Magazine November 2, 2009, Issue

A Smiling Gloominary

We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism, by John Derbyshire (Crown Forum, 272 pp., $26)

As a temperamental opponent of John Derbyshire — I suffer from the disease of default optimism, making me one of those he calls “poseurs wearing smiley-face masks” — I hope I quickly forget his delightful (in a delight-expunging way), wide-ranging (though grimly focused), grati- yet terrifying new book. We Are Doomed is a blast of stale air, a key that opens up the dungeon of limitation, a burst of cloud rushing in to protect us from the daylight.

“The proper outlook of conservatives,” says Derbyshire, “is a pessimistic one.” Those who are familiar with his work in National Review will be unsurprised to learn that he considers it his mission to make conservatives cast off what he sees as the foolishly emollient schemes of George W. Bush and get their Samuel Beckett on.

Let it not be said that Derbyshire is cramped of vision: “Despair should be large and general, not petty and particular,” he declares. And he’s off, diagnosing ills demographic, economic, educational, cultural, political, and even intellectual. (One simple measure that might improve our lot, he notes in passing, would be a more pessimistic outlook on everything, but we hapless dopes can’t handle even that.) He makes the case that ethnic diversity increases unrest, that the expansion of the government blob is unstoppable, that the arts have reached their day of exhaustion, that bold ideals about the desirability of bankrolling subprime mortgages or forcing democracy on subprime countries have had results dismal and dismaler.

Is Derbyshire kidding? Not really, but sort of. I (recall my chief defect, already stated) read the book in two ways at once — Jonathan Edwards meets Jonathan Swift. It is to be taken literally, I am certain, but on the other hand Derbyshire deploys such demonically gleaming wit and cheerful cantankerousness as to suggest that he’d be a more engaging dinner guest than, say, Al Gore. (“Pass the wine, Al.” “Really?” Agonized sigh. “You’re going to drink this wine?” Sad shake of the head. “You are aware that pure alcohol made from simple locally grown corn has a vastly lower carbon footprint than Italian wine?” Immense sigh.) In a passage that is typically dry yet difficult to take entirely in earnest, Derbyshire cautions that any readers who, having entered here, actually do abandon all hope as instructed should feel free to drop him a line if they find the book bending their thoughts toward suicide. That is sporting of him, although one wonders how many potential suicides possess the patience to write out a letter and post it, much less await the reply. The least he could do is supply his Twitter handle.

Since Derbyshire has liberated himself from the burden of issuing prescriptions — disaster being unavoidable — he is free to lampoon the crooks, charlatans, and chuckleheads he sees everywhere in public life. He has a response worthy of Twain or Mencken to a paper, by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, called, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century.” The paper’s three section headings are titled:

The Prospects and Benefits of Immigration and Ethnic Diversity (three pages)

Immigration and Diversity Foster Social Isolation (nineteen pages)

Becoming Comfortable with Diversity (seven pages)

Derbyshire says this is a bit like publishing a paper in a health journal with the following section titles:

Health benefits of drinking green tea

Green tea causes intestinal cancer

Making the switch to green tea 

Zing. “Economics may be dismal, but it’s not a science.” Bam. Of a free-verse poem from 1967 that moves with all the rhythm of a 1978 Ford Granada with a broken axle, he asks, “If this is poetry, what’s not poetry?” Considering the Knowledge Is Power Program, or “KIPP,” which attempts to bring quality education to the worst neighborhoods, Derbyshire wonders how broadly applicable its tactics are: “I am sure there are some people who enter the teaching profession with the desire to crunch their way daily across the crack-vial-littered streets of crime-wrecked inner-city neighborhoods to put in fifteen-hour working days, but I doubt there are many.” Speaking of education, what better summary of the American obsession with furled sheepskin than this one? “American parents are now all resigned to beggaring themselves in order to purchase college diplomas for their offspring, so that said offspring can get low-paying outsourceable office jobs, instead of having to descend to high-paying, unoutsourceable work like plumbing, carpentry, or electrical installation.”

