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April Diary


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John Derbyshire

Atrocity of the month. The atrocity of the month was undoubtedly the snatching of 463 children from their mothers by the state of Texas.

State officials raided the FLDS’s Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado on April 3. They took custody of 463 children on the belief that the sect’s practice of underage and polygamous spiritual marriages endangered the children. The children are now scattered in foster-care facilities around the state. (AP)

Oh, that’s great. The little ones will be at no risk at all of abuse or mistreatment in foster care, under the vigilant, unblinking supervision of state child welfare officials, right? Ri-ight.

Of those 463 children, 130 were aged under five. Think of it: 130 little tots, less than five years old, pulled away from the only homes and parents they have ever known. Imagine how they must have tried to cling to their mothers, how they must have cried, how desperately baffled and helpless they must have been.

Most depressing of all has been the lack of comment on this act of naked, brutal fascism by thuggish enforcers of state power. On the political Right, other than my own passing comments on Radio Derb, the only voice of protest I heard was that of Ilana Mercer on WorldNetDaily. I can’t improve on Ilana’s piece, and I don’t think I could control my outrage as well as she has across 900 words of biting commentary. Just read it for yourself.

Did men in the Eldorado compound commit acts of statutory rape? Then gather the evidence and prosecute cases. Did they contract marriages under Texas law with more than one woman at a time? Then gather the evidence and prosecute for bigamy. Did residents at the Eldorado ranch game the welfare system? Gather the evidence and prosecute them for fraud against the public fisc.

Where, exactly, does snatching 463 children from their homes and families enter in? Where? Hello? The state goons do this for only one reason: because they can. ¡Sì, se Puede! And the reason they can is, that taxed, regulated, lawyered-up, arugula-chomping, yuppified America doesn’t give a damn about weird reclusive types with eccentric beliefs. Look at how they dress, for heaven’s sake! Why, I bet not one of them has been to law school!

Ilana is right: we live in post-constitutional America. She is right, too, that:

Whether they are “plural” or single, Wicca or just weird, bohemian or bourgeoisie – parents should take the kids and skedaddle when they hear that phrase “in the best interests of the child.” It is simply a license for the state to substitute its own judgment for that of the parents. Today, it’s polygamist parents … Tomorrow, it’ll be the offspring of homeschoolers or global warming deniers.


Bowling for Votes
. It’s a shame the way we make politicians jump through populist hoops to get our votes. Most politicians are overclass types who would much rather just stay away from us proles and our incomprehensible dumb pastimes as much as they can. At election time, however, they have to go through the motions. It’s embarrassing to watch.

So here is Barack Obama at a bowling alley, trying to bowl. The guy scored 37. In seven frames, apparently. Since it’s fair to assume that the candidate made no strikes or spares, that’s an average of less than three pins knocked down per ball bowled.

That is almost impossibly bad. I bowled myself for a couple of years. First time up, I’d been watching bowlers to see how it was done, and had the physical rhythm of the thing – which I could see was the key – fixed in my mind. Actually doing it was of course something else, but I recall my first ever game being 80-something. I was up to a steady 130 or 140 in a few weeks, and after a couple of seasons was carrying a 162 average – respectable, though not quite as good as Richard Nixon’s 165. (Bill Clinton claims to have had a 230 average, but if you believe that, you’ll . . . well, you’ll believe a Clinton. And yes, I know about the whole Nixon-bowling / Big Lebowski cult. Been there, done that, and yes, love the movie.)

Let’s face it, Barack Obama looks as out of place in a bowling alley as I would in Trinity United Church of Christ. After all, I might be sitting there in the pews when Jeremiah Wright invites his hero Louis Farrakhan to address the congregation. I could find myself listening to Farrakhan rant about some “gutter religion.” That would be as least as embarrassing as Obama bowling a gutter ball.

Down the plughole. When some of our technologies are so fantastically good, why are others so irredeemably crappy? We have 5,400-passenger cruise ships, so big they include a park with trees and a lake. We have laser-guided missiles. We have satellite navigation systems in our cars. We have gigabyte iPods and can make phone calls from the top of Mount Everest. What ain’t we got? We ain’t got bath plugs.

