December Diary
On the Aughts, Koestler coincidences, the Chinese navy, and more.


John Derbyshire

Ten years on the web     End of a decade — one for which there is still no settled name. This will probably take care of itself. You don’t really need a name for a decade until it’s past and gone. We didn’t talk about “the Sixties” in the Sixties, though we haven’t stopped talking about them since.

There have been lots of imaginative names suggested for the decade now drawing to its close — the Aughts, the Ooze (for “00s”), and so on — but my guess is we’ll end up with something pedestrian, probably “the two thousands.”

For me personally it was the web decade. I did my first web commentary on March 27, 2000. I’ve continued to turn out 70 or 80 pieces a year every year since, though the bigger part of my ad hoc commentary on NRO nowadays goes into Radio Derb. I have also engendered a mass of paper journalism and three books. Not bad. “The single talent well employed,” I like to think, anyway. For keeping discontent at bay, there is no better rule than the one sailors have traditionally offered to prevent seasickness: “Stay busy, and keep your eyes on the horizon.”

For conservatives it’s been a lousy decade. A year of Bill Clinton; eight years of George W. Bush; a year of Barack Obama. We’re way farther left than we were at the end of 1999, having seen massive expansions of federal power into every aspect of our lives. The Aughts (Ooze, Naughties, whatever) saw vast schemes of utopian futility, colossal new entitlements, the biggest program of public works in U.S. history, the federally-mandated, PC-driven destruction of rational banking standards (leading — surprise! — to financial collapse and recession), two punitive expeditions against nuisance nations allowed to morph into never-ending wars, . . . 

Meanwhile our own nation’s borders were left unguarded, hundreds of thousands were admitted under fraud-addled U.N. “refugee” rackets, and settlement visas were handed out to radical imams. Multiculturalism advanced to the point where it is considered an offense of staggering insensitivity to mention chicken and watermelon in the same sentence, or to refer to a Mexican as “Mexican.”

Where things haven’t drifted leftwards, they’ve just stayed the same. In 1999 we had a huge army stationed in Germany, though nobody could tell me why. It’s still there, and still no-one can tell me why. We entered the decade with four conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court; we leave it with four conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court. Oh, and the mohair subsidy is back.

Dereliction of duty     In an NRO column this month I said some unkind things — along with some kind ones — about Steven Landsburg’s new book The Big Questions. Steven is a total open-borders proponent, one of those people willing to find out how many of the earth’s 6.7 billion people would come and settle in the U.S. if there were nothing to prevent their doing so. (My guess? Three to four billion. The open-borders crowd’s guess? Try getting them to tell you.)

Steven posted some comments on my remarks in his blog for the book. (Note: When a person publishes a book nowadays, he starts a blog for it. “Is there a WAD blog then?” I hear a multitude of voices cry. Is a bean green?)

Me having lunged at Steve, he having parried en sixte and riposted, a short bout has commenced. The usual thing is for three or four more thrusts and counter-thrusts, with victory decided on points. But here’s the thing: I can’t be bothered.

I’ll admit I’m uncomfortable about not being bothered. For one thing, it’s disrespectful to Steve, who seems to be a decent sort, the open-borders nuttiness aside. The guy has a blog to keep going, and a book to sell. (Did I mention that I too have a blog and a book? I did? Sorry.)

Nor is it that I don’t have things to say in response to Steve. I have plenty. Trouble is, I’ve already said them all, three or four times. See my long exchanges with Gideon Aronoff here, for example. I think they contain answers to all of Steve’s arguments. There are writers who don’t mind hammering away at the same points over and over again. I’m not one of those writers.

And, to be blunt about it, the open-borders business is so nutty I can’t take it seriously. Come on: It’s nutty — flat-earth nutty, Elvis-sighting nutty, Eisenhower-was-a-Communist nutty. You don’t want any restrictions on immigration at all? Into a nation with a 2008 per capita GDP of $47,500 from a world containing populous nations with per capita GDPs of $900? YOU’RE NUTS!

It may be that I’m being uncharitable. It may even be, though I think it extremely unlikely, that I’m concocting excuses for my own sloth. Readers with more patience (or energy, or something) are welcome to fill in for me over at Steve’s blog, making the case that this is a pretty nice country just as it is, and would not be anything like as nice if its population were, over a handful of years, to be multiplied tenfold.

That the case needs making seems, to me, astounding.

page#State of unhappiness     I’m not very surprised to learn that I live in the unhappiest state of the Union. So say researchers Andrew Oswald, Stephen Wu, and Peter Dunn in a paper published here.

What’s Louisiana doing up at number one in the rankings, though? They can’t be serious. Louisiana? Hawaii at number two I can believe, lingering as I still am in the warm afterglow of this year’s family vacation there. Tennessee’s number-four position is interesting. You don’t hear much about Tennessee, which probably means it’s a nice place. And who can resist a sneer of schadenfreude seeing California down at number 46? All my life the damn Golden Staters have been boasting about their damn climate, their damn beaches, their damn girls, their damn hedonism, their damn Silicon Valley whiz-kids. Now look where it’s all got them! Nyah nyah.

