From: John Derbyshire To: Joey Kurtzman Subject: The flame of thoughtful conservatism burns low
All right, Joey, I will indulge your curiosity.
If tomorrow I submitted a piece to National Review saying, “Kevin MacDonald is really onto something. He’s doing great work and I think everyone should read him,” the editors would reject the piece, and they would be right to do so. I don’t think I would be canned for submitting such an article, but if it happened, I would not be much surprised.
You forget how lonely conservatives are. The flame of thoughtful, responsible American conservatism burns low, and needs constant careful attention. In the folk mythology of present-day America, conservatism is associated with Jim Crow and the persecution of racial minorities. I have not the slightest doubt that many millions, probably tens of millions, of Americans believe that, say, Pat Buchanan is a secret member of the Ku Klux Klan.
I live in an ordinary middle-middle-class New York suburban neighborhood. My neighbors all know I am a conservative commentator. A couple of them will not speak to me on that account. The others just think I am mildly nuts—a thing associated in their minds, somehow, with my being British-born. They regard me with a sort of amused sympathy. The nearest conservative I know lives about eight miles away.
Anyone running a mainstream conservative magazine has to constantly demonstrate ideological purity in matters of race. They have to show repeatedly, by indirect means of course (I mean, it would be no use to just stamp “THIS IS NOT AN ANTISEMITIC MAGAZINE! WE DO NOT FAVOR THE RETURN OF JIM CROW LAWS!” in Day-Glo letters on the cover) that they are ideologically pure in this zone. Otherwise, they won’t be taken seriously by the cultural establishment.
And that matters. In America, persons who have, or are suspected to have, incorrect opinions on race, are low-status. Human beings are primarily social animals, and we are intensely conscious of status rankings within the groups we belong to.
The best guide here is novelist Tom Wolfe. Recall that passage in The Bonfire of the Vanities—I don’t have the book on hand so I’m working from memory here—where the young New York district attorney and his wife have hired a British nanny to look after their baby. This makes for an uncomfortable situation at first, because 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.)
So this struggling, ill-paid young DA and his wife, both from modest backgrounds, have an employee with more status points than a domestic servant ought to have. The status structure of their household is out of joint. Then one day the nanny makes some mildly un-PC remark about Black people, and the DA and his wife fairly weep with relief. The nanny is low-status after all! Nothing to worry about!
So if National Review were to print unqualified praise (or even praise not severely qualified) of a guy who argues that Jews have a “group evolutionary strategy” that involves the transformation—I think in The Culture of Critique MacDonald actually says “destruction”—of Gentile society, they would have done what that nanny did: dumped several status points down the toilet.
A conservative magazine simply can’t afford to do that. Its hold on the attention of the U.S. public is too precarious. A conservative magazine can’t afford to let a writer say anything nice about MacDonald without putting it under some such title as “The Marx of the Antisemites.”
There isn’t any kind of chicanery or dishonesty there. That’s just how the world is, how America is, under what Bill Buckley calls “the prevailing structure of taboos,” and the prevailing system of status perception, both of individual human beings and of easily anthropomorphizable entities like opinion magazines.
National Review wants to get certain ideas out to the U.S. public—ideas about economics, politics, law, religion, science, history, the arts, and more. To do that, the magazine needs standing in our broad cultural milieu. It needs status. That’s hard at the best of times for a conservative publication. To lose status points—to lose standing—just in order to draw readers’ attention to some rather abstruse socio-historical theories cooked up by a cranky small-college faculty member, would be dumb. Ergo, as I said, NR would reject a piece of the kind you suggested, and they would be correct to do so. I would do so if I were editor of NR.
To your next point (I am working from the bottom up again) that my professed fear of ticking off Jews is some kind of affectation or pose, I can only assure you that this is not so. Almost the first thing you hear from old hands when you go into opinion journalism in the U.S. is, to put it in the precise form I first heard it: “Don’t f*ck with the Jews.” (Though I had better add here that I was mixing mainly with British expats at that point, and the comment came from one of them. More on this in a moment.)
Joe Sobran expressed it with his usual hyperbole: “You must only ever write of us as a passive, powerless, historically oppressed minority, struggling to maintain our ancient identity in a world where all the odds are against us, poor helpless us, poor persecuted and beleaguered us! Otherwise we will smash you to pieces.”
Though if you look up the William Cash affair I mentioned in my last post, Sobran’s quip is really not all that hyperbolic. When the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the CEO of United International Pictures, Barbra Streisand, assorted other media bigshots, and of course the ever-vigilant Mr. Leon Wieseltier, all denounce you in public, you are in pretty serious trouble.
