churchill lost the 1945 election.)
Also of course the dismantling of the British Empire, with independence for the old imperial possessions: India and Pakistan 1947, Burma and Sri Lanka 1948, Sudan 1956, Malaya 1957, Nigeria and Ghana 1960, Tanzania 1961, Jamaica and Trinidad 1962, Kenya 1963, …
What followed was a long sleepwalk into mass immigration and multiculturalism: down, down to the shambolic joke country that Britain is today — a mere place, an airport arrivals shed, in which the descendants of Alfred the Great, Chaucer, Drake, Shakespeare, Marlborough, Johnson, Victoria, Dickens, Churchill, and Orwell cower timidly before the moral supremacy of alien races and faiths.
The U.S.A. was meanwhile passing the Hart-Celler Immigration Act, signed into law October 3rd 1965, turning this country on the same downward slide.
If the Anglosphere has had a worse year, I'd like to know which.
God no globalist. We still have our private consolations, of course.
Jigsaw puzzles, for example. This last Christmas, Santa as usual favored me with a splendid puzzle: the 5,000-piece Ravensburger edition of Brueghel's Tower of Babel. At the end of January I'm well on my way with it, the sky — not necessarily the most difficult part of a puzzle, but always a tiresome chore — already completed.
My son, whose biblical education was minimal, asked me about the story behind the picture. I told him it as best I could remember it, and pointed up the moral, which is of course, as always in the OT: Don't mess with God.
Later I furtively looked up the story in my Scofield Reference Bible (mine is the 1967 edition) to make sure I hadn't misled the lad. No, I hadn't. I had even made a decently good guess, when he'd asked, about who the regal figure in bottom left of the painting was: Nimrod. (It's not clear from Genesis that it was actually Nimrod who built the tower, but he's as good a candidate as any.)
Scofield offers the following gloss on Genesis 11.i:
In judgment upon sinful man's first attempt to establish a world state in opposition to the divine rule, God struck at the very thing which binds men together, namely, a common language.
Discussing that with a friend, he observed that the European Union parliament building seems to have been modeled on Brueghel's Tower of Babel.
Say what you like about the God of the OT; but in terms of our present-day globalist/nationalist split, it's pretty clear which side He was on.
Literature meets art. If you don't know anything else about Pieter Brueghel the Elder, you should at least know this: That one of his paintings — not the Tower of Babel, a different one — inspired a very lovely poem.
That painting is Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, based on the Greek legend of Icarus, who flew too close to the Sun on wings attached with wax. The wax melted, and Icarus fell to his death.
The poem was written by W.H. Auden in 1938. Its title is "Musée des Beaux Arts," which is just the name of the gallery in Brussels, Belgium, where Brueghel's picture is hung. Brace yourself:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
It is not often that high literature meets high art with such effect. This is Western Civ.: going down the tubes as I write, but while it lived, an inspiration and consolation to suffering mortals.
Acing the exam. Just one more on the biblical theme, if you don't mind.
Writing about the OT there brings to mind one of Isaac Asimov's stories.
A certain elementary-level yeshiva held an annual exam for the pupils. There was only one question on the exam; and, because the examiner was an old and somewhat fuddled senior intructor, it was the same question every year: "Name the kings of Israel and Judah in chronological order."
The pupils of course knew this. They all memorized the king lists and passed the exam.
Then the old instructor got sick and died the day before the exam, the paper still unwritten. His juniors had to hastily write an exam paper. Unaware of this, the pupils showed up for the exam with the king lists memorized, only to find in front of them a paper with the question: "Name all the major and minor prophets in order of importance."
The examinees ran from the hall shrieking in despair; all except one fellow. This lad stared thoughtfully at the exam paper for a few minutes, then unscrewed his fountain pen and wrote: "Far be it from me to make invidious distinctions among the prophets. Rather let us consider the kings of Israel and Judah, as follows …"
[Note added later: That's the segment as I originally wrote it. When James Fulford took it to post to VDARE.com, he asked me where in Asimov's works he could find the story. I said I only had it from memory: as precisely as I could say, the memory of reading Asimov's monthly nonfiction columns in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, to which I was addicted in the years around 1960.
James, who is a wonder at finding things on the internet, located the actual source. Sure enough, it was an Asimov column in the February 1963 F&SF. However, it was not Asimov who told the story. It was P.G. Wodehouse, quoted by Asimov's editor — probably Avram Davidson — in his introduction to Asimov's piece.
