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The Politics of Despair

I have long been a fan of John Derbyshire, as much for his tone and style as the substance of his views. As a lonely voice of sanity on the issues of nativism and militarism, his idiom of irony and sarcasm seems entirely appropriate; I suspect it's the only thing that's let him survive at National Review, where skepticism towards immigration and democratic imperialism is held to be crimethink. Now he sets forth his views, systematically and comprehensively, on a whole range of issues, reminding his fellow American conservatives that "there is little hope for improvement in this world; that such small hope as there is should be directed towards the actions of one, or a few; and that most of what governments do is wicked, when not merely pointless and counterproductive" (p. 5).

Diversity. Ah, the object of my profoundest fear and loathing! This chapter alone is worth the price of admission.

He cites a paper by the eminently respectable sociologist Robert "Bowling Alone" Putnam, who found, to his surprise and dismay, that "immigration and diversity foster social isolation." I must say that this aspect of Diversity had never occurred to me, but once noted, it's obvious. Social atomization and deracination are bound to be compounded when the environing culture is not merely thinned out, but racially, linguistically, and religiously disintegrated. Culture is the common ground in which diverse yet intertwined social networks grow.

The happy-talk arm-waving at front and back of that "meat" is, though, perfectly and irresistibly illustrative of the point I'm making: The cult of Diversity is so powerful and so attractive, it has corroded even first-rate minds like Robert Putnam's, not to mention the minds of all too many conservatives. And yet it is demonstrably -- easily demonstrably -- false. [p. 25]

One irony of Diversity is that all these ethnic groups contributing to it are presumed to be interchangeable. Stop and think about that for a moment. If people are really so diverse, not only are they different from the get-go (which might or might not be a good thing), they have different ways of life, different aptitudes and proclivities, different standards and expectations; so it should only surprise us if they do not arrive at different outcomes. But the happy-crappy multiculti Left expects equal outcomes for everyone, and will settle for nothing less. This brings us to my all-time favorite sample of the Derb idiom:

Leonard Jeffries, professor of black studies at City College, New York, has suggested the term "Ice People" for whites and East Asians, "Sun People" for blacks and Hispanics. This is just the ticket. For the purposes of this book, and by way of tribute to a distinguished local scholar, I shall henceforth follow this usage. [p. 33; emphasis added]

Having savored the sarcasm, let us examine the irony in more detail.

The self-sorting of ethnic groups in America is a function of culture. Derb thinks it is really biological, but the fact that East Asians and mestizo Hispanics are descended from the same racial stock -- the latter having an admixture of European ancestry, to boot -- makes me skeptical, to say the least. The problem of assimilating (or ejecting) millions of Mexicans and other Hispanics, whose native language is Spanish, who come from foreign countries to which they still have family ties and primary allegiance, is radically different from that of integrating blacks, who have been in America since colonial times and speak English (after a fashion [he added snarkily]).

Moreover, there is the still separate problem of Muslim immigrants: not yet as great for us as for Europe, though one that literally exploded before our eyes on 9/11. Racially, Muslims are Caucasian (except for sub-Saharan Africans, Malays, and Indonesians, to be sure), though typically swarthier than Europeans. Like the Hispanics, they are newcomers who speak foreign languages and retain foreign ties; unlike the Hispanics, they adhere to a religion that promises rewards on Earth and in Paradise for killing and subjugating those outside their umma. Talk about ethnocentricity and xenophobia!

Politics. Here Derb echoes the usual conservative complaints about bloated, corrupt, and incompetent government, but with more vim, vigor, and honesty than the Republobot hacks who suckle at the public teat alongside their Dementocrat colleagues. He relates this trenchant anecdote at third-hand (quoting George Packer citing Pat Buchanan):

[President Reagan] once told his barber, Milton Pitts, "You know, Milt, I cam here [to Washington] to do five things, and four out of five ain't bad." He had succeeded in lowering taxes, raising morale, increasing defense spending, and facing down the Soviet Union; but he had failed to limit the size of government, which, besides anti-Communism, was the abiding passion of Reagan's political career and of the conservative movement. [p. 11]

Even if apocryphal, this conveys a great truth. In this connection, I must pause to point out that Derb utters this prize bit of nonsense:

By the time Reagan attained office the outcome of the Cold War was not much in doubt. America's social and economic system was obviously superior to the Soviet command-economy police state. [p. 11]

I don't know -- maybe this time his irony and sarcasm are too subtle even for me; maybe he's making back-handed mock of those who, at the time, denounced Reagan as a reckless warmonger, and in retrospect sniff that our ultimate victory in the Cold War proves that there never was any Soviet danger at all. After all, he had just written that Reagan "did not, like his liberal predecessor, chide his countrymen for their 'inordinate fear of communism'; he shared that gloomy fear" (p. 9); a few pages later he writes: "The U.S. government ... overestimated Soviet economic strength to the very end, in some cases by a factor of ten times" (p. 15).

