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Known quantity: An interview with John Derbyshire

By Bernard Chapin
web posted May 21, 2007

John DerbyshirePossessing diverse life experiences provides writers with a richness of perspective unmatched by many of their peers, and I can think of no writer for whom this is more true than John Derbyshire. He presently is a columnist at National Review and The New English Review, but before becoming a writer worked in the financial markets and even once acted in a Bruce Lee movie. Mr. Derbyshire has a great variety of interests apart from politics. Mathematics is one of his pleasures and is the subject of his latest book, Unknown Quantity along with being the subject of his 2003 work, Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics. He has also penned two novels, Fire from the Sun and Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream, and currently is at work on another.  

BC: Let's start with political correctness which is a matter of acute concern at the present time. What do you have to say to those denying its existence or that conservatives exaggerate its threat? Given the manufactured fervor over Don Imus and that a man was recently fired for describing a Mexican as "a Mexican" it seems ludicrous to pretend that cultural Marxism is declining in power.

JD:  It's a big and fascinating subject—about which, as a matter of fact, The American Conservative has just asked me to write a big & fascinating piece.  I am collecting my thoughts.  A couple of those thoughts: 

(1) PC was a response to multiculturalism.  It was always there at a low level in the USA, because the USA was always multicultural (white, black, red—OK, that's "multiracial," strictly speaking, but "multicultural" follows, or at any rate followed).  In the UK it came up after the great wave of non-European immigration from 1960 on—the first such event in British history.  My childhood in 1950s England was perfectly monocultural. 

(2) PC is widely accepted.  It is wrong to think of it as imposed.  Plenty of people—especially (see below) women—like it.  They respond to it.  It flatters them, tells them they are virtuous.  Thomas Sowell has covered the territory pretty well in Vision of the Anointed.  PC caters to a natural human desire for moral one-upmanship. 

(3) Self-flattery aside, there is a need—a natural, social need, widely felt— for some code of decorum to cope with multiculturalism.  PC is the code we have come up with.  People accept it faute de mieux.  I believe it is a lousy code, because...

(4) PC is built on a theoretical foundation that is false.  OK, we need a code of decorum; but a code of decorum that is founded in lies is not a good code of decorum.  We ought to be able to come up with something better.  But…

(5) We won't.  As preposterous as PC seems to me and you, it has been completely internalized by most of a generation—perhaps two generations—by now.  My daughter, age 14 and brighter than average, reacts with horror—instinctive horror, from internalized revulsion—if I comment in any way at all on anyone's group identity.  I'm not talking about the n-word here, which I don't use, but just saying things like, "So-and-so is Jewish, isn't she?"  Nellie will grimace and say, "Really, Dad!"  It is wicked, morally wrong, to notice anyone's Jewishness, blackness, Hispanitude, Orientality, gayness, sex, disability, and all the rest. 

You must go through life holding fast to the belief that these are empty attributes, carrying no information value, and that any reference to them must be—can only be—motivated by malice.  Plainly people can actually go through life doing that.  It's amazing to me, but they can—sort of floating effortlessly above the reality of human nature, defying gravity.   

BC: The other day I read an excellent description you had for the modern university. You described it as "a warm bath of Political Correctness" which is precisely what it is, but why do think conservatives have been unsuccessful in pointing this out to the general population. Why have we allowed this calamity to poison our once formidable institutions?

JD:  That "warm bath" metaphor was actually borrowed from Orwell, who described the traditional boarding-school education given to upper-class English boys as "five years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery."  I upgraded the metaphor from lukewarm to warm because of the crude force and intimidation that is used when ramming PC down college freshman throats—so much coarser than the gentle, subliminal indoctrination carried out at Orwell's Eton. 

Nobody has commissioned me to write a piece about the modern college, but I'd love to try.  It's quite a study.  The thing that jumped out at me from all those stories about the Virginia Tech shootings was the size of the place—26,000 students!  I mentioned my surprise to an acquaintance who actually teaches at Virginia Tech.  He told me, "I did my graduate studies and postdoc at Maryland and Wisconsin respectively, both in the 40,000 range." Good grief! 

Well, to your questions.  Nobody cares what conservatives think, nobody listens to conservatives.  We are morally inferior people, don't you know that?  We are mean-spirited.  Why would anyone listen to what we have to say?  I live in a bosky middle-middle-class northeastern suburb.  My neighbors are all liberals.  The nearest conservative I know lives eight miles away.  We are a lunatic fringe.  Probably we shall all be rounded up and incarcerated in mental institutions at some future point, if not actually euthanized en masse.