I don't think my memory did too badly there, after a lapse of 55 years …]
Artificial stupidity. It seems that not a day passes now without some look-at-this! story in the news about robots and artificial intelligence (AI).
• A British fashion magazine has used a robot as its cover model. Her name is Sophia and she's a rather comely platinum blonde. From the news story:
Sophia has recently been on a roll after being granted world's first robot citizenship by Saudi Arabia, appearing on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and freaking everyone out with her pro-robot, slightly anti-human remarks at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal.
• An expert in the field warns about military AI. He says:
As someone who researches the use of AI for applications as diverse as drones, self-driving vehicles and cybersecurity, I worry that the world may be entering — or perhaps already in — another cold war, fueled by AI.
Transgender sex robots could be a new and exotic way to spice things up in your bedroom.
The Sun has learned that the Californian start-up responsible for the female Harmony sex droid is now considering a trans version too.
Fashion, war, and sex: What will be the next frontier in the robotics revolution? Sports, perhaps. I wonder which major-league baseball franchise will be the first to field an all-robot team.
This month I had my first real interaction with a robot. This was the AI assistant Alexa, which a friend has installed in his house. "She's amazing!" he said. "Ask her anything. Just be sure to prefix it with 'Alexa …'."
I'm a bit tongue-tied around new female acquaintances, so I had trouble thinking of anything to ask. At random I said: "Alexa, what's the square root of three?" She rattled off the answer to an impressive number of decimal places, of which the first seven — which is all I know — were correct.
Warming up, I asked her to factorize a nine-digit integer I pulled out of thin air. Alexa emitted a list of factors: I have no idea if they were correct.
Obviously the gal knows her math. Let's try literature. "Alexa, who wrote Melmoth the Wanderer?"
She: "The Wanderers were a pop group of the 1950s …" Well, so they were, but that wasn't what I'd asked, not even close. My diction is good and I was enunciating with self-conscious clarity. Hmm.
Spelling? "Alexa, please spell 'Verrazano'." That's a bugbear of mine. I know there's a double letter in there somewhere, but I can never remember if it's two r's, or two z's, or two n's, or some combination thereof.
She: "'Arizona' is spelt A-R-I-Z-O-N-A." Yes it is, but again …
At this point my son came in. "She just looks things up on Wikipedia," he told me. "You have a Wikipedia page, so …" He addressed the gadget. "Alexa, who is John Derbyshire?" He was careful to give it the U.S. pronunciation, "Derb" rhyming with "verb," not "barb."
She: "John Derby was a linebacker for the Detroit Lions …"
Friends who work in AI and machine learning tell me the rate of progress is astonishing. Possibly that's correct where the research labs are concerned. Consumer-electronics-wise, though, if Alexa is representative, all we have a handle on so far is Artificial Stupidity (AS).
Not bad, though not up to the standards of masters like John Le Carré. It could have been fifty pages shorter without loss, and there is not much incident.
The story kept my attention, though, because it concerns a people I've had some dealings with: the Uighurs of Eastern Turkestan (nowadays the west-Chinese province of Xinjiang).
The Uighurs are a Turkic people, mostly Muslim. They are unhappy under Chinese rule. I encountered some of them in the 1980s, in my days with the Tibet Society. There were some exchanges by mail (email not yet a thing) with Erkin Alptekin, son of Isa Yusuf Alptekin, the Grand Old Man of the Eastern Turkestan independence movement. Erkin was at that time working for Radio Free Europe in Germany.
The 9/11 Islamist attacks on the U.S.A. were a serious blow to the Uighurs.
Prior to 9/11 the Chinese had of course been doing all they could to suppress the independence movement. Uighur nationalists had, partly in reaction, developed a militant terrorist arm, as I described in 1999; but the official independence movement, headquartered in Turkey, took a more sober line, and not an especially religious — that is, Islamist — one. The suppression of religion and the destruction of mosques was of course resented; but the Uighurs, like Turkic peoples everywhere, mostly take their Islam light. The main energy of Uighur resistance was nationalist.
Typhoon has the premise that the U.S.A. in this pre-9/11 period was encouraging Uighur separatism in order to vex China. I wouldn't be surprised; but I don't know if our secret services were actually doing that.
After 9/11 everything changed. Chinese actions against the Uighurs post-9/11 were no longer those of an imperial-despotic power suppressing separatist nationalism in a colony. Suddenly they were part of the righteous worldwide struggle against militant Islam. If the U.S.A. had been meddling on behalf of the Uighurs before, it abruptly stopped doing so. For Chinese imperialism, 9/11 was a gift from Heaven.
