Radio Derb: NR's Anti-Trump Attack And The Irrelevance Of Intellectual Conservatism, Plus Black Oscars, Etc.
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01m01s— Spinster power. (Campaigning in a cloud of ambiguity.)

10m04s— The Thucydides Trap. (A struggle for status and prestige.)

18m46s— Make America great for whom? (Fertility goddess meets alpha male.)

26m12s— Squirmishing with the GOP establishment. (The irrelevance of intellectual conservatism.)

30m02s— The end of tourism. (See the Pyramids along the Nile ... if you dare.)

37m20s— Vagabonds and strumpets. (Race fuss of the week.)

44m32s— Regularizing Easter. (Can't we just keep it lunar, Arch?)

47m11s— China leads the world. (In ice chess.)

48m50s— Signoff. (A glimpse of the old, weird America.)

01 — Intro.     And Radio Derb is on the air. Greetings, ladies and gentlemen, from your unambiguously genial host John Derbyshire, with commentary on the passing scene.

This week's podcast begins in the Far East and circles back there via the Presidential campaign, the Pyramids, the Oscars, and the Church of England. Never fear, though: we end up at last squarely and indisputably in the U.S. of A.

First, though, let's cast our gaze across the wide Pacific.

02 — Spinster power.     Here's a place on which, to the best of my recollection, the laser beam of Radio Derb scrutiny has not so far fallen: Taiwan.

Taiwan is that island a hundred miles off the southeast coast of China: about a third bigger than Massachusetts, population 23 million. We used to call it Formosa, back in the dear old Eisenhower administration. Remember the Formosa crises?

Taiwan exists in a kind of diplomatic limbo. Japan got it from China in 1895 and ran it as a colony for fifty years. When Japan surrendered in 1945, Taiwan went back to China. Whose China, though? China was having a civil war at the time, Mao Tse-tung's Communists versus Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists: two falls, two submissions, or a knockout to decide the winner.

Well, Chiang's was still the official China, so he got Taiwan. Mao took over on the mainland four years later, but wasn't strong enough to take Taiwan. Chiang's Nationalists held it as a de facto independent territory at which the commies from time to time rattled their sabers — those were the Formosa Crises.

Sixty-seven years later, that's still the status quo, although of course papered over with lots — lots and lots — of legalistic and diplomatic flapdoodle; and politically advanced, in Taiwan's case, to a lively and noisy electoral democracy marbled with good old oriental corruption.

The commies run mainland China; Taiwan runs itself. It has its own Constitution, legal system, armed forces, educational system, and media. It has its own currency, the NT Dollar, trading at thirty U.S. cents when I looked just now. They write Chinese with the old-fashioned characters, not the simplified ones the commies introduced. So the character meaning "a reception hall," for example, which mainlanders write with just four brush strokes (?), in Taiwan needs twenty-five (?). They also have their own way of rendering the Chinese language in alphabetic form. In fact they have two ways, one based on a Japanese syllabary, the other on our own Latin alphabet.

I have some slight personal interest in Taiwan. I spent several weeks of my wasted youth there forty-five years ago, when Chiang Kai-shek was still running the show; and I shall revisit the place, for the first since then, later this year.

Why am I talking about Taiwan? Well, one, it's in the news, and two, it's a jumping-off point for some comments I want to pass, in this segment and the next, about U.S. policy and the coming Presidential election here.

First, the news. They had an election in Taiwan last week.

Taiwan politics is pretty straightforward. Chiang Kai-shek's old party, the KMT, is still around, and in fact has held the Presidency for the last eight years. The main opposition is the DPP, who held the Presidency for the preceding eight years. There's a third party, but it's much closer to the KMT than to the DPP, so the main split is KMT versus DPP.

What's the policy difference? From the geostrategic point of view, the main thing is that the KMT leans towards unification with the mainland while the DPP leans towards Taiwan's independence.

The leaning is done in both cases very cautiously, behind a smokescreen of doubletalk. The reason for that is that unification and independence are both politically impossible. Unification is unacceptable to most Taiwanese because they like their liberties and fear the commies. Independence is unacceptable to the commies, who might make serious trouble if Taiwan attempted it.

The official policy of the KMT is for eventual unification with the mainland. The official policy of the DPP is for eventual independence. Actual unification would require an attack and invasion of Taiwan from the mainland; actual independence would require a complete collapse of central authority on the mainland. There is currently no sign of either thing happening, so Taiwan sails forward on the pinions of ambiguity.

