Readers may remember Gao Zhisheng, the incredibly brave and valuable Chinese human-rights lawyer who was snatched last February — snatched by the state and then made to disappear. I wrote about him last April, in this column.
Interestingly enough, the Chinese Foreign Ministry was asked about Gao last week. And an official replied that Gao “is where he should be.” Of course. And where might that be? Nowhere good, you can be assured.
His wife, Geng He, has been campaigning for his release, trying to get foreign governments — particularly the American — interested. As I wrote last year, she “joins Avital Sharansky, Christina Fu (wife of Jianli Yang), and others in the pantheon of brave spousal caring. There is no love like a marital love . . .”
For an article on that Chinese Foreign Ministry episode, go here.
‐Let us praise capitalism, one more time. A Utahn named Jeremy Johnson saw reports of Haiti’s suffering, after the terrible earthquake. He “mounted his own relief mission,” in the words of this Associated Press report. Within three days of the quake, “he was ferrying food, doctors and medicine into Haiti from the Dominican Republic, using two personal jets and helicopters.”
Um, just why was he able to do this? “At 34, the Internet entrepreneur has amassed a fortune large enough to fund the bulk of his aid effort, which included buying two more helicopters in the Dominican Republic after realizing he needed more distribution power.”
Capitalism: It frees a person to be all he can be and do all he can, in a way. The good that capitalism does — the good that capitalism allows — is one of the great unsung stories even in America, for reasons positively perverse.
‐I hope you have your new issue of National Review, or at least will do so soon. The digital version is here. I’d like to say something about Mark Steyn’s column: his Happy Warrior column. It is typically funny, novel, insightful, and thought-provoking. It concerns the “health and safety” regime in Britain — “’elf ’n’ safety,” as some of the natives say. This is the Nanny State in action, trying to shield you from all the dangers in life, major and minor.
As Mark notes at the beginning of his column, “health and safety” means that you can’t have garden gnomes outside your door — because you might stumble on them when fleeing your house, in case of fire. Speaking of fire: Some people can’t have fire extinguishers, either. Why? Because you might be tempted to quell the blaze, when you should be running for your life.
Mark came up against ’elf ’n’ safety when he attended a family funeral in Britain. The pallbearers were not actually carrying the casket. They had put it on “a contraption halfway between a supermarket cart and a gurney” (in Mark’s words). The reason was, the path leading to the church was uneven — and Health and Safety did not want anyone to trip. Mark pointed out that the path had been uneven for a thousand years, but still countless funerals had been held in this spot.
But Health and Safety means a new Britain — a worse and warped one.
I first learned about Health and Safety while in London last year, and wrote about it a little here in Impromptus. I had discussed the matter with John Gross, the eminent English author and critic. There was a story in the newspapers at the time: Senior citizens enjoyed dancing at a community center. But Health and Safety carpeted over the floor, lest one of the dancers slip.
These stories are abundant, and some of them are too loony for words.
John told me a joke. He said there came a time when screwing-in-a-lightbulb jokes got tiresome, but this was a good and pointed sample of that genre. He was right. “How many Health and Safety inspectors does it take to screw in a lightbulb? None, it’s too dangerous.”
Last week, I shared Steyn’s column with Gross, and he said it put him in mind of a poem — a poem by John Betjeman (1906-84). The poem is called “The Planster’s Vision” — a planster being a planner, or central planner. You know the type (and that’s a good word, isn’t it? Kind of goes with “hipster”). Said Gross, “Betjeman wrote [the poem] sixty years ago, and his plansters belong to an earlier age than the ’elf-and-safety boys; but somehow their underlying mentality seems the same.”
THE PLANSTER’S VISION
Cut down that timber! Bells, too many and strong,
Pouring their music through the branches bare,
From moon-white church-towers down the windy air
Have pealed the centuries out with Evensong.
Remove those cottages, a huddled throng!
Too many babies have been born in there,
Too many coffins, bumping down the stair,
Carried the old their garden paths along.
I have a Vision of the Future, chum,
The workers’ flats in fields of soya beans
Tower up like silver pencils, score on score:
And Surging Millions hear the Challenge come
From microphones in communal canteens
“No Right! No Wrong! All’s perfect, evermore.”
‐Conan O’Brien put me in mind of Joyce Rumsfeld, wife of the former secretary of defense. Bear with me. While exiting The Tonight Show, O’Brien asked his viewers not to be cynical. “I hate cynicism,” he said. “It’s my least favorite quality, and it doesn’t lead anywhere.”
In late 2003, I interviewed both Secretary Rumsfeld and Mrs. Rumsfeld aboard an aircraft. I talked with Mrs. Rumsfeld about the media, and . . . Well, let me just quote from my write-up, if I may:
Mrs. Rumsfeld is a bit of a media maven, and I ask whether she reads the New York Times. Yes, she says, “but faster than I used to.” She likes the Washington Post’s editorials, because they’re “thoughtful, worthwhile, and not knee-jerk.” And does she read Maureen Dowd? “Yes, I do.” And . . . ? “Well, she’s clearly a bright and talented person,” but her mission seems to be ridicule — artful ridicule, with little content or argument. The whole thing is soaked in cynicism. And “there is nothing I like less in a person than cynicism. I hope that [the columnist] is not cynical in the rest of her life. Because, to be cynical 100 percent of the time — that would be sad.”
Conan O’Brien and Joyce Rumsfeld on the same page. The former: “I hate cynicism. It’s my least favorite quality.” The latter: “There is nothing I like less in a person than cynicism.”
