Politics & Policy

The flame-haired, &c.

Let me start today with an offbeat subject: redheads. I was interested in an article by Ed West in the Telegraph. He asked, “Is gingerism the last acceptable prejudice?” That was a new word for me: “gingerism.”

Accompanying his article was a picture of Jessica Chastain (the actress). And that leads to this point: I certainly have a prejudice, or bias, concerning redheads. Long have. I’m for.

West talked about the apparently quite serious subject of “anti-ginger bullying.” And I thought of Paul Johnson (the great historian). I have heard him say several times that he was picked on at school for having red hair. Kids would pick fights with him, Paul would respond (of course) — then he’d be the one who got in trouble.

It was the red hair, Paul says: Teachers and other adults assumed that he was the fiery troublemaker (instead of the fiery responder and self-defender).

One more word on this subject: Tip O’Neill was not my favorite person, as readers may know, but he said one charming thing, as far as I can recall. This was when he was leaving the speakership, to be replaced by Jim Wright of Texas. He made some comments on Wright, all favorable, of course.

But then he said, “Watch it, he has a temper. He’s a redhead. He flares.”

I’m paraphrasing, but I have it almost verbatim, I think. And I thought that was charming: the old-fashioned and very un-PC association of red hair with “flaring.”

Anyway — maybe we can talk about Molly Ringwald later . . .

‐Stick with the Telegraph, and an article by the great Janet Daley (who was born and raised in America, but whose career has been British). The article was called “A moment of truth on the welfare state.”

She wrote, “Abandoning the ‘safety net’ principle meant that instead of treating poverty (or ‘want’, as Beveridge called it) as an emergency in need of temporary assistance, it would be regarded as a permanent condition caused by endemic social ‘unfairness’ (as Gordon Brown called it) in need of everlasting support.”

I remember something Reagan used to say: “They used to call it ‘relief.’” He also used to quote FDR, in a way that drove Democrats crazy. FDR, Reagan knew, described welfare checks as “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

Oh, did Democrats hate to hear that quoted! (Reagan also drove Gorbachev crazy with Doveryai no proveryai, “Trust but verify.”)

Last year, I wrote an article about Susana Martinez, the new, or newish, governor of New Mexico. Here’s a little excerpt:

“So,” I ask her, “are you a so-called compassionate conservative?” This is a dread term for many on the right. She gives me a pleasant stare, then says that she resists any and all labels. “I’m compassionate, absolutely,” she says. She believes that government should step in when people are desperate and have nowhere else to turn. But she does not believe that welfare should become a way of life. She thinks that government, ideally, should lend a person a “helping hand,” pull him back onto his feet, and send him on his way.

When I wrote my article, a colleague of mine chided me. “Who thinks that welfare should be a way of life?” he said. “That’s just a conservative talking point.”

Oh, I don’t know. I think there are a lot of people who don’t mind welfare’s being a way of life. Who aren’t too concerned about it. Isn’t that fair to say?

‐Back to gingerism for a second: In our country, wouldn’t that be thought of as a preference for the girl who was not Mary Ann?

‐Back to FDR for a second: This is what he said in his Annual Message to Congress, January 4, 1935 — hold on to your socks:

A large proportion of [the] unemployed and their dependents have been forced on the relief rolls. The burden on the Federal Government has grown with great rapidity. We have here a human as well as an economic problem. When humane considerations are concerned, Americans give them precedence. The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America. Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers.

The Federal Government must and shall quit this business of relief.

I am not willing that the vitality of our people be further sapped by the giving of cash, of market baskets, of a few hours of weekly work cutting grass, raking leaves or picking up papers in the public parks. We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination.

How you like them apples? For the full speech, go here.

This article may interest you. It’s about Hosni Mubarak and his relationship with Al-Ahram, the state newspaper. I have run up against Al-Ahram many times in my life, as anyone who concentrates on, or dips into, the Middle East does.

More than a decade ago — in May 2002 — I wrote an article about MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute. Here’s a taste of it:

Ibrahim Nafi’ is editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram, the government daily in Cairo. In October, he wrote that U.S. forces were dropping their food for desperate Afghans in minefields. He further suggested that this food had been “genetically treated,” with “the aim of affecting the health of the Afghan people” (for the worse, naturally). Therefore the Afghans would be unlucky either way: blown up by mines or poisoned by America’s food gifts. We should bear in mind that Nafi’ is not some “crazy” spouting off in a renegade organ, but the equivalent of the principal editor of the New York Times, although appointed by the head of state.

I have long asked a question, in plangent tones: How are the Arabs to make progress if they are lied to constantly, by the authorities in their lives?

Jump to 2006, when Naguib Mahfouz, the great Egyptian novelist, died. I wrote an appreciation of him — a “personal appreciation,” I called it, because Mahfouz had had a lovely effect on my life.

