Are We Doomed?

by Rebecca Bynum (September 2009)

We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism
by John Derbyshire
Crown Forum (September 29, 2009)
Reading John Derbyshire’s work is like drinking a fruity alcoholic beverage. It's easy going down and only afterward do you feel a kick, and then, much afterward, awaken with a hangover, feeling slightly uneasy about the whole experience.

Derbyshire’s confident prose produces an easy reading page-turner. He is at his best when critiquing educational theories and legislation, from George Bush and his “No Child Left Behind” to a Kansas City judge who ordered 250 million dollars spent on a local school district with no appreciable betterment in the measured levels of education. Test scores actually declined there and drop-out rates increased. Still, politicians tell us the reason many of our children aren’t doing well in school is we are still not spending enough money on education.
Derbyshire rightly skewers a Times reporter, Deborah Solomon, and by extension the media attitude toward education in general, for her interview with Charles Murray about his latest book, Real Education
“The book argues, among many other things, that people have different innate abilities, and that a rational education system ought to acknowledge the fact. Ms. Solomon was scandalized by this idea. Here is the full exchange.
DS: Europeans have historically defined themselves through inherited traits and titles, but isn’t America a country where we are supposed to define ourselves through acts of will?
CM:  I wonder if there is a single, solitary, real-live public-school teacher who agrees with the proposition that it’s all a matter of will. To me, the fact that ability varies — and varies in ways that are impossible to change — is a fact that we learn in first grade.
DS:  I believe that given the opportunity, most people could do most anything.
CM: You’re out of touch with reality in that regard.
“Ms. Solomon may indeed be out of touch with reality, but she is very intimately in touch with the zeitgeist. Foolishly optimistic liberal assumptions like hers — that "given the opportunity, most people could do most anything" — underlie all current thinking about education. 
“Surveying the field of modern educational practice, "in touch with reality" is not a phrase that leaps spontaneously to mind. There is no area of social policy where we see more clearly the destructive effects of the modern epidemic of happy talk, no area where the magical thinking of our intellectual cheerleaders is so clearly, painfully at odds with cold grim fact.”
The cold, grim fact in question is the innate variation in measurable intelligence between individuals and races. Derbyshire divides the world into two broad self-segregating groups which he calls “Ice People,” roughly Asians and whites and “Sun People,” roughly Latinos and blacks. These groups vary broadly in innate aptitudes, abilities and underlying intelligence, although the author allows the reader to come to this conclusion himself.

Derbyshire further divides the present state of the ideological world into three broad categories: "Religionists," "Culturists," and "Biologians." He breezily dismisses religion as simply a method of “consolation” for those who can’t stand too much reality. Likewise, he dismisses “culturists” as those who come down exclusively on the nurture side of the nature-nurture debate - people who think all differences between individuals, including sexual differences, are the result of upbringing alone. He does not examine the effect of religion and/or culture on society or discuss how different religious concepts might result in different cultural, societal or political structures. Culturists, in Derbyshire’s definition are simply those who reject, or, at any rate, do not fully understand the bedrock significance of biology in human affairs.
Unsurprisingly, Derbyshire describes himself as a biologian, subscribing to biological determinism in every area, even to the extent of the negation of free will. While admitting to a limited scientific understanding of consciousness, Derbyshire asserts:

“I do have an outline picture of what we do and don't know, though, and a sense of which way the winds are blowing. They are blowing towards determinism, emotion, and error, and away from free will, reason, and judgment.

“Take Benjamin Libet's results from the 1980s, for instance. Libet found that the subjective experience of willing an act is preceded by the brain activities required to initiate the act. The measured gap between unconscious initiation and conscious decision-making was less than a second in Libet's experiments, but later researchers have pushed it back to seven seconds.

“Seven seconds! Your brain starts up the neural processes necessary for you to push a button. Seven seconds later you experience the wish to push that button. You then push the button. Where is free will? Where Schopenhauer left it, perhaps. Loosely translated: "We can do what we want, but we can't want what we want."