The standard arrangement for plugging the hole in a bath or handbasin is a contraption with a ball joint, lever, and metal stopper. It doesn’t work. I must have spent hundreds of hours of my life fiddling with the damn fool stupid useless things in my own house. My motel room in Tucson this earlier month had a handbasin whose plug didn’t work at all, and couldn’t be made to.

Memo to the manufacturers of bathroom appliances: bath plugs. The old-fashioned kind, I mean: a round rubber plug on a chain. They may not come up to contemporary standards of elegance and techno-style, but dammit they work. Unlike the ball-and-lever contraptions in a billion American bathrooms, including those chez Derb, which I do my best to keep well-maintained.

The bathroom is in fact the Ground Zero of stupid technology. The standard toilet float-cisterns don’t work very well, either. In any given street, there will be a couple that are running, wasting who knows how much water. Is it all a plot by some secret cabal of plumbers to keep themselves employed?

Here’s a bath-plug story. An old friend of mine in England was raised in Vienna in the post-WW2 years, when (until 1956) Austria was divided into an Allied zone and a Soviet zone. In the latter for some reason, Russian soldiers were billeted in Austrian houses. The universal complaint against them was, that they stole all the bath plugs. (Well, that was one complaint. The other was their habit of crapping in attics and basements.)

And here’s a bath-plug song. I tell you, you get full measure here at NRO. This is an urban English folk ditty, a fine specimen of the great callous misopedia of my native land. I remember it dimly from my childhood. The only version on the web is folk singer Martin Carthy’s, with words slightly different from the one I remember. Catch me at an NR function, I’ll sing it for ya.

Your Baby Has Gone Down the Plughole

A mother was bathing her baby one night —
The youngest of ten, a poor little mite.
The mother was poor and the baby was thin —
T’was naught but a skeleton wrapped up in skin.

The mother turned round for the soap from the rack.
She was only a minute, but when she got back
Her baby had gone! In anguish she cried:
“Oh, where is my baby?” An angel replied:

“Your baby has gone down the plughole.
Your baby has gone down the plug.
The poor little thing was so tiny and thin

Your baby is quite all right now, dear.
He won’t need a bath any more.
Your baby has gone down the plughole.
Not lost, but gone before.”

Halfway to disintegration. This is a single anecdotal data point on a large and complicated graph, but it seems significant to me.

I mentioned to a friend the acquittal of the policemen in the Sean Bell shooting here in New York City. Al Sharpton has been making a fuss about it, no justice no peace and all the rest, and I said something unflattering about the Righteous Rev to my friend, an ordinary white New York office-walla from Central Casting – nice suburban house, 2.7 kids, mild opinions about everything so far as I have ever known. I had him pretty much tagged as a conventional liberal, in fact.

Well, he supported Al Sharpton, though not in quite the way I would have expected. What he actually said was: Oh, he’s just standing up for his race. What’s wrong with that?

Possibly I’m reading too much into this, but I don’t believe you would have heard a thing like that from a person like this five or ten years ago. You might have heard an abusive remark about Al the trouble-maker; or you might have heard some squeal-like-a-pig piece of white liberal self-loathing (Of course they want justice! The authorities are obviously covering something up …)

You wouldn’t have heard he’s just standing up for his race, though. From the point of view of political correctness, that is a highly subversive statement. After all, if it’s okay for Al Sharpton to stand up for his race, what would be wrong with a white person standing up for his race?

I mark this as another small milestone on the long road from the functionally monoracial U.S.A. of the mid-20th century to the constitutionally (in all probability) polyracial North America of the mid-21st. Fifty years ago the country was 88-percent white, 11-percent black, one percent other. Black Americans were invisible, their best shot at a decent life being to act white as much as possible. The country was functionally white. We decided that arrangement wasn’t fair; but we assumed, with that blithe American optimism, that it was fixable. So we fixed it.

There are of course all sorts of ways to fix things. You can fix someone’s toothache by lopping off his head.

Fifty years from now the U.S.A., if it still exists, will be a collection of racial enclaves – white, black, Hispanic, East Asian, South Asian, Muslim, Hawaiian – avoiding each other as much as possible, probably demanding regional autonomy. Heck, Hawaii pretty much has already.

To a person of my generation, it’s very sad. We earliest boomers can still remember the high, universalist hopes of the civil-rights movement. Remove discriminatory laws, kill off ol’ Jim Crow, and – Shazam! – in no time at all the whole miserable race business would melt away. There would just be citizens, mingling freely and unselfconsciously, all equally enjoying and benefiting from the blessings of liberty. Hawaii was just leis and Don Ho back in those innocent times.

