Derbyshire’s rejection of conceptual thought, cont.

Alan Roebuck writes:

I may be beating a dead horse, but John Derbyshire is showing once again how an intelligent and well-educated person can be rendered stupid by a failure to think in terms of fundamentals.

In his latest column at NRO, Derb says “Islamophobia. People keep trying to convert me to it, and I keep resisting.” A friend had given him a copy of a book which evidently attempts to make a scholarly case that Islam mistreats women and slaves, and he treats the attempt with scorn. For Derb, the bottom line is:

Fundamentally (if you’ll pardon the expression) I can’t take religion that seriously. I see it the way Marx saw it, as an epiphenomenon, part of the “superstructure” of human society. (Though I disagree with Marx on the nature of the substructure.)

A lot of Arabs, and a few Muslims elsewhere, are mad as hell at the failure of their civilization, and have taken to religion as a way to vent their anger. It’s the failure that’s the issue, not the religion.

In other words, religion is for yahoos; something more secular (and more vague) must be the real cause of all this Islam trouble. Of course, this view absolves Derb of any responsibility for understanding Islam before he takes a stand on the proper way to protect ourselves from the Muslim Menace. Saying “Their religion commands them to make war on unbelievers” is a simple and straightforward explanation for why Islam is a menace. All of the other proposed explanations either make the problem incapable of being fully understood, or make it impossible for us to defend ourselves (or both.)

Therefore Derb’s refusal or inability to think clearly also makes it essentially impossible for him to think of any practical way for us to defend ourselves:

We have a problem for sure; but what would the people who publish these books like us to do about it? Separationism—expel our own Muslims and seal ourselves off from the Moslem world? For goodness’ sake: We can’t even muster the will to expel illegal immigrants from next door. You want us to expel citizens? To half-way round the world? In any case, when I once called one of these folk a separationist, he hotly denied it, and told me, and the rest of the world, that I am an idiot. So whadda they want? Beats me.

And get this:

London bombings. A couple of car bombs failed to go off in London. Forgive me for not being very stirred. I was in London when two terrorist bombs actually did go off, one of them just a couple of hundred yards away from me. That was in 1982. It was darn loud, I can tell you. (I was sitting in a diner having lunch. “What the heck was that?” I asked the proprietor, who was making sandwiches behind the counter. “Car bomb, probably,” he said, without looking up. Talk about unflappable.)

Those terrorists were Irish Christians. So I guess I had better get to work trawling through the New Testament to figure out how the Christians plan to conquer the world and enslave me, before it’s too late.

This isn’t even sincere moral relativism. He’s saying “Since the New Testament didn’t make Irish into terrorists, the Koran didn’t make Muslims into terrorists.”

Apparently Derb finds the more philosophically informed, logically consistent and passionate (i.e., “humor-free”) conservatism to be esthetically repellent, because he certainly doesn’t demonstrate logically how his position is the better one. It’s rather like Allan Bloom, who in The Closing of the American Mind opposed liberalism (without naming it) not because it is false, but because it is shallow, i.e. gauche.

- end of initial entry -

LA writes:

Thanks for Mr. Roebuck for this exegesis of Derbyshire’s deliberate embrace of mindlessness.

I will repeat what I’ve said many times: it is a disgrace that the supposed flagship magazine of American conservatism gives Derbyshire a perch. He is no more a conservative than I am Hercules. (see Hamlet, Act I, Scene 2)

Paul K. writes:

You wrote, “I will repeat what I’ve said many times: it is a disgrace that the supposed flagship magazine of American conservatism gives Derbyshire a perch.”

I have not read NRO regularly until the recent immigration debate, although I have occasionally read Derbyshire on-line essays before. He has written some reasonably good things, such as his speech on race to the Robert Taft Club, while also making some idiotic pronouncements as you have pointed out.

In this, Derbyshire seems right at home at National Review among such company as open-borders Kudlow, crap-culture maven Goldberg, Giuliani-loving K-Lo, etc. Is there anyone at that supposed flagship of American conservatism that really “gets it” any more than Derbyshire does?

