John Derbyshire On Amity Shlaes And The Ballistic Trajectory of Political Correctness

"It's surprising what you can find on the internet," we used to say when the thing was new. Nowadays I am more often surprised by what I can't find on the internet. I posted an example here on a few days ago: a curious little flight of imagination by Winston Churchill.

Now here's another item whose complete absence from the internet until yesterday is even more puzzling.

I was noodling the idea of a piece on "the hostility many blacks feel toward whites," to quote from my infamous April 5 article in Taki's Magazine.

The phenomenon, though not of course universal among American blacks, is very noticeable to immigrants who come here when adults (as I did). It used to be a common topic of conversation among expatriates; though since I don't hang out much with expatriates any more, I cannot say whether this is still the case. Back in the 1970s, I once had a conversation about it with a black West Indian work colleague, whose perceptions agreed with mine. I have passed some occasional comments on the subject in my columns.

For such an inflammable topic, though, I thought I needed some backup. It could not possibly be the case that such an obvious feature (it seemed to me) of our social life had gone unremarked in the public prints and pixels. Surely some respectable journalist, writing in a respectable outlet, had commented on widespread black hostility to whites?

Dredging through my memory, I came up with a vague recollection of Amity Shlaes' article "Black Mischief," which had appeared in the London Spectator back in the mid-1990s. Ms. Shlaes, a Wall Street Journal features editor at the time (she is now a syndicated columnist for Bloomberg), had written frankly about the routine anti-white hostility New Yorkers faced from blacks.

She had, of course, gotten into trouble for the piece. There had been quite a stir about it all at the time — enough, at any rate, for me to have remembered it. The article must surely, I thought, have been posted to the internet at some point in the following 15 or 20 years.

I went a-googling, encouraged by Ms. Shlaes' very distinctive name. The obvious search arguments, that last name together with "black mischief" in quotes, did yield this; but it's not Ms. Shlaes' column, it's only someone writing about the column. It's also a "teaser," with some registration business to go through if you want to read the whole thing. No thanks.

For the rest, all I was getting was dry leads, mostly lists of books containing both Ms. Shlaes' contrarian 2008 history of the Great Depression and Evelyn Waugh's wonderfully non-PC 1932 Africa novel.

Adding "-waugh" to the search argument thinned things out considerably, to just eleven results in fact. None of them was the Spectator article.

I thought this was puzzling. Had I imagined the thing? No: Dominic Lawson, then editor of the Spectator, had written about "Black Mischief" and its consequences for Ms. Shlaes’ career shortly afterwards in a piece mocking American political correctness.[Taboo or not Taboo, November 19, 1994]I had that piece in my archives, for unrelated reasons. (It is very melancholy to re-read it now, when the Brits have fallen deeper into the darkness even than ourselves.)

Here is Lawson, on the reaction of Ms. Shlaes' colleagues when "Black Mischief" became known to them:

Over the next few days, Amity found herself being treated like Peter Sellers's strike-breaker in I'm All Right, Jack. A number of her colleagues [i.e. at the Wall Street Journal] would get out of the office lift [=elevator] if they saw her getting in … It did not even matter for Amity Shlaes' accusers that they could not demonstrate a single element in her article that was either untrue or even inaccurate. Her crime was far greater than being merely wrong. She had written the truth, regardless of the offence it might cause. And in modern America, or at least in its mainstream media, that is simply not done.

Oh, tell me about it.

And yes, I now recalled more clearly the considerable fuss over "Black Mischief." That fuss had indeed been quite newsworthy. So why wasn't the article itself on the internet?

Since it wasn't, I would have to find some other way to read it. Fortunately, I am within an hour's commute of the New York Public Library main branch, whose Periodicals Section has copies of every newspaper and magazine from everywhere in the world for at least a couple of centuries back. Arthur Koestler, browsing there in the 1960s, was delighted to find pieces he'd written in his Weimar Republic youth for long-defunct small-circulation German newspapers. I myself have pulled up short-lived Red Guard newsletters from China's Cultural Revolution. The NYPL has everything.

