June 7, 2006


A Frigid and Pitiless Dogma (John Derbyshire, June 2006, New English Review)

Can Right to Life (hereinafter RTL) fairly be called a cult? This is a point on which I cannot make up my mind. Some of the common characteristics of culthood are missing—the Führerprinzip, for example. On the other hand, RTL has the following things in common with every cult in the world: To those inside, it appears to be a structure of perfect logical integrity, founded on unassailable philosophical principles, while to those outside—among whom, obviously, I count myself—it seems to some degree (depending on the observer’s temperament and inclinations) nutty; to some other degree (ditto) hysterical; and to some yet other degree (ditto ditto) a threat to liberty. My own ratings of RTL on those three degrees are 2, 6, and 4 out of a possible ten each.

The second of those ratings would have been lower before 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.

On the other hand, the first of those ratings would have been a couple of ticks higher before I read Party of Death. Ramesh Ponnuru is one of the best advocates a cult—cause, movement, whatever—could hope for; so much so that (just to complete the set) the third of my ratings went up by a corresponding amount after setting down his book. With polemical skills and intellectual firepower of this order, it is possible that RTL might break out from its natural habitat in student chapters of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception to attain real influence in the land. A general reduction of our liberties would indeed follow, since RTL is, in its essence, an authoritarian movement, whose ultimate desire is to boss the rest of us around.

Berkowitz: Real Disagreements (Ramesh Ponnuru, 6/2/06)

Berkowitz argues that our intuitions about the human embryo contain moral wisdom. [...]

These parts of Berkowitz’s review seem to me to be much too glib. The tangled history of abortion law casts doubt on the notion that we can take our bearings from the “wisdom embodied in custom and common sense.” Common sense used to tell almost everyone that abortion should be generally illegal, and now there is no common sense of the matter. [...]

I noted (and John Miller has also mentioned) that Berkowitz did have some praise for the book, and for me. Allow me to reciprocate. While I thought his review was flawed in key respects, I appreciate the thoughtfulness, fair-mindedness, and intelligence he has shown on this occasion as on others. So far he is the only critic of my book to have exhibited these characteristics.

That doesn't even qualify as subtle.

Posted by Matt Murphy at June 7, 2006 3:37 PM

That Ponnuru quote is from The Corner. Sorry for not mentioning that.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 7, 2006 3:49 PM

I think the Berkowitz quote was made before the Derbyshire review came out. Ponnuru has a reply to Derbyshire at National Review today.

Am I the only one who thinks Derbyshire is pure evil? I've never read anything by him that is remotely interesting or enjoyable, and several things that made me sick to my stomach, including the "I hate Chelsea Clinton" rant which should have gotten him fired.

Posted by: Greg E. at June 7, 2006 4:39 PM

No one is pure evil. Not even Derb.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 7, 2006 4:44 PM

"the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception"

Cute. Tolerating such a ridiculous bigot reflects very, very badly on National Review.

Posted by: b at June 7, 2006 4:48 PM

In his NRO article today Ponnuru called Derbyshire "anti-intellectual" and "gaseous" among other things. At least he didn't call him a felon for breaking U.S. immigration laws.

Methinks Ponnuru rightly regards Derbyshire as a bigot. But Ramesh won't make that argument because he knows it might make Derbyshire more sympathetic to a lot of NRO readers. So he attacks Derbyshire from the right on abortion and other issues. Ponnuru knows that gives him a built-in advantage with the NRO audience.

Ramesh Ponnuru is one smart guy.