Anyway, while we can hardly blame Reagan for concentrating on the most urgent priorities, we can certainly blame his successors for failing to follow through on the last.

If you graph various proxies for state power--the number of pages of federal tax law and regulations (66,498 in 2006--I can't find a later figure, but you may be sure the number hasn't decreased), annual federal spending per household ($23,494 in 2007--higher, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than in World War II, and up 15 percent since 2000), federal employment (up nearly 80,000 under George W. Bush in non-defense-related positions alone), and so on--if you graph these proxies across time, the curves are turning sharply upward. [p. 52]

With the antistatist cause apparently lost, American conservatives have little to occupy their time but right-to-life issues, squabbling over Middle East policy, and some v-e-r-y cautious, half-hearted, Diversity-whipped support for "national question" issues--immigration, citizenship, border security, visa integrity, multiculturalism, assimilation. And the state keeps on growing. [p. 53]

The first few years of the twenty-first century have seen massive expansion of federal power over education (the No Child Left Behind Act, 2001), the biggest new entitlement program since Lyndon Johnson's administration (the Medicare Prescription Drug Act of 2003), and the biggest program of public works in U.S. history (the 2005 highway bill). [p. 57]

That's a weak ending, I must say: what, bigger than building the interstate system in the '50s? And the GOP must be given credit for slapping down Hillarycare and forcing Clinton to govern like the moderate he campaigned as. Quibbles aside, though, behind the leadership of Bush and McCain it earned his derisory label, "Borrow and Spend Party (Also known as 'Tax Your Kids and Spend Party')" (p. 232).

Why is this the only opposition to the "Tax and Spend Party"? Why did all the "Stop Reckless Spending Parties" together get 0.6% of the vote in 2008? The bipartisan system spectacularly manifested in Congressional stagnation, with three interrelated causes: gerrymandering of districts, campaign finance rules favoring incumbents, and the loss of "social capital." Derb offers no solution. I submit that proportional representation would immediately solve the first problem, by abolishing arbitrarily-fluctuating district lines; by making politics more free and open, it would engage the public more actively and meaningfully; and the proliferation of viable minor parties (e.g. "Stop Reckless Spending Parties" or some hypothetical "national question" party) would mobilize opposition to the privileges of the duopoly.

Culture. Here he tackles both "Art" and entertainment. His prime example of the first is, literally, shit: an Italian "artist" who canned his merda and sold  it to people with more money than sense. Derb observes, and I agree whole-heartedly: "the Modern Movement was all a ghastly mistake, like communism, and that, as with communism, it will take a century or more to clean up the mess" (pp. 75-76). What he overlooks, which Allan Bloom pointed out, is the direct connection between modernism (AKA "Bohemianism") and communism: both the esthetic avant-garde and the political vanguard are animated by hatred of the bourgeois. These two streams of eccentricity converged in the "countercultural" lifestyle-Left that emerged from the '60s.

When it comes to entertainment, Derb falls prey to snobbish old-fogeyism. After confessing that he hardly watches TV, he proceeds to denounce tripe like "amateur hour shows" and "girly shows," which I've channel-surfed through enough of to share his revulsion, but also some of my personal favorites: The Shield (relying entirely on second-hand information); the CSI franchise (which he calls "dead whore shows," evidently having glimpsed half of a single episode); Family Guy, The Simpsons, South Park.

Incidentally, since he mentions this particular show as well, and because it amuses me, I will quote my own observations of it:

At first glance, it seems easy to see the point of America's Next Top Model: babes competing to be the hottest babe of them all -- ooh yeah. But what about that panel of judges? The ineffably luscious Tyra Banks -- her hair dyed a grotesquely unnatural color. Something that looks like a twenty-buck-a-trick hooker. Four faggots, each of them more faggoty than the one before. What qualifies these freaks to judge the hotness of babes? Also, the advertising shows that women are the target audience. Obviously, the hotness of babes is not the point. This show, and America's fashion industry, are seriously warped. This is a national scandal. There should be a Congressional investigation. Heads should roll. [2004/10/15]

Sex. He bemoans the feminization of postmodern society; but anticipates his discussion of human nature by asserting the persistence of fundamental differences between the sexes. In this regard, he concludes that since women prefer bad boys to nice guys, there's still hope. Being a nice guy myself (at least in my quotidian demeanor: I'm a selfish, insensitive bastard at heart, but too introverted to act out in ways that would give me the sex appeal to match), I simply observe the contradiction between feminism and women's natural inclinations with amused contempt.

