Imagine a cheerful, observant, talkative man who, as he advances into late middle age, becomes impatient with much of the world around him and starts complaining. Yes, he’s an immigrant from Britain, but that doesn’t mean he approves of open immigration policy. Sure, he has a Chinese wife, but that doesn’t mean he favors diversity as a social goal. Certainly, he thinks America draws its strength from religion, but that doesn’t make him a believer in God. He is definitely a conservative, but much of what passes for conservatism these days fills him with dismay.
Imagine further that, during a few memorable weeks after the election of President Obama, he records his remarks to friends about everything that annoys him, then transcribes and prints the lot. That’s the feeling you get from We Are Doomed. It’s a book that feels like conversation. It has all the quips, gags, and digressions that you get from a natural chatterbox at the height of his powers. Undisciplined, amusing, full of exaggerations and flights of fancy, it’s also the work of a voracious reader, a man who’s interested in everything. John Derbyshire thinks he’s a pessimist, but actually he’s an indignant optimist. His spluttering objections to various aspects of the contemporary scene bear witness to his belief that things don’t have to be the way they are, that they could be a lot better. A real pessimist would survey each new catastrophe, sigh, and take it as further confirmation that civilizations only decline and individuals only die.
If this book has a central theme, it is that the American conservative movement has recently succumbed to a facile, bright-eyed cheeriness, forgetting its long heritage of skepticism about the human condition. Too many conservatives, Derbyshire writes, welcome the ideology of diversity, embrace big government, support a foreign policy of global democratization, and believe that the nation has an almost infinite capacity to absorb culturally alien immigrants and refugees. They’re wrong on every point, in his view, though he shows a strange reluctance to name any of them other than George W. Bush. Not surprisingly, he deplores the incoming Obama crowd, too, especially for their faith in big and costly projects, but he sees them as different only in degree, not in kind, from what too many conservatives have become.
Once you realize that you’re not reading a pessimistic manifesto in the tradition of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but merely a long pamphlet urging conservatives to be more skeptical and to remember the need for prudence, everything falls into place. You’ve heard it all before: from George Gilder on masculinity, from Allan Bloom on high culture, from Roger Kimball on education, from Pat Buchanan on foreign policy, and from dozens of lesser lights. The indictments are familiar: federal bloat, cultural decay, feminization, barbarian invasion from south of the border, overconfident military adventures in distant lands. What’s new is the idiom. Where Bloom was solemnly apocalyptic and Kimball fretful and feverish, Derbyshire makes his case in a long succession of wisecracks.
Like many of his British ancestors, Derbyshire is good at picking up insults and giving them a positive spin. (That’s how the terms “Puritan,” “Whig,” and “Methodist” started out.) He borrows Professor Leonard Jeffries’s terms about the “Sun People” and the “Ice People,” but only so that he can sing the praises of chilly white northerners. He also enjoys inverting the Obama administration’s new clichés: readers will smile at his references to “the audacity of hopelessness” and his periodic refrain “No, we can’t.” He calls politics “show business for ugly people” and describes the annual State of the Union address as a “disgusting spectacle.”
Derbyshire, for all his levity, is genuinely alarmed about the state of conservatism, but recognizes that his position in the movement is paradoxical. A few years ago, he dreamed up the neologism “metrocons” to describe conservatives who live in New York, Chicago, or inside the Beltway and spend their lives among urban sophisticates as they sympathize with “heartland” people who constitute the movement’s electoral backbone. In this book, he goes into more detail about life as a metrocon, admitting that in most respects the company of educated metropolitan liberals is much more congenial to him than that of rock-ribbed Republicans. They’re certainly more likely to appreciate his jokes.
Among the complications he has to face is the fact that he’s an atheist. He finds religious faith delusional, but also thinks of it as essential to the future of conservatism. He warns that America’s exceptional religiosity is not something that will necessarily persist. After all, he has witnessed the drastic secularization of both Ireland and Wales in his lifetime; it could happen here, too.
His remarks on education, like those on religion, are gloomy but not really pessimistic. He faults the expensive and bureaucratically cumbersome “No Child Left Behind” legislation as the kind of fantasy project that conservatives ought never to have endorsed. It implied that the expenditure of enough money would solve all educational problems, even though a generation of studies had already shown, beyond a reasonable doubt, that family background was the decisive variable in predicting students’ success or failure. Now we have a situation in which far too many young people are stuck in educational institutions where they suffer “innumerable hours of boredom and frustration” because they are completely unsuited to the work they’re being asked to do. It would be better, Derbyshire believes, to permit youngsters to leave school early—perhaps even at age 12—and move straight to practical, on-the-job training.
