Saturday, July 24, 2010

We Are Doomed

We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism
John Derbyshire

John Derbyshire is a writer for National Review and other publications whose interests cover math, science, culture, and politics. In his political writing, he has carved out a niche as a pessimistic paleoconservative who regularly proclaims tidings of doom and gloom. With this book, he summarizes his pessimistic views on politics.

He argues that a form of pessimism is essential to realistically understand human nature. Moreover, conservatism has a tradition of pessimistic thought. He argues that conservatives have more recently been deluded by optimistic utopian ideas about the world that have led and are leading to disaster.

Derbyshire eagerly destroys the modern shibboleth that diversity is a strength that should be celebrated. In fact, diversity is a liability, and often a very serious one, as countless wars and racial strife have shown.

He follows this with some fairly standard conservative criticisms of politics and culture. He adds some thoughts on the sexes.

Derbyshire offers a very solid chapter on education, destroying both liberal and conservative myths. The biggest myth is that individuals and racial groups (and sexes) have equal intellectual abilities. He also destroys the liberal 'spend more money' myth, recounting the disaster in Kansas City where a judge ordered a fortune spent on the schools, making then worse.

Things start to go wrong in the chapter on human nature. He presents three views on human nature, religious, cultural, and biological. He then argues the case for the biological. While the views he presents may be reasonable archetypes, it seems more likely that there is some truth to each of them. It is certainly true that biology has a significant impact on our nature. But his argument against free will is unconvincing, and his acknowledged inability to explain consciousness doesn't help matters. While liberals and some conservatives see culture as highly malleable, this is something of a straw man he uses to avoid the conservative view that culture is often deeply ingrained and difficult to change.

Then there's religion. Derbyshire started as a nominal Anglican and has more recently become an agnostic. He approaches religion as an anthropologist. As a conservative, he sees religion, at least of the Biblical variety, as mostly positive for society. But viewing religion socially, he views its decline as inevitable in the modern world. While atheism gained somewhat in the '90s, he doesn't note that this seems to have halted in the 2000's. And if his views on the decline of civilization are true, might this not lead people to turn back to God?

Derbyshire deconstructs the neoconservative view of foreign policy, with its support for 'invading the world' and using nation-building to impose democracy. He summarizes many of the problems with America's current immigration policy. He examines the troubles of the rest of the world. Finally, he examines our current economic problems and how they followed from a housing bubble caused by government policies promoting lending to deadbeats.

There is plenty to like about We Are Doomed, and Derbyshire's work is full of unconventional thought and throws plenty of cold water on the fantasies of our age. But hopelessness is not a viable basis for a political movement or society, as I suspect Derbyshire knows (but doesn't say). While realism is essential, we should also recognize that there are some positive trends, good things do happen, and bad trends don't continue forever. The world is full of trouble, but when has it ever not been thus? Christians know that however dark things may be, there will be a happy ending. It is sad that Derbyshire doesn't share this understanding.

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