f you’ve never been offended by John Derbyshire, then you probably arent Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Latino, black, liberal, Arab, Asian, French, Irish, female, African, lesbian, or gay. Or else you just haven’t been paying attention. Best known as a regular contributor to National Review, Derbyshire may be the foremost reactionary of our times. But hes also inquisitive and forthright, with an aversion to cant from right as well as left. If Derbyshires a crankwell, he is a crankhes also self-aware and, often, very funny. This makes him rather like a valued but embarrassing friendgreat one-on-one, even if you cant take him anywhere.
It goes without saying that Derbyshire rubs liberals the wrong way, not least because half of what he writes seems calculated to rile them up as much as possible. This gains him notoriety (as when he suggested that Barack Obama might just be “Al Sharpton minus the pompadour and the attitude”), but at a cost. A stewed pensioner at the corner pub can be entertaining, but most people will miss anything important he has to say.
And Derbyshire does have some significant things to say. While few of them can be considered unique in the universe of ideas, rarely do they come together in one individual. To sum up Derbyshires worldview, it might be described as one of nature over nurture, tribalism over internationalism, science over superstition (including religion, especially creationism), isolationism over interventionism, and Calvin Coolidge over FDR. Think H. L. Mencken, and then make pretty much zero adjustment for the passage of time. That makes Derbyshire an unusual voice in the debate over the soul of conservatism today. And even liberals, provided they have a tolerance for provocation, are likely to find him stimulating.
Now Derbyshire has come out with his first book-length work on politics. (He previously published a novel and two popularized histories of math.) Entitled We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism, Derbyshires book makes a simple argument: pessimism about human potential is the key to a better tomorrow. Or at least a not-so-much-worse tomorrow, which is better than nothing.
Unfortunately, says Derbyshire, healthy pessimism has all but vanished from American society. Conservatism, pessimisms last best hope, has fallen prey to wishful thinking. As a result, while the left is devoted to brainless social engineering schemes, the right has become devoted to equally brainless social engineering schemes. Americas conservatives (or former conservatives) have surrendered to feel-good idiocy, with deleterious consequences for nearly every aspect of contemporary life.
The major focus of We Are Doomed is on the limits of Homo sapiens. Derbyshire believes that if we humans try to reason our way out of our basic programmingif we believe our nature can be changed in any nontrivial wayonly perverse results will follow. Unfortunately, he says, this is what weve been doing for the past fifty years. The results have been feckless and destructive policymaking on everything from immigration and education to welfare and warfare. In particular, our devotion to the idea of societal harmony has led us to believe that liberation from the prejudices and tribalism of yesteryear is only a generation or twoor a few dozen sensitivity training sessionsaway. Worst of all, even self-proclaimed conservatives seem to agree.
How strong is Derbyshires case? Well, no White House that invades Iraq believing that liberal democracy is mans natural state can be called conservative, even if many self-proclaimed conservatives supported just such an effort. So you might say that Derbyshire has won even before hes taken up the pen. But the author also has other points to make, and he makes a number of them rather well. For instance, drawing on a study by Robert Putnam on the inverse relationship between a communitys social capital and its ethnic diversity, Derbyshire makes a strong case that policymakers havent thought very seriously about the pitfalls of large-scale immigration. His dismissal of the “college racket, a vast, money-swollen credentialing machine for middle-class worker bees” certainly resonates with this middle-class worker bee. His musings on consciousness and free will are learned and playful. And his exasperation with various kinds of social engineering will find a sympathetic audience on both left and right.
At the same time, Derbyshires politics are a great deal more to the rightor shall I say atavisticthan his premises about humanity require. Perhaps science will vindicate his belief that nature matters more than nurture and that IQ is, to a large extent, destiny. But even so, that neednt lead to a reversion to 1920s governance. You can still believe that many of our public schools deserve far more funding. You can believe that workers are entitled to bargain collectively and earn a living wage. You can believe that black Americans get treated unfairly in our courts. You can believe that energy efficiency and carbon reduction are worthy goals. You can believe that waterboarding prisoners is stupid and evil. You can believe that every American deserves affordable health care. You can believe that gay couples should be allowed to marry. None of these foregoing convictions is at the mercy of the latest findings of science. A hereditarian may hold them as easily as an environmentalist.
