It seems like not a month goes by without another new book that promises to diagnose and treat the ailing post-Bush conservative movement.
National Review contributing editor John Derbyshire’s newest release, “We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism,— fits snugly in this genre alongside works such as Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream,— Andrew Sullivan’s “The Conservative Soul: Fundamentalism, Freedom and the Future of the Right,— Mickey Edwards’ “Reclaiming Conservatism: How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost — and How It Can Find Its Way Back— and David Frum’s “Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again.—
Written as a call to arms to embattled conservatives disheartened by the Obama presidency, Derbyshire’s central tenet is that the conservatives now find themselves in the political wilderness because they lost the pessimism and cynicism that he believes are at the core of their movement and began speaking to voters in the optimistic, cheery rhetoric of American liberals.
Imploring conservatives to embrace the “audacity of hopelessness— and warning readers not to conflate a sunny, cheerful disposition with genuine limited government pessimism, Derbyshire takes his readers on a whirlwind tour of conservative pet issues such as diversity, education, race relations, nation building, modern art, mass immigration and religion.
To Derbyshire, modern conservatism was founded on a belief that human nature is neither perfectible nor ameliorable. Humanity is a great mass of brutes and scoundrels, and the bona fide pessimist believes little can be done to improve their lot. Therein lies the origin of the conservative movement.
“Happy talk and wishful thinking,— he writes, “are for children, fools, and leftists. We are conservatives. We know better. At least we used to.—
Derbyshire’s tone throughout is mostly playful, yet scornful. He pulls no punches against his ideological brethren, reserving some of the harshest of his criticism for the Bush-era conservative movement. Bush, it seems, represented some of the worst impulses of conservative optimism — launching a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq that become an exercise in Wilsonian nation-building, refusing to wield his veto power to control the expanding federal government and helping expand minority homeownership at the cost of responsible lending practices and sound mortgages.
Derbyshire also tackles what he sees as our declining cultural standards, mocking black feminist poets such as Elizabeth Alexander and Maya Angelou, atonal composers such as Milton Babbitt and contemporary popular films such as “300.—
According to Derbyshire, “Western culture is in its twilight; there is a dark age ahead.—
These cultural complaints are by far the most tedious part of his argument. Since Elvis Presley’s hip gyrations, reactionaries have been decrying popular culture. Derbyshire’s tirades against modern film, music and literature seem to more fittingly betray his stunning lack of familiarity with any of it.
The most troubling and controversial aspects of Derbyshire’s book are his views on race, gender and diversity. In a 2003 interview with a Web site, Derbyshire described himself as “a homophobe, though a mild and tolerant one, and a racist, though an even more mild and tolerant one.—
Elaborating, he explained, “I believe race is a real thing, that races differ statistically in important ways, and that private racial discrimination is not immoral, and certainly should not be illegal.—
“We Are Doomed— contains more of his cynical, controversial and sometimes offensive prognostications yet on these contentious sociocultural issues. He blames the violence and strife in inner-city schools on the general “unruliness— of African-American and Hispanic students. Latin America, he says, is a breeding ground for socialist anti-white sentiment — and America should be wary of Latino immigrants.
Women, he believes, are not generally predisposed to conservative modes of thought, but are instead “incline[d] to socialism much more than men.— Nor are they uniquely predisposed to math, he argues, listing the number of female Fields Medal winners — zero. Men, meanwhile, increasingly find that modern life has emasculated and tamed their hunter-gatherer ways.
“We Are Doomed— makes for provocative (if not somewhat uncomfortable) reading. But controversial issues on race and gender aside, the real flaw with the book is that it never really rises above the mire of typical political punditry. Derbyshire’s humor isn’t particularly biting and his perceived flaws with American society are part of the same culture wars that have been rehashed continuously since the 1960s. His erudition and extensive literary education are evident from the outset, but his conclusions and argumentation never rise above the level of sophisticated punditry. His depictions of the left too often descend into crude caricatures.
His adoption of pessimism as either a defining feature of conservatism and a philosophical stance is certainly not ground-breaking either — thinkers such as Allan Bloom and novelists such as Milan Kundera have famously expressed such sentiments before with far more eloquence and gravity.
Still, Derbyshire’s book will undoubtedly add to both the national conversation and internal debate over the future of the conservative moment in the United States. Leaderless, disorganized and reduced to heckling the president on the floor of Congress, conservative Republicans seem to need all the direction and advice they can get. Derbyshire’s book is written for conservatives from a lifelong conservative. He is preaching to the choir. In that light, it succeeds admirably.