I headed over there and trekked the marble corridors to Room 100, where you go for access to the periodicals collection. The actual collection is stored on microfilm in the library's basement, which must go down clear to the bottom of the Earth's crust. You go to Room 100, fill out a chit, and they have the relevant item brought up for you.

They did not disappoint. The Spectator? Yes, they have it going back to 1828. Which years was I looking for?

Twenty minutes later I was reading "Black Mischief." [Spectator, January 1, 1994]Having read it, I printed it off. They let you do that, for 25 cents a page. I tell you, I love that place.

I took the printed pages home, scanned them to my PC, and uploaded them to my website.

So now "Black Mischief" is on the internet, and you can read it for yourself if you want to. The aforementioned piece by Dominic Lawson is just above it on the same page. [ note: A text version of Lawson is here, and Black Mischief can be read as text here.]

This little adventure sidetracked me from my original line of thought. Now I was pondering the trajectory of political correctness across the past couple of decades.

My conclusion: Nothing has gotten better. What was unspeakable in 1994 is still unspeakable today. Worse, it is unspeakable all over the Anglosphere, whereas 18 years ago there were still pockets of sense here and there, as Dominic Lawson's piece shows.

(That particular pocket soon closed. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Spectator — by then under a different editor, the buffoonish and scientifically illiterate Boris Johnson, currently Mayor of London — asked me to write an article for them about the social consequences of Katrina. I wrote a piece containing some mildly race-realist remarks. They spiked it, and have asked me for nothing since.)

Here in the U.S.A., things have definitely gotten worse. The censoring of Don Rickles is surely a bad sign. I don't believe that would have happened in 1994.

Worst of all is the rise of the Pod People: twenty-something metrosexual media commentators who have somehow persuaded themselves that the real world, at least as manifested in the realities of a multiracial society, does not exist.

Here's one such: Ed Drantch, a reporter for TV station WIVB up in Buffalo, New York.

Drantch [Send him mail]is the interviewer in this now-famous news clip.

VIDEO: Extreme race views spur controversy:

He is shocked into breathless stuttering by the interviewee's calm explanation that working-class white neighborhoods are commonly ruined by an influx of blacks.

Drantch doesn't merely disagree: He has no idea what the other guy is talking about. It's like watching someone trying to explain the tides to a Uighur shepherd who has never been within a thousand miles of the sea.

Drantch and his type — they are all over the media and the internet — scare me. Behind their smooth girlish features and open, orthodontized smiles there lurks an icy intolerance, a coarse thuggishness, a blinkered determination to believe that the world is something other than what it is, and a closed, invincible conviction of their own moral perfection in so believing. (Are there females of the species? Possibly … it's hard to be sure.) [MSNBC host Rachel Maddow - 'No one's gonna confuse me with a Fox News anchor', Daily News, October 21, 2009]

The trajectory of political correctness is of necessity ballistic. It came up when the post-WW2 softening of manners, guilt at past injustices, the intolerable expense of colonialism, and Cold War rivalry made the older style of racial arrogance untenable. It will fall to earth when our understanding of the human genome makes innate race differences undeniable.

Goodness knows when that will be.

In the meantime we must argue the National Question as best we can in the teeth of scorn and contempt from that smooth-faced, jeering menagerie and the mass of citizens who follow them, grateful to them for preventing the necessity of thought.

It is always tempting to think that taboos are imposed from above, by trickery or force, on people who would shrug them off if they could. There is an element of that, especially in unfree societies, but for the most part a population is self-policing in the matter of taboos. People like having taboos. By collapsing complex issues into simple moral formulas, they prevent us having to think, encouraging us to feel instead.

This we like: thought is much harder work than feeling.

Of course, reality is still lurking out there, waiting to set us straight.

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

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