Diversity Fatigue

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

In the congressional debates on the 1924 Immigration Act, Representative William Vaile of Colorado, a prominent immigration restrictionist, argued that if there is any changing to be done [to our country], we will do it ourselves:

Let me emphasize here that the restrictionists of Congress do not claim that the “Nordic” race, or even the Anglo-Saxon race, is the best race in the world. Let us concede, in all fairness that the Czech is a more sturdy laborer … that the Jew is the best businessman in the world, and that the Italian has … a spiritual exaltation and an artistic creative sense which the Nordic rarely attains. Nordics need not be vain about their own qualifications. It well behooves them to be humble.

What we do claim is that the northern European and particularly Anglo-Saxons made this country. Oh, yes; the others helped. But … [t]hey came to this country because it was already made as an Anglo-Saxon commonwealth. They added to it, they often enriched it, but they did not make it, and they have not yet greatly changed it.

We are determined that they shall not … It is a good country. It suits us. And what we assert is that we are not going to surrender it to somebody else or allow other people, no matter what their merits, to make it something different. If there is any changing to be done, we will do it ourselves.

— [Cong. Rec., April 8, 1924, 5922]

When Vaile made those remarks, America had just experienced four decades of high immigration, and continued immigration was poised to remake the nation into “something different”:

Congressman Vaile’s language grossly violates modern protocols of course. That is not his fault; and taken at face value, with an understanding of the times, the notions he expresses are humane and sensible. They put the lie to arguments — I heard one in conversation just the other day — that the only motive driving the 1924 restrictionists was a determination to keep out inferior peoples. Plainly Rep. Vaile did not believe Czechs, Jews and Italians to be inferior to “Nordics.” He thought they were fine people: but they had their own countries, and we had our own country, and to go on permitting them to move from there to here in great numbers would change our country more than we wished it changed. Perhaps they would be more usefully employed in changing their own countries, if those countries were so unsatisfactory to them.

After a similar period of high immigration, America may once again be experiencing diversity fatigue, John Derbyshire says:

It seems to me that in the recent arguments over Arizona’s immigration law and the Ground Zero mosque, I detect a whiff of diversity fatigue. Could it be that the mindset of Congressman Vaile is still to be found, in quantity, among the American public? A mindset not of racial superiority or privilege, still less of “hate,” but of satisfaction with one’s country the way it is, with the ethnic balance it has, and a reluctance to countenance the indefinite continuation of headlong demographic change?

Yesterday I got lost near the railroad station of a nearby town, Hicksville. I stopped people to ask directions to the street I wanted. It took four or five tries before I found someone who could both (a) understand me, and (b) reply in plain English. This was not the teeming slums of a port city, or some adobe outpost in the southwastern desert: this was a provincial town in Long Island.

Then this evening I saw Katie Couric on TV saying: “We cannot let fear and rage tear down the towers of our core American values.”

Is massive, never-ending demographic change a “core American value”? Might objections to the Ground Zero mosque—the topic exercising Ms. Couric’s absurd grandiloquence—be inspired by something other than “fear” and “rage”? Perhaps by the beliefs that this is a good country; that it suits us; and that we are not going to surrender it to somebody else or allow other people, no matter what their merits, to make it something different?

Derbyshire is, of course, an immigrant — from England.

Intellectuals and Society

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Thomas Sowell defines an intellectual as one whose work begins and ends with ideas — which, John Derbyshire points out, excludes many — engineers, architects, surgeons, lawyers, generals — who make a living by applying their intelligence:

The only validation process the anointed will submit their ideas to is “the approval of peers.” When rigorous empirical validation is applied, as it often is by conscientious social scientists, the results usually contradict the utopian vision. Then they are ignored and forgotten. A recent study of Head Start, for example, showed that this venerable Great Society program, now in its 46th year of lavish funding (currently $7.1 billion a year), accomplishes nothing measurable. Every previous study, all the way back to 1969, said the same thing; they were all shoved down the memory hole, as no doubt this latest one will be.

