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A Quick Word On The Derb

I’ve counted John Derbyshire as a friend for close to a decade now, and so I can only say that I’m sorry to see that he’s lost his major paying gig as a consequence of writing this instantly-notorious column.

John has been undergoing treatment for cancer, treatment which makes him feel like his IQ has dropped 20 points. So there’s a lesson in here about the risks of writing while under the influence of chemotherapy.

There’s also a lesson here about journals of opinion. Taki’s Magazine, on all evidence, has a rather light editorial touch along with a relatively narrow, like-minded target audience – and an audience that, in considerable measure, is going there in search of writing that much of the rest of the publishing landscape considers rude or even morally repugnant. That combination is a recipe for losing touch with one’s own editorial faculties – and editing, the application of critical wisdom to writing before publication, is not the same thing as self-censorship. Obviously, as a blogger, I prefer a relatively light editorial touch – which, honestly, may not be good for me. But I hope I make up for it by making a concerted effort to conceive of my own audience in wide terms (though I suspect my actual readership consists of very few individuals, I prefer to imagine that these individuals don’t agree with each other about anything).

Finally, the column itself. I’m sorry to have to say this about a friend’s work – I suppose I don’t have to; I could keep silent; but I feel I ought to say something about his firing, and having done that it seems inappropriate not to discuss the piece in question – but the column that cost him his relationship with National Review really isn’t very good.

Leave aside Derbyshire’s “race realist” stuff about IQ and so forth – that’s all stuff he’s said before, many times and in many venues, and you either find it interesting (I don’t, really) or not, offensive (I don’t, really) or not. What’s poorly thought out is, frankly, the advice to his kids. And what’s equally poorly thought-out is the idea that this is some kind of “response” to “The Talk” that African-American parents have with their kids about how to comport themselves so that they won’t wind up like Trayvon Martin.

Derbyshire gives nine specific pieces of advice that he calls applications of “statistical common sense,” to whit:

Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.

Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.

If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot).

Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.

If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.

Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians.

Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white.

Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.

If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.

Every one of these injunctions is bad advice. To be a good application of statistical common sense, it’s not enough to know that, for example, crime rates (on average) are higher in majority-black neighborhoods. You’d need to know that the disparity was large enough, and the variance around the average small enough, so that following such a rule would actually be a decent heuristic; not to mention that there were no more finely-grained heuristics available and that the cost of applying such a sweeping heuristic in terms of the loss of experience of life and its manifold pleasures was not prohibitive.

Because here’s the thing. Granting that nobody has an obligation to be politically correct in their behavior, and granting (for the sake of argument) all of Derbyshire’s premises, what he’s still saying is that the risks are so great that it’s better simply to wall oneself off from African-Americans to the greatest degree possible. But he hasn’t actually measured the risks in absolute terms, only in relative terms: would this action reduce risk; if yes, then follow it. I wonder: does he take a similar attitude toward other risks? Toward, to take a few examples, eating raw food, bicycling without a helmet, traveling alone to a foreign country, or writing whatever one wishes for a publication like Taki’s Magazine?

I live in Brooklyn. I love living in Brooklyn. Do I live in a majority-black neighborhood? No. But there’s a large, majority black neighborhood right across the park from me. We share the park. Derbyshire’s advice to me and to my son is, effectively: don’t go to the park. Or, alternatively, don’t live in Brooklyn. But why? Does Derbyshire know what the crime statistics are like in my part of Brooklyn these days? Is he really that fearful?

The “race realists” like to say that they are the ones who are curious about the world, and the “politically correct” types are the ones who prefer to ignore ugly reality. But the advice Derbyshire gives to his children encourages them not to be too curious about the world around them, for fear of getting hurt. And, as a general rule, that’s terrible advice for kids – and not the advice that Derbyshire has followed in his own life.

