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Derb and Discourse



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I’ve been more or less immured, trying to make headway on a book, in the last few days. So I missed this week’s big story, the firing of John Derbyshire, and the reactions to it both on the Corner and in the wider (but intellectually very narrow) world. It’s a sad story all round, and I get the impression from my Corner colleagues, not least Rich himself, that they feel sad about it too.

That said, let me blow away any suspense by saying straight away that in my own reactions I am closer to the free speech absolutism of Mark Steyn than to the nervous reaching for taboos on racist talk of Maggie Gallagher, Jason Steorts, and to a lesser extent Andy McCarthy.

That’s not to say I don’t have criticisms of what John wrote. If I had been his editor, I would have asked him to rewrite much of the article and omit some passages altogether. But that’s bile under the bridge. Here are some retrospective thoughts.

To begin with the crime itself: As I interpret what he wrote, John set out to criticize mainstream-media articles which lamented that black parents now had to give “the Talk” to their adolescent children about the risks they were taking to their lives and safety when they did no more than walk through a local neighborhood. He was criticizing not the parental advice — it’s simple prudence — but the implication of the articles that the dangers their children needed protection from came mainly from bigoted cops and white racists (who seem to overlap with whites in general to a significant extent.) To make his point he employed the satirical device of reversing the roles — depicting a white parent (himself) giving advice to his children about the dangers of racist attacks on them from, well, non-white criminals (I suppose including hoodies.) That at least is the structure of John’s article.

Satire, irony, role reversal — these are risky techniques at the best of times. The racial-cum-cultural atmosphere in America following the horrifying fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin is not the best of times. And John was not near his formidable top form when he wrote the piece.

#more#It was not written with his usual logic and close fidelity to his argument. It meanders over too many different points — some redundant, some irrelevant to his thesis. It’s harsh in tone. And it’s too long (which you may think a bit rich when you get to the end of this post.) Still, you soon forget that he’s satirizing articles that stigmatized white Americans by showing how ugly these arguments sound when they are made about Black Americans. But you still notice that they sound ugly.

The paradoxical result is that a piece that begins as a criticism of anti-white racism gradually morphs into something akin to an expression of white racism. It therefore strengthens the anti-white racism it is meant to satirize which, as it happens, is a growing problem in the U.S. — not in the suburbs or backwoods but in the corporate executive suites, the media elites, the courts, the bureaucracy, and of course the entire industry of sensitivity training which used to go under the more honest title of “Political Reeducation” in the gulag. Combined with class snobbery, as it usually is, anti-white racism produces bigotry and discrimination against innocent persons too, less viciously than past discriminations perhaps, but also more unanswerably because it operates under the virtuous disguise of anti-discrimination and social justice.

And virtue is one of the things at stake here. Most of John’s critics in the small explosion of commentary that burst out on blogs and the internet repeatedly express their own goodness and damn his wickedness. Lord, Lord, they cry, we thank thee that we are not as John Derbyshire. We are not racists. We burn daily sacrifices to the God of Diversity. But though they know that racism is an unforgivably evil sin, they can reach no agreement on what it actually is.

One blog contributor suggested the following definition: “Being uncomfortable around people specifically because of their race is, ipso facto, racism.” Really? Well, that lets John off because, as his NR critics have all vouched, he’s a disarming fellow who gets on easily with everybody. It’s also culturally interesting because, on this definition, the least racist part of the United States could well be the South. Despite the historical injustices of white-black relations below the Mason-Dixon line, both races grew up together and are more relaxed in each other’s company than are the frozen Northerners of both races.

But if mere social unease equals racism, would racism be all that bad or even all that important? Surely it would be just another technical offense — an American social neurosis, like lack of self-esteem, to be soothed away by Tony Robbins or Deepak Chopra? Far from throwing insults and moral slurs at the racist, we would quietly encourage him to get out more and meet a wider range of people. We certainly wouldn’t fire him over it?

Other critics are pretty certain that John is a white supremacist, though they don’t always use the term. This is a subset of the genuinely racist doctrine that there is a natural racial hierarchy in which superior races rightly rule inferior ones. Where does Derb stand on that? As best I understand him, he believes (following Darwin, incidentally) that different races have different skills and qualities as well as the same ones in differing degree. Each race, having evolved by adapting to its specific environment, is superior in some activity but inferior in others. No one race is best at everything. So there’s no racial hierarchy and no racial right to rule. Hmmnn.

