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Review: John Derbyshire's 'We Are Doomed' (2009)

I'm on vacation, and very thankful for the great work Aaron Blake, Felicia Sonmez and Amy Gardner are doing in this space. But while on vacation I'm tearing through some of the (broadly defined) conservative books I haven't previous had time to read. The first up: John Derbyshire's entertaining and rather surprisingly ignored 2009 manifesto "We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism."

Why "surprisingly ignored"? In a world of Media Matters and ThinkProgress takedowns of conservative pundits, Derbyshire is one of the most likely to invite scathing attacks. He would be, anyway, if liberals didn't feel like he was in little danger of breaking out of his home base at National Review and his cul-de-sacs in more obscure places like VDare.com. He's pigeonholed as -- let's be honest -- a witty kook obsessed with race and immigration. He doesn't appear on Fox News, and he's fatalistic about politics, so he doesn't bother with ad hominem attacks against politicians. "We Are Doomed" is a fine title, but had Crown Forum saddled Derbyshire with "The End of America: How Barack Obama, Race Hustlers, Creationists, Immigrants and Teachers' Unions Are Killing Your Freedom," it might have moved a few more units.

wearedoomed.jpgThat would have been unfair to Derbyshire's schtick. America is doomed, he argues, because its leaders, academics and institutions refuse to be as honest about the reasons for decline as, well, he is. "[C]onservatism has been fatally weakened," he writes, "by yielding to infantile temptations: temptations to optimism, to wishful thinking, to happy talk, to cheerily preposterous theories about human beings and the human world." Those "cheery" theories are mostly about race and religion -- the dogma of "the diversity cult," which promises that people of all colors can live and thrive together if only enough money is spent on fixing schools.

"I believe it is possible," writes Derbyshire, "that the United States might cease to exist as nation-state because of ethnic conflicts. I think, in fact, this is more likely than not.

Derbyshire gets most of his fun from poking the people -- from ACORN to George W. Bush -- who insist that this can be done. The trope, repeated over and over, is to produce something that the diversity cult says, and then to mock its obvious stupidity. Readers are meant to be in on the joke, because it'll be obvious to them how much wrongness is coming from, say, a judge telling local school administrators to spend lavishly on redesigns. They are meant to get extra bonus joy from how blunt Derbyshire is about mocking non-white culture.

"I had never heard of this lady before the president-elect tapped her for the inauguration spot," Derbyshire writes of Elizabeth Alexander. "Taking a wild shot in the dark, I guessed her to be a whiny left-wing black feminist, as most female poets nowadays are." Following from there -- much mockery of her bad poems.

Plenty of conservative authors go to this well. Derbyshire, who has written bestselling books about algebra, elevates the material by doing -- or collating -- actual research, the best stuff from scientists and other authors. The wall between anecdote and data is not too steep. "My son plays on a Police Athletic League football team," Derbyshire writes. "I have gotten into the habit, before each game, of looking up demographics of the high school in the opposing team's town." The point of this is to prove that well-meaning liberal parents pack their kids in mostly-white (or mostly "Ice People," a term covering whites and Asians that Derbyshire cribs from Leonard Jeffries) schools.

What's the point? America is doomed, sure, but it could forestall its doom by slowing down immigration, being honest about the limits of "Sun People" (another Jeffries term, and you can intuit what it means), and preferably doing both. This is a refreshing argument. Authors higher up the bestseller list might attack Democrats by hyperventilating about ACORN, because it "steals elections" and gives advice to white kids dressed as pimps. Derbyshire barely mentions ACORN, and when he does it's to get at the real problem conservatives have with it -- that it demands (or demanded) government intervene and force banks to give loans and mortgages to people who should never have tried to get them. And in the short time since Derbyshire wrote this book, enough people have brushed aside political correctness and the legacy of Bush to bring this up that he might, just might, be less pessimistic.

By David Weigel  |  June 1, 2010; 1:16 PM ET
Categories:  Reviews  
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