Meanwhile, white and Asian-American families do everything they can to get their children into schools where their own groups dominate and to avoid majority black and Hispanic student bodies. Realtors know that this is true, house prices reflect their knowledge that it is true. Indeed, the whole social geography of America reflects this great truth, yet everyone denies it or talks about it in euphemisms. Derbyshire comments, “Mainstream conservatives approach this whole issue … with the whimpering terror they bring to all matters racial: ‘Oh please, mister, please don’t call me a racist! Beat me with this steel rod if you like, but for pity’s sake don’t call me racist!’” After a few devastating illustrations of his point, notably one about the failure of Kansas City’s herculean efforts to improve its inner-city schools, he predicts that entrenched educational bureaucrats and the powerful teachers’ union will block all serious reforms.
Cultural decline, no less than religious and educational decline, upsets him. He admits that he catches sight of popular television shows only while trudging from his study to the living room to fix himself stiff drinks. Not knowing the shows doesn’t prevent him from passing judgment, however, and his judgment is very far from positive. He particularly hates the “girly shows” in which “estrogen is practically oozing out of the TV screen and dripping down onto my carpet” and “competitors [sit] around primping while shrieking ‘Oh my God!’ at each other.” He doesn’t even like “SpongeBob SquarePants” and may not realize the significance of the fact that his kids (clearly a capable twosome) call him Squidward. He then shows his true old-fogey colors by claiming, apparently seriously, that he got a big kick out of watching a re-run of “Saturday Night Fever.”
But if popular culture seems to him crappy, then high culture is actual crap. He cites the case of the Italian artist Piero Manzoni whose “Merda D’Artista” consists of high-priced cans of his own “solid waste,” which prestigious American galleries and collectors now covet, especially if they can’t spend their millions on one of Damien Hirst’s works made from rotting fish and maggoty dead cows. I laughed over Derbyshire’s savaging of contemporary poetry, especially the kind that gets declaimed at Democratic presidential inaugurations. He describes Maya Angelou’s contribution to Bill Clinton’s first big day as “gassy drivel,” and Elizabeth Alexander’s role in Barack Obama’s inauguration as “the monotonous, structureless, subliterate whining of nursed and petted victimhood.” Derbyshire’s conclusion about American high culture is that it is arid, academic in the worst sense, and completely devoid of imagination.
Next he gets crotchety about gender relations and complains that, these days, women are better than men at everything. He speculates that sooner or later a female-dominated society is going to phase out men altogether and manage reproduction by parthenogenesis. That would be a good joke except that, briefly, the light-heartedness disappears and he offers a bizarre (and surely unnecessary) lament for the eclipse of the martial virtues:
Even war, that most quintessential of masculine activities, is probably a thing of the past. For war you need a large supply of young men. With the great demographic collapse of modern times, that supply is drying up. Soft, feminized, overcivilized, undermilitarized societies of the past were likely to be jolted back into vigor, or just overrun, by warriors from the wild places. Now there are no more wild places …
Hasn’t he seen a newspaper for the last couple of decades? War is in no danger at all of disappearing. A quick survey of contemporary geopolitics discloses plenty of “wild places”—parts of the Middle East and most of Africa are getting wilder all the time. It may be true that conservatives look back with longing to an earlier age, but Derbyshire here tiptoes up to the brink of being nostalgic for the World War I days when men by the tens of thousands were turned into cannon fodder.
By the later chapters you might find yourself running out of patience. The gags keep coming—I won’t deny that this book had me chuckling all the way to the end—but, now and again, Derbyshire seems to be missing the whole story. University English and women’s studies departments may be ideological minefields, but not the departments of physics, biology, history, computer science, and math. “American Idol” may be vulgar trash, but TV at its best (“The Wire”) and cinema at its best (“The Reader”) are incomparably better than all the 1970s disco films made and unmade. Despite everything, there’s still a bit of space left in this world for men as well as women. Derbyshire really shines as a columnist, making his deliberately provocative and pungent points in essays of 500 words. At times, We Are Doomed feels like a string of such columns, each rising to its own crescendo of shock and horror. The whole is, in the end, rather less than the sum of its parts.
Patrick Allitt is a professor of history at Emory University. He is author of The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History and Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America, 1950-1985.
The American Conservative welcomes letters to the editor.
Send letters to: [email protected]