Vox Day: After all this time and all you’ve written, is it surprising that this article should be the one to which everyone pays attention?
John Derbyshire: It is a bit surprising, yes. I’m a bit surprised. I didn’t think there was anything that much out of the ordinary in it. I’ve written similar things before, and the tone wasn’t anything sensational. It’s an odd thing. People pick these things up and they buzz around for a few days … that’s the news business.
I was impressed with Mark Steyn’s defense of your article, or rather, your employment by National Review. Was it disappointing to see the opinions of Ramesh Ponnuru, Jonah Goldberg and some of the others who took the opposite position?
You know, Vox, I have to confess I try not to read negative stuff about myself. You can call that cowardice if you like. The way I look at it is, why spoil my digestion? But I’ve been going by friends who have pointed me to various things; a friend sent me an email saying “Goldberg’s really slagged off on you.” OK, fine, so I’m not going to read Goldberg. But friends did email me and said Mark Steyn put up a very good and thoughtful piece and you really should go and look at it. So I did read Mark’s piece, and yes, I thought it was very judicious, very well done.
For the most part, there’s been a tremendous amount of support for you across the right blogosphere, whereas there hasn’t been much defense of Rich Lowry’s position except by the other writers at National Review. I would estimate that 80 to 85 percent of the comments have been running in your favor. I thought that was really striking, because I’m not sure that would have been the case 10 years ago.
I am in quite high spirits because I’ve had tremendous email support. I’ve had hundreds of emails, and I’m going to have to do some collective thank you for them somewhere because I’ve totally given up trying to deal with them. I’d answer a dozen and 40 more would come up in the meantime. It’s been almost a tsunami. I’m taking my life in my hands here, I know, but almost none of them have been negative even though my email address is right there on my webpage. I think by the time I got through the first few dozen, there were two negative ones. And they weren’t vituperative; they were sarcastic and sneering, but they weren’t horrible. Everything else was really positive and supportive. That’s just tremendous, I’m really heartened by it. I am going to read them all. I can’t possibly answer them all, but I am going to read them all. People have been great.
I get the definite impression that something has changed. You talk about how 50 years ago, you would have had some different opinions more in line with the Standard Model view of race. And certainly 20 years ago, the reflexive anti-racist position was the normal one in educated society. But now things have changed, and people are much less terrified of having the race card waved at them. Have you noticed that yourself?
There are a number of things in play there. One, which I’ve written about more than once, I think, in the United States, is just despair. I am of a certain age, and I was around 50 years ago. I was reading the newspapers and following world events, and I remember the civil rights movement. I was in England, but we followed it. I remember it, I remember what we felt about it and what people were writing about it. It was full of hope. The idea in everyone’s mind was that if we strike down these unjust laws and we outlaw all this discrimination, then we’ll be whole. Then America will be made whole. After an intermediate period of a few years, who knows, maybe 20 years, with a hand up from things like affirmative action, black America will just merge into the general population and the whole thing will just go away. That’s what everybody believed. Everybody thought that. And it didn’t happen.
Here we are – we’re 50 years later, and we’ve still got these tremendous disparities in crime rates, educational attainment and so on. And I think, although they’re still mouthing the platitudes, Americans in their hearts feel a kind of cold despair about it. They feel that Thomas Jefferson was probably right and we can’t live together in harmony.
The thing that appears to have bothered your critics the most was the idea that one should not stop and offer assistance to a black individual in apparent distress. Obviously, you’re not a Christian, so barring any sort of Good Samaritan Christian duty, why do you think there’s been such a negative response to that particular piece of advice?
I must say, I think they have a point. If I were to write it over again, that would be just about the one thing I would change. I actually wanted to add some qualifiers to that point, just to tell people to be more wary in that situation, but you know, I’m a writer, and I was over my allotted word count. I would rewrite that if I could. But again, I’m giving advice to kids, and kids don’t have much judgment. I do think you need more judgment in a situation like that, and I put a link to where it happened. You get a regular trickle of stories about people who have tried to help in those situations and come to grief, where they’ve been turned on or its been some kind of con.
Mark Steyn referred to what he called your “summary execution” by Lowry. Was it really that summary? Were you given any opportunity to walk yourself back, or was it just a case of you’ve stuck your head in it so off with your head? Lowry seemed to view the article as some sort of resignation, was that your intention?
Not at all. I thought it was just a routine piece.
National Review has a long and rather Stalinist history of purging its writers, including Joe Sobran, Samuel Francis and Ann Coulter, and now you. Is this part of National Review’s culture or is there something else going on there?
I’m sorry to sound defensive on National Review’s behalf, but it is something they have to do, to some degree. I actually spoke to Bill Buckley about this a couple of times. As a committed conservative, it hurts to say this, but there are a lot of crazy people on the political right, and if you’re going to have any kind of presentation in the media marketplace at all, you do have to keep fending them off. Unfortunately, it’s a matter of judgment about which ones you fend off and which ones you let into the tent. It’s awfully hard to get right, and I know, Bill Buckley had said to me, that he didn’t think he’d always gotten it exactly right. It’s an approximate art. You sometimes boot out the wrong person and sometimes keep in the wrong person. Bill called it a policing exercise, and it does have to be done. If you’re going to be a, oh dear, respectable publication, and get your ideas out there in the marketplace, you do have to draw a line against the craziest of the crazies. It’s not an easy line to draw. It’s not an easy judgment to make. Sometimes you get it wrong. I think Bill got it wrong with Sam Francis.
You sound remarkably comfortable having been found to be on the wrong side of the line.
Well, I say again, it’s a hard thing to get right. Did Rich Lowry get it right in my case? You be the judge.
This column is an excerpt from the interview. Visit Vox Popoli for the complete transcript.