Derbyshire’s Children

Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns, and Money “beats the dead horse” in regard to John Derbyshire’s rule 10, subparagraph h – “Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway”:

It’s difficult to express how awful this sentiment is, in a way that goes beyond the Murray-esque racism of the rest of the piece. Apart from the explicitly anti-Christian element (the duty to help the distressed may extend even to those situations in which it might be statistically dangerous to do so), the notion that Derb is counseling his children (and readers) to ignore the distress of individual African-Americans as a matter of policy shocks the conscience.

Farley is right that Derb’s advice “shocks the conscience,” but any mature adult can anticipate the rejoinder, or perhaps the asterisk, relating to the numerous configurations of circumstance under which, regardless of the skin-color of the person or people in distress, and whether or not we share the former, we would refrain from “acting the Good Samaritan.”

Within a few hundred yards, the Average Liberal Samaritan may well already be explaining to a guilty conscience that it was not just the wrong skin color, but something else about the situation, some perception of vulnerability and risk, that kept the guilty foot on the gas.  We should also recognize that some number of people who share Derbyshire’s admitted racism, even in less supposedly “tolerant” inclinations, might “act” better than the Average Liberal, especially if in possession of greater physical self-confidence.  We can imagine someone who actively despises “blacks,” but has no difficulty stopping to help particular “blacks in distress.”

So, here’s a bad question:  Who is a better Samaritan, the liberal who for whatever reasons does not stop and give aid, but claims to support “good policy,” or the racist who does stop and give aid, but supports “bad policy”?  I believe there is no general right answer to this question, because I also tend to believe that the liberal is probably a racist, and that the racist is probably a liberal.  This understanding could be the basis for an extensive discussion, but to summarize the position, we can acknowledge that, according to the best thinking on the subject of race, we as inheritors of a racist culture will all end up with indelibly racist tendencies, and that goes for the victims of racism as well as for the direct and indirect beneficiaries of discrimination.  At the same time, even the most obnoxiously anti-social racist, if  he participates in society at all, must also to some extent embrace tolerance, must live and let live, and will in countless ways, whether or not he likes it, or thinks he does, support liberal society.

The reason that the bad question is worth asking is that it reveals the more fundamental contradiction at the root of Derbyshire’s particular ideas and ugly sentiments.

In Derbyshire’s “Talk” we can see two orientations, private and public, coming into conflict in a way that illustrates Derbyshire’s own faulty conception of private and public interest.  Put differently, the question of the rationality of the “Stop/Don’t” decision, and also of its intrinsic moral value, can be separated from the question of whether it or an abstract version of it ought to be urged on others – either by a father speaking to his child in relation to social conduct, or by a writer offering his thoughts on social conduct to society.

At the extreme, we can even imagine some advice that it would be appropriate for a father to offer to his child, or for individuals to take into account for themselves “within the family,” that arguably should not be shared with society, either because it would cause unnecessary harm to the family or to society, or because, once shared, it would no longer be useful.  Many critics of Derbyshire’s National Review employers have characterized Derbyshire’s mistake in such a way, though as a species of cynicism:  It is thought to be “okay” in the conservative world to think like a racist, but never to let outsiders in on the secret.  Yet, returning to the Samaritan discussion, it is at least questionable whether more than a few liberals and other critics are not winking along with the imagined conservatives in this respect – “driving on,” but just not bragging about it, just like, they assume, everyone else.

Yet even if we adopt a position of cynicism about Derbyshire’s critics, including ourselves; even if we overcome our personal distaste and intellectual certainty to stipulate to the supposed bases and logic of Derbyshire’s shockingly expressed view of rational self-interest as a justification for skin-color prejudice – and these comments apply to the entirety of the Talk, not just to 10h – the fact remains that he brought his personal and private calculation to the world, to us, under the apparent belief that  it should, or could ever, be accepted and supported by the world, by us.

Furthermore, and more relevantly to our social and political interpretation of his perspective, this mistake does not merely implicate him personally, but implicates his ideology – that is, his libertarian-inflected, demonstratively atheistic individualism, his politics or anti-politics of self-interest.

Any writer, even at a small webzine dedicated to an identifiably rightwing libertarian-individualist, strongly anti-“socialist” ideology, is implicitly speaking to society, to some concept of a collective interest, to a social good.  The fundamental contradiction in Derbyshire’s approach to matters of so-called race and “skin color realism” – not what’s “worst” about it, but what may get at where the “worst” originates – is between the utter self-centeredness of his philosophy, its denial of a social subject, of the significance of society and its claims, and its inherent status as an appeal to that selfsame social subject.  In other words, Derbyshire’s advice is premised on the assumption that “we are not all in this together,” that the collective interest is irrelevant to the life and opinions of the individual John Derbyshire (and to his heirs), but the publication of that advice already inherently accepts and acknowledges the collective interest, a social audience, symbolically and by extension “all of us in this together.”

