Now, my own impression at the time that the actual divorce took place was that they could and probably should have chosen a better last straw. There had been (even by my cursory estimate) so many other straws that should have been the last. And, yes, perhaps one could write a little treatise on the psychology of National Review editors and on why it was something Derbyshire wrote about race relations (which wasn't anyway as bad as other, imaginable things he could have written about race) instead of his militant atheism and his hatred for the pro-life movement that pushed them over the edge.
But I'm not going to write that psychological musing. I'm just going to talk about his visceral and creepy hatred for the pro-life movement, which did not strike me with full force (perhaps because I was always somewhat bored by Derb and hence inattentive) until I read this old article.
Why write about such an old article? Well, for one thing, because Derbyshire hasn't dematerialized or anything. He's still out there and still writing and being read. So, unless he's repented (ha ha) in dust and ashes for this interesting piece of vitriol and the ideas it expresses, the article remains, in a sense, ever-timely. Second and perhaps more important, Derbyshire's long stint at National Review after writing this article (six more years) as well as the unfortunate rise of the alt-right in 2016 tell us all too loudly and clearly that there are people who want to be called "conservative," and who sometimes succeed in getting that label affixed to them rather firmly, but who hate human life and hate those who fight for human life. It would be well for those of us who have closely identified American conservatism with the pro-life movement and ourselves with both of these to be aware, and wary, on this account. These anti-lifers mean business, and we and they have no common ground on which to meet. Third, and related to both, is the fact that normal conservatives are now being pressured in comboxes by alt-rightists to denounce loudly National Review's getting rid of Derbyshire in 2012. That's happening today. In light of this 2006 Derbyshire piece, my response is a strengthened version of my original impression. Namely, my only regret is that it didn't happen sooner and on the even more solid ground of his visceral hatred of the pro-life movement, a movement for which (allegedly) the National Review stood as the flagship journal of American conservatism. Derbyshire's absence from National Review and from mainstream conservatism is therefore to be praised, not mourned, and the more informed we become, the more we will realize that. This should lead us to be skeptical about the supposed "martyrs of political correctness" whose purgings from polite company we are told we should mourn with the Internet equivalent of black armbands and righteously angry scowls.
The various strands of conservative fusionism in America are coming apart with a vengeance in the current Presidential election. We have a GOP candidate who cares nothing whatsoever for the defining social issues and his vicious followers of the alt-right who talk much like Derbyshire (and worse) about pro-life conservatives. At the same time, a European-style Christian Democratic party has appeared on the American horizon, manned by people who appear to be deeply sincere in their commitment to the sanctity of human life but who are (not to put too fine a point on it) dangerously out to lunch on virtually all economic, environmental, and other prudential issues, including the size and power of government.
The Derbyshire article in question, which recently came to my attention via this interesting post by David Mills, is a review of Ramesh Ponnuru's pro-life treatise Party of Death. Derbyshire's review was published in the New English Review in 2006.
A dead giveaway that Derbyshire really, really dislikes pro-lifers is that he starts by (more or less) calling the pro-life movement (which he dubs RTL for "right-to-life") a cult. From that point on, he literally can't bring himself to refer to it as anything normal, not even a cause. He has to have a pause before "cause," as if every reference to it is distasteful.
Can Right to Life (hereinafter RTL) fairly be called a cult? This is a point on which I cannot make up my mind. Some of the common characteristics of culthood are missing—the Führerprinzip, for example. On the other hand, RTL has the following things in common with every cult in the world: To those inside, it appears to be a structure of perfect logical integrity, founded on unassailable philosophical principles, while to those outside—among whom, obviously, I count myself—it seems to some degree (depending on the observer’s temperament and inclinations) nutty; to some other degree (ditto) hysterical; and to some yet other degree (ditto ditto) a threat to liberty.[snip]
Ramesh Ponnuru is one of the best advocates a cult—cause, movement, whatever—could hope for;
See, for example, this exceedingly back-handed compliment for Ponnuru:
Whether it is a cult or not, RTL is made as presentable as possible in Party of Death, with writing that is engaging and lucid. Will Ponnuru’s book make any converts to the RTL whatever-it-is? That depends on how much exposure it gets outside RTL circles. Just to be on the safe side, the mainstream media are studiously ignoring the book—a sad reflection on the current state of public debate, and of respect for rhetorical virtuosity. RTL-ers are welcoming Party of Death very joyfully, though, and they are right to do so, as it is an exceptionally fine piece of polemical writing in support of their... cause."Their...ewww...[picks up spider with forefinger and thumb] cause."