Well, last week's election was won by the DPP, the party promising eventual independence. It was a good clear decisive result: 56 percent of the vote, with the KMT and its satellite party sharing the rest.

The President-elect is 59-year-old spinster and former law professor Tsai Ing-wen. The characters of Ms Tsai's given name, Ing-wen, actually translate as "English," more precisely "the written English language." So if you can't hold those Chinese names in your mind, just think of her as English Tsai.

(Ms Tsai's spinsterhood is worth a footnote here. Taiwan is one of the least philoprogenitive places in the world. Its Total Fertility Rate is 1.12 children per woman, placing it at number 222 out of 224 in the world rankings. Only Macau and Singapore are less fertile. Median age in Taiwan is 40. In the U.S.A. it's 38; in Mexico 28, in Nigeria 18. Taiwanese people joke that the mainland's best strategy for reclaiming the island is just to wait until there's nobody left there.)

U.S. policy towards Taiwan has been to go along with all the ambiguity while at the same time acting as guarantor of Taiwan's de facto independence. If the ChiComs attack Taiwan, we are pledged to go to Taiwan's aid. Meanwhile we sell them military equipment on favorable terms: not enough, or advanced enough, that they can fight off an attack from the mainland by themselves, but just enough to annoy the ChiComs.

This is one of those policies that works fine until it suddenly doesn't. Next segment.

03 — The Thucydides Trap.     U.S. policy towards Taiwan is shaped by the Taiwan Relations Act, passed by Congress in 1979.

Here's the problem. Nineteen seventy-nine was 37 years ago. A really, really important thing has happened in those 37 years: the rise of China.

In 1979 China's Gross Domestic Product was less than ten percent of ours. Last year it was over a hundred percent of ours. China's economy was smaller than Holland's back then: Last year, just the increment of growth in China's GDP was roughly equal to the entire Dutch economy.

That's a stupendous change across a short time. It's hardly adequate to call China a rising power; there are few historical instances of any power rising as fast as China has, and still is.

I know, I know, you've been hearing about China's fiscal problems. They are indeed nontrivial; but even with them, China continues to grow. Optimistic forecasts for 2016 have growth a tad below seven percent; the pessimistic ones say a tad below six percent. Let's go deep into pessimism and forecast five percent. Last year the U.S.A. clocked up two percent growth. We haven't had five percent since 2006. We haven't had seven percent since 1988.

So China's been, and still is, a fast-rising power. Now, when you say "fast-rising power" in a room full of geostrategy mavens, it will be only a matter of minutes, perhaps just seconds, before someone utters the phrase: "the Thucydides Trap."

Thucydides was of course the ancient Greek historian who wrote up the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in the later fifth century B.C. What caused that war? Super-famous quote from Thucydides, quote: "What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta."

That's the Thucydides Trap. You have an established nation, comfortably settled in the conviction that it is the primary power in its world — Sparta, in the Greek case. And you have a fast-rising power throwing its commercial and military weight around; that was Athens. Naturally the established power feels threatened, perhaps threatened enough to go to war.

So, is there a war with China in our future? Might we lose our footing on the Taiwan balance-beam and fall off? Might some nutso Chinese leader get tired of all the ambiguity and take the initiative? Might something else light the fuse: regime collapse in North Korea, another border skirmish with India, China's claims in the South China Sea?

Possibly. There are some arguments to the contrary, though. One is that nuclear weapons have neutralized the Thucydides trap, making Great Power wars obsolete. That doesn't mean we couldn't have a Cold War with China, with lots of little proxy hot wars going on, but it might rule out a real city-flattening WW3.

Another school argues that China is a paper tiger, those sensational growth rates notwithstanding. China relies on imports for energy and food. They have big, powerful neighbors that need watching: India, Russia, potentially Japan. Economic troubles would expose the regime's legitimacy problem, as might a serious environmental catastrophe. There are demographic problems: not as dire as Taiwan's, but headed that way. The Tibetans and the Uighurs have to be held down … And so on.

Against that latter school are strategists who say: Yeah, but all those issues generate insecurity in the ChiCom leaders; and insecurity sometimes drives nations, like people, to behave irrationally.

That's a hard thing for Americans to grasp, I think. The position of our own nation leaves us ill-equipped to understand the insecurity of a continental power like China. Here's a quote on that:

The United States is arguably the most secure great power in history. With weak and pliant neighbors to its north and south, vast oceans to its east and west and a superior nuclear deterrent, it is remarkably insulated from external threats.