Derbyshire has many unsettling thoughts on the immigration challenges facing the West (he’d hate that phrase; something closer to “the obliteration of the West by unchecked hordes of socialist barbarians” might be more to his liking) and states them so boldly that any liberal who bothers with this book will probably denounce it as, at best, racially insensitive. Derbyshire doesn’t care. He believes his facts are solid and that opponents will be reduced to ad hominem lines of attack.

Borrowing (mischievously) his terminology from the racist CCNY professor Leonard Jeffries, Derbyshire notes that “Ice People” (Asians and whites) are almost completely segregated from “Sun People” (blacks and non-white Hispanics) in public schools, that property values are directly linked to the proximity of “good schools,” and that “good school” is simply code, fully accepted by the Obama-bedazzled white bourgeoisie, for a school with not too many black and Hispanic students. He can’t resist adding that “Sun People kids are, in the broad generality, unacademic and unruly” before wading into the research on the frustratingly persistent “achievement gap.”

Derbyshire knows that even many fellow conservatives will be clearing their throats and checking their watches at such points, and he delights in that discomfort. “Mainstream conservatives approach this whole issue, if you force them to (which isn’t easy), with the whimpering terror they bring to all matters racial: ‘Oh please, mister, please don’t call me racist! Beat me with this steel rod if you like, but for pity’s sake, don’t call me racist!’” Just to make it clear that he isn’t one of those mushy mainstreamers, he tosses around comments such as this one, on Elizabeth Alexander, President Obama’s choice to deliver an inaugural poem: “I guessed her to be a whiny left-wing black feminist, as most female poets nowadays are.” Derbyshire even chastises his NR colleague Mark Steyn for arguing, in America Alone, that the U.S., unlike Europe, has enough breeding mojo to sustain Western civilization. Not really, says Derbyshire: America’s overall fertility rate is 2.05 children per woman, but that drops to 1.86 for non-Hispanic whites — a near-Scandinavian figure.

Whether pessimism is more central to the liberal or conservative temperament is an interesting question. A new book by Barbara Ehrenreich is titled Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, and as we near the end of the first year of the Obama presidency, Paul Krugman and his acolytes retain their Weather Channel stance that disaster is always either happening somewhere or about to happen. Nor has any liberal, after passage of this or that government program, declared himself satisfied, his work done. A follow-up crisis always awaits. Derbyshire is at least optimistic enough not to delve into global-warming catastrophism, a reflex so embedded in the culture that it now routinely serves as the basis of allegory even in kiddie movies.

But cosmic Eeyore that he is — this bit really makes you wonder whether Derbyshire stalks playgrounds bellowing that there is no Santa — he even dresses Ronald Reagan in a suit of sackcloth and a pomade of ashes. It was pessimism about the Soviet Union’s intentions, Derbyshire argues, that drove Reagan’s foreign policy. As for the Gipper’s overall record, Reagan blithely told his barber that he had accomplished only “four out of five” goals (lowering taxes, liberating the economy from a burdensome government, increasing defense spending, and checking Soviet power) but admitted to rank failure at actually restraining spending and balancing the budget. Derbyshire calls this a “melancholy truth”: Even our greatest modern president was unable to alter his countrymen’s basic delusion that “humanity can be improved by the spending of public money.” Reagan’s defeat on this front was not insignificant. In my view, it’s as if Theseus emerged from the Labyrinth saying, “I didn’t actually kill the Minotaur, but I think we had a good, constructive discussion, and he’s agreed to accept a mere 7 percent increase in the number of Athenians he consumes.” 

“Human kind,” said T. S. Eliot, “cannot bear very much reality,” but “my experience,” Derbyshire says in continuing the thought, “has been that conservatives can bear more than most. Wishful thinking about human nature and human potential is for leftists.” Can it be too wishful to hope that most of the electorate might abandon wish-fulfillment schemes? Probably. But even Derbyshire says (this is the most hopeful sentence in the book; take it or leave it), “If I stare hard enough at the corpse of American conservatism, I sometimes fancy I see a slight twitch or a passing flush of color.” As an optimist, I read that statement to mean that there’s a lot of potential for conservatism as a neo-zombie movement given to munching on the corpulent, juicy flesh of excess government. If not, though, let us keep up our work anyway, if only to honor the dead.

– Mr. Smith is a film critic for the New York Post.

 

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