Thoughts on Things You Cannot Say

I am not going to comment directly on l’affaire Derb, the case of my friend John Derbyshire, who was ostracized from the pages of National Review for writing a column elsewhere that expressed unacceptable opinions about race. I would, however, like to register my admiration for what Mark Steyn had to say about the incident, in particular what he has to say about the condition of free speech in the public square. “The Left,” Mark notes:

is pretty clear about its objectives on everything from climate change to immigration to gay marriage: Rather than win the debate, they’d just as soon shut it down. They’ve had great success in shrinking the bounds of public discourse, and rendering whole areas of public policy all but undiscussable. In such a climate, my default position is that I’d rather put up with whatever racist/sexist/homophobic/Islamophobic/whateverphobic excess everybody’s got the vapors about this week than accept ever tighter constraints on “acceptable” opinion.

Indeed. As I wrote to another friend, it used to be that if someone expressed an opinion you didn’t like, the proper response was to endeavor to refute it. What happened to that ambition? Mark, I fear, is correct: “The net result of Derb’s summary execution by NR will be further to shrivel the parameters, and confine debate in this area to ever more unreal fatuities.”

I find the aroma of unreality that hovers, miasma-like, around this whole non-debate dismaying but also puzzling. Our attorney general said he wanted to have a frank national conversation about race. What that seems to have meant is national sermonizing about race. Is it the case that certain questions about race are simply unmentionable? You might point to what happened to John Derbyshire and say: “You dope, of course they are. Look what happened to him!”

That’s not the whole answer, though. “There is nothing more painful to me ... than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” That was Jesse Jackson. What John wrote was an elaboration of that observation. I do not happen to agree with many of his conclusions in that column, but what I find curious is the nature of his tort. In Christian theology, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is said to be the one unforgivable sin. Exactly what such blasphemy might consist of kept theologians employed for centuries. That guild has been on its way out for some time, of course, but the impulse to discover unforgivable sins (the vaguer the better) remains alive and well.

“Racism” is one of the new cardinal sins, and it’s sometimes forgotten just how new it is. Nowadays you can’t set foot on a college campus, or write for an opinion magazine, without running into accusations of racism. But the word “racism” is so recent a neologism that it wasn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1971. To be sure, what we would describe as racist attitudes have a long history, but the crystallization of this “ism,” and its elevation to being the sin of sins, is of recent vintage.  What does that tell us? Maybe, as some commentators seem to believe, maybe it tells us that we are made of finer moral stuff than our forbears. Maybe it tells us something else. I don’t have the answer to that.

But the spectacle of John Derbyshire’s ostracism reminded me of an article by John Fletcher Moulton, an English attorney and politician, who back in the 1920s wrote an article called “Law and Manners.” All social life, Moulton observed, takes place on a spectrum between pure whim at one end and positive law at the other. In between is the realm of manners, morals, prejudice, “the whole realm which recognizes the sway of duty, fairness, sympathy, taste, and all the other things that make life beautiful and society possible.”