»  Address to Providence College Republicans

Providence College, Rhode Island

April 13, 2011

  Dissidence and Doom


Here are some remarks I delivered to a meeting of the Providence College Republicans. The meeting was filmed by local Republican (not a Providence College student) Justin Katz, and he has posted a video of my speech here. Thanks to Justin for his trouble; thanks to the college Republicans for inviting me; and thanks to all who attended — those who listened politely, those who asked thoughtful questions afterwards, and especially those who bought copies of my book.


Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. My name is John Derbyshire. I am a freelance writer. My most recent book is titled We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism, and I have some copies with me that I'll be glad to sell you.

I'm going to begin this evening with a couple of quotations.

Here's the first, which I've taken from one of my favorite dramatic works, Robert Bolt's 1960 play A Man for All Seasons, which concerns the 16th-century English statesman Sir Thomas More. There are, I am aware, people who will tell you that Bolt put a lot of lipstick on a rather unattractive pig there, but I take no position. I only want to borrow a sentiment.

So here is Sir Thomas being interrogated by, amongst others, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. The matter under discussion is King Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn: precisely, whether or not that marriage is valid under Christian doctrine. The king naturally thinks it is, and he wants all persons of significance or influence to sign an affidavit agreeing with him. Sir Thomas More has refused to do this. Here is the exchange.

Cranmer:  Then the matter is capable of question?

More:  Certainly.

Cranmer:  But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty — and sign.

More:  Some men think the earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it?

Here's my second quotation, which also has something to say about the earth's sphericity. This is from a British writer named Timothy Garton Ash, who's been doing commentary on European affairs since the late 1970s. Garton Ash is no conservative, but he did write very perceptively about the Soviet satellite countries during the later Cold War years. Here he is writing in the Spectator, August 13th 1983.

Imagine sitting round a table with four apparently sane and civilized men, the senior of whom suddenly remarks: "Of course, the Earth is flat." You expect the others to demur. But no. "Flat," says one. "Very flat," agrees his neighbor. "How else could we walk upright!" exclaims the third. And then they all smile at you, challenging dissent.

Far-fetched? If you travel to communist countries as a journalist this is a regular experience. You are ushered into a large government office, greeted with elaborate politeness by the minister or party secretary, seated at a glass-topped table under the marquetry plaque of Lenin. A middle-aged secretary brings in cups of coffee, a plate of small cakes, perhaps a round of schnapps. And then they start quietly telling you these whopping lies.

I raise these quotations to set the keynote for what I am going to speak about: the dissident personality. Both these writers, Robert Bolt and Timothy Garton Ash, believe that there are true facts about the world that we can discover by careful inquiry. Both, however, want to show us systems of power that have no regard for truth. And both want to show us how those systems look to a certain kind of temperament, the dissident temperament.

The dissident temperament has been present in all times and places, though only ever among a small minority of citizens. Its characteristic, speaking broadly, is a cast of mind that, presented with a proposition about the world, has little interest in where that proposition originated, or how popular it is, or how many powerful and credentialed persons have assented to it, or what might be lost in the way of property, status, or even life, in denying it. To the dissident, the only thing worth pondering about the proposition is, is it true? If it is, then no king's command can falsify it; and if it is not, then not even the assent of a hundred million will make it true.


The word "dissident" conjures up images of totalitarianism. It was under the great totalitarian despotisms of the last century that persons of this frame of mind were seriously put to the test. In the worst periods, even straightforward facts about the physical world, subject to empirical verification — facts like the flatness or roundness of the earth — were occasions for persecution of dissidents. The Chinese astrophysicist Fang Lizhi got into trouble during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution for telling his students that the universe might be finite in volume. Friedrich Engels, one clear night in the 1870s, had stepped outside and marveled at the stars, declaring that the universe must surely be infinite. Since Engels was one of what Chinese people call "the four beards" — Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin (the Chinese language does not distinguish between "beard" and "mustache") — Professor Fang had uttered a heresy, and was lucky to hold on to his job.

