Were you on the latest National Review cruise? The one that went on the Saône and Rhône rivers, in Burgundy and Provence? If so, I’m pretty sure you had a grand time. I know I did. And if you were not — come on some other cruise, would you?
This adventure started in Paris, where we were ensconced in the Hôtel du Louvre. This was luxury living, my friends. After a few days, we bused to Chalon-sur-Saône, for the beginning of the cruise. The countryside from Paris to Chalon was — storybook, actually. Like the entire adventure.
A couple of notes about Paris? First of all, the place looked sparkling clean — I mean, strikingly clean. I talked to a woman who lived in Paris years ago. “Have you noticed any changes?” I asked. “Well, the place is so clean,” she said.
More than a few of us remarked on this.
And how about the girls of Paris? Well, they haven’t gotten any shabbier, in all the years I’ve been visiting. On the contrary . . .
One thing I hadn’t noticed in Paris before — so many beggars. Lots of beggars. Many of them had signs that said, “J’ai faim” (“I’m hungry”). And the unfortunate thing? They were almost all overweight.
Now, this does not mean that they weren’t hungry. I just thought it was kind of too bad for them that they were such chubsters.
‐One night, four of us went out for dinner. I was with a studly crew: Rich Lowry, editor of NR; Jack Fowler, publisher of NR; and Howard Moses, impresario of the Cruise Authority.
As is my custom, I was BS-ing a little with the waiter. “You know Americans have to have ice,” I said. “So please don’t skimp on the ice.” And — as is typical — he brought mounds and mounds of ice. (It’s either none or a lot.)
I further said, “And you know we gots to have our butter — Americans can’t eat bread without butter.” He grinned and — again, as is typical — brought mounds of butter. (It’s either none or a ton.)
And this wonderful, spirited guy, when he brought out desserts, had had the plates decorated with “USA” — a joyous touch.
Don’t believe all you hear about Parisians — interactions with them can be completely delightful. (Believe some of what you hear, sure.)
‐And who did we have on the ship (or rather, whom did we have)? First of all, over a hundred interesting, engaging passengers. And they were all different: extroverted and shy; semi-hippie-ish and straitlaced; bookish and fun-loving (sometimes both).
I keep saying this about National Review cruises: They teach you that stereotypes about conservatives are bunk. We’re portrayed as a bunch of country-clubbers, sitting around talking about the stock market, and complaining about Negroes. What a crock.
Much of my adulthood has been spent unlearning what I was taught in Ann Arbor. In fact, when it comes to politics, I sort of think of my adulthood as a Great Unlearning.
And our speakers? A lineup to savor: Shelby Steele, Charles Murray, Bernard Goldberg, Paul Johnson, David Pryce-Jones. And a few more of us NR-niks — including the splendiferous Kate.
I swear, she gets, not only smarter and more articulate, but cuter by the year.
‐In the course of our journey, we had a couple of Paul & David shows — that is, sessions with Johnson and Pryce-Jones. The first was on France. I asked them all sorts of questions.
For example, is the French Revolution anything to celebrate? No — not at all. Needed reforms could have been accomplished without the bloodletting, and would have been. And the Revolution sort of signaled to the world that terror — certainly in the pursuit of “ideals” — was okay.
(I simplify, but I’m racing through Impromptus, and you catch my drift.)
In recent years, I have come to believe that you can draw a straight line from the French Revolution — which I was always taught to revere — to the Bolsheviks in Russia. Bastille Day does not make me want to dance.
And how about Napoleon? A brute and a menace, confirms Johnson, the author of a short, terrific life of the little Corsican. He was an idol and model for many dictators to come — not just big boys like Stalin and Hitler, but relative small fry, like Franco.
What of French behavior in World War II? DP-J gave us the lowdown, in tremendously authoritative fashion. He is the author of Paris in the Third Reich — a book as superb as it is dismaying. (It is out of print, but you should grab it used.)
Both Johnson and Pryce-Jones have had long experience in France — DP-J was there as a child, during the war (a hairy experience); Johnson went there as a young journalist, just starting out. I asked them about music, food, literature, art — even perfume. Everything they said was fascinating. Someone should have made a tape. I hope someone did.
‐Another Paul & David show was devoted to Islam, Islamism, Islamification, and the like — the present danger, to use a shorthand. Both men were characteristically thoughtful and informed. Johnson was basically optimistic: We will overcome. DP-J was a little less so: The tide, in many ways, is running against us.
But I will tell you something encouraging. Many say that the American hour is drawing to a close, and we are Rome, in a late stage. (That’s not the encouraging thing.) But Johnson and Pryce-Jones said this was bunk. David may be skeptical about Europe’s future, but he thinks America is sound.
Paul went so far as to say, “America is just getting started!” And he added this: You can start worrying about America when people from all over the world cease wanting to go there.
Later, he taught me an interesting concept: The world, and nations, and individuals have a “worry space.” Always have had, from time immemorial. Occupying the world’s worry space at the moment are Islamism and global warming.
