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John Derbyshire Gives One Cheer for Conservatism, Inc.
I flew into Nashville last Friday night to give a talk to the annual conference of the Council of Conservative Citizens. I assumed someone from would be there to meet me, but no-one showed up.
I didn’t know which hotel the conference was being held at. The Council of Conservative Citizens had not named the hotel on its website for fear of attracting the usual leftist thugs, and I had omitted to ask.
So I was in the embarrassing position of having arrived at the airport in a strange city with no idea where I would be spending the night. This was far from being the dumbest situation I have ever gotten myself into, but I’ll allow it was pretty dumb.
I called some friends, but the one or two who answered could not help.
I went to the airport information desk. It was staffed by two large people: a black man and a white woman. I told them the tale.
“This conference: What’s the name of the organization?” asked the black man.
I told him. He googled the Council of Conservative Citizens, bringing up their website. He began to read through it, looking more and more thoughtful as he did so. Meanwhile the white lady began calling likely hotels.
Then one of the friends I’d called got back to me with the hotel name. I transmitted this to the information desk, and thanked them for their attempts to help. The white lady gave me a cheery “You’re welcome.”
The black guy had by this point been reading the CofCC website for five minutes or so with furrowed brow. I thought he might jump up and hurl his keyboard at me.
But no: “You’re welcome, Sir. Have a pleasant evening.” I can’t say he was smiling, but his tone was level and professional.
Walking away, I thought: Southern courtesy trumps tribal resentment—a small victory for civilization.
This is an abbreviated and slightly modified form of the address I gave on July 7.
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I am very flattered to have been invited here today to address you. I thank the organizers for their consideration, and congratulate you all on the success of the conference.
My name is John Derbyshire. As you can probably tell, I was born and raised in England. I have lived much of my adult life here in the U.S.A., though—more than thirty years—and became a U.S. citizen in 2002.
My claim on your interest is that I have been writing as a freelancer for Mainstream Conservative outlets here in North America since the 1990s, and for similar publications elsewhere for a decade before that.
The easiest way to clarify the term “Mainstream Conservative” is just to list those American outlets. My opinion columns and reviews have appeared in the following Mainstream Conservative periodicals:
The American Spectator
Claremont Review of Books
The National Post (Canada)
The New Criterion
The New York Sun
The Washington Times
The Weekly Standard
I have also attended innumerable conferences, forums, cruises, and other kinds of gatherings organized by these outlets and by organizations affiliated with them.
Putting those experiences together with my publication list, I’m going to hurl modesty to the winds and offer myself to you as an expert on Mainstream Conservatism— and to submit a defense, though a tepid and qualified one, of Mainstream Conservatism.
First, just a word about nomenclature. “Mainstream Conservatism” is a bit of a mouthful, but there isn’t much out there in the way of alternative names for the phenomenon.
The term “Neocon” had its moment in the sun as a snappy way to refer to aggressively internationalist types who didn’t mind multiculturalism and the welfare state but who wanted a vigorous capitalist economy to pay for it all.
I think that moment has passed, though. With capitalism stagnant, public finances bumping up against limits—in the case of some municipalities here in the U.S., more like crashing up against limits—and public enthusiasm for world-saving military adventures at a low ebb, the Neocon brand has passed its sell-by date.
VDARE.com has coined the term “Conservatism, Inc.” I like it: it is at just the right point on the line from gentle mockery to snarling contempt. It’s new, though, and you have to be constantly explaining its meaning to people who haven’t yet heard it, which is a bit tiresome. I hope “Conservatism, Inc.” catches on. But until it does, I’ll prefer the more self-explanatory “Mainstream Conservatism.”
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at Mainstream Conservatism and see whether there is anything to be said in its favor.
I began by offering a list of eleven current American magazines of opinion that I’ve written for, and that, according to me, define Mainstream Conservatism. If you look into those magazines, what do you find?