What fools we were! What a dumb thing we believed! As I type this, the TV is braying away in the background, some talking head saying something about Jeremiah Wright and the black church. Shouldn’t the church be the last institution to abandon the universalist dream? A little before that I had Bill O’Reilly on talking about the Supreme Court voter ID decision, and how Latino groups were angry and disappointed about it. Race? It’s everywhere and everything. Deep-brow types are starting to say so in respectable journals. It will never go away, until we just separate at last, like the Yugoslavs and the Cypriots and (soon) the Belgians and the Bolivians. It’s sad.

Let’s look on the bright side, though. After a few years further along Reality Road, the charge of racism will have been completely devalued, since the irrefrangible human inclination to ethnic and racial solidarity, and the reality of race differences, will be acknowledged by everybody as just facts of life, to be dealt with calmly and fairly, with obloquy only towards those who take them as excuses for cruelty or injustice. One more source of cheap grace for liberals will have fallen by the wayside.

Picky, Picky. Sigmund Freud, if memory serves, thought that human development passed through three phases: the oral, the anal, and the genital. Gluttons were people who had just never emerged fully from the oral stage of development; excessively neat people were stuck in the anal stage, and so on.

Well, it may be that in Russia there is a phase Freud never encountered: the nasal phase. Remember that very strange short story by Nikolai Gogol, The Nose?

For in front of the doors of a mansion he saw occur a phenomenon of which, simply, no explanation was possible. Before that mansion there stopped a carriage. And then a door of the carriage opened, and there leapt thence, huddling himself up, a uniformed gentleman, and that uniformed gentleman ran headlong up the mansion’s entrance-steps, and disappeared within. And oh, Kovalev’s horror and astonishment to perceive that the gentleman was none other than – his own nose!

And now here is Vladimir Putin at a press conference in Italy, rebutting those rumors about him having dumped his 50-something wife for a lissom 20-something gymnast. Vlad scolded the media for their snotty noses and erotic fantasies. Back in February he had responded to rumors of his having amassed great wealth in office by describing such rumors as having been excavated from someone’s nose and then spread on those bits of paper. You want more? Later in that same February appearance he observed that: Heads of state have no right to whinge, or drool for any reason. . . . If they are going to slobber and blow snot and say things are bad, bad, then that’s how it will be.

Is there a pattern here? Far be it from me to pick fault with the president, or stick my nose into Russia’s business, but I think I may have fingered a real issue here.

Math Corner. That brings me rather naturally to a math book recommendation.

Anyone with a feeling for numbers carries a few dozen basic measurements round in his head. I know, for instance, that the Earth is five and a half times denser than water, that there are ten to the power seven-and-a-half seconds in a year, that there are a hundred billion stars in this galaxy, and so on.

With a stock of measurements like this, you can do second-order calculations in your head. Since your average human being runs about 70 kilograms in weight, for example, and is about the same density as water (we float, just), which weighs a thousand kilograms per cubic meter, the volume of that average human is a fourteenth of a cubic meter. So the entire population of the U.S.A. has a volume of about 20 million cubic meters. That would be a cube about 270 meters on a side, close to 300 yards. That’s not much of a cube to pack us all into, though of course there’s no room for any empty space there.

I did that in my head, I swear, from a few basic statistics. You need to go metric for the calculations, converting back to regular measures for your answer.

Well, here’s a book promoting this kind of modest skill: Weinstein & Adams’s Guesstimation – Solving the World’s Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin. They describe the art as I just did, then apply it to numerous questions like:

  • What fraction of the U.S. land area is impervious (i.e. roofed or paved)?
  • How many molecules of Alexander the Great’s last breath do you inhale with each breath? [I remember having this set as a time-filler problem by our school science master when I was 11 or 12, though he used Julius Caesar, not Alexander.]
  • If the Sun were powered only by chemical reactions, how long could it continue to burn at its current output?
  • How far does a soccer / field hockey player travel during the course of a 90-minute game?

What has Weinstein & Adams’s book got to do with Vladimir Putin? I refer you to page 77:

  • How many people in the world are picking their nose right now?


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