I said that I was terribly disappointed, however, in what he had written as an old man, in Al-Ahram. Mahfouz wrote, I said,

that the “so-called war on terrorism” was “just as despicable a crime” as the 9/11 attacks. He repeated the woeful argument that counterattacks “give terrorism additional justification.” But worse — far worse — was to come later: when he defended, excused, and flat-out glorified the suicide bombers in Israel.

In ensuing years, I have talked to many people about this — about Mahfouz in his last days. I have talked to people with intimate knowledge of Egyptian society and politics. And, you know? I think Al-Ahram made it up. I think they put things under Mahfouz’s name — under the name of the country’s literary hero — that he did not say or think.

‐Was reading a review in the current NR. You subscribe to National Review, right? Good, good. It was by Elizabeth Powers, and was about Keats. There is a new biography of the poet.

“Had Keats lived,” writes Powers, “I think he would have worked in the mode of Goethe’s late, strongly structured novels . . .” She later notes that “Goethe lived to be 82.” Keats didn’t make it past 25.

I thought of Mozart and Haydn — the former dead at 35, the latter at 77. And how about Elliott Carter, who died a few months ago? He was 103. Schubert was 31.

We could go on . . .

‐Yesterday, had lunch with a friend who works as an accountant — one of the big firms. He was talking about Sarbanes-Oxley. Terrible for business, he said. Terrible. But not his business: They’ve made untold millions off it.

I thought of a cynical old expression in golf: “Every shot pleases someone.”

‐Sarbanes-Oxley, Dodd-Frank — these pairs of names may be the death of us. (Just kidding: A failure to come to grips with entitlements will be the death of us.)

‐I was talking about golf — and a recent Wall Street Journal column began as follows: “In 1999, a golfer named Payne Stewart . . .”

I couldn’t help wincing at that. To someone like me, that’s a little like saying, “In 1931, a baseball player named Babe Ruth . . .”

‐In Monday’s Impromptus, I mentioned the Ivory Coast — and said I had not yet been able to bring myself to say “Ivory Coast,” without the “the.” “Sudan,” yes (rather than “the Sudan”). But Ivory Coast, no.

Several readers wrote to say, “How do you feel about ‘Ukraine’ and ‘the Ukraine’?” Ah. I remember when I first started to think about “Ukraine,” which felt so unnatural in my mouth (after years of saying “the Ukraine”). This was sometime in the middle or late 1980s, when I was in graduate school. Robert Conquest came to speak.

And he explained that many anti-Communists and anti-Soviets liked to say “Ukraine,” indicating that the place ought to be its own country, with its own identity, rather than a mere region of Russia, or the Soviet Union. He himself said “Ukraine.”

And if it was good enough for Conquest . . .

Incidentally, Paul Johnson will still speak of “the Lebanon.”

‐A little language — or more language, I should say? A few weeks ago, I was reading a Toby Young column. And, in the very first sentence, I ran smack into a word I didn’t know. That sentence read, “Sometimes I wonder whether Ed Balls really does possess the political nous he’s credited with.”

“Nous”? “Greek Philosophy. Mind or intellect.” I must knuckle down to the Greeks one day . . .

‐Speaking of the Greeks, I saw Les Troyens the other night. This is the opera by Berlioz (The Trojans). The performance was at the Metropolitan Opera, and I was reviewing it.

The second part of the opera takes place in Carthage, where Aeneas and some of his fellow Trojans had fled, or wandered. I got to thinking, “Where the hell is Carthage, precisely?” It’s now a suburb of Tunis, and has a population of about 20,000. Dido and her court had come from Tyre. “Where the hell is Tyre?” Lebanon, population 120,000, something like that.

These thoughts are sobering, and they reinforce a lesson, at least for me: Places that are great and important fall into nothingness. Think of how Portugal once bestrode the world! Great swatches of people in South America, Africa, and elsewhere speak Portuguese because the Portuguese were such world-bestriders.

And now . . .

I wonder what’s occasioning these thoughts in me, really . . .

‐Yesterday, I was talking to Kevin Williamson about tattooing — everyone’s covered in tattoos. I said, “Just think: In 50 years, the nursing homes will be filled with crinkly old bodies, covered in tattoos. Yikes, what a pretty sight, huh?”

Kevin uttered a phrase that will stick with me a long time: “grandmas with tramp stamps.” All those m’s and p’s. Practically worthy of Keats!

‐Okay, I’m going to end with a story about my nephew, stories about whom are irresistible (to his uncle, anyway). File this under “They Grow Up So Fast.” Two seconds ago, he was a babe in arms, “mellow,” as my grandmother called him, and cooing. Now he’s ten. At dinner the other night, he uttered some witticism, cracking up the table. I didn’t hear what he said. I asked him to repeat it.

He patted me on the leg condescendingly and said, “Can’t relive the moment, big guy.”

How the hell did that happen?


To order Jay Nordlinger’s book Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.


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