- Out with the Tens…
- In with the Twenties
- Britain’s Coolidge
- Totally unjustifiable impulse purchase of the month
- Groyper issues
- Atrocity inflation
- A small victory in the culture wars
- Fiction Book of the Month
- Biography of the month
- Nonfiction of the Month
- The decade that normalized the f-word
- An Asian-American Emmett Till
- Math Corner
Another decade slips away, my second full decade of writing web commentary. Honest thanks are in order to the readers, listeners, and organizations who have supported my work these twenty years — yes, including National Review. Thank you!
Speaking of National Review, here was Kyle Smith, who bylines as “critic-at-large” at that organ, writing in the December 28th New York Post. “Nearly everything right now is actually awesome,” exults Kyle in a column titled Suck it, doomsayers! The past decade was the best ever.
I will grudgingly allow, however, that things might be worse. Wa-a-ay back in the previous decade, in June of 2003, I reviewed a book by Sir Martin Rees, the British Astronomer Royal, then soon to become President of the Royal Society, and so a heavy hitter in modern science. Sir Martin’s book was titled Our Final Hour. For doom’n’gloom it was hard to beat. Sir Martin wrote:
I staked one thousand dollars on a bet: “That by the year 2020 an instance of bioerror or bioterror will have killed a million people.” Of course, I fervently hope to lose this bet. But I honestly do not expect to …
As I write this there are still a few hours left in 2019, but it looks very much as though Sir Martin will be taking out his checkbook.
So no, things aren’t as bad as Sir Martin feared … although, since his fears included the possible annihilation of spacetime, that’s not saying a lot.
And now, the Twenties! To a person of my generation — born 1945 (and so not a Boomer, thanks very much) that phrase “the Twenties” has some color.
For my parents’ cohort, the fortysomethings and fiftysomethings of my childhood, the 1920s were their salad days: youth, vigor, adventure, romance, strongly impressed memories. They talked about the Twenties a lot.
I think this was even more the case for Americans. Those years were, for this country, fun, filled with novelty and incident. Movies! (Still silent, of course.) Jazz! Radio! Automobiles! Colorful gangsters! (Sure, they committed homicide a lot, but mostly on each other.) Broadway musicals! Aviation! Flappers! Sexual liberation! It was fun. Historian Paul Johnson, in his book Modern Times, gives his chapter on 1920s America the heading “The Last Arcadia.”
Britain wasn’t quite like that. The Brits enjoyed those same novelties and shared some of the same thrills, but under darker skies.
The main difference was in national self-esteem. Britain came out of World War 1 diminished; America, strengthened. Britain’s war deaths were proportionally fifteen times America’s: two percent of the population, against 0.13 percent. The war had been longer for Britain — 4.3 years against America’s 1.6 — and more grueling, with food shortages and the first air raids.
Britain was also suffering from her tremendous 19th-century success. Smug in possession of a vast empire, the ruling classes lost their vitality. Industry stuck in the mud with outdated equipment and methods. Unemployment was chronic. Paul Johnson gives the following figures for 1921-29, as a percentage of the labor force: 17.0, 14.3, 11.7, 10.3, 11.3, 12.5, 9.7, 10.8. 10.4. Agriculture had been devastated by cheap imports and misguided reforms: the price of agricultural land was in free fall.
The old class system was under siege, too. The mingling enforced by mass wartime mobilization had stirred discontent. Lower-class youngsters resented a social order that, they felt, unfairly excluded them. Young men of spirit lit out for the colonies, as my own father did in 1926.
Still, on a personal level it’s hard to feel anything but affectionate nostalgia for your salad days. In Britain, as in America, there was fun to be had, of kinds not to be had in previous decades. For my parents’ generation the Twenties had a definite glow, some of which I caught by reflection.
The truly wonderful thing about that burst of prosperity and fun in 1920s America is that politics had little to do with it. There was in fact not much politics going on. The nation was self-driving, self-energizing.
The emblematic figure here was of course Calvin Coolidge, President from August 1923 to March 1929. Coolidge wasn’t quite as much of a Taoist as he’s been remembered (or as he himself liked to pose), but he was wonderfully laid-back by today’s standards, and even by comparison with his predecessor Woodrow Wilson (“counting out Harding as a cipher only” — Mencken) and his successor Herbert Hoover. Anyone that knows anything at all about Coolidge is familiar with Will Rogers’ quip (variously quoted): “He did nothing, but that’s what people wanted done.”
