Tuesday, April 10, 2012

John Derbyshire, Joe Sobran -- Sigh...

We note that Rich Lowry at National Review announced this past weekend that John Derbyshire has been fired over an exhaustively offensive piece the latter wrote in Taki’s web magazine. Yes, it was clearly meant to be a satirical piece directed at articles describing “The Talk” that many black parents report giving their children about making their way safely in the world of whites. We are connosieurs of good satire here at MH, and Derbyshire’s piece frankly bombed if its mission was to be deftly and wickedly effective. Humor does not excuse offensiveness, but it can mitigate the crime, as anyone who enjoys Jon Stewart at his best knows.

Frankly, we are surprised that Derbyshire lasted as long as as he did at National Review. As Derbyshire himself knew (we know this because he wrote it,) opinion journals on the right simply cannot afford a tinge of bigotry if they are to be treated seriously. One suspects that several things innoculated him for a time from being written out of NR for his politically incorrect views and even more politically incorrect ways of talking about them.

First, he is English and has a British accent. As Derbyshire has pointed out (we discovered this quotation when doing background for this post,) being British has its advantages:

British people get status points in urban U.S. society just on account of being British. (Yes, of course it’s absurd, but I assure you it is the case.)
Second, he is married to a Chinese woman and is very knowledgeable about all things Asian. So he can’t be a very committed racist, right?

Third, he is an self-described admirer of everything Jewish. Given that the racist fever-swamps of the right have tended to be equal-opportunity places of anti-Semitic and anti-anyone-with-dark-skin sentiments alike, he was an unlikely candidate for making a racist label stick easily.

Fourth, he is an avowed atheist, and we all know that devoutly Christian folks are the racists, while atheism predisposes one toward tolerance, correct?

Fifth, Derbyshire is incredibly smart -- we knuckledraggers have few enough smart people around as it is. His literary and historical allusions are legion, unpredictable, invariably apt, and witty far more often than not.

But, there seems to be something in the disposition of a certain kind of provacateur that pulls toward the precipice, and eventually it is discovered that, yes, one does eventually fall over the edge if one keeps inching that direction. It is sad, since Derbyshire was a big part of shaking things up at NR over the past decade. As we noted in a past post a few years ago, after a long dry spell of stultifying conformity:

We're glad to see that NR shows a few signs of getting back to the good old days of quasi-chaos, when internal dissension was more common in the conservative movement, and when lock-step talking points were something the left engaged in.

Our sadness is not that Derbyshire was fired -- the MH zero-tolerance policy on racism is nothing new, and Lowry absolutely did the right thing in pulling the plug. The sad thing is that in reaction to this episode, we may head back into the kind of boring writing that engulfed NR after the (necessary) purge of Joe Sobran and censure of Pat Buchanan in the early 1990’s.

No, that’s really not true, upon reflection, as tears start to well up in MH eyes (and no, they aren’t just metaphorical.) Boring prose is not the saddest thing that can result from something like this, and remembering Joe Sobran reminds us why.

Joe Sobran was a brilliant man and a brilliant writer, and it was hard not to love the man in his early years if you were a conservative. William F. Buckley, Jr. discovered him as a starving graduate student in Michigan, and he quickly worked his way to the top levels of the National Review editorial board. His columns had spark and they had depth. Buckley loved the man, and so did most of us who were faithful readers of National Review.
Something happened to him, though, and he became mentally unhinged. At the time, many thought that he was being unfairly persecuted for his vocal and lonely opposition to the first Iraq War, which was entered into by a Republican President and was strongly supported by nearly all of the conservative journals and think-tanks. His subsequent career, however, demonstrated that he had, indeed, become captive to anti-Semitic and racist obsessions of the worst kind. What it must be like to be consumed with that kind of hate is unimaginable, and to watch someone descend from being an apparently normal moral human being into that world has to be a bit like watching someone you love become a meth addict -- surely for the most part, bigots and addicts alike are made (self-made, if nothing else,) not born. It isn’t predetermined; it doesn’t need to happen.

In the spirit of “hate the sin, love the sinner,” it is worth repeating Joseph Bottum’s brief obituary in First Things that we discovered today:

Joe Sobran has slipped away, dying at age sixty-four. What can one say? He was a polymath, a genius, and a sometimes brilliant writer of enormous speed and fluidity. And he drove himself nearly mad, embracing conspiracy theories and the crankiest of ways to reject consensus—from the authorship of Shakespeare’s works on down.

His life was filled with unhappy incidents, which may have been what pushed him to the battles he constantly forced on his friends, but he remained constant in his faith.

May he be taken home to God, where all those battles cease and every tear is wiped away.

Why indulge in memories of Joe Sobran, someone most readers of MH have never heard of, especially since we at MH didn’t even know he died two years ago until doing a search about him for this column? Mainly this: one sincerely hopes that Derbyshire is someone who was having at it in a British satirical way, tweaking tender American sensitivities until it finally got out of hand.  If so, that will be apparent in his future writing.

One suspects that Derbyshire is a very different animal from Sobran. If, however, there is a part of him that is susceptible to genuine racial antipathies, one hopes that he can shed it and climb back up the cliff. Not for the sake of his career as an opinion journalist, but for his sake as a human being. Watching Sobran spiral into the darkness of anti-Semitic obsessions after his firing from NR was like watching a spiritual horror movie. We know how that movie ends, and we really don’t want to see it again.

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