April 9, 2012

The Not-So-Obligatory "John Derbyshire" Post

Hatched by Dafydd

Yeah, yeah, self-defined conservatives -- as are most of them -- may feel a moral and ideological obligation to distance themselves from a man who, however reprehensible are his quaint and ideosyncratic ideas about blacks, does claim to be a conservative and was closely associated with the National Review, an obviously conservative magazine and webzine. I'm reminded of the earlier case of William F. Buckley, jr., writing "In Search of Anti-Semitism," the lengthy examination of two contributers to NR, Joe Sobran and Patrick J. Buchanan, to determine whether their views on Jews and Jewishness crossed the line into out and out antisemitism in either case. (As I recall, Sobran was condemned while Buchanan was exonerated, though subsequent events might have caused Buckley to change his mind about the latter, had he revisited the issue some years later.)

The essay was later expanded into a book by the same name.

Clearly, it's of some particular interest to conservatives to investigate fellow-travelers who appear to be dancing on the brink of the reprehensible generalization of racism, which has much in common with primitive, consanguinity-based tribalism. But as I'm not a conservative but rather a libertarian, of sorts, I'm far more concerned about feuding with other libertarians (who are by and large illiterate dolts) than checking under the nails and behind the ears of conservatives. Let them launch their own dirty linen in a trial balloon and see if anyone salutes it!

But I got sucked in by my two favorite blogs, both conservative, of course -- in fact, both run by conservative lawyers: Powder Line and Patterico's Pantaloons. (I read Derbyshire's actual post, of course; but unlike Patterico, I didn't follow all the links; sorry.)

You really should read the original blasphemy that started the avalanche that culminated in Derbyshire being fired from NRO, because I won't bother quoting from it. Too much work. I'll just rattle off why he made me roll my eyes in bemused contempt, if that's not an oxymoron.

I'm a kind of libertarian; more accurately a Capitalist, individualist, pragmatist whose chief institutional goals are sustainable human liberty and individual justice... can't I just say libertarian, without being lumped together with L. Neil Smith (another science-fiction writer who despises me) and Ayn Rand? By my nature, I reflexively treat people as individuals. I recognize the existence of, specifically, race; but I reserve that consideration for statistical sociology, such as criminology, educational attainment, and employment. When talking about individuals, I treat them as, you know, individuals, without taking the shortcuts offered by profiling, which is notoriously inaccurate when based upon race.

But I find Derbyshire trying to lure me into such sweeping generalizations, and I recoil. He seems to want me to consider people only en masse, and use groupthink to deduce the specific individual... and I just won't do it. I am irked no end by anyone who urges me in that direction. Such paralogia annoys me every bit as much as Lefties trying to lure me into "Progressivism," which is also against my nature.

My objection to Derbyshire's post is not the fact that he crafts a racial heirarchy that puts blacks at the lowest level (which he surely does); but rather that he thinks I should react to an individual black -- or white, brown, yellow, or red -- as nothing but a representative of some group of humans. As if we're all interchangeable, nought but ordinal numbers that only describe where one stands in line; rather than cardinal numbers that actually seek to express the unique characteristics found in each person, that which makes him "Brad" and not "me" or "you" or some other "him."

Instead of seeing Thomas Sowell or Barack H. Obama or Steven Barnes, Derbyshire wants me to see a generic, plainwrap person-entity with a blue stripe that reads "African-American." I find it simultaneously decadent and atavistic, and I believe another oxymoron lurks somewhere within: self-indulgent decay, morally and intellectually, that orbits us back to a world of tribes, people defined by physical similarity and "blood ties" that used to describe the entirety of human civilization, fifteen thousand or so years ago.

I find Derbyshire's racial panic unevolved, unenlightened, and thoroughly unAmerican. It's the first piece of his I have ever read, and it likely will be the last. I can't buy the premise, so to hell with the bit!

