Cheering the dictator, &c.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov review the honor guard at the Oguzhan Presidential Palace in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, October 2, 2017. (Sputnik / Mikhail Klimentyev / Kremlin via Reuters)
On cults of personality; ‘microaggressions’; Ernest Hemingway; Jordan Spieth; Wesley Snipes; Prince Philip; and more

Dictators are needy people. They are constantly demanding adulation. One such is the “president” of Turkmenistan, who has a long name — ten letters in the first name, sixteen in the second. He is Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

He’s an outdoorsy type, who likes to be photographed being athletic and robust. In this, he is like Putin. (He is like Putin in other respects as well.) Peter Leonard, of Eurasianet, provided a news bulletin:

Turkmenistan’s president went on a low-key bicycle ride this morning. And by low-key I mean he was greeted by many hundreds of people forced to stand clapping for him and to join him on his ride as dancers and singers performed along his route.

Yup — I know the type. To watch a video of this episode, go here.

I thought of Togo, the West African country, and a wonderful young woman named Farida Nabourema. She is a democracy activist, whom I interviewed a few years ago. For my piece, “Daughter of Togo,” go here.

The dictator of that country is Faure Gnassingbé. He succeeded his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma. Allow me to quote from my piece:

The old man was a classic dictator in sunglasses. His cult of personality was gaudier than most. Farida Nabourema remembers the convoy and the clapping. Every day, citizens had to line the route between the presidential palace and the presidential office. They had to clap for Eyadéma and his convoy four times a day: in the morning, when he left the palace for the office; at noon, when he returned to the palace for lunch; at 2, when he went back to the office; and in the evening, when he returned home for good. If you were caught not clapping, or if you stopped clapping too soon, you could be arrested and worse (killed).

Was it not like this under Stalin?

It was.

In Togo, father was succeeded by son, as dictator. In Turkmenistan, the same thing is likely to happen. Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is grooming his son, Serdar, who has been made deputy prime minister. I wrote a book called “Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators.” It includes some father-son successions — and in one case, a father-son-grandson succession: the Duvaliers, the Assads, and the Kims.


• I’ve noticed a phrase, bouncing around the social media: “garbage human being.” I have been called such a human being, by “fans” on both left and right. I’ve seen it applied to a great many people.

Is it my imagination, or has language gotten rougher, coarser, in recent years? President Trump referred to his conservative critics as “human scum.” Last month, a Claremont publication, The American Mind, published this sentence: “If you are a zombie or a human rodent who wants a shadow-life of timid conformity, then put away this essay and go memorize the poetry of Amanda Gorman.”

Travel back to 2018, when The Weekly Standard was killed off by its owner. The editor and publisher of American Greatness wrote, “Now, Kristol and others have moved on in search of a new host organism.” (The Standard’s founding editor was William Kristol.)

“Human rodent,” “new host organism,” etc. — this language is very old. And it smells bad. I hope that our society’s nose twitches, which would be a sign of health in our society. But I assume that things will get yet worse.

• Hold on to your socks: “A Medical Student Questioned Microaggressions. UVA Branded Him a Threat and Banished Him from Campus.” I have linked to a story by Robby Soave, in Reason magazine. There are many horror stories from campus. This one, I think, is especially horrific.

I often think how lucky I am to be working where I am. On campus, I would last a week. Two weeks? Three days? I’d say the wrong thing, use the wrong pronoun or something, and be cooked.

By the way, I have quoted before the observation of the historian Barbara J. Fields, about “microaggressions”: “If it’s micro, it isn’t aggression, and if it’s aggression, it isn’t micro.”

• In the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen political tweets referring to “Kemp.” I have had to adjust. I have had to adjust in the NBA, too. “AD” refers to Anthony Davis. Once upon a time, it referred to Adrian Dantley.

And “Kemp”? Today, they mean Brian, the governor of Georgia, but for years they meant Jack.

When I pointed this out, one person mentioned “BLM”: no longer “Bureau of Land Management,” but “Black Lives Matter” (well, maybe both). Another person — very humorously — brought up “STD.” You may know it as “sexually transmitted disease.” But others — especially if they work in insurance — might know it as “short-term disability.”

• While we’re on language: In the final round of the Masters, Jordan Spieth cried out, “Just a skosh!” Honestly, I had never heard of the word. Went straight to the dictionary: “a small amount : BIT, SMIDGEN.”

If I can’t have Jordan’s golf swing, at least I can have his vocabulary.