Well, intelligence then? Derb is notorious for being interested in that. Does I.Q. serve as a kind of proxy for overall superiority in his worldview? If so, he is an unusually altruistic kind of racist — namely, a cheerleader for another race. He believes that North Asians are at the top of the I.Q. tree, with whites struggling along in mid-field. So he should be worried that his part-Asian kids don’t seem to agree with him on “the Talk.” What do they know that he doesn’t? Whatever else, though, he’s not a white supremacist.

With all the abuse, contempt, profanity, menace, and moral self-congratulation emerging from these various web commentators, however, one thing is missing. Combine all the critics into a single hangman and he would deserve Macaulay’s put-down of Southey:

He does not seem to know what an argument is. He never uses arguments himself. He never troubles himself to answer the arguments of his opponents. It has never occurred to him, that a man ought to be able to give some better account of the way in which he has arrived at his opinions than merely that it is his will and pleasure to hold them. It has never occurred to him that there is a difference between assertion and demonstration, that a rumor does not always prove a fact, that a single fact, when proved, is hardly foundation enough for a theory, that two contradictory propositions cannot be undeniable truths, that to beg the question is not the way to settle it, or that when an objection is raised, it ought to be met with something more convincing than ’scoundrel’ and ‘blockhead.’

Except that “blockhead” would be kinder than most of the epithets directed at John.

A marked exception to the general run of critics is Noah Milman who on his blog directs several criticisms at the Derbyshire article that strike me as reasonable, even when I disagree with them. For instance, if we were to apply John’s rules anything like strictly, we would be encouraging our children to avoid too many experiences, leaving them narrower, less savvy, and more vulnerable in the end. That’s a fair point, but one easier to address to oneself than to one’s children. Indeed, Mr. Milman points out that in his own life John has disregarded his own advice. This kind of argument is worth of ton of mindless abuse. Yet, as it happens, I disagree with his criticism of Derb’s main point:

That point, I take it, is to argue that just as African-American parents have to brief their sons on how to keep themselves from ending up like Trayvon Martin, white parents have to brief their sons on how to keep themselves safe from personal violence at the hands of African-Americans. But there’s a profound lack of parallelism between the two conversations. “The Talk” is about how you are perceived by others, and how to comport yourself so as to counteract that perception. Derbyshire’s talk is about how you should perceive others. There’s no analogy. They have nothing to do with each other.

I see what Mr. Milman is getting at here — and the argument might work as a matter of degree or emphasis — but surely the two “Talks” are not as different as he argues. And since his point is a quite sophisticated one, it needs a little unraveling.

First, each Talk has both a perceived and a perceiver: Black parents are worried that their children are perceived as potential criminals. But by whom? If the Talk is any guide, the perceivers are lazy or bigoted cops and white racists (by which some writers apparently mean many or most whites). In John’s argument, his children are perceived as potential victims by the minority of potential muggers within the black community. Both sets of children have to worry about how they are perceived (even if by different assailants.) Not a great deal of difference there.

Second, when it comes to counteracting the perceptions of these various others, they both get advice on how to avoid trouble — it’s simply different advice corresponding to the different kinds of trouble each is likely to face. Black children, in order to avoid the attentions of bigoted cops and white racists, are told that they should wear smart clothing rather than hoodies, act humbly, and so on. It is not clear what advice John could give his children on counteracting the perceptions of would-be muggers. Walking humbly with cast-down eyes and swaggering aggressively might both invite attack. So John tells them to be wary of certain situations where hostile or aggressive black people, i.e., potential muggers, might be present.

That explains the laundry list of dangers that John’s critics, including some of his friends, found disquieting (notably his advice on not being a Good Samaritan.) But that list is essentially an elaboration of Jesse Jackson’s famous admission: “There is nothing more painful to me . . . than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” If the somebody had not been white, Jackson would presumably have continued being nervous or apprehensive. He would therefore have been making a judgment about an individual based upon a general statistical likelihood. No one imagines, however, that Jackson would have been making a racist judgment or reacting out of racist motives.