I want to take a particularly good look at the most egregious piece of advice on his list, the eighth: don’t be a Good Samaritan. Now, to be fair, being a Good Samaritan can be risky. That’s why nobody is legally obligated to be one. But that doesn’t mean that Derbyshire’s advice is “statistical common sense.” He evidences this advice with reference to a news story about a man who intervened in what was once called a “domestic dispute” – in this case, a man beating up his girlfriend. The Good Samaritan was attacked by the man in question, and killed; whether the girlfriend aided her boyfriend in attacking the man, or attempted to stop him, is disputed. Is it “statistical common sense” to generalize from this kind of anecdote? If it is, the obvious generalization is “don’t get involved in someone else’s fight.” I wonder whether that’s advice Derbyshire wants to pass on to his son: if you see a man beating up a woman, don’t help, because he might turn on you and kill you. I agree that such advice will keep his son out of trouble. But, as the cabbie in the story says, “[a] lot of drivers don’t like to get involved, but I don’t mind being involved . . . If more drivers would get involved the streets might be a little be safer.” But to generalize to “don’t be a Good Samaritan to African-Americans in distress” is transparently unwarranted – unless, of course, one presumes there are no costs at all to maximizing one’s insulation from African-Americans, no costs to oneself and no costs to society worth entering into consideration. But of course, those costs are very substantial. A declaration, “don’t help such-and-such type of person if they are in distress” amounts to a kind of declaration of war against that group of people, a declaration that they are categorically beyond moral concern.

Which brings us to the supposed point of the column. That point, I take it, is to argue that just as African-American parents have to brief their sons on how to keep themselves from ending up like Trayvon Martin, white parents have to brief their sons on how to keep themselves safe from personal violence at the hands of African-Americans. But there’s a profound lack of parallelism between the two conversations. “The Talk” is about how you are perceived by others, and how to comport yourself so as to counteract that perception. Derbyshire’s talk is about how you should perceive others. There’s no analogy. They have nothing to do with each other.

Compare, for example, Steve Sailer’s reaction to the whole “The Talk” business:

My sons aren’t black, but I have given them the exactly same Talk about cops, although mine was probably less polite toward cops. I made sure to emphasize that “Cops have guns, with which, if you piss them off or make them feel uneasy, they might kill you. The kind of people who become cops have personalities where they want to dominate others around them. (If they just wanted to save people, they could have become firemen.) So, let them. Remember, cops have guns.”

Good point! There’s a good bit of imaginative sympathy there: this presumably wasn’t a fun talk for Sailer to have with his sons, so presumably he understands that it’s not a pleasant talk for black parents to have either. If we can get imaginative sympathy running both ways (which I take to be Sailer’s main point: he wants black parents to know that white parents worry about this sort of thing as well), so much the better. So, here’s the thing about the Trayvon Martin situation. To a lot of people, it felt like the right advice for black parents to give to their kids in the wake of Martin’s killing was: effectively, everybody’s a cop. If you piss off some random guy who doesn’t like your look, and make him feel uneasy, he might kill you. And nobody wants to give that message to their kid – because it’s an ugly, life-crushing message. So a lot of people are pissed off. That’s not so hard to understand, is it?

I’m all for frank talk, and not hiding behind politically-correct shibboleths. But I’m not for lazy talk, and I’m not for talk that implies a complete lack of concern for the social costs of one’s views.

So why am I arguing with Derb at all? Well, because he’s a friend. And because even lazy, socially-irresponsible talk deserves to be refuted, not merely denounced. Is Derbyshire’s piece racist? Of course it’s racist. His whole point is that it is both rational and morally right for his children to treat black people significantly differently from white people, and to fear them. But “racist” is a descriptive term, not a moral one. The “race realist” crowd is strongly convinced of the accuracy of Derbyshire’s major premises, and they are not going to be argued out of that conviction by the assertion such conviction is “racist” – nor, honestly, should they be. For that reason, I feel it’s important to argue that Derbyshire’s conclusions do not follow simply from those premises, and are, in fact, morally incorrect even if those premises are granted for the sake of argument.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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