And that's where I stand. I had no need to announce it, but I seized the opportunity to give a different perspective on the ancient evil.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, April 9, 2012, at the time of 2:23 AM


The following hissed in response by: snochasr

Your position of treating all people as individuals is perfectly fine in theory, but is counter-survival. You no doubt, as have many of us, had enough experience with black people to know that there are as many or few scoundrels and downright dangerous, as well as wonderful human beings, among them as among people of other races or outward appearances generally. IF, however, that experience is limited, and if that limited experience was negative, then it makes sense, as a matter of survival, to make such prejudicial judgements until some other judgment is warranted. For example, if the only time you have met a black man in a broad-brimmed hat he shot at you, would you be wary of the next black man in a broad-brimmed hat? I should think so. If you encountered that second man in your church basement at Bible study, you might revise your judgment.

Not all racism is racism, is my point. Not everybody has to be alike for there to be tolerance, but neither does there have to be a like tolerance for everybody. Why shouldn't the statistically-weighted sins of the tribe weigh on the individual, to some degree? Is it wrong to call Obama an "affirmative action hire"?

The above hissed in response by: snochasr [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 9, 2012 5:46 AM

The following hissed in response by: Sabba Hillel

An interesting point is that before the bible (5 books of Moses specifically), everything was treated as tribal and by blood. The bible is the first book of laws that specifically stated that the "native born" and the "convert" (meaning naturalized citizen) must be treated the same. Even today, the United States is in the minority about keeping "blood ties" above (legal) citizenship.

For example, Germany refuses to allow "guest workers" who have been there for three generations to become citizens while "Germans" who have been away for generations and have no loyalty to Germany are still citizens.

The Israeli "Law of Return" is different. It is not automatic. A person must apply to be considered a citizen when he immigrates to Israel. Similarly, a person who has specifically cut himself off from the nation of Israel (by converting to another religion), can apply for citizenship on an equal basis with any other nonJewish noncitizen.

The previous comment points out that there are certain generalizations that can be made, but as you point out in the article, sweeping generalizations can go to far. I worked with a man who found his career hampered by the fact that he appeared to have been helped by "affirmative action". This caused people who did not know him to regard him as less competent than he really was. On the other hand, it appears that people who refuse to look at the actual effects of "affirmative action" have been regarding President Obama as much more competent than he really is.

The Jewish religion has a fast called the "Fast of Gedaliah". Gedaliah ben Ahikam was appointed by Nevuchadnetzer as the Babylonian governor after the destruction of the first temple and the conquest of Judea. A remote relative of the House of David allowed himself to be conned by the king of Edom into assassinating Gedaliah as a "patriotic revolt" against the "collaborator". Gedaliah was warned but refused to listen to the "slander" and refused to take precautions. A group of Jews who came to Gedaliah after having seen the destroyed temple, were murdered in an attempt to make it look like Gedaliah had done it.

The rabbis state that Gedaliah is considered "guilty" of this murder as he had refused to take precautions, though he was correct not to listen to slander.

THe point is that we always walk a fine line between invalid generalizations, and valid precautions. A person can fall of on either side. While one can see and judge the difference between Thomas Sowell and Barack Obama, one can see that there is a spectrum between them and must know what the true meaning of the Bell Curve that they are on.

The above hissed in response by: Sabba Hillel [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 9, 2012 6:45 AM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh


When I say I treat people as individuals, that doesn't mean I will stand idly by while an individual pulls out a gun and shoots at me. I have not the slightest problem with behavioral profiling: Certain patterns of behavior should catch our attention and raise our wariness.

But if the person who (in our imagining) did that in the past was black, that does not make me more likely to shun blacks. I know the statistics, and I knew them before this purely hypothetical shooter took an imaginary pot-shot at me. The incident changes nothing, because I already factor in the possibility of such an attack.

The behavior of the individual in that very time and place is always the best indicator of danger; that is why behavioral profiling works so well... and why it is racial profiling (not individualism) that is, in the long run, counter-survival.

Race is probably a minor predictor, though gender is a better one; that's the plus side of racial (and sexual) profiling. But you ignore the other side of the equation, Sno.