(Since that is the second time I have mentioned the “Kings of the Deal” brouhaha, and since a great many readers will not know what I am talking about, I have put the whole thing on my website here.)
This may be characteristic only of conservative journalism—I don’t know, never having done the other kind. A person doing liberal-oriented opinion journalism surely needs no such cautions, having completely internalized all the “blank slate,” egalitarian, and victimological tenets of the majority culture, and the status-ordering precepts I sketched above. (And this is even leaving aside the high probability that a liberal commentator is anyway Jewish himself!)
The place of Jews in modern American conservatism is a deep and fascinating story, with of course the conversion of the neocons at its center. You have to bear in mind the overwhelming dominance of Jews in every kind of leftist movement in the U.S. until about 30 years ago. Yuri Slezkine has the astonishing numbers. (Did you know that of the four student protesters shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State in 1970, three were Jewish? So says Slezkine, anyway. If you take four people at random from the U.S. population, the chance that three or more of them will be Jewish, given the most generous estimate of the proportion of Jews in the population, is worse than one in four thousand.)
In any case, it was a great achievement, and a great boost, for American conservatism to have peeled off a platoon of articulate, energetic intellectual heavyweights from the great socialistic mass of American Jewry.
Generally speaking—and I certainly include myself here—American conservatism is proud of its Jews, and glad to have them on board. Not that there aren’t some frictions, particularly on mass immigration, the mere contemplation of which just seems to make Jews swoon with ecstasy (American Jews, at any rate. Israeli Jews have a different opinion…). MacDonald gives over a whole chapter of The Culture of Critique to the Jewish-American passion for mass immigration.
There is also some odd kind of bonding going on between Jewish conservatives and evangelical Christians. I say “odd” because of how, I imagine, this bonding would have looked to the grandparents of today’s Jews. The explanation I have most commonly heard is that Jewish conservatives want to be accommodating towards evangelicals because the latter are friendly to Israel. Hence you get prominent Jewish intellectuals saying nice things about nutty evangelical preoccupations like intelligent design.
The Israel explanation doesn’t seem particularly convincing to me. Don’t evangelicals want all the Jews to return to Israel so that the End Times can commence, in the course of which the Jews will be annihilated? Nevertheless, once or twice a week I read something that leaves me thinking that in the mind of this or that Jewish conservative intellectual, evangelical Christianity is “good for the Jews.”
At any rate, these minor frictions and divisions are inevitable in a movement as broadly defined as conservatism. Jews are welcome in the American conservative movement. The great energy and intelligence of Jews, and their strong sense of group identity, do, though, sometimes lead to the same kinds of pathologies in the conservative movement as Kevin MacDonald logged in the Jews’ self-created movements (such as Freudianism, Boasian anthropology, and the New York intellectuals).
In particular, they are under the same temptation to defer to charismatic intellectual “rabbis,” and to
enforce rigid standards of orthodoxy, with vituperation and expulsion for dissidents. I’d emphasize that these are occasional tendencies, and I believe they are much less marked among Jewish conservatives than among, say, Freudians (or for that matter among Jewish liberals). They are there, though; and if you get on the wrong side of them, you are in deep doo-doo.
And in the larger culture, a Gentile conservative who riles up Jewish liberals is really asking for trouble. You could ask William Cash.
Let me deal with your point about the British, and the larger point about group identification.
On the Brits: You are certainly right that the correct approach here is anthropological; though I don’t think your insufferable tone of sneering moral superiority would be tolerated in professional anthropological circles today.
So far as I understand modern theories of the mind, a great deal of our brainpower is given over to processing social information. The theory that seems to me most plausible involves three different modules in the brain: a relationship module, a social module, and a status module.
The relationship module manages our one-on-one relationships with other human beings. It includes a sort of lexicon of all the persons we know, tagged by their attributes as we see them. (Not just common attributes like “fat” or “red-haired,” but me-centric attributes like “enemy” or “borrowed my copy of The Culture of Critique and never returned it.”)
A second, the social module, manages our behavior in our group, and our attitudes to our group and to outside groups. Group stereotypes, for example, which perform very valuable social-psychological functions, dwell in this module.
A third, the status module, computes our status within our group, either by objective criteria, or by attempting to “read” the entries about us in other people’s relationship-module lexicons, via those people’s external behavior. This status module has algorithms for computing status. The code of the algorithms, and the data we input to them, differs from one society to another, and from one group to another in a given society. (We all belong to several groups, of course.)
