John Derbyshire vs. Sam Tanenhaus—A Tale of Two "Conservatisms"
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September 15, 2009

John Derbyshire and Sam Tanenhaus are both middle-aged males living within a radius of thirty miles of Times Square. They also have recently written books on the straying of the American conservative movement; and New York Magazine has recommended both of their works to its readers. Each man has had considerable contact with the movement being discussed, Derbyshire as a provocative contributor to NRO and Tanenhaus as the author (and New York Times Book Review editor) to whom William F. Buckley assigned the task of preparing an authorized biography of his eventful life.

Having suggested these superficial similarities, I might also note that it is hard to imagine two individuals who see the world more differently. It is no accident that while Derbyshire composed a long, sympathetic commentary on my scholarship for NRO, [Beautiful Losers, August 24, 2009] Tanenhaus pointedly refused to look at my last two books: one a study of the movement that he was purporting to write a book about; and the other an autobiography that deals in depth with conservative thinkers I have known. But there is no reason that Tanenhaus would have wanted to read my works. What he intended to say was diametrically opposed to my views; and the less this leading establishment-liberal has to do with my ideas, the more easily he can get on with his agenda.

Of the two commentators, Derbyshire is the better stylist and the better educated. Although We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism would appear to be a light read, brimful of anecdotal asides, first impressions can and, at least in this case, do deceive. Derbyshire's work is fraught with carefully researched information about the failures of public education, the egalitarian assumptions informing our educational-political establishment, the feminization of American society, and the increasing irrelevance of any form of culture except for crude entertainment to American life.

To point out these trends can be found in those parts of Europe that the US has influenced, and that these fashions have advanced there even more disastrously, does not refute Derbyshire's brief. It only shows the reach of certain vulgarizing and emasculating forces.

Lest anyone treat his pessimism as an invitation to self-indulgence, Derbyshire makes clear that what he is asking of the real Right, as opposed to the happy-talk-mongers who multiply whenever the GOP is riding high, is "hard-headed realism". He is especially (and justifiably) attracted to the Calvinist settlers of early America, who combined a belief in man's inherent depravity with a call for self-discipline. Only by accepting the utter folly of the project of reconstructing human beings, and by acknowledging the reality of inherent human inequalities, can conservatives have anything to contribute to the political discussion. Otherwise they are merely confirming the errors of the other side, while claiming to represent an alternative.

Derbyshire avails himself of a polemical tool that I also noticed in Peter Brimelow's books Alien Nation and The Worm in the Apple. Derbyshire uses authors on his left to make his points; and while it would appear that his authorities are in agreement with Derbyshire, he also carries their observations beyond the point where they themselves would have taken them.

Derbyshire is quite keen on the research of Abigail Thernstrom, who is a big fan of Martin Luther King and is the vice chair of the US Commission on Civil Rights but who argues that attempts to integrate the races (what Derbyshire calls "Sun People" and "Ice People") have not worked out well.

Derbyshire highlights the most costly examples of such failures, such as an expensive high school building with all kinds of athletic and learning amenities that Kansas City, Missouri built in an inner city neighborhood. This project was intended to bring the races together while having a positive effect on the grades, study practices and graduation rate of the "Sun People". It achieved none of these aims in any significant way, as Abigail Thernstrom demonstrates.

But Derbyshire questions the Pollyanna solutions offered by Dr. Thernstrom, such as having black parents work harder to make sure their children learn. The failures at racial integration and improving black scholastic performance that others show are for Derbyshire proof positive of his "biologism," namely, the view that social and intellectual achievements are closely correlated to inherited abilities.

Derbyshire cites Charles Murray's research in underlining the effects of immutable differences among individuals and ethnic groups. But his tone is very different from Murray's, insofar as he does not follow Murray in  Real Education by patting public educators on the head for making modest gains with cognitively weak students. He is full of obvious contempt for the egalitarian aims and crass hypocrisies of the "edbyz" crowd, and in this respect he seems to have taken his lead from Brimelow's battle against mendacious, grasping teachers' unions in The Worm in the Apple.  

Reading both their descriptions of the ludicrous claims that public school educators make, I was reminded of the pictures of Albert Einstein that have begun appearing on the bulletin board of my college's largest department, public "edbyz".

The unmistakable implication of this decorating frenzy is that our public school teachers are helping create more Albert Einsteins. Since both our teaching department and the students whom they train seem to be among the least cognitively gifted individuals on this planet, I suspect they're unlikely to be educating scientific geniuses.

The most conceptually useful part of Derbyshire's work, at least for me as an intellectual historian, is his discussion of three worldviews shaping contemporary thinking about social problems, religionism, culturism, and biologism. He writes:

"Broadly speaking, the religious view is most popular among ordinary citizens, the biological view is held by most actual researchers in the human sciences, and the cultural view is dominant—well-nigh exclusive, in fact—among our non-scientific elites and educators."

Actually what Derbyshire is describing here is the spectrum of views represented on today's intellectual Right. Very roughly speaking, ninety-nine percent of those who are acceptable media conservatives fall into categories one and two, while Derbyshire and his mostly marginalized kindred spirits are languishing in the Politically Incorrect category three.

Derbyshire also notes that the religionists and culturists fit into the present egalitarian American ideology. It is only those in category three who make nuisances of themselves by challenging the egalitarian, environmentalist consensus.

I might bring up the value game played by the "movement" and how it supports this consensus, were it not for the fact that I've already devoted an entire book to this dismal subject.

