Impromptus

Mind-blowing talent, &c.

Houston Rockets guard James Harden drives against two Memphis Grizzlies players at the Toyota Center in Houston on January 14, 2019. (Troy Taormina / Reuters)
On James Harden, André Previn, Phil Gramm, Moses, and more

James Harden is blowing minds with his basketball. He is a guard on the Houston Rockets, as you know. And he is so much the best player in the NBA this season, second-best is barely visible. This piece in the Wall Street Journal gives a sense of his prowess — with charts!

Now and then, we refer to someone as “unguardable.” So-and-so is a player who can’t be guarded. He’s going to score, regardless. We are usually referring to a kid at the park, or maybe a high-school player, or maybe a college player. But an NBA player? An NBA player unguardable? That is a very strange proposition.

The NBA is the best of the best. Many excellent college players can’t make it to the NBA. Bench players you and I have never heard of — players who never receive any playing time — are mind-bogglingly good. They are some of the best athletes in the world.

An NBA player unguardable? Harden is (along with a handful of others).

Thinking about Harden, I think about ballet. (Bear with me.) Say you have a top company with three categories: the corps, the soloists, and the principals. You would think there would not be very much difference between them. They are all professional ballet dancers, and not only professional ballet dancers, but professionals in a top company. How much difference between them could there be? It ought to be a matter of degree, right? Maybe the principals, for example, are a little better than the soloists, or a little more experienced. A little more sure-footed (literally).

But no. Often, they are leaps and bounds better! (Maybe even literally.) It is most unexpected.

And so it is with James Harden. Great talent is a mystery, and superhuman talent — as displayed in Harden or LeBron, or one of those principal dancers (including those far less famous than Nureyev or Vishneva) — is super-mysterious.

• Stay on the subject of talent. An article in the Wall Street Journal — another one — quoted Fletcher Previn, the chief information officer of IBM. He was speaking against “flowery” prose. “I prefer to strip out the adjectives and get things down to the minimum number of words required to describe something.”

You know who else has a taste for simplicity? (“’Tis the gift to be simple.”) His genius father, André Previn: classical composer; popular composer; classical pianist; jazz pianist; conductor; and superb writer (of prose).

Ain’t no one like ’dré.

• When Senator Elizabeth Warren announced for president, there were many comparisons between her and Hillary Clinton. Some people objected to this: “They are individuals, you know. There may be superficial similarities, but you don’t have to lump them together. Indeed, it is sexist to do so.”

I sympathize with this view. A life-long song of mine has been to regard people as individuals. But the objectors I have quoted ought to remember their current stance, next time they’re tempted to go on about “white male” this and “white male” that.

You know?

• Beholding the populism now sweeping the Right, I have a memory: In 2000, Candidate George W. Bush spoke of “compassionate conservatism.” And people who style themselves “true conservatives” jumped all over him. He was a big-government squish, you see. A RINO. By today’s standards, however, he was practically Milton Friedman. Many of the “true conservatives” — the ones who blasted W. — are thundering for government intervention.

Strange. Maybe they should send W. a note of apology?

There used to be an expression on the left: “soak the rich.” Now plenty on the right are hollerin’ for such soakin’.

By the way, I loved the response of Senator Phil Gramm to “compassionate conservatism”: “Freedom is compassionate.” (Yet I think W. was, and is, full of good sense as well.)

In recent weeks, I have read about “blue-collar workers” and “white-collar consumers.” This is from righties, not lefties. (It’s not always easy to tell the difference.) A question: Don’t “blue collars” also consume? Don’t we all buy food, clothes, phones? Who benefits from markets more? The poor or the rich? The rich have always had it easier, and always will. “It is good to be king,” and it is good to be rich. But markets have given the poor, and others, a standard of living not even dreamed of before.

I hear about “free-market ideologues” — people who allegedly blight the Right and conspire against the Common Man. Funny, I never meet these ideologues. I do know some free-marketeers — and think they have very good arguments, and evidence. I also think they have been a better friend to ordinary people than the central planners, by a long shot.

Would that I had the gifts of a Michael Novak! I wish we had more Michael Novaks around today: people willing and able to defend the morality of capitalism. The populists, demagogues, and statists are having a field day.

Back to Phil Gramm for a quick second. Many years ago, I mentioned to him that I had come late to an appreciation of economic rights (versus the rights to speech, worship, assembly, and so on). This was during an interview. He said, “Those are the ones on which all the others depend.” This is something to ponder. And I wish Gramm were pronouncing this very day.

Senator? Where yat?