End quote. I took that from an essay by John Glaser in The National Interest magazine, December 28th. Glaser is making an argument, which I find compelling, for the U.S.A. to draw down its troops and commitments in the Pacific theater. Here's Glaser's next sentence, right after the one I just quoted. Quote:

Maintaining military predominance in East Asia simply doesn't add much to our unusually secure position.

End quote. You've heard this from me before, of course. Why do we maintain tens of thousands of troops in South Korea and Japan? Why is our Pacific Fleet always conducting some exercise or other in China's backyard?

Is war with China inevitable? No, of course not. It's possible, though; and it's more possible than it needs to be because of our insistence on maintaining our primacy in the Western Pacific, when there are no good reasons of national interest in our doing so.

One more quote from John Glaser's piece, quote:

The struggle for primacy in East Asia is not fundamentally one for security or tangible economic benefits. What is at stake is largely status and prestige.

End quote. I think that's true. President Trump will reduce the possibility of war and save our country a ton of money by bringing our troops home and mothballing a couple of carrier groups.

I hope they still let me into Taiwan after that …

04 — Fertility goddess meets alpha male.     After all that, you can imagine that I squirm a little when candidates on the campaign trail talk about "making America great again."

It's a matter of definitions, I guess. Suppose we drew down our overseas forces, minimized those foreign entanglements, revamped our visa and immigration systems to operate for the benefit of Americans rather than foreigners, cut down the federal bureaucracies, set our entrepreneurs free, outlawed government-worker unions, made public provision for the helpless old and sick and insane, and let the rest of the world go hang? Would that count as "making America great again"? In my book it surely would.

The Donald Trump campaign is particularly big on "making America great again." Does the Donald mean the same thing by that phrase that I mean? I hope so, but it's hard to be sure. Yo, Mr Trump: We have 50,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen stationed in Japan; 38,000 in Germany; 28,000 in South Korea; 12,000 in Italy for crying out loud. You OK with those numbers, Mr Trump? Hello? I wish someone would ask him.

Here's someone even keener on making America great again than the Donald is: Sarah Palin. Tuesday this week, at a campaign rally in Ames, Iowa, Mrs Palin endorsed Trump for the Republican Presidential nomination. Her endorsement speech took just short of twenty minutes to deliver. In those twenty minutes the phrase "make America great again" occurred seven times. That's an average of once every two minutes fifty seconds.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm not trying to be a wet blanket. I like Trump and I like Palin. I'm just seeking some clarity on this making-America-great idea, which is obviously a major theme in the Trump campaign. Who's he going to make America great for? Great for Americans? Hey, no problem with that. Great for South Koreans, Taiwanese, Italians, Saudis? Not so much.

I'd just like to know.

The New York Times had some sport with Mrs Palin's endorsement speech. Some Times hack named Michael Barbaro published a column titled The Most Mystifying Lines of Sarah Palin's Endorsement Speech. He quoted this sentence, for example.

[Clip:  And you quit footin' the bill for these nations who are oil-rich, we're paying for some of their squirmishes that have been going on for centuries.]

Look at that, snickered Mr Barbaro. Mrs Palin coined a new word, "Squirmish." Quote from him: "a cross between squirm (which means to wriggle the body from side to side) and skirmish (which means a brief fight or encounter between small groups). Twitter embraced the new term instantly." End quote.

So what? People coin words all the time. Shakespeare coined words. I coin words, or try to. Come on: Did you ever see the word "Andro-American" before I coined it last week?

And I must say, I rather like "squirmish." If your unit and my unit engage in a small firefight, that's a skirmish. If we wriggle and writhe while so engaged, pretending we're doing something else, that would be a squirmish. Kind of like what the GOP establishment is doing with the Trump campaign …

All right, Mrs Palin's tongue tends to trip over itself. You try talking for twenty minutes unscripted without saying something daft. I didn't see anything much wrong with her speech. It made up in vigor and enthusiasm what it sometimes lacked in coherence.

And at several points in her speech Mrs Palin got to the heart of the matter — the matter, I mean, of why Trump is doing so well, and so many of us are cheering him on. Concerning the charges that Trump and his followers are not real conservatives, for instance:

[Clip:  What the heck would the establishment know about conservatism? Tell me, is this conservative? GOP majorities handing over a blank check to fund Obamacare and Planned Parenthood and illegal immigration that competes for your jobs, and turning safety nets into hammocks, and all these new Democrat voters that are going to be coming on over the border as we keep the borders open, and bequeathing our children millions in new debt, and refusing to fight back for our solvency, and our sovereignty, even though that's why we elected them and sent them as a majority to DC.]