Tanenhaus's book on conservatism is thin gruel next to Derbyshire's feast.  It cites nothing of any value out of the prodigious literature that has been produced on the subject it pretends to be treating. While I might complain that Tanenhaus never brings up my studies, he is equally unaware of the standard encyclopedic work on conservatism by George Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, in either its first or second edition. He doesn't even bother to cite American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, a cornucopia of information about American conservatives and their ideas that ISI brought out in 2006.

Besides yapping about his special relation with Buckley (the two buttered each other up for years), Tanenhaus exhibits about as much knowledge of the American Right as I do in my books about quantum physics.

The Yiddish word "chutzpah" came to mind as I struggled through The Death of Conservatism. Contrary to Leon Wieseltier's blurb that  Tanenhaus's  book is "not another book by another liberal with a pornographic fascination with the American right", he spends a lot of time beating up on Obama's critics for attending Tea Party rallies or expressing opposition to abortion, exactly like every other liberal write on conservatism.

Tanenhaus's ideal conservatism seems to be exemplified by what he calls "Burkean conservatives", whom he identifies with the likes of Bill Buckley, Bill Clinton (!) and Barack Obama (!!). It's the rest of the Right that he finds off-putting. They are behaving so uncivilly by Tanenhaus's New York Times' standards that they, together with that "Danton" of the far Right Newt Gingrich, are bringing the entire movement and the GOP into public disfavor.

Tanenhaus also goes to town on Irving Kristol, with whom he presumably is no longer sharing bagels and lox. In Tanenhaus' view, by allowing the Religious Right into the movement, Kristol behaved in a non-Burkean fashion. Kristol invited "purists" to take over what had been a onetime, moderate conservative GOP, but unfortunately "the purists incur no reciprocal obligation to the party despite its institutional authority".

Also: "It was the alliance of neoconservatives and evangelicals that formed the movement's core during the Bush years and responded most exuberantly to the administration's policies—from its 'faith-based' initiatives through the war on terror and the crusading mission to 'democratize' Iraq."

The second statement is true but hardly substantiates the observation that precedes it. In fact, it is in direct contradiction. Kristol got what he wanted because the Religious Right made themselves into willing tools of neoconservative purposes—in return, incidentally, for pitifully little. While the neoconservative master class and W's GOP, as it came ideologically under neocon control, mobilized evangelicals to support their Wilsonian foreign policy and Near Eastern politics, they compensated their happy foot-soldiers by merely refusing to give public funding to stem cell research and abortion.

To me it sounds like an awfully good deal! Certainly it involves a much lower cost that what Tanenhaus's party pays for black, feminist, and Hispanic voters.

But then the Religious Right is more docile, and as the last election showed, evangelical younger members are sliding leftward, in the direction of the antiracist- and socialist-obsessed editors of Sojourners magazine and the faculty and administration of the leftward-trending evangelical Wheaton College. It might surprise Tanenhaus to learn that in 2008 evangelical support for the GOP had slid from 55% in 2001 to 40%. According to Pew Research poll conducted in July, 2008, only 61% of evangelicals backed the very centrist Republican presidential candidate John McCain; while 25% were behind Obama. Moreover, on immigration, some evangelicals are leaning left, as VDARE.COM showed as early as December 2006.[Immigration: An Evangelical Approach, December 02, 2006] Evangelicals in Central Pennsylvania sport a red bumper sticker produced by Sojourners with the slogan "God Is Not A Republican".  Apparently these putative members of the Religious Right have the same electoral preferences as the New York Times.

To refresh Tanenhaus's memory: Back in the 1980s, when according to him the conservatives were still moderate and listening to George Will rather than Rush Limbaugh (news to those of us who remember the hysterical resistance to Ronald Reagan both on the left and among liberal Republicans) the visible conservative political spectrum extended far to the right of where it is now. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, conservative wars of extermination had to be fought before Tanenhaus's luncheon pals managed to take over the Establishment Right by expelling an older and more "reactionary" Right.

Somehow Tanenhaus missed this all, or else he prefers not to notice it. Whatever the case, his hand-wringing over how far the Right drifted under Bush because of Kristol and W is either pure deceit or the result of invincible ignorance.  (Tanenhaus' book contains no index, but as far as I can see this alleged survey of conservatism contains no mention Patrick J. Buchanan, the immigration issue or paleoconservatism—what TakiMag's Richard Spencer now calls the "Alternative Right".)

Instead, what happened was just the opposite of what Tanenhaus tells us! The Old Right was dislodged and what had been the center Left took over the "movement", with a leftist foreign policy consisting of nation-building. While the neocons, who waffle on social questions, have not yet been able to make total accommodations with the Left, they have been able to place social leftists like Joe Lieberman and Christopher Hitchens in prominent positions in their movement and would obviously be happy to change sides. This has been possible because of how they have prioritized issues, making their quintessentially leftist, Wilsonian foreign policy—which Tanenhaus mistakenly identifies with the far Right—into the cornerstone of "conservative" politics.

All of this is something for which Tanenhaus should thank his deceased hero William F. Buckley, as well as Irving Kristol. Without Bill's truckling to the neoconservatives, this restructuring of the Establishment Right would not have come to pass.

And the conservative movement would not have been led to the utter disaster that Tanenhaus purports to chronicle.

Paul Gottfried (email him) is Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, PA. He is the author of After Liberalism, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt and The Strange Death of Marxism.

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