I've been hobnobbing with dissidents for thirty years and some. In the late 1970s in London, I happened to make the acquaintance of a fellow named Eugene, a Ukrainian intellectual who had got out of the U.S.S.R. somehow, and who had a fine collection of Soviet reference books he loved to pull down to show me some absurdity in them.

It was from Eugene that I first heard the story about how, after the fall of Lavrenty Beria in 1953, the editors of the Soviet Encyclopædia had solved the embarrassing problem of Beria's very long and fulsome entry. They prepared a corresponding number of extra column inches on the Bering Strait and mailed them out to subscribers, with instructions for pasting them in over the offending passages. "And did the subscribers really do that?" I asked Eugene incredulously. "Of course!" he replied. "Who doesn't want to be a good citizen?"

Ten years later, in the weeks leading up to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, I got mixed up with Chinese dissidents in New York. I interviewed Wang Bingzhang for the London Spectator, and struck up an acquaintance with him — I can't say it rose to the level of a friendship, but I got to know him quite well. (The interview is on my website somewhere.) Wang, a mild-mannered and bookish fellow about my age, was abducted by the Chinese authorities in 2002 and a few months later was sentenced to life imprisonment for, quote, "espionage and terrorism." Eight years later he is still serving that sentence, in conditions reported by Amnesty International to be "harsh."

Mixing with these types, I quickly realized that my fascination with them was based on self-recognition. I saw myself in them. That's presumptuous, and I'm going to back off it some right away. I have no idea whether, put to the test, I would acquit myself as honorably as these people have. I suspect I would not; not out of any concern for my own skin, which I don't care much about, but because of my obligations to people who depend on me.

That aside, though, I see in these dissidents a lot of the personality characteristics that my loved ones complain about in me: a stubborn cussedness, a disdain for cant and wishful thinking, a lack of interest in what I am supposed to believe and supposed to say. "Who doesn't want to be a good citizen?" I don't, not if it involves saying things I know to be preposterous.

At root this tendency is antisocial. Indeed, if you mix with dissidents much, you notice how fissiparous they are, how they can never agree among themselves about anything for very long. The dissident scene is full of petty animosities and slanders. I find dissidents to be individually admirable and attractive, but collectively hopeless. I'm glad to know they are there, though — that I'm not the only member of what my mother called "the awkward squad."

And in fact, though it's an awful thing to say, and I'm going to smother it with qualification, in fact the totalitarians have a sort of a point. A society can't be stable without widespread unthinking conformism. That's why dissidents are unpopular. I have spoken to quite liberal and well-educated people in China about high-profile dissidents like Wei Jingsheng. They are not very respectful of dissidence. Mostly they just think dissidents are a bit wrong in the head. Sometimes, and you especially hear this from women, you'll hear: "He can do what he likes on his own account, but think of the harm he's doing to his family." Along with the association with madness, there is an association with social chaos — in the case of Chinese people, fear that too much independence of mind could bring back the terrible chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

It was the same in medieval Europe. In Le Roy Ladurie's book about the Cathar heresy he notes the satisfaction that ordinary peasants and townspeople got from seeing heretics burned. Medieval Europe was a disorderly place, with no police force nor even standing armies, and masses of unemployed young men up for any kind of mischief. Some silver-tongued heretic could easily whip up a mob, and in no time they'd be looting and pillaging. Heretics weren't popular.

Just as the association with chaos has some justification, at least in societies traditionally or recently disorderly, so has the association with craziness. The totalitarians who put dissidents into mental hospitals are of course doing a wicked thing, but again, there's a little grain of truth in the wickedness. Dissidents are poorly socialized. As Eugene said: "Who doesn't want to be a good citizen?" And the poorly socialized are seen by the better socialized as a bit nutty.

The sensible dissident should in fact practice a lot of self-restraint. He should in particular show a proper respect for the idols of the tribe. When I was a teenager back in England it was the custom at movie theaters that when the movie program ended, the National Anthem would be played. Everyone was supposed to stand up and be still for the duration. Well, of course, by the age of sixteen I had seen through all that stupid monarchy stuff — a bunch of rich people living in palaces and doing no useful work. Stand up for them? Not me! So I and some like-minded coevals would bravely sit through the anthem. This generated a lot of disapproval from other patrons, leading once or twice almost to fist-fights. We'd made our dissident point, though.