We get it, John, you're disgusted by the pro-life movement. Did it ever occur to you that people who are less (what was that word? ah, yes) hysterical than you are about the DANGEROUS pro-life movement might find you rather creepy for your inability to write a single smooth sentence in which you refer to it as a cause?
But pro-lifers aren't the only ones who disgust Derbyshire. Those they defend also disgust him. Indeed, it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that Derbyshire is disgusted by pro-lifers precisely because they defend the lives and humanity of people by whom he is disgusted. For example, he cannot bring himself to speak of Terri Schiavo without triggering his own gag reflex. She, and her daring to live when she should have died here sooner, clearly disgust him viscerally:
The second of those ratings [degree of hysteria] would have been lower before the grotesque carnival surrounding the death of Terri Schiavo last year, when a motley menagerie of quack doctors, bogus “Nobel Prize nominees,” emoting relatives, get-a-life monomaniacs, keening mobs of religious fanatics, death-threat-hissing warriors for “life,” dimwitted TV presenters straining to keep their very best my-puppy-just-died faces on while speaking of “Terri” as if they had known her personally from grade school, pandering politicians, and shyster lawyers all joined forces in a massive effort to convince the American public that RTL was a thing no sane citizen ought to touch with a barge pole while wearing triple-ply rubber gloves.[snip]
The word “polemical” needs emphasizing. Some people would say that a writer who refers to embryos as “the young,” to Mrs. Schiavo as “disabled,” or to the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment as having carefully pondered its implications for abortion, is just plain dishonest.Heaven forbid anyone should call Terri Schiavo "disabled" or should refer to embryonic, individual members of the human species as "the young."
We likewise feel that an adult woman’s life, even a few months of it, is worth more than that of a hardly-formed fetus; and that the vigorous, usefully-employed, merrily procreating Michael Schiavo has a life, a life, more worthy of the name than had the incurably insensate relict of his spouse.One has to pause to admire (?), be struck dumb by (?), the Nietzschean-Darwinian logic by which Derbyshire decrees that Michael Schiavo's unfaithfulness to his disabled wife and the production of children with a woman to whom he was not married make him positively admirable. "Merrily procreating" and "vigorous." Yes, that's what we normal, moral people always call a man who behaves like that! As for "usefully employed," why yes, that is obviously an important criterion for a life worthy of life. Arbeit macht frei.
And just in case you thought referring to a living, breathing human being as an "insensate relict" was as low as Derbyshire could go in dehumanizing those he wants to see killed, out of pity for those whose real lives they are interrupting, you were wrong, because there's also this:
Here I meet a man whose loved wife has gone, never to return, yet her personless body still twitches and grunts randomly on its plastic sheet, defying years of care and therapy.You will notice that "Mrs. Schiavo" has disappeared, in every sense, by this point in Derbyshire's manifesto.
Derbyshire makes it quite clear that his detestation for pro-lifers and those they defend is not based upon argument or principle. Indeed, he seems faintly resentful of the fact that Ponnuru has carefully mustered a coherent, well-argued philosophical position. The resentment shows, for example, in this artful little bit of well-poisoning, in which he does not interact with a single argument of Ponnuru's but rather dismisses Ponnuru's arguments on the grounds that they are "inspired by religious belief."
However well-written the periods of that (snarky) paragraph may be, the attentive reader will notice that they, at any rate, cannot be accused of containing any intellectual work, much less any elegant syllogisms. Why bother with all that when one can accomplish what one wants to accomplish instead by disdaining intellectual work and insinuating that Ponnuru undertakes his own intellectual efforts in bad faith? But this is very nearly the definition of the abuse of rhetoric. Thrasymachus, call your office.
