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The Politics of Despair: An Interview with John Derbyshire

John Derbyshire is a conservative nation unto himself. The longtime National Review columnist and talented radio host has created his own branch of the faith, extolled in his latest book, We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism. A scholar both in politics and mathematics, Mr. Derbyshire is also the author of Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra. As a writer he is prolific and never afraid to question the prevailing orthodoxy. Born in England, he is now an American citizen and has dwelled here since 1985.

BC: Congratulations on the release of your new book, Mr. Derbyshire. Your central theme seems to be: “If we expect too much of people, we’ll be disappointed and our schemes will fail. Heady optimism about human nature leads directly to disaster.” If politicians operationalized your advice, what would our government then look like? Would it mark the beginning of real hope and change?

John Derbyshire: It would be the restoration of self-government and self-support. It would be the end of the nanny state. It would be the end of humongous programs of government expenditure directed mainly to providing indoor relief for otherwise-unemployable graduates in subjects named “[something] studies.” It would be the re-beginning of the American experiment, as the Founders envisaged it — a republic of free citizens.

BC: Is mindless optimism to blame for the triumph of big government over liberty? I ask you this because every time we increase its size we conveniently overlook the Leviathan’s long and inglorious history of incompetence and inefficiency.

John Derbyshire: I wouldn’t place all the blame on mindless optimism. Nothing in history is that simple. Without the cheery optimism of infinite possibility and infinite malleability (i.e., of human nature), however, ever-expanding government would have been a very much more difficult proposition. Optimism was an enabler.

BC: You mention Rousseau. Is it safe to say that many Democrats embrace the regressive policies they do as a means to compensate for acting like elitist snobs on a personal level? I don’t know if you’ve read Roger L. Simon’s Blacklisting Myself but he makes a similar argument in regards to the existence of their “Mini-Me’s.”

John Derbyshire: I haven’t read that. Just Amazon-ed it. Definitely one for my list. I don’t know about that first sentence of yours, though. Steve Sailer, the guiding spirit of my book, says that liberals have two central beliefs: (1) that intelligence is a perfectly meaningless concept, and (2) that they are more intelligent than the rest of us. For sure liberals (which I take to be coextensive with your “many Democrats”) are elitist snobs — see p. 123 of my book. My impression is, though, that they don’t feel much need to compensate for it. They’re pretty happy with it. Liberals are not very much given to self-examination or self-doubt.

BC: The section on religion may make some conservatives uncomfortable. Indeed, some of it was even new to me. Could you outline for readers the proposition that, in America, there’s more evidence of there being a religious left than a religious right?

John Derbyshire: I supply the numbers (pp. 163-4). The most religious Christians — Evangelicals — are currently strong for the GOP … although, as I mention, 30 years ago they were out canvassing for Jimmy Carter. Evangelicals are not reliably conservative — Jeff Hart wrote a good essay about this somewhere. Conservatives should consider them fair-weather friends. Every other religious group in the U.S., including non-Evangelical born-again Christians, including Roman Catholics (Father Pfleger is more representative than the late Father Neuhaus), leans to the Democrats.

BC: What’s a metrocon and does the term have anything to do with men getting their nails done or spending Saturdays at the mall?

John Derbyshire: Metrocons are metropolitan conservatives; a fishy breed, who just barely know which end of a gun the bullet emerges from, think creationism is for yokels, and take NASCAR to be a brand of hair mousse. Their nails, I’m not sure about.

BC: You argue “if you want to get a handle on human nature, listen to the people who know nature.” Moreover, Chapter 7, “Ask Your Aunt,” is devoted to this topic. Would you agree that in 2009 we have progressed to the point in which we’ve forgotten the accumulated wisdom of the past?