Posted by: Casey Abell at June 7, 2006 4:58 PM

Ponnuru absolutely cuts Derbyshire to ribbons in his reply:

Derbyshire wants to exclude both religion and reason as guides to the moral truth about abortion, euthanasia, and related issues. In their place he exalts feelings, and criticizes me as creepy, frigid, pitiless, inhuman, and, worst, an intellectual, for not going along. This is the anti-intellectual core of his essay. (There is also a lot of piling on of rhetoric. For RTL is, really, just another species of Political Correctness, just another manifestation of the intellectual pathology, the hypertrophied and academical egalitarianism, the victimological scab-picking, the gaseous sentimentality, that has afflicted our civilization this past forty years. Gaseous is just the right word for this sort of logorrhea.) America would be a happier and freer nation if the accursed intellectuals would just leave us alone with our lives, our blunders, our tragedies, and our deaths.

The state cannot leave us alone in deciding under what circumstances to kill one another. There have to be rules, and we have to find some basis for figuring out what they should be. The notion that everyones natural feelings lead to support of abortion and euthanasia, and that intellectuals have recently been trying to overcome these natural inclinations, is preposteroussomething, indeed, that only an intellectual could believe. That abortion was a crime used to be something nearly universally accepted, and felt. It took, among other things, a lot of intellectual work to change that. Many people changed their feelings in response to new ideas, and new situations partly created by those ideas. (And some people changed their ideas based on their feelings.) How should we feel about abortion? Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we feel less appalled by it than we used to? These are intelligible questions. You dont have to have a high estimate of the power of reason in human affairs to think that the enterprise of reasoning about these matters should not be dismissed.

It is interestingand of course gratifyingthat the two leading criticisms of my book (Peter Berkowitzs thoughtful review in the Wall Street Journal and Derbyshires intemperate essay) both attempt an escape from reason. This is nihilism. It is also laziness.

Jonah Goldberg also rallies to Ponnuru's defense.

Derbyshire is the same guy who (alone among NRO-ers) supported Michael Schiavio's "right" to kill off his inconveniently disabled wife and seems to object to immigration on eugenic grounds (rather an odd position for the immigrant father of two biracial children to take). He may not be "pure evil," but he sure seems to be working enthusiastically for the other team these days.

Posted by: Mike Morley at June 7, 2006 4:58 PM

I stopped reading Derbyshire because he is just laughable and a waste of time. I also stopped reading Rod Dreher because he is as excitable and emotional as a 13 year old girl. BTW, I also stopped reading Andrew Sullivan because he is a 13 year girl.

Posted by: pchuck at June 7, 2006 5:42 PM

Mr. Morley, I think the "odd postions" show that Derbyshire is not Evil, he's contrary. I was taught at Catholic school that if you can't argue both sides, then you aren't thinking, just reacting. Considering the number of people who have responded by attacking Mr. Derbyshire's history, I would have to agree.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at June 7, 2006 5:48 PM

Pchuck, reading the output of a excitable and emotional 13 year old girl who can reason out her position in a coherent and enjoyable fashion is far easier then reading what the eaters of dust are cranking out.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at June 7, 2006 5:50 PM

I loves me some Sullivan cracks.

I'll pretty much laugh at anything in the form of Andrew Sullivan is ____.

Seriously, I just laughed at what I wrote.

I need to play harder to get.



Posted by: Pepys at June 7, 2006 6:07 PM

Derbyshire just posted an "answer" to Ponnuru's rip. Basically it said, gee, Ramesh is smarter than me, so how do you expect me to reply?

Even by Derbyshire's standards, this is lame. Almost as lame as an illegal immigrant peeing on other illegal immigrants because their skins are darker.

Oh, wait...

Posted by: Casey Abell at June 7, 2006 6:10 PM

Derb's religion is Anglican(the Lukewarm Heresy), which is usually predictive in matters right-to-life, euthanasia, etc.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at June 7, 2006 6:25 PM

What does the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception have to do with Derbyshire's discussion? It basically says Mary was free from sin. What does that have to do with RTL? I must be missing something. I guess he's just making fun of Catholics. Par for the course.

Posted by: jdkelly at June 7, 2006 6:28 PM

Bruce - I only read the headlines, so I had assumed he was a Euro-secularist.