LA replies:

I have of course been very critical of the whole NR crew for years, with exceptions, the biggest exception being their recent important work against the amnesty bill, and now, amazingly, their move toward a conservative position on immigration. But Derbyshire, notwithstanding his conservative-seeming positions on this or that issue, is something else. He is actively subversive of conservatism, both in what he says and in his manner of saying it. William Buckley wrote once that you can be an agnostic and be a conservative, but you cannot be an atheist who despises religion and be a conservative. Derbyshire plays games on this issue and denies he’s an atheist. But he is one, and he has openly expressed his contempt for religious believers. Worse, a millimeter below his affable surface he’s a nihilist who doesn’t believe in anything, except for Darwinian evolution by random mutation and natural selection. His nihilism affects the way he approaches every issue, even terrorism and Islamic jihad, the existence of which he denies. He simply is not a conservative.

Rachael S. writes:

John Derbyshire appeared on the Savage Nation yesterday, in a pre-recorded segment. He was talking about how “PC” keeps us from being able to get at the heart of problems, such as gaps in group abilities. The subjects he addressed (like the insanity of searching little old ladies at the airport when there are “glittery-eyed” Middle Eastern youths who are better targets) are a product of liberalism, but he kept calling it PC: “PC does this, PC does that…” Michael Savage tapes responses and peppers them into these pre-recorded segments, and eventually he even said “Wow, I guess liberalism really is a mental disorder.”

JD is comfortable criticizing modern society’s quest for equal results, probably because he believes in evolution. I guess it was his unprincipled exception to his liberalism, I mean his “PC.” He should get a giant raspberry from all of us; then we should kick him across the Pond where he can continue to dismiss the car bombs, and generally lope through the universe without drawing serious conclusions.

Tom S. writes:

Derbyshire’s latest screed just proves what might be called an iron law of political or philosophical discourse; intelligent people who adopt monistic or reductionist theories to explain human behavior end up saying absurd things. Intelligent men like Heidegger and De Man bought into Nazi racial reductionism, and ended up permanently disgracing themselves. Countless Western intellectuals made statements that verged on madness in attempting to defend Marxist economic reductionism. Now Derbyshire, by drinking the EvoBio Kool-Aid, ends up denying that Islam has anything to do with Jihad, even when its practitioners explicitly say that it does! I simply stand in awe.

Of course, if Derbyshire is right about Islam having nothing to do with Jihad, then it logically follows that Nazism had nothing to do with the Holocaust, Communism had nothing to do with the Gulag or the Killing Fields, and no one really has any reasons for doing anything. If Muslims were Methodists or Reform Jews, they would still be blowing stuff up, apparently just because. Absurd and sad, but that’s what physical reductionism does to people.

LA writes:

Derbyshire in his essay “Islamophobia” embraces pure anti-intellectualism. He tells us that he doesn’t have to learn anything about Islam, because it is “stupifyingly dull stuff.” Everything that is said about Islam by Islam scholars is just nonsense, the fumings of disordered minds. Using one of the standard put-downs popular in our degraded culture, he describes a person who has written a scholarly book about Islam as “someone who really needs to get a life.” Derbyshire doesn’t need to learn anything about Islamic scriptures because “great swathes of Islamia can’t understand [them] anyway, not being able to speak Arabic.” The notion that the Koran can only be understood in Arabic is not true. Many millions of Muslims do not know Arabic but read and study the Koran, and there are many books written by first-rate scholars of Islam that are available to anyone who wants to read them.But Derbyshire repeats as though it were true the third rate rumor that Islam is unintelligible (except to people who know Arabic), and this in his mind excuses him and everyone else from learning anything about Islam.

But since he ignores Islamic teachings, what then does he find objectionable about Islam?

Derbyshire: “I’ll certainly agree that Islamia contains a dismayingly high proportion of violent lunatics, and an even more dismayingly high proportion of non-violent non-lunatics who don’t mind the violent lunatics as much as they ought (or who do, but are too scared to say so).”

Islam according to Derbyshire is not an entity that has any characteristics of its own, it’s just a collection of humans who are disproportionately violent and crazy.

Derbyshire: “I’ll agree, too, that it was very dumb of countries like Britain and France to permit the settlement of ethnocentric Muslims in such numbers they could form their own unassimilated communities. I think it’s dumb of any country to permit that, with any highly ethnocentric group.”

So the only problem with Islam is that Muslims are ethnocentric, in other words, Muslims are just like any other ethnic group, only a bit more so. There is nothing distinct about Islam that matters.

Derbyshire: “We have a problem for sure; but what would the people who publish these books like us to do about it? Separationism—expel our own Muslims and seal ourselves off from the Moslem world? For goodness’ sake: We can’t even muster the will to expel illegal immigrants from next door. You want us to expel citizens? To half-way round the world?”

