Tuesday, September 15, 2009



By John Derbyshire

Crown Forum, $26, 272 pages

Reviewed by John R. Coyne Jr.

In a chapter titled “War: Invading the World,” John Derbyshire, National Review contributing editor and author of the splendid novel “Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream,” tells us why he initially supported the invasion of Iraq:

“Midway between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the beginning of the war in March 2003, I became a naturalized U.S. citizen. … I had the new citizen’s exaggerated enthusiasm for my adopted country, with the correspondingly heightened outrage at what had been done to her.” Since then, he has come to accept the wisdom of a blogger’s advice for “dealing with Third World rat-holes like Iraq…. Nuke ‘em, bribe ‘em, or leave ‘em alone.”

Statesmanship aside, Mr. Derbyshire’s initial reaction needs no apology. Nor does his trenchant criticism of the flaws in what passes for our national polity and debate. Especially offensive is the “happy talk” conservatism that echoes the chirpy and often hypocritical optimism of a contemporary liberalism grounded in a discredited belief in man’s perfectibility. One suspects that as a naturalized American, he brought a picture with him of what his adopted country was and what it should be — “a country of the mind,” as Archibald MacLeish once put it. There are few more powerful images, and when dreams meet reality, the reaction can be sharp and strong.

Add to that the Englishman’s inborn and always indulged comfort in his own prejudices, easier to forgive when expressed with a British accent — and that particular English ability to see and poke fun at the obvious absurdities in American life — liberal hypocrisies on matters of race, for instance, and the contributions they have made, in the name of diversity, to the destruction of our once great urban public schools.

According to Mr. Derbyshire, who is especially concerned with education (he has a son and a daughter), “The old American specter of race is lurking behind all educational theorizing.”

Mr. Derbyshire holds conservatives equally complicit in playing the racial hypocrisy game. “Mainstream conservatives approach this whole issue, if you force them to (which isn’t easy), with the whimpering terror they bring to all matters racial: “Oh please, mister, please don’t call me racist! Beat me with this steel rod if you like, but for pity’s sake, don’t call me racist!”

Because political correctness requires that discussions of race be conducted in euphemism, Mr. Derbyshire adopts the terminology — “Ice People” and “Sun People” — pioneered by Leonard Jeffries, professor of black studies at City College of New York. “This is just the ticket,” he writes. “For the purposes of this book, and by way of tribute to a distinguished … scholar, I shall henceforth follow this usage.”

Mr. Derbyshire surveys educational reform programs in detail, especially the massive undertaking in Kansas City, Mo., to improve and integrate inner-city schools. Over 12 years, he writes, that school district spent more than $2 billion to build new schools with amenities such as Olympic-sized swimming pools, recording studios, a planetarium, a wildlife sanctuary, chamber music and teachers from around the world.

Results? “The whole project was a comprehensive failure. After 12 years, test scores in reading and math had declined, dropout rates had increased, and the system was as segregated as ever.” Obviously, Mr. Derbyshire writes, “Ice People parents [both liberal and conservative] simply will not send their children to schools with student bodies that are majority Sun People. … The result is segregation — voluntary segregation, at least on Ice People’s part.”

Mr. Derbyshire is a writer of wit and high intelligence, and his prose takes a variety of forms — satire, sarcasm, wisecracks, self-mockery and humor. But pessimism is not in the end lighthearted, and Mr. Derbyshire is a serious man.

Among his prescriptions for translating conservative pessimism into policy: Abandon all nation-building exercises, abolish the federal Education Department, repeal No Child Left Behind and all programs promulgated as part of the diversity scam, freeze immigration, end federal subsidies to the arts, abolish all foreign aid programs that function as bribes, withdraw from the United Nations and remove it from U.S. soil.

For conservatives of all stripes, there’s a reason here to cheer, and his general criticisms of matters such as “the stagnation and self-indulgence brought on by long incumbency” as “the worm at the heart of the congressional apple” is right on the mark. If there’s a weakness, it lies in his professed nostalgia for the good wars of the past as an antidote to feminization.

“Even war, that most quintessential of masculine activities, is probably a thing of the past.” Perhaps. And we may stand to “be drowned by a rising tide of feminization,” although that strikes many of us as a concern peculiar to the Northeast.

But feminization or not, here’s a suggestion: If you’re going to be a roaring defender of the virtues of masculinity, you’d do well not to end your book, as Mr. Derbyshire does, with a lyric by Noel Coward. True, it’s not “Mad About the Boy.” But Kipling would serve better.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley and the American Conservative Movement,” published by Wiley.

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