Now I know that the point was not worth making. Harmless tribal rituals are not to be objected to. They are part of the glue that holds a nation together. That's a fundamental conservative insight. If you're going to dissent, dissent about something that matters.

What matters? Truth.


A central characteristic of the dissident personality is, as I said, an interest in objective truth — the belief, in fact, that objective truth exists and can be discovered. This seems to be a trait not very widely distributed. Persons inclined to this approach are, numerically speaking, freaks and sports of nature.

May I quote myself, please? Thank you. This is from We Are Doomed, page 147:

The ordinary modes of human thinking are magical, religious, social, and personal. We want our wishes to come true; we want the universe to care about us; we want the approval of those around us; we want to get even with that s.o.b who insulted us at the last tribal council. For most people, wanting to know the cold truth about the world is way, way down the list …

When the magical (I wish this to be so: therefore it is so!) and the religious (We are all one! Brotherhood of man! The universe loves us!) and the social (This is what all good citizens believe! If you believe otherwise you are a bad person!) and the personal (That bastard didn't show me the respect I'm entitled to!) all come together, the mighty psychic forces unleashed can be irresistible. Ask Larry Summers or James Watson.

Do I need to explain the Summers and Watson references there? I hope not.


We don't, of course, live in a totalitarian despotism of the Soviet or Maoist variety. I have a reader — not a nutjob, but a thoughtful person who makes good arguments — who emails in every time I grumble about how political correctness stifles free inquiry, to tell me that Americans of today suffer from too much freedom. So far as lifestyle choices are concerned, he can make a case; but in the matter of free inquiry, there seems to me no doubt that we live under a sort of soft totalitarianism.

This isn't really much the case in the physical sciences any more. If you say that the cosmos might, for all we know, be finite in volume, nobody will drag you off to a self-criticism session, not even in China any more. There's some politicization of topics like global warming and stem-cell research, but nobody's being chased out of town.

The soft totalitarianism mainly affects the human sciences. There it is all-pervasive. You simply can't pick up any book or other expository product by any respectable figure in the human sciences without encountering the kinds of fudges and compromises that would be all too familiar to Fang Lizhi or my friend Eugene.

Take for example my friend Steve Goldberg, who was for many years Chairman of the Sociology Department at City University of New York. Steve wrote a book titled The Inevitability of Patriarchy (if that isn't asking for trouble, I don't know what is …), arguing that the universal political dominance of males in every society on earth had its roots in biology. One of the things that prompted him to write the book was his experience with standard textbooks of sociology. Steve had studied more than thirty college-level sociology textbooks, and discovered that all but two began their chapters on sex roles with the claim that among the Tchambuli of New Guinea, sex roles are reversed, and women are politically dominant. The source given for this is anthropologist Margaret Mead, who is supposed to have said it somewhere.

Not only did Margaret Mead never say such a thing, she spent the last fifty years of her life publicly denying she'd said it! She actually reviewed Steve's book, and in her review she said: "It is true, as Professor Goldberg points out, that all the claims so glibly made about societies ruled by women are nonsense. We have no reason to believe that they ever existed … men have always been the leaders in public affairs, and the final authorities at home." That's Margaret Mead, who was by no means, by no means, a friend of conservatism.

For another example, take the researches of early psychometrist Henry Goddard, published in 1917. Goddard had worked up a system for classifying the mentally retarded by administering an early type of IQ test to them. He wanted to find out whether it worked with immigrant groups as well as it seemed to with native-born Americans, so he ran a project at Ellis Island. Yes (he reported) the tests worked as well for feeble-minded immigrants as for feeble-minded natives.