That's spot on. Voters elect a Republican Congress; nothing much changes; voters get mad. It's really not hard to understand, unless you're as stupid as the GOP establishment. Which is way more stupid than the New York Times is trying to paint Mrs Palin.

And I have to confess, watching the video of that endorsement, Mrs Palin working the crowd while Trump stands at the side with a poop-eating grin on his face, I have to admit to feeling the Golden Bough factor at work, too. Fertility goddess meets alpha male; beauty pageant winner meets beauty pageant proprietor; cut it any way you like, there's some primal stuff going on here.

05 — Squirmishing with the GOP establishment.     Now that, thanks to Mrs Palin, we've got the word, let's use it.

OK, squirmish of the week: National Review against Donald Trump. The venerable conservative magazine has published a special issue urging conservatives to not support Trump, on the grounds that he's not a conservative.

They have a point, but at the same time they're missing a more important point.

The point they have is that Trump has almost no track record as a movement conservative. Trump shows no acquaintance with the ideas that have shaped the post-WW2 conservative movement. I'm just flipping through George Nash's book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. Eric Voegelin, Whittaker Chambers, Ludwig von Mises, Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, … Do any of these names mean anything to Trump? I doubt it.

The point they're missing is that, first — all right, I'm going to make two points out of it — first, there is such a thing as gut conservatism, as distinct from head conservatism. A great many Americans — tens of millions — are conservatives without ever having heard of Willmoore Kendall.

And second, even among the lesser number of us who do know the difference between Straussians and Fusionists, the conviction has settled in that intellectual conservatism is a political dead end, with no consequences in the present age.

That wasn't true in the previous age, the age of the Cold War. Conservative ideas were important and had consequences: most notably, the election of Ronald Reagan. That was terrifically impressive to those of us who grew up during the Cold War, and it made the conservative intellectual enterprise seem worthwhile.

It seems worthwhile no longer. It has no consequences, none that seem good to a conservative temperament, to a conservative gut. The Tea Party election of 2010 has had no good consequences. Nothing happened for us, nothing changed. The George W. Bush Presidency had none, less than none. The 1994 Gingrich Revolution had none. Even the Reagan Presidency had rather few in the domestic sphere, arguably none. As before, I refer you to Chapter 3 of David Frum's 1994 book Dead Right, chapter title: "The Failure of the Reagan Gambit."

Gut conservatives are left clutching at straws. They — we — are ready to rally to anyone who shows, in how unsatisfactory soever a way, some glimmer of understanding about what concerns us. We don't want millions of unassimilable foreigners pouring into our country. We don't want our young people sent off to fight half-hearted wars our leaders have no real desire to win. We don't much care if Russia or China throw their weight around in their own spheres of influence. We don't want to see our nation's leaders apologize to anyone, for anything.

We have no confidence in the Republican Party as a vehicle for our concerns. Who then are we to vote for? In 2012 a great many of us didn't bother to vote at all. That's how Barack Obama got his second term. We didn't think Romney would have made much difference.

We think Donald Trump will make a difference. That's the difference.

If you still don't get it, go read the comment thread on the National Review website. Random sample, quote:

Been lied to too many times. If the nominee isn't Trump or Cruz I'll vote for the Democrat. Trump might screw us over but the establishment candidate will for sure. I've come to realize that the establishment Republicans are a greater enemy to me than any communist democrat. I'll cut off my arm before I ever vote for you c***-*****rs again.

End quote. If you still don't get it, I can't help. I've done my best here.

Oh, just one short note here to my ex-colleagues at National Review: Don't you see how weird it looks for Bill Buckley's magazine to snipe at Donald Trump for being the beneficiary of inherited wealth?

06 — The end of tourism.     [Clip:  Jo Stafford, "See the Pyramids along the Nile …"]

That's by way of introducing some observations about the other big national-security issue, the one that gets far more news coverage than rumblings in the Western Pacific. I refer of course to the threat from radical Islam.

My observations are of a sidebar nature. I keep reading headlines about the dire state of Middle East tourism. This one, for example, from Egypt's international tourism campaign suspended indefinitely over Russian plane crash. That was from last November, after a Russian plane full or tourists was brought down by terrorists.

That incident itself came just two months after twelve Mexican tourists were killed by the Egyptian Army, who mistook them for terrorists.

Also in November, three German tourists in Morocco were attacked with knives.