Similarly with the “root causes” theory of crime, which, says Sowell, has remained impervious to evidence on both sides of the Atlantic. “In both the United States and England, crime rates soared during years when the supposed ‘root causes of crime’ — poverty and barriers to opportunity — were visibly declining.” Gun control, a great favorite with the anointed, has likewise been a bust, gun crime rising steadily in Britain through the later twentieth century as laws against gun ownership became steadily more severe. That other criminological favorite, “alternatives to incarceration,” has been so thoroughly internalized by liberal intellectuals as to give us the famous 1997 New York Times headline Crime Keeps on Falling, but Prisons Keep on Filling.

The follies of the anointed in matters of war and peace are so abundant Sowell spreads them over two chapters. The first covers the twentieth century to 1945; the second, the Cold War, Vietnam, and the two Iraq wars. This gives the author an opportunity to note parallels across the decades, the “peace movements” of the 1960s and 2000s echoing the sentiments, and often the actual slogans, of pacifists in the 1920s and 1930s.

Here Sowell points up a change in the methods and targets to which intellectuals of the anointed type address themselves. Before the age of mass media, intellectuals sought to influence power-holders by offering advice on statecraft. From Daniel and Confucius to Machiavelli and Locke, an intellectual wanted to be the “voice behind the curtain,” whispering advice in the ruler’s ear. Once public opinion came into its own, however, an alternative form of influence offered itself — one that removed the intellectual further from the results of his advice. This distancing from real power and real consequences has allowed modern intellectuals to be irresponsible, leading to the displays of silliness recorded by Paul Johnson. Of the 1960s antiwar movement Sowell says: “The intellectuals’ effect on the course of events did not depend on their convincing or influencing the holders of power.”

The sentence following that one is: “President Nixon had no regard for intellectuals.” That is not quite right. While it is true that Nixon preferred to spend his leisure hours with practical men like Bob Abplanalp and “Bebe” Rebozo, he was none the less an intelligent and well-read man — something of a closet intellectual, in fact. It is worth recalling John O’Sullivan’s very perceptive observation here: that while John F. Kennedy made a great show of patronizing the arts, it was Nixon who actually knew how to play the piano.

The intersection of politics with the anointed intelligentsia is an area I wish Sowell had explored in more depth. (A fourth book, perhaps?) Politics is properly the domain of Big Players: men or women skilled in persuasion and the judging of others, single-minded in pursuit of dominance, deft at hiding ruthlessness behind idealism. Intellectuals do not perform well in this hyper-worldly zone. Politicians of course have no objection to being presented as intellectuals, but the façade rarely survives close scrutiny. Sowell offers Adlai Stevenson as an illustration. “No politician in the past two generations was regarded by intellectuals as more of an intellectual,” he reminds us. Stevenson’s loss of the 1952 presidential election was taken by Russell Jacoby to illustrate “the endemic anti-intellectualism of American society.” Harry Truman, by contrast, was looked down on as a provincial hick. Yet of the two men, Truman was much the better-read. He once corrected Chief Justice Fred Vinson’s Latin, Sowell tells us. Stevenson could happily go for months on end without picking up a book.

Stevenson had the intellectual demeanor, though, as does our current president; and that proved quite sufficient to make the left intelligentsia bond to the man in both cases. Having little contact with reality, the anointed do not see deeper than the surface of things. Addicted to that “verbal virtuosity,” they are easily swept off their feet by high-sounding rhetoric.

Of the Republican victory in the 1920 presidential election, Calvin Coolidge remarked that “It means the end of a period which has seemed to substitute words for things.” Alas, that period soon came back with a vengeance.

Survival of the Most Pious?

