Commentary Magazine


Topic: John Derbyshire

John Derbyshire and National Review: Why It Had to Happen

Over the weekend, my friend Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, was forced into a parting of the ways with his magazine’s and website’s long-time contributor, John Derbyshire. The dismissal was due to an article Derbyshire wrote for a site called Taki Magazine, taking off from the killing of Trayvon Martin.

I’m not going to rehash here the offense committed by the Derbyshire piece. Suffice it to say that this article, like much of what appears on that website and others like it, purports to take a “scientific” view of race relations according to which, inevitably, black people are helpless against DNA that supposedly causes them at once to be dumber and more violent than white people. These sorts of arguments are usually offered in a specious more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone or with an excruciatingly knowing world-weariness that serves as a secret club handshake with all those who know and are willing to accept the uncomfortable truths revealed by “science.”

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Over the weekend, my friend Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, was forced into a parting of the ways with his magazine’s and website’s long-time contributor, John Derbyshire. The dismissal was due to an article Derbyshire wrote for a site called Taki Magazine, taking off from the killing of Trayvon Martin.

I’m not going to rehash here the offense committed by the Derbyshire piece. Suffice it to say that this article, like much of what appears on that website and others like it, purports to take a “scientific” view of race relations according to which, inevitably, black people are helpless against DNA that supposedly causes them at once to be dumber and more violent than white people. These sorts of arguments are usually offered in a specious more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone or with an excruciatingly knowing world-weariness that serves as a secret club handshake with all those who know and are willing to accept the uncomfortable truths revealed by “science.”

What I think is worth discussing is the issue of what will be inevitably be raised in the days and weeks ahead by people discomfited by National Review‘s decision. First, they will say NR is violating Derbyshire’s freedom of speech. That is simply incorrect; freedom of speech in the United States is freedom from government coercion. It does not guarantee anyone access to a private organization’s ink and paper and server space, especially not when that private organization pays him. As Rich said in the post in which he announced the severing of NR‘s relationship with Derbyshire: “It’s a free country, and Derb can write whatever he wants, wherever he wants. Just not in the pages of NR or NRO, or as someone associated with NR any longer.”

Nonetheless, there will still be those who believe an injustice is being done to a writer who simply was telling the truth as he sees it. But websites and magazines do not exist solely to give writers a vehicle to speak to readers (though this is one of their primary intellectual, cultural, and aesthetic purposes). If they are not run to make money, but are mission-driven instead—as NR is and as COMMENTARY is as well—they exist to give shape and form and heft to a view of the world its writers and editors share. That view may be broad enough to contain contradictory opinions on various matters, but overall it is supposed to encompass a coherent vision of what the world is and what it should be. That is what we provide to our readers, and what our readers expect of us.

When a writer expresses an opinion about things that is not only different from, but in radical contradiction with the mission-driven institution’s view, that writer may be doing what he feels is necessary. But it is equally necessary for the institution to make clear whether that view can still be considered part of its overall vision or it is a pathogen that, left undisturbed, will destroy the institution’s own health.

Finally, they will say NR acted in a cowardly fashion and fell sway to political correctness; that Derbyshire was only exploring questions that discomfit the Establishment. This game of saying “I am only raising questions” has become the three-card monte of the intellectual world in recent years—a way of bringing up things in a glancing and suggestive way without taking responsibility for it. It has been deployed most egregiously by a blogger who has generated millions upon millions of page views “raising questions” for rage-fueled readers about whether Sarah Palin was in fact the mother of her own child.

Everybody makes mistakes. Writers make mistakes. Lord knows I’ve made plenty, and I am mindful of the notion that “there but for the grace of God go you.” What Derbyshire did was not a mistake. It was a coming-out. The noxious seeds that finally blossomed into full poisonous flower with his latest piece had been scattered throughout his writing for years. Recognizing his raw talent and interesting perspective on a variety of issues, Rich Lowry and National Review gave him the benefit of the doubt until there was no longer any doubt.

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