And Derbyshires polemics weaken considerably when they concern topics outside the authors zone of enthusiasm. For instance, his attacks on pop culture are based largely, he admits, on “what I see on the way from my study to the liquor cabinet and back.” Thats a clue that holding ones peace might be wise. (Leave it to Jacques Barzun, who writes of our “demotic life and times,” to place the decline of Western art in a proper we-are-doomed perspective.) Derbyshires chapter on economics is likewise superficial. He laments the massive growth of government and the cushiness of government work, a trend that supposedly has taken concrete form in the mushrooming of mansions in suburban Virginia. But those mansions arent inhabited by civil servants. Theyre inhabited by lobbyists, Pentagon contractors, and all other sorts of hangers-on enriched immensely by two fattening wars and a corrupt Congress. (Government hasnt been stealing from American business; its been helping American business to steal from us.) And Derbyshire really phones it in on the housing crash, with borrowed guff about the Community Reinvestment Act, a narrative that could sway only the monomaniacal. But let us be charitable and assume he wrote that section under a rough deadline.
One last thing I found myself wondering as I read We Are Doomed was this: Whos the audience here? True, the book is addressed explicitly to “conservatives,” but who among them does Derbyshire suppose is actually open to persuasion? The handful of subscribers to the American Conservative magazine are mostly on board already. I suppose a few readers of National Review will grant him a hearing. But what otherwise remains among todays self-identified conservatives is an uninviting collection of Christian fanatics, neocons, militia groups, and Republican hacks. Deaf ears, no?
Derbyshire admits to having his rest disturbed by the idea, in the words of a friend of his, that “historic conservatism is anti-science, prone to celebrate truth by authority, favors religion over rationalism and deep down sees unvarnished truth corroding social cohesion.” But perhaps Derbyshires friend is only partly correct in his description. Surely, theres a word for that kind of thinkingnamely, rightism. If conservatism is about skepticism and resistance to change, rightism is about extreme faith in state power wielded by ones own side and paranoia toward all opponents. Throw in a martial fetish and youve pretty much got an international right-wing travel kit. Neo-Nazis, for instance, are rightists, but no one would call them conservatives. (Nor, obviously, would anyone call Marxist guerillas liberals.)
And Derbyshire, despite occasional water carrying for his wacky right-wing buddies (and flunking a major sanity test by sticking up for Sarah Palin), is still a conservative. That means staying honest generally trumps considerations of advancing the “conservative movement,” whatever on earth that is at this point, and that his real audience is a rather small one of genuine conservatives and, yes, genuine liberals. For while liberals and conservatives may vote differently, they operate intellectually along a continuum. To either side, ideology is the enemy, running up against the skepticism of the conservative and the openmindedness of the liberal. This intertwined sensibility of liberalism and conservatismas opposed to leftism and rightismhas long been central to the politics of the United States, perhaps thanks to our English roots. (President Obama, a liberal, not a leftist, is a prime example.) But the tradition looks increasingly fragile amid the lost marbles of todays American right. I think of an article on Newsmax a few months ago in which the author entertained the idea of a military coup against the current White House. Welcome, Argentine future. But I suppose Derbyshire and I have different fears.
As one might expect, Derbyshire ends his book on a downer, invoking Samuel Becketts play Happy Days, in which Winnie, the heroine, sustains a cheery optimism while buried up to her waist (and, later, her neck) in a mound of earth. Winnie, he says, should be our “model.” As for the future of real conservatism? The best Derbyshire can do is play Lear to its remains. “If I stare hard enough at the corpse of American conservatism,” he writes, “I sometimes fancy I see a slight twitch or a passing flush of color. Just my imagination? Who knows?” I think, in the Palin era, its safe to say its Derbyshires imagination. But his conclusion is fitting, offering no uplift at the end of the road. And, fortunately, his wit offers ample joys along the way.
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