John Derbyshire: Hard to generalize it. We have selectively forgotten — forgotten those things that make us feel uncomfortable, like innate individual differences in personality and aptitude. We all pretend to believe that anybody, properly conditioned, could play golf like Tiger Woods, the violin like Jascha Heifetz, or the ladies like Casanova. Before about 1965, practically nobody believed this. Homosexuality is a whorl point here, a singularity. Prior to the aforementioned date, practically every system of jurisprudence in the world took it (or at any rate the male manifestation of it) to be a social negative (and yes, this includes the ancient Greeks — see Dover), and punished it as something people did. The modern conception — that it’s something people are — was always around, though, as I illustrate. So what was the accumulated wisdom here: the personal or the jurisprudential? Beats me.

BC: Along the same lines, do you agree that acknowledging such a thing as human nature is an important delineator of whether you’re on the right or left politically?

John Derbyshire: Oh yes. Though conservatism is now so corrupted, most conservatives have signed on to liberal no-such-thing-as-human-nature doctrine, just for the sake of a quiet life, or a job in Washington. But a person with a firm belief in human nature is always a conservative. Which seer was it, I honestly forget, who said “human nature has no history”? It was a conservative, anyway. The most emphatic assertion that there is no such thing as human nature, on the other hand, came from Mao Tse-tung.

BC: Absimilation is a very interesting concept. How does it explain what we’re seeing, at the moment, with immigration in America?

John Derbyshire: I didn’t intend it to be explanatory, just descriptive. Take in 100,000 people from culture C, which is considerably, or radically, different from traditional Anglo-Celtic-Protestant American culture. Some number X will assimilate to American culture. Some number Y will encyst themselves in a little home-from-home. (And this will, of course, be much easier for them to do if lots of C-culture people are settled here in ghettos. My novel Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream offers some examples.) Some number Z will react strongly against American culture — absimilate. The first immigrant generation will be almost entirely Xs and Ys, with none or very few Zs. In the second generation, though, you get lots of Zs. Every young person of spirit wants to vex his parents, and absimilating from both the dominant culture and the parental accommodations to it is a splendid way to do that.

BC: You argue that women are outperforming men and that they will soon reduce us to the status of a historical irrelevancy. Yet isn’t the transcendence of women largely a product of government intervention? In my mind, victory via legal imposition — such as with affirmative action, sexual harassment law, and the gargantuan transference of resources produced by divorce — is no real victory at all.

John Derbyshire: Hey, they’ll take it. But the constrained bourgeois societies of pre-post-industrial Europe, the societies of Juliet and The Vicar of Wakefield, of Madame Bovary and Effi Briest, were in some ways an aberration. Plenty of human societies have gone along for millennia with women doing most of the work and men goofing off — fighting and playing status games. Sub-Saharan African societies are mostly like that. That’s why African women give the impression of not liking their men very much. Some Southeast Asian and Polynesian ones, too, I am told. They still needed men for breeding and sexual satisfaction, of course … but technology can take care of that. Then who needs us? I say we’re toast.

BC: If you had to write this book about England, your homeland, what would your title be? You’re Already Doomed? The Past Is All?

John Derbyshire: Conservatism in England has been pretty much wiped out. The current leader of the Conservative Party is left-liberal. You practically never hear a conservative sentiment from anyone under the age of fifty. The year 1945 did the trick, with the break-up of the old class-deference system, the welfarization of the working classes, and post-imperial guilt as contributing factors. Lesser factors were the established church, which was once “the Tory Party at prayer,” but which turned sharp left in the 1930s for fear of losing its market share among the depression-stricken working and middle classes (but which lost it anyway), and the trahison des clercs, mid-20th-century intellectuals flocking to continental cults in dismay at the mess England’s ruling classes seemed to be making. And to vex their parents. The desire to vex one’s parents has been a huge factor in shaping the modern world. In partial defense of the English, though, welfare socialism can be made to work reasonably well in a country that size if immigration is tightly restricted, which alas it hasn’t been. I don’t believe it can be made to work in the U.S. under any circumstances. We are too big, with too much demographic variety present from our very creation. Even the mild north-European form of socialism is not for us. It would destroy us. Would, will, because that’s where we’re headed. We are doomed!

BC: Thanks for your time and good cheer, Mr. Derbyshire.