That change is the hinge of Charles Cumming's novel, which is divided into roughly equal pre- and post-9/11 parts. It's all very plausible; and as a former intelligence operative himself, Cummings presumably knows much more than the rest of us.
Whither the Uighurs? Fiction aside, what are the actual prospects for Uighur separatism nowadays?
You'd have to say: not bright. The Chinese have turned Eastern Turkestan into a high-tech panopticon. Surveillance cameras are everywhere, many of them using facial-recognition technology. Every Uighur has his DNA sequence stored on a government database. Uighurs who give the slightest cause for suspicion are "disappeared." Young Uighurs studying abroad have been ordered to return home, with the threat of their families being sent to labor camps if they refuse. When they return, the students themselves are "disappeared."
Nor is Turkey any longer a reliable supporter of Uighur nationalism. Nine years ago, following anti-Chinese riots in Eastern Turkestan, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan described the consequent Chinese crackdown as "tantamount to genocide."
Slimy crapweasel Erdoğan, now Turkey's President, has since ditched ethnic solidarity in return for Chinese cash. At a summit in Peking last May to award trade privileges under China's One Belt, One Road initiative to dominate trade across Central Asia, he signed a treaty with China for the extradition of "criminals." The Chinese definition of "criminal" of course includes anyone displeasing to the communist authorities, nonviolent bourgeois dissidents as well as actual terrorists.
China's repression has radicalized a lot of young Uighurs, some of them now fighting with jihadist groups in Syria. "A lot" is relative, though: Even if the entire Uighur population were to be radicalized, there are still something like 150 Han Chinese for every Uighur. A friend of mine who deals with high-level Chinese officials told me the other day that one such had said to him, concerning the Uighurs: "If necessary we'll just kill them all."
It wouldn't be very surprising if that's how it ends up. The Chinese communists have murdered unknown millions of their own people; I can't see why they should balk at exterminating a nuisance ethnic minority. Foreigners might grumble, of course; but throw around a few billions of cash, a few trade deals, a few veiled threats, and the grumbling will soon subside — that's how the communists think.
There will of course be people who say, in regard to the Uighurs: "Serve the buggers right. That's the way to deal with Islam! They only understand force."
I'm not of that school myself. As I've explained numerous times, I have no problem with Islam in its own countries; I just think it's insane to import great masses of Muslims into non-Muslim nations.
As a nationalist, I believe it would be a safer and happier world if distinct ethnies who've long inhabited distinct territories enjoyed self-government. I believe the related thing, too: that nations should not be swamped with great masses of foreigners of a different ethny, as has happened with the Uighurs under Chinese imperial rule, Han Chinese colonists having been imported to the Uighur homelands in the millions.
That's an ideal, of course. Chinese friends who are thoughtful, well-educated, and not particularly chauvinistic sometimes respond to these sentiments with: "That's all very well, but independence isn't really possible for places like Tibet and Xinjiang. If China didn't occupy Tibet, India would. If China didn't occupy Xinjiang, Russia would."
I don't buy that. Mongolia is self-governing. The stans of Central Asia likewise — so I am assured by my dear friend President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov of Turkmenistan.
Sure, there's an element of Finlandization there. If the Mongols or Turkmen did anything that seriously vexed their big, powerful neighbors, their independence wouldn't last long. They do have self-government, though, at a level far preferable to the brutal imperial repression in Eastern Turkestan.
At last, I suppose, might is right. "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." The most we can hope for is that when the Chinese communists resort at last to cattle wagons and gas chambers, the rest of the world doesn't reward them for it.
Mao reconsidered. Several people have asked me to comment on the three-part article about Mao Tse-tung at Unz Review, written by Godfree Roberts. (That has to be a pseudonym.) The three parts of his article are here, here, and here. They are apparently excepted from a forthcoming book.
The author sets out to show that, as he writes: "Mao Zedong did more good for more people than anyone in history." Mao, the author wants us to know, was not merely not the cruel despot we have been told; he was a benefactor of humanity on a heroic — well-nigh a divine — scale.
When he stepped down in 1974 the invaders, bandits and warlords were gone, the population had doubled, literacy was 84 percent, wealth disparity had disappeared, electricity reached poor areas, infrastructure was restored, the economy had grown 500 percent, drug addiction was a memory, women were liberated, girls were educated, crime was rare, everyone had food and shelter, life expectancy was sixty-seven and, by several key social and demographic indicators, China compared favorably with middle income countries whose per capita GDP was five times greater.