“Libet's results haven't gone unchallenged, and there's now a big literature on volition. There is a good, though early, discussion in Chapter 6 of Daniel Dennett's 1991 book Consciousness Explained. The results do, however, match what you see everywhere you look in the mind sciences. 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 kind of thinking makes it very hard to argue in favor of traditional conservative values, freedom of thought and expression among them, and against the kinds of social engineering Derbyshire deplores. His very pessimism, of course, is a value-based reaction to this kind of crass materialistic thinking. Strangely, he acknowledges that the biological robot he claims man is, is simultaneously endowed with a merciful inability to see the truth of his situation. Religion, therefore, may be explained as simply a psychological protective reaction to a cold, harsh, unforgiving material reality.

“’You mean I'm just being dragged through life by a lump of meat?’ I asked a researcher at Tucson, the one who'd presented Libet's findings. (Libet himself passed away in 2007.) "Probably," she replied, "but fortunately you'll never get yourself to believe it." Mind scientists tend to talk in paradoxes, perhaps to ease the pain of the pessimistic conclusions they keep coming to.”

The opposite conclusion is, in my mind, far more likely to be true. If man were merely a robot, how could be know himself as such? Comprehending values so as to elicit a pessimistic reaction is something no robot could possibly accomplish. Derbyshire talks about the study of consciousness, but that implies a consciousness of consciousness which in turn implies some degree of transcendence as do value judgments. Values are not the result of reason and cannot be discovered by science yet the comprehension of value is an inalienable part of being human.

It is interesting to note the change in Derbyshire’s thought process over the last few years. When he was writing his excellent books on mathematics, one of which I reviewed
here, we had an exchange about the structure of reality in which I asked him whether he thought mathematics consisted of a pre-existing structure of reality which is simply discovered by the mathematician (the older view) or whether he thought mathematics was invented (as has recently been asserted). He affirmed the former and replied, “math is from God.” That is why Derbyshire’s present enthusiasm for biologism is quite baffling to me, especially considering that biologism provides no convincing defense against social engineering ideologies, including Islam.

It is easy to argue on the basis of biologism that too-much freedom breeds unhappiness and social discord, and that when people lack self-control (as was once provided internally by religious morality or at least the illusion thereof) then the people must be controlled. Nor is it hard to understand why the great secular century, the twentieth, produced the two most destructive ideologies ever seen in the history of mankind – Nazism (social engineering based on biology) and Communism (social engineering based on class). According to the “mind scientists” quoted above, freedom is an illusion. So what is Derbyshire saying? Is moral choice dead? It is rather unclear. Elsewhere, he bemoans the softening and feminization of civilization and maintains that “the odds are good that the human race ain't gonna study war no more,” which certainly seems like a very odd thing to say coming from a political pundit who can see, as we all can see, the determination of both Islamic nations and terrorist groups to acquire and to use the worlds most destructive weapons.

What is clear is that Derbyshire considers all religions to be equally crazy and does not consider it worth his time to investigate Islam or to ponder the vast gulf between Islam and other religions:
“To an unbeliever, different faiths merely display different degrees of preposterousness: 72 virgins here, Beethoven roasting on the next spit to Lenin there. (More charcoal!) 
“A believer is naturally reluctant to think like that. When the absurdity of other people's beliefs is a common topic of conversation, though, it must surely be hard to keep at bay the dread thought: Isn't that what MY faith might look like to an outsider?
“One way to shut down that thought is to adopt the posture that the other guy's religion is a monstrous perversion. If my revelation is true! true! then your different revelation must be false! false! Not for believers the calm, parsimonious luxury enjoyed by us heathens of thinking that all religions are equally false. 
“It follows that the strongest Islamophobia issues from the firmest adherents of other religions. In the U.S.A. that means Christians.”
As one can see, Derbyshire doesn’t see anything wrong with using the disparaging term “Islamophobe” to describe those who analyze Islam. At the same time, however, he has no trouble calling for the curtailing of Muslim immigration, but offers no reason why he should support this. Doomed is filled with contradictions of this nature. Derbyshire describes President Bush as facing “nothing but a rabble of crazy religious terrorists with box cutters” rather than a comprehensive and internally logical ideology with a long history of bloody conquest. On the other hand, he worries that, “My kids will live in cities under ever-present threat from rogue nukes and bioterror” yet the motivation behind the “rogue nukes and bioterror” is not deemed to be worth his bothering about. Which is why, in the end, Derbyshire’s tenure at New English Review was cut short. If, for example, he had gone to work at National Review during the height of the Cold War, but persisted in referring to his anti-communist colleagues at commophobes, ridiculing their taking the threat of communism seriously, I would imagine the outcome would have been the same. He does not understand this, but proposes that only religious nuts would deeply and ideologically oppose Islamic religious nuts. To this bio-determinist it’s all the same thing.