Posted by: pj at June 7, 2006 6:53 PM

Derb fashions himself a latter-day Mencken, but he's less clever and more misanthropic.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 7, 2006 6:56 PM

PJ -

Yes, they both talk alike, don't they?

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at June 7, 2006 7:31 PM

My Irish Grandad sometime last year:

That Derbyshire is a fu@#$&* tool.

Posted by: Pepys at June 7, 2006 7:43 PM

Actually, Seeing Calving Coolidge In A Dream is a good book.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 7, 2006 10:15 PM

To give the, er, infernal one his due, Derbyshire is a fine math popularizer. I really enjoyed his book on the Riemann Hypothesis. It even got me to read Riemann's original paper.

Now if Derbyshire could just steer clear of politics and stick to his formulas and proofs...

Posted by: Casey Abell at June 7, 2006 11:10 PM

In his reply, Ramesh says, "Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we feel less appalled by it than we used to?"

I wonder if he has evidence to support that claim. I would be surprised if there was good data on societal attitudes about abortion 50 or 100 years ago. I would guess that people as a whole back then did not care any more about abortion and right to life than people do now. True, there once were laws on the books, but women sought abortions anyway.

Posted by: Bradley Cooke at June 7, 2006 11:44 PM

By the way, here's the mother-in-law of all Outlasted Another Ones. (If it proves out, of course.)

Posted by: joe shropshire at June 8, 2006 4:49 AM

Derbyshire's by far the best writer they have on NRO.

I disagree with most of his opinions but like Sullivan, I appreciate his willingness to admit inconvenient facts which contradict his worldview and how he's unafraid to take independent stances.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at June 8, 2006 6:48 AM

D'oh. It wasn't Sullivan who said that but an emailer to his site.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at June 8, 2006 6:49 AM

It's like bringing coal to Newcastle commenting on church dogma here, but IIRC from my catechism days, Immaculate Conception means just that. No earthly sperm donor was involved. However, if memory also serves, Mary was free of Original Sin and was immaculate in that sense as well.

A shake-up is needed at NRO and first one who needs to be shaken off is the loathsome Bill Kristol.

Posted by: erp at June 8, 2006 7:40 AM

Does he post there?

I thought he was in charge of the Daily Standard.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at June 8, 2006 7:59 AM

Bill Kristol runs NRO's biggest competitor, the Weekly Standard. To say NRO needs to shake him off is like saying Chevy needs to shake off all those Ford execs.

Mr. Bigot, aka Derbyshire, really took his lumps on the Corner last night. Ponnuru is well-liked and that review didn't sit well with anybody at NRO. They're also all happy that Zarqawi got killed, which might shut up Derbyshire on Iraq for at least a couple days.

Posted by: Casey Abell at June 8, 2006 8:33 AM

Derbyshire is just an honest Darwinist--always an ugly sight.

Posted by: oj at June 8, 2006 8:59 AM

erp: The Immaculate Conception has NOTHING to do with Jesus. It means Mary was without Original Sin. Recall from The Song of Bernadette: "I am the Immaculate Conception" was how The Lady identified herself at Lourdes...

Posted by: b at June 8, 2006 11:40 AM

Well, it has something to do with Jesus. It's not just a coincidence that the IC happened to JC's mom.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 8, 2006 4:12 PM

b. I believe I made that same point about Mary being free of original sin while also noting that Jesus had no earthly father.

You're all right about Kristol being part of The Weekly Standard, which should shake him off. NRO went south so long ago, I forgot about their editorial line up.

Posted by: erp at June 8, 2006 4:43 PM

erp: You said "IIRC from my catechism days, Immaculate Conception means just that. No earthly sperm donor was involved."

I was trying to say that you do not in fact recall correctly. What you wrote was wrong. Sorry.

Posted by: b at June 8, 2006 5:01 PM


Posted by: erp at June 8, 2006 6:56 PM