And wasn’t that a wonderful phrase, about reading the New York Times? “Yes, but faster than I used to.”
‐Allow me a few golf items. I noticed this article headed “Ohio Golfer’s Scorecard Confession Earns Accolade.” Let me quote from the article and then share something with you:
A scorecard confession that cost an Ohio high school golfer the state championship five years ago has earned him a national sportsmanship of the decade award.
Adam Van Houten (HOW’-ten) of Mount Gilead High School in north-central Ohio had finished the 2005 state high school golf championship with a seven-stroke lead when he noticed a mistake on his card.
A playing partner had written down a 5 for the 10th hole instead of 6. Van Houten pointed out the mistake to officials and was disqualified because he’d already signed the card.
Five years later, Van Houten’s act has won him a spot on Sports Illustrated’s sportsmanship of the decade list.
I’m not going to say anything negative about this boy, believe you me — I’m not going to say anything negative about Sports Illustrated, either. But I remember Bobby Jones: who called a penalty on himself in the 1925 U.S. Open. This act may have cost him the tournament (which he wound up losing by a stroke). When Jones was praised for his honesty and sportsmanship, he would have none of it. “You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank,” he said.
Autres temps, autres moeurs . . .
‐I was saddened to learn that Jim Thorpe, the senior-tour player, was sentenced to a year in prison: He didn’t pay his taxes. (I was also saddened to learn that.) I’ve always liked Thorpe. First, he had the same name as the man we used to know of as The World’s Greatest Athlete. Second, he was one of the few black players on tour. Third, he wore plus fours — knickers. Fourth, he was fun to follow on a golf course. And fifth, this:
One day, he played in an outing with some people I knew. He was the celebrity, the star. He walked up to a tee on a hole that was very narrow. The fairway was closely guarded by trees on either side. Thorpe looked at the hole, squinted, and said, “Narrow. But a golf ball’ll fit through there.” Then he piped it down the middle. I often think of his expression — “A golf ball’ll fit through there” — when on a narrow hole. But I don’t (necessarily) pipe it down the middle.
‐My Impromptus on Thursday was devoted to golf — in particular, to President Obama’s playing of it, and some criticism he gets. Much, much mail on the subject. Would like to share just one letter (have shared others in the Corner):
I grew up in St. Ignace in the UP [the Upper Peninsula of Michigan] playing the 9-hole muni [municipal golf course] during the ’60s. The course was populated, as you might expect in a small town, by all the social strata, from doctors and lawyers to mechanics, carpenters — even the town drunks. Most of the guys were WWII vets and knew how to have a good time. Starting when I was 16 — I started playing golf at 11, but the local pro wouldn’t let the kids on the course on weekends until they were 16 to give the guys a chance to blow off steam (and did they know how to blow off steam) — I got a total education in life from hanging out there. It was eye-opening to observe these men in their native habitat, so to speak. Golf brought out their inner selves: the sandbagger, the cheat, the drunk, the gamesman, etc. I loved every minute.
I know just what he’s talking about. Millions of us have had a similar experience.
The reader added, “Dan Jenkins [the great Dan Jenkins] has a story, ‘The Glory Game at Goat Hills,’ that catches the flavor of a weekend at my course. I read it about every other year and laugh out loud at the memories it conjures up.”
I know what he means by that, too.
‐In The (London) Spectator, Paul Johnson has a piece about his college at Oxford, Magdalen. It begins,
Before the advent of Political Correctness — the system of censorship which has settled over the English-speaking world like a dense cloud of phosgene gas — clever people were unashamed of being eccentric. This applied particularly to dons. I am reminded of this by browsing through a gigantic book, Magdalen College, Oxford: A History, edited by L.W.B. Brockliss. How lucky I was to go to that magical place when the people who ran it were still totally self-confident, and not afraid, as Belloc put it, ‘to shout the absolute across the hall’. This magnificent book, probably the finest college history ever put together, is a threnody for the weird personalities of the learned over more than four centuries.
And how sorry am I to have gone to college — and other schools — in this wretched Age of Political Correctness. By the time I got going, the world was choking in that “phosgene gas,” as Johnson has put it. In any case, I love to hear PJ and P-J — Johnson and David Pryce-Jones — talk about their years at Magdalen College. The stories practically dance in the air, so alive are they.
‐I was kind of sorry to hear that Rep. Marion Berry (D., Ark.) is retiring. Apparently, he does not want to face what may be a Republican tide in November. I always liked the extreme similarity of his name to the name of the notorious mayor of Washington. And I interviewed him once, over the phone. Was glad that a Democrat had returned a phone call to a reporter on a conservative magazine. And the accent was superb. (Not that Arkansans and some others would have noticed any accent.)
‐From time to time, I write about unions, and their impact on the classical-music business — particularly in New York. That impact is enormous. Ever wonder why ticket prices are so high? Ever wonder why recordings don’t get made? Why concerts aren’t broadcast over the radio? You would do well to look to the unions. I could go on and on (and have). And some stagehands in New York are filthy rich — I mean, like Trump rich.
Anyway . . . Tell you a little story. Last week, I attended a master class conducted by James Levine (music director of the Metropolitan Opera and of the Boston Symphony Orchestra). He was coaching a singer and a pianist in a song. He asked the pianist to lower the lid on the piano. As the young man moved to do so, a stagehand rushed forward, to do it for him. Levine smiled at the pianist: “Not union.”
‐Want to end with a little language? Learned an expression that tickled me. Friend of a friend, when she feels strongly against a group of people, says, “I hate them, and I hate the bands they like!”