Education. The scandalous dysfunction of America's so-called education system is mind-boggling. I thought it was bad before; I didn't know the half of it. Some lowlights:


My daughter's modest suburban high school held an orientation session for parents of freshmen. There all we parents were in the school auditorium facing a phalanx of school employees up on the stage, not one of them a teacher. Administrators, directors, advisers, psychologists, a dean, five guidance counselors (under, of course, a director of guidance), administrative assistants ... All this for eleven hundred students. I cornered the director of mathematics, a very cordial fellow, to ask him if he himself did any, you know, teaching. No, he regretted to say, he didn't. No time! [p. 102]


Here he cites, at some length, the egregious example of Kansas City's Central High School, as analyzed by Paul Ciotti of the libertarian Cato Institute. Bottom line: money is not the solution -- it's part of the problem. It's what enables all that extraneous administration, and other extravagant follies.


My favorite example of credentialed ed-school excellence, though, remains Dr. Kamau Kambon. Dr. Kambon has a quite remarkable number of degrees in education: a B.A. in education/history, a master's degree in physical education, both an M.A. and an M.Ed. degree in education/administration, and an Ed.D. in urban education/curriculum and instruction. He was Professor of Education at Saint Augustine's College in Raleigh, North Carolina, a historically black institution. Then he moved on to teach at North Carolina State University. This is one very thoroughly teacher-trained person. In September 2005, Professor Kambon enjoyed the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame when he declared, at a forum televised on C-SPAN: "The problem on the planet is white people," and: "We have to exterminate white people off the face of the planet to solve this problem."

...Any modern society needs some method for identifying talented adults and efficiently matching them with suitable employment....To some degree, the college-credentialing system spares personnel managers the trouble and expense of administering IQ tests. It also wastes four years of the young job-applicant's life and puts him a quarter million dollars in the hole, but nobody thinks that's important. [pp. 118-119]

What he doesn't make clear enough, though, is the implicit mendacity of pollsters who ask us if we think education is an important issue. I happen to think it is; but I believe that education is not the same as schooling -- as Derb shows us -- and schooling is what the teacher's unions, and teachers of teachers, and suckers who vote bond issues for public schools, think about. At a minimum, education should make all students familiar with the basics of the national language and literature, history and civics. It would also be nice if people were taught enough about critical thinking to make the connection between general ignorance and the state of public "education."

Another interesting point is how his libertarian argument recalls the egalitarian one of Michael Lind. I figure if two guys arguing from very different premises wind up at the same position, there must be something to it that transcends their respective prejudices.

Diversity, of course, again rears its ugly head -- here, in practice, meaning Segregation.

Up to a point, Ice People don't seem to mind schools that "look like America"-- that would be around a quarter Sun People--but if the proportion gets up much above that, it reaches a tipping point, and the Ice People flee like lemmings.

Mainstream conservatives approach the 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!"

Liberals are slightly more honest, being confident that no one ever will call them racist--though, of course, Ice People liberals are no more keen for their kids to attend majority-Sun People schools than are their conservative neighbors. [p. 123]

Human nature. While disparaging the twaddle of the religious Right and the mendacity of the secular Left, he falls into his own brand of mendacious twaddle. According to Derb, there are three theories of human nature: religious, cultural, and biological. He goes on to say that biology accounts for half of human behavior. What about the other half? Blank-out.

The facts of biology do refute the infinite malleability of human nature presupposed by the Left (at least until such time as bioengineering is sufficiently advanced). So far, so good. But then what?

One way to scandalize a Culturist biologist of the left-wing Stephen Jay Gould type is to call him a "Left Creationist." Traditional Scopes-monkey-trial Right Creationists are those Religionists who insist that the living world, and all its great variety, could not have come about without miraculous intervention of God. The high-brow Culturists who dominate our intellectual scene regard these Right Creationists as ignorant straw-chewing hicks, so that to label someone a Creationist is a grave insult in highbrow Culturist circles.

Culturists, while scoffing at God, insist that the ordinary rules of biological evolution ceased to apply to Homo sapiens when our species emerged from Africa to populate the rest of the world....Yet this is an appeal to the miraculous, too, just as much as is Right Creationism. [pp. 145-146]

Here he just wallops the stuffing out of a straw man. Whatever happened to transform our species into a rational animal, this set us apart from all the rest of nature. The scale of time and space discovered by science makes nonsense of Biblical cosmology; but set against that very scale, the emergence of man is but a blip on a dustmote. Human biodiversity is a real fact, but trivial compared to our species-identity. To my mind, the perfect example of the triumph (so to speak) of nurture over nature is the divergent fates of the North and South Koreans.