Among the Masais, a male’s status in his village is measured by the number of cattle he owns. An American academic who belongs to the groups “mathematicians,” “dedicated amateur hang-gliders,” and “opera lovers” will measure his status in the first group by how many papers he has published, his status in the second by how long he has managed to stay aloft, and his status in the third by how many donations he has given to his local opera company.
Now, in the broad and general group “respectable middle-class Americans,” one’s attitudes toward other races are very, very important criteria in determining one’s status. A person like the nanny in that Tom Wolfe novel, who reveals incorrect attitudes on race, suffers massive loss of status thereby.
As criteria for status-in-group evaluation, these attitudes are less important in Britain. In many subsets of modern middle-class British society, mildly negative remarks about black people, like those uttered by the nanny, would not lose you any status points at all.
This does not mean that Americans are morally superior to Britons; still less does it mean that Britons are more sophisticated, more worldly-wise, than Americans. All it means is that for historical reasons—mainly because the U.S. once had legal race slavery, while the British Isles (as opposed to the British territories overseas) never did—British people compute status-in-group slightly differently from the way Americans compute it. The nanny’s error was to assume that her employers’ status modules were running the same code as British people’s. Coming from Britain to the U.S., I made many such errors myself, and still occasionally do.
So far as it is possible to make generalizations about such things, British behavior in this regard is closer to the norm for modern humans than is American behavior. The critical importance of racial attitudes in middle-class American status rankings is extraordinary. This has been the case for decades. Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel Ten Little Niggers was deemed unpublishable under that title by U.S. publishers even then; they changed the title for U.S. audiences. Yet the play version was being performed in provincial British theaters, under Christie’s original title, well into the late 1960s.
As I said, this is not a question of moral superiority on the part of Americans, nor of superior worldliness on the part of Brits; it’s just that our thinking is slightly different, probably as a result of different national-historical experiences. (Though as always nowadays, group genetic peculiarities cannot be ruled out. Recent studies indicate that the population of the British Isles has been very little disturbed for tens of thousands of years. The successive invasions of Celts, Romans, Teutons, and Normans only slightly altered a common Paleolithic genome, likely derived from a small, and therefore distinctive, founder group.)
The exquisite sensitivity of Americans in these matters causes no end of misunderstanding and bad feelings, as the William Cash episode shows. I am sorry to say that it often makes Americans look like hypocrites to foreigners, making rather a mockery of all our pretensions to moral superiority. House hunting in the New York suburbs in 1992, my (Chinese-born) wife and I were once sitting in the office of a realtor, an American lady, trying to spell out just what we were looking for. We had no kids at the time, but were moving to the burbs precisely to raise a family. Well, chatting with the realtor, I said that of course we wanted to be in a good school system, one with not too many black kids. The realtor’s reaction was similar to the one described by P.G. Wodehouse when he wrote: “Ice formed on the butler’s upper slopes.”
You don’t say things like that. You just do them: practically no white Americans, looking for a place where they can settle down and raise a family, will seek a school district that is majority black. In fact, that realtor, when she had thawed some, carried out what I am sure is her normal procedure of steering us well away from heavily black school districts. Patterns of housing segregation in the U.S. speak for themselves, very eloquently. This is, however, the only way in which honest speech about race in America is allowed. (I believe, in fact, that if the realtor had said: “Don’t worry, I won’t waste your time and mine by showing you properties in heavily black neighborhoods,” she would have been breaking the law. Her behavior, however, was indistinguishable from what it would have been if she had said that, and meant it.)
And if you are not raised in the U.S., you are sometimes totally nonplussed by the stuff native-born Americans come out with in this area. For example, I stared hard at the following paragraph of yours, struggling to get some sense out of it:
Like Irishman and other antiquated coinages, it suggests that ethnicity is a fundamental feature of a person’s identity[….] American Jews, like other Americans, dislike that implication, and we once dealt with it by insisting on wacky constructions such as “Americans of the Hebrew faith.”
“Irishman” is an “antiquated coinage”? This is news to me. What, then, am I supposed to say this week? “Person of Irishness”? And does calling someone an Irishman really “suggest that ethnicity is a fundamental feature of a person’s identity”? All it suggests to me is that the guy comes from Ireland.
And if American Jews “dislike” the notion that “ethnicity is a fundamental feature of a person’s identity,” then why are we having these exchanges? And why is “Americans of the Hebrew faith” any more risible than “persons of the Hibernian ethnicity,” or whatever damn fool thing it is you want me to say instead of “Irishman”?
