Magazine article The American Conservative

Demolition Derbyshire

Magazine article The American Conservative

Demolition Derbyshire

Article excerpt

Demolition Derbyshire [We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism, John Derbyshire, Crown Forum, 272 pages]

By Patrick Allitt

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. …

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