Biological reductionism of this sort is self-refuting: it cannot account for the science that supposedly explains human behavior, which includes science itself. To me, it is intuitively obvious that human nature is half-biological, half-cultural; so both the "cultural" and "biological" theories, each taken as a whole, are obviously, ridiculously false. Less obvious, but ineluctably logical, is that the religious theory also has merit.

The ordinary notion of human volition--I perceive a choice; I choose; I act--is only what these neuroscience researchers cheerfully call "folk volition." It bears as little relation to the actual brain processes involved in volition as the crystal dome of ancient "folk astronomy" does to the actual night sky....This determinism is gaining ground, as true ideas irresistibly will. [p. 150-152; emphasis added.]

Well, I dunno: maybe his irony and sarcasm are eluding me again. All I ask, as a rejoinder, is: "What determined you to be a determinist?" Maybe I'm just too simple-minded, but this seems to me as devastating as asking a creationist: "If God created the world, who created God?" If science cannot account for consciousness, reason, and will -- which are self-evident facts of human nature -- then religion must be onto something that science cannot fathom.

Religion. Conservatives believe that religion is either true, or socially useful, or both. Derb, of course, falls in the middle (my own $0.02 worth:  it's a little bit of both). His pessimism consists in believing that irreligion is the inevitable, eventual result of modernity, and particularly of our present clash with Islam: "The more exposure we get to other people's religions, the harder it is to push away the thought voiced by David Hume: that while it is not possible that all the world's religions are true [at least in detail], it is possible that they are all false" (p. 178).

Again, his dismissal of religion runs up against human nature itself, of which religion is, as he admits, a universal (but unevenly distributed) attribute. And in the case of America, religion is of special cultural and political importance. Here, in the most modern and secular country in the world, we see far and away the strongest religiosity in the West.

I suspect that this is one reason for the growth of militant antitheism since the '60s, as epitomized by the career of country-wide atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair: here, the de-spiritualization of man has not proceeded according to progressive expectations. In particular, the emergence of Fundamentalism has posed a direct challenge to the sciences of geology and biology. Another reason is the Europeanization of the American Left, which imported a secular anticlericalism that, in a way, harmonizes with our good old Protestant suspicion of Popery (which had to be reckoned with as late as 1960, and still lingers in some quarters), but is ironically outraged at our forefathers' antagonism towards Papist immigrants ... and those of us who rail against Muslim immigrants today. As an irreligious conservative, Derb writes:

Unbelievers may think--all right, we do think--Christianity is only slightly less nutty than Islam; but Christianity is ours. We've gotten along with it for several centuries, and the relationship between Western unbelievers and Western Christians, if not always polite, is stable and comfortable. [pp. 177-178]

I would go a bit further than that. My own study of history has, against my ingrained prejudices, impressed me with the importance of Christianity, and specifically Protestantism, in shaping our civilization and national characteristics. Ten-twenty years ago I would have just nodded along with "Our legal forms descend from pagan Rome, our philosophy from pagan Greece, our fondness for moots and parliaments -- not to mention the names of our weekdays -- from pagan Germany" (p. 161). Now, while I still believe that, left to itself, the Church of the Inquisition, the Index, and Infallibility would have kept us in the Middle Ages forever, it does deserve credit for getting us through that millennium, the Reformation deserves credit for breaking open the cocoon from which the modern West emerged, and the putatively secular Left is conspicuous for straining at Christian gnats while swallowing the Islamic camel.

War. Here Derb utters my own sentiments, and I suspect those of a great many of our compatriots, when he writes:

Did I support the 2003 invasion of Iraq? Yes I did. Did I support the subsequent effort to get civil society going in Iraq? No I didn't. [p. 194]

That, in a nutshell, is the distinction between hard-nosed, Jacksonian, militaristic nationalism and namby-pamby, Wilsonian, democratic imperialism. Both are distinct from the struthious isolationism of the Right and the pacifism of the Left, which converged in knee-jerk anti-Americanism after 9/11. The diversion of our efforts overseas from retaliation to reconstruction, from preemptive regime-change to gratuitous meddling, occurred under Bush II and has only worsened under Obama. I confidently predict this result: more and more of Sandland goes more and more Islamist and anti-American, until democratic imperialism is thoroughly discredited.

Immigration. Ah, the "i"-word! The infernal mechanism of America's ongoing destruction! All else is secondary. We can go broke, we can raise generations of well-schooled ignoramuses, we can have a perpetually aggrieved minority gnawing at our vitals, but if we're demographically displaced by foreigners, none of our traditions and institutions will have any chance to survive and recover.

