John Derbyshire vs. Sam Tanenhaus—A Tale of Two “Conservatisms”

September 15, 2009

John
Derbyshire
and
Sam
Tanenhaus
are both middle-aged males living within a
radius of thirty miles of Times Square. They also have
recently written books on the straying of the American
conservative movement; and
New York Magazine
has

recommended


both
of their works to its readers. Each man has had
considerable contact with the movement being discussed,
Derbyshire as a

provocative contributor to NRO
and Tanenhaus as the
author (and

New York Times Book
Review editor
) to whom William F. Buckley

assigned the task
of preparing an authorized
biography of his eventful life.

Having suggested these superficial
similarities, I might also note that it is hard to
imagine two individuals who see the world more
differently. It is no accident that while Derbyshire

composed
a long,

sympathetic
commentary on my scholarship for NRO, [Beautiful
Losers
,
August 24, 2009] Tanenhaus pointedly
refused to look at my last two books: one a study of the
movement that he was

purporting to write a book about;
and the other an
autobiography that deals in depth with conservative
thinkers I have known. But there is no reason that
Tanenhaus would have wanted to read my works. What he
intended to say was diametrically opposed to my views;
and the less this leading establishment-liberal has to
do with my ideas, the more easily he can get on with his
agenda.

Of the two commentators, Derbyshire
is the better stylist and the better educated. Although We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism

would appear to be a light read, brimful
of anecdotal asides, first impressions can and, at least
in this case, do deceive. Derbyshire`s work is fraught
with carefully researched information about the failures
of public education, the

egalitarian assumptions
informing our
educational-political establishment, the

feminization
of American society, and the increasing
irrelevance of any form of culture except for crude
entertainment to American life.

To point out these trends can be
found in those parts of Europe that the US has
influenced, and that these fashions have advanced there
even more disastrously, does not refute Derbyshire`s
brief. It only shows the reach of certain vulgarizing
and emasculating forces.

Lest anyone treat his pessimism as
an invitation to self-indulgence, Derbyshire makes clear
that what he is asking of the real Right, as opposed to
the happy-talk-mongers who multiply whenever the GOP is
riding high, is
"hard-headed realism"
. He is especially (and
justifiably) attracted to the

Calvinist settlers
of
early America
, who combined a belief in man`s
inherent depravity with a call for self-discipline. Only
by accepting the utter folly of the project of
reconstructing human beings, and by acknowledging the
reality of inherent human inequalities, can
conservatives have anything to contribute to the
political discussion. Otherwise they are merely
confirming the errors of the other side, while claiming
to represent an alternative.

Derbyshire avails himself of a
polemical tool that I also noticed in
Peter
Brimelow
`s books

Alien
Nation
and
The Worm in the
Apple.
Derbyshire uses authors on his left to
make his points; and while it would appear that his
authorities are in agreement with Derbyshire, he also
carries their observations beyond the point where they
themselves would have taken them.

Derbyshire is quite keen on the
research of

Abigail Thernstrom
, who is a big fan of
Martin
Luther King
and is the vice chair of the US
Commission on Civil Rights but who argues that attempts
to integrate the races (what Derbyshire calls


"Sun People" and
"Ice People"
) have not worked out well.

Derbyshire highlights the most
costly examples of

such failures
, such as an expensive high school
building with all kinds of athletic and learning
amenities that

Kansas City, Missouri
built in an inner city
neighborhood. This project was intended to bring the
races together while having a positive effect on the
grades, study practices and graduation rate of the
"Sun People".
It achieved none of these aims in any significant way,
as Abigail Thernstrom demonstrates.

But Derbyshire questions
the
Pollyanna solutions offered by Dr. Thernstrom,
such
as having black parents work harder to make sure their
children learn. The failures at
racial
integration
and improving
black
scholastic performance
that others show are for
Derbyshire proof positive of his
"biologism,"
namely, the view that social and

intellectual achievements
are closely correlated to
inherited abilities.