Well, you do find oppositional talk. I don’t believe it is the case, as Larry Auster has said, that Mainstream Conservatism “is now . . . dead.”
The principal elements of American Conservatism have always been:
- mistrust of government power, especially the federal power;
- respect for traditional social arrangements centered on the biological family and the free association of citizens;
- property rights and the encouragement of free commerce;
- demographic integrity and continuity;
- religion—or at least, in the case of the temperamentally irreligious, respect for religion; and
- individual liberty, with a willingness to accept a price in inequality.
Conservatism stands in opposition to an establishment that favors federal power, mocks traditional arrangements, infringes property rights when it can and cumbers commerce with taxes and regulations, disdains patriotism as uncouth and defers to international organizations, seeks demographic replacement, wars against popular religion, and always, always privileges equality over liberty.
In their promotion of those elements I just listed, Mainstream-Conservative publications do a good job overall; but they do better on some of my bullet points than on others, and are fatally weak on the fifth, on demographic integrity and continuity.
This weakness exists in part because Mainstream Conservatism is yoked to the Republican Party and its business sponsors. The dire effect of this relationship on demographic integrity was clearly seen following the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, when the Act’s punitive and protective (i.e. of American workers) clauses soon went unenforced as businesses dependent on illegal labor made angry phone calls to their GOP congressmen.
Because of their bonds with the GOP-business axis, Mainstream Conservatives are shy of demographic issues. Their shyness is compounded by the atmosphere of cultural Marxism we all live in, with its insistence on the perfect interchangeability of all human groups.
So I say that Mainstream Conservatism is doing valuable and useful work, acting at least as a brake on the relentless downhill slide into globalism, socialism, mass dependency, and enforced uniformity of thought. I hope I was able to make some small contribution to that work via the words I published in those periodicals.
It’s uphill work, of course. The American public, just like the public in any advanced country, wants incremental socialism, and does not see where socialism inevitably leads.
To quote from Igor Shafarevich’s book The Socialist Phenomenon:
The death of mankind is not only a conceivable result of the triumph of socialism—it constitutes the goal of socialism.
It’s hard, though, to get the sense of that into John Q. Public’s head when there’s a demon whispering in his other ear: “They want to take away your Medicare!”
Mainstream conservatism is, though, missing in action on what we would, if we were not so terrified of the topic, refer to frankly as population policy. As I noted in my book We Are Doomed, a nation can’t not have a population policy:
To not have any laws at all concerning immigration and settlement, for example, to train yourself and your fellow citizens never to think about such matters at all, would itself be a population policy—in the case of a rich and stable nation like ours, it would be a policy of very fast and unlimited population growth.
Let’s remember, too, that Mainstream Conservatism, like any other kind of Conservatism, is up against a very formidable foe. Because of my own professional background as a systems analyst, I think of that foe as “the installed base.”
Imagine you are hired in with a team of computer specialists to give a bank a computerized system for running its books. The job would be pretty easy if you could start from scratch, with a bank that had nothing but paper record-keeping—or better still, with a new-founded bank that had no established system of record-keeping at all.
Unfortunately things are rarely like that. The bank you are contracted to already has a computer system. It’s been in use for years, and it’s a mess. The databases are festooned with redundancies and contradictions, the code is unreadable, and the users have to do time-wasting work-arounds to deal with all the anomalies.
Everyone’s used to this creaking, leaking old system, though, and comfortable with it. They know its faults, but they know how to cope with them, like an old married couple. They resent you coming in and imposing new methods on them.
Their resentment, their conservatism in clinging to the familiar, blinds them to the fact that they don’t have a choice. The manufacturer no longer supports their software, the hardware’s blowing fuses, and the regulators are frowning. Gotta have a new system. Without a new system, the bank will sink into ruination.
That old system is called “the installed base.” Ancient systems analysts’ joke:
Q: How was God able to create the world in just six days?
A: No installed base!
Mainstream Conservatism is up against an installed base.