Here's another one from early this month, Egypt again, long headline: Gunmen open fire and 'throw Molotov cocktails' at tourists boarding a bus at hotel in Cairo on road leading to the pyramids. Quotes from the accompanying story, quote: "In June last year, a suicide bomber blew himself up near the ancient Karnak Temple in the southern city of Luxor, wounding three Egyptians … Tourism is a pillar of the Egyptian economy, which has been struggling to recover from political turmoil triggered by the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak."

Back to that Russian tourist plane brought down by terrorists. It was on its way back to Russia from the major Egyptian beach resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The resort lost a huge amount of business following the event. Britain and Russia suspended all flights. Those are the two biggest sources of tourists. Now the hotels stand empty. The tens of thousands of young Egyptians who staff them, most from dirt-poor villages in the Nile valley, can go back home to plowing the Nile mud, or join the migrant flood into Europe, or enlist in a radical group.

It's happening all over. Last week an ISIS suicide squad opened up on downtown Jakarta, Indonesia, killing four people, including a Canadian tourist. That ended with one of the squad blowing himself up outside a Starbucks. Two days later thirty people were shot and killed at the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, West Africa. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for that one. The jihadists warmed up before the attack on the hotel by shooting up a café next door, one that was, quote, "popular with foreigners." The dead included nationals of 18 countries, including six Canadians.

Bottom line here: Islamic terrorism is making Third World tourism dangerous for Westerners. The market is responding appropriately. If you own a share of a luxury tourist hotel in some Third World country, get rid of it now, at any price you can get. And if you still want to join Jo Stafford and see the Pyramids along the Nile, you'll pretty much have the place to yourself.

It's not even just the Third World. You could ask café patrons and concert-goers in Paris about that, or the ladies of Cologne. A couple more urban atrocities in London, New York, or Berlin, and nobody will want to go outside any more.

I was just reading an article in one of the business magazines about how Virtual Reality is poised to take off in a big way. Looks like this could be happening just in time …

07 — Vagabonds and strumpets.     Race fuss of the week was the bellyaching about the Oscars being too white.

The Oscars ceremony this year is scheduled for February 28th, with black comedian Chris Rock as host. The nomination list came out last Thursday, with the usual four categories for acting: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role. There were five names in each category, twenty altogether. Every one of the twenty is a white person.

That got the usual suspects riled up. Director Spike Lee, who hates white people, and Jada Smith, who is married to black actor Will Smith, told the world they won't be showing up at the awards ceremony. Al Sharpton called for a boycott, swearing he wouldn't pay his income taxes until Hollywood got right with black people. Chris Rock is under pressure to withdraw as emcee.

For goodness sake. We're talking about actors here, vagabonds and strumpets. Do people really care that much about the Oscars? Regarding actors, I'm of the same kidney as Dr Johnson: "What, Sir, a fellow who claps a hump on his back, and a lump on his leg, and cries, 'I am Richard the Third'?"

And even if we allow that acting is a thing that can be done well or badly, which I grudgingly might allow, we're then up against the fact that different races have, in the statistical aggregate, different talents. Nobody disputes this in the case of professional basketball, or Silicon Valley coding employment, or Supreme Court justices (one-third of whom are Jewish, ten times the proportion of Jews in our population). Why might it not be true for movie acting?

I might be a bit more receptive to this black whining if they didn't have so many of their own enclaves. I just did the standard exercise one does here: I typed the phrase "national association of black" into Google. It found 322 million hits in 0.53 seconds. National Association of Black Accountants, National Association of Black Broadcasters, National Association of Black Counselors, National Association of Black Dentists, … you can work your way through the alphabet, many times over.

And then of course there's Black Entertainment Television, which has its own awards ceremony.

So apparently this is how things are supposed to work: Blacks have their own associations and awards and enclaves, and at the same time they feel entitled to full participation and acceptance in the colorblind equivalents.

For fairness we should either shut down all the black enclaves and associations, or open up society to National Associations of White Accountants, Dentists, etc. Speaking as an ardent believer in freedom of association, I vote for the latter. Then we could have a white Oscars and a black Oscars. Problem solved!

In fact, if you tally up black Oscar winners — not nominees, winners — in the four acting categories since 1995 (the last twenty years, in other words), ten of the eighty winners were black: Forest Whitaker, Jamie Foxx, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lupita Nyong'o, Octavia Spencer, Mo'Nique, and Jennifer Hudson. Ten out of eighty is one-eighth, pretty precisely the proportion of blacks in the U.S. population.