As more and more whites start shunning blacks, trying to avoid blacks, edging away from them, acting aggressive towards them from the git-go, or simply leaving the area when there are "too many" blacks (as Derbyshire suggests), the net effect is to further alienate all blacks from mainstream American society -- even those who would naturally tend towards justice and decency.

Increased alienation, in turn, pushes more black youths on the behavioral fringes all the way over the line, into violence and criminality, thuggishness, truculence, resentment, apathy, laziness, and despair. All of which quite obviously increase the overall danger and poverty of the United States... for everyone, black and white and all chroma in between.

Derbyshire's prescription is far worse, much more lethal, than the "disease" of bad behavior he thinks to cure.

The primary reason that criminal, economic, health, and other sociological characteristics cut so sharply against black, Hispanic, and American Indian males, compared to white, Oriental, and Jewish males, is differences between subcultures. (Though naturally, the gap between individuals within one subculture will nearly always be greater than the gap between one subculture and another.) And subculture, as we should all recognize, is extremely prone to feedback loops, both good and bad.

When people are treated as nothing but a momentary face in a crowd, where the whisper of their own goodness and decency is drowned out by the shout of race, gender, physiognomy, and other uncontrollable characteristics, they have no incentive to "do the right thing." Why bother? What difference does it make?

But when everyone is judged by his own behavior, not by the behavior of others who bear a superficial pigmental resemblance or similar body type, then each has a tremendous incentive to be the best person he personally can be, hoping to reap the rewards of good, vice bad, behavior.

Any minute information you might glean from a person's race, thus some very slight survival advantage, is more than erased by the whopping general increase in danger from subcultures becoming more alienated from each other and from the parent culture.

I don't know whether absence makes the heart grow fonder, but alienation surely makes the heart grow bitter.


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 9, 2012 2:28 PM

The following hissed in response by: BigLeeH

Dafydd, I take your point and am willing to stipulate (for several paragraphs) that you may be right. People tend to live up or down to expectations and it is certainly plausible that, if we all resisted the temptation to allow our expectations about individuals to be colored by merely statistical inferences based on limited information, then those minority groups of whom such statistics paint an unflattering picture might feel less alienated, and less angry, and their behavior might improve. You could be right. Worth a shot.

But even so, since Mr. Derbyshire's ill-advised venting was cast in the form of advice one might give to one's own children about race relations and it is interesting to ask: is it rational? If one's main criterion is the welfare of one's children, isn't the best policy to say publicly that mutual trust and good will can break down the barriers between the races and diffuse tensions and avoid violence, while at the same time privately cautioning one's children about the current statistical realities and pointing out to them (and only to them) that the general adoption of a Polyanna attitude can't work its wonders overnight?

I seem to recall that Derbyshire has two daughters but I could be wrong. Assuming that he does, then if he advises them to be part of the positive-vibes experiment then the possible good effects on the problematic minority groups would be increased by a very small percent (two girls out of millions) but his daughters' statistical chances of being victimized would be higher. The benefits, if any, are diffused, but the costs are concentrated. By this Machiavellian reasoning his mistake was saying in public things he should have said privately, and only to his close friends and family.

Having made it through three admittedly odd paragraphs, I will back away from my stipulation and admit that I am not sure I entirely agree with your thinking which comes close to dismissing all unflattering statistics that correlate to race as guilty knowledge of evil facts -- not falsehoods, just bad truths that only wicked people can know.

I agree that one should eagerly replace merely statistical expectations with actual individual observations as such become available but it is not racist to form such expectations, or to act on them in the absence of any better information.

As an example: I am a big guy -- always have been. When I was a teenager, before my kids generation of giants made a 6'4", 280 lb guy merely large, I was considered scary big. I remember coming out of a supermarket near the college I was attending. It had a poorly lighted parking lot and as I walked to where I had parked I could dimly see young women scurrying for their cars as I approached. I could hear their door locks clicking as I walked by. All the girls could tell about me in the dark is that I was big, I was male, and I looked scary in the dark. They made decisions about me based on limited information. I didn't take it personally. It wasn't personal. It was statistical inference.