Who installed the installed base? Well, you could argue that it was installed by the Great Depression, by FDR, by WW2, by the postwar consensus, by Walter Cronkite and John F. Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger and the Hollywood studio bosses and the broadsheet newspapers, and any number of other events and names.
The truth is, it was installed by the American people, pursuing comfort and security for themselves—not very deplorable pursuits, surely— and by our business establishment pursuing profits, which is what a business establishment ought to do.
I’ve mentioned the unhappy effects of business pressure on Mainstream Conservatism in the context of the 1986 Immigration Act. To illustrate the other half of the problem, the consequences that flow from our pursuit of comfort and security, here’s another data point from that same year.
In some discussions of Obamacare I was engaged in recently, the subject of EMTALA came up. That’s the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act of 1986, a law requiring practically all hospitals to provide unreimbursed care to anyone needing emergency treatment regardless of citizenship, legal status or ability to pay.
Pure socialism. Yet EMTALA was signed into law by . . . Ronald Reagan!—another block of concrete set into the installed base, by a man generally acknowledged to be as conservative a president as modern Americans can reasonably hope for.
So this installed base of socialism, inevitably accompanied by a suitable conceptual apparatus of liberal egalitarianism, is what Mainstream Conservatism is constantly dashing itself against. It’s like watching the Charge of the Light Brigade.
I often think in fact that modern American Conservatism has a Tennysonian character to it—hopeless charges into the enemy’s guns. Perhaps that’s why it’s strong in the South: another Lost Cause to lament.
When I find myself in this mood, I am encouraged to remember that the Light Brigade actually reached its objective and did considerable damage to the enemy, killing many and forcing them back from their positions. The officer who led the charge made it back to his own lines unscathed.
You don’t win wars with operations like the Charge of the Light Brigade, but there are satisfactions to be found none the less, and minor triumphs in making the enemy squeal and run . . . unless, of course (ahem) you’re unlucky enough stop a cannonball.
As you can tell by now, I am not ill-disposed to Mainstream Conservatism. I know and like too many of these people. To be sure, I also know some who, in my opinion, ought to be tarred and feathered and run out of town; but I am a poor hater, and if the decision came to me, I’d probably let even the worst of them off with an appearance ticket.
There are qualifications and subtractions to be stated, though— most seriously, those relating to Mainstream Conservatvatism’s self-inflicted impotence on population policy. I have pegged that impotence two factors: subservience to business interests unrestrained by thoughts of demographic harm, and the collection of widespread popular notions and sentiments known as “political correctness” that accompany socialism.
Mainstream Conservatism suffers from two built-in weaknesses. Like any other large political movement, it needs money to support its operations; and it needs rewards to offer to its functionaries.
In a capitalist country the money must come ultimately from commerce. Commercial enterprises always seek to maintain—and, they hope, increase—their market share by presenting their wares to the public in an appealing way.
The rewards for Mainstream Conservatives are political—access to those in power, and in the case of writers for Conservative publications, actual positions in the government apparatus: presidential speechwriters, press secretaries, and so on. There are more of these jobs than is commonly known: the Vice President’s wife, for example, has a press secretary. The Vice President’s wife!
Both sides of this equation, the money coming in and the rewards going out, are restraining and sometimes corrupting. Both rest ultimately in the quicksands of public taste. You can’t get money from a firm that’s fallen out of favor with consumers; you can’t get a job as presidential speechwriter if your guy didn’t get elected by the voters.
And public taste is saturated with socialism and egalitarianism. It won’t do to say that this is because the general public are helpless puppets of malign forces. In some sense, to some degree, socialism and egalitarianism are what the mass of people want.
Out here in the non-Mainstream Conservative movement you will hear the word “sheeple.” The implication is that the great mass of citizens are like sheep, a flock easily directed this way or that by wily politicians, media barons, the Jews etc. etc.
I don’t believe any of that, and I don’t like this word “sheeple.” In well over a million words of opinion commentary this past thirty years, I have never used it once.