A Koestlerian moment     Here’s an odd little story. It’s a true one: David Yezzi, executive editor of The New Criterion, a man of irrefragable honor, will vouch for it.

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs — we are actually talking about 1963 — someone urged me to read Arthur Koestler’s book The Sleepwalkers. I duly read it. I am absolutely not going to get into Phil. of Sci. arguments about the book’s central idea, but it did give me a liking for Koestler as a writer. Over the next few years I read all (I think) of his books. I’ve quoted him considerably, and have even got a column or two out of him — see here, for example.

I was therefore interested to hear about Michael Scammell’s biography of Koestler, to be published January 5. (Amazon says December 29, but I’m going by a publisher’s handout.)

Just let me translate that word “interested” for you. On the lips of a freelance book reviewer, “interested” means: “I bet I can get some sucker of a literary editor to give me the book for review, thereby snaffling a couple hundred dollars for the E.M. and D.O. Derbyshire college fund, and a free book into the bargain.” I girded up my loins and set out to find that editor.

My first call was of course on National Review’s literary editor, Mike Potemra. I had better explain that several dozen significant books are published every month, so that a literary editor needs to (gasp!) discriminate. He needs, I mean, to have firm ideas about what books are and are not suitable for his particular magazine — and, indeed, about which reviewers are suitable for which books. That’s the literary editor’s domain, and he is jealous of his rights in it, as he should be. Well, Mike thought the Koestler bio was borderline for NR. He hummed and hahed politely, said he’d give it some thought.

I took that as a no and headed down the road to the offices of The New Criterion. David Yezzi was at home, and hospitable as ever. Alas, he already had a reviewer assigned to the Koestler book. We stood chatting outside the door of his office for a few moments anyway: about the reviewer, about the upcoming Christmas parties, and of course about Koestler.

You need to know at this point that among Koestler’s own books was one titled The Roots of Coincidence (1972). In his later years Koestler tagged on to a variety of semi-mystical and parapsychological fads. One of these enthusiasms was for coincidences, and what they tell us about the nature of reality. That’s what The Roots of Coincidence is about.

Well, there I was standing with David Yezzi outside his office talking about Arthur Koestler. There were books all around us, great heaps and drifts of them. The New Criterion is one of those places where, if you want to take a seat, or put something down, or even just open a door, you first have to move a couple dozen books. The wall just to my right had books piled about four feet high against it.

I mentioned to David that I had already seen one review of this new Koestler biography, in The New Yorker. Who was the reviewer? asked David. I knew the answer, but had one of those odd episodes where you just can’t summon up a name.

“It was . . . it was . . . ” I fumbled. I glanced down. On top of the nearest pile of books by the wall at my right was one by Louis Menand, his name prominent on the dust jacket. And that was the name I was fishing for. The guy who’d reviewed the bio of Koestler. Who had written a book about coincidences. Uh . . . 

Lipogrammatically yours     It’s odd how things work out with your offspring. My girl child, now 17, is bookish — is, in fact, halfway through my supply of classic fiction. My son, by contrast, will pick up a book only to avoid major sanctions from Dad and Mom. So it was a thrill to find Danny asking if I own a particular book. I was glad I could go to my study, pull down that book, and hand it to him. Alas, it wasn’t plot, author, or stylistic virtuosity that had drawn my lad to it, but gimmickry. This book, a fairly long work of fiction, is a lipogram (as also — by now you don’t want informing — is this part of my Diary). My son was curious to look at such a work.

This book is not only a lipogram, it also contains lipogrammatical musings that sound oddly familiar. You know “Ozymandias,” no doubt? Try this:

I know a pilgrim from a distant land
Who said: Two vast and sawn-off limbs of quartz
Stand on an arid plain . . . 

Nor is mighty John Milton thought too high for our author’s wit:

Whilst I do think on how my world is bound,
Now half my days, by this unwinking night,
My solitary gift, for want of sight,
Lain fallow . . . 

Most striking of all, though, in my opinion, is his imitation of that glorious U.S. classic about a bird — a black bird (though not a blackbird!):

Black Bird

’Twas upon a midnight tristful I sat poring, wan and wistful,
Through many a quaint and curious list full of my consorts slain —
I sat nodding, almost napping, till I caught a sound of tapping,
As of spirits softly rapping, rapping at my door in vain.
“’Tis a visitor,” I murmur’d, “tapping at my door in vain —
Tapping soft as falling rain.”

Miraculously (or so I think), our author maintains this trick through a full 18 stanzas! Amazing!

(You can’t, I vow, grasp how much psychic strain builds up whilst constructing long lipograms. Mind if I unload? Thanks . . .  EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!)