I always enjoy a contrarian take on things, and started reading with interest. My interest soon evaporated. This is shoddy stuff. Sure, the Chinese were better off in 1974 than in 1949. That latter date, though, had been preceded by decades of warlordism, invasion, and civil war. They were starting from an extremely low base.
And what was the opportunity cost? If, instead of Mao's dictatorship, China had in 1949 acquired a consensual, open form of government — or even, like Taiwan, just a caudillo style of authoritarianism — they would have been far better off, and would have been spared much cruelty and cultural destruction.
I've been reading China books since the 1960s, both pro-Mao (Edgar Snow, Han Suyin, Felix Greene) and anti-Mao (Tung Chi-Ping, Bao Ruo-wang, Simon Leys.) I've published reviews of forty-odd China books over more than thirty years.
I hung out with people in early 1970s Hong Kong who had fled thither to escape the terrible famine of 1959-62. (There were so many of these refugees, the colony had to finance a crash program of public housing to accommodate them all.) I heard their stories about eating grubs and the bark from trees. I have an old friend whose father, a village schoolmaster, took up Mao's invitation to criticize the Party in the Hundred Flowers movement of 1956, when my friend was an infant. The father was hustled off to a labor camp and never heard from again. One of my wife's aunts died from a hemorrhage in childbirth during Mao's Cultural Revolution: in a campaign against "experts," the ob-gyn staff had all been taken away for political re-education. I had a Chinese friend in 1960s Liverpool whose parents had been publicly humiliated, then murdered, by the communists in Mao's "land reform" campaign of the 1950s. I knew a fiftysomething bachelor in Northeast China who had suffered all through the Mao years for having been born into a "bad" family, i.e. one that had owned a scrap of land and employed a couple of laborers. The Party had refused to permit his marriage to the woman he loved.
I have a hundred such stories, which I've heard from the lips of people who lived through the Mao horror. Anyone who's engaged with the Chinese across the past half-century can say the same. Godfree Roberts' article is a joke in bad taste.
Why did he write it? One's natural assumption is that the ChiComs paid him to. They do a lot of this kind of thing.
That explanation doesn't really work, though. Roberts is not kind about China's post-Mao leadership.
After Mao's death, his frightened heirs set about destroying most of the Cultural Revolution's gains.
My best guess is that Roberts is just a crank. If you write for the public prints you soon learn that the world is full of people with bees in their bonnets about the oddest things. They can be doggedly argumentative: As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, lunatics are often intensely logical. The ease of self-publishing nowadays has only encouraged these nuisances.
Mao still has a small cheering section among the Western intelligentsia. Nine years ago I published an unflattering review of a collection of Mao's poems in translation. I got a surprising number of hostile emails from people — none of them obviously Chinese, and some obviously not — jeering at me for having failed to appreciate the literary productions of a world-class genius.
Probably Godfree Roberts belongs to that section. Whatever: I call b-s on him, and won't bother with the book.
Math Corner. This was one of those months when math news breaks through into the general press. We have a new biggest known prime number.
Mr. Pace's discovery is known as M77232917 and was announced on Jan. 3. It is expressed as 277,232,917 − 1 and is 23,249,425 digits, nearly one million digits larger than the previous record-holder, which The New York Times wrote about in 2016. As we explained then: A prime number is not divisible by any positive integer except 1 and itself. Some prime numbers are named after Marin Mersenne, a French theologian and mathematician who studied them in the early 17th century. They can be written in the form 2n − 1 where n is an integer. For example, 3 is a Mersenne prime. Plug in 2 for n, and you find 22 − 1 = 4 − 1 = 3. But not all integers plugged into this expression generate a prime number, and as integers get bigger, prime numbers become rarer. [How a Church Deacon Found the Biggest Prime Number Yet (It Wasn't as Hard as You Think) by Valencia Prashad; New York Times, January 26th.]
The natural logarithm of 277,232,917 is 53,533,778 point something; so up in that rarefied zone, only about one number in 54 million is a prime. Talk about needles in haystacks.
All honor and credit to Jon Pace, who discovered this number; but if you've gotten a bit jaded with the finding of a new, even-more humongous Mersenne prime every year or so, here are lists of some seriously big non-Mersenne primes.
For a look at some of the latest work on prime numbers, a friend has recommended Vicky Neale's new book Closing the Gap: The Quest to Understand Prime Numbers. The book hasn't arrived yet so I haven't read it; I shall report back next month. I'm guessing that the "solo mathematician working in isolation and obscurity" mentioned in the Amazon.com blurb is Zhang Yitang, seen with me here.