Third, certain conclusions follow from the undoubted fact that respectable young black men face the same dangers from black muggers that John’s children do. Indeed, both sets of children are more likely to become victims of those muggers than of cops or white racists. Is this reality factored into the advice that black parents give their children? Two possibilities exist: If the parents warn them of dangers from muggers as well as from cops and racists, then their advice differs only slightly from John’s — that difference reflecting the reality that his children are not threatened by cops and racists. If their advice warns against cops and racists but not against muggers, however, then they are building a racist bias into their counsel. My suspicion is that in real life parental advice takes the first form; only in intellectualized or journalistic versions of the Talk do parents elevate racial loyalty over their children’s safety.

Thus, all in all, the Talks given both by Black parents and by John are essentially the same, and where they differ, they reflect the different dangers faced by the different groups of children. The “lack of parallelism,” detected by Mr. Milman, exists but it is minor and accounted for by other, quite reasonable, factors. Where does that leave us? It leaves Mr. Milman clinging to the simple unadorned principle that it is always wrong to suspect either an entire group or particular individuals within it because statistically the group contains a high percentage of dangerous people. Thus he concludes that John’s article is racist: “His whole point is that it is both rational and morally right for his children to treat black people significantly differently from white people, and to fear them.” And, to be sure, relying even on accurate statistics can lead to misperceptions about individuals. They don’t justify stigmatizing an entire community. Other things being equal, we should strive to treat people as individuals.

All this is true. But the principle at stake needs to be set against other considerations. Anyone who feels physically threatened by anyone else is morally entitled as well as well advised to take evasive action. That evasive action — crossing the road, ducking into a shop, or as a cop once advised me, “waving your arms and babbling loudly like a madman” — should be as unobtrusive as possible both for safety’s sake and to avoid giving needless pain to people who may be entirely benevolent. We shouldn’t blame parents for giving their children prudential advice that balances principle with safety. Jesse Jackson acted on exactly this balanced judgment. And John Derbyshire actually articulated it in his original article. In numbered paragraphs 4 and 5, he made clear that Black Americans, like all others, spanned the full range of human types and human abilities, and that this required his children to treat them as individuals not as group ciphers — except that “in some unusual circumstances . . . e.g., paragraph (10h) below — this default principle should be overridden by considerations of personal safety.”

(Maybe some critics think that John was not being candid about his opinions here. If so, they must demonstrate his insincerity. What they cannot do is treat his argument as if it omitted a crucial point for the defense that in fact it contained.)

If principled anti-racism requires people to ignore considerations such as personal safety, then racism will not seem all that terrible. In a world of muggings, stabbings, rapes, and murders, it would look almost like a technical offense, born of excessive prudence, provable only as a result of close reasoning, and shared with black parents who talk the Talk. Of course, we are under no obligation to define racism in so broad and idealistic a fashion. Once we reject doing so, however, the case against Derb collapses again.

Yet again, something worse is therefore needed to convict him. My colleague Jason Steorts thinks he has found it in his “readiness to assume that statistical differences between races — e.g., between their incarceration rates or average scores on IQ tests — are due to innate psychological and cognitive differences” and in his lack of interest in other explanations. This readiness strikes Jason as redolent of racism in itself but also perhaps a sign of a wider animus toward black Americans. Now, John certainly holds the view quoted by Jason. It is one of the main line-items in the indictment against him. Far from assuming it, however, he has argued it at length over a number of years.

But is such an opinion racist in itself? Surely that depends on whether it is true or not. And despite much Internet blustering about “discredited” theories and “pseudoscience,” lively scholarly disputes continue about the respective contributions to I.Q. and behavior of nature, nurture, and culture. Like Mark Steyn, I lean to the “culturalist” side of this argument and, to a degree, even to its environmentalist side, believing that better nutrition from the womb onwards, and better education and cultural influence afterwards, can yield some improvement in people’s capacities and more in their performance. To the best of my knowledge, however, no psychologist denies that I.Q. and other qualities (e.g., sexual orientation) are heritable and innate to some degree. It is a question of how much and therefore a matter of debate. And while that remains true — until the science is settled, so to speak — Derb’s position cannot be fairly characterized as racist even if it is a minority one and even if most of us hope it isn’t true. When it comes to scientific truth, hope has no standing in court.

