As I followed—and I confess, participated in—the mini-firestorm on Twitter over John Derbyshire’s vile Taki Magazine post last night, I started wondering what the point was. National Review is severing ties, but has anything been accomplished? Derbyshire is nearly 70 years old, and has apparently been a self-described racist for many years; I highly doubt one more public shaming is going to disabuse him of his views. I also doubt if it’s going to cause anyone in the conservative camp to do much soul-searching; in fact, for those who think Derbyshire-type thoughts, the episode only confirms the alternative-universe narrative that truth-telling white people are always victims of political correctness.
The temptation for liberals would seem to be to use this incident as an example of the deep-seated, thinly-veiled racism many of them believe are driving forces behind conservative politics. But Derbyshire’s racism is so outlandishly crude and bizarre as to be absolutely singular; it doesn’t automatically reveal much about what most conservatives or what most people at National Review think. Stretching it too far would be counterproductive, and the exact sort of thing that hardens certain “victimized” white right-wingers into the kind of ideology that at best tolerates, at worst sympathizes with racist views.
But I think we have to talk about the fact that, as John Podhoretz pointed out on Twitter today, Derbyshire has been writing stuff nearly this vile on The Corner for years, and other NRO writers have sometimes called him out in the same place while National Review’s leadership did nothing about it besides bray about how liberals complain too much about racism. Rich Lowry’s post announcing the separation admits that Derbyshire “has long danced around the line on these issues,” but as Elspeth Reeve helpfully catalogued, that’s putting it mildly. He referred to himself proudly as a mild, tolerant racist and homophobe. He bitched about what political correctness keeps science from “uncovering about human nature,” namely that white people are genetically superior. He joke-complained that Hollywood has indoctrinated kids into thinking God is black. He described post-1960s America as a pact with whites promising blacks handouts in exchange for not being violent criminals, which he dubbed the “slavery tax.” Perhaps worst of all, he wrote in 2006: “I can’t for the life of me see anything wrong, or even unpleasant, in wishing the country to have a certain ethnic mix, and not some other ethnic mix.” Helpfully, he added, “Goodness only knows what ‘racism’ means this week.”
These brazen episodes come in a context—namely National Review’s website—that is steeped in “contrarian” thinking about race that sheds a lot of light on Derbyshire’s long presence there. Just to be clear, I am not calling anyone else at National Review racist. Even if they do protest way too much, many of their observations about vapid media coverage of race are valid. But the kind of stuff you read there is frequently so racially charged, often in such a logically twisted way, that it can only be understood as a a partisan reaction to an issue on which the ‘enemy’ (liberals) is widely seen to have the moral high ground. The 2008 presidential campaign was a constant sideshow of bloggers on The Corner pouncing on anything Obama said that could somehow be twisted into a racial remark and using it to support the ludicrous D’Souza-esque meme that Obama holds white, middle-class America in contempt.
And then there’s Victor Davis Hanson, a one-man blizzard of bristling, line-toeing racial commentary. For example, this incomprehensible essay that accuses Barack Obama of “racial tribalism” and “race-based strategy” and Michelle Obama of being “race-obsessed.” Apparently Hanson is the one who is obsessed: he’s been on these themes for years now, touting the Obama campaign’s “racialist message,” contorting every offhand Obama remark into a statement smoldering with racial subtext and repeating the litany virtually every time he writes about race, which is constantly. He has also charmingly argued that Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama, and the Democratic Party “have done more to destroy racial relations than all the David Dukes in the world.”
Outside Hanson’s compulsive accusations of Obama racism, just browsing at random, we find Michelle Malkin hyping the New Black Panthers (a Fox News meme) and an unnamed “liberal writer” who called Herman Cain racist names. In an otherwise relatively sane column, Jonah Goldberg slams America’s “race industry” for its crime of keeping Jim Crow laws too fresh on its mind. Goldberg also writes about racism as consistently as the clock strikes twelve, almost always to mock it as mostly a liberal fantasy.
One more time: don’t read more into this than I’m saying. I am pointing out the type of dialogue that surrounds NRO. It can be described as consistently skeptical that white racism is relevant to contemporary politics despite its own evident fascination with the topic. It shows no reservation about caricaturing/over-interpreting a black president’s statements and policies to paint him as a racial aggressor. It consistently addresses the topic of racism in a glib, dismissive, or superior tone. I cannot recall—and could not find in several hours looking through the NRO archives—one substantial piece of writing that addressed racism in the U.S. as anything besides a minor, unimportant problem. With a big stretch of generosity, one could say National Review treats the subject casually. Even Lowry’s dismissal of Derbyshire had to be archly worded and sweetened with praise.
Keeping a racist on your masthead long after you know he’s a racist goes a long way toward undermining all that hypersensitivity about conservatives being called racist. I can’t really improve on Josh Barro’s line from last week: “Conservatives so often get unfairly pounded on race because, so often, conservatives get fairly pounded on race. And this is the Right’s own fault, because conservatives are not serious about draining the swamp.” NRO took this situation seriously, but only after years and years of not taking it seriously.