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

Darwin noted that a belief in “all-pervading spiritual agencies” is well-nigh universal among human populations. There are two current theories to explain the origins and persistence of religious belief, John Derbyshire reminds us:

One says that religion is an accidental by-product of our extremely complicated cognitive equipment. Being able to tell when an object is possessed of volitional agency (tigers, enemies) is so vital to individual survival that the ability “slops over,” attributing agency where there is none. A tree, the sun, or a statue can then be believed to have volition and power. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom popularized this point of view in a 2005 Atlantic Monthly article (“Is God an Accident?”). Anthropologists Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer have presented it at book length.

The other theory is that religion is adaptive. That is, on net, human beings who have religious instincts propagate their genes more successfully than those who don’t. The best-known exponent of this point of view is biologist David Sloan Wilson, whose 2002 book Darwin’s Cathedral laid out the adaptionist case for a general reader.

In The Faith Instinct, Nicholas Wade explores the adaptive approach — survival of the most pious:

The first task here is to try tracing developments through long history — through, that is, the 50 or 60 millennia since Homo sap. emerged from East Africa to populate the world. With lactose tolerance, the tracing is easy: Before cattle herding came up, there was none; afterwards, it soon appeared in the relevant populations, the culture at work to change the genetics.

With religion, things are much more complicated. There have been distinctive styles of worship in different periods of long history. Before the agricultural revolution of 8000 B.C., all human beings lived in small hunter-gatherer groups. Fragments of this lifestyle survived late enough that we can say confident things about it. It was very egalitarian — “fiercely” so, says Wade. (“Primitive communism,” was Karl Marx’s term.) This is a puzzle by itself, as our closest relatives, the chimps, live in hierarchical societies. Since chimp genes are known to have changed much less than ours, presumably the common chimp-human ancestor was hierarchically inclined.

So how did we get egalitarian? Wade suggests the invention of weapons (recall one meaning of the word “equalizer”), together with increased intelligence: “the cognitive ability of the weak to form coalitions against tyrannical leaders.” But then, without the authority of alpha males, how was order to be kept in the egalitarian hunter-gatherer band? How were deviants and freeloaders to be deterred? Religious belief, Wade argues, offered an answer. Supernatural agents, perhaps first suggested by dreams, could punish and reward.

The style of worship among hunter-gatherers was likewise egalitarian, with communal dancing and chanting a major component. These ceremonies sometimes lasted for weeks. Participants worked themselves up into trance states, interpreted as communication with, or possession by, supernatural agents. Some cultures used hallucinogens as a shortcut, since, as Wade notes, “dancing for hours on end was an arduous way to gain access to the supernatural.”

When settled agricultural life began, around 8000 B.C., religion changed to match the new circumstances. Ceremonies were pegged to key agricultural events — planting, harvesting — and the need for social hierarchy threw up specialist classes of priests, probably in cultural line of descent from the shamans of some hunter-gatherer societies — individuals with special talent at attaining the trance state. Religion was still tribal and polytheistic, though, and remained so through the rise of urban living and literacy.

Big polyglot empires needed universal religions, decoupled from particular tribes or places. Monotheism served the purpose best, and the genius of the Jews in establishing the first literate monotheism, around the middle of the first millennium B.C., was a key event. Judaism was tribal, not universal; but when supercharged with the modifications introduced by — mostly, probably, says Wade — Saint Paul, it was universal enough to vanquish the rather tacky Roman pantheon, and to be the foundation for medieval European civilization.

The evolution of religion was very uneven, though, with many vestigial features refusing to fall away entirely. Judaism has retained its tribal flavor; and the major feasts of modern religions are still pegged to the agricultural calendar — Passover, for example, according to Wade, once heralded the beginning of the barley festival. The priest-king principle of the earliest urban societies persists in the British monarch’s claim to be Defender of the Faith. The ecstatic dancing of hunter-gatherer observances was disapproved of by urban priesthoods of the agricultural age, but survives none the less in the Whirling Dervishes of Sufism, and in the rhythmic swaying of African choirs. (See also 2 Samuel, 2.xiv, where King David “danced before the Lord with all his might.”) Religion is very conservative, as one would expect of a belief system laying claim to eternal truth.