Yet it remains the case that our Constitution does not permit the framing of laws based on the peculiar tenets of any religion or sect, and Party of Death is obviously inspired by religious belief. The philosophical passages strictly follow the Golden Rule of religious apologetics, which is: The conclusion is known in advance, and the task of the intellectual is to erect supporting arguments. It would be an astounding thing, just from a statistical point of view, if, after conducting a rigorous open-ended inquiry from philosophical first principles, our author came to conclusions precisely congruent with the dogmas of the church in which he himself is a communicant. Yet that is the case, very nearly, with Party of Death. Remarkable! What if, after all that intellectual work, all that propositional algebra, all those elegant syllogisms, the author had come to the conclusion that abortion was not such a bad thing after all? I suppose he would have been plunged into severe psychic distress. Fortunately there was never the slightest chance of this happening.
It is ironic that Derbyshire, the atheist, obviously thinks himself much superior to religious believers in terms of rationality. But his complaint in this context against Ponnuru and his fellow pro-lifers is that we insist on using arguments and following inconvenient principles when instead, if only we were not cold, heartless, bastards, we would be relying solely on gut feelings.
Our preferred method for dealing with the unpleasant side of life, including topics like abortion and euthanasia, is to think about them as little as possible. In the fuss over Mrs. Schiavo, it was not hard to detect a general public irritation at having had the whole unsightly business forced on our attention. Perhaps this is not humanity at its most noble, but:
Show me what angels feel.
Till then I cling, a mere weak man, to men.
A corollary, though Ponnuru seems unaware of it, is that people who are obsessively interested in these topics seem, to the rest of us, a bit creepy. We may even find ourselves wondering which side, really, is the Party of Death. Ponnuru says that it is unjust to regard some instances of the human organism as less alive than others based on how we feel about them. (Another RTL-er once derided this approach to me, in conversation, as “Barry Manilow ethics”—the worth of another human life judged by our own feelings, wo wo wo feelings... I offer this designation for Ramesh Ponnuru’s future use, free of charge.) Unfortunately most of us do so judge; and feelings, wo wo wo feelings, are a much more common foundation for our social taboos than are Natural Law principles, or indeed any abstract principles at all. Why, if a woman’s husband dies, should she not use his corpse for garden mulch, or serve it up with mashed potatoes and collard greens for dinner? I cannot think of any reason well rooted in pure philosophy, though there might be a public health issue to be addressed. We do not do such things because of the disgust we feel—we feel—at the mistreatment of human corpses.
We likewise feel that an adult woman’s life, even a few months of it, is worth more than that of a hardly-formed fetus; and that the vigorous, usefully-employed, merrily procreating Michael Schiavo has a life, a life, more worthy of the name than had the incurably insensate relict of his spouse. Those like Ponnuru who think differently are working against the grain of human nature, against our feelings—yes, our feelings—about what life is. The life of a newly-formed embryo, or of a brain-damaged patient who has shown no trace of consciousness for fifteen years, is worth just as much as the life of a healthy adult, Ponnuru insists. Well, most of us instinctively but emphatically disagree, and no amount of argumentative ingenuity is likely to change our minds. Hearts, whatever.
If, from the principles of Natural Law, it ineluctably follows that women who discover that they are bearing Down Syndrome fetuses should not be allowed to abort those fetuses, then I can assure Ramesh Ponnuru that Natural Law principles will be tossed out of the window by every juridical authority in the land, so long as we remain a democracy. And that is as it should be.And thus Derbyshire works himself up to his pro-death, feeling-based, furious peroration:
Here I find a couple who want a lively, healthy child, but who know their genes carry dark possibilities of a lifetime’s misery and an early death. They permit multiple embryos to be created, select the one free from the dread traits, and give over the rest to the use of science, or authorize their destruction.
