I’ve not said anything about John Derbyshire yet, and I’ve had at least three very good reasons for doing so: 1) I’m a low man on the totem pole around here. 2) I wasn’t exactly sure what I thought about it. And 3) I don’t know John.
When I say I don’t know him, I mean the extent of my knowing him is limited to brief eye contact during his visits to the office and a dozen or so e-mail and Corner exchanges. I can honestly say I never traded more than six words with him face-to-face. Truth is, I was—I am—terrified of him. He always gave me the impression of the Oxford don who knows your essay is hastily written and full of crap because he saw you drinking yourself to oblivion at the pub the night before. It always seemed he had me—and just about everyone else—pegged, figured out. In fact, I was so awkward around the man that I felt like a fraud referring to him with the familiar diminutive “Derb” in blog posts, but sheepishly did so because, well, nobody called him “John” around here.
So I can’t rightly speak to John’s reputation for personal warmth and charm, but I trust my colleagues that he is both warm and charming. And though I don’t know him personally, I can say that I, like so many others, admire (envy) his polymath’s talent. Jay says in his latest Impromptus that he always reads Derb, even on topics he finds dull or inaccessible, and that strikes me as both a great compliment and a true one.
That’s why I was so confused when I read the infamous column. Not only was it baldly racist, it was, of all things, dumb. On the topic of what made it dumb, I don’t have much to add to Jason’s post. John commits a statistical fallacy he is far too smart to have fallen for en route to a set of odious moral commitments that don’t follow from anything he’s put to paper — that seem to follow instead from unreflective prejudices informed by cherry-picked anecdotes, from a general misanthropy, and from a narrow, amoral scientism positively Victorian in its vintage. I found the column deplorable and I certainly understand Rich’s determination that its very outrageousness constituted a kind of letter of resignation.
But I have very little time for the emerging liberal consensus that letting Derbyshire go was somehow a belated or arbitrary move. “Derbyshire has always been a racist,” this thinking goes, “so you either should have fired him a decade ago or own up to your implicit endorsement of his beliefs.” This is off base, for two reasons: 1) it’s natural, and not something to be apologized for, that conservatives and liberals should draw different lines about what constitutes unacceptable racism, and 2) it can be difficult for conservatives to police that line even after we’ve drawn it.
I’ll take them in reverse order.
On the second: I’ve always thought that conservatives should simply bite the bullet and admit that there are racists among self-described conservatives, and moreover, that these conservatives’ racism is an evitable (that is, unwarranted) extension of the mainstream conservative position on race. But this is true in the same way it is true that there are communists among self-described liberals, and that their communism is an evitable (that is, unwarranted) extension of the mainstream liberal position on political economy. To put this even more forcefully, we have to yield that there is something to it when liberal trolls snark about how tough it can be to distinguish a conservative from a racist. The fact is that both conservatives and racists think that considerations about race should play a much smaller part in our political discourse. And while only racists think that this is so because blacks are less than fully human, it can be tough to get them to admit as much. Until, that is, they inevitably slip up.
There. That’s why it’s tougher for conservatives to police the line on racism. Now, why do we set that line differently from liberals?
I basically agree with Maggie Gallagher that race is different in America, and that our peculiar history of racial discrimination means that a strong cultural taboo against racist talk/behavior is in most instances necessary and wise. But I also share Mark Steyn’s frustration over the way charges of racism are used as a cudgel to stifle uncomfortable conversations, and I do believe that there is a coalition on the Left whose material interest is in the forestalling of a “post-racial America,” not its arrival. I suspect that most mainstream conservatives are either implicitly or explicitly with me on this, and that they, like me, try to thread the needle—resisting the way race is used as leverage in political and cultural power games, while respecting conventions against certain ways of talking about race that are ostensibly designed, after all, to move us beyond racial prejudice.
Derbyshire’s writing, here and elsewhere, reflected this tension. Unlike the targets of Eric Holder’s scorn, Derbyshire wasn’t a coward about race. In fact, he proved to have more courage than sense, and his oeuvre reveals someone who delights in provocation. But even though his views had, in Rich’s words, long “danced around the line” of the acceptable, they had heretofore been tempered by a carefulness and self-awareness unusual among racists (and, yes, I realize how odd that sentence sounds).
To wit, liberal blogs used Derbyshire’s response to an interviewer in 2003—“I am a homophobe, though a mild and tolerant one, and a racist, though an even more mild and tolerant one”—as the smoking gun in the 5.3-second campaign between the emergence of the Taki column and his exit from NR. But what they left out was Derbyshire’s lengthy elaboration. To be sure, the elaboration itself contains views I find odious (among them, the veiled suggestion that HIV-positive gay men are not to be taken seriously as critics of homophobia). But it also contains Derbyshire’s admission that his prejudices are at least partially irrational, that he opposes public or legal discrimination on the basis of race or sexual orientation, and that he strives to take individuals as they come. It reads like an admission—stunning when you think about it—that his prejudice is both largely academic and largely impotent.
Thus defanged, Derbyshire could serve as a kind of second fixed point, along with the unmovable monolith that is politically correct liberalism, by which we could triangulate our own views. Between Derbyshire’s outrageous racialism and the far-left’s outrageous race baiting, there was the possibility of space for that mythic “national conversation on race” that could be frank, sincere, and—cheesy as it sounds—even healing. I can’t prove that this is the role Derbyshire played for other conservatives, or even that the thought consciously occurred to be before I wrote it down. But I think there’s something to it.
I say this is the role Derbyshire played, past tense, because the Taki column goes well beyond the inert, disclaimed prejudices that characterized some of his older work and into the realm of unblinkingly counseling active bigotry. I wasn’t privy to management’s thinking, but in my view this is the line Derbyshire crossed.
This is not to say that setting that line is an obvious or uncontroversial matter. Being racist is not a binary state, and the world is not neatly divisible into evil bigots and enlightened cosmopolitans. Any man, right or left, who is sufficiently honest with his reflection in the mirror will admit to as much. The decent men are just the ones who fight with their better angels against their baser prejudices–when it comes to race or anything else. It’s a battle all of us fight, and it’s a battle that John Derbyshire, in that awful column, appears to have lost.