Here’s a related remark about British statesman Stanley Baldwin, who was Prime Minister from mid-1923 to mid-1929, except for a few months in 1924.
By constitution he was easy-going … While it is going too far to assert, as was asserted, that “Baldwin might have done anything — and did nothing,” there is substance in Lloyd George’s charge that his Government degenerated into one that was “torpid, sleepy, and barren” [Britain’s Prime Ministers by E. Royston Pike, p.389].
Perhaps we have here another instance of the curious parallelism between British and American politics: Brexit-Trump, Thatcher-Reagan, …, Baldwin-Coolidge.
Baldwin, however, did not follow Silent Cal’s wise example of quitting while he was ahead. He served as Prime Minister again in the mid-1930s when rearmament to confront Hitler’s Germany was a major issue. True to form, he did nothing about it, drawing a withering rebuke from Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm.
Baldwin — an intelligent, well-read, and eloquent man, and a first cousin to Rudyard Kipling — had a case for his inaction, and tried to make it. (And Pat Buchanan has made it over again in Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War). History, however, including political history, is written by the victors, and Churchill won this one. Baldwin’s reputation has ever since dwelt in the odium of his having failed to stand up to Hitler when he should have.
I was surprised at how cheap these things are. “I bet I can find uses for that,” I murmured, and clicked on the Buy Now button.
So far I’ve had some mild fun turning family photographs into dinner-table place mats, but I’m sure I’ll think of other things …
In my November 22nd podcast I took a look at the Groypers, and in particular at Nick Fuentes. I wasn’t impressed. I especially wasn’t impressed by his long-drawn-out mocking of the Holocaust. I concluded:
If this Nick Fuentes guy is representative … the Groypers are headed down the same plug-hole the Alt-Right disappeared into. Like the Alt-Right, they will be easy adversaries for the CultMarx establishment and their Conservatism, Inc. enablers to out-strategize, out-mobilize, out-think, out-spend, out-wit, then chew up and out-spit without breaking a fingernail.
That brought in some mail: nothing abusive — the Dissident Right are a well-mannered crowd — but with a definite more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger coloring to it.
Sample, from a self-identifying Gen Z-er. That’s the cohort following the Millennials. Gen Z are now now 20-25 years old. This young man — I’d really like to have a drink with him, but he’s on the other side of the country — brings up the generation gap:
Gen Z and youth culture is all about dark humor, ironic jokes, and hyperbolic statements made for laughs. I think one could attribute this to a kind of coping mechanism used to laugh in the face of the world Western Gen Z has been handed. The pernicious, hollowed-out job market, college debt, skyrocketing rents, and the near impossibility of owning a home.
I entirely sympathize. As I wrote in Chapter 13 of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism:
If I compare my own life to the lives of my parents, and to the prospects for my children, I am struck by my immense good fortune in having been born when and where I was.
I’m looking at the world from that position of tremendous personal good luck. Gen Z-ers are looking at it from a different angle. Intergenerational incomprehensions are a constant of human affairs, always and everywhere. As the sage observed: “Our tastes greatly alter. The lad does not care for the child’s rattle, and the old man does not care for the young man’s whore.”
Still, there’s a war to be fought, a war for our future generations, and Nick Fuentes is not fighting smart. I could go on at length about this; but most of the things I’d say were said December 10th by David Cole over at Taki’s Magazine. If you want to know any more about what I think, read David’s piece. That’s what I think, or close enough. Some random extracts:
I get the appeal. But take it from the “based Jew”: This is not the hill to die on …
There are plenty of “dangerous” topics that can be intellectually defended from a rightist perspective: interracial crime, race and IQ, and the effects of Third World immigration on a civilized nation. Go to the mat for those. Defend the free-speech rights of Holocaust deniers (as I’ve done for thirty years), but don’t confuse them being censored with them being right …
If you really believe that the entire West is in jeopardy, then the battle is bigger than you and your petty desire to look dangerous and edgy. And if your self-indulgence leads you to advocate baseless, irrational pseudo-history, then you’re part of the problem, not the solution … “final” or otherwise.