You mentioned that his controversial posting was the only John Derbyshire you have read, or will read. That's a bit of a pity. He's a likeable crank with whom I seldom altogether agree. He has trouble resisting the temptation to write the unwritable or to speak wicked, unhelpful truths. He reminds me of a mutual friend who I will not mention because I don't want to get him going.

The above hissed in response by: BigLeeH [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 10, 2012 2:55 PM

The following hissed in response by: BigLeeH

Whatever one thinks of John Derbyshire, one must admire the photo of him that they ran with his Gawker interview.

The above hissed in response by: BigLeeH [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 11, 2012 10:21 AM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh


I don't think he reads Big Lizards <g>.

It seems as if I keep saying "judge people individually by their behavior," but many readers keep hearing "naively trust everyone like your best friend." If that's how it's coming across, it's unintentional.

Recall that "behavior" includes, in a non-exhaustive list:

  • Facial expression
  • Stalking behavior
  • Verbal exchanges directed at oneself or others
  • Numbers (of people, with you and with him)
  • Gait
  • Location and staging (or set and setting, if you're into Timothy Leary)
  • Dress
  • Grooming
  • Odor
  • Physical build

We normally pick up these clues within seconds, and generally before we're in attack range.

Each of these is fair game, because each is within the control of the individual. My problem with Derbyshire is that I get the impression that he has told his girls that if they see a man walking towards them -- a man of average build, wearing a business suit, carrying an attache case, simply walking down the street without paying them much attention, unhurried, unfurtive, in broad daylight on a weekday -- who happens to be black, that they should be afraid, or at least feel a frisson of fear, and move away from him, perhaps even crossing the street to avoid him.

To quote from Trading Places, "Of course there's something wrong with him... he's a nee-grow!"

Is that how you want your kids to live their lives? In fear, avoiding the Other, keeping quiet and hoping They will pull down one of the other animals in the herd, instead of oneself?

I hope his daughters don't listen to him. It's such a sad, sad way to live one's life.

That said, there's nothing wrong with always being on the qui vive; hence I wish we had a federal, nationwide, shall-issue CCW permit policy that overrode all state and local restrictions on carrying concealed weapons. "An armed society is a polite society."

Trust, verify, but always be prepared. (Or "expect the best, but prepare for the worst," if you prefer.) What I object to most is when people expect the worst, and thereby bring it down on themselves and any unlucky bystanders.


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 11, 2012 1:21 PM

The following hissed in response by: Geoman

I feel you (and most people) are entirely misunderstanding the article. It is a parody of what other, black authors, have written. Carefully read the opening paragraph:

“Sean O’Reilly was 16 when his mother gave him the talk that most black parents give their teenage sons,” Denisa R. Superville of the Hackensack (NJ) Record tells us. Meanwhile, down in Atlanta: “Her sons were 12 and 8 when Marlyn Tillman realized it was time for her to have the talk,” Gracie Bonds Staples writes in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Leonard Greene talks about the talk in the New York Post. Someone bylined as KJ Dell’Antonia talks about the talk in The New York Times. Darryl Owens talks about the talk in the Orlando Sentinel."

What is the "Talk" exactly? Look up the authors. It is black parents describing to black children how white people are all racists, using questionable statistics and historical facts. He is attacking the fact that these talks occur, that they are published in leading papers, and are thought to be profound and moving pieces on racism in America.

The remainder of his article turns the tables by creating his own "talk" to his children. The anger provoked by the article mearly proves the point he was trying to make. Why is it that black parents warning black children about the dangers of white people is fine, and published in mainstream papers, but white parents warning mixed race children (Derbyshire's kids are half Chinese)about black people on a website beyond the pale (sorry for the pun)? The double standard is the point of the article!

The above hissed in response by: Geoman [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 16, 2012 11:28 AM

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