Impromptus

Accepting the unacceptable, &c.

by Jay Nordlinger

I was talking to a Russian-born friend who has lived in this country for most of her adult life. She was telling me about the difficulties of dealing with her son’s school: its bureaucracy, its rigidity, its indifference to normal human feelings and foibles. She said, “It wasn’t this bad in the Soviet Union, I swear! Teachers and administrators were more flexible. Why do you Americans put up with this?”

It was hard to answer her: We accept a lot of things, I think. In the past few weeks, people have said to me, “People will reject Obamacare because it doesn’t work. They are rejecting it already.”

That’s good news — but I have to tell you: My whole life, I’ve been told that the program called “Head Start” doesn’t work. I have also been told that it is unkillable — sacrosanct. Congress renews it year after year, even though “everyone” knows it doesn’t work.

My whole life, I’ve been told that our public schools don’t really work — that they are “dysfunctional.” That they especially fail poor and black kids. And yet Americans accept this system, year after year, generation after generation.

People can get used to almost anything, I’m afraid. They simply figure they are stuck with something and muddle through.

On a related note, a reader e-mailed me,

I just saw a headline from the Associated Press that struck me as a succinct sign of how much this country has changed, and, particularly, what our citizens are prepared to accept about their relationship to the federal government. I will leave it to you to unpack the many layers. I just don’t have the strength.

I don’t think I do either. Anyway, the headline: “Policy cancellations: Obama will allow old plans.” (The article is here.)

Is a president supposed to have that sort of power? I mean, a president of the United States, not a president of, say, Egypt?

China has just been elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council. So have Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. Always, the worst human-rights violators sit on the human-rights council. Over the years, we have had Qaddafi’s Libya, the Assads’ Syria, the Castros’ Cuba, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, genocidal Sudan, etc., etc.

In a way, I’m not displeased to see the worst regimes sit on the human-rights council: because it exposes the hollowness of the United Nations. Maybe North Korea should have a place on the council!

I said “hollowness,” above, but maybe it would be better to say “reality” — the reality of the United Nations. As Solzhenitsyn said, the U.N. is not so much a gathering of nations or peoples as it is a gathering of governments or regimes — and many of those regimes are undemocratic, obnoxious, or monstrous.

So, China has its human-rights seat — the PRC, a one-party dictatorship with a gulag. Ho-hum, I guess.

Whitey Bulger, the mobster, has given us a portrait of heartlessness. Listen to this:

The families of people killed by South Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger and his gang finally got the chance Wednesday to tell Bulger how his long reign of terror damaged their lives, calling him a “terrorist,” a “punk” and even “Satan.”

A stone-faced Bulger refused to look at them, again declared his trial a sham and didn’t take his opportunity to address the judge.

Bulger, his back to the families, stared straight ahead and scribbled on a legal pad as a dozen relatives stood one by one in a packed courtroom and poignantly described the loss of their loved ones and their contempt for Bulger.

The rest of the article, if you’re in the mood, is here.

You can give Bulger this, I suppose: He has not gone sentimental, in his moment of judgment (legal judgment). The ice is firmly in place in his veins.

There is nothing light about Syria, obviously — but listen to this: “KFC quits Damascus as Syria crisis becomes too much for the colonel.” I am quoting a dispatch from Tom Gross, here.

And I was reminded of a trip to Egypt I took years ago — to Alexandria, in particular. For National Review, I wrote an article called “Alexandria the Great,” and it ended up as the last piece in this collection.

In the article, I wrote,

The Americans have been here lately — at least in the form of their eateries. The city is dotted with Hardee’s, Arby’s, Chili’s, Pizza Hut, Baskin Robbins, Kentucky Fried Chicken — heck, the Colonel’s face is almost as ubiquitous as Mubarak’s.

Detroit has a new mayor, Mike Duggan. An article in the Wall Street Journal was headed “Black City Taps White Mayor.” Duggan — a Democrat, of course — had to overcome such people as the president of the local NAACP, who said, in effect, that Duggan’s candidacy was a conspiracy to “redo Detroit absent the African-American influence.” Congressman John Conyers endorsed the other candidate, Benny Napoleon, “because he is one of us.” (Napoleon, like Conyers, is black.) (Wonderful name, by the way — “Benny Napoleon.”)

But then there was Malik Shabazz, the leader of Detroit’s New Black Panther Party. I wouldn’t have guessed that common sense and liberality could come from that source. Declaring for Duggan, he said, “I’m not supporting the best black candidate. I’m supporting the best candidate.”

I know a little something about the racial politics of Detroit, having grown up in the orbit of that city. I have a clear memory of a mayoral contest between a man named Dennis Archer and a woman named Sharon McPhail (Archer won). McPhail spent the campaign trying to out-black Archer, basically. And here’s the thing: She was very, very light-skinned — a freckled woman who could have passed. And here she was, implying that Archer was a stooge for whites.

Incidentally, everyone understands what I mean by “passed,” right? There was a time when almost all Americans knew: “passed for white.”

I would get into Coleman Young, the longtime mayor of Detroit, and one of the most racist people who ever drew breath, but we don’t have the time (entertaining as it might be — as well as revolting).

Care for some music? A few days ago, an Estonian orchestra and choir came to New York for an unusual concert. To see some remarks from me, go here.

Care for some advertising? New York buses blare, “Unsex me here.” They are advertising a production of Macbeth. (Lady Macbeth says, “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty!”) Ads on top of cabs blare, “Masters of Sex.” This is a TV show.

All of our lives, we’ve heard that “sex sells.” But sometimes, it’s a little comical, this selling.

Sometimes, you don’t know of someone till he dies. This is often true, actually. If I’d known about Robinson Risner, I’d forgotten about him, I’m sorry to say. Then I saw his obit in the New York Times.

He was, evidently, one of the best fighter pilots we’ve ever had — an ace in Korea and Vietnam. He must have been one of the bravest men we’ve ever had, too.

In September 1965, he was shot down in Vietnam, and spent seven and a half years in the prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” He endured the usual, and endured it almost superhumanly. (I’m talking about torture, of course.) For more than three years, he was kept in solitary confinement, living in complete darkness. He held on to his sanity.

Before his capture, he had been on the cover of Time magazine, as an example of the American warrior. The Vietnamese Communists waved the magazine under his nose: They thought they had caught a very big fish.

Once, in 1971, Risner organized a church service for fellow POWs, knowing this would result in serious punishment. As he was led away, the other POWs sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

I was interested in the photo accompanying the Times obit: It showed Risner in a homecoming parade in 1973 — in San Francisco. Apparently, the city was welcoming of released POWs.

Risner, the son of an Arkansas sharecropper, has died at 88. The Times recounted an anecdote: At a reunion of airmen, Risner met a Russian ace who had been in Korea. The Russian wondered whether he and Risner had ever faced each other in combat. “No way,” said Risner. “You wouldn’t be here.”