I hold the strong belief that no countercultural movement in the West is going to go anywhere unless it can get some smart Jews on board. As one such, the blogger PTT says, there is the opportunity for a strategic alliance. Why blow that opportunity for the sake of a few cheap laughs?
My own issues with the Groypers aside, have the numbers of Holocaust dead been inflated? Was it really six million?
I feel about this question the way I do about the mass of the Higgs boson. I know the durn thing exists; as to the fine quantitative details, I’ll leave them to the investigations of properly-credentialed experts (historians, physicists). Let me know what they come up with. If a lay person offers me strongly-expressed opinions on the matter, I’ll mentally tag that person as a crank.
If it could be proved to me that the number has been inflated, I wouldn’t be much surprised. When some ethny has suffered a mass atrocity, surviving and subsequent co-ethnics always do inflate the numbers. It’s not easy to get attention in this world. Atrocity-wise, bigger numbers get and keep more attention.
Case in point from this month’s news:
China today marked the 82nd anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre.
It has been estimated that more than 300,000 people were slaughtered by Japanese troops in the city of Nanjing, formerly known as Nanking, during the six-week bloodbath from December 13 in 1937.
[8,000 people gather to mourn the victims of Nanjing Massacre in China on 82nd anniversary of the WWII bloodbath that saw “300,000 slaughtered by Japanese troops” by Tracy You; Daily Mail, December 13th 2019].
That was a dreadful business all right, and the behavior of the Japanese was beastly. Is 300,000 the actual number, though? That, says Wikipedia, is “a highly contentious subject.”
Currently, the most reliable and widely agreed upon figures place the total between the broad range of 40,000 to 200,000 massacre victims in the entire Nanking Special Administrative District, though numbers even smaller or larger than this have been put forward by Japanese revisionists and the government of China respectively. Some of the lowest estimates have counted only 10,000 deaths, while some of the highest have counted as many as 430,000 deaths.
(Concerning the re-branding of Nanking as “Nanjing,” I believe I passed the definitive comment back in 1991 when it first became current in English-language books and periodicals: “surely a grave loss to the makers of limericks.”)
The Chinese have of course some atrocities of their own to answer for, and the publicized numbers there are just as dubious. I’ve been writing sympathetically about the Tibetans since 1984; but the body counts put out by the Tibetan government-in-exile are highly improbable, as I noted when reviewing Patrick French’s book about Tibet:
French … shows how utterly implausible is the figure, now an immutable fixture of exile propaganda, of 1.2 million Tibetans killed by Chinese rule. The true number is, he thinks, more like four or five hundred thousand. That is quite dreadful enough, in a nation of only five million or so …
Dreadful enough to stir my outraged sympathy, but not dreadful enough for the propagandists, I guess.
I’m aware of course that “Holocaust denier” is a CultMarx cuss-phrase, like “white supremacist,” used by the nation-wrecking mob to tag dissidents for personal and career destruction. Sometimes they are a tad over-zealous in their application of it, though. This was the case with the tagging of Irish journalist Kevin Myers.
I have some slight acquaintance with Kevin. I’ve read a lot of his stuff and reviewed one of his books; and we have once or twice exchanged emails on topics of common interest. Well, two years ago Kevin got tagged as a Holocaust denier and lost his job as a result. British writer Lionel Shriver (whose novel The Mandibles I commented on in last month’s diary — small world!) tells the full story in a December 21st column at The Spectator.
In Kevin’s case the tag was a plain lie, as he could easily demonstrate. He rose to the challenge and sued RTÉ, the Irish state media outlet — the Irish equivalent of Britain’s BBC, but even more woke.
At the end of November (and so too late for my November Diary) Kevin won his case, or at any rate reached an out-of-court settlement with RTÉ. It included a clear public apology from the broadcaster. We don’t know any other terms of the settlement, but I hope Kevin got a nice fat check from the CultMarx swine.
(“RTÉ” stands for Raidió Teilifís Éireann, which is Irish for “Radio-Television of Ireland.” When I was living there forty years ago, the natives referred to RTÉ using just the middle word, as “the telly-fish.” To my coarse British ears, it sounded like some exotic marine organism.)