Derbyshire cites
Charles
Murray
`s research in underlining the effects of
immutable differences among individuals and ethnic
groups. But his tone is very different from Murray`s,
insofar as he does not follow Murray in  Real Education by

patting public educators on the head
for making
modest gains with

cognitively weak students
. He is full of obvious
contempt for the

egalitarian aims
and crass hypocrisies of the
"edbyz"
crowd, and in this respect he seems to have taken his
lead from Brimelow`s battle against mendacious, grasping
teachers` unions in
The Worm in the Apple.  

Reading both their descriptions of
the ludicrous claims that public school educators make,
I was reminded of the pictures of Albert Einstein that
have begun appearing on the bulletin board of my
college`s largest department, public
"edbyz".

The unmistakable implication of
this decorating frenzy is that our public school
teachers are helping create more

Albert Einsteins.
Since both our teaching department
and the students whom they train seem to be among the
least cognitively gifted individuals on this planet, I
suspect they`re unlikely to be educating scientific
geniuses.

The most conceptually useful part
of Derbyshire`s work, at least for me as an intellectual
historian, is his discussion of three worldviews shaping
contemporary thinking about social problems,
religionism, culturism, and biologism. He writes:

"Broadly speaking, the religious view is most
popular among ordinary citizens, the biological view is
held by most actual researchers in the human sciences, and
the cultural view is dominant—well-nigh exclusive,
in fact—among our non-scientific elites and educators."

Actually what Derbyshire is
describing here is the spectrum of views represented on
today`s intellectual Right. Very roughly speaking,
ninety-nine percent of those who are acceptable media
conservatives fall into categories one and two, while
Derbyshire and his mostly marginalized kindred spirits
are languishing in the Politically Incorrect category
three.

Derbyshire also notes that the
religionists and culturists fit into the present
egalitarian American ideology. It is only those in
category three who make nuisances of themselves by
challenging the egalitarian, environmentalist consensus.

I might bring up the value game
played by the
"movement"
and how it supports this consensus, were
it not for the fact that I`ve already devoted an entire
book to this dismal subject.

Tanenhaus`s book on conservatism is
thin gruel next to Derbyshire`s feast. 
It cites nothing of any value out of the
prodigious literature that has been produced on the
subject it pretends to be treating. While I might
complain that Tanenhaus never brings up my studies, he
is equally unaware of the standard encyclopedic work on
conservatism by George Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945,

in either its first or second edition. He
doesn`t even bother to cite American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, a cornucopia of information about American
conservatives and their ideas that ISI brought out in
2006.

Besides yapping about his special
relation with

Buckley
(the two buttered each other up for years),
Tanenhaus exhibits about as much knowledge of the
American Right as I do in my books about

quantum physics.

The Yiddish word
"chutzpah"
came to mind as I struggled through The Death of Conservatism.

Contrary to Leon Wieseltier`s

blurb
that  Tanenhaus`s
 book is "not another book by another liberal with a pornographic fascination with
the American right"
, he spends a lot of time beating
up on Obama`s critics for attending Tea Party rallies or
expressing opposition to abortion, exactly like every
other liberal write on conservatism.

Tanenhaus`s ideal conservatism
seems to be exemplified by what he calls
"Burkean
conservatives"
, whom he identifies with the likes of
Bill Buckley,

Bill Clinton
(!) and Barack Obama (!!). It`s the
rest of the Right that he finds off-putting. They are
behaving so uncivilly by Tanenhaus`s
New York Times` standards that they, together with that
"Danton"
of the far Right Newt Gingrich, are bringing the entire
movement and the GOP into public disfavor.

Tanenhaus also goes to town on
Irving
Kristol
, with whom he presumably is no longer
sharing bagels and lox. In Tanenhaus` view, by allowing
the Religious Right into the movement, Kristol behaved
in a non-Burkean fashion. Kristol invited
"purists" to
take over what had been a onetime, moderate conservative
GOP, but unfortunately

"the
purists incur no reciprocal obligation to the party
despite its institutional authority"
.