The worst charge that can be laid against the general public, in my opinion, is that it prefers not to think much about big social and political issues, and wants accredited experts to do its thinking for it.
But what do you expect? Most of us exhaust our powers of thinking in dealing with our families, our jobs, our associations, our hobbies. Who has mental energy left over to wrestle with remote abstractions like educational policy or international diplomacy?
In this regard, Political Correctness is an ideal social dogma. It is full of bogus fellowship and warmth—see how much its propagandists like the word “community.” It offers easy formulas and taboos that obviate the need to think for more than a few seconds.
It also offers status markers by which we can easily and quickly calibrate ourselves against our fellow citizens.
What, after all, is happening when, for example, someone calls you a racist? What is happening is, the accuser is claiming moral purity: “My soul is pure and spotless, washed in the blood of the Lamb. Your soul, on the other hand, is dirty—stained, blotched, sticky and icky. Eiuw!”
Anti-racism is really an infantile conceit, a childish vanity: but what are we, most of us most of the time, but great children?
So Mainstream Conservatism must work not only against the installed base of liberal egalitarianism in the Main Stream Media, the universities, the bureaucracy, business, the churches, the international organizations to which we are yoked; it must also swim against mighty currents of public taste and perceptions.
In part, yes, that taste and those perceptions are shaped for us by elites, but we are not sheeple. Often enough, we dictate to the elites. There is a dialectic, even if it is less well-balanced than the ideal. If a race-guilt movie or a feminist-triumph TV show goes unwatched by the public, the producers take note and change tack.
And regrettable to report, these kinds of products do get watched. The book and movie The Blind Side, and the book and movie The Help—both of which belong to a genre that a friend of mine calls “white guilt porn”—were quite commercially successful.
(And both, I can’t help noticing, were created by Southerners: Michael Lewis is from Louisiana, Kathryn Stockett from Mississippi. Hey, Southrons: Stop calling down fire on your own positions!)
The mass of people subscribe to Political Correctness not out of intellectual conviction. The mass of people are not much inclined to intellectualizing. They subscribe because political correctness offers them simple formulas and taboos that relieve them of the need for thinking, and as a bonus give them the gratification of basic social emotions.
That’s what Mainstream Conservatism is up against, while it strives to keep money coming in from mass-pleasing commercial supporters, and simultaneously strives to keep alive the hope of political rewards for its functionaries from mass-pleasing candidates.
That’s why Mainstream Conservatism is timid to the point of spinelessness, especially in the area of human differences, and especially when trying to capture a mass audience, as in the case of Fox News or the Tea Party movement.
It doesn’t help that the escape hatch from the suffocating false doctrines of political correctness bears the label SCIENCE.
The sciences, particularly the biological sciences, have never been in much favor with conservative Americans. This allows our enemies an easy win by claiming to be, as Barack Obama at his inauguration claimed the Democrats to be, the “party of science,” even as they turn a blind eye to the exciting new discoveries pouring out of the human sciences.
The gist of those discoveries is that the traditional Conservative image of human nature is closer to the truth than the traditional left-liberal conception.
To quote novelist Tom Wolfe: “We now live in an age in which science is a court from which there is no appeal.”
At some point, both liberals and Conservatives will have to accept the judgment of that court. Acceptance will be easier for Conservatives: we have been right all along about human nature—about the limitations on human reason, about associative preferences, about intractable sex and race differences.
That is why, of all the many individuals and associations contributing to non-Mainstream Conservatism, I most particularly admire and appreciate my friend Jared Taylor here, who constantly strives to root his own ideas and prescriptions in good science.
If Mainstream Conservatives could shed their timidity and embrace our new understandings, they would be able to speak frankly and forcefully on issues of population policy, as we do here in the non-mainstream Right.
Then those desperate charges into the guns might become real, effective assaults on key enemy positions; and the nation we know and love might be conserved for our descendants, instead of falling into ruination. Isn’t conserving what conservatives are supposed to do?
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.
John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.
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