• Homo economicus, I don’t believe in. Never have, never could. In recent days, I was talking about college football — specifically, a trend: the refusal of players to play in their teams’ bowl games, lest they get hurt before they can be drafted by the NFL. Last month, two of Michigan’s captains refused to play in the Peach Bowl. These are leaders of the team.

Some of my critics said, “I thought you were a capitalist, man!” Yes, but there are other values — including loyalty and pride. We’re talking about a human mix, aren’t we?

I understand the bowl-skippers. But I understand their critics too.

• On Christmas Eve, President Trump tweeted, “I am in the Oval Office & just gave out a 115 mile long contract for another large section of the Wall in Texas.” Is that true? A week and a half later, Trump said, “This should have been done by all of the presidents that preceded me.” He was talking about the building of a wall. “And they all know it. Some of them have told me that we should have done it.” Is that true?

I say it matters — it matters whether the president tells the truth, whoever the president is. Others say, in so many words, that it doesn’t matter, or doesn’t matter enough to be worth noticing. There is a gap between these two views, unbridgeable, in my estimation.

• Ricardo Barber, a Cuban-born actor, died last month. Let me quote from the New York Times’s obit:

Mr. Barber was establishing himself as an actor in Havana when Castro came to power in 1959 in a Communist revolution that was hostile to many things, including homosexuality. Mr. Barber was gay, and in the late 1960s he was placed in one of Castro’s “military units to aid production,” the agricultural labor camps known by the Spanish acronym UMAP, which were, as The New York Times put it in 1974, “for petty criminals, homosexuals, ‘pre-delinquents’ and other ‘potential dissenters’ — people who were not guilty of any wrongdoing, but had been sent to the camps because of their ‘attitude.’”

In my experience — which in Cuban affairs has been long — not many Americans know this.

I discussed such things in a magazine piece several years ago — about an opera version of Before Night Falls, the autobiography of Reinaldo Arenas. Here it is.

• You want to talk about “the right side of history”? This is a common — all too common — phrase, heard from leftward and rightward directions. I wrote an essay about it once, here. (Sorry to keep linking to old pieces. Am I a writer or a linker?) I thought of RSOH — the right side of history — when looking at a tweet last week. It was from Dan Scavino, an assistant to the president. Above a photo, the tweet said, “After this evenings Presidential Address, we joined our great POTUS for a photo. We are all on the right side of history! #FACT.”

“#FACT,” huh? When people, especially in politics, claim to be on the right side of history: look out.

• For many years, I have heard David Pryce-Jones say approximately the following: Some nations made a clean accounting of their time under Communism. Other nations have not, and they have been hindered by it, even cursed.

I thought of this when reading a column by Vladimir Kara-Murza, the Russian democracy leader: “Latvia opens its KGB archives — while Russia continues to whitewash its past.” There is very little time in the world. There is not really the time to read a column once. I read this one twice. It is not only filled with important information, it is, in my opinion, moving.

• Readers of my columns and posts and whatnot — and listeners to my podcasts — are perhaps familiar with Ti-anna Wang. She is the daughter of a Chinese political prisoner, Wang Bingzhang. She has devoted much of her life to campaigning for his release. The Chinese government dangled before her an opportunity to see her dad — and then yanked it away. Fred Hiatt tells the story here. Ti-anna will persevere, I bet.

What a cruel regime, by the way — one of the cruelest, most despicable ever to rule.

• Can an obit be dazzling? I think so. Treat yourself to this: “Georges Loinger, Wartime Rescuer of Jewish Children, Dies at 108.”

• The man who played Juan Valdez in TV commercials died. You know Juan Valdez: the Colombian farmer who symbolized his country’s coffee industry. The actor’s name was Carlos Sánchez. I love something he said (obit here): “I feel like a flag. I feel like I’ve represented my country.”

• Eleanor Maccoby, what a woman, what a scholar. (Obit here.) A distinguished psychologist, she specialized in gender differences. Boys and girls are different, whether people like it or not. She died at 101. Let me quote from the obit I have linked to: “Dr. Maccoby said in an oral history at Stanford in 2011 that a female colleague had advised her to suppress any of her research that might be disadvantageous for women. Dr. Maccoby refused, she said, determined to publish whatever she found.”

There’s a scholar. (The same applies in journalism, by the way.)

• As regular readers will have noticed, I like names — and “Moses” is a really good one. So apt — a thousand percent apt — for the original Moses. Here is the Amplified Bible: “And the child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. And she named him Moses, and said, ‘Because I drew him out of the water.’”

A footnote, from the Amplified people: “The name Moses is a wonderful choice. It means ‘drawing out’ in Hebrew, but in Egyptian, a similar word means ‘man of royalty’ (e.g. the syllable ‘mose’ in names like Thutmose).”

Bull’s-eye, right? See you, my friends!

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