Empirical Thinking

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

The empirical style of thinking is a minority taste, John Derbyshire reminds us:

The ordinary modes of human thinking are magical, religious, social, and personal. We want our wishes to come true; we want the universe to care about us; we want the approval of those around us; we want to get even with that s.o.b who insulted us at the last tribal council. For most people, wanting to know the cold truth about the world is way, way down the list.

Scientific objectivity is a freakish, unnatural, and unpopular mode of thought, restricted to small cliques whom the generality of citizens regard with dislike and mistrust. Just as religious thinking emerges naturally and effortlessly from the everyday workings of the human brain, so scientific thinking has to struggle against the grain of our mental natures. There is a modest literature on this topic: Lewis Wolpert’s The Unnatural Nature of Science (2000) and Alan Cromer’s Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science (1995) are the books known to me, though I’m sure there are more. There is fiction, too: in Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s 1960 sci-fi bestseller A Canticle for Leibowitz, the scientists are hunted down and killed… then later declared saints by the Catholic Church.

When the magical (I wish this to be so: therefore it is so!) and the religious (We are all one! Brotherhood of man! The universe loves us!) and the social (This is what all good citizens believe! If you believe otherwise you are a BAD PERSON!) and the personal (That bastard didn’t show me the respect I’m entitled to!) all come together, the mighty psychic forces unleashed can be irresistible — ask Larry Summers or James Watson.

The greatest obstacle to calm, rational, evidence-based thinking about human nature, is human nature. Pessimism doesn’t come easily. You have to struggle your way towards it.

Deep-Seated Attitudes

Saturday, November 7th, 2009

Deep-seated attitudes, like the colonial-bumpkin image that the English have had of Americans for 300 years and more, are very resistant to change, John Derbyshire notes — especially when they are self-flattering:

The English will go on believing that they are Athens (ancient, cultured, wise) to our Rome (brash, militaristic, dumb), though the current truth is probably that the whole Anglosphere is just Constantinople (tired, frivolous, gullible), waiting for the Sultan and his army to show up with their humongous cannons.

The signs are not good

Friday, November 6th, 2009

The signs are not good, says John Derbyshire:

It’s tough getting through life by your own efforts in a world as crowded and sophisticated as this one. Postindustrial society has huge surpluses of wealth that can be harvested by the state and handed out as benefits. There’s a squeaky-wheel bias to it all — groups that can manipulate the process, for example by making emotional-blackmail (sometimes actual blackmail) appeals, tend to do best, but everyone gets something.

It’s pretty popular. That’s why the old self-support ideal of American life is dead, dead as mutton. It lingers on among some Americans as a fading dream; and to the degree that there is any difference between Democrats and Republicans, it is that Republicans appeal to that dream, while Democrats paint the old order as a scheme of oppression and cruelty. It’s a dream, though, a fading dream. The real difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats want the authorities to confiscate 34 percent of your income for purposes of redistribution, while Republicans think 32 percent would be better.

Modern socialism — neosocialism, the socialism of Clinton and Blair — in which capitalism is given a pretty free rein, so that the state can harvest and redistribute the surpluses, is successful and very popular. A lot of conservatives are in denial about that. Sure, neosocialism has a vast bureaucratic overhead — tens of millions of paper-shufflers doing nothing useful with their working lives — but it can afford that. And sure, it destroys that fine spirit of adventure, striving, self-support and self-improvement that was instrumental in building our civilization.

So what? Nobody really wanted to build a civilization. Harsh necessity forced them to do something with their lives. If Cortez, or Shakespeare, or Gauss, or Mozart, or the Founding Fathers, or the prairie settlers, could have got nice cushy cube-jockey jobs as Administrative Assistants in the Department of Administrative Affairs, and gone home at night to watch American Idol from the comfort of a Barcalounger — well, they probably would have.

There is a quote I read 25 years or so ago, when I was working through a lot of Soviet-dissident literature. I am sure it was either Shafarevich or Zinoviev, but I have never been able to re-find it. It is to the effect that communism was not just imposed on a passive populace, but that as communism descended on the people, their spirits rose to meet it.