I once wrote a novel about Chinese people. My first-person narrator, a Chinese immigrant in America, refers to himself once or twice as “an Oriental.” The book reviewer for USA Today took me to task for that. “Oriental,” she told me sternly, was a word that could only be used for carpets and furniture. For people, the correct term was “Asian American.”
So I guess Confucius, Li Po, and Mao Tse-tung were all “Asian Americans.” And then, of course, there was that wonderful moment in the 2002 Winter Olympics when a Black American woman won a gold medal, thereby becoming the first Black woman from any country to win a winter gold. The announcer for the NBC network could not bring himself to say it as I just said it, though. God forbid anyone should think he had noticed the lady’s blackness! The only way he could bring himself to say it was: “She’s the first African-American woman from any country to win a winter gold medal.” I’m sorry, but this stuff just makes me fall around laughing.
Now to the very interesting question of whether or not ethnicity is “a fundamental feature of a person’s identity.” I think the only honest answer is that for some people, including some Jews, it surely is, at least some of the time, and for others, not.
Look: My ethnicity (white English) is part of what I am. It is one of the groups I identify with. This is not deplorable, or wicked, or exclusivist of me; it is just human, dammit. We are social animals who organize ourselves into groups. An individual in a complex modern society identifies with several groups. These identifications have different weights in his mind; in fact, they have different weights (the term of art is “salience”) in different circumstances.
I had occasion to remark recently, in a discussion elsewhere about whether or not I am a racist, that I would feel much more at ease in a room full of black African mathematicians than I would in a room full of white English soccer hooligans. In the first group my salient identification would be “mathematician,” and I would be a mathematician at ease among mathematicians.
My identification with the group “white English” would not be very salient in that group—definitely not as salient as it would be if I wandered into a bar on 125th street in Manhattan. In the second group I would be very uncomfortably aware of my membership in the group “bookish types who dislike physical violence and have little interest in sport.” That would be my salient group identification in that milieu; and as the only person in the room nursing that group identification, I would be exceedingly ill at ease.
Membership in the group “Jewish people” must be something every Jew is aware of at least some of the time, even if it is only rarely his salient group identification. Jewishness is, after all, as group identifications go—compared with “white English” for example—exceptionally well defined and historically rooted.
To draw from Slezkine’s fine book again, those Russian Jews who consciously de-Judaized themselves in the late-19th and early-20th century, and moved from the Pale into metropolitan Russia, and became such an important part of the Bolshevik revolution and the Soviet state, suddenly found their Jewishness—which they thought they had shucked off, left behind in the shtetl!—very, very salient when Hitler’s Panzers rolled across the border. It’s situational, see.
The idea you seem to be retailing—that these group identifications, with all their inner complexities of status, and all their situational vagaries of salience is all some airy figment of our imaginations, or some relic of a barbarous era we (or at any rate, the most morally advanced of us) have left behind—strikes me as bizarre and preposterous to the furthest degree. Do you really believe that? Good grief!
The beginning of wisdom is to look at humanity as it is, with its arms and legs, its eyes and tongues, its livers and kidneys, and its brains organized into modules, in some way like I sketched above, those modules busily processing information—information about light and temperature, visual and aural information, and above all (for we are social animals) social information.
I may choose, freely choose, to treat my fellow human beings well or badly; but my interactions with them are governed by my brain, which has evolved with the ability to do some things but not others. Utter indifference to group identity is a thing the brain cannot do. The denial of human nature gets us nowhere.
Whatever we think of Kevin MacDonald and his theories about Jews and their “group evolutionary strategy,” he is at least talking about a real human personality, one that I recognize when I look at myself and other people. It’s a personality that is aware of belonging to groups, that vies for status in those groups and that nurses negative feelings of various degrees to at least some other groups. Even when it wishes no harm to any other group, if given the choice between advancing the interests of a group it belongs to, versus advancing the interests of a group it does not belong to, will choose the former action nine times out of ten.
That is humanity as I know it, and as the great novelists and dramatists have portrayed it, and as the human sciences are beginning to uncover it in fine detail through such disciplines as evolutionary history. The bloodless, deracinated, group-indifferent, “blank slate,” omnisympathetic creature promoted by the merchants of Political Correctness is one I do not recognize as human. Those merchants are human, though, for all they seek to deny it. Their lofty pretensions to have risen high above us grubby group-identifying lesser beings strike me as just another form, a particularly obnoxious form, of in-group status-striving.
Next: The Jewish media Goliath
John Derbyshire is a columnist for National Review. His most recent book is Unknown Quantity, a history of algebra, published by Joseph Henry Press in May 2006.