I hesitate to log in my fiction reading this month as it is of limited interest to anyone other than fellow survivors of 1960s London.
I like my fiction l-o-n-g, so I’m a sucker for trilogies and tetralogies. A friend who knows this recommended Jake Arnott’s The Long Firm Trilogy. I bought it. So far I’ve read the first one and a half of the three novels.
It’s realistic crime fiction — think Elmore Leonard — set in the seedy underworld of 1960s London. I’ve been enjoying it; but then, I was there. If you don’t know who the Kray Twins were, or Harry Roberts, never heard of Johnnie Ray, never bought a bint a Babycham, and are baffled by usages like “knee-trembler” and “drum” (referring to one’s place of abode), much of the books’ charms will be lost on you.
Six years ago Boris Johnson, now Britain’s Prime Minister, astonished TV audiences in Australia by quoting at length from the Iliad, in Homer’s Greek, during a routine interview. The video clip just came up again, the way these things do, and has been bouncing around Twitter.
Some people have poked fun at Johnson’s pronunciation. I can’t render any judgment. Like Shakespeare, according to his pal Ben Jonson, I have “small Latin and no Greek.”
Not knowing Greek has never bothered me, but I carry a load of guilt about my small Latin. I was flogged through four years of the language at school, and regret not having paid more attention. Of the fragments that remain lodged in my head, most are from poems, so my guilt is strongest where Latin verse is concerned.
For the verse of Catullus, it’s double strength. If you mix at all with real academic Latinists, people who dream in Latin, you know that for them Catullus is the bee’s knees (apis genua). Try out a bit of your high-school Horace or Virgil on one such, he’ll smile encouragingly while glancing at his watch; but if you mention Catullus, he’ll beam with delight, stand up, kick away his chair, and start dancing around the room rattling off lines in Latin until you beg him to stop. Yet my schoolmasters never gave us any Catullus, probably because he’s very frank about sex.
The great age of Latin poetry extends from about the year 60 b.c. till the death of Ovid in 17 a.d. There are three marked divisions in this period, each with a distinct character of its own: the first represented by Lucretius and Catullus, the second by Virgil and Horace, the last by Ovid. Force and sincerity are the great characteristics of the first period, maturity of art of the second, facility of the last.
I make occasional vague efforts to plug into the Catullus magic. I put the poet’s elegy for his brother on my website, read not in my schoolboy Latin with the vowel lengths all wrong and em phases on the wrong syl lables, but by a real Latinist. This is probably Catullus’ best-known poem, the one that ends with ave atque vale, “hail and farewell.”
For this month’s occasional vague plug-in effort I’ve been reading Daisy Dunn’s biography of Catullus. This is a pretty audacious project since we have only a handful of external facts about the poet’s life. Even his dates are uncertain. We have the poems, though, quite a lot of them, and most are very personal, so Ms Dunn can put together a story of sorts from some inspired guessing.
She doesn’t hold back on the sexual frankness, quoting in full poems that, even in Latin, can’t be quoted on a family website.
There is not actually a lot of that in the book, though. Ms Dunn’s main enthusiasm is for Poem 64, the Bedspread Poem, a weird, multiply-convoluted mini-epic inspired by a journey to the Black Sea in 57-56 b.c. This was frontier territory: strange wild landscapes and peoples, connected in the mind of an educated Roman with the old Greek legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece.
Catullus took the connection and ran with it, producing a poem that still today leaves academic Latinists flushed and swooning. (See Charlotte Higgins flush and swoon here.) Daisy Dunn’s book includes her own translation of the poem in an appendix.
What makes the serious Latinists flush and swoon is distant faint music to me, and I suppose always will be. I’m obliged to Ms Dunn, though, for giving some kind of shape to the life of a lovestruck young man — Catullus died at age 30 — who still speaks to the human imagination across twenty-one centuries.
Nonfictionwise I’m attracted to big questions about history and society. Examples:
(1) Why did modernity — science, the nation-state, representative government, the idea of progress — emerge from Europe, not China?
(2) What’s the matter with white people, that so many of them seem to hate their own civilization and ancestors?