This strikes me as a profound and true insight, and applicable to the whole human race. It was a mistake to think that the people of the USA would forever remain indifferent to the attractions of socialism. Nations change, often very quickly. The wild and terrible Vikings became the pale, pacifistic Scandinavians. The savage Magyar horde became — much more quickly, in just a couple of generations — the Christian Kingdom of Hungary. Pious, priest-ridden, poverty-stricken Ireland became, as I watched with my own eyes through the 1980s and 1990s, a hedonistic, skeptical, bustling hive of entrepreneurial vigor that had to import priests from the Third World to keep churches open.

Just so, the land of the brave and the home of the free could become the land of the timid and the home of the servile. This could happen, could be happening. The signs are not good.

A Warm Bath of Political Correctness

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Orwell described the traditional boarding-school education given to upper-class English boys as “five years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery.” John Derbyshire describes a modern university education as a warm bath of Political Correctness:

I upgraded the metaphor from lukewarm to warm because of the crude force and intimidation that is used when ramming PC down college freshman throats — so much coarser than the gentle, subliminal indoctrination carried out at Orwell’s Eton.

Empty Attributes

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

As preposterous as political correctness seems to John Derbyshire, who grew up in the monocultural England of the 1950s, his children have completely internalized it:

My daughter, age 14 and brighter than average, reacts with horror — instinctive horror, from internalized revulsion — if I comment in any way at all on anyone’s group identity. I’m not talking about the n-word here, which I don’t use, but just saying things like, “So-and-so is Jewish, isn’t she?”

Nellie will grimace and say, “Really, Dad!” It is wicked, morally wrong, to notice anyone’s Jewishness, blackness, Hispanitude, Orientality, gayness, sex, disability, and all the rest.

You must go through life holding fast to the belief that these are empty attributes, carrying no information value, and that any reference to them must be — can only be — motivated by malice. Plainly people can actually go through life doing that. It’s amazing to me, but they can — sort of floating effortlessly above the reality of human nature, defying gravity.

Missed a Stage

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

Pessimist John Derbyshire feels that he must have missed a stage of development:

I was at a friend’s house some years ago just before Christmas. My friend had a daughter, a sweet child about four years old. They were fixing little Christmas stockings to the edge of a shelf over the fireplace. The stockings didn’t stick very well, though. The little girl had particular trouble with one stocking. She pressed it to the shelf, but when she let go, it fell down at once. She picked it up and pressed again; it fell down again. At last she found a solution. She pressed it to the shelf, then as she let go she simultaneously turned away so she wouldn’t see the stocking fall. It was a great solution, a developmental milestone like the ones Piaget logged. I think I missed that particular stage of development, though.

Inoculated against intellectual snobbery

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

John Derbyshire explains how he got inoculated against intellectual snobbery:

I belong to that generation of Westerners from low-class backgrounds who got access to higher education far beyond what was available to our parents. We spent our teens and our twenties with the unhappy understanding that our parents, whom we loved and admired, didn’t actually know much. This created all sorts of psychological stresses.

It had the great advantage, though, of teaching us that good, honest, worthy, hard-working people — lovable people, admirable people — could be very ignorant. I like to think that this inoculated us — some of us, at least — against intellectual snobbery. Certainly a contempt for ordinary people — often guiltily but imperfectly disguised — is very common among people raised in intellectual or professional households.

One of those biographies that leave the reader feeling exhausted and ineffectual

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

John Derbyshire recently read one of those biographies that leave the reader feeling exhausted and ineffectual:

Joseph Needham’s first career was as a biochemist, one of great distinction. He took his degree at Cambridge University in 1921, then joined the research team of Frederick Gowland Hopkins, co-discoverer of vitamins and the first ever professor of biochemistry at Cambridge. The young man blossomed at the university, taking up nudism, English folk dance, Christian socialism, and sex, all with unrestrained enthusiasm. In 1924 he contracted an “open” marriage with Dorothy Moyle, a fellow researcher at Hopkins’s lab. They remained married until her death sixty-three years later.

