The Corner

Derbyshire and Me

I was not aware that “creepy,” “disingenuous,” “apparatchik,” “brutal,” “unprincipled,” and the like were terms of endearment in John Derbyshire’s distinctive style of writing. But I am most gratified to hear that they are. I am sorry to hear, however, that the words “sloppy” and “intemperate” are evidence of a writer’s being “bent out of shape.” These stylistic matters can be so tricky. As Derbyshire rightly remarks, readers can judge these matters for themselves.

But I have to say a bit more about the specific factual points still in dispute. In his review of my book Derbyshire wrote, “Some people would say that a writer who refers to embryos as ‘the young,’ to Mrs. Schiavo as ‘disabled,’ or to the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment as having carefully pondered its implications for abortion, is just plain dishonest.”

 

I pointed out that I did not call Schiavo “disabled,” but rather quoted someone else who did. Derbyshire seems now to have dropped this second accusation.

 

Regarding the quote about abortion’s being an “act of violence against the young,” let me make three points: 1) Again, it’s not a remark made in my own voice; it’s a comment in an imagined speech by Hillary Clinton. 2) Even in that context, the line refers to fetuses as well as embryos. 3) The clear implication of Derbyshire’s original remark is that my polemic works, and seeks to work, in part through a misleading use of words that gulls the reader; that I am using a crafty choice of words to carry my argument along. This example, when examined, does not support that implication. The quote isn’t part of any argument I’m making. So I think that it is Derbyshire’s sentence that is misleading.

 

As for the Fourteenth Amendment: I don’t think Derbyshire gets my point. That wouldn’t be any great fault on his part—indeed, it might be my fault for unclear writing—if he weren’t slinging around the word “dishonest.” (Even if he does slightly back away from it by paragraph’s end.) In the passage at issue, I am casting doubt on Justice Blackmun’s argument, in Roe, that (as I put it) “the people who ratified the Fourteenth Amendment regarded the unborn as nonpersons.” I pointed out that the anti-abortion laws passed around that same time was “evidence” to the contrary.

 

Note that I don’t say these laws are “proof” that they considered the unborn to be persons. I preface the entire passage with the sentence: “It is not necessary to believe that the fetus is a ‘constitutional person’ to think that Blackmun came nowhere near proving his point” (emphasis in original). Now let’s say you beefed up my argument here into a proof that the ratifiers considered the unborn to be persons. You might then argue that one effect of the Fourteenth Amendment they ratified was therefore to protect the unborn: that in applying the words of the amendment to the topic of abortion, the right conclusion is that the amendment requires restrictions. I think a successful argument along these lines could probably be made, although I don’t attempt it in the book. What you couldn’t argue is that the ratifiers intended to prohibit abortion by passing the Fourteenth Amendment. It would be absurd, that is, to maintain that the amendment’s ratifiers had “carefully pondered its implications for abortion.” Which is why I didn’t maintain it, even though Derbyshire claims I did.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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