The RTL-ers would tell me that these people, and the medical professionals who help them, are all moral criminals, who have destroyed human lives. They support their belief with careful definitions, precise chains of reasoning, and—I do not doubt it—sincere intentions. Yet how inhuman they seem! What a frigid and pitiless dogma they preach!—one that would take from the living, without any regard to what the living have to say about it, to give to those whom common intuition regards as nonliving; that would criminalize acts of compassion, and that would strip away such little personal autonomy as is left to us after the attentions of the IRS, Big Medicine, the litigation rackets, and the myriad government bureaucracies that regulate our lives and peer into our private affairs.
For RTL is, really, just another species of Political Correctness, just another manifestation of the intellectual pathology, the hypertrophied and academical egalitarianism, the victimological scab-picking, the gaseous sentimentality. that has afflicted our civilization this past forty years. We have lost our innocence, traded it in for a passel of theorems. The RTL-ers are just another bunch of schoolmarms trying to boss us around and to diminish our liberties. Is it wrong to have concern for fetuses and for the vegetative, incapable, or incurable? Not at all. Do we need to do some hard thinking about the notion of personhood in a society with fast-advancing biological capabilities? We surely do. (And I think Party of Death contributes useful things to that discussion.) Should we let a cult of theologians, monks, scolds, grad-school debaters, logic-choppers, and schoolmarms tell us what to do with our wombs, or when we may give up the ghost, or when we should part with our loved ones? Absolutely not! Give me liberty, and give me death!
(Did someone say something about only pretending to do hard thinking so long as one is careful to come to predetermined conclusions? Why, yes, I believe someone did. But the pretense here is very thin. Derbyshire merely talks, for one sentence, about "doing hard thinking." He doesn't actually do any himself. Indeed, there is something of the fakery Derbyshire affects to despise in his talk about the importance of "having a discussion" and "doing hard thinking" in the very midst of heaping angry scorn upon anyone on the other side of such a "discussion" who comes to conclusions different from those endorsed by his own feelings.)
Well, now that we know that Derbyshire thinks that those who want to protect the unborn (yes, even the unborn with Down Syndrome) and the inconvenient helpless are "another manifestation of the hypertrophied and academical egalitarianism, the victimological scab-picking, the gaseous sentimentality, that has afflicted our civilization this past forty years," we can make our decisions accordingly. My own decision, had I been an editor of National Review in charge of such things in 2006, having read this venomous, murderous, irrational, fascistic screed against the defenders of life and the victims for whom they speak (Lebensunwertes Leben in Derbyshire's anti-egalitarian ideal world), would have been to boot Derbyshire's posterior out the door so fast that any film of the event would have caught nothing but a blur. If the other editors, through misplaced patience and an abstract notion of the free exchange of ideas, kept around someone who so despised the pro-life movement, a central pillar of American conservatism, for six more years and then fired him for a different reason, you will find it difficult to induce me to shed any tears over the final outcome.
This is not conservatism, and anyone who holds with Derbyshire concerning the wicked "egalitarianism" of the pro-life movement is not an ally social conservatives can work with.
I do not know what will happen in the end to American conservatism. I have lived to see both the birth and, in a sad and important sense, the death of the American religious right, with its shameful endorsement of Donald Trump for President. And I'm not even that old. What will rise from its ashes is beyond any mere man's power to predict. But I do know that no good can come of despising the weak, the helpless, and those who cannot speak. No good can come of treating human life as a commodity with a value on a sliding scale, so that those humans who seem to us attractive, vital, and productive have "a life, a life," while those unfortunate human beings who don't arouse such feelings in the rest of us must get out of the way.
So I'll keep looking for candidates and allies, even if I can't find a party, who understand those things. I'll also (sorry, American Solidarity Party) want them not to be incredibly foolish about the use of practical political power and about economics in the United States. And (sorry, Constitution Party) their candidates should not be nuts who coyly refuse to say whether or not they are 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Those of us who represent the last of the fusionists, a dying breed, may be doomed to disappointment in the world of politics. But the one thing we won't do, if we have any principle at all, is give up on the social issues. Because whoever turns out to be right on the pragmatic issues, on the matters of fundamental principle we know that we will have the last word, when it all comes tumbling down, when "The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare."