John Derbyshire has spent many years writing for National Review. Within the last few days, his tenure for the “conservative” magazine came to an abrupt halt.
Derbyshire, you see, was fired for having published (at another publication) an article—“The Talk: Nonblack Version”—that his editor, Rich Lowry, found both “nasty and indefensible.”
Derbyshire’s essay is a distillation of the cautionary notes regarding groups of young black males that he has conveyed to his teenage children over the span of their young lives.
Many commentators and readers have jumped to Derbyshire’s defense. For the time being, though, rather than argue for or against the truth of the remarks of either the offending author or Lowry, we should instead ask: if Derbyshire’s comments are “nasty and indefensible,” then what makes them so? Since Lowry never offers an explanation for his verdict, we are left to fall back upon our own resources to find the answer to this question.
It is possible that Lowry thinks his judgment is self-justifying in the way that the statement, “All bodies are extended beings,” is self-justifying. Yet when we give this just a moment’s consideration, we are forced to rule this out. The latter statement, you see, is what is called an analytic proposition. Analytic propositions are true by definition. In an analytic statement, the meanings of the subject and predicate terms are identical. An analytic statement can be denied only upon pain of contradiction.
Clearly, “Parental warnings to avoid large groups of young black males are ‘nasty and indefensible’ things” is a fundamentally different type of statement than “All bodies are extended beings,” “Green unicorns are colored entities,” and so forth.
Lowry’s judgment is emphatically not analytic.
However, some statements may be “self-evident,” even though they aren’t true by definition. “Every effect has a cause,” “I am really typing out this analysis of Rich Lowry’s judgment of John Derbyshire and not just dreaming that I am typing it out,” would be propositions of this latter sort. Perhaps Lowry thinks that the nastiness and indefensibility of Derbyshire’s advice to his children is self-evident in this way. Perhaps he thinks that it is self-evident in the way in which the wrongness of torturing little children for the fun of it is self-evident.
Neither does this account do, for we treat these phenomena as self-evident because no one thinks to seriously question them. In stark contrast, a good number of people take issue with Lowry’s characterization of Derbyshire’s remarks as “nasty and indefensible.”
To act “nasty” is to act in an uncivil, and possibly even cruel, way. The person who acts nasty seeks to hurt people with his words, and maybe his actions. Thus, though a person’s words, because they are judged inaccurate or unpleasant or whatever, may be hard to hear, whether they are “nasty’ or not depends solely upon the intentions or motives of the person who utters them. Does Lowry think that Derbyshire sought to injure others with his words? If so, for whom was he gunning?
Considering that, originally, it was to and for his children that Derbyshire imparted his now notorious advice, he certainly couldn’t have intended to harm them. And how, we are left wondering, could words—wrong though they may be—that spring from the lips of a loving and concerned parent and are relayed by that same parent to others be intended to injure anyone?
Does Lowry mean to suggest that Derbyshire doesn’t really believe in what he told his own children? Does he think that Derbyshire didn’t really tell his children this stuff at all, that he was just making this up in order to offend and hurt his own readers? Neither option sounds very believable. At any rate, to ascribe to Derbyshire’s words a “nasty” character means that it is incumbent upon Lowry to answer these questions.
Next, we may ask of Lowry in which respect(s) Derbyshire’s remarks are “indefensible.”
Lowry condemns Derbyshire’s remarks. But Derbyshire doesn’t just make assertions, it is crucial to bear in mind. What assertions he makes Derbyshire then proceeds to substantiate with evidence. Again, whether he succeeds in so doing is neither here nor there; the fact remains that he does indeed argue for his claims.
Evidently, Lowry thinks that such arguments are so worthless as to be beyond mentioning. Yet, ordinarily, when a disagreement arises between two interlocutors—especially when they are colleagues, like Lowry and Derbyshire, who have worked alongside one another for years—each seeks to identify the deficiencies of the other’s position. In this case, though, Lowry didn’t so much as attempt to expose the illegitimacy in Derbyshire’s reasoning.
So, we are left wondering: why does Lowry insist on condemning Derbyshire’s advice to the latter’s children as “nasty and indefensible?”
Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.