What of the secondary charge of animus? Logically that should fall when the primary charge of proven racism falls. But it is possible to grant that every individual argument in Derb’s article is valid and yet feel that the whole list of warnings, presented in such harsh terms, is somehow off-putting. Derb himself made a slightly similar point in his American Conservative review of Kevin Macdonald’s Culture of Critique — an analysis of Judaism as an evolutionary strategy:

Given the well-known history of this topic, it seems singularly obtuse of MacDonald not to try to calm the troubled waters his work is bound to stir up. From my own indirect, and rather scanty, knowledge of the man, I would put this down to a personality combination of prickliness and unworldliness, but I am not sure I could persuade less charitable souls that my interpretation is the correct one, and that there is not malice lurking behind MacDonald’s elaborate sociological jargon.

Something like that is, it seems to me, the main problem for Derb. At this point he is fighting a miasma of suspicion rather than a clear attack he could coolly rebut. He might want to walk around the block, read his piece again, see if he got the tone wrong, maybe cut out a few points . . . but why should he? As one tough but fair-minded critic, Jonathan Kay in Canada’s National Post, said of him: He was always true to himself. Derb never dissembled. If he thought something, he said it; if he didn’t say it, it was because he hadn’t thought it.

Moreover, I fear that Mark Steyn is right in saying that Derb’s departure will further narrow the already narrow limits of acceptable debate in American intellectual life. The tumbrils are already rolling, with Elspeth Reeve at the Atlantic Wire denouncing Victor Davis Hanson on obscure grounds and calling for a campaign to drive “racist” writers from their jobs. Driving people from their jobs, causing them to lose health insurance, bringing distress to their spouses and children — this seems a curious ambition for a young journalist of (presumably) liberal bent. Fifty years ago liberals denounced McCarthy for driving people from their jobs because, as Communists, they were supporting a state that was genocidal at the time. They raged against “guilt by association.” Are they now anxious to have their own witch-hunts against racists? But who will define “racist”? Will it be Ms. Reeve? Or a committee of public safety? Set up by whom? And will Ms. Reeve herself have to appear before this tribunal, having written several times for Taki’s Magazine and being therefore a colleague of Derb’s at one remove and so guilty by association? To get the nasty and vicious flavor of this enterprise, read the comments from the Internet Left where perhaps the most common theme is that National Review fired John because we are racists attempting to conceal our racism that he made uncomfortably explicit. There’s no pleasing such people, and we shouldn’t try pleasing them anyway.

So let me turn instead to those NRO readers who are glad to see the back of Derb because he was critical of God and Christian belief. I’m a pretty conventional Catholic and I strongly disagree with Derb on atheism, etc. But there are such creatures as distinguished atheist conservatives — Heather Mac Donald and Andrew Stuttaford spring to mind. They raise the question of whether conservatism can be sustained without being rooted in religion. It’s an interesting topic. And you never know where honest debate will lead.

Thirty years ago I asked the philosopher Antony Flew, Britain’s leading atheist before Christopher Hitchens, to write an article for Policy Review on this very theme of atheistic conservatism. He produced a lively read — “Is God a Tory?” — and he developed a deep interest in the topic. In part he did so from filial piety. His Methodist father had helped to found the World Council of Churches and he was outraged at how the Left had politicized and distorted its Christian mission.

Anyway, Flew worried away at the question and, a few years ago, he renounced atheism and adopted not Christian belief, but a form of Deism. I am not vain or foolish enough to think that there was a causal link between our commission and Flew’s partial conversion. Doubtless the grace of God played its part, but something more secular did too. Flew, like Derb, was extremely clever. And, like Derb, he never stopped thinking. His thinking took him down some roads that he never intended or expected to go down. Derb’s thinking has done the same — and in time it may take him down roads more amenable to believers.

That little incident with Flew confirms my belief that we should keep arguing for as long as there is something to argue about. We should always want the maximum possible debate. And that means tolerating arguments we fiercely dislike and firmly doubt.

So do we want to excommunicate atheists from our ranks? Or any other kind of heretic? Or do we want to try converting them in debate, always taking the risk that they may convert us, but feeling we are more likely to find the truth when we search freely?



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