Why do people put up with the college racket?  (And that's what it is—a vast money racket.)  Well, in the first place, they have a natural desire for their kids to do well in life, and we have so perverted our society that without a college degree, your chances of doing well are much reduced. 

Even if you hate the college racket as much as I do, you send your kids anyway, because you don't want them to be losers and blame their loserdom on you.  (They might of course turn out losers anyway; but then at least you can say, "Don't blame me!  Didn't I beggar myself to put you through college?") 

But of course, most people don't hate the college business.  Most people have swallowed the stuff about education being an unqualified good; and also the multiplicative fallacy—that if something is good, then twice as much is twice as good.  That's not how we salt our stew, but it's a natural tendency in human thought none the less. 

Although in fact, I believe we may soon see an end to the college racket, or at least a serious cratering of it.  E-degrees are really beginning to take off, with more options and more acceptance by employers.  Why pay $150,000 and submit to the indignities of "diversity awareness orientation" when I can learn the same stuff from a Teaching Company course for one percent the cost, and without people yelling crackpot theories about human nature into my ears?  If I could then sit a state-refereed exam for some nominal fee, and get a recognized credential, why would I go to college?  This horrible college farce can't last.

BC:  I'm not as partisan as I once was but allow me to ask, what exactly does the Democratic Party stand for? I am increasingly bewildered by their popularity when it seems that all they embody is grievance mongering, hostility, negativity, and socialism. Also, are you surprised by the way so many people are oblivious to the continuum of socialism? Often they profess to being opposed to it in principle, but then seek to increase the size of government as much as possible.

JD:  Why, it's the party of whole-hearted belief in dependency on state support for the individual life. 

It's tough getting through life by your own efforts in a world as crowded and sophisticated as this one.  Postindustrial society has huge surpluses of wealth that can be harvested by the state and handed out as benefits.  There's a squeaky-wheel bias to it all—groups that can manipulate the process, for example by making emotional-blackmail (sometimes actual blackmail) appeals, tend to do best, but everyone gets something. 

It's pretty popular.  That's why the old self-support ideal of American life is dead, dead as mutton.  It lingers on among some Americans as a fading dream; and to the degree that there is any difference between Democrats and Republicans, it is that Republicans appeal to that dream, while Democrats paint the old order as a scheme of oppression and cruelty.  It's a dream, though, a fading dream.  The real difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats want the authorities to confiscate 34 percent of your income for purposes of redistribution, while Republicans think 32 percent would be better.

Modern socialism—neosocialism, the socialism of Clinton and Blair—in which capitalism is given a pretty free rein, so that the state can harvest and redistribute the surpluses, is successful and very popular.  A lot of conservatives are in denial about that.  Sure, neosocialism has a vast bureaucratic overhead—tens of millions of paper-shufflers doing nothing useful with their working lives—but it can afford that.  And sure, it destroys that fine spirit of adventure, striving, self-support and self-improvement that was instrumental in building our civilization. 

So what?  Nobody really wanted to build a civilization.  Harsh necessity forced them to do something with their lives.  If Cortez, or Shakespeare, or Gauss, or Mozart, or the Founding Fathers, or the prairie settlers, could have got nice cushy cube-jockey jobs as Administrative Assistants in the Department of Administrative Affairs, and gone home at night to watch American Idol from the comfort of a Barcalounger—well, they probably would have.

There is a quote I read 25 years or so ago, when I was working through a lot of Soviet-dissident literature.  I am sure it was either Shafarevich or Zinoviev, but I have never been able to re-find it.  It is to the effect that communism was not just imposed on a passive populace, but that as communism descended on the people, their spirits rose to meet it

This strikes me as a profound and true insight, and applicable to the whole human race.  It was a mistake to think that the people of the USA would forever remain indifferent to the attractions of socialism.  Nations change, often very quickly.  The wild and terrible Vikings became the pale, pacifistic Scandinavians.  The savage Magyar horde became—much more quickly, in just a couple of generations—the Christian Kingdom of Hungary.  Pious, priest-ridden, poverty-stricken Ireland became, as I watched with my own eyes through the 1980s and 1990s, a hedonistic, skeptical, bustling hive of entrepreneurial vigor that had to import priests from the Third World to keep churches open. 