A month after his marriage, Needham was awarded his doctorate and elected a fellow of his college, equivalent to tenure. He settled into academic life, in 1931 producing a three-volume work, Chemical Embryology, that was definitive in its tiny field.

In the late summer of 1937, Needham’s life turned a crucial corner. A young Chinese woman, Lu Gwei-djen, arrived at Hopkins’s institute to study, along with two other Chinese scientists. Needham and Lu quickly became lovers, with Dorothy’s full knowledge and approval. It was inevitable that Needham, with his keen curiosity towards everything he encountered, would want to learn about China.

Working from Needham’s diaries, Winchester reconstructs the key scene in some detail. Needham and his new mistress were both cigarette smokers. Lying in bed in his rooms one evening in February 1938, the two lovers lit up. Needham asked Lu to give him the Chinese word for “cigarette.” She duly did so: it is xiangyan — “fragrant smoke.” He then asked her to show him how the word is written. She wrote the two Chinese characters, and coached Needham through the writing of them.

“It was very sudden,” Gwei-djen remembered. “He said to me: I must learn this language — or bust!” She was to be his first teacher, he demanded, urgently. And she agreed, readily.

Thus Joseph Needham acquired what administrators at lonely outposts in the British Empire used to call a “sleeping dictionary.” His keen intellect and capacity for hard mental work took care of the rest. Through 1938 and 1939 he studied hard, attaining spoken and written fluency. Lu drafted in the professor of Chinese at Cambridge as an assistant teacher. By the time Britain entered World War II, Needham was ready for a career in sinology.

While mastering Chinese, Needham remained a professor of biochemistry. In 1942, he published a major work, Biochemistry and Morphogenesis, that was a standard text in its field for twenty years. The man’s energy was simply astonishing. Reports Winchester:

He completed this book while he was still campaigning in England and lecturing in America for recognition of the plight of the Chinese, and at the same time was busy teaching his students, writing his half-crown monograph … on the history of a particular branch of English socialism, regularly giving morris dance performances, swimming naked, attending meetings of the Cambridge Communist Party, offering sermons from the pulpit at Thaxted Church, and living through the manifold complications of his peculiarly organized love life.

Needham’s travels in China generated a vast apocrypha:

Needham and his party were traveling on horseback with guides through a remote, forested region. Suddenly they came up against another horseback party on the trail, led by a notorious local bandit, their terrified guides whispered. Needham dismounted, stepped in front of his party, up to the bandit leader’s horse, and with his customary vigor executed an English folk dance. The bandit leader watched with interest. When Needham had finished, the bandit dismounted, stepped forward, and performed one of his own people’s dances. The ice thus broken, everyone laughed and shook hands, and the two parties proceeded on their respective ways.

Read the whole review.

End of an Extravaganza

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

John Derbyshire describes the end of an extravaganza:

In the first third of the 15th century, while the Hundred Years War between England and France stormed dramatically to its denouement (Agincourt, Joan of Arc), and Muslims held on by their fingernails to their last fragment of Spain, and the Ottomans regrouped following the ravages of Tamurlane, and Ladislas II was breaking the power of the Teutonic Knights — while all that was happening at the other end of the Eurasian land-mass, China was enjoying a spell of national confidence and bold self-assertion under the third Ming emperor.

The famous great tourist sights of Peking stand as testimony to that period of vigor. Among its other glories, though they left us with no monuments to admire other than a few scattered steles, were the seagoing expeditions of the “Eunuch Admiral” Zheng He. In seven voyages from 1405 to 1433, Zheng and his “treasure fleets” carried the imperial banner to Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, Arabia, and the east coast of Africa.