So what you're looking at here is probably not oh-my-god racism! but just the clumping and scattering you get in any random distribution. Take an eight-sided die — yes, there really is such a thing — and roll it many many times. There'll be quite long stretches when the number eight doesn't show up. That's too much mathematical sophistication for Spike Lee or Al Sharpton, but I think Radio Derb listeners can handle it.

As a footnote here: Looking back across the decades, it seems to me that there were a lot more blacks in mainstream show business back in the Jim Crow forties, fifties, and sixties than there are today.

In music, for sure. There were really big stars there: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, … When rock'n'roll came up in the late 1950s we got Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Platters, the Supremes, the whole Motown sound, Chubby Checker, … Now it seems the black performers have all segregated out into Hip-Hop.

If you turn the focus away from just movies, mainstream showbiz is less black now than it was sixty years ago. If white audiences were so receptive to talented blacks in 1956, why are they less so now? Discuss among yourselves.

08 — Miscellany.     And now, our closing miscellany of brief items. I just have a couple, both China related. I started with China so I'll finish with China.

Imprimis:  Chinese New Year's coming up, February 8th. The traditional Chinese calendar is lunar, so it's out of sync with our solar calendar. New Year can fall on any day from January 21st to February 20th.

Here's a curious thing, though. All the major festivals in the Chinese calendar are lunar except one: the Qingming Festival, which is solar. It comes on either the fourth or fifth of April in our calendar.

Here's an even more curious thing: Our calendar is solar. Like the Chinese, though, we allow one major exception: Easter is lunar. Easter Sunday is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox — March 27th this year.

That's much too untidy for modern sensibilities. Christian leaders are trying to settle on a fixed solar date for Easter. The Pope is already in consultations with the Coptic Church on the matter. Now the Archbishop of Canterbury is on board. He's going to join the Romans and the Copts to try to get Easter regularized.

As an extremely occasional congregant of the Archbishop's, I don't expect my opinion to carry much weight. For what it's worth, though, I think they should leave the date of Easter alone. In fact, I'd like to see a revival of the entire concept of leaving things alone. Not all change is bad, but a high proportion of it is just pointless busy-work.

Although, if my own 90-year-old copy of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer is anything to go by, settling the date of Easter would at least make the book shorter. There are six entire pages given over to tables and algorithms for finding the dates of Easter and the other moveable feasts in any given year. They take the calculations all the way forward to A.D. 2200, by which time the churches will probably have come to some kind of decision.

Item:  Just one more from China before we sign off.

Congratulations to Mr Cui Deyi of the ancient city of Handan in Hebei Province, North China. Mr Cui played and won several games of Chinese chess at a public tournament while buried waist deep in a tank of ice, wearing nothing but swimming trunks.

This wasn't a one-off for Mr Cui. Three years ago he and a challenger faced off, both submerged up to their necks in ice for over two hours.

This is actually a very minor international sport. Another one of its stars is Dutchman Wim Hof, who climbed to over 24,000 feet on Mount Everest wearing only a pair of shorts.

An observer of Mr Cui's latest feat is recorded as commenting, quote: "We can't be compared to him, he's great … Ordinary people can only look on with respect." End quote.

Speaking personally, I don't know that "respect" is really the right word … but congratulations to Mr Cui anyway. I hope the shrinkage wasn't too severe.

09 — Signoff.     There you have it for this week, ladies and gents. Thank you for listening; and for my fellow residents of the Northeast, may we come through this approaching winter storm with nothing worse than a shortage of marshmallows to roast.

Another thing that came to mind watching Sarah Palin's endorsement speech was how very American it was. It's hard to see your country and its customs objectively if you're born and raised here; you just take them for granted. To immigrants like myself, America's national culture is as distinctive, as unique, as fascinating as Japan's. Mrs Palin fits right in there.

Before globalization took hold, the U.S.A. was even more distinctive than that. It encompassed one very distinctive set of phenomena, what Bob Dylan's biographer called "the old, weird America." It's gone now, but I'm old enough to have caught the tail end of it.

So there I was, aged about fourteen, sitting in a provincial English drawing-room belonging to the family of my schoolfriend, when his father, who had eccentric tastes in music, put a disk on the gramophone. It was a record he'd just gotten by mail order from some American supplier.

I listened in amazement. Weird? It was the weirdest thing I'd ever heard — extraterrestrial weird.

Here it is, and it still sounds radically weird: The Fendermen with "Mule Skinner Blues."

More from Radio Derb next week.

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