Johnson said his personal worry space was filled with whether his car would show up, dockside, when it was supposed to. Once he got in the car — the space would fill with something else.
After the session, I told him that he had helped me set a goal for myself: to reduce my worry space, eventually eliminating it.
Johnson is one of the great philo-Semites in all of Christendom, and I asked him about anti-Semitism. He described it as a “mental disease,” completely irrational, bizarre, and unfathomable — also perpetual.
He was also interesting on a related subject: Many people say, “I’m not anti-Semitic, I’m just anti-Israel.” I’ve heard it all my life, and I imagine you have too. And, of course, there are people of whom this is genuinely true: They’re not anti-Semitic, but, for whatever reason, anti-Israel.
But there aren’t a great many of them. “Scratch an anti-Israel man,” said Johnson, “and you’ll find an anti-Semite.” I believe this to be the case.
And I interrupt these cruise notes to tell you this: I’ve just been writing about Nigel Kennedy, the British violinist. And there is only one country in the world that he boycotts — out of all 192 or whatever, including some of the most vicious tyrannies imaginable. And what is that country? Three guesses. But you don’t need more than one, do you?
A final piece of Johnsonian wisdom: We were talking about black nationalism, for whatever reason — I guess we were talking about Reverend Wright ’n’ them. And Johnson said, “‘Black nationalism’ is just another term for black racism. And if you want to prove this is so, just try the phrase the other way: Say ‘white nationalism.’ Would anyone suppose that that was anything but racist?”
‐We were in France on May 8 — the day the war ended in Europe. Specifically, we were in the town of Tournon, across the river from which is the town of Tain-l’Hermitage. Both towns had ceremonies of remembrance. And I happened to attend that in Tain-l’Hermitage.
The people were gathered around the war memorial: Names of the fallen were listed. Off to the side, names of the “déportés” — the deported — were listed. They had such names as “Oscar Lévy.”
Two bands were on hand, playing patriotic songs. When they played the Marseillaise, I dare say I was not completely dry-eyed. Veterans of the war held flags, and it was an effort for some of them to do so. They were all in their eighties. On their chests were medals and ribbons.
Adults and children laid wreaths and bouquets at the memorial. The adults were well dressed; the kids were casual, even slovenly — in sleeveless T’s and backward caps. But they had sober, appreciative looks on their faces.
Presently, the mayor gave a speech, about the meaning of the war, and the importance of passing on knowledge about the war to children.
Now, I wasn’t French, of course, but I felt entirely “connected” to this ceremony, because I belong to Western civilization.
Outside the ring of people was a young Arab man, wearing a kind of warmup suit or tracksuit, with the word “ALGERIE” (for “Algeria”) on the back of it. I was thinking, “What does this ceremony mean to him? Anything? Does he feel any type of connection to it? Does he feel French? Will his children? Will French society permit it? Does the future of this continent belong to self-assured, assertive, procreating Muslims, as against weak, desiccated, childless Euros?”
These are the questions that Johnson and Pryce-Jones — PJ and P-J — addressed. And they did so brilliantly.
And, on their own panels, the other speakers were just as good — I swear.
Yes, this was a splendidly, gratifyingly good cruise. Wish you had been there — maybe next time?
‐Before I go, I want to say something about Hillary Clinton and this RFK mess. It takes a fair amount for me to feel sorry for HRC — but I feel sorry for her now. She is absolutely getting the shaft. On the RFK matter, she is completely innocent.
I myself have used the RFK example many, many times when talking about the length of the primary season. I’ve done it for years. I have long decried the “front-loading” by which we have nominees when the snow’s still on the ground.
Before many audiences — and in print — I say, “Remember when RFK was assassinated? It was in June, the night of the California primary. That’s the way the primary season used to be: It began in the snows of New Hampshire, and it moved across the nation until it climaxed in California in June. Used to be fun” (except for assassinations).
Anyway . . .
And should assassination really be a special concern because Barack Obama is black? Maybe so. But I think of the presidents and presidential candidates who have been shot at: Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, TR, Truman, JFK, Ford, Reagan . . . Why does everything have to be racial?
Well, we know why: because this is America, damn it. (Do I sound like Reverend Wright now?)
‐Last week, NRO published my Sharm El Sheikh Journal — my notes from the World Economic Forum on the Middle East. To see the five parts, please go to the archive, a link to which is found at the top of this column, on the right.
One of the things I mentioned was Obama’s statement that al-Qaeda is getting stronger. This statement is nonsense, and not just nonsense, but damaging nonsense: because it demoralizes the country.
One reader sent me a fun note. He said, “If al-Qaeda’s getting stronger, it’s only because of the weight room at Gitmo.”
‐Finally, I’ll slip you a dose of music: a review of the soprano Jessye Norman in recital, published in the New York Sun — here.
Thanks for joining me, cruisers and non-cruisers, and I’ll see you later.