Also:
"It was the
alliance of

neoconservatives
and evangelicals that formed the
movement`s core during the Bush years and responded most
exuberantly to the administration`s policies—from its
`faith-based` initiatives through the war on terror and
the crusading mission to `democratize` Iraq."

The second statement is true but
hardly substantiates the observation that precedes it.
In fact, it is in direct contradiction. Kristol got what
he wanted because the Religious Right made themselves
into willing tools of neoconservative purposes—in
return, incidentally, for

pitifully little
. While the neoconservative master
class and W`s GOP, as it came ideologically under neocon
control, mobilized evangelicals to support their
Wilsonian foreign policy and Near Eastern politics, they
compensated their happy foot-soldiers by merely refusing
to give public funding to stem cell research and
abortion.

To me it sounds like an awfully
good deal! Certainly it involves a much lower cost that
what Tanenhaus`s party pays for black, feminist, and
Hispanic voters.

But then the Religious Right is
more docile, and as the last election showed,
evangelical younger members are sliding leftward, in the
direction of the antiracist- and socialist-obsessed
editors of
Sojourners

magazine and the faculty and administration of the
leftward-trending evangelical Wheaton College. It might
surprise Tanenhaus to learn that in 2008 evangelical
support for the GOP had slid from 55% in 2001 to 40%.
According to Pew Research poll
conducted
in July, 2008
, only 61% of evangelicals backed the
very centrist Republican presidential candidate John
McCain; while 25% were behind Obama. Moreover, on
immigration, some evangelicals are
leaning left
, as VDARE.COM showed as early as
December 2006.[Immigration: An
Evangelical Approach
,
December 02, 2006]
Evangelicals in Central Pennsylvania sport a red bumper
sticker produced by

Sojourners

with the slogan
"God Is
Not A Republican".

 Apparently these
putative members of the Religious Right have the same
electoral preferences as the
New York Times.

To refresh Tanenhaus`s memory: Back
in the 1980s, when according to him the conservatives
were still moderate and listening to George Will rather
than Rush Limbaugh (news to those of us who remember the
hysterical resistance to Ronald Reagan both on the left
and among liberal Republicans) the visible conservative
political spectrum extended far to the right of where it
is now. In the late 1980s and early 1990s,

conservative wars of extermination
had to be fought
before Tanenhaus`s luncheon pals managed to take over
the
Establishment Right
by expelling an older and more
"reactionary"
Right.

Somehow Tanenhaus missed this all,
or else he prefers not to notice it. Whatever the case,
his hand-wringing over how far the Right drifted under
Bush because of

Kristol
and
W
is either pure deceit or the result of invincible
ignorance.  (Tanenhaus`
book contains no index, but as far as I can see this
alleged survey of conservatism contains no mention

Patrick J. Buchanan,
the

immigration issue
or

paleoconservatism
—what TakiMag`s

Richard Spencer
now calls the


"Alternative Right"
.)

Instead, what happened was just the
opposite of what Tanenhaus tells us! The Old Right was
dislodged and what had been the center Left took over
the "movement",
with a leftist foreign policy consisting of
nation-building. While the neocons, who waffle on social
questions, have not yet been able to make total
accommodations with the Left, they have been able to
place social leftists like
Joe
Lieberman
and

Christopher Hitchens
in prominent positions in their
movement and would obviously be happy to change sides.
This has been possible because of how they have
prioritized issues, making their quintessentially
leftist, Wilsonian foreign policy—which Tanenhaus
mistakenly identifies with the far Right—into the
cornerstone of
"conservative"
politics.

All of this is something for which
Tanenhaus should thank his

deceased hero William F. Buckley
, as well as Irving
Kristol. Without Bill`s truckling to the
neoconservatives, this restructuring of the
Establishment Right would not have come to pass.

And the conservative movement would
not have been led to the utter disaster that Tanenhaus
purports to chronicle.


Paul Gottfried
(email him)
is Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown
College, PA. He is the author of


After Liberalism
,

Multiculturalism and the
Politics of Guilt

and


The Strange Death of
Marxism
.