The first question there is obviously related to the Needham Question. In the words of Joseph Needham himself:
Why did [Chinese] science always remain empirical, and restricted to theories of primitive or mediaeval type? What were the inhibiting factors in their civilisation which prevented the rise of modern science in Asia?
Big, difficult questions, for which we currently have no dispositive answers. I’m hoping for some enlightenment from two books I’ve acquired and just started reading.
For the first question, the one about modernity, I’m reading Walter Scheidel’s Escape from Rome. The author is working the idea that it was Europe’s decisive turning its back on the imperial model following Rome’s fall that eventually brought us modernity.
That’s by no means a new idea in itself; but from the fall of Rome to the rise of modernity is an awful long time. What happened in that time to bring modernity about? Scheidel works the details.
For question (2) I have Kevin MacDonald’s Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition, which of course comes at the issue from a viewpoint of evolutionary psychology.
I’m not very far into either book yet, so I shall report back.
The BBC plans to rewrite Charles Dickens tonight, complete with the f-word and a scene showing a character urinating on a grave. It has no right to do so.
It is typical of this increasingly cynical, ignorant organisation that it should put four-letter words into the mouth of Ebenezer Scrooge, and invent gross and disturbing scenes in a drama that is bound to be seen by the young and impressionable. [Ignorant BBC plans to rewrite Charles Dickens and put the f-word into the mouth of Ebenezer Scrooge by Peter Hitchens; Daily Mail, December 21st 2019.]
This topic always brings to my mind the old joke about a squaddie narrating one of his off-base adventures.
We wuz stationed in this f***in’ town in f***in’ Germany. One night we all went out to a f***in’ bar. I got talkin’ to this f***in’ woman. She ‘ad a fair bit of f***in’ mileage on ‘er an’ not much f***in’ English, but f***in’ nice-lookin’, anyway, once I’d ‘ad a couple of f***in’ pints. Would I like to go upstairs wiv her, she asked. I said, “You’re f***in’-A I would, Fraulein!” So she led me up the f***in’ stairs, me f***in’ mates all laughin’ an’ cheerin’ at the f***in’ bar. We go to this f***in’ room, and we went in. She shut the f***in’ door, we took off our f***in’ clothes, got on the f***in’ bed, and I ‘ad sexual intercourse wiv ‘er.
Steve asked: “Who Is the Emmett Till for Asian-American Complainers?” That is: Who is the iconic Asian-American victim marginalized, mocked, insulted, or — like Emmett Till — done to death by evil white supremacists?
Steve suggests that “Mickey Rooney being cast as Mr Yunioshi [i.e. in Breakfast at Tiffany’s] is Emmett Till for Asian-American op-ed grifters.”
My candidate would be Lum You. From the late Willard R. Espy’s An Almanac of Words at Play — absolutely the BEST BATHROOM BOOK EVER — entry for January 31st:
On this day in 1902, my home county of Pacific carried out its only formal capital sentence. It hanged by the neck until dead one Lum You, a Chinese laborer who, the preceding August, for reasons unrecorded, had shot and killed a certain Oscar Bloom. The sheriff, a sociable man, sent favored citizens invitations to the festivities. This example has survived; [Espy includes a copy of the invitation ticket].
If you know where Lum You is interred, tell me; I’d like to raise money for a headstone. It might bear this legend:
I LUM YOU (1873-1902).
WHY YOU NO LUM ME?
My November Math Corner concluded with a puzzle lifted from the Notices of the American Mathematical Society.
I really should try these things before I post them. When I finally, in mid-December, got around to tackling this one, I concluded it is a dud. Explanation here.
Thus chastened, for this month’s brainteaser I’ll offer something straightforward and solid, from the zone of elementary probability theory that back in my sixth-form days we called “perms’n’coms,” i.e. permutations and combinations.
(1) Suppose n balls are randomly thrown into b boxes. What is the probability a given box contains exactly k balls?
If that’s too easy, try this enhanced version:
(2) Suppose a box contains N balls, K of which are red. The remainder are blue. You draw n balls without replacement. What is the probability exactly k of them are red?
The first of those was tweeted last month by Dissident-Right tweeter Synthetic. I tweeted a reply — no peeking! — to which Synthetic responded with the slightly harder second version.
John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him.) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. He has had two books published by VDARE.com com: FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle) and FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT II: ESSAYS 2013.