Just so, the land of the brave and the home of the free could become the land of the timid and the home of the servile.  This could happen, could be happening.  The signs are not good.

BC: Let me ask one question about England. I look across the Atlantic and see a nation that appears to be as corrupted by cultural Marxism and the wayward cult of sensitivity as we are, yet many of our English cousins look down on us. Is there any reason to believe that the UK is socially superior to America? What, if anything, of old marvelous England remains?

JD:  It's worse over there than it is here.  The odd thing is that when political correctness first came up, English people—I was one myself at the time—thought of it as an American aberration, and scoffed at it as just another variety of wild-colonial-boy primitivism.

The answer I think is again multiculturalism, which was more of a psychic shock to the English than to Americans.  America, as I pointed out above, always had multiculturalism, so when racial separatism gave way to integration and meritocracy, Americans were just reworking their attitudes to something that was at least familiar.  When postwar England began to fill up with black people and Muslims, it was all new, all utterly new.  The switch to political correctness wasn't a reform, it was a revolution.  Revolutions tend to be total, don't they?  Once you have lost, or destroyed, your equilibrium position, you go rolling off across event space until you reach some new, distant, equilibrium point.

But deep-seated attitudes, like the colonial-bumpkin image that the English have had of Americans for 300 years and more, are very resistant to change—especially when, like this one, they are self-flattering.  The English will go on believing that they are Athens (ancient, cultured, wise) to our Rome (brash, militaristic, dumb), though the current truth is probably that the whole Anglosphere is just Constantinople (tired, frivolous, gullible), waiting for the Sultan and his army to show up with their humongous cannons.

BC: Apart from your cultural commentary, you've also written novels such as Fire from the Sun and Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream. What advantages do you see in writing fiction over non-fiction? I ask this principally because I know scores of very intelligent people who refuse to read fiction, and it's difficult for me to convince them of its worth. Do you see it as a dying art?

JD:  Well, let's be accurate, I have written just those two novels, only one of which (Coolidge) I could persuade anyone to publish.  The other (Fire) I published myself.  It was just too long.  (It includes, for example, an 11,000-word appendix of terms from opera, and thumbnail descriptions and biographies of operas, arias, and composers.  One publisher actually suggested I publish that appendix as a book by itself....) 

Never having mastered—all right, bothered with—the art of book marketing, and the vanity publisher having screwed up the printing anyway, I eventually put the entire text of Fire on the internet, where you can read it (here! here!), with a PayPal button you can click to send me $20 if you like the book.  People actually do—I get a couple hundred dollars a year from that button.  Hey, it's more than Milton got for Paradise Lost.

From the writer's point of view, the great advantage of writing nonfiction is, you can sell the book and pocket an advance before you've written the darn thing.  A good 10-page proposal will sell a nonfiction book, and get you an advance so you don't have to worry about money for a while.  With fiction, you actually have to write your book, then try to sell it—at least until you've made enough of a name that you can negotiate three-book deals.

So far as difficulty is concerned, fiction is much harder.  You have to make everything up.  At any rate, you should—autobiographical fiction is just cheating, in my opinion.  With nonfiction, the material is out there somewhere.  You just have to select, gather and arrange it, and apply an attitude.

No, I don't at all see fiction as a dying art.  The world of fiction is always changing, sometimes in unhappy directions.  Right now, for example, I hear that romantic fiction is in decline.  The old ladies who used to read it are dying off, and younger women (comparatively younger, that is—i.e. middle-aged) are not so keen on it.  Genres flourish and decline like that.  Everyone knows about the Golden Age of science fiction.  Guess what?  It's passed.

Storytelling is a very fundamental human activity, though.  It will always be with us; and the imaginative opportunities you get from words-on-pages fiction, as opposed to TV fiction, stage fiction, radio fiction (now there's a dead art form), movie fiction, comic-book fiction, or video-game fiction, will always have appeal to lots of people.  Books are awfully handy things. 

Some number of people will always thrill to words-on-pages fiction.  The very worst that might happen is that fiction books will go the way of the stage play—a minority interest surviving in defiance of more easily accessible alternatives, just because people like the flavor of it, the imaginative "fix" it gives them.  But I don't think things will get that bad for written fiction.

BC: You're the perfect person to ask about mediums because you're practically a pioneer of the podcast. The Derb Radio segments over at National Review Online are rather precious. Does podcasting has allowed you to reach a larger audience?