Of course, none of the people who have written these books have advocated separationism. Separationism is a radical proposal that I have put forth, and I have listed a handful of writers who seem to have similar ideas but have not called themselves separationists. Derbyshire acts as though separationism is an accepted idea.

He dismisses the possibility of a rollback of Islam from the West, because we are not currently expelling illegal aliens, therefore we cannot make Muslims leave either. But isn’t that putting the cart before the horse? Of course at present we cannot and are not doing those things. Separationism is a radical idea that can only come into effect after great changes have taken place in the thinking of our society. Yet Derbyshire acts as if, because society is not ready to do this now, it can never do it.

Derbyshire: “In any case, when I once called one of these folk a separationist, he hotly denied it, and told me, and the rest of the world, that I am an idiot. So whadda they want? Beats me.”

He’s referring to the extremely touchy Hugh Fitzgerald, who never called himself a separationist, and who furiously attacked Derbyshire (and me) for considering him one. At the same time, Derbyshire is not without some basis for what he is saying here, since Fitzgerald has certainly taken positions that fit within what I have described as separationism, yet Fitzgerald angrily denied that he had said any such things. But still, why go to someone who has never called himself a separationist? Why not go to someone who has? Indeed, why not go to the person who wrote what Derbyshire calls the “Ur-separationist article,” myself? Or, if not me, since there’s been so much argument between us, why not to someone else who, even if he does not embrace the separationist label, since the number of people who have done so is almost non-existent, is at least less touchy and more accessible than Fitzgerald, like, say, Serge Trifkovic?

Derbyshire: “If finding out the answer involves reading books as boring as this one (let alone as wrist-slittingly boring as the Koran), I’ll stay ignorant, thanks all the same.”

No one ever said to read boring books, or just to plow through the Koran. There are many intelligent, accessible articles that have been written about Islamic teachings in recent years, by Robert Spencer, Andrew Bostom, and others, including myself, showing among other things the connections between the beliefs of present-day jihadists and the sacred Islamic texts. That is the most fascinating thing about Islam, how Muslims through the ages in pronouncing on jihad and related matters are always just quoting and paraphrasing the Koran and the Hadiths, how Islam is a machine, replicating itself, generation after generation, century after century. That is the unique nature of Islam as an unchangeable divinely authoritative belief system forming the mind and conduct of Muslims over the centuries, unaltered in any essentials from the eighth century up to this moment. Derbyshire if he had any curiosity could with some reading (the kind of reading that many people have engaged in over the last six years) learn something about the subject. He refuses to do so. He refuses even to look for interesting articles and would rather complain about boring books. The whole matter is beneath him. He boasts of his ignorance of the most important issue facing our world. He makes the narcissistic drama of his own individualist personality refusing to learn about Islam more important than learning about Islam.

Derbyshire: “Idiocy is not a state I aspire to; but if the alternative is plowing through books filled with the ruminations of 7th-century desert mystics, decorated with comments thereon by 21st-century monomaniacs—well, at that point, idiocy starts to look pretty good.”

So, all scholarship about Islam is the work of monomaniacs.

Then he moves into further know-nothingism: “Fundamentally (if you’ll pardon the expression) I can’t take religion that seriously. I see it the way Marx saw it, as an epiphenomenon, part of the “superstructure” of human society.”

Well, that’s a convenient idea for someone who doesn’t want to know anything. Islam is a religion. All religions are epiphenomena of human society. Therefore Islam is an epiphenomenon of human society, and as such is like all other religions. There’s nothing distinct about Islam that one needs to know.

To write an article bragging of one’s ignorance of this important and extremely interesting subject, to mock and dismiss and deride the very possibility of meaningful knowledge about this subject, and, worst of all, to seek to influence other minds with one’s contempt for the possibility of knowledge about this subject: that is the mark of a sick, nihilist mind.

And this anti-intellectual screed was published at National Review Online.

I repeat that Derbyshire’s presence at that magazine is a disgrace. Indeed, the presence at any respectable publication of this lover of ignorance, this embracer of obscurantism, would be a disgrace.

John S. writes:

I hadn’t seen you write about one item for the anti-Derbyshire file yet: his cover story in the July 2 American Conservative. In this article, Derbyshire predicts that the whole ideology of PC will soon collapse as a result of new discoveries in science. So not only does he think that no one really believes in any religion, including Islam, he doesn’t think anyone really believes in liberalism either. As you’ve said, he projects his nihilism on everyone else, believing that science is the only thing that anyone actually believes in. The fact that Derbyshire still gets featured prominently in TAC, which claims to oppose neoconservatism, makes me find him especially dangerous. Thank you for speaking the truth when you say that Derbyshire is “subversive of conservatism.”