This is probably the most valuable part of the book, as regards its intended audience. American conservatism's libertarian strain hasn't done much about bloated, corrupt, and incompetent government, but converges all too well with multiculti hug-the-world-and-sing-"Kumbaya" attitudinizing. So did President Bush's ostentatious religiosity. Derb rehearses arguments so long familiar to me that I shake my head in wonder that I ever swallowed such guff as he debunks. Well, we all have to start somewhere.-

Foreigners. Europe. According to Derb, Muslim reproductive rates are dropping and their religious fervor is likely to be sapped as much as Christians', in the long run. Otherwise, Europe's  problems are our problems. In the meantime, he holds out the hope that indigenous European "ethnonationalism" (a pleonasm distasteful to me: "ethno-" is simply Greek for "nation") will prove more resilient than American exceptionalism.

East Asia. Here he holds up a shining example of demographic implosion combined with territorial integrity.

Latin America. Here Derb notes the racial conflict between Hispanics of Amerind and European descent (ah, the blessings of Diversity!), the former seeking to dispossess the latter.

For the United States there is nothing good here. Our own Hispanic immigrants are largely Mexican, with a mix more indigenous and mestizo than Mexico's own, since white Mexicans do disproportionately well in their own country....A movement of aggressive race consciousness among Latin American indigenes is the last thing the United States needs to import. [p. 221]

Amen, brother!

Africa. I love it whenever I find other people saying the same things I've been saying for years:

Why on earth should I do anything to encourage further catastrophic demographic growth in that country? ... How much morality is there in saving an Ethiopian child from starvation today, for it to survive to a life of brutal circumcision, poverty, hunger, violence and sexual abuse, resulting in another half-dozen such wide-eyed children, with comparably jolly little lives ahead of them? [quoting Kevin Myers, p. 225]

'Nuff said.

The Middle East.

Do I really need to sell you on pessimism about them? Is there anyone who doesn't contemplate the whole region with utter despair? Anyone who doesn't think that the Middle East is the leading candidate for the title Region Most Likely to See a Megadeath Nuclear War? [p. 226]

The Economy. This is the flip side to Politics, and once again Diversity rears its ugly head. The crash of the housing market in 2008 was the result of bipartisan policies encouraging poor (minority) people to buy homes they couldn't really afford. Democrats supported it on general principles; Republicans calculated that home-ownership would term them into Republican voters. Instead they brought on a financial meltdown.

The bigger story is that of ever-mounting debt, both public and private; trade deficits; insidious inflationary pressure. MEGO. Derb, like myself, is an admitted economic dunce, and tells the story of Harold Wilson, an economic whiz-kid who ran the British economy into the ground. Ironically, libertarianism's biggest selling-point for me, personally, is the Hayekian argument from ignorance: no central-planner could possibly have enough information to make wiser decisions than all the individual participants in it. I like that, because it saves me the bother of having to think about economics. Unfortunately, too many of my compatriots feel that not thinking about economics means entrusting it to the government.

We just elected as president a man who, in his autobiography, referred to his scant experience as a private-sector employee as being "behind enemy lines." [p. 247]

This, ironically, is my great hope. The economic crisis of 2008 promptly brought the Democrats back to power in both Congress and the White House, where they promptly expanded federal power and spending to make the situation worse. In 1932, FDR faced an electorate nurtured on a generation of interventionism and fed up with three years of the Republicans' inability to deal with an economic downturn. This kept the Democrats in power even though their policies manifestly failed to pull the country out of the Depression until World War II turned things around. Nowadays, half the nation has been nurtured on free-market ideology that has been honored more in the breach than the observance. The collapse of Communism in the recent past, and the bankruptcy of American government (at all levels) in the near future, promise that, in the end, interventionism will fail politically as well as economically.

So, how to sum up?

Derb concludes with a look back at his blessed life as a Baby Boomer: growing up in the midst of post-war peace and prosperity, coming of age in a time of creative/destructive ferment and self-indulgence, growing into maturity cushioned by a pile of economic and social capital that is rapidly being depleted. The prospects for his children are bleak. Their best hope is to get government jobs.

I am of the generation sandwiched between Derb's and his kids'. I look back and see the cycle of generations, Awakenings like the one I was born in, Unravelings like the one which I came of age and his kids were born, Crises like the one we are entering and in which his kids will come of age -- and Highs like the one in which Derb and born and his children will grow into maturity. If we survive this Crisis, as we survived the ones before -- though there is no guarantee, and there will blood, sweat, and tears aplenty -- the national story will go on.

2011 by Karl Jahn