In a book published in 1974, the leftist psychologist Leon Kamin twisted Goddard's research to say that Goddard had found Jews to have low IQs. Jews — low IQs! How ridiculous is that! Therefore (according to Kamin, and with no respect at all to 60 years of post-Goddard development in IQ testing), IQ testing was all nonsense. Another leftist biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, picked this up and ran with it. He put Kamin's version of Goddard's work in a book titled The Mismeasure of Man, now a favorite set text in college courses on the Humanities and Social Sciences, and pretty much everyone now seems to think that Goddard's IQ tests showed Jews to be dumb. I heard it just the other day from an exceptionally well-educated and clued-in conservative. Actually Goddard's results showed no such thing, as responsible writers keep pointing out: see, for example, Cochran & Harpending, pp. 211-212.

As Mark Twain said: A lie can travel round the world while Truth is lacing up her boots.

For another example, I am an addict of The Teaching Company's lecture courses. I've recently been watching this one: The Neuroscience of Everyday Life, 36 lectures delivered by Sam Wang, who's a professor of neuroscience at Princeton. Sam's a good sort, and gives a decent lecture, and I've learned some things I didn't know before; but on the radioactive stuff — race differences in behavior, intelligence, and personality — he was either silent, evasive, or just wrong.

At the beginning of lecture 25, "Intelligence, Genes, and Environment," he promised a discussion of group differences, but all we got was some bland stuff about males vs. females. In one of the lectures on learning he skated as close as he dared to the dread topic, but then opened an escape hatch and dropped through it. The name of the escape hatch is "Eyferth," a great favorite with those on the nurture side of the nature-nurture issue. Klaus Eyferth was a German researcher who in 1961 published a study on the children of black and white U.S. servicemen born to German women. The study showed no overall difference in average IQ between black and white children. There are all sorts of open questions about the study: we don't for example know the IQs of the fathers. The really big question, though, is this: Since the Eyferth study has been such a huge hit, and gets mentioned by every politically correct commentator on the human sciences, how is it that in fifty years — fifty years! — nobody has been able to replicate the findings?

The 2003 Turkheimer study that claimed to show heritability of IQ is lower in low-income families is another one of these nurturist darlings. David Brooks cites it uncritically in his new book, which I reviewed in the last but one issue of National Review. Sam Wang refers to it too, also uncritically. Neither of them seems aware that at least three attempts to replicate Turkheimer's findings came up with results that were either null or else the opposite of what Turkheimer claimed to have found. The omission is pardonable in Brooks' case — the guy's just a journalist, after all — but not in Prof. Wang's.

This is the environment of soft totalitarianism I am speaking about. Quite well-established facts about human nature may not be mentioned, even in a lecture by a professor at a prestigious university — a lecture I paid good money for. (Do I have a case in law here?) Where facts are not well-established, but suggest more than one possibility, only possibilities agreeable to ruling political orthodoxies may be discussed.


So here's my message to the youth of America, or as many of them as are gathered here: Give the dissident temperament a little respect. When dissidents are obnoxious or nutty, which we often are, cut them some slack. Bring your own critical faculties to bear on the things they talk about, and always check the source materials. Try to learn to spot an urban legend or a convenient truth, especially one you hear a lot from not-very-well-informed people. If, when passing through a public square, you see that they're burning a heretic at the stake, at the very least don't join in the applause.

If you are of the dissident persuasion yourself, try to be polite about it. Show proper respect to the idols of the tribe, where doing so doesn't violate your commitment to truth.

Above all, stand up whenever you can for civilized inquiry and rational criticism. Not just because those are the only paths to truth, but also for the health of the society that you live in, and that your children will inherit. For if we bolt and bar the door against civilized inquiry and rational criticism, we should not be surprised at what comes climbing in through the window.


Finally, a poem. Somewhere in the Vulgate Bible there occurs the verse: Magna est veritas et prævalet — "Great is truth, and it prevails." This is commonly misquoted as magna est veritas et prævalebit — "Great is the truth and it will prevail." (Some apocryphal English schoolboy is supposed to have construed this as: "The truth is great and it will prevail a bit," which probably corresponds more closely to our experience of life than does the original.) Anyway, the Victorian English poet Coventry Patmore took magna est veritas as the title of a poem. Here it is.

Here, in this little Bay
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.
For want of me the world's course will not fail;
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.