LA replies:

Thank you, though I’m not sure what you mean when you suggest he is neoconservative.

That article on PC was so long and seemed so uninteresting (my view is that making “PC” the main problem is just an escape from criticizing liberalism), that I didn’t read it. But maybe I should.

John S. replies:
I suppose I was using the term “neoconservatism” broadly to mean any type of revisionist “conservatism” that refuses to oppose significant aspects of liberalism. Sorry I was not being precise.

I really apologize for asking you to read more of Derbyshire’s nonsense, but I do think the TAC article adds something substantial to the case against him. In short, Derbyshire seems to believe that multiculturalism is nothing but misguided science, not ideology. I thought that was an important point to make.

Tom S. writes:

Thanks for printing my comments, and for your own fine response. It’s remarkable how the quality of Derbyshire’s thought and writing has declined since his rejection of religious faith, and his embrace of physical reductionism. It’s really absurd—Derbyshire has not only decided that religion is false, he has decided that religion doesn’t matter, to anyone, with regard to anything. Even most stone-cold atheists, like Christopher Hitchens, are willing to admit that religion matters, if only for the problems it causes, but not Derbyshire. Since religion is not important to him, it can’t be important to anyone. This is such an astonishingly wrong-headed, willfully ignorant argument, I hardly know what to say. I mean, if religion isn’t important, then no human belief can be important, and if no human belief can be important, why the heck is he writing for a magazine of opinion that seeks to influence people’s beliefs? Derbyshire should stick to writing about China, a subject about which he actually knows something.

Michael T. writes:

I don’t think it’s so much that Derbyshire is parading his ignorance of Islam; it’s that he’s so enthralled by biological reductionist explanations of everything that, as he sees it, bypassing Islamic explanations of Islamic behavior is cutting to the heart of the issue.

In his review of Steyn’s “America Alone,” Derbyshire, in reporting Steyn’s point that “It’s not about race; it’s about culture,” refers to some biologist friend of his who “is in the habit of snapping out, any time anyone takes refuge in this “culture” stuff: “Culture? Culture? What does that mean? Where does it come from? What are the upstream variables?”.” (I can just imagine the glee with which his friend snaps, too!) Biological reductionism, it seems, simply doesn’t have time to fuss over “stupifyingly dull” matters as sorting out the particulars of a culture (or a religion), not when there are such cool, cutting-edge approaches as biological reductionism available.

This, I think, is where Derbyshire was going with his latest piece. Of course, he doesn’t actually say that, but that’s because he can’t (eg his Katrina piece that was pulled). Maybe I’m wrong, but I just can’t believe that Derbyshire could be so far gone as truly to think that Islam has no influence on the way Muslims behave.

Anyway, if I am right, and that was the point at which Derbyshire wished to hint, it was grossly negligent of him to publish only what he did, because it reads as simply stopping at a sophomoric dismissal of conservative concerns about Islam—indeed, his point, as it is, is grossly liberal. Derbyshire continues to disappoint.

A reader writes:

John Derbyshire came to speak at my university. The topic was “Will America survive until 2021?” (He actually wrote an article on the same topic a few months later.) He spoke well, and was a refreshing change from the establicons as you call them. He, more than most in the conservative establishment, broaches very controversial topics. But his view on terrorism, which was mostly secondary to the speech, was eccentric, to say the least.

He said roughly that one is more at risk of dying from a car accident or a hip injury than from say a car-bomb, so why worry about the occasional terrorist? Sure, a few civilians die, but plenty die from car accidents as well. Impeccable logic. I was a bit jarred by the sheer stupidity of it—terrorism, just from a strategic point of view, insofar as it is preventable, is worth worrying about. And, of course, it is preventable. (Note: He was comparing run of the mill terrorism to the prospect of say, the Taliban getting hold of a nuclear bomb, but that doesn’t diminish the lunacy of his argument.)

I can’t discern why he thinks as he does; my best guess is, like Alan Roebuck intimates, that Derbyshire views ‘Islamophobia’ and separationism as gauche, as very much beneath him. Perhaps Derbyshire, a man born to the proletariat, has grown too big for his britches, inflated by the deference Americans pay to anyone with a British accent.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 06, 2007 06:45 AM | Send

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