We can say that Derbyshire’s radical individualism, his oxymoronic social solipsism, cannot even be heard, and is never really even spoken.  It is false consciousness itself.  It exists as a “statement of self-centeredness” in the same way that “2 + 2 = 5” exists as a mathematical statement – de-codable, but nonsensical:  A statement of absolute self-centeredness would never be shared at all, because sharing contradicts absolute self-centeredness.  It could not even be put into words, because words exist only as common possessions, just as language does not exist, cannot be conceived and cannot come into being, except among a multiplicity of speakers. (Absolute self-centeredness would be a property of God – that is, a function of the god concept, a concept that Derbyshire, in a familiarly pseudo-atheistic gesture, seeks to deny, but instead merely displaces to a self-falsifying idea of the absolute individual.)

The social is irreducible in language, as indeed it is in all human life.  This problem is categorical and concrete – not merely an abstract or formal property under some theory of communication.  The individual whose self-interest, whose property, and whose freedoms Derbyshire and his more polite ideological allies stand for above all else is inescapably a social or socially constituted and socially oriented being – historically, anthropologically, and organically:  Neither speech, nor the act of speaking or writing, nor the speaker or writer can be thought in any other way.  (There is no text except in context.)

It was indicative that the reflexive response of many readers to the Talk was a paradoxical report that they were “struck speechless.” Andrew Sullivan’s reaction post can be taken as emblematic: “I am at a loss for words.”  Speechlessness is a commensurate response to speech that implicitly denies the irreducible condition of speaking, of our response-ability to each other.

What naturally follows/followed, the confrontation with this particular “degree zero” of language is/was an explosion of words, leading sooner or later to a feeling of excess – “beating the dead horse.”  This process coincides with the social subject’s collective self-assertion – in just the manner that Derbyshire should have anticipated but, it seems, very typically, one might even say arch-typically, did not.  The absolutely anti-social social act requires – we the social-collective totality require – its quarantine, its denunciation, including, finally, ostracism by those identified as closest to him within the public-collective realm.  His firing or resignation was not just a foregone conclusion:  It was a redundancy.  As his now former editor/employer Rich Lowry put it, perhaps more tellingly than he realized, the piece was “so outlandish it constitute[d] a kind of letter of resignation.”

Since Derbyshire’s sin was committed in the social or public realm, in words not the lash of a whip or an actual refusal to come to someone’s aid, no one is calling for his wife and children to abandon him or for his friends to desert him, although the peculiar form of his anti-social social action already invites scrutiny of his private relations.  He was not just bringing his private life into the public realm.  He was doing so in a way that identified him not just as a bad parent, but as a traitor to fatherhood – in his socially determined and validated role as parent, the individual recognized by society, because first qualified by biology, as primarily responsible for shaping and administering his child’s relationship to society, to us.

Derbyshire’s Talk is not just bad advice to a child on political grounds, in relationship to some notion of good and proper race relations.  It originates in a denial of society itself.  It is the contradiction of the parent’s social role.  It recalls and implicitly raises the ancient claim against a certain kind of philosopher, or against all philosophers properly so-called, as raised against Socrates emblematically, that his skepticism before the gods of the city poisoned the minds of the young.  Derbyshire is no Socrates, but the same right of the polis that Socrates acknowledged to the point of preferring it over his own continued life at all (in exile), is the right asserted against the atheist, rationalist, egoist who would seek to pass his egoism on to his children before the eyes of the “fathers of the city,” or in modern terms, the collective superego.

My own initial response, other than speechlessness – and sadness at the spectacle of a man so sick in mind and, as I have heard, in body, destroying himself – was to think back on experiences as a young man, as an adolescent or in early adulthood, that I consider my most precious memories, maybe the best, richest, most perpetually re-invigorating moments of my life, experiences that I would have denied myself utterly if I had followed the advice of an overly protective and closed-minded parent.  They all involved some  interaction with the unpredictable, possibly dangerous social, cultural, political, economic, ethnic, religious, or biological – sometimes all at once – “other.”  I doubt I need to divulge any details, because I suspect that anyone in the world who might ever read these words could supply his or her own experiences of the same type.

Since John Derbyshire brought his family into it, I feel free to imagine a response on the part of his child – in effect to mark the transition via adolescent resistance on the way to autonomous adulthood.  “Why should I follow what you advise, father?  So I can grow up to live a life as morally impoverished, as safe from the risky vitality of others, as immune to hope, as yours?”


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7 comments on “Derbyshire’s Children

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  1. This subject needed to be addressed the way you did–with a long thoughtful post. It made its way masterfully down to the personal and I agree that “we can all supply our own experience of the same type.” I know I could, but at the same time I’m grateful to my father for keeping most of his racism to himself. I remember him walking into my room and seeing that (at around age 12) I was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He wanted to stop me. I saw him fight a quick internal battle and then he left me to my reading. Obviously, he did the right thing but that didn’t encourage me to take it easy on him later. Eventually, he learned that it was easier not to say anything racist around me. “Teach your parents well.”
    Oh, and out on the road, I bet that it’s safer to help African Americans than white people. Not that I spend time going over the statistics, but I’ve heard that almost all the serial killers in history have been white and that military statistics suggest that white soldiers are far more likely to go all rogue killer like whatshisname just did.
    The Bad Question has no good or right answer. Acts speak louder than words but good words spoken to entire communities might do more good than a private positive act.

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