JD:  I actually have no idea about the numbers involved.  If I were to ask National Review Online, I suppose they'd tell me, but I resist doing so for psychological reasons—fear of failure, probably.  I get roughly the same number of commenting emails on a Radio Derb podcast that I get on a web column, so I assume the numbers are roughly equal, but there may be a factor there I'm missing.

BC:  Speaking of Derb Radio, you had a very interesting segment the other day about a "Woman's Town" in China wherein women will rule and men obey. Its motto is to be "Women never make mistakes and men can never refuse woman's requests." Although nowhere near as blatant, cannot a case be made that the United States is headed in the same direction with the female bias indigenous to the legal system and the mainstream media?

JD:  Well, let's talk about stereotypes—wonderfully useful things, an important and essential part of our cognitive equipment.

One of the most widespread and enduring stereotypes about the U.S.A. is that it is a country run by women.  I was raised, like most non-Americans, to believe that American males scurry around in terror of their overbearing women.  I can recall as a kid watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show and hearing people sitting watching with me—working-class English people, I mean—saying: "She's so bossy!  Why does he put up with it?  Poor guy!"  Our mentality was more of the Andy Capp sort.  You know:  "Florrie, where's my pencil?"  "It's behind your ear, love."  "Don't mess around, woman—which ear?"

One of my schoolmasters told us that this stereotype was one of the causes of the War of Independence.  When Lord North's government was deliberating the Tea Act (my schoolmaster told us), there was a faction in the government that worried the Act might lead to boycotts on tea.  Don't worry, said a second faction:  The American women would insist on having their tea, and everyone knew that colonial men were slaves to their women.  This second faction won and the War followed.  I have never checked this story and have no idea if it is true; but the fact that this kind of thing was—probably still is—widely believed, tells you something about the U.S.A., as it appears to the rest of the world.

With the rise of multi-culturalism and PC, these tendencies have got much worse (or true, if you think they were false in the first place).  There is a very strong anti-masculine thread in PC.  The PC-ification of America, and of the rest of the Anglosphere too, is in large part a feminization, a sissification. 

Quite a large part of modern education in the Anglosphere, from elementary school up to and through college, consists of efforts to get boys behaving like girls.  The great masculine virtues—courage, emotional restraint, small-group loyalty, humor, pride, personal independence, curiosity, daring, competitiveness, the capacities for leadership and for disinterested friendship, the fascination with weapons and fighting, the lust for glory (including posthumous glory)—are all looked on unfavorably by the transmitters of our culture.  The things that men are naturally good at—war, mathematics, games, engineering, exploration, poetry, musical composition—are increasingly unfashionable. 

BC:  What can we do to combat the absurdity of contemporary feminism which no longer has anything to do with equality and everything to do with women's superiority? I'm awaiting the day when "feminist scientists" promote the idea that man and woman are actually members of different species [perhaps the distinction will be set between "homo sapiens" and "homo-friendly sapiens"].

JD:  I don't know what we can do to combat it.  Though never a Marxist, I do think that there is sometimes something owed to the notion of historical inevitability.  Perhaps we have passed on to some stage of our species' history where men are just surplus to requirements.  I have written at length about this somewhere—yes, here it is

BC:  Yes, I recall that article and I couldn't stand it. At any rate, allow me to congratulate you on your recently won Euler Book Prize for your work, Prime Obsession. Has it found a niche among mathematicians and scientists over the course of the past few years?

JD:  Thank you.  It was a thrill.  The MAA was very generous to give an award like that to a nonmathematician. 

The book's niche is not among "mathematicians and scientists," though, and I would have been surprised if it was.  I aimed the book at ordinary educated people who just wanted to read a math story.  That's where it has found its niche.  Though I should say that among the many letters and emails I've had, a striking proportion are from engineers of various kinds, people who've been using practical math all their working lives—sometimes at a very high level—but who want to know more about pure-math topics like analytical number theory.

BC:  Do you have any new projects that you're working on?

JD:  I have just started work on a new novel, into which I am going to put some themes about human biodiversity, political correctness, religion, politics, aging, group conflict, and the world of magazine writing.  No opera, though!  After that, my next project will be somehow to make some money so that my kids can enjoy that warm bath of political correctness at decent colleges.  Grrrr.

BC: Thank you very much, Mr. Derbyshire. ESR

Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He is the author of Escape from Gangsta Island, and is currently at work on a book concerning women. He can be contacted at veritaseducation@gmail.com.

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