The striking thing is how utterly little historical consequence these voyages had. It can fairly be argued, in fact, that they had none at all. A school of revisionist historians has come up arguing that Zheng was instrumental in the consolidation of Islam in Indonesia; and one scholar even tells us that “Zheng He reshaped Asia.” Even on the most extravagant claims, though, nobody thinks that Zheng’s voyages had any result as dramatic as what followed the great European explorers of a few decades later.

There were no colonies established as a result of the treasure fleets, no trade routes opened up, no alliances formed, no enlargement of understanding among China’s educated classes. The Ming court decided at last that the whole business was too costly. The records of Zheng’s last two expeditions were destroyed in a court intrigue, and China commenced the retreat into incurious bureaucratic despotism from which she was awoken only four hundred years later, when European traders came banging on the nation’s doors.

Derbyshire wrote this in June, which explains the punchline:

Now, approaching the fortieth anniversary of the first moon landing (July 20), you have to wonder if history is repeating itself. America’s manned space program was a grandiose public-works project, government-initiated and government-funded, like Zheng’s expeditions. Its achievements, like theirs, were sensational but content-free. Men floated in orbit above the earth’s atmosphere; men walked on the moon, but nothing changed among the earthbound.
Manned space travel always was, and still is, a pointless extravaganza project of no practical or scientific value — a Zheng He expedition for our time. In the bumptiousness of early-imperial triumphalism — a new dynasty established in China, a great war won by America — government can get away with stuff like that. Then, as domestic lobbies clamor for more of the national fisc (“If we can put a man on the Moon, why can’t we …?”), as the people are tamed by long peace, turning away from great events to their small daily affairs, as a mandarinate of unimaginative scholar-bureaucrats consolidates its grip on the society, priorities shift.

A Unitary Multi-National State

Friday, October 30th, 2009

China calls itself a unitary multi-national state, which is pretty close to the dictionary definition of an empire. What is surprising, John Derbyshire notes, given their illustrious history, is how bad they are imperialism:

The trick of successful imperializing is to leave the locals alone as much as possible, stamping out only the most objectionable of local folkways, picking off only the most troublesome local nationalists, letting the subject peoples use their own languages for any purpose that does not involve addressing the central authorities, and above all avoiding insults to their religion. The British ran India with a few thousand expatriates on this principle — most of them, as Winston Churchill pointed out, not feeling very well most of the time. The Romans worked along similar lines, once they had gotten the hang of it. So did the Austrians, the early Arabs, and the descendants of Alexander.

The imperial power has to let the subject peoples know who’s boss, of course. A few salutary demonstrations — the suppressions of the Sepoy Mutiny and of Boadicea’s revolt — early on in the imperializing process generally suffice. If you’re not willing to break a few heads (actually, in those particular cases, a few hundred thousand heads), best stay our of the empire business. Things can get bloody at the other end of the cycle, too, in the chaos of imperial retreat. Ask an Armenian.

That brings us to the Turks, one of the more successful imperial powers while things were going along smoothly, which they were for several centuries. It brings us back to East Turkestan, too, as the majority people in that region, the Uighurs, share their deep ancestry with the Turks of Turkey. The preface to the Oxford English-Turkish Dictionary tells you that once you have mastered the Turkish language, you can make yourself understood from the Bosphorus to the borders of Mongolia. There was in fact, in the fever-flush of 19th-century Ottoman decline, a pan-Turkic movement with the dream of uniting all speakers of Turkic languages in a single great nation named Turan. Few educated Turks nowadays take pan-Turkism seriously, though the nationalist MHP party sometimes makes pan-Turkic noises for rhetorical effect.