• Many have watched, and enjoyed — and learned from, or been stricken by — Ken Burns’s documentary on Ernest Hemingway. I have one thing I would like to relate to you. Professor Jeffrey Hart was a scholar of English and a longtime senior editor of National Review. One day, I asked him, “Is Hemingway overrated?” (My impression had been that he was.) “No,” said Jeff, “underrated.” In other words, he was even greater than people think.

I have no opinion on the matter. It’s been so long since I read Hemingway — college daze — I’m not entitled to an opinion, really. But Jeff’s reaction stays strong in my memory.

• The pen of an angel was owned by Giacomo Leopardi, the poet who lived from 1798 to 1837. His full name was — settle in — Count Giacomo Taldegardo Francesco di Sales Saverio Pietro Leopardi. Among his poems is “L’infinito.” For many, many years — generations — it has been the most memorized poem in all Italy. What is our equivalent? “The Tyger” (Blake)? “Invictus” (Henley)? “If—” (Kipling)? Do we in the English-speaking world still memorize poems? (I don’t.) (Never did.) (Wish I did.)

I bring up “L’infinito” because the current issue of The New Criterion has a new translation of it, by Beverley Bie Brahic. Let me give you the first bit in the original:

Sempre caro mi fu quest’ermo colle,
e questa siepe, che da tanta parte
dell’ultimo orizzonte il guardo esclude.

And here’s BBB:

Ever dear to me, this lonely hill
And this hedge, which on all sides, almost,
Bars from view the last horizon.

• Marshall Sahlins was probably the most famous anthropologist in the world. He has died, at 90. For the obituary in the New York Times, go here.

In 2015, Napoleon Chagnon was still with us. (He died in 2019, at 81.) He and Sahlins were probably the two most famous anthropologists in the world — neck and neck, or throat against throat. Let me give you a sentence from the obit of Sahlins:

In 2013 he took the rare step of resigning from the National Academy of Sciences, for two reasons: its support of military research and its offer of membership to Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist whose work Professor Sahlins found reductive and dangerous.

In 2015, I was writing a piece that would be called “Majoring in Anthro: A lament for a field.” I e-mailed both Sahlins and Chagnon, hoping to talk with them about the subject. Incidentally, both of them had majored in anthropology at the University of Michigan, as I had. Chagnon was happy to talk. Sahlins? Um . . .

I wrote him a note which began,

Dear Professor Sahlins: My name is Jay Nordlinger, and I’m a writer and editor at National Review. (Your favorite mag, I know.) I am doing a piece about anthropology, and wonder if we can have a phone call about it.

Maybe I should mention at this point that Sahlins was, among other things, an ardent lefty?

He answered crustily — but not entirely so:

You’re right. Not my favorite magazine. Perhaps you can use what’s on
this link.

Marshall Sahlins

He linked to a YouTube video, showing him in conversation at a Chicago festival in 2014. I replied to him. He then sent me more. I think we ended relatively cordially.

One thing we talked about was Confucius Institutes — those outposts of the Chinese government that dot Western campuses. Let me tell you something — and hold on to your socks.

Sometime in 2014, I believe, I was preparing a big piece on Confucius Institutes for National Review. Ultimately, I did not write the piece — because Sahlins had written a piece so excellent, so thorough, there was really nothing left to say. He had said it all. And where was that piece published? The Nation. Go figure. Or, as Bill Buckley would say, Mirabile dictu.

• One word on Prince Philip, please. I had always had fairly hard feelings about him, for reasons one might get into. I softened on him, starting about twelve years ago, I would say. One reason is this: He gave just about the most poignant answer I have ever heard in an interview.

Philip, you may recall, had a tempest-tossed upbringing, sent to various locales, into various situations. In the interview I have mentioned, he was asked, “What language did you speak at home?” He answered, “What do you mean, ‘home’?”

• Twitter can be a nightmare and a joy. Let me give you something in the latter category. Wesley Snipes, the actor, wished everyone a happy Easter — adding the emoji for praying hands. I told him “Happy Easter” too, adding, “Stay cool (as we used to say in the ’70s).” He replied, “Same to you, brother” (followed by those same praying hands).

I must say, gave me a kick. Gave me a kick and a smile.

• A little quiz, here at the end — about basketball: What do the Ann Arbor Huron High River Rats and the Gonzaga Bulldogs have in common? Both teams were undefeated this season going into the championship game, and lost. (In Gonzaga’s case, the NCAA tournament, in Huron’s case, the state tournament — of Michigan.) I went to Huron, where my dad was the athletic director (and where our illustrious basketball coaches have included Ed Klum, Harold Simons, Bill Harris, and now Waleed Samaha). Very proud of our River Rats — and looking forward to next year.

Thank you for indulging me that little hometownism, my friends! Can’t do Turkmenistan all the time, you know? See you later.

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