At this point in the discussion, one must concede that the great secular revolt against ecclesiastical totalitarianism was a blessing for mankind, but we must also consider the fact that the Church is no longer a threat to freedom. The greatest threat to human liberty and progress today is coming from Islam and to simply lump Islam in with other religions, when it exhibits so many unique properties, is, to my mind, a grave error. The lowest level biological scientist would take more care in classifying a harmless insect than our political pundits have taken in studying and classifying Islam. Islam is too hard. It has foreign Arabic words in it and who knows where to put the apostrophe in Qur’an? (One of Derbyshire's pet peeves.)

Which bring me to another problem with Derbyshire’s punditry. Not only does he refuse to study Islam, but he refuses to study the Middle East.

“The main thing that comes to my mind when forced to think about the Middle East is our mustachioed friend Nietzsche's idea of Eternal Recurrence — the same darn thing happening over and over again, for ever. I go way back with the Middle East — always the same arguments, the same voices, the same grievances, the same horrors. 
“I see the younger me, in my mind's eye, riding the New York subway in fall of 1973, on my way to a one-day dishwashing gig in Brooklyn, Rockaway, or the Bronx, following the progress of the Yom Kippur War in the dense, dull, smudgy print of the New York Times.
“Further back yet, here I am sitting in the student cafeteria at Liverpool University with some friends, listening to news of the 1967 war, which the college was relaying to us on the PA system. One of those present was a Jewish girl who had spent time on a kibbutz. She kept shushing us to hear what had happened; then, when nothing was happening, giving us long and passionate expositions of Israel's case. I was rather keen on that girl. Sad: now I can't even remember her name.
“Further back yet, to volunteers in the streets of 1950s England, rattling cans and asking for donations on behalf of the Arab refugees.
“And still further back. A few years ago my sister bought me, as a birthday present, the actual issue of the London Sunday Times for the day of my birth, June 3, 1945. I have the paper in front of me right now, discolored and rather fragile — a little slice of the world as it stood in the closing weeks of World War Two. And there the wretched place is, under a headline: DE GAULLE ON LEVANT CRISIS.
“Does anyone else feel, as I do, an almighty weariness with the Levant and its intractable problems, its immemorial rancors, its savage rivalries, its unappeasable grievances?”

Here, I must echo the sentiments in the words of Richard L. Rubenstein who

“As I read the moral indictments of Israel for its alleged human-rights abuses of the Palestinian people by so many of the mainline Protestant denominations and other seemingly well-intentioned individuals and groups, I have the feeling that they are either unaware of or unwilling to confront the true complexity of the struggle between Jews and Muslims over the Jewish presence in any part of Palestine, a presence that radical Muslims characterize as “a crime that must be erased.”
[12] At times, I also have a darker thought. The men and women who write boycott and divestiture resolutions for denominational approval are, for the most part, highly educated products of some of our best seminaries and universities. Could it be that they see the destruction of Israel as their “final solution” to the problem of achieving peace in the Middle East?”

It is certainly difficult not to have that darker thought concerning the attitude of Mr. Derbyshire and others who share his feelings toward Islam and the Middle East. The temptation to place Israel on the table, under the slightest political pressure nowadays, is well advanced – a testament to the moral vacuity and mental laziness of our leaders and pundits.

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