With or without a full-blown pan-Turkic ideology, the Turks of Turkey have generally felt a vague brotherhood with their cousins in Central Asia. The Uighurs of East Turkestan actually had a republic of their own for a few years in the 1940s, while the Russians and Chinese were busy with matters elsewhere. When Mao Tse-tung crushed that republic sixty years ago, its leaders fled to Turkey.
Even by the normal dismal standards of emigré groups, the Uighurs’ case looks hopeless. Their homeland has been flooded with Chinese settlers. The Chinese authorities say that the region is now forty percent Chinese, but they are probably understating settler numbers. Unlike Tibet, East Turkestan has a fairly agreeable climate, and it is not so high that Chinese settlers suffer respiratory discomfort. Also unlike Tibet, the region is Muslim, making it easy since 9/11 for the Chinese to label all Uighur independence activists as “terrorist,” and to hitch imperial policing activities to the War on Terror. Even the kindred peoples of West Turkestan — the old Turkic republics of Soviet Central Asia, now independent — are not inclined to help the Uighurs for fear of offending China and the U.S.A. Russia, increasingly wary of Muslim numbers in its southern “near abroad,” has been cheering on the Chinese goon squads these past few days as they have clubbed the Uighurs back into submission. Perhaps there never was a people so completely friendless as the Uighurs.

There is still much public sympathy in Turkey for the Uighurs, but it is not likely that any conceivable Turkish government would alienate China on the Uighurs’ behalf. It doesn’t help that this is Turkey, a country not much loved beyond its borders. Prime Minister Erdogan’s Friday statement that “The incidents in China are a genocide” occasioned much derision in Europe and the U.S.A. What? — a Turk talking about genocide? When the 1915 Armenian massacres are still a taboo subject in Turkey?

The Chinese therefore have a pretty free hand against the Uighurs. They can be depended on to use it. Short of a Final Solution, though — which I think, and very much hope, can be ruled out — they will not subdue the Uighurs. If they were competent traditional-style imperialists, instead of Leninist control freaks, they would have left the Uighurs to take care of their own local affairs under a suzerainty rule, with tribute paid in the form of oil and mineral concessions. That’s how the Great Game should be played.

Better yet would have been for the Chinese to take a lesson from post-Ottoman Turkey: to give up the imperialism business altogether, retreat to the metropolitan homeland, and leave the old imperial territories to their individual fates.

After coming to power sixty years ago this fall, Mao Tse-tung did a fine imitation of Suleiman the Magnificent. In the long run, though, it might have been better for China, and for the rest of us too, if he had taken Atatürk as his model.

No R Sounds At All

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

The first thing John Derbyshire noticed about his Wikipedia entry was that they got his name wrong:

Not the spelling — they at least managed to get that right — but the pronunciation. Their rendering in the International Phonetic Alphabet is /?d?rb???r / That includes two fricative-lingual r sounds. In fact there are no r sounds at all in the pronunciation of my name, fricative-lingual or otherwise. It is pronounced with pure vowels: /?d??b???/ (DAH-bi-shuh). I refer interested readers to §773 of Daniel Jones’ classic Outline of English Phonetics: “[I]n London English the r is never sounded when final or followed by a consonant.” The following §774, “Words for practising the omission of r,” is also helpful. Prof. Jones does not give a phonetic transcription of “Derbyshire” in standard English but he does, in §287, show /?d??b?/ for “Derby.”

Running Out

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

John Derbyshire shares one of those caustic jokes that used to circulate in Brezhnev’s USSR:

An elderly couple hears that there will be a delivery of meat at a local store. The husband hurries off to the store. After he has waited in line in the freezing cold for several hours, an official car pulls up and some KGB men get out. They tell the people in line that the meat delivery has been canceled, and that everyone should go home.

This is too much for the old boy. “Is this why we fought and suffered in the Great Patriotic War?” he calls out in exasperation. “Is this all we have to show for sixty years of socialism?”

One of the KGB men comes over to him. “Pipe down, Grandad,” he says. “That’s subversive talk. You’re old enough to know what would have happened if you’d spoken like that in Stalin’s time.” The KGB man makes his hand into a gun shape and points it at his head. “Go on home now and stop making trouble.”

The old boy goes home. Seeing him empty-handed, his wife says: “Oh no! Don’t tell me they’ve run out of meat again!”

“It’s worse than that,” says the old boy. “Now they’ve run out of bullets!”