Monday, June 12, 2006

Derbyshire Loses His Cool (And His Reason)

I print here in its entirety (complete with her in-article links) a noteworthy piece from Elizabeth Kantor, the Managing Editor of the Conservative Book Club, posted on the Club's book blog. It concerns the rabid and quite unreasonable reaction of National Review writer John Derbyshire to the highly-praised pro-life book by another NR writer (indeed, a NR senior editor), Ramesh Ponnuru. As you'll see, Kantor doesn't seem to entirely side with Ponnuru herself and her perspective on pro-life activists lacks depth and consistency. Still, the entry and the articles it will take you to will provide stimulating reading.

By the way, you can order Mr. Ponnuru's book from the CBC right here or at Amazon over here.

Bent Out of Shape?

Posted Thursday, June 08, 2006 2:23:58 PM

John Derbyshire, who usually writes elegant, enormously interesting, and above all intelligent prose seems to be making a complete fool of himself over Ramesh Ponnuru's
The Party of Death.

Derbyshire and Ponnuru are colleagues with, it appears, some degree of mutual respect -- both write for National Review, and they've disagreed there before, more or less politely, about the Schiavo case.

But Derbyshire's
review [printed in the New English Review] of Ponnuru's book is an irrational and spectacularly unimpressive ad hominem attack on Ponnuru in particular and on pro-lifers in general. Here's how it begins:

Can Right to Life (hereinafter RTL) fairly be called a cult? This is a point on which I cannot make up my mind.

Derbyshire goes on to complain about

the grotesque carnival surrounding the death of Terri Schiavo last year, when a motley menagerie of quack doctors, bogus "Nobel Prize nominees," emoting relatives, get-a-life monomaniacs, keening mobs of religious fanatics, death-threat-hissing warriors for "life," dimwitted TV presenters straining to keep their very best my-puppy-just-died faces on while speaking of "Terri" as if they had known her personally from grade school, pandering politicians, and shyster lawyers all joined forces in a massive effort to convince the American public that RTL was a thing no sane citizen ought to touch with a barge pole while wearing triple-ply rubber gloves.

He sidesteps Ponnuru's actual arguments and engages in an appalling amount of ad hominem innuendo -- suggesting that "[s]ome people would say" that an author who could write the things Ponnuru wrote is "just plain dishonest" and belaboring the apparent coincidence that the rational arguments in The Party of Death just happen to square with Ponnuru's religious beliefs.

What's interesting is that Derbyshire can't seem to come up with with rational arguments to support his core beliefs on the issues in question. Instead he talks about his own (and other people's imputed) emotional reactions -- to pro-lifers, to Michael Schiavo, to children with Downs Syndrome, to people on life support and their spouses, to the purportedly "frigid and pitiless dogma" that pro-lifers believe (though he also, somewhat contradictorily, calls right-to-life "victimological scab-picking" and "gaseous sentimentality"). He avoids addressing Ponnuru's actual arguments, including one particularly pertinent argument from The Party of Death: that if you don't draw a firm, clear line against the killing of human beings at whatever stage of development, what's going to stop you from ending up where Peter Singer wants to go -- euthanasia, infanticide, and beyond?

What's doubly strange about Derbyshire's review is what Jonah Goldberg
points out on NRO, that Derbyshire

is the Great Champion of Science here at NR and he is an impressive champion at that. But he's exasperated by the frigidness of Ramesh's discussion of cells and eggs and whatnot. I can't help but shake the sense there's an inconsistency here.

It's truly disturbing to see Derbyshire reduced to shoddy guilt-by-association, ad hominem, and you-can't-really-think-that-because-the-pope must-be-telling-you-what-to-believe arguments.

Ponnuru answers Derbyshire handily
here. And Derbyshire's response to Ponnuru's answer may be even more bizarre than the original review. Essentially, Derbyshire suggests that he won't be responding substantively. In fact, he regrets writing the original review because he didn't know how much it would upset Ponnuru. Derbyshire concludes by explaining that he's not a real intellectual like Ponnuru, that Ponnuru's intellectual prowess makes him feel inferior, but that he cheers himself up by remembering how much damage intellectuals who get into political power have done in world history.

Now Ponnuru does seem somewhat annoyed. But any irritation on his part could surely have been predicted from the nature of the original review: who doesn't mind being publicly characterized as a dishonest and dangerous creep, especially by a colleague? It's hard not to suspect that Derbyshire is simply unwilling or unable to apply his formidable intellect to the questions Ponnuru raises.

If he's unable, I guess we can say it's just one more example of how the lack of faith seems (paradoxically, according to the assumptions of our age) to lead to the loss of reason. If he's unwilling, it has to be because the whole pro-life thing just gives him the creeps. Pro-lifers clearly make Derbyshire's skin crawl -- that's what he's writing about, the whole time, instead of Ponnuru's book.

So what's so icky about us pro-lifers?

It has to be admitted that there's a certain sentimentality in anti-abortion literature that can grate on the nerves. The language about precious babies and the pictures of adorable children with loopy cursive writing in pink, the tiny feet, and the butterflies and the ribbons and such can be cloying. But if you compare pro-life sentimentality to the excesses of abortion's defenders, it's hard to stay exercised about the sentimentality.

Then there is a certain self-righteousness about pro-life activism that's bound to annoy. It's easy to see anti-abortion activists the way Southerners saw abolitionists and "outside agitators" for Civil Rights: as people who've made other people's problems into a kind of hobby that gives them self-esteem at little real personal cost. The pregnant woman who's walking into the abortion clinic seems to have so much more at stake than the crowd praying outside -- how can they let their opinions (to which they sacrifice maybe an couple of hours a week) interfere to change her whole life forever?

There's some truth in the observation that people who make the Terri Schiavo case (or their local abortion clinic, or the ethics of stem cell research) their mission in life, are "bent out of shape." Not just in the sense in which Derbyshire uses that phrase about Ponnuru -- not just angry. They're not living normal lives, paying proportionate attention to what concerns them personally.

The question is, are abortion and so forth great enough evils that we're justified in bending our lives out of shape to do something about them? Because if the injustice is great enough, then (at least once we have historical perspective, once we're not the people implicated in the injustice) we don't blame people for endangering the balance of their ordinary lives, interfering in other people's decisions, making a nuisance of themselves about it. Quite the opposite. We think that the ordinary white Southerner and the good German -- anybody, in fact, who keeps trying to live a normal life when really hideous injustices are woven into the laws and the very fabric of society -- should be blamed.

As C. S. Lewis's Screwtape (Senior Devil and proponent of the Infernal view of history) explains, from the point of view of Hell it's desirable for society to be unjust. And not just because devils love injustice for its own sake. Also because in an unjust the just become -- I can't think remember the exact words Lewis uses, but essentially an embattled, self-righteous, and possibly paranoid minority.

Isn't abortion alone -- leaving aside all the slippery slope possibilities down the road -- a serious enough injustice that doing something about it justifies the risk that our resistance will bend us out of shape?

Elizabeth Kantor, Managing Editor