The Audacity of Despair: Book Review of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism

By: on December 15, 2009 | Future of Conservatism, Public Policy

A review of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism by John Derbyshire

(Crown Forum, 261 pp, $32)

One inevitable side-effect of the disastrous performance of the U.S. Republicans in recent elections, and the apparent revival of statist economics across the western world, has been a sudden proliferation of books offering theories on the decline of conservatism and prescriptions for its revival. These books, while varying widely in quality, have tended to follow a general storyline: they essentially argue that conservatives would be better off if they were more like the author and offer off-the-shelf policy and rhetorical themes for coming elections. Rarely, however, do such volumes prescribe an entire change in disposition for the conservative movement in America.

This is the niche which British-American author John Derbyshire, in his recent book We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism seeks to fill. In doing so, he makes a surprisingly energetic and amusing case for why conservatives should be unrelentingly pessimistic. Derbyshire, while the author of four previous books, including one Times “Notable Book of the Year” and an award-winning text on mathematics, is still best known as a regular columnist for National Review Online. However, We Are Doomed represents his first attempt to lay out his particular conservative worldview. He does so in a style that is accessible and sharp-witted, though at times unfocused.

As the title implies, the essential thesis of is that American conservatives, by buying into the foolish optimism which traditionally characterized liberalism, have, in fact, contributed to the decline both of American government and society as well as the conservative movement itself. Derbyshire argues that “thus weakened, conservatism can no longer provide the backbone of cold realism that every organized society needs.” According to Derbyshire, there is little hope for a revival of “true”- i.e. pessimistic- conservatism, and thus, conservatives are best off accepting that things will only get worse.

Derbyshire then proceeds to summarize each policy area where he believes that conservative principles as he defines them—self-support, limited government, federalism, patriotism— have been rejected. Derbyshire bravely chooses to open with an attack on arguably the most sensitive social issue possible: diversity. His essential argument is that far from being a strength, diversity, which he defines primarily in cultural terms, in fact makes nations harder to govern and leads to internal unrest, and moreover, that conservatives have been cowardly in their adoption of liberal diversity mantras.

Of all of the issues Derbyshire raises, this seems the least likely to become part of mainstream political debate. The author continues with his review of the issues most important to him – education, immigration foreign policy, the size of government— and repeats essentially the same argument for each: that policy failures have been due to excessively optimistic liberal ideas regarding human nature, and that the great failure of conservatives has been to adopt those same liberal ideas and attempt to merely put a conservative gloss on the same.

Perhaps the most adamant arguments in the book are found in the chapters on culture and religion, rather than those on public policy. Derbyshire’s fundamental argument with respect to culture is that while popular culture has become increasingly vulgarized and vacuous, the production of high culture has simply stopped dead. With respect to religion, the author argues that both the liberal schema for understanding the human nature—cultural difference, and the conservative one— religion, have been increasingly undermined by improving knowledge of biology. Thus, he argues, we can no longer find hope in either our ability to improve ourselves or in divine assistance, but must accept the inequality determined by genetics. While these chapters contribute to the general mood of despair present throughout the book, the arguments presented don’t fit neatly into the political thesis argued in the policy-related chapters.

Followers of Derbyshire’s National Review articles will instantly recognize his writing style. The author is able to successfully mix cases which support and illuminate his points with biting humor. While Derbyshire is careful to lay out the details of any case or secondary source he cites, the presentation of the facts never becomes monotonous. This is because Derbyshire highlights nearly every point with a sarcastic barb or stinging rebuke of what he considers to be sloppy liberal thinking. For example, when discussing Robert Putnam’s work advocating the benefits of meeting the challenges of diversity, he observes: “Perhaps the idea is that by enlarging and defeating this challenge, we shall be a better nation. In that case, if challenges are so good for us, why not create a few more? I suggest flooding some low lying cities…”

While such barbs make it clear this book is not an attempt at “serious” scholarly writing, they are an absolute necessity in order to entertain the reader in a book which is otherwise (deliberately) gloomy.

While We Are Doomed is an entertaining book which makes good use of the facts, it suffers from some significant weaknesses in terms of coherence and structure. The most notable of these problems is the deliberate refusal of Derbyshire to bring the book to a satisfying conclusion. In the last chapter of the book, the author refuses to make any policy recommendations or propose a program of self-examination or reform which would bring American conservatism more into line with the principles which he so entertainingly advocates. Indeed, Derbyshire specifically states that he does not expect a major piece of conservative legislation to be passed in his lifetime. He further states that he believes that the sixty-plus years following the Second World War were a historical anomaly of peace and prosperity, and that succeeding generations can expect the general state of the world to deteriorate significantly.

While there is arguably some historical truth to this point, to make it at the conclusion of the book without offering a single element of a political or intellectual program to cope with the challenging times strikes the reader as either irresponsible or exasperating. While Derbyshire reasonably takes other conservative authors, including Reaganite optimists, for promoting legislative agendas which they know will never be implemented, the reader is tempted to retort that at least the other authors are trying. Derbyshire’s sole recommendation, to deal with mounting problems cheerfully, is wholly inadequate to the challenges he identifies.

In conclusion, if readers seek funny, biting, and accessible criticism of liberal optimism and of conservatives who share in it, they could scarcely do better than We Are Doomed. John Derbyshire makes a convincing case that many of the political problems are the result of wishful thinking about human nature, and that many conservatives have mistakenly bought into this thinking. He does so in an entertaining style that is likely to convert many readers to congenital pessimism.

About Grant Morgan

Grant Morgan is originally from Kingston, Ontario. He received his LL.B. from the University of Western Ontario in 2005 and his MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2009. He is currently a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, and lives in Philadelphia.

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